Friday, May 23, 2014

The Creeping Decriminalization of Marijuana in the Caribbean

May 23, 2014
NACLA.org


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While the decriminalization of marijuana has been a topic of discussion for decades, those in attendance at this week’s Jamaica Cannabis Conference are doing more than just blowing smoke—they are discussing the upcoming stages of a long-overdue and vital transformation of the Caribbean’s regional economy. Jamaica has long been associated with potent, naturally grown marijuana, but also the unfortunate social ills that have accompanied its criminalization.

While marijuana, or ganja, arrived in the Caribbean with Indian indentured laborers in the mid-1800s, it was not criminalized until 1913, when the Ganja law came into effect at the behest of the church and colonial elites. The ban was largely based on ignorant, racist perceptions of the evil effects that ganja would have on the poor black majority, and thus dealt out fines and other oppressive penalties for consumption or cultivation. During the 1940s and the 1950s, despite the cultivation of ganja for spiritual and medical reasons, it became the routine justification for government raids upon the original, self-sufficient Rastafari community of Pinnacle.

Despite Jamaica's independence in 1962, the colonial origins of criminalizing ganja were not eroded, but strengthened. When Jamaica signed the United Nations Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1964, it became obligated to treat marijuana as a harmful drug, following the prevailing attitude of the United States. Under the banner of the War on Drugs, the Jamaican government diverted millions of dollars from social development to eradicate marijuana plantations through aerial spraying. If Jamaica refused, under the conditions of the U.S. Drug Certification Policy enacted in 1986, Jamaica would risk losing access to U.S. trade, aid, loans, and visas.

There are very serious human rights issues associated with the prohibition of marijuana. Across the Caribbean, courts are backlogged with simple possession charges for small quantities of marijuana. In one case in St. Lucia, fines for small quantities of marijuana reached $200, or up to 30 days in jail. These charges in turn limit employment and travel opportunities, creating intergenerational disadvantages for those who face jail time. As a result of the overloaded prison systems across the region, the economic and social costs of marijuana are tremendous, as much needed economic resources are taken away from social development and funneled towards and endless cycle of law and order policies.

In addition, the criminalization of marijuana has also led to the unfortunate and unnecessary marginalization of the Rastafari community, which regard the herb as a holy sacrament. Last August St. Lucian journalist Earl Bousquet commented on the negative portrayal of marijuana in the 1960s and 1970s:

Marijuana was...pinned to the Rastafarian movement that started spreading to the rest of the region from Jamaica at the same time. The then leaders erroneously hoped they could easily do away with ‘Rastas and marijuana’ through new laws and armed police forces. By legally twinning Rastafarianism with an illegal substance, growth of a positive and distinctively Caribbean social movement driven by the works of Marcus Garvey, rooted in Pan Caribbean-African nationalism and advocating closer communion with nature half-a-century ago was stifled, suppressed and forced to spend more time resisting and fighting ‘Babylon’ than refining the philosophical, spiritual, cultural and political base of the only indigenous Caribbean movement of its kind in the 20th century.

As a further result of these criminalization policies, Jamaica now has to play catch up in the newly emerging legal and medical marijuana market, according to Dr. Albert Lockhart, a leading ophthalmologist and noted speaker at the Cannabis Conference, who stated that “we are 40 years late.” Dr. Lockhart has helped to pioneer medicine derived from marijuana such as Canasol (which treats glaucoma) and Asmasol (which treats asthma), but due to lack of funding their discoveries are not widely known outside of the island. Dr. Lockhart further warned that if Jamaica does not act now it would be at risk of missing the boat, losing out to countries such as the United States, where the states of Colorado and Washington have fueled the push for legalization across the region—and Canada where medical marijuana has become big business.

Phillip Paulwell, Jamaican Minister of Science and Technology, has assured interested parties that marijuana will be decriminalized by the end of the year. Paulwell remarked that “I am of the firm opinion that scientific research into marijuana, both in the very many uses of the plant as hemp, and its medical properties, is an idea whose time has come,” adding that a marijuana-based medical industry could earn as much as $5.2 billion.

So the Cannabis Conference closed with hope that Jamaica and the wider Caribbean will be able to finally cash in and create a world leading, legal industry which not only acts as a cash crop and provides much needed agricultural jobs, but also as the building blocks for the development of wide ranging medical treatments. Additionally, the new CARICOM Regional Commission on Marijuana Use shows a regional investigative interest. Beyond just decriminalization, the Ganja Future Growers and Producers Association has been advocating for a regulatory model that will benefit small growers instead of large corporations, stating: “For the first three years of a regulated industry, licenses should only be given to plots of one acre or less.” The taxable income from the industry has the power to transform stagnating Caribbean economies and will allow them to have the self determination to rightfully produce a quality product which the world has always demanded in great quantity, but has been criminalized for far too long.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

After 34 Years, Walter Rodney's Assassination in Guyana now Under Review

May 7, 2014
NACLA.org


Just after 8pm on June 13, 1980, Walter Rodney was assassinated by a bomb hidden in a walkie-talkie at the height of his political activism. Rodney was a bright light in a Guyana trying to navigate its way through political chaos, and his assassination ushered in a dark time for those who hoped to bring about grassroots social transformation in Guyana, and throughout the Caribbean.

2574For nearly 34 years, the untimely assassination of Walter Rodney had gone virtually uninvestigated—a coroner's inquest in 1988 concluded that Rodney had perished either "by accident or misadventure." However, while the long delay and reluctance by the Guyanese government has led to several of the most prominent figures escaping justice, it is hoped that the Commission of Inquiry (COI), which began on April 28, will provide the chance for the PNC government to finally set the historical record straight.

In his short life, Walter Rodney displayed incredible intellectual ability, earning his PhD at the age of 24 and, only a few years later, producing the classic How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, a brilliant account of how the poverty and inequality that Africa currently faces is a direct result of Europe’s colonial violence and domination. In addition to these achievements, Rodney was an individual who best exemplified the idea of praxis—linking his intellectual analysis with political activity, dedicated to organizing and empowering the masses who had historically been excluded from exercising political power. As such, Rodney has been repeatedly referred to as “the prophet of self-emancipation”—a firm believer and practitioner of People’s Power and Pan-Africanism.

Rodney’s political activism was deeply shaped by Guyana's turbulent political history. In 1950, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) started out as the first mass, multi-ethnic party in the country, running upon a pro-independence platform (at the time Guyana was self-governing, but not formally independent), stressing economic development and the creation of a socialist society. Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham were both founding members of the PPP, however in the aftermath of a coup organized by the British government in October 1953, Jagan and Burnham split—resulting in a fracturing of political representation along ethnic lines. Jagan and the PPP were largely considered to be the party of the Indo-Guyanese population, while Burnham and the People’s National Congress (PNC) became the party of the Afro-Guyanese.

During the late 1970s, Guyana’s neo-colonial political system experienced a deep crisis due to the Burnham government’s repeated electoral fraud, concentrating power through unconstitutional amendments and responding to the backlash with beatings, imprisonment, and harassment of political opponents. It was in the midst of this crisis whereby the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), a newly formed opposition political party uniquely organized along the lines of racial and economic diversity, sought to transcend the establishment tactic of ruling via manipulating the country’s racial divide. Thus due to the important origins of the WPA and their political line, party members were quickly singled out by the authoritarian government of Forbes Burnham as enemies of the state. This state of repression against Burnham's political opponents, which included Walter Rodney, continued until 1992, when Cheddi Jagan was elected president.

Aside from Forbes Burnham, the “intellectual author” of the assassination who passed away in 1985, the individual widely suspected of being the behind the assassination was an ex-sergeant of the Guyana Defence Force and electronics expert, Gregory Smith. Smith quickly disappeared after the assassination of Rodney, eventually resurfacing in French Guiana under the name Cyril Johnson. Due to the repeated dismissal of calls for Smith to be extradited back to Guyana, Smith eventually escaped justice—passing away from lung cancer in 2002.

Even the U.S. State Department “declared that from the available evidence the government [of Guyana] was involved in the assassination of Walter Rodney and the removal of key witnesses to the tragedy," according to Arnold Gibbons in The Legacy of Walter Rodney in Guyana and the Caribbean.

The current COI aims to investigate and uncover the truth behind a brutal period of Guyana's history. According to the highly contested “Terms of Reference” of the COI, the three designated commissioners will “examine and report on the actions and activities of the state such as the Guyana Police Force, the Guyana Defense Force, the Guyana National Service, The Guyana National People’s Militia, and those who were in command and superintendents of these agencies to determine whether they were tasked with the surveillance of, and the carrying out of actions, and whether they did execute those tasks and carry out those actions against political opposition from the period January1, 1978 to December 31, 1980.”

The WPA has disputed the narrow timeframe of the inquiry, as repression occurred over a longer period. In addition to the narrow timeframe, the Chairman of the COI, Sir Richard Cheltenham has argued that the COI “is not intended to prosecute anyone, but to bring closure to an unresolved issue in the country’s history.” This stipulation was met with resistance by the WPA and the Guyana Human Rights Association, as the initial call for an inquiry into Rodney’s death was to be a matter ultimately concerned with justice—not only as a means to reconciliation.

During the first week of the COI, several key individuals close to Rodney testified about the threats, intimidation, and acts of state terrorism routinely faced by Rodney and WPA supporters. However, and perhaps revealing efforts to undermine the investigation, Crime Chief Leslie James revealed that seven out of the ten Guyana Police Force files on the assassination of Walter Rodney have gone missing.

Despite these obstacles, there is a very strong, organized effort to make sure that the COI is conducted in a fair and transparent manner. Spearheading that effort is the Justice for Walter Rodney Committee, made up of concerned Guyanese and supporters around the world. The second nine-day session will begin on May 27.

In addition to the deep scar on Guyana, the assassination of Walter Rodney must be situated as part of a sustained effort to eradicate the potential of the new left from taking root in the Caribbean—which included the murder of Grenada’s Maurice Bishop, leader of the New Jewel Movement in 1983.
As put forward by Aaron Kamugisha in Caribbean Political Thought: Theories of a Post-Colonial State, “His assassination at 38 deprived the Caribbean and the third world of one of its leading radical intellectual voices, and for many, was one of the decisive defeats of the early 1980s from which the Caribbean left has never recovered, stumbling from structural adjustment to neoliberal globalization in the decades that followed. Rodney for many is both remembered as the most brilliant radical intellectual produced in the Anglophone Caribbean’s post-colonial history as well as a reminder of the authoritarian lengths of the elites that govern its states."

Friday, April 25, 2014

El Chapo's Arrest: Money Laundering and Mexico's Drug War


April 25, 2014
NACLA.org

2564 
With the capture of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán on February 21, a number of questions have surfaced regarding the association and assistance between the U.S. government, big banks, and arguably the world’s most powerful drug trafficker. Guzmán had been the head of the Sinaloa cartel, an organization with a global reach and responsible for an estimated 30% of the cross border drug trade. His takedown has been hailed as a monumental victory for law enforcement and the global War on Drugs. However, using history as a guide, it would be irresponsible to think that the arrest will make a significant dent in the drug trade or that this is a simple case of the good guys coming out on top.

While El Chapo may have risen up the ranks of the cartel, and into Forbes magazine's list of the 100 most powerful people, he did not get there just through being incredibly shrewd or ruthless. Anabel Hernández, investigative reporter and author of Narcoland, raises an important question about who are the real kingmakers in the drug trade, stating that “Semi-illiterate peasants like ... El Chapo would not have got far without the collusion of businessmen, politicians, and policemen, and all those who exercise everyday power from behind a false halo of legality. We see their faces all the time, not in the mug shots of most wanted felons put out by the Attorney General’s Office, but in the front-page stories, business sections, and society columns of the main papers.

The Mexican and U.S. governments have openly identified many other high level, influential figures involved in the drug trade. The major problem with this is that they are working for some of the world’s largest banks. It is a case of immunity and impunity for some – and incarceration for others – predominately the poor and people of color.

On January 6, the Mexican newspaper El Universal revealed that between 2000 and 2012, in exchange for information on rival cartels, the Bush and Obama administrations allowed the Sinaloa cartel to import “tons of cocaine” into the United States. The primary rival of concern was the Los Zetas cartel, whose influence extends to actual control of eleven Mexican states

The reality is one in which the line between the criminality of the drug trade and the legal economy is totally imaginary. Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, revealed in 2009 that there is evidence that the proceeds of organized crime were "the only liquid investment capital" available to many banks on the brink of collapse as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, and that "Inter-bank loans were funded by money that originated from the drugs trade and other illegal activities... There were signs that some banks were rescued that way."

In a 2010 interview with the Bloomberg News, Martin Woods, the former director of Wachovia’s anti-money-laundering unit in London remarked that “It’s the banks laundering money for the cartels that finances the tragedy… If you don’t see the correlation between the money laundering by banks and the 22,000 people killed in Mexico, you’re missing the point.” This connection becomes incredibly clear when we look to the connection of HSBC helping the Mexican cartels funnel hundreds of billions of dollars.

According to legal documents for the case filed in 2012, HSBC admitted that it failed to apply legally required money laundering controls to $60 trillion in wire transfers alone, in only a three year period, $670 billion of which came from Mexico. $60 trillion—that is approximately 85 percent the entire world's GDP in 2012. In a settlement to put an end to the probe into their money laundering activities in late 2012, HSBC agreed to pay a fine of $1.9 billion. While HSBC may have been associated with the largest money laundering operation in U.S. banking history, it is by no means alone.

In 2010, Wachovia was sanctioned for failing to apply adequate money laundering controls on $378.4 billion in transfers originating from Mexico. Until HSBC was caught, it was the largest violation of the U.S. Bank Secrecy Act—which according to the U.S. Treasury Department requires that “U.S. financial institutions to assist U.S. government agencies to detect and prevent money laundering.” However, under a deferred prosecution agreement, Wachovia only had to pay a $160 million fine for its role in laundering hundreds of billions of dollars. Jeffery Sloman, the federal prosecutor who handled the case remarked that “Wachovia’s blatant disregard for our banking laws gave international cocaine cartels a virtual carte blanche to finance their operations.”

Bank of America has also been connected to Mexican drug money, as accounts in Oklahoma City were used to buy planes to transport cocaine, according to a Bloomberg investigation. Additionally, in 2006, the Bank of America acknowledged that it had overseen the laundering of $3 billion originating from South America in a single Manhattan branch. While the monetary figure is comparatively small in relation to the scandals that HSBC and Wachovia would later involved in, when pressed as to why no indictments were sought against the bankers involved, Manhattan district attorney Robert M. Morgenthau simply remarked “because we don’t want to put banks out of business.” This remark was later echoed by Justice Department prosecutor Lanny Breuer, who stated that "Had the U.S. authorities decided to press criminal charges, HSBC would certainly have lost its banking license in the United States, the future of the institution would have been under threat, and the entire banking system would have been destabilized."

It has become very clear that banks such as HSBC, Wachovia, and the Bank of America are integral components of the drug trade, which operate with impunity. While El Chapo may deservedly so spend the rest of his life behind bars, there are many more in the financial sector who have similarly profited off of crime and should be there with him. Whistleblower Martin Wood highlights this connection stating that "These are the proceeds of murder and misery in Mexico, and of drugs sold around the world. But no one goes to jail. What does the settlement do to fight the cartels? Nothing. It encourages the cartels and anyone who wants to make money by laundering their blood dollars." While pushing further on the topic of direct, multifaceted U.S. involvement in the international drug trade is a taboo subject, to ignore its role as a key source of profit for banks, prisons and the military is even more dangerous and costly.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Protest Coverage in Haiti and Venezuela Reveals U.S. Media Hypocrisy

NACLA.org
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
NACLA.org

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
NACLA.org

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
NACLA.org

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 systemshttps://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=3891708379216825954#editor/target=post;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.”