Sunday, December 22, 2013

Americans think Puerto Rico's problems are Puerto Rico's responsibility alone. They're not.

"Standard & Poor's dowgraded the debt of Puerto Rico to junk status," declares the paper of record in the U.S. in it's lede sentence on a tragic event for the U.S. territory. The rest of the sentence explains why this is significant to the American people: "[Puerto Rico's] financial condition is of outsize importance to the rest of the United States because its debt is widely held by individual investors through mutual funds." Not because there are 3.6 American citizens on the island (and many more natives of Puerto Rico who have fled to the mainland) who will suffer the consequences of an insolvent government. Because it could slightly decrease the value of peoples' retirement funds. 

Puerto Rico is in the midst of a brutal financial crisis, with a recession that has lasted 8 years and a jobless rate double that of the mainland United States.  The government's bonds have been declared - by the three largest ratings agencies - to be sub-investment grade (junk) status.  Their interest rates to borrow are now nearly 10%.  

To try to prevent a further downgrade of Puerto Rico's credit, the current administration has been answering the calls of creditors to reduce the public workforce, reform the public pension system, and cut spending. It has been done in spite of public protest, like when the legislature passed drastic cuts to teacher pensions in the middle of the night last month. And in spite of academic research, real-life evidence in Europe, and common sense that cutting spending in the midst of a recession will only lead to a further downward spiral. The irony is that, in the end, the "fiscal response" was not enough for the ratings agencies anyway. And it is the ratings agencies whose opinion determines how much people willing to lend money should demand in return.

The country's problems are now so bad that no one has any reasonable proposals to change the course of the economy. Defaulting on the debt, the way Argentina did in 2002, seems to be the only way to perform surgery without killing the patient. The country is now the guy who maxed out his credit cards and has to pay his whole salary each month just to cover the interest payments. Puerto Rico's situation has been compared to Detroit, whose $18 billion in debt prompted the city to declare bankruptcy to restructure its debts and try to start fresh. Unfortunately for Puerto Rico, which faces a much larger debt burden of $70 billion, that option seems to be off the table.

Puerto Rico, as a territory, is not eligible for Chapter 9 protections.  With an economy that is still contracting and interest rates on debt ballooning, it is hard to envision a way that Puerto Rico can institute further spending cuts and tax increases that could dig them out of this hole.  Another option would seem to be a federal bailout, but in the current political climate it is hard to imagine U.S. politicians agreeing to such a commitment of taxpayer dollars for a territory many Americans don't even realize belongs to the United States. The White House has already declared that this won't happen anyway. What looks inevitable is more of the same: misery for many businesses and residents of the island and more erosion of whatever financial and social security they have left.

It is easy to blame opportunistic politicians in Puerto Rico, who for decades have written checks that they knew would bounce long after they had left office.  This is probably how the U.S. government would like to view the situation. We will find out from a group of consultants sent from Washington to "advise" (read: demand) a plan of action.

But, this misses the larger point: Puerto Rico does not have sovereignty over its own territory.  The U.S. took sovereignty from Puerto Rico (more accurately, from Spain) in 1898 and has never agreed to relinquish it. Under human rights laws, the government which holds sovereignty over a territory holds the responsibility to provide for the welfare of its residents. 

This is guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (which the U.S. has signed but not ratified). The human rights guaranteed in both treaties include "the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control" and "the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health."

The basic conditions that the United States is obligated to provide Puerto Rico are obviously not being met. Even before the economic crisis started in 2006 in Puerto Rico, the island had an average income 50% less than the poorest state. In order to comply with its human rights obligations, the U.S. has to use its national wealth to ensure an adequate standard of living for all Puerto Ricans who have not been able to obtain this through the existing economy.  

There are people who assign blame, and say Puerto Rico got itself into this mess and now they should get themselves out. While spend-happy local politicians surely play a large part in the situation Puerto Rico finds itself in, one must consider the economic structures imposed on the island by the U.S. to understand the full context.  


The Cabotage Laws in effect since 1920 make shipping to and from Puerto Rico prohibitively expensive, impeding demand for exports and driving up prices on imports. Operation Bootstrap, designed and implemented at the direction of the United States post-WWII, transformed a primarily agricultural economy into an industrial economy and revolutionized the island. Corporations were lured by tax breaks and cheap labor, but the initiative failed to jump start sustainable production. When the tax breaks disappeared, so did the companies and their jobs. 

What was left in Puerto Rico were highways where fields used to be. There is no way to unpave the concrete now covering fertile soil, which could have been used to feed the population and sell fruits and vegetables abroad. Instead, Puerto Rico is now the country with the most cars per square mile in the world and 85% of its food sources are imported.

As a hostage to the neoliberal agenda, Puerto Rico is forced to offer health insurance through private, for-profit companies. This system, found nowhere else in the world outside the U.S., has been proven to cost much more than a universal, single-payer system and deliver worse results. Puerto Rico has chosen to extend coverage to as many people as possible through this grossly inefficient system. There are other areas as well, such as banking, telecommunications and agriculture, in which forced privatization has put the interest of foreign investors before the nation's citizen-subjects. 

The island's resources were thoroughly exploited in the first half of the 20th century, when American corporations hijacked sugar and coffee plantations and generated massive amounts of wealth as native laborers suffered malnourishment and disease. 

Today many people who don't have a way to put food on the table find themselves dependent on means-tested government programs like welfare, food stamps or disability. Faced with long hours of stressful labor for meager wages or government-offered bare-bones subsistence, many choose the latter. Or they supplement their income with other under-the-table activities that are not subject to government taxes. The drug trade is rapidly growing into as big a part of Puerto Rico's economy as tourism. 

If adequate food, housing and health care were guaranteed regardless of how much someone makes, they would be free to try to supplement their basic standard of living with on-the-books economic activities that could generate taxes. As long as the marginal benefits of working promote a perverse incentive not to work, most people at the margin will continue to follow their self-interest at the expense of the larger economy.

Puerto Rico does not have enough jobs. There is no sustainable economy. And there is no going back to the days before the Americans landed at Guánica. 

The neoliberal-imposed socioeconomic system has not resulted in the standard of living Puerto Ricans are entitled to from the government of the United States. Puerto Rico is now being asked to pay the piper. But how is it fair for the U.S. to pretend the crisis affecting them is something that Puerto Rico is responsible for on their own?  





Obama's Sanctimonious Human Rights Argument Against Cuba

Raúl Castro, President of Cuba, said that he wants to start relations with the U.S., but first the U.S. must provide health insurance to all 46 million people who lack it; stop extrajudicial assassinations in sovereign countries through drone attacks; make higher education affordable for all; reform the prison system which has by far the highest incarceration rate in the entire world, with a drastically disproportionate amount of prisoners being minorities; grant Puerto Rico its sovereignty as required by the U.N. Charter, U.N. Declaration on Decolonization, and the popular referendum in Puerto Rico in 2012; halt the economic blockade, which has been ruled illegal for 22 straight years in the U.N.; close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility and return the land to Cuba; turn over terrorists living freely in Miami who have bombed Cuban civilian airplanes, hotels and fishing boats; and free the three political prisoners who were investigating these groups to prevent further attacks.

Actually, he said: "We don't demand that the U.S. change its political or social system and we don't accept negotiations over ours. If we really want to move our bilateral relations forward, we'll have to learn to respect our differences, if not, we're ready to take another 55 years in the same situation."

President Barack Obama has said Cuba: ”Has not yet observed basic human rights ... I and the American people will welcome the time when the Cuban people have the freedom to live their lives, choose their leaders, and fully participate in this global economy and international institutions." But he added: "We haven't gotten there yet."  

Presumably Obama means when Cuba agrees to relinquish their right to self-determination, as guaranteed in the U.N. Charter, to join the U.S.-imposed neoliberal order.  When Cuba agrees to gives up state control over industries like banking and telecommunications and opens them up to foreign investment, so more money can be shipped off the island instead of staying in the local economy and invested in the Cuban people.  When Cuba agrees to "free trade" agreements, which would prevent labor and environmental safeguards while forcing local businesses to compete on an uneven playing field with multinational corporations that receive government subsidies, allowing them to undercut the price of local products. In short, when Cuba decides to respect private profit over the social welfare of its population. 

U.S. calls for "democracy" and "human rights" in Cuba have an important historical connotation, which in reality has nothing to do with representative government nor human rights.  The term is nothing more than a propaganda tool, instantly elevating the accuser to a superior moral status and subjecting the accused to an indefensible position regardless of the real facts, history and context.  

The U.S. is not suggesting that Cuba should be judged by established human rights and international humanitarian laws - The Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (which the U.S. has never ratified); and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which the U.S. took more than 20 years to ratify); the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the U.S. hanever ratified; and many others. It is suggesting Cuba abide by the criteria the U.S. sets out for them and sees fit to interpret itself.  

The reality is that the United States does not get to serve as judge and jury for other countries' internal affairs, just as they would laugh in the face of anyone who tried to do the same to them. To pretend that your demands are more important than the law that governs the international system is beyond condescending.  

Incidentally, there is a United Nations Committee that impartially reviews compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, one of the few treaties which the U.S. has both signed and ratified. The committee, in its most recent annual report, found the U.S. non-compliant in many areas. 

To start, they found that the U.S. "has only limited avenues to ensure that state and local governments respect and implement the Covenant, and that its provisions have been declared to be non-self-executing at the time of ratification," which serves to "limit the legal reach and practical relevance of the Covenant." 

Among the many matters of concern is accountability for "unlawful killings during its international operations, the use of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of detainees in United States custody." 

The committee also noted numerous domestic problems, including "racial disparities in the criminal justice system," "racial profiling," "excessive use of force by law enforcement officials," "criminalization of homelessness," "National Security Agency surveillance," and even "voting rights."

Obama's sanctimonious remarks about Cuba demonstrate his disregard for the law that applies to both countries equally, and his unwillingness to be held to the same standard that he preaches to others.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Mandela and American anticommunism

Nelson Mandela died on Dec. 5 as a hero in his native South Africa and across the world.  He suffered an unjust imprisonment that lasted 27 years, but went on to be elected as the first black President of South Africa.  The story of his forgiveness and reconciliation, bringing together whites and blacks in the new post-apartheid nation, overcoming the evils and injustice that had been inflicted on him and millions of other South Africans is heartwarming and inspiring.  But the celebration of Mandela hides the larger context in which he lived.  He proved to be the exception rather than the rule, a person leading a successful populist revolt against colonial, imperialist forces.

Once upon a time, Nelson Mandela was just another terrorist in the eyes of the U.S. government, a communist sympathizer and agitator who was put in his place rotting in prison on Robben Island.  He was given this label by Ronald Reagan during the 1980s. In fact, the U.S. didn't get around to removing him until 2008.  Not after he won the Nobel Peace Prize, nor after he completed his term as President of South Africa in 1999.  This speaks to the fairness and reliability of the U.S. terror watch list.    

Conservatives today have come out to praise Mandela, and say that they were, in fact, wrong in opposing him in the first place.  "The ANC was a violent, pro-Communist organization. By the guiding light of Ronald Wilson Reagan, many young conservatives like me spent much of the 1980s fighting Marxism-Leninism — from the classrooms of radical campuses to the battlefields of Grenada, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, both overtly and covertly," writes Deroy Murdock in the National Review Online. "Having seen Communists terrorize nations around the world while the Berlin Wall still stood, Mandela looked like one more butcher waiting to take his place on the 20th Century’s blood-soaked stage... Nelson Mandela was just another Fidel Castro or a Pol Pot, itching to slip from behind bars, savage his country, and surf atop the bones of his victims."

Murdock goes on to say that his previous opinion turned out to be nothing further from the truth, and he admits that he was "dead wrong" about a "great man and fine example to others."  But his account implicitly implies that he was right about the rest of his - and many Reaganites - fight against "Marxism-Leninism."  He is, in essence, defending the actions of the United States on the "battlefields of Grenada, Nicaragua, and El Salvador."  

The truth is that anti-communist crusaders during the Reagan era, as they had been since the end of World War II, were wrong.  They were wrong when they occupied Vietnam in the worst act of aggression since World War II, in which north of 3 million people were estimated killed.  The Vietnamese may have been wrong about communism, or they may have been right.  What is indisputable is that it was never the U.S. prerogative to decide for them.  The Vietnamese had suffered brutally for decades under colonial rule, and many leaders, in the same way as Mandela, wanted to look for another, more just, way for their people.  U.S. interference cut down millions in their paths.  How many Nelson Mandelas were imprisoned, tortured, killed in raids on villages or executions in cities?  

When Reagan launched his terror wars in Central America in the 1980s, there were tens of thousands of casualties.  The story was similar to that in South Africa or Vietnam.  Nations who suffered the injustice of colonialism and dictatorships fought to improve their lives, embracing a political philosophy that recognized their rights to basic human needs such as health care, education and the right not to suffer poverty.  This is clearly permissible under the sovereign right of self determination enjoyed by every nation and enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations.  

Reagan had gone beyond mere complicity in the crimes of the paramilitary forces who opposed these populist uprisings by force.  The United States assembled, trained, and funded these groups at the US Army School for the Americas (now known as WHINSEC). The SOA Manuals "advocated torture, extortion, blackmail and the targeting of civilian populations."  As SOA Watch goes on to say, "More than a thousand of these manuals were distributed for use in countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Ecaudor and Peru, and the School of the Americas between 1987 and 1991."  This was merely a continuation of U.S. policies in effect since Kennedy which encouraged the use of military armies in Latin American countries (which had traditionally been used for defense against foreign aggression) to suppress by force any internal dissent from "communists," "subversives," or whatever the term du jour.  In plain English, political opponents.

How many of these populist fighters who were silenced by the brutality of the death squads might have turned out to be the next Nelson Mandela?  We will never know because unfortunately, they were not victorious.  Even when they did manage to triumph and remain in power, as the Sandinistas managed to fend off the Contras and plead their case before international bodies such as the U.N. and the I.C.J. they were not offered any recourse.  Despite the victory of the Nicaraguan government against the United States in the ICJ in 1984, which found the U.S. guilty of encouraging human rights violations, violating another countries sovereignty, and using force against another country, Nicaraguans were left empty handed.  The reparations awarded to them by the Court were never delivered by the U.S. After numerous vetoes during the early '80s calling on the U.S. to observe international law in the case of Nicaragua, the U.S. then vetoed a General Assembly resolution calling on the U.S. to abide by the World Court decision.  Nicaraguans were left with a decimated country to suffer on their own, without a white knight to ride to the rescue.  

Recently the 24th anniversary passed of killing of the 6 Jesuit priests in El Salvador.  It was noted in some news articles but hardly given notice in the United States. In this brutal case, six scholars at the University of Central America in San Salvador along with their houskeeper and her daughter were viciously executed by government forces, backed and funded by the U.S., because of Father Ignacio Ellacuría Bescoetxea's vocal advocacy for a political solution to the war.  These scholars might have gone on to be government leaders, heroes, or Nobel Peace Prize winners like Mandela if they weren't executed, shot like dogs in their couryard that night.  This did not end the U.S. support, and the perpetrators went on to live free lives for decades with safe haven in the United States.   

So, is this what Murdock is referring to when he talks about seeing "communists terrorize nations around the world?"  What does he mean when he says he thought that Mandela was like another Castro?  Does he mean he was afraid of Mandela fighting to overthrow an imperial government and provide free health care, education and housing to people who had lived their whole lives in degrading poverty?  Send tutors to teach illiterate farmers to read, and bring Western cinema and culture to them?  Did it bother Murdock, like it did many American military planners, driving them to the point of hysteria, that a nation had rejected the American socioeconomic model, a choice granted them by the most fundamental international laws.  

The CIA since the end of the second World War has played a role in setting up death squads and supplying them with names of opponents who were later killed.  This is not too far from what happened to Mandela.  The CIA was working with the apartheid government and supplied them with information that helped put Mandela in jail.  The difference between Mandela and the Jesuit priests and many others is that he was lucky enough to make it out of prison alive.  He easily could have died there, or have been put to death as he was expecting at his trail.  

Conservatives were right about Nelson Mandela in the end, after they had no choice but to see what a victorious Mandela could become when empowered to lead his country.  They don't seem to see the crime, embodied by their hero Reagan, which has denied so many like Mandela that opportunity.  




The anniversary of the Kennedy assasination

Everyone is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  There is a PBS special, a Presidential visit to the eternal flame at Arlington Cemetery, and his face is all over magazine covers.

But lost in the tributes to the President are comparisons of what happened to him to what he ordered, unprovoked, to be done other leaders, and innocent civilians in another country.  First, Kennedy signed off on a proposal to send 1,400 paramilitaries to Cuba to incite the overthrow of the government Fidel Castro.  Of course this would constitute a violation of the most fundamental tenets of international law that prohibit the use of force against a sovereign nation unless acting in self defense.  

Cuba was not a threat to the United States, nor to anyone else in the region.  The Mexican ambassador to the United States voiced the collective sentiment of the hemisphere, when he answered the Kennedy administration's call to military action against Cuba: "If we publicly declare that Cuba is a threat to our security, 40 million Mexicans will die laughing." 

Yet the U.S. administration had a different view of Cuba's sovereignty than the rest of the world.  The Monroe Doctrine, which dated to the early 19th century, held that Latin America belonged to the United States and the United States alone.  So when Castro led a successful rebellion against U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, Castro was attacking the United States.  The U.S. had taken advantage of its colonial rule to appropriate Cuban properties, create new opportunities for investment by American corporations, and turned the country into a playground and vacation destination for U.S. mafia and wealthy businessmen.  

Castro's victory, which nationalized land and property in the country, brought vast improvements in health care, education, housing, employment, sanitation services, and many other social reforms to a long-suffering people.  The U.S. did not recognize the Cubans right to choose their own future.  The overthrow of the dictatorship and the rejection of the U.S. imposed political-economic system was a direct blow against American interests.    

The great U.S. fear, which would create a hysterical and violent reaction, was vocalized by Castro's revolutionary partner Che Guevara: "Our revolution is endangering all American possessions in Latin America. We are telling these countries to make their own revolution."  

After the catastrophic failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the hysteria reached a fever pitch.  Proposals to punish Cuba spared no amount of brutality, but they lacked an important ingredient: a justification.  To get an idea of the extent national security officials were willing to go to obtain a sufficient pretext, consider Operation Northwoods, which reached President Kennedy's desk.  The plan called for bombings and hijackings in Cuba, that would be falsely linked to the Cuban government, as well as false flag attacks within the United States.  This is obviously full-scale terrorism, plain and simple, with the objective that: "The desired resultant from the execution of this plan would be to place the United States in the apparent position of suffering defensible grievances from a rash and irresponsible government of Cuba and to develop an international image of a Cuban threat to peace in the Western Hemisphere."

The U.S. supported a vicious campaign of terrorism against Cuba at first, through the covert arms of government, and later by turning a blind eye and providing safe haven to the anti-communist rebels in Miami.  Cuban people suffered through raids on villages by men machine-gunning civilians, torture and murder of reading teachers in the rural fields, sabotage of ships in the harbor, bombing of factories, explosion of civilian airplanes carrying a national fencing team, attacks against fishermen, a vicious bombing campaign against hotels, restaurants and department stores, and biological attacks that brought dengue fever, posioning of tobacco crops, and many other atrocities.  You can read about some of their stories through accounts of relatives of victims and survivors in this incredible oral history.  

The bottom line is that the United States has never given Cuba a chance to determine its own fate without meddling, sabotaging, and trying in every conceivable way to force it's own political-economic system on a sovereign people. 

Kennedy is missed and still mourned to this day because no one had the right to take away his life.  The same way no one has the right to take away anyone's life, regardless of what political goals you believe you are trying to accomplish.