Number 565 November 13, 2014

This Week: Afghanistan, Bolivia, and Planet Earth

"Quote" of the Week: "Reversing Generations of Progress Against Poverty and Hunger"
War in Afghanistan "Until the End of 2024 and Beyond."
"What Democracy Looks like in Bolivia"
"Climate Change Is the Biggest Story Going"


The Fall 2014 Nygaard Notes Pledge Drive was a MAJOR success! I thought I was being optimistic when I set an arbitrary goal of raising $1,200.00. The tally at the moment is... $2,880.00! I am so grateful to those of you who made a Pledge of support for this experiment in activist/independent intellectual work. (I still don't know exactly what to call it.)

TO FIRST-TIME PLEDGERS: You make the project grow, and inspire me to continually challenge myself to dig as deeply as your faith in me deserves. TO THOSE OF YOU WHO RENEWED YOUR PLEDGE: The continuity of support you provide is the bedrock that allows me to put off—for at least another year—the search for a full-time job, and instead to keep challenging not only myself, but all the readers, viewers, and listeners who tune in regularly to ride along with me on this journey. Thank you! One and all. We'll keep doing the work, and we'll do it on as many platforms as we can handle. (Maybe even social media – gulp!)

In the wake of the recent elections in the U.S., the airwaves are filled with talk of the resurgence of the Republican Party, and the increasing power of the Tea Party right-wing that forms a part of its base. And there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth among progressives and radicals as they behold the shift in power in state and national legislative bodies.

But what appears to be happening in the United States is not what is happening everywhere. The short piece about Bolivia in this issue gives a glimpse of the exciting developments occurring alongside—partly as a result of—the decline of the U.S. empire. May it inspire you, and serve as a reminder that the global political/economic system is more powerful than U.S. tanks, guns, and sanctions. Read and enjoy.

Optimistically yours,



"Quote" of the Week: "Reversing Generations of Progress Against Poverty and Hunger"

Buried on page 6 of the New York Times of November 3rd (it was on the front page of my local paper) was news of a major new report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The headline was a good one: "U.N. Panel Issues Its Starkest Warning Yet on Global Warming."

This week's "Quote" of the Week is a selection of a few choice sentences from the Times' report:

"The gathering risks of climate change are so profound that they could stall or even reverse generations of progress against poverty and hunger if greenhouse emissions continue at a runaway pace, according to a major new United Nations report."

"Failure to reduce emissions . . . could threaten society with food shortages, refugee crises, the flooding of major cities and entire island nations, mass extinction of plants and animals, and a climate so drastically altered it might become dangerous for people to work or play outside during the hottest times of the year."

"The expert panel made clear how far society remains from having any serious policy to limit global warming. Doing so would require leaving the vast majority of the world's reserves of fossil fuels in the ground or, alternatively, developing methods to capture and bury the emissions resulting from their use."

Kudos to my local paper, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, for putting this on the front page. The more powerful media—what I call the Agenda-Setting Media—such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the LA Times, all had it on the inside pages. Unbelievable.


War in Afghanistan "Until the End of 2024 and Beyond."

A major piece of news went largely unremarked at the end of September. The news is that almost 10,000 U.S. troops and unknown numbers of "private contractors" will remain at war in Afghanistan for the indefinite future. Some may recall Vice President Joe Biden telling NBC news back in 2010 "we're going to be totally out of there [Afghanistan], come hell or high water, by 2014."

Well, here we are in 2014 and, as the London Guardian reported on September 30th, "The longest war in American history will last at least another decade, according to the terms of a garrisoning deal for US forces signed by the new Afghanistan government on Tuesday." The deal, which was signed the day after the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, and the nation's chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, were sworn in, "shall remain in force until the end of 2024 and beyond."

"The deal, known as a bilateral security agreement (BSA), will allow 9,800 American and at least 2,000 NATO troops to remain in Afghanistan after the international combat mission formally ends on December 31. Most of them will help train and assist the struggling Afghan security forces, although some American Special Operations forces will remain to conduct counterterrorism missions." That's according to the New York Times. U.S. personnel will be continue to be immune from Afghan law although, significantly, private contractors will not.

Speaking of private contractors, commentator Tim Shorrock reported this past May in that "contractors will vastly outnumber the U.S. uniformed forces training Afghan troops as well as the special operations forces providing counterterrorism operations." Shorrock points out that contractors will engage in "Expeditionary Warfare; Irregular Warfare; Special Operations; Stabilization and Reconstruction Operations." That is, much of the killing, little of the accountability. (Not that the U.S. military is accountable to anyone, but at least it's supposed to be.)

Retired U.S. Army colonel Lawrence Wilkerson told Salon that "We've already taken public functions and privatized them. But this is an example of privatizing the ultimate public function, war."

The Times reports that "Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah... were united by the need to sign the security pact, which American officials had tacitly tied to the continued flow of billions of dollars in military and civilian aid." This is sometimes called "extortion," although not in the U.S. press, of course.

Radio Free Europe notes that "The BSA authorizes U.S. forces to maintain existing facilities and undertake new constructions so long as they are agreed upon by both sides. This, RFE says, may alarm Iran, "which accuses Washington of seeking to create a permanent presence in the region under the guise of fighting terrorism."

That's sure what it looks like. The Guardian tells us that, under the Agreement, "the US military will have access to nine major land and airbases, to include the massive airfields at Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar, staging areas not only for air operations in Afghanistan but the US drone strikes that continue across the border in tribal Pakistan. Additional bases—in Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, Helmand, Gardez and Shindand—ensure the reach of the US military throughout Afghanistan." And not only Afghanistan, of course. Herat, in the west, is known as the "gateway to Iran." Imagine Iran setting up military bases in Winnipeg.

Ominously, the Guardian notes that "Nothing in the bilateral deal prevents a US president from ramping troop levels back up." And the British newspaper notes that language in the accord states that the two sides "acknowledge that US military operations to defeat al-Qaida and its affiliates may be appropriate in the common fight against terrorism."

What "may be appropriate," in other words, is more U.S. war in Afghanistan. Despite failing to make the front page of any major newspaper in the United States, it's now official that the U.S. will remain at war in Afghanistan "until the end of 2024 and beyond."

And beyond.


"What Democracy Looks like in Bolivia"

On October 12th Evo Morales was elected overwhelmingly to a third term as President of Bolivia. Morales received 60% of the vote against 25% for cement magnate Samuel Doria Medina, the top vote-getter among four challengers, according to the Washington Post. The election was little noted in the U.S., and when it was Morales was generally referred to as "the former coca grower" who is "known internationally for his anti-imperialist and socialist rhetoric." Morales and his socialist party, the MAS, keep winning elections, and it's fun to watch the bewildered hostility in this country's media as they watch Bolivian democracy unfold.

The New York Times began and ended their coverage of the election by showing their sympathies fairly clearly. The headline read "President of Bolivia Claims Victory in Election," implying that there was some doubt about the landslide victory. (There wasn't.) And the concluding sentence of the article was also revealing: "Like other leftist leaders in the region, Mr. Morales has been criticized for undermining democratic safeguards, like the independence of the judiciary." The implication here is that "leftist leaders" have some kind of monopoly on anti-democratic behavior in the Western Hemisphere. In this Us-vs-Them world, anti-democratic right-wing U.S. allies like Colombia, Guatemala, and Honduras seem to disappear.

The explanation in the U.S. media for Morales' win, when it was reported at all, was "the strength of the economic and political stability brought by his government."

True, it's pretty stable, at least at the level of elections. The Organization of American States issued a statement about the recent election in Bolivia saying that the OAS "commends the citizenry for the high level of peaceful participation yesterday, betokening the country's democratic conviction."

The "democratic conviction" of the people of Bolivia takes a very different form than it takes in the United States. Just a couple of weeks ago the Council Of Hemispheric Affairs in Washington DC published an article by analyst Ronn Pineo called "The Decline of United States Influence and the Rise of Evo Morales." The article gives just a glimpse of how different Bolivian democracy seems to be, and a hint of how much we are missing when the U.S. media fails to report on goings-on in Latin America, which the U.S. has traditionally referred to as its "backyard."

Pineo reminds readers that "Democracy in Bolivia will not fit into U.S.-centric models of political parties, elections, and liberal representative government. As [Latin America scholars Benjamin Kohl and Rosalind Bresnahan] have noted, there is a strong "difference between Western-liberal-individualist and communitarian indigenous (Andean) democracies."

Kohl and Bresnahan, in a 2010 article in Latin American Perspectives explain that "Whereas Western[ers] … have been socialized in a one-person, one-vote ideal of democracy, in many Andean communities democratic deliberations take place at the level of the community itself. Communal decision making of this type is commonly seen, for example, in decisions on land use. The 'community'—which is defined in different ways according to the setting—decides on how to rotate land, guarantee access to pastures, assign land in colonization zones, etc., through a consensual process. Thus it is not surprising for a similar community consensus to be reflected in voting behavior, especially among indigenous groups that see that the MAS will represent their interests."

Morales' political party is called the Movimiento a Socialismo, or MAS. In English, that's the Movement Toward Socialism.

Back to Pineo: "The MAS is, as researcher Santiago Anria correctly notes, 'a hybrid organization … participating in representative institutions without abandoning nonelectoral street politics.' Bolivians like it this way. Latinobarómetro polling shows that popular satisfaction with democracy in Bolivia has risen from under a quarter of those surveyed in 2005 to more than half in 2009. President Morales has not given up his involvement in Bolivia's social movements, and even now remains head of the coca growers union. He is often seen crossing over and joining the people protesting in the streets."

"Democratic governance in Bolivia in more activist, inclusionary, direct, and participatory than that in the United States and the West. But above all politics in Bolivia are not so much about elections these days. At polling time the left sets aside its differences and votes for Morales and the MAS. But as we are seeing, it is between the elections that normal politics begin. The left fractures, and communities and various associations begin to clamor for attention to their needs.

"Between Elections Politics Begin in Earnest"

"In Bolivia, as in Ecuador and Venezuela as well, the right is in retreat. Indeed, the right is becoming, or has become, all but irrelevant as a political force. In Bolivia the violent overreach of the right in 2008 severely reduced its national political influence. The parties of the right have been reduced to rump voting clubs, the remnants of prior political configurations. Instead, democracy in Bolivia is the contestations, the testing of relative strength, of President Morales and the MAS, and social groups expressing their politics directly, on the streets, in protests, marches, in highway blockages. Between elections politics begin in earnest, as the cycle of left-wing pressure begins anew. This is what democracy looks like in Bolivia."

And how does this kind of democracy work? Well, in early October the Center for Economic and Policy Research released a brief summary called "Bolivia's Economy Under Evo in 10 Graphs." The graphs, says CEPR, "help explain the strong support for his re-election." I can't reproduce the graphs here, but will summarize what they tell us (all the words below are from the CEPR study):

1. Economic Growth: Bolivia has grown much faster over the last 8 years under President Evo Morales than in any period over the past three-and-a-half decades.

2. High Level of International Reserves: International reserves act as a buffer against external shocks, preventing balance of payments crises. Bolivia's international reserves are currently more than 48 percent of GDP, higher than even China.; there is room for Bolivia to put these resources to greater productive use, for example in public investment.

3. Nationalization Shifts Hydrocarbon Revenues to the Public Sector: A referendum vote in mid-2004 indicated public support for a greater state role in the hydrocarbons sector, and in May 2006, newly-elected president Evo Morales renationalized Bolivia's oil and gas industries. The increased tax revenue has allowed Bolivia to vastly increase its macroeconomic policy space. Some of this revenue went into reserves, as noted above, and Bolivia also increased public investment (below).

4. Highest Foreign Direct Investment in South America: While the business press consider nationalizations to be anathema to attracting international investment, Bolivia actually had the highest level of foreign direct investment, as a percent of GDP, in South America in 2013.

5. Public Investment is High and Increasing: Since 2006, Bolivia has made it a priority to increase public investment spending. Over the last 8 years, total public investment doubled as a percentage of GDP.

6. Poverty Reduced by 25 Percent, Extreme Poverty Reduced by 43 Percent: Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America, but poverty has been on a downward trend in recent years after stagnating at a very high level for almost a decade.

7. Economic Inequality Decreases: Bolivia has been praised by Alicia Barcena, the head of the Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), as being "one of the few countries that has reduced inequality … the gap between rich and poor has been hugely narrowed." [The graph shows that] "the income of the poorer sectors of the population has grown much faster since 2006 than that of the higher-income households."

8. Large Increase in the Minimum Wage: One explanation for the decrease in poverty and inequality is that Bolivia has rapidly increased the real (inflation-adjusted) minimum wage. From 2005-2014, the real minimum wage increased by 87.7 percent.

9. Social Spending Increases Over 45 Percent In 7 Years: Public spending on health, education, pensions and poverty alleviation programs experienced a significant increase (of 45 percent) in real terms, but did not fully keep up with overall growth in the economy.

10. Pursuing Alternatives to the Drug War: In 2008, the U.S. added Bolivia to a short list of countries that had "failed demonstrably" to meet international counternarcotics agreements. Bolivia has been on the list ever since, despite having reduced the amount of coca in cultivation. Outside the U.S., President Morales has received praise for his "Coca Yes, Cocaine No" policy that emphasizes protecting human rights, and recognizes traditional, legal uses for the coca plant.

The U.S. media reports that Morales keeps getting elected because of the "economic and political stability brought by his government." But could there be a different story, one that is invisible to the agenda-setting media in this country, but that is hidden in plain sight? And might that story have to do with the fact that, in Bolivia, it is "between elections that politics begin in earnest"?

If it is true that the essence of democracy in Bolivia is found "on the streets, in protests, marches, in highway blockages," then we may have a clue as to why so many Bolivians are so much better off today than they were before Morales took office in 2006. And why most people in the United States are not.

I'm not interested in romanticizing Morales, nor Bolivian democracy. There are many ugly stories coming out of Bolivia to balance out the good news presented here. But what I am suggesting is that one possible explanation for Bolivia's "stability," as noted by the U.S. media, may be the concrete improvement brought to people's lives by a movement toward socialism. Could it be that it is not just the rhetoric, but Bolivia's "anti-imperialist and socialist" policies—and the democratic processes that produce them—that keep Bolivia moving forward?

I'll be saying more about Bolivia, and other countries in the increasingly-democratic South, in future editions of Nygaard Notes.


"Climate Change Is the Biggest Story Going"

On October 24th the website InsideClimate News headlined a story, "NPR Reduces Its Environment Team to One Reporter." The story is that "National Public Radio has cut back on the number of staffers focused solely on the environment and climate change."

As this week's "Quote" of the Week indicates, this is the wrong time to be cutting back on this huge, enormous, gargantuan story-of-a-lifetime. But reporter Katherine Bagley spelled it out: "Earlier this year, the news outlet had three full-time reporters and one editor dedicated to covering the issue within NPR's science desk. One remains—and he is covering it only part-time. A few reporters on other desks occasionally cover the topic as well."

NPR Science editor Anne Gudenkauf says it's no big deal: "We'll think of a project we want to do and the kind of staff that we need to do it, and then organize ourselves that way," she says. "One of the things we always do is change in response to the changing world."

But not, apparently, in response to the warming world. Bagley notes that "The number of content pieces tagged 'environment' that NPR publishes (which include things like Q&As and breaking news snippets) has declined since January, according to an analysis by InsideClimate News, dropping from the low 60s to mid-40s every month. A year-to-year comparison shows that the outlet published 68 environment stories in September 2013 and 43 in September 2014."

An even-more powerful media outlet, The New York Times, had decided in January of 2013 to dismantle its team of seven reporters and two editors who were devoted to environmental news. And two months after that it discontinued its Green blog, a daily destination for environmental news.

There is some good news here, however. While we haven't heard anything about NPR changing its corporate mind, last month the Times did reverse course, announcing that it had "added an editor and three reporters to focus on the topic exclusively. This is in addition to the four staffers already covering climate change." Said the new editor, "The idea is that climate change is the biggest story going, and we ought to be on it in a big way."

That's the idea, all right. And it's clear that activists played a role in this reversal. The Times' "public editor," Margaret Sullivan, commented on October 7th that "When hundreds of thousands of people take to the Manhattan streets, as they did in the People's Climate March last month, something big is clearly happening." She commented that this makes it "hard to dispute the public's dismay over climate change." Dismay? How about: Anger, Outrage, Horror, Urgency, or Rage? Or all of the above?

If you think about it, Sullivan's comment is quite revealing. Anyone who has been paying attention would surely know that "something big" has been happening for decades, since long before any big crowds got it together to march past the Times' window. That is, we've known for years that the planet is warming and that this poses a threat to life as we've known it for the past several millenia. But for something to become "big" at the Times, it has to show that it can sell papers. When 400,000 people march in the streets demanding real action on climate change, that sent a message to the Times that there might be, after all, a "market" for environmental news. Thus the increase in coverage.

And that's what really causes "dismay" to those who care about the planet. Had the corporate media been acting responsibly and giving global warming the emphasis it deserves, activists might have been able to organize those 400,000 people years ago, and the climate change deniers would have long since faded into oblivion. But, as it is, climate change remains at or near the bottom of the list of national priorities, at least in the major public opinion polls (if it's on the list at all). No wonder, since the news about what is really happening is still relegated to the inside pages, seriously inhibiting the public's sense of urgency on the biggest story going. What was that about fiddling while Rome is burning? It's time for the mass media to put away the fiddles.