Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Fidel and I, and a nation unforgiven

[I wrote this on Facebook a year ago, right after Fidel's death, and meant to publish it here, but never did. Reading commemorations from Cuba on the first anniversary of his death, I was struck by several that spoke about Fidel's leading Cuba now, in the present tense, not the past. Then I realized I understood without even thinking about it.]
Fidel: his truth is marching on.
Over the past few days many people have asked me what I thought of Fidel's death. I've done a few press interviews, and to my surprise, I found it difficult to formulate an answer, and I think I've finally figured out why.
I was a 7-year-old Cuban kid from a millionaire family who had no clue everything in his life would be upended by the Cuban Revolution in 1959.
And I was an increasingly rebellious Cuban exile adolescent in Florida in the late 1960s who did not recoil when he realized he was being increasingly attracted to the ideals of Fidel and Che.
I did not realize then, I could not possibly have known, that these circumstances would shape the rest of my life.
Yet they have, and they should not have. That is my reaction to the news about Fidel.
Decades ago, the Cuban revolution --and with it the figure of Fidel Castro-- should have receded from politics into history. It took 20 years, give or take, for the United States to accept the reality of the other great revolutions of the 20th Century, the Russian, the Chinese and Vietnamese. The old disputes were negotiated and settled: "borrón y cuenta nueva," we Cubans say, wipe the slate clean and start over.
But it never happened with Cuba.
Donald Trump will become the twelfth American head of state to preside over the economic blockade Eisenhower initiated as part of the preparations for the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Yet the great majority of those that fought at the Bay of Pigs are now dead. Those of us who have even the vaguest childhood memories of those days are now on Medicare. Isn't it time to let go?
It was time to move on decades ago. But we can't. The blockade --the economic war against Cuba-- still goes on. The forcible, violent occupation of part of Cuba's national territory still goes on. And the insistence of the Americans that they --and not Cubans-- have the right to decide Cuba's fate goes on.
What Fidel did was to head the fight for the Cuban people's right to self-determination. That, not socialism, not being pals of the Russians, not helping to wipe South African apartheid from the face of the earth, was his greatest crime.
And that crime could not have been anything but the collective crime of the Cuban Nation. So even a death certificate with his name on it cannot expiate it. And even with his body in ashes he remains in the fight.
Fidel hasn't died because the Americans won't let him. Even now, the United States will not accept that they could not break him, or the Cuban people. And until they do accept it, Fidel will remain part of the fight.
Even in death, he remains unforgiven. The battle he fought, that he dedicated his life to, remains unresolved. His people, the Cuban people, remain undefeated.
Some day I will reflect on Fidel's death, perhaps in mourning of his passing or in celebration of his life. But that day will come when the battle he still leads is won.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The tax cut that's really needed --
but neither party will talk about it

No one --including the Schumer-Pelosi Democrats-- is talking about the one tax cut that should be made as a matter of basic fairness: excluding social security payments from taxable income.

Nancy and Chuck: getting ready to sell out the middle class
Why? Because that money has already been taxed when you earned it and the government took it out of your paycheck. That's true also of the tax on the employer. From the point of view of the company, what "they" pay is simply part of the cost of having you work for them, same as if it appeared on your pay stub. In fact, the main category for company bookkeeping is not "wages" but "payroll" which includes the taxes and the cost of benefits that do not appear on your paycheck stub.

The other part of the social security trust fund are interest payments on the bonds the government theoretically sells the trust fund when it takes social security tax money and uses it for other things, mostly wars and toys for the generals.

But aren't government bonds tax free? Exactly. Rich people pay no federal income tax on the interest from bonds they voluntarily buy from the government, whereas regular people pay tax on the interest from government bonds when the income finally comes to us in the form of social security payments.

And government bonds at all levels have paid much lower interest rates than they would have had to pay if the federal government didn't give itself an automatic "loan" from the social security trust fund.

If Congress is going to talk about cutting taxes, stopping the double taxation of seniors' social security payments should be the first item on their agenda. Social Security payments are way too low anyways: the average is about $1,300 a month, and they are being cut through the "raising the full retirement age" scam.

The first step in fixing social security should be to exclude social security benefits from taxable income.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Puerto Rico is not 'America' -- it is the victim of American colonialism

All the liberals and news commentators keep stressing that Puerto Ricans are American citizens, and that Puerto Rico is part of the United States. And they bemoan the fact that half or more of the U.S. population doesn't know that. Even Fox News is doing it as it tries to defend Trump's performance.

But there is a reason why so many don't "get" that Puerto Rico is part of the United States. And that reason is, simply, that it is not part of the United States. It is no more part of "America" than India was part of England when the Brits ran the place.

Anyone who has even the slightest acquaintance with Puerto Rico knows it is a different country. It has its own language, culture, traditions, history and above all, a strong sense of identity that even 120 years of American domination have been unable to erase.

That understanding permeates how Puerto Rico is regarded in U.S. culture. It's not that teachers fail to stress enough in high school that it's "Puerto Rico, USA," for when did anyone have to be told to remember that Wyoming is part of "America?" Or New Jersey? Or even Mississippi  (although Phil Ochs made a pretty good case for Mississippi finding itself another country to be part of).

Does this mean that Washington is off the hook for Puerto Rico? No, quite the contrary, the fact that Washington has stripped the people of Puerto Rico of the right to control their own destiny makes it even more responsible. Especially because it has dominated Puerto Rico so that American banks and corporations can loot the place.

In a detailed presentation by New York Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez on the island's public debt crisis, he points to a very simple and devastatingly revealing number -- the difference between Puerto Rico's Gross Domestic Product and its Gross National Product. GDP is how much wealth the island creates. GNP is an indicator of how much it gets to keep.

A handy chart from the Federal Reserve shows that the GNP/GDP ratio went from almost one to one in 1960 to two to three for the last 20 years, in other words, that the island's economy only keeps two-thirds of the value it produces. That's a loss of more than $30 billion a year.

A different, much more conservative method for calculating how much Puerto Rico is losing, which uses Gross National Income (GNI) instead of GNP, shows the island being ripped off to the tune of nearly $20 billion a year.

So when Trump complains about the island's huge public debt or an infrastructure that already was on the verge of collapse, remember that it was American domination that made it so -- and the rebuilding of Puerto Rico should be paid by Washington, not San Juan.

Not because Puerto Ricans are "American," but because despite it being a different country, the United States has lorded it over them and fleeced them for more that 100 years -- and we owe them.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Puerto Rico: incompetence, indifference and colonialism

It is going to be a staple of the liberals and the left that the way the United States has allowed Puerto Rico to become a humanitarian catastrophe in the wake of Hurricane María is a result of  incompetence and indifference powered by Trump's racism.

But behind that is a more fundamental cause: Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States, and has been since 1898, when Washington wrested it from Spain along with Cuba and the Philippines.

What is a colony? A country that does not govern itself. From its origins the United Nations has had a formal principle against colonialism, but the United States pays it no mind.

In the early 1950s, Washington lied to the U.N. saying that Puerto Rico had become a self-governing "commonwealth," but as recently as June of 2016, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that Puerto Rico is an "unincorporated territory." As defined by the court when the United States first acquired the island, Puerto Rico is a place that belongs to, but is not part of, the United States.

Congress exercises unlimited power over Puerto Rico. It can do whatever it wants, can (and does) create special laws that apply only to Puerto Rico, and even the constitutional rights of American citizens can be ignored.

Congress just did that a year ago, refusing to let it file for judicial protection under the bankruptcy laws (unlike every other jurisdiction under the U.S. flag), and instead imposing a seven-member banker's junta to dictate budgets and policies to the island's government.

(Puerto Rican journalist Juan González gave a major speech a year ago going into detail on how U.S. colonial domination has bled Puerto Rico, driving the country into an unending depression, massive emigration to the United States, and bankruptcy).

Puerto Ricans have no say in what the United States does with their country. They do not vote for President. There are no Senators from Puerto Rico, nor any members of the House of Representatives either, just a non-voting "resident commissioner" who is little more than a glorified lobbyist.

There is only one way Congress can surrender its unlimited power over Puerto Rico, which is to transfer Puerto Rican sovereignty to someone else, just as Spain transferred it to the United States in 1898. Congress should renounce its authority, allowing the people of Puerto Rico to determine the island's future, including its future relationship with the United States.

Right now all sorts of politicians and journalists are saying that Puerto Rico is part of the United States but that is not true, strictly speaking: it is a separate, distinct country, but one that the United States owns.

But you will also hear politicians --especially Puerto Rican ones who are aware of the reality-- arguing on behalf of the island by saying Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. That is true, but by a 1917 act of Congress, and not the Fourteenth Amendment which was adopted after the Civil War and makes citizens "All persons born or naturalized in the United States." Under the law, people born on the island do not do so "in the United States."

At least until the last few days, half of the U.S. population did not even know that Puerto Ricans were American citizens. And it's not just racism, but the obvious, self-evident fact that Puerto Rico is a different country (combined with the encyclopedic ignorance produced by American schooling).

There is a reason for Washington's indifference to what had happened in Puerto Rico, especially evident in the first week after María. It is the indifference of a colonial power towards a country it has conquered.

Bury my heart in Old San Juan

Hurricane María brought home that Puerto Rico played a special role in my life. Decades ago, that is where I learned what colonialism means -- not in a legal description or economic treatise, but on the ground, in real life.

Published in 1976
In the early 1970s, barely out of my teens, I was living in "Loisaida" (New York's Lower East Side) and visited Puerto Rico multiple times, including an almost continuous longer stay, interrupted by some visits back. I was working for a socialist newspaper sponsored by one of the largest left groups in the United States and also trying to build bridges between my group and the Puerto Rican independence movement.

That past made the coverage of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of María gut wrenching in a way I did not expect. Hearing the names of places once so familiar --Carolina, Río Piedras, Aguadilla, Ponce, Mayagüez-- brought back memories and feelings I didn't know were still inside me.

And talking about the island on the daily talk show I co-host on Radio Información more than once brought me to tears -- tears of sadness, yes, but mostly tears of rage.

I am learning again what colonialism means.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Bullshit alert: the non-existing grand bargain on immigration and DACA

The headline on the Telemundo web site says it all: "Trump announces agreement with Democrats on DACA."

The only problem is that Trump hasn't announced a damn thing. It was Pelosi and Schumer (the top House and Senate Democrats) who announced a no-details supposed deal after a cozy White House dinner with Herr Trump.
Two things:

  • Thing one: When there really is an agreement, both sides announce it jointly. And there are details that have been written down and signed by the parties.
  • Thing two: We've already seen this movie. And we know how it comes out: with the undocumented and their communities getting screwed.
It's time to stop playing Charley Brown
For 16 years the DREAM Act to legalize people brought to the United States as minors has been kicked around in Congress. It is the obvious legislative solution: DACA was a stop-gap measure because Obama had failed to get the DREAM Act approved in Congress and he wanted Latino votes in the 2012 election.
Since the Latino immigrant rights mega-marches of 2006, it's been rolled into various proposals for "comprehensive immigration reform,” supposedly a "grand bargain" that would grant legalization in exchange for "border security" (meaning militarization and repression).
And what has been the result? Nothing, nada, zip, zero.
Except millions of deportations, hundreds of thousands of families broken up, and God knows how many deaths in the badlands and deserts of the Southwest.
And except for the 2006 bill that extended the physical barriers along the and used to be called a fence but has now become a "wall," on account of Trump.
That's the law Trump is using as authorization for his "new" wall (mostly the old "fence" that is already there).
The 2006 law (supported by both Hillary Clinton and Obama) supposedly was a "down payment" to the racists. But it never, ever got the corresponding concession of legalization that had been promised.

Not in 2006. Not in the 2007-2008 Congress when the Democrats won both Houses. Not in 2009-2010 when the Democrats had control of both Houses, a super-majority in the Senate so they could do whatever they wanted, and Obama in the White House. Not in ...
Well, you get the picture. It reminds me of the "Peanuts" comic strip, where Lucy is always taking away the football just when Charley Brown is about to kick it.
It’s time to tell our Democrat “friends:“ been there, done that, and we’re not doing it anymore.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Thomson Reuters is helping ICE find immigrants targeted for deportation

The parent company of the Reuters News Agency has a hitherto little-known relationship providing private, personal information on immigrants targeted by the U.S. government's deportation machinery.

Data mercenaries own the Reuters News Agency
The relationship is revealed in a Request for Information from the government to private contractors that might be able to provide a "continuous monitoring and alert system" that handles: "FBI numbers; State Identification Numbers; real time jail booking data; credit history; insurance claims; phone number account information; wireless phone accounts; wire transfer data; driver’s license information; Vehicle Registration Information; property information; pay day loan information;  public court records; incarceration data; employment address data; Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) data; and employer records."

A Response to Questions document published in conjunction with the request says, "this service is currently being provided by Thomson Reuters Special Services, LLC." It also says that "CLEAR and other Thomson Reuters data services" are the ones being used now to "aggregate data from."

The Thomson Reuters web site describes CLEAR this way:

  • CLEAR is the next-generation online investigative platform designed specifically to meet unique needs of investigative customers....
  • CLEAR makes it easier to locate people, assets, businesses, affiliations, and other critical facts. With its vast collection of public and proprietary records, investigators are able to dive deep into their research and uncover hard to find data.

The details of the offer are a police state nightmare:

    Billions of cell phone, landline, TracFone, business, and VoIP records delivered in real-time ensure your phone searches bring back comprehensive results
    Real-time booking information from more than 2,200 facilities and from the most complete network of 90 million historical arrest records and intake photos
    Live access to more than 6 billion license plate scans from Vigilant Solutions® to make data driven connections to discover the “who” in an investigation
    See where the data came from, when it was supplied, and who supplied it 

The documents were brought to light by the Center for Investigative Reporting in an article detailing Immigration and Custom Enforcement's request for information on a program to outsource data collection on 500,000 people a month.

The current relationship with Thomson Reuters is revealed in very fine print toward the end of the Q&A document.

This relation by another division of the same company is an unacceptable conflict of interest for a news organization. It is receiving money (for whatever reason) from one side in a controversy it covers

And this isn't just any controversy, but one that affects many millions of people, an issue that was the signature theme of Donald Trump's presidential campaign.

As if that weren't bad enough, the Reuters news service has never disclosed the conflict.

And the relationship is the absolute worst, providing information on immigrants targeted by ICE.

This places the immigrant rights movement, Latino groups and progressive organizations in the very uncomfortable position of having to bar Reuters reporters and camera crews from their events.

Why? Because Reuters provides intelligence services to ICE (and as it turns out, other police agencies). You wouldn't welcome FBI and ICE agents with microphones and cameras to your events, would you? And if you discovered that one had snuck in, you'd tell them to leave.

It is not a question of the integrity of individual reporters or editors, or even the news division as a whole. The material Reuters gathers as a news organization --for example, video footage of a confrontation between undocumented activists and white supremacists-- belongs to the parent organization and there is no way a reporter could stop it from being handed to the cops, or even discover that this had been done surreptitiously.

I've been a journalist for four and a half decades and can't recall another case like this involving what has been generally considered a reputable news organization.

Journalists have ethical obligations, not just to confidential sources, but to people we come across in our coverage. We are allowed privileged access to all sorts of events and situations and the implicit commitment that comes from asking for that access is that it will be used for reporting and only for reporting. Right now there is no way a Reuters journalist can assume that commitment.