Cuba, Venezuela and the USA: Imperialism in Motion

By Laurence Goodchild

The recent shift in US foreign policy towards Cuba received widespread coverage in the mainstream media. Of course, the 50 year blockade of Cuba by the world’s undisputed economic and military superpower has had a profound impact upon the island in every aspect imaginable; it’s easing is therefore of great importance to Cuba’s future. Furthermore, it is not necessary to be a card carrying member of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign to celebrate the positive humanitarian aspects this change entails – even those who are wary of the Cuban government’s authoritarian tendencies can celebrate the release of the Cuban Five or the easing of travel restrictions.

However, flawed assumptions persist in much of the reporting on this development. For one, this change is seen as one more step in the inevitable transition of Cuba towards free-market Capitalism. Ignoring the revolutions proven capability to survive through incredibly harsh periods, such as the mid-1990’s when it was left reeling from the collapse of the USSR, the assumption that different forms of economic organization are an anomaly persists. Secondly, much of the positive reporting on this development assumes that it marks another move away from the USA’s heavy-handed imperialist past.

However, we only need to bring a third country into this picture to undermine both these assumptions: Venezuela. The wholly one-sided escalation of hostilities between Venezuela and the USA scuppers the possibility of claiming that we are witnessing a decline in US imperialism. The actions of the US state under Obama extend the aggressive activities of the Bush era, including support for Coup attempts, covertly funding the opposition through development ‘aid’ and imposing economic sanctions. Most recently this resulted in Obama claiming that Venezuela is a threat to US security! Such spurious claims have always been made by the US to justify its invasions and destabilizing activity against its Southern neighbours, whether it is Guatemala in 1954, Chile in 1973, Grenada in 1983 or Venezuela in 2015. Indeed, these parallels should make us think twice about the foreign policy under Obama.

Los Ninos

image by Zanini on Flickr, CC-BY 2

Then there is the relationship between Venezuela and Cuba. Since the election of Chavez in 1998, the governments of these two countries have grown close – actively promoting an alternative to free-market neoliberalism and US dominance. This relationship, culminating in institutions such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), completely undermines the assumption that a return to free-market capitalism is inevitable in Cuba. Although Cuba’s economy is going through some reforms, the appetite for IMF or World Bank prescriptions is non-existent due to the terrible effects these had on the region throughout the 80’s and 90’s.

Essentially then, although its particular form may change, US imperialism remains a real threat today more than ever. The change of policy towards Cuba represents a change in tactic rather than any fundamental shift in the convictions of the USA’s elite. Furthermore, heterodox economic organization is likely to remain firmly on the map, whether it is minor Keynesian intervention in Uruguay or more radical alternatives such as the co-operatives of the Zapatistas and state socialism of Cuba.

Laurence Goodchild is a member of the Green Party of England and Wales, and Deputy Features Editor of E-International Relations.

In memory of Robin

By Pierre Marshall

On the morning of the 17th December, Robin Coleman died at the Helen & Douglas House hospice. He was suffering from a chest infection and had been in hospital for around two weeks, breathing with the help of a mask.

He had been in and out of hospital several times over the past year and I’d known he was ill before that, but it didn’t occur to ask quite what was wrong. He was just ill sometimes, and that was normal somehow. I now know that he had cystic fibrosis, a condition which made him particularly vulnerable to chest infections.

I have a vague memory of joining him on a school trip to Germany a long time ago. Shortly after that trip he started a relationship with Rachel who would become his girlfriend. They stayed together as a couple until the end, even getting married the day before he died. He was in the year below me at school, and I can’t say we were really close back then but we did know each other. When the student protests picked up in 2010 he got involved, he organised events, went on all the marches. He was active enough to get the attention of the police who identified him as a leader (and told him so).

Robin’s interests went beyond student politics, we went door-knocking in Banbury together to campaign against the BNP; I remember walking round Summertown with him delivering copies of ‘Green News’. Robin did things, he had plans and projects, he wanted to make the world a better place. Sure sometimes it didn’t work out, but he never stopped trying.

After I left school he stayed in touch, at weekends he invited me round to play video games, and we had fun, we had a great time. Most of the people I knew in school moved up into university and drifted off, but not Robin. Robin kept coming back and knocking on my door, asking if I wanted to hang out. Friends like that are hard to find.

So in the end we got to watch each other grow into adulthood, he went to Cambridge to study land economy, all the while he carried on launching creative schemes and endeavours. I got calls from him in strange places and at strange times, we exchanged long email conversations. Even if we couldn’t meet that often he still told me what was going on.

He gave me my first bitcoins, introduced me to theories about peak oil, gave new insights on Brzezinski and geopolitics. He showed the fun to be had in playing bad games. He was bright and jolly, he was interested in ideas, and he had things he wanted to do.

In a way it’s unfair, he didn’t do anyone any harm and he had a promising life ahead of him. He was ill and his illness killed him, it just happened. I’ve lost a good friend and there’s nobody responsible, nothing to blame save for the random cruelty of the world. So here’s to Robin, I’m glad that I got to know him and I’ll miss him greatly.

Robin Coleman

Leftstream Podcast #2

By Robin Coleman and Pierre Marshall

Ogg audio (download link)

Mp3 audio (download link)

Credits: the music used is ‘the Pirate and the Dancer’ by rolemusic. Licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Some notes:

Leftstream Podcast #1

By Robin Coleman and Pierre Marshall

Here’s our first podcast, it’s an experiment, let us know what you think and we’ll try to make it a semi-regular thing.

Here’s a direct download link (Ogg Vorbis, 40.2 MB).

Credits: the music used is ‘the Pirate and the Dancer’ by rolemusic. Licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Some notes:

  • It’s in stereo with Pierre louder on the right channel and Robin louder on the left. It results in a bigger file size, not sure if that’s worth it and will probably switch to mono recording for the next one.
  • It’s recorded in Ogg Vorbis, and it’s published in Ogg Vorbis. Most audio players should support it, but if anyone needs an Mp3 copy, say so and that’ll be done.
  • It was recorded a week ago and is now is slightly out of date.

Here’s a map of the Middle East for future reference:
Middle East map

There are definitely a few countries there which have as much a right to be called ‘democracies’ as Israel claims.

Lastly, ask us questions! Leave a comment on this post, or tweet @leftstream. Alternatively, if you want to come on the show, we can ask you questions, in real-time!

Groundhog day for East Oxford Community Centre? An investigative report.

EOCC

An investigative report -By Mike Doherty

The online petition to save East Oxford Community Centre from being taken over by Oxford City Council had reached over 600 signatures by late last week. On the Monday of that week, a small group of campaigners and petitioners stood outside the centre; a former school and a Cowley Road landmark, and in the heat of a radiant summer afternoon sun, successfully fought off the council officers. The local press was there recording the noisy community protest, and a Cowley road resident collecting signatures for a paper petition told the Oxford Mail that “this is a valuable, fantastic community centre.”

Speaking to the Oxford Mail about the protest, Colin Aldridge, the “Interim Chair of the East Oxford Association”, the volunteer trustee association committee that manage the centre and its paid staff, told the Oxford Mail that the council had “backed down” in the face of their protest. The council later countered by flexing its legal muscles, and released a statement accusing the association of not being “fit to run such a property”, and, threatening that unless the trustees ceased “resistance”, they would have to “consider formal proceedings”.

Most community centres get in the paper because they are holding a refugee arts event, a comics convention or a children’s theatre workshop. The EOCC, to be fair, does that too, but it also gets in the newspapers because of what appear to be perennial campaigns to save it from something or other. A local wag once said to me, when a nice community-esque picture of the centre appeared in the Mail as part of the Cowley Road Carnival, that it was a change from “a picture of the centre with people waving banners outside it, or with a big padlock on the door, or as part of a crime scene with police tape wrapped around it.” The current happening at the centre is no less dramatic, but behind the heart-warming tableaux of young community campaigners protesting against council public space-snatchers, a far more murkier hinterland exists, with claims of missing bank accounts, hints of wrong-doing, resigning trustees, the mishandling of employment procedures, and a committee seeming unable to literally manage a piss-up in a bar.

It is apparent that the line in the sand has been drawn yet again with battle declared between grass-roots community and the big bad council behemoth. As the afternoon wore on and activists and council officers regrouped, online Oxford buzzed with support for the temporary victory. It seems churlish not to join in the celebrations, particularly as in 2009 I was a trustee of the East Oxford Association myself, but when I am told to; “Save our East Oxford Community Centre”, I am driven to ask: “Yes, but for whom and from what, and who exactly is the “our”?

The Council is clear that the EOCC needs to be saved for local people from the association that’s running it. The council said it had “serious concerns” about “management” and had been trying to engage the association to “rectify” this “for some time”, adding that: “We have no option in circumstances where a public asset is being mismanaged other than to terminate the licence.” It is quite clear that the “our” is the council, a local democratic public authority that owns the building.

The Association also seems clear on its opposing view, saying on its online petition page that “we want to keep the Community Centre run for the people of East Oxford and by the people of East Oxford.” Addressing the ‘from whom?’ it states that: “For many years the Community Association has been aware that the City Council has had alternative ideas for the use of the site,” It adds that the notice from the council to quit is because the council wants to “sell part of the sight for redevelopment and “significantly reduce community management of the Community Centre.” Sources close to the campaign claim to have seen plans that the centre is going to be drastically redeveloped and that the community space could be reduced to a single room.

The local politicians don’t help to resolve this either. When the council gave the association a four week notice to quit back in June, Craig Simmonds, City councillor for St Mary’s Craig and local Green Party leader, said: “The situation cannot continue as it is and action needed to be taken, but at the moment councillors disagree on the way forward.” On the other hand, Bev Clack, the Labour Councillor for the centres St Clements ward said: “It couldn’t be allowed to continue in the way it was going because that wasn’t fair to anyone. My sense is that having the council managing the centre is the best option.” While both seemed to be agreeing with the council; that the centre is being mismanaged, the disagreement appears to hinge on who fixes it – the council or the association – with Cllr Clack clearly siding with the council and Cllr Simmonds declining to state who exactly should take the necessary remedial action.

To muddy the waters, in Friday’s Oxford Mail letters page, a local resident, speaking on behalf of “the local community and groups using the centre,” said they were “keen” to see the association stay in charge, refuting the mismanagement claims by saying that the association was “a charity overseen by the Charity Commission, and their latest accounts are on the commission’s website and are up to date and audited.” It then demanded the evidence for the mismanagement claims.

The Community Centre has been here before. Way back in March 2007, a previous campaign to stop the council closing the Social Club Bar, which was then a separate entity, amidst numerous complaints about anti-social behaviour and linked police concerns, appeared to have succeeded when Oxford City Council pulled back from a threat to close it and said it would “work with the centre’s committee to fix the problem.” The problem was duly fixed when the association disbanded the Social Club and evicted the Social Bar committee, before changing the locks.

After a short closure, the bar continued for a year under a private licensee, before a new bar; ‘The Old School Bar’, was constituted as an association affiliation in 2009 and then run by a voluntary bar manager and licensee under the direction of three of the trustees formed into an attached trustee bar committee. One of the trustees, Sally Joss, was also the association chair at the time, with Sarah Lazenby, the association treasurer, having oversight of the bar account bookkeeping as well as the main centre accounts. There was an uneasy transition, as the Old School Bar manager enforced licensing regulations and volunteers helped to rid the bar of trouble-makers and strived to put in place effective book-keeping procedures, but eventually things appeared to be running smoothly and extra revenue soon started to flood into the centre’s coffers.

Now the association had a new source of income alongside the more usual booking and tenancy fees, with the bar money going through the bar committee into an account linked to but separate from the association’s main account. The stock was brought on account from Bookers cash and carry, and a cheque book, with two of the three bar trustees acting as co-signatories, was used to buy sundries and pay the security firm providing the bouncers. The takings where paid back into the Old School Bar and half of the profits then being transferred by cheque to the main association account where they then entered the community centre accounts system managed by the paid community centre co-ordinator. The remaining half of the profits went towards the refurbishment of the bar room, of which £2,000 has been spent on new fridges, £1,500 on new sofas and, eventually, £4,000 alongside a £10,000 grant from the council towards new windows. The remaining monies were banked in the bar account.

All was going well until Sally Joss resigned from the committee in March 2013. Soon after this her partner – also a trustee – initiated employment tribunal proceedings against the association. That’s probably another story, but the upshot was that a new chair and a new bar committee member were voted in from within the association.

The ‘smooth running’ was then shattered during the association’s AGM in October 2013. A few weeks prior to the AGM, the then chair had resigned and in an email sent to selected association trustees, but not made public, said: “we must be careful not to open the charity up to allegations of fraud and corruption.” After this ominous start, AGM proceeded under the Vice-Chair. Just before the elections of the new trustee committee were about to take place, the association Treasurer rose and addressed the audience, which included centre tenants, councillors, press and local people. Referring to the bar account during the sixth month period from 15th March, 2013 to the previous month, she told the assembled crowd that she didn’t know where the bar money had gone and that the bar bank account has been emptied. “I have repeatedly asked for answers,” she said. “I think we need to call the police.” She then went on to say that the bar account total, instead of moving steadily upwards as it had always done since the Old School Bar’s inception, had sunk to £408.22. The meeting immediately descended into uproar and was brought to a close, with an emergency ‘Special General Meeting’ ordered for four weeks later to address the astounding claims. The bar was ordered to present its accounts to that meeting.

A document that attempts to calculate the alleged discrepancies has emerged. It is worth examining this document because it contains the only available authoritative reckoning of the bar’s accounts. The notes in the document attempt to calculate the amount of money paid to the Bookers account and a comparison is made between the average amount paid out in the previous fourteen months prior to Sally Joss’s resignation, and the six months under the present bar committee. This, the document states, was an average of 1,523.30 a month paid out under Sally Joss’s bar committee, compared to an average of £2,275.47 per month for the six months to date since Sally Joss resigned. The notes then calculate that during the 14 months under Sally Joss, a whopping £35,021.64 of gross takings in cash was paid into the bar account, but that for the six months afterwards; “the credits were nil.”

Accounts from various sources willing to speak differ as to what had occurred, but the consensus seems to be that another account had been set up – either as a new second account within the existing financial architecture, or as a separate reconstitution of the bar as “trading wing” company or alternatively, as a “private company”. This, according to some sources, was apparently done with the agreement of the association. Other sources differ. What is clear is that a valid and complete set of accounts and bank statements have still not been presented, despite demands to see them from the wider trustee committee, councillors, council officers and concerned ex-trustees, including by a trustee who claims that he was effectively silenced by being bullied out of the committee in a process that a local councillor likened to “a Stalinist show trial.” The bar accounts do not form part of the audited accounts currently held by the Charity Commission.

The convoluted plot is thickened by the astounding information contained in another document that has recently come to light. It is the wording and notes of a motion that the then and current association trustee, Tim Murphy, presented to the emergency Special General Meeting called to discuss the discrepancies in the bar accounts. In the document, Tim Murphy first notes that there are “serious concerns about the accounts of the Old School Bar.” He then states that the (Old School Bar) “company was set up to covenant profits to the East Oxford Community Association,” but had become “too detached from the parent organisation.”

Tim Murphy then refers to the resignation email sent by the previous chair just before the interrupted AGM. It also refers to Company House records attached to the email concerning the security firm hired by the association and the related claims by the previous chair that the firm had actually been dissolved in January 2011. The document then states that: “It follows that they could not have had valid insurance from that date,” and that the chair had been attempting “for some time to obtain clarity and probity,” along with the “full and complete accounts history of the Old School Bar.” Tim Murphy’s document then ends with the proposed motion, which is: “That this meeting adopt a motion of no confidence in the Executive of the (association),” and that there should be a “thorough financial investigation employing an external accountant.”

The 2013 emergency Special Meeting finally dawned and, according to an ex-trustee who was present, most of the debate – bizarrely – centred on the 14 month period when the bar appeared to be running smoothly rather than the problematic six month period in dispute. This was described by one attendee as an “obvious distraction technique.” Due to an unfortunate accident on her way to the meeting, the Treasurer could not attend. Finally Tim Murphy’s motion was read out and then, surprisingly, voted down by the eligible enfranchised attendees present at the meeting.

It’s now over eight months later and the security firm and financial issues have still not been addressed in an open and accountable way. To add yet another twist to the story, Sally Joss has now been informed by the association that she is liable for a tax bill on the profits for the 14 months that she was one of three trustees on the bar committee. For some unexplained reason, according to this trustee, they are not liable and that it is Sally Joss’s problem to deal with. She was told “to go and get legal advice about it.”The bank statements from the claimed separate bar ‘credit’ bank account have still not come to light, another chair has resigned, hence the “interim” status of the current chair leading the campaign. On Thursday’s ‘Catweazle’ open-mike night, real ale had to be hastily brought in because the bar equipment, stock and fridges belonging to the community centre had been removed from behind the bar.

Where does all this leave the campaign to save the centre? Could all this possibly amount to the “serious concerns” about the “mismanagement” of the centre by the association that the council are talking about? And where are the “plans” that the campaigners claim to have seen that prove that the council has a hidden agenda to drastically reduce the footprint of community related space in favour of building “eco-houses.” They are said to date from 2008, but like the ‘credit’ bank account statements, they remain elusive to date.

These claimed council redevelopment plans need to be further investigated and published by the association, alongside some recognition that the council has invested in the community centre in the past. Contrary to claims made on online campaign platforms, the bulk of the new windows, the refurbishment of the foyer, the lift and the new co-ordinators office were all paid for by the council.

And they need to be open. It appears that a new association is in charge, under a new chair and that the association has taken a new radical direction. And they need to pay the tax bill for the bar that is due to former chair and trustee, Sally Joss, who over the course of the 14 months that she was on the bar committee, worked thousands of voluntary hours alongside other volunteers and the bar licensee to bring in a serious amount of money for the centre.

Community is a conservative concept. Community is a discrete social group constituted by the leaders within it and its exclusionary boundaries are defined by the people who are deemed by the insiders to not be in it. The current association and campaigners may have the best intentions at heart, but they need to seriously consider the implications of occupying a socially inclusive public building in defiance of the council. How are they going to manage the centre, its revenues, its upkeep and the paid staff in the long term with such an aggressive oppositional stance? How are they going to sort out the financial mess that they have inherited? They also need to tell the people of East Oxford when they going to hold an emergency meeting to elect a new committee and debate the current options. “Interim” chairs don’t wash. It smacks of a coup. If they don’t do this then they are just another fractious clique in a decade’s long power struggle over a financially and politically valuable local resource. The danger is that the campaign to “save” it is just a way of disguising this ongoing struggle.

The politics don’t get any cleaner the lower down the political food-chain you go, and ‘community’ is no exception. Let’s hope that the next time the centre is in the newspaper, it’s for a more mundane reason than yet more conflict over who gets to be in charge. Unfortunately, as things stand, that doesn’t seem likely. The centre should have local oversight, but its past history is anything to go by, it also clearly needs oversight from the council, something that some of its former radical patrons would probably shudder at. And there’s the rub.

By Mike Doherty.

 

The MH17 disaster is one big guessing game

by Pierre Marshall

A Malaysian Airline flight mysteriously dropped out of the sky last Wednesday.

We know all the standard background details about the aeroplane and its passengers, and I think it’s fair to say at this point in the news cycle that the actual story is pretty much finished. The plane was destroyed. It was a one-time event and it’s over now.

The nationalities of all the passengers are known and nobody’s suggesting that the plane was hijacked or blown up by a passenger. There were a couple of videos of a plume of smoke rising from somewhere near Torez, but for now the only images we have of the crash are endlessly looping videos of mutilated corpses lying about in the summer heat. It makes for good news fodder, but audiences are fickle and there’s only so many ways to report on a pile of dead bodies and twisted metal.

At this stage the story is feeding off a steady dribble of press conferences and statements from important people who are wheeled out to puzzle how exactly this disaster happened. Underlying it all is the more politically-charged question of who is responsible. As for the rest of the population, they’ve already decided on their own version of events. Some think the rebels did it, some think the Ukrainians did it, and neither side has enough substantial proof either way. We can guess that neither side genuinely intended to shoot down a civilian airliner, so whatever happened it was probably a really unfortunate mistake.

Buk missile launcher control panel, by Yuriy Lapitskiy

Buk missile launcher control panel, by Yuriy Lapitskiy

The rebels did it

This is the most straightforward theory, the rebels mistook the passenger jet for an Ukrainian military plane and shot it down with a missile launcher. To back this up Igor Strelkov made some hastily-deleted comments on Vkontakte claiming rebels shot down an An-26 military transport plane near Torez. That would make sense since flight MH17 ‘fell out of the sky’ in around the same area at around the same time.

The evidence for this theory hinges on the assumption that the rebels had a missile launcher capable of targeting and hitting an aircraft so high up. So far proponents of this theory claim the rebels most likely used a Buk system, and the rebels say they don’t have one of those, and we’re back to “he said, she said”.

Tributes to MH17 victims outside the Dutch embassy in Berlin, by Pierre Marshall

Tributes to MH17 victims outside the Dutch embassy in Berlin, by Pierre Marshall

The Ukrainian military did it

There were some inconsistencies in the MH17 flight path, it would have normally done a slight right turn shortly after entering Ukrianian airspace which would have adjusted its course to avoid the rebel held region. This right-turn waypoint is the area where some maps say contact with the plane was lost, but flightradar was tracking it all the way to Torez. The Ukrainian military might have mistaken MH17 for a Russian military jet because it deviated from the normal civilian flight route. Or, moving down the less plausible theories, the Ukrainian military mistook MH17 for Putin’s presidential plane (this has since been roundly dismissed as Putin wasn’t flying over Ukraine at the time). Or it was part of a secret military coup within the Ukrainian military which went wrong. The Russian air force is quite certain that a Ukrainian military plane was near MH17 when it went down, which would be in line with the claims a now-vanished Spanish air-traffic controller made on twitter.

The best explanation Malaysian Airlines can muster for the change of route is that every other airline was regularly flying over the same airspace and they thought it was safe. Still, there are unanswered questions, and as long as we’re kept in the dark about the change of flight path people will be quite happy to use their imagination to fill in the blanks.

Malaysia airlines flight meal, by Jonom1

Malaysia airlines flight meal, by Jonom1

Why

While we’re still groping around for adequate information, the next step is a guessing game where we work out the suspect based on who had the best motive to commit the crime. In the current circumstances the downing of a civilian airliner can only be a good thing for the Ukrainian state, the killing of innocent civilians is a morally indefensible act. A line has been crossed here, a small regional conflict now concerns the rest of the world with the citizens of 10 other countries killed in the crossfire. An international appeal for ‘stability’ would play nicely into Poroshenko’s hands.

Furthermore, the incident occurred within the internationally recognised boundaries of Ukraine, so the Ukrainian authorities are in a good position to prove they didn’t do it. This is particularly important when trying to locate the aeroplane’s black box. Russia have said they won’t take it, and the Ukrainian state can’t be trusted to investigate the data which might implicate it. Personally I think the Malaysians should have the box, though the rebels have already taken it and likely stashed it away somewhere nobody will ever find it.

The counter to this line of argument is that the Ukrainian state had no long-term need to shoot down an airliner. Some have suggested that the rebels were winning and the Ukrainian military needed a magic bullet to turn things in their favour. From what I can see that’s just not true. The Ukrainian army forced rebels to retreat from Slavyansk last week and they began encircling the city of Donetsk. The rebels were putting out ‘300’ style propaganda, as if this were their last stand. Igor Strelkov’s deputy even signed off a famous letter with:

Forgive us for not dying in Slavyansk. We may yet have a chance to die in Donetsk if Russia will not help us.

We may yet have a chance to die in Donetsk. They’re courageous words, invoking a final desperate chance to save the day. They’re not the words of someone confident of their victory.

Even if the rebels did shoot down the airliner, the Ukrainian state still shares the blame. Donetsk International Airport was out of action and the residents in rebel-held territory knew that the sound of planes meant Ukrainian air strikes. For two weeks the Ukrainian army bombarded rebel cities with all kinds of artillery. They put the residents of those places under sustained fire, and if those residents get a hold of a missile battery and start shooting down planes, who is at fault? Who pulled the trigger and who started the war?

Imagine this time last year, I’d not heard of Donetsk or Lugansk, or the village of Grabovo. Now these names take top place in news bulletins every day, lets try not to forget them too soon.