Sri Lanka Guardian Essays - Page 2

Ukraine: Zelensky’s Politics of Contrast

651 views
6 mins read

According to a New York Times report of March 1985, former president Ronald Reagan had this to say about the infamous Nicaraguan Contras (guerrillas) who were opposing the Sandinista Communists in that Central American country:

“Speaking about Nicaragua, Mr. Reagan called the rebel forces “our brothers” and ”freedom fighters.And we owe them our help,” he said. ‘You know the truth about them, you know who they’re fighting and why. They are the moral equal of our Founding Fathers and the brave men and women of the French Resistance.”We cannot turn away from them,” he said. ”For the struggle here is not right versus left, but right versus wrong…In making his speech today, against the backdrop of a campaign for renewed Congressional financing for the rebels, the President also sought to provide assurances against United States military involvement in the region.

Fast forward to a report in Associated Press in April 2022:

“President Joe Biden pledged an additional $1.3 billion Thursday for new weapons and economic assistance to help Ukraine in its strong but increasingly difficult battle against the Russian invasion, and he promised to seek much more from Congress to keep the guns, ammunition and cash flowing.The latest military aid, Biden said, will be sent “directly to the front lines of freedom“…Sometimes we will speak softly and carry a large Javelin, because we’re sending a lot of those, Biden said, paraphrasing Theodore Roosevelt and referring to an anti-tank missile system.”

Biden has referred to sanctions as a new form of Statecraft. No, it’s just robbing nations of their money.

Same Old Song and Dance

I’ve been thinking to myself, where have I seen the current Russia-Ukraine war verbiage/template before with the same presidential speeches, the insidious censorship? Hey! It is the return of the pro-Contras format, except the Ukrainians are a million miles away and they have flags with the colors of the National Football League’s Los Angeles Rams.

The Washington Post and the New York Times—and the former military talking heads on NBC, CBS and CNN portray Zelensky as pure of heart, courageous, and leading the charge on the Donbass frontlines. And according to General Mark Milley, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, saving the Western way of life is at stake, or at least Europe’s, and on Zelensky’s broad shoulders this task must fall (until he has to exercise the US promised Golden Parachute on his exit).

“What’s at stake is the security of Europe,” Milley said, adding that Russia’s invasion “is the greatest challenge to the security of Europe since the end of World War II…And indeed, you can easily make the case that what’s at stake is the global international security order that was put in place in 1945,” reported Business Insider in April 2022.

“Milley said the post-war world order has prevented great power war, and underlining that entire concept is the idea that large nations will not conduct military aggression against smaller nations, and that’s exactly what’s happened here, an unprovoked military aggression by Russia against a smaller nation.”

General Milley, what about Vietnam, Panama and Grenada? I mean, you are a Princeton graduate.

So, how did that Nicaragua thing work out? A CIA led war in and out of that country, plus a nifty CIA campaign to sell drugs in the USA to make money to buy weapons and supporting material for the Contras;  the Iran Contra Scandal out of which came the sentences placed on US officials Elliot Abrams, John Poindexter, and Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger (they all were pardoned by Reagan’s successor, former president George H.W. Bush).

According to the Harvard Crimson reporting in March 1986;

“…it is clear now that the Contras are entirely a creation of U.S. foreign policy–dependent on their paymaster for their limited ability to inflict malicious harm on the Nicaraguan people.There should also be little surprise at the Contras’ brutal methods. Reports from Nicaraguans who have left the rebel organization indicate that 46 of 48 Contra field commanders are former members of late dictator Anastasio Somoza’s National Guard. And, as if their experience in oppression were not enough, CIA advisers supplied the exiles with a training manual which encourages political assassination and details methods of torture.”

Ditto for the Ukrainians too!

Gary Webb, RIP

Gary Webb of the Mercury News wrote a series called Dark Alliance which exposed alleged CIA involvement in supporting drug running in the USA which was then used to funnel cash proceeds to the Contras. Webb was pilloried by the New York Times, Washington Post and LA Times and was basically “canceled” his career ended when he resigned from the Mercury News.

Think of it. US officials were pardoned (see above) for their roles in the Iran Contra scandal and Gary Webb’s journalism career was tanked in what was a USGOV-MSM setup to discredit him. Controversy still remains over Dark Alliance but it shows how powerful the USGOV-MSM is when it decides to eliminate a journalist who causes trouble. Who is going to be the next Gary Webb?

With the current mainstream media blackout over any criticism of Ukraine—which is the direct result of an effective US military information support operation (MISO) deployed to shape global environments/opinions— no notable MSM reports on Ukraine black market weapons sales, Ukraine using lunatic World War 1-style infantry attacks, crushing opposition parties, censoring criticism and media, attacks on Kherson repeatedly repulsed by the Russians, etc. All we get is MSM visiting the front lines with the 101st Airborne in Romania which is ready to fight yesterday!

It is probably one of the better US government propaganda efforts; well, then again, there are so many US campaigns to choose from. But they all have the same set of lies that support them, always with the words freedom, from the Contras to the Ukrainians. But here is the reality:

“Even before the war erupted, there were ugly examples of authoritarianism in Ukraine’s political governance. Just months after the 2014 Maidan revolution, there were efforts to smother domestic critics, which accelerated as years passed. Ukrainian officials also harassed political dissidents, adopted censorship measures, and barred foreign journalists whom they regarded as critics of the Ukrainian government and its policies. Such offensive actions were criticized by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and other independent observers. The neo‐​Nazi Azov Battalion was an integral part of President Petro Poroshenko’s military and security apparatus, and it has retained that role during Zelensky’s presidency.

Indeed, some repressive measures deepened under Zelensky even before the outbreak of war with Russia. In February 2021, the Ukrainian government closed several (mostly, but not entirely pro‐​Russia) independent media outlets. They did so on the basis of utterly vague, open‐​ended standards. Zelensky has now used the war as a justification for outlawing 11 opposition parties and nationalizing several media outlets. Those are hardly appropriate measures in a democracy, even in wartime,” according to a report in the American Conservative Magazine in October 2022.

West Seeks to Expunge a Civilization

And why the longing to expunge Russia from the face of the earth? Why the hiding behind “I am a minority and my ancestor was killed by the Soviets? Is every Russian guilty of the past? I mean, give me a break. When Russia’s mobilization officials started to call up the wrong citizens and botched up the first steps of the process, it was the Russian people and the media that protested. The president of Russia Valdimir Putin owned up to the error and it was fixed.

I just can’t figure out the basis for the hatred of Russia unless it is that US political and military leaders are so incompetent they don’t know how to deal with an emerging multipolar world.

I was in Russia in 2014 roaming around by myself from Moscow to Crimea and I saw nothing that would threaten me except running out of US dollars, which I did, as US sanctions took effect in the summer of 2014. I could not use my credit card either due to the sanctions. I was in a fix so a history professor that was showing me around Crimea—who worked for the tour company that booked all my flights and hotels—lent me $100 on behalf of the company on a handshake with a promise I would send cash when I returned to Virginia. I did that one day after I got back. Anywhere I went I was usually asked where I was from. I’d say the United States of America. No one attacked me. I was treated with respect and a helping hand wherever I went.

Perhaps the most interesting place to visit was a former Soviet-era nuclear submarine pen in Crimea. It was turned into a tourist attraction. Talk about capitalism!

According to Vladimir Putin who spoke for hours at the recent Valdai Club (can any US politician do that plus Q&A, or can any US citizen listen for hours), the West has gone crazy, indeed:

The very liberal ideology today has changed beyond recognition. If initially classical liberalism understood the freedom of every person as the freedom to say what you want, to do what you want, then already in the 20th century liberals began to declare that the so-called open society has enemies – it turns out that an open society has enemies – and the freedom of such enemies can and should be limited, if not abolished. Now they have reached the point of absurdity, when any alternative point of view is declared subversive propaganda and a threat to democracy.

Whatever comes from Russia is all the “intrigues of the Kremlin”. But look at yourself! Are we all that powerful? Any criticism of our opponents – any! – is perceived as “the machinations of the Kremlin”, “the hand of the Kremlin”. This is some nonsense. What have you fallen to? At least move your brains, state something more interesting, state your point of view somehow conceptually. It is impossible to blame everything on the machinations of the Kremlin.”

Bangladesh as UNHRC Member

839 views
4 mins read

In the recent past, Human rights are perhaps one of the most talked about issues in Bangladesh, nationally and internationally.  Bangladesh on October 11 achieved its membership in the United Nations Human Rights Council for the term2023–2025 with the highest vote from the Asia-Pacific region. In the election, 160 countries among 189 supported Bangladesh’s membership in the United Nations General Assembly in New York, which is an outstanding achievement for the government. It is mentionable, this would be the fifth term of Bangladesh as a member of the 47-member UNHRC. In the previous UNHRC elections, Bangladesh won in 2006, 2009, 2014, and 2018; effectively for all possible terms as per the rules of business of the Council.

This achievement is a great honour for Bangladesh as a country, and also a warning of responsibility in the midst of criticism from the United Nations, the United States, and other countries regarding the allegations of disappearances and human rights violations. The task of the Human Rights Council is to monitor the human rights situation of member countries around the world and make necessary recommendations. Bangladesh is now one of the countries responsible for taking care of human rights situations in different countries. Truly speaking, this victory will enhance the image of Bangladesh and the current government in the international forum.

Victory at UN

As a responsible member state of the UN, Bangladesh remains committed to making all efforts to ensure the promotion and protection of human rights nationally and globally. This prestigious win is a manifestation of recognition by the international community that Bangladesh’s human rights situation is not alarming, and the government is quite aware of ensuring human rights. This UN council takes care of human rights in all countries of the world. So, if Bangladesh’s human rights state had been terrible, 160 countries would not have voted for it to join the Human Rights Council.

The result of the vote is also a big blow to the active groups that continues to try to embarrass Bangladesh and its government in the international arena by spreading false information about frequent human rights violations in the country. This nullifies the ongoing smear campaign with falsified and fabricated information by some politically motivated vested corners at home and abroad aimed at negatively portraying the human rights situation of Bangladesh a foreign press ministry press release said.

The human rights situation in Bangladesh is not satisfactory according to the United Nations. They urged Bangladesh to improve its human rights situation. Last year, the US imposed sanctions on RAB and six of its former and current officials.  They are ignoring the requests to withdraw it despite the situation’s improvement. Against this backdrop, electing Bangladesh as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council is proof of the international community’s deep confidence in Bangladesh’s contribution to the UN human rights system and ability to carry out the duties of the Council under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Undoubtedly, such a position of Bangladesh in the United Nations will take Bangladesh a step forward in making its human rights more integrated.

International Community’s Deep Confidence

At the invitation of the Government of Bangladesh, Michelle Bachelet, the UN Human Rights Commissioner visited the country in August this year and held a series of consultations with the relevant stakeholders in Bangladesh. However, Bachelet did not mention anything alarming about the human rights situation in the country in the written statement she handed over to journalists before leaving Bangladesh at the end of her scheduled visit. As she called on the government to discuss with various parties to update the Digital Security Act, she also praised the steps taken by the Bangladesh government in various fields, including the Rohingya issue.

Cases of human rights abuses in various countries including Venezuela, Afghanistan, and Myanmar have come up in the latest report of the UN. But Bangladesh is not among these countries. On the contrary, the incident of sheltering the Rohingya minority fleeing from the massacre and persecution of the military forces in Myanmar has also been highlighted. Through this, the humanity that Bangladesh has shown by sheltering the Rohingyas in danger has been highlighted as a unique example in the international arena including the United Nations.

This observation of Michelle Bachelet about the human rights situation in Bangladesh proved that Bangladesh is respectful to the international human rights mechanisms and there is nothing to worry about the human rights situation in Bangladesh.

This paper however does not suggest that Bangladesh does not have any case of human rights violation. In fact, human rights challenges are faced just like any other country in the world does. Unfortunately, rule of law, democracy, and human rights are subjected to the enormous challenge of manipulation of the superpowers which want to impose imperial designs on the world in the name of peace. However, some isolated incidents have occurred in Bangladesh in which the rights of any individual or institution have been violated by some overenthusiastic members of the government or law enforcement that have embarrassed the government. But no such incident is happening regularly in Bangladesh that may be considered a human rights violation. As a result, it is not right to promote those incidents as human rights violations.

The Challenges Are Ahead

The issue of human rights is explicitly written in the constitution of Bangladesh. Article 11 of the Constitution states that “the Republic shall be a democracy in which fundamental human rights and freedoms and respect for the dignity and worth of the human person shall be guaranteed.” As a result, the state or the government does not have the power to take away the rights of any person or organization because the government runs the state within the guidelines of the constitution. Moreover, Bangladesh has an independent judiciary and a Human Rights Commission. These institutions should be strengthened so that any allegation of violence, extra-judicial killing, or unlawful detention against law enforcement agencies can be addressed immediately and effectively. Additionally, the law enforcement agencies of Bangladesh should be provided with intensive training to ensure that they do not violate human rights while combating terrorism and crimes unless in a given situation application of force is mandatory to save their own lives.

The responsibility of looking after the human rights situation of various countries is entrusted to the council. Bangladesh should respect the trust that the member states have shown in Bangladesh and the current government in the vote of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Finally, everyone expects that as a member of the Human Rights Council, Bangladesh will be able to make a significant contribution to the implementation of UN principles in the field of human rights, especially in the context of emerging global challenges.

Power Hunger and the Hypocrisy Bankrupted a Nation

971 views
11 mins read

Over the last several months, intellectuals, politicians, and international development agencies have discussed the Sri Lankan economy and fiscal policy more than ever for its mismanagement. The words “foreign Reserves” and ‘’foreign Exchange” have become a common topic even among ordinary people who have never used those words. They talk more about the dollar than the rupee earnings and think the dollar is the panacea for all the economy’s ills. At the time of independence, the world community thought Sri Lanka would be a model economy for most developing countries. Sri Lanka was the second most prosperous country next to Japan in the Asian region. The country had fulfilled most preconditions to take off on the growth tract. However, it struggled to reach the status of a lower middle-income country for 50 years till 1997, while many other developing countries surpassed Sri Lanka. Eventually, in terms of World Bank classifications, Sri Lanka was elevated to a lower middle-income country in 1997. Since then, it has struggled in the lower middle-income trap and reached the status of an upper middle-income country in 2019, after 21 years. But, within a brief period, in 2020, under the World Bank classification, Sri Lanka was downgraded again to a lower middle-income country due to the sharpening economic crisis.

Since the transfer of ruling power from colonial masters to local elites, the fiscal policy adopted by Sri Lanka is short-sighted, irrational, arbitrary and not growth-oriented or sustainable. Those are aimed at winning the heart of constituents to win the next election and remain in power forever. The budgetary policy is nurtured as a bribe to the constituents to grab or stay in power.   Throughout history, with changes in government or leadership, policies have oscillated between growth and welfare orientation without policy consistency. Therefore, frequent ups and downs are observed in the path of economic growth. This policy inconsistency has caused catastrophic long-term and short-term economic ramifications. In the 1970s, in the journey to industrialisation, the country faced a scarcity of all imported consumer and intermediate goods due to strict import controls. Rations, coupons, and permits became part and parcel of daily life. Two prices, the control price and the black-market price, became the normal market situation for goods. People had to spend their time in queues to purchase goods for a controlled price. The policy priority was the protection and encouragement of the producer. This was done at the cost of consumer rights and preference.

 In 1978, the policy was reversed and removed all import restrictions. The market was flooded with inferior, superior, cheap, expensive, wanted, and unwanted imported goods, prioritising the consumer and consumption. The producer has been deserted without policy support. Following the open economic policy for 24 years till 2017, the year of the highest per capita GDP, the growth rate was maintained above 4%, except in 2001, when a 1.55 % negative growth was reported. In 2002, followed by a negative growth rate, the country faced near bankruptcy, with the government’s debt reaching 105.5% of the GDP. In 2002, the government made several changes in the overall economic policy, including the fiscal policy. The approach was more focused on growth than welfare. Though many opposed pruning welfare programs and privatising public enterprises, the government exerted considerable fiscal control. It trended the debt ratio downward to 90.6 % by 2005, controlled inflation and commenced the gradual economic recovery. From 2005 to 2012, the country maintained a GDP growth rate above 5%, and from 2010 to 2012, it was above 7% for three consecutive years, and the per capita GDP rose above US$ 4077 in 2017. The main contributor to this rapid GDP growth was the construction boom in the public sector infrastructure, funded under local and foreign commercial borrowings. However, there were no adequate investments in goods and service production to sustain the growth momentum generated by the construction boom. As such, the economy could not substantially reap the potential of new infrastructure. In other words, the volume of investment made in the infrastructure within a brief period was beyond the economy’s absorption capacity. The government was forced to service loans before bearing the fruits of costly investments.

As a combined effect of many inappropriate economic and fiscal management decisions and political crises, the growth rate became negligible or has fallen negative since 2018. The GDP per capita income fell from US$4077 in 2017 to US$ 3815 in 2021. An 8.4% negative growth rate has been recorded for the first half of 2022.  The government’s debt ratio exceeded 100% again in 2020 and 107% in 2021. The credit rating of Sri Lanka has been downgraded to very low by rating agencies, disabling any further borrowings. Foreign reserves depleted to near zero, compelling for rigorous import control. The government was forced to print money relentlessly to meet its essential domestic expenditure leading to hyperinflation. It eventually defaulted on the repayment of foreign loans and relegated the country to bankruptcy. Days and miles-long queues for essentials became familiar scenes everywhere in the country. Now, the destiny of the proud and conservative Island nation is in the hands of its friends and enemies.

Is it a Premediated Bankruptcy?

At the time of Sri Lanka’s independence, her macro economy was very healthy. Balance of payment, foreign reserves and balancing the national budget were not significant issues. However, after 1957, Sri Lanka’s trade balance was always negative. As a ratio to the GDP, the trade balance was above minus 6% from 1990 to 2021. Consequent to a continuous and extensive negative trade balance, balance of payment and budget deficit, the government has been highly dependent on foreign borrowing for more than six decades.  During the 1970s and 1980s government’s revenue ratio to the GDP was above 20%. But since 1991, it has declined rapidly, reaching 8.6 % of the GDP in 2021

During the 1970s, the government debt ratio to GDP was around 60 % and reached 84% in 1980. From 1990 to 2000, the debt ratio increased above 96% and went to 105.5% in 2002. After that, a declining trend was visible, dropping to 77.7% in 1915 and remaining below 79% for three years till 2017. Again, the increasing trend was accelerated, jumping the ratio from 84.2% in 2018 to 107.1% in 2021. In the early stages, the borrowing was from multi-lateral and bilateral agencies on concessionary terms. Sri Lanka denied concessionary credits for many sectors after it became a lower-middle-income country. Then the government opted for borrowing from bilateral agencies at relatively higher interest rates and medium-term repayment periods. Since 2007, Sri Lanka has issued several international sovereign bonds with maturity periods of 5 to 10 years. By the end of 2021, the total outstanding external debt of the government reached US$ 50.7 billion, of which 47% is market borrowings, which are short-term and high costs. These market borrowings were mainly used to repay previous loans. Later, the government was compelled to do market borrowing to settle previous market borrowings, entangling the country into a debt trap.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, government expenditure was around 30% of the GDP. During this period, the government revenue ratio to the GDP was also high, about 20% or above. Till 2015, the overall budget deficit was high, above 7%.  Due to the policy changes in 2015, the budget deficit decreased to 5.5% in 2017 and 5.3% in 2018.  However, with the policy reversal in the latter part of 2019, it increased again, reaching 12.2% in 2021. In addition to the policy changes, the corvid-19 pandemic also contributed to the budget deficit and demanded more government expenditure than expected. Since 2020, these deficits have been chiefly financed from local borrowings and money printings, an inflationary tool.

While struggling to find additional revenue to meet increasing public sector expenditure, the new government made a highly irrational ad-hoc decision to reduce taxes in December 2019. The maximum personal income tax rate was reduced from 24.5% to 18%, and the thresh hold of taxable income was increased from Rs.500,000 to Rs. 3,000,000. Consequently, the total number of income taxpayers decreased from 1,705,233 in 2019 to 133,445 in 2020, reflecting a 92% reduction.  The VAT rate was reduced from 15% to 08 %, and the thresh hold for VAT registration was increased from Rs.12,000 to 3,000,000, resulting in a reduction of VAT registries from 28,914 in 2019 to 8,152 in 2020, reflecting an 83 % decline.  Also, the standard corporate income tax rate was reduced from 28% to 24%.

The Economic Service Charge, Nation Building Tax, withholding tax and Debt Repayment Levy was also abolished. After replacing the PAYE system with the APIT scheme, the total number of contributors dropped to 664 828 in 2020 and lost the mechanism for regular inflow of income, which used to receive without much cost and effort.  All these changes were made effective from the beginning of 2020, pending formal parliamentary approval. According to the Central Banks Annual Report 2020, the government tax revenue in 2020 has declined by Rs 518.4 billion compared to the previous year. Considering the high price level of 2022, which is affected by hyperinflation, the revenue loss may exceed Rs. 1,100 billion. The income tax reduction increased the purchasing power of the upper middle class and the rich, which created an additional demand to import non-essential or luxury goods, exerting pressure on already sicked foreign reserves.

Even before the said tax alienation, the government had faced a heavy budget deficit, a negative balance of payment and depleting foreign reserves for many years. The government was pressured to do more local and foreign borrowings to service previous loans and continue with the welfare and development-oriented budget. This is a significant fiscal challenge faced by all governments after depleting the avenues for foreign grants and concessionary credits. The IMF and World Bank kept advising Sri Lanka to take appropriate action to improve government revenue, rationalise expenditure, and minimise corruption instead of costly commercial borrowings.

While all these ailments are in the backdrop, the government has decided to reduce taxes significantly for unknown reasons without any cost-benefit analysis. One obvious thing is that the decision is not based on economic, social, or broader political interests. According to the Central Bank Annual Report -2020, “the government implemented measures to lower the tax burden of business and individuals, thereby supporting the rebuilding of economic activities and enhancing incomes of the people”. The isolated ad-hoc policy instrument did not work, while all other harmful factors for investment remained unchanged. Instead, it negatively affected the overall economy and government budget, creating multiplier effects.

Is it a result of Ignorance or a Political Gimmick?

As explained above, a persistent budget deficit due to declining government revenue, increasing expenditure, and unfavourable trade balance became a chronic issue. After opening the economy, the fiscal policy was more weighted toward a consumption-oriented economy than a production-oriented economy.  The constituents also got accustomed to using voting power to bargain for more and more government handouts. Political parties are also accustomed to pledging more and more subsidies and free goodies in their election campaigns(bribes) instead of telling the truth to the people and facing reality.

Since 1965, Sri Lanka has sought the assistance of the International Monetary Fund on 16 occasions for bailout packages to heal economic wounds, especially the negative balance of payment. The IMF assistance is always conditional that Sri Lanka will undertake structural adjustments for the long-term sustainability of the economy. Among them, fiscal and economic reforms such as the devaluation of the rupee, controlling the government expenditure, strengthening the government revenue, reducing the budget deficit, correcting the price distortion in the market, privatising the loss-making state-own enterprises, minimising/alleviating corruption, targeting the subsidies only to the poor, supporting an export-oriented economy are the prominent recommendations/conditions.  On every occasion, the same conditions have been enforced with some modifications. However, a new requirement has been proposed for the 17th occasion in 2022, requiring negotiating with lenders for credit restructuring. On every occasion, the government has agreed to IMF conditions. But, once the bailout package is disbursed, agreed requirements are disregarded and back to loosen fiscal policy for political advantage. No political party have learned a lesson from past mistakes and keeps repeating the same. They expect camouflaging fundamental issues to mislead the donors, and the people can continue forever.  Suppose we had fully complied with the agreed requirements and continued with a growth-oriented fiscal policy and economic restructuring for several years. In that case, we could have cured the wound permanently without recurring it. But the government’s behaviour is like enabling the patient to move from the sick bed; the patient escapes from the hospital without facing the surgery.

On all previous occasions, the government approached the IMF before bankrupting the economy and benefited from bail-out packages. Since the beginning of 2020, the symptoms of the economic crisis have been visible. However, the government was reluctant to seek IMF assistance due to the possible challenging fiscal discipline that may enforce on the eve of the general election. Even after the general election, the government wanted to maintain a loose budgetary policy to accommodate popular election pledges. Towards the middle of 2021, it was clear that the economy would collapse without severe remedial actions and policy reversal. Even at this stage, the authorities did not realise the gravity of the situation and thought the same loosened policy could be continued with temporary homegrown solutions. An attempt was made to relieve the foreign exchange crisis by controlling the imports while keeping the value of the rupee artificially high. Also, the authorities believed the government could service all external borrowings without defaulting through the savings generated from import restrictions and printing money to finance the domestic expenditure, guided by the “new monetary theory”.  Available foreign reserves were used to service the external borrowings and maintain the rupee’s value artificially high. But they did not understand that this solution would deprive the people’s basic needs and collapse the domestic economy, which depends heavily on imported inputs.

At the beginning of 2022, it had proved that all homegrown solutions have miserably failed, and the country is running into a catastrophe. Towards the end of the first quarter of the year2022, the economy virtually collapsed, without foreign exchange to import petroleum, coal, gas, medicine, essential food items and many more. Eventually, the rupee was floated and allowed to depreciate. The immediate impact was the devaluation of the rupee by more than a hundred per cent pushing the cost-of-living sky high and days-long queues for all essentials, including fuel, food, and medicine. Meanwhile, the government was compelled to default on repayment of foreign loans to save the meagre foreign exchange for importing bear minimums. Due to the speculation of further devaluation of the rupee, foreign exchange earners stopped sending their earnings to the country through official channels. The country came to a standstill without inputs and mobility for industries, agriculture, and day-to-day operations for living. This resulted in multiplier effects such as constraints on industries resulting in low export income, high demand for imports, unemployment, low tax income to the government etc., creating a vicious cycle. It came to total anarchy, creating a political nightmare. Social unrest escalated to an unmanageable level, and eventually, the democratically elected president and prime minister were forced to resign.

Eventually, after failing all home-grown solutions, the government sought IMF assistance to bail out the crisis in April 2022. Then it was too late, and people and the economy suffered severely. Consequently, the recovery period will be much longer than the average IMF support program. Perhaps, it may take another five to six years to reach the per capita GDP to the 2017 level. If this decision had been taken at least in mid-2021, the recovery period could have been shorter, with less damage to the people and the economy. Relevant authorities could have bungled the episode from December 2019 to June 2002. But it isn’t easy to believe, as the president and finance minister were backed by many senior economists and experienced development administrators. Perhaps it may be the ego and deformed ideologies of the relevant authorities who are unwilling to listen to others’ views and productive criticisms. Another possibility is that some forces could have conspired by assigning bunglers to critical positions to mismanage the economy and thereby oust the non-political carrier president and capture power. This inference seems more pertinent, having observed entire political episodes from December 2019. Whatever the cause behind it, it has created long-lasting adverse socio-economic effects. Some of them are irreparable, such as child malnutrition and health hazards. Perhaps those who have abandoned farming may not be into agriculture again.

Conclusions

The limping economic legacy of over half a century has been further aggravated due to the nonsensical tax reduction in December 2019 and several other senseless decisions taken by the new government.  Accelerated unproductive government expenditure, such as recruiting 50,000 unemployed graduates and 100,000 unskilled less educated youths to the public sector, Weda Lakshayak (hundred thousand projects) and the 100,000 Km Road program, put more burden on the already unwieldy budget. Banning chemical fertilisers paralysed agricultural production. Alienating a considerable volume of government revenue, overnight switching to organic agriculture, and blindly trusting homegrown solutions for structural economic issues are the most preposterous decisions ever taken by a government. All these could have resulted from ill advice by bunglers guided by personnel agendas and deformed ideologies.

Since its independence, the power-greedy politicians competitively made Sri Lanka a nation lacking self-confidence and depending on subsidies and lives beyond its means. As a nation, Sri Lanka consumes more than it produces. To overcome this situation, we must learn to live within our means. There is no free lunch. Everything has a price. People must be ready to enter an era of new economic and political order. People must be prepared to produce more than they consume. Politicians in power should allow newcomers to take the reins and change the whole system to match the modern world instead of reinforcing the century-old corroded systems. The bureaucrats should be ready to switch on par with the contemporary world, proactive and able to drive the political masters on the right track instead of carrying forward the residua of feudal administration practices of their predecessors. All stakeholders in the governance system should be thoroughly determined to avoid financial and power corruption. We need a charismatic patriotic leader who can transform the whole society into a forward-looking, dynamic one.

Whither Colombia’s fragile struggle

796 views
6 mins read

Each year, in the last weeks of September, the world’s leaders gather in New York City to speak at the podium of the United Nations General Assembly. The speeches can usually be forecasted well in advance, either tired articulations of values that do not get acted upon or belligerent voices that threaten war in an institution built to prevent war.

However, every once in a while, a speech shines through, a voice emanates from the chamber and echoes around the world for its clarity and sincerity. This year, that voice belongs to Colombia’s recently inaugurated president, Gustavo Petro, whose brief remarks distilled with poetic precision the problems in our world and the cascading crises of social distress, the addiction to money and power, the climate catastrophe and environmental destruction. ‘It is time for peace’, President Petro said. ‘We are also at war with the planet. Without peace with the planet, there will be no peace among nations. Without social justice, there is no social peace’.

Colombia has been gripped by violence since it won its independence from Spain in 1810. This violence emanated from Colombia’s elites, whose insatiable desire for wealth has meant the absolute impoverishment of the people and the failure of the country to develop anything that resembles liberalism. Decades of political action to build the confidence of the masses in Colombia culminated in a cycle of protests beginning in 2019 that led to Petro’s electoral victory. The new centre-left government has pledged to build social democratic institutions in Colombia and to banish the country’s culture of violence. Though the Colombian army, like armed forces around the world, prepares for war, President Petro told them in August 2022 that they must now ‘prepare for peace’ and must become ‘an army of peace’.

When thinking about violence in a country like Colombia, there is a temptation to focus on drugs, cocaine in particular. The violence, it is often suggested, is an outgrowth of the illicit cocaine trade. But this is an ahistorical assessment. Colombia experienced terrible bloodshed long before highly processed cocaine became increasingly popular from the 1960s onwards. The country’s elite has used murderous force to prevent any dilution of its power, including the 1948 assassination of Jorge Gaitán, the former mayor of Colombia’s capital of Bogotá, that led to a period known as La Violencia (‘The Violence’). Liberal politicians and communist militants faced the steel of the Colombian army and police on behalf of this granite block of power backed by the United States, which has used Colombia to extend its power into South America. Fig leaves of various types were used to cover over the ambitions of the Colombian elite and their benefactors in Washington. In the 1990s, one such cover was the War on Drugs.

By all accounts – whether of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime or the US government’s Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) – the largest consumers of illegal narcotics (cannabis, opioids, and cocaine) are in North America and Western Europe. A recent UN study shows that ‘cocaine use in the United States has been fluctuating and increasing after 2013 with a more stable trend observed in 2019’. The War on Drugs strategy, initiated by the United States and Western countries, has had a two-pronged approach to the drug crisis: first, to criminalise retailers in Western countries and, second, to go to war against the peasants who produce the raw material in these drugs in countries such as Colombia.

In the United States, for instance, almost two million people – disproportionately Black and Latino – are caught in the prison industrial complex, with 400,000 of them imprisoned or on probation for nonviolent drug offences (mostly as petty dealers in a vastly profitable drug empire). The collapse of employment opportunities for young people in working-class areas and the allure of wages from the drug economy continue to attract low-level employees of the global drug commodity chain, despite the dangers of this profession. The War on Drugs has made a negligible impact on this pipeline, which is why many countries have now begun to decriminalise drug possession and drug use (particularly cannabis).

The obduracy of the Colombian elite – backed by the US government – to allow any democratic space to open in the country led the left to take up armed struggle in 1964 and then return to the gun when the elite shut down the promise of the democratic path in the 1990s. In the name of the war against the armed left as well as the War on Drugs, the Colombian military and police have crushed any dissent in the country. Despite evidence of the financial and political ties between the Colombian elite, narco-paramilitaries, and drug cartels, the United States government initiated Plan Colombia in 1999 to funnel $12 billion to the Colombian military to deepen this war (in 2006, when he was a senator, Petro revealed the nexus between these diabolical forces, for which his family was threatened with violence).

As part of this war, the Colombian armed forces dropped the terrible chemical weapon glyphosate on the peasantry (in 2015, the World Health Organisation said that this chemical is ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’ and, in 2017, the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled that its use must be restricted). In 2020, the following assessment was offered in the Harvard International Review: ‘Instead of reducing cocaine production, Plan Colombia has actually caused cocaine production and transport to shift into other areas. Additionally, militarisation in the war on drugs has caused violence in the country to increase’. This is precisely what President Petro told the world at the United Nations.

The most recent DEA report notes that cocaine use in the United States remains steady and that ‘deaths from drug poisoning involving cocaine have increased every year since 2013’. US drug policy is focused on law enforcement, aiming merely to reduce the domestic availability of cocaine. Washington will spend 45% of its drug budget on law enforcement, 49% on treatment for drug addicts, and a mere 6% on prevention. The lack of emphasis on prevention is revealing. Rather than tackle the drug crisis as a demand-side problem, the US and other Western governments pretend that it is a supply-side problem that can be dealt with by using military force against petty drug dealers and peasants who grow the coca plant. Petro’s cry from the heart at the United Nations attempted to call attention to the root causes of the drug crisis:

According to the irrational power of the world, the market that razes existence is not to blame; it is the jungle and those who live in it that are to blame. Bank accounts have become unlimited; the money saved by the most powerful people on Earth could not even be spent over the course of centuries. The empty existence produced by the artificiality of competition is filled with noise and drugs. The addiction to money and to possessions has another face: the drug addiction of people who lose the competition in the artificial race that humanity has become. The sickness of loneliness is not cured by [dousing] the forests with glyphosate; the forest is not to blame. To blame is your society educated by endless consumption, by the stupid confusion between consumption and happiness that allows the pockets of the powerful to fill with money.

The War on Drugs, Petro said, is a war on the Colombian peasantry and a war on the precarious poor in Western countries. We do not need this war, he said; instead, we need to struggle to build a peaceful society that does not sap meaning from the hearts of people who are treated as a surplus to society’s logic.

As a young man, Petro was part of the M-19 guerrilla movement, one of the organisations that attempted to break the chokehold that Colombia’s elites held over the country’s democracy. One of his comrades was the poet María Mercedes Carranza (1945–2003), who wrote searingly about the violence thrust upon her country in her book Hola, Soledad (‘Hello, Solitude’) (1987), capturing the desolation in her poem ‘La Patria’ (‘The Homeland’):

In this house, everything is in ruins,

in ruins are hugs and music,

each morning, destiny, laughter are in ruins,

tears, silence, dreams.

The windows show destroyed landscapes,

flesh and ash on people’s faces,

words combine with fear in their mouths.

In this house, we are all buried alive.

Carranza took her life when the fires of hell swept through Colombia.

A peace agreement in 2016, a cycle of protests from 2019, and now the election of Petro and Francia Márquez in 2022 have wiped the ash off the faces of the Colombian people and provided them with an opportunity to try and rebuild their house. The end of the War on Drugs, that is, the war on the Colombian peasantry, will only advance Colombia’s fragile struggle towards peace and democracy.

Source: Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. Click here to read the original

Without Culture, Freedom Is Impossible

766 views
6 mins read

In 2002, Cuba’s President Fidel Castro Ruz visited the country’s National Ballet School to inaugurate the 18th Havana International Ballet Festival. Founded in 1948 by the prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso (1920–2019), the school struggled financially until the Cuban Revolution decided that ballet – like other art forms – must be available to everyone and so must be socially financed. At the school in 2002, Castro remembered that the first festival, held in 1960, ‘asserted Cuba’s cultural vocation, identity, and nationality, even under the most adverse circumstances, when major dangers and threats loomed over the country’.

Ballet, like so many cultural forms, had been stolen from popular participation and enjoyment. The Cuban Revolution wanted to return this artistic practice to the people as part of its determination to advance human dignity. To build a revolution in a country assaulted by colonial barbarism, the new revolutionary process had to both establish the country’s sovereignty and build the dignity of each of its people. This dual task is the work of national liberation. ‘Without culture’, Castro said, ‘freedom is not possible’. 

In many languages, the word ‘culture’ has at least two meanings. In bourgeois society, culture has come to mean both refinement and the high arts. A property of the dominant classes, this culture is inherited through the transmission of manners and higher education. The second meaning of culture is the way of life, including beliefs and practices, of a people who are part of a community (from a tribe to a nation). The Cuban Revolution’s democratisation of ballet and classical music, for instance, was part of its attempt to socialise all forms of human life, from the economic to the cultural. Furthermore, the revolutionary processes attempted to protect the cultural heritage of the Cuban people from the pernicious influence of the culture of colonialism. To be precise, to ‘protect’ did not mean to reject the entirety of the coloniser’s culture, since that would enforce a parochial life on a people who must have access to all forms of culture. Cuba’s Revolution adopted baseball, for instance, despite its roots in the United States, the very country that has sought to suffocate Cuba for six decades.

A socialist approach to culture, therefore, requires four aspects: the democratisation of forms of high culture, the protection of the cultural heritage of formerly colonised peoples, the advancement of the basic elements of cultural literacy, and the domestication of cultural forms that come from the colonising power. 

In July 2022, I delivered a lecture at Cuba’s Casa de las Américas, a major institution in Havana’s cultural life and a heartbeat of cultural developments from Chile to Mexico, that centred on ten theses on Marxism and decolonisation. A few days later, Casa’s director, Abel Prieto, also a former minister of culture, convened a seminar there to discuss some of these themes, principally how Cuban society had to both defend itself from the onrush of imperialist cultural forms and from the pernicious inheritance of racism and patriarchy. This discussion provoked a series of reflections on the process of the National Programme Against Racism and Racial Discrimination announced by President Miguel Díaz-Canel in November 2019 and on the process that led to the 2022 Family Code referendum (which will come to a popular vote on 25 September) – two dynamics that have the capacity to transform Cuban society in an anti-colonial direction.

Dossier no. 56 (September 2022) from Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and Casa de las Américas, Ten Theses on Marxism and Decolonisation, contains an expanded version of that lecture with a foreword by Abel Prieto. To give you a taste of it, here is thesis nine on the Battle of Emotions: 

Thesis Nine: The Battle of Emotions. Fidel Castro provoked a debate in the 1990s around the concept of the Battle of Ideas, the class struggle in thought against the banalities of neoliberal conceptions of human life. A key part of Fidel’s speeches from this period was not just what he said but how he said it, each word suffused with the great compassion of a man committed to the liberation of humanity from the tentacles of property, privilege, and power. In fact, the Battle of Ideas was not merely about the ideas themselves, but also about a ‘battle of emotions’, an attempt to shift the palate of emotions from a fixation on greed to considerations of empathy and hope.

One of the true challenges of our time is the bourgeoisie’s use of the culture industries and the institutions of education and faith to divert attention away from any substantial discussion about real problems – and about finding common solutions to social dilemmas – and towards an obsession with fantasy problems. In 1935, the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch called this the ‘swindle of fulfilment’, the seeding of a range of fantasies to mask their impossible realisation. The benefit of social production, Bloch wrote, ‘is reaped by the big capitalist upper stratum, which employs gothic dreams against proletarian realities’. The entertainment industry erodes proletarian culture with the acid of aspirations that cannot be fulfilled under the capitalist system. But these aspirations are enough to weaken any working-class project.

A degraded society under capitalism produces a social life that is suffused with atomisation and alienation, desolation and fear, anger and hate, resentment and failure. These are ugly emotions that are shaped and promoted by the culture industries (‘you can have it too!’), educational establishments (‘greed is the prime mover’), and neo-fascists (‘hate immigrants, sexual minorities, and anyone else who denies you your dreams’). The grip of these emotions on society is almost absolute, and the rise of neo-fascists is premised upon this fact. Meaning feels emptied, perhaps the result of a society of spectacles that has now run its course.

From a Marxist perspective, culture is not seen as an isolated and timeless aspect of human reality, nor are emotions seen as a world of their own or as being outside of the developments of history. Since human experiences are defined by the conditions of material life, ideas of fate will linger on as long as poverty is a feature of human life. If poverty is transcended, then fatalism will have a less secure ideological foundation, but it does not automatically get displaced. Cultures are contradictory, bringing together a range of elements in uneven ways out of the social fabric of an unequal society that oscillates between reproducing class hierarchy and resisting elements of social hierarchy. Dominant ideologies suffuse culture through the tentacles of ideological apparatuses like a tidal wave, overwhelming the actual experiences of the working class and the peasantry. It is, after all, through class struggle and through the new social formations created by socialist projects that new cultures will be created – not merely by wishful thinking.

It is important to recall that, in the early years of each of the revolutionary processes – from Russia in 1917 to Cuba in 1959 – cultural efflorescence was saturated with the emotions of joy and possibility, of intense creativity and experimentation. It is this sensibility that offers a window into something other than the ghoulish emotions of greed and hatred.

In the early years after 1959, Cuba convulsed with such surges of creativity and experimentation. Nicolás Guillén (1902–1969), a great revolutionary poet who had been imprisoned during Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship, captured the harshness of life and the great desire for the revolutionary process to emancipate the Cuban people from the wretchedness of hunger and social hierarchies. His poem ‘Tengo’ (‘I Have’) from 1964 tells us that the new culture of the revolution was elemental – the feeling that one did not have to bow one’s shoulders before a superior, to say to workers in offices that they too are comrades and not ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’, to walk as a Black man into a hotel without being told to stop at the door. His great anti-colonial poem alerts us to culture’s material foundations:

I have, let’s see,
I’ve learned to read,
to count.
I’ve learned to write,
and to think,
and to laugh.
I have, yes, I have
a place to work
and earn
what I have to eat.
I have, let’s see,
I have what I have to have.

At the close of his foreword to the dossier, Abel Prieto writes, ‘we must turn the meaning of anti-colonial into an instinct’. Reflect on that for a moment: anti-colonialism is not just the ending of formal colonial rule, but a deeper process, one that must become ingrained at the instinctual level so that we can build the capacity to solve our basic needs (such as transcending hunger and illiteracy, for instance) and build our alertness to the need for cultures that emancipate us and do not bind us to the flashy world of unaffordable commodities.

Source: The Tri Continental.Org

The CIA is not your friend

12300 views
6 mins read

“Better that right counsels be known to enemies than that the evil secrets of tyrants should be concealed from the citizens. They who can treat secretly of the affairs of a nation have it absolutely under their authority; and as they plot against the enemy in time of war, so do they against the citizens in time of peace.” ― Baruch Spinoza

It hasn’t been a month since President Biden mounted the steps of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, declaring it his duty to ensure each of us understands the central faction of his political opposition are extremists that “threaten the very foundations of our Republic.” Flanked by the uniformed icons of his military and standing atop a Leni Riefenstahl stage, the leader clenched his fists to illustrate seizing the future from the forces of “fear, division, and darkness.” The words falling from the teleprompter ran rich with the language of violence, a “dagger at the throat” emerging from the “shadow of lies.”

“What’s happening in our country,” the President said, “is not normal.”

Is he wrong to think that? The question the speech intended to raise—the one lost in the unintentionally villainous pageantry—is whether and how we are to continue as a democracy and a nation of laws. For all the Twitter arguments over Biden’s propositions, there has been little consideration of his premises.

Democracy and the rule of law have been so frequently invoked as a part of the American political brand that we simply take it for granted that we enjoy both.

Are we right to think that?

Our glittering nation of laws observes this year two birthdays: the 70th anniversary of the National Security Agency, on which my thoughts have been recorded, and the 75th anniversary of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The CIA was founded in the wake of the 1947 National Security Act. The Act foresaw no need for the Courts and Congress to oversee a simple information-aggregation facility, and therefore subordinated it exclusively to the President, through the National Security Council he controls.

Within a year, the young agency had already slipped the leash of its intended role of intelligence collection and analysis to establish a covert operations division. Within a decade, the CIA was directing the coverage of American news organizations, overthrowing democratically elected governments (at times merely to benefit a favored corporation), establishing propaganda outfits to manipulate public sentiment, launching a long-running series of mind-control experiments on unwitting human subjects (purportedly contributing to the creation of the Unabomber), and—gaspinterfering with foreign elections. From there, it was a short hop to wiretapping journalists and compiling files on Americans who opposed its wars.

In 1963, no less than former President Harry Truman confessed that the very agency he personally signed into law had transformed into something altogether different than he intended, writing:

“For some time I have been disturbed by the way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the Government. This has led to trouble…”

Many today comfort themselves by imagining that the Agency has been reformed, and that such abuses are relics of the distant past, but what few reforms our democracy has won have been watered-down or compromised. The limited “Intelligence Oversight” role that was eventually conceded to Congress in order to placate the public has never been taken seriously by either the committee’s majority—which prefers cheerleading over investigating—or by the Agency itself, which continues to conceal politically-sensitive operations from the very group most likely to defend them.

“Congress should have been told,” said [Senator] Dianne Feinstein. “We should have been briefed before the commencement of this kind of sensitive program. Director Panetta… was told that the vice president had ordered that the program not be briefed to Congress.”

How can we judge the ultimate effectiveness of oversight and reforms? Well, the CIA plotted to assassinate my friend, American whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, in 1972, yet nearly fifty years of “reforms” did little to inhibit them from recently sketching out another political murder targeting Julian Assange. Putting that in perspective, you probably own shoes older than the CIA’s most recent plot to murder a dissident… or rather the most recent plot that we know of.

If you believe the Assange case to be a historical anomaly, some aberration unique to Trump White House, recall that the CIA’s killings have continued in series across administrations. Obama ordered the killing of an American far from any battlefield, and killed his 16 year-old American son a few weeks later, but the man’s American daughter was still alive by the time Obama left.

Within a month of entering the White House, Trump killed her.

She was 8 years old.

It goes beyond assassinations. Within recent memory, the CIA captured Gul Rahman, who we know was not Al-Qaeda, but it seems did save the life of Afghanistan’s future (pro-US) President. Rahman was placed in what the Agency described as a “dungeon” and tortured until he died.

They stripped him naked, save a diaper he couldn’t change, in a cold so wicked that his guards, in their warm clothes, ran heaters for themselves. In absolute darkness, they bolted his hands and feet to a single point on the floor with a very short chain so that it was impossible to stand or lie down – a practice called “short shackling” – and after he died, claimed that it was for his own safety. They admit to beating him, even describing the “forceful punches.” They describe the blood that ran from his nose and mouth as he died.

Just pages later, in their formal conclusion, declare that there was no evidence of beating. There was no evidence torture. The CIA ascribes responsibility for his death to hypothermia, which they blamed on him for the crime of refusing, on his final night, a meal from the men that killed him.

In the aftermath, the Agency concealed the death of Gul Rahman from his family. To this day, they refuse to reveal what happened to his remains, denying those who survive him a burial, or even some locus of mourning.

Ten years after the torture program investigated, exposed, and ended, no one was charged for their role in these crimes. The man responsible for Rahman’s death was recommended for a $2,500 card award — for “consistently superior work”.

A different torturer was elevated to the Director’s seat.

This summer, in a speech marking the occasion of the CIA’s 75th birthday, President Biden struck a quite different note than he did in Philadelphia, reciting what the CIA instructs all presidents: that the soul of the institution really lies in speaking truth to power.

“We turn to you with the big questions,” Biden said, “the hardest questions. And we count on you to give your best, unvarnished assessment of where we are.  And I emphasize “‘unvarnished.’”

But this itself is a variety of varnishing — a whitewash.

For what reason do we aspire to maintain — or achieve — a nation of laws, if not to establish justice?

Let us say we have a democracy, shining and pure. The people, or in our case some subset of people, institute reasonable laws to which government and citizen alike must answer. The sense of justice that arises within such a society is not produced as a result of the mere presence of law, which can be tyrannical and capricious, or even elections, which face their own troubles, but is rather derived from the reason and fairness of the system that results.

What would happen if we were to insert into this beautiful nation of laws an extralegal entity that is not directed by the people, but a person: the President? Have we protected the nation’s security, or have we placed it at risk?

This is the unvarnished truth: the establishment of an institution charged with breaking the law within a nation of laws has mortally wounded its founding precept. 

From the year it was established, Presidents and their cadres have regularly directed the CIA to go beyond the law for reasons that cannot be justified, and therefore must be concealed — classified. The primary result of the classification system is not an increase in national security, but a decrease in transparency. Without meaningful transparency, there is no accountability, and without accountability, there is no learning.

The consequences have been deadly, for both Americans and our victims. When the CIA armed the Mujaheddin to wage war on Soviet Afghanistan, we created al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden. Ten years later, the CIA is arming, according to then-Vice President Joe Biden, “al-Nusra, and Al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.” After the CIA runs a disinformation operation to make life hard for the Soviet Union by fueling a little proxy war, the war rages for twenty-six years — far beyond the Union’s collapse.

Do you believe that the CIA today — a CIA free from all consequence and accountability — is uninvolved in similar activities? Can you find no presence of their fingerprints in the events of the world, as described in the headlines, that provide cause for concern? Yet it is those who question the wisdom of placing a paramilitary organization beyond the reach of our courts that are dismissed as “naive.”

For 75 years, the American people have been unable to bend the CIA to fit the law, and so the law has been bent to fit the CIA. As Biden stood on the crimson stage, at the site where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were debated and adopted, his words rang out like the cry of a cracked-to-hell Liberty Bell: “What’s happening in our country is not normal.”

If only that were true. 

Mendaciousness of Monarchy

901 views
8 mins read

No institution helps obscure the crimes of empire and buttress class rule and white supremacy as effectively as the British monarchy.

The fawning adulation of Queen Elizabeth in the United States, which fought a revolution to get rid of the monarchy, and in Great Britain, is in direct proportion to the fear gripping a discredited, incompetent and corrupt global ruling elite.

The global oligarchs are not sure the next generation of royal sock puppets – mediocrities that include a pedophile prince and his brother, a cranky and eccentric king who accepted suitcases and bags stuffed with $3.2 million in cash from the former prime minister of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, and who has millions stashed in offshore accounts – are up to the job. Let’s hope they are right.

“Having a monarchy next door is a little like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and has daubed their house with clown murals, displays clown dolls in each window and has an insatiable desire to hear about and discuss clown-related news stories,” Patrick Freyne wrote last year in The Irish Times. “More specifically, for the Irish, it’s like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and, also, your grandfather was murdered by a clown.”

Monarchy obscures the crimes of empire and wraps them in nostalgia. It exalts white supremacy and racial hierarchy. It justifies class rule. It buttresses an economic and social system that callously discards and often consigns to death those considered the lesser breeds, most of whom are people of color. The queen’s husband Prince Phillip, who died in 2021, was notorious for making racist and sexist remarks, politely explained away in the British press as “gaffes.” He described Beijing, for example, as “ghastly” during a 1986 visit and told British students: “If you stay here much longer you’ll all be slitty-eyed.

Tip of Iceberg of Crimes Records

The cries of the millions of victims of empire; the thousands killedtortured, raped and imprisoned during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya; the 13 Irish civilians gunned down in “Bloody Sunday;” the more than 4,100 First Nations children who died or went missing in Canada’s residential schools, government-sponsored institutions established to “assimilate” indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture, and the hundreds of thousands killed during the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan are drowned out by cheers for royal processions and the sacral aura an obsequious press weaves around the aristocracy. The coverage of the queen’s death is so mind-numbingly vapid — the BBC sent out a news alert on Saturday when Prince Harry and Prince William, accompanied by their wives, surveyed the floral tributes to their grandmother displayed outside Windsor Castle — that the press might as well turn over the coverage to the mythmakers and publicists employed by the royal family.

The royals are oligarchs. They are guardians of their class. The world’s largest landowners include King Mohammed VI of Morocco with 176 million acres, the HolyRoman Catholic Church with 177 million acres, the heirs of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia with 531 million acres and now, King Charles III with 6.6 billion acres of land. British monarchs are worth almost $28 billion. The British public will provide a $33 million subsidy to the Royal Family over the next two years, although the average household in the U.K. saw its income fall for the longest period since records began in 1955 and 227,000 households experience homelessness in Britain. 

Royals, to the ruling class, are worth the expense. They are effective tools of subjugation. British postal and rail workers canceled planned strikes over pay and working conditions after the queen’s death. The Trade Union Congress (TUC) postponed its congress. Labour Party members poured out heartfelt tributes. Even Extinction Rebellion, which should know better, indefinitely canceled its planned “Festival of Resistance.” The BBC’s Clive Myrie dismissed Britain’s energy crisis — caused by the war in Ukraine — that has thrown millions of people into severe financial distress as “insignificant” compared with concerns over the queen’s health. The climate emergency, pandemic, the deadly folly of the U.S. and NATO’s proxy war in Ukraine, soaring inflation, the rise of neo-fascist movements and deepening social inequality will be ignored as the press spews florid encomiums to class rule. There will be 10 days of official mourning.

In 1953, Her Majesty’s Government sent three warships, along with 700 troops, to its colony British Guiana, suspended the constitution and overthrew the democratically elected government of Cheddi Jagan. Her Majesty’s Government helped to build and long supported the apartheid government in South Africa. Her Majesty’s Government savagely crushed the Mau Mau independence movement in Kenya from 1952 to 1960, herding 1.5 million Kenyans into concentration camps where many were tortured. British soldiers castrated suspected rebels and sympathizers, often with pliers, and raped girls and women. By the time India won independence in 1947 after two centuries of British colonialism, Her Majesty’s Government had looted $45 trillion from the country and violently crushed a series of uprisings, including the First War of Independence in 1857. Her Majesty’s Government carried out a dirty war to break the Greek Cypriot War of Independence from 1955 to 1959 and later in Yemen from 1962 to 1969. Torture, extrajudicial assassinations, public hangings and mass executions by the British were routine. Following a protracted lawsuit, the British government agreed to pay nearly £20 million in damages to over 5,000 victims of British abuse during war in Kenya, and in 2019 another payout was made to survivors of torture from the conflict in Cyprus. The British state attempts to obstruct lawsuits stemming from its colonial history. Its settlements are a tiny fraction of the compensation paid to British slave owners in 1835, once it — at least formally — abolished slavery. 

During her 70-year reign, the queen never offered an apology or called for reparations.

The point of social hierarchy and aristocracy is to sustain a class system that makes the rest of us feel inferior. Those at the top of the social hierarchy hand out tokens for loyal service, including the Order of the British Empire (OBE). The monarchy is the bedrock of hereditary rule and inherited wealth. This caste system filters down from the Nazi-loving House of Windsor to the organs of state security and the military. It regiments society and keeps people, especially the poor and the working class, in their “proper” place.

A Balance Sheet of 70-year Reign

The British ruling class clings to the mystique of royalty and fading cultural icons as James Bond, the Beatles and the BBC, along with television shows such as “Downton Abbey” — where in one episode the aristocrats and servants are convulsed in fevered anticipation when King George V and Queen Mary schedule a visit — to project a global presence. Winston Churchill’s bust remains on loan to the White House. These myth machines sustain Great Britain’s “special” relationship with the United States. Watch the satirical film In the Loop to get a sense of what this “special” relationship looks like on the inside. 

It was not until the 1960s that “coloured immigrants or foreigners” were permitted to work in clerical roles in the royal household, although they had been hired as domestic servants. The royal household and its heads are legally exempt from laws that prevent race and sex discrimination, what Jonathan Cook calls “an apartheid system benefitting the Royal Family alone.” Meghan Markle, who is of mixed race and who contemplated suicide during her time as a working royal, said that an unnamed royal expressed concern about the skin color of her unborn son.

I got a taste of this suffocating snobbery in 2014 when I participated in an Oxford Union debate asking whether Edward Snowden was a hero or a traitor. I went a day early to be prepped for the debate by Julian Assange, then seeking refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy and currently in His Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh. At a lugubrious black-tie dinner preceding the event, I sat next to a former MP who asked me two questions I had never been asked before in succession. “When did your family come to America?” he said, followed by “What schools did you attend?” My ancestors, on both sides of my family, arrived from England in the 1630s. My graduate degree is from Harvard. If I had failed to meet his litmus test, he would have acted as if I did not exist. 

Those who took part in the debate – my side arguing that Snowdon was a hero narrowly won – signed a leather-bound guest book. Taking the pen, I scrawled in large letters that filled an entire page: “Never Forget that your greatest political philosopher, Thomas Paine, never went to Oxford or Cambridge.”

Paine, the author of the most widely read political essays of the 18th century, Rights of ManThe Age of Reason and Common Sense, blasted the monarchy as a con. “A French bastard landing with an armed banditti and establishing himself as King of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original…The plain truth is that the antiquity of the English monarchy will not bear looking into,” he wrote of William the Conqueror. He ridiculed hereditary rule. “Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.” He went on: “One of the strangest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings is that nature disproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule, by giving  mankind an ass for a lion.” He called the monarch “the royal brute of England.”

Royalists Rallied Against Thomas Piane

When the British ruling class tried to arrest Paine, he fled to France where he was one of two foreigners elected to serve as a delegate in the National Convention set up after the French Revolution. He denounced the calls to execute Louis XVI. “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression,” Paine said. “For if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” Unchecked legislatures, he warned, could be as despotic as unchecked monarchs. When he returned to America from France, he condemned slavery and the wealth and privilege accumulated by the new ruling class, including George Washington, who had become the richest man in the country. Even though Paine had done more than any single figure to rouse the country to overthrow the British monarchy, he was turned into a pariah, especially by the press, and forgotten. He had served his usefulness. Six mourners attended his funeral, two of whom were Black.

You can watch my talk with Cornel West and Richard Wolff on Thomas Paine here.

There is a pathetic yearning among many in the U.S. and Britain to be linked in some tangential way to royalty. White British friends often have stories about ancestors that tie them to some obscure aristocrat. Donald Trump, who fashioned his own heraldic coat of arms, was obsessed with obtaining a state visit with the queen. This desire to be part of the club, or validated by the club, is a potent force the ruling class has no intention of giving up, even if hapless King Charles III, who along with his family treated his first wife Diana with contempt, makes a mess of it.

Views expressed are personal

Was Gorbachev a failure?

/
908 views
17 mins read

“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” (William Shakespeare)

Mikhail Gorbachev’s passing away on 30th August has compelled observers around the world to assess his place in history. For three decades, he has cut a tragic figure, ignored and vilified, mocked and sneered at by his own people and country. The reality is far more complex, and can be appreciated only if one has an understanding of the state of the Soviet Union when Gorbachev assumed power in March 1985.

I was privileged to be a witness, with a ringside view, to the Gorbachev era – first as Political Counsellor in the Indian Embassy in Moscow from 1984 to 1988, and then as the Head of the Soviet and East European Department in the Ministry of External Affairs in India from 1988 to 1991. During this time, I had occasion to meet him, study him, analyze his policies, including as the interpreter from the Indian side for the talks that Gorbachev held with Indian leaders during his visit to India in 1986.

Returning to Moscow in July 1984, exactly nine years after I’d left the country at the end of my first posting to the Soviet Union from 1973 to 1975, I found that the country had not changed at all in the intervening period, except that the ailing and geriatric Leonid Brezhnev had passed away in 1982, as had his successor Yuri Andropov in 1984. Konstantin Chernenko was the new leader, but he was also on his last legs. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated in October 1984, Chernenko visited the Indian Embassy to sign the condolence book. At the request of the Soviet side, the book was kept in the entrance at the ground floor of the Indian Ambassador’s residence so that Chernenko would not have to climb the steps to the reception room on the first floor. Even then, Chernenko had to be physically hauled up the two small steps at the threshold of the Ambassador’s residence!

To me, that symbolized the state of the Soviet Union in 1985, when Chernenko died and Gorbachev took over. The atmosphere was one of stagnation and gloom, resignation and indifference. Both society and politics had ossified. Survival in the Soviet Union was practically a full-time job, even for diplomats who had privileged access to hard currency stores. In the local markets, fresh fruits and vegetables and decent quality meat was a rarity (I once had to barter a bottle of Scotch whisky for a leg of lamb!). Rumours of availability of basmati rice, fresh bananas or watermelons in local markets were enough to prompt people to set aside their work and rush to grab them before they vanished. Although I never had such a first-hand experience, veteran diplomats who had served in Moscow in the sixties said that it was considered acceptable behaviour for guests attending National Day celebrations organized by Embassies to pocket oranges and apples from the buffet table, since that was the only way to get them! The best memories that Soviet officials travelling to India on official trips came back with were of enjoying fresh tomatoes and cucumbers! For visitors from India, especially if they were vegetarian, a meal at an Indian home was like dining in a Michelin star restaurant where they could actually eat fresh vegetables that used to be transported for Embassy personnel once a month at subsidized rates by Air India flights.

You might have to spend a whole day wandering across town looking for a can opener, and in the process come across the strange sight of people walking with a garland of toilet paper rolls that they had managed to buy – not just for themselves, but for family and friends too. Russians always had a sturdy string bag in their overcoat pockets just in case they came across something worthwhile to buy. On seeing a queue, people instinctively joined it since it was assumed that it had to be for something worthwhile; securing a place in the queue was more urgent than finding out what was on sale! For an inexperienced foreigner, trying to buy anything in a grocery store was a bewildering exercise, what with different queues for different products, and a complex system of ensuring that one spent as little time as possible in the shop. There were queues to first check what was available, do a quick mental calculation and join another queue to pay the bill, then back to the original queues to pick up stuff, all the while keeping a sharp eye out for which queue might be moving faster, and then securing one’s place in different queues by marking one’s place with the person in front and behind! Workers in state and collective farms could not keep anything for their own consumption; everything had to be sent to a regional collection point, to which farmers had to drive in their vehicles or buses to visit towns or villages to buy milk, meat and eggs produced in their farms!

Foreigners were corralled in special buildings, with KGB guards controlling entry and exit. In all hotels, a floor lady monitored the activities of guests and visitors. All local domestic help, and any kind of services (like travel, hotel bookings, home repairs, even tickets to the Bolshoi Theatre) were channelized through a special agency staffed and controlled by the KGB. Most of the Soviet Union beyond a 25-kilometre radius from the centre of Moscow was closed to foreigners, and prior permission was required to visit any of a handful of open cities. Contacts with locals were actively discouraged.

As for the locals themselves, they were shut off from the outside world. Travel to the West was a dream, and only the privileged elite could visit friendly socialist countries. News and information, especially from abroad, was strictly censored, and dissidents were either sent into exile in Siberia or had taken refuge abroad. There was little creativity in the arts and literature. Factories turned out shoddy goods, which is why wary consumers always took care to check the date when an item had been manufactured, since it was a common belief that goods produced towards the end of a month were inferior quality products that were churned out in a hurry to meet the monthly production targets. Not that there was any reliability about statistics – as was later admitted, these were all cooked up. For most people, life meandered on aimlessly. Corruption, absenteeism and alcoholism were rife. True, no one was starving or homeless, but life was stuck in a deep rut with little hope or prospect of any change for the better. The Soviet Union continued to be ruled by an oligarchy of old men and an entrenched self-serving and self-perpetuating nomenklatura (bureaucracy). The three decades of Stalin’s rule had deadened Soviet society and polity, and deeply affected the psyche of the people. So secretive and tightly controlled was the system that the outside world only had an inkling of how hollow and brittle the system had become.

The system was crying out for a radical change – in fact, it had been doing so for the previous three decades after the death of Stalin, and the problems had only aggravated with time. Khrushchev did try to eradicate Stalinism. His “secret” speech at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956 was seen as a landmark event, but Khrushchev ultimately failed to bring about any change. Kosygin (in the second half of the sixties) and Andropov (during his brief tenure between 1982 and 1984) also tried to institute economic reforms, again to no avail. On Chernenko’s death, Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the CC of the CPSU by a very narrow margin. As a young man influenced by the “thaw” created by Khrushchev in the mid fifties, and as a protégé of Andropov, Gorbachev clearly had the conviction and the determination to reform the Soviet Union, as well as a sound assessment of the reasons for the failure of earlier reform efforts. Now, with a mandate and opportunity to change things, he was imbued with a sense of mission. There was no time to lose. As he put it, “If not now, when? If not we, who?”

Subsequent pillorying of Gorbachev as being politically naïve does not provide a satisfactory answer to the question of how he managed to climb up to the very top of the greasy pole of Soviet politics at such a young age. It also ignores his ruthless sidelining of opponents and his steady accumulation of power in his early years in office. Both by background and conviction, Gorbachev was cut from a different mould than his predecessors. Unlike them, he was well educated, that too at the prestigious and premier Moscow State University. In addition, in Raisa he had a spouse who was smart, educated and intellectually aware. Unlike the spouses of his predecessors and much to the annoyance of traditionalists both in the party and society, she was not content to live life in anonymity and is thought to have played an important role in shaping his policies.

From his very first days in office, Gorbachev showed a decisive and vigorous style of leadership, oozing determination and confidence, impatience and urgency. He was open and accessible, mingled freely with ordinary citizens in the streets, encouraged popular criticism, and eschewed any personality cult. When one met him in person, he radiated warmth and sincerity. His initial goal was to reform socialism, not destroy it; to make the Party a more effective instrument of governance, and not sideline it. Thus his slogan in the early days was merely “uskorenie” or acceleration. He called for “new thinking” for an interdependent world in the nuclear age, dreamt of the Soviet Union as part of a “common European home,” brought about a thaw in relations with China, withdrew troops from Afghanistan, gave a new dynamism to relations with India, worked for bold and courageous cuts in nuclear and conventional weapons and, in the Delhi Declaration signed with India in November 1986, breathtakingly endorsed the idea of a nuclear weapons free world. The tight grip over the East European countries was loosened, and support to Marxist regimes around the world on ideological grounds was given up. Although discerning diplomats and journalists could see the far-reaching logical and ultimate consequences of Gorbachev’s foreign policy pronouncements, no one really expected, at least in the early years of Gorbachev, that Soviet troops would be actually removed from the Warsaw Pact countries.

Was Gorbachev merely a dreamer, an idealist imbued with the ideas of truth, morality and humanism? As subsequent events showed, he did have some of these qualities, when he refused to send troops to quell uprisings in different parts of the Soviet Union and in the East European satellite states. But Gorbachev was also a realist. His outreach to the West was a compulsion, born out of the recognition that, saddled with a stagnant economy, the Soviet Union did not have the wherewithal to compete with the West, with which he foresaw a period of intense competition, aggravated by US President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”). As a satiated territorial power, Gorbachev needed peace with the West, and did not want to fritter away energy and resources to export of revolution. To many of us living in the Soviet Union at that time, it was evident as early as in 1985 that Gorbachev’s coming into power would be a turning point in the history of the Soviet Union. Even cynical and skeptical observers were compelled to revisit old stereotypes and assumptions about the Soviet Union.

After having got a mandate from the 27th Congress of the CPSU in 1986, and having consolidated his political authority in the Politburo, Gorbachev shifted gears from merely “uskorenie” or acceleration to a wider “perestroika” or comprehensive restructuring of all aspects of political, economic, social and intellectual life. In order to overcome the entrenched vested interests of the party elite who were bent on sabotaging Gorbachev’s policies, Gorbachev tried to enthuse ordinary people to support his perestroika. He exhorted people to believe and feel that they were the ‘owners’ of the country. His was a nutcracker approach: cleanse the top ranks of the leadership, and then use the people to exert pressure on the party and bureaucracy from below. In the early months, there was indeed considerable enthusiasm and optimism among at least a section of the elite in the cities. The cultural renaissance, criticism of past leaders’ policies, removal of ‘blank spots’ in history, release of dissidents, reopening and restoration of churches and monasteries, easier travel abroad, emigration of Jews, access to foreign broadcasts, articles in the press exposing misdemeanours of officials – all this released considerable pent-up frustration. 1986 and 1987 were years of heady optimism, mingled with anxious hope that this was not just a dream.

Gorbachev’s strategy didn’t quite pan out the way he had intended. None of this ferment percolated down to the small towns and villages. The bulk of the people were passive and could not get out of their ingrained habit of receiving orders from above. They were uneasy at having responsibility thrust upon them, and their decades-long bitter experience of life in a Stalinist environment prompted them to be naturally cautious and circumspect, even fearful. The bureaucracy was sullen and hostile, at best fence sitters. In any case, they did not know how to work in a more open and liberal environment. One instance that typifies this problem comes to mind. Thanks to Ambassador TN Kaul’s initiative, an agreement was reached to open an Indian restaurant as a joint venture in Moscow. The opening of a foreign restaurant in Moscow was a pioneering and path-breaking development. But the nitty-gritty of opening was infuriatingly frustrating. The Russian General Manager and his Indian deputy took a long time to arrive at a compromise on whether the doors of the restaurant should be kept open or closed. The Indians wanted open doors, whereas the Soviets (in keeping with the prevalent practice that doors to restaurants were kept shut and it usually required a bribe of a rouble or two to persuade the doorman to let in customers!) wanted the doors to be kept shut and a doorman appointed to regulate access to the restaurant. The compromise reached was that the doors would be kept open, but there would be a doorman to keep an eye on who was coming in. A couple of days after the opening of the restaurant, a diner hailed the Indian Deputy Manager with a complaint that his soup was cold. As he went to the kitchen to investigate, he found that there was a babushka(old lady), seated at the entrance to the dining room from the kitchen, weighing the portions of soup and other food items before they were sent to the dining room. Aghast, the Deputy Manager asked why this was being done. The babushka said that she was simply following rules: the prescribed quantity of each soup serving was 300 ml. and she was just making sure that no one got more or less soup! It took considerable effort by the Deputy Manager to persuade the kitchen staff and the supervising babushka that two ladles of hot soup were preferable to an exact 300 ml. of cold soup!

By 1988, perestroika had begun to sputter, and within a year the situation had become critical. There was a flux in all spheres of life. Old systems had been dismantled but new ones hadn’t been set up. The most worrying aspect was the state of the economy because, far from bringing a change for the better, perestroika had worsened the day-to-day life of people. Ethnic and separatist problems began to surface. Gorbachev’s popularity and credibility sharply declined. He was widely blamed and intensely hated for crating the mess in which the country found itself. As it was impossible to turn back the clock, Gorbachev decided to press ahead even harder with radical changes. He got himself elected as President, though not through direct elections. While that gave him more legal powers, it did not give him greater political legitimacy. There were now many independent centers of power – the party, the republics, the army, the KGB, the miners, workers and farmers. Ethnic and regional nationalism, as well as separatism, surfaced menacingly throughout the country.

Soon, the Soviet Union was like a runaway train, hurtling towards a crash. Gorbachev had opened too many fronts simultaneously, and was unable to control the course of events. The Communist Party was made to give up its leading role, but it was forgotten that it was not just a political organization but also the administrative organ of the State that held it together. The old system had been dismantled, but there wasn’t a new one to replace it. Laws to regulate property rights were not in place. No one in authority had any experience in managing a market economy. Nor did ordinary people understand what it meant. By the second half of 1990, as republics, regions, towns and districts declared their “sovereignty” there were serious widespread doubts in the minds of observers and even Gorbachev himself whether the Soviet Union could survive. A referendum in March followed by an agreement reached in April 1991 between nine of the fifteen Republics to have a new treaty that would restructure the Soviet Union as a loose federation or confederation of sovereign states with a weak Centre was a last-ditch effort to avert a looming train wreck. However, the August 1991 failed putsch against Gorbachev, and Yeltsin’s grab for power torpedoed this possibility. On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev stepped down as President of the Soviet Union. The Gorbachev era was over.

Was Gorbachev a failure? In his later years in power, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and even a few years later when he received less than one percent popular support for a failed Presidential bid, he was scorned and hated by the people at large. It was not just because the Soviet Union had been broken up, and day-to-day survival had become an ordeal for ordinary people. The sense of despondency and despair deepened during the tumultuous decade of the 1990. Gorbachev slid into irrelevant anonymity as a drunken and dysfunctional Yeltsin did nothing to set things right, the West and local oligarchs looted Russia; and NATO steadily spread eastwards. Yet it is noteworthy that he was given, albeit grudgingly, a modicum of respect by the establishment when he passed away, and many ordinary citizens, as well as former Russian President Medvedev and Hungarian Prime Minister Oban, attended his funeral.

Gorbachev was one of the most consequential figures of the 20th century. Like him or hate him, he cannot be forgotten or ignored. There is wide consensual acknowledgment of his enormous global contributions – a peaceful end to the Cold War, reduced risk of use of nuclear weapons, freedom to Eastern Europe from the Soviet yoke and the reunification of Germany without bloodshed. Just for that, he deserves a grateful salute. Outside Europe, Gorbachev’s policies have shaped, for the better, the development path that China and India have taken over the last three decades. The Chinese leaders drew their lessons from Gorbachev’s failed perestroika and took a reform path that was intended to avoid the pitfalls of Gorbachev’s strategy. India was forced to open up its economy and diversify its foreign relations, which is why India today is a more self-confident country with global influence. Ideological regimes across the world that had been propped up by the erstwhile Soviet Union have collapsed. As far as his ideology goes, Gorbachev continued to believe in socialism, but a “humane socialism.” Even if the socialist and communist experiments around the world have left much to be desired, the idea of socialism remains firmly entrenched among hundreds of millions around the globe, especially as it is glaringly evident that capitalism has been unable to ensure either sustainable or inclusive growth, has caused irreversible damage to the environment, and accelerated climate change. Gorbachev’s call for “new thinking” remains painfully relevant.

For Russians, the touchstone of Gorbachev’s legacy is the transformation he has brought about in his homeland. Was he responsible for the breakup of the Soviet Union? He certainly set in motion policies and processes that led to the breakup, but the Soviet Union could have survived as a confederation were it not for the selfish ambitions of the demagogic Yeltsin who stoked Russian chauvinism, and the inherently artificial and semi-colonial structure of the former Soviet Union. It is noteworthy that the Central Asian republics, heavily dependent on Russia, did not want the breakup of the Soviet Union; it was Russia that spurned them in the mistaken belief that they would become a burden on Russia. Gorbachev also made mistakes – there was too much breast-beating and self-flagellation about the crimes of Stalin and other preceding Soviet leaders. He did not realize that sovereign states have an obligation to engender a positive national narrative, and do not admit their mistakes. He was naïve in trusting the West, and failed to secure ironclad guarantees about the future direction of a united Germany and the Soviet Union’s erstwhile satellite states in East Europe. It was humiliating for a proud and patriotic people to stomach the betrayal of their toil and sacrifices to build up their country and the squandering of the gains of a hard-fought victory over Nazi Germany.

Was perestroika a failure? Certainly, from an economic perspective, perestroika failed. Should it have been even tried? There was a strong feeling among the leadership, though not a complete consensus, that there was an urgent need to change the way the Soviet Union was functioning; otherwise, Gorbachev would not have been elected as the General Secretary. He could well have taken a safe line and done nothing, but the danger was that the Soviet Union was likely to have become a giant, and more dangerous, version of North Korea. Could Gorbachev have gone about perestroika differently? Could he not have followed the Chinese reform strategy? Not really – for many reasons. Apart from the fact that the Chinese had the benefit of learning from Gorbachev’s mistakes, Russia was saddled with far more baggage than China. While China had the advantage of having a tradition of entrepreneurship that had survived the three decades of Mao’s rule, Russia had been catapulted from a feudal society to a completely new and untested form of governance, communism, whose prolonged life over seven decades of Stalinist rule had snuffed out all spirit or knowledge of entrepreneurship. Unlike Russia, China also benefited from having Hong Kong as a crutch and a teacher, as well as a large and prosperous Chinese diaspora. Since earlier incremental reform efforts had got bogged down and ended in failure, Gorbachev felt that a more radical, even if riskier, approach was called for. In pursuing this line, the deeper he dug, more and more unanticipated problems surfaced, and soon Gorbachev found that he had opened a can of worms.

As I see it, Gorbachev’s biggest and lasting achievement is the eradication of the cancer of Stalinism in Russia. He definitively and irreversibly destroyed the old centralized, inefficient and corrupt authoritarian system of governance based on Marxist-Leninist ideology. Equally importantly, he radically transformed the psyche and liberated the minds of his people. His domestic critics would do well to reflect on the irony that they got the right and courage to speak out only thanks to Gorbachev! By bringing down a crumbling, hollowed out edifice, Gorbachev created the precondition for a rejuvenated Russia. It is unrealistic to expect that he should also have managed to clear the rubble and erect a new structure. Those who destroy are not destined to create as well; that is a task left for new leaders and generations with different skills. To those who may regard this as an unduly apologetic and charitable perspective, it is worth pointing out that the suffering and trauma that millions of Indians experienced as a result of the Partition of India does not take away from the achievement of Independence from British rule. Many might even regard the Partition, perhaps justifiably, as a blessing in disguise.

Although three decades have passed since the end of the Gorbachev era, it is still too early to pass a definitive judgment on Gorbachev. As long as Putin, the handpicked successor of Gorbachev’s arch-rival Yeltsin, remains in power, it would be difficult for the Russian establishment to make or even permit an objective assessment of Gorbachev. In the decades to come, history is likely to judge Gorbachev more kindly. Russia is once again at a turning point. Russia’s break with the West is likely to be a definitive one for at least a generation or two. Russia appears to have finally given up its centuries-old effort to gain acceptance as a “European” country, and is now focussing on forging an independent Eurasian identity. It will have to rely more on its indigenous talent and resources and build cooperative relations with countries that constitute the Rest rather than the West. The conflict in Ukraine is for Russia an existential battle for survival. It is a war that Russia cannot afford to lose. Its outcome will shape the future of both Russia and the West. Should Russia be confronted with the admittedly remote possibility of losing, then, sadly, the use of nuclear weapons cannot be ruled out. Putin’s Russia will not go down without taking the West down with it. On the other hand, if Russia were to prevail, it would be only because, thanks to the flywheel that Gorbachev set in motion, Russia is a stronger, more confident nation than the old Soviet Union could ever have become. Either way, Gorbachev would be smiling in his grave, whether ruefully or happily!

Views expressed are personal

What Sri Lanka Can Learn From Thatcher’s Legacy

877 views
5 mins read

The following article, describing the economic situation of post-war United Kingdom (UK), extracts information from “The Power of Capitalism” by Rainer Zitelmann. The reader is encouraged to refer to this book for more details and references.

After the War

In 1945 the Labour Party won the general elections, and prime minister Clement Atlee began implementing democratic socialism. About a fifth of the UK economy, comprising banks, civil aviation, mining, telecommunications, railways, shipping canals, road freight transport, power and gas, manufacturing industries including iron and steel, was nationalised.

When the Conservative Party (Tories) returned to power in 1951 Winston Churchill retained the majority of the socialist policies. During the 50s and 60s the UK enjoyed an improved standard of living by having low unemployment and increased consumption. But it still lagged behind other European countries such as West Germany, where the number of telephones, refrigerators, TV sets and washing machines were higher per 100 residents. The gap continued to widen because productivity was too low.

The Impact of Unions and Strikes

During the 70s the UK’s weakness became obvious. The country was disabled with frequent strikes. The German magazine Der Spiegel in 1974 reported:

“A row about wages and nationalised collieries turned into a showdown between the government and unions, which has plunged the country into ‘a new dark age’. Over a million people are already unemployed, over two million only in part-time employment, with a further ten million plus – almost half of the British workforce – likely to suffer the same fate in the next few weeks… the imperial avenues (of London) more sparsely lit than the streets in the urban slums of the UK’s former colonies. Candles flicker in the offices of the financial district, while hurricane lamps provide emergency lighting in department stores, and warehouses are illuminated by the headlights of lorries. Only one in four radiators is turned on inside the prime minister’s residence at 10, Downing Street, and signs at underground stations advise passengers to take the stairs as escalators have been taken out of service to save power”.

The trade unions were very powerful. The shop stewards (the union’s spokesmen within companies) were able to call a strike and break agreements whenever they wanted to. Neither the unions nor their officials could be held accountable for damages.

For some union officials their own interest and envy of co-workers mattered more. The rivalry between two steelworkers’ unions delayed the testing of new manufacturing equipment for months. The dockworkers’ union protested against the construction of state-of-the-art container terminals, because loading was to be done by a different sector. England’s most advanced high-speed train stood idle for half a year because railroad workers’ union insisted on two drivers, although there was only room enough for one in the operator’s cabin. During the 70s, 466 unions averaged 2000 strikes and 13 million working day losses per year.

Conditions escalated during the winter of 1978, when the country was paralysed by more strikes leading to the transport system breaking down and rotting garbage piling up on pavements.

Thatcher Begins Reforms

In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became prime minister. She had studied the writings of the classical liberal economist Friedrich Hayek, and being impressed by his criticisms of welfare state socialism she put his free-market ideas into practice. She faced massive resistance from unions as well as many socialists in her own Tory government.

Thatcher’s pro-market reforms focused initially on inflation. She resisted price controls and abolished the Price Commission. This led to a sharp rise in unemployment from 1.3 to 3 million between 1979 and 83. Thatcher said “The paradox which neither the British trade unions nor the socialists were prepared to accept was that an increase of productivity is likely initially, to reduce the number of jobs before creating the wealth that sustains new ones”. Inflation fell in the short term, accompanied by a significant improvement in productivity.

Thatcher cut marginal tax rates from 33% to 25% in the lowest brackets, and from 83% to 40% in the highest. To balance the budget she was forced to increase VAT from 12.5% to 15%. She reduced bureaucracy by expediting planning permissions and simplifying or abolishing planning controls.

Restricting Unions

Thatcher implemented laws restricting unions. Arthur Scargill, a prominent union leader, led miners into a large-scale strike against planned pit closures and privatisations, despite three in four pits operating at a loss and receiving 1.3 billion pounds of taxpayer money.

Many miners didn’t the support the strike, and violence was used to prevent them from working. Attacks on police by striking workers or sympathizers resulted in serious injuries. Families of miners who did not participate were threatened or bullied. A Welsh taxi driver was killed by two miners who dropped a concrete block from a footbridge onto his taxi while he was transporting a strike-breaking miner to work. Thatcher refused to give in, and the unions had to abandon the strike when money ran out. Their defeat had a symbolic impact and broke the power of the unions, who had lost a third of their members and much political influence.

The Impact of Privatisation

Thatcher saw privatisation as “one of the central means of reversing the corrosive and corrupting effects of socialism”. Far from putting the people in control, public ownership simply “amounts to control by politicians and civil servants. But through privatisation – particularly the kind of privatisation which leads to the widest possible share ownership by members of the public – the state’s power is reduced and the power of the people enhanced”.

When British Telecom, employing 250,000, was privatised 2 million Britons bought shares in what was then the largest Initial Public Offering (IPO) in history. Around half had never owned shares before. During Thatcher’s premiership, public share ownership rose from 7% to 25%.

Subsequent privatisations included British Airways, British Petroleum (BP), Rolls Royce, Jaguar, shipbuilding companies and several utilities. This resulted in the state losing its dominance in the economy. Local councils sold off much of their housing stock to tenants to create a million new homeowners.

Privatisation caused prices to fall and service quality to improve. New telephone line subscriptions, which previously took months or a bribe to obtain, could now be obtained in just 8 days with the price having dropped 50%.

Deregulating the Finance Industry

Thatcher deregulated the finance sector by abolishing currency and capital controls. In 1986 she liberalized rules on share trading and the stock exchange, and eliminated restrictions on foreign banks. As a result London became the world’s leading financial centre, rivalled only by New York, with thousands of new jobs created by foreign bank branches.

In 1976 sovereign default was imminent and the government was forced to borrow 3.9 billion USD from the IMF. In 1989 this situation had completely turned around and the economy generated a surplus of 1.6%. This was possible due to increased tax revenue from foreign businesses.

Thatcher’s Legacy

Thatcher in her memoirs says there “was still much I would have liked to do”, “Britain under my premiership was the first country to reverse the onward march of socialism”.

The stuffy socialist culture of envy was replaced by a pro-market and pro-business environment where ambition was richly rewarded, leading to sharp increases in the number of private business and self-employment. The number of businesses registered rose from 1.89 to 3 million between 1979 to 89, while self-employment grew from 1.9 to 3.5 million. State-ownership reduced by 60%, 600,000 jobs had passed from the public to private sector, with 3.32 million jobs created between 1983 and 90.

Thatcher was voted into office to liberate the economy from state control. The British honoured her by re-electing her twice. Her premiership lasted 11 years, longer than any other 20th century British politician. Her policies were so successful that, in the following years, Tony Blair’s Labour government broke with party tradition and made no attempt to reverse them.

Conclusion

The Sri Lankan crisis is caused by an excess of government control and an overlarge public sector. Thatcher was faced with a similar situation. Despite public opposition, she resisted currency and capital controls and adopted free markets. Her courage was rewarded with a flourishing British economy.

West Germany and Chile are two other examples of countries that have had problems similar to Sri Lanka. They also adopted free-market policies and have now become first world nations.

Related Articles by the Author

  1. Fixing the Sri Lankan Economy
  2. Crisis in Sri Lanka: Lessons from Germany, Venezuela and Chile

Are these floods in Pakistan an ‘act of God’?

5025 views
5 mins read

Calamities are familiar to the people of Pakistan who have struggled through several catastrophic earthquakes, including those in 2005, 2013, and 2015 (to name the most damaging), as well as the horrendous floods of 2010. However, nothing could prepare the fifth most populated country in the world for this summer’s devastating events, which began with high temperatures and political chaos followed by unimaginable flooding.

Cascading frustration with the Pakistani state defines the public mood. Taimur Rahman, the general secretary of the Mazdoor Kisan Party (‘Workers and Peasants Party’), told Peoples Dispatch that after the 2010 floods, there was ‘enormous outrage about the fact that the government had not done anything to ensure that… when there is an overflow of water, it can be controlled’. Evidence of relief funds being siphoned off by corrupt politicians and the wealthy elite began to define the post-2010 period; those memories remain intact. People understand that when the disaster industrial complex is in motion, cycles of corruption accelerate.

A third of Pakistan’s vast landmass was inundated by floods in the last week of August. Satellite imagery showed the rapid spread of the waters which broke the banks of the Indus River, covering large sections of two major provinces, Balochistan, and Sindh. On 30 August 2022, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called it a ‘monsoon on steroids’, as the rainwaters swept away more than 1,000 people to their deaths and displaced about 33 million more. The situation is dire, with those who fled their homes in immediate and long-term danger. The people camped out on higher land, such as major roadways, are currently at risk of starvation and in danger of contracting water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea, dysentery, and hepatitis. In the long-term, people who have lost their standing crops (cotton and sugarcane) and livestock face guaranteed impoverishment. Pakistan’s Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal estimates that the damages will total more than $10 billion.

At first glance, the primary reason for the floods appears to be additional heavy rain at the tail end of an already record-breaking monsoon or rainy season. A very hot summer with temperatures of over 40°C for long periods in April and May made Pakistan ‘the hottest place on earth’, according to Malik Amin Aslam, a former minister for climate change. These scorching months resulted in abnormal melting of the country’s northern glaciers, whose waters met the torrential rain spurred by a ‘triple dip’ – three consecutive years of La Niña cooling in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. In addition, catastrophic climate change – driven by global carbon-fuelled capitalism – has also caused the glacial melt and downpour.

But the nature of the floods themselves are not wholly due to turbulent weather patterns. Significantly, the impact of the rising waters on Pakistan’s population is due to unchecked deforestation and deteriorated infrastructure such as dams, canals, and other channels to contain water. In 2019, the World Bank said that Pakistan faces a ‘green emergency’ because each year about 27,000 hectares of natural forest is cut down, making rainwater absorption in the soil much more difficult.

Furthermore, lack of state investment in dams and canals (now heavily silted) has made it much harder to control large quantities of water. The most important of these dams, canals, and reservoirs are the Sukkur Barrage, the world’s largest irrigation system of its kind, which draws the Indus into the southern Sindh River, and the Mangla and Tarbela reservoirs, which divert the waters from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Illegal real estate construction on floodplains further exacerbates the potential for human tragedy.

God has little to do with these floods. Nature has only compounded the underlying crises of capitalist-driven climate catastrophe and neglect of water, land, and forest management in Pakistan.

What are the urgent multiple crises afflicting Pakistan?

The floodwaters have revealed a set of enduring problems that paralyse Pakistan. Surveys in May, before the floods, showed that 54% of the population considered inflation to be their main problem. By August, the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics reported that the wholesale price index, which measures fluctuation in the average prices of goods, increased by 41.2% while the annual inflation rate was 27%. Despite inflation rising globally and the acknowledgment that the cost of the floods would be over $10 billion, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has promised a mere $1.1 billion with austerity-like conditions attached to it such as ‘prudent monetary policy’. It is criminal that the IMF would impose strict austerity when the country’s agricultural infrastructure is utterly destroyed (this inadequate action is reminiscent of the British colonial policy to continue the export of wheat from India during the 1943 Bengal famine). The 2021 Global Hunger Index already placed Pakistan at 92 out of 116 countries with its hunger crisis – prior to the floods – at a serious level. Yet, as none of the country’s bourgeois political parties have taken these findings to heart, undoubtedly, its economic crisis will intensify with little recovery.

This brings us to the acute political crisis. Since its independence from the British in 1947, 75 years ago, Pakistan has had 31 prime ministers. In April 2022, the thirtieth, Imran Khan, was removed to install the current Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. Khan, who faces charges of terrorism and contempt of court, alleged that his government was removed at the behest of Washington owing to his close ties to Russia. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI or ‘Justice Party’) did not win a majority in the 2018 elections, which left his coalition vulnerable to the departures of a handful of legislators. That is precisely what was done by the opposition, which stormed into power through legislative manoeuvres, without a new mandate from the public. Since his removal, the standing of Imran Khan and the PTI has risen in Pakistan, having won 15 out of 20 of July’s by-elections in Karachi and Punjab, before the floods. Now, as anger rises against Sharif’s government due to the slow pace of relief for flood victims, the political crisis will only deepen.

What are the tasks at hand?

Pakistan is suffering from ‘climate apartheid’. This country of over 230 million people contributes only 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions, yet it is threatened by the eighth highest climate risk in the world. The failure of Western capitalist countries to acknowledge their destruction of the planet’s climate means that countries like Pakistan, which have low levels of emissions, are already disproportionately bearing the brunt of rapid climate change. Western capitalist countries must at least provide their full support to the Global Climate Action Agenda.

Left and progressive forces – such as the Mazdoor Kisan Party – and other civilian groups have organised a flood relief campaign in Pakistan’s four provinces. They are reaching out mainly with food relief to tackle starvation in hard to reach, largely rural areas. The Pakistani Left is demanding that the government stem the tide of austerity and inflation that is sure to exacerbate the humanitarian crisis.

In the summer of 1970, flash floods in the mountainous region of Balochistan caused great damage. A few months later in the general elections, the poet Gul Khan Nasir of the National Awami Party won a seat in the Balochistan provincial assembly and became the minister of education, health, information, social welfare, and tourism. Gul Khan Nasir put his Marxist convictions to work building the social capacity of the Baloch people (including setting up the province’s only medical school in Quetta, the provincial capital). Thrown out of office by undemocratic means, Nasir was sent back to prison, a place he had become all too familiar with in previous years. There, he wrote his anthem, ‘Demaa Qadam’ (‘Forward March’). One of its stanzas, 50 years later, seems to describe the zeitgeist in his native land:

If the sky above your heads
becomes full of anger, full of wrath,
thunder and rain and lightning and wind.
The night becomes dark as pitch.
The ground becomes like fire.
The times become savage.
But your goal remains the same:
March, March, Forward March.

Excerpts from the newsletter of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research