Monday, 29 October 2012

Chile celebrates

Whooping and shouting occurred in my old hometown of Santiago, Chile, last night as three of the dictatorship’s worst creeps were booted out of office in the municipal elections by the ladies shown above, a stunning reverse for the still-putrid remnants of those awful days.

I cannot help but feel a swell of pride that the granddaughter of Salvador Allende edged out the long-time pinochetista mayor of my home comuna of 20 years, Ñuñoa. Comunas are local administrative units comparable to counties in rural areas or simply city neighborhoods. They have their own budgets and city councils and are much more relevant to residents’ lives than governors or, in many ways, the congress. According to my friends’ reports, the vote was neck-and-neck until she squeezed out a victory around midnight, causing the locals to pour into the streets to celebrate. Sorry I missed it.

Another nazi, who in a sane world would be behind bars and away from decent folks, was finally beaten in a historically conservative neighborhood, Providencia. Christian Labbé [below left, oink oink] was an open defender of Pinochet’s crimes and probably participated in them; upon defeat, he had the unbelievable balls to say that ‘hatred had triumphed’ and caused his defeat. Think about that: a guy who probably at least witnessed people being tortured for their political beliefs is now an expert on ‘hatred’. You have to wonder about the mental state of someone that disconnected from reality.

Labbé made the mistake of dissing his female opponent as ‘just a housewife’, and he took a drubbing from her, sadly only an electoral one. But he also suffered a funa when he went to vote. Funas are surprise, public denunciations of criminals associated with the old regime who escaped prosecution. Frustrated victims and their survivors often burst into public events or gather outside their houses to remind the creeps that their actions haven’t been forgotten. (I witnessed one at a professional conference in the early 2000s.) In response, the ex-torturers’ party that Labbé belonged to issued a whiny complaint about the ‘aggression’ he had suffered. Poor snookums, do you want nana to put a Band-aid on it?

Another major pinochetista figure also was felled in the Santiago comuna, by the daughter of one of Allende’s ministers who was murdered by the junta. How curious that in each case the victor was a woman. Even more noteworthy: the kids chasing these nazis’ fat asses through the streets and calling them out on their pasts weren’t even alive during the most brutal years of Pinochet’s dictatorship, the 1970s and early 1980s.

Chile has long been a social laboratory for worldwide trends, so it’s worth having a look at what’s going on there. Pinochet himself inaugurated the neo-liberal counter-revolution when he stage his 1973 coup, closed the legislature, rounded up and slaughtered union leaders and terrorized the country into accepting the Friedmanite monetarist/free-market straitjacket. Margaret Thatcher followed later, taking power in 1979 to jam her version down the throats of the Brits, and Ronald Reagan brought up the rear starting in 1981.

Even today, some of the GOP geniuses are trying to sell us on Pinochet-era pension ‘reforms’, which funneled Chilean workers’ savings into private financier hands and deprive people today of decent retirement incomes. Paul Ryan is a direct descendant of all of them with his cynically airy-fairy promises that simply unleashing private enterprise and smashing the government to bits will provide prosperity for all.

So what’s going on in Chile now? The successors to the dictatorship (equivalent to our Democrats) presided for 20 years over a plus-c’est-la-meme-chose electoral democracy accompanied by continued economic feudalism. They bragged about growth while doing nothing to stem the increasing inequality of income distribution and very little to alleviate the bleak destiny of most Chileans continually scrabbling to make ends meet. The Pinochet-era privatization of education, for example, which failed miserably at everything except deepening class divisions, was never reformed, leading to the famous student uprisings of the past two years. (Does this sound at all familiar? Get ready, we’re headed there.)

They finally lost to the reconstituted pinochetista parties in 2009 under a Bloombergian billionaire, Sebastián Piñera, who is now a laughingstock with the lowest approval ratings of any chief executive since AP himself. Now, the kids who have to find some kind of life under the wrecked society Pinochet and his thug crew left them are rebelling. It’s no accident that they do so by recalling the crimes of that era, such as this election-day demo outside the National Stadium [below], a notorious torture and disappearance center (featured in Missing, the film with Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek).

Without ferocious repression, Pinochet’s economic counter-revolution could not have succeeded. As we amble along into ours, let’s not be naïve or surprised when an American version of repression also forms part of winning strategy.

But another lesson from Chile is that torture and assassination don’t go away. It’s not like sweeping a little dirt under the rug on order of the ruling poobahs and their eager lackeys across the political spectrum and thinking that is that. More like fishheads left under the floorboards—sooner or later, sometimes much, much later, the guests are going to start feeling uncomfortable.

What, me worry?

Here’s a new drinking game we can play: while watching the newscasts and the breathless statements from political leaders, whenever someone discusses the causes of the storm without mentioning global warming, down a vodka shot! You’ll be having a private storm surge over the toilet bowl well before the next high tide.

I see some entirely appropriate, mid-hurricane twitting of the Ryan budget plan that calls for federal emergency spending to be cut to shreds along with Social Security and Medicaid. But there is nothing from anyone, including our stalwart liberals, about Obama’s shameful silence on the most crucial environmental issue of our or probably any time in human history. Instead, the two bobble-heads compete over who will make the U.S. ‘energy self-sufficient’ first as if that were a laudable goal. Come on, even the Saudis are trying to develop wind and solar power for the day when they’ll have no stores of liquid gold.

When future generations—if there are any—look back on this period, they will shake their deformed heads in awestruck wonder at the capacity of their biped forebears to ignore the evidence before their eyes about an imminent threat. They also will curse us for what we left them.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Beyond red & blue. . . is green

The New York Times published an extensive exposé Friday of the mysteriously obtained wealth of Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier. It’s a pretty staggering display of the Wen family’s web of stock and real estate holdings arranged in innocent sounding enterprises overlaid with layers of owner-masking shell companies, all comprising a family tree whose boughs sagging with cash are sprinkled with the magic Chinese businessman’s fairy dust: political connections. The Chinese government was not amused and blocked access to the Times on its Internet servers. I suppose the Chinese should be glad that this sort of despicable behavior, at least, still has to remain hidden away.

Luckily for us, we still have a fourth estate with the time, energy, resources and freedom to dig into such things and write them down for all to see. Curiously, the Times quotes liberally in the piece from diplomatic cables made public by Wikileaks despite the paper’s nose-holding attitude toward Wikileaks’ public face, Julian Assange, now holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London to avoid disappearing into an American rabbit hole. Thus we can still see what is happening to our principal trading partner and recipient of all those manufacturing jobs ripped out of the heartland.

And what do we find has happened to the great Asian workers’ and peasants’ state? Why, it’s a giant looting operation organized and run by the Communist Party—how’s that for an ironic twist after the Cold War paranoia of two generations back? It turns out that we have indeed been betrayed to the commies after all—by American businessmen.

The Chinese elite’s arrangements must make the Wall Street boys jealous as hell. Still, we sneer at our peril. The incomparable Yves Smith, whose Naked Capitalism blog is essential reading for understanding our present circumstances, implicitly suggests that we are headed toward something much closer to the Chinese model than to our own golden past:

We are in the midst of a finance-led counterrevolution. The long standing effort to roll back New Deal reforms has moved from triumph to triumph. The foundation was laid via increasingly effective public relations efforts to sell the Ayn Randian worldview that granting individuals unfettered freedom of action would produce only virtuous outcomes since the talented would flourish and the rest would deservedly be left in the dust. In fact, societies that have moved strongly in that direction such as Pinochet’s Chile and Russia under Yeltsin, have seen plutocratic land grabs, declining standards of living (and even lifespans), and a rise in authoritarianism or (in the case of Colombia) organized crime. Those who won these brawls did flourish but at tremendous cost to society as a whole.

I date this counter-revolution roughly to the ascent to power of Saint Ronald the First in 1980-81 at which time the country’s attitude toward itself and the citizens whose comprise it underwent a profound shift. We left behind the bad old attempts of entities like the civil rights movement to obtain fairness for all in favor of unrestrained greed and personal selfishness. (Ironically, this was precisely the cliché criticism of the sixties as an era of irresponsible pleasure seeking and sexual indulgence by spoiled brats—but I digress.) With Reagan and his radical circle in power, we were encouraged to jettison any notion that people should strive to make a contribution to the well-being of others in favor of the new, ‘muscular’ ideology of neo-liberal self-reliance and market worship in which real men made tons of money, gained power and prestige, and had a blast as top dogs while pathetic losers down below could piss off up a rope. The nanny state would no longer be responsible for these inferior, weak elements, starting with ‘welfare queens’ and other leeches standing in the way of unbridled capitalist bliss.

It’s no accident that Reaganism arrived jointly with the Christian right and its calculated attack on women (dressed up as a reaction to ‘feminist’ excesses), especially including their reproductive function, and on gay emancipation, another aspect of the redrawn sexual hierarchies. The new politico-economic religion was grounded in the old macho virtues, slightly recast to accommodate women in new roles, an adjustment that was only skin-deep in any case: while women were permitted to infiltrate the old boys’ clubs in business, politics, and science, the anti-abortion crusades kept the pressure on. As long as reproductive autonomy remains in doubt, women cannot breathe entirely freely. Meanwhile, the Equal Rights Amendment, once thought to be as sure a thing as women’s suffrage, went down to defeat by the church ladies assisted by the Democrats’ usual lackluster defense.

Back to Smith’s analysis of how the uber-rich utilized stealth weapons to seize the commanding heights of the economy and the state:

In the U.S. the first step was making taxation less progressive. A second parallel measure was deregulation, particularly in financial services. Together, they fostered the growth of an uber-wealthy cohort that increasingly lives apart from middle class and poor citizens. The rich can thus tell themselves they have little to gain from the success of ordinary people. And, perversely, the global financial crisis has worked to the advantage of the financial elite. As former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson described in a May 2009 Atlantic article, the U.S. instead suffered a quiet coup with the top end of the financial services industry becoming more concentrated and more firmly in charge of the political apparatus. And you see more vivid evidence of the financial takeover in Europe where technocrats are stripping countries of their sovereignty and breaking them on the rack via failing austerity programs so as to avoid exposing the insolvency of French and German banks. In the U.S. the events of the last year are less dramatic but no less telling, including a coordinated, 17-city paramilitary crackdown on Occupy Wall Street, a ‘get out of jail almost free’ settlement for the mortgage-industrial complex, and an election where the two candidates are indistinguishable in their enthusiasm for having old people die faster cutting Medicare and Social Security and murder by drone.

Smith is telling us that the structural changes taking place at the upper reaches of the system under which we live are setting us on a course for further and deeper disaster, and she offers a bracing corrective to the naïve Obamanians’ fervent desire that the ‘true’ Barack will suddenly appear in a second term and fulfill all their hearts’ desires. I’m as disgusted by the demented Republican thugs as anyone, but I concur that the real dangers for our fragile future lie not solely with the outright loonies but also with their legions of willing collaborators in the supposedly sane camp.

[Smith’s blog at is holding its second annual fund-raiser at present; all decent and solvent persons should send a donation.]

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Blind justice

CIA employee Jon Kiriakou will now go to jail for spilling state secrets. NOT DONE, Jon, telling reporters the identities of the guys who torture people wearing handcuffs. We know who you are.

Sadly for the moral state of our society, we do not know the identities of the people who carried out these heinous acts because we have decided not to know. They are the faceless executioners of our collective decision to toss out human rights as a fundamental principle of our judicial and punitive actions and to return to the Star Chambers of old.

We decided that that dumping 500 years of civil protections against arbitrary state power was a minor price to pay for making sure the perpetrators of the attack on our society were caught and that future attacks were be prevented—as if there could be a guarantee of that.

The desire for revenge also played a considerable role.

To avoid prosecution for ‘espionage’, Kiriakou has now pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. Espionage usually means telling secrets to a foreign power. In his case, that foreign entity was us.

Kiriakou revealed to reporters that one of his CIA colleagues was taking round-the-world tours to secret CIA dungeons where he (or she) personally oversaw and even engaged in the torture of prisoners.

Torture wasn’t actually legal at the time, but the defense of that sacred statute has been deemed unnecessary thanks to the decision by a Mr Obama not to pursue prosecutions for such illegal behavior. Wink wink.

So torturing people? Meh. But hey, telling the public this nasty little secret, not a good idea at all.

Many people have warned the nation that saying yes to torture was a dangerous, slippery slope from which there would be no easy return. We Americans largely ignored that. Like I was told by a Chilean momio (supporter of the Pinochet dictatorship) in the 1980s, If I were to see torture, I would be against it.

So that solves it! Just keep it out of our sight, but don’t worry about being punished. We’ll concentrate our fire on the guy who disturbs our sleep by telling us what is going on in our name.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Did Obama go on an ‘apology tour’ in 2009?

That was the accusation by the Mitt last night in the third and, mercifully, final debate. The reference is to Obama’s trip early in his term to Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries where he made nice with the residents thereof and actually grabbed the attention of people who thought maybe the yanks were genuinely about to turn over a new leaf and stop doing things like, um, invading and slaughtering them.

It was actually one of the least mendacious things Romney had to say although also mind-fuckingly cynical. But it is true that, given the basement-level standing of the U.S. in that part of the world after Bush 2 had finished the non-stop debacle of his tenure, Obama dutifully set off to repair the damage and buy some time.

Which he did. His speeches hinted recognition of the possibility that the U.S. in fact had erred. Europeans, Arabs and those forgotten Latin Americans were impressed with Obama, his smarts and his history, and they were more impressed with us for electing a guy from a minority group that was historically suspect in the eyes of the white majority. It really did seem as though new winds were blowing and that things just might be done differently.

But that turned out to be just fluff, and Obama never backed up his lofty orations with what I maintain would have been the key lever to break with the past: a repudiation of the Bush years. This would have had to include at least two aspects: aggressive and illegal war-making against a non-threatening enemy; and grotesque violations of basic human rights both as part of said wars and domestically in the bogus ‘War on Terror’. For good measure, he could have tossed in the looting of the national wealth, especially though not exclusively through the official wink-wink at the massive corruption being practiced by the financial sector in the run-up to the great meltdown of 2008.

Obama did none of that. Instead of opening up a debate on the origins of the Iraq conquest, he promptly turned the page on that sorry chapter and said so explicitly at the time. He threw in for immediate burial the top-level collusion in the torture of defenseless detainees. Despite his immediate photo-op to ‘close’ Guantánamo, the place remains open to this day; worse yet, Obama went beyond Bush’s worst crimes and instituted official murder as part of presidential power. We can thank him for that new Oval Office faculty, which will undoubtedly be utilized in all sorts of ways that today’s liberal apologists seem not terribly worried about—but one day will mourn, no doubt in a state of shock.

As is now well known, Obama also conspired actively with his top advisors to pump a vast river of cash into the coffers of the banks and into the grubby mitts of the same bankers who had collapsed the world economy to satisfy their greed, all the while pretending to champion the much abused little guys. Many experts whom even I can read and understand have been proposing dozens of alternative approaches to restoring the financial system to health, but Obama has kept to the Bush strategy of strengthening the 1% and waiting for prosperity to trickle down. Or not.

So Obama now has to face an opportunistic attack from sleazeoids like Romney who should be thanking him for covering their exposed buttocks when they and their enterprises were in serious danger. Obama pretended to apologize for the Bush screw-ups, but he didn’t mean it; now that his humble-face, Mr Audacity usefulness is not needed, he gets twitted for being a wimp.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

George McGovern was a great guy

It is a sign of our sorry times that this completely decent, thoughtful, courageous man who once carried the standard of his party to the highest level became an anathema with his ideas thrown overboard as some sort of dangerous bilge water. George McGovern had the audacity (a real version, not the present head-fake) to say that going to war in Vietnam was not only wrong but immoral and to say it on the floor of the Senate. A lot of people saw that he was right at the time, but the machinery of state, especially including the propaganda apparatus that sustains it, promptly set to work to airbrush that debacle out of our histories and our minds and to repaint the picture of our heroic warriors in a more favorable light--so that they could go out and do it all again.

McGovern had a dangerous job in World War 2 (bombing missions), so he wasn’t all glassy-eyed about the marvels of going to war and its effects on masculine character. He campaigned and spoke about what was right, not what was good for American power and influence, and for that he was crushed, not just in the elections but forever afterward when he became a non-person and his supporters were blamed for the weather. While Richard Nixon, the guy who shellacked McGovern in the 1972 election, was later pilloried for his political crimes, his massive and pointless slaughter of hundreds of thousands in the unnecessary extension of the war during his first term was quickly forgotten, such that one Bill Clinton could eulogize him with disgusting ease. And let’s not even talk about the other architect of those crimes, the ‘elder statesman’ Henry Kissinger, now comfortably earning his millions.

As a college student I worked for McGovern in his Washington office in the years before his presidential run and had the chance to meet him on several occasions (once with Veronica Lake in tow—I didn’t even know who she was). He was soft-spoken and amused at the blockheadedness and perversity around him in the Senate, but he was still optimistic about the chances for making a progressive case to the nation. Then his nomination came about, propelled by the remnant energies of the 1960s and a brigade of young volunteers at least as alienated from the political system as those of today. The professional operatives were appalled, and even though the Democratic Party had not yet been captured by the neo-liberal business lapdogs, they probably weren’t sorry to see him lose.

McGovern was later turned out of his senate seat in South Dakota, too, and he was philosophical about that loss. He said that the voters wanted someone more conservative, and so they got one. But he mourned his failed shot at the presidency because his campaign was bushwhacked by the Thomas Eagleton disaster where his Veep pick had to quit in mid-campaign after some revelations about his treatment for depression. McG said he would have accepted defeat if he had had a chance to make his case, but the noise over Eagleton drowned out his arguments.

In retirement McGovern took up another cause that is less well-known: that of alcoholism treatment in honor of his beloved daughter Terry who struggled with the disease all her life and in 1994 was found dead in a snowbank after relapsing. The book he wrote about that experience sold well enough for him to form a small foundation in her memory. A second of his four children also died of alcoholism-related illnesses a few months ago. McGovern said his daughter’s death was the most painful event of his life.

George McGovern retained a gentlemanly demeanor and wry, self-deprecating humor throughout his decades dedicated to serving the public welfare. If citizenship, rather than power and cash, were our core values, we would be lining up to salute his remains and his exemplary life.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Now I really like Javier Bardem

I thought Javier Bardem was very convincing in both Before Night Falls (gay Cuban writer) and No Country for Old Men (psycho killer). So he’s a good actor and also pretty cute. That said, it turns out he has a conscience, too, and puts it to use by raising awareness of the decades-long scandal of occupied Western Sahara.

Never heard of the place? How about that, hardly anyone in the audience at the IFC Center Tuesday had either, where Bardem introduced a new documentary film about the situation, Sons of the Clouds: The Last Colony. It explained how the decolonization of Africa missed one corner when the Spanish occupiers of the sparsely populated Mediterranean coast packed up to leave. But instead of granting independence to the native population, they stood aside while the Moroccan king Hassan II occupied the place to fulfill his irredentist vision.

The usual horror story followed: slaughter, mass dislocation, violent resistance, a long-running guerrilla war and a police state in the cities. And finally, a security wall hundreds of miles long dividing the country in two. The financial drain on the Moroccan occupiers over the last 30 years has been enormous and a good reason why that country is a prime candidate for an Arab spring given its stagnant economy and vast pool of youth with no future.

Once the story is laid out, the film has few surprises, but the commentary afterward from Bardem and others, like Kerry Kennedy of the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights [both below], was gripping. They described their visit to El Aaioun, the capital of the occupied colony, and the creepy scenes they witnessed, including beatings in the street and retaliations against anyone who talked to them as well as constant surveillance. Bardem explained that Spaniards feel a special responsibility for the situation given that their leaders had the chance to stop what happened and instead abandoned the local people, known as Saharaoui, to the invaders.

Morocco was a Cold War ally of the West, and the situation has been conveniently forgotten for years. But high-profile support from celebrities and Kennedys can’t hurt, and one should not underestimate the potential of a human rights-based campaign to tear away the veil and pressure a regime. Plus, the Cold War is over, and Morocco isn’t so important any more now that Libya is solidly in the West-friendly camp and no proxy wars are active anywhere on the continent.

One aspect not mentioned of the Western Sahara nightmare was its close resemblance a certain ongoing occupation just down the block, which also includes a dividing wall and a settler movement—Palestine. It’s understandable that no foundation associated with RFK, given how he died, would touch that issue. But as the campaign for justice in WS continues, the similarities will be hard to ignore.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Tour de Bronx

The Bronx is New York’s poorest and poorest served borough. It also has the worst socioeconomic and health indicators in the city. But on the annual Tour de Bronx, the 17th version of which was held last Sunday, one gets a chance to see a very livable place with dozens of cozy neighborhoods where rent doesn’t cost your left, um, eye.

Unlike other organized rides that occur during the warm months from May to October that can cost up to $100 a person, this one is free. Sponsors include the borough itself and several of the largest hospitals in the Bronx, like Montefiore, Bronx Lebanon and St Barnabas, all eager to support anything that will get people moving and using up calories. My very own Transportation Alternatives, the most professionally managed nonprofit I’ve ever come across in a lifetime of do-gooderism, is another proud partner.

Sunday was an ideal autumn day, cool and partly overcast. Five thousand bikes set off from the courthouse on Grand Concourse around 10.30, late for a biking event, and pedaled through Soundview and along the waterfront to City Island (check out the 2010 Andy Garcia film of the same name, it’s amusing and was partially shot there) for a rest stop at Orchard Beach, the ‘Bronx Riviera’ [above]. It’s easy to forget amid our urban frenzy that the city is built on water; beaches abound, even up here. Staten Island also has a nice one that no outsiders know about.

The spirit at these mass cycling events is quite unusual, in my experience, friendly and laid back despite the rigors of getting to the finish line, marvelously diverse even for New York and remarkably uncompetitive notwithstanding the 80/20 male/female ratio. (Woman at rest stop: ‘I can’t believe the lines are longer for the men’s room!’) Mechanical assistance is readily available for the asking; a friendly sort pumped up my sagging tires at the merest hint of cyclist-in-distress.

All the boroughs except Manhattan itself now have these annual bike tours, relatively leisurely events covering 20 to 40 miles and ideal for a family outing. With cops stopping traffic at key intersections, one gets to sail through the city streets without performing death-defying acts of heroism and has a chance to explore neighborhoods hitherto unknown. (Example: SUNY Maritime is located under the Throgs Neck bridge in an old naval fort—who knew?) They aren’t fund-raising affairs, and you don’t have to be drumming up support for anyone’s disease. It’s just a bike ride.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

What goes around comes around

There was a curious piece in the New York Times business section Friday [no link: paywall] entitled ‘Drawing back a curtain on a Mexican tycoon’. It was full of broad hints about how creepy, mysterious, inaccessible and probably fundamentally dishonest people who fit into that category might be. And maybe the deal-makers and Masters of the Universe in Mexico operate differently from their counterparts here—I wouldn’t know. Yet, if our home-grown versions are not cut from a similar mold, there is plenty of evidence that they soon will be. Mexico, looking more and more like a failing narco-state, is showing us how bad things can get. Oh and incidentally, it’s right next door.

The story, a deceptively simple, even superficial one, is about the battle between one David Martínez (‘Mexican tycoon’) and a local boy, Paul Singer, hedge fundmeister and major Republican moneybags [below].

The two titans are battling over the aftermath of a bankruptcy involving the Mexican glassmaking firm Vitro. Singer’s outfit had bought a bunch of the companies bonds, thus is a creditor interested in picking up some of the pieces. So far, easy enough to understand.

The way bankruptcy is supposed to work, at least in my simple Econ 101 notions, is that anyone holding equity in the company in the form of shares loses the investment, given that you bought them figuring that the company was worth something and would make a profit, thereby causing your shares to pay dividends and increase in value. If you goofed, too bad; the stock tanks. You lost. If it goes bankrupt, you get bupkis.

Bondholders, on the other hand, do not buy into the company nor assume anything about its future profits other than that it can and will pay back the borrowed capital from its operations. The distinction is important because the risks involved to investors (individuals or things like pension funds) in parting with their money in these two different ways are based on entirely different assumptions and time-frames. The gamble on a stock pick (equity) that a risk-taking wealth manager might find attractive would not be prudent for Grandma who needs a guaranteed income (bonds) to pay her gardener and buy her arthritis medicine and would go for conservative corporate bonds paying a fixed coupon.

That’s the theory, anyway. What Martínez’s friends at Vitro did, however, was turn all that upside down, and through some blatantly fraudulent—but perhaps not illegal—footwork, stiffed the bondholders and allowed the company’s owners, i.e., the shareholders, to retain the company’s remaining value as if nothing had happened. In short, they saddled the guys who loaned them money with the bankruptcy losses and kept the assets for themselves.

Sounds rather like theft, actually. What’s interesting is that that is exactly what the big banks and insurance companies did to us with the bailout of 2008-9 as has been detailed in the economics and finance blogs since Day One. The Lloyd Blankfeins, John Thains and, yes, even the Jamie Dimons ran their companies into the ground and should have been bounced out on the street covering their behinds with both hands. Stock in Merrill Lynch and Citibank should have been used for toilet paper while the bondholders lined up to see what could be salvaged from the wreckage and how many pennies on the dollar they could recover.

The Fed could have created a national ‘bad bank’ to dismantle these failed behemoths while guaranteeing deposits, exactly as was done in Sweden during their financial panic of the early 1990s. The guilty would have been punished, the TBTF monsters brought low, and we citizens would have accepted the shared suffering that ensued with grumbling but an underlying sense that, despite the debacle, justice was sort of done.

Instead, we got the worst sort of ‘moral hazard’ imaginable in which the perpetrators of the financial crimes got off scot-free and now trumpet openly their intention to do everything just as before only moreso while screwing the powerless with greater glee, most notoriously through the fraudulent foreclosures that are now epidemic from sea to shining sea.

So Mr. Singer can complain all he wants, but the face of that corrupt Mexican judge letting his buddy-boys in the Aztec banker ionosphere get away with mega-pilfering is just as contemptuous and sneering as any on display here. It’s the mirror image of what we brought down on ourselves with the Bush-Obama fix, and it is the unlovely visage of our collective future.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Death of Andrés de La Victoria’

Cross-posted from Notes on the Americas.

I’m late to this, but my colleague and friend Mary Helen Spooner, who maintains a most excellent and informative blog called Notes on the Americas on all things Chilean, assembled an anniversary piece on this September, 1984 incident. She asked me to write my recollections of what happened, which I did here. Coincidentally, Father Pierre died a few days later at the age of 79 [see link at the end].


I interviewed the French missionary priest André Jarlan at the parish house in La Victoria in Santiago’s southern zone sometime in the autumn or winter of 1984 (i.e., March to July in the southern hemisphere) to ask him about the community that he had been sent to serve less than a year before. La Victoria was a famous radical stronghold in Santiago as it had been formed through a land seizure some decades before. These seizures were typically led by leftist parties as a way for the rapidly growing numbers of urban poor to establish themselves in the city given that they had few other options for obtaining permanent housing. Often, the government would bend to the persistance of the occupiers and facilitate the creation of a new community on agricultural or idle lands. This was much more difficult to achieve during the Pinochet dictatorship but nonetheless still happened.

Jarlan, or ‘Padre Andrés’ as he was known, was cautiously forthcoming but not particularly interested in the overtly political aspects of the ongoing agitation against the military regime. He saw his role as essentially pastoral and worked under the guidance of the neighborhood’s senior priest, Pierre Dubois, another French missionary. They both lived in the two-story parish house on one of the neighborhood’s dusty streets.

La Victoria always participated in the regular protests called against the regime, and its residents were a constant target of beatings or outright killings. I once reported on how riot police took up positions in an empty lot across the main road bordering the enclave and fired live rounds at people gathered in small groups in the hours before a major protest. These sniper assassinations would then be described in the pro-regime newspapers as acts of ‘violence’ stemming from the protests or the result of ‘unclarified’incidents—never simply police bullets.

The night of September 4 was always a protest date because it was the anniversary of Salvador Allende’s election in 1970. I headed to La Victoria at dusk in 1984, almost exactly one year after I had arrived in Chile, knowing that getting into the area would be impossible after dark. A dozen other journalists were there in anticipation of the dust-up that inevitably would occur, including at least one other foreigner (another Frenchman).

As soon as night fell, the local kids dragged tires into the main intersections and set them on fire and scattered ‘miguelitos’ (tire-puncturing nails twisted into balls) on the streets to impede traffic. We loitered with the local youth and other residents to see what would happen.

Quite early in the evening, a cry went up alerting everyone to the arrival of the pacos or riot police. The residents, veterans of many protests, immediately scampered over roofs or ducked into alleyways to get away while two Chilean reporters stood their ground. I was in doubt about what to do and hesitated but eventually turned and ran down the street toward the parish house. Because of my moment of uncertainty, however, most of the others beat me to the gate and huddled in a small entryway with access to inside. Halfway to that point, I heard two faint popping noises that did not particularly alarm me nearly as much as the continuing sound of exploding tear gas grenades. However, they turned out to be rifle rounds; as my tape recorder was running, I captured the sound of the shots.

The riot police dismantled the barricade and roamed the streets looking for people, which we observed from the narrow passageway of the parish house. One Chilean photographer stayed on the corner and was not bothered by them. When the police withdrew, we filtered back onto the street. A short while later, a woman speaking for Father Pierre asked us all to move to another church building a few blocks away, and while we were en route, rumors began to circulate. A reporter whom I knew said she had heard that someone had been hit by a live bullet. As this was not unusual, we waited to hear more.

Once assembled in the other space, Father Pierre came to address us. He was highly upset and could barely speak but told us that he had gone upstairs to see Father André and found him slumped over his desk, dead. It was clear that he had been killed instantly by the shots fired over our heads just an hour before. Ironically, Andrés had remained in his room as he disliked the upheavals and was quietly reading the Bible when his life was cut short. The photo of his body slumped over the Bible with a tiny trickle of blood running down his neck from the bullet wound became the iconic image of the incident.

We were shocked but of course could not leave until the morning. I went straight to the Catholic Church’s human rights organization and gave the tape recording of the shots to a lawyer there, who turned it over to the judge assigned to investigate the death. I didn’t know that this would entail giving a statement at his office, which occurred some days later.

The Chilean legal system is built on a Napoleonic rather than Anglo-Saxon model,meaning that the investigation is carried out by a judge who then issues the verdict. There is no jury although the decision can be appealed to both an appellate court and eventually the supreme court. The first stage is the gathering of witness statements, which I assumed would be a low-key deposition-type procedure. Instead, I was quite taken aback to see that the courthouse was staked out by reporters. I answered all the judge’s questions and confirmed that the recording was of the shots in question. This was important as the tape was forensic evidence from which considerable data about the trajectory of the shots, and thus the location of the shooter, could be determined. Needless to say, the police had denied that any of its men was responsible for the fatal bullet.

The questions were fairly routine, and I then emerged to a barrage of questions from reporters, many from the pro-Pinochet media who were trying to find ways to obscure the obvious: that the police had fired the shots. There were a half-dozen witnesses to this fact, but these regime operatives looked for any way to muddy the waters. They asked me if I had actually seen the cops fire, and I said no since I was running in the opposite direction, away from them. That turned into a headline, ‘Foreign reporter did not see who fired fatal shot’. On the evening news on Catholic University television (which was considered the less embarrassingly pinochetista station), this turned into, ‘The foreign reporter could not identify who had fired shots as he had already withdrawn from the spot’ (se había retirado del lugar). I thought, What a lovely euphemism for ‘running away from a cop shooting a rifle at me’.

The French reporter’s eyewitness testimony was downplayed similarly through his confusion about the proper Spanish word to describe the cops’ olive green uniforms. The two Chilean journalists who were standing right next to the cops and had not ‘withdrawn from the spot’ as they fired were never quoted.

I must say that one of the most remarkable moments of my 20 years in Chile occurred the next day when I went to the news kiosk for my morning papers and saw a full-length picture of myself on the front page of one. I was quite taken aback and said to the vendor,who saw me every day, ‘That’s me!’ He stuck his head out of the little window to look at the paper hanging there, looked up at me and replied, ‘Sí. Es usted!

My mail stopped arriving for about six weeks after this incident and then started up again. When I later applied for permanent residency, the civil servant in the immigration office said that there were ‘political problems’ with my application. I said in response, ‘There are no political problems, only professional problems’. Eventually, whatever obstacles had existed were overlooked—I assumed they had bigger fish to fry. The whole process took a year instead of the usual three months.

My telephone also acted funny, but that was a constant of life in Santiago, and I can’t really say if anyone was listening in. I always assumed they were and if so, they learned a lot about my love life.


And here at the same blog is a report from Odette Magnet on the funeral of Pierre Dubois. He lived his beliefs and dedicated his life to the poor and vulnerable, with whom he remained to the end.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Entering parallel universe—prepare to beam up

What on earth is with the Libyan consulate episode suddenly? How is it possible that the Romney campaign can turn the assassination of a diplomat into a talking point given their record? In a sane world, they wouldn’t dare.

Ambassador Chris Stevens[below] and the other consulate staff in Benghazi were taken by surprise by the attack and had insufficient protection, arguably due to the Republicans’ own success in slashing embassy security budgets. Instead of hearing this from what should be outraged Democrats, we are treated to a bunch of racist ignorance pumped up by Fox News at the supposedly hostile, Islamist crowds now thronging the streets of Libyan cities—all of which is Obama’s fault.

If Obama really is a secret Muslim, you’d think the Salafists and other religious fanatics around the Middle East would be turning pro-American by now—but I digress if only to amuse myself while contemplating this vast Everest of stupidity and vile demagoguery. A combative White House and/or its allies would be shredding them with counterattacks rather than falling back on defensive re-explanations of the confused and sketchy reports emerged in the aftermath of the killings.

In fact, Libya is now one of the most pro-American countries in the Middle East, and if we were not in the grips of a wave of anti-Semitic Arab-bashing here, that fact might be filtering through. (Yes, Arabs are Semites, duh.) The Benghazi Libyans were outraged at the attacks, demonstrated massively against them, and ran the fundamentalist militias out of town. They then promptly voted overwhelmingly for two secular candidates in their recent elections, leaving the Islamist candidate a distant third.

But it is yet another depressing sign of our bizarro-world times that the GOP dares to raise the issue of security at all. Last time they were in charge, we suffered an ATTACK ON NEW YORK CITY WITH 3,000 DEATHS [reminder below]. Or is that an inconvenient recollection? Why is it that Democrats never wave that bloody shirt against the obviously negligent Bush Administration, yet crude electioneering on the tomb of a dead Foreign Service officer merits only whiny excuses as if the Dems are junior servants to the real bosses, a crew of chastened Beavers trying to convince Ward & June that they didn’t misbehave.

But perhaps this chronic lack of stones is not a bug of the current Democratic Party but a feature. Maybe we should give them credit for being as astute and politically sophisticated as they claim to be and accept that they are not naïve about their adversaries’ intentions or clueless about how to mount a offense. Maybe they just don’t want to, that they are willing to lose before challenging the security-military-finance state and its true allies on the other side of the aisle. Neil Barofsky’s book on the bank bailout says as much, and he was an insider.

That would explain a lot, including Obama’s Invisible Man act at the first debate. His party’s role as a lightning rod to neutralize dissent doesn’t require that we understand what is happening in our world or who is responible for its accelerating deterioration. It’s not conspiracy-theorizing to suppose that the guys at the top know what they’re doing even, or especially, when it doesn’t seem to make sense.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

NY cop: "The civilian population are being hunted."

This excellent video by Ross Tuttle and The Nation rips the nightie off NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly’s occupation strategy of intimidating and harassing young blacks and Latinos in exchange for the placid contentment of the fearful masses. It is an excellent metaphor for the deal we as a nation have cut with the security state in exchange for our freedom.

The video includes an audio recording of the stopping of a Harlem teen named Alvin under the euphemistically named ‘stop-and-frisk’ policy, which actually should be called ‘brace-beat-and-terrorize’ given that that is what the cops do. Last year alone, 680,000 stops were recorded, up from only 100,000 ten years ago, and until public opposition began to make itself felt, the NYPD was headed for 800,000 this year. Alvin’s recording included a threat by the cops who bullied him to break his arm ‘for being a fucking mutt’.

But the Tuttle piece goes further by showing that the hundreds of thousands of harassment stops aren’t just the work of rogue cops getting out of line but rather a conscious policy established at the top and enforced by Kelly and his boss, Mayor Bloomberg. Beat cops who don’t cooperate by racking up stops soon find that they themselves are harassed and their careers and livelihoods threatened.

None of this is news to New Yorkers, and polls show that most minority residents are unhappy about it while white residents continue to cheer (possibly influenced by the fact that their kids are far less likely to be targeted). But the NYPD is beyond the reach of the laws it is supposed to uphold, and everyone knows that, too. Arrest quotas are prohibited in New York State, but that part of the statute gets no respect. When law enforcement is the lawbreaker, you’ve got a problem—ask the Mexicans.

However, popular anger at stop-and-frisk and its evil cousin, police killings of unarmed civilians, is growing and, I maintain, having an impact. The City Council held a hearing on the policy yesterday, and the police brass demonstrated their contempt for democracy by refusing to show up. (The Council has no subpoena power and can’t force them to, despite the huge chunk of our tax money the cops get.) The NYPD’s lawyer came instead to lecture our elected representatives that they had nothing to say about police procedures, despite paying for the blue uniforms.

The NYPD would say that, of course, but it is getting uncomfortable with all the attention. I am proud to say that my Councilman, Robert Jackson, confronted the NYPD lawyer specifically over the Alvin video to the point where the Council’s main cop shill, Peter Verrone Jr. from Staten Island [below], told him to shut up. He in turn was told to shut up by another member. Racial fireworks ensued. None of this is good news for Kelly and Bloomberg.

Shining a light on stop-and-frisk is the only way citizens can object to having their kids treated like criminals based on how they dress and made to feel that they don’t have the right to occupy the streets or even the front porches of their own domiciles. This works well for comfy middle-class folks who want the harassment to continue so their purses don’t get snatched and assume that police abuses will just never happen to them because they’re law-abiding and respectable. On a micro level, it’s the same mentality that tells Obama to go ahead and assassinate the bad guys in Yemen and keep suspicion-looking types in jail for life without charges so that we can go about our pleasant lives worry-free.

The police have earned themselves a hefty dose of resentment all these years. One Rodney King-type incident here would unleash plenty of it, and then the Bloombergs and the Kellys will shed many crocodile tears. But they, and we, were warned, repeatedly.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Where was Barack?

Barack Obama went AWOL in last night’s presidential debate, stumbling through his wonky statistics and policy points with no fire and no conviction. He was as inspiring as a panelist at an accountants convention. But then again he’s been AWOL as president for those of us who elected him because we thought he stood for a break with the Bush years of imperial overreach, criminal abuse, and mass looting laced with snotty disdain. But the latest missed chance was breathtaking.

Here was the Republicans’ most exposed candidate in decades, the most obviously selfish, clueless, arrogant plutocrat beholden to the corrupt hyperrich, widely disliked and repeatedly depantsed by his own bumbling transparency, and Barack Obama never laid a glove on him. How on earth could a leader who actually gave a shit about his own people stand by and let a rich fuck like Mitt Romney completely trash half the population because they don’t have 100 million stashed away in a Lichtenstein shell company and need to collect the government pension that they spent their working lives paying for? Where was the outrage about how these evil masterminds want to strip us all of our remaining assets and condemn us to peonage while they buy bigger and bigger yachts and chuckle at their cocktail parties about what losers we are? Where was even the tiniest hint of what we all want—and have every right—to say to Mitt Romney after his loathsome 47% statement: HOW DARE YOU?

But THAT Obama, the golden-throated decent guy who stirred us to action so that he could reverse the mindless conquest of Iraq, the torture of defenseless prisoners, the ripping up of our constitutional protections, the looting of our mortgages, the wrecking of the job market, the loony fundamentalism, the blithe indifference to the wellbeing of the planet, may not have ever existed. If he did, he went into hiding soon after taking office and settled in to find common ground with these same reactionaries and warmongers, the elitist predators and plunderers. Obama never turned to us, the organized masses who made him president, for support and organizing muscle. He promptly dismantled all that once the 2008 election was over and set about doing deals in Washington, preferably with the very perpetrators of everything we thought he stood against.

Well, it shows. Last night Obama looked more sad than disturbed by anything the increasingly demented GOP can throw up against him or propose to do to us. He played the bitter smart kid who wants more than anything to go to the in-crowd’s keggers and refuses to realize that they won’t ever invite him. Like the wife of the alcoholic deadbeat who stands by passively when he comes home and beats the kids, Obama prefers the illusion that if he just keeps a better White House and prepares nicer dinners, hubby someday will stop spending the grocery money in saloons.

So the first presidential debate was painful to sit through but bracingly educational. It helped remind us that another Obama presidency isn’t going to hold the line against the relentless campaign by the 1% to gobble up everything in its path. Obama has enabled the banks to go back to business as usual just when he had the best opportunity in a half-century to smack them back into social utility and break up their giant casino operations. Now it’s too late, and they despise him anyway. Their true affinity is for the Romneys of the other team who thrill at their lavish wealth and sneer at the nation’s workers who generated it for them. Obama can’t call them out because he’s spent four years trying to hitch his wagon to theirs. No wonder he stuttered and looked like a ghost.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Today's suit & tie pirates

I’m finishing an alarming work on the worldwide network of offshore banking, which is a useful reminder that the spectacle many of us will be watching tonight has less to do with our future than we might wish. Treasure Islands tells the story of the cozy little banking havens in Jersey, Lichtenstein and the British Virgin Islands that make it possible to stash one’s money out of the sight of the taxman pretty much forever. I’ll be particularly curious now to see whether our sitting president has something nasty to say about his rival’s use of phony storefronts in the Cayman Islands to keep all his loot while sneering at the rest of us poor chumps who actually see our paychecks dinged for retirement and healthcare—i.e., our shameful ‘entitlements’.

But Romney’s use of the Caymans to reduce his tax bill is only the tip of the iceberg, and in fact his paltry millions are chump change, too. The ‘offshoring’ of corporations is part and parcel of how the global economy now works to enable our corporate overlords not only to rip out our jobs and send them to China but to shift their profits to a ratty office in a tax-free Caribbean backwater—or pretend to since it’s all on paper anyway. So while Obama might take a cheap shot at the Mitt for unpatriotic hoarding in foreign bank accounts, neither side is about to disturb the offshore system that bleeds wealth and undermines tax-collecting states everywhere.

One of the most startling facts in the book is the answer to this question: Which is the biggest, most important ‘offshore’ banking facility in the world? Vanuatu? Andorra? Singapore? Hint: note the quotation marks.

The answer: London.

As Shaxson explains, once the islands were permitted to establish offshore facilities, create phony front companies with opaque ownership and management structures, manipulate invoicing to create fake ‘losses’ in the high-tax countries and equally fake ‘profits’ in tax-free zones, shift billions around the globe with the click of a mouse, it was an easy next step to force governments to grant domestic banks (that were controlling all this activity in the first place) similar privileges for themselves right at home.

The results are catastrophic for people like you and me as was seen in the global meltdown of 2007-8 that we’re still suffering through. A lot of that financial manipulation and collapse can be traced to the ‘shadow’ banking system that thrives offshore. But it is far more nefarious for the world’s poor whose national wealth is easily siphoned through the offshore system by corrupt elites with the connivance of the rich countries (the same ones so eager to offer them lessons in ‘good governance’).

Shaxson estimates that the total value of capital leaving Africa through looting to be ten times that of all foreign aid poured back in for ‘development’. Kind of gives one a new perspective when you think the rich countries could eliminate all the fancy ‘aid’ programs and simply stop helping African presidents stash their countries’ wealth in Zurich, Bermuda and the East End.

Or how about another island tax refuge that we don’t usually associate with shady guys in linen suits lounging by tropical palms: the Republic of Ireland. The ‘Celtic Tiger’ whose metastatic growth so impressed the business writers during the pre-collapse decade turns out to have been built on a quicksand of hot cash. No wonder that when the whole house of cards collapsed, corrupt Irish politicians promptly saddled the whole populace with the overblown and unprofitable debt rather than let the German and French banks take their deserved losses. This is not naivety or poor judgment; it’s a feature of a bought and sold-out state.

So tonight we’ll hear a lot about how to manage our country’s budget and the need for ‘prudence’ on government spending. We’ll be treated to differing visions of how to create jobs, a lot of talk about price of gas at the pump, and how to rejuvenate the ‘middle class’. But we’re unlikely to be told much about the way corporate America has it covered no matter who wins.

One wag makes a saucy suggestion: Romney should attack Obama from the left. This former Senate staffer says Romney should turn to Obama and say this:

Your administration failed to hold any specific Wall Street executives accountable. If I’m elected president, my administration will prosecute the powerful when they break the law.

It would be an act of breathtaking hubris for a guy with tax-avoiding bank accounts registered on palm trees, but since when did that stop him?

[Keep up to date with the latest on tax havens at]