Focal Points Blog

Populist Humala, Leading in Peru Presidential Elections, at Mercy of Swing Voters

Cross-posted from Peru Elections 2011, a Tumblr site of the WOLA Electoral Observation Delegation.

The latest poll, taken yesterday, confirms the trends of the past few days of a strong lead for Ollanta Humala, with Keiko Fujimori pulling out slightly ahead of the remaining candidates for second place in Peru’s elections schedule for tomorrow. The poll, taken by Ipsos APOYO, shows Humala at 28.1 percent and Keiko Fujimori at 21.1 percent. Pedro Pablo Kuczynski polls in at 19.9 percent, with Toledo falling to 16.8 percent. These results reflect the valid votes emitted at a simulated vote using paper ballots.

If these results hold, Humala and Fujimori will go to a second round vote on June 5. However, the margin of error is close enough that it is conceivable thatKuczynski could come in second place. In addition, some analysts suggest that Toledo’s supporters may vote for Kuczynski, which could propel him into second place. One reason might be a strategic calculation to prevent Fujimori from making it into the second round. Another analyst told us that some people are rethinking their vote based on a different calculus: “¿por qué subir con el chofer del auto si puedo subir con el dueño del auto?” In other words, why go for a ride with the chauffeur of the car when you can get a ride with the owner? This reflects Kuczynski’s profile as a member of Peru’s transnationalized, wealthy elite.

However, the reality is that these are the most volatile elections in recent Peruvian history. There is still a high percentage of undecided votes, even at this late date. In addition, election analysts told us that up to fifty percent of those approached by pollsters refused to participate in pre-election surveys, and it is quite unclear what this will mean for the results of tomorrow’s elections.

And, many voters are only loosely committed to their preferred candidates. For example, one 30-year old man from Villa El Salvador told us that he was planning to vote for Toledo but had changed his mind because of some declaration Toledo had made the day before. Now, he says, he might vote forKuczynski. Or, on second thought, he might vote for Fujimori.

It is a sad reflection of the current political scenario that Peruvians could conceivably vote into office Keiko Fujimori, someone so closely associated with a past government known for massive corruption, abuse of power, and crimes against humanity.

Coletta A. Youngers is the Latin America Regional Associate with the International Drug Policy Consortium and a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Jo-Marie Burt is an Associate Professor at George Mason University and also a WOLA Senior Fellow.

Other Obstacles to Disarmament Exist Besides States Holding on to Nukes

It’s true that Russia seems to feel that it can’t divest itself of many more strategic nuclear weapons (the kind you’re familiar with). In his notes from the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., the Arms Control Association’s Greg Thielmann explains.

The 1000 warhead central limit posited for a New START follow-on agreement by numerous American analysts was also endorsed by Russian participants on two separate Carnegie panels. [But] Sergei Rogov of Russia’s USA and Canada Institute predicted that Russia would be willing to reduce to “something like 1000″ in the next round. He said this would be a likely floor for bilateral arms control because of Russia’s concern with maintaining clear superiority over Chinese and other third-party strategic systems.

But

Equally as circumscribing to further disarmament, though, are issues other than strategic nuclear weapons. There was also fresh evidence in the Carnegie discussions . . . that future enhancements of U.S. strategic missile defenses and Russian resistance to tactical nuclear weapons limits threaten to derail further progress. Indeed, [Carnegie Moscow’s] Alexei Arbatov assessed “dim prospects” for a New START follow-on agreement. . . . not because of any problems inherent to a 1000 warhead limit [but] because of the difficulty of resolving the “thorny” issues [such as] missile defense . . . and tactical nuclear weapons.

It’s ironic that ancillary issues tie the hands of nuclear negotiators as much as reducing the numbers of nuclear weapons proper. This is especially the case in light of how laughable those issues are. Everyone knows that missile defense isn’t effective against the warheads of any nuclear state except maybe, on a good day, North Korea’s. As for tactical (scaled down for battlefield use) nukes, does Russia really foresee a time when it will be lighting those suckers off in the middle of a firefight, thus sowing radiation to all, friend or foe?

World Bank Horning Its Way Into UN Fund for Helping Poor Nations Deal With Climate Change

Cross-posted from the IPS blog.

The UN climate talks held in Cancun late last year paved the way for a new Green Climate Fund to channel money for developing countries to build resiliency, protect forests, and bring low-carbon technologies and practices into mainstream use.

That marked a critical victory for developing countries, but the biggest fights have yet to come. In the coming year, a committee of 40 government representatives (25 from developing and 15 from developed countries) will be working furiously with the UN and other institutions, as well as finance, gender, community participation, and other experts, on making this fund a reality. They must do everything from creating a management structure to forging a global definition of “clean energy.”

This ambitious task is meant to result in a Green Climate Fund that can handle the tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars a year developing countries will need in the coming decades to combat climate change and at the same time continue their fight against poverty.

It’s fundamentally disturbing, however, that the World Bank — the planet’s leading cheerleader for a growth-without-limits development paradigm — is elbowing its way to the front of the line to help design the new fund, almost guaranteeing itself a permanent role in its management.

More than 90 environment, development, human rights, and anti-debt organizations from around the world conveyed this concern in a letter to the Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the convener of the first fund design meeting.

In the letter, civil society leaders called for strictly limiting the World Bank’s role in the design on the Green Climate Fund for the following reasons:

First and foremost, the World Bank continues to finance dirty coal, oil and gas projects. According to a World Bank Group Energy Sector Financing Update prepared by the Bank Information Center, the global lender supported fossil fuel projects to the tune of $6.6 billion in 2010, a 116 percent increase from the year before. That included $4.4 billion for coal power projects, more than it spent on all new renewable energy and energy efficiency projects combined for the year ($3.4 billion). So while the World Bank is undeniably increasing it renewable energy financing, the volume is still dwarfed by its fossil fuel lending.

Bobby Peek, director of groundWork/Friends of the Earth South Africa, an environmental justice group in Durban, South Africa, that endorsed the NGO letter, noted, “Only a year ago the World Bank made its largest loan ever to dirty energy, signing $3.75 billion over to the Eskom energy company to build a 4,800MW coal-fired power station in South Africa.” He asked, “Is this the institution we want to put in charge funding the solutions to the climate crisis?”

Bank officials say that the Eskom power plant — and similar coal projects in other countries — are important for bringing access to electricity for energy-poor families. But environmentalists and local activists argue that the project will benefit large mines and smelters, not the local community. In fact, in an independent review of the Bank’s 26 fossil fuel loans in 2009 and 2010, Oil Change International found that none of these clearly identify access for the poor as a direct target of the project. The Bank agreed that not a single coal or oil project could be classified as improving energy access.

To the World Bank’s credit, it may be about to change course to a degree. A leaked draft of its new 10-year energy strategy revealed plans to move away from supporting new coal projects in middle-income countries. But environment and development groups argue that the language used in that draft document is riddled with loopholes. The energy plan also includes a massive scale-up of hydropower mega-dams that threaten to displace communities, destroy fisheries, and release their own greenhouse gases.

The Green Climate Fund should remain fully independent from the World Bank. Its design committee should engage experts from UN agencies and all regions of the world. Experts on gender, sustainable development, poverty alleviation, renewable energy and efficiency technologies, indigenous peoples, human rights, and social and environmental safeguards should weigh in, too.

Janet is co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, where she provides analysis of the international financial institutions’ energy investment and carbon finance activities.

The Days of Anger: Humiliation, Fear and Dignity in the Middle East

Some will claim that the true, structural causes for these Arab revolts reside in the rising food prices or other objective economic factors. Others will claim it is the new social media. Others again will hail the rising multitude foretold in the West, happening in the Middle East. Who can prove them wrong? But that is not what the street interviewees and commentators tell us: they speak of Anger, of Pride, of Humiliation and Dignity.

In his famous, infamous book on The End of History and the Last Man Fukuyama was harking back to Plato and Hegel to stress how important these affects are in politics. They are sui generis: political moral affects of their own. Egotism and Desire are not the sole factors that determine human behaviour (as both liberal and Marxist ‘paneconomic’ theories have it). His major example is that it is not the economy that played a major role in the movement of Havel and his lot that brought down the totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe. Thymos, meaning: feeling for justice, honour, anger, pride, dignity, etc. has been a determining factor from the onset.

The self burning of the Tunisian youngster was a thymotic gesture par excellence. One of the highest thinkable forms of it: total defiance, not only for dead, but even for the most painful and cruel of death. A quote from the web: Twenty-six-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, living in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid, had a university degree but no work. To earn some money he took to selling fruit and vegetables in the street without a licence. When the authorities stopped him and confiscated his produce, he was so angry that he set himself on fire.” (our emphasis).

This total defiance out of humiliation turning into anger, and anger turning into dignity and defiance has proved contagious: “Rioting followed and security forces sealed off the town. On Wednesday [January 12th], another jobless young man in Sidi Bouzid climbed an electricity pole, shouted “no for misery, no for unemployment”, then touched the wires and electrocuted himself. Tunisia’s president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has fled his country after weeks of mass protests culminated in a victory for people power over one of the Arab world’s most repressive regimes.”

The jasmine revolution in a nutshell. Mohamed Bouazizi was not a calculating egotistic, economical being, measuring his profit. He just went for it. It is not by incident, that this most powerful of gestures of defiance and indignation has set off a wave of anger that floods the Arab world.

Anger has had some bad press lately in our culture. So much so that we tend to dismiss it. And yet it is this affect that has given its name to these appeals to revolt: ‘Days of Anger’. The Days of Anger have been succeeding one another since January: from Tunisia to Iraq, from Egypt to Yemen, from Oman and Bahrain to Libya to Syria. Was it just a cheap appealing slogan to mobilize? No. It contains a profound truth (philosophical, psychological, political or even psychopolitical as Sloterdijk would call it): he (or she) who is angry has lost all fear.

Anger can be a door to freedom. Freedom is just another word for nothing left to loose. Janis Joplin’s catch phrase explains it all. Human dignity resides in freedom. Therefore he who is free has nothing to lose, he who has nothing to lose is free. Even if anger is not a popular affect in our culture, the philosophical truth is that freedom lies in human nature, that it is in the human nature to desire not only for food and riches, but also for recognition, for honour, and pride. When this longing for dignity and recognition is not met, entire peoples can get angry. And lose fear.

He who loses fear, regains his pride and honour. He who regains his pride and honour has nothing to lose but his freedom. He will defend it with his life if must be. This sequence explains why the words of anger, pride, honour were not out of the air in street interviews and commentaries, and even in slogans: “Here we are, Egyptians, proud again!” read a slogan on Tahrir square quoted on Al Jazeera, on February, 10th at 7 pm local Belgian time. I noted it down for this article.

Why is it so touching, this slogan? Because it touches a deep string in all of us. Freedom is the base of dignity. A slave can be rich and healthy and well (mostly not, mind you), but has no dignity, cannot be proud. For he is not free. Now the people feel sovereign, free to speak and act. This is the biggest empowerment one can get. No bullets will stop this, even airstrikes can’t stop this.

Peter Sloterdijk’s accusations in his book Zorn und Zeit (Anger and Time) against what he calls ‘Anger Big Banks’ is convincing in his case studies, quite devastating in fact: his cases being the church and communism – but wrong in its premises and conclusions. By taking up Fukuyama’s theme and linking it to Nietzchean resentment, he casts an almost solely negative light on anger. The Days of Anger, from Tunisia to Syria, from Egypt to Libya to Yemen, etc. prove him wrong. Anger can be a very positive force in history as the days of anger in the Arab world prove.

A witness from Cairo on February 18th on Skype: “The repression is massive, and will only rise by the days … scary. This era is mad. Full of mixed hope and anxiety, I have this unbreakable smile with eyes filled with tears at times.” Libya is a matter of concern. But whatever Khadafy does, or any other leader in the Middle East for that matter, as somebody said from Tripoli on Al Jazeera (on February 23th): “The wall of fear has fallen, the spring of Arab youth has began.”

And we haven’t seen the end of this. Even China is weary and cracking down on activists – there it is ‘jasmine’ that has been the key word: they censured the word jasmine on the internet – can you imagine? Can you imagine a more innocent word? I can understand (not agree) that authorities censure words like porn, bomb, terrorism, but Yasmine. I mean. I think it is the practical joke of the year. World historically ridiculous. But indeed, the Chinese call their days of anger and protest “jasmine walks”. And indeed: the authorities are wetting their pants. They are scared like hell for this fertile spring breeze blowing from the Mediterranean. Let a thousand flowers bloom. Everywhere Tahrir Square!

Lieven De Cauter is a philosopher, writer and activist. He teaches philosophy of culture (in Leuven, Brussels and Rotterdam). His latest books: The Capsular Civilization. On the City in the Age of Fear (2004) and, as co-editor, Heterotopia and the city (2008); Art and activism in the Age of globalization (2011). He is initiator of the BRussells Tribunal.

How to Break the Deadlock With North Korea

Pyongyang(Pictured: Pyongyang Government Complex, No. 1.)

Relations with North Korea these days are about as cold as they could be. There haven’t been any talks between Washington and Pyongyang for many months. The South Korean government, although it spends a lot of money to store the rice it can’t sell, is not interested in sending humanitarian aid despite the recent UN report that as much as one-quarter of the North Korean population is on the edge of starvation.

Jimmy Carter has announced that he plans to go on what might be called a geopolitical elder hostel to North Korea, along with Kofi Annan, Mary Robinson, Gro Harlem Brundtland, and other former world leaders. They aim to break the deadlock. More power to them. They could pick up a lot of money in speaking fees, just as George W. Bush is doing at the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce later this month, but are instead going on what is certainly nobody’s idea of a junket.

Here’s the problem they’ll face. The United States is looking for some indication that North Korea is willing to deal on its nuclear program. And South Korea wants an apology for the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean boat that went down in disputed waters a little over a year ago. But North Korea has denied responsibility for the Cheonan. And, after the attack on Libya, North Korea believes even more in the utility of a nuclear weapons program in deterring foreign intervention.

Can the elders, with their combined 500 years of diplomatic know-how, somehow resolve this problem? It’s going to take more than silver-tongued rhetoric. Both the United States and South Korea are going to have to be ready to show a bit more flexibility. But North Korea, too, will have to bend a little.

One place to start is with an ambiguous statement from Pyongyang that can be read two different ways — as an apology to the South and as a denial of culpability by the North. Here’s an example:

We express great sorrow over the sinking of the Cheonan. We will work with South Korea [or Nam Chosun, as the DPRK refers to the South] and other countries in Northeast Asia to strengthen maritime security, prevent any future naval incidents, and ensure a peaceful and prosperous region.

The Carter delegation represents significant diplomatic firepower. It would be a shame for the elders to run up against the wall of intransigence on all sides. It’s time for some serious face-saving tactics.

Take Part in the Global Day of Action on Military Spending, April 12

GDAMSOn Tuesday, April 12, people in more than 35 countries, as well as Columbus, Dallas, Kansas City and dozens of other cities throughout the United States will participate in the first Global Day of Action on Military Spending.

Actions will include a protest in front of the White House at noon. Other U.S. cities include San Francisco, New York, Boston, Fairbanks, San Juan, and Honolulu (click here for a full list). There will be actions at the United Nations offices in Geneva, a march in Kampala, a demonstration in Dhaka, a women’s peace gathering in Seoul, and much more.

The Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC and the International Peace Bureau in Geneva, Switzerland are the event’s co-organizers. More than 100 organizations, including Religions for Peace, Scientists for Global Responsibility, the American Friends Service Committee, Win Without War, and Fellowship of Reconciliation have endorsed it.

This global action will come one day after the release on April 11 of the 2010 figures for global military expenditures by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. In 2009, the world spent more than $1.5 trillion on the military. Even in the middle of a global economic crisis, military spending has increased, with the United States responsible for nearly half of all expenditures.

“With the U.S. government in a budget crisis, it’s urgent that we move from military deeds to human needs,” says John Feffer of the Institute for Policy Studies and a Global Day organizer. “Meanwhile, other crises have put a great strain on the world’s resources: climate change, earthquakes, global poverty, nuclear proliferation, and the threat of health pandemics. Ever greater funds are necessary to repair the societies that have been damaged by war and conflict, including the latest war in Libya.”

“In the wake of the global economic crisis, some governments — especially here in Europe — are beginning to cut military spending. But they won’t allocate the savings made by these reductions to social/environmental needs or to combat poverty unless we pressure them to do so,” says Colin Archer of the International Peace Bureau and a Global Day organizer.

“This is why we are undertaking a serious worldwide mobilizing effort — beginning on April 12 — to make visible our demands to feed the people, not the military-industrial complex.”

The White House action, which will take place at noon, will feature poetry, puppets, and graphic representations of military spending. Representatives of national and local peace and human needs organizations will present “flash facts” that vividly demonstrate how our military dollars can be used more effectively to create jobs, address climate change, and reduce poverty.

Please visit our website, demilitarize.org, for more information about the Global Day of Action on Military Spending, the endorsing organizations, and the specific actions.

The Institute for Policy Studies is a community of public scholars and organizers linking peace, justice, and the environment in the United States and globally. The International Peace Bureau is a Nobel Peace Laureate (1910) with 320 member organizations in 70 countries.

For more information:
John Feffer: [email protected]; 202-294-9128
Find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @GlobalDay412.

Also visit Demilitarize.org.

In Glenn Beck’s Crosshairs: Interview with Frances Fox Piven

Frances Fox Piven. Photo by Zach Roberts - zdroberts.com

Frances Fox Piven. Photo by Zach Roberts – zdroberts.com

Glenn Beck’s nightly tour through the terrifying political landscape of his paranoid imagination inevitably includes a detour into the shadowy precincts of liberal thought, unfriendly territory where conspiracies to destroy the United States are incubated in every university classroom, and enemies of the state lie in wait to hijack the American dream. A rotating cast of left-of center bogeymen haunts the narrative of Beck’s other America, infecting the brains of ordinary citizens with conspiratorial designs that, if not properly defended against, will ultimately bring about the structural collapse of the United States.

Over the past several weeks Beck has made a point of aggressively singling out Frances Fox Piven—professor of political science and sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center—as especially dangerous to American life and liberty. Beck accuses Piven and her late husband, Richard Cloward, of being the intellectual architects of a revolutionary plot to overthrow the United States government. The so-called “Cloward-Piven strategy,” outlined in a 1966 article published by The Nation, argued that a concentrated welfare enrollment drive could ultimately lead to a guaranteed national income. For Beck, Cloward and Piven are a particularly potent touchstone for kicking off feverish fantasies. They represent, in Beck’s mythology, “the roots of the tree of radicalism and revolution” that employ “fear and intimidation” to “overwhelm the system.”

What began as mildly amusing attention quickly turned worrisome as threats to Piven’s life began appearing on internet message boards and even in her electronic inbox after Beck’s website The Blaze posted an essay on New Year’s Eve entitled “Frances Fox Piven Rings in the New Year by Calling for Violent Revolution.” “I’m all for violence and change Francis,” one reader wrote, “where do your loved ones live?” Another chimed in that he had “5000 roundas [sic] ready and I’ll give My life [sic] to take Our freedom [sic] back. Taking Her life [sic] and any who would enslave My children [sic] and grandchildren and call for violence should meet their demise as They wish [sic]. George Washington didn’t use His freedom [sic] of speech to defeat the British, He [sic] shot them.” Still others warned Piven to “be very careful what you ask for honey… As I mentioned in previous posts…ONE SHOT…ONE KILL! …a few well placed marksmen with high powered rifles…then there would not be any violence.” One Beck supporter suggested that “We should blowup Piven’s office and home,” while another signed off by praying that “cancer find[s] you soon.” According to The Nation, a particularly succinct antagonist summed up his message in the subject line of a personal email: “DIE YOU CUNT.”

Concerns for Piven’s personal safety have since led to increased security precautions and an investigation by the FBI. Despite these unpleasant circumstances, however, Piven has hardly put her life on hold. Since the New Year, she has continued writing prodigiously, has appeared regularly on nationally syndicated radio and TV, and is currently teaching a class at the Graduate Center. IPS contributor Michael Busch sat down with Piven to discuss the ugly causes and consequences of Beck’s bilious targeting, as well as the recent attack on academic freedom at Brooklyn College, possibilities for a poor and working people’s movement in the midst of the US economic crisis, and the state of American democracy.

I was hoping we could begin with a brief discussion of what’s been going on: where it came from, how it has affected you personally, and what it says about our current moment.

Well, it started almost two years ago. I didn’t pay any attention to it, however, until last winter, when some of my students told me about it. Now, I don’t watch Glenn Beck very often. But they told me about Beck’s “tree of revolution,” and that Richard and I were at the trunk of this tree that has all these branches going off in different directions. My first reaction was that it was funny, because it was so fantastical. Who wouldn’t laugh if they were being given credit for the Students for a Democratic Society [movement], the Open Society Institute, ACORN, the election of Barack Obama, the financial crisis, and probably other stuff which I am forgetting right now?

But as it’s gone on, I have been forced to think about it a little more seriously. I think it is dangerous in and of itself, and also because it’s a symptom of serious problems in American democracy. It’s dangerous because our political culture includes a tradition of violent extremism, and also because there are always some loose nuts out there who are provoked by this kind of ranting. But it’s a symptom of a bigger problem, I think. The bigger problem is that there are a lot of people in the United States who are anxious, discontented, who are nostalgic for “the way things were,” who don’t understand the big changes that have occurred including deindustrialization and the decline of American power, or the increasing diversity of the American population, or the election of a black president, or changes in sexual and family patterns. These are very hard developments to decipher, to analyze, to explain. They’re hard for academics to explain! It’s also difficult to understand the government policies that are justified as dealing with these problems, or dealing with the economic recession.

That’s a situation that I think creates a sort-of available space for propaganda. That’s why Glenn Beck and company are dangerous: because they are propagandists. They tell a nutty story about what is happening in the United States instead of trying to understand what’s happening, trying to understand who’s responsible. Instead, they point at me and say, “SHE’S RESPONSIBLE!” Well, think how ridiculous this is. They also keep reiterating, “She is 78 years old!” And I’m responsible? This is paranoia.

Think about what we understand to be the elemental requirements for democracy. People are supposed to assess their circumstances, the circumstances of their community, to discuss those circumstances—why they occurred, what government can do about it—and then vote accordingly. But, if these crazy stories are poured into what you might call the public mind or segment of the public’s mind, it blocks the possibility for this kind of democratic discourse.

How do you make sense of the violent threats against you, especially in light of the Gabriel Giffords shooting, and the Beck-inspired assassination plots of Byron Williams? Is Barbara Ehrenreich correct to suggest that the possession or use of guns themselves have come to represent political action to some Americans? And if so, do you see a concerted effort by the far right to mobilize around this sense of “civic engagement,” for lack of a better way of describing it?

Well, I think that guns have always played a role in American political culture. That role perhaps grows and contracts, but there have always been extremist groups that have turned to guns and especially to forms of violence that play a dramatic symbolic role, like lynchings. So I’m not sure that this is new. It may be surging right now—maybe because of a black president and the economic downturn—but it’s not new. What is new, I think, is the potential power of propaganda in American life. And that’s in part because of the media, and the role of big money, and who owns the media. After all, it’s not Glenn Beck, it’s Rupert Murdoch—let’s face it. Glenn Beck is an idiot: an overweight, neurotic character who hit on this way of building an audience and making a lot of money. But FOX News gave him his platform.

Why do you think Beck has fastened on to you? How did you and your late husband end up at the trunk of the “tree of revolution”?

Why does he fasten on me? Partly it is accident: one of way or the other, he came into contact with David Horowitz, Fred Siegel Jim Sleeper and other annoying people who made the move from the far left to the far right in the 1970s, because the pay was better on the other side, or whatever. They, along with Thomas Sowell, have a line which is very familiar that ordinary people themselves never rise up and make trouble on their own, it’s always outside agitators that instigate them. And they say that Richard and I were the agitators that were responsible for the welfare rights movement and later the effort to get liberalized voter registration. Thomas Sowell said we were for the responsible for the demand for affirmative action—“black people didn’t want that!”

Still, they could have picked on lots of others, so it’s accidental that they picked on me. They could even have picked on one of their own! Just take a look at what ran in Ramparts magazine when David Horowitz was still an editor! But I think that what’s not accidental is that they’re turning to someone who was an advocate for expanded democratic rights for poor and minority people in the United States, and expanded political rights for poor and minority people in the United States—that’s not accidental. The Sixties movements drive them crazy. Actually, the Thirties movements also drive them crazy! But the Sixties movements have a kind of special edge to them because they did play a role in the election of Barack Obama, who is easily vilified and demonized because he is African-American.

If it’s true, as you say, that Glenn Beck’s narrative gains traction because of the complexity of American politics, what’s the remedy, what’s the way forward? In other words, what are the prospects for reinvigorating a working class movement in American politics?

Well, there is the potential. Some of the conditions are right. We have a president who’s not a champion of such movements, but who would nevertheless be vulnerable to them and forced to be responsive to them. We have a clear villain in the financial sector, a villain that is not only similar to the economic royalists that Franklin Delano Roosevelt ranted against, but who are patently illegal in many of their actions. And we have a lot of people who are losing their homes, we have people suffering under mountains of debt, not just credit card but student debt. A lot of people are unemployed and many more have taken big wage cuts.

But at the same time, I do think there a lot of organizing problems that we have to solve. Here’s what I’ve come to think we should do. We have to work on the organizing problems—how to bring people together; how to transform what is for many people a kind of humiliation—they’re debtors, or they are unemployed—we have to figure out how to transform this humiliation into indignation; we have to figure out how to identify targets for their indignation and their anger; how to shape local actions that have some muscle that can be brought to bear on the centers of power. Of course, there are people working on this, but the stuff that’s happened so far has been very small. Still, I see no reason that it can’t be much bigger, that it can’t get much bigger.

Can you talk a bit about the recent events at Brooklyn College: specifically, how you view what happened there, and what ways, if any, you see its connection to Glenn Beck’s targeting of you as part of a larger right-wing attack on the American university?

Well, first of all, I don’t think it’s quite right to suggest that my situation is linked to what happened at Brooklyn College. As to that situation, I think that administrators at CUNY—and I include the president of Brooklyn College here— are very sensitive on the issues of Israel and Zionism, and that’s partly because of the larger political environment of New York. It’s also because of the history of CUNY. There have historically been a lot of Jews at CUNY, there are lots of Jews on faculty. And it’s because Jewish politics—and by that I mean the politics of American Jews—has itself been very distorted, I think, by Israeli policy. And so, you have a sensitivity that leads to the events at Brooklyn College. I remember another: the Graduate Center graduation a few years ago in which a trustee—invited to give his blessing to the graduates—used the occasion to launch a kind of tirade against any anti-Zionist sentiment in the institution.

It’s true that David Horowitz, who is one of the gang promoting the idea there is a Cloward and Piven theory of orchestrated crisis to bring down capitalism, did work with Campus Watch a few years ago, and a lot of neo-cons are hyped-up on the issue of Israel. In that sense, maybe there is a connection [between the Brooklyn College and Glenn Beck fiascos]. However, the university is the one institution in the United States that hasn’t been completely swamped by the march to the right in the country. When the American Sociological Association’s three most recent presidents issued a statement defending me, they got an incendiary response from somebody called “Shadow Merchant.” Randall Collins, one of the presidents, emailed Shadow Merchant to ask him how he had gotten the statement so quickly. In response Shadow Merchant laid out a big plan—I think Shadow Merchant is a probably some right-wing professor emeritus—but Shadow Merchant said, and I’m paraphrasing of course, “this is the counter-revolution and one of the things we’re going to do is mob every lefty professor.” And he concluded his tirade by heaping praise on Senator Joseph McCarthy.

So, I think that the Right will target the universities, and that we have a responsibility to stand up to this kind of Right, and we especially have a responsibility to stand up to the propaganda of the Right. Lunacy is not good for democracy.

Speaking of which, what do you make of the state of our democracy look like at present?

Well, democracy—understood as electoral representative democracy—is in a lot of trouble. Now, some of that comes from the growing role of business in American politics: the concentrated resources that business interests groups bring to bear on campaigns and candidates as lobbyists, as big-money contributors, and the influence they have on the parties, as well.

But some of the trouble also comes from the influence of propaganda in a society that is very difficult to understand for the ordinary citizen. One has to have explanations for what happens, and the role of government in what happens, in order to do one’s democratic duty as a citizen and as a voter. American politics is hard to understand. The fact that it is so dense, so complicated, so opaque and turgid opens the way for lunatic propaganda. And sometimes not so lunatic! The right-wing propaganda campaign that has now been going on for forty years—a campaign that is sometimes referred to as the politics of distraction—to try to wean the American working class away from New Deal policies and the Democratic Party by raising cultural issues that largely have to do with race and sex. This larger campaign is perhaps not lunatic, but neither is it a contribution to democratic discourse.

Is It Palestine’s Turn?

Cross-posted from Foreign Policy in Focus sister publication Right Web.

As revolutions erupted across Tunisia and Egypt, one of the first questions that arose in the West was the effect of the newly-energized Arab democratic movements on the state of Israel. The Washington establishment has generally accepted the view — promoted by the likes of Dennis Ross and Elliott Abrams — that the uprisings were solely based on domestic concerns and had no relation whatsoever to Israel or the United States. However, other observers who carefully monitored the protestors have gleaned a strong and persistent anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian position throughout the regional upheavals. There can be no question that the Arab Spring will have a considerable impact on Israeli regional calculations, including the viability of the occupation.

While the ultimate impact of these developments will be difficult to determine for some time to come, one question in particular must be addressed to frame the potential long-term effects of the Arab revolutions on Middle East peace: what do these revolutions mean for Palestine? By and large, the effect on Israel is manifested mostly by the changing dynamic of its relationship to Palestinians, which formed the basis of Israeli policy toward its allied neighbor states of Jordan and Egypt, and its enmity to Syria. If the Arab revolutions empower Palestinians to build a mass movement for independence, and if the new Arab governments push Israel’s neighbors to play a more active role in the Palestinian struggle, then Israeli regional hegemony may well be significantly compromised.

Visit Right Web to read Is It Palestine’s Turn? in its entirety.

Peru’s Presidential Election: Populist Humala v. MOR Candidates

Peru presidential electionPeruvians head to the polls on Sunday, April 10 in what are shaping up to be the most volatile and unpredictable presidential and congressional elections in recent memory. With no candidate likely to get the 50 percent of the vote needed to win in the first round, a second round of voting for President on June 5 is virtually assured. The most recent polls indicate that populist candidate Ollanta Humala will be the top-vote getter on Sunday and will easily make it through the first round — as he did in 2006, only to be routed by Alan Garcia. But it remains unclear who among his contenders will compete with him in the second round.

Humala’s recent rise in the polls caught observers by surprise. Until a few weeks ago, he was polling in the low teens, and former President Alejandro Toledo was considered a shoo-in to win the first round. But by mid-March, Toledo started to slip in the polls. Humala was not the only candidate to reap the benefits: Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a businessman who served as Toledo’s Prime Minister and whose poll numbers were in the single digits, also saw his numbers rise.

Today, Toledo and Kuczynski are in a virtual dead-heat for the second-place spot with Keiko Fujimori. Keiko, daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori, now serving a 25-year sentence for human rights violations committed during his 10-year authoritarian regime, maintains a solid block of about 18 percent of the electorate, apparently more out of loyalty to her father than support for her lackluster campaign. Luis Castañeda Lossio, two-time mayor of Lima, has seen his poll numbers drop substantively, from a high of 25 percent to under 14 percent now, so many see him as no longer a prime contender for that coveted second place.

But uncertainty abounds. Polls put Humala as the front-runner with a solid lead over the remaining candidates, but they almost uniformly show him losing in a second round to any of the other candidates. Another element of surprise is the 30 percent of voters who say they are still undecided about who they will cast their ballot for on Sunday. And, of those who do express a preference, about 25 percent say that they may switch their vote.

A variety of factors help explain such indecisiveness. Political parties have all but disappeared, along with strong political allegiances. While each of the top candidates has a core block of support, none has generated a great deal of enthusiasm among the electorate more broadly. Interestingly, 50 percent or more say that they “would never” vote for each of the top candidates, meaning that those who do make it to the second round will have a tough sell and a significant chunk of blank or spoiled ballots in the final vote could undermine the legitimacy of the ultimate victor.

Perhaps most significantly, apart from Humala, the candidates are more or less offering the same thing: continuity with the present economic model, improved education, improved security, and the like. As a result, to a degree surprising even by Peruvian standards, the electoral debate has focused less on programmatic differences and more on personal issues. The media has focused more on how many bottles of whiskey were purchased by the Presidential Palace when Toledo was president than how to ensure that Peru’s impressive economic growth lead to real and sustainable improvements for the urban and rural poor.

Indeed, Humala has capitalized on the frustration that many Peruvians feel with regards to rampant corruption and the sense that only a select group is benefiting from steady economic growth. His steady rise in the polls should not be surprising given that recent polls show that only 22 percent of the population is happy with the present economic model, while 33 percent want radical change and 36 percent want some change. Humala is offering simple and direct programs that have proven to be very popular in neighboring countries, such as a means-tested pension plan for those over 65, improved access to health care for the poor, and a program to provide childcare for children under the age of three in the poorest districts in the country.

With Humala’s rise in the polls, the fear mongering is in full swing, with headlines proclaiming that the end of capitalism is near and the Peruvian is blogosphere rife with pseudo-sarcastic comments urging Peruvians to get their passports ready given the very real possibility that the final round would pit Humala versus Keiko Fujimori. Reacting to this possibility, Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa said “it would be like having to choose between AIDS and cancer.” Humala does raise concern among many progressives. There are well-founded allegations of responsibility for human rights violations that took place when he was a military commander in a jungle region during Peru’s brutal civil conflict, though the initial case brought by human rights groups was dismissed after the witnesses reversed their testimony. Not long after the 2006 elections, his congressional majority in congress began to splinter, leading some analysts to question his leadership skills. Finally, it is important to point out that the Peruvian left is split over his candidacy, with some key politicians, activists and social movements supporting him, but many others who are not and who likely feel disenfranchised for lack of an alternative left-wing candidate.

Whatever happens in the first round of voting on April 10, it is likely to be a deeply polarizing road to the second-round elections. Moreover, all indications are that the Peruvian Congress will be extremely fractured, with no political group having a decisive majority. The next president of Peru, whoever that proves to be, will face immediate challenges to ensure effective governability – and to create a government that is responsive to the needs of all Peruvians.

Coletta A. Youngers is the Latin America Regional Associate with the International Drug Policy Consortium and a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Jo-Marie Burt is an Associate Professor at George Mason University and also a WOLA Senior Fellow.

Why Burma’s Ethnic Minorities Become Refugees to Thailand

Karen Mae Sot(Pictured: Karen refugee camp in Mae Sot, Thailand.)

Recently Foreign Policy in Focus excerpted a new book titled Nowhere to be Home: Narratives from Survivors of Burma’s Military Regime (McSweeney’s Voice of Witness series), edited by Maggie Lemere and Zoë West. Meanwhile, Michael Busch interviewed Mac McClelland, author of another new book on Burma, For Us Sur­ren­der is Out of the Ques­tion (Soft Skull Press) for an article that originally appeared in the CUNY Graduate Center Advocate.

Nearly fifty years after Burma’s last democratically-elected gov­ern­ment was over­thrown by a military-led coup, the South­east Asian coun­try has suf­fered some of the world’s most egre­gious human rights abuses. For activists, Burma has become syn­ony­mous with insti­tu­tion­al­ized rape, tor­ture, forced labor, and eth­nic cleans­ing. In the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, how­ever, the enor­mity of Burma’s cri­sis remains obscured by indif­fer­ence and the over­shad­ow­ing pres­ence of dis­as­ters in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Darfur.

In 2006, Mother Jones edi­tor and human rights reporter Mac McClel­land vol­un­teered as an Eng­lish lan­guage teacher with a Burmese refugee orga­ni­za­tion in Mae Sot, Thai­land, a small fron­tier town hug­ging the bor­der with Burma. There, she lived, worked, and par­tied with a small band of hard-drinking refugees who risk their lives to doc­u­ment the slowly grind­ing geno­cide con­sum­ing eth­nic minori­ties in Burma. McClel­land col­lects their sto­ries of strug­gle and sur­vival under a mur­der­ous regime in a wide-ranging, metic­u­lously reported, and vividly recounted new mem­oir, For Us Sur­ren­der is Out of the Ques­tion.

McClel­land sat down recently with the CUNY Advo­cate to dis­cuss her new book, the rea­son the world con­tin­ues to ignore the geno­cide in Burma, and why there still may be hope for vic­tims of the world’s longest-running war.

I hoped we could begin by set­ting the stage a bit. Can you dis­cuss how it is that you came to work with Burmese refugees in Thailand?

It really was as lame as I describe it in the book. I was dick­ing around on the inter­net, saw some­thing about these Burmese refugee camps near the bor­der in Thai­land, but I couldn’t find any infor­ma­tion about why they were there. I saw that there were 100,000 Burmese refugees in Thai­land, and I was like, “Huh? Really?” I had never heard that before. Of course, you know some­where in the back of your mind that Burma sucks, that it’s not exactly a place you would want to live, not exactly a bas­tion of democ­racy, but I hadn’t heard that there was a refugee cri­sis, that there are hun­dreds of thou­sands of refugees leav­ing the coun­try. I couldn’t find any eas­ily acces­si­ble infor­ma­tion about what the hell the story was, so when I fin­ished grad­u­ate school I was like, “I’m just gonna go and check it out.”

Did you travel there with the inten­tion of writ­ing a book?

No. I really just wanted to go and see what was going on.

What was the most sur­pris­ing thing that you expe­ri­enced while you were there?

Well, the geno­cide. The geno­cide that I had never heard of, that most peo­ple have never heard of because peo­ple are afraid to label it a geno­cide. It’s too com­pli­cated, too polit­i­cally charged. To real­ize that some­thing of that scope, at that level of hor­ror, was hap­pen­ing and that it’s not widely reported — despite the fact that it has been doc­u­mented to death — was stun­ning to me. I mean, to every sin­gle thing that came out of the mouths of these guys that I was work­ing with my response would be, “Really?!?” They would show me videos, and pic­tures, and I would get inter­views, just end­less stacks of shit, and with all of it, in every case, my response was, “No, that’s news to me. No, that story doesn’t exist in my media. No, I don’t know what you are talk­ing about.” In ret­ro­spect, I guess it was stu­pid to have had faith in think­ing that I would have known about this. But it is so big! You would think that some­body would have been doing some­thing about it.

So, why haven’t they? Is it sim­ply that Burma is home to the world’s longest run­ning war, and so doesn’t con­sti­tute news? Is news fatigue a fac­tor? Or is there some­thing else going on that we should consider?

Yeah, well, it seems to me that the fact that it is so old could pos­si­bly have some­thing to do with it, but at the same time the story is so juicy, it is so shock­ing, that it seems to me like some­thing that could totally move papers. But it’s also that peo­ple in this coun­try — this is not as true in the UK — don’t really know what Burma is, where Burma is, don’t nec­es­sar­ily know what con­ti­nent Burma is on, so I think that news orga­ni­za­tions assume that the story will be a hard sell, and they’re prob­a­bly right. If I were more of a con­spir­acy the­o­rist I would say that the geno­cide in Burma is being under­re­ported because our gov­ern­ment doesn’t want the peo­ple to know about it because then they would have to do some­thing about it. And they don’t want to do some­thing about it because then China would get mad. But really, I think it’s just a hard-to-sell story. Of course, it could also be fatigue: peo­ple def­i­nitely had Haiti fatigue, just as they had New Orleans fatigue before that. The thing with Burma, though, is it seems like it hasn’t reached that point. I just think we don’t know what to do with it. Instead, we talk about the same thing over and over again, which is that there’s a polit­i­cal pris­oner [Aung San Suu Kyi] there. Couldn’t we use that as a news peg to say “Oh, and by the way, there’s also a geno­cide going on”?

Let’s talk about your approach to report­ing on the cri­sis in Burma. There’s a won­der­ful ten­sion in the book between the rig­or­ous his­tor­i­cal research that con­tex­tu­al­izes the storywhich feels almost aca­d­e­mic in natureand the vig­or­ously infor­mal tone you adopt that frames the nar­ra­tive. First, did this mix­ture result from hav­ing a par­tic­u­lar audi­ence in mind while writ­ing? And sec­ond, can you dis­cuss the chal­lenges of nego­ti­at­ing the slip­pery slope between these two ele­ments of your style?

I def­i­nitely did not have a par­tic­u­lar audi­ence in mind. To me, the num­ber one thing was that I had the sto­ries of these refugees which were fuck­ing crazy. I really wanted to tell them. Period. As for the way the nar­ra­tive came about, that was more the result of per­son­al­ity than any­thing else. First of all, I am a huge nerd: I love research and fact-checking and col­lect­ing infor­ma­tion. At the same time, I write the way that I speak. When we were shop­ping the book pro­posal, a lot of peo­ple were not huge fans of that. They would be like, “Yes, this is an impor­tant sub­ject and peo­ple should write more books about Burma. But we can never abide by the scathing, the obnox­ious tone of this narrator!”

Since the excerpt from the book came out in the new Mother Jones, some pretty impor­tant orga­ni­za­tions — I won’t name any names — have writ­ten let­ters to the edi­tor say­ing “What the fuck were you think­ing, fram­ing this in this way. It’s totally inap­pro­pri­ate for a human rights story.” So I guess I know, now, who is not my audi­ence! They thought that I was under­min­ing the impor­tance of the sit­u­a­tion by not being dryer in talk­ing about it. But for me, that’s exactly the prob­lem with all this infor­ma­tion! It’s pre­sented in a way that no one would ever want to look at it. Even the videos you see have these dire voiceovers — almost always done by British peo­ple — and there’s always this slow and sad piano music in the back­ground. The moment you cue it up you say to your­self “I’m not going to watch this. It’s going to be bor­ing and/or sad.”

I’ve read a thou­sand books about Burma and even the mod­ern ones, they still read like reports, like aca­d­e­mic tracts. They’re long, there’s no nar­ra­tive, and there are no char­ac­ters. Because there are no char­ac­ters, I think that makes it hard for peo­ple to read, to engage with this con­flict. So, I was basi­cally writ­ing the book I needed when I was try­ing to find out what was going on. This was the book I was look­ing for, and couldn’t find.

Given the jaw-dropping vio­lence and atroc­i­ties being per­pe­trated in Burma and the world’s seem­ingly indif­fer­ent response thus far, do you still hold any faith that the United Nations or other mem­bers of the inter­na­tional com­mu­nity will inter­vene on behalf of vic­tims there at any point in the fore­see­able future?

I have some. We have peace­keep­ers on the ground in Dar­fur, after all, so we know we can do it. It’s not like the mech­a­nisms aren’t there, that money isn’t there. They are. It’s just that peo­ple aren’t employ­ing them. Thank God I can point to Sudan, though, because oth­er­wise I would prob­a­bly answer no, I don’t have much faith. In Burma, those vil­lagers would be so happy to see some­thing like that. Even just the atten­tion would be impor­tant. They would be so happy that peo­ple knew what was hap­pen­ing. It would make a huge dif­fer­ence in their lives. So yes, I do have some faith. I rec­og­nize that it might be stu­pid, but if more peo­ple were talk­ing about Burma, then the United Nations would be forced to address it.

Let’s talk about United States for­eign pol­icy for a moment. Given the nec­es­sary polit­i­cal will to act on the sit­u­a­tion in Burma, what options, if any, could the Barack Obama admin­is­tra­tion rea­son­ably pur­sue to have a pos­i­tive impact there?

First of all, our gov­ern­ment could lead the charge for a com­mis­sion of inquiry into crimes against human­ity in Burma. Every­one knows that the United States is in charge, in many ways, of the United Nations, and cer­tainly of the Secu­rity Coun­cil. So, if we made a big deal of Burma, showed that this is a cause that we are behind and are will­ing to fight for, that would make a huge dif­fer­ence in com­par­i­son to what we are doing now, which is noth­ing. If a com­mis­sion of inquiry were to be put into place then all this doc­u­men­ta­tion sit­ting around would have to be looked at. I can’t imag­ine that peo­ple would see all that and then decide that this is not a prob­lem. The Obama admin­is­tra­tion actu­ally wouldn’t even have to do all that much work: it wouldn’t cost any­thing; peo­ple wouldn’t have to be moved around. The pres­i­dent would sim­ply just have to say, “We need to do this thing, right now.”

You make the point in the book’s clos­ing chap­ter that when it comes to US-China rela­tions, eco­nomic con­cerns trump human rights com­plaints that Wash­ing­ton might oth­er­wise press with respect to Burma. Yet in the case of Dar­fur, we saw some­thing a lit­tle dif­fer­ent play out. Why? What are the key deter­mi­nants that dis­tin­guish these two sit­u­a­tions from one another?

I think civil soci­ety plays a huge part. First of all, it’s about aware­ness: the pub­lic doesn’t know about Burma, and if the pub­lic doesn’t know about Burma then they aren’t putting pres­sure on politi­cians to talk about it. And so they won’t, because it’s eas­ier to ignore it. The “g” word also plays a big part in this. Right now, we just have this vague idea about Burma — that there’s a dic­ta­tor­ship or some­thing there, that they sound really mean, and that there’s a lot of cen­sor­ship. This is not enough for peo­ple to get behind, to pres­sure the United States to stand up to China and fight them on the issue. But imag­ine if some­one threw it out there, called it what it was, and said, “This is a geno­cide! These are the pic­tures. Here is the evi­dence.” This is what hap­pened in the case of Dar­fur. The exact same thing could hap­pen in South­east Asia. There’s no rea­son why it couldn’t.

A host of pos­si­ble actions, peace­ful and coer­cive, have been artic­u­lated to pres­sure the Burmese junta to respect basic human rights and pre­pare the way for civil­ian rule. At the end of the day, other options hav­ing been con­sid­ered, what do you think about pos­si­bil­i­ties for mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion in Burma? Is this going too far?

I don’t think it’s going too far. In my opin­ion, peace­keep­ers are the answer. At least, they’re as close to the answer as we’re likely to get. The ideal solu­tion, of course, would be that the coun­try even­tu­ally evolves away from dic­ta­tor­ship and builds the nec­es­sary insti­tu­tions for a demo­c­ra­tic soci­ety and blah blah blah. In the mean­time, some­one needs to pro­tect these fuck­ing vil­lagers in the east of Burma. It’s absurd what’s hap­pen­ing. I read exile news­pa­pers. Every sin­gle day, there are reports of five-year-old girls being gang-raped, four thou­sand new refugees pour­ing over the bor­der into south­ern China, this sort of thing. It is so urgent. Per­haps not to you, per­haps not to me, but it is for the peo­ple who have to deal with it. The fact that this has been going on for so long, and that so few peo­ple know about it, is ridiculous.

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