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Coca-Cola Sucks Wells Dry in Chiapas, Forcing Residents to Buy Water

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 21:00

In Zinacantán, a Tzotzil indigenous community outside San Cristobal, Coca-Cola is widely sold during the festival for the town's patron saint, San Jerónimo. (Photo: Martha Pskowski)

While nearby Indigenous communities go thirsty, a Coca-Cola bottling plant outside San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, consumes over a million liters of water per day. Public health experts say this is just one of many cases in Mexico where corporate water consumption has taken precedence over local need and the Mexican government is violating the human right to water.

In Zinacantán, a Tzotzil indigenous community outside San Cristobal, Coca-Cola is widely sold during the festival for the town's patron saint, San Jerónimo. (Photo: Martha Pskowski)

The water is disappearing in San Felipe Ecatepec, an Indigenous town three miles outside of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, in southern Mexico.

People sometimes walk two hours a day to get water. Others have to buy their water.

"In the past four years, our wells have started drying up," says Juan Urbano, who just finished a three-year term this February as the president of the Communal Territory of San Felipe Ecatepec. "People sometimes walk two hours a day to get water. Others have to buy their water."

Where is all the water going?

In between San Felipe and San Cristobal lies a Coca-Cola bottling plant, operated by the Mexican company FEMSA. The plant consumed over 1.08 million liters of water per day in 2016.

In Zinacantán, a Tzotzil indigenous community outside San Cristobal, Coca-Cola is widely sold during the festival for the town's patron saint, San Jerónimo. (Photo: Martha Pskowski)

Urbano, 57, explains that the urban growth of San Cristobal has gradually eaten up agricultural lands in San Felipe. He is part of a shrinking number of people in the community that still grow corn, beans and squash on plots of land passed down for generations, and drink pozol, a drink made from fermented corn dough.

"Many people don't drink pozol anymore," Urbano laments. "They've replaced it with Coca-Cola."

San Felipe Ecatepec is one of thousands of towns across Mexico where corporate water consumption has taken precedence over local need. Advocates are scrambling to rein in a chain of public health consequences.

Government Is Failing on Constitutional Right

In Zinacantán, a Tzotzil indigenous community outside San Cristobal, Coca-Cola is widely sold during the festival for the town's patron saint, San Jerónimo. (Photo: Martha Pskowski)

Chiapas has the highest renewable water resources per capita in all of Mexico. Yet, the tap water here is rarely safe to drink. And in rural Chiapas, more than one in three people do not have running water. Urbano describes how families in San Felipe frequently get sick from drinking contaminated well water.

"We have been asking the government to install a deep well in the community for 12 years," says Urbano. "We've gone to the municipal, state and federal governments, but they've done nothing."

Article 115 of the Mexican Constitution requires all municipal governments to provide potable water, suitable for drinking and bathing, along with drainage, sewage and wastewater treatment systems. Despite the government's responsibility, most Mexicans do not have safe drinking water in their homes. Each Mexican household buys on average 1,500 liters of bottled water a year.

Antonino García, an agronomist and researcher at Chapingo University's San Cristobal campus, says that the water problem in San Cristobal has historic roots. 

The Coca-Cola-FEMSA bottling plant on the outskirts of San Cristobal produces 5 to 7% of Coca-Cola products sold in Mexico. (Photo: Martha Pskowski)

"The city has been growing significantly since the 1970s," he says in an interview at his office, which has a view of Huitepec mountain, where Coca-Cola extracts its water. "But in San Cristobal, there was no urban planning. And that's been aggravated by public policies that don't pay attention to the Indigenous people of the state."

Looking at San Cristobal's geography, its haphazard organization becomes obvious. As the valley floor has filled with homes, new neighborhoods slowly have climbed up the surrounding hillsides. García explains that groundwater is no longer enough to feed the city, and that Huitepec is the watershed's most important subterranean supply.

Salmonella is now an endemic problem in San Cristobal. A study at the research university ECOSUR found that water in the local wetlands has high levels of bacterial pathogens, including coliforms, which make it unsafe for consumption.

García says the water shortages and contamination are becoming worse with climate change. The rainy season, which lasts from May to October, is not as consistent as in the past. San Felipe isn't the only community where wells are running dry. Urbano says other communities near the Coca-Cola plant, such as Los Alcanfores, are also suffering water shortages. Community leaders in the town of Teopisca, 20 miles east of San Cristobal, reached out to García when their wells dried up this year.

On the night of September 7, an 8.2 magnitude earthquake hit off the coast of Chiapas. Over 90 people were killed in Chiapas, Oaxaca and Tabasco. While San Cristobal was not one of the hardest-hit cities, three people died in informal neighborhoods in the north of the city. The impacts of the earthquake on water infrastructure are still being assessed.

García says numerous pipes broke, interrupting water access. "Surely the earthquake damaged underground caves in the aquifer, which could impact aquifer recharge in the future," says García. "But a study to assess that type of damage would be very costly, and we just don't have the information right now."

Coca-Cola in the Highlands of Chiapas

The church in the town square of San Felipe Ecatepec, just up the hill from the Coca-Cola bottling plant. (Photo: Martha Pskowski)

While local communities struggle to secure water, for Coca-Cola, there is no shortage of water. The bottling plant opened in 1994, the same year the Zapatista uprising put Chiapas in the global spotlight. While the Zapatistas organized in the mountains surrounding San Cristobal, FEMSA began pumping water from Huitepec mountain. The National Water Commission (Conagua) renewed the permit in 2005, and FEMSA now operates two wells.

For Coca-Cola, there is no shortage of water ... it uses 56.9 billion liters of water a year in its operations across Latin America.

In Mexico, lax government regulation, fueled by the revolving door between government and industry, helped FEMSA become Coca-Cola's most important bottler worldwide. Vicente Fox was president of Coca-Cola FEMSA Mexico before being elected Mexican president in 2000.

FEMSA reports that it uses 56.9 billion liters of water a year in its operations across Latin America. In Mexico, the company holds 40 water permits.

Civil society organizations published the Report on Violations of Human Right to Drinking Water and Sanitation in Mexico, this year, which called out Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Danone for profiting off Mexico's water resources without paying fairly. The report states that the water fees the companies pay "are completely ridiculous compared to the profits that these companies make off the water." They report that FEMSA pays 2,600 pesos ($146 USD) for each of its water permits in Mexico.

FEMSA funds reforestation and rain water catchment projects, which the company says "replenish" the same amount of water that is used in Coca-Cola production. A FEMSA representative in Mexico City told Truthout that the reforestation program in Chiapas has planted more than 129,000 trees.

However, water catchment and reforestation in other parts of the state have not brought back the well water in San Felipe Ecatepec. García sees a direct link between the deep wells of the bottling plant, and the nearby water shortages.

"Imagine each well is a straw going down into the earth. If the Coca-Cola straw is much longer than the straws the communities have, their wells will eventually run out," he says. Juan Urbano says the deepest wells in San Felipe are around 25 meters. FEMSA's wells are 130 meters deep.

Coca-Cola extracts water from under Huitepec Mountain. Part of the mountain is a nature reserve managed by the Mexican NGO Pronatura, which also works with Coca-Cola on conservation projects. (Photo: Martha Pskowski)

Urbano says that FEMSA representatives have never reached out to his community to address the water problem.

A FEMSA representative told Truthout that the San Cristobal bottling plant produces between 5 percent and 7 percent of the Coke products consumed in Mexico. The company declined to specify how much it pays for the water extracted in San Cristobal.

The Chiapas branch of Conagua confirmed to Truthout that the company has permits for two wells to extract a total of 499,918 cubic meters of water per year, or 499.9 million liters. In 2016, the company extracted 78.8 percent of the permitted total.

The water situation in Chiapas has attracted international attention. Léo Heller, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, visited Chiapas this year. In a press conference on May 12, he said he collected sufficient evidence to prove that Mexico is violating the human right to water and sanitation.

The civil society Report on Violations of Human Right to Drinking Water and Sanitation in Mexico includes dozens of case studies to prove how corporate water use is prioritized over the human right to water. The report also shows how the poorest Mexicans have the least access to water and sanitation services.

Advocates Call for More Water, Less Coke

Beyond Coca-Cola's insatiable thirst for Mexican groundwater, advocates have called out the company's role in the country's health crisis.

During decades working in Chiapas as a doctor, Marcos Arana found that water access issues were at the heart of public health problems in the state's Indigenous communities. "If communities had access to clean water, many health issues in Chiapas would improve," he tells Truthout.

"In many cases, children with malnutrition have access to food. But due to dirty water, they develop gastrointestinal problems and cannot eat properly or absorb nutrients," he says, echoing what Juan Urbano described in San Felipe Ecatepec. He also saw that soda was replacing traditional beverages like pozol, and in some communities, soda was even cheaper than water.

Meanwhile, public health organizations, such as El Poder del Consumidor (Consumer Power), based in Mexico City, have argued that soda consumption was contributing to Mexico's soaring diabetes and obesity rates. According to the 2012 National Health and Nutrition survey, diabetes is the leading cause of death in Mexico and affects 13 million people. Another study found that one in six diabetes cases could be directly linked to soda consumption.

In response, advocates like El Poder del Consumidor and Arana campaigned for a soda tax in Mexico. They succeeded against the odds, and it went into effect in January 2014. While the tax is lower than advocates had recommended, it equals 10 percent the cost of the beverage, or roughly one peso per liter.

After the tax was enacted, soda sales fell by 5.5 percent in 2014 and 9.7 percent in 2015. Following Mexico's lead, US cities, such as Philadelphia and San Francisco, have passed similar measures.

However, soda companies aren't backing away. Fiorella Espinosa is a nutritionist at Poder del Consumidor and says that companies have introduced new marketing campaigns to cope with the tax and sway public opinion. Plus, soda companies are more aggressively marketing bottled water, and bottled water sales have gone up.

"The tax alone won't solve the problem," Espinosa says. "The long-term strategy is to increase access to safe drinking water and drinking fountains."

The federal government reports that funds from the tax have been used to install 11,000 water fountains in schools. Advocates are pushing for the remaining funds to be used for health programs for low-income communities that the price increase hits hardest.

Espinosa points out that in some cases, companies are not passing the tax along to the consumer. A study published in 2016 found that in rural Mexico, soda prices only went up 0.73 pesos per liter, instead of the full 1 peso required by law. This finding suggests that in places like rural Chiapas, soda companies could be subsidizing the cost of the tax to keep prices low. 

The long-term impacts of the tax remain to be seen, but a study predicted that during the next decades, the reduction in soda consumption will prevent between 86,000 and 189,000 cases of diabetes.

While public health arguments have kept Coca-Cola on the defensive in Mexico's Congress, the company's unlimited refills of Chiapas groundwater are also facing local opposition.

Local Outrage at Coca-Cola

A storefront in San Cristobal selling 20-liter jugs of filtered water. (Photo: Martha Pskowski)

In April, local nonprofits and neighborhood organizations held a protest outside the Coca-Cola bottling plant in San Cristobal de las Casas. The 1,500 protestors denounced Coca-Cola's water consumption and health impacts.   

Arana says that ongoing citizen pressure is working. Coca-Cola previously had billboards in Indigenous communities around San Cristobal, such as San Juan Chamula, showing men and women in traditional dress with Coca-Cola bottles. They have now taken down the billboards.

"They're changing their strategy," says Arana. "They're worried about all the criticisms."

In San Felipe Ecatepec, Juan Urbano doubts the current Mexican government will help the community with its water problems. Instead, community leaders are taking part in the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), affiliated with the Zapatistas, to highlight Indigenous concerns during next year's presidential elections.

Categories: Latest News

I Was an Exxon-Funded Climate Scientist

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 21:00

ExxonMobil's deliberate attempts to sow doubt on the reality and urgency of climate change and their donations to front groups to disseminate false information about climate change have been public knowledge for a long time, now.

Investigative reports in 2015 revealed that Exxon had its own scientists doing its own climate modeling as far back as the 1970s: science and modeling that was not only accurate, but that was being used to plan for the company's future. 

Now, a peer-reviewed study published August 23 has confirmed that what Exxon was saying internally about climate change was quantitatively very different from their public statements. Specifically, researchers Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes found that at least 80 percent of the internal documents and peer-reviewed publications they studied from between 1977 and 2014 were consistent with the state of the science -- acknowledging that climate change is real and caused by humans, and identifying "reasonable uncertainties" that any climate scientist would agree with at the time. Yet over 80 percent of Exxon's editorial-style paid advertisements over the same period specifically focused on uncertainty and doubt, the study found.

The stark contrast between internally discussing cutting-edge climate research while externally conducting a climate disinformation campaign is enough to blow many minds. What was going on at Exxon?

I have a unique perspective -- because I was there. 

From 1995 to 1997, Exxon provided partial financial support for my master's thesis, which focused on methane chemistry and emissions. I spent several weeks in 1996 as an intern at their Annandale research lab in New Jersey and years working on the collaborative research that resulted in three of the published studies referenced in Supran and Oreskes' new analysis.

Climate Research at Exxon

A scientist is a scientist no matter where we work, and my Exxon colleagues were no exception. Thoughtful, cautious and in full agreement with the scientific consensus on climate -- these are characteristics any scientist would be proud to own.

Did Exxon have an agenda for our research? Of course -- it's not a charity. Their research and development was targeted, and in my case, it was targeted at something that would raise no red flags in climate policy circles: quantifying the benefits of methane reduction.

Methane is a waste product released by coal mining and natural gas leaks; wastewater treatment plants; farting and belching cows, sheep, goats and anything else that chews its cud; decaying organic trash in garbage dumps; giant termite mounds in Africa; and even, in vanishingly small amounts, our own lactose-intolerant family members. 

On a mass basis, methane absorbs about 35 times more of the Earth's heat than carbon dioxide. Methane has a much shorter lifetime than carbon dioxide gas, and we produce a lot less of it, so there's no escaping the fact that carbon has to go. But if our concern is how fast the Earth is warming, we can get a big bang for our buck by cutting methane emissions as soon as possible, while continuing to wean ourselves off carbon-based fuels long-term.

For the gas and oil industry, reducing methane emissions means saving energy. So it's no surprise that, during my research, I didn't experience any heavy-handed guidance or interference with my results. No one asked to review my code or suggested ways to "adjust" my findings. The only requirement was that a journal article with an Exxon co-author pass an internal review before it could be submitted for peer review, a policy similar to that of many federal agencies.

Did I know what else they were up to at the time? I couldn't even imagine it. 

Fresh out of Canada, I was unaware that there were people who didn't accept climate science -- so unaware, in fact, that it was nearly half a year before I realized I'd married one -- let alone that Exxon was funding a disinformation campaign at the very same time it was supporting my research on the most expedient ways to reduce the impact of humans on climate.

Yet Exxon's choices have contributed directly to the situation we are in today, a situation that in many ways seems unreal: one where many elected representatives oppose climate action, while China leads the U.S. in wind energysolar powereconomic investment in clean energy and even the existence of a national cap and trade policy similar to the ill-fated Waxman-Markey bill of 2009.

Personal Decisions

This latest study underscores why many are calling on Exxon to be held responsible for knowingly misleading the public on such a critical issue. For scientists and academics, though, it may fuel another, different, yet similarly moral debate. 

Are we willing to accept financial support that is offered as a sop to the public conscience? 

The concept of tendering literal payment for sin is nothing new. From the indulgences of the Middle Ages to the criticisms some have leveled at carbon offsets today, we humans have always sought to stave off the consequences of our actions and ease our conscience with good deeds, particularly of the financial kind. Today, many industry groups follow this familiar path: supporting science denial with the left hand, while giving to cutting-edge research and science with the right.

The Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford University conducts fundamental research on efficient and clean energy technologies -- with Exxon as a founding sponsor. Philanthropist and political donor David Koch gave an unprecedented US$35 million to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in 2015, after which three dozen scientists called on the museum to cut ties with him for funding lobbying groups that "misrepresent" climate science. Shell underwrote the London Science Museum's "Atmosphere" program and then used its leverage to muddy the waters on what scientists know about climate. 

It may be easy to point a finger at others, but when it happens to us, the choice might not seem so clear. Which is most important -- the benefit of the research and education, or the rejection of tainted funds?

The appropriate response to morally tainted offerings is an ancient question. In the book of Corinthians, the apostle Paul responds to a query on what to do with food that has been sacrificed to idols -- eat or reject? 

His response illustrates the complexity of this issue. Food is food, he says -- and by the same token, we might say money is money today. Both food and money, though, can imply alliance or acceptance. And if it affects others, a more discerning response may be needed.

What are we as academics to do? In this open and transparent new publishing world of ours, declaration of financial supporters is both important and necessary. Some would argue that a funder, however loose and distant the ties, casts a shadow over the resulting research. Others would respond that the funds can be used for good. Which carries the greatest weight?

After two decades in the trenches of climate science, I'm no longer the ingenue I was. I'm all too aware, now, of those who dismiss climate science as a "liberal hoax." Every day, they attack me on Facebook, vilify me on Twitter and even send the occasional hand-typed letter - which begs appreciation of the artistry, if not the contents. So now, if Exxon came calling, what would I do? 

There's no one right answer to this question. Speaking for myself, I might ask them to give those funds to politicians who endorse sensible climate policy -- and cut their funding to those who don't. Or I admire one colleague's practical response: to use a Koch-funded honorarium to purchase a lifetime membership in the Sierra Club. 

Despite the fact that there's no easy answer, it's a question that's being posed to more and more of us every day, and we cannot straddle the fence any longer. As academics and scientists, we have some tough choices to make; and only by recognizing the broader implications of these choices are we able to make these decisions with our eyes wide open, rather than half shut.

Katharine Hayhoe's research program at Texas Tech University is supported by funding from the National Science Foundation, the Department of the Interior, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other relevant federal agencies. She is also the CEO of ATMOS Research, a consulting company that helps cities, states, provinces and regions build resilience to a changing climate.

Categories: Latest News

Will the Courts Save the Dreamers?

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 08:46

Thousands of immigrants and supporters join the Defend DACA March to oppose the President Trump order to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program on September 10, 2017, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: David McNew / Getty Images)

With 17 states filing two lawsuits over Trump's DACA rescission, it is more likely that the fate of the Dreamers will be decided in the US Supreme Court rather than in Congress, which would have to defy years of history to agree on comprehensive immigration reform. But if Trump gets to appoint one more justice to the court, DACA is certain to be struck down.

Thousands of immigrants and supporters join the Defend DACA March to oppose the President Trump order to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program on September 10, 2017, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: David McNew / Getty Images)

The Trump administration's rescission of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) has been met with widespread resistance by people across the political spectrum. Thousands have marched in the streets to save the "Dreamers" from deportation. Human rights and civil liberties organizations as well as legislators on both sides of the aisle condemned the ending of DACA.

To read more stories like this, visit Human Rights and Global Wrongs.

Donald Trump's attorney general Jeff Sessions announced the impending termination of DACA on September 5, 2017, disingenuously claiming it was necessary to forestall a looming legal challenge by 10 state attorneys general. Sessions cited no legal authority for his assertion that DACA was unconstitutional. In fact, no court has ever found DACA to be unlawful.

Lawsuits were immediately filed against Trump's cruel targeting of the "Dreamers."

Apparently surprised at the level of opposition to his action, Trump tried to reassure the public that he might save DACA if Congress fails to act within the six-month period, tweeting:

"Congress now has 6 months to legalize DACA (something the Obama administration was unable to do). If they can't, I will revisit this issue!"

Two days later, at the urging of Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-California), Trump issued another tweet, apparently in support of the Dreamers:

"For all of those (DACA) that are concerned about your status during the six month period, you have nothing to worry about - No action!"

Trump's tweet was not reassuring. In fact, it was not inconsistent with Sessions' announcement, which also said no action would be taken against the Dreamers for six months; then the axe will fall.

The White House Talking Points memo on the rescission of DACA advises, "The Department of Homeland Security urges DACA recipients to use the time remaining on their work authorizations to prepare for and arrange their departure from the United States -- including proactively seeking travel documentation -- or to apply for other immigration benefits for which they may be eligible."

Trump's "No action!" tweet indicates he is being pulled in different directions -- by his right-wing nativist base, on the one hand, and by the majority of the population who oppose his heartless act, on the other.

So, what's next? Will Congress save DACA? Will Trump reinstate it if Congress doesn't? Or does the fate of DACA rest with the courts?

Will Congress Reinstate DACA?

Congress is now under pressure to reinstitute DACA within six months. Congressional action could take one of three forms. First, Congress might defy years of history and agree on comprehensive immigration reform.

Second, Congress could pass a stand-alone bill legalizing DACA. For example, the BRIDGE Act would enshrine DACA into law and extend it for three additional years to give Congress time to enact comprehensive immigration reform. The Dream Act of 2017 includes protections similar to DACA, but, unlike DACA and the BRIDGE Act, it would create a path for citizenship or permanent legal residency.

Finally, Congress members could engage in horse-trading, exchanging the legalization of DACA for stepped up "border security" measures. They could include cutbacks on legal immigration, withholding federal funds from "sanctuary cities," hiring additional immigration enforcement agents and even appropriating money to build "The Wall."

In any event, the chances of Congress acting in any meaningful way to save DACA in the next six months are slim to none. That leaves the fate of the Dreamers with the courts.

Litigating for the Dreamers

The day after Trump rescinded DACA, attorneys general from 15 states and the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit against Trump and his administration in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

They asked the court to declare that the rescission of DACA violated the Constitution and federal statutes. The plaintiffs also requested an injunction preventing Trump from rescinding DACA and forbidding him from using personal information the Dreamers provided in their DACA applications to deport them or their families.

The states signing on as plaintiffs in this lawsuit are New York, Massachusetts, Washington, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia.

California, home to more than 240,000 DACA recipients, the largest number in the country, filed its own lawsuit on September 11.

"Rescinding DACA will cause harm to hundreds of thousands of the States' residents, injure State-run colleges and universities, upset the States' workplaces, damage the States' economies, hurt State-based companies, and disrupt the States' statutory and regulatory interests," the complaint alleges. It specified the number of DACA or DACA-eligible recipients, the amount of revenue each state would lose, and other injuries the rescission would cause.

The plaintiffs argue that Trump's DACA rescission violates the Constitution's Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses, the Administrative Procedure Act and the Regulatory Flexibility Act.

DACA Rescission Violates Equal Protection

More than 78 percent of DACA recipients are of Mexican origin. During the presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly made disparaging and racist comments about Mexicans.

When he announced he was running for president, Trump said, "When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best.... They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists."

Candidate Trump tweeted that anti-Trump protesters who carried the Mexican flag were "criminals" and "thugs."

And Trump denounced Gonzalo Curiel, a well-respected federal judge of Mexican heritage who presided in a lawsuit filed by people claiming they were scammed by Trump University. After Curiel unsealed documents, Trump declared that Curiel had "an absolute conflict" that should disqualify him from the case. Trump's reason: "He is a Mexican," adding, "I'm building a wall. It's an inherent conflict of interest."

Trump reiterated his racist comments about Curiel in a June 2016 interview with CBS News, stating, "[Judge Curiel]'s a member of a club or society, very strongly pro-Mexican, which is all fine. But I say he's got bias."

In a presidential debate, Trump said, "We have some bad hombres here and we're going to get them out."

And two weeks before rescinding DACA, Trump pardoned the notorious racist, former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whom Trump called "an American patriot." Arpaio had been convicted of criminal contempt for refusing to comply with a court order to stop racially profiling Latinos.

The complaint in State of New York et al v. Donald Trump et al states that the September 5, 2017, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) memorandum rescinding DACA, together with Trump's statements about Mexicans, "target individuals for discriminatory treatment based on their national origin, without lawful justification." That memo, the complaint alleges, was motivated, "at least in part, by a discriminatory motive."

Thus, the complaint says, defendants violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

A similar allegation has been leveled against Trump's Muslim Ban, which singles out Muslims for discriminatory treatment. As in State of New York et al v. Donald Trump et al, equal protection challenges to the ban cite several anti-Muslim statements Trump made. The Supreme Court will decide the constitutionality of the ban when its new term begins in October.

Using Personal Information to Deport Dreamers Violates Due Process

Since the DACA program's launch in 2012, the DHS repeatedly promised applicants that the information they provided in their applications would "not later be used for immigration enforcement purposes." This reassurance encouraged applications.

The State of New York et al v. Donald Trump et al  complaint avers, "The government's representations that information provided by a DACA recipient would not be used against him or her for later immigration enforcement proceedings were unequivocal and atypical." However, the complaint notes, the September 5th DHS memo "provides no assurance to DACA grantees, or direction to USCIS [US Citizenship and Immigration Services] and ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] that information contained in DACA applications or renewal requests cannot be used for the purpose of future immigration enforcement proceedings."

Using information, such as names, addresses, social security numbers, fingerprints, photographs and dates of entry into the United States for immigration enforcement would be "fundamentally unfair" and thus would violate due process, according to the complaint.

DACA Rescission Violates Administrative Procedure Act and Regulatory Flexibility Act

The complaint also alleges that in rescinding DACA with "minimal formal guidance," federal agencies acted "arbitrarily and capriciously," in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), 5 U.S.C. § 706(2).

In addition, 5 U.S.C. §§ 553 and 706(2)(D) of the APA require federal agencies to "conduct formal rule making before engaging in action that impacts substantive rights." Defendants did not go through the notice-and-comment rulemaking required by the APA.

Finally, the complaint claims that defendants violated the Regulatory Flexibility Act, 5 U.S.C. §§ 601-612, which requires federal agencies to analyze the impact of rules they promulgate on small entities and publish initial and final versions of those analyses for public comment.

Deferred Action Is a Well-Established Form of Prosecutorial Discretion

The complaint states that deferred action, such as the DACA program, is a well-established form of prosecutorial discretion.

More than 100 immigration law teachers and scholars signed a letter to Trump in August stating that the Constitution's Take Care Clause is the primary source for prosecutorial discretion in immigration cases. Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution states that the president "shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed."

As the Supreme Court noted in Heckler v. Chaney,

[W]e recognize that an agency's refusal to institute proceedings shares to some extent the characteristics of the decision of a prosecutor in the Executive Branch not to indict -- a decision which has long been regarded as the special province of the Executive Branch, inasmuch as it is the Executive who is charged by the Constitution to "take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.

Congress and the Supreme Court have acknowledged that the executive branch has the authority to grant deferred action for humanitarian reasons. That has included certain categories of people, including victims of crimes and human trafficking, students affected by Hurricane Katrina and widows of US citizens.

In 1999, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority in Reno v. American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, an immigration case, that presidents have a long history of "engaging in a regular practice ... of exercising [deferred action] for humanitarian reasons or simply for its own convenience."

Presidents from both parties have deferred immigration action to protect certain groups. Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson permitted Cubans to remain in the United States before Congress enacted legislation to allow them to stay. Ronald Reagan allowed about 200,000 Nicaraguan immigrants to remain in the US even though Congress had not passed authorizing legislation. And George H.W. Bush permitted almost 200,000 Salvadorans fleeing civil war to stay in the US.

University of California vs. Trump

Janet Napolitano created the DACA program in 2012, while serving as secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration. Now, as president of the University of California (UC), she has filed a lawsuit in the US District Court in Northern California against Trump to save DACA, alleging violations of due process and the APA.

"Defendants compound the irrationality of their decision by failing to acknowledge the profound reliance interests implicated by DACA and the hundreds of thousands of individuals, employers, and universities who will be substantially harmed by the termination of the program," the UC complaint states.

It accuses the Trump administration of "failing to provide the University with any process before depriving it of the value of the public resources it invested in DACA recipients, and the benefits flowing from DACA recipients' contributions to the University." The complaint adds, "More fundamentally, they failed to provide DACA recipients with any process before depriving them of their work authorizations and DACA status, and the benefits that flow from that status."

Napolitano promised that UC campuses will continue to provide undocumented immigrant students with free legal services, financial aid and loans, and orders to campus police to refrain from contacting, detaining, interrogating or arresting people solely on the basis of their immigration status.

How Would the Supreme Court Rule?

If Congress or Trump were to reinstate DACA, these legal challenges may become moot. But if the lawsuits proceed and ultimately reach the Supreme Court, what are the justices likely to do?

After Scalia's death, but before Neil Gorsuch joined the Court, the justices split 4-to-4 in United States v. Texas. That tie left in place a circuit court decision striking down the Obama program called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) and an expanded version of DACA. Gorsuch would likely have broken the tie by voting against DAPA.

But the core of DACA has never been litigated. A lawsuit challenging DACA was thrown out of court for lack of jurisdiction.

The Muslim Ban case could serve as a bellwether of DACA's fate in the high court. In a temporary order, the Court left parts of the ban in place pending its decision on the merits. Three justices -- Alito, Thomas and Gorsuch -- would have allowed the ban to continue in its entirety. They would also probably defer to Trump in the DACA case.

It remains to be seen how the remaining justices would rule. Chief Justice Roberts is generally conservative but is very concerned about the legacy of the Roberts Court, which led him to side with the liberals in upholding the Affordable Care Act.

Will the DACA case be remembered like Brown v. Board of Education, the most significant civil rights case in US history? Or will Roberts's legacy be tarnished by a result that looks more like the infamous Korematsu v. United States, in which, under the guise of national security, the Supreme Court upheld the president's power to lock up people of Japanese descent in internment camps during World War II?

The bottom line is that if Trump has the opportunity to appoint one or more additional justices to the high court, DACA will be struck down.

Stay tuned.

Categories: Latest News

Government Watchdog Questions Value of Post-9/11 Travel Security Measures

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 07:31

Travelers are screened by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers at a security check point at O'Hare Airport on June 2, 2015, in Chicago, Illinois. The Department of Homeland Security said that the acting head of the TSA would be replaced following a report that airport screeners failed to detect explosives and weapons in nearly all of the tests that an undercover team conducted at airports around the country. (Photo: Scott Olson / Getty Images)

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) lacks data to demonstrate the effectiveness of several airport security measures adopted following the September 11, 2001 attacks.

A report released Monday by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that the agency "does not have a complete understanding" of just how effective the billions of dollars spent on new security programs are in detecting and disrupting air travel threats.

Although agency officials cited the lack of a major terrorist attack aboard a US airliner as proof of worth of these countermeasures, the GAO was disappointed with TSA's lack of empirical data to justify the costly security infrastructure.

"In the absence of any systematic or methodological approach to assessing TSA's deterrent value, TSA officials have relied on theories of causality and limited evidence available from US intelligence sources," the report stated.

The oversight body examined six specific security programs adopted after 9/11. The review included fortifications made to passenger prescreening, airport checkpoint procedures, checked baggage inspections, bomb-detecting canines, behavioral analysis, and the US Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS).

GAO noted that a TSA internal review in 2015 provided "mixed results" on the effectiveness of these airport security trappings.

The watchdog specifically cited classified information not included in the prior report about covert testing conducted by the TSA's Office of Inspection, which found weaknesses in the checked baggage screening systems.

During that 2015 review, TSA didn't document any sort of effectiveness data on two of the programs in particular: FAMS and behavioral detection.

"FAMS officials explained that they do not have information on FAMS's deterrent effect because it is difficult to model, measure, and quantify," GAO stated.

The report went on to note, however, that the lack of data could leave key questions about the program unanswered.

"There may be a point at which adding additional federal air marshals has diminishing returns in terms of deterrence and better understanding FAMS's deterrent effect could help TSA identify that point," the oversight body said.

In July of this year, GAO devoted an entire audit to the TSA's passenger behavioral detection programs, which the watchdog concluded were based on invalid evidence. Under pressure from GAO, TSA has moved to cut finding for most of its behavioral detection activities.

GAO recommended that TSA explore ways to assess the deterrent value of its security programs. It also called on the transportation agency to conduct cost and effectiveness studies on its countermeasures.

"It is essential that TSA determine how to allocate its finite resources to best position the agency to detect, disrupt and deter threats to aviation security," GAO urged.

The Department of Homeland Security concurred with both recommendations.

Categories: Latest News

Kagame's Re-election in Rwanda: A Trump-Approved Exercise in Sham Democracy

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 06:06

US President Donald Trump and Rwandan President Paul Kagame are birds of a feather: Both are working actively to undermine the checks on executive power, adherence to civil rights and the rule of law, and free media landscape that democracies need to survive.

Rwandan President Paul Kagamespeaks at the World Telecommunication and Information Society Day 2014 Award Ceremony on May 16, 2014, in Geneva, Switzerland. (Photo: ITU Pictures / I. Wood)

Paul Kagame may have just been re-elected president of Rwanda, but he clearly puts little stock in elections. Late last month, the man who has ruled post-genocide Rwanda for two decades rejected "Western democracy" and asserted Africa's need for its own version of democracy. Coming from a man whose opponents tend to turn up dead or imprisoned, the statement is an ominous one.

While Kagame's words would once have drawn international ire, he has less to fear these days. In Donald Trump, the United States has a leader who prefers to embolden autocratic leaders with his renunciation of moral foreign policy leadership. For good reason, Kagame and his fellow strongmen feel they have carte blanche from Washington to suppress their people while paying lip service to a concept they despise.

It is true that Rwanda has held elections regularly, but as Americans well know, elections alone are hardly the defining yardstick of democracy or democratic legitimacy. One look at the election that put Trump in the White House is enough to illustrate the inherent flaws of certain voting systems, not to mention the need for strong, independent institutions. Democracies need more than voting to survive: equally important are checks on executive power, adherence to civil rights and the rule of law, and a free media landscape -- all of which leaders like Trump and Kagame actively undermine.

Still, maintaining the outward appearance of a functioning democracy has served autocrats well for decades. By promising reforms and appealing to the West's hopes of alleviating poverty, African leaders like Kagame have played the system to their advantage. Rulers such as Kagame maintain a democratic veneer by staging meaningless elections to legitimize their own rule. Their version of "democracy" is simply part of a long-term survival strategy.

Perhaps most disconcerting is how well those tactics work in deflecting international criticism. After independence, many African countries sought national unity within their fractured societies by imposing one-party systems with the promise to relinquish power down the road. Some did, eventually, but many others built the repressive regimes we see today.

Kagame's hold on power, for one, is still justified through a vague notion of "African-style democracy" supposedly based on common consensus rather than individual votes. It is not coincidental that Diane Shima Rwigara, one of Kagame's most vocal critics, was barred from running against him on obscure technicalities and is now facing charges of tax evasion and bribery. She is hardly the only Rwandan presidential hopeful to pay dearly for challenging Kagame's position.

The "wave of democratization" that hit Africa in the 1990s has not altered the way many African nations are governed. In fact, as the number of procedural democracies has increased, substantive democracy across the continent has declined. Those façades serve to hide human rights violations and pervert the rule of law to silence opposing voices.

The irony is that many of these leaders come to power with the full backing of the West. In what was then Zaire and is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Laurent Kabila was described as a "beacon of hope" by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when he overthrew dictator Mobutu Sese Soku in 1997. Kabila may have changed the country's name, but any hopes for a democratic or republican Congo were dashed when he ended up being as vicious as his predecessor.

Twenty years later, Laurent Kabila's son Joseph has shown the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Joseph Kabila, who succeeded his assassinated father in 2001 and won at least one of his two terms in a free and fair election, has come to the end of his constitutional term limit and is supposed to leave. Kabila the Younger has opted for a different option: postponing presidential elections indefinitely to cling to power. The end result is that Kabila is still in office nearly a year after he was supposed to step down.

All of this is happening in the name of "democracy," of course. The DRC's electoral commission claims more time and money are needed to prepare the vote, in line with Kabila's stated goal to hold "perfect elections, not just elections." In reality, Kabila has unleashed a crackdown that is plunging the country into civil war: At least 27 protesters were killed in clashes with security forces in August. If Kabila has resorted to violence, it is because the DRC's formidable opposition movement continues to grow. Like his counterparts in MozambiqueZambia and Rwanda, Kabila has tried to make sure his country's opposition leaders find themselves in prison or killed off.

Fortunately, Congo's foremost opposition figure -- Moïse Katumbi, former governor of Katanga province -- has escaped Kabila's clutches. Katumbi was forced into exile last year before Kabila's intelligence services could threaten the judiciary into sentencing him on questionable charges of hiring mercenaries. Seeing through those political machinations, voters in the DRC have continued to rally behind him and Katumbi is widely considered the most credible contender to bring the current constitutional crisis to a peaceful conclusion. Increasingly, there are signs that Kabila's ability to instill fear is cracking. Katumbi's fellow dissident, Felix Tshisekedi, helped demonstrate this with a bold return to Kinshasa, where his supporters were met with tear gas.

There is no telling when Kabila will finally give in and step aside, but an election on its own is not enough to signal a democratic transition. For that, the DRC would need to have a judiciary as independent as that of Kenya -- where Chief Justice David Maraga defied the president who appointed him and annulled the contested Kenyan election results. That president, Uhuru Kenyatta, has drawn inspiration from Joseph Kabila in vowing to "fix" the judiciary. Then again, it also puts him in the same league as Trump, who has challenged the US court system's legitimacy multiple times over unfavorable rulings.

In the meantime, at least Kenya's judges have rebuked Kagame's vision of undemocratic "African democracy" more powerfully than any Western capital ever could.

Categories: Latest News

Austerity, Divestment and Irma: Juan Gonzalez on Why 300,000 in Puerto Rico Are Without Power

Mon, 09/11/2017 - 21:00

FEMA Administrator Brock Long is traveling today to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands to see firsthand the damage caused by Hurricane Irma. In Puerto Rico, 300,000 remain without power -- despite the fact that the island was barely hit by the storm. Authorities have warned parts of Puerto Rico could be without electricity for up to six months, in part due to the island's economic crisis. We speak with Juan González about how US-imposed austerity and divestment are contributing to the electricity crisis after Irma.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman, with Juan González. The FEMA administrator, Brock Long, is traveling today to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands -- he just announced this this morning -- to see firsthand the damage caused by Hurricane Irma. On the island of Saint John in the Virgin Islands, 80 percent of homes have been severely damaged. Meanwhile, in Puerto Rico, 300,000 people remain without power. Authorities have warned parts of Puerto Rico could be without electricity for up to six months, in part due to the island's economic crisis.

Juan, you've been closely covering the situation in Puerto Rico. What does the hurricane have to do with the political crisis in Puerto Rico?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, first of all, I think it's important to understand that the hurricane didn't really hit Puerto Rico head-on like it did in Cuba or even in the other Caribbean islands. It basically glanced the island. And yet, many people on the island were stunned to see the -- so much electricity go down. As you mentioned, at the beginning, when the hurricane hit, about as many as a million people went without electricity, and about a third of the people lost water, because so many of the pumping stations, water pumping stations, in Puerto Rico depend on the electrical grid for their power source, so that there are hundreds of thousands of people also without water on the island.

And the reality is that the electrical system of Puerto Rico has been in crisis now for decades. And just one example, the electrical company, which is a government-owned electrical company -- it's called PREPA, the Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority -- in 2000, had about 7,000 linemen to take care of repairs along the system. Today it has 3,500. Fifty percent of the workforce has been reduced. And so, when even a hurricane like this gets near the island, it creates enormous devastation for the electrical system. And now this has become the basis for the attempts to privatize the electrical system, because the electrical company is the crown jewel of industry in Puerto Rico. Everybody needs electricity, especially in an island that is so hot and humid and is so industrialized, so that there's been efforts now to try to privatize PREPA.

And, of course, the source of how the electricity is generated in Puerto Rico is critical. One example, 51 percent of all the electricity in Puerto Rico is produced through burning petroleum, compared to less than 1 percent of all the electricity generated in the United States is generated through petroleum. In addition, coal and natural gas -- fossil fuels amount for about 98 percent of the generating power of the electrical system in Puerto Rico. Very little wind or solar generation.

So part of the problem is that Puerto Rico has the most expensive way of generating its electricity, and then there's no investment in the capital infrastructure or in the workforce. So, anything like this, a hurricane like this, immediately creates a crisis that will be for months in order to be repaired.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we'll continue to follow what's happening in Puerto Rico. Any final comments? And did you hear -- you were born in Ponce, right?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you hear how it was affected?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: It wasn't affected. In fact, I talked to my sister, who lives in Cayey, in the center of the island. And they said they had -- they were surprised how little impact of the actual hurricane was on the island, yet everyone lost electricity.

Categories: Latest News

After Irma, a Look at Why Cubans Are 15 Times Less Likely to Die From Hurricanes Than Americans

Mon, 09/11/2017 - 21:00

One of the Caribbean islands hardest hit by Hurricane Irma was Cuba, where 10 people died. Irma hit Cuba's northern coast as a Category 5 storm. It was the deadliest hurricane in Cuba since 2005, when 16 people died in Hurricane Dennis. Cuba has long been viewed as a world leader in hurricane preparedness and recovery. According to the Center for International Policy, a person is 15 times as likely to be killed by a hurricane in the United States as in Cuba. Meanwhile, Cuba has already sent more than 750 health workers to Antigua, Barbuda, Saint Kitts, Nevis, Saint Lucia, the Bahamas, Dominica and Haiti. For more, we speak with Elizabeth Newhouse, director of the Center for International Policy's Cuba Project. She has taken numerous delegations from the US to Cuba to see how the Cubans manage disaster preparedness.

TRANSCRIPT

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: From the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico to Florida and Georgia, millions of Americans remain without electricity as they attempt to recover from the devastating Hurricane Irma. On the island of Saint John in the Virgin Islands, 80 percent of homes have been severely damaged. Five thousand US servicemembers are being sent to the Virgin Islands to help with relief efforts, as drinking water and food begin to run out. In Puerto Rico, hundreds of thousands of people remain without power. Authorities have warned parts of Puerto Rico could be without electricity for up to six months. FEMA Administrator Brock Long will travel to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands today.

In Florida, meanwhile, as many as 13 million people have been left without power. Some parts of the Florida Keys may be inaccessible for weeks. The US military is now helping evacuate some Florida Keys residents who did not leave before the storm. Jacksonville is recovering from its worst flooding since 1864. The destruction from Irma also stretched into Georgia and South Carolina.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, one of the Caribbean islands hardest hit was Cuba, where 10 people died. Irma hit Cuba's northern coast as a Category 5 storm. It was the deadliest hurricane in Cuba since 2005, when 16 people died in Hurricane Dennis.

Cuba has long been viewed as a world leader in hurricane preparedness and recovery. According to the Center for International Policy, a person is 15 times as likely to be killed by a hurricane in the United States as in Cuba. Meanwhile, Cuba has already sent more than 750 doctors and health workers to Antigua, Barbuda, Saint Kitts, Nevis, Saint Lucia, the Bahamas, Dominica and Haiti.

We begin today's show with Elizabeth Newhouse, director of the Center for International Policy's Cuba Project. She's taken numerous delegations from the US to Cuba to see how the Cubans manage disaster preparedness.

Elizabeth, welcome to Democracy Now! You grew up in Cuba?

ELIZABETH NEWHOUSE: Yes, I did. I was a child there in the '50s.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about what happened in Cuba, first? And then we'll talk about their record in hurricane preparedness and what we can learn from them.

ELIZABETH NEWHOUSE: Well, as you just mentioned, the hurricane made landing on the north coast, down towards the east, and then skirted the coast all the way up close to Havana, did not reach Havana, and then headed north. So, the brunt of it was felt across the island, but the worst part was down around the area of Camagüey and other towns down in that area. And they were really, truly, very, very badly -- very badly hurt. Havana had waves coming up over the sea wall, apparently that reached something like 32 feet, and horrific flooding that went in five or seven blocks. People were up to their shoulders in some areas in water. So it was huge amounts of flooding. However, 10 people died, as you mentioned, which is an enormous number of people for Cuba because of the tremendous preparation that they do. Normally, people do not die in hurricanes in Cuba, or if they do, they're just a very, very small number.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, when you say that normally very few people die in hurricanes in Cuba, why is that, given the fact that Cuba is not a wealthy country? It's had all kinds of economic problems. What is it about the government's preparedness that is so distinct from what happens in the rest of the Caribbean or even in the United States?

ELIZABETH NEWHOUSE: Well, it is distinct, because they have an ingrained culture of prevention and preparedness that is really quite unique, and it is very rigorously followed. And children learn from a very, very early age that disasters will happen. Their lessons are included throughout all their years growing up. And they really expect these things to happen, and they know what to do when they do happen. Cuba has been hit with hurricanes so many times, hurricanes -- not only hurricanes, but major tropical storms, which bring huge amounts of flooding and sea surge, and they have to be ready for it. So they are ready. And they save enormous numbers of lives by massive evacuations. I think this time they evacuated a million people. And even though the infrastructure is poor and many of the houses are very poor, their focus is on saving lives.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, also, you studied their preparedness. Could you talk about the impact of things like neighborhood mapping that they do, of who exactly lives in what neighborhood, and the role that the neighborhood groups, the Committees for Defense of the Revolution, play in disasters like this?

ELIZABETH NEWHOUSE: Yes. Well, they have all the neighborhoods mapped. They know exactly who lives where. They know who the vulnerable people are, and they know who the elderly people are and where they live. And a couple of days before the hurricane hits, they evacuate them all. They start with those people. Pregnant women get put in hospitals. People with infirmities get also put in hospitals. Others get taken to either shelters or with family or friends who are living in more secure houses. But everybody in Cuba knows what they're going to do if a hurricane hits. Everybody has a plan, whether it's to go to a family or friend, or whether it's to go to a shelter. So there's no sort of haphazard organizing at the last minute. It's very, very well thought out. The civil defense system controls it all. The president of the civil defense is the president of the country -- or the head of the civil defense. And it's very tightly, tightly organized, from the bottom up and from the top down.

It's really a very impressive thing to see, and the results are really quite astounding, even though the material damage is always horrific. And, I mean, I think they're still -- they're still trying to find ways to house people who were displaced in the last hurricane. So, you know, what they're going to do this time, I don't know.

And they're putting a big emphasis on trying to get the tourism infrastructure back, because tourism is so desperately important to the economy. So they're going to be putting a lot of focus on rebuilding resorts along the north coast that were very badly hurt. That's the area where most of the resorts are, and they were hugely damaged. And they want to get them up and running before the big tourism season begins in a couple of months. So, I think people are wondering what's going to happen, what's going to happen to individuals who are in shelters now, how long will they have to be there. It'll probably be quite some time.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about -- well, I wanted to turn to just some of the voices of people in Cuba. East of Havana, in the fishing village of Cojímar, many fishermen found their boats and equipment destroyed. This is fisherman Ernesto Rivero.

ERNESTO RIVERO: [translated] In this area here, all the boats are finished. The swell entered. The waves went up. That's what did the most damage, the waves and the wind. This part ends with many bushes. It carried a lot of small houses. It destroyed a lot of roofs. In this part, below Cojímar, there are total collapses of the houses and all that.

AMY GOODMAN: Havana residents Margarita Halzilk and Miladys Cardoso also spoke about the impact of Hurricane Irma on Havana.

MARGARITA HALZILK: [translated] As you can see, everything got wet, because although we tried to raise some things, the doors broke, and everything that was below was destroyed.

MILADYS CARDOSO: [translated] Very bad, very bad, lousy transportation. I'm doing a lot of work, the same to come to work as to go to the house. This is critical, this transport thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Just some of the voices of people in Cuba. Elizabeth Newhouse, the Cuban government, though very -- the island was very hard hit, sending over 750 doctors, health professionals throughout the Caribbean, can you talk about this policy they have? This is not new.

ELIZABETH NEWHOUSE: Yes, no, this is not new. They have this, a kind of rapid response to disasters. And they group, and they go out. They've been to many, many places, including earthquakes in Pakistan and disasters in Central America. And it's really very impressive. They were among the first in Haiti when the earthquake hit, however many years ago that was. And they're very good. They're very well trained. This is an area that they're just superb at. And they go help other people, despite their own -- despite their own problems.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the US-Cuba relations. In June, Donald Trump announced that he would reverse the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba, and reimposing the travel and trade restrictions, less than a year after President Obama relaxed the decades-old embargo on the Island.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Our new policy begins with strictly enforcing US law. We will not lift sanctions on the Cuban regime until all political prisoners are freed, freedoms of assembly and expression are respected, all political parties are legalized, and free and internationally supervised elections are scheduled. ... We will very strongly restrict American dollars flowing to the military, security and intelligence services that are the core of the Castro regime. They will be restricted. We will enforce the ban on tourism. We will enforce the embargo.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was President Trump reversing almost completely President Obama's reopening toward Cuba. Your response?

ELIZABETH NEWHOUSE: In fact, he did not reverse it completely. He has -- they're cutting back on it, but we still have diplomatic relations with Cuba. He is trying to curtail people going to Cuba for tourist reasons, tourism reasons. But he is not changing the ability to travel for a whole host of other reasons, including going down on cultural and educational trips. It's just that for now, from now on, people have to go in tour groups rather than individually. So, really, that's about -- as far as travel is concerned, that's about the extent of it.

Now, as far as dealing with the military, that's going to be curtailed. We do not know exactly what that means yet, because the regulations that govern this new policy have not been issued. They're being written right now, and we expect to know what they are in the next few weeks. And what entities they consider military are going to be put on a list, and those are the ones that are going to be prohibited from having any monetary connection with. But, you know, there are so many military entities in Cuba. Are they going to be -- how open is that policy going to be, or how tight it's going to be? And that's going to depend on what the regulations look like. So we don't know yet.

AMY GOODMAN: And will there still be direct flights between the US and Cuba, that happened after President Obama changed the policy?

ELIZABETH NEWHOUSE: The bilateral relationship is still there. The problem is that there's kind of a -- now there's kind of a much more kind of hostile approach. When President Obama was there, he was trying very hard to open lots of different avenues. And now that's kind of slammed shut. So, while it's certainly possible to do business down there still, it's going to be tougher and tighter.

And at the same time, Cuba is going through a transition, because President Raúl Castro is retiring in the early part of 2018, and who is going to succeed him is as yet unknown. So, there's a fair amount of jockeying for that -- for his job. And I think they feel that being seen as being too close to the US is not good for them. So, essentially, the relationship has quieted down considerably.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it's very interesting also in light of the fact that, well, a Newsweek investigation revealed, before becoming president, Trump's businesses violated the US embargo on Cuba, secretly doing business in Cuba in the late '90s, then trying to cover it up.

ELIZABETH NEWHOUSE: Yes. Well, you know Trump would like nothing more than to have a big hotel in Cuba. But he's got the very hard-line Cuban Americans who are absolutely, adamantly opposed to this, these Obama openings. I mean, it's a much, much smaller group than it used to be, but they tend to be wealthy and influential. And those are the ones he's listening to.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, in fact, even a number of Republican governors have made trips to Cuba. US corporations, you know, a lot of those that support the Republican Party have a different view on Cuba. And aren't the hard-line Cuban community in Florida much smaller? Even the Republican Cubans of the younger generation want some kind of normalization.

ELIZABETH NEWHOUSE: Absolutely right. You're absolutely right. And the US Chamber of Commerce is in favor of lifting the embargo. They'd love to do business with Cuba. There's a lot of good business to be done. So, you know, it's kind of counterintuitive for Trump, who says he's a great businessman and a great dealmaker, to be kind of slamming this door shut. But it has to do with this small group of Cuban Americans who are just adamantly -- for reasons going back to the revolution, are just adamantly opposed to the Castro regime.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, I wanted to ask you about the Trump administration moving forward with its plan to stop the closure of the Guantánamo prison, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announcing the position of the special envoy for the closure of the Guantánamo detention facility will be eliminated, the Pentagon also proposing spending $500 million in new construction at Guantánamo, the US currently imprisoning 41 people indefinitely there.

ELIZABETH NEWHOUSE: Well, that's true. During the campaign, I think Trump was adamant about keeping the prison opened. You know, we never expected Guantánamo to be handed back to the Cubans, which is -- the base, which is, of course, what they want. But this is -- this is really something quite new and, I think, unfortunate. However, that's the Trump position.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds. What advice do you think President Castro could give to President Trump around hurricane preparedness, or on any issue right now?

ELIZABETH NEWHOUSE: Well, certainly, educating people, getting them ready for eventualities, and certainly preparing in a way that we've gotten much, much better at. And I think part of the reason we've gotten better at is we took -- we took eight or nine groups, delegations of emergency managers from Florida, from the Gulf Coast, from the Southeast, from the Panhandle, down to Cuba over the years to introduce them to the Cuban system. And they all were extremely impressed. They all came back with ideas. And I think some of the much tighter preparedness that we're seeing in these recent hurricanes had to have some -- had to be influenced in some way by the Cuban model.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you, Elizabeth Newhouse, for joining us, director of the Center for International Policy's Cuba Project, has taken numerous delegations from the US to Cuba to see how the Cubans manage disaster preparedness. Elizabeth Newhouse herself grew up in Cuba.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, Public Citizen has a report on the silence around the 24-hour coverage of the hurricanes, but where is the issue of climate change mentioned? And we'll talk about Puerto Rico, the powerlessness there. There were a million people who didn't have power, now down to 300,000. The head of FEMA is headed to go there today. Stay with us.

Categories: Latest News

Amazon's Whole Foods Deal Could Still Be Reversed Thanks to Forgotten Antitrust Case

Mon, 09/11/2017 - 21:00

Amazon formally takes ownership of Whole Foods after the Federal Trade Commission signaled on August 23 that it wouldn't stop the deal

The online retailer isn't wasting any time remaking the high-end grocery chain in its low-price image. Its first act involved cutting prices on dozens of items, from avocados to tilapia. But that is not what is sending shivers down the aisles of rival food retailers like Walmart, which now controls 20 percent of the grocery market by pursuing just such a low-price strategy.

The reason, which the FTC ignored in providing its imprimatur, is that Amazon gives Whole Foods access to an online marketing platform that no other grocery company, even a behemoth like Walmart, can hope to reproduce. 

My research suggests that only a few decades ago the FTC would have used antitrust law to block the deal -- and it still has the power to do so. 

Predatory Promotion

Everyone knows that Amazon is the biggest online retailer. The company handles 43 percent of all internet purchases in the US, attracting so much business that its website is actually the country's fifth-most trafficked

But not everyone realizes that Amazon is also the king of online product search. By offering a huge range of products -- almost 400 million -- Amazon entices more than half of online shoppers to bypass the usual search gatekeepers and start their product hunt directly on its website.

Whole Foods will now have exclusive access among grocery retailers to this enormously valuable search engine. And it will be near impossible to compete with a company whose products and grocery delivery services can be ordered directly through a website that America already uses for nearly half of its online shopping. 

That is bad for consumers because it means that Whole Foods may come to dominate the grocery world not by offering better products for the best prices, as you'd find in a well-functioning market, but because of the promotional advantage that comes from its tie-up with Amazon.

Congress passed the Clayton Act in 1914 to handle just this situation. The act tasks antitrust regulators with blocking acquisitions for which "the effect … may be substantially to lessen competition." You might therefore have expected the FTC, which reviews mergers in the grocery industry, to take a special interest in this deal. 

You'd be wrong, of course, because since the early 1980s antitrust regulators at the FTC and Justice Department have taken a narrow approach to merger enforcement, generally treating only large deals between direct competitors as a potential threat to competition. 

That explains why the FTC approved the Whole Foods deal with lightning speed. Since Amazon had almost no presence in the grocery industry when it inked the agreement, it didn't qualify as a direct competitor.

In the 1960s and '70's, however, things were different, as I show in a recent paper. During that time, the FTC fought a remarkable campaign to prevent companies from using promotional advantages to colonize new markets. Among the FTC's victories in its battle against such "predatory promotion" were its reversals of household products giant Procter & Gamble's acquisition of Clorox bleach and General Foods' purchase of S.O.S., the scrub pad maker.

Like Amazon, both P&G and General Foods acquired companies in markets in which they were not yet direct competitors. Like Amazon, both could leverage their vast product lines to offer their new acquisitions a massive promotional advantage. The difference is that back then P&G and General Foods had a sizable advantage in television advertising, rather than online search traffic, because their extensive product portfolios allowed the companies to negotiate bulk discounts from the major networks.

The legal precedents created by those cases give the FTC a basis for unwinding the Amazon Whole Foods deal but have been ignored for decades by federal antitrust enforcers.

Lessons From the Case Against P&G

The FTC's case against P&G is particularly relevant today. Filed in 1957 shortly after the Clorox purchase closed, it established for the first time that, as the Supreme Court put it, an acquisition that creates "huge assets and advertising advantages" can violate antitrust law. 

P&G's product line was so large, extending from Ivory soap to Duncan Hines cake mix, that it was already the nation's largest national TV advertiser. This allowed P&G to negotiate bulk discounts on advertising time that it could pass on to Clorox. 

The FTC feared that those discounts would give Clorox privileged access to the dominant marketing platform of the era. When Americans tuned in to the Big Three television networks, they would see Clorox, and only Clorox, for sale, much as when Americans use Amazon to search for groceries online, they will see only Whole Foods groceries available for delivery.

The FTC filed suit to unwind the deal, arguing that P&G would drive competitors from the market, not because those competitors offered an inferior product -- all bleach is chemically identical -- but because P&G had a promotional advantage. Similarly, Whole Foods will be able to use Amazon's website to swallow up market share, even though its rivals also offer similar services and products, such as organic produce and online ordering

After an initial setback, the FTC won its case in the Supreme Court in 1967, establishing a precedent for the first time that mergers that create massive promotional advantages can violate the law, even when there is no direct competition between the target and acquiring companies. 

Reversing Course

President Ronald Reagan cut short this campaign against predatory promotion in the early 1980s by appointing new officials to the FTC who argued that promotion is good for consumers, regardless of whether it confers an advantage on a particular competitor, because it provides consumers with useful product information. The idea has proven immune to subsequent changes in administration.

In my paper I counter that this argument rings hollow in the information age, because consumers can now get all the product information they need from myriad sources online. Making Whole Foods' groceries searchable on Amazon's website doesn't increase the internet's cache of product information -- consumers can already get that on the grocer's website -- but it will steer consumers squarely toward Whole Foods' products.

The FTC can still reverse course and block the deal after it closes, as it did in the forgotten P&G case. 

If it doesn't, then your only option for buying anything could one day be Amazon. And if that happens, textbook economics teaches that those avocados won't stay cheap for long.

Categories: Latest News

Immigration Fixation

Mon, 09/11/2017 - 21:00
Categories: Latest News

An Anti-Poverty Program That Makes It Pay to Work

Mon, 09/11/2017 - 21:00

Imagine a government-funded anti-poverty tool that encouraged people to work. Now imagine that it's popular with both Democrats and Republicans, in red states and blue.

Turns out we've had just such a tool since 1975: the Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC.

The EITC is of the most popular and effective anti-poverty tools. It's a refundable tax credit for workers in eligible low-income families, especially those with children.

The credit works on a phase in, phase-out system. Qualifying families receive more tax credits as income increases up to a certain threshold, and then slowly phases out as income increases past that point. That makes it less likely that workers will turn away jobs or raises for fear of losing benefits.

The federal EITC helped 6.5 million low-income families in 2015, including 3.3 million children. However, the current EITC -- which tops out at around $5,500 for families with two kids -- isn't enough to help the millions of families struggling financially. Childless workers get almost no benefit at all, and millions of single parents still struggle.

Proposals to expand the credit are popular among politicians of both parties, including Republicans Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown, and former President Obama. Their ideas include expanding the credit for childless workers and increasing the credits given to low-income families.

However, the federal government has been dragging its heels, leaving it to states to try to fill the gap. Hawaii recently adopted a state-level EITC, bringing the total to 29 (plus the District of Columbia). Others include Republican-led states like Oklahoma, Louisiana, Iowa and Kansas.

But the feds just can't agree on how to fund it.

At a time of extreme inequality, the best option would be to raise the funds by increasing taxes on the wealthy. In Hawaii, for example, the credit is offset by higher rates for those earning more than $300,000 annually. More than 107,000 low-income Hawaiians are expected to benefit from this legislation.

Yet others favor raising revenue from existing taxes that hit the poorest the hardest, like gas and sales taxes.

However, this seems unfair, since people without jobs have to pay these taxes even though they don't benefit from the EITC. A better solution would be to reduce these regressive taxes and make sure wealthy individuals and large corporations pay their fair share.

Since taking office, President Trump hasn't displayed any interest in expanding the EITC.

Instead, he's sought to make it more difficult for working families to benefit by requiring that recipients provide Social Security numbers when claiming the credit. This would make it harder for immigrant families, both documented and otherwise, to claim the credit even if they qualify for it.

Meanwhile, the president is hitting the road to campaign for tax cuts for the wealthiest. All of his tax proposals to date would significantly cut taxes for the wealthy, giving more and more breaks to corporations and their wealthy CEOS.

There were high hopes that Ivanka Trump might become a champion of such family-friendly policies.

But one of her main contributions to the Trump campaign, an "affordable" childcare policy, would amount to a pitiful $20 in help for families making under $40,000, Bloomberg estimates. And it appears to have been removed from the Trump website.

Rather than fighting to make it more difficult to get the EITC, the Trump administration should work to expand the credit, and actually help make America great for the middle class.

Categories: Latest News

To Insure More Poor Children, It Helps If Parents Are on Medicaid

Mon, 09/11/2017 - 21:00

Efforts by Republican lawmakers to scale back Medicaid enrollment could undercut an aspect of the program that has widespread bipartisan appeal -- covering more children, research published last Tuesday in the journal Health Affairs suggests.

The study focuses on the impact of Medicaid's "welcome-mat" effect -- a term used to describe the spillover benefits kids get when Medicaid eligibility is extended to their parents.

Children were more likely to be enrolled in public health insurance programs -- specifically Medicaid, which in some states is administered as an expansion of the federal-state Children's Health Insurance Program -- if their parents were also able to enroll, explained Julie Hudson, a senior economist at the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and the paper's lead author.

The findings highlight an underlying tension and a key relationship -- parents' insurance status and that of their kids -- as Congress moves in coming weeks to reauthorize CHIP, before its funding expires at month's end.

"Children's health policy doesn't exist in a vacuum," said Benjamin Sommers, an associate professor of health policy and economics at Harvard University's public health school. Sommers was not an author on the paper, but he did provide feedback on a preliminary draft. "We can't discuss covering kids without considering what other policies are affecting parents."

Among the most controversial aspects of the stalled Republican efforts to revamp the Affordable Care Act were provisions to limit Medicaid, the joint federal-state health care program for low-income people. But even if that effort is not revived, congressional Republicans have said they will continue their push to cut back the program.

In addition, many states are seeking waivers that would let them add other requirements to Medicaid -- demanding beneficiaries undergo drug-testing or meet work requirements, for instance. Those, many analysts say, would likely reduce enrollment.

Such efforts could affect children who are eligible for Medicaid coverage.

The paper examines data collected from 2013 to 2015 by the Census Bureau's nationally representative American Community Survey. It tracked kids up to age 18 who, based on family income, should qualify for Medicaid.

Researchers concluded that the children who benefited most from the welcome-mat effect lived in states that opted to pursue the ACA's Medicaid expansion, where an estimated 700,000 kids who would have previously been eligible for Medicaid but were not enrolled gained coverage because their parents did, too.

"There's no doubt that it's the combination effect; when parents find out they're eligible, it brings in the kids," said Tricia Brooks, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Children and Families, who was unaffiliated with the study. "I don't think parents intentionally choose not to enroll their children. …  It's going back to that lack of awareness, of understanding that children would be eligible on their own."

To be fair, the study did not account for all CHIP programs or attempt to differentiate the various ways children could gain access to health coverage through Medicaid or CHIP.

Rather, noted Sommers, it highlights a broader pattern: "Public coverage for children … increased as the Affordable Care Act took effect."

That gets at a more fundamental issue, many analysts suggested. The end goal of insuring kids -- generally popular across the aisle -- is difficult. The more controversial policy choices around adult coverage matter a great deal, too.

For instance, the Health Affairs study suggests that, had every state expanded Medicaid, 200,000 more kids would likely have gained coverage during the two-year period examined. And previous research has suggested that parents and children often have similar insurance statuses.

Brooks also pointed to simplified insurance applications, enhanced outreach and a larger push to enroll parents in health insurance, associated with the ACA broadly and the Medicaid expansion specifically. Those efforts, she said, all could have helped raise awareness about children's eligibility for insurance as well.

"Children still are missed, and therefore direct outreach to families may be a really good thing, especially in those situations where parents are also eligible," said Sara Rosenbaum, a health policy and law professor at George Washington University, who was not involved with the study. "It's like added value. It's a booster."

Meanwhile, the White House has cut its budget for promoting private marketplace insurance, which some say would add to declines in adult coverage.

If those changes hit parents, the research suggests, the implications don't stop there.

"The authors make a good case here that policies that are helping parents under the Affordable Care Act improve kids' access -- and moving the opposite way would affect their children negatively," Sommers said.

Kaiser Health New's coverage of children's health care issues is supported in part by a grant from The Heising-Simons Foundation.

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Why the Greatest Advocates of Nonviolence Didn't Condemn Anti-Racist, Anti-Fascist Acts of Violence

Mon, 09/11/2017 - 21:00

Most reports on antifa assert that there is an absolute separation between violence and nonviolence, and that each of us must choose a side. But history shows that allegiances between violent and nonviolent actors on the same side of anti-racist and anti-fascist struggles have always existed. Indeed, most successful nonviolent movements always occur in the context of parallel "unsuccessful" violent ones.

A daguerreotype of John Brown holding the flag of Subterranean Pass Way, his militant counterpart to the Underground Railroad, 1846-47. Brown's actions provoked seemingly paradoxical reactions from Northern Abolitionists. (Photo: Augustus Washington)

This year is not the first time Virginia has been at the heart of this country's soul-searching debate about the need to fight racist and fascist violence with anti-racist and anti-fascist violence, and whether those who oppose racism are bound to nonviolent means. In 1859, John Brown led a raid on the munitions depot in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, as part of a broader plan to start a slave insurrection in the South. Although they took the arsenal, Brown's men were defeated by none other than Robert E. Lee, and all died in battle or were hanged. Still, historians generally agree that Brown's raid helped fuel the demand for an end to slavery by any means.

Brown's actions put Northern Abolitionists in an awkward spot, since for many of them, the critique of slavery was part of their broader hatred of all forms of violence. William Lloyd Garrison stated, for example: "I am a non-resistant -- a believer in the inviolability of human life, under all circumstances; I, therefore, in the name of God, disarm John Brown, and every slave at the South." But Garrison understood perfectly well that this position could not be reconciled with the ongoing, horrendous violence that was the slave system. He thus continued: "But I do not stop there; if I did, I should be a monster.... As a peace man, an 'ultra' peace man -- I am prepared to say: 'success to every slave insurrection at the South, and in every slave country.'"

If Garrison seems to be stuck in a paradox, he is not alone. Henry David Thoreau, who helped popularize the idea of nonviolent resistance, was led to ask about Brown: "What sort of violence is that, which is encouraged, not by soldiers, but by peaceable citizens ... not so much by the fighting sects as by the Quakers, and not so much by Quaker men as by Quaker women?" And W.E.B. Du Bois would similarly state some years later, "We do not believe in violence ... but we do believe in John Brown."

And this position is not unique in the history of thought. Immanuel Kant, for example, argued across his writings that revolution was immoral, but also that there was no greater sign of hope than spectators cheering the French Revolution. Even the great names of nonviolence have found themselves in similar positions. Gandhi praised Japan's military victory over Russia as an exemplar of anti-imperial triumph: "When Japan's brave heroes forced the Russians to bite the dust of the battle-field, the sun rose in the east." And Martin Luther King Jr. famously called riots "the language of the unheard," stressing that any criticism of violence should begin not with revolutionaries, but with the "greatest purveyor of violence" in the world in his day -- the US military.*

Some, like the philosopher Dominic Losurdo, have suggested in light of such evidence that nonviolence is ultimately a utopian myth, which, while praiseworthy as an ideal, denies the actuality of violence in the world, and thus exacerbates conditions of oppression and ensures hypocrisy. However, there is another way to understand the seeming paradox presented to us by nonviolent activists and their occasional praise of violent actors. And that is to see them as partaking in a tradition of "revolutionary spectators," who simultaneously refuse to commit acts of violence themselves while witnessing with approval the violent acts of others. This is not hypocrisy, nor is it a clean-hands position that simply lets others do the dirty work. Rather, it insists that any movement must have both nonviolent and violent actors, and that the strength of a movement is in its ability to link their actions. Instead of denigrating antifa protectors, or calling out the mawkishness of nonviolence, we are better to understand what is happening today as a coordinated effort to use various means to fight racist and fascist violence.

Understanding this begins first by noting the problem of the word "nonviolence." Gandhi more often used the Sanskrit term ahimsa, which can be more accurately translated as "antiviolence." The difference is between a seeming passivity of simply not acting violently and the more active attempt to reduce the amount of violence in the world. (Gandhi never thought the world could be perfectly free from violence, since violence and struggle were woven into the fabric of nature and society. As he lamented, "Even the use of disinfectants is himsa [violence].") What Brown and Garrison were equally striving for was the means to negate violence in this violent world. They differed on the question of the ethics of method.

Second, we cannot ignore a basic historical fact: There is no such thing as a movement that is entirely violent or nonviolent. It simply does not exist. Abolition, Indian Independence, Ghanaian Independence, the Civil Rights Movement (to take a few canonical examples), all involved both violence and nonviolence. There were always riots, factions and fights beyond the purview of movement leaders. It is common for people advocating nonviolence today to cite the excellent book Why Civil Resistance Works by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan. In that book, the authors show how, by and large, nonviolent movements succeeded in the same places where violent movements failed. The problem with the claim, however, is that there is no example of a nonviolent movement that did not occur in the same time and place as a violent movement. In other words, the success of the nonviolent movement is always related to the parallel existence of an "unsuccessful" violent one.

Our theories advocating violence and nonviolence never seem to reach this reality on the ground. Nor can they come to terms with the fact that "nonviolence" -- as activists and thinkers like Frantz Fanon and Ward Churchill have pointedly asserted -- often simply means allowing violence to happen to the most disadvantaged and attacked, who, unlike the police or the nation, are never meant to respond. Absolutist logics about violence put us into a bind here. If one is opposed to violence, then how can one let it happen and not respond, or simply allow the violence of the state to do the dirty work for them? But equally, of course, if one is opposed to violence, then how can one commit violent acts? How much wrong has been done, after all, in the name of "wars to end all wars"?

It is here that the particular genius of the tradition that unites Kant, Garrison, Thoreau, Du Bois, King and others emerges. For what they are saying is that if it is going to be possible to live in a world that is less violent, then there must exist a group of activists who are partisans of causes that involve violence, while refusing to commit violent acts themselves. They will not sit on the sidelines while others fight; rather, they will courageously put their own bodies on the line, as Gandhi, King and countless others did and do. And when acts of violence against racist and fascist violence occur, such as those by John Brown, or by antifa, or countless others on their side, they will not simply condemn the violence absolutely as a rupture of true principles. Rather, they will say, to modify Du Bois, "We do not believe in violence, but we do believe in antifa." Or, to modify Garrison, "As a peace man, an 'ultra' peace man, I would never punch a Nazi, but I am prepared to say: success to everyone who punches a Nazi.'"

*My point in invoking these figures is not to uphold them as exemplars of moral purity -- they all had their failings. Kant wrote many racist things himself, as did Gandhi during his time in South Africa. I am interested in them here because of their thoughts and activities around the issues of violence, and because the general arc of their work can be used against racism, colonialism and fascism.

This essay is based on research for an article originally published as "Philosophy against and in Praise of Violence: Kant, Thoreau and the Revolutionary Spectator" published in Theory, Culture and Society 33.6 (2016).

Categories: Latest News

Oaxacan Residents Plead for Water and Food After Mexican Earthquake Kills More Than 90 People

Sun, 09/10/2017 - 21:00

In Mexico, the death toll from Thursday's devastating 8.2-magnitude earthquake has risen to 90 people as rescue teams continue to search through the rubble in parts of the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. Over the weekend, journalist Andalusia Knoll spoke to survivors from the earthquake in Juchitán, Oaxaca, which was the city hardest hit by the earthquake.

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: Latest News

Irma Destroys Haitian Farmland as Recovery Goes on From Recent Disasters

Sun, 09/10/2017 - 21:00

(Image: Democracy Now!)

The death toll from Hurricane Irma has reached at least 27 in the Caribbean. The numbers are expected to rise as rescuers reach the hardest-hit areas. Irma destroyed major parts of several Caribbean islands, including Barbuda and Saint Martin. Cuba also suffered major flooding in Havana and other cities, but there were no reported deaths. The entrepreneur Richard Branson has called for a "disaster recovery Marshall plan" for the Caribbean. Cuba has already sent more than 750 health workers to Antigua, Barbuda, Saint Kitts, Nevis, Saint Lucia, the Bahamas, Dominica and Haiti. While Haiti avoided a direct hit from Irma, the hurricane still caused substantial damage in a country still recovering from the 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Matthew last year.

Hurricane Irma displaced more than 100,000 Haitians and destroyed crops in the north of the country. We are joined here in New York by Kim Ives, an editor at Haïti Liberté.

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: Latest News

Another Thing Disappearing From Rural America: Maternal Care

Sun, 09/10/2017 - 21:00

Maternity care is disappearing from America's rural counties, and for the 28 million women of reproductive age living in those areas, pregnancy and childbirth are becoming more complicated -- and more dangerous. That's the upshot of a new report from the Rural Health Research Center at the University of Minnesota that examined obstetric services in the nation's 1,984 rural counties over a 10-year period. In 2004, 45 percent of rural counties had no hospitals with obstetric services; by 2014, that figure had jumped to 54 percent. The decline was greatest in heavily black counties and in states with the strictest eligibility rules for Medicaid.

The decrease in services has enormous implications for women and families, says Katy B. Kozhimannil, an associate professor in health policy who directs the Minnesota center's research efforts. Rural areas have higher rates of chronic conditions that make pregnancy more challenging, higher rates of childbirth-related hemorrhages -- and higher rates of maternal and infant deaths. And because rural counties tend to be poorer, any efforts to revamp or slash Medicaid could hit rural mothers especially hard. We spoke with Kozhimannil about the new study and the implications for maternal care. (The conversation has been edited and condensed.)

You and your colleagues have been looking at maternal health issues for several years. What's the most surprising part of this new study?

I was surprised about the findings on race. Being aware of structural racism in U.S. health care, I shouldn't have been. But we found that hospitals are more likely to close their doors entirely or close their obstetric units in communities that have more black residents. Rural black communities also experience some of the poorest birth outcomes in the country, especially in the Southeast.

I think [the race findings] are new and really important. In all the discussions I've had around maternity care access, I think there's often a false association of “rural” with white communities and with farming, but that doesn't represent the demographic reality of rural America, which is very diverse. There are 10 million people of color in rural America, that's about 20 percent of all rural Americans.

What has led to the decline in rural obstetric services more broadly over this 10-year period?

We didn't choose this period because we thought it was particularly unique. We chose it because it was the most recent decade of data we could get. That said, this was a period when there was a substantial shift in the health care delivery system. The debates around Obamacare, the implementation, the threats to repeal -- all that really created instability with respect to what hospitals and clinicians were expecting around payments.

And the role of finances is key. If hospitals want to offer obstetric services, they need to be ready for a baby to be born at any time -- they need to have a bed available, the equipment available for mom and for baby, clinicians and staff available that have the necessary skills. That's a substantial expense. If a hospital's revenues are limited because it has a low volume of births -- as many rural hospitals do -- or if revenues are unpredictable, that creates a really difficult administrative problem.

How does Medicaid play into this?

Medicaid funds about half of all births in the United States, and an even greater percentage of births in rural hospitals. Medicaid funding for births is incredibly important and it's one factor in hospitals' decisions around whether to keep obstetric services. We found that rural counties in states with more generous Medicaid programs -- with higher income eligibility limits for pregnant women -- were less likely to lose hospital-based obstetric services.

Meanwhile, there's talk of allowing states to impose new rules that could restrict access to Medicaid.

Changes to the financing of Medicaid would likely have big negative effects on the availability of obstetric services in rural areas. Based on our study, the generosity of a state's Medicaid program seems directly linked to access to maternity care in rural counties. As such, any new reductions or restrictions on Medicaid funding or services may affect rural hospital financing.

What is it like to be pregnant in a rural area that doesn't have adequate maternity care? What do women do?

For some women, there may be a nearby clinic or their general practitioner may be able to see them for prenatal visits if they have a low-risk pregnancy. But then they need to give birth in a more distant area with a different set of providers.

That may not even be a choice for women who live in communities that don't have any providers that see pregnant patients, or for women that have higher risk complications that require more specialized care.

I remember talking to one woman who lived in rural northern Minnesota and who had a preterm birth with her first pregnancy. For her second pregnancy, she had to drive two hours to the nearest hospital with a high-risk obstetrician. With one child at home already, and a full-time job and a partner who worked, it was almost untenable. It would take a whole day for her to drop her child off at daycare, drive all the way to the hospital, wait for a 15-minute visit that felt rushed, then drive all the way back.

I just heard on the radio this morning that a truck ran into a railroad bridge that goes over the highway that this woman would take to go back and forth to the hospital. So if she was pregnant right now, there's a 27-mile detour on three dirt roads to get around this broken bridge. That adds probably another 45 minutes to an already two-hour drive. Things like that can happen, you know, all the time.

What about giving birth? How does living in a remote area affect the kinds of choices doctors and women make?

In a typical childbirth education class in an urban area, childbirth educators say things like, “Go to the hospital when your contractions are five minutes apart.” None of that makes any sense in a rural context where women give birth far from home.

For rural moms, a lot of the conversation in childbirth education and in prenatal care revolves around logistics and transportation: “Do you know how you're going to get to your appointment? Do you have access to a car? Is your car reliable? Do you have money for gas? Do you have a backup plan if your car doesn't start? Do you have someone that you can call if you need to go in quickly?”

Anecdotally, I hear a lot about labor induction. The rural physicians I've talked to are like, “I can't believe I am trying to talk patients into having an induction.” They believe in letting labor start naturally, but given the long drive, induction is often better for patients clinically. So that if complications come up, someone's there, monitoring your blood pressure and vital signs. It's not, you know, your partner or friend desperately driving down dirt roads as fast as they can while you yell in the back seat.

How does all this affect outcomes for babies?

We have good information from Canada that the women who have to drive long distances to give birth have higher rates of the babies being in the neonatal intensive care unit, and even of infant mortality. And so we know that distance is associated with outcomes of care. When rural hospitals close the doors of their maternity units, women have to drive longer distances.

These seem like pretty huge hurdles for rural mothers and babies. Is there any way to address these problems to improve maternity care?

One idea is programs to support pregnant women and families, especially with respect to their housing and transportation needs when they live far away from where they're going to give birth. Alaska has actually done a tremendous job of this.

Another is for states to allow midwives and nurse practitioners to play a greater role in offering prenatal and postpartum care, without having to be under a doctor's supervision. That would be useful. Our prior research shows that midwives, for example, attend births at about one-third of all rural hospitals, and that hospital administrators would like to expand the role midwives play.

State and federal programs to support the rural maternity workforce are crucial. There ought to be programs to support training in emergency births in rural communities that lose obstetric care, and to support the costs of providing maternity care in communities where there are willing providers.

Categories: Latest News

The Pentagon's New Wonder Weapons for World Dominion

Sun, 09/10/2017 - 21:00

The US Pentagon building. (Photo: David B. Gleason; Edited: LW / TO)

Historian Alfred W. McCoy's new book peels back layers of secrecy to tell how the United States used covert intervention, surveillance, torture, trade pacts and military alliances to become a world power. Filmmaker Oliver Stone calls In the Shadows of the American Century "a hard look at the truth of our empire, both its covert activities and the reasons for its impending decline." Order this informative book today by making a donation to Truthout!

[This piece has been adapted and expanded from Alfred W. McCoy's new book, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power.] 

Not quite a century ago, on January 7, 1929, newspaper readers across America were captivated by a brand-new comic strip, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.  It offered the country its first images of space-age death rays, atomic explosions, and inter-planetary travel.

"I was twenty years old," World War I veteran Anthony "Buck" Rogers told readers in the very first strip, "surveying the lower levels of an abandoned mine near Pittsburgh... when suddenly... gas knocked me out. But I didn't die. The peculiar gas... preserved me in suspended animation. Finally, another shifting of strata admitted fresh air and I revived."

Staggering out of that mine, he finds himself in the 25th century surrounded by flying warriors shooting ray guns at each other. A Mongol spaceship overhead promptly spots him on its "television view plate" and fires its "disintegrator ray" at him.  He's saved from certain death by a flying woman warrior named Wilma who explains to him how this all came to be.

"Many years ago," she says, "the Mongol Reds from the Gobi Desert conquered Asia from their great airships held aloft by gravity Repellor Rays. They destroyed Europe, then turned toward peace-loving America." As their disintegrator beams boiled the oceans, annihilated the U.S. Navy, and demolished Washington, D.C. in just three hours, "government ceased to exist, and mobs, reduced to savagery, fought their way out of the cities to scatter and hide in the country. It was the death of a nation." While the Mongols rebuilt 15 cities as centers of "super scientific magnificence" under their evil emperor, Americans led "hunted lives in the forests" until their "undying flame of freedom" led them to recapture "lost science" and "once more strike for freedom."

After a year of such cartoons filled with the worst of early-twentieth-century Asian stereotypes, just as Wilma is clinging to the airship of the Mongol Viceroy as it speeds across the Pacific, a mysterious metallic orb appears high in the sky and fires death rays, sending the Mongol ship "hissing into the sea." With her anti-gravity "inertron" belt, the intrepid Wilma dives safely into the waves only to have a giant metal arm shoot out from the mysterious orb and pull her on board to reveal -- "Horrors! What strange beings!" -- Martians!

With that strip, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century moved from Earth-bound combat against racialized Asians into space wars against monsters from other planets that, over the next 70 years, would take the strip into comic books, radio broadcasts, feature films, television serials, video games, and the country's collective conscious.  It would offer defining visions of space warfare for generations of Americans.

Back in the 21st Century

Now imagine us back in the 21st century.  It's 2030 and an American "triple canopy" of pervasive surveillance systems and armed drones already fills the heavens from the lower stratosphere to the exo-atmosphere. It can deliver its weaponry anywhere on the planet with staggering speed, knock out enemy satellite communications at a moment's notice, or follow individuals biometrically for great distances. It's a wonder of the modern age. Along with the country's advanced cyberwar capacity, it's also the most sophisticated military information system ever created and an insurance policy for global dominion deep into the twenty-first century.

That is, in fact, the future as the Pentagon imagines it and it's actually under development, even though most Americans know little or nothing about it. They are still operating in another age, as was Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential debates when he complained that "our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917."

With words of withering mockery, President Obama shot back: "Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed... the question is not a game of Battleship, where we're counting ships. It's what are our capabilities." Obama then offered just a hint of what those capabilities might be: "We need to be thinking about cyber security. We need to be talking about space."

Indeed, working in secrecy, the Obama administration was presiding over a revolution in defense planning, moving the nation far beyond bayonets and battleships to cyberwarfare and the future full-scale weaponization of space.  From stratosphere to exosphere, the Pentagon is now producing an armada of fantastical new aerospace weapons worthy of Buck Rogers.

In 2009, building on advances in digital surveillance under the Bush administration, Obama launched the U.S. Cyber Command.  Its headquarters were set up inside the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland, and a cyberwar center staffed by 7,000 Air Force employees was established at Lackland Air Base in Texas. Two years later, the Pentagon moved beyond conventional combat on air, land, or sea to declare cyberspace both an offensive and defensive "operational domain." In August, despite his wide-ranging attempt to purge the government of anything connected to Barack Obama's "legacy," President Trump implemented his predecessor's long-delayed plan to separate that cyber command from the NSA in a bid to "strengthen our cyberspace operations."

And what is all this technology being prepared for? In study after study, the intelligence community, the Pentagon, and related think tanks have been unanimous in identifying the main threat to future U.S. global hegemony as a rival power with an expanding economy, a strengthening military, and global ambitions: China, the home of those denizens of the Gobi Desert who would, in that old Buck Rogers fable, destroy Washington four centuries from now. Given that America's economic preeminence is fading fast, breakthroughs in "information warfare" might indeed prove Washington's best bet for extending its global hegemony further into this century -- but don't count on it, given the history of techno-weaponry in past wars.

Techno-Triumph in Vietnam

Ever since the Pentagon with its 17 miles of corridors was completed in 1943, that massive bureaucratic maze has presided over a creative fusion of science and industry that President Dwight Eisenhower would dub "the military-industrial complex" in his farewell address to the nation in 1961. "We can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense," he told the American people. "We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions" sustained by a "technological revolution" that is "complex and costly." As part of his own contribution to that complex, Eisenhower had overseen the creation of both the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, and a "high-risk, high-gain" research unit called the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, that later added the word "Defense" to its name and became DARPA.

For 70 years, this close alliance between the Pentagon and major defense contractors has produced an unbroken succession of "wonder weapons" that at least theoretically gave it a critical edge in all major military domains. Even when defeated or fought to a draw, as in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the Pentagon's research matrix has demonstrated a recurring resilience that could turn disaster into further technological advance.

The Vietnam War, for example, was a thoroughgoing tactical failure, yet it would also prove a technological triumph for the military-industrial complex. Although most Americans remember only the Army's soul-destroying ground combat in the villages of South Vietnam, the Air Force fought the biggest air war in military history there and, while it too failed dismally and destructively, it turned out to be a crucial testing ground for a revolution in robotic weaponry.

To stop truck convoys that the North Vietnamese were sending through southern Laos into South Vietnam, the Pentagon's techno-wizards combined a network of sensors, computers, and aircraft in a coordinated electronic bombing campaign that, from 1968 to 1973, dropped more than a million tons of munitions -- equal to the total tonnage for the whole Korean War -- in that limited area. At a cost of $800 million a year, Operation Igloo White laced that narrow mountain corridor with 20,000 acoustic, seismic, and thermal sensors that sent signals to four EC-121 communications aircraft circling ceaselessly overhead.

At a U.S. air base just across the Mekong River in Thailand, Task Force Alpha deployed two powerful IBM 360/65 mainframe computers, equipped with history's first visual display monitors, to translate all those sensor signals into "an illuminated line of light" and so launch jet fighters over the Ho Chi Minh Trail where computers discharged laser-guided bombs automatically. Bristling with antennae and filled with the latest computers, its massive concrete bunker seemed, at the time, a futuristic marvel to a visiting Pentagon official who spoke rapturously about "being swept up in the beauty and majesty of the Task Force Alpha temple."

However, after more than 100,000 North Vietnamese troops with tanks, trucks, and artillery somehow moved through that sensor field undetected for a massive offensive in 1972, the Air Force had to admit that its $6 billion "electronic battlefield" was an unqualified failure.  Yet that same bombing campaign would prove to be the first crude step toward a future electronic battlefield for unmanned robotic warfare.

In the pressure cooker of history's largest air war, the Air Force also transformed an old weapon, the "Firebee" target drone, into a new technology that would rise to significance three decades later. By 1972, the Air Force could send an "SC/TV" drone, equipped with a camera in its nose, up to 2,400 miles across communist China or North Vietnam while controlling it via a low-resolution television image. The Air Force also made aviation history by test firing the first missile from one of those drones.

The air war in Vietnam was also an impetus for the development of the Pentagon's global telecommunications satellite system, another important first. After the Initial Defense Satellite Communications System launched seven orbital satellites in 1966, ground terminals in Vietnam started transmitting high-resolution aerial surveillance photos to Washington -- something NASA called a "revolutionary development." Those images proved so useful that the Pentagon quickly launched an additional 21 satellites and soon had the first system that could communicate from anywhere on the globe. Today, according to an Air Force website, the third phase of that system provides secure command, control, and communications for "the Army's ground mobile forces, the Air Force's airborne terminals, Navy ships at sea, the White House Communications Agency, the State Department, and special users" like the CIA and NSA.

At great cost, the Vietnam War marked a watershed in Washington's global information architecture. Turning defeat into innovation, the Air Force had developed the key components -- satellite communications, remote sensing, computer-triggered bombing, and unmanned aircraft -- that would merge 40 years later into a new system of robotic warfare.

The War on Terror

Facing another set of defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq, the twenty-first-century Pentagon again accelerated the development of new military technologies. After six years of failing counterinsurgency campaigns in both countries, the Pentagon discovered the power of biometric identification and electronic surveillance to help pacify sprawling urban areas. And when President Obama later conducted his troop "surge" in Afghanistan, that country became a frontier for testing and perfecting drone warfare.

Launched as an experimental aircraft in 1994, the Predator drone was deployed in the Balkans that very year for photo-reconnaissance.  In 2000, it was adapted for real-time surveillance under the CIA's Operation Afghan Eyes.  It would be armed with the tank-killing Hellfire missile for the agency's first lethal strike in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in October 2001. Seven years later, the Air Force introduced the larger MQ-9 "Reaper" drone with a flying range of 1,150 miles when fully loaded with Hellfire missiles and GBU-30 bombs, allowing it to strike targets almost anywhere in Europe, Africa, or Asia. To fulfill its expanding mission as Washington's global assassin, the Air Force plans to have 346 Reapers in service by 2021, including 80 for the CIA.

Between 2004 and 2010, total flying time for all unmanned aerial vehicles rose sharply from just 71 hours to 250,000 hours. By 2011, there were already 7,000 drones in a growing U.S. armada of unmanned aircraft. So central had they become to its military power that the Pentagon was planning to spend $40 billion to expand their numbers by 35% over the following decade. To service all this growth, the Air Force was training 350 drone pilots, more than all its bomber and fighter pilots combined.

Miniature or monstrous, hand-held or runway-launched, drones were becoming so commonplace and so critical for so many military missions that they emerged from the war on terror as one of America's wonder weapons for preserving its global power. Yet the striking innovations in drone warfare are, in the long run, likely to be overshadowed by stunning aerospace advances in the stratosphere and exosphere.

The Pentagon's Triple Canopy

As in Vietnam, despite bitter reverses on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington's recent wars have been catalysts for the fusion of aerospace, cyberspace, and artificial intelligence into a new military regime of robotic warfare.

To effect this technological transformation, starting in 2009 the Pentagon planned to spend $55 billion annually to develop robotics for a data-dense interface of space, cyberspace, and terrestrial battle space. Through an annual allocation for new technologies reaching $18 billion in 2016, the Pentagon had, according to the New York Times, "put artificial intelligence at the center of its strategy to maintain the United States' position as the world's dominant military power," exemplified by future drones that will be capable of identifying and eliminating enemy targets without recourse to human overseers. By 2025, the United States will likely deploy advanced aerospace and cyberwarfare to envelop the planet in a robotic matrix theoretically capable of blinding entire armies or atomizing an individual insurgent.

During 15 years of nearly limitless military budgets for the war on terror, DARPA has spent billions of dollars trying to develop new weapons systems worthy of Buck Rogers that usually die on the drawing board or end in spectacular crashes. Through this astronomically costly process of trial and error, Pentagon planners seem to have come to the slow realization that established systems, particularly drones and satellites, could in combination create an effective aerospace architecture.

Within a decade, the Pentagon apparently hopes to patrol the entire planet ceaselessly via a triple-canopy aerospace shield that would reach from sky to space and be secured by an armada of drones with lethal missiles and Argus-eyed sensors, monitored through an electronic matrix and controlled by robotic systems. It's even possible to take you on a tour of the super-secret realm where future space wars will be fought, if the Pentagon's dreams become reality, by exploring both DARPA websites and those of its various defense contractors.

Drones in the Lower Stratosphere

At the bottom tier of this emerging aerospace shield in the lower stratosphere (about 30,000 to 60,000 feet high), the Pentagon is working with defense contractors to develop high-altitude drones that will replace manned aircraft. To supersede the manned U-2 surveillance aircraft, for instance, the Pentagon has been preparing a projected armada of 99 Global Hawk drones at a mind-boggling cost of $223 million each, seven times the price of the current Reaper model. Its extended 116-foot wingspan (bigger than that of a Boeing 737) is geared to operating at 60,000 feet. Each Global Hawk is equipped with high-resolution cameras, advanced electronic sensors, and efficient engines for a continuous 32-hour flight, which means that it can potentially survey up to 40,000 square miles of the planet's surface daily. With its enormous bandwidth needed to bounce a torrent of audio-visual data between satellites and ground stations, however, the Global Hawk, like other long-distance drones in America's armada, may prove vulnerable to a hostile hack attack in some future conflict.

The sophistication, and limitations, of this developing aerospace technology were exposed in December 2011 when an advanced RQ-170 Sentinel drone suddenly landed in Iran, whose officials then released photos of its dart-shaped, 65-foot wingspan meant for flights up to 50,000 feet. Under a highly classified "black" contract, Lockheed Martin had built 20 of these espionage drones at a cost of about $200 million with radar-evading stealth and advanced optics that were meant to provide "surveillance support to forward-deployed combat forces."

So what was this super-secret drone doing in hostile Iran?  By simply jamming its GPS navigation system, whose signals are notoriously susceptible to hacking, Iranian engineers took control of the drone and landed it at a local base of theirs with the same elevation as its home field in neighboring Afghanistan. Although Washington first denied the capture, the event sent shock waves down the Pentagon's endless corridors.

In the aftermath of this debacle, the Defense Department worked with one of its top contractors, Northrop Grumman, to accelerate development of its super-stealth RQ-180 drone with an enormous 130-foot wingspan, an extended range of 1,200 miles, and 24 hours of flying time.  Its record cost, $300 million a plane, could be thought of as inaugurating a new era of lavishly expensive war-fighting drones.

Simultaneously, the Navy's dart-shaped X-47B surveillance and strike drone has proven capable both of in-flight refueling and of carrying up to 4,000 pounds of bombs or missiles. Three years after it passed its most crucial test by a joy-stick landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier, the USS George H.W. Bush in July 2013, the Navy announced that this experimental drone would enter service sometime after 2020 as the "MQ-25 Stingray" aircraft.

Dominating the Upper Stratosphere

To dominate the higher altitudes of the upper stratosphere (about 70,000 to 160,000 feet), the Pentagon has pushed its contractors to the technological edge, spending billions of dollars on experimentation with fanciful, futuristic aircraft.

For more than 20 years, DARPA pursued the dream of a globe-girding armada of solar-powered drones that could fly ceaselessly at 90,000 feet and would serve as the equivalent of low-flying satellites, that is, as platforms for surveillance intercepts or signals transmission. With an arching 250-foot wingspan covered with ultra-light solar panels, the "Helios" drone achieved a world-record altitude of 98,000 feet in 2001 before breaking up in a spectacular crash two years later. Nonetheless, DARPA launched the ambitious "Vulture" project in 2008 to build solar-powered aircraft with huge wingspans of 300 to 500 feet capable of ceaseless flight at 90,000 feet for five years at a time. After DARPA abandoned the project as impractical in 2012, Google and Facebook took over the technology with the goal of building future platforms for their customers' Internet connections.

Since 2003, both DARPA and the Air Force have struggled to shatter the barrier for suborbital speeds by developing the dart-shaped Falcon Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle. Flying at an altitude of 100,000 feet, it was expected to "deliver 12,000 pounds of payload at a distance of 9,000 nautical miles from the continental United States in less than two hours." Although the first test launches in 2010 and 2011 crashed in midflight, they did briefly reach an amazing 13,000 miles per hour, 22 times the speed of sound.

As often happens, failure produced progress. In the wake of the Falcon's crashes, DARPA has applied its hypersonics to develop a missile capable of penetrating China's air-defenses at an altitude of 70,000 feet and a speed of Mach 5 (about 3,300 miles per hour).

Simultaneously, Lockheed's secret "Skunk Works" experimental unit is using the hypersonic technology to develop the SR-72 unmanned surveillance aircraft as a successor to its SR-71 Blackbird, the world's fastest manned aircraft. When operational by 2030, the SR-72 is supposed to fly at about 4,500 mph, double the speed of its manned predecessor, with an extreme stealth fuselage making it undetectable as it crosses any continent in an hour at 80,000 feet scooping up electronic intelligence.

Space Wars in the Exosphere

In the exosphere, 200 miles above Earth, the age of space warfare dawned in April 2010 when the Defense Department launched the robotic X-37B spacecraft, just 29 feet long, into orbit for a seven-month mission. By removing pilots and their costly life-support systems, the Air Force's secretive Rapid Capabilities Office had created a miniaturized, militarized space drone with thrusters to elude missile attacks and a cargo bay for possible air-to-air missiles. By the time the second X-37B prototype landed in June 2012, its flawless 15-month flight had established the viability of "robotically controlled reusable spacecraft." 

In the exosphere where these space drones will someday roam, orbital satellites will be the prime targets in any future world war. The vulnerability of U.S. satellite systems became obvious in 2007 when China used a ground-to-air missile to shoot down one of its own satellites in orbit 500 miles above the Earth. A year later, the Pentagon accomplished the same feat, firing an SM-3 missile from a Navy cruiser to score a direct hit on a U.S. satellite 150 miles high.

Unsuccessful in developing an advanced F-6 satellite, despite spending over $200 million in an attempt to split the module into more resilient microwave-linked components, the Pentagon has opted instead to upgrade its more conventional single-module satellites, such as the Navy's five interconnected Mobile User Objective Systems (MUOS) satellites.  These were launched between 2013 and 2016 into geostationary orbits for communications with aircraft, ships, and motorized infantry.

Reflecting its role as a player in the preparation for future and futuristic wars, the Joint Functional Component Command for Space, established in 2006, operates the Space Surveillance Network. To prevent a high-altitude attack on America, this worldwide system of radar and telescopes in 29 remote locations like Ascension Island and Kwajalein Atoll makes about 400,000 observations daily, monitoring every object in the skies.

The Future of Wonder Weapons

By the mid-2020s, if the military's dreams are realized, the Pentagon's triple-canopy shield should be able to atomize a single "terrorist" with a missile strike or, with equal ease, blind an entire army by knocking out all of its ground communications, avionics, and naval navigation. It's a system that, were it to work as imagined, just might allow the United States a diplomatic veto of global lethality, an equalizer for any further loss of international influence.

But as in Vietnam, where aerospace wonders could not prevent a searing defeat, history offers some harsh lessons when it comes to technology trumping insurgencies, no less the fusion of forces (diplomatic, economic, and military) whose sum is geopolitical power. After all, the Third Reich failed to win World War II even though it had amazingly advanced "wonder weapons," including the devastating V-2 missile, the unstoppable Me-262 jet fighter, and the ship-killing Hs-293 guided missile.

Washington's dogged reliance on and faith in military technology to maintain its hegemony will certainly guarantee endless combat operations with uncertain outcomes in the forever war against terrorists along the ragged edge of Asia and Africa and incessant future low-level aggression in space and cyberspace. Someday, it may even lead to armed conflict with rivals China and Russia.

Whether the Pentagon's robotic weapon systems will offer the U.S. an extended lease on global hegemony or prove a fantasy plucked from the frames of a Buck Rogers comic book, only the future can tell. Whether, in that moment to come, America will play the role of the indomitable Buck Rogers or the Martians he eventually defeated is another question worth asking.  One thing is likely, however: that future is coming far more quickly and possibly far more painfully than any of us might imagine.

Categories: Latest News

Welfare for Wall Street: Fees on Retirement Accounts

Sun, 09/10/2017 - 21:00

(Photo: malerapaso / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Most of us are willing to help out those who are less well off. Whether it comes from religious belief or a sense of basic decency we feel are an obligation to provide the basic necessities of life for the poor. But how would we feel about being taxed $1,000 a year to provide six figure salaries to people in the financial sector? Although no candidate to my knowledge has ever run on this platform, this is the nature of the retirement system the federal government has constructed for us.

Twenty or 30 years ago, most middle-class workers had defined benefit pensions. This meant that they could count on a fixed benefit that was some fraction of their average salary during their working years. For example, a person who spent 30 years at a company may be entitled to a pension that was equal to 60 percent of their average salary over their final five years of work.

With a defined benefit pension system, most of the risk was born by the employer. The worker did not have to worry about the stock market being down when she chose to retire. Nor did it matter to her if the pension made bad investment choices; the employer was liable for the promised benefits, unless it went bankrupt.

The virtues of the defined pension system can be exaggerated, although recent research indicates it provided more retirement income than we had recognized. Workers who changed jobs frequently or worked part-time rarely qualified for pension coverage. This excluded many women, African American and Latino workers. But for those who were eligible the defined benefit system provided a substantial degree of retirement security.

That is not the case with the system of 401(k)s and IRA(s) that replaced the defined benefit system. Many workers are never able to put enough into their retirement plans to accumulate much towards retirement. In addition, there is no way to completely avoid the risk that the stock market can take a plunge as workers approach retirement.  And some people will inevitably make bad investment choices.

However, there is one item that can be controlled. This is the fees that workers pay on the money they have in these accounts. These fees average 1 percent a year on the almost $6 trillion in 401(k) accounts managed by employers.  There is a wide range for the fees on the $8 trillion held in IRAs, but many people pay more than 1 percent annually on these accounts as well.

If a 1 percent annual fee seems like a small deal, then you should probably let someone else manage your account. Suppose you have accumulated $100,000 in a 401(k) or an IRA, a reasonable amount for a middle class person nearing retirement. A 1 percent fee means you are paying $1,000 a year for someone to hold your money and send you quarterly statements telling you how much money you have in your account.

It's important to realize that this 1 percent fee is not for actually managing the money. These accounts typically offer a range of funds, each of which charges its own fee to cover the cost of managing the fund. For example, a 401(k) might offer a variety of stock, bond and money market funds in which you can invest your money. Each of these funds will charge a fee that covers the cost of investing the money placed in the fund. The 1 percent fee charged by the 401(k) is an addition to these fees.

What is the actual cost of holding your money and sending out quarterly statements? Vanguard, the biggest of the investment funds, doesn't charge its customers anything to manage their accounts. They skim a small amount off the fees charged by the individual funds to cover overhead costs. This means that the 1 percent, or $1,000 a year, that 401(k) holders pay to manage their account is entirely an excess charge.

Think of it like going up to a person asking for money on the street and handing them $1,000. Only in this case, the person getting the money probably has more money than you do.

There are ways to rein in these costs. Several states -- including California, Illinois and Oregon -- have passed legislation that allows workers in the private sector to buy into low cost funds managed through the state. These public systems are supposed to go into operation over the next few years. Presumably, other states will follow this model if these systems prove successful.

At this point, the biggest question is whether these programs will get off the ground. The Trump administration has been trying to sabotage them, using an interpretation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) that would ban the state-run funds. Apparently Trump is concerned that his friends in the financial industry could not survive if they faced competition from the government.  

The future of these publicly-run systems is unclear at this point. It would be a huge step forward if 401(k) and IRA managers simply had to disclose their fees in their quarterly statements, but like cockroaches, they want to remain in the dark.

For now, you should just get used to the idea of these big handouts to the financial industry. You can console yourself with the thought that these are people who probably could not earn an honest living without help from the government.

Categories: Latest News

"The Last Guardians": The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice in Ecuador

Sun, 09/10/2017 - 21:00

A new documentary by two British filmmakers presents the fight by Indigenous tribes in Ecuador to preserve their lands, while creating alliances with other Native peoples across the globe. 

Following an $18 billion judgment against Chevron from a court in Ecuador, protesters --  some in traditional dress and with black hands representing oil, demonstrate in front of a United States courthouse against the Chevron Corp on October 15, 2013, in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

An international movement by Indigenous peoples to protect their lands from despoilment is magnifying a fight for justice that has been under the radar for too long. It exploded onto the US national news when Native Americans said "no" to the planned Dakota Access pipeline, fearing for the safety of their drinking water.

In a new documentary, The Last Guardians, British filmmakers Joe Tucker and Adam Punzano give viewers an on-the-ground look at the fight for Indigenous land rights and self-determination in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

To shoot the film, Tucker and Punzano took their cameras to the villages of the Sápara of Llanchamacocha and Kichwa of Sarayaku in Pastaza state -- neighbors for centuries -- to substantiate their struggle for environmental justice on ancestral grounds. Embedding themselves with the local population, Tucker and Punzano interviewed members from elder representatives of the village to those who are on the front lines of activism.

The adversaries in question are not a surprise: Big oil, moneyed interests and the agenda of the Ecuadorean government are the powerful entities squaring off against the local inhabitants fighting to stop the poisoning of their land, water and families.

The first half of the movie presents the native culture, showing the community's deep and powerful connection to the land and spiritual world. Manari Ushigua, president of the Sápara Nation, explains the interrelationship of humans with trees, animals, insects, water and the Earth as a non-hierarchical society. Everything and everyone are equal. "We have an equilibrium with nature," Manari Ushigua states.

When the Spanish first came, they sought to exploit the rubber resources. "They enslaved our ancestors and brought unknown diseases like measles and yellow fever ... and with these illnesses our elders died," says Manari Ushigua.

Originally, there were more than 200,000 people speaking 32 dialects within their territory. The population is now 200, with only six living people speaking the native Sápara language. (UNESCO gave their oral tradition "Intangible Cultural Heritage" status in 2001.)

The 1941 war between Ecuador and Peru divided the nation into two entities. Members now live in both countries. The last Sápara shaman dwells in Peru.

Before oil drilling became prevalent in the 1960s, this rainforest area was home to the Cofán, Huaorani, Kichwa and Secoya peoples. The extent of the drilling has resulted in a diminishment of both the rainforest and Indigenous territories.

To demonstrate this point, the film shifts to northern Ecuador and the locales of Coca and Nueva Loja, the core spots for oil extraction.

Texaco was active in the region from 1964 to 1990, before the company merged with Chevron in 2001. During this period, allegedly 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater and 15 million gallons of crude oil spilled onto the land. "Oil muck" left behind led to contamination, which spread to all the river estuaries. This resulted in the disappearance of flowers and fauna, people getting sick and children born with deformities.

The Last Guardians interviews tribal members who attest to the long-range impacts of the 20-year oil spill. One man spoke of the death of three of his children.

Alejandro Soto, a community activist who works with the Amazon Defense Coalition and the Comité de los Afectados (Committee of the Affected), showed the filmmakers places where dumped oil had resulted in remaining patches of deposits. Luis Yanza, president of the Amazon Defense Coalition, was concise in his assessment of how the oil companies operate. "The fundamental purpose is to enter and extract oil without paying the damages," he said. "Basically, there's been no change in the past 30 years."

Yet, despite the Ecuadorian government's insistence that Chevron pay up, they have simultaneously continued to grant drilling rights on Indigenous lands without proper authority.

Tucker and Punzano, responding to questions via email, related that as per the country's constitution, the government needed a decree for Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) to allow drilling. Like the oil companies, the government circumvents this prerequisite through subterfuge and dividing tribal allegiances. One method is paying off a high-profile tribal representative to approve drilling. Another ploy is securing consent from "external communities" who have moved onto Indigenous territory. This divide-and-conquer approach is antipathetic to the parity among members that is key to their societal structure.

However, in July 2012 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights rendered a decision on Sarayaku v. Ecuador. It stated that Ecuador was liable for "breaching the indigenous peoples' right to free, prior and informed consultation under international standards."

This was a game-changing court case. Tucker and Punzano explained, "Essentially, as the community becomes fully aware of their rights and is able to receive legal counsel from outside, it becomes much more difficult for the government to pretend consent has been given. Sarayaku v. Ecuador is a landmark case which indigenous communities from across the Amazon now look to as a model."

Yet in 2015, the Ecuadorian government sold access to blocks of land to a new fossil-fuel player, Andes Petroleum, a Chinese consortium. (The company noted for the record that they would "respect the local customs and culture in all operation areas.") Patricia Gualinga, the international relations director of Sarayaku, called out the government for using FPIC as a "smokescreen." She accused the oil companies of trying to "impose an economic and social model completely distinct from our reality."

In October 2015, the Sarayaku took their grievances directly to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. "At the root of this, we were victims of a host of violations on the part of the president of the Republic," Gualinga said.

The movie demonstrates the essential conflict between two mindsets. One is money-driven; the other looks to nature to supply life's basic needs and meaning.

A matter of philosophical orientation, this point of view has given rise to the Kawsak Sacha proposal called "The Living Forest." It was presented at COP21 in Paris. The tract laid out the Living Forest as "a sacred heritage of biodiversity, free from oil, mining, and wood exploitation." With the objective of helping to heal climate change by giving "balance to the planet," it declared sacred Indigenous land "a heritage of humanity," free from ill use.

Tucker and Adam Punzano state, "The Sápara and Kichwa communities recognize that they are advocating a new international solidarity between indigenous peoples, which can function as a key to the defense of indigenous rights globally."

The Kichwa of Sarayaku sent a delegation to Standing Rock last year in solidarity with North American tribes. They have attended international events, where they have presented a template of resistance to other peoples disenfranchised first by Europeans colonialists, and now by foreign businesses.

As the documentary rolls out in the UK and the US, two issues remain on the table: Chevron has yet to pay the billions of dollars in damages that it owes to Ecuador; and Andes Petroleum is primed to drill on Sápara territory this year.

Regardless, the Indigenous communities will continue to fight.

Categories: Latest News

Sexism, Racism and Classism Are Fueling the Opioid Crisis

Sat, 09/09/2017 - 21:00

Tori Herr dreamed of becoming a veterinarian or a journalist. She was only 18 years old when she died in a Pennsylvania jail.

After Tori was arrested on drug charges in 2015, she began suffering from heroin withdrawal in jail. She was denied medical treatment, and her cellmate was threatened with punishment for attempting CPR when Tori collapsed. By the time medical staff arrived, Tori hadn't been breathing for 10 minutes.

"I would've loved to see what her future would've been," Tori's mother, Stephanie Moyer, told the local news. But as Moyer points out, Tori was "sentenced to death before she even saw the judge."

Tori's death was not an isolated incident. More and more women are dying from causes related to opioid use, and the state's response has been criminalization, not care.

In 2015, 418 women in Tori's home state of Pennsylvania died from opioid overdoses, a marked rise from previous years. This increase mirrors a rise in overdose deaths among women across the nation.

Although men still use opioids at higher rates than women, women are quickly catching up. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported in 2013 that "deaths from prescription painkiller overdoses among women have increased more than 400 percent since 1999, compared to 265 percent among men."

***

Increasingly desperate living conditions have meant that the overall life expectancy for white women workers is now on the decline. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues in Jacobin, "It is unprecedented for life expectancy to reverse in a so-called first-world country. In the United States' peer countries, life expectancy is actually growing. Why is life expectancy for working-class white women in decline? Drug overdose, suicide, and alcohol abuse."

Despite Donald Trump's assertion that "talking to youth and telling them 'no good, really bad for you'" will solve the opioid crisis, the recent substance use epidemic isn't primarily the result of individual choices. A variety of systemic issues lie at the heart of the increase in overdose deaths due to opioid usage -- many of which affect women disproportionately.

Moreover, studies find that women typically progress from using opioids to dependence more quickly than men and suffer more severe emotional and physical consequences of drug use.

Many women, for example, begin using opioids as a means of coping with trauma due to sexual violence or domestic abuse. While these factors also affect men, women are much more likely to be the victims of sexual assault and violence. A society that encourages sexual and gender-based violence is a society that promotes opioid use.

Eating disorders such as bulimia are another catalyst for opioid use. Because of societal pressures regarding the female body, women suffer from eating disorders at far higher rates than men. Some women use opioids as a way to self-medicate for bulimia. In fact, one study found that one in five women in an opioid addiction treatment program had a previous problem with bulimia, and that their bulimia symptoms came back as they stopped using opioids. A society that tells women their bodies are never good enough is a society that promotes opioid use.

While recent media attention has focused on heroin, the opioid epidemic in the U.S. began with the use of opioids prescribed for pain. The pharmaceutical company Purdue has spent a significant amount of time and money on marketing OxyContin directly to doctors -- unprecedented for an addictive opioid.

Some states, including Ohio, have begun to prosecute several pharmaceutical companies for their role in creating the opioid epidemic. State officials argue that these companies "purposely misled doctors about the dangers connected with pain meds that they produced."

According to the CDC, women are more likely than men to go to the doctor with chronic pain, leading to increased availability of prescription opioids. A society that makes profit from pain is a society that promotes opioid use.

Poverty is a major factor in opioid use and addiction, in part because workers in low-wage, manual jobs are more likely to suffer from chronic pain. Many people also use opioids to cope with the emotional pain of living in poverty. As an American Journal of Public Health article noted, people in rural areas have turned to drugs after experiencing "long-term economic deprivation, high rates of unemployment, and fewer opportunities for establishing a long-term career."

We found a statistically significant positive correlation between the drug overdose mortality rate and the percentage of the population living in poverty, by county, in West Virginia. Women are significantly more likely to live in poverty than men, with 14 percent of U.S. women living in poverty in 2015 compared to 10 percent of men). A society that leaves millions of people struggling to survive is a society that promotes opioid use.

***

The effects of poverty have become more acute in the decades since the 1980s as both the Democratic and Republican parties have systematically dismantled social service programs. Many of these programs were particularly important for women -- a factor that may further push women toward addiction.

The data shows that the states that have expanded the Family and Medical Leave Act and that have paid parental leave and school parental leave have lower percentages of opioid overdose deaths in women. A society that slashes necessary services for the poor to increase profit for the rich is a society that promotes opioid use.

The slashing of social services is one factor that negatively affects life prospects for women, but there are many others.

West Virginia has the highest opioid overdose mortality rate, and a greater percentage of women who die in overdoses compared to the national average. The Status of Women in the States report report ranks West Virginia 51st for women's employment and earnings -- behind all other states and the District of Columbia -- and 49th for women's poverty and opportunity.

In fact, we found that states that rank lower in women's employment/earnings and in women's poverty/opportunity have a higher percentage of overdose deaths by women.

Women with opioid addictions are more likely than men to be currently unemployed, suggesting that the lack of employment opportunities for women is another factor which drives them to addiction. A society in which women are underpaid and treated as second-class citizens is a society that promotes opioid use.

***

Meanwhile, politicians have responded to the opioid crisis not with real solutions, but with platitudes at best -- and criminalization at worst.

According to the Sentencing Project, the percentage of women incarcerated in state prisons who were there because of drug offenses increased from 12 percent in 1986 to 24 percent in 2014. Women in prisons are more likely than men to be incarcerated for drug offenses (24 percent of women as opposed to 15 percent of men in 2015).

Much has been made of the fact that the incarceration rate for Black women is decreasing. Indeed, the 47 percent decrease in the incarceration rate for Black women between 2000 and 2014 is certainly worth celebrating. Nonetheless, the overall incarceration rate for women has held steady, with the incarceration rate for white women increasing 56 percent and the rate for Latina women increasing by 7 percent. And despite these changes, Black women are still incarcerated at twice the rate of white women.

Ironically, the reason that white women are disproportionately affected by the opioid crisis is because of anti-Black racism. There is a long history -- dating back to slavery -- of Black people's and especially Black women's pain being discounted and neglected.

Black women have historically been seen as falling outside of supposedly delicate, fragile white femininity, and society views them as less in need of protection.

These stereotypes have been -- and continue to be -- used to justify violence and abuse of Black people, such as the decades-long Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment on Black men and or medical experiments on enslaved Black women.

Today, one of the manifestations of this bias is that doctors are much less likely to prescribe treatment for Black people's pain -- including addictive opioids. Moreover, pharmaceutical companies market opioids to doctors predominantly in rural, white areas where doctors prescribe pain medicine more frequently, both because their patients are mostly white and because workers in these areas tend to have dangerous jobs and are more likely to suffer from work-related injuries that require treatment for pain.

Some anti-racist activists note that politicians and public figures have recognized the majority white opioid epidemic as a disease, while people addicted to crack in the 1980s and '90s were viewed as criminals.

While this is true, this hasn't stopped politicians from continuing to back tough-on-crime solutions, which has led to an increase in incarceration of white women for drug offenses, the stigmatization that drug users and the lack of viable options for people with addictions.

Research on substance use disorder continues to find that incarceration is not an effective measure in mitigating the effects of addiction. According to Dr. Perilou Goddard, Professor of Psychological Science at Northern Kentucky University and an expert in drug policy, "incarcerating our way out of the problem is an intellectually bankrupt idea."

Goddard notes that the U.S. is behind most European nations in its conceptualization and treatment of substance use. While other nations understand addiction to be a disease, the U.S. stigmatizes substance users as social deviants. Goddard explains that the most effective way to reach individuals who are addicted to opioids is to start by helping them reduce drug-related harms through programs like syringe services programs and supervised injection facilities.

In the U.S., "We want to punish rather than treat the issue as the public health problem that it is," Goddard said.

As Tori Herr's story illustrates, and as numerous sociologists and public health professionals confirm, incarceration does nothing to solve the opioid crisis and doesn't keep our communities safer from the harmful effects of drugs or from any other crime.

In fact, it's important to note that rising addiction rates are not causing rising incarceration rates; there has never been a relationship between crime rate and incarceration rate. Rather, as geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore notes in her book Golden Gulag, new prisons are built to resolve crises of capital. Women with addictions are convenient as bodies to fill those prisons.

***

Though Trump has declared the opioid crisis to be a "state of emergency," the policies he has put forward will exacerbate the opioid crisis, most notably his quest to destroy Medicaid. Trump stands for racism, sexism and the 1 Percent -- all of which will lead to more deaths from opioids.

It's up to the left to put forward and fight for viable alternatives to end this crisis. The first step is to recognize that the opioid crisis is a health crisis, and the second is to accept that this health crisis is fostered and exacerbated by social and economic conditions.

It's clear that sexism, racism, classism, and the whole capitalist system are fueling the opioid crisis. At the same time, exploitation and oppression force the blame for addiction onto its victims. Given that the opioid epidemic is not the result of individual choices, but rather systemic exploitation and oppression, we need to fight for a better world for everyone if we want to end the suffering and death wrought by opioids.

In the meantime, the destigmatization and decriminalization of drug use and strategies aimed at harm reduction, such as needle exchanges and safe injection facilities, can go a long way. Drug users can and should be a part of this fight.

"People who use drugs are told constantly that they don't deserve to make decisions about their own bodies and their own lives," said Joelle Puccio, a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit nurse and chair of the Perinatal Substance Use Working Group for the National Perinatal Association. But people who use drugs deserve the same rights and autonomy as anyone else -- and they should be involved in reclaiming them.

Categories: Latest News

As Hurricanes Intensify, So Does Resistance to Big Oil in the Gulf

Sat, 09/09/2017 - 21:00

Louisiana-based organizer Cherri Foytlin addresses a crowd of protesters at Energy Transfer Partners corporate headquarters in Dallas, Texas, on Friday. Indigenous and environmental activists from across the country demonstrated against the company's pipeline projects, including the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, which would carry oil from east Texas across the sensitive wetlands of southern Louisiana. (Photo: Ethan Buckner / Earthworks)

Petrochemical facilities in south Texas released millions of pounds of dangerously toxic chemicals like benzene, hexane and toluene in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. For environmentalists and Indigenous activists in the Gulf South, where sea levels are rising and precious wetlands that protect against floods and storm surges are disappearing, resisting Big Oil is becoming a matter of survival.

Louisiana-based organizer Cherri Foytlin addresses a crowd of protesters at Energy Transfer Partners corporate headquarters in Dallas, Texas, on Friday. Indigenous and environmental activists from across the country demonstrated against the company's pipeline projects, including the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, which would carry oil from east Texas across the sensitive wetlands of southern Louisiana. (Photo: Ethan Buckner / Earthworks)

Longtime environmental justice activist and resident of Port Arthur, Texas, where Hurricane Harvey recently flooded neighborhoods and several large oil refineries, Hilton Kelley has a lot on his mind.

When Truthout reached Kelley on Tuesday, he had just finished posting a crowdfunding appeal for people affected by Hurricane Harvey and was turning to the next task at hand: his own flood-damaged home. Like his neighbors up and down the street, Kelley's belongings were spread across the driveway as he waited with his granddaughter for FEMA officials to arrive and assess the damage.

"I'm right in the mix of this thing," Kelley said. "I rushed to come back here to assist others and also to check on my home that had two feet of water in it."

Kelley was in "survival-first mode," with food, water and a dry place to spend the night among his top concerns. Then there are the troubled refineries working to restart production under the protection of a state waiver ordered by Texas Governor Gregg Abbott in response to the hurricane, which protects facilities from facing penalties for spewing toxic pollution.

A day earlier, the Valero refinery in Port Arthur released 6,116 pounds of sulfur dioxide gas into the air as it restarted operations in the middle of the night, according to state records. Sulfur dioxide causes burning in the nose and throat and is particularly harmful to children, the elderly and people with asthma.

"When it comes to the environment, there's a shutdown [at the refinery], you have smoke coming from the derricks along with some fire, the smell and pungent odors," Kelley said. "Where I'm at now, I don't smell it, but when I go to the west end where the refineries are, it's very apparent."

The Valero refinery would go on to belch thousands of pounds of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and gases into the air as it lurched back to life over the following days, a practice known as "flaring" that occurs when aging refineries abruptly start up, shut down or malfunction.

Floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey surround storage tanks at the Valero refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, on September 1. Petrochemical plants and refineries like this one released millions of pounds of toxic pollution into the air as they shut down and rebooted in the wake of the storm. (Photo: Alex Glustrum)

When combined with emissions from neighboring refineries and other facilities in the region, the numbers are staggering. By August 31, the refineries and petrochemical plants in south Texas had released 5 million pounds of pollution in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, including 1 million pounds of seven particularly dangerous toxic chemicals, such as benzene, hexane and toluene.

While some emissions were the result of storm damage, most were caused by standard procedures involving flaring. Flaring has become routine during major storms, and environmentalists say the oil industry has consistently been unwilling to spare the resources necessary to operate safely in emergencies, even as fossil fuels disrupt the climate and warm oceans, making hurricanes like Harvey more destructive.

"These facilities are located in a part of the world where there are terrible storms, and they are simply not prepared," said Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental group that tracks petrochemical pollution in Gulf communities.

The American Fuel and Petrochemical Association, a group that represents the industry, did not respond to a request for comment from Truthout.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Irma was brewing in the Atlantic, on its way to becoming one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded in that part of the world and leaving a path of destruction across the Caribbean. At the time, there was no way to know whether Irma would turn up the Atlantic Coast or head across the Gulf toward Texas. (The storm is now headed away from the Gulf.)

"If that's the case, I'm going all the way to Dallas," Kelley said. "I'm done, I'm tired."

A Movement Grows Out of the Swamps

On Saturday, activists launched a colorful flotilla of boats, kayaks and rafts on a bayou in southern Louisiana to raise awareness about their fight against the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, a proposal to pipe oil from East Texas across much of southern Louisiana, including sensitive wetlands in the picturesque Atchafalaya Basin and southern coastal plains.

The flotilla was part of a national day of action against Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind several controversial pipeline projects, including the infamous Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) and the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, which constitutes DAPL's southern leg.

The company attracted global controversy last year as Native activists built a mass movement against DAPL, including the protest camps at Standing Rock in North Dakota that sustained resistance against the pipeline for many months last year, before the Trump administration came to power and set the stage for law enforcement to aggressively evict remaining water protectors.

Weaving down a bayou that supplies drinking water for Indigenous and Cajun communities and is threatened by pipeline accidents, the flotilla was one of the first public manifestations of the L'eau Est La Vie (Water is Life) Camp, an activist enclave hidden in the swamps that draws its inspiration directly from Standing Rock.

With several activists having just returned from a nonviolent direct action at Energy Transfer Partners corporate headquarters in Dallas on Friday, L'eau Est La Vie is also a sign that resistance to fossil fuels in the South is becoming more confrontational as temperatures and sea levels rise. The action in Dallas grew tense after local police and security guards tried to shut down an Indigenous drum ceremony, and activists later marched to the home of Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren, a gated mansion nearby.

A wooden signs announces a prayer service against the Bayou Bridge Pipeline at St. Paul Baptist Church in rural St. James Parish, Louisiana, where local pastors say, "prayer can stop a pipeline." Grassroots opposition the oil industry is growing across the Gulf south. (Photo: Ethan Buckner / Earthworks)

For years, groups like the Bucket Brigade and Kelley's local organization in Port Arthur, the Community In-Power and Development Association, have catalogued petrochemical pollution in the Gulf by flying planes over oil spills, digging through government databases, collecting satellite images of pollution, taking air and water samples and empowering residents to report pollution on their own.

Armed with the resulting data, they wrangle with regulators and well-funded industry groups over rules and enforcement measures to reign in pollution, only to find themselves up against the overwhelming power of the fossil fuel industry and the stream of riches it pulls from the oil and gas wells that dot the Gulf of Mexico and its coastal plains.

"These regulations that we want are obviously good and really necessary, but the playing field is so unequal, and we are being smothered ... by chemicals," Rolfes said. "Look at what's happened in Harvey. We don't just need a regulation here or enforcement there, although that is necessary. We need a wholesale shift, away from a petroleum and fossil fuel-based economy."

As severe storms and floods intensify and become more common across the Gulf region, so does grassroots resistance to the fossil fuel industry that dominates its landscapes and drives climate disruption. Activists are not just demanding environmental justice in the face of pollution, but a "just transition" away from a fossil fuels altogether.

The protesters are growing in numbers, and their actions are becoming more direct, as they set their sights on opposing both existing oil and gas infrastructure as well as blocking new pipelines and plants from being constructed. For environmentalists in the Gulf, where sea levels are rising and precious wetlands that protect against floods and storm surges are rapidly melting into the sea, this resistance is becoming a matter of survival.

Resistance in Climate Ground Zero

As Kelley and his family began putting their lives back together in Port Arthur, activist and L'eau Est La Vie organizer Cherri Foytlin was volunteering at an evacuation center an hour's drive east in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where people were arriving with only "the clothes on their back."

Foytlin said one of the big concerns among people showing up from Port Arthur was whether cancerous chemicals like benzene were floating in the floodwaters they waded through to get to and from their homes. The health effects of chemicals leaching from damaged refineries and flaring into the air may not become apparent until years down the road.

"Most of those refineries, if not all of them, went underwater, and there were a lot of concerns about what was actually in the water, and we don't know because it's proprietary information," Foytlin told Truthout on Wednesday.

Cherri Foytlin, who joined the water protectors at Standing Rock during the protests against Dakota Access pipeline last year, navigates a bayou on a raft from the L'eau Est La Vie (Water is Life) Camp in southern Louisiana, where a movement to stop the Bayou Bridge Pipeline is emerging from the swamp. (Photo: Ethan Buckner / Earthworks)

As Truthout reported, the Trump administration delayed chemical safety rules for industrial facilities earlier this year, including rules that would have required chemical plants and refineries to share information about toxic chemicals with emergency response planners in case of a disaster.

The petrochemical industry complained that the rules would require costly equipment upgrades and could force facilities to share sensitive information with first responders. The attorneys general of Texas and Louisiana even invoked the threat of that information falling into the hands of "terrorists" in a letter requesting that the rules be delayed.

"But let's look at who is really gassing our communities," Rolfes said. "It's not ISIS over in Houston. It's Arkema, it's Motiva, it's these companies with these chemical plants."

For Foytlin, there is a direct correlation between leaders in Washington and problems faced by residents of the Gulf coast. The same pollution Houston faces in the wake of Harvey occurs when storms hit refineries and chemicals plants near New Orleans, Mobile and other cities along the Gulf Coast.

Foytlin lives in Rayne, Louisiana, and her house has flooded twice in the past year: once during a 1,000-year flood that devastated central Louisiana last summer, and again during heavy rains this spring.

"It's a situation where our leaders are intentionally putting our lives in danger ... especially the Trump administration," Foytlin said.

Foytlin said it's clear that climate disruption is causing unusually strong storms and heavy rains, and oil and gas development has damaged wetlands that soak up excess water and prevent flooding. That's one reason why Foytlin has become a central figure in the fight to stop the Bayou Bridge Pipeline.

"Who keeps building [oil] infrastructure on a coastline that keeps melting away and keeps being hit by storms?" Foytlin said.

The push to stop the Bayou Bridge Pipeline has become a central fight for activists opposing the fossil fuel industry in Louisiana and across the Gulf South. Protests and rallies against the pipeline have been held in New OrleansBaton Rouge and across the state, and environmental groups have filed a lawsuit to block a permit needed for construction.

Local pastors lead a prayer service against the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in St. James Parish, Louisiana. (Photo: Ethan Buckner / Earthworks)

In February, as Donald Trump took office and authorities prepared to clear the Standing Rock camps, a permit hearing for the Bayou Bridge proposal became rowdy after Energy Transfer Partners told Foytlin and about 200 other anti-pipeline protesters that the company shares the same "vision" for the country as Trump. The protesters responded loudly with a promise to keep fighting even as state authorities sign approvals for the project.

The movement is not just about stopping pipelines, although they are needed to carry the oil and gas. The Gulf South is both a center of fossil fuel production and an area experiencing firsthand the impacts of climate disruption, making it a focus for the movement to transition away from fossil fuels.

Last year, hundreds of protesters crashed an offshore oil and gas leasing auction at the Superdome in New Orleans, interrupting the proceedings and generating headlines nationwide. Weeks later, it was environmental justice activists from Gulf communities who led a massive march against offshore drilling in Washington, DC.

The growing movement faces many challenges. For example, Gulf states like Louisiana are economically dependent on the oil and gas industry for jobs and tax revenues. However, despite the riches the industry pulls from its wells, the Gulf South remains one of the poorest regions of the country. And Foytlin points out that the workers who recently installed solar panels on her house were making $30 an hour, and rooftops are much easier to get to than offshore oil rigs.

"One thing is, there is the renewable sector, which is growing by leaps and bounds ... there would be more jobs if we made that transition to a cleaner future," Foytlin said.

The Gulf region may be ground zero for the environmental destruction caused by fossil fuel production and climate disruption, but it's also the site of a groundswell of struggle. Gulf activists are fighting for a world where economies and communities are not dominated by oil, gas and petrochemicals. Their vision is not just of a different future for the people of the Gulf, but for everyone else as well.

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