What looks like Code Pink getting pretty close to Kissinger in Chairman McCain’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on “global threats and national security strategy.” But they shouldn’t have let George Schultz and Madeline Albright off the hook. Schultz for bombing Libya, Albright for Iraq, Kissinger for, well, everything. The Three Bombardiers. Everybody is tripping over themselves claiming Kissinger as a “dear friend.” Albright in particular sounds like a parady of herself. H/T Paula Chakravartty.
Read Next: Greg Grandin on Marco Rubio's Cuba policy
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, in 2008 when he was the speaker of the Florida legislature, gave a remarkably candid explanation of why he wanted to curtail, as much as possible, the right of Cubans living in the United States to travel to Cuba. He told The New York Times:
I would never criticize anyone for visiting family members. But that wasn’t the problem. What you had was a situation where people would come to Miami from Cuba, stay for a year and a day and then go back. And what this was doing was threatening the sustainability of the Cuban Adjustment Act itself, the U.S. law that gives Cubans who come to this country a special status as political exiles rather than immigrants.
“What makes Cubans different from Haitians who come here or anyone else,” Rubio asked, “if they go back and forth, that is to say, if they’re not exiles at all? In that case, why should Cubans be any different? The whole structure would have unraveled had something not been done.”
The law Rubio is referring to—the Cuban Adjustment Act—was passed in 1966. The act’s been tweaked over the years and is currently part of Washington’s wet-foot/dry-foot policy, whereby any Cuban who touches US soil is allowed to stay and, once a year has passed, can get residency status, that is, a green card, and then citizenship.
That privilege, though, is based on the idea that Cubans are political refugees. So, Rubio is saying, they need to act like political refugees. They need to act, in other words, like migrants from, say, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador who in fact do fear for their lives when they return home, and not just for being a political activist but just for being. Last year, between five and ten Honduran children were killed after being deported back to Honduras from the United States.
Of course, if Rubio really wanted to grab attention and position himself for 2016, he could seize on the implications of his question—“What makes Cubans different from Haitians who come here or anyone else?”—to use the Cuban Adjustment Act as the template for a broader immigration reform bill: Adjustment for All!
It wouldn’t be hard, at least in terms of the wording: just take the word Cuba in the act’s operational phrase (“the status of any alien who is a native of Cuba who…may be adjusted by the Attorney General…to that of an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence”) and change it to “Latin America” (or, if we are really thinking big, “the world”). You’d have an immigration reform that has worked perfectly—for some—for almost half a century. Then every migrant might be lucky enough to have an experience similar to the Cuban-born Karel Suarez: “he flew to Mexico and crossed the border. ‘I was only for like six hours at the border,’ Suarez said. ‘After six hours they gave me my papers and said ‘Welcome to the United States.’”
Rubio recognizes the problem: “I am telling you it gets very difficult to justify someone’s status as an exile and refugee when a year and a half after they get here they are flying back to that country over and over again.” But when asked how the Cuban Adjustment Act might relate to the larger question of immigration reform, Rubio hedged: “It’s something I need to study more carefully.”
Most remarkable is Rubio’s assertion that free-traveling Cubans are “threatening the sustainability of the Cuban Adjustment Act itself.” It is about as statist a vison as imaginable: rather than the law existing to protect individual rights, individual rights—in this case, freedom of movement—are subordinated to protect the law. “Abusing the system,” Rubio has called Cubans who visit the island. So much for Republican libertarianism.
Thankfully, the “whole structure” is unraveling. The poll numbers are in: every survey taken over the last month shows overwhelming support for Obama’s shift on Cuba. A recent Pew count gives 63 percent in favor of the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. Sixty-six percent want to go even further and end the trade embargo on Cuba. Irreconcilables on the issue stand at a rump 28 percent. A majority of Cuban-Americans likewise are in favor of the opening.
It’s unclear how the policy change will affect the Cuban Adjustment Act. No Democrat is going to risk angering Cuban-American voters, who favor the policy—by 86 percent, according to a Florida International University poll conducted last year (though, interestingly, that support drops to 47 percent among Cuban migrants who came between 1959 and 1964, with the idea being that many in that first generation of hardliners think that those who came after them are “non-embargo-supporting economic immigrants” and therefore not deserving of the status of “political” exiles; Representative Mario Diaz-Balart once likened Cubans who returned to the island to Nazi sympathizers who did business with Adolf Hitler). And, so far, in the first round of negotiations between Washington and Havana, US officials have said the act will remain in force. Though José Pertierra, a DC-based lawyer, points out that the text of the act grants the president a good deal of discretion on enforcement
In any case, Democrats are flocking to the island. Andrew Cuomo just announced he would soon visit, and he was notably frank that business, and not “human rights,” would be the agenda. And a delegation of Democratic members of Congress just returned from a three-day visit, led by Vermont’s Patrick Leahy.
To get a sense how much Obama’s turnaround on Cuba has emancipated the Democratic Party, look at this essay I did for Tomdispatch in 2008, which summarizes the role Cuba has placed in every US presidential election cycle starting with 1960. It was John F. Kennedy, who in August of that year, told a Miami gathering of American veterans that, for the “first time in our history, an enemy stands at the throat of the United States.” “Enemies,” Kennedy said, who “will do everything in their power to bring about our downfall.” And while Republicans like Rubio and Jeb Bush have been most closely associated with rightwing Cuban-Americans, it has been Democrats who have been most responsible for the embargo and subsequent anti-Cuba legislation. It was Lyndon Johnson (acting in response to Fidel Castro’s opening the port of Camarioca to any Cuban who wanted to sail to the United States) who introduced the Cuban Adjustment Act in Congress. And it was Bill Clinton who signed Helms-Burton into law just before his 1996 re-election. In 2008, John McCain was as restrained as Obama. Neither one, as one Cuban-American critic of the hardline said, “put on a guayabera or shouted, Viva Cuba Libre.”
In office, Obama wasn’t above throwing the Cuban right red meat. His 2009 sanctioning of the bloody Honduran coup was, in part, an effort to quash domestic conservative criticism linking him to Latin America’s populist left, to the Havana-Caracas axis. But from now on, Marco Rubio, Jed Bush and other Republican aspirants to the White House will have to travel to Iowa and explain why the United States shouldn’t be able to sell corn to Cuba—or they will have to go to Arizona, New Jersey, and New Mexico and say why Cubans, but not Mexicans, Guatemalans or Haitians, should be fast-tracked to a green card.
Read Next: Greg Grandin on the great New York snowstorm of 1888.
For two days the snow has had New York in its power, encircled, terrified, like a prize fighter to the canvas by a sneak punch. But the moment the attack of the enemy slackened, as soon as the blizzard had spent its first fury, New York, like the victim of an outrage, goes about freeing itself from its shroud. Leagues of men move through the white mounds. The snow already runs in dirty rivers in the busiest streets under the onslaught of its assailants. With spades, with shovels, with their own chests and those of the horses, they push back the snow, which retreats to the rivers. Man’s defeat was great, but so was his triumph. The city is still white; the bay remains white and frozen. There have been deaths, cruelties, kindness, fatigue, and bravery. Man has given a good account of himself in this disaster.
At no time in this century has New York experienced a storm like that of March 13. It had rained the preceding Sunday, and the writer working into the dawn, the newspaper vendor at the railroad station, the milkman on his round of the sleeping houses, could hear the whiplash of the wind that had descended on the city against the chimneys, against walls and roofs, as it vented its fury on slate and mortar, shattered windows, demolished porches, clutched and uprooted trees, and howled, as though ambushed, as it fled down the narrow streets. Electric wires, snapping under its impact, sputtered and died. Telegraph lines, which had withstood so many storms, were wrenched from their posts. And when the sun should have appeared, it could not be seen, for like a shrieking, panic-stricken army, with its broken squadrons, gun carriages and infantry, the snow swirled past the darkened windows, without interruption, day and night. Man refused to be vanquished. He came out to defy the storm.…
The elevated train took on a load of passengers, and ground to a halt half-way through the trip, paralyzed by the snow; after six hours of waiting, the men and women climbed down by ladder from their wind-tossed prison. The wealthy, or those faced with an emergency, paid twenty-five or fifty dollars for carriages drawn by stout horses to carry them a short distance, step by step. The angry wind, heavy with snow, buffeted them, pounded them, hurled them to the ground.
It was impossible to see the sidewalks. Intersections could no longer be distinguished, and one street looked like the next.… A shopkeeper, a man in the prime of life, was found buried today, with only a hand sticking from the snow to show where he lay. A messenger boy, as blue as his uniform, was dug out of a white, cool tomb, a fit resting place for his innocent soul, and lifted up in the compassionate arms of his comrades. Another, buried to the neck, sleeps with two red patches on his white cheeks, his eyes a filmy blue.
The old, the young, women, children, inch along Broadway and the avenues on their way to work.… The clerk takes the working girl by the arm; she helps her weary friend with an arm around his waist. At the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge, a new bank clerk pleads with the policeman to let him pass, although at that moment only death can cross the bridge. “I will lose the job it has taken me three years to find,” he supplicates. He starts across, and the wind reaches a terrible height, throws him to the ground with one gust, lifts him up again, snatches off his hat, rips open his coat, knocks him down at every step; he falls back, clutches at the railing, drags himself along. Notified by telegraph from Brooklyn, the police on the New York side of the bridge pick him up, utterly spent.
But why all this effort, when hardly a store is open, when the whole city has surrendered, huddled like a mole in its burrow, when if they reach the factory or office they will find the iron doors locked? Only a fellow man’s pity, or the power of money, or the happy accident of living beside the only train which is running in one section of the city, valiantly inching along from hour to hour, can give comfort to so many faithful employees, so many courageous old men, so many heroic factory girls on this terrible day. From corner to corner they make their way, sheltering themselves in doorways, until one opens to the feeble knocking of their numbed hands, like sparrows tapping against the window panes. Suddenly the afury of the wind mounts; it hurls the group fleeing for shelter against the wall; the poor working women cling to one another in the middle of the street until the snarling, screeching wind puts them to flight again.…
Without milk, without coal, without newspapers, without streetcars, without telephones, without telegraph, the city awoke this morning. And last night there were four open theaters! All businesses suspended, and the false marvel of the elevated train pushes in vain to take to work the mob that crowds the station waiting impatiently.
The trains have stalled with their human cargo. Nothing has been heard from the rest of the nation. The rivers are ice and the daring ones are crossing them on foot. Suddenly the ice cracks and floes are formed with men clinging to them: a tugboat goes out to save them, pushing the floating ice towards the piers. They are saved, and from the river banks one hears one loud “Hurray!” “Hurray” they yell on the streets at the passing fireman, the policeman, the brave mailman. What has happened to the trains that do not arrive, and where do the railroad companies, with their magnificent energy resources, with their most powerful engines, send the groceries and the coal? How many bodies under the snow?
The snow, as if it were an army in retreat that turns back on the enemy with an unexpected attack, came at night and covered with death the proud city.
We saw yesterday that these attacks from the unknown are worthwhile for utilitarian peoples whose virtues, nurtured by their labor, are capable of compensating, in these solemn hours, for the lack of those virtues that are weakened by selfishness. How brave the children, how punctual the workers, how unhappy and noble the women, how generous the men! The entire city speaks in a loud voice, as if afraid to be lonely. Those who all year long brutally elbow each other, today laugh, they exchange their stories of mortality, exchange addresses, and accompany their new friends for long walks.…
It terrifies and amazes to see this city of snow reappear, with its red houses, as if flowering in blood. The telegraph poles ruefully contemplate the destruction, their tangled, fallen wires like unkempt heads. The city resuscitates, buries its dead, and with men, horses, and machines all working together, clears away the snow with streams of boiling water, with shovels, plows, and bonfires. But one is touched by a sense of great humility and a sudden rush of kindness, as though the dread hand had touched the shoulders of all men.
Read Next: Greg Grandin on Rigoberta Menchu
This week, a Guatemalan court vindicated Rigoberta Menchú. Menchú, as many will remember, was a poor, Mayan peasant woman who lost nearly her whole family to US-backed Guatemalan security forces, only to find herself conscripted into the US culture wars by pundits and academics, who, having picked apart her best-selling memoir, I, Rigoberta Menchú, charged her with exaggerating her hardships.
Among the family members family Menchú lost was her father, Vicente Menchú, who died on January 31, 1980, in the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City, after he and scores of other Mayan peasants occupied the building to bring attention to escalating repression in the countryside. In response, Guatemala’s National Police fire-bombed the embassy, killing nearly forty people, including protesters and embassy staff. One survivor, Gregorio Yuja Xona, was dragged from his hospital bed, tortured, his corpse tossed out on the street.
Now, just short of the thirty-fifth anniversary of the massacre, the International Justice Monitor reports that three very courageous judges
convicted Pedro Garcia Arredondo, former head of “Command 6,” a special investigations unit of the now-defunct National Police, of homicide and crimes against humanity for his leadership of the 1980 siege of the Spanish embassy, which killed dozens of indigenous and student activists and diplomats. This notorious event during the Guatemalan internal armed conflict ruptured Guatemala’s relationship with Spain for years and preceded an intensifying conflict and further atrocities committed against indigenous communities and human rights activists. Thirty-five years after the events, this is the first time the case was heard before a court.
The court also found Arredondo guilty of the attempted murder of protester Gregorio Yuja Xona and former Spanish ambassador Maximo Cajal, the only survivors of the fire. (Xona was later tortured and executed.) The three-judge panel further found Arredondo guilty of the murder of two students during a mass funeral organized to honor the victims of the siege.
A crowd of indigenous victims gathered early outside of the courthouse to perform a Mayan ritual and to hear this historic verdict.
It’s an important verdict, and not only because it is a rare conviction in a country still largely ruled by impunity. The 1980 firebombing was one of the events Menchú’s fact-checkers used to discredit her account of Guatemala’s long civil war, which over the course of more than three decades claimed 200,000 victims. Menchú’s accuser, an anthropologist, argued that the embassy protesters killed themselves in an act of “revolutionary suicide that included murdering hostages and fellow protesters” in order to make the government look bad. It was a ludicrous charge, largely based on showing a few grainy photographs of the bomb scene to arson analysts. But it did its damage: it raised doubts about what many considered the signal event in Guatemala’s bloody civil war, a brute display of unyielding power when many Guatemalans, after realizing that no reform would be tolerated, threw in with a fast-growing insurgency. Blaming this massacre on the protesters was meant to undercut accounts that focused on “structural violence,” racism and economic exploitation for the ensuing genocide, when the army slaughtered around 100,000 people, mostly Mayan peasants, over the course of about two years (1981–83). Calling the killing a suicide also had the effect of transforming Menchú’s father from victim to victimizer, from someone invested with the moral stature of Martin Luther King into a crazed suicidal jihadi.
I’ve elsewhere discussed the larger importance of the campaign to discredit Menchú. It was both of its moment—part of a fight to define the meaning of the Cold War—and timeless, or nearly so, the same “rhetoric of reaction” Albert Hirschman wrote about dating back to at least the French Revolution, which views all mobilizations for social change as being either perverse, futile or dangerously provocative. In any case, in addition to this week’s verdict, subsequent research over the past decade has confirmed Menchú’s account of the causes of Guatemalan repression. The definitive inquiry is the Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico—the aforementioned UN truth commission—which released its findings in early 1999, shortly after the Menchú controversy broke. Based on more than 8,000 interviews and extensive archival and regional research conducted by a staff of more than 200, the CEH (in addition to also holding the state responsible for the embassy firebombing) presents a damning analysis of Guatemalan history:
From independence in 1821, an event led by the country’s elite, an authoritarian state was created that excluded the majority of Guatemalans; it was racist in theory and practice and served to protect the interests of a small, privileged elite…. State violence has been fundamentally aimed against the excluded, the poor, and the Maya, as well as those who struggled in favor of a just and more equitable society…. Thus a vicious circle was created in which social injustice led to protest and subsequently to political instability, to which there were always only two responses: repression or military coups.
Confronted with movements demanding reform, the Guatemalan government and elites “increasingly resorted to violence and terror in order to maintain social control. Political violence was thus a direct expression of structural violence.”
Read Next: Greg Grandin on American imperialism in Haiti
Haiti’s been under effective occupation by the United Nations Stabilization Mission In Haiti (MINUSTAH, in French) for ten years, since 2004, after the United States, Canada and France came together to drive out Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Over that decade, MINUSTAH troops have shot at protesters, introduced cholera, raped, raped again and engaged in other acts of predation. Meanwhile, the “international community,” again led by Washington, Paris and Ottawa, carried out a second coup—an electoral coup—in 2010-11, engaging in heavy-handed vote manipulation to install Michel Martelly as president. After Haiti’s devastating earthquake that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives—the five-year anniversary of which just passed—even Bill Clinton apologized for forcing Haiti to gut its rice industry to benefit US agro-industry.
And yet The Washington Post, in a recent editorial, thinks Haiti needs even more intervention:
From time to time, Haiti’s chronic political dysfunction erupts in crisis and violence, compelling the international community to re-engage with an impoverished country it might prefer to disregard. Haiti is at just such a juncture right now. Policymakers in Washington and elsewhere should pay prompt attention, before the predictable calamity arrives… . Recognizing that the standoff has become dire, Secretary of State John F. Kerry has urged a negotiated settlement that would “open the door for elections to be scheduled as soon as possible.” Yet without more aggressive mediation by U.S., United Nations, French, Canadian and other diplomats, the chances of such a settlement are slim…. As Mr. Kerry pointed out, too much progress has been made since then toward rebuilding Haiti to risk extinguishing all hope amid renewed political violence. To dismiss Haiti as a basket case or shrug off its troubles as insoluble is to forget a history that suggests that without outside help, the country can deteriorate into anarchy, at which point ignoring it is no longer an option.
To paraphrase Clinton, there’s nothing wrong with American imperialism that can’t be solved by what is right with American imperialism.
Here’s the “too-much-progress” that has been made in the last decade, drawn from the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s “Haiti by the Numbers”:
Extreme poverty in rural Haiti in 2000: 38 percent
Extreme poverty in rural Haiti in 2012: 38 percent…
Number of people still living in tent camps, as of September 2014: 85,432…
Number of individuals living in informal settlements on outskirts of Port-au-Prince, not counted in official displaced population, according to Haitian government: 300,000…
Total amount awarded in contracts and grants by USAID: $1.5 billion
Percent that went directly to Haitian organizations: 1
Percent that went to firms located inside the beltway (DC, Maryland and Virginia): 56…
Total amount awarded to Chemonics International, a [DC-based] for-profit “development” company, since the earthquake: $216 million.
Martelly is running a neo-Duvalierist restoration, as Jeb Sprague and Dan Beeton, among others, have argued. Elections are more than three years delayed, he’s appointed more than 130 mayors and has stacked the government, including the electoral council, with his supporters.
The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti has just put out a policy briefing that is a good corrective to the Post’s paternalistic interventionism, pretty much a point-by-point guide of everything the United States, France and Canada doesn’t want to see happen in Haiti (because to do so would be to bring Aristide supporters back into the political arena):
• Encourage the Martelly administration to work in good faith with the Parliament and opposition groups to form a consensus government;
• Call for the establishment of a Provisional Electoral Council that complies with Art. 289 of the Constitution and is selected in a fair and inclusive manner in order to ensure credibility;…
• Call on the Haitian government and Provisional Electoral Council to ensure inclusion and full participation of all political parties in all facets of the electoral process;
• Work with human rights groups to identify and encourage the immediate liberation of all political prisoners, and promptly denounce any future arrests of Martelly regime opponents unless clearly justified; and
• Secure the Haitian public’s right to freedom of assembly and expression by refraining from use excessive force on demonstrators and condemning arbitrary arrests and use of force by Haitian police.
A few years ago, Keane Bhatt and I also put together a ten-point essay on why MINUSTAH should get out of Haiti and why UN troops should not be given immunity for their many crimes. More recently, we sent in this letter to the Post, which appears here as published:
The December 28 editorial “Haiti’s broken politics” concluded that, absent international intervention, Haiti will crumble into anarchy. In fact, Haiti’s crisis is, in large part, a consequence of U.S. and international intervention. This country has been occupied by U.N. soldiers for more than a decade. And it was U.S. pressure that led to the 2010 elections, months after the earthquake and weeks after the eruption of a virulent cholera outbreak, introduced by those U.N. troops. Fewer than 23 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. President Michel Martelly has never had a democratic mandate. It was only after a nine-member team from the Organization of American States, controlled by the United States and its allies, reversed the first-round results—in an unprecedented maneuver and without justification—that Mr. Martelly even made it to the second round. Since taking office, Mr. Martelly has failed to schedule elections, now more than three years delayed. He has appointed more than 130 mayors, sidestepping the democratic process. He stacked the electoral council with his supporters. The six “opposition” senators blamed in the editorial are a convenient scapegoat. These senators (and the thousands who have been protesting daily) are demanding legitimate, fair elections rather than a repeat of 2010. The international community indeed plays a role in shaping Haiti’s political future. But it is not one that it should be proud of.
What is at stake here is fear of democracy, as it has been in Haiti ever since that night of August 21, 1791, when Dutty Boukman, a vodou high priest, gave the signal to revolt. “The god of the white man calls him to commit crimes; our gods ask only good works of us,” Boukman reportedly said; “throw away the image of the god of the whites who thirsts for our tears and listen to the voice of liberty that speaks in the hearts of all of us.” Thus began the thirteen-year-long Haitian Revolution, resulting in the overthrow of Haitian slavery and the establishment of the second republic in the Americas.
This was the ceremony that Pat Robertson was referring to when he said, five years ago after the earthquake, that Haitians “swore a pact to the devil” for their freedom and “ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another.” Robertson is nuts, but he’s right: there was a deal made, not with the supernatural but the financial, though these days it is hard to tell the two apart. Haitians agreed to pay France reparations to lost property—that is, the slave system they destroyed. Over the last decade, there’s been a movement to demand that France pay Haiti reparations for the reparations it extracted, which according to one tally amounts to $21,685,135,571. And 48 cents. This figure doesn’t count “interest, penalties or consideration of the suffering and indignity inflicted by slavery and colonization.” France of course refuses to pay, though a few years ago pranksters impersonating government officials set up a fake web page and released the following statement: “the historic debt of 90 million gold francs Haiti paid to France following the former’s independence at the dawn of the 19th century…. the 90 million gold francs, which Haiti paid France from 1825 until 1947, will be reimbursed in a yearly budget over the course of 50 years. Economic advisors working with the ministry have calculated that the total sum amounts to €17 billion including adjustments for inflation and a minimal interest rate of 5 percent per annum.” Paris issued an immediate denial.
Meanwhile, in the real legal world, last Friday, a New York district court just ruled against Haitian cholera victims, in a lawsuit demanding that the UN pay restitution:
One way or another, it sees, Haitians continue to pay and they continue to be cursed, now because of the neoliberal concessions Aristide had to promise Clinton before the US would restore him to power after the first coup against him (only to have the US intervene and stage a second coup that drove him back out of power).
In any case, here’s Wikileaked cable from 2008, from the US ambassador to Haiti, Ambassador Janet A. Sanderson. She calls MINUSTAH an “indispensable tool in realizing core USG [or US government] policy interests in Haiti.” Sanderson says that one of the main threats that MINUSTAH is helping to contain are “resurgent populist and anti-market economy political forces,” which if unleashed would reverse the “gains of the last two years.”
Ah, those elusive and fragile gains…
Read Next: Greg Grandin on rewriting George Packer as if Mexican lives mattered.
George Packer’s New Yorker essay on the Paris killings, posted quickly after the attack, insisted that we can’t put the murderers in context, that we can’t compare them to, say the white-supremacist mass murderer in Oslo who killed seventy-seven Norwegians or nihilist school shooters in the United States, like the one at Newton who killed twenty children and six adults. Do not, Packer instructed, try to understand their action as a reaction to the invasion of Iraq or some other colonial or neocolonial intervention. We can’t, for instance, relate the rise of Nigeria’s Boko Haram to the lethal confluence of climate crisis, starvation, drought, poverty, and geopolitics, as this essay does. There is nothing to be “understood” about Islamist ideology. It just is.
Packer’s essay achieves the opposite of its intent: it makes you want to relativize, contextualize, historicize and sociologize, or at least it did me. I guess that’s the cost of life during (endless) wartime: the forfeiture of the ability to let the horror sink in, to take a moment to learn about the individuals who lost their lives, before receiving a lecture on how to force-fit those lives into the crusade. Teju Cole, also in The New Yorker, and Joe Sacco implicitly answer Packer’s insistence on the incommensurability of the Paris attack. “The suggestion that violence by self-proclaimed Jihadists,” writes Cole, “is the only threat to liberty in Western societies ignores other, often more immediate and intimate, dangers.”
I thought of Mexico, and the disappearance of forty-three activist-students in Guerrero. If one really wanted to fight a war between the forces of light and those of death and darkness, a good place to start would be to demand that Washington do three things: demilitarize the border (a policy Bill Clinton started around the exact time he signed NAFTA into law); implement a fair trade policy (one that doesn’t sacrifice rural peasants to US agroindustry and that doesn’t drive down Mexican—and Central American—wages to among the lowest rates in the world); and, most importantly, stop funding Mexico’s security forces.
As Christy Thornton wrote in The New York Times, since 2008, “the U.S. government has spent nearly $3 billion on security aid to Mexico through the Merida Initiative and the departments of defense and justice, much of it going to contracts with U.S.-based defense firms. This aid comes in addition to the direct sales of arms and other equipment to Mexico authorized by the State Department, which totaled $1.2 billion in 2012 alone.” This aid has continued even despite the “thousands of reports of soldiers and the police committing extrajudicial killings, kidnappings and disappearances, and torture—with impunity.”
The latest news implicates Mexico’s national army—the main recipient of all that Washington aid—in the disappearances, with soldiers accused of having “incinerated the bodies of the young students in crematory ovens.”
It is far easier to imagine reforming the world than reforming Washington policy. And, anyway, dying as a result of US security, border and trade policy (even if the deaths number in the hundreds of thousands) doesn’t bring about the kind of arousal, the sense of purpose, Packer craves, as Corey Robin has pointed out. Packer’s reaction to Paris recalls his reaction to 9/11, when he wrote that seeing all the flags sprouting after the attack awakened in him “alertness, grief, resolve, even love.” That awakening led Packer to become a loud voice in, as he put it, a “tiny, insignificant camp of ambivalently pro-war liberals.” Packer isn’t so much selling himself short by using the adjective “insignificant” as letting himself off the hook, absolved, as Michael Hirsh pointed out in a terrific review of Packer’s Assassins’ Gate, from considering the consequences of his war advocacy. And now he’s back, telling us that only by abstracting radical Islam as a singular evil can we truly understand how “decent” we all are.
Still, I wonder what it would look like if liberals like Packer were activated by Ayotzinapa the way they are by Paris, what they would write if they were willing to confront the illiberalness of Washington’s trade, border and security policy with the same passion they do radical Islam, or if they saw its barbarism with the same clarity they see barbarism in France and Nigeria. Maybe something like this revision (changes in bold) of Packer’s thoughts on Paris:
The murders today in
Paris Mexico are not a result of France’s failure to assimilate two generations of Muslim immigrants from its former colonies Mexico’s failure to assimilate displaced rural peasants into modern life. They’re not about French military action against the Islamic State in the Middle East, or the American invasion of Iraq before that out-of-control drug cartels, or the war on drugs launched by the previous Mexican president. They’re not part of some general wave of nihilistic violence in the economically depressed, socially atomized, morally hollow West—the Paris Mexican version of Newtown or Oslo. Least of all should they be “understood” as reactions to disrespect for religion on the part of irresponsible cartoonists the effects of local political corruption or a “weak” federal state.
They are only the latest blows delivered by an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades. It’s the same ideology that
sent Salman Rushdie into hiding for a decade under a death sentence for writing a novel, then killed his Japanese translator and tried to kill his Italian translator and Norwegian publisher since NAFTA has gone into effect has sent at least 6,000 migrants to their death in the desert. The ideology that murdered three thousand people in the U.S. on September 11, 2001. The one that butchered Theo van Gogh in the streets of Amsterdam, in 2004, for making a film has turned Mexico into a country of clandestine mass graves, where students are slaughtered merely for voicing their political opinion. The one that has brought mass rape and slaughter to the cities and deserts of Syria and Iraq Mexican women, many of them poor maquila workers, who are killed at a rate of six per day, their “bodies are often found badly mutilated, with particular attention paid to sexual organs and breasts, and dumped among garbage and waste.” That massacred a hundred and thirty-two children and thirteen adults in a school in Peshawar last month 45 NAFTA-protesting, pacifist Tzotzils, including 21 women and 15 children, in 1997. That regularly kills so many Nigerians, Mexicans, especially young ones, that hardly anyone pays attention. That slaughtered, in August 2010, 71 migrants, in a killing that actually claimed hundreds more victims (US officials were told that “the bodies are being split up to make the total number less obvious and thus less alarming”). Jesse Franzblau has linked much of this repression directly to US military support. Ninety-seven Mexican journalists have been killed over the last four years; 100,000 people have been executed and there exist “open cases” of another 22,000 disappeared.
Because the ideology is the product of a major world
religion power, a lot of painstaking pretzel logic goes into trying to explain what the violence does, or doesn’t, have to do with Islam “free trade.” Some well-meaning people tiptoe around the Islamic economic connection, claiming that the carnage has nothing to do with faith Washington’s trade, military, and border policies, or that Islam the United States is a religion nation of peace, or that, at most, the violence represents a “distortion” of a great religion what free trade really means or the true intent of Washington’s policies. It’s that same painstaking pretzel logic allow leaders to say there is no problem caused by militarism that can’t be solved by more militarism. And that allows free-market ideologues like Thomas Friedman (who, like me, was part of that “tiny, insignificant” group of pro-war liberals) to believe that there is no problem caused by “free trade” that can’t be solved by more “free trade”– and to hail as a success an economic system that drives wages inhumanely, punishingly low.
These thoughts don’t offer a guide to mitigating the astonishing surge
in Islamist killing around the world in “labor and political repression and egregious levels of violence” in Mexico and Central America since NAFTA and CAFTA went into effect, with political activists, whose names we here in the US never learn, whose identity we never assume in solidarity (“I am Antonio Bec Ac.” “I am María Margarita Ché Chub”) being killed on a regular basis and some regions in the Maya highlands living under a state of siege. … .
But the murders in
Paris Guerrero were so specific and so brazen as to make their meaning quite clear. The cartoonists students died for an idea. The killers are soldiers in a war against freedom of thought and speech, against tolerance, pluralism, and the right to offend simply survive and fight for a dignified life—against everything decent in a democratic society. So we must all try to be Charlie Ayotzinapa, not just today but every day.
It is a little over three months since the disappearance—on September 26—of the forty-three Mexican student-activists in the state of Guerrero, and Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, is visiting Washington. It’s unclear if he was summoned or if he is here supplicating on his own. The agenda is murky, and his meeting with Barack Obama, scheduled for tomorrow, Tuesday, is sure to get upstaged by the swearing-in of the Republican majority in the House and Senate.
In any case, Peña Nieto is in trouble at home. He was caught golfing on the day of the third-month anniversary of the disappearances, criticized for putting out a promotional video that put a happy face on the crime, “showing images of protests and violence transforming into images of progress and happiness,” and is embroiled in a corruption scandal that threatens to muck up his efforts to privatize Mexico’s oil industry, which in turn is scaring the bond and credit-default markets. “This scandal represents a major risk to the country’s positive trajectory, given how close the allegations are coming to Pena Nieto,” a Eurasia Group analyst says.
And Peña Nieto’s alibi regarding the disappearance of the forty-three seems to be unraveling.
Peña Nieto, mostly through Mexico’s Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam, has tried to portray the crime as a consequence of Mexico’s “weak state,” that catch-all excuse borrowed from social science that never sees the problem as an active condition of neoliberalism and empire but rather as a consequence of not enough neoliberalism and empire. In the case of the forty-three, it means pinning the crime on local corrupt politicians, municipal police and regional drug gangs.
But according to an investigation last month by Proceso, federal police were involved in the disappearance. The missing students were actually on their way to Mexico City to attend a protest on October 2 and they were intercepted not by local police but by federal police. Two Berkeley journalism fellows, Steve Fisher and Anabel Hernández (a published investigative reporter from Mexico), helped with the investigation:
In order to reconstruct what happened on that tragic night in September, Fisher and Hernandez obtained documents and cellphone videos shot by students during the attack. The two reporters traveled to Iguala to conduct several interviews. “What we found through thousands of pages of documents that we went through was that the federal police were the ones who followed the students for hours and then took part in the attack,” Fisher said.
This directly contradicts statements made by Peña Nieto and Karam. “Nothing was an accident that night,” Hernández says. “The government knew exactly what was happening.”
In describing tomorrow’s meeting, the White House has avoided mentioning the forty-three. “The two leaders will highlight the importance of expanding dialogue and cooperation between the United States and Mexico on economic, security and social issues,” the White House says. What is surely on the agenda is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that profoundly anti-democratic trade treaty which, it seems, both Obama and Peña Nieto are betting will help them rebound politically.
As Christy Thornton points out, Washington underwrites a good deal of Mexico’s security forces—both the military and police (at every level)—through the Merida Initiative. Fifteen percent of that aid is “conditioned” on meeting human rights certification. But Obama already said he won’t push Peña Nieto on the issue.
In an interview given on December 9 to Telemundo, Obama repeated the “weak state” line, arguing that the solution is to “build on the progress that’s been made”:
Obama: Well, I think that—the federal government—and I know President Peña Nieto—who I spoke to recently when I was in Australia with him—recognizes the outrageous—tragedy that this represents. And, you know, this is a chronic problem of narco-traffickers, in some cases, taking over entire towns or entire regions… . But—M—Mexico’s a partner—for us and we’ve gotta make sure that we strengthen the criminal justice system, the investigative capacities—not just at the federal level. But I think working with Mexico to see if we can push those down to the g—governor’s level and municipal levels. Because this does affect us. You know, Mexico is—is our friend and our neighbor. We want them to thrive. Gruesome—you know, reports of the—of the sort you just described—you know, have no place in—in civilized society.
Question: The aid conditioned to human rights?
Obama: I think—the best thing we can do is to be a good partner and to build on the progress that’s been made—in doin’ things the right way.
Hard to know here how progress is being defined, with more than 100,000 executed since 2006 and “the open cases of an incredible 22,000 other people disappeared since 2006.” And here’s a report by Judith Matloff on the six women who are murdered every day in Mexico, with a 1.6 percent conviction rate.
This morning, Christy Thornton interviewed Laura Carlsen and Steve Fisher (the Berkeley fellow mentioned above) on what to expect on the visit, on her excellent Morning Show on WBAI (which is on every Monday 6 am to 8 am). Here’s the audio.
Read Next: Greg Grandin on how to survive a cop coup
In the United States, the mildest attempt to shift policy debate away from security to inequality (class and race) leads to a cop insurrection and, as Corey Robin put it, Weimer vibes—“and not the good kind.” Comparisons have been made to the cop revolt in 1992 against mayor David Dinkins, who tried to set up a civilian review board to assess police brutality. Thousands of police, led by Rudy Giuliani, swarmed City Hall and shut down the Brooklyn Bridge. As The New York Times reported, “Asked why the department did not take stronger action to control the protesters, Raymond W. Kelly, the Acting Police Commissioner, said the size and vehemence of the protest had caught police commanders by surprise.” Giuliani, denounced by Dinkins as a hooligan and an opportunist, rode the white resentment to make sure the city’s first black mayor only had one term.
Bill de Blasio faces a more dangerous situation, in the wake of the murder of the two police officers and what seem to be calls to insurrection by the PBA. The constituency that fuels white police resentment is on the wane (just take a look at the demographics of Staten Island)—and being on the wane makes it even more dangerous.
But de Blasio has a model other than Dinkins he could follow. In late 2010, Ecuador’s president faced down a cop revolt and won, emerging even stronger and more popular.
Nominally the police protest was about pay and grades, but it was led by cops with ties to a right-wing opposition party. Cops poured into Quito’s streets, taking over the National Assembly building. Similar police protests spread to other cities, with police supporters blocking roads and shutting the country down leading Rafael Correa to declare a state of emergency.
Correa was the opposite of conciliatory: he headed straight to Quito’s main police barracks. And just like the NY cops who turned their back on de Blasio last night, the cops in Quito engaged in symbolic action meant to delegitimize Correa. The president then launched a confrontational speech: he loosened his tie, opened his shirt, repeatedly pointing to his chest and saying: “You want to kill the president, here he is. Kill me, if you want to. Kill me if you are brave enough!” (a good example of how politics, in Latin America, is still Jacobin, unmediated and taking place in the public square). Tear gas was fired, with the canisters nearly hitting Correa and his wife, who had to retreat to a nearby hospital.
Finance and resource-extraction capital were quick to try to leverage the crisis, with financial experts blaming the unrest on Correa’s rejection of the logic of austerity. “The [government] finally realizes that maybe their current spending could not continue,” said a portfolio manager at Federated Investors. Correa had already defaulted on billions of dollars in bond debt passed on to him from his predecessors. “Illegitimate,” Correa called that debt. And Ecuador was at that moment also negotiating higher taxes on foreign oil companies.
The cop coup almost worked. A number of traditional left parties had by that point become alienated from Correa over a number of issues, and the urban “middle class” was almost buying the argument, pushed by oligarch-controlled media, that Correa was “authoritarian” and a “dictator.” But the president’s defiant stand gave his supporters time to organize counter-demonstrations. Most of the army, which extracted Correa from the cop-besieged hospital, stayed loyal. And Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and the rest of South America made it clear they wouldn’t tolerate Correa’s ouster. Eight people were killed and nearly 300 wounded in the police riot.
Serious tension continues to exist between Correa and Ecuador’s grassroots left in Ecuador, as Andrew Ross has recently written in The Nation. But Rafael Correa has a lot to teach, at least as far as how to survive a right-wing police coup while at the same time retaining, and even extending, one’s political and economic agenda (not to mention electoral popularity).
Considering that Giuliani and others associated with the NYPD regularly advises and trains Latin American police in the theory and practice of “broken windows” and “zero-tolerance,” perhaps de Blasio should give Correa a call.
H/T Daniel Brito
That was pretty impressive! In a coordinated set of press conferences, Barack Obama and Raúl Castro came as close to complete normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States as is possible short of repealing Helms-Burton. The New York Times writes:
The United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and open an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century after the release of an American contractor [Alan Gross] held in prison for five years, American officials said Wednesday.
In a deal negotiated during 18 months of secret talks hosted largely by Canada and encouraged by Pope Francis, who hosted a final meeting at the Vatican, President Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba agreed in a telephone call to put aside decades of hostility to find a new relationship between the United States and the island nation just 90 minutes off the American coast. In addition, the United States will ease restrictions on remittances, travel and banking relations, and Cuba will release 53 Cuban prisoners identified as political prisoners by the United States government.
There’s a lot at stake in this policy turn-around, including for broader US-Latin American relations. But out of all of Obama’s post-midterm initiatives, this one is pretty deft: It nicely boxes potential Republican presidential nominees into a corner, especially pulling the rug right out from under Jeb Bush, just as he was basking in his “I-may-be-running-after-all” tease.
Bush sounded completely flatfooted and off-guard this morning: “I don’t think we should be negotiating with a repressive regime.” He did grudgingly say he was “happy for Gross’s return.” Polls will tell, but Bush—along with Marco Rubio and any other potential nominee—is going to have to come up with a better soundbite. Even if this doesn’t play well in Florida, which I think it will, Obama, with this move, has just finally nationalized the Cuba question.
Who could possibly advocate (except these guys) going back to the way things were? That is, it will no longer be enough to pander to a small margin of extreme-right-wing Cubans in Florida on the issue. That will be particularly difficult for Jeb Bush, because of his family’s deep ties to Cuban anti-communists, going back to his father’s days as CIA director.
Why do we torture? It’s not to get information, as the Senate report into “harsh” interrogation makes clear. Naomi Klein writes that “torture’s true purpose” was “to terrorize—not only the people in Guantánamo’s cages and Syria’s isolation cells but also, and more importantly, the broader community that hears about these abuses. Torture is a machine designed to break the will to resist—the individual prisoner’s will and the collective will.” Klein’s point is backed up by the torturers themselves, including one of those psychologists contracted to design the program, Bruce Jessen, who said that the real reason for torture was to “exploit” the detainees, to force them to “collaborate” and comply.
Klein (and Jessen) is obviously right. But something else is also going on: the pain, humiliation and death inflicted by the United States after 9/11 has, in a way, nothing to do with those it was inflicted on and everything to do with those doing the inflicting—along with that growing portion of the electorate that supports them, that wants to torture not on instrumental grounds (to extract information) but simply wants to torture. In this sense, Dick Cheney’s infamous appearance last weekend on Meet the Press was one long whistle to the “Torture Party.” “This is why I don’t give a shit how we gathered information from terrorists” is a sentiment widely circulated on Twitter and FB, attached to various images related to 9/11.
In 2011, Pew asked people to complete the following sentence: “Torture to gain important information from suspected terrorists can be justified…” Often. Sometimes. Rarely. Never. Don’t know. The poll revealed that “a substantial majority of Republicans (71%) say torture can be at least sometimes justified, compared with 51% of independents and 45% of Democrats.” More recently, a Washington Post/ABC survey found that “by a margin of almost 2 to 1—59 percent to 31 percent—those interviewed said that they support the CIA’s brutal methods, with the vast majority of supporters saying that they produced valuable intelligence.” And a CBS poll says more and more people are willing to describe waterboarding as torture (nearly 70 percent) while a majority (57 percent) “think that such interrogation tactics provide reliable information that helps prevent terrorist attacks at least some of the time.”
But by framing the question in terms of effectiveness, these polls dodge the main issue. To really take the nation’s temperature, one would have to poll on the following: “Torture is justified to exact revenge…” Often. Sometimes. Rarely. Never. Don’t know. “I will only vote for politicians who support shoving food up our prisoner’s rectums…” Often. Sometimes. Rarely. Never. Don’t know. “I believe it is acceptable to sodomize young children in front of their Muslim mothers and video-tape their terror.” Often. Sometimes. Rarely. Never. Don’t know. “I support political leaders who ‘seem unfazed’ by reports that a man not involved in terrorist acts was ‘chained to the wall of a cell, doused with water, froze to death in CIA custody.’ ” Often. Sometimes. Rarely. Never. Don’t know.
Then Pew could do some cross-tabs, correlating the findings to attitudes on immigration, police violence, the state-sanctioned murder of blacks and Latinos, public education and healthcare. What you would get would be a pretty clear outline of the slaver-settler-colonial voting bloc.
Years ago, the late Berkeley political theorist Michael Rogin argued that racism was the missing link binding the secrecy and spectacle of the national-security state together. Those two qualities—secrecy and spectacle, the covert and the overt—might seem antithetical but they actually comprise a unified form of modern imperial power. It’s not concealment that the imperial presidency requires to function. It is rather, Rogin said, “political amnesia,” and that amnesia is created not in the shadows but on the stage, in the kind of theater we are seeing now revolving around the question of torture.
Think about it. Since Vietnam, the United States has perfected a form of amnesia-producing pomp unique to itself: the official congressional investigation into covert ops. The Church Committee inaugurated what turned out to be a perpetual pageant: from Pike to Rockefeller, Fulbright to Kerry to now Feingold, and all the too-many-to-count investigations between. Wikileaks, Chelsea Manning, the National Security Archive and tell-all books by apostate agents like Philip Agee add to the mountain of information. The safe is thrown open and the “family jewels” of clandestine activity have been cast to the public: fact upon top-secret fact, witness upon witness, figures and declassified documents—the Pentagon Papers ad infinitum.
Some of the information gathered remains secret, including the bulk of the torture report and apparently the “worst” of the Abu Ghraib images, including video tapes of young children being raped. But, really, what don’t we know? Certainly the fact that we had been torturing people—and training our allies to torture people—long before 9/11 was known to anyone who wanted to know.
One way amnesia is produced, according to Rogin, has to do with the triviality and vicariousness of the hearings: “spectacle is the cultural form for amnesiac representation, for specular displays are superficially and sensately intensified, short lived and repeatable”—the endless regression of the congressional investigation embodies the soft pleasures of contemporary visual entertainment. Amnesia is also created through the reduction of the crime of war to a procedural question or a domestic drama between two political parties: one party executes, the other explicates (Rogin was writing in the wake of Iran/Contra [which involved considerable amounts of torture] and this clip of Senator George Mitchell questioning Oliver North beautifully illustrates what he was getting at: Mitchell represents the logorrhea of the decomposing New Deal coalition; he immediately concedes the argument—there is “no disagreement,” he says, about the need to contain the Sandinistas—but can’t stop talking. North wins without saying a word. Really, if one had to choose a single semiotic text that captures the decline of the New Deal and the rise of the New Right, this seven-minute, fifty-three-second video is it).
What is displaced in “imperial spectacle is the historical content of American demonology,” which for Rogin is the history of settler-slaver racism: “The American empire started at home; what was foreign was made domestic by expansion across the continent by the subjugation, dispossession, and extermination of Indian tribes.… The American colonies, after experimenting with Indian workers, enslaved Africans instead. The United States was built on the land and with the labor of peoples of color.… American political culture came into being by defining itself in racialist terms.… categories that originated in racial opposition were also imposed on political opponents, creating an American political demonology.”
The specific racial content of that demonology, Rogin said, was muted through “good” and “cold” wars fought in the name of freedom, subsumed into a nominally deracinated, secular ideology of national security. But racial demonology could never be completely extirpated because racial violence doesn’t just negatively define American nationalism (that is, what America isn’t). Race terror also positively defines American nationalism (what it is): more than a century of racialized torture—in the form of slavery, genocide and land dispossession—“created a distinctive American political culture” linking “freedom to expansion in nature rather than to social solidarity.”
In other words, the individual supremacy that defines so much of American Exceptionalism is white supremacy. Cheney’s appearance on Meet the Press is a near-perfect exposition of the historical logic behind such an equation: decades of torturing others granted Americans an exceptional privilege. Americans can only be tortured. They can never actually torture—even when they are actually, by definition, torturing. It might be the most honest thing Cheney has ever said.
I have a sense we have reached some kind of turning point. Not too long ago, at the height of their world power, Americans defined themselves, in the classic description of Graham Greene, as “untorturable.” Surely it means something that Cheney has flipped the definition and is now defining Americans as the only people in the world worthy enough to be “torturable.” “I’ve told you what meets the definition of torture,” Cheney said. “Torture is what the Al Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11.” There is, he said, “no comparison” between anything the United States does and that.
There are many different “spectacles” attached to American torture. There’s the act and the circulated electronic images of the act. Here’s Seymour Hersh in 2004, referring to a video that as far as I know hasn’t yet surfaced: “This is at Abu Ghraib.… The women were passing messages out saying ‘Please come and kill me, because of what’s happened’ and basically what happened is that those women who were arrested with young boys, children in cases that have been recorded. The boys were sodomized with the cameras rolling. And the worst above all of that is the soundtrack of the boys shrieking.”
There’s the spectacle of the media, as Dan Froomkin at The Intercept points out, turning the Feinstein report into an opportunity for “revisiting a debate” and “splitting the difference between the facts and the plainly specious, morally defective arguments led by Dick Cheney.”
And there’s the spectacle of the open defense of torture, not as effective but as righteous because we are righteous. Many of these defenders don’t even bother to hide their racist revanchism, much less transform it into political amnesia. Rogin’s formulation—in which imperial spectacle conceals the nation’s racial demonology “from contemporary eyes” by hiding it “in plain sight”—no longer holds. The transformation of a good part of the white electorate into an aggrieved class (whereby they perceive themselves not as “untorturable” but the only ones moral enough to be “torturable”) has let loose the furies.
The historical subconscious is not percolating to the surface but bursting forth like a geyser. This is “how we baptize terrorists,” says Sarah Palin of waterboarding. The remark directly links American torture back to the race slavery established with the conquest of the Americas, to the forced collective baptisms performed on enslaved peoples before leaving Africa, where sailors would push the heads of captured Africans into pots of water as priests chanted Latin prayers. Sometimes the enslaved were baptized and branded in the same ceremony.
Read Next: US Torture Didn’t End When Bush Left Office