New Books

The Triumph of Techno-Populism

Following excerpts adapted from the author’s most recent book, Mad World, War, Movies, Sex published by OR books

The madness evoked in the title of this book is not meant just as the everyday expression we often use but as a more precise indication that we live in an epoch in which we miss what Fredric Jameson called “cognitive mapping,” a global orientation of where we are and where we move. Years ago we were dreaming about a post-ideological world—now we have it, and the absence or irrelevance of explicit ideologies makes things even worse.

How did we come to this point? The main shift is that the opposition between center-Left and center-Right parties as the main axis of our political space has been replaced by the opposition between a big technocratic party (standing for expert knowledge) and a populist opponent with anti-corporate and anti-financial motifs. However, this shift underwent another surprising turn. What we have witnessed lately is something one can only call techno-populism: a political movement with clear populist appeal (working for the people, for their “real interests,” neither Left nor Right), promising to take care of everyone through rational expert politics, a matter-of-fact approach that doesn’t mobilize low passions or resort to demagogic slogans. Academics Bickerton and Accetti write the following on techno-populism:

Technocratic appeals to expertise and populist invocations of ‘the people’ have become mainstays of political competition in established democracies. This development is best understood as the emergence of techno-populism—a new political logic that is being superimposed on the traditional struggle between left and right. Political movements and actors combine technocratic and populist appeals in a variety of ways, as do more established parties that are adapting to the particular set of incentives and constraints implicit in this new, unmediated form of politics.

What once seemed the ultimate antagonism of today’s politics—the struggle between liberal democracy and Rightist nationalist populism—has miraculously transformed into a peaceful coexistence. Are we dealing with some kind of “dialectical synthesis” of the opposites? Yes, but in a very specific sense: the opposites are reconciled through the exclusion of the third term: political antagonism, or the political dimension as such. The unsurpassed model is Mario Draghi in Italy, endorsed as the “neutral” and efficient prime minister by the entire political spectrum (with the significant exception of the extreme Rightist neo-Fascists who are saving the honor of politics), but elements of techno-populism are also recognizable in Emmanuel Macron and even in Angela Merkel.

This reconfiguration puts (whatever remains of) the authentic Left into a difficult position. While techno-populism is the very form of today’s establishment, of the apolitical “neutralization” and political antagonisms, it should nonetheless sometimes be strategically supported as a lesser evil when immediate catastrophes (le Pen, Trump, etc) pose a threat.

The embarrassing paradox we are compelled to accept is that from a moral standpoint, the most comfortable way to maintain one’s high ground is to live in a moderately-authoritarian regime. One can oppose the regime (softly following the unwritten rule) without really posing a threat to it, so that one can be assured of their upright moral stance without risking a lot. Even if one does suffer disadvantages (some jobs will be out of reach, one can be prosecuted), such minor punishments only provide the aura of a hero. But once full democracy comes, we all enter the domain of disorientation—choices are no longer so clear. For example, in Hungary in the mid-1990’s, the liberal ex-dissidents had to make a difficult choice: should they enter into a coalition with ex-Communists to prevent the conservative Right from taking power? This was a strategic decision where simple moral reasoning was not enough. That’s why many political agents in post-Socialist countries long for the old times when choices were clear. In despair, they try to return to the clarity of the past by equating their actual opponent with old Communists. In Slovenia the ruling conservative nationalists still blame ex-Communists for all present troubles. For example, they claim that the high number of anti-vaxxers is the result of a continuing Communist legacy. At the same time, the Left-liberal opposition claims that the ruling conservative nationalists govern in exactly the same authoritarian way as the Communists did before 1990.

The first gesture of a new politics is to fully admit disorientation and to assume responsibility for difficult strategic choices. So how will the new techno-populist power deal with the enormous problems that lie ahead? And how can we move beyond it (since it ultimately cannot deal with these problems)? In this book I try to provide some answers, but mostly I deal with three facets of our global situation: the Ukraine war; popular culture (Hollywood) as a machine that registers (and mystifies) our social and ideological deadlocks; and different aspects of our global political situation, from China to today’s desperate attempts to create artificial scarcity. My hope is that this collection will help at least some readers to think and search for solutions. We can no longer count on the logic of historical progress, we have to act on our own because, left to its own immanent logic, history is moving towards a precipice.

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New Book: The Complicated Life & Times of ‘Simple Simon’

            Vishnu Vàsu has recently published ‘Simple Simon’ as a commentary of his voyages coupled with some of his fantasies. According to my memory, his last literary work was in 1983 consisting of a collection of poems with a mischievous title. He was known as a musician in the 1990s for his musical band called ‘Colombo Percussion Trio’ and also as a Radio Artist.

            Simple Simon is such a unique literary work that cannot be confined to a single genre. Although the author prefers to classify it as a simple account of his memories as a wanderer once in his life (and still is), the book promptly grabs your attention as a celebration of meaningful explorations of a young man trying to discover his role on this planet. The time period of his journey is not clearly given but can be deduced as the late 1980s.

The subject matter of this work is wide as well as deep. It is somewhat difficult to define the boundary where the autobiography ends, and the wild fantasy begins. However, there are two underlined themes that the reader will notice throughout the book.

First, Vishnu Vàsu cannot stop sharing with us his life passion—music—particularly Eastern, Western and African drums. He discusses complex South Indian musical traditions in great detail in almost all chapters.

Second, this work is also a homage to his Guru Padmabhushan Vikku Vinayakram known as God of Ghatam. Vishnu spent thousand days studying Ghatam Bera in Gurukula tradition under his tutelage. This drum made out of clay is considered one of the most ancient and unique musical instruments dating back to the time of Ramayana.

Crossing Rishikesh city accompanied by a Nighanta

            Three chapters are reserved to describe Vishnu’s rendezvous with Naga Sadhus commonly known as Nighanta for their lack of interest in clothing. According to the author’s interpretation, the ‘Naga Sadhus’ have denounced physical possessions including the need to wear clothes before entering ascetic life. He had spent weeks sharing a cave (of course in total nudity) with four 60+ men: their leader Pandith Vishvanath Maharaj (probably a pseudonym), a sales executive, a retired Principal, and a person named Gopal. He made a pilgrimage to Beatles Ashram with the leader where John Lennon and his group practised transcendental meditation in 1968. Vishnu underwent a spiritual awakening with Pandith Vishvanath while meditating in one of the huts Beatles occupied. His experience was so powerful that he was able to walk the 2 km distance through Rishikesh City on their return to the cave wearing nothing but his birthday suit unabashedly.

Bábá & Obá

            A different yet familiar tale is in two chapters called Bábá & Obá. Few weeks were spent in a small fishing village called Ajido in Nigeria studying African drums, particularly in Yorùbátraditions. His teacher was Babatunde Olatunji (1927 – 2003), affectionately called Bábá by his students. He was a percussionist well known for his 1960 album ‘Drums of Passion’. According to Bábá, every drum has three souls: the soul of the tree felled to make it, the soul of the animal whose skin was used and the souls of all of the humans from the logger to the drummers. Vishnu sees a similarity in philosophy of traditional Sri Lankan drum making where a tree is planted, beg the tree gods to leave, and play for the first time—all at auspicious times with religious fervour.

            Obá was the village elder at whose home Vishnu resided during his stay in Ajido. Vishnu enjoyed his stay while helping the village fisherfolks drag their fishnets, milking the cows with the three wives of Obá and reciting mantras including Angulimala sutra with Obá. The show organized by Obá to conclude the training must have been a blast with thirty people playing twenty drums and other musical instruments in harmony.

Trans-express to KooragamAravan festival

            Vishnu meta transgender group on Mareena beach in Chennai. Although shy in the beginning, his inquisitive nature took over so later he befriended them. He immersed himself in their fascinating yet heartrending world. Born as Suresh to an upper-middle-class family then transitioned to graceful Sureka is one of the characters Vishnu had a strong connection.

The trip he took with one of them, Vindhya, in a train full of Hijra to attend Kooragam-Aravan festival was perhaps the most vividly expressed narrative. This 18-day event participated by hundreds of thousands of transgender and drag queens was a homage to Lord Arawan, a Pandiyan hero who sacrificed himself to Goddess Kali. He was mesmerized by 500 strong drummers playing while thousands of transgenders get married to men for one day to symbolize the marriage of Arwan to Mohini. The festival ended with an eerie spectacle of thousands of wailing widows beating their chests, throwing away their garlands and shattering their glass bangles to mourn the self-sacrifice of Arawan.

Who the hell is Vishnu Vàsu?

            Since Simple Simon is a semi-autobiography, the reader needs to ask this question at the end. We know what his passions are. We know what he did in his life so far. We know he is an inquisitive plus restless soul. He characterizes himself as a vagabond. Was he too charmed by the Indian mega culture to see its shortcomings? The answer is NO. He is appalled by the extreme poverty, caste system and Devadasi traditions in spite of cultural richness of India.

            Is he also an easily impressionable individual? It seems so at times especially since he was frequently too eager to venerate larger-than-life personalities. But he can also draw the line when it is needed. I greatly admire him for that. You should read the chapters about Ghandhi to see what I mean. He also shows great courage in revealing a painful part of his childhood in that chapter.

            At the end of the book, he invites the readers to come visit his apartment by Galkissa Beach for a couple of coffee. Although I don’t recall ever meeting the guy, after reading Simple Simon and talking about it in this piece, I feel like I have already had a few drinks with Vishnu Vàsu.

Liar Unveiled: A Double Agent’s Journey from Deception to Truth in CIA during Cold War

Following excerpts adapted from the author’s recent book, The Liar: How a Double Agent in the CIA Became the Cold War’s Last Honest Man, published by Hachette Book Group

Heroes don’t exist, only cattle for the slaughter and the butchers in the general staffs.” —Jaroslav Hašek

This is a true story. Names, places, and incidents are real. Some of the interpretation is my own.

About twenty miles outside Prague, in a riverside village of little distinction, Karel finds himself in a room with dull walls and a cold, dead fireplace. He doesn’t know why he is there.

The unexceptional-looking house sits empty most of the time, but the neighbors tend to stay away anyway. Occasionally they see people milling about the cottage; the black government-issued Tatra 603s parked outside signal they aren’t up to anything good. Best to go the long way around when walking the dog or heading out for a beer. Across the river, there’s a pub with outdoor tables. Like something out of Greek mythology, a boatman with a pole can take you across.

The cool and breezy September day offers a welcome respite from New York’s scalding August. But as Karel smooths the collar on his Brooks Brothers jacket, it strikes him that he hasn’t seen his passport since they crossed the border. That cannot be good.

Karel is making small talk when another well-dressed man enters the room. His suit is dark—not exactly stylish, but well cut, tie in a full Windsor knot. Old-fashioned looking, to be sure, but clean, serious. No doubt official. The man’s receding hair is slicked back with pomade. Like Karel, he looks to be in his early forties—prodigiously young for a KGB general. His name is Oleg Kalugin. He is a spy, and he’s arrived to interrogate another spy.

“Sorry I am late; do you speak Russian?” Kalugin asks as he enters the room.

“I understand it fine, but I don’t speak all that well,” Karel says. “In America, there’s no one to speak Russian with.”

Kalugin stops on Karel’s side of the table and turns to look him in the face. Karel Koecher stays seated but sizes up Kalugin’s thick silhouette framed in the light of an open window. Karel doesn’t know it, but Kalugin has defied Moscow Center orders to be here today. As far as KGB chief Yuri Andropov is concerned, Czechoslovak intelligence is conducting this interview on their own.

Standing up straight, chest out, looking confident—cocky, even—Kalugin gives no impression he’s worried about the consequences of his insubordination. In fact, it stands to reason that Kalugin has his own reasons for being there, but they are not obvious, and he does not reveal them.

Like Karel, Kalugin is fluent in a gaggle of languages. As he continues in English, his nondescript patrician lilt sounds a bit like Cary Grant—but heavy, pedantic, and stripped of bounce. Kalugin pulls a chair from the table, rotates it to face Karel, takes a seat, and begins a stiff greeting that answers a few questions before he raises a host of new ones.

“I am glad to welcome you in the name of Soviet-Czechoslovakian friendship. I am a guest here on invitation of our Czechoslovak friends, and I have to say, as a representative of a friendly service and collaborator, I am glad to meet you,” Kalugin says. “I have heard and read a lot about you. And now I hope my company is going to be useful for clearing up the doubts we share, as well as our common interests. I have some questions related to your personal security. Because the top priority for us is always the success of our people, no matter where they work.”

Karel looks over Kalugin’s shoulder again, to the open window. It’s now drizzling outside. Karel adjusts his stainless-steel glasses. His light-gray suit with flared slacks and his vibrant extra-wide tie look alien amid the humorless monochromes. Kalugin’s eyes are captivated by the stripes on Karel’s tie, as if they haven’t seen color in a decade or so. A bunch of Philistines, Karel thinks as he turns his chair, brushing his fingers through his salt-and-pepper mustache. He makes eye contact with Kalugin but stays quiet.

“I might be repeating some things because I came in late,” Kalugin continues. “Well, that’s okay; hopefully it’s not going to be too unpleasant. How are you? How is your health?”

“Good,” a wary Karel says. “Let’s see in the evening.”

Karel’s vision is worse than it used to be, and the Koecher clan has a history of diabetes. As a kid Karel had ear infections that were bad enough to later help exempt him from military service. As a grown man, though, he is something of a fitness nut. In New York, he runs the Central Park Reservoir almost daily and likes to pump iron at the 92nd Street Y.

“The way I understood it, you found it difficult to accept living in the American way,” Kalugin goes on. “It is vital to be patient and to build long-term relationships, especially when it comes to working with people from abroad. Earlier, I reviewed the materials and your situation. Correct me if I am wrong, but it was 1973 when you first started working for the CIA. Before that you got the doctorate, that must have been 1970, and then you worked at Radio Free Europe?”

Not quite, Karel explains, briefly recounting his résumé: a fellowship at Indiana University in 1966, then PhD work at Columbia, Radio Free Europe until 1969, American citizenship in 1971, and a smattering of university teaching jobs. “That was until 1972 or 1973. And then I was able to get into the CIA,” he says with a touch of impatience.

“Yes, the Pentagon was probably the first serious work, and that was 1973, right?”

“Yes, 1973.”

Kalugin asks for more. Was Karel working for the Department of Defense or the CIA or what? He wants details.

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The Hidden Face of American Poverty

Following excerpts adapted from the author’s most recent book, Poverty, by America, published by Crown

We imagine that their sufferings are one thing and our life another.—Leo Tolstoy

Why is there so much poverty in America? I wrote this book because I needed an answer to that question. For most of my adult life, I have researched and reported on poverty. I have lived in very poor neighborhoods, spent time with people living in poverty around the country, pored over statistical studies and government reports, listened to and learned from community organizers and union reps, drafted public policy, read up on the history of the welfare state and city planning and American racism, and taught courses on inequality at two universities. But even after all that, I still felt that I lacked a fundamental theory of the problem, a clear and convincing case as to why there is so much hardship in this land of abundance.

I began paying attention to poverty when I was a child. The home in which I grew up cost $60,000. It sat a couple of miles outside Winslow, Arizona, a small Route 66 town east of Flagstaff. It was small and wood paneled, surrounded by hard-packed dirt sprouting with thorny weeds. I loved it: the woodburning stove, the Russian olive trees. We had moved in after my father accepted a position as pastor of the First Christian Church. Scraping a salary from the offering plate never amounted to much, and Dad always griped that the railroad men in town got paid more than he did. He could read ancient Greek, but they had a union.

We learned to fix things ourselves or do without. When I put a hole through a window with my Red Ryder BB gun, it stayed broken. But a family friend and I once replaced the engine in my first truck, having found the right parts at a junkyard. After my father lost his job, the bank took our home, before it was all the rage, and we learned to do without that, too. Mostly I blamed Dad. But a part of me also wondered why this was our country’s answer when a family fell on hard times.

I went to college, enrolling at Arizona State University (ASU) by applying for every scholarship and loan I could. And I worked: as a morning-shift barista at Starbucks, a telemarketer, you name it. In the summers, I decamped to a forest near my hometown and served as a wildland firefighter. When classes were in session, I began hanging out with homeless people around my campus—not serving them at soup kitchens or delivering socks, but just sitting with them, talking. I think it helped me process, in my own adolescent way, what I was seeing all around me, which was money. So much money. Back in Winslow, some families were better off than others, but not like this. My classmates were driving BMWs and convertible Mustangs. For most of college, I didn’t have a car, and when I did, it was a 1978 Ford F-150 with that junkyard engine and decent-sized holes in the floorboard, allowing me to see the road rip past as I drove. My classmates were going out for sushi. I stocked canned sardines and saltine crackers in my dorm room. The town of Tempe, the Phoenix suburb where ASU’s main campus sits, had spent hundreds of millions of dollars to construct a two-mile-long artificial lake in the middle of the desert, a giant puddle that loses two-thirds of its water to evaporation each year. A few blocks away, people were begging on the street. How could there be, I wondered, such bald scarcity amid such waste and opulence?

I began stalking this question in the classroom, enrolling in courses that I hoped would help me make sense of my country and its confounding, unblushing inequality. I kept it up in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin—the only program that accepted my application—where I focused on the housing crisis. To get as close as I could to that problem, I moved to Milwaukee, living in a mobile home park and then a rooming house. I befriended families who had been evicted, and I followed them for months and then years, sleeping on their floors, watching their children grow up, laughing and arguing with them, and, later, attending some of their funerals.

In Milwaukee, I met grandmothers living in trailers without heat. They spent the winter under blankets, praying that the space heaters didn’t give out. I once saw an apartment full of kids, just kids, evicted on a rainy spring day. Their mother had died, and the children had chosen to go on living in the house until the sheriff came. In the years since, I have met poor Americans around the country striving for dignity and justice—or just plain survival, which can be hard enough: home health aides in New Jersey who belonged to the full-time working homeless, fast food workers in California fighting for a living wage, and undocumented immigrants in Minneapolis organizing for affordable housing, communicating with their neighbors through the Google Translate app.

This is who we are: the richest country on earth, with more poverty than any other advanced democracy. If America’s poor founded a country, that country would have a bigger population than Australia or Venezuela. Almost one in nine Americans—including one in eight children—live in poverty. There are more than 38 million people living in the United States who cannot afford basic necessities, and more than 108 million getting by on $55,000 a year or less, many stuck in that space between poverty and security.

More than a million of our public schoolchildren are homeless, living in motels, cars, shelters, and abandoned buildings. After arriving in prison, many incarcerated Americans suddenly find that their health improves because the conditions they faced as free (but impoverished) citizens were worse. More than 2 million Americans don’t have running water or a flushing toilet at home. West Virginians drink from polluted streams, while families on the Navajo Nation drive hours to fill water barrels. Tropical diseases long considered eradicated, like hookworm, have reemerged in rural America’s poorest communities, often the result of broken sanitation systems that expose children to raw sewage.

The United States annually produces $5.3 trillion more in goods and services than China. Our gross domestic product is larger than the combined economies of Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, India, France, and Italy, which are the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth richest countries in the world. California alone has a bigger economy than Canada does; New York State’s economy surpasses South Korea’s. America’s poverty is not for lack of resources. We lack something else.

Books about poverty tend to be books about the poor. It’s been this way for more than a hundred years. In 1890, Jacob Riis wrote about “how the other half lives,” documenting the horrid conditions of New York tenements and photographing filthy children asleep in alleyways. A decade later, Jane Addams wrote about the sorry state of Chicago’s immigrant workforce: a thirteen-year-old girl from Russia who committed suicide because she couldn’t repay a $3 loan; a new mother forced to work so many hours that her breast milk soaked through her shirt. The Depression-era reportage of James Agee and Walker Evans, and the photojournalism of Dorothea Lange, seared images of dusty, kicked-down sharecroppers into our collective memory. In 1962, Michael Harrington published The Other America, a book intended to make visible “tens of millions of human beings” who had “dropped out of sight and out of mind.” Two years later, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson paid a visit to Appalachia and sat on the rough-hewn porch of a jobless sawmill worker surrounded by children with small clothes and big teeth.

Bearing witness, these kinds of books help us understand the nature of poverty. They are vital. But they do not—and in fact cannot—answer the most fundamental question, which is: Why? Why all this American poverty? I’ve learned that this question requires a different approach. To understand the causes of poverty, we must look beyond the poor. Those of us living lives of privilege and plenty must examine ourselves. Are we—we the secure, the insured, the housed, the college educated, the protected, the lucky—connected to all this needless suffering? This book is my attempt to answer that question, addressed to that “we.” Which makes this a book about poverty that is not just about the poor. Instead, it’s a book about how the other other half lives, about how some lives are made small so that others may grow.

Drawing on years of my own research and reporting, as well as studies from across the social sciences, I lay out why there is so much poverty in America and make a case for how to eliminate it. Ending poverty will require new policies and renewed political movements, to be sure. But it will also require that each of us, in our own way, become poverty abolitionists, unwinding ourselves from our neighbors’ deprivation and refusing to live as unwitting enemies of the poor.

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Spare by Prince Harry – A Review

“It’s better to be a “misfit” than a “one-size-fits-all”! Mandy Hale

“ The Monarchy, always, at all costs, had to be protected’ Prince Harry, Spare (p.351)

I have just finished reading the book Spare by Prince Harry, who is described in the inner book-jacket as  “The Duke of Sussex; husband; father; military veteran; mental wellness advocate; and environmentalist”.  I found the book  immensely readable, which had  a seamless structural flow of words that leapt out of  the pages into the  inner sensibility of the dread of isolation and loneliness that haunts the human.  Royal correspondent Sean Coughlan is reported in the BBC as describing the book as: “ Prince Harry’s memoir, Spare, is part confession, part rant and part love letter. In places it feels like the longest angry drunk text ever sent. It’s the view from inside what he calls a “surreal fishbowl” and “unending Truman Show”. It’s disarmingly frank and intimate – showing the sheer weirdness of his often-isolated life. And it’s the small details, rather than the set-piece moments, that give a glimpse of how little we really knew”.

Rebecca Mead writing in The New York Times says the book is “compellingly artful.  Another spectral figure haunting the text of Spare—that of Harry’s ghostwriter, J. R. Moehringer. Harry, or his publishing house…could not have chosen better … Moehringer has what is usually called a novelist’s eye for detail, effectively deployed in Spare … Moehringer has fashioned the Duke of Sussex’s life story into a tight three-act drama … Spare is worth reading not just for its headline-generating details but also for its narrative force, its voice, and its sometimes-surprising wit …”

My Take

The book is replete with personal details of a little boy in his bedroom, told of his mother’s fatal accident; his solipsistic isolation and his finding refuge in the “pleasure” of going to war; the vilification he suffers at the hand of the Press and the relentless hounding by “paps” (as he calls the paparazzi) of his wife Meagan and himself. In between, there are facts which bewilder the reader such as the narrative where Prince Harry discusses that both he and his brother “Willie” separately drove through the short tunnel in Paris where his mother died in the car accident, and as a result of their findings where both brothers requested that the inquiry into the circumstances of the crash be reopened which was ignored by powers that be. Prince Harry recounts throughout the book innumerable such requests made by him regarding blatant falsehoods reported in an inimical Press that were ignored or treated with indifference by Palace authorities

Family squabbles aside, the most telling message conveyed by the book is in what I consider its thrust – The insidiousness of tabloid journalism and social media that erode the pristine right to privacy and reputation.  Some have described paparazzi as “vultures” preying on celebrities for their gain, while destroying their right to a private life.  The Press, in its worst form, is no better, according to Prince Harry’s narrative of being erroneously branded throughout his childhood and adolescence as an obstreperous, vapid and frivolous spoilt brat, and later in adult life as a drunken lothario. The prince recounts that in every instance, either the Press blatantly misrepresented facts or exaggerated them.  In other words, he was an embarrassing misfit in an otherwise proper royal family.  Ironically, the prince recalls egregious and improper instances of conduct by other members of the royal family who received much less criticism than did Harry.

The book asks the inarticulate question: how can the fifth estate conduct itself with such flagrant disregard to journalistic ethics and carry on with impunity? According to the book Prince Harry’s life, as well as that of his family, were destroyed by both the Press and the paparazzi while the Palace looked on.  At a time when the Press provides yeoman service elsewhere, and functions as the watchdog against corruption, fake news, gaslighting which prompted President Biden to say at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner over the weekend that he preferred a press without government to a government without the Press, Prince Harry’s experiences seem  an counter intuitive anachronism and an existential nightmare. 

The book impels the reader to inquire into the vulnerability of the Press in various jurisdictions to actions of misinformation, disinformation and false reporting which can undermine public trust in journalism. For example, in France, there is a a law titled Law Against the Manipulation of Information which empowers the judiciary to order the removal of false or misleading information during election periods and requires online platforms to disclose the sources of sponsored content. In Germany, a law called Network Enforcement Act requires social media platforms to remove illegal content, such as hate speech and defamation, within 24 hours or face fines up to 50 million euros.  In the United States, the media can be sued for defamation if it can be proved that the media published a false statement that harmed reputation of individuals. In this context, public figures have a higher burden of proof and must also show that the media acted with actual malice or reckless disregard for the truth.   A government task force called the Electoral Integrity Assurance Task Force was set up in Australia to identify and counter potential cyberattacks and foreign influence campaigns targeting upcoming elections.  Cambodia has brought into effect a law called the Law on State of Emergency which empowers  the government to exercise sweeping powers to restrict civil liberties and punish anyone who spreads false information that may cause public fear or unrest during a state of emergency.

As a member of the legal profession I felt somewhat distraught that Prince Harry did not have recourse to protection against the breach of privacy against him and his family. brought about by the violation of their right to control the collection, use, and disclosure of their personal information. There was obviously irrevocable damage to reputation. In common law jurisdictions a commoner (let alone a prince) who has suffered a breach of privacy can seek legal remedies, such as damages, injunctions, or class actions, depending on the circumstances and the applicable law. In Canada, a class action lawsuit was filed against the Bank of Montreal for a large-scale breach of personal information of approximately 113,000 customers due to security deficiencies in its online banking software. In France, a case was brought by Max Mosley, a former motor racing boss, against Google for displaying images of him participating in a sex party that were originally published by a British tabloid. The court ordered Google to remove the images from its search results and pay damages to Mosley.

Given the above, this book is by no means a rant.  Nor is it an angry drunk text.  It is a concatenation of single instances that tells the story of a young man who, in his words, flees in fear for his sanity.  When Prince Harry asked for retractions of the numerous untruths printed in the press the request  was refused or ignored time and again. When he and Meagan finally decided to branch out of the trappings of royal duties and attendant vicious defamatory and libelous publicity, not to mention the predatory “Paps”, they were told it was “massively damaging the reputation of the family and making “our relationship with the media complicated”.

From the eloquent and articulate words in the book one could feel the voices of their frowns and the sound of their derision.  Above all, the failing heartbeat of the Rule of Law.

New Book: The Time the Ceiling Caved In


Following excerpts adapted from the author’s most recent book, Your Consent Is Not Required, published by BenBella Books, Inc.

Upon retiring to the sunny Okanagan Valley in British Columbia in 1997, my father underwent prostate cancer surgery. His tumor was successfully removed, but the operation rendered him permanently impotent and incontinent. I was visiting my parents and decided to stay longer.

My father was private at all times, and a distant brooder when things weren’t going well. The emotional and practical challenges of navigating sexual dysfunction and a lack of bladder control at sixty-five, on the cusp of his golden years, daunted him. The retired life he’d been envisioning after his career as a college professor of computer engineering crumbled, and his feelings of vulnerability took on vast dimensions. Through restless nights, the ineffectiveness of over-the-counter sleep medications increased his anxiety.

In his reticent way, he sometimes opened up to me or my mother. He was worrying about his finances, age, fragility, failures in life, and mortality. He didn’t want to eat or get out of bed, and at times actively resisted physical efforts to pull him to his feet. He said he felt like the ceiling of the house was caving in on him and that the furnace was about to blow up. Not unlike the stern father I knew, upon meeting resistance from others, he stubbornly dug in: The ceiling is caving in. Call the gas company right away. Never prone to physical violence, suddenly he was saying that he wanted to kill himself, my mother, me.

Considering the circumstances, I didn’t find what was happening altogether surprising. I’d been inspired by my father’s library of literary classics, and studied philosophy, science and science fiction, theater, yoga, meditation and ancient spiritual practices, and research into unusual states of consciousness. I’d grown a network of similarly reflective, artistic, exploratory friends, among whom it was normal at times to experience emotionally charged or psychologically devastating periods that could last hours, days, weeks, or months. So, when my father’s voice trembled with hints of suicide and homicide, I reminded him of his appreciation for Fyodor Dostoevsky’s tale of murderous obsession, Crime and Punishment.

“Dostoevsky must have spent a lot of time in dark places inside himself,” I said, “to portray that character’s desperation and violence so well.”

“Mm,” my father responded. Interested, but wary.

“You’re going through a big transition, Dad. These are understandable feelings.”

“I don’t want to kill you,” he said. “I love you, Son.”

We weren’t able to stay there long, though.

After I returned to work in Victoria, my mother more frequently spoke with my brother, Kevin. She was becoming increasingly distraught, and Kevin flew in for a few days. Eventually, they all agreed to go to the hospital. Dad was admitted, committed under mental health law as a risk to his “own safety or the safety of others,” and diagnosed with “major depression with psychotic features.”

Kevin and my mother were immediately dismayed, seeing a huge security guard escort Dad to the ward, and then watching as Dad was instantly stripped of all the accoutrements of his life including his comfortable home with lake view, privacy, and independence, and ordered to share a small, barren room with a much younger patient.

Over the ensuing weeks and months in and out of the psychiatric ward of Kelowna General Hospital, the treating psychiatrists changed often and they gave my father many psychiatric medications in various combinations. He didn’t become happier. He became more self-obsessed and less engaged with others, and so clouded, numb, and exhausted from the chemical overload that he could sometimes barely stand.

On phone calls or trips back to the Okanagan, I asked the staff questions that probably revealed my alarm at what the treatments seemed to be doing. One nurse said, “Your father is very, very ill,” with a mixture of fear and admonishment, as if she could see him more clearly than I could. A psychiatrist said my father had a biochemical imbalance, like diabetes or a broken leg but in his brain. There were no lab tests to confirm this, though. “That’s why it can be difficult to find the optimal combination of medications,” the psychiatrist said.

My mother was a real-life version of the all-purpose, cooking, cleaning, working woman on 1950s television shows who held family households together with enthusiastic warmth and martyr-like love. I’d never seen her have a depressed day. “We trust the doctors, Rob,” she said. “That’s just the way your father and I grew up.”

My brother and I both researched the prescriptions. According to its official label, one drug was a sedative recommended for occasional emergency interventions only, because it was highly addictive. The second was primarily for tranquilizing people experiencing hallucinations, and its toxicity could victimize nearly every organ, nerve, and metabolic process, and cause permanent movement disorders. The third medication came with a warning that it increased the likelihood of suicide. My brother expressed concern when the fourth medication suddenly replaced the third, because the drug’s manufacturer had issued warnings that the two were potentially lethal if prescribed too soon after one another. The psychiatrist said, “You can’t believe everything you read on the internet.”

We started wondering if Dad might be better off with no drugs at all. Could he just remain safe in the hospital while working through his feelings? “Hospitals are for treating illnesses,” his latest psychiatrist said. He proposed ECT—electroconvulsive therapy—electrical shocks directed into the brain that induced grand mal epileptic seizures. The psychiatrist said it was very effective for “treatment-resistant” depression, and that it had merely gotten a bad reputation due to misrepresentations in sensationalist movies.

“ECT is like a heart defibrillator,” the psychiatrist said. “It jolts the depressed brain back to life.” The hospital pamphlet explained that ECT was safe and effective, and that it was a “myth” that it caused brain damage or permanent memory loss.

“I don’t want it,” my father said to me, his voice barely audible over the telephone.

“Well, Dad, tell them, and get out of bed. Eat more, so they don’t worry about you not eating. If you don’t want the electroshock, get up.” I filled my helplessness with a commanding tone.

“I don’t want it,” Dad said, more feebly.

The psychiatrists scheduled the ECT. I was stunned. Could they do that? I knew my father as intelligent, responsible, a dedicated teacher, a fisherman, a lover of the outdoors, and basically a stable, ordinary person. Could he so easily be branded and treated as a certifiably insane mental patient?

I contacted a civil rights attorney. “Yes, psychiatrists have that power,” she said. “But I’d think they’d be reluctant to do something as drastic as ECT without family support.”

The psychiatrists swayed Kevin and my mother. They gave my father nine rounds of electroconvulsive therapy over three weeks.

At home shortly after the electroshocks, Dad mowed the lawn, chatted with neighbors, and ate ravenously. “I don’t know why I was feeling so down!” he said.

Two weeks later, he remembered. A social worker was regularly dropping by, and Dad admitted he still felt suicidal. The police took him back to the hospital. Dad told me that, though the police were polite, being handcuffed and escorted into the police car was one of the most humiliating experiences of his life. The police returned later and confiscated his souvenir gun from his early years in the air force.

The treating psychiatrist proposed more electroshocks. “We normally do twelve rounds at a time,” he said.

The nurse explained, “It’s like we’re trying to fill a gas tank, and nine rounds didn’t quite fill the tank.”

Everyone in our family became more vociferous with our concerns. The ECT had worked, in a way, but only for two weeks. Didn’t the risks increase with more shocks? It was becoming unnerving to hear medical staff compare the ninety-billion-cell living computer of the human brain to a four-valve pump and an empty gas can.

We again lobbied the psychiatrists to let Dad stay in the hospital without any treatment. The psychiatrists reacted like we were bothersome bugs flitting around a surgical room. Hospital staff stopped responding to our calls. They discouraged my mother’s daily visits, suggesting that she represented “old mental patterns” fueling Dad’s depression. Then, they moved Dad to Riverview Hospital in Vancouver—a four-hour drive from my mother. “Riverview is more appropriate for long-term stays,” a psychiatrist said.

Riverview Hospital was an asylum from the 1920s and ’30s that used to house thousands of psychiatric patients. By the 1990s, many of the buildings were shut down. This lack of a future inhabited the building where Dad was held: walls bare, rooms dank and rank with West Coast rains, floors worn down into curves, decades-old plastic-covered furniture. I wondered how any mental health professional could imagine that a depressed person could possibly become better in such a place.

In preparation for more rounds of forced ECT, the Riverview psychiatrists took my father off the antidepressants he’d been taking since the previous rounds. I was hopeful this might clear his head; however, he plunged into a state that looked near-comatose.

“Could that be some kind of drug withdrawal effect?” I asked.

“Antidepressants don’t cause withdrawal,” the psychiatrist claimed. “That’s his underlying mental illness manifesting more strongly.”

They gave Dad twelve more rounds of ECT. Not long afterwards, my father struggled to recall his name. I wasn’t sure if he recognized me or was just acting like he did. He spoke only in slow, brief, barely audible slurs and mumbles. He had no idea why he was in a hospital. I tested his ability to count to ten and he got lost between four and five.

He did docilely get out of bed, eat, and take medications when staff told him to. “Your father is doing much better,” a psychiatrist said. This man had never seen my father in anything close to a normal state—portaging a canoe over his head with sleeping bags and gear packed into both ends, training computer programmers for the country’s biggest companies, or shouting passionately about smaller government and individual freedoms.

“He’ll recover his memories within a year or two,” the psychiatrist said, as if I should find this completely reassuring.

Our family was devastated. Any threads of confidence we’d held in the mental health system had unraveled. Finally, nine months after he first got detained, and seemingly because he simply wasn’t functionally capable anymore of posing any kind of risk, the psychiatrists let my father go home.

During this period, Dad slid out of bed, shuffled around, and muttered comprehensibly when pushed to it. My mother, fortunately also retired, devoted herself to doing whatever it took to keep Dad home, safe, and alive. I told her that research showed most people could recover from depression on their own with time and support. She cuddled Dad in bed, reminded him of memories, and encouraged friends and relatives to connect in whatever ways they could. In equal measures, she told him she loved him and she prodded him.

“I’ve made sunny-side up eggs,” she’d say. “I’m not bringing them in here, so you’d better not waste your favorite kind of eggs by staying in bed.”

“The shower is already running,” she’d say. “I know there’s no point in being clean. But just get dressed and pretend there is a point. For me.”

Over the following months and years, my father rebounded. He got up of his own accord, ate, did chores, and talked with people more regularly. He adjusted to his incontinence and found ways to gain some independence again. He weaned himself off the remaining sedating medication that he’d been prescribed. He practiced memory recall with crossword puzzles. Eventually, he was fishing, talking literature and current events, and heading out with my mother on international travel adventures again. My father did recover a lot of his long-term memories—though at times everyone who knew him was startled by gaps.

Yet my father would never remember virtually anything from the year surrounding the ECT treatments. That is, nearly everything of what I just described on these pages was for my father utterly gone.

If someone’s retelling wove together a few of the scattered images that his own memory still retained, the resulting story terrified him. He became angry. He confessed to me much later that one day he went back to confront one of the doctors, saying, “I’m not going to sue you. But why in hell did you do that?”

In response, the doctor said that “depression is a serious, chronic illness” and recommended that my father start getting weekly “maintenance” ECT treatments.

Everyone in our family retained scars. Perhaps as part of my own healing, I had questions I wanted answered: Was that normal? Was everything that happened with my father a case of psychiatric malpractice, or was he one of an unknown number of similar, isolated sufferers? Were law-abiding, intelligent people normally getting incarcerated and treated against their will by mental health practitioners? Was modern involuntary psychiatric treatment frequently so aggressive, invasive, ineffective, and harmful? If so, then why was involuntary treatment still practiced? And if the line between voluntary client and involuntary patient was so thin, shouldn’t we be more careful about advising people in vulnerable emotional states to “seek help”?

As I investigated, everything that happened with my father took on whole new dimensions of significance.

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copyright © 2023 by Rob Wipond

Pyongyang’s Power Elites: Security and Intelligence Services in North Korea


Following excerpts adapted from the author’s latest book, The Hermit King: The Dangerous Game of Kim Jong Un, published by Macmillan

During Kim Jong Il’s reign, North Korea’s primary aim was gangseong daeguk, or a powerful and prosperous country; it became the goal of Kim’s military-first policy. The policy was first promulgated in 1998, and throughout the early 2000s the propaganda machinery churned out numerous studies attributed to Kim Jong Il, such as Military-First Policy (2000), The Great Leader Comrade Kim Jong Il’s Unique Thoughts on Military-First Revolution (2002), and The Glorious Military-First Era (2005), among many others. Of course, Kim didn’t pen a single word himself, but these works were written to justify why the bulk of the country’s already dwindling resources had to be shifted into the military sector. The responsibility for carrying out this policy fell to the National Defense Commission (NDC), the most powerful organ in Kim Jong Il’s North Korea; Kim served as the commission’s First Chairman.

When Kim Jong Il died in 2011, he was posthumously elevated to the position of Eternal Chairman of the NDC. Kim Jong Un assumed the title of First Chairman of the NDC. However, in June 2016 Kim Jong Un opted to create a new highest decision-making body, the State Affairs Commission (SAC). The establishment of the SAC was Kim Jong Un’s way of differentiating his rule from his father’s. He has consolidated power and put into place his own cadre of loyalists throughout the party, the KPA, the security apparatus, and the cabinet. Unsurprisingly, Kim has opted for a divide-and-rule strategy. For example, Kim initially appointed General Kim Won Hong as head of the Ministry of the Protection of State (still widely referred to in the West by its former name, the Ministry of State Security [MSS]), a post that had been vacant for twenty-five years. In January 2017, the general was demoted to major general and his core lieutenants were executed for high crimes. And while under Kim the SAC replaced the NDC as the most powerful decision-making body in North Korea, and the Presidium of the Politburo is the highest-ranking office in the party, it’s difficult to imagine any real give-and-take between Kim Jong Un and members of the Politburo. Still, the party is a unique organization, since it is so pervasive; key party departments, such as organization and guidance, propaganda and agitation, cadres, and general affairs, have much more influence than their titles suggest.

As noted in previous chapters, Office 39, in charge of all hard-currency operations and holdings, is the most important unit in the secretariat, or Kim Jong Un’s main office. Here one can see a contrast to China: although China’s Xi Jinping has consolidated more power than any other leader since Deng Xiaoping, collective leadership has been merely weakened, not completely discarded. No such collective leadership ever existed in North Korea except during its earliest days (1948–1950), and even then Kim Il Sung was always the most powerful figure.

“All of the critical personnel changes made by Kim Jong Un have been based on absolute loyalty, preservation of Juche ideology and Kim Il Sung / Kim Jong Il Thought, and the strengthening and consolidation of his power,” according to an assessment made by the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank under South Korea’s NIS.  During Kim Jong Il’s era, the military-first policy meant that the KPA received greater attention than the KWP, much to the consternation of party leaders. The National Defense Commission was the highest decision-making body under Kim Jong Il, but, as noted earlier, Kim Jong Un abolished it and replaced it with the SAC. Even before he eliminated the NDC, its power was reduced: during his first year in power, 2011–2012, the NDC had sixteen members, but by 2016, the number had been reduced to eleven.

North Korea’s dictatorship is unique both in its longevity and in the absolute concentration of power in the top leader. This doesn’t mean that Kim decides everything himself; that would be impossible. Still, no policy or directive can be implemented without his approval. Under Kim, the party has gained the upper hand, and political commissars throughout the KPA relay the party’s orders.


Pyongyang’s highest elites are those that are in charge or have important roles in the party, security apparatuses, the KPA, government, and state-run import-export companies or those charged with specific hard-currency earnings (see figures 1,2,3). They include the top 5 percent of the core class, ministers or officeholders with ministerial rank, and Kim’s inner circle: members of the SAC, the Central Military Commission of the KWP, and the Main Department of Intelligence.

In April 2019, Kim Jong Un undertook the most extensive leadership change since he assumed power. Longtime confidant Choe Ryong Hae was named the nominal head of state, or president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), replacing Kim Yong Nam, who had held that post for over twenty years. Kim also named Kim Jae Ryong as the new prime minister, replacing Pak Pong Ju, who was moved to vice chairman in charge of economics at the central committee of the KWP. Pak Pong Ju is also a member of the standing committee of the Politburo and vice chairman of the SAC. These moves suggest that Pak will continue to have a major voice on economic affairs, while Choe will be able to steer the SPA to bolster Kim’s position and support Kim as first vice chairman of the SAC.

Also notable were the promotions of several others to the SAC: Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui; Kim Yong Chol, head of the united front of the KWP (in charge of South-North issues); Ri Su Yong, head of international affairs of the KWP; and Ri Yong Ho, foreign minister. Many of the old guard were replaced and key economic policy elites were promoted to the central committee. At the same time, Kim was referred to as the Supreme Commander of the DPRK, Supreme Leader of Our Party and State, and Supreme Leader of the Armed Forces. Previously, Kim was usually referred to as the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army, rather than supreme leader of all of North Korea’s armed forces. This change signals even greater control over all military and paramilitary forces.

Fig -2

Mindful of the ongoing pressure from international sanctions, Kim reaffirmed the importance of a self-reliant economy and the need for North Korea to continue to pursue a “my way” economic policy. He made a special point on “decisively enhancing the role of the Party organizations in the struggle to vigorously speed up the socialist construction under the banner of self-reliance.” Kim today is in full control of the party, the KPA, and the intelligence services and has begun to move loyalists into key positions. The real litmus test, however, lies in whether Kim is going to turn around the economy under onerous international sanctions while continuing to devote resources to WMD development.

Fig 3

The Power Beside the Throne

The one person who remains outside of any power flow chart is Kim Yo Jong. Her formal title is alternate member of the Politburo and deputy director of the Agitation and Propaganda Department of the KWP. Because she is of the Paektu bloodline, Yo Jong carries much more weight than even Kim Jong Un’s wife, Ri Sol Ju. By planting Yo Jong in one of the most important party departments, Jong Un is making sure that anyone else who wields significant power, such as Choe Ryong Hae, who heads the SPA and is also vice chairman of the party, can be checked.

As Kim Jong Il’s daughter, Yo Jong played a critical behind-the-scenes role in ensuring Jong Un’s succession. And, as described elsewhere in this book, she was the star of the opening ceremony of the February 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, and she never left her brother’s side during the April and May 2018 inter-Korean summits. The South Korean and world media made her into an instant global sensation. Her political influence is second only to her brother’s, although Kim might pull her back from the limelight if she gets too much attention. While Kim Yo Jong was next to her brother during meetings with South Korean president Moon Jae-in in 2018, and was in Singapore and Hanoi when Kim met with Trump, she was noticeably absent when Kim met with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok in April 2019. Although the South Korean press speculated that this was a sign that Yo Jong’s influence was ebbing, it was more likely a deliberate move either by Yo Jong herself or by Kim Jong Un to control her much-reported public appearances.

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Manhunters: How We Took Down Pablo Escobar

Following excerpts adapted from the author’s latest book, Manhunters: How We Took Down Pablo Escobar, published by Macmillan

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called Children of God.” — Matthew 5:9

For Connie, for her never-ending love and support. —Steve Murphy

The blue Renault cut in front of us, forcing us off the road, ushering Connie and me into our worst nightmare.

I was driving one of the older-model embassy-issued g-cars. It was a large SUV with huge, West Coast–style mirrors sticking out from the sides. If we were in California, it might look like we were surfers on our way to a deserted beach. But this was Colombia, and the SUV was outfitted like a tank for a reason. I joked to Connie that it could survive a shoot-out and even the apocalypse. Still, its ballast made me feel safe. There were steel plates in all the doors, under the vehicle, and built into the roof. All the windows were bulletproof with extremely thick glass that made them impossible to open. The front and rear were equipped with chrome-plated steel bars known as cattle guards. With all these security devices built in, it weighed about twice as much as a normal vehicle.

Connie and I were headed home from the embassy and had decided to take some of the back roads, next to a military base, to avoid the snarling traffic and to stop by our favorite restaurant for some take-out roast chicken for dinner. We had both put in a long day and were looking forward to unwinding in front of the TV with spicy chicken, roasted potatoes, and a glass of merlot. With me in Medellín most weeks, we rarely had a night to ourselves, and we were really looking forward to being together in our apartment in the northern part of the city.

When the Renault suddenly cut in front of me, I pumped the brake and pushed in the clutch, trying to stop before I hit the tiny car. With all the weight of the SUV, it wasn’t very difficult to lose control, and I knew if I hit the Renault, there would be serious injury to the passengers.

Maybe even death. I managed to slide the vehicle to a stop just a few inches from the smaller car.

After checking to see if Connie was okay, I was furious and prepared to get out of the car and give them a piece of my mind. Except when I looked up, I saw that the three occupants of the car were walking menacingly toward us. They were dressed in light jackets and jeans, and as they drew closer, I could see that each of them had a pistol tucked into the waistband of his pants.

After arriving in Colombia to work on the Pablo Escobar case more than a year earlier, I had a lot of enemies. The world’s most wanted criminal knew my name and the name of my partner, Javier Peña. We knew this because Colombian intelligence had intercepted the drug lord speaking on the phone to one of his thugs and talking about the “two gringos” at the Carlos Holguín base in Medellín. During one conversation, he even referred to “Peña and Murphy.”

So when the three men approached the driver’s-side door of our vehicle and began yelling in Spanish for us to get out of the car, I worried this was no ordinary case of road rage. This was a trap, and we were outnumbered. Besides that, I had the person I loved most in the world sitting right next to me. I needed to protect Connie no matter what happened to me.

At first, I refused to open the door, and I flashed them my Colombian police identification badge, hoping it would scare them off. But they refused to budge, which is when I frantically tried to radio for backup from the embassy. Each embassy car was equipped with portable emergency radios so that we could call the Marines if we got into any trouble. I was hoping the Marines would simply dispatch a roving patrol and scare off the jokers who were holding us hostage inside the car.

But I called once. I called twice. I called three times. No one answered.

By this time, the three men were kicking at the tires and trying to open the doors. I looked over at Connie, who was trying to remain calm, but I could tell she was really scared. The truth is, so was I.

Shortly after trying to contact the embassy, the wife of a DEA agent called us from her portable radio to make sure we were all right. I told her where we were and asked her to radio for help immediately. A few minutes later, our DEA supervisor was on the radio. I told him to hurry and to bring the “margarita” with him—our code name for the mini Uzi that we kept in the office for just such occasions.

While we waited, helpless as the men continued to taunt us and kick in the doors of the car, my darling wife surprised me as she always did when we faced what seemed like impossible odds.

“They’re not that big,” she said, pointing to the men. “I can take that one out if you handle the other two.”

I might have said yes except that they were all armed, and if I opened the door of the car, I would be exposing Connie to being shot or worse.

Once the DEA supervisor was in place with the margarita behind us, I prepared to walk out of the car and confront the three men. We were both good marksmen, and if they tried anything funny, I knew we could easily kill them. But none of us wanted to kill anyone. We just wanted to get home and have our chicken!

Just as I was opening my door, a Colombian National Police motorcycle patrol approached. I saw they were looking at us but showed no indication of stopping. I began blowing my horn to get their attention, which caused the patrol to turn around to investigate. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw our supervisor, holding tight to the margarita.

Clutching my pistol and then tucking it into my waistband, I walked over to the police and showed them my badge and told them who I was: I was DEA and working on capturing Colombia’s most wanted criminal. I told them we had been cut off by the three men in the Renault, and I was worried that they could be sicarios working for Escobar. After all, it was only a few years before that fellow DEA special agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena Salazar was kidnapped by corrupt police officers in Mexico and tortured and killed on the orders of drug lord Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo. All DEA agents working in Latin America after Kiki’s death worried that the same thing could happen to them.

I told the cops the men in the blue Renault were all armed.

At the mention of handguns, the police surrounded the men and pointed their weapons at them.

It took a while to sink in, but when the cops realized who I was and that I had contacts at the highest levels of the Colombian police, they began to apologize to Connie and me. As for the three men who had nearly caused an ugly accident, they were low-ranking members of the Colombian military on a joyride. It turned out to be nothing more than a case of road rage and the three young men wanting to intimidate us. They still don’t know how close they came to death that night.

I cursed them out in my best street Spanish and threatened to call their commanding officer. They all became very apologetic and begged me not to call anyone. I believe they knew they would end up in the stockade for their actions, and all they wanted was to get away from us as quickly as possible.

After thanking the police, Connie and I drove home, rattled by the whole experience. As we sat in our living room with our Styrofoam boxes of chicken and potatoes, and Connie poured us each a glass of wine, I worried about the next close call.

And this time, I knew that an armored embassy vehicle wouldn’t be able to protect me. Not against the apocalypse, and certainly not against Pablo Escobar.

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First Year of New Cuba after Booting Out Yankee Batista


Following excerpts adapted from the author’s most recent book, A Hidden History of the Cuban Revolution: How the Working Class Shaped the Guerrilla Victory published by Monthly Review Press

With the overthrow of the Batista regime a new chapter in Cuban history began. The early period of the revolutionary government was deeply affected by the means by which it came to power, but many changes occurred in the world of organized labor over the first year of the new regime. In particular, the recently established alliance between the July 26 Movement and the Communist Party did not survive the arrival of the rebels in Havana. Given that the two organizations eventually merged, the realignment of forces within the MR-26-7 takes on considerable importance, in particular the contradictions between a new bureaucracy of the Confederación de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC, Cuban Workers Confederation) and elements who wished to move the revolution in a more radical direction. The future Cuban Communist Party would emerge from the victory of the radicals in this faction fight.


As soon as it was known that Batista had fled, David Salvador was appointed the new general secretary of the CTC, an action that marked the end of the united front with the Communist Party. During the January 1959 strike, the FONU called for a mass meeting in the Parque Central in Havana on January 2, 1959, and another on January 8 to support the revolutionary government. This last appeal, signed by José Maria de la Aguilera for the MR-26-7 and Carlos Fernandez Rodriguez for the Comité Nacional de Defensa de las Demandas Obreras (CNDDO, National Committee for the Defense of Workers’ Demands), is the last statement issued in the name of the FONU as a joint body, although Octavio Louit was still using the title Secretario de Organización del FONU in an interview on January 17. Meanwhile, Ñico Torres and Conrado Bécquer, the latter still in his olive green uniform as a comandante of the rebel army, took the first flight from Santiago to Havana, where they immediately supervised the seizure of the CTC headquarters. This they did in the name of the sección obrera of the MR-26-7, whose leaders took all the seats on the CTC provisional executive committee, with David Salvador as secretary general. The PSP was completely shut out, and, on January 13, the CNDDO wrote a furious letter to Salvador complaining that Torres and Bécquer had told them that the FONU was now dissolved and that they were excluded from decision making and even from entering the building. Receiving no reply, the CNDDO, this time invoking the name of Lazaro Peña, called for a demonstration on January 21, only to be outflanked by David Salvador, who called a demonstration on the same day demanding justice for the 600 workers previously victimized by the Compañía Cubana de Electricidad and to celebrate the end of the compulsory check off of union dues that the government had decreed on January 20.

With the establishment of the revolutionary government in Havana, the center of attention moved to the capital, and it was here that sentiment in the July 26 Movement was most hostile to working with the PSP. The journals Bohemia and Revolución became the mouthpieces for this approach, with frequent articles attacking communism in general and the Cuban communists in particular. In a long interview published in Bohemia in February 1959, David Salvador argues that the FONU was a good idea, but the efforts spent trying to build it were a waste of time, that the communists were not a significant factor in the labor movement, and that only the MR-26-7 had any real presence in the working class. The new leadership of the CTC set up the Frente Humanista (Humanist Front) and using this name succeeded in winning the overwhelming majority of the union elections. Whatever Fidel Castro’s personal views on relations with the communists may have been, and he was careful not to be too specific, his first priority was to keep his own organization together. Thus, when a group of angry communist railway workers knocked on the door of his apartment to denounce what they saw as undemocratic behavior by David Salvador, he listened politely, expressed his interest, but did not pursue the matter further.

As part of the attempt to reassure the more right-wing elements of the MR-26-7 and to confuse the U.S. government, the early “revolutionary government” was headed by a former judge, known for his honesty and his opposition to corruption rather than his radicalism, and many of the new ministers were equally moderate. The appointment of David Salvador to run the CTC, when his personal hostility to the PSP was well known, was the implementation of this strategy within the labor movement.


A galloping bureaucratization of the CTC took place in the first months of 1959; many of the new officials quickly made themselves comfortable and began to resent the constant mobilizations and calls for action. They gravitated toward David Salvador and his associates in the anti-communist wing of the MR-26-7, who started to use crude anti-communism to attack those who wanted to push the revolution to take more radical steps. The more radical elements became known as the “unitario” group within the MR-26-7 sección obrera, among whose most prominent members were those who had been involved in the Las Villas congress: Jesús Soto, Lila León, and José Maria de la Aguilera. These unitarios soon attracted others in the CTC leadership, mainly those with long-term clandestine revolutionary experience such as Ñico Torres and Octavio Louit, who were disturbed by the growing bureaucratization. Seeking allies, they found them in the PSP, who agreed with the need to push the revolution further and who resented being excluded from the leadership of the labor movement.

The basis of the orthodox communist political approach was the theoretical position that history moved in stages and that it was first necessary to complete the “bourgeois democratic” phase of the revolution before moving to socialism. The Cuban Revolution was therefore defined as being “popular, patriotic, democratic, agrarian and for national liberation.” In line with this analysis, the leadership group of the PSP around Blas Roca were content to engage in the revolutionary process as it unfolded and, in particular, to support the wing of the MR-26-7 that seemed most progressive. This was also the section of the leadership that was most sympathetic to their inclusion, primarily those around Raúl Castro and Che Guevara, who condemned sectarianism and spoke publicly for the unity of all revolutionary forces including the PSP. They continued working with those MR-26-7 trade unionists who had wished to carry on the united approach implied by the FONU.

What was the reaction of the rank-and-file workers to this? The first demands to be raised were for the reinstatement of those workers victimized for their militancy or made redundant as part of the old regime’s productivity drive. There was particular joy at the reinstatement of the bank workers sacked for their strike in 1955 and the hundred bus workers dismissed after the coup in 1952. Then there were wage claims, 10 or 20 percent, sometimes enforced by short strikes, more often just won by the threat of action. Some Shell refinery workers managed to double their wages. Throughout 1959, the CTC was the main mobilizing force of the revolution and all of the major demonstrations were called in its name. May Day 1959 saw a million workers on the march, and hundreds of thousands went on strike and demonstrated on the streets to protest at the October airborne attack launched by right-wing exiles from Miami. During the government crisis of July 1959, workers’ protests and a strike on July 26 were important factors in enabling Fidel Castro to remove Manuel Urrutia from the presidency and to secure the post of prime minister for himself. Thus we see a growing rift between the increasing radicalism among ordinary workers contrasting with a tendency to bureaucratization among a section of the CTC officialdom.

Within the CTC, matters came to a head at the 10th Congress of the CTC held in Havana in November 1959. The delegates were 90 percent July 26th Movement supporters, but were deeply split between the anti-communist faction lead by David Salvador and the unitarios fronted by Soto and Aguilera. Conrado Bécquer, who chaired proceedings. had some difficulty in maintaining order. Fidel Castro opened the proceedings, and spoke of the need for unity. Both sides interpreted this to suit their own entrenched position, and matters were no nearer a resolution as the closing session approached. Castro returned, upbraided the delegates for their uncomradely behavior, and it was agreed that a committee composed of Fidel Castro, David Salvador, Conrado Bécquer, José Pellon, and Jesús Soto should compose a compromise list for the executive. The posts were divided between the two factions with an anti-communist deputy to a unitario executive officer, or vice-versa in most positions. Two notable absences were Bécquer and Torres, now leaders of the FNTA and the railway federation respectively. This list was carried by acclaim, with the communist delegates abstaining, and the congress ended in relative harmony.

Che Guevara called the 10th Congress “an arduous war against the representatives of mujalismo, representative of the old CTC gang.” Modern Cuban writing tends to adopt this line, although this was not the case at the time, even in the heated atmosphere of the congress hall, with neither of the newspapers of the PSP and MR-26-7, Hoy and Revolución, using the term mujalista. On the other hand, anti-Castro writers such as Robert Alexander and Efrén Córdova discuss the 10th Congress of the CTC entirely at the level of the bureaucracy itself and see the fight as being between honest officials who respect private property and those who Robert Alexander refers to as “Melons,” green on the outside, red on the inside. The eventual triumph of the unitarios is seen as an imposition by Castro as part of his plot with the communists. Neither of these explanations are satisfactory. In January 1959, the CTC bureaucracy was effectively purged both de jure and de facto. Mujal himself, had sought refuge in the Argentine embassy, from where he was allowed to leave for Miami. The rest of his bureaucratic associates were removed from office and were well enough known by the ordinary membership to have no chance of regaining their positions. However, many of those who took their place quickly adopted bureaucratic attitudes and started using some of the old mujalista techniques such as voting irregularities and anti-communist demagogy. In a manner commonly found among opportunist trade union bureaucrats, they resented the work implied by constant mass mobilization. Aguilera and Louit were particularly vocal in criticizing this trend. The right wing of the bureaucracy, in return, used the accusation of communist influence to attack those who wanted a more radical approach to running the economy. One can say that they adopted similar bureaucratic methods to the mujalistas, but we have to be clear that they did not represent the return to office of the old mujalista bureaucrats themselves.

David Salvador did not last long as general secretary. Events outside the union forced the pace of change, and 1960 was a year in which, following the obvious popularity of the agrarian reform program of the previous year, large-scale nationalizations of foreign-owned enterprises took place. These, if the size of the demonstrations in their support are anything to go by, were very popular, and this radical economic approach, combined with the hostile reaction from the United States, seemed to launch a new wave of popular nationalism among the working class. The more radical political circumstances, combined with the threat of U.S. intervention, pushed the balance inside the CTC in the direction of the unitarios. David Salvador disappeared from view almost immediately after the 10th Congress, and for the rest of 1960 the most prominent CTC spokesman was Conrado Bécquer, with Jesús Soto and Octavio Louit also much in evidence. Salvador resigned in February 1960 and in June joined the “November 30 Movement,” which was linked to the right-wing guerrillas operating in the Escambray mountains. He was arrested in November of that year, expelled from the CTC, and charged with treason. The victory over the U.S.-supported invasion at Playa Girón in April 1961 sealed the dominance of the unitarios within the CTC, and in July 1961 Lazaro Peña, the communist tobacco worker who had been ousted in 1947, assumed leadership of the federation.

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Copyright © 2016 by Steve Cushion

Palestine 1936:  The Forgotten Uprising

The following article is based on the excerpts adapted from the author’s maiden book, Palestine 1936 published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group

Palestinians, despairing over their thwarted national hopes, wage acts of protest, boycott, sabotage, and violence. All around them Jewish settlements inexorably expand. Islamic hardliners sabotage peace talks, executing suspected collaborators and moderates. Occupation forces launch an aggressive crackdown, demolishing homes, erecting a separation wall, and drawing censure for rights abuses. The world power with the greatest clout over the warring sides pushes a partition plan, even while seeming to doubt its viability. Jewish factions are split: One is ready to give up part of the Land of Israel for peace; another demands the entire ancient patrimony, by force of arms if needed. Further bloodletting appears inevitable.

These could be this morning’s news alerts. Or headlines from the Second Intifada of the early 2000s, the earlier First Intifada, or any number of clashes over the three-quarters of a century since the Jewish state’s creation in 1948.

Instead this is an earlier story—of Palestine’s first Arab rebellion, a seminal, three-year uprising a decade before Israel’s birth that cast the mold for the Jewish-Arab encounter ever since.

Five hundred Jews lost their lives—a civilian toll unmatched until the twenty-first century—and hundreds more British servicemen were killed. But the price exacted upon the Arabs themselves was heavier still, and not just in terms of body count.

The Great Revolt of 1936 to 1939 was the crucible in which Palestinian identity coalesced. It united rival families, urban and rural, rich and poor, in a single struggle against a common foe: the Jewish national enterprise—Zionism—and its midwife, the British Empire. A six-month general strike, one of the longest anywhere in modern history, roused Arabs and Muslims worldwide to the Palestine cause.

Yet the revolt would ultimately turn on itself. A convulsion of infighting and score-settling shredded the Arab social fabric, sidelined pragmatists for extremists, and propelled the first wave of refugees out of the country. British forces did the rest, seizing arms, occupying cities, and waging a counterinsurgency that left thousands dead and tens of thousands wounded. Arab Palestine’s fighting capacity was debilitated, its economy gutted, its political leaders banished.

The revolt to end Zionism had instead crushed the Arabs themselves, leaving them crippled in facing the Jews’ own drive for statehood a decade on. It was the closest the Palestinians would ever come to victory; they have never quite recovered.

To the Jews the insurgency would leave a very different inheritance. It was then that Zionist leaders began to abandon illusions over Arab acquiescence, to confront the unnerving prospect that fulfilling their dreams of sovereignty might mean forever clinging to the sword. The revolt saw thousands of Jews trained and armed by Great Britain, the world’s supreme military power, turning their amateur guard units into the seeds of a formidable Jewish army, complete with special forces and an officer corps.

But it was also during the revolt that some Jews—facing Fascism in Europe and carnage in Palestine—decided that mere passive defense was national suicide, and when Jewish terrorism first appeared on the landscape.

This is therefore a story of two nationalisms, and of the first major explosion between them. The rebellion was Arab, but the Zionist counter-rebellion—the Jews’ military, economic, and psychological transformation—is a vital, overlooked element in the chronicle of how Palestine became Israel.

For it was then—not in 1948—that Palestine’s Jews consolidated the demographic, geographic, and political basis of their state-to-be. And it was then that portentous words like “partition” and “Jewish state” first appeared on the international diplomatic agenda.

Yet ultimately the uprising also persuaded Britain that its two-decade Zionist experiment had proven too costly—in blood, treasure, and the goodwill of broad swaths of its empire. As war with Hitler loomed, the Chamberlain government determined it was high time that Palestine’s doors—virtually the only ones still open to Jews—be shuttered. Few decisions in the twentieth century would carry repercussions as profound.

The reader might imagine that events of such magnitude would already have been amply investigated. This is, after all, the most written-about of the world’s ongoing disputes, having earned itself the all-encompassing designation as The Middle East Conflict. And yet that same reader, keen to learn more, encounters scarcity: a few pages, or at most a chapter, in wider histories of this land. Remarkably, no single general-interest account has yet been written of this formative but forgotten insurgency.

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