"They Don't Care Who the Guns Go To": Experts Warn Trump Administration Plans to Widen US Weapons Exports
Efforts by President Donald Trump to ease some restrictions on US weapons sales overseas have raised concerns as he considers changes that would allow the State Department and Pentagon to more actively advocate on behalf of American arms manufacturers. The move could be included in an executive order or presidential memorandum Trump plans to issue this fall. This comes as the United States is already the global leader in weapons exports, accounting for more than half the world's annual arms deals. We speak with William Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.
Please check back later for full transcript.
As President Trump travels to Puerto Rico two weeks after it was devastated by Hurricane Maria, we go to the island for an on-the-ground report. Democracy Now!'s correspondent Juan Carlos Dávila traveled to the town of Utuado to speak with residents who have yet to get help other than a few bottles of water. He also joins us live in the capital San Juan from a protest against Trump's visit.
Please check back later for full transcript.
Trump's nominee to head the EPA's clean air program has represented industry groups opposed to new standards meant to protect workers from airborne cancerous silica dust. While unions claim that hundreds of workers die each year from silica exposure, attorney William Wehrum has argued in federal court that the new standard goes too far because people "are designed to deal with dust."
Using a mask to keep the silica dust from entering his lungs, an employee of Maine State Highway Maintenance Department sweeps a large quantity of the harmful salt-laced road sand. Unions say hundreds of workers die each year from silica exposure, but William Wehrum argued on behalf of industry groups that new standards go too far. (Photo by Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
Last week, attorney William Wehrum appeared before a federal court to argue against new standards meant to protect workers from airborne silica dust, which is so fine that particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause health problems, such as fatal lung disease and cancer.
This week, Wehrum will appear before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee because President Trump has nominated him to head the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) clean air program, where he worked under the Bush administration a decade ago.
The new silica rules cut the amount of cancerous dust allowed in the air at industrial facilities in half. Trade unions say standards should be even lower, and labor leaders lashed out at the Trump administration for putting workers' lives on the line when officials delayed implementation of the rules earlier this year.
The unions say hundreds of workers die each year from silica exposure, but Wehrum argued on behalf of industry groups that the new standard goes too far.
"People are designed to deal with dust," Wehrum reportedly told the court. "People are in dusty apartments all the time and it doesn't kill them."
As the Trump administration works to roll back environmental rules adopted by its predecessor, the nation's most pressing questions over pollution are increasingly being decided in courtrooms rather than agency offices or legislative chambers. These legal battles pit federal regulatory agencies against the competing interests of polluters' industries and environmentalists. Trump has been clear about which side he wants to work with.
Like EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and other officials tapped to fulfill Trump's promise to roll back environmental regulations, Wehrum's immediate background is in litigation rather than working in a university laboratory or a federal air monitoring station. He currently represents coal, oil, gas and other polluting industries for an international law firm.
President Bush nominated Wehrum for the same position back in 2006 but withdrew the nomination after a year went by without approval from the Senate. Wehrum had served as the assistant director to the EPA's clean air and radiation program under Bush, the last time a Republican administration focused the agency on gutting clean air rules. The New York Times called him a "doctrinal hit man" for Bush's anti-regulation efforts at the time.
During Wehrum's tenure, the EPA faced dozens of lawsuits from environmental groups over efforts to roll back protections laid out under the Clean Air Act. Environmental groups won 27 of these legal battles over the course of 7 years, while the Bush EPA only prevailed in 11 cases, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
"Under Wehrum's leadership, the Bush air program did not just lose clean air lawsuits frequently; it lost them badly, by violating the plain language of the law egregiously, again and again," wrote John Walke, director of the NRDC's clean air program, in a blog post last month.
If the Senate confirms his nomination, Wehrum would oversee efforts to loosen clean air standards developed by the Obama administration. These standards include a plan to reduce smog and air pollution crossing state lines, as well as President Obama's signature Clean Power Plan for capping climate-warming emissions from power plants.
Trump has promised to gut the Clean Power Plan, and Pruitt and the EPA are under orders to update a federal district court on its review of the regulations by the end of the week. The EPA is expected to propose replacing Obama's plan with another that sets much lower emission reduction goals and has full support from the industry.
While Obama's plan would have shuttered some of the nation's oldest and dirtiest coal power plants and incentivized investment in cleaner fuel and renewables, Pruitt's plan is likely to focus on equipment upgrades that the industry is willing to pay for in order to keep the current fleet of coal plants operating for years to come.
Last week, Energy Secretary Rick Perry proposed new regulations that would require utility companies to pay higher rates for electricity from aging coal and nuclear power plants in order to keep them in business even as cleaner and more efficient options become available.
"The coal and nuclear industries aren't winning on the open market, so the Trump administration wants to rig the system for them," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, in a statement. "This scheme would force millions of Americans to pay higher monthly utility bills to keep these dying, dirty and dangerous relics of the energy sector on life support."
That's bad news for anyone concerned about climate disruption and for the state of Maryland, which sued the EPA last week over air pollution blowing over its border from coal-burning power plants in neighboring states. Maryland argues that 19 coal plants in Kentucky, Indiana, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio have not been using smog controls as required by federal regulations, making it difficult for Maryland to comply with federal smog standards.
These are the same ozone and smog standards that Pruitt sued the EPA over when he was attorney general of Oklahoma, a state with a sprawling oil and gas industry blamed for air pollution that causes smog in neighboring states. Earlier this year, Pruitt attempted to delay implementation of the smog rules until 2018 but reversed course after facing lawsuits from environmental groups and state attorneys general.
Wehrum isn't the only Trump nominee scheduled to appear before the Senate committee this week. The hearing will also feature Michael Dourson, Trump's pick to run the EPA's chemical safety office. Environmentalists say that Dourson has extensive ties to the chemical industry and, as a scientific consultant, has consistently produced assessments in the industry's favor.
"Dr. Dourson's consistent endorsement of chemical safety standards that not only match industry's views, but are also significantly less protective than EPA and other regulators have recommended, raises serious doubts about his ability to lead those efforts," said Sen. Tom Carper, the ranking Democrat on the committee considering the nominations, in an interview with the New York Times.
During Pruitt's confirmation hearing earlier this year, Carper and other Democrats grilled the current EPA administrator about his record of fighting in court on behalf of polluters, but they were unable to convince lawmakers in the Republican majority to oppose Pruitt or other Trump nominees. Democrats are expected to grill Dourson and Wehrum about their industry ties, but blocking their confirmation appears to be an uphill battle.Support your favorite writers by making sure we can keep publishing them! Make a donation to Truthout to ensure independent journalism survives.
Groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, Anti-Defamation League and American Civil Liberties Union pride themselves on their work in combatting racism and discrimination. But they often mislead people into thinking that all "hate," including responses to institutionalized white supremacy, is equal, thus undermining their missions and the causes they're supposed to serve. They produce messages that mislead people in the name of freedom.
Members of the Nation of Islam prepare to lead a march from Bragg Street to Bible Way Temple in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Monday, Feb. 29, 2016. "Hate" is a misleading label for responses to white supremacy. (Photo: Chuck Liddy / Raleigh News & Observer / TNS via Getty Images)
The rallying of white supremacist extremism in the US has caused fear and confusion for much of the general public. It's clear that the ascension of Donald Trump and the mass mobilization of white supremacist movements are inextricably linked, and so, over the past year, the desire to "understand" white supremacist groups has been a pinned topic in the mainstream media. In a scramble to understand the now-emboldened (though by no means new) evils, many people are searching for resources. Centrist cable networks and news media sources have sought out nonprofits, such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), among others, to explain organizations that have been designated as "hate groups."
Unfortunately, the nonprofits that the media are turning to for answers are not without ideological complexities of their own. For example, the ADL in particular, positions itself as "liberal," but is in many ways virulently right-wing, allying itself with powerful conservative forces in the US and Israel. The ACLU and SPLC, meanwhile, are largely dominated by white liberal politics, which often leads them to make misleading claims under the guise of faux humane objectivity.
"Racism," "prejudice," "bigotry" and "hate" are all different words with distinct meanings and connotations. "Racism" sticks out among these words because of the regularity of its use as a word that often enrages and creates conflict. How we interact with the concept of racism and words that relate to forms of discrimination societally is often driven by the dominant media and mainstream discussions of these words' implications in realms like entertainment, politics and education. One thing we know about racism, perhaps better than the definition of the word itself, is that there has been a great tug of war over who gets to lay claim to its effects.
It's clear that mainstream media outlets have been (and still are) complicit in entertaining many of the tropes produced by the debate over who gets to say they experience racism. Discussions of "reverse racism" or "reverse discrimination" have made their way into mainstream conversations as if they are legitimate items of discussion. Ironically, their very phrasing -- the use of "reverse" as a qualifier, usually spouted from white mouths -- shows a subconscious, if not conscious awareness of who owns the infliction and dissemination of racism in white supremacist societies. (If something has a "reverse," it must have a "regular" or "normal" mode -- in this case, meaning the oppression of those who are not white.) These illogical terms contain, in themselves, an admission of their fundamental mistruth, but the disaster of liberal accommodationism has pushed these myths even further forward.
The Southern Poverty Law Center's website states: "All hate groups have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics." The Anti-Defamation League defines a hate group as "an organization whose goals and activities are primarily or substantially based on a shared antipathy towards people of one or more other different races, religions, ethnicities/nationalities/national origins, genders, and/or sexual identities. The mere presence of bigoted members in a group or organization is typically not enough to qualify it as a hate group; the group itself must have some hate-based orientation/purpose."
These descriptions seem simple enough until we take a closer look at their application in today's world. How groups like the SPLC and ADL balance hate itself and flatten discrimination in their work dismisses much of what we know about the foundations of white supremacy and ideological whiteness in the US.
Maybe the foremost example of this lies in the SPLC's and ADL's listing of "Black separatist" groups alongside the likes of KKK groups, neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates and so on. CNN reports via the SPLC that "Black separatists, anti-white groups who support separate institutions for blacks, make up one in five hate groups in the United States." CNN goes on to state, "The number of neo-Confederate groups inched up to 43 -- the highest figure since early in Obama's presidency but still far from its 21st century high of 124 groups in 2001. Meanwhile, the number of black separatists has rocketed from 81 groups a decade ago to 193 groups now -- the largest subgroup of hate group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center."
The ADL's and SPLC's focus on Black nationalist groups is quite troubling when we take history into account. For example, as of 2016, SPLC labels "Black Separatists" as hate groups, saying:
Although the Southern Poverty Law Center recognizes that much black racism in America is, at least in part, a response to centuries of white racism, it believes racism must be exposed in all its forms. White groups espousing beliefs similar to black separatists would be considered clearly racist. The same criterion should be applied to all groups regardless of their color.
It may seem absurd to describe any Black group as "racist" in a white supremacist society, and extraordinarily absurd to label anything Black people were doing in response to Jim Crow (prior to its end) as such. Black nationalism and the history of Black calls for separate institutions has an extensive history that gets oversimplified for the sake of dangerous centrist amalgamations. This lines up with the dusty sordid meme during segregation, when white people accused the likes of Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) and many of his influences and contemporaries of being the "real racists" for wanting Black autonomy through their nationalist philosophies.It's irresponsible to portray groups formed in response to any type of subjection as equivalent in their oppressive capacity to the subjugator.
Meanwhile, the ADL's website describes the Nation of Islam thusly: "The Nation of Islam (NOI), the oldest Black nationalist organization in the U.S., has maintained a consistent record of anti-Semitism and racism since its founding in the 1930s. Under the guidance of Louis Farrakhan, who has espoused anti-Semitism and racism for over 30 years as NOI leader, the organization has used its programs, institutions, and media to disseminate its message of hate." Without a doubt, anti-Jewish sentiments (as well as other very troubling views) have certainly been expressed within the leadership and the ranks of the Nation of Islam, as well as other groups labeled "separatists." Still, to lump all of these groups together while neglecting class, race and power across the spectrum of oppression in the US is sociologically irresponsible.
Listing Black groups of this nature alongside white extremist groups undermines any educated understanding of white supremacy, racism and oppression. It should be taken about as seriously as the term "reverse racist" itself. Power dynamics matter and are not separate from these discussions. All over the world, dissenters, militants and insurrectionaries are often equated with their oppressors under the guise of deplorable views. No matter how problematic, hateful and prejudiced one may be in their response to oppressiveness, we cannot conflate their behavior with that of the institutions, militaries and governments that oppress them. Furthermore, it's irresponsible to portray groups formed in response to any type of subjection as equivalent in their oppressive capacity to the subjugator and those the subjugators enable.
White supremacy is a tenet upon which the United States was founded, though the ways in which the state has chosen to inflict it have adjusted with time. Presidencies, judgeships, the military, police forces and countless other roles that are theoretically supposed to serve the public are (and have always been) infiltrated (and, often, were founded) by the likes of the white supremacist hate groups we know today. White supremacist hate groups' philosophies are enshrined in the founding documents of the US and the beginnings of nearly every institution we have come to know as "American."
So how can anyone in good conscience list responses to white supremacy by Black, Native or any people of color as "hate" alongside white supremacists? This isn't just an irresponsible mishap, this is a manifestation of white supremacy itself.
Hatred will certainly thrive if those who deem themselves experts on its inner workings can't muster a minimal understanding of power dynamics and history. One of the latest examples of this centrist-style false equivalency is the ADL's initial call for police to investigate Antifa (anti-fascist) protesters. While liberal pundits, media outlets and politicians joined white supremacists in condemning Antifa as "violent," the ADL recommended that the police infiltrate Antifa. The group then retracted this call; however, its website still states: "Antifa, who have many anti-police anarchists in their ranks, can also target law enforcement with both verbal and physical assaults because they believe the police are providing cover for white supremacists. They will sometimes chant against fascism and against law enforcement in the same breath." Furthermore, the ADL is not just a liberal police apologist group; it's actively aligned with the police while claiming the right to define hatred. As it states on its website, "ADL is the nation's top non-governmental law enforcement training organization."
Policing in the US was founded upon white supremacy and still is infiltrated by white supremacists, but instead of acknowledging this, accommodationist politics are more concerned with maintaining the status quo cloaked in an imagined relative peace. This is a concession to the right under the guise that all those who oppose their dominant, often state-sponsored, forms of violence supposedly have just as much work to do to end oppression. Addressing this topic, Zoe Samudzi wrote: "The clearly defined liberal preference for order over justice will facilitate fascistic governance and punish the 'violent' left, thus necessarily strengthening existing punishments of non-white communities, and maintain a tenuous peace for state-mediated hegemonic whiteness."
Much like the ACLU, which repeatedly insists on defending white supremacists, "anti-hate" groups like the ADL and SPLC are undermining the very causes they purport to help. With the millions of dollars they amass and which should be helping the most affected, they produce messages that mislead people in the name of freedom. If these groups want to live up to their potential, they must first acknowledge that not all "hate" is created equal.Want to see more coverage of the issues that matter? Make a donation to Truthout to ensure that we can publish more original stories like this one.
President Donald Trump looks on from the clubhouse during Sunday singles matches of the Presidents Cup at Liberty National Golf Club on October 1, 2017 in Jersey City, New Jersey. The most dangerous of Trump's antics have barely been reported. (Photo: Cliff Hawkins / Getty Images)
This interview has been excerpted from Global Discontents: Conversations on the Rising Threats to Democracy, the new book by Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian to be published this December.
David Barsamian: You have spoken about the difference between Trump's buffoonery, which gets endlessly covered by the media, and the actual policies he is striving to enact, which receive less attention. Do you think he has any coherent economic, political, or international policy goals? What has Trump actually managed to accomplish in his first months in office?
Noam Chomsky: There is a diversionary process under way, perhaps just a natural result of the propensities of the figure at center stage and those doing the work behind the curtains.
At one level, Trump's antics ensure that attention is focused on him, and it makes little difference how. Who even remembers the charge that millions of illegal immigrants voted for Clinton, depriving the pathetic little man of his Grand Victory? Or the accusation that Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower? The claims themselves don't really matter. It's enough that attention is diverted from what is happening in the background. There, out of the spotlight, the most savage fringe of the Republican Party is carefully advancing policies designed to enrich their true constituency: the Constituency of private power and wealth, "the masters of mankind," to borrow Adam Smith's phrase.
These policies will harm the irrelevant general population and devastate future generations, but that's of little concern to the Republicans. They've been trying to push through similarly destructive legislation for years. Paul Ryan, for example, has long been advertising his ideal of virtually eliminating the federal government, apart from service to the Constituency -- though in the past he's wrapped his proposals in spreadsheets so they would look wonkish to commentators. Now, while attention is focused on Trump's latest mad doings, the Ryan gang and the executive branch are ramming through legislation and orders that undermine workers' rights, cripple consumer protections, and severely harm rural communities. They seek to devastate health programs, revoking the taxes that pay for them in order to further enrich their Constituency, and to eviscerate the Dodd-Frank Act, which imposed some much-needed constraints on the predatory financial system that grew during the neoliberal period.
That's just a sample of how the wrecking ball is being wielded by the newly empowered Republican Party. Indeed, it is no longer a political party in the traditional sense. Conservative political analysts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have described it more accurately as a "radical insurgency," one that has abandoned normal parliamentary politics.
Much of this is being carried out stealthily, in closed sessions, with as little public notice as possible. Other Republican policies are more open, such as pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, thereby isolating the US as a pariah state that refuses to participate in international efforts to confront looming environmental disaster. Even worse, they are intent on maximizing the use of fossil fuels, including the most dangerous; dismantling regulations; and sharply cutting back on research and development of alternative energy sources, which will soon be necessary for decent survival.
The reasons behind the policies are a mix. Some are simply service to the Constituency. Others are of little concern to the "masters of mankind" but are designed to hold on to segments of the voting bloc that the Republicans have cobbled together, since Republican policies have shifted so far to the right that their actual proposals would not attract voters. For example, terminating support for family planning is not service to the Constituency. Indeed, that group may mostly support family planning. But terminating that support appeals to the evangelical Christian base -- voters who close their eyes to the fact that they are effectively advocating more unwanted pregnancies and, therefore, increasing the frequency of resort to abortion, under harmful and even lethal conditions.
Not all of the damage can be blamed on the con man who is nominally in charge, on his outlandish appointments, or on the congressional forces he has unleashed. Some of the most dangerous developments under Trump trace back to Obama initiatives -- initiatives passed, to be sure, under pressure from the Republican Congress.
The most dangerous of these has barely been reported. A very important study in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, published in March 2017, reveals that the Obama nuclear weapons modernization program has increased "the overall killing power of existing US ballistic missile forces by a factor of roughly three -- and it creates exactly what one would expect to see, if a nuclear-armed state were planning to have the capacity to fight and win a nuclear war by disarming enemies with a surprise first strike." As the analysts point out, this new capacity undermines the strategic stability on which human survival depends. And the chilling record of near disaster and reckless behavior of leaders in past years only shows how fragile our survival is. Now this program is being carried forward under Trump. These developments, along with the threat of environmental disaster, cast a dark shadow over everything else -- and are barely discussed, while attention is claimed by the performances of the showman at center stage.
Whether Trump has any idea what he and his henchmen are up to is not clear. Perhaps he is completely authentic: an ignorant, thin-skinned megalomaniac whose only ideology is himself. But what is happening under the rule of the extremist wing of the Republican organization is all too plain.
Do you see any encouraging activity on the Democrats' side? Or is it time to begin thinking about a third party?
There is a lot to think about. The most remarkable feature of the 2016 election was the Bernie Sanders campaign, which broke the pattern set by over a century of US political history. A substantial body of political science research convincingly establishes that elections are pretty much bought; campaign funding alone is a remarkably good predictor of electability, for Congress as well as for the presidency. It also predicts the decisions of elected officials. Correspondingly, a considerable majority of the electorate -- those lower on the income scale -- are effectively disenfranchised, in that their representatives disregard their preferences. In this light, there is little surprise in the victory of a billionaire TV star with substantial media backing: direct backing from the leading cable channel, Rupert Murdoch's Fox, and from highly influential right-wing talk radio; indirect but lavish backing from the rest of the major media, which was entranced by Trump's antics and the advertising revenue that poured in.
The Sanders campaign, on the other hand, broke sharply from the prevailing model. Sanders was barely known. He had virtually no support from the main funding sources, was ignored or derided by the media, and labeled himself with the scare word "socialist." Yet he is now the most popular political figure in the country by a large margin.
At the very least, the success of the Sanders campaign shows that many options can be pursued even within the stultifying two-party framework, with all of the institutional barriers to breaking free of it. During the Obama years, the Democratic Party disintegrated at the local and state levels. The party had largely abandoned the working class years earlier, even more so with Clinton trade and fiscal policies that undermined US manufacturing and the fairly stable employment it provided.
There is no dearth of progressive policy proposals. The program developed by Robert Pollin in his book Greening the Global Economy is one very promising approach. Gar Alperovitz's work on building an authentic democracy based on worker self-management is another. Practical implementations of these approaches and related ideas are taking shape in many different ways. Popular organizations, some of them outgrowths of the Sanders campaign, are actively engaged in taking advantage of the many opportunities that are available.
At the same time, the established two-party framework, though venerable, is by no means graven in stone. It's no secret that in recent years, traditional political institutions have been declining in the industrial democracies, under the impact of what is called "populism." That term is used rather loosely to refer to the wave of discontent, anger, and contempt for institutions that has accompanied the neoliberal assault of the past generation, which led to stagnation for the majority alongside a spectacular concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.
Functioning democracy erodes as a natural effect of the concentration of economic power, which translates at once to political power by familiar means, but also for deeper and more principled reasons. The doctrinal pretense is that the transfer of decision-making from the public sector to the "market" contributes to individual freedom, but the reality is different. The transfer is from public institutions, in which voters have some say, insofar as democracy is functioning, to private tyrannies -- the corporations that dominate the economy -- in which voters have no say at all. In Europe, there is an even more direct method of undermining the threat of democracy: placing crucial decisions in the hands of the unelected troika -- the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission -- which heeds the northern banks and the creditor community, not the voting population.
These policies are dedicated to making sure that society no longer exists, Margaret Thatcher's famous description of the world she perceived -- or, more accurately, hoped to create: one where there is no society, only individuals. This was Thatcher's unwitting paraphrase of Marx's bitter condemnation of repression in France, which left society as a "sack of potatoes," an amorphous mass that cannot function. In the contemporary case, the tyrant is not an autocratic ruler -- in the West, at least -- but concentrations of private power.
The collapse of centrist governing institutions has been evident in elections: in France in mid-2017 and in the United States a few months earlier, where the two candidates who mobilized popular forces were Sanders and Trump -- though Trump wasted no time in demonstrating the fraudulence of his "populism" by quickly ensuring that the harshest elements of the old establishment would be firmly ensconced in power in the luxuriating "swamp."
These processes might lead to a breakdown of the rigid American system of one-party business rule with two competing factions, with varying voting blocs over time. They might provide an opportunity for a genuine "people's party" to emerge, a party where the voting bloc is the actual constituency, and the guiding values merit respect.
Trump's first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia. What significance do you see in that, and what does it mean for broader Middle East policies? And what do you make of Trump's animus toward Iran?
Saudi Arabia is the kind of place where Trump feels right at home: a brutal dictatorship, miserably repressive (notoriously so for women's rights, but in many other areas as well), the leading producer of oil (now being overtaken by the United States), and with plenty of money. The trip produced promises of massive weapons sales -- greatly cheering the Constituency -- and vague intimations of other Saudi gifts. One of the consequences was that Trump's Saudi friends were given a green light to escalate their disgraceful atrocities in Yemen and to discipline Qatar, which has been a shade too independent of the Saudi masters. Iran is a factor there. Qatar shares a natural gas field with Iran and has commercial and cultural relations with it, frowned upon by the Saudis and their deeply reactionary associates.
Iran has long been regarded by US leaders, and by US media commentary, as extraordinarily dangerous, perhaps the most dangerous country on the planet. This goes back to well before Trump. In the doctrinal system, Iran is a dual menace: it is the leading supporter of terrorism, and its nuclear programs pose an existential threat to Israel, if not the whole world. It is so dangerous that Obama had to install an advanced air defense system near the Russian border to protect Europe from Iranian nuclear weapons -- which don't exist, and which, in any case, Iranian leaders would use only if possessed by a desire to be instantly incinerated in return.
That's the doctrinal system. In the real world, Iranian support for terrorism translates to support for Hezbollah, whose major crime is that it is the sole deterrent to yet another destructive Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and for Hamas, which won a free election in the Gaza Strip -- a crime that instantly elicited harsh sanctions and led the US government to prepare a military coup. Both organizations, it is true, can be charged with terrorist acts, though not anywhere near the amount of terrorism that stems from Saudi Arabia's involvement in the formation and actions of jihadi networks.
As for Iran's nuclear weapons programs, US intelligence has confirmed what anyone can easily figure out for themselves: if they exist, they are part of Iran's deterrent strategy. There is also the unmentionable fact that any concern about Iranian weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) could be alleviated by the simple means of heeding Iran's call to establish a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. Such a zone is strongly supported by the Arab states and most of the rest of the world and is blocked primarily by the United States, which wishes to protect Israel's WMD capabilities.
Since the doctrinal system falls apart on inspection, we are left with the task of finding the true reasons for US animus toward Iran. Possibilities readily come to mind. The United States and Israel cannot tolerate an independent force in a region that they take to be theirs by right. An Iran with a nuclear deterrent is unacceptable to rogue states that want to rampage however they wish throughout the Middle East. But there is more to it than that. Iran cannot be forgiven for overthrowing the dictator installed by Washington in a military coup in 1953, a coup that destroyed Iran's parliamentary regime and its unconscionable belief that Iran might have some claim on its own natural resources. The world is too complex for any simple description, but this seems to me the core of the tale.
It also wouldn't hurt to recall that in the past six decades, scarcely a day has passed when Washington was not tormenting Iranians. After the 1953 military coup came US support for a dictator described by Amnesty International as a leading violator of fundamental human rights. Immediately after his overthrow came the US-backed invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussein, no small matter. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians were killed, many by chemical weapons. Reagan's support for his friend Saddam was so extreme that when Iraq attacked a US ship, the USS Stark, killing 37 American sailors, it received only a light tap on the wrist in response. Reagan also sought to blame Iran for Saddam's horrendous chemical warfare attacks on Iraqi Kurds.
Eventually, the United States intervened directly in the Iran-Iraq War, leading to Iran's bitter capitulation. Afterward, George H. W. Bush invited Iraqi nuclear engineers to the United States for advanced training in nuclear weapons production -- an extraordinary threat to Iran, quite apart from its other implications. And, of course, Washington has been the driving force behind harsh sanctions against Iran that continue to the present day.
Trump, for his part, has joined the harshest and most repressive dictators in shouting imprecations at Iran. As it happens, Iran held an election during his Middle East travel extravaganza -- an election which, however flawed, would be unthinkable in the land of his Saudi hosts, who also happen to be the source of the radical Islamism that is poisoning the region. But US animus against Iran goes far beyond Trump himself. It includes those regarded as the "adults" in the Trump administration, like James "Mad Dog" Mattis, the secretary of defense. And it stretches a long way into the past.
What are the strategic issues where Korea is concerned? Can anything be done to defuse the growing conflict?
Korea has been a festering problem since the end of World War II, when the hopes of Koreans for unification of the peninsula were blocked by the intervention of the great powers, the United States bearing primary responsibility.
The North Korean dictatorship may well win the prize for brutality and repression, but it is seeking and to some extent carrying out economic development, despite the overwhelming burden of a huge military system. That system includes, of course, a growing arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles, which pose a threat to the region and, in the longer term, to countries beyond -- but its function is to be a deterrent, one that the North Korean regime is unlikely to abandon as long as it remains under threat of destruction.
Today, we are instructed that the great challenge faced by the world is how to compel North Korea to freeze these nuclear and missile programs. Perhaps we should resort to more sanctions, cyberwar, intimidation; to the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system, which China regards as a serious threat to its own interests; perhaps even to direct attack on North Korea -- which, it is understood, would elicit retaliation by massed artillery, devastating Seoul and much of South Korea even without the use of nuclear weapons.
But there is another option, one that seems to be ignored: we could simply accept North Korea's offer to do what we are demanding. China and North Korea have already proposed that North Korea freeze its nuclear and missile programs. The proposal, though, was rejected at once by Washington, just as it had been two years earlier, because it includes a quid pro quo: it calls on the United States to halt its threatening military exercises on North Korea's borders, including simulated nuclear-bombing attacks by B-52s.
The Chinese-North Korean proposal is hardly unreasonable. North Koreans remember well that their country was literally flattened by US bombing, and many may recall how US forces bombed major dams when there were no other targets left. There were gleeful reports in American military publications about the exciting spectacle of a huge flood of water wiping out the rice crops on which "the Asian" depends for survival. They are very much worth reading, a useful part of historical memory.
The offer to freeze North Korea's nuclear and missile programs in return for an end to highly provocative actions on North Korea's border could be the basis for more far-reaching negotiations, which could radically reduce the nuclear threat and perhaps even bring the North Korea crisis to an end. Contrary to much inflamed commentary, there are good reasons to think such negotiations might succeed. Yet even though the North Korean programs are constantly described as perhaps the greatest threat we face, the Chinese-North Korean proposal is unacceptable to Washington, and is rejected by US commentators with impressive unanimity. This is another entry in the shameful and depressing record of near-reflexive preference for force when peaceful options may well be available.
The 2017 South Korean elections may offer a ray of hope. Newly elected President Moon Jae-in seems intent on reversing the harsh confrontationist policies of his predecessor. He has called for exploring diplomatic options and taking steps toward reconciliation, which is surely an improvement over the angry fist-waving that might lead to real disaster.
You have in the past expressed concern about the European Union. What do you think will happen as Europe becomes less tied to the US and the UK?
The EU has fundamental problems, notably the single currency with no political union. It also has many positive features. There are some sensible ideas aimed at saving what is good and improving what is harmful. Yanis Varoufakis's DiEM25 initiative for a democratic Europe is a promising approach.
The UK has often been a US surrogate in European politics. Brexit might encourage Europe to take a more independent role in world affairs, a course that might be accelerated by Trump policies that increasingly isolate us from the world. While he is shouting loudly and waving an enormous stick, China could take the lead on global energy policies while extending its influence to the west and, ultimately, to Europe, based on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the New Silk Road.
That Europe might become an independent "third force" has been a matter of concern to US planners since World War II. There have long been discussions of something like a Gaullist conception of Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals or, in more recent years, Gorbachev's vision of a common Europe from Brussels to Vladivostok.
Whatever happens, Germany is sure to retain a dominant role in European affairs. It is rather startling to hear a conservative German chancellor, Angela Merkel, lecturing her US counterpart on human rights, and taking the lead, at least for a time, in confronting the refugee issue, Europe's deep moral crisis. On the other hand, Germany's insistence on austerity and paranoia about inflation and its policy of promoting exports by limiting domestic consumption have no slight responsibility for Europe's economic distress, particularly the dire situation of the peripheral economies. In the best case, however, which is not beyond imagination, Germany could influence Europe to become a generally positive force in world affairs.
What do you make of the conflict between the Trump administration and the US intelligence communities? Do you believe in the "deep state"?
There is a national security bureaucracy that has persisted since World War II. And national security analysts, in and out of government, have been appalled by many of Trump's wild forays. Their concerns are shared by the highly credible experts who set the Doomsday Clock, advanced to two and a half minutes to midnight as soon as Trump took office -- the closest it has been to terminal disaster since 1953, when the US and USSR exploded thermonuclear weapons. But I see little sign that it goes beyond that, that there is any secret "deep state" conspiracy.
To conclude, as we look forward to your 89th birthday, I wonder: Do you have a theory of longevity?
Yes, it's simple, really. If you're riding a bicycle and you don't want to fall off, you have to keep going -- fast.Ready to challenge injustice and spark real change? So are we. Support Truthout's mission today by making a tax-deductible donation.
Government Won't Remove Thousands of Tons of Potentially Toxic Chemical Weapons Dumped Off US Coasts
Recoil-less rifle cartridges on the north shore of the Island of Vieques, Puerto Rico. According to a recent study, some fish and shellfish from certain reefs surrounding Vieques contained elevated levels of metals like arsenic and selenium. (Photo: Courtesy of James Barton)
The Department of Defense has decided to leave in place the thousands of tons of chemical weapons, conventional munitions and radioactive wastes dumped off the US coastline by the military, claiming it would disrupt marine life and ocean waters. Experts say the decision is more economic than scientific and could have long-term lethal impacts on people and the environment.
Recoil-less rifle cartridges on the north shore of the Island of Vieques, Puerto Rico. According to a recent study, some fish and shellfish from certain reefs surrounding Vieques contained elevated levels of metals like arsenic and selenium. (Photo: Courtesy of James Barton)This story was published because of support from readers like you. If you care about maintaining a free and independent media, make a donation to Truthout!
By 1972, when the US officially ended its practice of dumping munitions out to sea, tens of thousands of tons of chemical weapons, conventional munitions and radioactive wastes had been disposed of in the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico at sites up and down the nation's coastlines, including Alaska, Hawaii and the Caribbean.
In the decades that followed, little was done to reckon with the problems these sites presented. Until finally, in 2006, Congress directed the Department of Defense (DoD) to conduct a multi-pronged study to finally figure out just how many chemical and conventional munitions were slowly degrading in US coastal waters, and whether it was feasible to retrieve these munitions from their watery graves. Congress also ordered the DoD to examine the ecological impact from toxic emissions as these munitions slowly corrode under water, and their potential to cause harm to the people who use the oceans -- like fishermen, whose nets become entangled with old obsolete bombs as they dredge the sea floor.
In a report to Congress in November of last year, the DoD made its final determination. From both an ecological and safety perspective, it was deemed best to "leave sea-disposed munitions in place," the department found. It stated that removing or cleaning up munitions sea-disposal dump sites would have "more serious effects on marine life and the ocean environment than would leaving them in place.""Utter Nonsense"
The DoD's plan to leave the munition dump sites untouched is "utter nonsense" and a decision driven by "economics, not legitimate science," wrote James Barton, a federally recognized munitions expert, in a statement to Truthout.
A 1,000 lb general purpose bomb found in Lake Michigan, in vicinity of the Waugoshance Lighthouse, once used as a bombing target during WWII. (Photo: Courtesy of James Barton)Barton co-authored a report commissioned by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and its National Center for Environmental Health, published earlier this year, which offers a damning commentary on the Pentagon's approach to tackling the nation's underwater munitions problem. The department's decision, wrote Barton, sets a "dangerous" precedent for hundreds of dump sites around the country. "DoD has no institutional or moral authority to keep the potential threat presented by underwater munitions from being properly assessed, but seem forever committed to that ruse," he wrote.
The DoD will now leave in place massive amounts of underwater munitions in US coastal waters. These munitions include over 32,000 tons of chemical weapons containing things like lewisite (a blister agent and lung irritant), mustard gas, sarin and the nerve agent VX, according to a 2009 DoD report. The same report identifies 47 individual dump sites along the coastlines of the continental US.
An underwater bomb on the south side of Vieques Island, Puerto Rico. HMX and trace levels of RDX explosive compounds were found in fiddler crabs surrounding Vieques, according to a recent report. (Photo: Courtesy of James Barton)These sites contain a combination of chemical munitions, conventional munitions and radioactive wastes, and they vary in proximity to the coast -- some less than a mile from shore, others as far as a few hundred nautical miles away. At one dump site within the Chesapeake Bay, an unknown quantity of explosives sits roughly two nautical miles from the shoreline. At another site some nine nautical miles from the Massachusetts coastline, thousands of projectiles lie 200 feet below the sea surface. Over on the west coast, more than 300,000 mustard gas bombs and nearly 1,500 containers of lewisite sit at a dump site roughly 100 nautical miles from the Northern California shore.
What's more, old abandoned ordnances don't always stay where they're dumped. In recent years, a number of chemical and conventional munitions have washed ashore, while some fishermen have been harmed after coming into contact with chemical munitions pulled up in nets.
According to Terrance Long, chair and CEO of the International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions in The Hague, and a leading expert in underwater munition dumps worldwide, what the DoD has identified is only the tip of the iceberg, and he estimates that there could be as many as 1,000 separate dump sites in the coastline surrounding the continental US.
"As we continue to survey the ocean, we continue to find more," Long said, noting that one undocumented dump site near the California coastline is suspected to contain more than 200 scuttled ships loaded with munitions. "What you have is a desktop study conducted by the United States that had limitations to it, so it's a cursory look into what's out there," he said.
Truthout contacted the CDC and the DoD for comment, but neither agency responded in time for publication.Incomplete Research
The DoD's 2009 report identifies seven sites surrounding Alaska, two around Puerto Rico and six individual sites around Hawaii, including two off the coast of the island of Oahu. These two sites near Oahu were selected as areas for study to determine whether they and other underwater munition dump sites in US coastal waters should be remediated.
An underwater munition dump site. According to the DoD, there are at least 32,000 tons of chemical weapons dumped in U.S. coastal waters. (Photo: Courtesy of the International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions)Using the evidence collected, the DoD determined in its report to Congress last year that known sea-disposal sites "do not pose an unacceptable risk to ecological, environmental, or human health or to maritime safety."
But the CDC report finds major flaws in the research as it relates to other munition dump sites -- primarily with the choice of research areas, and how the detection technologies used can produce "ambiguous results." If the DoD had instead investigated the nearby Barbers Point Ammo Dump, where munitions are much more heavily concentrated than in the chosen research sites, the scope of the findings would have afforded officials a more accurate picture with which to make an "informed decision" about whether to remediate underwater munitions across the US coastline, the report concluded.
Margo Edwards is interim executive director of the Applied Research Laboratory at the University of Hawaii, and is one of the scientists who researched the Hawaii Undersea Military Munitions Assessment (HUMMA) dump site to the south of the island of Oahu. She said her team only received funding to study this site alone. And while their findings suggest that the DoD is right to leave the munitions in place at the HUMMA site, said Edwards: "You can only go by the evidence you have to hand, and the evidence I see right now says that that's the right decision." She admitted that a lack of studies conducted on the other munition dump sites in US waters makes it difficult to accurately determine if and how they, too, should be remediated.
"I haven't investigated all these other potential areas," Edwards said. "And I do think it's possible that there could be another place where the problem needs to be addressed differently."
Other experts agree that there simply hasn't been enough research done on underwater munitions.
"I don't think Hawaii is a surrogate for the rest of the US or even the world," said Harry Craig, a senior remedial project manager for the US Environmental Protection Agency, with 15 years expertise in underwater munitions under his belt. He explains that chemicals break down and react differently in different environments. Plus, steel corrodes at different rates depending on water depth, salinity and temperature, as well as shell thickness. Some sea-dumped munitions could continue leaking potentially deadly chemicals into the environment for over 100 years, according to some estimates.
"We've seen [munitions] that you can still read the writing on them from 1944, and then you've got ones that are substantially wasted and falling apart," said Craig, emphasizing why each site needs to be looked at on an individual basis.Many Munitions Locations Are Still Unknown
The official green light for the US military to start dumping munitions out to sea was given back in 1917. Rules regarding the location and depth of disposal sites were incrementally tightened over the following decades. The War Department in 1944, for example, required that chemical weapons be disposed of in waters at least 300 feet deep and 10 miles from shore. One year later, chemical weapons weren't to be disposed of in waters shallower than 6,000 feet. For conventional explosives and ammunition, it was 3,000 feet.
The ocean dumping of munitions accelerated after the end of World War II, when the War Department was left to reckon with a massive stockpile of wartime weapons and bombs. One way they approached the problem was the "Cut Holes and Sink 'Em" disposal program (coined CHASE), which saw old ships loaded up with tons of conventional and chemical weapons before being scuttled out to sea. But 1969 marked a change in policy direction, when the National Academy of Sciences was asked to study the problem and look at alternative munition disposal practices. In 1972, Congress banned the practice. Then, three years later, the US signed an international treaty prohibiting the dumping of chemical weapons in ocean waters.
An underwater munition dump site. According to Terrance Long, chair and CEO of the International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions in the Hague, there could be as many as 1000 separate dump sites in the coastline surrounding the continental U.S., many of them currently undocumented. (Photo: Courtesy of the International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions)
The damage, however, had already been done. For one, the military proved to be a poor record keeper: Its archives are full of holes. "Is there a complete inventory of where this stuff is? No there isn't," said Craig. "They were trying to get rid of this stuff, and they were trying to do the least amount of paperwork."
Nor did those tasked with doing the dumping always stick to the rules. As John Chatterton, a veteran diver and former host of the History Channel's "Deep Sea Detectives," put it in a well-received 2005 Daily Press investigative series on underwater munitions, "the guys who were doing this were scared of this stuff.... They were well motivated to get rid of this stuff as fast as they could. So, they could take it all the way out there or else they could say, 'This is good enough,' and be back in port in three hours. I know what they did. It's mariner nature."
These lingering question marks surrounding the accurate location of existing dump sites is another reason why some experts argue that the DoD is wrong to leave dump sites uniformly untouched, especially given the number of recent examples where the public has come into contact with ordnances abandoned at sea.
In August of last year, a fisherman working along the New Jersey coast was hospitalized with second-degree burns from an old chemical munition he pulled up. Nearly 700 cases of clam chowder were destroyed, for fear of contamination. In 2015, two old artillery shells suspected of containing mustard gas appeared at a Delaware seafood processing plant. In 2010, clam fishermen working off the New York coastline dredged up two munition shells containing mustard gas, severely sickening the crew.
Only this month, two unexploded munitions washed up on a North Carolina beach -- reportedly the third time this has happened this year.
"There's a concern in some of these places that intact shells may in fact be time bombs in the sense that they're well contained but eventually they will corrode, and we don't know what will happen to them," said Lenny Siegel, executive director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight and an expert in military cleanups. "That would involve a site-specific evaluation."Advocates Seek Further Investigation
Beyond ocean dumping, experts point to a lack of action concerning munitions dumped in bodies of water -- ponds, lakes, rivers and estuaries -- within the continental US, from activities like shore-based gunnery practice, research activities and ship and aerial bombardment. A combination of high cleanup costs and lack of adequate oversight explain why the DoD has failed to remediate these sites, said Steve Pollack, an Illinois licensed attorney who co-authored the CDC report published earlier this year. "It costs money from its budget to assess and retrieve munitions," he said, arguing that the DoD has been historically reluctant to funnel adequate funds into environmental cleanup programs.
Archival picture of a ship loaded with munitions, awaiting scuttling out to sea. (Photo: Courtesy of the International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions / National Archives)In the report, Pollack pinpoints some known mainland underwater dump sites, including a number within the Great Lakes, which have long been used to dispose of conventional and radiological wastes. Lead contamination from artillery fired from an FBI firing range into Lake Michigan threatens municipal drinking water in the area, the report finds. Meanwhile, approximately 300,000 munitions fired from the Erie Army Depot cover some 8,000 acres at the bottom of Lake Erie.
Within the DoD's Formerly Used Defense Sites program -- tasked with cleaning up former DoD properties -- there are potentially more than 400 sites containing underwater munitions totaling more than 10 million acres, according to an internal 2010 white paper. The US Navy and US Marine Corps identified an additional 33 sites containing underwater munitions.
"We, the public, learn of existing sites once someone comes in contact with dangerous munitions," said Pollack. He added that the public should be concerned about the contaminants that make up unexploded munitions, "especially because the Great Lakes are the source of fresh drinking water for all the people around them."
Then there's the potential toxicological impact from leaking munitions on the surrounding ecosystems. According to the DoD, research from the two Hawaiian dump sites indicates that the munitions "were not destroying habitat," and have become an "integral part of the environment." But published research coming out of Hawaii paints a more nuanced picture. One study conducted at the HUMMA site shows that mustard agent remains in the deep-marine environment for decades after munitions disposal.
Other studies corroborate these findings. Take the island of Vieques, in Puerto Rico. The waters around Vieques are littered with munitions. Some fish and shellfish from certain reefs surrounding the island contain elevated levels of metals like arsenic and selenium, while HMX and trace levels of RDX explosive compounds were found in fiddler crabs, according to a recent report. Also, tests conducted on cod caught in the Baltic Sea suggests a link between chemical weapon dump sites and an increased likelihood of disease in the fish. And white phosphorus, which is found in many incendiary devices routinely dumped to sea, has been reported in many coastal areas around the world.
This interactive map put together by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies shows chemical weapon dumps sites worldwide.
"It's highly improbable that these sites won't have an impact," said Terrance Long, who added that toxic emissions from leaking munitions are one potential factor determining why whales and dolphins are being killed en masse in otherwise inexplicable circumstances. Plus, the seismic testing of the ocean floor conducted during oil and gas exploration has the potential to trigger abandoned explosives -- another reason to clear the seas of abandoned ordnances, he said.
"All we've shown is that we have a problem and that we have to further investigate it," Long said, about the research the DoD has conducted over the past decade. "You either believe that the underwater munitions can actually have an impact on the ocean, or you believe they don't, just like climate change. But it's about now getting to the table to have the discussion that needs to happen."
Two hurricanes devastated Puerto Rico, plunging the island into darkness and despair. Over 3 million people are desperate for basic necessities like food, water, electricity and shelter. Yarimar Bonilla, a noted social anthropologist, says the hurricanes have made an already bad fiscal and economic crisis worse. The suffering that people are experiencing could prove to be of economic benefit to a small group of vulture capitalists.
Banana trees are seen knocked over by the winds of Hurricane Maria on October 2, 2017, in Corozal, Puerto Rico. (Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images)In times of great injustice, independent media is crucial to fighting back against misinformation. Support grassroots journalism: Make a donation to Truthout by clicking here.
Puerto Rico is devastated. Two hurricanes plunged the island into darkness and despair. Crops perish in the fields. The landscape of ruined buildings and towns resemble Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped on it. Over 3 million people are desperate for food, water, electricity and shelter.
After a slow start, the Trump administration is now speeding up the flow of supplies to the island. A top US general has been given command of the relief efforts. And, like so many others, Yarimar Bonilla watches with a broken heart as her native Puerto Rico struggles. This noted social anthropologist -- a scholar on Caribbean societies -- says the hurricanes have made an already bad fiscal and economic crisis worse, and she sees darker times ahead unless major changes are made in the structure of power and in Puerto Rico's relationship with the United States.
Last week on NBC, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz made a spontaneous statement expressing her frustration with insufficient relief efforts that went viral. Before you read my interview with Yarimar Bonilla please take two minutes to watch this video. You will understand even more clearly Ms. Bonilla's explainer of what is happening in Puerto Rico.
Bill Moyers: What's the first thing you would want us to know about Puerto Rico?
Yarimar Bonilla: That it is a US territory -- as are the Virgin Islands, American Samoa and Guam. That it has a greater population than 21 other states -- more residents than Utah, Iowa or Nevada -- and is geographically larger than Delaware or Rhode Island.
However, rather than wanting folks to know something in particular, I would want them to ask why is Puerto Rico part of the United States, to investigate the question and come up with their own answers. I think it would be more interesting for people to start out wherever they are -- be it with no knowledge at all -- or people who grew up in Puerto Rico and have long lived this political relationship without fully understanding it, to ask themselves why the island is part of the United States and what explains the particular ambiguity of its situation today.
What's your personal connection to Puerto Rico, and how did you come to devote so much of your life to studying Caribbean societies?
I was born in Puerto Rico, although my mom says that I can choose if I want to be an Island Puerto Rican or a Diasporican because now I've spent pretty much equal time in the United States and in Puerto Rico proper.
I dare say that until the hurricanes the popular image of Puerto Rico in this country was the epitome of prosperity. You know, all the ads on television and in magazines touting pleasure and escape -- the resorts, the bright sun, the white beaches, the blue water, the rum and tonic, the sexy bikinis, the smiling locals.
Well, it's funny, I had a colleague, a fellow anthropologist, with whom I joked about wanting one day for us to write an ethnography of the Puerto Rico that exists in tourist ads. Because it's a place that we've never really visited or known.
But doesn't this distorted view make it more difficult for regular Americans to connect to the devastation today?
Perhaps. But I think even more than the tourist ads, what makes it difficult for Americans to connect is the deep ignorance that exists about the political relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. Most folks in the US don't even know how to orient themselves towards Puerto Rico. How should they feel about it? Should they support statehood, should they support independence? They're unable to reconcile the political history of Puerto Rico with the history that they are taught in schools about the United States.
You've said that Puerto Rico was in trouble long before the hurricane.
Puerto Rico's been in an economic recession for over a decade. The great American recession that was so debated in the United States during the early Obama administration after the collapse of the banks in the US -- all of that started in Puerto Rico much earlier, and whereas the US is said to have recovered to some extent for certain populations, Puerto Rico's recession has only deepened. That is in part due to the lack of a strong economic base and to tax incentives that were put in place to bring foreign -- "foreign" meaning US companies -- to Puerto Rico. After the crash a lot of companies left and a base of employment in Puerto Rico was gone.
So even before this last hurricane, already Puerto Rico had huge unemployment, huge poverty rates -- poverty rates that double any poverty rate in the US, even that of the poorest states of the US -- and a very neglected infrastructure that was not ready for the storms.
Donald Trump tweeted, "Texas and Florida are doing great after their hurricanes, but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure and massive debt, is in deep trouble." And that seems to echo what you've just said and what you wrote in The Washington Post -- that a state of emergency existed well before the hurricane hit.
I'm curious about that statement from Donald Trump. I wonder who in Florida and Texas is doing great and who is not. So that would be my first question. But you know, that's for other folks to answer.
Why was the inequality in Puerto Rico so great?
Because there's been an erosion of the middle class. And so you have a lot of people at the bottom who can't find work, who can't start their own businesses. Many of them depend on government assistance, but there's also a huge number who are working poor, who live paycheck to paycheck, who are supplementing their incomes with the gig economy. Retailers like Walmart offer no job security. Most of the people working for them can't predict their shifts -- their shifts change from week to week. They have to keep their schedules completely open. They are paid for part-time labor, but have to be available full-time.
And so all of this means that leading up to the storm, people already did not have enough money to prepare, to buy the supplies that they needed. Ideally, you would prepare for a storm of this nature by having a well-stocked pantry, plenty of water, lots of batteries, and if you can afford it, a generator. Also, your car would be full of gas and you would have a good amount of cash, because as can be expected and as we're seeing now, ATMs are down. People who are just making ends meet, they don't have the kind of money that is necessary to prepare for these storms.
There's a lot of talk about the island's environmental precarity and vulnerability. It's true that the Caribbean is on the front lines of effects from climate change. But there are other forms of vulnerability, like socioeconomic vulnerability. And also a political vulnerability because Puerto Ricans don't really have anyone in Congress advocating for them. They're nobody's constituents. They have no representation and no one who can leverage votes and trade deals with other states in order to get things expedited on the ground there.
You've described these Caribbean societies, including Puerto Rico, as protected markets for national corporations.
Yes. If you look at the Jones Act, the only goods that can arrive in Puerto Rico have to be on US-made ships, and owned by US citizens, with a US crew flying a US flag. So this means that if the Dominican Republic wants to sell food to Puerto Rico, which it does, it has to send that food first to Jacksonville, Florida, unload it, put it on another ship that is allowed to bring it to Puerto Rico. So this makes it very difficult for Puerto Rico to engage in trade with other countries. We're not an independent nation, so we can't make our own trade arrangements. And that means that we have to buy mostly from the US.
I understand the Jones Act goes way back to World War I, when German submarines were sinking so many American ships that Congress decreed the US maintain a shipbuilding industry second to none, with, as you say, ships carrying provisions to be owned, manned and built by America. This not only strangles Puerto Rico's economy, but one writer called it a shakedown, a mob protection racket, with Puerto Rico as a captive market. Puerto Ricans have to buy mainly American products and pass the higher cost on to the consumers, who are then paying higher prices. Donald Trump has temporarily suspended the Jones Act, as you know.
That will help momentarily in terms of letting a few ships arrive and letting Puerto Ricans find more inexpensive methods of procuring the items that they need right now. A lot of us are very offended that it was only lifted for 10 days, as if you could resolve the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, which is of a devastating scale -- as if you could resolve that in 10 days. It's absolutely offensive for it to be so limited. A small crumb.
What I hope is that there are now a lot of people who have become educated about the Jones Act. Most people in the United States didn't know anything about it before this. Maybe now there can be enough pressure to fully repeal it.
You have described Puerto Rico and the other Caribbean societies as important economic cover for their colonial centers. What do you mean?
I mean that a lot of things happen in these places that aren't supposed to happen -- that's what I mean by cover. The United States can claim to offer certain kinds of guarantees to its citizens, but those guarantees are suspended when it comes to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. So veterans benefits are less, guarantees of health care are less, guarantees of public education -- all these things are reduced. And in addition, wealthy people who are supposed to pay their share, they're able to completely evade their taxes and not contribute to the national interest by setting up companies in Puerto Rico.
So things were really made worse by tax incentives to wealthy investors. I believe Puerto Rico's Act #22 allows wealthy investors to evade both federal and local income tax by spending a minimum of 183 nights a year on the island.
Yes, it's true. It's hard to comprehend, but it's true. You have a lot of wealthy Americans who say, "Oh, this is great for us, it's the thing that can get you out from under the US Internal Revenue Service without having to renounce your citizenship." So they retain their American voting rights, they retain all their benefits of US citizenship, but they do not contribute anything to the US, nor do they contribute anything to Puerto Rico because they're also not paying local taxes.
How did Puerto Rico get its unique privilege to offer triple tax-exempt bonds?
It's basically written into its constitution. When Congress established Puerto Rico's civil government in 1917 it decreed that any bonds issued by its government would be free from taxation. In addition, it is written into the 1952 constitution that the repayment of any kind of public debt must take priority over financing public services. In 1952, when Puerto Rican politicians tried to convince Puerto Ricans that they were no longer a colony, and they convinced the United Nations to take Puerto Rico off the list of non-self-governing societies, this constitution was put into place and one of its founding principles was that Puerto Rico was going to be a site for US economic investment. And so you can purchase these triple tax-exempt bonds and not pay any federal tax, any tax in Puerto Rico, or any tax in the municipality in which you live. This made these bonds incredibly seductive for US. I urge everyone to read the great story in The New York Times "The Bonds That Broke Puerto Rico."
Earlier this year Puerto Rico officially became the largest bankruptcy case in the history of the American public bond market. In another tweet Trump points out how indebted Puerto Rico is to Wall Street and the banks and reminds Puerto Ricans that it "sadly must be dealt with." He's acknowledging this is the first thing Puerto Rico taxpayers have to do.
It was so offensive. Puerto Ricans have been kicked by Irma, then kicked by Maria, and now kicked by Trump. We're really suffering. In the middle of our humanitarian crisis, he tells us, "It's a shame but you have to pay back that debt." It's clear that was a message to Wall Street not to worry, they'll get paid back. Puerto Ricans need to worry, however.
Something I've learned from you: Walmart and Walgreens have more stores per square mile in Puerto Rico than anywhere else in the world. How did that come about?
Walmart has negotiated a series of benefits from the Puerto Rican government such as free or subsidized land to build on, subsidies for their payroll, and for the training of new employees. So they basically get to set up shop almost for free. In addition, we are a captive market. There's not a lot of competition for them. So they're the biggest employer, and the biggest retailer. Also, Walmart USA sells to Walmart Puerto Rico, at surprisingly inflated prices so that then it appears as if Walmart Puerto Rico doesn't have much profit, which means they pay very little taxes to the Puerto Rican government.
The Puerto Rican government wanted to raise the taxes but Walmart threatened to sue and leave and then a federal judge decided that the tax would be discriminatory because Walmart was the only operator of the scale to which these taxes would apply.
So when the government tries to raise taxes on goods brought to the island from foreign sources because those taxes would help local improvement, the companies threaten to leave?
Yes, exactly. They don't want to pay the government any of the profits that they're making off the Puerto Rican people.
So does this helps explain why the infrastructure in Puerto Rico has been so long neglected -- the first priority is to serve this foreign debt and tax breaks for the wealthy?
Absolutely, and it's only going to get worse because of the PROMESA Act [NB: Passed by Congress to deal with the financial crisis and bankruptcy]. Some critics have dared to describe it as a kind of bailout or aid package, but that's not so. There is absolutely no transfer of money from the federal government to Puerto Rico as part of the PROMESA Act. If anything, there's an imposition of an economic burden on the Puerto Rican government which now has to pay the overhead of the PROMESA board -- which is estimated to cost $200 million in its first year alone -- and an astronomical, unjustifiable salary of over half a million dollars a year to its manager Natalie Jaresko. This completely overpaid expensive board arrives in Puerto Rico and the first thing that they say is that everyone has to tighten their belts. There are "furloughs" of government workers, the government has to reduce its payroll by about 30 percent. Now they are going to privatize a lot of the services. The first target was the University of Puerto Rico, which they completely gutted leading to a massive strike at the university.
And as you wrote in The Washington Post, the PROMESA Act imposed a fiscal control board focused on the short-term austerity policies in order to restore the country's market rating, which means lower wages and tax increases for the working poor and tax breaks and other incentives for the rich investors. Why did Congress do that?
They didn't want to seem like they were "bailing out" quote/unquote a community of people who are not imagined to be Americans. So a lot of senators and congressmen wanted to assure their folks in their home states that the money of hardworking Americans were not going to bail out Puerto Ricans, who are not seen as "Americans." That's the reason. [laughs]
You laugh, but it hurts.
Absolutely, absolutely. One must laugh to keep from crying in the face of such cynicism. And especially right now in the moment of this crisis where a lot of people are saying that Puerto Rico does not deserve the same kind of aid that US states deserve -- Florida and Texas, you know -- because it's a territory. There's also been a lot of debate about whether when you get FEMA packages, the government will do matching funds. So several folks have asked for the government to lift that requirement. The bondholders of the electric company, said, "Oh, don't worry, we'll let you borrow more so that you can pay the matching funds." Clearly the only solution being imagined for Puerto Rico's economic future is permanent and sustained indebtment.
Well, our federal government's own financial control board is saying that the island's debt is not payable, and the governor of the island of Puerto Rico is talking about selling all utilities to private owners -- electricity, water and sewers, the public transit. Will these drastic measures help the problem?
Absolutely not. Some have described these privatization schemes as if you are selling off your house to pay your credit card bill. So okay, you do a fire sale on your home, you pay your Visa, you pay your MasterCard, but then you have nowhere to live. Then what do you do? I think some people have been so frustrated with the kind of public services they've been receiving from this ever-shrinking government that they say, "Yes, okay, let's privatize it." But privatizing is not going to make things any better and it's certainly not going to help Puerto Rico in the long term.
We talked previously about inequality and about the high levels of income disparity in Puerto Rico. This means that there are very wealthy people who to a great extent don't need public services. They have gas generators and water tanks. Some of them even have helipads. The people who need the government services are the poor. They're the ones who are going to suffer the most. So instead of implementing progressive measures that tax the wealthy in Puerto Rico, the opposite is being done.
Trump is tweeting that help is coming. The Fiscal Oversight Board says reconstruction projects will be accelerated, emergency funds will be flowing to the people, the checks are in the mail. Will all this emergency help produce solutions to the structural problems we've been talking about? Will Puerto Rico emerge with chances for an economy that works for everyone?
I would love to say yes. I was very closely connected to the events in Haiti, the Haitian earthquake there. And I remember how so many people talked about how we were going to rebuild Haiti better, we were going to finally fix the long structural problems that that country had faced. This wasn't to be. I recommend people watch this movie by Raoul Peck, Fatal Assistance, about how all the aid that was sent to Haiti, in the end it did not help.
One big problem is that donors want to aid small scale organizations. And there's good reason for that. But the problem is, that when you need to rebuild something like an electricity grid or a public water system, you can't do it in a patchy way. In Haiti, a lot of money was sent to organizations like the Red Cross that was kept for overhead and not used for what was promised. But then a lot of people, to avoid that kind of thing, would send money directly to a community that would build just one school. So you have this kind of patchy education system. You have communities that have wells that don't connect to each other. You have roads that are built to go from one town to the church that helped build them but that doesn't lead to a national roadway system. What you need is a systematic process of rebuilding by a government that has decided what kind of society they want to rebuild and in what way.
If you also look at a place like New Orleans and what has happened after Katrina, we know already that in other disaster situations, the preexisting inequalities just get exacerbated. And so the folks who were already suffering the most in these places are the ones who will benefit the least from the reconstruction.
I really fear that there's going to be a mass exodus from Puerto Rico -- basically what Aimé Césaire once described as genocide by substitution. Puerto Ricans are going to leave and FEMA workers brought in from the US are going to arrive. More wealthy investors are going to come and Puerto Rico is no longer going to belong to Puerto Ricans. It will look more and more like Hawaii. When we talk about rebuilding we have to think about why rebuild an energy sector that is not based on renewable sources when you can rebuild with solar power, for example. But we also have to think about rebuilding for whom, who is going to remain on the island and what role are they going to play in Puerto Rico's reconstruction?
Absolutely, and we see it playing out. We see it playing out right now. When I was in Puerto Rico this summer -- before the hurricanes -- I talked to a wealth adviser at an investment center where rich Puerto Ricans go to create college funds for their kids and buy insurance and secure their retirements. She was very smart. Folks like her working in the banking industry and in investment and knew that bankruptcy and fiscal austerity was coming down the pike. The story was underreported so that there wouldn't be a bank run. But folks like her told their clients to pull their money out of Puerto Rican bonds and put it into other sources. Most of her clients, their investments are in US stocks. So she said, "They're doing great! Since Donald Trump was elected, stocks are high." And then she said, "All we need now is a hurricane." (Pause) This was last summer. I was naturally shocked to hear this because all I could imagine was the destruction that hurricanes bring. But of course what she was thinking about was how in a disaster the funds that flow in help precisely the kind of companies that her clients are investing in -- say, Home Depot, the construction industry in the United States, wealthy contractors. She represents the kind of people who are going to benefit and profit and do very well in this post-hurricane economy at the expense of the folks who are now trapped in their homes without food, without water, without gasoline. So the suffering that people are experiencing right now could prove to be of economic benefit to a chosen few.
The vulture capitalists, as they are sometimes called.
Absolutely. There's no other way to talk about it, especially in a context where you literally have people dying in the hospital because there's no energy to sustain their life-support systems.
Most of us have a little bit of the vulture in us, so the question arises, who's at fault when this happens? Did local politicians and local people just get too greedy or is this simply the way the Wall Street economy works -- barracuda capitalism, so called? Or is what's happening in Puerto Rico the inheritance of colonialism?
That's an important question and something that really needs to be thought about carefully because there are so many contributors. We like to write simple articles that show simple causality, but you have wealthy folks like this investment manager, who is Puerto Rican, contributing to the situation. You have politicians -- we see this in every disaster -- you have politicians who are more focused on photo ops and political capital than they are really in doing what needs to be done in these moments.
I think one thing that has been really problematic in Puerto Rico is the way that the political parties are organized. They're organized around the relationship to the United States. So some folks describe this as a kind of left/right political spectrum with independence on the left, statehood on the right and advocates of commonwealth status fashioning themselves as a kind of centrist party. There's some truth in this description but it's complicated because within the statehood party you have folks who are progressive, who supported Bernie Sanders, for example. You have folks who see statehood as a form of decolonization, who see it as the possibility of greater solidarity with continental US minority groups. Similarly, even though there is a very progressive pro-independence sector, when you look at what nationalist elites have brought to other Caribbean nations, and the kind of racial and economic disparities that characterize independent nations across the Americas, one can see that independence is not a guarantee of progressive politics.
My hope is that because this is such a deep political crisis, it will generate more than a banal optimism that simply says "Oh, let's build better," and stops there. I hope that it will lead to a profound grass-roots social movement -- a movement of people sick of the government and sick of the limits of the political relationship that Puerto Rico has with the United States, which produced a delayed response by Washington to the devastation after the last hurricane.
Perhaps right now, when people feel so exposed, so left out in the rain, literally, by the US government, we might get a push for a political change.
The journalist Kate Aronoff reminds us Puerto Rico suffered from two massive storms many years ago, one in 1928 that is still considered the second deadliest natural disaster in US history, and another in 1932 that killed over 250 people and destroyed more than 40,000 buildings. Between those two disasters the stock market collapsed and Puerto Ricans were knocked off their feet, like so many others. But they got up and with the help of the New Deal, they came back. What do you see as the path to recovery now?
I'm so excited you brought up those two storms. Indeed, the enactment of the New Deal and the assistance the United States was able to provide Puerto Rico at that time paved the way for the establishment of the commonwealth status. At that time many Puerto Ricans felt the new relationship with the United States would be good for them. Not only because it happened as the New Deal grappled with the Great Depression but it happened at a moment when Puerto Rico had the strongest momentum in terms of the nationalist movement. In addition, the storm totally wiped out local crops and devastated farmers. As a result they were encouraged to sell their lands to the US government and to US corporations, which is part of why we ended up where we are now, importing most of our food on these very expensive ships -- we no longer have food sovereignty.
With this current storm I have been wondering if this will be a moment in which, as the farmers did back then, we will just sell everything off and privatize the rest of what we have. However, here's where the US government's response and Trump's response could lead in a completely different direction if people realize that that United States does not in fact see us as part of the nation, does not see us as full Americans worthy of aid, does not think that our lives matter, literally. When Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast, Trump quickly suspended the Jones Act so that oil could be supplied to the pipelines; he did it immediately. After Irma hit Puerto Rico, however, it took eight days for the president to even consider suspending it, and he only did so for ten days, for an island completely dependent on importing its food. I think this has made it really clear for Puerto Ricans where they stand in terms of US priorities.
In America, college students are just arriving on their campuses- some for the first time- ready to start the new academic year. They have a wide range of interests and goals, from bringing about the latest medical breakthrough to wanting to change US foreign policy. Some may even want to become President. One thing they all have in common though, is that they have just entered a time in their lives where they will explore, learn, and- most importantly- be able to express themselves.
At the same time as millions of college students in the US begin to express their newfound views, people their age on the other side of the world are forced into silence. In Saudi Arabia, alternative political views are crushed by an oppressive regime that stamps out even the slightest form of dissent.
These two seemingly opposite worlds, the United States and Saudi Arabia, have a disturbing new connection. The president of University of New Haven, Steven H. Kaplan, has recently signed an agreement in June 2016 to collaborate with instructors at King Fahd Security College in Riyadh for the development of baccalaureate security studies program. The course of study will offer three specialization tracks: criminal justice, homeland security, and intelligence studies, all of which will be used to "enhance security in the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia], the Middle East, and globally."
While there is something to be said about cross-cultural collaboration, the question of what this collaboration entails must also be explored. Saudi Arabia has a history of infringing upon its citizens' natural born rights to life and freedom of speech, expression, and religion in the name of homeland security. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) inflicts severe punishment, including execution, for the alleged crimes of witchcraft, apostasy, and homosexual acts. The government of Saudi Arabia has such a tight grip on the freedoms of its citizens that even the use of social media is regulated strictly. Its Anti-Cyber Crime law criminalizes social media use that includes the "production, preparation, transmission, or storage of material [that] impinges on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy." This "crime" carries a punishment of up to five years in prison.
The Saudi government's actions that attempt to crush dissent constitute major human rights violations. Winner of Europe's Sakharov Prize and Saudi Arabian citizen, Raif Badawi, is currently in prison for ten years with an additional sentence of 1,000 lashes for creating a blog titled "Free Saudi Liberals." How can we be sure that the new security systems developed by the union of these two universities won't be used to track bloggers like Badawi? How can we be sure that the skills taught in this program won't be used to hunt down and arrest women for committing "crimes" such as violating the strict dress code? The answer is we cannot.
If we truly believe in freedom and the values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as the core of our identity, then how can a university in the US aid in shaping the instruction of security officers within the oppressive Saudi regime? The University of New Haven should not assist the King Fahd Security College in creating the next generation of oppressors. One New Haven local is so upset by this union that he was motivated to create the Coalition to End the US Saudi Alliance and is pressuring the university to cut ties with Saudi Arabia. Support this crucial message by signing his petition.
Often times when we think of the fighting poverty, we think of economic inequality without connecting the role that our broken criminal justice system plays in contributing to the cycle of poverty.
While Congress stalls on moving efforts towards criminal justice reform, a number of states are taking matters in to their own hands. With Connecticut being one of those states, meet Kimberly Hart, a life-long New Haven resident using her own personal story to affect change. Hart is a community advocate and mother raising her 15-year-old son while attempting to navigate around the economic disadvantages placed upon her due to convicted felonies on her record that date back to 30 years old.
America currently holds the largest criminal justice system in the world. Spending over 80 billion dollars a year to sustain this system of mass incarceration, The Sentencing Project found that US incarceration rates have increased by more than 500 percent in the last 4 decades, despite there being a decrease in crime rates across the country, leading to a current prison and jail population of 2.2 million people.
According to the Friends Committee on National Legislation, 600,000 individuals are released from prison every year, with very few access to programs that could ensure a smooth transition back into society, leading them to face barriers in getting a job, securing stable housing and much more. They are often shut out of government provided opportunities that would lead to stability such as employment, housing, and education.
"Because my felons are all larcenies, I can't get a living wage job. I can't get a job at a retail store." Hart goes on to explain how she can't even get trained to become a Certified Nursing Assistant because potential employers are too afraid to let her into people's homes. "I told myself, I don't do those things anymore. Why am I still being held accountable for it? I've already paid my dues, why do I have to pay for the rest of my life?"
Shutting out former incarcerated people from these essential programs creates massive economic problems not limited to this population but for the nation as a whole. The Center for Economic Policy research estimated that excluding people with criminal records out of the job market results in "a loss of as many as 1.9 million workers and costs the US economy up to a whopping $87 billion each year in lost gross domestic product." With people of color occupying 60 percent of the current prison and jail population, they face the brunt of these economic burdens.
Having been exposed to advocacy at a young age thanks to her parents, Hart became involved with the organization Mothers For Justice, a grass-roots women's advocacy group that focuses on welfare reform, prison re-entry, and affordable housing. "In order to affect change, you have to affect policy. I join advocacy groups that address the problems that I'm going through because I know that I'm a part of the solution. That's when I learned that legislators work for me and I have the power to hire and fire," Hart says.
In 2016, she worked with Mothers For Justice to push the Connecticut state legislature to pass the "ban-the-box" law that prohibits employers from requesting past criminal history on initial employment applications. While this law moves justice towards the right direction, it chips a small piece away at the large wall that stands in-between those with felony records and financial security.
For the past few years, Hart's best chance at employment has been with a telemarketing company that doesn't do background checks, where she has to deal with the harsh reality of receiving no benefits, no paid holidays, or paid sick time. "I get paid off of commission and I have to work hard because if I don't make a sale, my fifteen-year-old son and I can't eat." Because of this, Hart still has to rely on government safety net programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Hart is concerned over the future of SNAP as the program faces funding cuts under the Trump administration's proposed 2018 budget. She explains how food is a basic necessity that people need to build better lives for themselves. "If you cut SNAP that means my child will go hungry. When you're hungry you can't sleep or learn. In order for my child to become self-sufficient and not have to rely on social services, he's going have to get a decent education, go to college, and land a decent job so he can be a productive member of society. You can't do any of that hungry."
Kimberly Hart now works with the organization Witnesses to Hunger where she sits on the New Haven Food Policy Council working to eradicate hunger in New Haven. Among other issues related to poverty, Hart ensures that her voice remains one that represents people like her who are victims of the criminal justice system.
"If the state of CT looked at me as Kimberly Hart who happens to have a 30-year-old felony conviction instead of looking at me as a convicted felon whose name is Kimberly Hart then they could be more humane about this," Hart said. "All we want is a second chance, life happens but it definitely doesn't define who I am today."