Archive for the 'politics' Category

capitalism, colonialism, history, Latin America, politics, racism, society, travel

Machu Picchu: “100 years of prostitution of Andean culture”

This month saw the 100th anniversary of the discovery of Machu Picchu. Its discovery by the West, that is: it was in July 1911 that Hiram Bingham, a Yale historian, was led to the already 400-year old site by a local shepherd boy, and announced the presence of the Machu Picchu estate to the world.

Machu Picchu, morning mist

I visited Machu Picchu a couple of days before its anniversary; it was glorious. A sublime city in a sublime location; the hundreds of tourists walking around could not detract from its wonderfulness. I was back in nearby Cusco, “the heart of America” for Che Guevara, and capital of the Inca empire, for the anniversary itself. To celebrate, Cusco’s main plaza saw parades, a stage with big screens, and a Peruvian folk/rock band in the evening. It also saw low-key protests, including one banner that particularly caught my eye: “100 años de la prostitución de la cultura andina”.

Elsewhere on the streets, the Incas’ conquered descendants mainly went about their business; selling chewing gum and proffering beautiful and often hand-made gloves and ch’ullus (traditional hats made from alpaca wool) to the hoards of foreign tourists, at knock down prices. Continue Reading »

capitalism, Latin America, politics, the Right, travel

Something rotten in the state of Peru

Peru must, I think, have the most dysfunctional democracy I have encountered yet on my travels. And after the US, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras, that’s saying something.

Tomorrow Peruvians go to the polls to decide how to vote in their Presidential election. There are only two candidates left: Ollanta Humala, a left-wing military officer and previous presidential candidate, and “Keiko”.

Keiko propaganda

Keiko propaganda - below is grafited "corruption" and "murderer"

“Keiko” is now such a household brand in Peru that nobody need say her family name: Fujimori. A name that could – or at least should – strike fear into many Peruvians. As President of Peru throughout the 1990s, Keiko’s father Alberto Fujimori first enacted wide-ranging neoliberal reforms, called the Fujishock. Electricity costs quintupled, water prices rose eightfold, and gasoline prices rose 3000%. Yet Peru was made safe for international capitalism. Then, feeling that Congress was holding him back, with the support of the military he carried out a presidential coup, which was roundly condemned by the international community. Strangely – and this is the worrying thing about the Peruvian national mindset – the coup was welcomed by the public, according to numerous polls. Continue Reading »

capitalism, climate change, politics, society

Climate Change and Cancún – The politicians have failed. Now it’s up to us

The outcome this week of the climate change conference in Cancún can be read two ways. Yes, multilateralism (although not the role of the UN) has been saved, and as one minister timidly put it “people are still talking to each other”. But as Greenpeace have commented, “The conference may have saved the multilateral process after last year’s abject failure in Copenhagen, but we have not yet been saved from climate change.”

Green MP Caroline Lucas used very similar wording: “It’s a very weak deal – enough to keep the ongoing negotiation process alive, but not enough to save the climate.”

And although both organisations have given encouragement to governments for the little that has been done, when it comes down to it, all that matters is the bottom line, and the bottom line is “What kind of world will this agreement create?”

Unfortunately, according to scientific commentators such as those at Climate Tracker Action, the agreement will deliver 3.2 degrees Celsius of overall global warming. The Bolivian government was more pessimistic, estimating 4 degrees. While the difference between 2 or 4 degrees on a summer’s day doesn’t mean much, averaged out all over the world, it’s disastrous. Continue Reading »

capitalism, colonialism, politics, slavery, society, travel

The Bahamas – sun, sea, sand & slavery

Today is Emancipation Day, not just in the Bahamas, but all across the former British empire. 176 years ago – in 1834 – my nation, Britain, finally abolished slavery. The Bahamas as a nation, however, is only five years older than me… not until 1973 did the Bahamas became independent from Britain – they celebrated the birthday the weekend I arrived.

This island and its family islands of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas share alot of history in common with the Caribbean as whole; the region was home to several million peaceful native Americans, who were almost completely wiped out by the Spanish and then by the English, through slavery, outright murder and disease. Both countries then imported black slaves stolen from Africa, depopulating some areas by between 60 and 90 per cent. For a time in the 17th century the Bahamas was administered from the Carolinas, and from 1718 directly by the British. These are young cultures, with their populations all from somewhere else – most of them moved here by force.

Sacred Space by Antonious RobertsOne of the most moving things I’ve experienced on the island so far is an artwork “Sacred Space” by Bahamian artist Antonious Roberts; figures of slave women carved out of casuarina trees, still rooted in the ground; they look out over the ocean, towards Africa. Even more moving, a few yards away are the “Pirate Steps”, more accurately called the Slave Steps because up them from about 1785 onwards were marched thousands of African slaves who were brought here to work for the ruling white people on the island. At the bottom of the steps I found a young white American couple from the South, larking about and taking photos of eachother on the rocks, unaware or uncaring of how their predecessors had driven thousands of other human beings across those rocks like cattle. A few yards further along, the same harbour that berthed the slave ships now accommodates Esso oil and gas tankers.

So most people in these countries like the Bahamas have been the working class, working for someone else’s benefit, for not just decades but centuries. Since I’ve been here I’ve met black Bahamians who are film-makers, business people, university staff and professors, poets and authors. People who are well-travelled, highly intelligent, thoughtful, conscientious and considerate. But black society in Continue Reading »

politics, society, the Right, USA

The Day I Met Some Conservatives

I am completely aware there are lots of conservatives in America. I’ve been bracing myself for meeting them, as I made my way out West. I just didn’t expect to meet them in the form of young people in their early twenties, certainly not college students, and certainly not on public transport in Obama’s home town, the Democratic lock down that is Chicago.

So I accepted a generous invitation of visiting cultural sights such as architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Chicago home & studio with gratitude, not realising that my hosts for the day (which involved a lot of being trapped in their car) were pretty much Tea Partiers, only young, stylish and attractive. Which, let’s face it, is not the image that normally comes to mind.

The huge new Trump Tower in Chicago's downtown

The huge new Trump Tower in Chicago's downtown

In fact the boyfriend and girlfriend couple were nothing but generous, kind and thoughtful to me. I’m just pretty sure that wouldn’t have been the case if I’d been Hispanic. Which was funny, because the girl was half Hispanic – her dad from Peru – and she speaks decent Spanish. But Hispanics, blacks and women drivers came up in the first five minutes (women drivers were actually what started it all off….) and from then on in I knew there’d be trouble (at least if I didn’t keep my mouth shut).
I could have ignored the quip about women drivers – we used to humour him when Grandad started – but that led quickly to a conversation, all the while trapped in the car of course, about how Obama is not culturally black. This is an argument I have realised is fairly valid: Obama is completely atypical of black people in the US, and, dare one mention, is of course half white. Furthermore his family was not an enslaved family, unlike the history of most black families in America. And, unlike almost all black people, he has had a white person’s education at the very best schools and colleges that America has to offer, and money has to buy. Of course, this is a controversial if not offensive argument amongst most progressive Democrats, and understandably so. But at this stage I was still not sure what side of the fence they were falling down on, and I was finding some common ground. I started to become sceptical however after being told that blacks have had 50 years since the Jim Crow laws to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, that this went for Hispanics too, and that Obama was socialising all the banks because he is on a mission to make everything owned by the government.

I was still naive enough at this point to answer frankly the question they put to me about how Obama is perceived in Europe. I gave an answer which I am pretty sure 85% of Europeans would be happy with, that Europeans in general and the British in particular still perceive Obama to be a blessed relief after that “moron” George W Bush.

The silence in the car around me was palpable.
I backtracked, clarifying that W was probably “not the sharpest tool in the box”, and I mumbled something about him being perceived by many in my country to be a puppet of other forces (of which, I did not elaborate). That’s about as two-way as the conversation got the entire day, which we were about ten minutes into. After that, I learned to listen with curiosity, fascination, and, it has to be said, a little each of respect and horror.

The conversation took the form of “you see the thing is Matt, there’s something happening in this country right now that you need to know about, something terrible”. Continue Reading »

fuel, politics, USA

Oil disaster in the Gulf – a failure of government

I’ve been in New Orleans and Florida the last few weeks and there is genuine anger that the oil disaster in the gulf is still going on. The government, and the corporations responsible for building, operating and mitigating the disastrous impact of the drilling operation have all been fairly useless in doing anything real about it. And everybody knows it.

My friends Stella and Mitch in New Orleans were kind enough to let me video them briefly about their perspective. They give heartfelt testimony to just how important this stuff is, and how hugely it is affecting the tourism, fishing and oil industries in Louisiana and further afield that are the mainstay of most people’s livelihoods.

Needless to say, BP has come in for an awful lot of stick. Signs attached to New Orleans lamp-posts insult BP. I saw a woman dancing with her partner at a Zydeco music festival sporting an “FU BP” poster pinned to her back. But the shocking thing to me is not that a multinational corporation should externalise its costs and risks, and screw people and the environment in the process. It has been the almost utter inability of the US government to do anything effective about it.

Yet many people – on the left and right of the political spectrum – have fallen into what I see as a trap of blaming BP, as if BP is a “bad apple” and all other oil corporations are fine, a piece of “framing” that hides the larger systematic issues and abuses. Certainly the right-wing old fogies here in Florida are clinging to this narrative: “BP is some corrupt British corporation, coming over here and colonising American resources. Corporations in general (including and especially American corporations) are OK; it is this errant and colonialist, elitist, distant British corporation – operated by some posh English dude – that is purely at fault”. While BP are obviously guilty of massive and criminal negligence, to understand the situation blame must be levelled at the other corporations involved, at the federal regulator (which Obama has now taken to task because it was hand-in-glove with the oil industry), and at the federal government itself. But moreover, America’s laws and political culture are exacerbating the situation: the government is hamstrung (partly legally) from effectively responding to the crisis because it is not an act of God but the actions of a corporation, for which they are legally responsible. The federal government has not been able to (and/or willing to) step in and mitigate the situation in the way they morally should have. Republicans, for all their rhetoric, have only made the situation worse and prolonged the crisis.

Last week’s decision by a federal judge to overturn the Obama-administration imposed moratorium on drilling just shows how uncaring the Republicans are about the real issues involved, and how much they have bought into (and are propagating) the shallow “bad apple” frame, without looking at the obvious danger of this happening again. Judge Martin Feldman’s decision also, of course, shows up the blatant and chilling partisanship of the US judicial system.

As it happens, and as my friend Mitch from New Orleans mentions in his video, the moratorium is an imperfect solution that itself is damaging ordinary people’s livelihoods. But when a federal judge and the corporations responsible for criminal negligence are singing from the same hymn sheet, I get the chills.

So for me the issue is far FAR bigger than “is BP a bad apple?”. The frame needs to be: oil exploitation is inherently suicidal, all these corporations are out to screw over people and the environment and animals for a quick profit, American political culture is actually set up to HELP them do that and not to prevent or mitigate the likely disastrous results, and there needs to be a wholesale reform of not only energy policy but a culture and legal structure of corporate welfare that goes to the heart of what America is today.

politics, racism, USA

American justice?

An American citizen, brought up and college-educated here in Brooklyn, is being held against his will, alone in a windowless room. He has been there for the last two years. He has not been convicted of any crime.

Before that, he was held in another windowless room for a year. He is not allowed to watch the news or to speak to anyone, except one family member at a time every few weeks, and even then only through the medium of a translator who will edit out anything he “should not” hear or say. His every move is watched by his captors on CCTV. He is allowed out of his cell for one hour a day, but not into the sunlight or fresh air: instead his jailers allow him to exercise inside a cage.

His case has attracted the interest and criticism of many American lawyers and groups such as Theatre Against the War, including such celebrities as Wallace Shawn.

He is charged with nothing more than allowing a duffel bag of waterproof socks and raincoats to be stored at his apartment in London. The only witness to this “crime” was a houseguest, who it turns out was in fact a government informer, and has a vested interest in testifying against him.

This American citizen is not being held by the Taliban, or by Al Qaida. He’s not being detained in Guantanamo Bay. He’s imprisoned in his own home town, in the centre of New York, by his own government; the American government.

Syed Fahad Hashmi is a young Muslim man in his twenties; a star of his class at Brooklyn College where he studied political science, and a masters graduate of international relations at the London Metropolitan University in England.

His teachers recall an eloquent and sincere man who would often act as a bridge and sympathetic negotiator between people with differing political views; a peacemaker and a diplomat.

But rather than furthering his career as a political scientist, it was Fahad’s fate to gain the distinction of being the first person to ever be extradited from Britain to the US under novel anti-terrorist legislation: it was in London’s notorious Belmarsh prison where he was first held for a year. Now imprisoned in New York, he is the subject of a community campaign led, not least, by his old college teachers, his parents, and his childhood friends & neighbours, to have him tried promptly and fairly, and for the US government to account for the treatment he has received.

His trial, which has been repeatedly postponed and now scheduled for the end of April, centres around the government informer who was Fahad’s house guest. This informer however is on trial separately himself, and will receive a reduced sentence for testifying against Fahad – one of the many causes of concern about the fairness of the prosecution’s case

Last month I attended a vigil for Fahad outside the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Downtown Manhattan: about 150 people were in attendance, and the event, featuring an impromptu theatre performance about the history of sedition in America, was broadcast live on internet “Radio Free Fahad”.

Prof Jeanne Theoharis, Fahads old teacher, address the vigil

Prof Jeanne Theoharis, Fahads old teacher, address the vigil

I met his old school teacher, an impressive woman and knowledgeable powerful speaker. I watched his best friend from high school, a sensitive and tender young man, grieve over the torture his friend is going through. I can’t help feeling that if the most powerful nation on earth, and one that is ostensibly committed to the rule of law, freedom, justice, legal due process, democracy and human rights, can act like this towards its own citizens, then what hope does it have of setting an example of how a civilised nation should act?

The Facebook Group

Please help spread the word about Fahad Hashmi, and the way America and Britain have treated him.

Green Party, politics, USA

The Green Party in the US

Recently I was lucky enough to attend and speak at a State Committee meeting for the New York state Green Party. The gathering was a managable size and well-defined, with delegates having been elected from various areas, some holding proxies for absent colleagues; it shared similarities with – I imagine – Green Party meetings around the globe: a chair valiantly maintaining order against some members’ tendencies to talk too much, an imposingly long agenda and a tasty shared lunch.

I was impressed however by the members’ attempts to keep a sense of discipline in the face of what is a state-imposed uphill struggle: they’re not even on the ballot paper.

To get on the ballot paper in the UK in a general election it costs £500 to stand in each seat (which is returned by winning 5% of the vote or more) and the European Elections require a £5000 deposit for each regional constituency (which is returned by winning 2.5% of the vote or more). In most constituencies in the UK Greens find it fairly difficult to win 5% in the first-past-the-post General Election, but easy to win more than 2.5% in the pseudo-proportional regional European Elections.

For all the strategy and political debates the US Greens might want to have, they acknowledge that this one thing comes before all that: they need to get on the ballot paper, and no amount of ideology, or money for that matter, can get them there. In NY state, they need to first collect 15 000 valid signatures from registered voters to appear on the ballot paper for the governor race. And doing this opens up the other races for them. In order to get 15 000 valid signatures they will collect 30 000: so, a big job ahead of them in the next few months. If they then go on to win over 50 000 votes in the gubernatorial race, they win “ballot status” which means they don’t have to collect the 15 000 signatures the next time, and energies can go into campaigning, not meeting the starting requirements. Needless to say this is not something that the Republican or Democratic parties have to worry about, and it represents a large step between the bottom and first rungs of the ladder for new parties hoping to chip away at the two-party duopoly.

One of the things that shocked me most is the desperate underdevelopment of any national or federal party: state parties seem fairly self-contained, and if anything members regard “national” activity – when it happens – as interfering with state autonomy. Of course this is arguably a “green” attitude and, dare I say, an American attitude. But when I learned that the national party has literally a handful of staff members, that there is no nationally-used Green Party “brand”, no logo, no strapline, no message, and no national figurehead or even mandated public figures, my reaction was one of horror.

Continue Reading »

anti-racism, crime, politics, society, USA

White fear in gentle Brooklyn

So, my first experience of living in America is sharing an apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York with a fellow “hipster” in his 30s (i.e. young, recently-settled, urban, arty and middle class). I’ve been in New York for over a week now and in the last few days have just started to relax into the neighbourhood of Bushwick. I’ll be frank. It’s not what I’m used to. Coming from a leafy middle-class arty small-town backwater like Lancaster in northern England, the urban, impoverished, dirty, jumbled and to my mind mean streets of Bushwick Brooklyn somewhat make me feel as if I’ve jumped in at the deep end.

Bushwick is undoubtedly poor, with over 75% of children in the neighborhood born in poverty.

But there is another aspect of Bushwick that is having an effect on my middle-class psyche, an effect that should not be overlooked, especially not by progressives. Bushwick just isn’t white.

As an anti-racist I struggle, as I think we all do, to talk about questions of race while trying to always maintain the right balance of respect, political-correctness and honesty. Political correctness has never been my strong point, so I think I’ll major on the respect and the honesty. Although my worry about walking these streets has lessened with familiarity, it’s still there, and although the streets are much dirtier than I’m used to – the occasional rat scurries by, and the atmosphere is sometimes silently infused with the smell of pot – my fear is – let’s face it – of people. Specifically of being mugged, and especially of being knifed. Is this a valid fear?

Continue Reading »

anti-racism, BNP, EuropeanElections2009, Green Party, politics

How close were we to a Green landslide?

(the answer is…. about 1% away)

This month’s European election was not a disaster for the Greens, but equally the party’s intentions of moving forward were dashed. With opinion polls hitting 9%, 10%, even 14 and 15 per cent nationwide for the Greens, it seemed at one point that there might even be the chance of a Green landslide – echoing the momentous Green vote of 15 per cent in the European elections in 1989. This could have seen Green MEPs for the South West and Yorkshire at least, as well as the target seats of North West and Eastern and the existing seats of London and the South East. Depending on the extent of the landslide, indeed any other region, including Scotland, could have had a Green MEP representing it – one for each region. There might even have been 2 Green MEPs to represent the South East.

But in the event, the Greens did not manage to gain their further two target seats of North West and Eastern.

Of course, the consequences for the Greens are not limited to the ambitions of the party; their agenda will also now remain less prominent for another 5 years.

Greens have already had to suffer dismissive articles such as Leo Hickman’s on The Guardian’s Comment Is Free “The grass wasn’t Greener: The European elections showed that, sadly, the Greens will always remain at best a tokenistic minority in party politics” .

Although hostile in tone, Hickman claims “I would love to see a Green MP – we might realistically get one in the form of Caroline Lucas in Brighton and Hove come the next general election – but I still struggle to see how this will come to be seen as anything more than a tokenistic presence at Westminster. We just don’t have the luxury of time for these small, incremental steps forward”.

And indeed – given the timetable of global climate change and the loss of natural resources and habitats – a Green landslide, of some extent, would have been very timely indeed.

But just how achievable was it? And did the Greens miss it by a whisker, or a mile?
Continue Reading »

BBC, BNP, EuropeanElections2009, Green Party, politics

Greens’ loss is the BNP’s gain

With the election to the European Parliament of BNP leader and convicted racist Nick Griffin, British politics has entered a subtly different era. We were hoping that the storm over expenses would lead to a higher vote for smaller parties: well it did, with UKIP gaining 2nd place nationally, and the Green Party’s vote up by 44% nationally. However, Britain still only has the two Green MEPs it has had for the last 10 years and the one place where this is a tragedy more than anywhere is in the North West, the new European seat of Nick Griffin, where the Green Party needed only 0.3% more of the vote to overtake him and to occupy the seat instead. Even on the night of the count, as the ballot results rolled in from around the region it looked like the Greens were ahead time and time again… 13.6% in Manchester, ahead of the Conservatives in Manchester and Liverpool, ahead of the LibDems and on 14% in their stronghold of Lancaster. But when the Returning Officer took the agents and candidates aside and revealed the final seat allocations, the Greens still needed an extra 0.3% of the vote to overtake the BNP, and the seat went to Britain’s leading fascist Nick Griffin, instead of the Green, Peter Cranie, a former social worker and a life-long anti-racist campaigner.

This is – ironically – exactly what the Greens predicted and feared happening. Continue Reading »


Scrap the scrappage

Here’s my video on why the new car scrappage scheme announced in the Budget is a terrible idea. It speaks for itself (unfortunately, sometimes out of sync!). The other reason of course why it’s rubbish is it would encourage people to scrap amazing beautiful classic vehicles like Max the VW campervan…!


Obama’s inauguration speech – what we as Greens can learn

obama's inaugural speechPresident Barack Obama’s inauguration speech has much in it for British Greens to be happy about. Not only does it frame climate change, peace and global co-operation as urgent issues for “a new age”, it contains relatively little that is otherwise offputting. Most of all, it provides a sterling example of the kind of speeches that WE as Greens could and should be making, complete with a range of “reframed” strong takes on the climate crisis, and a clear underlying emotional appeal to common values, contextualising him in the story of America’s history.

…. click to read more below….

Continue Reading »