Workers’ Paradise

In Harper’s, I wrote about how Cuba—perhaps more than any other country on the planet—stands at the enviable intersection of high human development and low ecological footprint:

In Cuba today, population growth is stable, malnutrition is low, higher education is free, and most tropical diseases have been eradicated. Cubans can expect to live seventy-nine years, currently slightly outliving Americans. No other country in the world has achieved such longevity while at the same time polluting so little. The average Cuban has a 4.7-acre ecological footprint, the total amount of land area needed to grow the food they eat, produce the goods they use, and absorb the carbon they emit. For humans to avoid depleting the earth’s ecological resources, we would all have to live on about 4 acres each, according to the environmental nonprofit Global Footprint Network. As of 2011, Costa Ricans each used 5.4 acres, Norwegians almost 12, Americans nearly 17.

Check out the link above to read about rare snails on top of mountains and lush reefs at the island’s remote edge. It was one of the most stimulating stories I’ve ever written, but it was motivated by some pretty grim lines of inquiry. One of my guiding questions was along the lines of: what does Cuba suggest about the likelihood that human societies will choose to live within our planet’s ecological budget when overshooting it is so easy? I found few Cubans who were satisfied with their current level of consumption, and understandably so. Cubans make many sacrifices that us Americans would hardly accept, from forgoing air travel to creatively sourcing toilet paper.

Even some right-wing thinkers have been able to grasp some of the essence of the dilemma. “No free society would do to itself what the [climate justice] agenda requires … The first step to doing that is to remove these nagging freedoms that keep getting in the way,” says one climate denier quoted in Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. I think a more optimistic counterargument can be constructed, but Cuba sure is fodder for pessimism.


I’m finally getting to Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, on how climate action can be a vehicle for building better social and economic systems. From the intro:

What concerns me less is the mechanics of the transition–the shift from brown to green energy, from sole-rider cars to mass transit, from sprawling exurbs to dense and walkable cities–than the power and ideological roadblocks that have so far prevented any of these long understood solutions from taking hold on anything close to the scale required.

It seems to me that our problem is has a lot less to do with the mechanics of solar power than the politics of human power–specifically whether there can be a shift in who wields it, a shift away from corporations and toward communities, which in turn depends on whether or not the great many people who are getting a rotten deal under our current system can build a determined and diverse enough social force to change the balance of power. I have come to understand, over the course of researching this book, that the shift will require rethinking the very nature of humanity’s power–our right to extract ever more without facing consequences, our capacity to bend complex natural systems to our will. This is a shift that challenges not only capitalism, but also the building blocks of materialism that preceded modern capitalism, a mentality that some call ‘extractivism.’

Because, underneath all of this is the real truth we have been avoiding: climate change isn’t an ‘issue’ to add to the list of things to worry about, next to health care and taxes. It is a civilizational wake-up call. A powerful message–spoken in the language of fires, floods, droughts, and extinctions–telling us that we need an entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing this planet. Telling us that we need to evolve.

Anxiety in Cuba as US Embassy Opens

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I thought we would be celebrating in Havana.

Five years ago, I spent a semester in Cuba as an undergraduate student and forged friendships with Cubans my age in spite of—or perhaps because of—the official antagonism between our countries.

“Politics is shit,” a Cuban friend said one night as we reflected, somewhat tipsy, on the intransigence of our governments. It felt impossible, I added, that our nations could be so distant and yet only be separated by 90 miles.

“Yeah, geography is shit too,” he responded.

When I arrived for a visit last month, I expected a change in tone. The governments of Cuba and the United States had agreed months earlier to establish diplomatic relations months earlier. Since then, the Obama administration had begun working to unravel the complex legal machinery that, for the past half-century, has cut Cuba off from its northern neighbor and brought a lot of economic hardship to the island.

I encountered more trepidation than I expected.

“It will be very good for the economy,” a young man told me in the central city of Santa Clara as we rested on a park bench. “But from the ethical, moral, cultural, social, and even aesthetic perspective, that’s another question.”

Another friend of mine—I’ll call him “Daniel”—suspects that the United States will bring down the Cuban government by lifting the embargo for a period of a few years and then suddenly reinstalling it, choking off Cuba’s newly Americanized economy.

Indeed, the United States hasn’t abandoned the goal of regime change in Cuba. Statements from the Obama administration imply that, through engagement, it is simply looking for more effective means.

“They have done us a lot of damage, but they haven’t achieved what they wanted,” my college Spanish professor told me when I paid her a visit at her house. “They are going to try to do from within what they couldn’t do from outside.”

On the morning of August 14, I went to Daniel’s house to watch on TV as John Kerry presided over the unfurling of the American flag and official opening of the United States embassy in Havana. My friend Yassel Alejandro Padron Kunakbaeva had arrived earlier, and sat shirtless in a rocking chair, smoking a cigarette as he waited for the event to start.

“I think it’s necessary to have diplomatic relations with the United States,” he said, but he had his mind on a much older American flag.

Cuban independence from Spain in 1898 was immediately followed by four years of American military occupation. The United States insisted that Cuba’s constitution grant the United States control over Cuba’s finances and foreign affairs. When US troops left in 1902, two flags flew from Havana’s Morro fortress, one Cuban, one American.

“It was a powerful symbol,” Yassel said.

For half a century, Cuba would be a de facto American colony. American marines made landings in 1906, 1912, and 1917. By the 1950s, American mobsters dominated the island, with the acquiescence of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista. Historian Richard Gott wrote that for Cubans, Fidel Castro’s revolution of 1959 was “the first genuine attempt in their history to establish an independent republic.” Castro and his revolution, despite their flaws, occupy a space in Cuban historical memory similar to that of George Washington in the United States.

Fifty years of US hostility toward that revolution has made the United States an easy enemy in Cuban eyes. Cubans seem unsure how to reinterpret American intentions as the era of diplomatic engagement dawns.

As Kerry’s speech neared, Yassel propped open a hardcover book on the dining room table, so that photos of Marx and Engels faced the TV. “They need to see this,” he said. The heat of Cuban August was apparent even through the TV screen; visiting American men were apparently still obliged to wear black suits. Behind the embassy, three antique American Chevrolets were parked conspicuously within view of the TV cameras.

A few minutes behind schedule, an overhead shot showed Kerry and his delegation striding toward the embassy. “The imperialists are walking through the front door!” Yassel shouted. “I’m seeing it, but I don’t believe it.”

Kerry’s speech was respectful and conciliatory, although he portrayed the preceding half-century of conflict as one between two equals, rather than a global superpower bullying a small island. He outlined the steps the United States has already taken toward rapprochement with Cuba, and the steps that he says Americans are willing to take if Cuba makes political and economic reforms.

As we watched, Daniel avoided the television, sweeping, making coffee, smoking cigarettes. “This is a cultural invasion,” he muttered at one point.

If so, there is a lot at stake. When I first arrived as an exchange student, I quickly realized that Cuba is special. For all of the country’s flaws, there exists a collective spirit deeper than mere cliché or socialist platitude. The Cubans I know share profusely, abhor inequality, rarely get lost in their cellphones. “There’s less alienation of the individual here,” one Cuban put it to me recently in aptly Marxist terms. Cubans also have a strong sense of national identity and pride in culture that I haven’t encountered elsewhere in Latin America. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is also the least Americanized country in the hemisphere.

After Kerry’s speech, we made the short bus trip to see the newly hoisted American flag. “I’m not going to get close to that thing, though,” Daniel said, and left us after the bus ride to go sit in the shade under a nearby statue of Cuban independence hero José Martí.  

The crowds that had gathered outside during the ceremony had dispersed. A few tourists milled along Havana’s seafront drive, taking photos. The American flag across the street was small, and almost underwhelming. Yassel found it jarring though—one of the few that he had seen in his life. Behind us, the Havana skyline was visible along the Straits of Florida, a pastel medley of Spanish fortresses, dusty apartment buildings, and pre-revolutionary hotels built by American mobsters.

“This is my city,” Yassel said. “I don’t want to see it full of McDonalds and other American companies and think Cuba is no longer an independent country. I don’t want Cuba to become just a country like all the others.”

Published at Generation Progress. Photo: the American flag flies at the US Embassy in Havana, August 14th 2015.

The Five Century War in Honduras

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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.

Golddigging AKA 500 Years Of Hoping There’s Nothing Shiny Beneath Your Feet

Another blog post that I wrote in January and never posted.

So I’ve been pretty captivated lately by the history of the Inca state of Vilcabamba, founded in 1539.

Just a decade earlier, the Incas had ruled a 770,000 square mile area ranging from modern-day Colombia to modern-day Argentina. Spanish invasion began in 1532, and by 1539 the Inca survivors controlled just a small patch of thick, remote Amazon jungle around the city of Vilcabamba.

For eight years, Vilcabamba was ruled by Titu Cusi, a politically savvy leader who kept Spanish invasion at bay through appeasement, acceptance of Spanish missionaries, and diplomatic stalling.

With one exception:

An innocent Spanish prospector called Romero appeared in Vilcabamba in 1570 and asked permission to search for gold. ‘The Inca gave him permission, and he discovered rich veins in his search for mines. In a few days he mined quantities of gold. Romero thought that the Inca would be delighted, and brought him the gold in the hope of negotiating a new licence for a period of months during which he could mine much. When the Inca saw the gold he thought it could arouse greed and attract thousands of Spaniards, so that he would lose his province. He therefore ordered them to kill the Spaniard Romero.’ Intercession by Diego Ortiz could not save Romero, who was beheaded and thrown into a river. This was the only Spaniard killed on Titu Cusi’s orders. The Inca rightly saw that the lure of mineral wealth was the one magnet that would certainly bring Spaniards swarming into Vilcabamba. –John Hemming

Vilcabamba was finally conquered in 1572 after the Spanish decided its example was a threat to their colonial project.

What’s crazy, though, is how much the dynamics sensed by Titu Cusi still operate today. If you’re a rural community trying to live on your ancestral territory, one of the most disastrous things that can happen is the discovery of natural wealth on your land.

I’m doing some work at the Potato Park, a project aimed at preserving Andean culture and potato biodiversity. One staffer recently argued to me that the project would be impossible if gold or copper existed in Potato Park territory.

To wit: Peru recently approved 18 new wells to drill for natural gas in the Amazon, despite studies arguing that the arrival of workers from far away could spread “fatal epidemics” in the Kugapakori-Nahua-Nanti Reserve for indigenous peoples. Ostensibly pro-indigenous Bolivian president Evo Morales is pushing a highway project through indigenous land despite widespread opposition, in order to facilitate natural gas extraction. In Honduras, conflicts over mines and dams have killed dozens in places like Río Blanco. It can literally mean the different between death and survival for a culture today: Illegal logging in Awá territory in Brazil has caused a ”genocide” of disease that whittled the Awá population to just 400 before the Brazilian government took action against loggers. It still remains to be seen whether the evictions came in time to save the group.

Noam Chomsky On “Corporatization Of The University”

Last month, leading leftist intellectual and pioneering linguist Noam Chomsky gave a lecture at the University of Michigan on “the corporatization of the university.”

Chomsky called the advent of public education in the 19th century a “great achievement,” but also argued that the creators of the modern school system were far from benevolent and viewed education as a means of social control. Read More

College Is Not Just Job Training

“The idea of becoming a better person—that, I think, is what education is ultimately about,” William Astore, a professor at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, told Campus Progress.

Astore has written on the trouble of viewing education as a commodity, a means to an economic end. He argues that education is also valuable because it improves critical thinking, ethical living, and personal self-actualization.

There’s a great illustration of this in a 2006 report from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It describes Marie Rose, a Burundian refugee who had been granted asylum in Cuba, where higher education is free.

Marie Rose showed off a litany of diplomas to the UNHCR reporter—she had completed courses in “Spanish, Italian, computer studies, massage, negotiation and secretarial skills amongst others,” according to the report.

Not because those certifications would score her a job, but simply because Cuba’s de-commodified education system had given her the opportunity.

The whole thing at Campus Progress.

How Cooperative Housing Can Save Residents Cash

Capitalism, schmapitalism. A little team spirit and the absence of a money-grubbing landlord can lead to substantial savings:

Amarro Nelson has lived at House of Commons in Austin, Texas for about six months. He’s a grad student at the University of Texas at San Antonio and landed a scholarship for a semester-long internship in the Texas state legislature. Looking for housing in a pricey city, “I ran into the cooperative,” he said, “and I was looking at how much it cost and the value they had and I thought that it would be a great fit for me.”

Nelson isn’t a UT-Austin student, but most of his housemates are. For them, the co-op living cuts their living expenses roughly in half. According to Austin’s Inter-Cooperative Council, a year of housing, utilities, and food in the co-op costs $6,347, while a year in the dorms is $10,715.

Co-op proponents say the savings come from the absence of a landlord who needs to work a profit into the price of rent, and that tenants benefit from economies of scale.

It’s all at Campus Progress.

How College Students Can Own Their Own Home

Well, so to speak. A housing cooperative actually makes students part-owners of their house, even if only for a couple years. It can bring benefits material and non-material:

“Cooperatives aren’t trying to make money off of everyone,” Crawford said. With no surplus needed for a landlord’s profits, students in housing co-ops can keep costs down.

Other, perhaps more potent advantages can’t be measured in dollars and cents. If we accept the premise that the typical buyer-seller relationship is inherently undemocratic—for instance, a renter has no control over their housing situation except what is specifically granted to them in their lease—then a co-op offers students greater self-control.

“Instead of students paying large sums of money to live in a dorm where they have no control over what happens, who they live with, how they’re governed, et cetera,” said Crawford, co-ops put students in the driver’s seat.

While the specific methods vary, the idea is that students use a democratic process to set rents, decide what repairs are needed, and figure out who is responsible for which chores. They can even sell their house if they so choose, Crawford said. (But not to cash out—the money would be held by the co-op as part of the zero equity structure.)

The rest at Campus Progress.

Are Unions Better Than College?

Stupid question, smart (hopefully) answer. I reported on a new study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research:

The authors found that a 25 percent boost in college graduates (from 34.9 to 43.6 percent) would result in a 2.8 percent bump in the number of Americans with good jobs (from 24.1 to 26.9 percent).

Not bad, right? But also far from ideal.

A comparable increase in unionization would be even better, raising the proportion of good jobs to 30.8 percent.

The other policies also fare better than education. Universal health care would lift 4.8 percent of us into good jobs, and universal retirement plans would boost the figure by 9.6 percent. The two would be even stronger if combined, increasing the good job rate by 20.9 percentage points. Gender pay equity would bring 5.6 percent of female workers over the good job threshold.

The whole thing is at Campus Progress.



The government should pay you to do this, even if it’s not entirely clear what “this” is.

No really. We could do it:

It’s not as radical as it may sound. The concept goes by several names, but here we’ll call it Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI). The basic idea is that every citizen receives a monthly stipend of enough value to cover all of their basic living expenses, regardless of financial need, employment status, criminal history, or any other factor. The grant would be funded through taxes on non-GBI earnings. (And of course, calling it “free money” is a bit of a misnomer—many people would contribute more to the program in taxes than they gain in benefits.)

Although GBI has seen some high profile advocacy lately from the likes of MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and Wonkblog’s Mike Konczal, it would likely take a long time for the program to become politically feasible. But from the standpoint of justice, the merits should be obvious. GBI lifts everyone above the poverty line by default.

“It gives people exit options because their basic core standard of living doesn’t depend upon staying with an abusive spouse or staying with an unpleasant employer,” said Erik Olin Wright, Vilas Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, who has written on GBI.

Read along to see how we could fund GBI, and whether or not it would wreck the economy.

Science Majors: Enough, But Not Enough

A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute found that despite conventional wisdom, there is no job market shortage for science and technology graduates.

At Campus Progress, I wrote that despite the lack of excess demand, we would still benefit from more science. It’s a classic market failure:

There’s an important distinction to be made between the market’s demand for science and our society’s interest in investing in it. Just because private companies aren’t hiring STEM grads doesn’t mean we couldn’t use more of them.

“Market failure,” is the term economists use to identify areas “where the free market won’t necessarily produce the optimal outcome,” Daniel Keuhn, one of the authors of the EPI report, said.

Often market failures result in too much of something. Pollution, for instance: If the government didn’t regulate it, the free market would produce way more than we want. For scientific research, though, it’s the reverse.

“If we left the market alone, we’d probably be producing less science than would be optimal,” Keuhn told Campus Progress.

For the reasons why, read the rest.