21 June 2017

Colombia and the Business of Peace

The Washington Spectator

Hitchhiking across Colombia in 2009, my friend Amelia and I received a particularly memorable ride from an upbeat truck driver who careened in carefree fashion along cliffside curves while we—perched one on top of the other on the metal fixture that served as the passenger seat—endeavored to remain upright and thereby maintain some semblance of order in the universe.
The soundtrack that accompanied the experience consisted of a cassette tape with approximately four songs, one of them a catchy tune with the refrain “Yo no voy a morir”—I will not die—one of the few reassuring features of that precarious journey.
For many in Colombia, of course, Yo no voy a morir is wishful thinking, given that violent death has been a staple of the Colombian landscape for over half a century. As of the onset last year of the peace process between the Colombian government and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Latin America’s longest-running civil war had left some quarter of a million people dead and displaced millions more.
But the government and the guerrillas aren’t the only parties to the conflict, which has also been sustained by ruthless paramilitary outfits that were supposedly disbanded a decade ago and yet managed almost simultaneously to reincarnate themselves.
Over the years, paramilitary exploits have included homicidal activity to facilitate the profitable extraction of local resources and homicidal collaboration with state security forces. Their funding was derived, notoriously, via bribes from multinational companies like Chiquita Brands, which was convicted in 2007 for bankrolling terrorism through its in-country operations.
Now, despite the exuberant international clamor over the prospect of peace in Colombia, the paramilitary threat has far from subsided. As usual, optimists appear to have jumped the gun. According to a short documentary released in April by Colombia-based video journalist Toby Muse, no fewer than 130 social activists had been killed in the country over the previous 15 months. “As the [FARC] rebels lay down their weapons,” Muse explains, “mafias and so-called paramilitaries are trying to take over the zones left behind.” There’s little room for justice in the mix. READ MORE AT THE WASHINGTON SPECTATOR.

13 June 2017

How not to write about Beirut

Middle East Eye

For journalists, travel writers, and anyone else looking to make a buck off of Orientalist cliche, the Lebanese capital of Beirut - pardon, the erstwhile “Paris of the Middle East” - is a one-stop shop.
There are plenty of more refined sociocultural observations to be made beyond Beirut’s usual accolades as magical meeting point between East and West, phoenix rising from the ashes, and progressive oasis of cosmopolitanism in an oppressive and conflict-ridden region.
The New York Post informs us that Beirut is “a city where women in heels shimmy on tabletops”. For the Telegraph, it’s a place where “skinny girls in hot pants and crop-tops gyrate… to thumping beats, upending bottles of vodka into the mouths of the bare-chested men dancing beside them”.
VICE, in its own typically obsessive pursuit of sensational non-insight, reports on the mind-blowing existence of Beirut bars that “offer coke-fuelled benders down the street from Hezbollah headquarters”, while the New York Times once again brings up the matter of female footwear: “Women with Louis Vuitton handbags are forever extracting their spike heels from the cracks” in the boardwalk at Zaitunay Bay, the city’s “luxury playground”.
Never mind that shimmying on tabletops and the like is not an option for Lebanese folks of various religious persuasions, in addition to being financially prohibitive in a country where the poverty rate in certain areas exceeds 60 percent. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.

30 May 2017

The Tunisia emergency: From Arab Spring ideal to military poster child

Middle East Eye

In a now-signature move, the government of Tunisia on 16 May again extended the state of emergency that has been in place since a series of deadly attacks carried out by Islamic State (IS) in 2015.
The Los Angeles Times explains that Tunisia’s emergency law “gives the government stepped-up powers to deal with suspected terrorists but also curtails to a degree the rights of ordinary citizens”, such as freedom of assembly.
For many Tunisians, the Times notes, the state of emergency “harks back to days when authorities acted with impunity to quell any dissent”.
In Tunisia and beyond, of course, counter-terrorism has long been a convenient excuse for dismantling basic freedoms.
Take the United States, for example, where the war on terror has done wonders in definitively obliterating all sorts of liberties - from privacy to freedom of the press to the right to exist as an Arab-American without being spied on by law enforcement and otherwise have one’s existence criminalised.
Meanwhile, the rights and privileges of the arms industry have only increased, as the US continues to wage both overt and covert war around the globe and to dutifully stock the arsenals of an array of unsavoury allies. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.

28 May 2017

The United States of insanity

Al Jazeera English

Since the ascent to power of US President Donald Trump, two discussion topics have become increasingly popular: whether or not the man is insane and whether or not it's appropriate to talk about whether or not the man is insane.
While many psychiatrists, mental health workers and media figures have abided by the idea that it is unethical to publicly debate the head of state's mental soundness, others view the taboo as reckless.
In an interview with The Independent, for example, Yale University's Dr Bandy Lee cited Trump's "taunting of North Korea" and spontaneous bombing of Syria as indications that his "instability, unpredictability and impulsivity … point to dangerousness due to mental impairment."
In February, The New York Times ran a letter to the editor signed by 35 mental health professionals concerned that Trump's "words and behaviour suggest a profound inability to empathise".
Such traits, the authors note, cause people to "distort reality to suit their psychological state, attacking facts and those who convey them".
This diagnosis would appear to be pretty spot-on, as anyone can tell from a quick glance at the president's Twitter account.
But while Trump's unregulated comportment tends to endow him with an aura of singularly unhinged dangerousness, it's worth recalling that his presidential predecessors weren't exactly racking up any points in the empathy department. READ MORE AT AL JAZEERA ENGLISH.

27 May 2017

Power for Capital’s Sake

Jacobin

Nearly two decades before George W. Bush appointed Henry Kissinger to lead the 9/11 commission — a post from which he resigned following complaints about his conflicts of interest — the former secretary of state chaired another group investigating important national security issues: The National Bipartisan Commission on Central America.
Formed in 1983 under President Ronald Reagan, the twelve-member gang issued its report in early 1984 on the “profound crisis” gripping the neighboring region, where right-wing governments and paramilitaries were waging war on leftist movements, indigenous people, and anyone else in their way.
Kissinger certainly possessed the qualifications to spearhead this operation, which Foreign Affairs described as “attempt[ing] to create a bipartisan consensus for what is basically current Administration policy toward Central America — only more so.”
Never one to pass up a good war with the old red menace, Kissinger presumably welcomed the opportunity since the dirty war in Argentina — which he had personally green-lit — had just concluded, leaving tens of thousands of victims in its wake.
In their lengthy report, the commission members professed a moral obligation to help Central America wrest itself from its dire circumstances. But they based their recommendations on something besides altruism. While the commissioners acknowledged that, in many cases, legitimate and homegrown grievances — colonial and more recent forms of oppression, widespread denial of basic rights, and extreme socioeconomic disparity — fueled popular support for leftist insurgencies, the real threat came from outside: the Soviet-Cuban axis was “seek[ing] expansion of influence through exploitation of misery.”
The report paints the “hostile powers” and “aggressive external forces” infiltrating the hemisphere as an existential danger. “Outside forces have intervened to exacerbate the area’s troubles.” “Cuba and the Soviet Union are investing heavily in efforts to expand their footholds.” “The intrusion of aggressive outside powers . . . is a serious threat to the United States.” “The crisis is on our doorstep.”
Never mind that neither Cuba nor the Soviet Union mined Nicaragua’s harbors— the United States did that in 1983, following the Sandinista revolution — or that Cuba is already located not only within the hemisphere in question but also within Latin America. Anyway, the Soviets probably put it there. READ MORE AT JACOBIN.

25 May 2017

Something is rotten in the state of Tunisia

Middle East Eye 

An hour or so after arriving in the southern Tunisian coastal city of Gabes, my throat was overtaken by an unfamiliar agitation, causing me to assume that I had either suddenly acquired asthma or inadvertently swallowed a swarm of mosquitoes.
I apologised to my companions for disrupting our stroll along the promenade with graceless coughing convulsions. Habib Ayeb - a Tunisian academic and documentary filmmaker based at the University of Paris VIII in France - quickly debunked my auto-diagnosis. “It’s the pollution.”
Gabes, which boasts the world’s only coastal oasis, unfortunately also has several other distinguishing characteristics, including comprehensive contamination.
Since the 1970s, the city has hosted an industrial zone that presently comprises phosphate refineries and other poisonous for-export operations primarily under the command of the state-owned Tunisian Chemical Group. The area has now attained the distinction of being Tunisia’s cancer capital and a general hub for human and animal afflictions.
Of course, the powers-that-be do their best to obscure this obvious cause-and-effect sequence. After all, what connection could ecosystemic malaise and rampant illness possibly have to “clouds of rotten-smelling yellow gas” emitted from smokestacks and tonnes of radioactive waste dumped into the sea?
As often happens these days in the face of existential concerns, the trusty narrative of “development” is trotted out. Factories mean jobs, so the story goes, and are thus necessary for survival - never mind if you can’t breathe. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.

05 May 2017

Letter from Mexico

The Washington Spectator

In 2013, my friend Juan’s cousin disappeared while attempting to cross from Mexico into the United States to return to his job at a restaurant in Florida. The cousin had successfully crossed the border on several previous occasions, and this particular passage, Juan tells me, was reportedly arranged by the restaurant’s proprietor via some human smuggling contacts.
The last his family knew, the cousin had made it to the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez. “After that, he was never heard from again,” says Juan. When I visited the family in 2015 in their village outside Puebla, the cousin’s mother—Juan’s aunt—still spent much of her time staring vacantly into space.
The family’s story is far from unique, as the selective criminalization of U.S.-bound migration has rendered the U.S.-Mexican frontier disproportionately lethal. Not only does criminalization make undocumented travelers exceedingly vulnerable to abuse, ever-expanding border fortifications have forced migrants into more perilous routes through the desert, which has become a cemetery of sorts. Juan himself—now a resident of Mérida on the Yucatán peninsula—once entered the United States by way of the Arizona desert, and describes walking for four days at the mercy of the elements. He throws in a brief rundown of the hazards of seeking cover from border patrol helicopters in cactus patches.
Regarding the prospect of an even more dangerous border landscape under Donald Trump—who has taken the liberty of reducing the Mexican population to rapists, drug dealers, and other bad hombres and has promised a “big, beautiful wall” to keep them out—Juan observes that “walls have never deterred anyone. Especially when there’s a demand for cheap labor in the States.”
The point of a punitive immigration policy has never been to put a stop to undocumented immigration in the first place, but rather to perpetuate its lucrative exploitability. In his 2013 book The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration, David Bacon writes that “displacement and inequality are as deeply ingrained in the free market economy as they were during the slave trade.” Here, displacement refers to the effects on Mexican communities of policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which obliterated the livelihoods of millions of Mexican farmers and otherwise fueled migration by, inter alia, saturating the Mexican market with subsidized agricultural products from the United States in blatant violation of the principles of “free trade.” To be sure, there’s nothing like having one’s subsidized corn and eating it too. READ MORE AT THE WASHINGTON SPECTATOR.

03 May 2017

US media on Israel: The press freedom that never was

Middle East Eye

Wednesday, 3 May, marks World Press Freedom Day.
Some will no doubt view the occasion as a bit of a joke given that the current leader of the so-called free world is a US President committed to waging war on the media.
But while Donald Trump may appear to constitute a departure from business as usual in a nation that has so diligently marketed itself as a bastion of freedom of the press, thought, expression, and all that good stuff, the US media has never exactly been free.
After all, in addition to performing regular cheerleading functions on behalf of military and corporate conquest, American news outlets have also upheld an enduring red line: criticism of Israel, the Middle East’s lovable democracy-that-isn’t.
Consider an anecdote recounted by the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, himself a dedicated Zionist who nonetheless happened to mention “indiscriminate” Israeli shelling of West Beirut in an article in 1982 - when Israel’s invasion of Lebanon killed some 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinians, the overwhelming majority of them civilians.
As Friedman tells it, his editors removed the word “indiscriminate,” after which he penned a memo accusing them of cowardice. Former Times executive editor AM Rosenthal then “exploded at [Friedman’s] insubordination” and scarily summoned him to a meeting, which ended up being a “long, emotional lunch, with tears on both sides” and a $5,000 raise for Friedman.
The lunch culminated with a “bear hug” from Rosenthal and the warning: “Now listen, you clever little !%#@: don't you ever do that again.”
Lesson learned. So much for the 20,000 dead. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.

26 April 2017

Blowing Israel’s aqua-shenanigans out of the water

Middle East Eye

High up on Israel’s list of fabricated and otherwise shamelessly embellished achievements is that of having allegedly “made the desert bloom” promptly after setting up shop on usurped Palestinian land in 1948.
Never mind that Palestine wasn’t exactly a desert - or that “blooming” techniques involved mass slaughter as well as plenty of ecological devastation. We mustn’t let facts get in the way of creation myths.
In contemporary times, Israel has continued to market itself as a global pioneer in water technology and conservation, from drip irrigation systems to desalination.
Of course, some might argue that Israel has enjoyed an unfair competitive advantage in the water realm given that it has been able to dominate access to the valuable resource by diverting regional waterways in its favour and literally hijacking Palestinian aquifers.
Now, Israel is once again making disingenuous waves through the Israeli firm Water-Gen - which, a recent obsequious dispatch in the Times of Israel informs us, is “look[ing] to quench global thirst” by extracting water from air. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.

25 April 2017

‘No Room for Refugees’ in Lebanon, but Plenty for Political Elites

NewsDeeply
Recent clashes in Ain al-Hilweh, Lebanon’s most populous Palestinian refugee camp, saw residents fleeing for safety as explosions and gunfire reverberated throughout the surrounding city of Sidon.
The fighting pitted Fatah and other Palestinian groups against militants affiliated with extremist Bilal Badr. At least 10 people were killed and dozens wounded, while several buildings were left in ruins.
Lebanese political leaders were quick to condemn the violence. Lebanon’s seemingly perennial parliament speaker Nabih Berri warned that the only beneficiary of the clashes was the state of Israel. (One wonders, then, who benefited when a militia headed by Berri himself laid siege to Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon for several years in the 1980s.)
Yet it is a crisis partly of the Lebanese leadership’s own making. Such bloody showdowns between rival factions wouldn’t be happening if places like Ain al-Hilweh didn’t exist in the first place.
Palestinian refugees fled to Lebanon amid the widespread violence and plunder that attended the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Now numbering more than half a million in Lebanon, Palestinian refugees are denied citizenship and basic rights, banned from a fluctuating number of professions, prohibited from owning property and often dehumanized in Lebanese society. Many reside in squalid and overcrowded camps – Ain al-Hilweh being the largest.
There is little room for Palestinians to assert their rights or dignity within Lebanon’s sectarian political system, which apportions power among 18 recognized sects based on a census conducted in 1932, after which there has been no subsequent population tally. The number of Lebanese presently in Lebanon is estimated to be around 4 million. READ MORE AT NewsDeeply.