From the belly of the beast: Obama betrays working people's hopes

Less than two weeks before the first anniversary of US President Barack Obama’s inauguration, when the catastrophic earthquake hit Haiti, Robert Gates, the US secretary of defence, immediately announced that no food, water or medicines would be delivered until “security” was established. The first order of business was to send in 10,000 US troops. A 9000-member Brazilian-led UN military force, which has been occupying Haiti since a US-orchestrated coup in 2004 removed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, made a similar announcement.

In the critical period of the first days after the earthquake, the US military took over Port-au-Prince’s only international airport. It turned away airplanes bringing in doctors and supplies, including from Doctors Without Borders, and even a French government plane. Instead, the airport was reserved for the landing of US troops. Tens of thousands more died every day as a result, in addition to those killed in the quake itself.

When aid finally was allowed in, it piled up at the airport. The Obama administration opposed delivering it until the US troops were in control of the distribution. No help with rescue was forthcoming. The heroic Haitian people who survived were trying to dig through the heavy rubble with their bare hands, shovels and hammers, searching for survivors and corpses. Disease threatens.

Two weeks after the disaster, aid is only trickling in. The deliberate delay amounts to a major criminal act. If Hurricane Katrina marked the deliberate “gentrification” of New Orleans by George W. Bush, Obama’s response to the Haitian crisis is his Katrina on a more horrific scale. It is symbolic that Gates was held over from the Bush administration, as was Obama’s appointment of Bush and Bill Clinton to head up fundraising from the public for aid for Haiti. Clinton forced Aristide to accept neoliberal economic policies that further devastated the impoverished nation as the price of returning to government in 1994 after he was ousted by a 1991 coup backed by George Bush senior. Then Bush junior threw him out again.

Obama deflected criticism of his response by appealing for Americans to give donations to private aid groups. They have done this on a massive scale. I gave to a group that I hoped can help the Cuban doctors and nurses who have been on the spot from the beginning. The US imperialist rulers’ goal is to utilise Haiti as a base from which to push back against the growing political influence in the Caribbean region of the revolutionary governments of Venezuela and Cuba. The right-wing coup last year in Honduras was part of this plan, which is part of a wider campaign that also targets the left-wing governments of Bolivia and Ecuador .

In every major way, Obama has been the continuation of George W. Bush. The Bush administration’s wars against Afghanistan and Iraq have been expanded by Obama. The promised withdrawal from Iraq is contingent on the creation of a stable, pro-US regime. Even if this is achieved, Obama pledges to keep 50,000 US troops in Iraq for the foreseeable future. The war against Afghanistan has been stepped up, as have the military incursions into neighbouring Pakistan. Bush used the fear of “terrorism” after the attacks of 9/11 to launch the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Similarly, Obama is utilising the recent inept attempt to bomb an airliner to threaten a wider war in Yemen and Somalia.

Bush backed the December 2008 Israeli blitzkrieg of Gaza. Then president-elect Obama gave tacit support with his silence. Since his inauguration, Obama has supported the continued Israeli siege that aims to starve Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinians into submission. Like Bush, Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, make muffled bleats of protest as Israel expands its settlements further into Palestine, and tightens its grip over all of the Palestinian people’s national homeland with an apartheid state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.

Obama promised to close the notorious prison at the naval base the US holds illegally at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within a year. The prison remains open. Some prisoners are being repatriated to their home countries, some will be tried in US courts, others will be given military trials if they are not simply held without charges. The Justice Department is doing everything it can to block any indictments for war crimes by US forces, with a few token exceptions. Cover-ups of torture and murder by torture in the CIA’s secret prisons around the world continue.

The case against private “security” firm Blackwater for its 2007 massacre of 14 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad was thrown out of court because of deliberate misconduct by the prosecutors of the Obama Justice Department. The White House admits it is using Blackwater (under a new name) and other mercenaries in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

On the economy the situation is the same. The massive bailout of the big banks started under Bush and was continued by Obama and his economic team of former Wall Street bank executives. Some estimates of the final cost of this bailout project trillions of dollars. Obama did enact an employment stimulus package, but it was woefully inadequate. Obama was elected because he and the Democrats were perceived to be able to help the working people who were bearing the brunt of the post-2007 Great Recession. But unemployment has only gotten worse and the misery intensified.

Even though the country has its first African American president, the situation for blacks has gotten worse. Unemployment among black people is double that for whites, with black youth especially hard hit. This situation is a social catastrophe, which will leave its mark long after any economic recovery.In December 85,000 more jobs were lost, in spite of an uptick in GDP. Unemployment officially remains at 10% — double what it was in December 2007, when the current Great Recession began — and “underemployment” is at 17%. When Obama was inaugurated, unemployment was officially 7% of the labour force.

In the working and middle classes, there is deep anger about the fact that they are bearing the brunt of the Great Recession, while the luxurious lifestyles of the corporate bosses have been protected by the government. The big banks have announced that bonuses for their executives this year will be US$145 billion. Record government spending seems to do nothing for ordinary people. At the same time, money for education and other social services is being slashed.

As a result, polls find majorities now are against Obama’s economic policies, as well as his proposals on health-care insurance. The “reform” of health insurance, now stalled in Congress, would lock in the hold of the insurance companies for decades to come. It would force everyone to buy insurance from those companies, with government subsidies to those same companies in cases where individuals couldn’t afford to pay in full. Supposed guarantees against insurance company abuses would be easily circumvented. Moreover, the plans under discussion are so complicated that no-one is able to explain what they would mean if enacted.

The Republicans are against any reform. The bills now stalled in Congress are supported only by Democrats. People who register to vote as Democrats (as opposed to the Democratic Party politicians), are also turning against Obama. In California, generally a pro-Democrat state, a recent poll of Democratic and independent voters found 53% disapprove of Obama’s handling of health care, while 39% approve. If Republican voters are included, the disapproval rate goes much higher.

Such polls do not show why working people disapprove of the proposed reform. Some see it as just more wasteful spending that will not help them. A racist undertone is that only blacks and Latinos would benefit. But there is also a widespread view that recognises the proposed reform is just a giveaway to the insurance companies.

When the health-care debate began, a majority were in favour of a national health insurance plan that would cover everyone, with the insurance companies cut out of the picture. Such a plan would greatly reduce costs and be far more efficient than the profit-driven private insurers. It also would be easily understood, and everyone would know that they would no longer pay for health insurance if they have coverage now, and they would be covered if they do not. All medical procedures would be covered for free. But this alternative is off the table.

However, Democrats in the California state legislature have just proposed such a “single payer” plan. They believe that this is supported by Democratic and independent voters, which helps explain the poll in California referred to above. Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger would veto such a bill, as he has done twice before, but it remains a popular proposal.

The by-election in Massachusetts to fill the Senate seat vacated by the death of Edward Kennedy was supposed to be an easy victory for the Democrats. But a Republican won with a demagogic campaign playing on the deep anger over the economy and disappointment with the Obama administration’s response.

The election of an African American to the presidency registered a historic change in voters’ attitudes in this racist country. But it did not signify any basic change in government policy. The continuation of Washington’s offensive against working people at home and abroad, not only under Bush but previous administrations, is not a betrayal except of Obama’s promises. It is of a piece with the fundamental interests of the ruling rich, and they have not been betrayed. This is hardly surprising since both the Democrats and Republicans are parties of the ruling class, and Obama is the chief executive charged with carrying out its wishes.

One year ago, there were two million people at Obama’s inauguration. Hopes were high that his election would mean real change for the better. One year later, it is these hopes that have been betrayed.

[The title of this regular column, “From the belly of the beast”, was how the great Cuban fighter against US imperialism Jose Marti, signed his letters to friends back in Cuba when he was in the US.]