Thursday, April 18, 2013

Maduro’s Venezuela Remains an Inconvenient Example of Democracy
April 18, 2013

1717Set against the backdrop of a deeply polarized election campaign over the future of the post-Hugo Chavez era, it became clear late Sunday night that Nicholas Maduro would become the next President of Venezuela—albeit with a very narrow margin. When the final vote count came in, it was announced that Maduro had won with 50.7% of the vote, with his opponent Henrique Capriles taking 49%. In the absence of any unforeseen situations, Maduro is scheduled to be officially sworn in on Friday.

Given the 1.7% margin of victory, Capriles is alleging widespread irregularities and is demanding a manual recount of all votes. Until this happens, Capriles has publicly stated that he will regard Maduro as “an illegitimate president.” Secretary of State John Kerry was quick to jump on the opposition bandwagon, telling a hearing of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee that "We think there ought to be a recount. . . . Obviously if there are huge irregularities we're going to have serious questions about the viability of that government."

According to the National Electoral Council, due to the nature of Venezuela’s voting system, it is impossible to conduct a manual recount of all votes. In response to the opposition’s demands for a 100% recount, Venezuelan Chief Justice Luisa Estella Morales said that the nation’s 1999 constitution eliminated manual recounts, reaffirming that "In Venezuela the electoral system is completely automated. Therefore, a manual count does not exist. Anyone who thought that could really happen has been deceived. . . . The majority of those who are asking for a manual count know it and are clear about it. Elections are not audited ballot by ballot but through the system." Instead, the National Electoral Council said it had conducted an audit of 54% of the ballots and their respective voting slips.

During the elections on Sunday, international observers did not report any incidents or suspicious activities which were of concern. Such groups included a delegation from the U.S. Lawyers Guild, members of the Scottish Parliament, and former presidents Leonel Fernandez of the Dominican Republic and Alvaro Colom of Guatemala. In September 2012, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter remarked that "As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we've monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world."

In a televised speech Maduro responded by stating that "The U.S. intervention in Venezuelan internal affairs in recent months, and particularly during the election campaign, has been brutal, vulgar. . . . Its direct coordination with the 'yellow bourgeois,' with the oligarchs, has been truly obscene.” Such responses have bolstered the opposition supporters, leading to a further polarization of the country. Since Sunday, the ongoing political clashes have resulted in eight reported deaths and hundreds of injuries and arrests. It has also been reported that Cuban medical doctors have been the targets of opposition violence—with several Cuban staffed clinics set on fire by opposition supporters. Attacks have also been reported on the Telesur and VTV media buildings, in addition to the houses of various government officials.

While Maduro did not give specifics of U.S. intervention in his speech, based on the historical record such claims should not be dismissed as simply wild speculation. It has become commonly understood that USAID, the International Republican Institute, and the National Endowment for Democracy have all funded and strategized with the Venezuelan opposition.

Furthermore, the New York Times has acknowledged that in 2002 that the C.I.A. backed a coup d’etat against Chavez, which was foiled due to immediate popular pressure for his reinstatement. Despite their failure in 2002, the U.S. government remained undeterred in their quest to undermine Chavez. Such was revealed in a 2006 Wikileaks cable that outlined U.S. government’s five-point strategy to weaken the Chavez government. The five points are outlined as being: strengthening democratic institutions, penetrating Chavez's political base, dividing Chavismo, protecting vital U.S. business interests, and isolating Chavez internationally.

As of Wednesday, the governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad, and Uruguay have all come forward and congratulated Maduro on his electoral victory. Regional organizations such as MERCOSUR and UNASUR have all offered their congratulations to Maduro for his electoral victory. Tellingly, the U.S. backed Organization of American States refrained from openly accepting the results.

In reference to the U.S. position articulated by John Kerry, Bolivian President Evo Morales remarked that “I would like to express that this is a flagrant U.S. interference in Venezuela’s democracy, as neither that spokesperson nor the U.S. government has moral authority to question electoral results in any Latin American country or around the world.” Similarly, Argentinean President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has also criticized the stance of the State Department regarding their failure to recognize the victory of Maduro, stating that “I dare ask, with much humility, [that] the government of the United States . . . recognize the Venezuelan government after transparent and fair elections.”

However, close or controversial election contests are nothing new to the hemisphere. In the 2000 U.S. Presidential election, an extremely tight race led to a recount of votes in Florida. It was later revealed that African American voting precincts had three times the number of discarded or spoiled ballots in a result where George Bush won by 537 votes. In 2012, the U.S. was quick to congratulate Enrique Peña Nieto’s victory over the left leaning Andrés Manuel López Obrador—despite widespread allegations of voter fraud and bribery. The United States has also given the thumbs up to the 2010 elections in Haiti where Michel Martelly was elected in a race in which 14 political parties were banned, or in Honduras in 2009 when the United States recognized an election which institutionalized the coup d’etat of democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya. The list is much longer; however, political double standard should be obvious to anyone.

Despite this record of selective support for democracy, the U.S. mainstream media attacks upon Maduro have been relentless—portraying his victory as part of a sinister plot. An April 16 piece by the Washington Post editorial board highlighted their collective ignorance of the situation and the nostalgia for a return to the Monroe Doctrine by remarking that “The (Obama) administration should begin coordinating with Mexico, Chile, and other important Latin American democracies to prevent Mr. Maduro from killing his way into power.”

While it is understandable that the United States is not pleased with the outcome of the election in Venezuela given their economic interests, it does not give them the right to undermine the political process of a sovereign country. Such irresponsible editorials and political posturing by the U.S. media and government no doubt add fuel to the opposition’s fire and puts hopes for a peaceful settlement further out of reach.

While the situation in Venezuela still remains tense and unclear, one can only hope that a peaceful political settlement can be reached. It should be the duty of the international community to help Venezuela achieve this goal—not undermine it. If the goal is for the democracy to run its course in Venezuela, it is incredibly important that anti-democratic means do not become the tools of choice in order to bring about a change in government more favorable to U.S. interests. Anything else risks sending the country onto a path of prolonged political conflict and economic regression which will only harm the Venezuelan people and severely damage the already strained relations between the United States and Latin America.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Time for Caribbean Leadership to Speak Up on Haiti

April 11, 2013

1652In the most trying of times, it is often said that it becomes much easier to tell real friends from the fake. Since the announcement by United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki Moon, claiming that the U.N. has legal immunity when it comes to their role in introducing cholera to the country, the Haitian people are currently learning that, outside of Cuba, even supportive words are hard to come by within the rest of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).

By now it has become widely accepted that the U.N. was responsible for introducing cholera into Haiti during October 2010 via negligent screening protocols and waste management at their base in Mirebalais. Prior to the arrival of the U.N. troops in Mirebalais, Haiti had not suffered an outbreak of cholera in their recorded history. Numerous independent medical studies have established that Nepalese troops were the source of the outbreak—with this much being admitted by U.N. Special Envoy for Haiti Bill Clinton of all people. Despite the evidence and high-level admissions of guilt, the U.N. is covering itself by invoking Section 29 of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the U.N.

While CARICOM is far from being the most influential player in global politics, in a situation such as this their words can still have a great deal of power and importance. A statement of solidarity in condemnation of the lack of accountability and respect shown by the U.N. in Haiti would at least make it clear that they do not accept one of their members being treated in such a manner. As it currently stands, it is impossible to tell one way or the other what the 15 member nations of CARICOM think. Without exaggerating, in this case, their silence is indeed deadly.

In an interview with the Guardian, Nicole Phillips of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti put things into a sobering perspective, reminding readers that almost three times as many people had died in the continuing cholera crisis as in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Yet there has been no announcement or official statement on behalf of CARICOM calling on the U.N. to take responsibility and rectify the situation, which has claimed the lives of more than 8,300 people so far.

The most vocal critic within the region has been former Jamaican Prime Minster P.J. Patterson, who remarked that “It is simply appalling, a most reprehensible behavior . . . for the UN to claim such immunity. . . . The more so when scientific evidence substantiates that the cholera epidemic was originally introduced in Haiti at the time by peace-keeping soldiers (from Nepal) under U.N. command.”

Whether it comes from the mouth of Haiti’s Michel Martelly, who is currently acting as the head of CARICOM, Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, or the leaders involved in the anti-imperialist ALBA bloc such as Roosevelt Skerrit, Ralph Gonsalves or Baldwin Spencer—the leadership of the Caribbean must speak up for Haiti.

This is not to say that CARICOM has not taken important stands to speak out against injustice in the past. Indeed, CARICOM has come out before and strongly condemned the 2009 coup in Honduras, denounced the 2004 overthrow of Aristide, and continually denounces the U.S. blockade against Cuba. The question is, why the silence on the U.N.’s role in bringing cholera to Haiti?

It is not as if the U.N. does not have money to fund the proposed initiative to combat cholera. Instead, they are choosing to spend it in incredibly problematic ways. The most prominent example being that the current military operation of the U.N. in Haiti, known as MINUSTAH, has an annual budget of nearly $700,000,000. If this money from the U.N. were redirected towards a war on eradicating cholera, it would start to save lives instead of taking them. As such, CARICOM shouldn’t want to be remembered for staying silent during such an important moment.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Capitalism as usual: Why RBC's outsourcing isn't really a surprise

April 9, 2013

Sunday's revelation that the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) will be bringing in "temporary guest workers" to replace some of its Canadian employees captured headlines, sparking outrage and surprise, and leading many to threaten a bank boycott and move their accounts elsewhere.

The outrage is certainly understandable -- as one would think that RBC, with its more than $2 billion in first quarter profits, could afford to retain these workers -- but the surprise isn't.

 Without being condescending, I have five words for those who greeted this news with disbelief and shock: this is how capitalism works. Or, as RBC CEO Gord Nixon recently wrote in a more sanitized and politically correct manner, it simply falls in line with the bank’s dedicated commitment to "operational effectiveness."

Before proceeding any further, it is important to inject into this conversation -- which can quickly descend into xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment, is that it is not the "temporary guest workers" which are the problem -- it is solely government and corporate policy which is at fault.

It was been recently confirmed that it was the federal government which gave the nod to RBC's plans to shift towards the hiring of guest workers by granting it a "positive labour market opinion."

The statements given by RBC CEO Gord Nixon and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada Minister Diane Finley have both put forward a particular policy loophole which might allow RBC to be let off the hook. On paper, it was not RBC which arranged this change to temporary guest workers; instead, that was done by a U.S. based staffing agency, known as iGate, which, according to its website, specializes in "strategic outsourcing solutions" that help companies reduce costs.

Whether it is called "operational effectiveness" or "strategic outsourcing," what is happening at RBC is not a new phenomenon, it is that the attack on Canadian workers has grown confident enough to begin attacking the jobs of information technology professionals.

With the signing of NAFTA it was blue collar, predominately unionized workers who were met with threats to accept less pay despite being more productive and profitable. Despite the impact that free trade has had on manufacturing it has been spun by the government and the media as the acceptable cost of doing business in the new global economy. There is more to it than that. While the high dollar has been often cited for accelerating the decline in manufacturing, this was not the case when a significant amount of jobs left during the years of the record low Canadian dollar from the mid-1990s well into the 2000s. It has been the ongoing policy of successive Canadian government to produce a flexible (aka non-unionized and cheap) labour force.

Despite having both qualified workers and profitable production in Canada, there has been an alarming erosion of manufacturing jobs -- with federal government statistics revealing that between 2000-2007 there was a loss of 278,000 manufacturing jobs. From October 2008 to October 2009 alone, there was a loss of 218,000 full time manufacturing positions.

The lack of organized public support from the non-unionized sectors for those manufacturing workers who continue to face everyday threats of outsourcing from profitable companies reveals a class bias which has been deeply ingrained into Canadian society and politics that must confronted. The problematic 'right to work' platform of Tim Hudak reveals that the conservatives have calculated (one hopes incorrectly) that a significant portion of Ontarians are in support of anti-union initiatives and putting wages which support a middle class standard of living out of reach.

In many ways, the growth of the "temporary guest worker" program is giving a new face to the exploitation of marginalized groups for the sake of maximizing already staggering corporate profits. In January it was revealed that Canadian corporations are sitting on $500 billion of corporate cash holdings -- but still continue to portray themselves as being victims of discriminatory labour and environmental policies. The recently passed Bill C-38 gutted Canada's environmental regulations, removing or reducing much needed protections for water, air and wildlife in order to boost corporate profits.

The latest jobs report from Statistics Canada highlighted the undeniable success of these regressive polices, revealing that employment within the low wage food service was the fastest growing sector in the Canadian economy. To add to the shedding of high paying manufacturing jobs for low paying service jobs, in April 2012 Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Human Resources Minister Diane Finlay announced the implementation of a two-tier wage system which would extend into the fast food service industries -- with "temporary guest workers" being paid 15 per cent less than Canadian citizens. These government policies have helped to put downward pressure on the wages of Canadian workers across the board.

In a sign of the times, even corporate Canadian donut icon Tim Horton's found itself in hot water, after being hit with a human rights complaints due to the mistreatment and exploitation their temporary guest workers. In the past it was the case that one's race or gender would bring lower wages for doing equal work (and in many cases it still does); now foreign workers are underpaid for doing the exact same work that was once done by Canadians. For years Canada has underpaid farm labourers from Latin America and the Caribbean, who pay into benefit systems they are not entitled to, face dangerous working conditions and often live in substandard housing.

Hopefully the RBC outsourcing has just revealed to the public that the labour flexibility policies pursued by the Canadian government seek to spare no sector -- whether in manufacturing, mining or information technology.

The Harper government is not interested in creating good jobs and strengthening the Canadian middle and working class; it is solely interested in maintaining record high corporate profits by further deregulating labour and environmental policies.

If there is any chance of reversing this trend of attacking workers by undercutting them at home and abroad, the outrage directed at RBC should not be an isolated incident, but instead be replicated at every single CEO and government enabler which seeks to bring about "operational effectiveness" by shedding much needed jobs to further bloat a very profitable bottom line.

If this is not the case, we can only expect more of the same to be on the way once the federal government finalizes and implements the Canada-China and Canada-EU free trade agreements.

Kevin Edmonds is a writer and activist based in Toronto.