Friday, February 21, 2014

Protest Coverage in Haiti and Venezuela Reveals U.S. Media Hypocrisy
February 21, 2014

2425The media coverage of the events unfolding in Venezuela provides a troubling example of how the imperial ambitions of the United States can magnify crises—especially when contrasted with the current political situation in Haiti.

Both Venezuela and Haiti have been facing anti-government protests, with the respective oppositions citing poor leadership, corruption, electoral fraud, and a deteriorating economy as their primary motivations in calling for change. However, the international media’s escalation of the Venezuelan crisis and their complete silence when it comes to Haiti, raises some important questions about the United States’ inconsistency in upholding the values of human rights and democracy.

Haiti has been enduring a political crisis since the highly controversial election of President Michel Martelly, who received his mandate from only 16.7 percent of registered voters, and has been running the country without a fully functioning government in order to avoid dealing with constitutionally mandated checks and balances. For the third year in a row, Martelly has promised to hold elections to fill legislative and local seats without yet following through.

As evidence of Martelly’s unbridled commitment to democracy, instead of holding elections for mayors whose terms expired in 2012, he personally handpicked the representatives, appointing them as “municipal agents.” As a result of Martelly’s political inaction on the national level, one third of the seats in the Haitian Senate remain empty. This congressional inability to establish quorum on issues of national importance has been particularly convenient for the President. In September 2013, the Senate put forward a resolution to indict President Martelly, Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, and the Minister of Justice Jean Renel Sanon for high treason, lying to the public, and playing a harmful role in the death of Judge Jean Serge Joseph.

Earlier in 2013, Judge Joseph had been given the task of overseeing a high profile corruption investigation against President Michel Martelly’s wife Sophia and their son Olivier. Judge Joseph had reported receiving threats to dismiss the corruption case during a meeting with Martelly, the Prime Minister, and the Minister of Justice and Public Security. Joseph refused, and two days later he died under suspicious circumstances.

Because the Haitian Senate has only 16 of 30 members currently active, the impeachment vote was not passed on a technicality. This was in spite of the decision, which saw 7 of the 16 members vote in favor of Martelly’s impeachment, with 9 abstentions and 0 voting against the motion. According to the Haitian Constitution, abstentions do not count as votes—with Article 117 stating that “All acts of the Legislature must be approved by a majority of the members present [emphasis added].” Thus, in regular circumstances the decision by the Senate would move forward with the impeachment. Therefore, this purposefully fragmented political system does a great deal to serve the interests of impunity.

This political crisis is especially worrying when the murder of opposition leaders in Haiti has gone largely unreported in the international press. Most recently, on February 8, Daniel Dorsainvil, one of Haiti’s leading human rights activists and his wife Girldy Lareche were gunned down in Port au Prince. While conflicted motives for the shooting have emerged, Haiti’s human rights community fears that the murders were politically motivated. Dorsainvil was the Coordinator of the Platform for Haitian Organizations for the Defense of Human Rights (POHDH). POHDH was established after the coup d’état of Jean Bertrand Aristide in 1991. According to POHDH’s website, “The systematic suppression of the military against the democratic and popular movement, which followed this event, and the mass amount of human rights violations in general, was the motivation for social and community development organizations to regroup with the purpose of initiating actions specifically in the field of human rights.”

A civil engineer by training, Dorsainvil had been a tireless advocate for justice, routinely speaking out against the Martelly government for its disregard of human rights, political scandals, and the consistent delaying of elections. Dorsainvil’s latest initiative was the establishment of the Patriotic People's Democratic Movement (MPDP), a group of thirty political and social organizations openly standing in opposition to Martelly’s government. While this attack is tragic on its own, it comes after numerous threats against Haitian human rights defenders such as Patrice Florvilus, Mario Joseph, and André Michel.

In May 2013, Patrice Florvilus, the Executive Director of Defenders of the Oppressed, was subjected to numerous death threats. Margaret Satterthwaite, Director of the Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law, remarked:

The targeting of Patrice Florvilus and other attorneys demonstrates a troubling pattern of state obstruction of legitimate human rights work in Haiti…The government’s use of state institutions such as law enforcement, and its failure to address judicial and extra-legal threats leave human rights defenders dangerously exposed. All sectors of the government, from the police to the courts, are responsible for safeguarding human rights. 

Due to the neglect and failure of the Haitian government to protect Florvilus and his family from attacks, he has had to relocate to Montreal in December 2013.

In October 2013, human rights lawyer Andre Michel was arrested by the Haitian National Police due to his initiation of legal proceedings against Martelly’s wife and son related to charges of corruption, which Judge Joseph oversaw before his death. Haitian human rights organizations condemned the arrest as an arbitrary and politically motivated attempt to intimidate human rights activists and members of the opposition.

Thus, while Martelly was praised by President Obama in early February for his leadership, Haiti has also seen a slew of anti-government protests due to the political crisis, human rights abuses, and economic decline. The lack of media attention regarding Martelly’s consistent attacks on popular organizations and human rights defenders in Haiti, in contrast to Venezuela is a stark reminder of how abuses of power can be marginalized if one has influential friends in the right places.

The media bias facing Venezuela—be it due to Venezuela’s fervent anti-U.S. policy and rhetoric, or the fact that it sits on the largest oil reserves in the hemisphere—allows the United States to shape public perception toward the country on its own strategic terms. In the absence of this insistence on sovereignty, human rights abuses and the suspension of political liberties can continue indefinitely in Haiti—as long as the government is set on accommodating the interests of the United States instead of challenging them.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Venezuela Chairs Committee on Draconian Anti-Haitian Citizenship Ruling

January 21, 2014

2348It has been four years since Haiti was struck by the January 12 earthquake of 2010. While many mainstream newspapers try to whitewash the worst failures of the international community’s reconstruction effort, the Center for Economic and Policy Research published a thorough, albeit disturbing list of figures outlining the troubled state of reconstruction in Haiti.
Many of these persistent problems are linked to the ongoing history of international intervention in Haiti, whereby the rights of international investors trample the self-determination, sovereignty, and emancipation of the Haitian people.

In contrast to the neocolonial actions of the United StatesCanada, and others who have worked to undermine Haiti’s reconstruction, stands Venezuela—now one of Haiti’s key allies, and one who has broken from the anti-people reconstruction policies and aligned itself in solidarity with, rather than in domination to, the Haitian people.

Perhaps the most well known Venezuelan assistance to Haiti has come in the form of the low cost of oil that Venezuela’s PetroCaribe program has made available. During Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro’s first visit to Haiti in June 2013, Haitian President Michel Martelly discussed the impact of the funds generated by the PetroCaribe agreement: “I would like to say very loudly that PetroCaribe funds represent 94% of our investment funds, which means that the majority of what is being done in Haiti has been realized with PetroCaribe funds….Government buildings are being rebuilt, social housing is being built and we are talking about increasing national production, about continuing with the free tuition education program and alphabetization.”

But in recent months, as tensions between Haiti and its neighboring Dominican Republic rise over the most explicitly racist immigration control measures of the hemisphere, Venezuela’s support has grown to encompass not only economic, but also diplomatic assistance as well.

The Dominican Republic’s high-court ruling of September 2013, often referred to as the “sentencia” (“judgement”), strips citizenship from hundreds of thousands of residents of Haitian descent, retroactively denying citizenship to anyone born in the Dominican Republic to undocumented parents dating back to 1929. The decision sparked outrage within Haiti, the diaspora, and human rights circles; the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights denounced the decision, stating that beyond discriminatory, it deprives Dominican-born Haitians a nationality, violating their rights.

Venezuela's Maduro has led the initiative in bringing the Dominican and Haitian governments together in bilateral conversations about the ruling. On the sidelines of the December meeting of the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA) and PetroCaribe, Maduro chaired a meeting between the two countries—an initiative that resulted in a bilateral committee that will work on issues related to trade, migration, environment, security, and the border. Furthermore, Venezuela would provide a special envoy to help mediate the conflict, with CARICOM and the European Union acting as observers.

It was only after the creation of this bi-lateral committee that the United States finally broke its long-held silence on the issue. On December 18, the day after Maduro’s diplomatic success, the U.S. Department of State’s deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf commented: “We've urged the (Dominican Republic) Government to continue close consultation with international partners and civil society to identify and expeditiously address, in a humane way, concerns regarding the planned scope and reach to affected persons.”

In a broadcast aired on December 24, Maduro revealed that he had been working with the governments of the two countries to re-start bilateral talks for over one month. During an interview with the Venezuelan newspaper Últimas Noticias, Maduro remarked, “We are unconditional brothers with the Haitian people and whoever messes with the people of Haiti messes with the people of Venezuela.”

Insightfully, Maduro also pointed out the historical role of colonialism in fomenting the divisions between Haitians and Dominicans and elsewhere in Latin America, stating: “We have to overcome the historical obstacle that the old colonialisms have left us and that at time is seen around, such as the oligarchy, the right, that permanently are trying to put forward the issue of hate against the people of Guyana, hate against the Colombian people, hate against Latin America, the anti-Bolivarian hate.”
Since the earthquake, international coverage of Haiti has been dominated by the patchwork celebrity philanthropy of characters like Bill Clinton, Wyclef Jean and Bono; a challenge to these neoliberal post-earthquake reconstruction efforts is being set by Venezuela's model of international cooperation today.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Q&A with Raul Burbano, Canadian Electoral Observer in Honduras

December 4, 2013

2203Upon his return to Toronto, I had the opportunity to catch up with Raul Burbano, Program Director of Common Frontiers. Common Frontiers is a multi-sectoral working group based in Toronto that organizes research, educational campaigns, and political action on issues related to hemispheric economic, social, and climate justice. Raul reported from Honduras during the election and was gracious enough to take the time to talk about his experiences and provide some analysis of the current electoral crisis.

Kevin Edmonds: When you were on the ground in the days before the election, what was the general attitude of the public? Were they hopeful or did they see this coming?

Raul Burbano: We were on the ground from the 17-27th in Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, Choloma, El Triunfo de la Cruz, Arizona, and Valle de Siria. The mood was contradictory because in general people had high expectations for change, but at the same time expressed a lack of confidence in the process and in fair and transparent elections. As the elections drew closer, this became more apparent with people like cab drivers, vendors, and LIBRE activists sharing their personal stories about the irregularities within the voter registry. Stories of voters showing to be dead on the registry list and dead people registered to vote, names associated with pictures of other people, all disqualifying them from voting…this was the first sign that many pointed to as fraud.   

The Canadian delegation was the first to report and denounce the elections. What were some of the irregularities that caused your group to make this decision?

RB: Our delegation was part of the larger group, the Honduran Solidarity Network (HSN), and together we were the largest delegation of observers (190) spread across the country in 10 districts.
The atmosphere of fear and violence leading up to the elections must also be taken into account when considering fair elections. There were numerous reports of pre-election intimidation, violence, and murder of opposition candidates with as many as 18 from the LIBRE party murdered just 6 months prior to the elections. Two days prior to the elections masked men with guns, presumed to be military police, surrounded the LIBRE party headquarters in Tegucigalpa. Members of our delegation were present and observed the fear and anger of LIBRE sympathizers. The day before the elections Maria Amparo Pineda, LIBRE party’s Cantarranas polling station president, and other member, Julio Ramón Araujo Maradiaga, were assassinated after leaving a polling station training.

Speaking to our own experience on the ground, the scare tactics started from when we arrived in Honduras. There was a strong atmosphere of intimidation on the part of the government toward independent observers. After our pre-election press conference, armed immigration officials raided the hotels where our northern delegation was staying, asking for their passports and documentation, threatening to expel observers. This was a clear attempt to intimidate our group.

At numerous voting centers there was no “custodio”—the person in charge of the voting center. This means that in some cases the military police had to take responsibility for all the material. In the municipality of Ojojona, rather than being able to speak to a “custodio,” we were greeted by a TSE official who identified himself as being in charge of the voting centre, despite the fact that was only a “vocale”—a support person at a voting table. He spoke to us in English, describing himself as a U.S. citizen and former navy seal with considerable land holdings in the area. He made no effort to hide his disdain for the LIBRE party, stating, “we don’t want those commies here.” He expressed his and everyone’s “strong support” for the ruling National party.

We visited areas where there was no electricity or an internet connection to transmit the results. In many cases the technical person in charge was not aware of the correct protocol to follow, and in some cases they asked us what they should do. In one voting center in the municipality of Santa Ana, military police demanded our personal information even though we were clearly identified as accredited observers. At one voting station in the barrio of La Joya in Tegucigalpa, I was pulled out in the middle of observing the vote count by TSE and military police and asked to leave. So I had to ask myself: if they can do this with international observers, what can they do with local observers and electoral participants?

Not to mention that we received numerous reports of vote buying and the refusal of access to opposition members at various voting centers across the country.

So when we compared our experience with the rest of our delegation who had also observed and documented serious and undeniable fraud in all 10 districts in which they observed, we came to the conclusion that our experience was not an exception, but rather the standard. We felt this opened up the elections to serious issues of fraud.

What also caught my attention was on Sunday night. We were sitting around the TV watching the vote count when David Matamoros, president of Honduras' electoral court and member of the governing National Party, announced the preliminary results. Despite only 54% of the votes counted, he announced the National party with 34.9% of the vote and LIBRE with 28.36%. Not to mention that he provided no details to back up the number that was given, like where that data was coming from, or that about 500 of the voting centers lack electricity or an internet connection, clearly meaning that those numbers would be outstanding until later that week. With such high stakes on the line, why would the TSE be so irresponsible as to give out results that were not substantiated or irreversible at that early point? What his announcement triggered was that all major news networks, locally and internationally, proclaimed Juan Orlando Hernández as the new president—in essence laying the ground work for the pre-determined outcome.

KE: There have been comments since the discovery of widespread fraud that the democratic path has failed, and that now it is time to step up the offensive against the oligarchy. What are your thoughts on this movement? Do you think it is a minority opinion or a real possibility?

RB: There’s serious debate and opposition in Honduras to the electoral strategy of the LIBRE party. It goes back to the National Assembly of the resistance that took place in June 2011 where the decision was taken to follow the electoral strategy.

There’s a significant movement that argues for the need to strengthen the resistance movement with a focus on social and political struggle through mass mobilization from below—local struggles in communities and barrios that build an inclusive and participatory process that focuses on transformative solutions as opposed to reforms. Many of these groups are already involved in struggles for territory, indigenous culture, anti-patriarchy, etc—groups like the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), Garifina communities, and women’s organizations.

In retrospect one can say the biggest losers in these elections are the social movements. This is because much of the energy has gone into the electoral process and into building the LIBRE party at the expense of strengthening the social movements. The results can be seen in the weak response on the streets by the LIBRE party and the movements that support them. It took a week for people to take to the streets to protest the fraud, and it was not as significant a turn-out as we saw in the past against the coup.

KE: While your delegation released its denunciation of the election results, Canada has remained silent—with its silence working as acceptance. Can you discuss some of the reasons why Canada is so supportive of the national party?

RB: The Canadian government is recklessly focused on trade and investment at any costs, even at the expense of human and labor rights abroad. In Honduras it’s the mining, sweatshop, and tourism sectors that Canadian corporations covet. It was no coincidence that the Canada-Honduras free trade agreement was signed just weeks before the Presidential election in Honduras. This was, in my opinion, a quid pro quo where Canadian corporations will benefit from the investment protection measures contained in the Chapter 10 of the bilateral free trade agreement, and in return Canada bestows further legitimacy to an electoral process that is largely illegitimate.

KE: Can you comment on the breakaway member of the EU delegation that has denounced the Honduran election as a fraud? How do delegations work? Can you provide some insight as to how the decision making process unfolds?

RB: I can’t really comment as to the inner workings of the EU delegation or process. In terms of Leo Gabriel, the European delegate who has come out questioning his own EU report, I think it does make some things clearer in terms of the ulterior motives behind the EU and its need to whitewash Honduras’ image. Much like our government, they, too, are willing to turn a blind eye to corruption, fraud, violence, murder, and human rights violations, all to safeguard their corporate profit. Therefore, presenting a clean and transparent electoral process helps the European Union to clean up Honduras’s image around the world and set this commercial project into motion. [Raul directed my attention to an agreement signed by the European Union and the Central American region (EU-CA AA).]

KE: What can those of us outside of Honduras do?

RB: Solidarity is the key tool to help the Honduran people in their struggle. But just as important for those of us who live here in Canada is to join the local struggles against things like the pipelines, so-called trade agreements, anti-fracking, mining, indigenous sovereignty, and so on, that challenge the status quo. For its our Conservative government in collusion with transnational corporations that seeks to impose a model that priorities profit over human life, the environment, democracy, etc—in Honduras, but here in Canada as well.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Honduran Election Results Contested by International Observers

November 28, 2013

2182Honduras’ elections on November 24 had the potential of reversing some of the worst pro-market, anti-people policies put forward by the government of Porfirio Lobo, who was the direct beneficiary of the 2009 coup that ousted the left-of-center Manuel Zelaya. Instead, the elections have been fraught with irregularities and violent intimidation, threatening to throw the embattled nation into further political disarray.

These elections were regarded as pivotal for Honduras, as the administration of the ruling National Party has done little to combat the country’s poverty rate which stands at over 60 percent. Instead the National Party has been focused on opening up the country to multinational corporations. This is best demonstrated by the National Party’s passage of a new mining law that would remove the moratorium on the granting of new mining concessions put in place by former president Zelaya in 2008. The new mining law, which was passed earlier this year, was drafted with the help of the Canadian International Development Agency. The law effectively allows for a return to destructive open-pit mining practices that have been linked to numerous human rights abuses and widespread environmental destruction.

In addition to revising the mining laws, as detailed last year by NACLA’s Keane Bhatt, the Lobo administration was also busy luring developers and investors to build highly problematic “charter cities.” Bhatt described these charter cities as “privately owned municipalities that would be managed autonomously, complete with their own police forces, tax codes, and legal systems;postID=8815860418705130568. These cities would develop industries for export-oriented growth, like textile manufacturing; they would also sign onto international trade agreements independently, and manage their own immigration policies.”

Standing in opposition to these pro-multinational corporation policies, the LIBRE (Liberty and Refoundation) Party is led by Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of former president Manuel Zelaya—who, under the constitution, was barred from running for a second term. The LIBRE party emerged from the post-coup resistance movement and seeks to build a Honduras in which self-determination and social justice—not the rule of the oligarchs—prevail. Due to the strength and wealth of those they oppose, the LIBRE party has been systematically attacked by the military police and paramilitary forces associated with the various landowners and business figures.

Rights Action has extensively documented the violent intimidation of LIBRE party members and progressive journalists in the run-up to the November 24 elections. Rights Action recently released a report that revealed since May 2012, at least 18 LIBRE party activists have been killed, with 15 others falling victim to armed attacks.

Despite the presence of hundreds of international observers, the state-sanctioned violence and intimidation did not cease. As reported by members of the Canadian NGO Common Frontiers who were part of the official delegation, the day before the election armed groups entered hotels in Tegucigalpa in order to intimidate election observers. With the passage of time, it is becoming increasingly apparent that examples of armed intimidation were crucial to the victory of the National Party’s candidate Juan Orlando Hernández.

Soon after the contested results were announced, Canadian electoral observers released a statement on November 25, stating that “After careful consideration of our own observations of the electoral process in Honduras we find the presidential elections to be inconsistent with democratic principles and rife with fraudulent practices.”

Their statement concluded with their recommendations: “We urge the Canadian government not to recognize the results of the Honduran elections. There must be an opportunity to do a full, transparent, accurate count, and fully investigate the many reports of irregularities, intimidation and threats by authorities.” (The entire statement from the Canadian delegation can be read here).

Following the statement by the Canadian delegation, on November 26, the National Lawyers Guild published a press release which declared that “The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) delegation of 17 credentialed international observers seriously question the validity of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s (TSE) preliminary results of Sunday’s national elections in Honduras. The NLG takes issue with the United States government’s characterization of the electoral process as transparent, given the country's recent and pervasive human rights violations… The NLG noted a strong will and enthusiasm among Hondurans to participate in the electoral process despite a pervasive climate of fear and intimidation surrounding opposition party members and observers. Over the weekend, two LIBRE party activists were murdered, while two other deaths and three injuries were reported near a voting center in the Moskitia region. In addition, international observers reported multiple incidents of intimidation by state actors in the days leading up to the elections.”

It is predictable that the United States and Canada will support the contested results of the election, as irregularities are only important when their favoured candidate does not win. One only has to look at their support for the electoral process in Haiti in 2010—a situation in which 14 political parties were banned and observers witnessed widespread fraud and irregularities. Both countries have a great deal invested in Honduras, financially and geopolitically. Indeed the entire process was summed up brilliantly by Canales Vásquez, a LIBRE activist, who remarked to Upside Down World’s Sandra Cuffe: “They don’t want an example to be set in Honduras where the people kick the oligarchy out at the ballot box and where the system changes in favor of the people. That’s what we’re struggling for in Honduras, and that’s the reason for this repression against the people and against the LIBRE party.”

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Cuba’s Reforms Favor Foreign Investment, Create Low-Wage Sponge

October 31, 2013

2080For over 50 years the island of Cuba has defiantly stood its ground in the Caribbean, rejecting a capitalist economic model in favor of a system that has served the needs of its people, first, and those of the international economy, a distant second. As a result of this determination, the Cuban model has been hailed for its successes in social and cultural development—particularly in the fields of healthcare and education. During the 1980s and 1990s when the Washington Consensus was at its peak in the hemisphere and was restructuring neighbouring economies such as Jamaica, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic along free market lines, Cuba maintained its self-determination by staying outside of the reach of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

A key aspect of the economic restructuring which spread across the majority of Latin America and the Caribbean was the implementation of export processing zones, or EPZs. The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines EPZs as “industrial zones with special incentives set up to attract foreign investors, in which imported materials undergo some degree of processing before being (re-)exported again.” After studying the macroeconomic and social effects of EPZs for nearly 30 years, the ILO has criticized this model of development, arguing that it places downward pressure on wages and labor standards in what they refer to as “the race to the bottom.” Additionally, the geographically isolated nature of EPZs makes workers especially vulnerable, as the zones “present employers the opportunity to circumvent worker’s rights with impunity.”

It is primarily for these reasons that Cuba’s decision to establish a 465 square kilometer EPZ at the port of Mariel, 45 kilometers west of Havana, has been met with a great deal of concern. The shift of the primary port facilities from Havana to Mariel is part of a massive project that seeks to turn Mariel into Cuba’s most important hub for cargo and light manufacturing. The $900 million project has largely been funded by Brazilian capital and will be managed by the Singaporean firm PSA.

It appears that the decision to construct the Mariel EPZ is in reaction to the earlier economic reforms undertaken by Raul Castro that have created a large amount of unemployment. For example, in 2010 alone, Raul Castro announced that one million workers in state-owned firms would lose their jobs in order to streamline the Cuban economy; workers were encouraged to become entrepreneurs or find employment in the private sector. Thus it is likely that the adoption of the export processing zones will act as a low-wage sponge for the significant amount of surplus labor created by the increasing liberalization of the Cuban economy.

During the last major economic crisis faced by Cuba—which came about with the fall of the Soviet Union and ushered in the “Special Period” starting in 1991—the Cuban state reorganized itself along pragmatic lines, opening itself up to increased international tourism. By 1994, tourism revenues surpassed those of Cuba's traditional sugar exports, making international tourism Cuba’s most important source of income. While the decision to open up to international tourism was critiqued as a return to the bad old days of foreign exploitation under Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban government was heavily involved in the emerging tourism industry, arguing that the influx of foreign income was now the lifeblood of the Cuban economy. With EPZs, the same line of thought can no longer be argued.

Unlike the regulated and heavily state-owned tourism model, the adoption of EPZs provides a space similar to export processing zones elsewhere in the world where foreign corporations pay no tariffs on imported material and machinery, and where they enjoy a 10 year tax holiday where they may transfer all of their profits abroad without paying any property or sales taxes. The Cuban government has publically defended the EPZ project, stating that "the Zone will function on the basis of special policies with the goal of promoting sustainable economic development by stimulating international and domestic investment, as well as technological innovation and the concentration of industry."

It must be noted that this is not the first time that Cuba has tried to adopt this economic model. In 1997, Cuba briefly experimented with the establishment of four export processing zones, but they garnered little international interest due to the ongoing U.S. embargo. However, this most recent decision to construct EPZs is a significant jump that embraces some of the most controversial and arguably damaging aspects of the now discredited Washington Consensus. The ILO has demonstrated that unless EPZs have significant backward and forward linkages to the rest of the host economy, they are of little economic benefit. At worst they are simply a site where cheap and often female labor is exploited.

Whether the construction of the EPZ at Mariel will be an isolated occurrence, or the start of a shift towards a Chinese/Vietnamese EPZ-based economy, remains to be seen. Perhaps the decision to turn over a portion of Cuban territory to the demands of international capital is an overture of economic reform intended to bolster relations with the U.S. What is clear is that if Cuba does decide to embrace EPZs as a major part of its economy without establishing numerous economic linkages to the domestic economy, the pro capital policies that are demanded by this model will pose a significant threat to Cuba’s progress in the areas of genuine and sustained human development. If Cuba, like so many others who have embraced the EPZ model, is not careful on this new economic path, it may end up sacrificing its self-determination and human development only to receive increased levels of poverty in return.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

“Operation Lionfish” Highlights the Caribbean’s Comparative Advantage
July 11, 2013

1887In economic textbooks the theory of comparative advantage is regarded as a fundamental cornerstone of how economies are organized. Plainly stated, comparative advantage occurs when one country (or in this case a group of countries) specialize in the production of a particular product due to the fact it can produce this product more efficiently than its competitors. Thus, with each country specializing in a particular industry or product it is assumed that all countries will become better off.

This was the assumption guiding the decision by the World Trade Organization to put an end to the Caribbean’s protected trade with several European nations because it undermined the fundamental principles of free trade. With the distortions in the market eliminated by the adoption of free trade, it was assumed that the Caribbean would be able to specialize in other industries, particularly tourism and offshore banking.
Due to a few fundamental errors in the theory of comparative advantage—such as the assumption that the resources (eg. land, labor, and machinery) used in one industry can be absorbed by another and that there are no negative consequences of the shift (ie. externalities)—the experience of the Caribbean stands as an important case study as to why theory does not always bear out in reality.

Firstly, the new shifts in global trade prioritized highly educated workers in the new offshore financial sector—jobs which were out of reach for the newly displaced farmers. Secondly, tourism is highly dependent on imported goods, with an estimated 80% of the food served in Caribbean hotels being imported. Thus, the lack of opportunities for the many farmers throughout the Caribbean resulted in an increase of unemployment, urban migration, and reduced government revenues. To paraphrase what I have been told by several economists on the topic “So what, that is capitalism, economies change and people have to retrain and find new jobs.” This is the so what.

On July 3, it was announced that Interpol conducted an operation known as “Operation Lionfish,” which seized nearly 30 tons of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana with an estimated street value of nearly one billion dollars. The operation was conducted across the Caribbean and Central America, spanning 34 countries and territories and involving the World Customs Organization (WCO) and the Caribbean Customs Law Enforcement Council (CCLEC) with assistance from the French Coastguard, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and Europol.

While the seizure is being portrayed as a great success for hemispheric law enforcement cooperation, it also highlights the failure of alternative and realistic sources of employment to emerge in the region since the shift away from protected trade. While blame certainly can be shared among Caribbean leaders, the United States, International Financial Institutions, and multinational corporations—the reality is that the forced reformation of Caribbean economies away from agriculture without adequate resources to prepare for the socio-economic fallout set up the region for a nearly impossible challenge.

Now during times of across-the-board austerity and reduced revenues, Caribbean governments are being expected to help the United States win its “War on Drugs” with increased law enforcement spending. At the same time, this funding is shifting away from much needed social programs, education, healthcare, and infrastructure projects. The sad truth is that remittances and the drug trade (the drug trade in Jamaica is estimated at having a value of nearly 80% of the legitimate economy) have played a significant role in preventing many Caribbean economies from imploding—but at the steep cost of a social breakdown.

It is this growing violence associated with the drug trade and rising inequality which are the “externalities” which are not calculated into the cost of reorganizing national economies. The tragic story is the same when it comes to Haiti’s experience with rice and Mexico’s experience with corn—it was assumed that sweatshops would absorb those displaced from farming.

Contrary to the ideas of the United States, the War on Drugs cannot be won by simply trying to shoot one’s way out of it. There are deep structural causes which provide a steady stream of foot soldiers into the drug trade; many young people are growing up without a source of hope or opportunity. Thus, it is in this situation where Caribbean leaders need to take a look at how their economies are developing and who is being left out—and the subsequent consequences of these changes.

Caribbean leaders have implemented the prescriptions of the economic experts, and they have failed to bring about increased prosperity in the region. Regional leaders need to stand united and state that they are seeking to put the priorities of their people first and are not willing to be bullied by capital anymore. Whether it will happen is another matter entirely. It will reveal to the people of the Caribbean whether or not Caribbean leaders and their supposed “partners” such as the United States or the International Financial Institutions want to address the root of the problem or if they are happy with the Caribbean’s current comparative advantage. It is a status quo which has failed the people of the Caribbean both in theory and in practice.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Revisiting the Cincinnati Enquirer vs. Chiquita
July 4, 2013

1882Given the ongoing debate surrounding Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning—and whether or not they committed a crime or acted in the public good—it is fitting to revisit a case that showed how the “illegitimate” gathering of evidence was considered a more serious crime than that of engaging in widespread murder, bribery, arms trafficking, and knowingly poisoning the environment of communities throughout Latin America. It is the story of the Cincinnati Enquirer vs. Chiquita Banana.

In 1998, Mike Gallagher and Cameron McWhirter, two investigative reporters from the Cincinnati Enquirer, published an 18-page expose which revealed that Chiquita banana (headquartered in Cincinnati) was engaged in wide ranging human rights abuses and environmental crimes. The journalists had worked with Chiquita lawyer George Ventura, who provided access to Chiquita’s internal voicemail system. They were able to obtain confidential information about Chiquita’s role in widespread criminal activity by monitoring internal communications.

Shortly after the publication of the story, the Cincinnati Enquirer had to issue both a retraction and apologize not for the acts being untrue—but for the way in which Gallagher and McWhirter gained their information. In addition to the apology and retraction, the Cincinnati Enquirer was forced to pay Chiquita a settlement of over $10 million for damages. Both Gallagher and Ventura were convicted of stealing Chiquita’s internal voicemails—with Gallagher being immediately fired from the paper. The ruling was a clear statement that investigations of corporate wrongdoing was subject to severe punishment and should be discouraged by the example set by the Cincinnati Enquirer. While the articles were retracted, they are still available here on the WikiLeaks website.

Clearly with the case of Chiquita, it did not learn its lesson—as the damaging reports from 1998 did nothing to stop it from admitting to paying Colombian right wing death squads in 2003. Represented by current Attorney General Eric Holder, Chiquita claimed that they were being extorted by the groups and had to pay the money in order to protect their workers. Mario Iguaran, the Attorney General of Colombia claimed otherwise, bluntly stating that "this was not payment of extortion money. It was support for an illegal armed group whose methods included murder."

Simply, the attempt by the court system to erase any wrongdoing from Chiquita’s record allowed it to continue with the status quo and terrorize communities throughout Latin America. According to Iguaran, Chiquita's payments to the AUC paramilitaries (an organization listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department) led to the murder of 4,000 civilians in the banana growing regions of Colombia and funded the growth of paramilitary organizations throughout the country. Additionally, court documents have shown that a shipment of 3,000 AK-47 assault rifles and 5 million rounds of ammunition from Nicaragua to Colombia in 2001 was invoiced to Chiquita.

This shows the double standard that exists between the people on one side and corporations and the government on the other. In the Snowden controversy, the Obama administration has defended the actions of the National Security Agency by stating that their monitoring of the civilian population allowed them to prevent terrorist attacks—thus Snowden is a criminal and the government was seeking to protect the public. In the case of Chiquita, Gallagher, McWhirter, and Ventura exposed the criminal activities of a multinational corporation with close ties to the United States and Colombian governments in addition to terrorist organizations—yet they were the ones who were punished. It was only five years later in 2003 that Chiquita was forced to pay a $25 million fine for their criminal activities throughout Latin America—with none of the money going to the affected communities.

Despite the U.S. Justice Department stating that Chiquita's payments to the paramilitaries ''were reviewed and approved by senior executives of the corporation, to include high-ranking officers, directors and employees,'' they did not list specific names to avoid wider measures of accountability. What the Cincinnati Enquirer revealed about Chiquita Banana was the stranglehold that corporations have over the legal system and the double standard regarding the application of justice. The courts deemed that the crime committed by Gallagher, McWhirter, and Ventura was more serious than the multitude of crimes committed by Chiquita.
In the end, the issue of whistleblowing and the government's response is dictated by unequal relationships of power. Actions which challenge the status quo and shed light of matters regarded as inconvenient by governments and multinational corporations will be portrayed as illegal or unethical, while those which seek to further cement the legitimacy of everyday criminal activity by the powerful is applauded. Eventually, in July of 2012, Gallagher had his record expunged by the courts, but not after having his career destroyed and his courageous work silenced.

One glimmer of hope regarding Chiquita being held accountable for its criminal activities is the ongoing lawsuit in a Florida court brought about by thousands of Colombians, who are the relatives of victims, in seeking to hold the company accountable for murder, torture, and environmental destruction. Villagers allege that the death squads used “random and targeted violence in exchange for financial assistance and access to Chiquita’s private port for arms and drug smuggling.” Furthermore, over 5,500 pages of documents contradicting Chiquita’s claim that it was extorted by Colombian paramilitaries have been released and are available online here. Chiquita’s continued involvement in criminal activity highlights how large and influential corporations feel as if they are above the law. Openly lying to the court and paying a relatively small fee in proportion to the damage they have caused across Latin America is not evidence of justice—it is blatant evidence of corruption which go up to the highest levels of government.