Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Berta Cáceres Court Papers Show Murder Suspects' Links to US-Trained Elite Troops

A soldier in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. (photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A soldier in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. (photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Berta Cáceres Court Papers Show Murder Suspects' Links to US-Trained Elite Troops

By Nina Lakhani, Guardian UK
28 February 17

The Honduran environmental activist’s killing a year ago bears the hallmarks of a ‘well-planned operation designed by military intelligence’ says legal source

    Leaked court documents raise concerns that the murder of the Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres was an extrajudicial killing planned by military intelligence specialists linked to the country’s US–trained special forces, a Guardian investigation can reveal.

   Cáceres was shot dead a year ago while supposedly under state protection after receiving death threats over her opposition to a hydroelectric dam.

  The murder of Cáceres, winner of the prestigious Goldman environmental prize in 2015, prompted international outcry and calls for the US to revoke military aid to Honduras, a key ally in its war on drugs.

  Eight men have been arrested in connection with the murder, including one serving and two retired military officers.

  Officials have denied state involvement in the activist’s murder, and downplayed the arrest of the serving officer Maj Mariano Díaz, who was hurriedly discharged from the army.

   But the detainees’ military records and court documents seen by the Guardian reveal that:
  • Díaz, a decorated special forces veteran, was appointed chief of army intelligence in 2015, and at the time of the murder was on track for promotion to lieutenant colonel.
  • Another suspect, Lt Douglas Giovanny Bustillo joined the military on the same day as Díaz; they served together and prosecutors say they remained in contact after Bustillo retired in 2008.
  • Díaz and Bustillo both received military training in the US.
  • A third suspect, Sergeant Henry Javier Hernández, was a former special forces sniper, who had worked under the direct command of Díaz. Prosecutors believe he may also have worked as an informant for military intelligence after leaving the army in 2013.
Court documents also include the records of mobile phone messages which prosecutors believe contain coded references to the murder.

   Bustillo and Hernández visited the town of La Esperanza, where Cáceres lived, several times in the weeks before her death, according to phone records and Hernández’s testimony.

  A legal source close to the investigation told the Guardian: “The murder of Berta Cáceres has all the characteristics of a well-planned operation designed by military intelligence, where it is absolutely normal to contract civilians as assassins.

   “It’s inconceivable that someone with her high profile, whose campaign had made her a problem for the state, could be murdered without at least implicit authorisation of military high command.”

   The Honduran defence ministry ignored repeated requests from the Guardian for comment, but the head of the armed forces recently denied that military deaths squads were operating in the country.

   Five civilians with no known military record have also been arrested. They include Sergio Rodríguez, a manager for the internationally funded Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam which Cáceres had opposed.

   The project is being led by Desarrollos Energéticos SA, (Desa), which has extensive military and government links. The company’s president, Roberto David Castillo Mejía, is a former military intelligence officer, and its secretary, Roberto Pacheco Reyes, is a former justice minister. Desa employed former lieutenant Bustillo as head of security between 2013 and 2015.

   Cáceres had reported 33 death threats linked to her campaign against the dam, including several from Desa employees. Desa denies any involvement in the murder.

   Cáceres was killed at about 11.30pm on 2 March, when at least four assassins entered the gated community to which she had recently moved on the outskirts of La Esperanza.
A checkpoint at the entrance to the town – normally manned by police officers or soldiers – was left unattended on the night she was killed, witnesses have told the Guardian.

  Hernández, who was eventually arrested in Mexico, is the only suspect to have given detailed testimony in court. He has admitted his involvement, but says he acted under duress.

   All eight have been charged with murder and attempted murder. The other seven suspects have either denied involvement or not given testimony in court.

   Prosecutors say that phone records submitted to court show extensive communication between the three military men, including a text message which was a coded discussion of payment for a contract killing.

  American experts have been involved in the investigation from the start, according to the US embassy in Tegucigalpa.

   Senator Ben Cardin, ranking member of the Senate foreign relations committee, said US support should not be unconditional: “It is essential that we not only strengthen our commitment to improving the rule of law in Honduras, but we must also demand greater accountability for human rights violations and attacks against civil society.”

  Last year, the Guardian reported that a former Honduran soldier said he had seen Cáceres’s name on a hitlist that was passed to US-trained units.

  First Sergeant Rodrigo Cruz said that two elite units were given lists featuring the names and photographs of activists – and ordered to eliminate each target.

   Cruz’s unit commander deserted rather than comply with the order. The rest of the unit were then sent on leave.

   In a follow-up interview with the Guardian, Cruz said the hitlist was given by the Honduran military joint chiefs of staff to the commander of the Xatruch multi-agency taskforce, to which his unit belonged.

   Cruz – who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym for fear of retribution – deserted after Cáceres’s murder and remains in hiding. The whereabouts of his former colleagues is unknown.

   Following the Guardian’s report, James Nealon, the US ambassador to Honduras, pledged to investigate the allegations, and in an interview last week, said that no stone had been left unturned.

   “I’ve spoken to everyone I can think of to speak to, as have members of my team, and no one can produce such a hitlist,” said Nealon.

   But the embassy did not speak to the Xatruch commander, Nealon said. Activists, including those with information about the alleged hitlist, have told the Guardian they have not been interviewed by US or Honduran officials.

   Lauren Carasik, clinical professor of law at Western New England University, said America’s unwavering support for Honduras suggests it tolerates impunity for intellectual authors of high-profile targeted killings.

   “Washington cannot, in good conscience, continue to ignore mounting evidence that the Honduran military was complicit in the extrajudicial assassination of Cáceres.”

   Extrajudicial killings by the security forces and widespread impunity are among the most serious human rights violations in Honduras, according to the US state department.
Nevertheless, the US is the main provider of military and police support to Honduras, and last year approved $18m of aid.

   In recent years, US support has focused on Honduras’s special forces units, originally created as a counterinsurgency force during the 1980s “dirty war”.

    The elite units ostensibly target terrorism, organised crime and gangs, but campaigners say the Honduran intelligence apparatus is used to target troublesome community leaders.
Violence against social activists has surged since a military backed coup d’état ousted populist president Manuel Zelaya in 2009. Since then at least 124 land and environmental campaigners have been killed.

   A recent investigation by corruption watchdog Global Witness described extensive involvement of political, business and military elites in environmentally destructive mega projects which have flourished since the coup.

    One of the most troubled parts of the country has been northern Bajo Aguán region, where a land conflict between palm oil companies and peasant farmers has claimed more than 130 lives over the past six years.

    The Bajo Aguán is also home to the 15th battalion – one of two special forces units in the Honduran army – and the special forces training centre.

  Two of the suspects, Díaz and Hernández, served in the 15th battalion together; Cruz’s elite unit was also stationed in the Bajo Aguán.

   Ambassador Nealon said that there was no record of Díaz, Hernández or Bustillo attending any US training courses in Honduras.

   “Our training programmes for police or for military are not designed to instruct people in how to commit human rights violations or to create an atmosphere in which they believe that they are empowered to commit human rights violations, in fact, just the opposite,” said Nealon.

   Honduran military records show that Díaz attended several counterinsurgency courses at special forces bases in Tegucigalpa and in the Bajo Aguán.

   He also attended cadet leadership courses at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1997, and a counter-terrorism course at the Inter American air force academy in 2005.

   The court documents also reveal that at the time of his arrest, Díaz, 44, was under investigation for drug trafficking and kidnapping, while also studying for promotion.
Military records show that in 1997, Bustillo attended logistics and artillery courses at the School of the Americas, at Fort Benning, Georgia, which trained hundreds of Latin American officers who later committed human rights abuses.

C 2015 Reader Supported News

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-323-1607; Email: mobuszewski [at] verizon.net. Go to http://baltimorenonviolencecenter.blogspot.com/

"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

Support an immigrant on February 28 at 10:15 AM/The Two Union Leaders Driving Trump's Rabid Immigration Enforcement Crackdown

We need you to STAND WITH US on Tuesday, February 28, 2017!

  Nathalia Pelaez-Torres was detained in 2008 in a raid targeting the Annapolis Painting Company. She and her sister had the misfortune of renting a room in a house owned by the company, and when ICE conducted their "workplace" raid, their house was also raided. They were detained, along with over 15 other employees and tenants of the company. In the process of the detention, Nathalia witnessed the sexual assault of her sister by the ICE officer who detained them. The sisters were incarcerated for several weeks while CASA and their family and friends fought to get them released on bond. They were ultimately released in the middle of the night in rural Pennsylvania. Ten years later, Nathalia's case is still pending, and she is scheduled to check in with ICE this Tuesday at 10:15 AM at 31 Hopkins Plaza in Baltimore.

Also, don't forget that this Monday, Feb. 27, is Noche de Inmigrantes in Annapolis. Please join us at Asbury United Methodist church at 4 PM, or you can join us later at 7 PM for a rally on Lawyers Mall.
Thank you for your ongoing & vital support!

CASA - Baltimore Office
2224 E. Fayette St.
Baltimore, MD 21231

Published on Alternet (http://www.alternet.org)
The Two Union Leaders Driving Trump's Rabid Immigration Enforcement Crackdown
By Jefferson Morley [1] / AlterNet [2]
February 27, 2017

   As the detention of law-abiding undocumented U.S. residents spreads across the country and throughout the nation’s airports, no small part of the blame (or credit) belongs to two union leaders who have backed Trump to the hilt. They are Chris Crane, the president of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Council, a union that represents some 5,800 ICE officers nationwide, and Brandon Judd, head of the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) Council, which represents 16,000 CBP agents.

   Both men were early Trump supporters who associate with nativist groups founded by a white supremacist.

    In his February 2016 endorsement of Donald Trump, Crane falsely [3] charged that President Obama’s executive order on immigration required ICE officers to ignore "cartel members, gang members, weapons traffickers, murder suspects, drug dealers, suspects of violent assault."

   In fact, the Obama order required ICE to prioritize felony criminals and not target law-abiding undocumented residents.

   In seeking to block the comprehensive immigration reform in 2013, Crane claimed that “violent street gangs were literally able to lobby Sen. Rubio and the Gang of Eight more effectively than law enforcement…. Gangs were able to get provisions in the law [4] to protect themselves.” There is no evidence to support Crane’s claim.

   Judd, who endorsed Trump in March 2016, served on the Trump transition team, which filled two top positions at the Department of Homeland Security with leaders of nativist organizations—the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Center for Immigration Studies, according to the New Yorker. Both groups oppose legal and illegal immigration to the United States. The Southern Poverty Law Center has classified FAIR and CIS as hate groups [5] because of the racist and neo-Nazi views of their founder, John Tanton. 

   In a meeting on January 25, Trump singled out Crane and Judd [6] for praise, saying, “You guys are about to be very, very busy doing your jobs.”  “Morale amongst our agents and officers has increased exponentially since the signing of the orders,” Crane and Judd said in a joint statement [7] four days later. “The men and women of ICE and Border Patrol will work tirelessly to keep criminals, terrorists, and public safety threats out of this country.”

   Last week, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said [8] that the president wanted to “take the shackles off” of immigration agents, an expression some officers use to describe their newfound freedom. The results of improving “morale” and increasing “busy-ness” of unshackled agents are appearing all over the country, but it’s not criminals, terrorists or public safety threats who are suffering.

Border Patrol Wants Your Phone

   In a Florida airport, CBP agents detained the ex-wife and son [9] of boxing great Muhammed Ali, apparently because of their Muslim names. While Khalilah Camacho Ali was released, Ali Jr. was questioned for nearly two hours, according to his lawyer, with CBP agents repeatedly asking him, "Where did you get your name from?" and "Are you Muslim?"

   A NASA scientist reported that he was held by customs officials [10] until he handed over the PIN to his government cell phone.

   After Trump’s immigration ban threw the nation’s airports into chaos last month, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a complaint with DHS [11] including 26 accounts from lawyers and family members who, in violation of the law, were prevented from seeing clients and relatives held by CBP agents. 

   The CBP has institutional problems with accountability, according to James Tomsheck, who headed the agency's internal affairs unit from 2006 to 2014. On the Mexican border, the CBP “had problems with misconduct, lack of sensitivity to immigrants, and violence along the border," he recently told the New Yorker [12]. But any attempt at oversight, Tomsheck said, was met with hostility—especially from the union headed by Judd.
Last fall, Judd told Fox News he was supporting Trump because "he wants to take the handcuffs off [13]."

ICE Unbound

   ICE agents now have expanded discretion to target people who have "abused" public benefits, misrepresented themselves, or "in the judgment [14] of an immigration officer, otherwise pose a risk to public safety or national security," thanks to a February 20 directive issued by the Department of Homeland Security.

   The memo gives few specifics on how each of these criteria will be determined, empowering ICE agents to detain and deport law-abiding residents.

   While Trump has made sympathetic utterances about the "Dreamers,” young immigrants protected by President Obama’s June 2012 order on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Crane is hostile. In 2013, he encouraged suspicion of Dreamers by claiming that 99 percent of all applications for DACA protection were approved. In fact, DHS statistics show that 57 percent [15] of DACA applications were accepted and 43 percent were rejected. 

   Since Trump took office, ICE has detained at least two young people protected by DACA in Los Angeles [16] and Seattle [17].

   Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at the Harvard School of Law, has joined in the defense of Daniel Ramirez, who was detained in Seattle. "I think the Trump administration's escalation of indiscriminate deportation raids is a blow, both to undocumented immigrants who have been law-abiding ever since overstaying their visas, and to the American sense of fairness," Tribe told Politico. Ramirez, he wrote, "is covered by DACA and is thus the victim of a brutally broken government promise that if he comes out of the shadows, he will receive deferred deportation status.”

   The deception doesn't stop there.

  In Santa Cruz, California, chief of police Kevin Vogel accused DHS officials [18] of lying about the scope of the raids conducted jointly between his department and federal agents this month aimed at apprehending MS-13 gang members. (DHS denied that non-gang members were targeted.)

   In Denver, ICE agents loitered in a courthouse without a warrant, apparently looking for undocumented immigrants. A video of the agents, says Denverite [19], “is evidence of something immigration attorneys insisted was happening and that local officials had said was not happening: immigration enforcement officers using the court process to find people wanted for possible immigration violations and take them into custody.” (Watch the video [19].)

   A Texas family court judge criticized ICE's tactics, after agents arrested a transgender woman [20] in the El Paso courthouse. She was seeking a protective order from an abusive ex-boyfriend.

  "The agents apparently detained the woman February 9 after receiving a tip, possibly from her alleged abuser, whom they already had in custody," El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal told the El Paso Times [21].

  District Judge Yahara Lisa Gutierrez, who oversees the court that issued the woman's protective order, said ICE agents should avoid assisting domestic abusers by acting on their tips against their partners. “There’s no place for that—especially in family court,” she said.

   Last week, DHS officials briefed members of Congress about recent immigration enforcement actions. According to lawmakers present, ICE officials acknowledged that at least 186 of those apprehended in recent days had no criminal history [22].

What Are the 'Shackles'?

   “When a president gives the green light to federal law enforcement agencies that target vulnerable immigrants and operate with impunity, this is what you get: out-of-control police forces [23] that declare open season on anyone they encounter,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigrant group America’s Voice.

  "A law enforcement official who lies and associates with hate groups should not be a policymaker in a democracy,” said Henry Fernandez, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “Everybody has to believe they will be treated fairly by law enforcement or else the rule of law is threatened.”

   The phrase “take the shackles off” is especially dangerous, Fernandez said.
“That kind of language sends a message that a law enforcement officer should do whatever he or she thinks is right, not what the constitution and the courts require,” he said in an interview with AlterNet.

  Yet that’s the very message immigration enforcement officers are hearing from Chris Crane, Brandon Judd and President Trump. 



[1] http://www.alternet.org/authors/jefferson-morley-2
[2] http://alternet.org
[3] https://www.donaldjtrump.com/press-releases/immigration-and-customs-enforcement-officers-endorse-donald-j.-trump-for-pr
[4] http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2016/02/19/eve-south-carolina-vote-nations-ice-officers-detail-marco-rubio-betrayed/
[5] https://www.splcenter.org/20090201/nativist-lobby-three-faces-intolerance
[6] http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2017/01/25/president-trump-praises-chris-crane-ice-agents/
[7] http://iceunion.org/news/joint-press-release-between-border-patrol-and-ice-councils
[8] https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/02/21/press-briefing-press-secretary-sean-spicer-2212017-13
[9] http://www.msnbc.com/stephanie-ruhle/watch/muhammad-ali-s-son-ex-wife-detained-questioned-at-airport-885703747910
[10] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/14/business/border-enforcement-airport-phones.html
[11] https://ccrjustice.org/letter-john-roth-dhs-inspector-general
[12] http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-border-patrol-was-primed-for-president-trump
[13] http://www.vdare.com/posts/border-patrol-agents-union-endorses-trump
[14] http://www.politico.com/story/2017/02/trump-undocumented-immigrants-crackdown-235224.
[15] https://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/USCIS/Resources/Reports%20and%20Studies/Immigration%20Forms%20Data/Static_files/2013-0516%20DACA%20Monthly%20Report%2005-09-13.pdf
[16] http://www.scpr.org/news/2017/02/22/69291/daca-recipient-arrested-in-los-angeles-attorney-sa/
[17] https://www.democracynow.org/2017/2/15/headlines/seattle_ice_arrested_daca_recipient_daniel_ramirez_medina
[18] http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-santa-cruz-ice-raid-20170223-story.html
[19] https://www.denverite.com/ice-agents-denver-courthouse-hallway-video-30231
[20] http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-woman-arrested-by-ice-in-a-courthouse-speaks-out
[21] http://www.elpasotimes.com/story/news/2017/02/15/ice-detains-domestic-violence-victim-court/97965624/
[22] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/25/us/ice-immigrant-deportations-trump.html
[23] http://americasvoice.org/press_releases/unshackling-ice-cbp-recipe-cruelty-chaos/
[24] https://www.amazon.com/Snow-Storm-August-Washington-Forgotten-2012-07-03/dp/B01K2EAA7G/?tag=alternorg08-20
[25] https://www.amazon.com/Our-Man-Mexico-Winston-History/dp/0700617906/?tag=alternorg08-20
[26] mailto:corrections@alternet.org?Subject=Typo on The Two Union Leaders Driving Trump's Rabid Immigration Enforcement Crackdown
[27] http://www.alternet.org/
[28] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-323-1607; Email: mobuszewski [at] verizon.net. Go to http://baltimorenonviolencecenter.blogspot.com/

"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

Monday, February 27, 2017

Impeachable: A New Kind of Protest Song

Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary. (photo: Peter Yarrow)
Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary. (photo: Peter Yarrow)

Impeachable: A New Kind of Protest Song

By Peter Yarrow, Reader Supported News
26 February 17

‘Impeachable’ is a new twist on the kinds of songs that Peter Paul and Mary were singing that helped to mobilize Americans.

  People have been wondering what folksinger/activists, some of them septuagenarians like Noel Paul Stookey and me, might be doing in the face of the current cataclysmic challenges to our democracy and our nation.

    The answer is simple: we are going to keep on keeping on. We inherited a legacy from Woody, Pete Seeger and the Weavers and many others who inspired us. They never quit, never stopped and never stopped advocating. Doing so is “in our blood” and it’s a great gift to both Noel and me, as it would be to Mary – were she still to be with us. She would join, even (or maybe especially) at our advanced age, the current advocacies that “hammer out a warning”, “ring out danger” and “sing about the love between our brothers and our sisters”.  No, we’ve not “gone away”. We, and others who also come from the folk music/activist tradition, are solidly committed to using our music to generate community and consensus at our concerts and at gatherings and demonstrations to confront the most dangerous of challenges now threatening our country.

    I have written, and currently perform, two songs that have come out of the presidential campaign and its results, one being The Children Are Listening and the other being, Lift Us Up.  I am grateful that, in a limited context (for sure) both of these songs have become rallying points for efforts to assert what is good in ourselves and what is reprehensible and frightening in the face of the recent election. 

mmmmBy far the most important effort yet, by either Noel Paul or me – in terms of its reach and, in my opinion, its brilliance – is Impeachable, a parody Noel wrote of the song Unforgettable, which was a huge hit by Nat King Cole from the early 1950s.  Impeachable was just released on the internet and went viral with, currently, over 800,000 hits.  (Please share this link with your buddies and help us spread the message.)

   Impeachable is an example of Noel’s extraordinary ability to write a super-funny, very surprising yet also, highly nuanced, lyric. He is, and has always been, an amazing songwriter. In its first public performance last weekend Impeachable brought the audience at our concert in Thousand Oaks, CA to its feet with a prolonged standing ovation. There were screeches of delight the likes of which I have never before heard at a Peter Paul and Mary concert.

   Noel has clearly struck a hugely resonant chord amongst those who heard the hammer strokes warning of a grave danger to our nation, our democracy and, in fact, the whole earth.

   Impeachable is a new twist on the kinds of songs that Peter Paul and Mary were singing that helped to mobilize Americans at the time of the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement.   Blowing In the Wind and If I Had a Hammer written by Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger & Lee Hays, respectively, were anthems that brought folks together in ways that let them recognize, in very personal ways, their collective strength as well as reassert a commonly held ethical/political perspective. Such was also the case with Where Have All the Flowers Gone and a myriad of other songs. With their repetition at rallies, marches and on the radio, these songs inspired many newcomers to the world of activism who asserted to us that our music, and that of our fellow folk musicians, became the “sound track of their political awakening”.  (In our view, this is one of the greatest compliments we ever received.)

   Today, of course, the dominant transmission of such advocacies comes through social media, though in-person efforts such as The Women’s March on Washington, and the demonstrations at Standing Rock that electrified the nation are still, I believe, the most powerful tools for social/political mobilization.

   Also, there is another new aspect to a musician’s, or an actor’s, or any artist’s efforts in the realm of advocacy. In this time, humor, as offered by the likes of John Oliver, the gifted cast and guests, such as the amazing Alec Baldwin, on Saturday Night Live, Samantha Bee, Melissa McCarthy, Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah, to name just a few, has played a huge role in inspiring and activating the spirit of our nation. It cuts through the extreme “noise” in tweets, frightening pronouncement and actions emanating from the current administration,

   Please take heart my friends. From my travels, I have found that there has been a huge call to action heeded, even (and emphatically) in my and Noel’s elder demographic. Be assured that a large body of former artist-activists is mobilizing now with their songs, their poetry, their heart-rending videos, their humor and their visual work on signs and memes that spread across the internet with ever more amazing directness, humor, and determination.  As long as this continues to build, we’re walking together and gaining strength.  Let’s carry it on, my friends.

In solidarity and love,


By Noel
Paul Stookey

Impeachable, that’s what you are…
Impeachable, and yet so far...
You’ve avoided closer scrutiny
And even though Vlad-i-mer Putin, he
Opens many doors, it only makes you more...

Impeachable, and when, some day
We can say ‘you’re fired’ and you go away
You may have thought you were unreachable (but) history makes some moments teachable:
Someday Pence may be impeachable too

C 2015 Reader Supported News

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-323-1607; Email: mobuszewski [at] verizon.net. Go to http://baltimorenonviolencecenter.blogspot.com/

"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Manchurian President
A classic Hollywood political thriller may tell us more about what's happening in America than any history book.

Frank Sinatra as Bennett Marco, Laurence Harvey as Raymond Shaw (center), and Khigh Dhiegh as Dr. Yen Lo in a scene from the 1962 suspense drama The Manchurian Candidate. (Photo: John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

 As the Trump presidency unravels, unraveling the country along with it, there is no real political antecedent, no lessons from American history on which to draw and provide guidance. We are in entirely uncharted waters.

   But there is an antecedent in our popular culture that provides a prism through which to view the contemporary calamity, especially the alleged collusion between Trump’s henchmen and Russian intelligence to deny Hillary Clinton the presidency. I am not the first observer who has noted the relevance of the movie The Manchurian Candidate. But the relevance is more than skin or celluloid deep. It goes to the very heart of this bizarre and frightening political moment.

  First, the fact that this implausibly plotted Hollywood thriller could now be applied, not altogether implausibly, to a sitting American president demonstrates just how far off the rails this country has gone. Outlandish plots suddenly seem credible, and not just to conspiracy theorists.

   It isn’t just the possibility that we had a Manchurian candidate for the presidency. It is the possibility that we now have a Manchurian president, a Manchurian Congress and a Manchurian government.
Second, and perhaps more significantly, the film demonstrates not only how much our narrative bearings have been lost but also our political and moral bearings, and how an admittedly paranoid movie may actually be insufficiently paranoid when it comes to our new reality. It isn’t just the possibility that we had a Manchurian candidate for the presidency. It is the possibility that we now have a Manchurian president, a Manchurian Congress and a Manchurian government.

   The 1962 movie, directed by John Frankenheimer and written by George Axelrod based on Richard Condon’s best-selling political potboiler, stars Frank Sinatra as Major Bennett Marco, an army intelligence officer posted with a platoon that withstands a fierce firefight during the Korean War. The platoon leader, Sgt. Raymond Shaw, played by Laurence Harvey, returns to the States and to a Congressional Medal of Honor awarded for his valor in saving all but two of his men.

   It just so happens that Shaw is the son of a politically ambitious Lady Macbeth (Angela Lansbury) and the stepson of an opportunistic, alcohol-addled Joe McCarthy clone named John Iselin (James Gregory), a US senator who is angling for the presidency and for whom Raymond’s medal is a boon.
But something is amiss. Marco and the other survivors of the firefight are wracked by terrifying nightmares in which Raymond kills the two soldiers who had supposedly died in battle. Marco is determined to find out why.

  It turns out that the platoon had not fended off the communist attack. They had been captured, brainwashed by a Chinese-Russian cabal and then released so that Raymond, who is now both a war hero and a programmed assassin, can assist the Russians in getting their man into the American presidency without anyone the wiser. Their man is Johnny Iselin.

  In assessing how this old movie speaks to the current moment, let’s begin with the surrealism. Implausible as the movie may seem, the behavior of Trump as candidate and now as president is even more improbable. In the movie, the Russians and their American helpers must, of course, act surreptitiously. After all, the United States isn’t going to let a communist stooge into the White House.
In fact, the conspirators also know they must act as fevered anti-communists — the Red Scare and McCarthyism being the Trojan Horses they can use to smuggle their way into control of the country. (A movie with a clearly liberal bent, it shows liberals as the true defenders of American democracy and the true enemies of the communists.)

  This seems dated, right? When the film was remade by Jonathan Demme in 2004 with Denzel Washington in Sinatra’s role, the villains weren’t Russians, but corporate oligarchs. But as we now know from our own real-life version, the Russians are still villainous, and may not have required a complicated plot with a brainwashed assassin to undo American democracy. They just needed political hacks to collude with them to sabotage the Hillary Clinton campaign in what is arguably the biggest political scandal of our lifetime. Then, whether as payback for their help or just out of his affinity for bullies, Trump openly declared, and continues to declare, his admiration for Putin and his eagerness to work with him.

  Imagine that in an American film: a candidate’s staff cooperates with Russian intelligence to sabotage his opponent, and then, once he’s president, openly embraces and even celebrates Russian adventurism and violence in what can only be a quid pro quo.

  Again, this is in plain sight, no sleight-of-hand or subterfuge necessary, as if Russian repression and its autocratic, anti-democratic behavior were just a small difference of opinion between two allies. Now imagine that in an American film: a candidate’s staff cooperates with Russian intelligence to sabotage his opponent, and then, once he’s president, openly embraces and even celebrates Russian adventurism and violence in what can only be a quid pro quo. Then, for good measure, throw in the assistance of the FBI to lacerate your opponent while covering up news of your Russian contacts. You wouldn’t have believed it for a second. And yet, here we are.

I called it surreal, but it is beyond surreal. It out-Hollywoods Hollywood.

  There’s second way in which the film refracts American politics, by how so much of the conservative political establishment has instantly reversed course without so much as batting an eye. The modern Republican Party was built largely on professions of reckless anti-communism. Though there were courageous moderate Republicans like Sen. Ralph Flanders (R-VT), who led the attack on McCarthy, McCarthyism was one of the primary engines by which Republicans undermined Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy and won public approval by conflating liberalism with America’s enemies. This conflation is deep in Republican bones, so much so that when Raymond’s spiderish mother says that a liberal senator stands on the side of “evil,” she might be speaking for the last two generations of Republicans.

   Although over the last decades it often has been difficult to discern whether Republicans were more opposed to liberalism than authoritarianism, in the last few months they have clearly recalibrated to make it clear that they are. The movie seems to have anticipated this. In The Manchurian Candidate, it isn’t really communism and its undemocratic values that the conservatives abhor. It is democratic values they don’t seem to like very much. (Raymond’s mother promises that when her husband becomes president, there will be Draconian measures that will make “martial law seem like anarchy,” which is something you can, unfortunately, imagine Trump doing in response to a terrorist attack he seems intent on provoking.)

   They want power, and they don’t seem too choosy as to how they get it. As the film’s liberal senator snarls to Raymond’s mother about her husband, “There are people who think of Johnny as a clown and a buffoon, but I do not… I think if John Iselin were a paid Soviet agent, he could not do more to harm this country than he’s doing now.” Sadly, that, too, sounds relevant today.

  The spectacle of the Republican Party standing idly by while its candidate consorts with our Russian enemies and then, as president, kowtows before them is hypocrisy and worse. Just imagine what they would have said if Obama had kissed Putin’s ring. It makes you wonder whether the attraction of authoritarianism to authoritarianism, of Republicanism to Putinism, is so powerful that democracy cannot possibly withstand it. Granted, few ever accuse the modern Republican Party of having principles. But its silence in the face of Russian intrigue makes you wonder whether the GOP welcomes the Russian dust-up as a useful distraction from its own efforts to dismantle the welfare state and undermine a more robust democracy. Not too many people would have even considered that possibility before Trump, but now? The Manchurian Candidate almost seems like prophecy.

  In the film, the candidate doesn’t become president, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a groundswell to get him there. It presumes a political establishment that Iselin must penetrate to ascend, beginning with his scheming his way into the vice presidential nomination. That is why the Russians must program Raymond to kill the presidential nominee and bring Iselin to the top of the ticket, though the scare in the film is that if Raymond, coming to his senses, didn’t finally swerve the rifle from the nominee to his own stepfather, the United States would be a Russian puppet state.

   This is hardly a reassuring view of politics, though this is, after all, just a movie. And yet, gloomy as the film is, it is optimistic compared to our current situation. In America today, there is no political establishment to oppose Trump, only feckless Democrats. The Republicans, aside from a few voices like John McCain’s and Lindsey Graham’s, seem in lockstep with his Russia love, their historical anti-communism notwithstanding.

  That means ordinary Republicans too. Trump may appeal to only 35 percent of Americans, but those 35 percent are the rank-and-file of the Republican Party, which now has a monopoly on government. And they don’t seem to be terribly lathered by Trump’s Russia love either. In fact, polls show Republicans’ views of Russia more closely resemble those of Russians themselves than of their fellow Americans.

   Something has gone so terribly wrong in America that The Manchurian Candidate seems more like a docudrama than an absurd thriller. An American government possibly controlled by a Russian puppet, a major political party turning a blind eye to what may be treasonous conduct, an FBI that cooperated by refusing to sound the alarm and the majority of the American people helpless to do anything about it. That’s not Hollywood anymore, that’s Washington.

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Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two LA Times Book Prizes, Time magazine's non-fiction book of the year, USA Today's biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at the Lear Center for the Study of Entertainment and Society and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.

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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs