Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Ronald Reagan

How Could They Tell?

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday March 16 2017

 


How Could They Tell?

 

Last week I wrote about speculation surrounding the death of the 29th president of the United States, Warren Gamaliel Harding. There was also speculation about the death of Harding’s successor, Calvin Coolidge. Dorothy Parker was reported to have said, on being told by Robert Benchley that Coolidge was dead, “How could they tell?” I heard a different version of that story. Peter Benchley, creator of Jaws and the grandson of the Algonquin wit Robert Benchley, (Robert sent a telegram to his editor at the New Yorker, Harold Ross, upon arriving in Venice for the first time. “Streets full of water. Please advise.”) was speaking on Ned Sherrin’s BBC Radio 4 programme Loose Ends. According to him, Robert Benchley said, “Coolidge is dead”; Parker said, “How can they tell?”; Benchley responded, “He had an erection”.

The renowned lawyer Clarence Darrow dryly summed up Coolidge: “The greatest man who ever came out of Plymouth Corner, Vermont!” Coolidge had a reputation for taciturnity although some of his remarks could be interpreted as quietly witty. In that, he reminds me somewhat of Clement Attlee, although their political philosophies were totally different – Attlee was a founder of the welfare state whereas Coolidge was a small-government conservative.

Weaned on a Pickle

Coolidge was commonly referred to as “Silent Cal”. A woman once said to him, said to him, “I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you.” He replied, “You lose.” Coolidge often seemed uncomfortable among fashionable Washington society; when asked why he continued to attend so many of dinner parties, he replied, “Got to eat somewhere.” Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, loathed Coolidge: “When he wished he were elsewhere, he pursed his lips, folded his arms, and said nothing. He looked then precisely as though he had been weaned on a pickle”.

He did have a sense of humour, albeit a somewhat infantile one. He buzzed for his bodyguards and then hid under his desk as they frantically searched for him, presumably fearing him kidnapped.

“His ideal day,” HL Mencken wrote, “is one on which nothing whatever happens.” Walter Lippmann described Coolidge’s philosophy as “Puritanism de luxe, in which it is possible to praise all the classic virtues while continuing to enjoy all the modern conveniences.”

Irving Stone wrote in 1949: “Calvin Coolidge believed the least government was the best government; he aspired to become the least president the country had ever had; he attained that desire”.

Coolidge has generally been regarded as something of a joke but some historians have tried hard to find something positive about this accidental, do-little president who rose without trace to the highest office in the USA. Some have suggested that he created his image deliberately as a campaign tactic. He himself gave some support to this theory telling Ethel Barrymore: “I think the American people want a solemn ass as a President and I think I will go along with them.” “The words of a President have an enormous weight,” he would later write, “and ought not to be used indiscriminately”.

Continuity

He was the first vice president to attend cabinet meetings although he kept a low profile in the administration. There has been no suggestion that he was personally corrupt as were many of Harding’s cabinet. Nevertheless, he kept most of them on because he believed that, having attained the presidency because of Harding’s death in office, he was morally obliged to retain his predecessor’s appointees and policies until he won an election in his own right. Many expected that he would not be on the ballot in 1924 but he was and won convincingly.

Coolidge strongly believed that the accused were entitled to a presumption of innocence. He felt that the Senate investigation of allegations relating to the Teapot Dome scandal would suffice although he did personally intervene in demanding the resignation of Attorney General Harry MDaugherty after he refused to cooperate with the congressional investigation. He was methodical in seeking detailed briefing on the wrongdoing with Harry A Slattery reviewing the facts with him, Harlan F Stone analysing the legal aspects for him and Senator William E Borah assessing and presenting the political factors.

Coolidge ensured continuity with most of Harding’s policies, including immigration restrictions. Just before the Republican Convention began, Coolidge signed into law the Revenue Act of 1924, which reduced the top marginal tax rate from 58% to 46%, as well as personal income tax rates across the board. He has often been derided for saying, “The business of America is business”. What he actually said was: “It is probable that a press which maintains an intimate touch with the business currents of the nation is likely to be more reliable than it would be if it were a stranger to these influences. After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world”.

Laissez Faire

Coolidge is admired by those who share his belief that that America and its business will prosper if the federal government does not interfere. Coolidge spoke in his inaugural address about lynching, child labour and low wages for women but did not attempt to solve these problems. One could not imagine a person less like Donald Trump than Coolidge. However, like Trump, he followed a “foxes in charge of the hen house”” approach to government departments. The Federal Trade Commission was given a new boss, William E Humphrey, who had constantly opposed its work. In 1925 the government received $677 million more than it spent but there were still drastic cuts. The Interior department saw its budget fall from $48 million in 1921 to $32 million in 1928.

 

Great Depression

Some claim that his do-nothing philosophy led to the Great Depression. Historian Robert Sobel points out “As Governor of Massachusetts, Coolidge supported wages and hours legislation, opposed child labour, imposed economic controls during World War I, favoured safety measures in factories, and even worker representation on corporate boards. Did he support these measures while president? No, because in the 1920s, such matters were considered the responsibilities of state and local governments.”

Under Coolidge, the stock market swelled into an enormous bubble, inflated by borrowed money. Coolidge managed to get out of office before the bubble burst but that does not absolve him of blame. “Nero fiddled,” HL Mencken said, “but Coolidge only snored.” Hugh Brogan says of Coolidge: “As president, he thought it was his duty to mind the store while the republicans ran the country as they saw fit. He intervened in the economic process only to veto the proposals of more active men in Congress … He was almost equally supine in foreign affairs.”

Model for Reagan?

Another historian, David Greenberg, argues that Coolidge was a model for Reagan. Like Reagan, he cut taxes, drastically reduced federal programmes and refused to compromise with striking government workers. He avoided entanglement with the World Court and the League of Nations. Coolidge liked to take a nap in the afternoon. Greenberg claims that Coolidge mastered radio in the same way that Reagan mastered television. To compare Silent Cal with the Great Communicator seems a bit of a stretch. A contemporary claimed that Coolidge could be silent in five languages. “If you keep dead still,” he advised Herbert Hoover, his successor, regarding visitors to the White House, “they will run down in three or four minutes. If you even cough or smile they will start up all over again.”

Achievements

The best that can be said is that John Calvin Coolidge Jr restored public confidence in the White House after the scandals of Harding’s presidency; he was very popular when he left office after deciding not to run for a second term. He told Chief Justice Harlan Stone, “It’s a pretty good idea to get out when they still want you.” Claud M Feuss wrote in his 1940 biography of Coolidge: “He embodied the spirit and hopes of the middle class, could interpret their longings and express their opinions. That he did represent the genius of the average is the most convincing proof of his strength.”

Coolidge’s retirement was relatively short, as he died at the age of 60 in January 1933, less than two months before his immediate successor, Herbert Hoover, another member of the Harding administration, left office.

 

 

 

Nixon Part Five

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday January 5 2017

Colman's Column3

A man is not finished when he is defeated. He is finished when he quits.

nixon-3

Nixon inspired   widespread loathing and derision; I recall a sketch on Monty Python Live at Drury Lane in the early 70s; a group of men are gathered around a bar: “Have you heard the news? Nixon’s had an arsehole transplant. The arsehole rejected him”.  We must balance this with the more positive view presented in Evan Thomas’s biography, Being Nixon: A Man Divided.

Nixon’s Good Points

Chekhov’s criterion for calling a man good was a daughter’s affection and Nixon’s daughters Tricia and Julie certainly seemed to have a genuine deep love for him, which was reciprocated.

tricia-and-julie

Thomas believes that, despite the references to ‘jigaboos’ and ‘jungle bunnies’ on the Watergate tapes, Nixon was not a racist. When Nixon was at Duke University, he made sure that a black student called William Brock was welcomed into his fraternity, at a time when almost all fraternities around the country were segregated.  Nixon spoke out about segregation in Durham, and one of his classmates recalled: “He looked upon the issue as a moral issue”.

 

One of his classmates at Duke, Fred Cady, had been disabled with polio. Every day, Nixon carried him up the steps to class. Those who worked closely with him in later years regarded him as kind and considerate. He was shy and introverted by nature and did not like confrontation. Chuck Colson said that Nixon could be “brutally cold, calculating, a manipulator of power”—but “could never bring himself to point out to a secretary her misspellings”. Nevertheless, he showed great courage facing angry mobs who were spitting and throwing rocks on his foreign tours as vice president.

 

In Thomas’s judgement, Nixon, even as a congressman and a senator, had a long-range vision that most of his congressional peers lacked. He voted for the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe because he understood that the Republican Party was doomed to irrelevance if it regressed to pre–World War II isolationism.

 

China

 

There were certainly achievements. In April 1971, Nixon approved a trip to China by the US Ping-Pong team and announced a plan to ease travel and trade restrictions. At the same time, his national security advisor Henry Kissinger was making secret trips to Beijing.

kissinger

Nixon said that one of his long-term aims was the normalization of relations with China. His foreign policy was bogged down by the seemingly intractable Vietnam war and he was trying to find ways of containing the Soviet Union. Nixon saw advantages in improving relations with both China and the Soviet Union; he hoped that détente would put pressure on the North Vietnamese to end the Vietnam War.

Until Nixon’s 1972 visit, China was a pariah country like today’s North Korea and Nixon could claim credit for its isolation. His anti-communist stance when running for Congress against Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas, his support for Senator Joe McCarthy, his pursuit of Alger Hiss, helped him domestically to get away with approaching China. In 1964, he categorically stated that “it would be disastrous to the cause of freedom” for the US to recognize Red China, but he did it anyway. His record of anti-Communism gave him the credentials for making the bold move of establishing normal relations.

nixon-in-china-poster

In 1972, China had a reasonably educated work force of nearly a billion willing to work for low wages. China was not burdened by environmental and health and safety regulations such as those being introduced in the US by Nixon himself. The Chinese leadership   was ready to take the   opportunity offered by Nixon through opening up of Western markets. His initiative hastened China’s technological advance through western transfers and gave China the means to fend off potential unrest by employing millions in an expanding economy. China’s military progress benefited from the huge forex reserves accumulated from the massive exports of cheap Chinese products and China used those reserves to acquire the latest military technology.

Critics have questioned whether Nixon’s initiative was such a good thing either for the Chinese people or for the US economy. As of October 2016, the US debt to China is $1.115 trillion.  China’s role as America’s largest banker gives it leverage. US presidents who followed Nixon did not try to reverse his China policy. Even Bill Clinton became an enthusiastic supporter of trade with China once he took lessons in foreign policy from Nixon in early 1993. Even before he was inaugurated, Donald Trump was calling China an enemy, an “absolute abuser of the United States.”

Liberal Policies

Defenders of Nixon point out that he could have cancelled LBJ’s Great Society welfare programmes, but instead enlarged them. From 1970 to 1975, spending on human resource services exceeded spending for defence for the first time since World War II. Unemployment benefits were extended; social security benefits went up. The Nixon administration expanded the enforcement of affirmative action and signed legislation which banned sexual discrimination in education. He also supported the Constitutional amendment lowering the voting age to 18 and abolished the draft.

Even while he was being undermined by Watergate, Nixon was proposing a comprehensive national health insurance scheme which was not significantly different from the one that Barack Obama finally pushed through. In May 1974, such a massive piece of social welfare legislation had no chance of success in Congress.

 

He set up the Environmental Protection Agency. This is an example of Nixon’s pragmatism rather than liberalism. Nixon was not interested in environmental issues and delegated them to his aides, saying at one point: “Just keep me out of trouble on environmental issues.” He called the environmental movement “crap” for “clowns.” Nixon spoke of himself as a conservative who wanted smaller government. With an activist Democratic Congress, he recognised the need for compromise.

Some commentators are cynical about Nixon and de-segregation. Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” was to appeal to racial prejudice in the South and among blue-collar workers in the North and West. Nixon told an aide: “I think if we can keep liberal writers convinced that we are doing what the Court requires, and our conservative friends we are not doing any more than what the Court requires, I think we can walk this tightrope until November, 1972.”

In two landmark decisions with Nixon’s appointees providing 4 of the 5 votes, the Supreme Court effectively held that school systems could be separate and unequal as long as this was accomplished through tax policy and the arbitrary drawing of district boundaries rather than through direct pupil assignment. Nixon instructed government agencies to go only as far as required by court orders and no further.

Project Wizard – Rehabilitation

rehab

Elizabeth Drew referred to the inevitable process whereby historians try to find a new angle by rehabilitating a previously scorned figure. Nixon was himself at the forefront of rehabilitation attempts in what was termed Project Wizard. The plan succeeded to a great extent.

Everyone who was anyone on the New York scene wanted to be invited to the dinners (fine Chinese food served by Chinese staff) Nixon gave in his New York brownstone. He made more trips to China and travelled around the US making speeches about great leaders he had known, and wrote many books and op-eds. By late 1979, Gallup ranked him as one of the ten most-admired people in the world.

However, was deluding himself in thinking that he could return to real influence. After Reagan was re-elected, Nixon really believed that he had earned a high-level position in the administration.  Reagan aides were incredulous. Nixon threatened Bill Clinton that if he were not paid proper respect as a foreign-affairs expert he would write an op-ed in a major newspaper attacking the president’s handling of foreign policy. It never occurred to him that many found him a nuisance.

 

fiveprez

Five presidents attended Nixon’s funeral—he got some respect when he was dead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Freedom Fighters, Terrorists and Ordinary Decent Criminals

 

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday March 31 2015.

 

Colman's Column3

 

The world was horrified recently at the news that a co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, had deliberately flown his plane into a mountain killing 150 people. Many have commented that this was the ultimate expression of modern narcissism, a trend for suicidal people to want to take others with them without their consent. I wrote last week about how Kieran Conway, in a book in which he calls himself a “freedom fighter”, admitted responsibility for killing 21 innocent young people in the cause of a united Ireland. No one asked those young people what they thought about it. Terrorism is another kind of narcissism.

There are fuzzy boundaries between war, terrorism, crime, politics and business. Politicians use terms like “war on terrorism”, “war on crime”, “war on drugs”. Some might believe that this is part of a plan to militarise civil society. “Freedom fighters” easily morph into criminals as they resort to bank robberies and drug dealing to raise funds for the cause. Many once considered as terrorists later take their place in government.  In Ireland, there was Eamon De Valera and more recently Martin McGuinness. In Kenya there was Jomo Kenyatta; today his son is president and has had his case dropped by the International Criminal Court.

MIA made it into the news again the other day. It was not for any recent achievement but merely about a gripe that she regurgitated concerning the way Oprah Winfrey had treated her some time ago. Suggestions that MIA was terrorist sympathiser led to some people dragging out that old chestnut: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. Whenever this is said, no definition of “freedom fighter” is offered. No examples of bona fide freedom fighters are presented except for Nelson Mandela.

Ronald Reagan called the Nicaraguan Contra rebels freedom fighters. Reagan also frequently called the Afghan Mujahedeen freedom fighters during their war against the Soviet Union, yet twenty years later, when a new generation of Afghan men fought against what they perceived to be a regime installed by foreign powers, George W Bush labelled their attacks “terrorism”.

Professor Martin Rudner, director of the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies at Ottawa’s Carleton University, says the phrase “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” “is grossly misleading.” It assesses the validity of the cause when it should be addressing terrorism is an act. “One can have a perfectly beautiful cause and yet if one commits terrorist acts, it is terrorism regardless.

Distinguished scholars have devoted their lives to defining terrorism and have admitted failure. In the first edition of Political Terrorism: a Research Guide, Alex Schmid spent a hundred pages examining more than a hundred different definitions of terrorism. Four years and a second edition later, Schmid conceded in the first sentence of the revised volume that the “search for an adequate definition is still on”. Walter Laqueur despaired of defining terrorism in both editions of his  work on the subject, maintaining that it is neither possible to do so nor worthwhile to make the attempt.

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” seems to mean that state authorities sometimes delegitimize opponents, and legitimize the state’s own use of armed force. Critics call this “state terrorism”.

The UN’s attempts to define terrorism failed because of differences of opinion about the use of violence in the context of conflicts over national liberation and self-determination. Since 1994, the UN General Assembly has repeatedly condemned terrorist acts using the following political description of terrorism: “Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable”.

Although, in the international community, terrorism has no legally binding, criminal-law definition, there are definitions of “terrorism”. A study on political terrorism examining over 100 definitions of “terrorism” found 22 separate definitional elements. These can be summarised thus: violent acts, which deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants, intended to create fear, perpetrated for a religious, political, or ideological goal.

Bruce Hoffman wrote: “By distinguishing terrorists from other types of criminals and terrorism from other forms of crime, we come to appreciate that terrorism is :

  • ineluctably political in aims and motives
  • violent – or, equally important, threatens violence
  • designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions beyond the immediate victim or target
  • conducted by an organization with an identifiable chain of command or conspiratorial cell structure (whose members wear no uniform or identifying insignia) and
  • perpetrated by a subnational group or non-state entity.”

 

Everyone agrees that  terrorism is a pejorative term, with intrinsically negative connotations. Use of the term implies a moral judgment.  According to David Rodin, utilitarian philosophers can (in theory) conceive of cases in which the evil of terrorism is outweighed by the good that could not be achieved in a less morally costly way. Michael Walzer argued that terrorism can be morally justified in only one specific case: when “a nation or community faces the extreme threat of complete destruction and the only way it can preserve itself is by intentionally targeting non-combatants, then it is morally entitled to do so”.

Those dubbed “terrorists” by their opponents rarely identify themselves as such, preferring to use other terms such as separatist, freedom fighter, liberator, revolutionary, militant,  guerrilla, rebel,  or patriot.

The use of violent and brutal tactics by criminal organizations for protection rackets or to enforce a code of silence is usually not termed terrorism. However, “terrorists” or “freedom fighters” often use their capacity to intimidate to engage in similar activities to organised crime. While they were purportedly striving to reunite the six counties of Northern Ireland with the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland, the Provisional IRA were also building up a criminal empire. While this might have begun as a means of financing the republican struggle, crime seemed to become an end in itself. The profits of crime might have been a reason for prolonging the conflict.

Raids on illegal distilleries in Ireland uncovered bottling and capping machinery and high- quality copies of brand labels. Many of the products were designed for use in pub optics. The IRA took the production of counterfeit spirits so seriously that it even had a quality control unit.

Conway writes about his participation in bank raids and gun battles. The IRA’s “elite robbery team” unit organised armed robberies using a tactic known as “tiger kidnapping”, where the family of an employee was held hostage to ensure co-operation. The unit played a central role in the theft of £26.5 million from the Northern Bank just before Christmas 2004 and organized three other robberies which netted a further £3 million in that  year.

According to Customs Revenue officers, about half of Northern Ireland’s filling stations sold fuel smuggled from the Irish Republic, where duty was considerably lower, at a cost to the Treasury of about £200 million a year. Fuel smuggling, much of it organized by the notorious South Armagh brigade, was probably the IRA’s single largest source of income.

The paramilitaries were involved in pirating DVDs and software and the IRA’s links with America gave it access to new releases. The IRA’s counterfeiting operations extended to fake football strips, designer clothes, power tools and a well-known brand of washing powder. A bottle of counterfeit perfume seized at a market was found to contain urine as a stabilizer.

Often the IRA invested as a silent partner in legitimate businesses. The IRA’s finance unit contributed to Belfast’s property boom by investing in houses.

The IRA received up to $6 million (£3.1 million) for helping to train  rebels in Colombia. The payment was allegedly negotiated by a former IRA “chief of staff” who had worldwide contacts — including in Libya, where republicans deposited some of the proceeds from their vast criminal empire.

The Irish gangster Martin Cahill was the subject of two feature films. In The General, Brendan Gleeson played him. In Ordinary Decent Criminals, Kevin Spacey played him. Cahill was involved in petty crime from an early age and turned to armed robbery after stealing arms from a police station. O’Connor’s jewellers at Harold’s Cross, Dublin was forced to close, with the loss of more than one hundred jobs after Cahill stole €2.55 million worth of gold and diamonds from the store.

In 1994, a gunman, who was armed with a .357 Magnum , shot Cahill in the face and torso, jumped on a motorbike and disappeared from the scene. The IRA said that it was Cahill’s “involvement with and assistance to pro-British death squads which forced us to act”. One theory is that John Gilligan, who was convicted of the murder of journalist Veronica Guerin (also shot by a motorcyclist), had Cahill killed because he was trying to get a slice of Gilligan’s drug profits.

Gilligan effectively had the complicit support of the Dublin IRA and had members of the INLA (Irish National Liberation Army) in his pay. He was importing enough cannabis to make everybody rich. He was even importing small arms, which he passed on to republicans as sweeteners.

The IRA established links with organized crime in the same areas of the Costa del Sol where many of Dublin’s top “ordinary” criminals, the “Murphia”, lived. The Murphia became the wholesale middlemen and women who supplied parts of the UK drugs markets after developing links with their British counterparts.

The dissident republican group the Real IRA was responsible for murders, attempted murders and pipe bomb attacks in the Republic. The group is believed to be extorting millions of Euros from targeting drug dealers — as well as business people — in Dublin and Cork. The Real IRA have taken over many of the security and protection rackets once run by the Provos. The dissidents are also believed to be selling some of these bombs to gangs including criminal elements within the Travelling community.

The Provisional IRA funded its terrorist activities with bank robberies and protection rackets. Martin McGuinness was the IRA Commandant for Derry. He and Gerry Adams were prominent in the labyrinthine negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement and the IRA laying down its arms. As a minister in the government of the statelet of Northern Ireland, McGuinness   visited Sri Lanka to advise us on peace and reconciliation. Sinn Fein, which used to be seen by voters in the Republic as the proxy of the Provisional IRA, is a major Opposition force in the Dáil today and is often mentioned as a possible coalition member of the government. Fiachra Gibbons, in the New Statesman, described Sinn Fein as “a kind of cross between Fianna Fáil and the Catholic Church, but with extra guns, paedophiles and front businesses.”

In Sri Lanka, the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) was mainly dependent for funding in its early days on robberies and extortion.  Trading in gold, laundering money and dealing in narcotics brought the LTTE substantial revenue to buy sophisticated weaponry. They also played a role in providing passports, other papers, and also engaged in human trafficking

Those who carried out the Easter Rising in 1916 are seen in a romantic light compared to the bombers of today. However, like the bombers of today, they  believed they were entitled, although they were but a small unelected group of conspirators in a democratic country, to stage a revolution in which many innocent people were killed. “Armed struggle” generally means fanatics killing innocents by remote control. The whole point of terrorism is to induce fear among non-combatants. It is a bit rich for those committing these acts of terror against civilians to call themselves freedom fighters. Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public for political purposes are abhorrent, whatever political or philosophical justifications are presented.

 

 

Crosstown Traffic

This article appeared on Page 9 of Ceylon Today on Tuesday January 6 2015.

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/e-paper.html

Vote in hope and repent at leisure

About twenty years ago, I had a meeting in Whitehall with a Conservative MP who was concerned that one of his constituents had been falsely accused (by his estranged wife) of child abuse. After the meeting, I noticed that my umbrella was missing. Soon after, I was watching the news on TV when I saw the MP announcing that he had switched to the Labour Party. “That’s the man who stole my umbrella”, I cried.

Alan Howarth, for it was he, was the first MP to defect directly from the Conservatives to Labour, and the first former Conservative MP to sit as a Labour MP since Oswald Mosley. Howarth wanted to be seen to be doing the decent thing by winning a seat as a Labour candidate. He failed at Wentworth and then again at Wythenshawe, but got a chance at the safe Labour seat of Newport East. Miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, who had been emasculated by Thatcher, stood against him but Howarth easily held the seat for Labour. He now sits in the House of Lords, as does his partner Baroness Hollis. They came under a cloud for claiming separate expenses although they live next door to each other. He did send my umbrella back.

New Labour

When I lived in the UK, I always regarded it as my moral duty to exercise my franchise. Because of my class and family background, it would have been anathema for me to ever vote for a Conservative candidate. The Labour Party stood for my class, the working class; it had provided the welfare state (with some help from Liberal Party thinkers); it had allowed me (with some help from Conservative education minister RAB Butler) to go to grammar school and university. Labour candidate Jack Diamond came to our school. He always won the Gloucester seat- until he lost to Conservative Sally Oppenheim.

When I moved to Wimbledon, I found it rather creepy when I received a letter from Sir Michael Havers welcoming me to his constituency. This was a rock-solid conservative seat, so I later tactically voted Liberal-Democrat in the hope of unseating Sir Michael’s successor Dr Charles Goodson-Wickes. I was unsuccessful in my attempted coup. However, in 1997, miracle of miracles, Roger Casale won the seat for Labour.

That was the year that New Labour ended 18 years of Conservative rule. On the BBC’s election night programme Professor Anthony King described the result of the exit poll, which accurately predicted a Labour landslide, as being akin to “an asteroid hitting the planet and destroying practically all life on Earth”. Anthony Charles Lynton Blair entered Downing Street on a wave of optimism and good will, on 2 May 1997.  He promised to restore trust in politics and breathe new life into Britain’s tired institutions. Sound familiar?

The Myth of Political Parties

The story of the development of political parties is a fascinating one but must wait for another article. Briefly, the theory is that like-minded people band together and agree a set of policies. They exert a discipline within the group in order to translate those policies into legislation and administrative procedures. They persuade the public to support them by placing before them an outline of what they propose to do if elected. The public can compare this with what rival parties propose to do.

How does this work out in practice? Blair had won power by jettisoning many traditional Labour policies. The Blair government achieved some progressive measures but the effort was undermined by madcap experiments in neo-liberalism that undermined health services, education and transport by the attempt to introduce quasi-markets. Prisons have been privatized and there are record numbers of people occupying them – how else to make a profit? Soon after taking office, the new administration announced that it would be continuing the economic policies of the outgoing administration in the interests of stability. One can see why New Labour was attractive to a Conservative like Howarth – it was carrying on Thatcherite policies and it was in power. Power attracts crossovers.

Blair was a career politician with no trace of socialist principles or ethics who joined a socialist party as a career move. His father had been a prospective Conservative candidate and his political leanings appeared to have rubbed off on the young Tony, who stood in a mock school election as the Conservative candidate.

Democratic elections involving political parties are often little more than the chance to get rid of one set of scoundrels when we are tired of them, only to replace them with another set. Blair replaced Major but carried on the same policies. In Ireland, Fine Gael replaced Fianna Fail. The voters did get the chance to throw out the corrupt scoundrels who got the nation in a mess, but now the Irish economy is being supervised by 15 unelected officials from Brussels, and even the (elected) cabinet is kept in the dark.

Sri Lankan Party Theory

What do the Sri Lankan political parties stand for? We think of the SLFP of Sirimavo Bandaranaike as a party of the left. She had Marxist parties, LSSP and CP, as members of her governing coalition and she moved a long way towards a command economy with nationalisation of key areas and subsidies alongside austerity.

The UNP of JR Jayewardene was instrumental in introducing economic liberalisation even before Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. When he was prime minister from 2001 to 2004, Ranil Wickremasingha tried to continue such policies. Strange to note then that in 2014 the official website of the UNP says: “We are being cheated by the neo-liberalists and the Washington consensus: the UNP vehemently opposes ‘social protection’ cuts and wants more subsidies”.

Crossovers in Sri Lanka

Incessant party-hopping is bad for democracy, confuses the voters and casts doubt upon who stands for what, if anything. There are stories of vast sums of money being paid to those who change allegiance. The case of Amir Ali vs. Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and Others (2006) opened opportunities for crossovers. That same Amir Ali, only a fortnight after being nominated as an MP by the UPFA, crossed over to the Opposition. As I write, 26 UPFA MPs from a 225-member parliament have defected and more are expected.

After weeks of speculation, Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem, finally said he would resign his ministerial portfolio to support Sirisena. This is in spite of Wickremesinghe and Sirisena strongly rejecting Hakeem’s demand for a separate administrative district in the East for Muslims. I will never forget Rauf Hakeem’s comment back in 2007: “The subject of political morality is a relative thing. The current electoral system does not give any government the confidence to try and deliver on the commitments made during the polls.” Blair would appreciate that.

Fissiparous Alliances

Keeping the governing coalition together must have been like herding cats. The opposition will find it as difficult as the government to herd its constituent components. Although the UNP has retained some atavistic loyalty among the planting community in places like Uva Province, Ranil Wickremasinghe has not been able to match the populist appeal of Mahinda Rajapaksa to the rural Sinhala Buddhist masses. Siresena might be able to eat into Rajapaksa’s Sinhala Buddhist support but he will also need support from the minorities.

Significant numbers of Tamil and Muslim politicians have gone over to the opposition, but will that be enough to convince minority voters that their needs will be met when the JHU seems to be exerting an unhealthy influence on opposition strategy? Rajitha Senaratne cited as one reason for his defection the ruling party’s silence over the hardcore Sinhala-Buddhist groups who were allegedly involved in anti-Muslim clashes. Faizer Mustapha decided to join the common opposition because the government failed to take action against BBS. Hunais Farook crossed over for the same reason. The opposition’s dependence on the JHU should cause Muslim voters some anxiety. The common opposition candidate has agreed with the JHU to preserve the constitutional prominence given to Buddhism.

Tamils are seeking greater devolution of power to Tamil areas but the JHU sees that as creeping separatism. Many Tamil politicians are unhappy that the TNA is supporting Sirisena. TNA Northern Provincial Council Member Ananthi Sasitharan told the BBC Tamil Service that the TNA election manifesto for the last Northern Provincial Election was clear on its stance on Tamil identity and autonomous rights. There is nothing in the JHU-inspired Manifesto to give Tamil voters confidence that their lot will be improved by an opposition victory. The hand of the JHU can be seen in the formulation: “I will not undertake any amendment that is detrimental to the stability, security and sovereignty of the country.”

Conclusion

The president has been seen as a canny populist who understands the rural masses in a way that Ranil Wickremasingha never could. Recently, many have remarked that the President appears fatigued and overworked. He was once the youngest elected MP and he has spent 40 years in politics and nearly ten years as President. US presidents always seem to age rapidly in office but they are limited to eight years. Tony Blair became haggard by the end of his reign.

Blair tried to appear hip by associating with the likes of Noel Gallagher of Oasis (the more truculent brother Liam Gallagher refused to be wooed). An indication that the president may have lost touch with the masses is that he has recruited Bollywood stars Salman Khan and Jacqueline Fernandez to help in his campaign. According to The Hindu newspaper based in Tamil Nadu, under his usual rates in 2012, Salman Khan charged approximately 30,000,000 Sri Lanka rupees per day for public appearances. Near where I live there are people living in temporary accommodation in schools because their homes have been destroyed. They may not be impressed at this time by Bollywood stars. The Hindu also reported that 30 people had been killed and 650,000 displaced because of severe rain.

The historian, Tony Judt, wrote: “Tony Blair is a political tactician with a lucrative little sideline in made-to-measure moralising.” Judt also called Blair: “the garden gnome in England’s Garden of forgetting…the inauthentic leader of an inauthentic land.” Thinking about an election in 2015 prompts a recollection of an article I wrote about an election in 2008, which prompted a recollection of an election in 1997. Barack Obama promised to close Guantanamo. It has not been closed yet and today Obama seems unlikely to take action against those found guilty of torture. In 2008, I advised those euphoric over Obama’s victory: “Celebrate a new dawn but watch out. The nights draw in quickly.”

Reconciliation in Haiti Part 4

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday May 26 2013

 

Aristide was elected by a landslide in November 2000. Many said he had become a corrupt tyrant against whom even the poor had turned. Nevertheless, Gallup polls in 2002, the results of which were never disseminated, showed that, whatever his faults, he was far and away Haiti’s most popular and trusted politician.

The protégés of white supremacist Jesse Helms had more say in Aristide’s fate than the Haitian electorate. The Bush administration sent Roger Noriega to Haiti to ‘work out’ the crisis. Noriega worked for Helms and his allies and US Haiti policy was determined by a small number of people who were prominent in Reagan’s or Bush pére’s cabinets. Reagan’s UN ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick was on the board of the International Republican Institute which actively supported the Opposition in Haiti and backed the demobilized army personnel who provided the opposition’s muscle. Many of Reagan and the elder Bush’s henchman returned to government under Bush fils after spending time in conservative think tanks or lobbying firms. Elliot Abrams, convicted of withholding information from Congress during the Iran-Contra hearings was on the NSC and even today is offering Obama advice in the pages of Foreign Policy magazine.

Although US officials stated initially that Aristide had been “taken to the country of his choice”, Aristide’s claim that he had no idea where he was going seems more plausible.

Aid as a weapon

Haiti’s government, which serves eight million people, has an annual budget of about $300 million. The US froze international aid on specious grounds of electoral fraud. Paul Farmer reported that The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) had approved four loans, for health, education, drinking water and road improvement. Haitian and American sources have confirmed to him that the US asked the bank to block the loans until the electoral disputes had been worked out.

 
The freeze continued throughout Aristide’s tenure even after the dispute was resolved. The US gave Haiti, per capita, one tenth of what it distributed in Kosovo. A great deal of it went to the anti-Aristide opposition. A lot also went to pay for the UN occupation and Halliburton support services. International financial institutions engaged in discriminatory and probably illegal practices towards Haiti.

Many of Aristide’s supporters in Haiti and abroad, angrily contend that the international community, particularly the United States, abandoned the fledgling democracy when it needed aid the most. Many believe that Aristide himself was the target of the de facto economic sanctions, just as Haiti was beginning to put its finances back in order.

Amy Wilentz recounts an anecdote which epitomizes the foreign aid relationship. Joyce and Eldon were Baptist missionaries who wanted the CARE Food-for- Work program to make converts for the Lord. The peasants did not like building a new pigsty for Joyce and Eldon for a meal a day rather than cash. With cash they could store food at home for their families. Food-for-Work felt like slavery.

Debt

The Haitian government was forced to pay ever-expanding arrears on its debts. About 40% of Haiti’s $1.134 billion international debt was from loans to the Duvalier dictators. In July 2003, Haiti sent more than 90% of all its foreign reserves to Washington to pay off these arrears.

By the end of the 19th century, payments to France consumed around 80% of Haiti’s budget. Aristide declared that France “extorted this money from Haiti by force and . . . should give it back to us so that we can build primary schools, healthcare, water systems and roads.” He added in interest and adjusted for inflation, to calculate that France owes Haiti $21,685,135,571.48

 
Régis Debray, left-wing hero of the 1960s and associate of Che Guevara, was sent to Haiti by Chirac in search of arguments to undermine Aristide’s position. Debray concluded that Aristide’s demands had no “legal basis” and claimed that no members of the democratic opposition to Aristide took the reimbursement claims seriously. Debray neglected to mention that the Haitian electorate preferred Aristide to this opposition by a factor of nine or ten to one.

Aftermath

In his book The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left a Disaster, Jonathan Katz describes the role of the international community after the Haitian earthquake of 2010. Aid groups warned potential donors, “Do Not Give To The Haitian Government: Haiti is known to be a corrupt country.” Reviewing the book in the Columbia Journalism Review Justin Peters wrote: “It wouldn’t surprise me if some observers secretly believed the Préval regime had engineered the earthquake in order to steal billions from the international community.”

The “action plan,” demanded strict oversight of their donations, and wealthy investors intent on making the new Haiti a business-friendly place. Small donations were mishandled by NGOs, as big donations never materialized. Katz estimates that of the $2.43 billion spent on ostensible humanitarian relief by the end of 2010, a mere seven percent actually made its way to Haiti. The donors had their own ideas of how to “build back better,” epitomized by the words of Brad Horwitz, an American whose company owned one of Haiti’s largest cell-phone networks: “We need Haiti open for business.” “Open for business” very specifically referred to the production of cheap garments. In Haiti, the plan was to make it a sweatshop economy where the government is largely absent.

Haiti enjoyed a successful slave revolt in 1804. Today is enslaved to the global market.

– See more at: http://www.nation.lk/edition/news-features/item/18063-before-and-after-the-earthquake-part-4.html#sthash.WrXJrpra.dpuf

 

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