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  August 16, 2015

Obama's Africa Trip & Legacy of Colonialism in Puerto Rico

Telesur's The Global African looks at President Obama's recent trip to Africa and the debt crisis in Puerto Rico
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Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a columnist, activist, author and labor organizer. He is the executive assistant to the national vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees. Bill is an editorial board member of, as well as the chairman of the Retail Justice Alliance. He is also the co-author of "Solidarity Divided"; and the author of the newly released book, 'They're Bankrupting Us' - And Twenty Other Myths about Unions . He is a co-founder of the Center for Labor Renewal, and has served as President of TransAfrica Forum and was formerly the Education Director and later Assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO.


BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African we'll look at President Obama's recent trip to Africa. We'll also talk about the economic crisis in Puerto Rico. That's today on The Global African. I'm your host, Bill Fletcher. Thanks for joining us, and don't go anywhere.


FLETCHER: In July, President Obama visited Africa and became the first seated president to visit Kenya and Ethiopia. During what many are deeming a historical trip, Obama made a speech both praising and advising the continent. First he applauded Africa's economic growth, mentioning that Africa was one of the fastest growing regions in the world. Then he discussed the violence, the corruption, and the security issues that continue to affect the continent. Finally, Obama weighed in on the way that African governments are being led. He warned that Africa's democratic process is at risk when leaders refuse to give up power. And he further discussed the continent's failure to grant its people the basic freedom of speech. What he didn't mention was the abysmal human rights records of both countries that he visited, including where he gave that particular speech, that is, Ethiopia. A crucial ally of the United States, the East African nation is a serial violator of human rights and is notorious for its silencing of political dissent. President Obama also did not mention the vital issues of land grabs all across the continent at the hands of multinational corporations and hedge fund managers. Also left out of the discussion was the United States' increasing military influence in the continent, particularly through drone warfare.

How and what are we to make of this historic trip to Africa from the first African-American president of the United States? We look forward to exploring that right now.

Joining us now is Nii Akuetteh, who is a Ghanaian-born policy analyst and activist, founder of Democracy and Conflict Research Institute based in Accra, Ghana. He is the former executor director of African Action and executive director of the African Immigrant Caucus.

Welcome to The Global African again.



AKUETTEH: It's a pleasure to be back.

FLETCHER: Always glad to have you on board.

So President Obama goes to Africa, right, and there are many people that felt that his speech in Ethiopia was something of a tongue-lashing of Africa and Africans. What was your take?

AKUETTEH: Actually, I'm on the other side of the issue, because for all the time that I've been an activist in the U.S. looking at U.S. policy and engagement with Africa, I look at everything, but I happen to believe strongly that what Africa needs is genuine democracy, which is why we got rid of colonialism. We don't want dictatorship. We want the people, African citizens in every country, to ask express their rule, to elect their leaders, to push the leaders in the direction they ought to go. We have had so many dictatorships in Africa.

And the link with the U.S. is that the U.S. has a long, long, long record of backing dictators. So my work as an activist in Washington has been to push every American president, every opportunity I get, to say, you should not support dictators. And that begins with expressing support for democracy.

FLETCHER: But, you know, Nii, it seems to me that there needs to be a little bit more humility on the part of the United States. I mean, he's there waving his finger. We have the largest prison population on the planet. We have the murder of black, Native Americans, Latinos on the streets by police. We have continued racial differentials in treatment in any number of things. We have voter suppression that's going on. We have NSA spying. I mean, I'm not saying that when your house is dirty you can't say anything to anyone else, but it's one thing--I just find it very disconcerting that the United States walks around as if the house is--

AKUETTEH: Sparkling.

FLETCHER: --sparkling. Right.

AKUETTEH: I think--I take your point, and I understand it. The way I parse it, though, is when you look at his Addis speech, if you look at the video, the most striking thing was when he took on leaders who want to stay forever and he said, look, I don't understand why they would want to do that, especially when they have so much money, the room exploded with applause, my point being ordinary Africans loved his speech, even in Kenya. The African citizens loved it. African leaderships were a little bit bothered, were a lot bothered, and they take the point that you are taking, why is he lecturing us now.

Living in the U.S.--and I've lived in the U.S. now longer than I lived in Ghana, where I was born--I am bothered by all the weaknesses and flaws of American democracy that you point out. And therefore, yes, it makes it tricky for an American leader, when he goes outside his own country, to act as if American democracy is perfect. It is not. So I take that point.

But looking at it as an African, [he was saying (?)] exactly what we needed, because [he was saying (?)] it in two countries whose governments has bothered African democrats like me, and they are strong allies of the United States. So if we feel that if the U.S. president can say to the allies democracy is important--I will emphasize again the work I do and the groups I work with, we want the U.S. leaders to push African leaders more for democracy. But to sort of equate it well, we also need a lot of work here to improve America's own democracy.

FLETCHER: Now, he gave the speech at the African Union, and in that sense it appeared to be sort of tipping his hat to the significance of the African Union. But this is also the president that was involved in the attack on Libya and blowing off the African Union's efforts at a resolution of the Libyan conflict--


FLETCHER: --prior to the ouster of Gaddafi.


FLETCHER: What do you make of that?

AKUETTEH: Yeah. In fact I think that's a great point. The U.S. role there has a big question mark about it. Now, the Libya situation at the time was pretty complicated. As I remember, the African Union was about to send a delegation to sort of go negotiate between the two parties. And, yes, their wishes were brushed aside, and the U.S. and its European allies, through the UN, begun bombing the Libyan forces. So I think you are right on that.

And, again, I personally, the way I try to equate it is, look, I'm fascinated by American politics, who has power in the United States and how they work with their allies. So the only thing I can say is, yes, that was a bad move, especially now--I had done a piece of analysis of the Libyan situation that was published in Pambazuka, where I was bothered by the opposition to Mr. Gaddafi coming under the threat of violence and the UN intervention. But what bothered me the most was after the war, the international community abandoned Libya, and Libya now is in a terrible situation. So there isn't enough time to go around here. But, yes, the U.S. role there could have been much, much, much better. But, again, I hate to sound like an apologist for Mr. Obama, but I'm looking at how U.S. policy gets made, domestic and foreign, that the president does not always get his way. So he get pushed, he gets roped into doing things that I don't agree with. And for me the one that I highlight again and again and again is the support of dictators on the continent.

FLETCHER: What did you make of the decision to go to Kenya and to Ethiopia? I mean, both are not exactly shining examples of democracy.

AKUETTEH: Precisely. It's a great question, actually. In the beginning, I was glad he did not go. Now, the position was misunderstood, because of course he went to Ghana, and I was glad that he was stiff-arming Kenya, because I have big problems with the problems that arose out of the previous elections and the violence and the ICC issue. And, again, it fits with my position that the United States should put distance between itself and African dictators and insist on democracy. So I was glad he did not go. To me he was sending a message, because I'm convinced that he's proud of his Kenyan roots. He would have loved to go. But the situation in Kenya, him not going, sent a message that I agree with. Ethiopia also the same, because the Ethiopian government doesn't have the democratic record that we would like. So I was glad he didn't go.

Does that mean that this time he's going, I was opposed? No. I actually understood, and therefore I wasn't as opposed, for the reason that my other concern about the African continent--I had opposed AFRICOM as U.S. over-militarizing the African continent. But that was under George Bush. Since then, with the collapse of Libya, with Boko Haram, with the terrible U.S. record here in plunging Somalia into its current chaos, for all of those reasons, I'm concerned as an African about lack of security for Af ricans across the continent. And therefore I also realize we have to juggle, like, three balls: eradicate poverty, push for democracy, but also protect the lives of Africans.

FLETCHER: You know, I was hoping that in his trip to Kenya, that he would use the opportunity of being in East Africa to advance some sort of process of helping disentangle the ongoing crises in the Great Lakes region, the ongoing conflicts in the eastern part of the DRC, the Burundi on the verge of another civil war, Rwanda's both domestic repression, but--


FLETCHER: --forays, or piracy, depending on your point of view, into the DRC.


FLETCHER: And as senator, he had advanced legislation to promote a role for the United States in those conflicts. I haven't seen anything follow up under his administration. And it would have seemed to me that this would have been an opportune moment to have announced something.

AKUETTEH: You are so right, Bill. And in the Great Lakes, I mean, given their horrendous record, 6 million killed after the Rwanda genocide, since then, especially by Rwanda and Uganda going to the DRC, Burundi is pretty much a mirror image of Rwanda, and they had 300,000 killed in their civil war. So the problems there, it's like the fuse to a bomb, and everybody is concerned. And so, yes, I agree with you. I wish he had done more, especially because the two key players in the Great Lakes, Uganda and Rwanda, are close U.S. allies. And everything that Mr. Obama mentioned in Ethiopia as him being against people staying in power for too long, Mr. Museveni and Mr. Kagame have stayed in power--they are among those who have stayed the longest. So I agree with you completely and totally that I wish he had made that a central part. It seemed to me that for--and this was a pattern I saw, that even with what we saw as finger wagging, he sort of gave a pass to the closest U.S. allies, and that includes the two countries that he went to, as well as Uganda and Rwanda.

FLETCHER: Nii Akuetteh, executive director of the African Immigrant Caucus, thanks once again for joining us.

AKUETTEH: Thank you so much for the great work, and thanks for having me.

FLETCHER: Pleasure. Pleasure.

And thank you for joining us for this segment of The Global African. I'm your host, Bill Fletcher. And we'll be back in a moment. So don't go anywhere.


FLETCHER: On August 1, for the first time in its 117 year history as a commonwealth of the United States, Puerto Rico defaulted on some of its debt obligations. This default comes at a time of great economic instability in the commonwealth. The island has experienced ten consecutive years of recession, significant population loss, and an astounding $72 billion of debt that it owes to bondholders. Some financial experts have weighed in on the issue of the debt, arguing for cuts to the minimum wage, privatizing public utilities, and slashing vital social services. This attempt to shift the burden of the economic crisis onto the poor and working class is nothing new and is most visible in places like Greece, Spain, and Detroit.

But while many are talking about vulture funds and financial predators, our next guest argues that Puerto Rico's economic woes go beyond greedy creditors. So how did the island get to where it is today, and what is the United States government's role in all of this?

We're now joined for this discussion with Nelson Denis, who is a writer, film director, and former New York State assemblyman. He has written for the New York Daily News, El Diario, and many of his editorials have won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

Thanks very much for joining us on The Global African.

NELSON DENIS, WRITER, DIRECTOR, FMR. NY STATE ASSEMBLYMAN: I appreciate it. It's great to be here.

FLETCHER: The crisis in Puerto Rico, I want to start with a few days ago it was declared that there was a default. What exactly does that mean? Explain that to our viewers.

DENIS: Well, the precursor to default is debt. And to this day there are people that are, myself included, wondering what constitutes a public debt. The debt is predicated on loans that were made to the Puerto Rican government, particularly PREPA, the Puerto Rico power association, the electrical utility. Problem is that Puerto Rico's net balance of payments to the United States far exceeds what this debt should be. [incompr.] the quick math on it. Because of Section 27 of the 1920 Merchant Marine Act, which is also known as the Jones Act, every Puerto Rican pays in the area of about 20 percent more for all consumer goods in Puerto Rico, both foreign and U.S., except the U.S. goods, it's 85 percent, the goods consumed in Puerto Rico. Consumer spending in Puerto Rico is roughly $25 billion per year. If you do the math on that, if 20 percent of that is an artificial price hike, that's $5 billion a year. If 85 percent of that is United States, that's $4.25 billion a year in excess profits due to the artificial price hike that's created by the Jones Act. That's an artificial price support.

FLETCHER: You were talking about this Jones Act from the 1920s that undermined the very foundation of a Puerto Rican economy. That's the 1920s. This is 2015.

DENIS: Yeah. Yeah.

FLETCHER: Nobody caught this?

DENIS: Problem is that since Puerto Rico is a colony, it has no leverage. It's at the receiving end of all this. And there are too many vested interests.

Who benefits? Well, in Jacksonville, Florida, there's roughly 50,000 jobs, because the way the Jones Act works is it splits the commerce into Puerto Rico into two streams, U.S. vessels and foreign registry vessels. Under the Jones Act, a foreign registry vessel is not allowed into Puerto Rico unless it pays an extremely high set of import tariffs, taxes, fees, which effectively raise the price of anything that it's carrying--cars from Japan, engines from Germany, medicine from Canada, food from South America. All of it gets taxed and feed so high that the prices then have to get passed on to the Puerto Rican consumer. What that creates is a price support for American products, which can then be sold at just under the price of that inflated price from the foreign registry vehicle. So that's the price structure for the foreign registry vehicle--vessel if it comes into Puerto Rico.

FLETCHER: Why is it that the people of Puerto Rico are paying the kind of--paying back this debt that you're describing? Why are they the ones that have to pay through these cutbacks?

DENIS: Yeah, that's again--it's the same answers, because they're a colony. And to actually give you a short answer to the previous question, why they didn't change the Jones Act, and it's the same answer as this, is because this powerlessness manifests itself in specific ways.

Regarding the fiscal austerities that were inflicted in Puerto Rico, Wall Street said if because of the people in Puerto Rico are now leaving, they can't afford this crushing debt burden, they can't afford the fiscal austerities, so nearly 400,000 of them have moved, mostly to Florida. There's about 700 Puerto Ricans in Orlando now. About 10 percent of the Puerto Rican population has left in the last ten years. It's gone from 4 million to 3.6 million. With a 10 percent less population, these Wall Street companies, the hedge funds and the ones that are holding the debt, they don't care about--they're just quarterly capitalism. They care about their next quarter. So they still insist on full payment. So they said to Puerto Rico, if you don't enact these fiscal austerities, we're going to demote, we're going to downgrade your debt to junk bond status. So Puerto Rico raised property taxes, laid off 33,000 workers, raised water rates 67 percent, raised the electricity to $0.29 per kilowatt hour, rolled back pensions, eliminated health benefits, raised gas prices, gas taxes twice in one year, and just recently enacted an 11.5 percent sales tax. You have all of this put together. That's a lot of austerity.

And then what did Wall Street do? They went down and they downgraded the debt anyway. In other words, if you look at that series of events, Wall Street lied. And in downgrading the debt, they then cut off Puerto Rico from any further credit access, because it's a hell of a--it's very difficult with junk bond status to go and access the credit markets. They increased the premium payments, the interest on this. And Puerto Rico is afforded no Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. So they really put Puerto Rico really against the wall with, they believe, no option but to raise--they thought, well, we're just going to, under the--you know, like the Krueger Report, we're going to just keep raising taxes or Puerto Ricans will just leave.

FLETCHER: In a recent piece you wrote, you tied directly this crisis into the colonial relationship and suggested that the colonial relationship needs to be disentangled. And I was really interested that. And I was interested in hearing you explain that and what it would look like, in part for this reason. I had a discussion few weeks ago with a Puerto Rican activist friend of mine, and I was raising the issue of the colonial relationship. And he was a bit uneasy about that being introduced in the discussion and was much more focused on the need to take up the anti-austerity campaign. And I felt when I read your piece that you were dealing with both anti-austerity as well as the issue of the colonial relationship. So I think it would be useful for our listeners and viewers to get a sense as to, like, what does that mean, why. I mean, how would this play out?

DENIS: Well, that's a good question, and it leads the discussion in the direction that it needs to, because you can't consider an anti-austerity campaign and relieving or resolving this debt in vacuo, because if you just deal--which is what the hedge funders would want of Wall Street. They just want their revenue stream to be guaranteed and collateralized by buying pieces of revenue-generating property in Puerto Rico, like bridges, highways, airport concessions, so as long as their money is guaranteed.

But that doesn't resolve the problem. If more people keep moving out of Puerto Rico, there'll be a lower tax base. The problems will simply recur. They're not going to go away, because they are rooted in the colonial situation. The commonwealth status is simply not working. Puerto Rico is specifically prohibited in virtually every area from developing its own industries. It doesn't have control over its borders, import, it can engage in no foreign relations, no external trade relations, can't control import and export. It's a small island. It's an entire economy that has to derive from trade relations with other countries, from import and export, and from developing some of its own manufacturing base. None of that has ever been allowed to develop in Puerto Rico. It's all been handed to corporations who come in with a 20 year tax abatement deal, and then they leave, and the import and export and the trade relations are all under the Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act and under [incompr.] Act, Puerto Rico is not allowed to decide any of that. The United States controls that. And therefore they control the prices.

Puerto Rico has gone from being initially a naval coaling station with a geopolitical significance militarily to being a sugar empire, to being now a dumping ground for U.S. products. Puerto Rico right now is the fourth-largest market in the world for U.S. products. There are more Walgreens per square mile than anywhere in the U.S. and more Walmarts per square mile than anywhere on the planet in Puerto Rico.

And so what the United States wants, what the financial elites want, they want to keep things exactly the way they are. The bonds are triple tax exempt, so it's all great. But the underlying relationship cannot even--economically cannot sustain this.

FLETCHER: That's where we are going to have to wrap this, even though I'd love to get into some more issues about what that would all look like. But we'll have to have you come back. And I want to thank you very much, Nelson, for joining us.

DENIS: Thank you. I appreciate it.

FLETCHER: Alright.

And thank you very much for joining us for this episode of The Global African. I'm your host, Bill Fletcher. And we'll see you next time. Take care.


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