Sunday, 5 July 2009

Honduras - Land without Neda

Neda is her name. By now, everyone knows her, and refers to her familiarly by her first name. We’ve all seen the beautiful picture of her, a young Iranian philosophy student who defied the repression of an authoritarian state with thousands and thousands of her compatriots in the conviction that another way of doing things is possible. Her family mourns, and Europe and the US – who would love to bomb her city – mourn with them.

The dead have no names in Honduras. They have no faces, no biographies, nothing that might indicate that they are human beings, people with whom we can and should identify. At least two participants in the peaceful demonstration in front of the international airport in the capital city of Tegucigalpa were killed by the Honduran army in its ambush of its own civilian population. Another was run over by a military vehicle a couple of days ago in front of the Honduran telecommunications company Hondutel. There are many people mourning in Honduras these days, mourning their dead and missing friends and family members, mourning the hope, represented by their elected president Juan Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, that another way of doing things is possible in their country, where a small elite has long oppressed the poor majority with the tolerance and assistance of the US. Hondurans live, struggle, suffer, and die anonymously.

Neda is known the world over. As far as the dead in Honduras are concerned, the world doesn’t even know how many there are. We see a brief item about a coup in a small, unknown Central American country. The UN, the OAS, and – after initial hesitation – even the US government condemn the attack on Honduran democracy, and that’s the end of it. People think that President Barack “Hope & Change” Obama is taking care of it, and change the subject. We hear and read the words, but don’t find anything out about the actions.

Despite its moderate criticism of the Honduran coup, trade relations between the US and Honduras (accounting for 70% of Honduras‘ foreign trade) go on as usual. The idea of suspending the delivery of weapons to the Honduran army – without which the coup would immediately fail – is under “review” according to the US government. The world should take this about as seriously as the Honduran army, i.e., not at all. If the army command seriously believed that the coup could result in the suspension of military aid on which it is completely dependent, there wouldn’t have been a coup in the first place. Without US weapons, the defeat of the golpistas would be a matter of time – once they ran out of ammunition, their only source of power would run dry.

But the Honduran generals aren’t worried about their supplies. Why should they be? The US has absolutely no interest in the return of Zelaya, who threatens major US interests with his independent nationalist policies.

And it will all continue as long as Hondurans continue to die anonymously.

Perhaps the civilian population and the solidarity movement in Latin America will crush the coup regime. Perhaps they will manage to do things differently in Honduras despite everything. Unlike the case of Iran, we can make a decisive contribution to bring about that result by demanding that the US government terminate all weapons transfers and foreign aid to the Honduran coup regime.

If we refuse to make even this minimal expenditure of energy, we will all – through our cowardice and laziness – be complicit in the fate of the courageous Hondurans, who are putting everything on the line in their struggle for freedom, democracy, and social justice.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

The Doctrine of "Change of Course" - A Case Study

Al Giordano continues to provide the interested reader with a wealth of sociological information about a certain segment of the US liberal community and the state of US imperial ideology. It turns out that the latter is in quite good health indeed, while the only thing still critical about the former, to paraphrase Volker Pispers, is its mental status.

Jewbonics has suggested that arguing with someone who holds his readers in such low regard that he will lie about the content of the page they have in front of them (see below) is a waste of time and energy. I understand his opinion, but I disagree. What we have in Al Giordano is a rather more vulgar and blatant version of the thought processes we regularly see dressed up with intellectual polish on the pages of The New Republic or the New York Times.

While he never makes it entirely explicit, the underlying premise of every one of Giordano’s attempts to deny that there are even reasons to suspect US involvement in the Honduran coup is what has been referred to, inter alia, by Noam Chomsky as the “doctrine of ‘change of course’”. The doctrine of “change of course” is essential to the survival of any ideology intended to serve power in that it gives official ideology the elasticity needed to deal with inconvenient facts.

When it becomes impossible to deny the cynicism and atrocities committed by or on behalf of one’s chosen state, the doctrine teaches that one must admit to past crimes (usually euphemised as “mistakes” or the like) while claiming that we need not concern ourselves with what those “mistakes” might tell us about present policy because the state has turned over a new leaf.

In Carter’s day, the self-proclaimed “Human Rights Administration” used its rhetorical (and sometimes not even that) commitment to human rights to declare even recent history irrelevant; this allowed the Human Rights Administration to provide decisive support to such dedicated human rights activists as Anastasio Somoza, Shah Reza Pahlevi, and Augusto Pinochet. Clinton rode into Washington on a similar line (with a little “Place Called Hope” mixed in), and proceeded to orchestrate a positive extravaganza of atrocities in East Timor, Colombia, Iraq, Turkey, and Yugoslavia.

Now, we have Barack “Hope and Change” Obama. One might think, against the historical background just reviewed, that scepticism would be warranted.

Not so, says Giordano, unless, of course, one happens to be a “dishonest” “woefully ignorant” “stupid dinosaur faux-leftist”. These creatures do not argue. They “screech” and have “guns blazing”, they do not propose, suspect, take nuanced positions, or admit to uncertainty. They “[insist] that [their view of the situation is] "THE TRUTH," and the ONLY POSSIBLE TRUTH.”

One might be forgiven for wondering if there isn’t the tiniest bit of projection going on here.
Returning to the real world, Giordano’s beliefs are based almost exclusively on the public statements of government officials, which he takes at face value, and which those who comment on his blog would also do well to take at face value if they don’t enjoy the online equivalent of having excrement thrown at them. I say "almost exclusively" because they are also based on interpreting the relationship between those statements and actual practice in the light most favourable to the Obama Administration.

Thus, the US equivocated for so long about the Honduran coup because Obama, as a former community organiser (see Adolph Reed’s articles from the 1990s on for an examination of that aspect of his career), wanted to let the rest of Latin America take the lead in order to avoid appearing to be a bully. The evidence he offers in support of this interpretation, apart from Obama’s time as a community organiser and his own alleged status as a community organiser, is nil. To interpret the delay any other way, according to Giordano, is “errant” (by which I assume he means “erroneous”), though, again, no argument is needed when defending the Obama Administration.

Indeed, he uses this difference of interpretation (my sceptical interpretation vs. his own credulous one) as an example of my factual claims being “pure fiction”. When the reputation of the Holy State is at stake, interpretation is elevated to the level of empirical fact.

Similarly, in order to avoid being “stupid dinosaur faux-leftists”, we must take at face value State Department statements that they are “still reviewing” whether to formally declare the Honduran coup a coup. Such a determination, as Giordano (accurately, to his credit) states, would render continued aid of any kind to Honduras a violation of federal law (to see how scrupulously federal foreign aid restrictions are followed, see, e.g., Indonesia, Colombia, Chile, Turkey, and the Contra mercenaries under Reagan).

That is to say that the US has been providing military aid to Honduras, is continuing to do so, and is considering whether or not to issue a formal declaration that would require any further such aid to be covert.

This all is adduced as proof that the Obama Administration’s statement – reported yesterday by Democracy Now! – that it did not intend to discontinue military aid to Honduras is “a bold-faced [sic] lie”.

As to the issue of USAID funding to the pro-coup NGO Paz y Democracia, Giordano changes course a bit himself. Instead of providing any kind of source to “refute” this claim, he argues the burden of proof. Since in other cases he at least cites specific sources, it appears that in this case he has none to back up his insinuation that USAID funding abruptly ended on the day of Obama’s inauguration. He then proceeds to argue in the alternative, asserting that an organisation “can have received funds from USAID for one thing and then gone out there and supported a coup even if the US wasn't behind it.”

We then move out of the realm of interpretation and into that of pure nitpicking. I had pointed out that General Romeo Vásquez of Honduras was an “SOA graduate”. Now, the term “graduate” can be used with a number of meanings. One can speak, for example, of a “graduate of San Quentin”, meaning not that that notorious prison provided some kind of diploma, but that the person in question had been incarcerated there. It is true that I did not check to see whether Vásquez received a diploma from the School of the Americas, because it’s irrelevant. My point, rather obviously, was that Vásquez attended the notorious training camp for Latin American torturers and mass murderers. Giordano does not dispute this; indeed, he confirmed it.

“Some of Chavez's military that are loyal to him and overturned the 2002 [coup] were also trained at SOA,” Giordano continues, “Doesn't that make your head explode?” No, not really. That does not change the fact that Vásquez, who uncontroversially attended the School of the Americas, went on to do precisely what a good SOA grad - I'm sorry, former SOA attendee - does: overthrow a government that is showing too much independence and impinging upon US interests.

Once again, Giordano uses “logic” that could also be used to “prove” that the US was not in any way involved in the coup against Chilean president Salvador Allende, the only problem being that 24,000 declassified documents say otherwise. And once again, the issue is not one of fact, but one of interpretation. His quarrel is not with the fact that Vásquez attended the SOA, but with the idea of interpreting it in context. The hallmark of a “stupid dinosaur faux-leftist” would seem to be a willingness to doubt the most innocuous possible interpretation of any given fact.

The point here is not that Al Giordano is a crass apologist for the current administration who resorts to personal insults when short on evidence and argument. The Internet is certainly full of those. The point is that he is an excellent specimen of the sort of ideological acrobats that populate our mainstream press and journals of articulate opinion. His crassness puts in stark relief what is otherwise so subtle as to be virtually undetectable: the operative principle, at all times, is to irrebuttably presume the innocence and good faith of one’s Dear Leader/Party/Holy State, declaring all contrary current and historical facts irrelevant. Even the most damning facts must be interpreted in the most innocuous way possible. Contrary evidence is to be examined in a vacuum, as if each contrary fact were being advanced alone, rather than as one piece of an overall pattern. And, if all else fails, hurl invective and change the subject.

Exhibit A: Giordano’s “Refutation”

Elise - Your claims of "fact" are pure fiction.

To wit:
1. You claim: "the US dragged its heels on condemning the coup"

I've already explained why that's an errant interpretation, but even if it weren't, it offers zero evidence that the US was behind the coup.

2. You claim: "the US government intends to continue providing military aid to the Honduran army"

That's a bold-faced lie, Elise, and it makes you a dishonest blogger. Issue a correction if you want any credibility left. See today's Miami Herald: SouthCom Chills Ties with Honduran Military. [one wonders whether the chill, unlike previous similar cold fronts, will actually produce a notable change in temperature in Tegus] See also the multiple reports that State Department counsel "is still reviewing" whether to impose the legal classification of "coup," which would [note the operative word "would"] trigger not only the shut off of military aid, but of all other aid, too.

When [i.e. if] they do that, will you admit that your judgment has been clouded by what you want to believe? Or will you just move the goal posts to claim some other definition of what constitutes support for the coup.

As with your claim #1, even if your claims in #2 were accurate (they're not, but I'll play along), it still would not prove US involvement in the coup itself [except, of course, for providing military aid to those who carried it out, which not even Giordano disputes].

3. You claim: "one of the major pro-coup political organisations, Paz y Democracia, receives USAID funds, as well as the fact that the Honduran army is armed and trained by the US and that General Vásquez is a graduate of the School of the Americas."

"Receives" (that's a present-tense verb, Elise USAID funds? Have you any proof of that? Or are did you really mean "received" (past tense). Have you any proof at all that the group received those funds since January 20, 2009? Cough it up, or admit that you're exaggerating and making shit up.

Regarding Vasquez, do your homework. He is not a "graduate" of SOA (SOA Watch will verify that for you), but, rather, he attended the school long ago when it was based in Panama, but he did not graduate it.

Your sloppiness when it comes to these facts only indicates that you haven't done any independent investigation at all. You take claims by others and if you agree with them you presume them to be "fact" when I've just demonstrated that they are not.

And, again, even if your claims were accurate - they're not, I repeat, but playing along with your silly game, I'll say it - neither of those "facts," even if they were true, proves US involvement with the coup [Note that I never claimed that they definitively proved that US involvement, merely that they give cause to suspect it]. Generals can be trained at SOA and then do things on their own. It happens a lot. Some of Chavez's military that are loyal to him and overturned the 2002 were also trained at SOA. Doesn't that make your head explode?

Likewise, a sleazy NGO (and I agree that one is bad news) can have received funds from USAID for one thing and then gone out there and supported a coup even if the US wasn't behind it.

Finally, you say I am "lashing out at anyone who thinks the question is worth asking." That's revisionist history of your posts here. You came in, guns blazing, insisting that it was "THE TRUTH," and the ONLY POSSIBLE TRUTH. Now you're backpedaling because your four "proofs" offered above are less firm than oatmeal [the textbook definition of projection].

Thank you again for proving my point [as with any delusional system, the doctrine of 'change of course' allows all facts, no matter how contrary, to be adduced as proof of whatever point happens to be useful to make]! Let's see if you've got the stuff to post this response onto your blog, too!

My response (suppressed by Giordano):

Finally, you say I am "lashing out at anyone who thinks the question is worth asking." That's revisionist history of your posts here. You came in, guns blazing, insisting that it was "THE TRUTH," and the ONLY POSSIBLE TRUTH. Now you're backpedaling because your four "proofs" offered above are less firm than oatmeal.(emphasis added)

First of all, I never insisted that it was "the TRUTH" that the US was behind the coup. I made it quite clear on more than one occasion that it is entirely possible that it is not. Your claim to the contrary is pure invention, as will be obvious to anyone who bothers to scroll up.

To provide just one quote:

"Does that mean that the US is definitely behind it? No, of course not. There are plenty of other possible explanations for the initial fencesitting (though I have yet to hear anyone propose one). But the suggestion that the Obama Administration, which has explicitly stated that it will continue providing military aid to the Honduran army, might be less than 100% candid, is certainly so absurd as to warrant personal attacks against anyone who raises the question." (emphasis added)

Your "refutation" of the fact that the US has been and currently is providing military aid to the Honduran army is a public statement by an official that the aid to Honduras is being "reviewed". The astute reader will not that that does not even amount to an ultimatum, let alone a statement that aid has been terminated. A similar stratagem was used to assuage public outcry against US material support of Indonesian atrocities in East Timor. Officials announced that aid had been suspended, but it later turned out that the Indonesian generals were completely unaware of the suspension because aid currently in the pipeline continued to flow.

How much weight to assign the claim by US officials that aid to Honduras is under review depends on one's personal judgment of the credibility of the officials and institutions in question. That, in turn, depends on one's view of the relevant historical context, which in the case of Central America shows a consistent line of policy priorities spanning an entire century.

You do not deny this history; instead, you declare it irrelevant, and deride those who would dare examine the wealth of historical context and draw conclusions from it. You have yet to provide any justification for your dismissal of the historical context apart from strident professions of faith in the words of politicians and ad hominem attacks on those who dare raise questions.

It has, in every instance, been you who seeks to shut down any discussion of the subject with insults and personal attacks that range on the bizarre. Indeed, if one eliminates the blatant self-promotion and gratuitous insults from your comments here, they would barely fill a single page.

Your blind spot for any evidence that might suggest that Obama's policies in Latin America are consistent with those of virtually every other president over the past 100 years brings to mind a quote one of your fans posted:

"The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it." - Flannery O'Connor

The fact that you blatantly misrepresent what I have said on the very page on which it is posted shows just how much contempt you have for your regular readers. One only hopes that they will prove themselves unworthy of it.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Haiti, Honduras, and "Obama Derangement Syndrome"

Obama Derangement Syndrome – A persistent delusion, impervious to contrary facts, evidence, and analysis, that the Obama Administration is a fundamental break from conventional US foreign and domestic policy; a common comorbidity is Clinton Amnesia, in which the bleak, violent reality of the Clinton Administration is obscured a rosy, nostalgic picture of Life Before Bush.

(Credit for the term itself goes to Al Giordano of The Field; the definition is mine)

The similarities between the coup currently underway in Honduras and the abortive coup in 2002 in Venezuela have led some, including Venezuela’s main public television network VTV, to ask whether the United States might somehow be involved in the events unfolding in Honduras. Given that Honduras has long served as a base for US subversion and terror in Central America, and that US corporations stand to lose quite a lot from the sorts of reforms the left-leaning nationalist Zelaya administration is likely to implement, it would seem that there is good cause to explore the question.

However, some otherwise sane observers appear to be so infatuated with Brand Obama that even suggesting the mere possibility of US involvement provokes inarticulate tirades. Such is the case of Al Giordano of the Narcosphere-hosted blog The Field. Giordano has referred to those who suggest the possibility of US government duplicity as “dishonest”, “woefully ignorant” “faux-leftists” who need to “Shut up and read the facts before [they] go around spreading falsehoods”.

Why does Giordano feel so confident in dismissing any suggestion of US involvement in a coup carried out by a military that it continues to arm and fund and supported by USAID-funded NGOs such as Paz y Democracia? Because of “Multiple statements from Obama, Secretary Clinton, Ambassador Llorens, the US Ambassadors to the OAS and the United Nations, ALL calling for the reinstatement of Zelaya and declaring that the US doesn't recognize the coup government.” QED.

Giordano – who describes himself and his colleagues as “doing all the heavy lifting to defeat this coup” (a statement that would no doubt delight those who are risking their lives in confrontations with the Honduran military) – has nothing but contempt for those who dare to question the public statements of one of the last governments in the Hemisphere to condemn the Honduran coup, which also happens to be the one government in the Hemisphere to refuse to withhold aid from the Honduran military.

“Sorry, you win no points from me with that kind of delusional and self-serving mode of thought. It's just about reinforcing your world view, isn't it? Facts be damned! You want to believe it, and therefore it is true!”

As I pointed out in the comment that led to that example of what passes for reasoned argument in Giordano’s view, it would not be the first time that the US has publicly condemned something while quietly supporting it. Indeed, this was the exact modus operandi employed by Bill Clinton when a coup by the US-founded and –funded Haitian National Guard deposed elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. While condemning the coup and making a show of trying to reach a mutually acceptable solution, Clinton violated an OAS-imposed embargo in order to continue supplying the National Guard as it slaughtered thousands of Haitian civilians. One of the principal perpetrators of the slaughter, Emmanuel Constant, went on to live under US protection in New York. Extradition requests were summarily dismissed.

This, however, is beyond the pale for Giordano, because “it doesn't help the people of Honduras fighting against this coup. Your opinion, if believed there, would give solace and embolden the coup plotters while demoralizing the civil resistance.”

There are two issues here. The first is an empirical question: is the US involved in the coup (in some way going beyond the continued provision of military aid)? This is a question of fact. It is entirely possible that, despite the history and despite the US interests at stake, the US was not directly involved in the coup itself (that the US arms and funds the Honduran military and provides funds to anti-Zelaya political organisations is uncontroversial). It is likely that we will not have certainty on this score unless and until the documents currently circulating in the State Department and the White House are declassified.

The second is more speculative in nature: What is the practical effect of assuming US involvement based on the available evidence? Contrary to Giordano’s assertion, the fact that a coup is associated with imperialismo yanqui has generally been a rallying point for resistance rather than an impediment. Furthermore, the upper echelons of the Honduran army – far from being swayed by the opinions of outside observers and activists – are in a position to know for sure whether, and to what extent, the US is involved in the coup.

Moreover, the question has enormous practical significance. If the US is involved in the coup, then international protest directed merely at Micheletti and his military retinue will hardly have any more effect than the OAS embargo against Haiti under Cédras – immediately violated by the US – did. In that case, protest would have to be directed squarely at Washington, calling for an immediate end to military aid for the Honduran army and funding for pro-coup groups (referred to in the Orwellian language of Washington as “democracy promotion” activities).

Perhaps sensing that he is coming up rather short in the area of facts (self-serving public statements by government officials do have a tendency to be wrong), Giordano posits that those who have doubts about the Obama Administration’s protestation of clean hands may be suffering from a mental disorder he terms “Obama Derangement Syndrome”.

The term does seem apt, even if not for the field of application Giordano imagines. It is nothing short of amazing to hear the lengths to which avowed progressives will go to defend their image of Obama as fundamentally new and different to everything in the history of US policy, just as many liberals cannot begin to entertain the notion that the antidemocratic cynicism and violence of US foreign policy predate not only George W. Bush’s administration, but his birth. Ultimately, Giordano’s argument boils down to the “idea” that we should believe what the Obama administration says, just as we’re told to believe that he means well on Iraq, health care, Afghanistan, and a host of other issues.

Because it is so illustrative, and to avoid rewriting things I’ve already written, I am including below my comment on The Field, followed by Giordano’s “response” and my reply (which appears not to have made it through moderation - this morning, 1 July 2009, it has shown up on the page):

My original comment:

When a group of generals in the (US-founded and -funded) Haitian army, led by Raoul Cédras, overthrew the democratically elected president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, US President Bill Clinton made all sorts of public gestures of condemnation towards the coup, while at the same time going so far as to violate an OAS embargo to ensure that the army would be supplied with fuel.

Meanwhile, Aristide remained an involuntary guest in the United States, where he remained until he finally agreed to implement the neoliberal economic program of the candidate Washington had supported in the election.

Obama & Co. have accurately described the coup as what it is, and have - albeit haltingly - condemned it. However, Obama has made no move to stop the military aid on which the Honduran army is dependent for its very existence. If military aid were cut off, the coup would grind to a halt. Given how complete the integration of the Honduran army into the US command structure is (indeed, the general that Zelaya fired was a graduate of the notorious School of the Americas), it is hard to believe that they would act without at least the expectation of US support, and even harder to believe that they would continue a coup in the face of US condemnation unless they were aware that it was not meant seriously. There are many such examples in the annals of US foreign policy (Haiti and Indonesia, to name just two prominent ones).

Zelaya is in a delicate position. Although the coup has been condemned almost universally, even by the US, he knows full well that he is dealing with an army that does not take his orders, and cannot be sure that his safety will be guaranteed when he returns to Honduras (particularly considering that Micheletti has ordered his arrest). In these circumstances, any denial by Zelaya that the US was involved in the coup (beyond having armed and trained the Honduran army, which is well documented) is just as likely to be an attempt to avoid angering the US. Plus, even assuming that it is sincere, there is no reason that he would even be aware that the US was behind it (the standard US coup strategy is to give the whole affair the best local facade possible).

Al Giordano’s “response” (note that the stated moderation criteria for comments include coherency and an absence of gratuitous insults):

Elise - Duck! Here comes some "tough love." Nobody apparently has told you, so I will...
While I agree that nothing "rules it out," I get the sense that you and others have a great psychological investment in "ruling it in," even though you offer zero evidence (other than the circumstantial, "well, it happened in the past so therefore that must be the case now" leap of faith [note that the "leap of faith" is not swallowing official US government pronouncements, but recognising longstanding patterns in US policy].)

Excuse me. I was at the forefront of exposing the US involvement in the Venezuelan coup of 2002 and subsequent attempts. I'm not a "coup denier."

But I find it unimpressive that after three days of stupid dinosaur faux-leftists screeching at the top of their lungs to blame Obama for this coup that not one of you has come up with a single shred of evidence.

And now you say that Zelaya won't or can't say what you insist (without any fact to back you up) is the case?

Are you going to say that Chavez, too, is afraid of Washington? Because after some hours of initially being on the track you're on, he broke from that conspiracy theory, and now worries aloud that "May God protect Obama."

But you're SO INVESTED in NEEDING to believe it's true, that you believe it with no evidence. That's delusional.

And it doesn't help the people of Honduras fighting against this coup. Your opinion, if believed there, would give solace and embolden the coup plotters while demoralizing the civil resistance. But you don't think about that, do you? You just want to believe that Latin Americans aren't capable of doing anything - good or bad - unless big Uncle Sam holds their hand and does it for them [says the man who believes he, and not the Hondurans risking their lives in confrontations with the military, is "doing all the heavy lifting]!

Sor ry, you win no points from me [I hadn't realised it was about "points".] with that kind of delusional and self-serving mode of thought. It's just about reinforcing your world view, isn't it? Facts be damned! You want to believe it, and therefore it is true!

I feel sorry for you. Really.

Meanwhile, we're out here 24 hours a day exposing the coup and getting the facts out there to reverse it. While you're still trying to make claims about who started it. I'll point out that all of Latin America is doing what we're doing, not what you're doing... if "doing" is a word that fits your verbose excuses for non-action on your part.

I might add…

That I posted a series of important updates about the coup today in Honduras. The post was not about what happened outside of Honduras. It was about what happened inside Honduras, breaking the media blockade, to boot.

And what do our three first commenters want to talk about?

Each one of them wanted to instruct me in one form or another that "Obama is the coup plotter."

None of them are listening to the people on the ground in Honduras. So, okay, maybe they don't speak Spanish. But I do, and I'm here translating it for them.

But they're not really interested in what is going on in Honduras unless it can show US involvement in a coup!

I talked about Chavez Derangement Syndrome in the previous post to this one.

Maybe my next should be on Obama Derangement Syndrome.

Two sides of the same coin!

My (apparently suppressed - now published) reply:

I don't see any particular need to resort to ad hominem. My point was merely that the US has provided decisive support to coups and atrocities that the US government has publicly condemned. The idea that a public condemnation of a coup by the US makes it impossible (or even improbable) that the US might be supporting a coup that happens to be very much in its interests is simply not tenable.

It's also worth keeping in mind the timing of the Obama Administration's condemnation. Initially, the only statements forthcoming from Washington were equivocal calls to respect the "democratic process" without any explicit condemnation of Zelaya's ouster. In the meantime, not only the ALBA countries, but the entire hemisphere - including the few remaining countries that don't regularly enrage the US government - unanimously condemned the coup in no uncertain terms.

Only once it was clear that the US was virtually alone in failing to issue an unequivocal condemnation did we start to hear these clear words coming from the Administration.

Does that mean that the US is definitely behind it? No, of course not. There are plenty of other possible explanations for the initial fencesitting (though I have yet to hear anyone propose one). But the suggestion that the Obama Administration, which has explicitly stated that it will continue providing military aid to the Honduran army, might be less than 100% candid, is certainly not so absurd as to warrant personal attacks against anyone who raises the question.

Thus far, your only response to the suggestion of US involvement is that US officials (eventually) made public statements condemning the coup. I do not seem to be the only one who thinks that the analysis should not end there.

Perhaps I should add that I am a native speaker of Spanish and have contact with people throughout Central America, including in Honduras, none of whom seems to consider the issue as clear cut as you seem to.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Iran and Honduras

It is hard not to be impressed by the outpouring of international online support for the people who have been braving massive state violence to protest against – now admitted – electoral fraud in Iran. The sincerity of the international supporters of the reform movement in Iran appears to me beyond doubt in most cases. Equally beyond doubt is the sheer cynicism of politicians in the US, Europe, and Israel, who now express their solidarity for the Iranian protestors despite the fact that, had they already been successful in their efforts to drum up support for another war of aggression against Iran, many of those protestors would be dead now. It also bears mentioning that these same governments not only uttered not one word of protest when the Shah’s army started opening fire on Iranian demonstrators in the 1970s – they continued to send money and weapons to their chosen dictator.

What the supporters of the Iranian demonstrators do not seem to realize, however, is that they have not one iota of influence over the actions of the Iranian government. Whatever else one can say about Iran’s current government, it is not beholden to the West (which, from the point of view of the US government, is precisely the problem). Even if the entire population of the United States and Europe took to the streets in their respective countries calling for an end to the violence against the demonstrators in Iran, the only likely reaction on the part of the Iranian government would be to increase the repression in order to get the flow of information back under control.

This stands in remarkable contrast to the case of Honduras. Two days ago, the elected president, Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, was awakened by armed soldiers in his presidential residence and abducted, and flown to Costa Rica. In blatant violation of the Honduran constitution, which prescribes a specific order of succession, Zelaya’s political rival, president of the Honduran legislature Roberto Micheletti usurped Zelaya’s office and was sworn in as president. The notorious Honduran military has declared a curfew, prohibited the transmission of international cable TV stations, and has abducted several foreign diplomats in violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. This coup d’état has been almost unanimously condemned in the hemisphere, with only the US seeking refuge in ambiguity.

There are some key similarities between the cases of Honduras and Iran. In Honduras, as in Iran, an election is at the centre; the coup appears primarily intended to prevent a non-binding consultative referendum on the convocation of a new constitutional convention (asamblea constituyente). In Honduras, as in Iran, the immunity of foreign diplomats has been flagrantly violated. In Honduras, as in Iran, those in power have imposed censorship on all independent media (some of the more powerful media outlets, as in 2002 in Venezuela, have been actively involved in the coup). In Honduras, as in Iran, people have taken to the streets and are, even now, facing off with an army that has been dispatched to shoot at its own people. The Honduran coup, like the Iranian electoral fraud and repression, has been internationally condemned.

That is where the similarity ends. Honduras, unlike Iran, was virtually a US dependency until very recently. Throughout the 1980s, the de facto ruler of Honduras was US ambassador John Negroponte, referred to in Honduras as “Proconsul” (Negroponte later went on to assume the same function in occupied Iraq). It is during this period that the current Honduran constitution, which Zelaya ultimately seeks to amend, was adopted. A minuscule domestic oligarchy, together with the US business interests that control Honduras’ natural resources, has long ruled over a crushingly poor majority. The Honduran army, which is notorious for its brutal repression of the Honduran poor, is dependent on US military aid for its weapons and a substantial part of its budget.

The events in Honduras follow a pattern that is quite familiar in Latin America. A reformist government seeking to end oligarchic rule and dependence on the United States is elected with the support of the poor majority. The US cuts off all aid apart from military aid and funding for political front organisations (e.g., the pro-coup NGO Paz y Democracia in Honduras). The military, using whatever pretext happens to be available, overthrows the elected government and restores the oligarchy and US corporations to power. The US either avoids making any direct pronouncement on the coup or rhetorically condemns it without cutting off, or even reducing, the flow of US weapons that made the coup possible. We have seen variations on this theme in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, Peru, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and, most recently, Venezuela (where the US-backed coup was defeated by a popular uprising within 48 hours). The list would be much longer if we were to include the Asian and African countries that have experienced similar US “democracy promotion” efforts.

Thus, the evidence is overwhelming that the US is behind the coup in Honduras. This means that, unlike in the case of Iran, there is some possibility that domestic and international protest could be effective. The coup would collapse almost immediately without the weapons and money provided by the United States. As a matter of consistency and of the elementary moral principle that protest should be directed toward places where it is likely to do some good, it would seem that the outcry against the coup in Honduras should be equal, if not greater, than the international protests against electoral fraud and repression in Iran. Why, then, is Iran a “trending topic” on Twitter, while Honduras is not?

Iran is an official enemy in the US and Europe. Accordingly, there is no difficulty getting negative portrayals of the country and its government through the filters of the dominant media outlets. Indeed, as the impassioned op-eds about the grave danger of Iran’s nonexistent nuclear weapons program have demonstrated, one need not even bother with the facts as long as one is condemning the Great Satan. Thus, Western governments and mainstream media have done an impressive job of getting the word out and keeping their populations focused on the events in Iran, just as they would if the same thing were happening in any other official enemy state. In the case of Honduras, on the other hand, sustained reporting and exposure are not in the interest of either the US and allied governments or the corporate media. Indeed, it would cost US business interests millions, if not more, if the coup in Honduras were to fail and the elected government restored to power.

This is not to say that the international online supporters of the reform movement in Iran are as hypocritical and cynical as the governments of the US and Western Europe. It appears clear that their concern for democracy and their outrage at the repressive tactics of the Iranian government are sincere. However, it will be up to them to prove that this is the case by directing at least some of their energies toward stopping an affront to democracy that they can actually influence.

For a detailed discussion of the Honduran coup and its background, see:

In Spanish:

Friday, 17 April 2009

On Crises, Bailouts, and Prosperity

In order to understand what is meant when élites speak of a “crisis”, the rational observer will naturally ask a few basic questions. A first enquiry would concern the situation before the current crisis: what was happening in society before the crisis was declared? By examining the status quo ante, we can gain valuable insight into what does and does not constitute a “crisis” in the minds of ruling élites. Another, related, question concerns the measures proposed and taken by government to respond to the crisis: what is done directly, and what is done indirectly? What is guaranteed, and what is left to chance? It seems entirely reasonable to assume that those things considered by a person or institution to be of crucial importance are the ones least likely to be treated as a hoped-for byproduct of that person’s or institution’s actions. One does not generally leave one’s true priorities up to chance. Further, it is instructive to ask who the principal beneficiaries of the measures taken are, and at whose expense they are taken. The fact that these questions are at best peripheral to the public debate, if they are asked at all, is instructive in and of itself.

The “Non-Crisis”

The years preceding the current crisis were characterised by two key features: increasing poverty, unemployment, and underemployment with stagnating or declining real wages, and sharp cuts in social benefits on the one side, and ever-increasing record profits and massive concentration of wealth on the other. Over 30 million Americans suffered from hunger, 12 million children were so undernourished as to severely impair their physical and mental development, 49 million Americans lacked health insurance coverage, those who did have insurance could only be sure that their “insurers” would spare no expense to deny them necessary treatment, while ever more Americans were forced to depend on various forms of predatory lending to survive. Meanwhile, corporations such as AIG benefited from the dismantlement of the regulatory framework in the form of steadily increasing profits. Economists estimate that between 1980 and 2005, approximately 20 trillion dollars were redistributed upward to the top 10% of the population by income.

This, it bears repeating, was not a “crisis”. This is what was called “prosperity”.

The “crisis” did not begin until the speculation bubble, built as it was on poorly understood, “exotic financial instruments” backed by virtually nothing, predictably popped, causing “record losses” for those who had been celebrating “record profits” for over a decade earlier.

Crisis Management

Based on the above analysis of what is and is not a “crisis” for policymakers, it is not hard to predict the official response to the current crisis. Indeed, the engineers of the crisis (including some, such as Lawrence Summers, Robert Rubin, Henry Paulson, and Timothy Geithner, who went on to become the US government's crisis managers-in-chief) were so certain of the governmental response – which has been repeated many times over the past several decades – that they took risks that would otherwise have been suicidal.

Given that the “crisis” lies not in the impoverishment of the population but in the entirely predictable consequences for the financial sector of its irresponsible (and highly profitable) conduct, the response to the crisis should come as no surprise. The immediate response has, predictably, been to pump trillions of dollars, with no conditions and no oversight, into the pockets of those largely responsible for the crisis. While the public justification for these infusions of cash has been the need to restart the flow of credit, there is no such requirement attached to the funds. While this measure has led to jubilation on the stock market, it has not – surprise, surprise – led to any significant increase in the availability of credit. While the recipients of the bailout funds have generally refused to account for their use – understandably, as they are not required to do so – it has become clear that they have generally found other places to spend their free tax money, ranging from bonuses, dividends, and mergers and acquisitions to lobbying efforts to defeat the Employee Free Choice Act, which, if passed, would be a first step toward restoring workers’ right to organise.

While one might be moved to ask how badly these companies could possibly be doing if they can afford to spend their public assistance on such things, the media and government have dedicated their energies to concentrating public attention and outrage on the executive bonuses, which make out a minuscule portion of the funds, while the Treasury Department woos investors with the offer to buy up “toxic assets” jointly with hedge funds, while guaranteeing government absorption of any losses incurred. The profitability of the speculative “investment” banks that caused the crisis, then, cannot be left up to chance.

Though the focus of the crisis management might suggest otherwise, the majority of the population has problems of its own, to which the financial sector has added rapidly increasing homelessness and unemployment. This is not to say that the problem has been entirely ignored in Washington, of course, where the Obama administration intends to spend up to $75 billion – less than half of what was paid out to AIG alone (so far!) – to help those of the millions of homeowners facing homelessness who the administration feels have bought their homes in a responsible fashion. Similarly, the administration is acting to protect US auto executives from early retirement by forcing auto industry workers – one of the few groups of workers to have even marginally effective union representation – to accept substantial cuts in pay and contribution-based health care and retirement benefits. It is, of course, only fair that those enjoying continued prosperity should make sacrifices to aid those in crisis.

The hierarchy of bailouts is telling. The speculators who are responsible for the crisis receive taxpayer funds unconditionally and without limitation. When the funds run out, as they tend to do rather quickly, they can always get more. The government protects them from the risks inherent in the highly profitable “toxic assets” they created. The only apparent criterion for receiving these funds is that recipients must be partially at fault for the crisis. When auto executives need assistance, the government is rather less forthcoming. The major auto companies must first submit a plan for the use of the government funds, and be accountable for their proper use. Of course, this is not too onerous a burden for the auto executives, as the “recovery plan” required imposes the bulk of the burdens on the auto workers (the only people whose pay and benefits have been cut as a result of this crisis). Though this is certainly not as good a deal as was offered to the principal architects of the crisis, it isn’t all that bad, either. All that is required is a plan for the future that imposes the burdens squarely on the workers.

For the millions of homeowners facing homelessness due to fraudulent loans offered by shady subsidiaries of “reputable” financial institutions, on the other hand, the situation is rather less rosy. In order to get a piece of the much smaller pie theoretically available to them, homeowners must prove – how is anyone’s guess – that they were not irresponsible in buying their homes. While it may seem a bit odd at first glance to impose such a condition on the main victims of the crisis and not on the architects of the crisis, it actually makes perfect sense: no financial institution or investment banker could possibly meet the burden imposed on homeowners by the Obama administration. If a homeowner facing foreclosure cannot satisfy the government that her past conduct was responsible, her only recourse is to find space in America’s growing tent cities. No plan for the future use of government funds is good enough.

As harsh as the administration’s treatment of soon-to-be-former homeowners is, the rest of the population can expect even less. At best, the Obama administration’s stimulus package will replace the underpaid, non-union, and generally shitty jobs they lost with new underpaid, non-union, generally shitty jobs. For those lucky enough to get one. As much as the Obama campaign talked about passing the Employee Free Choice Act, the Obama administration has been at pains to make it clear that EFCA is not currently on the agenda. This means that union organisation, one of the few effective ways in which workers can improve their wages and working conditions, will remain beyond the reach of most of the population. Similarly, the millions (insured and uninsured) nearing bankruptcy under the weight of health care expenses, can be sure that the one reform that they almost unanimously demand – single-payer health care – is, in the words of one Obama spokesperson, “off the table”. Nor, in our current era of “Billion? Trillion? Who’s counting anymore?” is the subject of student loan and consumer debt forgiveness, which would substantially increase the buying power of the average American and provide a powerful demand-based stimulus to the economy, even mentioned.

To put it in the language of our Orwellian times, then, most Americans will continue to experience unabated prosperity, undisturbed by government interference.

If we were to assume that the crisis consisted of something other than a mere predictable drop in profitability on the part of an industry that produces nothing but profits for itself, a completely different crisis management strategy would emerge. The first priority would be to ensure that no one loses their home or income, or has their utilities shut off, as a result of the conduct of unaccountable institutions that have been allowed to gain control of the economy. FDR did this in the 1930s simply by decreeing a moratorium on foreclosures, evictions, and utility shutoffs. The second priority would be to conduct a massive investigation into the activities that led to this mess, including mortgage-trail audits of all mortgages involved and a full-scale SEC audit of the institutions involved, steps that have thus far been assiduously avoided by the Bush and Obama administrations. Simultaneously, the state could acquire controlling shares in the relevant institutions and use those controlling shares to save the viable and useful segments of the institutions (if any), while letting the remainder go bankrupt (a tactic that would also neatly resolve the bonus issue). Once the situation has been stabilised, the viable portions of the banks could be broken down into small, manageable, locally accountable units, and regulations could be (re-)enacted to ensure that no financial institution ever becomes “too big to fail”.

It all depends on what one considers a crisis.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

"An Open Letter To A Citizen Of Gaza : I Am the Soldier Who Slept In Your Home " (Parody)

Today, I happened upon this gem, which I sincerely hope is not what it purports to be. In it, the author, an IDF soldier who, by his own admission, used the home of a Gazan civilian as a military position, brings new meaning to the phrase "adding insult to injury". This is not, as one might hope, an apology for the appalling state in which the attacking Israeli army left the civilian homes it requisitioned (racist graffiti and other vandalism are the norm), but rather a truly nauseating exercise in self-pity and self-righteousness, in which this (probably) teenage soldier presumes to lecture an entire people about proper behaviour and who their "real enemy" is. After barely managing to prevent every meal I have eaten in the past month from coming up at once, I wrote this:



Perhaps you don’t remember me. I’m the nice young man who kicked down your bedroom door and ordered you to “Get the fuck outta here!”, but faces are hard to remember, I understand, and you seemed much more interested in the barrel of my Galil assault rifle. You Arabs and your weapons fetish!

I thought you might not remember me, so I decided during my off hours to leave you a little memento, as a contribution to understanding between my innocent, noble people, and your almost human people. I really mean that, too! You really are just THIS close to humanity. To the left of the living room window that I expanded for you, I drew a little self-portrait, just so you’d remember me. It’s the one right over the line saying “Arabs into the ovens!” , the stick figure taking a shit on a Palestinian flag. I noticed that you have – or should I say, had – a very nice collection of paintings hanging on your wall. I love art, too! It’s so nice to know that we can connect on these little things.

I just want you to know that I really don’t have anything personal against you people. I think that with a little evolution and a little culling of the herd, you might even be acceptable for continued existence on Earth! My CO always tells me I’m a “rosy-eyed optimist”, but I don’t think that “subhuman” means “subhuman forever”. But I really can’t get past the great resentment I feel at having had to blow up that school where those people were taking refuge. If only you loved your children as much as you hate ours…or whatever it was that Golda Meir once said.

I know, I know: you’re thinking “If you’re such a great guy, why did you shit all over my living room?” How typical of you people not to notice that I put it all together in a neat pile and even put a little piece of paper over it saying “WATCH YOUR STEP”! And in case that isn’t enough to make you appreciate the agony I went through during our latest heart-wrenching exercise of our right to self-defence, I just want you to know that I didn’t shoot your cat for fun. I love cats. No, I shot it out of peer pressure. The guys and I were bored one afternoon when we were almost certain there wasn’t another living being left in your neighbourhood, and they dared me to do it. It seems sad now, I know, but just think of all the cats that have now been freed of their previous families. You’ll find a new one in no time!

I like to think that I have a special sort of empathy for your people. My great-grandfather was in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Of course, the situation is totally different. His desire to resist being slaughtered made him a hero, while yours makes you terrorists.

Ahh, I would love to just muse with you on the ironies of history someday, maybe over coffee and that shisha crap you Arabs like so much, but I have a feeling you won’t accept my olive branch. In fact, I have a distinct feeling that right now you’re thinking “Who does this inarticulate teenager think he is lecturing someone 30 years his senior on good behaviour and gratitude?”

But let’s face it: if you people had gone just a little bit farther away back in 1948 and 1967, we wouldn’t be having all these troubles. We’d have left you alone long ago if you’d just left. You had the chance to be free of our “oppression” just by running as far as you possibly could. You people really never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity! But since you’re here, we’ve felt a need to care for you. You seemed to be developing an obesity problem in Gaza (3 out of 5 adults with a triple-digit weight in pounds!), so we put you on a diet. When your complete lack of self-control caused you to start digging tunnels to smuggle things in that we were keeping away from you in your best interest, we helped you understand that that was the wrong thing to do. And what did you do in response? You lobbed makeshift explosives at areas near where our people lived! The nerve of you people, the gall! If you’re going to lob explosives at us, make sure the fucking things are name-brand and actually work! Anything less is an insult. All we want is peace and to be rid of you peace, and we will be happy to make peace with you the minute your culture evolves to the point where you are capable of it.

Please, try to keep a sense of proportion in your indignity. You may have lost over 1,300 friends, family members, and neighbours because of us, but I lost my INNOCENCE because of you!


Anonymous soldier who spent an agonising week in your flat.

PS. I really didn’t enjoy leaving your refrigerator open, dropping a lit cigarette on that lovely rug you had, tearing holes in every cushion and pillow in your house, and leaving several pairs of dirty underwear on your dinner table. It was just the necessity of war. I will be in therapy for years over the things I was honour- and duty-bound to do to you, your family, and your people. So often, I wished I could just disappear from the whole thing. But then a pedestrian would come into my sights, and I would wipe away a tear and blow his head off. If you only knew how painful my lot in life is!