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Rand Paul may not fully recognize it, but he has outlined an important challenge to the selective outrage of his fellow Republicans when it comes to executive actions by American presidents.
In moving to force Congress to formally decide whether to declare war on the Islamic State militants that the United States is already fighting, the senator from Kentucky is highlighting the failure of Republican congressional leaders (or, for the most part, their Democratic counterparts) to take seriously what should always be the most concerning example of executive overreach. This is the executive action that troubled the founders above all others: warmaking by presidents in the absence of a declaration of war by the Congress.
“Conservatives are mad at (Obama) about immigration. And they’re mad about him using executive authority on Obamacare,” says Paul. “But this is another example where he doesn’t have much respect for Congress, and some conservatives don’t quite get that.”
Paul should acknowledge that warmaking without the authorization of Congress is not “another example” of executive authority being extended into troubling territory. It is, by far, the most significant example.
Paul should also acknowledge that the disrespect shown by presidents for Congress with regard to declarations of war did not begin with Obama. It extends back decades and has been evidenced by Republican and Democratic presidents.
Paul’s proposal to have Congress declare that “a state of war exists between the organization identifying itself as the Islamic State and the government and the people of the United States” is flawed on many levels. For instance, despite the senator’s protestations to the contrary, it opens too much space for the assignment of ground troops to a fight in a region where most Americans are exceptionally disinclined to engage in another full-scale war.
Yet what Paul is doing is important, in that he is challenging the “parlor game” wherein leaders of Congress “consult” with presidents and then allow them to wage war with anything akin to the congressional oversight required by the Constitution.
This “parlor game” has been going on for a long time. The United States has not formally declared war since World War II. And many of the same Republicans who are now screaming about the president issuing an executive order with regard to immigration—as Republican Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush did before him—have engaged in the war-and-peace parlor game quite willingly. Indeed, interventionist Republicans such as Arizona Senator John McCain and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham are frequently heard urging presidents to be more aggressive and unilaterally inclined in their executive warmaking.
The war hawks have been aided and abetted by Republican congressional leaders—along with Democrats—who have declined to take even the most minimal steps to check and balance presidential warmaking since the days when George W. Bush began overreaching.
When President Obama began ramping up the current fight with Islamic State militants in September, a CNN poll found that, while Americans were “alarmed” and “concerned” about reports of conflict in Iraq and Syria, they were also skeptical about getting too deeply engaged in that conflict. Specifically the poll found that:
1. Americans want limits placed on the US military response to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and to the broader political challenges that have developed in those countries. For instance, a majority of Americans, 61 percent of Americans oppose placing US troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria.
2. More than 70 percent of Americans believe that President Obama should seek congressional authorization for military strikes against ISIL.
Amid all the examples of “alarm” and “concern,” the American people remain wary about any rush to war. They believe that Congress—not just the president—should have a say with regard to expansion of military action. And, make no mistake, what President Obama has embarked upon involves a dramatic expansion of US military involvement and action in Iraq and Syria.
As Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D-California, said in a statement in September, “The facts are clear. We are no longer talking about limited strikes to prevent genocide and protect US personnel. We are talking about sustained bombing and the use of military force.”
The US troop presence in the region has risen steadily since September. Yet even now, House Speaker John Boehner, who so noisily objects to executive initiatives on the domestic front, remains cautious about challenging executive warmaking.
As such Obama simply says, “I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL. But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger.”
Translation: While the president is happy to accept endorsements of his actions—and may, in fact, get from this Congress or the next—he is in no rush to seek the congressional advice and consent on matters of war and peace that is imagined and intended by the Constitution.
Congressman Jim McDermott, D-Washington, has described the president’s “I welcome congressional support” line as “really kind of condescending.”
Yet, Congress has been absurdly slow in asserting its clear authority as a co-equal branch of government to debate and vote on plans for war and, through the power of the purse, to define the scope and character of warmaking.
While Republican and Democratic leaders have been derelict in their duty, there are members of the House and Senate who continue to voice concerns about the lack of clear congressional authorization for military action in Iraq and Syria.
Congresswoman Lee has long championed the view that “the Constitution requires Congress to vote on the use of military force. This is not about this President. This is about any President and any Congress. We must re-establish the checks and balances laid out by the Constitution.”
She’s right. And she has allies.
Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, and Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, have joined Lee in asking for immediate and genuine debate. “The voices of the American people must be heard during a full and robust debate in Congress on the use of military force,” they have said. “Speaker Boehner should put legislation authorizing military action on the floor of the House of Representatives before Congress leaves for the upcoming district work period.”
House Armed Services Committee member John Garamendi, D-California, has for months been specific in arguing that “the U.S. Constitution and War Powers Resolution are clear: Congress is obligated to weigh in on extended U.S. military actions. No matter how noble the cause, no matter how just the engagement, Congress’ voice and vote are required within a 60-90 day window.”
The sixty-to-ninety-day window that Garamendi spoke of in that September statement has passed. For months, Speaker Boehner and other congressional leaders have ignored what the California congressman correctly describes as “our Constitutionally-required duty.”
Now, it appears that Congress may finally send a signal regarding its sentiments. But, as The New York Times notes:
Some (Republican) conservatives may balk at setting up a narrow set of parameters for the president. Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, has introduced a resolution that would give the president “all necessary and appropriate force” to defend the country against the Islamic State but would require him to report back to Congress on the effort every 90 days.
The debate will probably continue into the next Congress. Republicans will then control both chambers, which is likely to make it more difficult to pass a resolution that sets major limits.
Congress has ceded to successive presidents immense authority to act on domestic and foreign-policy concerns. This has created a confusing circumstance that favors the executive. The White House has broad authority to act when emergencies arise, and when crises go unaddressed by obstructionist or dysfunctional congresses.
In many areas of domestic policy, the courts and Congress have helped to define for presidents a good deal of flexibility. Yet when it comes to matters of war and peace, there has been little in the war of responsible defintion. Instead, the power of presidents has expanded to a point where Congress now tends to be a spectator—rather than separate-but-equal branch of government.
This is an imbalance that the founders feared, as it opens up the prospect of perpetual war, which James Madison well and wisely recognized. “Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other,” Madison, the essential author of the US Constitution, warned more than two centuries ago. “War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds are added to those of subduing the force of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes and the opportunities of fraud growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could reserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
If Burger King has its way, the company will soon leave its Miami headquarters for Canada and enter the coffee-and-donut business. When the fast-food giant announced its intention to buy the Canadian company Tim Hortons in August, it stressed the coffee-and-donuts part of the deal—or, rather, the opportunities for “growth” and “expansion.” But the chance to move to a country with lower corporate tax rates was undoubtedly part of the appeal. Since 2003, more than thirty-five American companies have dodged taxes through similar deals, which are known as “corporate inversions.”
Now the Burger King move is implicated in a fight brewing between some Senate Democrats and President Obama, a clash that throws into relief the split between the party’s Wall Street wing and its progressives. One of the people involved in the deal was Antonio Weiss, a major Democratic fundraiser, the publisher of The Paris Review, and the global head of investment banking at Lazard Ltd, a firm that has put together several major inversion deals. As of November 12, he’s also President Obama’s pick to oversee the domestic financial system—including the implementation of the Dodd-Frank financial-reform act, and consumer protection—at the Treasury.
But a growing number of senators are objecting to Obama’s latest Wall Street nominee. Unsurprisingly, Massachusetts’s Elizabeth Warren is at the front of the insurrection. “Enough is enough,” she proclaimed in the Huffington Post last week. “It’s time for the Obama administration to loosen the hold that Wall Street banks have over economic policy making.”
Warren has a number of problems with Weiss. The first is the fact that his career has been focused on international transactions. “Neither his background nor his professional experience makes him qualified to oversee consumer protection and domestic regulatory functions at the Treasury,” she wrote. The second is that he’s tied up in the corporate-inversion trend, which, as she notes, the Obama administration has criticized and tried to stop. She issued a sharp retort to White House claims that Weiss did not have a hand in the tax portion of the Burger King deal and that he opposes inversions personally:
This was a tax deal, plain and simple. It was designed to reduce Burger King’s tax burden, and Weiss was an important and highly-paid part of the team…Did he work under protest, forced to assist this deal against his will? Did he speak out against tax inversions? Did he call out his company for profiting so handsomely from its tax loophole work? The claim of personal distaste is convenient, but irrelevant.
The third piece of Warren’s opposition to Weiss isn’t specifically about him but about the fox guarding the henhouse. She ticked off a long list of people with close ties to the financial industry who now serve in high-level economic-policy positions in the Obama administration, including Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and US Trade Representative Michael Froman. Letting former Wall Streeters roost in top government perches “tells people that one—and only one—point of view will dominate economic policymaking. It tells people that whatever goes wrong in this economy, the Wall Street banks will be protected first,” she wrote.
Warren isn’t the only one who has concerns about Weiss’s nomination. Dick Durbin, the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, opposes Weiss’s nomination, too. Independent Senator Bernie Sanders announced on Sunday that he also will vote no. “We need an economic team at the White House which will hold Wall Street accountable and fight for the needs of working families, not more Wall Street executives,” Sanders said in a statement. Although other Democrats on the finance committee have not taken a position on Weiss, a Democratic aide told Bloomberg Businessweek that a number of other senators are privately unsupportive of the nominee. At least a few members of the Party of No will probably boost progressive opposition to Weiss; Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, who sponsored an anti-inversion bill in 2004, has already taken the nomination as an opportunity to bash Obama’s “hypocrisy.”
A group representing community banks has also joined the campaign against Weiss. “While Mr. Weiss has impressive credentials as a top Wall Street executive specializing in international mergers and acquisitions, Wall Street is already well represented at Treasury, and the narrow focus of Mr. Weiss’s professional experience is a serious concern for ICBA and community banks nationwide,” wrote Independent Community Bankers Association of America president Camden Fine in a letter sent last week to members of the Senate Finance and Banking Committee.
Weiss is not nearly as notorious as the last Wall Street nominee to face a challenge from progressives—former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, who withdrew his name from consideration for the top post at the Federal Reserve last year after a backlash made his confirmation unlikely. Nor is the position in question as prominent. Still, the fight over Summers’ nomination showed that populist Democrats can mount a real challenge to the assumed dominance of Big Bankers if they try. The question of whether the party sides with Wall Street or Main Street is still very much in play.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
With Republicans winning big in the midterm elections, the debate over so-called “free trade” agreements could again take center stage in Washington.
President Barack Obama has been angling for “fast track” authority that would enable him to push the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP—a massive trade agreement between the United States and a host of Pacific Rim countries—through Congress with limited debate and no opportunity for amendments.
From the outset, the politicians who support the agreement have overplayed its benefits and underplayed its costs. They seldom note, for example, that the pact would allow corporations to sue governments whose regulations threaten their profits in cases brought before secretive and unaccountable foreign tribunals.
So let’s look closely at the real impact that trade agreements have on people and the environment.
A prime example is the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement, or DR-CAFTA. Brokered by the George W. Bush administration and a handful of hemispheric allies, the pact has had a devastating effect on poverty, dislocation and environmental contamination in the region.
And perhaps even worse, it’s diminished the ability of Central American countries to protect their citizens from corporate abuse.
In 2004 and 2005, hundreds of thousands of protesters filled Central America’s streets.
They warned of the unemployment, poverty, hunger, pollution, diminished national sovereignty and other problems that could result if DR-CAFTA were approved. But despite popular pressure, the agreement was ratified in seven countries—including Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and the United States.
Ten years after the approval of DR-CAFTA, we are seeing many of the effects they cautioned about.
Overall economic indicators in the region have been poor, with some governments unable to provide basic services to their population. Farmers have been displaced when they can’t compete with grain imported from the United States. Amid significant levels of unemployment, labor abuses continue. Workers in export-assembly plants often suffer poor working conditions and low wages. And natural-resource extraction has proceeded with few protections for the environment.
Contrary to the promises of US officials—who claimed the agreement would improve Central American economies and thereby reduce undocumented immigration—large numbers of Central Americans have migrated to the United States, as dramatized most recently by the influx of children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras crossing the US-Mexican border last summer. Although most are fleeing violence in their countries, there are important economic roots to the migration—many of which are related to DR-CAFTA.
One of the most pernicious features of the agreement is a provision called the Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism. This allows private corporations to sue governments over alleged violations of a long list of so-called “investor protections.”
The most controversial cases have involved public interest laws and regulations that corporations claim reduce the value of their investments. That means corporations can sue those countries for profits they say they would have made had those regulations not been put into effect.
Such lawsuits can be financially devastating to poor countries that already struggle to provide basic services to their people, much less engage in costly court battles with multinational firms. They can also prevent governments from making democratically accountable decisions in the first place, pushing them to prioritize the interests of transnational corporations over the needs of their citizens.
The Mining Industry Strikes Gold
These perverse incentives have led to environmental deregulation and increased protections for companies, which have contributed to a boom in the toxic mining industry—with gold at the forefront. A stunning 14 percent of Central American territory is now authorized for mining. According to the Center of Research on Trade and Investment, a Salvadoran NGO, that number approaches 30 percent in Honduras and Nicaragua—and rises to a whopping 35 percent in Honduras.
In contrast to their Central American neighbors, El Salvador and Costa Rica have imposed regulations to defend their environments from destructive mining practices. Community pressure to protect the scarce watersheds of El Salvador—which are deeply vulnerable to toxic mining runoff—has so far prevented companies from successfully extracting minerals like gold on a large scale, and the Salvadoran government has put a moratorium on mining. In Costa Rica, after a long campaign of awareness and national mobilization, the legislature voted unanimously in 2010 to prohibit open-pit mining and ban the use of cyanide and mercury in mining activities.
Yet both countries are being punished for heeding their citizens’ demands. Several US and Canadian companies have been using DR-CAFTA’s investor-state provisions to sue these governments directly. Such disputes are arbitrated by secret tribunals like the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes, which is hosted by the World Bank and is not accountable to any democratic body.
In 2009, the US-based Commerce Group sued El Salvador for closing a highly polluting mine. The case was dismissed in 2011 for lack of jurisdiction, but El Salvador still had to pay several million dollars in fees for its defense. In a case still in process, the gold-mining conglomerate Pacific Rim has also sued El Salvador under DR-CAFTA for its anti-mining regulations. To get around the fact that the Canadian company wasn’t from a signatory country to DR-CAFTA, it moved its subsidiary from the Cayman Islands to Reno, Nevada, in a bid to use the agreement’s provisions. Although that trick failed, the suit has moved forward under an outdated investment law of El Salvador.
Elsewhere, Infinito Gold has used DR-CAFTA to sue Costa Rica for nearly $100 million over disputes related to gold mining. And the US-based Corona Materials has filed a notice of intent to sue the Dominican Republic, also claiming violations of DR-CAFTA. These costly legal cases can have devastating effects on the national economies of these small countries.
Of course, investor-state disputes under DR-CAFTA are not only related to mining. For example, TECO Guatemala Holdings, a US corporation, alleged in 2009 that Guatemala had wrongfully interfered with its indirect subsidiary’s investment in an electricity distribution company. Specifically, TECO charged that the government had not protected its right to a “minimum standard of treatment”— an exceptionally vague standard that is open to wide interpretation by the international tribunals that rule on such cases—concerning the setting of rates by government regulators. In other words, TECO wanted to charge higher electricity rates to Guatemalan users than those the state deemed fair. Guatemala had to pay $21.1 million in compensatory damages and $7.5 million in legal fees, above and beyond what it spent on its own defense.
The US-based Railroad Development Corporation also sued Guatemala, leading to the country paying out an additional $11.3 million, as well as covering both its own legal fees and the company’s. Elsewhere, Spence International Investments and other companies sued Costa Rica for its decision to expropriate land for a public ecological park.
A Chilling Effect
What’s at stake here is not only the cost of lawsuits or the impact of environmental destruction, but also the ability of a country to make sovereign decisions and advance the public good.
Investment rules that allow companies to circumvent national judicial systems and challenge responsible public policies can create an effect that’s been dubbed “regulatory chill.” This means that countries that might otherwise have curtailed corporate activity won’t—because they’re afraid of being sued.
Guatemala is a prime case. It’s had to pay companies tens of millions of dollars in investor-state lawsuits, especially in the utility and transportation industries. But it hasn’t yet been sued by a mining company. That’s because the Guatemalan government hasn’t limited the companies’ operations or tampered with their profit-making.
Take the Marlin Mine in western Guatemala, for example. In 2010, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights advised the Guatemalan government to close the mine on account of its social and environmental impacts on the surrounding region and its indigenous population. Nonetheless, after briefly agreeing to suspend operations, the Guatemalan government reopened the mine a short time later.
In internal documents obtained by activists, the Guatemalan government cited potential investment arbitration as a reason to avoid suspending the mine, writing that closing the project could provoke the mine’s owners “to activate the World Bank’s [investment court] or to invocate the clauses of the free trade agreement to have access to international arbitration and subsequent claim of damages to the state.” As this example demonstrates, just knowing that a company could sue can prevent a country from standing up for human rights and environmental protection.
More recently in Guatemala, the communities around San Jose del Golfo—about 45,000 people—have engaged in two years of peaceful resistance to prevent the US-based Kappes, Cassiday, and Associates from constructing a new mine. Protesters estimate that 95 percent of families in the region depend on agriculture, an industry that would be virtually destroyed if the water were to be further contaminated. But the company threatened to sue Guatemala if the mine was not opened. “They can’t afford this lawsuit,” a company representative said. “We had a big law group out of [Washington] DC fire off a letter to the mines minister, copied to the president, explaining what we were doing.”
On May 23, the people of San Jose del Golfo were violently evicted from their lands by military force, pitting the government in league with the company against its own people—potentially all to avoid a costly lawsuit.
A Prelude to the TPP
Warnings about the crises that “free trade” would bring to Central Americans were, unfortunately, correct. Central America is facing a humanitarian crisis that has incited millions to migrate as refugees from violence and poverty, thousands of them children. One push factor is the environmental degradation provoked by ruthless mining corporations that are displacing people from their rural livelihoods.
And it’s not just DR-CAFTA. The many investor-state cases brought under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and in countries all over the world, have exposed the perniciousness of investor protection rules shoehorned into so-called “free trade” pacts. Many governments are realizing that these agreements have tied their hands when it comes to protecting their own environments and citizens.
We must use these egregious investor-state cases to highlight extreme corporate power in the region. We must work to help Central Americans regain livelihoods lost to ruthless extractive projects like mining. And we must change trade and investment agreements to stop these excessive lawsuits that devastate communities, the environment and democracy itself.
Like DR-CAFTA, the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership includes investor-state provisions that are likely to hurt poor communities and undermine environmental protections. Instead of being “fast tracked” through Congress, future trade agreements like the TPP—and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership being negotiated between the European Union and the United States—must be subject to a full debate with public input.
And such agreements must not, at any cost, include investor-state mechanisms. Because trading away democracy to transnational corporations is not such a “free trade” after all.
This post is part of The Nation’s biweekly student movement dispatch. As part of the StudentNation blog, each dispatch hosts first-person updates on youth organizing. For recent dispatches, check out October 24 and November 10. For an archive of earlier editions, see the New Year’s dispatch. Contact email@example.com with tips. Edited by James Cersonsky (@cersonsky).
1. The Free Speech Movement
On November 19, after University of California regents voted to increase tuition by 27.6 percent over five years, students at UC-Berkeley launched an indefinite occupation of Wheeler Hall. This increase extends the privatization of the UC system, where in-state tuition has already more than doubled in the past decade, sparking massive mobilizations and building occupations. At almost all UC campuses, students have rallied and marched against the fee hikes, with a brief occupation at UC-Riverside and an ongoing, indefinite occupation of the Humanities 2 building at UC–Santa Cruz. At the start of our occupation, more than 300 students and supporters packed the Wheeler Hall lobby. We voted to ratify three demands: no tuition hikes, full transparency of the UC budget under California Assembly Bill 94 and the dropping of all charges against Jeff Noven, arrested at the November 19 Regent’s meeting in San Francisco under false charges. We have continued maintaining the Wheeler Commons with daily general assemblies, teach-ins, working group meetings, art and banner making, open mics, movie screenings and study sessions. On Monday, November 24, in coordination with students across the state, we will have a class walkout and day of action.
2. The General Body, Everywhere
On November 20, THE General Body, a coalition of more than fifty student organizations, ended our eighteen-day sit-in at Syracuse University’s administration building. The coalition announced that, while we are vacating the space, the movement is not going anywhere until critical needs of the university community are addressed—including guaranteed scholarships for students of color and commitments to end rape culture and improve counseling and mental health services. Students leave affirmed by new networks and concessions won—hiring an Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator, delaying the passage of a corporate vision statement and an increase on the minimum pay for TAs—but also determined to continue resistance to the university’s top-down restructuring campaign by creating broad, bottom-up coalitions among students, teachers, staff, parents and alumni. As education is being reduced to a corporate transaction across the country, in the space of the sit-in, we have rediscovered education as social transformation.
—Ben Kuebrich and Yanira Rodríguez
3. In Colorado, Students Opt-Out
In September, Mountain Vista High School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, announced that seniors would be taking the Colorado Measures of Academic Success, a standardized test. CMAS is not an accurate representation of my learning or my teachers’ ability to teach me, takes time away from authentic classroom instruction and is a waste of taxpayer dollars. In response, a group of students from around the school spread the word and made a plan to help others opt-out. On November 12 and 13, despite misinformation spread by the principal that we are required to take the test by law, that it is a requirement for graduation and that it is tied to teacher compensation, 43 percent of the senior class refused to take the test. Our school joined a movement of schools around the state—with opt-out totals as high as 97 percent. As the spring test, PARCC, looms, we will continue educating students and parents and lobbying the state legislature to eliminate high-stakes testing.
4. In Newark, Students Show Up
On November 13, the Newark Students Union bused a delegation to Washington, DC, where Newark superintendent Cami Anderson was scheduled to attend a panel at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy think tank, to discuss the success of the One Newark Plan and how other cities can privatize public education as it is currently happening in Newark. Startled by our appearance, the AEI staff tried everything in their power to kick us, black and brown bodies, out of the space. After an hour of patiently waiting for the event to start, it was canceled due to a “security breach.” At that point, we took control of the room and tried to explain to attendees why Anderson refused to show her face. The next week, the Barringer High School branch of the NSU walked out to protest the school’s punitive, underresourced, unresponsive environment—left unaddressed by the One Newark plan. Students were forced to stay inside by security guards and police officers, violating their right to protest. As the administration maneuvers to close schools, displacing at least 8,000 students, we will continue to recruit students and build stronger bases throughout the city for actions soon to come.
5. In Manhattan, TFA Shows Its Cards
On Thursday, November 13, United Students Against Sweatshops students who have been at the forefront of a groundbreaking campaign to reform Teach for America traveled to New York for an open meeting with TFA leadership. After a long conversation with TFA CEOs, we were disappointed to hear that the organization plans to continue driving policies that harm working-class communities and displace veteran teachers across the country. Students brought up their three campaign demands—that TFA only send corps members to regions with actual teacher shortages, that corps members receive more adequate training and that TFA cut ties with corporations such as Walmart and Goldman Sachs—and asked why these changes haven’t been made. We also expressed concern at TFA’s influence in spreading corporate education reform policies, such as school closures, mass teacher layoffs, high-stakes standardized testing and the privatization of public education. The CEOs denied our concerns and made no indication that they plan to take meaningful action. We will continue our campaigns to kick Teach for America off our campuses until our demands are met.
—Dani Lea, Blake McGhghy, Hannah McShea and Will Daniels
6. How Can Deportations End?
Alongside numerous allies, the Immigrant Youth Coalition has successfully organized to stop the deportation and criminalization of immigrants in California by engaging in direct action and litigation and pushing for legislation such as the TRUST Act and driver licenses for all. After President Obama’s most recent announcement, our work remains very much the same. We are continuing to focus our efforts on preventing deportations by ending gang injunctions, which use racial profiling to place young people of color in gang databases, as well as practices that contribute to the school to deportation pipeline. We are also allocating resources to support LGBTQ undocumented people, who are particularly vulnerable to violence and human rights abuses. This includes LGBTQ detainees, for whom we are building support networks and providing basic necessities when released. By building capacity to organize those who are detained, we also hope that detainees can lead the fight against the 34,000-bed quota for detention centers and the private prison corporations who profit from them.
7. When Will New York Wake Up?
After a year of conversation with New York University’s Office of Financial Aid and mounting student support for a proposal to allow university financial aid resources to be accessed by undocumented students, the university will open these opportunities to incoming undocumented students from New York starting in the 2015–16 academic year. For the DREAM Team at NYU, this is a first step in the university’s commitment to equal educational opportunities for undocumented students, reflecting its stated efforts to bring its own financial aid policies “into closer alignment” with the vision for the New York State DREAM Act. The state DREAM Act, which was narrowly outvoted in the state senate last spring, has received support from leaders of both public and private New York higher education institutions. NYU now becomes one of the largest private institutions to open institutional aid to undocumented students, taking action where state politicians have not. While we continue to work alongside the New York State Youth Leadership Council and DREAM Teams across the city and state to escalate in support of the state DREAM Act, we are advocating for the expansion of NYU’s program to include undocumented students nationwide.
—Ivan Rosales, Maria Monica Andia and Mark Tseng Putterman
8. A Win for Ethnic Studies
Since the beginning of the school year, students from the Roosevelt Taking Action club, alongside the Community Rights Campaign and a student, teacher and community coalition, Ethnic Studies Now, have organized to make ethnic studies a requirement in all high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District and expand it to other school districts statewide and nationwide. LAUSD has over 90 percent students of color; with these classes, we seek a better understanding of who we are, where we come from and how oppressions are formed and undone—which, put together with the fight to end the school-to-jail track, will help build a larger movement to end educational racism. At Roosevelt High, we made dozens of classroom presentations, collected hundreds of petitions signed by our classmates, organized community film screenings of Precious Knowledge on the fight to defend ethnic studies in Tucson, worked with our teachers to make short videos with the hashtag #ourhistorymatters and organized students to come out to the LAUSD vote on November 18. At the vote, 700 people across all ages and backgrounds rallied, filling the school board meeting room and spilling over outside. When the board passed the resolution 6-1, we made history by fighting to claim that of our people.
9. A Win for Student Voice
On November 14, after a year of intense deliberation among California lawmakers, school officials, advocates and students, the California State Board of Education unanimously passed the final Local Control Funding Formula regulations, giving 4 million low-income and ESL students a voice in how schools spend money on their education. The LCFF, passed in July 2013, allots funding from Proposition 30 to historically underfunded schools. Initially, parents, teachers and school administrators all had a say in how the new funds would be spent in classrooms—but students did not. In response, Californians for Justice organized thousands of students in San Francisco, Richmond, Oakland, San Jose, Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles and the Inland Empire to challenge the State Board of Education for a voice through the Student Voice Campaign. Now, the regulations require all 1,001 school districts to include students in the development of their funding and spending plans, setting the tone for educational priorities across California.
—Saa’un P. Bell
After years of people disappearing, cartels inflicting violence throughout the state, and a government known for dirty tricks, people are getting angry. In Mexico, the disappearance of forty-three students from the teachers college of Ayotzinapa was the straw to break the camel’s back. On November 20, Mexicans told the world to stand in solidarity with their revolution. With #YaMeCanse, or “Enough, I’m tired,” as the call, forty-three cities across the United States joined Mexico for a day of action—voicing the truth that the US has pushed Mexico to where it is today via policies including Plan Merida and NAFTA. In New York, students, elders and migrant communities held a blockade in front of the Mexican consulate and performed a die-in inside Grand Central Station, chanting, “Murder made in the USA!”
On November 12 and 13, We Charge Genocide’s eight-person delegation staged two historic protests at a meeting of the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva. First, we walked out in response to the US government’s suggestion that the prosecution of 330 police officers over five years indicates significant progress toward ending police violence. The next morning, the UN grilled the US on issues of police violence, particularly against youth of color. The US dodged questions and misled committee members, at one point claiming tasers aren’t lethal. In protest, we rose silently with our fists in the air, each holding an image of Dominique Franklin—a 23-year-old friend who was tased to death by Chicago police this summer. Several other organizers and advocates stood or raised fists in solidarity. We then held our raised hands together for thirty minutes in honor of the thirty minutes that Rekia Boyd’s body lay in the street after being shot by a Chicago police off-duty officer. On this international stage, our stories, lives and struggles were recognized—amplifying our organizing efforts in Chicago.
—We Charge Genocide
Starting on November 10, students from Birzeit University have toured the United States as part of the Right to Education Campaign. Starting in Ferguson and moving to schools across the country, the campaign seeks to illuminate the effects of the Israeli occupation on students’ ability to access education and academic opportunity. On November 18, students on the West Coast tour visited UCLA and addressed the university body at the undergraduate student government’s divestment hearings. The hearing also gave a platform to thirty-two student organizations that endorsed and supported the resolution to divest from corporations complicit in Israel’s occupation. That night, the student government passed the divestment measure by a landslide 8-2-2 margin, becoming the sixth of nine University of California campuses to hold majority votes for divestment.
13. Taking Over the Board
On November 17, hundreds of students at the University of Southern Maine walked out of class and assembled on the quad to share stories about the adverse affects of ongoing budget cuts. We then marched to the UMaine System Board of Trustees meeting, where we disrupted the meeting with chants and took over the trustees’ seats—staging our own board meeting and calling for a different future for USM. The demonstration was the latest in a series of protests against the wholesale dismantling of USM by the board of trustees. Five programs have been eliminated since October, and twenty-five tenured faculty were “retrenched”—that is, fired—on October 28, with many more coerced into retirement. Students for #USMFuture has demanded reversal of the cuts, restoration of shared governance and renewed state investment in public higher education. Our actions were in conjunction with a week of action, coordinated by the International Student Movement, from Pittsburgh to Belgrade to Sierra Leone. We plan to continue to connect our movement to those of our allies in the struggle for the right to education.
—Meaghan LaSala and Philip Shelley
14. Camping Out—and Winning
On Monday, November 17, following a letter to the interim chancellor and a meeting with the chancellor’s executive assistant, graduate students marched across the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa campus to protest proposed reductions in the number of teaching assistant positions and proceeded to set up camp in the courtyard of the Campus Center. For three days and three nights, we marched and camped on campus, demanding our positions not be cut, equitable hiring of assistants across units and a commitment to budget reform. On November 18, we met with administrators to discuss our demands. The following afternoon, the interim chancellor released a statement announcing that our positions would be saved for the spring 2015 semester; the unit a student’s advisor belonged to would not impact students’ hiring status; and a budget allocation model would be proposed in December 2014 rather than toward the end of spring 2015. At the board of regents meeting the next day, we testified further about transparency and budget reform. Though our sit-in has ended, we are continuing to work for budget reform and administrative transparency.
15. Moving the Moment, in Ferguson and Beyond
Editor’s note: On November 20, Akai Gurley, an unarmed, 28-year-old black man, was killed by police in Brooklyn. On November 23, hundreds from across the city, and across generations, massed in East New York. (Video: CBS)
—New Yorkers in Resistance
This Black Friday, legions of shoppers will throng to their local Walmart in frenzied pursuit of holiday deals. But it turns out that Walmart has saved the sweetest deals for itself.
In a recent analysis of Walmart’s tax spending, Americans for Tax Fairness (ATF) found that the company “avoids $1 billion a year in taxes” through federal loopholes, and various political shenanigans drive this always-low tax rate: the big-box giant is absorbing government subsidies both directly and indirectly, through its retail operations as well as its ingenious accounting methods. Overall, the retail giant can evade taxes through overseas accounts, on one hand, and raid the public trust on the other by capitalizing on the benefits system.
The losers in Walmart’s tax scheme are the working-class consumers who think they’re getting a good deal by elbowing through the mob surrounding the Xbox floor display. They’re being secretly robbed as the country’s pre-eminent retailer shields hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue from the tax system through creative, perfectly legal strategies to reduce its liability.
One major way Walmart and other multinationals skirt tax obligations, ATF explains, is to funnel the money to an overseas location where it can be subject to “a gaping loophole known as ‘deferral.’ ” The ability to park assets in other countries “gives corporations great incentive to earn profits offshore (or make it look like they are earned offshore)—often by moving jobs overseas.”
ATF estimates that through its globalized business structure, “Walmart is avoiding paying U.S. taxes on $21.4 billion in offshore profits.” And its reach overseas is expanding, with investment in new operations in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
While Walmart’s tax avoidance drains the government’s revenue streams, an even more convenient source of “savings” for Walmart operates on the retail level, through the pockets of consumers and workers who rely on taxpayer-funded federal welfare programs. Many of the associates, warehouse laborers and other low-wage workers in Walmart’s massive production chain depend on federal programs like Medicaid and food stamp subsidies to make ends meet. According to a 2013 congressional research report, “a single 300-employee Walmart Supercenter may cost taxpayers anywhere from $904,542 to nearly $1.75 million per year.”
So Walmart, which is known to be a major lobbying force on food stamp issues in Washington, appears to be suppressing wages and letting Uncle Sam pick up the slack. And it profits further as a purveyor of subsidized food: of every dollar of food stamps spent in this country, roughly 18 cents is spent at Walmart. And according to critics, the benefits of food stamps go primarily to the company and not to customers, whose food security is constrained by the dependence on welfare subsidies that Walmart indirectly promotes.
But Walmart isn’t just shirking its social responsibility; the retailer generously allowed some Oklahoma workers to set up a solidarity food drive to further supplement the low wages of “associates in need.”
Walmart (which has not yet responded to The Nation’s request for comment) has generally defended its business and labor practices against accusations of worker exploitation and tax dodging by arguing that the vast majority of workers earn more than the minimum wage and have a chance to qualify for benefits, and that its compensation practices are “comparable” to those of similar large employers.
Nonetheless, as the country’s preeminent employer of and retailer to working-class Americans, Walmart wields unique clout in Washington. ATF’s report reveals that the company is lobbying fiercely to lower the corporate tax rate from 35 to 25 percent, which could mean it “might save at least $720 million more in U.S. income taxes each year based on the profits it made and the taxes it paid from 2008 to 2012.”
In addition, Walmart and other mega-corporations are pushing Congress to expand the offshoring tax-avoidance mechanisms in order to “permanently eliminate from U.S. taxation profits that are reportedly earned in other countries.” Not only does this drain the tax base, according to ATF, it also encourages the offshoring of jobs. (By one estimate, this model, known as a “pure territorial tax system,” could lead firms to locate some 800,000 jobs overseas.)
Adding to those projections of Walmartization’s social costs are the potential environmental effects of Walmart’s carbon-intensive, fossil-fuel-based mass retail structure.
Yet this is not simply a matter of boosting poorer economies in which Walmart operates. According to ATF, this has a corrosive effect on the global economy by driving the structural inequalities that Walmart has capitalized on.
If the company is given free rein to offshore profits, the group argues, “Walmart’s suppliers with manufacturing facilities in low-tax countries will cut their costs; and the company and its suppliers would be able to increase US tax avoidance by establishing subsidiaries in offshore tax havens and use accounting gimmicks to shift income to those subsidiaries.” This pattern of chasing cheaper territories as tax havens shows how the global financial trends mirror the “race to the bottom” in the production chain. Though analysts have debated the structural effects of globalization on “development,” labor advocates point to a manufacturing and trade structure that fuels social inequality and perpetuates poverty wage jobs and exploitative working conditions in the Global South.
The next congressional session may see a further onslaught of tax slashing and austerity budgets. Noting that the House Republican agenda has revolved around budget cuts, ATF executive director Frank Clemente tells The Nation, “Business will be pushing them very hard to promote tax reform in their interest, as opposed to in the interest of the rest of us.” And a more conservative budget “means making no investments” in social programs, and further erosion of healthcare, education and public infrastructure spending. “Unless we deficit spend to pay for those things, we’ve got to raise the money to do it, and that means raising revenue.”
Since Walmart seems hell-bent on avoiding contributing to any of those revenue needs for social programs, American shoppers should be sure to stretch every dollar this holiday season—you may need a little to fall back on in the coming months.
Read Next: Michelle Chen on who’s left out of Obama’s executive action on immigration
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s surprise resignation—reportedly at the strong urging of the White House—will dominate Beltway news in the coming days. But perhaps the much more significant foreign-policy news came early Saturday morning.
The New York Times reported that the United States will expand its mission in Afghanistan in 2015, with US troops participating in direct combat with the Taliban while American airpower backs Afghan forces from above. The shift, leaked anonymously to reporters ahead of a holiday week, is a big “oh, nevermind” to Obama’s very public announcement six months ago in the Rose Garden that US troops in Afghanistan would be shifting into a training and advisory role next year.
The president didn’t even make a glancing reference to the Afghanistan reversal in his remarks announcing Hagel’s departure. The administration would clearly prefer a limited public debate, and based on the media coverage so far, it is getting its wish.
But it is against this new hawkish posture that Hagel’s departure should be understood and discussed. It is possible that it was the subtext to his resignation: Hagel came aboard to help manage a withdrawal from Afghanistan and shrink the Pentagon budget, and an anonymous US official told the Times Monday that “the next couple of years will demand a different kind of focus.”
The retrenchment in Afghanistan reportedly came after a “a lengthy and heated debate” inside the White House that pitted military generals against some administration officials:
Mr. Obama’s decision, made during a White House meeting in recent weeks with his senior national security advisers, came over the objection of some of his top civilian aides, who argued that American lives should not be put at risk next year in any operations against the Taliban—and that they should have only a narrow counterterrorism mission against Al Qaeda.
But the military pushed back, and generals both at the Pentagon and in Afghanistan urged Mr. Obama to define the mission more broadly to allow American troops to attack the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other militants if intelligence revealed that the extremists were threatening American forces in the country.
Was the historically dovish Hagel one of these officials? It is certainly curious that his departure directly coincides with the new aggressive plan for Afghanistan.
No reporting yet indicates that for certain, and Hagel is notoriously guarded—one reason cited for his resignation was reportedly that he remained quiet in meetings, supposedly to avoid leaks of his position. It is certainly possible that ISIS’s rapid emergence and other foreign-policy crises contributed to Hagel’s poor standing inside the White House, along with his reported leadership problems.
Ultimately, that’s an academic question for the administration’s biographers. What matters now is that the United States is changing course toward a more aggressive foreign policy: it is recommitting to the war in Afghanistan, which is by far the country’s longest and now promises to span two two-term presidencies. The number of troops in Iraq has doubled, and the administration will soon seek an authorization from a Congress that is extremely unlikely to include a provision that outlaws direct combat by US troops. Even supposed doves like Rand Paul are switching their position on fighting ISIS, and the incoming class of senators has distinct interventionist positions.
Hagel’s departure—and the confirmation of his successor—will hopefully allow for some serious public debate about this new turn, even if the administration prefers otherwise. The real story here is about the policy, not the personnel.
A bevy of right-wing pundits, radio jocks and late-night comics will mock the passing of four-time DC mayor Marion Barry. In life and death, his enemies will take their shots without trying to understand why people—particularly the marginalized and criminalized—mourn his passing. Barry’s talent—and his sin in the eyes of the powerful—was the ability to organize a true urban political machine comprised of black residents in the old style of the white ethnic political bosses. Like the bosses of yesteryear, he gave and he took. He had vices both political and personal and he knew how to count votes. But Barry also understood social movements. He came out of the black freedom struggle in the 1960s where racists flicked lit cigarettes into his face. Barry always knew how to wear his scars like medals.
As the misinformation—and some lionization—flies, here are fourteen facts about Marion Barry to help decode the demonization, and a couple of memories about times our paths crossed.
1. Barry quit his graduate studies in chemistry at Fisk University to become an organizer in the civil rights movement—most famously with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He was one of the more conservative members of SNCC where he fought alongside—and fought with—revolutionaries like Stokely Carmichael. It was reform vs. revolution amidst the rapid real time of a black freedom struggle exponentially expanding.
2. After moving to Washington, DC, in the mid-1960s, Barry organized a citywide boycott in response to bus fare hikes and against police brutality. Barry also organized hundreds of working class and poor black men into an organization called Pride, which helped people get jobs as well as organizing them as a voting bloc.
3. It has been commonly stated that in the years before home rule, Congress treated DC like a plantation. Bigoted Dixiecrat John McMillan of South Carolina blocked every move for home rule and routinely screwed over DC residents. When President Johnson appointee Walter Washington became the city’s first local mayor, McMillan sent a truckload of watermelons to Washington’s office.
4. At a decisive moment, Barry led the famous “Free DC Movement” for home rule, an extensive campaign that drew upon the strength of the civil rights movement. By the early 1970s, DC won an elected school board, nonvoting congressional representative, mayor and city council, but Congress still retained control over the city.
5. Marion Barry was one of just a handful of black mayors nationally when he first took office—inaugurated by Thurgood Marshall—in January 1979. He was re-elected three times, by a 67 percent margin, 30 percent margin and 15 percent margin in 1982, 1986 and 1994.
6. As mayor, Barry won the loyalty of tens of thousands of DC residents by creating jobs—most famously through his summer youth employment program (SYEP) which still exists today. He spent government money to create jobs that fueled the growth of the black middle class. DC was one of a few places in the United States that could claim improved economic status for African-Americans during the early Reagan years.
7. Yet for many black residents, dire poverty and underemployment persisted. Crack cocaine ravaged DC, but any efforts by Barry or any politician to expand drug treatment were hamstrung by a congressional ban on the commuter tax, which would have enhanced the District’s ability to tackle dire rates of poverty and underemployment. But, as in cities across the country, most of the economic growth flowed toward white developers and property owners.
8. The moment when Barry made national news after his videotaped 1990 arrest for using crack cocaine was tragic on many levels. First and foremost, it became a propaganda bonanza for President George H.W. Bush’s devastating war on drugs. The fact that it certainly looked like entrapment did not spare Barry, and DC began its journey toward losing political power and becoming a neoliberal laboratory for Congress.
9. The crusade against Barry that resulted in his infamous arrest, conviction and sentencing was led by US Attorney Joseph diGenova. DiGenova had been appointed by President Ronald Reagan. Interestingly, diGenova went on to help prosecute Teamsters union president and UPS national strike leader Ron Carey.
10. After Barry was re-elected mayor in 1994—following his sentence—the entire country unleashed a wave of thinly veiled racist vitriol directed at black DC voters. No one asked why tens of thousands of people—many affected by a war on drugs that imprisoned a generation of young black men, would forgive and support his leadership again.
11. In 1995, to punish DC voters for re-electing Barry, the Gingrich Congress stripped DC of home rule again—this time by stripping Barry of most of his mayoral powers and transferring them to an undemocratic, federally appointed institution known as the “Control Board.” The Control Board deserved the contempt it received at the hands of residents and Barry himself, but it came into being via federal law signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton and shepherded by Congressperson Eleanor Holmes Norton.
12. By the time Marion Barry made his improbable return to the mayor’s office in 1994, the Democratic Party had moved to the right, and Barry’s politics drifted along with them. There was no old-style vote counting and deal making for Barry to make in a city run by a Control Board. It was mass social movement or concede. Needless to say, there were no mass social movements. I will never forget my friend the activist Angela C. Davis, saying to Barry in packed room, to serious applause, “We stand with the Barry of 1968, not the one of 1998.”
13. Marion Barry appeared at LGBT Pride events as far back as the early 1980s in Washington, DC—and won the loyalty of many gay residents years ahead of most other politicians. Tragically, he betrayed his own legacy by opposing marriage equality in 2009. The reasons for this are much debated. Fortunately his opposition did not stop it from becoming law and it passed 11-2.
14. Barry was a politician like any other—and committed the same sins that others did—but paid a much higher price.
The above constitute some reasons why people are mourning. But what made Marion Barry unique is that he was present. In a world where politicians—especially in this town—seem to operate in a bubble of bodyguards, Marion Barry was accessible on a street level. Everyone who has lived in DC—not Washington, but DC—has a Marion Barry story. I have two.
In 1997, I was getting my teaching provisional certification at the University of the District of Columbia and the city wanted to shut down the school. Barry was mayor, but this is when that lovely unelected Control Board was in charge of city finances, and trying to claim the real estate upon which UDC stood. As the closure was starting to commence, several hundred of us staged a sit-in to keep our school open. We had a simple slogan: “Control This.” It was becoming a high-profile media embarrassment for the hated Control Board. They sent in Mayor Barry and gave him instructions: draw on your past experience as a protest rabble-rouser, and tell the students to go home. We were silent when he walked into the room. Barry looked at us and said, “Shit, you’ve already learned most important lesson a student in this world can learn.” He then raised his fist and said, “The squeaky wheel gets the damn grease.” We erupted in cheers. And then he just walked out. UDC is still open for students.
The second story took place in 2010. I was emceeing a remembrance of the late, great people’s historian Howard Zinn. Speakers such as Marian Wright Edelman, Amy Goodman, Ralph Nader and many others were there to pay tribute, and in between every speaker, I would rush up on stage from my seat in the front row of the packed house and introduce the next one. At one point, I scurried up to introduce spoken-word artist Damian Smith’s dramatic reading of a speech by Muhammad Ali. When I attempted to return to my seat, Marion Barry was just sitting there. The mayor took my seat. “Hello, Mayor Barry,” I said to the person who had not held that office in a dozen years. “Hello, young brother,” he said. “Nice emceeing up there.” I did not ask him to move. Instead I said, “This is the perfect place for you to sit, Mayor.” “It’s the place to be,” he responded.
I looked at Damian who had just finished up and he said to me, “I guess you realized that Marion Barry can sit wherever he damn well pleases.” Let the hate on Barry fly in the days to come. But when Marion Barry entered a room, wherever he was, it immediately became “the place to be.”
This article could not have been written without the help of DC Public Schools Washington DC History teacher Michele Bollinger.
This might sound odd, given all the Sturm und Drang from the right over Obama’s executive order to temporarily allow up to 5 million undocumented immigrants to stay in America without the threat of deportation. But I think that some of the Fox News hosts might be going a little soft on immigration.
Seven years ago, Geraldo Rivera and Bill O’Reilly had an epic, screeching, flesh-tearing brawl (a true must-see, below). The Geraldo v. Tucker Carlson bout on Fox & Friends this morning, however, was by comparison a gentlemen’s duel.
The cringe-inducing chryon of “Bamnesty” set the tone. After Geraldo, an informed and strong proponent of immigration reform, made an impassioned plea to accept the people who “clean our houses, mow our lawns, take care for our children, start businesses, and raise families,” Tucker was reduced to saying, with a bow-tie squareness, “I like immigrants. They are very hard working.”
Another bit of unexpected Fox softening came from Megyn Kelly shortly after Obama’s speech. She admitted that what Obama was ordering was not “amnesty,” as she and most Fox hosts have insisted in the past. As Media Matters puts it, she
acknowledged that the president is not actually pursuing “amnesty,” because “amnesty is citizenship and that’s not what [Obama] is talking about.” Kelly also explained how conservatives purposely misuse the word “amnesty” for political gain: “That’s a hot-button term that the right uses to sort of get people upset.”
But don’t think that Fox is going to actually have to re-write its glossary. Obama’s order might not legally be that dirty, bad A-word, she said, but “it amounts to amnesty.”
And here’s Geraldo and O’Reilly:
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
When was last time in recent memory a top US official praised Cuba publicly? And since when has Cuba’s leadership offered to cooperate with Americans?
It’s rare for politicians from these two countries to stray from the narratives of suspicion and intransigence that have prevented productive collaboration for over half a century. Yet that’s just what has happened in the last few weeks, as Secretary of State John Kerry and US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power spoke favorably of Cuba’s medical intervention in West Africa, and Cuban President Raúl Castro and former president Fidel Castro signaled their willingness to cooperate with US efforts to stem the epidemic.
As it causes devastation in West Africa and strikes fear in the United States and around the world, Ebola has few upsides. But one of them may be the opportunity to change the nature of US-Cuban relations, for the public good.
Don’t Squander the Opportunity
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel once famously said. “And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”
President Barack Obama should heed his former chief of staff’s advice and not squander the opportunity presented by the Ebola crisis. Political leadership in the White House and the Palace of Revolution could transform a fight against a common threat into joint cooperation that would not only promote the national interests of the two countries but also advance human rights—and the right to health is a human right—throughout the developing world.
Political conditions are ripe for such a turn. Americans strongly support aggressive actions against Ebola and would applaud a president who placed more value on medical cooperation and saving lives than on ideology and resentment.
In the sixth in a series of editorials spelling out the need for a change in US policy toward Cuba, The New York Times called on Obama to discontinue the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program—which makes it relatively simple for Cuban doctors providing medical services abroad to defect to the United States—because of its hostile nature and its negative impact on the populations receiving Cuban doctors’ support and attention in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
“It is incongruous for the United States to value the contributions of Cuban doctors who are sent by their government to assist in international crises like the 2010 Haiti earthquake while working to subvert that government by making defection so easy,” the editorial board wrote. The emphasis should be on fostering Cuba’s medical contributions, not stymieing them.
As Cuba’s international health efforts become more widely known, it’s become increasingly clear how unreasonable it is for Washington to assume that all Cuban presence in the developing world is damaging to US interests. A consistent opening for bilateral cooperation with Cuba by governmental health institutions, the private sector and foundations based in the United States can trigger positive synergies to update US policy toward Havana. It will also send a friendlier signal for economic reform and political liberalization in Cuba.
The Whole World Has Something to Gain
The potential for cooperation between Cuba and the United States goes far beyond preventing and defeating Ebola. New pandemics in the near future could endanger the national security, economy and public health of other countries—killing thousands, preventing travel and trade, and choking the current open liberal order by encouraging xenophobic hysteria. At this dramatic time, the White House needs to think with clarity and creativity.
As the leading nation in the Western Hemisphere, the United States should propose the creation of a comprehensive continental health cooperation and crisis response strategy at the next Summit of the Americas, which will be held in Panama City in April 2015. As numerous Latin American countries have already asserted, Cuba must be included at the summit.
Havana has developed extensive medical expertise at home and abroad, with more than 50,000 doctors and health personnel serving in sixty-six countries. Preventive measures, early detection, strict infection controls and natural disaster crisis response coordination are essential parts of the Cuban approach to nipping pandemics in the bud. The lack of some of these components in already-collapsed health systems explains the failures of governance that inflamed the impact of Ebola in West Africa.
As a senator and presidential candidate, Obama was one of the loudest critics of looking at Cuba through the glasses of the Cold War. As president, it isn’t enough for him to just retune the same embargo policy implemented by his predecessors. He must adjust the official US narrative about post-Fidel Cuba: It is not a threat to the United States but a country in transition to a mixed economy, and a positive force for global health.
Nearly every night in Ferguson, a group of protesters gathers in front of the police department demanding justice for Michael Brown. The size of the demonstration has varied, depending on people’s availability and on the weather conditions, but the dedication to protesting has remained consistent since Brown’s death.
In these days leading up to the announcement of whether a grand jury has indicted Darren Wilson for killing Brown, everyone is on edge. The uncertainty of when the decision will be released to the public, coupled with Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s declaration of a state of emergency, has left plans for action up in the air and the quest for justice without answers. But the people still show up to police department.
The anxiety has only been exacerbated the last few nights in Ferguson, as those protests have been met by a show of force on the part of the Ferguson police department. The night I was there—Wednesday, November 19—there were no more than about forty protesters at any given moment, met with police presence of equal or greater number. Of course, the major difference was that the police stood armed, in riot gear, and the protesters had only their bullhorns, chants and emotion.
It remained relatively calm for a time. The police, lined up as if to block the passageway to the department doors, already unavailable to anyone because of the metal barricade, played a game of cat and mouse, advancing a few feet and backing protesters up, before retreating themselves. Things escalated when during one of their advances they arrested a young man who had shown up to livestream the event.
The police advanced further as the protesters took to the streets, directing traffic away from their action. Protestors ran to what they thought would be a safe space across the street, but a few weren’t lucky enough to make it. At least five people were arrested that night, mostly for unlawful assembly as well as resisting arrest.
Aside from the chanting, there was no provocation of the police on the part of the protesters. There was one instance of an object a being thrown, a water bottle, but other protesters quickly handled it: the person responsible, dressed in all black from head-to-toe, including a black mask that obscured their face, was run off of the protest site and heckled as an agitator who was putting the lives of the protesters at risk.
“If the media wasn’t out here, they’d have arrested us all,” one protester remarked.
A similar scene played out on Thursday evening, with the lesson here being that a militarized police force isn’t necessary to inflict terror. The police have proved themselves violent even without the use of tanks and tear gas. The people’s right to assemble peacefully won’t be protected. The Ferguson police department hasn’t taken any of the national or international criticism they have received to heart. And as the announcement of the decision on whether to indict Wilson dangles in some unknown future, the anxiety builds and takes an unknowable psychic toll on the most dedicated protesters.
But their resolve to see this through is strong.