Category Archives: Historical Discussions

The Perennial Hunt for Assata Shakur

Joanne Deborah Byron (married name – Chesimard) was born in Queens, New York in 1947, but was raised by her grandparents in the Jim Crow South. It wasn’t until she dropped out of high school and moved back to New York during the civil rights and anti-war struggles of the 1960s that Byron first became seriously politically aware. While in college, she joined a black cultural organization called the Golden Drums Society and became an activist. Later, she traveled to California and afterwards joined the radical Black Panther Party (BPP), eventually helping to found its spiritual successor the militant Black Liberation Army (BLA). 

By the early 1970s, Joanne, rechristened Assata Shakur, had become a leader of the black nationalist movement and was targeted for neutralization by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI’s formerly secret, and now infamous, COINTELPRO counterintelligence program. Authorities subsequently threw everything they had at Shakur; on six different occasions in just several years she was brought up on criminal charges ranging from armed robbery to the kidnapping and murder of a drug dealer. In each case, the charges were either dropped or Shakur was acquitted. Shakur’s resilience in the face of relentless police pursuit made her notorious in law enforcement circles. 

In the early morning hours of May 2, 1973, Shakur and two other BLA members, Zayd Malik Shakur and Sundiata Acoli, were pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike by state trooper Steven Harper, allegedly for a faulty rear light. Harper was immediately joined by Trooper Werner Foerster in a second patrol car, and some kind of altercation between the troopers and BLA group ensued. Gunfire was exchanged and Trooper Foerster and Zayd Malik Shakur were killed, while trooper Harper and Assata herself were shot and seriously wounded.

Shakur was immediately arrested and, according to her autobiography, kept in a room with Zayd Malik Shakur’s dead body for an extended period. She asserted that she was initially given no access to legal counsel and that her food was spat on. For four years, Shakur remained in custody awaiting trial, two of which were spent in solitary confinement in two separate men’s prisons.

Shakur finally had her day in court in 1977, but it was fairly clear from the onset that the deck was stacked against her. Despite overwhelming evidence supporting her innocence, none of which the prosecution was able to successfully refute, Shakur was ultimately convicted of Foerster’s murder, along with six assault charges, and was sentenced to life in prison. 

Several aspects of the controversial trial have been criticized by both Shakur’s supporters and independent parties:

-Cross examination of trooper Steven Harper during Shakur’s trial revealed that he lied repeatedly both in his official reports to investigators about the events of May 2, 1973 and in his grand jury testimony prior to the trial. Harper subsequently redacted his account of the altercation, admitting that he didn’t see Shakur handle a weapon that morning and that it wasn’t her that shot him. Harper’s faulty statements were the central feature of the prosecution’s case against Shakur.

-The FBI’s own forensic analysis established that Shakur didn’t handle any of the weapons found at the crime scene. Further ballistics evidence showed that Shakur was shot twice by trooper Harper, once with both of her arms raised and then once in her back.

-The jury that found Shakur guilty was composed of friends, relatives and partners of New Jersey state troopers.

Naturally, the legitimacy of Shakur’s trial, and its outcome, have been widely questioned. 

Shakur’s life sentence was cut short in 1979 when she escaped from prison with the help of several BLA members posing as visitors. She then fled to Cuba, where President Fidel Castro granted her political asylum. Shakur has been living in relative seclusion in Cuba under the protection of the Castro regime ever since. 

The FBI and New Jersey law enforcement did not take Shakur’s escape lightly. American authorities regularly call on the Cuban government to return Shakur to the U.S. There is currently a $2 million bounty on the now 67 year-old Assata Shakur’s head, and the FBI placed her on their top ten most-wanted terrorists list in 2013. 

Recent efforts at diplomatic normalization between the American and Cuban governments renewed hope among many in the U.S. that Shakur would finally be extradited back to America. Those hopes were summarily dashed, however, by firm statements from the Cuban government indicating that they still have no intention of returning Shakur.

“Every nation has sovereign and legitimate rights to grant political asylum to people it considers to have been persecuted. … That’s a legitimate right,” Josefina Vidal, the Cuban government’s head of North American affairs, told the Associated Press in December of 2014. She went on to point out that the U.S. and Cuban governments do not maintain an extradition treaty. 

Earlier this month, Gustavo Machin, the deputy director for American affairs at the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reportedly reaffirmed his government’s commitment to maintaining the Shakur’s asylum. 

“I can say that it is off the table,” Machin told Yahoo News when asked whether the Cuban government would finally return the retired revolutionary. Echoing Shakur’s U.S. based supporters, he went on to explain that the Cuban government has serious doubts about the validity of the convicted murder’s guilty verdict: “We consider that a politically motivated case against that lady.” 

Machin accused the U.S. government of harboring the true international terrorists, specifically the former CIA employee Luis Posada Carriles -who helped carry out an airline bombing in 1976 that killed 73 Cuban civilians. Posada currently resides in Miami, where he lives as a minor celebrity among the bitterly anti-Castro Cuban exile population. His latest terrorist attack, which he publicly admitted to having directed, was a hotel bombing in 1997 that killed an Italian tourist visiting Cuba. 

Reactions in the U.S. to the Cuban officials’ statements were swift and ferocious, with New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez deeming the Cuban government’s decision to continue harboring an American “cop killer” and fugitive “an intolerable insult to all those who long to see justice served,” in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

In a local TV interview that took place after Vidal’s pronouncements last December, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie harshly condemned the Cuban government and their refusal to turn over Shakur: “These thugs in Cuba have given her political asylum for 30 years. It’s unacceptable.” The governor added that the U.S. has “without question, the fairest and most just criminal-justice system in the world.”



Black Lives Matter – the Kerner Report

In the aftermath of the 1967 race riots, President Johnson tasked a special commission with investigating the root causes of racial strife in the U.S. The commission’s subsequent findings, the strikingly prophetic Kerner Report, were ultimately ignored. Many of the problems that the report argues were afflicting the black American population in the late 1960s continue to plague urban poor blacks today; some of those problems have worsened. Just as the report forsaw, the U.S. government’s continued failure to meaningfully and effectively address these issues has helped permanently stifle the social mobility of many black Americans. For these reasons, coupled with the recent explosion in racial unrest over several racially tinged instances of police brutality, a serious reexamination of the report at this time seems warranted. With any luck, President Obama may soon order the drafting of an updated version of the Kerner Report. In such a case, one would hope that he’d be more committed to pursuing racial justice than Johnson proved to be.

You can see the full Kerner Report here:


MLK Syndrome

Despite the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. once rightly called riots “the language of the unheard,” many in the government, in the media and on social media have been quick to cite him in their chastisement of individuals understandably enraged by Monday night’s non-indictment verdict of Darren Wilson. As is the case with most famous socio-political revolutionaries, MLK’s legacy has, in the decades since his death, been highjacked by the same power elite which sought to undermine and destroy him in his life. Now the forces of reaction pervert MLK’s message of non-violence and use it as a rhetorical weapon against those who would actively fight injustice today.

Let’s not forget that it was the enforcers of “law and order,” members of the same institutions which now decry protestors in Ferguson and across the country as rioters and demand that blacks look to MLK as an example, who were most viciously opposed to King and the civil rights struggle decades ago. This fact is epitomized by a letter, now fully unredacted, to MLK from the FBI. In it, a minion of J. Edgar Hoover, seemingly posing as an anonymous civil rights activist, implores King to take his own “abnormal” life. The full letter, in both classified and declassified forms, can be seen here:


Top Ten U.S.-Backed Authoritarian Regimes

10. P.W. Botha – South Africa (1978-1989)

The first and penultimate Executive President, and last Prime Minister, of South Africa’s white supremacist regime, “the Big Crocodile,” as Botha was also known, managed, with the help of the U.S. government’s diplomatic cover and material support, to maintain South African apartheid in the face of almost universal international condemnation. Botha radically expanded the power of South Africa’s repressive military and police forces through changes to the country’s constitution. By citing “Marxist” threats among South Africa’s disenfranchised blacks, Botha was able to secure significant military subsidies from the Reagan administration, this despite a widespread South African divestment campaign among U.S. universities. Still, Botha’s refusal to concede to the demands, the release of Nelson Mandela among them, of black protestors and activists, as well as his government’s aerial bombardment of leaders of the nation’s strongest anti-apartheid group (the African National Congress), brought about international sanctions that crippled the South African economy. He remained in power until a debilitating stoke forced him to resign in 1989. After South African apartheid was ended in the 1990s, the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission found Botha directly responsible for the kidnapping, torture and extrajudicial killing of thousands during his years in power.

Unfortunately, Botha’s atrocities didn’t stop at South Africa’s boarders. His government trained and financed the Mozambique National Resistance, which fought to topple the popular government which took power in Mozambique after the Portuguese abandoned their colony there in 1975. The MNC was infamous for mutilating and dismembering civilians and for forcing prospective young child soldiers to watch the rape and murder of their relatives before their own forced recruitment. Botha justified his government’s support for the terrorist organization by stressing the need to strengthen capitalism on the African continent. Clearly, the Big Crocodile understood how to effectively appeal to the sensibilities of his Washington paymasters.

9. Fulgencio Batista – Cuba (1932-1944 & 1952-1959)

FDR’s choice to replace ousted U.S.-backed strongman Cerardo Machado, army sergeant Batista first seized power in a military coup in 1932. Though relatively progressive in some ways during his early years in power, Batista consistently acted ruthlessly when faced with opposition to his rule. He effectively neutralized the leftist political elements that had helped to overthrown his predecessor. After twelve years in power, sometimes directly but often from behind the scenes, Batista left Cuba and settled down to a comfortable retirement in Miami in 1944. It was not to last.

In 1952, Batista returned to Cuba and reassumed power through another coup, this time ousting elected President Carlos Prio Socorras. Batista’s second presidency was greeted with enthusiasm by the Eisenhower administration, who characteristically viewed the dictatorial Batista as an effective bulwark against popular leftist movements in Cuba and a trusted guardian of the considerable American commercial interests on the Caribbean island. Batista’s second presidency was much more autocratic than his first; he suspended the Cuban constitution, purged the Cuban intelligentsia of leftist lawyers, teachers and officials and targeted Cuban labor -his earlier allies. As Batista cozied up to the American mafia during in the 1950s, Cuba became a hub of smuggling, gambling, drugs and other vices and rackets. American celebrities and gangsters, like Meyer Lansky, mingled in gaudy Havana hotels and casinos while segments of the indigenous Cuban population continued to toil and suffer under Batista’s harsh repression, especially in the poorer rural areas of the country. In 1953, rebels under Fidel Castro staged a failed uprising and Batista, with the help of Lansky (who maintained a highly lucrative drug trafficking operation out of the Havana airport), unleashed a new wave of brutality. By the time Castro returned from exile and eventually ousted the president after a guerrilla war, Batista’s death squads had killed and tortured thousands. Fleeing for his life, Batista left Castro’s Cuba with a personal fortune estimated at $700 million for Portugal on January 1, 1959, where he died of a heart attack years later.

8. Ngo Dinh Diem – South Vietnam (1954-1963)

Three factors lead to Ngo Dinh Diem being installed by the CIA as president of the artificial South Vietnamese state: he spoke English and had spent years in the U.S.; he was a Christian; and he was rabidly anti-communist. After the French, crippled by the devastation of WWII and unable to maintain their costly overseas empire, abandoned their colony of Indochina in the early 1950s, the U.S. took over the suppression of independence movements in Southeast Asia. In exchange for exorbitant American military subsidies and U.S. State Department counsel, Diem was expected to take orders from Washington while presenting an air of liberal democracy in Vietnam.

Grossly incompetent and cruel to boot, Diem, along with his brother and sister-in-law, utilized a secret police force called the Can Lao Party, a brainchild of the State Department, as a personal mafia and kidnapped, tortured and killed all urban opposition to his rule in Saigon (the capital of South Vietnam). Though he never exercised any real control outside of the capital city, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Again on the advice of the U.S. government, Diem rounded up rural peasants throughout Southern Vietnam and relegated them to concentration camps in order to keep them from fleeing to North Vietnam, which was by then swelling with refugees fleeing Diem and the Americans’ terror. Naturally, these camps became breeding grounds for pro-Vietcong sentiment and regularly churned out anti-Diem/American insurgents. By the early 60s, the situation in Saigon itself was becoming desperate, with the city on the verge of open revolt. Though he refused Washington’s repeated pleas to implement political reforms, Diem did attempt military ones. Alas, it wasn’t enough to save his skin; he and his brother’s bodies were found riddled with bullet-holes in the back of a van on November 2, 1963 (two and half weeks before the assassination of JFK in Dallas). The stage was set for the American invasion of Vietnam.

7. Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi – Iran (1941-1978)

The last Shahanshah (or “King of Kings”) of Iran, Reza Shah’s overthrow in 1978 brought an end to more than 2,500 years of continuous monarchal rule in the ancient Middle Eastern kingdom. Even so, prior to 1953, he was just a constitutional monarch with little real power or privileges, with true authority in the hands of a Prime Minister. It had been that year that the CIA, along with British MI6, conducted a coup ousting the popularly elected Prime Minster Mohammad Mosaddegh and handed de-facto power over to the Shah. Mosaddegh had nationalized Iran’s considerable oil industry, enraging the Western oil companies that were subsequently driven out of Iran. The Shah was of a different mind. In exchange for diplomatic and material support from Western governments, he handed Iran’s oil industry back to American and British corporations, denounced the Soviets for good measure and began his direct rule.

Naturally, the Shah’s actions, and subsequent policies, provoked widespread domestic opposition, especially from religious and working-class segments. The Shah responded by outlawing opposition political parties, jailing or (often publicly) executing opponents and rigging elections (his favored political party taking 100% of the vote in 1954). The most notorious aspect of the Shah’s rule was his SAVAK secret police. Created and managed by the CIA, the SAVAK employed dreaded torture methods including, but not limited too, the following: electric shock, whipping, beating, inserting broken glass and pouring boiling water into the rectum, tying weights to the testicles, and the extraction of teeth and nails. By 1978, Iranians had had enough. Under the leadership of the fundamentalist Shia leader Ayatollah Khomeini, they staged a revolution that drove the Shah from Iran. He died of an illness less than a year later as a fugitive, the U.S. government having stubbornly refused to extradite him back to Iran for punishment.

6. The House of Saud – Saudi Arabia (1932-present)

The U.S. government’s continued support of the Saudi royal family fully disproves any naive notion that it’s foreign policy is based on anything other than narrow self interest. It was the great liberal internationalist FDR himself who famously cut a deal with the first Saudi King, Abdul Aziz, in the 1940s guaranteeing perpetual American diplomatic and material support to the monarchy in exchange for a promise by the Saudis to keep the global price of oil cheap, Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest exporter of the vital commodity. Even today, as wealthy Saudi individuals (and possibly members of the hyper-extensive royal family) funnel money to radical Islamic terrorists groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), the U.S. government continues to prop up the secular Saudi monarchy in the face of repeated attempts by the Arabian people to dislodge them.

The domestic dissatisfaction with the Saudi regime is unsurprising considering the monarchy’s brutal medieval rule. In Saudi Arabia, nonlethal crimes like drug trafficking, adultery, apostasy and “sorcery” (whatever that means) are punishable by public beheading. Torture is regularly used by Saudi police to extract faulty confessions with no regard for internationally established human rights conventions. Furthermore, Saudi women remain effective property of their fathers and husbands and polygamy is widespread (most intensely among the royal family itself, with King Abdul Aziz having reportedly fathered 45 sons by 22 wives). Impractically, women are even prohibited from driving in Saudi Arabia, just one among many factors that have retarded the country’s economic growth. Clearly, any talk of spreading democracy throughout the globe on the part of the U.S. government should be met with chuckles so long as it continues to fund arguably, in many ways, the most backward regime in the world.

5. Mobutu Sese Seko – Zaire (1965-1997)

When the young freedom fighter Patrice Lumumba was popularly elected as the first Prime Minister of an independent Congo in 1960, his country was poised to embark on a new era after almost a century of horrific Belgian colonial rule. Unfortunately, Lumumba’s idealism, and his opposition to the virtual annexation of a particularly mineral rich part of the Congo to the Belgians, angered the foreign corporations that had for so long ruled his unfortunate country. Thus, twelve weeks into office, Lumumba was ousted and murdered by the CIA and their man in the Congo, an eccentric army general named Mobutu Sese Seko. Mobutu would go on to consolidate his power and take the presidency in a coup in 1965. Like the Belgian King Leopold II had done in the 19th century, Mobutu transformed the Congo, rechristened Zaire, into a personal fief, allowing multinational corporations to exploit the country’s considerable cobalt, copper, uranium and diamond supplies in exchange for hefty bribes to himself.

Mobutu’s 30+ years in power were characterized by corruption on a mass scale. By the time he was driven out of Zaire by rebels in 1997, he had stolen an estimated $15 billion from his people. Zaire, though the most naturally wealthy country in central Africa, became the fifth poorest in the region under Mobutu’s criminal mismanagement. Half of Zaire’s children died before the age of five, mostly of malnutrition, during his reign. Characteristically, Mobutu ignored the suffering of his people, focusing instead on the ever illusive communist threat that always prompted Washington to open up its wallet. When the U.S. government gave Zaire’s government $1.4 million to fight rebels in 1974, Mobutu embezzled the whole sum. It was characteristic of Mobutu’s modus operandi, and helped earn his government the the title of kleptocracy that it was later to receive.

4. The Somoza Dynasty – Nicaragua (1927-1979)

FDR once said of the patriarch of Nicaragua’s most infamous family “Somoza may be a son-of-bitch, but he’s our son-of-bitch.” Strongman Anastasio Somoza Sr. took power after a two decade long semi-occupation of Nicaragua by U.S. marines, during which time one American general confessed to having served as a “muscle man for big business, for Wall Street, and for the banks” and as a “racketeer for capitalism” in Nicaragua. Somoza earned the gratitude of Washington after assassinating the troublesome rebel leader Augusto Sandino in 1934, and was subsequently allowed to assume dictatorial power. The almost five decade rule of his family was characterized by brutal repression, including the murder of countless dissidents, and unbridled corruption.

Thankfully, the elder Somoza was shot down by assailants in 1956, but his sons, who succeeded him, presented little improvement. Shamelessly avaricious, Luis and Anastasio Jr. Somoza drained Nicaragua of everything they could get their hands on, including blood (which Anastasio Jr. bought from his people and sold internationally at a 300% mark up, yielding $12 million annually). Anastasio later embezzled $30 million in international aid after a devastating earthquake struck Nicaragua in 1972, selling relief supplies to those citizens who could afford it. Though the dynasty was able to cling to power, with U.S. support, until 1979, going so far as too bombard their own capital city when it was seized by unrest, rebel Sandinistas eventually overthrew them. Outraged and worried by the successful toppling of one of their puppet regimes, the U.S. government inflicted crippling economic sanctions on the Sandinistas’ Nicaragua and began training, funding and managing anti-government death squads composed of ex-solders of the Somoza regime (known as Contras). A decade of civil war and suffering later, the Sandinista government fell and Nicaragua was brought back into line.

3. Efrain Rios Montt – Guatemala (1982-1983)

General Efrain Rios Montt was just one in a series of dictators that ruled Guatemala in the decades after the CIA, acting on behalf the American company United Fruit, ousted the democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz in the 50s, each tyrant receiving his due of U.S. training, funding and other support in the name of anti-communism. United Fruit had been disturbed by Arbenz’s progressive education polices and were terrified that he would successfully implement land reform in the seemingly semi-feudal country and redistribute some of the company’s huge Guatemalan properties among the landless poverty-stricken farmers that worked the fields. Where Rios Montt distinguished himself was in the brutality with which he set about genociding Guatemala’s indigenous rural population, the most persistent victims and opponents of the dictators’ (and their American paymasters’) continued abuses.

An evangelical Christian, Rios Montt once proclaimed that “A Christian has to walk around with his Bible and his machine-gun.” Rios Montt’s rural massacres, which he saw as an anti-communist Christian crusade, killed at least 10,000 indigenous Guatemalans and drove 100,000 more to Mexico as refugees. The Reagan administration lauded Rios Montt, with the U.S. ambassador declaring, upon the dictator’s assumption of power, that Guatemala had “seen the light.” The administration’s enthusiasm is easier to grasp when one considers their close ties to the Guatemalan dictatorship; Reagan’s presidential campaign had received $500,000 in donations from Rios Montt’s predecessor and a particularly notorious general of the dictatorship, a “Godfather” of Central American death squads, named Mario Sandoval Alarcon had personally attended the “Gipper’s” first inauguration celebration. Rios Montt was finally convicted, in Guatemala nonetheless, of genocide and crimes against humanity in May of 2013, but his grime legacy lingers on in the memories of countless traumatized Guatemalans to this day.

2. Augusto Pinochet – Chile (1973-1990)

Pinochet’s decades in power present arguably the most pure experiment in ultra right-wing governance that the modern era has to offer. Assuming power in 1973 after the CIA, with the enthusiastic support of President Nixon and his minion Henry Kissinger, orchestrated a coup that left the democratically elected socialist Chilean president Salvador Allende a bloodied corpse in his office, Pinochet consistently implemented economic policies based on the advice of a cabal of American trained economists, each of which was a disciple of Milton Friedman’s “free-market” fundamentalism, dubbed the “Chicago Boys.” Specifically, Pinochet abolished the minimum wage, outlawed union bargaining, privatized the pension system, abolished all taxes on wealth and business profits, slashed public employment, privatized 212 industries and 66 banks and ran a fiscal surplus. Predictably, it was a complete disaster; poverty doubled, unemployment reached 22% and real wages declined by 40%. Wealthy financial speculators Javier Vial and Manuel Cruzsat bought up most of the state’s assets and carried out a massive pyramid scheme to defraud investors, ultimately crashing the country’s economy in the early 1980s. At that time, Pinochet was forced to abandon the “Chicago Boys” and implement sensible reforms, but the damage had been done.

The Chilean people hadn’t accepted Pinochet’s “free-market” policies quietly. Pinochet resorted to repression and terror to maintain power and force through the “Chicago Boys'” economic program, with Amnesty International reporting tens of thousands of civilian disappearances, exiles and instances of torture and killing at the hands of Pinochet’s regime. Two of Pinochet’s top enforcers, Raul Iturriaga and Manuel Contreras, were trained at the U.S.’s infamous School of the Americas in Panama, where they were educated in propaganda, torture, terror and other nefarious practices. Tried and true CIA torture methods, electric shock prominent among them, were redeployed regularly in Pinochet’s prisons. Throughout his reign, Pinochet received continual loans from the U.S. government, which brushed aside his gross human rights violations (again) in the name of anti-communism. Though Pinochet was driven from presidential office by a plebiscite held in 1988, he remained head of the nation’s military for another decade and managed to evade prosecution for his crimes, dying peacefully at the age of 91.

1. Suharto – Indonesia (1967-1998)

Suharto was a totalitarian monster. Having been installed as Indonesian President, predictably, by the CIA in 1965, the former army general immediately began massacring any and all leftist elements in Indonesia. Citing the need to destroy communist influence, but more interested in solidifying his own power and eliminating his predecessor Sukarno’s working class and rural supporters, his solders killed nearly a million Indonesian citizens in the 1965-66 period, imprisoning and torturing countless others. Paratroopers would arrive in a village by air, round up the inhabitants and force the communities’ children to point out supposed communists for immediate public execution. All the while, the U.S. government, by this time embroiled in Vietnam and eager to expand its imperialist operation throughout Southeast Asia, happily lent advisory aid, in the form of CIA counsel, and weapons to the bloodthirsty despot.

In 1975, Suharto was given the green light by Washington to invade neighboring East Timor and snuff out the recent revolution and resulting leftist government which had cropped up there. The occupying Indonesian forces proceeded to genocide the Timorese population for the next 25 years. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were starved, raped, died of illness or were killed outright (often brutally and publicly with bayonets and other crude weapons). A bipartisan succession of U.S. presidents refused to publicly acknowledge the atrocity and continued to arm Suharto’s military with cutting-edge weaponry throughout the period. Finally, in 1998, Suharto, now fabulously wealthy through various corrupt activities, was forced to resign due to the Asian Financial Crisis of that year. He died of renal failure ten years later, never having faced justice for his crimes.

Sources: 1) Dennis Bernstein and Laura Sydell “Friendly Dictators” Third World Traveler: accessed November 19, 2014
2) Paul Street “Against Escalation” Z Magazine (November 2014)
3) Gregory Palast “Miracle cure, but the medicine was bright red” the Guardian (November 22, 1998): accessed November 19, 2014
4) Human Rights Data Analysis Group, accessed November 19, 2014


Homage to Catalonia

George Orwell’s personal account of the Spanish Civil War is as important a read now as it was more than three-quarters of a century ago. Not only does it illustrate the horrors of fascism and warn against creeping totalitarianism; it also, more importantly, shows what common folk can accomplish when they band together and take their lives into their own hands.


Oscar Romero, Remembering a Martyr

Last month, Pope Francis initiated the beautification, the process by which the Catholic Church bestows sainthood on a deceased person, of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador from 1977 until his death in 1980 at the age of 61. There had previously existed a ban, put in place by John Paul II and maintained by Benedict XVI, on Romero’s beautification due to the Papacy’s concerns over Romero’s purportedly left-wing views. The Archbishop was a proponent of Liberation Theology, an interpretation (popular in Latin and South America) of Christian doctrine that prioritizes the interests of the poor, at a time in the latter half of the 20th century when the Catholic Church was becoming increasingly politicized and distinctly anti-Marxist. Though by no means a friend of Liberation Theology during his years as a Jesuit in Argentina, Francis’s belated embrace of Romero is part of a wider papal initiative to reinvent and soften the Church’s beleaguered image, specifically by re-focusing on issues of economic inequality and poverty. As interesting as this aspect of Romero’s legacy is, it was the man’s actions toward the end of his life and the circumstances of his death that bear still greater historical significance.

Romero’s martyrdom, for he was publicly shot dead while celebrating a Mass on March 24, 1980, came just weeks after he penned a letter (viewable here to U.S. President Jimmy Carter begging him to cease sending aid to the military junta that ruled El Salvador at that time. The Archbishop appealed to Carter’s avowed commitment to human rights and warned of the junta’s notorious brutality, characterized by assassinations, mass killings and rapes, political repression and a whole host of other abuses. But Romero’s pleas fell on deaf ears; Washington was concerned by the recent development of peasant associations, cooperatives, unions, Church-based Bible study groups and other popular organizations in El Salvador. Analogous to how it viewed similar movements in other Latin American countries throughout the 20th century, the American government feared that the advent of such groups in El Salvador would lead to genuine democracy and subsequently give rise to a leftist government that might stand up to the U.S.’s historical dominance of the region and, in so doing, serve as an example to neighboring countries. Though couched in Cold War anti-Communist rhetoric, this policy, employed repeatedly throughout Latin American countries like Nicaragua and Guatemala in that period, was designed to protect regional American economic interests rather than safeguard freedom or democracy. American policy makers were eager to aid El Salvador’s military junta in maintaining the Salvadorian oligarchy’s rule over the small Latin American nation, even if it meant turning a blind eye, and more often than not facilitating, atrocity and repression.

Romero’s assassin was likely an operative of one Roberto d’Aubuisson, a neo-Nazi sadist and the founder/”leader for life” of the right-wing Salvadorian political party ARENA (which would go on to rule El Salvador). D’Aubuisson also commanded an army of paramilitary death squads which he utilized to kill any and everyone in El Salvador that he deemed leftist before and during the civil war. He graduated from the U.S.’s School of the Americas in Panama (now in Fort Benning, Georgia) in 1972 where he and other Latin and South American right-wing terrorists and dictators, as well as the future leaders of a prominent Mexican drug cartel, were trained in propaganda, political repression and sabotage, torture, assassination, etc. At Romero’s funeral, where tens of thousands of Salvadorians turned out to mourn the old critic of the country’s ruling regime, d’Aubuisson’s death squads opened fire on the crowds from nearby rooftops, killing forty. It was a stark portend of atrocities to come as the Salvadorian Civil War, during which time the United States government maintained significant material support to and direct involvement with the ruling military junta and D’Aubuisson’s right-wing death squads, between the Salvadorian government and its people began.

Just after Romero’s murder, the Rio Sumpul Massacre, in which the government and its proxies cut infants into pieces leaving body parts downstream of a nearby river for weeks, killed 600 people. By the time Carter left office in 1981, 13,000 Salvadorians had been murdered. The Reganites only intensified U.S. support for the ruling regime, but had to appoint a figurehead “moderate” President named Jose Napoleon Duarte through a fraudulent election in 1984 after the rape and murder of four American churchwomen that were providing aid in El Salvador to victims of the war. The brutal killing of the aid workers was the first event of the conflict to garner noticeable media attention in the U.S. and led to some domestic protest there, which quickly largely died down. Still, the conflict dragged on for nearly a decade longer, with U.S. support and involvement throughout, and ultimately left nearly 100,000 dead and half a million as refugees.

One elite Salvadorian military unit, the Atlacatl Battalion, managed to distinguish itself as particularly heinous in a conflict characterized by general atrocity. Trained in counter insurgency by fifteen American specialists sent from the US Army School of Special Forces and equipped with cutting edge American weaponry, the battalion raped, shot, drowned, burned and bombed thousands of civilians, mostly in rural villages, over the course of the war, on one notorious occasion massacring six Jesuits and their cook (along with the cook’s daughter). One of the unit’s American trainers lauded them as “particularly ferocious” and joked about their propensity to take ears sooner than prisoners.

Regularly kidnapping poor boys for recruitment into the army, the Salvadorian military, like d’Aubuisson’s death squads, utilized Nazi SS rituals to indoctrinate their solders. A later deserter from the Salvadorian Army that gained political asylum in Texas in 1990, against repeated desperate attempts by the U.S. State Department to send him back to El Salvador to certain torture and death, described the animal and prisoner torture and mutilation that recruits were forced to watch and participate in in order to desensitize and dehumanize them. The unfortunate results of such training were rendered evident by a hellish account provided by a Jesuit priest operating in El Salvador during the war named Daniel Santiago. One day, he recounted, a Salvadorian peasant woman arrived home to find a large bowl filled with blood in the center of her dinner table. Seated in chairs around the table were her mother, sister and three children, each of which hand their hands arranged in a comical manner on their own decapitated heads resting on the table directly in front of them. Since the solders had had difficulty positioning the hands of the youngest child, an 18-month-old baby, they nailed the infants hands to its own severed head.

It’s somewhat tragically comforting to know that Archbishop Romero didn’t live to see the worst excesses of the Salvadorian government’s abuse of its own people. Still, his heroic championing of their rights in life, though largely fruitless in the short-term, are finally being recognized by an international community that for so long remained willfully ignorant of the plight of El Savlador. One can only hope that his belated veneration will make it, even just a little, harder for governments like the United States and the Salvadorian military junta, and its successors, to commit atrocities against their own and foreign populations.

Sources: 1) “Pope lifts beatification ban on Salvadoran Oscar Romero” BBC (August 18, 2014) accessed: September 9, 2014
2) Maurice Walsh, “Requiem for Romero” BBC (March 23, 2005) accessed: September 9, 2014
3) Noam Chomsky, “The Crucifixion of EL SALVADOR” Third World Traveler accessed: September 9, 2014


Revolution ’67

Is nonviolence in response to violent oppression practical? How much progress has America made in terms of achieving racial harmony in the decades since the 1967 riots? How is what happened in Ferguson, Missouri this summer a continuation of a seemingly endless race war in the U.S.? PBS’s excellent “Revolution ’67” attempts to answer these kinds of questions and more.


a Broad History of 20th Century American Political Economy

Early 20th century political debate was largely dominated by discussions within the Progressive movement about the role of government with respect to its interaction with the private economy. Fundamental changes (foremost among them: industrialization, the expansion of railroads, the increased availability of capital investment and numerous government policies aimed at facilitating economic growth) had, by the end of the 19th century, morphed the United States from a disparate collection of largely self-sufficient local communities into a complex integrated national market characterized by unprecedented corporate consolidation and reorganization (i.e. Railroad barons and the so-called “Seven Sisters” oil companies). This new economic reality drastically increased the exchange of goods and ideas and fostered marvelous technological advancements, but it also largely subordinated society to industrial mega-conglomerates and expansive financial firms, encouraged highly destabilizing and frequent financial booms and busts and transformed most of the largely multi-skilled independent and/or communal agrarian American population into specialized and commodified urban wage slaves (there was a parallel growth of organized labor during this time period, which sought to improve the status and advance the interests of these wage-slaves [i.e. the Knights of Labor]).

Progressives all argued for an expansion of the state in reaction to these changes in the private economy, but they argued over the state’s precise role. Proponents of the corporatist “New Nationalism,” like Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover (who advocated the more specifically pro-business “Associationalism”), believed that the state should facilitate large-scale industrial innovation and cooperate with big business in an effort to promote good behavior and safeguard the public welfare from bad economic actors (who would be subject to anti-trust prosecution). On the other hand, more adversarial and statist minded progressives, like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, stressed the need to empower neutral state agencies in order to provide government oversight of the private sector and hinder the expansion of monopolies and oligopolies (which they argued, in contrast to New Nationalists, fundamentally damaged economic competition and harmed the public welfare).

Though the reigns of government would change hands multiple times between these two wings of the progressive movement in the first half of the 20th century, with the roaring 20s witnessing the epoch of “New Nationalism” and the Depression-era administration of FDR implementing the most big-business unfriendly/state empowering initiatives, the need on the part of the state to harness big business’s industrial capacity during World Wars I and II and the inability of state agencies to effectively police big business during the FDR era (i.e. the structural deficiencies of most oversight agencies [especially the Federal Reserve, which was and still is directed by private financiers with perverse/personal interests rather than neutral government bureaucrats] yields a significantly asymmetric distribution of information [favoring big business] between regulatory state agencies and the industries they’re tasked with overseeing, usually resulting in the formation of iron triangles [i.e. when, in this case regulatory, government positions are staffed by individuals from the private sector that have direct personal stakes in the government policy decisions that they themselves are tasked with making, sometimes called crony capitalism]), ultimately lead to a victory for those advocating for a large government that works with, and for, private big-business (more in line with “New Nationalism”) rather than against it. Even so, the progressive era, but FDR’s years most specifically, witnessed an exponential expansion of the regulatory welfare state. Agencies tasked with ensuring good business behavior, though largely dominated by the industries they purport to police, and entitlement programs designed to ensure a basic level of public welfare, though many have seen serious reductions in their funding, persist to this day.

The latter half of the 20th century witnessed the initial expansion and subsequent decline of the Keynesian welfare state, as well as the advent and growth of an alternative neoliberal regime (though many assert that Reagan’s decision to shift government spending away from “butter” [welfare] toward “guns” [defense] amounted to a new form of “Military Keynesianism”). After the OPEC and Iranian oil crises caused a spike in the prices of American goods and services in the 1970s, the Federal Reserve responded by implementing inconsistent and painful monetary policy. The resulting inflation, coupled with a general feeling of disillusionment with the government among the American public (i.e. the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal) as well as a political mobilization on the part of the American business class in response to government regulation and labor activity (i.e. the 1971 Powell Memorandum), set the stage for laissez-faire fundamentalists to capture public policy in 1980. While neoliberal ideology continues to inform most elite policy making, sweeping (but temporary) Keynesian measures were implemented in response to the 2008 financial crisis.

The Keynesian welfare state reached its epoch during the administrations of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. The prevailing viewpoint among policy-makers at that time was that an activist government could, and should, aid, and sometimes replace, the private sector. Johnson combined aggressive fiscal policy with an expansion of the social welfare state (i.e. “Great Society” programs like Medicare and Medicaid). Additionally, Johnson’s efforts at full employment, manifest in his “War on Poverty” and civil rights initiatives, resulted in a historically low 3.8 unemployment rate in 1967. After the unpopularity of the Vietnam war drove Johnson from the presidency, the Republican administration of Richard Nixon initiated a rapid growth of the regulatory state, especially with regard to environmental protection and workplace safety. Generally, the policies of this Keynesian regime favored the working class at the expense of the business class insofar as they were mildly redistributive and protective against corporate excess.

Alternatively, the Reagan, and Thatcher, political revolutions of the 80s responded to the general malaise of the 1970s by drastically reducing the size of certain aspects of the welfare state (i.e. income support for the poor), initiating significant privatization efforts, breaking the already tenuous political power of labor unions, rolling back regulations and redistributing wealth back to the business class through tax cuts. With President Reagan’s declaration that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” a new norm of governance was ushered in. Policy-makers during this period generally viewed the private sector as an independent, self-correcting engine of societal growth that was best left alone by a small, except with respect to defense spending, government. This political movement, coinciding with the economic trends of globalization and financialization, ushered in a general stagnation/decline in the status of the working class and a rebound for the business class. The high income and wealth inequality, extreme concentration of private power and frequent volatile financial booms and busts (yielding remarkably little, if any, income gains from labor [actual work] compared to much higher income gains from capital [investments, stocks, property, patents, etc.]) that have resulted from this neoliberal trend should be viewed as a return to what has been the norm for most state capitalist economies in the modern period (except during the several decades after the unprecedented economic shocks brought about by two devastating World Wars and a global depression early in the 20th).

Source: Marc Allen Eisner, “The American Political Economy: Institutional Evolution of Market and State” [Second Edition], (New York, New York: Routledge, 2014).


the Powell Memorandum

This fascinating, albeit disturbing, 1971 memo by corporate lawyer, and future Supreme Court Justice, Lewis Powell details several of the multifaceted and long-term means by which elite holders of concentrated private power would ultimately, largely successfully, reassert their dominance in the United States following the upheaval of the 1960s and the epoch of American Keynesianism in the mid-20th century. This little known, but immeasurably significant, document should be required reading for socially conscious citizens throughout the United States.