Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein trav­els across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, the United States, Britain, Greece, and Australia to witness the reality of disaster capitalism. He discovers how companies such as G4S, Serco, and Halliburton cash in on or­ganized misery in a hidden world of privatized detention centers, militarized private security, aid profiteering, and destructive mining.

Disaster has become big business. Talking to immigrants stuck in limbo in Britain or visiting immigration centers in America, Loewenstein maps the secret networks formed to help cor­porations bleed what profits they can from economic crisis. He debates with Western contractors in Afghanistan, meets the locals in post-earthquake Haiti, and in Greece finds a country at the mercy of vulture profiteers. In Papua New Guinea, he sees a local commu­nity forced to rebel against predatory resource companies and NGOs.

What emerges through Loewenstein’s re­porting is a dark history of multinational corpo­rations that, with the aid of media and political elites, have grown more powerful than national governments. In the twenty-first century, the vulnerable have become the world’s most valu­able commodity. Disaster Capitalism is published by Verso in 2015.

Profits_of_doom_cover_350Vulture capitalism has seen the corporation become more powerful than the state, and yet its work is often done by stealth, supported by political and media elites. The result is privatised wars and outsourced detention centres, mining companies pillaging precious land in developing countries and struggling nations invaded by NGOs and the corporate dollar. Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein travels to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea and across Australia to witness the reality of this largely hidden world of privatised detention centres, outsourced aid, destructive resource wars and militarized private security. Who is involved and why? Can it be stopped? What are the alternatives in a globalised world? Profits of Doom, published in 2013 and released in an updated edition in 2014, challenges the fundamentals of our unsustainable way of life and the money-making imperatives driving it. It is released in an updated edition in 2014.
forgodssakecover Four Australian thinkers come together to ask and answer the big questions, such as: What is the nature of the universe? Doesn't religion cause most of the conflict in the world? And Where do we find hope?   We are introduced to different belief systems – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – and to the argument that atheism, like organised religion, has its own compelling logic. And we gain insight into the life events that led each author to their current position.   Jane Caro flirted briefly with spiritual belief, inspired by 19th century literary heroines such as Elizabeth Gaskell and the Bronte sisters. Antony Loewenstein is proudly culturally, yet unconventionally, Jewish. Simon Smart is firmly and resolutely a Christian, but one who has had some of his most profound spiritual moments while surfing. Rachel Woodlock grew up in the alternative embrace of Baha'i belief but became entranced by its older parent religion, Islam.   Provocative, informative and passionately argued, For God's Sakepublished in 2013, encourages us to accept religious differences, but to also challenge more vigorously the beliefs that create discord.  
After Zionism, published in 2012 and 2013 with co-editor Ahmed Moor, brings together some of the world s leading thinkers on the Middle East question to dissect the century-long conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians, and to explore possible forms of a one-state solution. Time has run out for the two-state solution because of the unending and permanent Jewish colonization of Palestinian land. Although deep mistrust exists on both sides of the conflict, growing numbers of Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs are working together to forge a different, unified future. Progressive and realist ideas are at last gaining a foothold in the discourse, while those influenced by the colonial era have been discredited or abandoned. Whatever the political solution may be, Palestinian and Israeli lives are intertwined, enmeshed, irrevocably. This daring and timely collection includes essays by Omar Barghouti, Jonathan Cook, Joseph Dana, Jeremiah Haber, Jeff Halper, Ghada Karmi, Antony Loewenstein, Saree Makdisi, John Mearsheimer, Ahmed Moor, Ilan Pappe, Sara Roy and Phil Weiss.
The 2008 financial crisis opened the door for a bold, progressive social movement. But despite widespread revulsion at economic inequity and political opportunism, after the crash very little has changed. Has the Left failed? What agenda should progressives pursue? And what alternatives do they dare to imagine? Left Turn, published by Melbourne University Press in 2012 and co-edited with Jeff Sparrow, is aimed at the many Australians disillusioned with the political process. It includes passionate and challenging contributions by a diverse range of writers, thinkers and politicians, from Larissa Berendht and Christos Tsiolkas to Guy Rundle and Lee Rhiannon. These essays offer perspectives largely excluded from the mainstream. They offer possibilities for resistance and for a renewed struggle for change.
The Blogging Revolution, released by Melbourne University Press in 2008, is a colourful and revelatory account of bloggers around the globe why live and write under repressive regimes - many of them risking their lives in doing so. Antony Loewenstein's travels take him to private parties in Iran and Egypt, internet cafes in Saudi Arabia and Damascus, to the homes of Cuban dissidents and into newspaper offices in Beijing, where he discovers the ways in which the internet is threatening the ruld of governments. Through first-hand investigations, he reveals the complicity of Western multinationals in assisting the restriction of information in these countries and how bloggers are leading the charge for change. The blogging revolution is a superb examination about the nature of repression in the twenty-first century and the power of brave individuals to overcome it. It was released in an updated edition in 2011, post the Arab revolutions, and an updated Indian print version in 2011.
The best-selling book on the Israel/Palestine conflict, My Israel Question - on Jewish identity, the Zionist lobby, reporting from Palestine and future Middle East directions - was released by Melbourne University Press in 2006. A new, updated edition was released in 2007 (and reprinted again in 2008). The book was short-listed for the 2007 NSW Premier's Literary Award. Another fully updated, third edition was published in 2009. It was released in all e-book formats in 2011. An updated and translated edition was published in Arabic in 2012.

How Washington created disaster in Honduras

My investigation in US magazine Truthout (and my photos from Honduras are here):

Members of indigenous group Copinh protesting in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, July 2016. (Photo: Antony Loewenstein)

Members of Indigenous group COPINH protesting in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, July 2016. (Photo: Antony Loewenstein)

Armed men wearing ski masks suddenly appeared in the distance. On a dirt road in northern Honduras, between the city of Tocoa and the small village of Punta de Piedra, a massive drug raid was underway. Dozens of men in bulletproof vests with high-calibre weapons swarmed the area: members of the Honduran military and police as well as US-trained Tigres and Cobra forces. They burst forcefully into this area where drug trafficking was rampant.

I was travelling toward the Atlantic coast when I was stopped at a roadblock and ordered out of the car. My translator, my driver, a local Indigenous leader and I were all questioned by the masked police officer about our destination, profession and intentions. What’s happening here, my translator asked? “Too many traffickers, even during the day,” the policeman replied. We discovered that the raid’s purpose was to find a local drug kingpin and anybody working for him.

However, the absurdity of the mission was soon apparent. After arriving at the peaceful town of Iriona Puerta, no more than 15 minutes away from the raid, I was shown the house of the chased drug trafficker. It was a large wooden structure overlooking a calm river, with apparently nobody home, adjacent to the government’s municipal building and across the road from the main police station. The drug boss had little to fear, I was told by locals, because officials in the district protected him.

The house of a drug dealer in the northern Honduran town of Iriona Puerta, July 2016. (Photo: Antony Loewenstein)

The house of a drug dealer in the northern Honduran town of Iriona Puerta, July 2016. (Photo: Antony Loewenstein)

It was one small insight into the futility of American and Honduran efforts to tackle drug smuggling in the small Central American state. Honduras has long been one of Washington’s most “captive nations” in Central America, never independent from US dominance. Bertha Oliva, head of the leading human rights NGO Cofadeh (the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras), confirmed this view. “We’re like the ass of the US,” she told me in the capital, Tegucigalpa, meaning that her nation is always beholden to Washington and treated badly because of it.

US military funding for Honduras during the Obama administration has caused unprecedented levels of violence against civilians and environmental activists, and has exacerbated gang activity and local government impunity. Donald Trump’s presidency will likely worsen these current trends. President-elect Trump’s appointment of Gen. John Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security is a worrying sign. Kelly was head of the US Southern Command during the Obama years and oversaw violent, counter-narcotic efforts across Latin America. He’s a drug war zealot.

The Deadly History of US Involvement in Honduras

I recently travelled independently across Honduras and visited remote and vulnerable areas to witness the reality for impoverished communities struggling to survive amid drug traffickers, corrupt police and government officials, US military personnel and extreme poverty. Collusion between Honduran military forces, big business and US assets has led to Indigenous communities being kicked off their lands and critics of the Honduran state being murdered.

I spoke to human rights workers, Indigenous leaders and victims of state aggression along with officials at the US embassy in Tegucigalpa to understand how this state has become one of the most violent countries in the world since a 2009 coup backedby then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The human toll continues to be devastating, with a 2016 US State Department report acknowledging that the majority of illicit drugs entering the United States still arrive through Central America.

Many times throughout my visit I felt scared, afraid to walk the streets during the day or night due to risks from gangs, police or the military. It was a fear shared by many locals living in the big cities. After Afghanistan, it was the most challenging reporting trip of my life. During my time with a family in the Tegucigalpa suburb of Flor Del Campo, I was told that many people barely left their homes because of regular police and gang killings. Everybody running a business had to pay a “war tax” to at least one gang; if they didn’t, they would be murdered. One Honduran politician, Maria Luisa Borjas, told me that members of parliament were making money from extortion.

It’s why so many Hondurans are fleeing toward the US (though receiving minimal support from the Obama administration and his immigration bureaucracy, which have deported more immigrants than any other period in history). Trump has pledged to militarize US borders even more and Hondurans, Guatemalans and El Salvadorians are rushing to the US border before he takes office.

José Asunción Martínez, 37, a leader with the Indigenous group COPINH and colleague of Berta Carceres, the Indigenous Lenca activist murdered last year, told me at the organization’s base in the city of La Esperanza that, “our country is a narco-state with narco-mayors and narco-MPs. They get funded by drug traffickers and when they get into power they have to pay traffickers back.” Martinez feared for his life after surviving multiple attempts to kill him.

The house of murdered Honduran activist, Berta Caceres, in the town of La Esperanza, July 2016. (Photo: Antony Loewenstein)

The house of murdered Honduran activist, Berta Caceres, in the town of La Esperanza, July 2016. (Photo: Antony Loewenstein)

“President [Juan Orlando] Hernandez wants more US money to fight a war on drugs, but we all know the funds will be used to suppress Indigenous people,” he said. “COPINH says that we don’t need the [Honduran] army in our communities. We want to cleanse our community of drug traffickers.”

An increasing number of voices in both the US and Honduras are calling for the severance of all US military aid to Honduras after the killing of Carceres in March 2016. Forces aligned with the Honduran army were responsible, according to a deserter from the Honduran military who spoke to the Guardian in June. The assassination resulted in a group of US Democratic Congress members pushing for the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act in July. They stated in an opinion piece that, “as long as the United States funds Honduran security forces without demanding justice for those threatened, tortured and killed, we have blood on our hands. It’s time to suspend all police and military aid to Honduras.” WikiLeaks documents and other information prove US and World Bank complicity in Honduran corruption.

This growing pressure is why the Honduran regime hired leading Washington PR firms, Ketchum and Curley Company, for more than US $500,000 combined, in 2015 and 2016.

Although there is vast evidence that Honduran police routinely collude with drug traffickers to kill people perceived as threats, the Obama administration has poured tens of millions of dollars into the Honduran military and police, with at least US $18 million in 2016 alone. The exact amount of US backing for Honduran military forces is unclear. The Washington Office on Latin America has submitted many FOIA requests over the last years and concluded that US money is likely contributing to the counter-narcotics and anti-gang known as the Xatruch task force and the National Inter-Institutional Security Force, or FUSINA, accused of killing human rights activists including Caceres. The US embassy in Honduras denied any responsibility for the violence and — during a rare, two-day tour in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula — Ambassador James D. Nealon told me that Washington was having a positive influence on the country.

The US Congress designated US $750 million in aid for Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras in December 2016 to reduce violence, poverty and the flow of migrants surging toward the US border. However, there’s currently little indication how that money will be actually spent. Honduras is also building a growing military alliance with Israel.

The US model for Honduras is clear. In 2012, the New York Times reported that the US was aiming to transplant the violent counter-insurgency tactics it used in Iraq and Afghanistan to Honduras to “confront emerging threats,” including drug smuggling.

Washington’s relationship with Honduras has a deadly past. From 1981 until 1985, under President Ronald Reagan, the US appointed John Negroponte as its Ambassador. Honduras became a vital staging post for US-backed death squadsoperating in Guatemala and El Salvador. The Nicaraguan Contras — right wing, brutal and funded by the US from the illegal sale of weapons to Iran — established a strong presence in Honduras.

Negroponte was a high-profile official in George W. Bush’s administration, serving as ambassador to Iraq from 2004-2005 and director of national intelligence from 2005-2007. He endorsed Hillary Clinton for president last August.

US-Caused Civilian Deaths in Honduras

One of the more recent notorious examples of US involvement in Honduras occurred on May 11, 2012, when a botched Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) mission in the remote La Moskitia area caused the death of four Honduran civilians, including one pregnant woman, and countless injuries. A passenger boat was fired upon in the middle of the night; DEA and Honduran forces alleged they were shot at first and responded to defend themselves from armed drug traffickers.

I spoke to two surviving witnesses of the incident in Honduras, Clara Wood and Adan Nelson Queen, and both strongly denied these allegations. They said that the boat and its crew were working legitimately and they never saw any drugs on the vessel. They have never received any financial or psychological support from either the US or Honduras. They live with trauma every day. “They want to wash their hands of all this,” Wood told me on the northern, Caribbean island of Roatan. Wood claimed that US officials pressured her to change her testimony about what happened on that fateful night in 2012. They falsely insisted that men on the boat had fired on the DEA agents first, she said. Wood refused to comply despite being offered US $5,000.

The official response to this incident was obfuscation. The Honduran Security Minister General Julian Pacheco Tinoco told me that it was a “very regrettable incident.” The US Ambassador to Honduras, James D. Nealon, declined to comment when I asked him about the raid.

The former DEA chief in Honduras, Jim Kenney, based in the country from 2009 until 2012, was more forthcoming. Over multiple phone interviews from his home in Florida, Kenney explained the DEA’s point of view about the 2012 incident and why he believed it was justified. He expressed no sympathy for the victims of the 2012 incident and said they didn’t deserve any compensation.

“Bottom line, we were there to stop an interdiction of a major load of cocaine coming into the country,” he said. “We were doing our job.” He told me that, “If the [surviving] citizens there have an issue, they should be going after the Honduran government. It shouldn’t be a US response to pay for any of the, if you want to call it, ‘damages.'”

The Murder of Berta Caceres

La Esperanza, Berta Caceres’ hometown, was pretty, four hours by car from the capital, with far less violence than the major cities and bustling fruit and vegetable markets. The name “Berta” was spray-painted everywhere, commemorating the murdered environmental activist. Two massive, color murals of Berta were painted on the outside walls of the prison. Next to one, messages against police death squads were written in Spanish. Their English translations are “Police dickface” and “Police hit man.”

The mother of Berta Caceres, Austraberta Flores, at her home in the Honduran town of La Esperanza, July 2016. (Photo: Antony Loewenstein)

The mother of Berta Caceres, Austraberta Flores, at her home in the Honduran town of La Esperanza, July 2016. (Photo: Antony Loewenstein)

Caceres was killed on the outskirts of town in a house that stands empty today. It was an active crime scene with police tape around its entire perimeter. A solitary police car sat outside the house, and one policeman and soldier walked up to me as I approached the property, which is situated in a beautiful valley of trees, few houses and low hills. It was eerily quiet and still difficult to imagine the murder on a quiet night last March. The grass was overgrown around the green house, and all of Caceres’s possessions from inside had been removed. Her simple grave sat in a nearby graveyard, barely noticeable amongst the hundreds of other simple memorials.

At the sprawling Caceres family home in the heart of La Esperanza lives her mother, Austraberta Flores, and some of her children. Her mother showed me a memorial for Berta in one of the rooms with her daughter’s many global and local awards. Berta’s 24-year-old daughter Laura,who is usually in Buenos Aires studying obstetrics, told me that in the months before her mother’s death, “there were more threats against her. I used to stay in the house where she lived and was killed, and she wouldn’t let me stay there overnight,” Laura said. “She told me about the threatening text messages she was getting from the Desa company. There were 33 threats recorded since 2013.”

Caceres was the highest-profile opponent of Desa’s proposed Agua Zarca, a hydro-electric project in the western La Paz department. Originally backed by the World Bank, the hydro-electric facility was intended to be built on Indigenous land. The company had signed a deal with a USAID partner in December 2015. Both the World Bank and the engineering company hired to build the damn, Sinohydro Group, eventually withdrew from the project.

Under President Trump, Honduras is set to continue its position as a key transit point for cocaine into the US, because demand remains high and Washington values a reliable autocracy in Central America. High levels of violence will likely continue, forcing locals to flee. The result may well be even deeper US involvement across the region, including new military bases and further training of Honduran forces and police complicit in drug running and murder.

Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based, independent journalist who has written for the GuardianThe New York Times and many others. He is the author of many books including his most recent, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe.

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Behind the Headlines interview on “fake news” and independent journalism

Late last year I was interviewed from Jerusalem by veteran Australian journalist and campaigner Julie Macken, for her radio program Behind the Headlines, about “fake news” and my experiences as a journalist over the last decade in Israel/Palestine, South Sudan, Afghanistan and beyond. My interview begins around 15:50 (with a few scratchy sound issues via Skype):

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US-funded, Cold War propaganda still echoes today

My just published article in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

Finks
How the CIA Tricked The World’s Best Writers

By Joel Whitney

Published 01.10.2017
OR Books
336 Pages

After the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, fear gripped the United States, and it wasn’t only conservatives who wanted to publicly show that they were committed to patriotic ideals. Filmmakers might be excused if, in that context, some nationalistic, propagandistic images made their way into theaters. But long before that fateful September day, liberal Hollywood had a long relationship with the CIA, the 1990s having just seen an obvious upsurge in collaboration. Former clandestine officer Chase Brandon joined the CIA in 1996 as a liaison between Hollywood studios and production companies, with the intent of crafting a positive image of the covert department, founded in 1947, that has overthrown dozens of regimes around the world since the 1940s and caused the death of innumerable people. Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders once called for the agency to be abolished.

Brandon later told the Guardian that the CIA had “always been portrayed erroneously as evil and Machiavellian. It took us a long time to support projects that portray us in the light we want to be seen in.”

After 9/11, Hollywood rushed to embrace the CIA. Joel Surnow, creator of the pro-torture TV show 24, gushed to The New Yorkerin 2007 that “people in the [Bush] Administration love the series, too. It’s a patriotic show. They should love it.” The program circulated widely among US troops in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay. Blatant propaganda, the series argued repeatedly that torture produced actionable intelligence, which has long been understood to be untrue, and which was dismissed as a lie by the landmark 2014 Senate report on torture. But it was too late, because the toxic message had already seeped into the bloodstream of the American public and US forces. Torture is now viewed by many as a legitimate tool in the arsenal of the US government. It’s why President-elect Trump can claim he may accelerate its use.

The Oscar-winning film Zero Dark Thirty had direct CIA assistance in its production and script. The central message of the movie, though, was false: that torture assisted the US in finding Osama Bin Laden. Both director Kathryn Bigelow and scriptwriter Mark Boal were given unprecedented access to CIA personnel and facilities, and they welcomed it. For the Hollywood duo, the CIA was the perfect host to strengthen their belief that the men and women of the CIA were committed to the noble pursuit of fighting terror in every corner of the globe. No matter that this “war on terror” involved many illegalities, such as extraordinary rendition, torture, black sites, and prisoner abuse. The risk of global terrorism is now far higher due to these immoral acts.

The CIA must have been pleased with the final product: Zero Dark Thirty was a huge commercial and critical success that solidified the legitimacy of the agency’s secretive work. Truth got lost on the cutting room floor.

In Finks: How the CIA Tricked The World’s Best Writers, Joel Whitney, co-founder and editor-at-large of Guernica: A Magazine of Arts and Politics, has written an essential book on a small but key part of the prehistory of this hijacking of culture: the story of how TheParis Review and other magazines from the 1950s on were funded and backed by the CIA and became a central force in pushing leading writers of the day to produce propaganda for a hungry yet unsuspecting audience. The CIA even developed a large art collection in its curious approach to cultural hegemony.

Whitney explains in his introduction that the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom, along with backing publications in Britain, India, Germany, France, and beyond, helped The Paris Review play a

“small role in the Cold War’s marshaling of culture against the Soviets […] We understand vaguely that our media are linked to our government still today, and to government’s stated foreign policy; and this understanding is enhanced by eavesdropping on The Paris Review’s bit part in this massive secret performance that drove a nation for nearly two decades, and whose hangover drives us still.”

Whitney succinctly explains how, during the Cold War, the US government was constantly worried about citizen morale and a fear that some would be attracted to the Soviet system. “Militant liberty” was the term for inserting propaganda into magazines, film scripts, and popular culture, pushing American-style values and decrying life under Communism in Central America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, as well as at home. The Pentagon and other government arms believed that it was possible for populations of these areas to ignore US violence if they read about the supposed glories of life in small town USA. Little has changed in the mindset of today’s propagandists, who still aim to deceive people through wartime lies.

The CIA-backed coup of Guatemala in 1954 was a classic case of misguided and criminal policy dressed up as a noble act. Whitney shows how any number of US publications were pushed to support it, despite vast evidence of its failure. A magazine called The New Leader encouraged US meddling in the country, claiming a Soviet plot to design land reforms unfavorable to US interests. The result was decades of instability and violence in the nation, culminating in the genocide of the 1980s by US-trained thug Efraín Ríos Montt.

Whitney’s writing burns with indignation at the fact that few cultural figures who worked with the CIA ever faced accountability for their actions. Like journalists on the White House drip-feed today, these writers’ work helped legitimize deluded US policies that had direct and devastating impacts on millions of people’s lives. By the late 1960s, with the United States’s antiwar movement surging and the Vietnam conflict increasingly unpopular, the antiwar press seriously challenged the establishment points of view. Money didn’t always buy success or moral superiority, and the CIA struggled to win the battle of ideas. But this resistance proved “disposable and ephemeral” as the CIA renewed its efforts in film and television.

Perhaps the strangest and most compelling of Whitney’s revelations are how the founding managing editor of The Paris Review, John Train, worked with the CIA-backed mujahideen in Afghanistan, during the 1980s, to finance a film on the war and against the Soviet presence. The author correctly argues that Train, in a small way, played a role in backing the very forces that eventually founded al-Qaeda.

Whitney concludes,

“From Guatemala to Afghanistan, the American record on Cold War invasion and intervention had been a long string of failures that had to be rewritten by the propagandists. These little magazines, the television crews instrumentalized for warfare, and other secret propaganda instruments played an important role in erasing — and collectively forgetting — these mistakes.”

I think Whitney is being too kind here. These were not CIA “mistakes” but in fact crimes conducted with the full backing of the state.

Finks is a fine historical book, reviewing propaganda’s long and tortuous history in the world of art. With huge contemporary relevance, Whitney recalls what many look back on as a far more innocent media age, before the internet, and yet the effects of government-backed lies were just as deadly then as now.

Whitney urges The Paris Review and other similarly tainted magazines to honestly examine the past without fear or favor. That radical accounting of history is yet to be realized. In the age of President-elect Donald Trump and fake news, truth is an increasingly valuable commodity, agreed upon and deeply contested by nearly equal numbers of people.

Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based independent journalist, Guardian contributor, and author of many books, including his latest, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (Verso, 2015).

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Turkish TV network TRT interview on Australian refugee policy

Yesterday I was interviewed by Turkish satellite TV channel TRT, in Jerusalem, about Australia’s asylum policies, the recent US/Australian refugee swap deal and how Australia is now inspiring the world on draconian refugee ideas:

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Why we should listen to Guinea-Bissau

I visited Guinea-Bissau in 2015 to investigate its role as a key drug smuggling hub. 

My following essay appears in the African Arguments website:

Despite being as poorly governed as Zimbabwe and Angola, and having some of the lowest social development indicators on the continent, Guinea-Bissau is one of Africa’s forgotten states. With a population of under two million people and life expectancy of just over 50 years, the tropical West African nation barely makes international headlines, seemingly destined to remain a nation with little to export except for cashews.

However, if the former Portuguese colony is known for one thing, it’s for being a central hub in the smuggling of cocaine from South America to Europe. The nation has been labelled a “narco-state” by the United Nations, with its state institutions – both government and military – known to consistently enable South American drug cartels to sell drugs across its borders.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has even claimed that Guinea-Bissau is the world’s only example of a narco-state, with one official commenting: “In Afghanistan and Colombia, individual provinces are in the hands of drug lords. Here, it’s the entire state.”

Also unlike Colombia, where chaos has helped drug cartels, it is the relative calm in Guinea-Bissau that has benefited the industry though political dysfunction is ubiquitous. Since independence in 1974, an elected leader is still yet to complete a full term, and it has now been a year since there has been a workable government in place. In 2009, President João Bernardo Vieira and an army chief-of-staff were assassinated, and since then a litany of military insurrections have cursed the nation with five separate individuals holding the top job at different times.

Guinea-Bissau’s financial state is also dire. In the words of Finance Minister Henrique Horta this June, “The economic situation of the country is catastrophic”. This has contributed to a situation in which the woefully under-paid army has often been a key conduit for smugglers, while much of the cocaine snorted in Europe will have passed through the hands of poor fishermen in Guinea-Bissau looking to make a few dollars a day.

Guinea-Bissau has few viable industries and despite the natural beauty of the Bissagos Islands, for example, tourism is minimal. Instead, drug traffickers utilise the remoteness of the islands to store and transport cocaine. On Bubaque, the main inhabited island, there are no paved roads but runways used by drug smugglers to bring in their product. In recent years, there has been a slowdown in business due to stronger policing, but previously, local men got a regular income from unloading cocaine from boats and small planes from South America.

In the hopes of encouraging economic development, the European Union and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have routinely given aid or loans. But this has instead facilitated corruption and led to a situation in which Guinea-Bissau is dependent on foreign aid for 80% of its annual budget. Even so, the IMF announced this September that it was considering giving yet more funds to a country with no functioning government.

Economically-speaking, China does seem to be looking to increase its engagement, and other countries are offering tentative support, but at it stands, the investment required to build up other industries such as tourism are simply unforthcoming.

Meanwhile, attempts to stop the nation being a drug transit point through more enforcement or legal have had mixed results. Through its Drug Enforcement Administration, for example, the US has invested huge resources. In 2014, this led to Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, former head of Guinea-Bissau’s navy, pleading guilty in an American court to importing narcotics into the US. But this high-profile case had little pay-off. Na Tchuto was sentenced to only four years in prison in October this year. With time already served, he was released back to Guinea-Bissau.

A Herculean task

With so much ignorance surrounding the country, the new book Guinea-Bissau: Micro-state to Narco-State arrives at the perfect time. Edited by two academics from King’s College London – Patrick Chabal (who died in 2014) and Toby Green – the chapters examine the country’s history, politics and foreign relations. From agriculture and migration (many of its citizens flee across Africa and into Europe looking for employment opportunities) to the legacy of colonialism, Guinea-Bissau aims to highlight the rich history of one of Africa’s poorest countries.

This involves covering many difficulties facing the country, but as Green argues in his introduction, hope is not lost: “Unlike some of [its] neighbours such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Casamance region of Senegal, the country has not slipped into a prolonged civil war or rebellion”, he writes.

“Day-to-day life in the country remains peaceful, in contrast to the stereotyped image, and people frequently cooperate and marry across projected ‘ethnic divides’…The people have retained some autonomy and strength even through the worst passages of the political melt-down.”

Nevertheless, as the volume’s contributors explain by examining both historical and contemporary dynamics, Guinea-Bissau’s recent story is largely one of hopes dashed after independence and low expectations today.

Central to turning this around, of course, will be tackling the drug cartels, which are deeply embedded in the country’s political system. As Gambian historian Hassoum Ceesay explains: “While the narco-traffickers did not seize power, they were indeed extremely close to the centre of power; and while drugs did not run the country, traffickers took advantage of the state’s inherent weakness and exacerbated it by their presence.”

According to Ceesay, the only way to take the nation out of this morass is to reform the military, noting that without this, “it will be a Herculean task to set the country on the path of stability and growth.”

In her home on the outskirts of the capital Bissau, Dr Carmelita Pires, the former Minister of Justice, echoed this sentiment when we met in late-2015. “Until we have the capacity to organise, to establish authority, we will have drug smugglers coming to my country,” she said. “We need a consciousness uprising, to work hard.” I heard this message from people across the state, though few believed the current crop of political leaders were up to the task.

As long as global demand for drugs remains high, the illegal trade around it is all but guaranteed. And in Guinea-Bissau, weak justice systems, harsh prisons and corrupt policing can exacerbate the problem or create new ones rather than addressing the issue. Furthermore, given the flexibility of drug cartels, even if Guinea-Bissau, Guinea or Liberia were to become less favourable, other routes would grow in prominence, whether in West Africa or elsewhere.

More enlightened ideas such as decriminalising drugs in an attempt to reduce criminality and violence – as was done successfully in Portugal – currently have few supporters in Guinea-Bissau. But it may grow in popularity especially as many nations in Latin America also increasingly recognising the futility of trying to stop the drug trade through law enforcement.

As Green concludes, as long as Guinea-Bissau lacks economic and political stability, it “will continue to be seen as an ‘external threat’”. This means that ignoring the country and leaving it misunderstood should not be an option. In that sense, Guinea-Bissau: Micro-state to Narco-State marks a small but invaluable step in the right direction.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, Guardian contributor and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (Verso, 2015).

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Haiti, Hurricane Matthew and forgetting history

Haiti is currently cleaning up from the devastating Hurricane Matthew but thankfully there are questions being asked about the viability and usefulness of foreign aid as well as the debts the poverty-stricken nation endures.

It’s a key theme in my book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (out in paperback in January), as I investigate where the billions of dollars of aid money has disappeared in Haiti and which companies and corporations are turning a profit. Haiti is also a featured country in my documentary in progress, Disaster Capitalism.

A piece in The Conversation this week, by academics Jason von Meding and Giuseppe Forino, criticise the global response to the latest Haitian disaster:

Investigations have revealed that the actors of predatory capitalismrushed to secure quick and easy profits in the wake of calamity. This has helped to prevent any serious effort to address disaster risk by sidelining local stakeholders

Under the guise of goodwill and solidarity, the United States has officially supported what journalist Antony Loewenstein calls “the latest incarnation of a tired model that failed to deliver long-lasting benefits to locals, but instead delivered cheap labour to multinationals”.

No argument for skills development and employment opportunities can really excuse abusive labour practices. In Haiti, these simply reinforced underlying vulnerability and made a mockery of the commitment to “build back better”. In reality, the United States’ interests have been protected and served in Haiti for a century.

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Where are the mineral resources in Afghanistan (French edition)?

Last December US magazine The Nation published my investigation into the resource curse in Afghanistan. I visited the war-torn country in 2015 to film my Disaster Capitalism documentary (we’re currently working on the rough cut).

French news website Ulyces has translated the piece (part 1 and part 2). This follows their translation of my Foreign Policy investigation from Guinea-Bissau earlier in the year.

I’m always glad that more, non-English speaking readers, can discover my work.

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US Writer’s Voice radio interview on Disaster Capitalism

A few months ago I was interviewed on the US radio program, Writer’s Voice with Francesca Rheannon, about my book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (out in paperback in January). We spoke for an hour about war, immigration, Haiti relief and people making money from misery.

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The Wire interview on privatising prisons and immigration centres

There are growing moves to privatise more prisons in New South Wales, Australia despite the disastrous experiences of outsourcing prisons and detention facilities in the UK and US.

I was interviewed today by Australian current affairs show, The Wire:

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ABC Radio 702 Sydney on privatised immigration detention

Australian company Wilson Security recently announced it would withdraw from working in Australia’s offshore detention facilities from October 2017. It’s one, small positive step in the collapse of Australia’s privatised immigration network.

I was recently interviewed about this development and privatised detention on ABC Radio’s 702 Sydney with host Wendy Harmer:

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Voice of America interview about chaos in South Sudan

I was based in South Sudan for most of 2015. It’s a country still fracturing along racial and ethnic lines. I was recently interviewed by Voice of America on its daily Africa 54 program (via Skype at Frankfurt Airport). The segment starts at 13:07. I’m described as a “South Sudanese journalist” when in fact I was merely living there last year.

 

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Torturing asylum seekers in secrecy and proud of it

My column in the Guardian:

The recently released Nauru files reveal an inventory of horrors unleashed by Australia on brown and black bodies away from public or media scrutiny. These people now have a voice, albeit in often banal descriptions of sexual abuse, rape, violence and psychological breakdown.

After more than two decades of brutalising asylum seekers on the Australian mainland and offshore, this is what Australia represents. This is who we are. These are our “values” and it’s now absurd for anybody to claim otherwise.

In 2004, I interviewed the last remaining refugee trapped on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. Aladdin Sisalem, born in Kuwait in 1979, lived on Manus Island while Australian authorities thwarted his attempts to reach the Australian mainland. “I need to belong to a country that can protect me and where I can live a normal, dignified and productive life,” he told me.

His treatment at the hands of Australia, filled with deception, obfuscation and lack of sympathy, was an ominous warning of 21st century Australian officialdom and its brutal handling of those arriving by boat while fleeing the world’s conflicts.

Sisalem was eventually allowed to settle in Australia, after an extended period of time on Manus Island, 10 months of which was alone at an exorbitant and futile cost to the Australian taxpayer. He became the last refugee to suffer in the makeshift facility during its first incarnation as an Australian refugee camp.

I often think of Sisalem’s story because so little has changed in Australia’s posture towards asylum seekers. I read over my 2004 Sydney Morning Herald online interview with him and analysis of Australia’s refugee policies, and all that’s altered are the names of ministers, prime ministers along with invisible and unaccountable immigration officials. Public opinion has ebbed and flowed in the interim, between outright hostility towards asylum seekers and far more compassion, and yet Australia now finds itself as a global leader in new and innovative ways to punish powerless people.

The recent report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch about Australia deliberately ignoring abuses on the Pacific island of Nauru, where hundreds of men, women and children live in unsafe, indefinite detention, received large global coverage. It contributes to radically shifting the international image still enjoyed by Australia; a sleepy nation with beautiful beaches and welcoming smiles. It’s a cliché still believed by countless people I have met when working in Palestine, Honduras, Africa and the United States.

I’m now constantly asked why Australia, an island state, needs to further traumatise refugees fleeing Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Instead of being a global pariah for this behaviour, Canberra is increasingly admired and envied by European countries desperately trying to keep out Muslims from the Middle East and Africa. The Nauru files prove that privatised security is willing to use violence, intimidation and mockery to quash adult and child complaints.

It’s not just the ways in which asylum seekers are isolated that brings admiration for Australia globally but outsourcing the tasks of imprisonment to failing private companies. Australia began this process in the 1990s, an early adopter, and now countless European states are enthusiastically mimicking the trend. Militarising borders has never been so profitable.

A new report by Dutch NGOs Stop Wapenhandel and Transnational Institute, Border Wars, outlines the defence firms selling weapons to Middle Eastern dictatorships and the US as well as equipment to European governments desperate to build walls and surveillance networks to monitor and stop new arrivals. The same multinationals are selling weapons that fuel the wars and helping Europe keep out its victims. The almost weekly terror attacks in Europe are empowering this business model and it will only get worse.

The prospects for Australia’s immigration stance to change is slim. The new Senate features Islam-fearing politicians unlikely to show any interest or sympathy for Muslim refugees stranded on Manus Island or Nauru. Surging support in Europe for anti-refugee policies, along with Donald Trump’s remarkably successful insurgent campaign against Muslims, foreigners and Mexicans, shows that large numbers of the public in Western democracies want to massively slow down, if not stop, immigration. Civilians caught in the middle of wars in the Middle East and Africa will just have to suffer in silence.

There’s a lesson in this for Australia and it’s not pretty. Australia was well ahead of the global curve in its treatment of asylum seekers and rather than being a pariah, as I argued in 2014 when calling for sanctions against Canberra, it’s become an inspiration.

But not for all. In 2014, Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie wrote to the International Criminal Court asking the body to investigate Australia’s mistreatment of refugees. The Refugee Action Collective Victoria followed suit in 2015. Could enterprising lawyers pursue any number of other international legal bodies and hold successive Australian politicians and officials to account (ideally legally but also morally)?

In an age where prosecuting Tony Blair and George W. Bush for war crimes in Iraq is now plausible, why not include Australian prime ministers John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull for crimes against humanity for their detention regime? It’s far-fetched but not impossible. A citizen’s arrest of any of these individuals would be a great start.

Tourism Australia will soon need to design new advertisements to attract white, anti-immigration activists from around the world. These people will find a receptive audience when arriving by plane, perhaps less so by boat.

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