A recent visit to Cuba spurred me to re-examine why things are so difficult there. Conditions have declined since my first visit in 1978. At that time, it was certainly a paradise, a shining example of socialist development triumphing over illiteracy, squalor, prostitution, the American Mafia, and domination by an imperialist power. The standard of living was head and shoulders above any other Latin American country.

Today it is not crushingly poor like Haiti or many Caribbean nations, still has little discrepancy in wealth, has better health care and education than others, is not a class society, and stands apart from every other capitalist nation. But it is not thriving by any measure, and there is much hardship. So one must ask why.

As with every economic question, one must start at the beginning – with the numbers. Numbers don’t lie.

By one analysis, the Cuban GDP per person was $6,205 in 2014, or 35% below its level of 1985. Whereas in 1970 Cuba was the second-richest in Latin America, behind only Uruguay, in 2011 (the latest year for which data are available) it was in sixth place in income per person, having been overtaken by Panama, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Ecuador. This is mostly due to the collapse of the beneficial trade relationship Cuba used to have with socialist states. They bought all the sugar Cuba could produce at good rates, and built factories and infrastructure in return. That period is over. Further, sugar prices collapsed and Cuba now imports 80% of its food.

This collapse of socialist trade in 1990 was partly ameliorated by creating its largest trading relationship with social-democratic Venezuela after 2004. Venezuela provided crude oil for Cuba to refine, and invested in Cuban nickel and fibre-optic communications to break the blockade. However, once again, Cuba’s main partner collapsed – this time due to low oil prices and this has caused further declines in Cuban trade, and thus, Cuban income.

Despite recent alarm over Trumps travel restrictions to Cuba, the current economic problems have little to do with Trump. American impact on Cuba has far more to do with foreign policy (much of it Democratic) over the past decades: blockade of Cuba, punishing Cuba’s trade partners, and trying to sabotage Venezuela’s economy.

  • The real decline in the Cuban economy is due to Venezuela’s economic collapse, which caused financial support to Cuba, its foreign employment of Cuban doctors and teachers, and trade (and supply of petroleum) to fall. Trade between them dropped from $8.5 billion in 2012 to $2.2 billion last year – a 75% decline. Nothing in the Cuban economy rises to this level of importance – certainly not tourism.
  • Further, tourism is rarely a boon to developing economies, and often distorts and causes other problems to the economy. Surprisingly, even liberal economists admit Trump’s restrictions may not even be harmful at all for Cuba:
“Why hasn’t tourism done more to boost the Caribbean economy? One explanation may be the dominance of all-inclusive resorts and other forms of enclave tourism, which concentrates the industry in small areas of a country. Many tourists never leave the resorts, so their money stays there too. And because the resorts are often financed by expatriates, tourism dollars flow to hotel owners abroad rather than filtering out into the local economy.” (“Trump’s Ban On Travel To Cuba Might Actually Help Cuba’s Economy” – fivethirtyeight.com)
  • The drop in U.S. tourism from Trump’s restrictions was insignificant, since even at its height, in 2016, US visitors (including Cuban-Americans) was only 15% of all foreign visitors to Cuba (614,000 out of over 4 million). There was a US increase of 150% through June this year, and the reduction in the second half has been limited. Trump’s policies can’t possibly have had any significant effect so far.
  • A far larger impact than US tourism on Cuba’s economy was Obama’s assault on Cuba starting in 2008: U.S. exports to Cuba declined by 75% under Obama – from $712 to $180 million from 2008 to 2015. The Clintons, before him, passed an even more restrictive embargo in 2000, and Hillary campaigned in favor of the embargo in 2008.
  • Despite “recognizing” Cuba in 2015 after six years in office, Obama through the end of his term never actually legalized normal tourism to Cuba. His travel restrictions of 2015 are essentially those same ones Trump continues to enforce, with a few modifications. To his credit, Obama did at the end of two terms in office, finally call for an end to the embargo, though all knew that neither a Republican nor Democratic Congress would revoke it.
  • In the final analysis, the crux of the Cuban economic crisis is Venezuela’s production of high-cost oil in a world market of cheap oil. Certainly this was worsened by the assault on Venezuela’s economy by Obama, his slashing of diplomatic relations with that country,  supporting a new Venezuela sanctions bill in 2014, and a new executive order in 2015 against the country. This combination of factors couldn’t help but have a large secondary effect on the Cuban economy.

So, while tourism is fairly important in the Cuban economy, American tourism is not, even at its current zenith. Certainly the three-quarters decline in U.S. trade with Cuba overseen by the Obama administration worsened the problem. But the underlying cause of distress in the Cuban economy is the recent collapse of Venezuelan trade (due to oil prices, and US economic sabotage), and before that, collapse of trade with the Soviet Union and socialist states in 1990. Without bilateral mutually-beneficial long-term development projects, a small agricultural island economy cannot prosper on its own.

Unfortunately, Cuba lacks any natural deposits of fossil fuel , or other large mineral reserves (such as those of Ecuador or Vietnam). And with no friendly wealthy nations on the horizon to help strengthen the Cuban economy, there is no simple way out of the current predicament. And tourism of any kind is no panacea.

Since diplomacy is a mere temporary substitute for war, a mere appearance of war’s energy under another form, a surrogate effect is almost exactly proportioned to the armed force behind it. When it fails, the recourse is immediate to the military technique whose thinly veiled arm it has been.’  – Randolph Bourne, 1918, “The State

It is common to American diplomacy, when faced with an impasse of opposition to its policies, to resort to what American writer Randolph Bourne called the diplomatic “slight-of-hand” :

“Diplomacy is a disguised war, in which states seek to gain by barter and intrigue, by the cleverness of arts, the objectives which they would have to gain more clumsily by means of war.”

For the Iraq war, this “cleverness of arts” comprised falsified evidence of weapons of mass destruction, bribing other countries to support American UN resolutions, wiretapping at the UN, threats of retaliation and excluding the US from international laws.  This practice, well-hewed in the run-up to the Iraq war, is once again paying off in spades in the run-up to the war against Libya.

Diplomatic Cover

The need for diplomatic cover for an attack on a sovereign nation that has not attacked any other nation is patent. So in the rush to launch the imperialist onslaught on Libya, the American military knew a simple “no-fly zone” would not do as it was too constrictive. A no-fly zone would not provide the military with sufficient breadth to accomplish its goal in Libya: the overthrow of a sovereign ruler and “full spectrum dominance” of the Libyan nation. While initially Russia and China threatened a veto of any American or Nato attack, US diplomacy – what Bourne called “barter and intrigue” – sufficed in dissuading Russia:  it reportedly promised Russia WTO membership if it dropped its veto of a war with Libya.

The US eventually won a UN resolution that was in fact precisely what it desired: a license for all-out war. It allowed the US coalition to “take all necessary measures to enforce compliance”, short of “a foreign occupation force”. And as if there were any doubt of whether language against “occupation” would prevent a US invasion, Iraq and Afghanistan have already provided an object-lesson: the US maintains neither wars are “occupations”. Within a few hours of the war launch, it became clear that in spite of the UN fig leaf of a “no-fly zone”, in fact the mission was the overthrow of Qaddafi.

Hilary Clinton recently refused to deny that the US was targeting Qaddafi. The New York Times noted the earlier promises by the administration: “President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and British and French leaders have also talked of a broader policy objective — that Colonel Qaddafi must leave power.”

As revealed in Foreign Policy, overthrow of the government is precisely what was decided as early as March 15th, five days before the attack:

“At the end of the Tuesday night meeting, Obama gave U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice instructions to go the U.N. Security Council and push for a resolution that would give the international community authority to use force. Her instructions were to get a resolution that would give the international community broad authority to achieve Qaddafi’s removal, including the use of force beyond the imposition of a no-fly zone.”

Britain has also joined Obama:

“Downing Street has appeared to side with the defence secretary Liam Fox against the chief of the defence staff Sir David Richards, by saying the removal of Gaddafi through military targeting is lawful under the UN security council resolution, if Gaddafi is threatening civilian lives.”

Andrew North of the BBC noted, “The resolution would never have been passed if it had called for regime change.” In hindsight, Fidel Castro’s warning of exactly one month ago that NATO would invade Libya, derided at the time by American media turns out to  be quite prescient.

Plausible Deniability

Ironically though, publicly Obama has denied the intent to kill Qaddafi. However, one need only reflect on the last US attack on Libya in 1983.  At that time, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead the day before the U.S. attack on Libya declared,

“We are not out to overthrow Gaddafi[…] The object of all of this is to get him to change his conduct.”

The US then launched a massive military attack with 66 aircraft bombing civilian targets, attempting to assassinate Qaddafi, but instead killed his 2-year-old daughter and 100 others.

In times like these, it is wise to remember the words of Otto von Bismark, Chancellor of the German Empire:  “Never believe anything until it has been officially denied.”

A missile destroyed an administrative building at Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi's complex in Tripoli on Sunday where Qaddafi generally meets with guests. (Getty)

But what of the scourge of international rouges – the war crime tribunal?

Recently, the Obama administration insisted that Qaddafi be investigated for war crimes by the International Criminal Court:  the ICC, created by a treaty the administration refuses to recognize, ratify or submit itself to, but nonetheless requires the rest of world be governed by. While this stance sounds impossible to believe, it is not impossible, and Americans, like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, are asked to “sometimes believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Obama had planned well to protect himself and the American military – the administration twisted arms in the UN to exclude the US from prosecution for war crimes and crimes against humanity Obama and the military will be committing and have already committed (for example, bombing Libyan administrative buildings and Qaddafi’s compound) in Libya. As any student of US foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan knows, American impunity from war crimes is crucial to bringing freedom and democracy to states charged with war crimes.  The leaders and military of the UK, France, Italy, Canada or other ‘democratic freedom-fighters’ in the coalition against Libya apparently need no such exclusion, as they intend to commit no war crimes. Or perhaps they do intend to, but have no “cleverness of arts” to exempt themselves from the ICC laws. And President Obama knows this will not do for the US.

The history of American opposition to being constrained by international law against war crimes is well know. Most are familiar with the initial opposition to the International Criminal Court (ICC) by President Clinton and two other leaders named Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein. After years of delays, Clinton finally signed the accord establishing the ICC, but opposed ratification of it. Later President G.W. Bush “unsigned” the treaty, making clear the US would not abide by international war crime laws in its manifold existing wars around the world.  However, fewer may realize that there is now ambiguity about whether the US could be prosecuted for new war crimes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan (where they have a free pass), even though Obama has continued Bush’s rejection of international ICC law.

In 2003, after the Abu Ghraib tortures by the US, the UN revoked US exemptions from ICC jurisdiction.  In defiance, the US then signed over 100 individual agreements with countries across the globe banning them from cooperating with the ICC in any investigations of US war crimes. However, the Libyan crusade is not covered by any of these agreements. Further, by the UN launching investigations into any Gaddafi crimes against humanity, the US could become a target once again of the ICC.

The Obama Solution

It will therefore come as a great relief to those American prosecutors of the war against Libya, and to President Barack Obama himself that he is now excluded from jurisdiction of the ICC, just as was Bush. In February, the United States quietly inserted an escape clause into the resolution referring Libya to the ICC, excluding “those not a party to” the ICC (U.S., Israel and Sudan). The relevant language in Section 6 of UN Resolution 1970 (of 2011) states:

“Nationals, current or former officials or personnel from a State outside the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya which is not a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court shall be subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of that State for all alleged acts or omissions arising out of or related to operations in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya established or authorized by the Council.”

That is, the United States (and only the US among those attacking Libya) is exempt from war crimes prosecutions in any operations in the Libyan attack. This is clearly a prerequisite for what the US plans for Libya.

–Peter Fay, 2011, theclearview.wordpress.com

The New York Times editorialized recently that

“Japan was facing the full meltdown of crippled reactors at a nuclear power station — with unknown and potentially catastrophic consequences.”

In fact, the potential consequences of the meltdown are fairly well-known. And paradoxically, they are not at all what people imagine them to be.


Fukushima nuclear reactor explosion

While the nuclear accident at Fukushima is chilling, tragic and certainly was preventable (the nuclear plant seawall barrier was only 9 feet high – the tsunami 30 feet), the potential loss of life from a nuclear meltdown still pales in comparison to the devastating effects of the tsunami.  And even in the most dire possible outcomes of total meltdown, the effects of the nuclear accident, even accumulated over decades, will, as far as can be determined, still cause far less loss of life than the tsunami has already caused.

How could this be true? Could not the radioactive fallout of a meltdown kill all those in its path and irradiate the surrounding area for thousands of years?

The answer, quite simply is:  judging by past history, no. We already know what happens to populations when a nuclear reactors melts down. In 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant experienced a series of explosions, fires and a catastrophic meltdown of the reactor, with up to half of the graphite burning away, spewing radioactive iodine, cesium and strontium into the surrounding population centers.  The huge radioactive emissions continued for two full weeks. Since the reactor had no containment structure around it (unlike those at Fukushima), the fires simply dumped all radioactivity and poisonous elements into the air. We will examine exactly what then happened shortly.

Many in the media today mention the danger of emissions of radioactive Uranium235 which has a half-life of 700 millions of years (half of the radioactivity decays in that time). However the radiation from uranium is far less damaging to humans during exposure, but ingestion (or breathing) may be damaging.  Likewise for radioactive plutonium, but the evidence is less definite. Regardless, both uranium and plutonium emit alpha particles which are less damaging to humans and both are mostly broken down into other elements before being emitted in meltdowns. Uranium and plutonium are most likely to melt down through the structure and stay on site, unlike the other elements that are released into the air.  Most of the radioactive airborne emissions from a meltdown are iodine, and lesser amounts of cesium and strontium.  These are the three which should be the focus of impact of meltdowns on humans.

So what is the possible outcome of these three emissions on a population?

As mentioned earlier, Iodine is a risk and is by far the most prevalent of the radioactive emissions from meltdown.  However, the impact on death rate of those exposed is very low.  Radioactive iodine (Iodine131) can replace non-radioactive iodine Iodine128 which humans use in thyroid cells and by replacing non-radioactive with radioactive iodine, can produce thyroid cancer after years of exposure.  However, thyroid cancer has a survival rate of well over 95%, so deaths are relatively low from radioactive iodine. Further, the half-life of Iodine131 is only eight days, so the total impact on a population is less than for the other emissions.  Paradoxically too, high exposure of Iodine131 is less dangerous than low exposure – high exposure will kill the thyroid cells, rather than cause malignancy. The total deaths from Iodine131 attributed (so far) to Chernobyl is 10.  Yes, 10 deaths in total.

Cesium137 and Strontium90, the other two major emissions from a meltdown, have more serious public health impact, both displacing normal minerals in bones (calcium) and tissue (potassium). Further the half-life of both elements is 30 years, so they can last a lifetime in the body if not expelled, and cause cancer.

Nonetheless, if one believe the IAEA, the worst disaster ever with the worst cleanup safety procedures ever (that is, none) – in Chernobyl – caused 37 immediate deaths from firefighter exposure, 10 deaths from iodine exposure over the years, and perhaps 4,000 premature deaths from cancer over the lifetime of the entire population from Iodine, Cesium and Strontium exposure.  This expected death toll is after total meltdown, evaporation of reactor into the air (with no containment vessel), and the (criminal) employment of one-half million people in vicinity after the accident to clean up the fallout.  And today, all of the iodine, Cesium and Strontium in the outside of the 30-km Chernobyl area is at safe levels.

The expected surplus death rate for those exposed in 1986 is on the same order of the surplus deaths expected among the same population from smoking for perhaps an additional week in their lives – a very important one, but not of the magnitude that the media has portrayed. Attempts to estimate additional premature deaths from extremely low exposures far from the original site are difficult to impossible due to these exposures being lower than normal background radiation already naturally existing in the environment. So 4,000 premature deaths is the most reliable estimate available.

Compare Chernobyl’s worst-case of excess deaths from a total meltdown with no containment vessel to the immediate effects of the Japanese tsunami – tens of thousands of immediate deaths.  This puts the entire potential Japanese meltdown in a more realistic, if less sensational, perspective.

Robert Fitch, who in 2006 wrote Solidarity for Sale: How Corruption Destroyed the Labor Movement and Undermined America’s Promise, passed away recently and has been receiving a bit of positive press for his writing. While the dictum coined by Chilon of Sparta, one of the Seven Sages of Greece, still is wise advice: “De mortuis nil nisi bonum” (“Of the dead say nothing but good”); one may nonetheless let the dead speak for themselves… even if in speaking they might say ‘nothing good’.
Mr. Fitch has written of the vast corruption which is the union movement – not some unions, mind you, but “the unions”.
“The point of this book is not to show that American unions are corrupt. That’s obvious to anyone who reads the daily paper. The real argument is about how they’ve become corrupt, what difference it has made, and why America can’t let it stand. […] and why the movement that’s been organized in [working people’s] name has come to so little after so many years and such great sacrifices”.
Once establishing that ‘the unions’ are corrupt, he paints a view of the working class movement in the US that reads like a page out of Orwell’s 1984:

“Essentially, the American labor movement consists of 20,000 semi-autonomous local unions. Like feudal vassals, local leaders get their exclusive jurisdiction from a higher level organization and pass on a share of their dues. The ordinary members are like the serfs who pay compulsory dues and come with the territory. The union bosses control jobs—staff jobs or hiring hall jobs—the coin of the political realm. Those who get the jobs—the clients—give back their unconditional loyalty. The politics of loyalty produces, systematically, poles of corruption and apathy. The privileged minority who turn the union into their personal business. And the vast majority who ignore the union as none of their business.”

While apathy sometimes arises, the last sentence conjures up an image of workers as little more than sheep.  The author also strangely appears oblivious to the fact that the vast majority of industrial unions actually elect representatives, at the very least local officers, rather than their being appointed by “union bosses”. There apparently is also no awareness of the differences between craft and industrial unions, making the assumption that all unions control hiring through hiring halls as in the building trades.  This would come as a great surprise to the vast majority of union members in the U.S. who were hired not by union hiring halls, but by company management.
More naive views surface in Fitch’s quip about the now-famous Republic Windows & Doors company in Chicago. In 2008, during the Wall Street bank bailout, workers at Republic found out the plant was closing and would not pay them severance, health care and benefits due them, and that the company was violating Federal law. They occupied the plant, making national news.
Mr. Fitch’s book, “Solidarity for Sale”, while not receiving plaudits from the labor movement,  did however get accolades from various right wing web sites:
“Fitch proposes a quid pro quo as the best hope for reform:  Employers must give up resistance to worker representation; unions in turn must give up their twin National Labor Relations Act-sanctioned privileges of exclusive representation and (in non-Right to Work states) mandatory dues payments as a condition of continued employment. […]For someone who still maintains ties to organized labor, that’s an unexpectedly welcome assessment.” (Peter Flaherty is President of nlpc.org and served as Chairman of the lobbying group Citizens for Reagan)
And from an e-commerce website for AntiUnion paraphenalia and literature (www.squidoo.com/AntiUnion):
“Anti-Union Stuff on Amazon:
Solidarity for Sale, by: Robert Fitch”
More revealing are the reviews on Amazon.com, many of them from workers familiar with the examples Fitch poorly understood or misrepresented in his book:
“I was looking forward to a serious study of union corruption and its effects… His factual inaccuracies seem too sloppy to take the rest of the book seriously.”
Fitch is basically saying – some unions are corrupt AND some unions don’t do the things I think they should THUS the reasons unions don’t do what I think they should is because they are corrupt. His logic, if you can call it that, is that simple and skewed. Really, this book is such a disappointment.”
Dishonestly, Fitch promises to do much more than tell us stories about corrupt locals. He claims he can show that corruption is the defining force in the American labor movement, shaping labor history, constraining the behavior of national labor unions, and leading to the declining membership in the U.S. labor movement. But he never delivers.
One expects a coherent attempt to show that corruption is endemic to the entire labor movement and has resulted in its destruction. Instead, this book reads like a collection of short articles about some of the worst abuses in labor, without developing a coherent theory until the final chapter, which is short and without factual support.”
A final review of his book sums up his views on labor.  In the review, Fitch’s book is compared to a well-received book on union corruption: Mobsters, Unions and Feds, The Mafia and the American Labor Movement (New York University Press, 2006) by Jim Jacobs.  The review is by the Association for Union Democracy, a blog where Fitch said one would “find no sharper or more knowledgeable criticism of union autocracy”.  Their assessment was actually quite sharp:
“Fitch’s book is more likely to be ignored as irrelevant.”
Fezzan (wikipedia.org)


It has been asked recently, why, after thousands of articles on Libya and the uprising, there has been almost nothing published about the Fezzan, the southern of the three regions of Libya.  Every journalist has reported breathlessly on each skirmish and every village on the coast – from Benghazai in Cyrenaica to Tripoli in Tripolitania, but not a word on the Fezzan… why?

The short answer is: no one is protesting – they generally support the government. Absence of protest does not make for good copy in the New York Times or the Times of London. While this blog has posted a number of articles on Fezzan here and here, few others have.
Fezzan is the south-western region of Libya with a population of one-half million people (one-tenth of the country) living in the few habitable locations between expansive desert: in the north by the Ash-Shati Valley, in the west by the Irawan Valley and spots in the Tibesti Mountains near the Chad border.

Ottoman Provinces Of Present-day Libya

Many of the tribes in Fezzan stretch across the southern borders and many there have dual Chadian/ Libyan citizenships.  The tribes do not conform to colonialist boundaries that the Italians (and Ottomans) used to create Libya (as do few nation-states in Africa).  The two largest groups in the Fezzan are the Tuaregs and the Tebus.
The Tuareg people are Berbers (the largest group in Fezzan) and their population spans from southwest Libya through Niger, Algeria and Mali. In general they speak Tamasheq, rather than Arabic, and have historically been nomadic.
Colored regions showing the locations of Tuareg confederacies & territories (Temehu.com).
The black-skinned Tebu tribe extends from eastern Fezzan deep into Chad and somewhat into eastern Mali.  They have been caught up in various disputes during the rebellion, mostly at the insistence of the ‘rebels’ that they were foreign African mercenaries. The acceptance of this rumor as fact has been denounced by Human Rights Watch.  Confounding the issue has been the dual-citizens between Libya and Chad, and numbers of sub-Saharan migrant laborers that have many years ago taken up residence in Libya and now have Libyan citizenship.

African tribal groups

There are many North Africans and sub-Saharans who have settled in Fezzan after Qaddafi’s open-boarder invitations to Africans and after his futile dallyings in conflicts in Chad and elsewhere.  But Fezzan has benefited from Qaddafi’s pan-Africanism, and economic development.
“Recent growth here is associated instead with massive new irrigation facilities and with road-building and other infrastructural projects undertaken by the Libyan government. Some of this activity has been aimed at linking Libya more closely to sub-Saharan Africa, one of the cornerstones of Gaddafi’s ambitious foreign policy agenda.

“As of March 1, 2011, Fezzan remained firmly under the control of the Gaddafi regime, with no indication of rebel activity in any of its cities or towns.”

Center-Pivot Irrigation in Dessert near Aqar, Libya (Google.com)

Man Made River And Irrigation Fezzan (Google.com)

Time magazine quoted some Fezzan Gaddafi troops that had been sent to quell the uprising in Cyenaica:

“We were afraid to go out because we are dark-skinned and we thought they would think we’re mercenaries and attack us.”

And this from NowLebanon, which recognized Qaddafi’s opposition to racial discrimination against Tebu tribes:
“There are dark-skinned Libyans in the south of the country who are largely loyal to Qaddafi because he did take steps to end systematic discrimination against dark-skinned Libyans,” said Bouckaert.
And so, we hear little of this segment of modern Libya – it is remote, and most especially does not conform to the desired image of a population in revolt against a ‘tyrannical despot’.

For those curious about what’s below the surface in Libya, beyond the simplistic “good rebels” versus “bad dictator” we hear from most of the western media, one can find an excellent report today by Charles Levinson – “Behind Libya Rifts, Tribal Politics”. It is a stroll through the powerful tribal allegiances that fuel the Libyan conflict today, as they have for hundreds of years.

A week ago we noted the signs of an “internecine and degenerative” conflict rather than simply a democratic uprising… and this danger of civil war looks even closer now.  The jockeying of Libyan tribes for power has been going on for over a century.  While many in Libya want an end to injustice, or an inclusion in the economic rewards of an oil economy, the eastern Cyrenaica tribes want something more:  as one astute Libyan called it, the return of control “over what is rightfully theirs” – the return of Cyrenaican rule over all the other tribes of Libya.  But many other tribes, now allied with the current government, have no intention of giving up their power and spoils obtained at the expense of the eastern tribes.

The spoils of tribal loyalism in Libya are almost as stunning as is the degradation of tribal exclusion.  There are the government jobs, social benefits and neighborhood infrastructure that come with tribal support to the regime, in contrast to the open sewers, unemployment and barren infrastructure of tribal exclusion seen in Benghazi:

“The city of one million has one sewage treatment plant, built more than 40 years ago. Waste is just flushed into the ground or the sea, and when the water table rises in winter, the streets become open cesspools. Benghazi, the second largest city in a country with vast oil wealth and a tiny population, is rotting in its own fifth.”

To further the control of tribes over their population, there is the tradition of ‘collective responsibility’ of each tribe for any disloyalty amongst its members. Thus when leaders of the Warfalla tribe plotted a coup in 1993, the entire tribe paid the penalty. This punishment of disloyal tribes is not exclusive to the Gaddafi regime, but was a hallmark also of King Idris’ rule in the 1950’s and 60’s.

“King Idriss Senussi, maintained power with the support of his privileged castle guard, known as the Cyrenaican Defense Force. Their ranks were filled almost exclusively with members of eastern Libya’s Saady tribes.”

King Idris used the Senussi religious ties to maintain loyalty of the eastern tribes, and this monarchy was overthrown by Gaddafi’s revolt in 1968 in part for its exclusion of all tribes in the center and west of Libya – Qaddafi’s included. While Qaddafi initially attempted to do away with tribal rule after coming to power, he soon found it too powerful and instead reverted back to the traditional tribal councils to manage loyalties.

The loyalties to power are strong. One now witnesses more loyal tribes sabotaging the rebels, not only in Sirte (Gaddafi’s hometown) and Tripoli, but in Bin Jawad and other western towns. As Reuters noted,

“Rebels said they had been relying on the residents of government-held towns to rise up and join them, but this is likely to become harder as they move west into more affluent areas that have benefitted from Gaddafi’s rule. […]

“‘We got calls from the people of Bin Jawad telling us to come through and that all was well. Then we were ambushed,’ said Hani Zwei. ‘I can’t believe our own countrymen would do that.'”

While tribal brinkmanship may surprise some urban youth, others are keenly aware of it, as in this debate between rebels:

“‘Whoever has a gun, go now and fight in Bin Jawad,’ said one rebel.
“‘No, no this is how we’ll start the civil war,’ hit back the other.”

The 1,000 years of tribal history is hardly lost on those in the leadership of the rebellion:

“Many of the leaders now emerging in eastern Libya hail from the Harabi tribe, including the head of the provisional government set up in Benghazi, Abdel Mustafa Jalil, and Abdel Fatah Younis, who assumed a key leadership role over the defected military ranks early in the uprising.

“‘If you scratch the surface, you’ll find a lot of the new leaders, a lot of those who defected to the rebels early, are from old tribes and families who served the Senussi monarchy,’ [Jason Pack, a Libya scholar at Oxford University] said.”

Meanwhile the rumors of Gaddafi’s ‘black African foreign mercenaries’ continues apace, in what HRW calls “lazy, irresponsible journalism on the part of the mainstream media who publish rumors as truth”.  The rumors have been used by the rebels to stoke the historical racial violence and hatred in eastern Libya toward the dark-skinned Libyans from the southern Fezzan tribes, also supporters of Qaddafi.

If this rat’s nest of alliances, betrayal and tribal intrigue sounds familiar to Americans, it should.  They are still reeling from their unlearned lessons of the unwinnable politics of tribalism in America’s adventure in Afghanistan – what Obama called “the necessary war” – and in Iraq.

Perhaps it should not be surprising also that Obama sees in this festering swamp of internecine Libyan warfare a “wide range of potential options, including potential military options” as he steps slowly but inexorably into the interventionist camp with the warhawks Kerry, Clinton and McCain.  Whether this slide into another war is already unstoppable, is too soon to tell, but we can rest assured that NATO is already taking Obama’s hint and preparing the option of an end-run around the UN’s Security Council, which is opposed to intervention.  Says NATO Secretary General Rasmussen,

“If Gaddafi and his military continue to attack the Libyan population systematically, I can’t imagine the international community and UN standing idly by.”

© Peter Fay,  2011, theclearview.wordpress.com

Last week, the Libyan rebels opposed outside intervention in their ‘revolution’. However, today Council spokesman Abdel-Hafiz Hoga said the council urged airstrikes on the “strongholds of the mercenaries …. used against civilians and people.”

But who are these mercenaries we here so much about?  And why does a patriotic group want western military to attack the ‘mercenaries’?

Black-skinned mercenaries are blamed by the ‘rebels’ for attacking the lighter-skinned Libyan from the Cyrenaica region.  In fact, Time magazine found a detention center in Shehat that held 200 supposed ‘mercenaries’:

“A group of men from al-Baida executed 15 of the suspected mercenaries on Friday and Saturday in front of the town’s court house. They were hanged, says the country’s former Justice Minister Mustafa Mohamed Abd Al-Jalil (who recently quit and joined the revolution)… Indeed, many of the prisoners at the Aruba School are dual nationals — Libyans with roots in Chad or Niger.”

Some days later Time demurred on the captives actually being ‘mercenaries’:

“But the question of who exactly the mercenaries are has yet to be answered. Opposition members in Benghazi have said they are holding hundreds of suspected mercenaries from the battles, but the press has been denied access to them.”

The reporters actually interviewed only one suspect – who, it turns out, was from Fezzan Libya, not foreign.  And only 5 out of the 200 were determined to be Chadian (who also could have held dual citizenship):

“Omar, like many others who were held here, was captured at the army base in al-Baida. All of the prisoners at the Aruba School had southern Libyan or foreign origins; they were dark-skinned, from towns deep in the Sahara desert. At least five were from Chad.”

“Esbak has personally arrested and released a number of individuals in recent days. But… ‘We’re not sure they were mercenaries.’ […] ‘After what happened here, we lost faith in every black guy that’s walking around,’ says one soldier in Benghazi. ‘So especially if he doesn’t have a passport, we just grab him.'”

One ought not to be surprised, given the history of race mixed into the tribal conflict in Libya.  The ‘rebels’ are in fact of lighter skin and have battled many opposing tribes in the past, particularly the Tuareg and Tebu in southern Libya, which borders on Chad.  And some of these have dual citizenship in Chad and Libya.  The viciousness of this Berber-Fezzan hatred reared its head only 11 years ago in the same areas that are ‘liberating themselves’ today:

“Some of Libya’s indigenous 1m black citizens were mistaken for migrants, and dragged from taxis. In parts of Benghazi, blacks were barred from public transport and hospitals. Pitched battles erupted in Zawiya, a town near Tripoli that is ringed with migrant shantytowns. Diplomats said that at least 150 people were killed.[…] The all-powerful security forces intervened by shooting into the air.”

That is, the racial attack was stopped by Qaddafi’s security forces.

Today, the racial attacks are ballooning, but apparently only in the ‘liberated’ areas not controlled by Qaddafi.  And the ‘revolution’ is daily looking more like civil war between opposing regions and alliances. So again one wonders, why would the self-described patriotic leaders of a Libyan rebellion call for airstrikes on  Black opponents – who seem to be mostly Libyans?

Will the uprising in Libya be “just like” Egypt and Tunisia? That is, popular youth uprisings with strong (perhaps critical) backing of the labor movement? Wide-scale opposition to a brutal regime backed only by a crust of the military?

This seems unlikely as Libya is a nation not at all like Egypt, nor Tunisia. Muslim, yes, but very diverse with myriad competing tribes, ethnicities, and dialects – each played against each other by every ruler since the nation was formed. Perhaps Libya is more like Iraq in its ethnic regions or like Yemen in its tribes than like Egypt or Tunisia. In no way is it a united modern nation-state. And therefore both the opposition to, and supporters of, Gaddafi take on a mottled, complex hue. Not surprisingly, these complexities could even push the uprising into a trajectory wholly different than the others – even into an internecine and degenerative one.

A thousand years of history weigh on Libya today. One-hundred forty tribes stretch across three formerly separate kingdoms of what is now Libya. First controlled separately by the Ottoman empire, the three were merged into a state by Italian colonialists only in the 1950s. For over a millenium, the three kingdoms, Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan, were separated by desert and had little in common. The ethnic divides were between Arabs, Arab-Berbers, Berbers and Tuareg cultures and their many tribes. When finally merged into modern Libya, the Cyrenaica kingdom, the eastern-most region led by King Idris, won control, leaving the other regions in the cold. He instituted the neocolonial Kingdom of Libya in the 1950s, to the advantage of Cyrenaican tribes – the Zuwayya and others, which are today revolting.

Perhaps this could explain some of the strange images arising from the current ‘democratic’ revolt:

“Opposition demonstrators to Colonel Gadaffi used the old tricolour flag of the monarchy and some carried portraits of the king.”

Libyan protester

King Idris, who was overthrown by Qaddafi in 1969, had banned all political parties, signed 20-year leases for American and British military bases, constantly reshuffled administrative regions to destabilize tribal challenges, and was generally considered a puppet of British and American oil companies.

The Free Officers Movement in 1969, of course, overthrew not only the King, but the control of Libya by the Cyrenaican tribes in the east of the country. Qaddafi rose to leadership, replacing previous tribes with his own small Gadhadhfa tribe from central Libya, and the larger Warfalla and Maqariha tribes, originally from the southwest. These three tribes have held key positions in Qaddafi’s armed forces, police and intelligence services.

However, as is common in tribal societies, allegiances come and go. Qaddafi, like King Idris before him, tried to rule by supporting, then undercutting various tribes over time. Leaders of an attempted coup by members of the 1-million-member Warfalah tribe was purged by Qaddafi in 1996, and the tribe denounced him. When the revolt broke out this year, the head of the Warfalah defected to the opposition, leaving only Qaddafi’s tribe and the Maqariha tribe (which dominates Fezzan and some parts of Tripolitania) supporting the government. The areas dominated by these tribes are currently steadfastly supporting Qaddafi, including the city of Sirte, Qaddafi’s birthplace. Sirte has repeatedly stopped today’s rebel forces attempting to pass it on their march from Cyrenaica to Tripoli.

Again, there is no love lost between feuding tribes in Libya:  today’s rebel leader Colonel Tarek Saad Hussein from Cyrenaica said he would “finish” the people of Sirte (mostly the Gadhadhfa tribe) if they opposed the rebels:

“I want to deliver a message to the people of Sirte: You are with us or against us. Because when we move to Tripoli, you either join us, or we will finish you.”

Is today’s battle for national liberation or for tribal domination?  Both are in evidence, but only one can succeed.

“[The domination by the tribes] led some to worry that the seizure of the eastern third of Libya last week would lead to the creation of a secessionist state with Benghazi as its capital. This wouldn’t be surprising: Until the 1930s, the three major Libyan provinces of Tripolitania in the northwest, Fezzan in the southwest and Cyrenaica in the east were independent kingdoms, and Cyrenaica has always had a distinct culture and politics.

But is there no homogeneous democratic opposition to Qaddafi?  While there may be some strong unifying currents, there are still widely differing motivations for opposing Qaddafi.

Firstly, there are many unemployed and disaffected workers and youth who have seen none of the benefits from the newly privatized oil wealth or billions of foreign investment. ConocoPhillips, the third-largest U.S. oil company, holds a 16.3 percent interest in the Waha concessions; Marathon Group has a 16 percent in operations in the Sirte Basin; the list goes on… Hess, Occidental, BP, Shell, Standard Chartered.  But vast sections of the working class, especially youth, have been shut out and have watched others enrich themselves.

Libyan investments

But there are other motives:  the families of Islamists sympathizers, 1200 of whom were massacred by Qaddafi’s men in a prison riot in 1996.  There are thousands of Libyan army officers, who after two decades of defunding by Qaddafi, quickly jumped ship to the opposition, hoping for a better future.  There are leaders of former coup attempts.  There is Libyan opposition leader Ibrahim Sahad of the CIA-funded National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL) who gives interviews in front of the White House in Washington D.C. There are over a million foreign workers (one-sixth of the population) from Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Sudan who have no allegiance to Qaddafi.  There are even those who want to restore the Monarchy.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are simply tribes who wish to return historical control to Cyrenaica, as describe by one Libyan:

“When Qaddafi overthrew the King he essentially was taking away power from the tribes in Cyrenaica and placing the power with his tribes in Tripolitania.

“What’s going on today is that those tribes and and indigenous Berbers located in the Eastern half of Libya known as Cyrenaica have decided to take back what is rightfully theirs and what Gaddafi and the tribes backing him have stolen from them.  These are no ‘protesters’ but Libyans belonging to oppressed classes and tribes that are willing to fight to return back to the seat of power of the country that was once theirs. This is why Gaddafi is fighting so strongly. He doesn’t consider them part of ‘His’ Libya and is frightened at Cyrenians gaining control of the country.”

The battle cry of “Freedom for Libya” may mean one thing to a Zuwayyan from Benghazi but the opposite to a Gadhadhfan from Sirte.

The 1969 Young Officers Movement’s vision of a “united socialist society”, of “free brothers” along the egalitarian model of Egypt’s Nasser was abandoned. The “path of freedom, unity, and social justice, guaranteeing the right of equality to its citizens, and opening before them the doors of honorable work” devolved into medieval tribalism over forty years. Perhaps nothing changes until tribalism is washed away by a new unity of one national working class in Libya.  This is a lesson that could be well-taught by Egypt and Tunisia.

Women Workers at Misr Spinning and Weaving Co.

“This didn’t have anything to do with Twitter and Facebook.  This had to do with people’s dignity, people’s pride. People are not able to feed their families.”  – Richard Engel

As anticipated in these pages, there has been ever mounting evidence that the engine behind the Egyptian uprising has been less the educated tweeters, bloggers and middle-class youth than the ‘unschooled’ working class – particularly factory workers, many unionized, and the impoverished.

This has become even more undeniable as tweeters went home and back to work after Mubarak resigned, while the workers instead went out on strike.  As Weal Ghonim, the feted techno-leader, tweeter and Google marketing executive proclaimed after Mubarak resigned,

“It shows how civilized the Egyptian people are… Now our nightmare is over. Now it is time to dream.”

Apparently the nightmare was not over for the Egyptian workers, however.  Nor was dreaming part of the plan.  Rather, pushing forward the real revolution was the plan.  Economic and political strikes were the plan.  While the tweeters go home, the Egyptian military remains untouched.  The Egyptian rulers, military and even many “democrats” are menacingly warning the workers to stop striking – for the “benefit of the nation”.

To anyone who has looked at Egypt prior to January 2011, the emerging split between the “democratic technocrats” and the working class behind the uprising should come as no surprise. There has been a growing surge of strikes across the country – ever more widespread over the past two years, ever more desperately seeking survival from relentless increases in food prices and cost of living.

Especially recently, it has been noted,

“Strikers have different priorities but have coalesced around a central demand that the government raise the minimum wage to 1,200 pounds a month.  The rate has remained fixed at only 35 pounds per month since 1984.”

For some reason American literati have been declaring the Egyptian Revolution (which isn’t yet a revolution, and isn’t in any way over) to be a “Facebook” or “Twitter Revolution”.  Said the New York Times,

“Facebook and YouTube also offered a way for the discontented to organize and mobilize — and allowed secular-minded young people to seize the momentum from Egypt’s relatively neutered, organized opposition… Social media tools…provided a new means for ordinary people to connect with human rights advocates trying to amass support”

However, the Wall Street Journal discovered the tweeters were largely left out of the initial uprising, as they were outmaneuvered by the police, and had never before been able to mobilize any large numbers:

“The plotters say they knew that the demonstrations’ success would depend on the participation of ordinary Egyptians in working-class districts like this one[Bulaq al-Dakrour], where the Internet and Facebook aren’t as widely used. They distributed fliers around the city in the days leading up to the demonstration, concentrating efforts on Bulaq al-Dakrour. […] The Bulaq al-Dakrour marchers, the only group to reach their objective, occupied Tahrir Square for several hours until after midnight, when police attacked demonstrators with tear gas and rubber bullets.

“It was the first time Egyptians had seen such a demonstration in their streets, and it provided a spark credited with emboldening tens of thousands of people to come out to protest the following Friday.”

The initial uprising, though coordinated to a point with social media, had as its center of gravity poor youth with no twitter, blogs or computers.  Perhaps more representative of attitudes of Egypt’s tweeters and bloggers was Tarek Amr, an NGO blogger and software programmer:

“I didn’t participate in the first day of the revolution. I was a bit scared, a bit not convinced that it will change anything, and also I prefer to follow such events on twitter and facebook instead of participating in them.”

After weeks of stalemated protests, the trigger that finally tipped the military into ousting Mubarak, not surprisingly, was not techno-savvy democracy activists.  Instead it was the surge of strikes that swept the nation, according to Hossam el-Hamalawy:

All classes in Egypt took part in the uprising. In Tahrir Square you found sons and daughters of the Egyptian elite, together with the workers, middle class citizens, and the urban poor. Mubarak has managed to alienate all social classes in society including wide section of the bourgeoisie. But remember that it’s only when the mass strikes started three days ago that’s when the regime started crumbling and the army had to force Mubarak to resign because the system was about to collapse.

Why would this final ‘tipping point’ be reached, after three painful weeks, only by a surge of factory strikes, rather than by the huge crowds peacefully gathered in Tahrir Square?  This question would need to be asked to those who actually run the country:  the generals-cum-enterprise-managers who own and insinuate themselves into every pore of Egyptian business and corrupt dealing.  The guarding of wealth in Egyptian enterprises is the sina-qua-non of Egyptian rule and rulers.  El-Hamalawy continues:

Some have been surprised that the workers started striking. I really don’t know what to say. The workers have been staging the longest and most sustained strike wave in Egypt’s history since 1946, triggered by the Mahalla strike in December 2006. It’s not the workers’ fault that you were not paying attention to their news. Every single day over the past three years there was a strike in some factory whether it’s in Cairo or the provinces. These strikes were not just economic, they were also political in nature.

And after Mubarak was pushed out, and Ghonim went home to “dream”, the uprising split decisively in two, according to the Wall Street Journal (“Splits Emerge Among Egypt’s Young Activists”):

“Three Facebook pages devoted to trashing Mr. Ghonim have gone online in the past few days. They have titles such as ‘Ghonim Traitor,’ and already have over 40,000 members.

“Labor activists accused the Revolutionary Youth of selling out the workers after they endorsed the military’s call for striking workers to return to their jobs…’They’re not real revolutionaries,’ said Gigi Ibrahim, a youth activist with the Revolutionary Socialists.”

And so the crisis in Egypt continues to spread – strikes, both economic and political, spread against the ruling class in Suez, Port Said and Ismailiya (where the American USS Enterprise aircraft carrier and a guided missile cruiser patrolled today, as if to remind Egyptians whose interests are at stake in Egypt), to Mahalla el-Kobra in the textile heartland – the very same location which sparked nation-wide strikes in 2006, and to Alexandria and Damietta.  And in Cairo, where state banks are under siege from their employees who relentlessly hound the corrupt managers, the Charmain of the Egyptian National Bank resigned.

“Outside the headquarters of Banque Misr, another state-owned institution, a 10-minute walk from Tahrir Square, chants of “Leave, leave, leave” echoed into the night”

The workers are assuredly not dreaming now – they have woken up.

Suez workers strik

A short revisit to the issue of runaway food prices.

Why?  Because Paul Krugman has just put the blame on… well, not Quantitative Easing or the Fed, not on speculation by commodity traders, in fact not on any human cause whatsoever.  But on weather… and moreover, climate change. One wonders how climate change might cause a 100% spike in food prices in one year.  Nonetheless, Mr Krugman derides those who might see Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of the financial market at work causing a spike in prices as an outcome of what Smith would have called “selfish interests” of the Fed or commodity traders.  Mr. Krugman writes,

“American right-wingers (and the Chinese) blame easy-money policies at the Federal Reserve […] Meanwhile, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France blames speculators, accusing them of ‘extortion and pillaging.'”

While weather is not a wholly irrational explanation at first blush (climate change is), the data do not however support such conclusion.

To review the evidence already presented on this question days before Mr. Krugman entered the fray: on Feb 1 we noted the skyrocketing food prices in Egypt (due greatly to speculation and Fed policies) contributing to the uprising there.  The following graphic illustrated the severity of the issue:

On Feb 5 we discussed worldwide boom in food prices, and provided evidence of Fed monetary easing influence on this rise:

Corn, wheat and sugar futures prices

Finally, on Feb. 6, we find Mr. Krugman opining that “huge increases in the prices of wheat, corn, sugar and oils” and food in general is primarily due to weather.  He then examines only wheat, noting wheat production dropped this year, to explain away all food price increases of all commodities.

True, a five percent drop in wheat production may raise wheat prices if supplies are insufficient. But according to the FAO, wheat stocks are not in any jeopardy of running out:

“Although global production in 2010 is set to decline by at least 5 percent from 2009, wheat stocks have proven sufficient to cover this year’s decline in world output, especially in major exporting countries.”

And the problem with the ‘weather theory’ of food prices is that major food staples are up in price across the board regardless of their supply, scarce or plentiful – just as they were during the last worldwide bout of spiking food prices in 2008.

Below is a sampling of major supplies and commodities composed from the FAO, USDA and commodity exchanges, then graphed by the author.  Note how the only product that could possibly be affected by supply is wheat… which Mr. Krugman just happens to choose to explain all commodity prices:

Rise in Food Prices Regardless of Supplies


It appears that commodity prices have a mind of their own, defying convenient but ultimately specious explanations. Rather prices follow the laws of the market – a market hoarded, swindled or otherwise manipulated – but a market following it’s own laws just the same.  Could it be that President Sarkozy, that ranting Frenchman who blames “extortion and pillaging”, could perhaps “avoir raison”?