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The US Is a Country, Not a Business

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 21:00

The US has been sold off to the highest bidder, and until we repudiate the "free market" fundamentalism that has infected our public discourse, we'll not get it back. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / truthout; Adapted: Thomas Hawk, Rob Shenk)The US is increasingly no longer a country; instead, we're being run like a business, and in some cases, it's literally killing us. Take for example, the ongoing problem of foodborne illnesses like Salmonella, which infects more than 1 million Americans every year.

One of the most common ways of contracting Salmonella is by eating eggs. According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 79,000 people get sick every year from eating Salmonella-contaminated eggs, and of those 79,000 people, 30 actually die.

This is a type of preventable problem that pretty much doesn't exist across the pond anymore. Ever since the United Kingdom started requiring chicken farmers to vaccinate their hens against Salmonella, reported cases of the disease have plummeted. There were almost 15,000 egg-related Salmonella cases in 1997, when the immunizations began; now there's close to none.

See more news and opinion from Thom Hartmann at Truthout here.

The FDA actually considered implementing a similar vaccine mandate here in the US, but decided not to in 2010, basically because chicken farmers didn't want to spend the extra money on the vaccines and they could buy lobbyists. This is what it looks like when your country ceases to become a country and becomes something else -- a business, or maybe just another asset in a corporate portfolio.

How many lives could have been saved if the FDA had decided to look out for the public first and Big Ag second? How many costly emergency room trips could have been prevented? How many recalls avoided? We'll never know for sure.

With Reaganomics came the idea that government isn't the solution, it's the problem. But this mantra is the source of many things wrong with this country. By waging war on government, which they call the "problem," Ronald Reagan and his contemporary followers in the Republican Party have sold us out to big business.

You can find evidence of this everywhere you look.

It's why Americans pay more for health care than anybody else in the world, from drugs to eyeglasses to dental work, and why we are the only developed nation in the world that allows for-profit corporations to offer primary health insurance.

It's why you have banks like Wells Fargo ripping off their customers by opening up accounts in their names.

It's why you have Salmonella outbreaks every year, even though they stopped being a real problem in Europe years ago.

It's why you have corporate farms spraying glyphosate basically everywhere, even though European countries are banning it.

The list goes on.

Thanks to Reaganomics, we have nearly lost our country.

It's been sold off to the highest bidder, and until we repudiate the "free market" fundamentalism that has infected our public discourse, we'll not get it back.

Categories: Latest News

Destructive Criticism

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 21:00
Categories: Latest News

Trump, Clinton and the Illusion of Everlasting US Hegemony

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 21:00

Both Trump and Clinton believe US hegemony is a natural world order that needs to be restored. In reality, we should be having a conversation about how we navigate the decline of US hegemony, and balance the drastically uneven distribution of resources at home.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump speak during the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, on September 26, 2016. (Photo: Doug Mills / The New York Times)

There was plenty to read between the lines in Monday's presidential debate, from how the unsmiling, ultra-masculine persona of Donald Trump reflected his angry, anxious base, to a lack of critique from both sides about the basis for and follow-up to NATO's intervention in Libya.

But looming over the entire conversation -- and indeed, the entire Western world's current political crisis -- is the white noise of fading hegemony. The US is losing its place in the global order, and Europe is coming with it.

This shift is impacting the rise of far-right, fascistic movements both here and across the EU. It is also one of the reasons that the West won't do anything about Syria besides offering limited funding and symbolic support to multiple factions of the opposition. Far from a long-planned conspiracy, it's more of a "throw shit at the wall in the hopes that something sticks" strategy.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, "Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016."

Why? Isn't this the "New American Century"?

Rising powers, both at the regional and international level, are filling voids left by the US in its decline. Nowhere is this more acutely felt than in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia invaded Yemen; Israel continues incursions into Gaza; Russia plays a central role in the defense of the Syrian regime. Multiple US allies fund various (and often opposing) sides of the Syrian war. All of these moves have been against the wishes of the US, which did not want to see a further escalation in a region where its power had been weakened so much by its defeat in Iraq.

Domestically, populations that have been poised to benefit from long-term US power -- white America, for instance -- are feeling the possibility that they may have to live different lifestyles in the future. Their fear of even slight downward mobility, mixed with their privilege-enhanced expectations, is pushing the agendas of the far right, which has successfully eclipsed traditional conservative ideas with a neofascist agenda that places the US, Austria and the UK first.

Trump admits this relative decline, more or less, when he paints a picture of a US where "everything is bad" and we are "losers." Even the freshly renovated, waterfall and sculpture-filled airports of the US are apparently in "third world" condition to him. Though such a description is a blatant mythology (the US has fairly state-of-the-art airport facilities and a very safe travel record), it may sound like it could be true, to those who think the country is falling apart.

The idea that the country is literally deteriorating backs up Trump's image of an America on the brink of extinction, and justifies the state-of-siege mentality his campaign relies on for its momentum. While its decline as a hegemony is a reality, the inevitable, near-term, catastrophic end of the US itself is a fiction invented by the same folks who deny the existence of climate change and swear that Obama is secretly a Muslim.

However, there are multiple generations now that were raised to believe they would be better off than their parents, and their dreams are being shattered. That belief, reliant on a US that would rule the world for a long time to come, is not standing up to reality. Though generations of administrations have distributed soldiers across the world, built large military bases, and designed trade pacts to solidify economic arrangements that favor US corporations, they no longer see a future in their favor.

Trump is a man of the corporation, not the country. He is one of them, and Clinton works for them.

Part of the US losing its place in the world is due to the very nature of corporate globalization: It doesn't favor nation-states. Multinationals, when the rubber meets the road, have no allegiance to country. This is why Dick Cheney's beloved Halliburton moved its corporate offices to the United Arab Emirates. It's why Trump couldn't admit that he has no strategy to prevent "American" corporations from moving factories overseas. You can't have neoliberal capitalism and also have the regulations needed to prevent things like outsourcing and capital flight. Trump, at the end of the day, is a man of the corporation, not the country. He is one of them, Clinton works for them.

Monday night, Trump admitted something besides the fact that he may not pay federal income taxes: The US is "losing to China." His way of combating this is still a mystery, though he claims to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) because it is not pro-America enough for him. Clinton claims to oppose it, too, probably in the hopes that President Obama will fast-track it in so she doesn't have to prove her opposition. Basically, she's passing the buck before it is even handed to her. Perhaps Trump is, too.

Either way, there's a reason the TPP does not include China. It's designed for a specific type of US-centered trade that, like the scramble for Asia after WWII, is about US economic and political dominance in the region. But trade deals like the TPP are designed against the institutions of nation-states. They are designed for the "para-state" corporations, which wield far more influence over Western governments than voters do.

It's a catch-22 for the politicians who claim US allegiance but depend so heavily on the corporate sector. And since greed navigates so many of these decisions, they simply can't stop the process. So the snake eats its tail.

The specter of Chinese dominance is no small thing, nor is it a case of classic "red-bashing" against the pseudo-communist state or a bizarre "Trumpism" from the demagogue's own head; it's an economic reality that threatens the "American way of life," that mythic economic comfort enjoyed (or at least anticipated) by a predominantly white part of the country. The historic memory of this way of life, summed by Trump's "Great America," is strong. And while it did exist once, in the 1950s, it was only for a racially and economically select few. Still, its imagery has a convincing strength, and Trump's promise to "return" it captures many a white heart.

But it's not just those at the top who are scared. A shift in the global economy that pushes the US off the top would also affect the rest of the country by determining the prices we pay for food, clothes, and other essential and consumerist commodities in a post-US-centric trade environment. The conversation should be about how we navigate this with humility, and balance the drastically uneven distribution of resources in this country so that our decline doesn't result in the kind of catastrophic wars that occurred with the decline of the European empires.

While Trump invokes the decline without totally naming it, Clinton ignores or denies it. Why? Because her entire policy set is designed specifically to maintain the illusion of US supremacy. It's a macro-political version of what '60s New Left activist Rennie Davis called "organizing with mirrors," attempting to create a reality by convincing enough people that it already exists. This illusion dovetails with the Wall Street economy, which is itself based on similar principles: Ponzi schemes designed to create realities based on perception, fear and expectation. Clinton hopes she can talk US hegemony's way into a continued existence.

Due to the depth of the crisis, both candidates' promises, most certainly, will be but flashes in the pan. Only an alternative based on a drastically changed US foreign policy, bound to some type of global framework for mutual benefits amongst all people, would prevent the current destabilization from becoming yet a new global order based in the rule of the many by the few. Different players may soon take the controls, but there is little rationale to believe they will have a more moral or sustainable approach to the game.

Shading our view of this decline, especially among the political left, is an often conspiratorial assumption that the political class is always in control and that global developments are always benefiting those who instigate them. Iraq is a perfect example of the fallacy of this perfect control. It was a war launched for a blundering, desperate US foreign policy establishment to establish footholds in an important geostrategic location. It resulted in a military defeat. Moreover, the oil contracts made possible by the International Monetary Fund-supported "Oil Law" that were destined for Western corporations were sent by the new Iraqi government in the direction of Russia and China. The new Iraq has since positioned itself closer to Iran politically, and seems more interested in doing business with China than the US. This wasn't exactly the plan.

While many conservative voters argue that the US brought democracy to places like Iraq, they show no enthusiasm for actual democracy. Trump's critique of the UN and NATO is basically that they are not American institutions. Clinton's embrace of them is justified by them being "American" enough for the long game.

Trump wants the short game. War is fine if it's quick, efficient and we win. His problem with Iraq is not that it was wrong; it's that the US lost.

But Iraq's about-face is a sign that the world knows about the US decline, and even though it still lives under its waning power, it's starting to crawl out from under it.

In the end, for both candidates Monday night, the debate over these international institutions was over how much they benefit the US, not the broader world. Granted, the UN is not a model institution, and begs drastic reforms, while NATO begs abolishment. Still, it was not the actions of these institutions that was up for debate so much as the idea of them: Global alliances of governments interacting as partners do not suit the hyper-masculine, empathy-deficient worldview of Donald Trump. And for Hillary Clinton, the justification for both institutions is based on their willingness to be partners in a larger US agenda. The world is not involved in the matter.

Unfortunately, for both candidates, the question is how the US should maintain global hegemony, not if it should.

Categories: Latest News

Still Caught in the Can't-Catch-Up Economy

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 21:00

Has the economic recovery finally filtered down to the US working class, more than seven years after the official end of the Great Recession? The US Census Bureau says yes, based on the results of its Current Population Survey released on September 13.

According to the Census Bureau, all sectors of the population -- be their incomes high or low, their ages old or young, their regions East, West, North or South -- experienced sizeable income gains between 2014 and 2015. In fact, as MSNBC reported, income grew the fastest for the poorest people: "[T]he income growth was widespread across every...racial/ethnic demographic, with Americans at the bottom seeing the largest percentage increase."

But the Census Bureau's findings are highly suspect, mainly due the mountain of economic data they ignore.

Who could trust a meteorologist, for example, who reports cheerfully: "The recent heat wave has given way to cooler, more pleasant temperatures," yet doesn't mention a tropical storm presently whipping through the region?

The Current Population Survey has a similar problem, reporting on pre-tax cash income increases without regard to the spiraling expenses necessary to survive in today's world.

***

The survey showed that median US household income rose a whopping 5.2 percent to $56,516 last year -- not only the first increase since before the recession began in 2008, but also the fastest income growth in nearly 50 years.

It also found that 3.5 million people climbed out of poverty in 2015, lowering the poverty rate from 14.8 percent to 13.5 percent -- the sharpest annual drop in poverty since the late 1960s. In addition, the percentage of Americans with health insurance for at least part of 2015 reached 90.9 percent -- the highest ever recorded.

With such upbeat news arriving less than two months before the election, it was almost possible to hear the corks popping over at Democratic Party headquarters. After all, records were broken in 2015! Obamacare is working! People are working!

Corporate media giants broadcast this ostensibly magnificent news with headlines such as "Median incomes are up and poverty rate is down, surprisingly strong census figures show" (Los Angeles Times) and "Poverty goes down, coverage goes up, and America gets a raise" (MSNBC).

The Washington Post editorial board used the report as an opportunity to ridicule both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump (as if they were two peas in a pod) for their "bombardment of negativity about the US economy" on the campaign trail -- claiming the Census Bureau data proved that "the entire time candidates such as Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump were out on the stump, the US economy was performing contrary to their respective tales of woe."

But headlines such as "America Gets a Raise" imply that wages have risen significantly when they have not.

To be sure, roughly 2.4 million more people found full-time, year-round jobs in 2015 compared with the year before. But wages rose much less than 5.2 percent last year. Higher median household income reflects more hours worked rather than a substantial hike in pay.

And even by the Census Bureau's own measurement, in 2015 median household income (which is the level at which 50 percent of the population makes more and the other 50 percent makes less -- was still lower than in 2007, and lower still than the all-time high in 1999.

Further examination also reveals that people in rural areas didn't share in the increase, but rather experienced a 2 percent decrease in median income last year -- which fell to just $44,657 for these households, far below the national median.

***

The Cenus Bureau generalizations about median income dramatically downplay the deep concentrations of poverty that exist across the country. For example, North Dakota had the nation's biggest drop in child poverty between 2011 and 2016, but the poverty rate for Native American children, the majority living on reservations, is five times higher than for the rest of the state's children.

Likewise, buried within a Detroit Free Press article headlined "Michigan posts its largest income gain since the recession" is the admission that the majority Black cities of:

Flint and Detroit continue to have some of the highest poverty rates in the US, at 40.8 percent and 39.8 percent, respectively. The child poverty rate is higher -- more than half of the children who lived in Detroit and Flint last year lived in poverty, 57.6 percent and 58.3 percent, respectively.

The Census Bureau figures also ignore the enormous income disparities, often along racial lines, within individual cities. According to the Census Bureau, Washington, DC's median household income rose to $75,600 in 2015, but that breaks down to $120,000 for white households compared to just $41,000 for Black households. The poverty rate for the city's Black population is 27 percent -- and 75 percent of all DC residents living in poverty are Black.

There is yet another way that the Census Bureau's poverty statistics skew lower while its median income figures skew higher.

In the introduction to its Current Population Survey, the bureau makes the following caveat about its "sample" population: "People in institutions, such as prisons, long-term care hospitals and nursing homes, are not eligible to be interviewed in the CPS...[P]eople who are homeless and not living in shelters are not included in the sample." The list of those excluded from the survey thus includes millions of the most impoverished people in the US

Despite the flaws in the Census Bureau's findings, they still show roughly one in four African Americans and Native Americans and more than one in five Latinos living under the official poverty line. One in five children are living in poverty by official standards, and 10 percent of US households are trying to survive on less than $13,300 a year.

***

But the most glaring problem with the Census Bureau's methodology is its appallingly low poverty threshold. If the poverty line were scaled upward to a more accurate level, the official poverty rate of the US population would certainly skyrocket statistically.

The Social Security Administration developed the current poverty measure back in 1963, adopting a formula based on the minimum amount of money necessary to buy a subsistence level of food, using data from the 1955 Household Food Consumption Survey. On the assumption that food expenditures made up one-third of what a family of four needed to survive at the time, that amount was then multiplied by three to define the poverty line.

This definition, using obsolete 50-year-old consumption patterns and even more antiquated 60-year-old prices (adjusted annually based on the consumer price index), is still in use today.

If that formula (food expenses times three) was ever adequate for survival -- and it most certainly wasn't in the era of Eisenhower -- it is completely preposterous today. In 2015, the poverty threshold was set at just at $24,250 for a family of four and $11,770 for an individual.

Even the Census Bureau recognizes some of the shortcomings of its formula. Since 2010, it has issued a "Supplemental Poverty Measure," adding income from sources such as Social Security, tax credits and food stamps, while subtracting some expenses, such as work costs, medical care and child-support payments.

In 2015, this statistic showed the rate of poverty at a (slightly) more realistic 14.3 percent, compared to the Consumer Population Survey's 13.5 percent.

But the Supplemental Poverty Measure is an exercise in futility, however well meaning its proponents' intentions. It does nothing to actually improve the lives of impoverished people because the government relies only on the Current Population Survey to determine eligibility for government poverty programs such as food stamps.

And while those cloistered in the bubble of the federal bureaucracy seem to find its poverty threshold adequate for survival, anyone with at least one foot in the real world is aware that no family of four can make ends meet on $24,250 a year.

***

Just as every household needs a budget measuring its income in relation to expenses, we should examine the actual cost of just a few major household necessities to give a cursory sense of whether that 5.2 percent rise in median household income last year actually made a dent in falling working-class living standards:

--  Rent: According to apartmentlist.com, using Census data from 1960 to 2014, median rent has risen by 64 percent after adjusting for inflation, while real household income only increased by 18 percent. Between 2000 and 2010, rents rose by 18 percent while household income fell by 7 percent.

As Apartmentlist.com concluded, "As a result, the share of cost-burdened renters [households spending more than one-third of their income on rent] nationwide more than doubled, from 24 percent in 1960 to 49 percent in 2014."

If anything, the pace is accelerating: In the last year alone, median rents rose by 2.3 percent to $1,120 per month for a 1-bedroom apartment and $1,300 for a 2-bedroom.

--  Child care: The cost of child care has nearly doubled since the 1980s -- yet it is not considered a necessary household expenditure, even though 75 percent of mothers with children six to 17 years old are in the labor force, as are 61 percent of mothers with children under 3 years old.

In 2015, the average child care cost rose to over $143 a week. As a result, fewer working parents can afford to pay for it and end up keeping children with relatives or trading off child care shifts while the other parent, if they have one, is at their job.

Whereas 42 percent of parents paid for child care in 1997, only 32 percent did so by 2011. The poorest families spend the largest proportion -- one-third of their incomes -- on child care.

--  Health care: The Supplemental Poverty Measure for 2015 showed that with medical expenses -- including insurance premiums, co-pays, co-insurance, prescription drug costs and other uncovered medical expenses -- factored in, 11.2 million (or 3.5 percent) more people are living in poverty than the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey acknowledges.

And we can expect next year's statistics to be even worse, as employers continue to push more insurance costs onto their employees. More and more employers are turning to plans with higher co-pays and so-called "high-deductible" plans, offering premiums workers can barely afford and deductibles of $1,000 or $2,000 a year -- meaning workers have to pay these amounts before insurance kicks in even a penny toward their medical care.

This year, deductibles alone are rising nearly six times faster than wages, according to the 2016 Employer Health Benefits Survey of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

***

A NEW Georgetown University study on job creation shows that workers with a high school diploma or less have lost the most income during the recovery, as more jobs go to those with at least some post-secondary education -- perhaps reflecting a glut of "over-educated" applicants for low wage jobs.

"Of the 7.2 million jobs lost in the recession," the Georgetown study states, "5.6 million were jobs for workers with a high school diploma or less...On net, there are now more than 5.5 million fewer jobs for individuals with a high school education or less than there were in December 2007."

This downward trend began well before the Great Recession. A report by the Hamilton Project of the Brookings Institution found that between 1990 and 2003, real median wages had already fallen by 20 percent for male workers without a high schooldiploma age 30 to 45, and by 12 percent for women in the same category.

As the New York Times, citing the report, concluded: "Less-educated Americans, especially men, are shifting away from manufacturing and other jobs that once offered higher pay, and a higher share are now working in lower-paying food service, cleaning and groundskeeping jobs."

But this decline in wages is tied to more than the decline in manufacturing jobs. As the Times article added, "[P]ay levels are declining in almost all of the fields that employ less-educated workers, so even those who have held onto jobs as manufacturers, operators and laborers are making less than they would have a generation ago." Inflation-adjusted annual pay for manufacturing jobs fell from $33,600 in 1990 to $28,000 in 2013.

While much media attention today is devoted to labeling the so-called "millennial" generation the best-educated in history, fully two-thirds of those between the ages of 25 and 32 have no bachelor's degree -- a figure that is virtually identical to the baby-boomer generation.

But the earnings shortfall for young people without a bachelor's degree compared to those with a four-year degree has fallen from 77 percent in 1979 to just 62 percent today. And with student debt averaging $35,000 per college grad, a bachelor's degree is simply out of reach for most low-income young adults.

***

The long-term decline in wages is not an accident, nor an unfortunate consequence of factors beyond the control of US policymakers. On the contrary, it has been a long time in the making.

Since the late 1970s, both Democratic and Republican policymakers joined with the rest of the corporate class in a strategy intended to drive down working-class living standards in order to raise corporate profits. This comprehensive set of policies -- which involved legal green lights for union busting, wage and benefit cuts, dismantling social welfare subsidies, and privatizing formerly public services in order to shift costs onto consumers -- has more recently become known as "neoliberalism."

The greatest damage from neoliberalism was done early on, from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. The average real hourly wages of production and nonsupervisory workers fell by 15 percent between 1973 and the mid-1990s, lowering the ceiling for working-class wages ever since. Wages briefly rose during the economic boom of the late 1990s -- only to be derailed by the early 2000s when wages began to stagnate again. The Great Recession once again accelerated the decline.

The claims of the 2015 Current Population Survey should be viewed in this historical context. Since 1979, the vast majority of US workers have seen their wages bouncing back and forth between decline and stagnation, while the wealthiest few have enjoyed massive gains in income. Even the Census Bureau's statistics showed that the enormous degree of income inequality in 2015 was "not statistically significant" from the year (or years) before.

So a more appropriate headline for the articles about the Census Bureau report would be, "Neoliberalism continues to slash working-class living standards, with no end in sight (until workers fight back)."

Categories: Latest News

Unprecedented National Prison Strike Enters Third Week

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 21:00

The largest prison work strike in U.S. history has entered its third week. Organizers report that as of last week, at least 20 prisons in 11 states continued to protest, including in Alabama, California, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, South Carolina and Washington. The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee says at one point, about 20,000 prisoners were on strike. With protest has come punishment. Several facilities have been put on lock-down, with prisoners kept in their cells and denied phone access both before and during the strike. Organizers have also been put in solitary confinement.

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: Latest News

Farmworkers Taste the Fruits of Victory

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 21:00

After three years of tireless organizing, 500 farmworkers at Sakuma Brothers Farms in Washington state have finally won union recognition.

The berry pickers, mainly indigenous migrants from Mexico, began their fight with a work stoppage in 2013 and never let up.

They formed an independent union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, and launched boycotts against Sakuma and its major client, multinational berry distributor Driscoll's, calling for the farm to recognize the union and negotiate.

This year the boycott went international, as the Washington workers joined in solidarity with berry pickers in San Quintín, Mexico, who have led massive strikes for higher wages and benefits and against sexual harassment on the job. 

Pickets popped up outside grocery stores across the country. At least two food co-ops took Driscoll's off their shelves. This growing pressure, along with ongoing direct action in the fields -- workers organized four strikes this year alone -- brought Sakuma to the table.

Farmworkers are excluded from the labor law that guarantees organizing rights to most private sector workers in the U.S. They can't follow the usual route to unionize by filing with the National Labor Relations Board for an election. But that doesn't mean farmworkers can't build pressure on their employer to recognize a union.

Sakuma agreed to an election and on September 12, workers voted yes by an overwhelming 77 percent. It's a rare win for an independent local farmworker union. 

Turning Out the Vote 

Work at Sakuma is seasonal. This year the season to pick strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries runs from June through October. (The season is shifting with climate change, says Ramon Torres, president of the union.)

In the off season, workers travel back to California to work on other crops. Most come back each year -- but the low wages, uncertain hours, and difficult conditions keep turnover high, said Vice President Felimon Pineda.

This year, out of a workforce of 500, there were around 100 new workers, and the union had to reach them all. Workers mainly live in bunkhouses provided by the company.

"We organized 15 workers who could help do house meetings," Torres said. "We went worker by worker, family by family, until people knew the truth about what we were fighting for."

Another group of 30, mostly union activists who'd been involved from the start, took charge of outreach in the town. "We did lots of training on how to organize, how to talk to other workers," Torres said.

Because many workers speak Triqui or Mixteco, indigenous languages spoken in southern Mexico, the outreach teams divided up by language. Torres estimates the activists won over 70 percent of the newer workers. 

First Contract

Workers gathered on September 12 to wait for the votes to be counted. Torres announced the results as workers cheered.

The next step is to bargain a first contract. Eight berry pickers make up the bargaining team.

"The first thing we want is a fair wage, a wage that our people can sustain themselves on," said Torres. Under a complex system of piece rates, wages can range from $9.47 to $17 per hour, depending on weather, crop, and worker experience. Health benefits are another important demand.

"These are the most basic things we can fight for, but in the future, we'll look at how to negotiate pensions, holidays, and overtime," Torres said.

"We always have it in our minds that we are in a continuous fight," said Pineda.

Boycott Still On

When Sakuma agreed to an election, Familias Unidas officially called off its boycott of Sakuma clients. But the farmworkers in San Quintín are still asking consumers to boycott Driscoll's berries.

Torres and Pineda expressed their gratitude to supporters who took up the boycott campaign across the country. The outside support helped sustain the campaign -- as farmworkers went on taking risks in the fields.

"Workers lost their fear," Pineda said. "They stopped being on their knees in front of the company, in front of the supervisors."

"I'm really proud that our people now have the capacity to have benefits, to have another kind of life, not the life that I had," said Torres. "Everyone is feeling really happy, but the biggest feeling is that, going forward, there is going to be a better future for their kids."  

New book from Labor Notes: Secrets of a Successful Organizer is a step-by-step guide to building power on the job. "Full of so many creative examples and powerful rank-and-file stories, it makes you want to dive right in." Buy one today, only $15.

Categories: Latest News

"I Called You to Help Me, but You Killed My Brother": Police Kill Unarmed Black Man

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 21:00

Police in the San Diego, California, suburb of El Cajon shot and killed an unarmed African-American man Tuesday, after his sister called 911 to report her brother was having a mental health emergency. Eyewitnesses said 30-year-old Alfred Olango was holding his hands up when he was Tased by one police officer and then fired upon five times by another officer. In video posted online, Alfred Olango's grieving sister is seen tearfully confronting police. She tells them, "I called you to help me, but you killed my brother."

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: Latest News

The Unpersuadable

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 21:00
Categories: Latest News

Report Slams EPA Civil Rights Compliance

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 21:00

The nation's top environmental regulator has failed to meet its civil-rights obligations, forcing communities to endure extreme delays or inaction when seeking respite from polluters, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found.  

In a report released Friday, the commission zeroed in on what it called the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's lackluster compliance with both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and an executive order requiring agencies to consider environmental justice when creating rules -- as well as its track record on clearing cases.

The 230-page report cites and reinforces the findings of a 2015 Center for Public Integrity investigation. The series found that the EPA's Office of Civil Rights had dismissed nine out of every 10 complaints alleging environmental discrimination and had never formally found a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits recipients of federal funding from acting in discriminatory ways

"Environmental justice is an issue that, one would think, we would have made much more progress on since this has been around for more than a generation," Commissioner Michael Yaki said during a teleconference Friday. "Much ado was made about EPA putting into effect an environmental justice component into what it did. If anything, this report shows that, as it applies to EPA - which has done many great things over the years - in this particular instance, it has fallen very short. One can say it is practically toothless in its ability to protect the poorest and minority populations of our country from things such as coal ash."

The report, sent to the White House and congressional leaders, found that the Office of Civil Rights has a "long history" of not effectively enforcing Title VI, dating to 2003, when the commission first dug into the agency's case backlog.

The commission's latest review found that of the 25 complaints lodged with the Office of Civil Rights between December 2015 and July 2016, 14 were rejected due to lack of jurisdiction, two were withdrawn by complainants and two were closed for lack of evidence.

As of June, the office had 32 cases pending jurisdictional review, the oldest from 2013, the commission found. Its report said the lingering backlog shows "the Office of Civil Rights is not fulfilling its mission to become 'a model civil rights' program.'"

"When we look at this issue, it is one of urgency," commission Chairman Martin R. Castro said during the teleconference.  "It affects individuals' daily lives. It affects our ability and the community's ability to enjoy and value and really exercise many of the other civil rights." Castro said the EPA had "woefully failed" to meet its civil-rights obligations.

The EPA reviewed the report prior to publication and said it found "serious and pervasive flaws" that were not corrected in the final document. The agency said in an email to the Center that these included "factual inaccuracies, material omissions, mischaracterizations [of] EPA findings, and conclusions not supported by evidence; as well as fundamental misunderstandings about EPA legal obligations and regulatory authorities across a number of the Agency's programs…"

Mustafa Ali, senior advisor for environmental justice to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, said in a statement that the commission did not adequately consider the work the agency has done to make environmental justice a priority.

"EPA has a robust and successful national program to protect minority and low-income communities from pollution," Ali said.  "This work, coordinated across our federal, state and tribal partners, has achieved strong results in reducing exposure to serious health threats that overburdened communities face."

Ali said the EPA is working to address shortcomings in its consideration of environmental justice, including developing the  EJ 2020 Action Agenda. In addition, the Office of Civil Rights has announced plans to do more frequent compliance reviews and publish an annual report to chart the office's progress. In December, it  issued a notice of proposed rulemaking removing certain complaint-processing deadlines and put out a case manual for investigators examining civil-rights claims.

In its report, the civil-rights commission echoed critics who say this change would actually weaken protections for complainants. Commissioners recommended that the agency maintain statutory deadlines that require it to decide within 20 days whether to accept a complaint for investigation and allow it another 180 days to complete an inquiry.

The Center found that the office took nearly a year, on average, just to determine whether to accept a complaint.

Marianne Engelman-Lado, a senior attorney at the environmental law firm Earthjustice, called the commission's report "a clarion call for change," which has "the power of the bully pulpit and of moral persuasion." She praised its call for EPA officials to open up what many regard as an opaque Title VI investigative process. In their report, the commissioners recommend that the EPA make sure complainants have a seat at the table during any settlement negotiations.

"We're pleased the commission is recognizing that environmental justice is a space lacking in civil-rights enforcement," Engelman-Lado said.

The commission's report recommends that the EPA add staff to the Office of Civil Rights and that Congress study environmental justice requirements under civil rights law and give EPA funds to fulfill those duties. It calls for the EPA to provide minority, tribal and low-income communities with technical assistance to enforce a federal rule governing disposal of often-toxic coal ash.

Most notably, it recommends that the EPA classify coal ash as "special waste"; test drinking water wells near coal ash lagoons; assess the soundness of high-risk coal ash dams and disposal sites; and fund research on the ash's health effects.

Across the country, coal ash has fouled water sources and endangered public health. In 2014, the agency set national disposal standards that amount to guidelines for the states that call for treating the ash as if it were household trash. Weakened by loopholes, the EPA rule was the product of vigorous lobbying by the utility industry.

Categories: Latest News

The Tracks of John Boehner's Tears

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 21:00

There are a few certainties in this world: fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, John Boehner's gotta cry. Remember how a year ago -- just a year ago -- the former speaker of the House wept when Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress? And then only a couple of days later announced he was stepping down as speaker?

There were tears then, too. In part, tears of joy, because Boehner no longer would have to deal with the Freedom Caucus, those tea party Republican bully boys who had been making his life miserable, threatening government shutdowns --and Boehner's job --at every turn. As deeply conservative as he is, Boehner nonetheless realized that even in a grossly dysfunctional Congress at loggerheads with the president, occasionally some modicum of bipartisanship had to come into play or the entire enterprise would go belly up. The Freedom Caucus found such a rational thought revolting.

To see more stories like this, visit Moyers & Company at Truthout.

So, battered but unbowed, he quit, sang "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" when he declared his departure to the press corps and seemed greatly relieved to get out of government. He said he'd be playing more golf, relaxing, hanging out with friends. He's been pictured mowing his lawn in Ohio and driving his RV across what he calls "America's asphalt prairie."

Yes, there he was, John Boehner, the tear-stained, chain-smoking man of leisure, right? You've got to be kidding. A fellow with his connections? He has been cozying up to corporate interests and their lobbyists since the 1990s. Boehner could no more stay away from Washington than a kitty cat could stay away from a dangling strand of yarn. He is back in the DC marketplace, where power and influence are the coin of the realm and he's crying all the way to the bank.

A couple of weeks ago, Reynolds American, the second biggest tobacco company in America --and maker of Boehner's favorite brand, Camels --announced that he was joining its board.

"John Boehner has always loved Big Tobacco," Fortune magazine reported.

"In 1995, the former House speaker was caught passing out checks from tobacco lobbyists to his fellow congressmen --something he later said he regretted. And when Boehner resigned late last year, OpenSecrets data showed he took more money from the tobacco industry than any other lawmaker during his 26 years in Congress. Not to mention Boehner smokes so much that when he left the Capitol, his office was fumigated to get rid of the smell, according to CNN Money.

"…He will serve on the corporate governance, nominating and sustainability committee, likely helping his colleagues shape how Washington regulates the struggling US tobacco sector, CNN reports. This year alone, Reynolds American ranked second in contributions from tobacco lobbying-related groups, having donated more than $470,000 to mostly Republican lawmakers, according to OpenSecrets."

The job likely pays Boehner "north of $400,000 a year," Politico reports --that's almost twice the $223,500 a year he was making as speaker of the House.

Oh, but it gets better. A few days ago, there was a second announcement, this time that Boehner was joining Squire Patton Boggs, one of the crown jewels of Washington's K Street lobbying nexus, with $25 million in federal lobbying revenue last year, described by Kate Ackley at the congressional newspaper Roll Call as "a global law firm that traces its roots to one of Washington's oldest and most prominent lobbying practices." She added that the shop "is also the professional home of several former Boehner congressional aides and to former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and Democratic ex-Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana."

That makes sense, for as the Center for Responsive Politics' OpenSecrets reports, Squire Patton Boggs "has long been a K Street revolving door hub, boasting a big concentration of former occupants of congressional office buildings. And it's no surprise to see that firm or others snatch up newly available former lawmakers, who can command the highest billing rates when clients ask for their help. Of the 75 House members and senators who left the Hill at the end of the 113th Congress, at least 48.8 percent went to work for lobbying firms."

With their knowledge of how Capitol Hill and the rest of Washington works, their vast lists of contacts and glad-handing expertise, these guys are paid top dollar. Boehner will doubtless make a million or more per year. In exchange, he and his colleagues will be pulling strings for their supper on behalf of Squire Patton Boggs' impressive A list of clients: Amazon, Airbus, Walton Enterprises, Space X, Mars Inc., Nissan North America, Goldman Sachs, Royal Dutch Shell, AT&T and the People's Republic of China, among others.

Boehner already will be quite familiar with some of those customers. According to OpenSecrets, from 2009-12, AT&T was Boehner's top campaign donor, and Fortune reports that among other Squire Patton Boggs accounts, "the Las Vegas Sands casino corporation… gave Boehner $50,600 in 2014 and copper producer Freeport-McMoRan… gave the former Ohio lawmaker $40,800 the same year."

But Squire Patton Boggs and Boehner are quick to point out that he will NOT be a lobbyist. No, sir: Instead, their announcement news release proclaims that he's to be "a strategic advisor to clients in the US and abroad, and will focus on global business development."

This is, in a word, baloney. The worst-kept secret in Washington is the increasing number of lobbyists who call themselves anything but, making an end run around the regulations that require lobbyists to register with the government, as well as around rules Barack Obama put in place restricting the kinds of work lobbyists could do in his administration. American University historian James Thurber tells OpenSecrets, "There is a very easy way to define yourself as a strategic adviser or someone else who, quote, 'doesn't lobby…' and get away with this."

As Catherine Ho at The Washington Post recently wrote, "…The model of 'unregistered' lobbyists seeking to influence the government is likely here to stay unless the next president and Congress close loopholes that allow the practice to flourish."

Not likely. And so the Washington insiders like Boehner and his crowd have figured out yet another way to play the system -- sharpies milking millions from big business and government while casting aside the needs of the nation.

When John Boehner resigned his speakership, influenced, some said, by the unselfish sacrifice he witnessed during the pope's visit last year, he is said to have read to the Republican leadership the prayer of St. Francis. That's the one that begins, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace."

Instead, former Speaker Boehner has decided to make himself the instrument of plutocrats and special interests.

It's enough to make you weep.

Also see: Boehner Joins the Not-Quite-a-Lobbyist Ranks

Categories: Latest News

The Other Housing Crisis: Finding a Home in Rural America

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 21:00

Thirty percent of rural Americans have substandard housing -- and it's expensive. But some communities are finding ways to give low-income residents homes of their own. (Photo: Wayne Stadler)

For Debbie Green, purchasing a home was a dream come true. The 56-year-old resident of rural Elkins, West Virginia, suffers from five types of debilitating epileptic seizures, and had been renting a friend's mobile home at a discounted rate. Unable to work, she got by on monthly disability payments of about $900, but was still struggling to pay her utility bills. Sometimes, at the end of the month, she had only $4 in the bank and wondered if she would need to cut off the electricity or water.

Green's neurologist urged her to move into a larger home with a second room where a caretaker could stay -- a seemingly impossible doctor's order.

"The biggest part was completely not knowing anything about where would you go, what would you do, who would you talk to," she recounted. At a loss, she contacted the nearby Randolph Housing Authority to figure out how she could afford to purchase her own home without any savings.

Within months, Green had moved into a beautiful single-story house built by a local youth organization. Her monthly mortgage payments were about what she had paid for her friend's mobile home, and, with lower utility bills, she was finally putting money in the bank. This extraordinary turn of luck was made possible by federal funding and the Randolph Housing Authority, one of many organizations that are cropping up to fill the need for quality housing in depressed rural communities.

Elkins is one of many rural towns throughout the nation suffering from a housing shortage that remains largely invisible to the rest of the country. Although the population of about 7,000 has stabilized in recent years, it has declined over the past two decades, and the local economy is still recovering from the 2008 financial crisis. The homes available here are often old and rundown; there is little money to attract developers and few banks to lend mortgages. As a result, affordable, quality housing in Elkins is hard to come by.

The people most affected by the lack of good quality housing are low-income residents who can't afford mortgages with high-interest rates. And those who do own houses often make such low wages that they're unable to secure loans to repair their deteriorating homes.

About 21 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, according to the Housing Assistance Council. Nearly 30 percent of them reside in substandard housing with leaky roofs or inadequate plumbing. Rural families are more likely to be impoverished than the rest of the nation, and about half of them spend 50 percent of their monthly income on rent.

Homeownership is a crucial step to building wealth, but national banks that offer home loans to homebuyers are few and far between in rural areas. They have little incentive to serve low-income, low-density populations.

"Your choice is limited. You can imagine -- there aren't that many people in rural areas, and there certainly aren't enough banks," said David Dangler, director of the Rural Initiative at the affordable-housing advocacy group NeighborWorks America.

The dearth in affordable rural housing often corresponds with regional economic factors, Dangler said. In Elkins, for example, the disappearing coal industry has led to declining population and economic activity. In rural areas that serve as destination hubs for outdoor activities like hiking or skiing, the demand on housing has caused property values to skyrocket.

To complicate matters, between 2003 and 2014 the federal government slashed support to one of its rural low-income home loan programs by 88 percent. This program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Section 502 Direct Loan, subsidized housing for more than 2.1 million low-income rural families, offering interest rates as low as 1 percent.

When Green went to the Randolph Housing Authority in 2010 to ask about buying her first home, she wasn't optimistic. There's no way I could get a home, she thought. But through the help of federal funding and donated labor, she soon learned that she could.

Executive Director Karen Jacobson helped Green explore her options and the home loan process. The USDA rural development division financed her mortgage, and her one-story home was built by teenagers through YouthBuild, a national nonprofit organization in which low-income youth learn construction skills by building affordable housing for homeless and other low-income people.

After six months of construction, Green moved into her dream home, replete with a front porch, two bedrooms, a spacious living room, and kitchen. Now she even has money at the end of the month to get a haircut -- previously a luxury -- or to make an extra payment on the mortgage, which carries an interest rate of only 3 percent.

"It is just nicer than I would have ever expected," Green said with a hint of pride.

The Randolph Housing Authority has built about 300 single-family and multifamily housing units in the past 20 years. Jacobson said that working with one nonprofit to build housing and access subsidies and another to educate homebuyers has allowed them to address the area's housing shortage. They have plans to develop a health and wellness program to provide the area's aging population with in-home care, enabling them to live independently.

Across the country in northern California, another affordable-housing development and advocacy group is pioneering energy efficiency for low-income rural residents.

Spring Lake, a Mutual Housing California development in the town of Woodland, is the nation's first net-zero energy certified multifamily rental housing. It's also the only permanent year-round housing for agricultural workers in the country. Residents Jose Jimenez and Maria Virginia Gutierrez Jimenez are retired agricultural workers from Mexico who were having trouble finding an affordable apartment.

For nearly 20 years, the couple had lived with five other family members in a two-bedroom apartment in northern California. But as the kids in the apartment became adults, Jose and Maria finally reached their breaking points.

"The house was getting tight to live in and we needed to find a place," Maria said through a translator.

They heard about Spring Lake during an informational meeting and moved into their own apartment there about a year ago. Now they live among other agricultural workers who speak Spanish, and they can join recreational programs for seniors. There are also after-school programs, computer lending, even a bike share program and summer lunches.

"We have everything really well here," Jose said through a translator. The couple pay $300 for their apartment. The building's airtight construction, solar panels, and energy monitor help keep their utilities bill down to $10.

Mutual Housing's 19 developments serve over 3,000 residents on a $10.74 million annual budget, which comes from federal grants, state and federal tax credits, and rental payments from residents.

Rural dwellers in California face a unique set of obstacles in accessing affordable housing, because in 2013 the California Legislature dissolved a redevelopment law that had provided aid. Now these residents must rely on the state's cap-and-trade program to generate affordable-housing money for areas that reduce greenhouse gas emissions by increasing access to public transportation.

"The problem is that most small towns in rural areas don't have public transit," said Rachel Iskow, the executive director of Mutual Housing California. "Many don't even have buses. They certainly don't have high-speed transit, so they can't access those funds." Woodland, a mixed-income agricultural town, is one such area that Iskow said may not qualify for support.

Throughout the nation, the need for affordable housing is at an all-time high, according to the Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies 2016 report. The annual housing trends report shows that 11.4 million households pay over half of their income on rent, and prices are rising more than twice as fast as incomes. Without significant policy changes, the affordable-housing shortage is only expected to grow. Cost burdens are especially severe in rural areas as youth migrate to urban centers and those who remain can't shoulder the costs of essential services like housing or grocery stores.

Whereas the Appalachian town of Elkins has struggled to woo new developers in the aftermath of the coal industry, California's ever-rising cost of living is outpacing the wages of many low-income potential homebuyers. An increase in low-income seniors and low-wage jobs will only create a greater demand for housing development subsidies, Iskow warned.

At least in Spring Lake, the Jimenezes say that they've finally found a strong community that helps them feel at home. "We don't know what's going to happen in the future, but right now we're really happy," Jose said.

Categories: Latest News

GOP Attorneys General Held Private Meetings With Fossil Fuel Lobbyists on Exxon Investigation

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 21:00

(Photo: Mike Mozard; Edited: LW / TO)

Republican attorneys general held private, undisclosed meetings with fossil fuel industry lobbyists in July to coordinate on shielding ExxonMobil from scrutiny as the company faces an ongoing investigation over allegations that it intentionally misled the public and its own shareholders about evidence of climate change, according to an audio recording of the session obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy.

The meeting occurred at a July 2016 summit hosted by the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) in Colorado, and included representatives from the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) and the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), organizations which have previously received substantial funding from Exxon and the fossil fuel industry. At the summit, attorneys general including Luther Strange (R-AL) participated in a panel presentation titled "Climate Change Debate: How Speech is Being Stifled" alongside CEI Director Myron Ebell and AFPM President Chet Thompson.

This past June, thirteen Republican attorneys -- including AG Strange -- penned an open letter to their fellow attorneys general in the defense of Exxon and the oil and gas industry. During the discussion, AFPM President Chet Thompson thanked the attorneys general for their 'leadership' and 'support' in the investigations of oil companies, and asked for further assistance in blocking the EPA 'social cost of carbon' disclosure rules for the fossil fuel industry and halting the college divestment campaigns.

The Center for Media and Democracy has previously found that corporations can pay a premium rate RAGA membership fee of up to $125,000 for the privilege of holding private briefings with attorneys general and their staff, as well as attending the annual meeting. The conference provides ample opportunity for attorneys general to directly solicit campaign contributions from corporate representatives during private meetings, informal conversations and leisure activities -- like a golf tournament, zip lining, and a tour of the Olympic training center.

According to materials reviewed by CMD, since 2015 RAGA has received at least $100,000 from ExxonMobil, $350,000 from Koch Industries, $85,000 from Southern Company, $378,250 from the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), and $250,000 from Murray Energy. In total, fossil fuel interests, utilities and their trade groups have given more than $2.25 million to RAGA since 2015.

RAGA documents obtained by CMD:

Issue Panel Description Climate Change Debate How Free Speech is Being Stifled

RLDF 2016 Senior Staff Retreat Agenda

RAGA Summer 2016 Meeting Agenda

RLDF Email Correspondence and AG Draft Letter

Categories: Latest News

Central America: One Coup, Three Summits and the United States

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 21:00

President Obama promised a new era in US-Central American relations, but history keeps repeating itself. Following the 2009 military coup in Honduras, despite initial condemnation, the US quickly moved to normalize relations with a dubiously elected new regime.

A United States task force member refuels a Black Hawk helicopter in Puerto Castilla, Honduras, on March 15, 2012. (Photo: Tomas Munita / The New York Times)

In April 2009, newly inaugurated US President Obama told the fifth "Summit of the Americas" that a new era in US/Latin American relations was at hand. He called for hemispheric relationships "based on mutual respect and equality," and stated that we are "committed to combating [economic] inequality and creating prosperity from the bottom up.... Today, too many people in the Americas live in fear. We must not tolerate violence and insecurity, no matter where it comes from," Obama said, adding that, "We know that true security only comes with liberty and justice." In response to a press question about US actions in Bolivia, the president was emphatic: "I am absolutely opposed and condemn any efforts at violent overthrows of democratically elected governments, wherever it happens in the hemisphere." Many Latin Americans found hope in President Obama's election and in these words.

Just two months later, the president's declaration of a new era was put to the test. In Honduras, a military coup exiled the country's elected president José Manuel Zelaya and installed coup plotter Roberto Micheletti Baín as "temporary president." President Obama immediately denounced these moves, saying, "We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the democratically elected president there," and spoke of not wanting "to go back to a dark past." Nevertheless, the United States soon began to hedge on its condemnation, and a few months later, recognized the government and president chosen in a highly dubious election managed by the coup regime itself. After that point, our government strongly supported the return of Honduras to "normalcy" in its international relations.

Obama attended two more "Summits of the Americas" as US president. The sixth one was held in Colombia during April of 2012, and the long-frozen US policy toward Cuba was attacked from many sides. The presiding host, Colombia's Juan Manuel Santos Calderón, declared that Cuba's exclusion from the summit was an "anachronism that keeps us anchored to a Cold War era we came out of various decades ago." The United States, however, seemed determined to keep that anachronism in place, insisting that the government of Cuba (but not that of Honduras) had not been "democratically elected." As a result, the summit produced no final declaration, a number of nations threatened to boycott the next summit if Cuba was not invited, and the future of the whole process seemed in doubt.

At the seventh summit held in Panama City in April 2015 Cuba was present, invited by the host and despite its previous statements, the United States now had no objection. US/Cuba diplomatic relations would soon be restored and further moves toward normalization were on the way. Plenty of problems for hemispheric relations remained, but Cuban policy had been the worst one, the immovable object standing in the way of progress. And the best part was soon to come: the March 2016 "baseball summit" in Havana, where the Cuban national team played the Tampa Bay Rays, with presidents Obama and Raul Castro sitting side by side to watch. That was a moment to celebrate, when the dawn of a new era seemed possible.

Before the Honduran crisis of June 2009, the last Central American coup had taken place in El Salvador on October 15, 1979, when that nation's corrupt and repressive military ruler was replaced by a junta promising to bring fundamental reforms. The United States officially welcomed, rather than denounced, that changeover. But as in 2009, the reality of US policy quickly became more complicated and less principled than those early pronouncements suggested. The US supported the military over the democratic sectors, the reform movement failed and the nation suffered 11 years of brutal and disastrous civil war. It's important to compare the actual history of Washington's involvement to its rhetoric and a glance at the earlier history provides necessary perspective.

Honduras, 2009

Thirty years after the Salvadoran coup, the United States had a chance to find the right response to another coup. In April 2009, President Obama had spoken of a new era in US/Latin American relations, and very soon that declaration became a call for action. On June 28, 2009, some 100 Honduran soldiers surrounded the presidential residence in Tegucigalpa and captured President Manuel ("Mel") Zelaya. The president was taken at gunpoint to a military airbase and flown to the capital of Costa Rica, where he was left at the airport, still dressed in his pajamas. The National Assembly then installed its own leader, Roberto Micheletti, a top organizer of the coup, as the nation's de facto acting president.

The international reaction to the coup was highly negative. It was condemned by the United Nations, the European Union and the Organization of American States. Every country in the EU and in this hemisphere -- except the United States ­-- withdrew its ambassador from Honduras. President Obama promptly denounced it as "not legal" and implied that president Manuel Zelaya must be restored to office. But very soon, the United States' position became far less clear. One important indication was the US State Department's refusal to use the term "military coup," which would have required cutting off military aid. This refusal came despite a report from the US Embassy in Honduras that a military coup, without any legal justification, was exactly what had happened. The role of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was particularly duplicitous, as she recounts in her recent memoir Hard Choices; while the United States gave lip service to the nearly universal demand that President Zelaya should return to his position, Secretary Clinton was campaigning behind the scenes to make sure that that did not happen. A few months later, the United States completed its about-face and recognized the government and president chosen in a highly dubious election managed by the coup regime itself. The US reputation in Latin America, notably improved after President Obama's April speech, fell sharply.

Subsequently, Washington called for the return of Honduras to "normalcy" in its international relations, and pushed for that nation's readmission to the Organization of American States, which had suspended its membership after the coup. The US also maintained its close ties to the Honduran military. In the years since, conditions in Honduras have declined steeply: corruption and human rights abuses have mushroomed, drug trafficking has prospered and the nation has experienced the world's highest homicide rate. In 2014, these problems were manifested by an unprecedented wave of very young refugees who arrived at the US/Mexican border seeking asylum, driven by intolerable levels of violence and poverty. In March 2016, the murder of Honduran human rights and environmental defender Berta Cáceres highlighted an ongoing human rights disaster and brought calls from Congress for reassessing US policy, especially its military and police aid.

Why were the Honduran military and elite so eager to remove President Zelaya, even though his term in office would have ended in a few months? Very broadly, although Mel Zelaya was himself a wealthy landowner, he was promoting New Deal-like policies favoring the poorest citizens of the country. He canceled certain mining concessions, raised the minimum wage, and took other steps threatening the projects and profits of some of the wealthiest Hondurans and benefiting some of the impoverished majority. Zelaya planned to hold a popular vote on whether to convene a convention to rewrite Honduras's highly flawed constitution; this was apparently the last straw for the country's powerful elite. But why then did the United States, always claiming to support democracy, quickly come to terms with the military coup against him? Although the picture is still incomplete, there are indications: some US business interests felt threatened by Zelaya's reforms, his administration was developing closer relations with Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, and the US military seems to have feared the weakening of its Honduran alliance and loss of its bases in the country. For the majority of Hondurans, the coup and its aftermath ended their hopes for change.

"The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights," said President Obama in June 2009. He was talking about the repression of domestic protests in Iran. But a few days later in Honduras, respect for those rights disappeared, and the United States did very little to stand with the Honduran people who supported their deposed president.

In both El Salvador (1979) and Honduras (2009), a liberal US president failed to decisively back the democratic forces in a nation facing critical internal conflict. Worse, in both cases, the United States gave aid and comfort to anti-democratic elements. The similarity between the US acceptance of the Honduran coup and the Carter administration's failure in El Salvador (hugely compounded during the Reagan years) was all too evident, and a different approach toward the region remained an unfulfilled promise.

The United States and the Isthmus

The early decades of the 20th century saw many US military interventions and occupations in the region. To cite just one example, in 1903, US troops landed in Honduras for the first of what would be six interventions in 20 years. The United States showed no hesitation in enforcing American economic interests and imposing its version of order in what it considered its backyard.

Gen. Smedley Butler was an iconic leader and hero of the US Marine Corps; he received the Medal of Honor twice. Butler personally led many of those US operations in Central America. After retiring from the Corps, he did some drastic rethinking:

I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half-a-dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

The correctness of Gen. Butler's bitter assessment of his military service can be debated, but not the reality of the many US military interventions in the Caribbean region. They remain part of the legacy of US/Central American relations.

Soon after 1930, there was a change. The "Good Neighbor Policy" is usually identified with Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency, although the term had also been used by his predecessors. In practice, during the Roosevelt years, it meant the end of direct US military interventions in the region. Influence and pressure continued by other means, principally economic and diplomatic, and US interests did not noticeably suffer.

Nor did the United States pay much attention to democracy in relating to its Central American neighbors. A famous story, whether or not it is literally true, illustrates this attitude. In May 1939 Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio "Tachito" Somoza DeBayle made an extravagant visit to Washington and to the New York World's Fair. On the eve of the visit, President Roosevelt is alleged to have had this exchange:

"Somoza?" the president asks his secretary of state, Cordell Hull. "Isn't that fellow supposed to be a son of a bitch?" To which Hull replies, "Yes, but he's our son of a bitch."

In other versions, Roosevelt made the statement himself. Whoever said it, that statement was accurate; the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, lasting from 1936 until his assassination in 1956, was the direct result of the long US military intervention (1912-33) in Nicaragua and the creation of the National Guard with Somoza as its head. After the patriarch's death, his two sons governed in turn until a popular uprising in 1979 -- not a coup! -- ended the Somoza dynasty forever.

During World War II, it was natural for the United States to maintain close relations with Central America's militaries and to supply substantial quantities of US arms. Those weapons never saw action against German or Japanese forces, but some of them eventually found use in interregional conflicts, such as the brief "soccer war" of 1969 between El Salvador and Honduras. Their most important function, however, has been to help governments in the region maintain control over their own citizens.

After 1945, the Cold War replaced the hot one as the major US security concern. The enemies in this hemisphere were now perceived to be not invading armies, but popular movements and leftist political parties, whose members (with few exceptions) were local people protesting miserable conditions of life. In general, the United States continued its wartime alliance with military institutions and governments of the right. The "good neighbor policy" was evidently no longer in effect since the US intervened directly with its own armed forces in several cases: Dominican Republic (1965); Grenada (1983); Panama (1989). Usually, however, covert subversion (Guatemala in 1954) and the use of proxy forces (Cuba in 1961; Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s; Haiti repeatedly; and others) were preferred. If being a "good neighbor" meant at least nonintervention, that policy was a thing of the past.

In the later years of the century, US presidents used differing slogans to characterize their approaches to Central America. In the 1960s, John F. Kennedy introduced the "Alliance for Progress" as his trademark in the region; the Alliance consisted of sometimes helpful economic and trade policies coupled with "security" assistance aimed at preventing leftist parties or movements from gaining power. "Not allowing another Cuba" became the basic principle of US policy, justifying subversion and terrorism against popular movements and left-leaning governments throughout the hemisphere. After Kennedy's assassination, the Vietnam War occupied US attention and the economic side of the Alliance dwindled -- but the support for right-wing, anti-communist governments and parties continued unabated during the Johnson and Nixon years.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Those last two coups were, in a sense, opposites: one intended to promote reforms and the other to stop them, but the US reactions to them were disturbingly similar. Both coups took place with liberal Democratic presidents in the White House, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. Both men advocated respect for human rights and democracy, and asserted that United States policy supported those ideals. In both cases, the initial US reaction expressed by the president was consistent with that claim.

In El Salvador, the US welcomed the end of an illegitimate, repressive military regime and the prospect of major reforms favoring the majority of the people; while 30 years later, President Obama condemned the violent ouster of the elected president of Honduras and called for restoration of the "legal order." In both cases, the United States seemed at first to take steps in support of those declarations. But this country did not speak or act consistently. Both times, parts of the administration and sectors of the military and intelligence institutions, plus influential members of Congress, preferred the old or the conservative order and worked successfully to undermine the initial statements from the US government. In both cases, the principled response was quickly compromised, in practice if not in rhetoric.

"When I came to my first Summit of the Americas six years ago, I promised to begin a new chapter of engagement in this region" Obama recalled at the most recent summit in Panama, failing to mention that the US embrace of the 2009 Honduran coup a few months later had made that promise look hollow. And now, he insisted in 2015, "the United States will not be imprisoned by the past." Could that be true? Continuing close US ties with corrupt and undemocratic Honduras casts a dark shadow.

Other U.S disagreements with Latin America, such as the "war on drugs," remain and the Obama administration inexplicably created a new problem by its Executive Order of March 9, 2015. That order absurdly declared that the troubled situation in Venezuela created "an extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States," and imposed sanctions against some of the country's leaders. Nevertheless, the new relationship between the US and Cuba, so long overdue, does offer hope for progress in our region.

"In keeping with the Inter-American Democratic Charter, we continue to stand up strongly for democracy and human rights," President Obama said. A nice idea. If and when this country's policies actually match such declarations, the United States may at last become a "good neighbor."

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Trump Touts Drilling's Potential, Botches Facts, at Shale Industry Conference

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 08:55

The shale gas and oil industry gathered in Pittsburgh last week for a major annual East Coast conference, Shale Insight 2016, and to hear the words of presidential candidate Donald Trump, who served as the keynote speaker.

"It's great to be with so many of my friends," Trump began. "Oh, you will like me so much."

Then, right out of the gate, Trump botched his facts about the shale industry he was there to address.

"Do you know all of my life, that business has never had problems, but in the last seven or eight years, it's been tough," he said. "With the EPA, with all of the difficulties you're going through."

As other speakers at the conference had noted, about eight years ago, the Marcellus shale industry barely existed -- and the last seven or eight years have seen the industry's highest peaks, not just its recent lows. In fact, 2008 was the year that Prof. Terry Engelder first made national headlines by claiming that the Marcellus might theoretically contain trillions of cubic feet of gas, sparking one of the nation's largest shale drilling land rushes.

And while many in the oil industry have expressed displeasure with the EPA, the industry's current downturn is generally blamed on plunging oil and gas prices in the US and worldwide, not on regulations.

These facts aside, Trump seemed to assume -- in many cases, rightly, judging by the periodic applause from the audience -- that he was among friends.

"You are going to like Donald Trump," he told the crowd of shale executives, "and all of the workers that get put to work, they're going to love Donald Trump."

But many of those workers themselves seemed to disagree. The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 66 pulled its regular $10,000 sponsorship from the Shale Insight conference over Trump's appearance. "There’s just no way that I was going to associate Local 66 with any function that gives this guy an avenue to speak," Jim Kunz, the union's business manager, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

For the next 40 minutes or so, Trump's remarks continued much along these lines -- a mix of claims that failed to withstand fact checks, striking self-contradictions, and a general warmth toward the oil industry along with an inflated expectation of what that industry could achieve.

"America is sitting on a treasure trove of untapped energy," Trump told the crowd. "Some $50 trillion in shale energy, oil reserves and natural gas on federal lands, in addition to hundreds of years of coal energy reserves. It's all upside for this country."

For the gathered shale industry reps, delivering the $50 trillion that Mr. Trump projected would be quite a feat, given their recent track record.

Last year, the oil and gas industry's 50 largest companies generated a net loss of $111.99 billion dollars, more than enough to wipe out their total gains from the previous three years of operations combined, an Ernst and Young report published this year concluded.

This year's Shale Insight conference was strikingly smaller and less robust than events just a few years ago, reflecting an industry that has suffered layoffs, massive write-downs, and investigations for allegedly overstating the value of their oil and gas reserves (including a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into the country's largest oil company, ExxonMobil, that was announced just last week).

Trump suggested that the oil industry's troubles stemmed from over-regulation, saying that if he was elected, he would lift "the restrictions on American energy," which he predicted would create benefits including 500,000 new jobs -- every year.

Delivering those jobs would also be an extraordinary achievement, given that, according to data from the Energy Information Administration, the drilling industry managed to create a total of just 161,600 jobs from 2007 to 2012 -- several years when the shale rush was sweeping across the US -- and that many of those jobs have now been lost in recent layoffs.

Trump's remarks betrayed more fundamental misunderstandings of the oil industry.

"And remember, every energy dollar that isn't harvested here in America is harvested instead in a foreign country, often foreign countries not very friendly to us," he said, seeming to ignore the fact that oil and gas rock formations can only be drilled from the country where they are physically located.

"That not only means that we're sending our jobs to those countries," he said, "but it means that energy is being produced in foreign countries that lack our high environmental and conservation standards, which we want to keep."

"We're going to be cutting -- massively -- regulations," he added, shortly after saying he wanted to keep the very environmental and conservation standards that those regulations create.

It's the kind of dizzying logic that has caused many commentators to say they find Trump's beliefs difficult to pin down or inconsistent.

Rally, Protest Outside Shale Insight 2016

Outside the convention center, about 150 protesters gathered for a rally and march.

"It's not really about jobs, it's about money," said Erin Kramer, a protester and organizer with OnePittsburgh. "Trump illustrates that to a T -- with the package of that mass capitalism you also get a whole bunch of hate, a whole bunch of racial unrest and human rights violations."

Conference organizers indicated that Hillary Clinton was invited to attend, but told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that she declined, citing scheduling conflicts.

While Trump repeatedly called on the shale gas industry to help him get out the vote in November, before the event, it seemed he still had work to do to gain their enthusiastic support.

Within the Republican party, Trump has been an extraordinarily divisive figure, with many prominent Republicans refusing to endorse him. And when it comes to contributions from oilfield workers, Trump's reception from them has been notably muted.

"As of last week, Republican nominee Donald Trump raised a paltry $245,000 from individuals working in the oil and gas industry, according to figures provided by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics," NPR's State Impact recently reported. (By contrast, Mitt Romney raised $5.9 million from the oil and gas industry in 2012.)

In Pittsburgh, Trump arrived for his speech late, then kept the executives, who included top officials at major oil and gas companies, waiting as conference organizers informed the crowd that Trump was pausing to spend another several minutes giving an interview, rather than speaking to the hundreds of businesspeople and journalists there to hear him speak.

But once he arrived on stage, Trump tried hard to make his own support for the fossil fuel industry quite clear.

"Producing more American energy is a central part of my plan to make America wealthy again, especially for the poorest Americans," he said. "I knew I'd have to make that statement in order to get you guys a little bit enlivened. Oh well, you'll like the rest of what I've got to say even more."

Trump also used a significant portion of his time at the podium to comment on protests over the police killings of black Americans, and it was those remarks that drew the most attention from the national media. He decried recent protests in Charlotte, North Carolina, which were sparked by the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott, father of seven, who neighbors say was waiting for his son to arrive on a school bus.

Even before the police released video of that death, whose circumstances they've disputed, Trump had made up his mind about who he was behind. "The men and women in blue need your support," Trump told the crowd. "They need your thanks and they need your gratitude."

He seemed to suggest that Black Lives Matter protests were fueled not by anger over the police killings of black Americans, but by drugs. "And if you're not aware, drugs are a very, very big factor in what you're watching on television at night," Trump told the crowd.

Clinton supporters quickly seized on Trump's remarks, especially his comments disparaging the protests over police violence.

"Today, in a room full of oil executives, Trump blamed the Charlotte protests on 'drugs' and insinuated that his administration would have no 'compassion' when it comes to criminal justice," Brad Woodhouse, president of Correct The Record, which describes itself as "a pro-Hillary Clinton Super PAC," said in a statement. "Despite weeks of so-called outreach to communities of color, Trump today showed us who he really stands with: wealthy fossil fuel special interests."

To be sure, Trump was in Pittsburgh primarily to discuss another conflict -- the fight over the fate of the fossil fuel industry.

"It's war," Trump said. "And you people know it's war."

The stakes are indeed high. Climate scientists warn that if the world's remaining oil, gas, and coal are burned, the climate consequences would be extraordinarily catastrophic.

In an open letter last week, 375 members of the National Academy of Scientists, including Steven Hawking, issued a grave warning. "It is of great concern that the Republican nominee for President has advocated US withdrawal from the Paris Accord," the scientists wrote. "The consequences of opting out of the global community would be severe and long-lasting -- for our planet's climate and for the international credibility of the United States."

Trump made it clear that if he was elected, his administration would go further, repealing several measures aimed at curbing climate change. "We will eliminate the highly invasive 'waters of the US' [Clean Water Act] rule and scrap the $5 trillion Obama-Clinton climate action plan and the Clean Power Plan," he told the crowd.

Then he left the room to a standing ovation.

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Education Department Terminates Agency That Allowed Predatory For-Profit Colleges to Thrive

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 08:41

The Education Department announced last week that it is stripping the powers of one of the nation's largest accreditors of for-profit schools.

The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, or ACICS, has been under scrutiny for continuing to accredit colleges whose students had strikingly poor outcomes.

As ProPublica has reported, schools accredited by the agency on average have the lowest graduation rates in the country and their students have the lowest loan repayment rates.

Accreditors are supposed to ensure college quality, and their seal of approval gives schools access to billions of federal student aid dollars.

As we have also reported, two-thirds of ACICS commissioners -- who make the ultimate decisions about accreditation for schools -- were executives at for-profit colleges. Many of the commissioners worked at colleges that were under investigation.

Critics who've pointed to abuses by for-profit colleges celebrated last week's action.

"The rot from poor behavior spread beyond just the for-profit schools to the people who were supposed to be looking over them," said Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress. "This is an extremely important decision both in protecting students and taxpayers."

ACICS accredits over 200 colleges, which enroll an estimated 600,000 students. Schools accredited by ACICS received around $5 billion in federal student aid last year.

Two of the nation's largest chains of for-profit colleges -- Corinthian Colleges and ITT Educational Services -- both remained accredited by ACICS while facing multiple investigations from government agencies before they shut down.

"ACICS's track record does not inspire confidence," wrote Education Department Chief of Staff Emma Vadehra in a letter to the agency's chief executive last week.

Over the past few months, a growing chorus of critics have called on the Education Department to take action, including more than a dozen state attorneys general, over 20 consumer protection and advocacy groups, and members of Congress.

In June, the Education Department released a report on ACICS that raised 21 red flags, including about the agency's reticence to sanction bad schools and even to verify the accuracy of schools' metrics. The report also highlighted the agency's lack of policing potential conflict-of-interest issues of its own board.

ACICS has said it plans to appeal last week's decision to Education Secretary John King.

"While we are disappointed in this decision, ACICS plans to continue diligent efforts to renew and strengthen its policies and practices necessary to demonstrate this agency's determination to come into full compliance," said the agency's chief executive Roger Williams in a statement posted on the agency's website.

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A Strategy to Stop the Funding Behind the Dakota Access Pipeline

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 07:29

Chicagoans rallied in front of City Hall and then marched through the downtown to protest the Dakota Access pipeline, September 9, 2016. Virtually every name in the financial pantheon has extended credit in some form to the Dakota pipeline project. Sustained public pressure could help derail those loans. (Photo: Bob Simpson / Flickr)

Most Americans live far from the path of the Dakota Access pipeline -- they won't be able to visit the encampments on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation where representatives of more than 200 tribes have come together in the most dramatic show of force of this environmental moment. They won't be able to participate in the daily nonviolent battle along the Missouri River against a $3.7 billion infrastructure project that threatens precious water and myriad sacred sites, not to mention the planet's unraveling climate.

But most of us live near a bank.

Virtually every name in the financial pantheon has extended credit in some form to the Dakota pipeline project.

Maybe there's a Citibank branch in your neighborhood. Or Wells Fargo or Bank of America or HSBC. Maybe you even keep your money in one -- if so, you inadvertently helped pay for the guard dogs that attacked Native Americans as they tried to keep bulldozers from mowing down ancestral grave sites.

Maybe you have a retirement plan invested with Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley -- if so, you helped buy the pepper spray that the company used to clear the way for its crews as they cleared the right of way straight to the Missouri River.

Perhaps you bank overseas. Credit Agricole? Deutsche Bank? Sumitomo? Royal Bank of Scotland? Barclays? Yeah, them too. 

In fact, virtually every name in the financial pantheon has extended credit in some form to the Dakota pipeline project, according to a remarkable dossier assembled by the organization Food and Water Watch. It shows a credit line of $10.25 billion (that's a b) for the companies directly involved in building the project -- from 38 banks -- a list of names that, the group adds, "might give you flashbacks to the 2007 financial crisis." 

Image used with permission © Food & Water Watch / foodandwaterwatch.org.

Sporadic protests have begun at some of the banks -- activists occupied a Vancouver branch of TD Bank and across the continent in Philadelphia held a protest outside another of the giant's outlets. The same thing happened at a Citibank in downtown Chicago.

"It's unlikely that Citibank customers support poisoning indigenous peoples' water, desecrating sacred burial sites, or contributing to global climate change," said Gloria Fallon of Rising Tide Chicago. Which is true.

But banks love these kinds of deals precisely because they're so capital-intensive. (And because they're financially stacked in favor of the developers: Federal tax breaks worth more than $600 million helped make the balance sheet for Dakota Access).

The key Dakota Access loan, says Rainforest Action Network's Amanda Starbuck, is still pending. It's a multibillion-dollar line of credit, but only $1.1 billion of the loan can be doled out until the company "resolves certain governmental permits." Citi, Mizuho, Bank of Tokyo MUFJ, and Mizuho Bank are leaders on that loan. 

Banks love these kinds of deals precisely because they're so capital-intensive.

Many of these banks may be vulnerable to pressure. For one thing, they're eager to appear green: Bank of America, for instance, recently announced plans to make all its bank branches "carbon-neutral" by 2020. Which is nice -- solar panels on the roof of the drive-thru tellers are better than no solar panels. But as Starbuck said, it's basically meaningless stacked up against Bank of America's lending portfolio, chock full of loans to develop "extreme fossil fuels, which are simply incompatible with a climate-stable world."

Put another way: They're going to be the vegan owners of a global chain of slaughterhouses.

RAN's numbers make clear just how mammoth this problem is for those of us fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground: In June, it reported that just 25 banks have invested "$784 billion in coal mining, coal power, 'extreme oil' and liquefied natural gas facilities between 2013 and 2015." But there are success stories: Australian campaigners, led by indigenous groups downunder and working with campaigners across three continents, persuaded most of the world's banks to stop bankrolling plans for what would have been the world's largest coal mine and port, and in turn that has helped bring the project to a standstill.

The pressure will increase after this week's release of a new report from Oil Change International, which makes clear that the oil fields, gas wells, and coal mines already in operation have enough carbon to carry us past the 2-degree target the world set in Paris a year ago (and to absolutely annihilate the stretch goal of 1.5 degrees).

That is to say: At this point anyone who finances any fossil fuel infrastructure is attempting to make money on the guaranteed destruction of the planet.

So those Dakota Access loans should come under new scrutiny -- moral, as well as financial -- since they assume that governments won't enforce their Paris promises. That's a gamble accountants might want to think twice about, especially after this week's news that the SEC was investigating Exxon for its refusal to write down the value of its reserves in light of the global accords.

It's probably sustained public pressure that will do the most good.

And at least one bank is waking up. Amalgamated -- the New York-based, labor-affiliated bank -- announced jointly with Bank of America that it would make its branches carbon neutral. More significantly, it also announced it was divesting from the fossil fuel business. "We need to be honest, we have a growing environmental crisis unfolding and Amalgamated Bank will no longer sit on the sideline," said Keith Mestrich, President and CEO of Amalgamated Bank. "As an industry that prides itself on innovation and bold action, we must all be leaders and take real action to change our course."

Put another way: They're vegans who will now be lending to tofu makers.

But it's probably sustained public pressure that will do the most good.

"Oil companies are always going to drill for oil and build pipelines -- it's why they exist," says RAN's Scott Parkin. "But the banks funding this pipeline have a choice as to where they put their money. Right now, Citibank, TD Bank, and others have chosen to invest in a project that violates indigenous rights and destroys the climate."

Parkin points to the protests that have already sprung up at dozens of banks from D.C. to New Orleans to Tucson to Long Beach to the Bronx. "We have the power to derail that loan with a different kind of currency," he said. "Putting our bodies on the line at any financial institution that says 'Dakota Access Pipeline, we're open for business.'"

And if anyone has any doubts that civil disobedience can be useful, remember how the amazing activists at Standing Rock forced the federal government to blink, pausing construction earlier this month. Their nonviolent leadership has inspired all of us -- and it should have sent a shiver down the spine of a few bankers. 

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The 9/11 Families Deserve Their Day in Court Against Saudi Arabia

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 07:12

Medea Benjamin, of the CODEPINK protest group speaks to witnesses at a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on the US's counterterrorism relationship with Saudi Arabia, on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 24, 2016. (Photo: Zach Gibson / The New York Times)

This week the House and Senate are expected to vote on whether to override the president's veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terror Act (JASTA). JASTA would allow 9/11 families to sue Saudi Arabia over allegations Saudi officials were linked to the 9/11 attacks. The bill makes no judgment about Saudi Arabia's responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. It just removes Saudi Arabia's immunity from lawsuit over support for terrorist attacks on US soil. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both support the bill.

Under current US law, Americans can sue Iran for terrorism in US courts, but they can't sue Saudi Arabia for terrorism in US courts, because Iran is on the State Department's "state sponsor of terror" list and Saudi Arabia is not. The State Department is allowed to take "broader US foreign policy interests" besides concern about support for terrorism into account in forming its list -- like the Saudi government's cozy relationship with the CIA.

In January, The New York Times reported that:

"The support for the Syrian rebels is only the latest chapter in the decades-long relationship between the spy services of Saudi Arabia and the United States, an alliance that has endured through the Iran-contra scandal, support for the mujahedeen against the Soviets in Afghanistan and proxy fights in Africa. Sometimes, as in Syria, the two countries have worked in concert. In others, Saudi Arabia has simply written checks underwriting American covert activities ...

"... the long intelligence relationship helps explain why the United States has been reluctant to openly criticize Saudi Arabia for its human rights abuses, its treatment of women and its support for the extreme strain of Islam, Wahhabism, that has inspired many of the very terrorist groups the United States is fighting."

To The Times' list of things that the US has been reluctant to criticize Saudi Arabia for because of the CIA's cozy relationship with the Saudi government, we can add targeting civilians in Yemen with US weapons in violation of US law. Last week, 27 senators voted against sending more weapons to Saudi Arabia to use against civilians in Yemen. Why didn't more senators vote against sending more weapons to the Saudis? In part, because "the Saudis are our friends," which really means, "because the Saudis are the CIA's friends."

If you think there should be one standard for judging governments on support of terrorism, regardless of how cozy the government in question is with the CIA, why not call your representative and urge them to vote to override the veto so the 9/11 families can have their day in court? Or, if you can't call, you could send your representative an email.

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Russian-Born Oil Magnate Gives Big to Trump Victory

Mon, 09/26/2016 - 21:00

Donald Trump has an interesting relationship with Russia, to say the least. He's praised Vladimir Putin. His former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, had business dealings with pro-Russia leaders in Ukraine. US intelligence officials are investigating whether one of Trump's foreign policy advisers met with senior Russia officials to discuss lifting economic sanctions in the event of a Trump presidency.

Here's another tie: Simon Grigorievich Kukes, former chief executive of a now-defunct Russian oil company once owned by the government, who contributed more than $150,000 to Trump's campaign and joint fundraising committee, Trump Victory. This is the first election cycle he has contributed, according to FEC documents. Kukes gave $2,700 directly to Trump's campaign in March, and then a total of $149,000 to Trump Victory in June and July; another $2,700 of that went to Trump directly, while the remainder was divided between the Republican National Committee's main account, its convention account and its headquarters account.

Kukes headed Yukos Corp. for a year starting in June 2003, replacing Putin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the wealthiest man in Russia at the time. In what was widely seen as a political prosecution, Khodorkovsky was charged with fraud and sent to prison for 10 years. An international court ruled in 2014 that Putin's government would have to pay $50 billion for using tax claims to take control of and bankrupt Yukos. The court said the government was trying to silence Khodorkovsky, who was using his riches to fund opposition parties to Putin.

Born in the then-USSR, Kukes immigrated to the US in his twenties and became an American citizen, but has gone back and forth between Russia and the US since then. Kukes served as president and CEO of Russia's Tyumen Oil Company from 1998 to 2003. After his stint at Yukos, he was general director of ZAO Samara-Nafta, a Russia-based oil producing company and subsidiary of Lukoil, one of Russia's largest oil companies, and was a partner at Hess Corporation, a New York-based oil and gas company.

Although he listed his occupation as "retired" in FEC documents, Kukes appears to be busy:

He's CEO of NAFTA Consulting, a firm that advises American and Russian oil and gas companies on how to do business together. And he's also on the board of Leverate, an on-demand software company for foreign exchange brokers. 

Kukes has another link with Trump: He bought a five-room condominium at Trump Parc in Midtown West for $1.7 million in 2000, according to the Observer, (which is published by Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law.)

Trump isn't the only beneficiary of Kukes' funds: He also contributed the max to Elizabeth Cheney's campaign for Wyoming's congressional seat in June. Cheney is the daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney.

Neither Kukes nor the Trump campaign had responded to requests for comment at the time of publication.

Correction, Sept. 27: This post has been corrected to say that Simon Kukes is a former partner at Hess Oil, not a current partner. We regret the error.

Research director Sarah Bryner contributed to this post.

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Expanding the Debate: Jill Stein Spars With Clinton and Trump (Part 2)

Mon, 09/26/2016 - 21:00

On Monday night, the two major-party candidates squared off for the first presidential debate. It was one of the most anticipated debates in US history. Ahead of the event, TV network executives predicted as many as 100 million people across the United States would tune in. Many more also watched from around the world, including across Asia, Europe and in Latin America. But these viewers did not see any third-party candidates on stage. So, in a Democracy Now! broadcast special, we invited Dr. Jill Stein to respond to the same questions posed to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Please check back later for full transcript.

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Expanding the Debate: Jill Stein "Debates" Clinton and Trump (Part 1)

Mon, 09/26/2016 - 21:00

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton faced off Monday night in one of the most anticipated debates in US history. The debate was held at Hofstra University on Long Island and moderated by NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt. Throughout the 90-minute, often antagonistic, debate, Clinton and Trump sparred on everything from foreign policy to trade deals to personal stamina. But third-party candidates, including Libertarian Gary Johnson and the Green Party's Jill Stein, were excluded from the debate stage under stringent rules set by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which is controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties. For more, we air excerpts from the presidential debate and get response from Green Party presidential nominee Dr. Jill Stein.

Please check back later for full transcript.

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