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George Curry

Thousands Being Killed in Ivory Coast as World Looks Elsewhere

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While the world’s attention is fixed primarily on turmoil in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, thousands of Ivorians are being murdered in fighting that pits supporters of Côte d’Ivoire incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo against challenger Alassane Ouattara. Both men claim to have won the disputed election in a country already torn by a nine-year civil war.

President Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the United Nations have recognized Ouattara as the duly elected president of Côte d’Ivoire, which is French for Ivory Coast. What’s loosely referred to as the international community has accused Gbagbo of assorted human rights violations, including killing some of his political opponents.

Recently, however, the U.N. was forced to acknowledge that both sides have been guilty of killing civilians. Aid workers said that as many as 1,000 people were killed by Ouattara’s forces in Duekoue, a Gbagbo stronghold in western Côte d’Ivoire.

Amid conflicting reports coming out of Abidjan, the commercial capital of the country, it is difficult to know for certain what is going on there. Charles Steele, Jr,, former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and I visited Abidjan two months ago and were stunned to see how widespread news reports failed to mirror the reality we witnessed on the ground.

One-sided reporting is reflected in reporters, who routinely refer to Gbagbo as the nation’s “strongman” and Ouattara as the “internationally recognized” president. As I have written in this space, few reporters have read the Ivorian constitution that puts into place a two-step process that determines how national leaders are elected.

Under Article 32 and Article 94 of the Ivorian constitution, ballots are tallied and results are announced by the Independent Electoral Commission. The second and less publicized step is the final declaration of winners made by the Constitutional Council, the equivalent of the United States Supreme Court.

In the case of the disputed presidential election, Ouattara was declared the winner of a run-off on November 28, 2010 by the Independent Electoral Commission, a decision that the U.S., France, and the European Union cited as the basis of their support for the challenger.

Pierre Sane, the Paris-based former general secretary of Amnesty International, notes that the so-called Independent Electoral Commission is anything but independent. Of the 31 members, 20 are from rebel groups and their political supporters.

“One way or the other, the‘Independent Commission’ is in point of fact controlled by the opposition,” Sane wrote in an analysis. “Its chairman is a senior member of the opposition coalition, and a former PDCI minister in the Gbagbo cabinet.”

After examining challenged ballots, the Constitutional Council declared Gbagbo the winner by a margin of 51.45 percent to 48.55.

Sarkozy, among others, cried foul because of the seven justices, four are appointed by Gbagbo and three are appointed by the president of the National Assembly. Sarkozy should be one of the last people to complain because, as he knows, the Ivorian constitution is modeled after the French constitution.

In a January interview with me, Gbagbo said the Ivorian judicial system is not unlike the one in the U.S. where the president appoints Supreme Court justices, subject to Senate confirmation.

On March 9, when most of the world was looking at dramatic events in Libya, President Obama issued a three-paragraph statement deploring violence in Côte d’Ivoire that he blamed on “security forces loyal to former President Laurent Gbagbo.”

He added, “As we have said since the election results in Côte d’Ivoire were certified, the people of Côte d’Ivoire elected Alassane Ouattara as their President and Laurent Gbagbo lost the election. Former President Gbagbo’s efforts to hold on to power at the expense of his own country are an insult to the universal rights of his people, and the democracy that Côte d’Ivoire deserves… It is time for former President Gbagbo to heed the will of his people, and to complete a peaceful transition of power to President Ouattara.”

President Obama is wrong. It’s time for the United States, France, and even some African countries to stop trying to force their will on a sovereign country. Democracy can often be a messy process and the U.S. can’t intervene in every country that elects a leader it opposes. Clearly, mistakes have been made by supporters of both Gbagbo and Ouattara. Regardless of which side one favors, Ivorians followed their constitution in choosing Gbagbo over his challenger and that process should be respected.

Considering the sharp political divisions in Côte d’Ivoire, it is unlikely that either Ouattara or Gbagbo could be an effective leader under current circumstances. Therefore, the so-called international community should stop favoring one candidate over the other and instead call for an immediate halt to the killing. Once that’s accomplished, a new election should be held with each candidate obliged to honor the outcome.

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.

The U.S. Switches Back and Forth on Gaddafi

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(NNPA) The United States’ relationship with Moammar Gaddafi has vacillated over the years, at one time viewing him as a mad dog leader, then accepting him into the international community as a member in good standing and more recently, depicting him as an outcast while participating in coordinated multi-national air strikes on Libya.

In a recent speech to the nation on Monday night, President Obama defended his decision to join France, the United Nations and now NATO in launching air strikes on the African country to protect civilians.

The mass protests that led to the downfall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak after 35 years in power and the 23-year tenure of Tunisia President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali have inspired protests throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East – including in Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen – and have underscored the United States’ inconsistent foreign policy.

While professing support for democracy around the world, the U.S. has openly supported dictators who routinely exploited and killed their own people, as was the case in Egypt under Mubarak and is the case in Bahrain under King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. In those and other instances, the U.S. turned a deft ear to human rights violations because the leaders of those countries were allied with America in the fight against international terrorism.

In the case of Gaddafi, he has been considered both friend and foe.

Libya, a mostly desert country about four times the size of California, was divided into three different provinces, each with deep tribal tension, until a Gaddafi-led revolution ousted its former king in 1969. Even Gaddafi’s severest critics concede that he has used Libya’s newly-discovered oil wealth to uplift the poor, improving hospitals, and schools.

Detractors say he runs an oppressive regime where political opponents are victims of public hangings.

Gaddafi became an international pariah 25 years ago. In 1986, the Reagan administration accused Libyan agents of bombing a disco in Berlin, Germany in which two American soldiers were killed. Reagan retaliated by bombing Libya. In the process, dozens of innocent civilians were killed, including Gaddafi’s adopted infant daughter.

Two years later, Libya experienced the wrath of the international community after it was suspected of bombing Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland that resulted in the deaths of 270 people. In 1992, the United Nations applied sanctions against Libya for failing to turn over two suspects in the bombing.

Beginning in 1998, when it became the first nation to issue an international arrest warrant for Osama bin Laden, Libya took a series of high-profile actions to repair its tarnished international reputation.

In 1999, Gaddafi turned over two suspects in the Pan Am bombing, prompting the U.N. to lift economic sanctions against Libya. Two years later, when the two suspects were found guilty of murder, Gaddafi condemned the Sept. 11 attacks and urged his fellow citizens to donate blood to the victims.

The U.N. made additional concessions in 2003 by lifting travel and weapons bans against Libya after it formally accepted responsibility for the Pan Am bombing. Libya paid more than $2 billion to settle claims by the victims’ families.

In another step toward regaining international respectability, Libya disbanded its nuclear program and provided the CIA with information that helped uncover a nuclear underground market in Europe.

President George W. Bush, eyeing Libya as a potential partner in the war against terrorism, lifted most U.S. trade sanctions in 2004.

Describing the newly-thawed relationship, the Los Angeles Times, which spells the Libyan leader’s last name differently from most news outlets, observed: “As it struggles to combat Islamic terrorist networks, the Bush administration has quietly built an intelligence alliance with Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi, a onetime bitter enemy the U.S. had tried for years to isolate, topple or kill.

“Kadafi has helped the U.S. pursue Al Qaeda’s network in North Africa by turning radicals over to neighboring pro-Western governments. He has also provided information to the CIA on Libyan nationals with alleged ties to international terrorists.”

The newspaper continued, “In turn, the U.S. has handed over to Tripoli some anti-Kadafi Libyans captured in its campaign against terrorism. And Kadafi’s agents have been allowed into the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba to interrogate Libyans being held there.”

The international media’s obsession with highlighting only war, disease, poverty, and national disasters in Africa, means that many Americans don’t know about the progress being made in expanding democracy on the continent.

The leaders of Egypt and Libya have been in power more than three decades. However, two-thirds of the 54 countries in Africa have leaders that have been in power 15 years or less.

According to a 2008 poll of 19 African countries by www.afrobarometer.org, 29 percent of those polled rated their country as a full democracy, 30 percent of the respondents described their country as a democracy with minor problems, 25 percent labeled their country as a democracy with major problems and only 11 percent said they either didn’t live in a democracy or didn’t know the status of their nation.

The major fear among some African leaders is that having joined in the air strikes against Libya, the Obama administration may now use that as an excuse to support military intervention in other African counties, providing a further setback to sovereignty and self-governance on the continent.

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.

The Misinformation Campaign Against Public Employees

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(NNPA) After listening to the governor of Wisconsin and financially illiterate journalists, its easy to gain the impression that city, county, state, and federal employees are overpaid slouches who benefit from hefty pension and generous retirement benefits funded by unsuspecting taxpayers.

Such a conclusion, however, is grossly inaccurate.

Many of the misperceptions about government workers stem from the heated debate in Wisconsin over whether the state should limit the collective bargaining power of state employees. One constant refrain is that public employees are overpaid.

According to an analysis of recent census data by the New York Times, public employees enjoy a pay advantage over those working in the private sector, but not because of the reasons cited by opponents of collective bargaining.

“The Times’s analysis found that over all, median wages for state workers exceeded that of private sector workers in all but three states – Indiana, Missouri, and New Hampshire,” the newspaper reported. “Those numbers, however, can be deceptive. State workers tend to be more highly educated than those in the private sector: More than half of state workers have college degrees, compared to just over one-quarter of those in the private sector. Researchers have also said that states tend to employ few high school dropouts.”

In Wisconsin, the epicenter for the debate over public employees, government pay exceeds private sector pay by 22 percent. But, more than 60 percent of state workers hold college degrees.

Public workers are paid four to 11 percent less than private-sector workers with similar education, job tenure, and other characteristics, according to the Center for State & Local Government Excellence.

The Center on Budget and Policy reports that teachers make up the largest share of local and state government workers, totalling 6.9 million, followed by protective services (law enforcement officers and fire fighters) with 2.5 million, higher education (2 million) and health (1.4 million).

Some experts project that pension shortfalls will reach as high as $3.2 trillion this fiscal year. However, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic Policy & Research, dismisses that likelihood.

“….It is worth noting that the size of the shortfall in many of these funds has likely already been reduced as a result of the fact that the stock market has continued to recover from its downturn in 2008 and 2009,” he said.

Part of the debate over public employees is based on raw politics.

“In many states, Republicans who came to power in the November elections, often by defeating union-backed Democrats, are taking aim not only at union wages, but union power as they face budget gaps in the years ahead,” the New York Times reported.

Wisconsin is one of those states.

“On paper, Wisconsin might seem an unlikely candidate for an assault on unions,” a story in the February 18 New York Times observed. “Like many other states, it has grappled with large spending gaps during the economic downturn, but its projected deficits for the next two years are nowhere near the worst in the country – more like the middle of the pact. Its 7.5 percent unemployment rate is below the national average. Its pension fund is considered one of the healthiest in the nation, and it is not suffering from huge shortfalls that other states are facing.”

Perhaps the most misleading aspect of the debate is that Wisconsin is giving state employees something that they have not earned.

David Cay Johnson destroys that myth in a column posted on www.tax.com.

“When it comes to improving public understanding of tax policy, nothing has been more troubling than the deeply flawed coverage of the Wisconsin state employees’ fight over collective bargaining,” he writes. “Economic nonsense is being reported as fact in most of the news reports on the Wisconsin dispute, the product of a breakdown of skepticism among journalists multiplied by their lack of understanding of basic economic principles.”

He continued, “Gov. Scott Walker says he wants state workers covered by collective bargaining agreements to ‘contribute more’ to their pension and health insurance plans. Accepting Gov. Walker’s assertions as fact, and failing to check, created the impression that somehow the workers are getting something extra, a gift from taxpayers. They are not.

“Out of every dollar that funds Wisconsin’s pension and health insurance plans for state workers, 100 cents comes from the state workers. How can that be? Because the ‘contributions’ consist of money that employees chose as deferred wages – as pensions when they retire – rather than take immediately in cash. The same is true with the health care plan. If this were not so a serious crime would be taking place, the gift of public funds rather than payment for services.”

Johnson provides this simple analysis: “…State workers are not being asked to simply ‘contribute more’ to Wisconsin’s retirement system (or as the argument goes, ‘pay their fair share’ of retirement costs as do employees in Wisconsin’s private sector who still have pensions and health insurance). They are being asked to accept a cut in their salaries so that the state of Wisconsin can use the money to fill the hole left by tax cuts and reduced audits of corporations in Wisconsin.”

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.

Labor Unions are Fighting for Survival

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(NNPA) The showdown between public unions and the governor of Wisconsin is drama likely to be replayed in other budget-challenged states during the next few months and may determine whether American unions rebound or become a fading fixture of the past.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 44 states and Puerto Rico have introduced legislation governing labor unions and collective bargaining.

Because so much is at stake, both pro- and anti-labor groups around the nation have sent protesters to Wisconsin during the past week to support their cause. Thousands of protesters, including teachers, rallied in Madison, the state capital, to voice their concerns. Anti-labor protesters have also marched in the streets to express their support for a proposed measure to strip public unions of much of their power.

At the center of the debate is Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to save $330 million through mid-2013. Under the plan, government workers will have to pay more than half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their healthcare premiums. Unions would still be allowed to represent workers, but could not seek pay increases above the Consumer Price Index unless approved by a public referendum. Firefighters, police officers, and state troopers would be exempted under the new plan.

Labor officials say they are willing to compromise on pension and healthcare benefits, but not their ability to freely negotiate on behalf of government workers. At the national level, the budget battles feature organize labor, a key base of Democrats, and fiscally conservative Republicans, the key to GOP election gains last November.

Although public unions are being blamed for many of Wisconsin’s woes, they are not the real culprits.

The Associated Press reported on February 1st, that a “new analysis released Monday showed that Wisconsin’s budget could be between $79 and $340 million short by June 30, 2013 due largely to anticipated Medicaid expenses and a court-ordered repayment to a fund that was raided four years ago.”

Wisconsin is obligated to pay Minnesota $58.7 million after the end of a tax-reciprocity agreement between the two neighboring states. The state is under court order to pay $200 million that was illegally transferred in 2007 from a state medical malpractice fund, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Further complicating matters, Governor Walker pushed through tax cuts in his first month in office that are estimated to bring in $117 million less in projected state taxes during the next two year. Another $72 million drop is a result of lower than expected tax revenues.

Like his federal counterparts, Walker argued that the lower tax cuts will create economic growth. This is the same argument that President George W. Bush used in getting two federal tax reductions through Congress. But, the promised economic growth never materialized.

In Wisconsin, organized labor is losing the public relations battle as anti-labor Republicans enjoy a larger share of state houses and governors’ mansions.

According to a survey conducted earlier this month by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “The favorability ratings for labor unions remain at nearly their lowest level in a quarter century with 45% expressing a positive view. Yet the public expresses similar opinions about business corporations – 47% have a favorable impression – and this rating is also near a historic low.”

The Pew report observes: “Americans express mixed views of the impact of labor unions on salaries and working conditions, international competitiveness, job availability and productivity. About half (53%) say unions have had a positive effect on the salaries and benefits of union workers, while just 17% say they have had a negative effect. Views are similar about the impact of unions on working conditions for all workers (51% positive, 17% negative).”

It is ironic that the debate over the role of unions is being played out in Wisconsin, the first state to enact of major collective bargaining law in 1959. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was founded in 1936 in Madison.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the union membership rate of public sector workers (36.2 percent) is more than five times the private rate of 6.9 percent. Within the public sector, union membership was highest among local government workers such as police officers, fire fighters, and teachers.

A Labor Department survey in 2010 showed that African-Americans were more likely to be union members (13.7 percent) than Whites (11.7 percent)), Asians (10.9 percent) or Hispanics (10 percent).

Unionized full-time wage and salary workers had a median weekly income of $917 in 2010. Workers not represented by unions earned $717 -- $200 less than union wages.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 11.9 percent of all wage and salary workers in the U.S. belonged to unions in 2010, down from 20.1 percent in 1983.

By all accounts, labor unions were primarily responsible for creating the American middle class in the bygone era when manufacturing was king. In an era of economic belt-tightening and rising Republican influence in politics, however, they are serving as convenient scapegoats for pro-business voices that wanted to get rid of them all along.

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.

The Obama Budget: Valentine Day Massacre

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(NNPA) President Obama released his $3.7 trillion budget proposal for fiscal 2012 on Valentine Day and it immediately became the object of a Valentine’s Day Massacre by Republicans in the House and Senate who want deeper budget cuts.

Lost amid the GOP criticism was that President Obama proposed $61 billion in cuts. His plan includes a 50 percent cut ($2.5 billion) in the government’s program to help low-income people pay their heating bills and slicing $300 million in community development block grants. At a time Obama is highlighting the need for infrastructure spending and a clean environment, he is proposing eliminating almost $1 billion from grants that go to states for water treatment plants and infrastructure programs.

Republican leaders say that Obama’s budget was dead on arrival. GOP leaders have proposed returning federal spending to 20.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), the average of federal spending from 1970 to 2008.

“Limiting spending to a historical average of some kind has been a longstanding goal of very conservative organizations such as the Heritage Foundation,” noted a report by Paul N. Van de Water of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C. “The reality is, however, that policymakers will find it virtually impossible to maintain federal spending at its average level back to 1970 without making draconian cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and an array of other vital federal activities.”

Trying to peg federal spending to an arbitrary figure from the past ignores the enormous changes in American society that ranges from increased federal responsibility in the post 9/11 environment to a flood of baby boomers reaching retirement age. There are three key reasons why trying to roll back federal spending to 1970 or even 2000 levels ignores today's reality, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report:

· The aging of the population – the percentage of Americans aged 65 and older will grow by more than half during the next 25 years – and that growth will increase the cost of the three largest domestic programs: Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

· Federal responsibilities have grown. Since 2000, for example, federal responsibilities have expanded in the aftermath of the September 11, 2002 terrorist attacks; aid to veterans has increased as a result of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; the Medicare prescription drug benefit added by Congress in 2003 along with health care reform will also expand federal spending, even though health care will eventually lower the deficit.

· Spending on federal debt will be substantially higher than it has been the past 40 years. The combination of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Bush-era tax cuts and their extensions and a severe recession have contributed to the public debt being almost twice as large (as a percentage of GDP) as it was in 2001. Higher interest costs have accompanied the rising debt.

The budget debate isn’t just a matter of numbers. The budget also defines us as a country.

“There are limits to how much Social Security can be cut without undermining its crucial role in reducing poverty and replacing income lost when a wage earner retires, dies, or becomes disabled,” the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report states. “Social Security benefits are quite modest, averaging only $1,175 a month (or $14,105) a year) for a retired worker. Social Security checks now replace about 37 percent of an average worker’s pre-retirement earnings –one of the lowest of any western industrialized country –and that figure will gradually fall to about 32 percent over the next two decades, largely because of the scheduled increase in the full retirement age to 67.”

Obama’s pledge to freeze the pay of federal employees and any tampering with Social Security would have a disproportionate impact on people of color. According to the latest “State of the Dream” report by United for a Fair Economy, 59.1 percent of Blacks and 64.8 percent of Latinos depend on Social Security for more than 80 percent of their family income. And, African-Americans are 70 percent more likely than Whites to work for the federal government.

In his budget, Obama proposed allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire in 2012, ending subsidies to oil and gas companies and eliminating tax breaks for companies that do business overseas. Unfortunately, Obama provided no details or specific proposals. GOP leaders who insisted on extending the Bush era tax breaks for the wealthy are unlikely to favor curbing corporate welfare. Eliminating $125 billion a year in corporate welfare would be more than enough to offset the proposed cuts in domestic spending.

It is clear than neither Obama nor Republicans will on their own volition protect the interests of the truly needy in the budget debate. That’s why Americans need to mobilize to force them to make more sensible decisions. It’s easy to admire how protesters in Egypt and Tunisia have rallied in recent weeks to force a change in their government.

It’s time to raise our voices in the U.S. We have social media and technology at our disposal. Let’s use it to now let our elected officials know we want them to protect average Americans, not big business and the wealthy.

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.

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