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2017 Dispatches “Are You Serious”Awards

Dispatches Awards for 2017

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 1, 2018

 

Each year Dispatches From the Edge gives awards to individuals, companies and governments that make reading the news a daily adventure. Here are the awards for 2017.

 

The Reverse WEBBY Award to the Colsa Corporation based in Huntsville, Ala, a company that runs the multi-million dollar WebOps program for the U.S. Defense Department. WebOps, according to Associated Press, employs “specialists” who “employ fictitious identities and try to sway targets from joining the Islamic State.” But the “specialists” are not fluent and used the Arabic word for “salad” in place of “authority.” Thus the governing body set up by the 1993 Oslo Accords became the “Palestinian salad” (tasty with a light vinaigrette).

 

Runner up is the military’s Special Operations Forces (SOFs) that botched a raid in Yemen last February that got a Navy SEAL killed and destroyed a $75 million MV-22 Osprey aircraft. Desperate to show that the raid gathered valuable intelligence, U.S. commanders published a video on how to make explosives that they say were captured during the raid. Except the video was 10 years old and all over the Internet. The raid also killed several children, but the Trump administration called it “a success by all standards.”

 

The Little Bo Peep Award to the DOD’s “Iraq Train and Equip” program that lost track of $1.6 billion worth of weapons and military equipment, some of which might have fallen into the hands of the Islamic State. “Sending millions of dollars worth of arms into a black hole and hoping for the best is not a viable counter-terrorism strategy” Amnesty International researcher Patrick Wilcken told the Financial Times.

 

The Rudyard Kipling Award to the U.S. DOD for spending $28 million on new camouflage uniforms for the Afghan Army that depict a lush forest background. The country is almost 98 percent desert.

 

Runner up is the British New Century Consulting contractor hired by the U.S. for $536 million to train intelligence officers for the Afghan Army. There is no evidence that the company did so, but New Century did buy Alfa Romeos and Bentleys for its executives and paid six figure salaries to employees’ relatives without any record of their doing work.

 

The U.S. has spent $120 billion in Afghanistan since 2002. Most of it goes to train the Afghan armed forces, whose desertion rate is close to 35 percent, in part because the Taliban are inflicting heavy casualties on police and soldiers. How many casualties? Not clear, because the Pentagon has classified those figures. “The Afghans know what’s going on; the Taliban knows what’s going on; the U.S. Military knows what’s going on,” says John F. Sopko, the special inspector for Afghanistan. “The only people who don’t know what’s going on are the people paying for it.”

 

Dispatches suggest that readers read a short poem by Kipling entitled “Arithmetic on the Frontier.” Nothing’s changed.

 

Marie Antoinette Award to Brazilian President Michel Temer, who has instituted a draconian austerity regime in one of the most unequal countries in the world, while ordering more than $400,000 in food for his official trips. That would include 500 cartons of Haagen-Dazs ice cream, almost a ton and half of chocolate cake, provolone, Brie and buffalo mozzarella for sandwiches, and 120 jars of Nutella spread. Public uproar was so great that the order was cancelled. However, Temer did host a taxpayer-funded steak and shrimp feed for 300 legislators in an effort to get their support for budget cuts. Temer ally Pedro Fernandez suggested that one way to save money on a program that feeds the poor for 65 cents a meal is to have them eat “every other day.”

 

The Grinch Award had three winners this year:

 

  • The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for demanding that Cambodia repay a $506 million debt to Washington for a Vietnam War era program called Food For Peace. While USAID was handing out rice, wheat, oil and cotton to refugees, the U.S. military was secretly—and illegally—dropping more than 500,000 tons of explosives on Cambodia. Those bombings killed upwards of half a million people, destabilized the Phnon Penh government, and led to the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge that killed more than two million people. Bombs still litter Cambodia and kill scores of people every year.

 

  • The U.S. Defense Department for discharging soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, thus denying some of them health care, disability pensions and education funds. Of the 92,000 troops discharged from 2011 to 2015, some 57,000 were diagnosed with PTSD, TBI, or both. The military is supposed to screen discharges before tagging them with the “misconduct” label, but in almost half the cases there was no screening. Of that 57,000, some 13,000 received a “less than honorable” discharge that denies them health care, pensions and benefits.

 

  • Stephen Miller, President Trumps speech writer, for intervening in the Group of Seven summit meeting in Sicily and sabotaging an Italian initiative to resettle millions of refugees from wars in the Middle East and Africa. The G-7 includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, and the U.S.

 

The Golden Lemon Award to Lockheed-Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive weapons system in history. In the long run the program is estimated to cost $1.5 trillion. The plane was withdrawn from an air show in Amberley, Australia because there was a possibility of lightning (the plane’s name is “Lightning II”), and this past June five pilots’ experienced “hypoxia-like” symptoms—no air—and the plane was grounded. So far, no one has figured out the problem. The F-35 can’t open its weapons bay at high speed, because it causes the plane to “flutter,” and while it is supposed to be able to take off from an aircraft carrier, it can’t. According to a study by the Director of Operational Test Evaluation, “The aircraft will have little, if any real combat capability for years to come.”

 

A better buy for the money? Higher education students in the U.S. are currently $1.3 trillion in debt.

 

The Torquemada Award to Alpaslan Durmas, education minister in Turkey’s conservative Islamic government, for removing all references to “evolution” in biology textbooks because it is “too complicated for students.” Instead they will be instructed that God created people 10,000 years ago. Mustafa Akyol of Al Monitor points out the irony in Durmas’ order. Medieval Muslim scholars wrote about a common origin of the species, and “That is why John William Draper, a Darwin contemporary, referred to Darwin’s views as the ‘Mohammadan theory of evolution.’”

 

Turkey has also blocked Wikipedia in case some of the kiddies want to read about evolution on line.

 

Frankenstein Award to the U.S. Navy for building small “killer” boats called Autonomous Surface Craft that use artificial intelligence to locate and destroy their targets. I mean, what could go wrong, this is the U.S. Navy, right? The same one that rammed two high-tech guided missile destroyers into a huge oil tanker and a giant container ship this past summer, killing a score of sailors. A guided missile cruiser collided with a South Korean fishing boat, and the guided missile cruiser Antietam ran aground in Yokosuka Harbor in Japan. The Navy also kind of lost track of an aircraft carrier battle group in the Indian Ocean.

 

So, not to worry.

 

The Ostrich Award to The Trump administration for first disbanding the federal advisory National Climate Assessment group and then sending speakers representing Peabody Energy, a coal company; NuScale Power, a nuclear engineering firm; and Tellurian, a liquid natural gas group to represent the U.S. at the international climate talks in Germany. Barry K. Worthington, executive director of the U.S. Energy Assn., said he was going to challenge the idea fossil fuel should be phased out. “If I can throw myself on the hand grenade to help people realize that, I’m willing to do it.”

 

It was a puzzling analogy.

 

In the meantime, 2016 was the hottest year on record, breaking records set in 2014 and 2015. Temperatures were particularly high in Asia and the arctic, and drought was widespread in southern Africa. Wildfires burned 8.9 million acres in western Canada and the U.S. And a patch of warm water off the coast of Alaska facilitated the growth of toxic algae that killed thousands of seabirds and shut down fishing industries.

 

The Doom’s Day Award to what the Financial Times calls the “uber-rich” who are “hedging against the collapse of the capitalist system” by buying up land in New Zealand. “About 40 percent of our clients are Americans,” says Matt Finnigan of Sotheby’s International Realty New Zealand. The buyers want land that comes “with their own water supply, power sources and ability to grow food.”

 

But you don’t have to go down under to bunker down. Vivos Group will sell you a hardened concrete bunker in South Dakota for $25,000 and a yearly fee of $1000. Or you can buy a cabin on the World, a huge cruise liner that will take you far from trouble. If you are Larry Ellison, you can buy 98 percent of Lanai, one of Hawaiian Islands.

 

In Memory of Edward Herman, co-author with Noam Chomsky of “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media,” who died Nov. 11 at age 92. The book was what author and journalist Matt Taibbi called “a kind of bible of media criticism for a generation of dissident thinkers.” Herman wrote almost 20 books on political economy and corporate power, including his 1997 “The Global Media” with Robert McChesney.

 

Presenti

 

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A Very Brazilian Coup

 

A Very Brazilian Coup

Dispatches From the Edge

May 26, 2016

 

On one level, the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff seems like vintage commedia dell’arte: the Lower House speaker who brought the charges, Eduardo Cunha, had to step down because he has $16 million stashed in secret Swiss and U.S. bank accounts. The man who replaced Cunha, Waldir Maranhao, is implicated in corruption around the huge state-owned oil company, Petroblas. The former vice-president and now president, Michel Temer, has been convicted of election fraud, and has also been caught up in the Petroblas investigation. And the president of the Senate, Renan Calheiros, has also been implicated in the oil company scandal and is dodging tax evasion charges. In fact, over half the legislature is currently under investigation for corruption of some kind.

 

But there is nothing comedic about what the fall of Rousseff and her Workers Party will mean for the 35 million Brazilians who have been lifted out of poverty over the past decade, and for the 40 million newly minted members of the middle class one-fifth of Brazil’s 200 million people.

 

While it was the current downturn in the world’s seventh largest economy that helped light the impeachment fuse, the crisis is rooted in the nature of Brazil’s elites, its deeply flawed political institutions, and the not so dead hand of its 1964-1985 military dictatorship.

 

Given that the charges against Rousseff do not involve personal corruption, or even constitute a crime—if juggling books before an election were illegal, virtually every politician on the planet would end up in the docket—it is hard to see the impeachment as anything other than a political coup. Even the conservative Economist, long a critic of Rousseff, writes “in the absence of proof of criminality, impeachment is unwarranted” and “looks like a pretext for ousting an unpopular president.”

 

That suspicion is reinforced by the actions of the new President. Temer represents the center-right Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) that until recently was in alliance with Rousseff’s Workers Party. As soon as Rousseff was impeached by the Senate and suspended from office for 180 days, Temer made a sharp turn to the right on the economy, appointing a cabinet of ministers straight out of Brazils’ dark years of dictatorship: all white, all male, and with the key portfolios in the hands of Brazil’s historic elites. This is in a country where just short of 51 percent of Brazilians describe themselves as black or mixed.

Seven of those ministers have been implicated in the Petroblas scandal.

 

 

The President announced a program to “reform” labor laws and pensions, code words for anti-union legislation and pension cuts. His new Finance Minister, Henrique Meirelles, a former central bank head who once headed BankBoston in the U.S., announced that, while programs for the poor “which don’t cost the budget that much” would be maintained—like the highly popular and successful Bolsa Familia that raised tens of millions out of poverty through small cash grants— other Worker Party initiatives would go under the knife.

 

The new government is already pushing legislation that would roll back laws protecting the environment and indigenous people, and has appointed ministers with terrible track records in both areas.

 

One of the largest soybean farmers in Brazil, Blairo Maggi, was appointed Agriculture minister. Maggi has overseen the destruction of vast areas of the Amazon to make way for soybean crops. Temer’s initial appointment for Science minister was an evangelical Protestant minister who doesn’t believe in evolution. Temer also folded the culture ministry into the ministry of education, sparking sit-ins and demonstrations by artists, filmmakers and musicians.

 

Brazil has long been a country with sharp divisions between wealth and poverty, and its elites have a history of using violence and intimidation. Brazil’s northeast is dominated by oligarchs who backed the 1964 military coup and manipulated the post-dictatorship constitution.

 

Political power is heavily weighted toward rural areas dominated by powerful agricultural interests. The three poorest regions of the country, accounting for only two fifths of the population, control three quarters of the seats in the Senate.

 

As historian Perry Anderson puts it, the political system was designed “to neutralize the possibility that democracy might lead to the formation of any popular will that could threaten the enormities of Brazilian inequality.”

 

Brazil’s legislature is splintered into 35 different parties, many of them without a political philosophy. The legislature is elected on the basis of proportional representation, but with an added twist: an “open list” system in which voters can choose any candidate, many of them standing on the same ticket. The key to winning elections in Brazil, then, is name recognition, and the key to that is lots and lots of money. Most of that money comes from Brazil’s elites and the oligarchs in the country’s northeast.

 

Because of the plethora of parties, forming a government is tricky. What normally happens is that one of the larger parties ropes in several smaller parties by giving them ministries. Not only does this encourage corruption—each party knows it needs to raise lots of money for elections—but results in political incoherence.

 

When the Workers Party was elected in 2002 it was unwilling to dilute its programs by bringing ideological opponents into a cabinet, yet the Workers Party needed partners. The solution was cash payouts to legislators, a scheme titled “mensalao” (“monthly payoffs”) that was uncovered in 2005. Once the payoffs were revealed, the Workers party had little choice but to fall back on the old system of handing out ministries in exchange for votes. That is how Temer and the PMBD entered the scene.

 

With the reputation of Silva and the Workers Party dented by the payoff scheme, the right saw an opportunity to rid themselves of the left, but Silva’s popularity and the success of programs aimed at alleviating poverty made the Workers Party pretty much unassailable at the ballot box. Silva won another landslide election in 2006, and Rousseff was elected twice in 2010 and 2014. In short, the elites could not win elections.

 

But they could still pull off a very Brazilian coup. First, they hammered at the fact that some Workers Party leaders had been involved in corruption and others implicated in the Petroblas bribery scheme. Rousseff headed up Petroblas before being elected President. While she has never been linked to any of the corruption, it did happen on her watch.

 

Petroblas is rated the fourth largest company in the world, and it is building tankers, off shore platforms and refineries. That expansion has opened opportunities for graft, and the level of bribery involved could exceed $3 billion. Nine construction companies are implicated in the scandal, as well as more than 50 politicians, legislators and state governors, including the PMDB and the Workers Party.

 

Rousseff’s biggest mistake was to run on an anti-austerity platform in 2014 and then reversing course after she was elected, putting the brakes on spending. The economy was already troubled and austerity made it worse. The 2005 bribery scheme lost the Workers Party some of the middle class, and the 2014 austerity alienated some of the Party’s working class support.

 

But it was most likely Rousseff’s decision to green light the Petroblas corruption investigation that spurred her enemies to strike before the probe pulls down scores of political leaders and wealthy construction owners. One of Temer’s ministers was recently caught on tape plotting how to use the impeachment to derail the investigation.

 

Certainly the campaign aimed at Rousseff was well orchestrated. Brazil’s media—dominated by a few elite families—led the charge. According to Reporters Without Borders, the role of the media was “partisan,” its anti-Rousseff agenda “barely veiled.” Judge Sergio Moro, who is a key figure in the Petroblas investigation, illegally leaked wiretap intercepts that put Silva and Rousseff in a bad light.

 

Given the makeup of the Brazilian Senate, it is likely Rousseff will be convicted and removed as President. It also appears that Temer will try to roll back many of the programs that successfully narrowed the gap between rich and poor.

 

Brazil’s economy is in trouble, shrinking 3.7 percent last year. Commodity prices are down worldwide, in large part because of the downturn of China’s economy. Iron ore dropped from $155 to $55 a ton, soya went from $18 to $8 a bushel, and oil from $140 to less than $40 a barrel.

 

Brazilian debt is rising, but it is still half that of Italy, and unemployment is low, at least by European standards. A return to the austerity policies that destroyed economies all across the southern cone during the 1980s and ‘90s would be a disaster. The worst thing one can do in a recession is curb spending, which stalls out economies and puts countries into a debt spiral.

 

The austerity policies of the European Union have kept all but a few European economies virtually dead in the water, and those that have shown some growth, like Spain, still post unacceptable unemployment rates. Spain currently has an overall national jobless rate of 21 percent, rising to almost 50 percent among youth. Brazil’s jobless rate is 10.9 percent.

 

For now, the Workers Party is on the ropes but hardly down and out. It has 500,000 members, and the new government will find it is very difficult to take things away from people now that they have gotten used to having them. Some 35 million people are unlikely to return to their previous poverty without a fight.

 

One of Temer’s first acts was putting up 100,000 billboards all over the country with the slogan: “Don’t speak of crisis; work!”, which sounds a lot like “shut up.” Brazilians are not noted for being quiet, particularly if the government instituting painful cuts is unelected.

 

The pressure for new elections is sure to grow, although the current government will do anything it can to avoid them. Sooner or later there will be a reckoning.

 

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