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Stephen Cohen: Ukraine’s ‘Full-Fledged Economic Meltdown’

Damaged buildings in Donetsk

An armed pro-Russian separatist stands in front of damaged buildings in Donetsk. (Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)

Stephen Cohen, contributing editor at The Nation, joined The John Batchelor Show on Tuesday to discuss the series of setbacks facing those looking for a peaceful end to the Ukraine crisis—especially the problems facing the Ukrainian economy.

Cohen explained that Ukraine’s economy had been in a “complete meltdown”—unable to balance its budget or to pay its bills or sovereign debt—long before the crisis started. At Riga, Ukraine was unable to obtain the money it needed and further, was told “‘No, you’re not going to be a member of the European Union,’” Cohen said. He believes that it appears the EU will not give Ukraine money because it’s giving this money to Greece.

On top of this economic instability, Cohen said, is an increasing crisis of political faith. According to a recent poll, only 17 percent of Ukrainians approve of the president’s performance. The same poll also showed that only 1 percent of Ukrainians “see the government as fulfilling its obligations.”

“Unfolding before our eyes is a deepening economic, financial, political and military crisis in Kiev,” Cohen said. “The regime is becoming wobbly. It can’t do anything except call for war.”

—Ava Kofman

Read Next: Stephen Cohen on the geopolitical transition of the Ukraine crisis

The Conservatives Who Gutted the Voting Rights Act Are Now Challenging ‘One Person, One Vote’

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A moderator slides a voter’s ballot into a box at the Woodstock Town Hall in New Hampshire. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Ed Blum, who brought the case that led to the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, is now going after the historic principle of “one person, one vote.” The Supreme Court decided on Tuesday to hear Evenwel v. Abbott, Blum’s latest case, which challenges the drawing of state Senate districts in Texas. The obscure case could have major ramifications for political representation.

Blum first began attacking the Voting Rights Act after losing a Houston congressional race to a black Democrat in 1992 and founded the Project on Fair Representation in 2005 to challenge the constitutionality of the VRA. The Evenwel case doesn’t deal directly with the VRA but on how districts should be calculated. Since the Supreme Court’s 1964 Reynolds v. Sims decision, districts have been drawn based on the total population of an area. Blum instead wants lines to be drawn based only on eligible voters—excluding children, inmates, non-citizens, etc. from counting toward representation.

If that happened, legislative districts would become older, whiter, more rural, and more conservative, rather than younger, more diverse, more urban, and more liberal. “It would be a power shift almost perfectly calibrated to benefit the Republican party,” explains University of Texas law professor Joey Fishkin. “The losers would be urban areas with lots of children and lots of racially diverse immigrants. The winners would be older, whiter, more suburban, and rural areas. It would be a power shift on a scale American redistricting law has not seen since the 1960s. While not nearly as dramatic as the original reapportionment revolution, it would require every map in every state to be redrawn, with the same general pattern of winners and losers.”

Demographically, the gap between Republicans and Democrats is wider than it has ever been. “House Republicans are still 87 percent white male, compared to 43 percent of House Democrats—the widest gap we’ve ever seen,” explains Dave Wasserman, House editor of the Cook Political Report. “In terms of composition of districts, the median GOP district is 76% white, while the median Dem district is 49% white—again, the widest gap we’ve ever seen. Overall, the median House district is 68% white, compared to 63% for the nation as a whole.”

This representation gap explains why Republican officials are pushing new voting restrictions like voter ID laws and cuts to early voting, which disproportionately impact minority voters and seek to make the electorate smaller and whiter. A victory for Blum’s side in Evenwel would make districts across the country even less representative of the country as a whole.

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Blum claims to be fighting for race neutrality but he’s often done the bidding of the most powerful figures in the conservative movement and Republican Party. As I reported in 2013:

His Project on Fair Representation is exclusively funded by Donors Trust, a consortium of conservative funders that might be the most influential organization you’ve never heard of. Donors Trust doled out $22 million to a Who’s Who of influential conservative groups in 2010, including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which drafted mock voter ID laws and a raft of controversial state-based legislation; the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, the Koch brothers’ main public policy arm…Donors Trust has received seven-figure donations from virtually every top conservative donor, including $5.2 million since 2005 from Charles Koch’s Knowledge and Progress Fund. (The structure of Donors Trust allows wealthy conservative donors like Koch to disguise much of their giving.)

From 2006 to 2011, Blum received $1.2 million from Donors Trust, which allowed him to retain the services of Wiley Rein, the firm that unsuccessfully defended Ohio’s and Florida’s attempts to restrict early voting in federal court last year. As a “special program fund” of the tax-exempt Donors Trust, Blum’s group does not have to disclose which funders of Donors Trust are giving him money, but he has identified two of them: the Bradley Foundation and the Searle Freedom Trust. The Wisconsin-based Bradley Foundation paid for billboards in minority communities in Milwaukee during the 2010 election with the ominous message “Voter Fraud Is a Felony!”, which voting rights groups denounced as voter suppression. Both Bradley and Searle have given six-figure donations to ALEC in recent years, and Bradley funded a think tank in Wisconsin, the MacIver Institute, that hyped discredited claims of voter fraud to justify the state’s voter ID law.

The challenge in Evenwel isn’t so different from the gutting of the VRA or new laws restricting voting rights. The goal is to limit representation, make it harder for some to participate in the political process and to widen the gap between the haves and have-nots.

CORRECTION: Blum says, "The Project on Fair Representation hasn't been affiliated with Donors Trust for nearly 6 months; we are now a 501 (c) (3) so our donors will be disclosed according to the regulations that apply to all public charities."

Read Next: Ari Berman on how the money primary is undermining voting rights

Will the FIFA Raids Scuttle the Vote to Suspend Israeli Soccer?

Federal agents

Federal agents load a van with boxes and computers taken from the headquarters of CONCACAF. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

As the 2015 FIFA Congress remains roiled in disarray following the dramatic arrests of leading officials on corruption charges, the Palestinian Football Association is not deterred. The PFA is still moving forward with a Friday vote to suspend the Israeli Football Association unless it pledges to push its government to cease the detentions, imprisonments, and targeting of Palestinian players and clubs (here is a comprehensive list of their concerns). As PFA President Jibril Rajoub said, “Nothing has changed, the vote is still on the agenda.”

After a meeting with embattled FIFA chief Sepp Blatter, long desperate to avoid such a vote, as well as Arab and Israeli authorities, Rajoub said, “The meeting lasted about one hour, there were no results.”

Whether Rajoub is able to get this vote on the agenda given the chaos engulfing FIFA at the moment is a real concern that should in no way be discounted, but that doesn’t mean the recent high-profile arrests don’t also present opportunities for campaigners. Before seizing them, however, there is a need to first cast away the rampant theories that the US Justice Department’s transatlantic criminal sting was somehow timed to aid Israel. The much-trafficked belief is that the United States facilitated the timing of this operation in its efforts to help its greatest ally to avoid the humiliation of becoming the first country since apartheid South Africa to be suspended by FIFA. Surely the fires of such thoughts were stoked by editorials in The Jerusalem Times crowing that the arrests “couldn’t have come at a better time for Israel.”

But, typical of the Jerusalem Times editorial page, this makes little sense. It also ignores the ways in which the spotlight on FIFA has only grown in the last 48 hours, providing new leverage for those who want to make the soccer congress an arena to actually confront human-rights abuses instead of facilitating them.

The idea that a United States Justice Department that can’t even get its attorney general approved for six months, could pull off a multi-year, multimillion-dollar transatlantic sting operation with the perfect timing to stymy a vote whose existence was in doubt even days ago is to put it mildly, unrealistic. But even more pertinently, with these arrests the US Justice Department and Swiss authorities just gutted the North American delegation, the group most likely to support and lobby for Israel at the FIFA Congress. This would be like dropping Steph Curry on his head as part of a master plan to help the Warriors win the NBA title.

Another reason these arrests don’t help Israel is that the reptilian Blatter has been staunchly in the IFA’s corner, and ferociously working to get the Israel vote off of FIFA’s agenda. Until more pressing matters emerged, it was at the top of his to-do list. Now, in the wake of the arrests, Blatter’s political capital has been eroded dramatically, his ability to broker anything beyond the weekend’s catering very much a question.

The idea that these arrests were timed to aid Israel also makes little sense because now the eyes of the world are on the FIFA Congress, an event, which in years past only the most die-hard of soccer dorks even noticed. Now every move will be under a microscope. If the goal of the Palestinian Football Association was to raise international awareness of the plight of its players, it could not have asked for a better stage. This vote against Israel was never going to pass. It would have required 75 percent of delegates to approve Israel’s suspension and not even the most optimistic vote counters believed that this could happen. But now there is global attention and, given the plight of Palestinian players, the more attention the better for their human rights to be recognized.

Once again the shell-shocked madness could very well create a situation where the vote is scuttled, and that would crush many campaigners. But this could also reap awareness of the hardships that surround the life of an up-and-coming soccer player in Gaza, as well as the ways that the IFA launches official soccer teams on West Bank settlements to further erode the possibilities of a separate Palestinian state.

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My own concern, as someone who has written and spoken out for the besieged players in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is that these theories of US-Israeli coordination are just fatalism in disguise: the idea that no matter how much people organize, there will always be an elaborate transatlantic sting ready to wreck the work. That’s not what happened. These arrests are foremost about FIFA buckling under the weight of its own corruption. This is about a history of graft, human rights abuses, and contempt for any law but his own catching up with Sepp Blatter. This is the Enron of sports. I agree with Andrew Zimbalist, author of Circus Maximus: the Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, who said to me, “FIFA executives have run an almost unimaginably corrupt organization. Sepp Blatter has been the grand choreographer, chief enabler, prime instigator and main beneficiary of this system since 1998. It is now time to take down Blatter himself.”

If there are any questions worth asking about these arrests, it is whether the Justice Department would have undertaken such action if the United States instead of Qatar had been awarded the 2022 World Cup (no). I’d also like to know why the Qatari World Cup Committee—a group of slavers with the blood of hundreds of workers on its hands—gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Clinton Foundation, even as Bill Clinton was leading the US World Cup bidding delegation. But as for Israel, my own concern is that in searching for conspiracies of coordination, activists will only find fatalism and fantasy: the idea that no matter what they do, it will be for naught. The PFA has not succumbed to this kind of fatal fantasy. We should not either.

 

Read Next: Dave Zirin on the possible demise of FIFA

May 28, 1948: The National Party Wins South African Elections, Promises to Introduce Apartheid

South Africa's National Party

South African Prime Minister D.F. Malan in South Africa, in 1948. His National Party endorsed and created the blueprint for apartheid. (National Archives of Namibia)

In 1927, a writer in The Nation predicted that “Natives” in South Africa would in the future “enjoy all the disadvantages of slavery without any of its advantages.” The following report, “Will South Africa Go Fascist?” by John Porter (November 6, 1948), was published six months after the elections that brought the National Party to power; it would rule until the end of apartheid, almost a half-century later.

Essentially rural if not feudal in outlook, the Nationalists are concerned to increase the supply of native labor for the white farmers, who constantly complain of a shortage. In a country with nine million Africans, unskilled labor is used so wastefully that mine-owners, industrialists, and farmers all wage a silent struggle to obtain their share of it. Urban industries are winning because they can pay higher wages and the natives prefer town life even though there is a desperate lack of accommodations for them in the cities. During the war years the Africans began to form trade unions, which were refused legal recognition, and to organize strikes, including an amazing one in the Rand gold mines, where conditions of migratory labor have not improved noticeably in the last forty years. Many of these unions have disintegrated, and the government has aimed a heavy blow at those that survive by making it illegal for any African organization to collect money without official sanction. Natives are debarred by law from doing skilled or even semi-skilled work. Politically, the Africans are becoming more conscious of their own rights and wrongs. They are not wholly ignorant of the fact that world opinion is on their side—nor is the government, which threatens to take steps to prevent “unfair” reports about South Africa from going abroad.

May 28, 1948

To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.

The Push for Debt-Free College Is Hitting the Big Time

Hillary Clinton talks about student debt

Hillary Clinton says college should be as "debt-free as possible" at a campaign event in Iowa, May 18, 2015. (Reuters/Jim Young)

When we last checked in with the activist push to make debt-free college part of mainstream Democratic politics, a little over one month ago, it was off to an impressive start. Three Democratic Senators and a handful of House members had signed on to bicameral resolutions championing the idea, including high-ranking Democrats like Steve Israel and Chris Van Hollen.

More members signed on in the following weeks, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), which is spearheading the effort, announced Wednesday that nine more Democratic Senators joined as co-sponsors. This brought the total to twenty in the Senate—close to half the caucus—and sixty overall.

That’s a pretty stunning level of support behind an idea that basically didn’t exist in formal terms six weeks ago.

The Congressional resolutions, and an attendant policy paper from Demos, lays out in in brief terms how more federal aid to states for tuition assistance, expanded Pell Grants, and some smaller-bore tweaks and reforms might produce a debt-free college experience at public universities nationwide.

The proposals need a lot of fleshing out. The level of support, though swift and dramatic, still wouldn’t be enough to pass a Democratic Congress, let alone one controlled by Republicans.

But the tentative goal of the activists pushing the campaign is to get the idea percolating in Democratic circles—until it becomes a mainstream policy plank. “It’s all about encouraging the Democratic Party to lead on big, bold economic populist ideas,” said TJ Helmstetter of the PCCC.

The biggest arena for these ideas, of course, is the upcoming Democratic presidential primaries. The push has gained some ground here, too—former Maryland governor and presumed candidate Martin O’Malley has openly joined the cause.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has appeared to at least be conversant with the idea. Her campaign manager, Robby Mook, dropped the term “debt-free college” in a recent CNBC interview, and Clinton herself hedged closer to calling for it in a recent campaign appearance, where she said college should be “as debt-free as possible.”

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Senator Bernie Sanders, however, has not joined the Senate effort nor has he spoken publicly about debt-free college—instead, he has a plan to make four-year public colleges and universities tuition-free, also through federal assistance to states, and paid for by a Wall Street transactions tax. Sanders introduced that bill in the Senate last week. Proponents of the debt-free college plan prefer their approach because it targets all higher education debt held by college students, including housing, books, and transportation. 

 

Read Next: George Zornick on the imaginary public support for Obama’s trade agenda

Bernie Sanders to Billionaires: ‘You Can’t Have It All!’

Bernie Sanders (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Bernie Sanders (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Burlington, Vermont— The campaign signs all say: “Paid for by Bernie 2016 (Not the Billionaires).”

That is a given with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the proud democratic socialist who decries plutocracy and oligarchy and proposes to tax Wall Street. Sanders is the presidential contender who is not looking to win the favor of the hedge-fund managers, bankers and CEOs who define and dominate American politics.

The whole point of the audacious bid that Sanders has now formally launched for the Democratic presidential nomination is to upset the calculus of American politics. “Today,” he declared at the opening of Tuesday’s announcement address, “we stand here and say loudly and clearly that; ‘Enough is enough. This great nation and its government belong to all of the people, and not to a handful of billionaires, their Super-PACs and their lobbyists.’”

The senator attracted more than 100,000 contributions in the average amount of $42, along with hundreds of thousands of volunteer commitments, in his first days as a contender.

How far that will get him remains to be seen, but Sanders says he seeks nothing less than a “political revolution”—a change sufficient not merely to propel him into competition with frontrunner Hillary Clinton but to shift the political dynamic in America.

At the heart of the matter is a determination to shift power away from what Sanders refers to as “the billionaire class.”

Sanders is ready to rip into the oligarchs and plutocrats with a fury Democratic presidential contenders have rarely mustered since the days when Franklin Delano Roosevelt bid for a second term by recounting that:

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.

Almost 80 years have passed since FDR uttered those words.

Yet it was possible to hear an echo on the shores of Lake Champlain Tuesday, when Sanders quoted the 32nd president—“As Franklin Delano Roosevelt reminded us, a nation’s greatness is judged not by what it provides to the most well-off, but how it treats the people most in need. And that’s the kind of nation we must become.” And when a wildly-enthusiastic crowd of Vermonters and others who had come from across the country to help launch an insurgent candidacy cheered Sanders’ declaration that:

This campaign is going to send a message to the billionaire class. And that is: you can’t have it all. You can’t get huge tax breaks while children in this country go hungry. You can’t continue sending our jobs to China while millions are looking for work. You can’t hide your profits in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens, while there are massive unmet needs on every corner of this nation. Your greed has got to end. You cannot take advantage of all the benefits of America, if you refuse to accept your responsibilities.

There will be those who attempt to portray what Sanders is saying—and what he is doing with this campaign—as new or radical. It is neither. The Sanders campaign is about something very old and very American. The United States was founded in revolt against monarchy and the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few very wealthy men. Throughout much of American history, serious contenders for the presidency—from Abraham Lincoln to William Jennings Bryan to Teddy Roosevelt to Robert M. La Follette to FDR to Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower warned against letting the affairs of state be guided by self-serving millionaires and billionaires.

In recent decades, however, the balance has tipped toward the billionaires.

The eternal premise that “all men (and women) are created equal,” the battlefield promise that this would be a land “of the people, by the people, for the people,” the pledge of “liberty and justice for all,” has been replaced by a call from a campaign donor to a pliant politician. The shift in our politics and our governance has yielded broken trade policies, bailouts for bankers and corporations, wage stagnation and income inequality.

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For Sanders, that is unacceptable. And, he believes, changeable. “The bad news is that people like the Koch brothers can spend huge sums of money to create groups like the Tea Party,” he says. “The good news is that, once people understand the right-wing extremist ideology of the Koch brothers, they are not going to go along with their policies. In terms of fundamental economic issues: job creation, a high minimum wage, progressive taxation, affordable college education—the vast majority of people are on our side.”

Sanders will test that notion in the weeks and months to come. There will be plenty of cynics. But on a sunny day in his hometown of Burlington, there were thousands of believers—cheering as the candidate announced:

American democracy is not about billionaires being able to buy candidates and elections. It is not about the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and other incredibly wealthy individuals spending billions of dollars to elect candidates who will make the rich richer and everyone else poorer. According to media reports the Koch brothers alone, one family, will spend more money in this election cycle than either the Democratic or Republican parties. This is not democracy. This is oligarchy. In Vermont and at our town meetings we know what American democracy is supposed to be about. It is one person, one vote—with every citizen having an equal say—and no voter suppression. And that’s the kind of American political system we have to fight for and will fight for in this campaign.

Read Next: John Nichols on Not Underestimating Bernie Sanders

Will Jeb Bush Get Away With His ‘Scheme’ to Skirt Campaign Finance Rules?

Jeb

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush speaks at a Clark County Republican Party dinner in Las Vegas, May 2015. (AP Photo/John Locher)

With candidates and outside groups already raking in money for the 2016 presidential contest and the Federal Election Commission abdicating its duty to enforce campaign finance laws, watchdog groups are pushing the Department of Justice to fill the void. To start, groups are asking the DOJ to investigate one of the most blatant exploiters of lax enforcement: Jeb Bush.

For months now the former Florida governor has insisted that he is not quite sure if he will run for the Republican presidential nomination. “No, no. I’m not an official candidate,” he said during an exchange with reporters a few weeks ago—never mind that he’s been crisscrossing the country raising amounts cash unprecedented for an undeclared candidate. Bush himself has struggled to maintain the farce, as he demonstrated minutes later when he accidentally declared, “I’m running for president in 2016.”

The implications of Bush’s protracted non-candidacy are serious. By waiting to announce his bid for the White House, Bush has skirted one of the last remaining campaign finance rules: the ban on coordination between candidates and Super PACs. (To be sure, that supposed firewall already looks more like a shower curtain.) Once Bush officially declares his intention to run, his campaign will be bound by that rule and by limits on donations directly to candidates ($2,700 in the primaries). But until then, absent action by regulators, Bush is apparently free to raise money and direct strategy for Right to Rise, the Super PAC that is expected to eventually take on many operations normally undertaken by a campaign committee—not just television and online advertising but also direct mail, data collection, and phone banking. And unlike a campaign committee, the Super PAC’s ability to raise money for these activities won’t be hampered by contribution limits.

In a letter sent to Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Wednesday, the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 allege that this "charade" of non-candidacy amounts to "a scheme to allow unlimited contributions to be spent directly on behalf of the Bush campaign and thereby violate the candidate contribution limits enacted to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption.” The groups asked the DOJ to appoint a special counsel from outside the department to investigate the allegation, noting that it would look suspicious were a Democrat-appointed Attorney General to go after a Republican candidate.

The letter argues that Bush should be considered a candidate because he’s been acting like one “in all pertinent respects.” He’s hired strategists and buttered up local Republican leaders in early primary states like New Hampshire and Iowa. He’s headlined dozens of events for Right to Rise, many of them fundraisers with a $100,000 ticket price. His advisers are overseeing the Super PACs operations. Reportedly Bush has even set the timing of his official campaign announcement—expected mid-June—to leave room for a “cross-country fundraising tour” for Right to Rise before the non-coordination rule kicks in.

Democracy 21 president Fred Wertheimer said that Bush’s association with Right to Rise is “the most blatant example to date” of how Super PACs dedicated to a single candidate are being used to circumvent contribution limits. But Wertheimer’s group and the Campaign Legal Center are preparing to ask the DOJ to probe other potential violations by presidential candidates and individual-candidate Super PACs.

While the FEC has jurisdiction over civil enforcement of campaign finance laws, the Justice Department can pursue criminal, or “knowing and willful,” violations. The DOJ’s first prosecution involving coordination between a Super PAC and a campaign committee was announced in February, in a case involving a campaign manager for a Virginia congressional candidate who coordinated with a Super PAC to leverage $325,000 in advertising against a rival. Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell said at the time that the department “is fully committed to addressing the threat posed to the integrity of federal primary and general elections by coordinated campaign contributions, and will aggressively pursue coordination offenses at every appropriate opportunity.”

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“The Justice Department is the only place where we have a chance of getting the laws enforced,” Wertheimer said. “The FEC is useless.” The chairwoman of the commission, which is hamstrung by a three to three split among the commissioners, acknowledged as much recently when she told the New York Times that “the likelihood of the laws being enforced is slim… People think the FEC is dysfunctional. It’s worse than dysfunctional.” If neither enforcer steps up, then according to Wertheimer “We’re going to see the most massive campaign finance violations in the history of the country, done by various presidential candidates.” (A DOJ spokesperson told The Nation that the department would review the letter, but declined to comment further.)

Daniel Weiner, counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice and a former FEC staffer, shares Wertheimer’s critique of the commission. “It beggars belief that there hasn’t been a single case worth bringing in the last six years,” he said, noting that the FEC hasn’t pursued any cases related to the coordination rule since the Supreme Court unfettered Super PAC spending in Citizens United.

But Weiner doesn’t believe that the DOJ can “substitute for competent and active civil enforcement,” because not all violations that warrant a response from regulators rise to a criminal level. “Sooner or later we need to do something about the FEC. It’s nice to talk about the Justice Department, and I support efforts to get disclosure through other avenues, but as long as we have a completely dysfunctional civil regulator there’s going to be an elephant in the room,” he said.

And if that doesn’t happen before the 2016 contests truly heat up? “We’re going to have the Wild West,” Weiner concluded.

 

Read Next: Zoe Carpenter on the future of the NSA’s dragnet surveillance program

Down Goes FIFA! Down Goes FIFA!

US Attorney General Loretta Lynch

US Attorney General Loretta Lynch announces an indictment against nine FIFA officials and five corporate executives at a news conference in Brooklyn. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

It has been called “the day that FIFA has long dreaded”: the day that decades of graft and a level of ostentatious excess that would make Caligula blush caught up with the international soccer body. Fourteen people, including nine top FIFA officials, have been arrested on corruption charges levied by the US Justice Department. Seven were taken into custody in a dramatic arrest by Swiss law enforcement at a luxury hotel in Zurich. As the late Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano wrote two decades ago, “There are visible and invisible dictators. The power structure of world football is monarchical. It’s the most secret kingdom in the world.”

Well, the kingdom has been cracked open, and no one is sure what we will find out once all the deals have been cut and the whistleblowers have played their tunes. Make no mistake: We may look back upon today as the beginning of the end of FIFA as we know it. All of the 209 member representatives of FIFA had gathered in Zurich for their congress, which was expected to be “a boring affair,” where President Sepp Blatter would coast to re-election. Boring is the last word on anyone’s mind now.

The charges brought include money laundering, wire fraud, and international racketeering that alleges $150 million in bribes going back to the 1990s made by big sports-marketing honchos to get their brands associated with major soccer tournaments, but this will be just the tip of the iceberg. Here is what was said by US attorney general Loretta Lynch: “The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States. It spans at least two generations of soccer officials who, as alleged, have abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks.” (Lynch said the selection of the United States to host next year’s Copa América was facilitated by $110 million in bribes.)

For those wondering how the Justice Department was able to facilitate these arrests in Switzerland, it used a prosecutorial authority often present in international terror cases. As The New York Times described, “Those cases can hinge on the slightest connection to the United States, like the use of an American bank or Internet service provider Switzerland’s treaty with the United States is unusual in that it gives Swiss authorities the power to refuse extradition for tax crimes, but on matters of general criminal law, the Swiss have agreed to turn people over for prosecution in American courts.”

In this case, the US connection is CONCACAF, headquartered in the United States and, of FIFA’s six regional confederations, the one that includes North America. Described as “an organization clearly in crisis” by Lynch, they are as of now the central focus of the investigation. (This part is important for those following the possible FIFA vote on sanctioning or even expelling Israel for its practices related to detaining players and coaches in the Palestinian Football Association. It is impossible to tell the fate of that vote or any votes based upon the chaos produced by latest charges, but CONCACAF was viewed as Israel’s most reliable defenders in the FIFA body.)

The indictments however, will seek information well beyond the workings of CONCACAF and could be the string that, if pulled, will tear FIFA’s cashmere sweater to pieces. The indictment also makes mention of bribery related to the much-criticized awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar. The oil-rich fiefdom of Qatar has been under fire for its use of slave labor and a shocking pace of deaths of South Asian migrant workers, building new stadiums without adequate water or safety regulations. Russia has conducted its own damning internal audits related to its soccer leadership. Yet already, in a show of staggering arrogance, FIFA has issued a statement that no matter what the investigation roots out, there will be no revote on the 2018 and 2022 World Cup. The hubris would be gobsmacking if we hadn’t heard it so many times in the past: the statement of blithely unaware confidence by a dictator right before the fall.

And speaking of dictators, the one name not mentioned in the indictments was that of FIFA chief Sepp Blatter: the sexist and homophobic troglodyte who has turned FIFA into a multibillion-dollar engine of corruption. His absence amongst the accused was so stunning that The New York Times headline reads: “FIFA Officials Arrested on Corruption Charges; Blatter Isn’t Among Them.”

Blatter was due to be reelected in a cakewalk on Friday, his only challenger Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussain, a 39-year-old Jordanian royal. Blatter’s power comes from strong support via Africa, Asia, and Oceania, where he has leveraged reverence like a mafia don by cagily distributing “sport for development and peace” funds, and then been none too concerned where those funds happen to land.

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Already FIFA has issued statements professing Blatter’s innocence and assuring the world that in an organization caked in filth, he somehow smells of sandalwood. Blatter still will likely be re-elected on Friday, which will only turn up the volume on how mockable the organization has become.

Transparency International, the campaigning NGO, wants Blatter to resign and the election to be delayed. Managing Director Cobus de Swardt said in a statement: “The warning signs for FIFA have been there for a long time. FIFA has refused to abide by many basic standards of good governance that would reduce the risk of corruption. These scandals have taken place under Sepp Blatter’s watch, which spans almost two decades. For the sake of the fans, and good governance of football, it is time for him to step down. The elections for president are not credible if they are tainted with these allegations by the highest prosecuting authorities.”

FIFA is paying for a culture that valorized dictatorship and excess while disregarding the concerns of people like the millions who took to Brazil’s streets in 2013. It was willing to be a neoliberal Trojan horse for the nations of the world, yet FIFA's arrogance and perhaps its unwillingness to cut in the United States, which hasn’t hosted the cup since 1994, caught up with it.

For those who have concerns about the Justice Department’s attacking FIFA while corrupt bankers go free, not to mention Attorney General Lynch’s using the FIFA presser to defend FISA, I share those concerns greatly. Trusting this Justice Department to prosecute the wealthy and powerful is like trusting Fox News to tell the truth. But this is a case of FIFA shaking its behind and daring law officials to take a free kick, and they did.

I wrote this a year ago and I will say it again: “Soccer is still unquestionably the most popular sport on the planet. But a cloistered, corrupt society like FIFA cannot function in a WikiLeaks world. It is past time to abolish FIFA. It is like a gangrenous limb that requires amputation before the infection spreads and the beautiful game becomes decayed beyond all possible recognition. Soccer is worth saving. FIFA needs to take its ball and go home.” The sooner the better, for anyone who loves this game.

 

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This Will Make You Think Twice About Downing That Pint of Ben & Jerry’s in One Sitting

Migrant Justice rallies for dairy worker's rights

Migrant Justice members rally for dairy worker's rights on May Day as part of the Milk With Dignity campaign. (Photo courtesy of Migrant Justice.)

Amidst the factory farms and genetically modified Frankenfoods of America’s agricultural landscape, the dairy farms of Vermont’s rolling hills have always stood apart as emblems of bucolic innocence. And Ben & Jerry’s has long been the quintessential Vermont brand, built on wholesome corporate values and hippie sensibilities by the pint. But labor advocates say the ice-cream empire’s socially minded branding is greased with the sweat of an exploited workforce, rotten with poverty wages, squalid housing, and abusive bosses. So immigrant workers are barnstorming Vermont’s dairy industry to demand Milk with Dignity.

The grassroots group Migrant Justice launched the Milk with Dignity (MWD) campaign last year to push a comprehensive labor monitoring plan for the dairy labor force, which would establish standards on wages and labor conditions set by workers themselves, supported by independent auditing, worker education, and a scheme for equitable profit-sharing among workers and farmers. The system is modeled on the Fair Food program of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which has successfully organized across the supply chain, wholesale to retail, to raise wages and broadly improve labor conditions on Florida tomato fields. For Vermont’s 868 dairy farms, with some 1,200 to 1,500 migrant workers, MWD seeks not only higher wages but also decent housing and leave times, protection from discrimination and greater autonomy and a say in their working conditions.

According to Migrant Justice’s survey of 172 dairy workers, about 40 percent earned less than the state minimum wage of about $9. Roughly a third observed that they were treated worse than US-born workers. And with workweeks averaging about 60 to 80 hours and frequent injuries, the labor conditions were not only harsh but also hostile, with some reporting verbal abuse and being denied medical care or even a break for the bathroom or eating. But Migrant Justice, which has campaigned to protect migrants from police mistreatment and deportation, knows abuses often go unreported, since workers are intimidated by a system that offers little protection or recourse.

Worker and activist Victor Diaz recalls in a video interview how he endured harrowing workplace injuries, like getting lacerated by an exploding milk bottle, and “inhumane” housing conditions living with three coworkers in a shoddy cramped trailer: “It was not a dignified livelihood for a worker that spends 12, 13, 14 hours working everyday, to try to rest in a space like that…impossible!… And one day we decided to leave, enough was enough” Though they would lose the first paychecks that their boss had illegally withheld, they decided, “we couldn’t keep being slaves to this.”

Milk with Dignity from molly stuart on Vimeo.

To help close these gaps in basic labor standards, Migrant Justice reached out to Ben & Jerry’s last year to educate them about workers’ struggles and offer to collaborate with their “Social Mission” division to launch the reform plan, and to take the lead in cleaning up the supply chain. One of Ben & Jerry’s main suppliers is the St. Albans Cooperative, a network of 430 dairy farms in New York and Vermont, including some known for their unsavory labor practices.

It seemed like a common-sense business move: the company touts numerous ethical sourcing initiatives, including certification for growth hormone–free milk and cage-free eggs, and contributions toward environmental causes. It markets images of beaming fair-trade farmers in Uganda and grants iPads to help Mexican coffee harvesters modernize their operations. Why wouldn’t Vermont’s signature do-gooder brand want fair conditions for the workers in its own backyard?

But Ben & Jerry’s didn’t bite; workers say the talks petered out earlier this year after Migrant Justice started pressing them on making changes that would require outside scrutiny of the supply chain. They later found out that the company did incorporate their advice—selectively—in vague talking points on “social human capital.” It was part of a voluntary program the company developed independently to promote humane farming practices called Caring Dairy, which scores farmers on various sustainability indicators. With about 85 participating farms, Ben & Jerry’s plans to establish benchmarks for “good working conditions, reasonable work hours, and positive involvement in the local community,” aimed at fostering “work/life balance.”

Organizer Brendan O’Neill says this voluntary scheme falls far short of MWD’s proposed program, which requires independent third-party auditing, and more importantly, empowers workers to participate in the program’s enforcement.

While Migrant Justice certainly knows of many decent farm employers, they say Caring Dairy guidelines won’t be rigorous as long as farmers can view caring as merely optional. Pointing to Ben & Jerry’s past industry leadership on other corporate “values,” like animal welfare, O’Neill says that for workers, too, “that type of robust action with real accountability…is needed, and the Caring Dairy program has none of that.”

Still, Ben & Jerry’s Director of Social Mission Rob Michalak told Vermont Public Radio earlier this month that Caring Dairy schemes help ensure that “conditions are safe, people are paid well, and that they’re living in good conditions. We’re working on a lot of what Migrant Justice is working on. We think the work they are doing is important.” (The company had no further comment when contacted by The Nation.)

Just not important enough to cooperate with. O’Neill says activists are frustrated that after so many months of consulting with the company, “This [program] became their solution, not listening to workers, not sitting down and understanding more deeply the change we were seeking…. saying what you’ve done to educate farmers is fine, but what this is not is a real mechanism to ensure that there’s workers’ rights in your supply chain.”

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So Migrant Justice took its campaign public to pressure Ben & Jerry’s to match its talk of corporate values with real commitment to workers’ rights. And advocates hope Vermont’s struggle for fair milk stirs a national discussion on blending labor consciousness into food policy. Milk with Dignity folds into a groundswell of food-justice activism that incorporates fair pay and labor protections into a holistic concept of social sustenance.

“We’re trying to create the standard and grow it,” O’Neill says. “In addition to the work we do that wins real rights for our members, it’s also changing the conversation about food.”

And they’re reserving a spot at the table for whenever Ben & Jerry’s is ready to talk.

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