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Elections in Colombia: Prospects for Change and Lack of Guarantees

Elections in Colombia: Prospects for Change and Lack of Guarantees
Protesters disrupted a campaign rally held this week for Rodrigo Londoño, the former wartime leader of the FARC rebel group and currently a presidential candidate in Colombia. Luis Robayo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

With legislative and presidential elections coming up in Colombia, the supposedly “oldest democracy in Latin America” will see if it can consolidate the most precarious and recent peace on the continent.

The Latin American and Caribbean electoral calendar for 2022 promises to be no less hectic than that of the previous year. Among the upcoming elections and referendums that are slated for this year—Costa Rica, Mexico, Chile, Peru, perhaps Haiti—two contests that are expected to attract the most attention, due to the specific geopolitical weight of these respective countries, are the general elections in Brazil, which are supposed to take place in October, and the Colombian parliamentary and presidential elections, slated for the first half of 2022.

After 20 years of governments that have supported the Uribism movement—named after Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who was president of Colombia from 2002 to 2010—and with the eternal backdrop of the armed conflict, Colombia is not only playing for change but also for the future of an unfinished peace process.

What Will the Electoral Process in Colombia Look Like?

The electoral agenda in Colombia will begin with the parliamentary election on March 13, in which citizens will have to elect a total of 108 senators and 188 members of the House of Representatives. In the Senate, 100 seats will be chosen by national constituency; two by the special constituency for Indigenous peoples; one will go to the presidential candidate who gets the second-highest number of votes—the so-called “opposition statute“; and five will automatically correspond to the political representation of the Comunes party—which was created in 2017 by members of the former FARC party (Common Alternative Revolutionary Force) following the 2016 Havana peace accords.

As for the House of Representatives, 161 seats will be elected by territorial constituencies in the 32 departments of the country and in Bogota, the capital district. One seat will go to the vice presidential candidate who receives the second-most votes under the opposition statute; two will go to Afro-Colombian peoples; one will be for the Raizal community of the archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina; one will go to Colombians living abroad—estimated to be around 4.7 million people according to the 2012 figures provided by Colombia’s Foreign Ministry; one seat will be for Indigenous peoples; five seats will again be for the Comunes party; and 16 seats will be for the special constituency for peace, by which 167 rural municipalities will participate to elect candidates who will represent the 9 million victims of the internal armed conflict officially recognized by the state.

In addition, coinciding with the parliamentary election on March 13, the various parties in Colombia will also elect the presidential candidates during the internal consultations of the coalitions that will go to the polls, in a scheme that seems to increasingly blur the traditional liberal-conservative bipartisan scheme present throughout Colombian history. Elections for the positions of president and vice president, both of whom will hold office until 2026, will take place on May 29. If no ticket wins more than 50 percent of the votes, there will be a second round of voting on June 19.

The Crisis of Uribism and the Favoritism of the Historic Pact

In Parliament, the ruling Democratic Center, which is the party formed by former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, could lose its present first minority in the Senate, with 19 seats, and second minority in the House, with 32, due to the high disapproval ratings for President Iván Duque (whose disapproval ratings reached 75 percent, according to an Invamer survey of September 2021) and for his mentor Uribe (who had a disapproval rating of 68 percent). The latter is accused of being responsible for a notorious case of witness tampering that led to a judge placing him under house arrest for two months in August 2020. And he has also been associated with the “alleged electoral corruption” scandal also called “ñeñepolítica,” according to which the renowned drug trafficker José “Ñeñe” Guillermo Hernández had contributed drug money for the purchase of votes in the 2018 presidential election in Colombia, as was revealed by journalists Julián Martínez and Gonzalo Guillén of La Nueva Prensa.

But the fact that best explains the electoral panorama in Colombia, which was unthinkable just a couple of years ago, is the national strike of 2021, accompanied by a series of massive protests in rural areas and in some of the main cities of the country, such as Bogotá and Cali, in rejection of the tax reform bill presented by Duque. The escalation of repression by the Armed Forces, the ESMAD (Colombia’s Anti-Disturbance Mobile Squadron) and even the deployment of paramilitary groups in several departmental capitals contributed to the crisis and provided visibility to these protests at the international level.

According to the nonprofit organization Temblores—which “[documented] practices of police violence” during the national strike in Colombia—between April 28 and June 26, 2021, there were 44 homicides allegedly at the hands of the security forces (another 29 homicides remained undetermined with regard to the exact cause of death); 1,617 victims of physical violence; 82 cases of violence resulting in eye injuries to the victims; 28 victims of sexual violence; and 2,005 arbitrary detentions against the demonstrators. Providing varying figures, Human Rights Watch, Indepaz and the Ombudsman’s Office, along with other nonprofits and agencies, also validated the numerous cases of human rights violations during the demonstrations that took place in Colombia.

In the midst of this crisis, and after a long dance of seduction and rejection with the right wing that was not associated with Uribe, the candidate chosen by the ruling party, former Minister of Finance Óscar Iván Zuluaga, stated in January 2022 that he will run alone on behalf of the Democratic Center, a move that will most likely diminish the electoral prospects of the Democratic Center.

In addition to the governing party, there will be three other coalitions that will “aim to define single candidates among different political forces” on March 13. From the left to the center-left is the Historic Pact Coalition, which brings together “presidential pre-candidates,” such as former mayor of Bogotá Gustavo Petro for the Colombia Humana and Afro-Colombian social leader Francia Márquez for the Soy Porque Somos (“I am because we are“) movement. Other “political movements” that form part of the Historic Pact Coalition are Patriotic Union—a party that has survived the “genocide for political reasons” of more than 5,000 of its militants and leaders in the 1980s; the Colombian Communist Party; the Alternative Democratic Pole; the Indigenous and Social Alternative Movement (MAIS); the People’s Congress; and the party of former Congresswoman Piedad Córdoba, Movimiento Poder Ciudadano, among others. Even figures who used to be part of Uribe’s Democratic Center party, such as Roy Barreras and Armando Benedetti, have come out in support of the Historic Pact.

Few doubts remain about the favoritism of Petro, the coalition’s main builder, who started his electoral campaign on January 14 in the locality of Bello, in the department of Antioquia—a historic bastion of Uribism—under the slogan “if Antioquia changes, Colombia changes.” Petro, a former militant of the guerrilla group known as the April 19 Movement in the 1970s and 1980s, built his political capital as a senator when he was elected in 2006 and as a denouncer of the so-called “parapolitics“—the collusion of politicians and paramilitaries during the demobilization process of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC)—during Uribe’s first term as president. Petro revalidated his capital later, in his tenure as mayor of Bogotá, until his removal by Attorney General Alejandro Ordóñez in 2013, in one of the region’s first lawfare cases. As a presidential candidate, Petro received promising poll numbers from Invamer: 48.4 percent of voting intention, very close to victory in the first round, and a comfortable 68.3 percent in the second round.

In second place is a centrist group, the Hope Center Coalition, which includes the Dignity Party, the Revolutionary Independent Labor Movement or MOIR, New Liberalism and Citizens’ Commitment, the party of the best-positioned candidate of the coalition, the former mayor of Medellín and former governor of Antioquia, Sergio Fajardo.

Lastly, and to the right of the political spectrum, is the Coalición Equipo por Colombia (Team for Colombia), a league of former mayors and governors of conservative orientation. The coalition consists of Creemos Colombia, the party of the former mayor of Medellín Federico Gutiérrez; País de Oportunidades, the party of Alejandro Char, the powerful politician and businessman of Syrian and Lebanese descent who was formerly the governor of Atlántico and mayor of Barranquilla, in Colombia’s Caribbean coast region; the Partido de la U, who declined the candidacy of its president Dilian Francisca Toro and will support the former mayor of Bogotá Enrique Peñalosa; and finally, with less competitive candidacies, the traditional Colombian Conservative Party and the MIRA Movement Party.

The Armed Conflict and the Absence of Political and Electoral Guarantees

Due to the multicultural approach of the pioneering 1991 Constitution, Colombian electoral law provides for special ethnic representations, according to local considerations. In addition to the political and economic exclusion of Indigenous, Black, Afro-Colombian, Raizal and Palenquero communities, and the postponement in the inclusion of entire regions in Colombia, such as the Pacific, the Orinoco and the Colombian Amazon, there is an urgent need for the representation of victims and former combatants of a conflict that only seems to be worsening, despite the partial and formal achievement of peace five years ago under the Havana peace accords.

The worst consequences of the “decades of conflict” in Colombia have been the death of more than 600 social leaders and human rights defenders since the Havana agreements, according to the 2020 figures provided by the United Nations; the 6,402 so-called “false positives,” a state crime that involved the murder of civilians presented as guerrillas killed in combat; the continued armed activity of FARC dissidents, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and, above all, of numerous paramilitary formations such as the Gulf Clan; the more than 90 massacres committed in 2021 and 14 massacres that have been reported so far this year, according to the Institute of Development and Peace Studies (Indepaz); and, finally, the rising tensions on the Colombian-Venezuelan border, particularly in the Colombian departments of Norte de Santander and Arauca. In the latter area, the Ombudsman’s Office established that 33 people were killed and 170 families were displaced by the actions of irregular groups.

The continuity of the conflict in Colombia, and the fact that the so-called “anti-subversive” policy has historically been the main workhorse of Uribism, explain some of the uncertainty that governs the Colombian political and electoral panorama. The same happens in relation to electoral guarantees, as seen during the allegations of fraud and vote-buying in 2018. And even in relation to the personal safety of the candidates, considering the death threats that the paramilitaries of the Águilas Negras-Bloque Capital made to Petro on December 4, 2021, or to the contemporary history of a country in which, in the last century alone, seven presidential candidates have been assassinated.

It remains to be seen if arguably the “oldest democracy in Latin America” can, in the times to come, manage to consolidate the most precarious and recently achieved peace in the continent.

Lautaro Rivara is a sociologist, researcher and poet. As a trained journalist, he participated as an activist in different spaces of communications work, covering tasks of editing, writing, radio broadcasts, and photography. During his two years in the Jean-Jacques Dessalines Brigade in Haiti he was responsible for communications and carried out political education with Haitian people’s movements in this area. He writes regularly in people’s media projects of Argentina and the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean including Nodal, ALAI, Telesur, Resumen Latinoamericano, Pressenza, la RedH, Notas, Haití Liberte, Alcarajo, and more. Find him on Twitter @LautaroRivara.

This article was produced by Globetrotter to publish on Telegraf.

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Venezuela says Those Behind NATO Expansion Should de-escalate Ukraine Crisis

Venezuela says Those Behind NATO Expansion Should de-escalate Ukraine Crisis
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro speaks in Caracas on Dec. 8, 2020.Manaure Quintero / Reuters file

President Nicolas Maduro insists that Moscow’s conflict with Kiev was ‘provoked’ by the Wes.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro accused the West of provoking Russia’s conflict with Ukraine on Monday, after senior US officials met with his government over the weekend.

In a speech, Maduro said that “those who provoked this conflict with decades of non-compliance with agreements, with decades of threats against Russia, with decades of preparing plans for the extension of NATO are the first ones who are responsible for de-escalating this conflict.”

Maduro called on those responsible to seek “a favorable scenario of negotiation and agreement” to end the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

The president also said Venezuela was “seriously concerned about the possibility of a war in Europe and an extension to other regions of the world,” and criticized the “public media campaign of hate” and “economic measures that aim to aggravate conditions” and extend the conflict, rather than de-escalate the situation.

Maduro’s words came after senior US officials traveled to Venezuela over the weekend to meet with Maduro’s government in their highest-level visit since the US broke off diplomatic relations in 2019.

While the US refuses to identify Maduro as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, instead recognizing pro-US politician Juan Guaido as the ‘interim’ president, the New York Times reported that the Biden administration was looking to “separate Russia from its remaining international allies” amid Russia’s conflict with Ukraine.



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Why Xiomara Castro’s Win in Honduras Could Address the Country’s Endemic Corruption and Violence

Why Xiomara Castro’s Win in Honduras Could Address the Country’s Endemic Corruption and Violence
Free Party presidential candidate Xiomara Castro has her hand raised by her running mate Salvador Nasralla after general elections, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021. Castro claimed victory, setting up a showdown with the National Party which said its candidate had won a vote that could end the conservative party's 12 years in power. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

After more than a decade of violent repression and undemocratic rule that emerged after the 2009 ouster of Manuel Zelaya, a new leader takes the reins of the Central American nation.

“I am overwhelmed with joy; I just cannot believe it,” says Dr. Oriel María Siu speaking to me from the city of San Pedro Sula the day after Hondurans like herself voted in presidential elections. Siu was ecstatic to learn that Xiomara Castro de Zelaya had an insurmountable lead over Nasry Asfura, the candidate representing the incumbent conservative party. Castro, the wife of ousted former president Manuel Zelaya, is a democratic socialist and will become the first woman president of Honduras. She triumphantly told her supporters, “Today the people have made justice. We have reversed authoritarianism.”

Castro was referring to the 12 years of repressive rule by the National Party, which took power after Zelaya was ousted in a 2009 military coup that, as per Siu, “the United States orchestrated.” Years after the coup, Hillary Clinton, who was the U.S. state secretary at the time of the coup, justified Zelaya’s removal, saying in a 2016 interview, “I didn’t like the way it looked or the way they did it but they had a very strong argument that they had followed the constitution and the legal precedence.” The Intercept later exposed how U.S. military officers at the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies assisted Honduran coup leaders in their efforts.

National Party leader Juan Orlando Hernández claimed electoral victory in 2013 against Castro and then again in 2017 against Salvador Nasralla in the face of credible accusations of massive fraud. The man who has been deeply implicated in narco-trafficking in the U.S. (his brother was convicted in a New York court of smuggling in hundreds of tons of cocaine) used the Honduran security forces as his personal militia during his tenure.

Terror and violence reigned across Honduras, and among the many victims of the post-coup era was prominent environmental activist Berta Cáceres, who led the resistance to a hydroelectric dam and was killed in 2016. Another victim was a 26-year-old nursing student named Keyla Martínez, who died in police custody in February 2021 after being arrested for violating a curfew. Her death prompted fresh protests.

Over the years, relentless state violence and corruption swept thousands of Honduran migrants northward who preferred the callousness of the U.S. immigration system to the barbarity of Hernández’s security forces. Conservatives in the U.S. refused to acknowledge the push factor of post-coup violence as a reason for Central American migration.

Still, resistance continued inside Honduras, and, according to Amnesty International, “the wave of anti-government demonstrations has been a constant in the country” in the face of massive repression.

Castro’s win may finally end this dark chapter, and it’s no wonder that Hondurans like Siu are celebrating. “People were expecting the narco-dictatorship to again steal these elections,” she says.

Castro, according to Siu, rose to prominence after her husband’s ouster and “was at the forefront letting people know, nationally and internationally, what was going on” in Honduras. Castro campaigned on a socialist platform and brought together a coalition of what Siu described as “local youth, Indigenous, Black, Garifuna movements” that, after the 2009 coup, “became a very strong social movement attempting to fight against the criminality of [the] corruption, militarism, police presence in the streets and extrajudicial killings” that occurred under Hernández.

Although Castro is the wife of ousted President Manuel Zelaya, Siu insists that President-elect Castro “has a brain of her own and has a platform that is beautiful.”

Suyapa Portillo Villeda, a Honduran American and associate professor of Chicano/a-Latino/a transnational studies at Pitzer College, says that Castro won on a proposal of promising “participatory democracy” and that “she is trying to establish a new kind of pact with the people in calling for a national assembly to rewrite the constitution.”

It’s a bold position considering that former President Manuel Zelaya was on the verge of holding a referendum on the constitution when he was deposed in a military coup. “This is the demand that has been there since 2009 that people have been organizing around, to have a new constitution that would get rid of the Cold War anti-communist constitution that was written during the Reagan era,” says Portillo Villeda.

While the conservative backlash to a new constitution ushered in Hernández’s violent tenure, in many ways, Honduras’ democracy may have emerged stronger as a result. A system that Portillo Villeda describes as consisting of two “oligarchic” ruling parties is now a multiparty system, and Castro has managed to build a formidable coalition among several of them. “This was a very Honduran type of win,” says Portillo Villeda, referring to the grassroots organizing around Castro’s candidacy that included a lot of young Hondurans.

Castro’s win also represents a potential end to more than a decade of repression that includes violent misogyny. “Women here die every day and rapes go without any form of justice,” said Siu, who says she doesn’t dare to walk on the streets after sundown. Honduras has been referred to as, “one of the most dangerous places on Earth to be a woman.”

Since 1985, Honduras has also maintained one of the most draconian abortion bans in the world, and under Hernández’s rule, Congress strengthened the ban. Pregnant people are not allowed abortions under any circumstances including rape or incest. Castro has promised to ease the ban.

The coalition that brought Castro to power includes a nascent feminist movement as well as a new queer and transgender movement working alongside traditional activist groups like unions, as well as Black and Indigenous communities. That is a big reason why Hondurans like Siu are hopeful, saying, “she has the support of historically marginalized communities all throughout the nation.”

Taking her broad mandate from a population eager for change and translating that to legitimate power in a nation whose governmental machinery has been decimated will be Castro’s most serious challenge. “Of course, it’s going to be difficult,” says Portillo Villeda, of the task ahead of Castro. “She’s inheriting a broken country, legal system and Supreme Court and is coming into an empty house that has been robbed.”

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute to publish on Telegraf.

By Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.

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How Oregon Is Turning the Page on America’s Disastrous Drug War

How Oregon Is Turning the Page on America’s Disastrous Drug War
Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images

In a groundbreaking move, in 2020, Oregon voters approved the decriminalization of personal use amounts of all illicit drugs, with Measure 110 passing with a healthy 59 percent of the vote. That made Oregon the first state in the U.S. to make this dramatic break after decades of the war on drugs. Now, as other states are pondering a similar move and are looking for evidence to bolster their case for drug decriminalization, some of the initial results in Oregon are looking pretty impressive and promising.

Measure 110 promised not only thousands of fewer drug arrests but also a move away from a punitive system to a more compassionate one, with hundreds of millions of dollars for “greatly [expanded] access to evidence-informed drug treatment, peer support, housing, and harm reduction services, without raising taxes,” according to a November 2020 press release from the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). These services would be funded through “excess marijuana tax revenue” (more than $45 million) and savings accrued “from no longer arresting, incarcerating, and prosecuting people for drug possession,” said the press release. State analysts in June 2020 estimated the excess marijuana tax revenue alone would result in more than $100 million in funding for providing services in the first year, after the implementation of Measure 110—which went into effect in February 2021—and would further result in funding of up to $129 million by 2027.

The state analysts were, however, too cautious. On November 3—”the one-year anniversary of the passage of Measure 110″—the DPA, whose political action arm, Drug Policy Action, spearheaded the successful campaign to get the drug reform measure passed, and the Health Justice Recovery Alliance (HJRA), the DPA’s key implementation partner in the state—which is working to implement treatment, harm reduction, and support programs—announced that they had secured funding of $302 million “for services over the next two years.” That’s more than $150 million a year, the DPA press release announced, “including $30 million lawmakers agreed to release ahead of schedule in May of [2021].” It is also “five times more than what Oregon currently spends on non-Medicaid funding for addiction services,” according to HJRA.

On November 17, that funding got real, with the Measure 110 Oversight and Accountability Council announcing the opening of a grant proposal period to distribute $270 million of the funding to service providers, who will operate under the rubric of the new Behavioral Health Resource Networks (BHRNs). Grants will be going to groups working on a broad spectrum of substance-related concerns, including housing, peer support, and employment support, as well as harm reduction and drug treatment services.

“Our vision is that by funding BHRNs, there will be a collaboration of networks that include culturally and linguistically specific and responsive, trauma-informed and gender affirming care that will meet the needs of anyone seeking services who have been negatively affected by substance use and the war on drugs,” said Oversight and Accountability Tri-Chair LaKeesha Dumas in a press release by the Oregon Health Authority announcing the grants.

That initial round of grants went to 70 organizations in 26 out of the state’s 36 counties, with these results cited in a DPA press release on November 3:

  • “33 harm reduction and addiction recovery service providers expanded access to treatment services for indigent, uninsured individuals.”
  • “52 organizations hired peer support specialists—a role that addiction medicine experts have long heralded as essential to one’s recovery journey.”
  • “32 service providers added recovery, supportive and transitional housing services.”
  • “30 organizations increased harm reduction services, which include life-saving interventions like overdose prevention; access to naloxone, methadone and buprenorphine; as well as drug education and outreach.”

“We were about to have to close our doors in Wasco County, which would have been devastating to the people that depend on us for support there, but thanks to Measure 110 passing, we were not only able to get the funding we needed to stay open, but also to expand the services and spectrum of care we were able to provide our clients,” said Monta Knudson, executive director of Bridges to Change, a nonprofit that offers peer recovery support, housing and treatment services in Oregon, in the November 3 DPA press release.

“Addiction has touched us all somehow, some more personally and heartbreakingly than others,” said Tera Hurst, executive director of the Health Justice Recovery Alliance, in the DPA press release. “Too many of us have lost loved ones to addiction, or struggled with it ourselves. COVID-19 has made things much worse, decreasing access to care during a time when Oregonians need these services more than ever before. That’s why today, exactly one year after the Measure’s passage, we celebrate the great strides made when it comes to addressing Oregon’s addiction crisis, while recognizing that there’s still much work to be done. Our immediate focus is to ensure every Oregonian knows these critical harm reduction and recovery services are being invested in and expanded so that they will be available to anyone who wants and needs them, and that they can feel comfortable and safe accessing them.”

But while the huge expansion of treatment, harm reduction, and related social services is undeniably a good thing, drug decriminalization is ultimately about getting people out of the criminal justice system and ensuring that they are not sucked into it in the first place. It’s looking like Measure 110 is achieving that goal.

According to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, there were roughly between 9,000 and 10,000 drug arrests per year from 2012 to 2018, prior to the passage of Measure 110, and while it is too early to have precise numbers, thousands of Oregonians who would have been arrested for drug possession in 2021 have instead faced only their choice of a $100 fine or a health assessment. This doesn’t mean that there will be no arrests at all, though, because some felony drug possession arrests (possession of more than the specified personal use amounts) have been downgraded to still arrestable misdemeanors. There will, however, be thousands fewer people subjected to the tender mercies of the criminal justice system and all the negative consequences that brings.

Preliminary numbers reported by the Oregonian suggest that drug arrests in 2021 are occurring at a rate of about 200 a month, primarily for possessing more than a personal use quantity of a drug. If that rate holds throughout the year, we should see a dramatic reduction in overall arrests, down from 9,000 (in the latest-reported 2018 data from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission) to fewer than 2,500. And most of the people being arrested are now facing misdemeanors instead of felony charges.

“A year ago, Oregonians voted yes on Measure 110 to remove criminal penalties for possession of drugs and expand access to health services. Now, because of this measure, there are thousands of people in Oregon that will never have to experience the devastating life-long barriers of having a drug arrest on their record, which disproportionately and unjustly affected Black and Indigenous people due to targeted policing,” said DPA Executive Director Kassandra Frederique in the press release. “Because of this measure, there is more than $300 million in funding that did not exist before being funneled into community organizations to provide adequate and culturally competent care that people desperately need. And while the devastation of 50 years of cruel and counterproductive policies can’t be erased overnight, by all metrics we hoped to achieve, and what voters asked for, we are going down the right path.”

By Phillip Smith is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug policy journalist for more than two decades. He is the longtime writer and editor of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the nonprofit Stop the Drug War, and was the editor of AlterNet’s coverage of drug policy from 2015 to 2018. He was awarded the Drug Policy Alliance’s Edwin M. Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

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US Treasury sanctions Cuban officials, military unit over violence

US Treasury sanctions Cuban officials, military unit over violence
Cuban activist protest. MIAMIHERALD

The US Treasury Department said on Friday (Aug 13) it was imposing sanctions on two Cuban Ministry of Interior officials and a military unit over the Cuban government’s crackdown on protesters last month.

The department said it was sanctioning Romarico Vidal Sotomayor Garcia and Pedro Orlando Martinez Fernandez and the Tropas de Prevencion of the Cuban Ministry of Revolutionary Armed Forces.

“Today’s action shines a spotlight on additional perpetrators responsible for suppressing the Cuban people’s calls for freedom and respect for human rights,” said Andrea Gacki, director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

The Cuban Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request to comment.

In July, the Biden administration imposed sanctions on the Cuban police force and two of its leaders.

The protests erupted in July amid Cuba’s worst economic crisis since the fall of its old ally, the Soviet Union, and a record surge in coronavirus infections. Thousands took to the streets, angry over shortages of basic goods, curbs on civil liberties, and the authorities’ handling of the pandemic.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel has blamed the unrest on the United States, which in recent years has tightened its decades-old trade embargo on the island. He has said many protesters were sincere but manipulated by US-orchestrated social media campaigns.

The US Treasury earlier announced sanctions on Cuba’s defense minister and an interior ministry special forces unit over allegations of human rights abuses in the crackdown that followed the protests, in which hundreds of activists were detained. REUTERS

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If You Grew Up With the U.S. Blockade as a Cuban, You Might Understand the Recent Protests Differently

If You Grew Up With the U.S. Blockade as a Cuban, You Might Understand the Recent Protests Differently
Amid the campaign being waged against Cuba on social media and fueled by protests in response to food shortages and electricity cuts, hundreds took to the streets to defend the revolution. GETTY IMAGES

During the early morning of July 17, Johana Tablada joined tens of thousands of Cubans as they gathered along the Malecón boulevard in Havana to stand with the Cuban Revolution. “We are human beings who live, work, suffer, and struggle for a better Cuba,” she told us. “We are not bots or troll farms or anything like that.” She referred to what has been called the Bay of Tweets, a social media campaign developed in Miami, Florida, that attempted to inflame Cuba’s social problems into a political crisis.

The social problems, Tablada told us, derive from the U.S. blockade of Cuba that began in the 1960s but has been deepened by former U.S. President Donald Trump’s 243 coercive measures. “The United States has criminalized Cuban public services,” she said, “including our public health system and our public education system.” These sanctions make it impossible for Cubans to visit their families in the United States. They make it impossible for remittances to be sent into Cuba, and they make it impossible for Cuba to access essential goods and services (including fuel). On top of everything else, Trump designated Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism,” a decision which U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy called “frivolous.” The U.S. government claims that the blockade and these coercive measures are to punish the government, but—says Tablada—they “criminalize the country.”

Amid the campaign being waged against Cuba on social media and fueled by protests in response to food shortages and electricity cuts, hundreds took to the streets to defend the revolution. GETTY IMAGES

The Miami Mafia

Tablada keeps a close eye on the Cuban policy being shaped by Washington, D.C., and Miami, where right-wing Cuban exiles effectively drive the agenda. She does this in her role as the deputy director-general in the Cuban Foreign Ministry in charge of U.S. affairs. There is a cast of characters in this story that is little known outside the world of U.S. right-wing politics and the Cuban exile community. Of course, four well-known elected officials lead the attempt to overthrow the government in Cuba: Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida, as well as Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Republican Representative María Elvira Salazar of Florida. Beside them are other politicians such as Miami Mayor Francis X. Suarez and a range of Cuban American businessmen and professionals such as Emilio Braun of the Vulcan Funds and the lawyer Marcell Felipe.

These men are at the core of a set of organizations that lobby U.S. politicians to harden the U.S. blockade on Cuba. Felipe runs the Inspire America Foundation, which Tablada describes as the “heir to the most anti-Cuban, reactionary, and pro-[former military dictator of Cuba Fulgencio] Batista traditions from South Florida.” This foundation works with the Assembly of the Cuban Resistance—a coalition of anti-communist groups that calls for a U.S. invasion of Cuba. At the center of these men is Mauricio Claver-Carone, a former head of the Cuba Democracy Advocates, who was Trump’s main adviser on Cuba and is now president of the Inter-American Development Bank based in Washington, D.C. Claver-Carone, Tablada tells us, “has been nothing short of the leading lobbyist of the groups acting politically against Cuba in the United States, in the U.S. Congress, representing those entities who benefit from this policy of hatred and aggression against my country.” “If you ever mentioned [Fidel] Castro, he’d go berserk,” recalled Claver-Carone’s friend about his attitude in the 1990s.

“The main goal of these people,” Tablada said, “is to overthrow the Cuban Revolution.” Their plan for Cuba, it seems, is to revert it to the days of Batista when U.S. corporations and gangsters ran riot on the island.

Lester Mallory’s Memorandum

In 1960, the U.S. State Department’s Lester Mallory wrote a memorandum on Cuba. Mallory said that most “Cubans support Castro” and there is “no effective political opposition.” Mallory said that there was only one way to go: “The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship.” There has been no change in policy. The entire embargo is based on Mallory’s memorandum.

In 2019, Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton gave a speech to the veterans of the Bay of Pigs. He said that the U.S. government would use every instrument to suffocate tourism to Cuba. The Trump-era coercive measures are intended to deprive Cuba of any means to conduct normal trade and commerce not only with the United States but also with other countries and firms. Sixty-three companies that sell oil do not want to challenge the U.S. embargo, Tablada said.

Let Cuba Live

The Trump policy continues into the Biden administration. “There are 22 signed agreements that Trump didn’t revoke,” Tablada told us. “They could be implemented. Today, we could’ve been cooperating against COVID. Nobody knows why Biden excluded Cuba from one of his first executive orders in which he instructed a complete review of the sanctions that hindered the capacity of states to respond to COVID-19.” In fact, on February 24, Biden signed an executive order to continue the national emergency with respect to Cuba (which prevents traffic between the countries).

While the economic stranglehold has been severe, the information war against Cuba has been equally vicious. Certainly, Cubans migrate to other countries, as the weight of the blockade is difficult to bear. But there is a higher migration rate from Central American countries and other Caribbean islands into the U.S., Tablada said. The U.S. government’s embargo costs Cuba $5 billion per year, Tablada told us, while the U.S. spends “tens of billions of dollars trying—and failing—to drive us to defeat.” There is cruelty in these policies.

Tablada considers what it would mean if Biden ended Trump’s 243 coercive measures against Cuba. As a result of the blockade, she said, Cuba produced 90 percent of its medications. It is out of this tradition that Cuba’s scientists were able to develop five COVID-19 vaccine candidates. “If Trump’s measures were lifted,” she said, “Cuba would be able to buy necessary inputs to produce medication.” In which case, Cuba’s medical internationalism would be enhanced.

“Even if Biden does nothing,” Tablada said, “we’ll still pull through. It may cost us a bit more, but we have a plan, we have a strong social consensus. None of these plans include giving up socialism. The ordinary Cuban—all of us—is capable of sacrificing our individual interests because we know that it is essential for us to have a sovereign homeland [that is]free [and] independent, and that might be as far as we go.”

By Manolo De Los Santos and Vijay Prashad for Telegraf

Manolo De Los Santos is a researcher and a political activist. For 10 years, he worked in the organization of solidarity and education programs to challenge the United States’ regime of illegal sanctions and blockades. Based out of Cuba for many years, Manolo has worked toward building international networks of people’s movements and organizations. In 2018, he became the founding director of the People’s Forum in New York City, a movement incubator for working-class communities to build unity across historic lines of division at home and abroad. He also collaborates as a researcher with Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and is a Globetrotter/Peoples Dispatch fellow.

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest book is Washington Bullets, with an introduction by Evo Morales Ayma.

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Let Cuba Live The Movement Standing Up to Biden’s Maximum Pressure Campaign

Let Cuba Live The Movement Standing Up to Biden’s Maximum Pressure Campaign
Protests broke out this week with people demanding the resignation of President Cuba. AFP

On July 22, U.S. President Joe Biden and his Vice President Kamala Harris released a “fact sheet” on U.S. “measures” against Cuba. The release from the White House said that Cuba was a “top priority for the Biden-Harris administration.” On March 9, Biden’s Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “A Cuba policy shift is not currently among President Biden’s top priorities.” On July 12, NBC News reporter Kelly O’Donnell asked Psaki if Biden had reassessed his priorities regarding Cuba after the protests on the island the previous day. “In terms of where it ranks in a priority order,” Psaki replied, “I’m not in a position to offer that, but I can tell you that we will be closely engaged.”

Not a priority, closely engaged, top priority: matters have moved rapidly from March 9 to July 22. What moved the Biden-Harris administration to focus so quickly on Cuba? On the morning of July 11, some people in Cuba—notably in the town of San Antonio de los Baños—took to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with the social and economic problems created by the U.S.-imposed blockade and by the global pandemic. The reaction to these events in Havana and in Washington, D.C., is instructive: Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel heard the news of the protests, got into a car, and drove the 40 miles to San Antonio de los Baños, where he met with the people; while in Washington, Biden used the protest to call for the overthrow of the Cuban government. U.S. government-funded nongovernmental organizations and Cuban American groups hastened to take advantage of the frenzy, excited by the possibility of regime change in Cuba.

On the evening of July 11, tens of thousands of Cubans rallied across Cuba to defend their revolutionary process. Since that Sunday evening, Cuba has been calm.

Maximum Pressure

Eleven days after those events, the Biden administration announced its “measures” for the island. There are two kinds of pressure engineered by the United States government: tightening the blockade and lies.

The Biden administration deepened the U.S. blockade that has been in place since 1960. Elements of this deepening include the continued ban on the freedom of people in the United States to make remittance payments to relatives and friends on the island. In October 2020, the United States forced the closure of 400 Western Union offices in Cuba. By this act, the United States denied Cuba between $2 billion and $3 billion in annual remittance payments (Cuba is not among the top 10 Latin American countries that rely on such income).

In December 1950, the U.S. government created the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which manages the sanctions programs. Sanctions are a key element in the U.S. government’s “maximum pressure” campaign against its adversaries. Cuban banks and Cuban businesses as well as Cuban government officials populate the OFAC list alongside businesses and officials from about 30 other countries. In the “fact sheet,” the U.S. government mentioned the addition of “one Cuban individual,” namely Cuba’s minister of defense. He is accused of “facilitating the repression of peaceful, pro-democratic protests in Cuba.” The term “repression” is used loosely. In 2020, police officers in the United States killed 1,021 people, almost three people per day. There is no state violence at this scale anywhere in the world, let alone in Cuba.

Who Is Álvaro López Miera?

Cuba’s minister of defense is Álvaro López Miera, who took this post in April 2021. In 1957, at the age of 14, López Miera went up to the Sierra Maestra to join the rebels against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. He was motivated by his parents, who had been partisans in the Spanish Civil War, and who fled to Santiago de Cuba when the Spanish Republic was defeated by the fascists in 1939. López Miera was allowed to participate in the Second Front led by Raúl Castro, but only in the education department. He spent the next two years teaching peasants in the Sierra how to read and write.

Subsequently, López Miera worked in the Cuban military, volunteering to be part of the anti-colonial Operation Carlota in Angola in 1975 (where he returned in 1987) and to be part of the defense of Ethiopia against Somalia in the Ogaden War in 1977-78. He is now sanctioned by the U.S. government.

Diplomacy of Lies

The “fact sheet” casually repeats several accusations against Cuba that are simply not true. For one, the U.S. government accuses Cuba of the “intentional blocking of access to the Internet.” Countless reports make this accusation, but their evidence is scant (for instance, the Open Observatory of Network Interference found that as of July 23, the Cuban government had blocked 86 websites, many of them U.S. government-funded regime change sites, while the United States had blocked 2,661 sites); in fact, many U.S. internet corporations—such as Zoom—prevent Cubans from using their technology. Secondly, Biden’s administration repeats the fantasy of a 2017 “sonic attack” on the U.S. diplomatic officials in Havana.

After the July 11 events, the U.S. government circulated a one-page “Joint Statement on Cuba” among members of the Organization of American States (OAS) to get them to condemn Cuba. On July 21, Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, who released the leaked draft on Twitter, strongly criticized the “interventionist maneuvers” of the United States “to intensify the blockade” against Cuba.

On July 24, after Biden’s “fact sheet” and “joint statement” made the rounds, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said that the Washington-dominated OAS needed to be replaced by an organization that is not “a lackey of anyone.” These comments were made on the birthday of Simón Bolívar, known in Latin America as the Liberator. From the port of Veracruz, Mexico, two ships—Liberator and Papaloapanleft laden with food, medicines and other goods for Cuba. Russia sent 88 metric tons of supplies on two aircraft.

Let Cuba Live

On July 23, a full-page statement appeared on page 5 of the New York Times under the headline, “Let Cuba Live.” The advertisement, paid for by the Peoples Forum, was signed by more than 400 prominent people including Susan Sarandon, Emma Thompson, Noam Chomsky, Mark Ruffalo, Jane Fonda, and Danny Glover. It was an open letter to Biden asking him to end Trump’s “coercive measures” and “begin the process of ending the embargo.”

Most of the 193 member states of the United Nations made public statements to defend Cuba against the “maximum pressure” campaign. In a statement, the 120 members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) “strongly condemn[ed] the international campaign organized… with the purpose of destabilizing the Republic of Cuba.” The NAM called for an end to the U.S. blockade.

The White House has so far responded neither to the open letter nor to the NAM statement.

By Manolo De Los Santos and Vijay Prashad / Globetrotter for Telegraf

Manolo De Los Santos is a researcher and a political activist. For 10 years, he worked in the organization of solidarity and education programs to challenge the United States’ regime of illegal sanctions and blockades. Based out of Cuba for many years, Manolo has worked toward building international networks of people’s movements and organizations. In 2018, he became the founding director of the People’s Forum in New York City, a movement incubator for working-class communities to build unity across historic lines of division at home and abroad. He also collaborates as a researcher with Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and is a Globetrotter/Peoples Dispatch fellow.

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest book is Washington Bullets, with an introduction by Evo Morales Ayma.

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