Taliban threatens to kill Musharraf when he returns to Pakistan
By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, March 23, 2013 7:15 EDT
The Pakistani Taliban on Saturday threatened to assassinate former military ruler Pervez Musharraf when he returns to the country to contest elections after nearly five years in self-imposed exile.
The 69-year-old escaped three assassination attempts when in office from 1999 to 2008, a target of Islamist extremists because of his alliance in the US-led “war on terror” and attempts to clamp down on militants.
“We have prepared a special squad of suicide bombers for Musharraf,” Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location.
“They will attack Musharraf after he arrives (in) Pakistan.”
Musharraf is due to fly into Karachi, his home town and Pakistan’s largest city of 18 million which is suffering from record levels of violence linked to ethnic and political tensions, on Sunday.
When former prime minister Benazir Bhutto returned to Karachi from eight years in exile on October 18, 2007, bomb attacks killed at least 139 people in what remains the deadliest single terror attack on Pakistani soil.
She was later assassinated in a gun and suicide attack at the end of an election rally in Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007. Her son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who is chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party, has accused Musharraf of her murder.
Musharraf is wanted by the courts over Bhutto’s death, the 2006 death of Akbar Bugti, a Baluch rebel leader in the southwest, who died during a military operation, and for the 2007 sacking and illegal arrest of judges.
He went to the top of the Taliban hit list after ordering the army to storm the Red Mosque in Islamabad, where radicals were holed up. The operation left more than 100 people dead and opened the floodgates to Islamist attacks in Pakistan.
Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked groups went on the rampage, carrying out hundreds of attacks that have killed more than 5,700 people according to an AFP tally.
In an interview with AFP in Dubai on Friday, Musharraf said he was prepared to risk any danger to his life in order to stand for election on May 11, polls which should mark the first democratic transition of power in Pakistani history.
“Two hundred percent! I am travelling back on Sunday to Pakistan,” he said.
“I will go by land, air or sea… even to the peril of my life, this is the oath I took for the country.”
On Friday a court in Karachi granted him protective bail for at least 10 days on charges of conspiracy to murder and illegally arresting judges, but analysts say the risk of arrest is less than the danger to his life.
“Security will be a huge challenge for him,” retired lieutenant general Talat Masood told AFP.
It is not only the Pakistani Taliban, but Baluch groups, who hold him responsible for Bugti’s death, and hardline sectarian groups who want to kill him, said Masood.
“Moreover he is arriving in Karachi where the security situation is very difficult. He wants to be part of the political landscape. He will have to move around to meet people and travel to other places,” the retired general said.
“I don’t know why he is taking the risk when he has not a bright future in Pakistan,” he added.
Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup when he was army chief of staff in 1999 and left the country after stepping down in August 2008, when Asif Ali Zardari was elected president.
Last year he delayed a planned homecoming after being threatened with arrest and commentators say most of his powerbase has evaporated and that he will only secure, at most, a couple of seats for his All Pakistan Muslim League (APLM) party.
He has presented himself as “a third alternative” to the PPP and to opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, whom he ousted in 1999 and who is considered a frontrunner in the May vote, by promising to reverse economic decline and restore security.
In 2010 a UN report said Bhutto’s death could have been prevented and accused Musharraf’s government of failing to provide her with adequate protection.
Musharraf’s government blamed the assassination on Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a US drone attack in August 2009.
March 23, 2013
After 3 Days of Violence, City in Myanmar Counts the Dead
By THOMAS FULLER
BANGKOK — Army units restored order on Saturday to a city in central Myanmar devastated by three days of religious rioting and arson attacks.
The state news media revised the death toll upward in a broadcast on Saturday evening, saying that 32 people had died in the violence between Buddhists and Muslims, which destroyed large portions of Muslim neighborhoods in Meiktila.
The deaths, which follow spasms of religious violence in western Myanmar last year, have shaken the country’s fragile shift toward greater democracy after decades of military rule. The rioting has also raised the specter of radical Buddhists’ undermining the multiethnic fabric of the country.
Myanmar news media showed images of lines of army trucks entering Meiktila on Saturday, following an order on Friday by President Thein Sein to impose a state of emergency on the city and surrounding areas.
News services reported Saturday that charred bodies remained uncollected on the streets of Meiktila, a city not far from the northern commercial capital of Mandalay. About 6,000 Muslim residents of Meiktila were displaced in the violence, and many are gathered at a stadium on the outskirts of the city.
Numerous reports from the area said that most of the places damaged were Muslim neighborhoods, but the breakdown of the dead has not been confirmed. State television said the 21 bodies found on Saturday were too badly charred to be identified.
U Win Naing, a reporter for a newspaper in Meiktila, said by telephone that the actual death toll would probably be significantly higher.
“The searches by security forces are slow,” Mr. Win Naing said.
U Tin Maung Than, the secretary general of the Islamic Religious Affairs Council, said Saturday in a telephone interview that he had received reports of 32 deaths in one Muslim school, including 28 teenage students, an assertion that could not be independently confirmed.
Wai Moe contributed from Yangon, Myanmar.
March 23, 2013
China’s Leader Argues for Cooperation With Russia
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN and CHRIS BUCKLEY
MOSCOW — President Xi Jinping of China made a case on Saturday for closer economic and foreign policy cooperation with Russia, using a speech at a university here to argue that the countries have converging goals, including an expansion of the oil and gas trade, as they pursue dreams of “national revival” and seek to offset the influence of the developed West.
More than a half-century has passed since the Communist ideological alliance between China and the Soviet Union collapsed in acrimony. But Mr. Xi suggested that the two countries could now find common ground as they each seek to claim a place as a respected great power.
But as he trumpeted the shared interests in promoting peace and stability, Mr. Xi also emphasized a need to “oppose interference in the internal affairs of other countries,” embracing a favorite theme of his Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, one that both countries have used to resist calls for improvements on the issues of human rights and the rule of law.
“China and Russia, as the biggest neighbors of each other, share many commonalities in their blueprints of national development,” Mr. Xi said in his speech at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.
“Currently, China and Russia are both in important periods of national revival, and bilateral relations have entered a new stage in which each provides the other with important development opportunities and treats the other as a major partner,” he said.
Energy cooperation, particularly in Russia’s supplies of oil and natural gas to China, has become one of the most important aspects of the relationship between the countries, a point Mr. Xi noted during his speech. “Oil and gas pipelines have become the veins connecting the two countries in a new century,” he said, calling for even greater partnership.
Mr. Xi, who is visiting Moscow on his first trip abroad as China’s top leader, made no mention of the United States in his speech, but it was suffused with suggestions that a stronger partnership between China and Russia could help both achieve a stronger voice in global affairs, counterbalancing Western influence.
The United States was also not mentioned by name in a document signed by Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin on Friday promising to work together on the issue of missile defense, calling for caution and warning that the deployment of such systems could endanger national security.
Both Russia and China recently expressed misgivings about the Pentagon’s plan to deploy 14 new missile interceptors on the West Coast or in Alaska in response to threats from North Korea.
Mr. Xi’s ascent to the top leadership — he was appointed Communist Party chief in November, but took over as president and head of state only this month — has coincided with a succession of tensions between China and the United States and its partners. China and Japan have been locked in a renewed dispute over islands in the East China Sea claimed by each side, and the United States has become increasingly forthright in accusing China of engaging in widespread and systematic hacking.
The White House and other Western governments have also urged China and Russia to back stronger pressure on the embattled Syrian government, which both have rejected as dangerous meddling.
In spite of Mr. Xi’s soaring words, China and Russia are sometimes wary partners. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which brings together the two nations and Central Asian countries, has not evolved into the powerful “NATO of the East” that some observers foresaw.
Some Russians worry that China’s population and economic strength could overwhelm the Far East region of their country. It has long suffered in part because of historic neglect from Moscow, which has only recently started to make investments.
Mr. Xi will head to Durban, South Africa, from Moscow, for a conference of leaders from the emerging BRICS economies — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Mr. Putin will also attend.
Since his appointment as party chief, Mr. Xi has championed the slogans of “the Chinese dream” and a “great revival of the Chinese nation” to appeal to ordinary citizens who are often angry over official corruption and wealth disparities. Mr. Putin, since his return to the Russian presidency in May, has similarly adopted a nationalist posture as he contends with rising political opposition from urban, middle-class liberals frustrated by the slow pace of political change.
Both China and Russia have made clear that they do not want external nosing into their domestic affairs. In his speech, Mr. Xi said, “Matters within the scope of sovereignty of each country can be dealt with by that country’s government and people.”
Following elaborate welcoming ceremonies on Friday that were broadcast live on Russian television, including an honor guard at the airport and the deployment of a presidential cavalry unit outside the Grand Kremlin Palace, officials signed at least 35 agreements on a wide range of issues. In addition to missile defense, they included a plan for a $2 billion loan by China to Rosneft, the Russian state-owned oil company, which will be repaid in oil over 25 years.
In his speech, Mr. Xi also sought to emphasize other ties, based on ideology and literature. “China’s old generation of revolutionaries were deeply influenced by Russian culture, and my generation read many of the classics of Russian literature,” he said.
But the site for Mr. Xi’s speech, one of Russia’s most prestigious schools for international relations, was not an accident, and literature was not his main brief. “We are living through an era of flux and change,” he said. “No country or bloc of countries can again single-handedly dominate world affairs.”
David M. Herszenhorn reported from Moscow, and Chris Buckley from Hong Kong.
'If girls look sexy, boys will rape.' Is this what Indian men really believe?
A shocking series of brutal attacks has led to a national debate on sexual violence. The Observer asked a group of young men in Goa for their views. The talk revealed a disturbing mindset
Gethin Chamberlain Baga, Goa
The Observer, Sunday 24 March 2013
"Rape is a big, big problem. It starts with the woman. They drive the man fucking crazy." Papi Gonzales leans back in his chair and surveys the other young Indian men around the table in his beach bar, seeking approval. They nod in agreement, eager to make their own points. "When the girls look sexy and the boys can't control themselves, they are going to rape. It happens," said Robin Shretha, one of the waiters.
Since a 23-year-old medical student was gang-raped on a bus in Delhi in December and later died in hospital from her injuries, the issue of rape has been hugely prominent in India. Last week headlines were dominated by the gang rape of a Swiss woman on a cycling holiday in Madhya Pradesh. In the same week a British woman leapt from her hotel window in the northern city of Agra at 4am to escape the unwanted attention of the hotel manager, who was trying to get into her room.
According to government figures, a rape takes place in India every 21 minutes. The number of reported rapes rose by 9% in 2011 to 24,000. Yet conviction rates are falling, down to 26% in 2011.
The recent cases have led to worldwide outrage, and demonstrations led by women have filled the streets of major cities. But what do India's young men think? The Observer gathered a group in the western region of Goa to hear their views. They were: Abhijit Harmalkar, 28, a driver; his brother, Avinash, 24, a factory worker; Bhivresh Banaulikar, 26, an auditor; Brindhavan Salgaonkar, 20, a factory worker; Robin Shretha, 21, a waiter; and Papi Gonzales, 32, the owner of the bar.
One word to describe their views would be "unreconstructed". Others would be "alarming" and "frightening". Plenty of Indian men have joined the recent demonstrations. Plenty of Indian men are committed to the cause of women's rights. But this discussion revealed the deep moral conservatism of some young Indian males, coupled with confusion about gender roles in a society where economic modernisation is outstripping social attitudes.
We are getting the blame, these men claimed, while no one is paying attention to the actions of young women, who need to understand that they should not be out on their own at night. "Our culture is different," said Abhijit Harmalkar. "Girls are not allowed outside after six [pm] because anything can happen – rape, robbery, kidnaps. It is the mentality of some people. They are putting on short and sexy dresses, that's why. Then men cannot control themselves."
Banaulikar nodded. "I have a sister. If she is out late at night, then I would be worried. After 7pm I would be worried. Men can't control themselves."
The men sit around a table in a bar overlooking the Arabian Sea. It is an idyllic scene: coconut palms edge the beaches, the sea is a deep blue, the temperature in the mid-30s. It is mid-morning, but already there are a few western tourists wandering along the beach – the men bare-chested in shorts, many of the women in bikinis. Groups of local men watch the women, discreetly taking pictures with their phones. When night falls, nearby bars will be packed with young people. This bar is only a couple of miles from where the body of British teenager Scarlett Keeling was found five years ago. The 15-year-old had been raped and murdered. An on-off court case against two men has dragged on for years. No one believes that those responsible will face justice, and there appears to be no impetus among those in authority in the state to bring it to a conclusion. The truth is that in India there are many people who think a 15-year-old western girl out drinking in bars in the early hours of the morning was asking for trouble.
This collection of young men is a small, random sample, and plenty of Indians would find their views abhorrent. Foreigners thinking of visiting India – particularly young women – will find these views not only repulsive, but dangerous. Though this is a small sample, it is telling that they speak so openly, and it is clearly the case that other young Indian men would express similar thoughts – even if large numbers of their compatriots would find them shocking.
Sometimes the women lead the men on, those around the table said. Sometimes men are frustrated that women who have earlier flirted with them then ignore their advances. This is not how they themselves behave, but this is what happens, they said. "The Indian girls who come here, they don't behave, maybe there are some boys and the rape happens," said Shretha. "But sometimes they are not behaving sexy, not talking to the boys, and the boys are angrier and they think, 'I'll rape'.
"If they find them in a blind place, they are going to combine together with friends and they are going to rape them. If they [the women] talk nicely, they are OK. If they behave rudely, then they [the men] are going to be angry."
This group, while expressing these views, still maintain that the idea that women are second-class citizens in India is out of date. Everyone is equal now, they said, with women going out to work and making money too. "Before, for many years, girls were neglected, boys got opportunities. Girls did not get opportunities, but now it is equal. It is a new generation, no difference between girls and boys," said Shretha. Their notion of "equality" is impossible to square with the casualness with which they understand and even expect young men to visit sexual abuse on women.
The trouble is, they claim, that this new assertiveness among women is causing confusion for the men. "The main thing is the bank balance. Women are in love with the bank balance," said Gonzales. "And a nice shiny car. Then everything is OK," said Salgaonkar. "You should not blame the boys every time," said Banaulikar. "If you have four girls, sometimes one is a prostitute type," said Avinash Harmalkar. "The others don't know their friend is a prostitute. It is common in college life," he claimed.
Such attitudes are not unusual. Abhijit Mukherjee, the son of president Pranab Mukherjee, himself an MP with the ruling Congress party, dismissed protesters after the Delhi rape as "dented and painted women". And religious guru Asaram Bapu suggested that the victim was not blameless, asking provocatively: "Can one hand clap?" Maybe if there were more prostitutes, there would be fewer problems for young women, the men suggested. "It keeps men happy," said Gonzales. "In Bombay, there are 20 places that I go sometimes. There are hundreds of places there. In Goa there are no places like that. And when we see the goras [whites] showing their bodies off, the Goan people react badly."
One answer, said the men, would be for the women's families to be stricter, preventing them going out at night. That is the traditional solution to keeping girls safe. "In Indian culture, our generation has grown up with respect for families," said Gonzales. "That's why we are scared of our parents. We behave as we are told to behave. Mum and Dad shout 'do this, do that' and we listen. But in the next generation everything has changed."
"Parents should stop the girls going out late at night," said Avinash Harmalkar. "Parents should set them free to live their own life, but parents should be strict about late nights, then this kind of crime will not happen." None of the men could understand why the medical student and her boyfriend had taken a bus in Delhi alone at night, the bus on which they were attacked. "At night-time no one goes in the bus," said Salgaonkar.
"You don't go as a single boyfriend and girlfriend in a late bus at 8.30pm. At that time anything can happen, because no one is in the bus," said Harmalkar. As for men who assault women on crowded buses, which happens frequently, they do so because they have the safety of numbers, he said, and because they don't understand that what they are doing is wrong. "They can't have a girlfriend. If they had a girlfriend they wouldn't act like this. In fact, if they had a sister they would not do this," said Salgaonkar. It was not the rape itself that provoked such anger, he said, but the violence. "The boys who raped her also violated her with a steel rod. If it was only sex, they would not have been so angry."
No one around the table had a simple solution, though Banaulikar said that the only way to stop rape was to keep young people busy and off the streets. "In my job I am always busy," he said. "I don't have time to do these things. If you keep them busy, you can stop them. It is the jobless men who are doing these things.
"If they see others doing this stuff, they copy them. It is the same for the girls. In the daytime she is a good girl, but no one knows what she does at night, and she persuades her friends to do the same." Parents should teach the difference between right and wrong, they said, and also schools.
Then there was the world of higher education, seen by these men as little more than dens of iniquity. "College life is different," said Avinash Harmalkar. "Anything can happen there. Girls and boys know everything about sex. The girls go from boy to boy."
Banaulikar added: "Some girls are doing things for money. They use the boy and then throw them away. So some boys are taking revenge. If someone wants to have sex, no one can stop them. And if you do not want to have sex, people will say you are not a man."
For anyone interested in the promotion of women's rights in India, this was an alarming, even frightening discussion. Last week the lower house of parliament passed new rape laws, which include the death penalty for the most extreme cases, and introduced punishments for stalking and assaulting women. But the all-male conversation by the sea in Goa ended on a note that did not offer much hope for the thousands campaigning on the streets for an end to sexual violence. "Nothing will be changed," said Avinash Harmalkar. "Things like this happen every day and nothing will be changed. Only if the world ends will anything change."
03/22/2013 05:42 PM
Pensions for Jewish Ghetto Laborers: Israel Angered By German Government
By Christoph Schult
On Thursday, the ruling parties in Germany's parliament blocked a measure to resolve the amount German pension funds must pay to former laborers in Nazi-era ghettos. Israeli officials are incensed and have promised to increase pressure.
Emmanuel Nachshon, a former Israeli ambassador and current envoy to Berlin, followed the debate in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, with astonishment. The issue of unpaid pensions for former laborers in Nazi-era ghettos had been under discussion for a year. At a hearing in December, pension experts had almost unanimously voiced the need for action. And Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen, whose ministry oversees the issue, had presented suggested solutions. But even after all that, the parliamentary groups of the parties in Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative coalition government refused to budge on Thursday evening.
"Do you really intend to rob these people of a few thousand euros?" asked Ulla Jelpke, a member of the far-left Left Party. This refusal, she continued, means that the victims will feel ridiculed yet again. Wolfgang Strengmann-Kuhn, with the environmental Green Party, said that doing nothing was "a disgrace and really sad for us as a parliament."
The debate stems from a 2002 Bundestag law that promised to quickly make it possible for Jews who once worked in ghettos to draw a modest pension from Germany. Initially, state pension fund providers rejected roughly 90 percent of applications for this pension. Officials often disputed that the former ghetto residents had worked "voluntarily" and received some form of "remuneration" for their work, which were two conditions stipulated by the German Pensions for Work in Ghettos law (ZRBG).
In 2009, Germany's Federal Social Court put an end to this exceedingly strict interpretation of the law. But the relief of ghetto survivors was short-lived. Instead of granting the plaintiff's full pension retroactive to 1997, as the law stipulated, the court ruled that he would only be granted a pension retroactively for the last four years. The German pension fund had invoked a passage in German social law stating that remuneration for an erroneous ruling is only paid retroactively for a maximum of four years. However, this contradicted the intention of the law that had passed with the support of all Bundestag parties, which called for making payments retroactive to 1997.
In early February, the signals coming out of the Labor Ministry were still good. Sources had told SPIEGEL that the ministry was planning to pay pensions retroactively to 1997 to all eligible survivors. A hearing had been held, and the only outstanding issue was reportedly how this would be accomplished -- by amending the law or providing lump-sum compensation.
But the plan was blocked by Merkel's coalition, made up of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP). "I really wish we could have rectified this piece of injustice," said CDU parliamentarian Peter Weiss, arguing that it was unfortunately just too technically complicated to amend the law and recalculate the pensions. However, he added, they would be happy to discuss the issue further with Israeli government officials.
Angry Response from Israel
The Israeli Embassy has already set up meetings with Chancellery officials twice to discuss the issue. But both of them were cancelled on short notice.
The Israelis have had enough of repeatedly being brushed off on this matter. Israeli Ambassador to Germany Yakov Hadas-Handelsman expressed his immense disappointment after Thursday's Bundestag vote, telling SPIEGEL that the matter involved "legitimate demands of former Jewish ghetto laborers." The elderly survivors, he continued, "expect that there will be a moral and legal solution before it is too late," and the Israeli government will do all it can to see that justice is served on this issue.
Indeed, Israeli's government is already contemplating ways to increase pressure on Germany's government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will reportedly raise the issue with Chancellor Merkel during their next telephone conversation. More than anything, he wants Merkel to explain why members of the ruling parties had rejected the solutions supposedly proposed by Labor Minister von der Leyen, herself a prominent member of Merkel's CDU.
There is also growing anger within the Knesset, Israel's parliament. Lawmakers there want to summon Andreas Michaelis, the German ambassador in Tel Aviv, to appear before them and provide an explanation for all the back and forth on the matter. "It just can't be that the German government gives out several billion to rescue Greece and other crisis-struck countries but is stingy with ghetto pensions," says Elazar Stern, a member of the liberal Hatnua ("The Movement") party headed by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
When he thinks about the battle to solve the pension issue, Stern also has his own parents in mind. His 80-year-old mother survived the Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz concentration camps, and his father, a survivor of the Mauthausen concentration camp, just celebrated his 90th birthday. Since it could only be a matter of days or weeks before they pass away, Stern plans to urge the media to put pressure on Merkel's government now that the Bundestag has refused to act. "Starting now," Stern says, "we will publicly calculate each week how many survivors die without living to see a resolution."
March 23, 2013
Jammed in Roman Caves, Ducking Syria’s War
By C. J. CHIVERS
SARJAH, Syria — Abdulkader Darwish did not go far after a Syrian military aircraft dropped a bomb near his house last year, prompting him to gather his family and flee. He ventured with a shovel into the local olive groves. There he dug through the sealed entrance to an abandoned Roman cave.
Nine months on, dozens of members of the extended Darwish family have passed a cycle of the seasons crowded together in the damp and almost unlighted space. They have gained neighbors all the while, residents of a subterranean community in Syria’s northwest.
“There are many caves here, a line of caves, like an ancient village,” Mr. Darwish said as he huddled with several children inside. “All of them have been cleaned and are now occupied. There is not a vacant cave.”
As the bloody civil war between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition enters its third year, and Mr. Assad’s military continues to pound neighborhoods aligned with the rebels, uncountable Syrian families are waiting out the violence in the caves of bygone times. They are part of the four million people who the United Nations estimates have been forced by the war from their homes, a displacement that seemingly grows each week.
They live a grim existence — a routine of trying to eat, to stay warm and dry, to gather firewood and water out in the elements, all while listening for the sounds of incoming planes and artillery shells.
Explanations of the origins of these underground shelters, many of which are set among other Roman ruins, vary from squatter to squatter. Some say they once were pens for livestock. Others say they were temporary quarters, occupied while more impressive dwellings were built in the centuries before Jesus. Perhaps some were crypts.
Whatever the intention of those who first dug them, Syria’s caves have become essential once more, restored to modern use because their thick walls offer a chance of survival to a population under fire.
Villagers in Idlib Province talk of tens of thousands of people living this way. While these numbers are unverifiable, there are signs that cave demand exceeds cave supply, as more people lose their homes or take flight.
“This was the only cave I could find when I came here,” said Ahmed Sheikh, 51, whose family lives in a smaller cave than the Darwish family’s four-room warren, and slightly farther uphill.
In other towns across the province, part of the population remains at home. In those places, some families rely on caves only as temporary bomb shelters, places to rush to during danger. Their shelters vary from holes freshly chipped under stone ledges to deep basementlike rooms, known as beli, where food and animal feed would normally be stored beneath a villager’s home.
For those lucky enough to have them, the temporary shelters can be stocked with hanging kerosene lamps, blankets and bedrolls, offering families a place to pass the most dangerous hours or nights.
But in many villages, as in Sarjah, which the government has punished with what seems a special fury, the dangers are of a different order. People have moved from village centers into rural caves full-time. They have no plans to leave until Mr. Assad’s military is weakened to the point that its ordnance can no longer regularly reach their former neighborhoods.
“It became impossible to live in the village without being exposed to the possibility of your death at any time,” Mr. Sheikh said.
He spent 35 days improving his cave after claiming it last summer. He installed a wood-burning box stove, cut a ventilation hole, dug and hauled away mud, and hung heavy blankets to reduce drafts and create one area warmer than the rest.
His family is fastidious. The warmest room is neat, and shoes are stacked at its edge. “I keep it organized,” he said.
Cleanliness alone cannot keep away the hardship. After enduring the winter, he said, his wife’s legs are swollen. Their three young children suffer from chest infections and earaches.
As he spoke, a sluggish black beetle, about the half the size of his thumb, slid off the wall and came to rest on its back beside his feet.
Mr. Sheikh picked up the insect and threw it toward the cave’s entrance, like a stone.
“Now you have seen with your own eyes how we are forced to live,” he said.
Artillery boomed intermittently from a brick factory that Mr. Assad’s army occupies on the lowlands of Idlib’s plain. Soldiers were firing into the mountain towns, seats of the armed opposition that have given rise to well-known rebel commanders.
Twenty-five members of Mr. Sheikh’s extended family have been killed, he said, most of them by this kind of shelling, a few while in battle at the front lines.
“Our situation is like the man who is lost at sea,” he said. “He finds a stick and holds onto it as long as he can. But we have lost 25 people already. If the situation continues, you will not find anyone in the entire Sheikh family.”
Another inhabitant of one of Sarjah’s many caves, Ibrahim Haj Musa, 50, stood near a damp stone column in the darkness and vented his disgust at the outside world, blaming the United Nations and the West for doing little to alleviate Syria’s suffering. As is common in Syria, he said that when Western governments withhold weapons from the opposition and send in only limited aid, they are essentially collaborating with Iran, Russia and China in the destruction of Syria.
“And then they invite us to the Friends of Syria conferences,” he said, of the French- and American-led multilateral group that has vowed to support the Syrian opposition. “What kinds of friends are these?”
At the entrance to the first cave, Ahmed, 15, one of Mr. Darwish’s sons, had chiseled an Arabic word into the slab of stone above the cave’s door. His work had given their cave a name. “Home,” the inscription read.
Mr. Darwish spoke of the label with resignation. “Animals, like wolves, refuse to live in such places,” he said. “But we have to accept this.”
Uphill, rocks had been stacked to form the walls of a small outhouse. A hanging blanket served as its door, concealing an open trench.
Farther on, past another cave from which several children peered out, Aziza Sheikh, one of Mr. Sheikh’s relatives, draped laundry over a rope in the open air.
Inside the cave, Yousef Sheikh, 5 months old, slept in a tiny hammock. His mother had spent the last months of her pregnancy in this cave, and left the cave to deliver the infant in an aid station, Ms. Sheikh said.
She returned with the infant hours after his birth, Ms. Sheikh said, and was raising her baby here, beneath the ground.
Reports indicate CIA helping Syria rebels obtain arms and intelligence
By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, March 23, 2013 16:30 EDT
The US Central Intelligence Agency has been feeding information to select rebel fighters in Syria to try to make them more effective against government troops, The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday.
Citing unnamed current and former US officials, the newspaper said the new CIA effort reflected a change in the administration’s approach that aims to strengthen secular rebel fighters.
The CIA has sent officers to Turkey to help vet rebels who receive arms shipments from Gulf allies, the report said.
But administration officials cited concerns about some weapons going to Islamists, the paper noted.
In Iraq, the CIA has been directed by the White House to work with elite counterterrorism units to help the Iraqis counter the flow of al Qaeda-linked fighters across the border with Syria, The Journal said.
According to the report, the West favors fighters aligned with the Free Syrian Army, which supports the Syrian Opposition Coalition political group.
Syrian opposition commanders said the CIA had been working with British, French and Jordanian intelligence services to train rebels in the use of various kinds of weapons, the paper said.
The move comes as the al Nusra Front, the main al Qaeda-linked group operating in Syria, is deepening its ties to the terrorist organization’s central leadership in Pakistan, The Journal said.
The new aid to rebels doesn’t change the US decision against taking direct military action, the paper noted.
March 24, 2013
Head of Western-Backed Syria Rebel Coalition Quits
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
BEIRUT (AP) — The leader of the Western-backed Syrian opposition coalition resigned Sunday, citing what he called the insufficient lack of international support for those seeking to topple President Bashar Assad.
Mouaz al-Khatib, a respected preacher who has led the Syrian National Coalition since soon after its creation in November, said in a statement posted on his Facebook page that he was making good on a promise to quit if certain undefined "red lines" were crossed.
"I am keeping my promise today and announcing my resignation from the National Coalition so that I can work with freedom that is not available inside the official institutions," he said.
He also blamed world powers for providing inadequate support for the rebel cause and complained that many "international and regional parties" insisted on pushing the opposition toward dialogue with the regime. Most opposition leaders and activists say Assad's regime has killed too many people to be part of the conflict's solution.
"All that has happened to the Syrian people — from destruction of infrastructure to the arrest of tens of thousands to the displacement of hundreds of thousands to other tragedies — is not enough for an international decision to allow the Syrian people to defend themselves," the statement said.
Al-Khatib was chosen to serve as president of the opposition's Syrian National Coalition, which was formed in November of last year under international pressure to serve as the opposition's official liaison with other countries and coordinate anti-Assad forces inside and outside of Syria.
Despite electing a new, U.S.-educated prime minister to head a planned interim government last week, the coalition has failed to establish itself as the top rebel authority on the ground in Syria, where hundreds of independent rebel brigades are fighting a civil war against Assad's forces.
The Coalition did not immediately respond to al-Khatib's resignation.
Al-Khatib's spokesman could not be reached for further comment, but al-Khatib has often used his personal Facebook page to release statements.
The Syrian government has largely ignored the opposition coalition and says the civil war is an international conspiracy to weaken Syria.
The U.N. says more than 70,000 people have been killed since the crisis began in March, 2011.
March 23, 2013
In Syria’s Civil War, Doctors Find Themselves in Cross Hairs
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR and HALA DROUBI
GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Six months after Syrian secret police officers led Dr. M. Nour Maktabi away from his Aleppo clinic, the morgue at the university hospital summoned his family to collect his corpse.
At first glance, his three brothers thought it was a mistake. When they had last seen Dr. Maktabi, in May 2012, the 47-year-old chest specialist weighed a doughy 200 pounds. The dead man was covered in wounds and emaciated, weighing less than 100 pounds — “a bag of bones covered in flesh,” as his younger brother Wadah put it.
But on closer inspection, the brothers found Dr. Maktabi’s name inked in small letters on the bottom of one foot.
It was a grim but not uncommon fate for Syrian doctors and other medical personnel whom the government suspects of treating wounded rebels. More than 100 physicians have been killed and hundreds more have disappeared into Syrian jails in the last two years, according to doctors and opposition organizations. The government reviles treating wounded rebels as “akin to carrying weapons,” said Wadah Maktabi, a pharmacist.
Embattled cities like Aleppo and vast swaths of the countryside suffer from an acute shortage of doctors and medical supplies, with the government’s deadly campaign an important factor in prompting doctors to flee. Because of the shortage, all kinds of people with little previous surgical experience — dentists, medical students and nurses, not to mention car mechanics and bakers — are now performing minor surgery.
Numerous untrained volunteers have been talked through operations to the point where they can now extract a bullet from an arm or a leg, but not from more complicated spots like the chest or the throat.
In a report in March to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic accused both sides of targeting medical care as part of their military strategy. “Medical personnel and hospitals have been deliberately targeted and are treated by parties to the conflict as military objectives,” the report said.
The 10-page report documented a litany of abuses by government forces and rebels: Treatment has been denied on sectarian grounds. Hospitals and clinics have been attacked. The government and rebels have limited care in medical facilities to their own supporters. Doctors and nurses have been forced to accept the bodies of executed opposition fighters and to register them as deceased patients.
“Doctors and field hospitals are being systematically targeted like all revolutionary activists,” Razan Zaitouneh, a founder of the Violations Documentation Center, a Syrian human rights organization, said via Skype from Damascus. “Targeting doctors, bakeries and aid workers is all a way to strangle rebels and their families.”
Doctors Without Borders has also documented how both sides have devastated health care across the battered nation. “Providing medical care was transformed into an act of resistance, a crime, and medical structures became military targets,” it said in a report this month.
Some medical centers established for rebels by the Free Syrian Army barred civilians, which increased the chances of the government bombing them, the doctors’ report said. Both sides also looted hospitals, it said.
Dr. Mohamed Wajih Joumah, a surgeon and the former head of the Aleppo medical association, said that of the 12 large government hospitals in Aleppo, six had closed. Only about 35 doctors are working at or near the front lines, Dr. Joumah estimated, but others put the number at closer to 100. There were once at least 2,000 physicians in the city, doctors said.
Many specialists are missing, including trauma surgeons, vascular surgeons and anesthesiologists. Important diagnostic machines like CT scanners no longer work.
Battle injuries can usually be treated in some form at the 72 field hospitals in northern Syria, Dr. Joumah and other doctors said. But people with chronic illnesses like cancer or new outbreaks of contagious diseases like tuberculosis fare worse.
They rarely find the drugs they need, or if they do, they often face prohibitive costs like $30 per vial of insulin. Aleppo had been the center of Syria’s extensive pharmaceutical industry, but the factories have ceased production.
Barring increased aid, the overall outlook remains grim.
“The most basic level of health care is no longer available in vast areas of the country,” said Christopher Stokes, the general director of the Belgian branch of Doctors Without Borders.
The execution of medical personnel in Syria accelerated as the peaceful protest movement that started in March 2011 gradually disintegrated into civil war, doctors and human rights activists say. The Violations Documentation Center, based in Damascus, has compiled lists of victims of all stripes.
They include 120 doctors, 65 medical aid workers and 50 nurses killed, and 469 doctors jailed. Some victims were targeted for murder, some were picked off by snipers or killed when medical facilities were bombed.
The Syrian government has made it virtually impossible to seek its response to such accusations. But its standard answer to similar questions has been that it is fighting a terrorist insurgency supported by foreign financing.
Indeed, several doctors who were arrested for long periods but eventually released said that they were repeatedly accused of aiding terrorists.
Dr. Yassir Darwish, 34, a urologist from Aleppo, said that just before his release in January 2012, after six months in jail, he and four other activists were herded into the office of Jamil Hassan, the head of air force intelligence, the most dreaded branch of Syria’s secret police.
Regular protests from the governor of Aleppo and many doctors helped win their freedom before the uprising started there in earnest.
“He gave us a lecture about how the uprising was all a terrorist plot,” said Dr. Darwish, visiting this southern Turkish city to collect supplies for the field hospital he now runs in Aleppo.
Dr. Darwish described a long imprisonment that included torture, an experience echoed by several physicians interviewed for this article.
He said he had been sneaking medicine to field clinics and treating some patients there until the day before his arrest in July 2011. For six months, he said, he was often beaten with bamboo sticks — on the feet or across his back — and tortured with electricity while his interrogators insisted that he confess to caring for rebels.
Some of the worst abuse, Dr. Darwish said, was delivered at one of the main air force intelligence interrogation branches in Damascus, at Mezze air base.
“I confessed to maybe 15 to 20 percent of the accusations,” he said, acknowledging that he had helped organize peaceful protests. “They had no proof.”
Often he was jammed into cells so crowded that the prisoners rationed space — in one such cell he said each 16-by-16-inch tile was allocated to three men and room to sleep assigned in shifts. Everyone had body lice.
“The revolution was still in its infancy when we were arrested,” Dr. Darwish said. “They just wanted to threaten the ones who were detained and their friends who were not. Later, anyone who was arrested was killed.”
Dr. Hassan A. Julaq, 39, was an orthopedist practicing in the town of Kafr Nabl, along the main Aleppo-Damascus highway, when about 200 soldiers established an outpost right outside his home.
Although Dr. Julaq had often treated their soccer injuries, they arrested him in November 2011 and accused him of organizing protests, incitement and treating rebels. He, too, was transferred to Damascus, where he said the torture included always having to walk bent over — it took him a month to stand upright after his imprisonment — and being suspended from the ceiling in handcuffs until his wrists bled.
He said he survived partly by thinking of “Al Atlal,” a song by the Egyptian diva Um Kalthoum, whose words compare love to handcuffs: “Give me my freedom, release my hands.”
After the army was driven from Kafr Nabl, Dr. Julaq returned, but most doctors fled northern Syria, he said.
Central African Republic president flees as rebels enter Bangui
François Bozize leaves the capital as armed rebels seize presidential palace amid heavy gunfire
Associated Press in Bangui
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 24 March 2013 11.15 GMT
Central African Republic's president, François Bozize, fled the capital early on Sunday, hours after hundreds of armed rebels threatening to overthrow him invaded the city, according to an adviser.
The rebel alliance, known as Seleka, reached the outskirts of Bangui late on Saturday. Heavy gunfire echoed through the city early on Sunday as fighters made their way into the city centre and seized the presidential palace, though the country's leader of a decade was not there at the time.
"Bozize left the city this morning," said Maximin Olouamat, a member of Bozize's presidential majority. He declined to say where the president had gone.
Rebels from several armed groups that have long opposed Bozize joined forces in December and began seizing towns across the country's sparsely populated north. They threatened at the time to march on Bangui, but ultimately halted their advance and agreed to go to peace negotiations in Libreville, the capital of Gabon.
A peace deal was signed on 11 January that allowed Bozize to finish his term, which expires in 2016, but the rebels soon began accusing the president of failing to fulfil his promises.
They demanded that Bozize send home South African forces who were helping bolster the country's military. And they sought to integrate 2,000 rebel fighters into Central African Republic's armed forces.
The deal unravelled more than a week ago, with the rebels taking control of two towns and threatening to advance on the capital.
Late on Saturday, Bangui was plunged into darkness after fighters cut power to much of the city. State radio went dead, and fearful residents cowered in their homes.
"For us, there is no other solution than the departure of François Bozize," Eric Massi, a rebel spokesman, said from Paris by telephone on Saturday.
Massi said the rebels were securing the city, and he called on residents to remain calm and avoid looting amid the chaos.
The growing unrest is the latest threat to the stability of Central African Republic, a nation of 4.5 million people that has long been wracked by rebellions and power grabs.
The president himself took power in 2003 following a rebellion, and his tenure has been marked by conflict with myriad armed groups.
March 23, 2013
France Confirms the Death of a Qaeda Leader in Mali
By STEVEN ERLANGER
France on Saturday officially confirmed the death of the regional Qaeda leader Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, weeks after he was reported to have been killed in fighting in northern Mali at the end of February.
President François Hollande of France issued a statement saying that the death of Abu Zeid was “definitively confirmed” and that his death “marks an important step in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel.”
Abu Zeid was considered the leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a regional affiliate and offshoot of Al Qaeda, and is thought to be responsible for the kidnapping of numerous Western hostages and the deaths of at least two of them.
He was also a crucial figure in the Islamist takeover of northern Mali and became a target of the French military intervention in that country in mid-January, when Islamist forces moved south toward the capital, Bamako.
This month, the president of Chad, whose troops have been fighting in close partnership with the French in the mountainous vastness of northern Mali, announced the death of Abu Zeid, but the French held off, waiting for DNA analysis to be done in Algeria.
France has not confirmed the reported death of another Islamist leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Abu Zeid’s death would be a significant blow to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, as he was considered the toughest, most resilient of the local Qaeda commanders, and the most ruthless. He is considered responsible for the executions of at least two Western hostages in 2010 and 2009 — a Frenchman and a Briton — and his unit is believed to be holding perhaps half a dozen other Western hostages.
In addition, his extensive network of contacts throughout the region allowed him to recruit in many countries, analysts said.
Born Mohamed Ghdiri in Algeria, Abu Zeid is believed to have been 46.
March 23, 2013
Obama Shows Talent for Arm-Twisting, and Raises Hopes on Peace Effort
By MARK LANDLER
AMMAN, Jordan — There is little doubt that President Obama can deliver a memorable speech, as he did in Jerusalem last week about the need for peace. The big surprise on his trip to Israel and Jordan, which ended here on Saturday, is that he can also twist arms.
Mr. Obama’s success in persuading Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to apologize to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, healing a rift between the countries, is the kind of person-to-person deal-making that has eluded him with Republicans in Congress.
But Mr. Obama kept prodding Mr. Netanyahu, senior advisers said, raising the importance of a makeup phone call every day he was in Jerusalem. He also worked on Mr. Erdogan, a prickly politician with whom Mr. Obama has cultivated a relationship since entering office.
By the time they agreed to talk, Mr. Obama had fully embraced the role of Middle East mediator, warming up Mr. Erdogan before handing the phone to Mr. Netanyahu, who expressed regret for the deadly actions by Israeli commandos during a 2010 raid on a Turkish ship that was trying to breach a blockade of Gaza.
For Middle East analysts, the question is whether Mr. Obama will bring the same doggedness and personal involvement to pursuing the peace between Israelis and Palestinians that he so fervently extolled in his address to young Israelis on Thursday. His first-term track record on Middle East diplomacy does not offer much of a guide.
“Obama was so effective in lobbying for peace that he has managed to raise expectations sky high that he’s actually going to do something about it,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former American ambassador to Israel. “After all, if he really believes peace is possible, then as president of the United States he surely has to do something about it.”
Negotiating an accord to end one of the world’s most intractable conflicts is very different from talking two antagonistic leaders into getting on the phone with each other. Diplomacy in the Middle East has stymied even presidents who were renowned for their tenacity and ability to bring together adversaries.
Mr. Obama still seems more inclined to subcontract the work to his new secretary of state, John Kerry. Asked about a peace deal at a news conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan, Mr. Obama said: “I can’t guarantee that that’s going to happen. What I can guarantee is we’ll make the effort. What I can guarantee is that Secretary Kerry is going to be spending a good deal of time in discussions with the parties.”
On Saturday, Mr. Kerry wasted no time. While Mr. Obama treated himself to a tour of the ancient city of Petra before flying to Washington, Mr. Kerry was back in Amman, preparing for a meeting with the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, before heading to Israel to have dinner with Mr. Netanyahu.
Mr. Kerry also issued an unusual statement early Saturday in Amman, encouraging Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Erdogan to go through with the terms of the agreement facilitated by Mr. Obama.
Israeli and American officials have long been concerned that Mr. Erdogan would exaggerate the terms of any agreement with Israel, and in his public statements in Turkey on Saturday, he is clearly relishing Mr. Netanyahu’s concession.
The next step in the peace process, a senior administration official said, is to devise measures that both sides could take to restore trust and allow them to enter a negotiation. This could include the release of prisoners or an Israeli agreement to slow down settlement building, even if it does not stop altogether.
In short, it is the tedious, grinding work of diplomacy — a task for which Mr. Kerry, administration officials say, is eminently well suited. Having been immersed in Middle East issues for more than 20 years as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Kerry, they said, is approaching his role with zeal and a sense of mission.
If he succeeds in drawing the two sides close to a deal — something his predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, was not able to do — then Mr. Obama would be likely to get involved.
When he took office, Mr. Obama wanted to claim the mantle of peacemaker himself. But then his demand that Israel halt construction of Jewish settlements backfired, and an attempt to hold face-to-face talks between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas fizzled.
By the time Mr. Obama announced plans to travel to Israel, the peace process had fallen so far off the radar screen that the White House was easily able to lower expectations.
Instead Aaron David Miller, a longtime peace negotiator, called it Mr. Obama’s “Israel trifecta.” The president, he said, “reset his relationship with Netanyahu, recast his image in the U.S. as a pro-Israeli president and reintroduced himself favorably to the Israeli public.”
The reaction to Mr. Obama was so positive that it raises the question of whether he should have gone to Israel earlier. There were plenty of reasons he did not: his first overture was to the Muslim world; he was actively brokering peace talks in 2010; those talks withered in 2011; and by 2012, he was running for re-election.
But Mr. Obama, by taking his case outside Washington and over the head of Mr. Netanyahu, might have been able to change the terms of the debate earlier.
“Can he use this newfound currency to get the Israelis to buy off on the world according to Obama — avoiding war with the mullahs and making peace with the Palestinians?” Mr. Miller asked.
Much will depend on Mr. Kerry’s success, and on whether Mr. Obama can summon the same enthusiasm for getting Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas on the phone as he did with his last feuding couple.
Researchers: Comet, not asteroid, wiped dinosaurs out
By Arturo Garcia
Saturday, March 23, 2013 20:36 EDT
New research points to a comet as the source of the explosion that caused the extinction of dinosaurs, contradicting earlier theories blaming an asteroid.
Science Recorder reported on Friday that the findings from a team at Dartmouth College indicated that an asteroid would not have been capable of creating the Chicxulub crater in Mexico, long regarded as the collision point for the phenomenon that led to the destruction of 70 percent of animal species on the planet 65 million years ago.
Lead study author Jason Moore and his fellow researchers presented their findings at the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.
Moore said an analysis of iridium and osmium layers within the 180-kilometer wide crater revealed that the crash created less debris than an asteroid would have been able to produce.
“You’d need an asteroid of about 5km diameter to contribute that much iridium and osmium,” Moore said. “But an asteroid that size would not make a 200km-diameter crater. So we said: how do we get something that has enough energy to generate that size of crater, but has much less rocky material? That brings us to comets.”
The two elements, Moore said, could not have been generated within the crater naturally.
However, a researcher at Imperial College in London told the BBC that though the Dartmouth team’s work was “thought-provoking,” it did not entirely shut the door on possible asteroid involvement.
“The authors suggest that 75 percent of the impactor mass is distributed globally, and hence arrive at quite a small-sized impactor,” said Gareth Collins “But in reality this fraction could be lower than 20 percent.”
Watch NewsyScience’s recap of the Dartmouth team’s findings, posted on Saturday, below.http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=3NSK6uh_loQ
In the USA...
March 23, 2013
Bloomberg’s TV Blitz on Guns Puts Swing Senators on the Spot
By MICHAEL BARBARO
The commercial is an unambiguous appeal to gun owners: a middle-aged hunter, rifle in hand, vows that he will fight to protect the Second Amendment. But in a sensible, father-of-the-house tone, he also urges voters to support comprehensive background checks, “so criminals and the dangerously mentally ill can’t buy guns.”
The man behind the advertisement is not known for his kinship with the gun crowd: Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the nation’s fiercest advocate of restrictions on firearms since the December rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Determined to persuade Congress to act in response to that shooting, Mr. Bloomberg on Monday will begin bankrolling a $12 million national advertising campaign that focuses on senators who he believes might be persuaded to support a pending package of federal regulations to curb gun violence. The ads, in 13 states, will blanket those senators’ districts during an Easter Congressional recess that is to be followed by debate over the legislation.
In a telling sign of how much the white-hot demands for gun control have been tempered by political reality, Mr. Bloomberg’s commercials make no mention of an assault weapons ban once sought by the White House and its allies, instead focusing on the more achievable goal of universal background checks.
“You don’t want to lose everything in the interest of getting the perfect,” Mr. Bloomberg said in an interview, acknowledging his disappointment over the apparent unlikelihood of an assault weapons ban, but insisting he is resolved to push the legislation through at a time when its prospects are uncertain.
The mayor’s advertising blitz, which will saturate television screens in states including Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Arizona, represents by far the biggest escalation of Mr. Bloomberg’s attempts to become a one-man counterweight to the National Rifle Association in the political clash over guns.
“The N.R.A. has just had this field to itself,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “It’s the only one that’s been speaking out. It’s time for another voice.”
After months of wrangling, the current package of Senate legislation would expand background checks for gun buyers, increase penalties for people who buy firearms for those barred from owning them and would give law enforcement new tools to combat illegal gun trafficking, a longtime goal of Mr. Bloomberg’s.
Given the mayor’s role in contributing to the ouster of an N.R.A.-backed candidate in an Illinois Congressional race a few weeks ago, his push carries an unmistakable threat to those who vote against the bills.
The ads are directed at Democratic and Republican senators in both swing states and partisan precincts. Among Mr. Bloomberg’s targets are some of the Senate’s most vulnerable Democrats, including Kay R. Hagan of North Carolina, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark L. Pryor of Arkansas, for whom the gun issue is particularly problematic because they will need Republican votes to win re-election.
Some of the senators, such as Dean Heller of Nevada, Rob Portman of Ohio and Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, all Republicans, represent swing states where voters are divided over guns. Other Republicans would seem to be out of reach for Mr. Bloomberg: Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Daniel Coats of Indiana and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
In each case, the commercials urge support for the measure requiring background checks for nearly all firearms purchases, not just those in gun stores, the most debated element of the legislation and a coveted goal of gun control advocates.
Mr. Bloomberg has singled out Mr. Flake, who already voted against the expansion of background checks in the Senate Judiciary Committee, by producing a special, scolding commercial aimed at Arizona. “Flake’s vote,” the ad declares, equals “no background checks for dangerous criminals.”
The mayor, who has spent tens of millions of dollars to support his favored candidates, intends to wield his “super PAC” to influence the midterm Congressional elections next year and beyond. He said he would prefer “candidates who will stop people from getting killed.”
“There is an easy measure of how you decide who those are,” he said, noting that gun rights groups rate lawmakers. “The N.R.A. keeps score of it for you. They are public information.”
To those who might fear his financial might, he added: “If they pass sensible gun legislation, there is not an issue and I don’t have to spend a dime.”
The N.R.A. plans to roll out its own lobbying campaign, using print and broadcast advertising to reach lawmakers during the recess. But its leaders said that their investment was unlikely to rival the intensity of Mr. Bloomberg’s spending, to be carried out through Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group he co-founded.
“Can we match Mayor Bloomberg dollar for dollar?” asked Chris W. Cox, the group’s chief lobbyist. “No one can. We don’t have to.”
He predicted that voters and senators would resist a message from an out-of-state magnate who is associated with government limits on soda and salt.
“What he is going to find out is that Americans don’t want to be told by some elitist billionaire what they can eat, drink and they damn well don’t want to be told how, when and where they can protect their families,” Mr. Cox said.
Thomas E. Mann, a Congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, agreed that Mr. Bloomberg “is not popular in many of the states he is going into right now.”
He said that $12 million in advertising was unlikely to influence the outcome of the legislation unless lawmakers were convinced that Mr. Bloomberg would open his wallet again after the vote — both to reward those who supported the bill and to punish those who did not. “That is absolutely key,” Mr. Mann said.
Mr. Flake, for example, was just elected and will not face voters again until 2018.
For those like Mr. Bloomberg, who believed the shooting in Newtown, Conn., was a turning point in the gun debate, it is a somewhat humbling moment. President Obama has called for bold action, and former Representative Gabrielle Giffords has lent her personal story to the cause.
Still, what they are now fighting for is, by the admission of gun control advocates, a diminished version of what they wanted — and even that is proving a tough sell.
“These ideas shouldn’t be controversial,” the president said in his radio address on Saturday.
Mr. Bloomberg lamented that “sausage and the law aren’t pretty the way they are made.”
But he is eager to seize what he can. “I think you’ve got as good a chance as we’ve ever had,” the mayor said.
Jennifer Steinhauer contributed reporting.
March 23, 2013
Tackling Concerns of Independent Workers
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
SOON after landing a job at a Manhattan law firm nearly 20 years ago, Sara Horowitz was shocked to discover that it planned to treat her not as an employee, but as an independent contractor.
“I saw right away that something wasn’t kosher,” Ms. Horowitz recalls. Her status meant no health coverage, no pension plan, no paid vacation — nothing but a paycheck. She realized that she was part of a trend in which American employers relied increasingly on independent contractors, temporary workers, contract employees and freelancers to cut costs. Somewhat bewildered, somewhat angry, she and two other young lawyers who were also hired as independent contractors jokingly formed what they called the “Transient Workers Union,” with the facetious motto, “The union makes us not so weak.”
Ms. Horowitz’s grandfather was a vice president of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and her father was a labor lawyer. So it was perhaps not surprising that she responded to her rising outrage by deciding to organize a union. What she organized, however, was a newfangled version. The Freelancers Union, with its oxymoronic name, is a motley collection of workers in the fast-evolving freelance economy — whether lawyers, software developers, graphic artists, accountants, consultants, nannies, writers, editors, Web site designers or sellers on Etsy.
Today, the Freelancers Union is one of the nation’s fastest-growing labor organizations, with more than 200,000 members, over half of them in New York State. Ms. Horowitz, who has never lacked audacity, says she expects to expand the organization to one million members within three years. For some perspective, the United Automobile Workers union currently has 380,000 members. Of course, while hundreds of thousands of auto jobs have disappeared, the country is awash in freelancers and other independent workers. Studies by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Government Accountability Office show that there are more than 20 million of them. Many companies, including The New York Times, employ these workers.
The Freelancers Union, which is based in Brooklyn, doesn’t bargain with employers, but it does address what is by far these workers’ No. 1 concern, by providing them with affordable health insurance. Its health insurance company covers 23,000 workers in New York State and has $105 million in annual revenue. Impressed by that success, the Obama administration recently awarded Ms. Horowitz’s group $340 million in low-interest loans to establish cooperatives in New York, New Jersey and Oregon that will provide health coverage to freelancers and tens of thousands of other workers.
Having health insurance makes it far easier to be a part of what Ms. Horowitz calls the “gig economy.” But many freelancers would prefer not to participate in that economy at all. They would rather have regular jobs, but companies will often hire them only as independent contractors. Companies find these workers less painful to dismiss and generally less costly because they rarely receive severance pay or benefits like health insurance or paid vacations.
“There are some freelancers for whom this is great — they love the flexibility,” Ms. Horowitz said. “And there are some freelancers for whom this is the worst thing in the world.”
While being an independent worker allows certain advantages — you can go to yoga class or on vacation whenever you want — it also means economic vulnerability. An internal Freelancers Union survey found that 58 percent of the group’s members earn less than $50,000 a year from freelancing and that 29 percent earn less than $25,000. The survey also found that 12 percent of members, many of them college graduates in their 30s and 40s, received food stamps during the recession.
“In today’s economy, there’s a huge chunk of the middle class that’s being pushed down into the working class and working poor,” Ms. Horowitz says, “and freelancers are the first group that’s happening to.”
Historically, through the power of collective bargaining, labor unions helped reverse that equation, enabling many unskilled workers to earn middle-class incomes. But as traditional labor unions have steadily declined in size and power, groups like the Freelancers Union, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and Domestic Workers United have stepped up, trying to give collective voice and power to often-marginalized workers.
Some union old-timers argue that the Freelancers Union is more like an association than a union and will not be able to achieve truly significant gains for workers. Its members don’t pay union dues, which means that joining requires no sacrifice, and the Freelancers Union doesn’t negotiate contracts with employers or represent freelancers when they have grievances. (Under the National Labor Relations Act, freelancers are considered independent contractors, not employees, and employers thus have no obligation to bargain with them, even when they form a union.)
Ms. Horowitz, 50 and a Brooklyn native, insists that her organization is indeed a labor union because, like other unions, it is a large, influential, self-supporting organization of workers that pushes to advance their interests, although its members work for numerous employers in many industries.
“It reminds me of the old guilds” — the precursors of modern-day labor unions — “that focused on workers’ individual autonomy, trying to build their own careers, with the backing of a collective organization to assist them,” says Janice R. Fine, a professor of employment relations at Rutgers University. “Sara is terrific at adapting old ideas to help today’s work force.”
ON a recent rainy morning, a half-dozen members of the Freelancers Union met in a large yoga and meditation studio. The studio was inside a 6,000-square-foot health clinic in Downtown Brooklyn that the union opened for its members in November. It is in a century-old loft building, with bright lights and blond-wood floors, its walls covered with the Freelancers Union’s posters featuring its logo of buzzing bees around a hive.
The freelancers were there to talk with Ms. Horowitz about how the clinic was doing and how it could be improved. They seemed to like a lot: the on-site nutritionist and acupuncturist; the fact that they rarely had to wait more than 10 minutes to see a doctor; and that they could consult with a doctor from home using Skype if necessary. They also liked that there were no co-pays.
Using the clinic is free for those have signed up with the Freelancers Insurance Company; premiums range from $225 to $603 a month — 40 percent less than individual plans available in New York, according to a comparison by the union.
“It’s nice to have one place where I can focus on health care,” Dani Simons, a communications and strategic consultant, said at the meeting, “instead of having to go one place to see this doctor and another place for that doctor.”
The clinic has an unusual team approach. There are two full-time doctors and eight “health coaches,” who serve as liaisons between patient and doctor. Ms. Horowitz says this focus on primary care will save money over time. By tracking members who have special diets or are taking medications, for example, the health coaches can help patients stay healthy and avoid costly hospital stays for failing to follow a treatment plan.
“If we were a for-profit insurance company, we would not be able to provide all these services,” Ms. Horowitz says. “We’re able to steer the profits back into serving the freelancers.”
About 2,200 of the insurance company’s policy holders have signed up for the clinic, while the other 21,000, much like members of other insurance plans, see doctors through a network, Empire Blue Cross, with which the Freelancers Union contracts.
When Ms. Horowitz started the union, her main concern was the here-today, gone-tomorrow insecurity of freelance jobs. But after listening to many freelancers, she changed her mind. “I saw that their overwhelming concern was the lack of health insurance, even though I hadn’t seen that as a major issue,” she says.
To create the Freelancers Insurance Company, Ms. Horowitz needed to persuade investors to put up $17 million. The Rockefeller Foundation and others gave $7 million in grants, and other foundations joined in, agreeing to lend the rest at a 3 percent interest rate.
“She saw that labor unions basically haven’t innovated for several generations, and in the meantime the world has changed and there were tremendous needs that weren’t being met,” says Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka, a nonprofit foundation that invests in social entrepreneurs.
The health insurance profits that don’t go toward repaying lenders go into a reserve to strengthen the company’s finances, though some future profits will eventually be recycled into running the daily operations of the Freelancers Union and future projects, like a planned health clinic in Manhattan. The union gets $2 million a year from application and enrollment fees its members pay to get discounted life, dental and disability insurance that the union arranges through an outside insurer.
Together, the union and its health insurance company have a staff of 80, and Ms. Horowitz receives a salary of $272,000 for her dual role as head of the union and the insurance company. She notes proudly that while health insurance premiums rose by 5 percent, on average, for Americans this year, the Freelancers Insurance Company is not raising premiums at all for its policy holders.
Jo-Ann Mort, who worked for many years in communications for labor unions and foundations, said it was thanks to the new insurance company that she was able to start her own communications and fund-raising firm. “I was scared to go out on my own because I was worried I couldn’t find affordable insurance elsewhere,” she said. “Sara made that possible.”
In many ways, Ms. Horowitz operates more like an entrepreneur than an old-style union leader, says Kyle Zimmer, chairwoman of the health care cooperative that the union is forming in Oregon.
“She identified that health insurance was a gigantic gaping hole for these workers,” said Ms. Zimmer, who is also president of First Book, a nonprofit group that provides access to books for children in need, “and she stepped into that space, navigated through difficult waters and created a successful insurance company that takes on traditional insurers.”
“She did this in a way,” Ms. Zimmer added, “that would make anyone who believes in private enterprise proud.”
While the union is praised for helping to deliver health and other benefits to its members, some employment experts question whether it can make real headway in raising incomes of independent workers. “All the self-help they do seems good and creative,” says Gordon Lafer, a professor of labor relations at the University of Oregon. “The question is can they get any leverage to get a fair shake from employers, to get companies to give a fair share of their profits to freelancers? They may need to be more creative to do that.”
The freelancers assembled in the yoga studio had plenty of suggestions, large and small, for Ms. Horowitz. Why schedule yoga classes on Monday mornings when people are already feeling mellow from the weekend? Shouldn’t the doctors have a checklist when they see patients? Why can’t freelancers who shun junk food and alcohol pay lower premiums? Can the Freelancers Union build affordable housing for financially squeezed freelancers?
“It would be great if there were a network of clinics like this in big cities around the country,” said Ms. Simons, the communications consultant. “It would be really cool. We often have to travel to other cities.”
Ms. Horowitz, her hands folded, listened.
ON the wall in front of Ms. Horowitz’s desk is a dusty, decades-old photo of Sidney Hillman. The head of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America from 1914 to 1946, Hillman is the model for an idea Ms. Horowitz is talking about a lot these days, something she calls “the new mutualism.”
Hillman was an influential adviser to Franklin D. Roosevelt and spent much of his life translating his mutualist vision into reality. He built low-cost housing and a health clinic for garment workers as well as a union-owned bank and insurance company.
“How did Sidney Hillman know to do housing and insurance?” asks Ms. Horowitz, who has a degree in labor relations from Cornell. “He just listened to people and helped solve their problems.”
Ms. Horowitz’s new mutualism is based on a simple premise: freelancers should band together to set up social-purpose institutions to serve their mutual needs. That, she says, would be far better than relying on corporations and private investors who might have different priorities, not to mention a desire for substantial profits.
This idea, she acknowledges, is not new. But with the changing economy, the decline of organized labor, the end of paternalism among employers and the shrinking role of government, she says, the conditions are ripe for embracing mutual aid societies anew. “The social unionism of the 1920s had it right,” she says. “They said: ‘We serve workers 360 degrees. It’s not just about their work. It’s about their whole life.’ We view things the same way.”
“Whether you like it or don’t like it, it’s unlikely we’re going to see growth in government over the next few years,” she says. “But we’re not going to see any reduction in social needs for workers. And we need these social-purpose institutions in place to serve their growing social needs.”
Her ideas have gained traction beyond the usual worker-advocacy crowd. She received a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 1999. She has been invited to speak at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the Aspen Institute and the Harvard Business School. She was recently appointed to the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Ms. Horowitz’s new mutualism also benefits from her political connections. She has close ties to Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York, and to Sheldon Silver, speaker of the New York State Assembly. Senator Gillibrand, for instance, at Ms. Horowitz’s request, is pushing to have the Bureau of Labor Statistics count the number of independent contractors and freelancers nationwide. And the State Assembly, though not the Senate, passed a bill that would authorize the State Labor Department to crack down on companies that fail to pay freelancers as promised.
A few years ago, the union persuaded New York City to eliminate the unincorporated business tax for independent workers who earn less than $100,000 a year — a move that saves freelancers up to $3,400 annually. (Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said later that he had “successfully advocated for reducing or eliminating the unincorporated business tax” for “freeloaders and contractors,” a verbal stumble that Ms. Horowitz found hilarious.)
MS. HOROWITZ has seen how the post-New Deal model of employers providing health insurance, pensions and other benefits is breaking down. More and more workers, and not just freelancers, have been left to fend for themselves in dealing with sickness, accidents and old age. One result, she says, is that many workers feel trapped, hesitant to change jobs or start a business for fear of losing health insurance or other benefits.
“We want people to have meaningful independence,” Ms. Horowitz says. “And that means freeing them of this insecurity to give them the ability to take risks because somebody has your back. That’s what this is about. That’s what the new mutualism is.”
In this new mutualism, she sees another, largely unrecognized benefit for freelancers, those supposedly pajama-clad workers who often spend their days toiling at home alone. “People feel mentally and physically better when they feel connected to each other,” she says. “What we’re doing brings people together without them losing any individual aspects of themselves.”
At times, she has been accused of arrogance, and that perhaps stems from her often speaking with self-certainty. “What I’m good at is intuition,” she says. “I have a sense of what’s going to work and what’s not going to work.”
In discussing her family’s labor legacy, Ms. Horowitz noted that her daughter was born on the birthday of Samuel Gompers — the father of the modern American labor movement. Ms. Horowitz sees him, too, as a role model.
“If Gompers were alive today,” she says, “he’d be trying to figure out what the next models are for today’s workers.”
March 23, 2013
Immigrants Held in Solitary Cells, Often for Weeks
By IAN URBINA and CATHERINE RENTZ
WASHINGTON — On any given day, about 300 immigrants are held in solitary confinement at the 50 largest detention facilities that make up the sprawling patchwork of holding centers nationwide overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, according to new federal data.
Nearly half are isolated for 15 days or more, the point at which psychiatric experts say they are at risk for severe mental harm, with about 35 detainees kept for more than 75 days.
While the records do not indicate why immigrants were put in solitary, an adviser who helped the immigration agency review the numbers estimated that two-thirds of the cases involved disciplinary infractions like breaking rules, talking back to guards or getting into fights. Immigrants were also regularly isolated because they were viewed as a threat to other detainees or personnel or for protective purposes when the immigrant was gay or mentally ill.
The United States has come under sharp criticism at home and abroad for relying on solitary confinement in its prisons more than any other democratic nation in the world. While Immigration and Customs Enforcement places only about 1 percent of its jailed immigrants in solitary, this practice is nonetheless startling because those detainees are being held on civil, not criminal, charges. As such, they are not supposed to be punished; they are simply confined to ensure that they appear for administrative hearings.
After federal immigration authorities caught up with him, Rashed BinRashed, an illegal arrival from Yemen, was sent to a detention center in Juneau, Wis. He was put in solitary confinement, he says, after declining to go to the jail’s eating area and refusing meals because he wanted to fast during Ramadan.
Federal officials confined Delfino Quiroz, a gay immigrant from Mexico, in solitary for four months in 2010, saying it was for his own protection, he recalls. He sank into a deep depression as he overheard three inmates attempt suicide. “Please, God,” he remembers praying, “don’t let me be the same.”
As lawmakers in Washington consider an overhaul of the immigration system, Congress faces thorny questions not just about what status to grant immigrants already in the country, but also about how best to increase enforcement efforts and what rights to ensure illegal immigrants during their detention.
The new federal data highlights how punitive and costly immigration policy has become, since solitary is one of the most expensive forms of detention.
“I.C.E. is clearly using excessive force, since these are civil detentions,” said Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist who studies solitary confinement at the Wright Institute, a graduate school in psychology based in Berkeley, Calif. “And that makes this a human rights abuse.”
Ernestine Fobbs, an agency spokeswoman, said that aside from immigrants who are separated from the general population for disciplinary reasons, detainees are isolated only “as a final resort, when other options are not available to address the specifics of the situation.”
“I.C.E. takes the mental health care of individuals in the agency’s custody very seriously,” she added. The agency declined to talk about particular cases, citing privacy concerns.
Another agency official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, emphasized that some detainees who are put in “segregation units” have criminal records, gang affiliations or histories of violence.
“It’s an extreme situation,” the official said. “We want to make sure not to overuse it.”
While the conditions of confinement vary, detainees in solitary are routinely kept alone for 22 to 23 hours per day, sometimes in windowless 6-foot-by-13-foot cells, according to interviews with current and former detainees and a review of case records involving more than three dozen immigrants since 2010.
Access to phones and lawyers is far more restricted in solitary; occasionally such communications were permitted only in the middle of the night when it was unlikely anyone would be available. Immigrants are typically given an hour or so of recreation each day, detainees said. In some facilities, that is limited to pacing in what detainees call “the cage,” a sparse indoor enclosure with concrete floors and fencing on all sides, similar to an indoor dog kennel.
The federal data, which officials began reviewing a year ago at the request of immigration lawyers, offers the first public snapshot of the number of immigrants held in solitary confinement, how long they were there and how many had mental health problems — about 10 percent. The 50 facilities that were reviewed by the agency over a five-month period hold about 85 percent of the agency’s average daily population of 34,000 detainees.
The tallies provided by the immigration agency are probably low because many of the detention centers failed to report segregation statistics during some weeks of the review, and some did not include mental health cases in their tallies.
The immigration official who requested anonymity said the agency closely monitors conditions to ensure that isolation practices adhere to agency guidelines, including regular reviews of the solitary cases and visits by medical professionals.
In exit interviews and case documents, immigrant detainees describe varying reasons for being sent to solitary. At Pinal County, Ariz., for example, a detainee reported being sent to solitary for nearly three months after allegedly arguing with a guard. He said guards denied his request for a video review of the situation before sentencing him to solitary. Another detainee in Sherburne County, Minn., said she was isolated after guards found some peanut butter and a Kool-Aid packet in a bag in her cell, a violation of the rules.
Agency officials say that they are limited in their ability to use ankle bracelets and other alternatives to detaining immigrants in its 250 jails, private prisons and other facilities.
The agency pays an average of $122 per day for each immigrant it detains. The agency does not track the cost of solitary confinement, but experts say the practice can triple the cost and can be hundreds of times more expensive than alternatives like using electronic ankle bracelets.
As the Obama administration has stepped up enforcement, the immigration detention population has increased; it is up by nearly 85 percent since 2005. When illegal immigrants are detained, they are typically not given sentences with end dates; they are held, sometimes for months, until they voluntarily sign deportation papers or immigration authorities determine whether they can stay or will be deported.
Although the immigration agency’s new guidelines limit the use of solitary to 30 days for each disciplinary infraction, there are exceptions, and such confinement can be indefinite, according to data obtained by the National Immigrant Justice Center and the Investigative Reporting Workshop, a nonprofit journalism organization based at American University.
Solitary confinement is widely viewed as the most dangerous way to detain people, and roughly half of prison suicides occur when people are segregated in this way. Deprived of meaningful human contact, otherwise healthy prisoners often become deeply troubled. Paranoia, depression, memory loss and self-mutilation are not uncommon. No data is available on how many of the 18 suicides out of 133 deaths of detained immigrants since 2003 occurred in solitary units.
Dr. Allen Keller, the director of the New York University Center for Health and Human Rights, said that when he interviewed about 70 immigrant detainees a decade or so ago, roughly a quarter said they had been put in solitary at some point and about 40 percent said they had been threatened with it.
Trauma experts say the psychological impact of solitary may be more acute for immigrant detainees because many are victims of human trafficking, domestic violence or sexual assault or have survived persecution and torture in their home countries.
For example, Ronal Rojas-Castro, a Honduran immigrant, was detained for eight months after entering the United States illegally last April. He was caught after being held captive by smugglers for five days with more than 100 other people in a house in Texas near the Mexico border. When one of the immigrants managed to call for help, the immigration agency was alerted, and Mr. Rojas-Castro broke his ankle trying to run away.
He was later caught and put in solitary, he says, because guards said his crutches could be used as a weapon. Mr. Rojas-Castro was kept in complete darkness for four days, wearing only his underwear.
Dr. Kupers, the psychiatrist at the Wright Institute, said: “Immigrants have the worst situation. They have no advocates. Their family is afraid to complain.” Detainees are not automatically represented by legal counsel, and about 85 percent have none.
Mr. BinRashed, the Yemeni detainee, had been in the United States for five years after fleeing his civil-war-ravaged country in 1999. He arrived as an asylum seeker, but was detained in 2005 for having falsely listed his country of origin as Somalia. He was held for nearly three years in immigration detention, but he won his case in court against being deported and now lives in Chicago with his fiancée and her son. He recounted his time in solitary confinement as the most awful experience of his life.
Todd Nehls, the recently retired sheriff of Dodge County, Wis., who ran the detention facility where Mr. BinRashed was held, said in an interview that he did not believe his officers would have placed the detainee on 23-hour lockdown for refusing meals, but that Mr. BinRashed could have been isolated for breaking rules or being argumentative. Mr. Nehls added that he did not recall specifics about the case.
Mr. Quiroz says officers told him he had been placed in solitary for his own protection because he is gay. When he was caught driving drunk in 2010, Mr. Quiroz had been living in the United States waiting for legal status from an application that his father, an American citizen, submitted 12 years earlier.
While his legal status was being determined, Mr. Quiroz was not required to leave the country, but his probation officer handed him over to the immigration agency, which sent him into detention in Houston. Against his objections, Mr. Quiroz, like many other gay, lesbian and transgender detainees, was placed in solitary. He was released from detention in March 2011.
In recent years, pressure has increased to limit the use of solitary in other settings. After a Senate hearing last June, the federal Bureau of Prisons said it planned to review its policies and immediately reduce by about 25 percent the number of prisoners in isolation.
Last year the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, called for a ban on solitary confinement except in limited situations and singled out the United States for its reliance on the method. He recommended a ban on prolonged solitary confinement, meaning longer than 15 days, because, he said, the sensory deprivation may amount to torture. He also called for a ban against isolation for juveniles and those with mental disabilities.
Early this month, he released a report partly focused on the American government’s use of solitary confinement on detained immigrants. “The United States,” he said in an interview, “is in breach of its obligations under the torture convention.”
In the USA...
How the GOP Became the Party of the Rich
The inside story of how the Republicans abandoned the poor and the middle class to pursue their relentless agenda of tax cuts for the wealthiest one percent
by: Tim Dickinson
Party of the Rich
The nation is still recovering from a crushing recession that sent unemployment hovering above nine percent for two straight years. The president, mindful of soaring deficits, is pushing bold action to shore up the nation's balance sheet. Cloaking himself in the language of class warfare, he calls on a hostile Congress to end wasteful tax breaks for the rich. "We're going to close the unproductive tax loopholes that allow some of the truly wealthy to avoid paying their fair share," he thunders to a crowd in Georgia. Such tax loopholes, he adds, "sometimes made it possible for millionaires to pay nothing, while a bus driver was paying 10 percent of his salary – and that's crazy."
Preacherlike, the president draws the crowd into a call-and-response. "Do you think the millionaire ought to pay more in taxes than the bus driver," he demands, "or less?"
The crowd, sounding every bit like the protesters from Occupy Wall Street, roars back: "MORE!"
The year was 1985. The president was Ronald Wilson Reagan.
Today's Republican Party may revere Reagan as the patron saint of low taxation. But the party of Reagan – which understood that higher taxes on the rich are sometimes required to cure ruinous deficits – is dead and gone. Instead, the modern GOP has undergone a radical transformation, reorganizing itself around a grotesque proposition: that the wealthy should grow wealthier still, whatever the consequences for the rest of us.
Modern-day Republicans have become, quite simply, the Party of the One Percent – the Party of the Rich.
"The Republican Party has totally abdicated its job in our democracy, which is to act as the guardian of fiscal discipline and responsibility," says David Stockman, who served as budget director under Reagan. "They're on an anti-tax jihad – one that benefits the prosperous classes."
The staggering economic inequality that has led Americans across the country to take to the streets in protest is no accident. It has been fueled to a large extent by the GOP's all-out war on behalf of the rich. Since Republicans rededicated themselves to slashing taxes for the wealthy in 1997, the average annual income of the 400 richest Americans has more than tripled, to $345 million – while their share of the tax burden has plunged by 40 percent. Today, a billionaire in the top 400 pays less than 17 percent of his income in taxes – five percentage points less than a bus driver earning $26,000 a year. "Most Americans got none of the growth of the preceding dozen years," says Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist. "All the gains went to the top percentage points."
The GOP campaign to aid the wealthy has left America unable to raise the money needed to pay its bills. "The Republican Party went on a tax-cutting rampage and a spending spree," says Rhode Island governor and former GOP senator Lincoln Chafee, pointing to two deficit-financed wars and an unpaid-for prescription-drug entitlement. "It tanked the economy." Tax receipts as a percent of the total economy have fallen to levels not seen since before the Korean War – nearly 20 percent below the historical average. "Taxes are ridiculously low!" says Bruce Bartlett, an architect of Reagan's 1981 tax cut. "And yet the mantra of the Republican Party is 'Tax cuts raise growth.' So – where's the fucking growth?"
Republicans talk about job creation, about preserving family farms and defending small businesses, and reforming Medicare and Social Security. But almost without exception, every proposal put forth by GOP lawmakers and presidential candidates is intended to preserve or expand tax privileges for the wealthiest Americans. And most of their plans, which are presented as common-sense measures that will aid all Americans, would actually result in higher taxes for middle-class taxpayers and the poor. With 14 million Americans out of work, and with one in seven families turning to food stamps simply to feed their children, Republicans have responded to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression by slashing inheritance taxes, extending the Bush tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, and endorsing a tax amnesty for big corporations that have hidden billions in profits in offshore tax havens. They also wrecked the nation's credit rating by rejecting a debt-ceiling deal that would have slashed future deficits by $4 trillion – simply because one-quarter of the money would have come from closing tax loopholes on the rich.
The intransigence over the debt ceiling enraged Republican stalwarts. George Voinovich, the former GOP senator from Ohio, likens his party's new guard to arsonists whose attitude is: "We're going to get what we want or the country can go to hell." Even an architect of the Bush tax cuts, economist Glenn Hubbard, tells Rolling Stone that there should have been a "revenue contribution" to the debt-ceiling deal, "structured to fall mainly on the well-to-do." Instead, the GOP strong-armed America into sacrificing $1 trillion in vital government services – including education, health care and defense – all to safeguard tax breaks for oil companies, yacht owners and hedge-fund managers. The party's leaders were triumphant: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell even bragged that America's creditworthiness had been a "hostage that's worth ransoming."
It's the kind of thinking that only money can buy. "It's a vicious circle," says Stiglitz. "The rich are using their money to secure tax provisions to let them get richer still. Rather than investing in new technology or R&D, the rich get a better return by investing in Washington."
It's difficult to imagine today, but taxing the rich wasn't always a major flash point of American political life. From the end of World War II to the eve of the Reagan administration, the parties fought over social spending – Democrats pushing for more, Republicans demanding less. But once the budget was fixed, both parties saw taxes as an otherwise uninteresting mechanism to raise the money required to pay the bills. Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford each fought for higher taxes, while the biggest tax cut was secured by John F. Kennedy, whose across-the-board tax reductions were actually opposed by the majority of Republicans in the House. The distribution of the tax burden wasn't really up for debate: Even after the Kennedy cuts, the top tax rate stood at 70 percent – double its current level. Steeply progressive taxation paid for the postwar investments in infrastructure, science and education that enabled the average American family to get ahead.
That only changed in the late 1970s, when high inflation drove up wages and pushed the middle class into higher tax brackets. Harnessing the widespread anger, Reagan put it to work on behalf of the rich. In a move that GOP Majority Leader Howard Baker called a "riverboat gamble," Reagan sold the country on an "across-the-board" tax cut that brought the top rate down to 50 percent. According to supply-side economists, the wealthy would use their tax break to spur investment, and the economy would boom. And if it didn't – well, to Reagan's cadre of small-government conservatives, the resulting red ink could be a win-win. "We started talking about just cutting taxes and saying, 'Screw the deficit,'" Bartlett recalls. "We had this idea that if you lowered revenues, the concern about the deficit would be channeled into spending cuts."
It was the birth of what is now known as "Starve the Beast" – a conscious strategy by conservatives to force cuts in federal spending by bankrupting the country. As conceived by the right-wing intellectual Irving Kristol in 1980, the plan called for Republicans to create a "fiscal problem" by slashing taxes – and then foist the pain of reimposing fiscal discipline onto future Democratic administrations who, in Kristol's words, would be forced to "tidy up afterward."
There was only one problem: The Reagan tax cuts spiked the federal deficit to a dangerous level, even as the country remained mired in a deep recession. Republican leaders in Congress immediately moved to reverse themselves and feed the beast. "It was not a Democrat who led the effort in 1982 to undo about a third of the Reagan tax cuts," recalls Robert Greenstein, president of the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "It was Bob Dole." Even Reagan embraced the tax hike, Stockman says, "because he believed that, at some point, you have to pay the bills."
For the remainder of his time in office, Reagan repeatedly raised taxes to bring down unwieldy deficits. In 1983, he hiked gas and payroll taxes. In 1984, he raised revenue by closing tax loopholes for businesses. The tax reform of 1986 lowered the top rate for the wealthy to just 28 percent – but that cut for high earners was paid for by closing tax loopholes that resulted in the largest corporate tax hike in history. Reagan also raised revenues by abolishing special favors for the investor class: He boosted taxes on capital gains by 40 percent to align them with the taxes paid on wages. Today, Reagan may be lionized as a tax abolitionist, says Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator and friend of the president, but that's not true to his record. "Reagan raised taxes 11 times in eight years!"
But Reagan wound up sowing the seed of our current gridlock when he gave his blessing to what Simpson calls a "nefarious organization" – Americans for Tax Reform. Headed by Grover Norquist, a man Stockman blasts as a "fiscal terrorist," the group originally set out to prevent Congress from backsliding on the 1986 tax reforms. But Norquist's instrument for enforcement – an anti-tax pledge signed by GOP lawmakers – quickly evolved into a powerful weapon designed to shift the tax burden away from the rich. George H.W. Bush won the GOP presidential nomination in 1988 in large part because he signed Norquist's "no taxes" pledge. Once in office, however, Bush moved to bring down the soaring federal deficit by hiking the top tax rate to 31 percent and adding surtaxes for yachts, jets and luxury sedans. "He had courage to take action when we needed it," says Paul O'Neill, who served as Treasury secretary under George W. Bush.
The tax hike helped the economy – and many credit it with setting up the great economic expansion of the 1990s. But it cost Bush his job in the 1992 election – a defeat that only served to strengthen Norquist's standing among GOP insurgents. "The story of Bush losing," Norquist says now, "is a reminder to politicians that this is a pledge you don't break." What was once just another campaign promise, rejected by a fiscal conservative like Bob Dole, was transformed into a political blood oath – a litmus test of true Republicanism that few candidates dare refuse.
After taking office, Clinton immediately seized the mantle of fiscal discipline from Republicans. Rather than simply trimming the federal deficit, as his GOP predecessors had done, he set out to balance the budget and begin paying down the national debt. To do so, he hiked the top tax bracket to nearly 40 percent and boosted the corporate tax rate to 35 percent. "It cost him both houses of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections," says Chafee, the former GOP senator. "But taming the deficit led to the best economy America's ever had." Following the tax hikes of 1993, the economy grew at a brisk clip of 3.2 percent, creating more than 11 million jobs. Average wages ticked up, and stocks soared by 78 percent. By the spring of 1997, the federal budget was headed into the black.
But Newt Gingrich and the anti-tax revolutionaries who seized control of Congress in 1994 responded by going for the Full Norquist. In a stunning departure from America's long-standing tax policy, Republicans moved to eliminate taxes on investment income and to abolish the inheritance tax. Under the final plan they enacted, capital gains taxes were sliced to 20 percent. Far from creating an across-the-board benefit, 62 cents of every tax dollar cut went directly to the top one percent of income earners. "The capital gains cut alone gave the top 400 taxpayers a bigger tax cut than all the Bush tax cuts combined," says David Cay Johnston, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich – and Cheat Everybody Else.
The cuts also juiced irrational exuberance on Wall Street. Giving a huge tax advantage to investment income inflated the dot-com bubble, observed Stiglitz, "by making speculation more attractive." And by eliminating capital gains taxes on home sales, the cuts fueled the housing bubble: A study by the Federal Reserve estimated that the tax giveaways boosted housing transactions by 17 percent through 2007.
The most revealing aspect of the tax cuts, however, came from a simple mistake. In a major blow to the inheritance tax – America's most progressive form of taxation – the GOP cuts nearly doubled the amount that the rich could pass on to their heirs tax-free. From now on, the first $1 million would be exempt from federal taxes – unless your estate was worth more than $17 million. In those rare cases, the superwealthy would have to pay taxes on their entire inheritance.
Then something strange happened. Due to a "drafting error," the final bill failed to include the exception for the superwealthy. Everyone in both parties agreed that it had been a mistake. But instead of fixing the error, Republicans blocked a pro forma correction to the law – meaning that even the wealthiest estates would pay no taxes on the first $1 million. The move effectively secured an $880 million tax cut for the rich – one that Congress never intended, and never voted for. Ari Fleischer, the then-spokesman for Rep. Bill Archer of the House Ways and Means Committee, exulted over the undemocratic tax cut for the wealthy. "When a mistake works against the government and for the taxpayers," he explained, "we're in no rush to correct it."
Republicans, abetted by conservative Democrats, passed the tax cuts with a veto-proof majority, and Clinton signed them into law. But for the remainder of his term, Clinton repeatedly blocked Republican demands for further cuts. "He vetoed one tax cut after another," says Robert McIntyre, director of Citizens for Tax Justice. In 1999, in a triumph for fiscal sanity, Clinton rejected a massive $792 billion cut to inheritance and investment taxes. The mood during the veto ceremony in the Rose Garden was festive. A five-piece band played "Summertime," and the living was easy. Unemployment stood at 4.2 percent, and stocks were booming. "Our hard-won prosperity gives us the chance to invest our surplus to meet the long-term challenges of America," Clinton declared. The Republican tax cuts, he warned with eerie prescience, would return America to a period of "deficit upon deficit" that culminated in "the worst recession since the Great Depression."
Then came the election of George W. Bush, the first president of the Party of the Rich.
Within months of taking office, Bush delivered a tax break to the rich that trumps anything he accomplished through the actual tax code. "The most important thing the Bush administration did in the whole area of taxes," says Johnston, "was to kill tax harmonization."
"Tax harmonization" was economic jargon for a joint project by the world's developed countries to shut down offshore tax havens in places like the Cayman Islands. At the time, such illicit havens were costing U.S. taxpayers $70 billion a year. For Republicans, going after big-time tax evaders should have been as American as apple pie. As Reagan once said of such cheats: "When they do not pay their taxes, someone else does – you and me."
But for Bush and other leaders of the Party of the Rich, blocking corporations from hiding their money overseas wasn't an act of patriotism – it was tyranny. Rep. Dick Armey, the GOP majority leader, railed against tax harmonization as an effort to create a "global network of tax police." One of Bush's biggest donors, Enron, was using a network of nearly 900 offshore tax hideaways to pay no corporate taxes – while reporting massive profits that later turned out to be fraudulent. In one of his first acts as president, Bush "basically vetoed the initiative," says Stiglitz.
The veto spurred a cavalcade of corporations – including stalwart American firms like Stanley Works – to pursue phony "headquarters" in Bermuda and other lax-tax nations. The move not only encouraged some of the world's richest companies to avoid paying any U.S. taxes, it let them book overseas-"expenses" that qualified them for lucrative tax deductions. In one of the most notorious cases, GE filed for a $3 billion tax rebate in 2009, despite boasting profits of more than $14 billion.
But Bush wasn't content to simply make the world safe for corporate tax evaders: He also pushed to deliver $1.6 trillion in tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals. On paper, at least, the federal government looked like it would soon be rolling in cash. Assuming the economy continued to grow as it had under Clinton, the Congressional Budget Office forecast a federal surplus of $5.6 trillion by 2011. Nearly half that bounty was already spoken for – the government needed some $3 trillion to shore up Social Security and Medicare – but that still left $2 trillion to play with.
Still, those numbers were only a projection. "It's certainly not money in the bank," Fed chairman Alan Greenspan warned incoming Treasury Secretary O'Neill over breakfast at the Federal Reserve. Yet there was no such note of caution in the White House. The month after Bush took office, the president's then-budget director, Mitch Daniels, suggested in an internal memo that $5.6 trillion was likely too small a figure. Daniels concluded that Bush's plan was "so fiscally conservative" that even after cutting $1.6 trillion in taxes, fixing Social Security and setting aside $900 billion in a contingency fund, the government would still have enough money left over to retire $2 trillion in debt.
"Everybody for a good while accepted that the surpluses were real," insists Daniels, now the governor of Indiana. When pressed, however, he also concedes that by the time Bush took office, "the economy was already unraveling." Indeed, a wave of layoffs at the end of 2000 prompted Dick Cheney to warn, "We may well be on the front edge of a recession here."
The conflicting forecasts – one of sunshine and surplus, the other of gloom and contraction – should have set off alarm bells in the White House. But instead of rethinking the prudence of its massive giveaway to the rich, the Bush team dreamed up a new rationale for cutting taxes: to provide a needed jolt to the economy. "It's a fair thing to say that the stimulus argument was added in the spring of '01, when it had not been there before," Daniels says.
The stimulus argument was lousy economics. The previous two decades, after all, had demonstrated that "trickle-down" tax cuts don't juice the economy – they create bubbles and balloon deficits. Proponents pointed to Reagan's original tax cut in 1981, claiming it had spurred economic growth. But that is nothing more than "urban legend," Stockman says. The economy "did recover after 1982," he says, "but mainly because the Federal Reserve defeated inflation."
In fact, Stockman insists, Bush's tax cuts for the rich represent a bastardization of Reaganism. "The Republican Party originally said that prosperity comes from the private sector," he says. "But today's Republicans have become Chamber of Commerce Keynesians – using tax policy as a way of stimulating, boosting, prodding the economy." The Party of the Rich, in essence, was offering up a twisted version of New Deal policies that laissez-faire Republicans like Reagan had long opposed.
Spinning the tax giveaways as a stimulus plan did serve one useful function: It helped obscure the true purpose of the Bush tax plan. In an internal memo written just days after the inauguration, O'Neill advised Bush that he had a "great opportunity" for quick action on his tax cuts if he framed the choice for Congress as tax cut vs. recession. "We can get this argument on our ground," O'Neill wrote, "and stop the drumbeat about a tax cut for the rich."
With no patience for the specifics of tax policy, Bush deputized Vice President Dick Cheney to push through his tax cut for the rich. Once a deficit hawk who confessed that he was "not convinced that the Reagan tax cuts worked," Cheney had emerged from his tenure as CEO of Halliburton as a leading advocate for rewarding big corporations and their executives – even as GOP moderates warned that Bush's tax cut would foreclose needed investments in education and infrastructure. "The vice president had no interest in what I had to say," recalls Chafee. "He ran the show right from the beginning, and he suffered no compromise."
As the economy worsened, even the president's Treasury secretary grew concerned about the tax cuts. O'Neill pushed Bush to include a trigger mechanism that would rein in the cuts if the projected surpluses failed to materialize. "The trigger was a good idea – having the foresight that if things turned bad, we wouldn't have to reverse course in a difficult time," O'Neill says now. "But there was never any serious interest in it" from the Bush administration.
To Chafee, the opposition to a trigger mechanism seemed to offer a clue about the real goal of the tax cuts: They were designed not to boost the economy, but to force the kind of spending cuts championed by Grover Norquist and other small-government activists. His suspicion that the starve-the-beast crowd was driving the cuts was confirmed, he says, by a conversation he had while walking the Senate corridors with Trent Lott, then the GOP majority leader.
"What's going on here?" Chafee asked. Why not safeguard the economy by adopting a trigger mechanism?
Lott turned to Chafee. "We're going to strangle the spending," he said. On the stump, Bush hyped the benefits of his plan by emphasizing how much in taxes it would save a single waitress. But the real action was at the top rung of the income ladder. Over 10 years, the bottom fifth of income earners could expect to pocket an extra $744. That waitress might be left with enough cash to change out the clutch on her Corolla. The top one percent, meanwhile, would receive more than $340,000 on average – enough to buy his and hers Bentleys.
To mask such glaring inequality, Republicans inaugurated the tax cut with an across-the-board rebate. The waitress would get a $300 check, along with everyone else from Warren Buffett on down. But in reality, the tax cuts were backloaded with benefits for the wealthy. In the first year of the deal, the top one percent would pocket just seven percent of the tax cuts – but by the time the cuts were set to expire in 2010, the rich would be reaping more than half of the windfall. What's more, the cuts were nefariously designed so that small-business owners and upper-middle-class professionals – primarily those earning between $200,000 and $500,000 a year – would see as much as three-quarters of their tax break eroded by the Alternative Minimum Tax, a levy Congress originally intended to keep rich people from cheating on their taxes.
Every year since the Bush tax cuts were approved, Congress has passed a multibillion "patch" to prevent this politically potent group of professionals from being denied their tax breaks. But at the time, Cheney used the money "saved" by the AMT claw-back to finance another favor exclusively for the rich: a series of cuts to the estate tax culminating in a one-year abolition, set to take effect in 2010. Rejecting a less costly bargain proposed by Democrats that would have provided a permanent escape from estate taxes for all but the richest of the rich, Republicans instead demanded a more expensive plan catering to the wealthiest 0.25 percent of all estates.
In May 2001, Republicans in the House voted in lock step to approve the Bush tax cuts, which cleared the Senate with the support of 45 Republicans and 12 conservative Democrats.
But then reality intervened. The bursting of the dot-com bubble, followed by the attacks of September 11th, tipped the economy headlong into recession. Rather than reversing course, however, Republicans rallied around another tax giveaway for the rich. That October, a bill passed by the House – and endorsed by Bush – not only called for eliminating a law requiring that tax-dodging corporations pay at least something in taxes, it ordered rebate checks to be cut to corporate giants for their past taxes. Under the bill, 16 companies of the Fortune 500 would have each received $100 million or more – including $1.4 billion for IBM, $671 million for GE and $254 million for Enron. Democrats in the Senate ultimately sank the bill, producing a stimulus package that extended unemployment benefits for the middle class and awarded tax incentives to corporations for new investments.
But Republicans kept their eyes on the prize. The following year, after the GOP regained control of the Senate and expanded its majority in the House, Cheney immediately pushed forward with an even deeper tax cut for the wealthy that O'Neill today describes as "an atrocity."
"We won the midterms," the vice president told O'Neill at the time. "This is our due."
By that point, any economic rationale for cutting taxes had vanished. September 11th, the recession and the 2001 tax cuts had plunged the nation $158 billion into the red. The mirage of the $5.6 trillion surplus had vanished – replaced with a forecast that America would rack up some $3 trillion in debt by 2012. But rather than put the brakes on tax cuts, as a trigger mechanism might have done, Cheney was determined to accelerate them, so the rich would get their money even sooner. To further reward the wealthiest, Cheney also wanted to slash taxes on capital gains and corporate dividends, with half of the money going to the top one percent.
To secure the new tax cuts, however, Cheney would first have to overcome opposition not only from Alan Greenspan, but from some of Bush's top advisers. The Fed chair had personally presented Cheney with a 20-page econometric analysis showing that soaring deficits caused by the tax cuts would sink long-term growth. Instead of communicating Greenspan's alarm to Bush, Cheney tasked a deputy named Cesar Conda to draft a memo disputing the study. Conda, a former tax lobbyist, blithely dismissed the projections of the Fed's senior economist as "completely wrong."
In November 2002, at a meeting in the White House, the president and his top economic advisers packed tightly around a mahogany table in the Roosevelt Room. With the administration's own forecasts showing that the economy had already regained its footing, one after another of Bush's deputies sounded the alarm about the dangers of a new tax cut. "This burns a big hole in the budget," deputy chief of staff Josh Bolten told the president. "The budget hole is getting deeper," added Daniels, "and we are projecting deficits all the way to the end of your second term." O'Neill warned the president that a "tax cut that benefits mostly wealthy investors" could imperil the budding prosperity. "With the economy already improving, this could cause an unnecessary boost," he said. "That's how you get a bubble." Entertaining the chorus of doubters, Bush himself voiced qualms about more cuts for the rich. "Won't the top-rate people benefit the most?" he asked. "Didn't we already give them a break at the top?"
But Cheney was having none of it. When O'Neill warned Bush that America was headed for a "fiscal crisis," the vice president, sitting at the Treasury secretary's right elbow, dismissed him midsentence by citing the ultimate champion of Republican tax cuts: "Ronald Reagan proved that deficits don't matter, Paul."
A true student of Reagan would have understood that 2002 was the moment for a tax increase. When his 1981 tax cut overshot the mark, Reagan had put aside ideology and raised taxes, putting the needs of the country above the desires of the wealthy. Bush's father had also raised taxes to avoid passing massive deficits on to future generations. Moreover, the Bush administration had already committed the country to a costly war in Afghanistan, and was on the brink of invading Iraq. Historically, Republican and Democratic administrations alike had met the financial burdens of war by raising taxes. But this was a new Republican Party, one determined to aid the rich even as it sent the military budget soaring. As House Majority Leader Tom DeLay would soon declare, "Nothing is more important in the face of a war than cutting taxes."
After the meeting, Cheney set out to remove anyone who stood in the way of the new tax giveaway. He phoned O'Neill and demanded the Treasury secretary's resignation. He also dispensed with economic adviser Larry Lindsey, whose frank assessment of the possible costs of the Iraq War had threatened to derail the tax cut.
Budget-conscious Republicans in Congress who opposed the tax cuts could not be disposed of – but they could be strong-armed. Voinovich and Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, who refused to go along with cuts of more than $350 billion, were summoned to the White House for a meeting with Bush and Cheney. "The president wanted nearly a trillion dollars when he started with us," recalls Voinovich. "They were working on us: We need more, we need more." The senators held out for a smaller bill – though in hindsight, Voinovich says, there shouldn't have been any tax cuts. "Just think where we'd be if we'd gone along with what the president wanted," he says, laughing bitterly. "Where would we be today? Oh, my God."
In the end, Cheney's voice was the only one that mattered. In April 2003, when the bill reached the floor, the Senate deadlocked 50-50. The vice president cast the deciding "aye" that moved the tax cut into law. The benefits were even more tilted to the rich than the first Bush tax cuts. When fully phased in, 53 percent of the new cuts went to the top one percent. Those making $10 million or more pocketed an average of $1 million a year – twice the haul they made from the earlier cuts, and every cent of it borrowed. "It was a deficit-financed tax cut," concedes Hubbard, who chaired Bush's Council of Economic Advisers.
The deal privileged gambling on stocks over working for a living: The tax rate the richest pay on their long-term capital gains was slashed by 25 percent, while their rate on dividends fell by almost 60 percent. The move not only fueled speculation of Wall Street, it further widened the considerable gap between rich and poor. "It was a very destructive combination to have a national economic policy that stimulated debt-financed capital gains and then taxed the windfall at the lowest rate imaginable," says Stockman. "That contributed, clearly, to the growing imbalance in household income and wealth."
But Republicans didn't stop there. The following year, they passed the little-noticed American Jobs Creation Act. Named in the same Orwellian fashion as Bush's "Clear Skies" and "Healthy Forests" initiatives, the 2004 law allowed corporations to bring home billions in profits they had stockpiled in offshore tax havens – the very flight of capital that Bush had blessed by torpedoing tax harmonization three years earlier. Under the tax amnesty, corporations repatriated $300 billion in profits they had stashed offshore. But instead of paying the nominal corporate tax rate of 35 percent, they were taxed at just 5.25 percent.
The title of the bill notwithstanding, corporations invested almost none of their windfall in new factories or other measures to create the 500,000 jobs that Republicans had promised. In fact, many companies that received the biggest tax break actually slashed jobs. Hewlett-Packard laid off 14,500 workers – one pink slip for every $1 million in profits it shipped back home from overseas. All told, according to an analysis by the National Bureau of Economic Research, up to 92 percent of the "jobs creation" money was handed out to top executives and shareholders in a frenzy of dividend payments and stock buybacks. And thanks to the GOP's cut on investment income the previous year, wealthy individuals who pocketed the offshore profits paid the same rate on their bonanza, 15 percent, that a waitress at a diner might pay on her tips.
When Democrats regained control of both the House and Senate in 2006, they temporarily halted the GOP's binge of borrowing from the Treasury to give tax cuts to the wealthy. But that didn't stop Republicans from finding other ways to aid the rich. As the economy collapsed in 2008, the Bush administration used the crisis to provide a stealth handout to the nation's banks – even those at no risk of failing. Under the TARP bailout, overseen by Treasury secretary and former Goldman Sachs CEO Hank Paulson, taxpayers were forced to give banks $254 billion for assets worth just $176 billion – a handout of $78 billion to the financial sector, including $2.5 billion for Paulson's cronies at Goldman. "Paulson pushed the money into the hands of the banks – no strings attached, no accountability, no transparency," Elizabeth Warren, then-chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, told Rolling Stone last year.
As with the offshore profits, the banks used the money to line the pockets of executives and investors – while doing little to speed the recovery of Main Street. "We gave an enormous subsidy to these financial institutions, and they have not returned it to the American people," said Warren. "The administration could have said, 'All right, take this and multiply it throughout the economy.' But Paulson never made that a condition of taking the money."
Taken together, the Bush years exposed the bankruptcy behind the theory that tax cuts for the rich will spur economic growth. "Let the rich get richer and everybody will benefit?" says Stiglitz. "That, empirically, is wrong. It's a philosophy of trickle-down economics that's belied by the facts." Bush and Cheney proved once and for all that tax cuts for the wealthy produce only two things: "lower growth and greater inequality."
The GOP's frenzied handouts to the rich during the Bush era coincided with the weakest economic expansion since World War II – and the only one in modern American history in which the wages of working families actually fell and poverty increased. And what little expansion there was under Bush culminated in the worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression. "The wreckage was left by Dick Cheney, Grover Norquist and the gang," says Chafee. "This was their doing."
By driving the economy into the ditch, Republicans left the next president little choice but to drive up deficits in the short term by launching a massive campaign of federal spending to ward off a global depression. But even the $787 billion stimulus engineered by President Obama was hamstrung by his predecessor's ongoing giveaway to the wealthy: Republicans insisted that nearly 10 percent of every stimulus dollar be devoted to financing the annual "patch" to the Alternative Minimum Tax – the off-budget legacy of Bush's tax cuts for the rich. This was a $70 billion handout that inflated the cost of the stimulus package without stimulating anything – other than the paychecks of wealthy Americans.
From the outset of the Obama presidency, in fact, Republicans have engaged in a calculated, across-the-board campaign to protect the tax privileges of the wealthiest Americans. Their objective was made explicit by Rep. Eric Cantor during the height of the stimulus debate: "No Tax Increases to Pay for Spending" declared one bullet point on Cantor's website. "House Republicans are insisting that any stimulus package include a provision precluding any tax increases, now or in the future, to pay for this new spending." Having racked up the largest deficits in American history, Republicans suddenly found it expedient to return to their old-school rhetoric of deficit-bashing. "Under Bush, they had a story about deficits not mattering," says Michael Ettlinger, who directs economic policy at the Center for American Progress. "Then, all of a sudden Obama becomes president, and deficits matter again."
The battle reached a fever pitch over health care reform. To truly understand the depth of the GOP's entrenched opposition to Obamacare, it's crucial to understand how the reform is financed: The single largest source of funds comes from increasing Medicare taxes on the wealthy – including new taxes on investment income. According to the Tax Policy Center, Americans who make more than $1 million a year will pay an extra $37,381 in annual taxes under the plan. The top 400 taxpayers would contribute even more: an average of $11 million each.
Rarely in American history has a tax so effectively targeted the top one percent. "It took Republicans about four months to figure out how much they hated it," says McIntyre, president of Citizens for Tax Justice. Republican rage over the president's health care plan has far less to do with the size of government or the merits of the individual mandate than the blow to the investor class. If Obamacare remains in place and the Bush cuts for the wealthy expire as planned, top earners will be paying a tax of 23.8 percent on capital gains – more than they have at any time since Clinton cut the capital gains tax in 1997. Health care reform, griped The Wall Street Journal, was nothing but a "sneaky way" for Democrats to wage a "war on 'the rich.'"
A key element of the GOP's war on the poor was cemented by the surprise election of Scott Brown to replace Ted Kennedy in the Senate in January 2010. As a candidate, Brown had made his high-mileage GMC pickup truck the star of his campaign commercials. "I love this old truck," he said. "It's brought me closer to the people." But Brown's real allegiance was to his wealthy donors: the billionaire Koch brothers, who bankrolled the Tea Party, and the financial interests who made a last-minute investment of more than $450,000 to propel Brown into office.
As soon as he was sworn in, Brown set about hollowing out the so-called Volcker Rule, which was designed to bar big financial institutions from using their own money to make risky, speculative bets on the market. By agreeing to provide Democrats with the crucial 60th vote on finance reform, Brown secured an exemption from the trading ban for mutual funds and insurers – a move directly benefiting Massachusetts-based financial giants like Fidelity and MassMutual. Brown also insisted that the Wall Street giants who caused the financial collapse – banks like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase – be allowed to continue using taxpayer-subsidized capital to gamble on hedge funds and private-equity deals. Former Fed chair Paul Volcker was furious: "Allowing a bank to invest in a speculative fund," he said, "goes against the very intent of the bill."
But Brown wasn't done. At the 11th hour, he forced Democrats to spike a tax on big banks and hedge funds that was designed to generate $19 billion to pay for the costs of financial reform. As a result, consumers and small banks had to pick up the tab. Brown, meanwhile, was richly rewarded for his efforts on behalf of Wall Street: During a three-week period at the height of negotiations, he raked in $140,000 in campaign cash from big financial firms, including Fidelity and MassMutual, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan.
When Republicans won back control of the House in last year's midterm elections, they followed Brown's lead and moved swiftly to betray their Tea Party backers by running up more deficits on behalf of the rich. Within days of the election, Republicans not only secured a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, they also enabled America's richest scions to inherit millions of dollars without paying a dime in taxes. All told, the GOP's two favors for the party's biggest donors were secured in a lame-duck bargain that adds another $858 billion to the debt – an amount greater than the original stimulus plan the Republicans opposed so bitterly.
First, the GOP filibustered a Democrat-led effort to extend the Bush tax cuts on only the first $250,000 of income. The party leadership's hard-line stance – supported by barely a third of all voters – turned $90 billion over to the wealthiest Americans. It also set a precedent for further extensions that would cost nearly $1 trillion over the next decade. At the same time, the GOP drove through a deal that actually raised taxes for couples who make less than $40,000 a year – and then turned much of the extra cash over to couples who earn more than $200,000. Obama agreed to this massive transfer of wealth in order to retain the Bush tax cuts for the middle class – but the only other significant thing he got in return was a one-year extension of jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.
But even the GOP's big payday for the wealthy pales in comparison to the handout that Republicans secured by gutting the estate tax. With the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, the inheritance tax was set to snap back to its Clinton-era standard: exempting the first $1 million of all estates from taxation, and stepping up the tax rate on the wealthiest estates to 55 percent. Instead, Obama agreed to raise the exemption to $5 million and lower the top tax rate to 35 percent – an apparent horse trade demanded by the Senate's second-ranking Republican, Jon Kyl of Arizona, who then allowed the president's nuclear-stockpile treaty with Russia to move forward in the Senate.
Shockingly, the deal actually sweetened the bargain the super-rich had received in 2009, enabling the heirs to the richest 0.25 percent of estates to pocket an extra $23 billion they would have otherwise owed in taxes under Bush. In fact, under the terms Kyl demanded, the federal government will spend more to eliminate or cut taxes for 100,000 rich people than it will to extend unemployment benefits for 7 million Americans.
In a little-noticed detail, the two-year deal also created a loophole that allows the wealthiest couples to pass on $10 million to a child today – while they're still living – without paying a penny of tax. That means the rich can offload their wealth to their children before it increases in value – evading higher estate taxes in the future. "In the next two years," one tax attorney crowed to The Wall Street Journal, "wealthy people have an unprecedented opportunity to push a lot of the value of their assets out of the estate-tax system." According to tax historians, the new rules create the most generous tax environment for wealth transfers for the super-rich since 1931.
And that was just the beginning of the budget-busting handouts the GOP demanded for the rich. In April, Republicans in the House passed a budget that would have slashed income taxes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans to just 25 percent – a $3 trillion giveaway that would have been financed by doubling out-of-pocket expenses for future retirees on Medicare. Top Republicans like Cantor have also pushed for a replay of the American Jobs Creation Act – endorsing a new tax amnesty that would allow corporate giants like Apple and Pfizer to bring home $1.4 trillion in offshore profits that would be taxed at just 5.25 percent – a favor for the wealthy that would generate another $79 billion in deficits. "At the same time they're talking about these big deficit problems, running around saying, 'We're broke,' they're contemplating one of the most egregious tax giveaways in recent memory," says Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "The potential windfall gains are beyond enormous – and the lion's share would go to shareholders of these big corporations and their executives."
Never mind that the previous tax amnesty in 2004 created virtually no new jobs, as corporate executives eagerly pocketed the windfall for themselves: Republicans are once again claiming that the tax amnesty will enable corporations to spend their repatriated wealth putting Americans back to work. Mitt Romney, the GOP presidential front-runner, promises that the flood of corporate cash will generate "hundreds of thousands if not millions – of good, permanent, private-sector jobs." That flies in the face of basic economics, given that corporate America is already sitting on hundreds of billions in domestic cash reserves. What the tax amnesty would do, however, is boost stock prices. According to an analysis by JP Morgan, as much as two-thirds of the $1.4 trillion that would be brought back into the country would go to stock "buybacks and dividends" rather than "new factories, new jobs and new equipment," as Romney claims.
JP Morgan has a big stake in the debate – as do fellow bank-bailout beneficiaries Citigroup, Bank of America and Goldman Sachs. Combined, the four financial giants have $87 billion in untaxed profits stockpiled offshore. That's similar to the combined offshore profits of drug giants Pfizer and Merck at $89 billion. Tech giants Cisco and Microsoft have more than $61 billion they'd like to bring home, while Big Oil companies Exxon and Chevron have $56 billion. The company with the most to gain, by far – with offshored reserves of $94 billion – is corporate America's most notorious tax scofflaw, GE.
Romney's rival for the GOP nomination, Rick Perry, has also endorsed the tax amnesty for giant corporations. But for Perry, the proposal doesn't go far enough on behalf of the rich. "Why not talk about how you are going to repatriate those dollars at a substantially lower rate than 35 percent?" Perry said recently, stumping in New Hampshire. "Like zero."
In September, Perry went even further, proposing a flat tax that would take a sharp bite out of the paychecks of the poorest Americans – while slashing taxes by more than 40 percent for the wealthiest. When confronted by a reporter over the fact that his plan would give millions to the rich, Perry replied: "I don't care about that." His plan is almost as regressive as Herman Cain's original 9-9-9 plan, which called for increasing taxes on 84 percent of Americans – squeezing $4,400 a year out of every middle-class couple to finance a $455,000 tax cut for millionaires. What's more, both Perry and Cain want to abolish the estate tax entirely and eliminate all taxes on capital gains. A similar plan by Michele Bachmann would enable 23,000 millionaires to pay no taxes at all – while allowing the top 400 earners to pocket nearly two-thirds of their income tax-free, and then pass those riches on to their heirs without paying a penny. "It's madness," says Stiglitz. "And it is dangerous to the fiscal order. The wealthy know very well how to convert normal income to capital gains income."
The Republican mania for rewarding the rich with tax cuts has become so warped that the normal rules of budgeting no longer seem to apply. Arguing for an extension of the Bush tax cuts, Sen. Kyl spelled out what could well serve as the Party of the Rich's credo: "You should never have to offset the cost of a deliberate decision to reduce tax rates on Americans." The same rule, of course, doesn't apply to spending for those in need: At the time he called for more borrowing on behalf of the rich, Kyl was also fighting to deny unemployment benefits to 5 million Americans. "Continuing to pay people unemployment compensation," he scoffed, "is a disincentive for them to seek new work."
In retrospect, the true victor of the midterm elections last year was not the Tea Party, or even Speaker of the House John Boehner. It was Grover Norquist.
"What has happened over the last two years is that Grover now has soldiers in the field," says Bartlett, the architect of the Reagan tax cuts. "These Tea Party people, in effect, take their orders from him." Indeed, a record 98 percent of House Republicans have now signed Norquist's anti-tax pledge – which includes a second, little-known provision that played a key role in the debt-ceiling debacle. In addition to vowing not to raise taxes, politicians who sign the pledge promise to use any revenue generated by ending a tax subsidy to immediately finance – that's right – more tax cuts.
Norquist insists the measure is necessary to force Congress to rein in spending. "I'm not focused on the deficit," he says. "The metric that matters is keeping spending down." But in the real world, the effect of Norquist's oath is to prevent the government from cutting the deficit by ending tax breaks to the rich. All told, tax breaks cost the government $1.2 trillion each year – far more than defense spending ($744 billion), Medicare and Medicaid ($719 billion) or Social Security ($701 billion). And most of the breaks – think of them as government subsidies delivered through the tax code – go to the wealthy. The richest one percent of Americans receive a 13.5 percent boost in their incomes from such subsidies – almost double the benefit the bottom 80 percent receives. Under Norquist's pledge, lawmakers are forbidden from ending any kind of tax break – mortgage deductions for luxury vacation homes, subsidies for giant oil companies, lower tax rates for private-equity millionaires – without using the money to pay for another tax cut. "If you can't get rid of tax expenditures – if old Grover is going to call that a 'tax increase' – it's not just ludicrous, it's deception," says Simpson, the former GOP senator.
Ludicrous or not, Norquist's intransigence on tax expenditures killed the "grand bargain" that President Obama proposed during the debt-ceiling standoff. In return for $1 trillion in cuts to social spending and national security, plus another $650 billion in reductions to entitlements like Medicare, Obama asked Republicans to get rid of $1.2 trillion in wasteful tax subsidies. "Democrats weren't talking about raising taxes – they were talking about eliminating tax expenditures, for God's sakes!" says Voinovich. "Many of them should have been eliminated a long time ago." But with so many Republicans committed to Norquist's anti-revenue pledge, Boehner was forced to walk away from the deal.
"Grover's got 'em terrified," says Simpson. "I always tell Republicans, 'Hell, Grover can't kill ya. He can't burn down your house. The only thing he can do to you is defeat you in re-election – and if re-election means more to you than your country, then you shouldn't be in the legislature.'"
The battle over the debt ceiling underscores the GOP's rapid evolution into the Party of the Rich. The budget savings projected from the compromise that Republicans wound up agreeing to – $2.1 trillion – won't even begin to pay for costs incurred by the Bush tax cuts. In their first decade alone, the cuts wound up depriving the Treasury of $2.5 trillion – with 38 percent of the money now going to the richest one percent of Americans. For all their talk of cutting the deficit in recent years, Republicans have spent far more of the public's money to subsidize the wealthy.
Indeed, since Republicans began their tax-cut binge in 1997, they have succeeded in making the rich much richer. While the average income for the bottom 90 percent of taxpayers has remained basically flat over the past 15 years, those in the top 0.01 percent have seen their incomes more than double, to $36 million a year. Translated into wages, that means most Americans have received a raise of $1.50 an hour since the GOP began cutting taxes during the Gingrich era. The most elite sliver of American society, meanwhile, saw their pay soar by $10,000 an hour.
America became a great nation with a prosperous middle class on the strength of a progressive tax code – one that demands the most of those who benefit most from our society. But the Party of the Rich has succeeded in breaking the back of that ideal. Today, says Johnston, "the tax system ceases to be progressive when you get to the very top of the wealthiest one percent." Above that marker, the richer you get, the lower your relative tax burden. "We have moved toward a plutocracy," Warren Buffett warned in a recent interview. "As people have gotten richer and richer, they have been favored by taxation – and have gotten richer to a greater degree."
Far from creating the trickle-down economics promised by Reagan, the policies pursued by the modern Republican Party are gusher up. Under the leadership of Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the House's radicalized GOP caucus is pushing a predatory agenda for a new gilded age. Every move that Republicans make – whether it's to gut consumer protections, roll back environmental regulations, subsidize giant agribusinesses, abolish health care reform or just drill, baby, drill – is consistent with a single overarching agenda: to enrich the nation's wealthiest individuals and corporations, even if it requires borrowing from China, weakening national security, dismantling Medicare and taxing the middle class. With the nation still mired in the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, Republicans have categorically rejected the one financial policy with a proven record of putting the country back on a more prosperous footing. "You hear the Republicans say that you don't dare raise taxes in a weak economy," says Stockman. "Ronald Reagan did – three times." Not even the downgrading of America's debt – which placed the world's only superpower on credit par with New Zealand and Belgium – has given GOP leaders cause to reconsider their pro-wealth jihad. In August, as the so-called Supercommittee began its work to complete the debt-ceiling deal by reducing future deficits by another $1.5 trillion, Cantor issued the Party of the Rich's marching orders, insisting that Republicans not buckle under the "tremendous pressure" to hike taxes and instead target spending cuts in "mandatory programs."
The composition of the committee offers little hope that Congress will hold the rich accountable for their share of the deficit burden. While Democrats appointed deal-oriented centrists like Sen. Max Baucus to the committee, Republicans stocked it with anti-revenue hard-liners, including Sens. Jon Kyl and Pat Toomey, who used to run the Club for Growth – an ally of Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform. "Your wallet is safe," Norquist tweeted after the Republican roster was announced.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Norquist expresses pride that the GOP has been so thoroughly transformed since the days of Reagan. "It's a different Republican Party now," he says. Norquist even goes so far as to liken the kind of Republicans common in Reagan's day – those willing to raise taxes to strengthen the economy – to segregationists. The "modern Republican Party," he says, would no sooner recognize a revenue-raiser than the "modern Democratic Party would recognize George Wallace."
Norquist expresses no discomfort at the moral impact of his project – providing tax favors for the wealthy that are paid for by cutting services to those who truly need them. "I understand greed and envy," Norquist says. "The idea that somebody's making money and you want to steal some of it? That's an interesting idea. But it's not morality. It's certainly not justice."
Such extremist rhetoric – equating taxation with theft – is exactly the kind of talk that dismays old-line Republicans. Many of those who fought for years at the side of Ronald Reagan say they no longer recognize traditional GOP values in the new Republican Party. Fighting for the rich, after all, is not the same as championing the right.
"You can look up my record: On conservatism and taxes I was better than Jesse Helms," says Simpson, the former senator. "But whatever happened to common sense? People are going to look around in five or 10 years and say, 'Whatever happened to the things that made me comfortable? That made our streets and schools good things?' And they'll look, hopefully, at Grover Norquist. I can say to you with deepest sincerity: If this country and this legislature are in thrall to Grover Norquist, we haven't got a prayer."
03/25/2013 10:43 AM
Last-Minute Deal: The End of the Cypriot Banking Sector
By Carsten Volkery
A Cypriot exit from the euro zone has been averted by a last-minute deal in which the government bowed to the demands of international lenders. Rich depositors, including wealthy Russians, will face heavy losses in return for a 10 billion euro bailout, and the island's banking sector will be radically downsized.
In the end, despite all his pleading, threats and horsetrading, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades had no option but to bow to the terms of international lenders. Early on Monday morning, the Euro Group of euro-zone finance ministers agreed a bailout of €10 billion ($13 billion) for the tiny Mediterranean island. In return, the Cypriot government agreed to radically scale down its oversized banking sector. Bank customers with deposits of over €100,000, including wealthy Russians who had deposited funds in Cyprus, will lose a large part of their assets.
Anastasiades caved in after days of resistance. "We have a deal that is in the interest of the Cypriot people and the EU," the conservative politician said after the meeting in Brussels. His finance minister, Michalis Sarris, said the agreement would prevent a disastrous exit from the euro zone.
The other 16 euro finance ministers breathed a sigh of relief that the cliffhanger was finally over. "We have a better solution than that reached last week," said Euro Group Chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said: "This is bitter for Cyprus, but we now have the result that the (German) government always stood up for."
Laiki Bank to Be Wound Down
The new bailout deal focused on the island's two insolvent major banks. It will wind down the largely state-owned Popular Bank of Cyprus, also known as Laiki, and shift deposits below €100,000 to the Bank of Cyprus.
Deposits above €100,000 euros in both banks, which are not guaranteed under EU law, will be frozen and used to resolve Laiki's debts and to recapitalise Bank of Cyprus through a deposit/equity conversion.
An initial agreement reached 10 days ago had provoked angry protests in Cyprus and was rejected by the country's parliament because it entailed a levy on all deposits. The plan also led to international criticism because it cast doubt on the EU's deposit guarantee for all assets up to €100,000.
The raid on uninsured Laiki depositors is expected to raise €4.2 billion, Dijsselbloem said.
It's not yet clear how high the losses for deposits exceeding €100,000 will be. That will be decided in the coming weeks by the Cypriot government and the troika of EU, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.
The final bailout terms are expected to be agreed by mid-April. Before that, the parliaments of Germany, Finland and the Netherlands will have to give their blessing. Nothing else can block it. The Cypriot parliament can't stop the deal because it has already approved a restructuring of the banks.
The agreement reached on Sunday night begs the question as to why they didn't come up with it in the first place. Dijsselbloem indirectly blamed the Cypriot government for the delay. He said the same deal had already been on the table last week, but that no agreement had been reached on it then.
Anastasiades had wanted to spare wealthy foreign bank customers in the hope of rescuing the country's status as an international financial center.
Now it's clear that the banking center will shrink to normal EU standards. European leaders -- and especially the German government -- have got what they wanted. But they have no reason to be proud. The initial assault on small savers has done lasting damage to confidence in Europe's crisis management. On Monday, Dijsselbloem was repeatedly asked whether he would concede that the EU had made a mistake with the initial bailout agreement. He evaded the questions.
Cypriots faces a bleak future. It will block potential capital flight in coming weeks by imposing strict controls on money transfers. But the country is bound to plunge into a deep recession. "The near future will be very difficult for Cyprus," said European Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn. He said the European Commission would help Cyprus to absorb the economic shock.
The country's long-term debt sustainabily is by no means assured either. IMF managing director Christine Lagarde said the bailout should ensure that Cypriot government debt would amount to "around 100 percent" of GDP by 2020. But experience with other nations hit by the euro crisis shows that such forecasts can quickly start wobbling.
Foes of same sex marriage stage last-ditch protest in Paris
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, March 24, 2013 14:56 EDT
Tens of thousands opposed to French legislation allowing gay marriage protested Sunday on a route leading to the Champs Elysees after police banned them marching on the famed Paris avenue.
The hugely controversial bill to legalise same-sex marriage and adoption has been comfortably adopted by the lower chamber of parliament and will go to the Senate for examination and approval in April.
The upper house is unlikely to prevent the groundbreaking reform from becoming law by the summer. The protestors want the government to withdraw the project and put it to a referendum.
The demonstrators highlighted France’s flagging economy, beset by mass layoffs and spiralling unemployment, attacking Socialist President Francois Hollande’s government of ignoring pressing issues while pushing ahead with his election pledge of “Marriage for All.”
Banners held up from balconies read: “We want work not gay marriage,” and “No to gayxtremism.”
The Paris police had turned down a request from the protest organisers to march on the Champs Elysees on the ground it would be a threat to public order, partly because it borders the French presidential palace.
The demonstrators lined a five-kilometre (three-mile) route from the Paris business district of La Defence to the roundabout where the Arc de Triomphe is located.
Police sprayed teargas to keep up to 200 protestors from trying to march on the Champs Elysees, AFP photographers said.
Organisers claimed that at least 1.4 million had taken part but police put the number at around 300,000.
As the demonstrators gathered under chilly, grey skies, an organiser exhorted them on a megaphone to periodically lift their arms and legs to keep warm.
“We understand your frustration but please remain in the same place,” he said.
The movement against gay marriage has given France a new celebrity in the form of its public face, Virginie Tellenne, a Parisian socialite who goes by the name of Frigide Barjot.
Her assumed name — a play on the name of French film star Brigitte Bardot, a sex symbol in the 1960s — translates as Frigid Loony.
“We want the president to deal with the economy and leave the family alone,” Tellenne said Sunday.
Somewhere between 340,000 and 800,000 demonstrators had flooded into the capital for an anti-gay marriage march in January.
A campaign orchestrated by the Catholic Church and belatedly backed by the mainstream centre-right opposition has steadily gathered momentum.
But Hollande’s support for the legislation has not wavered and his partner, Valerie Trierweiler, has revealed that the president will be attending the marriages of gay friends once the legislation is on the statute books.
Gay men and women can already adopt as individuals in France if approved by social services.
A separate law on providing medically assisted conception to gay couples, already extended to heterosexual couples unable to conceive, will be debated later in the year.
Social entrepreneurship in Serbia: turning a crisis into a success
Serbia needs to build on its strengths if it is to succeed in the social enterprise sector, but there is optimism for the future.
Many serbians believe new social models could help the recovery and growth of the nation, bringing economic reform and positive social change. Photograph: Andrej Isakovic/AFP/Getty Images
Now is the right moment to support the development of social enterprise in Serbia, and it is important to do it properly.
Having emerged from a turbulent period of its history, Serbia is moving towards EU accession. After making significant progress in the past decade, the country and its people are now facing destitution brought on by the global economic crisis.
While still undergoing a difficult process of transition to democracy and market economy, Serbia carries some unfavourable legacies of its socialist past. The economy and social services system collapsed after decades of state control, leaving those habituated to state dependence with a strong distrust of that same state, and wary of social ownership.
Socialism also meant there was no encouragement of entrepreneurial culture. This led to a troublesome mindset: research shows that nearly two thirds of people would prefer the state as their employer. Given that the IMF put the unemployment rate at almost 40% in 2012 (it is even higher among the young), this attitude is a further challenge for the impoverished country, coming on top of regional disparities, growing social exclusion, high rates of corruption and defunct public institutions.
The transition further compromised the entrepreneurship model by associating it with the image of corrupt elites plundering public resources. The older generation is disappointed and apathetic, while the youth is fearful and confused. The need for urgent action is acute.
A sustainable social enterprise model offering a blend of individual initiative and concern for collective needs is precisely what Serbia requires.
Widespread poverty and social problems coupled with inadequate support from inefficient state institutions create a need for social business models that could aid recovery and growth, bringing economic reform and positive social change.
The development of social entrepreneurship will show the people of Serbia that they can address the problems they are facing through their own initiatives, and that the interests of society and private enterprise can indeed work together.
In the past decade, social economy models were introduced to Serbia as various social enterprises appeared across the country – some 1,600 at the moment. Dynamic, albeit nascent, networks such as Coalition for the Development of Social Enterprise (CDSE) and the Social Economy Network Serbia (SENS) showed energy and capability in supporting the fledgling sector.
However, the opportunities for social enterprise have been somewhat limited so far, and the sector is still emerging in a not particularly supportive environment. Potential social entrepreneurs face many obstacles.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)'s Local Economic and Employment Development (LEED) programme reported in October 2012 that it had found "clear indications of the potential of social entrepreneurship" in Serbia, concluding that "more needs to be done if that potential is to be fulfilled."
According to the report, Serbia "has taken an impressive number of measures to establish a modern legal framework for the development of social entrepreneurship" but although the context has been considerably enhanced by wide legislative reforms, social enterprises still face a limited range of legally recognised forms, wavering between not-for-profit or for-profit status.
A new law on social entrepreneurship is currently under hastened legislation following an insufficiently transparent public debate. CDSE finds the draft law to be "an unprofessional, incomplete and budget-wise irresponsible proposition," its main fault being the tendency to reintroduce the government as a key player.
Another major problem is financial support for start-up social enterprises – the banking system for SMEs is conservative and risk averse, and microfinance still faces barriers. Yet there are some exemplary practices among international banks in Serbia, including UniCredit Bank, Crédit Agricole and Erste Bank.
Serbia needs to build on its strengths and there is certainly optimism for the future. The country is presented with a unique opportunity to establish socially oriented business models while developing entrepreneurial culture. The awareness of social issues and tendency to put social values before profit are legacies of the socialist era that can be beneficially used in the transition to capitalism, showing the young generation how there is a third way – one that is entrepreneurial, sustainable and just.
What Serbia's social enterprise sector needs is financial and non-financial international support: learning from the best practices through free coaching, SME training and mentoring programs, help in implementation guidance, skills development (especially business management skills), establishing incubator hubs and capacity-building programmes.
Knowledge-sharing and education can provide changing mindsets, helping the country to foster an enabling environment for the development of sustainable social enterprises.
Serbia is coming to realise that there is no magical solution to the current crisis; the solution lies in the people using their knowledge, skills and resources to help themselves. That makes social entrepreneurship in Serbia a matter of paramount importance.
As part of Euclid Network and Smart Kolektiv's commitment to support and offer a stronger voice for practitioners, a letter was sent to Commissioner Stefan Füle (European commissioner for nlargement and European neighbourhood policy) to draw attention to these concerns and suggest a better way forward for social enterprise policy.
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