IPS Blog

Giant Victory in Europe on Taxing Financial Speculation

EU finance ministers were scheduled to vote January 22 on whether to authorize 11 member states to proceed with the introduction of a financial transaction tax (FTT). As it turned out, the ministers didn’t even have to take a formal vote because it was obvious that there was sufficient support to move ahead.

The 11 countries are Belgium, Germany, Estonia, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Austria, Portugal, Slovenia and Slovakia. It will be possible for other governments to opt in at a later date. And in fact, the Netherlands has expressed interested, but they want to negotiate an exemption for their pension funds.

EU Flags - Photograph: Rolf Haid/EPA

Next Steps

The next step is for the European Commission to make a proposal for the tax. The proposal will be based on one introduced by the Commission in September 2011 that would apply a 0.1% tax rate on trades of stocks and bonds and a 0.01% rate for derivatives trades. As described in the European Council statement released today, the aim of this proposal is “for the financial industry to make a fair contribution to tax revenues, whilst also creating a disincentive for transactions that do not enhance the efficiency of financial markets.”

The proposed tax is based on the “residence principle,” meaning that a financial transaction would be taxed in each case where a resident of one of the participating EU member states was involved even if the transaction was carried out in a country that is not a participant.

The tax proposal will have to be adopted by unanimous agreement of the participating member states. EU Tax Commissioner Algirdas Semeta says it is possible that the tax could enter into force beginning January 1, 2014.

Use of Funds

Although some press reports have said the funds will go towards bailing out European banks, there is no agreement yet on how revenues will be allocated. International campaigners who have been advocating for financial transactions taxes for several years will be redoubling their efforts to demand that revenues to go towards social and environmental purposes.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC www.ips-dc.org

Africa to the World: “Don’t Tell Us Who We Are or What To Do”

Algerian flag (albeit customized)

Algerian flag (albeit customized)

Last week, two completely different events demonstrated how sensitized Africans have become about Western attitudes toward them. In the first example, Algerian troops attacked Islamist militants holding hostages inside the Tiguentourine natural gas complex. Among the 700 hostages were Malaysian, Japanese, Norwegian, American and British citizens.

In his most upper-crust accent, British Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament, “Mr. Speaker, during the course of Thursday morning the Algerian forces mounted an operation. Mr. Speaker, we were not [my italics] informed of this in advance. I was told by the Algerian Prime Minister while it was taking place.” Cameron said that during his conversations with the Algerian PM he had emphasized the paramount importance of securing the safety of the hostages. He offered “UK technical and intelligence support” – including experts in hostage negotiation and rescue – to help find a successful resolution.

The Algerians might have posed two questions in response to PM Cameron: First, would you consult us if you had an unfolding hostage situation in England involving Algerian citizens? Second, have you forgotten, Mr. Cameron, that during the 1990s, we fought a bitter battle with Islamist insurgents within our own country? The reaction of the Algerian authorities to this attack on the gas plant was hell no, particularly with the looming possibility that the militants might try to escape across the border with the hostages. Since the vicious War of Independence from France, Algeria is prickly about getting instructions from its ex-colonial power, France, never mind the British. Firmly against intervention by Western powers, Algerians would have rejected outright the idea of foreign security forces sweeping in to liberate the hostages.

One Direction recently visited Accra.

One Direction recently visited Accra.

The second instance could not have been more different from the Algeria siege. The boy band One Direction paid a visit to Ghana on behalf of Comic Relief, a UK-based charity dedicated to alleviating poverty. Some Ghanaian readers were indignant at an article on E! that described Ghana’s capital, Accra, as an “impoverished village.” The population of Accra, a bustling, traffic-choked city, is about 2.3 million.

But that wasn’t the end of the outrage. Niall Horan, a One Direction member, tweeted of the trip to Accra: “I’ve seen the slums right in front of me! This is no joke! They really need your help! Poverty is real!” Several commentators objected to that characterization, prominent among them Ama K. Abebrese, a British actress of Akan origin. The thrust of her objection was that Accra is not one big slum, that there are beautiful and upscale areas, and that One Direction’s fans would immediately form an erroneous impression of the city. A blogger raised the question of the white savior complex or syndrome, the idea that indigenous peoples of color can do nothing for themselves until a white person arrives to show them how. Controversial rapper Wanlov the Kubolor sarcastically tweeted in response to a published photo of the boy band clapping with a group of young Ghanaian kids, “Ghana is getting worse so heaven sent 5 downcut jesuses to teach us clapping.”

Clearly, Niall meant no harm and he was probably expressing his heartfelt sentiments. In any case, since the band was in Accra for charity purposes, it would hardly have helped if he had tweeted, “Having a great time in our luxurious suite at the Mövenpick!” [or wherever they stayed.]

It is not untrue that sections of Accra such as Agbogbloshie are in appalling shape, but arguments over factual details are really quite beside the point. Ghanaians were reacting to a Westerner – a boy, no less – appearing to set Ghana’s agenda. Niall decided that Ghanaians really need help. Niall defined, in effect, that Accra was a representation of poverty. Africans are less and less willing to be defined by Westerners. As countries like Ghana steadily grow their economies, their citizens and governments feel more confident and empowered about their future, even though no one would deny that there is still a lot of work to be done.

Kwei Quartey is a physician, novelist, and Foreign Policy in Focus columnist.

Syrian Citizens Stuck Between the Regime’s Rock and the Rebels’ Hard Place

For those who have been following the bloody events in Syria in the past two years, it is clear that there is no doubt that the regime of Bashaar al-Assad is responsible for killing tens of thousands of Syrian citizens and destroying much of the country’s infrastructure. But to say that is to say only part of the story.

The different militant groups of the Syrian opposition, ranging from the Free Syrian Army, which is supported by the US and other western countries, to the Islamic Jihadists and Salafist groups that seek to establish an Islamic state in Syria, share significant responsibility for committing atrocities in the Syrian countryside, according to news reports and eyewitness accounts reported by several international media outlets.

The conflict in Syria where the government troops are fighting a losing battle against rebel groups has destroyed large parts of the modern Syrian state plunging Syrian citizens into a state of destruction and homelessness at home and in neighboring countries.

Casting some blame on the rebel groups, however, has very little traction in the pro-rebels Arabic media outlets which often report on the death and destruction caused by the regime war machine and army troops.

An Arab journalist and analyst based in Washington D.C who declined to use his name in this column, argued to me that the rebel groups that are currently fighting a war of attrition against the regime and particularly those with Jihadist bent represent a worst alternative to Assad’s regime.

Although he is not supportive of Assad’s regime and blames it for its total dependence on foreign diplomatic and military assistance in order to stay in power, he equally, however, blames the militants for their dependence on foreign military and financial assistance.

“Both parties are destroying Syria,” he said.

While the Syrian regime is mainly supported by Iran, China and Russia , the rebels are supported by the Europeans, the US and its Arab allies.

The conflict and later the war in Syria has, in reality, been transformed from peaceful protests for political and economic reform into a proxy war between regional and international powers at the expense of the Syrian people and their country.

Although different Syrian rebel groups claim to have control over large swaths of the country, especially in the countryside, there is little evidence, however, that shows stability or a sense of normalcy in the areas under their control. Life is not going back to normal in those areas according to several Arab and western news reports. Syrian opposition leaders, in addition, have yet to move back to those areas and set up their own government, a clear sign of instability in those areas.

Meanwhile, Zakariya Al Sayed a Syrian opposition activist whom I reached on the phone in Amman Jordan, told me that there is no such thing as “liberated areas” in Syria so-to-speak. This is because, he argued, the regime still maintains its ability to strike against those areas from the air. The situation in those areas is unlike the Kurdish region in northern Iraq during the US invasion of that country or in Benghazi where US and NATO provided no fly zones and air cover.

It is obvious, moreover, that the Syrian regime is still in control of the major urban cities like Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama and Derra where the residents, according to the Arab journalist, worry about what would happen to them should the Jihadists take control of their areas, thus choosing in the meantime Assad’s regime over the rebel groups. This is not to say that Assad or his regime are popular in the cities — he is not, but many prefer it over the possibility of being ruled by radical and jihadist groups and with them the probability of chaos and civil war afterward.

Adding fuel to the fire is the presence of extremist groups like Al Nusra Front, which the United States designated it as a terrorist organization. Al Nusra, which is reportedly an Al Qaida affiliate, might be the best weapon the regime has, not only to scare its citizens of the alternative to its demise but also the West, which is eager not to repeat its mistakes in Iraq or Libya.

It is this quandary that makes the war in Syria very difficult to end without direct foreign military intervention on the side to the rebels, which is highly unlikely at this point, or in the absence of a rebels’ military operation that decapitates the regime without destroying the remaining infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the prevailing public opinion in the Arab World accuses the West and Israel of keeping the Syrian conflict burning this long because, as the opinion goes, keeping Syria weak and unstable will only serve those powers. As for the Syrian people who chose to brave the killing and destruction and stay or those who are living in refugee camps across the borders the future is unpredictable and bleak even when the regime eventually collapses.

Ali Younes is a writer and analyst based in Washington D.C. He can be reached at: [email protected] and on Twitter at @clearali.

7 Progressive Steps Obama Should Take in His Second Term

7 Progressive Steps - Obama Second Term

Most progressives aren’t exactly thrilled with President Barack Obama’s track record so far. Sure, he came out in favor of gay marriage, raised taxes on at least some of the richest Americans, made history by being the first non-white man to occupy the White House, and called for ending oil and gas subsidies.

In general, however, he riled the progressive base instead of rallying it. Given that hardened conservatives continue to accuse him of being a “communist” anyway, he might as well give a true progressive agenda a shot. Chances of that may look slim in light of his corporate-sponsored inaugural festivities, but he did get that memo about how he’s got to finally do something about guns.

Here’s my cheat sheet for our commander-in-chief, in case he wants to get back in touch with his inner anti-war community organizer.

Dear Mr. President,

You and I have never met even though I grew up in Hyde Park and right-wingers keep insisting that you’re heavily influenced by my organization. (Isn’t that kooky? Look it up if you don’t believe me.) Anyway, I know you’re busy but in case you’ve got a minute or two to spare, here are seven action items for your consideration. I’ve tried to keep it short, but there are lots of hyperlinks for you to explore.

Sincerely,

Emily Schwartz Greco

1) Stop climate change. Surely you’ve noticed by now that the weather got pretty odd during your first term in office. After all, heavy winds are felling the White House’s stately Christmas trees and you wound up embraced by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (a potential GOP presidential contender) right before Election Day because of Superstorm Sandy’s devastation. Uttering the words “climate change” out loud is nice and all, but actions speak louder than words. The best way you can prove that you’re serious about climate change is to nix the Keystone XL pipeline. While you’re at it, bravely declare that fracking is environmentally devastating and do what you can to stop that scourge. Along with mountaintop removal mining. End your love affair with nuclear reactors and see if you can end our reliance on that dangerous source of power faster than Germany.

2) Adopt a foreign policy that respects human rights. You can start by ending all forms of government-sponsored torture, which would require punishing U.S. officialswho have anything to do with it. No, making them the next CIA chief doesn’t count, as bad as things turned out for Gen. David Petraeus. And keep that promise you made four years ago and shut the Guantánamo prison. Oh, and by the way: One great way to respect human rights is to kick your nasty remote-controlled killing habit. Drone warfare won’t make the world a safer or better place.

3) Embrace spending priorities that benefit the rest of us instead of rich folksand corporations. With private pensions becoming an endangered species, it’s time to strengthen Social Security rather than gutting it. You can do this and balance the budget at the same time if you get creative about new revenue sources, such as a Wall Street tax. And put the Pentagon on a diet. That’s what we’ve always done after wars wound down and supposedly we’re wrapping up operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

4) End the wars on drugs and undocumented immigrants. Speaking of pointless and pricey wars that are finally winding down, why not admit that the Drug War isn’t working and never will? Make sure the good people of Washington State and Colorado get what they voted for when they passed marijuana-legalizing ballot measures last year. And go a step further and push for nationwide decriminalization of a drug that at least 100 million of us have tried, including, uh, you. Another thing that might help Latin Americans and Latinos, two of the communities that have suffered the most over the Drug War’s four decades, is a saner immigration policy. Yes, Latinos backed you over Romney, but they had to hold their noses because of those record deportation rates. See if you can do something at the federal level to update immigration laws that might stop the outbreak of oppressive legislation in states like Arizona and Alabama.

5) Address America’s corrosive racial and class disparities, such as the racial wealth divide and the overly black and brown composition of our outrageously huge incarcerated population. The increasingly privatized prison-industrial complex isn’t good for anyone, especially undocumented immigrants, unless you think corporations are people. But if they were, you wouldn’t have gotten a second term, right?

6) Help fix our broken food system. You could get started by getting Michelle to dump Beyoncé as one of the faces of the Let’s Move campaign now that she’s becoming the face of Pepsi. For a change, how about not letting every single application for an untested genetically engineered thing we eat or feed our animals glide through the approval process? Use the power of your post to get the country to eat further down the food chain which would be great for our personal health and the entire planet by serving a vegan banquet at the next State Dinner. See if the Farm Bill could do less for corporate agribusiness and more to give the powerful local-food revolution even more momentum. Do something about factory egg and livestock farms.

7) Take steps to alleviate our growing care crisis before it crushes us all. It’s still mostly a below-the-radar challenge compared to everything else on this list, but the growing numbers of senior citizens aren’t just making the cost of Medicare harder for the federal government to shoulder. We don’t have enough geriatric doctors or any system to increase the numbers of qualified professionals who we need to provide our elders with decent care of any sort. We’ll need at least 1.6 million new caregivers by 2020 and it won’t be easy to recruit them unless U.S. labor laws are updated. Experts predict that the number of seniors in the United States will nearly double by 2030. Sure, it’s possible that robots will solve this problem. Just like it’s possible that you’re going to take all my advice.

Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies. OtherWords.org

Obama Swear-In Ceremony, January 20, 2013. Photo: White House

Mali, France, and Chickens

Tuaregs“It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts.”
— Charlie Marlow from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

The vision that Conrad’s character Marlow describes is of a French frigate firing broadsides into a vast African jungle, in essence, bombarding a continent. That image came to mind this week when French Mirages and helicopter gunships went into action against a motley army of Islamic insurgents in Mali.

That there is a surge of instability in that land-locked and largely desert country should hardly come as a surprise to the French: they and their allies are largely the cause.

And they were warned.

A little history. On Mar. 17, 2011, the UN Security Council approved Resolution 1973 to “protect civilians” in the Libyan civil war. Two days later, French Mirages began bombing runs on Muammar Gaddafi’s armored forces and airfields, thus igniting direct intervention by Britain, along with Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Resolution 1973 did not authorize NATO and its allies to choose sides in the Libyan civil war, just to protect civilians, and many of those who signed on—including Russia and China—assumed that Security Council action would follow standard practice and begin by first exploring a political solution. But the only kind of “solution” that anti-Gaddafi alliance was interested in was the kind delivered by 500-lb. laser-guided bombs.

The day after the French attack, the African Union (AU) held an emergency session in Mauritania in an effort to stop the fighting. The AU was deeply worried that, if Libya collapsed without a post-Gaddafi plan in place, it might destabilize other countries in the region. They were particularly concerned that Libya’s vast arms storehouse might end up fueling local wars in other parts of Africa.

However, no one in Washington, Paris or London paid the AU any mind, and seven months after France launched its attacks, Libya imploded into its current status as a failed state. Within two months, Tuaregs—armed with Gaddafi’s weapons’ cache—rose up and drove the corrupt and ineffectual Malian Army out of Northern Mali.

The Tuaregs are desert people, related to the Berbers that populate North Africa’s Atlas Mountain range. They have fought four wars with the Malian government since the country was freed from France in 1960, and many Tuaregs want to form their own country, “Azawed.” But the simmering discontent in northern Mali is not limited to the Tuaregs. Other ethnic groups are angered over the south’s studied neglect of all the people in the country’s north.

The Tuaregs are also currently fighting the French over uranium mining in Niger.

The Gaddafi government had long supported the Tuaregs’ demands for greater self-rule, and many Tuaregs served in the Libyan Army. Is anyone surprised that those Tuaregs looted Libyan arms depots when the central government collapsed? And, once they had all that fancy fire power that they would put it to use in an effort to carve out a country of their own?

The Tuaregs are nomads and had little interest in holding on to towns like Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal in northern Mali, and after smashing up the Mali Army, they went back into the desert. Into the vacuum created by the rout of the Malian Army flowed Islamic groups like Ansar-al-Din, al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It is these latter organizations that the French are bombing, although reports are that civilians are getting caught in the crossfire.

The U.S. is also involved. According to Democracy Now, the Obama administration is moving French troops and equipment into the area, and deploying surveillance drones. And with the war spreading into Algeria, where almost two-dozen westerners, including several Americans, were kidnapped in retaliation for the French attacks in Mali, the U.S. may end up with boots on the ground.

Why are the French once again firing into a continent?

First, France has major investments in Niger and Mali. At bottom, this is about Francs (or Euros, as it may be). Some 75 percent of France’s energy needs come from nuclear power, and a cheap source is its old colonial empire in the region (that besides Mali and Niger included Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Chad, Algeria, and the Central African Republic). Most of its nuclear fuel comes from Niger, but Al Jazeera reports that French uranium, oil and gold companies are lining up to develop northern Mali. Lest one think that this “development” is good for the locals, consider that, according to the UN’s Human Development Index, Niger is the third poorest country in the world.

There are other issues as well.

Like a Napoleon complex.

“The French, like the Americans, judge presidents on their ability to make tough decisions, and there are few tougher ones than to send young men into battle,” writes New York Times reporter Steve Erlanger in a story on French President Francois Hollande’s decision to intervene in Mali. Titled “Hollande, long seen as soft, shifts image with firm stance” (which makes it sound vaguely like a Viagra ad), the article quotes “defense expert” Francois Heisbourg praising Hollande for acting “decisively” and “demonstrating that he can decide on matters of war and peace.”

Actually, back in 1812 that “war and peace” thing came out rather badly for the French, though today’s new model Grande Armee won’t face much in the way of snow and ice in Mali. But Mali is almost twice the size of France—478,839 vs. 211,209 square miles—which is a lot of ground for Mirages to cover. In fact, the French warplanes are not even based in Mali, but neighboring Chad, some 1,300 miles away from their targets. That is a very long way to go for fighter-bombers and gives them very little time over the battlefield. Apparently the U.S. is considering helping out with in-air refueling, but, by any measure, the French forces will face considerable logistical obstacles. And while Mali’s geography may not match the Russian steppes in winter, its fierce desert is daunting terrain.

Lastly, Hollande would like to take some pressure off his domestic situation. There is nothing like a war to make people forget about a stagnant economy, high unemployment, restive workers, and yet another round of austerity cuts.

But this war could get very nasty, and if you want the definition of a quagmire, try northern Mali. Instead of being intimidated by the French attacks, the insurgents successfully counterattacked and took the town of Diabaly in Central Mali. If Paris thought this was going to be a simple matter of scattering the wogs with a few bombing runs, one might suggest that Hollande revisit his country’s past counterinsurgency campaigns, starting with Vietnam.

The Islamic groups appear to have little local support. Mali is a largely Islamic country, but not of the brand followed by the likes of Ansar al-Din or AQIM. But if you hand out lots of first-class fire power—which is exactly what the war to overthrow Gaddafi did—than you don’t need a lot of support to cause a great deal of trouble.

The rebels are certainly not running into any opposition from the Malian Army, whose U.S.-trained leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo, overthrew his country’s democratic government two months after the Tuaregs came storming out of the Sahara to take Timbuktu. Apparently a number of those U.S.-trained troops switched sides, taking their weapons and transport over to the insurgents.

There is evidence that the Malian Army may have provoked the Tuaregs in the first place. It appears that, rather than using the millions of dollars handed out by the U.S. over the past four years to fight “terrorism” in the region, the army used it to beat up on the Tuaregs. That is until the latter got an infusion of superior firepower after the fall of Gaddafi.

The French plan to put about 2,500 troops in Mali, but are relying on the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) to raise an army of 3,300. But the ECOWAS army will have to be transported to Mali and trained, and someone will have to foot the bill. That means that for the next several months it will be the French who hold down the fort, and that is going to cost a lot of Euros, of which France hardly has a surfeit.

The people of northern Mali have long standing grievances, but the current crisis was set off by the military intervention in Libya. And if you think Libya created monsters, just think of what will happen if the Assad government in Syria falls without a political roadmap in place. Yes, the French are very involved in Syria right now, a civil war that is increasingly pitting Sunnis against Shites and has already spread into Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. Next to Syria’s weapons hoards, Libya’s firepower looks like a collection of muskets and bayonets.

Dominique de Villepin, the former prime minister of France and a sharp critic of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, recently wrote in the Journal du Dimanche: “These wars [like Mali] have never built a solid and democratic state. On the contrary, they favor separatism, failed states and the iron law of armed militias.”

So what do Mali and the French intervention have to do with chickens?

They always come home to roost.

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays visit Dispatches From the Edge. Meanwhile, his novels about the ancient Romans can be found at The Middle Empire Series.

Tunisia Two Years On: The Crisis Deepens

Cross-posted from theColorado Progressive Jewish News.

Amilcar, Tunisia

Amilcar, Tunisia

The signs are everywhere ‘Place Janvier 14,’ ‘Ave. Janvier 14,’ etc. More often than not they replaced ‘Place Ben Ali’ and did so within hours after the announcement that his rule had ended.

On January 14, 2011 – a mere two years ago – Tunisian President Zine Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and other family members boarded a jet plane that, after being refused landing rights in Paris and Rome, eventually landed in Saudi Arabia. The Ben Ali’s only found refuge in conservative Saudi Arabia, which, over the years, has housed an odd assortment of other political detritus, deposed corrupt and repressive overthrown African leaders from Idi Amin to Mengistu Haili Mariam.

Considerable debate continues as to the nature of Ben Ali’s flight, and perhaps more importantly, where the two extended family clans squirreled away some $17 billion – we’ll never know the exact sum – of the country’s wealth in Swiss, Finnish, Austrian, Channel Islands, the UAE and Canadian banks. Some speculate that Ben Ali planned only to accompany his family to safety and to return to Tunis that night. Others suggest he knew he would never return and that he was lucky to escape with his life and a hefty bank account.

Regardless, ‘it’ was over and a new era of modern Tunisian history – one filled with hope and frustration was about to unfold. As for the stolen money, two years on, less than 5% has been returned. Given the secrecy, complexity of international banking rules and greed of their managers, it is highly unlikely that beyond symbolic amounts, the money will ever be either returned, most of it forever unaccounted for. It is claimed that before leaving, in one last symbolic effort to rob the country she had milked for billions, Leila Trabelsi robbed the national treasury of as much gold and jewels as she and her assistants could carry to the departing plane, some several hundred million dollars worth.

The Tunisian Revolution Has Lost Some of Its Gloss

The ‘Tunisian Revolution’ has lost a good deal of its gloss. The rhetoric remains ‘radical,’ the reality much less so. That it was a genuine national uprising engaging virtually the entire population is beyond doubt – and as such, nothing short of a regional inspiration. That it can be characterized as ‘a revolution’ is open to question. What has changed? How many of the institutions of the old order remain in place, run in many places by the same people who have simply changed political affiliations to be a part of the new wave How many elements of the old ruling class have been integrated into the new system? And some of what has changed, has changed for the worse, not the better.

Some of the headlines of the past few days are almost surrealistic, others just downright depressing. “Headquarters of Tunisian Association in Support of Minorities Attacked” one reads – this after the association sponsored an event in which a speaker spoke of the fate of Tunisian Jews, some of whom, with the collusion of the French Vichy authorities at the time, were rounded up and sent to extermination camps in Europe. Another article, appearing at the award-winning online Tunisian investigative website, Nawaat.org, exposes a plot on the part of one the Tunisia’s ruling parties (the one that really runs the show), Ennahda, to establish some kind of armed paramilitary wing. A third piece relates how a young couple, no more than twenty years of age, have been sentenced to two months in prison for having kissed in public. Tunisian youth responded by declaring January 13, as “National Kissing Day,” a day of a national ‘kiss in.’

In themselves these articles don’t necessary mean much. Taken together, however, they suggest a deteriorating national consensus, a nation that has been in crisis since Ben Ali’s departure. True, Tunisia has not collapsed to the point of civil war as in Syria and Libya. Still, the crisis isx deepening and dangerously so.

Rolling Back Bourguiba’s Accomplishments

The country has been on a rocky road these past two years. Besides consolidating its own power for as long as possible, the goal of the transitional government in power since October 2011 is to roll back the achievements of the country’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, where it concerns education, women’s rights and the separation of church (or in this case ‘mosque’) and state while maintaining essentially the same IMF-friendly open economy that contributed so much to the country’s recent crisis in the first place.

Not particularly important to the United States from an economic point of view, Tunisia still has strategic value. The U.S. embassy there is a major communications gathering center, a kind of information ‘lily pad’ in an otherwise unstable and unfriendly neighborhood. Tunisia’s transitional government enjoys strong support, despite its many blemishes, from the United States.

Washington considers the Tunisian political changes something of a model for what it hopes to see develop throughout the region: weak states, more easily penetrated and run by foreign capital. That they might have an ‘Islamic flavor’ (run by Islamic parties) is of no concern to Washington as long as two golden rules are followed: 1. the country remains economically open and exploitable to international capital, which it does. 2. That the country fall in line with the broader U.S. strategic goals of dominating the region (i.e., cooperating with Israel openly or covertly, maintaining the pressure on Iran, helping bring down the Assad regime in Syria by supporting the Saudi and Qatari-backed rebels).

Salafist Offensive

These past two years have been rough on the country economically, socially and politically. A hitherto virtually unknown Salafist (militant Islamic fundamentalist) movement has emerged. It has enjoyed financial and political support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and there are suggestions that many of those formally involved in Ben Ali’s security force are involved. While not formally a part of the government it enjoys encouragement and has very close ties with the country’s leading moderate Islamic party, Ennahda, which had, up to the September storming of the U.S. Embassy, offered the Salafists shelter and support.

Tunisia’s Salafists have openly and increasingly engaged in brown-shirt tactics to impose their skewed version of Islam on the population. Their actions have increasingly and unnecessarily polarized the country’s cultural landscape. Self-appointed religious goon squads, similar to those that exist in Saudi Arabia, abound, encouraged and protected by those currently in power. They have been wreaking havoc for more than a year now, attacking cultural events (art exhibits), TV stations, journalists, movies with which they disagree. These elements have also rampaged historic Sufi monuments, attacked trade unions and Tunisian universities, with hardly a peek of criticism or police response from the authorities.

With Ennahda’s acquiescence, the Salafists have overtaken many of the country’s historically moderate mosques and turned them into bastions of religious extremism. Attacks on women’s rights abound; attempts to hijack the country’s higher education system and turn it into little more than fundamentalist madrasas have not been challenged by the authorities; growing verbal threats to the country’s tiny – but historically significant – Jewish community take place almost daily.

There is opposition to these trends but it remains generally weak and divided. But it is growing.

Frozen Economy

Two years on, Tunisia’ economy remains frozen in crisis.

The biggest failure of the past two years has been the new government’s failure to address the economic crisis. The country’s post-Ben Ali economic program is no different than the prescriptions followed in the last two decades of the dictator’s rule. Instead, the ruling coalition, little more than a cover for an Ennahda-dominated government, has been more concerned with consolidating its political power and assuring its long-term control of the country.

It is often forgotten that the conditions which triggered the national revolt two years past had very little to do with religion. That the 2010 revolt was triggered by religious considerations is a Salafist-fabricated fantasy. They were a non-factor. Instead, it was a socio-economic crisis par excellence: high rates of unemployment (ridiculously high among youth and in the rural areas); low, virtually unlivable wages for those working; a deterioration of the country’s social fabric as a result of IMF insistence on cutting government spending; the continued erosion of subsidies on basic food stuffs, medical possibilities and energy.

These factors combined with a breathtaking level of corruption – the two ruling Ben Ali and Trabelsi families controlling more than 50% of the economy – and a pervasive system of repression are what brought down Ben Ali, a favorite in Paris and Washington for his adherence to the Washington Consensus and his opposition to Islamic militantism.

And so the crisis continues.

A recent IMF report on the economic situation clearly states that the country’s current stagnant growth will do nothing to stem the country’s 17.6% unemployment rate – 40% for youth – nor address the great social imbalances between the urban and more rural areas. Typically, in exchange for offering Tunisia aid, the IMF, frozen in its structural adjustment mode of the past 30 years, prescribes ‘more of the same’ – low wages, open capital markets, greater opening of the financial sector, etc.

As these are the same prescriptions that triggered the 2010 uprising in the first place, it is highly unlikely that such policies will turn the economic situation around.

It is true that Tunisia’s economy – so heavily based upon exporting to France and Italy – is adversely affected by the global economic slowdown that has hit Europe especially hard and that there is no easy immediate solution to the country’s economic woes. Still, the lack of virtually any new economic vision is worrisome. It suggests that rather being on some kind of new economic path, the country will remain mired in the old ways.

If this is the case, it seems highly likely that another social explosion cannot be that far off.

Reference:

Christopher de Bellaigue. “Did We Make The Revolution For This?

Obama 2.0: Yes We Can Raise Taxes

Republicans seem to have something against tax increases. I get that. But it’s still not crazy to think we can win some important revenue battles during Obama 2.0. And given this country’s pressing needs – from repairing our infrastructure to rehiring teachers – it would be crazy not to try.

President Obama discusses tax deal. Photo: Official White House photo by David Lienemann.

A big question, of course, is how to peel off the 17 House Republicans needed to win anything (assuming all Dems and President Obama are in favor). Openings will come, though, when Republicans need votes from across the aisle on something or other. The even more important challenge is to push progressive reforms into the center of the debate so they get plucked when the stars are aligned.

Here are four that are not only solidly progressive but also have bipartisan potential:

1. Close the carried interest loophole

OK, people, if we can’t fix this one during the second Obama administration, I’m giving up on Washington once and for all and becoming a goatherder. How can we continue to allow gazillionaires to pay only a 15 percent tax rate on the profit share (“carried interest”) they get paid to manage hedge and private equity funds?

Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates, for example, was the highest-earning hedge fund manager in 2011, raking in $3 billion. Forbes calculates that if Dalio had paid ordinary income tax rates, he would have contributed an extra $450 million to the Treasury.

The loophole is so off-the-charts absurd even some hedge fund managers are ready to give it up. Bill Ackman, of Pershing Square Capital, has said he expects the loophole to disappear and thinks his peers won’t even mind that much.

Formerly problematic Dems have also changed their tune. Back in 2007, a fix passed the House but never made it through the Democratic-controlled Senate because of obstructionism from Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Thankfully the Senator from Wall Street land has had a rethink.

2. Cap the deductibility of executive pay

The more corporations pay their CEO, the less they owe in taxes. A 1993 law aimed to fix this perverse incentive by capping executive pay deductions at $1 million. The problem is it left a huge loophole for “performance-based” pay. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, for example hauled in $76 million in stock options and other so-called “performance-based” pay in 2011 – all of it fully deductible. And contrary to Clinton era thinking, stock options do not improve performance. This became abundantly clear after the dot-com crash and the 2008 crisis, when boards helped CEOs recoup their losses by handing out boatloads of new options.

As for bipartisan, “purple” potential, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) co-sponsored a bill in 2009 that would’ve tightened up the loophole and former Senate Finance Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) has made supportive comments. There are also two recent precedents. Both the bank bailout and the health care reform legislation included $500,000 caps on pay deductibility with no performance pay exemptions for financial and health insurance executives. Guess what? The world didn’t end.

3. Adopt a financial transaction tax

This is the idea of putting a very small tax on each trade of stocks, bonds, and derivatives. Tax the Wall Street casino? Fat chance, you might say. But there’s actually huge momentum on this, both at the grassroots and the policy level.

About a dozen European governments have committed to coordinate such a tax. The details still need to be hammered out, but the proposal on the table is for a tax of 0.1 percent on stock and bond trades and 0.01 percent on derivatives.

Sure, you might say, but have Europeans ever met a tax they didn’t like? How are you going to sell this in the land of the “free”?

One major selling point is that by taxing each trade, this tax would discourage the controversial high-speed trading that now dominates markets. The chief economist at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the nation’s top derivatives regulator, recently found that this automated speed trading is sucking significant profits from traditional investors. And a growing number of these traditional investors are coming out in support of financial transaction taxes.

Even for tea partiers, if forced to pick from a menu of options for raising massive revenue, what do you think they’d go for? One of the numerous proposals (e.g., value added taxes) that would hit the middle class? Or one targeted at the bigtime gamblers on Wall Street who benefited the most from the bailout so hated by the tea party?

4. Close offshore tax havens loopholes

The rampant use of tax havens to stiff Uncle Sam has sparked outrage across the political spectrum. In a nationwide poll, nine out of ten small business owners said it was a problem when big businesses used offshore loopholes to avoid paying their taxes. In the same poll, in which Republicans outnumbered Democrats 2-to-1, two-thirds of small business owners said big business did not pay their fair share of taxes. Even Rush Limbaugh has acknowledged that something is wrong when General Electric pays no taxes despite earning tens of billions in profits.

Closing tax haven loopholes could raise at least $100 billion a year. To move in this direction, Congress could increase reporting requirements. Under the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation, energy corporations will now have to report on their profits, taxes and other government payments, by nation. This should be extended to cover all corporations. The intent of the Dodd-Frank disclosure is to combat corruption, but it could also help combat tax avoidance. A recent survey of chief financial officers of multinational corporations found 75 percent worry about the reputational impact of their company’s tax disclosures.

Let’s not be intimidated by Grover Norquist and his irrational tax-hating minions. Obama’s legacy — and our nation’s economic future — will be determined by our ability to build a solid and progressive revenue base.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC and is a co-author of the Institute’s yearly Executive Excess reports on CEO pay. www.ips-dc.org Distributed via OtherWords (OtherWords.org)

We Don’t Need a Secretary of Militarism

Cross-posted from Other Words.

The chicken hawks are out in force these days, attacking Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s choice for Secretary of Defense.

He’s too reluctant to use force, they say. He favors negotiation over sanctions and sanctions over bombs, they say. He doesn’t like Israel enough; he’s an anti-Semite.

Who’s saying these terrible things about a man who, when he served in the Senate, was considered a fairly reliable conservative vote albeit one with a mind of his own?

It’s the usual suspects (plus John McCain, that rare breed: a man who has seen war but is still spoiling for a fight). William Kristol, editor of the right wing clarion The Weekly Standard, is leading the charge. This is the same Kristol, you’ll remember, who discovered Sarah Palin when she was a virtually unknown governor, sitting on her front porch in Alaska, where, as Tina Fey told us, she could see Russia from her house.

He thought she’d make a wonderful president-in-waiting of the United States some day, so he introduced her to his Republican friends, who agreed. Are we supposed to take a guy with judgment like that seriously? Do we care whom he wants for Secretary of Defense?

Or perhaps you’d prefer Elliott Abrams, an architect of the Iran-Contra scandal, who would have spent time in jail without a presidential pardon from George H.W. Bush. He’s the one pressing the anti-Semitism angle and making up stuff to do it. His good buddy in the smear campaign is Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul who bankrolled Newt Gingrich’s quixotic presidential run.

Come on. Let me tell you about Chuck Hagel. He wasn’t my favorite senator — too conservative — but he represented Nebraska, a very conservative state.

He was, however, an intelligent, reasonable man with a reputation for honesty. In the Senate these days, that qualifies for sainthood.

He and his brother served a bloody tour in Vietnam, where they took turns saving each other’s lives. He returned home and eventually realized that war is a terrible answer to any question and should be undertaken reluctantly, as a last resort. That’s the way he thought as a senator (he was an early critic of the Iraq invasion, for example) and that’s the way he promises to think as Pentagon chief.

This drives the right wing crazy. (I sometimes think right-wingers view thoughtfulness as a character flaw.) Conservatives favor Dick Cheney’s rhinoceros-in-a-china-shop approach to foreign affairs.

Not that progressives are happy with the nomination either. Hagel is just way too right-wing for them on a variety of issues. (Progressives tend to think no one who can actually get confirmed by the Senate is worthy of public office.)

Nevertheless, Hagel, whose chief task will be to cut the military down to a more manageable, less expensive size, is an ideal man for the job.

He’s in the grand tradition of American men of war who became champions of peace later in life. It’s a line that stretches back to George Washington and claims politicians as diverse as Dwight Eisenhower, George McGovern, John Kerry, and Colin Powell.

It includes too my favorite Civil War General, William Tecumseh Sherman. While absolutely ruthless in war, he had no love for it. At the end of the war he said:

“I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting — its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies…tis only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated…that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”

In other words, the Cheneys, Kristols, and Abrams of the world.

I like the idea of having a Secretary of Defense who knows war intimately. I like the idea that there is a voice in our councils saying: “Wait a minute. Let’s think this through. Maybe there’s another way.”

Hagel could be that voice.

Where Bulgaria Went Wrong

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

Ognyan Minchev

Ognyan Minchev

Bulgarians can talk at great length about what went wrong in 1989-90 and why the country didn’t immediately become economically successful and politically liberal after the end of the Cold War. Some will tell you that the politicians didn’t embrace the Western model quickly or thoroughly enough. Others will wax conspiratorial about secret Communist Party machinations.

Ognyan Minchev, a political scientist who heads up the independent think tank IRIS in Sofia, views the problem from a slightly different angle. Bulgaria’s uncritical acceptance of an outside model, in his opinion, was the original sin that contaminated the transformation.

“My perspective is that my generation, the people involved in organizing and supporting and propagating this process of change, made serious mistakes that our society had to pay for,” Minchev argues. “We were not well prepared for what happened. We took for granted the ideological schemes coming from the West. We were naive (stupid) enough to embark upon a ready-made model of change that was advocated by Western strategists. This is not to accuse the Westerners of what happened here. The Westerners (in general) could only provide us with the instruments they had available at this moment.”

The result was a strange hybrid. On the outside, Bulgarian politicians and economists mouthed all the right phrases. On the inside, the Bulgarian system managed to preserve many elements of the previous order. And, meanwhile, this hybrid beast slouched toward Brussels.

“We allowed parts of the old regime infrastructure and the old regime elite to appropriate the lion’s share of the national wealth and create a system of control of the national economy and the fragile democratic political system,” Minchev continues. “We allowed this elite to transform itself into the new oligarchy. It took us time to understand the process, to try to change the process. Now it’s much more difficult to transform this new reality, rather than if we had been adequate at the beginning.”

I met Ognyan Minchev 23 years ago when he participated in the Helsinki Citizens Assembly. On this occasion, we discussed Bulgarian nationalism, ethnic minority issues, and the mistakes that were made more than two decades ago when Bulgaria faced several paths of transition.

The Interview

Do you remember where you were when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

Of course I do. The Berlin Wall fell in the late evening of November 9 and the Todor Zhivkov regime fell on November 10. So November 10 was a particularly memorable day for me. I went back home at noon, and we were usually listening to the Bulgarian transmission of Deutsche Welle at 12:30 or so. That’s how I heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Two hours later, we heard about the fall of Zhivkov, so that’s a particular day that I will never forget, not until the end of my life.

What was your immediate reaction?

Happy emotions. Emotions of great expectations. We were cheerful. We celebrated in the evening, a large company of friends and colleagues. That was our reaction, among the university people I’ve been related to.

Was there a point when you were growing up or in your early youth when you made a step in the direction of opposition to the government?

I was not happy with the government — in my particular way, at all different stages in my youth development. I was unhappy at school as a teenager when they insisted that we all have haircuts close to the skin. We were unhappy with the limitations on listening to Western rock-and-roll music. Later on, my colleagues and I were unhappy with the more or less visible censorship at the university. At the university this censorship was much milder than elsewhere, but still it was present. It was possible to see this censorship and understand it in the lectures of our professors and in the communications among ourselves.

A turning point in my intellectual and value system development was when I was in Poland in August 1980. I was there for one month on a so-called student brigade. It was an exchange of students in all communist countries. We worked for 3 weeks as workers, and in the last week we had an excursion around Poland. It was the time actually when Solidarity was created. That was my first direct taste of freedom – talking to ordinary people on the train and in the streets of Krakow and Warsaw. On my return, I tried to learn Polish better and read the Polish newspapers available in Sofia, even if they were also communist-censored. So, Poland of 1980 was the turning point of my so-called weltanschauung or picture of the world. From then on, whatever I could think or do or work for, I have not made significant changes in my viewpoints, at least not until the collapse of the regime in 1989.

And how did that change your viewpoint?

Until 1989, I had an explicit understanding of the system I was living in. I didn’t have a detailed understanding of how the Western system worked. I had a more-or-less liberal-positive ideological understanding: a rosy picture of the Western system. It was rosy because it was abstract.

After 1989, I had access to the West for the first time. I could communicate with the West. I had free access to any publication I wanted to read. I traveled. I spent a year at UCLA. So my understanding of the world changed because of the substance and structure of this new life I could live.

How did you get involved in the Helsinki Citizens Assembly?

It was more or less coincidental, as many things were in that period. In September 1990, I went to a Willy Brandt-sponsored social democratic conference in Vienna, because I was kind of an advisor of the newly born Bulgarian Social Democratic Party. In Vienna. I met certain people who invited me later to the founding of the HCA. Later on we established the Bulgarian chapter of the HCA, for which I personally worked for the next 5-6 years.

And what was the focus of HCA here in Bulgaria?

More or less the same as the organization in general. We were mostly preoccupied with the developments in ex-Yugoslavia. We did some work on the then-passionate dispute between newly born Macedonia and Greece. We worked on some other human rights issues as well.

Was there a particular moment after the collapse of the regime when you thought that things were not turning out as well as you thought they would.

All of us who were involved in the process in one way or another were learning by doing, and often by doing wrong. The real controversy of the process made us if not wiser than at least more realistic – or even pessimistic about the complexity of this process of transformation – at least because of the defeats we had to face (eventually we acquired a detailed knowledge of the process and a more realistic or pessimistic assessment of what was possible). The optimistic picture that we had in the very beginning changed very fast during those very first years of the process. My whole career, and my whole life, have been very much dependent on a reframing and reassessing of my views of the process that took place in those decades.

Where would you say your perspective is right now, after 22 years of reevaluation?

My perspective is that my generation, the people involved in organizing and supporting and propagating this process of change, made serious mistakes that our society had to pay for. We were not well prepared for what happened. We took for granted the ideological schemes coming from the West. We were naive (stupid) enough to embark upon a ready-made model of change that was advocated by Western strategists. This is not to accuse the Westerners of what happened here. The Westerners (in general) could only provide us with the instruments they had available at this moment.

We all know that the neo-liberal economic view was very powerful at this moment. Also, the perceptions of the Western pundits were not very well developed on how democracy could develop out of a totalitarian infrastructure. So, the advice we got was ideological advice. It was up to us to adapt that advice to our reality, which we knew better than the Western supporters of the process.

To an extent, though, we were ill prepared for that. It took us time before we could recognize the extent to which we were inadequate in dealing with the process of change. We allowed parts of the old regime infrastructure and the old regime elite to appropriate the lion’s share of the national wealth and create a system of control of the national economy and the fragile democratic political system. We allowed this elite to transform itself into the new oligarchy. It took us time to understand the process, to try to change the process. Now it’s much more difficult to transform this new reality, rather than if we had been adequate at the beginning.

What can be done at this point in terms of reframing the economy, social relations?

What can be done at this moment and in the future is step-by-step work on changing reality, on mobilizing popular support for different types of political action, which is difficult now, because people are not so ready to embrace new political platforms. It’s difficult to change an economic infrastructure that has already been set. It’s difficult to change the system of very direct influence that the Russian post-communist oligarchy exercises upon post-communist countries, particularly Bulgaria. So, few things can be changed overnight. It can be only step-by-step process.

What role did the ethnic minority issue play back in 1990-1?

I think the minority issue played an excessive role because of the specific environment in Bulgaria. Several years before the change, the communist government tried to forcefully rename Bulgarian Turks and forcefully integrate them into the Bulgarian ethnic mainstream. So, the first thing that was required after the end of the regime was to restore the rights of those people. It was a very sensitive issue. Part of the population was very much dominated by this ethnic scare, created by the ex-regime, that Turks and neighboring Turkey were a potential threat for Bulgaria. So it was very difficult to convince those people that restoring rights to our fellow countrymen is not scary or dreadful.

But step by step, this focus on ethnic rights has become an exaggerated and excessive part of the political process. The new ethnic party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) that was created in order to reintegrate Bulgarian Turks and Muslims into democratic political life, very easily degenerated into an authoritarian ethnic political corporation where a small elite took control of the community of Bulgarian Turks and Muslims and monopolized their votes. Politically, economically, and institutionally Bulgarian Turks and Muslims have remained within the framework of authoritarian control they lived in before the democratic changes. Instead of the Communist Party, the MRF Party took monopoly control over them.

Just recently, a group has announced that is breaking away from MRF.

We don’t know whether this group will be successful in splitting the support for the MRF or whether it is just another splinter group with almost no influence on the hearts and minds of Bulgarian Turks and Muslims. We’ll see how it works. Nevertheless, the MRF leadership continues to be quite successful, because they efficiently use scare tactics, telling people that if they don’t vote for the MRF or support the MRF, that period of the forceful changing of their identity will return. This isn’t a decent approach, but it works.

What do you think is the best way of addressing far-right ethnocentric sentiments in Bulgaria?

Ataka is the first more or less popular hard nationalist party that has emerged 15 years after the process of post-communist change in Bulgaria For 15 years, we didn’t have a sizable hard nationalist political movement in this country. There were only small sects on the periphery of the system.

The rise of Ataka is the product of two basic tendencies. The first one is that Bulgarians from the ethnically mixed regions were radicalized in their viewpoints because of the behavior of the MRF. I can’t say that the MRF behaves in an ethnically radical way even if there was some evidence of that. But the MRF behaved and continues to behave arrogantly in terms of intense corruption and abuses of administrative power. Ataka was successful to a large extent because of the counter-reactions of the ethnic Bulgarians in those intermixed regions.

Second, there was a split within the communist party after 1989. After the resignation of Zhivkov, the more liberal, more reformist wing of the communist leadership took over the party. The harder fraction was in the minority and became a kind of a second periphery of the ex-communist party. Being a minority within their own party, this elite was disappointed with the functioning of the BSP, ideologically and politically. This part of the elite never went away, of course, from the political and economic scene. They were successful, some people say with some help from Moscow, to promote Ataka as a second hand of the same elite. Ataka claimed to be on the nationalist right. But these hard nationalist movements are usually intermixed between left and right.

Those are the two causes of Ataka’s emergence in 2005. What we can see lately is that Ataka was actually a one-season dancer. It is declining very fast, and we’re not certain that it will make it into the next parliament.

But you think that the sentiment behind Ataka still exists in Bulgarian society?

Yes, but this vote is split among different nationalist formations, some bigger and successful, others smaller, but none of them bigger than 2.5 percent.

What about the Roma issue? Have you seen any improvement over the last 22 years?

No, because the Roma is not an ideological issue, not a human rights issue, not a discrimination issue. Of course, there is discrimination. There is a human rights aspect. There is a political ethnic aspect. But the Roma issue involves two basic constituents. The first aspect is the cultural adaptability of part of the Roma community. This is a diverse community, and some are more successful than others in adapting to the new system. Others are culturally much more vulnerable and fragile and incapable of adapting. So, the cultural-anthropological aspect of this process is very important and the diversity among the Roma community is very important.

The second big impediment is that Bulgaria is a weak state. In order to cope with an issue like the Roma issue, you need functioning institutions capable of promoting programs that can make a difference. Of course, analogies are only partially adequate, but I’ll make an analogy to the process of integrating African Americans in the United States, including the problems of the inner cities. It took America about four or five decades, starting with the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson, half a century, in order to integrate about 1/3 or 40 percent of African Americans into mainstream U.S. society. What we don’t have here is that kind of efficient institutional arm capable of making a difference.

Do you think the EU has lately become more of an instrument of neoliberalism?

The crisis policies of the EU, dominated by Germany and some other national elites, are neoliberal, and they are neoliberal because for a long period of time there was a process of redistribution of wealth in the EU that proved inefficient. Formulated more dramatically, the EU as a developmental instrument proved inefficient because what we thought about the EU — that while bureaucratic, at least it worked as a developmental instrument with Greece, Portugal, and Spain as the main success stories – turned out to be wrong.

Now what we see in Greece and the other countries of the south means that we have a collapse of the developmental paradigm of the EU. The question is, what’s left? Neoliberalism is more or less the answer to this myth of Europe as an efficient developmental agent.

Of course, the EU has always been an elitist endeavor. It’s never been popular or democratic. There’s never been a European demos, as Ivan Krastev wrote a few months ago. If you don’t have a coherent popular attitude capable of making democratic decisions, then you have a corporatist elitist infrastructure where democracy works at a national level and administrative autocracy works at the common European level.

The EU has always been very flexible in coping with its problems. It was flexible because it has always been cautious in terms of change. This time, the “big bang” enlargement lacked caution. That makes it difficult to predict how the EU will be able to adapt to this new reality.

When you look back to 1989 and evaluate everything that has changed since then, what number would you give it on a spectrum from 1 to 10, with one being most disappointed and ten being least disappointed?

I think this is a counterproductive reduction of a very complicated process. Some aspects of the process of change have been very positive. Others have been very negative. Others have been moderate in the middle.

A lot of people would say 5 in such a situation.

I wouldn’t say that.

Well, okay, the second quantitative question is your personal life over the same period and along the same scale.

In terms of financial status, my personal life has improved. Which is connected to my career and not just the change in the political and social system. But of course the change might have contributed to that.

Finally, when you look into the near future and consider the prospects for Bulgaria over the next couple years, how would you evaluate this?

This depends very much on whom we are talking about. This society has passed through a very intense process of reorganization with income polarization and status polarization. Large portions of society went down. Very few went up. About 10-15 percent generally improved their status as the new middle class. In the near future, I don’t presume any dramatic changes in the situation that we’ve developed over the last few decades.

Sofia, October 4, 2012

A “Boy Afraid of Being a Boy” as Inaugural Poet?

The United States “contains multitudes,” as Walt Whitman said. We’re a nation made of millions of stories. It’s one way we understand ourselves as a people, through the story we tell of ourselves. For too long there’s been just one official story and it has been blandly monochromatic: straight, white, and overwhelmingly male.

Richard Blanco Inaugural Poet

On Monday January 21, though, the narrative shifts. I invite you to listen closely as Richard Blanco, the poet President Barack Obama chose to read an original poem at his second inauguration, steps to the podium. Because Richard Blanco isn’t just a fine poet. He’s also Latino. He’s also gay.

In three masterful collections Blanco has been telling his own story — of growing up queer in a conservative Cuban exile family, in love with American popular culture, “the boy afraid of being a boy” — with affection and careful, close attention to the story’s richness.

Lest we think the choice only symbolic, the National Book Critics Circle reminded us this week that there are still gatekeepers policing the cultural commons: They chose only white poets as finalists for their annual award, despite many fine poets of color (including Blanco) having released new collections in 2012.

By choosing Richard Blanco, by contrast, the president celebrates our variety: We are queer, we are straight, we are Black, white, Latino, Asian, Native, multi-racial…We are America. Martín Espada, the groundbreaking poet and essayist, reminds us of the broader political context in which this choice is made: “There are Latino writers (myself included) who are banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies program outlawed by the state of Arizona, part of the backlash against Latino immigrants in this country. There are gay writers who are accomplished, even brilliant, yet cannot marry and are denied basic civil rights in many states, since discrimination does not recognize accomplishment.”

It’s not an easy task to write a poem for the inauguration, broadcast to millions, and I don’t envy Richard Blanco even one bit. But I love that he is the one taking on the challenge. With so many trying every day to deny our country’s diversity and to drive us apart, President Obama has done something bold: He’s chosen a queer Cuban American to bring us together.

Order Blanco’s latest collection, Looking for the Gulf Motel, here.

Read the title poem in the collection here.

Read a queer perspective on Obama’s choice here.

Sarah Browning is Executive Director of Split This Rock, author of Whiskey in the Garden of Eden, and an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow.

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