Greece: Fascists At The Gate

Greece: Fascists At the Gate

Dispatches From The Edge

March 20, 2015

 

When some 70 members of the neo-Nazi organization Golden Dawn go on trial sometime this spring, there will be more than street thugs and fascist ideologues in the docket, but a tangled web of influence that is likely to engulf Greece’s police, national security agency, wealthy oligarchs, and mainstream political parties. While Golden Dawn—with its holocaust denial, its swastikas, and Hitler salutes—makes it look like it inhabits the fringe, in fact the organization has roots deep in the heart of Greece’s political culture

 

Which is precisely what makes it so dangerous.

 

Golden Dawn’s penchant for violence is what led to the charge that it is a criminal organization. It is accused of several murders, as well as attacks on immigrants, leftists, and trade unionists. Raids have uncovered weapon caches. Investigators have also turned up information suggesting that the organization is closely tied to wealthy shipping owners, as well as the National Intelligence Service (EYP) and municipal police departments.

 

Several lawyers associated with two victims of violence by Party members—a 27-year old Pakistani immigrant stabbed to death last year, and an Afghan immigrant stabbed in 2011— charge that a high level EYP official responsible for surveillance of Golden Dawn has links to the organization. The revelations forced Dimos Kouzilos, director of EYP’s third counter-intelligence division, to resign last September.

 

There were several warning flags about Kouzilos when he was appointed to head the intelligence division by rightwing New Democracy Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. Kouzilos is a relative of a Golden Dawn Parliament member, who is the Party’s connection to the shipping industry. Kouzilos is also close to a group of police officers in Nikea, who are currently under investigation for ties to Golden Dawn. Investigators charge that the Nikea police refused to take complaints from refugees and immigrants beaten by Party members, and the police Chief, Dimitris Giovandis, tipped off Golden Dawn about surveillance of the Party.

 

In handing over the results of their investigation, the lawyers said the “We believe that this information provides an overview of the long-term penetration ands activities of the Nazi criminal gang with the EYP and the police.” A report by the Office of Internal Investigation documents 130 cases where Golden Dawn worked with police.

 

It should hardly come as a surprise that there are close ties between the extreme right and Greek security forces. The current left-right split goes back to 1944 when the British tried to drive out the Communist Party—the backbone of the Greek resistance movement against the Nazi occupation. The split eventually led to the 1946-49 civil war when Communists and leftists fought royalists and former German collaborationists for power. However, the West saw the civil war through the eyes of the then budding Cold War, and, at Britain’s request, the U.S. pitched in on the side of the right to defeat the left. In the process of that intervention—then called the Truman Doctrine—U.S. intelligence services established close ties with the Greek military.

 

Those ties continued over the years that followed and were tightened once Greece joined NATO in 1952. The charge that the U.S. encouraged the 1967 fascist coup against the Greek government has never been proven, but many of the “colonels” that initiated the overthrow had close ties to the CIA and the U.S. military.

 

Golden Dawn was founded by some of the key people who ruled during the 1967-74 junta, and Greek dictator Georgios Papadopoulos, the leader of the “colonels” who led the 1967 coup, groomed the Party’s founder and current leader, Nikos Michaloliakos. Papadopoulos was a Nazi collaborator and served with the German “security battalions” that executed 130,000 Greek civilians during WW II. Papadopoulos was trained by the U.S. Army and recruited by the CIA. Indeed, he was the first CIA employee to govern a European country.

 

Golden Dawn’s adherence to Hitler, the symbols of Nazism, and the “Fuehrer principle”—investing the Party’s leader with absolute authority—is, in part, what has gotten the organization into trouble. According to an investigation by Greek Supreme Court Deputy Prosecutor Haralambos Vourliotis, Golden Dawn is split into two wings, a political wing responsible for the Party’s legal face and an operational wing for “carrying out attacks on those deemed enemies of the party.” Michaloiakos oversees both wings.

 

Prosecutors will try to demonstrate that attacks and murders are not the actions of individuals who happen to be members of Golden Dawn, because independent actions are a contradiction to the “Fuehrer principle.” Many of the attacks have featured leading members of Golden Dawn and, on occasion, members of Parliament. Indeed, since the leadership and core of the Party were jailed last September, attacks on non-Greeks and leftists have fallen off.

 

There is a cozy relationship between Golden Dawn and some business people as well, with the Party serving as sort of “Thugs-R-Us” organization. Investigators charge that shortly after two Party MPs visited the shipyards at Piraeus, a Golden Dawn gang attacked Communists who were supporting union workers. Golden Dawn also tried to set up a company union that would have resulted in lower pay and fewer benefits for shipyard workers. In return, shipping owners donated 240,000 Euros to Golden Dawn.

 

Investigators charge that the Party also raises funds through protection rackets, money laundering and blackmail.

 

Journalist Dimitris Psarras, who has researched and written about Golden Dawn for decades, argues that the Party is successful not because it plays on the economic crisis, but because for years the government—both socialists and conservatives—mainstream parties, and the justice system have turned a blind eye to Golden Dawn’s growing use of force. It was the murder of Greek anti-fascist rapper/poet Pavlos Fyssas that forced the authorities to finally move on the organization. Killing North Africans was one thing, killing a Greek quite another.

 

Instead of challenging Golden Dawn in the last election, the New Democracy Party railed against “Marxists,” “communists” and—pulling a page from the 1946-49 civil war—“bandits.” Even the center parties, like the Greek Socialist Party (PASOK) and the new Potami Party, condemned both “left and right” as though the two were equivalent.

 

Golden Dawn did see its voter base shrink from the 426,025 it won in 2012, to 388,000 in the January election that brought left party Syriza to power. But then Golden Dawn is less interested in numbers than it is in wielding violence. According to Psarras, the Party’s agenda is “to create a climate of civil war, a divide where people have to choose between leftists and rightists.”

 

Some of the mainstream parties have eased Golden Dawn’s path by adopting the Party’s attacks on Middle East and African immigrants and Muslims, albeit at a less incendiary level. But, as Psarras points out, “Research in political science has long since showed that wherever conservative European parties adopt elements of far-right rhetoric and policy during pre-election periods, the upshot is the strengthening of the extreme far right parties.”

 

That certainly was the case in last year’s European Parliamentary elections, when center and right parties in France and Great Britain refused to challenge the racism and Islamophobia of rightwing parties, only to see the latter make strong showings.

 

According to the Supreme Court’s Vourliotis, Golden Dawn believes that “Those who do not belong to the popular community of the race are subhuman. In this category belong foreign immigrants, Roma, those who disagree with their ideas and even people with mental problems.” The Party dismisses the Holocaust: “There were no crematoria, it’s a lie. Or gas chambers,” Michaloliakos said in a 2012 national TV interview. Some 60,000 members of Greece’s Jewish population were transported and murdered in the death camps during World War II.

 

The trial is scheduled for April 20 but might delayed. Golden Dawn members, including Michaloliakos and many members of Parliament, were released Mar. 18 because they can only be held for 18 months in pre-trial detention. The Party, with its ties in the business community and its “wink of the eye” relationship to New Democracy—that mainstream center right party apparently printed Golden Dawn’s election brochures—has considerable resources to fight the charges. Golden Dawn has hired more than 100 attorneys.

 

If convicted, Golden Dawn members could face up to 20 years in prison, but there is not a great deal of faith among the anti-fascist forces in the justice system. The courts have remained mute in the face of Golden Dawn’s increasing use of violence, and some magistrates have been accused of being sympathetic to the organization. Golden Dawn is charged with being a criminal organization, murder, assault, and illegal weapons possession under Article 187.

 

Thanasis Kampagiannis of “Jail Golden Dawn” warns that the Party will not vanish on its own. “Many are under the impression that if we stop talking about Golden Dawn the problem will somehow disappear. That is not the case. The economic crisis has burnished the organization, but there are other causes that have contributed to its existence and prominence, such as the intensification of state repression and the institutionalization of racism by the dominant parties.”

 

But courts are political entities and respond to popular movements. Anti-fascists are calling on the Greeks and the international community to stay in the streets and demand that Golden Dawn be brought to justice. Germans missed that opportunity with the Nazi Party and paid a terrible price for it.

 

Thanks to Kia Mistilis, journalist, photographer and editor, for providing material for this column

 

 

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Greece: Memory and Debt

Greece: Memory & Debt

Dispatches From the Edge

Conn Hallinan

March 14, 2015

 

Memory is selective and therein lays an explanation for some of the deep animosity between Berlin and Athens in the current debt crisis that has shaken the European Union (EU) to its foundations.

 

For German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble, “memory” goes back to 2007 when Greece was caught up in the worldwide financial conflagration touched off by American and European speculators. Berlin was a major donor in the 240 billion Euro “bailout”—89 percent of which went to pay off the gambling debts of German, French, Dutch and British banks. Schauble wants that debt repaid.

 

Millions of Greeks are concerned about unpaid debts as well, although their memories stretch back a little further.

 

In July, 1943 Wehrmacht General Hubert Lanz, commander of the First Mountain Division, was annoyed because two of his officers had been threatened by civilians in the Western Greek town of Kommeno. It was dangerous to irritate a German commander during the 1941-45 occupation of Greece.

 

Lanz first murdered 153 men, women and children—ages one to 75—in Mousiotitsas, then surrounded Kommeno, where his troops systematically killed 317 people, including 172 women. Thirteen were one-year old, and 38 people were burned alive in their houses. After the massacre, the soldiers ate their lunch in the village square, surrounded the by bodies of the dead, and then pushed on to other villages, killing more than 200 civilians.

 

It was not the first, nor the last massacre of Greeks, and most people in that country can recite them like the beads on a rosary: Kondomari (60 killed); Kardanos (180 killed); Alikianos (118 killed); Viannos (over 500 killed); Amari (164 killed); Kalavryta (over 700 killed); Distomo (214 killed). All in all, the Germans destroyed more than 460 villages, executed 130,000 civilians, and murdered virtually the entire Jewish population—60,000—during the occupation.

 

On top of that, Athens was forced to “lend” Germany 475 million Reich marks—estimated today at 14 billion Euros—to pay for the occupation. Adding interest to the loan makes that figure somewhere around 95 billion Euros.

 

Greece’s public debt is currently 315 billion Euros.

 

The Greeks “remember” a few other things about those massacres. Gen. Kurtl Student, the butcher of Kondomari, Kardanos, and Alikianos, was sentenced to five years after the war, but got out early on medical grounds. The beast of Mousiotitsas and Kommeno, Gen. Lanz, was sentenced to 12 years, served three, and became a major military and security advisor to the German Free Democratic Party. In 1954 he wrote a book about his exploits and died in bed in 1982. Gen. Karl von Le Suire of Kalavryta fame was not so lucky. Captured by the Soviets, he died in a Stalingrad POW camp in 1954. Lt. Gen. Friedrich-Wilhelm Muller, who ordered the Viannos massacre, was tried and executed by the Greeks in 1947.

 

It is not hard to see why many Greeks see a certain relationship between what the Germans did to Greece during the occupation and what is being done to it today. There are no massacres—although suicide rates are through the ceiling—and no mass starvation, but 44 percent of the Greek people are now below the poverty line, the economy shattered, and Greeks feel they no longer control their country. Up until the last election, they didn’t. The Troika—the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund—dictated the price of the loan: layoffs, wage and pension reductions, and huge cutbacks in health care. True, their occupiers did not wear the double thunderbolts of the SS or the field green of the Wehrmacht, but armies in pinstripes and silk ties can inflict a lot of damage.

 

Germany dismisses the Greek demand for reparations—estimated at anywhere from some 160 billion Euros to over 677 billion Euros—as a long-dead issue that was decided back in 1960 when the Greek government signed a Bilateral Agreement with Berlin and accepted 115 million Deutschmarks in compensation.

 

“It is our firm belief that questions or reparations and compensation have been legally and politically resolved,” said Steffen Seibert, a spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “We should concentrate on current issues and, hopefully what will be a good future.”

 

But that is a selective reading of history. There was never any “resolution” of Nazi Germany’s post-war debts because the country was divided between East and West. The 1953 Treaty of London cut Germany’s obligations in half and stretched out debt payments, but the Treaty did not address reparations because they were supposed to be resolved in the final peace treaty. However, with Germany divided, there was no such agreement.

 

When Germany was unified in 1990, the Greeks raised the issue of reparations, but the Germans dismissed the issue as resolved by the combination of the London Treaty and the 1960 payoff. But not according to historian Hagen Fleischer, who has studied the reparations issue and the original loan documents. Fleischer says that Germany first argued that as long as the country was divided, Berlin could not consider repaying any debts. “Then after German reunification Helmut Kohl [then Chancellor] and Hans-Dietrich Genscher [then Foreign Minister] said that it was now much too late. The matter was ancient history.”

 

According to the Syriza government, the 115 million marks Germany paid in 1960 were only in compensation for Greek victims of Nazism, not the physical damage to the country, the destruction of the economy, or the forced loans.

 

“Germany has never properly paid reparations for the damage done to Greece,” argues Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tspiras. “After the reunification of Germany in 1990 the legal and political conditions were created for this issue to be solved. But since then, German governments chose silence, legal tricks and delay.”

 

Many Greeks refuse to accept what they consider a paltry sum for the vast crimes of the occupation. Four descendents of the 214 civilians massacred by the 4th SS Panzergrenadier Division at Distomo sued and, in 1997, were awarded 37.5 million Euros, a ruling upheld by the Greek Supreme Court in 2000. When Germany refused to recognize the verdict, the defendants took their case to Italy, and in 2008 an Italian court ruled that the plaintiffs had the right to seize German-owed property in compensation for the Greek award, including a villa on Lake Como.

 

Germany appealed the Italian decision to the International Court at Hague, which found in favor of Berlin on a principle of international law that countries are immune from the jurisdiction of other states.

 

However, Germany has assets in Greece, including property and the Goethe Institute, a leading cultural center in Athens. Justice Minister Nikos Paraskevopoulos says he is ready to begin seizing German assets in Greece.

 

Tsipras says Germany has a “moral obligation” to pay reparations, a sentiment that some on the German left agrees with. “From a moral point of view, Germany ought to pay off these old compensations and the ‘war loan’ that they got during the Occupation,” says Gabriele Zimmer of Die Linke, a party closely allied to Syriza in the European Parliament.

 

Addressing the Greek Parliamentary Committee for Claiming the German Reparations on Mar. 10, Tsipras asked “Why do we tackle the past” instead of focusing on the future? “But what country, what people can have a future if it does not honor its history and its struggles?”

 

Dismissing the argument that reparations are ancient history—“The generation of the Occupation and the National Resistance is still living”—Tsipras warned about the consequences of amnesia: “The crimes and destruction caused by the troops of the Third Reich, across the Greek territory, but also across the entire Europe” are memories “that must be preserved in the younger generations. We have a duty—historical, political, ethical—to preserve, remember forever what Nazism means, what fascism means.”

 

Nazism is not a memory that needs a lot of refreshing in Greece. Sometime this spring some 70 members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party, including 16 current and former Parliament members, will go on trial for being members of a “criminal organization.” The anti-Semitic and racist Golden Dawn Party has been associated with several murders, attacks on leftists, trade unionists, and immigrants, and has close ties with the police and several of the billionaire oligarchs who dominate Greek politics and the economy.

 

Indeed, its profile is eerily similar to that of the German National Socialist Party (Nazi) in its early years. Golden Dawn has 17 members of Parliament and is the third highest vote getter in the country, though its support has recently dipped.

 

Old memories certainly fuel Greek anger at Germany, but so do the current policies of enforced austerity that Berlin has played a pivotal role in inflicting on debt-ravaged Greece. “Germany’s Europe has finished,” says Greek Social Security Minister Dimitris Statoulis, the Europe “where Germany forbids and all other countries execute orders.”

 

Thanks to Kia Mistilis, journalist, photographer and editor, for providing material for this column

 

 

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Greece: Whispers Of Battles Past

Greece: A Whisper of Battles Past

Dispatches From the Edge

 

March 5, 2015

 

 

The recent negotiations between Greece and the European Union (EU) bring to mind Themistocles, a man who knew when to retreat and when to fight. The year was 480 BC and Xerxes I—“the king with half the east at heel”—was marching on Greece with a massive army accompanied by an enormous fleet. Against the invasion stood a small Greek army, led by Leonidas of Sparta, and an equally outnumbered navy, commanded by the Athenian, Themistocles.

 

It didn’t look good for the Greeks in August 480 BC. The Persian army was at least 10 times the size of the Greek force, and Themistocles was outnumbered almost three to one. It didn’t look good for Syriza in 2015: not a single EU member supported the Greek call for easing the debt crisis and ending the punishing austerity regime that has shattered the country’s economy and impoverished many of its people.

 

The Greek army and Leonidas were destroyed at Thermopylae, but the wily Themistocles first bloodied the Persians at Artemisium, then retreated, buying time to lay a trap at Salamis. With a little deception and a wind at his back—always a plus when you are ramming other people’s ships—the Greeks annihilated the Persian fleet and defeated the invasion.

 

Can Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his finance minister Yanis Varoufakis pull off a Salamis and best what looks like another unbeatable foe? It is too soon to tell, but the deal they cut in Brussels bears a resemblance to that long ago battle in the Straits of Artemisium: both sides took losses, but the Greeks bought themselves valuable time.

 

And as Varoufakis recently remarked, “Time is our most precious commodity.”

 

There are a couple of things to keep in mind about the Feb. 20 agreement approved by the 19 European finance ministers.

 

First, Syriza did not have a mandate from the electorate to play one of its most powerful cards: “give us a deal or we leave the Eurozone and maybe tank the Euro.”

 

Second, Greece had a gun to its head: a Feb. 28 deadline, after which its banks would have lost support from the European Central Bank (ECB), one of the “Troika” members that include the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Commission. Without ECB support, Greek banks might have gone under, forcing Athens to default on the debt and force it to exit from the Eurozone.

 

In the long run the Greeks may decide to default or drop the Euro, but that is not a decision that a freshly elected government that relies on a coalition to stay in power can make in a few weeks.

 

Third, as attractive as it is to think of scrappy little Greece defeating the mighty Troika and the EU, let’s be serious. Greece represents about 2 percent of the EU’s GDP. Its foes would have made Xerxes’ tremble: Germany, France, Italy, Finland, and the Netherlands, and even the debt-strapped governments of Spain, Portugal, and Ireland.

 

Syriza’s critics charge that the Party folded in Brussels, getting little more than a few cosmetic word changes in the Memorandum of Understanding that the Troika forced on Greece back in 2010. But language, as economist James Galbraith points out, has power. In “Reading the Greek Deal Correctly,” the University of Texas professor argues that substituting words like “the current programme” with “Master Financial Assistance Facility Agreement” means the agreement is extended “but the commitments are to be reviewed.”

 

Analyzing the centerpiece of the agreement, Galbraith concludes that there is no “unwavering commitment to the exact terms and conditions” of the 2010 Memorandum. “So,” he writes, “No, the Troika cannot come to Athens and complain about the rehiring of cleaning ladies.”

 

Georgos Katroughalos, a Syrizan minister, called the Feb. 20 agreement a study in “constructive ambiguity” that “allows different readings. Our reading is that we are not applying the Memorandum program. We are applying our agenda.”

 

What Syriza accepted were those sections of the Memorandum that mirrored its own program: running down tax evaders—unpaid taxes are estimated at 76 billion Euros—ending corruption, targeting fuel and tobacco smuggling, modernizing public administration, and tackling the “humanitarian crisis” with programs for food stamps, free medical care, and electricity for the poor. There will also be a pilot program for a minimum income for those under the poverty line—Brazil has had much success with this—and mortgage relief.

 

Which is not to say there were no casualties.

 

Syriza backed away from its pledge to end privatizations, although it added a caveat that the sale of public property must actually bring in significant amounts of cash. To date, many privatizations have been inside deals at fire sales prices. The privatization part of the agreement could be a retreat, or a loophole to put the brakes on the process. People will just have to wait and see what Syriza does.

 

“Labor reform” is another area around where sparks are certain to fly. By “reform” the Troika means cutting back minimum wages, abolishing collective bargaining, increasing the retirement age, and laying off workers. In theory this is supposed to make Greek workers more “productive” and more like German workers. In fact, Greeks work longer hours than German workers, but Greece does not possess Germany’s modernized infrastructure, including computers, high-speed rail, and autobahns.

 

Much of the German “modernization” was paid for by the U.S. to serve as a bulwark against the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc countries. The 1953 London Agreement that canceled much of Germany’s World War II debts and stretched out payments—Syriza is asking for something very similar— was not done out of kindness, but as a critical ingredient in the Cold War. Germany would be part of the “west wall” against the Russians.

 

Syriza has agreed to “phase in” raising the minimum wage but is vague about implementing the rest of the “reform” package. Again, this could be seen as capitulation or as a temporary retreat. The measure of that will be what the Greek government actually does.

 

Greece is facing some deadlines this summer, and there is pressure from the EU for yet another bailout deal. But if Athens gets its anti-corruption program up and running, throttles gas and tobacco smuggling, and successfully collects taxes, Greece will have cash on hand to fulfill some of its election promises to restore jobs and pensions, and fund health care. The agreement recognizes that Greece is facing a “humanitarian crisis,” wording that might give Syriza more space to maneuver.

 

Greece is not alone in this fight. While it received no support from other Eurozone countries, most of those countries have growing anti-austerity movements that back Syriza. The Greek party’s close ally in the European Parliament, Podemos, is now the second largest party in Spain. And while governments in Portugal and Ireland have demanded that Greece stick with its austerity program, those governments are under siege at home for their own austerity regimes.

 

Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelhois is one of Syriza’s sharpest critics, dismissing the Greek Party’s position as a “children’s fairytale,” but his center-right Social Democrats are running behind the Socialist Party (SP). While the Socialists negotiated the original austerity agreement with the Troika, they have since turned against it. Antonio Costa, the recently elected major of Lisbon and leader of the SP, says austerity has brought nothing to Portugal but poverty and unemployment. On Feb. 12 a multi-party group of 32 leading politicians, economists and scientists urged Coelho to end his “punitive” approach to Greece and instead declare “solidarity” with Athens.

 

Even the Germans are not all on the same page. While Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble—sounding more like a Wehrmacht commander than a European politician— snarled that Syriza “would have a difficult time to explain the deal to their voters,” Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel was far more conciliatory.

 

What about just dumping in the Euro and declaring bankruptcy? Argentina did that and its economy grew for several years straight. But Argentina still cannot borrow money without paying onerous interest rates, and the IMF’s blockade of international finances has hurt Buenos Aires. In any case, Argentina has a much bigger economy than Greece and close ties with other South American countries through the trade bloc, Mercosur. In short, it has far greater resources than Athens.

 

The Euro has not been good for Greece, or for most of Southern European members of the Eurozone. A common currency doesn’t work when some economies are big, industrial and strong, while others are smaller and, like Greece, rely on business like tourism. Indeed, Greece has lost some of its industrial base since joining the Eurozone. When the playing field is uneven, the big dogs take over, which is why Germany dominates the EU.

 

The consequences of withdrawing from the Euro are uncertain, and not something a newly elected government can responsibly take. In any case, the vast majority of Greeks have yet to have that conversation.

 

In the coming months it will be obvious whether the latest agreement was a defeat or a tactical maneuver by Syriza. If the new government is to successfully resist the Troika, however, it will need support, not only within Greece, but from Europe and beyond. As UK political activist and journalist Tom Walker put it, “This battle is a long way from over,” and “the future of austerity across Europe now rests on what happens in Greece. If we give up on them we are giving up on our own struggles too.”

 

In 480 BC the Spartans held the Persians for three days, and poems were written about their courage, but they all died. It was Themistocles, who knew when to retreat and when to fight, who saved Greece.

 

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Europe’s Debt: Lies and Myths

Europe’s Debt: Lies & Myths

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb. 23, 2015

 

“Debt, n. An ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave driver”

Ambrose Bierce

Journalist & writer

 

“The history of an oppressed people is hidden in the lies and agreed myth of its conquerers”

 

Meridel Le Suer

Author & activist

 

 

Myths are dangerous precisely because they rely more on cultural memory and prejudice than facts, and behind the current crisis between Greece and the European Union (EU) lays a fable that bears little relationship to why Athens and a number of other countries in the 28-member organization find themselves in deep distress.

 

The tale is a variation of Aesop’s allegory of the industrious ant and the lazy, fun-loving grasshopper, with the “northern countries”—Germany, the Netherlands, Britain, Finland—playing the role of the ant, and Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland the part of the grasshopper.

 

The ants are sober and virtuous—lead by the frugal Swanban house frau, German Chancellor Angela Merkel—the grasshoppers are spendthrift, corrupt lay-abouts who have spent themselves into trouble and now must pay the piper.

 

The problem is that this myth bears almost no relationship to the actual roots of the crisis or what the solutions might be. And it perpetuates a fable that the debt is the fault of individual countries rather than a serious crisis at the very heart of the EU.

 

First, a little myth busting.

 

The European debt crisis goes back to the end of the roaring ‘90s when the banks were flush with money and looking for ways to raise their bottom lines. One major strategy was to pour money into real estate, which had the effect of creating bubbles, particularly in Spain and Ireland. In the latter, from 1999 to 2007, bank loans for Irish real estate jumped 1,730 percent, from 5 million Euros to 96.2 million Euros, or more than half the GDP of the Republic. Housing prices increased 500 percent. “It was not the public sector but the private sector that went haywire in Ireland,” concludes Financial Times analyst Martin Wolf.

 

Spain, which had a budget surplus and a low debt ratio, went through much the same process, and saw an identical jump in housing prices: 500 percent.

 

In both countries there was corruption, but it wasn’t the penny ante variety of tax evasion or profit skimming. Politicians—eager for a piece of the action and generous “donations”—waved zoning rules, environmental regulations, and cut sweetheart tax deals. Hundreds of thousands of housing projects went up, many of them never to be occupied.

 

Then the American banking crisis hit in 2008, and the bottom fell out. Suddenly, the ants were in trouble. But not really, because the ants have a trick: they gamble and the grasshoppers pay.

 

The “trick,” as Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate in economics, points out, is that Europe (and the U.S.) have moved those debts “from the private sector to the public sector—a well-established pattern over the past half-century.”

 

Fintan O’Toole, author of “Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption sank the Celtic Tiger,” estimates that to save the Irish-Anglo Bank Irish taxpayers shelled out $30 billion Euros, a sum that was the equivalent of the Island’s entire tax revenues for 2009. The European Central Bank—which, along with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Commission, make up the “Troika”—strong-armed Ireland into adopting austerity measures that tanked the country’s economy, doubled the unemployment rate, increased consumer taxes, and forced many of the country’s young people to emigrate. Almost half of Ireland’s income tax now goes just to service the interest on its debts.

 

Poor Portugal. It had a solid economy and a low debt ratio, but currency speculators drove up interest rates on borrowing beyond what the government could afford, and the European Central Bank refused to intervene. The result was that Lisbon was forced to swallow a “bailout” that was laden with austerity measures that, in turn, torpedoed its economy.

 

In Greece’s case corruption was at the heart of the crisis, but not the popular version about armies of public workers and tax dodging oligarchs. There are rich tax dodgers aplenty in Greece, but Germany, Sweden, and many other European countries spend more of their GDP on services than does Athens. Greece spends 44.6 percent of its GDP on its citizens, less than the EU average and below Germany’s 46 percent and Sweden’s 55 percent.

 

And as for lazy: Greeks work 600 hours more a year than Germans.

 

According to economist Mark Blyth, author of “Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea,” Greek public spending through the 2000s is “really on track and quite average in comparison to everyone else’s,” and the so-called flood of “public sector jobs” consisted of “ 14,000 over two years.” All the talk of the profligate Greek government is “a lot of nonsense” and just “political cover for the fact that what we’ve done is bail out some of the richest people in European society and put the cost on some of the poorest.”

 

There was a “score” in Greece. However, it had nothing to do with free spending, but was a scheme dreamed up by Greek politicians, bankers, and the American finance corporation, Goldman Sachs.

 

Greece’s application for EU membership in 1999 was rejected because its budget deficit in relation to its GDP was over 3 percent, the cutoff line for joining. That’s where Goldman Sachs came in. For a fee rumored to be $200 million (some say three times that), the multinational giant essentially cooked the books to make Greece look like it cleared the bar. Then Greece’s political and economic establishment hid the scheme until the 2008 crash shattered the illusion.

 

It was the busy little ants, not the fiddling grasshoppers that brought on the European debt crisis.

American, German, French, and Dutch banks had to know that they were creating an unstable real estate bubble—a 500 percent jump in housing prices is the very definition of the beast—but kept right on lending because they were making out like bandits.

 

When the bubble popped and Europe went into recession, Greece was forced to apply for a “bailout” from the Troika. In exchange for 172 billon Euros, the Greek government instituted an austerity program that saw economic activity decline 25 percent, unemployment rise to 27 Percent (and over 50 percent for young Greeks). The cutbacks slashed pensions, wages, and social services, and drove 44 percent of the population into poverty.

 

Virtually all of the “bailout”—89 percent—went to the banks that gambled in the 1999 to 2007 real estate casino. What the Greek—as well as Spaniards, Portuguese, and Irish—got was misery.

 

There are other EU countries, including Italy and France that, while not in quite the same boat as the “distressed four,” are under pressure to bring down their debt ratios.

 

But what are those debts?

 

This past summer, the Committee for a Citizen’s Audit on the Public Debt issued a report on France, a country that is currently instituting austerity measures to bring its debt in line with the magic “3 percent” ratio. What the Committee concluded was that 60 percent of the French public debt was “illegitimate.”

 

More than 18 other countries, including Brazil, Portugal, Ecuador, Greece and Spain, have done the same “audit,”, and, in each case, found that increased public spending was not the cause of deficits. From 1978 to 2012, French public spending actually declined by two GDP points.

 

The main culprit in the debt crisis was a fall in tax revenues resulting from massive tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. According to Razmig Keucheyan, sociologist and author of “The Left Hemisphere,” this “neoliberal mantra” that was supposed to increase investment and employment did the opposite.

 

According to the study, the second major reason was the increase in interest rates that benefits creditors and speculators. Had interests rates remained stable during the 1990s, debt would be significantly lower.

 

Keucheyan argues that tax reductions and interest rates are “political decisions” and that “public deficits do not grow naturally out of the normal course of social life. They are deliberately inflicted on society by the dominant classes to legitimize austerity policies that will allow the transfer of value from the working classes to the wealthy ones.”

 

The International Labor Organization recently found that wages have, indeed, stalled or declined throughout the EU over the past decade.

 

The audit movement calls for repudiating debt that results from “the service of private interests” as opposed to the “wellbeing of the people.” In 2008, Ecuador canceled 70 percent of its debt as “illegitimate.”

 

How this plays out in the current Greek-EU crisis is not clear. The Syriza government is not asking to cancel the debt—though it would certainly like a write down—but only that it be given time to let the economy grow. The recent four-month deal may give Athens some breathing room, but the ants are still demanding austerity and tensions are high.

 

What seems clear is that Germany and its allies are trying to force Syriza into accepting conditions that will undermine its support in Greece and demoralize anti-austerity movements in other countries.

 

The U.S. can play a role in this—President Obama has already called for easing the austerity policies—through its domination of the IMF. By itself Washington can outvote Germany, the Netherlands, and Finland, and could exert pressure on the two other Troika members to compromise. Will it? Hard to say, but the Americans are certainly a lot more nervous about Greece exiting the Eurozone than Germany.

 

But the key to a solution is exploding the myth.

 

That has already begun. Over the past few weeks, demonstrators in Greece, Spain, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Great Britain, Belgium and Austria have poured into the streets to support Syriza’s stand against the Troika. “The Left has to work together having as its common goal the elimination of predatory capitalism” says Maite Mola, vice-president of the European Left organization and member of the Portuguese parliament. “And the solution should be European.”

 

In the end, the grasshoppers might just turn Aesop’s fable upside down.

 

—30—

 

 

 

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Europe: Shaking The Temple

Europe: Shaking The Temple

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

Feb. 12, 2015

 

In the aftermath of last month’s Greek election that vaulted the left anti-austerity party Syriza into power, armies of supporters and detractors—from Barcelona to Berlin—are on the move. While Germany’s Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaueble was making it clear that Berlin would brook no change in the European Union’s (EU) debt strategy that has impoverished countries like Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland, left organizations from all over Europe met in Barcelona to drew up a plan of battle.

 

As Schaueble was stonewalling Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, the Party of the European Left (PEL), along with assorted Green parties, gathered for the “1st European South Forum” in Catalonia’s capital to sketch out a 10-point “Declaration of Barcelona” aimed at ending “austerity and inequality,” and promoting “democracy and solidarity.”

 

At first glance, the past two weeks look ominously like September 1914, with opposing forces digging in for a massive bloodletting.

 

On one hand the European Central Bank (ECB)—one of the “Troika” members, that includes the European Commission (EC) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—brusquely denied Greece the right to sell government bonds to raise money. Representatives of the Greek government also got little support from other leaders of EU member countries to reduce Athens’ unsustainable $360 billion debt. Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Osborne, grimly opined that “The standoff” between the Eurozone and Greece was “endangering the global economy.”

 

On the other hand, the Syriza government made it clear that Greece was finished with the austerity policies that crashed its economy, made more than a quarter of the population jobless, and shredded essential social services. And the Barcelona Declaration is a direct challenge to the economic formulas of the Troika and German Chancellor Angela Merkel: “Merkelism is not invincible. Austerity can stop. Europe can change,” reads the document,

 

Behind the trenches, however, the situation was far more complex than two sides bunkered down in a winner-take-all battle, and the politics around economic policy more fluid than one might initially conclude.

 

While Greece will certainly not go back to the failed formula of selling off state-owned enterprises, huge budget cuts, layoffs and onerous taxes, neither is it eager to exit the Eurozone. The latter is composed of 18 out of the 28 EU members that use a common currency, the euro.

 

For all the sturm und drang coming from Berlin and EU headquarters in Brussels, Syriza’s program is anything but radical, more social democratic than Bolshevik. And a growing number of economists and Europeans are concluding that taking a hard line on Greece might, in the end, endanger the entire EU endeavor.

 

As a strategy for getting out of debt, austerity has an almost unbroken track record of failure, starting with Latin American in the late 1980s. It has certainly been catastrophic for Greece and, to a lesser extent, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain, and virtually no European country has dodged its impact on employment and social services.

 

“Austerity” is not just about cutbacks and budget tightening. By increasing unemployment, and introducing “temporary” labor contracts, it severely weakens unions and the ability of workers to bargain for higher wages and improved benefits. Indeed, according to the International Labor Organization, since 2007 wages have either stalled or fallen in most EU countries.

 

Austerity also accelerates economic inequality. According to the Credit Suisse Research Institute, the top 1 percent now control 48.2 percent of the world’s wealth, and inequality in Europe is the highest it has been in a half century. More people are poorer than they were a decade ago, while a few are richer than ever. The latter will be reluctant to moderate the policies that have given them a half-decade of unalloyed profit making.

 

The Greek election was a shot across the bow for this strategy and a warning that, while wealth and political power may be related, they are not the same thing: Governments can be overturned.

 

But compromise on the Troika’s side will be difficult, in part because the austerity strategy has been so lucrative for the EU’s elites, in part because the intransigence of many EU leaders is driven by multiple devils.

 

There is the “why not us?” devil. The ruling parties in Ireland, Portugal and Spain are spooked, because if Syriza gets a deal on the Greek debt that doesn’t involve crucifying most its population, their own impoverished constituents are going to be asking some hard questions and demanding something similar.

 

Spain’s right-wing Popular Party is nervously looking over its shoulder at the growing strength of the anti-austerity Podemos party. It was no accident that the ELP chose Spain for its conference: Podemos is drawing 24 percent in national polls and is the only party in the country currently growing. It is now the second largest in Spain. With local and national elections coming up this year—the former in May, the latter in December—Spain’s two mainstream parties are running scared.

 

So, too, are the governments in Portugal and Ireland that went along with the austerity demands of the troika and now face expanding anti-austerity parties on their left.

 

Another devil is the right, although last May’s European parliamentary elections demonstrated that when the left clearly articulated an anti-austerity program, voters picked it over the right. What those elections also showed, however, is that when the center-left went along with austerity—as it did in Britain and France—the right made gains.

 

German Chancellor Andrea Merkel is apprehensive about losing votes to the right-wing, anti-EU Alternate Party for Germany. British Prime Minister David Cameron is trying to fend off the rightist United Kingdom Independence Party, and French President Francois Hollande is running behind Marine Le Pen of the anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic National Front Party.

 

There are strong right-wing parties in Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands, although, in the latter two, their poll numbers fell in the European parliamentary elections.

 

What those last May elections suggest is that any effort to co-opt the right’s politics or base by moving in its direction does little more than feed the beast. Greece’s experiences are instructive. The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party is also anti-austerity, but Syriza trounced them in last month’s election. At the same time, Syriza’s warning that austerity fuels the politics of the right is almost certainly true. In an economic crisis there are always those who turn to the dark side and its simplistic explanations for their condition: immigrants, Roma, Jews, and “slackers.”

 

While the European right is worrisome, it has generally lost head-on battles with the left, because the right has little to offer besides the politics of racism and xenophobia.

 

And Europe needs answers. The Greek crisis is a crisis of the entire EU. To one extent or other, every country—even Germany, the EU’s engine—is characterized by falling or anemic wage growth, increasing economic inequality, spreading deflation, and an overall decline in living standards. It is this general malaise that the Barcelona Declaration is taking aim at.

 

Pierre Laurent, head of the French Communist Party and president of the ELP, told the Barcelona forum that “2015 is a decisive year, the year of change,” and that Syriza’s victory will “have a huge impact throughout Europe because for the first time since the crisis, it will force all European governments to discuss and alternative to austerity.”

 

The Declaration proposes a program for relieving unemployment, creating sustainable development, expanding credit, resisting “racism and xenophobia,” and a European debt conference along the lines of the 1953 London Debt Agreement that relieved Germany of half its post-World War II debts.

 

How the Greek debt crisis will play out over the next few months is not clear.

 

The troika may take a hard line, in which case Greece may be forced to leave the Eurozone, a move that Berlin claims would have little impact. Other analysts are not so certain.

 

“The predominant German view” that a Greek exit would be a “minor shock for the Eurozone and a non-event for the global economy” says Financial Times analyst Wolfgang Munchau, “could not be more wrong.”

 

Faced with a possible meltdown of the European Union or the Eurozone and a growing insurgency on its left, the Troika may blink and give the Greeks part of what they want: a reduction in the interest rate on the debt—maybe even a write-down on some of it—and an extension of the payment schedule. What they will not get—because the Greek electorate has made it clear they will not accept—is more austerity.

 

That is the contagion—sometimes called the “Greek virus””—that is already spreading to Spain, Portugal and Ireland and which is likely to jump to Italy, France and Central Europe.

 

The Greeks have shaken the pillars of the temple. Inside the mighty tremble.

 

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The Greek Earthquake

The Greek Earthquake

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 28, 2014

 

Almost before the votes were counted in the recent Greek elections, battle lines were being drawn all over Europe. While Alexis Tsipras, the newly elected Prime Minister from Greece’s victorious Syriza Party, was telling voters, “Greece is leaving behind catastrophic austerity, fear and autocratic government,” Jens Weidmann, president of the German Bundesbank, was warning the new government not to “make promises it cannot keep and the country cannot afford.”

 

On Feb. 12 those two points of view will collide when European Union (EU) heads of state gather in Brussels. Whether the storm blowing out of Southern Europe proves an irresistible force, or the European Council an immovable object, is not clear, but whatever the outcome, the continent is not likely to be the same after that meeting.

 

The Jan 25 victory of Greece’s leftwing Syriza Party was, on one hand, a beacon for indebted countries like Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland. On the other, it is a gauntlet for Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, and the “troika”—the European Central bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—the designers and enforcers of loans and austerity policies that have inflicted a catastrophic economic and social crisis on tens of millions of Europeans.

 

The troika’s policies were billed as “bailouts” for countries mired in debt—one largely caused by the 2008 financial speculation bubble over which indebted countries had little control—and as a way to restart economic growth. In return for the loans, the EU and the troika demanded massive cutbacks in social services, huge layoffs, privatization of pubic resources, and higher taxes.

 

However, the “bailouts” did not go toward stimulating economies, but rather to repay creditors, mostly large European banks. Out of the $266 billion loaned to Greece, 89 percent went to investors. After five years under the troika formula, Greece was the most indebted country in Europe. Gross national product dropped 26 percent, unemployment topped 27 percent (and over 50 percent for young people), and one-third of the population lost their health care coverage.

 

Given a chance to finally vote on the austerity strategy, Greeks overwhelmingly rejected the parties that went along with the troika and elected Syriza.

 

Now it gets tricky, starting with the internal situation within Greece.

 

Because Syriza fell two seats short of controlling the Greek parliament, it has gone into coalition with the small, right wing Independent Greeks party. While initially it seems an odd choice—the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and the Greek Communist Party also have deputies, and Syriza is only two seats short of a majority—Greek politics are, if nothing else, complex.

 

The Independent Greek party—a split from the former ruling conservative New Democracy Party—is an odd duck by any measure. It has a streak of racism and xenophobia, and its leader, Panos Kammenos, believes that jet contrails are chemicals used to control people’s minds. But it is staunchly anti-austerity and will not likely waver in the face of the troika or German Chancellor Andrea Merkel.

 

What would seem like a more compatible alliance with PASOK, however, is precluded by that fact that the Socialists supported the austerity package. There is a new party, To Potami, but it has yet to publish its program, and it is unclear exactly what it stands for. As for the Communists, the Party’s leadership says they have no intention of working with the “false hope” of Syriza.

 

As convoluted as Greek politics are, the main obstacle for Syriza will come from other EU members and the Troika.

 

Finnish Prime Minister Alex Stubb made it clear “that we would say a resounding ‘no’ to forgive loans.” Merkel’s chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, says, “We have pursued a policy which works in many European countries, and we will stick to in the future.” IMF head Christine Lagarde chimed in that “there are rules that must be met in the euro zone,” and that “we cannot make special exceptions for specific countries.”

 

But Tsipras will, to paraphrase the poet Swinburne, not go entirely naked into Brussels, but “trailing clouds of glory.” Besides the solid support in Greece, a number of other countries and movements will be in the Belgian capital as well.

 

Syriza is closely aligned in Spain with Podemos, now polling ahead of the ruling conservative People’s Party. “2015 will be the year of change in Spain and Europe,” tweeted Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias in the aftermath of the election, “let’s go Alexis, let’s go!” Unemployment in Spain is 24 percent, and over 50 percent for young people.

 

Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein—now the third largest party in the Irish Republic—hailed the vote as opening “up the real prospect of democratic change, not just for the people of Greece, but for citizens right across the EU.” Unemployment in Ireland is 10.7 percent, and tens of thousands of jobless young people have been forced to emigrate.

 

The German Social Democrats are generally supportive of the troika, but the Green Party hailed the Syriza victory and Die Linke Party members marched with signs reading, “We start with Greece. We change Europe.”

 

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi—who has his own issues with the EU’s rigid approach to debt—hailed the Greek elections, and top aide Sandro Gozi said that Rome was ready to work with Syriza. The jobless rate in Italy is 13.4 percent, but 40 percent among youth.

 

The French Communist Party hailed the Greek elections as “Good news for the French people,” and Jean-Luc Melenchon of the Parti de Gauche called for a left-wing alliance similar to Syriza. French President Francois Hollande made a careful statement about “growth and stability,” but the Socialist leader is trying to quell a revolt by the left flank of his own party over austerity, and Paris is closer to Rome than it is to Berlin on the debt issue.

 

While the conservative government of Portugal was largely silent, Left Bloc Member of Parliament Marisa Matias told a rally, “A victory for Syriza is a victory for all of Europe.”

 

In short, there are a number of currents in the EU and a growing recognition even among supporters of the troika that prevailing approach to debt is not sustainable.

 

One should have no illusions that Syriza will easily sweep the policies of austerity aside, but there is a palpable feeling on the continent that a tide is turning. It did not start with the Greek elections, but with last May’s European Parliament elections, where anti-austerity parties made solid gains. While some right-wing parties that opportunistically donned a populist mantle also increased their vote, they could not do so where they were challenged by left anti-austerity parties. For instance, the right did well in Denmark, France, and Britain, but largely because there were no anti-austerity voices on the left in those races. Elsewhere the left generally defeated their rightist opponents.

 

If Syriza is to survive, however, it must deliver, and that will be a tall order given the power of its opponents.

 

At home, the Party will have to take on Greece’s wealthy tax-dodging oligarchs if it hopes to extend democracy and start refilling the coffers drained by the troika’s policies. It will also need to get a short-term cash infusion to meet its immediate obligations, but without giving in to yet more austerity demands by the troika.

 

For all the talk about Syriza being “extreme”—it stands for Coalition of the Radical Left— its program, as Greek journalist Kia Mistilis points, is “classic ‘70s social democracy”: an enhanced safety net, debt moratorium, minimum wage raise, and economic stimulus.

 

Syriza is pushing for a European conference modeled on the 1953 London Debt Agreement that pulled Germany out of debt after World War II and launched the “wirtschaftswunder,”or economic miracle that created modern Germany. The Agreement waved more than 50 percent of Germany’s debt, stretched out payments over 50 years, and made repayment of loans dependent on the country running a trade surplus.

 

The centerpiece of Syriza’s Thessaloniki program is its “four pillars of national reconstruction,” which include “confronting the humanitarian crisis,” “restarting the economy and promoting tax justice,” “regaining employment,” and “transforming the political system to deepen democracy.”

 

Each of the “pillars” is spelled out in detail, including costs, income and savings, and, while it is certainly a major break with the EU’s current model, it is hardly the October Revolution.

 

The troika’s austerity model has been quite efficient at smashing trade unions, selling off public resources at fire sale prices, lowering wages and starving social services. As a statement by the International Union of Food Workers argues, “Austerity is not the produce of a deficient grasp of macroeconomics or a failure of ‘social dialogue,’ it is a conscious blueprint for expanding corporate power.”

 

Under an austerity regime, the elites do quite well, and they are not likely to yield without a fight.

 

But Syriza is poised to give them one, and “the little party that could” is hardly alone. Plus a number of important elections are looming in Estonia, Finland, and Spain that will give anti-austerity forces more opportunities to challenge the policies of Merkel and the troika.

 

The spectre haunting Europe may not be the one that Karl Marx envisioned, but it is putting a scare into the halls of the rich and powerful.

 

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Dispatch Awards 2014

Dispatch Awards 2014

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 1, 2015

 

 

Each year Dispatches From the Edge gives awards to individuals, companies and governments that make following the news a daily adventure. Here are the winners for 2014.

 

The Pandora’s Box Award to Israel and the U.S. for launching the world’s first cyber war and creating a monster in the process. In 2010 both countries secretly released the Stuxnet virus to disable Iran’s nuclear energy program, in the process crashing thousands of Teheran’s centrifuges.

 

According to a report by the security company Cylance, “Stuxnet was an eye-opening event for the Iranian authorities, exposing them to the world of physical destruction via electronic means. Retaliation for Stuxnet began almost immediately.”

 

The Financial Times now reports that “Iranian hackers have penetrated dozens of international organizations, including six top-tier oil and gas companies, six international airports, seven airlines, a blue-chip U.S. defense contractor, 10 prestigious universities, and the government computer systems of several Gulf states.”

 

An Iranian hacker program dubbed “Cleaver” has, according to Cylance, “extracted highly sensitive materials” from governments and key companies in Canada, China, France, Israel, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Britain, China, Germany, India, Mexico, Pakistan, South Korea, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.

 

What ye sow, so shall ye reap.

 

The Golden Scold Award to Germany and Chancellor Andrea Merkel for lecturing the Greeks on profligate spending and forcing Athens to swallow crippling austerity measures, while at the same time bribing Greek military officials to spend billions of dollars on useless weapons.

 

According to the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, arms dealers—mostly German, but also French, Swedish, and Russian—handed out close to $3 billion in bribes to secure $68 billion in weapons contracts over the next decade. One arms dealer dropped off a suitcase with over $800,000 in it at the Greek Arms Ministry.

 

Athens spent $2.3 billion to buy 170 German Leopard II tanks, which are largely useless for fighting in Greek terrain. In any case, the tanks were sent without any ammunition (although this past August The Greek Defense Ministry coughed up $69.9 million to buy ammunition from the German company Rheinmetall)

 

The Greeks also paid more than $4 billion to purchase German submarines that are still in dry dock, and, from all accounts, are very noisy. It is not good to be noisy in the silent service. According to Der Spiegel, the German company that makes the U-214 shelled out over $2 million in bribes to land the contract.

 

In the meantime, the austerity policies forced on Greece by the “troika” of international lenders—the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank, and the European Union—has impoverished millions of people and driven the unemployment rate to over 20 percent (50 percent for those under 25). Since 2008, Greek infant mortality has risen 21 percent and child mortality is up 43 percent. Suicides are up 45 percent.

 

In exchange for the military spending, the Greeks got submarines that sit on the land, tanks they can’t use, and lectures from Merkel about saving money.

 

The Misplaced Priorities Award goes the Indian government for spending $33 million on a nearly 600-foot bronze statue of Indian independence leader Vallabhbhai Patel, while, according to the UN, 213 million Indians are undernourished—the most for any country in the world and constituting one out of every four hungry people on the planet. Some 48 percent of children under five are below weight, and India and Nigeria account for almost one-third of deaths among children under five. Inequality in earnings is worse in India than in any other emerging economy in the world. Life expectancy is actually better in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

 

Independent investigative journalist P. Sainath, who has covered rural India for decades, writes that “A total of 2,960,438 farmers have committed suicide since 1995.” In virtually every case the cause was debt to moneylenders and landlords.

 

Dispatches suggests Indian government leaders design a program to aid farmers, feed the poor, and take a moment to read Percy Shelley’s poem “Ozmandias.”

 

The Shoot-In-The-Foot Award to the Obama administration for ending the purchase of Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines as part of U.S. sanctions leveled at Moscow over the crisis in the Ukraine. The RD-180—a cheap, reliable workhorse engine that has lifted U.S. Atlas III and Atlas V rockets into space since 1997—will cost $1.5 billion and six years to replace. A new engine means that launch vehicles will also need to be re-designed and satellite programs delayed. In the end, that could cost $5 billion.

 

In retaliation for the RD-180 ban, Russia will no longer lend its Soyuz rockets to supply the international space station. Asked how astronauts will get to the station, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin suggested they “use a trampoline.”

 

The European Space Agency (ESA) will also take a hit. Besides losing the Soyuz taxi service to the space station, the ESA will lose access to the RD-180 engine as well, and will have to accelerate its troubled Ariane VI rocket program to replace the Agency’s Ariane V. The “VI” has been criticized as too big, too inflexible, and much too expensive—$4. 2 billion.

 

Russia announced it would shift monies it spends on the International space station to joint space projects with China.

 

 

The Dog Ate My Homework Award to the British Foreign Office for “accidently destroying” documents which would have shown that London was deeply—and illegally—involved in the U.S. CIA’s rendition program. Renditions moved terror suspects to countries that allowed torture, or kept the suspects in secret “black bases” where the CIA carried out its own torture program.

 

Britain allowed over 1,600 CIA flights in and out of the country and permitted suspects to be held at the British-controlled island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Complicity with the rendition program is a violation of British domestic laws against kidnapping, arbitrary detention, and the right to a fair trial. It also violates international laws against torture.

 

“It’s looking worse and worse for the UK government on Diego Garcia,” says Cori Crider, director of the human rights organization Reprieve. “They need to come clean about how, when, and where this evidence was lost.”

 

Foreign Office Minister Mark Simmons says the records were lost due to “water damage.”

 

The Mouse That Roared Award to the Marshall Islands for hauling the nuclear armed powers—the U.S., China, Russia, France, Britain, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea—before the International Court of Justice at Hague for violating Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Article VI calls for the “cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and nuclear disarmament.” India, Israel and Pakistan are not treaty members—North Korea withdrew—but its hard to argue with the Marshallese on the subject of nukes: in 1954 the U.S. vaporized Bikini Atoll with a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb and irradiated thousands of islanders.

 

Over a period of 12 years, the U.S. detonated some 67 nuclear warheads with an aggregate explosive power of 42.2 megatons in the Marshalls. The Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons. The Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal found the U.S. liable for $2 billion in damages, but so far Washington has only paid out $150 million.

 

It wasn’t just Marshall Islanders who got zapped either. The Center for Investigative Reporting found that the U.S. Navy decommissioned some of the ships that had taken part in those tests at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. The Navy then buried the nuclear waste around the island, creating numerous “hot spots.” Some 2,000 low-income or homeless San Francisco residents—who live in subsidized housing on the island—were assured there was nothing to worry about, and then instructed not to let their children dig in front or back yards (“Look, Mom, this rock glows in the dark!”).

 

Nuclear contamination was also found at several other California bases, including Alameda Naval Air Station, Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, and McClellan Air Force Base near the state’s capital, Sacramento.

 

Radiation, the gift that keeps on giving.

 

Golden Lemon Award once again goes to Lockheed Martin for its $1.5 trillion F-35 stealth fighter-bomber—the most expensive weapon system in U.S. history—that can’t get its software to work, won’t fly in the rain, and burns up trying to get off the ground. In fact, foreign buyers are beginning to have second thoughts about buying the plane at all. Canada just tested the F-35 against the old U.S. F-18 Super Hornet, the Eurofighter Typhoon, and France’s Dassault Rafale and found the only difference was that the F-35 was much more expensive: between $116 million to $160 million per plane, vs., respectively, $60 million, $90 million, and $64 million apiece.

 

The U.S. was forced to cancel the F-35’s debut at the prestigious Farnborough International Air Show in Britain because a plane caught fire trying to take off from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The F-35 has since been restricted to lower speeds and three hours flying time, not enough to make the hop across the Atlantic.

 

Lockheed Martin and Austal USA also scored big in the Lemon category with their Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), the USS Freedom and the USS Independence. The $37 billion LCS program will build a fleet of shallow draft, high-speed warships that, according to a recent Pentagon study, won’t survive combat. The Defense Department’s Director of Operational Testing and Evaluation, Michael Gilmore, says Lockheed Martin’s USS Freedom and Austal’s USS Independence, are “not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment and are not intended to be employed in a manner that puts them in harm’s way.”

 

Translation: if they get in a fight, they’re toast.

 

But that might not be a problem because the LCSs high maintenance requirements means the ships can’t get to where the action is anyhow. The USS Freedom spent 58 percent of its time in Singapore port—more than twice the average for U.S. Navy ships—and the USS Independence spent most its time tied up in San Diego.

 

A Farewell to Fred Branfman, who died from Lou Gehrig’s disease at 72. Branfman helped expose the secret U.S. air war against Laos that killed tens of thousands of civilians and sowed that tiny country with millions of unexploded bombs, weapons that continue to inflict pain and death on Laotians today. The U.S. carried out 580,000 bombing missions over Laos, dropping almost a ton of bombs for every person in that country. Branfman help to found the Indochina Resource Center, which documented what he had seen in Laos as an aid worker. He later wrote “Voices From the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War.”

 

Presente!

 

 

 

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