Sorting through the lies about Venezuela

Challenging United States hegemony is never an easy course. A county need not be socialist — it is enough to either voice aspirations toward socialism, or merely demonstrate a pattern of not doing as Washington dictates.

So here we go again, this time with Venezuela. Ironically for a country that the corporate media insistently claims has been ruled by two “dictators” (remember that Hugo Chávez was routinely denounced in the same ways that Nicolás Maduro is today) it would be difficult to find a country with more opportunities for grassroots democracy and for everyday people to participate in the decisions that affect their lives and neighborhoods. There has been backtracking on some of this, and there are legitimate complaints about the top-down manner in which the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) is run. The U.S. government is in no position to point fingers, however, given its history in Latin America and the widespread voter suppression that is a regular feature of U.S. elections.

Supporters of the Venezuelan government demonstrate in 2017 (photo by Rachael Boothroyd Rojas/Venezuelanalysis)

It is also preposterous to assert that “socialism has failed” in Venezuela, when 70 percent of the country’s economy is in private hands, the country is completely integrated into the world capitalist system and it is (overly) dependent on a commodity with a price that wildly fluctuates on capitalist markets. Venezuela is a capitalist country that does far more than most to ameliorate the conditions of capitalism and in which socialism remains an aspiration. If something has “failed,” it is capitalism. Leaving much of the economy in the hands of capitalists leaves them with the ability to sabotage an economy, a lesson learned in painful fashion during the 1980s in Sandinista Nicaragua.

Before delving into the significant problems of Venezuela, largely due to the economic war being waged against it by the U.S. government and the economic sabotage within by Venezuela’s industrialists and other business interests, it is worthwhile to briefly examine some of the democratic institutions that have been created since the Bolivarian Revolution took root in 1998.

Communal councils organize at neighborhood level

The base of the Venezuelan political system are the communal councils. Various political structures designed to organize people at the grassroots level have evolved into a system of communal councils, organized on a neighborhood level, which in turn build up to communes and communal cities. These are direct-democracy bodies that identify and solve the problems and deficiencies of their local areas with the direct support and funding of the national government. After decades of neglect by previous governments, there were no shortage of problems to tackle.

Like many institutions of the Bolivarian Revolution, these have roots in grassroots organizing that pre-date Hugo Chávez’s first election.

The Barrio Assembly of Caracas emerged in 1991 as something of a general assembly representing local groups, coming into being after demonstrations marking the first and second anniversaries of the “Caracazo” uprising were dispersed by soldiers firing on them from rooftops. (The “Caracazo” uprising was a massive revolt sparked by popular resistance to an austerity package dictated by the International Monetary Fund.)  Later versions of these assemblies organized on the eve of the 2002 coup attempting to overthrow President Chávez; among these assemblies’ accomplishments were distributing 100,000 fliers calling for a march on the presidential palace to defend the government.

The Bosque de el Valle in Mérida state (photo by Jorge Paparoni)

The communal councils are the base of an alternative government structure, one intended to bypass municipal and other local governments and to eventually replace them. This was an attempt to provide a concrete form to the concept of “constituent power,” the idea that people should be direct participants in the decisions to affect their lives and communities. Legislation passed in 2006 formally recognized the communal councils and the form quickly gained popularity — there were an estimated 30,000 in existence by 2009. These councils are formed in compact urban areas containing 200 to 400 households in cities and 20 or so in rural areas. All residents of the territory are eligible to participate. In turn, communal councils organize into larger communes, and communes into communal cities, to coordinate projects too large for a neighborhood or to organize projects necessarily on a larger scale, such as improving municipal services.

Communal councils are required to propose three projects that will contribute to development in the community; funding for approved projects will usually come from national-government bodies. An interesting development is that many (in the case of councils studied by researchers, a majority) who have taken active roles in the communal councils were not politically active before the 2002 failed coup. Generally, women outnumber men among the active participants, and it is often older women taking the lead. The culture of participation that the councils encourage and that the Bolivarian government is paying vastly more attention to solving social problems and the needs of the poor than prior governments has facilitated the organizing of women, and the new activity of women in turn is breaking down traditional macho attitudes. That pensions are now much stronger, proving material security, also enables participation. Health committees tackling problems of illness, access to contraception and motherhood are often where participation begins. Once involved, women sign up for training programs, with more women then men taking advantage of these.

Communes often organize enterprises to provide employment for local residents and to help supply needed basic goods. One example is the El Panal 2012 Commune in Caracas. El Panal operates several enterprises and a communal bank. One of the enterprises is a sugar-packaging plant, and there are also bakeries. El Panal activists are also creating links with neighboring communes in Caracas and in other parts of the country. Links are also being created with the countryside — a “Pueblo a Pueblo” initiative brings together urban communities and farmers to distribute food directly, eliminating intermediaries and speculators. El Panal also regularly organizes food fairs at which meats, vegetables and other basic foods can be bought at discounts, well below market prices.

Tackling social problems through missions

There are also the social programs known as “missions” that are based on the direct participation of the beneficiaries. Begun in 2003, there are more than two dozen missions that seek to solve a wide array of social problems. Given the corruption and inertia of the state bureaucracy, and the unwillingness of many professionals to provide services to poor neighborhoods, the missions were established to provide services directly while enabling participants to shape the programs. Much government money was poured into these programs, thanks to the then high price of oil, which in turn enabled the Chávez government to fund them.

Among the approximately two dozen missions are Alimentación, which incorporates the Mercal network that provides food at subsidized prices and a distribution system; Cultura, which seeks the decentralization and democratization of culture to ensure that all have access to it and stimulate community participation; Guaicaipuro, intended to guarantee the rights of Indigenous peoples as specified in the constitution; Madres del Barrio, designed to provide support to housewives in dire poverty and help their families overcome their poverty; Negra Hipólita, which assists children, adolescents and adults who are homeless; Piar, which seeks to help mining communities through dignifying living conditions and establishing environmental practices; and Zamora, intended to reorganize land, especially idle land that could be used for agriculture, in accordance with the constitution.

Venezuelan political scientist and historian Margarita López Maya summarized the breadth of the missions in a Socialist Register article:

“Missions (programs bypassing uncooperative or ineffective state agencies), such as Barrio Adentro (free 24 hours a day primary health care and disease prevention for low income groups), Mercal (state distribution of food at subsidized prices), Robinson 1 and 2 (literacy and primary education for adults), Ribas and Sucre (secondary and university education for those who had missed or not finished these), Vuelvan Caras (training for employment), and the Bolivarian schools, where a full day schedule has been restored, with two free meals and two snacks a day, plus free uniforms and textbooks: all these undoubtedly had a positive political impact. The government has also invested in the social economy, as in the “ruedas de negocios,” in which the creation of cooperatives is encouraged in order to supply goods and services to the state sector. The government has also created a system of micro-financing with the Women’s Bank, the Sovereign People’s Bank, and so on, which make small loans to lower income borrowers.”

Struggles for economic democracy

In the workplaces, there are experiments with co-management, cooperatives, socialist production units and workers’ councils. These forms have been contested — an ongoing multiple-sided struggle over what constitutes “workers’ control” of industry and what forms such control should take continues. Cooperative enterprises are enshrined in the constitution, and a 2001 law mandates that all members be included in decision-making and that an assembly of all members has final decision-making power over all topics. Temporary workers can be hired for a maximum of six months, after which they must be accepted as members. A state ministry was created to provide assistance to cooperatives and small businesses, including the facilitation of securing contracts from state companies.

There are difficulties here. One significant problem were instances of cooperatives being formed only in order to acquire the start-up capital provided by the government, or were small companies that converted to being cooperatives only on paper to take advantage of preferential priority for state contracts or to obtain subsidies. In response to these irregularities, the government began to require coops obtain a “certificate of fulfillment of responsibilities,” which includes financial audits and demonstration of work within their local community. Nonetheless, there are many examples of successful cooperative enterprises.

There are also socialist production units. These are nonprofit, state-owned enterprises that are managed democratically by a combination of their workers, local communal councils and the national government. These enterprises are intended to provide local services, such as transportation and distribution of cooking gas, and the creation of production. Although workers are directly involved in decision-making at these enterprises, the state also has a role, which can sometimes lead to tensions. The goods produced are most often distributed through the Mercal state-owned chain of supermarkets that provides food at subsidized prices, and PDVAL, a state-run food-distribution network. These are often operated at a loss, as they are intended to provide needed goods and services to communities at steep discounts.

A continuing area of contestation are state-owned enterprises. Some argue for state ownership with employee participation, others argue for full autonomy of enterprises and the workers in them, and there are gradations in between. There are managements that don’t wish to cede decision-making authority to their workforce, and there are government officials, despite being part of the Bolivarian movement, who oppose workers’ control, sometimes because they believe in top-down control by the state. There are examples of state-owned companies in which management structures have changed multiple times as different factions temporarily gain control.

The push and pull of competing interests and tendencies is exemplified in the case of the state-owned aluminum smelter Alcasa, which had a well-functioning system of workers’ control under co-management that reversed its debt problems; then had a new director appointed who ignored the co-management structure, with an accompanying fall in productivity and return of corruption; and then a return to co-management when President Chávez named a new company president selected by the workers. Workers’ control was reinstated with new structures, and because of the precarious financial situation caused by the corruption of the middle period, workers began designing parts to be produced internally instead of buying them from suppliers as previously done. More difficulties arose when a dissident union aligned with the local state governor attempted to stop production, and although unsuccessful, caused a significant disruption. Yet another change in management by Chávez led to a renewed deterioration in co-management, and struggles at Alcasa continued.

Economic warfare at home and abroad

Shifting from a traditional capitalist economy toward a participatory economic democracy can’t be expected to be smooth sailing, especially when this attempt is being done in a country with subaltern status in the world capitalist system. President Chávez had to withstand three successive attempts to remove him — the 2002 coup, 2002-03 bosses’ lockout and the 2004 recall referendum. Five times he was elected president, never with less than 55 percent of the vote, and overall he won 16 of 17 elections and referendums in which his movement participated. The election system put in place by the Chávez government was declared by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s Carter Center to be “the best in the world.” None of this prevented the late president from being furiously denounced as a “dictator.”

Once he died, however, the attacks were stepped up by the revolution’s opponents, apparently believing that the loss of the leader would make the revolution vulnerable. In reality, the Bolivarian Revolution has always been a movement propelled by millions who will not readily give up the many gains they have achieved and which pushed the late president to go further. Venezuela has a long tradition of strong, organized movements, which predate the Bolivarian Revolution. Despite the difficulties of recent years and increasing popular disapproval of President Maduro, those movements do not want their gains to be reversed. During the Chávez years, unemployment and poverty were drastically reduced and people were able to participate in the political process for the first time.

So how much of Venezuela’s serious economic problems are the fault of the current president? Some of the blame can be laid at his doorstep, but mostly for his inability to act in timely fashion and allowing problems caused by outside forces to deepen. A serious mistake that has ran through the past 20 years is that no progress was made on reducing Venezuela’s heavy reliance on oil exports. When oil prices were high, the government was content to let the money flow and use it to fund social programs and finance a wide variety of projects. But the later crash in oil prices left the government vulnerable. By not diversifying the economy, much less is earned when the inevitable falls in price arrive and it becomes difficult to maintain consumption because so many consumer products must be imported.

(Cartoon by Carlos Latuff)

The over-reliance on a single export commodity would be difficult to overcome by itself. But greatly compounding Venezuela’s problems are U.S. sanctions, a currency that became drastically overvalued, and an inflationary spiral resulting from that overvaluation that incentivized black markets and smuggling. Poor management on the part of the government of President Maduro has intensified the damage done by those factors. Although the Venezuelan government set an official exchange rate for its currency, the bolívar, the effective exchange rate was determined by international currency speculators and thus the value of the bolívar is not in the control of Caracas.

Speculators caused the value of the bolívar to be reduced by 97 percent in 2017, and further drastic reductions in the currency’s value continued well into 2018. The value or output of the Venezuelan economy hardly declined by anything remotely comparable, so there are other factors at work for such a drastic reduction in exchange value. But because the Maduro government did not adjust the official exchange rate when the bolívar came under attack, the spread between the official rate and the de facto rate widened to the point that vast opportunities for smuggling and black-market operations were created. That in turn caused shortages and hyperinflation.

These developments were a consequence of Venezuela’s integration into the world capitalist system and the country’s heavy reliance on imports. Food and consumer goods intended to be sold at discounts in state stores were diverted to the black market, where profiteers sold them at prices several times higher or smuggled them into Colombia for huge profits. Government officials have repeatedly discovered vast quantities of consumer goods hidden in warehouses by local capitalists who are artificially causing shortages.

Hardening financial sanctions

United States government sanctions on Venezuela prohibit any U.S. persons or banks from providing financing or purchasing any debt issued by the Venezuelan government or the state oil company PDVSA, the purpose of which is to make it more difficult for the government to raise funds internationally or to restructure debt.

These sanctions are effectively extra-territorial. A non-U.S. bank that seeks to handle a transaction in U.S. dollars (the currency most often used in international transactions) has to do so by clearing the transaction through a U.S. bank; a U.S. bank that cleared such a transaction would be in violation of the sanctions. The Obama administration intensified the U.S. financial war on Venezuela by absurdly declaring the latter a “national security threat” and the Trump administration has issued a succession of decrees tightening the screws.

The latest, issued on January 28, freezes all property and interests of PDVSA subject to U.S. jurisdiction — in other words, blocking Venezuela from any access to the profits generated by PDVSA’s U.S. subsidiary, Citgo, or any PDVSA activities in the United States. The Trump administration expects Venezuela to lose US$11 billion this year, The New York Times reports. That move is in addition to repeated calls by the Trump administration for an overthrow of the Venezuelan government, threats by President Trump to invade, and the Trump administration “recognizing” the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as president although Guaidó has never run for the position and is largely unknown to the Venezuelan public. An added insult is the appointment of death-squad cheerleader Elliot Abrams to “oversee” a “return to democracy,” an idea that would draw laughs if Abrams’ history in Latin America during the Reagan administration weren’t so deadly.

Successive U.S. administrations have subsidized opposition groups — an estimated US$100 million has been poured into Venezuela in an effort to subvert the elected government.

Alan MacLeod, a specialist in media studies, summarized the extra-territorial effect of U.S. sanctions:

“[T]he sanctions strongly discourage other countries from lending money to the country for fear of reprisal and also discourage any businesses from doing business there too. A study from the 2018 opposition Presidential candidate’s economics czar suggested the sanctions were responsible for a 50% drop in oil production. Furthermore, Trump’s sanctions prevent profits from Venezuela-owned CITGO from being sent back to Venezuela. Trump has also threatened banks with 30 years in jail if they co-operate with Caracas and has intimidated others into going along with them.”

President Maduro is repeatedly called a “dictator,” an epithet endless repeated across the corporate media. But when a portion of the opposition boycotts, can it be a surprise that the incumbent wins? The opposition actually asked the United Nations to not send observers, a sure sign that they expected to lose a fair election despite their claims that the election would be rigged. Nonetheless, a coalition of Canadian unions, church leaders and other officials declared the election to be “a transparent, secure, democratic and orderly electoral and voting process.”

Unfortunately, there is every reason to be concerned, given the hostility of U.S. governments and capitalists to any intent to become independent of the U.S. or to direct economic activity to benefit local people rather than maximizing the profits of U.S. multinational corporations. The United States has militarily invaded Latin American and Caribbean countries 96 times, including 48 times in the 20th century. That total constitutes only direct interventions and doesn’t include coups fomented by the U.S., such as Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973. Guatemala was attempting nothing more “radical” than a land reform that would have forced United Fruit to sell idle land at United Fruit’s own under-valuation of the land (a self-assessment made by United Fruit to avoid paying a fair share of taxes). The U.S. overthrew the government and instituted what would become a 40-year nightmare of state-organized mass murder that ultimately cost 200,000 lives. The Chilean effort to build a humane economy was ended with the overthrow of Salvador Allende and the installation of Augusto Pinochet and his murderous regime that immiserated Chileans.

Dissimilar results can hardly be expected if the U.S. were to succeed in overthrowing the Venezuelan government and installing a right-wing government that would reverse the many gains of the past 20 years. Hands off Venezuela!

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Can’t we have an honest conversation about Vietnam?

The Ken Burns/Lynn Novick television series on the Vietnam War provides yet another example of the narrowness of “acceptable” political discourse in the United States. More than four decades past the end of that imperialist adventure, having a serious discussion about it remains taboo.

The series also provides a fresh example of how the narrowness of acceptable discourse is disguised through the appearance of a vigorous debate. I will confess here I have not watched Burns and Novick’s The Vietnam War, but the consistency of the many discussions of it I have read confirm what would have been expected: The liberal side of the “debate” on the Vietnam War, that an “honorable” effort was tragically miscarried because of “mistakes.”

The series has a long list of corporate sponsors, typical for a Public Broadcasting System production. One of the Koch Brothers, David H. Koch, provided funding, as did the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Bank of America. Such blue-chip sponsors are not going to associate themselves with any organization that has the slightest potential of providing any challenging critique.

Rice paddies in Vietnam (photo by Simon Gurney)

But let us not reverse cart and horse. This is the sort of case where corporate sponsors, including fiercely anti-democratic ones like the Koch Brothers, provide funding because they are confident of what they will be getting. There is no need for any formal censorship because corporate control of the media will see to it that viewpoints challenging the mythologies of capitalism are deemed out of bounds.

Most large, influential broadcast stations and print publications are owned by large corporations, and a typical small-city newspaper is owned by a prominent local businessperson if it is not owned by a large corporation. Powerful corporate interests appoint the top editors and managers of their media properties — these mass media decision-makers are men and women who already see the world through the prism of dominant ideologies, and those ideologies will be reflected in the way that news stories are covered. Those ideologies are also reflected in indirect ways — pressure to increase readership or viewership easily leads to pandering to perceived (and sometimes manufactured) consumer interests such as wall-to-wall coverage of celebrity gossip and exhaustive coverage of sports teams simultaneous with the shrinking of news sections.

The press isn’t free if you don’t own one

Many folks on the Left have the idea that there is some sort of organized conspiracy among owners and managers of major media outlets to make sure that ideologically inconvenient perspectives are shut out. That simply isn’t so. Competition alone would prevent any such collusion; within “acceptable parameters” reporters and editors want to be the first to report news. It is enough that corporate-inspired ideologies pervade a society and that corporate ownership ensures that decision-making positions are filled with those who hold to some variant of prevailing ideologies or are inclined to “play it safe” by cautiously remaining within “acceptable” boundaries.

The mass media will then simply reflect these dominant ideologies, and continual repetition through multiple mass media outlets reinforces the ideologies, making them more pervasive until the emergence of a significant countervailing pressure. The very competitive nature of mass media ownership helps dominant ideologies prevail — if so many different outlets report the same news item in a nearly identical way, that “spin” can easily gain wide acceptance. Or if stories are reported differently by competing media outlets, but with the same dominant set of presumptions underlying them, those dominant presumptions, products of ideologies widely propagated by elite institutions, similarly serve as ideological reinforcement.

Editors can reign in reporters with independent mindsets by not running unacceptable stories, or revising them so that dominate ideologies and mythologies are not challenged. When a reporter is fearless enough to follow the trail until some semblance of the truth can be published, even if in watered-down fashion, an exemplary punishment can be made of him or her (such as was done to Gary Webb after his reporting on the CIA). But even when that is not the case, a simple ignoring of a story can make it disappear.

The persistence with which stories are reported is another reinforcement — stories that serve, or can be manipulated, to uphold dominant ideologies can be covered for long periods of time with small developments creating opportunities to create fresh reports at the same time that stories that are ideologically inconvenient are reported briefly, often without context, then quickly dropped. An inconvenient story run once, then ignored, can even misleadingly be pointed to as “proof” that news is being reported no matter what interests are at stake.

One well-documented example will provide an illustration — coverage by elite media of Jerzy Popieluszko, a pro-Solidarity priest in Poland murdered in 1984 by Polish secret policemen in contrast to coverage of priests and other church personnel murdered in U.S.-backed Latin American dictatorships.

Human rights depends on if the U.S. supports the régime

In their classic book, Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman analyzed four U.S. media outlets that then often set the tone for the press — the most influential newspaper (The New York Times), the two main news magazines (Time and Newsweek) and the most authoritative television news broadcaster (CBS). Their study found 140 articles/broadcasts on Popieluszko and eleven articles/broadcasts on 23 victims in Guatemala during a period that overlapped with Popieluszko’s murder; the Times ran ten front-page articles on Popieluszko, none on the others.

The articles on Popieluszko routinely featured graphic descriptions of the details of his murder and consistently tied his murder to Polish communist authorities despite the fact that the murderers were swiftly arrested and found guilty in an open trial. By contrast, only four of the 23 Guatemalan victims had their names mentioned in any news account, little detail was offered for any of these murders, no remark was made concerning the fact that no arrests were made in any of these cases, nor was U.S. material support of the Guatemalan government that was behind the murders once mentioned.

None of the prevailing situation precludes energetic debate in capitalist mass media within the parameters set by prevailing ideological interpretations. Ideas that directly challenge corporate orthodoxy can be excluded at the same time that a debate among two or more “acceptable” ideas rages. This brings us back to interpretations of the Vietnam War. At the end of the 1990s a strong debate played out in the mass media outlets of the United States concerning the Vietnam War (one in which the Times was a significant participant).

A U.S. Air Force plane drops a white phosphorus bomb on Vietnam in 1966.

This debate had all the appearances of a serious dissection of a bloody, deeply divisive blot on U.S. history. But although the debate was heated and lively, it was only between two “acceptable” viewpoints — an honorable effort that tragically failed or a well-intentioned but flawed effort that should not have been undertaken if the U.S. was not going to be “serious” about fighting. Left out were the widely held views that the war should never have been fought because it was a war to extend U.S. hegemony or that the U.S. simply had no business fighting in someone else’s civil war.

Further, the first “acceptable” viewpoint implied, and the second explicitly stated, that the U.S. didn’t really fight hard to win the war, ignoring the actual intensive level of the U.S. war effort in which most of North Vietnam’s larger cities were reduced to rubble, much of the farming lands were destroyed and three million Vietnamese were killed. The total tonnage of bombs dropped by the U.S. in Vietnam exceeded that of all bombing by all countries during World War II. Reports of the countryside at the end of the war spoke of entire regions as “bare, gray and lifeless.”

So much for the proverbial “fighting with one hand tied behind the back.” And let’s not forget that the Vietnamese had already spent years freeing themselves from the grip of France, only to have the U.S. sabotage elections and resume the fight. That the Vietnamese have the right to decide for themselves how their economy will be structured, or even be allowed independent development at all, and that the U.S. used the full might of the world’s biggest military machine to prevent that, is still outside “acceptable” discussion.

Debate in the service of obfuscation

The liberal conception of an honorable effort that tragically failed is every bit an obfuscation as the conservative perspective that a well-intentioned but flawed effort that should not have been undertaken if the U.S. was not going to be “serious” about fighting. But that these two narrow perspective were allowed to fight it out provided the appearance of a free and open media at the same time that the media obscured.

To return briefly to Guatemala, there has only rarely been any effort in the U.S. to discuss Washington’s bloody role (and elsewhere in Latin America). The Eisenhower administration overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected government, after a 1952 “national intelligence estimate” (a joint document put together by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies) declared that the United Fruit Company’s massive profits there were a “U.S. interest” requiring intervention.

Allen Dulles, then the CIA director, met with a United Fruit official, promising that whomever the CIA would select as the next Guatemalan leader would not touch the company. The overthrow would institute a 40-year nightmare of state-organized mass murder. A series of military leaders, each more brutal than the last and fortified with U.S. aid, unleashed a reign of terror that ultimately cost 200,000 lives, 93 percent of whom were murdered by the state through its army and its death squads.

The worst of these dictators was General Efraín Ríos Montt, whose régime murdered more than 1,000 people a month during 1982. Ríos Montt was an evangelical Protestant preacher who declared that his presidency was the will of God. Ronald Reagan responded by paying a visit to Ríos Montt, declaring him “totally dedicated to democracy” and claiming that reports of human rights abuses were a “bum rap.”

Do you ever see of this (only one of dozens of examples that could be cited) discussed in the U.S. corporate media? I don’t, either.

In countries in which the media is controlled by the government, it is easy for people to disregard what they read or hear because it is all coming from the same source, even when there is room for different opinions. A system in which the mass media is believed to be independent is far more effective at suffusing a society with an ideology. Such a system is not the result of some sort of conspiracy or a conscious plan, it is simply a natural outgrowth of corporate institutions growing so powerful at the expense of all other institutions.

And when a particularly skilled team of producers is able to uphold the interests of elite institutions, corporate and otherwise, the red carpet will be rolled out. Slick, beautifully presented work beats ham-fisted propaganda every time.

Military spending is the capitalist world’s fuel

It is common for activists to decry the enormous sums of money spent on the military. Any number of social programs, or schools, or other public benefits could instead be funded.

Not least is this the case with the United States, which by far spends the most of any country on its military. The official Pentagon budget for 2015 was $596 billion, but actual spending is far higher. (Figures for 2015 will be used because that is the latest year for which data is available to make international comparisons.) If we add military spending parked in other portions of the U.S. federal government budget, we’re up to $786 billion, according to a study by the War Resisters League. Veterans benefits add another $157 billion. WRL also assigns 80 percent of the interest on the budget deficit, and that puts the grand total well above $1 trillion.

The War Resisters League notes that other organizations estimate that 50 to 60 percent of the interest would be more accurate. Let’s split the difference — if we assign 65 percent of the interest payments to past military spending (midway between the high and low estimates), then the true amount of U.S. military spending was $1.25 trillion. Yes, that is a gigantic sum of money. So gigantic that it was more than the military spending of every other country on Earth combined.

(Cartoon by Carlos Latuff)

(Cartoon by Carlos Latuff)

China is second in military spending, but far behind at US$215 billion in 2015, according to an estimate by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Saudi Arabia ($87.2 billion), Russia ($66.4 billion) and Britain ($55.5 billion) round out the top five. And lest we chalk up the bloated Pentagon budget to the size of the U.S. economy, the official $596 billion budget constituted 3.5 percent of its gross domestic product, the fourth-highest ratio in the world, while China spent 2.1 percent of its GDP on its military. But if we use the actual total of U.S. military spending, then U.S. spending as a share of GDP leaps to second place, trailing only Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. maintains military bases in 80 countries, and has military personnel in about 160 foreign countries and territories. Another way of looking at this question is the number of foreign military bases: The U.S. has around 800 while the rest of the world combined has perhaps 30, according to an analysis published in The Nation. Almost half of those 30 belong to Britain or France.

Asking others to pay more is endorsing imperialism

Is there some sort of altruism in the U.S. setting itself up as the gendarme of the world? Well, that’s a rhetorical question, obviously, but such self-deception is widespread, and not just among the foreign-policy establishment.

One line of critique sometimes heard, especially during this year’s presidential campaign, is that the U.S. should demand its allies “pay their fair share.” It’s not only from Right-wing quarters that phrase is heard, but even from Left populist Bernie Sanders, who insisted during this month’s Brooklyn debate with Hillary Clinton that other members of NATO ought to pay more so the Pentagon budget can be cut. Senator Sanders said this in the context of pointing out the superior social benefits across Europe as compared to the U.S., but what it really implies is that militarism is justified.

Setting aside that Senator Sanders’ record on imperialism is not nearly as distant from Secretary Clinton’s as his supporters believe, it is a reflection of how deeply imperialism is in the bones of United Statesians when even the candidate positioning himself as a Left insurgent doesn’t seriously question the scale of military operations or their purpose.

So why is U.S. military spending so high? It’s because the repeated use of force is what is necessary to maintain the capitalist system. As top dog in the world capitalist system, it’s up to the U.S. to do what is necessary to keep itself, and its multi-national corporations, in the driver’s seat. That has been a successful project. U.S.-based multi-nationals hold the world’s highest share in 18 of 25 broad industrial sectors, according to an analysis in New Left Review, and often by commanding margins — U.S. multi-nationals hold at least a 40 percent global share in 10 of those sectors.

A partial list of U.S. interventions from 1890, as compiled by Zoltán Grossman, a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington state, lists more than 130 foreign military interventions (not including the use of troops to put down strikes within the U.S.). Consistently, these were used to impose U.S. dictates on smaller countries.

At the beginning of the 20th century, U.S. President William Howard Taft declared that his foreign policy was “to include active intervention to secure our merchandise and our capitalists opportunity for profitable investment” abroad. Taft overthrew the government of Nicaragua to punish it for taking a loan from a British bank rather than a U.S. bank, and then put Nicaragua’s customs collections under U.S. control and handed two U.S. banks control of Nicaragua’s national bank and railroad. Little has changed since, including the overthrows of the governments of Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Brazil (1964) and Chile (1973), and more recently the invasion of Iraq and the attempted overthrow of the Venezuelan government.

Muscle men for big business

We need only recall the statement of Marine Corps general Smedley Butler, who summarized his highly decorated career in 1935, in this manner:

“I spent thirty three years and four months [in] the Marine Corps. … [D]uring that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism.”

The bipartisan refusal to acknowledge this is exemplified in U.S. narratives concerning the Vietnam War. The “debate” that is conducted in the corporate media is only between two “acceptable” viewpoints — an honorable effort that tragically failed or a well-intentioned but flawed effort that should not have been undertaken if the U.S. was not going to be “serious” about fighting. Never mind that tonnage of bombs dropped on Vietnam were greater than what was dropped by all combatants in World War II combined, 3 million Vietnamese were killed, cities were reduced to rubble and millions of acres of farmland was destroyed. By what sane measure could this be said to be fighting “without really trying,” as Right-wing mythology still asserts?

No modern corporate enterprise would be complete without subcontracting, and the Pentagon has not stinted here. That is not a reference to the massive, and often guaranteed, profits that military contractors enjoy as more supply operations are handed over to connected companies, but rather to the teaching of torture techniques to other militaries so that some of the dirty work of maintaining capitalism can be undertaken locally.

military bases surround RussiaThe U.S. Army’s infamous School of the Americas, lately masquerading under the deceptively bland-sounding name Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, has long been a finishing school for the personnel enforcing the rule of military and civilian dictatorships throughout Latin America. Major Joe Blair, who was the director of instruction at the School of the Americas from 1986 to 1989, had this to say about the curriculum:

“The doctrine that was taught was that if you want information you use physical abuse, false imprisonment, threats to family members, and killing. If you can’t get the information you want, if you can’t get that person to shut up or stop what they’re doing, you assassinate them—and you assassinate them with one of your death squads.”

The change of the name more than a decade ago was cosmetic, Major Blair said while testifying at a 2002 trial of School of the Americas protestors:

“There are no substantive changes besides the name. They teach the identical courses that I taught, and changed the course names and use the same manuals.”

The entire history of capitalism is built on violence, and violence has been used to both impose and maintain the system from its earliest days. Slavery, colonialism, dispossession of the commons, draconian laws forcing peasants into factories and control of the state to suppress all opposition to economic coercion built capitalism. The forms of domination change over the years, and are often financial rather than openly militaristic today (although the armed fist lurks in the background); regardless, exploitation is the lifeblood of wealth. Demanding that the cost of this should be spread around is a demand to continue exploitation, domination and imperialism, and nothing more.

New right-wing government cedes Argentina’s sovereignty to Wall Street

Argentina’s new right-wing president, Mauricio Macri, pledged to put an end to the country’s sovereignty, and on that he has been true to his word. The capitalist principal that windfall profits for speculators is the raison d’état for the world’s governments has been upheld.

Or, to put it in a different way, the government of Argentina will again be allowed to borrow on international financial markets — so that it can borrow money for the sole purpose of paying billions of dollars to speculators.

Argentina had been one of the few countries that refused to bleed its population to pay off odious debt under the 12-year husband and wife rule of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández. Their left-wing populism has been overstated — they left capitalist relations untouched and at best merely tolerated the movement of recovered factories — but they did consistently put the interests of Argentine working people ahead of international financiers. The election of the right-wing President Macri has put an end to that, along with his introducing the repression that austerity requires.

Entre Rios province, Argentina (photo by Felipe Gonzalez)

Entre Rios province, Argentina (photo by Felipe Gonzalez)

Argentina’s difficulties have a long history. The fascistic military dictatorship of 1976 to 1983 laid waste to the Argentine economy while unleashing horrific human rights abuses, and subsequent civilian governments sold off state enterprises at fire-sale prices while imposing austerity until the economy crashed at the end of 2001. Upon assuming office, President Kirchner suspended debt payments that would have impoverished the country. He offered to negotiate with bond holders, 93 percent of whom ultimately agreed to accept 30 percent of their bonds’ face value.

There were holdouts, most notably two hedge funds that waged a 15-year battle to extract the full value of the bonds, even though they bought them from the original holders for a fraction of the price. These two funds leading the holdouts were NML Capital, a subsidiary of Paul Singer’s Elliot Capital Management, and another hedge fund, Aurelius Capital Management. Mr. Singer, the type of character for which the term “vulture capitalist” was coined, is notorious for his scorched-earth tactics. At different points, he had an Argentine naval training ship seized in Ghana and attempted to seize Argentina’s presidential plane. His dedication to extracting every possible dollar regardless of cost to others was nicely summarized in 2011 by investigative journalist Greg Palast:

“Singer’s modus operandi is to find some forgotten tiny debt owed by a very poor nation (Peru and Congo were on his menu). He waits for the United States and European taxpayers to forgive the poor nations’ debts, then waits a bit longer for offers of food aid, medicine and investment loans. Then Singer pounces, legally grabbing at every resource and all the money going to the desperate country. Trade stops, funds freeze and an entire economy is effectively held hostage.

Singer then demands aid-giving nations pay monstrous ransoms to let trade resume. … Singer demanded $400 million from the Congo for a debt he picked up for less than $10 million. If he doesn’t get his 4,000 percent profit, he can effectively starve the nation. I don’t mean that figuratively — I mean starve as in no food. In Congo-Brazzaville last year, one-fourth of all deaths of children under five were caused by malnutrition.”

Buy low, demand very high

He’ll make a windfall profit off Argentina as well. The “special master” who presided over negotiations between the holdouts and the Argentine government — a veteran corporate lawyer who specializes in representing financiers and banks opposed to regulation — announced that NML Capital, Aurelius Capital and two other big hedge funds will receive 75 percent of the full principal and interest demanded by the holdouts. How big of a profit will this be? Only the funds themselves know for certain, but the lowest public estimate is a profit of nearly 400 percent.

Even that lowest estimate likely understates the profit. Bloomberg News reports that Mr. Singer will be paid $2.3 billion, or close to four times the $617 million in principal his firm holds. But as he likely paid only a small fraction of that principal, his profit is likely far greater. A Columbia University researcher estimates that NML Capital will receive $620 million for a portion of bonds for which it paid $48 million in 2008. That’s nearly a 13-fold profit in six years! As former President Fernández remarked when refusing to pay anything more than the 30 percent to which the other bondholders agreed, “I don’t even think that in organized crime there is a return rate of 1,608 per cent in such a short time,” adding that Argentina would not “submit to such extortion.”

President Fernández was referring to the profit Mr. Singer would have reaped had she given in to his full demands. She was speaking in a national address following two U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 2014 that upheld U.S. District Judge Thomas Griesa’s ruling that Argentina is not allowed to continue to pay the bondholders who agreed to accept 30 percent (or “haircuts” in financial parlance) until it reached an agreement with the holdouts. The Supreme Court also ruled that federal courts in the U.S. can order sovereign countries to hand over information on their assets to speculators. In other words, U.S. law, wielded to generate windfall profits for the most greedy, was decreed to apply to other countries, as if they are not sovereign.

The Kirchner-Fernández governments refused to yield their country’s sovereignty, but President Macri took office promising to pay off the vulture capitalists. Not only was Argentina’s ability to determine its own policy at risk, but the very concept of debt relief has been put in danger. The bondholders who agreed to take 30 percent made the calculation that something is better than nothing, and it enabled Argentina to recover from a severe economic crisis. The Kirchner-Fernández governments consistently offered the same deal to the holdouts. But now that the holdouts extracted so much more, will those who accepted the earlier deal now demand the same 75 percent given to the holdout funds? If they do, will they seek to enforce that after-the-fact better deal in the courtroom of Judge Griesa, who consistently showed himself biased in favor of the vulture capitalists?

Consider the assessment of two United Nations officials, Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, the U.N. independent expert on the effects of foreign debt on human rights, and Alfred de Zayas, the the independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order:

“A settlement would validate the type of predatory litigation that has been on the increase during the last decade. Such deals will make it more difficult to solve debt crises in a fair, timely and efficient manner by emboldening and rewarding the behavior of those who refuse to participate in debt restructuring efforts. These are no good news for attempts to solve debt crises in a timely and human rights sensitive manner.”

Paying debt through taking on more debt

The Macri government has now committed itself to paying $6.4 billion to the holdouts. How will it pay for that? By borrowing. Argentina had been blocked from borrowing in international credit markets, and as part of the deal will be allowed to borrow in those markets again. Judge Griesa’s injunction against resuming payments to the 93 percent of bondholders is also to be lifted. (That was enforceable because Argentina paid its debts to those bondholders through the Bank of New York, which was prohibited by the judge to pass through those payments under pain of legal penalties. Alternative routes through non-U.S. banks are difficult to use because of U.S. control over the global financial system.)

The deal also requires that the Argentine parliament reverse a law that blocks the country from offering any deal to holdouts better than terms agreed to by others. President Macri’s Let’s Change bloc does not hold a majority in the Chamber of Deputies, but picked up votes from the Peronist opposition to effect the necessary legal reversal this week. The Senate must still vote, but the expectation has been that the bill would have an easier time there.

The Puerto Madero district of Buenos Aires. (Photo by Juan Ignacio Iglesias)

The Puerto Madero district of Buenos Aires. (Photo by Juan Ignacio Iglesias)

Why is President Macri ceding his country’s sovereignty? Right-wing ideology of course plays a significant role here, but it is also self-interest. While the military dictatorship was conducting a reign of terror against Argentines that ultimately led to hundreds of thousands murdered, “disappeared,” tortured, kidnapped, arrested or forced to flee into exile, Mauricio Macri and his family were adding to their wealth. (Remember that this régime had the approval of Henry Kissinger and was blessed by David Rockefeller, whose loans financed it, with his infamous statement that “I have the impression that Argentina has a regime which understands the private enterprise system.”)

The Macri Society, or Socma, the family business, had close ties to the dictatorship. TeleSUR English reports that Socma “directly benefited” from the dictatorship:

“In 1973, prior to the 1976 military coup that ousted the civilian Peronist government of President Maria Estela de Peron and installed a dictatorship, Socma owned seven companies. When the dictatorship ended 10 years later, in 1983, the Socma corporate empire had expanded to 46 companies. Among Socma’s dozens of companies were various businesses that benefited the Macri family economically by providing services to the dictatorship regime.”

The new president, a director of the family conglomerate from a young age, is opposed to an Argentine parliamentary decision to launch an investigation of people and businesses that participated in the military dictatorship’s crimes, TeleSUR reports. La Nacion, a conservative Buenos Aires newspaper that backed President Macri, the day after the election published an editorial calling for an end of efforts to seek justice for the dictatorship’s victims, denouncing the quest for justice as a “culture of revenge.” Perhaps to emphasize this, the president has appointed as the new secretary for religious affairs Santiago Manuel de Estrada, who served as secretary for social security during the military dictatorship, which presided over severe reductions in wages and living conditions to go along with its death squads and torture facilities.

A monopoly for press backers, repression for opponents

Argentina’s biggest media conglomerate, Clarín, also backs President Macri, and no wonder: He has already moved to eliminate Argentina’s anti-monopoly law, which restricts the number of TV, cable and radio licenses a company can hold at one time, so that a handful of corporations can completely control the mass media. Such laws have precedent; for example, U.S. communications law long restricted anyone from owning more than 14 radio stations and seven television stations until overturned during the Reagan era. The Macri government is moving swiftly to silence opposition — it has forced a popular radio broadcaster, Victor Morales, off the air. According to the Buenos Aires Herald:

“ ‘I’m being kicked out because this company needs government advertising … No radio in Argentina can survive without government ads. They can’t mess with Macri,’ said the journalist.”

Demonstrations against these developments have already taken place, as have a public-sector strike against massive layoffs, demonstrations against the new government’s anti-protest law and protests against the imprisonment of Indigenous leader Milagro Sala. A total of 25,000 public workers have been dismissed as part of the Macri government’s austerity policies, and a new “security protocol” enables indiscriminate arrests and restricts the press’ ability to cover such events, opponents say. A coalition organizing against these new repressive policies states:

“The new protocol implies that every protest is now a criminal offense, and empowers the Security Forces — the same forces that played an active role in Argentina’s last military dictatorship — to allow or forbid any protests. The criminalization of protests violates several judicial decisions that state the right to demonstrate supersedes any occasional traffic problems that may be caused.

This year, on the 40th anniversary of the military coup in Argentina, the Mauricio Macri government has begun a campaign to eliminate an essential human right — the fundamental right to protest and demonstrate. With this new protocol, the government will try to prevent workers from protesting against redundancies or demanding salary increases, or mobilize against power outages and mining projects. This protocol openly defies the constitutional rights of the Argentine people as well as international treaties on human rights.”

Ms. Sala, imprisoned for the past two months, was arrested after protesting the policies of a provincial governor aligned with the president. She was acting in support of an organization she heads that provides social services. Parliamentarians, civil organizations and human rights campaigners across South America have denounced her arrest as political, and the United Nations has called for an explanation of her continued detention. The Buenos Aires Provincial Commission for Memory has issued this statement:

“Organizing collective action does not mean ‘inciting crimes,’ a massive demonstration is not ‘public disturbance’ and to oppose a government decision is not ‘an act of sedition.’ They are all democratic freedoms.”

They should be. But not when a right-wing government is determined to impose the rule of capital, or, in the case of the Macri government, to be a willing subaltern of international capital. The logic of the rule of financiers can only lead to not only intensified austerity, but increased repression.

Work harder to be born into the right family

If we were to believe the fairy tales of capitalism, we would have to believe that 500 multi-billionaires work harder than the entire population of Japan. OK, I know that sounds crazy, but that is nothing more than following capitalist ideology to its intended conclusion: The wealthy are wealthy because their worked harder than you.

The 500 richest people on Earth are worth a collective US$4.7 trillion, Forbes magazine breathlessly informs us, and that total is a little more than the gross domestic product of Japan, the world’s third-largest economy.

The 20 richest people alone are worth a collective $900 billion! There are only 16 countries on Earth that have a larger gross domestic product than that. Quite a feat — 20 people possess slightly more assets than what is produced in an entire year by the 250 million people of Indonesia or the 17 million people of the Netherlands, one of the most highly productive peoples among the world’s advanced capitalist countries.

So these billionaires must work awfully hard to accumulate such riches, right? Let us see.

Wells Fargo Plaza, HoustonAmong the 20 riches people on Earth we find six technology moguls who took advantage of the Internet and world wide web created by governments using public money; seven people who inherited their wealth; a monopolist who was handed his country’s telecommunications system by a president to whom he made a large donation; one who made a fortune from the fashion industry; another who made a fortune in luxury goods; and a casino magnate. Two of those who inherited a fortune and their fathers’ business, Charles and David Koch, spend fortunes (not for them, but it would be a fortune to almost anybody else) to counter all efforts to reverse the global warming and environmental devastation that their business interests requires. Four others, members of the Walton family, receive billions of dollars a year just for being born into the right family.

To zoom out to a bit to more of the tip of the pyramid, Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report 2015 reports that the richest one percent of the world’s population owns 50 percent of the world’s wealth, a higher percentage than the one percent owned at the start of the global economic downturn in 2008. The bottom 70 percent of humanity owns three percent. That the richest have so much more means that the rest of us have less. The global median wealth per adult has fallen from US$4,200 in 2007 to $3,200 in 2015. In a very rare concession in a report that otherwise dispassionately reports trends in wealth as if they are as part of the natural world as ocean tides, the Credit Suisse report said:

“Part of the decline is due to adverse exchange rate movement movements, but rising inequality is the principal reason why the global trend in median wealth has not followed the path of mean wealth per adult.” [page 20]

Exchange rates are referenced because the Credit Suisse report converts wealth holdings elsewhere into U.S. dollars for the sake of comparison, and most currencies of the world have lost value against a strong U.S. dollar, thereby rendering those holdings artificially lower than they actually are. But the main point here is average wealth increases but median wealth has been declining. The reason is this: Average measures the difference between the highest and lowest, while median is the point where half are higher and half are lower. As the joke goes, if Bill Gates walks into a bar, everybody there has become, on average, a millionaire.

Unfavorable exchange rates or not, it is no surprise that the U.S. in particular, and the global North in general, are home to a huge majority of the world’s millionaires. Centuries of one-sided extraction of natural resources, control of land and financial plunder have increased global inequality. This is hinted at in a 2009 paper written by Branko Milanović, then a World Bank researcher, who calculated that the standard measure of inequality, a statistic known as the gini coefficient, has increased greatly since the early 19th century. But, he wrote, most of the inequality of the early 19th century was due to differences among individuals within countries and less by difference in wealth between countries. In the early 21st century, by contrast, the author estimates that about 90 percent of global inequality is due to differences between countries and only a small percentage due to differences among individuals within countries. He concludes:

“[I]nequality between individuals is much higher today than 200 years ago, but—more dramatically—its composition has totally reversed: from being predominantly driven by within-national inequalities (that is, by what could be called ‘class’ inequality), it is today overwhelmingly determined by the differences in mean country incomes (what could be called ‘location’ or citizenship-based inequality).”

We wouldn’t expect issued by a World Bank economist, even a working paper that is “unofficial,” to acknowledge class differences. The implication that class differences have ceased to be relevant can easily be corrected every time we walk into our place of employment, both by the relations there and by who pockets the value created by the workforce. Not to mention the drastic and growing inequality within countries. Nonetheless, Dr. Milanović’s reference to differences between countries is of course true, and although the World Bank certainly wouldn’t use the term, we can call that international inequality by its name: Imperialism.

As they have needed to expand under the pressures of competition, the capitalists of the global North moved in to newer locations, from which they could ship massive profits back home while leaving the local populations destitute and forced to work for starvation wages. This process of primitive accumulation, not much different from the sort of primitive accumulation that occurred in England and elsewhere at the dawn of capitalism, kept local elites happy but, more so, fattened the wallets of the corporate elites who set up operations. This transnational profiteering, a process known as imperialism, primarily filled bulging corporate coffers, but inevitably some tiny amount of it filtered down for some working people in the North. Jobs for administrators, sales representatives, warehouse workers and others related to supporting exports as new markets are forced open would be a direct manifestation, and manufacturing jobs tied to the expansion of production destined for export are created.

But competitive pressures inevitably force production to be moved to countries with much lower wages — thus the age of buoying living standards through export of locally made products comes to an end, supplanted by corporate globalization that moves jobs overseas and drives down wages. The shipping of production to locations with ever lower wages and regulations, accelerated by multi-national corporations pressing governments to adopt ever more one-sided “free trade” agreements, although a new form of imperialism, is one that drives down wages in the global North and increases inequality.

Thus, the era of corporate globalization promises more inequality. In your next life, work harder to be born into the right family.

TPP promises health care for profits, not patients

Health care will take a large step toward becoming a privilege for those who can afford it rather than a human right under the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Government programs to hold down the cost of medications are targeted for elimination in the TPP, which, if adopted, would grant pharmaceutical companies new powers over health care.

This has implications around the globe, as such rules could become precedents for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and Trade In Services Agreement, two other deals being negotiated in secret.

The U.S. Congress’ difficulties in passing “fast-track” authority has thrown a roadblock in the path of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but by no means has this most audacious corporate power grab been defeated. The latest leak of TPP text, the annex on pharmaceutical products and medical devices published by WikiLeaks earlier this month, makes clear that the U.S. pharmaceutical industry is taking aim at health care systems that put accessibility above corporate profiteering.

Craters of the Moon Geothermal Area, New Zealand (photo by Pseudopanax)

Craters of the Moon Geothermal Area, New Zealand (photo by Pseudopanax)

People in other countries should be extremely wary of any attempt to make their health care systems more like that of the United States. The U.S. health care system is designed to produce profits for pharmaceutical, insurance and other health care industry corporations, not to provide health care. Because of this, health care in the U.S. is by far the world’s most expensive while delivering mediocre results. How expensive? During the decade of 2001 to 2010, U.S. health care spending was $1.15 trillion higher per year than it would have been otherwise.

As always with the TPP, bland-sounding text written in stilted, bureaucratic language contains more danger than initially meets the eye. New Zealand’s Pharmaceutical Management Agency, which makes thousands of medicines, medical devices and related products available at subsidized costs, is a particular target of TPP and the U.S. pharmaceutical lobby because it is an example that drug companies do not wish to be emulated elsewhere. Agencies of other governments will also be under threat.

U.S. government targets New Zealand subsidies

A “Special 301 Report” issued in April 2015 by the U.S. government under the name of U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman specifically names no less than 17 countries in which it seeks to undo health-system protections. Taking direct aim at New Zealand, the report said:

“With respect to New Zealand, U.S. industry has expressed serious concerns about the policies and operation of New Zealand’s Pharmaceutical Management Agency (PhARMAC), including, among other things, the lack of transparency, fairness, and predictability of the PhARMAC pricing and reimbursement regime, as well as the negative aspects of the overall climate for innovative medicines in New Zealand.” [page 25]

Note that the wishes of “U.S. industry” are presented as the only possible point of view. This is consistent with the fact that 605 corporate lobbyists have access to the TPP text as “advisers,” while the public is shut out. The real issue is that the New Zealand agency holds down the price of medicines, cutting down the industry’s exorbitant profit-gouging. A 2011 submission to the U.S. government by corporate lobby group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, called the New Zealand agency an “egregious example” because of its “focus on driving down costs.”

Professor Jane Kelsey of New Zealand’s University of Auckland, who has closely followed TPP issues for years, leaves little doubt that New Zealanders will pay more for medications if TPP comes into force. In an analysis of the leaked health care annex text, she writes:

“This leaked text shows the [TPP] will severely erode Pharmac’s ability to continue to deliver affordable medicines and medical devices as it has for the past two decades. That will mean fewer medicines are subsidised, or people will pay more as co-payments, or more of the health budget will go to pay for medicines instead of other activities, or the health budget will have to expand beyond the cap. Whatever the outcome, the big global pharmaceutical companies will win, and the poorest and most vulnerable New Zealanders will lose.” [page 2]

But other countries are in the cross hairs

The Pharmaceutical Management Agency estimates it has created savings of more than NZ$5 billion since 2000. The language of the TPP health care annex specifically targets “national health care programs” that make pricing decisions and not direct government procurement of medicines and medical devices. Professor Kelsey sees a nationalist agenda behind this specific wording, writing:

“ ‘National’ is presumably chosen to preclude such programmes that are run by states and provinces, which are politically sensitive in the US and Canada. In effect, the US has excluded almost all its own programmes, while targeting New Zealand, as it did with the [Australia-U.S. Free Trade Agreement].” [page 3]

But U.S. Medicare and Canadian provincial programs will certainly be targets as well. Medicare is prohibited under U.S. law from from negotiating prescription prices with drug makers, and the same language that would undermine New Zealand’s program would block any attempt to allow Medicare, or any other agency, from instituting a similar pricing program. Per-capita spending on drugs is far higher in the U.S. than elsewhere, in part thanks to this prohibition, which would become irreversible under the TPP.

The advocacy group National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare notes:

“The fact that Medicare is forbidden in the law that created Medicare Part D to negotiate lower prices is no accident. The drug lobby worked hard to ensure Medicare wouldn’t be allowed to cut into the profits which would flow to big Pharma thanks to millions of new customers delivered to them by Part D.”

“Part D” is a program that shifted millions of people from Medicaid, which pays much less for drugs, to Medicare, a boon to pharmaceutical companies.

The TPP health care annex also contains language that the annex’s provisions are exempted from the “investor-state dispute mechanism,” the secret tribunals in which corporate lawyers sit as judges when corporations sue governments under so-called “free trade” agreements. The annex’s text is misleading, however. Language elsewhere in the TPP that requires “fair and equitable treatment” of foreign “investors” would still enable challenges to New Zealand’s program or any other. Thus, governments could be sued using provisions other than the annex, Professor Kelsey writes:

“The biggest risk is the obligation to provide ‘fair and equitable treatment’, which investors may claim includes a legitimate expectation that governments will comply with their obligations in making regulatory and administrative decisions. They could launch a claim for many millions of dollars compensation, including expected future profits, if they believed New Zealand’s process in general, or in specific cases, violated their expectations under the Transparency Annex and adversely affected the value or profitability of their investment.” [page 6]

Who gets to “consult”?

Deborah Gleeson, a lecturer at La Trobe University in Australia, points out another danger. A “consultation” mechanism that requires governments to consider corporate objections in pricing decisions could be used to apply pressure to make changes to benefit pharmaceutical and medical-device corporations. She writes:

“The inclusion of the Healthcare Transparency Annex in the TPP serves no useful public interest purpose. It sets a terrible precedent for using regional trade deals to tamper with other countries’ health systems and could circumscribe the options available to developing countries seeking to introduce pharmaceutical coverage programs in future.” [page 2]

As elsewhere in the TPP, the U.S. government is taking the most hard-line approach, and has been opposing efforts to exempt the poorest countries from attacks on health care subsidies. Judit Rius Sanjuan of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders said:

“If the US proposal is accepted, the poorest countries would be forced to limit access to affordable medicines long before their public health needs are under control. The fact remains that no country, rich or poor, should accept limitations on its sovereign ability to ensure medicine is accessible and affordable for all those who need it.”

It’s not as if pharmaceutical companies are not already hugely profitable. They like to whine that they have high research and development costs, and while that is true, the prices they charge are well beyond reasonable expenses. They enjoy one of the highest, if not the highest, profit margin of any industry — nearly 20 percent for 2013. The world’s 10 largest pharmaceutical corporations racked up a composite US$90 billion in profits for 2013, according to a BBC analysis. As to their expenses, these 10 firms spent far more on sales and marketing than they did on research and development.

“Free trade” agreements have very little to do with trade. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the similar Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trade In Services Agreement, are nothing more than initiatives to cement corporate control over all aspects of society, in which governments lock themselves into binding agreements that elevate corporate profits above all other human considerations. Don’t get sick.

War crimes and forgetting

Forty years after the long Vietnamese struggle for independence concluded with the capture of Saigon, the mythologies surrounding the war on the other side of the Pacific Ocean have not loosened their grip. The “debate” surrounding the war is a textbook example of corporate media obfuscation.

A strong debate played out in the corporate media outlets of the United States concerning the Vietnam War at the end of the 1990s, and that same debate, with the same parameters, continues today. This debate, however, is only between two “acceptable” viewpoints — an honorable effort that tragically failed or a well-intentioned but flawed effort that should not have been undertaken if the U.S. was not going to be “serious” about fighting.

A U.S. Air Force plane drops a white phosphorus bomb on Vietnam in 1966.

A U.S. Air Force plane drops a white phosphorus bomb on Vietnam in 1966.

Left out are the widely held views that the war should never have been fought because it was a war to extend U.S. hegemony or that the U.S. simply had no business fighting in another country’s civil war. Further, the first “acceptable” viewpoint implies, and the second explicitly states, that the U.S. didn’t really fight hard to win the war, ignoring the actual intensive level of the U.S. war effort in which most of North Vietnam’s larger cities were reduced to rubble, much of the farming lands were destroyed and three million Vietnamese were killed.

Thus there was all the appearance of a free and open media at the same time that the media obscured.

Elections only when you do as we say

What were some of the messy things going on in Southeast Asia at the time? (Most of the following is taken from Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, Pantheon Books, 1988.) The U.S. sabotaged the scheduled 1956 all-Vietnam election that was a cornerstone of the 1954 agreement that ended the French intervention; an election that was not allowed to occur precisely because Ho Chi Minh would have won. The U.S. set up South Vietnam as an artificial puppet state, overthrew and killed South Vietnam’s “leaders” and installed new “leaders,” who were invariably military thugs.

The U.S. invented the Gulf of Tonkin attack, a deliberate lie to create a cover for increasing the U.S. military role. By the time of the U.S. land intervention in 1965, American aerial bombing, napalming and gassing had already killed 15,000 Vietnamese. The U.S. carried out a policy of rural and urban terror. The military forced peasants in wide parts of the country off their land and into “strategic hamlets” — in reality, rural concentration camps — and killed peasants who refused to leave their homes. Tens of thousands were swept from their homes and sent to camps in single ground operations.

A writer in Foreign Affairs wrote that destroying the countryside and forcing rural residents into cities was necessary because the Viet Cong were “a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist.” The U.S. systematically destroyed by force any South Vietnamese grouping opposed to the installed military dictators, even non-Communist groups such as organized Buddhists.

The U.S. leveled major cities — 77% of the buildings in Hue, one of Vietnam’s biggest cities, were completely destroyed. Dams were blasted away, allowing salt water from the South China Sea to flood farmland, making the growing of food impossible. When North Vietnam agreed to the Paris Peace Agreements in 1972, Henry Kissinger decided not to accept the pact, began demanding major changes to an agreed-upon document, then launched the Christmas bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong when the North Vietnamese government insisted the agreement be signed.

In South Vietnam, 9,000 of 15,000 hamlets were damaged or destroyed, as were 25 million acres (100,000 square kilometers) of farmland and 12 million acres of forest. Killed were 1.5 million cattle. One million widows and 800,000 orphans were left behind.

In North Vietnam, 34 of the largest 36 cities suffered significant damage, with 15 completely razed, while 4,000 of about 5,800 communes were damaged. More than one million acres of farmland and 400,000 cattle were destroyed in the North. The Central Intelligence Agency admitted that at least 30,000 North Vietnamese were killed per year by 1967 by U.S. bombing, with these deaths primarily civilian. The total tonnage of bombs dropped by the U.S. in Vietnam exceeded that of all bombing by all countries during World War II. Reports of the countryside at the end of the war spoke of entire regions as “bare, gray and lifeless.”

No mercy in neighboring countries

Next door, in Laos, following a 1958 election in which a two-party Left coalition won 13 of 21 legislative seats, the U.S. swiftly overthrew the government, with the new government seated by the U.S. vowing to disband the Pathet Lao, which had won the most seats. Two years later, that new government was overthrown by the U.S., which installed a CIA-backed extreme Right-wing general.

In rural Laos, entire districts were wiped out by bombing. A series of articles in Le Monde reported on a district capital that had been deserted for three years because of repeated bombings. This capital was a portion of a 20-mile area stretching into the countryside in which not a single building was left standing and in which were found the remnants of American fragmentation bombs, which are dropped to maximize civilian casualties.

There were areas of Laos where villagers hid in nearby mountains, in caves or in ditches during daytime because of the ceaseless bombardment and who could conduct life only at night. Craters so saturated some areas that it was impossible to distinguish them, and all vegetation was destroyed. More than 350,000 Laotians — more than 10% of the country’s population — were killed and a similar number left homeless.

In Cambodia, bombing by the U.S. during the period 1969 to April 1975 resulted in 600,000 deaths and two million refugees, according to the same Finnish Inquiry Commission that concluded one million people died during the subsequent Khmer Rouge régime. As the bombing was ending in 1975, the U.S. government estimated that deaths from starvation in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, were near 100,000 per year.

This horrific bombing is believed to have played a role in the rise of the Khmer Rouge, which the U.S. covertly sided with during its murderous four-year reign. A U.S. government report in 1975 said 75 percent of Cambodia’s draft animals had died and that it would likely be three years before the country could regain rice self-sufficiency.

The carnage inflicted on Vietnam reverberates still. An estimated 19 million tons of toxic herbicides were applied that has resulted in more than half a century of damage to health and birth defects.

Such is the price of empire, paid by those on the receiving end. If these are not war crimes, then what would be?