Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"Todos somos americanos": A Thaw in US-Cuban Relations

Obama with the firm handshake to Castro.
Courtesy Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
In what could be one of Pres. Barack Obama's crowning moments in foreign policy, the White House announced today that relations with the government of Cuba would be reopened after 50 years of enmity. In a statement today at noon, Pres. Obama announced that the two countries would move towards the establishment of formal relations in the coming months, including the reopening of a US embassy in Havana, the exchange of visits by high-level officials, and a review by the State Department of Cuba's designation as a state sponsor of terror. He justified the move by arguing that US policy towards Cuba, largely driven by isolation and embargo, has "failed to advance our interests" given that Communist Castro government remains in power, while the lives of everyday Cubans have been made extremely difficult by US policy.

The news came on the heels of the release of imprisoned US subcontractor Alan Gross, who has been held in Cuba for 5 years on charges of subversion and whose imprisonment was a major barrier to Pres. Obama's goal of improving US-Cuban relations. Gross was arrested in 2009 for distributing illegal satellite technology in an attempt to increase internet access among Cuba's small Jewish community. The 65-year-old was in poor health, having lost 100 pounds during his imprisonment and going on a hunger strike in April, and had reportedly suggested to his family that he would commit suicide if his imprisonment continued.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Is Russia's Economy Doomed?

It's been one heck of a year for Vladimir Putin, who did the unthinkable in remaining one strategic step ahead of President Obama and the U.S. throughout some of the year's most newsworthy events: the annexation of Crimea, continued efforts to subdue the Syrian government, Iranian nuclear talks. For a while, it seemed as though President Putin held all of the cards, and that the U.S. was walking on thin ice by flaring up tensions with increased sanctions and other diplomatic tools. Unfortunately for Russia, it appears that President Putin has finally run out of leverage - Western sanctions are finally taking their toll. It was an economic collapse in the late 1980s, brought on by decades of Communism wreaking havoc on the Soviet Union's financial system, that finally brought the Union to its knees. Will history now repeat itself? And what will the implications be for the U.S., and the global economy as a whole?

Consumers buying up electronics. Courtesy of NYT

As global oil prices have continued to slide, so has Russian currency. In fact, Russia was poised to shut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine through the entire winter earlier this year, as retaliation for Western sanctions. Such a move would have likely thrust Europe back into a recession, as the European Union struggled to find natural gas supplies from elsewhere. However, that plan did not pan out as Putin had initially intended - during the last few days of October, Russia signed a deal with the Ukraine and the E.U. that effectively resumed natural gas supplies flowing to Ukraine in exchange for an agreed-upon payment (much of which was coming from the E.U). Obviously there were numerous benefits - for both sides - to this deal. However, the deal is indicative of a Russian economy that was already uneasy at the prospect of missing out on a major energy export deal for so many months.

30-day look at value of ruble vs. Brent crude. Copyright Bloomberg LP

Up until yesterday, the ruble had slid approximately 11 percent against the U.S. dollar so far this year. The Brent crude oil index was at a multi-year low, trading at less than $80 per barrel. And then, overnight, things got much worse for Russia. After Russia's Central Bank minted more than 600 billion new rubles in part of a bond-selling deal with Russia's state-owned oil giant, Rosneft, the effect that new currency had on global markets was devastating. With the ruble in free-fall and oil nearing a 5 1/2 year low, Russian finance ministers convened overnight and raised interest rates a whopping 6.5 percent, from the benchmark 10.5 percent to 17 percent in an effort to stanch the flow of capital. Unfortunately, this was not enough, and it appears that Russians don't see 17 percent interest as incentive enough to hold on to their currency. News outlets have reported a run on electronic and other high-end consumer stores, as citizens take advantage of the record-weak currency. Oil continue to trades low, and now Russia is stuck with commodities it can only export for cheap, a rapidly depreciating currency, and now, high interest rates that will make it harder to borrow. Earlier today the ruble's depreciation doubled, from its 11 percent on the year against the dollar to 22 percent. While reserves and general finances are better in Russia today than they were decades ago when they underwent their last economic downturn, it's safe to say Russia is on the brink of a catastrophic currency crisis.

Falling oil prices may be great for consumers in the short-term, but they are indicative of a downturn in the global economy, which is never a good thing. The instability that can result from the OPEC countries struggling to maintain their exports is something to be afraid of. And while relations have been icy in recent months between the United States and Russia, there are significant economic ties between the two nations that could prove to be costly for U.S. interests should Russia's economy collapse. Russia's currency needs to stabilize, and fast, before the damage spreads outside of their borders.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

To Torture or Not to Torture?

The Senate’s report on the CIA’s use of torture in the years after 9/11 is, in a word, damning. Damning to the torturers, damning to the CIA brass, and damning to the Bush administration as a whole. All parties displayed ineptitude, an inability to objectively evaluate their own programs, and above all, pure, brutal, inhumanity.

Waterboarding. Which is torture. Not "enhanced" anything.
The report revealed haunting new facts, such as the use of rectal feeding, the inability of the CIA to keep track of just 119 prisoners (26 of whom shouldn’t have been detained in the first place), and the overall ineffectiveness of torture in extracting crucial information. The report’s true impact, however, is to condemn the practice of torture, which was banned by the White House in 2009 and remains illegal under both US and international law. It also calls into question just how much the Bush White House knew about its own so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” or EITs, and how well the program was working when it chose to continue it.

EIT is just a euphemism for torture. Rectal feeding/hydration is also just a euphemism for anal rape. The fact that torturers (I won’t give them the dignity of calling them agents) also used the threat of sexual and other violence against detainees’ family members reads like the human rights reports I’ve translated from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. It appears that CIA torturers learned from the worst. Reading the report confirms the worst fears of human rights defenders of what exactly went on in CIA detention sites, and the executive summary is still less than 10 percent of the classified full report.

The political response to the report has been striking, and (unsurprisingly) largely split along partisan lines. Senate Democrats decided to release the executive summary now for fear that a Republican-controlled Senate would not allow it to see the light of day. Republicans have largely dismissed the report’s findings, especially members of the Bush administration, as it was their party that initiated and “oversaw” the program. Yet one member of the Republican party, Sen. John McCain, who was himself tortured as a POW in the Vietnam War, gave a moving speech in support of the release of the report. I encourage you to read the entire transcript, but here’s a relevant quote (emphasis added):

“…torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.

Senator McCain’s speech gets at the crux of the issue. The report confirms and expands on the knowledge that America violated its own ideals in the interest of national security, and to little effect. In a democratic country, we are all responsible for the actions of the government we elected, good and bad, and in 2004 Americans confirmed its support of the Bush-era policies of torture, black sites, and extraordinary rendition by re-electing Pres. Bush. In a way, we all bear the shame that should be felt at reading this report. It reflects on us, and the reflection is not a flattering one. It shows that in a time of need and chaos, we were willing to throw off the very values the 9/11 terrorists attacked, simply out of fear.

So where do we go from here? The report itself does not put an end to this issue. The Obama White House may have ended the practice of torture in 2009, but that does not mean that no future administration or CIA will use it again. The Justice Department legally approved the use of torture, and it is unlikely that any CIA officers, especially among the leadership, will face prosecution or even dismissal, even if the claims that they mislead the administration about torture’s effectiveness are further substantiated. Without prosecutions, without more legal rules barring torture (I mean, it’s already super, duper illegal and we did it anyways), this entire situation could replay itself in the future.

The question is one that Americans themselves need to grapple with as they elect their officials. The question shouldn’t be can we use torture, but should we? Is it ever justified? Do we use it even if it isn’t very effective? Do we use it even if we are scared, and hurt, and want to get the bad guys who made us that way?

Above all, we have to ask ourselves, if we don’t uphold the human rights values we claim to hold so dear, who will?

The answer, sadly, is no one, save a few western European countries. And that’s a legacy that I, as an American, do not want to live with.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Mubarak Cleared by Military Government, and other News that Won't Surprise You

Look at that face! Is that the face of a murderer?
Maybe a mob boss. But not a murderer!
In what the New York Times is calling “a sweeping repudiation of the Arab Spring,” on Saturday an Egyptian court overturned all charges against former President/dictator-in-chief Hosni Mubarak, including charges of murder and corruption. This is the second legal victory (and likely the last) for Mr. Mubarak, whose earlier conviction for the murder of protestors in Egypt’s Arab Spring movement was successfully appealed. His lawyer Farid al-Deeb claims that he could be released any day now, as he has served three years in jail without a conviction already and is allegedly in “poor health,” though arguably he is in better condition than the thousands of civilians killed and injured in the 2011 protests.