“Animals” – just another day in the Trumpian Hellscape

In a meeting with California officials to discuss Sanctuary Cities, Trump uttered the following: “We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — and we’re stopping a lot of them — but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.”

News outlets tended to cover this in “Trump calls immigrants animals” fashion. I’m a fan of the mainstream media and the Deep State, but as the National Review rightly points out, Trump’s use of the word “animal” was in direct response to a question about MS-13 asked by the Sheriff of Fresno County, where MS-13 gang members have been convicted of murder and gun charges.

Fine, context is important.

But the context doesn’t really make it better. Recently, one of our contributors wrote a piece on MS-13 and the cycle of dehumanization that leads to violence. (I’ll give you a minute to read it before I continue…ready?)

One could argue that the press is in the wrong here because calling Trump out for dehumanizing immigrants (which he does regularly) without specifying which particular group of immigrants he happens to be dehumanizing today actually does his work for him – contributing to the lumping together of undocumented immigrants with the small percentage of those who have committed violent crimes.

In any case, calling a particular group of people “animals” is simply an explicit articulation of his dehumanizing policies on immigration, which have a much more concrete and immediate impact on people’s daily lives. For example:

  • Stripping people of TPS and shipping them back to their “shithole countries” (which actually contributes to gang violence, thus increasing the number of people seeking asylum).
  • Dehumanizing children by treating that as contraband to be confiscated at the border and storing them in military installations (distorting a law, that, whatever you think of it, was originally intended to protect children from human trafficking – and turning them into mere leverage) and referring to bringing one’s own child across the border as “smuggling.”
  • Dehumanizing the youth who get caught up in gang violence – “they’re not people” – by taking a lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach to a criminal justice that essentially does throw away the key (storing inmates in solitary confinement for years at a time, for example).
  • Doing the same in federal detention centers filled not only with undocumented immigrants who have committed no other crime than existing within the borders of the United States without the right paperwork – but also with asylum seekers who have committed no crimes whatsoever (since it’s not illegal to enter the country if you’re seeking asylum).
  • Forcing detainees to work for $1 a day and then requiring them to use that little bit of money to purchase food, linens, and phone calls to family, friends, lawyers – threatening them with criminal prosecution or “the sensory and psychological deprivation of their humanity resulting from solitary confinement” if they refuse (incidentally, this is pretty much the definition of human trafficking, hence SPLC’s lawsuit against CoreCivic).

When corporations become “persons,” there is a financial incentive for treating people like animals and animals like machines. If we can start to think of criminals as “animals,” the next step is to criminalize whomever we perceive as undesirable or inconvenient so that we can hand them over to the private prison industry and store them away like so much clutter. Hence the criminalization of immigration, poverty, compassion, and so on.

Justice must be re-humanized.

 

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Nicaragua: An Urgent Call for Solidarity from ATC

Below is a “Call to Solidarity” from The Asociación de Trabajadores del Campo (ATC), or Rural Workers Association in Nicaragua in relationship to the current political crisis. As the international media continues to emphasize only the voices of opposition groups, it is important that we work to get out other perspectives on what is happening.

“The ATC represents approximately 50,000 rural workers and small-scale producers in Nicaragua. The ATC has several hundred labor unions and agricultural cooperatives throughout the country. The organization coordinates agrarian sector employment training programs, political formation workshops, agricultural practicums, and advocacy on national policies that protect workers and food systems. It has active rural women and rural youth movements” (Friends of ATC). The ATC has historically been associated with the Sandinistas, though even during the 1980s was one of the most independent of the FSLN affiliated popular organizations. Today the ATC is a leader in the international peasant movement, Via Campesina, and the regional coordination of CLOC. If you’re interested in learning more, the Alliance for Global Justice is organizing a delegation to Nicaragua this coming June to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the founding of the ATC.

PDF Version of Statement, English and Spanish.

An Urgent Call for Solidarity with Nicaragua Asociación de Trabajadores del Campo /Rural Workers Association

May 17, 2018

Friends in Solidarity,

We have lived a month full of tragedy in our country. The peace we achieved as a people, so fragile and at the cost of so many lives, is in immanent danger of disappearing irreparably. There are now two sizeable camps of the population with dangerously contrary positions. On one side, there is a combination of private university students, media outlets with rightwing owners representing the oligarchy, Catholic Church bishops close to Opus Dei, the private sector and, of course, the US Embassy, working together to create a situation of chaos in the country in order to remove president Daniel Ortega. This group of actors accuses the National Police of having killed dozens of protesters in the riots that reached all Nicaraguan cities, ostensibly against a reform—since revoked—to the system of social security. As we have described, the reality is more complex, and the violence was generalized and explosive, involving protesters with homemade firearms that often misfired, as well as counter-protestors, paid pickets, unknown gunmen and street gangs. The National Police was really a minor actor in the violence, using tear gas and rubber bullets to clear crowds in a few points of Managua, but not involved in the vast majority of the 50 or more deaths that have been reported since April. The Interamerican Commission of Human Rights has been invited by the government and currently is investigating the events of April.

A national dialogue began on Wednesday, May 16th, with the participation of anti-government students, civil society organizations, and the Presidency, and mediation by the Episcopal Conference of the Catholic Church led by Archbishop Leonaldo Brenes. However, the coup-like violence has only grown and currently, rightwing armed groups have all of the main highways in the country closed. On the other side of the conflict, the militancy of the Sandinista Front continues to withstand phenomenal provocations, including:

  • The destruction of its Sandinista homes (party headquarters) in dozens of cities
  • The destruction or defacement of hundreds of historic monuments, murals, and memorials of Sandinistas
  • The arson of dozens of public buildings
  • The interruption of work and the food shortages that have resulted from the road closures and violence
  • The deaths of passersby and journalists by paid pickets and violent protesters
  • Relentless false accusations and lies circulated by corporate media.

It must be added that Facebook has been the primary means for transforming Nicaraguan society that one month ago was at peace into a toxic, hate-filled nightmare. Currently, hundreds of thousands of fake Facebook profiles amplify the hatred and pressure Nicaraguan Facebook users to begin to share and post hate messages. Many, if not most, of these fake Facebook profiles have been created in countries other than Nicaragua, and in particular, Miami is the city where many of the Facebook and WhatsApp accounts behind the violence are managed.

Historically, the ATC has been a participant in the Sandinista struggle. In truth, we have not felt consulted or represented by the current FSLN government. The current coup attempt makes use of these historical contradictions and is trying to co-opt the symbols, slogans, poems and songs of Nicaragua’s Sandinista Revolution, since of course the rightwing has none of its own. However we may feel about Daniel Ortega, the ATC would never contribute to making chaos and sowing violence in order to force the collapse of the democratically elected government in order to install a more docile, Washington-friendly neoliberal government. There are clearly real frustrations in sectors of the population, especially youth, and if these sectors are unable to find popular organizing processes, they will end up being the cannon fodder for a war, which would be the worst possible situation for the Nicaraguan people.

In this context, the ATC has called for “all national actors to reorganize themselves based on their aspirations.” With this intention, the ATC proposes to confront the national crisis with aseries of dialogues among young people, without party distinction or any ideological basis, in favor of peace and understanding. We propose extraordinary youth assemblies in the cities of San Marcos, Jinotepe, Rivas, Granada, Masaya, Estelí, Matagalpa, Jinotega, Juigalpa, Santo Tomás and Tipitapa, as spaces for young people to discuss the national situation and find pointsof unity. It is important to mention that we do not have a previously defined “line” to impose upon these debates—they will be spaces for listening, forming ideas and thinking with our hearts.

We call upon your solidarity and generous support for the creation of an emergency fund for peace in Nicaragua that makes possible this round of extraordinary youth assemblies. The national coordinators of the Rural Youth Movement, Sixto Zelaya and Marlen Sanchez, will have the responsibility of organizing the assemblies and administering the fund with absolute transparency.

It is urgent to organize the Nicaraguan family and win peace!

International Secretariat of the ATC

 

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Manufacturing Dissent: The N.E.D., Opposition Media and the Political Crisis in Nicaragua

The world’s major media outlets have spoken, and the verdict is in: Daniel Ortega is on his way out. After years of cronyism, his dictatorial rule has met with mass popular resistance, a resistance Ortega’s government responded to with unprecedented force. All of this signals that Ortega is isolated and clueless, and that “the people” have had enough. It is only a matter of time before he and his wife go the way of former dictators, like Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu in Romania. No need to look further. The New York Times, The Guardian, The New Yorker and others, have lent their editorial pages to “investigative” reporters, who have accepted and reproduced a consensus analysis concerning the political conflict in Nicaragua.

But this story is not true, or at best, partially and selectively told.

The consensus in the international media that Ortega is a dictator on his way out seems a conclusion underdetermined by the facts. Certainly, prior to the demonstrations in April, the Sandinistas generally, and even Ortega specifically, remained popular in many quarters. The FSLN’s anti-poverty initiatives have garnered it significant support; and Nicaragua’s overall economic performance, one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America over the past few years  – even according to the CIA  –  has until now alleviated fiscal strains that such programs might otherwise cause.

To be sure, the FSLN approach is not “revolutionary.” It is more a neo-liberalism lite, e.g., market reform offset by social service provision. But now, the tripartite alliance of government, business and labor that has allowed this strategy to move forward may well be coming undone – as signified by the business community’s opposition to the government over social security reform and its own call to demonstrate. What might replace this tripartite model is not clear, but the process of National Dialogue might offer the possibility for forming a new governing coalition. You would never know any of this from the international press.

The framing of the protests we read in the international media emerges from a concerted effort within Nicaragua to coordinate messaging and tactics among opposition groups, an undertaking funded in part by the United States’ National Endowment for Democracy. It would be a gross oversimplification to argue that the protests themselves were simply manufactured by the United States. Some of the grievances are real, and much of the protest legitimate. But our understanding of events has been distorted by the opposition filter that dominates the international media.

The Manufacturing of (a certain kind of) Dissent

Midway through Jon Lee Anderson’s April 2018 piece for The New Yorker he claims:

Arguably the only other [in addition to La Prensa] independent Nicaraguan media outlet of note is Confidencial, an online publication whose small team of reporters has taken on the Ortega government with uncommon valor. The editor-in-chief of Confidencial is Carlos Fernando Chamorro—one of the sons of Pedro Joaquín and Violeta Chamorro. [emphasis added]

But Confidencial is not really an “independent” media outlet. Confidencial’s framework of taking on Ortega with “uncommon valor” is funded, at least in part, by the National Endowment for Democracy. In 2014, for example, INVERMEDIA received a $60,000 grant in order to “foster independent digital media in Nicaragua” and they received an additional $175,000 in subsequent years. Per the grant details,

INVERMEDIA will strengthen the organizational capacity of the digital newspaper, Confidencial. Confidencial will conduct investigative reports on issues affecting Nicaraguan democracy. Confidencial will also establish working relations with leading civil society organizations in order to provide a media platform for coordinated action. Confidencial will strengthen its social media presence.

This grant is just one of 55 grants totaling $4.2 million given to organizations in Nicaragua between 2014 and 2017 by the National Endowment for Democracy as part of a U.S. government-funded campaign to provide a coordinated strategy and media voice for opposition groups in Nicaragua. NED grants fund media (radio, social media and other web-based news outlets) and opposition research. In addition, strategies targeting youth get substantial funding, along with programs seeking to mobilize women’s and indigenous organizations. Though the language is of support for “civil society” and “pro-democracy” groups, the focus on funding is specifically to build coordinated opposition to the government.

Some examples from the NED database:

  • Hagamos Democracia received $520,000 in this period in order to expand reporting on activities in the National Assembly and “develop a joint civil society strategy.”
  • The Fundación Iberoamericana de las Culturas received nearly $400,000 over this period to build a network of local chapters throughout Nicaragua, and “increase the number of alliances with like-minded civil society organizations.“
  • $395,000 in grants were made to organizations including the Centro de Investigaciones de la Comunicación (CINCO), to “foster collaboration among civil society organizations. A common civil society strategy to defend democracy in Nicaragua will be promoted.“ [emphasis added]

The problem with the words “developing a joint civil society strategy,” and similar formulations of this idea, is what they obscure, which is the control of media representation through a well-coordinated strategy that excludes facts that might disrupt the story of a corrupt dictatorship with no popular support. The result of this consistent building and funding of opposition resources has been to create an echo chamber that is amplified by commentators in the international media – most of whom have no presence in Nicaragua and rely on these secondary sources. During and immediately after the INSS protests, the NED-funded opposition lost no time in using overblown rhetoric to frame a complex situation in simplistic terms, focusing solely on government misdeeds.

To take one hyperbolic example, the International Statement issued by Hagamos Democracia and other groups after the initial protests denouncing the “assassination of more than 30 young people by the police,” characterized the conduct on the side of state forces as a “genocide.”

But it is perhaps on the pages of the Confidencial, the “independent” news source celebrated by Anderson, that one can best appreciate the impact of coordinated opposition messaging. Concerning the protests, the most detailed overview of events published by Confidencial is an analysis from the Centro de Investigaciones de la Comunicación, yet another NED grantee. According to this report, students protested, and the state and “paramilitaries” repressed them. Period.

No burning of public buildings, no murder of police officers, no torching police motorcycles.

A “common civil society strategy” must omit facts that do not fit with the prevailing storyline advanced by the Centro de Investigaciones de Comunicación and others who participate in the network of media outlets and opposition groups funded by the NED. 

The Centro de Investigaciones de la Comunicacion’s analysis ends with three scenarios, presented in descending order of desirability, according to the authors of that piece: 1) Ortega could step down immediately; 2) electoral reforms could be undertaken to ensure a fully transparent election, setting up Ortega’s departure in 2021; or 3) “The least favorable scenario would be one in which the government… uses dialogue as a political mechanism to buy time and dismantle protest and mobilization.” This characterization, of course, undermines the whole process of National Dialogue, as it is intended to do.

In the end, the one-sided narrative has stuck. Even on the left, there is a marked tendency to focus on a specific plot line concerning Ortega’s betrayal of the revolution. I’m not sure what to do with this narrative. The revolution was ultimately destroyed not by Ortega but rather by a bloody U.S. intervention. One need not love Ortega to understand that inviting further U.S. intervention today is a really, really bad idea. Melissa Castillo’s piece on Latino Rebels captures this problem:

Something about the entire narrative, readily accepted by everyone with an opinion, feels too neat. All the facts presented fit perfectly, every loose thread is tied together, and the only possible conclusion from this package manufactured by social media activists on the ground is to overthrow Ortega. For years, the right wing has been trying to delegitimize Ortega and the FSLN and now it seems to be anonymously consolidating itself under a banner carried by moderates with novel grievances.

For international audiences, especially those in the United States, we must look outside the echo chamber generated by U.S.-funded opposition, which has no other agenda than the collapse of the Ortega government. Further U.S. intervention at this point will only deepen the polarization of society and kill any chance for a new domestic consensus or compromise.

Drowned out by the chorus repeating the manufactured media package is the establishment of a Truth Commission to investigate the violence that unfolded during April 18-22. In addition to the Truth Commission, Nicaragua’s Public Prosecutor’s Office has launched an investigation into the protests and deaths. Which is to say, domestic processes have been established to provide for investigation and prosecution, that alongside the process of National Dialogue, offer a real chance of justice for those killed, a real understanding of what happened, and the possibility of constructing a path forward.

We just need to let it happen.

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The Dumpster Fire Rages On

We all know we’re going to die. We understand that fact intellectually, but few of us have what Heidegger called an “authentic being towards death.” For most of us that only comes, if at all, when we come face to face with it – when our death is imminent. Sometimes we get a momentary sense of it when someone close to us dies, especially if that death is unexpected, or if we witness a death.

Yet, despite our own “inauthentic being towards death,” we still understand and respect the experience of those who are dying (or have died). Similarly, most of us have never been captured and tortured, but we can respect the experience of those who have.

Unless you work in the White House.

We all know about Trump’s multiple financial bankruptcies. Moreover, we’ve grown so familiar with his moral and ethical bankruptcy, which dominates the news cycle daily, that it’s become mundane.

But it’s Trump’s (and perhaps much of his administration’s) utter empathic bankruptcy that has been on full display this week.

Earlier this week, John McCain expressed his opposition to Gina Haspel’s nomination as CIA director after hearing her answers to Senate questions on torture – leading Kelly Sadler, a senior Trump aide, to quip “it doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway.”

Sadler, whose focus is messaging on “illegal immigration” (of course it is), remains on staff. Recall that Rex Tillerson was, if we’re being honest, fired in large part for calling Trump “a fucking moron,” a far less reprehensible remark than Sadler’s.

As of the time of this writing, there has been no public apology from Sarah Sanders, John Kelly, or anyone else at the White House, let alone Trump himself. Nor have there been any denials.

Later, Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a FOX News military analyst, claimed that McCain caved under torture and gave the enemy information during his five years as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton. “Songbird John,” he called him. This was intended partly to defame McCain and partly to serve as false proof that “torture works.” FOX condemned the long-debunked story and parted ways with McInerney.

In fact, not only did McCain not cave, he refused to be released before his fellow-prisoners, leading to years of confinement and torture – but his code of honor superseded his self-interest.

We all remember Trump’s remarks about McCain during the Presidential primary campaign: “Heroes don’t get captured… I like people who weren’t captured.” That’s because Trump has no honor, only self-interest.

And speaking of hostages, three men who had been held in captivity in North Korea for one to three years were greeted by Trump at Andrews and had to stand next to him at 3 a.m. on Thursday while the President talked about TV ratings.

During a refuel in Alaska, one of the men had asked if he could step off the plane for a moment because he had not seen the sun in so long – but, yeah, ratings – that’s what matters.

Trump’s total lack of empathy (we could call this “apathy” in the technical sense of lacking a capacity for pathos…) may not be his most dangerous deficit, but it is the most vile and disturbing. It’s the only one of his many bankruptcies that is still a shock to the system when we see it. We have become inured to his constant lies, his farcical corruption, and his blatant incompetence. But we can’t seem to harden ourselves to his utter inability to understand that other people exist, that they are real and not just avatars in his virtual reality. The reason we can’t get used to it is because we’re human.

My grandpa, a construction worker and Pentecostal preacher, had a particular soft spot for the rabbits in our yard. I never knew why he was so protective of them. Years after his death, I finally heard the story: when my mom and aunt were still young, my grandpa went out hunting with his brothers and shot a rabbit. It didn’t die quickly, but rather stumbled toward him, finally landing on his shoe. At that moment, the story goes, God caused him to feel everything the rabbit was feeling as it died – not just the pain, but the fear, the confusion, the dread. He sold his guns and never went hunting again.

Most of us are never granted such a dramatic epiphany. Nevertheless, we have some sense of the gravity of suffering and death.

But Trump… well, I’ll give Joe Biden the last word on this one: 

“People have wondered when decency would hit rock bottom with this administration. It happened yesterday.”

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Quixote Center Reunion – Retrospective

On April 13 and 14, 2018, the Quixote Center Reunion gathered long-standing QC friends and former and current staff members to celebrate our shared history of pursuing impossible dreams. If it felt at times like a high school or college class reunion, there is a good reason. Since its founding 42 years ago, the Quixote Center has often functioned as a school where young, idealistic people learned about the nuts and bolts of working for peace and justice. They learned on the job how a nonprofit survives – developing programs and strategies for their implementation, creating budgets, forging alliances with partners, and (of course) fundraising, all with characteristic QC humor. We believed that the ability to laugh is key to surviving the grim realities of systemic injustice that can seem impossible to change. Thus, our mission statement:

A gathering of people who work and pray with laughter,

to reach for the stars that seem too distant to be touched,

or too dim to be worth the effort.

We try to be friends with people in need,

and to celebrate life with people

who believe that the struggle to be like Jesus

in building a world more justly loving

is worth the gift of our lives.

Of the approximately 130 people who have worked at the Center, some have died, others we cannot find, and a few have permanently parted ways. But the majority remain connected by a silken, unbreakable thread, and that connection was palpable at the reunion events.

On Friday evening, over 100 people gathered at the College Park Marriott for dinner and fun, some having travelled from as far away as Scotland, Nicaragua and the west coast. And it was fun – with wistful moments interwoven in the program.

The founders were present—Dolly Pomerleau and Maureen Fiedler in the flesh, and Bill Callahan in spirit, in song, and in the beautiful quilt made from his favorite t-shirts after his death. Samantha Hegre played the cello as people arrived. Frank DeBernardo of New Ways Ministry emceed both as himself and as Sancho. Mercy Coogan was the “Greek chorus” seeking to keep Sancho in line. Dolly Pomerleau welcomed everyone, and John Marchese, QC’s director, presented the Quixote Center of today with special emphasis on our new program “Activists in Residence.” Bill d’Antonio read a poem he wrote as a tribute to QC co-founder, Bill Callahan. Maureen Fiedler, Jane Henderson, Shari Silberstein, Ketxu Amezua, and Tom Ricker shared their tributes on the major programs with which they worked.

Even Sancho, our two-faced, curmudgeonly computer persona was there, complaining and kvetching the whole time. 

And then we heard from Bill de Blasio, former Quixote Center employee and current mayor of New York City. His RSVP had been a “maybe” until two days before the event, when we were told he could be with us for “an hour.” In reality, that hour stretched out for the whole evening. Taking advantage of Dolly’s offer to speak, he remembered his interview at the Quixote Center (feeling out of place in a suit and tie) and his days organizing shipments of humanitarian aid for people in Nicaragua. He described organizing a softball league among solidarity groups in the DC area and the lesson he learned about the need to laugh, especially at ourselves. In this vein, the team was named “The Screaming Communist Iguanas,” and he concocted a plan to increase the popularity of justice work by opening a “Pizza and Justice” center. He spoke warmly of his colleagues, Bill Callahan, Dolly Pomerleau, and Maureen Fiedler, and he ended with a message of hope.

Apparently, a right-wing New York Post reporter infiltrated our reunion! At 9:47 p.m. he posted “Bill de Blasio was back to being just another comrade Friday night at an out-of-town reunion for a left-leaning social justice group that helps families sympathetic to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.” It’s nice not to be ignored!

Tom Ricker, joined by Andy Laken, performed an original song commenting on current events in the US.  Then the entertainment turned to Quixote Center history. Being fans of NPR’s “Wait, Wait…” we drew up stories from QC’s history leaving the audience to vote on which story was true. Two out of three scenarios were easily ferreted out – the third – not so much. Hosting this section was Heidi Siebentritt. The readers were Joe Izzo, Steve Brown, and Nancy Sulfridge.

To end the evening, we sang the Quixote anthem “The Impossible Dream” with gusto and a surprising degree of consensus on pitch. At 10:00 p.m., Bill de Blasio quietly slipped out for his four-hour ride back to New York. Attendees who were staying at the hotel had some time to reminisce and get reacquainted; the next day, we heard reports that some of the former staff were up until 2:00 a.m.!

Saturday, April 14, was reserved for a gathering of former staff. There were 35 people present – a few more than the 24 people who were expected. There were special gifts for these Questers. Walter Winfield, a former QC staff member living in Taiwan, couldn’t attend, but he put together a Quixote Year-(s) Book which we reproduced in the office. It included pictures and brief bios of all former staff we could locate, a list of people who were “camera shy” and those we could not find, a memorial list of those who have died, and a touching tribute to Bill Callahan, written by Walter. The second gift was a votive candle holder made by Dolly with a glaze that contained a sprinkling of Bill’s ashes. Everyone was genuinely touched by these presentations, some even teary.

The main event on Saturday was a round-robin. Everyone present spoke about their current work, and many gave touching tributes to how formative their time at the Center had been and how it has continued to impact their lives. Some remembered their surprise that, even though they were fresh out of college, Maureen, Bill and Dolly gave them equal voice in discussions and decision making. No one missed the sometimes-endless staff meetings!

By 2:30 p.m. folks meandered off to continue their lives with other friends, colleagues, and family, and to pursue their own work for justice, whether locally or globally.

The Reunion was successful because of the generous and talented people who helped shape it – special thanks to Carol Binstock, Mercy Coogan, Jessice DeCou, Mfon Edet, John Marchese, and Jocelyn Trainer, and to all who attended with their enthusiasm and happy hearts.

If you believe in miracles, this weekend was one.

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What could possibly go wrong?

More on this tomorrow, but…today, on the National Day of Prayer, Trump ushered into being a White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative to attend to “poverty, religious liberty, education, strengthening the family, helping prisoners, mental health and human trafficking.” 

I’m sure they’ll do a great job. 

 

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Why does the U.S. government hate immigrant children?

Over the last week there have been a number of stories that have illustrated the ways in which the Trump administration’s war on immigrants is having a disproportionate impact on children. From continuing a hard line against the caravan of migrants, mostly people fleeing violence in Honduras, to the shocking admission that the administration lost track of 1,500 immigrant children last year, the war on immigration is hurting families, and doing so with the intention of discouraging their claims for asylum in the United States.

Caravan Update

The Trump/Fox invasion isn’t happening. Indeed, the rhetoric about the caravaners crossing Mexico to seek asylum in the United States met a reality check point Sunday. The number of people who arrived at immigration checkpoints in southern California as part of the Pueblo Sin Frontera’s caravan was under 200, mostly women and children fleeing violence in Honduras. Upon arrival, caravaners were told that the port of entry had been closed because the facility at San Ysidro was at capacity. Late Monday, eight members of the caravan were admitted for asylum processing. From the San Diego Union Tribune:

On Monday morning, some 20 members of the caravan, most of them women with small children, spread out on blankets at the door to the port’s PedWest entrance, watching as northbound pedestrian crossers filed past at a rapid clip, heading to jobs, school and shopping excursions.

“I feel that God will help me cross, and will touch the president’s heart,” said José Cristobal Amaya, 16, among the small group waiting at the PedWest door.

The Honduran teenager, who was traveling alone, said he was fleeing gang members he calls Los Mareros who beat his father and threatened to kill his entire family.

The eight caravan members to go through were from this group, with mothers and children the first to be selected, according to a spokesman for Pueblo Sin Fronteras: three mothers, four children, and an 18-year-old were in the initial group.

The spokesman said that they will remain detained at the port until they receive a “credible fear” interview, an initial screening that launches the asylum process.

Meanwhile a larger group of caravan members continued waiting, spread farther from the PedWest entrance in an open area outside El Chaparral, Mexico’s federal port that connects to San Ysidro.

Attorneys who have been assisting them have said that up to 200 participants had been preparing to apply for asylum.

Lost 1,500 children?!?!

The Trump administration was forced to admit that its Department of Health and Human Services had lost track of 1,500 children that were processed through our immigration system. 1,500. Children.

From the Washington Post:

A Senate subcommittee has found that federal officials lost track of nearly 1,500 migrant children last year after a government agency placed the minors in the custody of adult sponsors in communities nationwide.

The Health and Human Services Department says it uses its limited funds to track the safety of at-risk children, and could not determine where 1,475 missing minors had gone.

The Health and Human Services Department came under fire two years ago for rolling back child welfare policies meant to protect unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central America. An Associated Press investigation found that more than two dozen were placed in homes where they were sexually assaulted, starved or forced to work.

The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations says federal agencies need to take full responsibility for the children’s care.

A more detailed report from Think Progress is here. The number represents 19% of the children processed through the system from October to December last year. Importantly, HHS’s system for placing children in custodial arrangements while they await processing has been flawed for years, and cannot be laid entirely on Trump’s doorstep. From the Think Progress report:

Two years ago the subcommittee released a report, detailing how HHS placed more than a dozen immigrant children with human traffickers after officials failed to conduct thorough background checks to sponsors. To prevent this from recurring, HHS and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) signed a memorandum, agreeing to establish procedures together within a year to protect unaccompanied minors who come to the United States. The agencies have not completed the new guidelines, and said they would tell senators Monday, by close of business, when they would complete the agreement.

The systemic problems may not have originated with Trump. Yet, the rapid increase of child separation as a tactic by this administration, without providing adequate safeguards, means the problem is now just worse.

1,500. Children.

 

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Yes, we still oppose the NICA Act!!

The NICA Act is legislation proposed by Ted Cruz (R-TX) in the U.S. Senate (a version has already passed in the House) that would require the U.S. representatives at multilateral institutions to vote against new loans for Nicaragua (at the World Bank and IMF that means a veto). The NICA Act is in response to U.S. “concerns” over electoral manipulation by the Sandinistas, and would require suspension of assistance until democratic reforms are undertaken.

We feel certain that there will be a rush to get this passed in the wake of the violence in Nicaragua last week. The NICA Act already has some Democrats as co-sponsors. This was a bad piece of legislation when introduced and still is, even after this past week of conflict.

The result of this legislation will simply be to punish those already on the economic margins.

Suspension of loans will reduce government revenue, while also raising Nicaragua’s cost of borrowing from other sources. The IMF estimates that the fiscal shock of the NICA Act would increase annual public sector deficits from 2% of GDP to over 6% of GDP by 2022. Predictably, the only way the IMF sees to offset this outcome is fiscal adjustments – meaning cuts to social programs and ending exemptions under the current VAT (Value Added Tax) formula. And then, only if the INSS solvency issue is solved.

The NICA Act, will thus usher in a period of economic instability that will simply lay the groundwork for further political polarization. Such polarization is probably the goal of the bill’s sponsors. We need to stop it.

This is particularly true since an effort to establish a process of national dialogue is underway in Nicaragua, to be mediated by the Catholic Church. Passage of the NICA Act would constitute a major disruption to these talks.

Call the Capitol Switchboard  (202) 224 – 3121 to connect with your member of Congress and tell them No NICA Act!

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Initial Reflections on the Violence in Nicaragua

As many people – certainly most likely to be reading this – already know, Nicaragua was roiled by protests that turned violent over the last week. Estimates are that 34 people have been killed, most on Friday and Saturday as the conflict extended throughout the country, though the majority of deaths were still in Managua. Sunday, President Ortega announced that the reform of the social security system that set off the protest would be annulled and new negotiations begun. On Monday, a large peace rally in Managua seemed to signal the winding down of the tensions, though some protests continue. The details of the events over the last week are far from clear; how to interpret them is even murkier. Despite efforts to pack them into a tight narrative, the reality is that the sources of the violence and their purpose are difficult to synthesize from the conflicting reports. What we can discuss are the broad outlines of the conflict, and the short-term winners and losers that have emerged from it. Finally, for those in the United States, we can continue to stand firm against U.S. intervention in the political process in Nicaragua, which has only ever made things worse for the majority of the Nicaraguan people.

Context for the Protests

The National Social Security Institute (INSS) in Nicaragua is facing a long-term sustainability crisis. Expenditures have increased while anticipated revenue has not been met. Unless reform is undertaken, the social security fund will deplete its reserves by 2019. Nicaragua completed its Article IV consultation with the International Monetary Fund in November of 2017. The crisis in the INSS was highlighted in this consultation as urgent and policy recommendations for reform were made. The IMF did not dictate a specific set of changes, but offered a menu of four alternative reform packages, all of which included sharp reductions in benefit payments of 20-30%. Three of the four proposals also included raising the retirement age (to 63 or 65) with increasing contributions featured in some as well. From the IMF’s perspective, the threat from INSS insolvency is that the government will have to transfer revenue to cover shortfalls, impacting its ability to service debt payments. Even if that outcome is not a first priority for others, it is clear that INSS insolvency will create enormous budget tension at a time when other factors are also pinching Nicaragua’s economy.

Negotiations over reform for the INSS involved COSEP, representing private industry, workers’ representatives, and the government. COSEP left the table when its proposed reforms, largely based on the most regressive IMF recommendations, were rejected. The government then took the step of announcing its own attempt at a compromise reform package on Wednesday. In the government proposal, the formula for expanding contributions to the system included a 3.25% increase in business contributions, compared to .75% increase for workers, with the government contribution increasing by 1.25% for public sector workers. In addition, a 5% contribution for health benefits was also announced, far short of the 20-30% benefits cut recommended by the IMF, but still falling squarely on the shoulders of people with limited means. The government kept the age for receiving benefits at 60 (COSEP’s position had been to raise this to 65). Increasing contributions while cutting benefits was guaranteed to spark some protest, and indeed, pensioners marched the day it was announced, but they were later followed by students. Likewise, adopting a formula opposed by the business community led to COSEP issuing its own call for demonstrations.

The causes of the turn to violence that escalated on Thursday and grew into a national crisis by the weekend are less clear. There are competing explanations. One view, dominant in the reporting of La Prensa and through its reporting, the international media, is that the government was to blame. In this narrative, groups of pipe-wielding “orteguistas” weighed into crowds of peaceful demonstrators in an effort to intimidate, and ultimately shut down, the demonstrations. When protests continued, the police, later joined by the military, used excessive force to try to stop them.

An opposing view is that the escalation of tensions was the result of government opponents using the protests as a pretext to engage in a violent campaign of destabilization. In this narrative, militant groups associated with the opposition parties, Citizens for Liberty (CxL) and Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), ratcheted up the tensions, burning government buildings and firing on police. One of the first deaths on Thursday, for example, was a police officer killed by a shotgun blast; social security buildings, FSLN offices, and other public spaces were set aflame all over the country. Clearly not all the demonstrators were peaceful.

It is possible, of course, that elements of both explanations are true: that the original protests were a peaceful, legitimate expression of grievances; then the government overreacted, and in that space of increasing conflict, opposition groups opportunistically sought to heighten the tensions.

Maybe.

Of course, if one is to step back and ask who benefitted from the violence, the answer is clear: COSEP and the opposition parties. The government withdrew the INSS reforms, and signaled a willingness to go back to a table that COSEP had previously walked away from. This is not good news for the poor. COSEP’s position has now been strengthened in these negotiations, and that likely means deeper cuts, and a possible increase in the retirement age. Also possible is that no agreement will be reached, which risks INSS insolvency and/or trouble with Nicaragua’s creditors. In addition, Ortega’s government has suffered a further blow to its legitimacy, both domestically and internationally, which will likely lead to lasting diplomatic repercussions. For example, the protests make the passage of the NICA Act, which would limit Nicaragua’s access to new loans, in the U.S. Congress, more likely. This is also bad news for the poor who will suffer the most from any reduction in loans from multilateral lenders. The opposition will treat the events of the last week (or at least their spin on those events) as vindication of their position and seek further support inside and outside of Nicaragua. The U.S. government already provides support to opposition parties. Will those parties now get more?

Meanwhile, the Ortega government gained nothing. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any scenario last week by which the government could have thought it would gain anything by attacking protesters. Left alone, the demonstrations would have faded in a few days. But state actors are often short-sighted; so, who knows? The point is not to presume the government is blameless here, since obviously it is not, but simply to point out that this was not a one-sided use of force. And, to be clear, what has emerged on the other side of the violence is an emboldened business sector and political opposition, alongside a weakened state that, for all its faults, is the only instrument with the capacity to confront poverty at the national level.

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Climate Change Refugees and Haiti

Environmental changes have always been a driving force for migration. From natural disasters to drought and flooding, changes in the environment impact lives and livelihoods, forcing people to abandon their homes. Over the last 40 years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people forced to migrate as a result of environmental factors. Catastrophic storms are more common, areas suffering from prolonged drought have tripled in the last 40 years, and rising sea levels put coastal communities at risk. By 2050, the International Office of Migration estimates that as many as 250 million people could be displaced as the result of environmental impacts. Unlike those displaced by war or systemic violence, people forcibly displaced as the result of environmental change are rarely recognized as refugees when they cross borders.

Forced migration due to effects of climate change will impact all countries. The United States could see 13 million people internally displaced as a result of rising sea levels by 2045, especially along the east and gulf coasts. The majority of the communities facing permanent inundation are socioeconomically vulnerable communities. Around the globe, drought has already led to displacement and related social tensions as rural communities are forced to move to urban areas. The origins of social conflict and violence are certainly complex, but as climate change forces the movement of people, tensions increase. In Syria, for example, “record drought and massive crop failure beginning in 2006 led to the mass migration of predominately Sunni farmers to Alawi-dominated cities, increasing sectarian tensions and generating conflicts over diminished resources.” Rising food prices in 2007 and 2008, from drought and increased transportation costs, led to protests across the globe, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Guinea, Haiti, Indonesia, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Nepal, Peru, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen. The UN estimates 144 million people were driven into poverty by the increase in food prices by 2011. In Niger alone, 5.1 million people became food “insecure.”

In Haiti the intersection of environmental degradation, climate change and forced migration is apparent. At the root of this crisis is the transformation of the rural economy that began under the U.S. occupation from 1915 to 1934. Haiti’s economy was re-engineered as an export platform to feed U.S. interests, from agriculture to banking. By the mid-20th century deforestation, soil erosion, insecure land tenure and population growth was driving an exodus from rural areas to cities. However, in the last 30 years these trends have accelerated. Under pressure to lower tariffs for imports from the United States, Haiti saw the local market for staple crops such as rice collapse. De-forestation accelerated, leading to a situation today where only 3% of Haiti’s tree canopy remains. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people have been internally displaced, forced into urban areas not equipped to handle the influx of people. Today, less than half of Port-au-Prince’s population was born there. Areas like Cite Soleil, with over 400,000 people, are overcrowded and under-resourced. The rapid growth of insecure building and overcrowding is the reason that the 2010 earthquake was so deadly, killing up to 300,000 people.

People migrating to major cities like Port-au-Prince, Gonaives, and Cap-Haitien are in effect moving to coastal areas. Here rising seas, more intense storms, and areas of extreme drought combine to create a recipe for recurrent disasters. Mudslides in 2004 killed tens of thousands of people near Gonaives, as treeless hillsides collapsed on the city. Every new storm brings with it the risk of crop failure, flooding and further soil erosion. Overcrowding has also increased the risks of disease. When UN troops introduced cholera in to Haiti in 2010, the disease spread rapidly, killing 9,400 individuals and infecting hundreds of thousands of people.

Interconnected with the process of internal displacement is outward migration. Nearly one million Haitians live in the Dominican Republic, primarily seeking work on sugar plantations and other agricultural positions. Tensions have resurfaced in recent years leading to mass expulsions of Haitians from the Dominican Republic, whose government denied citizenship to people of Haitian descent. Over the last thirty years, the United States has been the primary destination for Haitians with 650,000 people moving to the U.S. since 1986. However, tensions have mounted within the U.S. over immigration – leading to the suspension of Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which covered over 50,000 Haitian migrants. Meanwhile, other countries with less restrictive policies are becoming a destination. It is estimated that close to 105,000 Haitians, equivalent to 1% of the population, moved to Chile alone last year.

The confluence of environmental degradation, climate change, and forced migration in Haiti is part of a global process driving people into insecure situations; exacerbating political conflicts and violence. There is no easy solution. Clearly, binding agreements to reduce emissions and move the planet away from a fossil fuel based economy is necessary. Even if this is acheived, the process must be inclusive. Alternative fuels are no panacea if accompanied by the expansion of extractive industries and agricultural practices that further drive forced migration. In the interim, people are already being forced to migrate.

International law is behind the times

The Refugee Convention of 1951 defines a refugee as a person who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country. The Convention does not cover people who are forced to migrate due to environmental reasons when they cross borders. The result is a variety of short-term measures, such as TPS in the United States, that affords very little protection to people whose status can change overnight. Within the United States, at least, there needs to be more effort to craft lasting solutions, that offer people who previously migrated an opportunity to seek permanent residency.

Currently there are efforts to recraft refugee and migrant laws. For example, the United Nations’ International Office of Migration is overseeing the creation of A Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. The draft compact should be completed this year. However, enforcement mechanisms will be limited. In the United States and Europe in particular, migration is re-crafted as a crisis for the receiving country and thus there is resistance to any kind of binding obligations to accept more people. Given the current political environment it is not surprising that Trump administration withdrew the United States from the Compact negotiating process in December last year.

Until there are binding protections afforded to migrants as well as binding agreements to ameliorate the worst impacts of climate change, the world will face increasing migration, accompanied by ongoing political conflict. The current zero-sum, nationalistic orientation of so many, who view migrants as a threat rather than as fellow human beings in need of solidarity, continues to infect any effort for change. We must be better than this.

 

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  • Quixote Center
    7307 Baltimore Ave.
    Ste 214
    College Park, MD 20740
  • Office: 301-699-0042
    Email: info@quixote.org

Direction to office:

For driving: From Baltimore Ave (Route 1) towards University of Maryland, turn right onto Hartwick Rd. Turn immediate right in the office complex.

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