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JFP 11/1: NY Daily News hits UN on Haiti cholera; PBS cops to error in Iran reporting
Submitted by Robert Naiman on 1 November 2012 - 6:50pm
Just Foreign Policy News, November 1, 2012
NY Daily News hits UN on Haiti cholera; PBS cops to error in Iran reporting
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I) Actions and Featured Articles
*Action: Push the big TV talks shows to talk about specifics of the drone strike policy
Bob Schieffer responded to our call and asked a question about drone strikes in the presidential debate. Now let's press the big TV talks shows to get into the details of the drone strike policy - like attacks on rescuers. Urge the big TV shows to have the authors of the Stanford/NYU report on as guests.
PBS admits error in Iran reporting following FAIR complaint
On PBS NewsHour Jeffrey Brown stated that "Iran's nuclear weapons program has been a particular flash point," implying that it's a fact that Iran has a nuclear weapons program, when that's a disputed allegation, not supported by U.S. intelligence.
Now PBS says:
EDITOR'S NOTE: This transcript has been updated to account for an error in the NewsHour's broadcast reference to Iran's widely suspected military ambitions in pursuing nuclear energy, despite Tehran's assertions that its atomic efforts are entirely peaceful. We should have said that "Iran's nuclear program has been a particular flashpoint."
Kudos to FAIR and everyone who wrote in to PBS to complain.
Video: The Real News: Broken Anvil: Human Rights Groups Push For Washington Investigation
Annie Bird of Rights Action discusses May 11th U.S.-D.E.A. "Ahuas" killings.
WaPo: Glenn Kessler factcheck calls out "Emergency Committee for Israel" [sic] for hyperlying on Obama re Israel & Iran
An "Emergency Committee for Israel" [sic] robocall fabricates a debate between Obama and Bibi by splicing.
November 12: Oliver Stone "Untold US History" documentary on "Showtime"
Do you have cable TV and get "Showtime"? Wouldn't watching this with your friends be a nice community activity for a cold November evening?
Glenn Greenwald says:
'Oliver Stone is releasing a new book, entitled "The Untold History of the United States", which highlights key facts in US history over the last century that have been largely ignored or affirmatively distorted. I've read parts of the book and recommend it highly (a summary of his chapter on the Obama presidency is here). Beginning 12 November, Showtime is broadcasting a 10-part documentary to accompany the book; I've seen the first four installments and cannot recommend it highly enough.'
1) Shame on the United Nations for refusing to confront likely responsibility for a cholera epidemic that has killed thousands in the impoverished nation of Haiti, writes the New York Daily News in an editorial. Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a group that monitors the United Nations, got it just right in saying: "No one is accusing the UN of deliberately poisoning Haiti's water supply. But when one of its own designated experts concludes that a UN division negligently caused a mass epidemic, the victims are owed a better response than denial and deafening silence."
2) Writing in Informed Comment, Juan Cole notes the horrifying experience of patients in New York City hospitals who had to be evacuated when the hospitals lost electrical power due to Hurricane Sandy. Imagine if hospitals going dark were not a result of a calamity of nature, but of deliberate government policy, Cole writes. That is the situation of patients in the Palestinian Gaza Strip. The Strip's major power generator was damaged by an Israeli bombing raid in 2005 and it has never been properly repaired. Gaza hospitals are all too often on the brink of going dark. Israel's blockade of the civilian economy of Gaza is preventing the kind of infrastructural improvements needed to give the hospitals guaranteed power. Why can Americans sympathize with the patients at the Langone Hospital in New York, but are actively complicit in the energy shortages afflicting Gaza hospitals, Cole asks.
3) Bahrain says a civil court has sentenced an online activist to six months in prison on charges of insulting the Gulf nation's king in Twitter posts, AP reports. The activist was among four people arrested last month for allegedly defaming Bahrain's monarch.
4) A study released by a respected Mexican think tank asserts that proposals to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in Colorado, Oregon and Washington could cut Mexican drug cartels' earnings from traffic to the U.S. by as much as 30 percent, AP reports. The ballot measures to be decided on Nov. 6 would allow adults to possess small amounts of pot under a regimen of state regulation and taxation. Polls have shown tight races in Washington and Colorado, with Washington's measure appearing to have the best chance of passing. A RAND study of a proposal to legalize marijuana in California in 2010 asserted that could cut cartel drug income by 20 percent.
5) Syrian rebels executed at least a half-dozen unarmed government soldiers Thursday after attacks on checkpoints near the town of Saraqeb in northwest Syria, the Washington Post reports. The execution of the soldiers, documented in a graphic video posted online, is not the first time that rebel fighters appear to have committed war crimes, the Post notes. U.N. representatives and human rights organizations have repeatedly criticized the Syrian opposition in recent months for carrying out summary executions and for abusing detainees.
6) A report issued by the Center for American Progress and the Institute for Policy Studies says that the amount of cuts to the Pentagon budget mandated by automatic sequester is readily achievable with no sacrifice to U.S. security. The report argues that some of those savings in the Pentagon budget should be redeployed to other parts of the federal government, specifically to those non-military programs that help our nation defend the homeland and prevent global crises from escalating into military confrontations.
7) China presented a new proposal to end the conflict in Syria, the New York Times reports. The plan calls for a phased-in truce, the establishment of a transitional authority and an intensified international response to the humanitarian crisis afflicting millions of Syrians. New proposals by China and the United States suggested that the big powers on opposite sides of the Syria conflict had grown increasingly impatient with what appears to be a stalemate on the ground, the Times says.
8) Some U.S. allies disagree with the U.S. decision to pull support with the exile opposition Syrian National Council, the Washington Post reports. Qatar and Turkey continue to support the SNC as the principal opposition group. The U.S. says the SNC is not representative of the opposition inside Syria and hasn't seriously reached out to minority groups that support the Assad government.
9) Kuwaiti police used teargas and smoke bombs to disperse thousands of protesters marching on a prison where an opposition leader is being held on charges of insulting the emir, Reuters reports. The unrest comes amid rising tension caused by changes to the election law which the opposition had condemned as an attempt to give pro-government candidates an advantage in parliamentary elections on December 1. The opposition are boycotting the poll. Insulting the emir carries a penalty of up to five years in jail. The government has banned gatherings of more than 20 people.
10) Writing in Foreign Policy in Focus, actor and director Danny Glover describes his experiences observing the October 7 presidential election in Venezuela. Glover particularly notes the political mobilization of the Afro-Venezuelan community under the Chavez government. Glover met with local leaders and activists from the Afro-Venezuela community of San Jose in Barlovento, on the northern coast of Venezuela, who described how government education, health and employment programs were improving their lives. "If you want to understand how the Chavez administration continues to win free and fair elections, you need only hear the stories of formerly marginalized communities and look more carefully at the country's social and economic indicators," Glover writes, noting that over the last decade, poverty has been cut in half and extreme poverty cut by 70 percent.
1) Depraved indifference
The UN must take responsibility for its role in bringing deadly cholera to Haiti
Editorial, New York Daily News, Tuesday, October 30, 2012, 4:10 AM
Shame on the United Nations for refusing to confront likely responsibility for a cholera epidemic that has killed thousands in the impoverished nation of Haiti.
These are the facts, in all their tragic starkness: In January 2010, an earthquake caused widespread death and destruction in the Caribbean country.
There was a worldwide relief drive, ranging from small donations via text messages to national mobilizations. The UN beefed up a peacekeeping force to help maintain public order.
Later that year, cholera erupted in the region of Artibonite. Doctors were stupefied as to how and why the often fatal bacterial infection had shown up in Haiti after more than 100 years. Something or someone had brought it back.
The disease causes severe dehydration via diarrhea and can spread quickly through wastewater. And spread it did.
Once the disease hit the capital, Port-au-Prince, 60 miles from Artibonite, it was a full-scale epidemic. To date, cholera has killed some 7,500 Haitians and sickened 600,000.
Last year, Haiti logged more cholera cases than all the rest of the world combined.
In 2011, the UN commissioned a report that traced the spread of the cholera outbreak across Haiti, but the document did not specifically say where the disease had come from.
But now, one of the report's authors, Daniele Lantagne, a Tufts University public health expert, believes she has found the culprit. Having performed a genetic analysis of the bacteria, Lantagne concluded that they were from a strain of cholera that is common halfway around the world - in the country of Nepal.
The discovery fit neatly with the fact that UN peacekeepers stationed at a camp in western Haiti were Nepalese.
Lantagne concluded: "We can now say that the most likely source of the introduction of cholera into Haiti was someone infected with the Nepal strain of cholera and associated with the United Nations Mirabalais camp."
Because of inadequate sanitation, the Nepalese soldiers' waste could have seeped into the Meye River, right outside the camp. From there, the disease could have traveled to the town of Mirabalais - and then to the rest of the country.
The UN's response to Lantagne's findings has been one of galling denial, likely because cholera victims have begun seeking compensation.
Nigel Fisher, a UN official in Haiti, said, "The investigation is still with the legal office."
According to a UN press release, Undersecretary General Hervé Ladsous deems it "impossible to establish the origins of the disease."
There is no doubt the UN had no intention of importing cholera to Haiti. Whether it did so negligently is a question that demands an answer. Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a group that monitors the United Nations, got it just right in saying:
"No one is accusing the UN of deliberately poisoning Haiti's water supply. But when one of its own designated experts concludes that a UN division negligently caused a mass epidemic, the victims are owed a better response than denial and deafening silence."
2) NYC Hospitals Lose Power Once; in Gaza, it is a Constant Crisis
Juan Cole, Informed Comment, 11/01/2012
Hurricane Sandy knocked out electricity to New York University's Langone Hospital, which had to evacuate its patients. Bellevue Hospital also had to be cleared and the patients sent elsewhere.
This story is a horrible one, and one's heart goes out to the patients, already ill, who lost electricity under these frightening circumstances and had to be moved.
But imagine if hospitals going dark were not a result of a calamity of nature, but of deliberate government policy.
That is the situation of patients in the Palestinian Gaza Strip. The Strip's major power generator was damaged by an Israeli bombing raid in 2005 and it has never been properly repaired, so that it creaks along not able to provide enough juice for the 1.7 million Palestinians trapped there by the Israeli blockade. Egypt provides some fuel, but last spring it cracked down on smuggling, which would have interfered with its formal contracts, plunging Gaza into a power emergency that threatened the hospitals' ability to function.
About a third of Gaza's electricity is supplied by Israel, as part of its treaty obligations under the Oslo accords and because it is still considered the Occupying authority in the Strip. Israeli governments have sometimes tried to wriggle out of this obligation, but even the Israeli courts found those plans cruel and illegal. As recently as September, Israeli Minister of the Environment Gilad Erdan again proposed cutting electricity supply from Israel to Gaza.
Gaza hospitals are all too often on the brink of going dark. They have back-up generators, but often there are shortages of gasoline, as well. Israel's blockade of the civilian economy of Gaza is preventing the kind of infrastructural improvements needed to give the hospitals guaranteed power.
Why can Americans sympathize with the patients at the Langone Hospital in New York, but are actively complicit in the energy shortages afflicting Gaza hospitals? Are not the patients in both equally human beings? Aren't there premature babies in both and patients on a lifeline, who would be endangered by a loss of electricity? If the US Congress is willing to vote disaster relief for New Yorkers, shouldn't it at least object to the Israeli blockade on Gaza?
3) Bahrain activist gets prison term for Twitter posts critical of king
Associated Press, Thursday, November 1, 11:00 AM
Manama, Bahrain - Bahrain says a civil court has sentenced an online activist to six months in prison on charges of insulting the Gulf nation's king in Twitter posts.
The activist, whose name was not released, was among four people arrested last month for allegedly defaming Bahrain's monarch in cases that mirror other social media crackdowns by Gulf Arab rulers.
Such prosecutions have brought strong criticism from media freedom groups.
The official Bahrain News Agency says the court Thursday also ordered the activist's laptop and mobile phone confiscated.
Bahrain has been hit by unrest for nearly 21 months as the island's Shiite Muslim majority seeks a greater political voice in the Sunni-ruled kingdom that hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Court rulings on the three other Twitter activists are expected next week.
4) Mexico study: US legalization cuts cartel profits
E. Eduardo Castillo and Kristen Wyatt Associated Press, Wed, Oct. 31, 2012
A study released Wednesday by a respected Mexican think tank asserts that proposals to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in Colorado, Oregon and Washington could cut Mexican drug cartels' earnings from traffic to the U.S. by as much as 30 percent.
Opponents questioned some of the study's assumptions, saying the proposals could also offer new opportunities for cartels to operate inside the U.S. and replace any profit lost to a drop in international smuggling.
The ballot measures to be decided on Nov. 6 would allow adults to possess small amounts of pot under a regimen of state regulation and taxation. Polls have shown tight races in Washington and Colorado, with Washington's measure appearing to have the best chance of passing. Oregon's measure, which would impose the fewest regulations, does not appear likely to pass.
The study by the Mexican Competitiveness Institute, "If Our Neighbors Legalize," assumes that legalization in any state would allow growers there to produce marijuana relatively cheaply and create an illicit flow to other states, where the drug could be made available at cheaper prices and higher quality than Mexican marijuana smuggled across the international border.
The report, based on previous studies by U.S. experts including those at the RAND Corporation, assumes that Mexican cartels earn more than $6 billion a year from drug smuggling to the U.S.
It calculates the hypothetical, post-legalization price of marijuana produced in Oregon, Washington and Colorado and sold within those states and smuggled to other states. It then assumes that purchasers around the U.S. will choose domestic marijuana when it is sold cheaper than the current price of Mexican marijuana. That choice will lead to a loss of $1.425 billion to the cartels if Colorado legalizes, $1.372 billion if Washington approves the ballot measure, and $1.839 billion if Oregon votes yes, the study says.
It only looks at the effects of legalization in individual states, and does not calculate what would happen if more than one legalized marijuana.
Opponents of the ballot measures said the study bolsters one of their principal objections, that it will turn any state with legal marijuana into a producer for the rest of the country.
They said, however, that they did not believe that production will rob the cartels of significant profits, saying instead that they thought Mexican drug lords would instead try to participate in legal production inside the U.S.
Alejandro Hope, an author of the study and a former high-ranking officer in Mexico's domestic intelligence service, acknowledged that the study made a series of assumptions that may not be prove to be true, including the assumption that the U.S. federal government would not aggressively investigate and prosecute movement of marijuana out of a state where it's legal.
A post-legalization federal crackdown could make domestically grown marijuana uncompetitive with Mexican pot in many states, he said, meaning cartels would see less of a cut in profits.
"Diversion is a problem we'll continue to have to monitor," said Alison Holcomb, campaign manager with New Approach Washington, the group pushing Washington state's legalization measure. "But the question is to the extent that is happening, is it better that the money is going to licensed, regulated businesses instead of going to Mexico?"
A RAND study of a proposal to legalize marijuana in California in 2010 asserted that could cut cartel drug income by 20 percent.
5) Syrian rebels execute unarmed government soldiers
Babak Dehghanpisheh, Washington Post, Thursday, November 1, 12:05 PM
Beirut - Syrian rebels executed at least a half-dozen unarmed government soldiers Thursday after attacks on checkpoints near the town of Saraqeb in northwest Syria.
At least 28 soldiers and five opposition fighters were killed in the rebel operation, which targeted checkpoints on roads connecting Saraqeb to Aleppo and Ariha, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The execution of the soldiers, which was documented in a graphic video posted online Thursday, is not the first time that rebel fighters appear to have committed war crimes. U.N. representatives and human rights organizations have repeatedly criticized the Syrian opposition in recent months for carrying out summary executions and for abusing detainees.
In early August, members of a clan loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were executed by rebels, and a video of the killings was widely disseminated on the Internet. The executions prompted some commanders of the opposition Free Syrian Army to draft a code of conduct for their fighters in an attempt to curb human rights abuses. But the execution of the soldiers Thursday indicated that the code is not being observed by all rank-and-file rebel fighters.
The video posted online Thursday was allegedly filmed at the Hamisho checkpoint west of Saraqeb. It shows rebel fighters kicking and insulting the government soldiers, who are spread out on the ground. Some of them appear to be wounded. One of the soldiers pleads, "I did not hit anyone, by Allah. I did not kill anyone."
The man filming the video tells the soldier to shut up and directs his comrades, "Organize them for me." The fighters pull the soldiers to the center of the room and open fire on the group, kicking up clouds of dust. The shooting continues for 20 seconds.
A second video posted online Thursday, which appears to have been filmed shortly after the execution, shows at least three other bodies spread out around the checkpoint. The man filming approaches two of the bodies and says, "The shabiha of Assad, the dogs."
6) Rebalancing Our National Security: The Benefits of Implementing a Unified Security Budget
A team of experts recommend ways to rebalance our national security budget.
Lawrence Korb and Miriam Pemberton, Center for American Progress/Institute for Policy Studies, October 31, 2012
Report released by the Institute for Policy Studies and the Center for American Progress.
The debate in Washington over security spending this year is being driven mostly by the Budget Control Act of 2011, the debt reduction deal that averted a government shutdown last summer. The law mandates about $1 trillion in cuts to federal government discretionary spending over 10 years beginning in fiscal year 2012, including $487 billion in Pentagon cuts. The law also mandates another $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction, by means of spending cuts, new revenues, or both over the next 10 years, with half taken from the Pentagon and half taken from discretionary spending on nondefense programs such as Medicare, foreign aid, and education.
This additional $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction, known as the "sequester," came in to play after Congress failed to reach an agreement on how to legislate the deficit reduction at the end of last year, and it will take place on January 2, 2013 if Congress fails to act again. Much effort is being expended from many quarters to see that sequestration does not happen. The House of Representatives seems inclined to exempt the Pentagon from cuts while deepening them for the rest of the budget. For his part, Secretary of Defense Panetta has said that these cuts would be a "potential disaster, like shooting ourselves in the head." But the heads of many other federal government agencies involved with sequestration, among them Jeffrey Zients of the Office of Management and Budget, have been reluctant to consider the consequences of the sequester.
The members of our Task Force agree with the near-universal consensus that sequestration is more about political maneuvering than sound budgeting practice. But we argue that the amount of cuts to the Pentagon budget mandated by both parts of the debt deal is readily achievable with no sacrifice to our security - if the cuts are done in a thoughtful manner over the next decade. We also agree that some of those savings in the U.S. defense budget should be redeployed to other parts of the federal government, specifically to those non-military programs that help our nation defend the homeland and prevent global crises from escalating into military confrontations.
7) China Presents Plan to End Syrian Conflict
Rick Gladstone, New York Times, November 1, 2012
A new proposal to end the conflict in Syria was presented on Thursday by China, one of the Syrian government's few foreign defenders, which calls for a phased-in truce, the establishment of a transitional authority and an intensified international response to the humanitarian crisis afflicting millions of Syrians.
It was unclear whether the proposal, presented during a visit to Beijing by the special Syria peace envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, differed substantially from a plan that Mr. Brahimi is formulating in an attempt to end the 20-month-old conflict. But it appeared to reflect concern by Chinese leaders that their consistent support for the legitimacy of the government of President Bashar al-Assad had strained China's relations with other Arab countries that have been pushing for Mr. Assad's removal.
China's proposal also was publicized a day after the United States, a strong supporter of the anti-Assad rebellion in Syria, announced its own aggressive proposals to reshape the Syrian opposition, which has been criticized as a dysfunctional group led by out-of-touch Syrian exiles who have little feel for the combat that is convulsing much of the country. The American proposal, outlined by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, is to be presented at a meeting of Syrian opposition figures in Qatar next week.
Together, the proposals by China and the United States suggested that the big powers on opposite sides of the Syria conflict had grown increasingly impatient with what appears to be a stalemate on the ground. There have also been indications that the antagonists believe that the only way to settle the conflict is by military force, as seen in the failure of Mr. Brahimi's cease-fire proposal over the weekend.
Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, said that under the proposal, "all parties should stop the violence" via a phased-in, region-by-region cease-fire and designate representatives to negotiate a path to a political transition. Xinhua said the proposal also called for international support for efforts by Mr. Brahimi and a group of influential powers convened by his predecessor in the job, Kofi Annan, to mediate a transition, and for "effective measures to address the humanitarian crisis in Syria."
8) U.S. looks to build alternative Syrian opposition leadership
Karen DeYoung and Anne Gearan, Washington Post, October 31
The Obama administration has spent the past several months in secret diplomatic negotiations aimed at building a new Syrian opposition leadership structure that it hopes can win the support of minority groups still backing President Bashar al-Assad.
The strategy, to be unveiled at a Syrian opposition meeting next week in Qatar, amounts to a last-ditch effort to prevent extremists from gaining the upper hand within the opposition and to stop the Syrian crisis from boiling over into the greater Middle East.
As envisioned by the Obama administration, the new Syrian leadership will include representatives of revolutionary councils and other unarmed groups inside the country. Territory along Syria's northern border with Turkey that is effectively under rebel military control is to be organized into an administrative zone with nonlethal assistance from the United States, France and other like-minded governments.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made official what had been the increasingly obvious U.S. disenchantment with the Syrian National Council, the exile-led organization that the administration has backed for most of the past year as the leading opposition group. Clinton and other U.S. officials are fed up with infighting among the expatriate SNC leaders seeking recognition as a shadow government and convinced that it neither represents all ethnic and religious groups inside Syria, nor has legitimacy among on-the-ground activists.
Administration disenchantment with the SNC grew in the summer, the official said, when it became clear that the exile-dominated group was more interested in its own leadership squabbles than in building support inside Syria.
In September, Clinton said, the administration facilitated "the smuggling out of a few representatives of the Syrian internal opposition" to meet with the international Friends of Syria group during the U.N. General Assembly. The internal leaders, officials said, made clear that the SNC did not represent them.
Not every member of the Friends of Syria group agrees with the administration's initiative. Qatar and Turkey continue to support the SNC as the principal opposition group, and the administration has spent much of the past several months trying to persuade them to see things differently.
9) Kuwaitis protest after activist held for insulting emir
Ahmed Hagagy, Reuters, Wed, Oct 31 2012
Kuwait - Kuwaiti police used teargas and smoke bombs on Wednesday to disperse thousands of protesters marching on a prison where an opposition leader is being held on charges of insulting the emir, witnesses said.
The unrest comes amid rising tension caused by changes to the election law which the opposition had condemned as an attempt to give pro-government candidates an advantage in parliamentary elections on December 1. The opposition are boycotting the poll.
Defense lawyers said on Wednesday prosecutors had charged Musallam al-Barrack on three counts related to a speech in which he made critical remarks about the 83-year-old emir, and ordered him held for 10 days pending further questioning.
Thousands later marched towards the prison demanding Barrak's release. Some carried a poster showing Barrak behind bars. "Set free the conscience of the nation, Musallam al-Barrak," a caption read.
Police ordered the crowd to disperse and then used teargas and smoke bombs.
Although Kuwait has avoided the upheavals seen in other Arab nations last year, tensions have escalated in parliament between the majority opposition bloc, made up of Islamists and tribal figures, and the cabinet, dominated by the al-Sabah family.
Barrak, an outspoken former member of parliament, was picked up from his home on Monday, two weeks after an opposition rally at which he made rare critical remarks about the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah. At the rally, Barrak had appealed to Sheikh Sabah to avoid "autocratic rule".
Prosecutors have charged him with encroaching on the pillars of the emirate, insulting the emir and infringing his authority, said a defense lawyer who asked not to be named.
He said prosecutors had ordered Barrak held for 10 days pending investigation and transferred him to the central prison.
Kuwait allows more free speech than some of its neighbors, but the constitution says the emir is "immune and inviolable". Insulting him carries a penalty of up to five years in jail.
Three other former lawmakers were earlier detained on similar charges, questioned and freed on bail pending trial, scheduled to start on November 13.
When the emir ordered changes to electoral rules, the opposition announced a boycott of the election and organized one of the biggest protests in Kuwait's recent history, bringing tens of thousands onto the streets.
At least 29 people and 11 policemen were wounded at the October 21 demonstration, which security forces tried to break up with teargas and stun grenades. Police also detained more than 15 people, most of whom were later freed, activists said.
The government has since banned gatherings of more than 20 people and pushed ahead with preparations for the election.
Kuwait has a more open political system than other Gulf states, allowing some parliamentary scrutiny over government decisions. But the emir retains most levers of power, including appointing the prime minister and dissolving parliament.
10) Why Chavez Won Again
Danny Glover, Foreign Policy in Focus, Wednesday, 31 October 2012
I had the privilege of traveling to Venezuela and witnessing the country's October 7 presidential election and watching the South American country's extraordinarily active and engaged citizenry in action. An impressive 81 percent of the electorate participated in a transparent and secure electoral process that former president Jimmy Carter reportedly referred to as the best in the world.
President Hugo Chavez's 10-point margin of victory over opposition candidate Henrique Capriles stands as a testament to the enduring popularity of his participatory democracy programs and his government's focus on addressing the needs of the poor.
Capriles campaigned on a platform that supported the government's social programs, while criticizing inefficiencies in many government sectors and capitalizing on fears over high rates of violence and unchecked corruption. In reality, as former key supporters revealed, and the majority of voters affirmed at the ballot box, Capriles and his allies backed a sweeping neo-liberal program fundamentally opposed to the current government's state-led, pro-social economic policies and support for direct collaboration with citizens in improving their wellbeing.
In contrast to his prior contempt for the democratic decisions of Venezeulans - including a failed coup in 2002 - Capriles formally conceded defeat shortly after the election results were announced. Although media coverage of Venezuelan politics might have led one to think otherwise, these presidential elections were about much more than Chavez, as significant as he may be as torch-bearer of the poor and marginalized.
I began to get a sense of the bigger picture when I visited the country for the first time nine years ago at the invitation of the Afro-Venezuelan Network. I saw how Venezuela's Afro-descendents - among the most under-educated, marginalized, and impoverished people in the country - were becoming proactive as full citizens under the Chavez government, increasingly participating in political decision-making at the local level and claiming a voice in regional, national, and even international affairs. And I became increasingly aware of the growing political collaboration among Afro-Venezuelans, the Chavez government, and the approximately 150 million people of African descent throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
My initial impressions, informed by my university studies in economics and my professional experience in community development in San Francisco, were confirmed on each of my subsequent visits. I observed numerous social, educational, cultural, and economic development projects that were improving the lives of marginalized communities and facilitating direct citizen participation and critical engagement in broader national, regional, and global affairs.
The Chavez government has also helped raise awareness about the historical links between racial exploitation and disempowerment and the socio-cultural relationship between wealth and luxury versus inequality and misery. The government's policies, for which the majority of Venezuelan citizens of all backgrounds have voted for the last 13 years, are addressing the legacy of slavery and helping expose and overcome generations of discrimination based on race, class, and gender.
On my most recent trip to witness the elections, I was greatly moved by the extraordinary civility and enthusiasm of voters from across the political spectrum, despite the fact that the opposing campaign agendas clearly represent radically different visions for the people and the country. Though media accounts create the impression that extreme political polarization is pervasive throughout Venezuela, I witnessed an atmosphere of respect and tranquility at the voting centers. At every voting booth, volunteers from both campaigns were present to ensure that citizens had access to the ballot box and could freely exercise their choice for president.
But the most important moment of my trip was the day after the election when I met with local leaders and activists from the Afro-Venezuela community of San Jose in Barlovento, on the northern coast of Venezuela. I conversed with community leaders descended from the "maroons" - Venezuelans who had escaped slavery and created self-sustaining communities over 400 years ago.
Youth leaders described the educational missions and government programs that provided them with unprecedented access to higher education. Members of workers' cooperatives discussed new state cacao processing factories co-managed by managers and workers that had helped lift the local economy and offered fair prices and social support to poor farmers. Other representatives of the community explained how new health and education missions were addressing the needs of communities that had had little or no access to basic services. In the small, poor community I visited, I learned about a state-run clinic focused exclusively on women's health issues. Though local leaders by and large expressed admiration for President Chavez and his policies, they also noted unresolved issues that they wanted to see addressed.
A Better Life
More generally, life has improved for a great number of Venezuelans over the last decade. Poverty has been cut in half and extreme poverty cut by 70 percent. Free health care, education, and public pension programs have been greatly expanded, the minimum wage has steadily increased, and unemployment has dropped below 8 percent.
The most promising aspect of the Venezuelan government's social development agenda is the proactive effort to promote democratic engagement and citizen control over local conditions and possibilities. We should all take note that these efforts are taking place in the middle of a global financial, economic, and ethical meltdown, when many countries are sharply scaling back social policies and embracing the neoliberal polices Venezuela has repeatedly rejected.
A great deal of the foreign media coverage of Venezuela gives the impression that Chavez's social and economic policies are incoherent, unsustainable, and based on short-term electoral considerations. For years, the financial press has predicted an imminent collapse of the Venezuelan economy. But, in fact, Venezuela enjoys a large trade surplus and has relatively little public debt. That provides the government with lots of room for continued expansionary fiscal, monetary, and social development policies.
The press also often vilifies Chavez and portrays his supporters - a strong majority of the country - as poor, reverent masses who are blindly manipulated by populist rhetoric and occasional cash handouts. This portrayal is not only false, it is denigrating and injurious to the basic workings of democracy: ordinary people expressing their desires with visions of an improved quality of life, development projects, and a choice of political stewards to achieve their goals. Yet, nearly 14 years after Chavez was first elected, misrepresentations and outright fabrications still prevail in mainstream U.S. papers, television news programs, and in the statements of politicians from both major parties.
If you want to understand how the Chavez administration continues to win free and fair elections, you need only hear the stories of formerly marginalized communities and look more carefully at the country's social and economic indicators. As I spoke with Afro-Venezuelans about their support for President Chavez and his agenda, I was reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said that we as a nation must undergo a "true revolution of values." As King explained, "A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth…and say, 'This is not just.'"
In the Oct. 7 elections, as in more than a dozen previous electoral cycles, Venezuela has shown that the majority of its people have a clear notion of justice and how it can be achieved. It is now time for those of us in the United States to look at our alliance with the elites of Latin America and say: This is not just.
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