Truthout Stories Thu, 27 Aug 2015 20:10:25 -0400 en-gb If You Are Poor, It's Like the Hurricane Just Happened: Malik Rahim on Katrina Ten Years After

We continue our coverage of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina by speaking to Malik Rahim, co-founder of the Common Ground Collective and one of the founders of the Louisiana chapter of the Black Panther Party. In 2005, he and the Common Ground Collective helped bring thousands of people from all over the world to assist in the rebuilding of New Orleans. Just weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit the city, Malik took us around the neighborhood of Algiers, where he showed us how a corpse still remained in the street unattended, lying right around the corner from a community health center. Malik returns to Democracy Now! to talk about the storm a decade later.


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

AMY GOODMAN: We continue our coverage of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. In a moment, we'll be joined by Malik Rahim, co-founder of the Common Ground Collective, which helped bring thousands of people from all over the world to help rebuild New Orleans after the storm. But first, I want to rebroadcast a part of theinterview that we did with Malik on Democracy Now! just days after Katrina hit in 2005, when we went down to New Orleans and the community, the neighborhood of Algiers. Malik took us around to the corner at a community health center, a multi-service center, and he showed us how a corpse still remained on the street unattended. Let's go back to that day.

MALIK RAHIM: You could basically smell it from right here. You know, and the police, they pass by. They look at it, and they ain't gonna do nothing, you know, to pick it up.

AMY GOODMAN: Malik then walked us down the driveway next to the health center and lifted up a sheet of corrugated metal marked with an X, revealing the dead body underneath.

MALIK RAHIM: Now, his body been here for almost two weeks. Two weeks tomorrow. All right. That this man's body been laying here. And there's no reason for it. Look where we at? I mean, it's not flooded. There's no reason for them to be—left that body right here like this. I mean, that's just totally disrespect. You know? And I mean two weeks. Every day, we ask them about coming and pick it up. And they refuse to come and pick it up. And you could see, it's literally decomposing right here. Right out in the sun. Every day we sit up and we ask them about it. Because, I mean, this is close as you could get to tropical climate in America. And they won't do anything with it.

AMY GOODMAN: Malik, do you know who this person is?

MALIK RAHIM: No. But regardless of who it is, I wouldn't care if it's Saddam Hussein or bin Laden. Nobody deserve to be left here, and the kids pass by here and they're seeing it. I mean, the elderly. This is what's frightening a lot of people into leaving. We don't know if he's a victim of vigilantes or what. But that's all we know is that his body had been allowed to remain out here for over two weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: We're standing right outside the health clinic. Its doors are chained. The building is not seriously damaged. Have you reached people there? What authorities have you talked to to pick up this body?

MALIK RAHIM: We done talked to everyone, from the Army to the New Orleans police to the state troopers to—I mean, we done talked to everybody who we can. I even talked to Oliver Thomas, who is the councilman-at-large, yesterday about this body. He said he was surprised to see that this body is still there. But it's two weeks, two weeks that this man been just laying here.

AMY GOODMAN: As Malik Rahim was speaking, as if on cue, every level of authority he mentioned drove by. There's a dead body right here. Is—who are you with?

SOLDIER: We're with Bravo 15.

AMY GOODMAN: Which is?



SOLDIER: Army, yes. Regular Army.

AMY GOODMAN: There's a dead body right here. Can you guys pick it up?

SOLDIER: I don't think we can pick it up, but we can call the local authorities to come and pick it up.

AMY GOODMAN: This gentleman who lives in the neighborhood said that they have been trying to get—here, let me ask these guys, too. Excuse me. Excuse me. Hi. There's a dead body right here. Can Louisiana state troopers, can you pick it up?

LOUISIANA STATE TROOPER: You need to talk to our public information officer, Ma'am.

AMY GOODMAN: It's been here for two weeks. We filmed it last week, and gentleman over here said he's been trying to get it picked up for two weeks. And Louisiana state troopers, the police, the Army, no one has responded. We're looking right over at it right there.

LOUISIANA STATE TROOPER: You need to talk to our public information officer and contact him at the troop.

AMY GOODMAN: Your name is?

LOUISIANA STATE TROOPER: You need to talk to our public information officer.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you know about the body?

LOUISIANA STATE TROOPER: You need to talk to our public information officer.

AMY GOODMAN: Sir, do you know about the body over there?

LOUISIANA STATE TROOPER: Ma'am, you talk with our public information officer.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you know what they should do to get this body removed?

ROBERT GONZALEZ: I have no idea. I can't tell you. I don't know. There's been several people over here looking at it.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Homeland Security that just went by. Sir, what were you saying?

ROBERT GONZALEZ: There's been several people over here looking at it, but, you know, like I said, I haven't seen anybody take it.

AMY GOODMAN: Several Army guys?

ROBERT GONZALEZ: Army. I've seen police over here looking at it. Seen ambulances looking at it. That's about it.

AMY GOODMAN: That was a part of our coverage 10 years ago in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. That last speaker, Robert Gonzalez, was with the Army National Guard, one of the many different levels of law enforcement that drove by within minutes of us going near that corpse. The body had been there for 13 days at that point.

Well, for more, we go back to New Orleans, Louisiana, where we're joined by Malik Rahim, co-founder of the Common Ground Collective, one of the founders of the Louisiana chapter of the Black Panther Party before that.

Malik, it's hard to ever forget that day. Talk about what happened to that body and also what's happened to your city, New Orleans, in this past 10 years.

MALIK RAHIM: Well, first of all, it's an honor to be on your show once again.

What happened to the body, I would say the next day after it was viewed on Democracy Now!, they picked him up. They picked up that one and other bodies that was laid out in Algiers. All of a sudden, it was like you had waved a magic wand, you know, by bringing awareness to the tragedy of Katrina, that they started making a move.

Over the 10 years, you know, New Orleans is still a story of two cities. You know, if you're white or if you're part of that privileged black class or free people of color class, then, you know, I mean, it's recovered. But if you're poor and part of that African or Maroon class, then it's like the hurricane just happened last year.

Right now we're in the midst of some of the most violent times in the history of this city. And it's only because of the fact that that 10-, that eight-year-old, that six-year-old child, that 12-year-old child, that was in the Convention Center and abandoned in that Superdome, now they are 22, 16, full of rage, because we did not deem—have any trauma counselors there with them through this.

We have unemployment is over 50 percent. And the ones who are blessed with a job, the disparity of wages is that they make three times less than their white counterpart. Public housing is no more. They displaced everyone. The only equal opportunity employer is the drug dealer. So now we've been in the midst of a drug war. And the tails of it is just in the last two days there has been maybe six shootings. So, again, you know, by the fact that our administrations—and I'm talking about on all levels—refused to address the real, pertinent issues of the aftermath of Katrina is the reason why we are in this way, in this dilemma now.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you a question. Kristen McQueary of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board recently wrote a piece about Chicago's financial crisis titled "In Chicago, Wishing for a Hurricane Katrina." She writes, quote, "I find [myself] wishing for a storm in Chicago—an unpredictable, haughty, devastating swirl of fury. A dramatic levee break. Geysers bursting through manhole covers. A sleeping city, forced onto [the] rooftops." She later apologized for offending the entire city of New Orleans and beyond. Your response in this last minute we have with you, Malik?

MALIK RAHIM: Well, again, I think that it was totally disrespectful for a person to say that, because, I mean, as an African American, more of my people was killed in the aftermath of Katrina than at any time in the history of this nation. Never at one time have we lost over a thousand lives. And we lost almost 1,200 just in the Lower Ninth Ward. So I feel offended with it.

AMY GOODMAN: And what would you say to President Obama today as he makes his way to the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans?

MALIK RAHIM: I wouldn't know what to tell him, because of the fact that, you know, our people have seen over six years of President Obama administration, and nothing have changed.

AMY GOODMAN: But they're hailing New Orleans as a great victory, a remarkable trajectory of progress.

MALIK RAHIM: Yeah, again, that's among that white and that privileged black class. But that's only part of this population. And it's not even the majority. That's that 40 percent.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us, co-founder of the Common Ground Collective, and for being there for these 10 years since Hurricane Katrina, not to mention before—Common Ground Collective, which helped bring thousands of people from around the world to help rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina—speaking to us from New Orleans.

News Thu, 27 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Guatemala President Faces Arrest as Business Interests and US Scramble to Contain Uprising

In Guatemala, a judge has ordered that former Vice President Roxana Baldetti must remain in prison while her corruption trial takes place. The ruling comes on the heels of the Guatemalan Supreme Court's decision Tuesday to lift the immunity from prosecution for President Otto Pérez Molina, clearing the way for his impeachment. The court passed the impeachment recommendation along to Congress. A general strike has been called in Guatemala for today. We are joined by Allan Nairn, longtime journalist who has covered Guatemala since the 1980s.


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

AMY GOODMAN: In Guatemala, a judge has ordered former Vice President Roxana Baldetti must remain in prison while her corruption trial takes place. The ruling comes on the heels of the Guatemalan Supreme Court's decision Tuesday to lift the immunity from prosecution for President Otto Pérez Molina, clearing the way for his impeachment. The court passed the impeachment recommendation along to Congress. Miguel Pineda is a spokesperson for the Guatemalan Supreme Court.

MIGUEL PINEDA: [translated] Today, all Supreme Court judges met for an extraordinary session regarding a request for the impeachment of President Otto Pérez Molina. Because of this, they met with the head magistrate of the Second Chamber of the Criminal Court of Appeals, Magistrate Gustavo Dubón. They then studied the case, and after their respective analysis, they established that there exists the possibility of transferring the case to the republic's Congress. Consequently, the request has been passed on to the republic's Congress for its resolution.

AMY GOODMAN: A general strike has been called in Guatemala for today. Well, for more, we're joined by Allan Nairn, longtime journalist who has covered Guatemala since the 1980s.

Allan, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about what is engulfing Guatemala today, the significance of what's happening to the president, the general strike that's called for today?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, it's an uprising, and it could lead to the fall of Pérez Molina. They're calling for a general strike, mass demonstration today. The issue is corruption. But if the movement develops further, if it spreads more fully to the Mayan heartland of the country, then the issue could move from corruption to justice, because the reason the Guatemalan elite, like General Pérez Molina and Vice President Baldetti, have been able to loot the treasury to the tune of more than $100 million, been able to steal for themselves cash which was used for Jaguar cars, plantations, villas, yachts, airplanes, helicopters, was because they took and have maintained themselves in power through mass murder. Pérez Molina was a commander in the northwest highlands during the '80s. He personally helped implement the Ríos Montt program of mass murder—effectively, genocide—against the Mayan population. And that's what the Guatemalan system has been built on.

So if this uprising spreads, if it becomes an even broader, deeper movement, and you move from the question of corruption to the question of justice for mass murder, that can only be resolved by implicating not just Pérez Molina personally, but also the Guatemalan army as a whole institution, also the U.S. government, which has armed, trained and financed that army, backed that program of slaughter, which the American CIA had Pérez Molina on the payroll when he was head of G-2, the intelligence unit. And it also can't be resolved without implicating CACIF, the association of the oligarchy, which backed the army during the slaughter and which, individually, ran its own death squads. The oligarchs, the young men, would go through what was kind of a ritual of bloodying their own hands, and if there was a union-organizing drive at their fathers' factory, some of the boys would get together, and they'd go out and kill the unionists. And those young men who did that in the '80s are now in their fifties and sixties, and they're the leaders of the Guatemalan oligarchy. So the last thing they want to see is a true investigation and bringing to justice of perpetrators. That's the last thing Washington wants to see.

And the situation is basically out of control right now. The U.S. is trying to prop up Pérez Molina. They're trying to keep him in office. CACIF is trying to co-opt and wind down the movement, the demonstrations. But no one knows if they'll succeed, and no one knows where this will lead. And it could lead to fundamental change in Guatemala. There's already talk of postponing the elections, which are due for September 6th, of rewriting the electoral law, of rewriting the constitution. So it's a question of whether popular power prevails or whether the same old perpetrators continue to run the country, and nobody knows what will happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Allan, I want to go back to 1982, when you interviewed Otto Pérez Molina in the area of Quiché of Guatemala during the height of the massacres targeting indigenous communities. At the time, Otto Pérez Molina was known as Tito. This is part of your exchange.

ALLAN NAIRN: [in Spanish, translated] The United States is considering giving military help here in the form of helicopters. What is the importance of helicopters for all of you?

MAYOR OTTO PÉREZ MOLINA: [translated] A helicopter is an apparatus that's become of great importance not only here in Guatemala but also in other countries where they've had problems of a counterinsurgency.

ALLAN NAIRN: [translated] Like in Vietnam?

MAYOR OTTO PÉREZ MOLINA: [translated] In Vietnam, for example, the helicopter was an apparatus that was used a lot.

AMY GOODMAN: Allan Nairn, you were speaking to Otto Pérez Molina. Can you explain what it is he said and who you understood he was at the time?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, he was using the alias "Mayor Tito," Major Tito. He was the commander working out of the town of Nebaj of the Ixil zone, where he was implementing the Ríos Montt program of massacre. The soldiers below him described in detail how they would go into villages, strangle people, make them dig their own mass graves, bomb their houses.

Pérez Molina was telling me in that clip about the helicopters they had and were hoping to get more of from the United States, which they used to attack the villages. The U.S. and Israel armed that program of slaughter. After he did that in the highlands, he rose to become general, become head of G-2, the military intelligence unit, which did disappearances, torture. They even had their own crematorium in the town of Huehuetenango. And the CIA, the American CIA, gave funds to Pérez Molina. They placed North American CIA operatives inside the G-2 as those atrocities were being carried out. And the U.S. was fully behind this.

Now, there's fear in Washington. There's fear among the oligarchs that this whole Pandora's box could be opened, because the people are in the streets. Now the people are in the streets talking about the corruption, but if they start more intensively talking about the blood, if they follow that trail of blood, it leads directly back to Washington. It leads directly back to the suites of CACIF, the oligarchs who own Guatemala.

AMY GOODMAN: When you say CACIF, talking about the oligarchy, what does CACIFstand for? Who are they, actually? Is it equivalent in the United States to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce?

ALLAN NAIRN: It's much stronger than the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It would be as if all of the U.S. billionaires, all of the U.S. corporations came together in one entity and usually spoke with a single voice. For example, after the Ríos Montt genocide trial, in which he was, in an extraordinary achievement—I think a world historic civilizational breakthrough—Guatemala domestically brought to trial its own former dictator, convicted him of genocide, sentenced him to 80 years. The leaders of CACIF, the oligarchs, stood up and demanded, demanded on national TV in a press conference, that that verdict be annulled. They were giving orders to a court. And the High Court of Guatemala, as they usually do, responded to the bidding of CACIF, and they annulled the verdict.

But now the Ríos Montt trial is being renewed. It's due to start again in January. But this is an oligarchy in Guatemala which kills its own unionists, which kills peasants who try to organize the plantations, which works hand in glove with Washington and is now trying to hold onto their power, because, for the first time, it's under threat. I mean, this is a historic moment. It all began in 1954, when the CIA invaded Guatemala, overthrew a democratically elected government and put the army in power. And now, the people have risen.

AMY GOODMAN: We're talking to Allan Nairn, a journalist and activist who has covered Guatemala for decades. Ríos Montt, the trial for Ríos Montt, it's in the midst of happening now, is that right? We were just looking at images of Ríos Montt laid out on a gurney. Explain who he was in the 1980s, his relationship with the U.S. government. At the time, it was President Ronald Reagan, is that right?

ALLAN NAIRN: Yes. Ríos Montt was a dictator who seized power in a coup. He sent his army sweeping through the Mayan northwest highlands. Ríos Montt told me that for every one who is shooting, referring to guerrilla insurgents, there are 10 working behind them, meaning 10 civilians. He considered those civilians who had any feelings of opposition to the rich, to the army, to the government, as legitimate targets for extermination. And that's what they did with—and that's what he did with the help of field officers like Mayor Tito, Otto Pérez Molina.

After he fell, I interviewed Ríos Montt again. And I said to him, "Well, General, you were a big proponent of the death penalty. Do you think that you should be executed for your role in the slaughter of the Mayan population?" And when I asked him that question, Ríos Montt jumped to his feet, and he shouted—and this is Ríos Montt's style of speaking—he said, "Yes! Put me on trial! Put me against the wall! Execute me! But if you're going to try me, you also have to try the Americans, including Ronald Reagan."

And he had a point in that, because he had the full support of the U.S. Reagan personally embraced Ríos Montt, said he was getting a bum rap on human rights, and did everything he could to overcome resistance in the U.S. Congress to send weapons, arms and training. And there was a covert relationship through which the CIA sponsored one generation after another of G-2 assassins. And the G-2 leaders, like General Pérez Molina and also General Ortega Menaldo, General Godoy Gaitán, also received funds from the CIA. So this is a very—Guatemala has been one of the key projects of Washington for decades, one of the countries in the world most under the influence of the U.S. government and defense establishment and corporations, and also, not—I think not unrelated, one of the hungriest countries in the world. They have one of the highest indices of malnutrition in Latin America. The exploitation is as gross as it can get. That's why so many Guatemalans are flooding into America as immigrants looking for work—and now possibly facing the prospect of expulsion at the hands of people like Donald Trump.

But now the system is coming under challenge from people on the ground in Guatemala, but no one knows how far it will go. CACIF, the oligarchs, and Washington are trying to implement a smooth transition, where, you know, one military man, one oligarch, is replaced by another, nothing basic changes. But this could get out of control, and it could lead to a rewriting of the constitution, of the electoral law, and perhaps the beginnings of a kind of popular government, like we see in parts of South America, that starts doing some kind of work for basic justice, for a basic redistribution of wealth, making it possible for workers in the fields who break their backs trying to support their families, making it possible for them to get enough to feed the kids, to give them some education, to get some healthcare.

AMY GOODMAN: Allan, The New York Times editorial today says, "The president [Otto Pérez Molina], whose term expires in January, [and] who enjoys immunity while in office, has refused to heed the calls for his resignation, even as the business establishment and many politicians have turned on him. Of course he deserves his day in court, but right now he is only delaying the inevitable—meaning, quite likely, a prison sentence, along with one for [former Vice President Roxana] Baldetti. That outcome would send a powerful message to Guatemalans who aspire to be governed by honest leaders. It should also be studied, and possibly emulated, in neighboring countries where justice is still too often administered arbitrarily or not at all." That from The New York Times today. Your response?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, one neighboring country that needs justice is the United States. The United States has not yet reached the level of civilization of Guatemala. Guatemala put their own former head of state, their own former dictator, Ríos Montt, on trial and convicted him of genocide. When I was in the courtroom as that verdict was being read out, I was trying to imagine if you could be standing in a court in Texas and hearing a guilty verdict being read out against George W. Bush for the civilians he killed during the invasion of Iraq, or in a court in Illinois hearing a guilty verdict being read out against President Barack Obama for the civilians he killed with his drone strikes. And it's just—I didn't have enough imagination to reach that point. It's inconceivable in the U.S. now. But Guatemala has done that.

Now, they're going after the sitting president for corruption. This is being down with the initiative, the main initiative, of the special prosecutor's office, that was created as a result of agitation by human rights activists in Guatemala who succeeded in getting a special statute implemented. That special prosecutor is backed by the United Nations, and the Attorney General's Office of Guatemala has gone along with them. And now they have arrested the sitting vice president. They're seeking to arrest the sitting president for corruption. But again, the question is if the movement spreads broadly enough, if it reaches the Mayan heartland, if people come into the streets and are not intimidated by CACIF, not intimidated by the army, and they start demanding justice for the years of mass murder, the ongoing economic exploitation at the hands of local oligarchs, but also at the hands of foreign corporations who they brought in—now there's mass looting of the mineral wealth of Guatemala by American and especially Canadian mining companies, and activists who protested against that have been murdered. This could all face change now if the movement goes far enough. And Washington and the rich are desperately trying to stop it.

AMY GOODMAN: Allan, I want to thank you for being with us. Allan Nairn, journalist and activist, has long covered Guatemala. We'll link to your many articles on the Central American country.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, it's 10 years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. We'll go to New Orleans. Stay with us.

News Thu, 27 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Foes Dive for Discarded Records in Abortion Clinic Dumpsters

This story was co-published with NPR's Shots blog.

The scene in front of abortion clinics is often tense, with clinic workers escorting patients past activists waving signs and taking photographs.

But increasingly, another drama is unfolding out back. There, abortion opponents dig through the trash in search of patient information.

Using garbage as their ammunition, anti-abortion activists – who have sometimes been accused of violating abortion seekers' privacy – are turning the tables. They claim it's the clinics that are violating patients' privacy by discarding medical records in unsecured ways.

"Everybody acts like the abortion clinics are this bastion of protection for women's privacy, and they're like the chief offenders of just dumping this stuff willy-nilly," said Cheryl Sullenger, senior policy advisor at Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group based in Wichita, Kansas. "It's so hypocritical."

Abortion rights groups counter that while a small number of clinics have improperly disposed of records, the vast majority take strict precautions to protect patient privacy. It's far more common, they say, for abortion opponents to trespass on private property or try to break into locked dumpsters.

"Oftentimes, the dumpsters are not on public property," said Vicki Saporta, chief executive officer of the National Abortion Federation, the professional association for abortion providers. "These people trespass, their trespasses get reported, and law enforcement doesn't end up prosecuting that level of criminal activity."

Trash is at the center of several disputes involving patient privacy and abortion.

In Kansas City, Operation Rescue says a now-closed clinic improperly discarded records for at least 86 patients. In 2012, the group said it had received files from an informant, some of which included names and phone numbers. The group posted examples on its website.

Jeff Pederson, the former manager of the clinic, said the dumpster was located on private property and was locked. He later learned, however, that his waste company used a common key for all of its locked containers, which may have allowed an outsider to open it.

Pederson said he filed a complaint with local police about trespassing, which was caught on a low-resolution camera on the property, but it went nowhere. The state's investigation into Operation Rescue's complaint against the clinic and its physician remains open, Pederson said.

At least some cases involving abortion-clinic dumpster dives have resulted in complaints to the Office for Civil Rights within the Department of Health and Human Services. The office is charged with enforcing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, which prohibits patients' medical information from being shared without their consent.

The office cited three Michigan clinics in 2010 after abortion opponents said they found records including intake forms, driver's licenses and recovery room reports, as well as fetal remains, in dumpster bins. One clinic blamed a janitorial service, but all subsequently took steps to comply with the law. Separately, Michigan prosecutors charged that one clinic with illegally disposing of patient records. It's corporate owner pleaded guilty to one count, which was dismissed six months later.

Since HIPAA only covers clinics if they transmit health information electronically, the Office for Civil Rights has been unable to pursue some complaints related to abortion records, spokeswoman Rachel Seeger said in an email. A Louisiana abortion clinic that was the subject of a 2014 privacy complaint fell outside the office's jurisdiction for that reason, she said.

Sullenger said groups like hers began rummaging through clinics' trash in part because they were having difficulty getting regulators interested in investigating abortion providers.

Activists see plenty of potential evidence in the material that clinics throw away, which has sometimes fallen into the hands of random passersby.

In 2012, for example, a Kansas woman found more than 1,000 abortion records dumped in a recycling bin outside an elementary school. The clinic had shut down. "I was under the impression that these would not be seen by anyone," its former owner told the Kansas City Star. "I thought that these would be recycled away just like any other papers."

Abortion opponents are as entitled as anyone else to help themselves to clinics' discards, Sullenger said.

"If it's lying out on the curb, it's a free-for-all, you know what I'm saying? That's the way we look at it," she said.

Operation Rescue filed complaints with Texas regulators based on material found by volunteers in the dumpsters of several Texas abortion clinics in 2010 and 2011.

The group collected medical waste, as well as sonograms and documents containing patient names, the name of escorts, dates of abortion, whether the patient had been to the clinic before and the patient's referral source, among other things.

Operation Rescue posted a couple of examples on its website, redacting patient names. "All of your information will be kept very confidential," the clinic documents say. An investigation by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality found that at least two clinics had improperly disposed of aborted fetuses.

Sometimes authorities are reluctant to act even when they are provided with evidence, anti-abortion activists say.

This year, Lynn Mills, a leader of Pro-Life Detroit, went to a shuttered abortion clinic near Flint, Mich., run by the same doctor who had operated the clinic cited in 2010 by the Office for Civil Rights. At the Flint facility,she said she discovered rows of boxes containing patient records from clinics the doctor had owned, as well as piles of syringes on the floor.

She called the authorities, but dispatch recordings show local law enforcement was unsure what to do about her discovery.

Mills was left frustrated. "You would think they'd say, 'Thank you Lynn,' " she said. "Basically, nothing happened."

Michigan health regulators said they "immediately" dispatched an inspector in the area to verify the building was secured and did so again after receiving a second call. They also contacted the Flint police department to see if they had sent a person out too, which they had.

"In short, the building was being used as a warehouse and secured," wrote Michael Loepp, a spokesman for Michigan's Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, in an email.

The records were removed within days, Mills said, and the doctor is no longer licensed to practice in Michigan. The doctor did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Occasionally, activists' complaints about privacy violations have alerted authorities to broader problems involving abortion providers.

Last year, Operation Rescue filed a complaint against an Oklahoma City abortion doctor, saying an "anonymous source" had provided the group with medical records that had been thrown away in unsecured garbage bins.

The group said the records had been discarded before the seven-year period required by law had expired, and that "sensitive documents were placed in the common trash where any person or animal poking through garbage could easily find and uncover such personal and confidential paperwork."

The Oklahoma Attorney General's office investigated and found wrongdoing that went well beyond recordkeeping. The doctor was charged with felonies for providing abortion drugs to undercover agents who were not pregnant. He also agreed to stop practicing medicine.

The doctor's attorney, Mack Martin, said his client was never charged with any privacy violations but has pleaded not guilty to the other charges against him. "Their allegation was that by not having shred the evidence [records], he violated HIPAA," Martin said. "I guess maybe from the strictest technicality that may be true, but normal citizens don't dumpster dive."

Sullenger said she recognizes that sifting through garbage appears unsavory, but she said it won't stop anytime soon.

"Is it a little bit on the sketchy side? Yeah, maybe. Who wants to dig through trash? But if we can find evidence of wrongdoing, we'll dig through trash all day long."

News Thu, 27 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Hundreds of Detained Children and Mothers Could Soon Be Released

Washington - Roughly 1,400 mothers, fathers and children locked up awaiting their asylum hearings could soon be released as the Department of Homeland Security works to comply with a scathing federal ruling against the Obama administration's expanded use of family detention camps.

Advocates estimate about 80 percent of the parents and children currently being detained at family detention facilities have been held for more than the roughly 20 days allowed by the ruling.

Judge Dolly Gee of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California has given the government until Oct. 23 to comply with her order, which requires officials to release children within five days. But she also provided an exception that allows officials to hold families about three weeks under exceptional circumstances like last year's surge of nearly 70,000 families from Central America.

Advocates fighting the policy praised the thrust of Gee's ruling, which found that the administration violated a longstanding agreement on child detention. But they were disappointed about the wiggle room because the extra leeway will allow the government to keep open the controversial centers.

Department of Homeland Security officials indicate they'll continue to operate close to the manner they're currently running. More litigation is possible, as the language in the final order has raised questions about whether the government will be able to hold some mothers and children for longer periods of time.

"I continue to feel let down by the response from DHS, which really seems to be clinging to a model that doesn't work and harms children," said Clara Long, U.S. researcher at Human Rights Watch. "And they have a lot of money sunk in that model. So I guess it's understandable that they want to cling to it."

Federal officials disagreed with the overall findings but added that the language inside the ruling confirms that steps being taken by the administration to cut the time spent at the family detention centers complies with the order.

Gee found that the administration's family detention policy violates an 18-year-old court settlement regarding the detention of migrant children. She described the conditions as "deplorable" and the government's defense of the practice as "fear-mongering."

But deep in Friday's 15-page order, Gee gave the government some space it desperately wanted. She said that children could be held for about three weeks under "extenuating circumstances," like last year's surge of Central American migrants.

"While we continue to disagree with the court's ultimate conclusion, we note that the court has clarified its original order to permit the government to process families apprehended at the border at family residential facilities consistent with congressionally provided authority," DHS spokeswoman Marsha Catron said in a statement.

The average stay now at facilities is currently 20 days, which is used to conduct health screenings and determine whether family members are eligible to remain in the United States, according to federal officials.Under scrutiny from Congress and news outlets like McClatchy, the administration has taken several steps to cut down the detention program. Hundreds of mothers and children have been released. Some had been in detention for over a year.

Luis Zayas, dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin, said that while three weeks is better than a year, it's still too long to detain children.

He specifically cited the judge's concerns about the government's holding facilities on the border. Children and their parents are placed along with other immigrants in cold cells – described by many migrants as hieleras, or iceboxes – which advocates say are used to pressure migrants to agree to deportation.

"We treat our pets better than we treat these detainees in such subhuman conditions," Zayas said.

The Obama administration is currently detaining more than 1,900 parents and children at three detention facilities, two in Texas and one in Pennsylvania.

Advocates said they'll be watching closely to see what the government does. Several unanswered questions remain that could lead to the two sides returning to court. They include:

– Is the 20-day time limit acceptable under current migration levels? Or would it only be acceptable under a larger surge of migrants?

– Does the 20 days start at the time of arrest or when migrants are checked into a family detention center, which can be several days later?

– What happens after 20 days? How will this be enforced?

– Can the government continue to detain mothers and children if they lose their initial asylum request but appeal?

"I think in November it's possible litigants will be back in court again," said Barbara Hines, a University of Texas law professor who litigated the case leading to the closure of the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, in 2009.

News Thu, 27 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Tianjin Explosion Highlights Profits Over People

The toxic dust is still settling in Tianjin, China. At the time of writing, at least 123 people have lost their lives, 70 are missing, and more than 700 are injured. It will take lengthy investigations to discover what exactly happened.

What do we know? A shipment of explosives detonated in a warehouse owned by Ruihai Logistics, a company that specializes in handling dangerous and toxic chemicals, including sodium cyanide, toluene diisocyanate and calcium carbide, all of which pose direct threats to human health on contact. The images emerging convey apocalyptic scenes, and the double explosions drew attention from satellites orbiting the Earth’s atmosphere.

Greenpeace calls Tianjin “the tip of the iceberg… What lies beneath the surface is years of negligence in regards to hazardous chemicals policies and their implementation.” Over the years Greenpeace has campaigned for a toxic-free future, a future without chemicals spilling in to our rivers from textile factories, or non-recyclable electronic products creating mountains of e-waste.

The gravity of the incident in Tianjin may serve to highlight the use of dangerous chemicals throughout Chinese factories. Last year (2014), nearly 70,000 people died while working with toxic chemicals in China. This amounts to a fifth of all occupational accidents globally, as measured by the International Labor Organization. In addition, chemicals used in factories have caused employees to be poisoned, and have led to an increase number of workers developing cancers, or becoming infertile.

The past 15 years has seen a rapid growth in China’s chemicals industry. But, certain producers are known to cut corners, including by constructing plants and commencing production even before a project has been approved. Indeed, Ruihai Logistics operated in Tianjin for months without a licence, and the regulator (who was also, incidentally, the previous Vice Mayor of Tianjin) enabled them to get away with it.

The severity of the Tianjin explosion should be a wake-up call. Regulations forcing corporations to safeguard their employees and protect the environment must be bought into law and then “implemented strictly and effectively,” say Greenpeace. They warn that the failure to do so will result in continuing accidents.

In China, some regulations for workplace safety and chemical management exist. However, they are seldom complied with, and there is tacit acceptance of this non-compliance by State officials. Companies who profit from goods produced cheaply in dangerous conditions throughout countries such as China, are largely based in the Global North. Often, these companies will promote market, rather than regulatory solutions.

Thatcher and Reagan influenced lobbyists continue to propel the idea that “regulation” is a dirty word; it reduces competitiveness, traps corporate capital in a bureaucratic compliance maze – or worse, in responding to enforcement notices and threats of litigation. The idea that regulatory frameworks would demand basic decency for labor standards and practices, while also protecting the environment, is deemed unimportant at best – and mostly, regulations are perceived as clear obstacles to profit.

Regulation ring-fences valuable funds which companies would otherwise spend on innovation, shout the free-marketers. Besides, most corporations are sensible enough; they do the right thing. Don’t they? State enforced regulations just hold them back. Look, the best corporations voluntarily obtain fancy green accreditation proving that they have appropriate administrative procedures to manage waste!

While examples such as Tianjin, as well as lessons from the 2007 and 2008 financial crisis, clearly reveal the perilous risks that corporations and banks will take when left alone and free from regulation, the dogma that free market solutions to economic, social, labor and environmental problems are preferable to regulatory frameworks remains intact. In fact, new trade agreements are being negotiated to entrench this view.

In China, a combination of lack of effective regulation – and a lack of State enforcement of existing regulation – results in regular workplace accidents. Companies who profit from cheap labor in China, simultaneously create complicated webs of parent-subsidiary / contractor relationships to avoid accountability, and generously donate to politicians who often keep regulatory frameworks at bay, or turn a blind eye to non-compliance of regulations already in place.

Initiatives such as the ElectronicsWatch and Workers’ Rights Consortium try to encourage purchasers to demand better workplace conditions and environmental management. The initiatives target specific purchasers based in the Global North, such as universities and local authorities, and work with them to encourage better workplace conditions and environmental management in garment factories, and factories producing electronic products. Both industries rely heavily on chemical materials. Some of these chemicals are carcinogenic and lethal in large and concentrated doses.

To its credit, China has detained top executives of Ruihai Logistics as it investigates the Tianjin warehouse blasts. China is reportedly also investigating the Director of the country's Work Safety Agency, Yang Dongliang, who was also Tianjin's Vice Mayor until 2012 - for failing to protect people from corporate cost-cutting and profit making motivated negligence. The enforced implementation of regulations to protect labor standards and the environment may have prevented this month’s tragic explosions in Tianjin. 

Opinion Thu, 27 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Big Oil Spent $6.2 Million Lobbying California Officials in Year's First Six Months

2015 0827lsWho would have ever thought WSPA was funding the California Driver's Alliance? (Graphic: courtesy of Stop Fooling California)The oil industry spent $6.2 million to lobby legislators and other state officials in California in the first six months of 2015, according to a report just released by the California Secretary of State's Office. 

The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), the largest and most powerful corporate lobbying group in Sacramento, alone spent a total of $1,388,203 in the first quarter of the 2015-2016 session and $1,141,037 in the second quarter of the session. That's a total of $2,529,240 spent on lobbying in six months.

Last year WSPA spent a record $8.9 million on lobbying, double what it spent in the previous year. WSPA spent $4.67 million in 2013. 

Big Oil is currently spending over $1 million per month to fight legislation and regulations to prevent future oil spills, to protect our drinking water supplies from contamination by fracking waste water, from cleaning up the air, and from protecting marine protected areas from offshore oil drilling. 

Oil companies funnel most of their California lobbying money through WSPA, the industry's trade association, but they also spend additional money through their own lobbyists. In addition to their WSPA contributions, Chevron spent $1.5 million lobbying for influence over California laws in 2015's first six month, according to Sarah Rose, Chief Executive Officer of the California League of Conservation Voters, in a letter to supporters. 

"That means two spots on California's top-five list for big-spending lobbyists belong to Big Oil," noted Rose. 

Besides lobbying state officials, the oil industry also spends millions every year on political campaigns. 2014 was a record year for Big Oil spending on lobbying and campaigns. The oil industry spent a combined total of $38,653,186 for lobbying and campaigns in 2014. That is a 129 percent increase from the 2013 total of $16,915,226. 

Last year, the oil industry spent $7.6 million to defeate a measure calling for a fracking ban in Santa Barbara County and nearly $2 million into an unsuccessful campaign to defeat a measure banning fracking in San Benito County during the November 2014 election. Chevron spent $3 million to elect their selected candidates to the Richmond City Council, but they were defeated by a grassroots coalition. 

Big Oil also exerts its influence by setting up Astroturf groups to promote its agenda. Last week, WSPA launched a campaign against climate change bills in the Legislature, according to Rose. Under the thinly-disguised mask of their Astroturf group "California Driver's Alliance," WSPA's ads attacking the legislation are now running on television, internet, and radio in several key legislative districts throughout the state. 

In addition, the oil industry is very effective at getting its lobbyists and friends on regulatory panels. In a glaring conflict of interest, Western States Petroleum Association President Catherine Reheis-Boyd, who is now fighting bills protecting the ocean from offshore oil drilling and oil spills, chaired the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative Blue Ribbon Task Froce to create "marine protected areas" in Southern California. She also served on the MLPA Initiative task forces that developed "marine protected areas" on the North Coast, North Central Coast and South Coast. 

Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) has jointly authored with Senator Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) Senate Bill 788, which would ban new offshore oil drilling in state waters off Tranquillon Ridge, located in a "Marine Protected Area" off the coast of Vandenberg Air Force Base created under the MLPA Initiative. SB 788 is currently in the Assembly Appropriations Committee and is expected to be up for a vote in the State Assembly as the Legislature enters its last month of the legislative session, according to Senator Jackson's office. 

And guess who opposes this legislation? Yes, "marine guardian" Reheis Boyd's WSPA, is leading the charge to defeat the bill. 

WSPA is also opposing two bills sponsored by Senator Jackson that were spurred by the recent Santa Barbara Oil Spill that fouled many miles of coastline on May 19 after after a badly corroded oil pipeline owned by Plains All American Pipeline burst off Refugio State Beach. 

Senate Bill 295 requires annual oil pipeline inspections and would reestablish the State Fire Marshal's role in inspecting federally regulated pipelines. Senate Bill 414, the Rapid Oil Spill Response Act, would help make oil spill response faster, more effective, and more environmentally friendly. 

You can expect Big Oil to continue dumping millions of dollars into stopping these and other environmental bills in the California Legislature, as the industry has done over the past decade. 

Big Oil spent a total of $266 million influencing California politics from 2005 to 2014, according to an analysis of California Secretary of State data by, an online and social media public education and awareness campaign that highlights oil companies' efforts to "mislead and confuse Californians." The industry spent $112 million of this money on lobbying and the other $154 million on political campaigns. 

Big Oil is the largest and most powerful corporate lobby in Sacramento, and as we have discussed, wields its influence by spending its money on lobbying and election campaigns, creating Astroturf groups and getting its officials and friends on state regulatory panels. 

In California environmental politics now, there is no bigger issue than than the capture of the regulatory apparatus by the regulated, including Big Oil, agribusiness, developers, the timber industry and other corporate interests. This is why fishermen, Tribal leaders, family farmers, environmentalists and grassroots Californians must relentlessly expose and fight this regulatory capture in order to restore our rivers, oceans, fisheries and the public trust - and support state and national campaigns including 99Rise and Move to Amend to take the corporate money out of politics. 

News Thu, 27 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Guatemalan Supreme Court Approves Motion to Impeach President

8 May, 2014: Otto Perez Molina, President of Guatemala, attends to presidency assumption of Luis Guillermo Solis in San Jose, Costa Rica. (Photo via Shutterstock)Otto Pérez Molina, President of Guatemala, attends the presidency assumption of Luis Guillermo Solis in San Jose, Costa Rica, May 2014. (Photo: lvalin / a growing political crisis in Guatemala, the country's Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision on August 25 to approve a motion by the attorney general to impeach the president.[1] The attorney general identified President Otto Pérez Molina as the head of a corruption scheme that led to the resignation of the country's vice president and a number of other senior officials. The growing crisis has mired the president's administration for much of this year, but until now the opposition has been unable to get enough votes in congress to lift the immunity granted to Pérez Molina by Guatemalan law.

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As opposition to his continuance in office mounted, Guatemalan President Pérez Molina announced on August 23 through a televised address that he would not resign.[2] He categorically denied all claims that he has ties to the corruption scandal, which led to the May resignation of the country's former vice president, Roxana Baldetti, who was arrested on August 21 and taken to court. The scandal concerns the funneling of taxes into private accounts and offering discounted custom rates for under-the-table payments.[3] Despite growing protests and increasing pressure from those who oppose his continued rule, however, the president continues to reject any responsibility and does not show signs of succumbing to demands for his resignation.[4]

In a statement sent via email to COHA, a U.S. Department of State Spokesperson said the department was closely monitoring the situation in Guatemala. The spokesperson reaffirmed the department's support in "transparent, independent and impartial legal processes" and noted that the CICIG "has been a proven partner of both the government and people of Guatemala in their efforts to promote the rule of law." The spokesperson did acknowledge the recent request by Guatemalan prosecutors for the right to impeach the president, but also urged all parties to respect the schedule of national elections and the Guatemalan constitutional process. Earlier in May, the State Department had issued a press release expressing its support of President Pérez Molina and his administration in efforts to address the issue of corruption in Guatemala. The State Department had also urged Guatemalans to support government institutions in investigations and prosecution of corruption and encouraged the president to work closely with the CICIG. However, the CICG has now identified Pérez Molina as complicit in the corruption scandal.

President Pérez Molina has long been a controversial figure. During the rule of former dictator Efrain Ríos Montt, who is currently facing trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity committed in the 1980s, Pérez Molina held the position of field commander.[5] Although Pérez Molina played a role in the slaughter of innocent Guatemalans during his time at this post, the Guatemalan president could potentially have to step down from office and be tried for a series of criminal acts committed under his own administration.[6]

Guatemala's attorney general and the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a U.N.-backed anti-corruption body, were responsible for the motion to impeach the president that has been approved by Supreme Court.[7] After months of investigation, the CICIG identified Pérez Molina as being at the top of a mafia structure involved in the major swindling of state customs and other resources.[8]According to the findings of the investigation, the structure had control of over 50 percent of the state taxes through this body known as "La Línea," or "The Line," an allusion to the phone number used to establish the contacts that allowed the illicit evasion.

During his televised address, however, the Guatemalan president insisted: ""I reject any claims that I had any involvement in [the scandal] and that I have received any money from the customs fraud operation, my conscience is clear."[9] He apologized for the scandal, but also criticized the international community who he said were "seeking to intervene" in Guatemalan democracy. [10] He did not specify to whom he was referring with this self-serving remark.

Despite these claims by the president, hundreds of Guatemalans returned to the Presidential Palace to protest against the country's corruption and demand Pérez Molina's resignation.[11] There have been weekly protests in Guatemala City demanding his immediate resignation since April, but protestors have announced that demonstrations will gain intensity.[12] The Catholic Church also issued a call for the president's resignation.[13]

The Guatemalan diplomat to the United Nations resigned on August 25, adding to the list of public officials who have left office amid the scandal unraveling.[14] The diplomat, Fernando Carrera, also issued a statement calling for a resignation of the president due to his involvement in "La Línea." While not officially linked to the scandal, five other government ministers have resigned over the past week.[15] Guatemalan Finance Minister Dorval Carias resigned on August 24 as the ministry was preoccupied with forming next year's budget. Communications Minister Victor Corado resigned on the same day and three other ministers stepped down a number of days before. Back in May, the scandal had forced Pérez Molina to fire several senior cabinet ministers. Therefore, members of the Guatemalan government have left office in increasing numbers over the past four months.

It is in this atmosphere of tension and pressure that Guatemala gears toward its upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for September. Pérez Molina cannot run for reelection by law.[16] However, with mounting protests, pressure and the call for impeachment, President Pérez Molina might have to leave office before his term officially ends. Without a resignation or impeachment, though, he would remain in office until a newly elected president's term is initiated at the start of next year.




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News Thu, 27 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Strategies to Make Powerful Social Change - Starting With "Stay Woke"

From left: Bree Newsome, Rev. Osagyefo Sekou and Cornel West speak with reporters during a gathering of activists and others at an event commemorating the first anniversary of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer, in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 9, 2015. Twelve months since his death in this St. Louis suburb touched off a national protest movement, demonstrators have returned to its streets for a series of commemorations this weekend that are expected to last through Monday. (Whitney Curtis/The New York Times)From left: Bree Newsome, Rev. Osagyefo Sekou and Cornel West speak with reporters during a gathering of activists and others at an event commemorating the first anniversary of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri, August 9, 2015. (Photo: Whitney Curtis / The New York Times)

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I have not forgotten Bree Newsome. I will never forget her. She climbed up the flagpole at the South Carolina Statehouse in June and took down the Confederate flag. Following the murder of nine people in a Charleston church, I was unable to write anything that wasn't full of bitterness and despair.

But Newsome refused to allow the body of one of the dead, State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, to lie in state under the flag his murderer used as an emblem of hate-filled values. Across the country, her actions set hearts and imaginations on fire. Months later, we can still learn a lot from that day.

In the days after her action, Newsome was depicted as a heroine, a black Superwoman, a symbol of how we can act when Black Lives Matter. But it's important to remember that Newsome is not a superhero. Her actions remind us that the change we want to see in the world will not come from some super power; it will come from people power. And if we can figure out how to grow our own vegetables and make our own bread, we have enough power to make ourselves some homemade freedom. We already have everything that we need.

Here are a few elements I can identify in Newsome's recipe for homemade freedom:

1. Stay woke.

Newsome's actions were a response to Gov. Nikki Haley's unfulfilled promise to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House. Instead of shutting down in her grief and rage, Newsome stayed awake to Haley's inaction, and she stayed present to her own feelings. Anger is the appropriate feeling to have when our boundaries have been violated. Newsome reminds us that the purpose of anger is to generate the energy we need for self-protective action.

2. Get up early.

The sunrise behind Newsome's descent down the flagpole was not simply photogenic. It also reminds us to take action for change at the earliest opportunity. This prevents us from feeling powerless and shamed as we watch injustice pile upon injustice over time. It also doesn't hurt to spread our message in time for the morning news cycle!

3. Deeds, not pleas, bring change.

It is important that we advocate for policy, sign petitions, and take part in protests that put our bodies on the line. But asking for freedom is not the same as taking action as a free people. Frederick Douglass reminds us not only that "power concedes nothing without a demand," but also that "if we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by [our] labor."

4. Use what you have.

Newsome did not have wealth or a communications team or a political platform. She did have a helmet, a pair of boots, and enough climbing knowledge to scale a 30-foot pole. With these three things, Newsome brought down the Confederate flag at the State House. Her action also brought that flag down from the shelves of stores and removed it from products and television shows.

5. Speak the language you know.

Sometimes we think our acts of conscience will not matter if we don't know what to say or lack the gift of oration that moves people. Our own words are good enough. Before her arrest, Newsome made a statement that was simple and clear: "We removed the flag today because we can't wait any longer. We can't continue like this another day."

6. To go far, go together.

A South African proverb says: "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." Newsome was arrested with a support partner on the ground, a white man named James Tyson. Working together across identities of privilege invites in many resources, including the strength that comes from the reminder that we are dreaming and longing and working together for all of us to be free.

The Confederate flag was up again within an hour of Newsome and Tyson's arrest. But their action has had lasting impact. We should never forget that we can claim some homemade freedom whenever we remember that we are enough, and we already have enough. Like all homemade things, freedom requires creativity, a little skill, and a daily dose of courage. Most of all, it requires us to share our stories of homemade freedom with each other.

Opinion Thu, 27 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Summer ]]> (Lauren Walker) Art Thu, 27 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400 The Hypocrisy of the US Promoting the "Rule of Law" in Africa

While President Obama recently spoke of promoting democracy and the rule of law in Africa, in many African countries, US backing is the only thing keeping kleptocrats in power. However, people in Senegal, Burkina Faso and other nations are beginning to struggle and speak out against their rulers.

Invited guests listen to President Barack Obama speak at the Young African Leaders Initiative summit at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, Aug. 3, 2015. (Zach Gibson/The New York Times)Invited guests listen to President Barack Obama speak at the Young African Leaders Initiative summit at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC, Aug. 3, 2015. (Zach Gibson/The New York Times)

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"There's a lot that I'd like to do to keep America moving. But the law is the law, and no person is above the law, not even the president," said President Obama in a speech to the African Union in July, in which he also quipped that he could "probably" win a third term if the US Constitution allowed it. However, the irony behind Obama's bleeding-heart speech about democracy in Africa is that in many African countries, Western backing is the only thing keeping kleptocrats in the presidential palace.

Obama's empty rhetoric offers an interesting contrast to a reality in which many African countries are racing to remove the pesky two term-limit in their constitutions, as the continent braces itself for its own 2016 election fever. Indeed, no fewer than 13 African countries will have their presidential elections next year - and some leaders have taken steps to make sure their hold on power will not be weakened by something as trivial as the rule of law. While the West airs bland platitudes about respecting the rule of law, African leaders are snuffing democracy with impunity.

With blatant disregard for the popular mood, many African presidents have rid themselves of term limits. From Mozambique's former leader and respected elder, Joaquim Chissano, who quipped that two terms are "not enough" for African leaders, to Rwanda's Paul Kagame, who argues that his country is not stable enough to go on without him at the helm, 11 African leaders have altered their constitutions in the past 15 years alone. Some, like Uganda's Yoweri Museveni or Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, have been their countries' leaders since the days of the Cold War. Others, like Djibouti's Ismail Omar Guelleh, Burundi's Pierre Nkurunziza and Rwanda's Kagame, are aspiring autocrats who have only recently solidified their hold on power by removing constitutional obstacles. "African leaders don't hold elections to lose them," said David Zenmenou of the Institute for Security Studies.

Leapfrogging to Democracy

A recent survey by Afrobarometer, a nonpartisan, pan-African research organization, of 51,600 citizens in 34 countries shows that three-quarters of Africans polled support term limits. Educated Africans, the young and those who are more exposed to the media overwhelmingly reject these autocrats and their systems of patronage.

Boniface Dulani, the author of the report, said that in countries like Zimbabwe, "where President Robert Mugabe has been in office for more than 30 years, 74 percent say that their president should be limited. Burundi, which has been in the news, in 2013, 51 percent of Burundian citizens, said their president should be limited. But, this number has actually increased to 62 percent."

But such aspirations will forever be thwarted if the West (and the United States in particular) curries favor with those leaders Africans want ejected. President Obama's pleas for democracy simply don't stand up to scrutiny, and are revealed as nothing more than crunchy sound bites for the Western media to digest. If Obama were truly interested in keeping Africa on an even keel, he would have stopped funneling money to dictators, young and old alike.

Indeed, on top of an undisclosed amount of military aid, "Western aid pays for half of Burundi's budget, roughly 40 percent of Rwanda's, 50 percent of Ethiopia's and 30 percent of Uganda's." Apart from being faithful Western allies, these countries also share a penchant for human rights abuses, ranging from genocide (in Rwanda and Burundi) to ethnic discrimination and widespread political persecution. For decades, the West has ignored the plight of Africans at the hands of despots either for the sake of undermining the Soviet Union, exploiting mineral wealth or more recently, fighting the infamous "war on terror."

In retrospect, 9/11 was as pivotal for Africans as it was for the United States. Whereas Americans rallied around the red-white-and-blue, African leaders seized the moment to intensify their crackdown on their societies by ... also rallying around the red-white-and-blue. According to journalist Nick Turse, Washington is now militarily active (either with installations or troops) in 90 percent of Africa's 54 countries. Since 2011, countries such as Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda have deployed troops across Africa in support of Washington's 1,000-plus anti-terrorist missions, while their regimes were cracking down on political opponents on trumped up charges of "terrorism."

For others, terrorism became a lucrative opportunity. The pocket-sized country of Djibouti is where the US stationed the largest squadron of drones (outside of Afghanistan) and the place from which the US strikes across the Horn of Africa and across the Bab al-Mandeb strait, into the Middle East. Even if Djibouti's president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, has blood on his hands after winning a contentious third term that sparked violent street riots back in 2011, the United States didn't spare a dime when Guelleh came to the White House in 2014. After a reception in the Rose Garden, Obama proudly announced that he will double aid to Djibouti. So far, Guelleh has refused to rule out whether he will stand for a fourth term in 2016. And when members of Congress cautioned the State Department over Djibouti's human rights record, the country simply made a volte-face and invited China to open a military base on its territory. Apparently, the West has not only supported kleptocrats, but it has also taught them how to move from paymaster to paymaster to suit their interests.

There is hope, however. What once used to be solved with bullets and tanks is being swept away through uprisings. Popular fury led to the ouster of Burkina Faso's president in 2014 and Senegal's in 2012. In the Democratic Republic of Congo in January 2015, protesters forced the government to change a controversial electoral law, while Burundi was the scene of bloody protests this year.

Despite the image some have of Africa as a continent marred by perpetual and intractable instability, the region has evolved politically at a quicker rate than most of the Western world. According to research carried out by the Brookings Institution, Africa has "leap-frogged" into the democratic processes of holding contested elections. "What the United States took a century and a half to accomplish, some African countries have accomplished in less than 40 years," writes Vera Songwe. Even if the task has been at times tortuous, ebbing and flowing in some countries, the young generation is at the forefront in Africa's democratic struggles.

The West's task is simple: take a step back, because sooner or later we will choose our own path.

Opinion Thu, 27 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400