Thursday, May 17, 2018

It is time to change the Alameda County District Attorney

It has been time for a long time.

In no other race on the June ballot do we have an opportunity to effect a bigger change than the one that is made possible by voting for Pamela Price against the incumbent District Attorney, Nancy O’Malley.

The big is possible because it is the District Attorney who sets the policy of who we prosecute, how we prosecute them, how hard we charge them and what we might do instead of throwing the book at a young offender.

Alameda County is where hundreds of young people get sucked into a vicious circle of crime and punishment with failed rehabilitation and parolee recidivism.

The advice on what we should do to break that pattern is not simple, but it is usually about the same. It is to both try to not put new people into the criminal justice system and to try to get those already in and out of jail to stay out of jail and have a healthy life.

What exactly does that look like?

1 Setting up restorative alternatives to a criminal prosecution, where an offender gets involved in a plan for restitution to victims of their crimes and they are kept in society in a way that includes them turning over a new leaf and becoming contributor in the community.

The normal way to do this is to have a community “group-family” conference where the government, the victim, the perpetrators and relevant friends and neighbors create an individual plan for that offender.

2 Making a place for those on parole and probation in the community. That is hard because people come out of jail or prison broke, homeless and disconnected from jobs, family and community.

The kinds of programs that work usually involve housing and giving people entering the community from incarceration some kind of job. Education and cultural participation also help.

So, what influence does a District Attorney have on such efforts?

To start with, she could decide to not prosecute and do something else instead. It is the DA who can refer a case to restorative justice group-family conferences in lieu of prosecution. It is also the DA would has the discretion to deal with parole violations.

Now maybe you have heard that we are already doing these things in Alameda County.

We are, in pitifully insufficient numbers.

What does happen in significant numbers is the old counterproductive prosecution habits, notably:

  • Prosecuting teens (mostly black) as adults.
  • Charging offenders with the most serious charges possible. Often this comes in the form of claiming the accused committed multiple charges as part of a single event.
  • Charging offenders with serious felonies that they did not commit as a way to coerce a guilty plea to some lesser charge that the accused may or may not have actually done.
  • Measuring a prosecuting attorney’s success by conviction rate and total number of people sentenced.
  • Asking judges for the maximum sentence lengths.
  • Using parole violations to take people off the street, often leaving other crimes unresolved.

There is nothing unusual about such practices in a prosecutor’s office in our country, and Alameda County is not one of the worst offenders by any means. Many of these issues are at the heart of the prosecution reform our whole nation needs. But we do have too much of the business-as-usual prosecution machines in Alameda and we do not stand out as leaders in finding alternatives to harsh punishments nor in backing off from ruthlessly sending large numbers of young people to jail. Take a guess how many of them are black and brown.

From the time of the Little Hoover Commission Report on Parole in 2003 the official advice from our state has been to focus on getting offenders back into the community. The recommendations of that report have not really been put into practice.

Similar recommendations stem from earlier to work done on restorative justice here in the US, some places in Canada and groundbreaking progress in New Zealand.

Here in the Bay Area there has been some serious progress based on restorative justice and community policing, notably in somewhat conservative San Jose and in very left wing Richmond.

Turning our criminal justice system around is a much bigger task than what any DA’s office can do alone. It also requires some serious changes in the practices of our prison system, reformed policing policies and improved services offered by state, county and city governments.

That said, the one elected official who has the most influence in the chain of command, and the most power to break the vicious circles, is the DA who who has the power to prosecute or not. We need more “not”.

Pamela Price has the background and the desire to make headway on the reforms needed. She has been working in the courts to counteract the barrage of prosecution that so many are subjected to. She has been trying to do something about the racial and economic unfairness in a system that is still way too based on merciless punishment.

She may or may not be able to make the needed reforms but she will try, and I am convinced that the incumbent has had every opportunity to make progress, but instead has chosen to be someone who resists change.

The endorsements that she has received speaks poorly of those endorsing. Such endorsements are made as political calculations, not a discussion of policies.

Nancy O’Malley has been part of the problem, no matter what token efforts she has been associated with, and I think it is time for a more forceful advocate for justice that is just.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Do not vote Dan Kalb for Assembly

Do not vote Dan Kalb for Assembly
This June we North Oakland residents will be voting for a new member of State Assembly, District 15.
I am advising strongly that you do not to vote for our current District 1 Member of City Council, Dan Kalb. It makes me feel kind of like a rat to say bad things about him because he is a personable, nice guy. I like him, but I am also closer to the process than other members of the community and feel a responsibility to warn people off from voting for him.
I did not always feel so negatively about Mr. Kalb but over the course of the 7 years that I have been around him, his office and his political friends, my conclusion is that Dan is about Dan and his political career first, and we residents come second, at best. And we should expect second rate constituent service, at best.
Sure, Dan looks like a wonderful candidate. Looking like a wonderful candidate is usually the first thing that our mainstream politicians do well. That and raise funds. They cultivate working relationships into endorsements (called networking) and they hustle up that pile of cash needed for them to be on the inside and be seen as “viable” by our local press.
I know that Dan and his campaign can cite a long list of accomplishments and show off a chest full of Democratic Party merit badges and campaign ribbons. But apart from their marketing valued to his career, do they mean much for us here in North Oakland?
Before we get too caught up in the siren’s call of any Oakland politician’s self-promotion please take a look at the seven thousand plus people living out in the rain under the bridges and ask yourself how good of a job are our Oakland elected officials doing on the list of things that matter to us in our day to day lives.
Call a cop, visit a school, park your car, get a permit to upgrade your home, file a complaint, buy or sell a home or do any of those things that we do with the city government and ask yourself if Oakland is well run. Do we have a good local government?
If it all seems fine to you, walk down the sidewalk with the car glass swept to the curb, past the people living in the tents and go vote for one of our council members to go help us in Sacramento.
Dan is only part of the problem when it comes to Oakland’s disappointing government, but being part of running Oakland is not much to be proud of.  
Let’s talk some specifics about our council member.
Dan Kalb boasts of being a top environmental advocate. What does he mean by that? I think he means environmental statements with a city hall signature. He has a background that should be seen as environmental nonprofit lobbying and he talks it up.
But insufficient environmental concern has taken place exactly where the City of Oakland wields the most authority: code, zoning and permitting.
The Oakland list of neglected environmental actions is too long to write because it includes everything from fire abatement to native species, water control to pollution in our parks and landscaping, from the solar panels on our roofs to the grey water from our sinks and the list goes on to include every part of what the city should be doing about the world wide environmental crisis. You will find that most of these subjects were rarely discussed by our council and by no means is Dan Kalb a visionary on urban ecology or a vocal advocate of it.
The reality of it is that Dan and his office assistant Olga come from the Sierra Club group of local Democrats.
What has been done in Oakland is symbolic, token and statistically meaningless, but it does provide political cover by allowing the claim of “doing something”.
Something is better than nothing only when it is something real.
Doing “something” to create an illusion of progress keeps substantial advancement stalled.
Putting forth “something” is a good way to make oneself look good and it advances a political career.
Another place where the progress does not measure up to the size of the problem is our new police commission. Despite popular misconception, Dan Kalb did not write the police commission proposal. That was done by the Coalition for Police Accountability led by Rashidah Griange.
What Dan was involved with is the watered down version that we voted for in 2016, called Measure LL.
Some key provisions were cut and the LL version lost considerable informed support including some of the leaders of our local Black Lives Matter movement and the Oakland Justice Coalition. Both of those groups felt that the key ability to discipline an out-of-line police officer was missing. The Measure LL version also gives the Mayor the right to directly name too many members of the new police commission.
Guess who The Mayor endorses in this race?
The overwhelming yes vote for LL shows that there was no political need to water LL down on the public’s part. The political need to water it down was for the careers of the politicians involved, including Dan Kalb who may have already had his eye on the “open” 15th District Assembly seat as he ran for reelection to his council seat.
One does not rack up the pages of endorsements that Dan has when one stands up to the police officers’ union or any other public sector union, or the mayor.
The long list of endorsements are on Dan Kalb’s website. I suggest you take a long look and think over what each of them means in the way of who he will think of first before he responds to the needs of the voting public.
Oh, and Oakland Police? Still under the control of a judge because we still have not implemented the reforms agreed to back when the Rider’s case was settled in 2003. (yes, 15 years ago) Oakland continues to pay out for police abuse more than any city in our area. But save that, want to know another side of the Oakland Police Department? Ask current or former black and brown youth.
Dan was one of the new faces on council that was supposed to do something about that. We are still waiting.
There has been some symbolic change, some real change and there continues to be one scandal after another and not enough of the police accountably that was asked for when we voted for LL.
Then there is the question of constituent services.
Want to get a deep laugh out of a local community activist? Tell them that Olga from Dan’s office will “get back to you on that”. That will cause any of us to smile, left right and centrist. (most are centrist)
Dan is there to press the flesh, he hold semipublic, symbolic “office hours” but a one on one, in depth, private meeting does not happen. Sustained support for community projects is also a weak point. Ever wonder how Telegraph Ave fell off of the repaving list? Neglected local items is another list too long to write.
And I know a couple things from running for office.
As someone who ran for local office in 2010, 2012 (against Dan) and 2016 I got to see some of the process around Dan and his part of the Sierra Club. This is worth a couple blogs all on its own, but just for this editorial, it forms part of why I lost trust in, and I will not vote for, Dan Kalb.
I also have some serious questions about what our local branch of the Sierra Club has become. It feels more like a Democratic Party “player” to me, than part of the environmental movement. I see that they have endorsed our incumbent DA against the woman who would bring us some real restorative justice practices where they would be most needed. (Do not re-elect O’Malley, PLEASE vote for Pamela Price)
Dan’s own endorsements of others are devoid of public process, consultation with us here in District 1 and based on his “working relationships”. I asked to talk to him in 2015 about my 2016 school board race and got a yearlong run around. Asking to meet with him politically got me a “yes” and “Olga will get back to you”. In other words it never happened.
If the answer was NO because I am too left wing, or too Green for him to support, he did not have the integrity to tell me that. I think he endorsed Jody so that Jody could endorse him in 16 and now again in 18. I doubt that Dan and Sierra Club support charter schools and serial budget cuts, but that is what they endorsed. I learned about it on twitter.
And what expertise does the Sierra Club have to endorse candidates for District Attorney and School Board anyways? Are they now education and criminal justice experts? We are a long way from David Brower….
But that was not Dan’s first long run around with me.
Unprompted he told me personally that parolees were going to be one of his priorities once he was on council. Given my own background, I offered to work on whatever Dan came up with to help people on parole and probation find a place in our community after he won the election in 2012. I would have been glad to help and set politics aside because Oakland should come first and we have a serious problem with recidivism here. There are young people who need serious attention following the neglect they received from Alameda County and the California Department of Corrections.
I asked Dan about this a few times over the following years and never heard that anything was happening from Dan or anyone from his office. Maybe Olga will get back to me about that too.
Personally I will vote for Jovanka Beckles. We only have one vote in this one.
She is one of the three people running who have serious backgrounds in being a local elected official. The other two are Dan and Judy Appel. One could say Andy Katz too, sort of.
Jovanka is part of the Richmond Progressive Alliance success story, so politically I am more in her camp, and she is the only one who has the hands-on track record dealing with the problems we know in Oakland such as parolee recidivism, restorative justice, community policing, the housing crisis, wage equity and so on. Jovanka was part of the team that gets real results and she is also known for her active and attentive constituent service.
Jovanka has the endorsement of the My Revolution (Berniecrats), us Greens and most of the progressive left. So politically she and I are kindred spirits.
But that may not be your cup of tea. A person more attracted to the mainstream Democrats would find a good person to vote for in Judy Appel with her strong nonprofit advocacy and experience on the Berkeley School board. Katz also has a respectable background.  
The other person who would give me pause voting for her is Buffy Wicks.
A background pushing a bill in Washington on behalf of the executive is a long way from being a local legislator, but others have made that conversion and she is obviously bright and personable.
What gives me pause, and would really give me pause if I were a Democrat, is her history of heavy partisanship against the Berniecrats and 3rd party folk like me. I am not sure if she would be there to lead all of us.
We need someone in Sacramento who will be responsive to the district across the board. I do not want to be waiting for Olga to get back to us when we are asking for help with something that does not get Dan a campaign donation or endorsement.
And if Dan stays because he does not make it to the November runoff, we need to see what will get us more attention in District 1, here in Oakland. 

For more information, please take a look at the Alameda Green Party Voter Guide for the June 2018 election. I did not write the endorsement for Assembly District 15, but I did write the recommendation for a Yes vote on Measure D and to cast our ballots for former Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin for Lieutenant Governor.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Nicaragua’s vicious circle of distrust

Nicaragua’s vicious circle of distrust

Visiting with old friends, who are also fellow old revolutionaries, in a rural town where we all used to live, I found a completely different view of the protests and the protesters than I heard about in Nicaragua’s cities.

Why were they so less critical of Daniel Ortega? In part because they did not believe the reports of deaths, police abuse and goon squads attacking the protestors.

Anything that came from the right was suspect. That included the human rights groups close to the right wing. “63 reported dead?” “Who said so?”

I only got some traction when I said that the pro-Sandinista newspaper confirmed the numbers of known dead and missing, presumed dead.

Protestors beaten, tortured and left on the road? Again, who said so? And who are these protestors? “They must have done something to have deserved it.” “These groups could not possible all be students.”

Social media and mainstream media is highly suspect among rank and file Sandinistas inside, and especially outside of the big cities. There is a suspicion of spin and fake news that would seem very familiar to the US based observer.

Added to this is a long history of being lied to, and manipulated by, the same groups of right wingers and their cast of characters now crying foul. Most Nicaraguans know them by first name.

These manipulation and lies include recent economic grief caused by members of these private sector circles.

Some of that grief comes in the form of land takeovers all over the country by right wing, “Miami based” Nicaraguans who are trying to get back land that was confiscated because of their relationship with the Somoza dictatorship. Those “true owners” have committed all kinds of petty crimes trying to reverse the land reforms one little parcel at a time, often on land that these families never owned.

So when the private industry council is talking national politics, social security laws or civil rights, the experience that many Nicaraguans have of them is the support they give to some local rich reactionaries trying to kick farmers off of their land.

And the private industry council is connected to a list of misdeeds and crimes going all the way back to CIA intervention and the Contra War. They have earned the distrust of each generation in their own way over decades. In every part of Nicaraguan history, the private sector groups have been the friends of the rich and powerful in a country where there is a deep economic divide and those at the bottom are accustomed to being treated like shit by the affluent.

So now they are for civil rights and are against police abuse?
Now they are worried about the old age pensions of poor people?

These people have so little credibility that if they claimed that the sun rose in the east, an average Nicaraguan would double check with an astronomer and then wonder what the rich were up to by saying something that was true.

The Catholic Church has its own public perception problems.

I have been asking everyone I know “Who in Nicaragua has broad based credibility that would engender the trust of both sides if they led up an investigation?”

Sandinista friends are slow to say the church, and if they do, they are quick to make clear that they only mean some members of the church and do not mean the local church hierarchy. Some bishops are considered too close to Daniel and most other elder ones have a long history of being close to the CIA, the Contra, Somoza and the obstruction opposition of the past or right wing Liberal governments between Daniel’s first period as president and the second.

The Nicaragua pantheon of scoundrels includes many in black robes.

It includes many wearing the red and black flag of Sandino too.

To think of the Sandinista view of the political divide as single side is too simple, and this is ever truer on the other side where people are opposed to the Daniel presidency in the third term of its second edition for a wide variety of reasons with a long variety of start dates.

But there is enough distrust of the Sandinistas from the rest of Nicaraguans to categorize the situation as a circular firing squad of suspicion. 

Some rich reactionaries and their thugs were happy with the Somoza dictatorship and are indeed as sociopathic as the Sandinistas paint them.

On the other hand, old distaste over how the land reforms were carried out also stems from some legitimate claims of abuse. There has never been a serious readjustment or reconciliation and compensation agreement.

What many unfairly expropriated land owners got was a lot of double talk, shifting of the blame and downplaying any harm that came to those unjustly deprived of their property. Organization and transparent due process were never a Sandinista strong point. So many have come from the other side of the land disputes with built in distrust of the Sandinistas and frankly count their fingers after shaking hands with one.

Then come the layers of alienation.

Many of the people who now do not trust the Sandinista Front are former supporters or members. Land is hardly the only issue to have come up over the years. Hardball politics has earned Sandinista supporters and critics patronage or retaliation from government agencies that should not be making decisions, such as road paving, based on political party. Step by step, many old Sandinistas have become former Sandinistas and I have heard repeated talk of how the Sandinistas have strayed from their ideals of clean and humane government

From the time of the Contra War to today, many dubious actions, policies and statements of the Front and its leaders have deserved investigation, public criticism and rebuke, but it never really came. Apologies and restitution are not part of the public discourse.

There has been double talk in lieu of action, there has been back stabbing and personal gain, there has been no small amount of preferential treatment and above all, there has been more propaganda than open discussion. People want answers and debate; they get slogans.

And one could rewrite the above switching the names around because most active members of the political casts have had their hands dirty one way or another during the post revolution presidencies. Of the former Sandinistas there is little to say. Many have now become part of the affluent private sector, some were ineffective dissident intellectuals whose alternative Sandinista movement failed at the polls and the rest have seemed to just neglect politics and public life all together. The only one who could have been an alternative leader is buried in a place of honor next to the national palace.

The last thing being discussed privately or publically are the details of the social security reforms that supposedly were at the heart of the debate, the protests, the student strikes and the suspicion of corruption. Is the fund bankrupt? Was it honestly depleted or was it used as a piggy bank for investment schemes? Is the new plan solvent?

Such questions are swept aside because so little of what anyone says is believed. The head of the police was “retired”. Was she responsible for the abuse? Well, so far the Sandinistas have not admitted to any abuse, nor the use of good squads, despite overwhelming evidence. They withdrew the pension reforms, but are not saying anything about oversight of the pension system.

I spent an afternoon talking with an old friend who was until recently an employee of the social security institute. She though that the cuts and adjustments were a good deal since the flip side was extending health benefits. Most would argue that the Public Health Service is not worth it, but that really depends on where one lives. She is rural, and she is one of the people who saw her own payout cut only six weeks into her early retirement caused because the cutbacks had cut her. 

That was the only in depth conversation I had with anyone on the subject, but another friend, a Sandinista economist disaffected from the Daniel leadership, told me that he does not think any small country can avoid using neo-liberal economics today. You will not find that in the press.

A good part of every other conversation was about who they did not believe, who they thought their own side was and what they thought others were “really up to” and who they “really were”.

And I keep asking the same question: 

“Who has the trust of the people?”

Sandinisat Paradise Lost

Sandinista Paradise Lost

On April 30th the Sandinistas called a major meeting in Managua as sort of mix between a May Day celebration, a peace march and a counter demonstration to offset the social security cutback protests.

The attendance was OK. A main arterial was filled. It was not as large as the peace march called by the Catholic Church on the Saturday, nor some of the peaceful protests of the earlier days, but it was still an impressive show of Sandinista support no matter how many public sector workers were called in or how many people were bussed in from outside of Managua.

Old revolutionary songs were played as was some truly awful rap.

The main theme of this rally seemed to be just to establish that the Sandinistas are the legitimate representatives of the revolution and that Daniel and Rosario are the legitimate leaders of the Sandinistas. They did a mediocre job of both. How did we get here when for so long neither was necessary?

This angel fell in steps going back to when they were a revolutionary government.

This story could be told chronologically going either backwards or forwards.

Before the recent and unprecedented protests against the social security cuts there were other protests and dubious reactions from the Daniel Ortega government. I’ll tell it from the other direction for the simple reason that for the first part, I was there.

The Sandinistas, and Daniel as the first elected Nicaraguan president in living history came to elected government in 1984 and were voted out of office in early 1990. Before that they had led up a transitional government that included leaders from other political groups.

It is clear that most of those who changed their vote between 84 and 90 did so wanting an end to the Contra War and the wartime draft.

But that is not the only reason. A good segment of the population had voted for the rational Liberals or Conservatives and some of the people have always been to the right of that.

Even so, a revolutionary government that had overthrown a dictator and brought so much progress to the country might have done better in that 1984 poll.

There were other problems than the draft and the war. There was mismanagement in a big way and a lot of personal careerism in a bigger way and there was a political culture that blamed all their shortcomings on the United States and their imposed war and blockades.

The Sandinista’s share of the blame for the war, the economic problems and the mismanagement was debatable and there is no question that the CIA had imposed the war and that many local aristocrats had their hands dirty.

But during the lame duck period following the election of 1990 the Sandinistas took a lot of public property for themselves personally or in NGO’s of their own creation and under their personal control. This is called the “piƱata” and because of it many Sandinista members, called militants, resigned.

It was the wrong people resigning.

In the opinion of this old revolutionary, after losing the election it was time for the top nine leaders of the Sandinista Front to resign those party leadership roles, retire from public office and make room for new leaders to come up and lead them in their new role as the elected opposition.

That is not what happened.

There was an internal struggle for the post of party chairman. New leaders from the trade unions, the organized farmers and ranchers and youth groups were put on the slow track and worst of all, Daniel consolidated a leadership around himself when traditionally the Sandinista Front had been run by a committee.

Over the years there were ineffective challenges from inside and outside the party.

Then the Front was not a very effective opposition and kept losing presidential votes where the Sandinista candidate was always Daniel Ortega. Towards the end they led up a “rule from below” campaign that was as destructive as it was constructive. The campaign was more about getting back into power than what they would do with it.

Some people would fault Daniel for the slide towards the church, religion in general and away from women’s rights, including the right to choose an abortion. Others would say that they became a party led by people who had become upper middle class, if they ever were anything less. Their slide towards neo liberal capitalism and cozy relationships with affluent cliques did not endear anyone.

From my Sandinista friends there is a nearly universal distaste for the cozy relationship with the liberal party under the leadership of President Aleman. The Sandinista movement had always called for government clear of corruption and the pact with Aleman betrayed that ideal.

Eventually we come to Daniel Dos, the three consecutive times he had been elected in this century. The foreign press will sometimes call this the “return” of the Sandinistas to power. In Nicaragua when people talk about the Sandinista government and the revolution, they mean 1979 to 1990, not now.

The current version of Daniel Dos includes his wife Rosario Murillo as Vice President reminiscent of Grace Mugabe or maybe Claire Underwood with a bit of the spiritualism of Rasputin thrown in. She also is busy redecorating Managua according to her Dr. Seuss like tastes. Even ardent Daniel supporters can become silent when talking about Rosario.

Over the years ugliness has crept in.

Those who have spoken out against Sandinista policies, such as the environmental disaster in the making with the new inter-oceanic canal, could find themselves without a job or find their university without a government contract. This is normal political paternalism, but it is not what the Sandinistas stand for, it is explicitly what they stand against.

Uglier still was the police using a hard hand on protestors. It happened during the anti-canal protests, it happened at other less famous times. Each was an uproar that died down but with each cut, enthusiasm for the Sandinistas and belief in them as a revolutionary movement that is true to its ideals also dies down a bit.

Nothing goes more against the goals of the revolution more than acts of violence and repression against the public. This is not what we fought for, this is not what we fought the Contra for. During the revolution we went out of our way to stay human, to treat people ethically and make good on offers of amnesty to the Contras. The death penalty was ended and Sandinistas who committed abuses were sent to jail.

Now we have around 70 dead, people violently mistreated by the police and there is clear evidence that attack squads were organized to beat and stone peaceful protestors.

For many the Sandinista Front with Daniel and Rosario has become the lesser evil and there is good reason to vote for them when it comes to infrastructure and social services.

Nicaragua is poor, but less poor than the dollar salary count would lead one to believe. The countryside is full of paved roads, local hospitals and clinics, and every child can go to school. This is in stark contrast with the Nicaragua of the Somoza dictatorship or Honduras. Under the new Daniel government this kind of spending continues and many Nicaraguans benefit personally from the social spending, especially in the rural areas.

And even if Daniel dominates the national leadership, he is not the alpha and omega of local Sandinista leadership, especially in the rural areas. There is a reason why the Sandinistas bused people into Managua for their big rally, they had the people willing to get on the bus.

Once that Managua street was filled, a pathetic show of party leadership, continuation of the revolution and a national mandate was put on in a way that might have been better to just say nothing.

When it was truer, they did not say anything, they talked politics.

Daniel droned on about peace and calm and his concern for those killed in the protests but did not come out with any solid action to investigate who killed whom. The hint is always that the striking students are privileged young people being manipulated by the right wing and “those same outside forces as always” (my paraphrase). We drove past the stage a couple hours later and the leftover crowd was not noticeable.

He dragged up a couple people to the stage as a show of support that he really does not have. The first was a former Sandinista hero who went on to betray the revolution and found a “Sandinista” version of the Contra and the other was his former fellow commander of the Sandinista Front and one of the founders of the movement named Victor Tirado. That man was visibly not in good health and seemed disoriented.

The whole event played on a loop on TV over and over again and some of the crowd scenes looked like a shorter loop with some possible historical footage thrown in.

Daniel’s pitiful cast of supporters sharing his stage did not speak to unity, it pointed out who was not there. In fact, almost nobody from the history of the Nicaraguan revolution was there. None of the artists who usually opened the acts played the old songs; they were on tape. The social leaders were notable for their absence.

As Daniel droned on about his mix of socialism, Christianity and some vague idea of national peace and solidarity he did so with only one of the fellow commanders who had led the Sandinista revolution and that one was obviously not well. All the other surviving leaders of the revolution did not find their way to stand beside him.

And that includes his own brother.

Nicaragua is going through a rudderless change

Nicaragua is going through a rudderless change

No single narrative explains the recent protests in Nicaragua and no one group can claim to have led it or speak for a majority of Nicaraguans.

Fair or unfair there is obviously a broad based rejection of the pension contribution hikes and the related cutbacks in pension benefits.

Before the recent protests there had already been widespread distrust in how the pension funds were being managed and a suspicion of corruption aimed at most government agencies.

Many Nicaraguans are not just asking about the new rates, but also demanding to know where the money went.

We are talking about a lot of money for the working Nicaraguan.

Contributions are high as a percentage of income and the rewards are low because payout is a percentage of a very low base salary. For many Nicas the pension system is the only thing that offered them some security in old age. To now think that the system is not reliable feels like a betrayal to many. The proposed 5% cut was offset by full health benefits, but that has not been part of the public discussion.

Nicaragua is a small place. Public services feel like a deal you had with a neighbor. Now it feels like the neighbor has made off with the cash.

To tell the public that austerity measures are some kind of independance vis a vis the International Monitery Fund did nothing to make people want to support the new pension policies or the government that issued them.

Even in Nicaragua a few pecent increase on contributions and a five percent cut in benefits is not enough to send thousands of people to the streets. The build-up came in part because of the suspicion of corruption and in part because of the anger at repression.

Hard police tactics and political payback that included denial of funding and jobs to critics had started earlier for other smaller items, the anti canal resistance and an earlier protest against a pension cutback.

Each time, the Daniel Ortega government used a heavy hand. Fewer people were hurt, but eventually a large number of citizens had seen some repression in person. It is another of the public’s reasons to withdraw trust given that an end to repression is a basic Sandinista tenet.

Again, remember that Nicarqagua is a small place and their people do not have a habit of keeping their opinions and witness to themselves.

When this retirement austerity protest exploded, the government decided to use goon squads to beat and stone protestors. Social media is now full of footage that matches the opposition’s accusations as truckloads of young people wearing Sandinista Youth t-shirts were brought to violently attack protests under the noses of police who did nothing to stop them.

We know for sure that over 60 people have been killed, a few of them on camera, and many others were arrested, beaten and mistreated. The national police chief has “retired”.

Social media in Nicaragua is also full of events that did not happen. Photos from earlier times were posted to claim that large groups of the army were being mobilized.

Looting was allowed to take place and again, the police who seem so able to use riot squad tactics, was not doing much of anything.

Who the looters were is not agreed upon but the government story does not hold up. How could students have looted supermarkets and at the same time be under siege, occupying their universities? This lacks credulity, hard proof or witnesses.

Nicaragua is on the US State Department list of nations where they interfere heavily in local internal affairs.

Besides spin statements from the embassy, an unnecessary travel advisory and some of the typical biased reports in media outlets known to back US and UK government and corporate views, we don’t have any hard facts about what that interference is, but it would be a first-ever break in practice for the CIA to be doing nothing.

Some of the people publically supporting the protests have past CIA ties going back to the Contra War and have since been trying to sabotage everything this elected government has ever tried to do. It is in part these relentless actions of the US and their allies to undercut the Sandinista government that gives the “Danielista” government more good will that it would deserve otherwise.

Private enterprise leaders have laid a cynical claim to be leading the anti-austerity movement and the Sandinistas accuse them of provoking the protests thought false representations. To further that discourse President Ortega announced that he would dialog with the business groups despite their lack of mandate when he decided to backtrack on this pension policy. 

But the private sector leadership of the public outrage is dubious.

There is no real evidence that the protests are anything other than spontaneous expressions of all kinds of pent up public outrage against the Ortega presidency and the new version of the Sandinista Front led by students in some places but including large numbers of all kind of Nicaraguans.

The opponents of the austerity measures and more importantly of the repressive tactics against the protestors include Daniel’s former Vice President from the revolution days and members of the old Sandinista nine Comandante leadership including Daniel’s own brother Humberto.

Many claim to be leading, many come to the big mass meetings and speak and they come from many different parts of Nicaraguan society. Some have less credibility than others and chief among those undeserving of trust are the Liberals from earlier governments and that same private sector leadership, who have never done much for the common person. 

The church knows full well that the right wing only represents a part of the protest movement at best and memory of the church’s right wing, anticommunist, anti-Sandinista bias has not faded. 

Yet part of the church could be the only path to peace. Their mass rally Saturday was well attended and totally peaceful.

The church, the Sandinistas, the Liberals and the private sector are all divided internally.

If any consensus is forming in Nicaragua, it is against police violence and the use of goon squads. There is a lot of anger, disappointment and flat rejection of the Sandinistas under Daniel, but that rejection has a lot of different motives and desires.

For the moment the elected political opposition does not offer a clear, unified alternative and there is a leadership vacuum filled by chaos, leading in different directions.

The Nicaraguan public is one that acts and reacts. They are demanding to be heard even if they do not speak with a single voice and do not have an alternative leadership.

And they want better government. 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Update on Europe

The recent elections in Italy and the German government finally renewing its existing coalition government are two important events in a series of European political impasses and a general move to the right coupled with widespread rejection of the established political parties in several nations. 

The new Italian bicameral legislature looks like a design for a stalemate. 

The legendary Italian left is reduced to a small delegation of less than a third of either their assembly or senate. 

The right made small gains, but the real news is a large shift from the traditional center right to a new hard right represented by the Northern League (La Lega) which is mostly hard right, originally regional separatist and the first political party to elect a black Nigerian immigrant as a Senator.  The old Berlusconi right is still in the game, but La Lega is claiming the right to organize the next governing coalition.

Between the left parties and right wing ones is a populist movement called Five Stars. 

A lot of commentators have spent a lot of time telling us that nobody in 5 Stars knows what they want.  Funny that because one of the main 5 Star demands is for the leadership of the traditional parties to resign, for corruption to be investigated and controlled and for the politics of the country to be renewed.  The Italian and world press should be able understand this. 

Five Stars has the largest vote of any party, and they too are claiming the right for their very young leader to form the next government. 

The traditional left took it on the nose with the ruling Democratic Party being reduced from government to minor party status in one jump.  They are not talking about forming any government and have so far rejected any ideas of doing so with Five Stars. 

This traditional left is the political movement that was once the Italian Communist Party which was the largest Communist party west of the Iron Curtain.  It is mostly represented today by the Democrats.  They are a large social and trade union movement that has deep roots in all of Italy today, despite their defeat at the polls this week.  There are a couple other more moderate and harder line left groups that round out the small delegation left of deputies elected in 2018. 

While the Democrats still had the name “Communist” and used the hammer and sickle as its symbol it was also the most liberal of the pro-Soviet parties being one of the two major developers of “Eurocommunism”, the pro-democracy, civil rights, anti-Soviet occupation of Afghanistan movement of the European left that was essentially moderate.  The Europe they were talking about was WESTERN Europe of the then 12 member EEC, which we called the Common Market that became the European Union of 27 members today.   There were some uneasy meetings in Moscow, especially when their gay youth wing leader turned up.  They were center left before they took the name “Democratic Party of the Left” and after they became just the “Democrats’ and dropped the traditional icon from their party symbol, they became a party of both center left and grand coalition governments. 

The Italian Communists plays a role in Italy similar to the one the Socialists and Social Democrats play in other nations of Europe and have joined the “Socialist Club” by having serious electoral defeat this year. 

Nowhere was that defeat any worse than in France.  While Macron and his new Republican Rally movement did well in the second rounds of their presidential and legislative elections, they did so with much fractured first rounds.  In most cases, including the president’s election, the top two to come out of the first round represented well under 40% of the voters.  It is one thing to pick the lesser evil candidate, it is another to have actively voted for a different party just weeks before.  The turnout for the second round of the French election was a record low. 

A French record low turnout is much higher than we ever get in the US. 

Also, it is hard to tell how much support Macron had because of his own proposals and how much the French people were fed up with business as usual from the political parties that seemed to recycle idea and disappointing politicians.  Macron is similar to Five Stars in that. The failed outgoing president was a Socialist. 

As Macron’s original vote was not so large, that leaves the majority of French people allied with other political parties, all of whom seem to have decided to have a crisis at the same time. The Republicans and the Socialists have new leaders and new defections. The leadership decisions among the socialists is still not over really and there are many splinter groups. The ultra-right has the same leader, Marine Le Pen, new defections and are considering a new name.  The new left seems to be on the same track as back during their unexpected better showing in the presidential first round.  They are a smaller party, but they seem to be stable when others are not.    

Altogether, all the traditional French political parties together don’t add up to even half of the legislature, so Macron and his people are doing what they want.  Given the slowness of the German government to negotiate their renewal, Brexit, Italian stalemates, and the Trump lack of effectiveness, French President Macron has become a leader in European and international affairs.  While our press has been discussing Stormy Daniels and Russians in the back room, Macron has been an effective negotiator with Russia in places like the Mid-East for example.  His trips to China and India could use some better US coverage too. 

If anything stands out for Germany it is the awkward slowness of their movement to the inevitable checkout line and the strangely poor ability of very skilled German politicians to act skillfully. 

Six months ago they held an election.  For all that time the long established existing Grand Coalition, which the Germans call GroKo, has run the country as a caretaker government. 

In those elections the Free Democrats got a few fewer votes than expected, as did Merkel’s Christian Democrats in their two parts.  The right wing AfD, Alliance for Germany, got more votes than expected in earlier polls moving from an expected 7% to an elected 13%.  The Socialists were not doing well in the earlier local Landtag votes under Martin Schultz’ leadership and continued to do poorly nationally, but maybe not as bad as before, or as bad as expected.  The Left and the Green parties got about the same percentages as before and as in the local elections, and like their French counterparts, they are small but stable parts of German political life.  The difference in results means that the expected Free Democrat - Christian Democrat majority was short a few votes. 

Somehow Italy has the reputation for its proportional representation politics being a soap opera, but Germany is also a show worth watching.  If NBC does not cover it, maybe Netflix should consider a miniseries.

A renewal of the GroKo would have made the anti-immigrant Alliance for Germany the official opposition.  Martin Schultz opted out on a renewal of GroKo and said that he personally would not take a ministerial post.  This would have been good for the Social Democrats because they would have not been part of the bad government to come and Martin Schultz could maybe rescue his career.  It would be good for the country to keep the Alliance for Germany marginalized.

Then somebody came up with the idea of a “Jamaica” coalition of the Black, for the Social Christians, the Yellow of the Free Democrats and the Green of, well we know who. 

Of course that was never going to work and it took a long time not to do so. 

Finally Martin Schulz reversed himself and tried to become Foreign Minister, kicking aside the Social Democrats former leader Sigmar Gabriel who held the job. By the time the scandal of that was over Schultz had to resign as party leader and withdraw his name for any cabinet post but stays on as a member of Bundestag.  

I would have asked him to resign as party leader just because he lost the elections so badly. That would be England.

But musical chairs was not over. The Socialists had to hold a party vote to join a renewed GroKo and then they still kicked Gabriel aside.  A new Social Democrat has the foreign affairs job, Heiko Maas moving over from Justice ….   

Six months later we have the same two parties in power, as everyone knew would have to happen, and both of them are weaker and less credible than they were. Alliance for Germany plays the opposition role.

Merkel now looks up from her desk to find Macron taking more lead around Europe.  Macron looks up from his desk asking if Germany is finally going to help him advocate for the Europe that they both want. 

And what a mixed up Europe it is.  Prime Minister May seems able to do everything wrong with Brexit and is not on the road to a deal.  The only good news out of the U.K. local politics is that the Corbyn branch of the Labor Party has stayed viable and in charge.  Still no talk about political reform such as proportional representation or at least run offs instead of first-past-the-post voting.  Germany, Italy and France may have their problems, but at least the public got to vote on it.  We should expect the next government of the U.K. to continue to represent a minority of the people. 

Spain still seems to be disjointed.  The poor handling of the Catalan crisis has promised us continued crisis and obvious backlash.  There are two Five Start type parties in Spain, one on the left and one on the right.  They too had a long hard time to get the last center right government to continue in place and the final solution included some internal Socialist Party back stabbing. 

Moving past Portugal, which has an old fashioned left coalition government we see problems in Greece being on the left but not able to do anything about it because their lives are run by the European Central Bank and private banks.  Similar bank imposed post ‘07 austerity is happening in Ireland and Portugal, but Greece it is a crisis with another crises on top of it.  That is the crisis of massive waves of immigrants fleeing the ever more catastrophic Mid East and other trouble spots of war and collapsed economies. This is happening in many other European nations, the difference in Greece is one of intensity and economic means to deal with it. 

Merkel’s original wir schaffen das” (we can make it happen) acceptance of a million refugees backfired politically inside and outside of her Christian Democratic movement as well as inside and outside of Germany. Public sentiment mixes the recent terrorism in France, Germany and Belgium with the refuge / immigration situation not matter how unrelated. Any crime involving these immigrants, especially sexual assault, has become part of the drumbeat of the right wing press. Acts of violence against foreigners has become common and is also a staple of local press reports. 

Such are the real economic results of globalization and the real after effects of expanded western influence in the political and military spheres.  One political cartoon shows a conveyor belt bringing refugees to Europe from the Mid-East, while carrying weapons back. 

That wave of immigration is part of what sent Germany and Italy to the right, affects France and has been part of the xenophobic right wing shifts in Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary.  The shift to the right in those three places is pronounced, but hardly exclusive to them in Eastern or Western Europe, and only partly related to immigration issues.  The refugee crisis has been a boon to right wing opportunists. 

And good old democratic, liberal Austria finds itself with a Green for ceremonial president, a very young conservative for prime minister in a government that has a large contingent from a right wing party that has roots going back to the original German speaking fascists. 

At the risk of generalizing about what is too complicated to make general understandings of, one could call the overall trend in Europe to be to the right, and the left that survives is tending more left.  It is no wonder that there are so many people who are just fed up. 

The free trade miracle that did not happen in the Mid-East and Africa, did not happen in Europe either.  For over a generation, too many people have lost their established and stable employment the way US auto workers did.  Working people in Europe would not be turning to the ultra-right if they had job security and basic welfare for themselves.  In their real lives, they have watched their comfortable lifestyle turn into an aggressive competition with a lot of people ending up selected against. 

Liberal politics and liberal free trade is failing working people and they know it. 

European politics is a mess because they do not know what to do about it.