Foreign Correspondent

Foreign Correspondent: US beats the drums of war in Iran

Iraqis increasingly dislike the presence of US soldiers. Reese Erlich photo.

While the world focuses on the coronavirus pandemic, tensions between the US and Iran are heating up.

The two countries are engaging in tit-for-tat military attacks that threaten a wider war. In mid-March, Washington officials accused an Iran-allied militia of launching rockets at a US military base in Iraq, killing two American soldiers and one British soldier. The Pentagon retaliated with a missile strike against the group Kataib Hezbollahin Iraq, killing militiamen, five Iraqi servicemen, and a civilian who was also at the base. On March 26 rockets once again hit near the US Embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone.

Iraqis increasingly dislike the presence of US soldiers. Reese Erlich photo.

The Pentagon sent two aircraft carriers to the region, claiming in a March 19 Navy statement that the US is protecting “freedom of navigation and [the] free flow of commerce.” Threatening a possible military attack on Iran, the Navy said the carriers “provide the combatant commander significant striking power for contingency operations.” 

Leaders in Washington and Tehran say they don’t want a full-scale war, but they are playing a dangerous game. And the people of Iraq will suffer the consequences.

“Iraq has become a proxy war between the US and Iran,” says Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi-born human rights activist and writer based in Washington, D.C., in a phone interview. “Iraq is paying in blood and treasure.”

How it all began

In 2018, US President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled out of the nuclear accord with Iran and imposed harsh sanctions on Tehran. Iran waited a year to see if the European signatories to the accord—Britain, France, and Germany—would live up to the agreement by engaging in normal trade and investment. The Europeans knuckled under to Trump, so Iran decided to slam down its fist.

By mid-2019, oil tankers from US-allied countries came under attack. Iran seized a U.K. tanker and shot down a US drone. Iran also pulled back from some provisions of the nuclear accord.

At the end of 2019, Iran-allied militias launched rocket and mortar attacks on US bases in Iraq. Washington portrays these militias as tools of Iran. Groups such as Kataib Hezbollah do receive arms and training from Iran, but they are also now part of the Iraqi army.

The US picks its favorites within the Iraqi military as well, arming and training Kurdish militias and Iraqi army special forces.

Kataib Hezbollah and similar Iran-allied militias initially bore the brunt of fighting ISIS, according to Patrick Theros, a former US ambassador to Qatar and now a strategic advisor to the Gulf International think tank in Washington, D.C.

“The militias are not Iranian controlled,” Theros tells me in a phone interview. “The Iranians can’t just send an order and be confident it will be obeyed.”

But the Trump Administration acts as if the militias are extensions of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, as seen in the January 3 assassination of Iranian military leader Qasem Soleinmani and Iraqi militia head Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Assassinations backfire

Those assassinations were a huge mistake, according to Nader Talebzadeh, an analyst and influential TV host in Iran. “What the American President did was unify the Iranian people and took things to a different level,” he tells me in an interview.

Ordinary Iraqis were even more outraged at the murder of al-Muhandis, who was an extremely popular leader in the fight against ISIS, according to Theros.

“We’re killing Iraqis, not Iranians,” Theros says. “That affects the attitudes toward us.”

The Iraqi parliament passed a resolution calling for the withdrawal of all foreign troops. Iraqi military leaders demanded that Washington get permission from top Iraqi leadership prior to launching another retaliatory raid.

Trump responded to these assertions of Iraqi sovereignty by threatening to impose harsh sanctions and seize Iraq’s central bank reserves held by the Federal Reserve Bank in New York.

“That makes us look like an occupying force,” Theros notes wryly.

Resentment of Iran

Iraqis have plenty of legitimate complaints against the leaders in Tehran. Iranian troops entered Iraq to assist the fight against ISIS, but stayed to spread Iranian influence. Many resent Iran’s role in supporting brutal and corrupt Iraqi politicians.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets in late 2019, protesting both the US and Iranian presence. Demonstrators burned down two Iranian consulates. Ordinary Iraqis were furious at the lack of electricity, water, and widespread government corruption. Iranian-allied militias and government forces brutally suppressed the peaceful demonstrations,killing more than 600 people and injuring tens of thousands.

The demonstrations forced the resignation of Prime Minister Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi on March 1. Adnan al-Zurufi was appointed the new prime minister, but parliament must confirm him by mid-April. Al-Zurufi had lived in the US for years and holds dual US/Iraqi citizenship. He returned to Iraq after the 2003 US invasion, and Washington installed him as governor of Najaf province.

Iraqi politicians are wheeling and dealing over al-Zurufi’s nomination. He has US backing and is hoping for Iranian support as well.

The opposition street protestors see al-Zurufi as part of the old establishment they oppose, but their numbers have dwindled. While thousands had occupied Baghdad’s Tahrir Square at the height of protests last year, only a few hundred remain today.

But Theros says the world shouldn’t write off Iraq’s protest movement. “Unless the government addresses the issues they were protesting, they will be back,” he says. “It’s gone dormant, but it’s not dead.”

US policy failure

Iran currently faces a series of crises: low international oil prices, major flooding in the south, and a spreading coronavirus pandemic.

Harsh, unilateral US sanctions have severely damaged the Iranian economy but have not changed Iran’s policies in the region. Nor has US military action.

Nevertheless, the Trump Administration is pressuring the new Iraqi prime minister to cut off imports of Iranian gas and electricity, in keeping with US sanctions. For the moment, Washington has given Iraq waivers to allow trade to continue. Many Iraqis don’t like Iran but the economies of the two countries are deeply intertwined.

“They can’t do it,” Theros says. “They have no choice but to choose Iran over the US.”

So the ball is in the US court. Trump can continue his “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran and face continued Iraqi attacks on US troops. Or he can back off to focus on domestic concerns and avoid a wider war.

Iranians can wait. They may yet see regime change in Washington this November, long before it comes to Tehran.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. He is author of The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Foreign correspondent: I was under a brief coronavirus quarantine

Quarantined at home, with protective gear.

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

On February 22, I left Iran after a week of covering the country’s parliamentary elections. Ten days later, my nose started running like a faucet. Normally, I would assume it’s a cold, pop some antihistamines, and proceed with my work.

But these are not normal times.

Quarantined at home, with protective gear.

Symptoms of the coronavirus include heavy breathing, fever, cough, and—yes—a runny nose. To be on the safe side, I decided to visit Kaiser Oakland, my ever-so-friendly health care provider.

Times are definitely not normal at the doctor’s office. Each registration station has a photocopied sheet listing symptoms of COVID-19, the flu-like disease contracted from the coronavirus. I tell the nurse about my journey to Iran, a country with one of the world’s highest COVID-19 death rates.

She hands me a face mask and shows me how to put it on. The hot air circulating from my breathing makes the mask uncomfortable. But what’s a little discomfort compared to the possibility of infecting the city of Oakland?

The doctor enters the exam room, and I repeat my concern about possible infection. He hears the words coronavirus and Iran, and bolts for the door. He pauses only to ask again: “Iran?” 

That Tehran taxi driver

My mind flashes back to that taxi driver in Tehran. He lived about 80 miles from Tehran in the city of Qom, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. Iran had discovered only a handful of coronavirus infections at that point, so we joked about the driver’s health. Now I wonder if that’s the source of my infection.

I sit in the exam room reading The New York Times on my phone. I hear some rustling outside. A new doctor, Dr. Wilson Tse, enters wearing not exactly a hazmat suit, but a full length surgical gown, latex gloves, and a face mask.

We discuss whether my symptoms warrant taking the coronavirus test. I have written about the coronavirus and the importance of not panicking. If everyone with a runny nose crams the emergency rooms, there would be no space for seriously ill people. Given the limited number of coronavirus testing kits, public health facilities must choose to test the most serious cases.

That advice is fine until I become one of the cases.

Boston or Bust

As I sit in the doctor’s office, I consider my situation. In just a few days, I am scheduled to depart for a speaking tour at Harvard and other Boston area universities. The trip had been planned for months, and I really don’t want to cancel.

On the other hand, I certainly don’t want to spread the virus, becoming the Typhoid Mary of Boston. Nor am I anxious to die from COVID-19. I could see the opening line of my obituary: “Reese Erlich, the award-winning journalist who late in life spread the coronavirus to Boston, killing hundreds . . . .”

So what are my options? Dr. Tse calls Dr. Sumanth Rajagopal of Kaiser’s infectious disease department. I am told that I can self-quarantine for 14 days, starting on the day I first noticed symptoms. That means not leaving the house or coming in contact with anyone, including my wife. We would have to live in separate rooms, use separate bathrooms, and prepare separate meals.

Or we could ask the Alameda County Health Department to test me for the coronavirus and only impose the full quarantine if it came back positive. In the early stages of the epidemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) only allowed testing for a limited group of people exposed to the virus from China. But now the criteria have widened to include people like me.

My case, says Dr. Rajagopal, is borderline. So he calls Alameda County officials, and because of the unusual nature of my case, they call the CDC in Atlanta.

Infected and contagious

Meanwhile, Kaiser assumes I’m infected and contagious. I’m sitting on one of those uncomfortable plastic chairs that doctors’ offices always provide. I need to urinate, but Kaiser would have had to cordon off that bathroom and scrub it down before anyone could use it again. So I am given one of those plastic thingies with a wide opening and snap-on cap to pee in.

Once I leave the exam room, it must be thoroughly scrubbed down as well. After a two-hour wait, the decision comes back whether I would be tested. The answer is yes.

Poor Dr. Tse, who had already destroyed his previous personal protective equipment, must now don a new gown, gloves, and mask. He sticks a long, thin swab further up my nose than I thought possible. Same for the throat swab. He seals the swabs in plastic and prepares them for pick-up by the county health workers. They say the results would be back from the health department in 24-48 hours. We’ll see.

This quarantine business is serious. It pits the collective health of the community against individual rights. Sometimes the measures seem extreme. In early March, one whole floor of a downtown San Francisco office tower was closed because two employees had come in contact with an infected person. They didn’t necessarily have the virus; they just had contact with someone who did.

After writing about quarantines elsewhere in the world, for the first time I was entering that world myself. It’s no walk in the park—literally. I can’t even walk to the local park when nobody is there.

Quarantine begins

Amy Pine from the Alameda County Public Health Department gives me a call. She explains that the county has issued an order of isolation prohibiting me from leaving the house. I can have no visitors nor contact with the aforementioned wife.

The order of isolation includes this ominous warning: “Violation or failure to comply with this order may result in civil detention and is a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment, fine, or both.”

“Where public health is in danger, health officers have quite a bit of power,” Pine says. “We want all people safe.”

But Pine, when I ask, says she knows of no cases where coronavirus carriers have been jailed. That’s reassuring.

Afterward, she calls me to explain a staff member will drop off some PPE (Personal Protective Equipment as I’ve now learned to call it). The staffer will drop a box on my front porch, leave, and then phone me.

I naively suggest that she ring the doorbell, which I assure her I haven’t touched in years. Who rings their own doorbell? But the staffer phoned me from the safety of her car.

Then about 44 hours after my Kaiser visit, a county public health worker called to say I had tested negative for the coronavirus. By then it wasn’t really a surprise. None of my Iranian colleagues had shown signs of infection. And I had been symptom free since that one day of a runny nose. I probably had a cold or allergy.

Hindsight

My experience raises an important question. Should I have done anything different? Did I waste valuable public health resources for what turned out to be a severe runny nose?

Normally, I wouldn’t have gone to a doctor at the first sign of my symptoms. I would have waited to see if more serious problems developed. That’s still the best advice for the general public. But, given my Iran trip, I had a much higher possibility of exposure. So I don’t regret my actions, nor do the doctors involved.

I dodged a bullet this time. My experience was quite mild compared to those undergoing long quarantine periods. I have the advantage of good health insurance, good care and a house big enough to accommodate the quarantine. Many Americans don’t.

But I developed a new appreciation of handling epidemics. My hat, gown, and gloves are off to public health professionals everywhere.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. He is author of The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit hiswebpage.

Foreign correspondent: Hardliners win in Iran but turnout was extremely low

Most Iranians ignored the campaign posters. In Tehran only 25% voted in the parliamentary elections. Photo by Reese Erlich

TEHRAN—The parliamentary candidates had rented a large hall for a campaign rally, but only a few hundred supporters showed up. They came to see Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, a leading hardliner and possible presidential candidate next year.

As warm-up speakers droned on, the audience responded with ritualistic chants but little enthusiasm. Many stared at their smartphones. Then the event ended abruptly. Ghalibaf never showed up.

Most Iranians ignored the campaign posters. In Tehran only 25% voted in the parliamentary elections. Photo by Reese Erlich

The hardliners, known here as principalists, won a landslide victory in Iran’s February 21 parliamentary elections, but without the kind of enthusiasm that marked previous campaigns.

The principalists won all 30 seats in Tehran and 220 of the 290 total parliament seats. But the nationwide turnout was just 42.5 percent, compared to almost 62 percent for the 2016 parliamentary elections, and was the lowest since the 1979 Revolution. In Tehran, only 25 percent of eligible voters went to the polls.

The principalists defeated the reformists, who had previously dominated the parliament and supported President Hassan Rouhani.

A prominent journalist and reformist supporter predicted the principalist landslide. He told me that President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear accord in 2018 and the economic problems stemming from US sanctions “humiliated the reformists. It was Trump’s gift to the hardliners.”

Interviewed at random in Tehran, Abdullah Zamankhanpour expressed the view of many alienated residents. He used to be a member of the ultra-conservative paramilitaries known as basij, but quit in disgust when he saw corruption among the officers. Now the 62-year-old retiree doesn’t support either the principalists or the reformists.

“All the politicians are liars,” he told me.

Reformist demise

President Rouhani, a centrist, was first elected in 2013 with reformist support. He became very popular with the passage of a health care plan to help low-income Iranians, known locally as “Rouhani Care.”

Under Rouhani’s watch, Iran successfully negotiated the nuclear accord with the Obama Administration. That agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, placed stringent restrictions on Iran’s nuclear energy program. It opened the possibility of removing some US sanctions and allowing much needed foreign investment.

But Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement in 2018 badly undercut its supporters in Iran. The principalists argued that Rouhani and the reformists had given up the country’s national sovereignty, and then got stabbed in the back.

Nader Talebzadeh, a principalist leader and host of an influential weekly TV program, told me Rouhani never should have agreed to the pact in the first place. Iran has no nuclear weapons and no plans to build them, he said.

“We have signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty and accepted scrutiny by the International Atomic Energy Agency,” he said. “Why should we be sanctioned more?”

Events in the past month further contributed to the principalist victory. On January 3, a US drone assassinated General Qasem Soleimani at the Baghdad airport. Soleimani was an important figure in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the nation’s second most popular leader, behind Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The assassination united Iranians in grief and anger. Funeral processions commemorating his death filled the streets of several cities, and the government estimates 25 million people participated.  Soleimani’s death strengthened the principalists because Iranians view them as staunch opponents of US aggression.

On January 8, an Iranian missile accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet. The government failed to acknowledge responsibility for three days, angering many Iranians. Reformists were dispirited by Rouhani’s response, and many chose not to vote at all.

Reformist v. principalist

Iran has a unique electoral system that allows elections—but only within a narrow range of candidates. Tens of thousands announced plans to run for parliament. The Guardian Council, a body of 12 Islamic clerics, makes the ultimate decision on who runs. This year, roughly half of the 14,444 prospective candidates were disqualified, the majority of whom were reformists and moderates. So the deck was already stacked in favor of the principalists.

The Iranian parliament has little real power, serving mainly as a sounding board for debates within Iran’s ruling circles. Real power lies with Khamenei, who can override decisions made by parliament and the president.

The principalists, who derive their power from control of the judiciary, intelligence services, and Revolutionary Guard, have cracked down hard on popular demonstrations and political dissidents.

Reformists seek moderate change within the Islamic system and have been relatively less repressive. Calling for free market reforms, however, they advocate neo-liberal economic policies of privatization and eliminating government subsidies to ordinary Iranians.

The principalists ran as populists, blaming Rouhani for the country’s 26 percent inflation rate as of January and an economy that shrank by 7.1 percentin 2019.

Sayed Miaad Salehi, an up-and-coming principalist, told a rally of retirees, “There’s no transparency concerning the very high salaries of some government officials. If elected, I will promote transparency and work to lower the outrageously high government salaries.”

Mahmoud Sadeghi, a reformist member of parliament, told me that the call to lower government salaries has a populist but “very superficial appeal.” He noted that the economy suffers under harsh US sanctions and from mismanagement in the economic system. Cutting high government salaries is “a very simple solution for complicated economic matters. These are populist views, but the economic problems are very deeply rooted.”

While all this is going on, Iran faces a coronavirus outbreak second only to China in the number of confirmed deaths. Virus cases were first discovered in Qom, a city 80 miles from Tehran. Initial reports indicate public health authorities were caught unprepared.

“The medical team is really helpless because it lacks special equipment and supplies, nor have they received necessary training to protect themselves,” one hospital source in Qom toldIranWire. “It uses the same supplies, like masks and disinfectants, as ordinary people do. The medical staff is extremely worried that they could carry the virus home with them.”

Containing the virus will be particularly difficult because people traditionally travel to see family during the Persian New Year, which begins March 20. It’s not yet clear what steps the government will take to quarantine the virus.

So now the Iranian government has one more major crisis to resolve. But in my conversations with dozens of Iranians, none said the crises will lead the government to compromise with the Trump Administration nor even hold negotiations. The country faces big problems, but Trump’s policies, everyone seems to agree, are not the solution.

Reese Erlich has reported from Iran since 2000 and is author of The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy. The Foreign Correspondent column appears twice monthly.

Foreign Correspondent: Reaction to coronavirus is overblown

Electron microscope image of the COVD-19 virus (photo by NIAID).

A new and deadly virus from China is coming to get you. Cancel your travel plans, quarantine your grandparents, and don’t let a Chinese person sneeze on you! Social media is all atwitter. Some Uber and Lyft drivers are even refusing to pick up passengers with Chinese-sounding names.

The mainstream media has produced reams of articles, many criticizing China for its mishandling of the crisis.

Electron microscope image of the COVD-19 virus (photo by NIAID).

Let’s calm down for a moment. The new virus, known as COVID-19, produces flu-like symptoms but rarely results in death; it is serious but hardly cause for panic. As of mid-week, the virus has infected more than 60,000 people and killed some 1,370 of them, almost all in China.

Only about two percent of the coronavirus-infected people have died, and they are mostly older with underlying health conditions. By comparison, the death rate was near 100 percent during the early years of the 1980s AIDS pandemic and the 2014 Ebola crisis.

So far, the coronavirus has not caused any deaths in the US and isn’t a serious threat here, according to Dr. James McLean, a board-certified emergency room doctor and old friend.

“People should be more concerned about regular influenza, which is far more deadly,” Dr. McLean tells me.

Existing influenza strains have already infected 180,000 Americans—and killed 10,000—during the 2019-20 flu season.

Wendel Brunner, the former director of public health in Contra Costa County, California, says the panic over COVID-19 follows a familiar pattern.

“Whenever these virus outbreaks occur, the op-ed columns fill up with experts predicting various forms of disaster,” Brunner tells me. “You don’t get published for saying the authorities, especially in China, are doing a good job.”

Brunner says some experts criticize Chinese authorities no matter what they do. “First the Chinese acted too passively, then they acted too aggressively. We are down on China now because it is economically successful.”

So let’s insert a little rationality into the debate. What is the virus and what can be done to contain it?

What is this coronavirus?

While scientists are still unsure, it seems likely that this new coronavirus originated in live animals and jumped to humans through a market in Wuhan, China. Similarly, doctors aren’t certain exactly how the disease is transmitted, but they suspect it’s spread airborne or through contact with mucus.

You may get it from being around people “coughing, sneezing, shaking hands, or even opening a door handle recently touched by an infected person,” says Dr. McLean.

In December, Wuhan doctors began reporting respiratory illness with severe, flu-like symptoms from an unknown virus. As is too often the case in such medical emergencies, local officials downplayed the problem.

Li Wenliang, a doctor in a hospital respiratory department, posted a warning about the new virus in a private chat group. Someone leaked the message, and it was widely circulated online. Dr. Li hadn’t intended to be a whistleblower. Although what he wrote was true, local police detained him for rumor mongering and forced him to recant. In February, he died after being exposed to one of his coronavirus patients.

China’s Supreme Court later vindicated Dr. Li, noting that his warnings should have been taken seriously. Dr. Li has since become a national hero in China.

China is hardly unique in attacking doctors who report embarrassing information. When Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha exposed the high levels of lead in Flint’s water supply, Michigan officials initially accused her of spreading panic.

That doesn’t let China off the hook. China’s socialist system is supposed to allow for constructive criticism of government and Communist Party policies. But frequently, bureaucrats opt to suppress bad medical news, environmental problems, or atrocious factory conditions. China has developed a strong and independent economy, but ordinary Chinese citizens face crackdowns for expressing dissent.

“Local officials in any country never want to acknowledge unpleasant developments,” says Dr. Brunner. “That hesitation in China may well have delayed an earlier response that could have been important.”

Fighting virus on luxury linter

A luxury cruise ship docked in Yokohama, Japan, reveals the difficulties in handling the virus. After some people on board contracted coronavirus, almost 3,700 passengers and crew were quarantined. That action prevented the spread of the virus to Yokohama but also increased the number of infected people on board. Afterward, the number of infected people had more than doubled to 175.

Japan’s health ministry has been unable to test some 3,000 people on board for the virus due to a shortage of test kits. Although confined in luxurious conditions with first-world medical care, some passengers complained they are more likely to get sick by staying on board.

“I do not believe they are containing this epidemic by keeping us quarantined,” Gay Courter told The New York Times. “Something is wrong with the plan.”

Dr. Erica Pan, interim health officer and director of the Division of Communicable Disease Control and Prevention in the Alameda County Public Health Department, says officials have the difficult task of balancing individual rights against public health.

If people infected with coronavirus can spread the disease to others before they show symptoms, she says, “Containment may not work within that enclosed population.”

In other words, quarantines may temporarily make the quarantined people sicker.

China’s response

China faces the same dilemma as Japan, except it’s protecting 1.4 billion people. It’s no surprise that some Chinese criticize their government, which has proportionately fewer medical resources than Japan.

China has taken extreme measures to contain the epidemic. The central government enforced a quarantine on Wuhan, a city of 11 million people. Many people are staying home, going out only for food and emergencies. Travel to and from Wuhan is prohibited. The government built two hospitals in just two weeks in Wuhan, but there still aren’t enough beds and medical supplies.

Some major airlines have canceled flights in and out of China. Factories are closing due to lack of workers and supplies. Major cities such as Beijing and Shenzhen have all but shut down.

The central government plans to gradually restore normal activity after a two-week quarantine period. It will test every individual in Wuhan, isolate those infected, and allow others to return to normal life.

But even if the vast majority of infected people are identified, a few could slip by, and the virus could spread again. Such a massive quarantine requires government transparency so doctors can accurately track the disease. Dr. McLean suspects Chinese officials have been less than transparent.

“I think the epidemic is a lot worse,” he says. “The numbers are a lot higher.”

Scientists say the coronavirus epidemic could evolve in two ways. It could spread outside China and become a global pandemic. Or, like the 2003 SARS epidemic, Dr. Pan says, “we could stop the disease transmission.” In that earlier epidemic, officials were able to isolate affected people, contain the disease spread, and “public health measures worked.” The virus “burned out.”

For all its shortcomings, Dr. Brunner says the massive quarantine in China “was clearly a bold, decisive act that certainly helps protect not only China but the whole world.”

And the world is waiting to see if that bold act bears results.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Foreign Correspondent: Who’s at fault for Cuba’s economic problems?

Innovative chef Alexis Alvarez. Photo by Sandra Vasquez

HAVANA—Chef Alexis Alvarez was in panic mode. He was preparing a gourmet meal for visitors from the United States when the electricity went out. He mostly cooks with natural gas and charcoal, but those won’t power his blender full of organic kale.

So Alexis found a very Cuban solution. He slipped the blender into an old sack, walked over to the nearby hospital that had electricity, plugged in the blender, ran it for 10 seconds, and then left. Presto: a healthy and tasty iced drink.

Innovative Cuban chef Alexis Alvarez. Photo by Sandra Vasquez

Despite the electricity crisis and periodic water shut offs in his town of San Jose, 20 miles southeast of Havana, Alexis managed to produce a delicious meal of seafood soup, eggplant lasagna, fried fish, and roast pork.

Alexis is one of a growing number of food entrepreneurs reinventing Cuban cuisine and expanding the private sector, precisely the kind of person US policy is supposed to benefit.

But he blames the electricity shortages on the 58-year-old US embargo. Last year, for example, the Trump Administration sanctioned Cypriot and Panamanian tankers bringing oil to Cuba’s power plants, which, in turn, cause electricity blackouts.

The US embargo on Cuba, unilaterally imposed in 1962, isn’t supported by any country in the world. For the past 28 years, the U.N. General Assembly has voted overwhelmingly to oppose the embargo.

Alexis also faults Cuban authorities for the periodic shortages of consumer goods, ranging from canned tomatoes to toilet paper. Trucks with enough fuel can’t seem to consistently pick up the goods and deliver them to the right stores.

“It’s bad administration,” he tells me.

But for Alexis and every other Cuban I interviewed, the ultimate villain is Donald Trump.

Cuban economic problems

After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Cuba was cut off from its main trading partners and Soviet economic subsidies. From 1989-93, the Cuban GDP plunged by 35 percent. By comparison, at the nadir of the US Great Recession in 2007-09, the economy shrank by 4.2 percent.

Over the past 30 years, Cuba instituted a series of policies that try to balance socialism with market reforms. The Cuban government continues to control major industries, maintains free health care and education, and promotes high-quality, subsidized cultural events.

But it also eliminated no-show government jobs and encouraged employment at small businesses such as restaurants and bed and breakfast lodging. Today, the government provides 68 percent of jobs and the private sector 32 percent.

The Cuban economy experienced a relative boom after President Barack Obama regularized diplomatic relations in 2015. US travelers flooded into Cuba, giving a boost to hotels, restaurants, and the entire tourism industry. As recently as  2018, I saw fifty tour buses lined up in Havana to receive US cruise ship passengers.

Relaxation of the embargo also led to US-Cuba cooperation in developing pharmaceutical drugs. For example, New York’s Mt. Sinai Hospital conducted successful human trials for a Cuban lung cancer vaccine.

Trump reverses progress

But by 2019, Trump reversed many of Obama’s administrative changes. He banned US residents from staying in Cuban government hotels, eating in state restaurants, or utilizing government tourism agencies.

Nevertheless,257,000 people from the United States visited Cuba in the first four months of 2019, excluding cruise ship passengers. Travel remains legal to Cuba if visitors stay at privately owned B&Bs, eat at privately owned restaurants, and follow certain other US regulations.

But Trump continues to squeeze the Cuban economy by threatening European banks and corporations doing business with Cuba. For example, Trump has allowed Cuban Americans whose property was nationalized after they fled Cuba in the early 1960s to sue European companies now doing business in those buildings.

Break ties with Venezuela?

The Trump Administration also wants to stop Cuba’s support for the Venezuelan government of Nicolas Maduro. Cuba provides doctors as well as military advisors to Venezuela, and Venezuela ships oil to Cuban refineries. Trump’s policies are aimed at breaking Cuba’s solidarity with Venezuela, says a US reporter based in Havana.

Such pressure “has never worked before,” the reporter tells me, “and it’s not likely to work now. The embargo hits ordinary Cubans—not the government.”

Canadians and Europeans continue to visit Cuba. But the drop in US tourism since the middle of last year means less hard currency to buy foreign goods. Sanctions against third country tankers reduced oil shipments, increased prices at the pump and led to shortages of transport to get food into the cities.

Last July, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel announced plans to raise state worker salaries, eliminate the dual currency system and encourage provincial self sufficiency in food production. The plans are a work in progress, and their effectiveness remains to be seen.

But one thing is for sure. The US embargo hurts ordinary Cubans while failing to change Cuban government policy.

Foreign Correspondent columnist Reese Erlich has reported from Cuba since 1968. He is author of Dateline Havana: The Real Story of US Policy and the Future of Cuba.Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Foreign correspondent: Trump backs down, but Iran conflict continues

Iranians overwhelmingly oppose Trump's policies. Reese Erlich photo

Trump blinked.

After threatening to bomb military and cultural sites in Iran, President Donald Trump has apparently backed down on further escalation in his quasi-war with Iran. He tried to spin his decision as a US victory, claiming his administration had supposedly made America safer by assassinating Iranian Major General Qassem Suleimani.

Iranians overwhelmingly oppose Trump’s policies. Reese Erlich photo

Iran, in response to this killing, fired 22 ballistic missiles at two US bases in Iraq, destroying a helicopter and some buildings but causing no casualties. Iranian authorities had alerted the Iraqi military in advance, which contributed to the lack of deaths.

The bottom line, says Ibrahim Al-Marashi, an associate professor of history at California State University San Marcos, is that Iran was able to strike US military facilities without consequences.

“Trump is just redefining victory despite Iran striking a military base,” Al-Marashi tells me.

While Trump’s decision to de-escalate will save lives in the short run, his actions have alienated tens of millions of people in Iraq and Iran. By a vote of 170-0, the Iraqi parliament called for withdrawal of all foreign troops from its country. Iraq’s acting prime minister, Adil Abdul Mahdi, received a letter from the US military commanders indicating some troops would leave, but the US later disavowed the letter.

The Trump Administration refuses to withdraw its troops, and Trump even threatened sanctions against Iraq if the troops are kicked out. It remains to be seen if Iraqi leaders will continue their push for troop withdrawal.

Millions of Iranians gathered for funeral tributes to Suleimani. Iranians who were protesting corruption and repression just a few months ago were out in the streets fearing a US attack and rallying around the government.

Cyrus, a businessman who attended last year’s protests and this week’s funeral event in Tehran, says the mourners stretched for miles. “It was the largest crowd I ever saw,” he tells me, asking that only his first name be used. “Everyone was angry and wanted revenge.”

Tit for tat

In response to the Trump Administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord in 2018, Iran has been stepping up retaliatory measures. In recent months, Iraqi militias allied with Iran launched attacks on US troops stationed in Iraq. Then, on December 29, the Pentagon bombed two militia bases, killing 25 people and wounding dozens. In response, Iraqis stormed the US Embassy in Baghdad. On January 2, US drones assassinated Suleimani and several militia leaders.

Despite a public statementthat it does not seek further escalation, the Trump administration may yet see more retaliation, according to a high-level Iranian government source. So far, he tells me, Iran has focused on military targets, but he notes that Suleimani has “millions of followers all across the region from Yemen to Lebanon who will be seeking revenge from the United States. Iran cannot control them.”

“Trump’s assets all around the world will be considered as legitimate,” says the source, who didn’t want his name used for security reasons.

If pro-Iranian groups started blowing up Trump office towers or launching cyber attacks on his hotels, Al-Marashi says, it would put the administration in an awkward position.

“Would the American public tolerate US soldiers defending Trump hotels?” he asks. “It would put Trump in a bind.”

War under false pretenses

Trump claims the United States had to kill Suleimani because he was “plotting imminent and sinister attacks” on US forces. So far, his administration has provided no public proof of this assertion, and Al-Marashi says Suleimani and his allies posed no more of a threat on January 2 than on any previous day.

“This seemed like an impulsive decision to retaliate for the storming of the US embassy,” he says. “If there was a clear and present danger, not only the American public but the international community would have been told.”

“The United States has a long history of lying about starting wars,” notes Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi-born human rights activist and writer based in Washington, D.C. “The United States exaggerates threats and then claims national security for the purpose of circumventing Congress.”

In my opinion, Trump’s words “imminent and sinister attacks” will go down in history with “weapons of mass destruction” in the annals of major presidential lies.

Ironically, according to Iraqi Prime Minister Mahdi, at least part of Suleimani’s Baghdad visit was diplomatic. He was delivering a message from Iranian leaders in an effort to lower tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Suleimani

The Trump Administration has labeled Suleimani a terrorist and the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization. Both Republican and Democratic presidents claim Suleimani was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans soldiers in Iraq, a blatant falsehood, as explained by professor Stephen Zunes in The Progressive.

But many Iraqis hate Suleimani, because of the brutal tactics used by Iran-allied militias. Starting last October, tens of thousands of Iraqis poured into the streets to protest unemployment, corruption, and Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs. Iranian-allied militias deployed snipers, who killed dozens of demonstrators.

In another incident, says activist Jarrar, the Iranian trained militia Kataeb Hezbollah attacked demonstrators gathered in Tahrir Square. “The Iraqi army and police stepped aside, and they shot demonstrators,” Jarrar tells me. “Demonstrators later found boxes of bullets made in Iran.”

But many Iranians see Suleimani as a hero who led the fight against ISIS terrorism and who protected holy Shia Muslim shrines in Iraq and Syria. An October poll showed Suleimani was the most popular political leader in Iran, with an 82 percent approval rating.

Suleimani has entered Iran’s pantheon of martyrs. “A martyr is much more dangerous for the Americans than a live person,” says businessman Cyrus. “Mothers will teach their sons to become another Suleimani. Millions will fight the arrogance of the US system.”

Cyrus supported last November’s protests against unemployment and corruption. “The yellow vests in France demonstrated for one year,” he says. “Why not here?”

Cyrus later opposed the demonstrations when they turned violent. “But,” he adds, “everybody supported the demands of protestors. If you didn’t, you didn’t know the situation in Iran.”

As of this writing, the tit-for-tat military attacks have subsided. But the underlying conflict is far from resolved. Trump seems intent on forcing regime change in Iran. Iranians aren’t going for it.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. He is author of The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy. Follow him on  Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

What’s really going on with the US and Iran?

US troops in Kurdistan. Photo by Reese Erlich.

On Jan. 2 a US drone fired a missile on a car caravan leaving the Baghdad airport, killing Iranian Major General Qassem Suleimani and leaders of Iraqi militia groups. The Trump administration claims the attack eliminated terrorists planning attacks on US forces. But many Iraqis and Iranians consider it an act of war. Who is Suleimani and what impact will his assassination have on the region? 48 Hills talked with Reese Erlich, author of our Foreign Correspondent column, who has reported from Iran and Iraq for 20 years.

48 Hills: Who was Qassem Suleimani and why is his assassination significant?

Erlich: Suleimani was a top leader in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and headed up the Quds Force, Iran’s elite troops fighting in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the region. He played an important political role, for example, recently negotiating with Iraqi political parties to select a new prime minister. The US claims he was responsible for killing US soldiers during the 2003 Iraq War.

US troops in Kurdistan. Photo by Reese Erlich.

Suleimani was extremely popular at home, enjoying a 83 percent approval rating within Iran. It’s as if Iran had assassinated Eisenhower during World War II. The Iranians will almost surely retaliate.

48 Hills: What form will that retaliation take?

RE: I don’t have a crystal ball, but we can see what Iran and its allies have done recently. We may see more large demonstrations against the US Embassy in Baghdad, attacks on US-allied shipping in the Persian Gulf and/or assaults on US forces in the region. Ironically, before the most recent US attacks, tens of thousands of Iraqis were demonstrating against Iran’s presence in Iraq. In November, protestors even burned the Iranian consulate in Najaf, Iraq. Recent Trump administration actions, however, have swung Iraqi popular opinion against the US, and the anti-Iran demonstrations have stopped.

48 Hills: Is the recent attack an example of “Wag the Dog,” in which Trump seeks a war in order to divert attention from his impeachment and the 2020 elections?

RE: In the days ahead, we’ll learn more about the internal discussions in the White House leading to the attacks. Trump undoubtedly hopes to rally the country round the flag in his new offensive against “terrorism.” But the current actions are also the logical outcome of Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran launched in 2017. Since Iran hasn’t buckled under unilateral US sanctions, military action is the next logical step for him. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter about Trump’s intentions. His actions are illegal under international law and a disaster for the people of the US and the Middle East.

48 Hills: Who are the “Iranian backed militias,” which Washington blames for attacking US troops?

RE: From 2003-2011, the Pentagon spent billions of dollars training the Iraqi Army. But when the Islamic State attacked Iraq in 2014, the US-trained army collapsed. With ISIS approaching Baghdad, the call went out to form self-defense groups. Iran, with ISIS also approaching its borders in northeastern Iraq, armed and trained some of these militias. The various armed groups later formed the Popular Mobilization Units and formally affiliated with the Iraqi Army. Today the Iraqi government pays their salaries and provides them with ranks equivalent to the Army.

The US trained and armed its own factions within the Army, most notably the Iraqi Counter Terrorism forces. In Syria, the US armed the Kurdish-based Syrian Democratic Forces and has trained and armed the Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq. It’s rather hypocritical to blame Iran for training armed groups while the US does exactly the same.

In response to US economic warfare against Iran, its allies in Iraq launched mortars and rockets at several bases billeting US soldiers. Then on Dec. 29, the Pentagon bombed the base camp of one militia, Kataib Hezbollah, claiming the group was controlled by Iran. Kataib Hezbollah is also a unit of the Iraqi Army.

Just prior to the Dec. 29 bombing, which killed 19 and wounded 35, the Trump administration consulted with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Israel–but not Iraq. Understandably, Iraqis across the political spectrum criticized the bombing and assassination of Suleimani as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. The US seems intent on fighting Iran on Iraqi soil.

48 Hills: Does Iran pose a danger to US national interests?

RE: Iran’s government is a right-wing, religious-based regime that represses its own people. It seeks regional influence, mainly in countries with large Shia populations such as Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain, but also Syria. Washington cares little about human rights violations in Iran or anywhere else. It wants to reestablish a pro-US regime in Iran that will allow US oil companies to once again dominate the economy. The people of the US have no national interest in protecting oil company profits. Recent events have shown that people in the region don’t want to be dominated by any foreign power, whether the US or Iran.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks in 48 Hills. He is author of The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with U.S. Policy. Follow him on  Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Foreign Correspondent: An open letter to a Trump-supporting friend

Trump hasn't kept his promises to end foreign wars -- in fact, just the opposite.

I first met Robby Robertson during the 1969 General Electric strike. He was a young, militant worker fighting for a decent contract and social justice. He considered himself a “radical humanitarian.”

We later worked together on the assembly lines at National Can Corporation in San Leandro, near Oakland, fighting management and conservative union leaders. He turned me on to outlaw country musicians like Willie Nelson. We partied and struggled together against the bosses, against racism, and for immigrant rights.

Trump hasn’t kept his promises to end foreign wars — in fact, just the opposite.

That’s why I was surprised to learn recently that Robby Robertson supports Donald Trump.

In 2016, Robby had soured on Hillary Clinton because of what he considered her corruption and anti-working class policies.

“Trump is my man because I believe he loves this country and wants what he believes is best for it,” Robby tells me. “I have not witnessed that from the left side of the aisle.”

Robby reflects the views of many older white workers who are critical of the system and blame Democrats and liberals for its breakdown. I strongly disagree with his views but respect him.

And so I am writing this open letter to you, Robby, in hopes we can at least have a dialogue, if not a change of heart.

Foreign policy

Like most Trump supporters, you respect the President because you believe he’s carried out his campaign promises. He did what he said he would do, you say. Well, let’s take a closer look.

You say that Trump “operates like a businessman. His foreign policy hasn’t been that harmful. Everyone makes bad decisions. I believe if Hillary had won, the country would have been far worse off.”

First of all, we agree that Hillary Clinton, an unrepentant war hawk, would have made a bad president. As a US Senator, she voted for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. She supported new wars in Libya and Yemen, and vastly expanded the number of US troops fighting overseas.

This week, The Washington Post printed US government documents showing that Obama consistently lied about the Afghan war; so did George W. Bush and now Trump. Those three Presidents are responsible for the deaths of more than 2,400 US soldiers and more than 38,000 Afghan civilians. The war has also cost the United States $2 trillion and counting.

While claiming to oppose “endless wars,” Trump has expanded every one of them. This chart tells the story.

Trump Troop Deployment 

Country            US troops Jan. 2017          US troops today

Afghanistan        10,000                                 14,000

Iraq                   5,000                                    6,000

Syria                  500                                         900

Saudi Arabia        0                                         3,500

Source: New York Times

Today, the Pentagon has 200,000 troops stationed overseas on nearly 800 military bases. That doesn’t look like bringing the boys home. In fact, the deployment costs taxpayers between $160 billion and $200 billion per year—money that should be going for health care, education, and infrastructure.

Still, Trump would have my support if all these troops were actually protecting the country. But our president has been unusually candid in admitting why soldiers are actually deployed.

For instance, Trump was going to pull the troops out of Syria but then sent them back into occupy Syria’s oil fields, offering US oil companies the right to pump the oil.

Now Trump is considering sending 14,000 more troops to the Persian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, which would double the US presence there. The President openly admits he favors the Saudi King because he bought tens of billions of dollars worth of US weapons and because he supplies the West with oil. US troops are being put in harm’s way to protect the profits of companies like GE, where we once walked the picket lines.

Trump claims his America First policy has restored US prestige in the world. In fact, it’s the opposite. I’ve reported from ten countries during the Trump era, and even the United States’ closest allies don’t trust Trump. He is seen as reckless and unpredictable, and as a bully for breaking international agreements and imposing tariffs.

Trump threatened to bring “fire and fury” down on North Korea, only to back down when challenged. When he accused Iran of attacking oil tankers in the Mediterranean and bombing Saudi oil facilities, he took no military action. When Turkey invaded northern Syria and attacked the Kurdish militia allied with the Pentagon, he allowed Turkey to proceed.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m actually glad Trump hasn’t attacked Iran, or Mexico for that matter. In fact, I’d like to see well-planned, rapid withdrawal of US troops as part of a major revamp of US foreign policy. But Trump is not withdrawing troops, and his empty threats erode US credibility.

Trump hasn’t ended the endless wars because he’s not willing to take the hard steps needed to end them.

Good economy?

Okay, you say, but at least Trump has delivered on the economy.

“People hate Trump because he stepped outside the box,” you tell me. “He doesn’t play politics; he’s a businessman.”

The economy has grown about 2.5 percent per year under Trump and unemployment has hit a five-decade low of 3.5 percent. People, including students and homemakers, are coming back into the workforce because there are more jobs.

And yes, Robby, if a President Hillary Clinton had the same economic numbers, the Democrats would be trumpeting her great successes. But I would point out that for Clinton, as for Trump, this economic expansion is a house of cards that hasn’t helped workers anywhere near as much as claimed. The good-paying manufacturing jobs have not returned in significant numbers.

Trump holds rallies and media events at factories, where he has supposedly stopped management from moving overseas and saved hundreds of jobs. But months later those factories are still closing, moving overseas, or laying off workers.

The same thing happens when Trump claims that his tariffs have boosted American jobs. His policies temporarily benefit some industries while badly hurting others. When Trump imposed tariffs on foreign steel manufacturers, the protected US companies raised their prices, which hurt manufacturers who buy steel. Some of those companies then laid off workers to save money while passing on some of the price increases to customers.

Jobs in primary metal manufacturing have gone down by 7,900 since January, including job losses in the supposedly protected aluminum industry.

For the first time since the 1920s, the United States has started trade wars with dozens of countries, including Canada, Britain, and France. Those countries retaliate with their own tariffs and businesses get worried. Worried executives don’t invest, and that will help bring on recession.

“Trump’s tariffs have caused business investment to fall for two consecutive calendar quarters, which usually indicates that a recession will start soon,” David Kotz tells me. He’s an old friend of yours and mine, Robby, and an economics professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

I can’t predict when, but a big recession is coming, and Trump’s policies are helping bring it on. 

Still friends?

Robby, I don’t know if any of my arguments make sense to you, let alone have changed your mind. While we disagree, I respect your views.

You’re a talented artist and I still treasure the drawing you gave me of Willie Nelson. I look forward to having coffee  with you soon.

By the way, Robby, you might want to take a look at Willie Nelson’s outspoken opposition to Trump, particularly how he criticized the imprisonment of Central American children at the US-Mexico border.

“What’s going on at our southern border is outrageous,” Willie said. “Christians everywhere should be up in arms.”

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Foreign Correspondent: What’s next for Bolivia after military coup?

Reese Erlich interviews indigenous woman in Bolivia 2005, about protests against the US-backed regime. Indigenous people make up 55% of Bolivia's population. Photo by Amanda Groty

In 2005, I sat in a lounge off the Senate chamber in La Paz, Bolivia, waiting for an interview. I was wearing my best coat and tie. With my thinning hair and grey mustache, I could pass for a Bolivian of European descent. In fact, numerous people smiled and said “buenos días,” as if I was a familiar face.

Reese Erlich interviews indigenous woman in Bolivia 2005, about protests against the US-backed regime. Indigenous people make up 55% of Bolivia’s population.
Photo by Amanda Groty

The senators were mostly white men, reflecting the makeup of Bolivia’s political elite at that time. But that changed just a few months later with the election of Evo Morales and his party, Movement Toward Socialism (MAS).

Morales’s government nationalized natural gas and electric companies, defying both the US and the Bolivian oligarchy. So it’s not surprising that those forces now denounce Morales as a dictator and cheer his overthrow.

Bolivia held elections on October 20 this year. Opposition leaders, claiming vote fraud, organized mass, anti-government demonstrations. Sectors of the military and police sided with the opposition. Morales, his vice president and other top government leaders resigned under military pressure. Some went into exile in Mexico.

While the Trump Administration and mainstream media characterized the events as a popular uprising, Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont, correctly called it a coup.

“It was the military who intervened in that process and asked him to leave,” Sanders said during the Democratic Party debate in Atlanta on November 20. “When the military intervenes, in my view, that’s called a coup.”

Some recent history

In 2005, I reported from Bolivia on the popular movements opposed to then President Carlos Mesa. The rich elite who ran Bolivia in those days followed US-inspired neoliberal economic policies by privatizing government-owned companies, even those providing drinking water and sewage lines.

The privatized water utility was owned by a French multinational corporation. It raised the sewage hook-up charge to $450, roughly eight times the typical monthly income in El Alto, a working-class city located above La Paz.

The people of El Alto sought Mesa’s resignation through mass protests. “We used force because this is an issue facing us and our children,” street vendor Alejandra Arteaga told me when I was writing for the Dallas Morning News. “When there was a strike or a blockade, we went up to participate.”

In June 2005, a new round of mass demonstrations forced Mesa to resign, and by December, Bolivians elected Morales president. He served three terms.

Poverty alleviation and indigenous rights

At a time when most Latin American economies were slowing, Bolivia under Morales and MAS reduced poverty by 42 percent and extreme poverty by 60 percent, according to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). In 2008, unemployment was cut in half, from 7.7 to 4.4 percent.

MAS made these advances because Bolivia defied conventional US economic prescriptions, according to Guillaume Long, a senior policy analyst at CEPR. “MAS opposed the neoliberal agenda and nationalized resources such as gas,” he told me in a phone interview.

The country’s indigenous groups, including Aymara and Quechua, saw significant gains under the MAS government, according to Bret Gustafson, an anthropology professor and Bolivia expert at the Washington University in St. Louis.

“The government passed anti-racism legislation,” he said in a phone interview. “Indigenous people were included in the highest level of the government and military. Indigenous languages and culture were celebrated under Evo.”

But those gains are in serious danger if the right wing stays in power.

Controversy: Morales runs again

Under Bolivia’s constitution, a newly elected president may serve two terms. In 2016, by a narrow margin, Bolivians voted down a referendum that would have eliminated presidential term limits. But in 2017, Bolivia’s Constitutional Court ruled that term limits were in violation of the OAS treaty on human rights, clearing the way for Morales to run again.

The conservative opposition angrily denounced the ruling, saying the court was packed with Morales supporters. But Gustafson says even some liberal and leftist Bolivians have a “deep memory of past dictatorial governments.” Moreover, Morales had not groomed a successor who could maintain party unity. “Morales was the glue that held everything together,” Gustafson says.

In the October 20 election, a dozen candidates vied for the presidency, including former President Carlos Mesa and Evo Morales. Under Bolivian law, a candidate can win by gaining just 40 percent of the vote if it is 10 percent more than the second-place opponent. After the final count, Morales won with 47 percent compared to Mesa’s 36.5 percent. MAS also won a majority in both legislatures.

The Organization of American States and the Trump Administration immediately alleged  vote fraud. They claimed the vote count was halted when it seemed Morales would be forced into a runoff and then suspiciously re-opened with a Morales victory.

As explained in an exhaustive election analysis by CEPR, the official vote count never stopped. The unofficial “quick count” did stop, as planned beforehand, after tabulating 83 percent of the votes. The official count, which is the only binding result, continued uninterrupted until officials announced the results.

The last votes to be tabulated, which the OAS claims were suspiciously favorable to Morales, were in fact consistent with votes from areas traditionally supportive of MAS.

From both the quick count and final count, “You could easily determine that Morales won,” says CEPR’s Long, who was also an OAS observer in the 2017 Bolivian elections.

In short, there was no voter fraud that propelled Morales into power. But the misinformation, along with genuine anger from those opposed to Morales running at all, led to large demonstrations.

The US role

Bolivia is a major source of natural gas and minerals such as lithium, making it of great importance to multinational corporations. The US in the past supported military coups in Bolivia when civilian governments didn’t follow pro-Washington policies.

The US has a long history of training Bolivian police and military leaders. One of the leaders of the recent coup attended a course at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly known as the School of the Americas) at Fort Benning, Georgia.

For many years, USAID has funded projects to promote businesses in conservative, eastern Bolivia, pitting them against the movements of workers and peasant farmers.

Washington has the means and the will to instigate a coup in Bolivia. In the months and years ahead, more information will emerge revealing the extent of direct US involvement. But there’s no doubt the coup serves US interests and has full US support.

What lies ahead?

After the military forced Morales and other leaders to leave Bolivia, Senator Jeanine Añez, a little known ultra-right winger, declared herself president based on her position as second vice president of the Senate. Her initial cabinet had only one indigenous member and reporters quickly discovered racist tweets in her Twitter account.

Widespread looting broke out. MAS supporters mobilized against the coup, blockading highways leading to many cities.  On November 20, six indigenous men were shot and killed in El Alto, in an act that protesters attributed to the military. To date more than thirty people have died and dozens have been injured.

In late November, demonstrations were halted in some MAS strongholds but continued in others as protestors demanded release of demonstrators arrested in previous protests. On November 24, MAS legislative leaders and Añezagreed to legislation calling for new presidential and legislative elections in April 2020, while prohibiting Morales from running.

From his exile in Mexico, Morales reluctantly agreed with the compromise. “In the name of peace, sacrifices have to be made and I am sacrificing my candidacy even though I have every right to it,” he told The Guardian.

“It was a practical recognition of the balance of power,” Gustafson says. “Evo still has widespread support. But any effort to bring him back would galvanize rightwingers, some military officers, and some moderates.”

Bolivia remains deeply divided. The right wing is split among several factions. While Morales can’t run, MAS will field another candidate for president in April, along with veteran legislators from both houses.

“Morales has a lot of personal appeal, but MAS also has popular support,” says analyst Long. “MAS remains a force to be reckoned with.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks in 48 Hills. Follow him on  Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit hiswebpage.

Foreign Correspondent: A New Arab Spring in Lebanon and Iraq

Protests in Baghdad in October.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Lebanese have been demonstrating in the streets against corruption and for democratic rights. The protestors come from all economic classes and religious and ethnic groups.

Like the Arab Spring uprisings that began in 2010, these protests are spontaneous and without traditional leaders. And they are sending corrupt political parties and foreign powers scrambling to manipulate the protests for their own nefarious ends.

Protests in Baghdad in October.

The current protests raise many of the same issues as the Arab Spring, says David Dunford, a former US ambassador to several Middle East countries and author of From Sadat to Saddam: The Decline of American Diplomacy in the Middle East.

“People in both countries are sick and tired of sectarian jockeying and foreign influence,” he tells me in a phone interview.

In my opinion, the uprisings expose the false logic of the vacuum theory, which posits that US military withdrawal automatically benefits the villain du jour, whether Russia, Iran, or China. Instead, the protests show that the people of the Middle East don’t want domination by Washington, DC., or any outside power.

Lebanon crisis

On a trip to Lebanon earlier this year, I spoke with businessmen who warned of a coming economic crisis. The Lebanese currency was dropping against the dollar, and the businessmen saw an economic meltdown coming.

It wasn’t hard to see why. Walking along Beirut’s cornice, or seaside road, I passed by dozens of vacant, multi-million-dollar condos owned as vacation homes or investments by Saudi sheiks and Emirati businessmen.

Meanwhile, working class Lebanese can’t get basic services: electricity, garbage collection, and protection from raging forest fires. The poverty rate is around 30 percent, according to the World Bank.

On October 17, spontaneous demonstrations began when the government imposed a new tax on the What’s App program, widely used on cell phones to make free calls. But demonstrators quickly added corruption and lack of democracy to their list of demands. They called for the entire government to resign and an end to Lebanon’s system by which certain government positions are guaranteed to each ethnic and religious group and hence to the corrupt political parties.

People sat down on major thoroughfares and set up roadblocks. Universities shut, and when they reopened, students refused to attend. Banks closed because depositors feared they couldn’t access their money.

For the first time, Lebanese from different economic classes and religions joined together demanding an end to the country’s sectarian political system. They opposed the old, corrupt parties, whether backed by the US, Saudi Arabia, or Iran.

People were particularly angry with Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who gave $16 million to his bikini-model mistress. Hariri and his cabinet resigned October 29. All the parties in the ruling coalition, which was led by Hezbollah, scrambled to respond.

Amal and Hezbollah, the two parties with largely Shia Muslim support, initially supported the demonstrations. But so did Samir Geagea, the ultra-right-wing Maronite Christian leader and sworn enemy of Hezbollah.Hezbollah and Amal later withdrew support, having been accused of beating peaceful demonstrators.

Groundhog Day all over again

The Trump Administration, in what has become a Groundhog Day experience, didn’t know how to respond to yet another world crisis, according to a former US diplomat who recently met with White House and State Department officials. Washington views Lebanon through the prism of Iran and Syria, he says. “They have no understanding of what’s going on in Lebanon,” the diplomat tells me, on condition of anonymity.

So far, the Trump Administration does not plan a military intervention but seeks to weaken Hezbollah, which it alleges is an Iranian proxy. But factions within the administration differ on tactics.

The White House’s National Security staff believes Hezbollah controls the Lebanese government and has significant influence in the Lebanese Army. They want to pressure the Army and opposition parties to break with Hezbollah.

So on October 31, in a surprise move, the US stopped all aid to the Lebanese Army, including $105 million which had been already approved in September.

The State Department and Pentagon opposed the aid cut, arguing that the Army constitutes a stabilizing and pro-western force. Cutting US military aid, they argue, just provides more openings for Iran and Russia to exert influence.

All sides believe that the mass protests have weakened Hezbollah. But Hezbollah not only has a well-armed, battle-hardened militia, it can mobilize tens of thousands of civilian supporters in a matter of hours. It consistently wins seats in the Lebanese parliament and has proven adept at forming electoral alliances, even with former enemies.

Iraqis oppose US and Iran

Given Lebanon’s unsuccessful system guaranteeing government positions to ethnic groups, you’d think the US would have tried something different in Iraq. Instead, Washington has created an equally flawed system and imposed it on a poorer, war-ravaged country.

In Iraq, the political parties break down by religious and ethnic groups, resulting in a Shia Muslim prime minister and Kurdish president. Each party places its supporters in government jobs and issues government contracts to corrupt partners. As a result, the government functions as an ATM for the parties and the wealthy elite.

Meanwhile, ordinary Iraqis don’t have safe drinking water and government-supplied electricity. Many complain that government services are worse today than under Saddam Hussein.

Protests against corruption and the party system broke out October 1. Demonstrators condemned corruption in the pro-US and pro-Iran parties in Iraq, and within the parties of the Kurdish region.

The government launched a brutal crackdown. To date, more than 300 protesters have been killed, mostly by uniformed security forces and government-affiliated snipers.

Protesters threw gasoline bombs at the Iranian consulate in Karbala and chanted anti-Iran slogans. Persons unknown launched 17  rockets into a US air base.

Iraqis have long opposed US occupation of their country. But over the past few years, they’ve also grown angry at Iran’s influence over certain political parties and Iranian-controlled militias affiliated with the Iraqi Army.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s leading Muslim cleric, has supported the demonstrations and opposed Iranian meddling. Moktada al-Sadr, whose political party won a plurality in the last parliamentary elections, has called for an end to all foreign interference, whether from Washington or Tehran.

The uprisings in Lebanon and Iraq show once again that people in the Middle East want democratic reforms, and an end to corruption and foreign domination. Nowhere is it written that countries must either support the US or Iran. It may be difficult, but people can determine their own future.