Truthout Stories Thu, 02 Jul 2015 14:17:40 -0400 en-gb How the Pope Is Revving Up Climate Action in LA's Most Polluted Neighborhood

Two young men performed their songs on acoustic guitars in Spanish while the rally chanted along in front of St. Basil Catholic Church in Los Angeles.

Even though not everyone in the crowd of around 30 people knew Spanish, the message transcended language: protect the most vulnerable from the effects of climate change.

After the June 18 release of "Laudato Si," Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment and humanity's responsibility to protect it, young Catholics decided to host a rally to spread awareness of climate change's effect on the poor, particularly Latinos in Southern California. Some Catholics are hopeful that events like this, inspired by the encyclical, will spread and lead to a new emphasis on climate action within the faith.

Members of the youth group Pastoral Juvenil of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles gathered in front of St. Basil on the morning of June 27 to share what was written in the encyclical and encourage onlookers to participate.

"When I started working on the issue of environmental protection at Holy Family Church in South Pasadena, it did not stir the emotions as it does now," says Allis Druffel, who spoke at the rally. "It is the hope of my colleagues and myself that Los Angeles Catholic churches and households will become real leaders in what Pope Francis is calling for in 'Laudato Si' - to tackle the injustices of poverty, poor health, and poor economic situations while caring for all of creation, both of which go hand in hand."

Juana Torres, a 33-year-old volunteer at Pastoral Juvenil and one of the organizers of the rally, spent much of the day passing out petitions with demands she hopes can be addressed at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris at the end of the year. For example, the petition called for nations to lower their carbon emissions and provide funding to protect people vulnerable to climate-related disaster such as storms, droughts, and floods. Every person at the rally committed to gathering at least 20 signatures.

"We want to make sure that our leaders are hearing us," says Torres, who believes that climate change is near and dear to the hearts of many young Hispanics.

"A lot of us come from immigrant families, and a lot of families had to migrate in the first place because of the effect climate change has had in poor communities and keeping people in a cycle of poverty," she said, referring to the impact climate change has had on farms and urban areas of Latin America.

St. Basil is not the only Catholic church in southern Los Angeles taking the Pope's encyclical seriously. About 15 miles south, St. Emydius Roman Catholic Church stands around the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Cesar Chavez Middle School - names associated with civil and minority rights.

But within a 5-mile radius of the church, dozens of small factories contribute to making this part of Los Angeles home to some of the most polluted neighborhoods in the country.

This worries Father Juan Ochoa, a priest at St. Emydius, who says the pollutants in the area can harm children and pregnant women. It's for that reason that Ochoa plans to share Pope Francis' "Laudato Si" with his parish as soon as he can.

"Now that the document has been written, we have to put it into practice," says Ochoa. "We have to discuss this as a parish and then change can take place."

The Pope's encyclical has reignited several political debates: science versus religion, left versus right, climate change doubters versus believers. It enters a political context where international negotiations on climate change seem to be unable to arrive at a binding agreement. It's possible that the Pope's encyclical will push some Catholics to demand greater action, like the members of Pastoral Juvenil. But at St. Emydius, where around 20,000 families are registered, that discussion hasn't yet taken place.

Ochoa says the encyclical is not a political document and is worried that many in his parish think it is.

"Most people, what they hear is just what's in the news, and what's being reported in the media is political," he says. "The Pope isn't making a political statement and he isn't getting involved in American politics. This encyclical was addressed to the entire world."

According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 71 percent of U.S. Catholics believe the Earth is warming, but only 47 percent believe it is a result of human activity.

The Pope's encyclical contradicts that belief directly, claiming that humanity's greed and violence has led to pollution and altered the climate.

"The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life," Pope Francis writes.

A Moment of Hope

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, southern Los Angeles has some of the highest levels of pollutants in the country. Since these areas are largely home to black and Latino people, the burden of this pollution tends to be carried by minority groups.

And it's not just Southern California where the pollution that troubles Pope Francis disproportionately affects communities of color: the same is true in New York, Detroit, Chicago, Miami, Phoenix, Atlanta, and many other cities.

These environmental problems have many health consequences and lead to asthma, cancers, and learning disabilities, according to Patricia Juarez, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. Juarez teaches a course on environmental justice in minority communities.

"The development issues that result from pollutants often keep people in a cycle of poverty, keep them out of school or keep them isolated," she says.

Juarez is optimistic that the Pope's encyclical will encourage climate change doubters to look for more information, and applauds the Vatican for leading the effort.

Patrick Carolan, co-founder of the Global Catholic Climate Movement, an international coalition of Catholic organizations, agrees. "I hope and pray that Catholics will take a look at the encyclical and read it with an open mind and put aside any biases," he says.

Ochoa at St. Emydius says he is praying for the same thing. He hopes that his parish can become more engaged in the discussion about climate change and wants to discuss a step-by-step plan at the next pastoral meeting, which the church will hold in July.

"I think our problem as priests is we haven't discussed it with our parish," he says. "It starts with us."

But long before Pope Francis' encyclical was released, Torres was already working with Pastoral Juvenil to engage young Latinos in the climate justice movement. She teaches a class on faith and ecology and often leads hikes where people pray in nature, for nature.

"For us, there's no debate," she says. "Pope Francis' encyclical only validates the work we've been doing."

Carolan thinks hope for the climate justice movement can be found in the newer generations.

"I think Pope Francis has already engaged younger people," he says. "He's helped a lot of young people connect with their spirituality, and sustainability is just one more way for young people to connect with their faith."

News Thu, 02 Jul 2015 14:02:49 -0400
Job Growth Slows in June

The Labor Department reported that the economy added 223,000 jobs in June. While this was in line with most economists' predictions, there were downward revisions of 60,000 to the data for the prior two months. This brings the average over the last three months to 221,000, compared to a monthly average of 245,000 over the last year.

The job growth was almost entirely in the service sector as a gain of 4,000 jobs in manufacturing was offset by a loss of 3,000 jobs in mining. Construction employment was flat. The mining sector has lost 51,000 jobs (6.1 percent) over the last year largely due to the plunge in energy prices. The weak jobs number for construction is likely an aberration as the sector added an average of 25,000 jobs over the prior six months. Manufacturing added 215,000 jobs in 2014, but has added just 37,000 jobs through the first six months of 2015, due to the impact of the stronger dollar.

The retail sector continues to be strong, adding 32,900 jobs in June. Insurance carriers added 8,700 jobs in June. This is likely a result of demand created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Employment is up by 161,000 (6.8 percent) over the last two years. Employment services, the broader temp sector, added 29,100 jobs in June. Health care added 40,000 jobs in June bringing its average over the last three months to 45,000. That compares to an average of 36,000 over the last year. Restaurants added 30,000 jobs in June, almost exactly in line with the average over the last year. Government employment was unchanged. Employment in the sector has been virtually flat since December.

This report gives little hope for an uptick in wage growth. The average hourly wage over the last three months has risen at a 2.2 percent annual rate compared to the average over the prior three months. This is little different from the 2.0 percent rate of wage growth over the last year. Among major industry groups, the only one that shows much evidence of an acceleration in wage growth is restaurants. This is likely to due to the effect of minimum wage hikes in many states and cities.

The household survey also showed a mixed picture. The unemployment rate fell by 0.2 percentage points to 5.3 percent, the lowest rate for the recovery. However, this was entirely due to people dropping out of the labor force as the employment-to-population ratio (EPOP) slipped back by 0.1 percentage points to 59.3 percent. The one notable positive is that employment rates for African Americans seem to have risen, with the EPOP more than a full percentage point above the year ago level for the first half of 2015.

The overall drop in EPOPs is consistent with the sharp drop in the number of long-term unemployed reported in June, from 28.6 percent to 25.8 percent of the unemployed, as many of these workers likely dropped out of the labor market. The June share is only slightly higher than the peak following the last recession of 23.6 percent in March of 2004.

One clear positive is that the number of people voluntarily working part-time rose sharply even as involuntarily part-time employment fell. The number of people voluntarily working part-time is now more than 1.5 million above its level of two years ago, or 8.1 percent. At the same time, involuntary part-time employment is down by 1.6 million (20.0 percent) over this period. This is undoubtedly due in large part to the ACA, which freed workers from the need to get insurance through their employer.

The share of voluntary quits among the unemployed continued to edge down to 9.3 percent. It had been at 10.2 percent in March. By comparison, job leavers accounted for over 12 percent of the unemployed in the peak months before the downturn and more than 15 percent at the peak of the cycle in 2000.

This report together with the prior two suggests the rate of job growth may be slowing somewhat. While a monthly pace of 221,000 would be strong for an economy near full employment, with the EPOP for prime age workers still about 3 percentage points below pre-recession levels, it will take several years at this rate to eliminate labor market slack.

News Thu, 02 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Inequality and Climate Change: Joseph Stiglitz and Nicholas Stern in Conversation

On Earth Day 2015, Joseph Stiglitz and Nicholas Stern, two of the world's leading experts on economics and the environment, joined in conversation about the intersection of climate change and inequality.

Presented on April 22, 2015, by Graduate Center Public Programs. Cosponsored by the Luxembourg Income Study Center, the Advanced Research Collaborative and the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

News Thu, 02 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
As Black Churches Burn Across the South, Are White Supremacist Attacks Continuing?

The FBI is launching an investigation into fires set at seven different African-American churches in seven days. So far none of the blazes have been labeled as hate crimes, but investigators say at least three fires were caused by arson. The fires began on June 21, just days after the Charleston massacre, and have occurred in six different states: Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida and Ohio. We are joined by Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has been tracking these most recent fires.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Bree Newsome singing "Stay Strong: A Love Song to Freedom Fighters." Bree Newsome is the 30-year-old African-American woman who scaled the flagpole on the grounds of the Columbia, South Carolina, Capitol and took down the Confederate flag, saying, "In the name of God, this flag comes down today." She'll be our guest on Democracy Now! on Monday. Tomorrow, we'll describe what took place when we were in Columbia just after her arrest, when we saw her being arraigned at the jail. But this is Democracy Now! I'm Amy Goodman.

We're talking about the FBI launching an investigation into fires set at seven different African-American churches in seven days. So far, none of the blazes have been labeled as hate crimes, but investigators say at least three fires were caused by arson. The fires began on June 21st, just days after the Charleston massacre, June 17th, and have occurred in six different states: in Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida and Ohio.

A black church in South Carolina was the latest to catch fire. The blaze on Tuesday at the Mount Zion African Methodist Church in Greeleyville may have been triggered by lightning. Twenty years ago, the church was burned to the ground by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Meanwhile, in Knoxville, Tennessee, a fire at the Seventh-Day Adventist Church was determined to be arson. A reporter at local station WVLT spoke to church elder Marshall Henley.

KELSEY LEYRER: Two different fires were started at College Hill Seventh-Day Adventist last night, one at a side entrance to the church where churchgoers says it appears someone set fire to bales of hay right outside the doors. The church van was also set on fire. And to make matters worse, the church only got the van about six months ago. It was vital to a lot of the church's community outreach projects. Some of those will now have to be placed on hold because they believe that van is a total loss.

AMY GOODMAN: Another fire on June 23rd at the predominantly black God's Power Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia, was also reportedly set on purpose. Then, on June 24th, there was a fire at the Fruitland Presbyterian Church in Gibson County, Tennessee, that was suspected to have been caused by lightning. The same day, there was a three-alarm fire at Briar Creek Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Local station WBTV spoke to the church's pastor, Mannix Kinsey.

REV. MANNIX KINSEY: When I got here, I was even amazed to see that the flames were so high. And, you know, of course, I'm thinking, "Oh, my goodness, this church is going to be destroyed."

DEDRICK RUSSELL: The estimated damage is more than $250,000. The pastor of three years is grateful brick and mortar was all that was ruined.

REV. MANNIX KINSEY: A life was not lost. You know that the buildings can be repaired, they can be built over.

DEDRICK RUSSELL: While the pastor deals with this fire, he also has to deal with the fact this may be a hate crime.

REV. MANNIX KINSEY: We're still talking about this same issue, and this is 2015. And so, we all have to consider what else do we need to do, you know, to actually be able to work together.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, on June 26, there was another fire at a Glover [Grove] Baptist Church in Warrenville, South Carolina, that was first burned down 20 years ago by the KKK, and one at the Greater Miracle Temple Apostolic Holiness Church in Tallahassee, Florida, that was caused by a tree limb that fell and started an electrical fire. Another fire was in Ohio, where the College Heights Baptist Church burned down Saturday night.

On Wednesday, NAACP President Cornell William Brooks issued a statement in response to the fires. He referred to the Charleston massacre that preceded them, writing, quote, "When nine students of scripture lose their lives in a house of worship, we cannot to turn a blind eye to any incident. As we wait for authorities to conduct their investigations, the NAACP and our state conferences across the country will remain vigilant and work with local churches and local law enforcement to ensure that all are taking the necessary precautions to ensure the safety of every parishioner."

All of this comes as the KKK has announced a rally for later this month at the South Carolina state House in support of the Confederate flag. There are reports South Carolina legislators now have enough votes to push through the flag's removal.

For more, we go to Montgomery, Alabama, where we're joined by Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has been tracking these most recent fires.

Richard, welcome back to Democracy Now!

RICHARD COHEN: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of what's happening throughout the South now.

RICHARD COHEN: Well, look, when it comes to race, the country is on edge, especially the black community. You know, we have a background of the killing of unarmed black men at the hands of the police. You add to this the Charleston massacre and now this string of fires at black churches. You know, it's just a very combustible combination. You know, it's certainly true that perhaps most of these fires are not arsons, and maybe none of the arsons are hate-motivated. But still, you can understand, with emotions so raw, you know, why people react this way. And certainly, you can't dismiss the possibility that at least some of these fires have been set in retaliation for the taking down of the Confederate flags. There's a lot of anger in the white nationalist community over what's been happening lately.

AMY GOODMAN: So, take the one in Greeleyville, the church burning down, the most recent one in Greeleyville, South Carolina. Governor Haley, Nikki Haley, came out immediately and said it was clearly lightning. She said something like, "We saw the lightning hit the top of the church." But then people within the investigation said, "How does she know this?" This was reported on a TV station close to those who were investigating. But that church does have a history. Talk about what happened 20 years ago in Greeleyville.

RICHARD COHEN: Well, you know, there was a group called the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan that was involved in burning the Greeleyville church, as well as the Macedonia Baptist Church in Clarendon, South Carolina. We actually had the privilege at the Southern Poverty Law Center of representing the Macedonia Baptist Church and got a multimillion-dollar verdict against the Klan for the burning of that church. It put the Klan, you know, kind of out of business. So, you know, you have this kind of history, and I guess Governor Haley is trying to tamp down emotions and maybe spoke too quickly. And I guess it's - it's important to realize that you shouldn't jump to conclusions in either direction too fast.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think has to be done right now, Richard Cohen?

RICHARD COHEN: Well, look, all of these fires have to be investigated thoroughly. And, you know, I think the forensic experts are very, very good at that. And then I think that we have to continue to look at the racial issues that divide us. You know, we're at an interesting point in our history, an interesting point in time, when suddenly people, especially in the white community, I think, are suddenly more aware of the divisive nature of some of the symbols, like the Confederate flag, like Confederate holidays, and, I think, are more willing to address not just those symbols, but some of the substance that continues to keep our country separate and unequal.

AMY GOODMAN: Calling for congressional hearings into domestic terrorism?

RICHARD COHEN: Yes. We have called for those hearings before both the Senate and the House, the committees that look at the Department of Homeland Security. You know, since 9/11, we've - you know, our resources in the domestic terrorism fight have skewed perhaps too heavily towards jihadi terrorism, at the expense of the forms of domestic terrorism that we saw exhibited in the Charleston massacre. You know, what we think is, we should allocate our resources in accordance with the nature of the threat. 9/11 will always be the Pearl Harbor of our time, but that doesn't mean all the resources should go in that direction.

AMY GOODMAN: In Alabama, the governor, unlike Governor Haley in South Carolina, simply, without talking about it beforehand, took down the flags on the state Capitol, the Confederate flag. Can you talk about the significance of this? You're in Montgomery.


AMY GOODMAN: And also, he's supposed to be making another announcement today.

RICHARD COHEN: I'm not sure what his announcement is today, Amy, but I can tell you, we were incredibly happy and applauded the governor for what he did. It was very, very forward-looking. And I think it was really quite an important thing, and probably a difficult thing for him to do politically. Another thing that I want to applaud the governor for is, you know, he disagreed with the Supreme Court same-sex marriage decision, but he immediately came out and said, you know, "It's the law of the land, and we should follow it." And that's not the case with all politicians in Alabama. The chief justice of Alabama, Roy Moore, is still on his soapbox ranting and raving against the same-sex marriage ruling. So I think, you know, Governor Bentley should be applauded for helping the state look forward rather than backward.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it has been very much kept under wraps, what he's going to announce today, but it might relate to that. Has anti-LGBT violence increased since the same-sex marriage ruling of the Supreme Court?

RICHARD COHEN: Well, I don't know if we've seen any uptick since the same-sex marriage ruling. What we have seen, though, is an apparent uptick in the recent years, because as more - you know, more people in the LGBTQ community feel comfortable coming out, you know, they're more likely to be targeted, because it's more - they're more open. You know, in terms of sheer numbers, hate crimes against black people are the most common. On the other hand, from a percentage standpoint, the LGBT community is the most likely to be victimized by hate crimes.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Cohen, I want to thank you for being with us, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, speaking to us from Montgomery, Alabama. Tune in tomorrow for our Independence Day special, as James Earl Jones reads Frederick Douglass's 1852 address: "What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?"

FREDERICK DOUGLASS: [read by James Earl Jones] What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham.

AMY GOODMAN: You'll hear the whole speech on tomorrow's broadcast, as well as our remembrance of the late, great folksinger Pete Seeger.

PETE SEEGER: We shall overcome.
We shall overcome.
We shall overcome some day.

AMY GOODMAN: That's tomorrow on Democracy Now! Tune in as we remember Pete Seeger and also go down to Columbia, South Carolina, to describe those moments when Bree Newsome took down the flag. I'll be speaking tonight at 7:30 in Chicago. Check our website at

News Thu, 02 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
After Half a Century, US and Cuba Reopen Embassies and Restore Ties

After half a century, the United States and Cuba have announced they will reopen embassies in each other's capitals and formally re-establish diplomatic relations. Secretary of State John Kerry said he will travel to Havana to open the US Embassy there. In a statement, the Cuban government said relations with the United States cannot be considered normalized until trade sanctions are lifted, the naval base at Guantánamo Bay is returned, and US-backed programs aimed at "subversion and internal destabilization" are halted. But in a letter to Obama on Wednesday, Cuban President Raúl Castro acknowledged much progress has already been made, and confirmed the openings of permanent diplomatic missions later this month. We are joined by Peter Kornbluh, author of "Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today's show with the historic news announced on Wednesday by President Obama that after more than half a century, the United States and Cuba will reopen embassies in each other's capitals and formally re-establish diplomatic relations.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: More than 54 years ago, at the height of the Cold War, the United States closed its embassy in Havana. Today, I can announce that the United States has agreed to formally re-establish diplomatic relations with the republic of Cuba and reopen embassies in our respective countries. This is a historic step forward in our efforts to normalize relations with the Cuban government and people, and begin a new chapter with our neighbors in the Americas.

AMY GOODMAN: In a statement, the Cuban government said relations with the United States cannot be considered normalized until trade sanctions are lifted, the naval base at Guantánamo Bay is returned, and US-backed programs aimed at, quote, "subversion and internal destabilization" are halted. But in a letter to Obama on Wednesday, Cuba's President Raúl Castro acknowledged much progress has already been made, and confirmed the openings of permanent diplomatic missions later this month.

PRESIDENT RAÚL CASTRO: [translated] It pleases me to confirm that the republic of Cuba has decided to re-establish diplomatic relations with the United States of America and open permanent diplomatic missions in our respective countries on the 20th of July, 2015. On Cuba's part, we make this decision based on the reciprocal action to develop respectful and cooperative relations between our peoples and our governments.

AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday he'll travel to Havana to open the US Embassy there, while Cuban officials say Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez will lead a delegation of "distinguished representatives of Cuban society" at an official ceremony to reopen the Cuban Embassy in Washington. All of this follows the US decision in May to remove Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terror. It was just in December that Obama first announced loosened travel and economic restrictions between the two nations.

For more, we are joined by Democracy Now! video stream by Peter Kornbluh, who directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archives at George Washington University. He's co-author of the book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana. An updated edition comes out in September with a new epilogue that tells the story of how President Obama re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Well, Peter Kornbluh, welcome back to Democracy Now! First, your reaction to President Obama's announcement?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, thank you, Amy, for having me on the show, the first day of what Obama calls a new chapter in US-Cuban relations. I don't think that the true magnitude of Obama's speech yesterday has quite sunk in, but this is a historic moment in bilateral relations. It's a historic moment for Latin America as a whole. And it's certainly an extraordinary kind of change of events in the whole history of US foreign policy, which, as you know better than anybody and as your listeners know better than anybody and your audience knows better than anybody, has been a bitter history of imperial and imperialist intervention in Cuban affairs. And Barack Obama yesterday stepped forward, basically said we're going to change the past and have a very different future. He actually said, "This is what change looks like." And it was very dramatic.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let's talk about what this change looks like. What has been agreed to at this point? Tell us about the Cuban mission in Washington and the US mission in Cuba, in Havana, and how they'll change.

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, you know, Jimmy Carter, back in the 1970s, 1977, initiated the first truly serious efforts of a president to normalize relations with Cuba. And he got as far as kind of reopening kind of mid-level diplomatic kind of representations called "interest sections." The United States would have an interest section in Havana; Cuba would have an interest section in Washington. They would not be headed by ambassadors. They would not have full embassy status. And today, President Obama and President Castro have now agreed that we are going to re-establish official diplomatic relations and kind of upgrade these interest sections to full embassies.

And this has a symbolic meaning. President Obama set out to accomplish this starting in 2013, when he directed his aides to find a way to change our policy towards Cuba and to arrive at this point where we have arrived today. That is what he could do as president without having to deal with the Congress on the issue of lifting the embargo.

And, you know, it's a symbolic move in many ways, but it creates a kind of a new framework of our interaction and certainly is going to pave the way, I think, to an acceleration of ties - bilateral ties, cultural ties, economic ties, political ties - between the United States and Cuba. And I think it's going to accelerate leaving the past in the past and creating a very different kind of ambiance and environment of the ties between the two countries, which really have a lot of common interests, which will now rise to the surface of the relationship.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us the history of the US mission in Cuba? I remember when I was in Havana, there were sort of major billboards that the US mission had to face, that the Cubans had put up. But the US had done things with the US mission that Fidel Castro wanted to cover, what, with a series of flags?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, that was during the last Bush administration, where George Bush decided that he would kind of stick it to the Cubans by putting a ticker tape on the top of the building of the US interest section that kind of, you know, broadcast news, like down there in Times Square, that was hostile to the Cuban government. And Fidel Castro's response was to erect 119 flagpoles and put 119 black flags, kind of with a pirate-type sign on the top, to mask the ticker tape and to kind of make a statement of how evil the United States was.

Now, you can contrast kind of the animosity, the - what Henry Kissinger once called the perpetual hostility of that kind of interaction, with what's going to happen today. And that visual contrast will be John Kerry, the highest-ranking US official since the Cuban revolution to travel to Cuba, overseeing the hoisting of the American flag of the new US Embassy on the Malecón there in Havana. The visuals will be rather dramatic and, I think, will appeal, quite frankly, to Cubans and to the American public here in the United States in a very dramatic way. And I think it's going to help visually push the idea of a normal relationship forward in a big way.

AMY GOODMAN: The restoration of relations with Cuba is not sitting well with Republican presidential contender, Cuban-American Marco Rubio. He issued a statement that read, quote, "I intend to oppose the confirmation of an Ambassador to Cuba until these issues are addressed. It is time for our unilateral concessions to this odious regime to end." Peter Kornbluh, talk about Rubio's attitude toward Cuba and his own history.

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, he distorted his own history for many years. He left the public impression, and even stated it specifically, that his parents had fled after Fidel Castro took power, that they were political refugees, when in fact they had left Cuba three years before the revolution, and they were simple economic refugees, just like anybody else, so many others who have come to the United States from Latin American countries or other Third World countries, seeking better economic situations for themselves and their families. So his parents and his family, he does not have a background of persecution during the Castro regime.

But, of course, he is beholden and a fixture in the dwindling community of hardline anti-Castro Cubans in Florida, and he is catering to them in his presidential bid. There are still a number of older Cuban Americans who have made a lot of money and who are going to be supportive financially of Rubio's candidacy. But in terms of broad numbers, his position no longer reflects, in any way, shape or form, the majority view of Floridians and Cuban Americans in Florida.

Having said that, let me be clear that Cuba is obviously going to be a political hot potato, and Cuban policy is going to be a political hot potato, in the next presidential election. Hillary Clinton came out very early calling for an end to the embargo. She sees that there is financial support among the more moderate Cuban-American community in Florida. And she also, I think, sees that this is much in the interest, both international and domestic, of the United States of America to normalize fully relations with Cuba. On the other side, you have, you know, Republican candidates like Chris Christie and Jeb Bush, who, like Marco Rubio, is vying for the support of the anti-Castro Cuban community in Florida, who are obviously going to attack the president on this policy change.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, in Havana, Cubans welcomed news that US and Cuba will open embassies in each other's country.

CUBAN MAN: [translated] We've been in this situation for 56 years, and I think this will benefit the country in certain respects, and I think it benefits those of us who want to see our families, our children, who are in the US

AMY GOODMAN: And I want to read a comment made by Elián González. He was the boy at the center of a bitter international custody battle in 2000 that highlighted the poor relations between the United States and Cuba. In a 2015 interview with Granma, he said, quote - Granma is the Cuban newspaper - "Sometimes we young people think that if we stop being a socialist country, and give way to capitalism, we will become a developed country like the United States, France, Italy ... But it must be understood that if Cuba stops being socialist, it won't be like the US, it would be a colony, it would be Haiti, a poor country, a lot poorer than it is now, and everything that has been achieved would be lost. It is true that we could have accomplished more, but we can never forget the most important historic question: we have been a country besieged by a blockade." And, of course, for people who don't quite remember who Elián González is, he was made famous with the standoff with his relatives in Florida and his father, who was trying to take him home to Cuba. He had come in a boat, and his mother had died on the boat. And the image of the US military with a gun at his head as the US government took him away from his Miami family to reunite him with his father and brother. Your comment, Peter Kornbluh?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, Elián González raises an important point that a number of Cubans feel, which is that they don't want to lose all the vestiges of the revolution. And Raúl Castro himself has said, "We want to have an economic model that allows us to have sustainable socialism." The problem for Cuba is that they can't sustain the advances of the Cuban revolution in education and health unless their economy changes and they are able to be a productive society generating the resources to do these social programs in the future. And that is why, in a opening of the economy, the economy is - under Raúl Castro, is evolving away from a strict communist model to a much more kind of - more social democratic model, eventually, and perhaps like Vietnam, perhaps like China. It's hard to know where it will end up. But it is evolving steadily towards that new model of the economy, and it's up to the Cuban government, of course, to decide what kind of interaction they're going to have with American economic interests. We can no more tell them what to do now than we can - than we could before the normalization of diplomatic relations. But they know what's in their interests, and I'm sure that they are going to act accordingly.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Peter Kornbluh, talk about what has to happen now. And what does Congress have to do, which President Obama alluded to as he spoke yesterday? And how could a change of a presidential administration, or even the current Congress, stop anything - or could they - from moving forward?

PETER KORNBLUH: I think what President Obama has done in normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba is irreversible. And Congress can certainly stand in the way - the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, dominated by Republicans like Marco Rubio, can thwart kind of a naming of a new ambassador. They can hold up any ambassador - ambassadorial nomination that President Obama gives them. But I think what he is going to do is simply assign the diplomat that is there, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who's head of the interest section and who already is an ambassador, in the sense that he was ambassador previous to his posting in Cuba, with the kind of interim status. So, 'til the end of the Obama administration, I believe that he's not going to pick a fight with Congress over this nomination.

You know, Obama has two years left. He's going to move quickly and with all the power that he has as president to kind of consolidate this change in policy. He has normalized diplomatic relations. To normalize overall relations, of course, we do have to lift the embargo. The United States does have to address Cuba's interest in the return of the Guantánamo military base. And these regime change programs that USAID has been running for all these years, kind of in a kind of bureaucratic imperative mandated by Congress, do have to be reconfigured to some kind of more educational-oriented or economic sharing, as opposed to an effort to roll back the Cuban revolution. Those things are down the road. I think Obama wants to create an ambiance, a very new ambiance, a very new framework of relations, and then have the countries negotiate accordingly.

A new president could certainly create a much more hostile policy towards Cuba. A new Congress with Democrats could actually vote to lift the embargo and lift the travel ban that prevents people like you and I from freely going on vacation in Varadero Beach, to Cuba, at this point. But I think that Obama's strategy is simply to create constituencies in the business community, among American citizens, as well as support in Cuba for going forward with this relationship, to the point where it will be very difficult for a Republican president, like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, to reverse this process.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of trade, Peter, what exactly is going to happen now? I mean, many Republican and Democratic governors, for example, not to mention CEOs, have been going back and forth to Cuba. What happens next?

PETER KORNBLUH: You've had the president of Google going. You've had the head of the US Chamber of Commerce going to Cuba. There are all sorts of businessmen who have been there. And President Obama has kind of looked at the embargo like a dam, and he's used his executive powers to poke holes in it, with the hope that as the kind of economic waters pour through the holes that he has created in the embargo, the dam weakens and eventually collapses. I think that's his strategy, and it's being supported by the business community and by the advocacy community. There's a new organization out there called Cuba Engage, which is trying to organize business and advocates to lift the travel ban - very important to support that. And I think that that's his idea.

And Obama, using executive orders, has created all sorts of clauses in the - for the business community. The United States can now import goods from Cuba from private businesses in Cuba. We can sell them more food. Internet companies of the United States of America are now going to Cuba and are going to work with Cubans to build a Internet network there. So there's a loosening of the restrictions on trade. You still are not going to see, you know, Hilton Hotels building hotels in Cuba. You're not going to see a McDonald's or a Wal-Mart or major US mining companies arriving in Cuba and investing in Cuba, unless Congress lifts the trade embargo on Cuba. But you are going to see quite a bit more economic activity in the years to come.

AMY GOODMAN: And the visits - President Obama says he personally will go next year, and the pope, before he comes to the United States, will be going to Cuba first. Is that right, Peter Kornbluh? And the pope's role in the negotiation that has opened up the relationship between Cuba and the United States?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, the next edition, the paperback edition, of the book that I did with William LeoGrande, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana, is going to have a whole new 50-page epilogue that tells the story of how the pope got involved with the secret talks to improve relations between the United States and Cuba. And certainly, when the pope goes to Cuba in mid-September, he is going to raise the issue of the embargo. He's going to come to the United States afterwards, and I'm sure the issue will actually come up.

The pope will be following John Kerry, who is going to be going to Cuba later this month. That is going to receive quite a bit of media attention. And, of course, there's going to be a parade of celebrities, businessmen, political figures continuing to go to Cuba 'til the end of the year. Obama - certainly the White House has said that Obama would relish his own trip to Cuba in 2016. That would be history making. That would be Obama's Nixon-in-China moment, and he would go down in history as the president who ended the Cold War in the Caribbean once and for all, and actually took steps to set foot on the island of Cuba while the Cuban existence - while a Castro was still in power. I think that will go a long way to normalizing simply the kind of people-to-people relationship between this country, and I hope we all live to see the day that a president of the United States sets foot on the island of Cuba in the near future.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kornbluh, I want to thank you for being with us. He directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, which is at George Washington University in DC, co-author of the book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana. Updated edition with that epilogue that tells the story of President Obama, the pope and President Castro are all in that book. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.

News Thu, 02 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Superpower Conundrum: The Rise and Fall of Just About Everything

The rise and fall of great powers and their imperial domains has been a central fact of history for centuries. It's been a sensible, repeatedly validated framework for thinking about the fate of the planet. So it's hardly surprising, when faced with a country once regularly labeled the "sole superpower," "the last superpower," or even the global "hyperpower" and now, curiously, called nothing whatsoever, that the "decline" question should come up. Is the US or isn't it? Might it or might it not now be on the downhill side of imperial greatness?

Take a slow train - that is, any train - anywhere in America, as I did recently in the northeast, and then take a high-speed train anywhere else on Earth, as I also did recently, and it's not hard to imagine the US in decline. The greatest power in history, the "unipolar power," can't build a single mile of high-speed rail? Really? And its Congress is now mired in an argument about whether funds can even be raised to keep America's highways more or less pothole-free.

Sometimes, I imagine myself talking to my long-dead parents because I know how such things would have astonished two people who lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and a can-do post-war era in which the staggering wealth and power of this country were indisputable. What if I could tell them how the crucial infrastructure of such a still-wealthy nation - bridges, pipelines, roads, and the like - is now grossly underfunded, in an increasing state of disrepair, and beginning to crumble? That would definitely shock them.

And what would they think upon learning that, with the Soviet Union a quarter-century in the trash bin of history, the US, alone in triumph, has been incapable of applying its overwhelming military and economic power effectively? I'm sure they would be dumbstruck to discover that, since the moment the Soviet Union imploded, the US has been at war continuously with another country (three conflicts and endless strife); that I was talking about, of all places, Iraq; and that the mission there was never faintly accomplished. How improbable is that? And what would they think if I mentioned that the other great conflicts of the post-Cold-War era were with Afghanistan (two wars with a decade off in-between) and the relatively small groups of non-state actors we now call terrorists? And how would they react on discovering that the results were: failure in Iraq, failure in Afghanistan, and the proliferation of terror groups across much of the Greater Middle East (including the establishment of an actual terror caliphate) and increasing parts of Africa?

They would, I think, conclude that the US was over the hill and set on the sort of decline that, sooner or later, has been the fate of every great power. And what if I told them that, in this new century, not a single action of the military that US presidents now call "the finest fighting force the world has ever known" has, in the end, been anything but a dismal failure? Or that presidents, presidential candidates, and politicians in Washington are required to insist on something no one would have had to say in their day: that the United States is both an "exceptional" and an "indispensible" nation? Or that they would also have to endlessly thank our troops (as would the citizenry) for... well... never success, but just being there and getting maimed, physically or mentally, or dying while we went about our lives? Or that those soldiers must always be referred to as "heroes."

In their day, when the obligation to serve in a citizens' army was a given, none of this would have made much sense, while the endless defensive insistence on American greatness would have stood out like a sore thumb. Today, its repetitive presence marks the moment of doubt. Are we really so "exceptional"? Is this country truly "indispensible" to the rest of the planet and if so, in what way exactly? Are those troops genuinely our heroes and if so, just what was it they did that we're so darn proud of?

Return my amazed parents to their graves, put all of this together, and you have the beginnings of a description of a uniquely great power in decline. It's a classic vision, but one with a problem.

A God-Like Power to Destroy

Who today recalls the ads from my 1950s childhood for, if I remember correctly, drawing lessons, which always had a tagline that went something like: What's wrong with this picture? (You were supposed to notice the five-legged cows floating through the clouds.) So what's wrong with this picture of the obvious signs of decline: the greatest power in history, with hundreds of garrisons scattered across the planet, can't seem to apply its power effectively no matter where it sends its military or bring countries like Iran or a weakened post-Soviet Russia to heel by a full range of threats, sanctions, and the like, or suppress a modestly armed terror-movement-cum-state in the Middle East?

For one thing, look around and tell me that the United States doesn't still seem like a unipolar power. I mean, where exactly are its rivals? Since the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, when the first wooden ships mounted with cannons broke out of their European backwater and began to gobble up the globe, there have always been rival great powers - three, four, five, or more. And what of today? The other three candidates of the moment would assumedly be the European Union (EU), Russia, and China.

Economically, the EU is indeed a powerhouse, but in any other way it's a second-rate conglomeration of states that still slavishly follow the US and an entity threatening to come apart at the seams. Russia looms ever larger in Washington these days, but remains a rickety power in search of greatness in its former imperial borderlands. It's a country almost as dependent on its energy industry as Saudi Arabia and nothing like a potential future superpower. As for China, it's obviously the rising power of the moment and now officially has the number one economy on Planet Earth. Still, it remains in many ways a poor country whose leaders fear any kind of future economic implosion (which could happen). Like the Russians, like any aspiring great power, it wants to make its weight felt in its neighborhood - at the moment the East and South China Seas. And like Vladimir Putin's Russia, the Chinese leadership is indeed upgrading its military. But the urge in both cases is to emerge as a regional power to contend with, not a superpower or a genuine rival of the US.

Whatever may be happening to American power, there really are no potential rivals to shoulder the blame. Yet, uniquely unrivaled, the US has proven curiously incapable of translating its unipolar power and a military that, on paper, trumps every other one on the planet into its desires. This was not the normal experience of past reigning great powers. Or put another way, whether or not the US is in decline, the rise-and-fall narrative seems, half-a-millennium later, to have reached some kind of largely uncommented upon and unexamined dead end.

In looking for an explanation, consider a related narrative involving military power. Why, in this new century, does the US seem so incapable of achieving victory or transforming crucial regions into places that can at least be controlled? Military power is by definition destructive, but in the past such force often cleared the ground for the building of local, regional, or even global structures, however grim or oppressive they might have been. If force always was meant to break things, it sometimes achieved other ends as well. Now, it seems as if breaking is all it can do, or how to explain the fact that, in this century, the planet's sole superpower has specialized - see Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, and elsewhere - in fracturing, not building nations.

Empires may have risen and fallen in those 500 years, but weaponry only rose. Over those centuries in which so many rivals engaged each other, carved out their imperial domains, fought their wars, and sooner or later fell, the destructive power of the weaponry they were wielding only ratcheted up exponentially: from the crossbow to the musket, the cannon, the Colt revolver, the repeating rifle, the Gatling gun, the machine gun, the dreadnaught, modern artillery, the tank, poison gas, the zeppelin, the plane, the bomb, the aircraft carrier, the missile, and at the end of the line, the "victory weapon" of World War II, the nuclear bomb that would turn the rulers of the greatest powers, and later even lesser powers, into the equivalent of gods.

For the first time, representatives of humanity had in their hands the power to destroy anything on the planet in a fashion once imagined possible only by some deity or set of deities. It was now possible to create our own end times. And yet here was the odd thing: the weaponry that brought the power of the gods down to Earth somehow offered no practical power at all to national leaders. In the post-Hiroshima-Nagasaki world, those nuclear weapons would prove unusable. Once they were loosed on the planet, there would be no more rises, no more falls. (Today, we know that even a limited nuclear exchange among lesser powers could, thanks to the nuclear-winter effect, devastate the planet.)

Weapons Development in an Era of Limited War

In a sense, World War II could be considered the ultimate moment for both the narratives of empire and the weapon. It would be the last "great" war in which major powers could bring all the weaponry available to them to bear in search of ultimate victory and the ultimate shaping of the globe. It resulted in unprecedented destruction across vast swathes of the planet, the killing of tens of millions, the turning of great cities into rubble and of countless people into refugees, the creation of an industrial structure for genocide, and finally the building of those weapons of ultimate destruction and of the first missiles that would someday be their crucial delivery systems. And out of that war came the final rivals of the modern age - and then there were two - the "superpowers."

That very word, superpower, had much of the end of the story embedded in it. Think of it as a marker for a new age, for the fact that the world of the "great powers" had been left for something almost inexpressible. Everyone sensed it. We were now in the realm of "great" squared or force raised in some exponential fashion, of "super" (as in, say, "superhuman") power. What made those powers truly super was obvious enough: the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union - their potential ability, that is, to destroy in a fashion that had no precedent and from which there might be no coming back. It wasn't a happenstance that the scientists creating the H-bomb sometimes referred to it in awestruck terms as a "super bomb," or simply "the super."

The unimaginable had happened. It turned out that there was such a thing as too much power. What in World War II came to be called "total war," the full application of the power of a great state to the destruction of others, was no longer conceivable. The Cold War gained its name for a reason. A hot war between the US and the USSR could not be fought, nor could another global war, a reality driven home by the Cuban missile crisis. Their power could only be expressed "in the shadows" or in localized conflicts on the "peripheries." Power now found itself unexpectedly bound hand and foot.

This would soon be reflected in the terminology of American warfare. In the wake of the frustrating stalemate that was Korea (1950-1953), a war in which the US found itself unable to use its greatest weapon, Washington took a new language into Vietnam. The conflict there was to be a "limited war." And that meant one thing: nuclear power would be taken off the table.

For the first time, it seemed, the world was facing some kind of power glut. It's at least reasonable to assume that, in the years after the Cold War standoff ended, that reality somehow seeped from the nuclear arena into the rest of warfare. In the process, great power war would be limited in new ways, while somehow being reduced only to its destructive aspect and nothing more. It suddenly seemed to hold no other possibilities within it - or so the evidence of the sole superpower in these years suggests.

War and conflict are hardly at an end in the twenty-first century, but something has removed war's normal efficacy. Weapons development has hardly ceased either, but the newest highest-tech weapons of our age are proving strangely ineffective as well. In this context, the urge in our time to produce "precision weaponry" - no longer the carpet-bombing of the B-52, but the "surgical" strike capacity of a joint direct attack munition, or JDAM - should be thought of as the arrival of "limited war" in the world of weapons development.

The drone, one of those precision weapons, is a striking example. Despite its penchant for producing "collateral damage," it is not a World War II-style weapon of indiscriminate slaughter. It has, in fact, been used relatively effectively to play whack-a-mole with the leadership of terrorist groups, killing off one leader or lieutenant after another. And yet all of the movements it has been directed against have only proliferated, gaining strength (and brutality) in these same years. It has, in other words, proven an effective weapon of bloodlust and revenge, but not of policy. If war is, in fact, politics by other means (as Carl von Clausewitz claimed), revenge is not. No one should then be surprised that the drone has produced not an effective war on terror, but a war that seems to promote terror.

One other factor should be added in here: that global power glut has grown exponentially in another fashion as well. In these years, the destructive power of the gods has descended on humanity a second time as well - via the seemingly most peaceable of activities, the burning of fossil fuels. Climate change now promises a slow-motion version of nuclear Armageddon, increasing both the pressure on and the fragmentation of societies, while introducing a new form of destruction to our lives.

Can I make sense of all this? Hardly. I'm just doing my best to report on the obvious: that military power no longer seems to act as it once did on Planet Earth. Under distinctly apocalyptic pressures, something seems to be breaking down, something seems to be fragmenting, and with that the familiar stories, familiar frameworks, for thinking about how our world works are losing their efficacy.

Decline may be in the American future, but on a planet pushed to extremes, don't count on it taking place within the usual tale of the rise and fall of great powers or even superpowers. Something else is happening on Planet Earth. Be prepared.

Opinion Thu, 02 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Obama's Amazing Grace

If Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech is the 20th century equivalent of Abraham Lincoln's magnificent Second Inaugural - and I think it is - then what President Barack Obama gave us in Charleston, South Carolina is our century's Gettysburg Address.

He gave a marvelous eulogy that was powerful and eloquent. He was moving without resorting to sentimentality.

Obama embraced the life of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, slain in his historically black church by a white racist only days before. Rather than merely eulogizing the man, Obama traced the black experience in America, all through its history of slavery, war, segregation, discrimination, mass imprisonment, and murder.

And despite the bleakness of that history, Obama found redemption in Pinckney's life. He talked about the reverend's gift of grace, and how grace has buoyed African Americans through their darkest times and armed them with a kind of invulnerability.

Was Obama trying to say that black people are truly invulnerable? Of course not. But through the deeds of people like Pinckney and the notion of grace they embody, black Americans have survived.

The message was all the more effective because Obama delivered it in the cadences of the black church. As he wrapped it up, he broke into the hymn "Amazing Grace" and invited the audience to join in.

(Photo: Lawrence Jackson/Official White House Photo)(Photo: Lawrence Jackson/Official White House Photo)

I don't know how much good it will do. Maybe some. It looks like the Confederate battle flag will be taken down from its perch at the South Carolina State House and other public buildings across the South. In terms of symbolism, that's no small thing.He went into that funeral at the College of Charleston as a president who happened to be black. He left it as a black man who happened to be president.

"Removing the flag from this state's Capitol would not be an act of political correctness," Obama said. "It would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought - the cause of slavery - was wrong. The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people, was wrong."

When have you heard an American president cut through the mythology with which the South has wrapped the Civil War - the "War Between the States," they call it, or even the "War of Northern Aggression" - with so simple and direct a statement? The cause for which they fought was wrong. Period. End of argument.

The greatness of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address wasn't universally accepted when it was delivered. Lincoln's partisan enemies said it was inappropriate to the occasion, and some of them even attacked it as "silly."

I don't watch Fox News (doctor's orders). But I imagine its crew of political harpies and trolls gave the Charleston eulogy a similar welcome.

I feel sorry for them. I forgive them. I'm in that kind of mood. I'm as close to a state of grace as you can get without actually believing in God.

But I believe in something: a power that's larger than oneself that arises from masses of people struggling for justice and listening to - as Lincoln said in his first inaugural address - "the better angels of their nature."

Some people will call Obama's speech political. Of course it was. He is, after all, the president of the United States. Every word out of his mouth is political in some way or another.

How, he asked, can we permit so many of our children to live in poverty, and for tens of thousands of our young people to be caught up in our criminal justice system? How can we make it harder for some of our fellow citizens to vote?

He indicted our relative indifference to the carnage of gun violence that takes 30 lives every day in our nation.

"Every time something like this happens, somebody says we have to have a conversation about race," Obama said. "We don't need more talk."

It's time to do something.

Opinion Thu, 02 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
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Art Thu, 02 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Working-Class Movement Fights for Local Authority

Make the Road New York is a membership-based grassroots immigrant organization that leads and supports local lawmaking efforts, including recent initiatives to end collaboration between US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and local police, establish paid sick leave, introduce municipal ID and protect human rights. Simon Davis-Cohen sat down with their co-executive director, Deborah Axt, to talk about the rising tide of local law making in the United States.

Simon Davis-Cohen: Implicit in Make the Road New York's (MRNY) work is a belief that local governments should have power to improve state and federal discrimination protections. You have clearly found ways to do this. Have you encountered legal obstacles or doctrines that limit MRNY's work? What are obstacles to increasing such protections, locally?

Deborah Axt: We believe it is critical for local governments to adopt and implement affirmative policies to ensure that working-class immigrant communities can live a life of respect and dignity, with protections against discrimination in the workplace, at home, and throughout their lives. In New York, a key obstacle has been policy areas where the state has authority over New York City and other localities, and state lawmakers are able to block local action - for example, on the minimum wage and the rent laws. We approach this problem in two ways: first, by identifying policy-making opportunities at the local level where the city or locality can make a difference. And second, by organizing with allies across the state to pressure Albany to respond to the needs of localities like New York City and Long Island and allow local governments to adopt the affirmative policies they have blocked.

Many "Liberals" are weary of local lawmaking. For example, they may agree with the LGBTQ movement's ideals, but they don't agree with its tactics - local lawmaking. What do you have to say to these people?

We believe strongly that we must work at all levels of government that are relevant to the issues our members identify as their priorities. Federally, we continue to work with partners across the country on issues like the minimum wage and education policy. But while Washington stalls, we cannot wait to take action at the state and local level to ensure that our members' needs and rights are heard and protected. Our members are very savvy about identifying local campaign targets as well as federal priorities like immigration reform, and they feel it's critical to engage at multiple levels to achieve the just society towards which they are working every day. Besides, local lawmaking is the arena that is most accessible to everyday folks; it is the arena where we train and test and cultivate the candidates and leaders that will step onto the state and national arenas in the future. We either organize and push the conversation on the local level or concede the future to our opposition.

There are arguments to be made that if you give one locality power to pass laws about immigration, you open the door to discriminatory laws like those we see in Arizona and beyond. Legally, what is the difference between a law that offers immigrants sanctuary, and one that criminalizes their existence?

In general, Federal policy preempts states and localities that wish to adopt misguided policies to make immigrants' lives miserable. The same preemption does not apply to affirmative policies geared at making a particular locality welcoming to immigrants and taking measures to break the link between immigration enforcement and local law enforcement.

With movements like those to raise the minimum wage or win paid sick leave, the national narrative has moved away from Washington DC toward local lawmaking. Work like MRNY's that utilizes local lawmaking is on the rise. However, there are significant efforts by state legislatures to preempt these movements. How can these movements work together to counter preemption?

We have to keep fighting and winning on all levels. When we have enough people in the streets demanding that their cities protect and respect them, then there will be a real backlash against the state governments that squash those city-level efforts. We have to build that kind of momentum and back-and-forth conversation between cities and states.

The Fight for $15 nationally, and coalitions across states like New York, are working together in lock-step to ensure that state legislatures respond to working people's demands and raise the minimum wage. In New York, members of grassroots organizations around the state are mobilizing together to pressure Albany to raise the statewide minimum wage and allow localities to raise their wages even higher. Ultimately, we are fighting for a speedy path to $15 per hour, indexation, and the ability to join a union. As Governor Cuomo's May 6th announcement to convene a fast food worker wage board showed, the momentum is on our side. We are winning concrete victories, and we are going to keep working to achieve our broader goal.

New York City does not have the power to increase the minimum wage because the state has long-defined the state minimum wage as a "ceiling" (a maximum minimum wage) that localities cannot raise. To what extent can the various movements we have discussed work together to redefine state law as a "floor" localities can improve upon?

We know that the same structural obstacles stand in the way of meaningful progress on many of the fronts that matter to working people - housing, minimum wage, fair elections. And organizations are working together on each of these, and we ARE talking across "movements" and campaigns. But the opposition knows when to fight back hard, and they will continue to strongly oppose our efforts to free up municipalities to deliver more for working class and low income folks. We simply have to continue building enough power to break through.

Though private corporations have constitutionally protected rights in this country, local governments enjoy no such protection. What are your thoughts on a movement for a constitutionally protected right to local self-government?

There are moments in history and areas in the country today where progressives would be wise to side with the federal government over the locality. Let's focus on winning an enforceable right for every person to live with dignity, and on ending the current reality where the wealthy drown out the voices of others by forming corporations with their own "rights." Whether municipal, county, state or federal, we need to stop the wealthy from rigging both the political and the economic game in their favor.

Opinion Thu, 02 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Next Steps in the Normalization of US-Cuban Relations: Thoughts From the Cuban Five

Now that US and Cuba are opening embassies in each other's countries, what else needs to happen to support the process of détente between the two countries? Marjorie Cohn posed this question to René González and Antonio Guerrero, members of the "Cuban Five," whose release from US prison was critical to the historic détente. Their reply? End the embargo and return Guantánamo Bay to Cuba.

Marjorie Cohn with Rene Gonzalez and Olga. (Photo courtesy of Marjorie Cohn)Marjorie Cohn with René González and his wife, Olga. (Photo courtesy of Marjorie Cohn)Now that United States and Cuba are preparing to open embassies in each other's countries, what else needs to happen to support the process of détente between the two countries?

During a recent visit to Cuba I posed this question to René González and Antonio Guerrero, two of the "Cuban Five" - five Cuban men who traveled to the United States in the 1990s to gather information about terrorist plots against Cuba and then became celebrated Cuban heroes during their subsequent incarceration by the United States.

Their reply? End the embargo and return Guantánamo Bay to Cuba.

"We have to remember that relations between the countries have never been normal," González said, arguing that the normalization of relations won't happen overnight. He added:

We were occupied by US troops in 1898. From then on, we were a subject of the US government and especially the US corporations. Then came the Revolution, which tried to correct that imbalance. Then came a different stage - of aggressions, blockade and policies against Cuba, which has lasted for more than 56 years. You cannot expect that establishing normal relations … [for] the first time in history is going to be an easy process.

Guerrero noted that the US had taken one major step toward normalization already by removing Cuba from its list of countries alleged to support terrorism but noted that the next step toward normalization will require a much larger step - ending the US embargo, which in Cuba is more commonly referred to as the "blockade." Normalization, González said, will require "the dismantling of the whole system of aggression against Cuba, especially the blockade. Everybody knows how damaging it has been for the Cuban people. It's a small island. For 50 years, it has been asphyxiated by the biggest power in the world. It had a cost on the Cuban people, on their economy."

The Illegal Occupation of Guantánamo Bay

González also listed the return of Guantánamo to Cuba as necessary for normalization. After the blockade is lifted and Guantánamo is returned to Cuba, he told me, "I believe the process will take speed."

The Cuban Five ... turned over the results of their investigation to the FBI. But instead of working to combat terrorist plots in the United States against Cuba, the US government arrested them.

González rightly pointed out that the US occupation of Guantánamo is illegal. The United States gained control of Guantánamo Bay in 1903, when Cuba was occupied by the US Army after its intervention in Cuba's war of independence against Spain. Cuba was forced to accept the Platt Amendment to its Constitution as a prerequisite for the withdrawal of US troops from Cuba. That amendment provided the basis for a treaty granting the United States jurisdiction over Guantánamo Bay.

The 1903 Agreement on Coaling and Naval Stations gave the United States the right to use Guantánamo Bay "exclusively as coaling or naval stations, and for no other purpose." A 1934 treaty maintained US control over Guantánamo Bay in perpetuity until the United States abandons it or until both Cuba and the United States agree to modify it. That treaty also limits its uses to "coaling and naval stations."

None of these treaties or agreements gives the United States the right to use Guantánamo Bay as a prison, or to subject detainees to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment - which has been documented at the prison. The United States thus stands in violation of the 1934 treaty.

Moreover, the doctrine of rebus sic stantibus, enshrined in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties and a norm of customary international law, allows one party to a treaty to abrogate its obligations when there is a fundamental change in circumstances. Using Guantánamo Bay as a prison and torturing detainees is a fundamental change in circumstance, which constitutes grounds for Cuba to terminate the treaty.

The Diplomatic Importance of Freeing the Cuban Five

The United States and Cuba would not likely have announced this week their plans to reopen embassies in each other's countries if President Barack Obama had not successfully negotiated the full release of the Cuban Five in the agreement he reached with Cuban President Raul Castro on December 17, 2014. That deal, to work toward normalization of relations between the two countries, had eluded Obama's 10 predecessors over a 55-year period. It will likely be Obama's signature foreign policy achievement.

Marjorie Cohn with Antonio Guerrero. (Photo courtesy of Marjorie Cohn)Marjorie Cohn with Antonio Guerrero. (Photo courtesy of Marjorie Cohn)A part of the deal that had enormous symbolic significance to many Cubans was the freeing of Gerardo Hernandez, Antonio Guerrero and Ramón Labañino - the three members of the Cuban Five who were still imprisoned at the time of the agreement. On December 17, 2014, the three men were granted clemency and returned to Cuba. The other two members of the Cuban Five - René González and Fernando González - had previously been released in 2011 and 2014, respectively, after serving their full sentences.

The case of the Cuban Five garnered international condemnation in particular because the five men had traveled to the United States to gather intelligence on Cuban exile groups for a very legitimate reason. Since Cuba's 1959 Revolution, terrorist organizations based in Miami, including Alpha 66, Commandos F4, the Cuban American National Foundation and Brothers to the Rescue, have carried out terrorist acts against Cuba in an attempt to overthrow the Castro government. The most notorious was the in-air bombing of a Cubana airliner in 1976, which killed all 73 persons aboard, including the entire Cuban fencing team. These groups have acted with impunity in the United States.

The Cuban Five peacefully infiltrated these organizations. They then turned over the results of their investigation to the FBI. But instead of working to combat terrorist plots in the United States against Cuba, the US government arrested them and charged them with crimes including conspiracy to commit espionage and conspiracy to commit murder. Although none of the Five had any classified information or engaged in any acts to injure the United States, they were convicted in a Miami court in 2000 and sentenced to four life terms and 75 years collectively.

A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit US Court of Appeals unanimously overturned their convictions in 2005, ruling that the Five could not get a fair trial in Miami due to the pervasive anti-Cuba sentiment there. Nevertheless, the 11thCircuit, sitting en banc, upheld the convictions, and Hernandez's life term was affirmed on appeal.

Years of Wrongful Imprisonment

The Cuban Five endured years of harsh conditions and wrongful imprisonment before their release. After being arrested, they were immediately put into solitary confinement and held in "The Hole" for 17 months. Solitary confinement amounts to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, according to United Nations special rapporteur Juan E. Méndez.

"I believe they expected to break us down," González added. The US government "used the CIPA [Classified Information Procedures Act] and randomly classified everything," which "allowed them to prevent us from looking at the evidence," González said. "So they put us in "The Hole" and then put the evidence in another hole."

Yet, González noted, "Sometimes you have to react as a human with your dignity. And they went after our dignity. And we had to defend it. We were more committed. We were more encouraged to go to trial, and that's what we did."

"For us," González said, "going to trial was great. We wanted to go to trial every day because we wanted to face them and expose the truth of terrorism against Cuba and how the government of the United States supported those terrorists."

"We don't blame the American people for the faults of the their government ... I hope sincerely that this new relationship with the US will allow Americans to come here and share with us this beautiful island."

"They decided to behave like thugs." he told me. "And then you have to resort to your moral values, again to your human dignity and defend that." González said, "We always knew what we were doing there. We knew that we never intended to make any harm to the United States at all, to the US people. We were very clear on that. As a matter of fact, there was nothing in the whole evidence that would show hatred toward the United States or the US people or an intent to damage anybody. We knew that we were defending human life. And going to prison for defending the most precious thing which is the human life - it makes you strong."

Surviving Prison Through Poetry and Art

I asked González and Guerrero how they survived prison for all those years. "Our humor never went down," González said. "We played chess from one cell to another by yelling. We did poetry. Sometimes we had fun just reading the poetry through the doors."

Guerrero also began writing poetry in prison.

"I started writing poems without even having paper," he said. "A poem came to my head after they arrested me … And I cannot explain how because I wasn't a poet. And then I started writing poems." Guerrero never imagined that his poems would be published, but he shared them with the other prisoners and shared them with people in court. He couldn't believe it when his first book of poems, Desde Mi Altura ("From My Altitude"), was published.

Guerrero also became a painter in prison. "The penitentiary is very tough," he said. "So one day I went to the art room … that was another way to free my mind."

I was thrilled when Guerrero gave me a copy of his newly published book, Absolved by Solidarity, a collection of his paintings depicting the different stages of the trial.

The Five Return to Cuba

When I asked what it was like when all the members of the Cuban Five were back in Cuba together, Guerrero said: "It's a sense of joy. It's a sense of victory. It's a sense of returning to the place where you belong to. And it feels great."

González added: "My little daughter was four months when I was arrested. I came to Cuba two days before her 15th birthday. I have a grandson now which is a beautiful boy."

Both González and Guerrero said they had thought they would never see Hernandez in Cuba again because he was serving a term of life imprisonment. "My biggest fear was he would die there," González said. "And let's not fool ourselves. The US wanted him to die in prison. And the prosecutor wanted him to die in prison."

"We know how hard it is to take him from those appetites," he added, "and we managed to do that. It speaks a lot about Cuba, a lot about the Cuban people, because the Cuban people together as one did everything possible for the Five and it's just pure joy."

The Way Ahead

In the days ahead, the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States will rely most of all on the United States' willingness to act out of respect for Cuban self-determination. "The only thing we want is respect," Guerrero said. "Let's try to build something now - good for you, good for us - with respect in the middle. … The point is, we don't know if the interest of the American government is really to be respectful and friendly to the Cuban government."

Guerrero said that even if millions of American tourists come flooding in to visit Cuba, he cannot conceive of Cuba becoming a capitalist country and forgetting about the Revolution. "Somebody may bring drugs, or somebody may bring a lot of money and try to buy things," Guerrero said. "We are not accustomed to that. But we are ready to deal with that and create our security and our understanding. They will be received with peace, with love."

González added that the Cuban people don't have hatred or resentment toward the American people specifically. "We don't blame the American people for the faults of the their government," he said. "We know they are people like people anywhere. I believe that all of us have more in common than things that divide us. … And I hope sincerely that this new relationship with the US will allow Americans to come here and share with us this beautiful island."

In June, the Cuban Five visited Robben Island in South Africa, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years by the apartheid regime. Hernandez wrote in the guest book, "It has been a great honor to visit this place together with some of the brave compañeros of Nelson Mandela," who were "a source of inspiration and strength for the Five Cubans to withstand the more than 16 years in US jails." Hernandez added that Mandela's legacy is one "the Five will honor for the rest of our lives."

News Thu, 02 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400