Monday, May 30, 2016

Obama Continues to Ignore Pleas to Free Puerto Rican Political Prisoner Oscar López Rivera

Thousands of people marched in Harlem calling for the release of Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar López Rivera in May 2015. Photo by Matt Peppe.
Two and a half months ago, asked by award-winning playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda about imprisoned Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar López Rivera - whose only crime, according to Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is "conspiracy to free his people from the shackles of imperial justice" - President Barack Obama told the Hamilton creator that he "had [the case] on his desk." Miranda, whose parents hail from Puerto Rico, used his invitation to the White House to bring up the issue of López Rivera's continued incarceration, which is of tremendous importance to Puerto Ricans. Both on the island and in the diaspora, freedom for the 73-year-old political prisoner enjoys overwhelming popular support and has united people across the political spectrum.

Sunday marked the 35th anniversary that López was imprisoned. He was convicted in 1981 of "seditious conspiracy" for trying to overthrow the U.S. government by force, as well as minor charges including possession of firearms and transporting stolen vehicles across state lines. López was acussed of holding a leadership position in the FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertoriqqueña), a Puerto Rican nationalist organization, which he did not admit to but did not dispute. The group claimed responsibility for a series of bombings in Chicago and New York during the 1970s and 1980s, though as the Chicago Tribune noted the bombings were carried out "to damage property rather than persons" and the FALN "were out to call attention to their cause rather than to shed blood."

López was never personally tied to any bombing or any other act of violence that resulted in the death or injury of any person. Undoubtedly, if the government possessed any evidence of his participation in, or organization of, a violent act they would have charged him with it in court. But they merely charged him with conspiracy to commit sedition, the same political charged used by the apartheid South African government to convict Nelson Mandela two decades earlier. López has now served seven more years in prison than Mandela did before being freed and becoming South Africa's first post-apartheid President.

Thousands of people gathered Sunday in San Juan to mark the 35th anniversary of López's imprisonment and demand his release. Marchers chanted "Obama, listen to me! We want Oscar free" and "We don't want this board, we want to be free," according to Fox News Latino.

The later slogan references the stipulation in the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability (PROMESAS) Act that would create a financial control board made up overwhelmingly of members from outside the island and not appointed by representatives elected by Puerto Ricans. The board would be vested with power over all fiscal decisions, effectively overriding Puerto Rico's own elected representatives. The bill was passed by a House committee on Wednesday and is expected to draw a vote in the full chamber next month. It has the support of leadership in both the Republican and Democratic parties in Congress as well as the Obama administration.

But Puerto Rican Governor Alejandro García Padilla and much of the Puerto Rican public are opposed to what they see as an overt imposition of colonialism by allowing unelected technocrats not representative of - or accountable to - the Puerto Rican people to hold veto power over spending decisions, and even decrease the minimum wage.

López himself opposes the financial control board, telling El Nuevo Día in a phone interview (prison officials denied the newspaper's request for an in person interview): "This is a problem created by Washington. The problem is in Washington and Wall Street. The people of Puerto Rico should not accept it. No Puerto Rican should doubt that we can solve our own problems... We need for them to respect our right to self-determination and not depend on the crumbs that Washington gives us."

Obama's answer to Miranda about whether he would grant López a pardon or commutation suggests a sense of urgency. If the matter is indeed "on his desk," he presumably intends to take swift action on it. However, this is clearly not the case. Both Obama's record as having issued fewer pardons than almost any President in history, and his years of refusing to attend to López's case in particular, attest to Obama's indifference to the unjust detention of prisoners by the government he leads.

Since being elected seven years ago, Obama has been directly presented with appeals to free López Rivera from three fellow Nobel Peace Laureates, Puerto Rico's non-voting member of Congress, Puerto Rico's current governor and foreign presidents. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro even publicly offered to release opposition leader Leopoldo López if Obama released López Rivera. Yet the Obama administration has maintained its silence.

Last week, three Puerto Rican American members of Congress - Luis Gutiérrez, Nydia Velázquez and José Serrano, along with Puerto Rico's Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi - revealed that they had sent a letter to Obama in February calling on him to grant clemency to the man who has now spent nearly half his life behind bars without ever being charged with an act of violence.

After months without receiving a response, the legislators decided to go public to try to put pressure on Obama to recognize the will of virtually all of Puerto Rico and issue a pardon.

"You know how much this means to us, because we have personally expressed it to you. To our understanding, there is no legimitate criminological objective in continuing the imprisonment of this 73 year old Puerto Rican, when his country and others that value human rights clamor for his liberation," they revealed that they wrote to the President.

Two and a half years ago, I argued that Obama's refusal to free López was emblematic of the propensity of the U.S. government to ignore the political demands of the Puerto Rican people and solely use the colonial relationship to pursue the perceived economic and strategic interests of the ruling class:
"Without any representation in Congress or a vote in Presidential elections, Puerto Ricans have their political rights subjugated to the U.S. government. Even on an issue as popular among Puerto Ricans as the release of Oscar López, they have no recourse to participate in the political process at the federal level.

There is no indication that Obama intends to even respond to López’s clemency plea, much less grant it. In his speech at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, Obama said that 'around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs.' The overwhelming opinion among Puerto Ricans is that this description applies precisely to López.

The disregard that Obama has shown for recognizing the will of Puerto Ricans to free Oscar López demonstrates the uphill challenges Puerto Ricans face to shed their second-class status and obtain equal rights. If the President refuses even to grant a simple pardon, what chance do Puerto Ricans have of the U.S. government acting on the 2012 referendum and allowing them to achieve self-determination?"
The question of why Puerto Ricans would believe that anyone in the U.S. government respects their opinions or their political desires should be more urgent than ever. We are in the middle of another campaign season, which for many Americans is seen as an opportunity for them to participate in the political process by voting in elections. However, for Puerto Ricans it is another reminder that while they are American citizens, they are denied the right given to Americans in the states to select Congressional representatives and take part in the Presidential election.

The policies that will be decided after the election at the federal level will apply to Puerto Ricans, though they will have had no role in choosing those policies and no way to voice their dissatisfaction at policies they oppose by voting out those who supported them.

The only way Puerto Rico can recover from its economic and debt crisis, as López Rivera said in his interview with El Nuevo Día, would be to achieve sovereignty and self-determination. This would grant them the ability to prioritize local business and the needs of the population, and free them from being merely a captive market for U.S. products and a source of cheap labor for U.S. corporations.

But any promise that the 2012 referendum, in which a 54% majority rejected the current colonial status, had of achieving this has disappeared. The U.S. Congress, which must approve any change in Puerto Rico's political status, has not given any indication it will even consider doing anything to end the "Commonwealth" colonial status that Puerto Ricans voted against.

On the contrary, Puerto Ricans are being presented with the prospect of a financial control board that is a blatant affront to the idea that people should rule themselves, and a reminder of their powerlessness as colonial subjects.

The fact that Oscar López Rivera still sits unjustly in a prison cell is proof that the voices of Puerto Ricans simply do not matter to first-class American citizens on the mainland who hold power.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Speech Obama Should Have Given in Hiroshima

Barack Obama became the first U.S. President to visit Hiroshima on Friday, more than seven decades after the U.S. B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped a 10,000-pound atomic bomb nicknamed "Little Boy" on the city whose military value was far less than that of Tampa to the United States. More than 70,000 people were instantly killed, and virtually the entire city was flattened. Many survivors would suffer prolonged and unimaginably painful aftereffects of radiation, which would cost at least 100,000 more people their lives. The effects of radiation would harm people for years and decades after the initial explosion.   

Obama stood at a podium with the epicenter of the blast, the Genbaku Domu, in the background and said that he had "come to mourn the dead." While Obama mourned, there was one thing he did not do: apologize. 

He said that "death came from the sky." No mention of why. Or who was responsible, as if it were a natural disaster rather than a crime perpetrated by actual people. Obama was either unwilling or unable to confront the truth and make amends. 

Here's what he could have said to try to do so:

Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, an American warplane unleashed the most horrific and inhuman weapon ever invented, immediately imperiling the survival of the entire human species. This act of terrorism was the ultimate crime: a crime of mass murder, a crime of war, and a crime against humanity.

The victims, those who died incinerated in a flash, and those who died slowly and painfully over years from chemical poisoning, were never able to see justice served. Sadly, there is no way the criminals who carried out this heinous and barbaric act will ever face justice for their crimes.

I cannot change that. But, there is one thing I can do as the leader of the nation in whose name the bombing of Hiroshima was carried out: I can tell you, residents of Hiroshima and the rest of Japan, that I am sorry. I am sorry on behalf of my government and my country. I wish an American President would have come earlier and said this. This apology is decades overdue. It is a small and symbolic act, but it is necessary as a first step for true reconciliation.

A nuclear bomb should have never been dropped on Hiroshima. The most important goal of mankind should be to ensure that no nuclear bomb is ever dropped again. Anywhere in the world. Ever.

It would be easy to stand here and tell you that there are reasons why the American military and political officials chose to use a nuclear bomb. I could say it served a greater good of saving lives that would have been lost if the war had continued. I could say it was a decision made by people who were dealing with the pressure and horrors of fighting a war. But that would not be the truth. Those would be empty rationalizations. There is no justification for the bomb. Period.

The truth is that by August 6, 1945 Japan was defeated and had been seeking a conditional surrender for months. And American war planners knew this. They knew it because they had cracked the Japanese code and were intercepting their messages. [1]

Japan was willing to surrender under the condition that their Emperor, who was seen as a God among the Japanese people, be allowed to maintain his throne and not be prosecuted for war crimes. The Emperor himself called for "a plan to end the war" six weeks before the fateful day. [2]  After so much unspeakable death and destruction, this reasonable offer should have been met with ecstatic celebration and relief.

Instead, U.S. officials disregarded it. They decided that it was necessary not just to defeat Japan, but to leave them utterly humiliated and disgraced. They wanted to demonstrate to their public that they could force another country to lay prostrate in front of them in complete submission. This is the mindset of terrorists, torturers, and sadists.

The United States joined with China and Great Britain to issue the Potsdam Declaration on July 26, in which they called on Japan "to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces." These were terms they understood Japan could not accept.

Unfortunately, the use of the atomic bomb had become inevitable after the massive investment of time and treasure represented by the Manhattan Project. Military planners worried about "the possibility that after spending huge amounts of money ... the bomb would be a dud. They could easily imagine being grilled mercilessly by hostile members of Congress."

Historian and former Nuclear Regulatory Commission employee J. Samuel Walker confirmed that aside from "shortening the war and saving American lives, Truman wanted to justify the expense and effort required to build the atomic bombs."

That financial considerations and a self-interested desire for bureaucrats to validate themselves and protect their careers could lead to the single most destructive and cruel act in history is an abomination. It is a deep offense to the idea that people are innately moral, and it makes us ask how in a democratic society we can vest people with the authority to make decisions of such profound impact secretly and without accountability?

Walker notes that another consideration for using the bomb on Hiroshima was to put fear into the leaders of the Soviet Union and make them "more amenable to American wishes." Just six weeks earlier the UN Charter had been established. It included the demand that "all members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force" against other states. The drafters of the treaty could never have imagined such an unconscionable violation of their words so soon after the monumental pact had been written.

As horrific as the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima was, it did not occur in a vacuum. What no one in mainstream American political discourse has so far been able to admit is that not only was there no justification for the bomb, there was little justification for the war against Japan in the first place.

The war was the result of the notion, which first emanated from the Council on Foreign Relations in 1941, that the U.S.'s "national interest" called for a "Grand Area" that consisted of the Western hemisphere, the British Empire and the Far East, while assuming the majority of Europe would be controlled by Nazi Germany. This was translated into a policy that demanded a military confrontation with Japan for control of the Far East. [3]

A pillar in this policy was an economic embargo against Japan. Cut off from imports and raw materials from the United States and Great Britain, Japan grew desperate and subsequently sought to expand its Empire. Japan saw itself in need of a sphere of influence involving the same areas in the Far East as the United States.

The U.S. had several options to avoid war. For one, they could develop a program of agricultural and economic self-sufficiency which would allow them to insulate themselves from dependence on colonial powers, as well as allow them to steer clear of unpredictable and potentially hostile regions of the world.

But for businessmen who wanted to maintain control over the direction of the economy and keep their own fortunes growing at a limitless pace, this was a nonstarter. Instead, they were dedicated to challenging Japan. Hence, the embargo and the buildup for an inevitable military confrontation over Eastern Asia.

This is the background to Pearl Harbor. Japan was obviously not justified for attacking sovereign American territory in a blatant act of aggression. But we cannot pretend that it was not predictable or logical from their point of view.

Japan felt itself backed into a corner by the embargo. They felt they needed to expand further into Asia. They believed that if they did so, the U.S. military would have attacked them. They were right.

Both countries should have worked together to recognize each other's perceived interests, deescalate, and achieve a mutually acceptable compromise. It is the ability to understand one's perceived adversary as a rational counterpart, rather than an evil and irrational enemy, that separates humans from beasts. If we are not able to use this ability, we are no better than a predator seeking his prey.

The nuclear bombing of Hiroshima did not need to happen. But the bombing that took place on this site was just a symptom of the war it was part of. War will necessarily produce horrific crimes, some of which are unimaginable at the time they happen. As horrific as the nuclear bomb was, 70 years of technological advancements have made not just the destruction of an entire city, but of an entire country or continent within the realm of possibility.

We need to eliminate nuclear weapons from the earth. But that is not enough. Chemical weapons like napalm, Agent Orange, depleted uranium, and white phosphorous; biological weapons like Dengue bacteria and germ bombs; and conventional weapons like cluster bombs, pineapple bomblets, butterfly bombs and land mines are just some of the savage weapons used by the U.S. military alone in the years since the close of World War II to kill and maim millions of people. Many other countries possess similar weapons of mass destruction and have the capacity to do the same.

We need to eliminate war. All war. Forever. War is evil, plain and simple. We cannot undo the actions of the past. But we can let them guide us to a better world where we don't repeat the horrors that the people of Hiroshima suffered here 71 years ago. That will be the only way to prevent the victims from having died in vain.

References 

[1] Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. pp. 423. 

[2] U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey: The Effects of the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, June 19, 1946. President's Secretary's File, Truman Papers. http://www.trumanlibrary.org/whistlestop/study_collections/bomb/large/documents/index.php?pagenumber=33&documentid=65&documentdate=1946-06-19&studycollectionid=abomb&groupid=

[3] Shoup, Laurence H. and William Minter. Imperial Brain Trust: The Council on Foreign Relations & United States Foreign Policy. Lincoln, NE: Authors Choice Press, 2004.

Matt Peppe writes about politics, U.S. foreign policy and Latin America on his blog. You can follow him on twitter.



Saturday, May 21, 2016

Cashing In at the Race Track While Facing Charges of "Abusive" Lending Practices

After dueling through grueling early fractions and holding the lead turning for home, Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist was overpowered in the stretch of the Preakness Stakes Saturday by his rival Exaggerator. Exaggerator would go on to win by four lengths, as Nyquist faded to third. Nyquist was unable to repeat his performance from two weeks ago when he overwhelmed 19 other three-year-olds and cruised to a 1 1/2 length victory, earning the horse's owner, J. Paul Reddam, a cool $1.2 million.

Four years ago, Reddam's horse I'll Have Another won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, earning $2.7 million before retiring due to injury before the Belmont Stakes. Soon after, the horse was sold for $10 million to Big Red Farm in Japan. It was a phenomenal return on investment for Reddam, who purchased the horse a year earlier at auction for $35,000.

Reddam, a former philosophy professor, is used to big profits. In 1995, he entered a considerably more lucrative industry than academia when he founded the subprime mortgage lending company DiTech. The company was one of the first to take advantage of the internet to offer home-equity loans online of 125% of the home's value.

The Los Angeles Times said that Reddam "immediately shook up the Southern California mortgage industry with his scrappy style and aggressive advertising. Though his techniques raised eyebrows, they were often copied by rivals, most notably his use of freeway billboards to advertise the company's daily mortgage rates."

In 1999, Reddam capitalized on his company's success when it was acquired by GMAC Residential Mortgage Corp., a financial arm of General Motors, for what was estimated at $265 million.

A year later, Reddam stepped down from Ditech.com (the new name of the company) when three high-level managers were indicted for extortion. The men were accused of demanding kickbacks from a Pittsburgh mortgage servicing company who relied on Ditech.com for 20% of their business. Reddam resigned on the same day as the charges were made public, though he was never charged.

At this point, Reddam became involved in thoroughbred racing. He told the LA Times: "I sold my company, Ditech Funding, and had some cash. I always loved racing, so I decided to get involved in a bigger way. I bought one horse for $700,000 at a dispersal sale, Swept Overboard, which won two Grade I's, including the Met Mile. I later sold him to a Japanese breeder for $3 million."

Reddam's next business venture was CashCall, another non-bank private lender. The company offers home, business and personal loans, including loans from $850 to $10,000 that carried annual interest rates as high as 343 percent.

Like DiTech, CashCall is also known for its aggressive advertising. The late former child actor Gary Coleman, of Different Strokes fame, starred in numerous commercials for CashCall.

For years, various states as well as the federal government have pursued legal action against CashCall. In 2009, CashCall settled with the state of California for $1 million for using "loan shark tactics" to pursue debtors. The company was ordered not to "harrass, oppress, or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a Consumer Loan."

Last year, after a lengthy legal battle with the West Virginia Attorney General, CashCall reached a $13 million settlement for practicing "abusive debt collections."

The company is currently fighting a lawsuit from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), who initiated legal action in 2013 claiming that CashCall "engaged in unfair, deceptive, and abusive practices, including illegally debiting consumer checking accounts for loans that were void."

The CFPB complaint specifically names Reddam as having violated provisions of the Consumer Financial Protection Act, as well as either licensing requirements or interest-rate limits in eight different states.

The CFPB explains in its press release announcing the CashCall suit that "(u)nder statutes in at least these eight states, any obligation to pay such loans was rendered void or otherwise nullified in whole or in part by law. Therefore, the defendants are collecting money that consumers do not owe."

While the legal action is still pending, if the accusations are proven in court they would mean that the company was essentially representing that people owed debts which they did not, and taking money which did not rightfully belong to CashCall. 

The company tried to have the lawsuit thrown out on jurisdictional grounds, but a judge ruled in December that the CFPB's suit may proceed.

For his part, Reddam has defended CashCall's business, telling Bloomberg that: "There is a tremendous need for people to borrow a few thousand dollars to help them over whatever crisis they are having, and the banks are not serving that need, and they should."

Others might say that what the company is doing amounts to usury, preying on the most vulnerable segments of the population, who do not have alternative means of finance.

As Michael Hudson explains in his book Killing the Host, similar practices as the CFPB and state Attorney Generals allege CashCall engaged in were disdained historically by populists who sought a more egalitarian socioeconomic system: "Recognizing how most great fortunes had been built up in predatory ways, through usury, war lending and political insider dealings to grab the Commons and carve out burdensome monopoly privileges led to a popular view of financial magnates, landlords and hereditary ruling elite as parasitic by the 19th century, epitomized by the French anarchist Proudhon's slogan 'Property as theft.' " [1]

Predatory lending has historically been understood as detrimental to the economy it preys upon, siphoning off capital created from production and leaving industries, their laborers, and the larger economy worse off by this "parasitic" relationship between creditor and debtor.

Hudson writes that Church theorists believed bankers should enjoy a standard of living similar to other professions. "This required holding down the price of services they could charge (e.g. by the usury laws enacted by most of the world prior to the 1980s), by regulating prices for their services, and by taxing high incomes and luxuries," he writes. [2]

Reddam is right that there is indeed a market for small personal loans that banks are not meeting. But what does that say about an economic system that fails to provide people with options other than resorting to "high-cost loans" to meet their basic needs? Why are there not other alternatives - low-cost or free government lending, member-owned credit unions, etc. - widely available to people who have trouble paying bills and providing food for their families in between pay checks?

The formation of the CFPB, a public agency dedicated to protecting consumers, provides a critical counterweight to predatory financial companies. But until financial insecurity is eliminated among the working class, which will never be the case in a neoliberal global capitalist economy, there will always be financial predators lurking with illegal and unfair schemes, and people will inevitably fall victim to them.

References

[1] Hudson, Michael. Killing The Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy. CounterPunch Books, 2015. Electronic Edition.

[2] Ibid.