Focal Points Blog

Israel to Rattle Its Saber a Little Less?

Dagan and Netanyahu(Pictured: Retiring Mossad chief Meir Dagan and Israeli President Netanyahu.)

Plucked from the Tweet-sphere:

@TonyKaron: Israel now says Iran wont have nukes before 2015. Does this mean Spring 2011 war is off?

The esteemed journalist Tony Karon, one-time ANC activist in South Africa, is now a senior editor at Time. He links to a Haaretz article that begins:

Meir Dagan, who retired from his post as Mossad chief on Thursday after eight years, does not believe Iran will have nuclear capability before 2015.

In a summary given to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Dagan said Iran was a long way from being able to produce nuclear weapons, following a series of failures that had set its program back by several years.

In essence, he’s patting himself on the back.

Dagan’s term centered around two main issues: the Iranian nuclear program; and the assassinations of Hezbollah and Hamas leaders and Iranian scientists, most if not all of which have been attributed to the Mossad.

The Israeli intelligence community’s assessments of Iran’s nuclear capability have changed during Dagan’s tenure. . . . These adjustments were not the result of mistaken evaluations, but due to the difficulties Iran has encountered in advancing its program, largely because of the Mossad’s efforts.

Now, switching into Andy Rooney mood, ever wonder what exactly saber rattling means? Unless it’s defective, a saber (or sabre) has no moving parts and, when brandished, should make no sound. Theoretically, saber-rattling doesn’t even cut it (sorry, couldn’t resist) as a display. In fact, it can’t even be called all-bark-no-bite since there’s no real bark.

Nevertheless, phantom sounds or no, these days saber-rattling elicits its intended response of rallying like-minded souls to a cause.

An Opening for Progressives? Obama to Step up Outreach to Africa in 2011

Earlier this week, the AP reported that Obama is

[Q]uietly but strategically stepping up his outreach to Africa, using this year to increase his engagement with a continent that is personally meaningful to him and important to U.S. interests.

This story and the statement from Obama represent an opening for progressives in the United States. and in Africa to begin to push the Obama Administration on its short-sighted Africa policy. The last two years have been more or less a honeymoon where folks were so enthralled by a son of Africa in the White House that there was not enough hard criticism of the Administration’s policies, which continued rather seamlessly from Bush.

As you know, extractive industries – oil, gas and mining remain the dominant lens through which U.S.-Africa policy is set. AFRICOM and the expansion of U.S. militarism in Africa is a tool through which the United States can secure its narrow interests in Africa’s resources. In addition, the Obama Administration is pushing hard on its “Feed the Future” Initiative – which translates on the ground into land grabs for biofuels and genetically modified foods.

The key in the coming year will be the degree to which progressives can position ourselves to challenge harmful policies while pushing forward alternatives on food sovereignty (local food), land rights, human rights, environmental justice, economic justice (debt cancellation) and peace (stop the flow of weapons and military contractors). Many of these themes will be featured at the World Social Forum in Senegal next month.

The article focuses on elections noting that,

The administration is monitoring more than 30 elections expected across Africa this year, including critical contests in Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

Out of the 30, there will be 12 key elections in Africa this year (including the referendum in Sudan and Presidential elections in Nigeria, Uganda, Liberia – all of whom now have oil). This will bring more sustained mainstream media coverage to Africa than in other years.

An Obama trip to Africa will intensify that coverage. Rumors are flying as to where Obama will go and when. My bet is on the UNFCCC which will be in South Africa in December.

But Big Oil and other powerful U.S. companies and the negative impact of U.S. guns and training will remain a serious challenge to peace and stability on the continent.

WikiLeaks XXVIII: Organized Crime Squeezing the Life Out of Bulgaria

Bulgarian crime bosses the Galevi brothers(Pictured: Bulgarian crime bosses the Galevi brothers.)

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the twenty-eighth in the series.

A series of US cables WikiLeaked during the closing weeks of 2010 paint a discouraging portrait of the political economy in Bulgaria. In particular, the cables highlight the dispiriting degree to which organized crime has come to dominate the country, and the increasing frustration experienced by the country’s European neighbors with Bulgaria’s half-measure to combat mafia influence over society.

Crime’s grip over Bulgarian society is hardly news. Writing a decade ago, Robert Kaplan described the evolution of the country’s tradition of organized crime. Discussing former satellite states of Soviet Russia, Kaplan notes that

By the 1980s, communist parties had evolved largely into large-scale mafias which, when the system collapsed, simply divided into smaller mafias that purchased politicians in all those new and weak democracies…Nowhere, however, were such phenomena so transparent as in Bulgaria when I visited in 1998…Bulgarian crime has no centuries-old tradition like Italy’s, or even one of heroic thieves and warrior clans as in Russia, Serbia, or Albania. Nor is there the colorful ethnic ingredient here that distinguishes criminal circles in the Caucasus, particularly in Georgia and Chechnya, with their family mafias and highwaymen. The Bulgarian groupings essentially are the result of the transition from communist totalitarianism to parliamentary democracy.

But the cables released this past month reveal just how bad the mafias have headlocked the country’s economic and political development. The first cable, dating from 2005, plainly states that

The strength and immunity from the law of organized crime (OC) groups is arguably the most serious problem in Bulgaria today…OC groups range from local street thugs involved in extortion to sophisticated international narcotic dealers and money launderers. An estimated 118 organized crime groups were operating in Bulgaria at the end of 2004…though many of these groups are relatively small and the landscape is dominated by a handful of big players. Organized crime continues to be pervasive in many spheres of Bulgarian life, despite domestic and international efforts to combat it. To date, not a single major OC figure has been punished by the Bulgarian legal system, despite an on-going series of OC-related assassinations.

The scale and scope of mafia activity in Bulgaria is staggering.

OC groups are known to be involved in narcotics trafficking, prostitution, extortion and racketeering, various financial crimes, car theft, and trafficking in stolen automobiles. Human trafficking for sexual exploitation, counterfeiting, and debit and credit card fraud also are some of the most common criminal activities engaged in by Bulgarian organized crime. Crime groups involved in human trafficking are extremely mobile, and victims are often sold or traded amongst various groups. Many groups use a host of legitimate businesses domestically and abroad to launder the proceeds of their illegal activities. Several well-known businessmen linked to organized crime have parlayed their wealth into ownership of sports teams, property developments, and financial institutions. (An organized crime activity that received special attention due to its growth in 2004 was VAT (value-added tax) fraud. The Ministry of Finance estimated that VAT fraud cost the Bulgarian treasury over $700 million in losses annually.)

The seizure of Bulgaria’s political institutions by mafia groups, however, offers the most alarming evidence of Bulgaria’s troubles.

Organized crime has a corrupting influence on all Bulgarian institutions, including the government, parliament and judiciary. In an attempt to maintain their influence regardless of who is in power, OC figures donate to all the major political parties. As these figures have expanded into legitimate businesses, they have attempted — with some success — to buy their way into the corridors of power. During the 2001 general elections, a number of influential “businessmen,” including XXXXXXXXXXXX and XXXXXXXXXXXX, heavily financed and otherwise supported the XXXXXXXXXXXX campaign.

Below the level of the national government and the leadership of the major political parties, OC owns a number of municipalities and individual members of parliament. This direct participation in politics — as opposed to bribery — is a relatively new development for Bulgarian OC. XXXXXXXXXX Similarly in the regional center of XXXXXXXXXXX, OC figures control the municipal council and the mayor’s office. Nearly identical scenarios have played out in half a dozen smaller towns and villages across Bulgaria.

The problems with organized crime in Bulgaria have exacerbated Sofia’s relationship with Brussels, as a cable dating from mid-2009 and released this past week makes clear. Discussing the relationship between the European Commission and the Bulgarian government, the cable relates that a confidential source

told us that the Commission feels they have “tried everything” to make the Bulgarians reform their judicial system, but concluded “how do you make them reform when they do not want to?” The government’s defensive arrogance — and lack of political will — is intensifying enlargement fatigue in Brussels.

With respect to a commission report on Bulgaria’s efforts to combat the influence of crime in the country, the cable notes

The Bulgarian government — especially PG Velchev and European Minister Passy — are lobbying heavily for a positive monitoring report, magnifying modest progress. The government keeps presenting the Commission a list of on-going high profile organized crime and corruption court cases (the number has grown from 30 to 52 over the last two and a half years) as “successes.” Incredibly, several of the “success” cases have been suspended. Several other cases, against notorious shady businessmen Angel Khristov and Plamen Galev AKA the Galevi brothers, and others can hardly be called successes as these defendants gained immunity by running for parliament. XXXXXXXXXXXX said the team found this “loophole” quite disturbing, along with how some Bulgarian officials vehemently defend the law that permits this phenomenon. Along with the “Galevization” of politics (referring to the Galevi brothers election campaign), Brussels is also concerned with vote buying and general election fraud.

The cable concludes with the observation that their EU source’s

frustration with the Bulgarian government’s lame and insincere reform efforts was striking. It appears to be spreading in Brussels where at least the working level appears to be feeling “buyer’s remorse” over letting Bulgaria and Romania into the club too early. According to reliable contacts, Brussels Eurocrats have dubbed enlargement fatigue the “Bulgarian Break,” further tarnishing Bulgaria’s bad image within the EU.

Not only have crime groups infiltrated Bulgaria’s highest political institutions, but they have also effectively destroyed the country’s national pastime, according to a cable released this week that dates from January 2010.

Since the fall of Communism, Bulgarian soccer has become a symbol of organized crime’s corrupt influence on important institutions. Bulgarian soccer clubs are widely believed to be directly or indirectly controlled by organized crime figures who use their teams as way to legitimize themselves, launder money, and make a fast buck. Despite rampant rumors of match fixing, money laundering, and tax evasion, there have been few arrests or successful prosecutions. As a result, the public has lost faith in the legitimacy of the league as evidenced by the drop in television ratings and match attendance. Recent scandals involving the most popular teams and the mass firing of the referee selection commission for a second consecutive year have deepened the public’s disgust.

It isn’t only that the teams are controlled by the mafias; the games themselves are often rigged.

Long-standing allegations of match fixing have probably done the most to damage Bulgarian soccer’s reputation. According to the sports editor of the daily “Trud,” Vladimir Pamukov, and sports journalist, Krum Savov, the most common match fixing schemes are bribing referees and paying off players on the opposing club to insure a team loses by a certain score. They argue that thanks to organized crime influences and economic disparity between the teams, match fixing has become an extremely common practice. This has caused many Bulgarians to view the outcomes of soccer matches like Americans view the predetermined outcomes of professional wrestling.

It’s no wonder, then—given the country’s hopelessly corrupt political institutions, suffering economy, and fraudulent football leagues—that Bulgaria ranks dead last on a global happiness survey, according to the Economist, as the saddest place on earth.

Should Progressives Concern Themselves With Defense Strategy and Line Items?

Littoral Combat Ship(Pictured: The Littoral Combat Ship.)

The Progressive Realist re-posted an essential piece by Robert Farley of Lawyers, Guns and Money. Prompted by the Defense Department’s purchase of the controversial Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), he reiterates his position that “progressives consistently underestimate the importance of discussions about military doctrine and technology.” Farley explains (emphasis added).

I believe that, right now, progressives have evacuated the field on questions of military doctrine and technology (with a couple of important exceptions, as noted below), leaving the conversation to conservatives and “centrists”. Effectively, this means that the “left” side of the US debate on the composition (rather than the size) of the defense budget is represented by people like Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, or (at very best) by the folks at the Center for American Progress. . . .

Progressives should start making arguments framed around the question of whether or not the F-35 (or the LCS, or whatever you feel like) is the kind of weapon that could underpin a progressive vision of US foreign policy. . . .

Finally, I think that we are approaching a political reality in which real cuts to defense spending will become possible, and that staking out genuinely progressive positions on issues of military doctrine and technology actually have a chance of affecting the composition of US military forces. . . . I think it’s very important that progressives start thinking through the details of defense issues now.

Most progressives are allergic to weapons. With a few exceptions, such as William Hartung (whose new book Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex, has just been published), we find it counterintuitive to immerse ourselves in the details of defense acquisition, not to mention “war-fighting” (sorry, I’m incapable of typing that without adding quotes) strategy. Do Focal Points readers agree with Robert Farley that, indeed, it’s exactly the kind of work we should be doing?

Will U.S. Use Punjab Governor’s Death as Pretext for More Drone Attacks?

Taseer assassinationOn Tuesday morning, the reports of Salman Taseer’s assassination topped headlines around the world. Taseer, the governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, had been killed by one of his own security guards in a market in Islamabad. The assassination comes amidst mounting political chaos in Pakistan, marked by the instability of the government’s ruling coalition and the increasing prominence of Islamist opposition to the country’s secular leaders.

In its initial coverage of these developments, the mainstream press has drawn attention to many issues, including the price of fuel, which was the immediate cause of the defection of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, or MQM, from Prime Minister Gilani’s ruling coalition, and Taseer’s opposition to a blasphemy law, which imposes a death sentence against those who insult Islam. But one thing the mainstream press has not addressed is the U.S. war in the Af-Pak region. Following the coverage of Taseer’s death, you would not even know that such a war existed.

This is a remarkable omission in light of how the strategic focus of the U.S./NATO war has shifted from Afghanistan to Pakistan in the last year, as evidenced by the latest progress report on the war and the current pressures being placed on Pakistan to cooperate with the U.S. agenda. In 2010, there were 118 drone attacks along the border between Afghan and Pakistan, mostly in North Waziristan, more than double the number in 2009.

What Guardian reporter Mehdi Hasan and others have called “the year of the drone” was neglected by The New York Times, which did not even report the drone attacks that killed over 65 people in the last ten days of 2010.

Although readers of the Times may not have the full story, the drone attacks and the U.S. influence on the ruling coalition are a key part of Pakistan’s political landscape. At a recent press conference in Peshawar, Nek Zaman, who heads the group Jamiar Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) in the federally administered tribal areas, denounced the drone war, which killed 800 civilians in the last year: “Those claiming to be part of the civilized world and human rights organizations should take note of the gross violation of human rights and killing of innocent women, children and elderly and raise their voices for an immediate halt to the drone attacks.”

JUI-F is just the latest political group in Pakistan to condemn the drone attacks. By most accounts, the Pakistani populace opposes the U.S. intervention and the ruling coalition that supports it. They see it not only as an attack on their sovereignty, but also an act of humiliation against Muslims.

On Monday, State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley insisted that the current parliamentary crisis is about “internal politics within Pakistan.” If only the line between domestic and foreign policy were that clear. As Anatol Lieven wrote in The Nation, U.S. pressure on Pakistan has contributed to the instability of the Pakistani state. According to Lieven, it has also contributed to the rise of Islamism within Pakistan: “More than any other factor, it is our campaign in Afghanistan that has radicalized Pakistanis and turned many of them not only against the West but against their own government and ruling system. In the worst case, the consequence of Western actions could be to destroy Pakistan as a state and produce a catastrophe that would reduce the problems in Afghanistan to insignificance by comparison.”

In the days ahead, official spokespeople and supporters of the unofficial surge in Pakistan will no doubt condemn Taseer’s assassination, lament the rise of Islamist sentiment in Pakistan, and emphasize the importance of stability there. In hawkish national security circles, the assassination will serve as cause for increasing the U.S. military presence in order to ensure stability in the region. In Tea Party circles, a new round of anti-Muslim speak will use Taseer’s death to support claims about the dangers of radical Islam to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. None of this rhetoric will acknowledge the role of the U.S. in fostering the very climate it claims to be fighting against.

If these voices have their way, the drones will go on and Lindsey Graham will have his wish of permanent bases in Afghanistan fulfilled.

It’s curious how the power of U.S. foreign policy to disrupt and destabilize the Af-Pak region can be so de-emphasized while at the same time its power to change the region for the better can be so exaggerated.

What Would It Take for Americans to React Like “Gaza Youth Breaks Out”?

Gaza Youth Breaks Out(Pictured: Gaza Youth Breaks Out’s logo.)

“F**k Hamas. F**k Israel. F**k Fatah. F**k UN. F**k UNWRA. F**k USA! We, the youth in Gaza, are so fed up with Israel, Hamas, the occupation, the violations of human rights and the indifference of the international community!” Thus begins the Gaza Youth’s Manifesto for Change, as posted on Gaza Youth Breaks Out Facebook page, which over 8,000 Facebook users “like.” As the Guardian reports, the document details “the daily humiliations and frustrations that constitute everyday life in the Gaza Strip.”

Equal-opportunity dissidents, the members of Gaza Youth Breaks Out are almost as outraged by the heavy hand of Hamas as by Israeli oppression.

We barely survived the Operation Cast Lead. . . . During the last years, Hamas has been doing all they can to control our thoughts, behaviour and aspirations. Here in Gaza we are scared of being incarcerated, interrogated, hit, tortured, bombed, killed. We cannot move as we want, say what we want, do what we want.

Recent months have seen the emergence of another unlikely source of outrage: 93-year-old former French Resistance fighter and Buchenwald survivor Stéphane Hessel. His slim volume — actually a long essay — Indignez-vous! (Get indignant!) has spent two months atop French bestseller lists. Another Guardian article reports:

Hessel’s book argues that French people should re-embrace the values of the French resistance, which have been lost, which was driven by indignation, and French people need to get outraged again.

Among his personal hot-button issues:

. . . the growing gap between the very rich and the very poor, France’s shocking treatment of its illegal immigrants, the need to re-establish a free press, protecting the environment, the plight of Palestinians and the importance of protecting the French welfare system.

It’s easy to lament how sad it is that Western public needs to be told to become indignant. But one might look at someone in Hessel’s position — not exactly the French Michael Moore, he once served as his country’s ambassador to the United Nations — as providing the populace with the permission it subconsciously feels it needs to express outrage.

Allow me to qualify that by explaining that the disinclination of 90% of the population to refrain from rebellion does not make them sheep. They may just be hard-wired to support the society and government into which they’re born. In his version of the the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, nutritionist and renaissance man Gary Null called them “adaptive-supportives.” That’s not so bad, is it? (For more, see my January 2010 piece for Scholars & Rogues Is apathy socially redeeming?)

But do Westerners, Americans especially, and not just youth, but adults, need to be reduced to straits as dire as the Palestinians in Gaza before they react as Gaza Youth Speak Out did?

One-time neocon Francis Fukuyama, the celebrated political economist who has since turned his attention to the subject of wealth inequality, wrestles with why Americans endure what we do without fighting back in the January-February issue of the American Interest. Note that, in the passage that follows, when he refers to the left he means moderates such as Obama supporters, not true progressives. Here is, to Fukuyama, the “paramount puzzle.”

Why has a significant increase in income inequality in recent decades failed to generate political pressure from the left for redistributional redress, as similar trends did in earlier times? Instead, insofar as there is any populism bubbling from below in America today it comes from the Right, and its target is not just the “undeserving rich”—Wall Street “flip-it” shysters and their ilk—but, even more so, government policies intended to protect Americans from their predations. . . . Within a year of Barack Obama’s inauguration, the most energized and angry people on the American political scene were not the homeowners with subprime mortgages who faced foreclosure as a result of the crisis, but rather those who faulted the government for taking steps to protect those homeowners, and to prevent the crisis from deepening. It was a strange phenomenon that saw many of those most deeply injured by the crisis become, in effect, objective allies of those who caused it.

This, then, is the contemporary context in which we raise the question of plutocracy in America: Why, given the economic history of the past thirty years, have we not seen the emergence of a powerful left-wing political movement seeking fairer distribution of growth? [Operative word: powerful. -- RW] . . . How can it be that large numbers of congressional Democrats and arguably the most socially liberal President in American history are now seriously considering extending, and even making permanent, the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003? Is this not prima facie evidence of plutocracy?

In an outstanding article at Huffington Post titled The Poorhouse: Aunt Winnie, Glenn Beck, And The Politics Of The New Deal, Arthur Delaney and Ryan Grim provide a clue. (Emphasis added.)

[President Franklin] Roosevelt came into office a deficit hawk, pushed to balance the budget and cut federal worker pay. He quickly realized his error and turned around. He had the room to maneuver, however, because poverty had become so widespread that it lost its stigma. It could finally be addressed with a level head rather than a wag of the finger.

Before then, however, the nation was just prosperous enough for those with a little to look down upon those with less.

In other words, the United States hasn’t been reduced to the circumstances that many lived under during the Depression, nor under which the elderly once routinely lived. Delaney and Grim again.

Though there were no national measurements, in surveys taken between 1925 and 1932 in Connecticut, New York and Wisconsin, nearly half of elderly people lived on less than $25 per month, which survey administrators deemed “insufficient subsistence income.” A third in Connecticut had no income at all. An attempt to quantify elderly poverty in 1939, deep into the depression, using census data, found the rate may have been close to 80 percent.

The day that poverty loses its stigma doesn’t, of course, mean that it’s become acceptable. It’s just that it’s become pervasive to the point we can no longer indulge in denial that we’re about to be overtaken by it too. It’s the same with, say, warrantless surveillance. Until the day comes when many of us are actually dragged from our homes and taken into custody, we’ll remain in denial that our rights are being systematically abrogated. However tired, the metaphor of the boiling frog demands to be trotted out again: by the time we decide we’ve had enough, it’s too late.

WikiLeaks XXVII: Ahmadinejad’s About-Face Prompts Slap in the Face

Ahmadinejad, Jafari(Pictured: President Ahmadinejad and Revolutionary Guard Chief of Staff Mohammed Ali Jafari in happier times.)

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the twenty-seventh in the series.

Of all the bizarre and intriguing information collected by US intelligence and revealed by the recent dump of WikiLeaked cables, none has been as surprising as a cable published on Jan. 3 by the German newspaper Der Spiegel. The dispatch, written this past February, relates details of a meeting amongst Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. The council met to discuss next steps in dealing with an Iranian population still reeling from state repression from the previous summer when citizens took to the streets to protest an obviously corrupted election.

Ahmadinejad, not exactly known for his open-minded disposition,

surprised other SNSC members by taking a surprisingly liberal posture during a mid January post-Ashura meeting of the SNSC called to discuss next steps on dealing with opposition protests. Source said that Ahmedinejad claimed that “people feel suffocated,” and mused that to defuse the situation it may be necessary to allow more personal and social freedoms, including more freedom of the press.

The suggestion didn’t go over so well with those in attendance.

According to source, Ahmedinejad’s statements infuriated Revolutionary Guard Chief of Staff Mohammed Ali Jafari, who exclaimed “You are wrong! (In fact) it is YOU who created this mess! And now you say give more freedom to the press?!”

In a flash of fury,

Jafarli then slapped Ahmedinejad in the face, causing an uproar and an immediate call for a break in the meeting, which was never resumed. Source said that SNSC did not meet again for another two weeks, after Ayatollah Janati succesfully acted as a “peacemaker” between Jafarli and Ahmedinejad.

While peace in the short-term may have been achieved between the two leaders, the cable goes on to report that

both sides are digging in for new confrontations, while various sub-groups maneuver. He stressed the importance of recent speeches by Karroubi and Khatami to the effect that Ahmedinejad will not be able finish his term, and that Supreme Leaders should not take partisan political sides. He stressed that “Karroubi chooses each word carefully,” and said the recent speeches reflect an ongoing effort to split Khameini from the Ahmedinejad group. Source described the overall political situation within and without the political elite as “getting worse and worse.” xxxxx opined that this situation (of protests and instability) cannot be sustained indefinitely, and predicted that events are trending towards major developments and a new phases. Asked what Iran will likely look like over the next year, he responded “ask me after 22 Bahman (February 11).”

As that draws near, Iranian politics continues to experience turbulence. Recent weeks have witnessed major reshufflings in Ahmadinejad’s inner circle. After the Iranian parliament jettisoned the president from the governing board of Iran’s central bank, Ahmadinejad has purged key members from positions of authority throughout his government. The highest-profile sacking was that of Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, but in a more sweeping move on Jan. 2, Ahmadinejad fired fourteen of his most senior advisors from their posts. It isn’t immediately clear whether the move was political in nature or not, but according to the Times of India, the “dismissals appeared to signal a rift at the top levels of the Iranian leadership, pitting the president against rival conservatives.”

Inspiring Story of Tunisian Protests Ignored by Washington

Ben Ali, Sarkozy(Pictured: Tunisian President Ben Ali and French President Sarkozy.)

1. They Just Don’t Stop Protesting
Not even torture, which is rampant, or live bullets, which the Tunisian authorities are using with greater frequency, stop them.

It is more than two weeks since a distraught and unemployed young university graduate, Mohammed Bouazizi, sat down in front of the town hall in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, poured gasoline on himself and lit a match. Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation and protest against Tunisia’s high unemployment, rampant corruption and decades of repression by the government of Zine Ben Ali triggered a protest movement, first in the country’s center and south, but now virtually everywhere, including the capital, Tunis.

Unwilling to admit how his own regime has contributed to the crisis, Ben Ali, predictably blames the protests on ‘radical elements,’ ‘chaos mongers’ ( an interesting and empty phrase) and ‘a minority of mercenaries’ rather than on the policies Tunisia has implemented during his 23 years in power.

Neither the intervention of the Tunisian security forces and army using live ammunition nor Zine Ben Ali’s sacking of 4 members of his cabinet combined with promises of a $5 billion state jobs program has stopped the wave of anger and protest, which at the time of this writing (January 2, 2011) continues and is more and more taking the form of a national uprising. While some property has been destroyed, the overwhelming amount of violence has come from the state and the security forces. Virtually all of the demonstrations have been peaceful to date. That said, the economic grievances which fueled the initial outbursts now have a more political aspect to them as more and more voices within Tunisia outside of the ruling party, the Rassemblement Constitutionelle Democratique (RCD), are calling for Ben Ali and his increasingly influential wife, Leila Trabelsi, to step down and relinquish power.

Ben Ali is giving no indication of stepping down. He has combined increased repression on the one hand with a media campaign and promises of economic and social reform on the other. Ben Ali is gambling that the protests, which seem to be led mostly by unemployed youth as well as some elements of Tunisian’s student and labor movement, are a spontaneous expression of frustration that will fizzle sooner rather than later. While this might be the case, it appears that broad sectors of Tunisian society are more supportive of the protestors than the government and that Ben Ali’s promised reforms are too little too late. Even if he is able to maintain his grip on power for the moment, his social base support has narrowed to the military, police and security apparatus, along with the support of a few key European governments, France key among them.

2. The United States Remains Silent
The United States State Department remains silent in face of the Tunisian protests. Since the protests began on December 17, 2010, there has been little media coverage in the mainstream US media, virtually nothing on mainstream television, nothing in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, or for that matter even Democracy Now! This is in sharp contrast with the European, North African and Middle Eastern media where theTunisian protests have become big news. In two articles in the British Guardian, columnist Brian Whitaker calls the Tunisian protests the ‘most important and most inspiring story from the Middle East this year’. In another story a few days earlier, he wrote a scathing critique of the Tunisian government commenting at the end that Ben Ali’s days in power are probably numbered.

The Obama Administration’s failure to comment on the Tunisian events is another indication of its more general hypocrisy when it comes to supporting human rights in Middle East countries. It is not that the administration is unaware of the situation in the country. The WikiLeaks cables concerning Tunisia, from a former US ambassador to the State Department, contained very explicit and damning information, detailing the repressive environment in the country and the rampant corruption, most especially of the families of President Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi, at one point labeling the regime as a ‘kleptocracy’.

So why the measured silence by the Nobel Peace Prize winner?

A number of factors come into place, central among them, the Obama Administration is wary about opening up another front of social unrest with Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia on its hands. If Washington has no particular love for Ben Ali, still they worry about a replacement, wanting one that would, like Ben Ali and Bourguiba before him, support US strategic policy in the Middle East and Africa, who will cooperate with NATO and AFRICOM as Ben Ali has. It would not be the first time that the Obama Administration has thrown a U.S. commitment to human rights concerns to the winds to maintain strategic support for this or that tyrant.

There are also economic considerations. Tunisia has been played up as an IMF-World Bank poster child, an example of how following ‘the Washington Consensus’, — i.e., the IMF structural adjustment program — leads to success. Except it didn’t. Take for example Tunisia’s rush to privatization, one of the IMF’s sacred cows — you know, that line of reasoning made popular by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, that somehow the private sector sector can conduct business better than the state. According to the dogma, privatization is supposed to lead to increased competitiveness and greater efficiencies. Perhaps under certain (increasingly rare) circumstances the logic works.

But in Tunisia – as in many other places, privatization became a means of the two ruling families, the Ben Alis and Trabelsis, to buy up state property at bargain basement prices and make a financial killing. It did not lead to a growth of Tunisian entrepreneurship, but simply to a greater concentration of economic power in the hands of the two families, and the corruption involved was so bad that even the U.S. ambassador (in a WikiLeaks cable) was embarrassed.

Yet despite the current economic crisis, which these structural adjustment programs only exacerbated, the IMF continues to pressure Tunisia to ‘stay the course’…cut remaining subsidies on basic food stuffs and fuel, privatize its social security system and open up its financial sector even further. And once again, the IMF is oblivious to how those policies have only deepened the socio-economic crisis in the country and that an entirely different economic strategy is in order.

3. ‘Most Inspiring Story Coming Out Of The Middle East This Year’
There is another reason for Washington’s hesitancy, call it ‘revolutionary contagion’ …what starts in one place, as in the strategically not particularly important Tunisia, could spread to…Egypt, Saudi Arabia and who knows where else. Signs abound. Just to the west, Algerians are protesting inadequate housing that they have been promised for years. Although current turmoil in Egypt appears to center around the bombing of a Coptic Church, with accusations of the hand of al Qaeda in the attack, under the surface, for all its differences with Tunisia, Egypt too is facing serious socio-economic problems.

And throughout the Middle East, governments are nervous. The Iranian and Syrian press have commented on Tunisia’s unemployment and corruption problems, as if they too don’t have to deal with similar drawbacks. Saudi commentators (of all people) are lecturing Ben Ali on the need for democracy, etc. Throughout the region among the ruling elites there is the growing concern that the Tunisian protests could spread to their countries. And they have reason for concern, for despite many differences, unemployment, corruption and dictatorship are by no means limited to Tunisia.

So already, ‘the Tunisian example’ in two short weeks has spread beyond the country’s borders and governments are taking the events seriously. If Ben Ali will not relinquish power (yet), still, he reshuffled his cabinet firing four ministers and promised a $5 billion jobs program. He also was careful to visit Mohammed Bouazizi (the young man who set himself aflame) as well as meet with the families of those killed by the security forces. As the protests grew in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarek, speaking to the ruling political party in Egypt, seemingly ‘out of nowhere’, announced that Egypt too would launch a $3.5 billion jobs program to deal with Egyptian unemployment. Coincidence? In a gesture to help Ben Ali, Muhammar Khadaffi in nearby Libya announced that Libya would not limit entry to Tunisians seeking jobs. Khadaffi also announced a major government financed housing project not long ago.

Nesrine Malik, like Brian Whitaker, writing in the Guardian on New Year’s Eve, calls the Tunisian protests ‘one of the most inspiring episodes of indigenous revolt against a repressive regime.’ Referring to the Tunisian protests she comments: ‘Change is sometimes more likely to happen when people know what it looks like, when the first person dares to point to the emperor and say that he is naked.’

And if events continue in Tunisia, what does it mean for the other ‘geriatric regimes’ of the Middle East, many of which themselves are on the verge of transitions of power? For if the Tunisian people can stand up to power and oppression, why not the others?

Meanwhile the protests in Tunisia continue…La Lutta Continua.

Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

WikiLeaks XXVI: Sea Change in U.S. Policy Toward Latin America? No, Clerical Error

(Pictured: One-time kidnapper of a U.S. ambassador, Brazilian Paulo de Tarso venceslauVenceslau.)

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the twenty-sixth in the series.

When former student activist and US-denounced “terrorist” Paulo de Tarso Venceslau was issued a tourist visa in October 2009 by the State Department, the move was seen to be a sign that US-Latin American relations would enjoy a sea-change under the new administration of Barack Obama. After all, the president had himself called for a “new beginning” with Cuba just months earlier at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, and signals that Foggy Bottom would not be repeating the horrendous mistakes of the previous George W. Bush administration were warmly received by leaders and experts throughout the region.

But as a newly released cable from WikiLeaks demonstrates, Venceslau’s visa was issued in error, not as the result of a shift in policy. As the cable makes plain, the American consultant in Sao Paolo “issued Venceslau a B2 tourism visa after no hits of any kind appeared on all iterations of his name. Venceslau did not indicate on question 38 of his DS-156 application that he had ‘ever been arrested or convicted of any offense or crime, even though subject of pardon.’” This was quite an omission!

Venceslau had been previously barred from entering the United States because of his participation in the kidnapping of an American ambassador to Brazil over forty years ago. On September 4, 1969, a Brazilian guerilla organization known as Dissidencia Comunista Universitaria da Guanabara ambushed Charles Elbrick and took him hostage, hoping to the ambassador as a bargaining chip in negotiations to have over a dozen Brazilian political prisoners released by the military junta then in power.

The cable reports that according to the FBI files related to the case,

Venceslau helped plan the details of the kidnapping, was one of the passengers in the vehicle used to block the Ambassador’s car, subdued the Ambassador’s driver, and was one of the kidnappers who boarded the Ambassador’s vehicle and took him into hiding. While the Ambassador was held, Venceslau helped put together the list of 15 political prisoners the group demanded be released. On October 1, 1969 Venceslau was caught and imprisoned, without trial, for his involvement in the kidnapping, according to press reports. He was released in December 1974.

The consulate’s oversight became an issue when Venceslau went public with news of that his request for a visa had been granted.

Reports in the October 9 and 10 Estado de Sao Paulo and O Globo newspapers announced that Venceslau, after years of frustrated attempts, had finally been issued a visa for entry into the United States. Venceslau was quoted as saying, “I never have had a great love for the United States,” but that he had always had an interest in seeing the life and culture in the cities of New York, Chicago, and New Orleans. Venceslau said he had tried three time in the last four decades to get a visa at the Consulate in Sao Paulo but was denied for being considered “a terrorist.”

The papers also reported, accurately, that

Venceslau is due to receive his passport and visa this week and that Venceslau is not worried since “Obama just received the Nobel Peace prize. It would look bad if he cancelled my passport.” Another newspaper reported Venceslau as saying “my only fear is that there was been a mistake and that the Consulate will cancel my visa. I would like to listen to jazz in Chicago but I don’t believe in miracles.”

The fact that the United States had issued the visa but had not sent it nor the passport back to Venceslau left American officials in Sao Paolo wringing their hands over what to do. On the one hand, the cable notes that

If available information is correct, at a minimum he appears to be ineligible under Section 212(a)(2)(A)(i) for Conviction of Crimes Involving Moral Turpitude, as well as 6C1 for misrepresenting a material fact. Other ineligibilities may apply.

Beyond the question of ineligibilities, Mission sees broader implications resulting from a decision to either cancel the visa with no additional action, or to pursue a waiver. In our view, a minimum bar for granting Venceslau a waiver would be public repudiation of the crime and of kidnapping as a tactic. We have no evidence that Venceslau has made such a renunciation and would have to seek it from him. Assuming he were amenable to such a renunciation, issuance of a visa to Venceslau upon receipt of a waiver would set a precedent related to other kidnappers, at least two of whom (Gabeira and Martins) are likely to apply in the near future. While Gabeira has publicly renounced kidnapping as a form of expression and has criticized the FARC for engaging in kidnapping, Martins has pointedly refused to express remorse for his actions, explaining that they were in the context of a worthy political struggle. Mission also sees potential implications in issuing the visa for broader U.S. policy and messaging on terrorism, especially with regard to USG officials.

The two men in question, Gabeira and Martins, are themselves prominent political figures in Brazil at the moment, the latter serving as Minister of Social Communications under recently departed Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

On the other hand, the cable’s author points out that

with the new U.S. Administration, both Brazilian officials and the public are considering new possibilities for bilateral relations. President Obama’s statements at the April Summit of the Americas regarding his desire to build a new relationship with Latin America that looks forward, rather than backward, resonated strongly in Brazil. Although cancelation of his visa will be straightforward as a consular matter, it is likely to generate significant negative press that calls into question whether U.S. policy toward Latin America has changed, and to have repercussions in official circles where a number of senior officials and elite are linked to the case either directly (e.g., Gabeira and Martins) or indirectly (e.g., Human Rights Minister Paulo Vannuchi, who is linked with Venceslau as a political prisoner, and senior PT official Jose Direceu, who was released by the military government as a result of the kidnapping). When considered with the fact that 40 years has passed since the kidnapping and the political nature of the opposition to the military regime, these factors suggest pursuing a waiver of ineligibilities as a way to promote a forward-looking bilateral relationship.

It would seem that this latter view prevailed as American officials moved forward in the matter, but to little effect. Since the Honduran coup in 2009, relations between the two countries have been less than productive and increasingly unhappy. With the inauguration of Brazil’s first female head of state today, Dilma Rousseff, opportunities for a reset of Washington’s relationship with Brazil may be on offer. But at least one person, outgoing president Lula, isn’t so sure.

Taking stock of Obama’s approach to the region over the past two years, Lula told reporters in Brasilia this past week that he “would like the relationship of the United States with Latin America to be different to what it is today,” adding that the United States “should understand the importance of Latin America. The Americans don’t have an optimistic vision of Latin America. They have always related as an empire to poor countries. This vision needs to change.” Under Obama, Lula lamented, “The truth is that nothing has changed in the United States’ vision for Latin America. I view that with sadness.”

There Actually Was a 2010 Worth Remembering

wage theft(Pictured: Interfaith Worker Justice’s fight against wage theft for day laborers.)

Cross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

It is a tragic fact: progressives are notoriously bad at celebrating their victories. Tragic, because when it comes to motivating people to take action, keeping evidence that collective organizing efforts can produce real changes—some small, some groundbreaking—is far more important than producing lists of new outrages and fresh causes for alarm.

Even in times of setbacks and difficulties, there are signs of progress worth remembering. And this year was no exception. The Obama administration would like us to enshrine 2010 as the year it passed a landmark law overhauling health care in the United States. However, there were enough compromises in the health care deal and enough issues left unresolved that, as one friend of mine nicely put it, it’s probably better to consider that as not so much a victory as a work in progress.

Yet the year offered some more outright progressive wins. Two came quickly to mind for me. The first was an obvious choice since it was in the news in late December: the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.“ This affirmation of basic civil rights for gays and lesbians in the military was, of course, long overdue. But that in no way diminishes the victory.

The DADT repeal was one within a package of bills passed in quick succession during the lame duck session of Congress. Other fine components included a new START treaty controlling nuclear weapons and a 9/11 first responders bill, itself long overdue.

Also making the DADT win a little bit sweeter was this video. In it, a reporter for a conservative news network tries to pin Representative Barney Frank with a gotcha question based on the homophobic conservative talking point that, with DADT gone, “straight troops will now have to shower with gays.” (The horror!) Quick-witted and articulate as always, Frank succeeds in making an absolute fool of the guy. It is a pleasure to watch.

The second bit of progress that I thought of right away was the release of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma. Before being freed in November, the Nobel Peace Prize winner had spent the last seven years—and fifteen of the last twenty-one years—under house arrest, imposed by her country’s military junta. If there are any who deserve the label of democratic hero in the world today, Suu Kyi is among them. This year, for the first time in a decade, she was able to travel out of the country to reunite with her youngest son.

Such reunions were the subject of Amnesty International’s genuinely touching holiday e-card, which featured a video celebrating the return of several prominent human rights defenders to their families. It starts with Suu Kyi but includes others released in recent years after international advocacy campaigns, such as Sakit Zahidov, an opposition journalist, poet, and satirist in Azerbaijan. The stories and images pretty quickly punctured my cynicism.

Also good for keeping cynicism in check was the feedback I received when I asked friends and readers to send their picks for top progressive victories of 2010. The responses I got back were many and varied—and that ended up being quite heartwarming.

Highlights included the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, a precedent-setting measure passed in New York State that extends vital labor rights to more than 200,000 nannies and housekeepers.

In a similar vein, Danny Postel over at Interfaith Worker Justice mentioned victories in the fight against wage theft (the disturbingly common failure of business owners to pay money owed to day laborers and other low-wage workers) in New York State and in South Florida. Bolstered by these advances, the campaign to enact protections against wage theft at a national level continues.

Other scrappy and perseverant campaigners who had a good year were the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Prometheus Radio Project. Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel writes:

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) enjoyed a remarkable 2010, successfully obtaining penny per pound pay raises and code of conduct agreements for farm workers from the three largest food service companies and the growers who had blocked checks buyers cut directly to the workers so that millions of dollars languished in escrow. These agreements stand to increase workers’ annual earnings from about $10,000 to as much as $17,000. The State Department also recognized Laura Germino, CIW’s antislavery campaign coordinator, as an ‘anti-Trafficking Hero’ for her work helping the US Department of Justice prosecute seven slavery operations in Florida over the last fifteen years, resulting in the liberation of over 1,000 farm workers.

As for the Prometheus Radio Project (based in my newly adopted home of West Philadelphia), the advocates for grassroots, democratically controlled, low-power radio won a national victory with the passage of the Local Community Radio Act. As the organization noted over the popping of champagne corks,

In response to overwhelming grassroots pressure, Congress has given the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) a mandate to license thousands, of new community stations nationwide. This bill marks the first major legislative success for the growing movement for a more democratic media system in the United States….The bill repeals earlier legislation which had been backed by big broadcasters, including the National Association of Broadcasters.

Not all went wrong on the electoral front, either. California bucked national trends in a big way, with voters rejecting right-wing candidates and thwarting a business-backed ballot proposition to block regulation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that is far more aggressive than anything on offer at the national level. Time’s Ecocentric blog commented, “With a $1.7 trillion gross state product, California alone is the world’s eighth-largest economy, so even if it is acting alone while the rest of the country drags its feet on climate change, the state has a real chance to make a difference.”

And, speaking of large economies, the left-leaning Dilma Rousseff of the Brazilian Workers’ Party beat Jose Serra in elections this fall, a reflection of the region’s continued dissatisfaction with the legacy of neoliberal economic policy.

Reviewing this list put me in a pretty good mood. No doubt, there are things I would change about 2010 if I could. But these I’d keep.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website Democracy Uprising.

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