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).
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.
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).
I’m always glad that more, non-English speaking readers, can discover my work.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
My book, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe, was released in 2015 (and it’s out in paperback in January 2017). It received many reviews and the latest is by Dr Jason Von Meding, an academic in Australia:
The US Presidential Election is in full swing. Over the next few months, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will go toe-to-toe in what is already a less than clean scrap. In amongst the media and social media hysteria (on both sides), one could be forgiven for missing an intriguing narrative espoused by alternative voices that opts, rather than criticizing one candidate over the other, to reject both the neoliberal status quo and reactionary neofascist agendas that are the product of unfettered predatory capitalism.
In Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe, acclaimed Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein turns his passion for justice to deliver a stunning critique of the thriving disaster capitalism industry, in its many forms; the profiteers of privatized detention, militarized security, the aid industry and multinational mining are relentlessly skewered with style and poise, and their predatory tactics exposed. According to his narrative, Hillary Clinton is exactly the kind of neoliberal hawk that enables neofascist demagogues like Trump to rise, and allows predatory ‘businessmen’ like Trump to prosper. Both Presidential candidates are indeed invested in disaster capitalism, but Loewenstein’s tale is arguably one that focuses on the Hillary’s of the world; the trusted and experienced hand; the status quo; the Establishment.
Disaster Capitalism is the story of Loewenstein’s journey into the belly of this particular beast. The book gives us an up-close-and-personal look at how corporations like Serco, G4S, Halliburton and their ilk profit from organized misery, perpetual conflict and the impacts of disaster, and how national governments and international organizations like the IMF and the World Bank are willing collaborators. In Part I, he takes us to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and Greece, exposing the various exploitative strategies employed to enrich the local elite and foreign interests, and the devastating effects on the majority of people in each country. In Part II, we visit wealthy Western democracies (Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom) that punish the most vulnerable in their societies while dictating economic conditions to the world, imposing taxpayer funded cruelty for private profit at home and abroad.
This is an absolutely enthralling read; a must for the revolutionary; the dreamer; the activist; the teacher; the learner. Loewenstein has compiled a treasure-trove of evidence on his travels. His dismantling of the social and economic myths that enable predatory disaster capitalism is robust and compels us to action. He offers a “challenge to cherished beliefs concerning aid and development, war and democracy, and in particular the modern, borderless nature of capitalism.” (p. 14) For this reader, 3 key themes emerge; a dialogue around crime and punishment; a critique of the idea of benevolent corporations; and the grim reality that this is all part of a plan, a rigged system that empowers and enables predator capitalists to flourish.
Crime and Punishment
As the prison-industrial complex has rapidly taken hold in Western societies, the public clearly favours an ideology of punishment over reform. In addition to highlighting issues around race and class, Loewenstein speaks to issues around the treatment of those in the care of the state, and how “lobbying, ideology and a punishment ethos have colluded to produce one of the most destructive experiments in recent times: mass incarceration.”
Judicial processes in the UK, US and Australia target the marginalized for what amounts to, essentially, punishment for being unable to escape their systemic disadvantage. Loewenstein unpacks the ideology behind this phenomenon and asks whether the poor man, the petty criminal, the asylum seeker or the drug user really deserve the punishments that are prescribed and who indeed benefits? What of the bankers that caused a global financial collapse? The CEOs of corporations that destroy the only planet we have? The heads of state that lied in order to enable the invasion and destruction of Iraq, leading to the destabilisation of the region and a current displacement crisis of epic proportions? Should not our justice system be designed to protect society from such individuals and the devastating consequences of their actions?
Over the past 2 months, we have witnessed a brutal crackdown on drug sellers and users in the Philippines, since the rise to power of President Duerte. Summary executions on the streets have shocked the world, yet few official condemnations are forthcoming. While it is not difficult to imagine that many politicians and indeed members of the public might secretly support these abuses of power and share the President’s disdain for Article 10 of the Declaration of Human Rights, as Loewenstein finds in Australia, America and the UK, there is an infinitely more ‘subtle’ way to enforce the harshest punishments: through private contractors.
The criminal justice system in Australia ensures sky-high rates of Aboriginal incarceration, and, as the recently revealed abuses of the NT government demonstrate, the hateful punishment of those discarded by society is absolutely state sanctioned. In America, the black population is also disproportionately incarcerated. Loewenstein explores the roots of a system that enables this in the US and the corporations that profit handsomely at the expense of taxpayers, destroying families and leaving little opportunity for rehabilitation and reintegration into society. “Private prison corporations saw a unique opportunity” (p. 196) in America, Loewenstein writes, to do everything possible to ensure that more and more people were incarcerated. The prison population is thirty times what it was in the 1990s. The absolutely failed ‘War on Drugs’ has wreaked havoc on society. For all the posturing about market efficiency, private prison corporations are a spectacular leech off the government purse, with a rigged legal system providing financial and political benefits right down the food chain. All of this is possible, he tells us, due to a lack of “serious questioning of the harsh, punitive ideology underpinning US ‘justice’.” (p. 207)
In Australia, the UK, the US and Greece, Loewenstein exposes the fact that asylum seekers and migrants are also punished, most often without breaking any law. In Greece, he provides a rich cultural background of “not just economic harshness, but a culture that tolerated and celebrated exclusion.” (p. 69) In the grips of imposed austerity measures, the social fabric began to unravel and “Popular frustration was taken out on the most marginalized group in society: refugees.” (p. 72) The mandate for demonization of the vulnerable that was secured in Greece, as in Australia, was just one tactic used to ensure profit for human rights abuses across the countries that Loewenstein investigates.
Time and again, Loewenstein finds governments all too eager to enable those corporations in a position to cash in. He details how the EU has become central in “funding, encouraging and pressuring EU nations to isolate and imprison asylum seekers.” He discusses the industries that have sprung up and thrived, often with the EU leading “the charge in working with corporations that have been very willing to develop and hone methods for repelling the desperate hordes.” As ‘Fortress Europe’ closes her borders, deals like that done between the EU with Turkey are sealed without a second thought for the human cost. Corporations and corrupt governments profit; the vulnerable are turned away and suffer.
Loewenstein picks up where Naomi Klein left off in her 2007 bestseller Shock Doctrine. She pointed out that privatization of government has accelerated in the U.S., as private sector opportunities have been generated through the ‘war on terror’. She argues that, “now wars and disasters are so fully privatized, that they are themselves the new market: there is no need to wait until after the war for the boom – the medium is the message.” Loewenstein builds on this and adds that “it is hard to escape the conclusion that wars are often fought for the key reason of liberating new and willing markets – and with the war on terror likely to continue for decades, there will be no shortage of new business to secure.” (p. 16)
We often encounter the myth of the benevolent corporation. As much as it might be comforting to believe that the private sector simply goes about its business in a free market generating jobs and growth, from cover to cover Disaster Capitalism lays bare the impacts of a global privatisation bonanza. For Loewenstein, the US has played a pivotal role. He says that a “central plank” of U.S. foreign policy is “the US model of reducing the role of government while increasing the influence of largely private power has never been so rapacious, though the problem is global.” (p. 4)
Loewenstein is no admirer of market fundamentalism, saying that “wealth is concentrated in so few hands in today’s world: there is little incentive to advocate for a more equitable planet. The market system guarantees unfairness and rewards greed.” (p.2) He shows us examples of open rebellion against this system from communities in Greece, Haiti and PNG, countries exploited long and hard by the status quo. As we have become more enslaved to the neoliberal project, Loewenstein argues “that the corporation is now more powerful than the nation-state, and that it is often the former that dictates terms to the latter.” (p.7)
In Bougainville, PNG, Loewenstein meets members of the resistance against resource exploitation, and explores the shady relationships between corporate and political interests. The memories of violence fuelled by greed and repression do not fade easily. The health of the community and the environment have also been terribly compromised. “Environmental vandalism should not be the price tag for ‘progress’,” he pleads.
In Afghanistan, we are introduced to Jack, the British MD of a private military company (PMC) who provides an inside look at a truly burgeoning industry. He is not shy to admit that his corporation “survives off chaos.” (p. 20) Jack anticipates perpetual war and opportunity. “If we can make money, we’ll go there,” he tells Loewenstein. He sees his industry in a purely positive light, providing “jobs for the boys leaving the army who can continue their trade.” In spite of the well documented abuses of PMCs in Afghanistan and Iraq, military objectives continue to be dressed in humanitarian robes, government intelligence gathering has been privatized and mercenaries are ensured “a quick buck” (p. 21). Indeed, Loewenstein finds that the PMC industry hopes that the conflict and the profit will never end. When it does, they will be “looking for the new war.” (p. 61)
How often are we outraged at government spending on weaponry and conflicts that we deem unnecessary, but hesitate to question the relationship between corporate interests and government policy and spending. Loewenstein reminds us that the war on terror represents one of the largest wealth transfers in history, with 4 trillion dollars to date being spent, with much of it going to ever-grateful Western contractors. The privatization of prisons and security apparatus is incredibly expensive, while all evidence shows that incarceration does not tackle societal problems that lead to crime, but rather reinforces them.
The overwhelming message is that simply outsourcing your cruelty is a convenient way to avoid responsibility, transparency and accountability, while profiting corporations and manipulating the economy. Neoliberal governments would like us to accept the notion that corporations are ultimately benevolent entities that exist only to employ people, satisfy market demand and grow GDP. Loewenstein argues that “multinational corporations spent the twentieth century gradually reducing their obligations in the various jurisdictions in which they operated.” (p. 243) What we have now is unregulated, unaccountable and secretive private sector entities. Meanwhile, governments with dirty work to outsource are not left disappointed.Unfortunately, a willful ignorance of the sometimes devastating social impact of ‘business’ has allowed a mentality of self-righteousness to fester, completely detached from the suffering of people that stand in the way of profit, those targeted by governments for suppression and oppression, and the unfortunate citizens of countries outside of the US circle of trust, whose lives appear to hold so much less value than those of allies. Companies like DynCorp and Blackwater, despite having their abuses repeatedly exposed, thrive in this context.
A Rigged System
Loewenstein exposes, time and again, the fact that the global economy is dominated by anti-democratic and predatory forces that profit the wealthy and the ruthless. The revolving door between corporations, lobby groups and government is clear for all to see. This collusion between powerful actors fans the flames of crisis while selling market fundamentalism as the antidote and positioning ‘benevolent’ corporations to reap the benefits. In the U.S. the banks were bailed out while personal debt, and indeed poverty rates, soar. Loewenstein offers a stinging critique of a system rigged for the 1%, and the scandalous truth that in the US both major parties represent similar corporate interests while the media feigns ignorance. Indeed, liberal presidents have done little for the vulnerable other than make empty promises.
Meanwhile, in Haiti, Loewenstein describes an environment of “canny capitalists sifting through the ashes of a disaster, looking for business opportunities.” (p. 109) His narrative of this historically vulnerable nation describes the strong 20th Century American support for successive brutal dictatorships, enriching U.S. interests and a local elite. We see this model replicated again and again in Disaster Capitalism, and indeed around the world as a key element of U.S. foreign policy. The example, in chapter 3, of the “devoutly anti-Communist” ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier is particularly damning, who, “unlike the many African despots targeted by the Hague, remained a friend of the West and was therefore largely untouchable.” (p. 110) When the neoliberal agenda was challenged in Haiti by Aristade, the U.S. and local elite conspired to overthrow the government to restore ‘order’.
We are often presented with the assertion that the international community, led by U.S. humanitarianism, rescued Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Loewenstein paints a very different picture, and claims that “when Haiti had received lashings of ‘help’ this generosity had done little but enrich foreign companies.” (p. 115) The local reception to UN intervention was largely hostile. In the context of historical US interventions in Haiti this comes as no surprise, and the sentiment is well founded. As revealed by Wikileaks, the US ambassador to Haiti asserted that the UN military-style solution was “an indispensable tool in realizing core [US government] policy interests in Haiti” (p. 115)
In a similar vein, most development aid to PNG from Australia since its independence either found its way into the pockets of either the wealthy PNG elite or Australian corporations. Far from its claimed humanitarian ideals, Loewenstein says that the main goal of the Australian government in PNG was simply, “to ensure that Australian corporations had a ready market in which to turn a profit.” (p. 172) The denial of complicity with oppressors in the violent struggles of the 1980s and the patronizing attitudes displayed by Australian diplomats leaves a bitter taste.
Loewenstein reserves some of his harshest criticism for the mainstream media, and the “false construct of “balance” that permeates the corporate press, which merely pits one powerful interest group against another” and one that “views business and political leaders as far more important than the individuals and societies affected by them.” (p. 10) As an independent journalists that opposes the state of his profession, he laments the fact that “90% of Americans rely on information from media outlets owned by only six multinationals, including News Corporation, Comcast and Viacom.”
Disaster Capitalism pulls no punches in calling out both profiteers and enablers. Loewenstein exposes a shady cabal operating in plain sight; corporations that will not blink at the thought of misery, death and destruction as part of business as usual. Governments that outsource their most distasteful projects to companies that have neither conscience nor boundaries. A complete lack of transparency and accountability allows whatever abuses that are uncovered to yield few consequences for the perpetrators.
The book is impossible to put down and rich with memorable lines. It will have the reader coming back to review the stories of friend and foe, of oppressed and oppressor. Loewenstein has skillfully articulated opposing positions, admitting his ideological bent where possible in the text and to those he meets in the field. It is sure to be a book both loved and hated, depending on the beliefs of the reader, for its honest storytelling. The accounts of his journalistic interactions give the book a very personal feel.
Loewenstein shows us how accepting something terrible (e.g. abuse of asylum seekers, mass incarceration etc.) out of a fear of personal harm, insecurity or loss gives a perceived legitimacy to profiteers (perhaps the American elections will be a case in point of this mechanism, on both sides). He wrote the book to “shock, provoke and reveal.” (p. 16) The question is; once we know all about the profiteers of calamity, will we just carry on or will we fight for justice?
My essay in UAE newspaper The National:
The defence industry has never been happier. With sales at unprecedented levels – US$65 billion (Dh 238bn) in 2015, according to the Global Defence Trade Report – France, the United States, Canada and Britain have become global leaders in arms exports. The Middle East is the largest importing region and weapons companies such as Raytheon, Oshkosh, Thales, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are benefiting from continuing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and beyond.
These economic advantages are now expanding further afield. The refugee crisis engulfing Europe over the past 18 months has caused untold misery, with thousands drowning in the Mediterranean, racist attacks against Arab arrivals and restive populations increasingly turning against migrants fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and Africa.
But largely ignored in the commentary and reporting from European countries struggling to cope has been the financial beneficiaries of huge migration: the arms manufacturers, private security corporations, and intelligence and surveillance multinationals. For them, Europe’s desperate desire to militarise and monitor its borders has led to a huge surge in profits.
After the attacks in Paris last November, share prices in some of these defence firms rose strongly. Lockheed Martin executive vice president Bruce Tanner told a Credit Suisse conference in West Palm Beach in the US in December that there were “indirect benefits” from the war in Syria. There was “an intangible lift because of the dynamics of that environment and our products in theatre”, such as F-22s and F-35 jets.
A recent report from NGOs Stop Wapenhandel and Transnational Institute, Border Wars, provides comprehensive evidence of Europe’s zeal to outsource its border security and explains the direct link between wars in the Middle East and profits from European policies.
The European Commission wants to reform its border security agency Frontex into a more influential European Border and Coastguard Agency. This will mean even greater windfalls for defence multinationals. The report explains that the European border security industry was estimated at €15 billion (Dh61.6bn) in 2015 and is predicted to rise to more than €29 billion annually by 2022. The budget of Frontex increased 3,688 per cent between 2005 and 2016 from €6.3m to €238.7m and European states are obliged to strengthen their borders as a condition of membership.
“There is one group of interests that have only benefited from the refugee crisis, and in particular from the European Union’s investment in ‘securing its borders’,” the Border Wars report finds. “They are the military and security companies that provide the equipment to border guards, the surveillance technology to monitor frontiers, and the IT infrastructure to track population movements.”
Crucially, the report shows that “far from being passive beneficiaries of EU largesse, these corporations are actively encouraging a growing securitisation of Europe’s borders, and willing to provide ever more draconian technologies to do this”. The large defence players in Europe include Airbus, Finmeccanica, Thales, Safran and Indra.
Finmecannica, Thales and Airbus are key lobbyists with the privately run European Organisation for Security and they push for tighter border security. Many of their suggestions, including the establishment of a cross-border security agency, have been adopted by the EU.
These companies are also three of the top four European arms traders selling weapons to nations in the Middle East and Africa that are experiencing the greatest unrest and fuelling refugees fleeing for their lives. In other words, these companies are making money from both selling weapons to repressive regimes and benefiting from the human fallout in Europe.
It’s a convenient convergence of interests and has generated virtually no public outcry. This is because populations across Europe are increasingly voting for political parties that believe in tight border controls and express little sympathy for outsiders trying to get in. The recent Brexit vote in Britain was won largely on a small majority of citizens wanting to “take back control of our borders”. The fact that this can only be achieved by privatising the border security network – states don’t have the technology or expertise to do it themselves – is either unknown or seen as a necessary evil.
Israeli firms are the only non-European receivers of research grants for border security under a 1996 agreement between Europe and Tel Aviv. This has already led to Hungary and Bulgaria expressing serious interest in 2015 of establishing high fences reminiscent of the barrier separating Israel and Egypt and Israel’s separation barrier through the occupied West Bank. Israel’s decades of experience controlling millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, through drones, fences, walls, weapons and surveillance, is the perfect experience Europe craves during its current crisis.
Writer and activist Jeff Halper calls this the “global pacification industry”, parlaying years of occupation and battle-tested technology in the service of controlling borders and people. For example, Israel Aerospace Industries has worked with Airbus to create a surveillance drone, used in Gaza, to track refugees in Europe.
The privatisation of Europe’s borders is accelerating even as the number of refugees arriving on the continent has fallen this year. The EU has a long-term plan to militarise its borders and be prepared for any further influx of unwanted migrants. Defence firms making a fortune from migration flows should make us question the morality of the world’s obsession with the outsourcing culture.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based independent journalist and author