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Cuba and the real battle for democracy

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By Stephen Gowans

While Obama may have contrived to create the impression at the recent Summit of the Americas of extending an open hand to Cuba, it’s clear that his aims are no different from those of George W. Bush or any other of his presidential predecessors, all the way back to Kennedy. The point for the US state has always been to recover Cuba as a field for US investment, and the surest way to achieve this goal is to dismantle Cuba’s socialist system, or at least to severely limit it. So it is that after making the obligatory rhetorical references to Cuba needing to improve its human rights situation (see Netfa Freeman’s recent Black Agenda Report article on Cuba and US hypocrisy), Obama’s “aides outlined a series of steps that Cuba…could do to demonstrate a willingness to open its closed society.” The principle step was “allowing United States telecommunications companies to operate on the island.” (1) In other words, moves would be made toward lifting the US embargo, if Cuba first made moves toward opening its doors to US capital. Since the purpose of the blockade has always been to extort this concession, how could it be said that the Obama policy is any different from that of his predecessors?

That the prize is an “open society” in Cuba, which is to say, open to capitalist exploitation from abroad, was made plain when Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, remarked that, “If the objective is to see change in Cuba, it’s hard to see how a trade embargo would do anything other than keep the economic system closed.” (2) Harper opposes the blockade, not because he wants to see Cuba’s socialism thrive, but because he thinks lifting it is the best way to undermine Cuba’s socialist economy. Engage Cuba has always been the Canadian position. Eventually it will come around to our way of thinking.

Cuba’s socialist system offers a materially secure existence to all, with free health care and education through university. It does this despite limited resources and in the face of nearly 50 years of economic warfare by the United States. Imagine what it could accomplish if the United States wasn’t continually trying to undermine it.

Prying open Cuba’s economic system would profit Western banks and corporations. But would it benefit Cubans in the majority?

Not under conditions the US government would favour. The ideal situation from the point of view of the US state and the corporate interests it represents is the replacement of Cuban socialism with an open, multiparty electoral democracy – which to Westerners, even most leftists, is a political summum bonum.

To those with lots of money, and the need to find places to invest it, multiparty electoral democracy offers two advantages.

The first is that practically everyone is for it. Accordingly, marshalling support for measures to build democracy abroad is never difficult. The US government can act in whatever way the structural imperatives of the capitalist system demand without incurring too much opposition so long as it says it’s promoting “democracy”, implicitly understood as regular electoral contests between two or more parties (not the ancient’s rule by the rabble or Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat.)

The second advantage of a multiparty electoral democracy to the states and interlocked corporate interests that favour it, is that the entire process can be easily hijacked by the rich. Modern elections, popularity contests contested by ambitious exhibitionists who vie for the backing of wealthy patrons, are driven by money. Generous campaign financing – or lack of it – can make or break a campaign. Ambitious politicians know this, and make their peace with the reality, or are weeded out. Once in office, they know that if they play their cards right, there are perks and handsome opportunities awaiting them in their post-political lives. Easily circumvented electoral laws forbidding foreign donations fail to stop funding from foreign sources rolling into candidates prepared to sell their country’s sovereignty, natural resources and labor to the imperial center. It may be facile to put it this way, but the golden rule of multiparty electoral democracy is that those who have the gold, rule. And so democracy has travelled the path from rule by the plebs to the dictatorship of the proletariat to ambitious lawyers chasing after the patronage of the rich.

Not in Cuba. But if Obama and Harper had their way, the golden rule would prevail. And what would the consequences be? A minority of Cubans – those who facilitated the exploitation of their country by foreign business interests — would benefit. But the majority would find their lives becoming increasingly insecure, roiled by the vicissitudes of the market, and in turn, by decisions made in foreign boardrooms. Hollow promises would be solemnly made. Cuba needs foreign investment, and the way to get it is to turn Cuba into an investor-friendly environment. Do this, and Cubans will be lifted out of poverty. The deception is evidenced in the state of Cuba’s Caribbean neighbours, in Haiti, in Jamaica, where free trade and the open door and untrammelled foreign investment have piled up misery and poverty at one end, while vast riches are accumulated at the other, hundreds of miles away, to the north.

While lifting the trade embargo would be a welcome step, the act, by itself, would in no way represent a lessening of hostility to Cuban socialism, only a different tact in the unceasing campaign of corporate-dominated governments to recover Cuba as an open field for investment and cheap labor.

There are no changes Cuba needs to make to accommodate the US; the US has not been wronged. But it would be naïve to think that whatever concessions Washington makes, if any, will represent Washington taking the first step along the path to peaceful co-existence. So long as the United States remains a corporate-dominated (that is, a capitalist) society, and Cuba a socialist one, a structural compulsion will exist to shape US foreign policy toward unceasing efforts to remove whatever obstacles are in the way of profit-making. Since an egalitarian system which defines a materially secure existence for all as the summum bonum is the antithesis of one based on the incessant drive of the few to accumulate great wealth by exploiting the many, there shall never be peace between the two. The only hope for peace is the destruction of one by the other, and in these days of renewed economic crisis, it is clearer than usual which system it would be in the interests of the bulk of us to prevail.

It may be objected that whatever the advantages of Cuban socialism in offering a materially secure existence to all, it is still an existence at a lower level than enjoyed in advanced capitalist countries, and therefore, how can socialism be the preferred system?

To this could be replied, first, that to the bulk of humanity, which lives outside the advanced countries of the West, capitalism is hardly a system of consumer riches and abundance. It is instead a system of dearth, misery, and ceaseless toil. This too is true of tens of millions of poor people who live in the advanced capitalist world.

It is true that socialist countries have been poorer than advanced capitalist countries, but their lower material level has not (and in the case of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European people’s democracies had not) been caused by socialism; on the contrary, it had been largely overcome as a result of socialism. The socialist countries started out at a lower level compared to their advanced capitalist counterparts, building their productive assets without the benefits of the slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism advanced capitalist countries relied on to get rich.

In popular Western discourse, the division of the capitalist world between the affluent countries of the north and the underdeveloped countries of south is glossed over. Capitalism is equated with the West, and therefore with great affluence. Capitalism could just as readily be associated with the south, and therefore with great poverty, for the south is as thoroughly capitalist as the north. But it suits the purposes of spreading the capitalist doctrine to equate capitalism with a part of the world whose affluence is due to capitalist imperialism rather than capitalism itself, as if any country that embraced multiparty democracy and free markets would soon find itself a facsimile of the United States.

In 1983, Shirley Ceresto found that if you divided countries into poor, middle income and rich, the socialist countries occupied the middle range, even though most were poor before embarking on paths of socialist development. In terms of satisfying basic human needs, the socialist countries did better than all the capitalist countries combined, better than middle income capitalist countries, and as well as advanced capitalist countries. (3) (What socialist countries offered that advanced capitalist countries didn’t, was security of income, gender equality, and secure access to health care, education, housing and necessities.)

As the socialist countries were struggling to catch up to the West, they found they needed to safeguard their revolutions from the incessant threat of military intervention from a stalking capitalist world. This diverted a significant portion of their more limited resources to military spending and away from productive investments. Despite these handicaps, socialist countries did grow at a rapid pace, and were closing the gap with their capitalist adversaries. At the same time, the socialist community was becoming more egalitarian, both within and between countries, and an increasing portion of necessary goods were available to their populations for free or at highly subsidized prices. (4)

Nowhere is the incidental (and not causal) connection between socialism and poverty more evident than in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) where the regression to capitalism has done nothing to close the gap with the former West Germany or make the lives of east Germans better. After experiencing two decades of a resurrected capitalism, half of east Germans want to return to what they had before. Reuters, hardly known for promoting socialism, revealed that a public opinion poll had found that 52 percent of east Germans had no confidence in capitalism, and most of them wanted to return to a socialist economy. Here’s what east Germans told Reuters’ (5).

Thomas Pivitt, a 46-year-old IT worker from east Berlin:

“We read about the ‘horrors of capitalism’ in school. They really got that right. Karl Marx was spot on. I had a pretty good life before the Wall fell. No one worried about money because money didn’t really matter. You had a job even if you didn’t want one. The communist idea wasn’t all that bad.”

Hermann Haibel, a 76-year old retired blacksmith:

“I thought communism was shit but capitalism is even worse. The free market is brutal. The capitalist wants to squeeze out more, more, more.”

Monika Weber, a 46-year-old city clerk:

“I don’t think capitalism is the right system for us. The distribution of wealth is unfair. We’re seeing that now. The little people like me are going to have to pay for this financial mess with higher taxes because of greedy bankers.”

Ralf Wulff:

“It took just a few weeks to realize what the free market economy was all about. It’s rampant materialism and exploitation. Human beings get lost. We didn’t have the material comforts but communism still had a lot going for it.”

The former socialist countries have not been transformed into the consumer paradises many of their citizens believed they would become. Instead, citizens of former socialist countries have been liberated of materially secure existences and are now dominated by decisions made in boardrooms, many located in foreign countries, and are governed by ambitious exhibitionists who cater to the interests of the wealthy by necessity (for if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have access to the resources they need to get elected.) The same retrograde fate is the desired future for Cuba of the Obama administration, and will remain the desired fate for Cuba of every succeeding administration, until such a time as corporate interests no longer dominate the US state and the few no longer exploit the many; that is, until the real battle for democracy is won. (6)

1. Ginger Thompson and Alexei Barrionuevo, “Rising expectations on Cuba follow Obama,” The New York Times, April 19, 2009.
2. Ibid.
3. Shirley Ceresto, “Socialism, capitalism and inequality,” The Insurgent Sociologist, Vol. XI, No. 2, Sprint 1982.
4. Albert Szymanski, Is the Red Flag Still Flying? The political economy of the Soviet Union today, Zed Press, 1983.
5. Reuters, October 16, 2008.
6. “The first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy,” wrote Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto. Democracy would be exercised through the dictatorship of the proletariat. The working class would use its state powers to repress its class enemies and prevent their return. Since dictatorship and democracy are today understood to be opposites, it’s difficult to grasp how a dictatorship could be thought of as democratic. The democracy Marx and Engels were thinking of was closer to the original definition of democracy than the current understanding based on universal suffrage, representative democracy and regular multiparty elections. Democracy from antiquity had always been a class affair, which is why anyone who mattered was against it. The Marxist view was that capitalist democracy couldn’t be democracy in the original sense, because it allowed the majority to be governed by the few, who use their money power to dominate elections and the state. In a democracy as Marx and Engels understood it, the state would be dominated by the working class, its policies aimed at the interests of the working class and hence encroaching upon those of the capitalists, who would ardently seek to recover their previous advantages. The only way to secure democracy against the counter-revolutionary designs of the capitalists would be to be dictatorial in a new way – against the capitalist class. To socialist countries, most of which had had no tradition of liberal democracy, this meant that elections needed to be dominated by the Communist Party, as the leader of the working class. What was clear was that no party committed to reversing the gains of the revolution could be allowed to operate freely. In Cuba, elections are not party-based, and the Communist Party has no role in them. Instead, individuals stand for election. It is understood that elections are carried out within the socialist system and that the reversal of socialism is not on the table.

Written by what's left

April 30, 2009 at 11:00 pm

Posted in Cuba, Democracy, Socialism

The Politics of The New York Times

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By Stephen Gowans

The New York Times’ and The Washington Post’s promotion of a chauvinist understanding of foreign policy is evidenced in their recent treatment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and their non-treatment of criminal proceedings in Spain against six senior Bush administration officials for torture.

Al-Bashir is sought by the ICC in connection with war crimes charges related to the civil war in the Darfur region of Sudan. Like the United States and Israel, Sudan is not a signatory to the treaty establishing the court. Neither country is willing to submit to the ICC for fear, they say, that their officials will face politically-motivated prosecutions, a fear they unjustifiably suppose is unique to their own nationals. State officials of other countries are as likely to become targets of politically-motivated indictments, all the more so if they preside over land, labor and resources coveted by powerful countries able to exercise influence over the court through their permanent positions on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). But the refusal of the United States and Israel to sign the ICC treaty is more likely motivated by fear that their frequent resort to military campaigns will open their officials to the risk of prosecution for war crimes by an international tribunal. While Sudan has not agreed to be bound by the court, the UNSC — three of whose members refuse to recognize the court — ordered the ICC to investigate al-Bashir.

The New York Times: Propagating chauvinist politics behind a façade of independent analysis and journalistic neutrality.

The New York Times: Propagating chauvinist politics behind a façade of independent analysis and journalistic neutrality.

Meanwhile, the Spanish counter-terrorism judge who prosecuted former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet has initiated an investigation of six Bush administration officials for their role in writing the US policy that justified the use of torture at Guantanamo Bay. The officials are: former White House counsel and attorney general Alberto Gonzales; former vice-president Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, David Addington; former Pentagon general counsel William Haynes; former US Justice Department senior advisers John Yoo and Jay Bybee; and Douglas Freith, who was undersecretary of defense.

The six are said to have,

“participated actively and decisively in the creation, approval and execution of a judicial framework that allowed for the deprivation of fundamental rights of a large number of prisoners, the implementation of new interrogation techniques including torture, the legal cover for the treatment of those prisoners, the protection of the people who participated in illegal tortures and, above all, the establishment of impunity for all the government workers, military personnel, doctors and others who participated in the detention center at Guantánamo”. (1)

If the Spanish judge decides to issue arrest warrants, the six US officials could be detained and extradited if they travel outside the United States. In 1998, Pinochet was arrested in Britain after the same Spanish judge issued a warrant for his arrest. The Observer, a British newspaper which covered the Spanish court’s investigation of the six former US officials, approached the story as a “political problem” for the Obama administration, rather than in the high moral tones reserved for the leaders of countries the United States opposes, like al-Bashir. Western newspapers can work themselves up into high moral dudgeon over Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s “thugs” allegedly torturing political opponents, while calmly deliberating on the political difficulties attempts to hold US officials accountable for torture present to the Obama administration. There is an implicit assumption in Western media coverage of US crimes that US officials won’t be prosecuted, and that anyone who thinks they ought to be has stepped outside the bounds of acceptable thought. Obama, as unctuous as any other ambitious, exhibitionist, lawyer whose charm, intelligence and acceptable politics recommends him to the role of ruling class political representative, covered all his bases. He denounced the former administration’s torture policies, while disguising his craven refusal to prosecute the perpetrators as an admirable focus on the future. “Obviously we’re going to be looking at past practices, and I don’t believe that anybody is above the law,” Obama said in January. “But my orientation’s going to be forward-looking.” (2)

Al-Bashir finds himself in the same situation Freith et al. could soon be in, running the risk when travelling abroad of detention and extradition. Despite this, the Sudanese president recently travelled to an Arab League summit in Qatar, in what The Washington Post denounced as a “brazen act of defiance.” (3) (If Gonzales and his band of torture advocates face arrest warrants from the Spanish court but travel abroad anyway, will The Washington Post comment in disapproving tones on their brazenly defiant act?) Rather than being arrested, al-Bashir was welcomed by the heads of Arab states, many of whom denounced the court for its double standards. The leaders pointed out that the warrant for al-Bashir’s arrest was issued soon after Israel brazenly defied the rules of war to carry out a massacre in the Gaza Strip. Despite the Zionist army’s amply documented use of disproportional force against Gazan resistance fighters, its indiscriminate use of white phosphorus in civilian areas, its bombing of civilian infrastructure and targets, and its use of human shields, no indictments of Israeli leaders or soldiers have been forthcoming, or ever will be under the current global order dominated by Israel’s patron, the United States. Israel isn’t a party to the ICC and, with the United States wielding a Security Council veto, the UNSC won’t order the court to investigate Israeli war crimes.

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad denounced the court and its indictment against al-Bashir, saying that the ICC’s “weak pretexts about fabricated crimes committed by Sudan” should only be discussed after “those who committed the atrocities and massacres in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq,” face the judgment of the court. (4)

While it’s hard to argue with al-Assad’s point, The New York Times did, trying to discredit it by citing the critical comments of a representative of what the newspaper deceptively dubbed as an independent NGO, the Doha Center for Media Freedom. The group’s spokesperson branded al-Assad as a hypocrite for wanting Israel to be investigated while complaining about al-Bashir’s indictment. That’s not exactly what al-Assad said. He criticized the ICC for its double standards, suggesting that its operation has far more to do with politics, than the pursuit of justice.

While presented as independent by The New York Times, The Doha Center is no more independent than The New York Times itself is. In fact, they are both beholden to the same class interests. Mia Farrow sits on the center’s advisory council and Reporters sans Frontiers’ (RSF’s) Robert Menard runs it. Farrow is an outspoken proponent of Western intervention in Sudan, while Menard is well known for his pro-Western chauvinism and hostility to the Cuban and Bolivarian revolutions.

The Doha Center is a regional satellite of RSF. RSF receives much of its funding from the French government, the US Congress (through the CIA offshoot, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED)), the Soros Foundation (notorious for putting up the financial backing for color revolutions), and the Center for a Free Cuba. The Center for a Free Cuba, whose mission is to help overthrow Cuba’s socialist system, is run by Frank Calzon, who spent 11 years with the CIA-interlocked Freedom House. The Center relies on funding from the US State Department (through USAID) and the US Congress (through the NED.)

The New York Times use of the Doha Center to provide ostensibly independent commentary is emblematic of the Western media practice of drawing on experts offered up by ruling class think-tanks and foundation-funded-NGOs to propagate ruling class positions under the guise of providing independent analysis. This practice has been especially evident in Western media coverage of events in Zimbabwe, where news stories have relied heavily on interviews with opposition figures and so-called independent experts, all of whom are generously funded by Western governments and foundations interested in regime change. Having a stable of NGO representatives and opposition politicians the media can turn to for a ready quote, who sing from the same songbook, creates the impression of unanimity born of common experience, rather than a common source of funding.

Another practice of the US media is to ignore or minimize events that challenge the doctrinal view that the United States and its allies do not commit war crimes, crimes against humanity, or carry out gross violations of human rights. Abuses may be duly noted, but the basic tenet that the West’s intentions are well-meaning remains sacrosanct. There could hardly be a better example of this than an April 4, 2009 New York Times paean to Nato, an organization established well before the Warsaw Pact, and which arose as the successor to the anti-Comintern Pact of Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan against the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union collapsed, (in which Nato pressure played no small role), and presumably now without a raison d’etre, the alliance launched an illegal and aggressive terror bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999, deliberately disdaining to secure UN approval for its actions, knowing it would be turned down. This gave rise to a whole industry aimed at supplying Nato with a legal figleaf to justify its aggressions. The alliance has since been pressed into service in the attempted conquest of Afghanistan. Its incessant expansion up to the borders of Russia is viewed as a hostile act by the Russian government, spurring Moscow to initiate a defensive military build-up. And yet, despite its aggressive and hostile nature, The New York Times celebrates Nato as “an alliance that deterred the Soviet Union, opened the door to emerging democracies (and) battled ethnic cleansing.” (5) In this, threatening the Soviet Union becomes deterrence, building a ring of military bases around Russia becomes opening the door to emerging democracies, and state terrorism against Yugoslav civilians carried out in contempt of international law becomes battling ethnic cleansing. If Nato truly battled ethnic cleansing, it would be locked in battle with the Israeli military, whose 61-year long effort to cleanse historic Palestine of Arabs, marks it as an ethnic cleansing organization par excellence. Instead, Nato countries are putting up the money that allows Israel to bomb, bulldoze and terrorize Palestinians.

Another example of The New York Times’ implicit commitment to the view that US foreign policy is at root guided by admirable values, is the newspaper’s reaction to the Obama administration announcing it will seek a seat on the United Nations’ Human Rights Council because “it believed working from within was the most effective means of altering the council’s habit of ignoring poor human rights records of member states.” (6) Anyone who has been paying the slightest attention, and whose function isn’t to act as a public relations hack for the US government, will greet this with stunned amazement. After Guantanamo, Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and the humanitarian catastrophes of immense scale sparked by the wars of conquest against Iraq and Afghanistan – and this on top of a blood-soaked history of military intervention, destabilization, and mass murder around the world – the United States has the gall to seek a seat on the Human Rights Council in order to rescue it from failing to admonish others more energetically over their human rights records. Rather than being gobsmacked by this stunning chutzpah, The New York Times blithely carries on as if Quasimodo hadn’t announced it’s time for everyone to sit up straight. We’re assured that “human rights organizations generally applauded the move,” including the “nonprofit organization Human Rights First,” inviting the question: What legitimate human rights organization could possibly welcome the equivalent of Nazi Germany seeking to join the anti-imperialist league to exercise a self-proclaimed anti-colonialist leadership?

In light of the above, we might expect Human Rights First to be a ruling class vehicle, lurking behind the disarming label “nonprofit.” And, indeed, it is. Previously known as The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Human Rights First is a corporate law firm-dominated organization funded by the Ford Foundation, Soros (again), arms manufacturer Lockheed-Martin, and Mitsubishi. The organization’s job is to attack US foreign policy betes noire over human rights abuses. According to its website, it acts to “strengthen systems of accountability in countries where human rights violations occur,” though a look at where the organization’s attentions are focussed would lead one to believe that Human Rights First regards human rights violations to occur only “in places like Guatemala, Russia, Northern Ireland, Egypt, Zimbabwe, and Indonesia” but not in places under United States or Israeli control. The landing page of its website on April 4, 2009 featured reports on Russia, Colombia, Guatemala, hate crime laws, Cuba, and Thailand and a paper arguing that “terrorism” suspects should be prosecuted in federal courts, but nothing on Israel’s unending human rights violations or US abuses in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. Small wonder then that an organization that believes all the big human rights problems occur under the purview of countries the United States opposes should applaud Washington’s intention to join the UN Human Rights Council.

Mainstream newspapers and the human rights organizations, NGOs and think-tanks they rely on for expert commentary, propagate ruling class positions under the guise of providing independent and neutral analyses. Their analyses implicitly accept certain values and assumptions: that the military strategy and foreign policies of the United States and its allies are guided by defensive and humanitarian considerations; that the countries and movements the United States opposes are hostile, threatening, despotic, contemptuous of human rights, and are best subordinated to US leadership and moral guidance; that tribunals, international courts and international law must be pressed into service to prosecute and punish others, but the United States must not be prevented by international law from exercising its moral authority and leadership. This doctrine has a political purpose: to engineer the consent of 9/10ths of humanity for their exploitation and oppression by a US state acting on behalf of the corporations and hereditary capitalist families that recruit and sponsor its personnel, formulate its policy through a network of think-tanks, and structure its decision-making.

1. Julian Borger and Dale Fuchs, “Spanish judge accuses six top Bush officials of torture,” The Observer (UK), March 29, 2009.
2. Ibid.
3. Brian Murphy, “Sudan’s leader arrives in Qatar,” The Washington Post, March 30, 2009.
4. Michael Slackman and Robert F. Worth, “Often Split, Arab Leaders Unite for Sudan’s Chief, The New York Times, March 31, 2009.
5. Steven Erlanger and Thom Shanker, “Nato leaders debate Afghan strains at summit,” The New York Times, April 4, 2009.
6. Neil MacFarquhar, “In reversal, US seeks election to UN human rights council,” The New York Times, April 1, 2009.

Written by what's left

April 3, 2009 at 9:05 pm

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