After 18 Years of War, the Taliban Has the Upper Hand in Afghanistan Peace Talks

Last year, thousands of young Afghans marched across the country, demanding an end to fighting that has destroyed millions of lives since the Soviet invasion in 1979.

The grassroots peace movement led to a number of local ceasefires throughout the country between Taliban militants and Afghan government soldiers. Young men who had recently been trying to kill one another instead shared food and posed for photographs in the streets of Afghan cities. The scenes broadcast around the world were reminiscent of the famous World War I “Christmas Truce” between German, British, and French soldiers.

That tentative peace effort, a poignant expression Afghans’ desire to end the violence that has scarred so many families, did not hold. But in recent weeks, there have been increasing signs that another peace deal may be coming together, negotiated from conference tables in Doha and Moscow. The Taliban and a group of former Afghan officials, including former President Hamid Karzai, met in Moscow last week to discuss the future of the country. These talks, along with separate negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban in Doha, seem to hold out the possibility of ending the violence that has ravaged the country over four decades.

But the talks also offer a serious reality check about the outcome of 18 years of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. For many observers, the negotiations register as a defeat — recognition that the Taliban has not only survived, but is likely to play an integral role in Afghanistan’s future. It is also clear that there will be a new set of winners and losers in Afghan society, and that Afghans who pegged their hopes to the U.S.-backed government now risk losing limited gains in living standards and civil rights.

Conspicuously absent from the current talks is the Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani, which has been denounced as illegitimate by the Taliban and faces an uncertain future following a U.S. departure. U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad announced last month that the Doha talks had succeeded in producing a “draft framework” for ending the war. The full details are still unknown, but comments from Khalilzad and Taliban officials suggest that the agreement will include the withdrawal of U.S. troops, as well as a commitment from the Taliban that Afghanistan will never again be used as a base for international terrorist groups like Al Qaeda.

This compromise could come at a serious cost to Afghans. After 40 years of nonstop war, most crave any respite from violence. But the Trump administration’s approach to the talks so far, as well as the speed with which an agreement seems to be materializing, have stoked fears that the United States is simply looking for a quick exit, even if it means leaving Afghan civilians exposed to armed rivalry between political factions and militant groups.

The goal of transforming Afghanistan into a liberal democracy has proven quixotic, but that doesn’t mean that nothing significant has changed since the Taliban era.

The goal of transforming Afghanistan into a liberal democracy has proven quixotic. That does not mean, however, that nothing significant has changed since the Taliban were deposed. Afghan society has made small but important advances in education, civil liberties, and women’s rights over the past 18 years, despite endemic poverty, government corruption, and violence. A young, urban generation of Afghans has grown up accustomed to having at least some basic freedoms and opportunities that were not possible under the Taliban regime.

It’s unclear what would happen to this new Afghan generation under a government that includes the Taliban, particularly to women, who found themselves totally excluded from public life the last time the Taliban was in power. There are some signs that the movement has evolved and perhaps even moderated some of its tenets over time. But the Taliban is far from a united organization, and it does not have a clear vision for the future of the country. Many of its younger cadres have spent their entire lives at war, with no experience governing a diverse society during peacetime.

“The Taliban who are in contact with the U.S. are mainly moderate Taliban. Even if they reach an agreement with the U.S. to end their support for international terrorists, the key challenge that will remain will be the radical Taliban factions that enjoy safe havens in Pakistan,” says Masoud Andarabi, a former Afghan intelligence official who was recently appointed acting interior minister.

Afghan mourners carry the coffin of one of the nine people killed during an overnight raid by Afghan forces in Chaparhar district on the outskirts of Jalalabad in Nangarhar province on May 29, 2018. - Afghan special forces have killed nine civilians in an apparently botched operation in the eastern province of Nangarhar, officials said Tuesday. The victims were related to Afghan Senate chairman Fazel Hadi Muslimyaar, provincial spokesman Attaullah Khogyani told AFP. (Photo by NOORULLAH SHIRZADA / AFP) (Photo credit should read NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images)

Afghan mourners carry the coffin of one of the nine people killed during an overnight raid by Afghan forces in Chaparhar District on the outskirts of Jalalabad in Nangarhar province on May 29, 2018.

Photo: Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

Last year was one of the deadliest for Afghan civilians since with the war began, with thousands killed and maimed by all sides in the fighting. Afghan security forces have also suffered devastating losses; more than 45,000 have been killed since 2014, according to Ghani in a recent statement, a staggering death toll that calls into question whether the Afghan government could even survive without American support.

Decades of war have trapped Afghans in a cycle of violence and revenge. Public sentiment about the U.S. military is divided. Afghans who have flourished under the post-Taliban order see Western forces as protectors of their freedoms, while others say that the American presence has driven countless young recruits into the Taliban’s arms.

A Taliban commander from the Saydabad District, south of Kabul, told The Intercept that he joined the movement after a neighbor gave false information that led to a humiliating U.S. military raid on his family home. Detained by U.S. troops, he spent two years in prison; he was released “without an apology or explanation.” The experience bred lasting anger toward the U.S. and its local Afghan allies, underlining the difficulty of reconciliation even if a peace deal is signed.

“I will not put down my gun until we have kicked out the puppets in Kabul.”

“I won’t put down my gun until every American and every invader is kicked out, so no other Afghan is humiliated and their homes raided. I will not put down my gun until we have kicked out the puppets in Kabul,” the Taliban commander told The Intercept. “There are soldiers and members of the government that are in touch with us; we know they are honest ones that have not harmed anyone and were forced to pick up a gun. But we will not spare the corrupt ones. Those puppets and servants of the West have ruined so many lives. I will fight until my last drop of blood. We are not scared of the drones, the special forces, or helicopters. “

A popular song being shared lately by Taliban fighters extolls the looming victory of the “rural Taliban” over the United States: “The famous America became ready to negotiate,” the song goes. “The disgraced America, the out-of-momentum America. In the beloved country Afghanistan, her red-faced children died.”

A sense of triumphalism among Taliban cadres following a U.S. withdrawal could influence how they govern the country. The previous Taliban regime was notorious for its draconian treatment of women and ethnic minorities. For people in urban centers like Kabul who have come of age in the post-Taliban era, the prospect of returning to life under a militant movement that harshly enforces religious law is unthinkable.

“I was born during the civil war in Kabul. I don’t remember much of the war, but I remember the last years of Taliban regime,” says Fereshtay Khawaray, a 27-year-old schoolteacher in Kabul. “I was not able to come out and play with my friends. We couldn’t go to school, so I was educated secretly. When Kabul fell and the Taliban were gone, it was as if I had a second life. I had freedom.”

Kharaway finished high school and married the man of her choice, a rarity in a place where most unions are arranged. In addition to being an educated woman, she is a member of the Hazara minority, which was persecuted particularly harshly by the Taliban during its reign, and the mother of two young children. She views the prospects of full-scale civil war or unreconstructed Taliban rule as equally untenable.

“I have fears that the war of the 1990s might return, God forbid,” Khawaray said. “The world, Afghan leaders, and the Taliban must provide guarantees. We must make sure that the freedoms and the gains that people like me have benefited from are not lost.”

In recent weeks, Taliban officials have given mixed signals about their vision for the country’s future. Some have floated the possibility of disbanding the Afghan army following a peace deal, as well as scrapping and rewriting the Afghan Constitution. Disbanding the army, in particular would be deeply contentious, with Ghani pointedly denouncing the idea in a recent speech.

There are also fears that the civil rights of Afghan women could end up bargained away at the negotiating table in the name of political expediency. While the Taliban has claimed that it will respect women’s rights in a future government, such promises have been viewed with skepticism.

“The peace process will, if successful, substantially reduce violence and bloodshed, saving thousands of lives every year,” says Shaharzad Akbar, an Afghan women’s rights activist and director of the civil society organization Open Society Afghanistan. “If the process is not inclusive, however, and all concerns are not addressed — the focus just being on an ‘honorable exit’ for Americans and ‘dignified return’ for Taliban — it may create new incentives for conflict, lead to an oppressive and noninclusive government, and, subsequently, disappointment, fragmentation, and migration.”

After nearly two decades, the international community, as well as the U.S. public, has grown bored with the war and exhausted by the work of trying to rebuild Afghanistan. U.S. President Donald Trump successfully campaigned on a promise to end long-running U.S. military engagements at any cost, though this was less as a gesture of peace than a sign of his isolationist “America First” ethos.

For ordinary Afghans, who are also tired of their country’s troubles, the current talks will determine whether their future is marked by continued violence or will afford space for gradual healing and reconciliation. The Taliban has announced that it will meet with U.S. officials in Pakistan later this month to continue the negotiations.

Mariam Bibi is one of millions of Afghans whose lives have been distorted by Afghanistan’s long-running national tragedy. Her son Jawid, a plumber, was killed in a 2017 bombing in Kabul that targeted the city’s Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood. The blast struck a busy intersection in a diplomatic quarter of the city, killing more than 150 people in one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Kabul since the war began. The blast was so powerful that Bibi was not even able to retrieve her son’s remains for burial. Her loss is in many ways a microcosm of Afghanistan’s larger national tragedy.

“He was my world, he was my life. He would go every day and work in the city. He would leave by his bicycle and I would kiss him,” 53-year-old Bibi told The Intercept. “I think every mother wants peace. We don’t want more bloodshed, I have lived my life in war, my children too. Today I don’t even have a grave to grieve or cry at. I cry and I pray. What else can a poor mother like me do? May God finally bring peace to the next generation.”

The post After 18 Years of War, the Taliban Has the Upper Hand in Afghanistan Peace Talks appeared first on The Intercept.

House of Representatives Orders Donald Trump to Stop Backing Saudi-led War in Yemen, Paving the Way for Decisive Senate Vote

In a stinging rebuke to the Trump administration’s cozy relationship with Saudi Arabia, the House of Representatives passed a resolution directing the administration to remove U.S. forces from supporting the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.

The measure, which passed by a vote of 248-177, is one of the first major pieces of legislation approved by the Democratic House. It is a significant achievement for the progressive wing of the party, whose members have long argued in favor of cutting off military support for Saudi Arabia.

The resolution, which invokes the 1973 War Powers Act, directs President Donald Trump to remove U.S. forces from “hostilities” in the Saudi-led intervention against an Iranian-backed rebel group in Yemen. In both the Trump and Obama administrations, the U.S. has provided weapons, targeting intelligence, and mid-air refueling support for the Saudi-led coalition.

A Republican-sponsored amendment, passed Wednesday, weakened the resolution slightly by allowing continued intelligence sharing with the coalition. The amendment, which passed by a vote of 252-177, allows the U.S. to continue sharing intelligence with foreign powers “if the President determines such sharing is appropriate.”

Under House and Senate rules, the resolution enjoys “privileged” status, meaning that it can bypass a committee vote. The Republican-held Senate passed a similar resolution in December by a vote of 56-41, but with a new Congress, the Senate will have to pass it again to send it to Trump’s desk. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has promised to bring it up for another vote.

Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who sponsored the resolution, told The Intercept that the vote was a “historic” assertion of Congress checking war powers.

“This has never happened before — since 1973. It’s Congress reasserting our role in matters of war and peace,” Khanna said. “It’s a major signal to the Saudis to end the war.”

When the House first considered the measure in 2017, it was championed by progressives like Khanna but opposed by Democratic leadership. When supporters reintroduced the measure in September, it had the backing of a number of top Democrats, including Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md. The explosion of anger surrounding the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October drew members from both sides of the aisle, many of whom saw it as a way to hold Saudi leadership accountable.

Humanitarian groups have held the Saudi-led coalition partially responsible for creating the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Since the war broke out in 2015, coalition warplanes have bombed food sources, water infrastructure, and medical facilities, all while delaying or restricting the flow of food into the country.

On Wednesday, however, debate largely centered on whether it was appropriate for Congress to use the War Powers resolution to check the president’s power.

“The Congress has lost its grip on foreign policy, in my opinion, by giving too much deference to the executive branch,” Elliot Engel, D-N.Y., the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Wednesday on the House floor. “Our job is to keep that branch in check, not to shrug our shoulders when they tell us to mind our own business.”

Republicans opposing the bill argued that it would embolden Iran and expressed concern that it could open the door to Congress scrutinizing other U.S. military alliances.

“This overreach has dangerous implications far beyond Saudi Arabia,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “This approach will now allow any single member to use this privilege mechanism to second-guess U.S. security cooperation relationships with more than 100 countries throughout the world.”

Some progressive advocates welcomed that idea. “It’s no coincidence that progressives, both inside and outside Congress and across the country, drove the House of Representatives to invoke [the War Powers Resolution],” said Kate Kizer, policy director for the progressive group Win Without War. “This historic vote is just the opening salvo of building power behind progressive foreign policy.”

At the last minute, Republicans also managed to add language condemning anti-Semitism, an apparent shot at Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., for a Sunday tweet about the Israel lobby that critics said invoked anti-Semitic tropes.

The post House of Representatives Orders Donald Trump to Stop Backing Saudi-led War in Yemen, Paving the Way for Decisive Senate Vote appeared first on The Intercept.

As Rudy Giuliani Calls for Regime Change in Iran, Netanyahu Raises the Specter of “War”

Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City who now serves as President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, called for the overthrow of Iran’s government on Wednesday during a rally in Poland staged by a cult-like group of Iranian exiles who pay him to represent them.

Speaking outside the Warsaw venue for an international conference on the Middle East attended by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Giuliani said that his message for the 65 governments discussing ways to confront Iran was simple. “The theocratic dictatorship in Tehran,” Giuliani said, “must end and end quickly.”

Giuliani went on to suggest that peace in the region would only come when Iran was ruled instead by his clients, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an exile group of former terrorists also known as the Mojahedin-e Khalq, or People’s Mujahedin. The group’s leader, Maryam Rajavi, already refers to herself as “President-elect.”

Off-stage, the U.S. president’s lawyer admitted that he was paid by the exile group, but stressed to reporters that he was in Warsaw on behalf of the MEK in his personal capacity and would not be attending the diplomatic conference organized by the State Department.

Even before the conference began, the Israeli prime minister appeared to shrug off efforts by the State Department and the Polish government to portray the gathering as broadly focused on Middle East peace, describing it as primarily a meeting of Iran’s enemies.

In video posted on the prime minister’s official Twitter feed, Netanyahu characterized a meeting with Oman’s foreign minister as “excellent,” and one focused on “additional steps we can take together with the countries of the region in order to advance common interests.”

According to the English translation of Netanyahu’s remarks in Hebrew prepared by his office, the prime minister then added: “What is important about this meeting — and it is not in secret because there are many of those — is that this is an open meeting with representatives of leading Arab countries that are sitting down together with Israel in order to advance the common interest of war with Iran.”

A screenshot from video posted on the official Twitter feed of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s use of the word “war” seemed to throw Israel’s diplomatic corps into chaos. Within minutes, as journalists speculated that the prime minister’s office might have mistranslated his comment, Netanyahu’s spokesperson to the Arab media, Ofir Gendelman, wrote that the Israeli leader had described his nation’s common interest with Arab nations as “combatting Iran,” not “war with Iran.”

The subtitled video produced by the prime minister’s office was then deleted from his Twitter feed and replaced with the text of Gendelman’s alternative translation.

As my colleague Talya Cooper explains, however, Netanyahu did in fact use the Hebrew word for “war” in the video, which has not yet been deleted from his Hebrew-language YouTube channel. In a separate video, posted by Netanyahu’s office on Facebook earlier in the day, the prime minister had used the Hebrew word for “combat.”

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, seized on the Israeli leader’s apparent Freudian slip as evidence that Netanyahu’s true aim of provoking a war with Iran was now out in the open.

Zarif also suggested that the Trump administration and the exiles of the MEK might have been behind a suicide bombing on a bus in southeastern Iran on Wednesday, which killed 41 members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

“Is it no coincidence that Iran is hit by terror on the very day that #WarsawCircus begins?” Zarif tweeted. “Especially when cohorts of same terrorists cheer it from Warsaw streets & support it with twitter bots? US seems to always make the same wrong choices, but expect different results.”

The foreign minister was clearly referring to the MEK, which spent three decades trying to achieve regime change in Iran through violence, including terrorist attacks. The well-funded exile group was also suspected of being behind social media trickery discovered by the BBC, which reported that Twitter bots had been deployed “to artificially create a trend which hints at popular support for the summit and — by extension — widespread resentment towards the Iranian establishment.”

The Iranian exiles have been caught in the past paying nonsupporters to fill out its crowds at rallies, a tactic reportedly used at the event in Warsaw on Wednesday, according to journalists on the ground.

Members of the MEK helped foment the 1979 Iranian revolution, in part by killing American civilians working in Tehran, but the group then lost a struggle for power to the Islamists. With its leadership forced to flee Iran in 1981, the MEK’s members set up a government-in-exile in France and established a military base in Iraq, where they were given arms and training by Saddam Hussein as part of a strategy to destabilize the government in Tehran that he was at war with.

In recent years, as The Intercept has reported, the MEK has poured millions of dollars into reinventing itself as a moderate political group ready to take power in Iran if Western-backed regime change ever takes place. To that end, it lobbied successfully to be removed from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations in 2012. The Iranian exiles achieved this over the apparent opposition of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in part by paying a long list of former U.S. officials from both parties hefty speaking fees of between $10,000 to $50,000 for hymns of praise.

Despite the claims of paid spokespeople like Giuliani and John Bolton — who predicted regime change would come at a lavish MEK rally in Paris just months before being named Trump’s national security adviser — the MEK appears to be as unprepared to take power in Iran as Ahmad Chalabi’s exiled Iraqi National Congress was after the American invasion of Iraq.

Ariane Tabatabai, a Georgetown University scholar, has argued that the “cult-like dissident group” — whose married members were reportedly forced to divorce and take a vow of lifelong celibacy — “has no viable chance of seizing power in Iran.”

If the current government is not Iranians’ first choice for a government, the MEK is not even their last — and for good reason. The MEK supported Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. The people’s discontent with the Iranian government at that time did not translate into their supporting an external enemy that was firing Scuds into Tehran, using chemical weapons and killing hundreds of thousands of Iranians, including many civilians. Today, the MEK is viewed negatively by most Iranians, who would prefer to maintain the status quo than rush to the arms of what they consider a corrupt, criminal cult.

Despite such doubts, spending lavishly on paid endorsements has earned the MEK a bipartisan roster of Washington politicians willing to sign up as supporters. At a gala in 2016, Bolton was joined in singing the group’s praises by another former U.N. ambassador, Bill Richardson; a former attorney general, Michael Mukasey; the former State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley; the former Homeland Security adviser Frances Townsend; the former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I.; and the former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. That Paris gala was hosted by Linda Chavez, a former Reagan administration official, and headlined by Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker who was under consideration to be Donald Trump’s running mate at the time.

Fears about Bolton’s apparently open desire to start a war with Iran have been exacerbated by his boosting of the MEK and his steadfast refusal denial of the catastrophe unleashed by the invasion of Iraq he worked for as a member of the Bush administration. Last year, when Tucker Carlson pointed out that Bolton had called for regime change in Iraq, Libya, Iran, and Syria, and the first of those had been “a disaster,” Bolton disagreed.

“I think the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, that military action, was a resounding success,” Bolton insisted to the Fox News host. The chaos that followed in Iraq, he said, was caused by a poorly executed occupation that ended too soon. On the bright side, Bolton said, the mistakes the U.S. made in Iraq offered “lessons about what to do after a regime is overthrown” in the future.

Earlier this week, Sen. Chris Murphy pointed out, Bolton appeared to be laying the groundwork for war in a belligerent video message from the White House to mark the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution.

The post As Rudy Giuliani Calls for Regime Change in Iran, Netanyahu Raises the Specter of “War” appeared first on The Intercept.

Neoliberalism or Death: The U.S. Economic War Against Venezuela

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The U.S. is weaponizing humanitarian aid in an effort to sell its regime change campaign against Venezuela. This week on Intercepted: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi officially endorses the attempted coup in Venezuela, joining forces with Donald Trump and his posse of neoconservatives. Venezuela’s Vice Foreign Minister Carlos Ron responds to the threats of military action, the reports about covert U.S. activity in the country, and discusses the impact of the sanctions on Venezuela. Former United Nations rapporteur Alfred de Zayas is accusing the U.S. of attempting to “asphyxiate” Venezuela with economic warfare and says the U.S. should be investigated by the International Criminal Court. Zayas wrote a UN report on Venezuela in late 2018 that was scathing in its assessment of U.S. policy towards Venezuela under both Obama and Trump. He talks about what he found during his investigation. And we go inside the mind of journalist Sam Husseini who tried to ask convicted criminal Elliott Abrams about his past and the present U.S. lies about Venezuela.

Transcript coming soon.

The post Neoliberalism or Death: The U.S. Economic War Against Venezuela appeared first on The Intercept.

Pox Americana: Vijay Prashad on Venezuela, India, Mexico, Congo, and U.S. Hegemony

There is a brazen, bipartisan push by the U.S. government for regime change in Venezuela with the Trump administration officially declaring opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the “legitimate” president. The economic sanctions imposed on Venezuela by the U.S. are aimed at starving the population into submission with notorious neoconservatives John Bolton and Elliott Abrams coordinating the campaign to overthrow the government of Nicolás Maduro. What we are witnessing right now in Latin America is a modern iteration of the same dirty tactics that the U.S. has historically used against the nations south of the U.S. border. Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world. The U.S. has tried since the early 2000s to overthrow its socialist government beginning with Hugo Chávez. At the same time, it poured money into right-wing movements and backed open fascists like Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. All of this is a modern version of the era of overthrowing leftists who won at the ballot box or by ousting U.S.-friendly dictators. And all of the mass murder, the sanctions, the regime changes, the election interference, the covert support for anti-democratic forces determined to be good for so-called free markets is, today, as it was in the 1950s, sold in the name of bringing freedom and democracy.

Powerful Democrats and Republicans alike have sold the notion that economic sanctions are somehow a cleaner way of forcing change than military action. They portray sanctions as targeting the dictators, the oligarchs, the criminally corrupt. But the filthy truth is that not all sanctions are created equal. Yes, there are sanctions that go after individual criminals. But the sanctions we’re talking about on Venezuela right now are not going harm Maduro and his inner circle personally. No, these sanctions are aimed at punishing the Venezuelan people by depriving them of food, medicine, wages, and their very humanity. The strategy is to use these sanctions as a cudgel against an already suffering people in a campaign to torture them into submission.

The former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela William Brownfield has been aggressively lobbying for more sanctions, saying “perhaps the best solution would be to accelerate the collapse.” He says this while actually openly acknowledging that sanctions will kill innocent people, increase malnutrition, and bring “fairly severe punishment” for “millions and millions” of Venezuelans. Brownfield recently admitted the following:

If we can do something that will bring that end quicker, we probably should do it, but we should do it understanding that it’s going to have an impact on millions and millions of people who are already having great difficulty finding enough to eat, getting themselves cured when they get sick, or finding clothes to put on their children before they go off to school. We don’t get to do this and pretend as though it has no impact there. We have to make the hard decision — the desired outcome justifies this fairly severe punishment.

This is the former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela speaking at a Washington D.C. think tank, publicly saying that it is worth the price of lives and health and humanity of ordinary Venezuelans in order to overthrow a government the U.S. does not like. These sanctions are going to cost Venezuela $11 billion in oil revenue in 2019 alone. That amounts to nearly 95 percent of the money that Venezuela spent on the import of food and other goods last year. This isn’t targeting Maduro. Even The Economist stated the following about the logic behind the sanctions: “Mr. Guaidó and Mr. Trump are betting that hardship will topple the regime before it starves the Venezuelan people.” That’s not Chávez speaking from the grave. That’s The Economist.

When powerful political leaders in the U.S. want to change governments, the price of killing innocent people is always worth it. It’s the American way. And this is why Trump is being embraced on his Venezuela policy. He is promoting and advancing the bipartisan politics of empire. It is the same dynamic when the so-called adults on Capitol Hill support giving Trump sweeping surveillance powers or unending funds for an already insane military spending budget. For all the screaming about Trump being a grave threat to democracy, the worst president ever, or an unhinged maniac, when he boosts the policies of imperialism, he gets to join the club of the cops of the world.

On Intercepted this week, historian and journalist Vijay Prashad joined us to discuss the state of imperialism in the world, the situation in Venezuela, the upcoming elections in India, and the recent one in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Prashad is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. That’s a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is the executive director of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research and the chief editor of LeftWord Books. Prashad is a prolific writer, authoring 25 books, including “The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World” and “The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.” An excerpt of this conversation aired on Intercepted. What follows is the complete, unedited conversation.
This interview begins at 20:03.

 

Jeremy Scahill: Vijay Prashad welcome to Intercepted.

Vijay Prashad: Thank you so much.

JS: Vijay, I want to start by asking your response to the recent developments in Venezuela. Earlier this week, the New York Times did a big profile on the opposition leader Juan Guaidó who has declared himself president and the Times notes that more than 20 countries have now recognized Guaidó as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela. Among those countries: The United States, Canada, most of South America. Then on Monday several European Union countries [joined] that list, among them: France, Germany, Britain, Spain, Austria, Sweden, and Denmark. You recently wrote that what happened to Chile in 1973 — when there was a U.S. initiated coup against the democratically elected leader Salvador Allende — is precisely what the United States has attempted to do in many countries of the Global South, and you say the most recent target for the U.S. government and Western big business is Venezuela. What are the parallels that you see between the overthrow of Allende in 1973 and what we’re seeing now with the push to overthrow Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela?

VP: I’m glad we’re starting here, Jeremy, because this is really the most important issue, I think, of our period. Which is, you know, this very extravagant set of claims made by particularly the United States and its closest allies about countries in the Global South — whether it’s Iran, or Venezuela, or a host of other countries. Let’s think about the Chilean example. In 1970, when Salvador Allende was coming close to winning a very legitimate election to come to office, the United States government said, we will not tolerate it if people like Allende decide to nationalize resources. In the case of Chile, it was copper, and so they began to plan to, in a way, undermine Allende through barricading his economy long before Allende even won the election. And after he won the election they did everything possible to prevent Chile from selling copper outside its boundaries, therefore bankrupting Chile, creating distress within the country, and then winking to the military to take over. And by the way, Chile is not the beginning of this.

We saw this in 1954 in Guatemala where the issue was the nationalization of the United Fruit Company and we saw this in 1953 in Iran when the issue was oil. The government of Mohammad Mossadegh nationalized the oil company. This was something seen as totally inappropriate by Western oil companies, the so-called Seven Sisters. And the United States in alliance with Great Britain conducted a coup against Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran and against Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala. I mean, there [are] so many examples of precisely this situation.

With Venezuela, just very quickly, it’s got to be said that this is a country that has never been able to diversify its economy. About 98 percent of its external revenues comes from oil and from petroleum products. In the last few years, oil prices have collapsed by 50 percent which means that Venezuela’s external revenues have also collapsed by about 50 percent.

When Venezuela was swimming in oil money and when there were difficulties in the United States, and Britain, and other countries, the Venezuelan government provided cheap oil to poor people in Boston, in the Bronx in New York, — in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in London, and other places. But when Venezuela went into a crisis, rather than tending to the problem — which was basically a problem of a one-commodity economy — rather than help the Venezuelans, what we begin to see is the Obama administration in 2015 declaring Venezuela a national security threat and now the Trump administration with the very close help of Mr. Trudeau from Canada [is] trying to essentially overthrow the government of Mr. Nicolas Maduro. You know, the people will concentrate and they’ll say well, you know, Maduro did this, Maduro did that, but before Maduro can do anything is the suffocation of the one commodity economy.

JS: Well, and Vijay, you have this exception in the sanctions, the latest round of sanctions that the Trump administration has imposed on Venezuela and its state oil company allowing Chevron to continue doing business as usual and also the former company of Dick Cheney, Halliburton, [is] also allowed to continue on in Venezuela.

VP: See, one of the interesting things about the Trump administration and Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton is they just don’t seem to care. I mean, they don’t have any pretense about anything that they’re doing. Whereas one saw, even with George W. Bush’s administration, we saw some measure of pretense. You know, they’d come up with theories about humanitarianism and whatever it is — there [are] weapons of mass destruction. All kinds of shifting goal posts that they used as a fig leaf for the invasion of Iraq. Even, of course, with Mr. Obama, we saw all kinds of high-minded principles. Obama was an expert at concocting high-minded principles to defend essentially naked aggression. With Trump and with Bolton, I mean, we’re at a situation where they just don’t care. Include with Trump and Bolton, Senator Rubio. They just don’t care. They come out directly and say, “we’re in this for the oil.” They come out directly and say these people can’t behave like that. I mean, of all audacious things Nicolas Maduro is a bus driver. You know, how dare he be the president of a country? You should be an oligarch, one of the old aristocracy from Venezuela. That’s the kind of person that should run things in collaboration with Chevron and Halliburton and so on. So, you know, they’re not even [trying] to pretend that this is about democracy.

JS: Briefly, Vijay, you also have many prominent Democrats including Dick Durbin of Illinois, but also members of the Democratic side of the House Foreign Relations Committee backing the Trump Administration. And over the weekend, we saw huge protests in Venezuela. The ones that were in support of Juan Guaidó were covered everywhere and the footage was shown everywhere. But the massive protests that were Venezuelans in the streets to defend Maduro, that was not shown. Or there were allegations, “Oh, they’re just doctoring the video.” So, it’s clear that we are seeing a major propaganda push, on the one hand, in the news media with glowing coverage of Juan Guaidó, and then on the other hand, Democrats who are screaming on the top of the hill that Donald Trump is the biggest threat ever to American democracy and he’s going to ruin the country. The Democrats on this issue are saying “Oh no, but we were actually with Trump on this one and Nicolas Maduro has to go.”

VP: The American political establishment makes a big deal of bipartisanship. And in a sense, the real arena where bipartisanship can be seen is when it comes to foreign policy. Particularly the behavior of the United States government against its so-called adversaries — whether it’s Iran or it’s Venezuela. You know, people get confused on Iran thinking that the Obama administration was on one side of the issue and Trump was on the other. In fact, they were both on the same side of the issue, which is that the United States has the right to intervene, to pressure Iran. To use its various controls of things like the control of the U.S. dollar, trade with Iran, to use pressure on the Europeans against the SWIFT network. That’s the network that moves currency around. Both Obama and Trump are in agreement that it’s perfectly permissible for the U.S. to use any instrument to control Iran. There was some difference in strategy. Obama wanted to use the multilateral agreement that would essentially prevent Iran from doing certain things and Trump said no, let’s go a different way. But they totally agreed in the final aim and in the attitude of the United States to other countries in foreign policy.

Much the same in Venezuela. There is no difference in attitude across the political spectrum from Democrats, to Republicans, to the New York Times. You know, utter unanimity of opinion that the United States can interfere in another country’s political matters, can come in and, in fact, anoint leaders. Here’s the irony, you have a country, the United States, which is up in arms about Russian interference in the elections. I can’t watch Rachel Maddow’s television show any longer because there she is going on and on about, you know, how the Russians are doing this, the Russians are doing that. Meanwhile, the United States is there openly, brazenly intervening in Venezuela as they do in so many other countries and these people have no problem with it. I mean, you know, Rachel Maddow, Ph.D. from I think Oxford — have some decency — at least let the goose and the gander be treated by the same standard, but that is just not going to happen. In fact, things are so bad, Jeremy, that when Medea Benjamin went in twice to intervene, to shame the Organization of American States and to shame people anointed by this Lima Group as representatives of Venezuela, CNN Spanish used footage of Medea to make the case that she was protesting on behalf of the opposition against Maduro. So, not only do they frame these issues in a way that’s quite, you know, just inconsiderate of the truth, but here they are openly lying.

JS: Well, let me ask you: I, of course, agree with your analysis on the U.S. intervention. But we are seeing millions of Venezuelans over the past several years fleeing the country. Yes, the opposition, some elements of the opposition to Maduro, have killed people. There has been racist action on the part of some sectors of the opposition. At the same time, Maduro controls most of the state mechanisms of organized violence: the police, the military, etcetera. And we have seen real brutality and lethal force used over, and over on the opposition. My question for you is, and I’ve been hearing this from Venezuelans who say look, we are not Trump supporters. We are not fans of any kind of a “lighter-skinned Venezuelans are the one that should be in control of the country” mentality that seems to be permeating a lot of the so-called opposition. But Maduro is running the country into the ground. Yes, we understand sanctions. Everything Vijay is saying we agree with that. At the same time, Maduro has built himself a kleptocracy. Are you saying that there is no legitimacy whatsoever to any sector of the opposition against Maduro right now?

VP: Well, look let’s put it this way. There are obvious problems. As I said, when your revenues declined to almost 50 percent you’re going to suffer great problems inside the country. You’ve got an economic stranglehold by the sanctions regime and so on. Yes, there are Venezuelans fleeing the country. But, Jeremy, there are 69 million people who have been displaced around the world. And that’s a very conservative figure, largely displaced because of the very structural policies that are disturbing countries, not only Venezuela but countries across West Africa, in Central Asia. You have wars, you have economic policies that are displacing people. So, of course, there are people moving, you know? Of course, there are people who feel that this government is not representing them, but that’s what the political process is about. I mean, are we saying that Nicolas Maduro is a dictator? Now in the last election, which the opposition only partly boycotted, he only won 67 percent of the vote. You know, if this was truly a dictatorship, let’s look at the case of our old friend, you know, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Mubarak won almost 90 percent of the votes. That’s [a] questionable election and when that election took place, the U.S. State Department said this is a new day for Egypt.

In this case, Maduro won 67 percent. The opposition is politically divided. It’s not able to come together. One section of the opposition has turned to the United States and said essentially give us a hand to use any means to overthrow this guy. Why don’t you build the opposition? On any day in Caracas, Jeremy, you open the newspapers, they’re all deeply critical of the Maduro government. If this is a dictatorship, I don’t understand what freedom, you know, in our limited sense is. He gets hammered on television. He is getting hammered [in] the newspapers. The fact is the opposition is not able to come together. And the deep residues of Chavista loyalty to the Maduro government, but also to the institutions of the missions, and so on is not to be set aside. In other words, you have this very loyal section of Chavistas who are committed to the Bolivarian Revolution. They understand the problems. They’re willing to fight to defend the government and they come out in large numbers to vote for the government. But yet their large numbers, as I said, amount to 67 percent. There is a political process. Maduro has said let’s go back. Let’s have a negotiation. Let’s think about a new election. You know, the Venezuelan government in this last election last year, asked the United Nations to send monitors. Why did the United Nations not send monitors? You know, why is the United States government attempting to cripple the political process in Venezuela to create the preconditions where you can then think there’s nothing else to be done except U.S. intervention to anoint somebody as the president? A deeply undemocratic act.

JS: Also, I wanted to point out — and you’ve been writing about this and offering analysis on it — that at this moment in Latin America, you have this rise again of overt authoritarian fascist leaders like Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. But you also have a leftist president who came to power in Mexico, Andres Manuel López Obrador known by his initials AMLO, and you wrote about López Obrador — that he comes to the presidency as a man of the left but the space for maneuvering that he has for a left agenda is minimal. I feel like if this was 10 years ago there would have been a lot more excitement about what’s happening in Mexico with López Obrador coming to power but that has sort of been drowned out by the situation in Venezuela on the one hand. And then Trump’s inane dangerous threats about building a border wall and then also the active, ongoing threat of separating families from their children, militarizing the border patrol, ICE, which serves as a kind of storm front for enforcement of extremely racist xenophobic immigration policy. But what is your sense of what room to maneuver López Obrador has right now in Mexico?

VP: You see Mexico, like Venezuela, like any of these countries, their space for what we call fiscal creativity is almost zero. These countries are reliant upon borrowing commercial capital going to, you know, private banks to raise money. There’s been immense pressure on these countries from the IMF not to run deficits. So, that means that if you can’t raise enough money from banks to cover your basic running operation of your government, what you’re going to do is you’re going to end up cutting social services. I mean, let’s put this in some context, Jeremy. Oxfam’s recent report showed that last year, that is in the calendar year of 2018, 2,230odd billionaires increased their wealth by 2.5 billion dollars per year and meanwhile the lowest 50 percent of humanity lost eleven percent of its wealth. Why am I raising this? The top 10 people among those 2,230 odd billionaires, of them there’s only one person who’s not from North America, that is not from the United States, and from Europe, and that person is Carlos Slim of Mexico.

You see what we have to remember is the very top people, these 2,000 odd billionaires and their families, no longer pay tax. You know, they are essentially bloating tax havens. They are hiding their money in banks. They’re just not paying tax anymore. They have gone on, what I consider, a tax strike. Because these elites like Carlos Slim of Mexico have gone on a tax strike the governments of countries like Mexico have a very difficult time raising, financing to do anything on the humane side of government policy. So, they’ve been cutting health care, they’ve been cutting education, they’ve been slicing everything that produces civilization. So, for, you know, for López Obrador, the government he’s inherited is basically a government which doesn’t have any ability to provide the good parts of life for people, which is why he was very eager to take back control of PEMEX — which is the Mexican petroleum company — take back control of it, put some money to invest in it to revive PEMEX. The moment he made those comments after he won the election, he was told directly by banks, by the IMF, and by international oil companies that don’t you dare do that. Don’t you dare try to use public financing to revive PEMEX. The only thing we’re going to allow you to do is to basically sell more parts of PEMEX off to international privately-held, you know, energy companies.

So what’s happening to Venezuela is just a much more vulgar and dangerous, kind of, portfolio of events than what is happening to Mexico where things are not yet at a boiling point. But basically, López Obrador has been told there is no exit for Mexico. No way for you to raise finances to basically enrich the population and therefore you’re going to see people continue to move towards the border. You’re going to see people continue to move, put pressure on the United States to build these walls, and to create essentially a military force that stands there the border and shoots at people.

JS: Now, let’s jump to the other side of the globe for a moment. One of the major areas of focus of the Trump administration that, I think, has the potential to be the most dangerous is the obsession with Iran and the fact that the Trump administration is littered with people including notorious neocons who have always wanted regime change in Iran. You have the situation in Yemen, which the Trump administration has used as, really, a proxy war against Iran and, of course, there’s a lot of issues with facts in this administration and certainly, that’s been the case in Yemen. But you do have Yemen being used as a proxy war. You have this network of allies that’s emerged where you have the Saudis, Israel, The United States, and then some lesser states that really seem to be pushing in that direction. The U.S. has been quietly negotiating with the Iraqi government to have hundreds of Special Operations forces, troops from the United States deployed inside of Iraq with the purpose of potentially striking against Iran. How do you see the fact that Trump is saying that he’s going to take U.S. troops out of Syria, take U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, but now re-deploy some of the most elite hunter-killer teams in the U.S. arsenal in Iraq with the explicit purpose of, number one, confronting Iran and then, secondarily, dealing with ISIS?

VP: Well, Trump made a comment to CBS News where he said that we have American troops in Iraq to monitor Iran. The word he used was monitor. And within hours, the Iraqi Prime Minister made a comment saying, you know, this is inappropriate, that the United States’ presence in Iraq is to combat terrorism. Not to, essentially, rattle the cage with Iran, because we, that is the Iraqi government, have a relationship both with the Iranians and the United States. So, again Trump, no ability to hold back, just says things openly and the contradictions then emerge on the world stage. I think the United States is going to have a very difficult time using Iraq as a lily pad. Using any of the neighboring states apart from those that you mentioned. That is Saudi Arabia, the UAE. These states would be quite happy to help. But remember, Saudi Arabia cannot have American troops located there. So, I don’t know what kind of practical support — the Turks are not going to allow troops to come in. So, it’s going to be very difficult for the United States practically to take on Iran apart from, you know, occasional bombing runs maybe and one or two special forces people going in to do sabotage operations.

You know, when Nicolas Maduro was under immense pressure he made a little video where he warned the American [saying] don’t come and invade us, we’ll make this another Vietnam. I want you to consider, Jeremy, that the population of Iraq is just about 40 percent of the population of Iran. The Iranian population is highly motivated. If the United States decided to do any kind of military action against Iran it would, I think, be a great mistake. I mean Maduro evokes Vietnam. I would also evoke Vietnam at a different scale for the for the Iranian situation. I think that they are trying to intimidate the Iranian government and they’re trying to do something which — this is why the playbook between Iran and Venezuela is the same — they’re trying to produce so much, you know, economic hardship in the country that you’re going to have millions of people get disaffected with the government. You will have immense propaganda saying that it is this government’s fault and not these other external policies and you will try to create some kind of internal uprising which then gets cracked down upon by the government because it naturally doesn’t want to have some internal uprising, you know, just continue and [the] moment that crackdown takes place, the United States is going to say to the Europeans “look they are authoritarian, they’re a dictatorship, they’re crushing their people, let’s go in.” And NATO is going to say yes, and they go in, you know, all guns blazing.

It’s an incredibly similar playbook that they are following in all these countries which is why these countries are all sort of, you know, in a similar way, concerned. I think it’s silly how people talk about the axis of resistance, and so on. I don’t think anything like that exists. These countries have very different approaches to foreign policy. But at the same time, since they’re all under the same kind of playbook, there’s a kind of sympathy in these capitals for what’s happening in each place. And I think this is also why the Russians are very keen to be involved in each of these places to provide a shield. I think the question of a Russian shield over Iran is already there. The issue of a Russian Shield over Venezuela is also there. And I would say, Jeremy, this is exactly the reason why the United States has withdrawn from the missile treaty. This is why the United States is going to try directly to undermine Russian military power in the next few months.

JS: Well, but in fairness, Russia has its own imperial agenda as well. It’s not like Russia is only acting in the human interest of the world. I mean, Russia clearly is facing down NATO encroachment on the part of the United States. The U.S. moving further and further to the east. You have the potential, and it’s been there for some time, to have an all-out hot war between U.S. and Russian forces in Syria. Certainly, that would be the case if the U.S. did escalate even a little bit in Iran. But, let’s be clear here, though. I mean, Russia is not an ideological actor trying to stand up for the Global South. They’re also acting on their own imperial interests that occasionally aligned with the agenda that you’re describing there.

VP: Well, I would say stronger than that. I wouldn’t use the word imperial. I would say Russia is entirely a defensive power. Why do I say that? You know, it’s interesting when you look at military bases, particularly naval bases. The United States has a hundred and some-odd naval bases around the world. In fact, has the ability to encircle the planet. Years ago I was talking to a senior U.N. official — this is in March of 2011 when the Security Council was debating U.N. resolution 1973, that was the resolution that allowed the war in Libya — and I asked the U.N. official I said, you know, it’s so funny you guys, you produce these resolutions which say any member state can act under chapter seven, which means any member state can use armed forces to defend, you know, to help this resolution along and, of course, that means the United States because who else has bases all over the world? You know, the Indians can’t intervene in Libya, and so on. Well, the Russians had only, not a hundred naval bases around the world, but they had two warm water bases and I think it’s important to underline this.

One warm water base was in Sevastopol in the Crimea and the second warm water base is in Latakia in Syria. It’s no secret, therefore, that from 2013-14 the Russians were terrified about losing the Sevastopol naval base and the intervention into Ukraine, particularly into Crimea. I think this is the reason for the intervention to Crimea. They were defending that warm water base. And secondly, in2015, in September when Russian planes entered Damascus and they intervened militarily to prevent an American bombing run on the city. It was to defend their naval base in Latakia. So what I would say is that it’s an entirely defensive power. It’s much weaker than the United States but it’s basically using military force and using, you know, its ability as limited as possible to secure these alliances. It’s not out there to defend the south. I totally agree with that, but it has its own agenda and these agendas contradict those of the United States. At present, what’s interesting about this agenda that the Russians have is that, from let’s say the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 to the attempted overthrow of the Syrian government in 2012-13, I think in that space there was no check on U.S. power. And when the Russian planes entered Syria in 2015, that was the first time in about, you know, almost 25 years that somebody had come in to check U.S. power. And it’s my feeling that this current tussle over missile defense over space, overall these kinds of new tensions around military hardware, the presence of the military, etcetera between the United States and Russia is to, once again, weaken the Russian ability to provide these shields. These shields are not there for humanitarian purposes. But nonetheless, these are shields.

JS: Now, you mentioned India there and I want to remind people that India is a massive country not just in land mass, but in population — upwards of 1.3 billion people like what, you know, we’re talking about like one in every six people in the world is from India. And India has very, very important elections that will be coming up in the spring, scheduled for May. Right now India is under the control of a far-right extremist. The BJP won the majority in India’s Parliament. I want to ask you about the resistance to Narendra Modi in a second and what your analysis is of the upcoming elections there and there [have] been huge protests and you’ve been tweeting about that and showing pictures and videos. But first, explain for people the impact that the far-right BJP government has had on India.

VP: Well, Jeremy, in 2013 when the last parliamentary elections took place, the far-right won 31 percent of the vote. But because of the nature of the Indian parliamentary system, they got a majority in Parliament. But I want to start there because people should understand that they are essentially a minority government in terms of the votes they were able to get. Even though Mr. Modi rules India as if he had won a major majority of the population’s favor. You know, 60 percent plus of the public did not vote for the BJP or its allies. I think that’s very important to remember. Nonetheless, Mr. Modi didn’t govern as if he represented India. He governed from the agenda of his political party. He attempted to push the fascistic agenda of the BJP. In terms of what does it mean to be an Indian? No longer does the BJP want India to be composite plural country. As you say 1.3, 1.4 billion people, you know with — let me say, you know, a hundred, tens of hundreds of different kinds of cultural worlds, over a hundred different kinds of languages, highly diverse population, yet more they wanted to govern it in a very narrow, suffocating, cultural way.

He also attempted certain dramatic economic, you know, let’s call them gimmicks. Demonetization, which meant that suddenly one day you wake up and two of your main currency bills have been withdrawn from circulation. This was supposedly to go after black money. You know that is money hoarded by the rich. Of course, the rich, no longer keep their hoarded money in bank accounts under their beds. They keep it in tax havens, in shelters all around the world. So this was a big gimmick, which backfired, created a lot of distress for people and so on. So Modi attempted to push the country in a rightward direction. But right from the beginning, there was immense resistance against him and, interestingly, even on foreign policy.

When Modi tried to move into, basically, the American camp, he was prevented. He was the first Indian Prime Minister to go to Israel but he was forced by the political class and by the Indian foreign ministry to also have continued relations with the Palestinians — which he wanted to break. Modi was very eager to join in the American project to isolate Iran. That was prevented, not only by the foreign ministry and by the other political parties, but also, of course, by the needs of India which is entirely reliant on import of oil and imports quite a large amount of Iranian oil.

In the case of Venezuela, there was pressure on Mr. Modi to join with some of these European countries and the Lima Group to isolate the government of Maduro, but, the political class just wouldn’t have it. And India had to put out a quite a strong statement saying that “no foreign intervention is permitted and the sovereignty of Venezuela must be respected.” So, I want to just say at the same time as Modi is quite a ruthless, nasty piece of work, he was not able to capture fully the institutions of Indian government and the imagination of the Indian people and it’s quite likely, Jeremy, that he is going to lose this election quite badly.

JS: Well, that’s interesting. I want to ask you more about that. I also want to just draw people’s attention to the fact that just last month in January there were upwards of 200 million workers in India that took part in a two-day strike protesting the government’s labor policies. And then at the same time, over the weekend, you tweeted a photo of a sea of people in red and you wrote the following “My home city of Kolkata bristled today with the energy of the Left Front with our comrades thronging the Brigade Ground. There are many photographs of our comrades as they interact with each other, dance with each other from the bus stands and the train stations to the maidan.” What is the Left Front and how are they challenging the BJP?

VP: Well, you know, it’s let’s begin with the major labor protest. I was driving up and down the length of Kerala during those two days of the strike in January —

JS: I mean, that’s just for people to understand! I mean 200 million workers – I mean that’s like two-thirds of the population of the United States in, you know, in the streets on strike.

VP: That’s quite right and these are workers from not only where you’d expect them, rail workers, people closed down the trains in different parts of the country, but also Anganwadi workers. These are workers who are child care workers, ASHA workers. These are health care workers went out on strike. We saw IT workers. The internet workers in Bangalore in some IT companies go on strike. It was a range of workers to add up to 200 million and these workers were on strike not for wages. I think that’s very important to recognize. But they were angry with the direction of economic policy. They were angry with the kind of political culture in the country. It’s a very broad set of demands and quite a very powerful strike.

But before that, last year there was an immense wave of agrarian struggles. People may not know that in the past 18 years almost 300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide. They’ve committed suicide largely because there is a deep agrarian crisis with no exit that has struck India. You’ve had — because of the commercialization of agriculture — you’ve had input prices rise, prices of fertilizer, prices of pesticide, prices of seeds. And you’ve had the government cut support prices to buy the goods. That means that the input prices [have] risen and the buying price has dropped which has left farmers in immense debt. And what you’ve seen, which is so tragic, is many of these farmers commit suicide by drinking pesticide, the very thing that has bankrupted them. Well over the course of these 15 odd years, the Kisan Sabha which is the Farmers’ movement in India has been struggling very hard to build the political confidence of farmers. And you saw in Bombay last year, you know, hundreds of thousands of farmers, march for over two weeks into the city of Bombay and force the right-wing state government to accede to the demands. So, what I’m saying is that we move from suicide to the politicization of the agrarian crisis. This had an enormous impact in three state elections last year in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh.

And it’s because of this farmer’s protest which has been, you know, organized by the left, by the communists, by the socialists, and other constituents of the Left Front. Because of these farmer’s protest you’ve seen a shift in the political needle away from the BJP in these key states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh. And in the very large, the largest state in India, the state of Uttar Pradesh, where there are 80 members of parliament — you know, the parliament in India has about 500 members, 80 of them come from Uttar Pradesh. In the 2013 election, Modi’s party won 70 of those seats but this year the two, I mean, so-called socialist parties, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, have united. They are going to fight the elections together. And it’s actually a marriage that is made in heaven, as they say, because in 31 seats in the 2013 election, in 31 of those seats the Samajwadi party, the socialist party came second, and in 34 seats the Bahujan Samaj Party, which is the party of oppressed castes, came second. So, that means they don’t actually compete with each other in 65 of the seats where the BJP won.

So, what we are anticipating is that this alliance is going to win about 50 to 60 seats out of 80 Uttar Pradesh. Because the BJP cannot win seats in South India because it’s going to have a hard time in those agrarian states of Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh and because it’s going to lose in this very large state of Uttar Pradesh to this new alliance of socialists and oppressed caste parties. Because of that, there is no way BJP is going to get a plurality in the Parliament and I think, in fact, it will it will not be able to form a government in April and May of this coming, this year.

JS: What are the chances that a new Indian government would be legitimately leftist or anti-imperialist?

VP: No, no, no. I mean, Jeremy, that’s not the –

JS: I’m asking you, brother!

VP:[Laughter] You see the issue is — this is the situation that we are going to face for a generation. Which is that again in these three state elections, it was really immense work done by the left among, you know rural communities, farmers, landless workers, and so on to build a political momentum that defeated the BJP governments. But of course, the left doesn’t have the kind of political structure needed to win elections. You know, whether this is in Brazil or it’s in India, we have to recognize that democracy has been completely shattered as an institutional form. It requires so much money to run in elections. There are so many crooked things that have happened to the democratic process. You know, in Brazil Jair Bolsonaro’s friends were sending WhatsApp messages, to WhatsApp groups that number, you know, hundreds and thousands of people. These WhatsApp messages, that were very cruel, they were suggesting that the Workers’ Party in Brazil, you know, was going to force their children into sex education and so on, you know, as if that’s a problem. I mean children deserve sex education but they were doing it in an extremely nasty way and delegitimizing the Workers’ Party in Brazil. We see the same thing in India. In other words, you know, lots of money being put by corporations into BJP deniable groups that are creating these WhatsApp networks and you know, inking essentially the political process by, you know, saying things about other candidates that are not true where it’s very difficult for the candidate who doesn’t have money to come out there and say look that’s just not true and let me show you how. So, you know to capitalize on the kind of mass mobilizations, on the struggles and so on into this democratic sphere is becoming increasingly difficult which is why I think that you know, we need to very seriously consider reconsider what democratic institutions are and what has become, what has happened to them.

JS: Last month was the anniversary of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the independence leader in Congo who was the first prime minister of the independent Democratic Republic of Congo. He was assassinated and the United States, we know for a fact, had previously plotted to assassinate him. Just recently there were elections in Congo and you had the election of Felix Tshisekedi. He is now Congo’s fifth president taking over from Joseph Kabila. You recently, with Kambale Musavuli wrote a piece about the legacy of the crisis in Congo and how Patrice Lumumba-inspired-youth are trying to break the culture of plunder and corruption that has been foisted upon the political system in Congo. Explain today’s crisis, how it began in Congo, the significance of this new election, and the fact that the so-called opposition in Congo right now is headed by a former ExxonMobil executive.

VP: You know, it’s a great tragedy and I’d like to just back up for a minute. It’s not just a situation of the Congo. You have to look at this belt that runs through the center of Africa including Zambia, you know, including any country in the center of Africa and the many of them that are rich in rare earth minerals, in various raw materials from cobalt, which is an essential ingredient in electric batteries, to coltan which is essential for you know, the smartphones, the iPhone and so on. So, these countries —

JS: Oh many, many people are probably listening to you right now, Vijay, on devices that contain some natural resources from Congo or this belt that you’re describing.

VP: Well, they will definitely have devices that have cobalt and coltan which mainly come from this belt of countries. And it’s very important to say that however much there is, kind of, this dismay about the Chinese intervention in Africa, that actually most of the companies that are able to work to mine these goods are actually not Chinese. Many of them are Canadian. We, in fact, are doing a study about these Canadian firms like Barrick and so on which dominate the mining in these parts of the world. And what you’ve seen is that these mining companies essentially misprice what they’re doing. They pay these countries revenues based on a very deflated price for the goods. These goods as soon as they cross the border from the Congo, say they go to Mwanza port in Tanzania. As soon as they cross the border into Tanzania or into Uganda, the prices of these goods rise by miracle because within the Congo they keep the price low. So they say to the government we’ll give you 20 percent per ton of coltan’s price but the price is, you know, only so many hundred dollars. As soon as it crosses the border the price increases. This is what we call mispricing.

So places like the Congo have essentially been plundered and stolen from for over a hundred years. They haven’t been able to build up any kind of public finances. They haven’t been able to build up proper institutions to take care of the people of the Congo or of Zambia, wherever. And what you see in the Congo is, I mean you cannot imagine what corruption looks like. It’s the corruption of these big Canadian and other mining companies, resource companies, Australian companies and so on. Then it’s the corruption of the political class. At this moment, the kind of tentacles of Joseph Kabila who governed, you know, almost entirely since democracy came to Congo.

I mean democracy, again that word, you know, what does it mean for places like the Congo where you know, you strong arm people you have elections which means so little and, bizarrely, elections which means so little but in the case of a place like the Congo because it’s pliant, because it allows its raw materials and rare earth materials to leave the country at low cost, every time there is an election the State Department and, you know, all the Europeans, everybody says, well, you know, they’re moving towards democracy. I mean, if you are a pliant government, then your stolen election is validated. If you are not a pliant government, this is coming back to Venezuela, then you’re going to be told your election was fraudulent. So, they have had fraudulent election after elections and it got to such a point that Joseph Kabila simply refused to have an election. You know, his term ended in 2016. He just refused to allow an election to take place and nobody said peep. There was no statement about moving American troops into Tanzania. I mean nothing. Why? Because essentially all the minerals are being looted from that country so that we can have iPhones which cost — Okay, the huge price of $999 dollars, but if you actually priced the minerals inside the iPhone, the price may go up to $30,000 per iPhone. Some people have estimated $100,000 per iPhone. Imagine that. Walking into the Apple store and saying I’ll take three of those. I mean, who can afford that?

So, as long as you have a pliant government, and Kabila was pliant, they allowed him to keep going even though his mandate ended in 2016. You had these massive protest — yes, Lumumba inspired youth but also, you know, some of them are devout Christian groups and so on — out on the street demanding change. The pressure was too high. They allowed an election. They thought that Kabila’s, you know, his successor would come in. And here’s the whole trick of it, you know, again what is a democracy? Who can afford to build a political party? Necessarily you get people from the elite who build the opposition. And here? Yes, of course, it’s an ExxonMobil, you know, executive who becomes the face of the opposition. I mean, there is no real opposition in a country like Congo until it’s built from the grassroots. From these young people and so on.

And that is why, Jeremy, I’m sorry to say that, for at least a generation, places like the Congo will not be able to have, you know, robust political movements. Movements that will have any kind of impact in the electoral domain. In Zambia, a socialist party is being built up particularly in the copper belt. They are going to run for presidential elections. The candidate is going to be Fredman Membe. Fred used to run a newspaper in Zambia. He has been arrested several times by this government. His newspaper has been confiscated. The press was confiscated. The men’s pressure against the Socialist Party of Zambia and I can bet you that 99 percent of the people listening to this have never heard of the Socialist Party of Zambia or of Fred, you know, because of course, these are people who will not be pliant when it comes to mining companies, if they ever come to power.

JS: Well, and I also want to remind people, just briefly, of the history that you’re talking about here of the Congo, which was under the brutal reign of Belgian colonialism. And then you had the CIA-backed government of Mobutu Sese Seko and he himself was an actual CIA asset who ran that country with extreme brutality and kept it open for U.S. president after U.S. president.

You also had Dwight Eisenhower authorizing the CIA to develop a chemical poison that was made to look like toothpaste that they wanted to try to assassinate Patrice Lumumba with. We’ve seen so many of these independence movements or nationalist movements in Africa and Asia, around the Global South just be completely obliterated or severely damaged in the ensuing decades of imperialist encroachment around the world.

VP: Well, it is a very great tragedy. I mean, again, the playbook is similar. You look for the most charismatic person, assassinate that person, and then squeeze the rest of the political forces into exceeding to your demands. I mean, you take the case of any of these countries when they attempted to do something, put forward an alternative project. Suddenly, there’s an assassination: whether it’s Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1961, or it’s AmílcarCabral, or it’s the coup against Kwame Nkrumah. I mean, none of them was allowed to have a tenure where they were able to develop independent economies. And, of course for my generation, the assassination of Thomas Sankara in May of 1987, the very charismatic and important political leader in Burkina Faso which used to be known as Upper Volta but then when Sankara came to power he changed the name of his country. [He] said, “why should we be called Upper Volta? Why should we be defined by colonialism? We are Burkina Faso, the land of upright people.” And he pushed an agenda to revive the agriculture of Burkina Faso. He pushed an agenda for the sovereignty of the country. It’s such an interesting agenda that he pushed that he set for instance, by government fiat, by law, on Wednesday, men must do childcare. He said I would like to have half the week be for men to do childcare and domestic — take care of the house, clean things, cook food, but I’m going to start only with Wednesday. I mean, this was a man who understood that political power is not about the parliament. It’s not even about the boardroom of companies — it’s the kitchen, the house.

You know, it’s the old saying Jeremy that it’s not enough to be Che Guevara on the street and Pinochet in the kitchen. You have to be [a] liberated person from you know, your house out onto the streets and Sankara pushed a great agenda for his country, Burkina Faso, and he was assassinated. You know, just seven years later the hope of South Africa, Chris Hani, you know, the leader of [the South African Communist Party], the leader of the urban poor in South Africa. Just as South Africa was coming out of Apartheid, before the elections, Chris Hani was shot to death. I mean, every time you look at an African country when a young leader is produced that comes up with an agenda that is not blind to mining companies, not pliant to the Western capitals, that person is killed almost immediately and I think people need to really reflect on that, reflect on the assassinations of Houari Boumédièneat the north of the country in Algeria all the way down to Chris Hani at the South.

JS: You know, as we wrap up Vijay, I wanted to get your big picture take on the ascent of Donald Trump to the chamber of ultimate power in the United States at the White House. Taking into account this history that you and I are discussing of populist movements, leftist movements, socialist movements, and the kind of expansion of the imperialism of the United States. Set Donald Trump’s rise to power in the context of all of this history that you and I have been discussing.

VP: Well, you know it brings us back to this tax strike that began about 40 years ago. About 40 years ago when basically government policy allowed the big elites to no longer pay taxes, corporate tax rates began to fall. You saw government budgets desiccate. You saw municipal budgets basically devolve to nothing. At this point, the kind of liberal consensus, the liberal agenda, was to move in a direction [of] what we call neoliberalism. They produced a policy framework called neoliberalism which basically accepted the fact that the rich were not going to pay taxes. And they tried to raise public financing, whether it’s the budgets of governments or municipalities, they wanted to raise funds by selling off hard-won public assets, whether it’s concessions to water delivery, or it’s, in fact, education institutions, and so on. They privatized, they opened up parts of human existence that had not been for money and commodified them.

So again, water is a great example. You had water utilities which basically ran things as a not-for-profit entity. You start privatizing water, making water into a commodity. This was the way in which the liberals tried to finance this crisis of government budgets because the rich were not paying taxes. And they were not going to challenge the rich. In fact, they said that’s good. It creates entrepreneurialism. You see jobs trickle down. Essentially, this is the agenda of Tony Blair, of Bill Clinton, and you know, around the world they have their cognates. But by the financial crisis of 2007, the liberals with the neoliberal policies were essentially totally delegitimized.

I mean, nobody took seriously, after the financial crisis, the idea that you should just go out there and become an entrepreneur as if it’s so easy. I mean, as if it’s so easy to go out there and just start a business. Have an idea and somebody will finance it. Who? Who is going to finance it? Which bank is going to give me money for my idea when banks are basically hoarding wealth on behalf of the wealthy, not lending for business purposes at the rates at which they should, and so on? So, when these neoliberals are delegitimized, from the right appears characters, people like Donald Trump. But again, this is not a specific American story. This is a global story. The delegitimization of the liberals, whether it’s the Congress party in India, or it’s to some extent, the Workers Party in Brazil, the Democratic party in the United States, these far-right people show up and they make strong claims saying that “we’re going to come, we’re going to grab the economy by the throat, we’re going to make it cough out jobs.” And then they make [an] even more dramatic statement saying that “the reason you don’t have a job has nothing to do with the fact that you’re not an entrepreneur or that you’re not a get-up-and-go person. The reason you don’t have a job is because the migrants, because these migrants come in and take your jobs.” I mean, it’s a classic bait and switch.

On the one hand, they quite correctly attack the neoliberals saying that “you’ve basically hollowed out the economy.” They attack them saying that “you’re not able to provide well-being for the population.” Well, that’s true. But then the bait and switch is they turn around and they say “the reason why this is happening is because of the migrants.” They, in other words, the Trumps of the world, just like the Clintons of the world, don’t point their fingers at those 2,000 billionaires and so on who are just not paying taxes. Who are sucking up social wealth and not providing any return to public finances to improve health to improve education. And, by the way, to create public institutions that prevent people from desperation like universal health care. If you had publicly funded universal health care, individual families wouldn’t have to scramble to pay premiums and struggle to get health insurance and so on. This is what public financing should have been. But because the left is weak now, the liberals have been delegitimized. The field is open to the right and not only to the right but [to] these very vicious strongmen. So, my sense is that for some time now, we’re going to have to tolerate this right-wing political presence until we build up the forces of the left to produce a robust critique of the way in which the wealthy have not been contributing at all.

I mean, I don’t really want philanthropy. I want them to pay taxes.

JS: Well on that note, we’re going to leave it there. Vijay Prashad, thank you so much for joining us.

VP: Thanks a lot.

The post Pox Americana: Vijay Prashad on Venezuela, India, Mexico, Congo, and U.S. Hegemony appeared first on The Intercept.

Pox Americana: Vijay Prashad on Venezuela, India, Mexico, Congo, and U.S. Hegemony

There is a brazen, bipartisan push by the U.S. government for regime change in Venezuela with the Trump administration officially declaring opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the “legitimate” president. The economic sanctions imposed on Venezuela by the U.S. are aimed at starving the population into submission with notorious neoconservatives John Bolton and Elliott Abrams coordinating the campaign to overthrow the government of Nicolás Maduro. What we are witnessing right now in Latin America is a modern iteration of the same dirty tactics that the U.S. has historically used against the nations south of the U.S. border. Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world. The U.S. has tried since the early 2000s to overthrow its socialist government beginning with Hugo Chávez. At the same time, it poured money into right-wing movements and backed open fascists like Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. All of this is a modern version of the era of overthrowing leftists who won at the ballot box or by ousting U.S.-friendly dictators. And all of the mass murder, the sanctions, the regime changes, the election interference, the covert support for anti-democratic forces determined to be good for so-called free markets is, today, as it was in the 1950s, sold in the name of bringing freedom and democracy.

Powerful Democrats and Republicans alike have sold the notion that economic sanctions are somehow a cleaner way of forcing change than military action. They portray sanctions as targeting the dictators, the oligarchs, the criminally corrupt. But the filthy truth is that not all sanctions are created equal. Yes, there are sanctions that go after individual criminals. But the sanctions we’re talking about on Venezuela right now are not going harm Maduro and his inner circle personally. No, these sanctions are aimed at punishing the Venezuelan people by depriving them of food, medicine, wages, and their very humanity. The strategy is to use these sanctions as a cudgel against an already suffering people in a campaign to torture them into submission.

The former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela William Brownfield has been aggressively lobbying for more sanctions, saying “perhaps the best solution would be to accelerate the collapse.” He says this while actually openly acknowledging that sanctions will kill innocent people, increase malnutrition, and bring “fairly severe punishment” for “millions and millions” of Venezuelans. Brownfield recently admitted the following:

If we can do something that will bring that end quicker, we probably should do it, but we should do it understanding that it’s going to have an impact on millions and millions of people who are already having great difficulty finding enough to eat, getting themselves cured when they get sick, or finding clothes to put on their children before they go off to school. We don’t get to do this and pretend as though it has no impact there. We have to make the hard decision — the desired outcome justifies this fairly severe punishment.

This is the former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela speaking at a Washington D.C. think tank, publicly saying that it is worth the price of lives and health and humanity of ordinary Venezuelans in order to overthrow a government the U.S. does not like. These sanctions are going to cost Venezuela $11 billion in oil revenue in 2019 alone. That amounts to nearly 95 percent of the money that Venezuela spent on the import of food and other goods last year. This isn’t targeting Maduro. Even The Economist stated the following about the logic behind the sanctions: “Mr. Guaidó and Mr. Trump are betting that hardship will topple the regime before it starves the Venezuelan people.” That’s not Chávez speaking from the grave. That’s The Economist.

When powerful political leaders in the U.S. want to change governments, the price of killing innocent people is always worth it. It’s the American way. And this is why Trump is being embraced on his Venezuela policy. He is promoting and advancing the bipartisan politics of empire. It is the same dynamic when the so-called adults on Capitol Hill support giving Trump sweeping surveillance powers or unending funds for an already insane military spending budget. For all the screaming about Trump being a grave threat to democracy, the worst president ever, or an unhinged maniac, when he boosts the policies of imperialism, he gets to join the club of the cops of the world.

On Intercepted this week, historian and journalist Vijay Prashad joined us to discuss the state of imperialism in the world, the situation in Venezuela, the upcoming elections in India, and the recent one in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Prashad is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. That’s a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is the executive director of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research and the chief editor of LeftWord Books. Prashad is a prolific writer, authoring 25 books, including “The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World” and “The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.” An excerpt of this conversation aired on Intercepted. What follows is the complete, unedited conversation.
This interview begins at 20:03.

 

Jeremy Scahill: Vijay Prashad welcome to Intercepted.

Vijay Prashad: Thank you so much.

JS: Vijay, I want to start by asking your response to the recent developments in Venezuela. Earlier this week, the New York Times did a big profile on the opposition leader Juan Guaidó who has declared himself president and the Times notes that more than 20 countries have now recognized Guaidó as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela. Among those countries: The United States, Canada, most of South America. Then on Monday several European Union countries [joined] that list, among them: France, Germany, Britain, Spain, Austria, Sweden, and Denmark. You recently wrote that what happened to Chile in 1973 — when there was a U.S. initiated coup against the democratically elected leader Salvador Allende — is precisely what the United States has attempted to do in many countries of the Global South, and you say the most recent target for the U.S. government and Western big business is Venezuela. What are the parallels that you see between the overthrow of Allende in 1973 and what we’re seeing now with the push to overthrow Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela?

VP: I’m glad we’re starting here, Jeremy, because this is really the most important issue, I think, of our period. Which is, you know, this very extravagant set of claims made by particularly the United States and its closest allies about countries in the Global South — whether it’s Iran, or Venezuela, or a host of other countries. Let’s think about the Chilean example. In 1970, when Salvador Allende was coming close to winning a very legitimate election to come to office, the United States government said, we will not tolerate it if people like Allende decide to nationalize resources. In the case of Chile, it was copper, and so they began to plan to, in a way, undermine Allende through barricading his economy long before Allende even won the election. And after he won the election they did everything possible to prevent Chile from selling copper outside its boundaries, therefore bankrupting Chile, creating distress within the country, and then winking to the military to take over. And by the way, Chile is not the beginning of this.

We saw this in 1954 in Guatemala where the issue was the nationalization of the United Fruit Company and we saw this in 1953 in Iran when the issue was oil. The government of Mohammad Mossadegh nationalized the oil company. This was something seen as totally inappropriate by Western oil companies, the so-called Seven Sisters. And the United States in alliance with Great Britain conducted a coup against Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran and against Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala. I mean, there [are] so many examples of precisely this situation.

With Venezuela, just very quickly, it’s got to be said that this is a country that has never been able to diversify its economy. About 98 percent of its external revenues comes from oil and from petroleum products. In the last few years, oil prices have collapsed by 50 percent which means that Venezuela’s external revenues have also collapsed by about 50 percent.

When Venezuela was swimming in oil money and when there were difficulties in the United States, and Britain, and other countries, the Venezuelan government provided cheap oil to poor people in Boston, in the Bronx in New York, — in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in London, and other places. But when Venezuela went into a crisis, rather than tending to the problem — which was basically a problem of a one-commodity economy — rather than help the Venezuelans, what we begin to see is the Obama administration in 2015 declaring Venezuela a national security threat and now the Trump administration with the very close help of Mr. Trudeau from Canada [is] trying to essentially overthrow the government of Mr. Nicolas Maduro. You know, the people will concentrate and they’ll say well, you know, Maduro did this, Maduro did that, but before Maduro can do anything is the suffocation of the one commodity economy.

JS: Well, and Vijay, you have this exception in the sanctions, the latest round of sanctions that the Trump administration has imposed on Venezuela and its state oil company allowing Chevron to continue doing business as usual and also the former company of Dick Cheney, Halliburton, [is] also allowed to continue on in Venezuela.

VP: See, one of the interesting things about the Trump administration and Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton is they just don’t seem to care. I mean, they don’t have any pretense about anything that they’re doing. Whereas one saw, even with George W. Bush’s administration, we saw some measure of pretense. You know, they’d come up with theories about humanitarianism and whatever it is — there [are] weapons of mass destruction. All kinds of shifting goal posts that they used as a fig leaf for the invasion of Iraq. Even, of course, with Mr. Obama, we saw all kinds of high-minded principles. Obama was an expert at concocting high-minded principles to defend essentially naked aggression. With Trump and with Bolton, I mean, we’re at a situation where they just don’t care. Include with Trump and Bolton, Senator Rubio. They just don’t care. They come out directly and say, “we’re in this for the oil.” They come out directly and say these people can’t behave like that. I mean, of all audacious things Nicolas Maduro is a bus driver. You know, how dare he be the president of a country? You should be an oligarch, one of the old aristocracy from Venezuela. That’s the kind of person that should run things in collaboration with Chevron and Halliburton and so on. So, you know, they’re not even [trying] to pretend that this is about democracy.

JS: Briefly, Vijay, you also have many prominent Democrats including Dick Durbin of Illinois, but also members of the Democratic side of the House Foreign Relations Committee backing the Trump Administration. And over the weekend, we saw huge protests in Venezuela. The ones that were in support of Juan Guaidó were covered everywhere and the footage was shown everywhere. But the massive protests that were Venezuelans in the streets to defend Maduro, that was not shown. Or there were allegations, “Oh, they’re just doctoring the video.” So, it’s clear that we are seeing a major propaganda push, on the one hand, in the news media with glowing coverage of Juan Guaidó, and then on the other hand, Democrats who are screaming on the top of the hill that Donald Trump is the biggest threat ever to American democracy and he’s going to ruin the country. The Democrats on this issue are saying “Oh no, but we were actually with Trump on this one and Nicolas Maduro has to go.”

VP: The American political establishment makes a big deal of bipartisanship. And in a sense, the real arena where bipartisanship can be seen is when it comes to foreign policy. Particularly the behavior of the United States government against its so-called adversaries — whether it’s Iran or it’s Venezuela. You know, people get confused on Iran thinking that the Obama administration was on one side of the issue and Trump was on the other. In fact, they were both on the same side of the issue, which is that the United States has the right to intervene, to pressure Iran. To use its various controls of things like the control of the U.S. dollar, trade with Iran, to use pressure on the Europeans against the SWIFT network. That’s the network that moves currency around. Both Obama and Trump are in agreement that it’s perfectly permissible for the U.S. to use any instrument to control Iran. There was some difference in strategy. Obama wanted to use the multilateral agreement that would essentially prevent Iran from doing certain things and Trump said no, let’s go a different way. But they totally agreed in the final aim and in the attitude of the United States to other countries in foreign policy.

Much the same in Venezuela. There is no difference in attitude across the political spectrum from Democrats, to Republicans, to the New York Times. You know, utter unanimity of opinion that the United States can interfere in another country’s political matters, can come in and, in fact, anoint leaders. Here’s the irony, you have a country, the United States, which is up in arms about Russian interference in the elections. I can’t watch Rachel Maddow’s television show any longer because there she is going on and on about, you know, how the Russians are doing this, the Russians are doing that. Meanwhile, the United States is there openly, brazenly intervening in Venezuela as they do in so many other countries and these people have no problem with it. I mean, you know, Rachel Maddow, Ph.D. from I think Oxford — have some decency — at least let the goose and the gander be treated by the same standard, but that is just not going to happen. In fact, things are so bad, Jeremy, that when Medea Benjamin went in twice to intervene, to shame the Organization of American States and to shame people anointed by this Lima Group as representatives of Venezuela, CNN Spanish used footage of Medea to make the case that she was protesting on behalf of the opposition against Maduro. So, not only do they frame these issues in a way that’s quite, you know, just inconsiderate of the truth, but here they are openly lying.

JS: Well, let me ask you: I, of course, agree with your analysis on the U.S. intervention. But we are seeing millions of Venezuelans over the past several years fleeing the country. Yes, the opposition, some elements of the opposition to Maduro, have killed people. There has been racist action on the part of some sectors of the opposition. At the same time, Maduro controls most of the state mechanisms of organized violence: the police, the military, etcetera. And we have seen real brutality and lethal force used over, and over on the opposition. My question for you is, and I’ve been hearing this from Venezuelans who say look, we are not Trump supporters. We are not fans of any kind of a “lighter-skinned Venezuelans are the one that should be in control of the country” mentality that seems to be permeating a lot of the so-called opposition. But Maduro is running the country into the ground. Yes, we understand sanctions. Everything Vijay is saying we agree with that. At the same time, Maduro has built himself a kleptocracy. Are you saying that there is no legitimacy whatsoever to any sector of the opposition against Maduro right now?

VP: Well, look let’s put it this way. There are obvious problems. As I said, when your revenues declined to almost 50 percent you’re going to suffer great problems inside the country. You’ve got an economic stranglehold by the sanctions regime and so on. Yes, there are Venezuelans fleeing the country. But, Jeremy, there are 69 million people who have been displaced around the world. And that’s a very conservative figure, largely displaced because of the very structural policies that are disturbing countries, not only Venezuela but countries across West Africa, in Central Asia. You have wars, you have economic policies that are displacing people. So, of course, there are people moving, you know? Of course, there are people who feel that this government is not representing them, but that’s what the political process is about. I mean, are we saying that Nicolas Maduro is a dictator? Now in the last election, which the opposition only partly boycotted, he only won 67 percent of the vote. You know, if this was truly a dictatorship, let’s look at the case of our old friend, you know, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Mubarak won almost 90 percent of the votes. That’s [a] questionable election and when that election took place, the U.S. State Department said this is a new day for Egypt.

In this case, Maduro won 67 percent. The opposition is politically divided. It’s not able to come together. One section of the opposition has turned to the United States and said essentially give us a hand to use any means to overthrow this guy. Why don’t you build the opposition? On any day in Caracas, Jeremy, you open the newspapers, they’re all deeply critical of the Maduro government. If this is a dictatorship, I don’t understand what freedom, you know, in our limited sense is. He gets hammered on television. He is getting hammered [in] the newspapers. The fact is the opposition is not able to come together. And the deep residues of Chavista loyalty to the Maduro government, but also to the institutions of the missions, and so on is not to be set aside. In other words, you have this very loyal section of Chavistas who are committed to the Bolivarian Revolution. They understand the problems. They’re willing to fight to defend the government and they come out in large numbers to vote for the government. But yet their large numbers, as I said, amount to 67 percent. There is a political process. Maduro has said let’s go back. Let’s have a negotiation. Let’s think about a new election. You know, the Venezuelan government in this last election last year, asked the United Nations to send monitors. Why did the United Nations not send monitors? You know, why is the United States government attempting to cripple the political process in Venezuela to create the preconditions where you can then think there’s nothing else to be done except U.S. intervention to anoint somebody as the president? A deeply undemocratic act.

JS: Also, I wanted to point out — and you’ve been writing about this and offering analysis on it — that at this moment in Latin America, you have this rise again of overt authoritarian fascist leaders like Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. But you also have a leftist president who came to power in Mexico, Andres Manuel López Obrador known by his initials AMLO, and you wrote about López Obrador — that he comes to the presidency as a man of the left but the space for maneuvering that he has for a left agenda is minimal. I feel like if this was 10 years ago there would have been a lot more excitement about what’s happening in Mexico with López Obrador coming to power but that has sort of been drowned out by the situation in Venezuela on the one hand. And then Trump’s inane dangerous threats about building a border wall and then also the active, ongoing threat of separating families from their children, militarizing the border patrol, ICE, which serves as a kind of storm front for enforcement of extremely racist xenophobic immigration policy. But what is your sense of what room to maneuver López Obrador has right now in Mexico?

VP: You see Mexico, like Venezuela, like any of these countries, their space for what we call fiscal creativity is almost zero. These countries are reliant upon borrowing commercial capital going to, you know, private banks to raise money. There’s been immense pressure on these countries from the IMF not to run deficits. So, that means that if you can’t raise enough money from banks to cover your basic running operation of your government, what you’re going to do is you’re going to end up cutting social services. I mean, let’s put this in some context, Jeremy. Oxfam’s recent report showed that last year, that is in the calendar year of 2018, 2,230odd billionaires increased their wealth by 2.5 billion dollars per year and meanwhile the lowest 50 percent of humanity lost eleven percent of its wealth. Why am I raising this? The top 10 people among those 2,230 odd billionaires, of them there’s only one person who’s not from North America, that is not from the United States, and from Europe, and that person is Carlos Slim of Mexico.

You see what we have to remember is the very top people, these 2,000 odd billionaires and their families, no longer pay tax. You know, they are essentially bloating tax havens. They are hiding their money in banks. They’re just not paying tax anymore. They have gone on, what I consider, a tax strike. Because these elites like Carlos Slim of Mexico have gone on a tax strike the governments of countries like Mexico have a very difficult time raising, financing to do anything on the humane side of government policy. So, they’ve been cutting health care, they’ve been cutting education, they’ve been slicing everything that produces civilization. So, for, you know, for López Obrador, the government he’s inherited is basically a government which doesn’t have any ability to provide the good parts of life for people, which is why he was very eager to take back control of PEMEX — which is the Mexican petroleum company — take back control of it, put some money to invest in it to revive PEMEX. The moment he made those comments after he won the election, he was told directly by banks, by the IMF, and by international oil companies that don’t you dare do that. Don’t you dare try to use public financing to revive PEMEX. The only thing we’re going to allow you to do is to basically sell more parts of PEMEX off to international privately-held, you know, energy companies.

So what’s happening to Venezuela is just a much more vulgar and dangerous, kind of, portfolio of events than what is happening to Mexico where things are not yet at a boiling point. But basically, López Obrador has been told there is no exit for Mexico. No way for you to raise finances to basically enrich the population and therefore you’re going to see people continue to move towards the border. You’re going to see people continue to move, put pressure on the United States to build these walls, and to create essentially a military force that stands there the border and shoots at people.

JS: Now, let’s jump to the other side of the globe for a moment. One of the major areas of focus of the Trump administration that, I think, has the potential to be the most dangerous is the obsession with Iran and the fact that the Trump administration is littered with people including notorious neocons who have always wanted regime change in Iran. You have the situation in Yemen, which the Trump administration has used as, really, a proxy war against Iran and, of course, there’s a lot of issues with facts in this administration and certainly, that’s been the case in Yemen. But you do have Yemen being used as a proxy war. You have this network of allies that’s emerged where you have the Saudis, Israel, The United States, and then some lesser states that really seem to be pushing in that direction. The U.S. has been quietly negotiating with the Iraqi government to have hundreds of Special Operations forces, troops from the United States deployed inside of Iraq with the purpose of potentially striking against Iran. How do you see the fact that Trump is saying that he’s going to take U.S. troops out of Syria, take U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, but now re-deploy some of the most elite hunter-killer teams in the U.S. arsenal in Iraq with the explicit purpose of, number one, confronting Iran and then, secondarily, dealing with ISIS?

VP: Well, Trump made a comment to CBS News where he said that we have American troops in Iraq to monitor Iran. The word he used was monitor. And within hours, the Iraqi Prime Minister made a comment saying, you know, this is inappropriate, that the United States’ presence in Iraq is to combat terrorism. Not to, essentially, rattle the cage with Iran, because we, that is the Iraqi government, have a relationship both with the Iranians and the United States. So, again Trump, no ability to hold back, just says things openly and the contradictions then emerge on the world stage. I think the United States is going to have a very difficult time using Iraq as a lily pad. Using any of the neighboring states apart from those that you mentioned. That is Saudi Arabia, the UAE. These states would be quite happy to help. But remember, Saudi Arabia cannot have American troops located there. So, I don’t know what kind of practical support — the Turks are not going to allow troops to come in. So, it’s going to be very difficult for the United States practically to take on Iran apart from, you know, occasional bombing runs maybe and one or two special forces people going in to do sabotage operations.

You know, when Nicolas Maduro was under immense pressure he made a little video where he warned the American [saying] don’t come and invade us, we’ll make this another Vietnam. I want you to consider, Jeremy, that the population of Iraq is just about 40 percent of the population of Iran. The Iranian population is highly motivated. If the United States decided to do any kind of military action against Iran it would, I think, be a great mistake. I mean Maduro evokes Vietnam. I would also evoke Vietnam at a different scale for the for the Iranian situation. I think that they are trying to intimidate the Iranian government and they’re trying to do something which — this is why the playbook between Iran and Venezuela is the same — they’re trying to produce so much, you know, economic hardship in the country that you’re going to have millions of people get disaffected with the government. You will have immense propaganda saying that it is this government’s fault and not these other external policies and you will try to create some kind of internal uprising which then gets cracked down upon by the government because it naturally doesn’t want to have some internal uprising, you know, just continue and [the] moment that crackdown takes place, the United States is going to say to the Europeans “look they are authoritarian, they’re a dictatorship, they’re crushing their people, let’s go in.” And NATO is going to say yes, and they go in, you know, all guns blazing.

It’s an incredibly similar playbook that they are following in all these countries which is why these countries are all sort of, you know, in a similar way, concerned. I think it’s silly how people talk about the axis of resistance, and so on. I don’t think anything like that exists. These countries have very different approaches to foreign policy. But at the same time, since they’re all under the same kind of playbook, there’s a kind of sympathy in these capitals for what’s happening in each place. And I think this is also why the Russians are very keen to be involved in each of these places to provide a shield. I think the question of a Russian shield over Iran is already there. The issue of a Russian Shield over Venezuela is also there. And I would say, Jeremy, this is exactly the reason why the United States has withdrawn from the missile treaty. This is why the United States is going to try directly to undermine Russian military power in the next few months.

JS: Well, but in fairness, Russia has its own imperial agenda as well. It’s not like Russia is only acting in the human interest of the world. I mean, Russia clearly is facing down NATO encroachment on the part of the United States. The U.S. moving further and further to the east. You have the potential, and it’s been there for some time, to have an all-out hot war between U.S. and Russian forces in Syria. Certainly, that would be the case if the U.S. did escalate even a little bit in Iran. But, let’s be clear here, though. I mean, Russia is not an ideological actor trying to stand up for the Global South. They’re also acting on their own imperial interests that occasionally aligned with the agenda that you’re describing there.

VP: Well, I would say stronger than that. I wouldn’t use the word imperial. I would say Russia is entirely a defensive power. Why do I say that? You know, it’s interesting when you look at military bases, particularly naval bases. The United States has a hundred and some-odd naval bases around the world. In fact, has the ability to encircle the planet. Years ago I was talking to a senior U.N. official — this is in March of 2011 when the Security Council was debating U.N. resolution 1973, that was the resolution that allowed the war in Libya — and I asked the U.N. official I said, you know, it’s so funny you guys, you produce these resolutions which say any member state can act under chapter seven, which means any member state can use armed forces to defend, you know, to help this resolution along and, of course, that means the United States because who else has bases all over the world? You know, the Indians can’t intervene in Libya, and so on. Well, the Russians had only, not a hundred naval bases around the world, but they had two warm water bases and I think it’s important to underline this.

One warm water base was in Sevastopol in the Crimea and the second warm water base is in Latakia in Syria. It’s no secret, therefore, that from 2013-14 the Russians were terrified about losing the Sevastopol naval base and the intervention into Ukraine, particularly into Crimea. I think this is the reason for the intervention to Crimea. They were defending that warm water base. And secondly, in2015, in September when Russian planes entered Damascus and they intervened militarily to prevent an American bombing run on the city. It was to defend their naval base in Latakia. So what I would say is that it’s an entirely defensive power. It’s much weaker than the United States but it’s basically using military force and using, you know, its ability as limited as possible to secure these alliances. It’s not out there to defend the south. I totally agree with that, but it has its own agenda and these agendas contradict those of the United States. At present, what’s interesting about this agenda that the Russians have is that, from let’s say the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 to the attempted overthrow of the Syrian government in 2012-13, I think in that space there was no check on U.S. power. And when the Russian planes entered Syria in 2015, that was the first time in about, you know, almost 25 years that somebody had come in to check U.S. power. And it’s my feeling that this current tussle over missile defense over space, overall these kinds of new tensions around military hardware, the presence of the military, etcetera between the United States and Russia is to, once again, weaken the Russian ability to provide these shields. These shields are not there for humanitarian purposes. But nonetheless, these are shields.

JS: Now, you mentioned India there and I want to remind people that India is a massive country not just in land mass, but in population — upwards of 1.3 billion people like what, you know, we’re talking about like one in every six people in the world is from India. And India has very, very important elections that will be coming up in the spring, scheduled for May. Right now India is under the control of a far-right extremist. The BJP won the majority in India’s Parliament. I want to ask you about the resistance to Narendra Modi in a second and what your analysis is of the upcoming elections there and there [have] been huge protests and you’ve been tweeting about that and showing pictures and videos. But first, explain for people the impact that the far-right BJP government has had on India.

VP: Well, Jeremy, in 2013 when the last parliamentary elections took place, the far-right won 31 percent of the vote. But because of the nature of the Indian parliamentary system, they got a majority in Parliament. But I want to start there because people should understand that they are essentially a minority government in terms of the votes they were able to get. Even though Mr. Modi rules India as if he had won a major majority of the population’s favor. You know, 60 percent plus of the public did not vote for the BJP or its allies. I think that’s very important to remember. Nonetheless, Mr. Modi didn’t govern as if he represented India. He governed from the agenda of his political party. He attempted to push the fascistic agenda of the BJP. In terms of what does it mean to be an Indian? No longer does the BJP want India to be composite plural country. As you say 1.3, 1.4 billion people, you know with — let me say, you know, a hundred, tens of hundreds of different kinds of cultural worlds, over a hundred different kinds of languages, highly diverse population, yet more they wanted to govern it in a very narrow, suffocating, cultural way.

He also attempted certain dramatic economic, you know, let’s call them gimmicks. Demonetization, which meant that suddenly one day you wake up and two of your main currency bills have been withdrawn from circulation. This was supposedly to go after black money. You know that is money hoarded by the rich. Of course, the rich, no longer keep their hoarded money in bank accounts under their beds. They keep it in tax havens, in shelters all around the world. So this was a big gimmick, which backfired, created a lot of distress for people and so on. So Modi attempted to push the country in a rightward direction. But right from the beginning, there was immense resistance against him and, interestingly, even on foreign policy.

When Modi tried to move into, basically, the American camp, he was prevented. He was the first Indian Prime Minister to go to Israel but he was forced by the political class and by the Indian foreign ministry to also have continued relations with the Palestinians — which he wanted to break. Modi was very eager to join in the American project to isolate Iran. That was prevented, not only by the foreign ministry and by the other political parties, but also, of course, by the needs of India which is entirely reliant on import of oil and imports quite a large amount of Iranian oil.

In the case of Venezuela, there was pressure on Mr. Modi to join with some of these European countries and the Lima Group to isolate the government of Maduro, but, the political class just wouldn’t have it. And India had to put out a quite a strong statement saying that “no foreign intervention is permitted and the sovereignty of Venezuela must be respected.” So, I want to just say at the same time as Modi is quite a ruthless, nasty piece of work, he was not able to capture fully the institutions of Indian government and the imagination of the Indian people and it’s quite likely, Jeremy, that he is going to lose this election quite badly.

JS: Well, that’s interesting. I want to ask you more about that. I also want to just draw people’s attention to the fact that just last month in January there were upwards of 200 million workers in India that took part in a two-day strike protesting the government’s labor policies. And then at the same time, over the weekend, you tweeted a photo of a sea of people in red and you wrote the following “My home city of Kolkata bristled today with the energy of the Left Front with our comrades thronging the Brigade Ground. There are many photographs of our comrades as they interact with each other, dance with each other from the bus stands and the train stations to the maidan.” What is the Left Front and how are they challenging the BJP?

VP: Well, you know, it’s let’s begin with the major labor protest. I was driving up and down the length of Kerala during those two days of the strike in January —

JS: I mean, that’s just for people to understand! I mean 200 million workers – I mean that’s like two-thirds of the population of the United States in, you know, in the streets on strike.

VP: That’s quite right and these are workers from not only where you’d expect them, rail workers, people closed down the trains in different parts of the country, but also Anganwadi workers. These are workers who are child care workers, ASHA workers. These are health care workers went out on strike. We saw IT workers. The internet workers in Bangalore in some IT companies go on strike. It was a range of workers to add up to 200 million and these workers were on strike not for wages. I think that’s very important to recognize. But they were angry with the direction of economic policy. They were angry with the kind of political culture in the country. It’s a very broad set of demands and quite a very powerful strike.

But before that, last year there was an immense wave of agrarian struggles. People may not know that in the past 18 years almost 300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide. They’ve committed suicide largely because there is a deep agrarian crisis with no exit that has struck India. You’ve had — because of the commercialization of agriculture — you’ve had input prices rise, prices of fertilizer, prices of pesticide, prices of seeds. And you’ve had the government cut support prices to buy the goods. That means that the input prices [have] risen and the buying price has dropped which has left farmers in immense debt. And what you’ve seen, which is so tragic, is many of these farmers commit suicide by drinking pesticide, the very thing that has bankrupted them. Well over the course of these 15 odd years, the Kisan Sabha which is the Farmers’ movement in India has been struggling very hard to build the political confidence of farmers. And you saw in Bombay last year, you know, hundreds of thousands of farmers, march for over two weeks into the city of Bombay and force the right-wing state government to accede to the demands. So, what I’m saying is that we move from suicide to the politicization of the agrarian crisis. This had an enormous impact in three state elections last year in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh.

And it’s because of this farmer’s protest which has been, you know, organized by the left, by the communists, by the socialists, and other constituents of the Left Front. Because of these farmer’s protest you’ve seen a shift in the political needle away from the BJP in these key states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh. And in the very large, the largest state in India, the state of Uttar Pradesh, where there are 80 members of parliament — you know, the parliament in India has about 500 members, 80 of them come from Uttar Pradesh. In the 2013 election, Modi’s party won 70 of those seats but this year the two, I mean, so-called socialist parties, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, have united. They are going to fight the elections together. And it’s actually a marriage that is made in heaven, as they say, because in 31 seats in the 2013 election, in 31 of those seats the Samajwadi party, the socialist party came second, and in 34 seats the Bahujan Samaj Party, which is the party of oppressed castes, came second. So, that means they don’t actually compete with each other in 65 of the seats where the BJP won.

So, what we are anticipating is that this alliance is going to win about 50 to 60 seats out of 80 Uttar Pradesh. Because the BJP cannot win seats in South India because it’s going to have a hard time in those agrarian states of Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh and because it’s going to lose in this very large state of Uttar Pradesh to this new alliance of socialists and oppressed caste parties. Because of that, there is no way BJP is going to get a plurality in the Parliament and I think, in fact, it will it will not be able to form a government in April and May of this coming, this year.

JS: What are the chances that a new Indian government would be legitimately leftist or anti-imperialist?

VP: No, no, no. I mean, Jeremy, that’s not the –

JS: I’m asking you, brother!

VP:[Laughter] You see the issue is — this is the situation that we are going to face for a generation. Which is that again in these three state elections, it was really immense work done by the left among, you know rural communities, farmers, landless workers, and so on to build a political momentum that defeated the BJP governments. But of course, the left doesn’t have the kind of political structure needed to win elections. You know, whether this is in Brazil or it’s in India, we have to recognize that democracy has been completely shattered as an institutional form. It requires so much money to run in elections. There are so many crooked things that have happened to the democratic process. You know, in Brazil Jair Bolsonaro’s friends were sending WhatsApp messages, to WhatsApp groups that number, you know, hundreds and thousands of people. These WhatsApp messages, that were very cruel, they were suggesting that the Workers’ Party in Brazil, you know, was going to force their children into sex education and so on, you know, as if that’s a problem. I mean children deserve sex education but they were doing it in an extremely nasty way and delegitimizing the Workers’ Party in Brazil. We see the same thing in India. In other words, you know, lots of money being put by corporations into BJP deniable groups that are creating these WhatsApp networks and you know, inking essentially the political process by, you know, saying things about other candidates that are not true where it’s very difficult for the candidate who doesn’t have money to come out there and say look that’s just not true and let me show you how. So, you know to capitalize on the kind of mass mobilizations, on the struggles and so on into this democratic sphere is becoming increasingly difficult which is why I think that you know, we need to very seriously consider reconsider what democratic institutions are and what has become, what has happened to them.

JS: Last month was the anniversary of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the independence leader in Congo who was the first prime minister of the independent Democratic Republic of Congo. He was assassinated and the United States, we know for a fact, had previously plotted to assassinate him. Just recently there were elections in Congo and you had the election of Felix Tshisekedi. He is now Congo’s fifth president taking over from Joseph Kabila. You recently, with Kambale Musavuli wrote a piece about the legacy of the crisis in Congo and how Patrice Lumumba-inspired-youth are trying to break the culture of plunder and corruption that has been foisted upon the political system in Congo. Explain today’s crisis, how it began in Congo, the significance of this new election, and the fact that the so-called opposition in Congo right now is headed by a former ExxonMobil executive.

VP: You know, it’s a great tragedy and I’d like to just back up for a minute. It’s not just a situation of the Congo. You have to look at this belt that runs through the center of Africa including Zambia, you know, including any country in the center of Africa and the many of them that are rich in rare earth minerals, in various raw materials from cobalt, which is an essential ingredient in electric batteries, to coltan which is essential for you know, the smartphones, the iPhone and so on. So, these countries —

JS: Oh many, many people are probably listening to you right now, Vijay, on devices that contain some natural resources from Congo or this belt that you’re describing.

VP: Well, they will definitely have devices that have cobalt and coltan which mainly come from this belt of countries. And it’s very important to say that however much there is, kind of, this dismay about the Chinese intervention in Africa, that actually most of the companies that are able to work to mine these goods are actually not Chinese. Many of them are Canadian. We, in fact, are doing a study about these Canadian firms like Barrick and so on which dominate the mining in these parts of the world. And what you’ve seen is that these mining companies essentially misprice what they’re doing. They pay these countries revenues based on a very deflated price for the goods. These goods as soon as they cross the border from the Congo, say they go to Mwanza port in Tanzania. As soon as they cross the border into Tanzania or into Uganda, the prices of these goods rise by miracle because within the Congo they keep the price low. So they say to the government we’ll give you 20 percent per ton of coltan’s price but the price is, you know, only so many hundred dollars. As soon as it crosses the border the price increases. This is what we call mispricing.

So places like the Congo have essentially been plundered and stolen from for over a hundred years. They haven’t been able to build up any kind of public finances. They haven’t been able to build up proper institutions to take care of the people of the Congo or of Zambia, wherever. And what you see in the Congo is, I mean you cannot imagine what corruption looks like. It’s the corruption of these big Canadian and other mining companies, resource companies, Australian companies and so on. Then it’s the corruption of the political class. At this moment, the kind of tentacles of Joseph Kabila who governed, you know, almost entirely since democracy came to Congo.

I mean democracy, again that word, you know, what does it mean for places like the Congo where you know, you strong arm people you have elections which means so little and, bizarrely, elections which means so little but in the case of a place like the Congo because it’s pliant, because it allows its raw materials and rare earth materials to leave the country at low cost, every time there is an election the State Department and, you know, all the Europeans, everybody says, well, you know, they’re moving towards democracy. I mean, if you are a pliant government, then your stolen election is validated. If you are not a pliant government, this is coming back to Venezuela, then you’re going to be told your election was fraudulent. So, they have had fraudulent election after elections and it got to such a point that Joseph Kabila simply refused to have an election. You know, his term ended in 2016. He just refused to allow an election to take place and nobody said peep. There was no statement about moving American troops into Tanzania. I mean nothing. Why? Because essentially all the minerals are being looted from that country so that we can have iPhones which cost — Okay, the huge price of $999 dollars, but if you actually priced the minerals inside the iPhone, the price may go up to $30,000 per iPhone. Some people have estimated $100,000 per iPhone. Imagine that. Walking into the Apple store and saying I’ll take three of those. I mean, who can afford that?

So, as long as you have a pliant government, and Kabila was pliant, they allowed him to keep going even though his mandate ended in 2016. You had these massive protest — yes, Lumumba inspired youth but also, you know, some of them are devout Christian groups and so on — out on the street demanding change. The pressure was too high. They allowed an election. They thought that Kabila’s, you know, his successor would come in. And here’s the whole trick of it, you know, again what is a democracy? Who can afford to build a political party? Necessarily you get people from the elite who build the opposition. And here? Yes, of course, it’s an ExxonMobil, you know, executive who becomes the face of the opposition. I mean, there is no real opposition in a country like Congo until it’s built from the grassroots. From these young people and so on.

And that is why, Jeremy, I’m sorry to say that, for at least a generation, places like the Congo will not be able to have, you know, robust political movements. Movements that will have any kind of impact in the electoral domain. In Zambia, a socialist party is being built up particularly in the copper belt. They are going to run for presidential elections. The candidate is going to be Fredman Membe. Fred used to run a newspaper in Zambia. He has been arrested several times by this government. His newspaper has been confiscated. The press was confiscated. The men’s pressure against the Socialist Party of Zambia and I can bet you that 99 percent of the people listening to this have never heard of the Socialist Party of Zambia or of Fred, you know, because of course, these are people who will not be pliant when it comes to mining companies, if they ever come to power.

JS: Well, and I also want to remind people, just briefly, of the history that you’re talking about here of the Congo, which was under the brutal reign of Belgian colonialism. And then you had the CIA-backed government of Mobutu Sese Seko and he himself was an actual CIA asset who ran that country with extreme brutality and kept it open for U.S. president after U.S. president.

You also had Dwight Eisenhower authorizing the CIA to develop a chemical poison that was made to look like toothpaste that they wanted to try to assassinate Patrice Lumumba with. We’ve seen so many of these independence movements or nationalist movements in Africa and Asia, around the Global South just be completely obliterated or severely damaged in the ensuing decades of imperialist encroachment around the world.

VP: Well, it is a very great tragedy. I mean, again, the playbook is similar. You look for the most charismatic person, assassinate that person, and then squeeze the rest of the political forces into exceeding to your demands. I mean, you take the case of any of these countries when they attempted to do something, put forward an alternative project. Suddenly, there’s an assassination: whether it’s Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1961, or it’s AmílcarCabral, or it’s the coup against Kwame Nkrumah. I mean, none of them was allowed to have a tenure where they were able to develop independent economies. And, of course for my generation, the assassination of Thomas Sankara in May of 1987, the very charismatic and important political leader in Burkina Faso which used to be known as Upper Volta but then when Sankara came to power he changed the name of his country. [He] said, “why should we be called Upper Volta? Why should we be defined by colonialism? We are Burkina Faso, the land of upright people.” And he pushed an agenda to revive the agriculture of Burkina Faso. He pushed an agenda for the sovereignty of the country. It’s such an interesting agenda that he pushed that he set for instance, by government fiat, by law, on Wednesday, men must do childcare. He said I would like to have half the week be for men to do childcare and domestic — take care of the house, clean things, cook food, but I’m going to start only with Wednesday. I mean, this was a man who understood that political power is not about the parliament. It’s not even about the boardroom of companies — it’s the kitchen, the house.

You know, it’s the old saying Jeremy that it’s not enough to be Che Guevara on the street and Pinochet in the kitchen. You have to be [a] liberated person from you know, your house out onto the streets and Sankara pushed a great agenda for his country, Burkina Faso, and he was assassinated. You know, just seven years later the hope of South Africa, Chris Hani, you know, the leader of [the South African Communist Party], the leader of the urban poor in South Africa. Just as South Africa was coming out of Apartheid, before the elections, Chris Hani was shot to death. I mean, every time you look at an African country when a young leader is produced that comes up with an agenda that is not blind to mining companies, not pliant to the Western capitals, that person is killed almost immediately and I think people need to really reflect on that, reflect on the assassinations of Houari Boumédièneat the north of the country in Algeria all the way down to Chris Hani at the South.

JS: You know, as we wrap up Vijay, I wanted to get your big picture take on the ascent of Donald Trump to the chamber of ultimate power in the United States at the White House. Taking into account this history that you and I are discussing of populist movements, leftist movements, socialist movements, and the kind of expansion of the imperialism of the United States. Set Donald Trump’s rise to power in the context of all of this history that you and I have been discussing.

VP: Well, you know it brings us back to this tax strike that began about 40 years ago. About 40 years ago when basically government policy allowed the big elites to no longer pay taxes, corporate tax rates began to fall. You saw government budgets desiccate. You saw municipal budgets basically devolve to nothing. At this point, the kind of liberal consensus, the liberal agenda, was to move in a direction [of] what we call neoliberalism. They produced a policy framework called neoliberalism which basically accepted the fact that the rich were not going to pay taxes. And they tried to raise public financing, whether it’s the budgets of governments or municipalities, they wanted to raise funds by selling off hard-won public assets, whether it’s concessions to water delivery, or it’s, in fact, education institutions, and so on. They privatized, they opened up parts of human existence that had not been for money and commodified them.

So again, water is a great example. You had water utilities which basically ran things as a not-for-profit entity. You start privatizing water, making water into a commodity. This was the way in which the liberals tried to finance this crisis of government budgets because the rich were not paying taxes. And they were not going to challenge the rich. In fact, they said that’s good. It creates entrepreneurialism. You see jobs trickle down. Essentially, this is the agenda of Tony Blair, of Bill Clinton, and you know, around the world they have their cognates. But by the financial crisis of 2007, the liberals with the neoliberal policies were essentially totally delegitimized.

I mean, nobody took seriously, after the financial crisis, the idea that you should just go out there and become an entrepreneur as if it’s so easy. I mean, as if it’s so easy to go out there and just start a business. Have an idea and somebody will finance it. Who? Who is going to finance it? Which bank is going to give me money for my idea when banks are basically hoarding wealth on behalf of the wealthy, not lending for business purposes at the rates at which they should, and so on? So, when these neoliberals are delegitimized, from the right appears characters, people like Donald Trump. But again, this is not a specific American story. This is a global story. The delegitimization of the liberals, whether it’s the Congress party in India, or it’s to some extent, the Workers Party in Brazil, the Democratic party in the United States, these far-right people show up and they make strong claims saying that “we’re going to come, we’re going to grab the economy by the throat, we’re going to make it cough out jobs.” And then they make [an] even more dramatic statement saying that “the reason you don’t have a job has nothing to do with the fact that you’re not an entrepreneur or that you’re not a get-up-and-go person. The reason you don’t have a job is because the migrants, because these migrants come in and take your jobs.” I mean, it’s a classic bait and switch.

On the one hand, they quite correctly attack the neoliberals saying that “you’ve basically hollowed out the economy.” They attack them saying that “you’re not able to provide well-being for the population.” Well, that’s true. But then the bait and switch is they turn around and they say “the reason why this is happening is because of the migrants.” They, in other words, the Trumps of the world, just like the Clintons of the world, don’t point their fingers at those 2,000 billionaires and so on who are just not paying taxes. Who are sucking up social wealth and not providing any return to public finances to improve health to improve education. And, by the way, to create public institutions that prevent people from desperation like universal health care. If you had publicly funded universal health care, individual families wouldn’t have to scramble to pay premiums and struggle to get health insurance and so on. This is what public financing should have been. But because the left is weak now, the liberals have been delegitimized. The field is open to the right and not only to the right but [to] these very vicious strongmen. So, my sense is that for some time now, we’re going to have to tolerate this right-wing political presence until we build up the forces of the left to produce a robust critique of the way in which the wealthy have not been contributing at all.

I mean, I don’t really want philanthropy. I want them to pay taxes.

JS: Well on that note, we’re going to leave it there. Vijay Prashad, thank you so much for joining us.

VP: Thanks a lot.

The post Pox Americana: Vijay Prashad on Venezuela, India, Mexico, Congo, and U.S. Hegemony appeared first on The Intercept.

What Happened in Douma? Searching for Facts in the Fog of Syria’s Propaganda War

This much we know: To have been in the Syrian town of Douma, the final rebel military holdout in the suburbs of Damascus, on Saturday, April 7, 2018 must have sounded and felt very much like hell on earth. Since 2013, when a shifting cast of rebel militias wrested control of the area, the whole region of Eastern Ghouta had been under effective siege by the Syrian government. Food and medicines were expensive or impossible to come by. Already miserably poor, it was all the locals could do to stay alive. Last February, the Syrian army, backed by Russian airplanes and emboldened by joint military successes elsewhere, began a final, determined assault. The operation was branded “Damascus Steel,” and it met with surprising success. By March the Syrian army and its allied militias had carved Eastern Ghouta into three distinct enclaves, each under the control of a different militia. The first two quickly agreed to deals, under whose terms the fighters and their families could choose to be bussed out to northern Syria or take their chances by surrendering to the Syrian army. Jaish al-Islam, or the Army of Islam, which maintained a tight grip on Douma, held out. As March gave way to April the Syrian army was about a kilometer away, and closing in.

This was the endgame. For nearly two months, in between shaky truces, Syrian helicopters and airplanes had intermittently pounded Douma. After yet another ceasefire and round of negotiations failed, they returned on Friday, April 6 with a vengeance. The government was losing patience. So were many Damascenes, who’d grown sick of the volleys of mortars being sent back into central Damascus by the rebels. Tens of thousands of civilians in Douma were caught between them, enduring skyrocketing prices, malnutrition and the outbreak of disease. Cameras from regime-friendly TV channels were trained on Douma to watch the ongoing campaign, primed for imminent victory. On Saturday, according to one account, the onslaught from shelling, airstrikes, and barrel bombs lasted a full six hours. There would have been blinding clouds of dust, breaking glass, and exploding concrete from the constant shelling, the smoke and stench of ordnance, the juddering of helicopters waiting low overhead to drop their improvised barrel bombs. It was worse than anything that had happened before. Those who could took cover underground in basements, tunnels, and other subterranean shelters.

The following day, Jaish al-Islam would agree to leave in return for handing over all the hostages — both civilians and soldiers — it was holding in Douma. But before it did, it accused the Syrian army of carrying out a chemical attack that killed scores of people. Around the same time, video began trickling out showing children being treated at a makeshift underground hospital in the city for breathing problems — the kind that one might associate with a chemical attack. One of the first reports was from the opposition Violations Documentation Center, which noted that a munition had been dropped on the Saada bakery at 4 p.m. local time on Saturday, killing 25 people. Those in the vicinity thought they smelled chlorine. “We later discovered the bodies of people who had suffocated from toxic gases,” one member of a local civil defense team told the VDC. “They were in closed spaces, sheltering from the barrel bombs, which may have caused their quick death as no one heard their screams. Some of them were apparently trying to reach an open space because we found their bodies on the stairs.”

The VDC reported a second attack around 7:30 p.m. in the vicinity of al-Shuhada Square, or Martyrs Square. This one was more serious because of the weapon allegedly used. One doctor told the VDC that “there were symptoms indicative of organic phosphorus compounds in the sarin gas category,” but added that “the smell of chlorine was also present in the place.” A doctor from the Syrian American Medical Society, known as SAMS, told the VDC that colleagues had seen symptoms that included heavy foaming from the mouth and nose and burning of the corneas — injuries that, according to a local doctor reached by the VDC, “do not resemble chlorine attack symptoms.” SAMS said that more than 500 cases, mostly women and children, from the “target site” had been brought to medical centers “with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent. Patients have shown signs of respiratory distress, central cyanosis, excessive oral foaming, corneal burns, and the emission of chlorine-like odour.” Six people died at medical centers, SAMS reported, and at least 43 people had been found dead with the same symptoms, most likely from “an organophosphate element” like sarin.

Beyond the war in Syria, the cloud of misinformation that enveloped the attack in Douma stands as a cautionary tale. In the era of “fake news,” it is a case study in the choreography of our new propaganda wars.

The video and photos of the more grievous evening attack, which targeted an apartment building, had been collected mainly by a group of opposition activists called Douma Revolution, who’d been working for some time in the area. The most striking were images of two yellow gas cylinders and footage from the makeshift hospital of locals, including children, being treated for breathing problems. That photo and video evidence was republished by Bellingcat, a U.K.-based organization specializing in open-source online investigations run by Eliot Higgins, whose eagle-eyed attention to photos of barrel and improvised chemical weapons earlier in Syria’s civil war on the pseudonymous blog Brown Moses had won him a reputation in the field. Bellingcat also reviewed the work of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, which had estimated 55 deaths and 860 injured as a result of the apartment building attack, as well as that of the rescue organization Syria Civil Defence, generally known as the White Helmets, which like SAMS counted 43 dead and 500 injured from the same incident. Paying close attention to the publicly available imagery, Bellingcat concluded that there had been at least 34 fatalities from the apartment attack “as a result of a gas cylinder filled with what is most likely chlorine gas.”

The rest is military history. Six days later, the United States and its allies launched cruise missiles from the air and from nearby warships and submarines at targets associated with what remains of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons program. Those targets included a scientific research center in Damascus and a chemical weapons facility near Homs that had been used for the production of sarin. The massacre on April 7, said President Donald Trump, represented “a significant escalation in a pattern of chemical weapons use by that very terrible regime.” In an additional information sheet, the White House noted that “a significant body of information points to the regime using chlorine in its bombardment of Duma, while some additional information points to the regime also using the nerve agent sarin.” Following up with a characteristic tweet after the U.S. airstrikes, Trump declared, “Mission Accomplished!”

It wasn’t clear that anything had been accomplished — certainly not to the satisfaction of Syrians on any side of the conflict. Instead, it’s useful to try to understand what really happened in Douma from the ground up. During six months of research into the incident, including a trip to Douma and interviews with dozens of Syrian activists, civilians, journalists, and experts, I encountered a great deal of confusion about how the attack had played out, even among those who witnessed it.

At least one chemical attack did take place in Douma on April 7, and people died as a result. There could have been no other culprit but a Syrian army helicopter. But the way it happened bears little resemblance to what was broadcast to the world. From the start, the evidence presented by rebel media activists was fraught and confusing. That’s hardly surprising, because some of those behind it — including some who produced immediate and detailed reports — weren’t actually there. Into the gaps of that initial propaganda barrage seeped skepticism, which morphed into confusion and outright conspiracy-theorizing. State actors, Russian propagandists, and international observers joined the fray, cherry-picking details to illustrate the story they wanted told. Added to the fog of war, in other words, was a fractious new layer of electronic propaganda that turned every tweet or screengrab into a potential weapon in the hands of one of the belligerents.

Beyond the war in Syria, the cloud of misinformation that enveloped the attack in Douma stands as a cautionary tale. In the era of “fake news,” it is a case study in the choreography of our new propaganda wars. With the mainstream media in wholesale retreat — and, in the case of Syria, credibly threatened with death from many sides — new information actors have stepped into the breach. Reading the runes of their imagery is an exciting reporting tool. But their photos, video, and social media posts also offers a vanishingly narrow, excoriatingly subjective view of how conflicts unfold. As a result, such artifacts have become light weapons in an information war that easily becomes an end in itself. The sides are still massed and well-armed. Something very much like Douma will happen again, and soon. Investigative reporting now needs to be about breaking through the noise of electronic information in a climate thick with propaganda, conspiracy-thinking, and reassuring half-truths. Otherwise, the next world war might begin with a grainy, contested image launched online from some distant and inaccessible outpost right onto the pages of a newspaper that has recently sacked all its journalists.

In this Friday, April 13, 2012 photo, Syrians chant anti-Bashar Assad slogans and wave revolutionary flags during a protest after the Friday prayer in Douma, a suburb of Damascus, Syria. The U.N. Security Council on Saturday approved the deployment of a first team of observers to Syria to shore up a brittle truce, even as a new surge of violence threatened the internationally brokered deal meant to end 13 months of violence.(AP photo)

Syrians protest after the Friday prayer in Douma, Syria, on April 13, 2012.

Photo: AP

1The Ground War and the Media War

Before 2011, Douma wasn’t on many people’s travel itineraries. A satellite town at Damascus’s northeastern edge and the gateway to its lush agricultural belt in the suburban sprawl of Eastern Ghouta, the place had been built out to absorb the thousands of Syrians who’d arrived from the countryside in search of work. Douma was a bustle of mercantile activity and a great place to find a bargain; people from Damascus would flock there for its bountiful street markets. But it was also overcrowded. Just like the other suburban slums around Syria’s major cities, it was scarred by rampant unemployment, bureaucratic corruption and the daily humiliations of young, often unemployed men at the hands of the Syrian authorities. Douma had none of Damascus’s cosmopolitan mix. Long socially conservative and majority Sunni, in the last decade, a new Islamic piety and a vibrant subculture of Salafism both bloomed amid this new community of urban poor.

When the uprising began in Syria’s towns and cities in 2011, Douma was one of the first places to catch fire. If Hama was the cradle of the early revolt and Homs was its crucible, Douma was the broader Damascus region’s proudest contribution to the early rebellion and a steady thorn in the side of the authorities. Once remarkable for its markets, it now grew famous for its large, carnival-like street protests against President Bashar al-Assad and his ruling clique. On a visit to Damascus one afternoon in February 2012, I persuaded a Syrian friend to drive me into Douma. The route involved talking our way through several military checkpoints; apart from the graffiti on the walls there were few signs of life. Even then, by the evenings, Douma was under the effective control of rebel groups and the site of nightly demonstrations. Fearing what was to come, many residents, either those who supported the government or who feared the growing militarization and extremism in the uprising, left.

Those who stayed behind soon found themselves subject to a new kind of security regime. By 2013, early attempts at armed resistance and rebellion under the loose umbrella of the Free Syrian Army had given way to better-armed, more highly motivated groups — especially Jaish al-Islam, a Saudi-backed Salafist group that came to rule Douma with an iron fist. On the night of December 9, 2013, four of the country’s most prominent revolutionaries — Razan Zaitouneh, Samira al-Khalil, Wa’el Hamada, and Nazem Hamadi — were kidnapped from their offices in Douma. The so-called Douma Four were abducted by armed militias under the nose, and with what must have been the complicity, of Jaish al-Islam. Nothing has been heard from the four since; they’re very likely all dead. A prime mover behind the oppositionist Local Coordination Committees and a hero to many revolutionists, Zaitouneh had established the VDC in 2011 to investigate human rights abuses. The organization had attracted funding from the United States and Europe — especially after Zaitouneh and her team were instrumental in reporting chemical attacks in nearby Ghouta in August 2013, which killed hundreds of people and which most observers attribute to sarin gas and the Syrian government. But Zaitouneh’s reporting and her liberal values, taken with the fact that much of her funding came from the U.S., made some in Douma suspicious of her motives. Shortly before she went missing, she’d received a death threat that many have attributed to Jaish al-Islam.

This undated frame grab from video, shows Syrian activist Razan Zaitouneh as she sits inside a car, in Syria. The fate of activist Razan Zaitouneh is one of the longest-running mysteries of Syria's civil war. There's been no sign of life, no proof of death since gunmen abducted her and three of her colleagues from her offices in the rebel-held town of Douma in 2013 -- but clues have emerged that may bring answers. (AP Photo)

An undated screenshot from a video shows Syrian activist Razan Zaitouneh as she sits inside a car in Syria.

AP

Since then there’s been little information independent of Jaish al-Islam coming out of Douma. At the time of the April 7 attacks, the VDC had no presence there, which was not surprising, given what had happened to its leaders. Like almost everyone else, the VDC was getting its information from contacts on the ground via social media. Those organizations still able to still work in Douma did so under license from Jaish al-Islam, or they operated in secret. In the best of circumstances, the reporting of pro-opposition outfits like the Local Coordinating Committees has often been nakedly partisan. But with independent media unable to operate in territory controlled by the Syrian government and hardly any outside journalists able to get into the country because of kidnapping threats from militants and incessant bombing by the government, they’re the only way to find out what’s going on.

In the immediate aftermath of the Douma attacks, Syria’s official media largely ignored the allegations about chemical weapons; they were busy celebrating their win. This time, it fell to the Russians to mount a media offensive. The day before the Douma attack, the Russian military, as it often does, had predicted that Syrian rebel groups were “plotting explosions of makeshift chemical charges containing chlorine in a number of areas under their control.”

The Russians had brokered the evacuation deal in Douma, after all, and it was their military police who were helping to enforce it. It was also their job to make the attack sites safe for the arrival of inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international body that enforces the Chemical Weapons Convention worldwide. Two days after the attacks, in footage shot by a local activist, Russian military police can be seen arriving onsite.

The OPCW inspectors took a week to get to Damascus, and then another week negotiating safe access to the sites in Douma; after that they spent 10 days visiting the hospital and the alleged attack locations, collecting samples and interviewing witnesses.

But before they’d finished, apparently concerned at the pace of events in the two weeks since the U.S. airstrikes, the Russian delegation to the OPCW threw a brazen unofficial press conference at the organization’s headquarters in The Hague. In front of the assembled cameras, they produced witnesses from Douma, including an 11-year-old boy named Hassan Diab, one of those filmed at the hospital in the aftermath of the attack. Hassan and his father told the same story: Upon hearing screaming about a chemical attack they’d run to the makeshift hospital where they’d been doused with water. In retrospect, said Hassan’s father, he didn’t believe that there had been any chemical attack. The Russians also granted the floor to a doctor and another hospital worker who’d been on duty that day, both of whom claimed that the patients they’d seen had suffered injuries consistent with smoke and dust inhalation as a result of regular bombing. Separately, Alexander Yakovenko, the Russian ambassador to London, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the international media that British intelligence services, working with the White Helmets, had been “involved in this staged event.”

(From L) Russian ambassador in The Netherlands Aleksander Shulgin (L), Syrian deputy representative at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Ghassan Obaid, a Syrian boy (appearing on the video above) and a Syrian man attend a press conference in The Hague on April 26, 2018 called by Russian embassy to present what it says are witnesses 'used to stage' Douma attack videos. - Russian diplomats said they are organising the briefing for OPCW member nations and would "bring some Syrians to speak about the reported Douma incident". The Russian embassy in the Netherlands said in a tweet that the briefing would involve "witnesses from Syria who were at the staged videos of #WhiteHelmets" -- a humanitarian organisation made up of some 3,000 volunteers working in rebel-held areas. On April 7, the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) and the White Helmets jointly said dozens of people died in a "poisonous chlorine gas attack" in Douma. The OPCW said it had urged the Russian delegation to allow its experts to interview the witnesses first, and to hold the briefing "once the FFM has completed its work". "Nevertheless, the Russian delegation stated that it would go ahead with the briefing and that its intention was not to interfere with the FFMs work," the OPCW statement added. (Photo by Bart MAAT / ANP / AFP) / Netherlands OUT (Photo credit should read BART MAAT/AFP/Getty Images)

From left, Russian Ambassador in the Netherlands Aleksander Shulgin, Syrian Deputy Representative at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Ghassan Obaid, a Syrian boy, and a Syrian man attend a press conference in The Hague on April 26, 2018.

Photo: Bart Maat/AFP/Getty Images

Formed in 2013, the White Helmets only maintain a presence in rebel-controlled areas, as Douma was on the night of the attack. Like any other aid or reporting outfit in those areas, it operates with the permission of the controlling militias, who are either grateful for the medics’ support or tolerate their presence. Much of the White Helmets’ first-responder work is unobjectionable and utterly necessary — rescuing civilians from buildings that have just been bombed by Russian or Syrian airplanes, for example. All the same, and perhaps because the group carries cameras to document their work and has been the subject of various glorifying documentaries, it is now at the center of a brutish new media war between international supporters of the Syrian revolt, who uphold the White Helmets as unimpeachable heroes, and international defenders of the Syrian government, who have said that they’re first-aiders for Al Qaeda. The Russian government, of course, has every incentive to delegitimize and exaggerate the power of Syrian first-responders, who are sometimes the only sources of information about its bombing campaign. The Syrian government appears to have been directly targeting White Helmets from the air and on the ground for the same reason.

But the Russian allegations about intelligence links and propaganda maneuvers did not come from nowhere. The British-led organization that branded the White Helmets and provided its training and equipment, ARK, was run by a publicity-shy former British diplomat and funded by the U.S. State Department and the British Foreign Office. ARK’s work in Syria started in 2012, when it paid Syrian activists to make propaganda films in favor of the revolt against Assad through a production company called Basma. Operating out of offices in Istanbul and Gaziantep in Turkey, it was soon bidding for civil defense contracts in Northern Syria for the kind of work that would end up being done by the White Helmets. A few of its employees were veterans of the British Army; others included pollsters and policy advisers, a consultant who had previously worked for a “psychological operations” firm, and a development professional with experience in “in-country information-gathering.” According to internal reports and emails provided to me by a Syrian opposition activist in 2014, ARK was also gathering intelligence on Islamist groups in the country, and those reports were being privately forwarded by a British Army liaison officer to U.S. Central Command, with an email recommending additional funding for the organization’s filmmaking arm. “It would be reinforcing success for comparatively modest costs,” noted the liaison officer.

The White Helmets are now supported by another organization, called Mayday Rescue, established by a senior ARK staffer, and no concrete evidence has emerged that ARK or its affiliates are using the White Helmets for intelligence-gathering. What’s certain is that the cameras worn by these civil defence workers see what the controlling militias allow them to see, usually the bombing runs of the Syrian and Russian air force, generating skepticism among some observers about the reliability of their reporting.

When it came to Douma, the Russians weren’t the only ones who were skeptical, at least initially, that chemical weapons had been used. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based outfit that leans toward the opposition but whose reporting network inside the country is usually seen as most authoritative by the international media, noted the day after the attack that people had died in Douma through suffocation, but couldn’t say whether chemical weapons had been used.

At least some of that caution appears to have been warranted. Three months after the attack, the OPCW released its interim report into what happened in Douma. The report found no evidence of organophosphorus nerve agents like sarin either at the site or in samples from the casualties — something of a surprise, because the suspected use of sarin had been one of the justifications for American airstrikes back in April, and alleged Syrian chemical weapons facilities their primary target. But the investigators did find something else. In the aftermath of the attack, video shot by gas mask-clad activists had fastened on the two yellow gas canisters: one lying on a bed, filmed on April 8 by Douma Revolution, and the second perched on a top-floor balcony and apparently recorded the following evening by the White Helmets. The OPCW located both those cylinders, one at the apartment block and the other in a different building nearly a kilometer away. Samples collected at both locations turned up “various chlorinated organic chemicals” along with “the residues of explosive” — not quite the same thing as saying that chlorine had been used as a chemical weapon, but evidence that seemed to head in that direction. In its final report, we might expect the OPCW to make a more conclusive judgement.

People gather at Shuhada Square (Martyrs Square) in Douma, a suburb of Damascus, on April 16, 2018, nine days after an incident in which chemical weapons were suspected to have been used against citizens. (Kyodo)
==Kyodo

People gather at Martyrs Square in Douma on April 16, 2018, nine days after an incident in which chemical weapons were suspected to have been used against citizens.

Photo: Kyodo via AP

2A Blackened Shadow: The Evidence From Douma

On July 9, 2018, three days after the OPCW’s interim report was published, I traveled to Douma. It was a blisteringly hot morning, and I was in a taxi with a female translator-minder from Syria’s Information Ministry and a Japanese journalist who was going there anyway and with whom I’d hitched a ride. This was the first journalist visa I’d been allowed since March 2016. For over 18 months, I’d languished on a blacklist, the belated result of illegal trips into Northern Syria I’d taken with rebel and Kurdish groups earlier in the conflict. “No one wants to work with you,” the amiable new handler for foreign journalists shrugged on my arrival at the Information Ministry building in Mezzeh. It was, he lamented, because of my reputation for giving minders the slip.

The road from Damascus to Douma snaked through the same checkpoints I remembered from six years ago, but now these were the weary signposts of a war zone rather than the punctuation of a stressed-out security state. The Syrian army had entered Douma three months earlier, and the city was returning to nervous life. Some residents had endured the conflict and were finally beginning to rebuild, while others had returned to reclaim their homes and reopen their shops; yet others whizzing by in cars and on motorbikes seemed to have arrived from out of town, possibly carpet-bagger friends of the Syrian armed forces. The broad al-Shuhada Square was still largely empty — a few local women walked by in niqabs and abayas, clutching their children’s hands and watching us intently.

Douma was a blackened shadow of its former self, many of its buildings still listing or reduced to charred metal and concrete, but a whole new city had been quietly carved out beneath it. Our first stop, a few yards from al-Shuhada Square, was at the mouth of a 3-meter-wide underground tunnel, reinforced with corrugated steel and concrete. It had been constructed by the Islamist rebels several years back, according to a soldier who walked us through it. He told us that hostages held by Jaish al-Islam had done the building. In total, it stretched for more than 5 kilometers and was broad enough to drive a truck through.

The road from Damascus to Douma snaked through the same checkpoints I remembered from six years ago, but now these were the weary signposts of a war zone rather than the punctuation of a stressed-out security state.

The tunnel had been set up to access a makeshift hospital emergency ward, whose spartan facilities were arranged over a single floor underground. Five meters below ground and reinforced by 13 meters of sandbagging above that, the hospital was still functioning when I arrived. Orderlies hovered around stretchers, as did Syrian soldiers. A woman collected medicine for her sick child. It was from here that footage had emerged of alleged gas attack victims having water poured over them from hoses and being given asthma inhalers by panicked medical workers and civilians. The first man I came across, who told me his name was Abu Nazir, explained that he didn’t work at the hospital but that on the day of the attack, he had made his way to the huge tunnel outside in search of shelter. “We were unable to breathe,” he said, “and stayed in hiding.”

The second man I came across, a laconic 20-year-old local nurse called Anas Sobheha, told me that he had seen everything. At around 7 p.m. that April evening, he said, a child of about 6 years old was brought into the hospital. His face had turned blue. “He had asthma, and there’d been a fire at his home, and the smoke had made it worse. And they thought it was a chemical attack,” Sobheha said. There were a lot of wounded people around, but Sobheha had given the boy some medicine and he had gotten better quickly. All the same, his family had elected to stay at the hospital, feeling safer in the fortified location. About 20 minutes later, Sobheha said, one of the White Helmet workers came in holding a baby and screaming about a chemical attack “and everyone starts freaking out, thinking about chemical weapons, but there was only this child, and he’d just inhaled smoke from a fire.” The White Helmet was desperate for staff to help, and chaos ensued — a man sitting in the facility with his brother grabbed the hose “and started throwing water on everyone inside.” There were around four people filming these events, Sobheha remembered, but the problem wasn’t chemicals: “The cases that came here were suffocation from smoke, and most of them were children.” The baby went back to his house, he laughed, “and he’s in Douma today.”

As we talked, several Syrian soldiers joined the conversation, just as interested in his testimony as I was. Sobheha’s words were also being translated by a minder from the Syrian Information Ministry, whose staffers report to higher-ups on who foreign journalists talk to and what they say. Clearly, Sobheha wasn’t speaking entirely freely. Nonetheless, he wasn’t shy of apportioning blame to the Syrian army (and when I contacted him later via WhatsApp from London he assured me that he’d told me the whole truth). Most of the deaths that day had already happened before the supposed chemical attacks, he told me. At about 4 p.m., he remembered, scores of people arrived at the emergency ward injured and bleeding. When I prodded him about the people who had allegedly been killed by chemical weapons that day, he flinched in exasperation. Two hundred and seventy people had been killed on April 6 and 7, according to the data kept by his improvised hospital, women and children as well as fighters, their numbers collected by the rebels, and “most of the injured and bleeding they came here.” What had killed them? “Mostly rockets.”

hospital-tunnels-1549652990

An underground tunnel that leads to the hospital in Douma.

Photo: James Harkin for The Intercept

There were too many patients and not enough doctors, he remembered, and you just had to do the best you could. In the afternoon, there were no camerapeople around to witness any of it, according to him, because the medical staff were under so much pressure. “These were the worst days,” he said. “I can’t explain how it felt.” He’d already been interviewed by the OPCW inspectors and was growing weary of their talk about chemical weapons. He’d been trained to treat people poisoned by such weapons, and the protocol was that staff would work outside the hospital in that event. “I didn’t treat anyone with a chemical attack,” he said, “because if I did, I’m going to get affected.” When I asked him what he thought about all this talk of chemicals, he was polite but firm. “I don’t want to repeat this word again.”

From al-Shuhada Square, and now flanked by an escort vehicle from the Syrian army, we traveled at my suggestion to Tawba, a sprawling network of tunnels between buildings that the rebels had converted into an intricate prison. We entered via the mangled remains of one municipal structure, then inched our way in darkness through a latticework of improvised prison cells into an underground passageway hewn out of earth and rock. At times, the wet earth was so cloying as to make us cough; on several occasions, a few clumps fell to the ground around us, giving even our military guide pause for thought. But, like an archaeologist marveling at the primitive ways of his forebears, he was keen to show us how his enemies had lived. The journey took us deep into the ground, after which we rose back toward the surface and emerged into completely different building several hundred meters from the first. All this, too, was the work of captives and hostages. Some were Syrian soldiers, but many others had been taken based on their religion; most were Alawi, Shia, and Ismaili Muslims from everywhere in Syria, whom their Islamist kidnappers deemed impure.

One of them was a 55-year-old called Nabeel Taha, who I met the following evening in a community center in Damascus. Taha wasn’t referred to me by the Syrian authorities; I’d begged his number from a local journalist who works for the Associated Press. Taha had been kidnapped in November 2014, he told me, 200 kilometers away in Hama. His job as an army translator made him of immediate interest to the Islamist rebels who hauled him out of a taxi with his lawyer brother. Both were Shia Muslims, which further enraged their captors. During the first few weeks of Taha’s captivity, he was beaten and tortured almost all the time — hung from the ceiling, tormented with implements, insulted for his religion. Then he was transferred to a holding cell in Tawba, where he was put to work, almost 24 hours a day, digging tunnels.

In this July 15, 2018 photo, a cage used by the Army of Islam for prisoners is abandoned Tawbeh Prison, in Douma, near the Syrian capital Damascus, Syria. The fate of activist Razan Zaitouneh is one of the longest-running mysteries of Syria’s civil war. There’s been no sign of life, no proof of death since gunmen abducted her and three of her colleagues from her offices in the rebel-held town of Douma in 2013. Now Douma is in government hands and clues have emerged that may bring answers. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

A cage used by the Army of Islam for prisoners is abandoned near Tawba prison on July 15, 2018.

Photo: Hassan Ammar/AP

When I brought up the alleged chemical weapons attacks, Taha felt sure that they couldn’t have been the work of the Syrian army. On April 7, he remembered, Jaish al-Islam informed the hostages that they were going to be released. There’s no way that the Islamists he knew would have gone ahead and released anyone, he believes, if the army had started dropping chemical weapons on civilians later that same day, yet the hostages were duly set free in two groups over the next two days. Dropping chemicals didn’t seem to make military sense either. On April 7, the Syrian army was around 400 meters from the prison, Taha guessed — he could hear the rattle of Kalashnikovs — and Douma is not a big place; it would have been stupid for the government to land chemicals near its own troops. It was “the pressure of traditional weapons” that forced Jaish al-Islam’s hand, not chlorine or sarin, Taha maintained. He can still remember the noise and the bombings that occurred during those final few days; they were the worst he’d ever heard. The focus on chemical weapons was a propaganda win for Jaish al-Islam, he said: “Every time Jaish al-Islam lose, they turn a military loss into a political gain.”

In Douma the Syrian authorities had been happy to show me around Tawba prison, and they were also happy for me to see the hospital. But they were less keen to bring me to the sites of the alleged chemical attacks. As the day wore on and we made our way back to al-Shuhada Square, it became apparent that the sites would not be on our itinerary. My minder-translator didn’t know where the attacks were supposed to have taken place, and the major escorting us claimed to have no clue either. Losing patience and without any signal on my mobile phone to check their location, I broke away and walked around the square asking passersby in English and Arabic if they knew anything about the alleged chemical attacks. No one seemed to know what I was talking about — or, if they did, they didn’t seem eager to help. Presently, I noticed a young man covered in grease, revving a motorbike at the side of the square and watching the disturbance. I asked him the same question. “You will not find anyone like me,” he quipped, rearranging a pair of badly bent spectacles on his face. “I am from Douma and I’m going to help you.”

My minder-cum-translator warned me that we should get back into the car and wait for the return of our military escort but the motorcyclist looked anxious at the idea and unwilling to hang around. On a whim, I jumped onto the back of his bike and we rode a few blocks back from al-Shuhada Square, stopping outside an apartment building on an abandoned, heavily blitzed street. Was this the place, I asked him? “Yes.” How many people were killed? “Fifty.” He couldn’t remember the exact day and didn’t know any of the dead, but he was sure it had been chemicals because of the odor. “A very strong smell,” he told me, holding his nose for effect. “Salaam-Alaikum,” he said, wanting to be gone. Was it just this block of apartments? “No, the whole street.” Then he zoomed off into the distance.

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A photo of the street outside the apartment building where an attack occurred on April 7.

Photo: James Harkin for The Intercept

3Sifting the Digital Evidence

This much we know: Amid the carnage in Douma on April 7, a single horrific incident unfolded in which several dozen civilians, many of them children, were killed. It happened exactly where that young local had taken me on the back of his motorbike. When I forwarded Bellingcat’s Eliot Higgins a short iPhone video I’d shot at the location he recognized it as the same street, and the same apartment block, where several vehicles full of Russian military police had arrived on April 9 in response to claims of a chemical attack. Bilal Abo Salah, a Douma Revolution cameraperson who’d shot footage from the apartment block with the dead people that evening, recognized it as the same building. It was also the place, it turns out, where reporters from CBS News and the Swedish channel TV4 were taken days after the attack when they, like me, traveled to Douma with the Syrian Ministry of Information and struck out on their own in search of the attack site. Together with a survivor called Nasser Hanan who’d lost most of his family to the attack, the CBS journalist was escorted to the top of the building to be shown a yellow gas canister, whose location looked identical to the one that the activists had recorded a week earlier. That canister, its nose neatly wedged into a balcony roof, would become Douma’s smoking gun.

The apartment building was also one of five locations the OPCW inspectors visited later in April. The Saada bakery, allegedly the site of a key chemical attack earlier on April 7, was not in the same area of Douma as either canister and the OPCW inspectors did not stop there. Its early identification by the VDC as a key chemical attack site with many dead was a mistake, the result of local propaganda and the fog of war. While chlorine had been dropped at 4 p.m. near the bakery and had caused some breathing problems, according to the VDC’s then-regional manager, nobody died as a result of chemicals there. The manager confirmed to me that the figure of 25 casualties, including many dead, in that attack was wrong; those deaths had been caused by shelling, not toxic gases.

The imperative to grab the fleeting attention of an international audience certainly seems to have influenced the presentation of the evidence. In videos and photos, there were some signs that the bodies and gas canisters had been moved or tampered with after the event for maximum impact.

The story of what happened at the apartment building was also convoluted. The testimony of Nasser Hanan, one of the few survivors who was in the house when the attack happened, only added to the confusion. According to him, the inhabitants of that apartment block, like most civilians in Douma, had been cowering in the basement around 7 p.m. when the attack happened. “The women and children were sitting in here,” he told the Swedish television reporter Stefan Borg, pointing to dank concrete rooms cushioned with blankets, “and boys and men over here.” But Fadi Abdullah, who arrived at the building between 8:30 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. and says he was the first media activist on the scene, found bodies on the ground floor, the first floor, and in the stairwells. The people he’d seen, he maintained, hadn’t seemed like they’d ever been in any basement; they hadn’t seemed to be running anywhere. It was as if they’d been killed on the spot.

It appears to have been an honest misunderstanding on Abdullah’s part. Two other camerapeople who’d arrived in the same place shortly afterward told me, in separate phone conversations from Northern Syria, that their best guess was that the victims had taken refuge from the intense shelling in a cellar or basement when the attack happened and had run frantically upstairs to escape — unaware that that’s exactly where the bomb happened to be. Both agreed that most of the bodies they had seen were on the ground floor and first floor, with about four lying in front of the building; many were gathered around the kitchen and the bathroom. All three camerapeople agreed, like the young man who had driven me there on his motorbike, that the smell had been bad and caused them sharp chest pains. “The victims were only in that building,” said one cameraperson, Emad Aldin, “but the whole street could smell it.” None had felt safe enough to spend any time in the upper floors of the apartment block because of the smell, the dead bodies and the threat from continued shelling. Some, however, did take pictures of the “balcony” canister against the night sky from a room directly downstairs, where it seemed white rather than yellow. Higgins and Forensic Architecture, a research organization that examines the built environment as evidence in cases of human rights violations, have argued, convincingly to the weapons specialists I spoke with, that this was due to a coating of frost, best explained as an “auto-refrigeration” effect that occurs when liquid chlorine cools. The canister also had wheels to ease its departure from a helicopter and fins to give it ballast on its way down.

Other things, however, required much more explanation. “Suddenly we heard a sound like the valve of a gas cylinder being opened,” the survivor Hanan told Borg, the Swedish journalist. What was not included in either Borg’s TV4 package or the CBS broadcast was that Hanan was, at least publicly, blaming the Islamist rebels for the attack — and the White Helmets for not coming to the victims’ aid sooner. Surrounded by minders from the Syrian Ministry of Information and possible secret police, he could scarcely have blamed the Syrian army for a controversial chemical weapons attack, but viewers might have liked to know what he was saying all the same. Then there was the chain of events put forth in Hanan’s testimony. In the basement with the rest of his family and others, he immediately ran outside to get help, where he grew dizzy and short of breath. Almost everyone else ran back inside, and some headed in the direction of the bathroom to wash off the toxic chemicals. “The ones who ran back inside died at once,” he told Borg. But why would anyone run back into a building full of toxic gas?

Not everyone, even those with opposition sympathies, agreed that this had been a chlorine attack. Two months after the event, one opposition reporter working with a team inside Syria, who spoke to me anonymously for fear of jeopardizing his relationship with other rebel outfits, said that while he believed that chlorine had been dropped just before 4 p.m. that day by Syrian army helicopters and had caused some breathing problems among children near the bakery (confirming the VDC’s view that chlorine had been dropped there), his best guess was that the deaths at the apartment building had been the result of smoke inhalation — the tragic consequence of cloying war-zone dust and several dozen people who’d unwittingly found themselves trapped in a basement. His thinking, he told me, was shaped by suspicions about the agenda of the White Helmets and their Western backers, as well as both their and Douma Revolution’s close relationship with Islamists on the ground. Noting the giant gas masks worn by activists days after the attacks, which didn’t always feel necessary, he complained that “this is all a huge game.”

“We have no idea who interfered with the evidence. But we are close to certain that in both sites the location of the canisters when photographed is not their original fall position.”

The imperative to grab the fleeting attention of an international audience certainly seems to have influenced the presentation of the evidence. In the videos and photos that appeared that evening, most analysts and observers agree that there were some signs that the bodies and gas canisters had been moved or tampered with after the event for maximum impact. The Syrian media activists who’d arrived at the apartment block with the dead people weren’t the first to arrive on the scene; they’d heard about the deaths from White Helmet workers and doctors at the hospital. When I asked Fadi Abdullah whether he thought the bodies might have been moved around before he arrived, he told me that he’d asked the civil defense crews the same question. They’d told him that they’d only moved the bodies on the stairwells, and the only reason they’d moved anyone was that they suspected some of the victims might still be alive.

Then there was the position of the gas canisters, which seemed to some a little too neat. An investigation by Forensic Architecture, published last June, found that both gas canisters appear to have been rotated, turned, or moved since they had fallen — and that the one on the bed, whose valve remained more or less intact, looked particularly implausible unless it had been moved after the drop. “We have no idea who interfered with the evidence,” Forensic Architecture’s Eyal Weizman told me. “But we are close to certain that in both sites the location of the canisters when photographed is not their original fall position.”

No one I spoke to in Syria seemed to know why the canisters might have been moved around or tampered with; most of the activists from Douma Revolution flatly denied it. Most likely they had been rotated or moved short distances for safety reasons, to gather urgent evidence for the cameras, or to encourage greater emotive effect. But if they were moved, the result was self-defeating; it stoked suspicions that they’d been staged to cast blame on the Syrian government.

One former OPCW official who’s worked on Syria cases and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of his observations was also unimpressed by the location of the canisters. Launched from a Syrian air force helicopter thousands of meters up, he told me, a gas canister like the one on the balcony would ordinarily have fallen right through the concrete roof, rather than puncturing the roof with its nozzle but not falling through. It was also unlikely to have made a hole in the concrete as big as that shown, he said, and the canister valve was unlikely to have snapped off so neatly without the benefit of a detonator. It was possible that the concrete and wire mesh makeup of the roof allowed for a kind of ricochet effect that enabled the canister to spring back up, according to the former OPCW official, but not likely. “A lot of stars would have to align,” he felt, to give rise to that kind of evidence. The canister on the bed from an entry point in the roof several meters away looked even less plausible. His supposition? “This was a setup rather than an actual aerial attack.”

But suspicions that the canisters had been moved didn’t lead the former OPCW official to conclude that there hadn’t been a chemical attack by Syrian military aircraft. In fact, given the dozens dead, which didn’t fit with the usual toll of injuries from breathing difficulties and vomiting that result from a Syrian chlorine bomb, and that the victims had apparently dropped unconscious on the spot, he thought it possible that the Syrian air force had used another more murderous poison, one that hadn’t been captured in the OPCW report. But for camerapeople desperate to show they had the goods and get the world on their side, he guessed, those videos of gas canisters and outsized gas masks made “compelling images.” The temptation, he said, is to “bring your own munition in.”

He’d seen such staging himself, the former OPCW official confided. In an infamous attack on an aid convoy on the outskirts of Aleppo in September 2016, which killed 14 civilians, he concluded that pieces of alleged photographic evidence had very likely been introduced or faked. In addition, he maintained, “some opposition witnesses had clearly been coached.” Ultimately, it didn’t matter, the official said; six months later the United Nations had rightly declared the Syrian government responsible. It was just “media ops,” he said; the activists had simply been concerned to get their narrative out as quickly and forcefully as they could.

apartment-ceiling-bilal-02-1549654117

A still from a video showing a hole in the ceiling of the apartment in Douma above the gas canister in the same room.

Image: Bilal Abo Salah

In Douma, the position of the Russian authorities from the outset was that the chemical attack was a mise en scène — a total fabrication. When the gas canisters took center stage, the Russian government didn’t try to conceal that evidence; instead, it supplied its own version of the story. Shortly after the opposition media activists had departed, a crew from the Russian TV channel Zvezda, run by the Russian Ministry of Defence, arrived in Douma to declare that that the entire balcony scene had been staged as a “provocation.” The intactness of the canister, coupled with the fact that it had punctured but not fallen through the roof, were deemed wholly inconsistent with such a huge drop from the sky of a fast-moving, weighty object. A rebel lab was discovered with a similar yellow gas canister and other sinister-looking bottles of chemicals, which the Russian TV reporters and their presumed sources in the Syrian military suggested could have been used for the deception. A neighbor who’d complained to CBS of being enveloped by what he thought was chlorine gas now turned up to decry all the talk of chemical weapons as needless panic. “It was clear that there was no chemical substance,” he now appeared to be saying, if we can believe the Russian dubbing. “For example, I don’t have any issues with my health. We don’t exclude the fact that some people were brought here on purpose to stage this theater play.”

The TV crew, embedded with the Russian military, then moved to the other site, where the second yellow canister still lay snugly on a bed. It was a scene “well-known to the entire world,” the reporter noted, because of the gas masks worn by the activists. A pudgy, bespectacled Russian chemist wearing full military uniform and a green hard hat was called upon to demonstrate that the distance between the hole in the roof and the bed — and the general tidiness of a room, which had just received a gas canister from several thousands of meters up — made the whole thing fishy in the extreme. “The authors of this fabrication,” according to the military chemist, “obviously carried the canister in from the street, as can be seen from the shards and traces on the tile.” (In fact, the footage showed no obvious traces or track marks, only pieces of broken tile that looked like normal wear and tear.) As for the canister itself, “the valve is not ripped off — just slightly opened so that it leaks or lets the gas out.” These facts, concluded the reporter, “point to the incident being staged by persons working on the orders of people aiming to destabilize the situation in the region.” The owner of the apartment was shown feeding the chickens he kept there, with the gas canister still on display. “And the chickens? The chickens are making eggs as they did before.”

The Russians, by cutting back and forth between the two different gas canisters, had made it look like the feeding chickens rendered ridiculous the claim that this was the “epicenter of an explosion which, according to the White Helmets, killed hundreds of people.” But the fact that the valve on the bed canister was almost intact, and the one on the balcony wasn’t, was perfectly consistent with the original messages of the camerapeople that the latter had caused many people to die, while the former hadn’t. The angle of the Russian footage was also selective. Many observers, for example, struggled to believe that the hole in the roof aligned with the bed canister, because it seemed to be at the other end of the room. Even Fadi Abdullah, who’d seen the canister in situ, was under the impression that it had arrived through a nearby window rather than the roof. But several unpublished videos of the bed canister sent to me by Abo Salah, at higher definition and over a range of angles, make it easier to see how the canister could have fallen from the roof onto the bed if it descended at an angle from the sky.

4Propaganda and Terror

Among those experts, reporters, and obsessives who chronicle the gory litany of improvised munitions in use on battlefield Syria, the Syrian government is generally acknowledged to have been dropping chlorine gas bombs for some time. Last February, OPCW inspectors found that chlorine had “likely” been used in an attack on a rebel-held city in Northern Syria that caused several people to suffer breathing difficulties, but no deaths.

The same Syrian opposition reporter who’d been skeptical that the April 7 fatalities had been caused by chemicals told me that between February 18 and March 30, he’d catalogued a number of incidents in which the Syrian air force had dropped canisters filled with chlorine from helicopters in an effort to force out civilians and Islamist rebels. It had done the same in Douma, he said, “not to kill anyone but to scare people, to have them put pressure on Jaish al-Islam to leave.”

That dropping chlorine gas canisters might be a terror weapon and not a “kill” weapon makes sense. Unlike sarin, which is a colorless, odorless liquid that often kills its victims even before they know they’ve been attacked, chlorine, at least as it’s been used in improvised munitions in Syria doesn’t usually kill; its victims can smell, see, and sometimes even hear it coming, and they run as fast as they can in the other direction. Many Syrians living in rebel-held areas, prepped by rebels or aid workers, know that chlorine is denser than air and quickly sinks, which is why it might find its way so easily from the roof down to the basement. The presence of chlorine might also explain something Abo Salah, the Douma Revolution cameraperson, had told me. The apartment attack site is only 150 meters from the huge tunnel I’d seen by the emergency medical ward and close to an entrance to that tunnel. The toxic gases, he said, “leaked to the main medical center via the tunnel, which contained hundreds of families fleeing the shelling.”

What’s clear is that Douma remains a fearful, dangerous place. When I visited, its citizens appeared to be under a kind of quarantine, suspected of harboring “terrorist cells” and unable to leave.

The trajectory taken by chlorine gas and its cloying visibility might also explain why, according to Nasser Hanan, most of his family had run back inside the building to their deaths. When I showed videos of the canisters to Theodore Postol in Boston, he was immediately certain that both had been launched from the sky by the Syrian military and that any “brouhaha” from the Russians to the contrary could be safely ignored. Postol, professor emeritus of Science, Technology, and National Security Policy at MIT, is a controversial figure in Syria analysis. Earlier in the conflict his work querying accounts from the OPCW and the UN about the use of sarin in two infamous gas attacks made him deeply unpopular among many Syria analysts, including Higgins, who felt that his analysis wrongly let Assad off the hook for war crimes. Postol, however, has many years of experience analyzing munitions, including the relative efficacy of Saddam Hussein’s SCUD missiles and U.S. Patriot anti-missiles during the first Gulf War. More recently, together with his late colleague Richard Lloyd, he’s devoted considerable attention to the development of improvised munitions in Syria, including chlorine canister bombs. When I showed him the Douma footage, he immediately concurred with the analysis of internet investigators like Higgins, with whom he often ferociously disagrees. The canister, he reckoned, would have weighed around 250 pounds and carried about 120 kilos of chorine. But it landed in an entirely unexpected way. Since the concrete-and-steel-mesh roof wasn’t very strong, the bomb punched a hole in the ceiling. The effect was as if the nose of the canister had been deliberately rammed into the external wall, so as to point gas directly into the room below, creating a gas chamber. That room would have filled with chlorine in one or two minutes. Drawing on Forensic Architecture’s modeling of the building onto which it fell, Postol estimated that the chlorine gas would have poured out into the upper floor at a magnitude several hundred times higher than a lethal dose, its density much greater because the release occurred in an enclosed space. As it made its way down into the two floors below, its density would have decreased, but still would have been much more than enough for a lethal dose.

When it filled the building, the chlorine would have spilled out via open windows and doors and then drifted along the street, like a thick fog, at much lower concentrations. As it sank through the building, the residents hunkered down in the basement would have smelled it too. Many likely ran headfirst onto the street, only to be confronted by a chlorine gas cloud forming all around them. Instinct and training likely kicked in; since chlorine is thicker than air, the instructions they’d been given would have been to head for the roof. Under most circumstances, this would have been excellent advice, like the injunction to workers at the World Trade Center on 9/11 to stay put at their desks, but in this case, it failed the residents of Douma. As they ran back upward through the building, they’d have been rendered unconscious very quickly and dead within minutes. Delivered at that kind of dosage — thousands of milligrams per cubic meter — chlorine could easily have caused the frothing at the mouth, skin burns, and damaged corneas observed by medical workers, as well as the horrible smell and breathing difficulties of which residents complained. It also makes sense of what the motorbike rider had told me: that the whole street had been affected by the foul odor. To panic and terrorize the population was, after all, what this was for.

The murderous result, concluded Postol, was “a very peculiar set of circumstances” and a terrible twist of fate. If the building had had been larger with a firmer roof, the balcony canister would probably not have fallen through; even if it had broken open and begun dispersing its payload, the chlorine would have wafted off into the open air and likely not injured anyone. If the roof had been even weaker and the canister had fallen right through onto the third floor, its valve might not have opened at all, like the one on the bed. But because of the way the canister punctured the concrete, its valve snapped so as to spew the contents directly into the enclosed space below. A lot of stars would have had to align for something like this to happen, just as the former OPCW inspector had said. But in this case, they did.

If chlorine gas canisters killed all those people in the apartment building on April 7, what do we make of Anas Sobheha, the nurse I met at that makeshift emergency ward in Douma, who told me that he’d seen no evidence of a chemical attack? What’s clear is that Douma remains a fearful, dangerous place. When I visited, its citizens appeared to be under a kind of quarantine, suspected of harboring “terrorist cells” and unable to leave; when I suggested to Sobheha that we meet in central Damascus he told me that simply wasn’t possible. I did, however, discreetly arrange another meeting with a 28-year-old Syrian soldier named Hassan, who I’d met that day in Douma.

Over a drink in Central Damascus, I’d thought Hassan might tell me something about the assault on Douma, but he was tight-lipped and a little nervous. I soon found out why. Hassan wasn’t a regular soldier at all but a junior mukhabarat with one the most feared of Syria’s secret police fiefs, Jawiya — the Air Force Intelligence Service, which runs a secretive network of political prisons in which many oppositionists, rebels, and ordinary civilians have been tortured or disappeared. He was about 900 meters away from Douma in the final days of the fighting, he told me, and had arrived in the city just hours after the rebels agreed to leave. As might be expected from someone who works for the Syrian intelligence apparatus, he couldn’t believe that the army would have used chemical weapons. “The Syrian army have made some mistakes,” he conceded, “but the rebels have made bigger mistakes.” I asked him what it was like to serve in Douma, and he told me that some of the locals had been very supportive, helping him “catch” some remaining terrorists. All the same, he and his company had been ordered by their military superiors to leave. “We were told to be good to the people and to be polite, but some are scared of us.”

What unfolded at the hospital appears to have been largely a result of panic and propaganda, spurred by Syrian army chlorine and by activist camerapeople who knew how sensitive the use of chemical weapons is to the United States and the international community.

Was Sobheha lying to me because he was scared? I don’t think so. He wouldn’t necessarily have seen the immediate casualties from the apartment building because they were all dead. Those who did make their way to the hospital were mostly suffering from minor breathing difficulties, or they’d panicked into thinking that they’d suffered a chemical attack. Likewise, the young Hassan Diab, who the Russian government produced at the press conference at The Hague. While Hassan was shaken up and likely appearing under duress, he’s clearly the same boy who appeared in the hospital video from April 7, and he seemed unaffected by exposure to chemicals at the press conference. What unfolded at the hospital appears to have been largely a result of panic and propaganda, spurred by Syrian army chlorine and by activist camerapeople who knew how sensitive the use of chemical weapons is to the United States and the international community. Given the fall of Douma to the Syrian army and the Trump administration’s cruise missile strikes against Syrian army bases and research facilities, some might say, both strategies worked.

I think it’s likely that Shobeha was more frustrated than scared. According to him, 270 people, both civilians and fighters, had died over two days of heavy, unrelenting shelling by the Syrian armed forces. Did anyone care about that? If a 500-pound bomb had collided with the roof of that apartment block near al-Shuhada Square instead of a chlorine canister, it would have punched clean through and landed slap on one of the higher floors. There would have been a tiny delay, only a fraction of a second, while the fuse sensed that it had reached its destination, after which the building would have blown apart and its entire weight fallen downward onto the basement. Everyone hiding there would likely have been buried alive.

What government pummels its citizens with bombs and chlorine to get them to pressure rebels to leave their city? At the same time, Jaish Al-Islam was sending volleys of improvised rockets into Damascus and snatching activists and members of religious minorities for ransom or to be disappeared. It’s between these two violent truths that the real story of the Syrian conflict begins to emerge — not in a bewildering collage of images sent from a war zone, designed to terrify and outrage.

The author’s research was supported by a fellowship at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University. Benjamin Decker at the Shorenstein Center’s Information Disorder Lab provided open-source investigative support and Rahaf Safi at Harvard’s Kennedy School contributed research. Other research and translation support was provided by Victor Lutenco of the Kennedy School and Hannah Twomey of the Centre for Investigative Journalism in London.

The post What Happened in Douma? Searching for Facts in the Fog of Syria’s Propaganda War appeared first on The Intercept.

Democrats Echo Israel’s Far-Right by Refusing to Even Use the Word “Occupation”

Here’s a riddle any Democrat hoping to be elected president at the crest of a progressive wave in 2020 should be able to solve: what do you call Israel’s military rule over millions of disenfranchised Palestinians in the territories it seized by force in 1967?

The answer, “an occupation,” is obvious to anyone familiar with the laws of war, but in recent years American progressives who use that term to describe Israeli control of the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights have come under intense pressure from Democratic leaders concerned about exposing the party to charges of bias against Israel.

This hesitancy to acknowledge that the territories are indeed occupied, rather than contested or disputed as right-wing Israelis insist, is particularly strange to anyone who recalls that one of Israel’s most revered leaders, Ariel Sharon, made a point of using the term repeatedly in a televised news conference almost 16 years ago.

Sharon, who was then Israel’s prime minister, told fellow members of the Likud party in 2003 that a political solution to the conflict with the Palestinians was necessary because “the idea that we can continue holding under occupation — and it is occupation, you might not like this word, but it’s really an occupation — to hold 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is, in my opinion, a very bad thing for us and for them.”

“It cannot continue forever,” Sharon added. “Do you want to stay forever in Jenin, in Nablus, in Ramallah, in Bethlehem? I don’t think that’s right.”

Of course, Ariel Sharon was eventually succeeded as Israel’s leader by the man who sat silently to his right during that news conference, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the current Israeli prime minister has led the way in making a very opposite case: that the territories Israel conquered in 1967 are not occupied at all. Netanyahu recently told members of his party that speaking of describing lands that have either been annexed by Israel or will remain under its control forever as “‘the occupation,’ is nonsense.”

While right-wing Israelis prefer to say that the land where they rule a Palestinian population that is denied basic civil rights is contested, the occupation is a fact under international law, and is routinely referred to that way left-wing Israelis.

So what explains the skittishness of the American political establishment, both Democrat and Republican, to be as candid about using the word occupation now as Israel’s ultranationalist leader was in 2003? That question has been particularly evident since the election of a handful of young Democrats — Representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York — openly critical of the occupation, unafarid to call it what it is, and supportive of measures to end it, like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. All three Congresswomen have been attacked by Republicans and members of their own party for denouncing the occupation as a humanitarian and moral outrage akin to Jim Crow segregation in the United States or apartheid in South Africa.

Their outspoken support for Palestinian rights — which reflects a growing unease among young American progressives with unconditional support for an increasingly far-right Israel — has even prompted a new group, the Democratic Majority for Israel, to launch an online ad campaign intended to convey the message that “Israel is a progressive country.”

That group’s president, Mark Mellman, also accused another progressive Democrat, Representative Betty McCollum of Minnesota, of “employing an anti-Semitic canard” in her criticism of Israel. “The right-wing, extremist government of Benjamin Netanyahu and its apartheid-like policies are at the core of what is alienating Democrats and a growing number of Americans,” McCollum told Vice News. “What has changed is that there are now members of Congress who are not willing to ignore the Israeli government’s destructive actions because they are afraid of losing an election.”

Simone Zimmerman, a co-founder of IfNotNow, a progressive group working “to shift the American Jewish public away from the status quo that upholds the occupation,” pointed out in an interview that Democrats had confronted their differences over this issue in 2016 too. That summer, representatives of Bernie Sanders tried, and failed, to amend the 2016 Democratic party platform to include language calling for “an end to occupation and illegal settlements.” That amendment was opposed by representatives of Hillary Clinton, and the platform’s final version called only for solution to the conflict “that guarantees Israel’s future as a secure and democratic Jewish state with recognized borders and provides the Palestinians with independence, sovereignty, and dignity.”

“I think today,” Zimmerman said, “definitely among the more progressive elements of the Democratic party, that it would be impossible not to use the word occupation” in the 2020 platform.

“I think that’s the fight that’s playing out right now,” she adds. “What’s happening is that supporters of Palestinian rights are becoming way more vocal and way more organized and the establishment is trying desperately to stop that shift, and that kind of cracking open of a more critical discourse. And it’s frankly what we’re seeing happen on a lot of issues right now. We’re seeing a backlash from the establishment that wants to preserve the old business as usual, as younger, bolder, more progressive voices are starting to really lead inside the party.”

Meanwhile in Israel, Zimmerman notes, dozens of ministers and senior lawmakers from Netanyahu’s Likud party and other right-wing parties just signed a pledge to support massively increased settlement construction, with the goal of settling an additional 2 million Jews in the occupied West Bank, which would more than triple the current Jewish population.

Of course, establishment Democrats are not alone in their willingness to acquiesce to the official Israeli preference to not even use the word occupation. Republicans are far more united in their refusal to call the occupation what it is, and have even admitted to journalists that their recent support for an anti-BDS bill in the Senate was proposed in part to expose rifts in the Democratic party. (Although one of the bill’s co-sponsors was a Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, nearly half of the Democratic minority in the Senate opposed the measure, including six declared or likely presidential candidates: Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sherrod Brown of Ohio).

The intensity of this identification with Israel’s position on the American right was obvious last summer, when Ocasio-Cortez came under sustained attack from Fox News pundits simply referring for to “the occupation of Palestine” when she was pressed to explain why she had described the killing of dozens of Palestinian protesters by Israeli soldiers as “a massacre.”

Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, suggested last month that the long-running Israeli effort to contest the use of the word occupation seems to have had an impact on how Israel’s control of the territories has been described in the American press. As evidence, Munayyer points to a recent study by a Canadian research group, 416LABS, looking at 99,594 headlines on articles about Israel-Palestine published in the first 50 years of the occupation, from 1967 to 2017, in five leading American newspapers: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune.

The researchers found that over time, in headlines focused on Israel or Israelis, “a large decline in the term occupation can be observed. From the late 60s till the end of 80s, there was a 42% drop in the instances of the word occupation and its affiliated unigrams, and then a further 70% decline from the 90s to the 2010s, an overall drop of 85%.” In headlines focused on Palestine or Palestinians, “there was a 67% increase in the use of the term from the late 60s to the end of the 80s, but subsequently declined by 76% from the 90s onwards – an overall decrease of 65%.”

It is important to keep in mind that this attempt to constrain the debate over the occupation, which has seeped into the American political discourse, originated in Israel immediately after the territories were conquered in 1967.

“In the early years of the occupation, the state argued the territories were not at all occupied, as before Israel seized control of them, they had not been recognized as the sovereign territory of any other country,” Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of the Israeli rights group B’Tselem, explained in an email. “Therefore, goes Israel’s argument, it is exempt from upholding the rules governing occupation. Israel declared that, nonetheless, though not required to do so by law, it would uphold the ‘humanitarian provisions’ of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which addresses the protection of civilians. Israel has never stated which provisions it considers humanitarian.”

“It’s totally absurd that after more than half a century this is still somehow an issue,” El-Ad continued. “Of course it’s a non-issue – there is no serious factual or legal question with regard to the status of the, well, occupied territories. What does exist is an ongoing propaganda effort, both in Israel and abroad, not only to solidify Israeli control over Palestinians and their land, but also to control the mere conversation discussing this injustice.”

As the Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf explains, perhaps the most important reason for Israel to deny that the territories are occupied is that the Geneva Conventions specifically prohibit occupying powers from moving any part of their own civilian populations into such lands. That means that admitting that the territories are occupied would force Israel to confront the fact that all of the Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where over half a million Israelis now live, are illegal.

In 2012, an expert panel of Israeli legal experts appointed by Prime Minister Netanyahu attempted to obscure that reality by concluding that the territories were not, in fact, occupied. “Now that we found out that there is no occupation and there never was,” Sheizaf observed when the panel’s report was released, “I wonder how the great minds of the Israeli legal community would justify the two separate legal systems Israel has in the West Bank — one for 20 percent of the population (Jews) and one for the other 80 percent. If it’s not occupation, how do we call a situation in which millions of people are deprived of freedom of movement, tried in military tribunals, and don’t even have a recognized nationality or a passport? And don’t say Apartheid, because you’ll be called an anti-Semite.”

Daniel Seidemann, director of Terrestrial Jerusalem, focuses professionally on crisis management and conflict resolution in the city, but he also devotes a portion of his time to correcting people on Twitter who argue that the territories seized in 1967, including East Jerusalem, are not occupied.

The Israeli military, which enforces the occupation, “defines this as occupied territory, so does the Israeli Supreme Court,” Seidemann explained in an interview. “That is not a value judgement… that is the fact. You may like it, you may not like it, but that is the fact.”

“Personally, when I started dealing with Israeli rule over East Jerusalem, and that was 27 years ago, I would not use the term occupation,” Seidemann recalled. “I bought into the mantra this is part of Israel, and it took years for me to acknowledge empirically that that was the case.”

“One of the pillars of Netanyahu’s policy is to bully both Israeli society and the international community into what I call Clinical Occupation Denial,” Seidemann added. “His approach is that the world will acquiesce to Israeli rule and the Palestinians will submit to it.”

Seidemann holds out little hope for the Trump administration’s peace plan, since it has been formulated by envoys who appear unwilling to press Netanyahu to end the occupation, and an ambassador who refers to the “alleged occupation.”

“If you are incapable of recognizing the reality of occupation, you will not understand this conflict,” he says, “and if you don’t understand the conflict, you won’t be able to formulate policy, and whatever plan you come up with that is a denial of occupation is going to be a train-wreck.”

The post Democrats Echo Israel’s Far-Right by Refusing to Even Use the Word “Occupation” appeared first on The Intercept.

Activists Avoid Jail in U.K. After Blocking Plane From Deporting Migrants

On Wednesday morning, a group of British activists entered Chelmsford Crown Court, about 30 miles northeast of London, carrying backpacks and tote bags stuffed full. The Stansted 15, as the group has become known, had arrived for a sentencing hearing, and some of them had come prepared to face years in jail. In December, the activists were found guilty of committing a terrorism-related offense after they broke into an airport and blocked the departure of a government-chartered plane that was set to deport migrants and asylum-seekers.

But the group need not have packed their bags. Twelve of the defendants received community orders of 12 months with 100 hours of unpaid work and a 12-month exclusion from Stansted Airport, the London airport where their protest took place. Due to health reasons, one of the 12 received a sentence with 20 days of rehabilitation in place of unpaid work. The other three defendants, who had previous convictions of aggravated trespass, received nine-month prison sentences with suspensions of 18 months, meaning they will not be imprisoned unless they commit another offense within that time. They also received 100-250 hours of unpaid work, varying due to personal circumstances, and the same exclusion as their fellow defendants.

As the sentencing hearing ended, the defendants rose to hug. Relief spread through the public gallery, which was so small that it failed to accommodate the family and friends of all 15 defendants (parents were given priority). Outside, hundreds of supporters gathered. People danced in the street; camerapersons trained their lenses on the doors, anxious to capture the activists’ exit.

The Stansted 15 addressed the crowd with a prepared statement: “These terror convictions and the 10-week trial that led to them are an injustice that has profound implications for our lives. The convictions will drastically limit our ability to work, travel, and take part in everyday life. Yet people seeking asylum in this country face worse than this: They are placed in destitution, and their lives in limbo, by the Home Office’s brutal system every single day.”

The Crown Prosecution Service released a statement saying it never suggested that the defendants were terrorists.

The activists aimed to prevent the deportees from being sent back to places where they faced threats of harm and death.

On March 28, 2017, the 15 defendants — members of the anti-deportation groups End Deportations and Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, whose ages ranged from 27 to 44 years old — cut a hole through a fence at Stansted Airport and approached a Titan Airways Boeing 767. Splitting into two groups, some locked themselves around the plane’s front wheel, while others constructed a pyramid structure out of scaffolding poles under the plane’s left wing and then locked themselves around it.

The flight had been chartered by the Home Office — the government department responsible for immigration, security, and law and order — and was scheduled to deport migrants and asylum-seekers back to Nigeria and Ghana. Instead, the plane remained immobile until the next morning. In grounding the flight, the activists aimed to prevent the deportees from being sent back to places where they faced threats of harm and death. They also wanted to draw attention to the government’s practice of deporting people using private charter flights, where security personnel often outnumber deportees, there is little notice given to asylum-seekers in advance of their deportation, and reports tell of excessive restraint used on passengers.

Originally accused of aggravated trespass, the charges against the activists were later upgraded to intentional disruption of services at an aerodrome, which falls under the “endangering safety at aerodromes” section of the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990. Created to fight terrorism, the law comes with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and had never before been used against peaceful protesters. Amnesty International, concerned about the use of a terrorism-related charge against nonviolent activists, observed the 10-week trial. In December, the Stansted 15 were found guilty, the verdict interpreted by many as a sign of the government criminalizing protest.

The hearing made clear the high cost of both the long trial and the conviction. The courtroom heard of loss of job and educational opportunities and of depression suffered by numerous defendants, including Emma Hughes, who had given birth five weeks earlier; of Nathan Clack’s fear of no longer being able to visit his American partner if the conviction were to cause U.S. authorities to refuse him entry; of how Melanie Strickland, in court against medical advice, was hospitalized for a sepsis-related emergency a week prior and was scheduled to have abdominal surgery the next day.

Given the gravity of the charge, a prison-free sentence hardly means a punishment-free future. In fact, their anxieties were well-founded, according to Raj Chada, a partner from Hodge Jones & Allen, who represented all 15 activists. “They may find it difficult to go into the United States or to other countries,” Chada said. “Some of them have very responsible jobs that will require notification to the authorities.”

They are now appealing, although it may be months before the case reaches the Court of Appeals. Their arguments are manifold: that the case should not have proceeded because it was an inappropriate charge; that Judge Christopher Morgan should have permitted the necessity defense, which states that the action was justified because it was done to prevent harm; that Morgan misinterpreted the law; and that he may have been biased in his summing up of the case to the jury.

How this case, and its use of a terrorism-related law against nonviolent activists, will impact the charges brought against activists in the future remains unclear. And yet, as the courtroom’s packed press section and the mass of supporters in the street showed, many are taking note.

“When a country uses draconian terror legislation against people for peaceful protest, snatches others from their homes in dawn raids, incarcerates them without time limit, and forces them onto planes in the middle of the night, due to take them to places where their lives might be at risk, something is very seriously wrong,” said the Stansted 15 in a statement issued on Wednesday. “Every single one of us should be very worried about our democracy and our future.”

The post Activists Avoid Jail in U.K. After Blocking Plane From Deporting Migrants appeared first on The Intercept.

Activists Avoid Jail in U.K. After Blocking Plane From Deporting Migrants

On Wednesday morning, a group of British activists entered Chelmsford Crown Court, about 30 miles northeast of London, carrying backpacks and tote bags stuffed full. The Stansted 15, as the group has become known, had arrived for a sentencing hearing, and some of them had come prepared to face years in jail. In December, the activists were found guilty of committing a terrorism-related offense after they broke into an airport and blocked the departure of a government-chartered plane that was set to deport migrants and asylum-seekers.

But the group need not have packed their bags. Twelve of the defendants received community orders of 12 months with 100 hours of unpaid work and a 12-month exclusion from Stansted Airport, the London airport where their protest took place. Due to health reasons, one of the 12 received a sentence with 20 days of rehabilitation in place of unpaid work. The other three defendants, who had previous convictions of aggravated trespass, received nine-month prison sentences with suspensions of 18 months, meaning they will not be imprisoned unless they commit another offense within that time. They also received 100-250 hours of unpaid work, varying due to personal circumstances, and the same exclusion as their fellow defendants.

As the sentencing hearing ended, the defendants rose to hug. Relief spread through the public gallery, which was so small that it failed to accommodate the family and friends of all 15 defendants (parents were given priority). Outside, hundreds of supporters gathered. People danced in the street; camerapersons trained their lenses on the doors, anxious to capture the activists’ exit.

The Stansted 15 addressed the crowd with a prepared statement: “These terror convictions and the 10-week trial that led to them are an injustice that has profound implications for our lives. The convictions will drastically limit our ability to work, travel, and take part in everyday life. Yet people seeking asylum in this country face worse than this: They are placed in destitution, and their lives in limbo, by the Home Office’s brutal system every single day.”

The Crown Prosecution Service released a statement saying it never suggested that the defendants were terrorists.

The activists aimed to prevent the deportees from being sent back to places where they faced threats of harm and death.

On March 28, 2017, the 15 defendants — members of the anti-deportation groups End Deportations and Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, whose ages ranged from 27 to 44 years old — cut a hole through a fence at Stansted Airport and approached a Titan Airways Boeing 767. Splitting into two groups, some locked themselves around the plane’s front wheel, while others constructed a pyramid structure out of scaffolding poles under the plane’s left wing and then locked themselves around it.

The flight had been chartered by the Home Office — the government department responsible for immigration, security, and law and order — and was scheduled to deport migrants and asylum-seekers back to Nigeria and Ghana. Instead, the plane remained immobile until the next morning. In grounding the flight, the activists aimed to prevent the deportees from being sent back to places where they faced threats of harm and death. They also wanted to draw attention to the government’s practice of deporting people using private charter flights, where security personnel often outnumber deportees, there is little notice given to asylum-seekers in advance of their deportation, and reports tell of excessive restraint used on passengers.

Originally accused of aggravated trespass, the charges against the activists were later upgraded to intentional disruption of services at an aerodrome, which falls under the “endangering safety at aerodromes” section of the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990. Created to fight terrorism, the law comes with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and had never before been used against peaceful protesters. Amnesty International, concerned about the use of a terrorism-related charge against nonviolent activists, observed the 10-week trial. In December, the Stansted 15 were found guilty, the verdict interpreted by many as a sign of the government criminalizing protest.

The hearing made clear the high cost of both the long trial and the conviction. The courtroom heard of loss of job and educational opportunities and of depression suffered by numerous defendants, including Emma Hughes, who had given birth five weeks earlier; of Nathan Clack’s fear of no longer being able to visit his American partner if the conviction were to cause U.S. authorities to refuse him entry; of how Melanie Strickland, in court against medical advice, was hospitalized for a sepsis-related emergency a week prior and was scheduled to have abdominal surgery the next day.

Given the gravity of the charge, a prison-free sentence hardly means a punishment-free future. In fact, their anxieties were well-founded, according to Raj Chada, a partner from Hodge Jones & Allen, who represented all 15 activists. “They may find it difficult to go into the United States or to other countries,” Chada said. “Some of them have very responsible jobs that will require notification to the authorities.”

They are now appealing, although it may be months before the case reaches the Court of Appeals. Their arguments are manifold: that the case should not have proceeded because it was an inappropriate charge; that Judge Christopher Morgan should have permitted the necessity defense, which states that the action was justified because it was done to prevent harm; that Morgan misinterpreted the law; and that he may have been biased in his summing up of the case to the jury.

How this case, and its use of a terrorism-related law against nonviolent activists, will impact the charges brought against activists in the future remains unclear. And yet, as the courtroom’s packed press section and the mass of supporters in the street showed, many are taking note.

“When a country uses draconian terror legislation against people for peaceful protest, snatches others from their homes in dawn raids, incarcerates them without time limit, and forces them onto planes in the middle of the night, due to take them to places where their lives might be at risk, something is very seriously wrong,” said the Stansted 15 in a statement issued on Wednesday. “Every single one of us should be very worried about our democracy and our future.”

The post Activists Avoid Jail in U.K. After Blocking Plane From Deporting Migrants appeared first on The Intercept.