Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Monday, September 29, 2014

Yes, Uruguay Does Exist



Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

They are usually small in area and population, ethnically and religiously homogenous, well-off, and situated in a peaceful part of the world, alongside neighbours who have no designs on them.

What are they? Countries which go virtually unnoticed internationally. Yet they can be quite interesting. The quintessential example? Uruguay. 

A settler state like its big neighbour Argentina, which lies across from it, separated by the mouth of the Rio de la Plata, Uruguay’s population of 3.32 million is composed almost entirely of Spanish and other European immigrants.

At 176,215 square kilometres, it is the second-smallest country in South America. Its only other neighbour is Brazil, and it has historically served as a buffer between these two South American giants. 

During the 19th century wars of independence in South America, the country was briefly occupied by Brazil, but gained its independence in 1828, with the help of Argentina. 

Over the next decades, Uruguay became wealthy from the export of livestock to Europe, and it became the world’s first welfare state. The capital, Montevideo, became a major economic centre of the region.

But in the late 1950s, partly because of a decrease in demand in the world market for agricultural products, Uruguay began having economic problems, which included inflation, mass unemployment, and a steep drop in the standard of living for Uruguayan workers. 

This led to student militancy and labour unrest. An urban guerrilla movement known as the Movimiento de Liberacion Nacional-Tupamaros was formed in the early 1960s, robbing banks and distributing food and money in poor neighbourhoods, and undertaking political kidnappings and attacks on security forces. 

The filmmaker Constantin Costa-Gavras drew inspiration for his 1972 movie, “State of Siege,” from their abduction and execution in 1970 of Daniel Mitrione, an American adviser to Uruguay’s security forces.

Democratic institutions could not withstand the strain. In 1968, President Jorge Pacheco brought in a state of emergency; his successor, Juan Maria Bordaberry, repealed all constitutional safeguards in 1972 and brought in the army in to combat the guerrillas. 

They not only defeated the insurgents but mounted a coup in 1973; the dictatorship would last twelve years.

The new regime suppressed all political activity, including the traditional parties and the left. Many people were imprisoned, tortured and killed. 

Unions and political parties remained illegal until a general strike in 1984 forced the military to accept civilian rule and the restoration of democracy in 1985.

Though democracy was re-established, a controversial “Expiry Law,” passed in 1986 by the Uruguayan parliament, prevents the prosecution of police and military officials for crimes committed under military rule.

The country has in recent decades returned to its progressive orientation. In 2004 Uruguayans elected Tabaré Vazquez as president, while giving his Broad Front, a coalition of numerous left-of-centre movements, a majority in both houses of parliament.

As president, he presided over improvements in education and working conditions and a significant expansion of the welfare system.

He was succeeded after the 2009 election by José Mujica, who had been a Tupamaro himself. He had been captured by the authorities on four different occasions, was tortured, and was also shot once. He spent 14 years in captivity, 10 of them in solitary confinement.

Like many other former Tupamaros, Mujica re-entered politics and became a member of a movement which is a member of the Broad Front. He was minister of Livestock, Agriculture and Fisheries in Vazquez’s administration.

Eschewing the opulent presidential mansion, the 79-year-old former guerrilla and his wife, Lucia Topolansky, live in a modest house on Montevideo’s outskirts. His net worth upon taking office in 2010 amounted to about $1,800. He gives almost 90 per cent of his income to low-income housing organisations.

Topolansky is also a former guerrilla who was imprisoned for 13 years. Today she is a senator.
Last December, Mujica signed into law a plan to create a regulated, legal market for marijuana. Legislators have argued that the legislation forms part of a tradition in Uruguay of searching for progressive solutions to social problems.

Indeed, under Mujica, Uruguay has emerged as a laboratory for socially liberal policies. The country has also enacted a groundbreaking abortion rights law, legalized same-sex marriage and is becoming a centre for renewable energy ventures.

As well, poverty has fallen by almost half, unemployment is at a historic low, and there has been a substantial redistribution of resources.

Why is Uruguay so liberal? “We’re a country of immigrants, anarchists and persecuted people from all over the world,” Mujica explains.

It turns out there’s plenty of news from Uruguay!


Observations on the Scottish Referendum on Independence


Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
 
While voters in Scotland rejected independence from the United Kingdom in a referendum on Sept. 18, by about 55 to 45 per cent, on a turnout of about 85 per cent of the electorate, this is not the end of the story.

First, the result: Even though the Yes side was defeated, it shows the power of national identity. After 307 years of being part of a larger state, almost half the population of Scotland voted for sovereignty, giving the lie to those who claim that peoples in liberal democracies, unlike oppressed minorities in brutal dictatorships, don’t ever need or want their own countries. (Are you listening, Stéphane Dion?)

Second, the leaders of the political parties at Westminster have promised the Scots “devo max” – greater devolved powers for the Scottish parliament. Scotland, like Quebec, will eventually become a virtual de facto state.

Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister and leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, while conceding defeat, maintained that the 1.6 million people who voted for independence showed the “depth of yearning” for the political powers promised to Scotland by British political leaders to stave off disunion.

“Scotland will expect these to be honored in rapid course,” Salmond insisted. “We now have the opportunity to hold Westminster's feet to the fire on the vow that they have made to devolve further meaningful power to Scotland.”  He himself, though, has resigned his position.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has agreed. He has stated that new laws would provide Scotland with greater capacity relating to taxation, public finances and welfare. 

Already, starting in 2016, the UK will reduce taxes by 10 per cent for Scots, allowing their government to replace that fiscal space with its own taxes. That latest change came under the Scotland Act of 2012. Further  powers will soon be added to these.

Third, with Scotland, and potentially Wales, becoming the equivalent of sub-units in a federation, with extensive powers, the result will require completing the circle, so to speak. (Northern Ireland is a different matter altogether.) 

The only national entity in the United Kingdom now without its own legislature is England itself, a situation that needs to be rectified. There will have to be, as Cameron himself put it, “English votes for English laws,” in other words, preventing Scots at Westminster from voting on legislation affecting only England. 

Cameron has indicated that plans to empower Scotland should be linked to constitutional reform in England. English nationalism will grow, and “Britishness” will decline. 

Peter Hain, a Labour Party legislator who has served as secretary of state for both Wales and Northern Ireland, said that “We need to recognize the reality that the United Kingdom should have a federal political structure with a constitutional arrangement which defines the demarcation of powers between Westminster and the rest of the United Kingdom.

So an English assembly may be in the offing, to create a situation of symmetrical federalism. The Westminster government may in the future deal with little more than foreign affairs, defence, and other supra-national matters.

Those visiting London next summer may see more English flags (the Cross of Saint George) and fewer Union ones.
Henry Sr

Friday, September 26, 2014

Israel Walks a Tightrope Between Russia and Ukraine


Henry Srebrnik, [Calgary] Jewish Free Press
 
When it comes to its foreign policy towards Russia and Ukraine, Israel walks a diplomatic tightrope.

The Jewish state must take into consideration all kinds of factors: its relationship with both countries, one of them a great power; its alliance with the United States, which strongly backs Kyiv in its struggle with Moscow; and the effect of its policies on the situation of the still substantial Jewish communities in both of the former Soviet states.

This has led to some uncomfortable situations. 

A Defense Ministry-approved deal to sell drones to Ukraine was vetoed by a Foreign Ministry special panel amid fears Russia would disapprove, Israel’s Channel 2 reported on Sept. 15. Jerusalem was concerned a drone sale to Ukraine would anger Moscow.

When Russia annexed the Crimea in March, Jews in the region were divided in their attitudes. Most Crimean Jews, Russian speaking, supported the move, while those in Ukraine were opposed. Jews in Russia on the whole supported the move.

The 193-member UN General Assembly on March 27 passed Resolution 68/262 by a vote of 100 to 11 to denounce the Crimean referendum that paved the way for the absorption of the peninsula into Russia. Another 58 countries abstained, while the remaining 24 did not vote.

Israel did not take part in the vote, using a strike by staff at its Foreign Ministry as a pretext for the abstention. 

“Our basic position is that we hope Russia and Ukraine will find a way as quickly as possible to normalize relations, and find a way to talks, and to solve all the problems peacefully,” remarked Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman at a Jerusalem news conference in April. 

The United States was not happy with Israel. “We were surprised Israel did not join the vast majority of countries that vowed to support Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the UN,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said at a briefing after the UN vote. 

Historically, Jews have less than fond memories of Ukraine, traditionally a hotbed of anti-Semitism. In 1648-1649 the Cossack Hetman Bogdan Chmielnicki led a peasant uprising against Polish rule in the Ukraine which resulted in the destruction of hundreds of Jewish communities and the deaths of at least 100,000 Jews. 

After the First World War, Symon Petliura’s Ukrainian nationalists, fighting the newly-formed Soviet armies, were involved in pogroms that killed about 50,000 Jews. And during the Holocaust, Nazi death squads, and their Ukrainian collaborators, murdered 900,000 Jews.

The radical elements of Ukraine’s far-right nationalist politics, which rose to the fore during Ukraine’s overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych in February, are also working in Russia’s favour.
Russian anti-Semitism was less virulent. As well, those Israelis with long memories recall the Soviet Union’s role during the struggle to establish the state. 

Moscow voted for UN General Assembly Resolution 181 in November 1947 to partition Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, recognized Israel de jure almost immediately in May 1948, and allowed its allies to provide arms to the new country.

As well, the Soviets in December 1948 voted against UN General Assembly Resolution 194 on the so-called “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to their homes.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a hawk, is himself Soviet-born. He comes from Chisinau (Kishinev), in Moldova, and is the founder and leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, whose electoral base consists of immigrants from the former USSR. 

Lieberman, who immigrated to Israel in 1978, lives in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim. He admires Russian President Vladimir Putin, and in December 2011 appeared with him just days after a contested legislative election in Russia. In turn, the Russian leader visited Israel in June 2012.

 “We are very happy that people from the Soviet Union build such a brilliant political career,” said Putin in 2009, when Lieberman was first appointed to the position by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Speaking to a group of rabbis from Israel and Europe in July, during the latest Gaza war, Putin told them that “I support Israel's struggle, which is intended to protect its citizens.”  (After all, Putin has his own terrorists to worry about, in Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and elsewhere.)

Of course America remains Israel’s lifeline, its main economic, ideological, and political ally. Still, in the final analysis, Israel, as a beleaguered state now surrounded on virtually all sides by chaos and violence in neighbouring countries, must hedge its bets. 

In a Middle East that is exploding, Israel can’t depend on just one great power ally. The recent Gaza war, and the different approaches to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, has exposed rifts between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, on Sept. 16 Ukraine’s parliament passed legislation to grant special status to the rebellious east as part of a peace deal, hopefully a war with Russian-backed separatists that has killed more than 3,000 people.

It grants three years of self-rule, including the election of local councils, in parts of the war-torn east and calls for local elections in November. It also allows for local oversight on court and prosecutor appointments and local control of police forces. And it gives the region the right to use Russian as an official language.

Israeli diplomats may now have less to worry about.


Monday, September 22, 2014

Kenya is a Tense Country of Rival Ethnic Groups

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Many Prince Edward Islanders know about Kenya through the work of Farmers Helping Farmers, a group founded in 1979 that is involved with various small-scale agricultural projects in that country, particularly in Meru.

Another PEI group, the Mikinduri Children of Hope Foundation, which started in 2003, provides dental and medical care in nearby Mikinduri.

But Islanders may not be aware of the larger political context in Kenya, one that can be quite unsavoury.

This is, after all, a nation where the president has just narrowly avoided being tried by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

Kenya’s 45 million people are so diverse that the largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu, makes up less than a quarter of the total. Altogether, there are 42 tribal entities, including the Luyha, who comprise about 14 per cent of the country; the Luo, at about 13 per cent of the population; and the Kalenjin, at 12 per cent.

Ever since Kenyan independence in 1963, politics have been characterized by ethnic tensions between the larger groups. “Tribalism” is a curse, and especially intense has been the rivalry between the Kikuyu, the Luo, and the Kalenjin.

Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, was a Kikuyu, and his hostility towards Oginga Odinga, a Luo chieftain, was legendary. In 1969 Odinga was arrested after the two verbally abused each other publicly in Kisumu; at least 11 people were killed and dozens were injured in riots. Odinga was detained for two years.

Kenyatta led the country until his death in 1978. His successor, Daniel arap Moi, a Kalenjin, was seen as a compromise. He withstood an abortive army coup in 1982, and remained in office until 2002.

Kenya’s third president, Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, was elected that year. Despite his pledge to tackle corruption, some donors estimated that up to one billion dollars was lost to graft between 2002 and 2005.

The December 2007 presidential election pitted incumbent Kibaki of the Party of National Unity against Raila Odinga, a Luo and the son of Oginga Odinga, heading the Orange Democratic Movement. It led to one of the worst outbreaks of violence in Kenya’s history.

The election was strongly marked by ethnic rivalry, with Kibaki gaining support amongst his own Kikuyu and neighbouring groups like the Embu and Meru in central and eastern Kenya. Odinga built a coalition which included the Luo along with the Luyha in western Kenya, Kalenjin in the Rift Valley, and Muslims along the Indian Ocean coast.

Three days after the vote, the Electoral Commission declared Kibaki the winner, with 47 per cent of the vote against 44 per cent for Odinga. As Odinga had been leading by several hundred votes after the second round of counting, his loss was met with furious accusations of election rigging.

This triggered widespread and systematic violence, resulting in some 1,500 deaths and the displacement of over 500,000 civilians, particularly in the Rift Valley, with its longstanding land disputes between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin. Many of the displaced never returned to their homes.

Kenya’s police forces were also implicated, with reports suggesting that they were responsible for almost 40 per cent of civilian deaths, especially in Nairobi and Kisumu.

Things calmed down after Kibaki and Odinga struck a power-sharing deal in March 2008 and formed a national unity cabinet.

The Kenyan government took further steps towards ensuring that widespread violence would not occur in future presidential contests. A new constitution, approved by referendum in 2010, devolves some authority to local governments, paves the way for land reform, provides a bill of rights, strips the presidency of certain powers, and limits the use of patronage.

As a consequence, the 2013 election was free of violence and resulted in victory for Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of independence leader Jomo Kenyatta, over Odinga, who ran a second time. (Kibaki could not stand again because of term limits.)

However, in 2012, six Kenyan politicians, including the future president, were ordered to stand trial by the International Criminal Court in the Hague, accused of links to the 2007-2008 post-election massacres. But the charges against Kenyatta collapsed a few weeks ago after prosecutors admitted they lacked evidence.

The ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said that Kenya – now ruled by Kenyatta -- had not handed over the bank and phone records the court was demanding, leaving it without a case before the scheduled Oct. 7 start.



Thursday, September 18, 2014

Israel Walks Tightrope Between Russia, Ukraine


Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
 
When it comes to its foreign policy towards Russia and Ukraine, Israel walks a diplomatic tightrope.

The Jewish state must take into consideration all kinds of factors: its relationship with both countries, one of them a great power; its alliance with the United States, which strongly backs Kyiv in its struggle with Moscow; and the effect of its policies on the situation of the still substantial Jewish communities in both of the former Soviet states.

This has led to some uncomfortable situations. 

A Defense Ministry-approved deal to sell drones to Ukraine was vetoed by the Foreign Ministry amid fears Russia would disapprove, Israel’s Channel 2 reported on Sept. 15. Israel was concerned a drone sale to Ukraine would anger Russia.

When Russia annexed the Crimea in March, Jews in the region were divided in their attitudes. Most Crimean Jews, Russian speaking, supported the move, while those in Ukraine were opposed. Jews in Russia on the whole supported the move.

The 193-member UN General Assembly on March 27 voted 100 to 11 to denounce the Crimean referendum that paved the way for the absorption of the peninsula into Russia. Another 58 countries abstained, while the remaining 24 did not vote.

Israel did not take part in the vote, using a strike by staff at its Foreign Ministry as a pretext for the abstention.

“Our basic position is that we hope Russia and Ukraine will find a way as quickly as possible to normalize relations, and find a way to talks, and to solve all the problems peacefully,” remarked Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman at a Jerusalem news conference in April. 

The United States was not happy with Israel. “We were surprised Israel did not join the vast majority of countries that vowed to support Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the UN,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said at a briefing after the UN vote. 

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is himself Soviet-born. He comes from Chisinau (Kishinev), in Moldova, and is the founder and leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, whose electoral base consists of immigrants from the former USSR. 

Lieberman, who immigrated to Israel in 1978, admires Russian President Vladimir Putin, and in December 2011 appeared with him just days after a contested legislative election in Russia. In turn, the Russian leader visited Israel in June 2012.

 “We are very happy that people from the Soviet Union build such a brilliant political career,” said Putin in 2009, when Lieberman was first appointed to the position by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Of course America remains Israel’s lifeline, its main economic, ideological, and political ally. Still, in the final analysis, Israel, as a beleaguered state now surrounded on virtually all sides by chaos and violence in neighbouring countries, must hedge its bets. 

In a Middle East that is exploding, Israel can’t depend on just one great power ally. The recent Gaza war, and the different approaches to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, has exposed rifts between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, on Sept. 16 Ukraine’s parliament passed legislation to grant special status to the rebellious east as part of a peace deal, hopefully ending a war with Russian-backed separatists that has killed more than 3,000 people.

It grants three years of self-rule, including the election of local councils, in parts of the war-torn east and calls for local elections in November. It also allows for local oversight on court and prosecutor appointments and local control of police forces. And it gives the region the right to use Russian as an official language.

Israeli diplomats may now have less to worry about.