Veni, Vedi, Vasectomy?

June 5, 2015 at 2:54 pm | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, Human Rights, international relations, Labor, Political Economy, Production, world politics | 1 Comment
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On June 3, when the President of the European Commission (EC), Jean-Claude Juncker conveyed the collective demands of Greece’s creditors—the European Central Bank (ECB), the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund—to the embattled country’s Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, a member of his governing Syriza party said of the Greek delegation: “They came, they saw, and they had their balls handed to them.”

Five months after the anti-austerity party rode to victory in the Greek elections and had renounced efforts by previous Greek governments to impose austerity measures that had led the country’s debt grow from 124 per cent of GDP to 180 per cent and its unemployment rate soar to 25 per cent (and youth unemployment to 60 per cent) and its pensioners see their meagre pensions decline even faster, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel invited the IMF’s Managing Director Christine Lagarde and the President of the ECB, Mario Draghi to a previously scheduled meeting between herself, Juncker, and the French President Francois Hollande on June 1 to draft a common negotiating position among Greece’s creditors. Prime Minister Tsipras was notably not invited.

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Papering over their differences, the 5-page demands Juncker delivered to Tsipras made some concessions to Greece—lowering the demand that the primary surplus for 2015 be 1 per cent rather than the 3-4 per cent that had been the earlier demand—but also included “red lines” that the Syriza-led government had vowed never to cross such as generating 2 per cent of the GDP from cutting pensions and raising VAT to a uniform level (except on food, medicines, and hotels), not to reverse the labor market reforms that the ‘troika’ (the ECB, the EC, and the IMF) had forced down the throats of previous governments, and even to establish an ‘independent’ tax and customs agency and thereby making its operations beyond the ambit of elected officials.

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Yet, far beyond debates on primary surpluses and ‘red lines,’ the real struggle between Greece and its “European partners” is over politics. The positions are clear. Because of the single currency, an indebted country like Greece cannot devalue its currency and thereby cheapen its exports and with the increase in exports (and tourism) repay its debts. Hence the ‘troika’ (now renamed ‘the institutions’) were attempting to impose an ‘internal devaluation’ on Athens: forcing it to cut minimum wages and increase labor market ‘flexibility’ (making it easier to hire and fire workers and thereby also curb labor militancy) to force down the prices of Greek products to increase exports, to privatize government assets, improve taxation and efficiency in collecting taxes, and to sharply reduce government expenditures by severely cutting welfare programs and reducing public sector employment and pensions. Syriza and other opponents of the ‘austerity’ measures have argued that these measures actually impede Greece’s ability to repay its loans: if people don’t have money due to welfare cuts, job losses, etc., they cannot buy goods and hence more businesses fail. Indeed, Greece’s GDP has contracted by over 25 per cent in the five years of troika-mandated austerity and its unemployment remains high while its debt as a ratio of GDP has grown from 124 per cent to 180 per cent.

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As Robert Preston, the BBC’s economics editor puts it:

But although for the pride of the creditors, the question of whether Greece is obliged to generate a surplus on its budget, excluding interest payments, of a bit more than zero or 3%, feels like a world of difference – it is a rounding error compared with the money Greece owes them, which is equivalent to 180% of Greek GDP.

In the highly unlikely event that Greece could generate a 2% or 3% surplus year-in and year-out without its economy shrinking further (which few economists would anticipate), it would take around half a century for Greek public sector debt to fall to a level regarded as sustainable. gett A half century of austerity? In what modern democracy would that be regarded as a realistic option?

Most egregiously, sharp cuts in expenditure has meant that in some hospitals budgets have fallen by 94 per cent. How can this be sustainable in a continent as rich as Europe?

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It is clear that one way or another, as Nils Pratley wrote in the Guardian, there will have to be a debt write-down. What Greece’s European “partners” are unwilling to countenance is Syriza’s demands to reverse the “austerity” measures because they want to root out any left-wing challenge to the reigning neo-liberal orthodoxy. Once Greece caves in, subjects itself to ‘vasectomy’ in the words of one of its MPs, then debt-relief could be offered but not before. To offer a write-down of the debt is particularly terrifying to Spain where the governing party has already lost many local elections to a Syriza-like party, Podemos, which now controls the three major cities of Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia. It is also threatening to other EU economies like Portugal, Ireland, and Italy which have been compelled to implement austerity measures.

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Syriza has, however, done its cause no favors despite some eloquent posturing by its Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis. It has not demanded a write down of the debt—and we must remember that when the troika made the first loan to Greece in 2010, Germany and France explicitly demanded that the austerity not be extended to the military—and Greece has been the best customer of the German arms industry. How is the cutting of pensions and salaries to workers while maintaining higher than the EU average in military spending morally justifiable?

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With Syriza maintaining the charade of negotiating with its European ‘partners’ over the last months, Greece’s position has rapidly deteriorated as frightened depositors have withdrawn their money from the banks and even transferred them outside the country. By the end of April, Greece’s bank deposits were at their lowest level since 2004 and by the end of last week deposits were being withdrawn at the daily rate of 1 billion euros.

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Interestingly, the Speaker of the Greek Parliament, Zoe Konstantopoulou, has set up a Debt Truth Committee to report to parliament on June 18

is said to be on the point of finding some of Greece’s original bailout debt, from either 2010 or 2011, was unlawfully contracted. In addition, Ms Konstantopoulou is armed with a finding from experts that Germany owes Greece €350bn in war reparations – more than the whole of its debt to Europe.

This could open up a host of legal challenges even if Tsipiras was to finally cave into the troika’s demands. The question is whether the Left Platform within Syriza is strong enough to prevent a cave in when there is nothing the troika would like than to install a government of national unity with a rump Syriza. That would, temporarily at least till Spain’s November election, decapitate the European Left. Will it happen?

In the short run, if no resolution is found, Greece will be unable to make scheduled payments to its creditors and being declared to be in default would make its borrowing costs in private capital markets intolerable; Syriza’s reluctance to impose capital controls would lead to the swift collapse of its banking sector unless the government begins to issue a virtual currency against future revenues which could ease the liquify crunch domestically at least. But Greece cannot be thrown out of the EU without its consent as all decisions must be unanimous. Even if Greece were to exit the common currency—Grexit as it has been dubbed—it would call the whole European project into question. It is also unrealistic to expect a country as bankrupt as Greece to police its borders when hordes of refugees from Africa and the Middle East are streaming to Europe—and from Greece, they could move to any country in the Schengen area. Will this be enough for its European ‘partners’ to blink?

Gathering Storm Over Syria

August 28, 2013 at 2:07 pm | Posted in Arms Control, Human Rights, International Relations, World Politics | 1 Comment
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Grotesque images of children foaming at the mouth as they lay dying from an apparent chemical weapons attack in the eastern suburbs of Damascus on 21 August 2013 was, in the words of US Secretary of State John Kerry, a “moral obscenity.” Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) reports that the three hospitals it supports in Damascus treated 3,600 patients with symptoms of poisoning and 355 of them have died. While Kerry and his counterparts in Britain, France, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have been quick to blame the attack on the Bashar al-Assad regime they have not yet produced any evidence linking the regime to the attacks. MSF reports that while there are strong indications that thousands of patients were exposed to a neurotoxic agent, they “can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack.”

 

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Indeed, the timing of the attack—on the one year anniversary of President Barack Obama’s warning to the Assad government that the use of chemical weapons against their adversaries would cross his “red line”—is suspicious. The regime, by all accounts, was pushing back the rebels. Why would it now invite retribution from the West? We don’t know what chemicals were used or even who gave the order to launch the chemical weapons. Even if the attack was launched by Syrian government forces, is it possible that it was by a mid-level officer fearful of failure—not because the regime has qualms killing its own people, but because it is not mad enough to invite a hail of missiles?

Washington initially balked at the UN inspectors going to investigate the attack and then when they eventually commenced their inquiry, the White House claimed that the evidence will necessarily be tainted since it was already five days after the attack. Yet, scientists have found the unique chemical signature of sarin in a Kurdish village 4 years after Iraqi warplanes dropped cluster bombs according to a New York Times report and the UN investigators are confident of finding evidence if there are any. Long years of experience have given investigators sophisticated techniques to decipher the use of chemical weapons long after the fact. Tellingly, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem told reporters that the UN asked permission to access the sites of the alleged chemical attacks only on Saturday 24 August and permission was granted the next day! This does not qualify as stalling by any standard. While the investigators have no mandate to determine who was culpable, the fact that their convoy, when escorted by Syrian government forces, was shot at and had to retreat temporarily is also suspicious. Why should the government shoot its own military escorts?

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The US and UK governments claim to have incontrovertible evidence that the Assad regime was responsible for the attacks but no such evidence has been presented and journalists do not press them to reveal this secret evidence. As Noam Chomsky noted many years ago, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” Thus, mainstream media in the US or the UK have not conducted interviews with Syrian government officials—except for a few cameo quotes which are then obscured by long interviews with administration spokesmen—or even the UN inspectors on the ground.

No mention has been made in the mainstream media that Carla Del Ponte, a member of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria reported in May 2013 that testimony from medical personnel indicated “strongly but not incontrovertibly” that rebel forces were using the nerve agent sarin. In fact, the New York Times edited its online article on the alleged use of chemical weapons 22 times on Monday August 26, mainly to shore up support for the administration’s position. And after the Bush White House assurances of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq 10 years ago, claims by the Obama White House of chemical attacks by the Assad regime without any evidence to back it up is equally suspect.

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In fact, as veteran journalist Gwynne Dyer notes, if we apply the time-honored test of who benefited from the chemical attack—the only likely answer are one of the many rebel factions knowing that their use will bring retribution on Assad. Indeed, the focus on chemical weapons attack also detracts from the atrocities of the rebels—notably the ethnic cleansing of Kurds in the north-east forcing 40,000 of them to flee to northern Iraq in the biggest refugee exodus of the Syrian civil war. In all the moral fury marshaled by US and UK administrations there is nary a word about this outrage!

What is also remarkable is that left-liberal opinion in the United States is so overjoyed that Obama is not Bush that they do not hold him to the same standards of scrutiny to which they have held other presidents. No large anti-war protests are planned when the US has already stationed four ships and some submarines capable of firing cruise missiles at Syria in the eastern Mediterranean and Prime Minister David Cameron has called back parliament to debate a punitive strike on Syria.

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Then again there is the question of legal justification. As it is clear that there will be no mandate from the United Nations Security Council for a punitive strike on Syria since Russia is irremediably opposed to it, justifications are trotted out on what William Hague, the UK Foreign Secretary said was “a great humanitarian need and distress” and claimed that it is based on “international law.” It is not clear though which “international law” was being invoked. If it was the international convention on the non-use of chemical and biological weapons, three major states in the Middle East–Egypt, Israel, and Syria–have not ratified it. So Syria is being asked to adhere to a treaty it has not signed—an excellent legal precedent!

US forces have admitted dropping white phosphorus over Fallujah in 2004 and Britain and the United States had supplied chemicals and weapon-making equipment in the 1980s to Saddam Hussein for his war against Iran. But of course, in true imperialist hubris, the laws they impose on others do not apply to themselves.

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Not only is there no compelling evidence that the Syrian government had deployed chemical weapons and no legal basis exists for attacking the country, but options to attack are so marginal that they are merely a pointless punitive strike. Israel has attacked Syria with missiles several times without causing any real change in the Assad government’s behavior and it is unclear what more can be expected from a US-led NATO strike. Clearly Syria’s chemical weapons cannot be targeted as that would cause unimaginable casualties. Syrian government, anticipating an attack would already have reconfigured its command-and-control operations so they do not present an easy target. It is only those command-and-control positions that are not easily moveable which could be attacked and these may cause large civilian casualties as well. Military airfields could be cratered and aircraft bombed and this may hurt the Assad regime in the short run. Even the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, has admitted that less than 10 percent of the casualties in the two and a half years of civil war in Syria are accounted by bombs.

The conclusion is inescapable: any attack on Syria is simply to counter domestic opponents who claim that the Obama is weak. His Republican nemesis, John McCain and his allies have been hunkering for a more muscular American response to Syria even though it would raise military spending and further complicate the budgetary situation in Washington. But Obama can now become a ‘war president.’ For that, many Syrians will die a senseless death.

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Even worse, launching missile strikes against the Assad regime will complicate the current moribund peace talks which are the only way to resolve the crisis. Here, too the US is torpedoing efforts to bring the warring parties together by insisting that Syria’s close ally, Iran, be excluded from it. There are so many rebel factions—some 1,200 different military units by Patrick Cockburn’s count ranging from small family outfits to large organized units with tanks and artillery—that they cannot even agree on a delegation to represent them. It is as he says “a failed country and a failed opposition.”

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This is not a situation that calls for surgical air strikes. If the Obama administration really wants to bring peace, it needs to cooperate with Russia and get their regional allies to sit together at a conference table after agreeing to a cease fire.

Egypt: Chronicle of a Death Foretold

July 31, 2013 at 6:56 pm | Posted in democracy, Human Rights, International Relations, Political Economy, World Politics | 1 Comment
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Heaping irony upon irony, three weeks after protesters cheered the military for ousting Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi, the new strongman, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called on the people to take to the streets in a show of support for him to defeat “violence and potential terrorism.” And taking the large crowds that gathered in Tahrir Square as a mandate to crush supporters of the democratically elected president, the army launched a massacre of Morsi loyalists at their Cairo sit-in on Saturday 27 June 2013.

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Much has been written about President Morsi’s overreach for power despite having secured only 51.7% of the vote in a run-off against a factotum of the old regime, Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister to serve under Hosni Mubarak. But perhaps his biggest failure was not to neutralize the country’s coercive apparatus, laughably called its security services.

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Though human rights activists had hoped that as Morsi has himself been targeted by the police during his long years in opposition, he would rein in the police, he openly praised the police for its role in the 2011 revolution—a revolution in which uniformed and plain clothes officers had killed over 800 people, just as they killed Morsi’s supporters last Saturday. The military has also been unrepentant about its role under the old regime: as late as June 2011, General al-Sisi justified the “virginity tests” the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces inflicted, among other humiliations, on women demonstrators during the Cairo chapter of the Arab Spring.

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In yet another irony, the liberals installed in the interim government by the military blamed the massacre on the protesters killing each other! Nor have the liberals protested the interior minister, General Mohamed Ibrahim, a holdover from Morsi’s cabinet claiming that the anti-Morsi crowds in Tahrir Square gave him the mandate to resurrect the old regime’s hated secret police, the Amn al-Dawla or State Security force that had been disbanded in March 2011. As University of Oklahoma professor Samer S Shehata observes, Egypt’s tragedy is that “its politics are dominated by democrats who are not liberals and liberals who are not democrats.”

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When television cameras beam pictures of massive crowds in Tahrir Square opposing President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, it is well to remember that in the first round of last year’s presidential elections, the candidate who won a plurality of votes in Cairo and in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city, was neither Morsi nor his opponent in the run off election, but a secular candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi. Long decades of providing social services to poor neighborhoods in Cairo and other cities, and in the rural areas where most Egyptians live has created a massive constituency of support for the Muslim Brotherhood. No democracy can take root in Egypt by excluding them as the military seeks to do with the connivance of the liberals and the West.

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When secular Egyptians—even radicals like Samir Amin—rejoice at the military’s ouster of a democratically elected president and plaster the general’s photo all across Cairo, they repeat Morsi’s fatal mistake of relying on the army and the police rather than on democratic institutions and protocols. By shutting down Islamists’ media outlets, reviving the secret police, and conspiring to ban the Muslim Brotherhood entirely, the military is fast overturning the gains of the Arab Spring. No future government is safe from military intervention.

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The coup d’etat against Egypt’s democratically elected government will have resonances far beyond the country’s borders. As the oldest and most influential Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood has affiliates across the Islamic world and while these parties have largely renounced violence, now they could well conclude that violence is the only way to achieve power. After all, previously in 1992, as the Islamists were poised to win an election in Algeria, the army annulled the election. After they are denied office a second time, why should they place their hopes again in the electoral process? An ultraconservative Libyan cleric, Sheikh Mohamed Abu Sibra has already admitted that it has become impossible to persuade militias in Benghazi to lay down their weapons.

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The interim government imposed by the military is also not going to be able to solve Egypt’s economic problems that also fueled the opposition to the Morsi government. When the tourist industry was in the doldrums and over 40% of the population was living below the poverty level, Morsi ended the food and utility subsidies as demanded by the IMF as the price for a $4.8 billion loan. As prices soared, food became unaffordable and the World Food Program reported that the growth of a third of all children in the country was stunted in 2011. Neither the military nor the interim government it installed is likely to reinstate subsidies and the military which controls 40% of the country’s economy will zealously safeguard its privileges. No future government will dare tamper with the military’s perks.

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With poverty and disenchantment in the streets, and continuing oppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, chances are that Egypt is in for a prolonged bout of conflict unless international forces intervene. By closing the life-giving tunnels to the Palestinians brutally imprisoned in Gaza, the military has played on Israel’s security fears and inoculated the coup against pressure from Washington. And the collapse of Egypt’s democratic essay has once again prompted the racist trope that Islam is incompatible with democracy. In an op-ed in the New York Times on the day after the coup, David Brooks wrote: “It’s not that Egypt doesn’t have a recipe for a democratic transition. It seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients.”

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It is a real pity that the so-called emerging powers—China, India, Brazil, and South Africa don’t weigh in on the events in Egypt and leave the West to define an ‘international response’! Democracy, after all, is not the exclusive preserve of the West—and the few governments elected by popular vote in Europe and North America before the Second World War were underpinned by colonial or neo-colonial exploitation of the peoples of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Democracy is no privileged preserve of any peoples–and the peoples of the world ought to pressure governments everywhere to adhere to democratic norms!

 

Detroitism in Binghamton: A Photo Essay

July 27, 2013 at 9:56 am | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, Human Rights, Outsourcing, Political Economy, world politics | 2 Comments
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Detroitism has emerged a while ago to encapsulate the emergence of urban ruins in North America and Europe–from Camden NJ to Naples and Bucharest–with the decline of manufacturing and the outsourcing of production to low- and middle-income economies in Asia and Latin America. Populations of these cities have declined sharply–from 1.8 million fifty years ago to 700,000 today in Detroit, shrinking tax revenues and depressing property values leading to a degradation of city services and civic amenities and spiking the crime rate. Abandoned houses are stripped of their valuables–metal and copper are sold to junk merchants to be sent to India and China to be melted down and recycled to fuel these ’emerging economies.’

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Smaller towns and cities in the United States have been declining even longer–for more than a century as the mechanization of agriculture and the exhaustion of natural resources set in even before manufacturing began to move to the non-unionized states of the ‘Sunbelt’ and later to even lower-wage locations overseas. And the emergence of ‘big box’ retailers like Wal-mart hollowed out their commercial cores as Edward Alden noted.

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And so it has been with Binghamton, located at the confluence of the Susquehanna and the Chenango rivers in southern New York State. A small farming community till the Chenango Canal was constructed in the mid-1830s, linking it the the Erie Canal at Utica. In addition, the arrival of the railways in the mid-19th century transformed the area into a minor industrial hub for the production of cigars, and later shoes, and high-tech electronics. Between 1860 and 1880, the population of Binghamton rose from 8,325 to a little over 35,000. Tanneries and shoe factories–most notably the Endicott Johnson shoe factory–made Binghamton and its neighboring Johnson City one of the major shoe manufacturing centers in the United States

BDSC00037y the mid-1950s however, competition from several other locations led to a steep decline of shoe production though its impact was cushioned by the rise of several high-tech firms: IBM which was founded in nearby Endicott, Edwin Link who invented the flight stimulator, Valvoline which was to become Whirlpool Corporation

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At the same time, the construction of the interstate highway system, led to a fall in ridership on the trains and the last passenger train rolled off the tracks of the Lackawanna Station in Binghamton in December 1964.

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 The continuing growth of IBM and other technology companies related to defense and the location of one of the four university centers of the State University of New York system led to further growth over the next two decades.

 

Yet, the gradual decline of IBM and the closure of the last shoe factory in the 1990s led to a precipitous decline in the fortunes of the city. The arrival of big box retailers like Wal-Mart finally hollowed out the city’s commercial core.

 

The population of Binghamton, which had peaked at 80.674 in 1950 slid to 47, 376 in the census of 2010–less than it was a 100 years ago in 1910.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Imperial Hubris: European Subservience to the United States

July 3, 2013 at 10:53 pm | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, Human Rights, International Relations, Political Economy, World Politics | 1 Comment
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Rarely in modern history has a statesman’s words been so at odds with his actions as those of French President Francois Hollande in dealing with US spying on its allies. When Mr Edward Snowden, the former US National Security Agency (NSA) infrastructure analyst, revealed that the NSA had bugged the European Union’s offices and embassies of several EU member states, tapped into communications cables, and bugged the 2009 meeting of the G20 leaders in the UK, the French president thundered that this was “unacceptable behaviour” among friends and allies. Yet, on suspicion that Mr Snowden may have been on board the Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane, Paris took the unprecedented step of refusing the plane permission to fly over its territory on Tuesday.

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Actions speak louder than words and while European leaders have feigned outrage about the US eavesdropping on the communications of its citizens and bugging of their embassies, they did not want the man who revealed the extent of US espionage to seek asylum in their countries. If Mr Snowden were on the Bolivian president’s plane and if he were to ask for asylum during a refuelling stop, it would have placed the government of a European state in an impossible situation. Since EU-wide laws prohibit the extradition of persons to countries with capital punishment, it would be politically suicidal for any government to deliver him to Washington. Yet, while European leaders were vociferous in denouncing US espionage, none were willing to defy the US on the issue.

What do you think of national security leaker edward snowden pollHence, France, Portugal and Spain took the unprecedented step of revoking pre-arranged flight permissions for President Morales’ plane—an action in which they were subsequently joined by Italy.  When the plane, running low on fuel, finally landed in Vienna’s Schwechat airport, President Morales was prevented from leaving for 13 hours while the Austrians satisfied themselves that Mr. Snowden was not on the plane.

Let us be clear: Mr Snowden is not a spy. He did not steal US secrets at the behest of a foreign power. He did not publish the contents of the espionage. He merely revealed its massive reach, and its sheer illegality and violation of human rights on a planetary scale by tracking the communications of citizens the world over. He is a whistleblower. The UN defines a whistleblowers “as individuals releasing confidential or secret information although they are under an official or other obligation to maintain confidentiality of secrecy.”

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The special UN rapporteur for the freedom of expression in 2004, along with his counterparts in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Organization of American states, the Guardian newspaper reports, enjoined all governments to protect whistleblowers from all “legal, administrative or employment-related sanctions if they act in ‘good faith’”. By revealing the magnitude of US espionage against their citizens and governments, Mr Snowden clearly acted in public interest.

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Indeed, before Mr Snowden’s revelations, the Director of US National Intelligence, Mr James Clapper had testified to the US Senate Intelligence Committee that in March that the NSA did not collect data indiscriminately on millions of Americans—a testimony he was compelled to retract this week on the scarcely credible ground that he had “simply did not think” of the relevant provision in the Patriot Act that permitted the collection of such data. Likewise, President Barack Obama had claimed several times that the NSA was not eavesdropping on phone calls domestically without warrants—a claim that is proven wrong by Mr Snowden’s revelations.

Jean Asselborn, the foreign minister of Luxembourg, observed that “Americans justify everything by terrorism. The EU and its diplomats are not terrorists.”

Let us also recall that these very same European governments—especially Spain and Portugal—allowed the use of their “airspace and airports for flights associated with CIA secret detention and extraordinary rendition [torture] operations” as the Open Society’s Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition investigation uncovered in a report published earlier this year. An ongoing investigation in France is examining whether the government permitted similar CIA flights. Victims can be carried over their airspace to be tortured but whistleblowers who reveal breaches of their citizens’ privacy and of their own sovereignty cannot! And this from member states of the EU that won the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize for the “advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”!

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Speaking out against US actions while surreptitiously aiding Washington is, of course, not a novel practice for its European allies. Ten years ago, the then French president Jacques Chirac loudly proclaimed that an assault against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was unacceptable to Paris but when the US assault started Chirac opened French airspace to US military flights—something he had not done as premier for Reagan’s attack on Libya in 1986. Though Germany also opposed the Iraq war, once it had begun, its foreign minister prayed for the ‘rapid collapse’ of the resistance. Even Russian president Vladimir Putin for a decisive victory for the US ‘for economic and political reasons,’ just as he offered asylum to Mr Snowden on conditions that he knew would be unacceptable.

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The current generation of European leaders have not known a time in their lives when the United States did not dominate their countries—in the economic, political, and perhaps even cultural arenas. For them to symbolically challenge the US is one thing, to challenge it substantively is another thing altogether. Hence, even when their sovereignty was violated with the bugging of their diplomatic missions and EU offices, and when the privacy of their citizens was infringed by the tapping of their phones and digital communications, all they could do was to do all they could to see that Mr Snowden does not seek asylum in their countries even if that meant endangering the lives of President Morales and his entourage. Would they have done that if President Morales was of European descent?

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A Fog of Myths About North Korea

April 29, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Posted in Arms Control, Capitalism, Human Rights, International Relations, Nuclear Non-Proliferation, Political Economy, World Politics | Leave a comment
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Rarely has the manufacturing of consent in the mainstream media been as thorough as it has been in the case of North Korea. It is the original ‘hermit kingdom,’ isolated from the outside world by a dynasty of communist dictators–a ‘socialism in one family’–and irrational to the extent of threatening Washington with a nuclear Armageddon. This reigning consensus is so widespread that there has been little challenge to it in the major news outlets of the world and yet, a moment’s reflection suggests that there are many flaws in this narrative.

 

In the first instance, in a rare piece of insight into North Korea, a former Western intelligence officer who writes under the pseudonym of James Church has argued that since isolationism is a two-way street, the rest of the world is even more ignorant about North Korea than Pyongyang is about the wider world. After all, North Korean officials can monitor radio and television broadcasts, plug into the Internet, and analyse books and magazines from the outside world. They know what people outside their borders are thinking and doing. But people outside North Korea have little insight into what goes on in the country and are metaphorically reduced to examining the entrails of sacrificial animals to divine Pyongyang’s intentions.

 

Hence, Church writes, “We…have developed a fog of myths about them as a substitute for knowledge.  These myths, handed down from administration to administration, are comforting in their long familiar ring, but make it difficult for us to avoid walking in circles. The North Koreans move nimbly through this fog” like small boats deftly weaving in and out between lumbering vessels.

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Rather than nuclear weapons, Church argues, North Korea’s greatest strength is the capacity to behave badly: by carefully choosing the right time, it knows its actions will force big powers to pay close attention even though they may grind their teeth. What it fears most is being swept aside in big power politics, so by playing its weak hand cleverly, it seeks dialogue with the United States, a process that was derailed when former president George W. Bush labelled it part of an “axis of evil.”

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Recent concerns about Pyongyang’s nuclear program stemmed from an underground nuclear test on February 12, 2013—its third in seven years. In response, the United States and its allies pressed the UN Security Council to add new sanctions on the country: enhanced scrutiny over shipments and air cargo, a ban on the sale of luxury goods, expanded restrictions on a range of institutions and senior officials. China, notably, signed on to these sanctions and did not veto them.

 

If China is dragging its feet on the issue of North Korea, it is also because Beijing has a stake in the survival of the Kim Jong-eun regime. The collapse of North Korea could bring a stream of refugees to China which already has 2 million ethnic Koreans and threaten the stability of the border region. Moreover, since a unified Korea is likely to be led by Seoul, it raises the possibility of US forces on China’s border with Korea. A unified Korea with some 70 million people would also become a formidable economic competitor and transform the dynamics of the regional economy as Timothy Beardson writes in the Financial Times.

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When President Barack Obama acknowledges that North Korea does not have a single deployable nuclear warhead, and according to SIPRI, the five permanent members of the Security Council—all declared nuclear powers—had approximately 19,265 as of January 1, 2012, this response to Pyongyang’s third nuclear test seems disproportionate. This is all the more so since North Korea has withdrawn from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the other states outside the NPT—India, Israel, and Pakistan—are not treated in the same way as Pyongyang. As Jonathan Steele writes in the Guardian, “If it is offensive for North Korea to talk of launching a nuclear strike against the United States (a threat that is empty because the country has no system to deliver the few nuclear weapons it has), how is it less offensive for the US to warn Iran that it will be bombed if it fails to stop its nuclear research?”

 

In response, statements in the official newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), Rodong Simun, on March 6, 2013 declared that if the US continues to threaten it with nuclear weapons, Pyongyang now had the ability to turn Seoul and Washington into “a sea of fire.” North Korea also repudiated the 1953 Korean War ceasefire and cut the Red Cross hotline though lines between military and aviation authorities across the 38th parallel remain open.

 

Notably, till the middle of March, its foreign office maintained that it will abandon its nuclear weapons program if the United States removes its nuclear threats and abandons its hostile posture.

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In reply, as Peter Hayes and Roger Cavazos of San Francisco’s Nautilus Institute note, on March 25 the United States flew B-52 Stratofortress stealth bombers over South Korea in military exercises that stimulated a nuclear attack on North Korea. Not only did these military exercises stir deep memories in North Korea where air raids killed an estimated 20 per cent of the population during the Korean War but the B-52 flights at the same time demonstrated China’s inability to affect US mobilization. The United States also bolstered its anti-missile batteries in Alaska and the West Coast.

 

Should it then surprise us that the North Korean ruling party’s Central Committee Plenum meeting set a ‘new strategic line’ of simultaneously pursuing the path of economic construction and “building nuclear armed forces”? It also announced that it would resume uranium enrichment at the Yongbyon reactor plant that had been moth-balled in October 2007 as a part of the denuclearization process.

 

Nevertheless, the WPK’s Central Committee Plenum ended by also declaring that “As a responsible nuclear weapons state, the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] will make positive efforts to prevent the nuclear proliferation, ensure peace and security in Asia and the rest of the world and realize the denuclearization of the world.”

 

In a state born of guerrilla struggle, leadership requires as Hayes and Cavazos suggest, endless battles and if Kim’s leadership itself is not under threat, he needs to embellish his own credentials. Hence, his belligerence is intended as a professor of Sociology at Seoul National University also suggests, as a manoeuvre to outflank the military while preparing the ground to initiate a more pragmatic economic policy. Thus amid the rattling of nuclear sabres, Kim has appointed as his premier, Pak Pong-ju a pragmatic economist who had been forced out of office in 2007 by the military, reportedly because he followed Chinese suggestions on economic reforms too closely.

 North Korea does not have enough resources to build its economy and to maintain the world’s third largest conventional armed force. Unlike China when it started its reform process in the late 1970s, Pyongyang does not have a huge reserve labor force in agriculture. Its economy is sustained only by extensive food and oil imports from China. To successfully pursue economic growth, a nuclear deterrent will enable Kim to divert labor from his conventional military and hence the ‘new strategic line’ announced by the WPK’s Central Committee Plenum—to simultaneously work at both economic construction and ‘building nuclear armed forces.’

However, by promising not to export nuclear weapons or material, Kim signals that he has no intention of crossing red lines. Indeed, during the recent visit to North Korea by US basketball star Denis Rodman, Kim asked him to tell President Obama to phone him. The American president pointedly refused to accept this invitation in an interview with George Stephanopoulos.

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Again, in an unusual move, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Hyon Hak-bong addressed the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) and asserted that North Korea’s only interest was its legitimate self-defence. While North Korean ambassadors have attended meetings of fraternal associations in the past, it has usually been to accept messages of appreciation or praise—not usually to make statements. What better way to signal Pyongyang’s intentions to negotiate than for its ambassador to make a statement in a European capital?

All US Secretary of State, John Kerry, would offer in return was an offer to talk if North Korea offered unspecified concessions to show its good faith. Faced with US and South Korean intransigence, North Korea effectively closed the Kaesŏng Indusrial Park—a special industrial region—where 123 South Korean companies had been employing 53,000 North Korean workers and directly paying Pyongyang $90 million in wages every year. Significantly, while this is a serious loss to the Kim regime, it is also a non-military response to what the regime sees as persistent US provocation.

While the military was suspicious of Kaesŏng, viewing it as a Trojan horse, the regime’s decision to close it (perhaps temporarily) may indicate that it is trying to show that it is willing to bear a significant cost to send a message that it is serious in its stance.

This should be seen in the light of the fact that the government has turned a blind eye to the growth of a market activities in the country which, Andrei Lankov, a Russian specialist on Korea estimates provides 75 per cent of the income of the people outside the military and the upper echelons of the party. Frequent travel to China and the availability of DVDs about South Korea have opened their eyes to new possibilities offered by consumerism.

This makes it all the more important for the regime to compel its adversaries to change their policies, to secure a peace agreement, to denuclearize the peninsula, and to get reparations from the Japanese who colonized the country from 1895 to 1945. This has been the aim of the regime for 60 years but has assumed a new urgency. A peace treaty is a sign that Pyongyang needs to show that the United States and its friends that grotesquely masquerade as “the international community” accepts it as a legitimate state.

 

Gaza War: A preliminary balance sheet

November 22, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Posted in democracy, Human Rights, International Relations, World Politics | Leave a comment
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Israel’s eight-day assault on Gaza caused enormous damage to the physical infrastructure of that impoverished coastal strip and a vastly disproportionate human toll on the Palestinians. Yet, in a preliminary balance sheet, Hamas is a clear winner. Long shunned by the European Union, Israel, and the United States, it has now emerged as a legitimate player. its rival–the Palestinian Authority–was completely sidelined with its foreign minister forced to visit Gaza with an Arab League delegation! The Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmud Abbas did not visit Gaza at all in contrast to the Egyptian Prime Minister and the Tunisian Foreign Minister. Four years ago, when the Israeli’s had launched their last assault on Gaza, the Palestinian Authority had prevented demonstrations in support of the people of Gaza on the West Bank: this time it could not hold back support for Gaza. It was able to launch rockets to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that even the more militarily capable Hezbollah had not contemplated when Israel invaded Lebanon. Hezbollah, itself, by continuing to back Syria’s Bashar al-Assad who is engaged in a murderous internal war to retain his position, has also lost considerable legitimacy in the Arab street. Conversely, on this register too, Hamas by distancing itself from the Syrian regime and moving its headquarters from Damascus to Qatar, emerges stronger.

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In the deliberately ambiguously worded ceasefire negotiated by Cairo and Washington, none of the terms insisted by the Quartet–the US, the EU, Russia, and the United Nations—that Hamas renounce violence and recognize Israel in return for an engagement were mentioned. Instead, the ceasefire agreement accepted, however vaguely, Hamas’ central demands that targeted assassinations of individuals be stopped and that the border crossings be opened to the free movement of goods and people has been accepted. Whether these agreements will be implemented remains to be seen of course.

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Egypt’s newly elected president Mohamed Morsi has emerged as a key regional power weight. less than 48 hours after the Israeil bombardment, he dispatched his prime minister, Hesham Kandil, to Gaza in a show of support and pointedly condemned Israeli aggression. When the United States continued to unflinchingly support Israel, and refusing to engage Hamas, and with Turkey’s prime minister, Recip Tayyip Erdogan, having cut his ties to Israel, Morsi was the only credible interlocutor capable of negotiating a ceasefire. In fact, emboldened by his role in the Gaza ceasefire, Morsi has flexed his political muscle domestically: conferring on himself extensive powers and immunity from judicial overview.

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Cementing Hamas’ role as a legitimate regional power has been a defeat for the United States. Once again, as the Israeli assault on Gaza began, President Barack Obama said he “fully supported israel’s right to self-defense” and both houses of Congress passed lopsided resolutions in favor of Israel. Yet, as even the Economist magazine indicated the casualties have been disproportionate.

  • Number of Israelis killed by fire from Gaza between January 1st 2012 and November 11th 2012: 1
  • Number of Palestinians in Gaza killed by Israeli fire during the same period: 78
  • Number of Israelis killed by fire from Gaza, November 13th-19th 2012: 3
  • Total number of Israelis killed by rocket, mortar or anti-tank fire from Gaza since 2006: 47
  • Number of Palestinians in Gaza killed by Israeli fire from April 1st 2006 to July 21st 2012: 2,879
  • Number of people killed in traffic accidents in Israel in 2011: 384

Unable to deal directly with Hamas with which it has no formal engagement, the United States was forced to deal with them through Morsi and thus for the first time in the long history of Israeli occupation of Palestine, the ceasefire was announced in an Arab capital!

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Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu may have thought that another attack on Gaza, less than two months before an election, would have bolstered support for him. But continued international pressure, and the impossibility of stifling Gaza resistance to Israeli oppression compelled him to agree to a ceasefire. A poll found that more than 70 percent of those polled in Israel were opposed to the ceasefire, signaling possibly that Netanyahu had badly miscalculated his pre-election war strategy. No doubt, the US will fund a large part of the costs of the Israeli assault: each interceptor missile fired by its Iron Dome system costs $62,000 and each of the 5 Iron Dome batteries cost $50 million and it plans to deploy a total of 13 batteries. This cost will undoubtedly be borne by the American taxpayers–given the US Administration and Congress’ unconditional support for Israel.

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Aid  from Qatar and other Arab states–in October 2012, the Emir of Qater was the first head of state to visit Gaza since the tiny coastal enclave was turned into an open air prison by Israel in 2007–will help rebuild its arsenals and the infrastructure, along with of course support from Iran. Moreover, even as Israeli missiles and air-strikes may have devastated its weapons factories and arsenals, by bombing buses, Hamas has reminded Israeli leaders of its extraordinary resilience.

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In any preliminary assessment of the Israeli assault on Gaza, Hamas and Morsi have emerged as winners, though at a terrible cost to the people of Gaza–another thing that Netanyahu has to answer for.

Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Intolerable US Arrogance

May 22, 2012 at 10:31 am | Posted in Arms Control, Human Rights, International Relations | Leave a comment
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By what arrogance does NATO invite a head of state to a meeting and then have the head of state of the host nation refuse the visiting dignitary a one-on-one meeting even as his rival is granted an audience and then expect the snubbed leader to obsequiously accede to all demands even as drone aircraft murders the leader’s citizens and even troops with impunity? Yet, this is what President Barack Obama did to Pakistan’s Asif Ali Zardari who was summoned to the NATO conclave in Chicago at the very last minute. When it became apparent that a mere invitation was not going to make him cave in, he was refused a meeting with the US President who nevertheless met with the Zardari’s rival, the Afghan president Hamid Karzai thus humiliating Zardari. When aides scrambled to get the two presidents to “accidentally bump” into each other at the meeting, Obama pointedly told a press conference that that was their only exchange.

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Last November, a strike by a US drone aircraft killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. The United States has refused to apologize for the murders even though it has acknowledged that its drone aircraft was responsible for the deaths. Consider the situation. The US needs Pakistan as an ally–granted that it is a cantankerous and difficult one. Surely, the best way to further alienate its citizens is to indiscriminately kill them by drone planes controlled from bases deep inside the US. The victims have little warning of their impending death–and the controllers of the planes do not put themselves in harm’s way at all. This is blood sport for them without risk–and when innocent civilians or Pakistani soldiers, the very ones the US depends on to stop al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, are killed, President Obama refuses to apologize!

Given rising anger in Pakistan, the government shut down two key supply routes for the NATO troops in Afghanistan, forcing the North Atlantic alliance to use more circuitous routes through Central Asia and Russia. Again, snubbing President Zardari, the US Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, lauded the help and support of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan–pointedly ignoring Pakistan. It is true that Pakistan has demanded a 20-times hike of the transit fee for trucks–for $250 to $5000. But this could have been negotiated if an apology was forthcoming.

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Without the supply routes from Pakistan, the withdrawal of equipment brought into Afghanistan for more than a decade will be immensely complicated and the chances of lethal weaponry falling into the hands of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other militant groups increases geometrically. It would be another nail in the coffin of the US-NATO failure in Afghanistan. After more than 10 years of war, it is unlikely that the Karzai government will survive even for the three years the Soviet supported regime survived before being toppled–and it was toppled not because the insurgents’ military successes but because Moscow stopped deliveries of arms, fuel, and other supplies. As Juan Garriges writes for the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, the likelihood of a civil war after NATO leaves is steadily increasing.

As Jonathan Steele writes in the Guardian, unlike the Soviets, NATO is not negotiating with the Taliban but is pursuing a garrison strategy that is virtually guaranteed to fail:

Increasing numbers of Afghan troops will sit in bases and go out on patrols instead of US and British ones, but this is nothing more than “Nato with an Afghan face”. Locals see these Afghan troops as occupiers just like the US and British. Less than 4% of the Afghan National Army are southern Pashtuns. Most are Tajiks and Uzbeks who speak a different language and don’t know the area. But if you recruit more southerners in a hurry, you just feed the Taliban’s latest tactic: join the Afghan army and police, get trained by the Americans and British, then shoot them in the camp or mess hall.

In these conditions, to continue to snub Zardari and refuse to apologize for the killing of the soldiers–perhaps for domestic electoral purposes as Obama’s likely Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, will certainly exploit it–is almost to ensure that the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) will increase its interference in Afghanistan especially since there is little love lost between the Karzai administration and the Pakistani military and political establishment.

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Finally, in NATO’s haste to cover its failure there is nary a word on the condition of Afghan women–sure to regress to the state they were in at the time of the 2001 invasion! The US-led invasion may have temporarily ousted the Taliban from Kabul and eventually killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, but it has also devastated Afghanistan, killed tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of Afghans and thousands of Pakistanis, further destabilized Pakistan, fuelled the spread of al-Qaeda and other Islamic fundamentalists to Iraq, the Arabian peninsula, and east Africa, and expended trillions of dollars when the world-economy is mired in a crisis like no other since the Great Depression, and to the loss of thousands of American lives as well. Constitutional liberties have been suspended and torture has been reintroduced as a matter of state policy. The man who campaigned to change all this has done nothing at all!

Europe: The Democratic Deficit

April 12, 2012 at 10:45 am | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, Free Trade, Human Rights, International Relations, Political Economy, World Politics | Leave a comment
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“A typical sight during the pre-election protests,” in Spain last year Katherine Ainger wrote in the Guardian, “was a respectable middle-aged man with a cigarette in one hand and a marker pen in the other going from municipal bin to municipal bin writing ‘Vote here’ on the lids.” A few months later, at the other end of the Eurozone, in return for loans from the European Union, leaders of all three major political parties in Greece were required to sign pledges not to rescind a savage austerity program cutting more than 3.3 billion euros from the budget, rendering these pledges concrete and irreversible regardless of the outcome of the general election in April 2012. If the ‘typical sight’ during last year’s Spanish elections suggested that all political parties are the same, the demand that the EU wrested from the Greek politicians proved that their general election, announced for May 6, was rendered meaningless as the victors could not implement a new program. Elections become meaningless.

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Paradoxically, just as French President Nicholas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron after a brief hesitation, abandoned their client dictators in North Africa–even violently  overthrowing the Gaddafi regime in Libya and chafing at the bit to do the same to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria–Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel abandoned all pretense of supporting democracy when they forced then Greek Prime Minister Giorgios Papandreou to cancel a referendum he had proposed on the harsh terms imposed by the European Union for a bailout to Athens in November 2011. Threatening to expel Greece from the Eurozone, they effectively forced Papandreou to resign two days later and for him to be replaced by a national unity government headed by a former Vice President of the European Central Bank, Lucas Papademos.

Reporting in the Guardian, Helena Smith wrote:

For a country not only burdened by debt but closer to default than ever before, his appointment at the helm of a transitional government in Athens would be widely welcomed. An avuncular figure, Papademos is well respected in the European Union. In the corridors of power in Paris and Berlin, the capitals that count in deciding Greece’s fate, he is seen as a safe pair of hands, more capable than most at navigating the crisis-hit nation away from the shores of economic Armageddon.

Yet, this ‘safe pair of hands’ was the very one who, as president of the Greek Central Bank cooked the books so that Greece could enter the monetary union–and he was helped in this creative accounting by the European division of the Goldman Sachs—which is to be headed soon by the current president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi—for a fee of $300 million. Northern European governments only feign ignorance of their Mediterranean neighbors’ debts and subsidies, as Wolfgang Streeck notes, because their surveillance agencies could not “have failed to notice how countries like Greece saturated themselves with cheap credit after their accession to the Eurozone.” In fact, as government subsidies slowed down in conditions of budget consolidation, it was private flows that made up the difference–and it profited the export industries of the north because of the improved purchasing power among the Mediterranean countries—the prosperity of the north was predicated on the indebtedness of the south! Despite the fact that Eurostat had disclosed in 2004 that billions of euros had been shifted off public records in Greece, Athens continued to enjoy triple-A ratings.

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Even the money being borrowed by Greece may have been the money of wealthy Greeks sent abroad as the Greek upper classes were practically tax-exempt as Stathis Kouvelakis has pointed out. When PASOK took office in 1981, it began to institute a social welfare system but did not seek to enlarge the tax base and even the middle class and the moderately wealthy remained exempt. In a sense then it is the untaxed money of richer Greeks, recycled through European banks, that is the source of the Greek debt! Yet, precisely because these funds were recycled through European banks, a Greek default would undermine the whole European financial system.

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It is no wonder then that Sarkozy and Merkel refused to countenance a referendum in Greece and not only installed their own man at the helm of the government in Athens but placed officials from the ‘troika’–the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund–to oversee the operations of the government. Unless the Greek government complied with the stringent terms of the agreement imposed on it, funds in the escrow account will be withheld from Athens: a 32 percent cut in the minimum wage for those under 25, a 22 percent cut for those above 25, a cut in pensions by 25 percent on top of the laying off of some 200,000 workers over the past 12 months.

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Given that politicians are hand-in-glove with the banks–from Goldman Sachs helping the Papademos shift billions of euros off the books to the Greek police beat up its Greek citizens to impose order for banks and hedge funds–it is no wonder that citizens are turning their backs on the politicians!

Notes on the Spanish General Strike

March 31, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, Human Rights, International Relations, Labor, Political Economy, Production, World Politics | Leave a comment
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To be in Barcelona on Thursday March 29, 2012 was to be a witness to a massive tidal wave of humanity on the streets, stretching beyond the horizon in every direction from Placa Catalunya, the city’s symbolic center. This was a response to the general strike called by Spain’s two largest trade unions–Union General de Trabajadores (UGT) affiliated to the Socialist Party, and the Comisiones Obreras (CCOO)–in response to the conservative Partido Popular (PP) government’s decision to announce the most austere budget since the transition to democracy 37 years ago. As evident on the streets of Barcelona, it was much more than a workers’ protest: though some 30 percent of employed workers had said that they would participate in polls before the strike, Spain has a high rate of unemployment–23 percent or double the European rate and almost half the people under 30 are out of work.

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The unemployed are the backbone of the indignados (“the outraged”) movement that in May last year that with their tents in city centers and their emphasis on transparency, diversity, egalitarianism, and direct democracy, inspired the Occupy movements across the world. The employment situation is only likely to worsen as Mariano Rajoy, the new PP prime minister who took office in December last year, enacted an Emergency decree two months ago that sharply curbed labor rights. Permanent workers in Spain were eligible for 45 days’ pay for each year of employment if they were fired; this was substantially reduced to a maximum of 33 days and in Andalucia alone eight times as many workers were let go in the two months after the decree was promulgated than in the corresponding period last year. Companies were also permitted to reduce working hours.

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The greater flexibility to hire and fire workers provided by the new labor laws may provide greater incomes in the short run to employers but will further depress prospects of economic growth in Spain. Spanish wages are already the lowest among the EU 15 (members of the European Union on 1 May 2004 before the inclusion of states from the former Eastern Europe) and the new law would further depress wages in the context of the high rates of unemployment and provide for more short-term employment–which will lead to a reduction in effective demand.

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Moreover, Spain’s economic problems do not stem from high government deficits but from the burst of a property bubble and absurd laws governing liability of borrowers. The Spanish government had run a balanced budget from the time it joined the Euro in 1999 to 2007–that is to say it did not borrow at all during this period unlike many other economies, including Germany, even though interest rates on Eurozone countries fell sharply. However, though Madrid resisted borrowing at lower rates, Spanish citizens could not resist the lure of cheap interest rates and it fueled a housing boom–housing prices rose by 44 percent between 2004 and 2008.

Houses in Spain couldn’t be built fast enough. Great swathes of the coast and the countryside became clustered with urbanisations, instant housing estates thrown up to cater to what seemed to be an endless stream of Britons, Germans, and other norther Europeans now able to live the kind of life abroad of which their parents could only have dreamed.

Once the bubble burst with the financial crisis, however, the economy unraveled rapidly–the number of empty and unsold properties in the country is estimated to be between 700,000 and 1,500,000–and some 40 evictions are taking place across the country per day. Employment in construction collapsed and laid-off construction workers account for fully a third of the unemployed. What is more, Spanish law does not allow homeowners to simply hand over the keys and walk away from a property if they can no longer pay the mortgage. They remain liable for the remainder of the mortgage if the sale of the property does not cover the full extent of the mortgage–and they seldom do in a period when property prices have fallen by more than 19 percent. Hence, unlike most other countries, the unemployed in Spain not only lose their houses but remain responsible for part of their mortgages. This has meant that young people who had moved out of their parental home have often had to move back–and even that grandparents have had to use their pensions to help support their children and grandchildren. In turn, the iaiaflautas or retirees and grandparents have mobilized themselves to occupy buses to protest against price hikes, bank lobbies to oppose bailouts, and health departments to turn back cutbacks.

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Hence, even if reports say that the general strike led to a fall in electricity consumption by 16.3 percent compared to a fall of 16.9 percent in the general strike of September 2010, it doesn’t account for the vast mobilization of the indignados, the unemployed, the students, and the iaiaflautas. What it underlines is that a new politics is emerging, a politics that as Ferran Pedret has put it “is characterized by the absence of leaders, by assemblies as a form of organization, and a diversity and transversality.”

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it was this that was responsible for the massive turnout–what the strike symbolizes is a new politics, a politics beyond those of political parties because the parties are fully integrated into the system itself that must be changed. So no mere percentages of electricity consumption, businesses that stayed open, or workers participating in the strike can adequately assess its impact.

 

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