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American Jews Face an Ominous New Threat

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Did Slave Labor Produce Your Seafood?

The glistening prawns at the supermarket might cost a quite a bit per pound, but off the shore of Thailand, the price of the catch is measured in the bodies of both fish and people. Life is cheap in the labor market that churns out our seafood.

Last year reports emerged about forced labor in the multibillion-dollar Thai fishing industry; image-conscious Western retailers, multinationals and officials promised reform. But while media attention has evaporated, food retailers have returned to their normal routine of scarfing up cheap, seemingly abundant seafood from a murky supply chain.

According to an investigation by the London-based Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), the system is rigged so that the market depends on imported ultra-exploited labor, along with unbridled exploitation of Southeast Asia’s fragile marine ecosystem.


Pirates and Slaves from Environmental Justice Foundation on Vimeo.

The seeds of the crisis were planted back in the 1960s, when Thailand’s fishing industry exploded with the introduction of Western fishery technology. Over-intensification of industrial fishing eventually led to overexploitation, sparking a vicious cycle of Thai trawlers chasing dwindling fish supplies by foraying into neighboring countries’ waters. Amid lax regulation and endemic corruption, underground and pirate fishing operations metastasized, spawning a massive, violent maritime gangland. Today, while native Thai workers move away from the grueling low-wage labor of industrial fishing, migrants from poorer countries are drawn onto minimally regulated vessels and now make up roughly 80 percent of the industry’s estimated 145,000 workers.

Though Asian countries have instituted labor regulations for migrant workers, such as wage and hours protections and oversight of labor recruitment, as well as regional labor accords governing migrants’ legal rights, both state regulators and organized labor have only limited reach among the poorest workers, and victims often lack legal recourse.

According to International Labour Organization research:

average migrant workers aboard Thai fishing vessels get paid less than half the monthly wage received by Thai fishers and around 25 per cent less than Thailand’s national minimum wage of 300 baht or $9.20 per day…. Due to the shortage of labour and the lack of legal limits to the amount of hours someone can work aboard a Thai fishing vessel, a quarter of respondents reported working 17 to 24 hours per day (including time ‘on-call’) and a further 40 per cent reported ‘indefinite’ working hours.

Amidst endemic corruption, EJF reports, “vessel operators are also able to retain profit margins by resorting to deception, coercion and violence to source workers.” Much of this trafficking is barely regulated because the vessels aren’t catching top-dollar fish, but rather, hauling in boatloads of so-called “trash fish,” the offal of the maritime industry, used as a cheap protein source to feed other fish stocks for global markets.

The catchers of trash fish are treated as disposable goods themselves. EJF describes Maung Toe’s experience being violently pressed to work on an illegal vessel:

For the next five months and 24 days, Maung Toe would work without pay aboard a vessel fishing illegally in Indonesian waters.… The vessel’s captain kept constant watch for Indonesian enforcement agencies and whenever a suspected Navy vessel showed up on the radar, he would order the nets to be immediately pulled and they would flee.

“If we had been caught by the Indonesian authorities,” [he said], “we would have been sent to prison.”

Migrants have reported receiving threats such as: “I killed the guy that you are replacing, if you try to flee I will take care of you too.” Some trafficking operations target the minority Rohingya population, “who are reportedly sold to Thai and Malaysian fishing boats when their families fail to pay ransoms.”

This system has devastating environmental consequences, as well, EJF warns, including damage to fish nursery grounds, “destruction of fragile marine ecologies such as coral reefs,” and “unending, and sometimes violent, conflicts with local fishing communities.”

Though Thailand is one of several countries driving the patterns of exploitation, Alexandra Sedgwick, communications coordinator for EJF, says via e-mail, “The severity and extent of the abuse and exploitation in Thailand’s seafood industry are unique and directly related to the country’s prosperity via its focus on the production of high-value seafood products for export in the context of an impoverished fishery.”

Last year, a Guardian exposé on “slave labor” in Thai fisheries prompted vows for reform from the Thai seafood conglomerate Charoen Pokphand Foods and chain stores like Walmart and Tesco.

But beyond industry-led initiatives to curb the ugliest labor practices, EJF wants the Thai government to tackle both environmental destruction and labor exploitation.

To safeguard the ecology, EJF calls on the government to enforce and expand Marine Protected Areas, along with “additional rights-based management measures such as catch quotas, closed seasons and no-take zones” to limit exploitation to sustainable levels.

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To guard against labor abuses, EJF also urges Thai labor authorities to expand inspections of vessels and extend authority to monitor fishing vessels outside territorial waters.

And while corporations can’t substitute for regulators, EJF says, retailers, buyers and producers of Thai seafood should “demand full traceability in the seafood supply chain down to fishing vessels supplying raw materials to fishmeal producers.” Consumers would also benefit from comprehensive, transparent labeling systems, which are sorely lacking in the United States.

(Sadly, while the unregulated seafood trade from Asia flourishes in Western markets, US fisheries have been devastated by global competition, though local sourcing might be safer and more ethical.)

In addition, a “multi-track approach” to environmental and social justice requires long-term empowerment of consumers, workers and maritime communities.

Along with the need for tighter protections for migrants, EJF points out that among local populations, indigenous fishing communities are extremely vulnerable as well. But cooperative management systems that engage traditional fishing communities in “the planning and management of coastal and marine resources can lead to more healthy and productive fisheries,” Sedgwick says, although Thailand has only begun to pilot programs for community-based co-management.

While labor and environmental regulations typically focus on land-based ecosystems and workplaces within national borders, the seas remain a lawless frontier. Transparency in the supply chain won’t fix systemic regulatory gaps, but raising consciousness of the brutal impact of industrial fishing and the market’s appetites—for cheap seafood, for commercial convenience, and for unprotected labor—is a start, and our last hope for protecting what’s left of our ravaged oceans.

 

Read Next: Michelle Chen on why we should pay 5 cents more to afford airline caterers decent healthcare

50,000 March in Moscow After the Killing of Opposition Leader Boris Nemtsov

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What Bill O’Reilly Really Did in El Salvador Was Worse Than Lying

What is worse? Bragging that you “covered” a war that you didn’t cover? Or “covering up” a war crime?

Judging by the firestorm that hit Bill O’Reilly last week, the US media (with the exception of HuffPo’s excellent Roque Planas) clearly thinks O’Reilly’s war-zone exaggerations are worse than his role in covering up, either intentionally or unwittingly, a massacre.

To recap: The massacre took place in El Salvador, in the small village of El Mozote near the Honduran border, on December 11, 1981. It was carried out by the US-created and -trained Atlacatl Battalion. Between 733 and 900 villagers were slaughtered.

New York Times journalist Ray Bonner was one of the first outsiders on the scene, having walked for days from Honduras to get to El Mozote. His report on the killing ran on the front page of the Times on January 27, 1982. That day, The Washington Post also published a front-page story by Alma Guillermoprieto, who arrived at El Mozote shortly after Bonner. Both stories were accompanied by photographs by Susan Meiselas.

The Reagan Administration went into damage-control mode. The White House was worried that reports of atrocities committed by its Salvadoran allies would jeopardize its plan to increase military assistance to the country. Bonner was especially targeted by administration officials, who pressured the Times to pull him from El Salvador (Reagan’s ambassador to El Salvador, Deane Hinton, called Bonner an “advocate journalist”). The details of that campaign can be found in Mark Danner’s New Yorker reporting, as well as his follow up book, The Massacre at El Mozote. The Times’ editor, AM Rosenthal, sided with Washington, pulling Bonner—who had been based in El Salvador and therefore knew the country—back to Washington. After working at Metro for a time, Bonner left the paper.

As this smear campaign was unfolding, O’Reilly was sent by CBS Evening News to El Salvador. In his words, he was sent “to check out an alleged massacre in the dangerous Morazán Territory.” This had to have been the El Mozote massacre. No other massacre was being reported on in the press that would have caught the attention of CBS news editors.

O’Reilly went to El Salvador. But he didn’t go to El Mozote. Instead, he went to the next town over, a fairly large municipal seat. In his memoir, O’Reilly writes: Meanguera “was leveled to the ground and fires were still smoldering. But even though the carnage was obviously recent, we saw no one live or dead. There was absolutely nobody around who could tell us what happened. I quickly did a stand-up amid the rubble and we got the hell out of there.”

This is all a lie, as O’Reilly’s own report—broadcast on CBS on May 20, 1982—clearly shows. Meanguera is not leveled; there are no fires; at least eight people can be seen, going about their business. O’Reilly also writes that he arrived at Meanguera by car in a harrowing journey, but the clip reveals he travelled part of the way in a Salvadoran helicopter.

But these lies—however fun they are to catch O’Reilly in—are not important. It should be no surprise to anyone that O’Reilly exaggerates and distorts. What is important is that O’Reilly was asked to investigate the El Mozote massacre. He didn’t. O’Reilly was sent to follow up reports (by Bonner and Guillermoprieto) of a major atrocity committed by US allies that would have had implications for Ronald Reagan’s hardline Central America policy. He didn’t.

O’Reilly’s report aired on May 20, 1982. If he had investigated the El Mozote massacre—if he had even mentioned the El Mozote massacre—it might have kept the jackals off of Bonner. And that might have kept Bonner in El Salvador. And that would have provided the American public with an experienced reporter sending back information that might have had an impact in the debate over Reagan’s Central American policy. In turn, Bonner’s removal sent a message: Reporters, writes Michael Massing of the Columbia Journalism Review, became “wary of provoking the embassy.” “If they can kick out a Times correspondent,” said one reporter, “you’ve got to be careful.” Apparently one Times journalist told Bonner, “I'm not going to get caught in the same trap that you did.”

O’Reilly’s Salvador segment isn’t just a sin of omission (not mentioning Mozote and thus burying the massacre). It is a sin of commission. Take a look at it. O’Reilly sounds as if he is reading a set of talking points drawn up for him by the White House. One of the key rhetorical strategies to dilute opposition to Reagan’s Central American policy—which would result in the escalation of three wars (in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua) and the deaths of over 300,000 civilians at the hands of US funded and trained allies—was to muddy the waters, and establish plausible deniability.

Indeed, the US embassy in El Salvador sent out a memo that concluded: “it is not possible to prove or disprove excesses of violence against the civilian population of El Mozote.” And here’s O’Reilly echoing the conclusion in his memoir: “I explained that while a scorched-earth policy was clearly in effect in remote village—the evidence was right there on tape—it was impossible to say just who was doing the scorching. Could be the muchachos [that is, the guerrillas], could be the government. The ninety-second package contained great video and a fairly impressive ‘on the scene in a very bad place’ stand-up by yours truly.”

Of course, it was not impossible: Bonner and Guillermoprieto did so under considerably more dangerous and difficult circumstances.

No matter. Bonner was out. O’Reilly, and Oreillyism (defined as the transformation of journalism into a narcissistic, self-referential circus, a “stand-up” routine that has no referent in the real world) was in.

The piece I posted on O’Reilly’s reporting on February 9th got some attention, though not as much as David Corn’s and Daniel Schulman's follow-up, which framed the issue as all about Bill O’Reilly—was he exaggerating? Was he lying? Is water wet?

The controversy took off. But the El Mozote angle—the question as to why O’Reilly didn’t report on the massacre if that was his assignment—got completely, absolutely, disappeared from the debate (again, with the recent exception of Roque Planas’s piece).

The media focused exclusively on O’Reilly’s actions in Buenos Aires during the Falklands-Malvinas war (where he was sent after El Salvador). Cable news and Mother Jones dug up old CBS staffers to “prove” that O’Reilly didn’t cover the actual war.

And after a few cycles, it’s not even about Argentina any longer. It’s about O’Reilly-Corn. The “charges aren’t sticking!” says Politico. David Corn “hangs up” on radio interviewer! O’Reilly “threatens.” Rachel Maddow “slams” O’Reilly. Corn says that “O'Reilly's ‘Violent’ Rhetoric Has My Friends and Family Worried.”

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Whatever the case, it is almost all over. Attention is drifting away. O’Reilly will survive and Oreillyism will abide. There are already reports that O’Reilly has vanquished Corn, from mainstream outlets as New York and Slate.

Meanwhile, I’ve been talking to CBS staffers trying to pin down the specifics of O’Reilly’s quick trip to El Salvador. In particular, I’d like to locate his cameraman and/or the producer for the piece. Here are the questions I’d ask:

Why, if Bill O’Reilly was sent to investigate the El Mozote massacre, didn’t he go to El Mozote?

Was he briefed by the US embassy? By the US ambassador?

Did O’Reilly talk to anyone other than Salvadoran soldiers?

Did he ever try to speak with Ray Bonner or Alma Guillermoprieto?

At what point did O’Reilly decide to make the story about Meanguera rather than El Mozote?

Did O’Reilly try to find the whereabouts of Rufina Amaya, the lone survivor of the massacre, who, hiding in a tree, watched the soldiers rape, execute, and burn alive her neighbors? (The Reagan administration and the Salvadoran government went after Amaya, disputing her testimony. But Amaya’s version of events was confirmed by both an exhumation and a UN truth commission investigation. “Mama, they’re killing me. They’ve killed my sister. They’re going to kill me,” Amaya heard her son cry from her hideout).

Eric Engberg, a longtime CBS correspondent who was in Buenos Aires during Malvinas-Falklands War and who has helped expose O’Reilly’s many distortions regarding that episode, tells me that O’Reilly was arrogant, “lazy,” and “stupid”—pretty much all the qualities on display in the El Salvador segment. It was a “very weak piece,” in Engberg’s opinion—it “made no sense.”

But Engberg doesn’t think O’Reilly was motivated by politics. He “lacked any political sophistication.” Central America, Engberg says, wasn’t an important story—it was a place that greenhorn reporters were sent. But it was exactly because Central America wasn’t important that O’Reilly could get away with the kind of insipid story he filed. I suspect Engberg is right. O’Reilly’s conservative “politics” always seemed like a shtick to me—a much better career move than (mis)reporting on massacres in Central America.

But maybe we can take l'affaire O’Reilly-Corn as a lesson: the kind of contentless “critique” launched on O’Reilly doesn’t challenge Oreillyism. It fulfills Oreillyism.

 

Read Next: Greg Grandin on Chile's left turn

A Volcano of Documents

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This Year’s Climate Talks Are Our Last (and Best) Chance to Slow Global Warming

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Taxes, Schools, Voting Rights and Abortion: Chile Shows the Way

The story of how Chile, in the decades after its 1973 coup and death of democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende, became one of the most neoliberal societies on the planet is well known. But there’s been a remarkable reversal over the last few years. Chile’s current president, Michelle Bachelet, less than a year into her second, non-consecutive term, is advancing an ambitious legislative agenda, related to voting, education, labor, same-sex civil unions, abortion and the environment.

But she is doing it—or able to do it—only because she is being pushed from below. Chile, long held up as a model of “free market” orthodoxy, has become a different kind of example. It’s become model of intersectionality on the march: social movements, students, environmentalist, worker, LGBT—have not only scored concrete victories, they are showing that it is possible to de-neoliberalize policy and resocialize consciousness.

Before the details, take a second to consider the chronology of Chile’s political history since Augusto Pinochet, who seized power in 1973, stepped down as formal head of state in 1990. For twenty years, between 1990 and 2010, Chile was led by a series of democratically elected Concertación governments, a center-left political coalition that simultaneously consolidated (and legitimated) Pinochet’s neoliberal economic model while gradually working to democratize society.

In 2009, at the end of Bachelet’s first term, Concertación lost (since the “transition to democracy”) its first presidential election, to Sebastián Piñera, a right-wing businessman who made his money in that sine qua non of neoliberal economics: the credit card. This conservative interregnum (2010–14) jump-started a mobilized left. Popular protests, constrained during the rule of nominal Concertación allies in previous governments, picked up steam. Especially environmentalists (who last year won a major victory, scuttling plans to despoil Patagonia) and students took the lead.

Piñera had many historical connections to Chile’s old death-squad Pinochet right. But to get elected he successful passed himself off as something like a European conservative, a modern technocrat. Protest movements, in particular those led by students—hundreds of thousands of them occupying high schools and universities and taking over public spaces across the country—utterly destroyed Piñera’s effort to present himself as a center-left moderate. His poll numbers plummeted and never recovered. Here’s The Economist’s lament, in 2012 : “Two years ago Mr Piñera, a billionaire businessman, led the centre-right Alliance to power after two decades of rule by the centre-left Concertación coalition.… [in 2010] his approval rating soared to 63% … Thanks mostly to the students, it is now just 29%.” Thanks, students!

The movement had specific demands having to do with de-privatizing education (more on that below). But it linked demands to a comprehensive analysis. The placards, slogans, memes, innovative tactics, and alliances with other social groups, especially unions, made it clear that despite whatever they weren’t learning in the classroom, they were learning something somewhere: Pinochet was singled out as the founders of a “system” that had a local expression in Chile, but was global in its reach: Neoliberalismo. And they made it clear that neoliberalismo was much more than a set of policies or privatizations, it was the colonization of consciousness, a “way of life,” a capitalist metaphysics. Dressed as zombies, protesters staged public performances of Michael Jackson’s Thriller followed up by mass public kiss-ins. Social-solidarity life against neoliberal death.

Pinochet was portrayed as an “eternal dictator.” Though dead, “he mocks us,” he “continues governing,” he “continues to give orders”—through both the market and center-left politicians who argued that there was no alternative. Accused by politicians of being “over-ideologized,” the students threw the charge back, saying the country’s elites were the over-ideologized ones: fascist, neoliberal, Pinochetista. Take a look at this book, The Memes and Caricatures of the Student Movement, by Juan Federico Holzman, to get a sense of the movement’s marriage of creativity and structural analysis (its images are from the Internet, but the street graphics were just as innovative and cutting).

It is impossible to overstate the success in which student protests—led by different, at times rival organizations, including the youth wing of the Communist Party—created a new public common sense. The fact that market economics produced not harmony and equilibrium but “structural inequality” is now the starting point of policy debate in Chile. Even Piñera, a diehard Pinochetista, in terms of economics if not bodily torture, was forced to criticize Chile’s “excessive inequality” and praise the objectives of the student movement: “They are asking for a more just society, a more egalitarian society,” he said, quoted in The New York Times, “because the inequalities we are living in Chile are excessive and, I feel, immoral.”

During her first term, Bachelet, from Allende’s old Socialist Party, was by far the most progressive of Concertación elected presidents. Yet she operated within the restraints of the model left in place by the dictatorship. The hardcore right had been losing ground ever since Pinochet’s 1998 arrest in London, and then his death in 2006. But, as The Economist put it, Concertación remained a “model of fiscal responsibility,” having “entrenched a fiscal rule that requires the government to balance its books over the economic cycle and to save windfall profits when the price of copper—Chile’s main export— is high.”

But the protests that checkmated Piñera changed the limits of the possible, as the series of reforms winding its way through Chile’s bicameral legislature reveals.

Two of the most important reforms have to do with voting rights and education, which makes sense. In Chile, through the twentieth century, until 1973, literacy, the vote, and social democracy were closely intertwined. When Allende first ran for congress in the late 1930s, the vote in Chile was extremely restricted: Allende won his first seat with just over two thousand votes, barely 3 per cent of his district’s total population: the franchise was then limited to literate men. Literate women didn’t get the vote until 1949. Over the next few decades, the expansion of the vote and the expansion of public education went hand in hand, with the Chilean left gaining electoral success by expanding popular education. In 1937, as many as 350,000 children had no school to go to. As a new senator, Allende introduced a bill to build classrooms and hire teachers for them. He also proposed peasant and worker literacy programs. The goal, Allende said, was to turn Chile “into one big school.” As more people could read, more people could vote (literate women got the right in 1949). And as they did, more people voted for socialism. By 1970, literacy meant electoral democracy, and electoral democracy meant social democracy. More than a million Chileans voted for Allende that year (and nearly another million voted for a Christian Democratic candidate who ran on nearly an identical socialist platform). Once in office, Allende’s Popular Unity coalition revoked the last literacy restriction: it wasn’t until 1971 that all men and women over the age of 21, literate or not, were allowed to vote. Talk about the slow boring of hard boards.

It made sense, then, that Pinochet would target both the franchise and public education for destruction.

In terms of the vote: before stepping down as the head of state, Pinochet changed the rules by which congress was elected, putting into place a system of disproportional representation. It’s complicated, but you can read the details of Chile’s “binomial” voting here. In effect, it made it necessary to win a super-majority in any electoral district to get the majority of seats in that district, a maneuver designed to, according to Chilean political scientist Carlos Huneeus, “freeze” into place elite interests.

Regarding education: neoliberals turned Chile into the “most pro-market school system in the world,” as the Chilean Mario Waissbluth, a professor at the Universidad de Chile, wrote on Diane Ravitch’s blog. The nation became a pioneer in charter schools, vouchers, privatized teacher training, and for-profit universities. Weissbluth continues:

Two thirds of the 56% of private voucher (charter) schools are for profit, and they can charge on top of it to parents. Therefore, the richest ones mix their sons with their socioeconomic peers, the middle class with the middle class, and so on down to the poorest which go mostly to free public schools. Subsidiarity by the book. Until now, anyone can set up a for-profit subsidized charter school anywhere, without any quality requirements whatsoever. Teacher training also became fully unregulated. Today some universities and institutes ‘sell college degrees’ (for a profit) to students…. National certification and examination for teachers is, of course, voluntary. Freedom. Freedom. The market will solve everything.

Waissbluth goes on to provide equally dreary details concerning intense segregation, literacy rates and standardized tests, which seem to be some hell-spawn of neoliberal market efficiency and late medieval scholasticism.

“Reform” is too mild a word to describe what is currently going on in Chile, but here is some of the proposals that either have recently passed congress to become law, or, hopefully, will soon:

Voting: On January 14, the Chilean Senate passed a law that does away with Pinochet-era gerrymandering. It’s expected that the lower house, where Bachelet has a larger majority to work with, will likewise approve the bill. The law will assign “electoral seats in proportion to the number of votes cast for each individual candidate.” Opponents are criticizing the measure, warning of “neopopulism” and political instability. But Socialist Senator Juan Pablo Letelier (son of an Allende diplomat, Orlando Letelier, who was blown up by Pinochet in Washington, DC, in 1976) said, when the Senate passed the bill, that “today we return to the tradition of this country: a representative and proportional system.… This hard-won achievement is the beginning of a new era, and marks the end to one of the most disastrous inheritances of the dictatorship.”

Legislation also mandates that at least 40 percent of party candidates be women.

Education: Bachelet campaigned promising to fulfill much of the student protest movement’s agenda. This last month, congress passed the first in what is expected to be a series of education reforms. The bill is complicated, and gradual, with many modifications. (Here’s a decent summary in Spanish. Here’s one in English.) The law ends “profits at state-subsidized schools and eliminates their selective entrance policies.” Starting in March 2016, it also begins to eliminate the multi-tiered system of public voucher and private tuition described by Waissbluth above, moving soon to completely free and public education funded by the state. “What we’ve put an end to here is a set of illegitimate bases put in place during the dictatorship, behind the nation’s back, and today we’ve recovered Chile’s historic tradition and the best practices in the world,” Bachelet’s education minister said.

Also, the government announced in December that it would use the revenue from its tax reform (see below) to fully fund free higher education.

The Federación de Estudiantes de la Universidad de Chile, one of the main groups leading the education protests, has criticized the reform for both not going far enough and for not being based on ongoing consultation with social movements. Facing ongoing pressure—massive demonstrations continued after her inauguration last year—Bachelet has promised that this is just the first step in what will be an ongoing process of de-privatization.

Abortion: Bachelet, a medical doctor, has just sent a draft bill to Congress that would decriminalize medically necessary abortion. Like the disproportional congressional representation, an “outright ban on terminations was put in place during the final days of Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-1990 dictatorship.” According to one poll, 79 percent of Chileans are in favor of the right of the woman to have an abortion: 60 percent “under specific circumstances” and 19 percent with no restrictions. This in a country that didn’t legalize divorce until 2004.

Civil unions: In January, the Chilean congress approved civil unions for same-sex couples.

Tax reform: Last September, Bachelet raised taxes, with a mix of regressive (sales taxes on alcohol, etc.) and progressive (large business will see their rates go from 20 to 27 percent) levies. “The legislation seeks to raise $8.2 billion, or 3 percent of gross domestic product, through higher taxes on companies and the closure of loopholes for wealthy individuals,” reported Bloomberg. The new revenue will go to support social programs, such as healthcare and education. “The tax reform is a fundamental tool to attack the structural inequality in Chile,” Bachelet said at the end of last year. “The idea is to level the field.”

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But most importantly, the tax reform eliminates (within a few years) another bulwark put in place by Pinochet, an extremely regressive capital-gains exemption. Here’s Bloomberg describing it (before Bachelet’s re-election):

A system set up by former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1984 to boost investment is being used to help the rich avoid taxes.… In a country of 17 million people, only 0.3 percent of tax payers pay the top income rate, depriving Chile of the money it needs to improve education and tackle the worst income inequality in the 34-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, says opposition candidate Michelle Bachelet. The rich in Latin America’s wealthiest nation evade the 40 percent tax on income over $100,000 a year by keeping earnings in investment companies, says Sergio Endress.

But a backlash is underway: “parent” groups committed to privatized education (and undoubtedly funded by corporations invested in privatized education) have taken to the streets. Conservatives, fearing that proportional representation will bring about their political extinction, are appealing the constitutionality of the voting law. Democracy (defined as proportional representation), say a number of right-wing senators, “contradicts the meaning and tenor of the current constitution” (considering that the charter was written by Pinochet’s Chicago Boys and modeled on Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, they have a point).

And Bachelet is receiving what might be called the Kirchner treatment by Chile’s corporate media, which is focusing obsessively on a business scandal involving her son. The right-wing opposition is threatening to make it a criminal case.

With poll numbers falling as a result, Bachelet might have to make a choice: back away from her agenda or throw in fully with the social movements. It was smart of her to push through that proportional representation reform bill early in her term.

 

Read Next: Greg Grandin on David Corn and Bill O’Reilly

Stephen Cohen on the Ukrainian Crisis: Why a New Cold War?

Is the ongoing, brutal fighting in eastern Ukraine our Cuban Missile Crisis? On Tuesday, February 5, Nation contributing editor Stephen Cohen delivered a keynote speech at Fairfield University expressing just how high he thinks the geopolitical stakes have been raised in this conflict.

“The Europeans are in full panic and want this ended,” Cohen explained. “But they think the train may have left the station…. I look at the audience and I see people who not only were not born at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, but who weren’t alive when the Soviet Union ended. But believe me when I tell you, in the Cuban missile crisis, the discussion was, ‘Are we all gonna die in nuclear war?’”

Hilary Weaver

 

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Europe’s Ideologues of Austerity Stand in the Way of Reforms

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”
— William Butler Yeats

Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” captures reality in Europe these days, although surely not in the sense the poet intended. In Germany, the popular press is captivated by the face-off of the stern German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, clad in black suit and tie and white shirt, against the “charismatic,” “heartthrob,” new Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, bald head, dress shirt unbuttoned and untucked, scarf draped for effect. Only the appearances are deceiving. The buttoned-up Schäuble is the ideologue, with doctrine blinding him to reality. The rakish Varoufakis is the pragmatist, seeking a sensible way out of a catastrophe.

In Europe, it is the conviction of the “brightest and the best” that is loosing anarchy upon the world. In Europe, it is increasingly clear the center cannot hold. The austerity inflicted by the “troika”—the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank—on the debtor nations of southern Europe—Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain (dubbed the PIIGS by pundits)—has failed disastrously. Citizens in Greece, Spain and elsewhere suffer unspeakable misery to repay debts that grow ever more impossible as their economies crater. The “responsible” center-right and center-left parties that dutifully sought to enforce the cruel dictates have been discredited. Parties that promise an end to the austerity are gaining momentum. The Greek people elected Syriza last month—a party forged out of a “coalition of the left” of fringe Marxist parties, greens and various social movements. Syriza’s leaders call not for revolution but for sensible reform. Greece would stay in Europe and would repay its debts. The new government pledged to run a primary surplus but not the crippling surplus of 4.5 percent GDP as required by the troika. Syriza also promised to do what no center party dared to do: crack down on corruption and tax avoidance of the Greek oligarchs who have plundered the country. It urged that debt repayment be made affordable, linked to the rate of growth, so that if the economy falters, the debt payments will adjust. It took steps to end the fire sale of the nation’s assets and to supply electricity and food to all.

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“We are a party of the left, but what we are putting on the table is essentially the agenda of a reformist bankruptcy lawyer from the City of London,” Varoufakis says. “The bailout was not a bailout of Greece in 2010, it was a bailout of the German and French banks.”

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Stephen Cohen: In Ukraine Negotiations, the Buck Stops With Obama

During a visit to The John Batchelor Show on Tuesday, Stephen Cohen, contributing editor at The Nation, spoke about the role of the United States in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. Much of the conversation centered around the White House’s statement that “if Russia continues its aggressive actions in Ukraine…costs for Russia will rise.”

“My folks in Russia tell me that Putin heard those words and his advisers interpreted those words as a direct threat by the president of the United States to Putin,” Cohen said. “That of course, is not a good way to go about this. There’s a force struggle, primarily in Washington, as to whether or not to enact this plan to arm Kiev with American and NATO weapons.”

Cohen said that Obama’s actions will be crucial in the ongoing crisis; if he does not send weapons to Kiev, he will face accusations of appeasement.

“But in this force struggle that’s going on in Washington now—as Harry Truman says—the buck stops with Obama,” Cohen said.

—Hilary Weaver

Read Next: Stephen Cohen on why arming Ukraine is not the answer