Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Cuba ready to send doctors, rescuers to Japan

Cuban authorities said they were ready to send a team of doctors and rescuers to assist in rescue efforts in earthquake-stricken Japan, Cuba's AIN news agency reported on Tuesday.

Cuban Ambassador to Japan Jose Fernandez de Cossio also said all Cubans currently in Japan were ready to render any necessary aid.

Relief operations continue in Japan following a devastating 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that have killed nearly 6,000 people and left thousands missing. Aftershocks still continue to rattle the area.

Groups of Cuban doctors worked in Haiti during last year's severe earthquake, helping at least 71,000 victims of the natural disaster and cholera outbreak that followed.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Colombia Slips Into the Abyss as FTA Threatens Further Havoc

By Dan Kovalik

While little attention has been paid by the press, Colombia just reached an ignominious benchmark -- it is now the country with the largest population of internally displaced persons in the world, surpassing Sudan which had held this position for the past several years. Colombia, with a population of around 44 million, now has 5.2 million internally displaced persons, meaning that almost 12% of its population is displaced -- most of them by violence, and a disproportionate number being Afro-Colombians and indigenous.

As a report by the Colombian human rights group CODHES notes, half of the 5.2 internally displaced were displaced during the presidential term of Alvaro Uribe and as a direct consequence of his "counterinsurgency program" -- a program funded in large measure by the U.S. As CODHES noted, in a significant proportion of the municipalities impacted by this program, there has been large-scale mining and cultivation of oil palm and biofuel. CODHES is clear that this production is directly responsible for the violent displacement of persons from their land Indeed, it appears that the "counterinsurgency program" has in fact largely been intended to make Colombia safe for multi-national exploitation of the land at the very expense of the people the program has claimed to be helping.

The proposed Colombia FTA is also intended to do the very same -- to protect the rights of multi-national corporations over the basic human rights of the Colombian people. For example, the Colombia FTA would privilege the very palm oil production which is leading to the mass displacement of people. Even more frightening, as The Nation Magazine explained in a detailed article, around half of the palm oil companies are actually owned and controlled by paramilitary groups, meaning that the FTA will directly aid these groups by incentivizing their crops.

As the Washington Office on Latin America recently noted, the FTA's agricultural provisions will also undermine the livelihood of Colombia's rural inhabitants who will not be able to compete with the subsidized, cheap food stuffs which will be able to flood the Colombian markets duty-free under the FTA. Indeed, we have seen this before in Mexico where NAFTA led to the impoverishment and displacement of 1.3 million small farmers, and in Haiti which lost its ability to feed its own people with its rice production after Clinton's free trade policies with that country.

And indeed, Bill Clinton apologized to the Senate last year over these very free trade policies, saying:

"It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake. . . . I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else."

Clinton went further, even conceding that such trade policy has "failed everywhere it's been tried." And yet, the current administration, with Bill Clinton himself cheering it on, appears to be pushing for the same failed free trade policy for Colombia.

Meanwhile, the labor rights situation in Colombia remains dismal. Thus, according to the Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS), fifty-one (51) trade unionists were killed in 2010, and 4 unionists (including 3 teachers) have already been killed this year. The 51 unionists killed in 2010 matches precisely the number of unionists killed in 2008 when President Obama vowed to oppose the Colombia FTA based upon his concern that unionists face unprecedented violence in that country. The same concerns should motivate President Obama to oppose the FTA now.

The continued violence against trade unionists in Colombia led the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) to inform leaders of the EU, who are considering a similar free trade agreement, that the Colombian administration's attempts to sell the agreement on the claim that labor and human rights are improving in Colombia are in fact a sham. (See letter.) In the words of the ITUC, "the intensive lobbying campaign at the European Parliament by the Colombian Government is an attempt to mislead the international community." The ITUC urges the international community not to be fooled by the Colombian government's campaign and to continue to reject a free trade agreement with that country. Hopefully, the Obama Administration will take heed of such warnings.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Human Rights Crisis in Puerto Rico: First Amendment Under Seige

By American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Puerto Rico National Chapter (Ferbruary 2011)

While the world celebrates the democratic revolution in Egypt, major violations of basic human rights
are occurring in our own backyard. Since Governor of Puerto Rico Luis Fortuño came into power two years ago, free speech has been under all-out assault. The following events have taken place recently:

* Thousands of public workers have been laid off and had their union contracts terminated, leading to tens of thousands of people peacefully protesting over the past year. One event turned out over 100,000 peaceful protestors and while in NYC hundreds marched on May Day, in Puerto Rico May Day turned out an estimated 30,000 citizens.

* At a protest at the steps of the Capital Building over the closing of access to legislative sessions,
access that is constitutionally mandated, protesters were beaten mercilessly, pepper sprayed and shot at by Puerto Rico Police. The same has occurred at other locations.

At most events young women are the first to be targeted for police violence. At the University of Puerto Rico, female students, many of whom were beaten, were also sexually harassed, groped and assaulted (touched) by police. Students have been mercilessly beaten, mazed and shot at with rubber bullets. Citizens have accused, which images captured confirm, police of applying torture techniques on immobilized student protesters. In the past two years, there have been several riots at protests in and around the University of Puerto Rico. Many protesters have accused the police of causing the riots, which some videos also seem to confirm.

Since taking the oath of office, the current administration, which controls all three branches of government, has set out to quash Freedom of Expression. In Puerto Rico, Expression has been in the form of protests against government policies, such as the firing of approximately 26,000 workers in total, privatizing government, closing off access to public information and legislative sessions, attempting to close down the university FM radio station during periods of civil unrest and going after the Puerto Rico Bar Association, which was a mandatory integrated Bar and is Puerto Rico's oldest institution. The 171 year old Puerto Rico Bar Association (Colegio de Abogados de Puerto Rico) has historically been a known focal point for liberal dissent against government policies.

Puerto Rico Governor Fortuño, who is considered a rising star in the Republican Party, has publicly committed to not allowing what he calls "extreme left" protests and expression. On Friday, February 11, 2011, Governor Fortuño spoke about his administration's policies while speaking at a Conservative Political Action Conference of the American Conservative Union (ACU) in Washington, DC, an activity attended by members of the National Rifle Association, the Tea Party and the John Birch Society.

* At the University of Puerto Rico all forms of expression have been prohibited, through a Resolution issued by UPR Chancellor Ana Guadalupe; a resolution which Governor Luis Fortuño ordered armed police officers to enforce. On Wednesday, February 9, 2011, a group of students participated in civil disobedience on campus, consisting of a paint-in. During the paint-in, students peacefully and without interrupting the educational process painted messages of protest in a limited area of the street at the front of the main library, in defiance of the Chancellor's absolute prohibition on any form of protest. Students immediately came under extreme physical and violent attack by members of the police force's elite and heavily armed SWAT and Riot Squad teams.

While the ACLU is looking to file charges on Human Rights violations and evaluating other legal options, the Puerto Rico Daily Sun, a conservative English language newspaper, published a damming editorial in which it called for the resignation of the university's president, chancellors and the Board of Trustees. On Friday, February 11, 2011, President Ramón De la Torres' resignation was unanimously accepted by the Board of Trustees. However, the Board Chairperson, Ygrí Rivera, immediately stated that she will not be removing armed Puerto Rico Police officers from the University of Puerto Rico campus.

In its editorial, the Puerto Rico Daily Sun, stated that "[t]he indiscriminate aggression of police riot squads against students, who are exercising their constitutional rights in public areas without interfering with any academic or administrative activity, is a gross violation of their rights and an act comparable only to the acts of the dictatorships we all denounce and reject". The Daily Sun added that "[w]e do not want this new order, neither for our university, the Capitol, La Fortaleza or our neighborhoods. We reject it with all our might, exercising our freedom of speech, or freedom of association, is not a crime".

As we say in Puerto Rico, "mas claro no canta un gallo" (it could not have been more clearly stated). On Sunday, February 12, 2011, just four days after students were mercilessly beaten by Puerto Rico Police agents, over 10,000 alumnus, parents, grandparents, family members and other citizens took to the streets and marched over to reclaim the UPR campus, demanding that the PRPD be immediately ordered off campus. See news video: http://www.primerahora.com/milesseunencontralacuotaylainvasionpoliciacaenlaupr-474118.html

In addition to the debacle and related violence at the University of Puerto Rico, in the past two years legislation has been passed that would prohibit protests at construction sites and most recently at any government building that renders educational services and other locations providing government services, under penalty of criminal prosecution.

The Puerto Rico Bar Association was recently de-certified through legislation which the governor signed into law, which all but shut down its operations. Several lawyers aligned with the views of the current administration pushed for de-certification and had previously sued the Bar Association in federal court alleging that the Bar was forcing them to purchase an unwanted insurance policy; its $78.00 per year cost was paid from Bar Association dues. Bar members were never informed of the particulars of the lawsuit and Federal Fudge José Antonio Fusté issued a GAG order prohibiting the disclosure of important aspects of the case to Bar class members.

The Puerto Rico Bar Association is not being allowed to inform and counsel Bar members about their right to opt out of the lawsuit. Thousands of lawyers are not even sure why they are a part of this lawsuit. It is believed that an English language notice on the right to opt out of the lawsuit may not be sufficient guarantee that Bar members will fully understand the ramifications of their actions. Many members of the Bar have limited English skills, particularly lawyers in the smaller and rural towns. The newly elected President of the now voluntary Puerto Rico Bar Association (Colegio de Abogados de Puerto Rico), Osvaldo Toledo, was jailed on Friday, February 11, 2010, at a federal detention center in Puerto Rico, where he remains on contempt of a court charges for refusing to pay a $10,000 fine imposed on him for having counseled Bar members who insist that they have a right to know the particulars of the suit and procedure for opting out.

Federal Judge José Antonio Fuste's GAG order extends not only to the President of the Puerto Rico Bar Association, but also board members, administrators, agents and servants. The Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Puerto Rico, William Ramírez, had previously been warned by the Bar that he may not be able to speak out against what is held to be an injustice and First Amendment infringement. Speaking out in defiance of the federal court order may result in the arrest of anyone covered by the court's GAG order and further fines imposed against the Puerto Rico Bar Association.

After studying the court's order, we at the ACLU do not, at this time, believe that the federal court order reaches class members or other members of the Bar, including the staff and cooperating attorneys of the ACLU in Puerto Rico. However, we do believe the order to be unjust and believe it should be set aside.

The ACLU will continue to fight for the right to free speech and peaceful assembly in Puerto Rico and fully intends to take on any challenges that it may face.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Bolivia’s Morales confronts general strike over food prices

By Bill Van Auken

After five years in office, the government of Bolivia’s President Evo Morales faced a nationwide general strike, amid a growing popular rebellion against rising food prices.
All of Bolivia’s major cities—La Paz, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and Oruro—were paralyzed last Friday, as workers marched in city centers and blockaded roads and highways to demand that the government substantially increase wages and take measures to combat rising prices and food shortages.
Long lines of workers marched through Cochabamba in a steady downpour, while thousands of factory workers, teachers, health care workers, other public employees and students took over the center of the capital of La Paz, punctuating their chanting of demands with explosions of dynamite.
Reelected in December 2009 by a landslide 62 percent majority, Morales has seen his popularity rating slide to barely one third. The country has been rocked by a series of escalating protests that began at the end of last year, with the government’s shock announcement of an end to fuel price subsidies.
The action sent gasoline prices soaring by 72 percent and diesel by 82 percent. The decision was rescinded in the face of violent protests, and now Morales is saying that he intends to introduce an end to the subsidies more gradually.
Despite this tactical retreat, the damage done by the brief price hikes proved to be sustained, unleashing an inflationary spiral that has seen the prices for virtually all basic foodstuffs climb between 10 and 50 percent.
Protests have escalated steadily as a result. Last month saw 5,000 people march through the southwestern town of Llallagua in two separate protests organized by miners and by the local farmers unions. Poorer peasants who had come in from the countryside for the demonstration looted stores, while police did not intervene.
Then on February 10, Morales was forced to flee the mining city of Oruro where he had gone to participate in a ceremony commemorating a colonial-era uprising. Miners, workers and the unemployed stormed the ceremony, tossing dynamite to protest deteriorating economic conditions. A presidential spokesman announced that Morales and other officials had left the city and returned to La Paz. “The government has decided not to respond to such shameful and painful provocations,” he said.
Bolivia’s unions issued a statement last week insisting that as a result of the inflationary spiral, the canasta familiar, or basic monthly expenses, for a Bolivian family, has risen to 8,300 bolivianos ($1,100)—approximately 11 times more than the present $96 monthly minimum wage in South America’s poorest country. They demanded that wages be increased accordingly.
Morales’ response only inflamed sentiments against the government. He called the demands “laughable,” insisting that the wages would be increased by only slightly more than 7 percent, the official inflation rate. Bolivians maintain that this rate does not begin to reflect the real double-digit increases in prices of basic necessities.
“It makes me laugh when” they demand “a wage increase of 40, 50 or even 70 percent,” said Morales, who added that when he was president of Bolivia’s coca growers union, “our demands were always reasonable.”
Morales continued, “It is important to think first of the future of the fatherland before regional or sectoral interests,” effectively equating the demands of masses of Bolivian workers and poor for food with the reactionary agitation of ruling elites, like those in Santa Cruz, seeking secession from the country.
Pedro Montes, the president of the COB (the Bolivian Workers Federation, the country’s main trade union), publicly acknowledged that the union leadership had been forced to call the general strike out of fear that the mass spontaneous protests were becoming uncontrollable.
“We can’t control the protest of the workers over the rising cost of living they are experiencing,” said the COB leader. “That’s why they are going into the streets to protest and express their discontent over hunger, misery, unemployment and over having nearly empty stomachs.”
In earlier protests, particularly in the volatile town of El Alto, outside of La Paz, populated largely by impoverished workers who have emigrated from the countryside, popular anger was turned against the COB itself because of the union leadership’s support for and close integration into the Morales government. Union offices were attacked by workers hurling bricks and stones.
It was in El Alto that the mass uprising of 2003 that toppled US-backed President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada was centered. That struggle, in which 63 Bolivian workers were shot to death by troops, began over a corrupt deal to sell off the country’s gas resources to the US and Chile. It laid the basis for Morales’ rise to the presidency two years later.
Hailed as the first indigenous president of the country, Morales came to office as the candidate of the Movement towards Socialism, or MAS. Since his election, he has regularly proclaimed his opposition to capitalism and his commitment to a “communitarian socialism”.
His vice-president, Álvaro Garcia Linare, a leftist professor and former guerrilla who comes from Bolivia’s upper middle class, has been somewhat more circumspect, declaring the government’s aim to be the creation of “Andean-Amazonian capitalism,” meaning state promotion of capitalist development.
In reality, the country’s social structure has remained little changed, while its economy continues to be dominated by multinational corporations centered on the extraction of Bolivia’s mineral wealth under some of the most favorable conditions for foreign capital existing on the continent.
In the first years of Morales’ presidency, an unprecedented rise in raw material prices made possible some minimum social assistance programs, but the impact of the world capitalist crisis and resulting downturn in foreign investment and production have created the conditions for new social explosion.
Morales recently reappointed all but three of his cabinet ministers—rejecting demands for the sacking of those most responsible for the drastic fuel price increases last December—and has attempted to portray his government as essentially stable.
There are growing signs of divisions, however, as popular unrest mounts. The Bolivian president’s former spokesman and close political associate, Alex Contreras, denounced Morales for his economic policies in statements to the Bolivian media.
“The president, with these measures, appears to be ruling in the interests of the agro-industrial sector, the multinational enterprises and the black-marketers, who speculate in and profit basic foodstuffs like sugar, rice, flour and others,” Contreras said.
Gonzalo Flores, one of Bolivia’s representatives to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, blamed the government’s policies for the food crisis, which he said had resulted in “a large part of the population not having access to sufficient food to maintain a healthy life.” He said that up to 25 percent of Bolivia’s children suffered from stunted growth because of inadequate nutrition.
Meanwhile, Morales’ erstwhile supporters in the COB and in the peasants’ union CSUTCB have called attention to the fact that the ruling party, the Movement for Socialism, has become increasingly dominated by political operatives drawn from the parties of the Bolivian right, including members of such fascistic forces as the Santa Cruz Youth Union.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Resettlement Plan Excludes Almost 200,000 Families

By Jane Regan

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Feb 14, 2011 (IPS) - One year and one month after Haiti's horrendous earthquake, the world's eyes are focused elsewhere.

Aside from a few updates on ex-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, Haiti has fallen from the headlines.

Gone are the foreign reporters and news crews pumping out anniversary stories.

Long-forgotten are the one-year reports from United Nations agencies, the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and watchdog groups, full of self-congratulations or hand- wringing over the lack of progress on Haiti's reconstruction. [See sidebar]

But there has been a kind of progress.

NGOs and the "humanitarian industry"
"In the language of NGOs, Haiti is a 'humanitarian hot spot,' because the NGOs go where the donors go," journalist Linda Polman told a group of reporters in Petion-ville, Haiti recently.

"That's why all these organisations are here. They're waiting for the billions… Haiti is just one station on the trip NGOs make. They ask people for money because they say they are going to help… You have to ask them questions. You have to make sure they spend that money on you."

The Dutch author of "The Crisis Caravan - What's Wrong with Humanitarian Aid" took time out from her investigation into Haiti aid to urge Haitian journalists at Radio/Tele Metropole to dig into NGOs and the "humanitarian industry".

"NGOs are part of an international, multinational, multi-billion-dollar industry," she said. "Donor countries give over 130 billion dollars a year."

And that figure doesn't even take into account private donations.

According to Polman, about 37,000 NGOs, mostly from Western countries, work in poor countries. There are probably about 2,000 foreign NGOs in Haiti by her reckoning. And while NGOs say they come to poor countries to "help", that is not the only motivation, she said.

"This is a business, and sometimes they make decisions that are not moral," she noted.

In addition to being in business, they also do foreign policy work. In her book, Polman writes how, in 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 attack, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told NGO leaders that "American NGOs… NGOs are a force multiplier for us, such an important part of our combat team."

Polman pleaded with journalists to investigate the foreign NGOs in Haiti which – according to many journalist and watchdog groups – are not delivering the quality and quantity of assistance needed.

"Western journalists come and go and that is why it is up to you. Ask the NGOs questions. And if you don't understand, ask and ask again, because it's your money."

*Author Linda Polman's visit to Radio/Tele Metropole was part of an ongoing training organised by the Knight International Journalism Fellow in Haiti.

Haitian authorities – or, to be more precise, those who have authority in Haiti, but who are not necessarily Haitian – actually do have a plan for Haiti's homeless.

The ambitious 30-page "Neighborhood Return and Housing Reconstruction Framework (version 3)," obtained last month by Haiti Grassroots Watch, outlines plans to rebuild neighbourhoods with better zoning and better services, help homeowners rebuild safer homes, or relocate homeowners to new homes in less precarious locations.

However, the Framework leaves out Haiti's largest group of earthquake victims: the poorest of the poor. The renters.

"With a few exceptions, the reconstruction is not going to make people homeowners who were not homeowners before," Priscilla Phelps, senior advisor for Housing and Neighbourhoods for the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC), told IPS and Haiti Grassroots Watch in January.

That means 192,154 families – more than half of the 1.3 million internally displaced persons tallied last fall – will be left out in the cold. Or, in the case of Haiti, out in the sun, the rain and the dust.

According to the Framework, "[r]eturn and reconstruction will not change the tenancy status of earthquake affected households: the goal is to restore owners and renters to an equivalent status as before the earthquake, but in safer conditions."

For home- and land-owners, things are moving forward, albeit very slowly.

Humanitarian agencies have over 100 million dollars to build 111,240 "transitional shelters" or "T-Shelters" – small huts, usually 18 square metres. As of Feb. 1, only about 43,100 had been built, due to the rubble choking poor neighbourhoods and Haiti's convoluted land ownership situation. (Most donors want to be sure on land titles before building a T-Shelter.)

Agencies and construction firms also have at least 174 million dollars pledged of the 350 million dollars needed - in 2011 alone - for repairing or rebuilding homes and neighbourhoods. As of Feb. 1, of the approximately 193,000 homes needing to be repaired or rebuilt, only 2,547 had been repaired and 1,880 rebuilt.

But for the hundreds of thousands of former renters living hunched under tents in camps with few or no services, with an average of 392 residents per latrine, there is no shelter – transitional or permanent – on the horizon. Because they are supposed to rent.

Sanon Renel, of the Housing Reflection and Action Force coalition (Fòs Refleksyon ak Aksyon sou Koze Kay - FRAKKA), which is mobilising with unions and other groups on the housing issue, is outraged.

"This is pure and simple exclusion. You could even call this an official policy of apartheid," Renel told IPS.

In addition to losing all their belongings, many of Haiti's displaced also lost jobs, as well as the huge sums they had paid out for school tuitions and rent prior to the earthquake. In Haiti, one rents six, 12 and even 24 months at a time. Renel noted that it will take years for families to save that up again.

"These people are factory workers, day labourers. Many are former peasants forced into the city because their land has given out, or because they can't make ends meet. They are the eternal victims of an economic system that protects big landowners and rich capitalists," said Renel.

A typical example of "reconstruction"

The way the housing issue is being handled offers a typical example of Haiti's "reconstruction".

The Framework "is intended to signal what the approach is going to be," according to the IHRC's Phelps, who likely helped author the plan and who recently co-wrote 'Safer Homes, Stronger Communities: A Handbook for Reconstructing After Natural Disasters' for the World Bank.

But the document has never been approved by the government of Haiti. Not by the parliament, not by President René Préval, and not the Inter-Ministry Commission on Housing, which groups together five ministers.

Nor has the document ever been held up to public scrutiny or discussed at fora where local urban planners, construction firms or other stakeholders – like FRAKKA and the homeless people themselves – could perhaps make their opinions known.

Nevertheless, the Framework is more than what the "approach is going be".

De facto, it is the plan. Because NGOs are moving forward, according to Jean-Christophe Adrian of UN-HABITAT, which chairs the "Shelter Cluster" of the 200 or so NGOs working on the housing issue.

"The document represents the consensus," Adrian explained.

Phelps notes that the Inter-Ministry Commission on Housing has "seen it and made remarks," but they have never openly approved or disapproved of it, nor has it been made public.

In fact, national government officials have only gone public on one housing project – a plan for 3,000 to 4,000 apartments in the Fort National neighbourhood overlooking Haiti's National Palace.

"It's a project of public housing high-rises, respecting building norms for earthquake zones, which will house many hundreds of families," Jacques Gabriel, Minister of Public Works, told Agence France Presse in January.

But when Minister of Social Affairs Gérald Germain and his bodyguards showed up to place the cornerstone on Jan. 12, they were chased away by angry, homeless protestors.

"We want explanations!" a man who identified himself as Leguenson told AlterPresse.

Haiti's homeless are not the only ones who want explanations. According to Phelps, the project does not yet have IHRC approval.

Nevertheless, not unlike the lack of coordination and communication sometimes apparent in other sectors, the first stone for the Fort National project was going to be placed even before it received the IHRC's green light.

Or perhaps the Haitian government has decided to skip the IHRC? But according to a decree, it is "responsible for continuously developing and refining development plans for Haiti."

"There are still a lot of questions that have to be worked out," Phelps explained. "The proposal they have made is one that needs some vetting. It's quite expensive."

Shelter Cluster authorities are also sceptical. "Our experience shows us that, in all countries, these types of projects end up benefiting the middle classes. They don't benefit the poorest people," Adrian said.

With authorities bickering, with no high-rise in sight, and with construction and reconstruction only planned for the homeowners, 13 months later, Haiti's poorest earthquake victims are left exactly where they were on Jan. 13, 2010 - in tents and under tarps, living in subhuman conditions, under constant threat of eviction, facing a depleted housing stock with no savings.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ecuadoreans Plan to Pursue Chevron in Other Countries

CARACAS, Venezuela — Armed with a $9 billion ruling against Chevron in Ecuador but little chance of collecting it there, representatives for Ecuadorean villagers said Tuesday that they were looking at waging legal battles against the company in more than a dozen countries where it operates, hoping to force Chevron to pay.
Enlarge This Image

Dolores Ochoa/Associated Press
Pablo Fajardo, the lead lawyer representing the Ecuadorean villagers at a news conference in the capital, Quito, on Tuesday.

Ecuador Judge Orders Chevron to Pay $9 Billion (February 15, 2011)
The latest salvo, coming only a day after an Ecuadorean judge ordered Chevron to pay one of the largest environmental awards ever, suggests that the legal battle between villagers and oil executives, which began in 1993, is far from over.

The case stems from oil pollution in the Ecuadorean rain forest, but Chevron does not operate there and has no significant assets in the country. It was Texaco, which Chevron acquired in a merger in 2001, that was accused of widespread environmental damage before pulling out of Ecuador in the early 1990s.

Chevron has much larger operations elsewhere in Latin America, and the plaintiffs’ strategy of pursuing the company across the region could open a contentious new phase in the case — one that would test Ecuador’s political ties with its neighbors and involve some of Washington’s most prominent lobbyists and lawyers.

Advisers to the plaintiffs said Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela would be obvious candidates to pursue Chevron assets, but they acknowledged it would not be easy. Venezuela, for instance, is a close Ecuadorean ally and its president, Hugo Chávez, is a frequent critic of the United States. But Chevron has extensive operations in Venezuela and enjoys warmer ties with Mr. Chávez’s government than just about any other American company.

The plaintiffs also face an uphill struggle collecting damages in the United States, at least immediately, given that a judge in New York this month temporarily prevented enforcement of the Ecuador awards. Still, legal advisers said they were prepared to try to collect damages in the United States as well.

A confidential memo prepared by the Washington law firm Patton Boggs recently released under court order laid out the plaintiffs’ strategy, which foresees using a European industrial espionage firm to investigate Chevron’s assets around the world.

“The fact that Chevron has agreed to ‘play ball’ in Venezuela, while the company’s peers have universally rejected the unfavorable contract terms imposed by the Chávez government, may portend difficulty there,” said the memo, code-named “Invictus.” “Nonetheless, the populist Chávez government remains a natural ally” of the plaintiffs.

In the memo, lawyers also identified the Philippines, Singapore, Australia, Angola, Canada and several other countries where Chevron has significant assets as potential targets. In the Philippines, it even suggested using the services of Frank G. Wisner, the retired diplomat and a foreign affairs adviser for Patton Boggs, who recently waded into the crisis in Egypt as an envoy for the Obama administration.

Citing the Invictus memo, Judge Lewis Kaplan of the Southern District of New York argued that the plaintiffs were seeking to use a “worldwide, full-court press” to extract a settlement against a company of considerable importance in providing energy supplies to the United States economy.

Chevron said it did not intend to pay a dime. “We intend to resist enforcement anywhere where the plaintiffs seek to take what we perceive to be a fraudulent judgment,” said Kent Robertson, a Chevron spokesman.

Beyond the temporary protection issued by Judge Kaplan, Mr. Robertson noted a decision by a panel of international arbitrators in The Hague that granted the company a preliminary injunction that might also block enforcement of the judgment.

But Ecuadorean lawyers said they did not consider themselves under the jurisdiction of either the American court or the arbitrators.

Referring to the arbitration process, one of the lawyers, Pablo Fajardo, said, “This is part of the Chevron legal strategy to delay and obstruct.”

Duncan Hollis, associate dean of the Temple University law school, said it was logical for the plaintiffs to take their battle to other countries in the region because “there is some commonality in Latin American legal systems.” But, Mr. Hollis added, “there is no international law about how one court is supposed to enforce the judgments from another nation’s court.”

For now, the case moves forward in the Ecuadorean courts. Three judges will hear appeals from both sides. The Amazon coalition intends to appeal the amount of the damages, while Chevron will appeal the entire ruling.

“I don’t know if we will be broadcasting” our legal argument, Mr. Robertson said. But he added: “It is the illegitimate nature of the ruling. The scientific evidence demonstrates that this is a meritless outcome.”

The final appeal will go to a national appeals court, a process that could take months. Then the fight may move to several countries simultaneously. Advisers to the villagers and forest tribes said they hoped to extract Chevron money from many countries until they reach the final judgment total.

The ruling’s impact is already being felt in Ecuador and beyond as a cautionary tale of the environmental and legal aftermath of oil exploration. Alberto Acosta, a former oil minister in Ecuador, called the ruling “a historical precedent.”

It is “a reminder that we have to defend ourselves from the irresponsible activity of extraction companies, both oil and mining,” Mr. Acosta said.

Ugly showdown seems probable in Puerto Rico as student strike paralyzes university


A showdown is looming in the student strike that has paralyzed all 11 campuses of the University of Puerto Rico for more than six weeks.

Late Tuesday, protest leaders rejected a 4 p.m. deadline from university President José Ramón de la Torre to cease their campus occupations and end the strike, which has kept 65,000 students out of classes since April 21.

De la Torre and Puerto Rico's Gov. Luis Fortuño warned the rebellious students they will seek court orders to have them arrested and removed.

The strike, one of the longest and biggest in modern U.S. history, has garnered considerable support from both the university's faculty and the Puerto Rican public.

Yet the mainland press ignores it.

Many island residents admire the way the students have resisted massive government cutbacks to one of their most revered institutions. This Great Recession, after all, has been a far bigger disaster for Puerto Rico than for rest of the nation.

Even before the Wall Street financial collapse, 45% of the island's population was living below the poverty level.

Since then, tourism and manufacturing, Puerto Rico's main sources of income, have been devastated, and so have government revenues. More than 20,000 public employees have been laid off the past year by Fortuño as he sought to close a huge deficit. The unemployment rate jumped to 17.2% in April, while the pension system for public employees is nearly bankrupt.

For generations, a University of Puerto Rico education was regarded as a sure way to escape poverty. Sixty percent of UPR's students, for example, have family incomes of less than $20,000 a year.

Since the university was largely funded through a 9.6% set-aside of all government tax revenues, it was able to maintain low tuition, about $2,000 annually, and even provide scholarships for standouts. It also enjoyed relative autonomy from the government.

But Fortuño's administration has promised Wall Street bondholders that it will make students pay a bigger share of the university's operating costs, downsize government and initiate more public-private partnerships.

As part of that plan, Fortuño wants to rewrite the higher education law.

Students oppose the reductions in scholarships as well as a new $1,200 student fee the university wants to impose. They fear that a new education law will usher in privatization efforts. Their supporters in the Puerto Rican legislature are urging instead new revenue streams, either through increasing the island's low corporate tax from 2.5% to 10% or through video lottery games, with the money earmarked for higher education.

Two weeks ago, the faculty senates of all 11 campuses met in their first-ever joint session and voted overwhelmingly to back the student demands. Many union leaders throughout the island have also expressed their support.

At first, the university's trustees negotiated with student leaders and it seemed that a deal might be reached. But in recent days, both sides have hardened.

In the midst of those talks, de la Torre suddenly announced a 24-hour ultimatum for the strike to end. At the same time, more radical students in the leadership vowed to peacefully resist any attempts to remove them.

Forty years ago, a similar protest at the UPR led to a tragic police invasion of the main campus in Rio Piedras. When the confrontation was over, 100 students had been injured. One, 21-year-old Antonia Martinez, was fatally shot in head by a police officer.

Unless cooler heads prevail soon, Puerto Rico's greatest university could once again spiral out of control.

Ecuador Judge Orders Chevron to Pay $9 Billion

Moises Saman for The New York Times

CARACAS, Venezuela — A judge in a tiny courtroom in the Ecuadorean Amazon ruled Monday that the oil giant Chevron was responsible for polluting remote tracts of Ecuadorean jungle and ordered the company to pay more than $9 billion in damages, one of the largest environmental awards ever.

Times Topics: Ecuador | Chevron Corporation
The decision by Judge Nicolás Zambrano in Lago Agrio, a town founded as an oil camp in the 1960s, immediately opened a contentious new stage of appeals in a legal battle that has dragged on in courts in Ecuador and the United States for 17 years, pitting forest tribes and villagers against one of the largest American corporations.

The award against Chevron “is one of the largest judgments ever imposed for environmental contamination in any court,” said David M. Uhlmann, an expert in environmental law at the University of Michigan. “It falls well short of the $20 billion that BP has agreed to pay to compensate victims of the gulf oil spill but is a landmark decision nonetheless. Whether any portion of the claims will be paid by Chevron is less clear.”

Both sides said they would appeal the ruling, setting the stage for months and potentially years more of legal wrangling in the closely watched case, which has already been marked by claims of industrial espionage and fraud, and remarkably bitter disputes among the various lawyers involved. Legal experts said that the size of the award and the attention the case has focused on environmental degradation were likely to encourage similar suits.

The 188-page ruling found Chevron responsible for damages of about $8.6 billion, and perhaps double that amount if Chevron fails to publicly apologize for its actions within 15 days. The judge also ordered Chevron to pay $860 million, or 10 percent of the damages, to the Amazon Defense Coalition, the group formed to represent the plaintiffs.

Pablo Fajardo, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, called the ruling a “triumph of justice,” but said it still fell short. “We’re going to appeal because we think that the damages awarded are not enough,” he said in a telephone interview. The plaintiffs were seeking as much as $113 billion, according to a report recently submitted to the court.

A Chevron spokesman, Kent Robertson, called the decision “illegitimate and unenforceable.” He said Chevron would appeal through the Ecuadorean legal system, and would not pay the damages.

“This is the product of fraud,” he said. “It had always been the plan to inflate the damages claim and coordinate with corrupt judges for a smaller judgment.”

He suggested that the timing of the ruling, a week after Chevron filed a lawsuit against the plaintiffs’ lawyers, was not coincidental. He said it was coordinated between the plaintiffs and the court, which had previously accepted an expert environmental opinion that Chevron contended was partly ghost-written by representatives of the plaintiffs, who include villagers and Indian tribes in northeastern Ecuador.

The plaintiffs have denied any collaboration with the judge and said they merely provided information for the expert’s report as the court encouraged both sides to do.

Chevron, the second-largest American oil company, reported a net profit of $19 billion last year. In addition to its appeal in Ecuador, the company hopes to block enforcement of the judgment in American courts.

“It might as well be Monopoly money, given all the respect that Chevron will show it,” said Ralph G. Steinhardt, professor of law and international affairs at George Washington University Law School. “There is a legal regime for enforcing foreign judgments but there is a lot of discretion for U.S. judges to suspend the enforcement of foreign judgments.”

The decision was the latest installment in a legal soap opera in which Chevron and lawyers for Ecuadorean peasants have sued and countersued over oil pollution in Ecuador’s rain forest.

The origins of the case go back to the 1970s, when Texaco, which was later acquired by Chevron, operated as a partner with the Ecuadorean state oil company. The villagers sued in 1993, claiming that Texaco had left an environmental mess that was causing illnesses. Chevron bought Texaco in 2001, before the case was resolved.

Chevron has been playing hardball for at least the last two years. It produced video recordings from watches and pens wired with bugging devices that suggested a bribery scheme surrounded the proceedings and involved a judge hearing the case. The judge was forced to resign, although it was later revealed that an American behind the secret recordings was a convicted drug trafficker.

Chevron appeared to gain the upper hand again when it won a legal bid to secure the outtakes from a documentary about the case, “Crude,” in which Steven Donziger, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, is seen developing strategy and discussing the judicial system and how it operates. Mr. Donziger appeared boastful about meetings with judges and other Ecuadorean officials.

Last week, Chevron filed a suit against dozens of people involved in the case, charging that they conspired to extort the company for $113 billion by making up evidence and trying to manipulate the Ecuadorean legal system. At the company’s request, an American judge issued a temporary restraining order to block any judgment for at least four weeks. A day later, international arbiters ordered Ecuador to suspend the enforcement of any judgment.

Almost lost in the various disputes related to the lawsuit is the fact that Chevron and plaintiffs have agreed that oil exploration contaminated what had been largely undeveloped swaths of Ecuadorean rainforest. The plaintiffs claim that Chevron must be held responsible for damage where Texaco once operated. Chevron, however, argues that Texaco carried out a cleanup agreement with the Ecuadorean government and that much of the damage was done after Texaco left in the early 1990s, actions for which it should not be held responsible.

“The judge recognized the crime committed,” said Guillermo Grefa, head of a Quichua Indian community who claims that Texaco’s oil contamination created respiratory problems among his people. “For us, this is very little. For us, the crime committed by Texaco is incalculable.”

Simon Romero reported from Caracas, and Clifford Krauss from Houston. John Schwartz contributed reporting from New York, and Irene Caselli from Quito, Ecuador.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Struggle for Democracy and Public Education in Puerto Rico

by Victor M. Rodriguez

"The epicenter of the struggle for the public university in Latin America is Puerto Rico." -- José Carlos Luque Brazán, professor and researcher of political science and urban planning at the Autonomous University, Mexico City1

The social conflict taking place at the University of Puerto Rico is polarizing this island to such an extent that this United States' possession, which used to be heralded as the "Showcase of Democracy" during the Cold War ideological struggles, is now sliding into a system of widespread civil and human rights violations. The University of Puerto Rico, for the first time in decades, is occupied by police: political demonstrations are banned; summary expulsions of student leaders are common; and hundreds of students have been arrested, beaten, and at times sexually assaulted or tortured. On February 9, after the riot squad violently intervened with students painting murals, 28 students were arrested, many were hurt and chaos ensued when pepper gas and batons were used to violently arrest students and bystanders. The police violence was of such magnitude that the faculty organization, the Puerto Rican Association of Professors, and the Brotherhood of Non-Faculty Employees called for a 24-hour strike, which was later extended. The university is closed and the president of the system, Jose Ramon de la Torres, after writing a letter requesting the removal of the police from the campus, announced he was resigning as president.

The coverage of this social movement by U.S. mainstream media is scant, and only Al Jazeera has begun to provide some international coverage. In addition, just as in Egypt, youth have created their own media in order to organize and tell the world what is happening in this territory of the United States. Hidden from the eyes of the world, and especially from the U.S. public, this island with 3.9 million inhabitants is experiencing the most intense struggle for democracy and public education since the 1960s. Since early April 2010, students of the most prestigious institution of higher education in the Caribbean, the University of Puerto Rico, have been involved in a struggle to preserve a system of public higher education. This is the system that provides 95% of the research and development in Puerto Rico.

Neo-Liberalism in Puerto Rico

Since his landslide election in 2008, Governor Luis Fortuño, of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, has implemented a series of neo-liberal measures, which have polarized the island's population and increased economic inequality. Governor Fortuño is the first Puerto Rican governor who is an avowed member of the National Republican Party, despite the fact that the Republican Party as such does not participate in Puerto Rican elections. Despite his electoral promises, he has fired 30,000 public workers and reduced investments in social services and education. The unemployment rate in December 2010 was 14.7%, which is lower than it was at the beginning of the fiscal year (16.9% in July 2010), but the reason behind this decline is not an increase in jobs but the discouraged worker effect, that is, workers who are dropping out of the work force and either working in the informal economy or participating in social welfare programs. Puerto Rico moreover has one of the lowest labor participation rates in the world. The proportion of the able-bodied population who participates in the work force has declined dramatically. In July 1999, 47.8 per cent were in the labor force and in December 2010 it was 41.1 %. In contrast, the labor participation rate in the United States in January was 64.2%.

In addition, efforts to privatize segments of public services including education are being made through what the government call "private-public partnerships." These are ways of providing the private sector with public assets without the risks involved in the private market. Attempts to create these partnerships include the building of a gas pipeline through some of the most environmentally fragile areas of the island which are close to population centers. There is strong citizen opposition to this project, in light of the gas pipeline explosions in California, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, but the government is committed to its construction.

The privatization of higher education has involved another strategy to achieve the same objective. Funds for the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) since 1997 have been cut by $336 million. The university imposed an $800 fee hike on the students in order to solve the financial deficit of the system. What this increase will mean is that close to 10,000 students will not be able to attend the university. What seems to be behind the financial gutting of the university is the neo-liberal ideology supported by Governor Fortuño. From the academic year of 2001-02, to 2006-07, there was a dramatic decline in the proportion of public university students in the total university student population. In 2001-02, only 117,714 attended private universities while 73,838 attended the UPR. In 2006-07, 158,031 went to private universities and only 65,939 the UPR. In an island with a 47% poverty rate and a median family income of $20,425, a third of the United States median family income ($58,526), education is the only avenue toward upward mobility. And yet, the burden of educating the island's youth has been and will be further shifted to private universities, relying more on federal Pell Grants. So, by expanding the role of private universities the neo-liberals are transferring Puerto Rico's economic responsibility on United States' taxpayers.

Poll ratings of Governor Fortuño are extremely low, and yet he is steadfast in implementing draconian measures and supporting the repressive measures used against the university community, even though the Department of Justice sent investigators in response to a request by the local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union as well as other interested parties for an investigation of civil rights violation by the Puerto Rican Police Department. One reason behind his obstinate efforts may be that he is being courted by the National Republican Party as a way of attracting the Latino vote. Governor Fortuño attended a Heritage Foundation briefing in Simi Valley, California and a Koch brothers event in Rancho Mirage, California last month. At such venues he has been boasting of how he has established law and order in Puerto Rico. Most recently, on February 11, he was one of the speakers at the CPAC 2011 meeting in Washington, D.C., where he touted his neo-liberal policies. Toeing the Tea Party line, he spoke about reducing government, emphasizing higher bond ratings, but not about the collapse of the social fabric caused by his measures. Puerto Rico last year had 1,000 murders; this year, already in January, the homicide number in Puerto Rico reached more than one hundred. And yet the police are at the campus of the University of Puerto Rico, repressing freedom of expression. In the meantime, more than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have migrated to the United States, the highest number since the great migration in the aftermath of World War II.

It seems that the only strategy of neo-liberals in Puerto Rico is to shirk the social and public responsibility to provide for the Puerto Rican population by transferring segments of the population to the United States.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Latin America: The Empire Strikes Back

By Conn Hallinan

For the past decade, American policy vis-à-vis Latin
America has been relatively low-key, partly because of
the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and partly because
the region has seen an unprecedented growth in economic
power and political independence. But, with Republicans
taking over the House of Representatives, that is about
to change, and, while the Southern Cone no longer
stands to attention when Washington snaps its fingers,
an aggressive and right wing Congress is capable of
causing considerable mischief.

Rep. Lleana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fl), a long-time hawk on
Cuba and leftist regimes in Venezuela and Bolivia, is
the new chair of the powerful House Committee on
Foreign Affairs, and the rightist Rep. Connie Mack (D-
Fl) heads up the House subcommittee on Western
Hemisphere affairs. Ros-Lethinen is already preparing
hearings aimed at Venezuela and Bolivia, and Mack will
try to put the former on the State Department's list of
countries sponsoring terrorism.

Ros-Lehtinen plans to target Venezuela's supposed ties
to Middle East terrorist groups and Iran's nuclear
weapons program, and to push for economic sanctions
against Venezuela's state-owned oil company and banks.
"It will be good for congressional subcommittees to
start talking about [President of Venezuela Hugo]
Chavez, about [President of Bolivia Evo] Morales, about
issues that have not been talked about," she told the
Miami Herald.

The new chairs of the House Intelligence Committee and
Judiciary Committee have also signaled they intend to
weigh in on establishing a more hawkish line on Latin

Unfortunately, it is the Obama administration that
created an opening for the Republicans. While the White
House came in pledging to improve relations with Latin
America, Washington has ended up supporting a coup in
Honduras, strengthening the U.S. military's presence in
the region, and ignoring growing criticism of its
failed war on drugs.

Recent disclosures by Wikileaks reveal the Obama
administration was well aware that the June 2009
Honduran coup against President Manuel Zelaya was
illegal; nonetheless, it intervened to help keep the
coup forces in power. Other cables demonstrate an on-
going American hostility to the Morales regime in
Bolivia and Washington's sympathy with secessionist
forces in that country's rich eastern provinces.

Many Latin Americans initially had high hopes the Obama
administration would bring a new approach to its
relations with the region, but some say they have seen
little difference from the Bush Administration. "The
truth is that nothing has changed and I view that with
sadness," says former Brazilian president Luiz Lula da
Silva. But things may go from bad to worse if the White
House is passive in the face of a sharp rightward turn
by Congress.

The Latin America of 2011 is not the same place it was
a generation ago. Economic growth has outstripped the
U.S. and Europe, progressive and left governments have
lifted 38 million people out of poverty, cut extreme
poverty by 70 percent, and increased literacy. The
region has also increased its south-south relations
with countries like China, South Africa and India.
China is now Brazil's number one trading partner. An
economic alliance-Mercosur-has knitted the region
together economically, and the U.S.-dominated
Organization of American States (OAS) finds itself
eclipsed by the newly formed Union of South American

But many countries in Latin America are still riven by
wealth disparities, ethnic divides, and powerful ties
between local oligarchies and the region's curse:
powerful and undemocratic police and militaries. One
such military pulled off the Honduran coup, and police
came within a whisker of overthrowing Ecuador's
progressive president, Rafael Correa, in 2010.

One 2007 Wikileaks cable titled "A Southern Cone
perspective on countering Chavez and reasserting U.S.
leadership," pointed out "Southern Cone militaries
remain key institutions in their respective countries
and important allies for the U.S." The author of the
cable, then ambassador to Chile, Craig Kelly, is
currently principle Deputy Assistant Secretary of
State. Kelly strongly recommended increasing aid to
Latin American militaries to help them "modernize."

In many cases, rightists in Latin America share an
agenda with right-wing forces in the U.S. For instance,
Republicans played a key role in supporting the
Honduran coup and continue to strengthen those ties. In
a recent trip to Honduras, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Ca)
-a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs
Committee-brought together U.S. business leaders and
Honduran officials to discuss American investment.
Honduras was suspended from the OAS, and only a handful
of Latin American governments recognize the new
president, Porfirio Lobo.

It was the Obama Administration, however, who
recognized the government established by the coup, and
remains silent in the face of what Amnesty
International and Human Rights Watch calls widespread
human rights violations by the Lobos regime, including
the unsolved murder of at least 18 opponents. U.S.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is lobbying hard to
have Honduras re-admitted to the OAS.

A quick survey of Republican targets suggests troubled
waters ahead.

Chavez has won two elections and is enormously popular.
He has cut poverty, tripled social spending, doubled
university enrollment, and extended health care to most
of the poor. A U.S. engineered coup seems unlikely. But
a "supporter of terrorism" designation would cause
considerable difficulties with international financing
and foreign investment. Sanctions on oil and banking
would also disrupt the Venezuelan economy, in the long
run creating conditions favorable to a possible coup.

While it is hard to imagine what else the U.S. could do
to Cuba, Congress may try to choke off investment in
Cuba's growing oil and gas industries. Companies are
already jumping through hoops to avoid getting around
the current embargo. The Spanish oil company Repsol
and Italy's Eni SpA recently built an offshore oil rig
in China to dodge the blockade.

"It is ridiculous that Repsol, a Spanish oil company,
is paying an Italian firm to build an oil rig in China
that will be used next year to explore for oil 50 miles
from Florida," Sarah Stephens, director of the Center
for Democracy in the Americas told the Financial Times.
If the Republicans have their way, sanctions will be
applied to those oil companies.

Ecuador's Correa beat back a recent right-wing coup,
largely because of his 67 percent approval rating. He
has doubled spending on health care, increased social
spending, and stiffed an illegitimate $3.2 billion
foreign debt. But he has a tense relationship with
indigenous movements, which accuse him of trying to
marginalize them. While those groups did not support
the coup, neither did they rally to the government's
support. Those divisions could be easily exploited to
destabilize the government.

In the case of Bolivia, the Wikileak released cables,
according to Latin American journalist and author
Benjamin Dangl, "lays bare an embassy that is biased
against Evo Morales' government, underestimates the
sophistication of the governing party's grassroots
base, and is out of touch with the political reality of
the country."

The cables indicate the U.S. is relying on information
from extreme right wing and violent secessionist groups
in Eastern Bolivia, groups that receive financing and
training from the National Endowment for Democracy and
USAID. Both groups have close ties to American
intelligence organizations. Given Brazil's strong
opposition to any attempt to break up Bolivia, it is
not clear a succession movement would succeed. But
would Brazil-or Argentina, Uruguay or Paraguay-actually

Paraguay is also a country deeply divided between left
and right, with a progressive president who warned last
year that a coup by the country's powerful military was
a possibility.

The Obama administration's acceptance of the Honduran
coup sent a chill throughout Latin America, and
certainly emboldened those who see tanks and caudillos
as an answer to the region's surge of progressive
politics and independent foreign policy. The recent
effort by Turkey and Brazil to broker a compromise with
Iran over its nuclear program did not go down well in
Washington. Neither have efforts to chart an
independent course on the Middle East by nations in the
region. Several countries have formally recognized a
Palestinian state, and Peru will host an Arab-Latin
America summit Feb. 16.

Latin America is no longer an appendage to the colossus
of the north, but its growing independence is fragile,
as the coups in Honduras and Ecuador suggest. The chasm
between rich and poor is being closed, but it is still
substantial. The economies in the region are growing at
a respectable 6 percent, but, because they are
relatively small, they can be more easily derailed by
internal and external crises. Even as its power wanes,
the U.S. is still the world's largest economy with the
world's largest military. This, plus anti-democratic
forces in Latin America, is fertile ground for
mischief, particularly if there is not strong
resistance on the U.S. home front.

Read Conn Hallinan's writings at

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Leaked cable reopens Honduras debate

By Kevin Bogardus

A State Department cable released by the website WikiLeaks has reopened the Washington debate over last year’s ouster of then-Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.

The leaked July 2009 cable, signed by the U.S. ambassador to Honduras, Hugo Llorens, said the removal of Zelaya by the Honduran military “constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup.” In stark language, the cable takes apart arguments made by defenders of Zelaya’s ouster, calling them fabrications or suppositions.

The cable has attracted the attention of the Obama administration’s critics on both the right and the left. For example, the cable has set off a new round of aspersions from the likely next chairman of the House Western Hemisphere subcommittee, Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), who said Llorens was “part of the problem, not the solution.”

“If I am fortunate enough to be the chair of the committee, we are going to continue to look into the actions of the ambassador in Honduras. I don’t think he played the appropriate role. The ambassador should not be on the ground trying to manipulate the outcome,” Mack told The Hill.

Mack and other Republicans have said Zelaya’s removal came about from his alleged power grab. Though Zelaya was shipped off to neighboring Costa Rica in the middle of the night by Honduran soldiers, GOP lawmakers have refused to call his ouster a coup. They say Hondurans chose to remove Zelaya through the actions of their legislative and judicial branches of government.

“There is no one with a straight face that can call this a military coup. It is disingenuous,” Mack said.

Others have disagreed, citing the leaked cable as further confirmation that the Honduran president’s ouster was an illegal coup.

Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a liberal think tank, testified before Congress last year about Zelaya’s ouster.

“The cable confirms what we believed from the beginning — this was a coup, it was unconstitutional, and it has helped undermine the rule of law, political and human rights in Honduras, with problems persisting to this day,” Stephens said.

She said the Obama administration has distanced itself from its original take on Zelaya’s removal.

“The reporting in the cable is quite clear in terms of where the administration started out, and it is equally clear that over time the Obama administration’s position on Honduras deviated further and further from the analysis contained in it,” Stephens said. “Given the conditions on the ground in Honduras, and given the repercussions in the region, we continue to believe that standing firm against the coup was the right position at the beginning and the administration should have stuck with it more firmly over time.”

In June 2009, Zelaya was deposed by the Honduran military after it was alleged he wanted to remove the presidency's term limits to stay in power. Zelaya has denied those accusations.

Zelaya was never reinstated to power to finish out his last term, and has now been exiled to the Dominican Republic. Honduras held elections in November 2009 that saw Porfirio Lobo win the presidency.

President Obama first called Zelaya’s ouster “not legal” and said it would set a "terrible precedent" for the region, striking a tone similar to the leaked cable. But later the U.S. government recognized Honduras’s elections last year despite calls for the administration not to do so due to the controversy over Zelaya’s removal.

Though that approach was criticized by some on the left, it has won praise from one key member of the House: Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). Next Congress, Engel will likely be the ranking member of the House Western Hemisphere subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over Honduras.

Calling it “masterful job,” Engel said the Obama administration took a pragmatic, “middle-of-the-road” position that put itself between both parties up on Capitol Hill.

“The Republicans were annoyed at the beginning that the administration called it a coup and Democrats were annoyed at the end — not all, but some — that they recognized the elections,” Engel said. “I think what we did keeps the United States’ influence in a positive way alive there.”

The Central American nation now has its own representation in Washington to handle its relations with lawmakers.

Honduras has recently contracted with law firm Lanny J. Davis & Associates, run by former Clinton White House special counsel Lanny Davis. Davis-Block, Davis's new strategic consulting firm founded with Josh Block, the former American Israel Public Affairs Committee spokesman, is also helping out on the Honduras account.

According to Davis, Honduras’s government would like to move past the leaked cable describing Zelaya’s ouster.

“We are not commenting on past analyses by the Ambassador. The facts speak for themselves,” Davis said. “It's time to look to the future, not the past. Honduras is and has been a loyal ally of the U.S. and a constitutional democracy, operating with separate branches of government under the rule of law.”

Davis is a columnist for The Hill and a contributor to The Hill's Pundits Blog.

In the meantime, the Obama administration will have to contend with the new Republican House next year.

In his interview with The Hill, Mack repeated his earlier calls for Llorens to step aside. The Florida Republican said it was too early for him to call for hearings in Congress’s next session on Honduras but that what happened there will be “on my plate” next year.

“We will have to see. I would like us to do another hearing,” Mack said.

Friday, January 14, 2011


Office of the Press Secretary

Today, President Obama has directed the Secretaries of State,
Treasury, and Homeland Security to take a series of steps to continue
efforts to reach out to the Cuban people in support of their desire to
freely determine their country’s future.

The President has directed that changes be made to regulations and
policies governing: (1) purposeful travel; (2) non-family remittances;
and (3) U.S. airports supporting licensed charter flights to and from
Cuba. These measures will increase people-to-people contact; support
civil society in Cuba; enhance the free flow of information to, from,
and among the Cuban people; and help promote their independence from
Cuban authorities.

The President believes these actions, combined with the continuation
of the embargo, are important steps in reaching the widely shared goal
of a Cuba that respects the basic rights of all its citizens. These
steps build upon the President’s April 2009 actions to help reunite
divided Cuban families; to facilitate greater telecommunications with
the Cuban people; and to increase humanitarian flows to Cuba.

The directed changes described below will be enacted through
modifications to existing Cuban Assets Control and Customs and Border
Protection regulations and policies and will take effect upon
publication of modified regulations in the Federal Register within 2

Purposeful Travel. To enhance contact with the Cuban people and
support civil society through purposeful travel, including religious,
cultural, and educational travel, the President has directed that
regulations and policies governing purposeful travel be modified to:

· Allow religious organizations to sponsor religious travel to Cuba
under a general license.

· Facilitate educational exchanges by: allowing accredited
institutions of higher education to sponsor travel to Cuba for course
work for academic credit under a general license; allowing students to
participate through academic institutions other than their own; and
facilitating instructor support to include support from adjunct and
part-time staff.

· Restore specific licensing of educational exchanges not involving
academic study pursuant to a degree program under the auspices of an
organization that sponsors and organizes people-to-people programs.

· Modify requirements for licensing academic exchanges to require that
the proposed course of study be accepted for academic credit toward
their undergraduate or graduate degree (rather than regulating the
length of the academic exchange in Cuba).

· Allow specifically licensed academic institutions to sponsor or
cosponsor academic seminars, conferences, and workshops related to
Cuba and allow faculty, staff, and students to attend.

· Allow specific licensing to organize or conduct non-academic clinics
and workshops in Cuba for the Cuban people.

· Allow specific licensing for a greater scope of journalistic activities.

Remittances. To help expand the economic independence of the Cuban
people and to support a more vibrant Cuban civil society, the
President has directed the regulations governing non-family
remittances be modified to:

· Restore a general license category for any U.S. person to send
remittances (up to $500 per quarter) to non-family members in Cuba to
support private economic activity, among other purposes, subject to
the limitation that they cannot be provided to senior Cuban government
officials or senior members of the Cuban Communist Party.

· Create a general license for remittances to religious institutions
in Cuba in support of religious activities.

No change will be made to the general license for family remittances.

U.S. Airports. To better serve those who seek to visit family in Cuba
and engage in other licensed purposeful travel, the President has
directed that regulations governing the eligibility of U.S. airports
to serve as points of embarkation and return for licensed flights to
Cuba be modified to:

· Allow all U.S. international airports to apply to provide services
to licensed charters, provided such airports have adequate customs and
immigration capabilities and a licensed travel service provider has
expressed an interest in providing service to and from Cuba from that

The modifications will not change the designation of airports in Cuba
that are eligible to send or receive licensed charter flights to and
from the United States.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Million Plus Remain Homeless and Displaced in Haiti: One Year After Quake

by Bill Quigley and Jeena Shah / January 12th, 2011

One year after the January 12, 2010 earthquake, more than a million people remain homeless in Haiti. Homemade shelters and tents are everywhere in Port au Prince. People are living under plastic tarps or sheets in concrete parks, up to the edge of major streets, in the side streets, behind buildings, in between buildings, on the sides of hills, literally everywhere.

UNICEF estimates that more than 1 million people – 380,000 of them children – still live in displacement camps.

“The recovery process” as UNICEF says, “is just beginning.”

One of the critical questions is how many people remain without adequate housing. While there are fewer big camps of homeless and displaced people, there has been extremely little rebuilding. The UN reported that 97,000 tents have been provided since the quake. Tents are an improvement over living under a sheet but they are not homes. Many families have lived many places in the last year circulating from rough shelters to tents to camps to other camps to living alongside other families.

It is important to understand that families may leave the huge unsupervised camps and still be homeless someplace else – like a tent in another part of the city or country. Moving from one type of homelessness to another cannot be allowed to be declared progress against homelessness and displacement.

The key human rights goal is housing, not moving out of the displacement camps.

One illustration of the housing challenge facing the Haitian people can be found in a recent report from the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The IOM December report announced a reduction in the number of persons remaining in displacement camps. The IOM then wrongly concluded that the number of people displaced and homeless was reduced accordingly. Why is this conclusion wrong? Because the IOM report does not even try to track where displaced persons go after they leave a particular camp. They equate homeless families moving out of displacement camps as families finding housing.

These types of erroneous conclusions are not only misleading but threaten to hinder badly needed relief efforts one year after Haiti’s devastating earthquake.

Careful consideration of the IOM report provides an opportunity to examine some of the many important housing challenges still facing Haitians.

IOM Assertion: “We finally start to see light at the end of the tunnel for the earthquake-affected population…these are hopeful signs that many victims of the quake are getting on with their lives.” IOM reported there has been a 31% decrease in the number of internally displaced people living on IDP sites in Haiti since July.

Fact: Getting on with their lives? Of an estimated 1,268 displacement camps, at least 29% have been forcibly closed – meaning tens of thousands of people have been evicted, often through violent means. Many who are forcibly evicted from one site move on to set up camp for their families in another location, which is often more dangerous. This is not getting on with life; this is searching for less dangerous places for the family tent.

IOM Assertion: People with houses labeled red (uninhabitable or extremely dangerous) or yellow (in need of repair) have “chosen to return to the place of origin or nearby to establish a shelter.”

Fact: As of December 16, 2010, only 2,074 of the estimated 180,000 destroyed houses had been repaired and a small percentage of rubble had been cleared. Decisions by desperate homeowners to move back into still destroyed homes is hardly progress.

It is also not even possible for large numbers of people who were renters to return to their destroyed homes. The destruction of more than 180,000 private residences coupled with influx of international aid workers has made Haiti’s rental market soar. An estimated 80% of those rendered homeless by the earthquake were renters or occupiers of homes without any formal land title. Current rents are unreachable by the majority of displaced Haitians, many of whom lost their means of livelihood during the earthquake. The IOM admits “The lack of land tenure and the destruction of many houses in already congested slums left many of those displaced with few options but to remain in shelters.”

IOM Assertion: “Some households rendered homeless after the earthquake left congested Port au Prince all-together going home to the regions. Others sent their children to the countryside for a better life.”

Fact: Rural Haiti before the earthquake was home to 52% of the population, 88% of which was poor and 67% was extremely poor. Rural residents had a per capita income one third of the income of people living in urban areas and extremely limited access to basic services. Disaster response following the earthquake has not tackled the extreme structural violence that exists in rural areas, and Hurricane Tomas further destroyed livelihoods of rural communities. People moving from displacement camps in the city to living in a tent in the countryside have not really moved out of homelessness, they have just moved.

IOM Assertion: “Surviving in poor living conditions during the long hurricane season has persuaded many to seek alternative housing solutions.”

Fact: Homeless people are always seeking “alternative housing solutions.” Camp conditions even before Hurricane Tomas and the cholera outbreak revealed that displaced Haitians were in camps because they had no “alternative housing solutions.” According to a study conducted by CUNY Professor Mark Schuller before both Hurricane Tomas and the outbreak of cholera, 40% of displacement camps did not have access to water, and 30% did not have toilets of any kind. Only 10% of families even had a tent, many of which were ripped beyond repair during the hurricane season; the rest were sleeping under tarps or even bed sheets. A study conducted even earlier by the Institute of Justice & Democracy in Haiti found that 78% of families lived without enclosed shelter; 44% of families primarily drank untreated water; 27% of families defecated in a container, a plastic bag, or on open ground in the camps; and 75% of families had someone go an entire day without eating during one week and over 50% had children who did not eat for an entire day.

Human rights promise housing, not just forcing people away from displacement camps. Haiti needs practical and sustainable solutions for re-housing along with services and protections for the people still homeless.

One year later, it is critically important for the international community to assist Haitians to secure real housing. The million homeless Haitians and the hundreds of thousands who have moved out of the large homeless camps into other areas are our sisters and brothers and still need our solidarity and help.

Bill is Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans and a long-time Haiti advocate. Jeena Shah is a lawyer serving in Port au Prince as a Lawyers’ Earthquake Response Network Fellow with the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. Contact Bill at quigley77@gmail.com and Jeena at Jeena@ijdh.org Read other articles by Bill Quigley and Jeena Shah.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

In Honduras, the Holiday Season Brings Repression

by Dana Frank

As we settle into our warm winter naps in the United States, a new wave of military repression is sweeping through Honduras, directed at the campesino movement. In December troops moved in and once again attacked the poorest of Honduras' rural poor, who have been standing up for their rights with astonishing bravery since the June 28, 2009 military coup. Up here in the North we can turn cozily aware from their plight. But as we sleep, our tax dollars are at work funding the Honduran army, police, and ongoing illegitimate government.

For decades, the campesinos (peasants) of Honduras have been struggling for basic land rights, confronting a handful of elite oligarchs who have been gradually seizing their lands through extralegal means. And for decades, the campesinos have refused to starve, using collective action to demand meaningful land reform. The center of campesino struggle remains the Aguan Valley, in the Northeast corner of the country, where the country's richest and most powerful man (and the most important figure behind the coup), Miguel Facussé, has taken over much of the land in the lower Aguan Valley and planted it with African palms. He has his own private army, works closely with narcotraffickers in the region, and in many ways is more powerful locally than the Honduran national government.

Beginning last December, 2009, almost 10,000 campesinos, organized in the Movimiento Unificado de Campesinos de Aguan (the Unified Movement of Campesinos of Aguan, MUCA) and other groups have been staging "recuperations" of lands illegally seized by Facussé. The resulting repression has been brutal: in the past year as many as 20 campesinos have assassinated by police, the army, paramilitaries, and Facussé's private troops. In April, 2010, President Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo Sosa sent in around 3,000 troops into the Aguan Valley to repress the campesino movement. Only after an international outcry did he pull out some of the troops and promise a small bit of land to the protesters.

Now a new wave of repression is terrorizing the region. On November 15, Facusse's hired assassins shot and killed five campesino activists in the Aguan Valley community of El Tumbador. The government has made no attempt to investigate the crimes. Completely thwarted on the legal front, on December 7, 2,500 organized campesinos from three different associations began a sit-in blockading the main highway running through the Aguan Valley, to demand an end to the ongoing militarization of the zone and justice for those murdered.

The night of Tuesday, December 14, the government announced it was going to forcibly remove the demonstrators from the highway at 6:00 the next morning. Somewhere between 800 and 1,000 troops poured into the area, surrounding the campesino community of Guadelupe Carney next to the highway. But just as the eviction was to begin, the protesters chose to voluntary leave the road.

When I arrived four hours later, the area remained completely militarized in a terrifying show of deliberate intimidation. On the way into the zone we passed two tear gas tanks containing tear gas and eight huge troop transport vehicles. As we entered the community we saw hundreds of police, army soldiers, special forces, private thugs, and troops in civilian clothes, walking in groups throughout the community and surrounding it completely. The residents told us they had not been allowed to leave since the evening before. I saw groups of officers search cars and houses, surround the local independent radio station, Radio Orquidea, for twenty minutes, and occupy the community-owned cafe. We could see snipers on the hillsides around the town. A helicopter circled round and round, low, with no apparent purpose except intimidation.

As time passed more and more troops began to show up and walk onto the grassy field in the center of town next to the church. They sat down with their backs against the few trees, sprawled across the lawn, or came in and out of a big grey-green military tent erected in the middle. Residents told me they'd seen several of the soldiers urinate in the church. That morning, I was told, the military had halted a bus of campesinos arriving to show solidarity, seized their cell phones, taken out the batteries, and hit two people.

The government's pretext for all this is to somehow show that the campesino movement is armed--and therefore justify the military occupation of the entire country. In a coordinated media campaign, it has alleged that arms are pouring in from Nicaragua and Venezuela and that human rights observers have come to the Aguan Valley only to lie about human rights abuses.

But the campesinos are unarmed. Desperate repeated searches of campesino homes, cars, and community buildings, the government has yet to find guns, and the protest movement remains astonishingly nonviolent after a year and a half of brutal repression. It's the government and its private allies that have the scary armaments. I saw hundreds of assault rifles and other weapons in the hands of the troops, in contrast to the campesinos' empty arms and empty stomachs. Moreover, the government is countenancing, indeed closely cooperating with an array of private armies that are proliferating in Honduras, especially Facusse's.

That same morning, on the opposite side of the country, in the community of Zacate Grande, the same array of private forces and government repression brutally attacked campesinos also challenging Facussé, in a campaign clearly coordinated with the actions in the Aguan Valley. Police, army soldiers, and the private police forces of the HSBC bank--suddenly claiming a different, unpaid mortgage on lands long owned by a local campesino family--attacked a group of campesinos refusing to leave their own land, launched tear gas and live bullets, and beat people brutally. Two people were hospitalized and twelve have been detained, including two journalists covering the attack.

Since the June 28, 2009 coup, as many as 200 people have been killed for their work opposing the regime, including trade unionists, gay rights activists, and ten journalists. Over 5,000 have been illegally detained. Women have been gang raped in custody, one of them gang raped again after she denounced it publicly. On September 15, in San Pedro Sula, the city's second largest city, troops tear gassed and invaded Radio Uno, an opposition Radio Station, and then broke up a concert, and tear gassed and beat up protesters at a large, peaceful demonstration by the opposition.

Yet in the entire year and a half since the coup, almost no one has been charged or prosecuted for any of this. Complete impunity reigns. In the words of Eduardo David Ardón, writing in the Honduran daily El Tiempo last week, "State terrorism has a green light, to exercise every kind of violence and commit crimes of every sort from right to left, without being judged or investigated." Meanwhile, five judges and magistrates who protested the coup remain fired, despite outcries by the international justice community.

And our United States government is paying the bills. U.S. aid to the Honduran military and ongoing coup government, only briefly and very partially curtailed after the coup, now flows freely. The Honduran military continues its training programs in Fort Benning, Georgia--where officers remain undisturbed in their classes the very week after the coop. The Honduran police also receive generous and regular training from the United States government, including a "rigorous, seven-month course" at the National Police Academy, according to a recent press release from the U.S. -Honduran Joint Task Force-Bravo. "The goal is to provide assistance to the academy on a more regular basis."

As the campesino movement illustrates, though, despite all this hideous repression the Honduran people are still pushing forward with their vision of a new Honduras based on social justice and democracy. The resistance movement, uniting the women's, gay, labor, campesino, indigenous, and Afro-indigenous movements, the human rights community, and the progressive wing of the Liberal Party, continues to strengthen itself, now building a neighborhood-by-neighborhood structure in preparation for a National Assembly on February 26.

In January, the opposition's Alternative Truth Commission (not to be confused with the government's bogus Truth Commission, which is going nowhere fast), is sending out a team of investigators to verify post-coup human rights violations throughout Honduras, collect new testimony, and correlate the information from all the country's human rights groups. In contrast to truth commissions launched in other countries, though, it is operating under very dangerous conditions, as the conflict is by no means resolved and the commission, despite a prestigious international composition, has no governmental powers.

Meanwhile, at home, a newly empowered congressional Right is ready to pounce. Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is about to control the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and her Cuban-American ultra-Right ally, Rep. Connie Mack, will head the Subcommittee on Western Hemispheric Affairs. They have already announced they plan hearings on Honduras with which to attack Obama from the Right.

As we awake from our holiday naps and begin the new year, Progressives need to demand, instead, that Congress challenge Obama from the Left, for his ongoing, overt support for the illegitimate coup regime in Honduras. But Congressmembers and Senators will only challenge the administration if we continue to build a grassroots movement, district by district, state by state, to pressure them from below--so that we can stop our US-funded military repression in Honduras, and help make it possible for the Honduran people to move toward the new, democratic society of which they dream.

Dana Frank is a Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of Bananeras: Women Transforming the Banana Unions of Latin America and Buy American: The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Setting the Record Straight on Venezuela and Hugo Chavez

By Eva Golinger

With so much misinformation circulating in different media outlets around the world about Venezuela and President Hugo Chavez, it's time to set the record straight. Venezuela is not a dictatorship and President Chavez is no dictator.

Just last evening the Venezuelan head of state participated in a meeting with a group of housing activists, who not only criticized - live on television - government policies and inaction on tenant and housing issues, but also proposed laws, regulations and projects that were received with open arms by Chavez himself. And last week, the Venezuelan President vetoed a law on higher education that had been approved by the prior year's majority pro-Chavez legislature, calling for more "open and wide" debate on the subject, to include critics and those who had protested the bill. That is not the behavior of a brutal dictator.

As someone who has been living on and off in Venezuela for over 17 years, I can testify to the extraordinary transformation the country has undertaken during the past decade since Chavez first was elected in 1998. He has been reelected by landslide majorities twice since then.

When I arrived to Venezuela for the first time in 1993, the country was in severe turmoil. Constitutional rights had been suspended and a nationwide curfew was imposed. Repression was widespread, the economy was in crisis, several newspapers, television and radio stations had been shut down or censored, and the government had imposed a forced military draft targeting young men from poor communities. There was an interim president in power, because the actual president, Carlos Andres Perez - hailed by Washington as an "outstanding democrat" - had just been impeached and imprisoned for corruption. Perez eventually escaped confinement and fled to Miami, where he resided until his death last month, living off the millions he stole from the Venezuelan people.

Even though a new president was elected in 1994, constitutional rights remained suspended on and off for years, until the elections in 1998 that brought Chavez to power. Since then, despite a short-lived coup d'etat in 2002, an economically-shattering sabotage of the oil industry in 2003 and multiple attempts against his government during the following years, President Chavez has never once limited constitutional rights nor imposed a curfew on the population. He hasn't ever ordered a state of emergency that would limit rights or shut down any media outlets. He even issued a general pardon in 2007 giving amnesty to all those involved in the 2002 coup, with the exception of individuals directly responsible for crimes against humanity or homicide.

Under the Chavez administration, poverty has been reduced in half, universal, quality, free healthcare and education have been guaranteed for all Venezuelans, new industries have been created and more and more political power has been placed in the hands of "ordinary" people who were previously excluded by the elite that ruled the country throughout the twentieth century.

So why do so many newspapers and broadcast media classify him as a dictator?

You may not like Hugo Chavez's way of speaking, or the fact that he was born into poverty, comes from the military, is a leftist and doesn't fit the stereotypical image of a head of state. But that doesn't make him a dictator.

In Venezuela, more than 80% of television, radio and print media remain in the hands of private interests critical of the government. So, despite what some international press claim, there is no censorship or violation of free expression in Venezuela. Calls to overthrow the government or to incite the armed forces to rebel against the state, which would clearly be prohibited in most nations, are broadcast on opposition-controlled television channels with public concessions (open signals, not cable). Just last month, the head of the Venezuelan chamber of commerce, Fedecamaras, gave a press conference broadcast live on television and radio stations, during which he called the armed forces "traitors" who would "pay the price" if they didn't disobey government orders and "obey" the dictates of big business.

I can only imagine if a business leader in the United States were to go on television and call the US Army "traitors" if they didn't disobey the federal government. Secret Service would arrest the man immediately and the consequences would be severe. But something like that would never happen in the US, since no television station would ever broadcast anything that constituted a call to rebellion or disobedience against the government. That's illegal.

So, not only is there no censorship in Venezuela, there is an excess of "free" expression. One positive aspect of the permissive attitude assumed by the Chavez government with regards to media has been the proliferation of community and alternative media outlets throughout the nation, which have provided space and voice to those ignored by mainstream corporate media. During governments prior to the Chavez administration, community and alternative media were banned.

Recently, the Venezuelan legislature passed a law called the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio, Television and Digital Media. The law does not censor internet or any other form of media. What it does do is disallow calls to assassinate the president or other individual, as well as prohibit incitement to crime, hate or violence on web sites operated from Venezuela. This is a standard in most democracies and is a sign of civility. The law also instills on media a responsibility to contribute to the education of citizens. Media have a huge power over society today. Why shouldn't they be responsible for their actions?

Another issue widely manipulated in mass media is the Enabling Act that was approved last month by the Venezuelan parliament. This law gives "decree" powers to the Executive to legislate on specific issues as stipulated in the bill. The Enabling Act does not usurp, inhibit or limit legislative functions of the National Assembly, nor is it unconstitutional or anti-democratic. The parliament can still debate and approve laws as usual within its authority. The Enabling law, which is permitted by the Constitution, was requested by President Chavez in order to provide rapid responses to a national emergency caused by torrential rainfall that devasted communities nationwide at the end of last year and left over 130,000 homeless. The law will not affect any constitutional rights nor impose a "dictatorship" on the country, it is merely a valid, legitimate response to an emergency situation that needs quick solutions.

And speaking of the Venezuelan legislature, there is a lot of deceitful information repeated and recycled in media worldwide about the composition of this year's new parliament. Venezuela had legislative elections in September 2010, and opposition - anti-Chavez - parties won 40% of the seats. Some say this is a majority, which is very strange. The pro-Chavez PSUV party won 60% of seats in the National Assembly, as the Venezuelan legislative body is called. That's 97 out of 165 seats, plus 1 more which was won by the pro-Chavez PCV party, for a total of 98.

On the other hand, the opposition bloc won 65 seats represented by 13 different political parties that don't necessarily agree on most issues. Two other seats were won by a third, independent party, PPT. So, the PSUV party won 97 seats in parliament and the next party in line is Accion Democratica (AD) with 22 seats. Who has the majority?

In 2005, the opposition parties boycotted the electoral process, and lost the near 50% they had in parliament from the year 2000. Now, their bloc has been reduced to 40%, yet they claim to have "grown" in numbers. This perspective has been reiterated in mainstream media, despite its erroneous and manipulative nature.

The opposition bloc has already announced it will seek foreign intervention to help overthrow the government. Not only is this illegal, it's incredibly dangerous. Many of the candidates and most of the parties that conform the opposition in Venezuela have already been receiving millions of dollars annually in funding from several US and international agencies, such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), both financed with US taxpayer monies. The stated purpose of this funding has been to "promote democracy" in Venezuela and help build the opposition forces against Chavez. This is a clear violation of Venezuelan sovereignty and a waste of US taxpayer dollars. US citizens: Is this the way you want your hard-earned money to be spent?

This week, opposition leaders will meet with their counterparts in Washington. They have already said their mission is to seek more aid to help remove President Chavez from power. Unfortunately, their undemocratic actions have already been welcomed in the US Capitol. Representative Connie Mack (R-FL), now head of the House Sub-Committte on Foreign Relations for the Western Hemisphere, announced on the first day of Congress that his one goal this year is to place Venezuela on the list of "state sponors of terrorism". And Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), now head of the House Foreign Relations Committee, has backed that objective, even going as far as to publicly state she would welcome the "assassination of Fidel Castro or any other repressive leader" such as Hugo Chavez.

On January 1, President Chavez held a brief, informal and amicable encounter with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Brasilia, during the inauguration of Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's new president. No agreements were reached, but the exchange of hands and smiles stabilized an escalation in tensions between both nations, which had produced a diplomatic crisis at the end of last year. But upon her return to Washington, Clinton was severely criticized by media, particularly The Washington Post, which accused her of being too "soft" on Venezuela.

The Washington Post's calls for war against Venezuela are dangerous. Remember, conditioning of public opinion is necessary to justify aggression against another nation. The campaigns of demonization against Saddam Hussein, Iraq and Islam were essential to initiate the wars in the Middle East which have yet to cease. Is the public willing to be influenced by media that have a political (and economic) agenda that seeks to oust a democratically-elected and popularly supported government just because they don't like its policies?

With the recent tragic events in Arizona it should become even more evident that media have power and influence over individual actions. Hate speech, demonization campaigns, manipulative and deceitful information are dangerous and can lead to abominable consequences, including war.

It's time to stop the escalating aggression against Venezuela and accept the facts: Venezuela is not a dictatorship, and while many of you may not like Hugo Chavez, a majority of Venezuelans who voted for him do. And in this scenario, they're the ones who matter.