In a little noticed story on July 14, the Periodic Review Board of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp approved the release of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian citizen and author. The Periodic Review Board, which must assess the threat posed by the remaining 61 Guantanamo detainees found that Slahi represented “no continuing significant threat to the security of the United States”.
The Board noted Slahi’s “highly compliant behavior in detention” and also felt there were “clear indications of a change in the detainee’s mind-set”.
What is unique about Slahi is that he is a best-selling author. In his book, Guantanamo Diary, he described his ordeal. Slahi spent nearly 14 years at Guantanamo. He was never charged with any crime. Before he landed in Guantanamo, he was held in Mauritania, experienced rendition to Jordan with 8 months interrogation there and he then had another rendition to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. The book begins with Slahi being stripped, blindfolded, diapered, shackled and flown to Bagram.
All these events are what Slahi humorously referred to as “my endless world tour”.
Slahi wrote the book back in 2005 but it took more than 6 years of legal fights to have the manuscript cleared for public release. Slahi wrote the book from his segregation cell in Guantanamo. The book is still heavily redacted by government censors.
Slahi’s account presents the best picture we have of what went on at Guantanamo in the years after 9/11. Probably for most all of us, torture remains an abstraction. It is something you read about or see a story about on TV. Slahi takes you inside the experience.
The famous writer, John le Carre described Slahi’s book as “a vision of hell, beyond Orwell, beyond Kafka..” It is hard to disagree. We don’t have a clue what has gone on at Guantanamo. Sadly, it is a very sick, sadistic form of torture that is absolutely contrary to our constitutional values as well as international law.
I feel what sets Slahi’s book apart from other books or articles about Guantanamo is the human dimension. You are not reading about a list of torture techniques he experienced. Slahi describes the torture experience but the book presents a much deeper view that includes humor, wit, his relationships with his guards and interrogators, his political and religious observations and his subjective feelings about his suffering.
The book is, not surprisingly, an indictment of the view that torture works. Slahi made up stories to get the torture to stop. I think just about any human being who went through what he did would do the same. The crazy thing is that the wilder Slahi’s statements about his terrorist activities, the happier the torturers got.
Slahi was so broken by the torture that he would tell the torturers whatever they wanted to hear. “I don’t care as long as you are pleased. So if you want to buy, I am selling.”
The book is a window into a form of organized madness. You might think some of the torture is spontaneous and random. In a way, it would be nice to think that because that would seem less malevolent. Many of the torture techniques are based on years of study into the best way to break people down without leaving physical evidence of the torture. They were part of the “special plan” personally approved by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Slahi was subject to extensive sleep deprivation, prolonged isolation, stress positions, restricted diet, extreme cold temperatures, sensory bombardment (noise), a simulated kidnapping, a mock execution on a boat, sexual assault, threats to kidnap his mother, beatings, cold water dousings that left him shaking, and ice cube stuffing under his clothes. He was chained constantly and hooded. For years, all his guards and interrogators wore masks during the torture. It is hard to imagine how you would not lose your mind under these circumstances. From Slahi’s account, many detainees did lose it.
In describing the torture methods, I am not doing justice to the extent of the harm. For example, regarding Slahi’s diet, his captors would serve him a meal and take it away one minute later or they would force him to drink so much water he felt his stomach would burst. Food and the quality of food he received were integrated into the torture routine. When the captors became happier with Slahi’s responses to the same questions they asked him for years, his diet would be improved.
Unfortunately for Slahi, he fit a possible terrorist profile. He had fought against the Russians in Afghanistan with Al Qaeda when the United States was allied with Al Qaeda. He had a relative who was an advisor to Osama bin Laden. Like the 9/11 co-conspirators, he had studied in Germany. He was an electrical engineer. He had also spent some time in Canada. With that profile, there was no presumption of innocence. Although he could not be told what crime he committed, his captors told him he met all the criteria of a top terrorist.
While they lacked evidence, the captors believed Slahi was mastermind of the so-called “millenium plot”, a 1999 attempt by Ahmed Ressam to smuggle explosives over the Canadian border to blow up the Los Angeles International Airport. The facts did not fit this theory at all because Ressam had left Montreal before Slahi moved to Canada. Because that plot made no sense, the interrogators creatively tried out the theory that Slahi recruited the 9/11 hijackers.
The assumption remained that Slahi was a big fish terrorist, among the worst of the worst. Because of his profile, guilt was assumed. Forgotten was the fact that on November 20, 2001, Slahi drove himself to the police station in Noakchott, Mauritania and turned himself in voluntarily for what he thought would be some further questioning. Before his rendition, Slahi never tried to run.
In March 2005, Slahi handwrote a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Because of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2008 in the case of Boumediane v. Bush, Slahi and other Guantanamo detainees obtained the right to challenge their detention through habeas corpus.
U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson heard Slahi’s habeas petition in 2009. In March 2010, Judge Robertson granted Slahi’s habeas petition and ordered his release. The Obama administration appealed Judge Robertson’s decision. At the time of Slahi’s release, the case was still pending. The DC Circuit Court of Appeals had sent the case back for rehearing at the Federal District Court.
Slahi’s experience is an example of what happens when hate, fear, and paranoia replace rules of evidence, due process and a speedy trial. The victim faces the absurd situation where, regardless of the facts, there is no way to establish innocence.
No doubt there are many who will not care about command-sanctioned torture of a prisoner in custody. Numerous polls show a majority of Americans support torture against terror suspects. We even have a presidential candidate, Mr. Trump, who favors “a lot worse than waterboarding”.
Slahi’s story shows the danger in normalizing torture. Innocent people can be swept up in dragnets and get subjected to the sickest abuse.
I think Guantanamo has done enormous damage to the moral authority of the United States. Torture leaves an indelible stain. We need to never forget that torture remains a crime. The United States needs to stand up for a firm commitment to international standards for human rights.
As we head toward the general election, voters on both sides of the political divide bring their own sense of paranoia to the process. Each side is worried about the other side cheating. The Republicans concern has been voter fraud. On the Democratic side, the concern has been voter suppression.
John Lennon once described paranoia as a heightened sense of awareness. So you have to ask: whose paranoia is more justified?
I don’t think the answer is close. Concerns about voter suppression have a substantial basis in fact. The same cannot be said about voter fraud. In our historical period, in the United States, almost all allegations of voter fraud have turned out to be baseless.
While Donald Trump has said that you have people fraudulently voting many times, there is zero evidence that is true. In 2014, Justin Levitt, a law professor and now an assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice, surveyed more than a billion votes cast in general, primary, special and municipal elections across the United States from 2000 through 2014. He found only 31 credible instances of voter impersonation. Statistically, that is an infinitesimally small number.
Levitt has written that voter impersonation is rarer than being struck by lightning.
Other types of voting fraud – voting in the name of dead people and voting by foreign nationals – have not been substantiated. Saying there is fraud does not make it so. Those concerned about voting fraud have not made a case based on evidence.
On the other hand, concerns about voter suppression do have a basis in fact and that can be easily demonstrated. Seventeen states have new voting restrictions in place for this upcoming presidential election. This is the first presidential election without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act. Also, this is one of the first elections in the aftermath of the Citizens United decision from the U.S. Supreme Court where the full power of Big Money can weigh in. And that only scratches the surface.
I would begin with voter ID laws. They are now in place in 33 states. Although they are justified as a way to insure election integrity, there is evidence that the photo ID requirement discriminates against groups that are less likely to possess photo IDs. Typically these voters are poor, Black, other minority, elderly or disabled.
On July 20, this argument received powerful validation from an unexpected place. The full United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, widely seen as a very conservative court, ruled that Texas’ voter ID act had a discriminatory impact on minorities and did violate the Voting Rights Act.
A 2011 study from the New York University’s Brennan Center had previously shown that 6-11% of the U.S. population that is voting age lack a government issued photo ID. A more recent 2014 study by the Government Accountability Office found that voter ID laws in Kansas and Tennessee reduced turnout by 1.9 and 2.2 percent respectively compared to four states that did not pass voter ID laws – Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware and Maine. The report found that young people, black people and newly registered voters were most likely to see reduction in turnout.
A second cause of concern is early voting cutbacks. States vary dramatically as to when and how much early voting can go on. For example, in 2012, Florida cut early voting from 14 to 8 days. In 2013, North Carolina cut early voting from 17 to 10 days. It seems to me there should be some national standard so there is uniformity among the states. In the absence of a national standard, cutting voting days seems both arbitrary and destined to deflate voting numbers.
States also vary on same day registration which allows any qualified resident of a state to go to the polls on election day, register that same day and then vote. States with election day registration have 5-7% higher turnout. At present 13 states plus the District of Columbia offer same day registration. New Hampshire, to its credit, does. Procrastinators and those who wait until the eleventh hour benefit from same day registration.
We have witnessed the repeated embarrassing spectacle of voters standing in line for many hours waiting to vote. In March, during the Arizona primary, people waited five hours to vote. Many disgusted voters left without casting a ballot. The cause: election officials reduced the number of polling places by 70% from 2012 to 2016. The officials said they wanted to save money.
In Florida, in the 2012 general election, people waited up to seven hours to vote. In this instance, the lines disproportionately affected African American voters and other minorities. The question arises: how could this be happening in Florida, the state of Bush v Gore ? And how many more times is this going to happen? The track record of too many states, especially Southern states, is not reassuring.
While many may not remember or may not want to remember, in 2000 then-Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris had ordered the removal of over 57,700 “ineligible” voters from the voter rolls. Harris had claimed the voters were ex-felons and ineligible to vote. It turned out, after the election, that the scrub list distributed by Harris was full of errors. She disenfranchised up to 12,000 legally registered voters, 41% of whom were African-American. That was an election Bush won by 537 votes. That was the margin in Florida.
That election remains the classic example of how small manipulations in the electoral process can make a huge difference.
I would be remiss if I did not mention both voter purges and felon disenfranchisement. While states have an interest in accurate and correct voter rolls, too often legitimate voters disappear from the rolls, show up election day, and can’t vote. As for felon disenfranchisement, even though many states have moved forward and removed archaic state statutes, it remains a big deal. One in every thirteen Black adults cannot vote as a result of a felony conviction. Nationally, an estimated 5.85 million voters are banned from the polls. States vary significantly in their rules about when the voting ban is invoked but, bottom line, these rules still affect millions.
To appreciate the historical background of voting suppression, all the restrictions I have mentioned must be understood inside the context of the struggle over the Voting Rights Act. In his book, Give Us the Ballot, the writer Ari Berman shows how these issues have played out since 1965. We have moved from poll taxes and literacy tests to voter ID and subtler ways to discourage the vote.
I am struck by how much more attention gets paid to the question of who people are going to vote for rather than the question of whether every eligible voter will be able to cast a ballot. Just considering the experience of Bush v Gore, we appear to be sleepwalking.
With voter turnout so low in the United States (only 57.5% of eligible citizens voted in 2012) it is past time to work to increase voter participation and to modernize voter registration. Many states still rely on outdated paper records.
I would make the case for universal automatic voter registration at age 18. Unless the potential voter chooses not to be on the rolls, the government would automatically register eligible citizens. If this vision was fully implemented it would add 50 million voters to the rolls. There is something wrong with the perspective that hopes to win by minimizing the vote.
If the election this fall is close, voter suppression could be quite consequential. We should not have elections decided by a concerted effort to keep the turnout down.
I saw this quote from James Madison which seems especially apropos now:
“Who are to be the electors? Not the rich, more than the poor, not the learned, more than the ignorant, not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscurity and unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States.”
Throughout history, accountability for political torture and murder has been exceedingly rare. The world is full of unpunished crimes. Horrible things happen and, more often than not, perpetrators act with impunity.
It is typically impossible to get foreign war criminals into an American courtroom. And we generally do not look too hard at our own war crimes.
So it was a total shock when I saw that on June 27 a Florida jury returned a guilty verdict in a civil trial against the murderer of Victor Jara. No one symbolizes the struggle for human rights in Latin America better than Victor Jara.
Jara was a leading Chilean folksinger, songwriter, theater director, activist and supporter of the socialist government of Salvador Allende. I have heard him described as a Chilean version of a cross between Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. Jara was executed in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 1973 military coup that overthrew the Allende government.
The coup led by General Augusto Pinochet initiated a very dark chapter in Chilean history. It is estimated that 3,100 victims were either killed or disappeared by Pinochet’s dictatorship. An estimated 29,000 people were tortured by Pinochet’s forces in the years following the coup.
The day of the coup, Jara went to work at the Santiago Technical University where he was a professor and researcher. He had a date to sing at an event with Allende later that day. Jara did not come home.
His wife Joan waited for a week not knowing what had happened to him. A young man came to the Jara home on September 18 and told Joan that Victor’s body had been recognized in the city morgue. Victor had been very well known. He was very popular in Chile.
Joan Jara accompanied the young man to the morgue where she saw hundreds of bodies piled up in a parking area. She was able to identify Victor’s body and save him from disposal in a mass grave.
It took years for Joan Jara to find out what happened to her husband. On the day of the coup, the military arrested him. The military detained him, along with thousands of others, in Chile Stadium. He was beaten badly at the university and then later tortured for three days at the stadium.
While there are many stories about his torture, the amputation of his fingers by the military, and his singing to the other prisoners before his death, a forensic pathologist found he sustained a single bullet wound through the back of his head. When Joan Jara and other family members claimed his corpse, they found he had been shot 44 times, his wrists were broken and his face was disfigured from beatings.
On the 40th anniversary of Jara’s death, Joan Jara filed a civil lawsuit in Florida against a former military officer Pedro Barrientos, a lieutenant under Pinochet who had command responsibility at Chile Stadium. Joan Jara filed her lawsuit under the Torture Victims Protection Act, a federal civil statute that allows American courts to hear about human rights abuses committed outside the United States.
The trial presented a wealth of information about what happened at Chile Stadium. Several witnesses who had been Chilean military conscripts identified Barrientos as Jara’s murderer. Other witnesses testified that Barrientos had repeatedly bragged that he was the one who shot and killed Victor Jara.
The jury found Barrientos liable for Jara’s torture and murder and awarded his wife and daughters $28 million in punitive and compensatory damages.
Barrientos had fled Chile in 1989 and he became a U.S.citizen through marriage. According to Peter Kornbluh, a reporter for the Nation Magazine, Barrientos misrepresented his involvement in the 1973 coup when he filed his naturalization application. Barrientos has lived in Deltona, Florida.
In 2012, he was one of eight retired officers indicted for Jara’s murder in Chile. In 2013, the Chilean government formally requested Barrientos’ extradition back to Chile. For whatever reason, the U.S. Department of Justice has not yet responded to Chile’s request.
Complicating the pursuit of justice is a blanket amnesty passed in Chile in 1980, when Pinochet was still in power, which absolves all government officials of any wrongdoing. Pinochet died in 2006 but the remnants of his old regime have tried and are still trying to throw a veil over their human rights atrocities.
Why should Americans care about Victor Jara and these sad events that happened more than 40 years ago?
I would say that Jara’s murder is fundamentally a matter of justice that transcends national boundaries. As a symbol of the struggle for human rights in Latin America, his example and accountability for his torture and murder matter. If torturers and murderers can act with impunity, the likelihood of future torture atrocities increases everywhere in the world. Making torturers pay for their crimes has some disincentive value.
We also need to recognize the American role in these events. While it is disputed, there is substantial evidence that our government bears a degree of responsibility both for the 1973 Chilean military coup and for the gross violations of human rights that occurred in Chile and more generally in Latin America in the 1970’s. We trained the Latin American military dictatorships in how to torture.
There are many layers to this story. The writer, Isabel Allende,a relative of Salvador Allende, explained it this way:
“On September 11, 1973, a military coup ended a century of democratic tradition in Chile and started the long reign of General Augusto Pinochet. Similar coups followed in other countries, and soon half the continent’s population was living in terror. This was a strategy designed in Washington and imposed upon the Latin American people by the economic and political forces of the right. In every instance the military acted as mercenaries to the privileged groups in power. Repression was organized on a large scale; torture, concentration camps, censorship, imprisonment without trial, and summary execution became common practices. Thousands of people “disappeared”, masses of exiles and refugees left their countries running for their lives.”
I personally cared about these events because the Chilean revolution was a thunderbolt that rocked my political world. Conventional wisdom had previously dictated that no socialist government could ever be democratically elected. The 1970 election of the Popular Unity government led by Allende and his 1973 reelection showed that was not true.
Chile symbolized the electoral viability of democratic socialism. The coup, on the other hand, was a devastating rejoinder.
I recall Henry Kissinger’s oft-quoted, reprehensible quote from the time: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”
The Jara trial revealed a tremendous need to fill in gaps in the public record about what happened in Chile and more generally in Latin America in the years from 1973-1980. Much effort has gone into concealing the history.
The best American political tradition is committed to transparency and intellectual honesty. The public deserves to know the truth. There is a seamy underside to the American role in supporting Pinochet and the other torturing Latin American regimes that included Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. The full extent of the American role in the Chilean coup has not been revealed. Nor do we know the American role in Operation Condor, Pinochet’s plan, in conjunction with other Latin American militaries, to eliminate his perceived enemies all over the world.
The verdict in Jara’s trial is a long-overdue victory for his family and brings a measure of accountability for the egregious human rights violations of the Pinochet regime . Life can be so surprising. I never expected to see justice for Victor Jara, and finally, it has come.
Immigration is so much in the news these days and there has been no shortage of demagoguery. Now the hating against immigrants is directed at Mexicans and Muslims. I wanted to tell a different kind of immigration story. Because it is little known, I wanted to tell the story of Lore Heinemann Krüger, a Jewish woman who survived the Nazis.
When I was in Paris in May, I went to the Jewish Museum of Art and History. The museum currently has a photography exhibit featuring Krüger’s work. The photos were shot between 1934-1944. Krüger was a pioneer among avant-garde female photographers. Her work was eclectic: she photographed street scenes, workers, gypsies, young Parisians as well as classic still life shots like bowls of cherries. She experimented with highly original and creative techniques that were ahead of her time.
The photos only became public in 2015 when they were displayed at the Gallery C/O Berlin in Germany. Krüger, who died in 2009, did not live to see the exhibition. She had managed to safeguard some of her photos in big folders she kept under her sofa. While much of her work did not survive, about 250 photos remain, of which about 100 are displayed.
Lore Krüger was born in 1914 in the central German city of Magdeburg. On her 10th birthday, her father gave her a camera. She was passionate about photography and she immediately started taking shots.
Krüger’s family was Jewish. With the rise of Hitler and anti-semitism, peril increased. As the Jews achieved pariah status, few friends remained loyal. Most acquaintances kept a wary distance from the family. Lore Krüger had worked as a typist at a savings bank.
On April 1, 1933, after Hitler came to power, Krüger witnessed a “Jew Boycott” and attacks on Jewish stores, offices and medical practices. Krüger later wrote:
“Never in my life will I forget this day. All over town, members of the SA in their brown uniforms with swastika armbands were standing guard in front of buildings in which Jewish doctors or lawyers practiced, or in front of Jewish stores. On the shop windows and nameplates they had smeared the word ‘Jew’ or ‘don’t buy from the Jews – the Jews are our enemies!’ in huge letters.
In 1933, at age 19, Krüger decided to leave Germany. With help from a rabbi friend, she was able to obtain work as an au pair in England. Her parents and sister also fled Germany, moving to Mallorca, a Mediterranean island off Spain.
Krüger ended up joining the rest of her family in 1934 after failing to get an extension of her visa in England. She apprenticed with a photographer in Barcelona. She was also able to study with Florence Henri, a renowned photographer who lived in Paris. Paris was a refuge for exiled European artists and intellectuals escaping fascism. She became friendly with the philosopher Walter Benjamin and the author Arthur Koestler. Both lived in the building where she was staying.
While in Paris, Krüger became more interested in politics. She studied at the Paris-based German Free University, an anti-fascist and communist-oriented evening school. She wrote a dissertation on Nazi ideology. There is a quote in her art exhibition that reflects the change in her life:
“Art was my principal preoccupation, everything revolved around it but politics was increasingly taking over my life.”
As a German anti-fascist, Krüger realized that the world was insufficiently aware of the barbarism Hitler represented. In that time, only the left wing press wrote about the danger the fascists represented. Krüger wrote that the Nazis owned much of the right wing press in France.
In 1936, when the Spanish Civil War broke out, Krüger supported the Republican side. Her husband-to-be, Ernst Krüger, a German union leader and communist, had fought in Spain. Lore Krüger worked to promote secret distribution of books with anti-Nazi content into the Reich.
Krüger travelled to Mallorca to visit her parents. Things were sticky because the Falangists, the Spanish fascists allied with Hitler, controlled the island. A Republican regiment landed on Mallorca and contested control of the island. After a battle lasting several days, the Republican forces lost. Krüger’s parents knew an officer who allowed Lore entry into the war zone. She went there with her camera. She wrote:
“I will never forget the stench of the corpses filling that completely deserted place. The inhabitants had left suddenly, all the doors were open. Corpses of young people littered the streets. Franco’s troops had poured petrol over them and set them alight. I will never forget that sight. My heart bled but I said to myself, “You must take photographs, you musn’t think about anything else!”
Krüger had a very difficult time returning to Paris. The Spanish police confiscated most of her photos when she left Mallorca. In April 1939, Franco’s fascist forces, with huge help from Hitler, won the Spanish Civil War and they tightened the noose on Jews. The authorities told Krüger’s parents to leave Mallorca within 10 days. Unable to get a visa to a safe country and afraid of falling into the hands of the Spanish police or the Germans, Krüger’s parents committed suicide together. They had a realistic fear of torture at the hands of the fascists or removal to a concentration camp.
Lore Krüger did not find out about her parents’ suicide until years later. Both parents wrote their children absolutely heart-rending letters explaining their decision. Those letters are displayed in the photo exhibition.
After the Germans invaded France in May 1940, Lore and her sister Gisela were imprisoned in an internment camp in southern France. They were considered “hostile foreigners”. Both were freed months later. Since they lacked a residence permit, the only route of escape they saw was to leave Europe by ship from Marseille. They hoped to get to Mexico, a country that took in anti-fascists, Spanish Republicans and their families.
Lore, her future husband, and her sister were all able to get to Marseille with forged papers. Both the journey to Marseille and the next six months in Marseille where they hid out were fraught with great danger. They knew that if they were caught they could be handed over to the Gestapo. With help from the French Vichy government, the Germans were combing through lists of people who had been in camps and they were hunting down opponents.
Lore lived in constant fear of raids. She and her little band moved constantly, staying in cinemas and hotels that charged by the hour. In May 1941 they finally were able to get a collective visa that allowed all three to leave for Mexico on a cargo ship, the Winnipeg.
En route to Mexico a Dutch gunboat captured the Winnipeg. The gunboat forced the passengers to go to the island of Trinidad. From there, Krüger appealed to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, an organization of Americans who had fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. The Lincoln Brigade raised the money and helped with the transit visa to get to New York. The Krügers settled into a small apartment in Long Island City. Because of a law change, they were never able to get to Mexico.
Once in New York, the Krügers helped to found an anti-fascist newspaper, the German American. Krüger worked on the paper from May 1942 until 1944. Writers for the paper included Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich Mann, and Lion Feuchtwanger. Krüger wanted to demonstrate that not all Germans were Nazis. In the photo exhibition, Krüger is quoted saying that she believed there were many Nazi sympathizers in the United States at the time, especially in the press.
Krüger was especially concerned about the lack of an anti-fascist press. She wrote:
“The first number of The German American came out in May 1942. The editorial entitled “What we want” stated that out of the more than two hundred newspapers and reviews published in the United States, including more than a dozen dailies, there was not a single anti-fascist paper, not even during the war.”
After the war, in 1946, the Krügers returned to Germany to live. Krüger wrote, “who should bring about a change in Germany… if not German anti-fascists everywhere in the world, if they didn’t return.”
In 1947, Lore became ill. She came down with a case of diptheria and she sustained heart damage. She did not continue with photography after that. She became an English to German translator in the later part of her career. Among other books, she translated “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, “Robinson Crusoe” and books by Doris Lessing, Joseph Conrad and Henry James.
Krüger died on March 3, 2009.
In a very dark time, she lived an honorable life of principle and artistic self-expression. As we face the growth of extreme right wing and fascist parties around the world, Krüger’s example shines bright.
I think it is fair to say that any news of Brazil is scarce in the United States. We generally pay little attention to news outside our country, unless it is about terrorism.
When I was recently in France, I was surprised how much TV news coverage there was about the impeachment of the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff. It was the lead news story everyday I was there in early May.
Rousseff is currently suspended from office for 180 days, pending a full impeachment trial in Brazil’s Senate.
To the extent Americans are paying attention to Brazil, focus turns to the Zika virus and the upcoming Olympic games this summer, The Olympics will be held in Rio in August.
Much of the discussion about Brazil on French TV looked at the question of whether the impeachment of President Rousseff was, in fact, a coup d’etat by the right wing opposition. The reasons for President Rousseff’s removal seem murky at best. She has not been charged with stealing money or any crime.
Brazil’s legislature voted to suspend President Rousseff from office over accusations that she had tampered with government accounts to hide a budget shortfall. On its face, this hardly seems like any basis for impeachment. Governments of the political left or right routinely do misleading things to try and look better. I would say the Brazilian impeachment effort is on a par with the effort to impeach President Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
The common thread is the bogus use of impeachment to try and reverse an electoral verdict. The party that cannot win an election resorts to a shortcut replacement strategy. In politically polarized countries, especially those with a weaker democratic tradition than our own, impeachment then becomes an undemocratic substitute for legitimate election.
Out of frustration, Brazil’s political right has now embarked on the shortcut method because it has not been able to win an election in the last four election cycles.
Noam Chomsky, the famous scholar/activist, called the Brazil impeachment ” a kind of soft coup”. He said Rousseff is “being impeached by a gang of thieves”. Chomsky is alluding to the fact that many of the figures behind the impeachment effort are themselves being investigated for corruption.
Folha de Sao Paulo, a Brazilian daily paper, ran a widely-read story which suggested the aim of the impeachment process was an effort to stifle a massive corruption inquiry known in Brazil as the “Car Wash” probe. Many of the figures in Brazil promoting impeachment against Rousseff are themselves being investigated.
Leaked recordings show the planning minister in the new government, Romero Juca, discussing the impeachment process as a way of stopping the Car Wash inquiry into corruption at Petrobus, the state oil company. Petrobus is Brazil’s largest corporation and it is one of the world’s largest oil companies. There are actually seven ministers in the new government implicated in the investigation.
The leaked conversations also revealed that some of the politicians under investigation were secretly conspiring with members of the Brazilian Supreme Court and the military. So we have a situation where the right wing interim president and some of his allies face actual corruption charges while they engineer the ouster of a president charged with no crime.
To appreciate this black comedy, it helps to place Brazil’s current political situation in a historical context. The writer Eduardo Galeano described Brazil this way:
“There is no country in the world as unequal as Brazil. Some analysts even speak of the Brazilianization of the planet in sketching a portrait of the world to come. By “Brazilianization”, they certainly don’t mean the spread of irrepressible soccer, spectacular carnivals or music that awakens the dead, marvels that make Brazil shine brightest; rather they’re describing the imposition of a model of progress based on social injustice and racial discrimination, where economic growth only increases poverty and exclusion.”
Galeano’s words were written in the late 1990’s before the election of Lula and the center-left Workers’ Party, Since the early 2000’s, the Workers’ Party has won four consecutive national elections. Luis Ignacio da Silva or as he is known in Brazil, Lula, has been the leader of the Workers’ Party and he is probably the most popular president in Brazil’s history. He left office in 2010 and Dilma Rousseff replaced him. Rousseff was first elected in 2010 by a 56-44 per cent margin and she was reelected in 2014 with a reduced margin of 52-48 per cent.
During Lula’s presidency, Brazil’s economy boomed. He also presided over a very significant redistribution of wealth. The real minimum wage rose 70%. The government created 21 million new jobs and it also created the Bolsa Familia, a federal assistance program which provided financial aid to poor Brazilian families.
Lula has been widely credited with dramatically reducing poverty and hunger. Lula called his program Zero Hunger. He also promoted an expansion of higher education. Professor Alfredo Saad-Filho of the University of London described the Brazilian change:
“For the first time, the poor could access education as well as income and bank loans. They proceeded to study, earn and borrow, and to occupy spaces, literally, previously the preserve of the upper-middle class: airports, shopping malls, banks, private health facilities, and roads, with the latter clogged up by cheap cars purchased on seventy-two easy payments. The government enjoyed a comfortable majority in a highly fragmented Congress, and Lula’s legendary political skills managed to keep most of the political elite on his side.”
But then, on President Rousseff’s watch, things deteriorated. The present crisis is very much the product of a declining economy, a strengthened right wing opposition, corruption, including in the Workers” Party, and powerful right wing media controlled by the Brazilian oligarchs. Imagine Fox News as every network. That is close to the Brazilian reality. The confluence of these factors created the political power grab opportunity.
Democracy remains fragile although Brazil has made enormous strides toward the construction of a more inclusive and just social system. It is not that long ago in 1964 when the Brazilian military staged a coup and overthrew the democratically elected government of then-President Joao Goulart, a mild social democratic reformer.
For 21 years until 1985, the Brazilian military imposed a brutal dictatorship on the people. The military became infamous and hated for, among other things, the use of extreme torture techniques applied against dissidents. Torture victims included President Rousseff herself. During the military dictatorship in the late 60’s until 1970, Rousseff was an underground guerrilla, fighting the regime. Rousseff was captured by the military in 1970 and she was detained for three years without trial.
Her interrogations started with punching, electric shock and then there were sessions of “pau de arara” (suspension from a rod by the hands and feet). She was often beaten and her torturers threatened to disfigure her. They dislocated her jaw and that problem still causes her difficulty. In court proceedings later, Rousseff denounced her own torture and named names of those who tortured her.
A Truth Commission found 434 people were killed or disappeared during the dictatorship. Thousands more experienced beatings, electric shock, sexual violations and psychological torture. The report named 377 people it said were involved in human rights abuses, of whom 196 are still alive. The torturers have so far escaped criminal prosecution. There is a 1979 amnesty law which prevents those who committed abuses from being tried or punished.
Since the military coup in 1964, a body of evidence has appeared showing the role of the United States in assisting the Brazilian military in its coup efforts. The extent of the U.S. role remains in dispute. There is also strong evidence showing the American and British role in training the Brazilian military in torture techniques.
To appreciate the gravity of the present crisis, the history of the military dictatorship must be mentioned. It remains a tricky challenge how Brazil will be able to constructively move forward without reverting to increased economic injustice and authoritarianism. The impeachment of President Rousseff is a step in the wrong direction.
It is common to hear that our upcoming national election is a change election. Sometimes the success of the candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are explained by saying that they are change candidates running against the status quo. The appeal is that both are not “more of the same”.
The problem with that characterization is the meaninglessness of the word “change”. It is just a cloudy vagueness with multiple possible interpretations.
On the Democratic side, we have the debate between the incrementalist change represented by Hillary Clinton and the big change represented by Bernie Sanders. I think we have a pretty good idea what incrementalist change is about but what would big change mean now for the United States?
You rarely see a fleshed-out vision of that so I will offer my own take. In offering this vision, I have not reviewed the platform of any candidate, including Sanders, nor have I consulted with any campaign.
Before outlining my ideas, I would add that both progressives and conservatives can be legitimately criticized for the staleness of their ideas. Neither major party has kept up with the magnitude of the changes we actually do need. I should also say that I offer this vision with a keen awareness of the obstacles in the path of its realization.
First and foremost, big change in 2016 requires an assault on income inequality. I think that is central. We need to be increasing the power and income of ordinary working people. Things have been way skewed in America toward the accumulation of extreme wealth for the 1%. Now it should be everybody else’s turn.
People in more equal societies live longer, healthier, and happier lives. Although not widely recognized, equality benefits everyone.
It is not just raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. We need a moratorium on all layoffs and wage cuts. We should be reducing the interest rates on all credit cards and mortgage debt. Predatory lending needs to be more closely scrutinized and prohibited.
We need a massive rebuilding of our infrastructure, especially mass transit. Such a publicly subsidized program could offer good job opportunities to millions of people who are on the margins. This would be a modern day new New Deal.
We have a genuine career crisis in America. Good-paying, stable jobs with benefits and pensions have become an endangered species. Instead of long-term career jobs rewarded by greater income commensurate with lengthy service, more jobs have become temporary, contingent or part-time. We need better quality jobs that offer a future – not just a chance to be exploited.
Our brand of capitalism has failed to address so many crises. Young people, if they are fortunate enough to go to college, are paying ridiculous sums to emerge into an economy with not enough opportunity. Public college should be free or way less cost than it is now. The cost of college is a scandal. Young people should not be coming out of college buried in debt.
Those not going to college also need career paths that offer vocational opportunity at a liveable wage. Jobs like caring for children, older people and the sick deserve greater pay based on the principle that such jobs are a public good.
We need to totally rethink the role of senior citizens who will be becoming a larger part of our population. There is a wealth of knowledge and experience there. Seniors need to be treated as a valuable resource. Instead of putting people out to pasture early, we need to integrate seniors and use them more as mentors. Too many seniors are shunted aside when they could be contributing and could be a part of community life. Seniors deserve so much better than lives of loneliness, isolation, and financial privation.
We should consider a 30 hour work week for 40 hours pay. People could have six hour shifts and be paid for eight hours. I believe people would come to work with more energy and focus. It has been roughly 80 years since we moved to the 40 hour week. I think it is time for a shorter work week. A shorter work week would allow more people employment while allowing workers time for other pursuits outside work.
I also like the idea of five week mandatory paid vacation for all Americans. People in America are working too much for too little. Everybody needs a break.
We should have free, publicly provided quality childcare as well as paid family and medical leave. France has very successfully created such a national childcare system so that families pay far less out of pocket than we do.
We should move in the direction of publicly financed, affordable multiple-dwelling rental housing. Along with a universal right to health care, we should create a right to housing. There are way too many evictions and foreclosures. We need a major program to finance high quality, affordable housing. Homelessness is not acceptable in the 21st century.
I know many will say we cannot afford all of these ideas. My answer would be a stronger, progressive tax code. Progressive taxation is an absolutely honorable and time-tested principle. The current tax system grossly favors the rich and they can easily afford to pay much more. Creative tax lawyers should not be able to give the rich a free ride by stashing money in tax shelters , Swiss banks and the Cayman Islands.
Nor should the rich be able to buy elections. Citizens United and its ilk must be overturned. It is utterly undemocratic for billionaires to purchase election results like they are just another commodity for sale.
For a country of such extraordinary wealth and natural resources, the Unites States has devolved into a country with shocking levels of poverty. These places of poverty are what the journalist Chris Hedges has called “sacrifice zones”.
I grew up in the Philadelphia area so I will cite the familiar example of Camden, New Jersey. I think that city is typical of how a city dramatically declines. I will mention some features of such places: environmental degradation, job flight followed by joblessness, poor schools, too much violence and drugs, bad housing, and lower life expectancy. These places are largely ignored and written off by the powers-that-be.
Big change would mean we do not ignore such places. Progressives must stand for abolition of poverty. Places like Camden or Flint, Michigan might be the worst examples but hopelessly poor neighborhoods exist in many parts of this country and they are not limited to any racial group. Such poor neighborhoods should become a thing of the past.
In the United States, we need to regain a sense of the collective mission and purpose of our country. The country needs to be for the people – not for a handful of billionaires. We need to be asking: what do the masses of people in the United States need?
It is not more wars and militarism. Over the last generation, we have been led astray on imperialist adventures. We should be done with stupid wars. Between Vietnam and Iraq, we have more than had our fill. While there are real threats out there, we must be much more circumspect about what constitutes a genuine threat to our national security. Our military-industrial complex is too large and its appetites will promote much more needless loss of life.
We do need to recognize climate change and we must stop ignoring the overwhelming consensus of scientists who warn us about it. The climate change deniers are an absurdity and have had too much sway. Moving beyond fossil fuels and toward environmentally sustainable energy is a no-brainer. The environmental challenges cut far deeper than is being acknowledged. We need to fight the ongoing mass extinction of biodiversity and we need to protect wilderness and prevent habitat destruction. Human life is integrally intertwined with our fellow species. We are failing to recognize that exterminating other species threatens humanity.
I would be remiss if I did not mention our original sins – racism against Native Americans and African-Americans. It is not like that has been adequately addressed. Denial still reigns. It is past time to own up and figure out an agenda that is intellectually honest and just. At the very least we need to stop allowing suppression of the vote. Such a low percentage of people vote in America. We should be doing everything to increase popular vote. I agree with Senator Sanders’ idea that we have a Democracy Day national holiday so that everyone has the time and opportunity to vote. We also may want to allow weekend voting.
I also feel compelled to mention defense of women’s reproductive rights. The anti-choice movement has chipped away for years now at the rights established by Roe v Wade. The extremism of that movement has created an environment where fanatics feel justified targeting and murdering doctors. Progressives must defend choice. It is sad that in an article about progressive vision, I am advocating an undeniably defensive action but there is a clear and present danger to women across the country and these rights must be protected.
Also we need to stop blaming undocumented immigrants. They did not bring the economy to its knees or move jobs to China. They are being scapegoated. Ideas like building a wall or banning Muslims from entry in the United States do not constitute change; such ideas are know-nothing reaction.
I know plenty of people will read these ideas and they will attack them as socialist. In this, they will be wrong. Socialism is about control over the means of production by working class people. The big changes I have outlined are only about fairness and fit more in the social democratic tradition.
The range of ideas allowed for serious discussion by Republicans and Democrats is far too narrow. I offer these ideas as a basis for further discussion and debate. Capitalism is consigning masses of working people, including in New Hampshire, to a permanent underclass. Maybe it is time to think big.