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An Open Letter to the Washington Office on Latin America About Its Stance on US Effort to Overthrow Venezuelan Government

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The following open letter, signed by 124 academics from around the globe, is addressed to the Washington Office on Latin America and voices serious concerns over WOLA’s support for various components of the Trump administration’s policy towards Venezuela.

We write out of concern for the direction that WOLA has taken with regard to a matter of life and death, and possibly war and peace, in Latin America. This letter is an attempt to engage with WOLA about your support for various components of the Trump administration’s efforts to topple the government of Venezuela.

We believe that the Trump administration’s regime change effort in Venezuela is wrong in every way: morally, legally, and politically. Since war has been openly threatenedrepeatedly by Trump himself and his top officials, this effort also runs a high risk in terms of the loss of human life and limb, and other unforeseen consequences of war and political violence.

For these reasons and more, WOLA should oppose this regime change effort unequivocally, just as progressives throughout the world opposed the Iraq War of 2003. But it has not done so. Rather, it has endorsed much of it. People may have differing personal opinions regarding the internal politics of Venezuela or how Venezuelans might best resolve their differences. But there is no doubt that the Trump administration’s illegal regime change operation is greatly worsening the situation and should be opposed by all who care about human life and international law.

“WOLA should oppose this regime change effort unequivocally, just as progressives throughout the world opposed the Iraq War of 2003.”

Most dangerous is WOLA’s opposition to the offers of mediation by Pope Francis as well as the neutral governments of Mexico and Uruguay. WOLA has referred to these offers ― which have been called the Montevideo mechanism ― as a “non-starter.” Instead, WOLA has chosen the European Contact Group, which is dominated by Washington and governments allied with its illegal sanctions and regime change effort, as the only legitimate place for negotiations to take place.

Since the Trump administration clearly has no desire to negotiate, and has openly stated this, WOLA’s choice implies that there will be no real negotiations until the other (European and Latin American) governments in the group are willing to make a clean break with Washington. This is not impossible, but it is unlikely in the foreseeable future. WOLA’s choice of a Trump-dominated negotiating group therefore aids Trump and his team of extremists (John Bolton, Marco Rubio, and Elliott Abrams), in their rejection of dialogue or negotiation.

WOLA even rejects the involvement of the UN in negotiations, which the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has proposed, claiming that their role should be limited to overseeing a transition. The UN is the international body that has accumulated themost experience and knowledge in mediating inter- and intra-national crises. This includes successfully mediating the end to even seemingly intractable civil wars, such as in El Salvador in the 1990s. This expertise, alongside the moral authority the UN has as the most representative international body, means that a mediation process overseen by them would carry much more legitimacy than one led by the Trump administration and its political allies.

WOLA has been ambiguous about whether it supports the recognition of Juan Guaidó as “interim president,” a move that automatically creates a trade embargo on top of the current financial embargo. This is because the source of almost all of the country’s foreign exchange is from oil exports, about three-quarters of which goes to countries that have joined the Trump recognition of a parallel government, and therefore will not be expected to pay the current government of Venezuela for its oil.[1]

This will deprive the economy of billions of dollars of foreign exchange, thus accelerating the increase in mortality (including infant and child mortality) from lack of medicines and health care, as well as worsening shortages of food ― an impact that is widely acknowledged. This is profoundly immoral. It also breaches international law, including Article 19 of the OAS Charter, the UN charter, and many other international treaties that the US has signed.

WOLA has also taken an ambivalent position on the August 2017 Trump sanctions, offering some criticisms but also offering suggestions for improvement. These sanctions imposed an illegal (for the same reasons as above) financial embargo that has been devastating, crippling oil production and thereby depriving the economy of billions of dollars for foreign exchange needed for vital imports. It also prevented any debt restructuring, as well as most other measures that would be necessary to exit from the country’s depression and hyperinflation.

WOLA defended these sanctions by arguing that “they complicate the Maduro government’s finances in such a way that they will not have an immediate impact on the population (although in the longer term, they likely would).” This is false, as anyone familiar with the sanctions and the Venezuelan economy knows. The Venezuelan economy ― not just the government ― depends on oil exports for almost the entirety of its foreign exchange. That is what pays for imports of medicine, food, and other vital necessities ― whether from government or the private sector.

“It is good that WOLA has distinguished itself from these people by opposing US military intervention and the manipulation of humanitarian aid for political purposes. But that is not enough.”

These positions are not defensible from a human point of view, and neither is the Trump administration’s apparent goal of extra-legal regime change. Why does the Trump team reject negotiation? Because they do not want a compromise solution which is necessary for the opposing political forces in a polarized country to co-exist. They are not concerned with the human costs of a winner-take-all solution; indeed it is possible that for people like Elliott Abrams and John Bolton, violence may be seen as an integral part of their strategy for vanquishing Chavismo and its followers, or gaining the control that both Trump and Bolton have stated that they want to have over the world’s largest oil reserves.

It is good that WOLA has distinguished itself from these people by opposing US military intervention and the manipulation of humanitarian aid for political purposes. But that is not enough. It should unequivocally oppose the whole sordid regime change operation, the violations of international law, and the illegal sanctions that are causing so much suffering.

WOLA should not pretend that this external regime change operation led by violence-prone extremists is actually a legitimate effort by the “international community” to help resolve Venezuela’s political and economic crisis. And most importantly, WOLA should abandon the implausible assertion that the only viable negotiation process is one that is controlled by the Trump administration and its allies, i.e., the European Contact Group.

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Leader Of Anti-Immigrant Militia Group Attacked In Jail, Lawyer Says

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SUNLAND PARK, N.M., April 24 (Reuters) ― The leader of an armed group that spent the past two months detaining migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, drawing condemnation from civil liberties advocates, has been hospitalized after he was attacked in jail, his attorney said.

Larry Hopkins, 69, was in a hospital with broken ribs after being attacked on Tuesday at the Dona Ana County Detention Center in Las Cruces in southern New Mexico, attorney Kelly O’Connell said.

A spokeswoman for the Dona Ana County center did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

The attack occurred the same day Hopkins’ United Constitutional Patriots (UCP) group abandoned its border camp near Sunland Park, New Mexico, where they had spent two months detaining thousands of illegal migrants.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) last week accused Hopkins’ group of being a fascist, white nationalist militia illegally detaining and kidnapping Central American families seeking asylum.

O’Connell said he had spoken with Hopkins by phone.

“This guy is very high-profile. So, if he gets put into jail and is immediately attacked after his first hearing just a few days after being put in there, can Dona Ana County correctional protect high-profile defendants?” O’Connell asked.

O’Connell said he did not know why Hopkins had been targeted. But a spokesman for his UCP paramilitary group said he believed it was because of his activity at the border.

“They put him in a pod cell with a group of people and they had just got done watching the article about the ACLU writing about him being racist, and as a result of that he was attacked,” UCP spokesman Jim Benvie said in a video posted online.

New Mexico’s Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham on Friday said the UCP’s activities had to stop, and the FBI arrested Hopkins the next day on gun charges based on a 2017 search of his home.

Benvie said the UCP was moving to another campsite in a couple of days and would continue to support the U.S. Border Patrol as it faced an “invasion” of migrants, most of whom it said are fraudulently seeking asylum.

“We do have a private property location on the border that we have secured,” said Benvie. “We will not be going anywhere, we will be on an area where we can continue to do what we’ve done.”

The Border Patrol has said it does not support private citizens acting as law enforcement.

(Additional reporting by Peter Szekely in New York and Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Scott Malone, Bernadette Baum and Jonathan Oatis)

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The Good Ol’ Boys: 2 Years In, Trump Is Making Our Courts A Lot Less Diverse

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WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump has done something remarkable to the nation’s federal courts: he’s filled up their empty seats with clones of Vice President Mike Pence.

Whether it’s for district courts or higher-ranking appeals courts, Trump’s confirmed lifetime judges are overwhelmingly white men with records of opposing abortion, LGBTQ rights and voting rights.

A whopping 90% of the Trump picks confirmed for appeals courts in his first two years in office were white, according to a Congressional Research Service analysis. 10% were Asian American. He didn’t confirm any African American or Hispanic circuit judges.

In that same period, 92% of his confirmed district court judges were white. 4% were Asian American, 2% were African American and 2% were Hispanic.

CONGRESSIONAL RESEARCH SERVICE
As for the gender breakdown, 80% of Trump’s confirmed appeals court judges and 74% of those approved for the district courts were male.

CONGRESSIONAL RESEARCH SERVICE
For some context, 65% of President Barack Obama’s confirmed appeals court judges were white, as were 63% of those he placed on district courts. In terms of gender, 56% of Obama’s confirmed appeals court judges and 59% of his confirmed district court judges were male, per the CRS analysis.

What does it all mean? It means that Trump is making the federal courts a lot less diverse than they were after Obama left office. And less diversity means fewer of the people making decisions on the nation’s most powerful courts reflect the demographics of the populations they serve, which limits perspectives on critical issues like abortion rights, criminal justice and employment discrimination.

“Trump has compiled a poor record of nominating and confirming accomplished, conservative but centrist, ethnic minority, female and LGBTQ candidates,” Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor and expert on judicial nominations, said in an email. “The appointment of diverse candidates would enhance the justice that courts deliver and parties merit.”

Some glaring holes in the makeup of Trump’s judges: he didn’t nominate any African American women to be appeals or district judges during his first two years ― though last month he nominated two. He hasn’t nominated any Native American judges. He’s nominated two LGBTQ people for federal court seats, but neither have been confirmed.

More than 80% of Trump’s judges are also members of the Federalist Society, a powerful Washington-based organization of conservative lawyers that has been feeding the White House the names of young, anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ, anti-voting rights attorneys to confirm to judgeships.

Some of the group’s confirmed picks have included appeals court judge Amy Coney Barrett, 47, who suggested Roe v. Wade was an “erroneous decision” and called the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit “an assault on religious liberty.”

Appeals court judge Eric Murphy, 40, defended Ohio’s notorious voter purge law that will make it disproportionately harder for minority, low-income and disabled voters to vote.

Appeals court judge John Bush, 54, has compared abortion to slavery and referred to them as “the two greatest tragedies in our country.” He has also said he strongly disagrees with same-sex marriage, mocked climate change and proclaimed “the witch is dead” when he thought the Affordable Care Act might not be enacted.

Both of Trump’s Supreme Court appointees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, are Federalist Society members too (as well as white males).

The White House and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have been laser-focused on filling appeals court vacancies because these courts often have the last word in federal cases. The Supreme Court only hears about 100 to 150 cases every year, compared to the more than 50,000 cases heard by appeals courts.

To date, Trump has won confirmation of 37 appeals court judges and 58 district court judges. At the appeals court level, that’s more than any president has confirmed in his first two years and means that one in five judges on the nation’s appeals courts was nominated by Trump.

McConnell is now turning his attention to the 125 vacancies on district courts. Republicans blew up the Senate rules last month to make it a lot easier to confirm district court judges, so it’s possible they’ll fill all of those vacancies by the end of Trump’s first term.

It’s too early to draw conclusions about how Trump has changed the federal courts. For one thing, despite the president getting so many appeals court judges confirmed, his picks are mostly replacing other judges appointed by Republican presidents, meaning the White House might not be able to tilt the partisan balance on those courts as much as it wants unless Trump wins a second term.

Russell Wheeler, a fellow in the Brookings Institution’s governance studies program, said the balance among appeals court judges appointed by Democratic or Republican presidents is beginning to shift toward the GOP in a few circuits. “Whether that pace will stay steady is hard to say,” he said.

But even where Trump has filled a court seat previously occupied by a Republican-appointed judge, there are significant differences. Trump’s judicial nominees are generally younger and have a clearer right-wing ideological bent than the people they’re replacing.

As Wheeler put it in February, “When Trump replaces a 72-year-old slightly right-of-center judge with a 45-year-old conservative firebrand, it’s not really apples for apples.”

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Elizabeth Warren Proposes Wiping Out Almost Everyone’s Student Debt

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On Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) released a wide-ranging plan to fix the U.S. college system, with proposals including making two-year and four-year public college free and expanding the size and scope of the federal Pell Grant program.

And one particularly radical idea is sure to grab the attention of young people around the country: wiping out student loan debt for the vast majority of American borrowers.

“The time for half-measures is over,” Warren, one of many politicians and public figures hoping to secure the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, wrote in a post published Monday on Medium. “My broad cancellation plan is a real solution to our student debt crisis. It helps millions of families and removes a weight that’s holding back our economy.”

Last year, outstanding student debt in the U.S. topped $1.5 trillion, a growing financial burden that Warren argues is “crushing millions of families and acting as an anchor on our economy.” 

“It’s reducing home ownership rates,” she wrote. “It’s leading fewer people to start businesses. It’s forcing students to drop out of school before getting a degree. It’s a problem for all of us.”

To address the problem, Warren is suggesting what she calls a “truly transformational” approach: wiping out $50,000 in student loan debt for anyone with a household income below $100,000. People with student loans and a household income between $100,000 and $250,000 would receive substantial relief as well. At that point, “the $50,000 cancellation amount phases out by $1 for every $3 in income above $100,000,” Warren wrote. 

That means someone with a household income of $130,000 would get $40,000 of their loans wiped out. Someone with a household income of $160,000 would get $30,000 in relief. 

People with household incomes above $250,000 would not be eligible for debt cancellation. 

Under Warren’s proposed plan, up to 76 percent of households with student loan debt would receive “total loan forgiveness,” according to an economic analysis of the proposal by academics at Arizona State University, Brandeis University and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Ninety-five percent, or 42 million Americans, would be eligible to have at least some of their debt canceled.

The plan would particularly benefit black, Latino and lower-income households, as well as households headed by people who never finished college, the researchers said. Wiping out the debt would cost the government an estimated $640 billion, they noted. 

To make the process as painless as possible, student debt owned by the government would be canceled automatically after an analysis of borrowers’ income and outstanding debt, Warren said. Private student loan debt would be “eligible for cancellation” as well, but in those cases, “the federal government will work with borrowers and the holders of this debt to provide relief,” she said. 

Randi Weingarten, the president of the influential American Federation of Teachers union, said in a prepared statement that Warren’s college proposals would be a “game-changer” for borrowers, and would prove to be “as consequential as the GI Bill” enacted after World War II. 

“Sen. Warren’s plan would release Americans from their debt sentence so they can live their lives, care for their families and have a fair shot at the American dream,” Weingarten said.

Warren’s proposal also received praise from Seth Frotman, the former student loan ombudsman at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau who stepped down last year in protest of what he saw as the Trump administration’s prioritization of “powerful financial companies” over borrowers. 

“Student debt has become a crisis that can no longer be ignored,” Frotman said. “We need leaders who not only understand this crisis, but who put forth solutions to end it. Senator Warren’s proposal recognizes the scale of this crisis and rises to meet it.”

In her post, Warren lays out a litany of other college-related proposals as well. Like fellow Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Warren wants to make two-year and four-year public colleges free by wiping out tuition and fees. She also wants to do more to help students pay for the growing cost of non-tuition expenses like room and board by investing an additional $100 billion in the Pell Grants program over the next decade, as well as expanding their size and who is eligible for them.

On top of that, Warren hopes to create a fund with a minimum of $50 billion to help historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions; prohibit “public colleges from considering citizenship status or criminal history in admissions decisions”; give additional funds to states that substantially improve enrollment and graduation rates for lower-income students and students of color; and eventually cut for-profit colleges off from federal money. 

“I commend Senator Warren for proposing solutions to rectify our student debt crisis and to provide universal race conscious access to a quality college degree,” said Darrick Hamilton, executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. “This bold debt cancellation proposal, coupled with investments to let Americans graduate college without debt, offers an American promise of enabling access to a college education regardless of one’s race or families’ ability to pay.”

The plan to broadly cancel student debt and institute a universal free college program is estimated to cost a total of $1.25 trillion over 10 years. Warren claims the cost would be covered by passing a separate plan to annually tax the wealth of households worth more than $50 million. 

The academics who analyzed the report argued that the overall cost would likely be offset by additional tax revenue that would come from the proposal itself, which they said would serve as a middle-class economic stimulus. 

“Debt cancellation cascades to relieving thousands of dollars in interest payments while leaving several hundred dollars each month for consumption and investment,” the researchers wrote in a letter to Warren. “It would likely entail consumer-driven economic stimulus, improved credit scores, greater home-buying rates and housing stability, higher college completion rates, and greater business formation.”

Thus far in 2019, Warren has distinguished herself from other Democratic presidential candidates by regularly putting out innovative policy proposals, like her plans for universal child care and an annual wealth tax on the ultra-wealthy. On Friday, Warren made news on the non-policy front when she became the first Democratic presidential candidate to call for President Donald Trump’s impeachment. 

But the Massachusetts senator has also faced questions about the large size of her staff after only raising $6 million during the first quarter of the year ― a number that can be at least partially attributed to her decision to forego traditional big-donor fundraising tactics. 

In her post on Monday, Warren argued that she began “sounding the alarm” on the student debt crisis long ago, noting that as a senator she has introduced bills to “provide relief to student borrowers” and “let people refinance their loans and lower their monthly payments.” She has also pressured the Department of Education to cancel thousands of “fraudulent” loans related to the now-dissolved for-profit Corinthian Colleges.

“We got into this crisis because state governments and the federal government decided that instead of treating higher education like our public school system ― free and accessible to all Americans ― they’d rather cut taxes for billionaires and giant corporations and offload the cost of higher education onto students and their families,” she wrote Monday. 

“The student debt crisis is the direct result of this failed experiment,” she added. “It’s time to end that experiment, to clean up the mess it’s caused, and to do better.” 

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