Thursday, April 30, 2009

Fearmongering About "Talibanistan"

In the past few weeks, the scary spectre of turbaned Taliban fighters overthrowing the Pakistani government has taken on an air of authenticity in media and political circles. The New York Times has printed articles about Taliban forces moving on the capital. The Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, fretted openly to reporters that Pakistani leaders were fearful of the advance of the Taliban. And as if trying to scare the beejeezus out of everyone, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that Islamabad was "abdicating" to the Taliban, and that "nuclear-armed Pakistan was in danger of falling into terrorist hands." By last Friday, HBO Real Time with Bill Maher's guest former CIA case officer Bob Baer was declaring the Taliban control of Pakistan a foregone conclusion, stating that "we've lost it" (I wasn't even aware "we owned it") and agreeing with Maher that perhaps the country was better off with American ally and military autocrat Pervez Musharraf.

So is this for real? Is Pakistan--a country where laywers riot for democracy--really in danger of falling to Turbaned hordes intent on beating women in the streets, renaming itself Talibanistan and forking over nukes to al-Qaeda?

Pepe Escobar at Asia Times Online says not so fast, and calls much of this a myth of epic proportions that may also be serving Western interests of control in the region.

For a different perspective on this whole topic, read his article after the fold:

The myth of Talibanistan

By Pepe Escobar

Apocalypse Now. Run for cover. The turbans are coming. This is the state of Pakistan today, according to the current hysteria disseminated by the Barack Obama administration and United States corporate media - from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to The New York Times. Even British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said on the record that Pakistani Talibanistan is a threat to the security of Britain.

But unlike St Petersburg in 1917 or Tehran in late 1978, Islamabad won't fall tomorrow to a turban revolution.

Pakistan is not an ungovernable Somalia. The numbers tell the story. At least 55% of Pakistan's 170 million-strong population are Punjabis. There's no evidence they are about to embrace Talibanistan; they are essentially Shi'ites, Sufis or a mix of both. Around 50 million are Sindhis - faithful followers of the late Benazir Bhutto and her husband, now President Asif Ali Zardari's centrist and overwhelmingly secular Pakistan People's Party. Talibanistan fanatics in these two provinces - amounting to 85% of Pakistan's population, with a heavy concentration of the urban middle class - are an infinitesimal minority.

The Pakistan-based Taliban - subdivided in roughly three major groups, amounting to less than 10,000 fighters with no air force, no Predator drones, no tanks and no heavily weaponized vehicles - are concentrated in the Pashtun tribal areas, in some districts of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), and some very localized, small parts of Punjab.

To believe this rag-tag band could rout the well-equipped, very professional 550,000-strong Pakistani army, the sixth-largest military in the world, which has already met the Indian colossus in battle, is a ludicrous proposition.

Moreover, there's no evidence the Taliban, in Afghanistan or in Pakistan, have any capability to hit a target outside of "Af-Pak"(Afghanistan and Pakistan). That's mythical al-Qaeda's privileged territory. As for the nuclear hysteria of the Taliban being able to crack the Pakistani army codes for the country's nuclear arsenal (most of the Taliban, by the way, are semi-literate), even Obama, at his 100-day news conference, stressed the nuclear arsenal was safe.

Of course, there's a smatter of junior Pashtun army officers who sympathize with the Taliban - as well as significant sections of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency. But the military institution itself is backed by none other than the American army - with which it has been closely intertwined since the 1970s. Zardari would be a fool to unleash a mass killing of Pakistani Pashtuns; on the contrary, Pashtuns can be very useful for Islamabad's own designs.

Zardari's government this week had to send in troops and the air force to deal with the Buner problem, in the Malakand district of NWFP, which shares a border with Kunar province in Afghanistan and thus is relatively close to US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops. They are fighting less than 500 members of the Tehrik-e Taliban-e Pakistan (TTP). But for the Pakistani army, the possibility of the area joining Talibanistan is a great asset - because this skyrockets Pakistani control of Pashtun southern Afghanistan, ever in accordance to the eternal "strategic depth" doctrine prevailing in Islamabad.

Bring me the head of Baitullah Mehsud

So if Islamabad is not burning tomorrow, why the hysteria? There are several reasons. To start with, what Washington - now under Obama's "Af-Pak" strategy - simply cannot stomach is real democracy and a true civilian government in Islamabad; these would be much more than a threat to "US interests" than the Taliban, whom the Bill Clinton administration was happily wining and dining in the late 1990s.

What Washington may certainly relish is yet another military coup - and sources tell Asia Times Online that former dictator General Pervez Musharraf (Busharraf as he was derisively referred to) is active behind the hysteria scene.

It's crucial to remember that every military coup in Pakistan has been conducted by the army chief of staff. So the man of the hour - and the next few hours, days and months - is discreet General Ashfaq Kiani, Benazir's former army secretary. He is very cozy with US military chief Admiral Mike Mullen, and definitely not a Taliban-hugger.

Moreover, there are canyons of the Pakistani military/security bureaucracy who would love nothing better than to extract even more US dollars from Washington to fight the Pashtun neo-Taliban that they are simultaneously arming to fight the Americans and NATO. It works. Washington is now under a counter-insurgency craze, with the Pentagon eager to teach such tactics to every Pakistani officer in sight.

What is never mentioned by US corporate media is the tremendous social problems Pakistan has to deal with because of the mess in the tribal areas. Islamabad believes that between the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and NWFP, at least 1 million people are now displaced (not to mention badly in need of food aid). FATA's population is around 3.5 million - overwhelmingly poor Pashtun peasants. And obviously war in FATA translates into insecurity and paranoia in the fabled capital of NWFP, Peshawar.

The myth of Talibanistan anyway is just a diversion, a cog in the slow-moving regional big wheel - which in itself is part of the new great game in Eurasia.

During a first stage - let's call it the branding of evil - Washington think-tanks and corporate media hammered non-stop on the "threat of al-Qaeda" to Pakistan and the US. FATA was branded as terrorist central - the most dangerous place in the world where "the terrorists" and an army of suicide bombers were trained and unleashed into Afghanistan to kill the "liberators" of US/NATO.

In the second stage, the new Obama administration accelerated the Predator "hell from above" drone war over Pashtun peasants. Now comes the stage where the soon over 100,000-strong US/NATO troops are depicted as the true liberators of the poor in Af-Pak (and not the "evil" Taliban) - an essential ploy in the new narrative to legitimize Obama's Af-Pak surge.

For all pieces to fall into place, a new uber-bogeyman is needed. And he is TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud, who, curiously, had never been hit by even a fake US drone until, in early March, he made official his allegiance to historic Taliban leader Mullah Omar, "The Shadow" himself, who is said to live undisturbed somewhere around Quetta, in Pakistani Balochistan.

Now there's a US$5 million price on Baitullah's head. The Predators have duly hit the Mehsud family's South Waziristan bases. But - curioser and curioser - not once but twice, the ISI forwarded a detailed dossier of Baitullah's location directly to its cousin, the Central Intelligence Agency. But there was no drone hit.

And maybe there won't be - especially now that a bewildered Zardari government is starting to consider that the previous uber-bogeyman, a certain Osama bin Laden, is no more than a ghost. Drones can incinerate any single Pashtun wedding in sight. But international bogeymen of mystery - Osama, Baitullah, Mullah Omar - star players in the new OCO (overseas contingency operations), formerly GWOT ("global war on terror"), of course deserve star treatment.

Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. His new book, just out, is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Specter's Party Moves

Senator Arlen Specter's decision yesterday to defect from the GOP to the Democratis is causing ripples across the American political spectrum. While Republican leaders tried to brush it off as a tempest in a teapot, they were mostly unsuccessful as Specter's party switch dominated the political news and will likely continue to do so for days to come. But in the end, what's the significance?

For Specter, it may mean survival. His relectuance to support the past Bush adminsitration carte blanche or provide obstinate opposition of Obama's initiatives (Specter voted for the recent stimulus) has made him a target of the more extreme right-wing of the party. And recent polls have shown him being trounced in a head-to-head match up against challenger Pat Toomey, former president of the ultra-conservative Club for Growth. Facing possible defeat, it had been rumored Specter might run as an independent. He seemed however to have decided that a larger camp was the place to be. And as a Democratic challenger easily defeating Toomey has long been expected, Specter decided to become that challenger--keeping both his more moderate GOP constituents disillusioned with their party, and gaining Democratic support.

For the GOP, it is another in a long series of recent train wrecks. Specter, considered by most to be one of the few remaining Republican "moderates," was a voice to temper the more reactionary elements in the party. With his defection, the GOP edges closer to a balkanization of right-wing fringe ideology that is drifting further away from anything resembling mainstream popular American thought. For a party considered by most to be in disarray, this is a crushing embarrassment. More than likely however, there is apt to be more outrage from the GOP and their supporters, than any attempt to engage in a teachable moment.

For the Democrats, it is an inch closer to the magical "60-seat majority" in the Senate, once the inevitably of the Al Franken's torturously slow win in Minnesota is confirmed.

For President Obama it is another notch on the belt and a new shiny pin to place on the 100 Days hat.

And for the rest of us, it's a wonderful bit of schadenfreude.

But Specter's switch comes with it's own set of issues. Arlen Specter, while a moderate voice of sorts in the GOP, is not joinging the progressive wing of the Democratic party. His votes in the Senate during his long career show at most a mixed-bag. He's supported Stem Cell Research and Healthcare reform, but also helped authorize the Iraq War and blocked investigations into defense contracts. More recently, he's withdrawn his support on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) and has stated that this party switch does not mean he's revisiting that choice. This may cost him vital union support in Pennsylvania, and set up the possibility for a strong Democratic party challenger. Where Democratic officials, both local and in Washington DC, will weigh in is anybody's guess--but it's certain to cause some party fractures.

For more opinions on the Senator's big switch, see below:

What Kind of Democrat Will Specter Be?- NY Times

Specter's Switch- Chris Hayes, The Nation


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Debunking the Post-Racial Myth

If it was one thing that made my teeth grate during the 2008 Presidential campaign, it was the notion that Barack Obama was signaling a "post-racial" era in America. Political pundits--conservative or moderate or even liberal--deemed our times the "post-Civil Rights" era. The popular idea was that if white America can vote for a black man as president, this would somehow negate the last few hundred years of American racism. Of course, it was utter rubbish.

Conservative commentator George Will early in the Democratic primaries crooned that Barack Obama's win would "bring down the curtain on the long running and intensely boring melodrama 'Forever Selma,' staring Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton." Chris Matthews of MSNBC marveled that with candidate Obama there was, "No history of Jim Crow, no history of anger, no history of slavery....All the bad stuff in our history ain't there with this guy." Somehow all these pundits seemed to find a post-racial America despite the race-baiting of the Clinton campaign, the bizarre P.U.M.A. movement and Geraldine Ferraro's attempts to racialize feminism, white America's freak out meltdown over Jeremiah Wright and the full blown ugliness that was the McCain-Palin hate-fest.

Hoping for their post-racial dreamland, they failed to notice that to become the first black president, Barack Obama had to twist, shape and perform near acrobatic feats to keep white America (who in the end did not give him the majority of their votes) placated and at ease. Somehow the very pundits that could gloat about a post-racial society from one side of their mouths, could still worry endlessly about Obama's ability to connect with regular white voters. That his chances even among the more "enlightened white voters" were greatly influened by the fact that he was "black enough" to still be African-American in their eyes but was also not "too black" as someone of multi-racial heritage, is one of those taboo topics we're still not supposed to politely discuss in public conversation. As I once heard a black DJ joke to a colleague over the radio, it was unlikely white America would elect someone of a different demeanor than Obama or even a different complexion. This was followed by nervous laughter and the topic shifted--quickly.

Speed up to month four of 2009 and the election of a black president has seen everything from a rampant rise in white supremaicst hate-groups to incitations of violent government overthrow, secession and fake-populist, corporate-sponsored anti-tax protests with names that make them easy to mock.

Don't let me even start on the lack of post-racial awareness in American foreign policy, which seems to repeatedly find itself as odds with the darker, poorer masses of the world.

And of course, those are just the more overt issues. Rarely discussed are the varied forms of domestic institutional racism that do not disappear under an Obama presidency--from an unfair prison system to racial wealth inequality gaps. These are race-based systems that will negatively impact the lives of millions of people of color far beyond any hate-group or FOX News. And it should put the lie to any claim of some post-racial society that will magically appear because black and white kids can now identify with a bi-racial African-American in the White House. As Henry Giroux writes in a recent article, "the idea that we have moved into a post-racial period in American history is not merely premature - it is an act of willful denial and ignorance."

Giroux's article below:

Youth and the Myth of Post-Racial Society Under Barack Obama

Monday 27 April 2009

Henry A. Giroux t r u t h o u t Perspective

With the election of Barack Obama, it has been argued that not only will the social state be renewed in the spirit and legacy of the New Deal, but that the punishing racial state and its vast complex of disciplinary institutions will, if not come to an end, at least be significantly reformed. From this perspective, Obama's presidency not only represents a post-racial victory, but also signals a new space of post-racial harmony. In assessing the Obama victory, Time Magazine columnist Joe Klein wrote, "It is a place where the primacy of racial identity - and this includes the old Jesse Jackson version of black racial identity - has been replaced by the celebration of pluralism, of cross-racial synergy."

Obama won the 2008 election because he was able to mobilize 95 percent of African-Americans, two-thirds of all Latinos and a large proportion of young people under the age of 30. At the same time, what is generally forgotten in the exuberance of this assessment is that the majority of white Americans voted for the John McCain-Sarah Palin ticket. While "post-racial" may mean less overt racism, the idea that we have moved into a post-racial period in American history is not merely premature - it is an act of willful denial and ignorance.

read full article here.


Thursday, April 23, 2009


In the fictional world of the DC Comics Justice League, the much beloved superheroes are aghast to find out they have doppelgangers from an alternate Earth. These self-styled Justice Lords see everything in terms of black and white (good vs evil) and reveal the darker side of absolute power and moral authority. Nothing asserts the righteousness of these heroes than a coming together of the nexus of all evil--usually in the form of supervillains that have found common cause. The recent Somali pirate issue has given a sensationalist media, and some fear-mongering politicians, a chance to recreate this comic book theme of supervillains and a superbly moral superhero. This time the ne’er-do-wells are poverty created sea-brigands who are allegedly teaming up with radical Islamists, who themselves are often inflated into one group. This danger to civilization as we know it poses an ultimate threat, that must be handled heavily and decisively--a job for the Justice Lords, played by the US and its allies, who don't waste their time with silly things like "nuance." But as John Feffer at TomDispatch points out in his article Monsters Versus Aliens, this superhero analysis is grounded in deep misunderstandings and flawed moralist logic that can lead to dangerous real-life consequences.

Feffer's article after the fold:

Monsters vs. Aliens
Tuesday 21 April 2009

by: John Feffer

In the comic books, bad guys often team up to fight the forces of good. The Masters of Evil battle the Avengers superhero team. The Joker and Scarecrow ally against Batman. Lex Luthor and Brainiac take on Superman.

And the Somali pirates, who have dominated recent headlines with their hijacking and hostage-taking, join hands with al-Qaeda to form a dynamic evil duo against the United States and our allies. We're the friendly monsters - a big, hulking superpower with a heart of gold - and they're the aliens from Planet Amok.

In the comic-book imagination of some of our leading pundits, the two headline threats against U.S. power are indeed on the verge of teaming up. The intelligence world is abuzz with news that radical Islamists in Somalia are financing the pirates and taking a cut of their booty. Given this "bigger picture," Fred Iklé urges us simply to "kill the pirates." Robert Kaplan waxes more hypothetical. "The big danger in our day is that piracy can potentially serve as a platform for terrorists," he writes. "Using pirate techniques, vessels can be hijacked and blown up in the middle of a crowded strait, or a cruise ship seized and the passengers of certain nationalities thrown overboard."

Chaotic conditions in Somalia and other countries, anti-state fervor, the mediating influence of Islam, the lure of big bucks: these factors are allegedly pushing the two groups of evildoers into each other's arms. "Both crimes involve bands of brigands that divorce themselves from their nation-states and form extraterritorial enclaves; both aim at civilians; both involve acts of homicide and destruction, as the United Nations Convention on the High Seas stipulates, 'for private ends,'" writes Douglas Burgess in a New York Times op-ed urging a prosecutorial coupling of terrorism and piracy.

We've been here before. Since 2001, in an effort to provide a distinguished pedigree for the Global War on Terror and prove the superiority of war over diplomacy, conservative pundits and historians have regularly tried to compare al-Qaeda to the Barbary pirates of the 1800s. They were wrong then. And with the current conflating of terrorism and piracy, it's déjà vu all over again.

Read full article here.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day: Van Jones

Say the words "green economy" and name Van Jones is bound to be the next one. The founder of the group Green For All, Van Jones was TIME Magazine's 2008 Environmental Hero, and is the author of The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Solve Our Two Biggest Problems, which has been endorsed by everyone from Nancy Pelosi to Al Gore. Known for his advocacy of solutions for the economically disenfranchised and the environment, he has emerged as one of the innovators of the modern environmental movement. And in world where "green" has become not only fashionable, but as a means to slow man-made climate change and jump start an ailing global economy, Van Jones has become a point man--taking on the role of special advisor to the Obama White House Council on Environmental Quality.

See more about Van Jones and the possibility of a green economy both above and after the fold.

White House Adviser Pushes 'Green-Collar' Jobs

April 22, 2009

Van Jones is the White House special adviser on green jobs, enterprise and innovation. In his role, Jones advises the president on how to advance climate and environmentally friendly initiatives by building a sustainable work force, "with a specific interest in improvements and opportunities for vulnerable communities," according to the White House Web site.

More here.

Working Together for a Green New Deal

October 29, 2008

Society faces some huge challenges. The individuals, entrepreneurs and community leaders who will step up to make the repairs and changes are going to need help. They require and deserve a world-class partner in our government. The time has come for a public-private community partnership to fix this country and put it back to work. In the framework of a Green New Deal, the government would become a powerful partner to the problem solvers of the world--and not the problem makers.

More here.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Tortured Memos

Last week, the Obama administration released another set of so-called "torture memos" from the previous Bush White House. Like something out of a spy thriller, the memos detailed the use of sleep deprivation, and even live insects among what were deemed "approved techniques." While the memos themselves were startling, so was an accompanying statement by the Chief Executive. While noting the importance of these revelations, President Obama ruled out prosecutions against anyone who might have been involved in torture, stating that now is a "time for reflection, not retribution." Since then, the heat has been intense from both sides. Congressional Republicans and former Bush administration officials, are howling that the release of the memos will now jeapordize US national security. In fact, there was a significant amount of push back from the intelligence establishment that threatened to make certain the memos never saw the light of day. On the other side of the equation are anti-torture advocates (from constitutional/legal scholars to human rights groups) who balk at the idea that torturers (especially those that ordered them) may now walk free.

Above is a response to the memo release, and the seeming "Presidential pardon" that was meted out by Keith Olbermann.

More on the controversey after the fold...

Torture Memos Gave CIA Legal O.K. to Bring Detainees to Brink of Death
Friday 17 April 2009
Jason Leopold, t r u t h o u t | Report

CIA interrogators were given legal authorization to slam an alleged "high-value" detainee's head against a wall, place insects inside a "confinement box" to induce fear and force him to remain awake for 11 consecutive days, according to a closely guarded August 1, 2002, legal memo released publicly by the Justice Department for the first time on Thursday.

Full article here.

The Torture Memos, Obama and the Banality of Evil
Richard Kim on 04/17/2009 TheNation

Even as President Obama acted in the name of transparency and accountabilty in releasing the Bush administration's OLC's torture memos, he made assurances that the CIA agents who used the "enhanced interrogation techniques" meticulously detailed within would not be subject to criminal prosecution. Glenn Greenwald at Salon, Jeremy Scahill on his blog, David Bromwich at Huffington Post and Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic all have good takes on why Obama's decision is wrong. I concur. However politically expedient, Obama's nearly carte blanche absolution of torture was morally wrong, and his justification of it, from a professor of constitutional law, is intellectually dishonest.

Full article here.


Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Handshake

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, right, shakes hands and speaks with President Barack Obama at the 5th Summit of the Americas in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Friday, April 17, 2009.

It's a baby-step in diplomatic relations. But compared to the last guy in the White House eagerly backing--if not helping engineer--a coup attempt against the democratically elected leader of Venezuela, this is a decided improvement. I bet this time, Chavez wasn't smelling sulfur and brimstone.

HOPE I can believe in.

More after the fold...

As reported in the AP:

Obama, Chavez shake hands at Americas Summit

Fri Apr 17

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad – Presidents Barack Obama and Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's socialist leader, met Friday and shook hands on the sidelines of a summit of their hemisphere's democracies.

Obama walked across a hotel meeting room to meet Chavez for the first time, said a senior U.S. administration official who witnessed it and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the details of the event. The official said Obama initiated the encounter.

Chavez has been a fierce critic of the United States during President George W. Bush's tenure.

"It was very, very short," the official said of Friday's meeting. "The president shook his hand, smiled and then went back to his position in the line."

The encounter comes as Obama softens U.S. policy against Cuba, a Chavez ally.

Asked later about the meeting, Obama elicited laughter from reporters with a brief response: "I said, 'Como estas?'"

That's the familiar form of Spanish for "How are you?"

Chavez was more forthcoming with reporters.

"We shook each other's hands like gentlemen, and it was predictable this would happen," Chavez said.

"We don't have any complexes that would prevent us from extending our hands to each other. I'm grateful for his gesture."

Photos released by the Venezuelan government show the two smiling and Obama touching Chavez on the shoulder. Other photos show them with clenched hands in the room next to the main summit ballroom while the heads of state and government were waiting in line to enter the opening ceremony.

The Venezuelan presidency also said Obama initiated the handshake and quoted Chavez as telling Obama he hopes for better relations between their nations.

Chavez told reporters he had a simple message in English for Obama: "I want to be your friend."

Obama's comments were limited to saying that he wanted to introduce himself to Chavez, the U.S. official said. The Obama official would not comment on what Chavez told the U.S. president.

But when a reporter asked if the Venezuelan account of what happened was accurate, the Obama official said: "I wouldn't dispute that."

As recently as last week, Chavez expressed a desire to "reset" relations with Washington.


Friday, April 17, 2009

Cuba's America Problem

Fidel Castro meets with Malcolm X, 1959

...for those who are impatient with Cuba...please don’t forget that it took another, earlier revolution, despite its proclamation that “all men are created equal,” nearly a century and a wrenching civil war to end slavery, another century to eliminate segregation and other forms of overt racism, and about a century and a half to grant the vote to half its population. Throughout those changes, no other country had the right to “demand” that the US “make concessions,” or “behave” in a certain way, nor would the American people or government have permitted it. Each country moves at its own pace, and within its own history.

Some of the most profound words I've read on the Cuba issue in quite a while. Even more profound that they were written by Manuel Gomez, an émigré from the island since 1961. The small Caribbean nation has had a long sordid affair with the US, much if marked by an uneven, paternalist relationship. Cuba for the US has in the past been a place to showcase American hemispheric might, a playground for gangsters and sex-trade tourists, or a revolutionary pariah stubbornly determined to thwart attempts to beat it into submission. What the US has never viewed or accepted Cuba as, is an equal.

More after the fold...

Even today, as talk of more diplomatic relations with Cuba commences, too often US motives are framed around "opening up the communist state" to American-styled "democtatic ideals," usually a nice way of saying "rampant, unregulated free-market capitalism"--which isn't exactly looking too good these days. The goal seems to be, "talk to Cuba--so we can overthrow it." Hardly a way to engender trust and understanding. Certainly Cuba is no saint, and political repression of political prisoners is still a problem. Yet the paranoia of the Cuban state is not merely a figment of their imagination.

The US had backed the dictatorial regime of Ruben Fulgencio Batista, who was propped up by a shady alliance of US gangsters themselves tied to political interests. 1950s Cuba was a place for wealthy Americans seeking sex and adventurism, and it became famous for its gambling and nightclubs. The masses in Cuba (especially blacks and others of color) remained disenfranchised, as they watched wealthy--and self-proclaimed "white"--Cubans rubbing elbows with America's criminal and political elite. As Enrique Fernandez wrote in the Oakland Tribune, "Even as revelers rumbaed in the nightclubs, an escalating syndrome of rebellion and repression bloodied the streets, triggered by an illegitimate government's corrupt relationship with ruthless gangsters...."

The revolution that put figures like Fidel Castro and Che Guevera on the map rose in part as a reaction to this corruption and repression, and are credited with running the gangster culture out of Cuba. Activist and artist Harry Belafonte, who performed at many of the Mafia-run clubs in Havana before the revolution has stated plainly, "I knew Cuba before Fidel Castro. I did not see democracy in Cuba. If anything, I saw blatant racism and oppression."

But, much as an earlier US during the Spanish-American War, eager to prove itself a dominant imperial force in the hemisphere, could not accept the large army of blacks and ex-slaves that were a significant part of the Cuban War for Independence, opting instead for a "white-washed" Cuba of Castillian bloodlines, so too did a more modern US refuse to accept the revolutionaries that drove out their former Batista allies in 1959.

Yet even with a socialist outlook, a young Castro believed (perhaps naively) that he could retain friendly relations with an America in the grips of the Cold War. On April 15 1959 he embarked on an unofficial twelve day tour of the United States. During his stay, Castro spent much of his time at cheap motels in Harlem--meeting with Malcolm X, the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Eventually he made it to the White House, where he met with then Vice President Richard Nixon, but was refused a meeting with President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Despite such overtures, the US, wary of anything that had a hint of socialism, began destabilizing the young regime. As relations deteriorated, Castro eventually sought alliances with the Soviet Union, agreeing in 1960 to import Russian fuel. When the US ordered American refineries in Cuba to not process the oil, Castro expropriated them as Cuban possessions--which many of the island's citizens felt had unjustly been allowed to remain in American hands by the corrupt Batista regime. For this the United States broke off diplomatic relations and Cuba followed suit.

From there, things went downhill--from an infamous failed American backed invasion of Cuban exiles in the Bay of Pigs to the Missile Crisis which brought the world nearly to the brink of nuclear war. Castro, growing paranoid of US assassination plots, attempts to invade the island, domestic infrastructre sabotage and more (all of which were not so far from the truth, i.e. Operation Mongoose), began numerous "purges" to seek out the enemies of the revolution he was certain operated from within the country. Newspapers were shut down. Freedoms were curtailed. The state began spying on its citizens, ever on the lookout for American saboteurs. If reports are to be believed, thousands were imprisoned. The Cuban government went on a permanent war footing, fearing their revolution would be snuffed out by the Yankees to the North. For this Castro and his government were painted as an even greater pariah by Washington, though ironically enough his misdeeds paled significantly in comparison to those of US allies in Chile and El Salvador--where thousands were placed not in jail but mass graves.

Outside the US government, and the influential politics of Cuban exiles (many former wealthy "white" property owners) in places like Florida, Castro's Cuba however has a more mixed reception. Throughout the Caribbean, Castro is known as the man who dared stand up to the "bullying" US to the North, thwarting its CIA attempts to kill him, planned invasions to overthrow him, and defying US presidents simply by outliving them.

In numerous nearby islands, Cuba was responsible for training and supplying doctors. Cuba build hospitals, sent out teachers, provided medicines and other pertinent development aid to the region. In Grenada Cuba built an airport (which the US would later claim was a Soviet base--a farcial charge that was a prelude to an illegal invasion). And on the international stage, when US ally apartheid white-run South Africa invaded neighboring Angola, it was Cuba who sent troops to stop their advance. At the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, Cuban and Angolan forces effected a decisive defeat of the SADF, initiating what many have called the continent's "Battle of Stalingrade"--a turning point in apartheid South Africa's external imperial ambitions. And in the US itself, Castro's Cuba has long found allies among the black community, for both cultural and political support. Because even if the revolution did not create a mythic "racial paradise," it certainly created a space for blacks in Cuba beyond anything previously seen. It's not surprising that Hip Hop and Cuba are almost synonymous in some cirlces.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the life-line of the Cuban revolutionary government--then just over 30 years old--was abruptly ended. Life in the blockaded small country became even more dire, and many in the US eagerly anticpated what they expected to be the fall of Castro's regime. New waves of refugees, much like those of times past, set out seeking relief from the crushing poverty enacted in a great part by the stifling blockade. But, ever the survivor, Castro and Cuba struggled on undaunted. Adapting socialist policies to take advantage of the global market, Cuba managed to stay afloat and emerge if not as strong, at least much more independent. With the help of nearby allies like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, the government entered the 21st century and celebrated the 50th anniversary of the revolution this year. Fidel Castro meanwhile, with failing health, finally stepped down, allowing his brother Raul to assume power. And, despite expectations of a counter-revolution in the streets with the departure of the charasmatic figure, Cuba has remained relatively stable. The hard fact many in the US have failed to take into account is why there are certainly those in Cuba who reject the revolution, many others have long claimed it as their own. The same Cuba after all that scored low points on the human rights of personal freedom, manages to out-compete the United States when it comes to the human rights of personal well-being and access to such things as universal healthcare.

One has to then wonder, if Castro and Cuba did not have to live in the shadow of a hostile superpower, how might things have developed? Without the paranoia that CIA forces and internal spies were ever at the ready to invade or destroy them, how less repressive might a Cuban socialist government have been? If not for blockades, attempts at economic sabotage, waves of bombings committed by anti-Castro terrorists (who still enjoy immunity in the US), how would the revolution of this small Caribbean nation have been further carried out? One of the vexing problems for emergent states during the Cold War and since, has been an inability to organically form--through trial and error much like the United States--their own paths without constant intervention. In the ritualistic condemnations of Castro's Cuba that comes from the soapbox chorus in the US, America has yet to ask itself what role did it's own aggressive actions play not merely in "allowing Castro to remain in power" (as it is so often framed) but in shaping and creating the direction of the island nation so long labeled a threat.

This week, as heads of state of the two nations meet at the OAS Summit, the question remains--is America ready to accept Cuba as a sovereign independent nation capable of forging its own destiny without US restraints, domination and control, or do old habits die hard?


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Will the Afghan War Get You a Job?

The Afghan war currently runs some $2 billion a month. When all is said and done, with a current proposed "surge" in that Central Asian country, the cost could come to over $1 trillion. Above is the trailer to Cost of War, part three of the Rethink Afghanistan documentary by Robert Greenwald at the Brave New Foundation, which delves into the financial costs of a broadening war.

See full segment below. Read and see more at Rethink Afghanistan.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Teabagged Nation

After months of licking their collective wounds, and unable to accept the results of Nov. 4th, today the angry white masses took to the streets to declare their freedom from...sanity. Whipped into a furor by media hacks, a right-wing news channel, and a complicit GOP-Corporate smear machine, dozens and hundreds and in a few cases "allegedly" thousands, marched to declare their freedom from "tyranny" and "fascism"--and spew enough hate, incoherent rhetoric and babble to jump start a Palin rally. It seems, unable to win at the ballot box, they've decided to defeat the rest of America (the overwhelming majority) by inducing laughter.

But hey, it's a free country--or at least certainly more free today than it's been in the past eight years. So heck, if right-wingers want to open up the conservative loony-bins and let us gawk at the spectacle that spills out, why not.

More after the fold...

First off, these guys call themselves "teabaggers." That alone can start so much justly deserved juvenile snickering, it's a wonder some reporters can actually talk about it with a straight face.

Seeming to suffer from what some have rightly termed "grassroots envy," the GOP has decided if they can't get a popular groundswell of democratic support to emerge organically from their ranks, they'll just throw a lot of money, media resources and fake websites together to create one. Supposedly, the main concern of these teabaggers is that Obama is going to raise their taxes. Yet, every factual indication is that Obama's tax plans will provide a cut for everyone making under 250,000 a year. The only people who will see a significant increase are those in the top 10%, who will end up paying a tax rate still significantly lower than under Ronald Reagan. So either all these teabaggers are millionaires looking out for their own self-interest and greed, or they're really, really, really...DUMB.

Bernie Horn at Campaign for America's Future notes:

Of course, the corporate organizers of the Tax Day Tea Party are neither ignorant nor mad. They have an agenda, but you have to dig a little to find it. Look at their Resources page. It takes you to “The Tool Kit for Tea Parties,” which is a few PDFs on a website called “American Solutions.”

And what are the principal solutions? Cut tax rates for the rich. Cut the corporate tax rate. Abolish the capital gains tax. Abolish the estate tax. Oh, and oppose the Employee Free Choice Act.

Wow! Who in the world is American Solutions? Why it’s Newt Gingrich’s organization. (Click here for a fine picture of Newt grinning like a Cheshire Cat.) The whole tea party scam is designed to push people toward the maddest, craziest, most irresponsible right-wing corporate agenda Gingrich could imagine. And—once again—the lower-income, right wing rank-and-file are just being played as suckers by the rich.


Some video and photos of what this convergence of faux populism, manufactured irrational anger and ignorance has wrought.

Some background:

David Shuster on how Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, right-wing financiers and FOX News cooked up the entire "teabagging:"

Twas' the night before Teabagging, and Keith Olbermann further exposed this manufactured "movement:"

Full frontal teabagging craziness:

Susan Roesgen at CNN finds herself caught up in the middle of a mob who can't seem to answer any questions with a hint of sanity:

Media Matters highlights FOX News bringing on the crazy:

Oh that's a gem. A definite keeper:

Straight to the point nuttiness. I respect that:

Crazy with an artistic flair:

Crazy with Photoshop skills:

Please, please, please... leave Jesus out of your teabagging:

Yeah. Because you know how Obama's really murdering babies? SCHIP.

Teabagging party or Gay Pride Parade?

No, seriously. Someone cue-up Diana Ross and get this guy a feather boa already:

Yeah. This unfortunately is where lunacy can become disturbing:

More gun violence threats with that tea:

Yes. That tactic worked well in the 08 elections. Keep pitching it:

That was almost some clever race-baiting. Almost:

Thanks to Dkos, Huffington Post and Media Matters for the material.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Danger to the Republic ?

Watching Glenn Beck of Fox News rant about "progressive fascism" - and muse about armed insurrection - or listening to mainstream pundits prattle on about Barack Obama as the "most polarizing President ever," it is hard to escape the conclusion that today's U.S. news media represents a danger to the Republic.

No kidding! So writes Robert Parry at Consortium News, recounting the absolutely dismal nature of current corporate media. As if the cheerleaders on FOX openly calling for rebellion over ridiculous faux populist claims wasn't bad enough, along with GOP politicians who fan those flames, the allegedly more "moderate" media networks continuously parrot this rumor mill. Over at CNN and MSNBC, figures like Lou Dobbs and Joe Scarborough use their platforms to first smear President Obama, and then (in a move of sheer audacity) claim he's "polarizing." Most perplexing, these fearmongers claim they are the victims--invoking charges of "McCarthyism" with the straight face of a Klan member claiming to be a victim of reverse racism. Valid criticism is one thing; and it's welcomed of any political figure. But the vitrol being whipped up by FOX News and pundits on other media channels does little more than expose what blogger Jill Tubman rightly calls, "the rotting racist underbelly" of white angry conservatism. With all this media-driven hate, it's little wonder that two high-profile mass shootings in a year have been linked to angry white males out to kill liberals, or who feared losing their precious guns under some Obama "dictatorship." The question remains, why, even with a Democrat in the White House, and a Democratic Congress, does the American corporate media still feel a need to give a soapbox for the farmost fringes of the right? And does the Left truly take these provocateurs as seriously as we should?

Robert Parry's article after the fold...

US News Media Fails America, Again

By Robert Parry
April 13, 2009

Watching Glenn Beck of Fox News rant about “progressive fascism” – and muse about armed insurrection – or listening to mainstream pundits prattle on about Barack Obama as the “most polarizing President ever,” it is hard to escape the conclusion that today’s U.S. news media represents a danger to the Republic.

By and large, the Washington press corps continues to function within a paradigm set in the 1980s, mostly bending to the American Right, especially to its perceived power to destroy mainstream journalistic careers and to grease the way toward lucrative jobs for those who play ball.

The parameters set by this intimidated (or bought-off) news media, in turn, influence how far Washington politicians feel they can go on issues, like health-care reform or environmental initiatives, or how risky they believe it might be to pull back from George W. Bush’s “war on terror” policies.

Democratic hesitancy on these matters then enflames the Left, which expresses its outrage through its own small media, reprising the old theme that there’s “not a dime’s worth of difference” between Democrats and Republicans – a reaction that further weakens chances for any meaningful reform.

This vicious cycle has repeated itself again and again since the Reagan era, when the Right built up its intimidating media apparatus – a vertically integrated machine which now reaches from newspapers, magazines and books to radio, TV and the Internet. The Right accompanied its media apparatus with attack groups to go after troublesome mainstream journalists.

Meanwhile, the American Left never took media seriously, putting what money it had mostly into “organizing” or into direct humanitarian giving. Underscoring the Left’s fecklessness about media, progressives have concentrated their relatively few media outlets in San Francisco, 3,000 miles away – and three hours behind – the news centers of Washington and New York.

By contrast, the Right grasped the importance of “information warfare” in a modern media age and targeted its heaviest firepower on the frontlines of that war – mostly the political battlefields of Washington – thus magnifying the influence of right-wing ideas on policymakers.

One consequence of this media imbalance is that Republicans feel they can pretty much say whatever they want – no matter how provocative or even crazy – while Democrats must be far more circumspect, knowing that any comment might be twisted into an effective attack point against them.

full article here.


Monday, April 13, 2009

Paper Planes- This is a Stick Up

MEND Rebels in the Niger Delta

This past week, off the waters of Somalia, the rapacious forces of globalization and wealth-inequality came face to face with the discontented, dispossessed and "unwashed masses" of the world. The "natives" are restless, and the old order that was able to beat them into submission has waned greatly. Better brace yourselves. Because as the effects of climate change, a breakdown in the world economic order and the destabilizing legacy of rapacious free-market capitalism take hold, the world's poor are declaring "we aren't going to starve, or go quietly into the night."

"Pirate skulls and bones
Sticks and stones and weed and bombs
Running when we hit 'em
Lethal poison through their system"--Paper Planes, M.I.A.

More after the fold...

The Somali pirates have been slain and an America captain freed. Newspapers and even the US President hail it as a victory against "thugs." Navy snipers become heroes as they kill three Somali brigands in a brief firefight and capture a fourth--who is all of 16-years-old; his dead comrades were between 17-19 years of age. But this celebrated "win" against rag-tag aggressors (young ex-fishermen and militants who faced off against the US Navy) won't solve the underlying issues at the heart of this modern "asymmetrical economic warfare."

Fractured Somalia, has suffered for decades, the country shattered by Cold War machinations and then unable to knit itself together in the postcolonial world. The one recent glimmer of hope for a stabilized state was dashed, when in 2007 the US decided to back an illegal war of aggression by Ethiopia that put Somalia under occupation of its long-time nemesis. The alleged goal was to rid the "country" of the United Islamic Courts (UIC), an alliance of religious groups that had managed to rout "warlords" who were being backed by US money and weapons--yes, the same warlords that had fought the US to a standstill in 1993; opportunity and convenience creates strange bedfellows. The US, declaring the UIC was linked to terrorism, decided that Somalis (who over all generally welcomed the religious confederation) could not be allowed to have an Islamic state--like say Saudi Arabia.

This resulted in a two year battle between indigenous insurgents and Ethiopian occupiers (who only withdrew this past February), during which hundreds of Somalis were killed. During that time the US made several airstrikes in the impoverished country in a hunt for "terrorists," which often resulted in higher civilian casualties.

Meanwhile, as this political chaos reigned, European and Asian ships continued to dump toxic waste in Somali waters and make off with hundreds of millions of dollars worth in illegal fishery. Somalia had no actual functioning government to stop this abuse, though in all fairness the functioning governments of other poor nations haven't been able to protect their waters (or their fish) from wealthy interlopers either. Pushed out of work by these inter-connected forces Somali fishermen, with the aid of normally landlocked militias, took to the seas following an age old adage: "If I can't work to make it, I'll rob to take it." And tankers making their way across nearby heavily trafficked water routes laden with goods--from weapons to food--have been hijacked and ransomed. Somalis jokingly refer to it as their "local tax." And these "pirates," who now bring in money to enrich both themselves and impoverished communities, enjoy a great deal of local sympathy and support.

"All I wanna do is (BANG BANG BANG BANG!)
And take your money"

Similar situations have occurred on the other side of Africa, where in Nigeria militant groups of young men--grown weary of exploitation and environmental devastation of their land by international oil companies--turned their guns not just on the complicit Nigerian government, but on the imported foreign workers. As recently as this past January, a group calling itself MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) took several British hostages. Their demands are that more of Nigeria's oil wealth be pumped into the region, instead of to foreign investors. Other local groups had peacefully called for similar attention to their plight in the past. But as with Somalia's ex-fishermen, it seems increasingly that cries from the "Third World" go ignored, until somebody threatens to pick up a gun.

"Our policy on kidnapping high value oil workers from Western Europe and North America remains unchanged and will continue to form an integral part of our pressure strategy in the emancipation struggle in 2009," MEND said in a recent statement.

While Somalia and Nigeria offer extreme examples where many factors converge to create desperation, there are other signals throughout the world that the poor have decided to fight back against the larger global forces they see at the heart of their suffering. In 2008, from Haiti to Burkina Faso, people pushed to the brink took to the streets as food became scarce or too overpriced. Termed "food riots," these acts of definance ranged from loud rallies to full blown rebellions. And, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has warned to expect much of the same in 2009.

Most in the "Third World" understand quite well that this food crisis is not the result of some natural disaster like a drought or a plague of locusts. As pointed out by Anuradha Mittal, director of the Oakland Institute, this is a tragically man-made phenomenon:

Over the last few decades, the United States, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have used their leverage to impose destructive policies on developing countries. By requiring countries to open up their agriculture market to giant multinational companies, by insisting that countries dismantle their marketing boards and by persuading them to specialize in exportable cash crops such as coffee, cocoa, cotton and even flowers, they have driven the poorest countries into a downward spiral.

Of course piracy, armed militants and food riots are acts of desperation that are in the end untenable, as the powerful forces of the global system will eventually come down with full fury. A more constructive channeling of these frustrations has come with less violence in other places. Central and South America, fed up with IMF structural adjustments and Milton Friedman economic policies, has seen a wave of elections that have brought left-leaning governments to power which have openly challenged the existing order and promised greater distribution of wealth. The latest has been El Salvador, which elected Mauricio Funes, the candidate of the former leftist guerilla FMLN, ending decades of right-wing US backed oligarchies.

Contrary to what many may think, this blog isn't cheering on piracy, riots and armed militants--at least not whole-heartedly. Though there is an innate temptation to root for the underdogs, history has taught us, sadly, that situations with groups of disenchanted young men, heavy weapons and lots of anger, even with the best of intentions, rarely turn out well in the long run. And besides, who wants some guy that you can barely understand waving a Kalishnikov in your face, holding you hostage and demanding some exorbitant ransom, when all you signed up for was an off-shore stint for a corporation that's probably exploiting you in turn? Neither am I asserting that these "Third World" rebels are all noble underdogs. Circumstances like these don't breed simplistic heroes for easy romanticism.

Rather my long-winded point is that instead of giving each other high-fives for offing some "bad guys" from some impoverished part of the world, we'd do well to try to put ourselves in their shoes and listen to their grievances--even if we don't wholly condone their actions. Perhaps in those places where the poor can have a voice and a space to turn away from desperation, there can be a challenge to the status quo through some type of peaceful democratic means. That of course, comes with its own challenges, because the old order does not so easily surrender power--as learned in Venezuela and Bolivia. In places where these aren't options, and a mixture of destabilizing interventions, globalization policies and rapacious exploitation continues, while the voices of the dispossessed are stifled, Somalia's "pirates" may be only a taste of what's to come. Because for the 3 billion people in the world who subsist on $2 a day or less, and the billions more who hover just above that extreme poverty, quietly starving to death is no longer an acceptable option--even if we seem fine with it.

"Some some some, some I murda'. Some, some, I let go."

Paper Planes Video


Friday, April 10, 2009

Iraq's Dismal Reality

This week, President Barack Obama made a surprise visit to Iraq to the cheers of enthusiastic US troops. But on April 9th, the day that marked the 6th anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets to denounce the US invasion, burn George Bush in effigy and demand the immediate withdrawal of all American forces. As the President and others speak of Iraqis "standing up" and "taking responsibility" for their own affairs, journalist Nir Rosen reminds "We didn’t create a paradise in Iraq; we created a hell....And now, maybe it’s gone down from the seventh rung of hell to the second rung of hell...[but]...It’s still pretty bad."

See full interview of Nir Rosen above.

Read the transcript of Nir Rosen's interview by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! here.


Thursday, April 9, 2009

Why Pirates Attack: It's the Fish Stupid

In the 17th thru late 18th centuries piracy was the method of last resort for the downtrodden and dispossessed: men desperate for work; deserters from throughout the war-wracked Atlantic; runaway slaves seeking refuge from bondage; criminals (from debtors to cutthroats) escaping the long arm of the law. These pirates often attacked the transports of commerce of their day--from slaving ships to merchant vessels. The economic and social exploitation of that era created piracy and suffered for it. Three hundred years later, as ex-fishermen and ex-militia men join forces in Somalia to disrupt our modern transnational economic caravans, history seems to be repeating itself. Arrgh.

More after the fold...

Yet again, pirates off the coast of Somalia have hijacked a ship--this time one with a US crew, who managed to thwart the attack. The news media, already goggle-eyed at the very existence of sea-borne pirates in our modern world, can hardly contain itself as it gives round-the-clock reporting on the "heroic" crew facing off against the "blackbeards" of their day.

Some stories have decided to go beyond the sensationalism, mostly pointing to the dangers of Somalia as a failed-state--like the pirate ships of old, places where a "multi-headed hydra" could form an anarchic society that threatened the entire global structure as we know it.

Steve Clemons in the Washington Note writes ominously of what he calls Jack Sparrows Revenge:

I think this is likely a new generation of asymmetrical, economic warfare. The world has become too interconnected for piracy to remain isolated to the Gulf of Aden....knowledge of the effectiveness of the tactic will not remain unique to the horn of Africa...famines fueled by climate change, along with water shortages towards the midcentury years, are likely to decrease the powers of poor central governments, most dangerously in African coastal states. Major shipping routes across the Maghreb and along the western African coast will be subject to the highest risks. Also, the Straits of Malacca -- which has been historically troubled by pirates -- and other routes through the South China Sea, will be at heightened risk if weak governments are incapable of adjusting to the challenges of the twenty-first century.

But Clemmons article, while painting an imaginatively vivid imagery of the Apocalypse out of Kevin Costner's Waterworld, never manages to take the piracy story further. And perhaps that's because to go any deeper might reflect some unsettling comparative truths about our global economic and social order, and that of a few centuries prior.

In our modern era, more than pirates stalk the high seas. Around the world, immense fishing trawlers--some as large as 400 feet--roam the oceans. Using nine-thousand foot nets they sweep up everything in their path, engaging in what many conservationists have warned is a "clear-cutting" of the sea floor. In a single day these trawlers can catch one million pounds of fish. According to marine biologist Sylvia Earle, in the last 50 years we've lost something in the order of 90 percent of the big fish in the ocean to these "harvesting machines." Worse still, is the by-catch. It's estimated that a staggering 50 billion pounds of unwanted fish--too small, unmarketable or inedible--caught up in the nets are ground to a bloody mulch and deposited back into the oceans.

Carl Sarfina at the Blue Ocean Institute notes:
About a quarter of everything that is caught in the ocean, is not wanted or not marketable or not as valuable as some of the other catch so it goes overboard. As northern waters have been depleted some of the fishing boats from places like Europe are turned south and have started fishing very intensively off African countries.

Right. Africa. Which brings us back to pirates. Arggh.

All along the coast of Africa, as these heavy European and Western trawlers of the rich world have moved into regional waters, local farmers have found their catch drying up and their livelihoods diminished if not destroyed. A recent documentary on the state of the oceans noted that "the impact on the developing world is enormous, particularly on the fisheries off the coast of Africa, in places like Senegal...The result is severe food shortages for those living along the coast."

Traditional fishing methods that may have sustained families, clans, villages and towns for centuries are no longer any match for the mechanized trawlers that are often raiding these waters illegally. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates there are some "700 foreign-owned vessels that are fully engaged in unlicensed fishing in Somali waters."

As if this isn't bad enough, African fishermen also have to deal with another by-product of globalization--the dumping of hazardous waste off their coastlines. An Oct 2008 report from the Chicago Tribune noted that in the early 1990s, "Somalia's unpatrolled waters became a cost-free dumping ground for industrial waste from Europe." In a seeming double-insult, Italian fishing boats reportedly ferried "barrels of toxic materials to Somalia's shores and then returned home laden with illicit catches of fish." As recently as 2005, rusting containers of hazardous waste were washing up on Somali beaches. This has happened elsewhere along Africa's sprawling and oft-unprotected shorelines--most notably the infamous 2006 toxic waste dumping off the Ivory Coast that killed dozens and made hundreds more sick--as poor nations are unable (or at times unwilling) to declare the sovereignty of their waters from the richer global giants who directly and indirectly control their economies. For the fractured and decentralized Somalia, protecting its waters has been impossible. The UN has made previous reprimands for these activities, but mostly they have gone unheeded.

Today, much like their earlier counterparts, those who made their life on the sea and now find themselves squeezed out by an exploitative global system, have taken to piracy--deciding that if they can no longer draw in fish, they'll go for much larger catch.

According to BBC Somalia analyst Mohamed Mohamed, the pirate gangs that operate out of Somlia are headed primarily by such ex-fishermen. They are considered the "brains" of the operation--the ones who have spent their lives at sea, know best how to operate vessels and better still, how to navigate the waterways. These ex-fisherman have joined forces with the normally landlocked dispossessed, the notorious Somali militiamen, of the type that fought US elite ranger forces to an eventual draw in the 1990s. With these armed mercenaries as muscle, the ex-fishermen then enlist the aid of what Mohamed says are "technical experts...the computer geeks and know how to operate the hi-tech equipment needed to operate as a pirate -- satellite phones, GPS and military hardware." Though rag-tag in appearance, and pushed into piracy by a similar crush of exploitative social forces as the pirates of old, these sea-brigands are a definitive spin-off of the modern world--or perhaps those who have settled to operate on its fringes.

The New York Times back in September 2008 took some time to shed light on the turn of these fishermen to pirates:

The piracy industry started about 10 to 15 years ago, Somali officials said, as a response to illegal fishing. Somalia’s central government imploded in 1991, casting the country into chaos. With no patrols along the shoreline, Somalia’s tuna-rich waters were soon plundered by commercial fishing fleets from around the world. Somali fishermen armed themselves and turned into vigilantes by confronting illegal fishing boats and demanding that they pay a tax. “From there, they got greedy,” said Mohamed Osman Aden, a Somali diplomat in Kenya. “They starting attacking everyone.”

Indeed, greed or revenge, the money gained from these operations is no chump change. In 2008, a report by the British think-tank Chatham House claimed Somali pirates had cost up to $30m (£17m) in ransoms that year alone. Yet it should be pointed out, this money has to be put into perspective, as those foreigners illegally fishing and dumping in Somali waters extract much more from the local peoples than they [in the form of other vessels that fly their flags] are forced--at gunpoint--to return.

Peter Lehr, a Somalia piracy expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and the editor of Violence at Sea: Piracy in the Age of Global Terrorism, calls it a an uneven resource swap. "Somalis collect up to $100 million a year from pirate ransoms off their coasts. And the Europeans and Asians poach around $300 million a year in fish from Somali waters."

And where is this ransom money going? It would seem throughout Somalia, and back to wherever the pirates hail from. Buildings and other forms of instrastructure, lacking in the shattered country, are now being financed by pirate money. Even Somali merchants in "legitimate businesses" are now relying on pirates for loans.

Make no doubt, these pirates aren't merely Robin Hoods, and they flaunt their ill-gotten gains. The BBC interviewed residents in the Somali region of Puntland, where most of the pirates come from, who claim they live a lavish life--at least in comparison to others.

"They have money; they have power and they are getting stronger by the day," says Abdi Farah Juha who lives in the regional capital, Garowe. "They wed the most beautiful girls; they are building big houses; they have new cars; new guns," he says. "Piracy in many ways is socially acceptable. They have become fashionable."

But this marriage of ex-fisherman and a brigand's lifestyle has its drawbacks. Young men with little occupational alternatives now flock to the coastline to join the pirate ranks. And weapons--already too numerous in the country--are now flowing along with the cash, both deemed as essential tools of the trade. As the BBC found out in their interviews of locals, not everyone is enamored by the emerging "hydrarchy."

Mohamed Hassan, living in the midst of the piracy trade, worries over the "hundreds of armed men" arriving from the interior of Somlia to join the pirates. Piracy he notes has also thrown the local economy into disarray, as the pumping of "huge amounts of US dollars" causes exchange rates to fluctuate.

"This piracy has a negative impact on several aspects of our life in Garowe," he says. "They promote the use of drugs -- chewing khat (a stimulant which keeps one alert) and smoking hashish -- and alcohol."

In the past pirates were treated with scorn by the global system they threatened to disrupt. Painted as a motely, multi-racial, anarchic rabble, what historians Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh have called "a many-headed hydra," pirates became pariahs of the first order. Thousands were captured and hanged immediately throughout the Atlantic, as even competing empires (who were not above using pirates for their own use), sometimes joined ranks to crush this growing menace.

Today's pirates, particularly the ones out of Somalia--made famous with their daring hijackings and multi-million dollar ransoms--have garnered the same international scorn. From oil-wealthy Arab states to rich global players, the Somali pirates have been decried as a threat second only to al-Qaeda. Seeming to know well how they are perceived, some have taken to the airwaves, painting themselves (much as pirates in past history) as rebels against the existing order.

“We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits,” pirate spokesman Sugule Ali said in a 45-minute interview on Somali radio in September 2008. “We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard.”

As related by Ali, ships aren't specifically targeted because of any known cargo--as was the case of the Ukranian freighter carrying $30 million worth of heavy weaponry back in 2008, or the recent attempted seizure of a US freighter carrying (ironically enough) food aid for Somalia and Uganda--but merely because of their size, foreign nature and presence.

"We just saw a big ship," Ali said of the Ukranian freighter in 2008, "So we stopped it." As for the heavy weapons on the freighter, Ali assured that they prized their ransom over artillery.

"Somalia has suffered from many years of destruction because of all these weapons," he said. "We don’t want that suffering and chaos to continue. We are not going to offload the weapons. We just want the money."

Reporter Paul Salopek at the Chicago Tribune, examining the pirates claims, took a tongue-in-cheek look at what admittedly was a bizarre incident on the global stage:

Somalia's pirates want the world to know they are regrettably misunderstood. They are merely "gentlemen who work in the ocean." Indeed, many are salty patriots risking their lives at sea while "protecting Somalia's shores." And the sea — ah, she is the pirates' beloved "mother."

Salopek goes on to relate more on what he calls the "aggrieved buccaneer" who identified himself as a spokesman for the "Ocean Salvation Corps." He stated that "he and his men were merely exacting a tax for years of foreign poaching in Somalia's fish-rich waters."

Though at times humorous, Salopek was brought to ask a profound question. In this increasing spate of hijackings and brigandry on the high seas by the global poor upon the global rich, in the larger picture just "who is pirating who?"

Update- 04/10/09

Jeremey Schahill at Alternet notes that a nuclear powered warship and a destroyer are now all headed off to Somalia after pirates hijack a ship with "food aid" that also happens to belong to a U.S. Department of Defense contractor with "top security clearance," which does a half-billion dollars in annual business with the Pentagon. Hmm. That must be some interesting "food aid."
The Somali pirates who took control of the 17,000-ton "Maersk Alabama" cargo-ship in the early hours of Wednesday morning probably were unaware that the ship they were boarding belonged to a U.S. Department of Defense contractor with "top security clearance," which does a half-billion dollars in annual business with the Pentagon, primarily the Navy. The ship was being operated by an "all-American" crew -- there were 20 U.S. nationals on the ship. "Every indication is that this is the first time a U.S.-flagged ship has been successfully seized by pirates," said Lt. Nathan Christensen, a spokesperson for for the U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet. The last documented pirate attack of a U.S. vessel by African pirates was reported in 1804, off Libya, according to The Los Angeles Times.

The company, A.P. Moller-Maersk, is a Denmark-based company with a large U.S. subsidiary, Maersk Line, Ltd, that serves U.S. government agencies and contractors. The company, which is based in Norfolk, Virginia, runs the world's largest fleet of U.S.-flag vessels. The "Alabama" was about 300 miles off the coast of the Puntland region of northern Somalia when it was taken. The U.S. military says the Alabama was not operating on a DoD contract at the time and was said to be delivering food aid.

Read full article here.