Those of us who find solace on Twitter amongst our fellow refugees of Miami Dade Transit are brought together on the social media platform by the tireless retweets of @FixMetroMDT, who provides a vital public service to all who feel the pain of using our terrible system by amplifying our endless stream of wholly justified complaints and frustrations day after day, hour by hour.
On the bitterly-cold morning of January 21, 2020, the operation of the Metrorail was halted by an unspecified “technical difficulty”, that disrupted the morning commute of thousands of people, who were left dangerously stranded on packed train platforms.
Such incidents are familiar to many residents of Miami-Dade County and had become a near-weekly occurrence not too long ago. But, they had abated somewhat over the course of 2019. Yesterday, however, @FixMetroMDT had its hands full with the furious and unrelenting tweets with graphic detail of the transit disaster unfolding.
The sheer scope and impact of the delay coupled with the fact that we are in an election year for County Mayor, the seat currently occupied by the very man upon whose shoulders our present-day transit catastrophe falls, helped unleash a Twitter storm of epic proportions.
Even the elusive Transit Director, Alice Bravo, was spotted by Pulitzer prize winning journalist, Elaine de Valle, in the midst of the urban calamity browsing for some breakfast carbs instead of addressing the public, as most public officials in her position are expected to do.
At some point, the discussion on Twitter always comes down to the infamous PTP or Public Transportation Plan, which our local leaders promised to implement in exchange for $17 Billion dollars in taxes to be collected through a half-penny tax. The sordid details of how that money was and continues to be misspent is now part of sad, perpetual lament
When @FixMetroMDT broached the subject, a follower included a hashtag in his response that should spread like wildfire in the coming months, because it not only captures the important question raised by @FixMetroMDT about everything that’s transpired in the world and our lives since the debut of the PTP, but, in light of Carlos Gimenez’ purported run for Congress and the aspiring Mayoral candidates, it can help galvanize our voices and effectively express how imperative it is to fix our failing transit system.
FaceBook, uber, Slack, and Instacart weren’t even founded yet #SincePTP
A lot has happened in the world during this time. Amazing, world-changing events and breakthroughs that contrasts so starkly against our sputtering, stagnant and aging transit system, our leadership should hang their heads in shame.
Each year #SincePTP:
2002 – An entire continent got new money and the PTP came into existence
An enormous undertaking that would span the next few years, Europe’s new currency started circulating throughout the old continent on January 1st, 2002 with the issuance of 45.6 billion in freshly minted coins and printed notes. Perhaps this motivated our dear leaders in Miami to look for new money themselves.
2003 – The human genome was mapped and everything seems on track
An international team of researchers embarked on the daunting task of mapping and sequencing the entire human gene profile. The Genome Project was launched in 1999, the project was successfully completed in April of 2003. Four short years to achieve this groundbreaking accomplishment. Why wouldn’t we expect to have new Metrorail lines in Miami soon?
2004 – The largest social media platform was created. Are we still friends?
The social media phenomenon called Facebook, which currently boasts more followers than Christianity, opened its virtual doors in 2004. This is when everybody got distracted, but it was still early and plenty of digital sheep in the barn, it seemed.
2005 – HIV was cured. Yeah, Ok
Andrew Stimpson, the first medically documented case of HIV, baffled the scientific community when tests determined that he was free of the disease and declared to be cured of HIV in 2005. Suffice it to say, that we were also a little skeptical by now after paying into the PTP for four years and also coming back negative.
2006 – Pluto was demoted, we got Twitter and bus cuts?
Pluto had been considered a planet in our solar system for more than 70 years. In 2006, a few luminaries in the field of astronomy came to the conclusion it should no longer be included as such. A few days later, Jack Dorsey founded Twitter and MDT would soon rue the day. For now, Miami Dade Transit began announcing the first of several service cuts.
2007 – London to Paris in 2 Hours and 15 minutes
A massive feat of engineering connecting the British Isles to continental Europe, nicknamed the Chunnel, had been built in 1994. But, in 2007, a high-speed rail link was built to take passengers directly from London to the underwater tunnel at 186 mph. Tea with the Queen at 5 o’clock and a nightcap in Montparnasse. Miami completed its “study” of the Miami Trolley. Ugh.
2008 – A revolution in the making and excuses for the taking
A mysterious figure by the name of Satoshi Nakamoto publishes the Bitcoin whitepaper and takes the world by storm with his peer-to-peer cryptocurrency that will change the way currency works. Meanwhile the financial crisis gives Miami Dade officials all the excuses they will use in the coming years to deflect responsibility for the expansion of transit.
2009 – Barack Obama becomes POTUS and now it’s all just politics
Obama, the first black President, was also the first communist president. At least, that’s what the Cuban community in Miami believed. Wealthy, privileged people in Coral Gables actually took to the streets with signs and petitions to protest his healthcare reforms. The same people who oppose bike lanes in that neighborhood.
2010 – Germany pays the last of the reparations owed for WWI. Why are we still paying?
World War One ended in 1918. It took the Germans almost one hundred years to pay off the punitive debt it incurred as the loser of that terrible war. Did we, the residents of Miami Dade, lose a war? Why have we been paying into the PTP for eight years and still have nothing to show for it?
2011 – Kick the cartels and the politicians out
The townspeople of Cherán, Michoacán in Mexico decided enough was enough and took matters into their own hands. They organized and armed themselves, and told the drug cartels, the loggers who worked for them and the politicians who leached off everyone to GTFO. Today, they live in peace. Hint, hint.
2012 – Parallel universes and more perks for the tourism industry
The Higgs Boson particle is discovered by physicists at the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, proving the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe. In an equally stunning development, the Metrorail extension to Miami International Airport is completed. Just like the Higgs Boson, it changes nothing for the average resident of Miami.
2013 – 3D-printed body parts and more service cuts
Scientists print a human ear out of collagen at Cornell University, marking the first time living cells have been used in 3D printing technology and auguring a new frontier for medical science. Miami Dade County can’t print a decent bus schedule.
2014 – The tallest building in the Western hemisphere and snowbirds of a feather
One World Trade Center, built upon the ashes of the twin towers, was completed at a cost of $3.9 Billion when it was all said and done. The NY Port Authority had raised bridge tolls by 56% to cover its $1 Billion-dollar commitment to the project, but took a page out of the PTP scam and used the funds to pay for upgrades to the Interstate Transportation Network, instead.
2015 – A US Embassy in Cuba but still no train to Homestead, Florida
The resumption of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the United States was an historic event. More than 50 years had elapsed since President Eisenhower broke off relations after Fidel Castro took power; just a bit longer than the 47 years since the FEC eliminated all passenger services to South Dade.
2016 – A thousand-year-old feud resolved but we think we’re SMART
Catholic and Orthodox Churches, split since the year 1054, issue a joint declaration calling for the end to Christian persecution, wars and their millenarian schism. Meanwhile, in Miami, leaders come up with a new way to divide us and call it the SMART plan.
2017 – Saturn eats its young and we’re getting old waiting for a trolley
Thirteen years earlier, the Cassini-Huygens orbiter began its interplanetary mission and in 2017 it entered Saturn’s orbit never to leave it. It was the planned conclusion to its pioneering exploration through space. The only way to explore Miami is to get off the awful Miami Trolley and Uber to your destination.
2018 – Cloning primates in a lab might be our only hope
Chinese scientists successfully cloned monkeys at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience. Not only does this pose serious ethical questions, but it also raises a disturbing possibility for Miami politicians. To wit, does this mean they will be replaced?
2019 – Half a billion trees because we can’t stand the heat and can’t leave the kitchen
This past year, the Republic of Ireland committed to planting 440 million trees to fight climate change. It will be part of a 30-year plan to achieve carbon-neutrality by 2050. Miami needs a 1-year plan to achieve moron-immunity.
DeDe Bradley had just left the Kwik Stop with one of her six children in tow. Minutes later she was pronounced dead at the scene of yet another hit-and-run on the streets of Miami-Dade County. All of her kids, including a newborn, were now orphans. The little one with her that evening had to witness his mother fly through the air seconds after she had saved his life, pulling him back from the oncoming vehicle.
“Have a heart”, Bradley’s aunt said into the news cameras, hoping the killer was watching. “Give yourself up.”, she went on. “Think of it if it was your mom or your kids or anything like that.”
These kinds of tragedies have become so commonplace in South Florida, that the appeals to a sense of decency, which often follow, seem cliché. A lack of empathy is made even more egregious by the leniency the law affords drivers in cases of vehicular homicide.
In March of 2018, Denise March and Carlos Rodriguez were killed by a “distracted” driver. Pleading No Contest, Nicole Vanderweit, was slapped with a miniscule $1,000 dollar fine and 120 hours of community service. But, the ultimate proof that we are living in an automotive dystopia was the fact that her license was suspended for a paltry six months.
The World Health Organization calculates that 1.25 million people are killed every year as a result of car accidents, and anywhere between 20 and 50 million more are maimed or injured. 40,000 of such fatalities happen in the U.S., on average – a number that has been exceeded 3 years in a row, placing it just under suicide as a leading cause of death.
Miami-Dade County has the distinction of being the car-accident capital of Florida, itself the most car-accident-prone state in the nation. But, the greatest risk is reserved for pedestrians who brave the asphalt in Miami, which has a Pedestrian Danger Index (PDI) of 182, a full 126 points higher than the national average, making us the most lethal place in the United States to take a stroll.
The deliberate evisceration of public transit by a cohort of municipal officials and constituents so hostile to quality of life, that even bicycles are deemed a threat, has made the problem exponentially worse.
Miami is a place designed for the automobile, not people. Instead of neighborhoods we have interminable rows of cookie-cutter homes prized for the size of their garages and the landscaping of their driveways.
Daily commutes of 20 miles or more are the norm and our homes are glorified rest stops where we park our cars while we eat and go to the bathroom. Raising a family in Miami is practically impossible without a vehicle. Parents will enter into legally-binding contracts with their children before the age of 16 when they co-sign for their first car.
Everything is set up to keep you driving. Good luck dating in Miami without a car. Your friends will stop calling you if you always need a ride somewhere. The bus? That’s for poor people. That’s what grandma use to take back in Cuba or whatever place this place is supposed to be so much better than. The third world. Get a car. Un Transportation, they’ll tell you.
With very few exceptions, Miamians fall in line. Enthusiastically, in most cases. They’ll develop an emotional attachment to their two-ton metal object. Years of subliminal conditioning from movies and peer groups will make the transition seamless; obvious, even.
The city, itself, starts to become more and more car-centric. Any vestiges of a traditional city past are destroyed and structures meant for the automobile take their place. Overtown, a once thriving community, was leveled to erect I-95 back in the 1960’s. Today, hardly anything remains in Miami that does not cater first to the car and second, if at all, to people.
What’s left is an inhospitable ode to consumerism. The ruins of city life have become fetishized by developers who swoop in and build fake, city-like enclaves over areas decimated by decades of economic stagnation in a process called “gentrification”.
Brickellistas in the Midst
Teeming with young professionals, multi-million-dollar high rise condos and a brand-spanking new luxury retail mall, the “financial” district of Miami features what is considered to be a vibrant social scene. Look more closely and what you’ll find is more akin to a mining town from the old West, albeit without the dirt floors and swankier bars.
In fact, boomtowns are the blueprint for the modern American city, which aren’t really cities at all. Like those ad-hoc settlements where miners and journeymen settled for a time, Brickell was built to extract the earnings of its residents through alcohol and marginal forms of entertainment during their off-hours. Mere blocks from Brickell, which is undergoing a new development phase, the store and restaurant-windows of the abandoned boom town gather dust.
Mana Construction signs hang from virtually every awning along Flagler Street in the heart of the city. The development company has been buying up property in Downtown for a few years now. A sort-of real estate futures play betting on the area’s projected revival. Ostensibly, the new Brightline terminal, along with the eventual completion of “Miami World Center” will produce the economic equivalent of a Narcan shot to the practically dead city core.
Meanwhile, the Main Public Library hosts more indigents than students, the stench of feces and urine will assault your senses on every other downtown block and the historic Olympia theater clings to life between vacant lots, mocking the rare passerby with a sign that welcomes them to the “New Downtown”.
The contrast between these two areas, separated by a 50-yard stretch of the Miami River couldn’t be starker. But, there is nothing fundamentally different. Neither hosts a community of any kind. They’re just two shopping malls. One reflects the fruits of a recent capital infusion; the other sits abandoned, awaiting the laundered billions to materialize.
No Place Like Home
In the throes of America’s Westward expansion, a man whose biggest claim to fame would come as a result of his allegorical criticism of the robber barons in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, L. Frank Baum was the editor of the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer when he wrote a screed in support of the genocide of Native Americans just five days after the massacre at Wounded Knee:
The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe those untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.
It is in the insane words of a Dakota Territories Settler, that we find the seed of the modern American city, enshrining within it the mentality that gave birth to a certain demographic of the modern American citizenry. The persistent pattern of village razing and development at the center of so much of this nation’s economy, innocuously referred to as the boom and bust real estate cycle, is nothing more than a manifestation of the colonial mind.
Perhaps no other city in the world suffers from a higher frequency of these unnatural cycles than Miami. The frenetic pace of development, redevelopment, house flipping and everything in between makes us shed more skin than a python in the Everglades.
The chances of anyone in Miami growing up in the same house are quite low for the vast majority of the cash-poor and underpaid population. What’s more, the chances of growing into adulthood and being able to find your childhood home may be just as slim. In all likelihood, your memories have been trounced by bulldozers and replaced with a parking lot.
Nothing lasts half a generation in Miami. Everything is always new, unfamiliar and on the chopping block. For converts of the church of free market economics, this is the way things should be. Consumer demand should dictate life on earth. Continuity is a luxury only the very rich can afford. The rest of us should be left at the mercy of their tornado of market-induced indifference and pining for home like Dorothy in the middle of the desert.
The King has no Brakes
The automobile is ever present in the American experience, like a clue to the pathology of escapism embedded in so many other of its “pastimes”. Cloaked in phony euphemistic descriptors like “social mobility” and “freedom”, the car is driving us off the edge of a cliff.
In Miami, much of the public transit conversation centers around traffic and finding solutions to the inevitable gridlock of more and more cars on the street. But, the issue is much more profound. In a place like Miami, where car-ownership is a requirement for socio-economic viability in virtually every sense, our lack of public transit is an attack against human being-ness.
When you don’t have a choice but to own a car and drive it every single day, that is not freedom. That is not social mobility. It is the very opposite. Your freedom – in its most basic and real sense – has been subsumed under a paradigm that requires you to carry a massive financial burden and unacceptable levels of stress as you try to not die or kill someone on the road each time you get in a vehicle.
It’s no wonder people don’t stop after hitting a mother of six on her way out of the convenience store. Human beings are not supposed to be in a position where daily routine poses a fatal risk to other human beings. The driver who killed DeDe Bradley is as much a victim as she was. Nicole Vanderweit shouldn’t have to be in a position in which a momentary lapse of attention results in the death of two people.
But this is where we live. What do we call such a place? This isn’t a city. It’s some sort of big roadside motel. A place to crash, at best.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Alejandra Agredo, a budding transit activist who, perhaps, would have been free to pursue other dreams if we didn’t need someone like her in a place like this.
FILE PHOTO: Marcelo Claure, COO SoftBank Group, CEO SoftBank Latin America, CEO SoftBank International
2020 is Hindsight
Miami-Dade County Mayor, Carlos Gimenez, knew what he was doing when he posed on the Metrorail platform for his 2016 re-election campaign ad promising “More Rail” in bold, white letters. Only days removed from the $76 million-dollar gift he wrapped himself for the private luxury train company, soon-to-be renamed Virgin Trains, we can look back and see that “Metro” was purposefully omitted from the advertising copy.
The move was fraught with political blowback and could have cost him critical support in the Commission had he tried to ram this through earlier. Calculating as ever, he waited until the tail end of his term-limited reign to pull this stunt. As rumors swirl about where Gimenez plans to land after his disastrous tenure in County government, he leaves no doubt where he plans to butter his bread.
Brightline’s imminent re-branding is designed to take advantage of Richard Branson’s name recognition, despite the fact that the eccentric billionaire is only a minority shareholder in Brightline, itself owned by Florida East Coast Industries (FECI) and operated by All Aboard Florida, a subsidiary of the latter. All of these, in turn, are owned by Fortress Investment Group, which took more than $3 million dollars from then Governor Rick Scott and wife, Ann, under whose name the Scotts keep most of their largely undisclosed fortune.
Scott claims his multi-million dollar investment was made to a separate division of the New York-based Fortress in “an unrelated debt-financing fund” with no stake in the “success or failure” of Brightline. Scott’s word, of course, is worth less than the all-purpose bond paper in tray #1 of the leased copy machine at Fortress’ Manhattan headquarters. He was the one who killed Obama’s bullet train project, proposed by his Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, as he received $188,000 in campaign funds from the company that operates what is today the only privately-owned passenger rail system in the country. His Chief of Staff, at the time, had also been employed by FECI and Associated Press confirmed that Scott had discussed the rail project with the aid.
The Medicare fraudster, Scott, has moved on to the federal echelons of government, but has left behind mentees in South Florida who are looking after his “unrelated” investments. Carlos Gimenez has been the lead dog for the ransacking of public funds by private profits in Miami-Dade County, of which the Aventura Brightline station is just the latest example. He is not alone, however, and it is not a new phenomenon in Miami; a long-time stronghold of plantation-style politics. What is new are the players behind the scenes.
SoftBank acquired Fortress Investment Group in 2017 and has outright ownership or controlling shares in what seems like a thousand other concerns. The massive holding company is owned by Japanese multi-billionaire Masayoshi Son, who boasts of having a vision for his company extending 300 hundred years into the future. Megalomaniacal projections, aside, Son has amassed an impressive portfolio of investments in technology startups that span the globe, which are eventually rolled into SoftBank’s $100 billion “Vision Fund” when they are sufficiently mature. Once there, the goal is to fuse their operations into some sort of symbiotic, multinational tech-based empire.
The Vision Fund’s largest investor is none other than the Saudi Royal family, whose $45 billion-dollar contribution played a determining factor in a recent power tussle at the top of SoftBank’s executive hierarchy involving its two highest officers. Marcelo Claure, Son’s “hand-picked” COO for SoftBank Group, tried to insinuate himself into a lead operating role of the Vision Fund by displacing incumbent Rajeev Misra. But, his takeover bid was nixed by the Saudis whose relationship with the London-based banker and SoftBank board member, Misra, predates their investment.
Claure had put a team together called the SoftBank Operating Group, with expertise in “building companies, improving performance and managing key support tasks like government relations”, which he intended to bring with him to lead the “synergies” of companies in the Vision Fund. While Claure had Son’s blessing, he nonetheless saw his ambitions thwarted by the Saudi-backed Misra and his team. Son offered the Bolivian entrepreneur an alternative: Take his 40-man team to the Vision Fund, but work under Rajeev Misra.
Not one to be bossed around, Claure declined the offer and assumed a diminished role in the company, returning to where he had reached his highest peak as an independent business owner before Masayoshi Son had bought out Claure’s telecom startup, Brightstar, and placed him at the helm of Sprint, a company he is credited with saving from certain extinction. Back in Miami after his Vision Fund debacle, Claure heads SoftBank Latin America, as well as continuing as SoftBank Group’s Chief Operating Officer. In addition, Claure oversees operations of Boston Dynamics, ARM Holdings, Sprint, Fortress Investment Group and his original cell phone distributor, Brightstar, as CEO of SoftBank Group International.
His return to South Florida is really just academic, since his interests and those he represents never actually left. SoftBank’s stake in Miami is vast and cuts through the very fabric of this city and the region, in general. From Uber, to WeWork; from the saga of Miami FC and Beckham’s Soccer stadium complex to Brightline, SoftBank is making a play to buy us out with our own money through their proxies in the City, County, State and even Federal government, led by the luckiest business man ever to walk the face of the earth.
Raúl Marcelo Claure’s mother always knew that her second-born would turn out to be a great entrepreneur. The clues were plain to see even as a young boy. “As a six-year old,” she recalled, “he was selling marbles in the schoolyard by the case”. His father, René Claure, had hauled the family across the world as his career as a geologist for the United Nations Development Group demanded.
His first lucky break came on the heels of his graduation from Bentley College in Massachusetts where he’d earned a BS in business economics. The 21-year old was flying back to La Paz, though some accounts say he was on a flight to Quito, Ecuador. In any case, the legend goes, he happened to find out Guido Loayza, the man who had just been chosen to lead the Bolivian Soccer Federation (FBF) was on board and convinced a fellow passenger to give up his first class seat so he could bring Loayza to sit next to him.
The rest, as they say, is history and Claure was hired on-route by Loayza to manage the Federation’s marketing affairs. Loayza himself disputes the veracity of this story, saying that he met Claure in Las Vegas during a business conference. But, those are just pesky details or the ravings of an old man with a failing memory, according to Claure.
As his continued good fortune would have it, during Loayza’s tenure, the Bolivian national squad would qualify for the first time ever to the 1994 World Cup, which was to be held – also for the first time – in the United States. Claure was put in charge of the Bolivian Soccer Federation’s marketing operations in the host country, which he knew so well.
Most English-language press accounts of Claure’s biography go no further on this part of the budding entrepreneur’s life and promptly move on to his other dates with Lady Luck. But, this is precisely the point where cracks in the story begin to emerge. Cracks that will open into deep, dark chasms as the layers of his carefully-crafted image are peeled back.
Scalping the Competition
“He [Claure] was the one who managed everything about the ticket sales”, declared then head of the Bolivian Soccer Federation (FBF), Carlos Chavez, to a Bolivian newspaper, “He set up offices prior to the World Cup in the United States and we have information at the FBF, which is known publicly” he continued, “about the 12,000 tickets that were sold”. Chavez initially made the shocking allegations on live Bolivian television, waving documents that he claimed proved Claure and his predecessor at the FBF, Guido Loayza, had embezzled over $9 million in the ticket fraud scheme.
Regarding the allegations, Claure stated that, in his capacity as International General Manager of the FBF during the 1994 World Cup, a decision had been made to purchase 12,070 tickets from FIFA in order to resell them in “Bolivia and to Bolivian fans all over the world who wished to attend the games”. According to Claure, demand was too low and they were stuck with a lot of tickets. At a certain point, he sold the remaining tickets for a lump sum to a licensed ticket vendor in Massachusetts, after FIFA advised him that he wasn’t “authorized to sell the tickets in the North American market”. The lump sum in question was never clarified by Claure, who claimed not to remember the details.
In 2012, Chavez would run, successfully, for a third term as FBF President; this time against Claure, himself, who was (and remains) President of Club Bolivia, the most popular soccer team in the Andean nation. Right in the middle of his negotiations with Masayoshi Son’s Softbank to sell his telecom startup, Brightstar, and take over as Sprint’s CEO, Claure was challenging Chavez for the FBF’s top job. He was disqualified by the voting committee since his only purpose for running was to sabotage Chavez. Claure later admitted that, had he won the election, he would have resigned the next day.
On the day of the election, police had to be called to evacuate FBF headquarters after a bomb threat was made by an anonymous phone call. But, before the committee members were removed, a strange pickup truck pulled up and launched pepper spray into the crowd, causing a panic. Chavez would make his victory speech in a different venue a few blocks away.
“I don’t blame the government because it would be irresponsible,” said Chavez with tears in his eyes from the pepper spray and a handkerchief over his mouth, “but what is obvious… is that there must have been orders from up on high behind this disgraceful act.”
Just a few years later, Chavez would find himself targeted by Loretta Lynch’s DOJ probe into FIFA corruption. He was cleared in that investigation, but separate charges were later brought against him in Bolivia in an unrelated case of illicit enrichment. Chavez was accused and convicted of diverting funds from a charity soccer match and sentenced to ten years in a Bolivian prison. He would only serve two and a half years before succumbing to cancer in 2015.
Claure had filed libel and defamation suits against Chavez in a Florida court, for some reason. But, neither his suits nor Chavez’ accusations against Claure and Loayza went anywhere, perhaps, because Chavez would be dead less than five years after first making the accusations against Claure and Loayza, who also happened to be an engineer in telecommunications and was a business associate of Claure’s in an Argentinian cellular phone venture.
It was in telecom that Claure would make his real fortune. The result of yet another fortuitous turn of events with another vague backstory attached.
Lucky Charms are for Kids
Somewhere between Boston and Worcester on Route 9, a leprechaun nudged Claure to stop at a USA Wireless store. He had just returned from Bolivia, striking out on his own after his stint at the FBF and needed a cell phone. The Venezuelan owner, as claimed, was fond of telling his customers that he detested owning the roadside location. So miserable was he as a result, that he would offer to give the store away to anyone who wanted it. What are the odds, that a young man with Claure’s connections would walk into his retail establishment and, instead of getting that flip phone that was all the rage back then, would propose to give the man selling him that phone a 45% stake in his own store if he just handed its operation over to him?
The odds are about the same as anyone confirming that story. But, that’s the story we are given of how Marcelo Claure came to own one of the largest cellular phone retail chains on the East coast of the United States. From this ‘modest’ beginning and a loan from his father, René, Claure launched Brightstar Corp in 1997, which would take the barely nascent cellular market in Latin America by storm. From $14 million in revenue that first year, by 2003, annual revenue would exceed $1 billion and the company would be operating in 16 countries selling Motorola phones to different carriers throughout Central and South America.
Even the telecom crash of 2000 left Brightstar unscathed because it was just a middle man parsing the continent’s disparate bureaucratic red tape surrounding each countries’ import/export laws, which proved too expensive for the global players to deal with themselves. This niche allowed Brightstar, which took its name from the two largest cellphone distributors of the time – CellStar and Brightpoint – to snatch virtually all of the market share in the Latin American cell phone distribution space. Claure’s success would attract the largest names in the technology universe.
In 2003, Claure was seeking $50 million in venture capital to expand operations to Asia and, he told Inc Magazine, prepare to take Brightstar public later that Summer. When it was all said and done, Claure had hauled in over $60 million in VC money at a $400 million-dollar valuation. The joint fund was comprised of Falcon Investment Advisors, Prudential Capital Group, Ramius Capital Group and Bill Gates’ Grandview Capital Management.
Claure would never actually take the company public and Forbes would list Brightstar as the 58th largest privately held corporation in the U.S. in 2012. Softbank would buy Brightstar for $1.26 billion a year later and Claure would take over Masayoshi Son’s Sprint. But, years before Claure’s successful Brightstar exit, he would join a dubious philanthropic venture with Nicolas Negroponte, founder of MIT’s notorious Media Lab to distribute $100 dollar laptops to children in developing countries.
OLPC stands for One Laptop Per Child, an idea concocted by Nicolas Negroponte, who recently made headlines for justifying MIT Media Lab’s funding by deceased suspected sex-trafficker and intelligence asset,Jeffrey Epstein. The program was billed as a way to provide millions of children in Third World countries with their own personal Wi-Fi-enabled computer devices at far-below market prices and to promote education.
Negroponte first announced his pet project at the 2005 World Economic Forum in Davos. Not very enthusiastically received, an OLPC pilot was, nevertheless, launched two years later to much fanfare and a few bloopers at a UN meeting in Tunis, Africa. Secretary General, Kofi Annan, accidentally broke off the plastic crank of the prototype he was about to show off to the attendees. The gaff would foreshadow a litany of problems, that plague the non-profit initiative to this day; chief among which was the prevailing mistrust by the program’s target countries, who immediately saw through the ostensibly noble purpose and tagged the cheap laptops as a simple profit-driven agenda with a side of subversion.
Other criticisms revolve around the actual cost of the advertised “$100” price tag, which has yet to materialize. Intel, one the original partners, launched its own version with Microsoft; other start-ups in India and elsewhere developed their own low-cost laptops. Most of Negroponte’s devices are being distributed in Latin America, which is why OLPC headquarters were moved to Miami in 2010. The hardware of the OLPC devices also include an ARM-based chip, manufactured by AMD in partnership with ARM Holdings, one SoftBank’s Vision Fund assets overseen by Marcelo Claure.
Claure, who claims to have no political ambitions in his native country, has used the OLPC laptops and his role in Club Bolivar to forge a relationship with Evo Morales. Morales, who was just re-elected for yet another term as Bolivia’s President, is a known die-hard fan of Claure’s soccer club. In 2008, Claure is reported to have met with Morales and offered to build a cellphone factory in Bolivia in exchange for an OLPC contract. Another OLPC deal in neighboring Peru mysteriously fell through after a visit by Nicolas’ brother, John Negroponte, George Bush’s Director of National Intelligence and Ambassador to Iraq in 2005.
Miami is not a soccer town and unless its majority Cuban, Dominican and assorted Afro-Caribbean population is replaced by Argentinians and Brazilians, it will never be a soccer town. Anybody who’s spent a week in the city knows that, if anything, Miami is a football town, first and a baseball town, second; there is no third. So, why has Marcelo Claure been trying to bring soccer to Miami since 2008? And why is David Beckham always involved? More importantly, why is the Mayor of the City of Miami lobbying for a ridiculously expensive, publicly-funded stadium complex as if his political life depended on it?
None of these questions have a logical answer. The most benign conclusion is that Marcelo Claure is a capricious man who just wants what he wants and, he wants a soccer team in Miami. There’s certainly some evidence of flaky self-entitlement to his personality, a trait not unheard of among the privileged classes of Latin America, where the offspring of the comparatively wealthy are accustomed to princely lifestyles, regardless of their actual means.
Robert Andrew Powell’s piece in Howler profiles Claure and reveals some of the billionaire’s less flattering proclivities, like how he left the mother of his first two children because, according to Claure, “You can get tired of someone, you know?”. But, Powell also sheds light on a similar stadium-slash-soccer team-slash-development project he proposed in Bolivia soon after taking over the President’s favorite team. Claure put forward a “three-point plan” to revitalize Club Bolivia, the most important of which was, drumroll, a condo tower that “his brother Martin would oversee”.
More relevant to the Stadium drama in Miami is Powell’s account of Claure’s first dealings with City and County officials regarding the location originally proposed for its construction; a spectacular water-front piece of real estate on Biscayne Boulevard. Notwithstanding the multiple changes of address since, the initial spot was not Claure’s or even Beckham’s idea but, according to Claure, himself, a joint proposition by the County and City of Miami Mayors. The fact that we still have the County Mayor and the City of Miami Mayor pushing for this nonsensical project, is telling. But, what really stands out from this story is that one of those Mayors has since been replaced.
At the time the above took place, Thomas Regalado was the Mayor of Miami. Francis X. Suarez, the first Miami-born Mayor, took over after the 2018 municipal elections. The County Mayor, on the other hand, is the common denominator. Once again, Carlos Gimenez appears at the center of a public money-grab tied to a curiously homogenous cast of private persons with a web of financial interests throughout Miami-Dade County.
The Ultimate Land Grab
Months after Marcelo Claure’s losing battle with Rajeev Misra over control of the Vision Fund, Masayoshi Son did something uncharacteristic. He fired the CEO of one of his many startup investments. WeWork’s co-founder, Andrew Neumann, was ousted following a private meeting with company leaders held by Son and just weeks before the “money-losing real estate venture” was about to issue its first IPO. Initially, Neumann had agreed to take a non-executive role on WeWork’s board, but it is now reported that he has accepted $1.7 billion to walk away entirely.
Masayoshi Son is now the landlord of all nine WeWork locations in Miami, which equal 493,000 square feet of real estate, after agreeing to a $11.5 billion-dollar takeover of the ailing company. But, WeWork has $47.2 billion in U.S. debt obligations and leases that cannot be terminated early. Claure will now assume greater operational control, in the hopes that he can recreate what he did with Sprint years ago. However, bankruptcy is still a very real option, in spite of SoftBank’s infusion of debt into the company.
No one must be happier about the news than Carlos Gimenez, who has been leading the charge for SoftBank to put the whole of Miami into its Saudi-funded $100 billion Vision Fund. In an email exchange obtained by the Miami Herald between Jorge Mas, one of the latest partners in the ever-changing Beckham Stadium funhouse and the County Mayor, Gimenez turns into a school girl when Mas floats the idea of meeting the elusive Masayoshi: “How can we meet him? I’m totally into the future of IA [sic]. We have to win that race.”
What race is he talking about? This is a man who is presiding over a County with the second-highest level of income inequality in the country, a cash poor population living paycheck to paycheck earning some of the lowest wages in the nation. Meanwhile, he thinks the Jetsons are coming down in flying taxis from Masayoshi Son’s private space station. The clueless County and City Commissions seem to be drinking the Kool-aide, as well, approving billion-dollar spider bridges, empty sports stadiums, Chinese casinos and high-end train for tourists.
Miami is being handed the equivalent of an OLPC contract by this stable of venture capitalists and their executive bouncers, like Claure, looking to make a quick buck at the expense of our real needs and using our tax dollars to finance their bets. The criticism levied against Negroponte’s $100 computers “as an attempt to exploit the governments of poor nations by making them pay for hundreds of millions of machines and the need of further investments into internet infrastructure” is just as applicable to the machinations of SoftBank in concert with our government officials and their unsolicited bids for a multi-million-dollar stadium complex and a train stop for a private “transit” venture with an exit strategy.
In the same email chain published by the Herald, Mas seems giddy over the possibility that SoftBank Latin America could build its headquarters in Miami. “It would be transformational for our economy”, gushed Mas. But, when people like Mas and his good buddy, Carlos Gimenez, are singing a company’s praises, we can be sure “our economy” means their economy.
There are, however, broader questions surrounding the ubiquitous presence of SoftBank and Mr. Claure in Miami. Especially, when their biggest cheerleaders are the usual suspects of South Florida’s circle of rightwing reactionaries who never saw a U.S.-sponsored regime-change operation in Latin America they didn’t like. From Rick Scott who has been front-and-center at all of Trump’s visits to Miami promoting the largely failing Guaidó op in Venezuela and other interventions against regional governments who are venturing too far outside of American party line; to Miami-Dade Mayoral candidate, Esteban “Steve” Bovo, whose wife flew down to Cúcuta, Colombia with Marco Rubio for the occasion of Richard Branson’s laughable anti-Maduro “concert” on the border with Venezuela, which tried and failed to smuggle weapons under the guise of humanitarian aid. Bovo, curiously enough, is in Japan right now on a family “vacation”.
Guido Loayza, the man who gave Marcelo Claure his first break, described the SoftBank COO’s personality as “friendly, like a rich person’s dog.” The billionaire executive has certainly been given a lot of responsibilities. His job description could run several pages long and that’s not even counting his MLS and Club Bolivia’s ostensible obligations. How much time is he actually dedicating to any of it?
Other dissonant factors surrounding Claure’s public image are his random comments in support of left-leaning ideas, such as his praise of MLS’ structure as being “communist”, and, therefore, better than other Soccer leagues, like the English Premiere League with their top-heavy ownership. Claure even caught some slack from Miami politicians four years ago after he Tweeted a photo of Che Guevara’s monument in Havana while he was in Cuba on business, forcing David Beckham, himself, to engage in some damage control for his project’s sake. It’s unclear how sincere any of his appeals to socialist concepts really are, considering his family’s station in Bolivia.
The Claure family name is mentioned among other Bolivian elites who belong to the South American nation’s powerful agro-industrial sector and have been the direct beneficiaries of Bolivia’s violently repressive, U.S.-backed dictators. Among the most notorious was Hugo Banzer, who rose to power in 1971 in a coup orchestrated by those same families and significant U.S. logistical and financial support, which was looking to protect the interests of American corporations in the country, like U.S. Steel and others.
But, Bolivia also represents a strategically vital component of America’s broader intentions in the continent, as a whole. Bordering Brazil, Peru, Paraguay, Chile and Argentina, Bolivia is at the center of all the action in South America and it is part of the reason the United States has historically been very involved in that country’s affairs. The rise of Evo Morales has upset the balance of power in the region, not to mention the country itself.
Bolivia’s propertied classes have been trying unsuccessfully to regain power. Morales’ popularity makes a democratic solution untenable, as the recent election and every other since Evo’s victory in 2003 has proved.
Marcelo Claure, scion of the Bolivian elites, is overseeing what is probably the largest investment portfolio of Latin America from Miami; courted by the most radically conservative, anti-communist, anti-socialist, pro-interventionist community in the United States. At the same time, he has a reportedly forged a close relationship with one of their ideological arch-enemies in Evo Morales.
There’s definitely something rotten in Denmark, which – ironically – may be the only place on the planet where SoftBank has not invested.
If you were to call Charles de Ganahl Koch a Nazi to his face, you’d probably get escorted out of wherever you are by a member of his large security detail. But, you wouldn’t be very far from the truth. While his views on socialism or anything approaching the communist ideology are more than clear, the tacit approval of fascist ideology that runs in the family is less well-known.
In 1932, as told in a Koch-commissioned family history, Fred Koch collected $500,000 for building 15 oil refineries for Joseph Stalin, forming the backbone of the Soviet Union’s petroleum industry. The contract had been won through a referral, of sorts, after the senior Koch had helped build one in Great Britain with his future son’s namesake and mentor, Charles de Ganahl. Fred continued to provide technical assistance as the Soviets went on to build 100 more. The family-approved lore leaves this last detail out, contending Fred Koch’s distaste for the communist regime led him to renounce all future involvement.
An eight-year gap is left in the official Koch story, but various independent accounts have him traveling to Hitler’s Germany from 1933 onwards. According to archival records unearthed by Jane Mayer in her seminal book, Dark Money, Winkler-Koch Engineering of Wichita – Fred’s company – “provided the engineering plans and began overseeing the construction of a massive oil refinery” in Hamburg. The company that hired Koch’s firm was led by American Nazi sympathizer, William Rhodes Davis, who met with Hitler himself to secure the deal. Completed in 1935, the refinery had the capability to produce the high-octane fuel German Nazi war planes required.
Fred had a real soft spot for the Third Reich and the other fascist regimes. Just before hostilities broke out in ‘39, Fred Koch decried America’s “dependence on government” and expressed his wish that the “course of idleness, feeding at the public trough” he saw as an affliction the United States could “overcome”. Perhaps it was this desire to correct the nation’s “course” that inspired him to bring a fervently pro-Hitler, German governess to rear his two first-born sons, Freddie and Charles. The boys were subjected to the nurse’s rather harsh methods, which included force-feeding and enemas for much of their early years until she returned to Germany of her own accord in 1940.
Physical, emotional and psychological abuse in the Koch household was the price Fred Koch exacted from his offspring for being born. The patriarch was known to let his rage loose on them with tree branches and belts. A family member witnessed the “twins” get “whipped like dogs” after disturbing some rocks in a stone patio. For Freddie Koch, the eldest son, life offered more than this and he would never participate in the family business, choosing instead a career in the arts and a close relationship with his mother. Charles, on the other hand, would rationalize it as the actions of a man trying to instill a “work ethic” in him.
Younger brothers, Bill and David, would round out the Koch heir pool. But, Charles would prevail in the end wresting control from Bill who would challenge him in court before accepting a multi-billion-dollar buyout. David would assume a subordinate role, preferring to indulge in his Manhattan lifestyle, but still own half of Koch Industries. Eventually, he would join his older brother in pursuance of their shared goal to bring government to heel wherever their interests were threatened.
Scorched Earth Freedom
At the center of the fossil fuel barons’ nightmares was what Lew Ward, chairman of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, called “The radical environmentalist ‘off-oil’ agenda”. In 1997, when the Koch-connected and former Oklahoma oil man said this to a room-full of colleagues, the scientific consensus had already arrived at the conclusion, that 80% of the word’s fossil fuel reserves had to remain in the ground if we were to make it to 2050 with tolerable temperatures. Such warnings represented a death knell to an industry dominated by mostly private, but fabulously wealthy hands with a long tradition of bucking government regulation.
Historically and for obvious reasons, this powerful faction had maintained their position in the pecking order despite blatant anti-government stances and even public expressions of the racism, like that of Texas oil magnate Hugh Roy Cullen who, in defiance of FDR’s policies decided create a new political party promulgating “the restoration of the supremacy of the White race”. His grandson, Corbin Robertson Jr., a prominent member of the Koch network, owns one of the largest coal caches in the country, second only to that held by the government of the United States.
A full list of Koch’s donor network is yet to be compiled, but Jane Mayer’s tour de force accounting of this massive subversive political operation, provides a comprehensive sample that gives us a clear image of the scope and reach it has. The players are not limited to the fossil fuel industry either. Sheldon Adelson of the Las Vegas Sands casino empire and Stephen Schwarzman of the embattled Wall Street hedge fund, Blackstone Group are only two of the enormously influential characters with whom Charles Koch has partnered with to face off increasing pressure from a planet, which can no longer support the activities they profit from.
Koch was already years ahead of Lew Ward’s admonitions in the late 90’s, having poured millions of dollars to political front groups, foundations and think tanks dedicated to the Oligarch’s cause. But, the new century would, indeed mark a stronger push by the richest men in the country to put a stop to the “siege” their extractive industries were under.
We’re Not in Kansas Anymore
Koch’s political machinery was hard at work mounting attacks on what he and Henry Manne had identified as their number one enemy all those years ago and which Ward had warned against in his retirement speech at the IPAA. The environmental movement, in the mind of the fossil fuel oligarchy, was nothing more than an attempt by an entrenched government bureaucracy to restrict their property rights and rescind the divine edict passed down by the gods of “free markets” to devastate any ecosystem in the name of profit.
Foremost in their sights was the EPA; the single government agency they despised above all others. Taking it down required a long term strategy, which Charles Koch embraced. In concert with the vast array of think tanks and political lobbying organizations masquerading as foundations, as well as straight forward lobbying efforts, the Koch network went about the work to overturn, subvert or neutralize any environmentally-friendly legislation.
In Washington D.C., Koch Industry lobbyists were not only among the most active, but also among the most numerous. In a time when 90% of U.S. corporations did not employ one full time lobbyist, Koch Industries had five full time lobbyists who were industry leaders in their own right, fighting the company’s top issues: chemical safety, rate billing and tax rates. The bigger operation, however, was happening at the state level where Koch through ALEC and other groups like Americans for Prosperity (AFP) were pushing through legislation and even candidates favorable to their anti-environmental aims.
One of the most salient examples was the fight to reverse Kansas’ renewable energy mandates passed by the state legislature in 2009. Koch and friends zeroed in on state lawmakers two years later, sending Cato Institute scholars and other “heavy hitters” to testify about the “damaging” effects of wind power on the economy and other critiques of the mandate, which had been adopted as a compromise to the construction of a coal fired plant.
Republican Kansas state senator, Dennis Hedke, a geophysicist who had done consulting work for the oil and natural gas industry was the chairman of the House Energy and Environment Committee pushed a bill in 2013 to repeal the renewable energy mandate. The bill had been crafted by ALEC, which Hedke put forward with a few modifications. Parallel to this, Koch dumped $50,000 in the local primary races – a huge amount for the mostly rural state. The money was used to run negative ad campaigns against opponents, while the Koch-picked candidates were advised to simply stay home.
Hedke’s repeal passed in 2015 and, by then, Koch had managed to fill the Kansas state house with Koch Industry drones. Republican Senator Tom Moxley had joined the legislature in 2007 and sat in the same Energy and Environment Committee Hedke chaired. Himself a climate change skeptic, Moxley had changed his views after reading the science and, after witnessing the underhanded tactics used by the Koch network to defeat the bill and flip the house, he retired in disgust.
These same moves were executed in over a dozen states by the same Koch funded institutions and political operatives. Ohio and West Virginia passed similar bills against renewable energy. In these particular cases, the bills were not even modified from the drafts written by Koch-funded Heartland Institute and presented by ALEC. Through these machinations, Koch managed to redraw the country’s political map, setting the stage for the coup de grace in 2016.
There’s no such thing as an outsider in American politics. No matter how seemingly removed from the established order an individual in either of the two sanctioned parties might be, a network of sponsors must exist behind the scenes to put wind in the sails of any prospective candidate for public office. Donald Trump, despite claims of being beyond the reach of special interests because of his wealth, is no exception. Certainly, no one can reach the highest office in the land, beset as it is by a multiplicity of foreign and domestic policy issues, without a powerful coterie of intensely interested patrons.
Charles Koch had been working, greasing and diverting the political pipelines for decades by the time Donald Trump ran roughshod over the Republican Party and captured the electoral victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016. A narrative was quickly spread about Koch’s distaste for the New York real estate developer and media personality. Rumors of the billionaire brothers balking at Trump’s veiled, derisive references to their donor network fundraisers helped the NBC reality star appear to be a kind of anti-establishment, anti-oligarch maverick. Trump’s running mate would have been a red flag for anyone entertaining such ideas, if the Manhattan billionaire’s own status wasn’t a clear enough indication of the opposite.
Mike Pence was closely aligned with Koch’s Americans for Prosperity as Congressman and later Governor of the state of Indiana. Just six months into the new Trump administration, Charles Koch took an unscheduled, hour-long private meeting with Pence in Colorado where the fossil fuel baron, the Vice President and a few staffers discussed the President’s legislative agenda and, significantly, strategies to take after the midterm elections, which they already foresaw being a ‘blue wave’.
As Trump filled cabinet positions, Koch’s hand was more than visible to anyone with eyes to see. Rex Tillerson’s appointment as Secretary of State, while not directly tied to Koch Industries was, nevertheless, a blatant gift to the oil industry, in general. But, once Tillerson exited he was replaced with a Koch politician through and through in Mike Pompeo who was a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee during the 112th Congress during Obama’s second term, when Republicans took control after the 2010 midterms.
Pompeo was then a freshman Republican from Wichita, Kansas, home of Koch Industries. Known as the “congressman from Koch”, Pompeo not only received funding for his political campaigns from Koch, but for his own aerospace company, as well. The future Director of the CIA even poached Koch’s lobbying team to find his Chief of Staff, Mark Chenoweth.
The Republican-controlled Committee featuring Pompeo had signed a “No Climate Tax” pledge invented by Americans for Prosperity. 156 Republican house members would go on to sign the same pledge and initiate the attack on their donors’ nemesis, the EPA, by taking away 27% of the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget.
The radical transformation Koch and his cadre of billionaires had carried out in the nation’s political landscape was beginning to reach critical mass. The red lines their policy think tanks and front groups had drawn across the country had delivered a whole new species of politician to the halls of state and municipal power and, in turn, to the floor of the U.S. Congress. The next step was 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Destroying the EPA
The plan to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency would take six years to complete, according to David Schnare, the man tasked with putting it together. Schnare was a part of Trump’s EPA transition team, which also included AFP organizer, Charles Muñoz, senior research fellow at Weyrich’s Heritage Foundation and outspoken EPA opponent and climate change denier, Myron Ebell.
Schnare’s 47-page “Agency Action Plan” was a veritable wish list of the fossil fuel industry: elimination of the Clear Act Greenhouse Gas regulations, rescinding of federal fuel efficiency standards known as the CAFE standards and the end of Clean Coal laws. As for the agency itself, it would be broken up and its functions assigned to other agencies or ignored altogether.
Trump’s initial pick to lead the EPA, Scott Pruitt, was yet another creature of the oil interests. Attorney General of Oklahoma where oil reigned supreme, Pruitt ultimately proved to be to incompetent to see the job through and resigned a year later. His replacement, and EPA Administrator to this day, is former Coal industry lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler.
Koch Industries had been pegged as the largest toxic waste producer in the United States, responsible for 950 million pounds of hazardous material in 2012 alone. The company emitted the equivalent of 5 million cars a year in greenhouse gas pollution. Koch boasted of its “10,000%” compliance policy throughout its huge, cross-industry private corporation, but evidence of it is scant and often contradicted by the public record.
In 1998, the MPCA (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency) fined Koch $6.9 million for pollution from the Pine Bend refinery. An additional $11.5 million followed after federal criminal charges were brought against the company. One of Koch’s own employees, whose job it was to make sure the refinery was abiding by the clean water laws, had to blow the whistle on Koch after they tried to silence her when she tried to report the violations.
New Money, Old Game
The FBI’s case in the Osage murder investigation in the 1920’s revealed a plot so evil, that it transfixed the whole nation when the details were published in the biggest newspapers and projected on the earliest movie screens as news reels. William K. Hale had built a solid reputation in the Osage community as a stand-up citizen purporting to protect the interests and livelihoods of the Native Americans in this corner of Midwest America, who were sitting on a fortune beneath their feet. The people looked up to this White man as a beacon of righteousness and integrity.
When it was discovered that he had masterminded the cold-blooded assassination of several Osage Indians in a plot to secure their headrights, worth millions of dollars, his name and face would become synonymous with the devil himself for the descendants of the Osage tribe. The satanic scheme was not limited to Hale, however, and while the FBI would never pursue any of the other leads in the epidemic of Osage murders, subsequent investigations have shown that dozens of other ‘masterminds’ and accomplices were killing hundreds of Osage Indians during this period in order to take over their oil fortunes.
The murderous “Indian business”, as it was called by the perpetrators themselves, reached high up the social ladder. Far beyond the relatively limited capabilities of a former ranch hand like W.K. Hale. But, Hale was enough for J. Edgar Hoover to establish himself as the nation’s top law enforcer. After all, the case was sensational enough to grab the public’s attention and peddle a reassuring tale of good triumphing over evil. But, the truth was that nobody really cared much about Native American lives and the 12 years Hale served of the “life sentence” he received for the single murder he was convicted of was more than most would have expected in those days.
A similar game, on a far larger scale, is being played out today with the calls for “liberty” and “free-markets” by the billionaire Koch network, posing as defenders of the everyman and patriots who seek only the best for America, have angled to trick an increasingly exploited and economically insecure population into supporting policies that, in the long run, cause us all irreparable harm.
The truth of their self-serving greed will make itself evident in its own time, much as it did when a repentant Koch oil gauger, unbeknownst to him, struck up a conversation with a relative of the very first victim in the Osage murder saga. Charles Whitehorn was shot between the eyes for his oil wealth and his corpse left rotting on a hill over a mile north of Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Osage Chief, Dudley Whitehorn, sat with the former Koch employee as his car was being repaired at a local gas station. “We did steal from you”, the remorseful man admitted.
From the time Charles Koch took control of the company his father built, he declared war on the working class. The most profitable asset in Koch Industries’ early years was the Pine Bend refinery, whose massive profitability was made possible by several extraneous factors including its geographical location, government policy on the importation of Canadian crude, loopholes in the Clean Air Act and government subsidies. It also had the benefit of being run by a highly-skilled, unionized workforce that was operating the plant before Koch acquired it in full.
The local chapter of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, OCAW 6-662, had negotiated the framework for the conditions of their employment at the Pine Bend refinery between the 50’s and 60’s. The OCAW was a powerful union in a heavily unionized state, buttressed by interlocking loyalty oaths with other big unions like the Teamsters. But, the livelihoods of working class families and backbone of the local economy were not part of Charles Koch’s plans to streamline his business and within months of acquisition, he hired Bernard Paulson to take the union down.
Paulson had been managing Costal Oil & Gas down in Corpus Christi, Texas when Koch brought him on board to Minnesota specifically for his expertise in dealing with organize labor. Paulson started at Pine Bend in 1971 and only months later, in the early Spring of ‘72, he laid out his first trap. He scheduled OCAW local president, Joseph Hammerschimdt, to work on Easter Sunday knowing full well the irascible leader of the proud chapter would refuse. Paulson fired Hammerschmidt on the spot declaring war on the union.
The OCAW local’s contract was set to expire in the Fall of 1972 and when negotiations started, it was Hammerschmdit himself, in his capacity of chapter president, who was sitting across Paulson when the latter presented him with the new work rules rewritten by Koch Industries. Take it or leave it, Paulson informed the outraged OCAW representatives. In January, 1973, the men walked off the job and went on strike.
Paulson had already gone over the strategy with his boss and immediately put a non-union “skeleton crew” to work in the posts vacated by the OCAW workforce. He put a cot in his office, stockpiled food and ordered the cafeteria remain open 24 hours. Koch’s union-buster was hunkering down for the long haul, but the bad omens didn’t wait to make their appearance. On the very first night of the strike, a large furnace that superheated oil exploded after leaks failed to be detected over the previous several hours.
Two months later, a saboteur pushed the throttle on a train diesel engine parked near the refinery, which had tracks running through the middle of it. Tragedy was averted by the derailing mechanism and the engine flipped over before crashing into the very large and very flammable refinery stacks and gasoline tanks. Incredibly, no one was killed in either incident.
As the strike dragged on, Paulson was able to leverage Koch Industries’ extensive contract work needs to induce the Teamsters to break the picket line. Teamster drivers accepted to carry out Koch’s deliveries in the midst of the strike, severely weakening the OCAW’s position.
After nine months, the strike ended with the union accepting a far less favorable deal than the one they once had. Charles Koch emerged victorious and imposed new work rules like mandatory overtime and a laughable grievance process that settled any successful claims by allotting overtime so workers could “earn” back the money they were owed. In addition, skill-based assignments were eliminated altogether; foreshadowing a developing trend in American workplaces that demanded wage laborers carry out tasks they were not necessarily trained to do.
A Future for Nobody
Koch’s contempt for workers would become a feature of their management style and as Charles Koch made inroads into the legal system to further erode workers’ rights, the company’s ability to impose onerous working conditions on its many factory floors became that much easier.
The 2003 acquisition of Farmland’s fertilizer plants revealed as much and crystallized the reality that had by then fully manifested as a result of the American oligarchy’s efforts to return to the days of robber barons and corporate monopolies.
Farmland Industries was a hugely successful co-op owned by thousands of farm families, which had thrived for three quarters of a century. They all shared in the profits and voted on the decisions that affected the business. Koch president, Dean Watson, derided the cooperative as “socialism” during the acquisition process. The bastion of modern agriculture had suffered a reversal of fortune during the natural gas shortage in the 90’s, forcing them to auction off their immensely profitable fertilizer plants.
Koch was already a large producer of a key component in industrial fertilizer, nitrogen. The purchase of Farmland’s network of fertilizer plants, which ran all along the corn belt between Iowa and Nebraska, was completed for the relatively paltry sum of $290 million dollars and put Koch at the center of America’s agricultural universe. The co-op model was summarily dismissed as Koch executives took over Farmland headquarters and asserted control over yet another vital aspect of American life.
Not content with this, Koch also flexed their political muscle to deregulate the energy markets themselves, putting them in a position to profit from virtually every link in the chain of basic necessities and holding it hostage to market forces.
Opening the Gates of Hell
Joseph Coors, of the brewing family fortune, wrote a letter to his senator, Republican Gordon Allot, after reading the Powell memo with a seemingly unlimited offer to fund “conservative causes”. Allot’s press aide was a man by the name of Paul Weyrich who immediately took advantage of the wealthy man’s generosity and founded The Heritage Foundation with Edwin Feulner Jr., a graduate of Wharton.
Both men had been intent on creating a policy-crafting organization that wouldn’t shy away from pushing legislation directly, as most think tanks did. Originally named Analysis and Research Association, the political influence operation grew to become the only outside organization allowed to caucus with members of Congress. The same year that The Heritage Foundation opened its doors in 1973, Weyrich created the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC, with the purpose of mounting legislative battles at the state level around the country. Most of ALEC’s funding came from Richard Mellon Scaife’s foundation, but would eventually count on much Koch money, too.
Koch became a key supporter of ALEC’s national push to deregulate the energy markets, putting his men on the task forces put together by the organization. ALEC’s “model bills” were introduced to many states with barely any modifications and greatly helped Koch Industries partake of the massive fraud that the new energy markets afforded companies like theirs. Pushing the changes along with Koch on ALEC’s task forces were representatives of Enron, which ended up taking the brunt of the press coverage when the chickens came home to roost.
Koch had been trading in the commodities market for years prior. In 1983, when NYMEX introduced oil futures contracts, Koch was well-positioned to take advantage of the seismic change this represented for the way oil was traded on the open market. Ron Howell, the man who years later carried out the fake audit of the Osage leases on Koch’s behalf, was then the head of the company’s oil trading division.
He would retire just two years later in 1985, but not before observing how things were about change. “It was the first time that there was a […] visible market signal for the price of oil”, he told Kochland author, Christopher Leonard. Until then, the price of oil was set over the phone between traders themselves; privately and far away from anyone not intimately involved in the industry. These were also real trades, in that the seller had to deliver the oil to the buyer. Koch had the advantage over independent traders because they already owned the oil and could execute delivery themselves. Oil contract futures, on the other hand, opened the door to the entire financial sector.
The NYMEX price of oil wasn’t the real price of oil. It was a bet on what the price of oil would be at some point in the future and Koch had built an intelligence-gathering operation on its own private trading floor that rivaled anything found in Langley, Virginia. Koch used data gleaned from every other division in their company; they utilized any data they could pry from competitors; they scoured news stories for information and even had a stable of the best meteorologists in the business to get a jump on weather patterns to predict consumption trends.
Charles Koch would bring all of it under one roof as Koch Supply & Trading after George W. Bush broke up the natural gas companies in 2001, spurring the fossil fuel giant to assume the management of the nation’s natural gas infrastructure. The potential profits promised by the new structure separating gas sellers from distributors and consumers were made even more attractive by the invention of yet another financial instrument: derivatives.
Unlike oil futures, which – while deferred – still required delivery of the asset, derivatives were pure bets based on the underlying value of the asset but without actual delivery of the asset at any stage of the transaction. Clinton’s Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 would keep derivatives away from any regulation, setting the stage for the collapse of the financial system just eight years later. In the meantime, the derivatives market exploded and Koch was in perfect position to take full advantage.
Hoarding the Light
The whole Y2K “panic” would become the subject of much ridicule after the absurd warnings of a computer glitch apocalypse failed to materialize. But, behind the scenes, the new millennium was teeming with multi-millionaires and billionaires across corporate America frothing at the mouth about what many of them knew was coming.
Coupled with the recently deregulated energy markets and new financial instruments around oil and gas, the Kochs and the Enrons of the world could see what regular people couldn’t possibly imagine. These “titans of industry” had the inside track on the country’s consumption patterns. They knew people were buying more computers, gadgets and devices as the roll out of the Internet reached critical mass and that, as a result energy consumption was about to skyrocket.
One trader at Koch Supply & Trading spotted the trend early on in 2000. Brendan O’Neil started buying natural gas options as soon as an unusual cold snap made gas prices spike in the Spring of that year. O’Neil, like his peers, knew that major gas shortages were on the horizon. By December, the price of natural gas stood at $10.48, up from $2.88 in March. He alone would make Koch $70 million on the gas trades. His team, only one of many at the Houston offices, delivered $400 million to Koch’s coffers. Koch Gateway, the pipeline division, which actually delivered the gas to the buyers made only $15.3 million that year.
The artificial run up in gas prices caused rolling blackouts, store and factory closures, even car accidents from failing traffic lights around the country. But, it was clear to Koch where the biggest source of profits lay. So it was only logical that they would pour more money and effort into creating other speculative markets for the assets they already owned.
The obvious target was electricity. Paul Weyrich’s ALEC would take on the work of selling legislators around the country on the idea of an electricity market throughout the 1990’s and it would eventually take hold in several states, but none more disastrously than in California where a liberal Democrat state senator passed the bill that created the California Power Exchange (CPE).
The “megawatt-hour” was born. Equivalent to one hour of electricity needed to power 330 homes, it was the basic unit to be bought and sold on the exchanges and the national market value was calculated to be about $215 billon dollars. The CPE was set up in a way to allow the price of electricity to float with market conditions, but capped the amount Utilities could charge the end-consumer. To protect consumers from being left without power in the event no electricity was being bought on the exchange, an emergency authority called the California Independent System Operator (ISO) was created, whose sole purpose was to buy any shortfall in electricity the market left.
It was this peculiar agency that would be the target of Koch, Enron and other energy companies to inflate their profits at the expense of the Utilities through a fraudulent scheme known as “parking”. The fraud consisted of keeping megawatt-hours off of the CPE by making fictional sales to an out-of-state Utility and then turning around and selling the same megawatt-hours to ISO at a much higher price. The more power prices rose, the greater the temptation to manipulate the market in this way.
California’s Utility companies were driven to the verge of bankruptcy with losses of $10 billion and when the scandal finally broke in early 2001, governor Gary Davis worked out a bailout plan to save them. It took many more months before the underlying market “dysfunction” was addressed. Koch and friends continued to gouge their clients until the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) finally stepped in. Koch quietly settled the charges brought against them for a cool $4.1 million.
The 21st century would find Koch Industries ready to indulge its voracious appetite. Just as it helped to create the economic conditions that would ultimately destroy the Farmland co-op and facilitate the purchase of its fertilizer plants, the success of its stealth political operation in tandem with other American oligarchs would free them up to act in their own interests while convincing others it was in theirs, as well.
FDR’s New Deal was truly a vestige. Workers’ rights were widely perceived as an evil of defunct communist systems of government and, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, the 0.01% could finally use their wealth openly to finance their preferred presidential candidates without the embarrassing need to actually run themselves, as Charles’ little brother David had done in 1980.
The internet and the rise of computerized, data-driven management systems would also give Koch the tools needed to finally dispense with the pretense of MBM or other such frills when it came to keeping employees in line. The engineer in charge of the most powerful private company in America could finally trade in all those messy, self-moving parts for real-time numbers.
The oil leases on the Osage territory began to be issued in 1912, drawing oil magnates from around the world to bid fortunes under the so-called “Million-dollar Elm”, where an auctioneer sold off the rights to extract from the wells. The tribe’s sudden stroke of luck didn’t come with the usual benefits associated with the accumulation of massive wealth familiar to most Americans. Much of it was kept behind a wall of racist paternalism expressed through government-appointed guardianships, that assigned White men to oversee the expenses of the tribal members and the power to cut them off at their discretion.
It was the sort of draconian government overreach that Koch and the various organizations he funded to promote the idea of limited government might uphold as examples of the dangers he was fighting to avert. But, that would have been empty rhetoric like most of the arguments put forth by many of his political front groups like Americans for Prosperity or Citizens for a Sound Economy. The endgame for Koch and his clique of preposterously wealthy (mostly) men was a government stripped of all responsibility beyond the responsibility to protect their property.
Among the bidders gathered under the tree in Pawhuska, Oklahoma in the 1920’s was a representative of the Gulf Oil company, owned by the Mellon clan, one of the original robber baron families and pioneers of the use of philanthropy as both a means of tax-avoidance and anti-government messaging. One of the heirs to the Gulf Oil, Mellon banking fortune would become one of the country’s biggest backers of radical right wing ideology and a strategically important partner to Charles Koch’s own efforts.
The Silverspoon Radical
Richard Mellon Scaife never gave any interviews or public speeches, but he exerted incalculable influence over America’s public affairs through the multiple foundations he and his family set up.
Inheriting an obscene amount of money at the age of 26 is probably not the easiest thing to deal with for even the most level-headed youngster. But, by all accounts, Richard Scaife was leading the kind of dissolute life most of us expect the scion of inter-generational wealth would. Kicked out of the Deerfield Academy prep school at 14 for drinking, his reputation for alcohol-induced benders would follow him to Yale University, which would also expel him for it.
After his father died in 1958, Scaife assumed the role of financial manager for the fortune passed on to his mother, Sarah. She would create several trusts, continuing the family tradition of using non-profits as tax shelters. Eventually, Richard would consolidate all of the foundations under the umbrella of the Scaife Family Charitable Trusts, which would be used to disburse hundreds of millions of dollars to radical right organizations, politicians and causes.
The most important of these may well have been the Institute for Contemporary Studies (ICS), based out of California. This Scaife-funded think tank initiated a slew of projects meant to influence policy. One of these sought to learn what was being taught in pre-collegiate economics classes and propose more free market-friendly curricula. Another put future president Ronald Reagan in front of every high school student in the state’s eleven hundred school districts via PBS.
Reagan’s deep ties to the ICS can be traced to the presence of Edwin Meese III on the foundation’s board. Meese, who would later serve as Reagan’s Attorney General and, arguably, his most trusted advisor, was among the invitees to Jim Buchanan’s 1973 unveiling of the Virginia academic’s “Third Century Project” outlining the way in which corporate America would transform the nation’s courts. Just a week earlier, Buchanan had presented his plan to another room-full of sympathetic business men. “Conspiratorial secrecy”, he warned them, “is at all times essential”.
The institute would soon count multinational corporations such as Exxon, IBM, Chase Manhattan Bank, Shell and Texaco among its ranks, making it one of the most influential think tanks in the nation.
Rise of the Oligarchs
In 1973, the brand new Environmental Protection Agency took aim at the Olin Corporation, which had started nearly a century earlier as a mine explosives and small arms company. Government contracts during World War I and II would greatly buttress its bottom line and the family-owned concern would go on to form a huge conglomerate producing everything from Winchester rifles to rocket fuel.
Its chemical division had a large rap sheet of environmental pollution and found itself being sued by the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society for releasing DDT-laced effluents into a wildlife preserve. Three years before the EPA came down on the company, they were charged with dumping mercury into the Niagara River and were later found to have falsified records showing it had dumped 66,000 tons of toxic waste into a Niagara Falls landfill.
The Olin Corporation’s criminal negligence and outright disregard for human or environmental health spanned decades. But, as public outcry around these issues began to grow and regulations were put in place John M. Olin – who was not even running the company by then – created the Olin Foundation to, in his words, “see free enterprise re-established in this country. Business and the public must be awakened to the creeping stranglehold that socialism has gained here since World War II.”
Olin, along with many other members oligarch class, were galvanized by the infamous Powell memo calling for American business owners to mount a “counterrevolution” against what they saw as an existential threat. Powell, a former director of the Phillip Morris tobacco company, laid out the game plan in his 5,000-word manifesto, which identified the judiciary system as a central focus of their attack strategy. Nixon would appoint Powell to the Supreme Court just two years later.
The Olin Foundation immediately began funding projects focusing on the radical transformation of the American justice system. Among the first the Olin Foundation funded was a program run by an obscure law professor at the University of Miami, Henry G. Manne. Manne was his bringing corporate-oriented and cost-benefit analysis approach to regulation in his Law and Economics Center in the then marginally known campus in Coral Gables, Florida.
Charles Koch, in particular, would find Manne’s ideas very appealing as they dovetailed so perfectly with his own master plan.
Koch’s Law Manne
Charles Koch was following in the tradition of his covenant ideology forbearers. He saw his project to transform American politics akin to the Protestant Reformation, casting himself in the role of Martin Luther declaring that like the rebellious cleric, he stood firm against the established order. “I can do no other”, Koch boasted in a 1999 speech.
By that time, the project had made great, if largely unnoticed, strides. Henry G. Mane was Dean of Koch’s pseudo-academic operation at George Mason University. Over the previous two decades, Manne had been so successful with his Law and Economics program funded to the tune of millions of dollars by the likes of the Olin Foundation, Charles Koch and U.S. Steel, that by the middle of George H. W. Bush’s only term in office, 2 out of every 5 sitting federal judges had participated in Manne’s training sessions, applying free market economics to legal decision-making.
The “Henry Manne Camp”, which counts current Democratic presidential candidate and reportedly reformed liberal Elizabeth Warren among its alumni, doled out rich honorariums to legal scholars to write papers with his particular twist on legal questions that would be published in legal journals, spreading the meme throughout the profession. More than 600 institutions would end up sending their best legal minds to attend Manne’s intensive two-week courses; typically held in posh tropical locales such as Key West. Some institutions, like the University of Virginia’s law school, adopted Manne’s approach in its entirety.
Koch and Manne identified what they considered the biggest threat to “economic freedom”. Together they determined that the environmental movement constituted the most clear and present danger to their designs as it sought to “control” corporate interests through “governmental regulation of business”. Government-backed health care also represented a danger since it “impaired the normal workings of labor markets”.
Tax policy, public education and feminism also sent shivers down their spines. The first because of the “inevitable egalitarian instincts” exhibited by “modern” democracies; education had to be curtailed because of the “community values” they considered to be “inimical to a free society”; and finally, feminism was too socialistic for their taste.
Bill Clinton’s re-election motivated Koch to take things up a notch and neutralize these threats, bringing the Nobel prize-winning James Buchanan directly into his operation. After years of funding Buchanan’s work through his various foundations, Charles Koch put up $10 million dollars to set up the James Buchanan Center at George Mason University. The new department would be an amalgam of Buchanan’s Center for Public Choice that the laureate had run at Virginia Tech and Koch’s long-time political hatchet man, Robert Fink’s Center for the Study of Market Processes.
The board of visitors would include William Kristol and Dick Armey, while Edwin Meese III sat as the board’s rector. Buchanan would ultimately be pushed out after getting wind of the illegal nature of the Center’s work. Ostensibly a philanthropic endeavor, registered as a 501 3(c) non-profit legally barred from engaging in politics, the Buchanan Center at GMU was being used as a political lobbying operation led by Koch operatives.
Koch Industries was growing at a frenetic pace, swallowing competitors and violating so many laws in the process, that attacking the system prosecuting them under these laws and imposing multi-million dollar fines on them made perfect business sense.
The Altar of Doom
In due course, the political discourse around the country would begin to reflect the radical, ant-government viewpoints espoused by the foundations and initiatives sponsored by the Kochs and partners like the DeVos family of the Amway fortune, the Coors brewing empire and many others.
Charles Koch issued his battle cry in 1978. “Our movement” he intoned, “must destroy the prevalent statist paradigm”. In the space of two decades his revolution had managed to seep into the national consciousness and its insane tenets would begin to spew from the mouths of his minion politicians. Thom Tillis, a U.S. Senator from North Carolina who owed his post to the Koch machine, wanted to do away with laws compelling restaurants to make employees wash their hands since, he claimed, “the market” would “take care of that”. The press was not immune, either. An editorial board member of the Wall Street Journal took a Koch-infused line against the need for public health officials, expressing her opinion that testing for lead levels in the blood of children was nothing more than an excuse to justify their jobs.
If we were to really look for justifications, we could simply take a closer look at the egregious practices Koch Industries has been employing in their pursuit of profit and unfettered growth. The lawsuit brought against them in 1995 by the EPA for spilling over 12 million gallons of oil across six states as a result of faulty pipelines is only one of many incentives this enormous corporation has to subvert the law and, the tremendous wealth at their disposal has allowed Charles Koch to go beyond mere court battles to burning the U.S. code itself upon the altar of free markets.
Koch Industries’ interlocking web of companies, foundations and front groups touch everything from the plastic cups you put out at parties, the gasoline you pump into your car, the votes you cast at the ballot box and even the wages your employer is willing to pay you. In short, this privately held enterprise, owned by two brothers, exerts arguably more influence over your life than the government they and their network of like-minded billionaires have been trying to undermine for over forty years.
Through theft, deception and secrecy the Koch’s have built a capitalist juggernaut and infiltrated the institutions of democracy in order to propagate its plutocratic designs upon the country; availing itself of a fringe political ideology rooted in the antebellum South, they have wrought environmental devastation, eviscerated the middle class and have managed to shift the political discourse in America to favor their self-serving, radical free-market policies.
Despite appeals to notions of liberty and so-called “sound economics”, at the core of the Koch business philosophy is little more than a justification for rapacious greed and a pathological inability to share. Those of us downstream from their unimaginable wealth are left to deal with the consequences of their massive, unchecked and wounded egos. But, it is only by dispensing with the pseudo-academic, quasi-legal arguments crafted by the purveyors of Koch’s proto-fascist gestalt, that we can begin to see the contours of their totalitarian dream.
Spiking the Water
In April 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the contaminated Flint River. By June people were dying from a Legionnaires-associated disease caused by bacteria found in the water supply. The crisis became a national scandal as more people got sick even as municipal leaders claimed the water was safe to drink.
Five years later, Flint is still reeling. A fact recognized by the city’s new Mayor, Karen Weaver, who swept into office on a wave of anger and resentment. “It’s a community that’s still dealing with the trauma and the aftermath”, she told the New York Times “of having been poisoned at the hands of the government.”
But, the government was actually the first victim of this tragedy. Hidden in the depths of the rancid waters that killed twelve people and sickened nearly a hundred more, none other than the Kochtopus and its vast political influence machine thrashed about.
In the state of Michigan, it exerted considerable influence in the governor’s office through the Koch-funded and Koch-staffed think tank, Mackinac Center, which had been pushing for legislation that would place any community facing a “financial emergency” under direct state control and, in turn, hand over extraordinary powers to emergency managers. Among the powers accorded to these unelected bureaucrats was selling off local resources to private companies, outsourcing services and changing municipal suppliers at will.
True to the words of one state governor, who stated unequivocally, “When the Mackinac Center speaks, we listen”, their legislative recommendation made it into law and many cities were placed under this regime. More than half of the state’s black voters would come to be governed by such managers. The one assigned to oversee Flint made the fateful decision to switch the city’s water supply to “save money”.
Mind of the Kochtopus
The vital role Koch played in the Flint water crisis received little, if any, media attention because, as in this case, most of their machinations are carefully concealed behind front-groups, innocuous-sounding foundations and ostensibly noble causes.
Charles Koch began building this network, dubbed “Kochtopus” for its monstrous reach and multiple tentacles, almost as soon as he took the reins of Koch Industries in the 1970’s. His first mentor was a man by the name of F. A. “Baldy” Harper, author of a “free market primer” called “Why Wages Rise” in which he derides unions, public schooling and any kind of labor protection laws. A founding member of the Mont Pelerin Society along with Koch’s other idols F.A. Hayek and Edwin Von Mises, Baldy Harper would go on to found the Institute for Humane Studies with Koch’s generous and permanent funding.
The Mont Pelerin Society, in fact, would be the fountainhead for many beneficiaries of Koch money. Formed in 1947, the Society was the result of an historic gathering in Switzerland of free-market intellectuals led by their “guru”, F. A. Hayek, prophet of the rich propertied classes in a time when the rising power of unions and growing regulatory framework threatened to undercut their position. The infamous Chicago School of economics and its most polarizing figure, Milton Friedman, was a direct outgrowth of this post-war egghead club.
Friedman, however, was not radical enough for Koch and considered his approach to economics too technical to fulfill the more fundamental, philosophical and transformative changes Charles Koch wanted to bring about in America, turning his attention to other branches of the Mont Pelerin tree.
He found what he was looking for in another University of Chicago grad, who studied under yet another Mont Pelerin founder.
The Dictator’s Messiah
James M. Buchanan was more concerned with the political and social aspects of economic theory than with pesky numbers or statistics.
In 1956, he submitted a private proposal to the president of the University of Virginia for the creation of a department for Libertarian and conservative studies, misleadingly called the Thomas Jefferson Center for Political Economy and Social Philosophy. Buchanan was motivated to create his department by the watershed Supreme Court decision of Brown v.The Board of Education two years earlier, which put an end to racial segregation in the public school system.
The entrenched Southern White elites that ruled Virginia, led by one of the most powerful Senators in U.S. history, Harry F. Byrd, took the court’s decision as an affront and resisted desegregation with all the means at their disposal. Buchanan’s Center at UVA aimed to subvert what he and the Virginian ruling class perceived as federal incursion into states’ rights – a more palatable framing for their real problem: democracy.
The pull of history and strong resistance from Virginia’s White middle class doomed Buchanan’s project. The inevitable demise of the Byrd organization and the turnover of the university’s leadership eventually forced Buchanan to find refuge in a regular faculty position at UCLA, then a hub of radical right wing thought.
Buchanan’s ideas were popular enough in the tight knit circles he moved in, but they had yet to reach the broader audience he needed in order to generate the momentum required for them to actually affect policy. He began to acquire more widespread recognition after the publication of “Academia in Anarchy”, which put forward ‘solutions’ to expressions of social consciousness among the country’s student body. Along with his co-author, Nicos Devletoglou, he would propose remaking colleges and universities as “industries in which individuals sought to maximize their personal advantages and minimize their costs”. The idea was to eliminate dissent by turning higher education into a business and eliminating the humanities from the curriculum.
The book propelled Buchanan into the international spotlight and he would soon be heading back to Virginia to form a new department. Located in the less prestigious Virginia Polytechnic Institute, better known today as Virginia Tech, his Center for Public Choice was where he would first meet Charles Koch and become a regular recipient of the billionaire’s generosity.
Soon enough, Buchanan would have a chance to prove just how useful his anti-democratic vision of government could be to a select group of private interests and the Chilean Minister of Finance, Sergio de Castro, who hosted the American academic for a week of exclusive seminars in Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. The main purpose of the five formal lectures he delivered during his 1980 visit was to explore how his “public choice” theory of economics could inform their new constitution.
Buchanan was credited – though not publicly – with providing the legislative tools the dictator needed to cement the governance structure he was running on behalf of the propertied classes. De Castro’s “modernizations” included such Buchanan staples as school vouchers, evisceration of the public university system, health care privatization and the creation of super majorities in the legislative chambers to make any future changes virtually impossible.
Six years later, James Buchanan would be awarded a Nobel Prize in economics and as his star rose, Charles Koch would single him out to lead his most important – and illegal – political operation on the banks of the Potomac. His name would serve to legitimize Koch’s project at George Mason University; very much the crown jewel of Koch’s by then well-established, multi-pronged political operation.
All About the Business
The engineering degree Charles Koch earned at MIT in 1957 served to sharpen a mind already predisposed to distillation. After his initial resistance, Fred Koch’s second-born settled in his role of heir-apparent and began to break down the parts of the corporation he would eventually rename after his father, selecting the best pieces and putting them back together for a more efficient performance.
He would tinker with it over and over again, reacting to changing markets, governmentally-imposed limitations and the ever-alluring siren call of more profits. Along the way, he would pick up the intellectual tidbits and political and economic theories that best suited his approach, cobbling together a personal business philosophy enshrined in what many a Koch employee would come to learn as Market-Based Management or MBM, for short.
An education in MBM, which some former employees described as a “cult”, was compulsory at the company and embracing its principles was a non-negotiable condition of employment. Ostensibly designed to attract and train free-market thinkers who thrived on the entrepreneurial spirit, Market-Based Management was a collection of tenets devised to produce clones of Charles Koch himself.
As Koch Industries expanded and devoured other gigantic corporations like Farmland and Georgia Pacific, it became harder to sell this glorified employee manual to the swelling number of people on its payroll. But, Koch’s ego and ambition grew along with the company assets. He began pouring more and more money into Libertarian causes and think tanks, as the need to keep the government at bay increased. He would invest in politicians and academics, like Buchanan, who could help him shape the public narrative and deflect negative attention from decidedly unfree market practices, such as the theft of resources from Native lands.
Measure Once, Take Twice
The rocky terrain in northeastern Oklahoma was thought to be of no particular value when the U.S. government relocated the Native American Osage tribe there from their original abode in what had become the state of Kansas. Only a decade earlier, George Bissell and Edwin L. Drake had successfully drilled for oil in Pennsylvania, kick-starting the age of fossil fuel extraction in the United States. The initially worthless land now part of the Osage Reservation soon revealed its rich deposits of crude. Oil leases were issued to the tribe, which oilmen all over the country would henceforth have to rent to gain access to the black gold.
The Osage would reap huge profits from the oil on their land, making them the wealthiest Native tribe in the country – indeed, the richest people per capita in the world. Decades later, Osage tribe members were driving around in expensive cars, wearing furs and exhibiting other signs of conspicuous consumption made possible by the ever-increasing dividends resulting from the oil gushing from the ground.
The story of the Osage takes a tragic but not so unexpected turn, as they began to be targeted in a criminal conspiracy to assassinate them and take over the fortune beneath their feet. The tribe would survive the ordeal with the help of nascent FBI and its fledgling director, J. Edgar Hoover who eventually cracked the multiple-murder case.
During the 1980’s, the Osage and the FBI would have to deal with a far more cunning and dangerous enemy in Koch Industries.
Koch President, Bill Hanna, sent out a company-wide memo instructing employees to “shred”, “burn” or otherwise destroy by “some equally effective method” any records that could benefit competitors. He did so in the midst of a U.S. Senate investigation into allegations of deliberate oil mismeasurement. The final report found Koch culpable of systematic oil theft.
For years, Koch had defrauded crude suppliers through manipulation of industry-standard oil gauging methods. They developed their own step-by-step procedure and drilled it into their oil gaugers with MBM-infused intensity with the understanding that their job depended almost exclusively on proper adherence to it. Gaugers were encouraged to always fudge the numbers they kept when siphoning crude from their suppliers’ tanks and loading it onto Koch’s barges. The practice was known as “cutting the top” and “bumping the bottom”, which simply meant that they took more than what they paid for.
This technique put millions of barrels of free oil into Koch’s refineries over the years. Among their victims were the Osage in Oklahoma, who they identified as the ideal target for a public relations campaign Koch mounted to undermine the Senate’s findings and stave off a criminal inquiry.
Understanding that the Osage had limited accounting expertise, Koch sent a former company trader, Ron Howell, to perform an ‘audit’ of the oil lease receipts against their own to prove that claims of oil theft were baseless. Howell came back with the incredible assertion that not only had Koch not stolen any oil, but in fact, had overpaid. In March, 1990, the Osage Nation News ran a story in which Osage chiefs cleared Koch of wrongdoing, based on the fraudulent audit results. Their statements were carried by the Daily Oklahoman soon after and Senator Bob Dole, beneficiary of almost a quarter of a million dollars from Koch throughout his career, submitted the article into the Senate record.
The criminal case never materialized. The FBI’s investigation was abruptly dropped by incoming U.S. Attorney, Timothy Leonard, a man with no relevant experience who was appointed by Oklahoma Senator and close Koch ally, Don Nickles.
By 2016, Koch Industries would have grown into a fossil fuel behemoth with an annual revenue “larger than Facebook, Goldman Sachs and U.S. Steel combined”. Its insidious and calculated moves in local and state-level politics, academia and the law changed the political landscape of America. Their network would be instrumental in financing and amplifying the Tea Party zealotry. It would bring anti-union, anti-worker’s rights politicians like Scott Walker into the national spotlight. The radical right-wing rantings of Glenn Beck were written by the Koch-funded FreedomWorks, a tax-exempt group founded by former Republican House majority leader, Dick Armey. Beck would collect as much as $1 million dollars annually from the organization to spew his brand of free-market lunacy.
The Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, The Reason Foundation, The Tax Foundation, The Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity are just a partial list of the vast, multi-tiered operation initiated and maintained by the Kochs and their billionaire friends to shift the focus of political and economic discourse away from the majority and centering it around the interests of the 0.01 percent. The wealthy oligarch class coalesced around Charles Koch’s leadership to stage a coup on the rest of the country, couching their inhuman greed in populist rhetoric meant to seduce the masses of people they are intent on exploiting.
Along the way, Koch Industries’ shameful record of ecological destruction, subversion of democracy and death would soon be revealed as their true legacy.
Solutions to the crisis, so far, have been full of more hot air than the Caribbean jet stream in an El Niño year. Pounced on by special interests looking to consolidate power or advance agendas, many so-called climate change movements stop short of addressing the actual problem because doing so threatens the very power structure they belong to.
The environmental movement in the United States resulted from precisely such a challenge to the status quo. Specifically, the booming post-war pesticide industry when Rachel Carson published her seminal book “Silent Spring” and revealed the dangers of DDT. The outcry drove the push to ban the noxious chemical and a new awareness of our habitat’s fragility arose among the general population.
The industrial pesticide camp didn’t just back down, of course. In fact, they came up with far worse ideas like the infamous, cancer-causing Round Up and invested heavily in marketing to hide their horrible effects from us. Many ecologically-minded organizations, like Sierra Club and others sprang up in the same period and have grown into multi-million dollar concerns, which expend as much energy raising money to run their operations as they do fighting the climate crisis. It’s debatable whether, on balance, they are having a net positive effect on the issue at all.
We now have a global environmental advocacy industry, that organizes hundreds of international conferences, rallies and branded awareness campaigns around the world. Much of their work is tied to established political networks and end up serving the interests of the friendliest public servants.
This is Zero Hour – The Movie
Last weekend, a climate change youth conference called “This is Zero Hour” was held in Miami. Dozens of teenage organizers and distinguished panel guests were flown in from around the country to participate in the three-day event held at the Miami Airport Convention Center (MACC). Any contradictions arising from the choice of venue and the highly publicized position against air travel by the conference’s biggest draw and environmental celebrity, Greta Thunberg, were likely overlooked on account of cost considerations.
Attendance was underwhelming, to say the least. Unsurprising if one considers the general bent of Miami’s politics. Despite facing one of the most immediate threats in sea level rise, many of the city’s residents still consider climate change to be a hoax. That said, the low turn out had more to do with the inexperience of its teenage organizers than with a scarcity of environmental activists in South Florida, which certainly do exist.
Nevertheless, the hand of the grown-ups was conspicuous throughout the proceedings. Specifically, in the multi-person professional camera crew walking around with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of film and sound equipment. At least two documentaries were being produced (excluding my own), and one of those was being commissioned by the office of Nancy Pelosi.
At least one of the speakers, was also representing the Speaker’s office and occasionally used the stage to encourage audience members to participate in the film by volunteering for on-camera interviews. All three crews looked like they worked for the same company. They carried identical camera stabilizing gear and the teams were all configured the same way: a camera operator, sound guy with a boom and a production assistant.
The film crews’ presence was so ubiquitous, it seemed as if the conference itself was organized just for the purposes of making the film. One instance, in particular, convinced me that this was, in fact, the case:
During a session called “Indigenous Stories from the Frontlines”, which featured a panel of 5 Native girls who were supposed to share accounts of their experience as indigenous women in the context of the climate crisis, one of the camera men got up on the stage, pulled up a chair and sat just a few feet away from the panel, while the production assistant directed the operator from below.
This brazen move blocked my camera’s shot of the panel, along with other independent press who had set up on that side of the room. I immediately approached the production assistant to ask if her camera guy intended to stay in that spot for the entire session, to which she responded in the affirmative. Miffed, I promptly moved my tripod-mounted camera to the other side.
Confirmation of who was actually in charge came after the session had already begun. The production assistant, whom I believe was actually directing all the crews, made the panelists stop and move their chairs to accommodate the shot! I was flabbergasted.
As someone with ample experience covering conferences as both outside press and as official videographer for the organizing party, I am thoroughly familiar with the protocol and this level of interference in conference proceedings is unheard of. Even in the capacity of official event videographer, intrusion of this sort is never allowed.
This was bad enough, but a more sinister reality started to become clear to me as the panel session unfolded.
The Real Cultural Appropriation
I don’t share the outrage over so-called cultural appropriation prevalent in some circles, that believe fashion or gastronomy are akin to intellectual property belonging to the cultures in which they emerged. Not only does this promote the terrible notion that is intellectual property, itself, but it is this kind of exchange of styles and ingredients in which cultures are created. But, I digress.
To me, true cultural appropriation is what happened at the “This is Zero Hour” conference with its hijacking of the plight of indigenous people in an attempt to add a veneer of legitimacy to the brand, for lack of a better term.
This became evident in the contrast between the panel comprising the five Native women and the panel immediately preceding it. Perhaps most obvious example was the initiation of each days’ conference itinerary with a take on the indigenous tradition known as “Land Recognition” – an acknowledgement of the territory one is on and expression of gratitude for those who reside in it. Had this been performed by any one of the Native people who were part of the conference, perhaps I’d be less cynical. But, in both cases, the stripped down imitation of indigenous protocol was carried out by teen age white girls, high up on the organizers’ hierarchy.
It really hit home as I witnessed the panel I referred to above, “Indigenous Stories from the Frontlines”. The camera crews paid far more attention to this panel than any other during the whole conference. In addition to the events I described above, multiple cameras were deployed to capture audience reaction, as well. I, myself, had come on this second day just to cover this particular panel, so all the extra buzz seemed to augur a riveting session. Boy, was I wrong.
No, it wasn’t the fault of the panelists. The five girls were clearly ready to share the realities of their experience with the audience. Important stories that go to the very core of what this climate crisis really is. Alas, there was a different agenda in the works. It started off suspiciously enough, with the young male panel moderator going into a profuse and exalted introduction.
A question was then put to all the panelists, which each took turns answering. A good start about indigenous women’s role in the climate fight. The second question took an unnecessary turn into identity politics, probing matters of the panelists’ sexuality. Fine, I thought. A sign of the times, but I was anxious for the conversation to get back to the issue at hand. To my utter shock – and the panelists – that’s where it ended. The moderator blurted out something about the previous panel running too long and that lunch time had arrived.
I couldn’t believe it. What should have been one of the most interesting sessions – certainly the most vital – was inexplicably cut short because of… lunch? The entire panel session lasted less than 20 minutes, if that. Meanwhile, every other panel had covered its allotted time and many had gone well over the hour.
Taken on its own, this was bad enough. A lack of respect, at the very least. But, when you consider what had just transpired minutes earlier on the same stage, the questions start to run into darker territory.
Greta Climate Superstar
She might as well have been taken straight out of a fairytale. Her long double-braided hair, large eyes and button nose would have set her up for a starring role in a live-action Hollywood production of Hansel & Gretel, had other factors not brought her into the spotlight as a poster child for a youth climate change movement, instead.
Greta Thunberg deserves a more in-depth take than I am going to give her in this article and I intend to do so in my documentary, but for now we just need to know that she was the marquee guest, albeit via Skype, of the Zero Hour conference.
She was joined by several other youth climate activists from around the globe through a group Skype call in a panel session called Strikers Webinar, alluding to the school strikes (ostensibly) initiated by the young Swede. The actual start of the session was delayed nearly half an hour, between sorting out the connections and the self-introduction of each panelist.
No matter. The session continued uninterrupted for another hour with the bulk of the speaking opportunities thrown Greta’s way. Audience engagement covered part of the time. Some had questions for Greta, others simply wanted to express their admiration. At another point, one of the organizers declared the 16-year old to be the leader of the entire world’s climate change youth movement, to loud cheers.
For the few kids in the audience, it was an inspirational moment and perhaps a catalyst for further involvement in the issue of climate change and, as such, it had value. But, even more important then, was to follow that up with the reality on the ground, which was what the next panel session of indigenous women was supposed to impart.
They just got the bubble gum-flavored, sparkly, sanitized version of what climate change really means. As did everybody else there.
The Wolves and the Fools
We can be sure that Pelosi’s movie will not show us the full picture of our impending ecological disaster, either. The camera crews got the shots they needed to craft the story she and proponents of the green new deal want you to hear. They will decorate it with Native faces and names to give it a ring of truth.
Youth is the time for idealism. That’s when our passion outweighs our knowledge. At the same time, it is only through that passion that real change takes place.
The teenagers who put in all the hard work to organize this event and those who participated in the panels have no idea what’s really happening behind the scenes, in their sponsors’ offices back in D.C. It is up to the adults in the room to make sure they know.
We all remember the droning, repetitive ritual of indoctrination known as the Pledge of Allegiance that our school teachers forced us to recite every morning. This compulsory mantra is used in homerooms across the nation to introduce young, pliable minds to the hallowed compendium of American scripture, which include tracts like the Gettysburg address, the Federalist Papers and, of course, the U.S. Constitution.
All of them are rooted in re-imagined narratives of Calvinist-infused Christianity. Concepts such as ‘Predestination’, – man’s incontrovertible fate as determined by God at the moment of creation – or the ‘Elect’, a select group of people known only to the almighty who are to be spared eternal damnation.
Over time these ideas were re-fashioned to fit America’s political narrative. The “god-fearing” puritan ethos of the first settler communities mingled with Locke’s quasi-theological empiricism and his novel take on private property, which was broadly used to justify the theft of Native lands.
Predestination became “manifest destiny” and “land of the free” worked well as a catchy twist on the idea of “the elect”. Together with other rehashed biblical plot lines, they formed what has been referred to as Covenant ideology; less an organic, cultural construct and more a facile tool for the manipulation of the American public by unscrupulous politicians. More alarming still, is its spread to other parts of the world and a deliberate push to bring “adherents” together as a single global entity.
In the United States, specifically, the contours of this informal state doctrine have taken the shape of a cult. Since the 70’s the inexorable decline of American manufacturing and exponential rise of household debt coupled with stagnant wages has left millions of disaffected citizens ripe for radicalization. A fact no one who witnessed the 2016 U.S. presidential election and its aftermath can deny.
But, most revealing of America’s descent into ideological madness is the continued apathy and even active resistance to address the epidemic of gun violence and mass shooting events in this country.
The priests of America’s state religion preach from their pulpits in the Capitol and other state churches across the country. They quote foundational scripture to their followers who rationalize the gun massacres taking their young men, women and children in workplaces, schools and churches.
In spite of the mind-boggling frequency of mass shootings and persistence of gun-violence in poor minority communities, the gun-control debate rages on. Meanwhile, as the stone-faced deities hewn on a mountain once revered by the native people of this land continue to ask for more blood, “believers” continue to offer it.
Through the sacrament of marriage and the concomitant prohibition against its dissolution, the Catholic Church had controlled the whole of Christendom for centuries. It was the fulcrum of its power and riches. The Church’s monopoly on the family unit allowed it to dictate the socio-economic dynamics of Europe’s disparate monarchies and, in turn, dictate to the monarchs themselves.
The Reformation was the beginning of the end for this arrangement and, in many ways, for the Catholic Church, as well. The fatal blow was delivered by Henry VIII, who empowered a competing ministry by divorcing five times under the authority of the upstart Anglican Church.
What followed was a series of bloody and protracted wars across Europe and the British Isles, in particular, as an emerging class of merchants and landed aristocracies vied for control. Religious doctrine became atomized as the different regions in Europe adopted their own more culturally relevant versions of Christianity.
John Calvin’s unique re-interpretation gained popularity towards the end of the 16th century and attracted adherents from all across the continent. Among the French theologian’s most ardent students and supporters was a Scottish theologian named John Knox, who would go on to form and lead the Protestant Church in Scotland.
Knox’s reactionary and misogynist brand of Christianity would permeate the culture of Lowland Scots who would eventually immigrate across the Atlantic. The hyper-moralist Puritanism of New England’s first settler communities can be traced back to Knox, whose particular take on Calvinism colored the worldview of their direct ancestors who were part of the Plantation of Ulster, a state-executed campaign of dispossession and land theft meted out against the Irish and a virtual dress rehearsal for the colonization of North America.
After the British experiment in Northern Ireland foundered, a great many Ulster Scots chose to test their fortune in the colonies as indentured servants. The Scots-Irish, as they would call themselves, would end up representing a majority of early colonial settlers and their state militias.
Meanwhile, Cromwell’s revolution had set the stage for British preeminence in a post-Catholic Church world. New forms of economic organization were displacing older feudal methods as the seeds of capitalism were being sowed.
Most significantly, it was the eve of the Industrial Revolution; driven not by the cotton gin, but by the evolution in the manufacturing processes of the single most important tool of the imperial model: the gun.
The Force of Lead
By the time war had broken out in New England, a proto-military industrial complex had already begun developing in the mother country. Sprawling colonial enterprises were putting pressure on London gun makers who tried to keep up with demand, while the state sourced its needs both at home and abroad. Gun makers not only had to fulfill ordnance requests from the Royal armory, but also from the chartered merchant companies stretching from subcontinental Asia to the Hudson river. Inevitably, artisanal gun making slowly gave way to more efficient modes of fabrication.
The Seven Years War in the mid-eighteenth century saw the largest conscription of British troops ever to that point, with over 100,000 men deployed throughout Europe. All of them needed guns. The Napoleonic wars further pushed firearm-manufacturing into standardization. The French, themselves, had made large strides in the area of factory-style production, while Britain relied more on a loose network of independent contractors designed to keep the cost of manufacturing low by inciting competition for state contracts.
This incipient arms industry produced innovations in iron smelting, casting and other manufacturing processes, that would prove indispensable for the realization of the Industrial Revolution. By 1776, every British soldier was carrying an identical, mass produced muzzle-loading musket known as the Brown Bess. Over 4 million were made.
As gun manufacturing was perfected, revolvers and other short guns democratized the ability to kill at a distance. By drastically reducing the skill and proximity required to exact lethal force upon others, guns allowed Locke’s theory on private property to fully manifest itself in the world. Defending the “perimeter” would now be an individual prerogative and the very foundation of our present economic paradigm – codified into law by America’s founders – became possible.
The U.S. Constitution was completed after two weeks of intense, cloistered brainstorming and foisted on a largely unsuspecting public. During the Convention, the issue of an armed citizenry didn’t even come up. The second amendment itself was only later included to address the contentious issue of standing armies, opposed by most states but favored by the Federalists.
Firearm ownership was taken for granted and its relative ubiquity was such, that certain groups, like the Quakers, had found it necessary to claim their “right” to NOT own a gun. For the better part of a century afterwards, courts would rule time and again, that the second amendment applied only to Congress in the context of militias and was irrelevant to the issue of personal gun rights.
The Abolitionist movement, westward expansion and the Union’s push towards the consolidation of a true federal structure all converged to produce a spike in gun violence and its gradual welding with patriotism, politics and religion.
Just before the Civil War, Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, an outspoken Abolitionist, organized a gun-drive from his Congregational church in Brooklyn, declaring that there was “more moral power in one [rifle],… than in a hundred bibles”. The guns, destined for free slaves in Kansas, were dubbed “Beecher’s Bibles”.
As the Union claimed victory and inaugurated the nation’s first federally-funded army, the Industrial Revolution began to hit its stride. The quality, accuracy and availability of guns all increased. In the space of less than a hundred years, the gap between the government’s weaponry capabilities and the people’s grew exponentially.
The second amendment languished in irrelevance. As a strictly Congressional matter, it was understood to have no bearing on individual gun rights. Nevertheless, the issue of personal gun rights did come up in the infamous Dred Scot decision of 1857, in which the Supreme Court recorded the young nation’s racist foundations for posterity. The court concluded that black people could never be citizens and, therefore, had no right to carry a gun. While the decision was later overturned, the underlying sentiment that made it possible in the first place would express itself after the Civil War, when so-called “Black Codes”; laws that were widely instituted across the country to disarm returning black Union soldiers.
The defeated Confederacy re-emerged as the Jim Crow South after Reconstruction. It formed the base of the Democratic party for decades, thereafter, until the second half of the 20th century when a reshuffling of political alliances took place as a result of a re-alignment of national priorities following the Allied victory in World War II.
The Big Rebrand
The National Rifle Association makes much of its longevity. But, for most of its history, the NRA was little more than a club for enthusiastic game hunters and largely supported gun-control laws. Its current incarnation as a polarizing influence in American politics began in the late 1970’s, as part of a larger, calculated conservative backlash against liberal policy momentum accrued since FDR’s New Deal.
Racial tensions caused by the Civil Rights movement were motivating millions of Southern White Democrats to abandon their party and join the Republican side of the aisle. Simultaneously, fundamentalist Evangelicals asserted their leadership over the Southern Baptist Church, spurring the rise of televangelists like Jerry Falwell and his so-called “Moral Majority”.
In 1977, a shakeup of the NRA during their annual convention known as the “Revolt in Cincinnati” replaced the group’s leadership with hardline gun-rights advocates, who transformed it into a politically active organization. The second amendment would serve as the lynchpin for the upturning of the prevailing liberal order and the creation of a new voter base, which would bring the Neocons into power years later, via Reagan.
The romanticizing of gun-culture and its amalgamation with Judeo- Christian belief systems would continue apace when Moses, himself, came down from Hollywood Hills to become president of the NRA in the late 90’s. Outspoken gun advocate, Charlton Heston, would use the platform to lead the national pro-gun conversation, leading the flock into the new millennium with an iconic performance during the contentious election of George W. Bush.
Just after the end of Bush’s second term, and on the heels of the largest transfer of wealth in the history of the United States, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling, conferring Constitutional protection to individual gun-owners, based on a so-called “originalist” reading of the Second Amendment. More than a win for gun-rights advocates, it was an epic victory for the broad coalition of conservative voices, groups and think tanks behind the emergence of a fundamentalist political ideology, which has successfully radicalized millions of Americans.
The rise of the “Tea Party” and other fringe right-wing groups would follow in tow. Explosive events like the siege at Waco, the Oklahoma City bombing and, crucially, the September 11th attacks galvanized these groups, taking them further down the road of biblically-induced madness. Their cause for “freedom” at gunpoint is now a global affair, as they batten down the hatches to engage “evil-doers” and “bad hombres” in a predestined “clash of civilizations”.
The famously failed mission kicked off a decades-long enmity between the Cuban Exile Community and the Democratic Party of the United States. GOP operatives like George H.W. Bush pounced on the opportunity to create a loyal voter base, which was fostered through government handouts and preferential immigrant policies. Over the next several years, they formed a hardline Republican block in South Florida.
Not coincidentally, Cubans would rise to the top of the political pyramid in Miami during the Reagan years, when Bush was Vice President, and play a pivotal role in the hegemonic wars carried out in the name of “anti-communism”. South Florida’s cocaine economy helped funnel cash to fund covert operations around the world, including the Contras in Nicaragua.
Sixty years later, the usefulness of the Cuban exile community to the American political establishment is reaching its natural end. A new generation of exiles is being groomed to replace them as the specter of communism is once again evoked in South America.
Passing of the Torch
This year, the Bay of Pigs commemorative activities were held at the iconic Biltmore Hotel in the swankiest part of Dade-County instead of the usual venue on the equally iconic, but far lower-rent 8th Street, where a permanent flame burns atop the monument dedicated to the fallen members of Brigada 2506.
The colorful street murals and fruit stands of Little Havana didn’t quite suit the expectations of the guest list. Miami’s most privileged minority community came decked out in their best Spring attire to the Coral Gables landmark where a string quartet welcomed them to yet another political event headlined by Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton.
Bolton, who was in Miami just last February, chose the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs to announce a new round of sanctions and banking restrictions on the countries of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. In addition, the Trump administration will activate a dormant law, that greenlights legal action against corporations doing business with Cuba. Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, created in 1996, has been ignored by all previous administrations over clear international opposition.
The European Union has already stated it will challenge any such law with the WTO, while other countries such as Canada, already have legislation in place blocking enforcement of Helms-Burton against companies based in their nations.
Title IV of the act, which calls for the denial of visas to those involved in “trafficking” properties confiscated by the Cuban government, is also set to come into effect, further pushing America back in time to a bygone era of communist paranoia.
Bolton’s job in Miami is to help recruit the new batch of exiles to underpin America’s re-invigorated hegemonic foreign policies in Latin America. But, the freshmen class of Venezuelan exiles isn’t turning out to be as receptive to his overtures as their Cuban counterparts were back in the 60’s.
Maduro has, so far, been able to keep the vast majority of the Venezuelan military on his side and the Guaidó operation seems to have fallen flat, despite the mainstream media’s efforts to maintain the illusion of his “presidency”.
Clearly, a regime-change scenario in Venezuela is a much more complicated proposition than the one half-heartedly attempted in Cuba all those years ago. However, given the political gold mine that South Florida has proven to be for the Republican party, in particular – and precisely as a result of the failure of American policy towards Cuba – one can only question the true motivations behind these largely toothless measures now being enacted against Venezuela and the other two countries which have a large exile community in the region.
Interest or Principle
When a bank issues a loan, the principle is listed as an asset on the bank’s books. If you pay off the principle, that money disappears from the bank’s ledger. If you only pay the interest on the loan, however, the bank not only keeps the asset on its books, but it makes a profit, too.
Similarly, when a government makes a promise it will collect as much interest (votes) as it can before delivering on that promise. Just like a bank, once they deliver on the promise they can’t collect interest anymore.
Venezuelan exiles in Miami should ask themselves what the true motives of the United Sates are when it comes to intervening in their country’s affairs. They should take a long, hard look at the fate of the “martyrs” of Brigada 2506 and the community of Cuban exiles who decade after decade continue to support policies, like the embargo, which have only changed things for the worse.
They should ask themselves if they want to take out this loan. They should remember that it will show up as an asset on the political ledger of the United States, but a liability on their account.