Friday, April 17, 2015

Lies, damn lies, and bullshit about Cuba's betrayal of political refugees

The story was a shocker: "Cubans to open talks about US fugitives including Assata Shakur as ties warm", said the headline in the Guardian. Giving it credence was the source and dateline of the article: Associated Press, Havana.

Assata Shakur (the cops call her JoAnne Chesimard) is a Black liberation fighter who has lived in Cuba with political asylum for more than 30 years. Her expulsion from Cuba to the United States, where there is a $2 million bounty on her head, would be seen by Black activists and revolutionaries everywhere as a betrayal. It would also be a violation of long-standing legal principles in Latin America that political crimes are not subject to extradition, as well as the principle of non-refoulement (returning refugees to the country where they are persecuted), the cornerstone of international asylum treaties, which the Cuban revolution has always adhered to.

But other news outlets seemed to confirm the report: "Cuba open to discussing extradition of U.S. fugitives, including cop killer Chesimard," brayed the headline on Fox News Latino over a graphic screaming "Most Wanted Terrorists" in red, white and blue. However, all had the very same Havana-datelined text that U.S. News and World Report helpfully told us was written by the AP's Michael Weissenstein and Matthew Lee.

All of them with the same exact story? Yes, all.

Could it really be true that the AP had a world wide exclusive? Where were the New York Times and Washington Post's own reports? What had happened to wire services like the French AFP, the Spanish EFE, the British Reuters and even Cuba's own Prensa Latina?

Actually, it really was a world-wide AP exclusive. And for a very good reason. No one else had the story because it was bullshit. The AP made it up.

They did it by consciously taking diplomatic evasions and misdirections by a fourteenth-rank State Department mouthpiece with the august title of "Acting Deputy Spokesperson" and spinning them so violently that even diamonds would have been reduced to an invisible dust of disconnected carbon atoms as a result.

When I first saw the story, clear evidence that something was amiss came in the Guardian's sub-headline: "State Department says Cuba has agreed to open talks about two of the most-wanted US fugitives following re-establishment of diplomatic ties."

You may say, "so what." But me, I've earned my living as a hack for four and a half decades, and if there's one thing we "professional journalists" are experts in, it is rats. Just consider who we spend our days covering, whether in politics, business or international relations. And I smelled a rat.

Because a story about what the State Department was saying should be written by the AP Foggy Bottom scribbler in Washington, D.C., not somebody in Havana. 

And the "lead" -- the first sentence -- confirmed this was not something AP covered first-hand in Havana: "The U.S. and Cuba will open talks about two of America's most-wanted fugitives as part of a new dialogue about law-enforcement cooperation made possible by President Barack Obama's decision to remove Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terror, the State Department announced Wednesday."

Did the State Department actually "announce" that on Wednesday? Normally, State Department "announcements" come at the beginning of a press conference and not buried in a sentence in response to a question, so I say no. But listen to the briefing and judge for yourself.

According to the transcript, all that the fill-in spokesperson for the State Department would say was that the U.S. and Cuba agreed to have a "dialogue" about law enforcement issues. He said this included "issues related to fugitives," but was ambiguous, never saying that Cuba had agreed to even talk about returning these "fugitives," among them Assata Shakur and Puerto Rican patriot William Morales.

On the contrary, when reporters tried to pin down Acting Deputy Spokesperson Jeff Rathke, this was the exchange: 
QUESTION: Okay, thanks. I just wanted to jump back to the fugitive issue ... because Assistant Secretary of State Jacobson has said in the past that when they bring up the issue of Joanne Chesimard and others who are being harbored in Cuba, that the Cubans just refuse to talk about it, that they don’t get any traction at all. And I was wondering if there’s been any change in that recently, if you've gotten to the point where they’re actually talking about it, if there’s more of a constructive process going on.

MR RATHKE: I don’t have details from those discussions to read out, but again, as I said, we've agreed to a law enforcement dialogue that will address law enforcement cooperation, including issues related to fugitives.
In case you didn't get it "I don't have the details from those discussions" is diplomatese for "Hell No! What the fuck have you been smoking? This is Cuba we're talking about!"

And our two hard-working AP reporters in Havana confirm as much.
A Cuban government spokesman did not return calls seeking comment on Wednesday, but Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s top diplomat for US affairs, recently ruled out any return of political refugees.

On Tuesday night she said that “the Cuban government recognizes the president of the United States’ just decision to take Cuba off a list in which it should never have been included.”
No, I don't expect Cuba to have a press conference denouncing the AP report. And Cuba may well have agreed to let "issues related to fugitives" be raised in law enforcement talks. Why not?

So Cuba will raise the United States harboring of Luis Posada Carriles, a CIA operative who was the mastermind of the 1976 mid-air terrorist bombing of a Cubana de Aviación civilian airliner, killing 73 people, and many other terrorist attacks. And the United States will object to Cuba's solidarity with liberation fighters from the United States that have taken refuge on the island. But either side handing someone like that over to the other is about as likely as a Beatles reunion tour complete with John and George freshly returned from the grave.

What's going on with this AP story is a tactic as old as the revolution itself. Most of the time the U.S. press depicts Cuba as an unmitigated catastrophe, a blood-soaked devil-spawned regime where the only reason some people escaped the firing squad is because they starved to death first.

But every once in a while some outlet addresses those of us on the left; "Comrades! What we feared is coming to pass! The Havana bureaucracy has sold out! They want iPhones and in exchange, they're even sending back into the clutches of the imperialists sister Assata Shakur and brother William Morales."

It's been the same old song about a revolution betrayed since the Cuban revolution came to power in 1959:

  • When guerrilla war hero Camilo Cienfuegos's small plane was lost that October over the ocean (just after he had put down an incipient pro-American military rebellion), supposedly Fidel had ordered it shot down. 
  • When Che Guevara withdrew from public view in 1965, it was because Fidel had him assassinated.
  • When Che resurfaced in Bolivia, but a CIA agent ordered his execution after Che was wounded and captured leading a guerrilla column, it was because Fidel had set him up. 
  • When Cuba sent thousands of volunteers to Angola to kick South Africa's ass out of that country (and kicked it so hard that Namibia was freed from colonial rule, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and the odious apartheid regime collapsed), why then Fidel had turned Cuba's sons into cannon fodder for Russian imperial ambitions. 
  • And today, when Cuba, a country of only 11 million people, has more doctors working in other countries bringing medical care to poor people than the rest of the world combined, these are not internationalists but medical mercenaries, a Trojan Horse for Cuban propaganda and political domination.

Although cut from the same cloth as those, this ridiculous little AP fairy tale isn't even large enough for a Barbie Doll handkerchief. But it was completely conscious and intentional. That is why it was datelined in Havana, not just to give it credibility but to cover the AP's ass if the distortions of what the State Department guy said became an issue.

Still, these stories have an impact. I've written this tonight because a comrade whose principled integrity I admire, even though his rigidity in applying principles sometimes drive me batty, texted me, worried that the report might be true, and if it were so, suggesting we begin planning how to defend William Morales. I shot him back a quick message saying not to worry, that the story was bullshit. But I felt I owed him a fuller accounting.

The reason we tend to be at least initially shaken and confused by these manipulations is the history of the socialist movement in the 20th Century. The degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the terrible crimes and persecutions carried out in its name culminated with the dismantling a quarter century ago of such vestiges of the Revolution as still remained, and a dismantling led by bureaucrats from the same social group had usurped the name and banner of socialism decades earlier to justify their own privileges.

Of all the countries that claimed to have set out on a socialist road in the 20th Century, Cuba is the only one where people are still inspired by the same dreams. The Chinese and Vietnamese Revolutions were world-historic events, even if from today's perspective, the reason is the independence and unification of those countries, and not the fight to develop a new social system, a quest they have now put aside.

It has been more than half a century since the Cuban Revolution came to power. Over the decades it has made many mistakes, more than I can remember, probably more than I ever knew. Changing world circumstances and the actions of the enemy more than once forced it to double back and look for another road. It was born in a world where there seemed to be an alternative model to capitalism: bureaucratic central planning. For all that Fidel and especially Che tried to challenge its bureaucratic logic and subordinate it to a genuinely popular revolution, Cuba still bears the marks of what the Soviets called "really existing socialism," which ceased to exist a quarter century ago.

But for all that, the Cuban Revolution never betrayed its principles, has never turned its back on its revolutionary duty as best it has understood it, And thus it has survived to this century, and become part of a fresh start, Latin America's movement towards the creation of a Socialism of the 21st Century.

It is slow and difficult because not only a new social system has to be created, but also the only political space in which it can truly develop: a united Latin America. To this process Cuba offers thousands of doctors, health care workers, teachers and technicians. It offers the experiences of half a century of victories and setbacks. But most of all Cuba offers what it has offered since 1959, and which Fidel summarized in the Second Declaration of Havana in 1962:
What Cuba can give to the people, and has already given, is its example. 
And what does the Cuban Revolution teach? That revolution is possible, that the people can make it, that in the contemporary world there are no forces capable of halting the liberation movement of the peoples.
And what it has taught since then it that it can survive, battered and bloodied but not beaten, never broken.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Show trial ends with prison for educators who wouldn't confess

It was a final act straight out of The Crucible, Arthur Miller's McCarthy-era recounting of the Salem Witch-Hunt.

On April 14, ten Black Atlanta educators stood before white Fulton County Judge Jerry Baxter for sentencing. They had been found guilty of violating the state's "Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations" law, a local version of the super-conspiracy statute pushed by Richard Nixon that --supposedly-- applied only to mafia dons, drug dealers and hit men.

In an "only in America" Alice-In-Wonderland moment, two of those already found guilty made a post-conviction deal with the prosecutor. In exchange for not appealing the verdict and publicly confessing their sins, they received slap-on-the-wrist sentences instead of prison. One got a year-long 7:00PM-7:00AM at-home curfew, plus probation. The other, about 50 days of weekend detention, and probation.

As for the rest, Judge Baxter said, “All I want for many of these people is to just take some responsibility, but they refuse. They refuse."

So as punishment for the refusal, three of the educators were sentenced to 20 years, seven to be served in prison, the rest on probation, and $25,000 in fines. The rest received five-year sentences, with one or two to be served in prison. Sentencing was postponed for one teacher who had just had a baby.

The substance of the crime was that Atlanta educators has either given the answers to students during standardized tests or erased wrong answers on answer cards and filled in correct ones after the test.

I'm not sure if there is a law against that, but those actions were not what they were accused of. The main charge was the RICO one of being part of a criminal organization -- in essence, conspiracy. Of the twelve who went to trial, eleven were found guilty of this so-called "racketeering." One was found innocent of all charges.

In the best Moscow Trials fashion, they were tried en masse, instead of individually, even though they weren't accused of doing something together, just of being in an unspoken, implicit, de facto conspiracy.

The one person who tied them all together was Beverly Hall, head of Atlanta schools for more than a decade. According to the official accounts, Hall was a data driven despot who, through relentless pressure for ever-higher standardized test scores, set the cheating in motion. This, the state insisted, created the conspiracy that was a "corrupt organization," allowing the prosecutor to threaten draconian punishment under a vague and sweeping statute.

Hall was to be the main defendant in the trial that started eight months ago, but she couldn't be tried as she was undergoing cancer treatment. She died before the trial was over in March.

Much of the testimony against the educators was obtained by what is technically known in the legal biz as "subornation of perjury" -- but only when someone who is not a prosecutor does it. It means offering a witness "anything of value" in exchange for their testimony, even if that testimony is true. And for you and me, it is a felony.

What did the prosecutor offer witnesses that fit the category of "anything of value?" Well, total immunity or –for the majority of those indicted-- dropping 20-year-prison-sentence RICO counts if the accused pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor with no jail time ... provided you testify against others.

In this case, it is a matter of public record that nearly 200 educator-"cheaters" were identified, and more than 80 admitted to taking steps to improperly raise scores. Many were threatened with prosecution and a total of 35 indicted, including these defendants. A majority of those indicted cut deals, pleading guilty to misdemeanor false statement or obstruction charges.

The sort of cheating that went on in Atlanta is not unique. According to the Government Accountability Office, 40 states reported allegations of standardized test cheating for the school years 2010-11 and 2011-12. Thirty three confirmed at least one instance of cheating; 32 said they invalidated at least some test scores as a result.

This cheating is the result of the 2001 bipartisan "No child left behind" federal takeover of local education. It requires all of a school's students to reach at least the same minimum score in standardized tests -- without, however, addressing any of the social, economic and political factors that impact testing results. There are mounting severe and disruptive penalties for each year a school fails, so principals and teachers are getting penalized and even fired if their students have low test scores. The quite foreseeable and well-nigh inevitable result was doctoring the test performance.

Atlanta's is said to be the nation's biggest test cheating scandal, but if so, that may well be because the rest have not been investigated. A USA Today analysis in 2011 cast suspicion on more than 100 Washington, DC, public schools, compared to the 44 involved in Atlanta. But unlike in Georgia, there was no criminal investigation.

The Atlanta teachers were singled out for reprisal by the state's Republican governor, who ordered a multi-million dollar Georgia Bureau of Investigations probe after a statistical analysis by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution suggested cheating was going on.

The final report from the investigation found widespread cheating driven by unrealistic test result targets from the district backed by threats and actual reprisals against teachers and administrators, creating "a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation ... throughout the district." Those who tried to report the cheating were ignored and suffered reprisals.

I wish it could be said the governor's order for a state investigation was driven by concern for the students and their education, but I do not believe it. A big reason was to counter opposition to the governor's cuts in the state education budget. Another was to boost the privatization of education through charter schools.

But the biggest one is simply because Georgia politics revolves around race, usually disguised as "urban versus rural" or "metro Atlanta" against the rest of the state and so on.

So, for example, as the trial was winding down, the state legislature approved a plan to create an “opportunity school district” directly under the governor that would take over "failing" schools, stripping elected school boards of control. Unsaid but understood by everyone involved that the targets will be minority schools, especially Black ones, and the real aim is privatization, the creation of more charter schools.

The area’s main news organization, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, detonated the scandal through investigative reports in 2009 and followed it closely. Systematically it covered up the racial aspect of the case. But after the sentencing, AJC reporter Bill Torpy finally lifted the veil:

"Race has always lurked in the wings of this recent public morality tale. All 35 educators indicted were black, as anyone who saw the mugshots in the media knows." But you had to have seen the mugshots, because the newspaper and most other media never mentioned it.

Torpy was recently minted as some sort of star journalist, so he gets to write folksy first-person commentaries. Here is some more of what he wrote:

"Monday morning, I was in the parking lot across from the Fulton County courthouse when a former co-worker remarked, via Facebook, that she was 'struck by the racial divide' on whether the convicted educators in the Atlanta schools cheating trial should get locked up….

"'Most black commenters believe the teachers may have done wrong but don’t deserve prison. Most white commenters believe the opposite,' my old colleague wrote. 'Like the OJ and Rodney King cases, it’s very revealing.'"

Perhaps even more revealing was Torpy's own take on the sentencing: "I had noted earlier that they rolled the dice and lost. They went to trial, were found guilty and were likely headed to prison. That’s how it works. If they got the same probation deals as those who fessed up before the trial, I reasoned, then why make deals in the first place? The judge warned them — repeatedly — about it." Torpy is white, as anyone who reads his musings knows, and not just because his mugshot accompanies every one, if you're a person of color.

But by and large, the dozens of teachers and principals caught up in the Atlanta scandal were not criminals but victims, along with the children. Yes, they did quietly point out to some children the right answer during the tests, or erase a wrong answer and fill in the right one afterwards.

But as former Atlanta mayor and civil rights movement leader Andrew Young told Judge Baxter, the real problem is the high-stakes testing madness imposed by politicians and bureaucrats. “We have messed up education so much that tests and grades do not make you educated,” Young said. “I think these teachers got caught in a trap. Take this mess and make a good thing out of it.”

Young also quoted Martin Luther King. "When people are placed in darkness, crimes will be committed. The guilty are those who created the darkness."

And Young was not the only one protesting. It was ignored elsewhere in the media, but Torpy noted, "As I left my car to walk to the courthouse Monday, I heard a chant bouncing off the buildings: 'Let the teachers go! Let the teachers go!'

"It was an old-style Atlanta rally," Torpy added, "with all the old-line agitators — the Rev. Timothy McDonald, Joe Beasley, John Evans — and about 75 others outside on the steps." And even old-style Atlanta snarking by white reporters.

It would be nice to imagine you could find a corps of incorruptible teachers who would gladly fall on their swords, sacrifice their careers but do what is right against a regime of repression and retribution imposed by the head of the school system. But Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall was said to be even more monomaniacal about standardized test results than the federal law. The fate of the first few Don Quixotes who tried to resist served as an object lesson to the rest about the futility of tilting at windmills. As it was, 90% of Atlanta school principals were removed during her tenure.

And resistance might have been easier if the organizations that supposedly represent the teachers could be counted to stand up for their members. But both were present at the sentencing, and backed the vindictive judge.

"They should have taken the deal," said Verdaillia Turner, head of both the Atlanta and Georgia federation of teachers. "I have no idea why these folks were so hardheaded."

Apparently she wasn't listening when Dana Evans responded to Judge Baxter's pleading for capitulation. He said her conviction was "probably the biggest tragedy of all of them … I want to tell you I consider you a wonderful educator, and that is what makes it so sad."

Evans's reply: "I know you may want to hear an admission of guilt, but I can’t do that because it’s not the truth." After being freed on an appeals bond she told reporters, "I was surprised by the verdict. I couldn’t fathom how they (the jurors) could come to that decision … that I knowingly and willingly was involved in a conspiracy."

According to an NBC report, however, the union official was, in essence, a prosecution aide. Turner "knows the value of taking a deal. She helped dozens of members arrange for lenient punishment in return for admitting their roles early on in the investigation" and, of course, throwing the colleagues the prosecutors chose as scapegoats under the bus, although NBC forgot that part.

"Turner said 48 of her members were 'disposed of' before the trial, and most have 'landed on their feet,' some in education jobs, others out of the industry."

Georgia's other teacher's group, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, also piled on. The sentences were "fairly harsh," said the group's mouthpiece, Tim Callahan. But "certainly a wrong had been done, and needed to be exposed, and people needed to pay the price."

What some people will do for 30 pieces of silver.

Apart from rampant racism in what they used to claim was "the city too busy to hate," what the Atlanta scandal showed was the wholesale degradation of the school system through the infiltration of America's corrupt corporate culture. It is there --not among the teachers-- that you will find Beverly Hall's real co-conspirators: in the chamber of commerce; in its pliant school board; in famous foundations like the Gates foundation that have pushed for corporate education reform; and, of course, among the bipartisan political racketeers.

The judge's demand for capitulation in exchange for lenient sentences is profoundly corrupt and unfair. It shows that to all intents and purposes, the constitutional guarantee of due process of law is no more. The right to a trial, to defend yourself, and to appeal a guilty verdict has been abolished. Because if you can be punished with years in prison for exercising a right, and rewarded for abandoning it, then it is no longer a right.

But the most disturbing thing of all is that the demand for capitulation and confession has long been a hallmark of police states and totalitarian dictatorships. What the authorities want most of all is to set an example: resistance is futile, no one can stand up to the state.

That is why by standing up and saying no to the state's demand for capitulation, these educators are teaching the most important lesson of all.