Curtain Raiser

Voting to Kill Democracy, Colltalers

It’s a relatively new trend and it’s all the rage among would-be authoritarian rulers. Encouraged by what’s happened in the U.S. and elsewhere, they’ve caught another promising break yesterday in France. This may be the dawn of a new, dreadful time: dictators voted into office.
An army, to stage a coup, or a party machine, to funnel cash, seem now obsolete. All it takes is a media-savvy campaign, a populist platform of discontent, warnings against external threats, and job-stealing immigrants, and voilà, practically any (rich) person can now be a president.
Some say it’s the Putin way, as the Russian leader can claim that his ‘mandate’ was earned in the polls. And as such, it worked for Turkey’s Recep Erdogan too. In Brazil and South Korea, the power grab used legislative tricks to unseat presidents, all with some popular approval.
To be fair, none of it is completely new, and there’s no need to go beyond 1930s Germany, to prove it. But since the millennium, there’s a new consolidation of power that has become more common, and it is its own animal, concerning both seated and would-be ‘by-the-book’ leaders.
In the 20th century, it was common for rulers to remain in power for generations, specially in Asia and Africa, where they’d perform as loyal servers to Western interests. While the American electoral process had more subtle ways of maintaining the political status quo, and kept its Democracy functional, West-propped up dictators had carte blanch to get rich and oppress their people as long as they remained aligned.
That was the time when popular leaders rarely won, and to prevent disrupting the colonial order, were routinely assassinated when running for or while in office. That somehow changed with the independence wars of the second half of the century, but not by much. The new crop of pro-West leaders, who turned into long-term rulers, ran hundreds of newly named nations, which were just as impoverished as before.
Real change, or rather, reversal to a bygone time, as well as exposure to the inner workings of the world, circa 20th century, happened with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and resulting killing of Saddan Hussein. Suddenly, ancient tribes and ethnicities kept at bay by Hussein, were unleashed and eager to regain their space. Similar situation may be playing out in Syria today, with predictable bloodshed as a result.
It’s a new era, when presidents get to rise to power no longer by bloody or lengthy battles, but with the support of those they successfully con into believing they’re the only answer. Religion used to fulfill this role, but apart from Iran’s theocracy, Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Help Brazil Save the World, Colltalers

Eight Brazilian cabinet ministers and a dozen politicians, mostly from the multiparty base of President Michel Temer, have been named last week in a giant government corruption probe. But most major media outlets are covering it as if involving Workers’ Party members only.
PT, the party of former presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, impeached by Congress last year, is indeed among the 108 listed, but the majority belongs to the president’s PMDB, and PSDB, the party of another past leader and ally, Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
Brazil’s biggest political scandal has reached such a significant pitch in part due to the way the investigation, Lava Jato (Car Wash), as it’s known, is being conducted. In this stage, for instance, bosses and employees of once powerful Odebrecht Organization have been providing the Supreme Court names, in exchange for lesser penalties or no prosecution, in a process that, critics say, has become itself tainted.
It’s hard to bring down to a few, essential points, this dizzying array of conflicting views and possible bias, wrapped up into a multi year investigation that started at state-run oil giant Petrobras, and, one wouldn’t know it by the coverage, was encouraged by Lula and Dilma.
The first startling point is that Temer, so often associated with corruption, embezzlement, and secret Swiss bank accounts, is not on the list. That he successfully warded off all efforts to include him show how skilled a politician the former #2 on Dilma’s ticket has become.
The second point is how the Brazilian media, which is controlled by half a dozen powerful families and politicians of the religious right, remain king makers of the country’s politics. Pretty much every major news outlet was behind the public pressure and political manipulation that led to the impeachment of Brazil’s first female president, even as they failed to build a strong and independent legal case against her.
Similarly to what happens in Trump’s country, most of those who took the streets and banged kitchen pots against Dilma, for two straight years, starting by her 54 million-vote reelection, in 2014, remain unaware that the 24/7 negative media coverage against her was crucial to drive them into angry rallies. We may dedicate a future column to this and other similarities of the U.S. and Brazil’s political momentum.
Over the weekend, Estadão, one of Brazil’s biggest communications group, which along the O Globo organization was crucial in the movement to depose Dilma, found an unarguable way to defuse the aforementioned majority, and still keep its focus on demonizing PT.
It diluted the breaking Justice Luiz Edson Fachin’s list by headlining instead its own research, on the total number of Lava Jato interviewees. On that list, yes, PT has the majority. But the fact that’s not what’ll move the process along, but the Justice’s list, is another of Estadão’s trickery Brazilians have grown used to. And the week is likely to be dominated by the paper’s own report over the official document.
The third important point to be made about just such a momentum is, obviously, the economy. Even critics of PT recognize that during its 13 years in power, Brazil became the seventh-largest Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

A Step Into the Quagmire, Colltalers

It’s hard to start a column with two cliches, ‘here we go again,’ and ‘we told you so.’ But the U.S. 59 Tomahawk missile strikes rained down on Syria this week was not just predictable, but in typical fashion, will accomplish many crucial goals benefiting only one person: Trump.
Again, he’s managed to drag the world into a narrative that artificially boosts his profile, while shoving aside every objection – and they’re still mounting – being raised domestically even by soon-to-be former supporters, and by an increasingly alarmed international community.
Yes, last Tuesday’s horrible Bashar al-Assad-ordered chemical attack on his own people did crush our ability to even comprehend such brutality. It was as if we were back in 1917, before chemical weapons were banned and were still being routinely used in the battlefield.
But the administration’s claim that weapons are the appropriate response to such act of terror, and that suddenly, we care about Syria, is both unacceptable and disingenuous. Worst, it’s likely that the strikes are not part of any thought out policy but a one-track minded, hasty gesture.
For a similar attack occurred back in 2013, and nothing was done to prevent it from happening again, neither by the U.S. nor its allies. Plus, one of the leading voices demanding President Obama not to act on impulse, despite the overwhelming aversion caused by similar footage of poor civilians gasping for their last breath that came out in its aftermath, was exactly a then conveniently much more restrained Trump’s.
The same one who, once elected, has locked all doors to Syrian refugees. And who lashed at the former president’s stance for being ‘weak’ in that and all the many conflicts around the world, where American troops are still being killed in the name Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

A Single Healthcare Choice, Colltalers

The defeat of the Trump-proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act, last month, was justly celebrated by a majority of Americans. That includes the president’s supporters, who were covered by it, even if unaware Obamacare – a term most despised – was its other name.
But if partying about it may premature – the GOP will certainly come back for more and, after all, this is just one of a couple of wins so far against the regime’s authoritarian streak, along with the ban to the immigrants ban – there’s something to be built upon the momentum.
When Senator Bernie Sanders introduces his Medicare for All bill later this month in Congress, a full turnaround in the way accessible health insurance is perceived may be completed. The issue may be finally wrestled away from its main detractors, big healthcare companies and the politicians they sponsor, who helped sowed unfounded fears about it, and into the embrace of those it’ll benefit the most, the public.
Such was the fallout from the defeat of the so-called Obamacare ‘replacement,’ that it actually led to a positive outcome: more people now understand that it’s a government constitutional role not just to protect its citizens’ health and well being, but also step in on their behalf against for-profit corporate interests. That is, even before moral considerations and the bottom line for such an intervention: to lower costs.
For most estimates of how much nearly-free health care for every taxpayer would cost, come to the same conclusion: according to Physicians for a Health Care Program, just the $400 billion the industry spends in billing, sales and marketing, mostly to deny coverage, or 31% of its total budget, would be enough to fund much of a single-payer system. PHCP, a trade group, is but one of many non-partisan organizations engaged on this issue.
But let’s understand a bit of each of these systems, and why extending Medicare/Medicaid to everyone is the most rational way of making sure the richest country in the world is no longer one of its sickest too. For they’re all complex but not that complicated.
Take Obamacare, the ex-president’s signature issue Republicans spent eight years, and millions of dollars, trying to prevent, Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

What Hasn’t Gone Away, Colltalers

Here’s something that cannot be blamed on Trump: the state of permanent war. But it’s another obscenity of our era that his administration may aggravate tenfold. There was another reminder of the issue, if hardly a wake up call, on the March 17 U.S. airstrike in Mosul, Iraq.
In one of the worst civilian massacres, over 200 people were killed, another miscalculation on the battle against Daesh. Yes, the Internet is again under fire, the survival of Obamacare was but a single win amid so much already taken, but there’s no reason to forget about the war.
That’s when archaic notions about good and evil lose substance. We’re down to basics of action-reaction here. While assaulting the concept of shared reality undermines democracy, and ultimately individual freedom, the killing of non-armed citizens can only feed the death cycle.
If proponents of the ‘go back to your country’ motto can’t grasp fundamental principles about American pluralism, then the idea that killing innocent people overseas put us all in mortal danger at home is likely lost to them. But it shouldn’t be to everybody else, no matter how busy we all are trying to salvage humanistic values amid the onslaught of xenophobic intolerance. For nothing compares to a rain of bullets.
It’s indeed ironic that as we play catch up with reality – invented or inexorable -, we also get distracted, unsure where to focus on next. We may list, rearrange, and prioritize things, hoping to get a handle on them, and still miss the point of even caring about it in the first place.
When Hannah Arendt covered the 1963 Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, in her now famous ‘banality of evil’ report, she was warning in part against what many fear about the Trump administration: that its con, packaged with enticing lies, will now be the ‘new normal.’
But what the thick insulation of oblivion against the horrors of war provides to the West is also a variation of that same normalization of evil. Not the one used to excuse soldiers of a dirty war, under the rubric of ‘following orders.’ But one whose complicity Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Rotten Meat & Sanctimony, Colltalers

If anything, social networks exacerbated the ancient human trait of claiming superiority above others by downplaying their right to exist. When shocking events trigger public outrage, it’s a given that some will blame others for it, often leaving the real culprits off the hook.
Thus, when several meat producers in Brazil, including the country’s two largest, were raided by federal agents last Friday, finding rotten meat packaged and ready to be sold in public schools, and exported to Europe, eating habits were blamed first for it, not a sick industry.
This being Brazil, the grizzly discovery of gross health violations is also linked to a scheme involving bribing inspectors and administration officials. Authorities scrambled to assure global partners that those were isolated incidents, rather than a sample of an multi billion dollar, under-regulated industry, mostly left at its own devices when it comes to health concerns. But common sense indicates that it’s the opposite.
Taking the scandal out of the context of widespread corruption and draft, that seem to pervade the current government, may be an insult to that same common sense, but some insane defense may argue that lax regulation, disregard to basic hygiene practices, and special favoritism by officials are all ingrained to the industry globally. And in Brazil, as in the rest of the world, consumers are not aware of them.
That’s like blaming the industry’s ‘raw material,’ i.e., the animals, of being too messy for continuing to have physiological functions even as they’re squeezed by the hundreds into the place of their own slaughter. For that’s exactly what happens and it’s the underlying cause for chronic contamination of meat plants. Not their bodily functions, of course, but the massive and inhumane system they’re forced to be part of.
Still, the matter is more serious than it’s being addressed in the Brazilian corporate media, and chances are, the scandal will die out within weeks. Given that part of the affected is so vulnerable – the impoverished public school system – and the industry’s lobbying muscle, we may be reading next week or after that the problem is being resolved, low level inspectors got fired, and there’s nothing else left to see here.
Behind the scenes, though, the P.R. battle will be even more intense than the ones waged publicly by the companies. Brazil’s trade balance relies heavily on meat exports, and such a disaster can undermine its powerful agribusiness and overall credibility before its partners.
And that’s the aspect that it’s so common to the very structure of global commercial relations. From a strictly standpoint Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Rolling With the Punches, Colltalers

Spoiler alert: we’re losing. As disheartening as it is to start off on such pessimistic premise, current global social and political conditions warrant our utmost concern. In the U.S., oblivious to all, the regime is still bolting our civil rights to the ground, nail by executive nail.
Don’t get this wrong; everyone is doing their absolute best to show their discontent and resist the Trump administration’s truculence. But all massive rallies and unprecedented community organizing may not be enough. It’s time for another course of action to be also pursued.
May we suggest the Rope-a-Dope? And before we go any further, to those with ‘sport-metaphor fatigue syndrome,’ a quick word: first, they don’t require knowledge or taste for any particular game to shed light on a subject. Also, arguably 90% of those vulnerable to discriminatory social policies and abuse of power do follow sports. So, in the spirit of inclusion, and for the sake of this post, let’s not get fussy, shall we?
In 1974, an aging, past his prime Muhammad Ali went to Zaire to fight heavyweight champion George Foreman, in what many believe was the end of his career. That impression held on for most of the Rumble in the Jungle, until Ali knocked down the champ and the rest is history.
In Leon Gast’s Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings, the writer Norman Mailer, hired as a ringside commentator, observes that, after the first round, Ali was back on his corner with ‘fear in his eyes.’ All the punches he had thrown at Foreman had little effect. Across the ring, stood a bigger and stronger opponent than him, one he could not dominate or avoid confronting. It was Ali’s moment of reckoning.
The genius of the late Ali was to play against expectation. He executed a plan – leaning on the ropes, taking Foreman’s body blows, and striking back here and there – despite the advice of his own corner, who grew desperate as the fight went on, and with a measure of humiliation, which in boxing means getting pounded. The entire world press corps thought he’d fail, but he pulled the sport’s greatest upset.
Apart from the African crowd, which he’d captivated the moment he landed on the continent, Ali was mostly hated at that time, specially by Americans who despised his arrogance, and above all, his mouth. He was at least a decade from the beloved pacifist Continue reading