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“How Come?” Questions

by Andrew Levine / Counterpunch.

Photo by Elvert Barnes | CC BY 2.0

There are many reasons why American politics often seems more baffling than the politics of other so-called democracies.

These would include un- and anti-democratic provisions enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and statutory law, the duopoly party system that the Democratic and Republican Parties have concocted over the years, and spillovers from the economic into the political realm.

With increasing economic inequality and Supreme Court rulings that have turned “campaign contributions,” political corruption by another name, into Constitutionally protected free speech, the spillover problem has become especially egregious in recent years.

Add to that a powerful propaganda system — run mainly by private corporations – that dumbs down and degrades public discourse.

I don’t just mean Fox and Breitbart and others of their ilk.  Because of their hold over a sizeable portion of the population, they are a menace. On the merits, however, they are not worth being taken seriously; their “journalism” is beneath contempt.

The propaganda system I have in mind is the one led by ostensibly respectable purveyors of news and opinion — such as the two “liberal” cable networks, MSNBC and CNN, National Public Radio, The New York Times and TheWashington Post.

Their ability to shape public opinion is so powerful and their influence is so pervasive that the ridiculousness of much of what passes for gospel truth in the political arena is seldom even acknowledged.

One of the things they do, in order to obfuscate reality and denigrate the “bad guys” of the hour, is use key words in misleading and tendentious ways.

Loosen the wool that is so tightly pulled over peoples’ eyes, however, and “how come?” questions that, properly considered, lay bare what is going on come immediately to mind.

Conceptually rigorous, historically informed reflection is often indispensable for making sense of the political scene.   “How come?” questions are different.  Hidden in plain view, their answers are usually obvious as can be.

Here are two timely examples:

How come some countries have “regimes” while others have “governments”?  And how come we Americans are governed by “administrations”?

“Regime” can be, and often is, used to denote entire ensembles of social, political, and economic institutions.  “Governments,” then, would be components of regimes.

However, in our propaganda system, “regime” has sinister implications.  It is used to denote foreign governments that the American government holds in disfavor.

Bashar al-Assad heads a regime; Vladimir Putin does too.  He moved into “regime” territory by complicating American machinations in Ukraine.  Then his support for Assad got him ensconced there.

Needless to say, none of this would have played out in quite the way that it has had our military and our “defense” industries and those whose economic fortunes depend upon them not found themselves in need of a more robust and terrifying enemy than the ones available to them since the Cold War ended.

Before the Arab Spring in Syria turned into a civil war, Assad was a force for regional stability. Back then too, the Syrian government was more or less friendly to the United States, and vice versa.

That changed in the course of the shifting alliances that emerged as the Syrian civil war took shape.  Thus the Syrian government nowadays is the very model of a “regime,” a paradigm case. It is also, as everybody “knows,” a regime led by a vicious dictator who likes to kill his own people with poison gas.

Meanwhile, Benjamin Netanyahu, a man every bit as malevolent and depraved as Assad, heads a government, not a “regime,” notwithstanding the fact that, with the support of almost the entire Israeli political class and the acquiescence or worse of the four-fifths of the Israeli population that is ethnically Jewish, the Israel Defense Forces, “the most moral army in the world,” uses live ammunition to kill scores and maim hundreds of peaceful demonstrators on its border with Gaza. The propaganda system is powerful indeed.

The three mad bombers of Syria — Theresa May, Emmanuel Macron, and the supremely iniquitous Donald Trump, also head governments, not regimes, even though they, Trump especially, support Israeli shooters far more extensively than the Russians support Syrians accused of deploying poison gas.

When those three and others like them talk about “regime change” what they have in mind has little to do with regimes, strictly speaking, and everything to do with changing the governments of countries whose sovereignty they have violated or would like to violate.

In most instances, this would not even involve changing basic political institutions, much less the social or economic context in which they operate.  The regime changes bandied about in Washington and European capitals amount to little more than the replacement of insufficiently submissive leaders by more biddable ones.

Regime change in the narrow, propagandistic sense was seldom if ever an explicitly proclaimed objective of either side during the Cold War that ended a quarter century ago. Ironically, though, regime change in its theoretically sounder and more expansive sense actually was a goal of the contending parties.

The United States and its allies wanted to bring the Soviets, the Chinese and their “satellites” into the American fold – by installing or restoring capitalism and by transforming their institutional arrangements and political practices in ways that facilitate American domination.

The reality was different because the Soviet Union was never in any position to dominate more developed Western countries, but, at least in theory, the Soviet side sought world domination too; a point persistently drummed into Americans’ heads.

The Cold War that the West has been stirring up for the past several years is different.   It could hardly not be.  Such differences as there may be in the political economic systems of Russia and the United States are not worth fighting over; they are not what set the sides apart.

When they speak of “the Putin regime” in Western capitals and on Western media, the point is to deride the Russian government and its leader; not its economic system, which is, for all practical purposes, the same as the West’s.

And, self-righteous posturing aside, Western countries could care less about Russia’s institutions or their impact on the Russian people.  Their quarrel is with the Russian government or rather with the Russian president and the persons closest to him.

It is different with Syria and other less developed countries.  But ever since Bush-era neoconservatives led the United States and its “coalition partners” to disaster in Afghanistan and Iraq, nobody wants to take on what true regime change would entail; “nation building” is expensive and, worse still, bound to fail.

Therefore nowadays, “regime change” means nothing more extensive or radical than personnel changes in the upper echelons of the state and the economy.

And yet, media flunkies automatically use “regime” and “government” in the tendentious ways that their corporate bosses – and their bosses’ class brothers and sisters – favor.  Largely for this reason, the general public does so too.

Whatever else our propaganda system may be, it is frighteningly efficient at winning over “hearts and minds.”

There is an additional wrinkle as well.   Our media, and therefore nearly everyone influenced by them, call the American government, or at least the part of it where executive power resides, an “administration.”

This effectively takes real politics out of the discussion – not the electoral craziness corporate media obsess about, but genuine contestation over the distribution of benefits and burdens and over the course that state institutions ought to follow.

Ironically, there is a sense in which, in doing so, they are following a more worthy precedent.

In the Anti-Dühring (1877), Friedrich Engels famously contrasted “the governance of persons” with “the administration of things.”  His idea was that, after successful proletarian revolutions, as class conflicts are overcome in transitions from socialism to communism, the state, the nexus of institutional arrangements through which class conflicts are organized and managed for the benefit of ruling classes, withers away.

His reflections on these matters are part of a larger Marxist account of the structure and direction of human history.  Obviously, the American propaganda system has no interest in anything like that.  Otherwise, though, what Engels meant by “administration” is essentially what those who fashion and run our propaganda system have in mind.

Their idea, like his, is that with fundamental social divisions overcome, governance devolves into management; as what was once a politically contested set of institutions and policies that functioned to coordinate conflicting class interests (in accord with the interests of the economically dominant class), devolves into a technical problem of coordinating the various parts of a large organization whose basic goals are uncontested.

That governments only “administer” might seem an odd thing to claim in a political world as polarized as ours, but there is a certain, unintended, wisdom implicit in that understanding.  On matters of little consequence to economic elites, American politics is polarized as can be.   But the underlying social and political policies endorsed by both duopoly parties are essentially the same.

However paradoxical it might seem, our elections are therefore devoid of political dimensions, except at the margins or in relatively trivial respects.

How come the bad guys have oligarchs, while we have plutocrats, some of whom are, as Obama famously said, just “savvy businessmen”?

Like “regime,” “oligarch” is another good word that the propaganda system has appropriated and misused.

Since Aristotle, if not before, oligarchy designated forms of government in which “the few” rule.  The contrast was with democracy, literally the rule of the “demos” (in contrast to the rule of elites), but in practice the rule of “the many.” Oligarchs did not have to be rich; they were not, for example, in ancient Sparta, Aristotle’s paradigm case.

Strictly speaking, Russia is not an oligarchy any more than the United States is.  Neither is it a “dictatorship.”  It has a strong state, lorded over by an authoritarian leader with illiberal attitudes, but then, nowadays, the United States does too. The difference is just that Putin is better at it than Trump.

Like the United States, Russia has obscenely rich people who enjoy inordinate political influence.  Call them “plutocrats” on that account; “plutocracy” means the rule of the rich.   But, just as in the United States, Russian plutocrats do not run the state – not in theory, and not in practice either.  They are therefore not oligarchs in the strict sense.

It was not always so. In the Soviet system, the “commanding heights” of major social, political and economic institutions were effectively run by the Communist Party; and the Party itself was hierarchically structured to such a degree that it would not be far-fetched to hold that the definition of oligarchy, rule of the few, correctly applied.

Those days are over.  Today’s Russian “oligarchs” are just plutocrats who happen to be from Russia and other currently out of favor, former Soviet republics.

They differ from our plutocrats in at least one other key respect: for the most part they started out not as “kleptocrats.”  That descriptively apt term has no theoretical meaning, apart from what its etymology implies.  After the Fall of Communism, while reversion to a more primitive and irrational capitalist economic system was underway, thieves (of formerly public property) effectively ran the state.

With privatization proceeding at a feverish pace, leading figures from the old regime, seized opportunities to enrich themselves by taking over state assets.  To do this, they needed political help.  Throughout the Brezhnev era, that help was forthcoming; the level of corruption and venality was extreme.

But, again, the kleptocrats were, if anything, closer to being oligarchs under Communism than in the Wild West capitalism of the post-Communist era.

Indeed, it was only after Communism imploded, that they became truly rich. Under Communism, incumbents of top positions, members of the so-called nomenklatura, had greater access to goods and services and other amenities than average citizens.  But they were not rich by Western standards.  The capitalist world is full of people, far from the seats of power, richer than they.

Nevertheless, calling them “oligarchs” and using their wealth against them makes sense insofar as the idea is to use the very thought of their nefariousness to advance the interests of nefarious American plutocrats.

From time immemorial, “oligarchy” has contrasted with “democracy.”  The gap between the real world of Western democracy and the democracy of political philosophers is enormous, of course, but defenders of the status quo in “democratic” countries would be at a loss if they had to face the implications of this plain fact.

But they are not beyond using words, deliberately or not, to obfuscate the reality they refuse to confront; not beyond, for example, depicting Russian “oligarchs” as sworn enemies of American democracy – as if our homegrown plutocrats, with our bipartisan political class and their media flunkies in tow, weren’t already doing a far better job of undermining what little democracy we have than faraway Russians possibly could.

Meanwhile, giving “plutocrats” a pass or cutting them slack or even, like Obama, praising their business acumen whenever an appropriate situation arises, is as American as open carry laws and apple pie.

But for the deeply engrained inclination of distressingly many Americans to glorify individuals, no matter how loathsome, who succeed in business, the fact that our “populists” embrace Donald Trump and others like him would be inconceivable.

But embrace him, they do. Evidently, even wealth acquired by inheritance and augmented by shady business deals and by stiffing creditors, contractors and workers, is, as Trump’s hapless evangelical supporters might say, an outward sign of inward grace.

Even so, the fact that loyalty to Trump has survived more than fifteen months of Trump’s tenure in office seems almost preternaturally unfathomable.

Hypocrisy, ignorance, stupidity, and the echo chamber of rightwing pseudo-journalists and media pundits explain a lot.  No doubt, the understandable reluctance of the conman’s marks to face up to the plain fact that they have been snookered is a factor too.

But the main cause is that our “regime’s” propagandists ply their trade well.

However, their deceptions are easily defeated.  It is often enough just to throw off the blinders, face reality squarely, and use a little common sense.

It will then become obvious how strange much that we are made to take for granted is, as “how come?” questions tumble out, and the miasma that engulfs us lifts just a little.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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The Victims in Gaza and Douma

By David William Pear. April 17, 2018

[First Published by The Greanville Post]

In their book Manufacturing Consent Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky distinguished between two kinds of victims:  the worthy victims and the unworthy victims.  The “worthy victims” are the victims (real and alleged) of leaders on the U.S. enemies list, such as Bashar al-Assad.  The “unworthy victims” are those of the U.S. and its client states, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. led cabal calling itself the “international community” is outraged when there are worthy victims.  For example the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley holds up pictures of dead Syrian babies for the world to see.  Worthy victims are granted human rights, and Assad deserves our outrage.

Unworthy victims for example are the 50,000 Yemeni children who have died of starvation because of Saudi Arabia’s total blockade of Yemen, including blockading food, water and medicine.  Unworthy victims are blamed for being victims and ignored by the international community and the mainstream media.  Unworthy victims have no human rights.  Yemen is a humanitarian disaster that is ignored, because Saudi Arabia is a friend of the U.S.A.

There is no outrage from the U.S. when Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad bin Salman (MsB) is dropping U.S. manufactured bombs from U.S. manufactured airplanes and indiscriminately slaughtering Yemeni men, women and children.   MsB is the new darling of the neocons, and Thomas Friedman writes words of praise as if it is really cool to be an absolute monarch in the 21st century.  The late Robert Parry described Friedman and the neocons as being “disconnected from reality”.

For weeks now, tens of thousands of Gazans have been legally protesting for their right to return to their homes in Palestine.  There is no outrage when Netanyahu and his regime orders Israeli soldiers to massacre them.  Hundreds of Palestinians were gunned down on Land Day and during demonstrations for the Right to Return.  Netanyahu has the full support of the U.S. so there is no outrage and he will not pay for his crimes.  Netanyahu has every reason to believe that the U.S. will protect him, as the U.S. has many times in the past.  Nikki Haley is not going to hold up pictures of dead Palestinian children.  Instead she will shield Netanyahu from criticism, and accuse his critics of being anti-Semitic.  Netanyahu’s victims are unworthy victims.

The Palestinians that were massacred in Gaza were inside the Israeli enclosure that has been their prison for over a decade.  They were on Palestinian land.  They presented no danger to the Israeli soldiers that were on the Israeli side of the barricade.  The soldiers had telescopic sights on their rifles and fired from a distance of over 100 yards away.  Hundreds of Palestinians were shot with illegal fragmentation bullets that have been banned by the 1899 Hague Declaration.  Netanyahu’s orders were illegal and the soldiers committed war crimes by following illegal orders.  The Nuremberg Trials of Nazis after World War Two declared that “just following orders” is not a defense against war crimes.

Two million Palestinian refugees have been trapped in Gaza for over a decade.  Gaza has been turned into an inhumane open-air concentration camp.  The people in Gaza have been cut off from the outside world.  They are living under a blockade and Israel controls everything and anything that goes in or out of the Gaza Strip.  What goes in is barely enough food for Gazans to survive.  Netanyahu jokes that he has put Gaza on a diet.  The sick, wounded and dying are not allowed to get out of Gaza to go to a hospital for medical treatment without Israeli permission.  Netanyahu rarely gives that permission.  Netanyahu’s victims are unworthy victims and are blamed for being victims.

In 2006 Israel tightened the noose around Gaza’s neck by imposing a total blockade by air, land and sea of Palestinians living in Gaza.  The supposed crime for which Israel imposed an illegal collective punishment on Gazans is that they democratically elected the wrong government, against Israel’s wishes.  Instead of electing the Israeli controlled Palestinian National Liberation Movement, known as Fatah, Gazans elected the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas.  Israel used to consider Fatah a terrorist organization, but now it does not because they are collaborators.  Instead Israel, which secretly backed the formation of Hamas in a divide and conquer strategy, now considers Hamas a terrorist organization.  Netanyahu falsely accuses that the demonstrators are Hamas terrorists.

Netanyahu has killed and wounded journalist reporting from Gaza.  They are unworthy victims so there is no outcry from the mainstream media about killing journalists.  The mainstream media repeatedly accuses Russia’s president Vladimir Putin of (allegedly) killing journalists, and there is an outcry because they are worthy victims.  The U.S. has imposed economic sanctions on Russia.  Israel gets billions of dollars in U.S. financial aid every year, regardless of what crimes Netanyahu commits.  Putin’s supposed crimes are that Russia has given aid to the breakaway region of Ukraine after a U.S. sponsored fascist regime change in Kiev.  Putin is accused of invading Crimea when the Crimeans voted in a referendum to rejoin their historical attachment to Russia.  Putin is vilified for (allegedly) meddling in U.S. politics.  Netanyahu gets standing ovations from the U.S. Congress.

Netanyahu has been illegally occupying the West Bank of Palestine, and he is building illegal Israeli settlements there.  Netanyahu thumbs his nose at international law.  The U.S. has vetoed 43 U.N. resolutions against Israel.  Nikki Haley says that Putin is an obstructionist for vetoing a U.N. resolution condemning Assad for an alleged chemical weapons attack, without any evidence.  The U.S. tried to block an investigation by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) of the alleged chemical weapon attack site in Syria.  The OPCW says it will investigate anyway.

President Trump’s order to attack Syria based on an alleged use of chemical weapons is a violation of international law.  The U.S. is not the international policeman, judge and executioner.   Article 2, section 4 of the U.N. Charter states:

“All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

The only legal uses of force according to the U.N. Charter are for self-defense and when force is authorized by the U.N. Security Council.  Violations of the U.N. Charter are also a violation of the U.S. Constitution under Article VI which states:

“…all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land.”

The U.N. Charter is a treaty that was signed by the President of the United States and ratified by the U.S. Senate.  Under the U.S. Constitution the U.N. Charter is the “supreme law of the land” in the U.S., as well as internationally.

Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights everyone has a presumption of innocence until proven guilty before a court of law.  The U.S. does not have the right to declare a sentence before there is a trial and verdict.  Article 66 of the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court entitles those accused of crimes the “presumption of innocence” and further says:

“The onus is on the Prosecutor to prove the guilt of the accused.  In order to convict the accused, the Court must be convinced of the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt.”

We do not even know if a crime has been committed.  There has been no investigation yet.  There is considerable reason for doubt.  Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh and others (Robert Fisk, Ron Paul, Jeffrey Sachs, former U.K. ambassador to Syria Peter Ford, Fox News Tucker Carlson, Larry Wilkerson, etc.) have raised serious doubts about the alleged chemical weapons attack by Assad. There are no known facts about the latest alleged chemical weapon attack, or the past alleged attacks either.

The unproven allegation of chemical weapons comes from U.S. backed terrorists that have been waging a war against the Syrian people for over 7 years.  It has been widely reported and documented that the alleged chemical weapon attacks, supposedly perpetrated by Assad, have been false flags and faked.  The terrorists have been reported to have chemical weapons in their arsenal.  If chemical weapons were used in any of the attacks they could have come from the terrorists themselves.

It is well known that the U.S. has been behind the war against Assad, and that the U.S. admittedly is backing terrorists in a U.S. regime change projects.  The dead and wounded of U.S. aggression during the 21st century number in the millions of people in over half a dozen countries.  The mainstream media ignores the magnitude of the wars of U.S. aggression, and the U.S. people mainly go about their day to day activities as if nothing is happening.  Since the U.S. is allegedly a democracy and has freedom of the press, then U.S. citizens and the U.S. mainstream media are responsible for the actions of their government.  Ignorance of the law about what their government is doing is not an excuse.

Under international law the Palestinians have a right to resist the illegal military occupation of Palestine that has been going on since 1967.  But Israel does not have the right to impose collective punishment, deny refugees the right to return home, to confiscate land, impose indefinite detention, torture prisoners and restrict the free movement of civilians; nor to confine them in inhumane living conditions in Gaza.  Israel is acting no different than the Nazis did against the Jews in 1939 when they enclosed Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto.  Just like the Warsaw Ghetto, Gaza is unlivable, the people are starving, the water is contaminated, disease is rampant, and Israel has systematically destroyed their homes and civilian infrastructure.

Israel routinely shoots to kill anyone or anything entering a “no man’s land” buffer zone inside Gaza.  It even has remote controlled machine guns and other indiscriminant instruments of death within the buffer zone.  When tens of thousands of unarmed demonstrators approached the buffer zone, the Israeli military snippers were prepared to massacre them.  Netanyahu says that Israel has the most moral army in the world.  Massacring unarmed civilians is immoral.

The demonstrations in commemoration of Land Day and protests for the Right to Return have been announced in advance.  Israel opened fire and massacred demonstrators, killing and critically wounding hundreds of Palestinians, including clearly identified journalist, such as Yasser Murtaja.  The massacre of unarmed civilians who are demonstrating on their own land is a clear violation of international law, and a crime against humanity.  On April 3rd the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem called on Israeli soldiers to refuse illegal orders to shoot unarmed civilians saying:

“The use of live ammunition against unarmed persons who pose no danger to anyone is unlawful. It is even more blatantly unlawful in the case of soldiers firing from a great distance at demonstrators located on the other side of the fence that separates Israel from the Gaza Strip. In addition, it is impermissible to order soldiers to fire live ammunition at individuals for approaching the fence, damaging it, or attempting to cross it.”

Under international law commanders giving the orders to shoot unarmed civilians and individual soldiers who do so could be charged with wars crimes by the International Criminal Court.  That is not likely to happen anytime soon because the U.S. protects Israel and allows Netanyahu to literally get away with murder.  Netanyahu’s victims are unworthy.

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David is a progressive columnist writing on economic, political and social issues. His articles have been published by OpEdNews, The Greanville Post, The Real News Network, Truth Out, Consortium News, Global Research, and many other publications.   David is active in social issues relating to peace, race relations and religious freedom, homelessness and equal justice. David is a member of Veterans for Peace, Saint Pete for Peace, CodePink, and International Solidarity Movement.

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First Nations Leaders Pledge to Block Pipeline Expansion

Richard Fidler, Stewart Phillip and Serge Simon

At the 2015 Paris COP 21 climate conference Justin Trudeau pledged his newly-elected government would help “to limit global average temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius as well as pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees.”

The strategy adopted was two-pronged and contradictory on its face: implementing gradual carbon price increases through carbon taxes or cap-and-trade mechanisms while building more pipeline capacity to boost exports of fossil-fuel resources, especially the products of Alberta’s tar sands.

Burnaby protest March 10 against Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline project.

As environmentalists noted, the approach was inherently futile. Carbon taxes – contingent on provincial government consent – assumed higher costs would induce businesses to introduce less climate-destroying technology and practices. And provincial consent was dependent on the federal commitment to pipeline development, which inevitably would promote further fossil fuel exploration and production.

From the outset, Ottawa has faced opposition to carbon taxes from some provinces, which fear such market-based mechanisms will discourage private business investment. And mass popular opposition accompanied by the global downturn in resource prices has already led to TransCanada’s cancellation of its $15.7-billion Energy East project and Ottawa’s nixing of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline. Although U.S. President Donald Trump has now reversed Obama’s stop to Keystone XL, its future is still in doubt in the face of opposition from U.S. environmental activists.

Doubling Pipeline Output

That leaves Kinder Morgan’s plan to duplicate its existing Trans Mountain pipeline. It entails a $7.4-billion duplication of an existing pipeline from Alberta, with a three-fold increase in capacity, that would carry tar sands bitumen to a refinery in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby. From there tanker traffic to hoped-for Asian markets would increase from a current five boats per month to an estimated 34 threading their way through coastal tidal straits. The plan has become the linchpin of the Trudeau government’s hope to win support for its approach from an Alberta government eager to get its petroleum to tidewater, and which has hinged its carbon tax on completion of the Trans Mountain project.1

The economic prospects behind the Kinder Morgan project are suspect, given the declining prospects globally for new fossil-fuel export markets.2 More importantly, it is facing mounting protests from environmental and First Nations activists. In recent weeks, dozens of demonstrators at the Burnaby refinery have been arrested on trespassing charges. The newly-elected minority NDP government, dependent on support from the Green party, which opposes Kinder Morgan, has joined in legal challenges to the project. This has brought the B.C. government into conflict with Alberta’s, likewise held by the New Democratic Party.

However, both governments have been boosting fossil-fuel exports.

B.C. premier John Horgan says he will limit the province’s carbon tax rules applying to a $40-billion Shell Canada-led LNG project in Kitimat. He prepared the way for that project when he recently gave the go-ahead to completion of the $10.7-billion Site C dam in northern B.C., which the NDP had campaigned against prior to its election last year. The dam will provide electricity to the Kitimat project.

Alberta premier Rachel Notley has been negotiating with Ottawa to exempt tar-sands projects from federal climate reviews. B.C.’s support of the Kitimat LNG project while opposing Trans Mountain as environmentally unsafe is “hypocrisy,” she notes, because it will be processing shale gas extracted in Alberta.

Meanwhile, the OECD warned in December that “without a drastic decrease in the emissions intensity of the oilsands industry, the projected increase in oil production may seriously risk the achievement of Canada’s climate mitigation targets.” The report noted that Canada has the fourth largest greenhouse gas emissions of the OECD’s 35 developed national economies. As for carbon taxes, it said, Canada’s regime “is far below that of other OECD member countries.”

Then, on April 8 Texas-based Kinder Morgan announced it was suspending “non-essential” spending on the Trans Mountain project and would cancel it altogether if by May 31 it was not “guaranteed” the project could proceed despite the B.C. opposition.

The announcement produced a flurry of panic-stricken reaction from Canadian business elites, their media, and the Alberta and federal governments. Surely, it was exclaimed, Ottawa has the constitutional authority to override B.C.’s opposition – especially in a matter so eminently in the “national interest,” as Trudeau and Notley constantly reiterate. To ensure the project proceeds, both governments have even indicated interest in buying a stake in Kinder Morgan, if not the entire company, investing billions of taxpayer dollars in this climate-destroying enterprise.

However, their dilemma is that even federal “guarantees” of the project will not insulate it from popular protest. In fact, it will only generate more opposition. The fight over Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain project is far from over.

And there are some huge stakes involved, much greater than the fate of governments and their supposed “climate change” strategies. The broader issues are eloquently set out in a powerful statement authored by two First Nations chiefs and reproduced below. Their promise of militant direct action is redolent of the “blockadia” advocated by Naomi Klein in her best-selling book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. And it echoes the Leap Manifesto, co-authored by Klein, which proclaims: This leap to “a country powered entirely by renewable energy… must begin by respecting the inherent rights and title of the original caretakers of this land,” the Indigenous communities that “have been at the forefront of protecting rivers, coasts, forests and lands from out-of-control industrial activity.” •

– Richard Fidler

If Ottawa Rams Through Trans Mountain, It Could Setup an Oka-like Crisis

Stewart Phillip and Serge Simon

As the federal and Alberta governments continue to pull their hair out over the B.C. government’s stand against Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and tanker project, it’s important to point out, as we’ve been doing for years, that the pipeline company doesn’t have the consent of all First Nations along the route. In fact, many of them are strongly opposed to the project.

Kinder Morgan’s recent announcement that it is stopping all but essential spending proves that its shareholders are starting to understand the degree and depth of the Indigenous-led opposition movement to this pipeline project.

The Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion is made up of 150 Indigenous Nations in Canada and the United States, dozens of which are located along the Kinder Morgan pipeline route, with many of them having launched legal actions against the Kinder Morgan project.

Further, Indigenous Nations are supported by a quickly growing and broad-based network of support from allied Canadians who understand the existential threat that humanity faces from climate change and who are ready to stand up against the injustices still carried out today against Indigenous people.

More than 20,000 people have signed the Coast Protectors pledge to do whatever it takes to stop the pipeline. Thousands took part in a March 10 solidarity rally at the Kinder Morgan gates on Burnaby mountain.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has a decision to make. It can cut its losses and realize it simply made a mistake in approving the project. Or the Trudeau government can double down on its current path. But Canadians should be very clear-eyed about what that represents. It represents more than a failure of climate leadership. It means going back to the Stephen Harper days when Canada’s reputation on the climate file was mud.

Importantly, it also means going back to colonial-era relations with Indigenous people. In fact, if the federal government tries to ram through this pipeline, it could mean going back to one of the darkest times in modern Canadian history: the Oka standoff with the Mohawk Nation.

We just witnessed the ugly and shameful crackdown in the United States on the peaceful anti-pipeline protests at Standing Rock.

We don’t believe that’s the Canada that most Canadians want to live in. It would be a cruel joke indeed if, in this era of “reconciliation,” Canada instead repeats the mistakes of the past.

This is a learning moment for Canada. For far too long, governments and industry thought they could ignore Indigenous people by paying lip service to consulting us all the while doing what they wanted to do anyway.

Canadians are starting to grasp that there are governments and jurisdictions on this great land besides the provinces and the federal government. Indigenous peoples possess the inherent right to govern our territories. Pursuant to that inherent right, you need our free, prior and informed consent to develop our lands, especially when we are talking about a high-risk project such as Kinder Morgan that poses a real risk to those lands and waters and climate.

This is something the Supreme Court of Canada recognized in the historic 2014 Tsilhqot’in decision and it is the foundation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the federal government has agreed to implement.

The other learning moment is that this beleaguered pipeline is forcing Canadians of all ages from all walks of life to begin to imagine a world that is not so reliant on oil. We should be racing as fast as we can to get off oil instead of producing even more of the dirtiest, most polluting kind from the Alberta oil sands.

This is not some typical debate with many sides to it – there’s really just two: right and wrong. Collective survival or collective suicide.

Finally, no one should see this as a constitutional crisis. On the contrary, this is our Constitution3 working, at least in practice, with Indigenous people acting as real decision makers on their territory. At the same time, you’re seeing beautiful acts of real reconciliation with Canadians standing up for our rights and trying to make this country a more just place. And we are finally seeing the kind of climate action that Canada needs and that the Trudeau government refused to take when it approved this pipeline.

The real constitutional crisis will occur if Mr. Trudeau chooses to ignore our constitutionally protected Aboriginal Title and Rights and Treaty Rights, and tries to ram through the pipeline – putting a lie to all his promises of reconciliation and setting Canada up for another catastrophic crisis on the same level as Oka. •

This statement by Stewart Phillip and Serge Simon published on the Globe and Mail website.

Endnotes

  1. Rachel Notley’s government has imposed a $30 per ton tax on carbon emissions, the revenue going mainly to consumer rebates and phasing out (not until 2030!) the province’s coal production, while its cap on tar-sands emissions would still allow a 47.5% increase above 2014 levels. See “What if the Trans Mountain pipeline is never built?
  2. See, for example, “Only Fantasies, Desperation and Wishful Thinking Keep Pipeline Plans Alive,” and “Forget Trans Mountain, here’s the sustainable way forward for Canada’s energy sector.”
  3. Implicitly, a reference to the militant campaign mounted by First Nations leaders and activists in the early 1980s to get some protection for indigenous rights included in Pierre Trudeau’s envisaged Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. At the last moment, Trudeau included “a new section in the charter of rights. It reads ‘The guarantee in this charter of certain rights and freedoms shall not be construed as denying the existence of any other rights or freedoms… that pertain to the native peoples of Canada.’ [Constitutional scholar Edward] McWhinney writes later that the clause carried almost no weight in law; it merely says that there are whatever rights there are, without saying what they are.” That was left to the courts, and to a later constitutional conference that failed to reach a consensus on First Nations rights. See Robert Sheppard and Michael Valpy, The National Deal: The Fight for a Canadian Constitution (Fleet Books, Toronto, 1982), p. 161.

Richard Fidler is an Ottawa activist who blogs at Life on the Left - with a special emphasis on the Quebec national question, indigenous peoples, Latin American solidarity, and the socialist movement and its history.

Stewart Phillip is Grand Chief of Okanagan Nation and president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.

Serge ‘Otsi’ Simon is Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake.

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Bombing Syria would be both dangerous and illegal

By Mohamed Elmaazi / Open Democracy.

Britain and its ‘Allies’ have helped arm warring Syrian factions, fuelled conflict, spurned refugees. Now they want to punish Assad’s alleged war crimes by committing war crimes of their own.

Image: Kobani during bombing by US-led coalition in 2014. PA Images/Depo photos/ABACA, all rights reserved.

Despite all the moral hand-wringing, international law forbids nations from attacking each other, outside of Security Council approval or in self-defence, and alleged use of chemical weapons is no exception. Western media and politicians are once again calling for our governments to commit what Nuremberg Judges labelled the “supreme international crime”. They risk further escalating the conflict despite a lack of independent verification as to what actually happened in Douma, eastern Ghouta.

Something must be done

We once again find ourselves surrounded by a hypocritical, self-righteous and war-mongering echo chamber. Liberals and Conservatives, with few exceptions, all appear to agree the question is not whether the UK and US shall be launching military strikes against Syria, but rather when, and with what level of payload.

The scene is all too familiar. Unverified (though certainly possible) use of chemical weapons. Crying children. Pictures and videos of people being hosed off in medical facilities. How can anyone not be moved to “do something” rather than “stand by and do nothing”?

Unfortunately, the only “something” being offered to the British, American and French public is the launching of a military assault (of an unspecified nature) inside Syria - a sovereign state - which has attacked neither Britain, America or France. Humanitarian options like taking in refugees beyond the measly 11,000 or so that Britain has grudgingly accepted thus far, are not on the table. The only response by an apparent use of violence by the Syrian government is even more violence by the self-proclaimed leaders of the “free world”.

The situation has reached boiling point with Russia officially stating that they will “[shoot] down” US missiles and “even the sources from which the missiles were fired". The state of Israel has already launched strikes within Syria, also without any legal justification whatsoever, apparently killing 14 Iranians. Iran has vowed to retaliate against the attack. Now it appears May won’t even seek permission from parliament before she drags the country further into the war in Syria, having been pushed relentlessly by the British press and political class to “act” now.

This already multi-layered conflict risks snowballing even further, without any concrete evidence as to what exactly happened, as former Marine Corps intelligence officer and weapons inspector, Scott Ritter outlines in his important piece for the American Conservative.

The supreme international crime

For the avoidance of any doubt or confusion, attacking a foreign country without legal basis under international law represents the “supreme international crime”. The launching of an “aggressive war” is the “supreme crime” because it is the overarching offense which contains within itself “the accumulated evil of the whole” (e.g. rape, torture, murder, mass murder, ethnic cleansing, etc).

People were tried, convicted and hanged at Nuremberg for the crime of waging wars of aggression (as well as crimes against humanity).

Regardless of how unpalatable we may find it, even the verified use of chemical weapons -be they by state or non-state actors - is not a legal basis to attack a country, any country.

As Phyllis Bennis, Fellow and Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., clearly explained (following the last alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, and subsequent military strike on the Syrian air base ordered by President Trump):

“The UN Charter is very vague about a lot of things, but it's very clear about one thing, and that is, when is it legal to go to war? When is it legal to use a military strike? There's only two occasions according to the UN Charter…The UN Charter says, "A country can use military force under two circumstances: Number one, if the Security Council authorizes it."…Number two, Article 51 of the UN Charter, which is about self-defence. But it's a very narrowly constrained version of self-defence… It says very explicitly, "If a country has been attacked."…"until the Security Council can meet, immediate self-defence is allowed." Neither of those two categories applied here. So, it was clearly an illegal act.”

We find ourselves once again in the exact same situation.

We have been here before

In July 2017 award winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh discussed with The Real News Network his article published by the German Die Welt, describing the claims that Trump ignored warnings by US intelligence that there was “no evidence that” Assad used chemical weapons in Kan Sheikhoun on 04 April 2017.

A subsequent UN report concluded (well after the strikes were conducted) in September 2017 that there “reasonable grounds to believe” that the Syrian government was responsible for a chemical attack on Kan Sheykhoun on 04 April 2017 along with two chlorine attacks on 25 and 30 March in Al-Latamneh this was well after the strikes.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis would then, five months later, go on to tell reporters that the US still “had no evidence” that the Syrian government used Sarin gas.

Irrespective of the UN findings, or Mattis’ subsequent bombshell, as Phyllis Bennis pointed out, the strike was illegal.

Yet, despite the illegality of the 2017 US strikes, despite the death toll that followed (nine Syrian soldiers and nine civilians including four children according to Syrian state television), and despite the lack of conclusive proof at the time that there even was a chemical attack, let alone verification as to what party or parties were responsible, Donald Trump received strong bi-partisan support for the strikes. The “liberal” press, including outlets such as MSNBC and CNN, along with the Democratic Party establishment supported the attack.

“I am tempted to quote [singer and songwriter] Leonard Cohen” said MSNBC News Anchor, who proceeded to then quote Leonard Cohen: “I am guided by the beauty of our weapons”.

Influential commentator (and protégé of the late Samuel Huntington) Fareed Zakaria told CNN, “I think Donald Trump became president of the United States last night. I think this was actually a big moment.” Apparently the killing of twenty five men, women and children in Yemen by US special forces four months earlier wasn’t enough to establish Trump’s “presidential” bona fides.

This one minute video by CNBC of a list of “experts” on their view of the value of the Syria strikes is also well worth watching, if only to belabour the unanimity of the views on this missile strike.

The constant blasting of Trump as being a “Putin puppet” puts immense pressure on the US President to prove otherwise. Launching military strikes against the Russian backed Syrian government delivers Trump bi-partisan establishment praise. It appears to be a lesson he has learned well.

Media manipulation

All of this seems to be of little concern to the British establishment and their compliant press. The former British Prime Minister Tony Blair told Sky News that the UK will have to intervene in Syria or give “cart blanche” for the further use of chemical weapons.

Conveniently left out by Sky News is that Blair himself is guilty of deceiving parliament and the international community about “weapons of mass destruction” possessed by Iraq, and pushed an illegal invasion of the country that has killed hundreds of thousands, led to mass ethnic cleansing, the rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and ISIS, along with other sectarian death squads.

All water under the bridge apparently.

Another example of the press cultivating a climate conducive to a British attack on Syria is ITV’s Good Morning Breakfast show asking its followers on Twitter:

“After horrendous chemical attack in Syria, should British forces hit back?”

As the conservative commentator Peter Hitchens once noted, opinion polls are more often about manufacturing opinion than they are about gauging it.

Attempting to bring attention to the manipulative nature of the “poll” I replied:

“No such poll for "striking back" against Turkey’s illegal invasion of Northern Syria, or Israel's massacre of unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza, or the use of White Phosphorus (a chemical weapon) by the US in Raqqa or allied forces in Mosul or Saudi's carpet bombing of Yemen.”

Neutral bystanders?

Also conveniently left out of mainstream media discussion over “what to do about Syria” is that the United Kingdom, France, Turkey, the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have all been inflaming the civil war, and keeping it going since it broke out in 2011. These governments are not now, nor have they ever been, neutral or innocent bystanders.

On the contrary, they have been funnelling billions of dollars’ worth of conventional weapons, rocket launchers, assault rifles, anti-tank missiles and the like. Britain is already neck deep in this conflict, as are its “allies”, a point that award winning investigative journalist Gareth Porter illustrates in frightening detail in his article “How America armed terrorists in Syria”. Porter describes a declassified US Defense Intelligence Agency report that revealed:

“that the [Saudi funded and CIA facilitated] shipment [into Syria] in late August 2012 had included 500 sniper rifles, 100 RPG (rocket propelled grenade launchers) along with 300 RPG rounds and 400 howitzers. Each arms shipment encompassed as many as ten shipping containers, it reported, each of which held about 48,000 pounds of cargo. That suggests a total payload of up to 250 tons of weapons per shipment. Even if the CIA had organized only one shipment per month, the arms shipments would have totalled 2,750 tons of arms bound ultimately for Syria from October 2011 through August 2012. More likely it was a multiple of that figure”

The same declassified report described the main armed opposition backed by “the west” to be highly sectarian in nature and seeking to create a “Salafist Principality” or “state”.

The criminality of these actions and their destructive effect on the people of Syria is difficult to overstate.

Relearning the lessons of the past

It seems every generation must be perpetually (re)educated as to the extent to which truths, half-truths and outright lies are repeated daily by their politicians, governments and media, particularly in matters of war and peace.

Perhaps chemical weapons were used in eastern Ghouta and perhaps not. Hersch and others have suggested that there is some evidence of discussions about “false flag” operations to justify incursions into Syria in the past. The timing now is noteworthy - President Trump has publicly stated that he wants to bring US troops “back home” from Syria, and eastern Ghouta is falling into government control, according to Reuters reports.

Or perhaps the Syrian government did use chemical weapons simply to crush any last hope among the rebels.

Unfortunately the proposed military strikes will have nothing to do with exposing the truth or holding anyone accountable. They will be purely for show, by self-interested parties that are themselves deeply implicated in crimes against humanity and war crimes being committed in Syria. And as was outlined at the beginning of this article, military strikes by Britain, France or the US into Syria would not only continue to destabilise the country and risk direct confrontation with Russia they would also be wholly illegal.

We cannot hold people to account for committing alleged war crimes by committing further actual war crimes.

Unlike citizens in many other parts of the world, those of us in self-proclaimed liberal democracies have the ability – however limited – to assert pressure to curtail our governments’ use of violence. I would go further and say we have the obligation to do so.

We may not be able to stop all the horrors going on in Syria but we can certainly reduce them by calling out and pressuring our governments to cease and desist in their complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes, including the arming (directly or indirectly) of Salafi-jihadist groups, their support for the unlawful Turkish invasion of Northern Syria, as well as opposing any military strikes against the country.

Write to your local paper, contact your political representatives, and tell them you oppose any further involvement in Syria, other than providing humanitarian aid and support to civilian victims of the war in a manner that is transparent and verifiable.

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Keeping Power With the People: Puerto Rico’s Energy Future

By Sean Sweeney / Socialist Project.

Puerto Rico is now at the center of the global debate about climate resiliency, the potential of renewable energy technologies, and the best way to transition away from fossil fuels. To some extent, it has compressed the struggle for the world’s energy future both geographically and temporally. The whole system was shut down by an “extreme weather event” in the form of hurricane Maria that hit the island on September 16, 2017. This scale of disruption has never happened before – not in Puerto Rico, not in the United States, and not anywhere in the modern world. What was once a discussion about the future of energy has now been transplanted firmly into the precarious present.

“Electricity for Caguas” — protest in San Juan, Puerto Rico, January 15, 2018.

Hurricane Maria completely knocked out Puerto Rico’s electricity grid, leaving the island without any power. As of this writing, four months have passed and still 45 per cent of the island’s population is without electricity. This is the longest power outage in U.S. history. By mid-January 2018, only 20 per cent of the island’s traffic lights were functioning. Of nearly 31,000 new utility poles ordered from the U.S., almost 19,000 had still not arrived. Hundreds of schools, while holding classes, were operating without electricity.

Puerto Rico’s Public Electric Power Authority (known as PREPA), which since the mid-1970s has provided virtually all of the island’s electrical power quickly became the target of an avalanche of criticism regarding how it responded to the disaster. These criticisms inflicted fresh damage on PREPA’s already sullied reputation for poor management, neglect of infrastructure, and deep indebtedness. PREPA was also criticized for dragging its feet on the development of wind and solar power. Puerto Rico has significant wind and considerable solar potential, but only 3.3 per cent of its pre-Maria power was generated by renewables. 1 Oil generates 47.4 per cent of Puerto Rico’s power; about 33 per cent was generated by gas, and roughly 16 per cent from coal-all of it imported. In 2010, the island’s legislature introduced a renewable energy target that essentially instructed PREPA to source 12 per cent of energy from renewables by 2015-a target that it failed to meet.2

 

Assets for Sale

On January 22nd, Puerto Rico’s governor Ricardo Rosselló announced his intention to sell “PREPA assets.” The utility, he stated, “has become a heavy burden on our people, who are now hostage to its poor service and high cost.” Selling PREPA’s assets to private companies will, said the governor, “transform the generation system into a modern, efficient, and less expensive one for the people.” It would pave the way for one “based on renewable and environmentally friendly sources… We have the opportunity not only to make a new energy system, but to be a global model.” Business representatives applauded the announcement, with one of them stating, “For many years the private sector has requested the total transformation of the energy system in Puerto Rico, which, due to its inefficiency, prevents our economic development.”

The Sun Gods Speak

The decision to privatize PREPA was surely influenced by the actions of renewable energy interests outside of Puerto Rico, for whom Maria was a cloud with a solar lining. Indeed, a buzz of excitement swept across the green lists and blogs when, in late October, with most of the island in darkness, Tesla’s Elon Musk delivered hundreds of solar panels and energy storage batteries to Hospital del Nino in downtown San Juan near the Condado Beach area. Forever the entrepreneur, Musk chose to help a hospital in a wealthy commercial area-a politically strategic choice and a first-rate photo-op. According to one writer, “The island presented [Musk] with the perfect opportunity to test his theory that you could use solar panels and batteries to create microgrids to power people’s homes and even their cars, Teslas of course.”

Meanwhile, Virgin Group leader Richard Branson quickly enlisted the help of his friend Amory Lovins, arguably the founding father of the theory of “green capitalism.” In the 1970s, Lovins argued that the future scarcity of fossil fuels meant businesses should invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency in order to position themselves for the coming green bonanza. Unfortunately, the fossil fuels did not run out; instead more were found – under forests, in shale rock formations, and in deep ocean areas like the arctic. Those who invested in renewables only made money by convincing governments to directly subsidize them, to force utilities to pay above-market prices for solar and wind power-or preferably to do both.

In mid December 2017 Lovins’ Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) released a report called The Role of Renewable and Distributed Energy in a Resilient and Cost-Effective Energy Future for Puerto Rico. After consulting “stakeholders” – the majority of those listed were corporations, including Tesla – the paper made a strong case for the introduction of new energy technologies such as microgrids and energy storage systems.3

The findings of the paper had an immediate impact on the politics of the island. This is because many of its proposals regarding microgrids and storage technologies (proposals that are hardly original) make perfect sense. But the Institute was not entertaining the idea that the island’s next system should remain publicly owned. Quite the contrary: “What is needed is a coordinated effort by the Puerto Rico government, regulatory commission, and utility to catalogue, prioritize, and competitively procure potential renewable and distributed energy projects…while supporting the least cost and highest value in the long run.” The terms “competitively procure” and “highest value” make it clear what RMI thought should happen: Hedge-fund financed private power producers, project developers, and technology companies should have more control over the island’s power generation, transmission, and distribution systems.

Green Colonialism?

But Governor Rosselló’s claim that the privatization of PREPA will mean that Puerto Rico will be “a global model” for a new cleaner and greener energy system will surely come back to haunt him. First of all, it is very likely there will be no full-on privatization of PREPA. No private interest is going to buy PREPA as it is – absent some backdoor deal to make the offer too good to refuse. The demand for electricity has been falling steadily as a result of recession, migration, and poverty. Furthermore, the island’s energy infrastructure is about 44 years old, compared with an average 18 years on the U.S. mainland. And the worrying prospect of more extreme weather events is not exactly an enticement for potential buyers.

So what will privatization look like? In a revealing but seemingly innocuous phrase, Rosselló’s announcement referred to “a model of privatization of power generation and a concession, term-defined, of energy distribution and transmission.” What does “concession, term-defined” mean? Concession agreements between governments and private corporations normally include rights to use (and profit from) certain pieces of an infrastructure or service for an agreed duration. From the dawn of the colonial period, concessionary companies were used by colonial administrations all over the global South to transfer wealth from the colonized “periphery” to the colonial “core.” Puerto Rico now faces the prospect of being a source of revenue and profit for wind and solar multinationals and technology companies. These companies are not interested in providing a universal service with equal access to all. They have their eyes on providing power to those who have the capacity to pay.

It seems very likely that, if Rosselló and private renewables’ companies get their way, PREPA will be broken up (or, in privatization speak, “unbundled”) and private transmission and distribution companies will be lured to the island or be established by PREPA’s top management who, as was the case in other parts of the world where power was privatized, would see themselves transformed from public servants to corporate CEOs.

In terms of generating electrical power, the global experience has shown that wind and solar projects can only make profits by way of favorable “out of market” arrangements, such as power purchase agreements (or PPAs) between developers and the utility or another public entity, normally over a 15- or 20-year period. PPAs offer “certainties” to investors and developers, but this invariably results in higher prices for users (to cover the additional costs of private financing, profit, etc.)4

Because Puerto Rico’s power system presently depends on imported fossil fuels, electricity costs have been higher than on the mainland. But this does not mean that private renewable energy will lead, as the governor claims, to a reduction in prices. The price will be determined by the terms of the PPAs, and if history is any guide prices will rise, not fall. And with the demand for electricity falling in Puerto Rico, this will mean every user will be required to pay more in order to cover investors’ costs and profits. This is not a reason to hold back on renewables; rather, it merely makes it imperative to reduce costs by eliminating profit and reducing the cost of borrowing capital based on commercial rates of return.

Keeping it Public, and the Role of Unions

The fight against the privatization of PREPA will be difficult. The utility does not have a reputation for providing efficient, reliable, cost-effective service. But Rosselló’s plan will take up to three years to implement, so there is time to build a broad-based campaign. The power system is not the only service threatened with privatization in Puerto Rico. The island’s political and social elite – to say nothing of the U.S. hedge funds operating on the island and members of the Fiscal Control Board – had already been looking to privatize potentially profitable public services, including health care and education along with parts of the power system. And fighting the privatization of public services is already a priority for the island’s progressive forces.

Progressive labor has an important role to play. In late October 2017, before the announced privatization, Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) organized a global labor conference call on the future of Puerto Rico’s power sector. On the call was Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo, the president of Puerto Rico’s principal power sector union, the Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union (Unión de Trabajadores de la Industria Eléctrica y Riego – UTIER). UTIER represents workers at PREPA. Jaramillo called for a “just transition” for the sector, which must move from being based almost entirely on fossil fuels to a distributed renewables-based system. Jaramillo added, “PREPA is a public good that belongs to the people and not to the politicians.”

The recent attacks on PREPA were, says UTIER, part of a broad-based campaign against anything public. The predatory interventions of hedge-fund interests caused a large portion of PREPA’s already declining revenues from power generation to be used to repay debts, meaning less funds were available to maintain and improve the utility’s aging infrastructure. UTIER maintains that the island’s government, the Board of Fiscal Control, and PREPA’s upper management collectively impeded the post-Maria recovery effort in order to make privatization seem like a positive step.

Following the announcement that PREPA would be privatized, UTIER denounced the plan, stating “For decades we have warned how various administrations have undermined workers and intentionally damaged the infrastructure of PREPA. This was intended to provoke the people’s discontent with the service in order to privatize, to strip us-the people-of what is ours.” For UTIER, PREPA’s actions before and after Maria reflect the corruption of the public service ethic that has corroded PREPA from within. Top management often looks to privatization as a means of escaping publicly regulated salary structures. For example, the privatization of Con Edison in New York in 1998 saw the pay levels of its top management climb astronomically. Just prior to the lock-out of the Utility Workers Local 1-2 in July 2012, CEO Kevin Burke was pulling down an $11-million annual salary.

PREPA, said Jaramillo, needs to be reclaimed politically to serve the public good. It’s estimated $9-billion debt should be cancelled or renegotiated. A reformed, transparent, and democratically controlled PREPA can then work with communities to develop distributed solar power under public and local-level control. These sources would need to be connected to a reliable grid – one that can serve all the people equally. Such a restructuring will take a number of years. Microgrid systems under community control have real potential, but they should not become a means for wealthier communities to generate power for themselves and then expect to come back on to the grid when the sun stops shining or the batteries run out, and storage technologies are expensive and still relatively untested.

Simple Economics

With the old public systems, the cost of electricity was tied to the costs of installing, maintaining, and upgrading the system. Such systems worked fine – and they would work for large-scale renewables too. Everyone was connected. Most of the territorial U.S. was electrified as a result of the New Deal and the development of publicly owned and operated rural cooperatives, almost 900 of which still exist today. Since World War II, most of the global South has been electrified by way of public electrification programs that were set up as national and human development projects, and not as a way of making money for energy companies and hedge funds.

But what about the costs? Here several factors need to be considered. First, a report prepared for Rosselló and FEMA from Navigant Consulting estimated that rebuilding and upgrading Puerto Rico’s grid will cost as much as $18-billon.5 If funds are committed to this effort, they will surely come from public sources and therefore should not be used to simply clear the path to privatization and profiteering. Rosselló’s plan to privatize key parts of PREPA will be a three-year process, thus presenting a scenario where private companies will have a rebuilt and upgraded grid handed to them on a platter.

Second, the cost of public renewable power is lower than would be the case under a system of PPAs, where borrowing and transaction costs are much higher, and profits are then added on top. As much as they make the headlines, figures like Musk and Branson are not the pioneers of renewable energy (Branson has made his money from airlines and buying up once-public railway systems). Globally, publicly owned development banks have been driving renewables. Ironically, private companies have made their money significantly due to low-interest loans – because the lenders are not motivated by profit, but are pursuing policy commitments such as emissions reductions and clean-energy targets.

Third, in many parts of the world the public is already paying for renewable power, but the benefits typically go to private companies. In the U.S., wind and solar power received 54 per cent of federal energy subsidies in 2013, but produced only 4.5 per cent of total U.S. electricity. The subsidies come in the form of tax credits, which means that incentives to encourage renewables are paid for by the public when states impose taxes in order to make up for the tax revenue lost through subsidies. If renewables were deployed as a public service there would be no need for incentives – solar and wind would simply be public infrastructure, and job numbers would actually grow as a result of scaled-up deployment.

Public renewable power may or may not be cheaper than power generated from coal or gas, but it will certainly be cheaper than renewable power generated for private gain. The public utility, PREPA, can be reclaimed and restructured in order to ensure, first, that the energy transition can be planned and implemented over a period of years and that renewable sources of energy serve everyone – and not just those who can afford solar panels, microgrids, and battery systems. Space can be created so that communities have a real voice in the installation, operation, maintenance, and management of local energy systems with a strong emphasis on conservation and efficiency. But public-worker control of the overall service is also important, because this is where decisions about the direction of the island’s energy future will need to be made. The goal here is not to sell electrical power to the grid for profit, but to make sure systems are operating well and are responsive to public needs and concerns.

The people of Puerto Rico may come up with another way of doing the energy transition. But they must be given a choice-and that includes the choice to keep the power system fully in public hands. •

New Labor Forum, Spring 2018, forthcoming.

Endnotes

  1. Prior to Maria Puerto Rico has installed just 120MW of solar and only 22MW of wind.
  2. The targets mandated were 15% renewables by 2020 and 20% by 2035.
  3. Microgrids are small-scale power grids that can function independently of the larger transmission system. So if there is a problem with the centralized generation and main transmission lines, users can still-under certain circumstances-continue to access electricity.
  4. See TUED Bulletin #68.
  5. Puerto Rico Energy Resiliency Working Group (Navigant Consulting) Build Back Better: Reimagining and Strengthening the Power Grid of Puerto Rico.

Sean Sweeney is Director of the Murphy Institute's International Program on Labor, Climate, and the Environment. And he writes for New Labor Forum and Trade Unions for Energy Democracy.

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