Truthout Stories http://www.truth-out.org Fri, 19 Dec 2014 10:55:45 -0500 en-gb The Millions March: The Post-Ferguson Moment Becoming a Movement http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/28109-the-millions-march-the-post-ferguson-moment-becoming-a-movement http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/28109-the-millions-march-the-post-ferguson-moment-becoming-a-movement

On Saturday, December 13th, tens of thousands of demonstrators (organizers put the number at 70 thousand) – outraged at police brutality and a system of racial inequality - marched in New York City from Washington Square Park, uptown through the heart of the holiday shopping district at Herald Square and then downtown to a rally and speak out at one police plaza. The march was lead by led by family members of those who have lost loved ones to police murder – including family members of Mike Brown, Jordan Davis, Shantel Davis, Sean Bell, Emmitt Till, Alberta Spruill, Ramarley Graham, and Kimani Gray.

What was striking- and encouraging- about this massive action was that it was organized and lead by young people of color- women in particular. The Millions March NYC originally organized by Synead Nichols, 23, and Umaara Iynaas Elliott, 19, in New York City, rapidly turned into an international Day of Resistance with protestors of all ages and ethnicities marching in their communities demanding more accountability in deadly and racially biased police tactics while declaring that #BlackLivesMatter.

Synead Nichols spoke with Acronym TV after the march. "50-70 thousand people were here tonight, showing that we can stand united peacefully. We can have emotions. We can be outraged. We can be angry, because we have a right to be angry. People are dying left and right – our children are dying – it's a travesty. But, we can be here, united and peaceful, and show that we want change. That is what we did today. "

Local organizers stressed that this movement is growing out of the historical moment brought on by the Mike Brown case in and the "incredible bravery" of organizers and protesters in Ferguson, MO who have been in the streets, often facing down a paramilitary police force, for over 100 days and counting.

"This is not something new, this is not just a response to Eric Garner. It is not just a response to Mike Brown. It is a response to building tensions and building issues of racial inequality," according to activist Sabaah Jordan. "The people in Ferguson
really have to be given credit, because it was a handful of young people who saw something wrong and stayed in the street and that was the catalyst that made people wake up and say: 'no, we can't take this anymore.'"

"The inequalities in this system come from white supremacy," according to NYC based activist George Machado. "The system is not broken. It is working perfectly OK. This whole thing needs to go. If we tie everything we win to that, then everything that this (system) is becomes illegitimate. (and then) this world becomes better for everyone, because black liberation is liberation for the entire world."

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News Fri, 19 Dec 2014 10:43:50 -0500
Does the Release of the Cuban Five Prove the US Failed to Destroy Cuba After Decades of Trying? http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/28108-does-the-release-of-the-cuban-five-prove-the-us-failed-to-destroy-cuba-after-decades-of-trying http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/28108-does-the-release-of-the-cuban-five-prove-the-us-failed-to-destroy-cuba-after-decades-of-trying

As a new chapter in U.S.-Cuban relations begins, we host a roundtable discussion about the prisoners released as part of the new deal. Cuba freed USAID contractor Alan Gross and a former Cuban intelligence officer who who worked secretly for the CIA, and the United States released the remaining members of the Cuban Five: Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero and Ramón Labañino. We speak with attorney Martin Garbus of the Cuban Five legal team and broadcast an excerpt from our 2013 interview with the first freed member of the Cuban Five, René González, who describes why he came to the United States to investigate militant Cuban exile groups. We also discuss the significance of the new relationship between the two countries. "Our government has been trying to destroy the Cuban Revolution since day one ... and essentially this is an admission that it didn't succeed," says guest Michael Ratner, co-author of "Who Killed Che?: How the CIA Got Away with Murder." We are also joined by Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, who met twice with Gross while he was detained.

TRANSCRIPT:

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman, on this historic day after the announcement of both President Obama as well as President Raúl Castro on the beginning of normalizations of relations between the United States and Cuba. But not everyone was happy. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida blasted President Obama's new Cuba policy, calling it a, quote, "concession to a tyranny." Rubio is Cuban-American. This is part of what he said.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: The White House has conceded everything and gained little. They gained no commitment on the part of the Cuban regime to freedom of press or freedom of speech or elections. No binding commitment was made to truly open up the Internet. No commitment was made to allowing the establishment of political parties or to even begin the semblance of a transition to democracy. And in exchange for all of these concessions, the only thing the Cuban government agreed to do is free 53 political prisoners, who could wind up in jail tomorrow morning if they once again take up the cause of freedom. ...

These changes will lead to legitimacy for a government that shamelessly, continuously abuses human rights, but it will not lead to assistance for those whose rights are being abused. It is just another concession to a tyranny by the Obama administration, rather than a defense of every universal and inalienable right that our country was founded on and stands for.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Florida Senator—that was Florida Senator Rubio.

We are joined right now by a roundtable of people. In Havana, Peter Kornbluh is with us, head of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive. In Washington, D.C., Robert Muse is with us, who is a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer, an expert relating to U.S. laws with Cuba. Michael Ratner, the president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights. And we're joined by Martin Garbus, who is part of the Cuban Five legal team. Time magazine calls him one of the best trial lawyers in the United States, while the National Law Journal has named him one of the country's top 10 litigators. Your response to what has taken place this week?

MARTIN GARBUS: I mean, it's extraordinary. It's marvelous. I saw Gerardo about three weeks ago in jail.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Gerardo is one of the three remaining Cuban Five.

MARTIN GARBUS: Gerardo Hernández, who had a double life sentence. And it's hard to believe he ever would have gotten out under the American legal system. He was unjustly convicted, as you mentioned before. And it's just extraordinary to—I was looking at a guy over the last many years who—an extraordinary human being who was languishing in a jail, sometimes under solitary confinement. And the idea that he's now out, will be able to build a family with he and his wife, is just wonderful.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kornbluh, what was it like when the three remaining jailed members of the Cuban Five arrived in Havana?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, it certainly was a big moment for quite a few Cubans. Raúl Castro, in his presentation on television yesterday at noon, really led with the story that the counterterrorism heroes, as they're called here in Cuba, were coming home, that Cuba had released a Cuban CIA asset in return and also an American citizen, Alan Gross. And that was essentially his beginning. The normalization of relations with the United States kind of came second, and I wouldn't say it was secondary, but certainly was burying the lede, if you will.

And for Cubans, of course, there's been this campaign here in Cuba, also in the United States and around the world, a solidarity campaign, which Martin has been such a part of, to free these last remaining agents. And just like any other country that I think has people abroad in prison who have represented the government, these men have been away from their families for 16 years. The television last night was filled with images of them reuniting with their families, meeting with Raúl Castro, going to see their old friends. So, it certainly was an important event for Cuba. Certainly, it was. A lot of images on the television, a lot of discussion in the press.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we go to one of the—the first of the Cuban Five who were released, René González, who I interviewed when he returned to Cuba, Martin Garbus, if you could talk about these five men, convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage in the United States, and yet they said they were here, yes, spying, but spying on violent anti-Cuba groups?

MARTIN GARBUS: They were here working with the United States government to try and stop the right-wing groups in Florida from continuing to invade Cuba, through the—sending arms down to Cuba, from flying over the island, and from actually killing people on the island. There was an explosion at a hotel, and many people were killed. So they were working with the cooperation of the American government.

Let me just say one thing before I get into that. There's a lawyer whose name hasn't been mentioned—Lenny Weinglass—who you know very well. And before me, Lenny worked for 10 years on the Cuban Five case, one of the great American lawyers. And whatever the result here is, he certainly is owed something for it, at least an acknowledgment.

AMY GOODMAN: He died a few years ago.

MARTIN GARBUS: He died a few years ago. Wonderful lawyer.

And then, after Elián González in Florida, and at the same time as you had the Bush-Gore vote in Florida, it became necessary to find someone to blame for some killings which occurred in 1996. My client was ultimately arrested and then convicted. He was arrested three-and-a-half years, for allegedly the killings, after the incident occurred, although the American government had all this information for some three-and-a-half years prior to that. And then, ultimately, he's charged. And the first time there's a conviction, the appellate court reverses the conviction, because the jury was unfairly composed of people hostile to the Cuban government. And—excuse me.

AMY GOODMAN: You said that they worked with the U.S. government. Explain.

MARTIN GARBUS: They worked with the U.S. government. They were turning information over to the U.S. government of terrorist activities done by the right wing. And that information was being spread, and there was in fact meetings in Havana between the American government and representatives of the Wasp group who were exchanging information.

AMY GOODMAN: And President Obama said in his address, about the release of these three men, that the release—well, he didn't name Trujillo, the Cuban agent working for the CIA who was held by Cuba for something like 20 years—

MARTIN GARBUS: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: —who was just released yesterday, but he said that that spy for the U.S. had helped give them information that led to the imprisonment of the Cuban Five.

MARTIN GARBUS: Yes, yes, yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn for a moment to René González, to this Democracy Now! exclusive. He was the first of the men to be freed, the Cuban Five, in October 2011, returned to Cuba last year. He joined us on Democracy Now! from Havana, Cuba. And I began by asking him why he did come to the United States to investigate militant Cuban exile groups.

RENÉ GONZÁLEZ: Well, for my generation Cubans, it was part of our development or common experience to have seen people coming from Miami raiding our shores, shooting at hotels, killing people here in Cuba, blowing up airplanes. So, we were really familiar with the terrorist activities that the Cuban people had been suffering for almost four years back then. So it wasn't hard for me to accept the mission of going there and monitor the activities of some of those people, who had been trained by the CIA in the '60s. Some of them had participated in Bay of Pigs. Some of them had gone then—after that, had gone to South America as part of the Operation Condor. And if you look at the history of those people, you can see their link to the worst actions of the U.S. government, be they Iran-contras—even the Kennedy assassination plot was linked to them. So, it wasn't hard for me to accept the mission and to go there to protect the Cuban people's lives, and that's what I did.

AMY GOODMAN: That was René González. He has been now living back in Cuba for a few years, one of the Cuban Five. Now all five are back in Cuba. Less is well known in this country, or certainly in the last 24 hours there's almost no real discussion of who these men are, much more attention paid to Alan Gross, who was the USAID subcontractor who went down to Cuba and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He served five of those years and was released yesterday. Martin Garbus?

MARTIN GARBUS: Robert Gross was a—

AMY GOODMAN: Alan Gross.

MARTIN GARBUS: Pardon me. Alan Gross was a USAID employee. He was sent down with satellite equipment, consistently. He made about six trips down there, sometimes using other people to send equipment. And the equipment was used to break—to allow people on the island to directly communicate with the United States so that the Cuban security networks or the Cuban Internet lines would not pick it up. So it was the setting up of a spy operation within Cuba.

He was supported, because he was Jewish, by Jewish groups. He originally claimed that he was down there working on behalf of Jewish groups to spread information to other Jewish groups in Miami. He ultimately admitted that that wasn't true. He ultimately sued the American government for sending him down there without warning him specifically about what was going to happen to him. So there's very little question any longer that he was sent down by the government. He said he was sent down by the government; the government admitted it. And in America, he's portrayed as something other than that, but that portrayal is wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kornbluh, you met with Alan Gross in prison in Cuba, is that right?

PETER KORNBLUH: Yes, I met with Alan Gross twice over a one-year period for a total of seven hours. He was in a military hospital, a wing of a military hospital that had been converted to a prison. We talked a lot about what he was doing, what he was feeling. He became very angry at his own government for abandoning him here for all these years. It is clear, for the last year, through back channel means, the Obama White House has been negotiating to get him out. My sense of talking to him was that his mental state was so fragile that he might actually go on a hunger strike and die, attempt some type of suicide escape plan and be hurt or killed, or attack a guard.

And all of that would have—anything that happened to him here in a Cuban military prison would have certainly compromised any possibility of the Obama administration moving forward, as it did yesterday, on completely changing—reversing course 180 percent the history of U.S.-Cuban relations, burying the perpetual antagonism of the past and moving forward to a normal relation in the future. So, getting Alan Gross out through this prisoner exchange was extremely important. It really was the first step. And what we saw yesterday is the Obama White House deciding to do an entire package all at the same time, not doing one step at a time to change U.S.-Cuban relations, but getting Alan Gross out, returning the Cuban spies to Cuba, and then essentially ending, to the degree that the president can, the hostility and the aggression in U.S. policy towards Cuba.

AMY GOODMAN: Upon returning home from five years of imprisonment in Cuba, USAID subcontractor Alan Gross addressed reporters in Washington, D.C.

ALAN GROSS: What a blessing it is to be a citizen of this country. And thank you, President Obama, for everything that you have done today and leading up to today. ... But ultimately—ultimately, the decision to arrange—to arrange for and secure my release was made in the Oval Office. To President Obama and the NSC staff, thank you.

In my last letter to President Obama, I wrote that despite my five-year tenure in captivity, I would not want to trade places with him, and I certainly wouldn't want to trade places with him on this glorious day. Five years of isolation notwithstanding, I did not need daily briefings to be cognizant of what are undoubtedly incredible challenges facing our nation and the global community.

I also feel compelled to share with you my utmost respect for and fondness of the people of Cuba. In no way are they responsible for the ordeal to which my family and I have been subjected. To me, Cubanos—or at least most of them—are incredibly kind, generous and talented. It pains me to see them treated so unjustly as a consequence of two governments' mutually belligerent policies. Five-and-a-half decades of history show us that such belligerence inhibits better judgment. Two wrongs never make a right. I truly hope that we can now get beyond these mutually belligerent policies. And I was very happy to hear what the president had to say today.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Alan Gross speaking in his lawyers' offices yesterday in Washington, D.C. We're also joined by Michael Ratner, the president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who co-authored two books on Cuba, one, Who Killed Che?: How the CIA Got Away with Murder, and, as well, another book on the FBI and Che Guevara. Michael, actually, technically, it wasn't a prisoner exchange between Alan Gross and the three remaining members of the Cuban Five. Cuba released Alan Gross on humanitarian grounds?

MICHAEL RATNER: Right. And in Raúl's speech, he was very clear on that. He said, "Under our legal system, what we have done is decide to release Alan Gross on humanitarian grounds." He was not part of the exchange. The exchange was, as Marty has pointed out, for the three Cuban Five members remaining in prison, for freeing this man named Trujillo, who you mentioned, who was the agent that the Cubans had jailed, as well as perhaps what we understand is 53 other, what the U.S. refers to as, political prisoners in Cuba. So, that was the exchange. But Alan Gross was let out on humanitarian grounds. As a broader picture, I mean, you know, when I heard the news first about the Cuban Five, I was just—I almost wept, because that, to me, was the most personal story of outrage.

AMY GOODMAN: They had been held for 15 years, more than.

MICHAEL RATNER: And on a complete—you know, on a case that was not worth anything, as Marty can tell you, as Lenny could have told us before. So I read that, and I found that extraordinary. But I think it should be understood—as Peter said, "finally," for this, after some 50 years—but in fact it's a great victory for the Cuban people and for the Cuban government, because this government, our government, has been trying to destroy the Cuban Revolution since day one, since before day one, and essentially this is an admission that it didn't succeed. Yes, it hurt it. Yes, it made it economically difficult. Yes, it changed it in terms of being an example for the rest of the world, perhaps. But it was unable to destroy it. And in the end, they had to cry uncle, the United States. They tried everything. They tried blowing up airplanes. They tried bombing cafés. And they tried economic—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let's actually go back. It was—it started under President Eisenhower in the last few weeks of his administration, the overall embargo against Cuba, that was then just intensified by President Kennedy. This has gone through 10 presidents.

MICHAEL RATNER: Yes, intensified by President Kennedy, but our listeners should not forget—and many of them were not alive when it happened, unlike Marty and myself—the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, when the U.S. actually tried to overthrow the government of Cuba by landing on the beach in what we call in English the Bay of Pigs. And they failed. And thousands of people were taken prisoners by the Cubans. And after that is when things got very, very—I mean, they were serious then, but at that point, then the embargo was imposed, starting through 1962, with full force. But military actions, terrorism, that just continued up until, as we pointed out, even with Alan Gross and AID still going in there to undermine the government, both physically, like that, as well as economically, which—that we've seen now with the embargo. So, this is really a major, major victory.

Now, the other points I think that are important in Obama's speech and, of course, Raúl's speech, as well—Raúl, as you said, started with the Cuban Five, which shows how important that case was. But in Obama's talk, he talks about diplomatic relations, which we'll see, and then he talks about the embargo and starting to loosen up some aspects of the embargo, giving us a little wider travel, but of course not opening travel fully, which he could do immediately. He could allow you and I to just get on a plane tomorrow as tourists, Amy, and go to Cuba. He didn't do that. He could do a lot more on the embargo. In fact, with licensing, he can probably undercut the embargo completely, almost completely. But he said in that speech, "Well, I have to work with Congress to do it." In fact, he doesn't. So, in fact, he has still a lot to calibrate with regard to Cuba to continue to put pressure on Cuba through ways, or not ways, of lifting the embargo.

And, you know, you ask yourself, why did this happen now? That's one of the questions I think I'd like to hear other people talk about, because I'm not sure. I mean, part of it, of course, is the change in Latin America, and he referred to that. You have progressive, left-of-center and even leftist governments in many countries in Latin America, and Cuba is no longer isolated the way it was in the early '60s, when you had military dictatorships. And maybe to get along in that region, they had to do that. What he also said is, "Well, our policy doesn't work. It didn't work." And, of course, what he claims the policy was, was to bring democracy to Cuba. In fact, it was to destroy the Communist revolution in Cuba, so it couldn't be an example. So now, perhaps, he's buying into the idea if we flood more money into Cuba, maybe we'll be able to subvert the fundamental values of the revolution.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned blowing up an airliner. I want to go to that, to the late Saul Landau's film, Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up, about U.S. support for violent anti-Castro militants. This excerpt details in part how Cuban exiles like Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch teamed up in 1976 to bomb a Cuban airliner—something that they deny now. This is that moment that the Cubana Airlines, with 73 passengers on board, is hit.

CUBANA AIRLINES PILOT: Cubana 455.

AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: Cubana 455, [inaudible].

CUBANA AIRLINES PILOT: We have had explosion. We are descending immediately. We have a fire on board.

AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: Cubana 455, are you returning to the field?

CUBANA AIRLINES PILOT: This is Cubana 455. We are requesting immediately, immediately landing. Close the door! Close the door!

FLIGHT RECORDER: The time is 17:27.

CUBANA AIRLINES PILOT: It's getting worse! Crash landing into the sea!

CBS EVENING NEWS: This is the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.

WALTER CRONKITE: Good evening. Nine days ago, a Cuban passenger jet en route from Barbados to Havana crashed into the sea following an onboard explosion. Seventy-three persons, 57 of them Cuban, were killed.

AMY GOODMAN: That was an excerpt of the film, Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up. We're going to go to break, then come back to this discussion on this day after the historic announcement of the beginning of normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States. Stay with us.

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bethania@truthout.org (Bethania Palma) News Fri, 19 Dec 2014 10:28:39 -0500
Can Obama Lift the Embargo on Cuba Without Congress in Effort to Normalize US-Cuba Relations? http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/28106-can-obama-lift-the-embargo-on-cuba-without-congress-in-effort-to-normalize-us-cuba-relations http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/28106-can-obama-lift-the-embargo-on-cuba-without-congress-in-effort-to-normalize-us-cuba-relations

We look at the details of the new normalized relations between the United States and Cuba, which include an easing of restrictions on banking, investment and travel, and discuss whether President Obama can lift the embargo on Cuba without congressional approval. We speak with Robert Muse, an expert on U.S. laws relating to Cuba and attorney based in Washington, D.C. His recent article published in Americas Quarterly is "U.S. Presidential Action on Cuba: The New Normalization?" We also speak with Michael Ratner about what will happen to the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Joining the discussion live from Havana is Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

TRANSCRIPT:

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we continue our roundtable discussion. Martin Garbus with us here, he's on the Cuban Five legal team; Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights; and in Havana, Cuba, we're joined by Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archives. And we are joined in Washington, D.C., by Robert Muse, who actually just came up from Havana yesterday, a lawyer based in D.C. who's an expert in U.S. laws relating to Cuba. His recent piece published in the Americas Quarterly, "U.S. Presidential Action on Cuba: The New Normalization?"

So, tell us about hearing this news, Robert Muse.

ROBERT MUSE: I'm sorry, I'm having a little trouble hearing you. Could you repeat—

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, tell us about hearing the news—where were you?—about the announcement of the normalization.

ROBERT MUSE: I was having breakfast with Peter Kornbluh in the Hotel Nacional. And we were told that Alan Gross had been—

AMY GOODMAN: In Havana, Cuba.

ROBERT MUSE: That's right, in Havana. And we learned, through—somebody came in with it, had picked up a news release that Alan Gross was being released. And then, we got—we had early access to the fact sheet coming out of the White House on what actually was going to be done.

And I want to compliment the Obama administration on going much larger and further than any of us expected it would go. There was a hope and an expectation that the Obama administration would do some things in the new year, but I must say, thanks to his national security team, they did go further—renewing diplomatic relations, a commitment to renew Cuba's inclusion on the terrorist list, which will conclude in six months, and I think it's pretty much understood that Cuba will be taken off.

The thing that most interests me is the embargo, the commercial embargo on Cuba, and how far the administration will go. It's a little bit unclear. They talk about rule makings of both the Commerce Department and Treasury Department. But you can see the broad outline of what they're doing, and it falls under the heading of adjusting the regulations to more effectively empower the Cuban people.

So, I think it's worth being clear what is contemplated and what is not right now. First, investment in Cuba is still prohibited. They talk about donative remittances to Cuba. So you can give money to the small Cuban private sector to establish businesses, things of that sort, but you can't really invest in Cuba. The U.S. commercial sector will be allowed to sell to Cuba, but in what appear to be quite limited ways right now—agricultural equipment, goods to the small Cuban private sector. That doesn't seem to contemplate equipment or infrastructure development so much as perhaps items that could be sold by the emerging Cuban private sector. Building materials can be sold to Cubans for use in private construction. So, a lot of this is going to depend on how the rules are written, but it's certainly encouraging what the president has done so far.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk—respond to Michael Ratner? Michael, you said you feel that the embargo could be lifted not by an act of Congress, but by the president himself?

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, I was saying that I'd be interested in hearing Peter's view, but, yes, he can issue regulations, as Peter is talking about—

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Muse.

MICHAEL RATNER: —licenses, etc., that would allow a lot more goods, etc., and services, investments in Cuba, without actually getting Congress to move on the embargo. He's only gone a certain distance on that so far. He could go a lot farther. And some examples, I gave you. For example, he could open up travel completely. He could do a number of other things by regulation and licensing. And so, Peter, who's an expert on this—

AMY GOODMAN: Bob.

MICHAEL RATNER: I'd be interested in—Bob, I'm sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Muse.

MARTIN GARBUS: It's hard to—

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to that, Bob?

ROBERT MUSE: Well, Michael is correct that something missing is reciprocity in trade. Since 2000, the U.S.'s farmers have been able to sell agricultural commodities to Cuba. That's broadly defined. It includes everything from chewing gum to wine, can be sold to Cuba. But Cuba can't sell anything to the United States yet. They have allowed U.S. travelers to Cuba to bring back $400 worth of Cuban goods as accompanied baggage. So they have to travel to Cuba, and they bring it back with them. And they can bring up to $100 worth of tobacco and alcohol—rum, of course, is what they'll be bringing. But I would like to see the administration move very quickly to some reciprocity in agricultural sales. Cuba produces sugar. It has a number of agricultural potential for exports to the U.S.

I endorse completely what Michael said, that the president's ability to lift the embargo through licensing and rule making is essentially unfettered. The Helms-Burton Act—and it would require a longer discussion—comes into it at the very end, but the principal role of Congress is going to be to tidy up all the loose ends of permanent trade status for Cuba, investment protection agreements and so on.

Something I would like to alert your viewers to is there's going to be some pushback coming. We do have a Republican Congress now. I would expect to see a number of amendments inserted into appropriations bills that will try to limit presidential discretion in this area. And typically they'll attach it to must-pass legislation, to put President Obama in a very difficult predicament. If he vetoes something he really wants, because it has some objectionable provision relating to Cuba, that's the dilemma they would like to put the president in. And I think it's going to require great vigilance to try to—from various sectors, including the U.S. business community, to try to prevent that happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Muse, aren't Republicans divided, though? I mean, there are the very vocal ones, like the Florida senator, Marco Rubio, who says he's going to stand in the way of nominations, confirming nominations, etc. But you have, for example, politicians in places like Alabama that really want business, agricultural trade with Cuba, and the Chamber of Commerce, you know, the corporations that have felt that they are prevented from going to Cuba, like corporations from other countries around the world, you know, have a leg up on them.

ROBERT MUSE: It's a good point. I think we should be clear that the pro-embargo elements in Congress has become much more bipartisan than it was, say, 10 or 15 years ago. Half the Black Congressional Caucus, which is uniformly Democrat, now vote in favor of the Obama—sorry, of the embargo. That's been a product of very carefully targeted PAC contributions over time. So, there' no—I say that we can expect this because the Congress is now Republican-controlled. That doesn't mean a lot of Democrats don't support the embargo. It just means that senior Democrats, like Pat Leahy, Dick Durbin, who traditionally took out these objectionable amendments in conference, legislative conference, won't be empowered to do that anymore. But it's a misapprehension to think that Democrats in Congress are uniformly in favor of lifting the embargo on Cuba.

AMY GOODMAN: It is interesting to also talk about the U.S. relationship with another part of Cuba. The U.S. has put, you know, Cuba on the U.S. terrorist list. But what about the U.S. property that's actually Cuban property—Guantánamo? Michael, as we begin to wrap up this discussion, what happens with Guantánamo?

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, Guantánamo is there on what we call a bilateral lease, that it's a lease between the United States and Cuba. It's like $4,000 or 4000 pounds of gold or something, dollars in gold. Fidel doesn't cash the checks, or now Raúl doesn't, or the government doesn't. And it takes both parties to break the lease. There should be a demand—there always has been—to return Guantánamo to Cuba. It's part of the sovereign territory of Cuba. It's also, of course, as we speak, a political and legal outrage—still over 139 people there, 70-some cleared for release, and it was essentially run as a torture chamber. It had a black site at Guantánamo. And so now you're seeing this opening with Cuba, and yet you're seeing the United States using this as essentially an offshore detention, interrogation and, at one time, torture facility. So, the demand should be here is to obviously close Guantánamo, for starters, and secondly, to ultimately return Guantánamo to Cuba.

AMY GOODMAN: Talking about global relations, the U.S. relations with Latin America, Peter Kornbluh, Raúl Castro is set to participate for the first time, the Cuban president, in next year's Summit of the Americas in Panama. As we wrap up right now, let's wrap up in Havana, Cuba, where you are, Peter, about the significance of this moment.

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, I think we've got to give a lot of credit to the Latin American nations—Panama, which is hosting the next Summit of the Americas in April, big countries like Brazil and Mexico and Argentina, who have been pushing the Obama administration for years now to normalize relations with Cuba. The Latin American countries basically said to the Obama administration, "We are going to boycott the next summit unless Cuba is included. You are going to be isolated, not Cuba." And so, Raúl Castro has been invited. He has accepted. As part of the package of changes of policy that President Obama announced yesterday, he said, "I am going to the summit." He said, "I'm going to bring some dissidence and voices of democracy with me, but," he says, "I am going." And so, for the first time, you have an opportunity, in 55 years, for the president of the United States and for the president of Cuba to sit around a table, discuss multilateral and bilateral relations.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Peter—Peter, we just have 20 seconds—

PETER KORNBLUH: Currently, yesterday's announcement by both Cuba and the United—

AMY GOODMAN: —but I want to ask about the significance of the pope weighing in on this agreement.

PETER KORNBLUH: The pope was a secret intermediary, an interlocutor. In our book, Back Channel to Cuba, Bill LeoGrande and I write about all the intermediaries and interlocutors over these years. And clearly, back-channel diplomacy led to where we are today. But now we're in a situation, a new era. It's going to be open diplomacy, overt diplomacy and normal communications between Cuba and the United States, hopefully from now on.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kornbluh, I want to thank you for joining us from Havana, from the National Security Archives; Martin Garbus, on the Cuban Five legal team; Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights. And thank you to Robert Muse, joining us from Washington, D.C.

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News Fri, 19 Dec 2014 10:22:47 -0500
The CIA Didn't Just Torture, It Experimented on Human Beings http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/28103-the-cia-didn-t-just-torture-it-experimented-on-human-beings http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/28103-the-cia-didn-t-just-torture-it-experimented-on-human-beings

Human experimentation was a core feature of the CIA's torture program. The experimental nature of the interrogation and detention techniques is clearly evident in the Senate Intelligence Committee's executive summary of its investigative report.

 Military personnel demonstrate equipment used on prisoners on hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, Aug. 20, 2014. (Damon Winter/The New York Times) Military personnel demonstrate equipment used on prisoners on hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, Aug. 20, 2014. (Damon Winter/The New York Times)

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Human experimentation was a core feature of the CIA's torture program. The experimental nature of the interrogation and detention techniques is clearly evident in the Senate Intelligence Committee's executive summary of its investigative report, despite redactions (insisted upon by the CIA) to obfuscate the locations of these laboratories of cruel science and the identities of perpetrators.

At the helm of this human experimentation project were two psychologists hired by the CIA, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. They designed interrogation and detention protocols that they and others applied to people imprisoned in the agency's secret "black sites."

In its response to the Senate report, the CIA justified its decision to hire the duo: "We believe their expertise was so unique that we would have been derelict had we not sought them out when it became clear that CIA would be heading into the uncharted territory of the program." Mitchell and Jessen's qualifications did not include interrogation experience, specialized knowledge about Al Qaeda or relevant cultural or linguistic knowledge. What they had was Air Force experience in studying the effects of torture on American prisoners of war, as well as a curiosity about whether theories of "learned helplessness" derived from experiments on dogs might work on human enemies.

To implement those theories, Mitchell and Jessen oversaw or personally engaged in techniques intended to produce "debility, disorientation and dread." Their "theory" had a particular means-ends relationship that is not well understood, as Mitchell testily explained in an interview on Vice News: "The point of the bad cop is to get the bad guy to talk to the good cop." In other words, "enhanced interrogation techniques" (the Bush administration's euphemism for torture) do not themselves produce useful information; rather, they produce the condition of total submission that will facilitate extraction of actionable intelligence.

Mitchell, like former CIA Director Michael Hayden and others who have defended the torture program, argues that a fundamental error in the Senate report is the elision of means (waterboarding, "rectal rehydration," weeks or months of nakedness in total darkness and isolation, and other techniques intended to break prisoners) and ends—manufactured compliance, which, the defenders claim, enabled the collection of abundant intelligence that kept Americans safe. (That claim is amply and authoritatively contradicted in the report.)

As Americans from the Beltway to the heartland debate—again—the legality and efficacy of "enhanced interrogation," we are reminded that "torture" has lost its stigma as morally reprehensible and criminal behavior. That was evident in the 2012 GOP presidential primary, when more than half of the candidates vowed to bring back waterboarding, and it is on full display now. On Meet the Press, for example, former Vice President Dick Cheney, who functionally topped the national security decision-making hierarchy during the Bush years, announced that he "would do it again in a minute."

No one has been held accountable for torture, beyond a handful of prosecutions of low-level troops and contractors. Indeed, impunity has been virtually guaranteed as a result of various Faustian bargains, which include "golden shield" legal memos written by government lawyers for the CIA; ex post facto immunity for war crimes that Congress inserted in the 2006 Military Commissions Act; classification and secrecy that still shrouds the torture program, as is apparent in the Senate report's redactions; and the "look forward, not backward" position that President Obama has maintained through every wave of public revelations since 2009. An American majority, it seems, has come to accept the legacy of torture.

Human experimentation, in contrast, has not been politically refashioned into a legitimate or justifiable enterprise. Therefore, it would behoove us to appreciate the fact that the architects and implementers of black-site torments were authorized at the highest levels of the White House and CIA to experiment on human beings. Reading the report through this lens casts a different light on questions of accountability and impunity.

The "war on terror" is not the CIA's first venture into human experimentation. At the dawn of the Cold War, German scientists and doctors with Nazi records of human experimentation were given new identities and brought to the United States under Operation Paperclip. During the Korean War, alarmed by the shocking rapidity of American POWs' breakdowns and indoctrination by their communist captors, the CIA began investing in mind-control research. In 1953, the CIA established the MK-ULTRA program, whose earliest phase involved hypnosis, electroshock and hallucinogenic drugs. The program evolved into experiments in psychological torture that adapted elements of Soviet and Chinese models, including longtime standing, protracted isolation, sleep deprivation and humiliation. Those lessons soon became an applied "science" in the Cold War.

During the Vietnam War, the CIA developed the Phoenix program, which combined psychological torture with brutal interrogations, human experimentation and extrajudicial executions. In 1963, the CIA produced a manual titled "Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation" to guide agents in the art of extracting information from "resistant" sources by combining techniques to produce "debility, disorientation and dread." Like the communists, the CIA largely eschewed tactics that violently target the body in favor of those that target the mind by systematically attacking all human senses in order to produce the desired state of compliance. The Phoenix program model was incorporated into the curriculum of the School of the Americas, and an updated version of the Kubark guide, produced in 1983 and titled "Human Resource Exploitation Manual," was disseminated to the intelligence services of right-wing regimes in Latin America and Southeast Asia during the global "war on communism."

In the mid-1980s, CIA practices became the subject of congressional investigations into US-supported atrocities in Central America. Both manuals became public in 1997 as a result of Freedom of Information Act litigation by The Baltimore Sun. That would have seemed like a "never again" moment.

But here we are again. This brings us back to Mitchell and Jessen. Because of their experience as trainers in the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) program, after 9/11 they were contacted by high-ranking Pentagon officials and, later, by lawyers who wanted to know whether some of those SERE techniques could be reverse-engineered to get terrorism suspects to talk.

The road from abstract hypotheticals (can SERE be reverse-engineered?) to the authorized use of waterboarding and confinement boxes runs straight into the terrain of human experimentation. On April 15, 2002, Mitchell and Jessen arrived at a black site in Thailand to supervise the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, the first "high-value detainee" captured by the CIA. By July, Mitchell proposed more coercive techniques to CIA headquarters, and many of these were approved in late July. From then until the program was dry-docked in 2008, at least thirty-eight people were subjected to psychological and physical torments, and the results were methodically documented and analyzed. That is the textbook definition of human experimentation.

My point is not to minimize the illegality of torture or the legal imperatives to pursue accountability for perpetrators. Rather, because the concept of torture has been so muddled and disputed, I suggest that accountability would be more publicly palatable if we reframed the CIA's program as one of human experimentation. If we did so, it would be more difficult to laud or excuse perpetrators as "patriots" who "acted in good faith." Although torture has become a Rorschach test among political elites playing to public opinion on the Sunday morning talk shows, human experimentation has no such community of advocates and apologists.

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News Fri, 19 Dec 2014 09:19:12 -0500
How I Helped Catch an Alleged 9/11 Mastermind - and Lost My Faith in the War on Terror http://www.truth-out.org/progressivepicks/item/28102-how-i-helped-catch-an-alleged-9-11-mastermind-and-lost-my-faith-in-the-war-on-terror http://www.truth-out.org/progressivepicks/item/28102-how-i-helped-catch-an-alleged-9-11-mastermind-and-lost-my-faith-in-the-war-on-terror

Worth Fighting For is primarily the story of Rory Fanning's walk across the United States to raise money for the Pat Tillman Foundation. But in this excerpt, Fanning describes a different journey: from idealistic recruit to conscientious objector.

A CH-47 Chinook helicopter flies over Kabul, Afghanistan, June 4, 2007. DoD photo by Cherie A. Thurlby. (Photo: U.S Army)A CH-47 Chinook helicopter flies over Kabul, Afghanistan, June 4, 2007. DoD photo by Cherie A. Thurlby. (Photo: The U.S Army)

Even the mainstream, corporate-owned Chicago Tribune says that Rory Fanning's Worth Fighting For "shows us the imperial and harmful objective of US foreign policy... [and] a path to a saner society." You can order the book from Truthout today.

Worth Fighting For is primarily the story of Rory Fanning's walk across the United States, from Atlantic to Pacific, to raise money for the Pat Tillman Foundation. But in this excerpt, Fanning describes a different journey: from idealistic recruit who signed up for the US military thinking he could defend his country, to conscientious objector.

I enlisted in the military soon after 9/11. The US response to 9/11 seemed to make sense; if we were attacked, then we should defend ourselves. But because I didn't think eighteen-year-old kids should be the ones dragged overseas to fight the war, I signed up.

If a war was going to be fought, people who knew what they were getting into should fight it. People like me. (Or so I thought.) I wanted to become a Ranger. Black Hawk Down, a movie about a famous Ranger battle in Somalia during the Clinton era (starring Hollywood badass Josh Hartnett), sealed the deal. Dave Matthews Band's "The Space Between" played over the movie trailer. I thought the song was complicated—like me. I was in a space between after college. So I signed over my life.

I entered the army as a specialist. By February 2002 I was polishing boots, learning to shoot, standing at regular attention, and trying to stay sane amid the monotony of basic training. I graduated from basic training, jump school, and the Ranger Indoctrination Program, or RIP. Being broken down was euphoric, in a way. I liked having my nerves deadened via physical punishment. Learning to absorb all types of pain was freedom. I earned the highest physical fitness score in my graduating RIP class. I entered the military overweight and watched the pounds melt off. I could soon see my abs; a fellow Ranger, noticing me in the shower, once said, "You could be a model." Books, TV, sports, and women were eliminated from our lives. Physical fitness became the only way for us to track our personal development—no other growth mattered. I could manage only needing to be good at push-ups, sit-ups, the two-mile run, shooting, road marching, and saying "yes."

My first tour in Afghanistan was spent mostly at Camp Wright in Asadabad—not one of the camps the Department of Defense air-conditioned at the time. It looked like a set from a space adventure movie. There was a tall, dusty, rock-strewn hill behind the camp. It was covered in small bushes that Afghan men and women spent hours digging up, one by one, for a pittance of firewood. This poverty was the most violent thing I saw during my first tour. It was hard watching these people dig and dig for whatever heat those twigs would eventually provide. It was even harder seeing them as a threat. I arrived just after the initial sweep against the Taliban by the Air Force and Special Forces in the months immediately following 9/11. Most Afghans were still trying to decide if we were friends or foes at the time. The camp never seemed like a safe staging spot; we could be attacked from the high ground. And the Taliban—at least that's what the chain of command called them—used the hill to fire rockets at our tents once every few weeks. My ears had never absorbed anything so loud and intimidating. The sound took the air out of my lungs and a hot waxy coating of fear filled the space between my cheeks. But I felt an obligation to breathe deep and feign calm, particularly when I saw my tough-acting squad leader jump out of his skin with anxiety. "Get down! No! Get to the bunker! No! Just get down! Grab your weapons!" he'd scream confusedly as he stumbled out of bed trying to put on his pants. (The attacks usually happened at night.) I learned then that there are only two ranks in the military when being attacked—the composed and the frantic.

The Eleven Charlies were told to counter these attacks by shooting mortars. I was an Eleven Bravo, a regular infantryman. I carried a grenade launcher attached to an M-4, and never had visual targets to fire back at—which relieves me. When it came down to it I realized I didn't have it in me to kill. I knew I would be destroyed forever if I did. My previous experience with killing amounted to shooting one pheasant with a BB gun. Gutting the dead bird, feeling its warm flesh get cooler, made me want to vomit. Why I thought I could kill another human is still a mystery to me.

Why the military thought I should be a Ranger is also confusing.

Eleven Charlies were the mortar men; their blast radius was far less exacting and could be sent out from a much longer distance than from my weapon. The mortar fire was completely indiscriminate. No one knew what the rockets would hit: A small hut? Goats? Goat herders? Kids? Even the thought of hitting "the enemy" felt wrong.

Occasionally someone in another platoon or company would roll over an improvised explosive device (IED). We'd hear stories of legs and arms being blown off, people being cut in half. Back at Bagram Air Base we saw the twisted wreckage of Humvees and pickup trucks—wreckage was usually airlifted back to the base. Some of the guys would respond soberly; others would howl, "I can't wait to kill me some motherfucking haji!"

Most soldiers' deaths in Afghanistan that year involved helicopters. Afghanistan's high altitude and thin air were not compatible with safe helicopter rides. We lost seven guys from the Special Forces in a helicopter crash on my first tour. So these rides were often our biggest concern. We'd squeeze into Chinook transport helicopters with all our gear and no room to move. Each helicopter ride made us wonder if it would be our last. We'd hit a pocket of air, drop thirty feet, and clutch each other tight. We usually flew at night, blacked out and guided by infrared lights, but when we flew during the day we saw a primitive human landscape that starkly contrasted with our technologically advanced helicopters and weapons. Crops grew on terraces that look like giant stairs carved into the mountains. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people live in high-altitude villages nourished by the ledge planting system, chickens, and goats.

If we were sent on quick in-and-out missions, we flew in Blackhawks. We supported the Navy SEALs, Special Forces, and Delta Force on their raids. Most of these missions—in fact, all of mine—were rooted in bad intelligence. We'd be told that a Taliban member was in some village and we'd be sent to extract them. The SEALs would storm into a house while we waited in the front yard. They'd grab an unsuspecting guy along with any other males in the household, throw sandbags over their heads, and take them back to the base with us. Most, I imagine, were let go; others were surely sent to Guantánamo or the like. We often later found out that the person we had targeted in the extraction had been falsely accused by a neighbor after a squabble. We were rarely more than heavily armed, testosterone-filled pawns in village disputes.

The most notable mission I undertook for the US government was to jump into the tri-border area, where Afghanistan meets Pakistan and Iran. The rumor was that we landed in Iran—but that was never confirmed. The idea was to get people talking via satellite phones so we could intercept their calls. It worked. Forty-eight hours later, after we jumped into a desert that may or may not have been in Iran, the CIA captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the guy whose photo with the long, frizzy bed-head and white V-neck T-shirt was all over the news, one of the supposed masterminds behind 9/11. All we did was jump out of a plane in the middle of night and lay in a prone position for twenty-four hours. This, apparently, was enough to get the phones running and reveal Mohammed's position. So we took credit for his arrest and got a bronze service star for the effort.

The Iraq war broke out in the middle of this tour. Once I returned from the end of my first tour, I started to realize that the mission in Iraq—in which I was now obligated to fight—was not what I had signed up for. The chain of command was hoping we'd just lump it in with Afghanistan in the "War on Terror." "Middle Easterners are all the same—religious fanatics. That region is basically one big country, isn't it?" I'd hear. But it became clear that the Iraq invasion was illegal according to the US Constitution.

Congress never declared war on Iraq. We were violating Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. But the Constitution wasn't something I obsessed over. I knew the law rarely applied to the people who held the real power and controlled the money. My big concern was that I now saw myself as an imperialist, a stormtrooper—someone who goes into another country to take other people's resources. There were too many US-supported dictators in the world—Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia, and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, to name a few—for me not to notice that the US only cared about the ones who decided against giving their oil to the West. I didn't want to kill anyone for oil. Killing someone who is trying to do you harm is unnatural enough. Killing someone so rich people can get richer was something entirely different. I didn't want to be an empire builder, a Roman soldier, like the person who killed Jesus. I couldn't square it in my mind.

...

In the first phase of Ranger School I dropped a radio during a patrol exercise and had to spend two hours looking for it while the instructors followed me with crossed arms and taunts. It was cause for a "recycle," meaning I would have to redo that phase. This was a common thing in Ranger School, but I was stunned; I remember fighting off tears. Pat Tillman put his hand on my shoulder after I walked out of the instructor's office with the news and told me he remembered how embarrassed he was riding the bench as a rookie with the Arizona Cardinals. He told me to stick it out.

Waiting for the second phase to begin gave me a lot of time to think about what the military was asking of me. I consumed massive amounts of food trying to recover the nutrients my body had been denied. I was confined to a room full of bunk beds and had limited range, outside of the bunks, an attached TV room, and the Ranger School cafeteria. I felt like a little kid who was grounded for bad grades, with a Ranger School instructor/babysitter occasionally coming by to check in on me.

Ranger School was a mind-erase, a reprogramming exercise, a rite of passage. I'd be a more confident soldier when it was done. I'd be more confident in the presence of the soldiers I would lead and take orders from. I'd be more confident carrying out the mission.

I had just spent nine months intimidating poor people in Afghanistan, a country that may or may not have contained the guy who may or may not have been responsible for the 9/11 attacks. I remembered the young children who stared as we carried heavy weapons through their villages, the men we took from their homes, and the women who watched in horror. I thought about those who had been on the receiving end of our mortar rounds and air strikes. Surely innocent people were just as likely to be hit as the men who shot rockets at us. But why were they shooting rockets at us in the first place? Were they just defending their homes? Men stood in front of their clay homes in some of the most primitive and impoverished villages on earth, forced to grin as Humvees, machine guns, and bombs rolled down their streets. Any signs of disapproval and they'd be subject to the violent whims of the most militarily and technologically advanced country in history. Maybe I was too soft for the military. Maybe I didn't want to lose my heart and kill someone for a cause about which I now felt conflicted. Maybe I didn't want to die or lose my mind. During those two weeks I began to convince myself that it was time to leave.

If I graduated from Ranger School, I'd be forced to lead other men back into Afghanistan or Iraq. Once you get your Ranger tab you're in charge of people. You have to make sure others kill. What is it like to tell others to kill for a cause you don't believe in? If I hadn't already been on a tour in Afghanistan, I probably wouldn't have quit. But I had been. If I had finished, it would have been much more difficult to find a similar opening. I was sure of one thing sitting in that holdover space in Ranger School: I wasn't bringing freedom and democracy to anyone. And as far as I could tell I wasn't making the United States safer for civilians back home.

I had seen enough. I was terrified by what that would mean. After two weeks of thinking and working up the courage, I walked up to a Ranger School instructor and said, "I don't believe in what I am doing anymore. I want out."
I had a good physical fitness record. I had been to Afghanistan. I was from Ranger Battalion, and next to no one from Ranger Battalion left Ranger School. The instructors almost pleaded with me to stick with it. Then they tried to shame me into continuing. "You're going to regret this the rest of your life"—I heard that at least a dozen times. I was soon put on a plane and sent back to Fort Lewis.

Copyright 2014 by Rory Fanning. Not to be reposted without permission of the publisher, Haymarket Books.

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Progressive Picks Fri, 19 Dec 2014 09:10:33 -0500
Violence in Mexico, the US Connection and the New Mexican Revolution: An Interview with John Ackerman http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/28101-violence-in-mexico-the-us-connection-and-the-new-mexican-revolution-an-interview-with-john-ackerman http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/28101-violence-in-mexico-the-us-connection-and-the-new-mexican-revolution-an-interview-with-john-ackerman

December 6, 2014: A march is held for the 43 abducted students. (Photo: Somos El Medio)December 6, 2014: A march is held for the 43 abducted students. (Photo: Somos El Medio)

Academic John Ackerman explores the sources of growing dissatisfaction in Mexico and sheds light on how the US connection perpetuates Mexico's social inequalities, endemic violence and authoritarian government.

December 6, 2014: A march is held for the 43 abducted students. (Photo: Somos El Medio)December 6, 2014: A march is held for the 43 abducted students. (Photo: Somos El Medio)

Like everything we’ve published in 2014, this story was made possible by our readers! Will you join the community that supports Truthout by donating today?

The disappearance and likely massacre of 43 students from the rural teachers' school of Ayotzinapa in Mexico September 26 has provoked shock and outrage internationally.

Within Mexico, in addition to unprecedented levels of public anger, it has raised serious doubts about the sustainability of President Enrique Peña Nieto's mode of government, with its aggressively neoliberal economic program and levels of violence as high or higher than under his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, who initiated the drug war in 2006 with US collaboration.

Professor of law and political science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, John Ackerman explores the sources of growing dissatisfaction in Mexico and sheds light on how the US connection perpetuates Mexico's social inequalities, endemic violence and authoritarian government.

Ackerman is also editor-in-chief of the Mexican Law Review and a columnist for Proceso magazine and La Jornada newspaper. A leading public intellectual in Mexico, he is a frequent contributor to the international media. For the academic year 2014-2015, he is a visiting professor at the Institute of Latin American Studies (University of Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle) and at Sciences Po (PSIA).

Jim Cohen : How long have you been living in Mexico, and what does your work consist of at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM)?

John Ackerman: I've been based in Mexico since 1993. I've been a Mexican citizen since 2000, and you might say as well that I'm a Mexican nationalist. I work at the Institute for Legal Research of the UNAM and teach with the law and political science faculties. One of my classes is on constitutional theory, but it's actually about the Mexican revolution of 1910 and the origins of Mexico's world-historical 1917 constitution.

You're not just a Mexican citizen, but also a nationalist: Could you elaborate on that?

Nationalism is a much-abused term, but I'm using it in what I think is the best sense. In the US or European perspective, it is often associated with ethnic exclusionism, but Mexican nationalism is more of the civic sort - very open, democratic, plural, inclusive and forward-looking.

You emphasize in many of your writings and speeches the positive legacy of the Mexican revolution, and in particular, the 1917 Constitution, whose principles you see as still very pertinent to our times.

Yes. This is the perfect moment for the revival of the principles of the Mexican Revolution, and of the constitution that arose from it. It is a product of an earlier period, prior to the Cold War and even to the Russian Revolution, when social reformers had a much broader menu of options.

The Cold War closed down options on both sides of the divide. In contrast, the constitution that emerged from the revolution is very open and plural. Some of it was directly inspired by the radical rationalist ideals of Flores Magón, an anarcho-syndicalist, as well as Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. In short, in Mexico there is a plural and even subversive understanding of what "liberalism" means. It provides a very useful way to rethink new directions for progressive politics today.

The US political and ideological establishment, and liberal democracy in general, have been left celebrating their "victory" of 1989 without being able to create new visions for the 21st century.

Over the past 20 years, it has become clear that the end of the Cold War has meant more of a defeat for (neo)liberalism than for progressive thought. Many people thought that progressive thought was defeated in 1989 because we no longer had the communist referent and the cleavage in politics that it represented; political discourse is dominated by liberal, or rather neoliberal "democracy." In my view, it's quite the opposite: Liberalism itself has become hollowed out over the past 20 years. It's not so easy to claim that "really existing democracy" is about liberty and freedom when the communist adversary has disappeared.

This "democracy" hasn't gone through any innovation. In a recent speech, Obama declared that his foreign policy is in complete continuity with that of Bush and that the United States must be "just as much of a leader tomorrow as in the 20thcentury" by continuing "to defend the values of freedom, democracy, competition."

This is pure nostalgia. The US political and ideological establishment, and liberal democracy in general, have been left celebrating their "victory" of 1989 without being able to create new visions for the 21st century. As for the left, it has the world open to it. It has more flexibility than in the past because the communist referent was very constraining; one was either for - or against - it.

Today there is complete freedom to explore new possibilities and that is beginning to happen, as we can see in a whole range of struggles, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street to recent movements in Brazil and Turkey.

We are experimenting with new ways of understanding politics and power. There is Podemos in Spain, for instance. The left is ahead of the game, whereas liberal democrats - and I'm not sure how liberal and democratic they are any more - are just playing the same old record over and over again.

That is why what is happening in Mexico today is so powerful. [President Enrique] Peña Nieto, with his reforms, was supposedly the poster child of the international press and foreign investors for a supposedly triumphant liberal democratic project.

For the Financial Times he was the perfect president, "the answer to Chávez" and the "populism" of the South. They even said he was going to revive the "Washington consensus." But after less than two years in office, that project has come tumbling down and been exposed in all its hollowness. The people of Mexico and the world are demanding something else. In Mexico, these demands are made more powerful and pregnant by the revolutionary legacy.

The oil expropriation of 1938 was not about ideology or even so much about oil - it was about labor! It was carried out in response to blackmail by international oil companies, which refused to recognize collective bargaining and Mexican labor legislation.

People are wondering who is going to lead today's uprising in Mexico. How will it be channeled? Will a new political party arise? I'm not so concerned about that, precisely because of the legacy of the Mexican Revolution. When you listen to the people who are taking to the streets today and their leaders, in particular those in the state of Guerrero - they're democratic and humble leaders - they are looking to recover the revolutionary ideals and promises of equality, justice, rational and egalitarian development, sovereignty and separation of church and state. We don't really need a new ideology when so much of it is there already!

The 43 disappeared students of Ayotzinapa were training to be teachers in a rural teachers' school in Guerrero. That state has a particular history of social struggles in which these schools have played an important role. How exceptional, then, is the case of Guerrero?

There are a few dozen such schools in Oaxaca, Michoacán and other states. But Guerrero has been very special ever since the days of independence and the revolution, a particularly intense place of struggle, because it has a more sophisticated political consciousness than elsewhere. It's one of the poorest states in the country, but critical consciousness has very deep roots there. People claim their ties to indigenous traditions, but also to national, revolutionary and independence traditions.

Speaking of these traditions, could you say more about the legacy of President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40), of whom you're an admirer?

Today's "techno-saurs" - that is, technocrats who are actually dinosaurs - think of Lázaro Cárdenas as the representative of the "old guard," as if he were Stalin in person - statist, authoritarian, "populist." He's supposedly a figure of another era, which "modern" Mexico needs to escape . . . through liberal, democratic, market-based reforms. That is an enormous mistake.

Cárdenas is a very special figure. The closest equivalent in the US would be Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was a state-builder and could be even considered the "father" of the modern Mexican state. He gave material form to the promises of the revolution and Mexican independence. Without him, it would be impossible to imagine the exceptional stability of the Mexican regime from 1940 to the present, with elections with alternation of power every six years. Many other Latin American countries have had civil wars and coups. Mexico has been authoritarian, and, since the creation of the Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI) in 1946, neoliberal, elitist and exclusionary, but entirely stable.

The oil expropriation of 1938 was not about ideology or even so much about oil – it was about labor! It was carried out in response to blackmail by international oil companies, which refused to recognize collective bargaining and Mexican labor legislation.

The Mexican Supreme Court threw out their case and [the companies] decided to suspend oil production if they weren't allowed to operate by their own rules. Cárdenas said no - either I accept an enclave in my country or I make my country whole in terms of the rule of law.

If he hadn't expropriated oil in 1938, Mexico would never have been able to defend its sovereignty as it did throughout the 20th century, and subordination to US interests would have advanced much more rapidly. Oil would have been privatized a long time ago; we would have US military bases all over the country today. There would be much more poverty, much less development.

With the birth of the PRI in the year he took office, the revolution was transformed from a project and a compass for political action into pure ideology and state myth-making.

Enrique Peña Nieto, upon entering office in 2012, proclaimed his "Pact for Mexico." One of his central objectives was to declare war on the legacy of the Mexican Revolution and Lázaro Cárdenas. In June 2014, about three months before the students' disappearance, I wrote an article for La Jornada saying that this attack on the Mexican revolution and the Cardenas legacy would have unexpected consequences and suggesting that Peña Nieto might not even be able to finish out his term of office. That is not an implausible outcome.

After Cárdenas left office in 1940, how was his legacy lost? How did the process of growing dependency on the US and US capital advance?

The first step was World War II. Already in the 1930s, Mexico cooperated in the US war economy through a combination of coercion and willingness. But the break from the revolutionary sovereign legacy of Mexico really began in 1946 with President Miguel Alemán (1946-52). The first civilian president after a series of generals, he was a young technocrat and an early neoliberal. With the birth of the PRI in the year he took office, the revolution was transformed from a project and a compass for political action into pure ideology and state myth-making. The Mexican political class, now fully allied with Washington, used the revolution's legacy to support its own legitimacy while undermining in practice all the revolution's principles.

Alemán was famous for purchasing his suits in Hollywood and his Rolls Royce in London. He was an actor of global financial capitalism. He was also perhaps Mexico's most corrupt president to date; the comparison with Peña Nieto is striking.

He was a union-buster who sent the military to break up a strike of the oil workers' union; he attacked the railroad workers' union and placed the corrupt Fidel Velázquez at the head of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), where he remained until his death in 1997. That is how pro-US neoliberal authoritarianism in revolutionary packaging was born.

In contrast, the fable we're told today is that up until the 1980s we had a supposedly nationalistic, anti-American political class, and that the change took place beginning in the late 1980s, with presidents de la Madrid, Salinas and Zedillo. No! These three presidents have followed in Alemán's footsteps.

In Mexico, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, the US will always favor authoritarian stability over democracy fueled by popular movements and demands.

The PRI as such has always been pro-American and has always covered that over with revolutionary mythology. The economic growth in the years of the "Mexican miracle" (1950s and '60s) was very much linked to foreign capital. There was some import substitution industrialization, but never extreme protectionism. All the presidents had close ties with the US government. The US government was complicit in the 1968 student massacre.

What remained unattractive from the dominant US perspective were the PRI's "peak organizations" of unions of workers and peasants, inherited from the revolution. These were top-heavy, highly corrupt and clientelistic, but they did assure some sort of accountability of the politicians to workers and peasants. Progressively since 1946 these popular gains have been peeled away.

The official democratic transition was celebrated in 2000 with the first clean presidential elections, in which the PRI lost to the Party of National Action (PAN). But Calderón of the PAN won an extremely dubious victory in 2006, and there are also doubts about 2012, when the PRI returned to power using lots of material incentives to corrupt the vote.

The so-called "democratic transition" is little more than a separation between the political class and the people. The standard view of Mexico considers the PRI's peaceful acceptance of its loss in the 2000 presidential elections to be proof of the democratic nature of the new regime.

Regarding US policy in Mexico with regard to the drug war, the central objective is to make sure that the violence stays south of the border.

However, the celebration of elections and peaceful alternation of presidential power were already the norm in Mexico. I look at the 2000 election as just another changing of the guard. The new coalition led by the PAN on the basis of "neoliberal spoils" in the early 1990s had to present itself as "different" without empowering citizens in the slightest. The 2000 elections were no more "free and fair" nor less authoritarian than earlier ones, from 1940 on.

How do you see the progressive parties that have come along since then? First the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution, founded in 1989) and, recently, Morena (Movement for National Regeneration), founded by Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his followers, who quit the PRD and condemned it for reproducing the opportunism it claimed to be opposing?

We'll see what happens with Morena, but institutional politics as such has run out of steam. One of its great weaknesses has been its inability to link together social struggles and political action, or to provide adequate connections between the local, national and international dimensions of resistance. The left needs to take stock of these weaknesses if it is to generate new spaces of convergence for a broad range of talented people and interesting proposals, while refusing the corrupt clientelism of the parties, the self-interested "solidarity" of the NGOs and the intolerant sectarian politics of the ultra-left.

How would you characterize the role of the US throughout the transition you've described?

The United States has been trying to make sure that Mexico's transition doesn't "get out of hand." It has always supported the political class and the institutions, while never actively opposing the corruption and the human rights abuses. In Mexico, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, the US will always favor authoritarian stability over democracy fueled by popular movements and demands.

Calderón's war on the drug cartels upon taking office in 2006 caused the levels of violence to spike, which gave the US an opening to provide military and security "aid." How would you fit this recent chapter into the broader story of US military policy?

Calderón's legitimacy problem due to the circumstances of the 2006 election, which pushed him to militarize the drug war, is comparable to George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq after the 2000 elections. Both covered over legitimacy problems by rolling out the military.

Regarding US policy in Mexico with regard to the drug war, the central objective is to make sure that the violence stays south of the border. There's much less interest in reducing the violence as such, or even in cutting the flow of drugs. It's absolutely logical from a US national security perspective: They don't want beheadings and disappeared students north of border; they want them south!

The real problem is more on the Mexican side. The Mexican government has no humanitarian concern about its own people. The Mexican state has assumed the US' priorities in the "drug war," under Peña Nieto, just as under Calderón. The US government would not allow a similar strategy in its own country, precisely because of all the violence it would engender.

The US offers technical, intelligence and direct military support which the Mexican government is happy to receive because it means money, intelligence information and increased power in the hands of those Mexicans who manage the helicopters, the weapons and the intelligence.

There is complicity between Mexican leaders in their impunity and the "national security" concerns of the United States, and that is what leads to this dead-end street.

It gives them enormous power to conduct surveillance and shoot people at will. Those involved want more political power, not less. That leads to complicity between the corrupt, authoritarian Mexican political class and the Pentagon. This has been creating disaster in the country. Neither Obama nor the US Senate have said much about human rights violations or corruption in Mexico - they're off the table - even though it's internationally recognized that Mexico is among the most corrupt countries with the worst human rights violations in the world.

Doesn't the US State Department's website carry information on human rights violations in Mexico?

Yes, there is an annual report on the situation of human rights that they have to do for any country that receives military support, and Mexico is in that report, but that's where it stays.

When Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, Congress tried to impose some conditionality on the reauthorizing of those funds, but that never got very far. There is never clear intervention in favor of human rights and against corruption in Mexico. The word on the street is that the former US ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual (2009-2011) was kicked out because he was too interested in investigating corruption.

In short, there is complicity between Mexican leaders in their impunity and the "national security" concerns of the United States, and that is what leads to this dead-end street in which nobody can move, because the United States is totally invested in the drug war and present on the ground. Recently the Wall Street Journal ran some exposés about how US Marshalls dress up as Mexican Marines for special missions such as the capture of drug lord "El Chapo" Guzmán in February 2014. In 2011, CIA agents were shot and wounded by Mexican federal police in Morelos. Drone flights over Mexican territory began under Obama in 2010.

In Mexico, the United States hasn't dared try a Colombia-type solution with actual military bases, but they do have so-called "fusion centers" throughout the country for intelligence-gathering.

In short then, the Mexicans offer the US what it wants: keeping the violence to the south of the border; the Americans offer the Mexicans what they want, which is power - including power over specific drug gangs, on behalf of other drug gangs.

In the economic domain, it's the same: The Mexican oligarchs are very interested in having good relations with US corporations because it gives them power and influence, and US corporations are also very interested in that relationship because they can insert themselves into the Mexican system and make big profits. Nobody is actually fighting for the Mexican people. The Mexican economic and political transition is comparable to that of Russia, with the same concentration of wealth and power among a handful of oligarchs, starting with Carlos Slim.

What NAFTA has clearly done is destabilize the countryside by making it increasingly difficult for small peasant producers to make a living, while increasing the power of agribusiness.

The transition, in short, has been mostly about the growing isolation of the political class and the concentration of oligarchic power, as both groups get closer and closer to the Pentagon and Wall Street. This has created a sclerotic, lifeless system. Today, with a mass movement building, the system is having a "heart attack." You can get over one heart attack, but the next one may be more deadly - which would be a good thing, because this system needs to die and the prospect of its death raises great hope.

What, in theory, would replace today's system in crisis?

The contemporary opposition movement in Mexico is not based on religious fundamentalism or on fascism, but on radical democratic social liberalism, which traces its source to the Mexican Revolution. That's what is coming to the surface now, and that's why everyone should support the new Mexican Revolution. It's about inclusion, democracy, sovereignty and healthy relations with the United States. Nobody in Mexico is talking about cutting off relations with the US and building walls - they want the walls to come down! They want to support their brothers and sisters in the US. Everything about these new grassroots social forces challenging the existing system of US-Mexico relations is positive - I see almost no risks.

Could you talk about NAFTA and its effects on Mexican society?

I'm not an economist by specialty, but what NAFTA has clearly done is destabilize the countryside by making it increasingly difficult for small peasant producers to make a living, while increasing the power of agribusiness. Its direct effect on Mexico's sluggish economic growth over the past two decades is a separate question that I'm not qualified to answer, but socially it has meant an enormous displacement of people from the countryside and increased migration to the US. Migration has decreased recently, but in the first decade of the 21st century, there were half a million people crossing every year. That in turn has fed narcotrafficking, because in these same regions, the youth need to find some option, and if the militarized border makes migration more difficult, how are you going to make a living?

Reinforcing the border with more walls and Border Patrol agents increases the income of the polleros who take the migrants across. It's gotten harder and more expensive to get across, which increases the role of human traffickers, some of whom are also narcotraffickers and violent assassins.

All of this illustrates why violence in Mexico is so much the result of US policy. Beyond the complicities between dominant economic and political actors on both sides, there is the money of US drug users coming into Mexico and funding the narcos; the laundering of money through the banking system, which the banks themselves encourage, as is well documented. Then you have the tens of thousands of guns crossing the border into Mexico each year, with the backing of the gun lobby. Obama tried a few years ago to institute increased reporting requirements for gun sellers, but it was total window dressing.

The mass deportation of undocumented immigrants from the US also feeds the fire, in two ways. First, as Obama himself said when announcing his recent executive order, the US will now only send back the criminals, which of course will further boost criminality. Second, reinforcing the border with more walls and Border Patrol agents increases the income of the polleros who take the migrants across. It's gotten harder and more expensive to across, which increases the role of human traffickers, some of whom are also narcotraffickers and violent assassins. There's a perfect (or imperfect!) storm brewing; it's hard to imagine that this is sustainable.

Does Mexico, as a partner to NAFTA, still belong to Latin America? What does the North American referent actually mean to Mexico?

Although it borders the US, Mexico - the political class included - has always thought of itself as part of Latin America, and even as a buffer against US imperialism in the region. But since Peña Nieto, the message has been, rather, "Let's not even call ourselves Latin Americans, we are North American!" A few days before his inauguration in December 2012, he wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post (11/23/2012) calling for greater integration and even for "North American energy independence." No Mexican politician, even the most neoliberal, had ever gone so far in speaking of Mexico as part of North America rather than Latin America. I'm against this. Mexico is and should remain a Latin American country.

And yet, if we're going to take North America seriously, let's take it seriously! How many Mexicans live in North America? About 120 million in Mexico and over 30 million in the US. "Non-Hispanic whites" in the US number less than 200 million - only slightly more than 60 percent - and they are very mixed in terms of ethnicity or national origin. In that sense Mexicans make up a much more unified population than whites.

Canada's population is small. If we're going to talk about a North American region, it should take seriously the interests and the democratic vision of Mexicans! There is an enormous potential for solidarity between Mexicans in the US and Mexicans in Mexico. That could really change North America for the better. If it's only the Mexican people battling against its own political class allied with the US, that's a lot of weight on the shoulders of the Mexican people, but if they have the support of Mexicans and others in the US, that could be the way out of the impasse.

Last December 3, protest actions were held in 43 US cities in solidarity with the 43 missing students. This involved not just Mexican-Americans and Latinos, of course. We are reliving the moment of solidarity with Latin America in the '70s and '80s, at the time of the Chilean coup and the Reagan administration's interventions in Central America, only now it involves a close neighbor. Such solidarity can really make a difference.

What would you reply to someone who says that it's not for US citizens to decide how Mexicans run their government and that criticism of the Mexican government simply reproduces imperialist relations?

After the coup d'état in Honduras in 2009, Obama declared that it was hypocritical to criticize the US both for intervening and for not intervening. It was his way of justifying the US's inaction against the coup. My response: The idea that the US can somehow "not intervene" in Latin America is a fantasy! The question is not whether they intervene or not but how they intervene. Militarily? In favor of authoritarian regimes? Or rather in favor of democratic social movements?

Many people have told me that Secretary of State John Kerry doesn't have a minute to think about Latin America because he's too worried about the Middle East. I find this very hard to believe. The US is always fully involved in Latin America; it's just a question of how that involvement is directed. Yes, the US should withdraw all military and security funding for the Mexican government - Colombia also. But instead, let's have a Marshall Plan! Let's support development, progress and democracy, instead of covert CIA missions.

Follow John Ackerman's writings at: www.johnackerman.blogspot.com and Twitter: @JohnMAckerman

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News Fri, 19 Dec 2014 10:07:18 -0500
Can Congress End the Cuba Embargo? Many Republicans Want the Embargo to Fall http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/28100-can-congress-end-the-cuba-embargo-many-republicans-want-the-embargo-to-fall http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/28100-can-congress-end-the-cuba-embargo-many-republicans-want-the-embargo-to-fall

Rand Paul at a book signing event in September of 2011. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)Many establishment-wing Republican presidential hopefuls (but not Rand Paul) slammed the president's move to restore ties with Cuba. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

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A left-right coalition, supported by the president and public opinion, could successfully push Congress to end the Cuba embargo.

Can Republicans nostalgic for the Cold War block President Obama from taking executive actions to improve US diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba? Could a Republican-led Congress vote to end the US embargo? Some Republican leaders were quick to denounce President Obama's announcement that the United States was restoring ties with Cuba. But how many divisions do these Cold War dead-enders control?

On whether Republicans can follow through on threats to block the president, Associated Press is skeptical:

Opponents of President Barack Obama's sudden move to reestablish ties with Cuba has little chance of scuttling his effort in Congress.
[. . .]
But even if they were to pass sweeping legislation to stop what Obama wants to do, he could veto it, and they are not likely to have the votes to override a veto.
[. . .]
Republicans will face pressure from businesses and the farm industry - eyeing opportunities for commerce in Cuba - not to stand in the way of expanded ties.

The Chamber of Commerce spent heavily in the midterm elections, investing $35 million to elect business-minded, predominantly Republican lawmakers. Its president, Thomas J. Donohue, said Wednesday that Obama's actions "will go a long way in allowing opportunities for free enterprise to flourish."


The DNC noted that many establishment-wing Republican presidential hopefuls (but not Rand Paul!) slammed the president's move to restore ties. But, as AP noted:

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who also went to Cuba to accompany [Alan] Gross home, said Obama's move should not be seen as a concession. "My sense is that most of my colleagues feel that we're long past due" in moderating the US stance on Cuba.


House Speaker John Boehner joined the dead-ender chorus of denunciation. But will Boehner be able to control the Republican rank and file? A 2009 CBS/New York Times poll found a plurality of Republicans (60 percent of Americans, overall) thought all Americans should be allowed to travel to Cuba.

Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz said the President's move didn't go far enough:

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), meanwhile, questioned why any restrictions would remain on travel to Cuba for Americans.

"I think there is an issue of freedom," Chaffetz, the incoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a phone interview with The Washington Post.

"It's amazing to me, post-Cold War, that the United States of America will not allow me to travel to Cuba," he added. "I think we should allow all Americans to make those choices. You can travel to North Korea, you can travel to some pretty awful places. Americans should be able to make those decisions all by themselves."

Illinois Republican Rep. Rodney Davis [IL-13] praised the President's move:

US Rep. Rodney Davis hailed an Obama administration move to normalize relations with Cuba, saying the shift has the potential to be good for the Cuban people and for American agriculture.

"What I hope this brings to the American people is the ability to trade with a country that is craving our products and craving assistance from our agricultural sector," the Taylorville Republican said Wednesday. "Illinois stands to gain from leaps and bounds with the ability to sell our crops. The terms of purchasing and selling products are changed in this decision by the president. In the past Cuba would have to pay in advance before the product got there. From what I'm reading there's been some modifications that allows for more normalized trade relations. That really helps out Illinois agriculture."

Recall that a left-right coalition led by Republican Rep. Justin Amash and Democratic Rep. John Conyers almost succeeded in passing a post-Snowden restriction on NSA blanket surveillance against the policy of the administration and the House Republican leadership. A similar left-right coalition supported by the president and public opinion could successfully push Congress to end the Cuba embargo. The Congressional Progressive Caucus - almost half the Democrats in the new House - is fully onboard:

"The president has laid out a promising path forward and now it is up to Congress to act. Congress must lift the trade embargo and normalize travel between our two nations, which are only 90 miles apart. The Congressional Progressive Caucus looks forward to working with President Obama and members of Congress who want to stabilize relations between the U.S. and Cuba."

You can urge your representatives to support President Obama's call for repeal of the embargo here.

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Opinion Thu, 18 Dec 2014 15:12:17 -0500
In El Salvador, 17 Women Imprisoned for Miscarriage Await Pardon http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/28092-in-el-salvador-17-women-imprisoned-for-miscarriage-await-pardon http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/28092-in-el-salvador-17-women-imprisoned-for-miscarriage-await-pardon

Seventeen women, ages 19 to 30 years old at their sentencing, remain in prison in El Salvador as international pressure rises to exonerate them. Most of them suffered miscarriages, premature births or stillbirths; all of them were poor and without access to prenatal care or obstetrical services.

Santa Ana Cathedral, El Salvador. (Photo: Jose Herrera; Edited: LW / TO)Santa Ana Cathedral, El Salvador. (Photo: Jose Herrera; Edited: LW / TO)

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Seventeen women, ages 19 to 30 years old at their sentencing, remain in prison in El Salvador as international pressure rises to exonerate them.

The women were all convicted on the charge of "aggravated homicide" of a newborn. At least one of them underwent a psychiatric evaluation and exhibited intellectual disabilities. Most of them suffered miscarriages, premature births or stillbirths; all of them were poor and without access to prenatal care or obstetrical services; and the majority of them have been sentenced to - and are serving - 30 years in prison.

According to Julia Evelyn Martínez, university professor of economics in El Salvador and social advocate, these women have been wrongly accused and convicted of the crime of murder.

"One needs to understand that all of these cases deal with women who have lived and continue to live in situations of extreme financial need, without social support networks or access to quality health services," Martinez said. "Most of them had obstetrical problems during their pregnancies and suffered miscarriages or went through childbirth without either health or medical care. They arrived at public hospitals unconscious, bleeding, in search of assistance, at which point, in flagrant violation of professional ethics, they were reported, tried and sentenced, first for abortion and then for aggravated homicide, forcing them out of hospital and into prison."

Martínez goes on to describe the legal maneuvering that led to these women's convictions and is keeping them in prison.

"… These women are not accused of abortion, but of aggravated homicide, and therefore are not eligible for pardon. But what they disingenuously forget to say is that all of these women were first accused of abortion, and that in the process of their trial, prosecutors and/or judges made the decision to change the charge to aggravated homicide, in case the prosecution could not present convincing evidence that the deaths of these newborns were intentionally caused by the women.

Abortion is completely banned in El Salvador, no matter what the circumstances. The Constitution was modified in 1999 to include the recognition of life at the moment of conception. According to the Feminist Collective for Local Development in El Salvador (Colectiva Feminista para el desarrollo local de El SalvadorColectiva Feminista para el desarrollo local de El Salvador):

Presently - thanks to the powerful lobby of the Catholic Church, prolife groups and the conservative political right - Salvadoran lawmakers have eliminated all exceptions that would allow a woman to resort to an abortion. Article 133 of the Penal Code in force strenuously condemns any type of abortion. Under the current law, a person who carries out an abortion with the consent of the carrier or a woman who induces an abortion may be condemned to prison with sentences from 2 to 12 years.

Under the law, there is no legal separation between miscarriage or spontaneous abortion and abortion that is induced. So all types of pregnancy interruptions that result in the death of the fetus are potentially considered as homicides. Again from the Collective:

"In addition to the illegality of abortion is the lack of a clear legal definition of what is an abortion and/or pregnancy interruption. Spontaneous abortions and premature deliveries of advanced pregnancies that result in the death of the fetus are considered to have been provoked by the woman and are, therefore, homicides."

In fact, there are many more women in prison for abortion than these 17. According to the Free the 17 Association (Plataforma Libertad para las 17), more than 125 women are imprisoned for that "crime," serving sentences ranging from 11- 40 years.

But for these 17 women, the particulars of their cases and the fact that they were so egregiously mishandled in court should make them eligible for pardon, even under the country's draconian antiabortion laws. The question remains whether the legal switch to accusations of murder can be overcome as well.

Libertad para las 17 and the Feminist Collective have spearheaded the campaign to release the women in El Salvador. In March, they presented a petition to the government requesting a pardon. They call their campaign, "A Flower for the 17" (Una flor por las 17).

Here is a biography of just one of the 17, provided by the Feministas organization in Spain:

Mirian

From the outskirts of Morazan: When the incident occurred in 2001 she was 25 years old. She experienced learning difficulties at school and is illiterate. She had a convulsion when she was 16. According to a psychiatric evaluation that was performed, she exhibits some form of mental retardation.

She was accused without proof of being guilty of the death of the infant she was carrying. The autopsy clearly specified that the cause of the newborn's death was undetermined and that it could not be verified whether it had been alive at the moment Mirian gave birth or whether it had already been dead. Because of her lack of financial resources, Mirian could not pay a lawyer and had a public defender who failed to assert the inconsistencies in the evidence.

Condemned to 30 years in prison, she has served 13 years. (6)

There is a petition asking John Kerry to call upon the Government of El Salvador for the release of the 17.

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News Fri, 19 Dec 2014 10:11:47 -0500
The Senate Drone Report of 2019: Looking Back on Washington's War on Terror http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/28090-the-senate-drone-report-of-2019-looking-back-on-washington-s-war-on-terror http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/28090-the-senate-drone-report-of-2019-looking-back-on-washington-s-war-on-terror

It was December 6, 2019, three years into a sagging Clinton presidency and a bitterly divided Congress. That day, the 500-page executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s long fought-over, much-delayed, heavily redacted report on the secret CIA drone wars and other American air campaigns in the 18-year-long war on terror was finally released.  That day, committee chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) took to the Senate floor, amid the warnings of his Republican colleagues that its release might “inflame” America’s enemies leading to violence across the Greater Middle East, and said:

“Over the past couple of weeks, I have gone through a great deal of introspection about whether to delay the release of this report to a later time. We are clearly in a period of turmoil and instability in many parts of the world. Unfortunately, that's going to continue for the foreseeable future, whether this report is released or not. There may never be the 'right' time to release it. The instability we see today will not be resolved in months or years. But this report is too important to shelve indefinitely.  The simple fact is that the drone and air campaigns we have launched and pursued these last 18 years have proven to be a stain on our values and on our history.”

Though it was a Friday afternoon, normally a dead zone for media attention, the response was instant and stunning.  As had happened five years earlier with the committee’s similarly fought-over report on torture, it became a 24/7 media event.  The “revelations” from the report poured out to a stunned nation.  There were the CIA’s own figures on the hundreds of children in the backlands of Pakistan and Yemen killed by drone strikes against “terrorists” and “militants.”  There were the “double-tap strikes” in which drones returned after initial attacks to go after rescuers of those buried in rubble or to take out the funerals of those previously slain.  There were the CIA’s own statistics on the stunning numbers of unknown villagers killed for every significant and known figure targeted and finally taken out (1,147 dead in Pakistan for 41 men specifically targeted).  There were the unexpected internal Agency discussions of the imprecision of the robotic weapons always publicly hailed as “surgically precise” (and also of the weakness of much of the intelligence that led them to their targets).  There was the joking and commonplace use of dehumanizing language (“bug splat” for those killed) by the teams directing the drones.  There were the “signature strikes,” or the targeting of groups of young men of military age about whom nothing specifically was known, and of course there was the raging argument that ensued in the media over the “effectiveness” of it all (including various emails from CIA officials admitting that drone campaigns in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen had proven to be mechanisms not so much for destroying terrorists as for creating new ones).

There were the new tidbits of information on the workings of the president’s “kill list” and the convening of “terror Tuesday” briefings to target specific individuals around the world.  There were the insider discussions of ongoing decisions to target American citizens abroad for assassination by drone without due process of law and the revealing emails in which participants up to presidential advisers discussed how exactly to craft the exculpatory “legal” documents for those acts at the Department of Justice. 

Above all, to an unsuspecting nation, there was the shocking revelation that American air power had, in the course of those years, destroyed in whole or in part at least nine wedding parties, including brides, grooms, family members, and revelers, involving the deaths of hundreds of wedding goers in at least three countries of the Greater Middle East.  This revelation shocked the nation, resulting in headlines ranging from the Washington Post’s sober “Wedding Tally Revealed” to the New York Post’s “Bride and Boom!

But while all of that created headlines, the main debate was over the “effectiveness” of the White House’s and CIA’s drone campaigns.  As Senator Wyden insisted that day in his speech:

“If you read the many case studies in the executive summary of our report, it will be unmistakable not only how ineffective American air power has been over these years, but how, for every ‘bad guy’ taken out, the air strikes were, in the end, a mechanism for the mass creation of terrorists and a continuing, powerful recruitment tool for jihadist and al-Qaeda-linked organizations across the Greater Middle East and Africa.  If you doubt me, just count the jihadis in our world on September 10, 2001, and today in the areas of Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia where our major drone campaigns have taken place, as well, of course, as in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Then tell me with a straight face that they ‘worked.’”

As with the 2014 torture report, so the responses of those deeply implicated in the drone assassination campaigns and the loosing of American air power more generally in the backlands of the planet put on display the full strength of the American national security state.  It was no surprise, of course, when CIA Director David Petraeus (on his second tour of duty at the Agency) held the usual Langley, Virginia, news conference -- an unknown event until then-Director John Brennan first held one in December 2014 to dispute the Senate torture report.  There, as the New York Times described it, Petraeus criticized the latest report for being “‘flawed,’ ‘partisan,’ and ‘frustrating,’ and pointed out numerous disagreements that he had with its damning conclusions about the CIA’s drone program.”

The real brunt of the attack, however, came from prominent former CIA officials, including former directors George Tenet (“You know, the image that’s been portrayed is we sat around the campfire and said, ‘Oh boy, now we go get to assassinate people.’  We don’t assassinate people.  Let me say that again to you, we don’t assassinate people. O.K.?”); Mike Hayden (“If the world had acted as American air power has done in these years, many people who shouldn’t have gotten married wouldn’t have gotten married and the world would be a saner place for marriage.”); and Brennan himself (“Whatever your views are on our drone program, our nation and in particular this agency did a lot of things right during a difficult time to keep this country strong and secure and you should be thanking them, not undermining them.”).  Hayden, Brennan, and national security, intelligence, and Pentagon officials also blanketed the news and the Sunday morning talk shows.  Former CIA Director of Public Affairs Bill Harlow, who had set up the website ciasavedlives.com to defend the patriotic honor of the Agency at the time of the release of the Senate torture report, repeated the process five years later with the website dontdronethecia.com.

Former CIA Director Leon Panetta repeated his classic statement of 2009, insisting to a range of media interviewers that the drone campaign was not just “effective,” but still “the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership.”  Former President Barack Obama did an interview with NBC News from his new presidential library, still under construction in Chicago, saying in part, “We assassinated some folks, but those who did so were American patriots working in a time of great stress and fear.  Assassination may have been necessary and understandable in the moment, but it is not who we are.”  And 78-year-old former Vice President Dick Cheney, who appeared on Fox News from his Wyoming ranch, insisted that the new Senate report, like the old one, was a “gob of unpatriotic hooey.”  President Hillary Clinton, interviewed by BuzzFeed, said of the report, "One of the things that sets us apart from other countries is that when we make mistakes, we admit them."  She did not, however, go on to admit that the still ongoing drone program or even the wedding air strikes were “mistakes.”

On December 11th, as everyone knows, the mass junior high school shootings in Wisconsin occurred and media attention quite understandably shifted there, 24/7.  On December 13th, Reuters reported that a drone attack in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands, which was “suspected” of killing seven “militants,” including possibly an al-Qaeda sub-commander -- local residents reported that two children and a 70-year-old elder had been among the dead -- was the thousandth drone strike in the CIA’s secret wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

Running a Criminal Enterprise in Washington

It’s not 2019, of course.  We don’t know whether Hillary Clinton will be elected president or Ron Wyden reelected to the Senate, no less whether he’ll become the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in a body once again controlled by Democrats, or whether there will ever be a torture-report-style investigation of the “secret” drone assassination campaigns the White House, the CIA, and the U.S. military have been running across the backlands of the planet. 

Still, count me among the surprised if, in 2019, some part or parts of the U.S. national security state and the White House aren’t still running drone campaigns that cross national borders with impunity, kill whomever those in Washington choose in “terror Tuesday” meetings or target in “signature strikes,” take out American citizens if it pleases the White House to do so, and generally continue to run what has proven to be a global war for (not on) terror.

When it comes to all of this “secret” but remarkably well-publicized behavior, as with the CIA’s torture program, the U.S. has been making up the future rules of the road for the rest of the world.  It has created a gold standard for assassination and torture by green-lighting “rectal rehydration” (a euphemism for anal rape) and other grim acts.  In the process, it has cooked up self-serving explanations and justifications for actions that would outrage official Washington and the public generally if any other country committed them.

This piece, of course, is not really about the future, but the past and what we should already know about it.  What’s most remarkable about the Senate torture report is that -- except for the odd, grim detail like “rectal rehydration” -- we should never have needed it.  Black sites, torture techniques, the abusing of innocents -- the essential information about the nightmarish Bermuda Triangle of injustice the Bush administration set up after 9/11 has been publicly available, in many instances for years.

Those “2019” revelations about drone assassination campaigns and other grim aspects of the loosing of American air power in the Greater Middle East have been on the public record for years, too.  In truth, we shouldn’t be in any doubt about much of what’s billed as “secret” in our American world.  And the lessons to be drawn from those secret acts should be obvious enough without spending another $40 million and studying yet more millions of classified documents for years.

Here are three conclusions that should now be obvious enough when it comes to Washington’s never-ending war on terror and the growth of the national security state.

1. Whatever grim actions are the focus of debate at the moment, take it for granted that they don’t “work” because nothing connected to the war on terror has worked: The coverage of the Senate torture report has been focused on arguments over whether those “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or EITs, “worked” in the years after 9/11 (as in 2019, the coverage would undoubtedly focus on whether drone assassination campaigns had worked).  The executive summary of the Senate report has already offered numerous cases where information gained through torture practices did not produce actionable intelligence or stop terror plots or save lives, though misinformation from them might have helped embolden the Bush administration in its invasion of Iraq.

Bush administration officials, former CIA directors, and the intelligence “community” in general have vociferously insisted on the opposite.  Six former top CIA officials, including three former directors, publicly claimed that those torture techniques “saved thousands of lives.”  The truth, however, is that we shouldn’t even be having a serious discussion of this issue.  We know the answer.  We knew it long before the redacted executive summary of the Senate report was released.  Torture didn’t work, because 13 years of the war on terror has offered a simple enough lesson: nothing worked.

You name it and it failed.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about invasions, occupations, interventions, small conflicts, raids, bombing runs, secret operations, offshore “black sites,” or god knows what else -- none of it came close to succeeding by even the most minimal standards set in Washington.  In this period, many grim things were done and most of them blew back, creating more enemies, new Islamic extremist movements, and even a jihadist mini-state in the heart of the Middle East that, fittingly enough, was essentially founded at Camp Bucca, an American military prison in Iraq.  Let me repeat that: if Washington did it any time in the last 13 years, whatever it was, it didn’t work. Period.

2. In national security and war terms, only one thing has “worked” in these years and that’s the national security state itself: Every blunder, every disaster, every extreme act that proved a horror in the world also perversely strengthened the national security state.  In other words, the crew that couldn’t shoot straight could do no wrong when it came to their own agencies and careers.

No matter how poorly or badly or stupidly or immorally or criminally agents, operatives, war fighters, private contractors, and high officials acted or what they ordered done, each disaster in this period was like a dose of further career enhancement, like manna from heaven, for a structure that ate taxpayer dollars for lunch and grew in unprecedented ways, despite a world that lacked all significant enemies.  In these years, the national security state entrenched itself and its methods in Washington for the long run. The Department of Homeland Security expanded; the 17 interlocked intelligence agencies that made up the U.S. intelligence community exploded; the Pentagon grew endlessly; the corporate “complexes” that surrounded and meshed with an increasingly privatized national security apparatus had a field day.  And the various officials who oversaw every botched operation and sally into the world, including the torture regime the Bush administration created, were almost to a man promoted, as well as honored in various ways and, in retirement, found themselves further honored and enriched.  The single lesson from all of this for any official was: whatever you do, however rash, extreme, or dumb beyond imagining, whatever you don’t accomplish, whomever you hurt, you are enriching the national security state -- and that’s a good thing.

3. Nothing Washington did could ever qualify as a “war crime” or even a straightforward crime because, in national security terms, our wartime capital has become a crime-free zoneAgain, this is an obvious fact of our era.  There can be no accountability (hence all the promotions) and especially no criminal accountability inside the national security state.  While the rest of us are still in legal America, its officials are in what I’ve long called “post-legal” America and in that state, neither torture (to the point of death), nor kidnapping and assassination, nor destroying evidence of criminal activity, perjury, or the setting up of an extralegal prison system are crimes.  The only possible crime in national security Washington is whistleblowing.  On this, too, the evidence is in and the results speak for themselves.  The post-9/11 moment has proven to be an eternal “get out of jail free card” for the officials of two administrations and the national security state. 

Unfortunately, the obvious points, the simple conclusions that might be drawn from the last 13 years go unnoticed in a Washington where nothing, it seems, can be learned.  As a result, for all the sound and fury of this torture moment, the national security state will only grow stronger, more organized, more aggressively ready to defend itself, while ridding itself of the last vestiges of democratic oversight and control.

There is only one winner in the war on terror and it’s the national security state itself.  So let’s be clear, despite its supporters who regularly hail the "patriotism" of such officials, and despite an increasingly grim world filled with bad guys, they are not the good guys and they are running what, by any normal standards, should be considered a criminal enterprise.

See you in 2019.

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Opinion Thu, 18 Dec 2014 12:26:36 -0500
Closing in on ALS? Link Between Lethal Disease and Algae Explored http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/28089-closing-in-on-als-link-between-lethal-disease-and-algae-explored http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/28089-closing-in-on-als-link-between-lethal-disease-and-algae-explored

2014.12.18.Algae.mainResidents of Toledo, Ohio, lost drinking water for days this summer when toxins from a Lake Erie algal bloom were found in the water supply. (Photo: Jeff Reutter / Ohio Sea Grant)For 28 years, Bill Gilmore lived in a New Hampshire beach town, where he surfed and kayaked. “I’ve been in water my whole life,” he said. “Before the ocean, it was lakes. I’ve been a water rat since I was four.”

Now Gilmore can no longer swim, fish or surf, let alone button a shirt or lift a fork to his mouth. Earlier this year, he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

In New England, medical researchers are now uncovering clues that appear to link some cases of the lethal neurological disease to people’s proximity to lakes and coastal waters.

About five years ago, doctors at a New Hampshire hospital noticed a pattern in their ALS patients – many of them, like Gilmore, lived near water. Since then, researchers at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center have identified several ALS hot spots in lake and coastal communities in New England, and they suspect that toxic blooms of blue-green algae – which are becoming more common worldwide – may play a role.

Now scientists are investigating whether breathing a neurotoxin produced by the algae may raise the risk of the disease. They have a long way to go, however: While the toxin does seem to kill nerve cells, no research, even in animals, has confirmed the link to ALS. 

No Known Cause

As with all ALS patients, no one knows what caused Bill Gilmore’s disease. He was a big, strong guy – a carpenter by profession. One morning in 2011, his arms felt weak. “I couldn’t pick up my tools. I thought I had injured myself,” said Gilmore, 59, who lived half his life in Hampton and now lives in Rochester, N.H. 

2014.12.18.GilmoreNew Hampshire native Bill Gilmore, shown with his wife Paula, was diagnosed with ALS in June. (Photo: Bill Gilmore)Three years and many doctors’ appointments later, Gilmore received the news in June that the progressive weakening in his limbs was caused by ALS.

Neither Hampton nor Rochester is considered a hot spot for ALS. Gilmore is one of roughly 5,600 people in the United States diagnosed each year with the disease. The average patient lives two to five years from the time of diagnosis.

There is no cure, and for the majority of patients, no known cause. For 90 to 95 percent of people with ALS, there’s no known genetic mutation. Researchers assume that some unknown interaction between genes and the environment is responsible.

In recent years, some of this research has focused on blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria.

“There’s a growing awareness of the importance of gene/environment interactions with neurodegenerative diseases. There is more interest in examining environmental exposures, including exposures to cyanobacteria, as possible risk factors for sporadic ALS,” said Paul Alan Cox, director of the nonprofit Institute of Ethnomedicine in Wyoming, which focuses on treatments for ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Cyanobacteria – some of the oldest organisms on the planet – can occur wherever there is moisture. Blooms are fed largely by nutrients in agricultural and urban runoff.

Some cyanobacteria produce toxic compounds that can sicken people. In August, hundreds of thousands of people in Toledo, Ohio, were left without tap water for days when toxins from an algal bloom in Lake Erie were found in the water supply.

While the cyanobacteria toxin that prompted the Toledo water crisis can cause diarrhea, intestinal pain and liver problems, other toxins produced by the blue-green algae can harm the nervous systems of humans and wildlife.

Scientists have long suspected that a cyanobacteria toxin could play a role in some forms of ALS. After World War II, US military doctors in Guam found that many indigenous Chamorro suffered from a rapidly progressing neurological disease with symptoms similar to both ALS and dementia. Years later, scientists found the neurotoxin BMAA in the brains of Chamorro people who died from the disease. Cyanobacteria that grow on the roots and seeds of cycad trees produce the toxin.

Cox, a researcher in Guam in the 1990s, hypothesized that BMAA worked its way up the food chain from the cycad seeds to bats to the Chamorro who hunted them. But Cox and his colleagues also found BMAA in the brains of Canadian Alzheimer’s patients who had never dined on Guam’s fruit bats. In patients who had died from other causes, they found no traces of it. The source of the BMAA in the Canadians remains unknown.

Some researchers have suggested that fish and shellfish from waters contaminated with cyanobacteria blooms may be one way that people ingest BMAA. In southern France, researchers suspect ALS cases may be linked to consumption of mussels and oysters. Lobsters, collected off the Florida coast near blooms, also have been found with high levels of BMAA.

Scientists around the world are investigating how the neurotoxin gets into the body and whether it contributes to disease.

“We don’t really know what exposure routes are most important,” Cox said.

New England’s ALS Hot Spots

In New Hampshire, Dartmouth neurologist Elijah Stommel noticed that several ALS patients came from the small town of Enfield in the central part of the state. When he mapped their addresses, he saw that nine of them lived near Lake Mascoma.

Around the lake, the incidence of sporadic ALS – cases for which genetics are not a likely cause – is approximately 10 to 25 times the expected rate for a town of that size.

“We had no idea why there appeared to be a cluster around the lake,” Stommel said.

Based on the link between ALS and the neurotoxin in other parts of the world, Stommel and his colleagues hypothesize that the lake’s cyanobacteria blooms could be a factor.

Across northern New England, the researchers have continued to identify ALS hot spots – a large one in Vermont near Lake Champlain and a smattering of smaller ones among coastal communities in New Hampshire and Maine.

Earlier this year, the researchers reported that poorer lake water quality increased the odds of living in a hot spot. Most strikingly, they discovered that living within 18 miles of a lake with high levels of dissolved nitrogen – a pollutant from fertilizer and sewage that feeds algae and cyanobacteria blooms – raised the odds of belonging to an ALS hot spot by 167 percent.

The findings, they wrote, “support the hypothesis that sporadic ALS can be triggered by environmental lake quality and lake conditions that promote harmful algal blooms and increases in cyanobacteria.”

How people in New England communities could be ingesting the neurotoxin remains largely a mystery. While fish in the lakes do contain it, not everyone in the Dartmouth studies eats fish.

“We’ve sent questionnaires to patients and there’s really no common thread in terms of diet or activities,” Stommel said. “The one common thing that everybody does is breathe.”

In other words, it’s possible that a boat, jet ski or even the wind could stir up tiny particles of cyanobacteria in the air, where people then breathe it in.

Testing the Air for a Neurotoxin

Last August, at Lake Attitash, Jim Haney, a University of New Hampshire biologist, waded knee-deep into swirling green water. Cyanobacteria were blooming at the small lake in the northeastern corner of Massachusetts. Haney had rigged up three vacuum-like devices with pipes, plastic funnels and paper to suck up and filter air near the lake’s surface.

2014.12.18.Konkel.1Scientist Jim Haney and a graduate student prepare to collect air samples at Lake Attitash. (Photo: Lindsey Konkel)He took the filter papers back to his laboratory and measured the cyanobacteria cells, BMAA and other toxins stuck to them.

“We want to know what level lake residents may be exposed to through airborne particles,” said Haney, who is sampling the air at Massachusetts and New Hampshire lakes in collaboration with the Dartmouth team.

Stommel said,“it’s very compelling to look at the filter paper and see it just coated with cyanobacteria.”

At this point, Haney and graduate students are trying to understand under what conditions the toxins might be coming out of the lake and whether the airborne particles are an important route of exposure. Preliminary findings suggest that BMAA and other cyanobacteria cells are being aerolized. “There is potentially a large quantity of cyanobacteria that could be inhaled,” Haney said. He noted, however, that the measurements were taken about eight inches above the water's surface, making it likely that concentrations would be much lower farther away.

While the toxins are likely to be most abundant in the air around lakes, they exist all over the planet, even in deserts.

In 2009, BMAA was even detected in the sands of Qatar. Crusts containing cyanobacteria may lie dormant in the soil for most of the year, but get kicked up during spring rainstorms. Cox and colleagues hypothesized that breathing in toxins from dust might be a trigger for a doubling of ALS incidence in military personnel after Operation Desert Storm.

Near Haney’s workstation at Lake Attitash, a child splashed in the shallow water off a dock. Haney scooped up a cupful of water. He peered at the tiny green particles in the cup that reflect the sunlight, making the mixture resemble a murky pea soup.

“We’ve developed this view of nature as idyllic, which is wonderful, but not everything in nature is benign,” he said. “Rattlesnakes are natural and you wouldn’t get too close to one of those.”

"Proximity Does Not Equal Causality"

The hypothesis that exposure to BMAA may trigger the disease in some people remains controversial.

Researchers have evidence that people living close to lakes with blooms may be at increased risk for ALS. They’ve even found BMAA in the diseased brain tissue of people who have died of neurodegenerative diseases. Nevertheless, “proximity does not equal causality,” said Deborah Mash, a neuroscientist at the University of Miami in Florida.

The big, unanswered question is whether the toxin can actually cause the disease. So far, there’s little evidence to show how it could induce the type of brain changes seen in people with ALS.

Tests of human cells have found that BMAA kills the motor neurons – nerve cells that control muscles – implicated in ALS. Primates fed high levels of BMAA in the 1980s showed signs of neurological and muscular weakness. But the toxin did not kill their motor neurons.

“What is lacking at this point is a clear animal model that demonstrates that BMAA exposure results in ALS-like neuropathy,” Cox said.

So what is a possible mechanism for how the toxin may lead to the disease? The body may mistake BMAA for the amino acid L-serine, a naturally occurring component of proteins. When the toxin is mistakenly inserted into proteins, they become “misfolded,” meaning they no longer function properly and can damage cells.

Cox and colleagues soon will test two drugs in FDA-approved clinical trials. They’re about to enter second-phase testing with L-serine. The idea, explained Sandra Banack, a researcher at the Institute for Ethnomedicine, is that large doses of L-serine may be able to “outcompete” low levels of BMAA in the body, preventing it from becoming incorporated into proteins.

For ALS patients like Gilmore, the research can’t come soon enough. “If they can figure out a cause, then hopefully they can find a cure,” Gilmore said.

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News Thu, 18 Dec 2014 11:58:28 -0500