Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Honduran coup: another US destabilization operation

The Honduran coup: another US destabilization operation

By Barry Grey and Rafael Azul

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While publicly opposing the military coup that ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya on Sunday, the Obama administration on Monday indicated that it will not cut off aid to the Central American country or demand Zelaya’s reinstatement.

Following a White House meeting with Washington’s closest Latin American ally, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, President Obama reiterated the position that the ouster of Zelaya was illegal. However, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters at a State Department briefing that the US government was refraining from formally declaring the removal of Zelaya a “coup.”

Under the Foreign Assistance Act, no US aid can be given to a country whose elected head of government is removed by a military coup. The US is providing Honduras with $43 million in aid this year and maintains a major military presence in the country, including a base staffed by 600 US troops located 50 miles from the capital, Tegucigalpa. The US has also refrained from recalling its ambassador to Honduras.

Earlier on Monday, Clinton was asked whether the stated US goal of “restoring democratic order in Honduras” included returning Zelaya to the presidency. “We haven’t laid out any demands that we’re insisting on,” Clinton replied.

The official US line is that it attempted unsuccessfully to convince the Honduran military not to proceed with the coup. However, this amounts to a tacit acknowledgment that Washington was well aware of the coup plans.

Given the intimate and long-standing ties between the US and the Honduran military, the record over many decades of US-backed coups and military dictatorships in the country and the region, and the ongoing efforts to destabilize the regime of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, it is not credible that the US played no role in the removal of one of Chavez’s allies in Latin America.

Sunday’s coup was the culmination of an escalating political crisis in the impoverished country. Zelaya, a wealthy rancher, was elected in 2005 as the candidate of the bourgeois establishment Liberal Party. He ran on a right-wing program, but shifted in the intervening years, adopting a populist and nationalist persona in order to appease growing popular discontent, and allying himself with Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, all of which are headed by regimes considered by Washington to be hostile to US interests in Latin America.

At the beginning of June, Zelaya hosted the meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) which provisionally removed the long-standing US-backed ban on Cuba. He was among the most strident advocates of allowing Cuba to join the organization, frustrating US efforts to maintain the political quarantine on the Castro regime.

Zelaya increasingly earned the enmity of dominant sections of the Honduran business elite, the military brass and the Church—the forces most closely allied to US imperialism. On June 12, a motorcade transporting Zelaya came under fire in Tegucigalpa. At least one bullet hit the President’s limousine, shattering the windshield.

Zelaya’s effort to hold a referendum on changing the constitution became the pretext for the coup. His opponents declared the referendum an attempt to override a constitutional limit on presidential tenure to one four-year term. The referendum proposed that a vote be held on November 29, the same day as national elections, to establish a constitutional convention.

Earlier this month the Honduran Supreme Court declared the referendum unconstitutional, and army chief General Romeo Vasquez refused to allow it to proceed. When Zelaya fired Vasquez, the Supreme Court overturned the action and reinstated the general. Last Thursday, Zelaya led a demonstration to seize referendum ballots that were being held by the military.

When Zelaya attempted on Sunday to hold the referendum, recast as a nonbinding opinion poll, the military broke into his home, arrested him and deported him to Costa Rica. The Honduran Congress, with the imprimatur of the Supreme Court, elected the parliamentary speaker, Roberto Micheletti, a member of Zelaya’s Liberal Party, as “interim president.”

The military imposed a de facto state of siege in Tegucigalpa, cutting off electricity, closing down pro-Zelaya media and reportedly arresting the foreign minister and other government officials. Cuba has charged that its ambassador to Honduras and the ambassadors from Nicaragua and Venezuela were beaten by troops carrying out the coup.

Since Sunday, a tense standoff has continued between the army and pro-Zelaya demonstrators outside the presidential palace. On Monday there were reports of tear gas attacks on demonstrators.

Zelaya has vowed to return to power, and the coup has been condemned by the US, the European Union, the OAS, the United Nations and the leaders of Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Colombia and other countries allied with the Zelaya regime, who met Sunday night in Managua.

Chavez has, justifiably, cast the coup as an overt threat to his regime. He has charged the US with complicity, alleging involvement by Otto Reich, a long-time anti-Castro operative and favorite of anti-Castro exiles in Miami. Reich played a key role as a Reagan administration State Department official in the Iran-Contra conspiracy, in which Reagan authorized secret funding for the anti-Sandinista Contras, in violation of the Boland amendment which had been passed by Congress banning US aid to the Contra death squads.

Reich was one of a number of Iran-Contra veterans who were appointed to government posts in the administration of George W. Bush, serving as assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs.

The US used southern Honduras as the base of operations for its proxy war in the 1980s against the left nationalist, Cuban-allied regime in neighboring Nicaragua.

There are parallels in the Honduran events to the abortive 2002 US-backed coup against Venezuela’s Chavez. The current US ambassador to Honduras, Hugo Llorens, undoubtedly played a significant role in that failed attempt to oust an elected Latin American president.

In 2002 and 2003, Llorens served as the director of Andean affairs on the Bush administration’s National Security Council (NSC). In that post, he was the principal adviser to the president and the NSC on issues relating to Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador.

Otto Reich was also implicated in the 2002 coup attempt. He met with Venezuelan opposition figures in the run-up to the attempted ouster of Chavez.

Reich is currently a board member of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, better known as the School of the Americas, located in Fort Benning, Georgia. Among the tens of thousands of Latin American military officers—and death squad leaders—who have been trained at the School of the Americas are two of the leaders of Sunday’s coup in Honduras, Army General Romeo Vasquez and Air Force General Luis Javier Prince Suazo.

Another graduate of the School of the Americas was Policarpo Paz Garcia, who ruled Honduras in 1980-82. Paz Garcia launched Battalion 3-16, one of the most feared death squads in Latin America.

Commenting on the calculations of the Obama administration, behind the official disapproval of the Honduran coup and the pro-democracy rhetoric, the intelligence web site Statfor on Monday noted that the US could exert irresistible pressure on Honduras to restore Zelaya to power, since the US provides the market for 70 percent of the country’s exports. “However,’” Stratfor wrote, “the aim of economic pressure would be for [interim President] Micheletti to make moves to support democracy, and open elections—such as those already scheduled for November 29—would easily appease the United States.”

The Washington Post reported that John Negroponte, the long-time US State Department official, said that Clinton’s remarks “appeared to reflect US reluctance to see Zelaya returned unconditionally to power.” The newspaper quoted Negroponte as saying, “I think she wants to preserve some leverage to get Zelaya to back down from his insistence on a referendum.”

Negroponte knows whereof he speaks. He was US ambassador to Honduras during the 1980s and virtually ran the US proxy war against Nicaragua that was based in Honduras.

It appears that the Obama administration is involved in an operation aimed at either permanently removing Zelaya or negotiating a return to power under conditions where his government would be weakened and its policies shifted in favor of US interests. This, in turn, would further US efforts to destabilize Chavez in Venezuela and shift the balance of power throughout Latin America.

The Obama administration has, however, learned something from the disastrous failure of the Bush administration’s botched coup against Chavez seven years ago. It is seeking to conceal its real aims behind formal opposition to the coup in Honduras and a public posture of fidelity to democratic elections.

Moreover, the US is in no position to openly support a coup in Honduras or maintain a public stance of neutrality under conditions in which it is waging a propaganda war and destabilization campaign in Iran based on allegations that the regime headed by President Ahmadinejad stole the June 12 election.

An unmistakable indicator of the real attitude of the Obama administration to the events in Honduras is the response of the US media. The media, led by the New York Times, immediately embraced the claims of the Iranian opposition that the election had been rigged and a coup had been carried out, without presenting any concrete evidence to support the allegations. It provided nonstop coverage of antigovernment demonstrations, and proclaimed the dissident faction of the clerical regime to be heading a “green revolution” for democracy.

In contrast, the US media has provided only minimal coverage of a real coup in Honduras. It has barely reported the police-state measures, arrests and beatings carried out by the Honduran military, and treated the anti-coup protests with utter indifference. On Monday evening, the events in Honduras were relegated to a mere mention on all three network news broadcasts, well behind the death of Michael Jackson.

What accounts for this stark contrast? The simple fact that the US government opposes the victor in the Iranian election and supports those who ousted Zelaya in Honduras.

The media, in particular the New York Times, which supported the 2002 coup attempt against Chavez, provides a further indication of US involvement in the Honduran coup. One month ago, as the political crisis in Honduras was heating up, the Times published a provocative article entitled “Chavez Seeks Tighter Grip on the Military.” The article retailed, without substantiation, claims of a massive crackdown by Chavez against dissidents within the Venezuelan military. This article, undoubtedly written on assignment from the CIA, was a certain indicator that the US was preparing subversion in the region.

US war games signal intensifying tension over Arctic

US war games signal intensifying tension over Arctic

By Niall Green

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In more ways than one, things are heating up in the Arctic. Several large military exercises undertaken by the United States and members of the US-led military alliance NATO are proof of growing tensions between the major powers.

The stakes involved in the Arctic are enormous. A report issued last year by the United States Geological Survey estimated that the Arctic Ocean could hold 90 billion barrels of oil, up to a third of the world’s untapped natural gas deposits, and a possible 20 percent of natural gas liquids. In addition, the retreat of the Arctic ice sheet due to environmental warming could open up viable shipping routes between the northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

For many years the United States has played a relatively muted role in the Arctic, while Russia, Norway, Canada and Denmark have actively pursued territorial claims in the region. US Coast Guard Real Admiral Gene Brooks has warned, "If there's a five-nation race in the Arctic, we're fifth," while Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen has urged Washington to renew its fleet of icebreakers so as not to fall behind its rivals.

Writing June 11 in the German news magazine Der Spiegel, Christoph Seidler claimed that Russia was “leading the pack” in the race for dominance in the Arctic, with the US “likely to remain on the sidelines.”

It is inconceivable, however, that Washington will permit its rivals—especially in Moscow—a free hand in the Arctic. This is the significance of a series of US military operations in the high northern latitudes over the past two months.

In May, NATO held its regular Joint Warrior exercise in the North Sea. Involving more than 30 warships and dozens of aircraft, the war games were extended from the usual two to three weeks this year, with forces operating in a fictitious “Northern Dispute Zone” involving an enemy who had been harassing neighboring states.

The following month, another major NATO operation took place in the region. Based in the Swedish Arctic and the northern section of the Baltic Sea, NATO exercises took place June 8-11 involving armed forces from alliance members Norway, Britain, Germany, Poland, and the United States. Also present were forces from Sweden and Finland—not NATO members but linked to the alliance through its “Partners for Peace” scheme.

This was the first major NATO exercise in Sweden, which has traditionally maintained a policy of neutrality. A number of Swedish politicians and peace groups have complained that the maneuvers threaten this neutral status and are indicative of the country’s gradual move towards NATO accession. A Nordic battle group, involving forces from Norway, Sweden and Finland has participated in the US occupation of Afghanistan.

The exercises were reputed to involve the largest use of airpower in Scandinavia since the Second World War.

Concurrent with the Scandinavian maneuvers, the US Navy led its annual Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) exercise, involving 12 navies from NATO and allied countries. At the center of the operation was USS Mount Whitney, flagship of the US Navy's Sixth Fleet.

“The purpose of BALTOPS is to bring all of the nations together in one exercise,” said Commander J.G. Olaf Albrecht, the head of the German Navy Fleet Headquarters’ delegation. “We learn how other navies work and how to live together in the Baltic Sea, especially the nations which are former Soviet nations such as Lithuania and Latvia. It's a very educational experience.”

This is the latest intensification of NATO activity in the Baltic, with the alliance maintaining regular live military exercises involving air and ground forces from its three new ex-Soviet members, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

For 11 days this month, concluding June 26, the US Navy and Air Force also carried out a major training operation in the Alaskan Arctic, centered at Elmendorf Air Force Base and involving the USS John C. Stennis carrier strike group. The area of operations bordered Russian territorial waters in the Chukchi Sea, which is estimated to hold 15 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 76 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The obvious target of US and NATO military preparations in the high northern regions is Russia. This month the Swedish defense minister, Sten Tolgfors, commented on tensions in the region, saying, “Russia has certainly raised its tone of voice over the last couple of years” regarding territorial disputes in the Arctic.

Russia is actively pursuing a campaign under the International Law of the Sea to lay claim to vast swathes of the Arctic Ocean, including the North Pole. Russia and NATO member Norway have a longstanding dispute over the sovereignty of the Barents Sea, a region rich in oil and gas deposits, and a potential major sea route for energy exports from the Russian port of Murmansk.

To reinforce its claims in the region, and in response to increased NATO activity, Moscow has increased the number of air force flights over the Arctic and plans to develop a new fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers capable of patrolling the Arctic Ocean. Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has said the Arctic is vital to the country’s “strategic, economic, scientific and defense interests.”

In June, Norway announced that it would move its top military structure, the Operational Command Headquarters, north from Stavanger to Reitan in the Arctic Circle. The Norwegian government has also been in talks with senior NATO officials, including Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, about expanding the alliance’s role in the region.

Rival claims to sovereignty over the Arctic are also being asserted among members of the NATO alliance. Denmark and Canada have a long dispute over the channel between Greenland (an autonomous Danish territory) and Ellesmere Island, a potential sea lane should the Arctic ice melt further. Canada and the United States have also pursued rival territorial claims in the region.

Amidst a historic crisis of world capitalism, American imperialism is seeking to expand its influence at the direct expense of its rivals, none more so than Russia. This was expressed most explosively to date with the US-backed Georgian assault on South Ossetia in August 2008, which almost led to direct conflict with Moscow. Today there is no region on earth, especially where rich oilfields are located, in which great power conflict is not brewing. The Arctic is no exception.

Obama administration preparing order for indefinite detentions

Obama administration preparing order for indefinite detentions

By Tom Eley

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The Obama administration is drafting an executive order that would give the US president the power to arrest without charge, and imprison indefinitely without trial, foreign nationals it accuses of being terrorists, according to several senior government officials who spoke with the Washington Post and a reporter for non-profit news source ProPublica on condition of anonymity.

The order, should it be released, would likely reuse arguments made by the previous administration of George W. Bush that the laws of war allow the executive branch to disregard the established judicial system and domestic laws and rights, such as those guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.

Behind Obama’s turn toward indefinite detention is the quandary he faces over the prison camp at the US military naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Shortly after entering office in late January, Obama issued an executive order—to great media fanfare—calling for the closure of the Guantánamo prison by January 2010. But the debate that has ensued in Washington, while nominally focused on what to do with the remaining Guantánamo inmates, has developed into a discussion of the broader anti-democratic methods of the “war on terror.”

The Obama administration hopes an executive order will resolve the legal fate of the 229 remaining Guantánamo prisoners—as well as future prisoners in the “war on terror”—by allowing the president to incarcerate them indefinitely, likely at military installations in the US.

The establishment of a Guantánamo-style system of indefinite detention without trial, on US soil, run by the military, has the most far-reaching implications for democratic rights in the US. It would also mark an end-run around Congress, which the administration had previously hoped could craft legislation to establish new extra-judicial forms of trial and incarceration—potentially including a special “national security court.”

As the Post puts it, resorting to an executive order would be taken as a signal that Obama “is willing to forsake the legislative branch of government, as his predecessor often did,” a strategy that sometimes failed when courts ruled Bush administration measures “lacked congressional approval and tried to exclude judicial oversight.”

According to the Post, the administration believes that Congress will be unable to develop satisfactory legislation, and that the proposal for a national security court would open up rifts within the Democratic congressional caucus. One official told the Post that the administration fears that Congress will assert too much control over any new legal system by subjecting the president’s ability to move detainees to legislative review. Nonetheless, negotiations between administration lawyers and top Congressional leaders are ongoing.

Obama’s efforts to reduce the census at the Guantánamo prison have been blocked at every turn. There remain, officially, 229 prisoners at Guantánamo—only 13 fewer than when Obama took office. Of the 13, 11 have been transferred to other countries, one has been taken to New York City to face trial (Ahmed Ghailani), and one has committed suicide. (Over the years at least five Guantánamo prisoners have killed themselves—the actual number is likely higher—and hundreds more have attempted to do so.)

The Obama administration has concluded that trials in the US court system can be used for only a handful of the prisoners. This is because, in the first place, the great majority of the Guantánamo inmates are innocent of any relationship to Al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Second, what “evidence” there exists against them has been extracted through torture, or dubious forms of hearsay evidence gathered by secret agents or foreign spies who cannot appear in court. Third, civilian trials could bring into public focus and place before judicial scrutiny the criminal methods Washington has used in the war on terror—including torture and kidnapping—and perhaps place in legal jeopardy CIA agents and former Bush administration officials.

The only name so far broached for a possible civilian trial is Khaled Sheik Mohammed, who is accused of being an organizer of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. The administration claims that, among Guantánamo detainees, three other inmates are also linked to the attacks. This is in itself a damning admission. Of the hundreds of inmates who have been held at Guantánamo, many of them tortured, only four are alleged to have any connection to the act of terrorism that has, for eight years, been the catch-all justification for the “war on terror,” and indeed for the Guantánamo prison camp itself.

Military tribunals are apparently an increasingly unattractive alternative to the Obama administration as well. On May 15, Obama announced his intention to restart military commission trials for some Guantánamo inmates that would allow the use of hearsay evidence against the accused, and which would make only cosmetic alterations to the tribunal system used under the Bush administration. Yet out of the nearly 800 inmates who have been held at Guantánamo since 2001, only two have so far been convicted by military tribunals—Australian David Hicks and Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s chauffeur. Hicks’ conviction resulted from a plea deal and he was soon released to Australia. Hamdan—a hand-picked test case of the tribunal system—was given a light sentence by a vetted military jury, in what was widely considered a major rebuke to the Bush administration.

A third option—releasing a small number of clearly innocent Guantánamo prisoners into the US—has been all but scrapped. Obama and leading Democrats have determined this is politically unviable, after Republicans raised a hysterical campaign over the supposed dangers of bringing “hardened terrorists” to the US.

Finally, Obama’s persistent appeals to foreign governments have, with few exceptions, been rejected. Foreign capitals argue that if the prisoners are too dangerous for release in the US, they will face political backlash for accepting them.

Thus through a process of elimination, the Obama administration now seems inclined toward the most reactionary solution—the establishment of indefinite detention without charge or trial within US borders. Administration officials say that about half of the current Guantánamo inmates “cannot be prosecuted either in federal court or military commissions,” according to the Post. “In many cases, the evidence against them is classified, has been provided by foreign intelligence services, or has been tainted by the Bush administration’s use of harsh interrogation techniques.”

The Post offers as an example Walid bin Attash, who is accused of participating in the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. The evidence against Attash reportedly cannot stand scrutiny before either a domestic court or military tribunal. Crucial evidence in the government’s case against him was extracted through the torture of another prisoner, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, and two other supposed witnesses cannot appear in court.

On June 22 US federal judge Richard Leon issued an emphatic ruling against the Obama administration in the case of Abdul Rahim al Janko, who has been held at Guantánamo for seven and a half years, highlighting the legal difficulties it faces in prosecuting “terror suspects” in civilian courts. Leon ordered the immediate release of al Janko, now 31, a Syrian national of Kurdish background. Leon ruled that the Obama administration had not proven, even on a lenient “preponderance of the evidence” basis, that al Janko could be lawfully held any longer. While the Obama Justice Department dropped the Bush administration’s use of the term “enemy combatant,” it offered the court the same argument—that the president can indefinitely hold terror suspects through the Congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which was passed three days after the September 11 attacks. In his ruling, Leon noted that whether or not the Obama administration cares to use the term “enemy combatant,” in practice its policy is the same.

Tragically, al Janko had been imprisoned and tortured for two years by the Taliban, who accused him of being a US spy, before the US seized him and subjected him to a much longer duration of imprisonment and torture—accusing him of being an Al-Qaeda terrorist.

The Post article is itself part of an attempt by the administration to gauge political support in Congress and the military-intelligence apparatus for such an executive order. “One administration official suggested the White House was already trying to build support for an executive order,” the article notes. This is keeping with the modus operandi of the Obama administration. Prior to making several policy moves over the past few months related to Guantánamo, top “anonymous” officials “familiar with the matter” have planted stories either in the Post or the New York Times in an attempt to prepare a Congressional consensus.

Obama’s victory in last year’s election, it must be recalled, was owing in large measure to a shift behind his candidacy among powerful elements in the military and foreign policy elite who felt that the Bush administration’s handling of “the war on terror” had damaged the international standing of US imperialism. At the same time, Obama won millions of votes of those disgusted with the police-state policies of the Bush administration.

Now, only five months into his administration, Obama has cast aside all of his promises to curb the new anti-democratic powers of the state. Obama has promised there will be no investigation, let alone prosecution, of Bush administration officials or CIA agents who ordered or carried out torture, and has moved to block from public view further evidence of prisoner abuse. Invoking the “state secrets” doctrine, the Obama administration has maneuvered to shut down civil court cases of those who were abducted and tortured in the war on terror. And the National Security Agency, it has been revealed, continues to monitor the e-mail communications of millions of US citizens, even as the Obama administration moves to establish a military “Cyber Command” that would have new authority over the nation’s computer networks.

Obama’s increasingly open embrace of all the anti-democratic methods of the Bush administration—with even superficial differences vanishing—demonstrates the impossibility of defending democratic rights through one or another capitalist politician or party. The criminal methods of the “war on terror” arise not from the mistaken policies of individual politicians. Rather they arise inexorably from the deeper criminal act of launching wars of aggression, which in turn arises from the US political elite’s drive to offset the decline of US capitalism by seizing critical natural resources and strategic advantage over its main imperialist rivals in Europe and Asia.

Debt Deflation in America

Debt Deflation in America

What the Jump in the U.S. Savings Rate Really Means

by Michael Hudson

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Happy-face media reporting of economic news is providing the usual upbeat spin on Friday’s debt-deflation statistics. The Commerce Department’s National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA) for May show that U.S. “savings” are now absorbing 6.9 percent of income.

I put the word “savings” in quotation marks because this 6.9% is not what most people think of as savings. It is not money in the bank to draw out on the “rainy day” when one is laid off as unemployment rates rise. The statistic means that 6.9% of national income is being earmarked to pay down debt – the highest saving rate in 15 years, up from actually negative rates (living on borrowed credit) just a few years ago. The only way in which these savings are “money in the bank” is that they are being paid by consumers to their banks and credit card companies.

Income paid to reduce debt is not available for spending on goods and services. It therefore shrinks the economy, aggravating the depression. So why is the jump in “saving” good news?

It certainly is a good idea for consumers to get out of debt. But the media are treating this diversion of income as if it were a sign of confidence that the recession may be ending and Mr. Obama’s “stimulus” plan working. The Wall Street Journal reported that Social Security recipients of one-time government payments “seem unwilling to spend right away," 1 while The New York Times wrote that “many people were putting that money away instead of spending it.”2 It is as if people can afford to save more.

The reality is that most consumers have little real choice but to pay. Unable to borrow more as banks cut back credit lines, their “choice” is either to pay their mortgage and credit card bill each month, or lose their homes and see their credit ratings slashed, pushing up penalty interest rates near 20%! To avoid this fate, families are shifting to cheaper (and less nutritious) foods, eating out less (or at fast food restaurants), and cutting back vacation spending. It therefore seems contradictory to applaud these “saving” (that is, debt-repayment) statistics as an indication that the economy may emerge from depression in the next few months. While unemployment approaches the 10% rate and new layoffs are being announced every week, isn’t the Obama administration taking a big risk in telling voters that its stimulus plan is working? What will people think this winter when markets continue to shrink? How thick is Mr. Obama’s Teflon?

We are living in the wreckage of the Greenspan bubble

As recently as two years ago consumers were buying so many goods on credit that the domestic savings rate was zero. (Financing the U.S. Government’s budget deficit with foreign central bank recycling of the dollar’s balance-of-payments deficit actually produced a negative 2% savings rate.) During these Bubble Years savings by the wealthiest 10% of the population found their counterpart in the debt that the bottom 90% were running up. In effect, the wealthy were lending their surplus revenue to an increasingly indebted economy at large.

Today, homeowners no longer can re-finance their mortgages and compensate for their wage squeeze by borrowing against rising prices for their homes. Payback time has arrived – paying back bank loans, whose volume has been augmented to include accrued interest charges and penalties. New bank lending has hit a wall as banks are limiting their activity to raking in amortization and interest on existing mortgages, credit cards and personal loans.

Many families are able to remain financially afloat by running down their savings and cutting back their spending to try and avoid bankruptcy. This diversion of income to pay creditors explains why retail sales figures, auto sales and other commercial statistics are plunging vertically downward in almost a straight line, while unemployment rates soar toward the 10% level. The ability of most people to spend at past rates has hit a wall. The same income cannot be used for two purposes. It cannot be used to pay down debt and also for spending on goods and services. Something must give. So more stores and shopping malls are becoming vacant each month. And unlike homeowners, absentee property investors have little compunction about walking away from negative equity situations – owing creditors more than the property is worth.

Over two-thirds of the U.S. population are homeowners, and real estate economists estimate that about a quarter of U.S. homes are now in a state of negative equity as market prices plunges below the mortgages attached to them. This is the condition in which Citigroup and AIG found themselves last year, along with many other Wall Street institutions. But whereas the government absorbed their losses “to get the economy moving again” (or at least to help Congress’s major campaign contributors to recover), personal debtors are in no such favored position. Their designated role is to help make the banks whole by paying off the debts they have been running up in an attempt to maintain living standards that their take-home pay no longer is supporting.

Banks for their part are slashing credit-card debt limits and jacking up interest and penalty charges. (I see little chance that Congress will approve the Consumer Financial Products Agency that Mr. Obama promoted as a flashy balloon for his recent bank giveaway program. The agency is to be dreamed about, not enacted.) The problem is that default rates are rising rapidly. This has prompted many banks to strike deals with their most overstretched customers to settle outstanding balances for as little as half the face amount (much of which is accrued interest and penalties, to be sure). Banks are now competing not to gain customers but to shed them. The plan is to offer steep enough payment discounts to prompt bad risks to settle by sticking rival banks with ultimate default when they finally give up their struggle to maintain solvency. (The idea is that strapped debtors will max out on one bank’s card to pay off another bank at half-price.)

The trillions of dollars that the Bush and Obama administration have given away to Wall Street would have been enough to buy a great bulk of the mortgages now in default – mortgages beyond the ability of many debtors to pay in the first place. The government could have enacted a Clean Slate for these debtors – financed by re-introducing progressive taxation, restoring the full capital gains tax to the same rate as that levied on earned income (wages and profits), and closing the tax loopholes that effectively free finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE) sector from income taxation. Instead, the government has made Wall Street virtually tax exempt, and swapped Treasury bonds for trillions of dollars of junk mortgages and bad debts. The “real” economy’s growth prospects are being sacrificed in an attempt to carry its financial overhead.

Banks and credit-card companies are girding for economic shrinkage. It was in anticipation of this state of affairs, after all, that they pushed so hard from 1998 onward to make what finally became the 2005 bankruptcy laws so pro-creditor, so cruel to debtors by making personal bankruptcy an economic and legal hell.

It is to avoid this hell that families are cutting their spending so as to keep current on their debts, against all odds that they can avoid default in today’s shrinking economy.

Working off debt = “saving,” but not in liquid form

People are putting more money away, but not into savings accounts. They are indeed putting it into banks, but in the form of paying down debt. To accountants looking at balance sheets, savings represent the increase in net worth. In times past this was indeed the result mainly of a buildup of liquid funds. But today’s money being saved is not available for spending. It merely reduces the debt burden being carried by individuals. Unlike Citibank, AIG and other Wall Street institutions, they are not having their debts conveniently wiped off the books. The government is not nice enough to buy back their investments that had lost up to half their value in the past year. Such bailouts are for creditors and money managers, not their debtors.

The story that the media should be telling is how today’s post-bubble economy has turned the concept of saving on its head. The accounting concept underlying balance sheets is that a negation of a negation is positive. Paying down debt liabilities is counted as “saving” because one owes less.

This is not what people expected a half-century ago. Economists wrote about how technology would raise productivity levels, people would be living in near utopian conditions by the time the year 2000 arrived. They expected a life of leisure and prosperity. Needless to say, this is far from materializing. The textbooks need to be rewritten – and in fact, are being rewritten.3

Keynesian economics turned inside-out

Most individuals and companies emerged from World War II in 1945 nearly debt-free, and with progressive income taxes. Economists anticipated – indeed, even feared – that rising incomes would lead to higher saving rates. The most influential view was that of John Maynard Keynes. Addressing the problems of the Great Depression in 1936, his General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money warned that people would save relatively more as their incomes rose. Spending on consumer goods would tail off, slowing the growth of markets, and hence new investment and employment.

This view of the saving function – the propensity to save out of wages and profits –viewed saving as breaking the circular flow of payments between producers and consumers. The main cloud on the horizon, Keynesians worried, was that people would be so prosperous that they would not spend their money. The indicated policy to deter under-consumption was for economies to indulge in more leisure and more equitable income distribution.

The modern dynamics of saving – and the increasingly top-heavy indebtedness in which savings are invested – are quite different from (and worse than) what Keynes explained. Most financial savings are lent out, not plowed into tangible capital formation and industry. Most new investment in tangible capital goods and buildings comes from retained business earnings, not from savings that pass through financial intermediaries. Under these conditions, higher personal saving rates are reflected in higher indebtedness. That is why the saving rate has fallen to a zero or “wash” level. A rising proportion of savings find their counterpart more in other peoples’ debts rather than being used to finance new direct investment.

Each business recovery since World War II has started with a higher debt ratio. Saving is indeed interfering with consumption, but it is not the result of rising incomes and prosperity. A rising savings rate merely reflects the degree to which the economy is working off its debt overhead. It is “saving” in the form of debt repayment in a shrinking economy. The result is financial dystopia, not the technological utopia that seemed so attainable back in 1945, just sixty-five years ago. Instead of a consumer-friendly leisure economy, we have debt peonage.

To get an idea of how oppressive the debt burden really is, I should note that the 6.9% savings rate does not even reflect the 16% of the economy that the NIPA report for interest payments to carry this debt, or the penalty fees that now yield as much as interest yields to credit-card companies – or the trillions of dollars of government bailouts to try and keep this unsustainable system afloat. How an economy can hope to compete in global markets as an industrial producer with so high a financial overhead factored into the cost of living and doing business must remain for a future article to address.


1 Kelly Evans, “Americans Save More, Amid Rising Confidence,” Wall Street Journal, June 27, 2009.

2 Jack Healy, “As Incomes Rebound, Saving Hits Highest Rate in 15 Years,” The New York Times, June 27, 2009.

3 Four years ago at a post-Keynesian “heterodox economics” conference at the University of Missouri at Kansas City (on whose faculty I have been for some years now), I outlined the shift from over-saving to debt deflation. Michael Hudson, “Saving, Asset-Price Inflation, and Debt-Induced Deflation,” in L. Randall Wray and Matthew Forstater, eds., Money, Financial Instability and Stabilization Policy (Edward Elgar, 2006):104-24.

Pro-Israel Lobby Alarmed by Growth of Boycott, Divestment Movement

Pro-Israel Lobby Alarmed by
Growth of Boycott, Divestment Movement

Art Young

Go To Original

The movement to call Israel to account for its crimes against the Palestinian people is growing. It is “invading the mainstream discourse, becoming part of the constant and unrelenting drumbeat against Israel.” It could eventually threaten the existence of the Jewish state by undermining the support it receives from its strongest backer, the U. S. government. That was the message of alarm delivered by the Executive Director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Howard Kohr, to the AIPAC Policy Conference on May 3.[1]

AIPAC is one of the principal organizations that lobby publicly on behalf of Israel in the United States, where it is an important influence on foreign policy. Among the 6,000 dignitaries who attended its policy conference were more than half of the members of the Senate and a third of the members of the House of Representatives. Featured speakers included Vice President Joe Biden, Senator John Kerry, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres.

AIPAC and its allies are often alleged to act as a kind of shadow government in Washington, distorting policy in Israel’s interest rather than that of the United States. This stands reality on its head. The pro-Israel lobby carries real weight in the halls of power, but only because the U.S. and Israel share the same fundamental interests. The U.S. relies on Israel to keep the Arab states of the Middle East divided, weak, and under constant threat of attack, thus ensuring that they remain subservient to Washington. For its part, Israel could not continue to exist in its present form without the strong political and material support it receives from the USA. It received more than $2.5-billion in military aid from the U.S. in 2009.[2] Israel and the United States may be partners with shared objectives, but the relationship is a highly unequal one.

Kohr’s address focused on the growing power of the international movement against Israel’s criminal behavior, identifying support for boycott, divestment and sanctions as a particularly worrisome development.

Kohr pointed to a variety of statements and actions against Israel’s onslaught on Palestinians in Gaza, including demonstrations in Spain and Germany. He noted that 400 British academics had demanded that Britain’s Science Museum cancel an event highlighting the work of Israeli scientists and that an Italian trade union calls for a boycott of Israeli products.

“Incredibly, there now is even an Israel Apartheid Week conducted in cities across the globe,” he added.

Kohr noted the strength of opposition to Israel in the Middle East, Europe, and in international forums. But he voiced particular concern over the movement’s progress in the United States “where Israel stands accused of apartheid and genocide, where Zionism equals racism, where a former president of the United States can publicly accuse Israel of apartheid.”

Significantly, the AIPAC leader also insisted on the profound nature of the issues that divide supporters and critics of Israeli policy.

What we are witnessing is the attempted delegitimization of Israel; the systematic sowing of doubt that Israel is a nation that has forfeited the world’s concern; a nation whose actions are, in the strict meaning of the term, indefensible. This is more than the simple spewing of hatred. This is a conscious campaign to shift policy, to transform the way Israel is treated by its friends to a state that deserves not our support, but our contempt; not our protection, but pressured to change its essential nature...

I’m not saying that these allegations have become accepted. But they have become acceptable. More and more they are invading the mainstream discourse, becoming part of the constant and unrelenting drumbeat against Israel. These voices are laying the predicate for an abandonment. They’re making the case for Israel’s unworthiness to be allowed what is for any nation the first and most fundamental of rights: the right to self-defense... They are preparing us for a world in which Israel stands alone, isolated, and at risk...

Now, there’s little we can do to stop the boycotts of Israeli goods launched in London or Lisbon or Rome. There’s little we can do to stop Israel Apartheid Week. But there is much we can do to stop this campaign from taking hold here. Here where it matters the most, in Washington, where United States policy is forged, we must stop the delegitimization of Israel. We must not let it penetrate the halls of Congress and the counsels of our president.

To win support for Israel from the U.S. ruling class, Kohr argued, friends of Israel must address “the absolute foundation, the base on which all else rests.” That is, the fact that Israel is

a Western outpost in the Middle East. To those who make that accusation, I say you are right. Israel is the only democratic country in the region that looks West, that looks to the values and the vision we share of what our society, our country should aim at and aspire to. If that foundation of shared values is shaken, the rationale for the policies we pursue today will be stripped away. The reasons the United States would continue to invest nearly $3-billion in Israel’s security; the willingness to stand with Israel, even alone if need be; the readiness to defend Israel’s very existence, all are undermined and undone if Israel is seen to be unjust and unworthy.

Kohr’s argument that Israel is a garrison state, “a Western outpost in the Middle East,” the front line of the defense of imperialist interests in the region, is not often stated in such forthright terms. But it is quite accurate, and speaks to the source of the conflict in the region.

Palestine Appeals for Solidarity

In his speech, Kohr voiced great alarm at the growth in solidarity with the Palestinian people in recent months. The unprecedented growth of the international solidarity movement is a grass-roots response to the crimes committed by Israel during its murderous 22-day assault on Gaza, and the tight siege of the territory that it maintains to this day.

Solidarity with Palestine is being expressed in many different ways. One of these is the international campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Support for BDS has grown considerably in recent months, which is why the AIPAC leader highlighted it as a cause for particular concern.

The BDS movement responds to an appeal for solidarity that was issued by Palestinian civil society in July 2005. More than 170 organizations, including trade unions, political and social organizations, and women’s and youth groups, issued the appeal. The signatories represent all three components of the divided Palestinian nation, namely, refugees, Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The appeal from Palestine said, in part:

We, representatives of Palestinian civil society, call upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era. We appeal to you to pressure your respective states to impose embargoes and sanctions against Israel. We also invite conscientious Israelis to support this call, for the sake of justice and genuine peace.

These non-violent punitive measures should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law by:

1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;

2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in U.N. resolution 194.[3]

Students Mobilize for Palestine

Students have been in the forefront of the solidarity movement with Palestine. The attack on Gaza spurred student solidarity to new heights.

In what one newspaper described as “the biggest student revolt for 20 years,” students in the U.K. organized occupations at 34 universities. They used the facilities to hold meetings and show films promoting awareness of the oppression of the Palestinians. Many occupations demanded that their university provide practical aid to Palestinian universities and students. Another common theme of the movement was a call to end all ties to arms manufacturers – the university-military connection being particularly strong in the U.K. The universities promote research that benefits the merchants of death; they also invest in those companies.

The student movement achieved some notable gains. Glasgow Strathclyde University agreed to end its purchases from Eden Springs, an Israeli company that produces bottled water from land in the Golan Heights that Israel refuses to return to Syria. Several universities agreed to provide scholarships to Palestinian students. Others organized fundraising for Palestine; many of these efforts are ongoing. The Oxford and Manchester universities agreed to donate surplus books, journals and other educational material to universities in Palestine.

At the University of Manchester, an emergency meeting of the student union attended by more than 850 people adopted a motion committing the union to campaign for BDS.

One of the most important results of the wave of occupations was to raise consciousness of the Palestine issue among thousands of students and beyond. It also provided activists with valuable experience in organizing on this issue and forged links between them. Following on the occupations, many of the campus Palestine committees have increased their activity in support of BDS. Efforts are also being made to build a more sustained student Palestine solidarity movement.[4]

In early February, new ground was conquered in the U.S. when Hampshire College agreed to implement a policy of divestment, the first college or university in the country to do so. Bowing to a two-year campaign by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the Board of Trustees agreed to withdraw its investments from six companies targeted by SJP because they profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine. SJP noted that “this groundbreaking decision follows in Hampshire’s history of being the first college in the country to divest from apartheid South Africa 32 years ago, a decision based on similar human rights concerns.”[5]

Archbishop Desmond Tutu hailed the decision: “This is a monumental and historic step in the struggle for Palestinian equality, self-determination and peace in the Holy Land by non-violent means. I see what these students have accomplished as a replica of the support of their college of our struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Hampshire College’s decision to divest should be a guiding example to all institutions of higher learning.”[6]

Israeli Apartheid Week

In his speech to the conference, AIPAC leader Hauk twice referred to Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), an annual series of presentations and film showings that focus on the Israeli apartheid system and the need for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Initiated at the University of Toronto in 2005, IAW events took place this year on five continents in more than 40 cities and towns, 11 of them in Israeli-occupied Palestine, during the first week of March.[7]

Organizers of IAW in Canada, one of the centers of the movement, had to contend with a sustained barrage of attacks and threats from Zionist organizations backed up by the federal government. In February Jason Kenney, Canada’s Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism, decried the “anti-Zionist version of anti-Semitism” which maintains that “the Jews alone have no right to a homeland.” A few weeks later Kenny took aim directly at IAW. Speaking to the House of Commons, he proclaimed that “Israel Apartheid Week is not about [freedom of opinion] ... We condemn these efforts to single out and attack the Jewish people and their homeland.” He thus suggested, without the slightest basis in fact, that IAW organizers were violating Canada’s criminal code, which bans “hate propaganda.”

University administrators on a number of campuses followed the government’s lead, attempting to disrupt Israeli Apartheid Week. But IAW organizers were successful in beating back these attacks. The daily events unfolded as planned, with audiences of up to 500 in Toronto and Ottawa and 400 in Montreal.[8]

Boycott Motorola, Caterpillar, Israeli Produce

Campus-based activities in solidarity with Palestine are one facet of a broader international campaign, which includes targeted boycotts of companies that profit from Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.

Motorola is one such company. The U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation is urging consumers to “Hang Up On Motorola” until it stops selling communications and surveillance equipment to the Israeli military and to Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land. The group organized a protest outside Motorola’s annual shareholders meeting in Chicago on May 4. Inside the meeting, representatives of the Presbyterian, United Methodist and other churches pressed shareholders to adopt a resolution that would instruct Motorola to follow corporate standards consistent with international law.

The pressure on Motorola has already forced it to give up some ground. After Human Rights Watch announced that its teams had found shrapnel carrying Motorola serial numbers at some of the civilian sites bombed by Israel in its recent assault on Gaza, the company sold the department that makes the fuses for the bombs.[9]

Caterpillar is another target. Israel makes extensive use of its bulldozers to demolish Palestinian homes and to build the apartheid wall. In early February the Church of England announced that it had withdrawn investments of more than £2.2-million ($3.5-million) from Caterpillar, following a policy that it adopted in 2005 of not investing in companies that support the occupation. Other churches and faith-based organizations have joined the divestment movement against the company.[10]

In Canada, the Committee Against Israeli Apartheid and other solidarity activists have organized a boycott of Indigo Books and Music. They demand that the majority shareholders of the bookstore chain, Heather Reisman and Gerry Schwartz, publicly end their support of Heseg, the Foundation for Lone Soldiers. Reisman and Schwartz created the foundation in 2005 to reward “lone soldiers,” volunteers who travel to Israel to serve in the Israeli military. Every year, Heseg grants scholarships to a hundred or more of these zealots to help them remain in Israel after they complete their military service.[11]

For the last two years, solidarity activists have picketed and distributed leaflets periodically outside some of the company’s main bookstores. They have also spoken out at some of its high-profile promotional events and at its annual shareholder meetings. The Indigo campaign has been a useful way to reach out and educate the general public about Palestine. It has also helped to maintain the visibility of the issue during periods when the mainstream media chooses to ignore it.

In Europe, consumer boycotts of Israeli products, particularly agricultural produce, are gaining momentum. The U.K.-based daily The Guardian reported in its April 3 edition that “Israeli companies are feeling the impact of boycott moves in Europe ... amid growing concern within the Israeli business sector over organized campaigns following the recent attack on Gaza. Last week, the Israel Manufacturers Association reported that 21% of 90 local exporters who were questioned had felt a drop in demand due to boycotts, mostly from the U.K. and Scandinavian countries. Last month, a report from the Israel Export Institute reported that 10% of 400 polled exporters received order cancellation notices this year, because of Israel’s assault on Gaza.”

The article also cited the Israeli financial daily, The Marker, which said that “the horrific images on TV and the statements of politicians in Europe and Turkey are changing the behavior of consumers, businessmen and potential investors. Many European consumers boycott Israeli products in practice.”[12]

Veolia: A Major Victory for
the Corporate Boycott Campaign

European solidarity activists have waged a particularly effective campaign against the French multinationals Veolia and Alstom. These companies are part of a consortium that is building a light railway connecting occupied Jerusalem to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, reinforcing Israel’s hold on Palestinian land.

In the U.K., the Palestine Solidarity Campaign conducted an active petition campaign against Veolia’s attempt to win a 25-year waste collection and recycling contract worth £1-billion ($1.6-billion) with the Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council. On March 16 the council announced that Veolia had failed to qualify for the shortlist of three companies that would be invited to bid on the contract.

Also in March, the Swedish national pension fund AP7 announced that it was removing Alstom from its investment portfolio. Activists in Sweden had organized a public education campaign for divestment. The pension fund specifically cited the Jerusalem rail project as the reason it had blacklisted the company.[13]

The following month the Urban Community of Bordeaux cancelled its contract, worth 750 million euros ($1-billion), with Veolia. Although the French municipality cited commercial factors, the cancellation came in the wake of a major controversy over Veolia’s involvement in the Jerusalem project. The Galway City Council in Ireland and the Stockholm Community Council in Sweden both recently decided not to renew their contracts with Veolia.[14]

Finally, the pressure became too much for Veolia. On June 9 the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that the company was abandoning the Jerusalem project. The paper described the company’s decision as a “body blow” to the project, noting that “the French firm had been losing major projects in Europe because of its involvement in the Jerusalem job. Observers claim that’s the real reason Veolia opted out.”[15]

This marks the first major victory of the corporate boycott campaign. Veolia was forced to divest from the Jerusalem project as a result of a targeted and sustained campaign in various countries, coordinated internationally with the help of the Palestinian BDS National Committee. The victory demonstrates how such campaigns can produce tangible victories. It is likely to spur supporters of Palestine to increase their efforts to force corporations to sever their ties with Israel.

Labour Solidarity

Israel’s bloody assault on Gaza earlier this year has also led to new initiatives by organized labour in solidarity with Palestine.

Not surprisingly, support for Palestine and the boycott movement is particularly strong in South Africa. Many South Africans see Israel’s oppression of Palestinians through the prism of their own experience under apartheid.

In early February dock workers in South Africa, members of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), announced that they would refuse to offload a ship from Israel that was scheduled to dock in Durban on February 8. COSATU and the Palestine Solidarity Committee of South Africa explained the significance of the dock workers’ action in this way:

The pledge by the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU) members in Durban reflects the commitment by South African workers to refuse to support oppression and exploitation across the globe.

Last year, Durban dock workers had refused to offload a shipment of arms that had arrived from China and was destined for Zimbabwe to prop up the Mugabe regime and to intensify the repression against the Zimbabwean people. Now, says SATAWU’s General Secretary Randall Howard, the union’s members are committing themselves to not handling Israeli goods.

SATAWU’s action on Sunday will be part of a proud history of worker resistance against apartheid. In 1963, just four years after the Anti-Apartheid Movement was formed, Danish dock workers refused to offload a ship with South African goods. When the ship docked in Sweden, Swedish workers followed suit. Dock workers in Liverpool and, later, in the San Francisco Bay Area also refused to offload South African goods. South Africans, and the South African working class in particular, will remain forever grateful to those workers who determinedly opposed apartheid and decided that they would support the anti-apartheid struggle with their actions.

Last week, Western Australian members of the Maritime Union of Australia resolved to support the campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel, and have called for a boycott of all Israeli vessels and all vessels bearing goods arriving from or going to Israel.

This is the legacy and the tradition that South African dock workers have inherited, and it is a legacy they are determined to honor, by ensuring that South African ports of entry will not be used as transit points for goods bound for or emanating from certain dictatorial and oppressive states such as Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Israel.

COSATU and the Palestine Solidarity Committee reaffirmed their commitment to campaigning for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel. They called on the South African government to sever diplomatic and trade relations with Israel and announced a week of activities under the theme: “Free Palestine! Isolate Apartheid Israel!”[16]

COSATU was the first major national labour federation to call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Several other national labour federations have followed suit, including those of New Zealand and Ireland. On April 24 the convention of the Trade Union Congress of Scotland voted overwhelmingly in favour of BDS after an extensive debate.[17] A few weeks later the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions, which represents more than a third of the country’s work force, urged its government to lead an international boycott of Israel if it continued to violate Palestinian rights.[18]

Individual unions and labour organisations in many countries have also taken a stand.[19] In June 2007 the national conference of UNISON, the largest union of public workers in the U.K., with more than 1.3 million members, called for “concerted and sustained pressure upon Israel including an economic, cultural, academic and sporting boycott.”[20] More recently, in the wake of the assault on Gaza, the leadership of the largest teachers’ union in France, the Fédération syndicale unitaire, endorsed the BDS campaign and called on the European Union to impose sanctions on Israel.[21]

On the other side of the Atlantic, in April 2008 the Canadian Union of Postal Workers became the first country-wide union in North America to adopt a BDS policy. Denis Lemelin, the national president of CUPW, has spoken at a number of meetings and demonstrations in defence of Palestinian rights over the last year. On January 7 he wrote to Prime Minister Stephen Harper on behalf of the union to ask the Canadian government to apply a policy of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel to force it to comply with international law, including the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.[22]

In recent years CUPW has waged a series of battles against the government’s moves to downsize and privatize postal services. The union also has a history of supporting international freedom struggles. It was the first union in Canada to call for a boycott of apartheid South Africa. In a joint statement, several solidarity organizations noted that the union “played a lead role in labour solidarity with South African workers, engaging in concrete actions such as the refusal to handle mail from South Africa.”[23]

The Ontario division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents more than 220,000 workers in the public sector, has played a key role in blazing the trail for labour solidarity in Canada. The decision of CUPE Ontario’s May 2006 convention to endorse boycott, divestment and sanctions sparked massive controversy, thereby drawing international attention to the Palestinian appeal for BDS. Supporters of Israel in various quarters including government officials, editorialists, and even leaders of other unions, directed a torrent of abuse against the union, alleging that the decision was anti-Semitic, undemocratic, and outside the union’s jurisdiction. Sid Ryan, the president of CUPE Ontario, received numerous death threats; his family was also threatened. Ryan and the chair of the union’s international solidarity committee were inundated with hostile telephone and email messages.

Ryan and the union have stood firm against the pressure. Union activists organised an extensive grass-roots education campaign, using an attractive 16-page pamphlet “Towards peace and justice in the Middle East” produced by the CUPE Ontario international solidarity committee. Ryan continued to speak out for Palestine on every possible occasion. As a result, the Zionists were unable to find a base of support in the union; they chose not to contest the BDS policy at the 2008 convention. But the public campaign of vilification of Sid Ryan and CUPE Ontario continues, boosted by a personal attack on Ryan by the Canadian government.

Quebec Teachers, Students Support Boycott

A year after the CUPE Ontario convention, a major union in Quebec joined the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement.

The Fédération nationale des enseignantes et enseignants du Québec (FNEEQ) (National Teachers Federation of Quebec) is the largest union of teachers in higher education in Quebec. Its 23,500 members work at community colleges, universities, and private schools. At its May 31 - June 1, 2007 meeting, the federal council of the union reiterated its long-standing solidarity with the Palestinian people and its right to self-determination. The council also endorsed the BDS campaign.[24]

In November 2007 the FNEEQ published a special edition of its magazine, Carnets, with the title, “Do more for Palestine.” The attractive, 32-page magazine contains articles that explain what life is like under Israeli occupation, Israel’s “separation” wall, why Canada is not a friend of Palestine, and the situation of women under the occupation. Five pages present the need to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel; the views of two Israeli citizens who support BDS, Ilan Pappé and Michel Warschawski, are featured. The lead editorial, written by the president of the FNEEQ, Ronald Cameron, explains that the union is educating its members so that they will understand why taking concrete action to support the Palestinian people is an urgent issue of labour solidarity.[25]

Compared to the abuse showered on CUPE Ontario, criticism of the FNEEQ’s decision to join the boycott-Israel movement has been relatively mild. Quebec is the area of the country where popular sentiment is most favourable to the Palestinian cause. Various unions in Quebec have been active on this issue over the years, and the union leadership in higher education supports the Palestinian cause. (CUPW, discussed earlier, is one of a small number of major Canada-wide unions that have a sizable membership in Quebec.)

The FNEEQ’s record of support for Palestine is particularly strong. In October 2004 it sponsored a delegation of 20 Quebec teachers who attended an international conference on Education, Globalization and Social Change in Ramallah, Palestine. Willie Madisha, then President of COSATU, also participated in the conference. The FNEEQ has participated in several other Quebec-based solidarity delegations to Palestine since then. In late May a 17-person delegation from Quebec that included members of the FNEEQ, CUPE and the CUPW spent a week investigating the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories. Israeli authorities turned them back when they attempted to enter Gaza.

The FNEEQ is also helping to educate students about Palestine. It organized workshops on the issue on community college and university campuses across Quebec during the 2007 - 2008 school year, in collaboration with the Quebec Public Interest Research Group and the Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante. The ASSÉ represents approximately 42,000 Quebec students. In May 2008 it became the first major student union in Canada to join the international BDS campaign.[26]

The FNEEQ and the ASSÉ joined forces again this May when they jointly published Israël Ne Peut Pas Rester Impuni! (Israel Cannot Remain Unpunished!) a 14-page dossier that explains how Israeli military rule undermines the right to education in Palestine. Much of the content consists of translations of material produced in Palestine, notably by the Right to Education Campaign at Birzeit University. The two unions have made copies of the dossier available to the public on their web sites.[27]

At its May 30-31 congress, the FNEEQ unanimously reaffirmed its support for BDS. It also decided to participate in the World Education Forum, part of the World Social Forum movement, that will be held in Palestine in October 2010.[28]

Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia:
No Ties with Israel

One of the aims of the international boycott-Israel movement is to induce governments to break all economic and diplomatic relations with Israel, treating the Zionist state as an international pariah. This is starting to become a reality in Latin America.

Cuba broke relations with Israel in September 1973, on the eve of the Yom Kippur war.[29] Time and again in international forums the revolutionary government has spoken out in support of the struggle of the Palestinian and Arab peoples and against Israeli aggression. It has translated those words into action whenever it could.

However, for decades Cuba has stood alone in the region in its support for Palestine. In the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean, domination by Washington was the rule, and with it, support for U.S. foreign policy. Israel became notorious for the support it gave – through arm shipments, special “advisors” and the like – to bloody dictatorships from Guatemala to Chile.

But now a process of radical transformation is unfolding across the region. Radical, popular movements have emerged in many countries as large numbers of working people begin to act to improve their circumstances. These movements are putting their stamp on society and government. One important result of this process has been the creation of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), an alliance of seven countries that promotes fair trade and mutual aid based on principles of solidarity rather than profit. ALBA also champions respect for national sovereignty and unity of the region against U.S. domination.[30]

The rising tide of struggles in Latin America has been accompanied by a rise in support for the Palestinian people, including by the governments of the region. ALBA has led the way on this.

In September 2008 the ALBA countries were instrumental in securing the election of Father Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann as president of the General Assembly of the United Nations. D’Escoto is a well-known supporter of Palestine. As foreign minister of the Sandinista government of Nicaragua during the 1980s, he played a prominent role in exposing Israel’s role in the “dirty war” that Washington organized against his country.

On November 24 d’Escoto told a meeting at the U.N. that 60 years after partition, “the failure to create a Palestinian state as promised is the single greatest failure in the history of the United Nations.” He went on to say that “although different, what is being done against the Palestinian people seems to me to be a version of the hideous policy of apartheid.”[31] Addressing the General Assembly later the same day, he repeated the apartheid characterization, adding that “I believe it is very important that we in the United Nations use this term. We must not be afraid to call something what it is.”

D’Escoto also urged the member states to consider implementing sanctions against Israel. “More than twenty years ago we in the United Nations took the lead from civil society when we agreed that sanctions were required to provide a non-violent means of pressuring South Africa to end its violations. Today, perhaps we in the United Nations should consider following the lead of a new generation of civil society, who are calling for a similar non-violent campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions to pressure Israel to end its violations.”[32]

ALBA was founded by Venezuela and Cuba, and the Venezuelan government has been especially forthright in speaking and acting for justice in the Middle East. This is an expression of the profound anti-imperialist character of the struggle that has been unfolding in Venezuela since President Hugo Chavez was elected in 1999.

In July 2006 Chavez forcefully denounced the war that Israel had unleashed on Lebanon, and Venezuela matched its words with deeds. It withdrew its ambassador from Israel, sent 20,000 tons of emergency aid to Lebanon, and began a drive to raise funds for Lebanese reconstruction.[33]

Soon after Israel began its attack on Gaza, Venezuelans took to the streets in protest. Speaking to a rally in Caracas on January 9, 2009, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro announced that his country would send 80 tons of medicine, water, and food aid to Gaza, as well as 30 doctors and a humanitarian work brigade.

On January 14, both Venezuela and Bolivia broke off diplomatic relations with Israel. When Israel retaliated by expelling Venezuelan diplomats, Chavez responded that “it is an honour for this socialist government and this revolutionary people to have our representatives expelled by a genocidal government such as Israel.”[34] Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, announced that his country would formally indict Israel’s leaders for war crimes in the International Criminal Court. “They’ve made the world move backwards with crimes against humanity that we haven’t seen since Rwanda and Yugoslavia,” he said.[35] Bolivia is also a member of ALBA.

On April 27 Venezuela and the Palestinian Authority established formal diplomatic relations and opened a Palestinian embassy in Caracas. Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Maliki said that the embassy would coordinate solidarity with Palestine across Latin America.[36] A Palestinian embassy has functioned in Havana, Cuba for decades.

A Growing Movement, Larger Struggles Ahead

The BDS movement now includes its first national Jewish organization. At its first annual general meeting on June 14, Independent Jewish Voices (Canada) overwhelmingly endorsed boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. “Independent Jewish Voices has voted to join the international boycott campaign because we stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people and support their right to self-determination," said Diana Ralph, co-chair of the organization. "We are calling on the Canadian government and all Members of Parliament to push for immediate sanctions on Israel." IJV has chapters in seven Canadian cities.[37]

Israel’s prestige and moral standing in the world has suffered a serious setback as a result of its barbaric attack on the besieged population of Gaza. Growing numbers of people are coming to understand Israel’s crimes, the apartheid nature of the Israeli state, and the need to express solidarity with the Palestinian people through concrete action. The protests against Israel’s actions in many countries were unprecedented in their size and duration. New forces are joining the international movement in solidarity with Palestine. As part of this process, the international campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel is emerging as one of the most important ways to demonstrate this solidarity.

This survey of recent developments provides only a partial picture of the scale and diversity that the BDS movement is acquiring as it grows. (The movement is actively promoting an academic and cultural boycott of Israel, for example. For more information on this boycott, see the website of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott, and the article “Palestine and the Cultural Boycott” by Rafeef Ziadah.)

But even this partial account is sufficient to demonstrate that the international campaign to boycott Israel is making headway on a number of fronts. Although still relatively new, the movement has achieved some notable successes. It shows the promise of developing into a powerful and sustained international force that can help attain justice for the Palestinian people.

AIPAC’s call to arms is a grudging recognition of these initial successes of the movement and, above all, of its potential. It is evident that supporters of the Jewish-only Israeli state – be they official lobbyists, powerful government figures, or others – intend to redouble their efforts to smear the BDS movement as anti-Semitic and to suppress public debate of Israel’s crimes. Supporters of the rights of Palestinians are responding by uniting with others to defend the right to free speech on these issues and by reaching out to win new support for the boycott-Israel campaign. •

Art Young is a member of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid in Toronto.


1. www.aipac.org/Publications/SpeechesByAIPACLeadership/HowardKohr.pdf.

2. Israel received $2.55-billion in “security” aid from the U.S. during fiscal year 2009, the first year of a new ten-year program. U.S. aid will increase annually, then level off at $3.1-billion for the last six years of the program. (All amounts in this article are in U.S. dollars unless otherwise noted.)

3. “Palestinian Civil Society Calls for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel,” www.stopthewall.org/downloads/pdf/BDSEnglish.pdf.

4. “Students demand justice for Palestine,” www.palestinecampaign.org/files/NUS_Conference_PSC_Newsletter.pdf and information from Katan Alder, a participant in the movement.

5. Under heavy fire from supporters of Israel, the administration subsequently denied that it had acted because of the Palestine issue. But the minutes of the meeting of the Board of Trustees at which the decision was taken explicitly acknowledge “the good work of SJP that brought this issue to the attention of the [investment] committee.” Furthermore, the college has not rescinded its decision to divest. See www.hsjp.org/archive/2009/02/page/4 and “Divestment: What Really Happened.”

6. www.hsjp.org/endorsements.

7.About Israeli Apartheid Week.”

8. For more information about attempts to repress Israeli Apartheid Week, pro-Palestine advocacy, and free speech more generally, see: John Riddell, “Israeli Apartheid Week Beats Back Attacks on Free Speech”; Justin Podur, “For Free Expression on Palestine”; and Rafeef Ziadah, “Freedom of Expression and Palestine Advocacy.”

9. Nadia Hijab, “The Israel Boycott is Biting.”

10.Church of England divests over £2.2-million from Caterpillar.”

11.HESEG Foundation.”

12.Israeli exports hit by European boycotts after attacks on Gaza.”

13.Adri Nieuwhof, Divestment campaign gains momentum in Europe.”

14.Veolia loses contracts in France and Ireland, faces court proceedings.”

15. Haaretz, June 9, 2009.

16.Free Palestine! Isolate Apartheid Israel!

17.Scottish Trade Union Congress Joins BDS Campaign!!!

18. Haaretz, May 17, 2009.

19. For more information about labour support of the boycott campaign, see www.bdsmovement.net. For a list of unions supporting BDS, current to July 2007, see www.stopthewall.org.

20.UNISON supports boycott of Israel.”

21. www.fsu.fr/spip.php?article1426.

22. JAFA 2009, #2.

23.Support the Canadian Union of Postal Workers’ campaign against Israeli apartheid.”

24. www.fneeq.qc.ca/fr/comites/action_internationale/palestine/resolutioncf.html.

25.Faire plus pour la Palestine.”

26.Étudiants et étudiantes contre l’apartheid israélien.”

27.Une publication conjointe de l’ASSÉ et de la FNEEQ sur l’éducation en Palestine.”

28. Information provided by Ronald Cameron.

29. www.cuba.cu/gobierno/discursos/2001/ing/f060501i.html.

30. Member countries of ALBA are Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

31. www.un.org/ga/president/63/statements/ids241108.shtml.

32. www.un.org/ga/president/63/statements/agendaitem16241108.shtml.

33. John Riddell, “Support for Palestine Builds in Latin America

34.Chávez Welcomes Expulsion of Venezuelan Diplomats from Israel.”

35.Venezuelans Protest Israel's Attack and Send Aid to Gaza,” and “Venezuela and Bolivia Cut Diplomatic Ties with Israel.”

36.Venezuela and the Palestinian Authority Establish Diplomatic Relations.”

37. Independent Jewish Voices (Canada) media release, June 16, 2009