Friday, August 28, 2009

Obama's Biteless Barks Amount to Complicity

The New York Times has touted President Obama’s restriction of visas for Honduran citizens as “raising pressure on the government that took power” after the coup d’ĂȘtat in Honduras on June 28, 2009. What American mainstream media fails to point out, however, is that President Obama’s actions have thus far been symbolic at most, and tantamount to complicity at least. The president’s initial response to the coup that ousted a democratically elected president in our hemisphere failed to condemn the act. His stance on the coup has been called “tepid” by rightful president Manuel Zelaya and his supporters, and his inaction has incited anger across Latin America, as his promises to extend human rights and democracy to neighboring countries have proven false.

While the Times insists that the administration has “repeatedly condemned the military coup,” and that the restriction of visas shows the president’s resolve on the matter, why has he failed to restrict the visas of the very military junta he supposedly condemns? Why has he failed to freeze the assets and cash of de facto president Roberto Micheletti in U.S. banks?

The U.S. has a long history of supporting and instigating coups, dictatorships, juntas, and their crimes against humanity in Latin America. The consistency among these “interventions” is that they always remove a progressive leader whose policies benefit the poor, the working class, the indigenous, women, students, and the politically powerless. While these may sound like fringe groups to many the Times’ readers, please recall that in Latin America, big business, the wealthy, and the elite are a slim minority of the population. However, these are the very groups who hold the vast majority of power and wealth, often stemming from intimate ties with the U.S. and Europe.

In this case, Zelaya, a rancher and long-time timber worker, whose economic stance is left of center, was ousted. Micheletti, his replacement, has ties with the U.S. (he lived and studied in Florida and Louisiana), as well as an economic stance that would directly benefit large American corporations. Ideologically, Micheletti is similar to a moderate conservative who prioritizes big, international businesses over the working poor of his own neighborhoods. Also, in Latin America, where indigenous blood runs through the veins of about 70% of the population, his Italian heritage has not gone unnoticed.

The State Department’s assertion that “President Zelaya’s insistence on undertaking provocative actions contributed to the polarization of Honduran society and led to a confrontation that unleashed the events that led to his removal” is a classic case of blaming the victim. To borrow an analogy penned by Dr. Martin Luther King, this blame game is much like naming a robbed man as the culprit, since he possessed something of value, which led to his being robbed.

It should also be noted that Micheletti’s regime celebrated the statement issued by the State Department, being able to read between the lines fairly easily.

President Obama has stated that the “the situation must be resolved by Hondurans and their democratic institutions in accordance with the rule of law.” It hardly seems necessary to point out that democracy and law have been destroyed in Honduras, while international law has not been enforced by the U.N., the U.S., or any other powerful institution. While the Organization of American States (OAS) has voted overwhelmingly for the “immediate and unconditional” return to power of Zelaya, the Obama administration has failed to lend the support necessary to make this a reality. Was this vote not democratic? Are the laws of the OAS not to be considered valid?

Obama claims he “can’t push a button and suddenly reinstate Mr. Zelaya.” In its most absurd and literal sense, this statement is true. However, the president of the United States cannot pretend to be powerless with respect to Latin America. While there is no magic button, there are obvious and easy ways to put real pressure on Micheletti’s junta. He could easily remove our ambassador (who was inconveniently out of town at the time of the coup). Ending diplomatic ties with Micheletti would topple his government almost instantly. The freezing of his assets in U.S. banks—which amount to millions—would cripple the junta.

Restricting visas for middle class Hondurans who wish to work and study in the U.S. will do nothing to disable Micheletti, and the lack of meaningful action shows our president’s complicity with the illegal coup in Honduras.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Wealth Discrepancies and Women's Issues: from the Developing to the Developed World

The New York Times Magazine has come out with a piece of investigative journalism highlighting a global issue that hits close to home for many progressives: women’s rights. Undeniably, if we are to address inequality and social injustices on a global scale, the treatment of women ranks among such issues as land rights, clashes over drug routes, religious disputes, and any other political confrontation that has taken on violent tones. The most exceptional aspect to the issue of women’s rights is the intimacy involved. Clashes often take place not in the streets or battlefield, but in the very homes and workplaces of people involved. This blog thanks Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn for bringing many of these issues to light.

However, we must ask ourselves about some of the assumptions our authors are dealing with. When addressing a large hotel-turned-brothel in India, for example, the authors chronicle a young girl who wishes to work as a maid, but instead is beaten, raped, and forced into prostitution and slavery. This is a grim, yet accurate portrayal of the life many women encounter globally. The authors go on to state, “In many poor countries, the greatest unexploited resource isn’t oil fields or veins of gold; it is the women and girls who aren’t educated and never become a major presence in the formal economy.”

It is at this point that the investigative journalist must ask the bigger, perhaps more obvious question. Who were the patrons of this hotel in India’s capital? Who visited the hotel and expected to have a young prostitute at-hand? From what countries do these guests come? For what companies do they work?

To assert that “poor countries” simply need more education to send more individuals into the “formal economy” is to omit the role that members of wealthy nations who participate daily in their economies play in the problem. Is it not possible that “formal economies” contribute to—and benefit from—abuse, rape, prostitution, and slavery?

Perhaps for the sake of asserting some optimism, the authors include an anecdote about Terrari Trent, a Zimbabwean girl who overcomes an abusive marriage, and goes on to receive a PhD from a university in the U.S. The assumption seems to be that in wealthy cities of wealthy countries—say, New York, London, Tokyo, Paris, etc.—brutal discrepancies do not exist. However, Terrari is the exception, not the rule. Too often, women and girl immigrants risk their lives and families to make it to one of these presumed havens of compassion, only to find themselves in similar conditions to those described in the New Delhi hotel.

In another instance of extreme tunnel vision, the authors state, “If you’re reading this article, the phrase ‘gender discrimination’ might conjure thoughts of unequal pay, underfinanced sports teams or unwanted touching from a boss. In the developing world, meanwhile, millions of women and girls are actually enslaved.” Yet how removed is the developing world from the laptops on which we receive our daily newspaper? A shocking percentage of the products we (in the developed world) take for granted are the effects of exploitation of resources and labor in the developing world. In fact, the developed and undeveloped worlds depend so heavily on each other that without one, the other collapses. Also, who at the New York Times wishes to argue that de facto slavery does not exist in our own country?

In perhaps the most irresponsible statement of the whole Sunday Times, we read that “If poor families spent only as much on educating their children as they do on beer and prostitutes, there would be a breakthrough in the prospects of poor countries.” If it were only the poor who were paying for prostitution it would be a meager economic endeavor. However, the pervasiveness of prostitution (as well as studies and common sense) indicates that the primary cause of prostitution globally is the sponsorship of wealthy men from wealthy nations.

To be clear, I thank the authors for their contribution to our collective awareness of such a grave issue. I much prefer a flawed piece to no piece at all, and its location as a centerpiece of the New York Times Magazine ensures that this article will be widely read by an educated audience. But please, let’s not blame the horrendous crimes committed against women and girls on poverty and poor people; until we see that these are two symptoms of the same disease, neither will be addressed effectively.