The Take (2004)

Famed Canadian activist and author Naomi Klein and her husband Avi Lewis investigate Argentina’s young worker cooperative movement in this revelatory 2004 documentary film. The Take offers a look into what can happen when working class folks band together in the face of economic disaster and seize their own destinies. Margret Thatcher’s infamous claim that “there is no alternative” to neoliberal capitalism is critically undermined by this groundbreaking film. 

View the film here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sug7bWxTuSo 

(Be sure to switch on English subtitles by clicking the video’s closed captions [cc] option if you aren’t a Spanish speaker.)

  

Cuba Grapples With Debt

The Cuban government has negotiated an agreement with the Paris Club, an informal body representing a collection of relatively rich creditor nations, regarding a significant portion of Cuba’s foreign debt. Specifically, Havana consented to pay Paris Club lenders $15 billion to cover longstanding obligations originating from a largely unaddressed Cuban financial default in 1986. The figure encompasses the principle amount due as well as subsequently accumulated service charges, interest and penalties.

“The final amount of $15 billion has been approved by both parties, so that is a big first step and now the creditors will meet to set policy for formal talks,” an anonymous diplomat involved with the negotiations told the press.

With the $15 billion bill established, Cuba and the Paris Club can now move on to the next phase of negotiations -restructuring the country’s payment plan. Sources with intimate knowledge of talks were confident that the lender nations, eager to settle Cuba’s external debt situation and clear the way for foreign investment in the Caribbean nation, would be open-minded and agree to accommodating payment terms with Havana.

“Everyone wants to put this behind them now and move forward, and frankly, after 30 years I think the banks will be happy just to get something back,” another diplomatic insider explained.

While the Cuban government remains unwilling to publicly comment on its debt negotiations, it nonetheless appears genuinely considered with covering Cuba’s foreign obligations. Current Cuban President Raul Castro, a veteran of the 1959 Revolution and the brother of Cuba’s former leader Fidel Castro, has repeatedly voiced his intention to get Cuba’s fiscal house in order and pay down Cuba’s debt since assuming power in 2008.

In an effort to reform Cuba’s finances, and thus please the country’s international creditors and attract new foreign investment, Castro has reduced his government’s expenditures by cutting state payrolls and subsides. His related effort to limit the amount of imports arriving in Cuba has substantially improving the island’s previously imbalanced trade situation.

Thanks in large measure to Raul Castro’s policies, Havana has been able to reach amenable debt payment terms with several of its foreign creditors -including Japan, Russia, Mexico and China- in the past four years. In many instances, creditors forgave anywhere between 70 to 90 percent of what Cuba owed to them. There’s reason to believe that Cuba will be able to secure a similarly favorable payment plan with the Paris Club in the near future.

Positive developments aside, the Economist Intelligence Unit, a private financial analysis organization, estimates that Cuba’s foreign debt currently stands at around $26 billion -a considerable sum for a small underdeveloped nation. As Cuba gains access to much-needed new sources of financing and investment abroad in the coming years, owing to its rapidly improving relations with its formerly hostile neighbor the United States, it’s government will come under increasing pressure to substantively address these obligations. Recent actions by the Castro regime display a definite willingness to do so.

The nation’s that make up the Paris Club include Australia, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Russian Federation, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States. The unofficial consortium maintains a special working group on Cuba.    

                                          

The Brutal Reality of the Israeli Occupation of Gaza

A disturbing new report from the organization “Breaking the Silence” sheds light on the horrific events of the 2014 Israeli invasion of occupied Gaza. Relying on testimony from Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers who served during Operation Protective Edge, as the conflict was called, this comprehensive firsthand account of the war reveals how Israeli military commanders actively encouraged their troops to fire on innocent civilians, destroy property and commit other atrocities that served to terrorize the population of Gaza during the campaign. It appears that war crimes were a regular and intentional feature of the invasion, rather than occasional accidents. 

Please take the time to educate yourself about the Israeli government’s ongoing brutalization of Gaza and the West Bank. Understand that Israel’s ongstanding, nearly half-century old, military occupation of these regions isn’t just related to strategic security concerns, but is to a significant extent motivated by cynical political calculations on the part of Israeli politicians as well as a seemingly unquenchable drive to expand illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Most of all, realize that Israel, a semi-pariah state that looks more and more like apartheid-era South Africa everyday, likely couldn’t carry on abusing the Palestinian population without the continued diplomatic cover and military aid of the United States. Though the relationship between American President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has become strained, owing to the latter’s brazen arrogance, the basic U.S.-Israel alliance remains intact. That’s were you come in.

Please support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement and learn how you can help the long-suffering Palestinian populations of the occupied territories. Put pressure on your representatives in government to reevaluate the U.S.’s seemingly blind support for Israel policies, support which has historically brought America much more grief than good. 

Read the full “Breaking the Silence” report, which is titled This is How We Fought in Gaza, here:  http://ep00.epimg.net/descargables/2015/05/04/739d4d6eeeac81d22ea8549e7b624cf7.pdf

  

Another GOP Attempt to Abort U.S.-Cuban Reengagement 

Less than a week after removing Cuba from the U.S. State Department’s infamous list of state sponsors of terror, President Obama is now facing a legislative attack on his Cuban reengagement effort from the Republican-dominated House of Representatives. A new House appropriations bill, unveiled on Tuesday, prohibits federal spending on a potential U.S. embassy in Cuba and freezes funding for U.S.-Cuban diplomatic initiatives at pre-December 2014 levels -where they stood prior to the start of the president’s normalization campaign. If passed, the legislation would also restrict the ability of the Cuban government to acquire American financing for its own eventual embassy in the U.S.

“I think we have been very clear with our challenges with what’s gone on in Cuba, from human rights, from what’s happened there, and we have a difference of opinion with the administration and we have a right to express it,” Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House Majority Leader and a supporter of Tuesday’s legislation, told reporters.

The largely GOP-backed appropriations bill increases federal spending on U.S.-backed democratization initiatives in Cuba, including efforts to expand media access and reform elections on the island; it also directs the State Department to deny visas to Cuban government officials and members of the Cuban Communist Party. Proponents of the restrictive legislation argue that substantive political reform on the island should precede further diplomatic negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba. Furthermore, they’ve repeatedly threatened to block any and all efforts by the White House or the State Department to improve relations with Cuba until the long-ruling authoritarian Castro regime is removed from power. Tuesday’s House appropriations bill appears to finally back up these threats.

Congressional opposition to President Obama’s Cuba policy is led primarily by Florida-based Cuban American legislators like Representative Mario Diaz-Balart and presidential-hopeful Marco Rubio in the Senate. Most of these politicians are electorally dependent on strongly anti-Castro Cuban American voters in Miami and other Cuban immigrant enclaves in the sunshine state.

An official statement from the White House in reaction to another recent piece of legislation, this one a House transportation bill, designed to undermine the president’s Cuba policy was unequivocal: “His [Obama’s] senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill.” The administration went on to warn that the bill in question “place[s] unnecessary restrictions on options for educational, religious, or other permitted travel” to the Caribbean island by prohibiting federal funding to commercial vessels and airplanes traveling between the U.S. and Cuba. That aspect of the legislation would effectively nullify the popular regulatory changes to U.S.-Cuba travel and trade restrictions that the administration has made in recent months. 

President Obama’s Cuban pivot has been largely well received by the public; American travel to the island nation has ballooned since the administration first announced the policy change last December. With U.S.-Cuban reengagement and diplomatic normalization now being viewed by many as a cornerstone of the president’s foreign policy legacy, it is highly unlikely that the administration will take the House’s most recent challenge sitting down. The White House’s veto threats should thus be taken seriously. 

          

Puerto Rico: Crisis Point

In a bid to sure up their island’s dire fiscal situation and address its $72 billion in outstanding public debt, Puerto Rican lawmakers narrowly passed a bill on Tuesday to significantly raise taxes on the territory’s inhabitants. The controversial legislation specifically increases Puerto Rico’s sales tax from 7 to 11.5 percent, the highest in the United States, and introduces a new 4 percent tax on professional services. If the bill is ultimately signed by Puerto Rico’s governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla, which seems likely given his avowed pro-austerity views, then the tax hikes will be implemented within the year.

Tuesday’s news comes after an announcement from San Juan that the government will be closing nearly 100 schools and 20 public agencies in the near future in order to save money.

Puerto Rico is in the midst of a crippling 8 year recession, characterized by devastating unemployment and poverty levels and unprecedented population flight. Critics of Tuesday’s bill decried the fact that the burden of the San Juan’s latest austerity scheme falls squarely on Puerto Rican consumers; they argue that the new taxes will seriously undermine already lagging economic demand on the island and ultimately deepen and prolong Puerto Rico’s longstanding recession, making it impossible for the territory to get out from under its smothering debt in the longterm.

Proponents of the legislation, on the other hand, say that such tax increases are desperately needed in order to stave off a government shutdown in the short-term. Foreign creditors, whose ongoing financing of the island’s government has become indispensable, with vested interests in Puerto Rico’s future solvency have long threatened to pull out of the U.S. territory in the absence of substantive austerity measures there. Policy makers in San Juan are hoping that the $1.2 billion in revenue that the new taxation is expected to yield will calm creditors abroad and attract new investors on the international bond market.

While credit rating agencies’ repeated downgrades of Puerto Rican treasury bonds have led many to reconsider their fledgling investments in the territory, one institution is actually seemingly eager to go all in on the struggling island.

You might be wondering who in their right mind could possibly want to purchase chunks of Puerto Rico’s behemoth and seemingly insurmountable debt. Why it’s our old friends over at Goldman Sachs; you know, the infamously predatory Wall Street banking conglomerate, and Federal Reserve junkie, that Matt Taibbi once hilariously, and poignantly, dubbed “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Well, according to recent article from Bloomberg Business, Goldman is currently gobbling up Puerto Rican bonds at breakneck speed, even as other investors flee for the hills. That a firm as historically and continually immoral and incompetent as Goldman Sachs is tripping over itself to buy up junkish Puerto Rican bonds should unnerve everyone. There’s a scam afoot here ladies and gentlemen, and you and I are the marks… again.

We’ve seen this movie before, and we know how it ends. If past is pretext, and -considering the U.S. government’s failure to break up Wall Street’s seemingly omnipotent “Too Big To Fail” banking cartels and fundamentally reform how it regulates and subsidizes such firms in the wake of the 2008 crash- it almost certainly is, then American taxpayers will get stuck bailing out Puerto Rico’s bondholders if and when the island eventually goes belly up fiscally. But by that point, the sharks at Goldman will have presumably already swam off into the Caribbean sunset, having sold off most of their toxic Puerto Rican assets to unwitting investors and simultaneously made lucratively risky and cynical bets against those same sales long before the island’s financial collapse. Wall Street will have transformed another crisis into a golden opportunity for itself, and the dismantling of Puerto Rican society will continue apace.

  

U.S.-Cuba: Where Things Stand

U.S.-Cuban negotiations aimed at restoring full diplomatic relations between the two formerly hostile countries have seemingly stalled once again. The latest round of high-level talks, held at the U.S. State Department in Washington D.C. over the course of several days last week, reportedly failed to produce significant progress, and formal mutual embassies in the American and Cuban capitals remain unopened.

Thanks to several recent breakthroughs in the diplomatic normalization process, including President Barack Obama’s decision last month to remove Cuba from the U.S. State Department’s infamous list of state sponsors of terrorism and the Cuban government’s resulting acquisition of much-needed banking services for its U.S. diplomatic mission with the Florida-based Stonegate Bank, the opening of embassies in Washington and Havana in the very near future seemed like a viable possibility ahead of last week’s talks. That said, American and Cuban negotiators in D.C. were unable to overcome critical disagreements over the degree of freedom that U.S. diplomats operating in Cuba should be afforded.

The Cuban government argues that the journalism training courses and information technology that American personnel at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana regularly provide to Cuban dissidents is illegal, specifically violating a Vienna Conventions ban on diplomats meddling in the internal affairs of other countries. They demand an immediate end to the practice and also want to maintain existing restrictions on Cuban-based U.S. diplomats’ freedom to travel outside of Havana. Persistent discord between American and Cuban negotiators over these contentious issues effectively neutralized last week’s talks in Washington.

Speaking to the press in the wake of the most recent negotiations, Roberta Jacobson, the U.S. State Department’s top official for Latin America, stressed the need for Cuba to conform to her country’s standards of diplomatic procedure: “There are a range of ways in which our embassies operate around the world in different countries…We expect that in Cuba, our embassy will operate within that range. It won’t be unique. It won’t be anything that that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world.”

The authoritarian Castro regime, which strictly prohibits most types of subversive media in Cuba, is justifiably fearful that certain American diplomatic, aid and intelligence staff operating in Cuba are bent on fomenting anti-government sentiment among the population of the Caribbean island. The U.S. has a well-documented history of relentlessly attempting to oust the Castro government since it took power in 1959, and provoking a regime change or, at the very least, reform in Havana remains an avowed central goal of White House’s current diplomatic normalization and democratization efforts in Cuba.

Though the most recent round of negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba appear to have been decidedly unimpactful, representatives of both governments were optimistic about the overall progress of U.S.-Cuban diplomatic normalization in their statements to the press following the meeting. Furthermore, they refused to write off the talks as a failure. Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s director of North American affairs, called the negotiations “respectful and professional,” while Jacobson described them as “highly productive.” Neither party was willing to go into detail about substance of the negotiations.

  

                             

        

“Free Trade” and the Consequences of Neoliberal Globalization.

Thanks to the office of Senator Elizabeth Warren for documenting some of the blatant failures of U.S. trade policy in recent decades. Forming an appreciation for the history of this issue is necessary when attempting to understand the present dismal state of U.S. trade with the rest of the world.

President Obama may tout the new Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as a different kind of trade deal, but experts were quick to dub it “NAFTA on steroids.” The disturbing fact that the adminstration is fighting to negotiate the massive agreement in secret, using so-called “fast-track” authority, is indicative of a certain contempt for democracy among some American elites. If the TTP is as good a deal as Obama says, why not open it up to public scrutiny and debate?

It is absolutely vital that working class populations on the Asian and American sides of the Pacific unite against the radical expansion of corporate power that is the TPP. They must educate themselves and mobilize politically in order to compel their governments to reject the agreement. Only by fundamentally transforming our trade priorities -by eliminating transnational monopolies, protecting national and food sovereignty in developing countries and empowering local economies and labor rights internationally- can we create a sustainable and more just global economy.

View Warren’s report here: http://big.assets.huffingtonpost.com/WarrenReport.pdf

   

Tensions Flare in Puerto Rico’s Debt Battle

Disgruntled students from the University of Puerto Rico took to the streets of San Juan last Wednesday to protest a government plan to slash their school’s funding by some $166 million. The spending cuts formed part of a $1.5 billion austerity program that the island’s governor, Alejandro García Padilla, had hoped to implement in order to put a dent in the territory’s whooping $72 billion debt and calm nervous foreign investors with a stake in Puerto Rico’s financial solvency.

Heated confrontations between the demonstrators and police, as well as a bomb scare at the governor’s mansion, prompted García Padilla to abandon some of the controversial cuts by Thursday. He subsequently met with Puerto Rican legislators and drew up a revised, more revenue-centered, budgetary plan in an effort to salvage the larger austerity package. The new plan increases the island’s sales tax by 4.5 percent and introduces a new value added tax of 4 percent on goods and services that were previously exempted from such dues. Tax increases aside, the replacement proposal includes $500 million in painful public spending cuts as well. Whether the government will be able to implement the austerity measures in the face of almost certain public backlash remains to be seen.

Puerto Rico’s ongoing debt crisis has already led to 150 school closings in the past five years. According to the government’s own estimates, 600 schools may face closure in the next five years if the territory’s fiscal situation doesn’t improve.

Puerto Rico’s Education Secretary, Rafael Román, pointed to the mass exodus of tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans in recent years as a major factor in the government’s decision to move ahead with school closings. Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million population has shrunk by a staggering 7 percent over the last decade and is projected to contract by a further 0.6 percent this year alone. 

A significant portion of the people leaving Puerto Rico are doing so in reaction to the island’s deep and longstanding recession. They’re fleeing the Puerto Rico’s 44 percent poverty rate and its 14 percent unemployment rate (the latter figure, which is double the U.S. mainland’s rate, is likely vastly understated given its failure to account for those who’ve simply dropped out of the labor market). Given the territory’s dire fiscal situation, prospects for economic growth in the near future remain dim.

Many have pointed to the Puerto Rican government’s stubborn austerity fixation as the primary cause of its depopulation and enduring recession. In 2009, then-governor Luis Fortuño, a supply-side oriented member of the Puerto Rican Republican Party, laid off 17,000 public employees and effectively nullified collective bargaining rights as well as existing, and future, union contracts in an effort to please foreign creditors and avoid a government shutdown. His parallel corporate tax rate reductions, designed to attracted investment in Puerto Rico, utterly failed to offset the significant economic harm caused by these cuts. Although the territory’s current governor is from the comparatively less right-wing Popular Democratic Party, he has embraced similar austerity initiatives in addressing Puerto Rico’s debt obligations.  

         

Cuba Shares Lung Cancer Vaccine With the U.S.

Thanks to the ongoing warming of relations between Cuba and the U.S., Americans may soon have access to a groundbreaking vaccine against lung cancer called Cimavax. Though Cubans have had access to the drug since 2011, it has remained unavailable to most Americans thanks to the longstanding U.S. trade embargo on the Caribbean island. A new agreement between the U.S.-based Roswell Park Cancer Institute and Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology, which was finalized during New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s diplomatic mission to Havana last month, promises to change that however.

As per the agreement, Cimavax will soon be made available to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for evaluation. The Center for Molecular Immunology, the Cuban research agency which created the vaccine, is sharing information regarding the drug’s production process, toxicity levels and past clinical trials in an effort to speed up the FDA’s assessment process. Pending the drug’s eventual approval, Candace Johnson, CEO of Roswell Park, expects development of an American version of the vaccine to begin within the year.

Cimavax isn’t an outright lung cancer cure; it’s a preemptive treatment designed to manage the disease’s growth. By attacking a harmful protein produced by tumors, the vaccine can prolong a lung cancer patient’s life by four to six months -according to a 2008 study.

In Cuba, where lung cancer is the fourth-leading cause of death among a population attached to their internationally renowned cigars, Cimavax has been a godsend. The drug was developed by Cuban researchers over the course of 25 years as part of the Castro government’s Biological Front program -a longterm biotechnology and medical research initiative that has yielded numerous breakthroughs, including vaccines for meningitis B and hepatitis B. Like all healthcare services on the Caribbean nation, Cimavax is available to all Cubans free of charge and is produced by the Cuban government at an impressively low cost of $1 per shot.

Cuban medical research programs and healthcare policies have been widely lauded. “Cuba is the only country that has a healthcare system closely linked to research and development,” Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), explained during a trip to Havana last summer. She also particularly praised the Cuban government’s focus on securing cost effective preventative treatments for its population, stressing that Cuba’s healthcare system serves as a role model to other cash strapped developing nations. The Castro regime spends significantly less money than the U.S. government does on healthcare per individual and yet delivers comparable, and in many cases superior, outcomes, a reality which serves as an indictment of the U.S.’s dysfunctional private healthcare and health insurance industries as much as it is a vindication of Cuba’s socialized system. With a relatively high life expectancy of 78 years, Cubans continue to live longer on average than most other populations in the Americas.

Echoing Chan’s earlier praises, Johnson described the Cuban healthcare system: “They’ve had to do more with less… so they’ve had to be even more innovative with how they approach things. For over 40 years, they have had a preeminent immunology community.”

Significant obstacles to further collaboration between American and Cuban medical researchers remain due to the U.S. continuing trade embargo on the island nation.

   

No, France Will Not Be Paying Reparations To Haiti Anytime Soon.

French President François Hollande concluded his five-day tour of the Caribbean on Tuesday with a stop in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The visit marked only the second time that a sitting French head-of-state has traveled to the struggling Caribbean nation -former President Nicolas Sarkozy went there in early 2010 after a devastating earthquake killed more than 300,000 Haitians and displaced countless more.

Considering France and Haiti’s sordid history, the apparent reluctance of French leaders to visit the hard-pressed nation isn’t all that surprising. Prior to winning its independence from France on January 1, 1804 and becoming the world’s first black republic, Haiti was France’s most prosperous, and slave-ridden, overseas colony.

In 1825, the French government demanded, in exchange for its formal recognition of Haiti’s independence, that the former colony compensate the French plantation owners that had lost property and slaves during Haiti’s 1791-1804 revolution twenty years before. Significantly, slavery had already been outlawed in France for years by that time, calling into question the legality of Paris’s reparation proposal from the outset. Even so, the Haitian government was eager to acquire diplomatic legitimacy and agreed to cover the debt.

The so-called “independence debt” that France extracted from Haiti amounted to around 90 million gold francs ($18.9 billion), which was ten times the young country’s annual public revenue in 1825. It crippled Haiti’s economic growth for well over a century and, in a trend eerily similar to certain contemporary cases, enriched the French banks that helped finance Haiti’s regular debt payments to France. Though the burdensome debt was, and still is, widely regarded as morally and legally illegitimate, Haiti paid off the full sum, along with the substantial accumulated interest it owed to French lenders, by 1947.

There have been repeated calls by many, including Haiti’s ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, for France to begin paying billions in reparations to its former colony in order to atone for the unjust “independence debt” and aid the now poverty-stricken nation.

A joint 2013 statement from Office of International Lawyers and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti was supportive of financial reparations: “If the international community really wants to help Haiti, repayment of the independence debt will be at the top of the agenda, not off the table. A just repayment of the independence debt, by contrast, would allow Haiti to develop the way today’s wealthy countries did — based on national priorities set inside the country. It would also right a historical wrong, and set a strong example of a powerful country respecting the rule law with respect to a less powerful country.”

In 2001, a law was passed in France that formally characterized slavery and the sale of humans as crimes against humanity, acknowledging France’s own historic involvement in the atrocious slave trade in the process. Though the French government cancelled Haiti’s outstanding debt to France after the horrendous 2010 earthquake, which then stood at $81.2 million, it has steadfastly resisted proposals for reparations to Haiti for years.

A speech by President Hollande at the inauguration of a slavery memorial in Guadeloupe on Sunday did address the contentious question of France’s debt to Haiti and reignite the hopes of many who are calling for a reevaluation of French policy on the issue of Haitian reparations.

“When I go to Haiti, I will, for my part, handle the debt that we have,” the French leader proclaimed to thunderous applause. Some interpreted Hollande’s statements as an indirect endorsement of concrete financial reparations, but the president’s staff subsequently clarified that his words referred strictly to France’s more abstract moral debt to Haiti. For the time being at least, reparations do not appear to be on the horizon for Haiti.

This article was updated by the editorial staff of Antillean Media Group before its publication on Thursday May 14, 2015. The final version of the post can be viewed here: http://www.antillean.org/haiti-hollande-independence-debt-222/ 

  

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