News http://www.truth-out.org Thu, 02 Jul 2015 14:17:32 -0400 en-gb How the Pope Is Revving Up Climate Action in LA's Most Polluted Neighborhood http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31711-how-the-pope-is-revving-up-climate-action-in-la-s-most-polluted-neighborhood http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31711-how-the-pope-is-revving-up-climate-action-in-la-s-most-polluted-neighborhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Moment of Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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News Thu, 02 Jul 2015 14:02:49 -0400
What a Trial in Pakistan Reveals About Women Who Choose Fundamentalist Islam http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31695-what-a-trial-in-pakistan-reveals-about-women-who-choose-fundamentalist-islam http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31695-what-a-trial-in-pakistan-reveals-about-women-who-choose-fundamentalist-islam

Uzma Qayyum's controversial case set her against the men who would rescue her. Qayyum's case reveals the heady mixture of empowerment, escape, and militant purpose offered to girls around the world by the all-female cadres of extremist groups. The ironies of the case are worth examining. This story is based on my conversations with the attorneys, Muhammad Haider Imtiaz and Owais Awan, and Sheikh Abdul Qayyum.

Covered in a black burqa, Hameeda Sarfraz, 19, leads a class on the Koran for local children at her home in a village about 50 miles from Islamabad, Pakistan, on July 21, 2007. Sarfraz is an alumna of the now bullet-ridden Jamia Hafsa Islamic school for girls in the capital. (Photo: Tomas Munita/The New York Times) Covered in a black burqa, Hameeda Sarfraz, 19, leads a class on the Koran for local children at her home in a village about 50 miles from Islamabad, Pakistan, on July 21, 2007. Sarfraz is an alumna of the now bullet-ridden Jamia Hafsa Islamic school for girls in the capital. (Photo: Tomas Munita/The New York Times)

"I have settled the matters with my parents and intend to go with them. I [can] be sent with my father, Sheikh Abdul Qayyum, petitioner. I am making this statement with my free consent and will." This statement was uttered by 26-year-old Uzma Qayyum to the judge in an Islamabad Sessions Court earlier this year. The court proceeding, whose end was marked by these words, had centered on the right of Uzma Qayyum to remain at Jamia Hafsa, a women's religious seminary affiliated with Islamabad's Red Mosque. In his petition before the Human Rights Cell of the Supreme Court, Sheikh Abdul Qayyum had alleged that his daughter had been "indoctrinated with extremist ideologies by Maulana Abdul Aziz and his wife Umme-Hassaan," the leaders of the Red Mosque and Jamia Hafsa, who together command the support of thousands of students, male and female. The pair also have a history of standoffs with the Pakistani military, which conducted a bloody raid on their compound in 2007. A few months before the court announced its judgment in Uzma's case, Jamia Hafsa had also declared its allegiance to the extremist Islamic State (ISIS).

Uzma Qayyum's case reveals the heady mixture of empowerment, escape, and militant purpose offered to girls around the world by the all-female cadres of extremist groups. The ironies of the case are worth examining. On one side was Uzma Qayyum, an unmarried Muslim girl, and Jamia Hafsa, a militant religious seminary, together arguing for the right of young women to choose their occupation. On the other stood Uzma's father and his young attorneys, arguing that, based on Pakistani law and precedent, a court must compel an unmarried woman to return to her father's custody, since he is, under Islamic law, her legal guardian.

This story is based on my conversations with the attorneys, Muhammad Haider Imtiaz and Owais Awan, and Sheikh Abdul Qayyum.

The Red Mosque

In the final days of 2014, the murder of almost 150 schoolchildren in Peshawar sat heavily on a grieving Pakistan. On December 16, a Tuesday, seven gunmen cut through a wire fence that enclosed the grounds of the Army Public School and Degree College and began killing students and teachers. The siege of the school lasted for hours, and Pakistan, courtesy of its many 24-hour news channels, watched in horror as events unfolded live. In the days that followed, the small coffins of schoolchildren would be an admonition against apathy, and an accusation against ordinary Pakistanis who had looked away for far too long, allowing their children to become the targets of terrorists. Within hours, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan took credit for the attack, while the rest of the country, its politicians and public figures, issued condemnations.

One cleric, however, refused to join that chorus: Maulana Abdul Aziz, the leader of the Red Mosque, which was established in Islamabad in 1965 and has a fraught history. Founded by Qari Abdullah, Maulana Abdul Aziz's father, the mosque was a transit point for foreign jihadists on their way to Afghanistan in the 1980s. In 1998, Qari Abdullah was assassinated just after he'd established Jamia Hafsa, with separate facilities for boys and girls. The mosque is a kilometer from the headquarters of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency and the diplomatic enclave. In the summer of 2007, it became the site of a military operation, after the maulana's followers barricaded themselves inside and refused to let state authorities in. That standoff, and the ensuing massacre led by the Pakistani military, called Operation Silence, contributed to the fall of Gen. Pervez Musharraf's administration. At least 58 people died, both soldiers and madrassa students, and Maulana Abdul Aziz became a household name.

Interviewed on television last year, hours after the attack in Peshawar, Aziz refused to condemn the massacre. Smug and belligerent, he insisted that both the military and the militants had to be condemned; the carnage at the school was the fault of both. State action - in this case, the Pakistani military's ongoing Zarb-e-Azb operation to root out militants in the country's northwest - had provoked the attack, he said. Aziz's refusal to shed a tear for the dead schoolchildren struck many Pakistanis as brazen and cruel.

Muhammad Haider Imtiaz was one such angry witness to the carnage and then to the maulana's statement, which quickly made the headlines on every Pakistani TV talk show. A young lawyer who had just begun his own practice, Imtiaz had recently filed a petition in the Human Rights Cell of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, urging the court to take action on the lack of investigation into the 2013 murder of Parveen Rehman. Rehman, a renowned community activist in a Karachi slum where land-grabbers and extremists vied for control, had been gunned down in Karachi. No one had been brought to justice, and Imtiaz was involved in changing that. In a country where few have faith in the law or justice, Imtiaz was one of the believers. A few days later, he attended a protest organized outside the Red Mosque to mourn the schoolchildren and call attention to the callousness of the maulana. It was high time that peaceful Pakistanis, men like himself who favored the rule of law, raised their voices above the cacophony of hate-filled extremism that rang out from the loudspeakers of hard-liner mosques. Imtiaz had always loved his country; now it was time to defend its freedoms.

The way Imtiaz tells it, there were many speakers at the protest, most of them people who worked with the NGOs and human-rights organizations, all frustrated by what they saw as government inaction against the extremists, Aziz among them. One of the people who spoke that day was Sheikh Abdul Qayyum, a short, bearded man dressed in a plain shalwar kameez. To the small crowd of activists gathered outside the Red Mosque, he told his story. His daughter Uzma had for several years been a student at the Jamia Binaat-e-Ayesha madrassa in Rawalpindi. Before she started there, Uzma had told her family that she wanted to learn more about her faith, instead of simply spending all her time at home waiting for marriage.

Theirs was a middle-class neighborhood in Rawalpindi, the twin city of Islamabad, which is not far from the Pakistani capital. As a simple man with few means, Sheikh Abdul led a pious life and had not hesitated when Uzma asked his permission to become a student at the madrassa in 2010. Two of his sons were Hafiz al Quran - that is, they had memorized the entirety of the holy Koran - and now his daughter would also have a religious education. But he was totally unprepared when, after several years of studying there, Uzma failed to return home one evening. He contacted some of her friends and was told that she had been seen leaving the madrassa earlier that day with Umme-Hassaan, the principal of Jamia Hafsa. With Uzma's family frantically awaiting news, the phone finally rang late that evening; it was Umme-Hassaan herself. "Your daughter is with me in Jamia Hafsa," she told Sheikh Abdul. "She has come of her own will, and you do not need to worry about her."

This had happened on the evening of June 16, 2014, and since then, Sheikh Abdul declared tearfully to the crowd outside the Red Mosque, he had never once been able to speak to his daughter alone. There had been meetings, but all of them on the premises of Jamia Hafsa, and all of them in the presence of women whose faces were entirely covered. The identities of these women - save for Umme-Hassaan, who always proclaimed herself - were unknown to him. Uzma had refused to come home, at one point sobbing that when she left home, she carefully laid out her burial shroud on her bed. This meant that she was now dead to them.

Sheikh Abdul and his family believed that Uzma had been brainwashed, indoctrinated into Jamia Hafsa's militant ideology and forced to leave her home. In the months since she'd disappeared, he had pleaded with Abdul Aziz and Umme-Hassaan, but they would not give her up. He had written letters to religious clerics, to the president of Pakistan, the prime minister, the interior minister, to every important official he could think of; he had waited in their reception rooms, stood in their queues, beseeched lesser officials for an audience, for any assistance at all in recovering his daughter, who was imprisoned inside Jamia Hafsa, he said. But nothing had come of it. That Friday, at the protest outside the Red Mosque, he begged the NGO workers and human-rights activists gathered there for help.

That's how Muhammad Haider Imtiaz got drawn into the case - at a protest denouncing terrorism, listening to a man who said that his daughter had been brainwashed by the militants inside Jamia Hafsa. No longer satisfied with preying on Pakistan's young men, Imtiaz thought, these extremists were now targeting young women.

A few days after the protest, Imtiaz and Owais Awan, another young lawyer enlisted to help, met with Sheikh Abdul, who showed them the letters he had written to various officials; gave them a detailed accounting of the handful of meetings he'd been permitted to have with his daughter; and even showed them photographs of his son and nephew after they had been beaten up by armed guards at the Red Mosque. At the end of the meeting, Imtiaz and Awan agreed to file a petition on behalf of Sheikh Abdul with the Human Rights Cell of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Both lawyers were optimistic.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan rewarded their efforts by remanding the case to the Islamabad Sessions Court, with specific instructions that the court "entertain [it] as a Petition of Habeas Corpus." The order was a victory for the lawyers, since it ensured that the case wouldn't disappear amid Pakistan's huge judicial backlog. On January 14, 2015, Sheikh Abdul and his lawyers appeared before Nazir Ahmad Gajana, a judge in the sessions court. At the end of a short hearing, Gajana ordered the station-house officer of the Aabpara Police Station (under whose jurisdiction Jamia Hafsa fell) to produce Uzma the next day.

Uzma's Story

When Uzma Qayyum appeared in court on January 15, it was the first time that she had been seen publicly outside the premises of Jamia Hafsa since June 2014. She was in the company of Umme-Hassaan and two other women, all of them in black and in full-face veils, representing their belief that no unrelated male should be permitted to see a Muslim woman's face. Owais, Haider's assistant counsel, noted that Umme-Hassaan wore neon-pink socks. The respondents from the Red Mosque insisted that Uzma had not been kept against her will. Before proceedings ended that first day, the judge ordered everyone except Uzma Qayyum to leave the courtroom so that he could have an ex parte conversation with her. No official records exist of that meeting.

Subsequent hearings and proceedings did reveal new facts and new truths. From statements made by Uzma, Imtiaz learned that Sheikh Abdul had arranged her marriage to a cousin, and that Uzma had not been in favor of the match. Time and again before the court, Uzma insisted that she hadn't been kept at Jamia Hafsa against her will, that there was no coercion - only devotion to a life of faith. Her arguments were repeated by Umme-Hassaan, who told the court that she taught all the girls in her seminary "to defend themselves and to be strong against the bullying of a corrupt state." She accepted all sorts of girls, she said, and kept them safely under the umbrella of the faith to which she and they were committed. Uzma was free to stay and free to leave. After learning more about Islam at the madrassa, Uzma had decided to run away to Jamia Hafsa because "she did not have a correct Sharia environment at home, and her family members wanted her to enter into a nikah [marriage] against her will."

As the case progressed, both Haider and Owais were beginning to have some doubts. They had taken the case pro bono because they believed they were rescuing a young girl from the grasp of a militant seminary. Now that they could listen to the actual Uzma, whom they described as assertive and determined and completely unafraid to make her point, they were beginning to have their doubts. The law was on their side. Imtiaz's argument was built on cases in the Supreme Court of Pakistan, stretching as far back as 1972, affirming the rights of fathers over their daughters. In Zafar Iqbal v. Malik Godha (1996), the court had written that it "could not ignore the social values, traditions, Pakistani culture and code of morality," and that "arranged marriages are seen with respect in the society and the marriages contracted as a result of love bring hatred and shame to the parents." If a father didn't consent to the marriage, the court could reject its legitimacy altogether.

Even so, Uzma insisted that she was not being kept at Jamia Hafsa against her will, and at one point she even interrupted the proceedings to assert that she was not the gullible girl depicted by Haider in his arguments. ("You are presenting an incorrect version of my situation," Imtiaz recalls her interjecting as he made his argument before the judge.) She knew full well the decision she had made, Uzma argued, and her desire to remain at Jamia Hafsa was a rational and considered one, not the consequence of any brainwashing.

The law did not support her. As Imtiaz argued, in case after case Pakistani courts had ruled that the proper place for an unmarried woman was in her father's home. It didn't matter that she had run off to a religious seminary, not the home of a lover. The judge tried to explain this to Uzma; he did not want to be seen as "forcing" her to return. To facilitate a more collaborative solution, he ordered Uzma to move out of Jamia Hafsa to a "neutral" location, a government-run shelter for women (the first of two she would live in temporarily). Her parents and their lawyers - and perhaps also the judge - hoped that this change of location would lessen the ideological hold under which they believed Uzma to be suffering. It may also have signaled to Umme-Hassaan that Jamia Hafsa was not likely to win this battle for choice.

The Final Order

The period during which uzma was ordered to move out of Jamia Hafsa and into interim locations also provided some time for Imtiaz and Awan to mull things over. The last thing they'd expected to be arguing was that a 26-year-old woman did not have the right to decide, without her father's permission, where she would live. Yet this is where they had ended up. "I felt that I could not trust any side in this," Imtiaz recalled. "Who is telling the truth, and could there be a real possibility that she was coerced?… There are many ways of coercion, sanction, or incentive to maintain the honor of Jamia Hafsa," he added. Based on his doubts, Imtiaz insisted that Uzma be permitted to speak to her parents, without the presence of anyone from Jamia Hafsa. However, during this conversation, Uzma still refused to return, insisting that she had left home of her own accord. Feeling conflicted, Imtiaz and Awan realized that she needed to be provided with a different neutral place so that she could decide what to do. Thus, before the final hearing, Uzma was moved to the Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Shelter and Home.

On February 9, 2015, Judge Gajana ordered Uzma Qayyum to return to her father's house. Umme-Hassaan had stated at the earlier hearing that she didn't have any objection to Uzma doing so of her own free will. A document titled "Undertaking" was attached to the judge's order. Its stipulations, signed by both Sheikh Abdul and Uzma, included this promise by her father: "Any decision with respect to the marriage of my daughter Mst. Uzma Qayyum will be taken in line with her wishes and consent."

For her part, Uzma asked that she be granted permission to visit Jamia Hafsa whenever she wished. Sheikh Abdul had agreed to this - but only with the added stipulation that a family member would accompany her. Uzma's requests to be permitted to pursue "higher education" and teach in "educational institutions" were also included. In conversations after entering the agreement, Uzma told Owais Awan that, ideally, instead of returning home, she would have preferred to continue her education at the International Islamic University in Islamabad and live at the women's hostel there.

Two months after the decision, Sheikh Abdul said that Uzma had left Rawalpindi with her mother, owing to the death of her maternal grandmother, to whom she was quite close. The maternal grandmother's village is in a remote portion of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. At this point in time, then, there seem to be no plans for Uzma either to continue her education or to marry the man her father had chosen for her. In interviews, Sheikh Abdul has also said that he and his wife are still wary of Uzma's involvement with Jamia Hafsa, and that it's going to take time to reconstruct their relationship with their daughter. Since Uzma herself can no longer be contacted, it is unclear whether her exile to her maternal grandmother's village - a place far from the seminary - is her choice or simply a circumstance imposed on her. I've tried repeatedly to call the number Sheikh Abdul gave me (after much cajoling). There was no phone service in the remote village in Azad Kashmir, where they were, he had insisted earlier. I tried anyway; each time, the phone rang and rang, but there was no answer. Uzma Qayyum seemed lost, gone forever into another impenetrable realm of family and seclusion.

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News Thu, 02 Jul 2015 10:09:58 -0400
Study: Democracy on the Retreat in More Than 96 of the 193 UN Member States http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31595-study-democracy-on-the-retreat-in-more-than-96-of-the-193-un-member-states http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31595-study-democracy-on-the-retreat-in-more-than-96-of-the-193-un-member-states

U.S. police arrest May Day protester in Oakland, California. (Photo: Judith Scherr/IPS)US police arrest a May Day protester in Oakland, California. (Photo: Judith Scherr/IPS)

United Nations - Democracy is on the retreat and authoritarianism is on the rise in more than 96 of the UN's 193 member states, according to a new report released here.

The two regions of "highest concern" for defenders of civic space are Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa, which between them account for over half of the countries counted.

These violations are increasing not only in countries perceived to be democratic but also in countries with blatantly repressive regimes.

"The widespread systematic attack on these core civil society liberties has taken many forms, including assault, torture, kidnapping and assassination," says the CIVICUS Civil Society Watch Report.

"We have known for some time that encroachments on civic space and persecution of peaceful activists were on the rise but it's more pervasive than many may think," said Dr. Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, Secretary-General of CIVICUS, a South Africa-based international alliance dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society worldwide.

"Our monitoring in 2014 shows that legitimate civil society activities are worryingly under threat in a huge number of countries in the global North and South, democratic and authoritarian, on all continents," he added.

The report says while activists engaged in political reform, uncovering corruption and human rights violations continue to be targeted, those defending local communities from land grabs and environmental degradation, as well as those promoting minority group rights, have been subjected to various forms of persecution.

"The link between unethical business practices and closing civic space is becoming clearer as global inequality and capture of power and resources by a handful of political and economic elite rises. "

Advocacy for equitable sharing of natural resources and workers' rights is becoming increasingly fraught with danger, says the report.

The examples cited range from the killings of environmental activists in Brazil to the intimidation of organisations challenging the economic discourse in India, to arbitrary detention of activists opposing oil exploration in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Jenni Williams (in white cap) addresses Women of Zimbabwe Arise members at Zimbabwe’s parliament building in Harare with the police looking on. Zimbabwe is one of the African countries where repression of civic freedoms appears to have intensified. (Photo: Misheck Rusere/IPS)Jenni Williams (in the white cap) addresses Women of Zimbabwe Arise members at Zimbabwe's parliament building in Harare with the police looking on. Zimbabwe is one of the African countries where repression of civic freedoms appears to have intensified. (Photo: Misheck Rusere/IPS)

Asked to identify some of the worst offenders, Mandeep Tiwana, Head of Policy and Research at CIVICUS, told IPS : "We don't provide a ranking of the countries' violations, but we are able to categorise limitations on civil society activities into completely closed countries and active violators of civic freedoms."

He said "closed countries" are where virtually no civic activity can take place due to an extremely repressive environment. These include Eritrea, North Korea, Syria, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

There is a second list of countries that are active violators of civil society rights - meaning they imprison, intimidate and attack civil society members and put in place all kinds of regulations to limit the activities of civil society organisations (CSOs), particularly those working to uncover corruption and human rights violations, Tiwana said.

These include Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Belarus, China, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.

The report also points out some of the tactics deployed to close civic space include passing restrictive laws and targeting individual civil society organisations (CSOs) by raiding their offices, freezing their bank accounts or deregistering them.

A number of democracies are also engaging in illicit surveillance of civil society activists, further weakening respect for human rights.

Stigmatisation and demonisation of civil society activists by powerful political figures and right-wing elements remains an area of concern.

"When citizens' most basic democratic rights are being violated in more than half the world's countries, alarm bells must start ringing for the international community and leaders everywhere," said Sriskandarajah.

Tiwana told IPS governments in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have stepped up their efforts to prevent public demonstrations and the activities of human rights groups.

"There appears to be no let-up in official censorship and repression of active citizens in authoritarian states like China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Vietnam."

In sub-Saharan Africa, he said, the repression of civic freedoms appears to have intensified in countries such as Angola, Burundi, Ethiopia, Gambia, Rwanda, Sudan, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

And activists and civil society groups in many countries in Central Asia and Eastern Europe - where democracy remains fragile or non-existent such as Azerbaijan, Belarus, Hungary, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan - are also feeling the heat following governments' reactions to scuttle demands for political reform.

In South-East Asia, Tiwana pointed out, countries such as Cambodia and Malaysia have a history of repressive governance and in Thailand, where the military seized power through a recent coup, new 'security' measures continue to be implemented to restrict civic freedoms.

Asked what role the United Nations can play in naming and shaming these countries, Tiwana said the UN Human Rights Council has emerged as a key international forum for the protection of civic freedoms particularly through the Universal Periodic Review process where each country gets its human rights record reviewed every four years.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is currently collating best practices to create a safe and enabling environment for civil society.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad Al-Hussein has been an active supporter of civil society's ability to operate freely, as was his predecessor, Navi Pillay, who was ardent advocate of civic freedoms, Tiwana said.

Edited by Kitty Stapp.

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News Thu, 02 Jul 2015 10:05:41 -0400
Job Growth Slows in June http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31708-job-growth-slows-in-june http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31708-job-growth-slows-in-june

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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News Thu, 02 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Inequality and Climate Change: Joseph Stiglitz and Nicholas Stern in Conversation http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31707-inequality-and-climate-change-joseph-stiglitz-and-nicholas-stern-in-conversation http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31707-inequality-and-climate-change-joseph-stiglitz-and-nicholas-stern-in-conversation

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

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

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News Thu, 02 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
As Black Churches Burn Across the South, Are White Supremacist Attacks Continuing? http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31706-as-black-churches-burn-across-the-south-are-white-supremacist-attacks-continuing http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31706-as-black-churches-burn-across-the-south-are-white-supremacist-attacks-continuing

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

TRANSCRIPT:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard, welcome back to Democracy Now!

RICHARD COHEN: Thank you, Amy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

AMY GOODMAN: Calling for congressional hearings into domestic terrorism?

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

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

RICHARD COHEN: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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News Thu, 02 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
After Half a Century, US and Cuba Reopen Embassies and Restore Ties http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31705-after-half-a-century-us-and-cuba-reopen-embassies-and-restore-ties http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31705-after-half-a-century-us-and-cuba-reopen-embassies-and-restore-ties

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

TRANSCRIPT:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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News Thu, 02 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Next Steps in the Normalization of US-Cuban Relations: Thoughts From the Cuban Five http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31697-next-steps-in-the-normalization-of-us-cuban-relations-thoughts-from-the-cuban-five http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31697-next-steps-in-the-normalization-of-us-cuban-relations-thoughts-from-the-cuban-five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Illegal Occupation of Guantánamo Bay

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Diplomatic Importance of Freeing the Cuban Five

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

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

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

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

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

Years of Wrongful Imprisonment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surviving Prison Through Poetry and Art

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

Guerrero also began writing poetry in prison.

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

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

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

The Five Return to Cuba

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

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

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

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

The Way Ahead

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

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

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

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

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News Thu, 02 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Four Supreme Court Decisions You Need to Know About http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31694-four-other-supreme-court-decisions-that-flew-under-the-radar http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31694-four-other-supreme-court-decisions-that-flew-under-the-radar

It was a great term at the Supreme Court for issues like marriage equality, continuing to keep health care affordable and accessible and ending politically motivated gerrymandering. It was a less fortunate term when it came to blocking the use of lethal injections in executions. But what other big issues did the court weigh in on?

Here are four decisions that went under the radar in the summer term.

Federal Environmental Protections Have Been Blocked for Now

In a 5-4 decision, the court blocked the Clean Air Act, a major Environmental Protection Agency initiative, with the majority ruling that it was too spendy to force big businesses to actually limit their toxic emissions. "The Clean Air Act required the regulation to be 'appropriate and necessary,'" reports the New York Times. "The challengers said the agency had run afoul of that law by deciding to regulate the emissions without first undertaking a cost-benefit analysis."

Panning the initiative, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that, "It is not rational, never mind 'appropriate,' to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits. Statutory context supports this reading." The ruling means the EPA will have to rewrite the initiative and try again later.

Fair Housing Was Upheld

In a small step towards ending racial discrimination, the court ruled 5-4 that you don't have to necessarily prove a law was intended to discriminate in order to still show that discrimination occurred. "The Supreme Court agreed in a 5-4 decision that the Texas housing department had violated the Fair Housing Act, and engaged in racial discrimination, by putting too much subsidized housing in predominantly black urban neighborhoods, and too little in white suburban neighborhoods," explains QZ.com. "The disparate impact was that this discouraged black people from moving to white areas, and perpetuated segregation." According to QZ.com this "disparate-impact" ruling could eventually be used to end discrimination in hiring practices, prisons and other places where racial bias is implicit and rampant.

The Court Agreed to Take Up Affirmative Action Again

SCOTUS already ruled once on Fisher v. University of Texas, the case where a young woman claims she wasn't allowed into her first choice college because applicants of color were prioritized over her. In 2013 they sent the case back to the 5th Circuit, telling it to take a second swing at their decision. On the second try, the district court said it believed that Abigail Fisher still hadn't proved discrimination because of affirmative action, and that caused Fisher to appeal to the Supreme Court again. The fact that they have agreed to rehear the case has many worried that it signals a likelihood that affirmative action may be doomed for good.

Unions May Be Weakened Even More

A California teacher is challenging a union practice of collecting partial fees from non-union members to pay for their representation in collective bargaining, a process which even non-union members benefit from due to increased earnings and other benefits. According to the teacher, any compulsory dues paying violates her first amendment rights to freedom of speech, since unions have PACs that generally support pro-Labor (and often Democratic) causes. The conservative group helping back her argues that even raises and school budget increases may be a violation of some teachers' political beliefs. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case, and many think this could be yet another nail in the coffin of union power.

"Leaders of some of the nation's largest public sector unions issued a joint statement calling the lawsuit an effort to weaken labor rights," reports Talking Points Memo. "'The Supreme Court is revisiting decisions that have made it possible for people to stick together for a voice at work and in their communities - decisions that have stood for more than 35 years,' said the statement from the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, California Teachers Association, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and Service Employees International Union."

It looks as if the next Supreme Court session may be nearly as exciting as this one was.

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News Thu, 02 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Tariq Ali: Syriza Is Not Doing Enough for Greece http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31672-tariq-ali-syriza-is-not-doing-enough-for-greece http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31672-tariq-ali-syriza-is-not-doing-enough-for-greece

Author Tariq Ali discusses the first months of the Syriza-led government in Greece, analyzes Syriza's failure to stand up adequately to the troika's demands and proposes a referendum that would place the issue of Greece's eurozone membership on the table.

Alexis Tsipras, leader of Syriza party, giving a pre-election speech to the people of Macedonia north Greece on May 21, 2014 in Thessaloniki, Greece.Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Syriza party, giving a pre-election speech on May 21, 2014 in Thessaloniki, Greece. (Photo: Ververidis Vasilis / Shutterstock.com)

As negotiations between Greece's Syriza-led government and the "troika" unfolded, Truthout spoke with world-renowned author and analyst Tariq Ali. In this interview, Ali discusses the first months of the Syriza-led government in Greece, explains why he believes that Syriza has not done enough to stand up to the demands of the troika, and shares his own proposal for a referendum that would directly place the issue of Greece's eurozone membership on the table.

Michael Nevradakis: There was a great deal of hope regarding Syriza's promises to reject economic austerity. You had expressed optimism in Syriza prior to the Greek elections, but you have since adopted a more critical stance toward Syriza. How do you evaluate its first months in office?
 
Tariq Ali: Everyone was hoping that they would be able to do much more. I am perfectly aware of how difficult the situation is and would be for any party of the left that won an election in any country in Europe today, because they confront powerful and strong enemies who do not wish to have any radical model of politics and economics succeed, or even move two steps forward. They would rather destroy it, whatever the cost. And I think that is what the EU [European Union] and, of course, the German leadership, which is the strongest player in the EU, as well as the United States, are attempting to do. The United States plays a "soft cop" or a "less hard cop," and the Germans are playing the "hard cop," and they're the ones who are essentially formulating policies. I say this so that there's no misunderstanding. We know what the problems are; we know that there's a big campaign against Syriza within the EU. The way they've been spoken to, the way their leaders have been addressed is nothing short of disgusting.

"I see it as the left's internationalist duty towards Greece and other countries to break the link and say that we are not in favor of this Europe."

So, why am I critical? My criticism is basically that they should have known that this would be the response of Europe. They've wasted too much time, in my opinion, traveling all over Europe and meeting politicians and prime ministers who never were on their side in the first place, who in many cases, [President François] Hollande in France, for example, campaigned against them. And the notion that they could split off, if they really believed it, it was crazy, that they could split off some of the EU countries from the Germans. It didn't happen! It was very unlikely this would happen, and even the countries who are facing the wrath of the EU and doing their bidding, they were even more critical - the Portuguese, the Irish - because they've capitulated.

Now, what could have been done, and what I've argued should have been done, is that the Syriza government should have come back from the first round of negotiations and told the people. Now, they said we can't do this because these are confidential meetings, but hell, these are not confidential meetings, because the Financial Times and other newspapers in Europe and elsewhere know exactly what happened. They're getting leaks, and our side hasn't been getting leaks at all. So that was a problem, that they didn't come home and tell the people what was really going on.
 
A second problem, an even greater one, was that they attempted to pretend that they were making progress. This was not the case. There was very little progress made. And today, we are now at the crossroads in Greece, I fear. I don't think they're going to get their demands, so the choice now is capitulate, surrender, or default and fight back. And they have weakened themselves if they're going to be forced into doing the latter, by not telling people what has been going on for the last few months, and that is my big criticism and deep worry about the situation in Greece.
 
Prior to the referendum, Syriza, in its first months in office, had proposed the continuation of much of the previous austerity measures, and had stated that lenders like the IMF and the European Central Bank would be repaid in full. Meanwhile the country's privatization program has continued in earnest. What do you make of these actions and these continued policies?
 
I disagree with them very strongly, especially the privatizations, which people hate. It's a way to make money by using the crisis in Greece, and it was attacked by Syriza during the election campaign and they pledged that they wouldn't do it. [Greek Finance Minister Yanis] Varoufakis, who I know slightly, is an intelligent economist but not a great politician, and effectively, he thinks in an extremely narrow-minded way. No strategic vision, which is very sad.
 
I don't agree with any of these measures taken, which you pointed out, and the appointment of this ex-Pasok hackette to the IMF. I think it's a case in point. I think what they're trying to do is move to the center, trying to show people, "look, we're doing our best, we're nice, moderate people, but still they're crushing us." I don't think anybody has any doubt about what they're trying to prove inside Greece itself, but the situation now is such that you can't play these games any longer. You have to choose. Surrender if you want, but people will know that. You can say that this was the only compromise solution we could get, but if it's basically caving in to the demands of the EU elite, then it is a surrender, and it's a very, very dangerous move because what it then shows the rest of Europe is "don't bother participating in elections, nothing you can do is going to change anything." And that then affects other radical groups in the Mediterranean region and elsewhere. So I, of course, am not at all happy about this.

After over five years of austerity in Greece and in other crisis-stricken countries in Europe, it is evident to many that these policies are not working, at least for the economies and people of these countries. In your opinion, why is there such a continued insistence on the part of the European Union, the German government and the other so-called institutions to continue pushing further austerity?
 
I think the reason is political, because no serious economist, or someone who I regard as serious, and I mean bourgeoisie economists, are saying that this is going to work. In fact, many of them, the Americans particularly, but not just the Americans, even some of the economists in the Financial Times, are saying that this is not going to work at all, that it is proving disastrous, and that a new course is needed. But it's easy to say and it's correct, but a new course, seriously pursued, would challenge the fundamentals of neoliberal economists, because what the opponents are proposing is effectively a form of Keynesianism, center Keynesians or left-wing Keynesianism. And for them to permit this would be to accept a defeat, and what they're frightened about is that it would open up a new space for movements and radical currents, which would challenge them, and they're not prepared to do that.
 
Secondly, they don't care. These are politicians and bankers who effectively are keen on one thing, which is preserving and maintaining the level of profits. They don't care a damn if people suffer. The 20th century world has changed very drastically in this new century, and they feel no reason, they don't feel threatened by anyone. So unless there was a revolutionary upheaval or semi-revolutionary upheaval or political insurrections, they will carry on like this. This is why Greece is so important. The Syriza government, it's not too late still, should have said to the people of Greece, "These are the choices on offer, and we're going to push a referendum and there will be one question: Should we stay in the eurozone at any cost?" That's the question you need. If the people say no, if the eurozone and the politicians who control the euro make impossible demands, then you have the right to leave. [The people of Greece] have to be told very clearly, "These are the choices, and we were elected to fight against what is being offered, and we've ended up not in a good position, but now this is what we are proposing to do." The Europeans seem pretty confident that Greece will capitulate, meaning if you look at the German press and the French press, they don't think there's going to be too much resistance, and that will create a crisis in countries of the south, and in Syriza.
 
In your view, what has the impact of IMF involvement in countries and economies around the world been historically? Has any country, to your knowledge, been able to return to prosperity or to emerge out of an economic crisis with the policies that the IMF has prescribed?
 
No. On the contrary, it's put these countries in an even worse crisis; it's heightened disparities in wealth, especially since the advent of neoliberal economics, it has led to the virtual destruction of the social infrastructure of many, many countries in different parts of the globe. The only continent where they were resisted after having their way for many decades is South America. First the Argentineans reneged on the debt and reached an agreement to pay a tiny proportion of it. The Venezuelans effectively pushed through a political insurrection by the ballot box, and elected a leadership which destroyed, politically, the coalition parties that had backed the IMF demands. Likewise Bolivia, likewise Ecuador, to a certain extent. The Latin American continent, South America, has succeeded in doing this. It has not happened anywhere in Europe.

The IMF's function is to defend economic orthodoxy, like Keynesianism as it was in the 40s, 50s, 60s and to a certain extent in the early 70s, or if the overall conception of what needs to be done changes in Washington and then a new consensus is established that says that the way forward is neoliberalism, privatizations, the entry of private capital into the most hallowed domains of social provision, then that is what they push. They never do anything that is in the interests of the countries to whom they're lending money. Greece is a case in point.
 
We've seen recently the electoral victory of the conservatives in the United Kingdom and their ambivalence toward the European Union; we've seen the rise of far-right parties in much of Europe; we've seen also the EU's harsh stance on the immigration issue, and of course, its continued inflexibility when it comes to Greece and other crisis-hit countries when it comes to the austerity measures being enforced. What do you believe the future of the so-called "European Dream" will be, and do you believe that the EU even has a future?
 
Well, the big problem is the left, by and large all over Europe, is very confused on this issue in my opinion, which is one reason why people are going to the far-right parties in some countries: I feel that while we're all internationalists, and while a radical European Union or a social union that helps each other is something very desirable, what we have got instead is a shameful financialization of capital for defending exclusively the interests of the wealthy and of punishing those who try and break out from the system, and using the euro to effectively create a system, a neocolonial system, where lots of small countries have no sovereignty at all.

The Balkan states minus Serbia, which has not yet been allowed in, are very indicative of this crisis. Ireland is, Portugal is, to a certain extent some of the less "important" countries are now themselves under huge pressure to privatize and to push through what they laughably called "reforms," but what they really are talking about is regressive measures to take more and more rights, social rights, away from the working class and from the less privileged sections of the population, in the interests of the bankers and the hedge fund owners and the billionaires.

"The only serious choice that we have is to default and to create a new currency for inside Greece, while retaining the euro as the trading currency."

This is what the European Union has become: a machine to enhance the grip of capital over politics, and as a result, democracy itself is now under threat and the European Union, in my view, has become a deeply reactionary institution. This is now very clear, and they're scared of allowing people to vote. This is very interesting. A Guardian columnist who used to work for Le Monde the other day said, "the danger of having a referendum in Britain is that the French might demand one too." Well, the French did demand one on the constitution and rejected it, despite the fact that the entire media was in favor of it. So we will see what happens.
 
My own opinion is that I certainly will not be voting in favor of the European Union. I mean, I think for anyone on the left to do this, given that we now have a record of how this union has functioned, what this union is, a total lack of democracy in it, and effectively power is exercised by three or four countries, why should we tolerate this any longer? I see it as the left's internationalist duty towards Greece and other countries to break the link and say that we are not in favor of this Europe. That is what I think the left should do.
 
As far as the European Union itself is concerned, if you look at how the Germans have dealt with Greece, my feeling is they want Greece out, and they're not that bothered if the British electorate votes to quit Europe. I'm not sure that that will happen, by the way, but they're not bothered because they can still carry on doing economic deals on another level and, at the same time, it will give them the opportunity to restructure the union, which will probably reduce the standing, even more, of the small countries who were flooded into the European Union, with the US and UK backing, to prevent the Germans from getting too strong. So what's going on now, I think, is that there is a great deal of discussion and debate within the German elite as to what is the best way to restructure the European Union, so they're not that bothered. That's my reading of the situation.

You mentioned your proposal for a referendum being held in Greece regarding the issue of staying within the eurozone or departing from the eurozone. What else do you believe Greece should do in order to get out of the crisis and this cycle of austerity, and what do you believe the Greek people should do to hold their government accountable?
 
I think it's very clear now that the demands being put on Greece by the EU and the IMF are unacceptable, and I think that the Greek leadership, [Prime Minister Alexis] Tsipras in particular, should broadcast to the nation, should travel the country telling people this is what's going on, this is how far we've been prepared to go; he can use that weakness in a sense; this is how far we've been prepared to go; they won't accept it and they want to crush it. So, the only choice now that we have, serious choice, is to default and to create a new currency for inside Greece, while retaining the euro as the trading currency. That is what we're about to do and we need your support to do this. Now, I don't know whether this is going to happen. They might be forced to do it in the worst possible circumstances without any preparation at all, but we shall see.

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