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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Bolivarian Venezuela at the crossroads, Part 3: The Venezuelan economy: in transition towards socialism

By Eric Toussaint - CADTM:

The capitalist sector is growing faster than the public sector and is still predominant in Venezuela’s economy despite the nationalizations.

The share of the private sector (greatly dominated by the capitalist sector |2|) in Venezuela’s gross domestic product has grown from 64.7% in 1998 (before Hugo Chávez was elected president) to 70.9% in the third quarter of 2008. |3| Although the government has nationalized a significant number of large companies in the electricity, telecommunications, steel, food, cement and banking sectors, the capitalist sector has recorded more rapid growth than the public sector, which explains that its relative share in GDP has increased whereas the share of the public sector has decreased (from 34.8% in 1998 to 29.1% in 2008) |4|

This can be explained by the way the country’s oil income is used. The overwhelming majority of the Venezuelan State’s revenue comes from oil exports. The government massively uses the resources coming from oil to improve the living conditions of the poor majority of the population (as well as of the medium income brackets) in the fields of health (where results are impressive), education (also impressive), supply of low-priced basic products through the distribution and marketing channels Mercal |5| and Pdval |6| (staple food and other basic products for households), housing construction, the building of infrastructure and public transport (subway, train), wage increases in the civil service, increases in a large number of grants and social allowances, not to mention expenses in the field of culture and sports. It grants substantial subsidies for cooperatives, communal councils, etc. The result is clearly positive: the percentage of Venezuelans below the poverty line was reduced by half between 2003 and 2008, from 62.1% to 31.5% of the population. As for the percentage of people in extreme poverty, it was reduced by two-thirds, from 29% in 2003 down to 9.1% in 2008; |7| illiteracy dropped sharply, the level in training improved, access to free healthcare increased greatly, mass consumption rose.

But to a large extent the capitalist sector is also benefiting from government spending because it is still dominant, by a long way, in the banking sector, in trade and in the food industry. The extra money that goes to the people and comes from public spending ends up in the capitalists’ pockets because it is in the capitalist banks that individuals (and also cooperatives, municipal councils, municipalities and many other public entities) deposit their money. It is the capitalist banks that issue consumer credit facilities in the form of credit cards, and support a growing share of the consumption (and charge high interest rates for this). It is the capitalist companies of the food industry that produce or market most of the food products consumed by the masses. It is the capitalist import companies that bring from abroad the many imported products consumed by Venezuelans. The private retail chains still dominate trade even if Mercal and Pdval are significant players in supplying basic products. When the State nationalizes private companies that belong to the national capital, it is the local capitalists that receive buyout compensations from the State.

In brief, the capitalist sector continues siphoning off most of the money spent by the State to help the poor or middle-income sectors of the population.

According to a study |8| by Mark Weisbrot and Luis Sandoval that is in fact very favourable to the Chávez government, the private financial sector grew by 37.9% in 2004, by 34.6% in 2005 and by 39.2% in 2006, while the growth of the public sector (all sectors taken together) was only 12.5% in 2004, 4.1% in 2005 and 2.9% in 2006.

As stated by Victor Álvarez : “During the previous mandate of President Chávez (2000-2006), most financial, fiscal, exchange rate incentives, most public spending, most technical assistance, etc., went to the existing production apparatus, fundamentally consisting of commercial companies, which reproduce a capitalist mode of production that is, paradoxically, the very one we want to overtake and transcend.

We are thus far from the assertions made by the mainstream media, which see in the Chávez administration a rampant imposition of state control over the Venezuelan economy.

Gifts made to the banks

An additional issue, stems from the policy of overvaluation of the Venezuelan currency against the dollar. This question requires some explanation. Since 2003, companies that want to import goods and services have had to buy dollars from a state administration called CADIVI. This is a useful measure taken to fight capital outflow. The problem is that the exchange rate between the bolivar and the dollar overvalued the value of the former. It therefore exacerbated a perverse pattern: for a capitalist who has a large amount of bolivars, it is more profitable to change them for dollars which are sold cheaply by the State and import products from the United States or elsewhere than to produce them in the country. Thus the policy of an overvalued bolivar deterred productive investment and encouraged trade based on the frenetic import of goods |9| and sale of the same through the big private retail networks. These massive imports are in fact subsidized by the State since the State sells the private sector the cheap dollars it has accumulated through its oil exports. Another point also needs to be examined: how this policy of an overvalued bolivar and a high level of imports influenced the inflation rate, which has been particularly high in Venezuela in recent years. This high inflation rate reduces the impact of the pay rises granted by the government.

One vicious example of this policy of an overvalued bolivar and of gifts made by the government to the private banks: the Venezuelan State bought debt bonds issued by Argentina in 2004-2005. The problem is that it sold part of these Argentine debt bonds, drawn up in dollars, to the private banks. These banks bought them with bolivars at the official overvalued exchange rate. What did some (in fact many) of them do with these bonds? They sold these Argentine debt bonds in the United States or elsewhere to obtain dollars. This allowed them to bypass the control imposed by the Venezuelan State over capital movements. Officially, they did not export capital; they only got Argentine debt bonds out of the country.

Since then, the State has kept on making gifts to private banks thanks to similar manoeuvres. PDVSA and other public entities issue public debt bonds drawn up in dollars that are bought in bolivars by Venezuelan banks at the official exchange rate. Then these banks sell part of the bonds on the international market for dollars |10|. In brief, the State policy has two negative consequences: first, it permits capital flight in a circuitous but perfectly legal way; second, it encourages parasitic banking behaviour (buying of debt bonds) to the detriment of productive investment.

The conclusion that can be drawn is that although the State is trying to carry out a policy of endogenous development (i.e. designed to meet the internal demand through greater domestic production), the way the oil money is redistributed, combined with the overvaluation of the bolivar, tends to strengthen the capitalist sector and its importing pattern.

In a speech given during the meeting of intellectuals organized by the CIM, the writer and lawyer Luis Britto aptly summed up the situation: “We live in a dual society, and in a fable I wrote I explained that if one tries to set up a mixed system with hens and foxes in one single henhouse, then the following week, there will only be foxes left, and then they will eat the farmer.” | and Martha (...)" rel="footnote" href="">11|

Dealing with the thorny question of exchange rates: the January 2010 devaluation

In January 2010, the government carried out a devaluation. What does this devaluation consist of? Two official rates were set: the first one represents a 21 percent devaluation of the bolivar against the dollar (instead of 2.15 bolivars, 2.6 bolivars are needed to obtain one dollar); the second rate represents a 100 percent devaluation (one has to pay 4.3 bolivars for one dollar instead of 2.15 bolivars). The first rate (2.6 bolivars per dollar) is in force for expenses considered to be vital or at least to be a priority: imports of food, medicines, technologies, equipment for industrial or agricultural production, imports made by the public sector, the payment of scholarships to Venezuelan students studying abroad, of pensions to retired people living abroad. The second rate (4.3 bolivars per dollar) is applied to imports of automobiles, beverages, tobacco, cell phones, computers, home appliances, textiles, chemical and metallurgical products, rubber, etc.

In the short term, this devaluation will increase the State’s tax revenues. The dollars that the State gets from oil exports will be sold for a larger amount of bolivars. This is certainly one of the main goals pursued by the government which has seen its tax revenues dwindle due to the impact of the international crisis on the country’s economy. But this does not mean that the Venezuelan State is going to win on all fronts. The repayment of the public debt, 67.8 percent of which is drawn up in dollars, will cost the government more. The Venezuelan bankers and other capitalists who bought debt securities drawn up in dollars will get richer once again.

Obviously there are other consequences: for the workers and all low income earners who receive this income in national currency, the devaluation means lower purchasing power: the cost of the products they consume will be higher because many products are imported or produced in the country with a large imported component. Importers, retailers, producers will pass on the additional costs to the retail price. This loss of purchasing power can only be limited or compensated if wages increase in proportion to the cost of living, which is not the case. On 1 May 2010 Hugo Chávez decreed a 15 percent increase in minimum wages and pensions but inflation reached 25 percent in 2009 and will probably be even higher in 2010.

This devaluation aims at other objectives in the longer term, but it would be risky to say whether they can be reached or not. Among these objectives, the most important one is certainly the promotion of import substitution. Since importing now costs 21 or 100 percent more (depending on the products imported), imports should decline and local producers should be in a better position for selling their production on the national market. Even better: the devaluation should convince them that it is profitable to produce products that were formerly imported. This could create a virtuous circle thanks to which the country could strengthen its industrial and agricultural base by replacing imported products with local ones.

Translated by Stéphanie Jacquemont and Judith Harris, in collaboration with Francesca Denley and Christine Pagnoulle


Next part: Suggested paths to 21st century socialism in Venezuela (Part 4)

Part 1 : “Venezuela. Nationalization, workers’ control: achievements and limitations” Part 2 : “Debate and contradiction in the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela)”


|1| The first part of this series ‘Bolivarian Venezuela at the crossroads’ was posted on the CADTM website on 14 April 2010 under the title ‘Venezuela. Nationalization, workers’ control: achievements and limitations’, the second part was posted on 18 June 2010 (see also: ) under the title ’ Debate and contradiction in the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela)

|2| For instance, the share of social economy within the private sector is very low: it reached 1.6% of gross domestic product at the end of 2008, up from 0.5% in 1998. Out of a total of 11,692,071 working people at the end of 2008, only 201,773 work in the social economy cooperatives, i.e. barely 1.7%.

|3| See Victor Álvarez “The transformation of the Venezuelan productive model : review of ten years of government”, Revista La Comuna n°0, p. 37 to 55. Victor Álvarez was Minister of Basic Industries in the Chávez government from January 2006 to August 2007.

|4| This statement has to be qualified: until 2002, although a public company, the operation of PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela Sociedad Anónima) had progressively favoured the private sector. A large part of its revenue was declared and taxed in the United States. The measures taken by the Chávez government from 2002 onwards enabled the State to take over the company’s management, which resulted in a strong increase in revenue to be later used to finance social policies.

|5| The Misión Mercal S.A. (MERCado de ALimentos) is one of the social programmes promoted by the Venezuelan government. Officially launched on 24 April, 2003, the Misión Mercal is designed to serve the food sector and comes under the control of the Ministry of Food. The programme involves building shops and supermarkets and supplying them with staples and basic products at low prices that are affordable by the needy. Food products are subsidized and arrive on the shelves without middle-men, so that the prices offered usually represent a discount of 30% to 45%, compared to the prices charged in other distribution channels.

|6Productora y Distribuidora Venezolana de Alimentos (Pdval) was created in January 2008

|7| Quoted by Victor Álvarez.

|8| See Mark Weisbrot and Luis Sandoval, The Venezuelan Economy in the Chávez Years, Center for Economic and Policy Research, Washington, 2007,

|9| A personal anecdote: in late November-early December 2006 in Caracas, I was utterly astounded to see in the middle-class neighbourhoods that thousands of Christmas trees imported from Canada were being sold. In the shops, they were also selling quantities of devices to spray artificial snow on the trees. It should be added that in Caracas the temperature around Christmas is over 20°C. The massive import of Christmas trees from the Great North is very profitable thanks to the overvalued bolivar. It is true that Chávez criticized this pattern of systematic imports, all the more so as, he said, it was linked to cultural traditions (Santa Claus for instance) that were also imported and unquestioningly adopted to the detriment of local cultures.

|10| The foreign financial papers The Economist and the Financial Times regularly stress that Venezuelan private banks are very pleased with this opportunity given by the State to bypass capital movements control.

|11| See and Martha Harnecker “Selección de las opiniones más destacadas de los intelectuales reunidos en el CIM” (Selection of the most prominent opinions of the intellectuals in the CIM meeting) which takes up extracts from several speeches given during the meeting of intellectuals organized by the CIM in early June 2009.


Eric Toussaint, Doctor in Political Science (University of Liege and University of Paris VIII), is president of CADTM Belgium (Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt, He is the author of A diagnosis of emerging global crisis and alternatives, VAK, Mumbai, India, 2009, 139p; The World Bank, A Critical Primer, Pluto Press, Between The Lines, David Philip, London-Toronto-Cape Town 2008; Bank of the South. An Alternative to the IMF-World Bank, VAK, Mumbai, India, 2007; Your Money or Your Life, The Tyranny of Global Finance, Haymarket, Chicago, 2005.

Source: CADTM

July 31st 2010

Bolivarian Venezuela at a Crossroads, Part 2: Debate and Contradiction in the PSUV


Friday, July 30, 2010

The social crisis in Appalachia Part 4: Youth prospects

By Naomi Spencer

This article is the fourth of a series on the history, economy, social and environmental conditions in the Appalachian region of the United States. Part 1 was published on July 22, part 2 on July 24, and part 3 on July 27. World Socialist Web Site reporters recently visited the coalfields of southeastern Kentucky and southwestern West Virginia and interviewed residents on their conditions of life. Accompanying interviews are posted in four parts here: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4.

A vacant home in West Virginia

The population of the coalfields region of eastern Kentucky and southwestern West Virginia has hemorrhaged with the collapse of wages and jobs in the coal industry since the 1980s. At its peak in the mid-1970s, coinciding with a coal boom and an upsurge in militant strikes, the coalfields region experienced a population increase of 21 percent, more than double the national average growth rate, to more than 2.3 million residents.

The 1980s, however, signaled a devastating and international counteroffensive of capital against the working class. In central Appalachia, the coal companies, aided by the betrayals of the United Mine Workers and other unions against the workforce, succeeded in isolating strikes, forcing out the most militant workers, and replacing large sections of the workforce with machines manned by much smaller, highly exploited crews. Mining towns that at one time bustled with commerce and thousands of residents have stagnated and decayed.

In the 1980s, coalfields counties lost nearly 100,000 residents. Between 1990 and 2000, coal-intensive counties lost another 10 percent of their population, a trend that has continued in the decade since the last US Census.

Young people and working class families are compelled to leave the region in search of livable wages and educational opportunities. This out-migration in turn further exacerbates the dearth of specialized medical, educational and other professional service providers.

The poorest youth find few options after school, centered on low-wage jobs, military enlistment, or mining and logging industries. Even in the retail sector, young people are faced with intense competition over jobs, including with older workers who have lost higher wage jobs in the course of the recession. In West Virginia, the number of unemployed workers doubled in 2009, according to the state Center on Budget and Policy. Over 25,000 jobs were cut, many of them in the better-paying manufacturing sector. In already distressed coalfields counties, the poverty rate for children is more than one in three, and young adults also bear a disproportionately high and rising poverty and unemployment rate.

World Socialist Web Site correspondents interviewed young people in the area about social conditions and employment prospects. Many expressed concern over access to quality education and the economic decay of the region. Residents also voiced their concerns over the management of the environment, many of them drawing parallels between the plight of Appalachia and the still unfolding disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.


Miranda Kohari, a 22-year-old Chatteroy, West Virginia, resident, works part-time at the Righteous Brew coffee shop in Williamson. She is a first-year nursing student at Pikeville College, a 45-minute commute from home. “I started out as an education major,” she told the WSWS. “I switched to the nursing program for the job security. I thought you can go anywhere as an RN.

“I don’t have student loans—I am really lucky. I won a scholarship the year I was born because I was the first baby born in the maternity ward of the Pikeville hospital. Without that, there is no way I could have gone to school. I’m still living at home with my family. I wouldn’t be able to afford to live on my own; I work part-time at the coffee shop, which if you aren’t in coal, it’s the only kind of work you can find.

“I really wanted to be a teacher,” Miranda said. “But the schools are being cut and education isn’t a steady career path anymore. There are a few teachers in my family and they’ve been laid off. This was really devastating. Here, the Williamson high school is going to close and be consolidated with Matewan and Birch. I love this town, and I really hate to see it collapse.

“When the economy is collapsing, there’s nowhere for people to go,” she told the WSWS. “Some of the young people attend Southern West Virginia Community College, but the majority go away and don’t come back. A lot of businesses have relocated across the river in Kentucky, and people drive down to Pikeville to do their shopping. The economy here is worsening because of that, and because of the broader economy. Three or four different businesses in the shop down the street have opened and folded in the last couple of months.”

Like many residents, Miranda sees the dangers and destructiveness of mining primarily as a consequence of reckless management. “My whole family has always been in the coal business,” she explained. “I don’t want to see the environment destroyed. But I’d rather them get the coal from up top of the mountains somehow than underground, because it is so dangerous. The Gulf disaster really disturbs and upsets me. It is a similar issue. I am very concerned about the ecology, and the wildlife and what the impact of that oil is going to have on all of us.”

Rick Lucas, a Pikeville resident, is a business major at Pikeville College with an emphasis in accounting. “Around here the coal industry is dominant. There are better ways of doing it,” he said. “My father is the owner of a contract mine on Black Mountain. The problem is that big coal companies don’t want to do things the right way.

Rick (left) and Steven

“The US was once the strongest economy in the world. It’s fallen so far. In the 1950s and 1960s, the country was prospering. But now it’s collapsed,” he noted.

Rick told the WSWS that he lives at home with his parents, who help him cover tuition costs not covered by some scholarships. He also works part-time as a sales associate at a local pharmacy for minimum wage. “I have a few bills, but it would be a real struggle if I had to live on my own.”

Rick’s friend, Steven Wright, is a 19-year-old junior at the University of Kentucky in Lexington and a native of the unincorporated Pike County community of Virgie. A mechanical engineering major, he said he is able to attend school with the help of a federal Pell Grant and a Smart Grant, the federal grant program for science studies.

Steven described his parents as hardworking: “My mom is a teacher’s aide. My dad worked in a coal mine, but he stopped when he developed stage 1 black lung. Now he works for a construction company under a private contract, with a wage of around $15 an hour. When he gets a state contract, the wages are higher, $20 to $25 an hour.” Steven said his family has trouble with health insurance costs, and his parents help to pay for his university tuition.

Describing the limited opportunities for young people in the region, he told the WSWS, “If you go to high school here, you typically go into mining or the military. I’ve heard my high school, Shelby Valley, is the number-one military recruiting school in the state. They don’t prepare kids enough for college. It’s really behind in curriculum; they just started offering AP [advanced placement—college prep classes] a few years ago. When I graduated, AP calculus was not offered.

“There are not a lot of majors available at Pikeville College,” he said. “There is a narrow focus on business and a few other vocations and not a lot in terms of broad education. People kind of feel restricted. They’ve got a good school for medicine. Everybody can’t be a business major.”

A self-described Republican, Steven told the WSWS that the Republican right did not represent his interests. “Fox News has gotten ridiculous. I don’t watch anything on television anymore. I like to read articles online that provide content.”

Steven expressed outrage over the Gulf oil disaster. “I want to know why a whole month passed before they even tried capping the oil well leak. Why is BP still in charge? It could have been handled a lot better—they’ve done nothing but slide past everything, and Obama has let this go on. He can say things about how he’s going to kick some asses, but he’s a better ass kisser than an ass kicker.

“There should be more people working on it, scientists, engineers. I’m sick of the idea of ‘quick fixes.’ What is a ‘quick fix’ for a catastrophe? From an engineering perspective, this never should have happened in the first place.

“I love the idea of alternative energy. There are other ways to power cars; there are rechargeable batteries that you never have to throw away and that don’t have any of the toxic chemicals that currently leach into the soil. Why should BP control so much money, to pursue oil?

“We should put our best scientific minds to nanotechnology. We could employ nanotechnology in fixing the Gulf, and to bettering other energy production. The first person who can come up with a nanobot to go down into the mines and extract coal—! Why should miners go down there, risk their lives, get sick? They already have these innovations in the medical fields.

“But innovations are so slow in development,” he added, indicating that profit interests were acting as a drag on science. “It typically takes two or three decades for an innovation to be fully implemented. Why? Because you can’t make billions of dollars from it right off the bat. We need to have some regulation.”

Heather Jordan, a 16-year-old high school student from Wyoming County, West Virginia, told WSWS reporters she worried about the limited prospects for her and her peers. “I want to study nuclear medicine when I go to college,” she said. “Science is so important. I know someone who works as a radiologist, and I thought this was an interesting field.”

“But I probably will have to go away to find a program and a job,” Heather said. “Where I’m from, most people are low income, with lower living standards. A lot of my friends are on free and reduced price lunch, and their families are poor. There’s been a gradual loss of jobs for a long time because of the changes in the coal industry,” she said, “but a lot of jobs are being lost to the recession too.”


Ann Francis, a 20-year-old junior in music education at Morehead State University (MSU) and a native of Pikeville, Kentucky, spoke to the WSWS at Pikeville College, where she is employed for the summer. She mentors working class high school students aspiring to go on to college.

Ann graduated high school in Pikeville before attending MSU, about 90 miles to the north. “A lot of people leave this area when they graduate, or say they want to leave when they get out of school,” she said, “but they end up working here after all.”

Like university students all around the country, Ann has seen double-digit tuition increases every year. “I have scholarships and haven’t had to take out any loans,” she said, but added that the scholarships will not cover the fifth year of school she will have to attend in order to complete her degree. “I don’t know how I’ll pay for tuition after they run out.”

At MSU, she said, “They have tacked a lot of extra fees since tuition cannot be raised more than a certain amount.” Ann said her scholarships do not cover the newly imposed $90 “music fee,” and Internet classes—which are increasingly replacing traditional general education courses—now cost an additional $300. She has worked minimum wage federal work studies on campus to help offset these costs.


Chris Hollis, a 21-year-old Pikeville College graduate, just received a degree in business administration and management. He is working temporarily at the university. “I went home to Columbus [Ohio] to try to find a summer job, but there weren’t any. I applied, but no one’s calling me back. I have a job here for the month, but after that, I don’t have any plans.

“I have some private student loans, not as much as some people,” he said. “But the payments kick in in November. I hope I can find a decent job by that time. I don’t want that debt lingering over my head for a long time.”

Asked what young people did for entertainment in Pikeville, Chris said, “I was on the bowling team in college. Kids can go bowling, or go to a movie. Some kids here just go hang out in the Wal-Mart parking lot.”

To be continued

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Interviews: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

30 July 2010

The social crisis in Appalachia: Part 3: Environmental disaster and private profit

By Naomi Spencer and Rosa Lexington:

Millions of dollars worth of coal heaped in uncovered train cars pass through impoverished Appalachian towns each day, covering the ground and coating buildings and automobiles with coal dust. The enormous wealth produced in the region is owned and controlled by a few large companies and individuals, while the majority of the population lives from day to day, many without basic necessities.

Export pier at Newport News, VA, where European and Asian-bound ships are loaded with coal from central Appalachia

In the pursuit of greater profits, the coal industry has expanded its surface mining operations in the coalfields region. Since 1999, coal operators have acquired surface mining permits on some half a million acres in Kentucky and West Virginia, primarily in the coalfields region. This has boosted extraction rates with the employment of far fewer workers, while worsening the environmental health and public infrastructure. The political establishment and regulatory agencies from the federal level down, along with the trade unions, have facilitated this state of affairs.

Surface mining operations in Letcher County, Kentucky near the site of the 1976 Scotia mine disaster, which killed 26 miners and inspectors.

Surface mining has increased dramatically in West Virginia since the 1970s and 1980s when coal miner strikes shook the industry. In 1982, 19 percent of total mining tonnage was the product of surface mining; by 2006, the proportion had reached 42 percent. In all, some 1.2 million acres—one in 10 acres, a cumulative land area the size of the state of Delaware—have been surface mined in the region, according to data from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Mountaintop removal is a form of large-scale surface mining that involves blasting away trees, topsoil and up to 1,000 vertical feet of ridges to expose deep-running coal seams. Millions of tons of debris are dumped into adjacent valleys, blocking natural stream paths and increasing runoff. These extensive “valley fills,” along with logging operations that have denuded hillsides, have worsened flash flooding and left valley towns more vulnerable to mudslides. Silt runoff has also filled creek and riverbeds, making overflows much more frequent with heavy rains.

FEMA trailer camp near Gilbert, West Virginia, to house residents displaced by repeated flooding

These operations often take place in close proximity to residential areas, including towns where a large percentage of residents were once employed in mining.

On June 12 of this year, several counties in southwestern West Virginia were hit by flash floods, prompting disaster declarations and the deployment of the National Guard. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) opened three “Disaster Recovery Centers” in three of the affected counties on July 6, three weeks after the disaster.

The June floods were the latest of a series that have struck coalfield towns in the past few years. The World Socialist Web Site spoke to many residents who said they were certain that recent mountaintop removal operations had exacerbated the floods. However, political and environmental officials deny a firm link between the disasters and mining operations.

Scores of residents in Gilbert, a small Mingo County community, and neighboring towns were living in trailers that had been brought in by the FEMA after floods last year. FEMA camps lined the highways in bare, unshaded gravel lots. Residents said families circulated through the camps on a waiting list, with some making repairs on their flood-damaged homes only to be hit with new damage the following year.

On a perfunctory visit to the region, Democratic Governor Joe Manchin commented to reporters, “It’s a shame to come to the same areas every few months and see the damage over and over again.”

A June 14 report in the Charleston Gazette related that Manchin told reporters, “[H]e could not attribute the cause of the flooding solely to mountaintop removal mining,” and that because “there is no direct correlation,” communities would have to focus on “mitigation” efforts.

This tack effectively absolves the coal industry of legal responsibility and shifts the financial burden away from the coal operators onto public agencies and residents themselves. Many flood victims have no insurance; in the aftermath of other recent floods, residents have seen flood insurance skyrocket to thousands of dollars a month.

Residents have little legal protection against such devastation. After major floods in 2001, some 1,400 survivors filed a lawsuit against coal and timber companies; this was secretly settled in December. A similar lawsuit recently been filed by 20 Mingo County families against four mining companies is likely to be settled the same way. The coal industry views legal proceedings largely as a cost of doing business.

A landslide on June 15 in Mingo County, caused by a mine operated by an Alpha Natural Resources subsidiary, resulted in mud and debris being washed against two homes and over a road. Such slides are so common as to barely rate a mention in the local papers, though their impact on the quality of life for residents is incalculable.

The state’s regulatory agency, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), does little to enforce its requirements that strip-mining operations adequately assess the impact their activities will have on surface water runoff and contamination of local water supplies. Federal regulations, overseen by the Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining, are crafted to be largely voluntary and self-enforced.

The danger of flooding has been created through decades of extraordinarily reckless mining practices. Federal Office of Surface Mining (OSM) data indicates that mountaintop removal valley fills destroyed an estimated 724 miles of Appalachian headwaters from 1985 to 1991, and more than 1,200 miles between 1992 and 2002. Regulators approved 1,600 valley fills from 2001 to 2005, estimated to have buried another 535 miles of streams. All of these operations were undertaken in violation of federal protections on headwaters, yet the government took no action against the coal companies on any of them. Instead, the OSM loosened regulations on what constituted “fill” so as to allow for sediment and toxins to be dumped in streambeds. At every level, the thrust of policy has been to conform the law to the practice of the violators.

Mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, manganese, beryllium, chromium, and many other toxic and carcinogenic substances are all contained in coal. Mining and coal preparation at processing plants release large amounts of these particulates into the groundwater every year with impunity. At prep plants, the coal is washed with other chemicals, producing a toxic byproduct known as “slurry.” The slurry is held in massive impoundment ponds or underground, including in old mine shafts, where it poses a significant risk of leaking into the water supply.

Hundreds of billions of gallons of coal slurry are held in impoundment ponds throughout the coalfields region. The region has suffered several major spills of slurry or thicker coal sludge after dam breaks. Most recently was December 2008 coal ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tennessee, which released 1.1 billion gallons of waste across 300 acres and into nearby rivers.

In 2000, over 27,000 Martin County, Kentucky, residents had their water supply contaminated by a sludge spill at least 30 times the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill after a Massey Energy impoundment collapsed into mine shafts and spilled into the Tug Fork river below. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration fined Massey only $5,600 for the disaster.

In the 1972 Buffalo Creek Disaster, a slurry flood from the Pittston Coal Company impoundment in Logan County, West Virginia, sent 132 million gallons of waste into the valley towns below, killing 125 people, injuring over 1,200 and rendering the remaining 4,000 residents homeless. Widespread protests followed calling for the prosecution of coal bosses for murder and outlawing strip-mining, which combined with militant strikes by miners over job safety, black lung exposure and for improved living standards.

A number of studies have reported high arsenic levels in the water supplies of coal mining areas. Surface and private well water have chemical contamination profiles that indicate contamination with coal slurry.

The West Virginia state Department of Environmental Protection unveiled a proposal in May to set the legal limit of “total dissolved solids” (TDS) at 500 milligrams per liter in streams and waterways, double the federal recommendation. The department studies leading up to the proposal were prompted by complaints beginning in 1998 about unpleasant odors and tastes in drinking water drawn from the Monongahela River, and a massive fish kill in Dunkard Creek on the border between West Virginia and Pennsylvania last fall.

Coal mining is a major source of TDS. The dissolved solids under the proposal include chlorides and sulfates, which at high levels can be dangerous to aquatic life and cause unpleasant odors and tastes in drinking water. At the same time, DEP announced plans to weaken the state’s legal limit for iron in trout streams, from 0.5 parts per million to 1.0 parts per million.

Citizen and environmental advocacy groups have filed a lawsuit against Massey and Arch Coal subsidiaries in the state for allowing excessive levels of selenium to contaminate the water supply. Selenium is a naturally occurring mineral that is released in excessively high levels as runoff and as a byproduct of coal processing. Patriot Coal, coal giant Peabody Energy’s newly spun-off Appalachian operation, has been charged with similar violations by federal Judge Robert Chambers at its massive Hobet 21 mountaintop removal operation.

In June, Chambers ordered a hearing, set for August, to consider issuing an injunction against the operation. In a 55-page opinion, the judge also pointed to the role of the state Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) in delaying the enforcement of standards on selenium. Chambers stated, “Hobet’s track record of non-compliance and the WVDEP’s history of acquiescing to deadline extensions and other modifications to ease permit requirements suggest compliance is not likely without intervention on the part of this court.” In January, the federal Environmental Protection Agency approved an expansion of the Hobet operations.

Even small amounts of selenium have been found to cause reproductive problems in aquatic life. A June 18 Charleston Gazette report cites the work of biologist A. Dennis Lemly, who found that the Hobet 21 operation has left the Mud River “on the brink of a major toxic event.” Lemly has identified that Mud River fish are suffering substantial deformities, including curved spines and both eyes on one side of the head. “If waterborne selenium concentrations are not reduced, reproductive toxicity will spiral out of control and fish populations will collapse,” Lemly stated.

Coal companies have been using “streamlined permits” issued by the Army Corps of Engineers in Appalachia—almost 80 percent of permit approvals since 1997—to get around the Clean Water Act. Such permits were supposed to apply only to “minor activities that are usually not controversial” and that would have only “minimal cumulative adverse effects on the environment.” The Gazette notes that mining operators have been permitted to purchase streams as long as they follow the formality of submitting in writing “a general plan” to minimize adverse effects. With this process, “There is far less regulatory scrutiny, or public notice and comment, than if companies go through the more rigorous individual permit process.”

The Dominion Resources power plant, south of Richmond, Virginia, where 11,000 tons of coal are delivered by train from southwest West Virginia or eastern Kentucky every day.

As a result, hundreds more miles of streams have been filled with debris and toxic waste. The Corps is now halting the streamlined process. However, the Corps has joined with the coal industry in filing a notice that they would appeal a court order to halt streamlined permits for strip mines in the southern coalfields of the state.

Residents of Williamson, situated on the Tug Fork River, told the WSWS that the city warned them not to drink the water or brush their teeth with it over six months ago, and that they never saw a subsequent announcement lifting the advisory. In nearby Matewan, residents related a similar situation, telling the WSWS that they had been told not to eat fish taken from the river. Some houses had no water available, Williamson residents said, because waste being stored in old mine shafts had leached into the groundwater.

Any improvement in water quality is made at the expense of the population. West Virginia American Water is seeking to raise rates by 15 percent to recoup the $50 million it spent on improved water lines and treatment plants beginning in 2008. If regulators approve the request, customers’ bills would increase by an average of $6.32.

A coal road in West Virginia. State funds subsidize the construction of private industrial roads.

The coal industry is buffered from any such costs. A new analysis of tax data by the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy found that the coal industry cost the state budget $97.5 million more than it paid in taxes and other revenues. The analysis factored in government outlays for inspections, the extensive damage to roads and bridges by coal trucks, and tax breaks. The report found that in 2009, the coal industry paid $307.3 million in severance, business, and corporate income taxes. The state devoted $174 million in tax credits and subsidies, and expended another $113.7 million to regulating mining and repair of the state-subsidized coal-haul roads.

Coal operators in Kentucky enjoy a similar disparity. According to the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, the coal industry accounts for $528 million in state revenues and $643 in expenditures, including $85 million in tax incentives for “the mining and burning of coal.” The report notes that the figure does “not include the many externalized costs imposed by coal including healthcare, lost productivity resulting from injury and health impacts, water treatment from siltation caused by surface mining, water infrastructure to replace damaged wells, limited development potential due to poor air quality, and social spending associated with declines in coal employment and related economic hardships of coalfield communities.”

27 July 2010

The social crisis in Appalachia Part 4: Youth prospects

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Regionalism: The Caribbean prospective - Part 1

By D. Markie Spring
Turks and Caicos Islands:

It is evident that individual islands within our region cannot stand alone; therefore we need regional integration into every aspect of our system.

However, it must be noted that there are some islands in the region that are doing well. The Bahamas, Barbados, the British, American, French and Netherlands overseas territories, states and departments have sustained economies; British and US Virgin Island, Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands, the ABC Islands, Guadeloupe and Martinique.

The author of a number of published works, D. Markie Spring was born in St Vincent and the Grenadines and now resides in Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos Islands. He has an MBA from the University of Leicester, England, and a BA from Saint Mary's University, CanadaConversely, Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana have weakening economies, but they have sport teams that are competitive at the highest level. The Eastern Caribbean has semi-strong economies.

In my honest opinion, I believe that the Caribbean could be a force to be reckoned with; only if we unite all of our efforts. As a region we should come together and compete against the rest of the world.

Let me start this debate with sports. The Caribbean had regionalised its effort to build the most successful cricket team in the world. This had worked for many years until the West Indies cricket team was severed by a number of factors, including poor player selections. It was clear that, if the West Indies unites its other resources, we could accomplish many things. Why do we have so many individual sport teams?

We should also combine our efforts in tourism. Although some Caribbean nations greet millions of tourists per year, this is not a fraction of the amount of tourists that travel to other parts of the globe.

To illustrate this further, the Bahamas has more than a million tourists visiting its shores annually, when France alone has 74 million.

Many citizens across our region believe that only the Caribbean has lush valleys and mountains, and white sandy beaches with crystal clear waters. No, my people, the Philippines, Thailand and other far eastern Asian countries also boast these qualities.

We should adapt the business term called Comparative Advantage, where each country identifies its strongest attractions and builds on them -- from a regional prospective. This means that countries such as Turks and Caicos Islands should market its white sand beaches, while other countries like St Vincent and the Grenadines promotes its eco-tourism environment.

Furthermore, the Caribbean has to integrate its economy into a single economy, if it wants to create an economy that is recognised and competitive to the world. These days, individual markets are developing impeding problems. Our regional economies are too dependent upon each other.

There is, however, some strong evidence that a single economy would derive better results. Although the OECS countries are not fully integrated through economic efforts, its dollar has maintained comparative and competitive value for decades.

In this sense, it is safe to say that our regional leaders do not have that regional vision needed to push our nations forward. We cannot depend upon developed economies to assist us -- not in these difficult economic times.

Countries like the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, BVI and USVI and the Cayman Islands often decline membership and their willingness to integrate. One thing these nations must realise, though, is that their economies are not diverse enough to stand on their own for much longer; therefore, we need to unite as one Caribbean.

Some leaders and citizens alike believe that the economies of too many islands are too weak to have successful integration. We must look at the European Union. The only countries in the EU that are economically vibrant are those located in Western Europe. To date, the EU combined maintains the world’s biggest GDP. Is this something to learn from?

We must direct our efforts away from Individualism and start thinking collectivism. All we are doing in the region is competing against each other and stealing the little we possess.

I realise that some readers may find this article contrary to their beliefs. However, with this criticism I am ready to debate my ideologies. I am a young professional who believes in oneness and that there is no form of survival without unity. In addition, I believe that people with different ideologies may be isolated and their lives might be spearheaded by political affiliations.

July 29, 2010

Regionalism: The Caribbean prospective - Part 2


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

United States government would like to see closer integration between countries in the Caribbean

US 'would like closer integration' in Caribbean
Tribune Staff Reporter

THE United States government would like to see closer integration between countries in the Caribbean, with this a topic of conversation yesterday between a high level US official and Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham.

According to Dr Arturo Valenzuela, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, one of the major “pillars of engagement” that the United States government is hoping to promote in its relations with countries like the Bahamas and its neighbours in the Caribbean is the “strengthening” of the integration process that CARICOM represents.

Speaking to the Bahamian media during a press conference with US Ambassador to the Bahamas, Nicole Avant, at her official residence yesterday, Dr Valenzuela said this was one of a number of issues discussed with both Mr Ingraham and opposition leader Perry Christie during meetings that morning.

“We were talking about the CARICOM, how we see the evolution of CARICOM and what role could CARICOM play with regard to some of the issues (such as) climate change, security and economic development,” said Dr Arturo, a key adviser to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on a broad range of political, economic and security issues that affect the Caribbean region, as well as South and Central America and Canada.

“There’s always room to see how we can improve processes of democratic governance and in particular in the Caribbean; (we want to) have a dialogue with leaders in the country about the possibility of increasing the integration process in the Caribbean – whether CARICOM and its framework can be strenghtened moving forward.

“Our co-operative efforts with the nations of the Caribbean have to be dealt with bilaterally – between the US and those nations – but at the same time we’re mindful of the fact that we’re better off if we can co-operate and discuss things in a broader context and in this sense a regional integration process is a process that would help in our own co-operation.

“Our security framework right now for example is within the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) and as you know much of our trade and economic policy has an overall focus on the Caribbean as such,” explained Dr Valenzuela.

The CBSI is a recently launched Shared Regional Security Partnership between the US and the Caribbean that seeks to bring all members of CARICOM and the Dominican Republic together to jointly collaborate on regional security with the United States as a partner.

The US is set to contribute $45 million this year and $79 million in 2011 to the initiative, which has as its core objectives the reduction of illicit trafficking, the advancement of public safety and security and the promotion of social justice.

July 27, 2010


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Leaked documents expose imperialist war in Afghanistan

By Alex Lantier:

On Sunday, the WikiLeaks web site posted 91,731 American military documents on the US-NATO occupation of Afghanistan, covering the period from January 2004 to December 2009. The release was timed to coincide with articles on these revelations in the New York Times, the British Guardian and the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel, all of which had received the documents several weeks ago.

The documents make clear that the occupation of Afghanistan is a filthy imperialist war. Popular resistance and protest demonstrations are drowned in blood, US death squads operate at will under a media blackout, and Washington and NATO collaborate with a narrow elite of corrupt warlords and Afghan officers.

The documents were released as the Afghan government confirmed that NATO rocket fire last week killed more than 50 civilians, largely women and children, in the Sangin district of Helmand Province. The attack was one of the worst since the May 2009 Gerani air strike, in neighboring Farah province, which killed 140 civilians, including 93 children and 28 women.

The WikiLeaks documents confirm the massive scale of US-NATO repression. By the American military’s own classification, which downplays the role of US and NATO troops, the release includes 13,734 reports of “friendly action” by US-NATO forces. The number of Afghan attacks—there are 27,078 reports of “enemy action” and 23,082 of “explosive hazards”—shatters claims that the Afghan resistance is the product of a few Al Qaeda terrorists. There are 237 reports of popular demonstrations against the US occupation or US-controlled Afghan authorities.

These documents themselves are reportedly only a small selection of millions of US files uploaded to WikiLeaks databases. What has already been released, however, makes clear that the US military sees Afghan casualties as unimportant, to be dealt with primarily by relying on the Western media to conceal the scope of the killing from the populations in NATO countries and internationally.

According to one report, on March 28, 2007, Dutch forces fired on Chanartu, a village in Kandahar province that was reportedly under Taliban attack. They killed four and wounded seven Afghan villagers in an operation the report called “justified.” It said the Dutch government had “engaged in a proactive public relations campaign to prevent political fallout here and in the Netherlands,” explaining that otherwise Dutch soldiers might “hesitate” to fire on Afghans in the future. The killings were classified as the result of action by “enemy” forces.

Written from the standpoint of the US military in the heat of events, the documents often understate Afghan casualties. For example, the September 2009 Kunduz bombing—when German officers called in a US air raid on two fuel trucks, killing 142 Afghans, overwhelmingly civilians—is listed as having caused 56 insurgent deaths.

The documents contain countless reports of civilians shot for approaching NATO vehicles, or for failing to stop at checkpoints. This includes two instances in 2008 where NATO forces machine-gunned a bus—once by French troops, wounding eight, and once by US forces, with 15 casualties.

There are also repeated accounts of NATO forces repressing demonstrations, often in close coordination with local Afghan authorities. On May 11, 2005 a unit of Marines reported demonstrations in Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. After requests for help from the regional governor, Din Mohammed, the Marines called in “AH-64s [Apache attack helicopters] for a show of force.”

Under cover of air support, Afghan and UN forces moved against the demonstrators. Though the US military reported 37 Afghan civilians were killed and 10 wounded, it classified the Jalalabad demonstration as a “non-combat event” by “neutral” forces.

The documents also reveal the existence of Task Force 373—a covert, heavily-armed Special Forces death squad that mounts operations throughout Afghanistan, seeking to assassinate Taliban leaders. On the night of June 11, 2007, while trying to capture Taliban commander Qarl Ur-Rahman near Jalalabad, Task Force 373 was surprised by a friendly Afghan police patrol which shone a light on them in the darkness. The task force called in an air raid by an AC-130 gunship which blasted the policemen with cannon fire. Seven Afghan police were killed and four wounded.

One week later, Task Force 373 launched another mission, against Abu Laith al-Libi in Paktika province. The plan was to fire a salvo of six missiles at the village of Nangar Khel, where al-Libi was suspected of hiding, then send in troops to attack the village. Though they did not find al-Libi, they discovered that the missile strike had killed six adults, whom they described as Taliban fighters, and eight Afghan children in a madrasa.

On October 4, 2007, the task force attacked Taliban forces in the village of Laswanday, only 6 miles from Nangar Khel. During a pause in the fighting the Taliban slipped away. However, Task Force 373 called in an air raid, killing four civilian men, one woman, and one girl. Two teenage girls and a boy, as well as 12 US soldiers, were wounded. There are suspicions that some of the Afghan villagers were executed, as one of the men was found with his hands tied behind his back.

Coalition forces initially put out a statement claiming US forces had killed several Taliban militants. A US contingent visited the village and sought to blame the deaths on the villagers. According to the leaked reports, they “stressed that the fault of the deaths of the innocent lies on the villagers, who did not resist the insurgents and their anti-government activities.”

The documents also reveal growing NATO losses in the air, including numerous drones and even manned aircraft, with at least one F-15 fighter being lost over Afghanistan. In an April 2007 report, the US military cited reports that the Iranian government had purchased portable anti-aircraft missiles from the Algerian government and given them to Afghan insurgents. This has not been previously reported.

White House National Security Advisor James L. Jones denounced WikiLeaks’ publication of the documents, saying Washington “strongly condemns the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organizations which could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security.”

He continued, “WikiLeaks made no effort to contact us about these documents—the United States government learned from news organizations that these documents would be posted.”

While the US government is most directly exposed by the documents released so far, many more countries must be concerned over further material that might be released. Assange claims that WikiLeaks has extensive documents on the positions on Afghanistan of every country whose population is over 1 million—that is to say, all of the world’s major powers.

The occupation of Afghanistan is broadly unpopular in countries throughout the world.

At a Monday press conference in London, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said he had recently received more “high quality material” from military sources. The Guardian notes: “Washington fears it may have lost even more highly sensitive material, including an archive of tens of thousands of cable messages sent by US embassies around the world, reflecting arms deals, trade talks, secret meetings, and uncensored opinions of other governments.”

Assange has come under intense pressure from the US and allied governments. The Pentagon proposed to send investigators to meet him on “neutral territory” and discuss his sources, but Assange refused. After the May 26 arrest of 22-year-old US military intelligence analyst Bradley Manning at US Forward Operating Base Hammer 22 miles outside of Baghdad, Assange went into hiding.

Manning is currently locked up in a US military prison in Kuwait.

The Australian government had briefly taken Assange’s passport earlier that month, telling him it might be cancelled. Assange is Australian.

The Guardian writes that journalist “Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, said he thought Assange could be in some physical danger; Ellsberg and two other former whistleblowers warned that US agencies would ‘do all possible to make an example’ of the WikiLeaks founder.”

The Guardian claims that, after a manhunt, it found Assange in a café in Brussels, where he had traveled to speak to the European parliament. He agreed that a team of Guardian reporters could access the reports, which were also sent to the New York Times and to Der Spiegel.

Asked about his security at a press conference at the Frontline club in London, Assange said: “As we all know, the United Kingdom is a surveillance state.” He continued by saying he believed he had political support in the UK, so that it would be difficult “for me to be arrested or detained. I can’t imagine that happening in this country, unless there was a miscommunication from the bureaucracy to the political leadership”—i.e., a decision by the British police or military to violate the authority of the government.

In fact, the main division is not so much between the pro-war Cameron government in Britain and the state machine, but between masses of working people internationally who oppose the war and governments and security forces who are determined to wage it.

Significantly, none of the publications who broke the story called for opposition to the war in Afghanistan. Indeed, the Guardian editorial called for its indefinite extension. It wrote that the revelations in WikiLeaks’ documents meant that “this is not an Afghanistan that either the US or Britain is about to hand over gift-wrapped with pink ribbons to a sovereign national government in Kabul.”

Sections of the US political establishment are pressing to use the WikiLeaks material to carry out a tactical shift in US-NATO war policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan. US Senator John Kerry published a statement, writing: “However illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions about the reality of America’s policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan. Those policies are at a critical stage and these documents may very well underscore the stakes and make the calibrations needed to get the policy right more urgent.”

Kerry is holding hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Afghanistan war today.

The leaking of the documents has been accompanied by a campaign in the US press, denouncing the Pakistani government’s support for Afghan warlord factions opposed to the Karzai regime in Kabul. Discussion has centered on the role of Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, the former chief of Pakistani military intelligence—the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).

The New York Times wrote: “Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul ran the ISI from 1987 to 1989, a time when Pakistani spies and the CIA joined forces to run guns to Afghan militias who were battling Soviet troops in Afghanistan. After the fighting stopped, he maintained his contacts with the former mujahedin, who would eventually transform themselves into the Taliban.”

The Times continues, “more than two decades later, it appears that General Gul is still at work. The documents indicate that he has worked tirelessly to reactivate his old networks, employing familiar allies like Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose networks of thousands of fighters are responsible for waves of violence in Afghanistan.”

The US government is now accusing Pakistan, whom it publicly recognizes as one of its main allies, of supporting Afghan forces fighting the US. These accusations underscore the basic hypocrisy of the US intervention in Afghanistan. It is not about fighting right-wing Islamism or terrorism, but defending major US strategic interests and controlling the balance of power in the fast-developing Asian continent.

Amid mass popular opposition to the US occupation in Afghanistan, Washington has been unable to shape an agreement between Pakistani-backed factions around Hekmatyar, Haqqani, and the Taliban, on the one side, and the Northern Alliance forces that prop up the Karzai regime in Kabul, on the other. These latter forces have historically been backed by Pakistan’s regional rival, India, as well as Russia. However, a turn by US imperialism to confront Pakistan carries immense dangers—notably, a confrontation with China, Pakistan’s most powerful ally in the region.

27 July 2010

Monday, July 26, 2010

Haiti and the international community

By Jean H Charles:

There is a tug of war going on, right now between the nationals of the Republic of Haiti and a sector of the international community. The citizens of Haiti, the candidates to the presidential election, the political parties, the civil society, the churches (with the exception of the Voodoo imam) are all in unison refusing to go to the poll under the baton of the current president and the current electoral board.

Jean H Charles MSW, JD is Executive Director of AINDOH Inc a non profit organization dedicated to building a kinder and gentle Caribbean zone for all. He can be reached at: jeanhcharles@aol.comThe international community led by Edmond Mulet, the UN resident in Haiti, is pushing full speed ahead for the election to take place on November 28, 2010, under the direction of the discredited principals. Who is the toro (the bull) in Haiti? The people of Haiti or the international community? This determination will soon come to a final decision. The cost of the election as set by the board is around 27 million dollars. The Haitian government has earmarked only 7 million, expecting the additional 20 million to come from the international community.

What are the issues behind the tug of war?

The present Haitian government for the past ten years (in spite of the presence of international observers) has exhibited a pattern of deception, fraud, strong-hand maneuvers, abuse of the state purse for politicking, even commanding execution killings to lead the result of the election to suit its political ambition.

The devastating January 12 earthquake has brought about a paradigm shift in the mind and the determination of the people and the political class in Haiti to bring about significant change in the way business is conducted in the country. It is clear that, six months after the disaster, the Haitian government has not risen up to the task of leading the way for the reconstruction of a new Haiti.

As such there is a line on the sand. Akin to 1800 when the former slaves refused to go back to the slave plantations under the command of Napoleon and his deputy Bonaparte, the Haitian people in 2010 are united, ready to fight, not to return to the status quo of the past, the culture of disrespect for the majority of the people, the culture of corruption with arrogance. If history is a guide that helps to pierce the future, I am predicting the Haitian people will have the upper hand in this tug of war.

What are the stakes?

The stakes are high, Haiti’s name and future is on the radar of the international press. Some 1.5 million people are under tents that are being tested by the inclement weather. Half a million people may have perished with inhumation in the ground or under the rubble without proper identification. Internal migration in and out of the city of Port au Prince, not by choice but by necessity, is widespread. The emotional stress of some 4 million, nay their physical being has not been addressed.

Rene Preval and the international institutions with crocodile tears on their faces request an election for the sake of political stability. Indeed, moderate free and fair elections took place in Haiti during the last twenty years only during the political transition -- Trouillot -- Latortue -- that led to Aristide and Preval governments.

An international community ready to bring solace to the Haitian people would welcome an enlightened transition that would provide coordination for the recovery, leadership for the reconstruction and equity for a free and fair presidential election.

When the Preval government has demonstrated that it is unable and unwilling to provide elementary first aid to the refugees of the earthquake, compounding its task with a mammoth crucial presidential, legislative and local sheriffs’ election is foolish at best, aiding and abetting a criminal enterprise at worst.

Already the liberty of the press has been compromised. The threats, the menaces have become stronger. Even a well known Haitian American of the caliber of Wyclef Jean has been a target for elimination because of his position that paints the true picture on the ground. Dr Tunep Delpe, a well known political leader, was saved from assassination through the diligence of some alert citizens. Social and political blogs have been closed because of genteel but persistent threat against the blogger.

What is the alternative?

Legitimacy has been the concern of those seeking the umbrella of political stability. The present Interim Haiti Reconstruction Committee, created to manage the business of rebuilding the country, is running on a slow line. Rene Preval, the Haitian president, is at best lukewarm, at worst suspicious of the committee. He took months to name an executive director.

When he did it was his buddy instead of the best economic mind that the country has produced. (No offense to my buddy!) The French Ambassador to Haiti, Didier Le Bret, qualified the situation as “inexistent progress”. US lawmakers labeled the members of the Haitian government as “virtual incapacities”. Senator Richard Lugar of the US Senate characterized the Haitian president as “a self-destructive individual”. The ordinary citizen said the government is nowhere visible.

On the eve of the impending hurricane season, utmost care and attention should be focused on the at-risk population, numbered now at some three million people. The international community should have a hands-off attitude, when the Haitian people as a whole are putting in process a mechanism for denying legitimacy to the corrupt, inept and maybe criminal Haitian government.

It should have been the province of the court to make such a political decision. The Preval government has been so derelict in its duties and constitutional obligation that he has failed to name the Chief Judge for the past five years.

The Haitian Constitution has ample provision for a vacancy due to unexpected circumstances. The most senior judge of the Supreme Court shall run the executive office assisted by a prime minister of popular consensus.

I have already suggested names of individuals with high degree of competence, passion and equity ready to assist the international community and the Haitian people to help Haiti engage in the fast road of recovery for the welfare of the people, not the present bogged down politics of disaster profiteering mixed with arrogance and indifference towards those in distress.

Pierre D Sam with 20 years experience abroad with the FAO and twenty more years experience locally, with successive Haitian governments, as well as younger economic experts in food and environmental security such as Jean Erich Rene and Guichard Dore would fit jointly or individually the bill with elegance, expertise and competence.

A national strike was scheduled for this week, an atmospheric deformation filled with rain and hell is scheduled to hit Haiti hard this weekend. There has been demonstration on the street every day; time is of the essence to bring at least and at last well deserved solace to the resilient people of Haiti!

July 26, 2010


Sunday, July 25, 2010

The social crisis in Appalachia (Part 2): An epidemic of ill health among the poor

By Naomi Spencer

hospitalOld hospital in Williamson, West Virginia

By virtually every measure, the working class and poor in the United States confront a crisis in social infrastructure. In the coalfields region of eastern Kentucky and southwestern West Virginia, where most residents are poor, and access to health care and other basic services is limited, the levels of disease, drug addiction, and other ills are a stark expression of the inequality that exists throughout the country.

Statewide, poverty stands at 22 percent in Kentucky, and the official unemployment rate is 10.6 percent. In West Virginia, unemployment rose to 9.5 percent in March 2010 from 6.9 percent a year earlier; 19.1 percent of West Virginians live below the poverty line. In both states, the median annual income for households is $10,000 below the national median.

In April 2010, Kentucky had 776,000 people enrolled in the Food Stamp Program, an increase of 75,000 over the year before. West Virginia saw an increase of 40,000 over the same period, to 338,000 enrollees. In Kentucky, only households with no more than 130 percent of the poverty threshold are eligible. West Virginia determines eligibility on a strict measure of assets and earnings, with no enrollee allowed more than $2,000 in assets.

According to data from Kentucky Youth Advocates, in 2008 the families on food stamps in the state received an average $210 per month; most families run short by the end of the month, especially in areas where grocery stores are few, which generally makes food more expensive.

WelchWelch, West Virginia residents on McDowell Street, lined with boarded-up storefronts. Many towns in the coalfields have no grocery stores.

Currently some 790,000 Kentuckians are enrolled in Medicaid, including nearly one in every two children. Because of the economic crisis, the rate of applications has spiked, from 930 per month last year to 3,400 a month now. A Kaiser Family Foundation report released May 26 projected the Medicaid rolls in Kentucky could increase by 424,000 over the next several years.

At the same time that poverty and social need have grown, state legislatures have inflicted major cuts on public programs. The Kentucky budget approved on May 29 included budget cuts of 3.5 percent for many state agencies this year, with 4.5 percent cuts to follow next year. Cuts to public health and education funds have come down year after year in the state, which has staggered under billion-dollar budget deficits for the past decade.

Health spending is likely to plummet in 2011. The budget as it was passed in May included money to be provided by the federal government in the form of Medicaid matching funds, which were blocked in the US Senate. By the end of the year, the state faces an additional shortfall of $238 million in its health care budget.

Another area facing cuts is the Department for Community Based Services, which provides child protection services and processes food stamp applications. The department’s funding is slated to be cut by 8.5 percent. Reflecting the social instability wrought by grinding poverty and insufficient family services, Kentucky is currently the worst among the 50 states for the rate of child death from abuse and neglect. The state’s juvenile drug court program, which provides counseling and rehabilitation to minors, has also been eliminated.

West Virginia is one of the few states that did not record a deficit last year, because of its long-running program of austerity and paltry social outlays. In fact, the rating agency Moody’s Investment Services upgraded the state’s bond rating to AA1 on July 9, praising its “fiscal conservatism and consistent fund balances.” For the coming fiscal year, the legislature passed a budget with no spending increases in any services, in spite of the increasing need among the population.

The coalfields region of the two states is particularly exposed to budget cuts. Poor people from the mountains often have to travel hours away, to Lexington, Charleston, or other cities, to see a doctor who will accept Medicaid reimbursement. Others get treatment through charities, county health departments, and expensive hospital emergency rooms.

The more complicated one’s conditions are, residents explained to the World Socialist Web Site, the scarcer are the specialists and resources required to treat them. Public health clinics in many towns are understaffed and under-stocked, or lack the budget to operate regular office hours.

The lack of other basic infrastructure, including transportation and major roadways, further contributes to the difficulties of accessing care. Residents explained that in certain areas, helicopter evacuations were the only means of survival for accident victims.

Kentucky suffers a major doctor shortage, according to an analysis by the Lexington Herald Leader published May 27. The paper found that for every 100,000 people in the state, there are 213.5 physicians, compared to the national average of 267.9 doctors per 100,000 people. Just to reach the national average, about 2,200 more physicians would be needed to serve the state.

For the Medicaid-enrolled population, the shortage of doctors is particularly sharp. Many doctors, dentists, and clinics will not accept Medicaid patients because of low and late reimbursements for their services and an antiquated system of paperwork involved in filing with the state.

Dentists are especially scant in the mountains, exacerbating poor dental health rates. According to a 2008 study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association, adult residents in the coalfield region of Appalachia suffered “a high rate of complete or partial edentulism [toothlessness], an infrequent orthodontic treatment, great unmet orthodontic need and less demand for orthodontic care than was suggested by their clinically determined need.”

Poor people, who often have the poorest nutrition and a higher incidence of tobacco use, are at a far higher risk of losing their teeth or developing life-threatening abscesses, infections, and cancers of the mouth and throat. Some of the poorest families receive dental care only through traveling dentists providing basic screenings as charity.

Medicaid reimbursements for dentists have not risen since the early 1990s, while the cost of care has spiked. In West Virginia, Medicaid reimbursements haven’t been increased since 1991, and the state cut its rates by a third in 1994. Dentists dropped out of the program en masse because they could not afford to treat poor patients. An October 2009 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation and West Virginia Public Broadcasting identified a single dental practice in the tiny coalfield town of Oceana that treated 12,000 patients.

Further contributing to the high incidence of toothlessness in the region are the limited dental services that are covered by Medicaid for adults. In West Virginia, preventive care is not regularly included, even for infants and toddlers.

For adults over 19 years of age, reimbursed care is largely limited to emergency tooth extractions. Consequently, some patients who may be ineligible for fillings, but eligible for dentures, are compelled to have all their teeth pulled in order to quell excruciating pain. Patients who have their teeth pulled are sometimes forced to wait for their dentures to arrive several weeks later by mail, during which time they are unable to eat solid food, residents said. If their dentures do not fit properly, patients may have to wait weeks more for a refitting.

Without regular medical examinations and preventive care, residents are more likely to develop chronic or fatal conditions. Cancer death rates are significantly higher in rural Appalachia, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control. Cervical, colorectal, and lung cancers were all far higher—mountain counties in Kentucky recorded 196.6 cancer deaths per 100,000 population from 1994-1998, as compared to 166.7 per 100,000 nationally.

Mental distress and drug addiction are also on the rise. A 2008 study by the federal Appalachian Regional Commission found high prevalence rates for both serious psychological distress (16.1 percent) and major depressive episodes (10.6 percent) in the coalfields population, as well as painkiller addiction that is more than twice the national rate.

Extreme poverty gives rise to a myriad of other health problems. For example, the CDC published a study in November 2009 indicating distinct geographic patterns across the United States for the prevalence of diabetes and obesity. The study revealed high rates of the conditions in the poorest areas of the country, particularly in the Appalachian coalfields, where 30.9 percent of the population was obese, and 10.6 percent had diabetes.

In no small part, these conditions are due to “food deserts” that exist in the regions. Many distressed urban centers in the US, such as Detroit, Baltimore, and East St. Louis, have similar problems. When industry shuts down, businesses including grocery stores close up shop and leave the area. A shortage of grocery stores carrying fresh fruits and lean meats require residents, especially those who use food stamps and may have other problems of economic origin, such as lack of transportation, to depend upon convenience stores, gas stations, or discount stores, where primarily high-sodium and fatty foods are sold.

Residents in West Virginia border towns of Matewan and Williamson told the World Socialist Web Site that because of the differences in the Kentucky business tax code, most of the shops closed their doors and relocated across the state line. This left thousands of residents without easy access to healthy foods in towns with no public transportation systems.

The erosion of basic social infrastructure is a feature of widening inequality in the United States. The coal industry continues to reap billions of dollars each year from central Appalachia, paying less in taxes than it receives from the state, as the workforce is decimated, social spending is eliminated, and living standards collapse.

This process has contributed to the stagnation of the life expectancy in the region. Since the early 1980s, the coalfields have experienced a “reversal in fortunes” in mortality rates, according to a 2008 study co-authored by researchers from Harvard and the universities of California and Washington. In the worst-off counties, researchers found life expectancy either stagnated or dropped by 4 percent for men and 19 percent for women between 1983 and 1999. This marked the end of rising life expectancies among the poor—a trend that represented huge gains in medical technology, as well as the historic gains of the civil rights era and the “war on poverty” measures initiated in the 1960s in the coalfields region.

Since the 1980s, inequality has exploded, decent-paying jobs have been destroyed, and welfare has been dismantled. Consequently, both male and female life expectancies had a statistically significant decline in poor counties, averaging a loss of 1.3 years.

The social crisis in Appalachia (Part 1)

The social crisis in Appalachia: Part 3: Environmental disaster and private profit

24 July 2010

The social crisis in Appalachia (Part 1): Deprivation and inequality in the coalfields

By Naomi Spencer

This article is the first of a series on the history, economy, social and environmental conditions in the Appalachian region of the United States. World Socialist Web Site reporters recently visited the coalfields of southeastern Kentucky and southwestern West Virginia and interviewed residents on their conditions of life.

Apartments in downtown Welch, West Virginia

The region has long suffered a deep economic distress. One-third of the 100 poorest counties in the United States, as measured by median household income, are concentrated in the coalfields. This “pocket of poverty,” as economists sometimes refer to it, has, for decades, recorded extremely high levels of deprivation, unemployment and all the social problems that accompany them. This has been exacerbated by the dearth of government spending on the region and scarcity of basic infrastructure—freeways, commuter rail, airports, Internet connectivity, public universities—which lend the region a remote and disconnected air.

Yet in an immediate and direct way, the region is globally integrated. It continues to be one of the largest producers of coal in the country as well as a major lumber exporter. Fluctuations in the international energy and raw commodities markets have a powerful bearing on the local economy, prospects for the youth, and social infrastructure funded by tax revenue.

Moreover, as throughout the country, the deepening economic crisis has worsened joblessness, collapsed home values, forced the closures of public schools, clinics, and charity organizations, and further depressed communities in the coalfields. At the same time, billion dollar coal corporations have been the beneficiaries of ever-more generous tax breaks and “incentives” from the state governments of Kentucky and West Virginia. Safety, health, and environmental regulations over the coal industry have been systematically loosened, or simply ignored.

The result is a barefaced portrait of the extreme inequality that exists throughout the United States, with a handful of ultra-wealthy coal barons dominating every aspect of daily life of the highly exploited and deeply impoverished majority.

Every social indicator bears out the class relations. Double-digit poverty rates predominate, and the majority of adults are classified as “not in labor force.” Typical of the region, in Harlan County, Kentucky, 34 percent of residents live below the poverty threshold. Median household income stood at $23,600 in 2008—nearly half the state median, which is significantly lower than the national median of $52,000. Home values throughout the coalfields are likewise half the state median or less. Most children live in poverty, and many families subsist on less than $10,000 a year.

Boarded up storefronts in downtown Harlan, Kentucky

The majority of adults in the region did not graduate high school; 2004 figures indicate that 57 percent of the adult population did not receive a high school diploma or earn a general equivalency degree. The population has declined steadily as young people leave in search of jobs with livable wages.

Year after year, budget crises have been used to justify double-digit rises in tuition at public universities and community colleges, while aid has been cut. Young residents looking for an education and a job have limited options—the few jobs for young workers are concentrated in the low-wage retail and service sectors; for a university education, students are often compelled to leave the region, or join the military. Lack of basic infrastructure like broadband Internet service has precluded residents even from taking online college courses. Some 20 percent of residents still live without telephones, libraries are woefully underfunded, and cell phone towers are sparse in the steep terrain.

The budget crises in the states compound social need in the region. Funding cuts and shortfalls for social services over the past decade have impacted the mountainous counties, in particular. These areas, which are less accessible by major roads and distant from urban centers, have far fewer health resources and specialists and a far higher proportion of Medicaid-enrolled patients. Poor reimbursement rates, coupled with a high volume of paperwork and red tape, have discouraged many doctors, dentists, and other care providers from accepting Medicaid patients.

Local clinics are understaffed and forced to operate irregular hours and without basic supplies. Residents, describing their clinics as little more than first-aid stations, explained that for life-threatening and chronic problems, hospital emergency rooms were their only source of care. Untreated health problems like diabetes, tooth decay, mental illness, obesity, and other manageable conditions are of epidemic proportions. Black lung disease—produced by long years of working in the mines—emphysema and cancer are increasingly common.

Life expectancy, significantly lower than the national average, has stagnated or declined since 1983, in some counties by as much as five years. Levels of ill health and premature death parallel parts of Eastern Europe and Latin America.

West Virginia coal trains

Miles of train cars brimming with coal lumber through the center of such conditions every day, carrying loads worth millions of dollars at each pass. Over the course of the past three decades coal production has risen steadily while the mining workforce has been decimated. Today, far fewer miners—virtually all non-union—are extracting record loads of coal at massive mountaintop removal sites and dangerous retreat mining operations. Last year, less than 90,000 miners—a workforce under half the size of that of the 1980s—were responsible for extracting 1,170 million tons of coal, a third again as much as the production rates of 25 years ago.

Every year, dozens of Appalachian coal miners are killed in disasters caused by the deliberate disregard of operators and regulators alike for basic safety procedures, and thousands of current and former miners are diagnosed with black lung. Communities are subjected to increasing environmental devastation in the form of mudslides, flash flooding, and pollution caused by reckless surface mine operations. The water supplies of entire cities have been declared unsafe to drink because of contamination.

Section of mining operation in Pike County, Kentucky

The coal industry, deeply entwined in state politics, cost West Virginia and Kentucky tens of millions of dollars more than they pay in taxes, while fines for endangering workers and pollution are negligibly tiny, and usually ignored. Residents of the coalfields can find no representation for their grievances in elected officials and no defense in the legal and regulatory framework.

This state of affairs has been created through the active collusion of the political establishment, dominated by the Democratic Party, the environmental and safety regulatory agencies, and the United Mine Workers of America.

On the rare occasions that the national news media covers this region, for example, during the disaster at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, which killed 29 West Virginia miners last April, it attempts to portray the population as submissive, religiously devout and resigned to a fate of deadly working conditions and poverty. In fact, the region has been the scene for some of the fiercest struggles of the American working class.

The miserable conditions in the coalfields cannot be understood without grasping the role of the UMWA, which, over the last three decades, betrayed strike after strike, abandoned and helped victimize militant miners and imposed endless concessions on its members at the behest of the coal bosses. This counts among the greatest betrayals of the working class, considering that the miners’ struggles for union recognition in the 1920s and 1930s, and mass struggles to improve working conditions and living standards in the 1960s and 1970s, were some of the most heroic and bloody in labor history.

The social crisis in Appalachia (Part 2)

22 July 2010