Trump’s UN tirade

The logic of imperialism

22 September 2017

In 1938 Leon Trotsky warned that imperialism “toboggans with closed eyes toward an economic and military catastrophe.” Within just a year of these remarks, Hitler unleashed his army against a largely defenseless Poland and set into motion the cataclysm of the second imperialist world war.

Trotsky’s words acquire renewed relevance in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s tirade at the United Nations, where the US president openly threatened the launching of a genocidal war, using language that has not been heard since the days of the Third Reich.

If nothing more was involved than the ranting of a madman, Trump’s threat to “totally destroy” North Korea would have been met with a chorus of denunciations in the mass media and throughout the political establishment. But nothing of the sort has taken place. What is most striking is the mildness of the response, particularly within the American political establishment and its major media outlets. To the extent that the speech has encountered criticism, it has taken the form of quibbling with some of Trump’s more grotesque rhetorical excesses or questioning the tactical expediency of his intervention.

The US threats against North Korea have been escalating relentlessly throughout the year. But so far there has been no serious official and public discussion as to the consequences of a war. There has been no Congressional debate on the issue, no call for open and publicly-streamed Senate hearings, and, above all, no explicit and unequivocal condemnation of US government war-mongering.

There have been studies done by the American military and its associated think tanks which provide chilling indications of the horror that would ensue from a US-North Korean war. The British daily Telegraph cites estimates that “conventional war could cost the lives of one million people,” while any use of nuclear weapons would elevate the death toll by orders of magnitude.

Rob Givens, a retired general who served as the deputy assistant chief of staff for operations of US Forces Korea, has written that “we would inflict 20,000 casualties on the North each day of combat,” and that North Korea would “inflict 20,000 casualties a day just in Seoul during the first few days.” The death toll, he warns, would make the millions killed and maimed during “our last 16 years of active combat in the Middle East pale in comparison.”

The New Yorker magazine carried an article including projections of 10,000 deaths in Seoul and one million in South Korea in the first stage of the war alone, quoting a retired US Army general as warning, “The devastation to the peninsula would be disastrous, just disastrous … And if the United States and China are belligerents, everything is up for grabs.”

The article goes on to quote Mark Fitzpatrick, the executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies office in Washington, as warning that even a defeat of the North Korean regime would only create the conditions for a protracted insurgency against the US military that would eclipse anything seen in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The whirlwind unleashed by a war against North Korea would make the United States a global pariah. It would unleash a wave of popular revulsion within the country and around the world. But the financial-corporate oligarchy and its political representatives pursue their militarist agenda with a combination of recklessness and blindness.

Trump’s speech, which included wild threats against Iran and Venezuela, came in the context of the most provocative military exercises yet on the Korean Peninsula, with US B-1B nuclear bombers and F-35 fighter jets dropping bombs close to the demilitarized zone. In Europe, NATO and Russia are staging simultaneous and mutually hostile war games, while in Syria, Washington’s proxy forces and their American special operations handlers are on the brink of an armed confrontation with the Syrian army backed by Russian special forces in the eastern desert region of Deir Ezzor.

It is no longer a question of whether a new world war and the use of nuclear weapons are possible, but rather which of the myriad global conflicts is most likely to serve as its trigger.

The danger of war arises not out of the diseased brain of Donald Trump, but out of the logic of the crisis of US and world capitalism, a crisis-ridden system based upon the private ownership of the means of production and the division of the world into rival nation-states.

Trump’s threats of genocide are the end product of a protracted evolution of US imperialism, which announced itself in 1945 as the dominant imperialist power by incinerating the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear weapons. It subsequently waged wars of staggering violence in North Korea and Vietnam, killing millions.

In the last quarter of a century since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States has been engaged in virtually perpetual war, as the American ruling class, represented by Democratic and Republican administrations alike, has sought to offset its declining economic position in the affairs of world capitalism by force of arms. This strategy has produced a string of abject failures, from Afghanistan and Iraq to Libya and Syria.

The successive debacles for American militarism have only made the impulse to war even more frenetic, with the Pentagon more and more turning its sights from impoverished and largely defenseless countries to Washington’s principal regional and global rivals. This includes long-time post-World War II allies such as Germany, whose relations with the United States are becoming increasingly frayed.

The decisive question today is the intervention of the working class in the development of a movement against war.

The ominous developments of the past week have provided stark confirmation of the February 2016 statement issued by the International Committee of the Fourth International, Socialism and the Fight Against War, which warned that “the entire world is being dragged into an ever-expanding maelstrom of imperialist violence” and elaborated the principled political foundations for the building of a new mass antiwar movement.

The movement to prevent war requires the political mobilization of the American and international working class, uniting behind it all the progressive elements in society on the basis of a socialist program, directed against the capitalist system that is the fundamental cause of militarism and war.

Bill Van Auken


The Empire Strikes Back: the US in Latin America

Posted on Oct 2, 2016

By Chris Hedges

  A boy wears a banner with a stenciled image of Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa during the Alianza PAIS convention in Quito, Ecuador, on Saturday. Correa is the party’s leader. (Dolores Ochoa / AP)

A decade ago left-wing governments, defying Washington and global corporations, took power in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Venezuela, Uruguay, Bolivia and Ecuador. It seemed as if the tide in Latin America was turning. The interference by Washington and exploitation by international corporations might finally be defeated. Latin American governments, headed by charismatic leaders such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, won huge electoral victories. They instituted socialist reforms that benefited the poor and the working class. They refused to be puppets of the United States. They took control of their nations’ own resources and destinies. They mounted the first successful revolt against neoliberalism and corporate domination. It was a revolt many in the United States hoped to emulate here.

But the movements and governments in Latin America have fallen prey to the dark forces of U.S. imperialism and the wrath of corporate power. The tricks long practiced by Washington and its corporate allies have returned—the black propaganda; the manipulation of the media; the bribery and corruption of politicians, generals, police, labor leaders and journalists; the legislative coups d’état; the economic strangulation; the discrediting of democratically elected leaders; the criminalization of the left; and the use of death squads to silence and disappear those fighting on behalf of the poor. It is an old, dirty game.

President Correa, who earned enmity from Washington for granting political asylum to Julian Assange four years ago and for closing the United States’ Manta military air base in 2009, warned recently that a new version of Operation Condor is underway in Latin America. Operation Condor, which operated in the 1970s and ’80s, saw thousands of labor union organizers, community leaders, students, activists, politicians, diplomats, religious leaders, journalists and artists tortured, assassinated and disappeared. The intelligence chiefs from right-wing regimes in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay and, later, Brazil had overseen the campaigns of terror. They received funds from the United States and logistical support and training from the Central Intelligence Agency. Press freedom, union organizing, all forms of artistic dissent and political opposition were abolished. In a coordinated effort these regimes brutally dismembered radical and leftist movements across Latin America. In Argentina alone 30,000 people disappeared.

Latin America looks set to be plunged once again into a period of dictatorial control and naked corporate exploitation. The governments of Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela, which is on the brink of collapse, have had to fight off right-wing coup attempts and are enduring economic sabotage. The Brazilian Senate impeached the democratically elected President Dilma Rousseff. Argentina’s new right-wing president, Mauricio Macri, bankrolled by U.S. hedge funds, promptly repaid his benefactors by handing $4.65 billion to four hedge funds, including Elliott Management, run by billionaire Paul Singer. The payout to hedge fundsthat had bought Argentine debt for pennies on the dollar meant that Singer’s firm made $2.4 billion, an amount that was 10 to 15 times the original investment. The previous Argentine government, under Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, had refused to pay the debt acquired by the hedge funds and acidly referred to them as “vulture funds.”

I interviewed Guillaume Long, Ecuador’s minister of foreign affairs and human mobility, for my show “On Contact” last week. Long, who earned a doctorate from the Institute for the Study of the Americas at the University of London, called at the United Nations for the creation of a global tax regulatory agency. He said such an agency should force tax-dodging corporations, which the International Monetary Fund estimates costs developing countries more than $200 billion a year in lost revenue, to pay the countries for the natural resources they extract and for national losses stemming from often secret corporate deals. He has also demanded an abolition of overseas tax havens.

Long said the neoliberal economic policies of the 1980s and ’90s were profoundly destructive in Latin America. Already weak economic controls were abandoned in the name of free trade and deregulation. International corporations and banks were given a license to exploit. “This deregulation in an already deregulated environment” resulted in anarchy, Long said. “The powerful people had even less checks and balances on their powers,” he said.

“Neoliberalism is bad in most contexts,” Long said when we spoke in New York. “It’s been bad in Europe. It’s been bad in other parts of the world. It has dismantled the welfare state. In the context where we already have a weak state, where institutions are not consolidated, where there are strong feudal remnants, such as in Latin America, where you don’t really have a strong social contract with institutions, with modernity, neoliberalism just shatters any kind of social pact. It meant more poverty, more inequality, huge waves of instability.”

Countries saw basic services, many already inadequate, curtailed or eliminated in the name of austerity. The elites amassed fortunes while almost everyone else fell into economic misery. The political and economic landscape became unstable. Ecuador had seven presidents between 1996 and 2006, the year in which Correa was elected. It suffered a massive banking crisis in 1999. It switched the country’s currency to the U.S. dollar in desperation. The chaos in Ecuador was mirrored in countries such as Bolivia and Argentina. Argentina fell into a depression in 1998 that saw the economy shrink by 28 percent. Over 50 percent of Argentines were thrust into poverty.

“Latin America,” Long said, “hit rock bottom.”

It was out of this neoliberal morass that the left regrouped and took power.

“People came to terms with that moment of their history,” Long said. “They decided to rebuild their societies and fight foreign interventionism and I’d even say imperialism. To this day in Latin America, the main issue is inequality. Latin America is not necessarily the poorest continent in the world. But it’s certainly the most unequal continent in the world.”

“Ecuador is an oil producer,” Long said. “We produce about 530,000 barrels of oil a day. We were getting 20 percent royalties on multinationals extracting oil. Now it’s the other way around. We pay multinationals a fee for extractions. We had to renegotiate all of our oil contracts in 2008 and 2009. Some multinationals refused to abide by the new rules of the game and left the country. So our state oil company moved in and occupied the wells. But most multinationals said OK, we’ll do it, it’s still profitable. So now it’s the other way around. We pay private companies to extract the oil, but the oil is ours.”

Long admitted that there have been serious setbacks, but he insisted that the left is not broken.

“It depends on how you measure success,” he said. “If you’re going to measure it in terms of longevity, and how long these governments were in power—in our case we’re still in power, of course, and we’re going to win in February next year—then you’re looking at, more or less in Venezuela 17 years [that leftist governments have been in power], in Ecuador now 10, and in Argentina and Brazil it’s 13.”

“One of the critiques aimed at the left is they’re well-meaning, great people with good ideas but don’t let them govern because the country will go bust,” he said. “But in Ecuador we had really healthy growth rates, 5 to 10 percent a year. We had lots of good economics. We diversified our economy. We moved away from importing 80 percent of energy to [being] net exporters of electricity. We’ve had big reforms in education, in higher education. Lots of things that are economically successful. Whereas neoliberal, orthodox economics was not successful in the previous decade.”

Long conceded that his government had made powerful enemies, not only by granting political asylum to Assange in its embassy in London but by taking Chevron Texaco to court to try to make it pay for the ecological damage its massive oil spills caused in the Amazon, where the company drilled from the early 1960s until it pulled out in 1992. It left behind some 1,000 toxic waste pits. The oil spills collectively were 85 times the size of the British Petroleum spill in the Gulf of Mexico and 18 times the size of the spill from the Exxon Valdez. An Ecuadorean court ordered Chevron Texaco to pay $18.2 billion in damages, an amount later reduced to $9.5 billion. The oil giant, however, has refused to pay. Ecuador has turned to international courts in an attempt to extract the money from the company.

Long said that the different between the massive oil spills elsewhere and the Ecuadorean spills was that the latter were not accidental. “[They were done] on purpose in order to cut costs. They were in the middle of the Amazon. Normally what you’d do is extract the oil and you’d have these membranes so that it doesn’t filter through into the ground. They didn’t put in these membranes. The oil filtered into the water systems. It polluted all of the Amazon River system. It created a huge sanitary and public health issue. There were lots of cancers detected.”

Long said his government was acutely aware that Chevron Texaco has “a lot of lobbying power in the United States, in Wall Street, in Washington.”

“There are a lot of things we don’t see,” he said of the campaign to destabilize his government and other left-wing governments. “Benefits we could reap, investments we don’t get because we’ve been sovereign. In the case of [Ecuador’s closing of the U.S.] Manta air base, we’d like to think the American government understood and it was fine. But it was a bold move. We said ‘no more.’ We declared it in our constitution. We had a new constitution in 2008. It was a very vibrant moment of our history. We created new rules of the game. It’s one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. It actually declares the rights of nature. It’s the only constitution that declares the rights of nature, not just the rights of man. We made Ecuadorean territory free of foreign military bases. There was no other way. But there are consequences to your actions.”

One of those consequences was an abortive coup in September 2010 by members of the Ecuadorean National Police. It was put down by force. Long charged that many of the Western NGO’s in Ecuador and throughout the region are conduits for money to right-wing parties. Military and police officials, along with some politicians, have long been on the CIA’s payroll in Latin America. President Correa in 2008 dismissed his defense minister, army chief of intelligence, commanders of the army and air force, and the military joint chiefs, saying that Ecuador’s intelligence systems were “totally infiltrated and subjugated to the CIA.”

“There is an international conspiracy right now, certainly against progressive governments,” he said. “There’s been a few electoral setbacks in Argentina, and Venezuela is in a difficult situation. The media frames it in a certain way, but, yes, sure, Venezuela is facing serious trouble. There’s an attempt to make the most of the fall of prices of certain commodities and overthrow [governments]. We just saw a parliamentary coup in Brazil. [President Rousseff had been] elected with 54 million votes. The Labor Party in Brazil [had] been in power for 13 years. The only way they [the rightists] managed to get rid of it was through a coup. They couldn’t do it through universal suffrage.”

Long said that even with the political reverses suffered by the left it will be difficult for the rightists to reinstate strict neoliberal policies.

“You have a strong, disputed political ground between a traditional right and a radical left,” he said. “A radical left, which has proved it can reduce poverty, it can reduce inequality, it can run the economy, well, it’s got young cadres that have been [government] ministers and so on. I reckon that sooner or later it will be back in power.”

Corporate leviathans and the imperialist agencies that work on their behalf are once again reshaping Latin America into havens for corporate exploitation. It is the eternal story of the struggle by the weak against the strong, the poor against the rich, the powerless against the powerful, and those who would be free against the forces of imperialism.

“There are no boundaries in this struggle to the death,” Ernesto “Che” Guevara said. “We cannot be indifferent to what happens anywhere in the world, for a victory by any country over imperialism is our victory; just as any country’s defeat is a defeat for all of us.”

Obama and Castro at the OAS summit


14 April 2015

The face-to-face meeting between US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas in Panama was almost universally described as “historic” in the mass media.

Despite the voluminous media commentary on the weekend event, however, there has been little discussion of the actual significance of the meeting between the two heads of state. In fact, the first such encounter in nearly six decades marked a major step in returning Cuba to the sphere of influence of US imperialism, a process that is fully endorsed by the Castroite regime.

The servile attitude of the Cuban government toward American imperialism was clearly expressed in Raul Castro’s speech at the summit. He heaped obsequious praise on the US head of state, describing Obama as an “honest man,” whose attitudes had been formed by his “humble beginnings,” adding that he had deeply considered the matter before expressing this opinion. He mentioned the name Obama ten times in his 49-minute address.

Reviewing the decades of US aggression against Cuba, Castro begged Obama’s “forgiveness” and declared that “he [Obama] has no responsibility for any of this.”

Hearing his Lincolnesque portrayal of the 44th president of the United States, one would hardly guess that Castro was describing a man who has presided over illegal wars, drone missile assassinations, mass surveillance at home and abroad, and conspiracies to carry out coups and regime-change operations from Honduras and Venezuela to Ukraine. Obama has distinguished himself as the unwavering mouthpiece of the US military-intelligence complex.

His shift toward “normalization” with Cuba reflects the conclusion of predominant sections of the Washington establishment that US imperialism can best advance its interests in the region by dropping its prolonged blockade and counting on the penetration of the island nation by American capital to create the conditions for returning Cuba to the status of a US semi-colony.

In addition to his meeting with Obama, Castro held discussions in Panama with Thomas Donahue, the chairman of the US Chamber of Commerce. Donahue has long been a leading spokesman for US capitalist interests that are intent on reentering Cuba for the purpose of exploiting its people and resources.

In terms of the broader interests of US imperialism, the rapprochement with Cuba is largely driven by the desire to put an end to a policy that has served as an irritant in the relations between Washington and the other nations in a hemisphere that it once proclaimed its own “backyard.”

US relations with Latin America are of growing concern to the ruling class under conditions in which China is supplanting the US as the main trading partner and investor throughout the region. It is already number one in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Venezuela and Peru, and Beijing is committed to investing an additional $250 billion in the region over the next decade.

This decline in the relative weight of American capitalism in the region has found expression in the waning political significance of the Washington-based Organization of American States, which organizes the Summit of the Americas. After the last summit three years ago in Cartagena, Colombia, various countries, including Colombia, Washington’s closest ally, warned that if Cuba did not attend the next session, neither would they.

Castro’s appearance at the Panama summit and his embrace of Obama have thrown a lifeline to an organization that his brother Fidel only a decade ago denounced as “a corrupt, putrid and stinking institution” that had “only humiliated the honor of Latin American nations.”

Underlying this shift are definite material interests of the ruling stratum within Cuba, which is determined to hold onto its privileges and power, hoping to preserve the state as an interlocutor and cheap labor contractor for foreign capital.

The rapprochement of the Cuban government with imperialism says a great deal about the nature of the regime and the revolution that brought it to power in 1959. For decades, left nationalists in Latin America and petty-bourgeois radicals in Europe and North America had held up the nationalist revolution led by Fidel Castro as a new road to socialism, and declared that it had created a workers’ state in Cuba.

The most pernicious of these theories were developed by Pabloism, a revisionist tendency that broke with the Fourth International in the 1950s. It insisted that the socialist revolution no longer required the active and conscious intervention of the working class, led by a Trotskyist party. It could, they maintained, be accomplished by means of “blunted instruments,” including small bands of guerrillas carrying out an armed struggle against the state, with the workers reduced to little more than passive onlookers.

The promotion of Castroism and guerrillaism had a catastrophic political impact in Latin America. It served to divert revolutionary sections of youth away from the struggle to develop a revolutionary party in the working class and into suicidal armed combat with the state. Thousands of people died in such hopeless campaigns, paving the way for the assumption of power by a series of brutal military dictatorships.

The International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) waged an implacable struggle against this retrograde perspective. It rejected the claims that the Castro regime’s nationalizations and social reforms made it a workers’ state or signaled a new road to socialism. Rather, it insisted, the Cuban regime represented one of the most radical variants of the bourgeois nationalist regimes that came to power in a number of the former colonial countries during the post-World War II era.

Unable to resolve Cuba’s historic problems of backwardness and dependence that were the legacy of colonialism and imperialist oppression, the government in Havana relied heavily on Soviet subsidies. These dried up with the USSR’s dissolution at the hands of the Moscow Stalinist bureaucracy.

The Cuban regime subsequently kept itself afloat through cheap oil supplies from Venezuela and capital investment from Europe, China, Russia, Canada and Brazil. Now, it has come full circle, seeking its salvation through the return of US imperialism.

This political evolution is a powerful vindication of Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution, defended by the ICFI, which established that the struggle for the liberation of the oppressed colonial and semi-colonial countries could be won only by the working class taking the leadership of the revolution, establishing its own state and extending the socialist revolution internationally.

This perspective and the assimilation of the bitter lessons of the protracted historical experience with Castroism are decisive for the building of new revolutionary parties of the working class throughout Latin America and in Cuba itself, where the turn toward US capitalism will inevitably lead to a sharpening of social inequality and the class struggle.

Bill Van Auken

America is becoming more like the illiberal pseudo-democracies and kleptocracies.

Can American Democracy Survive Against Rising Political Corruption and Privatization?


In 1932, on the eve of FDR’s presidency, Benito Mussolini proclaimed, “The liberal state is destined to perish.” He added, all too accurately, “All the political experiments of our day are anti-liberal.”

The democracies were doomed, Il Duce declared, because they could not solve crucial problems. Unlike the dictatorships, which were willing to forcefully use a strong state, the democracies could not fix their broken economies. Parliamentary systems were hamstrung politically. The democracies were also war-weary, conflict-averse, and ill-prepared to fight. The fascists, unlike the democracies, had solved the problem of who was part of the community.

Mussolini’s ally, Adolf Hitler, was further contemptuous of “mongrelization” in American democracy. Who was an American? How did immigrants fit in? What about Negroes? The fascist states, by contrast, rallied their citizens to a common vision and a common purpose. Hitler was quite confident that he knew who was a German and who was not. To prove it, he fashioned the Nuremberg laws; he annexed German-speaking regions of his neighbors. As Hitler infamously put it, Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuehrer.

Though he was a buffoonish dictator, Il Duce was not such a bad political scientist. In the 1930s, a lot of liberal democrats wondered the same thing, and for the same reasons. As Ira Katznelson wrote in Fear Itself: “Such beliefs and opinions were not limited to dictators and dictatorships. As Roosevelt prepared to speak [in his first inaugural], skepticism was prevalent about whether representative parliamentary democracies could cope within their liberal constitutional bounds with capitalism’s utter collapse, the manifest military ambitions by the dictatorships, or international politics characterized by ultranationalist territorial demands. Hesitation, alarm, and democratic exhaustion were widespread.”

The democracies did survive, of course, and they flourished. The New Deal got us halfway out of the Great Depression, and the war buildup did the rest. Fascism was defeated, militarily and ideologically. The collapse of Soviet communism took another half-century. Thanks to the wisdom of containment, Stalinism fell of its own weight, as both an economic and political failure.

Not only did the democracies endure—by the 1980s, America had broadened the inclusiveness of its polity. Europe had embarked on a bold experiment toward continental democracy. In the final days of communism, there was triumphalism in the West. Francis Fukuyama even proclaimed, incautiously, in his 1989 essay, “The End of History?” that all societies were necessarily gravitating toward capitalism and democracy, two ideals that were supposedly linked.


Today, it is Mussolini’s words that resonate. Once again, the democracies are having grave difficulty pulling their economies out of a prolonged economic slump. Once again, they are suffering from parliamentary deadlock and loss of faith in democratic institutions. The American version reflects a radically obstructionist Republican Party taking advantage of constitutional provisions that Madison (and Obama) imagined as promoting compromise; instead, the result is deadlock. The European variant is enfeebled by the multiple veto points of a flawed European Union unable to pursue anything but crippling austerity. Once again, several anti-liberal alternatives are on the march. “All the political experiments of our day are anti-liberal.”

Take a tour of the horizon. Mussolini would not be surprised. The fastest-growing economy, China’s, is nothing if not anti-liberal, and getting steadily more adroit at suppressing liberal aspirations. The Beijing regime, which has learned the virtues of patience since Tiananmen, waited out the Hong Kong protests and efficiently shut them down. The Hong Kong elections of 2017 will be limited to candidates approved by the communist regime on the mainland. Capitalism was supposed to bring with it democracy and rule of law. But the Chinese have been superbly effective at combining dynamic state-led capitalism with one-party rule.

What unites regimes as dissimilar as Iran, Turkey, Hungary, Egypt, Venezuela, and Russia is that they combine some of the outward forms of democracy with illiberal rule. The press is not truly free, but is mostly a tool of the government. Editors and journalists are in personal danger of disappearing. There are elections, but  the opposition somehow doesn’t get to come to power. Minority religion and ethnic groups are repressed, sometimes subtly, sometimes brutally. Dissidents, even if they break no laws, risk life and limb. The regimes in these nations have varying degrees of corruption between the state and economic oligarchs, which helps keep both in power. In Hungary, a member of the E.U., which is a union of liberal democracies, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has expressly invoked the ideal of an illiberal state. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dramatically increased enrollments in state-supported religious schools and automatically assigned some children to them, against the wishes of their secular parents.

Turkey is a stalwart member of NATO. Elsewhere in the Middle East, our closest allies don’t even go through the motions of democracy; they are proud monarchies. Israel, our most intimate friend in the region, is becoming less of a democracy almost daily. Israelis are seriously debating whether to formally sacrifice elements of democracy for Jewish identity. And this tally doesn’t even include the flagrant tyrannies such as the insurgency that calls itself the Islamic State, or ISIL. All the political experiments of our day are anti-liberal.

Ironically, some liberals are pinning great hopes on recent stirrings in a venerable institution of hierarchy, autocracy, secrecy, and privilege that has been the antithesis of liberal for nearly two millennia—the Catholic Church, now under a reformist pope. One has to wish Francis well and hope that his new openness extends to the entire institution, but these reforms are fragile. It has been a few centuries since the Church murdered its rivals, but in my lifetime the Church was very cozy with fascists.

One of the great inventions of liberal democracy was the concept of a loyal opposition. You could oppose the government without being considered treasonous. A leader, conversely, could be tossed out of office by the electorate without fearing imprisonment or execution by successors. In much of the world, this ideal now seems almost quaint, and certainly imprudent. A corrupt or dictatorial regime has much to fear from displacement, including jail and even death at the hands of an opposition in power.

There are a few bright spots. Some of Africa has managed to have roughly free and fair elections. South Africa’s young democracy is fragile, but seems to be holding. Some of the Pacific Rim is moving in the direction of genuine democracy. Many former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe are functioning democracies, even liberal ones. And democratic aspiration is far from dead, as events in Ukraine show. Latin America has more democratically elected governments than it has had in a generation, but it also has several nominal democracies that are illiberal, or prone to coups, or simply corrupt. Mexico, our close NAFTA partner, epitomizes illiberal democracy.


But it is the democratic heartland, Europe and North America, that presents the most cause for dismay. Rather than the United States serving as a beacon to inspire repressed peoples seeking true liberal democracy, America is becoming more like the illiberal pseudo-democracies and kleptocracies. A dispassionate review of what is occurring in our own country has to include deliberate suppression of the right to vote; ever more cynical manipulation of voting districts in the nation that invented gerrymandering; the deepening displacement of citizenship with money and rise of plutocracy; the corruption of the regulatory process; a steep decline in public confidence in government and in democracy itself; and a concomitant doubt that democratic participation is worth the trouble. In my piece in this issue’s special report, I address some of these questions in the context of markets versus government, but the challenge goes much deeper.

Obstruction feeds public cynicism about government. Though the mischief and refusal to compromise are mostly one-sided—it is hard to recall a Democratic president more genuinely eager to accommodate the opposition than Barack Obama—the resulting deadlock erodes confidence in democracy and government in general. Why can’t these people just get along and work for the common good? Democrats, as the party that believes in government, take the blame more than Republicans. Government’s failure to address festering, complex problems feeds the dynamic.

This is all the more alarming because the challenges ahead will require strong government and above all legitimate government. At best, global climate change and sea level rise will require public coordination and some personal dislocation. Transition to a sustainable economy demands far more intensive public measures, as well as public trust in the hope that changes in old habits of carbon energy use need not result in reduced living standards. The risk of epidemics such as Ebola will require more effective government to coordinate responses that the private sector can’t manage. The popular frustration with flat or declining earnings for all but the top demands more government intervention. Weak government can’t accomplish any of this. Mussolini’s taunt burns: The liberal democracies are incapable of solving national problems.

A generation ago, political scientists coined a useful phrase—strong democracy. The Prospect published some pieces making this case, by authors like Benjamin Barber. Others, such as Jane Mansbridge and James Fishkin, writing in the same spirit, called for more participatory democracy. The common theme was that democracy needed to be re-energized, with more citizen involvement, more direct deliberation. What has happened is the reverse. The combination of economic stresses, the allure of other entertainments, the rise of the Internet as a venue for more social interchange but less civic renewal, has left democracy weaker when it needs to be stronger.

The other contention of the fascists—that the democracies had trouble with the vexing questions of community and membership—was never more of a challenge. In Europe, the poisonous mix of high unemployment, anxiety about terrorism, and influx of refugees and immigrants is feeding a vicious nationalist backlash and nurturing the far right. At home, the failure to normalize the status of an estimated 12 million immigrants lacking proper documents deprives large numbers of residents of normal rights and stokes nativism. Assaults on voting rights even for citizens, coupled with physical assaults by police, make African Americans less than full members of the democracy, despite the civil rights revolution of half a century ago.

Mussolini’s other taunt was that the liberal democracies were too divided and war-weary to fight. When Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in March 1936, in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, the democracies did nothing. They dithered right up until Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. As late as 1940, Roosevelt was more eager to keep America out of another European war than to help the British make a stand against the Nazis.

The military challenge today is more complex. America in this century has vacillated between grandiosity and timidity. It fought the wrong war in Iraq, and then may have pulled out prematurely. The administration has been weak and divided in its policies toward Syria and ISIL. To some extent this is understandable; these are hydra-headed threats, with no easy solutions. If President Obama is ambivalent, the public is even more so. Yet the greatest military threats to American democracy are not the risks of invasion or terrorist assault, but what we are doing to ourselves. The Obama administration, like that of George W. Bush, has been all too willing to subordinate liberty to security, secrecy, and autocracy, even in cases where these objectives are not in direct contention.

The risk is not that American democracy will abruptly “perish,” but that it will be slowly denuded of its vital content. If we are to reverse the appeal of anti-liberal society globally, we have to repair our democracy at home. The challenge is multifaceted, and will take time. It should be the great project of the next president and the ongoing work of the citizenry.

Robert Kuttner is the former co-editor of the American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His latest book is “Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency.”

Obama brands Venezuela “threat to national security”


By Bill Van Auken
11 March 2015

President Barack Obama on Monday sharply escalated US threats against Venezuela, issuing an executive order formally declaring a “national emergency” to deal with what he termed “the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States” posed by the Venezuelan government.

The order, on its face, turned reality inside out. Far from Venezuela posing a threat to the US, successive US governments have repeatedly intervened in Venezuela’s affairs, sponsoring coups, like the failed attempt to overthrow the late president Hugo Chavez in 2002, and funding and promoting a right-wing opposition that has organized violent campaigns aimed at destabilizing and bringing down the elected government.

This latest action, with its assertion of a “national emergency” and threat to “national security,” suggests that more direct intervention is under contemplation, including by military means.

Obama’s decree claimed that the supposed “threat” was the result of the Venezuelan government’s “erosion of human rights guarantees, persecution of political opponents, curtailment of press freedoms, use of violence and human rights violations and abuses in response to antigovernment protests, and arbitrary arrest and detention of antigovernment protesters, as well as the exacerbating presence of significant public corruption.”

He stressed that his actions served to “implement and expand upon” the “Venezuelan Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act,” passed by the US Congress and signed into law by Obama last December.

The hypocrisy of this measure is breathtaking. Needless to say, there are no “Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act” pertaining to any of Washington’s murderous and dictatorial allies, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, similar invocations of “human rights” have been used to justify military interventions and the toppling of governments from Libya to Ukraine.

The substance of the executive order—at least what has been made publicly available—is far less sweeping than either its title or motivation. It imposes sanctions on seven Venezuelan military, intelligence, police and prosecutorial officials whom it claims were involved in human rights violations. One senior administration official, speaking on a media conference call on condition of anonymity, even stressed that Obama’s order “does not sanction the Venezuelan government and also does not target the Venezuelan people.”

Among the most prominent to be targeted for sanctions is Maj. Gen. Justo Noguera Pietri, the former head of the country’s National Guard, who was appointed last year to head the Venezuelan Corporation of Guayana (CVG), the state-owned conglomerate that includes steel and aluminum plants and other industrial enterprises.

Also on the list is Katherine Nayarith Harrington Padron, a federal prosecutor who is handling the trials of members of Venezuela’s right-wing opposition accused of fomenting the violent protests last year that led to the deaths of at least 43 people, the majority of them members of the security forces or supporters of the government. Others include the heads of the country’s intelligence service and national police.

The penalties levied against the seven named officials are the freezing of any assets they may hold in the US and the revocation or denial of any visas admitting them to the US. It is by no means clear that any of them have such holdings or have obtained or applied for any visas.

State Department spokesman Jen Psaki asserted Tuesday that the Obama administration’s actions are not aimed at “promoting unrest in Venezuela…or undermining its government.” Instead, she said, the new sanctions were designed “to persuade the government to change their behavior.”

The statement backing the new round of sanctions calls for the release of Venezuelan “political prisoners,” including what it said were “dozens of students.” The government in Caracas insists that all those being held for trial are charged with criminal acts of violence during the so-called salida or “exit” campaign waged by the US-backed Venezuelan right last year seeking the downfall of President Nicolas Maduro. US officials also named Leopoldo Lopez and mayors Daniel Ceballos and Antonio Ledezma.

Lopez has been jailed since February of last year on charges of incitement to riot, arson against a public building and other offenses. He is one of the principal Venezuelan recipients of funding through the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which has attempted to foster a rightist opposition to the government. Ceballos was the mayor of San Cristobal in Venezuela’s Tachira state on the Colombian border, where the violent anti-government protests began in February of last year. He defied a court order to instruct his police to quell the violence, instead providing political and material support to the anti-government mobs.

Antonio Ledezma, a veteran right-wing politician and Caracas mayor, has been charged with conspiracy in relation to an alleged plot in conjunction with Lorent Gómez Saleh, the leader of a far-right student group, which also received NED funding, to carry out terrorist bombings and other attacks. The government has made public videos in which Saleh boasted of his ties to the Colombian army and his plans to buy guns and explosives. He also named Ledezma as a key ally and supporter. Colombia was forced to extradite Saleh to face terrorism charges.

President Maduro has responded to the threat from the US with a turn toward a further militarization of his government and a bid to secure increased dictatorial powers. In a speech Monday night, the Venezuelan president denounced Obama for moving to “personally carry out the task of overthrowing my government and intervening in Venezuela to control it.”

In addition to naming Gen. Gustavo Gonzalez Lopez, one of the officials sanctioned by Washington, as minister of interior, Maduro selected a navy admiral to take over the secretariat of the presidency. Military officers, either active or retired, had already held at least one quarter of Maduro’s cabinet seats along with 11 out of the 32 governorships and directorships of key agencies and enterprises.

Maduro also used his speech to call for passage of an “enabling law” that would allow him to rule by decree without seeking legislation through parliament. He said that such powers were needed to counter “imperialist aggression” and defend Venezuela’s national sovereignty.

In reality, the Maduro government has repeatedly sought accommodation with US imperialism, with the president himself promoting the illusion that Obama is merely the victim of bad advisers. In a recent speech, he appealed directly to the US president, declaring, “I regret that in a year in which I made public appeals to you, I sent you a letter, I sent you emissaries, you have in an arrogant way refused to speak to me. I’m as much a president as you are.”

Meanwhile, Maduro’s so-called “Bolivarian Socialist” government continues to provide uninterrupted oil supplies to the US, while concluding lucrative contracts with US-based energy firms such as Chevron and Halliburton. The transnational banks enjoy some of the most profitable conditions in the world in Venezuela, even as the economic crisis imposes ever-harsher conditions on the working class, with roughly half the country’s households living in poverty.

Extraordinary powers in the hands of an increasingly militarized government will inevitably be turned against the Venezuelan working class and poor and utilized in defense of capitalist private property and the interests of the bourgeois layers that form the real social base of the Maduro government.

Venezuelan workers cannot accept a choice between the corrupt Maduro government and the military, on the one hand, and US imperialism and its right-wing Venezuelan political agents, on the other. They must forge their political independence in a struggle for genuine socialism as the only viable means of opposing imperialist aggression and capitalist oppression.

Rightist mayor faces coup charges as Venezuela’s crisis deepens


By Bill Van Auken
25 February 2015

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro has faced widespread international condemnation, but only scattered and minor right-wing protests in the country itself, over the arrest last week of Antonio Ledezma, the mayor of metropolitan Caracas, on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government.

Joining the usual denunciations from the State Department in Washington or the right-wing governments of President Juan Manuel Santos in neighboring Colombia and President Mariano Rajoy in Spain, was, for example, the leader of the Spanish petty-bourgeois pseudo-left Podemos party, Pablo Iglesias.

The Obama administration has signaled its intentions to ratchet up pressure on the Maduro government. Last Friday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest, asked whether Washington was contemplating new sanctions against Venezuela, responded: “The Treasury Department and the State Department are closely monitoring the situation and are considering tools that may be available that can better steer the Venezuelan government in the direction that they believe they should be headed.”

On Tuesday, the New York Times published an editorial that largely echoed the assertions the day before by the State Department spokesperson that the charges that Ledezma was involved in a US-backed coup conspiracy were “ludicrous.”

The Times called the accusations a “fabricated pretext” and “outlandish,” dismissing talk of a coup as “Mr. Maduro’s conspiracy theories.”

One would hardly guess that the US backed an abortive coup by sections of Venezuela’s capitalist ruling establishment and the military against Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, as recently as 2002, or that the Timesitself enthusiastically supported the overthrow of the country’s elected president. It noted approvingly at the time that “the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader.” Within less than 48 hours, massive popular demonstrations sent the business leader, Pedro Carmona, packing and put Chavez back into the presidential palace.

Ledezma, one of the “dinosaurs” of the Venezuelan right, was an active supporter of the coup 13 years ago. He was also one of the principal figures of the country’s “hard right” who organized the so-called “ salida ” (exit) campaign last year aimed at bringing down Maduro—who won the election as president in April 2013—by means of street violence. These clashes claimed the lives of 43 people.

The corporate media is portraying Ledezma’s arrest on conspiracy charges as merely a response to his decision to sign an open letter calling for a “national agreement for a transition,” which advocates a renewed campaign for the extra-constitutional ouster of Maduro.

In fact, the Venezuelan government claims evidence identifying Ledezma as a key backer of fascist youth leader Lorent Saleh, who was extradited to Venezuela from Colombia to face charges of working with ultra-rightist Colombian mercenaries to organize terrorist attacks and assassinations in Venezuela. Saleh’s group, Operation Liberty, is funded through an NGO that, in turn, receives funding from the US Agency for International Development.

Also linked to plots to overthrow the government are several Venezuelan military officers, including three senior members of the air force arrested last year.

Maduro and his supporters in the ruling PUSV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) have made defiant statements countering international criticism and vowing to employ an “iron hand” against coup plotters.

This rhetoric, however, is belied by other actions and gestures that make clear the Maduro government is attempting to accommodate itself to the main forces that pose the threat of a coup—the Venezuelan financial elite, US imperialism and the military—while attempting to shift the burden of the country’s deepening economic crisis onto the backs of the working class.

Among the more extraordinary examples of this duplicity came in a speech delivered by Maduro Monday, in which he called upon Barack Obama to “rectify” his administration’s policy toward Venezuela and said the problem was that the US president had been misled “by evil and deceitful advisors.”

Meanwhile, the government has strengthened the powers of the military, which constitutes a central pillar of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution. Fully 11 out of 32 governorships and eight federal ministries are headed by active or retired military officers. Reports of defections and dissension within the top ranks of the armed forces pose the greatest threat of a coup, but these forces already control much of the state apparatus. To the extent that Maduro is seen as no longer effective in defending their interests and containing popular unrest, the military command could move against him.

Then there is the commanding strata of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie. Recently released figures indicate that these layers are continuing to enrich themselves under conditions in which the vast majority of the population confronts declining living standards and mounting layoffs.

Venezuela’s national financial system recorded profits amounting to $1.3 billion in January of this year, a 55.23 percent increase over the same period a year ago, maintaining the country’s status as one of the most profitable for the global banks.

Venezuela’s real economy, however, is in sharp decline, driven by the halving of the price of oil, which accounts for 96 percent of the country’s exports. The country’s reserves for imports have been slashed to $29 billion this year, one third of what they were two years ago.

Financial analysts estimate that the government is confronting a $14 billion budget gap that could nearly double if oil prices remain at their current levels for the rest of this year. There is growing speculation that the government could be forced into a default on its debt obligations if these conditions persist.

With inflation approaching 70 percent, the government has eased currency controls and allowed price increases on basic necessities, including beef and chicken. Shortages and lines of those seeking basic commodities remain ubiquitous. A rise in gasoline prices, which are heavily subsidized, is expected imminently. It was such an increase in fuel costs that triggered the eruption of the Caraczo, the 1989 mass rebellion that led to the deaths of as many as 3,000 people.

The Venezuelan right, representing sections of the ruling capitalists who see their interests better served through a closer semi-colonial relation with US capital and a brutal crackdown on the working class, is seeking to exploit the economic crisis to further its drive to oust the Maduro government. For its part, the Maduro government, which represents a layer of wealthy state officials, the military command and the so-called boliburguesia, which has enriched itself off of oil revenues and financial speculation, is exploiting these reactionary maneuvers to divert attention from its own turn toward austerity policies aimed against the working class and to seek to rally support on the basis of nationalism.

This has gone hand-in-hand with the suppression of independent struggles of the Venezuelan workers, including the jailing of workers who have organized strikes, protests and worker assemblies independent of the unions affiliated to the ruling party.

Venezuelan workers cannot advance their interests or defend themselves against the very real threat of a militarized crackdown by lining up behind either of these feuding factions of the ruling establishment. The working class can find a progressive way out of the present crisis only by establishing its political independence from the government and the ruling PSUV and fighting for a workers’ government and a genuine socialist transformation of Venezuelan society as part of a unified struggle of the working class throughout the Americas.

After announcing “normalization” with Cuba, Obama slaps sanctions on Venezuela


By Bill Van Auken
20 December 2014

President Barack Obama, Thursday, signed into law legislation imposing a new set of sanctions against Venezuela. The action, taken just one day after he took what have been widely described as “historic” steps to “normalize” relations with Cuba, shed considerable light on the real aims being pursued in relation to the Caribbean island nation.

The “human rights” sanctions were imposed on the pretext of punishing individual Venezuelan officials for the handling of violent anti-government protests launched last February with the aim of deposing President Nicolas Maduro. The violence claimed the lives of 40 people, including numerous members of the security forces, as well as supporters of the government and others killed in confrontations at barricades erected by Maduro’s US-backed rightist opponents.

The “Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act” abrogates or denies visas for a number of top Venezuelans and orders the freezing of any assets they may have in the US.

In another measure that serves to undermine the Venezuelan government, the US-based Fitch rating agency downgraded Venezuela’s credit rating from “B” to “CCC”, which suggests a likelihood of failure to meet payments.

Maduro, who only the previous day had praised Obama for his “brave and necessary gesture” toward Cuba, on Thursday denounced the new sanctions as “insolent measures taken by the imperial elite of the United States.” At the same time, he noted, “On the one hand, it recognizes the failure of the policies of aggression and blockade against our sister Cuba (…), and, on the other hand, it launches a new escalation of attacks” against Venezuela.

Underlying this seeming contradiction is a definite logic, however. The move toward rapprochement with Cuba and the sanctions against Venezuela are different tactics that are directed toward the same aim: bringing to power pliant regimes prepared to more fully accept US semi-colonial domination.

Washington is banking on the driving down of oil prices destabilizing Venezuela and creating better conditions for orchestrating a right-wing campaign to depose the Maduro government. At the same time, it sees economic and political destabilization of Venezuela, which has provided a lifeline to Cuba in the form of discounted oil shipments as well as tens of billions of dollars in loans, investments and grants, as a means of weakening Cuba and facilitating a restoration of the type of regime that characterized the country before the 1959 revolution.

For all of Obama’s rhetoric about “democracy,” “human rights” and “empowering the Cuban people,” these are the real aims and interests underlying the shift in Washington’s policy toward Havana.

And, while much has been written about Obama’s “bold move,” the reality is that the driving force behind a change in Cuba policy has been ruling corporate and financial sectors, which have seen a market that they believe should be theirs, dominated by China, Spain and other countries.

Fortune magazine’s response to Wednesday’s announcement was a story headlined, “Corporate lobbyists score victory in loosening of Cuban trade embargo.”

The story noted that truck and tractor manufacturer Caterpillar, the personal care product maker Colgate-Palmolive and the insurance giant Chubb “all spent tens of thousands of dollars to lobby government officials this year about the Cuban embargo, according to regulatory documents.”

“PepsiCo wants in. So does Caterpillar and Marriott International,” the New York Times exclaimed. “Within hours of President Obama’s historic move to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba, companies in the United States were already developing strategies to introduce their products and services to a market that they have not been in for the better part of 50 years—if ever.”

The Financial Times reported, “Cargill, the private US commodities trader, was among the first to welcome the announced easing of US trade restrictions on Cuba.” It noted that the company, “although a long-time supporter of the Republican Party […] has long urged ending the more than 50-year trade embargo.”

While US business interests currently are exporting approximately $500 million worth of goods to Cuba annually, consisting mostly of agricultural products, this flow is hobbled by financial restrictions requiring pre-payment through a third-party bank, typically in Europe. Other competitors, including Brazil, have been able to gain a greater share of the market by offering credit. Among the executive measures that Obama has announced will be an easing of these financial barriers.

Propelled by these big business interests, Obama’s changes in Cuban policy will apparently be rolled out rapidly, with regulatory changes on trade and travel made “as soon as new regulations can be published in the Federal Register ,” according to the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, the process of restoring diplomatic relations is expected to begin next month with a visit to Havana by Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson. The official told the newspaper that the reestablishment of formal ties could be accomplished simply through an exchange of letters, and that Washington would then “change the sign” on its large US Interests Section in Havana, turning it into an embassy.

Asked about how quickly the new measures expanding trade, travel and US banking operations, as well the quadrupling of the amount of money that can be sent to individuals on the island, will be implemented, Jacobson told thePost, “I am quite certain we’re talking about days or weeks. Certainly not months.”

Washington’s strategy is for the expansion of US trade and investment to intersect with the series of counter-reforms implemented over the past five years by the government of President Raul Castro, which have slashed government jobs and social spending while spurring private enterprise and offering more favorable conditions for foreign capital to exploit cheap Cuban labor. The ultimate aim is the fostering of a new bourgeois layer as the social basis of a semi-colonial Cuban regime.