Archive | June 21st, 2020

Egypt’s peace initiative for Libya will not succeed before the Turks and their stooges are roundly defeated

Egyptian President Abd-al-Fattah al-Sisi
Nureddin Sabir, Editor, Redress Information & Analysis, writes:

Amid much fanfare, Egyptian President Abd-al-Fattah al-Sisi has announced an initiative aimed at ending the war between the Libyan National Army (LNA) and the unelected Muslim Brotherhood / Al-Qaeda-backed “Government of National Accord” (GNA). 

The initiative, launched on 6 June and touted by the Egyptian media and politicians as the silver bullet that will  bring peace to the neighbouring North African country, came at the end of a conference in Cairo attended by LNA chief Khalifa Haftar, the Speaker of the elected parliament, Aqila Salih, and several foreign diplomats, including from the United States, Russia, France and Italy.

According to Sisi, the initiative includes a ceasefire starting on 8 June and the formation of a presidential council in which Libya’s three regions — Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fazzan — would be represented. The council would rule the country during an 18-month transition period followed by elections. It also includes the unification of all Libyan financial and oil institutions, and the disbanding of militias, so that the LNA and other security agencies can “carry out their responsibilities” by eliminating the terrorist and organised crime militias that have blighted the country since the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

“There can be no stability in Libya unless peaceful means to the crisis are found that include the unity and integrity of the national institutions,” Sisi said. “The initiative could be a new start in Libya.” He also called for the withdrawal of all foreign fighters in Libya.

To date Turkey’s Islamist and Ottoman revivalist President Recep Erdogan has brought into Libya at least 10,100 Syrian mercenaries and jihadist terrorists to fight alongside the GNA’s militias. 

Sisi’s initiative may succeed, at least for a short while, in drawing attention away from his failure to back the LNA to anywhere near the same extent as the support given by Erdogan to the Islamist and organised crime militias of the GNA. In addition to sending thousands of Syrian mercenaries and Islamist terrorists to Libya, Turkey has also participated directly in the war against the LNA, deploying drones, electronic jamming equipment, surface-to-air missiles, special forces and warships, which have enabled the GNA militias to reverse most of the gains made by the LNA since April 2019. 

Sisi’s initiative also overlooks a basic tenet of international relations. That is, if diplomacy is to be successful it must be backed by the threat of force or some other coercive action. That is not so in the case of Egyptian diplomatic moves in Libya. Sisi may succeed in getting his initiative endorsed by the United Nations Security Council and all existing international organisations. At most, they will issue resolutions and make supportive noises, but that is as far as it will go, especially now that the US has signalled its backing  for the Turkish military intervention and the Islamist terrorists in Libya. 

So, it comes as no surprise that the GNA and its supporters have rejected Sisi’s initiative. Both Qatar and Turkey, the two main sponsors of the GNA, rejected the initiative outright, as did GNA chief Fayiz al-Sarraj, notorious militiaman Fathi Bashagha, the GNA’s “interior minister”, and Al-Sumud “brigade”, a key GNA militia led by internationally wanted terrorist Salah Badi. Moreover, just hours after Sisi announced his initiative, the GNA militias, backed by Turkish special forces, frigates and drones, launched an attack on the LNA in the town of Sirt. They were beaten back but it is only a matter of time before Sirt is captured — unless Sisi or the other LNA backers, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, match Erdogan’s commitment to the GNA.

Libya’s problem is a security one that requires a military solution that obliterates the Islamist and organised crime militias. What Libya needs is decisive and resolute military support for the national army to bring about peace, security and stability. It does not need vacuus political initiatives or toothless resolutions.

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Turkey gears up for the occupation of Libya

Turkish frigate in Tripoli
Nureddin Sabir, Editor, Redress Information & Analysis, writes:

Turkey’s Islamist and Ottoman revivalist President Recep Erdogan has learned from the lawless State of Israel that in world politics it is guns that count, not resolutions issued by international organisations or platitudinous statements of states. 

So, while Egypt’s dithering American client, Abd-al-Fattah al-Sisi, and his sycophantic media are still indulging in an orgy of self-congratulations over Sisi’s stillborn peace initiative for Libya, Erdogan continues on his inexorable path to rob Libya of what remains of its wealth and in all probability turn it into a staging post for attacks by the Muslim Brotherhood terrorists against Egypt itself – the ultimate target of his Libyan adventure.

Since Sisi’s announcement of his initiative to end the conflict between the elected Libyan government and the Turkish-sponsored, Muslim Brotherhood- and Al-Qaeda-backed “Government of National Accord“ (GNA) – an initiative that is still being loudly celebrated by the Egyptian media – Turkey has been busy arming the GNA’s Islamist and organised crime militias.

Just four days after the promulgation of Sisi’s initiative – the Cairo Declaration – Turkey dispatched a frigate to the Libyan capital Tripoli, which is occupied by the GNA’s Islamist and crime syndicate militias. Its mission was described by a Turkish source as to assist the GNA militias preparing to attack the coastal town of Sirt, which is under the control of the Libyan National Army, the elected government’s armed force.

Moreover, today multiple sources have reported that Turkey has established a military air bridge to the areas occupied by the GNA’s militias (see this for example), indicating, as one commentator pointed out, that Turkey is in Libya for the long haul – unless it is pushed out by force of arms. To date, this has seen Turkish C-130 heavy transport planes make 22 flights to the occupied parts of Libya in as many days.

Turkey’s neo-Ottoman Erdogan clearly understands that it is deeds, not words, that count. Sadly for Libyans and Egyptians, this message has still not got through to Egypt’s President Sisi. If he persists in celebrating his stillborn initiative while remaining supine in the face of Turkish aggression, both he and the Egyptian people will pay the price of his inertness.

Egypt’s peace initiative for Libya will not succeed before the Turks and their stooges are roundly defeated

Egypt’s peace initiative for Libya will not succeed before the Turks and their stooges are roundly defeated

In “QuickPress”

What next for Libya in the face of Turkish aggression and floundering Arab allies?

What next for Libya in the face of Turkish aggression and floundering Arab allies?

In “Home”

Libya at the precipice of division between Turkey and Russia as the endgame approaches

Libya at the precipice of division between Turkey and Russia as the endgame approaches

In “Home”

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The Migrant and the Moral Economy of the Elite


Photo: Sudarshan Sakharkar.

“The movement of individuals shall remain ‘strictly prohibited’ between 7 pm and 7 am except for essential activities.”

– Ministry of Home Affairs circular (as reported by India Today, May 17)

The circular offered ‘relief for migrant workers by allowing inter-state movement of passenger vehicles and buses’ (If two neighbouring states could agree on it). But said nothing about the millions voting with their feet on the highways.

Those curfew hours condemned them to walking between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. in the hottest phase of summer, with temperatures touching 47 degrees Celsius.

A month earlier, Jamlo Madkam, a 12-year-old Adivasi girl, working in the chilli fields of Telangana, set out on foot to reach her home in Chhattisgarh after the lockdown halted work and income. This child walked 140 kilometres in three days, then fell dead of exhaustion, dehydration and muscle fatigue, 60 km from her home. How many more Jamlos will such curfew orders create?

First, the prime minister’s March 24 announcement stoked panic, giving a nation of 1.3 billion human beings four hours to shut down. Migrant workers everywhere began their long march home. Next, those the police could not beat back into their urban ghettos, we intercepted at state borders. We sprayed people with disinfectant. Many went into ‘relief camps’, a relief for whom it is hard to say.

The Mumbai-Nashik highway seemed busier under lockdown than in normal times. People moved any way they could. Bimlesh Jaiswal, who lost one leg in an accident years ago, travelled 1,200 km from Panvel, Maharashtra, to Rewa, Madhya Pradesh, on a gearless scooter, with his wife and three-year-old daughter. “Who shuts down a country with a four-hour notice?” he asks. Come on Bimlesh, you know the answer to that one.

Meanwhile, we said: “Hey, we’ll organise trains everywhere and send you guys home.” We did, and demanded full fare from hungry, desperate people. Then we cancelled some of those trains, as builders and other lobbies needed to stop their captive labour from fleeing. Those and other controversies dangerously delayed the launch of large-scale train services. On May 28, the government told the Supreme Court of India that 9.1 million labourers have been shifted to their native places since the Shramik Special trains started on May 1. And the fares, the Solicitor General told the court, in some cases the originating state would pay, in some cases the receiving state. (No contribution here from the Centre.)

It gives you a glimpse, but only a glimpse, of the scale of what is going on. We do not know how many millions more are trying register for travel on those trains. We do not know how many millions are on the highways. We do know they desperately want to go home. And we know there are powerful lobbies that don’t want that and, in fact, feel the need to restrain and discipline that labour. Several states extended working hours to 12, including three BJP-ruled ones that did not mandate overtime for the additional hours. A slew of labour laws were suspended, for three years, by some states.

As on April 12, the government told us 1.4 million people were in relief camps across India. Double the number in such camps on March 31. Those thronging ‘food camps’, community kitchens, NGO efforts, the like, numbered 13 million on April 12. More than five times the March 31 figure. And all these numbers measured but a fragment of the full scale of the disaster. As of today, it still appears that ordinary people, individuals, communities, neighbourhoods, activist groups, non-profits, charitable organisations and the migrants themselves, could be spending more money on fighting the crisis than the central government is. Their concern is surely more genuine.

Between March 19 and May 12, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation five times on television. He called on us to bang pots and pans, light diyas, shower flower petals to honour the ’frontline warriors’ against Covid-19. Only in the fifth speech did he mention labourers at all. ‘Migrant labourers’, just once. Go figure.

Will the migrants come back?

Many will return over time for lack of options. In nearly three decades of our chosen path of development, we snuffed out millions of livelihoods, sparking a still ongoing agrarian crisis that has seen over 315,000 farmers take their own lives.

By all means discuss ‘reverse migrations’. But do ask why they left their villages in the first place.

In 1993, there was one bus service a week from Mahbubnagar, in what is now Telangana state, to Mumbai. In May 2003, when I boarded that overcrowded bus, there were 34 weekly on that route, rising to 45 by the month-end. My fellow travellers were driven by the collapse of the agrarian economy. Among them, a 15-acre landowner, who told me his farm was finished and he needed to work in Mumbai. Sitting beside him was his former bonded labourer, making the same journey.

It struck me then: we are all in the same bus.

In 1994, there were scarcely any Kerala state transport corporation buses running between Mananthavady in Wayanad district and Kutta town in Karnataka. Till the agrarian crisis struck, cash crop-rich Wayanad had been a district of in-migration. By 2004, the KSRTC was running 24 trips daily to Kutta. Work in Wayanad had withered with its agriculture.

This was happening across the country. But we romanced our growth numbers, reminding me of Edward Abbey’s famous line: ‘Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell’. We were in celebratory mode, though, and those pointing to rising rural distress were ridiculed.

Since most editors and anchors still don’t get it (though their young reporters often seem to): an agrarian crisis is not only about farming. When millions of livelihoods of non-cultivators in allied occupations – weavers, potters, carpenters, inland fishermen, scores of others, tied to the farm economy – also collapsed, all of agrarian society entered crisis.

Today, people are trying to return to livelihoods we extinguished in the past 30 years.

The media showed little interest when Census 2011 told us that the preceding 10 years had seen extraordinary levels of migration. We learned that for the first time since 1921, urban India had added more people to its numbers than rural India did. We also learned there were 15 million fewer farmers (‘main’ cultivators) in the country than there were in 1991. On average: 2,000 farmers had lost main cultivator status every day since 1991.

Simply: massive distress migrations were on and rising. Many farmer drop-outs didn’t go to the big cities, they fell into the agrarian underclass. The Census showed a huge increase in the numbers of agricultural labourers. Now all of them are being joined by millions who did migrate. What will be the outcome of this new pressure on agriculture? You know the answer.

Who are they anyway?

Everyone isn’t leaving a small village for the big city. Sure, rural to urban migrants are many. But there is also a massive flow of rural to rural migrants. This March-April, many who move to other villages, districts and states for work in the rabi harvest couldn’t go. They are in dire straits.

Then there are urban to urban migrations in serious numbers. And a relatively minor number of urban to rural migrants.

We need to consider all of them, especially ‘footloose migrants’. The Census cannot capture this process, the desperate search for work that drives poorer people in many directions without any clear, final destination. Maybe they leave Kalahandi to pull rickshaws for a few days in Raipur. Maybe they get 40 days of work on a construction site in Mumbai. Maybe they land some days of work at the harvest in a nearby district. Maybe.

Census 2011 indicates there were 54 million migrants who cross state borders. But that’s got to be a huge underestimate. The Census understands migration as a one-stop process. The migrant is someone who left point A for point B and was at least six months in the latter when enumerated. The person may have been on the move for years, before reaching, say, Mumbai. The drama of those journeys is never captured. Neither the Census nor the National Sample Survey is geared to recording short-term or step-by-step movements.

If the media seem clueless in covering migrants, who they only discovered on March 26, it’s because they are. They have no beats on this sector and cannot fathom the difference between long-term, seasonal, short-term or circular, or footloose migrants. Why cover beats from which there is no money to be made?


More than one well-meaning person has told me: this is terrible, the migrant worker situation. We must help them. These are hard-working people in total misery. They are not like those factory workers and their unions, always making trouble. These people deserve our sympathy.

Sure, it is correct, if sometimes convenient, for us to show compassion. But the migrant labourers do not need our sympathy, concern or compassion. They need justice. They need their rights to be real, respected and enforced. If a few of those awful factory workers have any rights, it’s because they are organised and have some collective strength and bargaining power, thanks to those noisy unions. If your sympathy and compassion for ‘migrant labourers’ goes beyond the cosmetic and the conditional, support the struggles of all workers in India for justice and their rights.

That distinction between migrants and other workers is quite peculiar. The operational word in the term ‘migrant labourer’ is ‘labourer’. If the CEO of Infosys quits his Bengaluru-headquartered company and moves to Delhi for better prospects, he would be a migrant, but not a labourer. There are differences of caste, class, social capital and networks that make him very different from the migrant labourers on whom we now shower our pity. Those other awful workers we despise, they talk back to us, you see, and shamelessly demand their rights, are often migrants of earlier generations.

Mill workers in Mumbai were, in the early days, mostly migrants from the Konkan and other regions of Maharashtra. Later, from other parts of the country. As Dr. Ravi Duggal points out in an extraordinarily perceptive article in the Economic and Political Weekly, those workers too once fled Mumbai when the bubonic plague of 1896-97 struck. Over 10,000 people died in Mumbai in the first six months. By 1914, the plague had claimed eight million lives all over India.

“Mill workers constituted 80,000 of the total 850,000 population of the city,” writes Duggal. “Forced to face harassment under plague control measures, which involved sanitisation, quarantine and separation of sick family members in poor conditions, and even destruction of their dwellings, they resorted to striking a number of times in early 1897. Within three to four months of the start of the plague, 400,000 people, including many mill workers, fled from Bombay to their villages, pushing the city into a severe economic crisis.”

What persuaded many to later return? “Many mill owners adopted the strategy suggested by Nowrosjee Wadia of building a bond ­between the employer and the employed through provision of housing, and better working and living conditions (Sarkar 2014). This brought back workers to Bombay even though the plague had become endemic and only disappeared during World War I.”

The British government too intervened, with an act of parliament creating the Bombay Improvement Trust. The municipal corporation and the government handed over all vacant lands to this trust which then sought, by its own lights, to improve sanitary and living conditions in the city. Alas, its own lights were not very bright: it created some dwellings and destroyed more than it built. But at least there was a thought of improvement. However, then, as now, that thought was about improvement of ‘the city’ and its image. Not of the actual lives and conditions of the poor and marginalised whose labour it lived off.

The compassion for the poor ebbed as the plague and its memories receded. Sounds so much like today, and tomorrow. We discovered the migrants’ miserable conditions this March when we suddenly lost a lot of taken-for-granted services. Compassion has this annoying habit of evaporating when comfort returns.

In 1994, the plague killed 54 people in Surat. Diarrhoea was claiming 1.5 million Indian infants each year, and tuberculosis over 450,000 lives annually in that era. But the plague in Surat got far more attention in the media than two treatable and curable problems which claimed over 30,000 times as many victims the same year.

As that plague quickly vanished, we returned to neglecting the diseases that primarily kill the poor. And the living conditions that make them far more vulnerable than the rest of us to disease.

In our time, even before Covid-19, our ‘inclusive’ development enshrined the vision of ‘smart cities’ which would serve 3 to 5 per cent of their existing populations, abandoning the rest to squalor and ill-health.

Migrants from the villages might get better wages in the city, but their living and health conditions, particularly of women and children, can be abysmal.

Can we do something about all this? Plenty. But first we would have to jettison the notion of going back to business as usual. We need to trash the superstitions and shibboleths of 30 years of market theology. And build the kind of state the Constitution of India mandates, where there is, for all citizens, “Justice, social, economic and political”.

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Defund the Police, Defund the Military


A crowd of people near a sign Description automatically generated


On June 1, President Trump threatened to deploy active-duty U.S. military forces against peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters in cities across America. Trump and state governors eventually deployed at least 17,000 National Guard troops across the country. In the nation’s capital, Trump deployed nine Blackhawk assault helicopters, thousands of National Guard troops from six states and at least 1,600 Military Police and active-duty combat troops from the 82nd Airborne Division, with written orders to pack bayonets.

After a week of conflicting orders during which Trump demanded 10,000 troops in the capital, the active-duty troops were finally ordered back to their bases in North Carolina and New York on June 5th, as the peaceful nature of the protests made the use of military force very obviously redundant, dangerous and irresponsible. But Americans were left shell-shocked by the heavily armed troops, the tear gas, the rubber bullets and the tanks that turned U.S. streets into war zones. They were also shocked to realize how easy it was for President Trump, single-handedly, to muster such a chilling array of force.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. We have allowed our corrupt ruling class to build the most destructive war machine in history and to place it in the hands of an erratic and unpredictable president. As protests against police brutality flooded our nation’s streets, Trump felt emboldened to turn this war machine against us—and may well be willing to do it again if there is a contested election in November.

Americans are getting a small taste of the fire and fury that the U.S. military and its allies inflict on people overseas on a regular basis from Iraq and Afghanistan to Yemen and Palestine, and the intimidation felt by the people of Iran, Venezuela, North Korea and other countries that have long lived under U.S. threats to bomb, attack or invade them.

For African-Americans, the latest round of fury unleashed by the police and military is only an escalation of the low-grade war that America’s rulers have waged against them for centuries. From the horrors of slavery to post-Civil War convict leasing to the apartheid Jim Crow system to today’s mass criminalization, mass incarceration and militarized policing, America has always treated African-Americans as a permanent underclass to be exploited and “kept in their place” with as much force and brutality as that takes.

Today, Black Americans are at least four times as likely to be shot by police as white Americans and six times as likely to be thrown in prison. Black drivers are three times more likely to be searched and twice as likely to be arrested during traffic stops, even though police have better luck finding contraband in white people’s cars. All of this adds up to a racist policing and prison system, with African-American men as its prime targets, even as U.S. police forces are increasingly militarized and armed by the Pentagon.

Racist persecution does not end when African-Americans walk out the prison gate. In 2010, a third of African-American men had a felony conviction on their record, closing doors to jobs, housing, student aid, safety net programs like SNAP and cash assistance, and in some states the right to vote. From the first “stop and frisk” or traffic stop, African-American men face a system designed to entrap them in permanent second-class citizenship and poverty.

Just as the people of Iran, North Korea and Venezuela suffer from poverty, hunger, preventable disease and death as the intended results of brutal U.S. economic sanctions, systemic racism has similar effects in the U.S., keeping African-Americans in exceptional poverty, with double the infant mortality rate of whites and schools that are as segregated and unequal as when segregation was legal. These underlying disparities in health and living standards appear to be the main reason why African-Americans are dying from Covid-19 at more than double the rate of White Americans.

Liberating a neocolonial world

While the U.S. war on the black population at home is now exposed for all of America–and the world–to see, the victims of U.S. wars abroad continue to be hidden. Trump has escalated the horrific wars he inherited from Obama, dropping more bombs and missiles in 3 years than either Bush II or Obama did in their first terms.

But Americans don’t see the terrifying fireballs of the bombs. They don’t see the dead and maimed bodies and rubble the bombs leave in their wake. American public discourse about war has revolved almost entirely around the experiences and sacrifices of U.S. troops, who are, after all, our family members and neighbors. Like the double standard between white and black lives in the U.S., there is a similar double standard between the lives of U.S. troops and the millions of casualties and ruined lives on the other side of the conflicts the U.S. armed forces and U.S. weapons unleash on other countries.

When retired generals speak out against Trump’s desire to deploy active-duty troops on America’s streets, we should understand that they are defending precisely this double standard. Despite draining the U.S. Treasury to wreak horrific violence against people in other countries, while failing to “win” wars even on its own confused terms, the U.S. military has maintained a surprisingly good reputation with the U.S. public. This has largely exempted the armed forces from growing public disgust with the systemic corruption of other American institutions.

Generals Mattis and Allen, who came out against Trump’s deployment of U.S. troops against peaceful protesters, understand very well that the fastest way to squander the military’s “teflon” public reputation would be to deploy it more widely and openly against Americans within the United States.

Just as we are exposing the rot in U.S. police forces and calling for defunding the police, so we must expose the rot in U.S. foreign policy and call for defunding the Pentagon. U.S. wars on people in other countries are driven by the same racism and ruling class economic interests as the war against African-Americans in our cities. For too long, we have let cynical politicians and business leaders divide and rule us, funding police and the Pentagon over real human needs, pitting us against each other at home and leading us off to wars against our neighbors abroad.

The double standard that sanctifies the lives of U.S. troops over those of the people whose countries they bomb and invade is as cynical and deadly as the one that values white lives over black ones in America. As we chant “Black Lives Matter,” we should include the lives of black and brown people dying every day from U.S. sanctions in Venezuela, the lives of black and brown people being blown up by U.S. bombs in Yemen and Afghanistan, the lives of people of color in Palestine who are tear-gassed, beaten and shot with Israeli weapons funded by U.S-taxpayers. We must be ready to show solidarity with people defending themselves against U.S.-sponsored violence whether in Minneapolis, New York and Los Angeles, or Afghanistan, Gaza and Iran.

This past week, our friends around the world have given us a magnificent example of what this kind of international solidarity looks like. From London, Copenhagen and Berlin to New Zealand, Canada and Nigeria, people have poured into the streets to show solidarity with African-Americans. They understand that the U.S. lies at the heart of a racist political and economic international order that still dominates the world 60 years after the formal end of Western colonialism. They understand that our struggle is their struggle, and we should understand that their future is also our future.

So as others stand with us, we must also stand with them. Together we must seize this moment to move from incremental reform to real systemic change, not just within the U.S. but throughout the racist, neocolonial world that is policed by the U.S. military.

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How the Saudis, the Qataris, and the Emiratis Took Washington


Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

It was a bare-knuckle brawl of the first order. It took place in Washington, D.C., and it resulted in a KO. The winners? Lobbyists and the defense industry. The losers? Us. And odds on, you didn’t even know that it happened. Few Americans did, which is why it’s worth telling the story of how Saudi, Emirati, and Qatari money flooded the nation’s capital and, in the process, American policy went down for the count.

The fight began three years ago this month. Sure, the pugilists hadn’t really liked each other that much before then, but what happened in 2017 was the foreign-policy equivalent of a sucker punch. On the morning of June 5th, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, and Bahrain announced that they were severing diplomatic ties with Qatar, the small but wealthy emirate in the Persian Gulf, and establishing a land, air, and sea blockade of their regional rival, purportedly because of its ties to terrorism.

The move stunned the Qataris, who responded in ways that would later become familiar during the Covid-19 pandemic — by emptying supermarket shelves and hoarding essentials they worried would quickly run out. Their initial fears were not unwarranted, as their neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, were even reported to be planning to launch a military invasion of Qatar in the weeks to come (one that would be thwarted only by the strong objections of Donald Trump’s then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson).

To make sense of this now three-year-old conflict, which turned aspects of American policy in the Middle East ranging from the war in Yemen to the more than 10,000 American military personnel stationed in Qatar into political footballs, means refocusing on Washington and the extraordinary influence operations the Saudis, Emiratis, and Qataris ran there. That, in turn, means analyzing Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) documents filed by firms representing all three countries since the spat began. Do that and you’ll come across a no-punches-barred bout of lobbying in the U.S. capital that would have made Rocky envious.

The Saudis Come Out Swinging

The stage had been set for the blockade of Qatar seven months before it began when Donald Trump was elected president. Just as his victory shocked the American public, so it caught many foreign governments off guard. In response, they quickly sought out the services of anyone with ties to the incoming administration and the Republican-controlled Congress. The Saudis and Emiratis were no exception. In 2016, both countries had reportedspending a little more than $10 million on FARA registered lobbying firms. By the end of 2017, UAE spending had nearly doubled to $19.5 million, while the Saudi’s had soared to $27.3 million.

In the months following Donald Trump’s November triumph, the Saudis, for instance, added several firms with ties to him or the Republicans to an already sizeable list of companies registered under FARA as representing their interests. For example, they brought on the CGCN Group whose president and chief policy officer, Michael Catanzaro, was on Trump’s transition team and then served in his administration. To court the Republican Congress, they hired the McKeon Group, run by former Republican Representative Buck McKeon, who had previously served as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

And that was just registered foreign agents. A number of actors who had not registered under FARA were actively pushing the Saudi and Emirati agendas, chief among them Elliott Broidy and George Nader. Broidy, a top fundraiser for Trump’s campaign, and Nader, his business partner, already had a wide range of interests in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. To help secure them, the two men embarked on a campaign to turn the new president and the Republican establishment against Qatar. One result was a Broidy-inspired, UAE-funded anti-Qatar conference hosted in May 2017 by a prominent Washington think tank, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. It conveniently offered Representative Ed Royce (R-CA) a platform to discusshis plans to introduce a bill, HR 2712, that would label Qatar a state sponsor of terrorism. It was to be introduced in the House of Representatives just two days after the conference ended.

Qatar, mind you, had been a U.S. ally in the Middle East and was the home of Al Udeid Air Base, where more than 10,000 American soldiers are still stationed. So that bill represented a striking development in American-Qatari relations and was a clearly traceable result of Saudi and UAE lobbying efforts.

The unregistered influence of players like Broidy and Nader was evidently backed by other FARA-registered Saudi and UAE foreign agents actively pushing the bill. For example, Qorvis Communications, a long-time public relations mouthpiece for the Saudis, circulated a document titled “Qatar’s History of Funding Terrorism and Extremism,” claiming that country was funding Al-Nusra, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other groups. (Not surprisingly, it included a supportive quote from David Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.)

While that anti-Qatar crusade was ramping up in Washington, the president himself was being wooed by the Saudi royals in Riyadh on his first official trip abroad. They gave him the literal royal treatment and their efforts appeared to pay off when, just a day after the blockade began, Trump tweeted, “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!”

A week after the imposition of the blockade, the Emirati ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed calling for Al Udeid Air Base to be moved to the UAE, a development the Qataris fearedcould open the door for an eventual invasion of their country.

However, this Saudi and Emirati onslaught did not go unanswered.

Qatar Strikes Back

Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, was caught flat-footed by the influence operations of the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates. The year before Donald Trump became president, the Qataris had spent just $2.7 million on lobbying and public relations firms, less than a third of what the Saudis and UAE paid out, according to FARA records. But they now moved swiftly to shore up their country’s image as a crucial American ally. They went on an instant hiring spree, scooping up lobbying and public-relations firms with close ties to Trump and congressional Republicans. Just two days after the blockade began, for instance, they inked a deal with the law firm of former Attorney General John Ashcroft, paying $2.5 million for just its first 90 days of work.

They also quickly obtained the services of Stonington Strategies. Headed by Nick Muzin, who had worked on Trump’s election campaign, the firm promptly set out to court 250 Trump “influencers,” as Julie Bykowicz of theWall Street Journal reported. Among others, Stonington’s campaign sought to woo prominent Fox News personalities Trump paid special attention to like former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. He was paid $50,000 to travel to Qatar just months later.

In September 2017, the Qataris also hired Bluefront Strategies to craft a comprehensive multimedia operation, which was to include commercials on all the major news networks, as well as digital and printed ads in an array of prominent publications, and a “Lift the Blockade” campaign on social media. Meanwhile, ads on Google and YouTube were to highlight the illegality of the blockade and the country’s contributions to fighting terrorism. Bluefront Strategies was to influence public opinion before the next session of the U.N. General Assembly that month. Qatar and its proxies then used the campaign“to target key decision-makers attending the General Assembly, including Trump” to gain support on that most global of stages.

Its agents weren’t just playing defense, either. They actively attacked the Saudi lobby. For example, Barry Bennett of Avenue Strategies, a PR firm they hired, sent a letter to the assistant attorney general for national security accusing Saudi Arabia and the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee (SAPRAC) of FARA violations in their funding of an expensive media campaign meant to connect Qatar’s leaders with violent extremism and acts of terror.

Such counterpunches proved remarkably successful. SAPRAC eventually felt obliged to register with FARA. Meanwhile, Huckabee tweeted, “Just back from a few days in surprisingly beautiful, modern, and hospitable Doha, Qatar.” Finally, at that U.N. meeting, President Trump actually sat down with Emir al-Thani of Qatar and said, “We’ve been friends a long time… I have a very strong feeling [the Qatar diplomatic crisis] will be solved quickly.” They both then emphasized the “tremendous” and “strong” relationship between their countries.

The Qataris next mounted a concerted defense against HR 2712. Lobbying firms they hired, particularly Avenue Strategies and Husch Blackwell, launched a multifaceted campaign to prevent that legislation from passing. Elliott Broidy even claimed in a lawsuit that the Qatari government and several of its lobbyists had hacked his email account and distributed private emails of his to members of Congress in an attempt to discredit his work for the Saudis.

In November 2017, Barry Bennett from Avenue Strategies went on the attack, using a powerful weapon in Washington politics: Israel. He distributed a letter to members of Congress written by a former high-ranking official in the Israeli national security establishment explicitly stating that Qatar had not provided military support to Hamas, as HR 2712 claimed it had.

Three months later, Husch Blackwell all but threatened Congress and the Trump administration with the cancellation of a $6.2 billion Boeing contract to sell F-15 fighters to the Qatari military (and the potential loss of thousands of associated jobs) if the bill passed and sanctions were imposed on that country. All of this was linked to a concerted effort by Qatari agents to contact “nearly two dozen House offices, including then House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy,” to prevent the bill’s passage, according to a report by the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy where we work. Ultimately, HR 2712 died a slow death in Congress and never became law.

The Saudi Bloc’s Battle for the War in Yemen

Just as Qatar started to turn the tide in the fight for influence in Washington, the Saudis and their allies faced another problem: Congress began moving to sever support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. On February 28, 2018, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced a joint resolution to withdraw U.S. support for that war. According to FARA filings, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, LLP, representing the Saudi ministry of foreign affairs, contacted several members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, particularly Democrats, presumably to persuade them to vote against the measure.

That March, the firm sent out dozens of emails to members of Congress inviting them to a gala dinner with the key Saudi royal, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself. According to the invitation from the CGCN Group, another FARA-registered firm representing the Saudis, the “KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia]-USA Partnership Gala Dinner” was to emphasize the “enduring defense and counter-terrorism cooperation” and “historic alliance” between the two countries. It would end up taking place just two days after the Senate voted to table Sanders’s bill.

Emirati lobbyists similarly reached out to Congress to maintain support for their role in that war. Hagir Elawad & Associates, for example, distributed an op-ed written by the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs justifying the war, as well as a letter written by that country’s ambassador, Yousef al-Otaiba, to 50 congressional contacts defending the Saudi-led coalition’s efforts to avoid civilian casualties and arguing that “the United States has a clear stake in the coalition’s success in Yemen.”

When that conflict began, Qatar was still a member of the coalition, but the imposition of the blockade led it to withdraw its forces from Yemen. Qatari officials then used the country’s media empire, centered on the broadcaster Al Jazeera, to highlight the disastrous aspects of the ongoing war. In doing so, they provided the Saudis and Emiratis with yet another reason to focus their own influence machines on both Qatar’s and Al Jazeera’s destruction. (That network’s closure was, in fact, one of the original 13 demands the Saudis and Emiratis had made for lifting the blockade.)

From the moment it was founded in 1996, Al Jazeera had been an instrument of Qatari soft power, so it was hardly surprising that the UAE had long pressured members of Congress to force the network to register under FARA as a foreign agent. And Emirati lobbying efforts were not in vain. In early March 2018, 19 members of Congress signed and sent a letter to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions urging the Justice Department to demand that Al Jazeera be registered under FARA. Another such letter sent to the Justice Department in June 2019 by six senators and two representatives asked “why Al Jazeera and its employees have not been required to register.” According to FARA filings, all but one of those representatives had either received campaign contributions from or been contacted by a Saudi or Emirati lobbying firm. Al Jazeera, however, has yet to register.

The Murder of Jamal Khashoggi

Despite the efforts of Saudi and Emirati lobbyists in the early months of 2018, the emir of Qatar still managed to land an invitation to the Oval Office. At their meeting that April 10th, President Trump again described al-Thani as a “friend” and a “great gentleman” as well. The emir, in turn, thanked the president for “supporting us during this blockade.”

If Trump’s cozying up to him was a setback for the Saudis, the murder of critic and Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi nearly did in the Saudi lobbying juggernaut as well. The CIA later confirmed that the crown prince himself had ordered that Saudi citizen’s assassination at the country’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

As a result, some lobbying firms cut ties with the kingdom and its influence on Capitol Hill waned, as did positive public opinion about Saudi Arabia. In December 2018, the Senate passed the Sanders bill to end support for the war in Yemen. Both houses of Congress also passed a War Powers resolution to end involvement in that conflict, a historic congressional move in this century, even if later vetoed by President Trump (as were a series of attempts to block his treasured arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates).

Given the president’s unyielding support for the Saudis and Emiratis as especially lucrative customers for this country’s defense industry, the Qataris have clearly decided to crib the Saudi playbook. In May, that country purchased 24 Apache helicopters for $3 billion and, a few months later, agreed to pay for and manage a $1.8 billion expansion of Al Udeid Air Base to ensure the American military’s continued presence for the foreseeable future. In doing so, Qatar was visibly at work coopting two of the most powerful lobbies in Washington: the military and the weapons makers.

And the Winners Are…

Though Qatar faced a near-existential threat to its survival when the blockade began, three years later it’s not only surviving, but thriving thanks significantly to its influence operations in Washington. They have helped immeasurably to deepen economicdiplomatic, and military relations between the two countries.

Meanwhile, the emir’s rivals in Riyadh not only failed to make their blockade a success, but saw their influence wane appreciably in the U.S. as they stumbled from one public relations fiasco to the next. Even their staunchest defender, Donald Trump, recently threatened to sever U.S. military support for the Kingdom if the Saudi royals didn’t end their oil war with Russia (which they promptly did).

In truth, however, the real loser in this struggle for influence hasn’t been Saudi Arabia or the Emiratis, it’s been America. After all, the efforts of both sides to deepen their ties with the military-industrial complex (reinforcing the hyper-militarization of U.S. foreign policy) and increase their sway in Congress have ensured that the real interests of this country played second fiddle to those of Middle Eastern despots. Certainly, their acts helped ensure near historic levels of arms sales to the region, while prolonging the wars in Yemen and Syria, and so contributing to death and devastation on an almost unimaginable scale.

None of this had anything to do with the real interests of Americans, unless you mean the arms industry and K Street lobbyists who have been the only clear American winners in this never-ending PR war in Washington. In the process, those three Persian Gulf states have delivered a genuine knockout blow to the very idea that U.S. foreign policy should be driven by national — not special — interests.

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The Beginning of the End for Unearned Authority


At last glance it looks like we are up to almost 600 documented episodes of police violence during the George Floyd protests. An attorney and mathematician have compiled a google doc titled “GeorgeFloyd Protest – police brutality videos on Twitter”.

Greg Doucette and mathematician Jason Miller have all the receipts, doing the massively time-consuming work to locate these depraved videos all in one place. Undeniable and powerful, there is no room left for anyone sane and decent to deny this is happening. This is the resource to provide to any dim stragglers, those claiming ignorance or any of the other forms of denial some older white Americans seem keen to continue with. A haunting fact being this is simply what has been caught on video—the violence stretches like grains of sand in our culture—unending and vast. Those who continue to deny this reality are simply entrenched in their own racism and authoritarianism. Logic, proof, and empathy are not what those lost souls are about. But those who can still be reached—perhaps this will spark life into their seemingly dead cardiac tissue.

Our entire mode of modern “civilized” life has been predicated on certain professions and distinct wealth classes having the first, and often only, say in the direction of our lives. The vast population being subjected to their whims as well as their sociopathic tendencies. This moment in time is not simply a protest of one murder, but the beginning of the end for the unearned entitlements in our society. The bravery of the Black Lives Matter movement cannot be overstated and their willingness to plunge forward and demand systemic dismantling is a watershed moment in history.

There is no way those of us who are white can ever comprehend living life with this kind of default fear or how terrifying it would be to anxiously see our sons and daughters go outside, worrying that they will get on the wrong side of someone steroided up and looking for a  feeling of individual supremacy.

It is for us to aid and support and to dismantle in any way we can. Any success that may come in terms of bringing George Floyd’s murderer and accomplices to justice cannot be viewed as an end point. Breonna Taylor still has no justice. And you can insert literally millions of names into the statement “______” has no justice. The heinous individuals who have skated by on the lightness of their skin will need to have a worth as a human in the future by caring for others. The simple lack of melanin won’t cut it any longer. This is how it should always have been, but the lowly and honorless found ways through history to enslave others. They succeeded simply because the decent were too quiet and tacitly accepted the perversion as normal. We have all seen in a small way how the outrageous can become normalized (just watch the mainstream media dissect a Trump press conference as if any response beyond “that fucker is batshit crazy” is appropriate). This is how we get to a place like this. All minor injustice needs to be met with a mountain of opposition.

The only fitting response to the horror is to honor those who have been victims is through the wholesale restructuring of society. Until this sickening and toxic framework is gone, there will always be the need for an “other” to harm. This must be the beginning. The moment in time of the great unraveling, not an unraveling to fear, but one that pulls apart the confines and limitations that bind.

I’ve been writing and considering these needs for societal overhaul for so long with a grim feeling that the changes would never come to pass. We all talk and commiserate, but truly don’t know how to bring about change. BLM and their associated activists are discarding the notion that these changes cannot occur. I believe they will be viewed as the liberators who delivered the paradigm earthquake.

This younger generation of activists has restored my sense of the possible.

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Police Reform Was Never Going to be Easy, But Now’s the Time


As the worldwide demonstrations continue two weeks after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman, the question is whether outrage will lead to real reforms?

Fundamental reforms would begin with ending the “qualified immunity” of police, curbing the militarization of police forces, transferring funds and functions to social agencies, imposing residency requirements and finally making lynching a hate crime.

There is good reason to be skeptical. After the remarkable Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country in 2014, very little changed. Police continue to kill more than 250 African Americans a year (of nearly 1,000 Americans each year). In most cities, racial profiling, constant harassment, routine brutality and mass arrests continue. Powerful police unions block reforms.

Cynical politicians — in this case led by Donald Trump who has been tweeting “more money for Law Enforcement — fan fears. Callous officials like Attorney General William Barr deny the existence of systemic racism in our criminal justice system. With 18,000 separate police organizations organized locally across the country, real reform is hard.

There is also reason for hope. After dozens of commissions beginning with the Kerner Commission in 1967 and moving forward, we know a lot about what needs to be done. What has been missing is will, not ideas. And now, as the demonstrations reveal, Americans — black and white, young and old — are demanding change.

On Monday, Democrats — led by Rep. Karen Bass, chair of the CBC, and Senators Corey Booker and Kamala Harris — introduced The Justice in Policing Act of 2020 which calls for basic reforms.

It would revise the “qualified immunity,” which has protected police from liability for excessive use of force, curb the transfer of military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies, mandate data collection of police misconduct and a centralized registry of offenders, mandate racial training and outlaw choke holds and no-knock warrants. It would finally make lynching a hate crime, passing legislation that has been pending for over 100 years.

Many of these same reforms can and should be passed at a state level, not allowing Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump to bottle up reform.

Similarly, as Campaign Zero has detailed in #8Can’tWait, local officials or city councils can simply order basic changes in police techniques: outlawing choke holds, mandating de-escalation efforts, requiring warning before shooting, creating a duty to intervene against excessive force by other officers, banning shooting at moving vehicles and more.

“Defund the police” has been added to the massive “Black Lives Matter” painted on the road leading to the White House in Washington. Trump, of course, has jumped on the slogan in an effort to discredit any reform.

But the advocates of “defund the police” aren’t fools. They understand that the police will be with us — but that their role and their functions need to be dramatically rethought. “We must end policing as we know it,” stated Lisa Bender, the Minneapolis City Council President who leads a veto-proof majority of the city council dedicated to “recreating a system of public safety that will actually keep us safe.”

Defunding means transferring resources that now go to police into investments in communities in health care, schools, housing. It reflects the reality that in minority communities, particularly, overcriminalization has made virtually everyone a potential target. Police have gotten involved in areas better left to others, from school discipline, eviction enforcement, addiction and substance abuse. Police are soldiers in the so-called War on Drugs when it is fought in poor and minority communities while deferring to public health agencies addressing opioid and drug abuse in suburban and exurban neighborhoods.

Defending would include organizing community groups to help intervene to de-escalate tense situations that can lead to violence. Mayors in Los Angeles to New York have announced plans to transfer some funds from the police budget to social services, but what’s required is a real commitment like that of the Minneapolis City Council to rethink public safety from top to bottom.

One part of this has to recreate real community policing. In Minneapolis, 92 percent of the police live outside the city. They are literally an outside occupying army, too often seeing the neighborhoods they patrol as alien, even enemy territory.

Residence requirements that a far higher percentage of police come from the neighborhoods they patrol would dramatically change the tenor of the cops and the trust of the citizens.

Real change won’t be easy. The resistance will be fierce. At the national level, Senate Republicans will no doubt seek to block the reforms that pass the House. Trump will enlist the police unions to posture as a law-and-order strong man. The demonstrators must build a political force able not only to defeat those who stand in the way, but to hold those promising change accountable.

What is clear is that the abuses won’t stop, the police murders won’t end until fundamental reforms are made.

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How Che Guevara Taught Cuba to Confront COVID-19


Beginning in December 1951, Ernesto “Che” Guevara took a nine-month break from medical school to travel by motorcycle through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela. One of his goals was gaining practical experience with leprosy. On the night of his twenty-fourth birthday, Che was at La Colonia de San Pablo in Peru swimming across the river to join the lepers. He walked among six hundred lepers in jungle huts looking after themselves in their own way.

Che would not have been satisfied to just study and sympathize with them – he wanted to be with them and understand their existence. Being in contact with people who were poor and hungry while they were sick transformed Che. He envisioned a new medicine, with doctors who would serve the greatest number people with preventive care and public awareness of hygiene. A few years later, Che joined Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement as a doctor and was among the eighty-one men aboard the Granma as it landed in Cuba on December 2, 1956.

Revolutionary Medicine

After the January 1, 1959, victory that overthrew Fulgencio Batista, the new Cuban constitution included Che’s dream of free medical care for all as a human right. An understanding of the failings of disconnected social systems led the revolutionary government to build hospitals and clinics in underserved parts of the island at the same time that it began addressing crises of literacy, racism, poverty, and housing. Cuba overhauled its clinics both in 1964 and again in 1974 to better link communities and patients. By 1984, Cuba had introduced doctor-nurse teams who lived in the neighborhoods where they had offices (consultorios).

The United States became ever more bellicose, so in 1960 Cubans organized Committees for Defense of the Revolution to defend the country. The committees prepared to move the elderly, disabled, sick, and mentally ill to higher ground if a hurricane approached, thus intertwining domestic health care and foreign affairs, a connection that has been maintained throughout Cuba’s history.

As Cuba’s medical revolution was based on extending medical care beyond the major cities and into the rural communities that needed it the most, it was a logical conclusion to extend that assistance to other nations. The revolutionary government sent doctors to Chile after a 1960 earthquake and a medical brigade in 1963 to Algeria, which was fighting for independence from France. These set the stage for the country’s international medical aid, which grew during the decades and now includes helping treat the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the late 1980s and early ’90s, two disasters threatened the very existence of the country. The first victim of AIDS died in 1986. In December 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, ending its $5 billion annual subsidy, disrupting international commerce, and sending the Cuban economy into a free fall that exacerbated the AIDS epidemic. A perfect storm for AIDS infection appeared on the horizon. The HIV infection rate for the Caribbean region was second only to southern Africa, where a third of a million Cubans had recently been during the Angolan wars. The embargo on the island reduced the availability of drugs (including those for HIV/AIDS), made existing pharmaceuticals outrageously expensive, and disrupted the financial infrastructures used for drug purchases. Desperately needing funds, Cuba opened the floodgate of tourism.

The government drastically reduced services in all areas except two: education and health care. Its research institutes developed Cuba’s own diagnostic test for HIV by 1987. Over twelve million tests were completed by 1993. By 1990, when gay people had become the island’s primary HIV victims, homophobia was officially challenged in schools. Condoms were provided for free at doctor’s offices and, despite the expense, so were antiretroviral drugs.

Cuba’s united and well-planned effort to cope with HIV/AIDS paid off. At the same time that Cuba had two hundred AIDS cases, New York City (with about the same population) had forty-three thousand cases. Despite having only a small fraction of the wealth and resources of the United States, Cuba had overcome the devastating effects of the U.S. blockade and had implemented an AIDS program superior to that of the country seeking to destroy it. During this Special Period, Cubans experienced longer lives and lower infant mortality rates in comparison to the United States. Cuba had inspired healers throughout the world to believe that a country with a coherent and caring medical system can thrive, even against tremendous odds.

COVID-19 Hits Cuba

Overcoming the HIV/AIDS and Special Period crises prepared Cuba for COVID-19. Aware of the intensity of the pandemic, Cuba knew that it had two inseparable responsibilities: to take care of its own with a comprehensive program and to share its capabilities internationally.

The government immediately carried out a task that proved very difficult in a market-driven economy –altering the equipment of nationalized factories (which usually made school uniforms) to manufacture masks. These provided an ample supply for Cuba by the middle of April 2020, while the United States, with its enormous productive capacity, was still suffering a shortage.

Discussions at the highest levels of the Cuban Ministry of Public Health drew up the national policy. There would need to be massive testing to determine who had been infected. Infected persons would need to be quarantined while ensuring that they had food and other necessities. Contact tracing would be used to determine who else might be exposed. Medical staff would need to go door to door to check on the health of every citizen. Consultorio staff would give special attention to everyone in the neighborhood who might be high risk.

By March 2, Cuba had instituted the Novel Coronavirus Plan for Prevention and Control. Within four days, it expanded the plan to include taking the temperature of and possibly isolating infected incoming travelers. These occurred before Cuba’s first confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis on March 11. Cuba had its first confirmed COVID-19 fatality by March 22, when there were thirty-five confirmed cases, almost one thousand patients being observed in hospitals, and over thirty thousand people under surveillance at home. The next day it banned the entry of nonresident foreigners, which took a deep bite into the country’s tourism revenue.

That was the day that Cuba’s Civil Defense went on alert to respond rapidly to COVID-19 and the Havana Defense Council decided that there was a serious problem in the city’s Vedado district, famous for being the largest home to nontourist foreign visitors who were more likely to have been exposed to the virus. By April 3, the district was closed. As Merriam Ansara witnessed, “anyone with a need to enter or leave must prove that they have been tested and are free of COVID-19.” The Civil Defense made sure stores were supplied and all vulnerable people received regular medical checks.

Vedado had eight confirmed cases, a lot for a small area. Cuban health officials wanted the virus to remain at the “local spread” stage, when it can be traced while going from one person to another. They sought to prevent it from entering the “community spread” stage, when tracing is not possible because it is moving out of control. As U.S. health professionals begged for personal protective equipment and testing in the United States was so sparse that people had to ask to be tested (rather than health workers testing contacts of infected patients), Cuba had enough rapid test kits to trace contacts of persons who had contracted the virus.

During late March and early April, Cuban hospitals were also changing work patterns to minimize contagion. Havana doctors went into Salvador Allende Hospital for fifteen days, staying overnight within an area designated for medical staff. Then they moved to an area separate from patients where they lived for another fifteen days and were tested before returning home. They stayed at home without leaving for another fifteen days and were tested before resuming practice. This forty-five-day period of isolation prevented medical staff from bringing disease to the community via their daily trips to and from work.

The medical system extends from the consultorio to every family in Cuba. Third-, fourth-, and fifth-year medical students are assigned by consultorio doctors to go to specific homes each day. Their tasks include obtaining survey data from residents or making extra visits to the elderly, infants, and those with respiratory problems. These visits gather preventive medicine data that is then taken into account by those in the highest decision-making positions of the country. When students bring their data, doctors use a red pen to mark hot spots where extra care is necessary. Neighborhood doctors meet regularly at clinics to talk about what each doctor is doing, what they are discovering, what new procedures the Cuban Ministry of Public Health is adopting, and how the intense work is affecting medical staff.

In this way, every Cuban citizen and every health care worker, from those at neighborhood doctor offices through those at the most esteemed research institutes, has a part in determining health policy. Cuba currently has eighty-nine thousand doctors, eighty-four thousand nurses, and nine thousand students scheduled to graduate from medical studies in 2020. The Cuban people would not tolerate the head of the country ignoring medical advice, spouting nonsensical statements, and determining policy based on what would be most profitable for corporations.

The Cuban government approved free distribution of the homeopathic medicine PrevengHo-Vir to residents of Havana and Pinar del Rio province. Susana Hurlich was one of many receiving it. On April 8, Dr. Yaisen, one of three doctors at the consultorio two blocks from her home, came to the door with a small bottle of PrevengHo-Vir and explained how to use it. Instructions warn that it reinforces the immune system but is not a substitute for Interferon Alpha 2B, nor is it a vaccine. Hurlich believes that something important “about Cuba’s medical system is that rather than being two-tiered, as is often the case in other countries, with ‘classical medicine’ on the one hand and ‘alternative medicine’ on the other, Cuba has ONE health system that includes it all. When you study to become a doctor, you also learn about homeopathic medicine in all its forms.”

Global Solidarity in the Time of COVID-19

A powerful model: Perhaps the most critical component of Cuba’s medical internationalism during the COVID-19 crisis has been using its decades of experience to create an example of how a country can confront the virus with a compassionate and competent plan. Public health officials around the world were inspired by Cuba’s actions.

Transfer of knowledge: When viruses that cause Ebola, mainly found in sub-Saharan Africa, increased dramatically in the fall of 2014, much of the world panicked. Soon, over twenty thousand people were infected, more than eight thousand had died, and worries mounted that the death toll could reach into hundreds of thousands. The United States provided military support; other countries promised money. Cuba was the first nation to respond with what was most needed: it sent 103 nurse and 62 doctor volunteers to Sierra Leone. Since many governments did not know how to respond to the disease, Cuba trained volunteers from other nations at Havana’s Pedro Kourí Institute of Tropical Medicine. In total, Cuba taught 13,000 Africans, 66,000 Latin Americans, and 620 Caribbeans how to treat Ebola without themselves becoming infected. Sharing understanding on how to organize a health system is the highest level of knowledge transfer.

Venezuela has attempted to replicate fundamental aspects of the Cuban health model on a national level, which has served Venezuela well in combating COVID-19. In 2018, residents of Altos de Lidice organized seven communal councils, including one for community health. A resident made space in his home available to the Communal Healthcare System initiative so that Dr. Gutierrez could have an office. He coordinates data collections to identify at-risk residents and visits all residents in their homes to explain how to avoid infection by COVID-19. Nurse del Valle Marquez is a Chavista who helped implement the Barrio Adentro when the first Cuban doctors arrived. She remembers that residents had never seen a doctor inside their community, but when the Cubans arrived “we opened our doors to the doctors, they lived with us, they ate with us, and they worked among us.”

Stories like this permeate Venezuela. As a result of building a Cuban-type system, teleSUR reported that by April 11, 2020, the Venezuelan government had conducted 181,335 early Polymerase Chain Reaction tests in time to have the lowest infection rate in Latin America. Venezuela had only 6 infections per million citizens while neighboring Brazil had 104 infections per million.

When Rafael Correa was president of Ecuador, over one thousand Cuban doctors formed the backbone of its health care system. Lenin Moreno was elected in 2017 and Cuban doctors were soon expelled, leaving public medicine in chaos. Moreno followed recommendations of the International Monetary Fund to slash Ecuador’s health budget by 36 percent, leaving it without health care professionals, without personal protective equipment, and, above all, without a coherent health care system. While Venezuela and Cuba had 27 COVID-19 deaths, Ecuador’s largest city, Guayaquil, had an estimated death toll of 7,600.

International medical response: Cuban medicine is perhaps best known for its internationalism. A clear example is the devastating earthquake that rocked Haiti in 2010. Cuba sent medical staff who lived among Haitians and stayed months or years after the earthquake. U.S. doctors, however, did not sleep where Haitian victims huddled, returned to luxury hotels at night, and departed after a few weeks. John Kirk coined the term disaster tourism to describe the way that many rich countries respond to medical crises in poor countries.

The commitment that Cuban medical staff show internationally is a continuation of the effort that the country’s health care system made in spending three decades to find the best way to strengthen bonds between caregiving professionals and those they serve. By 2008, Cuba had sent over 120,000 health care professionals to 154 countries, its doctors had cared for over 70 million people in the world, and almost 2 million people owed their lives to Cuban medical services in their country.

The Associated Press reported that when COVID-19 spread throughout the world, Cuba had thirty-seven thousand medical workers in sixty-seven countries. It soon deployed additional doctors to Suriname, Jamaica, Dominica, Belize, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Kitts and Nevis, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. On April 16, Granma reported that “21 brigades of healthcare professionals have been deployed to join national and local efforts in 20 countries. The same day, Cuba sent two hundred health personnel to Qatar.

As northern Italy became the epicenter of COVID-19 cases, one of its hardest hit cities was Crema in the Lombardy region. The emergency room at its hospital was filled to capacity. On March 26, Cuba sent fifty-two doctors and nurses who set up a field hospital with three intensive care unit beds and thirty-two other beds with oxygen. A smaller and poorer Caribbean nation was one of the few aiding a major European power. Cuba’s intervention took its toll. By April 17, thirty of its medical professionals who went abroad tested positive for COVID-19.

Bringing the world to Cuba: The flip side of Cuba sending medical staff across the globe is the people it has brought to the island—both students and patients. When Cuban doctors were in the Republic of the Congo in 1966, they saw young people studying independently under streetlights at night and arranged for them to come to Havana. They brought in even more African students during the Angolan wars of 1975–88 and then brought large numbers of Latin American students to study medicine following Hurricanes Mitch and Georges. The number of students coming to Cuba to study expanded even more in 1999 when it opened classes at the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM). By 2020, ELAM had trained thirty thousand doctors from over one hundred countries.

Cuba also has a history of bringing foreign patients for treatment. After the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, 25,000 patients, mostly children, came to the island for treatment, with some staying for months or years. Cuba opened its doors, hospital beds, and a youth summer camp.

On March 12, nearly fifty crew members and passengers on a British cruise ship either had COVID-19 or were showing symptoms as the ship approached the Bahamas, a British Commonwealth nation. Since the Braemar flew the Bahamian flag as a Commonwealth vessel, there should have been no problem disembarking those aboard for treatment and return to the United Kingdom. But the Bahamian Ministry of Transport declared that the cruise ship would “not be permitted to dock at any port in the Bahamas and no persons will be permitted to disembark the vessel.” During the next five days, the United States, Barbados (another Commonwealth nation), and several other Caribbean countries turned it away. On March 18, Cuba became the only country to allow the Braemar’s over one thousand crew members and passengers to dock. Treatment at Cuban hospitals was offered to those who felt too sick to fly. Most went by bus to José Martí International Airport for flights back to the United Kingdom. Before leaving, Braemar crew members displayed a banner reading “I love you Cuba!” Passenger Anthea Guthrie posted on her Facebook page: “They have made us not only feel tolerated, but actually welcome.”

Medicine for all: In 1981, there was a particularly bad outbreak of the mosquito-borne dengue fever, which hits the island every few years. At the time, many first learned of the very high level of Cuba’s research institutes that created Interferon Alpha 2B to successfully treat dengue. As Helen Yaffe points out, “Cuba’s interferon has shown its efficacy and safety in the therapy of viral diseases including Hepatitis B and C, shingles, HIV-AIDS, and dengue.” It accomplished this by preventing complications that could worsen a patient’s condition and result in death. The efficacy of the drug persisted for decades and, in 2020, it became vitally important as a potential cure for COVID-19. What also survived was Cuba’s eagerness to develop a multiplicity of drugs and share them with other nations.

Cuba has sought to work cooperatively toward drug development with countries such as China, Venezuela, and Brazil, Collaboration with Brazil resulted in meningitis vaccines at a cost of 95¢ rather than $15 to $20 per dose. Finally, Cuba teaches other countries to produce medications themselves so they do not have to rely on purchasing them from rich countries.

In order to effectively cope with disease, drugs are frequently sought for three goals: tests to determine those infected; treatments to help ward off or cure problems; and vaccines to prevent infections. As soon as Polymerase Chain Reaction rapid tests were available, Cuba began using them widely throughout the island. Cuba developed both Interferon Alpha 2B (a recombinant protein) and PrevengHo-Vir (a homeopathic medication). TeleSUR reported that by April 20, over forty-five countries had requested Cuba’s Inteferon in order to control and then get rid of the virus.

Cuba’s Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology is seeking to create a vaccine against COVID-19. Its Director of Biomedical Research, Dr. Gerardo Guillén, confirmed that his team is collaborating with Chinese researchers in Yongzhou, Hunan province, to create a vaccine to stimulate the immune system and one that can be taken through the nose, which is the route of COVID-19 transmission. Whatever Cuba develops, it is certain that it will be shared with other countries at low cost, unlike U.S. medications that are patented at taxpayers’ expense so that private pharmaceutical giants can price gouge those who need the medication.

Countries that have not learned how to share: Cuban solidarity missions show a genuine concern that often seems to be lacking in the health care systems of other countries. Medical associations in Venezuela, Brazil, and other countries are often hostile to Cuban doctors. Yet, they cannot find enough of their own doctors to go to dangerous communities or travel to poor and rural areas as Cuban doctors do.

When in Peru in 2010, I visited the Pisco policlínico. Its Cuban director, Leopoldo García Mejías, explained that then-president Alan García did not want additional Cuban doctors and that they had to keep quiet in order to remain in Peru. Cuba is well aware that it has to adjust each medical mission to accommodate the political climate.

There is at least one exception to Cuban doctors remaining in a country according to the whims of the political leadership. Cuba began providing medical attention in Honduras in 1998. During the first eighteen months of Cuba’s efforts in Honduras, the country’s infant mortality dropped from 80.3 to 30.9 deaths per 1,000 live births. Political moods changed and, in 2005, Honduran Health Minister Merlin Fernández decided to kick Cuban doctors out. However, this led to so much opposition that the government changed course and allowed the Cubans to stay.

A disastrous and noteworthy example of when a country refused an offer of Cuban aid is the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. After the hurricane hit, 1,586 Cuban health care professionals were prepared to go to New Orleans. President George W. Bush, however, rejected the offer, acting as if it would be better for U.S. citizens to die rather than to admit the quality of Cuban aid.

Though the U.S. government does not take kindly to students going studying at ELAM, they are still able to apply what they learn when they come home. In 1988, Kathryn Hall-Trujillo of Albuquerque, New Mexico, founded the Birthing Project USA, which trains advocates to work with African-American women and connect with them through the first year of the infant’s life. She is grateful for the Birthing Project’s partnership with Cuba and the support that many ELAM students have given. In 2018, she told me: “We are a coming home place for ELAM students—they see working with us as a way to put into practice what they learned at ELAM.”

Cuban doctor Julio López Benítez recalled in 2017 that when the country revamped its clinics in 1974, the old clinic model was one of patients going to clinics, but the new model was of clinics going to patients. Similarly, as ELAM graduate Dr. Melissa Barber looked at her South Bronx neighborhood during COVID-19, she realized that while most of the United States told people to go to agencies, what people need is a community approach that recruits organizers to go to the people. Dr. Barber is working in a coalition with South Bronx Unite, the Mott Haven Mamas, and many local tenant associations. As in Cuba, they are trying to identify those in the community who are vulnerable, including “the elderly, people who have infants and small children, homebound people, people that have multiple morbidities and are really susceptible to a virus like this one.”

As they discover who needs help, they seek resources to help them, such as groceries, personal protective equipment, medications, and treatment. In short, the approach of the coalition is going to homes to ensure that people do not fall through the cracks. In contrast, the U.S. national policy is for each state and each municipality to do what it feels like doing, which means that instead of having a few cracks that a few people fall through, there are enormous chasms with large groups careening over the edge. What countries with market economies need are actions like those in the South Bronx and Cuba carried out on a national scale.

This was what Che Guevara envisioned in 1951. Decades before COVID-19 jumped from person to person, Che’s imagination went from doctor to doctor. Or perhaps many shared their own visions so widely that, after 1959, Cuba brought revolutionary medicine anywhere it could. Obviously, Che did not design the intricate innerworkings of Cuba’s current medical system. But he was followed by healers who wove additional designs into a fabric that now unfolds across the continents. At certain times in history, thousands or millions of people see similar images of a different future. If their ideas spread broadly enough during the hour that social structures are disintegrating, then a revolutionary idea can become a material force in building a new world.

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350 Action: It’s Time for Trump to Resign

WASHINGTON – This week, Donald Trump deployed military forces to cities across the country against those protesting the brutal murder of George Floyd and ongoing anti-Black police violence. 350 Action’s North America director Tamara Toles O’Laughlin gave the following statement in response:

“When a president uses the military against people exercising basic human rights to protest, it is state terror. Every day that passes, communities turn out in growing numbers courageously demanding justice for George Floyd and an end to anti-Black violence, yet they are met with rubber bullets, tear gas, intimidation and beatings. Trump is emboldening white supremacy and the tearing down of the democracy for his own gain, and encouraging state-sanctioned brutality against those taking a stand for what they know is right. Black lives are at stake, and we will not be silent. We need a president that’s willing to hear the demands being called for by the people whom the government serves. The resounding call from our communities is clear: defund the police, divest from white supremacy, invest in community solutions to policing and the climate crisis, and pave the way for a future rooted in dignity and justice. The office of President is a call to serve all the people. It’s past time for Trump to resign.” 

To view this release, go here:

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Trump’s Use of Religion Follows Playbook of Authoritarian-leaning Leaders the World Over

Where Trump succeeds is in presenting himself as a Christian nationalist, much as Putin and Modi style themselves as the stout defenders of their countries’ dominant religions.

by: Laura R. Olson

Public opinion polls have consistently shown that white Christians comprise the core of Trump’s base, although there are recent signs of a dip even among this key group. (Photo: CC)

Public opinion polls have consistently shown that white Christians comprise the core of Trump’s base, although there are recent signs of a dip even among this key group. (Photo: CC)

It was a striking moment: Donald Trump, Bible in hand, posing for photos in an apparent moment of political theater made possible by the dispersal of protesters through the use of tear gas.

The president’s visit to St. John’s Episcopal Church, known as “the Church of the Presidents,” came immediately after giving a Rose Garden speech framing himself as “your president of law and order” and threatening to send federal troops to “restore security and safety in America.” The next day, Trump made another high-profile visit to a place of worship, this time Washington’s St. John Paul II National Shrine.

Coming at a time of social turbulence, critics accused Trump of following authoritarian-leaning world leaders by sidling up to religion to reinforce an image as a strongman defending a particular brand of tradition. Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington Mariann Budde said as much, commenting that Trump used the Bible at St. John’s “as if it were a prop or an extension of his military and authoritarian position.”

As a scholar who has researched the interaction of politics and faith for decades, I know how potent religion can be as a political tool.

A powerful tool

Religion creates meaning in our lives by articulating values about how we relate to one another. But just as it can unite us, religion can also be a source of division – used to “other” people who are not of the faith and don’t share the same traditions and rituals.

When enough people perceive – or can be convinced – that traditional elements of the social fabric are at risk, religious signaling through the use of symbols and images can help would-be authoritarians cement their power. They present themselves as protectors of the faith and foes of any outsider who threatens tradition.

In Russia, this phenomenon is seen in President Vladimir Putin’s forging of a strategic alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church. For his part, Putin presents himself not just as a commanding leader, but also as a devoutly religious Russian.

When he appears shirtless, for example, the large cross he wears around his neck is always visible. Meanwhile, the Church promotes traditional moral values and maintains a distance from the rest of the worldwide Orthodox Christian community, thereby separating the “truly Russian” from the outsider. In their most recent collaboration, Putin and the Church proposed amendments to the Russian constitution that would enshrine Russians’ faith in God, define marriage as the union of a man and a woman and, tellingly, proclaim “the great achievement of the [Russian] people in defense of the Fatherland.” These changes, all of which are intended to reinforce Putin’s base of support, would be jarringly nationalistic additions to the constitution.

Putin benefits from this insider-outsider dynamic in advancing his goal of restoring Russia to his vision of its past territorial glory. In justifying the Russian incursion into Crimea, Putin argued that the region had “sacral importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism.” Defending and expanding Russian territory is a much easier sell if it is framed as the defense of the holy.

Religious imagery

We see a similar dynamic in India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s grip on power relies in large part on his embrace of a version of Hindu nationalism that elevates Hindus as “truly Indian” insiders and singles out Muslims as outsiders.

Like Putin, Modi wraps himself in religious imagery. He makes high-profile visits to remote Hindu temples while electioneering and never wears green because of its association with Islam.

Modi’s Hindu nationalism cements his popularity among devout Hindus and builds public support for anti-Muslim policies, such as stripping the only majority-Muslim state in India of its autonomy and enacting a controversial new law preventing Muslim migrants from attaining Indian citizenship.

Trump as savior

Trump has stumbled in attempts to portray himself as personally devout, declining to name a favorite passage from the Bible and stating that he has never sought forgiveness from God for his sins.

Nevertheless, public opinion polls have consistently shown that white Christians comprise the core of Trump’s base, although there are recent signs of a dip even among this key group.

And while it is important to note that many white Christians do not support Trump, 29% of evangelicals go so far as to say they believe he is anointed by God.

Where Trump succeeds is in presenting himself as a Christian nationalist, much as Putin and Modi style themselves as the stout defenders of their countries’ dominant religions.

One way Trump achieves this end is by making statements such as this one on the campaign trail earlier this year: “We’re going to win another monumental victory for faith and family, God and country, flag and freedom.”

In their new book “Taking America Back for God,” sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry contend that many of Trump’s white Christian supporters see him as their long-awaited savior – not just the protector of traditional religion, but also the defender of a bygone way of life.

In that imagined past, white men ruled the roost, families went to church every Sunday and outsiders knew their place. A deep-rooted desire for a return to that past may have been why Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan has proved so potent. As Yale scholar Philip Gorski has argued, that phrase can be interpreted to mean “making white Christianity culturally dominant again.”

As such, we should not be surprised that in the current moment of crisis Trump is attempting to use religion to reinforce differences between his supporters and his opponents. Like Putin, he is posing as the defender of a particular version of a glorious past. And echoing Modi, he is doing this by building support through the denigration of the outsider.

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