I’ve written for The Atlantic, Miami Herald, Sociological Insight, Jacobin, and a number of other outlets. My work has focused on:
Climate Change, International Development and Sustainability
Workers’ Paradise. Harper’s. 2015.
The Most Dangerous Place To Be An Environmentalist. Generation Progress. 2015.
Honduras’ Five-Century War. Jacobin. 2015.
With Its Own Satellite, Bolivia Hopes to Put Rural Areas on the Grid. Inter Press Service, with Gustav Cappaert. 2014.
What Happens When The Water Runs Out? Generation Progress. 2014.
Treaty Hints At End Of Reckless International Weapons Sales. Generation Progress. 2013.
Revolutionary Tourism: Cuba’s Deal with the Devil. American Way of Life. 2010.
Race, Class, and Inequality in American Cities
Does Michigan’s Emergency-Manager Law Disenfranchise Black Citizens? The Atlantic. 2013.
Talk about Crisis: Everyday Life in Detroit. Sociological Insight. 2013.
Number Crunch: The Arithmetic of Desperation in Detroit. Z Communications. 2013.
What ‘Ruin Porn’ Does and Doesn’t Tell Us. TheFightBack. 2012.
Making Cents: Rep Payee Clients Tackle Financial Literacy. Bread for the City. 2012.
‘East of the River’ or ‘River East’? Washington City Paper. 2010.
Students: Post-Layoff McKinley High School ‘Dreary.’ Washington City Paper. 2009.
Latin American Political Economy
Anxiety in Havana as US Embassy Opens. Generation Progress. 2015.
America’s Cuba: US Hostility Was Never Really About The Cold War. CounterPunch. 2014.
Why It’s So Hard For Central Americans To Get Asylum In The US. Alternet. 2014.
The road to Machu Picchu, traveled on the backs of its builders. Seattle Globalist, with Gustav Cappaert. 2014.
How Peru Is Kicking Its Coke Habit. Generation Progress. 2014.
Rainbow Tide Rising: How Latin America Became A Gay Rights Haven. Alternet. 2014.
Cuba to Drop Exit Visa Requirements. CounterPunch. 2012.
Cuban Colada Blogger. Miami Herald. 2011.
The Cuban Five and ‘El Sexto.’ Generation Progress. 2010.
The American Economy: Education, Labor, Poverty and Growth
Should College Athletes Be Paid? Generation Progress. 2013.
Give Free Money To Everybody. Generation Progress. 2013.
Is There Really A Shortage Of Science Majors? Generation Progress. 2013.
Nicholas Kristof Is Wrong About Poverty. Alternet. 2013.
American University Adjuncts Vote To Unionize. Washington City Paper. 2012.
The Union Forever At American University? Washington City Paper. 2012.
From Spanish invaders to US imperialists, the Honduran struggle for self-determination has found enemies at every turn. Photo: the hills of Río Blanco, in the western Honduran mountains that have seen land conflicts across five centuries.
The Lenca people say the spirits of children inhabit the Gualcarque River. The kids probably wouldn’t be pleased with a hydroelectric dam.
The river is sacred to the Río Blanco community of indigenous Lencas in western Honduras, and an important source of water. It’s also the proposed site of the Honduran DESA Corporation’s Agua Zarca dam. Fearing displacement, the people of Río Blanco have vociferously opposed the dam for years, even as DESA established itself on contested land. But when DESA posted security guards and “No Trespassing” signs along the river in spring 2013, residents took matters into their own hands.
The morning of April 1, 2013, community members gathered at a high point of DESA’s access road, the area’s wide blue skies and rolling forest-green hills on display. There they formed a human blockade, dug a trench big enough to sink a truck tire, and built a fence across the road with sticks and thick metal cable.
Tense months followed. Supporters of the dam brandished machetes at opponents and made verbal threats. Honduran National Police made multiple attempts to evict the protesters. A protester’s coffee crop was burned. Hoping to put an end to the tensions, several hundred community members marched down to DESA’s riverside headquarters on July 15 to reiterate their opposition to the project.
“There was a soldier there who may have been nervous,” one Río Blanco resident told me last year.
Near the head of the community group was Tomas García, a forty-nine-year-old father of seven. As they approached, Honduran army Sergeant Kevin Jasser Sarabia, stationed outside the DESA offices, began firing shots into the air. Witnesses say García made clear the group’s desire to have a peaceful conversation. Jasser must have thought otherwise when he lowered his weapon and fired several shots, killing García and wounding his seventeen-year-old son.
Blood for Land
The people of Río Blanco are fighting a long fight.
“Five hundred years ago, when the Spanish came, they also deceived us,” says Francisco Javier Sánchez, president of the Río Blanco Indigenous Council. “The same thing is happening today as five hundred years ago. Our dear Honduras is a very rich country. When they come to take advantage of it, they come to take the little bit that we have left.”
Hondurans living on rich lands have faced violence and displacement for centuries, as Spanish colonizers sought gold and American banana barons sought profit. Today, a new wave of bloodshed is sweeping Honduras as a domestic elite looks to increase its outsized share of the nation’s wealth. It has claimed over one hundred lives since 2009. But if it’s a war, it’s a one-sided one, with the violence directed mostly at subsistence farmers who oppose land grabs for agribusiness, mining, or hydroelectric projects.
Read the rest at Jacobin.
Havana streets, 2010.
President Barack Obama announced on December 17th that the United States would begin normalizing relations with Cuba. Both governments agreed to a prisoner swap: Cuba released imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross and a US intelligence operative, while the United States released three Cuban intelligence agents arrested in the 1990s while spying on militant Cuban exile groups. The countries will begin talks with the goal of opening embassies, Obama will ease travel and financial restrictions for American citizens, and Cuba will release a group of detainees that the US has designated political prisoners. The US trade embargo remains in place, and requires Congressional action to repeal.
“U.S. to Restore Full Relations With Cuba, Erasing a Last Trace of Cold War Hostility,” the New York Times proclaimed. The notion that the US embargo is a Cold War relic that has outlived its usefulness has long been a common assertion among American critics of Cuba policy. Democratic Senators, the editor of The Nation, progressive NGOs, and even Forbes columnists and the Cato Institute have framed the conflict in these terms.
US-Cuban relations have undoubtedly been shaped by the Cold War, but the narrative of Cold War conflict between the two countries is a historically dubious rendering, obfuscating a long record of US intervention in Cuba and the rest of Latin America.
The United States immediately recognized Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government when it took power in January 1959. We all know that the amity didn’t last long, but US telling often misconstrues how the United States and Cuba became enemies.
In May 1959, Castro unveiled the revolution’s land reform program, which called for breaking up holdings larger than 1,000 acres and distributing them to small farmers. It also specified that only Cubans would be allowed to own land, and promised compensation for confiscated territory.
In an era of worldwide land reform this was hardly radical, but US officials perceived the move as a threat to the vast property owned by American companies in Cuba. According to historian Richard Gott, a June 1959 meeting of the National Security Council concluded that Castro couldn’t be allowed to stay in power. By October, the CIA had drafted a program that “authorized us to support elements in Cuba opposed to the Castro government, while making Castro’s downfall seem to be the result of his own mistakes.” The Eisenhower administration began plotting with Cuban exiles in Florida.
Cuba had no diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union at this point, and wouldn’t until May 1960. In July 1960, hoping to deal an economic blow to the Cuban Revolution, Eisenhower declined to purchase 700,000 tons of Cuban sugar. The Soviet Union offered to buy it. In August, Cuba nationalized all American property on the island; the US embargo began in November.
US-Cuban relations declined further, to put it mildly, when US-trained Cuban exiles invaded the Bay of Pigs in 1961. In 1962, Castro asked the USSR for support that would guarantee that any US attack “would mean a war not only with Cuba.” According to Gott’s telling, he envisioned a military defense pact; the Soviets suggested nuclear missiles. The decision was made that summer, and the world narrowly avoided nuclear war in October.
In the United States, events like the Bay of Pigs invasion are typically portrayed as reactions to Cuban instigation, but the chronology belies this framing. In fact, the causality runs in almost exactly the opposite direction: US hostility wasn’t a response to Cuba’s Communist ties; Cuba’s Communist ties were a response to US hostility.
That hostility didn’t start in 1959, either. In his book “Cuba in the American Imagination,” historian Louis A. Pérez Jr. argues that from the early years of US history, American leaders saw themselves as the rightful stewards of Cuban territory, and their understandings of Cuba formed an ethos that has shaped policy toward the island ever since. Pérez quotes US Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, who in 1823 called Cuba a “natural appendage” of the United States. Adams went on to claim:
There are laws of political as well as of physical gravitation; and if an apple, severed by the tempest from its native tree, cannot choose but fall to the ground, Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its own unnatural connexion with Spain, and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only towards the North American Union, which, by the same law of nature, cannot cast her off from its bosom.
The US saw its chance to bring that apple to its bosom during the war for Cuban independence in 1898, when Cuban rebels were beginning to gain the upper hand against Spanish troops. The United States declared war on Spain and quickly crushed the fading colonial power. The emerging superpower then claimed Cuba for itself, forcing the infamous Platt Amendment into Cuba’s new constitution. The law gave the US the right to intervene militarily in Cuban affairs, control the nation’s finances, and approve or veto its treaties with other countries.
In 1906, the Chicago Tribune wrote, “The possession of Cuba has been the dream of American statesmen ever since our government was organized. […] We have as righteous a claim to it as the people who are now occupying it.” Leonard Wood, the general who governed the island under US occupation, said that the United States “must always control the destinies of Cuba.”
And for a while, it did. By 1923, American troops had been dispatched on three separate occasions to quell rebellions. Havana became a haven for American mob bosses and a Vegas-like den of sin for American tourists. A former ambassador to Cuba told Congress in 1960 that “The United States, until the advent of Castro, was so overwhelmingly influential in Cuba that … the American Ambassador was the second most important man in Cuba; sometimes even more important than the President.”
Castro and his revolutionaries considered themselves responsible for ending the humiliation of such a hollow independence. The land reform that so riled the United States seemed a fitting way to start making Cuban sovereignty real. According to Pérez, as Castro began to introduce other redistributive policies, American officials were mystified, incapable of understanding the Cuban leader’s public grievances about US neocolonialism. How could they have understood? Pérez writes:
Americans rarely engaged the Cuban reality on its own terms or as a condition possessed of an internal logic, or Cubans as a people possessed of an interior history or as a nation possessed of an inner-directed destiny. It has always been thus between the United States and Cuba.
The “Cold War” rhetoric obscures this long history of domination and frustrated independence. (It also underhandedly implies that the pain inflicted upon the Cuban people—by US invasion, support for counterrevolutionary insurgents, and the continuing trade embargo—was permissible in a Cold War context.)
More importantly, the Cold War framing ignores the fact that we’ve never needed the Cold War to justify overthrowing governments, in Cuba or elsewhere. We’re doing fine without it: Our government has at least tacitly supported coups in Venezuela in 2002, Haiti in 2004, and Honduras in 2009.
It remains to be seen exactly how Obama’s announcement this week will impact the long fight between US and Cuba. Is Obama conceding defeat in the long effort to dismantle the Cuban Revolution though, or merely searching for more effective means? One Cuba expert on Democracy Now! on Thursday speculated whether the President is “buying into the idea if we flood more money into Cuba, maybe we’ll be able to subvert the fundamental values of the revolution.” US officials have also said that USAID “democracy promotion” efforts to undermine the Cuban government will continue. But even as the two nations remain rivals, Obama’s normalization of relations might finally be an acknowledgement of that “inner-directed destiny” that we have denied Cubans for so long.
Published at Counterpunch.
The children arriving to the US border come from the countries most disadvantaged within the American asylum system. Originally published at Alternet.
In the United States, not all refugees are created equal.
The 63,000 unaccompanied children and 63,000 adults with children who have been detained on the southern US border since October are learning this the hard way. Fleeing widespread violence in their home countries, thousands of the children are housed in crowded detention centers, often without adequate food, sleeping conditions or medical care. President Obama has said publicly that most will be sent back to their home countries.
The thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans who apply for asylum in the US are granted it at rates lower than those for almost any other country in the world. How they must envy arriving Cubans, for whom the Cuban American Adjustment Act ensures they will be able to stay in the United States, without even having to apply for asylum.
The disparity is a stark example of a wider trend: In the United States, the ostensibly impartial refugee and asylum process has long been shaped to reflect foreign and domestic political interests. And in multiple ways, Central Americans get the short end of the stick.
Cold War Politics
“Historically and currently, the United States does not recognize Central American asylum claims,” said Elizabeth Kennedy, a Fulbright scholar working with returned child migrants in El Salvador.
Not long ago, the asylum process was political by design, and without much controversy. Reviewing the modern history of asylum in a 2007 article in the Georgetown Immigration Law Journal, David Swanwick explained that during the Cold War era, US asylum policy almost completely denied entry to applicants who were not fleeing a Communist or Middle Eastern country.
Swanwick writes that during the Cold War, “U.S. immigration officials pursued [foreign policy objectives] by granting asylum to individuals fleeing U.S. enemies, thus showing those enemies to be persecutors, and similarly by refusing to grant asylum to individuals fleeing U.S. allies, in order to avoid making those allies look bad.” As one US State Department official said in 1958, “each refugee from the Soviet orbit represents a failure of the Communist system.”
Policy was nominally changed in 1968 with the ratification of the 1967 United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, but in practice foreign policy continued to dominate the US asylum system into well into the 1980s.
In that decade, the United States backed the governments of El Salvador and Guatemala in their brutal campaigns against left-wing guerrilla insurgencies. An estimated one million Salvadorans and Guatemalans fled to the United States to escape the violence, according to an article by Susan Gzesh at the Migration Policy Institute.
The detained arrivals were placed in crowded detention centers and discouraged from applying for asylum. The Reagan administration sought to portray these immigrants as “economic migrants,” and delivered letters to immigration judges pressuring them to deny asylum to the Salvadorans and Guatemalans who did apply.
“Approval rates for Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum cases were under three percent in 1984. In the same year, the approval rate for Iranians was 60 percent, 40 percent for Afghans fleeing the Soviet invasion, and 32 percent for Poles,” Gzesh wrote.
A 1987 class-action lawsuit on behalf of Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum seekers marked a turning point for asylum evaluation criteria. The settlement of the case banned foreign policy considerations from asylum decisions, and allowed all of the members of the class to reapply for asylum. The suit, coupled with the end of the Cold War and heightened public debate about the asylum process, led to an increased emphasis on humanitarianism into the 1990s.
Capable of Persecution
But despite the shift in emphasis and language, there are still wide disparities in asylum grant rates based on country of origin.
According to figures available on the Department of Justice website, from fiscal years 2009 to 2013, roughly one percent of Mexicans’ asylum requests were granted, about five percent of requests from residents of El Salvador and Honduras, six percent from Guatemalans, 37 percent from Venezuelans, 38 percent from Russians, 47 percent from Chinese, 57 percent from Somalis, and 80 percent from Ethiopians.
“Each case in immigration court, to include asylum cases, has its own set of facts and variables that affect its outcome,” Kathryn Mattingly, a Department of Justice spokeswoman, said in an email comment.
“Immigration judges adjudicate cases on a case-by-case basis, according to U.S. immigration law, regulations and precedent decisions,” she said. “Immigration judges consider all evidence and arguments presented by both parties and decide each case based on that information.”
Between-country disparities aren’t inherently wrong. If human rights are being more egregiously violated in China than Honduras, for instance, it is natural that Chinese asylum seekers would be more likely to be granted refuge in the United States.
“The first thing we can think of is to send our children to the United States,” a mother of two from the violence-ravaged Honduran city of San Pedro Sula told the New York Times. “That’s the idea, to leave.”
The stories of arriving children—like that of Adrián, who grew up on the streets of Guatemala City and fled after gang members demanding money peppered his small clothing stand with bullets—indicate widespread persecution in the nations they are fleeing.
But such violence may not be a legal foundation for asylum in the United States. “Who is capable of persecution [under US asylum law]? Historically, that had to be a state actor or very powerful non-state actor with direct political purpose,” Kennedy said from El Salvador.
“The problem here is that the main persecutors are gangs, cartels, and other organized criminal actors,” she said.
In US asylum hearings, judges will typically try to make the case that Central American applicants are victims of random violence or targets of local criminal groups, and therefore don’t qualify for asylum based on US law, according to Kennedy.
Most Central American asylum seekers stake their claim on being persecuted on their status as a member of a “particular social group,” one of the categories of persecution that makes someone eligible for asylum protection under US law. Some articulations of particular social groups include children who are forcibly recruited into gangs, women who are forced to be the “girlfriends” of gang members, or people fleeing police violence, according to Ashley Huebner, managing attorney of the asylum and immigrant children protection projects at the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago.
“These types of claims have grown increasingly difficult as case law has come down primarily from the Department of Justice that has restricted the ability of these individuals to seek asylum,” Huebner said.
Huebner and others argue that underlying the stinginess toward Central Americans is a fear of “opening the floodgates”—that is, creating the incentive for an unmanageable or undesirable number of Central Americans to use asylum as a backdoor route to legal status in the United States. She says that between the lines of recent judicial decisions is an effort to put up barriers specifically for people seeking asylum from Central America.
“The four precedential decisions that have been issued by the [Board of Immigration Appeals] that specifically address [particular social Group claims] were four cases involving individuals from Central America who were fleeing gang violence. The decisions are very clearly written in a results-driven way,” she said.
The United Nations Refugee Agency, in its “ Children on the Run” report, found that 58 percent of the 404 children they interviewed at the US border were forced migrants who needed international protection.
The Obama administration has argued that most of the recent Central American arrivals don’t qualify for asylum. “It’s unlikely that most of these kids will qualify for humanitarian relief,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in July. “It means they will not have a legal basis for remaining in this country and will be returned.”
The foreign policy considerations that birthed American asylum, while no longer enshrined in law, still shine through. A 2009 study, for instance, found that “For each one percentage point increase in US trade to a country, asylum seekers from that country have between approximately 0.74 and 1.18 percentage points less chance of receiving affirmative asylum status from officers and judges, respectively.” Asylum seekers from countries under US economic sanction regimes also have a moderately greater chance of being accepted, though paradoxically, so do asylum seekers from countries receiving US military aid.
Swanwick, writing in 2007, found that asylum seekers from an ally country in the US war on terror had a lower admittance rate than those from countries deemed enemies.
But if the foreign policy criteria for asylum have been formally abolished, why do the disparities persist?
“Basically, judges are people just like we are,” said Christopher Fariss, assistant professor of political science at Penn State University, and one of the authors of the 2009 study on disparities in asylum rates.
“It might not even be a conscious consideration that the judge is making, but if they are coming from a place that we don’t have a good relationship with, then maybe they give that person the benefit of the doubt,” he said.
Biased judgments may also be exacerbated by a shortage of resources devoted to immigrant processing.
“The number of cases that each immigration judge has to see per year is very, very high,” Fariss said. “We all take shortcuts when we’re overloaded with work, and so I could see—though I haven’t seen the data—I could see judges being more influenced by cognitive shortcuts like their impression of the country the person came from, given an overloaded docket.”
A Way Forward
An unsuccessful asylum petition can have deadly consequences. Kennedy, the Fulbright scholar based in El Salvador, said she encounters about one newspaper story each month in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras about a US deportee who has been murdered.
”It might be higher,” she said, since many families are reluctant to publicly acknowledge that a member of their family has been deported.
Perhaps a better model for US asylum policy, Kennedy says, is the 1984 Cartagena declaration, published in the midst of the Central American civil wars at a summit of migration experts from across the Americas. The declaration defines refugees more broadly and mandates a broader set of responsibilities toward them from receiving governments.
According to the declaration, governments should commit “To ensure that any repatriation of refugees is voluntary, and is declared to be so on an individual basis, and is carried out with the co-operation of UNHCR.”
The Declaration is one way to reverse an asylum policy that falls beneath the level of generosity wealthy countries like the United States are capable of.
“The reality of refugee and asylum policy in our world today is that the poorest nations are receiving the majority of asylum seekers and refugees,” Kennedy said. “Wealthy nations have been very restrictive in who they admit and who they allow to get asylum, and that is a great injustice, because often times their policies are contributing to the things that create refugees.”
That’s the deeper solution to asylum problems, attacking forced migration at the source. In the Central American case, a principal culprit is the US drug war, according to Kennedy, which fuels violence in countries like Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico in order to meet US demand for recreational drugs.
“What would prevent people from producing drugs and working to supply them is going to be the same as what would prevent people from joining gangs and organized crime, and that’s genuine economic and social development,” Kennedy said.
“The United States does not have a good track record of investing in that.”