US Weapons Make Colombia Murder Capital
BOGOTA – A RAND Institute report, “Arms Trafficking and Colombia,” concludes that US Plan Colombia is largely responsible for making the South American nation’s murder rate the highest in the world, at 77.5 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. The gun culture has created a cross-border refugee and drug crisis that is destabilizing the region, from Panama to Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador.
About 85 percent of Colombia’s murders are committed with small arms. The report, released April 23, says that most of them come from the US, either directly through Plan Colombia, or indirectly through old stockpiles of US weapons supplied to El Salvador, Honduras, and the Nicaraguan Contras during the 1980s and 90s.
Colombia is currently the world’s third largest recipient of US military aid, receiving $2.5 billion since 2000. Most of the weapons and ammunition comes from military sources, finding their way into the hands of right-wing paramilitaries, often composed of off-duty soldiers.
Convictions Praised, But Doubts Remain
HAVANA – Cuba has hailed the US convictions of six hijackers of a Cuban airplane in 2003 as a “positive act.” Nevertheless, Cuban leaders still charge that Washington is promoting illegal migration from the island to justify a military invasion.
The Cuban Foreign Ministry applauded the decision as “serving both the interest of Cuba and the United States as expressed in our Migratory Agreement signed in 1994.” That Agreement aims to direct Cuban migration toward “safe, legal and orderly channels” and is “opposed to and aims to prevent the use of violence on the part of any person who tries to or reaches the United States from Cuba by means of the forced diversion ships or aircraft.”
Despite the verdict, Havana is concerned about another US decision to suspend regularly scheduled talks on migration, normally held every six months to discuss migration accords. Washington is “sending a message to Miami that could encourage illegal migration from Cuba,” charges Cuban Parliament President Ricardo Alarcón. This could provide a pretext for a military attack, he notes, since US officials have long said that illegal immigration from Cuba to southern Florida would be seen as a “threat to US national security.”
Referring to the Bush administration, Alarcón warns, “We can’t put anything past these people.”
PORT-AU-PRINCE – “The protégés of Jesse Helms have had more say in Aristide’s fate than the Haitian electorate,” Paul Farmer reports from Haiti in the London Review of Books. There were many players, of course, but one of the most important is Roger Noriega, sent in after the coup to “work out” the situation. As Farmer tells it, “Noriega’s career has been spent in the shadows of Congressional committees. For the better part of a decade, he worked for Helms and his allies, and it’s no secret he has had Aristide in his sights for years.”
Recent US-Haiti policy also has been determined by people prominent in the Reagan or Bush I cabinets, most back in government. The list includes Elliot Abrams, convicted of withholding information during Iran-Contra, who serves on the National Security Council; John Poindexter, Reagan’s national security adviser and, until recently, head of the Pentagon’s new counterterrorism unit; and John Negroponte, former ambassador to Honduras, currently UN ambassador, and Bush’s pick for ambassador to Iraq. Another Reagan aide, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, is on the board of the International Republican Institute, which backed Aristide’s opposition.
As “special presidential envoy to the western hemisphere,” Otto Reich is the top US diplomat in the region. Bush gave him the posting during a Congressional recess. During the civil war in Nicaragua, Reich headed a Contra-support operation out of the Office of Public Diplomacy, a CIA perception management project. The office leaked false stories to the press, employed army psychological-warfare specialists, and worked closely with Oliver North. Prior to an attempt to oust Venezuelan President Chavez in 2002, Reich publicly welcomed a coup, and urged the State Department to support any “new government.”
On the Haitian side, Farmer says the players fall into two categories: “Haiti’s business elite, including those who own the media, and then the former military and paramilitaries – the people who were involved in the 1991-94 coup. Some have been in jail since then for murder, drug trafficking and crimes against humanity. Today, every single one of them is out.”
Bolivia Coup Foiled, Plotting Continues
LA PAZ – A coup plot, backed by the US Embassy and featuring the border movements of 21,000 Chilean Army troops, was launched in late March to remove the government of President Carlos Mesa, according to a Narconews (http://www.narconews.com) report by Luis Gomez. But the plot was aborted when officials in the Bolivian Armed Forces took action.
According to the report, various scenarios to topple the government are being considered. Bolivia has recently displeased the US by attempting to talk with coca growers, instead of following the US-imposed policy – total warfare. Gomez writes: “What began here in Bolivia in October 2003 has not yet finished. Bolivian social leaders claim that foreign groups, linked to banks and oil companies, have a new strategy to dominate the Bolivian people.”
In early March, during US drug czar Robert Charles’ visit, Bolivia announced the end of its failed “zero coca” policy and forced eradication of coca crops in favor of funding “alternative development.” The plan will be pursued through 2008, a year after President Carlos Mesa’s term ends.
Previous Bolivian administrations – presumably due to US pressure– concentrated on the forced or negotiated eradication of coca. A prime example was “Plan Dignity,” pursued in 1998-2002 by the conservative administrations of Hugo Banzer and Jorque Quiroga. But after popular rebellion last October, the Mesa administration apparently reconsidered this approach.
Maoists Gaining Ground in Nepal
KATHMANDU – When fighting in Nepal started in 1996, the opposition led by the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) was armed only with sticks, sickles, knives, and a few guns. Today, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has modern weapons, several permanent companies, and can mobilize thousands for a single battle.
By 2003, 10 million people in Nepal’s western region –out of 24 million total – were living in areas under Maoist control, and “United Revolutionary People’s Committees” mobilized people to administer production, supply basic necessities and education, and establish a judicial system. Maoists control 80 percent of the countryside, according to recent report by TF correspondent Li Onesto . In early 2004, several Autonomous People’s Governments were formed, despite a counterinsurgency campaign by the Royal Nepal Army (RNA), which attempts to kill or arrest anyone suspected as a guerrilla or “Maoist sympathizer.”
The US and Nepalese governments have officially branded the Maoists “terrorists.” The US has also provided the RNA with military training and advisers, at least $22 million in military aid, and more than 5000 M-16 rifles. Britain has given $40 million and played a leading role in getting other countries to support the current regime.
According to the April 24 Kathmandu Post, the US is “blocking any Maoist assets in the United States or held by US persons, wherever located, and bars US citizens from most transactions or dealings with the Maoists.” Nevertheless, Onesto concludes that “in the Himalayas, new heights are being reached towards the goal of building a new society free of all forms of oppression and inequality.”
Russia May Ratify Kyoto Treaty
MOSCOW -After charging that the Kyoto climate change protocol would cause irreparable damage to its economy, Russia is reportedly on the verge of ratifying it. This dramatic U-turn would allow the UN treaty to become legally binding and leave the US isolated on the world stage.
According to a Kremlin source quoted in the daily Kommersant, the policy shift is likely to emerge soon. The main outstanding element has been the amount of compensation Moscow should get for trading in “credits,” given to nations that don’t pollute as much as they could.
An expert from Russia’s Greenpeace branch told the UK’s Independent that the only reason Russia hadn’t yet signed was its hope to extract further concessions. Russian ratification is “a political game,” adds Greenpeace’s Natalia Olsirenko. “It is highly probable that the Kremlin will ratify the pact.” The rapprochement has been fuelled by recent progress in negotiations with the EU over Moscow’s bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Ethnic Cleansing Nears Completion
PRISTINA – Since the 1999 US-NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, at least 230,000 members of ethnic minorities have been driven out of Kosovo, according to UN figures. Today, it’s one of the most dangerous places in the world, especially for the few Roma (pejoratively referred to as “Gypsies”) who remain. Before the intervention, there were more than 150,000 Roma in the region: Less than 25,000 remain.
In an April report to the UN Security Council, Peacekeeping Operations Director Jean-Marie Guehenno described Kosovo as a simmering cauldron of ethnic suspicions. “The onslaught led by Albanian extremists against Kosovo’s Serb, Roma and Ashkali communities was an organized, widespread and targeted campaign,” she concluded.
In March, new fighting erupted between Albanians and Serbs in Mitrovica city. According to press reports, two incidents triggered the violence: a drive-by shooting of a Serbian youth, followed by the drowning deaths of three Albanian youths. But the larger context – the Albanian fight for Kosovo’s secession from Serbia – was rarely mentioned.
Having used the international presence in Kosovo to rebuild the region, ethnic Albanian leaders are ready to make the final push for independence. If they succeed, it would be a reward for ethnic cleansing.
Sudan Blackout Hides Atrocities
KHARTHOUM – In Sudan, where one of the world’s worst human rights crises is unfolding, no news is bad news. While government-supported Arab militias wage what the UN calls a “scorched earth” campaign against 870,000 people, authorities attempt to impose a news blackout and resist international intervention. In May, UN investigative teams were on the ground, but time is running out.
The April sentencing of an Al-Jazeera reporter to a month in prison and a fine is just one of the government’s attempts to cover up atrocities against civilians in Darfur. Reporter Islam Salih was convicted of “disseminating false information.” Prior to his conviction, authorities threatened him with punitive action if he didn’t tone down his coverage. Al-Jazeera’s bureau also was shut down.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged the UN Commission on Human Rights to condemn “crimes against humanity” and re-appoint a special rapporteur to monitor human rights violations. Last year, the UN body ended the rapporteur’s 10-year mandate, saying that government and rebel forces in southern Sudan were working toward peace.
Government forces and allied militias have killed thousands and forced nearly a million people to flee as part of a brutal war against insurgents. At least 120,000 refugees have fled to neighboring Chad. The primary targets are civilians who share the same ethnicity as the rebels, says HRW. Villages have been bombed, burned, and looted, and thousands have been murdered and raped. For HRW’s report, go to http://hrw.org/reports/2004/sudan0404.
Election Monitors Prepare for Florida Count
TALLAHASSEE, FL – An international group that usually monitors elections in Third World countries will take up posts in Florida precincts in November. The goal is to avert another debacle when voters pick the next US president.
Officials for the Catholic group Pax Christi USA will place monitors from 30 countries at polls in the four Florida counties at the center of the 2000 US presidential election dispute. In Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Duval counties, voting irregularities and outright fraud kept the outcome of the 2000 presidential race in doubt for more than a month. Although the Supreme Court gave the White House to George Bush, a study commissioned by major US media outlets concluded that he received fewer votes in the state than Al Gore.
Dave Robinson, national coordinator for Pax Christi USA, argues that since US citizens often go to developing nations to ensure fair, transparent, and free elections, it’s time to bring in friends from other parts of the world to ensure the same standard in the US. Florida Governor Jeb Bush complains that it’s insulting to equate Florida’s election system with that of a Third World country.
New electronic touch-screen voting machines, produced by corporations that are major contributors to the Republican Party, have come under heavy criticism in Florida and across the country. Critics charge that they are prone to fraud because they provide no mechanism to conduct a manual recount. Pax Christi is urging other civic and religious organizations to mobilize their own election monitoring teams.
Memos obtained by Andy Stevenson, a voting rights activist and the candidate for secretary of state in Washington state, reveal that Diebold, maker of leading touch-screen voting machines, was long ago aware of problems. The company could find itself embroiled in lawsuits, grand jury investigations, and inquiries by elections authorities.
Northern CA Voters Ban Biotech
MENDOCINO – By a 56 to 44 percent margin, in March voters made Mendocino the first US county to ban genetically engineered crops and animals. Known as Measure H, the initiative was pushed by the county’s organic farmers.
The impact is basically symbolic, since such crops aren’t likely to be introduced for years. Still, large agricultural interests spent more than a half-million dollars to defeat the measure, fearing it could set a precedent. They could be right. “Passage of Measure H is just the beginning,” said Els Cooperrider, owner of a Ukiah organic brew pub who spearheaded the campaign. “The revolution is just starting.”
The vote drew national and even international attention. A consortium of agribusiness interests, calling itself Crop Life America, waged a two-month opposition campaign, joined by local and state Farm Bureau leaders and members of the county’s agricultural establishment.
Muzzle Awards: And The Winners Are…
RICHMOND, VA – CBS Television – which passed on the miniseries “The Reagans” – and the Martha Stewart trial judge are among this year’s winners of the dubious Jefferson Muzzle awards for suppression of free speech. A federal judge and the Secret Service also earned “muzzles.” CBS was cited “for acts of self-censorship demonstrating both hypocrisy and an unwillingness to stand up to public and political pressure,” according to the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.
This year, CBS also refused to air a 30-second ad during the Super Bowl from MoveOn.org, a group critical of the Bush administration. Another recipient, announced in the awards’ 13th edition, was Baseball Hall of Fame President Dale Petroskey, who canceled a 15th-anniversary showing of the film Bull Durham because its stars, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, opposed the Iraq war.
US District Judge Miriam Cedarbaum received a muzzle for barring reporters from jury selection in the Stewart trial. An appeals court later said she erred, but by that time, jury selection was over. The Secret Service was cited for investigating whether Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Michael Ramirez of the Los Angeles Times could be charged with “threatening the life” of President Bush for a cartoon depicting a man pointing a gun at him.
Each year, the awards are handed out on the birthday of Thomas Jefferson. Recipients receive a T-shirt that depicts the nation’s third president with a muzzle.
Laureates Appeal for Dissidents’ Release
RANGOON – Fourteen Nobel prizewinners, including Vaclav Havel, Toni Morrison, and José Saramago, have joined International PEN in calling on authorities in Burma (Myanmar) to immediately release jailed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and imprisoned writers. In letters delivered in April to Burmese embassies around the world, the laureates expressed “urgent concern” over the denial of freedom of expression.
The distinguished honorees said that any significant progress toward democracy in Burma will fail unless writers, journalists, and other citizens are able to freely discuss the future of their country without fear. “All historical experience teaches us that freedom of speech and free and open public debate cannot stand at the end of a road to democracy but must be at the very beginning of any meaningful reform,” they wrote.
The junta recently began releasing jailed opposition leaders and journalists, leading up to its planned “roadmap to democracy” talks. Reporters Without Borders has documented that at least four dissident journalists and writers were released from prison since March 10.
Afghanistan: Poppy Crop on the Rise
KABUL – Opium poppy cultivation is soaring in Afghanistan, and unless eradication efforts are stepped up immediately, this year’s harvest could be twice as big as last year’s near-record crop.
According to Robert Charles, US assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, the heroin business is “almost definitely” aiding the Taliban and other al-Qaeda-linked groups. Failure to stop the bumper harvest – already underway in some areas due to unusually warm weather – will have devastating consequences for the global drug trade and Afghan democracy, he warned.
The assessment coincides with the conclusion of a major international conference on rebuilding Afghanistan, which netted billions in aid and vague promises about improving security. NATO and Britain have agreed to establish more provincial reconstruction teams, but relief agencies and human rights activists say that the few civic-military teams already in place have done little to improve the situation.
Nuclear Whistleblower Free, But Muzzled
ASHKELON – Nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu emerged defiant on April 24 after 18 years in prison, saying he was proud of revealing secrets exposing Israel as an atomic power. Vanunu flashed victory signs and waved as he walked through the gates of Shikma Prison in Ashkelon. Hundreds of supporters cheered him as a “peace hero,” but several dozen counter-demonstrators booed and chanted, “Shut up, atomic spy.”
The 49-year-old former nuclear technician complained of “cruel and barbaric treatment” at the hands of security services, but insisted he had no more secrets to divulge after serving his full term on a conviction for treason and espionage. Arguing that Vanunu could reveal more classified information, Israel placed him under surveillance and continues to limit his freedom of movement and speech.
Many observers say the restrictions are an effort to prevent further debate on the country’s nuclear weapons stockpiles. Vanunu revealed Israel as the only country in the Middle East with them, and still argues that its Dimona nuclear reactor should be open to international inspections. Israel has refused to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, thus keeping it closed to inspection.
Supremes Reject Peltier Appeal
WASHINGTON, DC – The US Supreme Court has rejected an appeal seeking parole for American Indian activist Leonard Peltier, convicted of the 1975 killings of two FBI agents. Without comment, the justices let stand an appeals court ruling denying his bid for a parole hearing and release.
Peltier is serving two consecutive life sentences for slayings agents on the Sioux’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Four people were charged: two were acquitted, and the government dropped its case against a third.
Peltier has brought several appeals challenging his conviction and sentence. The most recent was over a US Parole Commission decision that he is ineligible until Dec. 31, 2008, because he ambushed the agents. A US appeals court upheld that decision last year. Peltier’s lawyers appealed, arguing that the court “erroneously” affirmed the commission’s decision and charging government misconduct during the original trial, including withholding evidence and coercing witnesses to testify falsely.
Because of the commission’s decision, Peltier may serve at least double the sentence he would have received under federal guidelines. His lawyers say he should have been eligible for parole after 16 years in prison.