Category Archives: America First

The Nica Act: America First

It’s a comparatively obscure bill in Congress, especially in light of the “big one” having to do with health care and the flurry of Executive Orders signed by the President.  But The Nica Act is legislation that has been floating around the halls of Congress for months now, having recently received new life with a new version submitted to the U.S. House of Representatives in April and a companion version sent to the Senate several weeks later.  It’s a bill that likely won’t even register on most U.S. citizens’ radar. But for Nicaraguans- and especially the poor- it’s a very big deal, indeed.

The U.S. has made an entire history out of intervening in Nicaragua’s politics, nearly always to the detriment of that country and its people.  The history is easy to find, so it does not warrant recounting here.  But if the intention of the U.S. government is to improve the lives of Nicaraguans, once again it seems to have itself in a backwards posture, facing the usual unintended consequences.

The draft of the Nica Bill [Nicaraguan Investments Conditionality Act], threatening to impose economic sanctions on Nicaragua in response to the authoritarian drift and corruption of  Daniel Ortega’s regime, was revived recently for discussion in the US House and Senate.

Republican senator Ted Cruz reintroduced the measure, together with Republican Ileana Ros- Lehtinen and Democrat Albio Sires.

“This legislation would direct the United States to use our voice and vote at international financial institutions to oppose loans for the government of Nicaragua until President Ortega’s regime is held accountable for its oppressive policies and anti-democratic actions, and the Secretary of State certifies that Nicaragua is taking effective steps to hold free and fair elections and combat corruption,” Cruz stated.  In April, twenty-five members of the House demanded not only the reestablishment of democratic institutions in Nicaragua but also an active effort to combat corruption and to investigate the high officials tainted by this type of action, as conditions to prevent a funds stoppage.  In addition, they accelerated the timeline for the State Department to present a report about these conditions, making it a ninety-day period instead of the 120 days stipulated in the original proposal.

The new version of the Nica Act that is now in the Senate, also tends to ignore the agreement between the government and the Organization of American States (OAS). In it, the Nicaraguan government agreed to negotiate over the presence of an OAS electoral observation during the 2017 municipal elections. As a result of that agreement, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro has expressed his concern about the reactivation of The Nica Act, observing that “it is not a constructive contribution to the work of the government of Nicaragua and this Secretary General on issues of cooperation for the country’s democratic, electoral and institutional strengthening.”  Almagro invited the bill’s sponsors to reconsider the initiative to provide Nicaragua and the OAS “the time and space needed to move forward with the work agreed to by both parties.”  The Nica Act does take up concerns from the OAS observation mission’s report, a document that signaled clear flaws in Nicaragua’s electoral system, but apparently doesn’t have any faith in OAS ability to work in concert with Nicaraguan officials to address those concerns.  Once again, the U.S. presumes to know best what Nicaragua needs and to force feed it.

The problem, of course, is that if The Nica Act becomes law, those who will pay the price will not be President Ortega or members of his administration or the large business interests aligned with the government.  The oppressed will be the same as always: the poor, the marginalized, many of whom still experience the effects of U.S. interventions from decades ago.  The poor almost always become the debtors, the ones who must pay the price for whatever U.S. policy dictates.  The Washington-based social justice organization Quixote Center, long present in Nicaragua and working on behalf of those without strong voice, concurs that The Nica Act is punitive legislation that will perpetuate the suffering in Nicaragua, one way or another.

Without doubt, there are significant needs that exist in this second-poorest nation of the Western Hemisphere.  But before the U.S. makes yet another foray into Central American lives and futures- from whatever motivation- perhaps we should devote our energies and attentions to our own election difficulties and inconsistencies, and the state of our own democracy.   Maybe we should take to heart the President’s call for “America First.”  Before touting democracy to others, we must first model it well….

 

 

Distant Drums

It’s June.  The trees are leafed out, I need to cut my lawn at least once a week and summer seems as though it wants to stay around for a while.  It’s what we in the north have pined for during the past six months.  And all I can think about is Nicaragua.

I haven’t been in Nicaragua since February and likely won’t make another return trip until August.  No farms, no cooperative counsel, no ownership enthusiasm, no face-to-face conversations with people who do not speak English, but who nonetheless speak “my language.”  Memory of earlier trips fade over time and I begin to feel more and more distant from people who are the focus of our work and the hopes of sustainable Nicaragua.  That exemplifies a problem, a big one for all of us.

Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it also creates distance.  Physically, I am no further away from my Nicaraguan colleagues and acquaintances than I was upon my return from there in February.  But the ensuing four months have distanced me, nonetheless.  Obviously, I do not see their faces.  I do not hear their voices or the anxieties  within their words.  They do not shake my hand in the morning or wish me a pleasant night in the evening.  We cannot share meals together.  I am not there to encourage and they may quickly forget lessons shared.  We are… apart.  Despite my heartfelt desire to be a resource and a friend, the time and distance erode the intensity of our relationship.  I’ve experienced the phenomenon before.

In 2000, my wife and I traveled with our four children (our two sets of twins) to the land of their birth, South Korea.  One of the many blessings of that travel was the opportunity to meet with both sets of birth parents.  The reunions were priceless, the time spent with these extended families were filled with emotion and love beyond our possible expectations.  We became family with these South Korean kin; by the time of our departure from their country, we promised each other ongoing love and communication.

For a time, we kept our pledge to one another.  From the U.S., we regularly telephoned long distance with the aid of an interpreter. (E-mail was not yet the readily available tool that it was to become.) From Korea, we received gifts and photos.  Christmas featured gifts in both directions.  The bonds remained vibrant.  But in time, they grew less frequent.  Our kids grew into busy young people already pressed for time and energy.  Birth families likely grew increasingly frustrated with time lags and difficulties in translating letters.  And eventually, not even the bonds of shared parenting and extended family could sustain a continued embrace.

It’s perhaps an obvious reality that time and distance intrude on the most sincere of desires and necessities.  And if they can erode our intentions even with respect to those whom we know and love, we can only speculate about the difficulties in nurturing connections with those we do not know.  I experienced it happening with South Korean family.  I feel it developing with Nicaraguan friends.  We become victims of our isolations.

At a time when our government and some of its population look to isolate our nation- to create greater distance and fewer collaborations to Make America Great Again- we would do well to recognize the realities of distance and time.  They are already formidable enemies of peace and humanity.  They siphon away touch and contact and emotion.  They feed doubt and gossip.  They sew seeds of suspicion.  Our needs are not to withdraw even further from the presence of “the other,” but to draw closer.

At the very least, I’m determined to reach out to two families in South Korea.  And to get back to people whom I know and care about in Nicaragua….

 

 

 

Do All Lives Matter?

Black lives matter.  Police lives matter.  Latino lives matter.  Gay lives matter.

We live in an age of proclaiming that _______ lives matter.  (Fill in the blank with whatever ethnic, racial, gender, vocational or religious designation is important to you.)  Over the past several years, the U.S. has witnessed countless marches, protests and demonstrations which demand and plead for human mercies in the face of injustice and bias.  These are events which are both troubling and hopeful. Troubling, because they invariably follow an incident of hatred and/or hurt.  Hopeful, because they affirm the expectation that we have for fairness and compassion.

I encountered the following article by writer Nick McDonell, writing for The Los Angeles Times.  It casts a somewhat broader view of whether all lives matter to us.  It invites the question, “Is any life of less value than another?”

Civilian war casualties: Truth is, we value others’ lives less than our own

Iraqi officials report that a U.S. airstrike killed nearly 200 civilians in West Mosul in mid-March. The U.S. military acknowledged that it had carried out a mission in the area and is now investigating this strike as well as another in March, said to have killed dozens of civilians near the Syrian city of Raqqah.

When a missile meets its target, chemicals inside the weapon combine, causing gases to expand and exert pressure on the warhead, which shatters outward, turning it into shrapnel behind a blast wave. This wave, faster than the speed of sound, compresses the surrounding air, pulverizes any nearby concrete, plaster, or bone, and creates a vacuum, sucking debris back to the zero point. The chemical interaction also produces heat, causing fire.

Although the ensuing civilian casualties may seem like unstoppable tragedies, they are not. Civilian casualties are not inevitable. They are a choice.

The U.S. military predicts how many people will die in its airstrikes by surveilling and estimating the population within a proposed blast radius. It also sets a limit on the number of innocent people each command is authorized to kill incidentally. This limit, called the Non-Combatant Cutoff Value, or NCV, is perhaps our starkest rule of engagement, and it varies region-by-region for political reasons.

In Afghanistan, civilian casualties caused by U.S. airstrikes are considered a liability in our relationship with that country’s government. The NCV for Afghanistan is therefore zero.

In Iraq and Syria, the calculus is different. The Pentagon believes the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a greater threat than the Taliban; the Iraqis have been requesting more aggressive support; the fighting is more urban.

Last year in Baghdad, I asked then-U.S. Army spokesman Col. Steve Warren what the NCV was for Iraq. That is: How many innocent Iraqis was his command authorized to kill incidentally in an airstrike?

“There are numbers — we don’t put those numbers out,” he told me, “and here’s why we don’t put ‘em out: Because if the enemy understand, ‘Oh if I have X number of civilians around a thing,’ its gonna be harder for [the U.S. to arrack] right? So that’s a piece of information that we protect.”

The number, however, came out. It was first reported by Buzzfeed, and then the Associated Press, in December, when the Army issued its latest Rules of War Manual.

“According to senior defense officials,” the AP story ran, “military leaders planning operations against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria may authorize strikes where up to 10 civilians may be killed, if it is deemed necessary in order to get a critical military target.” 

That number yields some grim math. Last year, the coalition acknowledged 4,589 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. If the NCV was 10 throughout, then U.S. policy in 2016 was to tolerate the incidental killing of a maximum of 45,890 innocent Iraqis and Syrians in order to destroy ISIS.

The common estimate for ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria is 40,000, and between Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the attacks on the Twin Towers, and 2016, foreign terrorists killed a total of 411 American civilians, worldwide.

Our policy for last year, then, was to tolerate the death of 112 Iraqi or Syrian civilians per American civilian.

That’s on paper. In practice, the military does not typically expect civilian casualties, and it engineers strikes to avoid them. I doubt the military anticipated, specifically, those 200 civilians who died in Mosul. We have killed far fewer noncombatant Iraqis than the NCV permits — a minimum of 2,831, according to Airwars, the preeminent independent monitoring group. (The U.S. has confirmed only 220 as of March). And in dozens of interviews with men and women responsible for such strikes, no one expressed a desire to kill civilians or the opinion that it is ever strategically advisable to do so.

Recently embedded in a tactical operations center to observe airstrikes, I met targeteers and commanding officers who were mostly conscientious, within the parameters of their bloody business.

But what’s on paper matters. The math, then, is troubling — especially under a president who, unlike the men and women he leads, has endorsed the intentional, rather than incidental, killing of noncombatants.

“The other thing with terrorists,” then-candidate Donald Trump said on “Fox and Friends” in December 2015, “is that you have to take out their families.”

To do so would be a war crime. Whether or not the Trump administration has relaxed the rules of engagement, as some suspect, Airwars reported in March that we are, for the first time, causing more civilian casualties in the fight against ISIS than our Russian counterparts. 

This monstrous fact will disturb the troops I met in December, who believe that we are always the good guys when it comes to civilian casualties. Or at least the better guys. But there are no good guys in this process. That we have an NCV greater than zero implies something ugly, if unsurprising, about the way we see ourselves in the world, how we value a foreign life against an American one. We value it less.

It is reasonable to care more for countrymen than foreigners. Devotion to family, neighbors and friends defines a life, and one does not love a stranger, a little girl in Mosul, as much as a daughter.

But neither should we be willing to kill that little girl to achieve our aims. Arguably legal, our utilitarian position is neither brave nor morally ambitious for a superpower dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Nick McDonell’s most recent book, “The Civilization of Perpetual Movement,” was published in 2016. He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times (TNS).

It’s a sobering article.  To know that some human beings are simply counted in the calculation of something called NCV is horrifying, even if nothing really new.  The process begs for examination and reflection.  Maybe we start with the premise that one must “love a stranger, a little girl in Mosul, as much as a daughter.”  For these are our daughters.  And our sons.  Our national global strategies have no place for the notion of “taking out their families,” as our president proclaims.  Life is precious in whatever the context.  To deny that is to deny our very humanity….

America First

Back in December, I posted here an imagined letter from a Nicaraguan to an acquaintance in the U.S.  The letter was wide-ranging in its topics, a general missive of introduction and inquiry, curiosity and clarification.  It generated an equally-imaginary response just days later from an equally-imagined person in the U.S.    Now our Nicaraguan  “imaginary friend” has written again, with an interesting perspective for those of us in the North.

Buenas dias, mi amigo!

I did not write back to you since December because we have been very busy with the farm.  We do the last of the coffee harvest now.  We also have been working with a research man here in Nicaragua who has been teaching us about changing and improving our farms, with many interesting ideas.  One example is completing a family investment plan (FIP), which is a very complete look at all of the aspects of our producer lives.  The exercise is very detailed and asks us questions about our farms, our families, our futures, everything.  Every member of our family has been helping with this.  So I have not been able to respond to you during these days.

I have wanted to ask you some questions about many of the stories we have heard recently.  During your election, we have heard many times  the call for “America First.”  Some of the people who live in our area became very excited when they first heard this.  They believe that your president intends to help the people in all of Centro America and Sud America!  As Americans, we can hardly believe it, but this what your president has said.

But there are others who say that he did not mean this at all.  The president of our administrative council says that he meant only the United States and that he was going to become even more demanding of other countries to help his people even more.  I told our cooperative members that the U.S. president would not have said “Americans” if he meant just U.S.  I reminded him that we are Americans and that we were Americans even before the U.S.  Many agreed with me but said this is not the way the U.S. president thinks of us.

Then I reminded him about the other saying that is used, “Make America Great Again.”  I told my friends that this was proof that the U.S. president meant us.  The United States has always been a great country of power and money, so there would be no need to become “great again.”  If he meant only U.S., then he would say “greater.”

The U.S. president said that he did not like the CAFTA agreement and that it was a terrible deal.  Of course, we in Nicaragua agree with that!  It has only benefitted the producers in the North.  We are hopeful that it might be considered again to be more fair.  I do not believe that the U.S. president thinks that CAFTA is bad for him, so he must be thinking of us, no?

In Nicaragua, we have lived through many actions from the U.S. that hurt our country and all of Centro America.  It is partly why many of our young people have decided to move away and find a better opportunity.  It seems to us that your president knows this and sees that past policies have not been fair.  Maybe he knows that our countries were once great, too, and now is the time to make them great again.  I hope that is how he thinks to end illegal immigration to his country.

I try to read articles that will explain these stories but it is very hard to understand what the new U.S. policies will be.  So I hope you can write to me and explain what you think is going to happen.  We believe in “America First” and making “America Great Again,” but maybe we don’t understand?

In two weeks we attend another workshop to learn more about the FIP and other tools to help us produce better harvests.  I will ask these questions then but I hope you will write to me with your thinking.

Adios, Su amigo Nicaraguense

I’m not sure whether a response to my Nicaraguan friend will help much in his understanding of evolving policy in the U.S.  Most of it does not make much sense to us in the North, either.  Meanwhile, I was sent a link to YouTube, copied  here, which puts into visual form what our Nica friend was trying to say.  We are not the only Americans, or even the first….