Tagged: politicians

Quiet heroes of the US-Cuba deal: Pope Francis and Canada

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The historic deal to begin normalizing relations between the US and Cuba, after 50-plus years of hostility, is being credited primarily to President Obama and Raul Castro, Cuba’s current de facto leader and the brother of Fidel. That is with good reason: Obama has been working on this issue throughout much of his presidency and Castro is taking a significant risk by allowing wider Internet access into Cuba as part of the deal.

But there are two actors that quietly played a major role in this: Canada and Pope Francis.

The negotiations that led to today’s announcement, in which the US and Cuba will take major steps toward normalization, took 18 long months, according to a report in the New York Times. And many of those negotiations were held in Canada, formally but secretly hosted by the Canadian government.

Canada was helping to solve two crucial problems. First, the talks needed to remain secret to have any hope of succeeding — had they leaked, the political backlash in the US would have almost certainly killed the deal.

Second, for diplomatic reasons, the talks could not be held on US or Cuban soil, but the negotiators needed a physical meeting place. The Canadian government, which unlike the US does have ties with Cuba but is also extremely close to the US government, was an obviously attractive broker for the US. While Canadian officials did not officially participate in the talks, their role in providing a secret and official channel was crucial, according to US officials.

If Canada was essential for providing the Americans with a safe and secure forum for talks, then Pope Francis played a similar role in helping to bring the Cuban leaders to the negotiating table. And, unlike Canadian officials, who did not sit at from the formal talks, Vatican officials participated actively in discussions.

Pope Francis’ role included sending a personal letter to both Obama and Raul Castro over the summer urging them to reach a deal (talks were already ongoing at that point). Francis also reportedly raised the issue repeatedly in his meeting with Obama in March. And Francis hosted the final negotiation session at the Vatican, where Vatican officials participated in the talks…

Nice to see a couple of competent, worldly participants take the lead in bringing the United States into reforming a diplomatic and political stance originated by thugs like the United Fruit Company in the era of Banana Imperialism. A half-century of embargo and blockade hadn’t dragged Cuba into subservience. Continuing the policy only reinforced the world’s perception of the United States as a bully.

Pope Francis continues to impress. I hope he has as much success bringing the Roman Catholic church into the modern era as he has – individually – as a representative of Christianity beginning to discover a bit of enlightenment.

Nice at least to see that Harper’s mean-spirited conservatism hasn’t yet affected Canada’s traditional leadership role in diplomacy among the Americas and beyond.

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Cartoon of the Day

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The lies, the rationales, the bullshit reasons offered up by coppers who know they’re absolutely in the wrong – never change. Quite literally, I have been hearing this crap for over 60 years. I have been on the streets confronting the delusions of fairness and equity that everyone knows we’re supposed to have – even back in the day of Jim Crow laws around this hypocritical nation – since I was a teenager.

We’ve never had a government that could be counted on at any level, city, state or federal, that voluntarily took up the fight for equal opportunity for all Americans. Yes, there were laws passed after noisy battles in law-making bodies. Politicians pat themselves on the back for getting things done.

What you and I have to remember – and the political hacks, Republican or Democrat, will never admit – is that ordinary folks in the company of hundreds and thousands of our peers pushed and shoved, marched and confronted death and danger for decades to get any movement at all from the heroes who get their paintings on the walls of government. They needed their arms twisted then. They still do.

Marijuana revenue helping schools on projects political hacks won’t fund

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As marijuana revenues trickle into the state, slow to meet projections, a few Colorado school districts are among the first to see some impact from the state’s new funds.

The state Department of Education’s program to fund capital projects — known as Building Excellent Schools Today, or BEST, grants — had received more than $1.1 million from marijuana taxes in May when it made the annual award recommendations.

The state also is readying another $2.5 million from pot taxes so interested schools can hire health professionals.

The additional capital project money has been welcomed as the state fund for the BEST grants has been declining and the program reached a cap for the financed grants it could issue through bonds…

The marijuana excise tax — which is 15 percent on unprocessed recreational pot sales on its first sale – — netted about $3 million from January through June 30. The education department receives the funds monthly and will dole out the awards recommendations every May.

Next year, officials estimate the pot contribution to the BEST grants will be about $10 million. But some school officials say there’s a misconception about where the pot money is going.

“I feel like the word on the streets is marijuana funding is going to schools, but certainly it’s not going to schools for operating costs,” said Ryan Elarton, director of business services for the Pueblo district. “And not every district gets it.”

Besides the new marijuana funds, BEST grants have been funded by sources including money from the state land trust and spillover from Powerball profits after funding the Great Outdoors Colorado fund…

From other marijuana revenue appropriated by the legislature, $2.5 million has been set aside to increase the presence of health professionals in schools.

Schools that apply for those grants and win could have that money by January.

It’s hilarious that schools may get back some of the necessities cut by conservative politicians — and they’ll be getting it from profits generated by legal ganja.

The sad part remains that folks trapped in the two-party belief system can’t get any results from simply going to the polls on election day. Frankly, issues like school safety, healthcare for the student population, reasonable curricula dedicated to learning and all that entails — are a natural for independent political organizing. Yes, just like legalizing marijuana.

Then, you’re not required to shove a natural local response to problems into a cookie cutter mold designed by seventeen lobbyists employed by a Congressional action committee.

The Disappearance of the Forty-Three


PHOTOGRAPH BY OMAR TORRES/AFP/GETTY

Every morning, the newspapers in Mexico City announce how many days it has been since forty-three students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School disappeared while in Iguala, Guerrero. On Friday, the number—twenty-eight days—was accompanied by an announcement that the governor of Guerrero state, Ángel Aguirre Rivero, had finally resigned after weeks of outrage over the violence and lawlessness that marked his tenure.

The disappearance of the forty-three has aroused horror, indignation, and protest throughout Mexico and all over the world. An air of sadness, disgust, fear and foreboding hangs over Mexico City, where I live, like the unseasonably cold, gray, drizzly weather we’ve been having. This is usually a festive time of year, with the Day of the Dead holidays approaching, but it’s impossible to feel lighthearted. As one friend put it, the government’s cardboard theatre has fallen away, exposing Mexico’s horrifying truths.

The journalists John Gibler (the author of the book “To Die in Mexico”) and Marcela Turati (who has been reporting on the disappearance in the weekly magazine Proceso and elsewhere) have provided the most complete reports of what happened in Iguala on the night of September 26th. “Scores of uniformed municipal police and a handful of masked men dressed in black shot and killed six people, wounded more than twenty, and rounded up and detained forty-three students in a series of attacks carried out at multiple points and lasting more than three hours,” Gibler wrote to me in an e-mail. “At no point did state police, federal police, or the army intercede. The forty-three students taken into police custody are now ‘disappeared.’ ” On September 27th*, the body of another student turned up. His eyes were torn out and the facial skin was ripped away from his skull: the signature of a Mexican organized-crime assassination.

The Ayotzinapa Normal School trains people to become teachers in the state’s poorest rural schools. The students, who are in their late teens and early twenties, tend to come from poor, indigenous campesino families. They are often the brightest kids from their communities. According to Gibler, six hundred people applied to the class that included the students who disappeared, and only a hundred and forty were accepted. To become a teacher is seen as a step up from the life of a peasant farmer, but also as a way for those chosen to be socially useful in their impoverished communities. When Gibler and Turati went to visit the Ayotzinapa School in early October, only twenty-two students were left. In addition to the forty-three missing classmates, many others had been taken home by frightened parents.

RTFA. Please.

Well written, detailed, the sort of work rarely matched by TV talking heads. And, of course, both the conservative and not-quite-so-conservative American Press is tame as ever on the topic. Even where it’s fashionable to recall we are a nation of immigrants, the specter of Fox News seems to haunt our nation’s editors.

Thanks, Mike

The Western US is in trouble — we’re running out of water!

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The American West has been wrestling with drought for the past 15 years. California is now facing its worst dry spell in at least a century. So, not surprisingly, the question of how best to manage America’s scarce freshwater supplies is coming up more frequently.

To that end, the Hamilton Project recently published a helpful primer, “Nine Economic Facts about Water in the United States.” The whole thing’s worth reading, but four maps and charts in particular stuck out. For starters, some of the driest states in the West actually have some of the highest rates of household water use:

1) Household water use is higher in the driest states — thanks to lawn watering

Why do households in arid Utah use so much more water than in, say, Maine? The main factor, the authors note, is outdoor watering for lawns and gardens. “Whereas residents in wetter states in the East can often rely on rainwater for their landscaping, the inhabitants of Western states must rely on sprinklers…”

2) Agriculture remains the biggest water user by far

It’s worth noting, however, that homes typically aren’t the biggest water consumers in the West. In California, agriculture accounts for 80 percent of state water withdrawals. (The state is responsible for roughly one-third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts.)…

3) The driest states are now growing the quickest

The states with the biggest projected increase in population between 2010 and 2040 are Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. One thing they all have in common? Low rainfall and relatively scarce water supplies.

4) And water prices vary wildly from region to region

“The price that households pay for water is highly variable across cities,” the report notes, “even when controlling for the volume of water that different households use.”

In most parts of the United States, the price of water doesn’t reflect the infrastructure costs of delivering that water or the environmental damage that excessive water withdrawals can cause. As long as that’s the case, there are few market incentives to change any of that.

Being a democratic Republic we elect folks to take on the responsibility of planning and leading our nation, the states, municipalities. That stopped working well quite a while ago. I’d suggest with the Reagan Administration. You may agree or disagree; but, if you wander through the history of our politics you’ll note that’s a pretty good starting point for serious gerrymandering of electoral districts, the truly dynamic growth of income equality, a qualitative rejection of industrial and economic planning based on sound ecology.

Regardless, RTFA for more details about these four of the nine points covered in the Hamilton Project Report. And, yes, I suggest reading the complete version over here [.pdf].

Additional reading:

1934 Drought was Driest, Most Widespread in Past Millennium, Scientists Find

Scarcity of water in U.S. driving moves to impose price, “market solutions

Thanks, Mike

Why do you think Congress won’t end the NFL’s tax break?

Perhaps the most famous tax break in America is the one bestowed by Congress on the NFL. It’s famous for its seeming illogic — the NFL, hugely profitable, being called a “nonprofit.”

And it’s famous, along with the antitrust exemption for pro football, for the number of times members of Congress have threatened subtly or otherwise to take it away.

The occasions range from the anger of then-Sen. John F. Kerry in 2007 over a blackout of a New England Patriots game to resentment about the name of the Washington, D.C., football team to concern about concussions to anger over what Republican Sen. Tom Coburn and Maine’s independent Sen. Angus King called “tax earmarks…”

Now, in the wake of the domestic abuse controversies in the NFL, the rumbling has started anew. Congress must now investigate the league’s handling of the domestic abuse charges, Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California said in a press release, as well as its “tolerance of performance enhancing drugs, the impact of traumatic brain injury on players later in life, and the tax-exempt status the NFL enjoys thanks to a loophole Congress created in the ’60s.”

But don’t count on anything happening — ever — to the exemptions enjoyed by pro sports. The NFL remains a heavy hitter in Washington. Its officials and political action committee donated more than $1.4 million to members of Congress during the past two election cycles, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. It spends millions as well on as many as 26 lobbyists from top-tier Washington firms.

One of the essential perks of being a Congress-critter is free skybox seats to whatever is the hot sports event in town. Given the snug fit between the NFL and the All-American reliance on war games to keep our collective ego inflated – that match is often defined by the National Football League.

Icing on the cake – with the cake being the inevitable contributions to Joe Congressman’s re-election campaign.

Thanks, Mike — who added:

Two new bills have been introduced that would strip the NFL of its tax-exempt status:

1. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) announced Tuesday that she will introduce legislation to eliminate the NFL’s tax-exempt status.

2. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has introduced legislation to strip several professional sports leagues, including the NFL, of their tax-exempt status.

Earlier this year, Senators Tom Coburn (R-Okla) and Angus King (I-Maine) introduced the PRO-Sports Act to address this issue on the premise that it is unfair to the American tax-payer.

A tax reform package sponsored by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R- Mich.) includes a repeal of tax-exempt status for professional sports leagues. It is languishing in committee.

German spies demand $400 million to catch-up to the NSA

Confidential documents from the BND, Germany’s answer to the NSA and GCHQ, suggest the agency could soon get major funding to improve its online surveillance and hacking capabilities.

Ah, Germany: the home of data protection law; a bastion for the privacy-minded in these crazy days of international surveillance and hackery. Or is it? The German government and intelligence services have already been sued over alleged privacy violations in cooperation with the NSA, and now leaked documents have described plans for monitoring social networks in real-time.

Süddeutsche Zeitung, NDR and WDR have turned up secret documents belonging to the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany’s counterpart to the NSA. It seems the BND is jealous of the digital espionage capabilities of the NSA and the U.K.’s GCHQ, and wants to up its game.

The documents warn that, if the BND doesn’t get the €300 million [$409 million] it needs to run expanded surveillance activities until 2020, Germany will fall behind even Italy and Spain in the spook stakes. They also suggest the spies hope to get their funding in the coming weeks.

According to the reports, the BND wants to analyze streaming data in real-time from forums and services such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr, collect and store more mobile metadata, and use software vulnerabilities for targeted hacking. The reports state targets would be outside Germany — indeed, targeted data must have a foreign element if the spies are to remain compliant with German law…

They play the same games with semantics and ethics in Germany as American spies and politicians.

Earlier this week…it emerged that there would be no full investigation into mass surveillance nor the bugging of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone, due to lack of evidence. Prosecutors were unable to get any answers out of American or German spies, who pointed out that the most damning revelations about German surveillance came from one newspaper, Der Spiegel — and the newspaper refused to identify its sources (sometimes assumed to be Edward Snowden’s cache, but never confirmed or denied as such.)

Having lived through the missile gap, the space gap, sitting back and watching the self-serving creeps of counter-intelligence and their latest rationale – the Worldwide War on Terror – watching them demand more money to fund the subversion of basic human rights in order to keep up with the Big Brother Joneses of the NSA — it would be laughable if they weren’t all such hypocrites and liars.

Prostitution and drugs to be included in Italy’s GDP data

Italy’s gross domestic product is poised to rise with the addition of estimates for its narcotics, prostitution and contraband trades in its calculations.

Estimates of black market revenue will be included to comply with new European Union rules, Italy’s statistics agency Istat announced Thursday. Hidden economic activity, including prostitution, the drug trade, contraband tobacco products and illegally manufactured alcohol will be included, an Istat report said.

The information will be blended into gross domestic product (GDP) data beginning in 2015.

The new list of illegal revenue producers will be included so the European Union gets a better picture of member states’ true economies. An accurate depiction of a country’s economic status is useful in ascertaining if certain target ratios, such as debt-to-GDP, are being met.

Har. Imagine some of the other places we could use this kind of interpolation?

Congress? Non-profit charities with CEOs receiving 7-figure salaries? Twelve-step religion-du-jour?

A spill in West Virginia, in Chemical Valley

On the morning of Thursday, January 9, 2014, the people of Charleston, West Virginia, awoke to a strange tang in the air off the Elk River. It smelled like licorice. The occasional odor is part of life in Charleston, the state capital, which lies in an industrial area that takes flinty pride in the nickname Chemical Valley. In the nineteenth century, natural brine springs made the region one of America’s largest producers of salt. The saltworks gave rise to an industry that manufactured gunpowder, antifreeze, Agent Orange, and other “chemical magic,” as The Saturday Evening Post put it, in 1943. The image endured. Today, the Chemical Valley Roller Girls compete in Roller Derby events with a logo of a woman in fishnet stockings and a gas mask. After decades of slow decline, the local industry has revived in recent years, owing to the boom in cheap natural gas, which has made America one of the world’s most inexpensive places to make chemicals.

At 8:16 A.M., a resident called the state Department of Environmental Protection and said that something in the air was, in the operator’s words, “coating his wife’s throat.” Downtown, the mayor, Danny Jones, smelled it and thought, Well, it’s just a chemical in the air. It’ll move. A few minutes passed. “I stuck my mouth up to a water fountain and took a big drink, and I thought, We’re in trouble,” he recalls. People were calling 911, and the state sent out two inspectors. Eventually, they reached a chemical-storage facility run by Freedom Industries, a “tank farm,” with seventeen white metal pillbox-shaped containers clustered on a bluff above the Elk River.

The staff initially said that there was nothing out of the ordinary, but, when the inspectors asked to look around, a company executive, Dennis Farrell, told them that he had a problem at Tank No. 396, a forty-eight-thousand-gallon container of industrial chemicals. At the foot of the tank, the inspectors found a shallow open-air lake of an oily substance, gurgling like a mountain spring. When hazardous-material crews arrived, they followed a liquid trail under a concrete wall, into the bushes, and down a slope, where it disappeared beneath ice on the river.

Freedom Industries was obligated to report the spill to a state hot line. The operator, who identified herself as Laverne, asked what was leaking; the caller, a staff member named Bob Reynolds, said, “Uh, MCHM.”

“MCHM?” Laverne asked.

“Right,” he said, and offered the scientific name.

Laverne paused and said, “Say again?”

MCHM—4-methylcyclohexane methanol—is part of a chemical bath that the mining industry uses to wash clay and rock from coal before it is burned. There are more than eighty thousand chemicals available for use in America, but, unless they are expected to be consumed, their effects on humans are not often tested, a principle known in the industry as “innocent until proven guilty.” MCHM was largely a mystery to the officials who now confronted the task of containing it. But they knew that the site posed an immediate problem: it was a mile upriver from the largest water-treatment plant in West Virginia. The plant served sixteen per cent of the state’s population, some three hundred thousand people—a figure that had risen in the past decade, because coal mining has reduced the availability and quality of other water sources, prompting West Virginians to board up their wells and tap into the public system.

RTFA because we all need reinforcing on tales of politics and corporate greed in bed with each other. And how the rest of us are screwed to the wall because of their carelessness, lack of concern for ordinary citizens, their greed.