Foreign Correspondent

How the media distort news from Venezuela

Government supporters formed a successful food co-op in 2017 in Caracas, the kind of story rarely reported in mainstream media. Photo: Reese Erlich

Whenever officials in Washington, D.C. set out to overthrow a foreign government, mainstream US media outlets are there to give a helping hand. All pretense of fairness and balance disappear in favor of outrageous distortion. For the most recent example, let’s look at Venezuela.

Both high-level Republicans and Democrats have decided it’s time for Venezuela, with the world’s largest oil reserves, to rejoin the US sphere of influence. Hawks may call for direct military intervention while doves seek punishing sanctions, but all agree that the elected government of President Nicolas Maduro has got to go.

Government supporters formed a successful food co-op in 2017 in Caracas, the kind of story rarely reported in mainstream media. Photo: Reese Erlich

Mainstream media took a particularly rightward turn in January after Juan Guaidó anointed himself as Venezuela’s president, with the blessings from the administration of President Donald Trump. Guaidó is president of the opposition-dominated National Assembly and had never even run for president. A January opinion poll showed he was unknown to 81 percent of the people. He represented an unstable alliance of opposition parties. As I’ve written before, lack of legality didn’t stop the United States and its allies from declaring Guaidó president and pretending he ran an actual government.

As if responding to a bat signal in the skies above Gotham City, the mainstream media rushed to back the Trump team’s policies. The administration, which has proven incompetent and dangerous on other issues, was suddenly a reliable source of information on Venezuela. Statements from the administration and Venezuelan opposition leaders were uncritically reproduced, no matter how untethered to reality. Allow me to offer some examples.

In February, Guaidó announced plans to deliver international aid to starving Venezuelans by mobilizing massive demonstrations at the Venezuela-Colombia border, hoping a significant number of military officers would defect. The plan was obviously flawed because military leaders continued to back Maduro. Sure enough, the aid convoy didn’t get through, and military officers didn’t defect.

Many media outlets reported that Maduro’s security forces burned an aid truck as it attempted to enter Venezuela. In reality, aerial and other photos reported in real time by the leftist website Venezuela Analysis indicated that the fire was started by an anti-government protester. Weeks later, The New York Timesgot around to reporting that Maduro’s forces didn’t start the fire.

Another example of bias: The Timesand other US media focused exclusively on the US aid, ignoring that donated by Russia and Cuba without incident.

In mid-March, Venezuela’s electric grid went out nationwide, causing huge economic dislocation and dozens of deaths. President Maduro said a US cyber attack caused the shutdown. CBS News reported this claim, but gave it no credence, dutifully saying US officials “dismissed the Venezuelan government’s accusation as absurd and an attempt to divert attention from its own chronic failings.”

The Maduro government has yet to provide proof of its assertion. But as a commentary in Forbes showed, the United States could well have launched such an attack. Remember, the US and Israel initially denied creating the Stuxnet virus that disabled Iranian nuclear facilities.

Why distortions?

I’ve been a foreign correspondent for 40 years and have reported from Venezuela since 1994. I’ve met many journalists in the mainstream media, from The New York Timesto CNN and NPR. None see themselves as government mouthpieces, and in private, many will criticize Trump. So why the distorted coverage?

Mainstream reporters and editors take their cues from Washington, D.C. Since bipartisan leaders see Venezuela as beyond the pale, so do the media. They see Maduro as “hard left,” similar to the leaders of Cuba or the old USSR. As a result, they accept US government assertions pretty much without question. They often make no effort to get Maduro’s side, or even to find academics or former government officials who can balance a story with a pro-Maduro views.

In one particularly egregious article, theThe New York TimesWashington, D.C., bureau recently quoted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at length about how Russia and Cuba are “propping up Venezuela,” an absurd claim given Cuba’s own economic problems and Russia’s distance. The article contained one perfunctory paragraph with the Venezuelan government viewpoint.

Vicious attacks

Reporters know there are few consequences for misreporting about Maduro and his allies, but that the roof can cave in is they were to report something negative about the opposition.

In 2017, I filed a series of stories on Venezuela for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s daily website. While reporting government-sponsored brutality, I also noted that the opposition engaged in violent tactics against the police. I wrote that the momentum was shifting away from the anti-government demonstrators. I came under vicious attack online in a clear effort to discredit not only the articles but me as a reporter.

To their credit, CBC editors defended my reporting. A few weeks later, the opposition demonstrations petered out as the country prepared to vote for a Constituent Assembly.

A positive exception

Of course, the mainstream media is not monolithic. Knight-Ridder, now owned by McClatchy, accurately reported that weapons of mass destruction didn’t exist in Iraq during the run up to the 2003 war.

McClatchy reporters have now uncovered covert  US arms shipments from Miami to Venezuela. Their article explored possible links between the charter airline carrying the weapons and the CIA’s program in the 2000s of kidnapping and taking civilians to black sites. I hope other reporters follow up—but am not holding my breath.

The government of Venezuela certainly deserves a lot of criticism. Inflation is skyrocketing. Venezuelans face shortages of food and medicine. Unemployment is increasing as work places shut down because of the crisis. But that doesn’t justify US efforts to overthrow Maduro and install an opposition leader.

What’s really going on in Kashmir?

Kashmir has stunning natural beauty -- and rivers that provide water to both countries.

On Feb. 14, a suicide bomber killed more than 40 Indian soldiers in Kashmir in what India claimed was a terrorist attack. India retaliated by bombing a terrorist training camp, which turned out to be an uninhabited mountain top. The Pakistani air force shot down an Indian jet fighter, and India shot down a Pakistani plane.

Kashmir has stunning natural beauty — and rivers that provide water to both countries.

Diplomats and the mainstream media focused on the danger of another war between the two nuclear armed countries. But the major media provided less information about the flashpoint for the crisis: India’s brutal occupation of Kashmir.

Assistant Professor Junaid Ahmad, director of the Center for Global Dialogue at the University of Management and Technology in Lahore, Pakistan, said in a phone interview that the conflict reflects “the bitterness and anger that remains from the British partition of the region back in 1947.”

Why the conflict?

Years ago, I reported from a farm near the Pakistani controlled part of Kashmir. It was only accessible by four-wheel drive vehicle or on foot. Kashmir is spectacularly beautiful, with rolling hills and a lush valley. In years past it was tourist destination and could be again if the conflict is ever resolved.

But if you live near the border with India these days, you’re hunkering down in bomb shelters to avoid errant Indian artillery fire. Civilians on the Indian side of the border face the same danger when Pakistani guns overshoot their targets.

I learned from my hosts that a number of major rivers flow through Kashmir, a vital source of drinking water, irrigation, and hydroelectric power for both countries. Whatever country controls the water has a major impact on the entire region.

Many years ago US water expert David Lilienthal wrote, “No army, with bombs and shellfire could devastate a land as thoroughly as Pakistan could be devastated by the simple expedient of India’s permanently shutting off the sources of water that keep the fields and the people of Pakistan alive.”

A 1960 treaty allows Pakistan to use most of the water, but India has consistently tried to take back as much as it can.

Prof. Ahmad said Kashmir also occupies an important geopolitical location in an area that borders India, Pakistan, and China. The country that dominates Kashmir has “strategic leverage” in the region, he said.

In 1947, when India took control of Jammu and Kashmir, as the Indian state is formally known, “battle lines were drawn,” he said. “Indian leaders refused to let go. It gives India an excuse to keep 800,000 troops near the border with Pakistan.” Western media sources estimate the number of troops at closer to 500,000.

Colonial rule and Kashmiri rebellion

The British colonial presence in the Indian subcontinent dates back to the 1700s. British rulers used classic divide-and-conquer tactics by inciting conflict between Hindus and Muslims.

When India gained independence in 1947, a bitter struggle broke out. India was to become a predominantly Hindu country while Pakistan was overwhelmingly Muslim. A Hindu maharaja ruled over the principality of Kashmir, which was mostly Muslim. The maharaja brought Kashmir into India. A war broke out; India took control of land containing the majority of the Kashmiri population and Pakistan took the thinly populated remainder. The countries fought two more wars over Kashmir in 1965 and 1999.

Indian leaders have continuously argued that Kashmir is legally part of India. The opposition to India’s rule is fueled by Pakistan, they claim, and is dominated by Muslim terrorist groups. They further assert that the people of Jammu and Kashmir are happy with Indian rule.

In reality, the people of Kashmir have never acceded to Indian occupation. Human rights groups, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, have accused the Indian military of detention without trial, torture and murder. Indian repression has resulted in 100,000 civilians deaths between 1989-2011, according to Pakistani media. The Associated Press estimates 70,000 deaths between 1989 to the present.

In 1989, Kashmiris launched an armed rebellion against Indian rule. Indian authorities claimed that the Kashmiris were armed by Pakistan and led by Muslim extremist groups. But the movement’s leading organization, the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, was secular. As Ahmad explained, the movement contained both secular and religious components, much like the Arab Spring of 2011.

The key element, he said, was that the 1989 uprising “was entirely indigenous. It was a mass uprising.”

The mid-1990s saw the rise of conservative political Islamist groups sponsored by the Pakistani military and intelligence services, which sought to control the Kashmiri movement for their own interests.

The Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM), for example, has bombed civilians and engaged in plane hijacking. It took credit for the suicide explosion that killed the Indian soldiers last month. JEM adheres to a right-wing ideology based on political Islam, and an extremist interpretation of Sharia law.

India accuses the Pakistani government of supporting and giving sanctuary to the JEM. “If the Pakistani state is not supporting them,” conceded Prof. Ahmad, “it’s certainly not stopping them. That’s unfortunate because it allows India to portray the struggle as dominated by terrorists.”

Other major protests broke out in 2010 and 2016. The Kashmiri resistance includes secular and religious forces, including extremists, according to Prof. Ahmad. But the recent demonstrations indicate a unified opposition to Indian rule across ideological lines. “All of the previous divisions within the resistance have collapsed.”

For decades Kashmiris have called for a plebiscite to determine the future of their region. But India has refused. The results of an authoritative 2010 poll by the British Chatham House explained why.

The survey found that 43% of respondents in both Indian and Pakistani controlled Kashmir supported independence. Fifteen percent favored unity with Pakistan. Only 21% favored unity with India, and that was almost exclusively within the Indian/Hindu population.

US Role

I think that a resolution of the Kashmir crisis will require forceful diplomatic pressure. The US claims neutrality, but has in recent years, tilted towards India. In his second term, President Barak Obama sought a strategic shift to Asia in which he wanted to ally with India to combat China. President Donald Trump continued the tilt last year by reducing US military aid to Pakistan. Trump, like his predecessors, has never forcefully condemned Indian brutality in Kashmir.

I think the US should commit to genuine neutrality in the India-Pakistan conflict. The US could be an honest broker in arranging a referendum in Kashmir and guaranteeing that all parties adhere to its results. It would be a good step forward in replacing military conflict with diplomatic action.

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

How the war in Yemen could end — in a matter of days

A Saudi bomb made by a US contractor hit a school bus full of kids last fall.

The murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has intensified Washington’s debate over the war in Yemen. On February 13, by a 248-177 vote, the House of Representatives passed a War Powers Act resolution to end U.S. participation in the war.

But officials in Washington, D.C. don’t generally know that under terms of a little noticed U.S. law, President Donald Trump could end the Yemen War in a matter of days.

A Saudi bomb made by a US contractor hit a school bus full of kids last fall.

US arms manufacturers such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin supply 57 percent of the military aircraft used by the Royal Saudi Air Force. The U.S. corporations hire hundreds of US civilian mechanics and technicians to repair, maintain and fuel fighter jets and helicopters. The Arms Export Control Act requires Saudi Arabia to use the military equipment for legitimate self defense.

Saudi Arabia’s consistent pattern of disproportionate attacks on civilians belies any claim of self defense, according to Brittany Benowitz, an attorney and former Congressional staffer who analyzes arms control issues.

“The Trump Administration is currently not complying with the requirements of the Arms Export Control Act,“ she told me. The act requires the President to stop supplies of spare parts and maintenance of Saudi fighter planes if they violate the act.

Those measures would undermine Saudi military capability fairly quickly, much faster than banning new arms sales, according to William Hartung, a defense analyst at the Center for International Policy. “It would affect their ability to fight immediately,” he said in an interview.

Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, a co-sponsor of the War Powers resolution against the Yemen War, told me, “We would never tolerate the U.S. military having this kind of civilian casualties. The war makes us complicit.”

Operations and Maintenance

Two U.S. laws, the Arms Export Control Act and the Foreign Assistance Act are supposed to strictly control use of American-made weapons. Third country nationals are prohibited from operations and maintenance of US aircraft in Saudi Arabia. That means either Americans or Saudis must hold those jobs.

Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former assistant secretary of defense, explained that the laws aim to protect US military secrets.

“We have the most sophisticated weapons in the world,” he told me. The law “makes sure you don’t have someone from another country who would jeopardize our security.”

US policy is also supposed to encourage training of Saudis as mechanics and in other skilled jobs so the country can diversify its workforce. But it hasn’t worked out that way.

Saudis don’t have the desire or the educational background for those jobs, said Joel Johnson, an analyst with the Teal Group, a company that analyzes the aerospace industry.

“US contractors are heavily involved in making those things fly,” he told me.

Richard Aboulafia, a vice president at Teal Group, told me that operations and maintenance have become a very profitable niche market for US corporations. Defense contractors can make as much as 150 percent more profit from operations and maintenance than from the original arms sale, he said. In 2017 Boeing cut a $480 million deal to maintain and repair Saudi F-15 fighters.

Arms manufacturers, Aboulafia said, “use the razor blade model.” They make money from the initial plane sales, but “parts and maintenance provide the real money.”

Yemen War

In early 2015, Houthi rebels were on the verge of seizing power in Yemen. Saudi Arabia, claiming the Houthis were Iranian proxies, began a widespread bombing campaign. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent ground troops to occupy the southern part of the country.

Both the Saudis and Emiratis predicted quick victory. That was nearly four years ago.

The Trump Administration argues that the Saudis are backing the legitimate Yemeni government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and protecting Yemen from Iranian aggression. But Hadi’s term expired in 2015, and he has so little popular support that he lives in Saudi Arabia and only sporadically visits Yemen.

The Houthis, a conservative Shia political movement, control the northern part of the country. They stand accused of many human rights abuses, including recruiting child soldiers and firing missiles indiscriminately at civilian areas.

“It’s not good guys here and bad guys there,” said Korb. “The Saudis are trying to restore the government. But it’s not exactly democratic.”

US and European companies provide virtually all of the munitions used to attack both military and civilian targets. Lockheed-Martin sold the guided missile that caused the deaths of 40 children and 11 adults in the infamous school bus attack in August last year.

The Pentagon argues that its advisors play a very limited role in Yemen, and that it encourages the Saudis to avoid hitting civilian targets. The U.S. military provides about 100 technicians to maintain Saudi planes in addition to the hundreds of American civilian contractors.

Critics point out that the United States plays a bigger role in the war than the Pentagon admits. The US Army runs a classified program inside Yemen called “Operation Yukon Journey“ that helps locate Houthi missiles. The UAE has hired former U.S. special ops soldiers to assassinate members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who oppose the UAE but are not connected with the Houthis.

“The US role is quite comprehensive in Yemen,” said analyst Hartung, “from supplying the weapons, to targeting, fueling, and equipment maintenance. It’s quite extensive.”

Efforts to Stop the War

In the aftermath of the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Trump Administration has come under increased pressure to stop participating in the Yemen War.

Congress is considering a number of bills to reduce the US role. Senators Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, introduced legislation to end future sales of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia, but would also sanction Iran for its support of the Houthis.

Late last year, the administration stopped US mid-air refueling of Saudi planes. It could also stop selling precision munitions, as ordered by President Obama in 2016 but reversed by President Trump. The United States could also stop providing spare parts for US-made F-15s, stop the maintenance work on Saudi aircraft and even refuse to transfer classified technology, such as computer programs used to strike enemy targets.

“The Arms Export Control Act requires the suspension in sales of articles and services to all members of the coalition involved in the misuse of U.S. origin equipment,” said analyst Benowitz.

Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont, and Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, reintroduced a War Powers resolution to prohibit all US support for Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthis. The resolution previously passed the Senate 56-41 and may well again in this session. However, the House and Senate bills would have to overcome a likely presidential veto.

But just taking a vote on the resolutions will help pressure the Trump Administration. Representative Khanna said there’s no excuse for the thousands of civilian deaths caused by Saudi bombing.

“We need to be clear: There should be no US support for the civil war.”

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, “Foreign Correspondent,” appears regularly at 48hills. 

Read more by Reese Erlich

Venezuela: Democratic uprising or US coup?


Tens of thousands of angry people march in the streets to protest lack of democracy. Women bang on pots to raise alarm over the economic crisis brought on by a socialist president. The United States denounces the leftist government and promises to help bring democracy to the country.

Venezuela in 2019? No, it was Chile in 1973.

Venezuelan activists who support President Maduro formed food co-ops to deal with high cost of groceries. Photo: Reese Erlich

Chileans had elected a Marxist president, Salvador Allende, and the US government was seeking to oust him. Allende’s platform rejected the anti-communist foreign policy of the United States and threatened the profits of US corporations. So, in a time-honored tactic of course, the Nixon Administration claimed Allende was an autocrat allied with the USSR.

With National Security Council director  Henry Kissinger as point man, the United States squeezed Chile economically, sponsored trucker strikes, fomented opposition demonstrations, and ultimately supported the coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power. The people of Chile would suffer under a brutal dictatorship for the next 16 years.

Perhaps the Trump Administration is hoping history will repeat itself, but so far Venezuelans aren’t going for it. Elected President Nicolas Maduro, while politically weakened by recent US maneuvering, still retains a measure of popular support. Unlike the Chilean army, much of the Venezuelan military remains loyal to the government.

As I reported from Caracas two years ago, Maduro survived violent attacks by upper-class opposition leaders on his government. His supporters hope he will do so again, despite massive economic chaos promoted by the United States.

Trump coup attempt

In January the Trump Administration intensified a brutal economic and political campaign to overthrow Maduro. It blocked the state owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, known as  PDVSA, from receiving payment for oil shipments to the United States.  The administration also orchestrateddenunciations of Maduro by US allies in Latin America and Europe.

Venezuela depends on oil exports to earn hard currency. The  Wall Street Journal reported that oil production has dropped10 percent since December. That means the government will have a harder time importing essential goods, like pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, and food.

While the US has sanctioned PDVSA, it has also granted waivers allowing Chevron Corporation and two US oil service providers, Halliburton and Schlumberger,to continue operating and making profits in Venezuela. Hmmmm. The US promotion of democracy in Latin America seems, once again, to be attached to corporate interests.

“The Trump Administration is trying to asphyxiate Venezuela,” Carolina Morales, a Venezuelan immigrant rights activist living in San Francisco, told me. “The US claims it favors humanitarian aid to Venezuela, but the best aid is a functioning economy. The sanctions hurt ordinary people.”

US supports democracy – really?

Trump and the Venezuelan opposition claim that Maduro orchestrated fraudulent presidential elections in May 2018 and has become an autocrat. The Venezuelan constitution provides that if the presidency is “abandoned,” the president of the National Assembly can assume that office. On January 23, National Assembly head Juan Guaidó swore himself in as president, claiming that Maduro had abandoned his office by conducting fraudulent elections.

However, the major opposition parties had boycotted the 2018 elections because they were badly divided. They made no claims that Maduro had “abandoned” the presidency. The argument—a thin legal thread created to justify a coup—arose months later.

Guido, until last month, was a virtual unknown. He had never run for national office, and was head of the National Assembly only as part of a rotation system among the opposition parties. Guido’s party, Popular Will, is self-described as a social democratic party. The United States will certainly pressure Popular Will to adopt neo-liberal economic policies such as tax benefits for the rich, taking on onerous loans from international banks and privatizing state owned companies, particularly PDVSA.

Venezuelans have been down that path before. Neoliberal economic policies caused a massive economic crisis in the 1990s, leading to the election of Hugo Chávez, according to Luis Salas, a former minister of economy under Maduro. I interviewed him during my last trip to Caracas.

“That era only produced increased poverty and high inflation,” Salas told me.

Venezuelans will likely be worse off under opposition rule than under Maduro, as admitted by Fernando Cruz, a former White House official who worked on Venezuela policy.

“Things probably will get worse for the people of Venezuela before they get better when you actually start doing things for the greater good,” Cutz told The New York Times.

Serious economic problems

Surely, the opposition owes much of its support to the country’s deteriorating economy. Inflation hit a staggering 80,000 percent last year and is expected to go even higher in 2019.

That means workers’ wages are almost worthless. “It’s difficult to get enough money to buy food,” admitted immigration activist Morales.

Stringent US sanctions and fluctuating oil prices have impacted the Venezuelan economy. But the government also made serious errors, according to Rodulfo Perez, a former minister of education in Maduro’s cabinet.

“We should have invested our oil money in the domestic economy,” Perez told me during my last trip. “Such a policy would have strengthened the bolívar fuerte [Venezuelan currency] and reduced the need for imports.”

What lies ahead?

Trump’s Latin American policy is now spearheaded by John Bolton, Elliott Abrams, and a group of neocons determined to reassert US control of Venezuela’s oil. And, as Bolton has admitted, “It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.”

From a geopolitical standpoint, the neocons see overthrowing the government in Venezuela as a first step towards doing the same in Cuba and Nicaragua.

A US coup is by no means a done deal. “I am optimistic and hoping the government will survive,” said activist Morales. She then added, “I’m also worried. The US could send troops to Venezuela, which would provoke a civil war. There could be thousands of deaths in the streets. That’s why I’m speaking up against this coup.”

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks in 48Hills. His book The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story from Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy is now available. Follow him onTwitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Does Cuba censor the Internet? Think again

These farmers in rural Cuba have Internet access, as do many other Cubans. Photo by Reese Erlich

HAVANA — A group of Cubans stared intently at the screens of their smart phones here in Old Havana, checking emails and Googling news stories. They and millions of other Cubans got access to Internet upgrades last month that defy the image of Cuba as a totalitarian state whose citizens face Internet censorship.

Cubans can now subscribe to monthly plans providing roaming internet connections for as little as $7 a month. Others access the Internet from wifi hotspots for even less.

These farmers in rural Cuba have Internet access, as do many other Cubans. Photo by Reese Erlich

The Cuban government blocks access to the US propaganda station TV Marti and the sites of pro-US bloggers, but doesn’t block US media such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journaland even the ultra conservative Spanish edition of the Miami Herald. Twitter, Facebook and phone apps such as IMO are also easily accessible.

“There’s virtually no internet censorship in Cuba,” a US journalist based in Havana told me during a recent trip.

While Cuba has vastly improved internet connectivity over the past 15 years, usage remains well behind that of the US or even other Latin American countries. About 40% of Cubans have Internet access compared to 61% projected for the rest of Latin America in 2019.

All smart phones must be imported and remain expensive for the average Cuban, who earns about $30/month. I saw older model Samsung phones costing $60 at one Havana store. A monthly plan providing 1 gig of broadband with roaming costs $10.

Conservatives in the US argue that the high cost of connectivity serves as de facto censorship. The high Internet cost is allegedly part of a Cuban government plot to keep Cubans unaware of the benefits of US-style democracy.

As usual, US critics omit any context for Cuba’s problems, nor do they acknowledge internet progress.

The real Internet story

When I first began reporting on the issue in the early 1990s, the US claimed Cuba was intentionally making connectivity difficult and expensive in order to keep Cubans isolated from developments in the rest of the world. In those days connecting to the Internet meant paying $12 an hour at a tourist hotel. Later, Cubans could use a computer at a local post office at the rate of $5 an hour for an extremely slow connection.

Cuban government officials told me that the high costs resulted from the US embargo, the unilateral US policy that prohibits most business dealings between the US and Cuba. The US government stopped US phone companies from laying new cables from Florida to Cuba, forcing the island to rely on far more expensive satellite connections.

Juan Fernández, a professor at the University of Information Science and advisor to Communications Ministry on Internet issues, told me during a previous trip that US companies control a lot of the computer hardware used for modern Internet connections.

“The US is very close and could sell everything very cheap,” he said. “Yes, we can buy it in Asia, but it’s more expensive.”

Internet access improved after 2012 when Venezuela laid a new fiber-optic cable to Cuba. More Cubans were then able to use home dial-up connections along with wifi hotspots in parks, cyber cafes and other public spaces. Students at the University of Havana and other colleges have free, but slow, wifi access.

Cuban officials have legitimate concerns about US efforts to use technology to undermine the government.

“Cuba isn’t a normal country,” said Fernandez. “We face great pressure, practically an economic war, from the most powerful country in the world. Every day the US tries to make our system disappear. For 50 years the US has been trying regime change in Cuba.”

The Office of Cuba Broadcasting, the US government agency in charge of propaganda broadcasts to Cuba, has admitted to promoting mobile phone apps aimed at disrupting Cuba. It distributed free smartphones loaded with programs called ZunZeneo and Piramedio. The apps allowed users to quickly communicate with one another, which the US hoped would foment discontent with the government.

During a previous reporting trip, I interviewed Nestor Garcia, a former Cuban diplomat at the UN.

“My students started getting text messages on their cell phones with news reports about demonstrations that never happened,” Garcia said. “The US is trying to create a climate to protest against the Cuban government.”

In 2009 the Cuban government arrested Alan Gross, a USAID contractor, for distributing satellite phones aimed at establishing wifi hotspots to be used by Cuba’s small Jewish community. He was convicted of spying and sentenced to 15 years. He was released in 2014 when the US and Cuba established full diplomatic relations under President Obama.

So far US government attempts to use the Internet have failed to undermine the Cuban system. Cubans are certainly unhappy with their economic conditions. A drop in US tourism and severe economic problems in Venezuela have contributed to a shrinking economy. Cubans currently face shortages of flour and powdered milk.

But that doesn’t mean Cubans are planning a Twitter revolution. In addition to internet access, many buy the “Paquete” (Packet), a weekly download of massive amounts of news and entertainment. A customer brings a thumb drive to a Paquete distributor, pays as little as 50 cents and can get the latest foreign newspapers, magazines, TV shows, movies, and even US propaganda broadcasts.

But the most frequently downloaded choices, according to many Cubans I interviewed, are soap operas

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



Trump: The sudden anti-war champion?

Trump confounds everyone with his latest foreign policy -- but the US should never have been in Syria or Afghanistan in the first place. Photo Antiwarcom

Last week President Donald Trump surprised the world, and much of his own staff, by announcing plans to pull more than 2,000 US troops out of Syria. Then he said he would cut the number of US troops in Afghanistan in half.

Trump confounds everyone with his latest foreign policy — but the US should never have been in Syria or Afghanistan in the first place. Photo Antiwarcom

In response, Secretary of Defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis and special envoy to Syria Brett McGurk resigned. Conservative Republicans denounced Trump. The foreign policy establishment in general went bonkers, claiming Trump was endangering national security.

Some liberals and progressives were confused. They want to see a withdrawal of troops from unjust wars but were concerned with Trump’s impetuous and unilateral methods.

So let’s set the record straight. The US never should have invaded Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan in the first place. The US is not bringing democracy to the region. It wages wars of occupation to further Washington’s rapacious economic and geopolitical designs.

Yes, Trump failed to consult with allies, ignored his closest advisors, and left the Kurds in the lurch.

But have no illusions. Even if future President Bernie Sanders negotiated a phased troop withdrawal from the region, he would come under vicious attack by big business Democrats and Republicans. That’s what President Barak Obama faced when he pulled US troops out of Iraq in 2011 even though he was implementing a legally binding agreement reached between President George W. Bush and the Iraqi government.

For the ruling elite in Washington, there’s never a good time to end a war. They voluntarily pull out combat troops only with the installation of permanent, pro-US regimes, and that isn’t about to happen in Syria or Afghanistan.

Trump’s policy, however mangled, actually reflects a popular American consensus against the never-ending wars of aggression.

Monica Toft, a professor of international politics and director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, told me Trump is playing to his political base.

“People would like the troops to come home,” she said. “But you don’t do it in such a rash manner.”

Will the US really pull out?

Pentagon officials, caught off guard by Trump’s tweet on the Syria withdrawal, quickly announced contingency plans to continue the Syria war through other means. It may launch commando raids and missile strikes into Syria from bases in neighboring Iraq. Trump endorsed this policy during a surprise visit to Iraq on Dec. 26. So we’ll have to see what the administration’s policy will be in practice.

Winding down the 17-year-old Afghanistan war is even more complicated. Trump said he would cut the troops to 7,000, but that was only after he increased the troop strength to 15,000 in 2017. So, the announced withdrawal will leave only about 1,500 fewer troops than the 8500 stationed there when Trump took office.

I think the US lost the war in Afghanistan long ago. The country is ruled by corrupt, drug-dealing warlords. The Taliban controls much of the country outside the major cities, and can carry out armed assaults at will on the capital Kabul.

When the Obama administration surged100,000 troops into Afghanistan in 2009, it couldn’t win the war. So 7,000 soldiers certainly can’t. The only question is which US president will be in office when foreign troops are forced out. It remains to be seen if Trump will accept being blamed for “losing Afghanistan.” In reality the country was never his to lose.

What happens to Rojava?

Trump’s decision to pull troops from Syria apparently began with a phone call to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Dec. 14. Erdogan promised his troops would eliminate the remnants of the Islamic State that still hold territory along the Syrian-Iraqi border. But first he would wipe out the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led armed movement allied with the US fighting in northern Syria (Rojava).

Several days after the phone call, the Pentagon agreed to sell Patriot Missiles to Turkey in a $3.5 billion deal that profits US arms manufacturers.

Turkey characterizes the SDF and its allied political movements as separatists and terrorists affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey. In reality the SDF calls for a decentralized federal state with autonomy for Rojava within a Syrian state.

Turkey has its own political agenda in Syria. It cobbled together an armed militia called the Free Syrian Army that consists of some 2,000 castoffs from various right-wing political Islamist groups. These Sunni groups are closer ideologically to the Islamic State than to any version of civil society.

So Erdogan is unlikely to pursue the Islamic State with the same vigor as his war on the Kurds. Turkey hopes to defeat the Kurds and use its control of northern Syria as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the government of President Bashar al Assad. Syria has a long-standing territorial dispute with Turkey and fears Erdogan will annex part of northern Syria.

Turkish control of Rojava would be a disaster, according to Brace Belden, a San Francisco resident who fought with the Kurdish forces. He was surprised by Trump’s tweet.

He doesn’t call for US troops to remain, however. “From the beginning I opposed an alliance with the US. The timing surprised me, but the betrayal was inevitable.”

He said the US should pressure Turkey through diplomatic means not to invade Rojava. Instead of selling a new missile system to Turkey, Trump should cut off all arms sales if Turkey attacks Rojava, he said. The US also has a responsibility to provide money to rebuild areas of Syria flattened by US bombs.

The SDF faces a serious crisis but has a number of options. Their leaders traveled recently to Paris seeking support from the French government.

SDF leaders said they might have to release some 3,200 Islamic State prisoners and 2,080 of their family members now being held in SDF detention. It was a thinly veiled threat to Trump and the Europeans that they can’t take the SDF for granted.

SDF leaders are also holding negotiations with the Assad government. Belden said they discussed relinquishing control of oil fields near Deir Ezzor, a part of Syria controlled by the SDF but not part of Rojava.  

“There are some indications that the PYD [Democratic Union Party, the political leadership of the SDF] is dropping its demands for federalism because that’s unacceptable to Assad,” said Belden.

The SDF is also urging the Russians to prevent a Turkish attack. Deterring such an offensive would benefit both Russia and Syria, according to Prof. Toft.

“A Turkish attack would open another front in this war,” she said. “Stopping a Turkish incursion is in Russia’s interest as well.”

Best Case/Worst Case Scenarios

Assuming the US actually pulls troops out of Syria, it will set off a complicated set of reactions. The SDF could reach an agreement with Russia and Assad that blocks a Turkish invasion and allows Syrian government troops back into northern Syria.

The worst-case scenario would be a Turkish occupation of Rojava and a continued splintering of the Syrian nation.

As for Afghanistan, the Trump administration could learn from its mistakes in Syria and plan a quick but phased withdrawal. As Rep. Ro Khanna (Dem-California) wrote, “There should be a short timeline for bringing home our troops to allow for a smooth transition. We should engage in direct talks with the Taliban and seek a negotiated settlement, involving regional actors such as Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China, and India.”

Trump learning from his mistakes and acting diplomatically? Fat chance. But, hey, the US will have to withdraw from the region sooner or later. It may just start on Trump’s watch.

The US empire is learning that the only thing harder than starting a war is ending it. 

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears regularly in 48hills. His book The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story from
Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy is now available. Follow him onTwitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.


Sex, Russia, and impeachment

There are plenty of reasons to impeach Trump; Russia may not be one of them.

NEW YORK –America’s largest city is abuzz over the latest revelations about Donald Trump’s crimes. I’m here on A book tour discussing Iran, but audiences want to know if Trump will be impeached.

Court documents filed in the case of Trump’s long-time personal lawyer Michael Cohen show The Donald paid off two women with whom he had sexual relations. Prosecutors consider the payments, totaling several hundred thousand dollars, to be illegal campaign contributions because they were explicitly used to prevent scandal during the 2016 presidential race.

There are plenty of reasons to impeach Trump; Russia may not be one of them.

Top Democratic Party leaders admit those payments constitute impeachable offenses, but have so far not called for impeachment. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (Dem-NY), who will head the House Judiciary Committee in January, has become the master of equivocation.

“Well, they would be impeachable offenses,” he told CNN. “Whether they are important enough to justify an impeachment is a different question.”

Case for impeachment

In my opinion, Trump is guilty of a number of high crimes and misdemeanors. He has escalated the undeclared wars in Syria and Yemen. He obstructed justice by firing FBI Director James Comey and lied about meetings his advisors had with Russians.

Norman Solomon, co-founder of RootsAction, has been building a grass-roots movement for impeachment over the past two years. (Solomon is also co-author with me of the book Target Iraq.) He said Trump regularly violates the Constitution’s emoluments clause. The Trump family directly benefits from foreign governments renting rooms in Trump hotels in Washington DC., among other shading business dealings.

“Trump has been violating these clauses since his first day as president,” Solomon told me.

I think pursuing impeachment is one legitimate tactic by what is emerging as a broad anti-Trump movement. For now, the Republican-dominated Senate is not likely to convict Trump. By voting for impeachment in the House, but losing in the Senate, the Democrats could end up strengthening Trump. But new evidence may yet emerge. And even a House vote to impeach would force Trump to focus on defending himself, and potentially reduce his ability to wreak havoc on the government.

Last year 58 members of the House voted to debate impeachment. Democrats now hold a majority and the party base remains very angry at Trump’s corruption and despotism. The House could start impeachment hearings at anytime and enjoy considerable popular support.

Russia Connection?

You noticed that I didn’t mention Trump’s collusion/conspiracy with Putin as one of the impeachable offenses. I think liberals have overplayed that connection, and it’s likely to backfire.

To date, there’s no evidence that Trump cooperated with Russia to illegally influence the 2016 elections or adopt pro-Russian policies as a quid pro quo for favorable business dealings.

Yes, the Russians spent a few hundred thousand dollars to set up fake social media sites to attack Hillary Clinton and support Trump. But, despite the liberal outcry, it had relatively small impact.

Trump won by less than 80,000 votes in three key states. The Democrats lost because Trump appealed to alienated white voters and the Clinton campaign tilted right rather than mobilizing new voters with a progressive program.

Yes, high level Trump officials met with Russians in hopes of getting dirt on Clinton. And Trump’s campaign advocated easing Russian sanctions and establishing better relations with Putin.

But those activities are just as easily explained as political maneuvers rather than conspiracies. Trump was looking for whatever support he could get. During the campaign he sometimes professed an isolationist foreign policy that included improving relations with Russia. For their part, Russian leaders hoped for an end to Hillary Clinton’s liberal interventionism.

If Putin and Trump had a secret deal, why did Trump immediately appoint ultra-conservative interventionists to key cabinet posts, who then cranked up hostility with Russia?

For too many Democrats, Putin bashing also serves a convenient political purpose, according to Alan MacLeod, a researcher at Glasgow Media Group.

“If Russia is to blame, there is no need for introspection, nor to cede political ground to progressives,” he told me. “Instead it can be business as usual. There is no need to change policies, reflect upon a poorly run campaign, … or to understand why their policies failed to inspire the American public.”

Attacking Trump from the right

Insisting on a Putin-Trump conspiracy also promotes Russia as a dangerous enemy, and allows Democrats to attack Trump from the right on national security issues.

Nancy Pelosi, who will become speaker of the House, summed up the mainstream Democratic Party view succinctly earlier this year.

 “It seems that Putin is Trump’s puppeteer,” she said. 

The new Russian boogie man not only challenges the United States in eastern Europe and the Middle East, it threatens our democratic elections, according to leading liberals.

Earlier this year Rep. Nadler and other Democratic House leaders called for increased sanctions against Russia. Nadler proclaimed, “If we do not take any action, the American people may not trust the outcome of the next election.”

 As it turns out, Russian midterm election interference never materialized.

In reality Russia is a lesser imperialist power compared to the United States, or even Britain and France. It seeks hegemony in a limited number of places, such as the former USSR and Eastern Europe, and more recently, in parts of the Middle East. Putin heads an authoritarian government that oppresses the Russian people. But Russia is no more threat to the people of United States than any other lesser imperialist power. We face far greater threats from the neocons currently occupying the White House.

I view Russian interference in US elections the same way I see its espionage. Both countries carry out illegal spying on one another. Occasionally a spy is caught. One side self righteously denounces the other, but no one believes espionage will topple either government.

A recent Gallup poll showed that 58% of the American people favor improving relations with Russia while only 38% want more sanctions. So in both factual and practical terms, the Democrats should stop braying about the Trump-Putin conspiracy and focus on the White House’s real crimes.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks in 48Hills. His bookThe Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story from Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy is now available. Follow him onTwitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him onFacebook; and visit his webpage.

Senate tumult reflects popular discontent with Yemen War

On Nov. 28, Senators Bernie Sanders (pictured) and Mike Lee co-sponsored a War Powers Resolution calling for an end to U.S. participation in the conflict. Photo by Gage Skidmore

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT I’m on a low-budget book tour, sleeping in spare bedrooms and munching granola in the kitchens of progressives all along the East Coast. Many had felt beaten down and pessimistic from two years of Trumpism. But I now sense some optimism and a renewed fighting spirit.

Just look at the surprising battle in the Senate over US participation in the Yemen War. On Nov. 28, Senators Bernie Sanders (Dem-Vermont) and Mike Lee (Rep-Utah) co-sponsored a War Powers Resolution calling for an end to U.S. participation in the conflict. Trump tried to quash the effort, but 63 Democratic and Republican senators defied the administration and voted to discharge the bill from committee so it can be voted on as early as the first week of December.

On Nov. 28, Senators Bernie Sanders (pictured) and Mike Lee co-sponsored a War Powers Resolution calling for an end to U.S. participation in the conflict. Photo by Gage Skidmore

Senators were reacting to Trump’s failure to take decisive action against Saudi leaders responsible for the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

But the Senate tumult also reflects the overwhelming American sentiment against the Yemen War, according to Cole Harrison, executive director of Massachusetts Peace Action and a friend.

“Saudi Arabia has one of the most hated regimes in the Middle East,” he told me. “It’s a repressive dictatorship. The murder of Khashoggi was just the spark that lit a fire.”

Humanitarian crisis

In March of 2015 Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates began bombing Houthi rebels in Yemen. They claim the Houthis are controlled by Iran and part of an Iranian plan to dominate the region. In fact, the Houthis are an indigenous political Islamist movement allied with, but not controlled by Iran. The Saudi military promised a quick victory, but the war has dragged on for over three and a half years.

In June of this year Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched an offensive to seize the important port city of Hudaydah, declaring it would be a “turning point” in the war. Instead the offensive bogged down in a war of attrition, with no victory in sight.

International relief organizations now consider the Yemen War the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The country faces a devastating cholera epidemic. An estimated 14 million Yemenis are on the brink of starvation and 85,000 children have already died of hunger. The Royal Saudi Air Force intentionally targets civilians according to a UN report and human rights groups.

“The human rights community has played a key role in exposing Saudi atrocities,” peace activist Harrison said.

Grassroots groups are also building opposition to the Yemen War. Four activist organizations took out full page ads in local daily newspapers urging support for the War Powers Act resolutions.

Eric Eikenberry, Director of Policy & Advocacy at the Yemen Peace Project, one of the groups sponsoring the ad, said, “Many in the administration … inanely think that other countries will bear the brunt of both blame and accountability. With a potential famine impacting millions, we can only hope that Congress acts with more foresight, and more humanity.”

A few Republican senators have also come out against the war, such as resolution co-sponsor Senator Mike Lee.

“This is a war of bipartisan creation,” he noted. “A Democratic president has gotten us involved in a civil war in Yemen. We now have a Republican president, and that war has continued.”

Potential presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have spoken out against the war. Representative Ro Khanna (Dem-California) introduced a War Powers Act resolution in the House, but Republicans used parliamentary maneuvers to block its consideration. Democratic Party leaders have promised to allow debate on the anti-Yemen War resolution when they take control of the House in January.

Passage of the War Powers Act resolutions are far from certain. While Democrats won the majority in the House, conservative, mainstream Democrats will head key committees such as foreign affairs, intelligence and armed services.

“Some good new Democrats were elected from whom we can expect a more progressive stand on foreign policy, but plenty of absolutely terrible Democrats were elected too,” according to Howie Klein, founder of the Down with Tyranny blogspot, which specializes in analyzing the House of Representatives. (Disclosure: Klein’s website carries Foreign Correspondent.)

Don’t rely on Congress

While the House and Senate debates are significant, don’t hold your breath waiting for Congress to stop the war. Because the House can’t vote on the resolution during the lame duck session, anything  passed by the Senate would have to be re-introduced next year. Trump could veto the measure, thus requiring a two-thirds vote in both houses to override.

That’s why building a grassroots movement is so important. Peace activist Harrison admits that the anti-war movement is quite small these days. But he has seen increased activism on the issue of Israel and Palestine, and expects to see more interest in opposing Trump’s other Middle East policies as well.

A recent opinion poll shows 75 percent of Americans oppose the Yemen War and 57 percent oppose all arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Increasing numbers of people are seeing the connection between Trump’s disastrous domestic and foreign policies, according to Harrison.

“The United States wastes trillions on war when we could use those funds for vital domestic programs,” he said.

As I continue my book tour talking about The Iran Agenda Today, I’ll keep readers posted on the growing anti-war sentiment and prospects for building a wider movement.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears regularly in The Progressive. His book The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story from Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with U.S. Policy ­is now available. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Israel loses politically in Gaza battle

The Israeli blockade severely limits the import of medicine, gasoline and other essential goods into Gaza. Children and other civilians suffer. Photo by Reese Erlich

Earlier this week the Israeli military and armed groups in Gaza clashed in the worst fighting since their 2014 war. Israeli planes bombed Palestinians, killing seven, wounding 26 and destroying numerous office and apartment buildings. Palestinian groups fired rockets and mortars into Israel, killing one civilian and wounding 18. Both sides agreed to an uneasy ceasefire, but the key political issues are unresolved.

The Israeli blockade severely limits the import of medicine, gasoline and other essential goods into Gaza. Children and other civilians suffer. Photo by Reese Erlich

Israel dominated the fighting militarily, but Palestinians nonetheless celebrateda victory because they forced Israel to back down and agree to a ceasefire.

In a tacit admission of political defeat, Israeli politicians bickered among themselves. The Israeli defense minister resigned and right-wing politicians clamored for the head of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, complaining he had ended the conflict too soon.

Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center,told me that months of Palestinian protests at the Israeli border, combined with resistance to the most recent attacks, have produced empathy for Palestinians.

“It’s hard to see what’s happening without sympathizing with the occupied people and being outraged about the U.S. support for Israel,” she said.

Some Gaza history

Gaza consists of a small strip of land along the Israel-Egypt border, 25 miles long and five miles wide. Gaza is packed with two million residents.

It was created in the wake of the 1948 war that established the state of Israel and drove out many of its Arab residents. Gaza was ruled by Egypt until seized by Israel in the 1967 war, during which Israel also took the West Bank and the Golan region in Syria. Israeli settlers and military personnel occupied Gaza but faced such strong political and armed resistance that Israel was forced to withdraw in 2005.

If peace talks for a two-state solution ever succeed, Gaza and the West Bank would become an independent Palestinian state, living in peace alongside Israel.

In 2006 Hamas, a conservative political Islamic party, won parliamentary elections in both the West Bank and Gaza. Israel and the United States rejected the election results and assisted Fatah, the other major Palestinian party, in taking control of the West Bank a year later. Hamas took power in Gaza.

Israel has imposed a harsh blockade controlling sea, air and land access to Gaza. It limits the amount of food, medicine and fuel that enters, and curtails the export of Gaza’s agricultural and manufactured products. Palestinian fishing boats can’t even venture further than a few miles offshore without facing attack by the Israeli Navy.

“It’s similar to the daily reality of prisoners,” said Palestinian activist Kiswani. “Nothing can get in or out. They live in fear of being bombed. But people are still organizing.”

Every week since March, Palestinian youth have demonstrated at the Israeli border. Israeli soldiers killed at least 214 Palestinians, mostly with live fire, and wounded over 18,000.

Nevertheless Israeli authorities portray their country as the victim. Israel’s UN Ambassador Danny Danon argued that Hamas intentionally targets civilians while Israel bombs only military sites.

“There is a side that attacks and fires 400 rockets toward civilians and there is a side that protects its civilians,” he said. “Every member country in the Security Council ought to ask itself how it would respond after a barrage of missiles is fired at its people.”

Ellen Brotsky, a Bay Area activist with Jewish Voice for Peace, told me that’s a phony argument. The Israeli military knows Gaza “is an open air prison with civilians all over. It’s not possible to separate out civilians in any bombing, and the Israelis know this.”

Recent clashes

Before the recent fighting, the Israeli government and Hamas had reached an informal ceasefire. Feeling international and domestic pressure from nine months of border protests, Israel had allowed Gaza to import diesel fuel, food and medicine. It allowed Qatar to bring in three suitcases stuffed with $15 million in cash to pay Gaza’s civil servants. Qatar supports Hamas politically and has provided economic aid in the past.

Then Israel got cocky. It sent a commando squad into Gaza to assassinate a Palestinian military leader, according to Hamas. Israel claimed the raid was designed to install surveillance equipment in the home of the Hamas leader.

Palestinian security discovered the Israelis and a firefight broke out, killing one Israeli officer and seven Palestinians. Israeli leaders portray such deadly raids as routine. But as Yousef Munayyer, executive director of US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, tweeted, “Imagine if Palestinians crossed into Israel and killed … Israelis. All hell would break loose. But Palestinians are expected just to accept this.”

Hamas and Islamic Jihad responded to the raid by firing some 460 rockets and mortars into Israeli cities close to the border. They also fired an anti-tank rocket at a bus carrying Israeli soldiers, seriously wounding one.

Israeli officials have long assured the Israeli public that their U.S. designed Iron Dome system will intercept enemy rockets midair. But press accounts indicate Iron Dome only stopped about 100, having been overwhelmed by the sheer number in the Palestinian assault.

Israel deploys a huge variety of other hi-tech weaponry in an effort to halt Palestinian resistance. But it hasn’t worked.

When Israel stopped goods from arriving by land, Palestinians dug smuggling tunnels to nearby Egypt. When Israel cut off sea access to prevent arms smuggling, Palestinians created a cottage industry of homemade rockets and mortars. When Israel’s hi-tech sensors discovered tunnels being dug into Israel from Gaza, Palestinians sent kites and balloons with incendiary devices to burn Israeli fields.

I am opposed to intentional attacks on civilians by either side. But the recent fighting in Gaza demonstrates once again that Israel can’t win the war militarily. As I’ve reported before, Israeli and Palestinian leaders know the broad outlines for a peace settlement. The only question is how long will Israeli leaders reject meaningful negotiations?

“Israel cannot military solve the situation with Palestine,” said Jewish Voice for Peace activist Brotsky. “There has to be a political solution which recognizes the land belongs to Palestinians as well.”

In 2016 Al Jazeera TV sent an undercover reporter to investigate the illegal activities of the Israel lobby in the United States. Reactionary Jewish-American groups pressured the Qatar government, funder of Al Jazeera, not to air it. But a digital version is now online. It’s worth checking out.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears twice monthly in His book The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story from Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with U.S. Policyis now available. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Murder of Saudi journalist builds opposition to Yemen war

The Arab Spring spread through Saudi Arabia and continued for years in the mostly Shia Muslim, eastern part of the country. When the current Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman came to power, he escalated the war in Yemen and cracked down on dissent at home. Photo by Reese Erlich

The murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has backfired on the Saudi royal family by focusing new attention on its vicious war on Yemen.

The last few weeks have seen startling new reports on civilian atrocities and growing support for a House of Representative resolution invoking the War Powers Act to stop the war. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-San Jose) now has 73 cosponsors for a resolution that would stop US participation in the Yemen slaughter.

The Arab Spring spread through Saudi Arabia and continued for years in the mostly Shia Muslim, eastern part of the country. When the current Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman came to power, he escalated the war in Yemen and cracked down on dissent at home.
Photo by Reese Erlich

The Khashoggi murder has fundamentally shifted opinions on Capitol Hill about US-Saudi relations, Rep. Khanna told me in a phone interview. He likened it to one partner in a marriage having an affair.

“The marriage may last but it will never be the same,” he said. “It’s opened people’s eyes.”

Murder expressly in the Orient

On October 2, the Saudi regime, headed by Mohammad bin Salman, murdered opposition journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. Saudi officials had a premeditated plan to kill Khashoggi, dress a Saudi operative in his clothes and then have him walk around the city to leave the impression he was still alive.

In reality, Khashoggi was brutally murdered and dismembered with a bone saw, according to Turkish government sources. While tens of thousands of Yemenis have died as a result of the Saudi invasion of Yemen, it took the death of one man to focus world attention on Saudi atrocities.

Partially in response to the Khashoggi scandal, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis called for all sides in the Yemen War to begin UN-sponsored peace talks within 30 days. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded that the Houthi movement, which is fighting Saudi Arabia, begin the ceasefire first. Past United States calls for ceasefires and peace talks went nowhere because the Trump administration is determined not to disrupt relations with Saudi Arabia.

The Trump administration provides intelligence to the Saudi military fighting in Yemen and helps refuel its fighter jets. The United States currently has dozens of soldiers deployed in Yemen, ostensibly to combat terrorism. Earlier this year the New York Timesrevealed that about a dozen Green Beret commandos were stationed in Saudi Arabia along the Yemen border to train the Saudi military in interdicting Houthi missile attacks.

As I’ve reported previously, the Trump administration could end the war within days. US technicians fuel and maintain Saudi fighter planes manufactured by Boeing. Trump could order the technicians to stop work, as provided in the Boeing contract.

“If the United States stopped fueling the planes, the war would end,” noted Khanna.

Who’s fighting and why?

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) invaded Yemen in 2015 claiming to support the legitimate government of Yemen’s Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. In reality, Hadi was installed by the United States after an Arab Spring uprising and today acts as a Saudi puppet. He lives in Saudi Arabia, not Yemen.

The Houthis, a conservative political Islamic movement, control the northern part of Yemen. Iran supports but does not control the Houthis. The Houthis havekilled civilians by firing artillery indiscriminately into Yemeni cities and launching rockets into southern Saudi Arabia, according to Human Rights Watch.

But the Saudi/UAE coalition is responsible for far more death and destruction. In an online interview from the Yemeni capital Sanaa, radio reporter It’s Ali Alshahari told me coalition planes have destroyed massive amounts of infrastructure and caused the deaths of tens of thousands. The two occupying powers have blocked access to the country’s ports, which stops even humanitarian aid such as food and medicine.

“The people here are suffering from malnutrition due to the imposed blockade,” Shahari said. “This is a catastrophe.”

The United States, UK and France provide the deadly munitions responsible for civilian deaths. Lockheed-Martin sold the guided missiles to Saudi Arabia that caused the deaths of 40 children and 11 adults in the infamous August attack on a school bus.

Most of the mainstream media say some 10,000 Yemenis have died in the war, but that figure comes from a two-year-old UN estimate. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project(ACLED), a research institution funded in part by the US State Department, indicates that from 2016 to the present, some 56,000 Yemeni civilians and combatants have died. The total since the beginning of the war will likely be 70-80,000, according to a ACLED spokesperson.

A new report by the World Peace Foundation shows that the Royal Saudi Air Force intentionally attacks food storage facilities. Report author and Tufts Professor Martha Mundy explained, “There is strong evidence that Coalition strategy has aimed to destroy food production and distribution in the areas under the control of Sanaa.”

Bump from Trump

Obama and now Trump have supported the Yemen occupation to defend US so-called national interests, part of the larger fight against Iran. The United States accuses Iran of seeking to militarily dominate the region from Lebanon, through Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen.

My — how the kettle calls the pot black. The United States has dominated the Middle East in the post-World-War II era and seeks to maintain its power in an alliance with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. It has massive military bases in Bahrain and Qatar

The US Navy keeps the sea lanes open for US and allied oil corporations. And, by sheer coincidence, oil and munitions companies make billions of dollars in profits.

Funny how “national interests” are of great interest to the rich but not to the nation.

The Saudis had predicted a quick victory in Yemen but are now bogged down in a never-ending war that costs at least $5-6 billion a month. Fallout from the Khashoggi murder has made the war even more problematic.

Neither Obama nor Trump ever formally declared war in Yemen, and the fighting there has nothing to do with combating terrorism. Even the Republican-dominated House in November 2017 voted by a whopping 366-30 margin to stop United States participation in the Yemen war. In March a similar measure failed in the Senate by a vote of only 55-44.

If the Democrats win the House, and particularly the Senate, they could put tremendous pressure on Trump to reverse his disastrous Mideast policies.

Rep. Khanna emphasized that his War Powers Act measure has significance beyond the Yemen war. “The bill is a reassertion of Congress’s role in foreign policy,” he said. “It’s a reorientation of US policy away from interventionism.”

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears regularly in The Progressive. His book The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story from Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy is now available. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him onFacebook; and visit his webpage.