What Did We Learn From the First Democratic Debates?

Last week, the interminable 2020 U.S. presidential election entered a new phase as 20 Democratic candidates over the course of two nights debated each other in Miami, Florida. Here, I’ll note some of the key policy positions staked out by the candidates during the debates.2020-3

Night One (Video, Transcript)

Candidates: Senator Cory Booker, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, former Representative John Delaney, Representative Tulsi Gabbard, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, Senator Amy Klobuchar, former Representative Beto O’Rourke, Representative Tim Ryan, and Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Immigration

Julián Castro pledged to immediately end Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance, remain in Mexico, and metering policies. He also said he would pass an immigration reform law within 100 days “that would honor asylum claims, that would put undocumented immigrants—as long as they haven’t committed a serious crime—on a pathway to citizenship.” He also supported “a Marshall Plan” for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and called for the repeal of section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which makes crossing the U.S. border without documentation a criminal offense.

In perhaps the most memorable moment of the night, Castro criticized Beto O’Rourke for failing to include the repeal of 1325 in his immigration policy. O’Rourke supported citizenship for DREAMers, called for a “family case management program” rather than detaining families, and backed investment “in solutions in Central America.” O’Rourke said that he introduced legislation in Congress to decriminalize crossing the border for asylum-seekers, but did not commit to applying this standard to all undocumented people.

Cory Booker said that as president he would re-instate DACA, preserve Temporary Protected Status (TPS), make “major investments in the Northern Triangle,” and end ICE raids across the U.S. that separate undocumented immigrants from their families. Jay Inslee said that immigrant and refugee children should be released from detention pending their hearings. Tim Ryan expressed support for repealing section 1325, while Amy Klobuchar supported returning to the 2013 immigration bill as the starting point for future legislation.

Climate Crisis

Inslee brought up green jobs during a discussion of the economy, saying, “we know that we can put millions of people to work in the clean energy jobs of the future.” Ryan added, “[w]e need an industrial policy saying we’re going to dominate building electric vehicles, there’s going to be 30 million made in the next 10 years. I want half of them made in the United States. I want to dominate the solar industry and manufacture those here in the United States.” Elizabeth Warren continued, “[w]e need to go tenfold in our research and development on green energy going forward. And then we need to say any corporation can come and use that research. They can make all kinds of products from it, but they have to be manufactured right here in the United States of America.”

Later in the debate, the moderators turned the discussion to climate change directly. Inslee said addressing the climate crisis should be “the top priority of the United States, the organizing principle to mobilize the United States” and promised to “put 8 million people to work.” O’Rourke pledged to “fund resiliency” in U.S. communities on the frontlines of climate change, “mobilize $5 trillion in this economy over the next 10 years,” and pay “farmers for the environmental services that they want to provide.” He said these steps would prevent an additional 2 degrees Celsius of global warming. Castro committed to re-joining the U.S. in the Paris Agreement on climate. John Delaney supported a carbon tax plan which would include “a dividend back to the American people.”

Criminal Justice

Booker said, “our country has made so many mistakes by criminalizing things—whether it’s immigration, whether it’s mental illness, whether it’s addiction.” Castro claimed that he is “the only candidate so far that has put forward legislation that would reform our policing system in America.”

Foreign Policy 

In a show of hands, all candidates except for Booker indicated that they would bring the U.S. back into the Iran nuclear agreement “as it was originally negotiated.” Booker said that the U.S. should not have pulled out of the deal as it was, but as president he would negotiate a better deal if he had the opportunity. Klobuchar said that she would ask Congress to authorize military force before entering into a conflict. Tulsi Gabbard opposed war with Iran.

Later in the debate, moderator Lester Holt read a viewer question: “does the United States have a responsibility to protect in the case of genocide or crimes against humanity? Do we have a responsibility to intervene to protect people threatened by their governments even when atrocities do not affect American core interests?” O’Rourke answered, “yes, but that action should always be undertaken with allies and partners and friends.” Bill de Blasio argued that the U.S. “should be ready” to intervene in the case of genocide, “but not without congressional approval.”

Ryan suggested that he supports U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan, while Gabbard called for troops to be withdrawn.

Healthcare

In a show of hands, de Blasio and Warren indicated that they supported abolishing private health insurance. Warren made clear that she is “with Bernie on Medicare for All.” Booker also supported Medicare for All, while Klobuchar, Delaney, and O’Rourke spoke out against abolishing private insurance.

Castro affirmed that his healthcare plan would cover abortion, and said he “would appoint judges to the federal bench that understand the precedent of Roe v. Wade.” Inslee said that insurance companies should not be allowed to deny coverage for abortion. Warren said that she would ensure “that every woman has access to the full range of reproductive health care services” including abortion and birth control. She also supported making Roe v. Wade a law.

Economic Policy

Klobuchar supported free community college; a doubling of Pell Grants ($6,000/year to $12,000/year) and expansion of who qualifies to include “families that make up to $100,000.” O’Rourke dodged a question about whether he supports a 70% marginal tax rate but pledged to tax capital at the same rate as other income and raise the corporate tax rate to 28%. Booker said he would “appoint judges that will enforce” anti-trust law and direct the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission to check corporate consolidation. Castro supported the Equal Rights Amendment and “legislation so that women are paid equal pay for equal work.” De Blasio called for “a 70 percent tax rate on the wealthy,” free pre-K and public college, a $15 minimum wage, and breaking up large corporations “when they’re not serving our democracy.” Delaney supported “a doubling of the earned income tax credit, raising the minimum wage, and creating paid family leave.” Inslee said he has “a plan to reinvigorate collective bargaining.”

Gun Violence

Warren supported universal background checks, banning “the weapons of war,” and conducting additional research on how to achieve greater safety considering the guns already present in communities. Castro said that he would support bypassing the filibuster in the Senate if necessary to pass gun reform. Ryan called for “trauma-based care in every school” to prevent violence committed by young people. O’Rourke indicated support for universal background checks, red flag laws, and banning the sale of assault weapons. Klobuchar said that she supported an assault weapons ban as a prosecutor. Booker proposed requiring licenses to buy guns. De Blasio stated, “if we’re going to stop these shootings, we want to get these guns off the street, we have to have a very different relationship between our police and our community.”


Night Two (Video, Transcript)

Candidates: Senator Michael Bennet, former Vice-President Joe Biden, South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Senator Kamala Harris, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, Senator Bernie Sanders, Representative Eric Swalwell, author Marianne Williamson, and former tech executive Andrew Yang.

Racial Injustice

Probably the most significant moment of the night was an exchange between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden in which Harris challenged Biden’s recent statements and political history on segregation. Harris said to Biden, “it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose bussing. And you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bussed to school every day, and that little girl was me.” Biden said that Harris had mischaracterized his position, adding, “you would’ve been able to go to school the same exact way because it was a local decision made by your city council.” Harris asked Biden, “do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose bussing in America then?” Biden responded, “I did not oppose bussing in America. What I opposed is bussing ordered by the Department of Education.” With Biden making clear that he had opposed federal action to desegregate schools through bussing, Harris made the classic progressive argument that states’ rights should not be used as a cover to protect injustice.

Following the police shooting of Eric Logan, a black man, in South Bend, Indiana, moderator Rachel Maddow asked Pete Buttigieg why the number of black police officers had not increased under his watch as mayor (Maddow noted that the police force is “6 percent black in a city that is 26 percent black”). Buttigieg responded, “[b]ecause I couldn’t get it done.” He continued, “until we move policing out from the shadow of systemic racism, whatever this particular incident teaches us, we will be left with the bigger problem of the fact that there is a wall of mistrust put up one racist act at a time.” Eric Swalwell said that Buttigieg should have fired the chief of police, and John Hickenlooper claimed that during his time as mayor of Denver, the city accomplished what South Bend has not. He said, “I think the real question that America should be asking is why five years after Ferguson, every city doesn’t have this level of police accountability.”

Marianne Williamson supported reparations for slavery, and Michael Bennet said that “the attack on voting rights in [Supreme Court decision] Shelby v. Holder is something we need to deal with.”

Economic Policy

Bernie Sanders called for free public college, and the elimination of student loan debt to be paid for by “a tax on Wall Street.” Biden pledged to “make massive cuts” in tax loopholes and end “Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthy.” On education, he said he would triple spending for Title 1 schools, implement universal pre-K and free community college, and freeze student debt and interest payments for people earning under $25,000/year. Harris committed to repealing the 2017 Republican tax law and providing a tax credit of “up to $500 a month” to families making under $100,000/year. She also called for a “middle class and working families tax cut.” Buttigieg supported “free college for low and middle-income students for whom cost could be a barrier,” the ability to refinance student debt, and raising the minimum wage “to at least $15 an hour.” Andrew Yang supported a universal basic income plan to provide payments of $1,000/month, which would be paid for in part by implementing a value-added tax. Kirsten Gillibrand called for “a family bill of rights that includes a national paid leave plan, universal pre-K, affordable daycare, and making sure that women and families can thrive in the workplace no matter who they are.”

Healthcare

Sanders supported Medicare for All and committed to reducing prescription drug prices by 50%. Hickenlooper and Bennet opposed abolishing private insurance. Bennet supported the Medicare X plan. In a show of hands, only Sanders and Harris indicated that they would abolish private insurance (Harris said on Friday that she had misheard the question and clarified that she favored Medicare for All without abolishing private insurance). Gillibrand emphasized that the Medicare for All plan would have a transition period to single-payer. She suggested that private insurance companies could try to compete with the government health plan, but likely would be unable to do so successfully. Buttigieg supported a “Medicare for all who want it” plan. Biden advocated building on Obamacare and providing an accessible plan similar to Medicare on insurance exchanges. He also said that the government should negotiate drug prices for those on Medicare, and called for jailing insurance executives for misleading advertising, “what they’re doing on opioids,” and bribing doctors. In a show of hands, all candidates indicated that their healthcare plans would cover undocumented people in the U.S.

Sanders said, “a woman’s right to control her own body is a constitutional right” and pledged to only appoint justices to the Supreme Court who support Roe v. Wade. He asserted, “Medicare for All guarantees every woman in this country the right to have an abortion.” Gillibrand opposed the Hyde Amendment and said she would “guarantee women’s reproductive freedom” when making deals as president.

Immigration

Buttigieg commented, “[t]he American people want a pathway to citizenship. They want protections for DREAMers. We need to clean up the lawful immigration system… And as part of a compromise, we can do whatever commonsense measures are needed at the border.” Harris committed to reinstating DACA, deferring deportation for veterans and parents of DREAMers, eliminating private detention centers, beginning “a meaningful process for reviewing the cases for asylum,” and releasing “children from cages.” Hickenlooper called for ICE to be “completely reformed” and said there should be “sufficient facilities in place so that women and children are not separated from their families. The children are with their families.” Williamson criticized the other candidates for not discussing U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. Gillibrand said, “I would reform how we treat asylum-seekers at the border. I would have a community-based treatment center,” provide lawyers to asylum-seekers, and utilize judges who are “not employees of the Attorney General but appointed for life.” Gillibrand also said she “would fund border security,” stop funding private detention centers, and support “comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship.”

In a show of hands question, Buttigieg, Gillibrand, Harris, Swalwell, Williamson, and Yang indicated support for making border crossing a civil rather than criminal offense. Bennet did not raise his hand, Hickenlooper’s position was unclear because the camera moved away from him, while Biden and Sanders pointed a finger, presumably indicating that they wanted to elaborate on the question. Later, Biden said he would reunite families who have been separated and send “billions of dollars worth of help to the region immediately.” When pressed by moderator José Díaz-Balart, Biden said that an undocumented person who had not committed any crimes “should not be the focus of deportation.” He also said the U.S. “should immediately have the capacity to absorb” asylum-seekers and “keep them safe until they can be heard.” Sanders said he would “rescind” all Trump policies on immigration and convene a summit with the presidents of countries in Central America. Swalwell opposed deporting undocumented people who do not have criminal records. Harris said she disagreed with President Obama’s policy “to allow deportation of people who, by ICE’s own definition, were non-criminals.” She emphasized that it is necessary for the victims of rape to be able to report the crime committed against them without fear of deportation. Bennet touted the 2013 immigration bill which he co-wrote.

Gun Violence

Swalwell committed to a “ban and buyback of every single assault weapon in America.” Sanders called for universal background checks, an end to the gun show loophole and straw man provision, and a ban on assault weapons. When pressed by Swalwell, he appeared to support the buyback of assault weapons as well. Harris said she would give Congress 100 days to pass gun legislation, and take executive action if the deadline passed. She supported background checks, a ban on the importation of assault weapons, and said she would require the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to take the licenses of gun dealers who violate the law. Biden called for smart guns that require a user’s biometric features and a buyback of assault weapons.

Climate Crisis

Harris supported the Green New Deal and re-entering the U.S. into the Paris Agreement. Buttigieg supported a carbon tax with a dividend that would be “rebated out to the American people in a progressive fashion.” He called for “the right kind of soil management and other… investments” in the rural U.S. and re-entering the Paris Agreement. Biden committed to building 500,000 new recharging stations to reach “a full electric vehicle future” by 2030. He supported re-entering the Paris Agreement and investing $400 million “in new science and technology.” Williamson supported the Green New Deal.

Foreign Policy

Bennet called for restoring relationships with U.S. allies. Sanders argued that it is necessary to rebuild “trust in the United Nations and understand that we can solve conflicts without war but with diplomacy.” Sanders opposed war with Iran, and said he “helped lead the effort for the first time to utilize the War Powers Act to get the United States out of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, which is the most horrific humanitarian disaster on Earth.” Gillibrand said she would “engage Iran to stabilize the Middle East and make sure we do not start an unwanted never-ending war.” Biden supported the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan.

EU Elections: Background and Results

Europeans went to the polls from May 23-26 to vote for a new European Parliament and, indirectly, European Commission President. At stake is the role of the EU and its response to issues like the climate crisis, economic policy, and migration.

Results

All 2019 results and statistics based on the numbers listed at election-results.eu as of 5/27/19.

  • The two largest groups in the European Parliament–European People’s Party (EPP) and Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D)–are projected to have lost ground to the Greens, liberal parties, and the far-right.
  • Average voter turnout was the highest since 1994 at 50.9%, up from 42.6% during the last election in 2014.
  • EPP is projected to have won 180 seats, remaining the largest party in parliament despite losing 41 seats compared to 2014. Lead candidate Manfred Weber has suggested that this gives him the authority to be the next European Commission President.
  • S&D has won an estimated 146 seats. The center-left is projected to have gained in Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands, but saw disappointing results in Germany, France, and the UK.
  • The centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), in combination with French President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance list, have taken 109 seats, up from 67 in 2014. How the ALDE might change with the addition of Macron’s allies, and what other national parties might join a reshaped group, remains to be seen.
  • The Greens-European Free Alliance (Greens-EFA) are projected to win 69 seats, adding 19 compared to 2014. The Greens in Germany won second place after the governing Christian Democratic Union, beating out the Social Democratic Party. Similarly, in France, the EELV party placed third, higher than any other party on the left. The Greens-EFA presented a platform emphasizing the need for the EU to address the climate crisis, and co-leader Bas Eickhout has said he will push for “climate action, social justice and democracy” in negotiations to determine the next Commission President. An AFP article notes, “[w]ith the two main traditional EU blocs… projected to lose ground, the Greens could end up as kingmaker in the European Parliament.”
  • The far-right group including the Lega party in Italy and the National Rally in France will win an estimated 58 seats, while the group including the new Brexit Party in the UK and the Five Star Movement in Italy is projected to take 54 seats. Matteo Salvini’s Lega party handily won the most votes in Italy, with 34.3% and 28 seats out of 73. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party narrowly beat the Renaissance list backed by Macron, taking 22 of 74 seats.
  • In Hungary, the far-right Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán won a majority of votes and 13 of 21 seats. In Poland, the far-right Law and Justice Party won 26 of 51 seats, while the European Coalition list took 22.
  • The European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) both had disappointing results–ECR is estimated to have won 59 seats and the GUE/NGL 39.
  • In the UK, the election serves as further evidence of how divided politics has become following 2016’s Brexit referendum. On Friday, as voters in the UK went to the polls, Prime Minister Theresa May announced her plan to resign after three years of being unable to negotiate a deal to leave the EU. The results of the election indicate that many are willing to leave even without a deal–Nigel Farage’s Brexit party won the most seats with 29 out of 73, 31.7% of the vote. However, parties that strongly support remaining in the EU also performed well. Running on the slogan “Bollocks to Brexit,” the Liberal Democrats won the second most seats with 16, and the Green Party jumped from 3 to 7 seats. The Green Party will be joined by three representatives from the Scottish National Party and one from Plaid Cymru in the Greens-EFA parliamentary group. Despite leading the country, the Conservative Party won only 8.7% and 4 seats, while the Labour Party took 10 seats.
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The structure of the European Union. In the EU elections, the European Parliament and European Commission are in play. (Image by Ziko van Dijk via Wikimedia Commons)

Context

Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Survey from spring, 2018 provides an idea of Europeans’ attitudes about migration (of immigrants and refugees) and the economy. A median of 51% of respondents across ten EU countries said “their country should allow fewer immigrants into their country or none at all” compared to only 10% who favored greater immigration (35% said “about the same” number). However, a median of 77% support “taking in refugees from countries where people are fleeing violence and war,” with only 21% opposed. According to the Missing Migrants Project, 7,101 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe since 2015. Yet, the trend in European countries over the same time period has been toward shutting people out.

A median of 50% surveyed across the ten countries said “compared with 20 years ago, the financial situation of average people in our country is worse,” versus only 31% who said it was “better” and 15% who observed “no change.” The three countries where respondents had the worst outlooks were Greece (87% “worse”), Italy (72%), and Spain (62%). These southern European countries were hit the hardest by the 2008 financial crisis and then by EU-mandated austerity measures.

The far-right has capitalized on this sentiment to become a dangerous and influential force. But they are in no position to take power at the EU level. As of Friday, Politico.eu predicted that a new EU parliamentary group led by Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini would win 73 seats, with a group combining the British Brexit Party and the Italian Five Star Movement taking 48. That’s significant, but only 121 out of 751 seats in total.

There is also reason for optimism at the grassroots level. On Friday, the second Global Strike for Climate hit cities in Europe and around the world, the latest in a series of school walkouts and demonstrations led by young people calling for climate action. At the final debate between candidates for the presidency of the European Commission, the topic of climate change and the environment was introduced with reference to the walkout movement and 16-year old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who began the movement last year.

Rules

An idiosyncrasy of EU elections is that while the share of the vote to each parliamentary group will determine the balance of power in the next EU Parliament, each voter will actually cast their ballot for a national party. Most of these national parties are allied with a parliamentary group. So, for example, a vote for the Social Democratic Party in Germany will go towards sending representatives of that party to parliament to form part of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group. However, it is possible for representatives to be unaligned with a parliamentary group.

The official procedure for selecting the next European Commission President is that EU member states nominate someone for the job, and that nominee must be approved by a majority of the new Parliament. According to Politico, beginning with the last EU elections in 2014, a system was adopted which encourages the lead candidate of “the party that wins the most seats in the European Parliament” to become president of the Commission. However, that ideal is non-binding. It is foreseeable that a coalition could be formed between parties that did not win the most votes but were able to cobble together a 376-seat majority. In that scenario, the lead candidate of the largest party in the coalition could become European Commission President. It is also possible that someone else altogether will be chosen as the next Commission president. For example, Emmanuel Macron has said that Michel Barnier, the EU’s lead negotiator of Brexit, should be considered. The EU is an unwieldy institution that is constantly in flux, and the procedure for determining the Commission President reflects that.

Note: A previous version of this post omitted the role of EU member states in nominating the European Commission President.

Solidarity with Whom? Venezuela and the US Left

Disclaimer: These are some provisional thoughts from a U.S. American whose opinions should be given significantly less weight than the opinions of activists and citizens in Venezuela whose futures are at stake.

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via Wikimedia Commons

 

On January 23, massive anti-government demonstrations were held in Venezuela, an outpouring of rage at Nicolás Maduro following years of economic deprivation and increasingly authoritarian rule. While speaking at one of the rallies, National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó assumed the title of interim president. I write that line with caution. The New York Times and other news outlets have used the term “self-declared president,” but that’s somewhat misleading. In an appearance on the Al Jazeera English program Inside Story, Christopher Sabatini, editor of the website Global Americans, noted that Guaidó has the backing of the National Assembly, the sole “legitimately elected body today in Venezuela.” In contrast, Maduro is now serving a second term as president by virtue of a 2018 election in which leading opposition parties were barred from competing. Sabatini argues that this election was illegitimate “by any international standard.” This illegitimacy opened the door for Guaidó to invoke Article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution, which enables the president of the National Assembly (Guaidó) to become interim president of the country in the absence of another president. The interim president then has an obligation to call new elections, which Guaidó has pledged to do. Sabatini makes the case that “this is really the only route right now. It’s not perfect, I’ll admit.”

It’s in this context that the U.S. and many countries in the Americas have declared their support for Guaidó. Asked about whether the involvement of outside countries like the U.S. and Canada was helpful, Sabatini replied:

I don’t know, I must admit. You know, there’s part of me… that says that something had to happen, there was a need for a moment of change… [Maduro] has crippled the country, caused over three million people to leave the country, it’s been a disaster. So, you have to look for that opening. Having said that, this is a bold move. Given the history of U.S. intervention in the hemisphere, which has, say in Guatemala in 1954 declared support for an unconstitutional president in a coup… the U.S.’s position is helped by the support of Canada and at least, at last count about seven to nine countries in Latin America that agree. I think it’s important, I think it’s a bold move, but I think what you’re going to see is a division not just in the region—of course you’ve got Nicaragua and Cuba and Mexico and Uruguay that have not recognized Guaidó as the president—but also globally, you’re going to see China and Russia back Maduro, so this is going to have implications beyond just the region and beyond domestic politics in Venezuela—it’s going to have a global reach. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I think it’s a good move, it’s an important move, but I think history will have to be the judge of this, because it’s a bold gambit.”

A joint statement by several human rights organizations in the Americas concluded,

The only solution to Venezuela’s crisis lies in a credible negotiated process that leads to free and fair elections that allow Venezuelans to choose their own leaders. The conditions for such a solution cannot be achieved through international pressure alone; they must be created through careful diplomatic engagement. In this spirit, we applaud recent efforts by the European Union, the governments of Mexico and Uruguay, as well as past statements by the Lima Group, all of which have expressed an interest in advancing a negotiated solution. Pairing pressure with creative diplomacy is the best way to facilitate a return to democracy

Given all this, it’s reasonable for there to be disagreement in the U.S. about whether it was the right decision for our government to recognize Guaidó. In addition, it’s incumbent upon the U.S. left to ensure that U.S. interests are not imposed on Venezuela. But this discussion should be informed by the fact that Maduro has systematically attempted to consolidate power by dismantling democratic institutions even as the economic and humanitarian crisis in the country worsens. And the discussion should take it as a given that Guaidó does indeed have far greater moral and legal legitimacy than Maduro, regardless of whether the U.S. has a right to point that out. Unfortunately, leading figures in the U.S. left have skipped that nuance altogether.

On January 24th, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) wrote on Twitter,

A US backed coup in Venezuela is not a solution to the dire issues they face. Trump’s efforts to install a far right opposition will only incite violence and further destabilize the region. We must support Mexico, Uruguay & the Vatican’s efforts to facilitate a peaceful dialogue.

The tweet was ‘liked’ by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), a fellow progressive member of congress elected in last year’s blue wave (Tlaib has not herself written a statement on Venezuela).

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), responded to a call by commentator Rania Khalek for progressive criticism of “the Trump administration’s right wing coup in Venezuela” by writing,

Let me get this straight. The US is sanctioning Venezuela for their lack of democracy but not Saudi Arabia? Such hypocrisy. Maduro’s policies are bad and not helping his people, but crippling sanctions or pushing for regime change will only make the situation worse.

Khalek has also been retweeted by Rep. Omar.

In response to a statement by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) supporting U.S. recognition of Guaidó, Rep. Khanna wrote,

With respect Senator Durbin, the US should not anoint the leader of the opposition in Venezuela during an internal, polarized conflict. Let us support Uruguay, Mexico, & the Vatican’s efforts for a negotiated settlement & end sanctions that are making the hyperinflation worse.

This was retweeted by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).

Again, it’s not a problem in and of itself that some progressive Democrats disagree with Trump’s recognition of Guaidó as interim Venezuelan president. But there are several things that I do find troubling:

First, the description of a U.S. “coup” ignores the legal and constitutional context of Guaidó’s assumption of the interim presidency and U.S. recognition of him. On the possibility of a coup, Venezuelan journalist Reynaldo Trombetta writes:

Of course, some think this is a coup organised by Donald Trump. That it’s all about oil. It’s impossible to know for sure, though the dissatisfaction on the streets of Venezuela is clearly very real and justified. There are probably some very excited oil executives somewhere fantasising about getting their hands on the largest crude reserves in the world. It will be up to the Venezuelans to stop them. But as things stand, those reserves are right now in the hands of Russia, China and Cuba, and those shouting about Venezuela’s sovereignty don’t seem to mind that at all.

The labelling of the entirety of the Venezuelan opposition as “far right” is clearly unfair. Trombetta notes, “Guaidó is 100% working class” and his “fight is about rebuilding Venezuela, not about giving back power to the politicians who ruled the country between 1958 and 1998.”

Second, Reps. Khanna and Omar have retweeted and borrowed the arguments of commentators who routinely apologize for authoritarians. Omar retweeted an episode of Empire Files, a program on TeleSUR English (which is funded in part by the Venezuelan government) hosted by former RT anchor Abby Martin. Khanna has retweeted Glenn Greenwald, whose misinformation on Syria has been extensively documented (here, for example). And Rania Khalek—who, as mentioned above, both Khanna and Omar have engaged with on Twitter—obfuscates war crimes committed by the Assad regime in Syria. I’d like to think that the small group of writers on the left who are willing to whitewash atrocities have relatively little influence. But it’s become clear that—like the alt-right commentators who have the ear of Donald Trump—Martin, Greenwald, Khalek, and others are able to drive the narrative and influence members of congress.

Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, these criticisms of U.S. policy have not, so far as I can tell, been paired with any comments resembling support for Venezuela’s popular movement against Maduro. The statements hint at solidarity with Venezuela as a state (at least against U.S. interference) but not solidarity with Venezuelans themselves. There is no recognition of Venezuelan anti-government activists as people with agency who are determined to change the direction of their country.

My intention here is not simply to attack otherwise progressive members of congress. We’ve seen far too much of that from the right-wing and even mainstream press. Further, I do not wish to discredit everything said in the tweets. I frankly do not know what the impact of U.S. sanctions has been on the Venezuelan economy. A majority of Venezuelans (56% to 32%) oppose U.S. sanctions, according to a December 2017 poll. In a January 2018 article,  Francisco Rodríguez, former head of the Venezuelan Congressional Budget Office, made the case against further sanctions. And the recent statement by human rights organizations in the Americas said:

It is fundamental that the international community ensure that any sanctions that may be imposed against the Maduro regime are coordinated, linked to concrete and clearly-communicated objectives and that they avoid worsening the country’s dire humanitarian emergency. In this context, we are deeply concerned by indications of renewed interest in an embargo on Venezuelan oil or other forms of broad economic sanctions, which would undoubtedly impact everyday Venezuelans and further restrict the ability to pay for imports of already scarce food and medicines.

Finally, the appointment of Elliot Abrams as U.S. special envoy for Venezuela highlights the serious risk of the U.S. opting for a disastrous neoconservative intervention utterly at odds with the spirit of the anti-Maduro uprising. A CNN piece summarizing Abrams’ bloody past is worth quoting at length:

Abrams’ controversial past in the region included his downplaying of human rights abuses by Central American governments close to the United States while serving at the State Department under President Ronald Reagan.

One instance involved the largest mass killing in recent Latin American history: the December 1981 massacre of nearly 1,000 men, women and children in the Salvadoran village of El Mozote by US-trained and -equipped military units.

A Human Rights Watch report on the massacre said that Abrams at Senate hearings “artfully distorted several issues in order to discredit the public accounts of the massacre,” insisted the numbers of reported victims were “implausible” and “lavished praise” on the military battalion behind the mass killings.

In 1991, facing a multi-count felony indictment, Abrams agreed to plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts for withholding information to Congress about the Iran-Contra affair. He was sentenced to two years probation and 100 hours of community service, and later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush.

Progressive politicians have a right and a responsibility to vigorously oppose any neoconservative moves taken by Abrams (Ocasio-Cortez has already taken notice, retweeting this post). But a watchful eye on U.S. policy must be accompanied by solidarity with the popular uprising against Maduro.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, advocacy group The Syria Campaign posted the Dr. King quote,

True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.

The demand for more than a “negative peace” has historically animated the left. But in response to suffering in places that we do not have personal ties to, the U.S. left has often been willing to call for peace without justice. In Venezuela, with global solidarity and “creative diplomacy” there is a chance to achieve both. It’s not too late for U.S. activists and politicians to meet that challenge.

Climate Politics: Challenges and Opportunities

It’s been an odd few weeks for climate politics. First, the good news: following the U.S. midterm elections, Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed forming a congressional Select Committee on a Green New Deal. This committee would be in charge of writing a plan and draft legislation for “a detailed national, industrial, economic mobilization plan… for the transition of the United States economy to become greenhouse gas emissions neutral” within 10 years (read the full proposal here). Although you might not imagine that a temporary congressional committee would generate much enthusiasm outside of Washington, activists have recognized the critical importance of this proposal in the larger fight for climate action: it’s a last-ditch attempt to get something big in motion before the clock runs out. To push a recalcitrant Democratic Party to support the committee, young activists have held sit-ins at the offices of leading Democrats like Nancy Pelosi. The wait is still on as to whether the proposal has enough support, at least in the House of Representatives where Democrats will have a majority in the next session.

The chasm between the climate policy of progressive Democrats and the Trump administration was highlighted this month at the Conference of Parties (COP) 24 climate talks in Poland. The U.S. delegation, along with Kuwait, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, opposed language that would “welcome” the October IPCC report emphasizing the importance of stopping global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius (instead, those states wanted to simply “note” the report). Meanwhile, as most of the world tried to figure out how the “rulebook” for drawing back carbon emissions should be written, the Trump administration proposed a “rollback of an Obama-era rule that effectively blocked new construction of coal-fired power plants” and the opening of “some nine million acres of public lands in Western states to oil and gas drilling,” according to the New Yorker‘s Elizabeth Kolbert. And that wasn’t the only bad news to break during the summit—a Global Carbon Project report projected that global carbon dioxide emissions will rise by approximately 2.7% in 2018, “the largest increase in seven years.”

In the end, the COP24 summit did agree to a “rulebook” for carrying out the 2015 Paris Agreement. But climate advocacy groups say the outcome of the summit was not nearly sufficient. In a press release by the group 350.org, Executive Director May Boeve says, “[b]y refusing to acknowledge what needs to be done before it’s too late and making the tiniest of tiny baby-steps of progress, politicians have pushed this climate COP toward irrelevance.” Boeve points instead to the fossil fuel divestment movement as a sign of hope. Ahead of the summit, the movement reached its 1,000th institutional commitment to divest from fossil fuels. Among those 1,000 institutions include the cities of New York and Berlin, the insurance company Axa, the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the country of Ireland (combined, the 1,000 institutions have almost $8 trillion in total investments). 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben writes that the divestment movement has imposed real social and economic costs on fossil fuel companies, and while “[d]ivestment by itself is not going to win the climate fight… by weakening – reputationally and financially – those players that are determined to stick to business as usual, it’s one crucial part of a broader strategy.”

A not-so-popular approach to fighting climate change was the fuel tax proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron and then scrapped following the massive Yellow Vests protest movement. Although the movement was sparked by the proposed tax, it has developed into a broader uprising against France’s political and economic structure, with demands that “include a redistribution of wealth as well as the increase of salaries, pensions, social security payments and the minimum wage,” according to journalist Rokhaya Diallo. Diallo argues that the Yellow Vests movement should not be viewed as anti-climate, but instead as anti-neoliberal. As Amnesty International Secretary General Kumi Naidoo writes, “[p]rotecting people’s livelihoods, enabling them to live their life in dignity, and stopping climate change are in fact part of one and the same struggle.”

So, how to move forward for both people and planet in the short amount of time we have left? Well, the Green New Deal is a good place to start.

U.S. Midterms: Dems Take House, Dividing Control of Congress

Democrats will control the House of Representatives for the first time since 2010; Republicans retain their Senate majority

Americans went to the polls on November 6 after days marked by terror and uncertainty. Anti-Semitic and racist killings, as well as an attempt at political assassinations, have dominated the headlines. President Trump incited hate before and after the violence, his fearmongering over a “migrant caravan” the closing argument of a midterm election campaign that has stretched on for many months.

Many Democrats ran on bread-and-butter issues like healthcare and opposition to the 2017 Republican tax law. But I think many people went to the polls on one or another side of the deep divide that exists in this country. It’s a divide, as Rebecca Solnit puts it in an excellent article, between an exclusive “us” and an inclusive “we.” Donald Trump wasn’t on the ballot, but he has said very clearly that he wanted this election to be about him. And, as he is the most powerful proponent of the politics of exclusion, how could it not be?

The vote is a blunt tool. I haven’t seen a sufficient vision from Democrats on many key problems facing this country, and especially on global issues, which have not been seriously addressed during the campaign. But I voted for the Democrats anyway, in the hope that they will slam the brakes on the Trump agenda. The Democrats need to fight for climate action in the vanishingly few years that we have left, affirm the human rights of oppressed communities in this country, stitch together an effective social safety net, and stop the country’s drift into authoritarianism. Now that they’ve taken the House, they’d better put their foot down.

Here are a few key results from last night, including some historic victories (also see wall-to-wall coverage from CNN, The Guardian, and NPR):

  • A record number of women will serve in congress (118 as of Wednesday afternoon).
  • Deb Haaland (D-NM) and Sharice Davids (D-KS) are the first Native American women elected to congress. Davids will also become Kansas’ first openly LGBTQ member of congress.
  • Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) will become the first Muslim women to serve in congress. Tlaib will also become the first Palestinian-American in congress.
  • Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) will join Bernie Sanders as the only democratic socialists in congress. Cortez and Tlaib both belong to the Democratic Socialists of America, an organization that also made significant gains in state elections last year. Ocasio-Cortez becomes the youngest woman ever elected to congress.
  • Good news from Florida: “Floridians approved a constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights to people with felony convictions once they complete their sentences, a historic move expanding the right to vote to about 1.4 million people and reverses a state policy rooted in the Jim Crow South.”
  • And bad news from Florida: Ron DeSantis (R), a reactionary candidate who closely linked himself with Donald Trump, has been elected governor over progressive Democrat Andrew Gillum.
  • Jared Polis (D-CO) is the first openly gay person to be elected governor in the United States.
  • Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) will become the first black congresswoman from Massachusetts.
  • Ted Cruz (R-TX) has held off a challenge from Beto O’Rourke to remain in the Senate.
  • Brian Kemp (R-GA) is leading Democrat Stacy Abrams in a Georgia gubernatorial race that has been marked by voter suppression led by Kemp himself. Georgia law requires the winner to receive over 50% of the vote, and Abrams has said she will not concede until all votes are counted.
  • In one of my hometown districts, NY-19, Democrat Antonio Delgado has unseated John Faso. Faso had attacked Delgado, who is black, for lyrics in a rap album that he released in 2006.
  • NPR reports that Laura Kelly (D-KS) has defeated the racist Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to become the next governor of that state.
  • Tony Evers (D-WI) is projected to become the next governor of Wisconsin, unseating Scott Walker.
  • Democratic Senators in North Dakota, Indiana, and Missouri, all states won by Trump in 2016, have been defeated by their Republican challengers.

Brazil’s Far Right Threat

720px-Flag_of_Brazil.svg.png
via Wikimedia Commons

On October 7, far right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain, came within a few percentage points of becoming Brazil’s next president. In a race with many candidates, Bolsonaro advanced with 46% of the vote, just shy of the majority needed to avoid a second round, two-person runoff. Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party–a last minute stand-in for former president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula), who was barred from running–also advanced, with 29% of the vote. (Full first-round election results here)

This election is crucial. Bolsonaro is akin to Donald Trump in his misogyny, racism, and homophobia (see here and here), while his praise for the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 suggests that his presidency could see the return of authoritarian government. Bolsonaro’s running mate, ex-general Hamilton Mourão, said of the dictatorship, “[e]xcesses were committed, heroes kill…”

In 2017, the decisive defeats of Marine Le Pen (France) and Geert Wilders (The Netherlands), suggested that the rest of the world might not jump aboard the far right Trump train. But then, presidential term limits were abolished in China, Vladimir Putin ‘won’ another six-year term in Russia, a nationalist government was formed in Italy, and now Brazil is at risk of joining a growing list of newly illiberal states.

While there are global causes for the rise of Bolsonaro, there are also important local factors. Eliane Brum describes his bases of support as those who hope to benefit from development in the Amazon, anti-same-sex marriage evangelicals, and critics of the Workers’ Party (PT):

These people hate the PT for many reasons. Some because under former presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Rousseff, the party reduced poverty, widened university access to black students, and strengthened rights for housemaids – for a long time, a form of modern slavery in Brazil. Others because they cannot forgive a party that rose to power promising change, only to become corrupted and aloof.

Bolsonaro is a political outsider at a time when the ‘Operation Car Wash’ corruption scandal has tarnished the image of Brazil’s major political parties. Although politicians of both the right and the left are alleged to be corrupt, the Workers’ Party has borne the brunt of the fallout. President Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016, and Lula, Rousseff’s predecessor and founder of the Workers’ Party, faces twelve years in prison and was barred from running in this election. Fernando Haddad carries the institutional weight of the Workers’ Party and the endorsement of Lula–both a blessing and a curse–while Bolsonaro joined the minor Social Liberal Party only this year as a vehicle for his presidential run.

A Bolsonaro presidency would have grave environmental impacts. He has pledged to pull Brazil out of the Paris climate agreement, which would make Brazil only the second country, after the U.S., to declare its intent to leave the vital global accord. And Bolsonaro’s proposed domestic policy would accelerate the deforestation of the Amazon, limiting the giant rainforest’s ability to absorb CO2. An article in Grist explains,

As the global fight against catastrophic climate change ramps up, forests are a necessary front of the action. According to a dire, new report by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), halting deforestation could play a vital role in limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as forests have a significant capacity to absorb and store carbon.

Of course, in addition to the global threats posed by a potential Bolsonaro presidency, there are numerous threats specific to Brazil. Authoritarianism ultimately jeopardizes all Brazilians, while the candidate’s bigotry threatens marginalized communities in much the same way that Trump’s actions and rhetoric threatens marginalized communities in the United States. Bolsonaro’s promise to gut environmental protections also intersects with his disregard for human rights: “[h]e has criticized the Brazilian government’s commitment to preserving vast swaths of the Amazon for Indigenous people, promising that he will ‘not to give the Indians another inch of land.'” (Grist).

Brazilian democracy is in the fight of its life, but it’s worth ending with a positive. A wave of women-led, anti-Bolsonaro resistance has formed, and similarities with the popular opposition to Trump in the U.S. are clear. Brum again:

In August, Ludimilla Teixeira, a black anarchist born in one of the poorest communities of Salvador, Bahia, created a Facebook page: Women United Against Bolsonaro. The page, which accepts only female followers, now has almost 4 million of them. A movement grew out of this group… [on September 30] spurring hundreds of thousands of women – and men – on to the streets of Brazil and around the world. Many carried banners with the slogan and hashtag: #EleNão – #NotHim. It was the biggest demonstration organised by women in Brazil’s history.

The election’s second round will take place on October 28.

What next for Idlib?

Leila Al-Shami, co-author (with Robin Yassin-Kassab) of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, on Idlib and the international community’s dangerous shift toward rehabilitation of the Assad regime.

Leila's blog

merlin_143073099_36e9cf6a-2ee6-442b-85d4-b72fbfe50ec6-superJumboFrom last Friday’s protest against the regime/Russian upcoming assault in Maaret al-Numan, Idlib. Credit: Zein Al Rifai/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Originally published in the New York Times under the title ‘The Death Blow is Coming for Syrian Democracy’

The Syrian regime is determined to reconquer all of the territory it has lost. Aided by Russian bombers and Iranian troops, and emboldened by its success in terrorizing the populations of Ghouta and Daraa into submission, President Bashar al-Assad’s government is now preparing to attack Idlib, the last remaining province outside of his control. Idlib is home to some three million people, about half of them displaced, or forcibly evacuated, to the province from elsewhere. Many are crowded into unsanitary camps or sleeping in the open.

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