Courts and Presidents Matter Everywhere

Asuncion    Reading the headlines on-line as the Organizers’ Forum convened in Asuncion, Paraguay, it was hard to miss the chaos and clamor of the hearings in Congress on the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanagh for the US Supreme Court.  President Trump, never happy if the lead headlines don’t mention him, managed to insert himself into the proceedings by seeming to advocate an end of free speech and the right to assembly with his advocacy that protest should be outlawed at such events or whenever it suits his whim.  Sigh.

I thought of this as we sat in the library of Carlos Mateo Balmelli with our delegation.  As part of our regular order of Forum business, we always try to arrange for a local academic or journalist to give an overview and current context for a new country.  Mateo Balmelli’s name was given to us by some of our contacts, and we were lucky to be able to schedule him on our first afternoon in Asuncion, so there we were.

His first question to us, after our introductions, was to ask if we knew who he was.  I answered that we were told that he was a lawyer and journalist who had once had a radio show that was well-known in the country.  He laughed, and then added meat to that thin soup.  He was a writer indeed with many books to his credit, largely nonfiction, on public and constitutional law, a long interest not only from his background as a lawyer but also from six years studying in Germany where he received his Ph.D.  More to the point, he had a long career as a politician having convened the last Constitutional Convention in 1992 that helped draft the current Paraguayan constitution, and having been President of the Senate and the Congress until 2004.  It also became clear that he had also been a presidential candidate from an alliance that included the Radical Liberal Party only in the last year, losing to the winning candidate from the long ruling Colorado Party.  Suddenly, we had moved from the top row in the bleachers to the major leagues!

We talked about economic development, the role of agriculture, the need for energy subsidies for low income families, and better educational opportunity.  We heard about the relative positions of the parties and the alliances established and disbanded.  Questions arose about media concentration and comparisons with other countries in Latin America, especially Peru where there was a lot of experience in the delegation.

Not surprisingly, given Mateo Balmelli’s history, much of our briefing focused on his concern about the pervasiveness of corruption in politics, where he alleged that politicians were regularly directly bribed by lobbyists and special interests with impunity.  His solution was, not surprisingly, that it was time to update and write a new constitution.  The critical element would be redrafting the relationship between the executive branch and the Supreme Court in the country.  It was harder for us to understand precisely what he would change, since he still advocated their appointments, but the purpose was to provide more legal assurance of checks and balances from the court without executive control.

It was hard not to merge the conversation with the US headlines, where President Trump and the parties seem to want to dilute the checks and balances that come with a more independent judiciary in creating an increasingly partisan court from the George W. Bush election through the current date.

Increasingly it is becoming one world, though not necessarily a good one.


The Price of Protests

New Orleans   The world is a dangerous place. War and the rumors of war  fill the daily papers even in these days of our presumed advanced and  enlightened civilization Ironically, the Age of Trump is such that some  Americans are being warned not to think this is the beginning of the end  times. Huh? This must be the point where hyperbole and humor have  replaced every shred of reason. There are few examples that are so stark  about how our perspective has become narcissistic when we can’t measure  how lucky we are compared to so many elsewhere in the world.

Take something as simple as the right to protest for example. The Poor Peoples’ Campaign, 2018 edition, as we discussed recently, is recruiting  people and in the same breath asking people to check a box on their  website whether they are ready to engage in civil disobedience and be arrested to bring home the point of the protest.

Trump may have lost control of his Twitter finger already. The Justice Department clearly wants to turn back the clock a generation, if not a  couple of hundred years. The EPA, the DOL, and other departments have clearly lost their bearings, and in many cases are unmoored from their  legislatively mandated missions. Nonetheless, no one losses any sleep wondering if they check the box saying they are ready to spend a few hours in the clinker and call it civil disobedience, that they will be gone a life time or risk life and limb.

Yet, bloggers are going to jail in Morocco – and China – for eight years and more for exposing corruption, which would hardly seem revolutionary and a threat to law and order in either country. And, blogging is hardly protest, right? I’m typing away this minute and my only concern is the fact that my kitchen table imploded today, spilling coffee on my  computer, so I’m trying to navigate a borrowed keyboard. A little frustration is different from existential fear.

Meanwhile a dozen protesters were killed in the Congo for the speaking out about the impunity of the country’s president having refused to call elections for over a year when his final term ended December 26, 2016 after 17 years in power. The government shutdown the internet and texting services for 48 hours as part of their crackdown. Several protesters were also killed in Iran in demonstrations over the mismanagement of the economy and the reaction to sanctions that are still oppressive in the country. The government blamed foreign powers, which means the United States usually, but the protesters paid the price with their lives.

I could go on and on with examples from around the world of popular protest and government crackdowns on protest, the press, the internet, and many other aspects of daily life and entitlements that we feel are inalienable on one hand and take completely for granted on the other.

Yet, we miss the irony. We can do so much more without fear of retaliation or harm, yet so many hesitate and still call this resistance.

Protest does of course have a price as others prove daily and pay for dearly. Our ante is so small that we should be willing to pay the pittance it costs without hesitation or delay.