Notes from the front – of the week 15/4/2015

Deadlock in polls as most voters want austerity to end

The launch of the party manifestos has highlighted the deadlock between the major parties. The majority of the population wants to end austerity and both major parties are committed to maintaining it, in different degrees. As a result there is currently no sign of a breakthrough in the polls on either side.

The Tory party has suspended its overly racist announcements for the duration of the election campaign and is left focusing on the economy. This should be ideal terrain for Labour. But its manifesto leads with its pledges on ‘fiscal responsibility’, that is a commitment to maintain austerity. The bizarre consequence is that the Tories have attempted to attract votes with a series of giveaways, on NHS spending, inheritance tax, childcare and the ‘right to buy’ for tenants in housing association and local authority housing.

These Tory pledges, and their refusal to spell out where threatened social welfare spending cuts will fall, lack any credibility. But in a very tight election they could help bolster the Tory vote. The political consequences are clear. In Scotland Jim Murphy is trying desperately to tack to the left in Scotland to meet the SNP challenge and suggested there would be no cuts.

But Labour’s plans mean there will be cuts, including in Scotland as Ed Balls admits.

Some had justifiably feared the most racist election campaign ever. But that has not happened because racist campaigning benefits UKIP. But racist scapegoating will inevitably accompany the post-election resumption of austerity. The real fear is that we will see the most racist parliament ever.

Summit of the Americas – US isolated over its hostility to Venezuela

The heads of state and governments of the Western Hemisphere met at the Seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama on 10 and 11 April and despite recent diplomatic efforts the US found itself isolated and clashing with Latin America’s governments – as at the previous summit in 2012.

There was near uniform rejection of President Obama’s 9 March Executive Order labelling Venezuela a ‘national security threat’ to the US. In their speeches to the summit the Presidents of Cuba, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua and El Salvador all attacked this aggressive measure against Venezuela. All 33 nations in CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) oppose Obama’s Executive Order, and included a call for its repeal in the summit’s draft final declaration. The US and Canada vetoed this so no final declaration was issued. This repeats the veto they exercised at the last summit because they opposed the demand that Cuba be included in the group.

But Cuba did attend this summit, President Raul Castro being the first Cuban leader to take part since Cuba’s US-imposed expulsion from the Organization of American States in 1962. In his speech Castro denounced the continued US economic, commercial and financial blockade of Cuba, whilst welcoming the steps Obama is taking to re-establish some ties. Both countries are due to re-open their embassies and Obama has now announced the removal of Cuba from the US list of states it claims ‘sponsor terrorism’.

The false designation of the region’s socialist governments as a ‘security threat’ or ‘sponsor of terrorism’ is sheer hypocrisy.

Far from supporting terrorism, Cuba has been its victim since the 1960s. More than 3,000 Cubans have been killed, mostly by violent Florida based anti-revolutionary Cuban-American organisations, often in acts directly ‘sponsored’ by the US government. Amongst the many incidents there has been the destruction of a Cuban passenger plane in 1976, killing all 72 on board, and the bombing campaign against Cuban tourist facilities in 1997. And the US refuses to extradite the acknowledged organiser of both the airline and tourist bombings, Luis Posada Carriles, who lives in Miami.

The real security threat to countries in this hemisphere is the belligerence of the US – Venezuela threatens no one at all. The former has openly intervened militarily in the majority of Latin American countries over the last 100 years and intends to carry on in this vein if it can. For example it organised the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 and helped orchestrate the 2002 coup against Chavez in Venezuela. It has been involved in countless covert military campaigns conducted across the region, which continue to this day.

Under the impact of the economic stagnation, political instability is on the rise across Latin America. There have been huge anti-government demonstrations in Brazil since it adopted a right wing economic agenda and the political struggle in Argentina is intensifying in the run up to this autumn’s General Election. The US is seeking to exploit any rise in discontent to reverse the left advances made across the region since 2000. Its campaign to destabilise Venezuela will continue, plus whilst it restores diplomatic links it is trying to build up opposition forces within Cuba.

Politically isolated in the summit over its hostile actions, the US leopard has no intention of changing its spots.

Dropping the debt is crucial to ending austerity in Greece

The point is rapidly approaching where either Syriza or the international institutions, or both, will have to concede on key points. The latest payment to the IMF was only made by a one-off transfer of public sector reserves. The government has declared that both public sector pay and pensions will be paid in full yet two payments of €973 million are due in May and a further €1.6 billion is scheduled in June. There are no similar public sector reserves available to make those payments.

The intransigence of the ECB is highlighted by the continued refusal to hand over interest payments that are due and to restrict the ‘liquidity’ or short-term cash that is available to Greek banks. In addition the Troika previously offered a deal to the former new Democracy-led government of substantial debt restructuring. This would not have cut the level of debt owned by Athens, but would have slashed the interest cost of Greek government close to 2%. This would be a real easing of the debt burden. But it has not been offered to Syriza because the political project remains to destabilise it and break its commitment to opposing austerity.

A report in the Financial Times suggests that Syriza is preparing a debt default which would almost certainly lead to Greece being ejected from the Eurozone if Syriza remained in office. This may be propaganda from a committed cheerleader for austerity. But it highlights the wider sense that a crunch point is coming. (It also highlights the misjudgement of those forces that prioritise exiting the EU over all other questions. Greece outside the Euro or the EU would still face the questions of how to end austerity and revive the economy).

A key question remains cutting the debt burden which is simply unsupportable. In Britain the Greece Solidarity Campaign is the lead organisation for Greek solidarity. It has called a meeting for April 28 on the Greek debt crisis and the way forward. Full details are here.

Imperialism and its proxies maintaining the offensive against Syria

This past month some symbolic military gains have been made by forces fighting to overthrow President Assad in Syria.

In the north the city of Idlib was captured by Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate. It is the second provincial capital to be taken, the first being Raqqa that was captured in 2013 and is the main stronghold of Islamic State (IS) in Syria.

In the south opposition forces have been advancing on Deraa, whilst on the outskirts of Damascus IS fighters pushed into the Palestinian refugee district of Yarmouk.

These opposition advances in the north and south are first ones for a while. Elsewhere the Syrian government still controls the capital, Damascus, and much of central and western Syria.

The opposition military forces continue to be armed by their main regional patrons; Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. In coordination with each other and with the US and Israel, they control the flow of resources.

The sectarian character of this warfare follows the strategy the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel are pursuing to build up anti-Iran/Syria proxy forces in the region. Despite this approach significantly backfiring on the US and its allies it is not being abandoned.

Seymour Hersh described the US adoption of this strategy in 2007 in his New Yorker report ‘The Redirection‘. Having concluded it could not defeat all the resistance forces opposing its occupation of Iraq, the US re-orientated to drive a wedge between the followers of different branches of Islam. It allied with militant Sunni forces and resourced them to attack Shia forces. Both sides get ground down in the process and imperialism bolsters the groups fighting against Hezbollah, Syria, Iran and their allies.

The problem for the US is that IS and the various al-Qaeda groups are not reliable proxies. They do not restrict themselves to attacking imperialism’s preferred targets. Their assaults on a number of areas in Iraq and Syria, including on allies of the US, are intolerable. US military action aims to contain these militant groups and persuade them to focus on attacking the Syrian/Iranian allied forces.

US attempts to build a pro-US opposition army in Syria continue to fail. Their protégés tend to get defeated and absorbed by the more ideologically committed Sunni sectarian forces.