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Thread: American Libertarians [Neocons?] Are Remaking Latin American Politics

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    Default American Libertarians [Neocons?] Are Remaking Latin American Politics

    From the Intercept:

    For Alejandro Chafuen, the gathering this spring at the Brick Hotel in Buenos Aires was as much a homecoming as it was a victory lap. Chafuen, a lanky Argentine-American, had spent his adult life working to undermine left-wing social movements and governments in South and Central America, and boost a business-friendly version of libertarianism instead.
    It was a lonely battle for decades, but not lately. Chafuen was among friends at the 2017 Latin America Liberty Forum. The international meeting of libertarian activists was sponsored by the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, a leadership-training nonprofit now known simply as the Atlas Network, which Chafuen has led since 1991. At the Brick Hotel, Chafuen was reveling in recent victories; his years of work were starting to pay off, thanks to political and economic circumstances — but also because of the network of activists Chafuen has been working for so long to cultivate.
    Over the past 10 years, leftist governments have used “money to buy votes, to redistribute,” said Chafuen, seated comfortably in the lobby. But the recent drop in commodity prices, coupled with corruption scandals, has given an opportunity for Atlas Network groups to spring into action. “When there is an opening, you have a crisis, and there is some demand for change, you have people who are trained to push for certain policies,” Chafuen noted, paraphrasing the late Milton Friedman. “And in our case, we tend to favor to private solutions to public problems.”
    Chafuen pointed to numerous Atlas-affiliated leaders now in the spotlight: ministers in the new conservative government in Argentina, senators in Bolivia, and the leaders of the Free Brazil Movement that took down Dilma Rousseff’s presidency, where Chafuen’s network sprang to life before his very eyes.
    “In Brazil, I have been in the street demonstrations, and I’m like, ‘Hey, this guy I met when he was 17, 18 — he is up there on the bus leading this. This is crazy!’” Chafuen said, excitedly. Those in Atlas’s orbit were no less excited to run into Chafuen in Buenos Aires. Activists from various countries stopped Chafuen intermittently to sing his praises as he walked through the hotel. For many, Chafuen, from his perch at Atlas, has served as a mentor, fiscal sponsor, and guiding beacon for a new political paradigm in their country.
    Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, left, looks down inside a car on the outskirts of San Jose on his way to the airport to board a flight to Nicaragua, June 28, 2009.
    Photo: Kent Gilbert/AP

    A rightward shift is afoot in Latin American politics. Triumphant socialist governments had once swept the region for much of the 21st century – from Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to land reform populist Manuel Zelaya in Honduras – championing new programs for the poor, nationalizing businesses, and challenging U.S. dominance in hemispheric affairs.

    In recent years, however, leftist leaders have fallen one after another, sometimes in spectacular fashion. Zelaya was led from the presidential palace in his pajamas in a military coup; in Argentina, a real-estate baron swept to the presidency and Kirchner was indicted for corruption; and in Brazil, the ruling Workers’ Party, facing a growing corruption scandal and a mass protest movement, was swept out of office via impeachment over charges of budget chicanery.This shift might appear as part of a larger regional rebalancing, merely economic circumstances taking hold. And yet the Atlas Network seems ever-present, a common thread nudging political developments along.
    The story of the Atlas Network and its profound impact on ideology and political power has never been fully told. But business filings and records from three continents, along with interviews with libertarian leaders across the hemisphere, reveal the scope of its influential history. The libertarian network, which has reshaped political power in country after country, has also operated as a quiet extension of U.S. foreign policy, with Atlas-associated think tanks receiving quiet funding from the State Department and the National Endowment for Democracy, a critical arm of American soft power.

    Though recent investigations have shed light on the role of powerful conservative billionaires, such as the Koch brothers, in developing a business-friendly version of libertarian thought, the Atlas Network, which receives funding from Koch foundations, has recreated methods honed in the Western world for developing countries.The network is expansive, currently boasting loose partnerships with 450 think tanks around the world. Atlas says it dispensed over $5 million to its partners in 2016 alone.
    Over the years, Atlas and its affiliated charitable foundations have provided hundreds of grants to conservative and free-market think tanks in Latin America, including the libertarian network that supported the Free Brazil Movement and organizations behind a libertarian push in Argentina, including Fundación Pensar, the Atlas think tank that merged with the political party formed by Mauricio Macri, a businessman who now leads the country. The leaders of the Free Brazil Movement and the founder of Fundación Eléutera in Honduras, an influential post-coup neoliberal think tank, have received financial support from Atlas, and are among the next generation of political operatives that have gone through Atlas’s training seminars.
    The Atlas Network spans dozens of other think tanks across the region, including prominent groups supporting right-wing forces behind the unfolding anti-government movement in Venezuela and the campaign of Sebastián Piñera, the right-of-center candidate leading the polls for this year’s presidential election in Chile.
    People demonstrate in favor of impeaching Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff in front of the National Congress in Brasilia, Brazil, Dec. 2, 2015.
    Photo: Eraldo Peres/AP

    Nowhere has the Atlas method been better encapsulated than in a newly formed network of Brazilian free-market think tanks. Recently formed institutes worked together to foment anger at socialist policies, with some cultivating academic centers, while others work to train activists and maintain a constant war in the Brazilian media against leftist ideas.
    The effort to focus anger solely at the left paid dividends last year for the Brazilian right. The millennial activists of the Free Brazil Movement, many of them trained in political organizing in the U.S., led a mass movement to channel public anger over a vast corruption scandal against Dilma, the left-of-center president popularly known by her first name. The scandal, nicknamed Operação Lava Jato, or Operation Car Wash, is a still-unfolding tale of bribery involving leading politicians from all of Brazil’s major political parties, including the right-wing and center-right parties. But the social media-savvy Free Brazil Movement, known by its Portuguese initials, MBL, managed to direct the bulk of outrage squarely at Dilma, demanding her ousting and an end to the welfare-centric policies of her Workers’ Party.
    The uprising, which has drawn comparisons to the tea party movement, especially considering the quiet support from local industrial conglomerates and a new conspiracy-minded network of far-right media voices, ended 13 years of rule by the Workers’ Party by removing Dilma from office through impeachment in 2016.
    The landscape that MBL sprang from is a new development in Brazil. There were perhaps three active libertarian think tanks 10 years ago, said Helio Beltrão, a former hedge fund executive who now leads Instituto Mises, a nonprofit named after the libertarian philosopher, Ludwig von Mises. Now, he said, with the support of Atlas, there are close to 30 such institutes active in Brazil, all working collaboratively, along with groups, such as Students for Liberty and MBL.
    “It’s like a soccer team. Defense is the academia. The forward guys are the politicians. We’ve scored a few goals,” he said, referring to Dilma’s impeachment. The midfield, he said, are the “cultural guys” that shape public opinion.
    Beltrão explained that the think tank network is hoping to privatize the national post office in Brazil, calling it “low-hanging fruit” that could lead to a larger wave of free-market reforms. Many of the conservative parties in Brazil embraced libertarian campaigners when they showed they could mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to protest against Dilma, but haven’t yet adopted the fundamentals of supply-side theory.

    Fernando Schüler, an academic and columnist associated with Instituto Millenium, another Atlas think tank in Brazil, made the case another way.“Brazil has 17,000 unions paid by public money, one day of salary per year goes to unions, completely controlled by the left,” said Schüler. The only way to reverse the socialist trend has been to out-maneuver them. “With technology, people could by themselves participate, organize at low cost — WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube, using networks, a kind of public manifestation,” he continued, explaining the way libertarian organizers mobilized a protest movement against left-leaning politicians.
    Organizers against Dilma had created a daily barrage of YouTube videos mocking the Worker’s Party government, along with an interactive scoreboard to encourage citizens to lobby their legislators to support impeachment.
    Schüler noted that the Free Brazil Movement and his own think tank receive financial support from local industrial trade groups, but the movement had succeeded in part because it is not identified with the incumbent political parties, most of which the general public views with suspicion. He argued that the only way to radically reshape society and reverse popular sentiment in support of the welfare state was to wage a permanent cultural war to confront left intellectuals and the media.
    Fernando Schüler.
    Photo: Screen shot from YouTube

    One of the founders of Schüler’s Instituto Millenium think tank, Brazilian blogger Rodrigo Constantino, has polarized Brazilian politics with hyperpartisan rhetoric. Constantino, who has been called the “Breitbart of Brazil” for his conspiratorial views and acidic right-wing commentary, chairs yet another Atlas think tank, Instituto Liberal. He sees the Brazilian left’s every move as a veiled attempt at subverting democracy, from the use of the color red in the country’s World Cup logo to the Bolsa Família cash assistance program to poor families.

    Constantino is credited with popularizing a narrative that Worker’s Party supporters are limousine liberals, wealthy hypocrites that flock to socialism to claim the moral high ground while snubbing the working classes they claim to represent.The Breitbartization of public discourse is but one of the many ways the Atlas network has subtly influenced political debate.
    “It’s a very paternalistic state. It’s crazy. It’s a lot of state control, and that’s the long-term challenge,” said Schüler, adding that despite recent victories, libertarians had a long way to go in Brazil. He hoped to copy the model of Margaret Thatcher, who relied on a network of libertarian think tanks to push unpopular reforms. “This pension system is absurd. I would privatize all education,” Schüler, rattling off a litany of changes he would make to society, from defunding labor unions to repealing the law that makes voting compulsory.
    Yet the only way to make all that possible, he added, would be to build a network of politically active nonprofits all waging separate battles to push the same libertarian goals. The existing model — the constellation of right-wing think tanks in Washington, D.C., supported by powerful endowments — is the only path forward for Brazil, Schüler said.
    Atlas, for its part, is busy doing just that. It gives grants for new think tanks, provides courses on political management and public relations, sponsors networking events around the world, and, in recent years, has devoted special resources to prodding libertarians to influence public opinion through social media and online videos.
    An annual competition encourages Atlas’s network to produce viral YouTube videos promoting laissez-faire ideas and ridiculing proponents of the welfare state. James O’Keefe, the provocateur famous for needling Democrats with his undercover videos, has appeared before Atlas to explain his methods. Producers from a Wisconsin group that worked to create online videos to discredit teacher protests against Gov. Scott Walker’s law busting public sector unions have also provided instructions for Atlas’s training sessions.
    Crowd members burn a puppet of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez at Plaza Altamira in protest against the government.
    Photo: Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images


    Among its other exploits of late, Atlas has played a role in a Latin American nation roiled by the region’s most acute political and humanitarian crisis: Venezuela. Records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by author and activist Eva Golinger, as well as State Department cables disclosed by whistleblower Chelsea Manning, reveal U.S. policymakers’ sophisticated effort to use Atlas think tanks in a long-running campaign to destabilize the reign of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez.As early as 1998, Cedice Libertad, Atlas’s flagship think tank in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, received regular financial support from the Center for International Private Enterprise. In one grant letter, NED funds marked for Cedice are listed to help advocate “a change in government.” The director of Cedice was among the signatories of the controversy “Carmona Decree” supporting the short-lived military coup against Chávez in 2002.
    A 2006 cable laid out a strategy from U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield for funding politically active nonprofits in Venezuela: “1) Strengthening democratic institutions, 2) penetrating Chávez’s political base, 3) dividing Chavismo, 4) protecting vital U.S. business, and 5) isolating Chávez internationally.”
    In Venezula’s current crisis, Cedice has promoted the recent spate of protests against President Nicholás Maduro, Chávez’s embattled successor. Cedice is closely affiliated with opposition figure María Corina Machado, one of the leaders of the massive anti-government street demonstrations in recent months. Machado has publicly recognized Atlas for its work. In a videotape message delivered to the group in 2014, she said, “Thank you to the Atlas Network, to all freedom fighters.”
    Venezuelan opposition leader María Corina Machado has recognized Atlas for its work: “Thank you to the Atlas Network, to all freedom fighters,” she said in 2014.
    At the Atlas Network’s Latin American Liberty Forum in Buenos Aires, young leaders buzzed back and forth, sharing ideas on how to defeat socialism at every level, from pitched battles on college campuses to mobilizing an entire country to embrace impeachment.
    Think tank “entrepreneurs” from Peru, the Dominican Republic, and Honduras competed in a format along the lines of “Shark Tank,” an America reality show where start-up businesses pitch to a panel of wealthy, ruthless investors. Instead of seeking investments from a panel of venture capitalists, however, the think tank leaders pitched policy marketing ideas for a contest that awarded $5,000. In another session, strategies were debated for attracting industry support to back economic reforms. In another room, political operatives debated arguments “lovers of liberty” can use to respond to the global rise of populism to “redirect the sense of injustice many feel” toward free-market goals.
    One young leader from CADAL, a think tank in Buenos Aires, presented on an idea to rank each Argentine province using what he called an “economic liberty index,” which would use the level of taxation and regulation as the main criteria to generate buzz for free-market reforms. The idea is consciously modeled on similar strategies from the U.S., including the Heritage Foundation’s “Index of Economic Freedom,” which measures countries based on criteria that includes tax policies and regulatory barriers to business formation.
    Think tanks are traditionally associated with independent institutes formed to develop unconventional solutions. But the Atlas model focuses less on developing genuinely new policy proposals, and more on establishing political organizations that carry the credibility of academic institutions, making them an effective organ for winning hearts and minds.
    Free-market ideas — such as slashing taxes on the wealthy; whittling down the public sector and placing it under the control of private operators; and liberalized trade rules and restrictions on labor unions — have always struggled with a perception problem. Proponents of this vision have found that voters tend to view such ideas as a vehicle for serving society’s upper crust. Rebranding economic libertarianism as a public interest ideology has required elaborate strategies for mass persuasion.
    But the Atlas model now spreading rapidly through Latin America is based on a method perfected by decades of struggle in the U.S. and the U.K., as libertarians worked to stem the tide of the surging post-war welfare state.
    Map of Atlas group locations in South America.
    Map: The Intercept

    Antony Fisher, a British entrepreneur and the founder of the Atlas Network, pioneered the sale of libertarian economics to the broader public. The tack was simple: Fisher made it his mission to, in the words of an associate, “litter the world with free-market think tanks.”
    The basis for Fisher’s ideals came from Friedrich Hayek, a forbearer of modern thought on limited government. In 1946, after reading the Reader’s Digest version of Hayek’s seminal book, “The Road to Serfdom,” Fisher sought a meeting with the Austrian economist in London. As recounted by his close colleague John Blundell, Fisher suggested Hayek enter politics. But Hayek demurred, replying that a bottom-up focus on shifting the public discourse could better shape society.
    Meanwhile, in the U.S., another free-market ideologue, Leonard Read, was entertaining similar notions after leading the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Los Angeles branch into bruising battles with organized labor. To counter the growth of the welfare state, a more elaborate response would be necessary to share popular debates around the direction of society, without the visible link to corporate interests.
    Fisher was propelled forward by a fateful visit to Read’s newly formed nonprofit, the Foundation for Economic Education, in New York, which was founded to help sponsor and promote the ideas of free-market intellectuals. There, libertarian economist F.A. Harper, at the time working at FEE, advised Fisher on methods for creating his own nonprofit in the U.K.
    During the trip, Fisher also traveled with Harper to Cornell University to observe the latest animal industry breakthrough of battery cages, marveling at the sight of 15,000 chickens housed in a single building. Fisher was inspired to bring the innovation home with him. His factory, Buxted Chickens, grew rapidly and made Fisher a substantial fortune in the process. Some of those profits went into the other goal fostered during his New York trip: In 1955, Fisher founded the Institute of Economic Affairs.
    IEA helped popularize the once-obscure set of economists loosely affiliated with Hayek’s ideas. The institute was a place to showcase opposition to British society’s growing welfare state, connecting journalists to free-market academics and disseminating critiques on a regular basis through opinion columns, radio interviews, and conferences.
    Businesses provided the bulk of funding to IEA, as leading British industrial and banking giants — from Barclays to BP — pitched in with annual contributions. According to “Making Thatcher’s Britain,” by historians Ben Jackson and Robert Saunders, one shipping magnate remarked that, since universities were providing ammunition for the unions, the IEA was an important source of bullets for business.
    As the economic slowdown and rising inflation of the 1970s shook the foundations of British society, Tory politicians gravitated more and more to the IEA to provide an alternative vision — and IEA obliged with accessible issue briefs and talking points politicians could use to bring free-market concepts to the public. The Atlas Network proudly proclaims that the IEA “laid the intellectual groundwork for what later became the Thatcher Revolution of the 1980s.” IEA staff provided speechwriting for Margaret Thatcher; supplemented her campaign with policy papers on topics as varied as labor unions and price controls; and provided a response to her critics in the mass media. In a letter to Fisher after her 1979 victory, Thatcher wrote that the IEA created “the climate of opinion which made our victory possible.”
    “There’s no doubt there’s been enormous progress in Britain, the Institute of Economic Affairs, which Antony Fisher set up, made an enormous difference,” Milton Friedman once said. “It made possible Margaret Thatcher. It made possible not her election as prime minister but the policies that she was able to follow. And the same thing in this country, the developing thought along these lines made possible Ronald Reagan and the policies he was able to follow.”
    IEA had come full circle. Hayek set up an invitation-only group of free-market economists called the Mont Pelerin Society. One of its members, Ed Feulner, helped found the conservative Washington think tank the Heritage Foundation, drawing on IEA’s work for inspiration. Another Mont Pelerin member, Ed Crane, founded the Cato Institute, the most prominent libertarian think tank in the U.S.
    Austrian-British economist and political philosopher Friedrich Hayek with a class of students at the London School of Economics, 1948.
    Photo: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images

    In 1981, Fisher, who had settled in San Francisco, set out to develop the Atlas Economic Research Foundation at the urging of Hayek. Fisher had used his success with IEA to court corporate donors to help establish a string of smaller, sometimes regional think tanks in New York, Canada, California, and Texas, among other places. With Atlas, though, the scale for Fisher’s free-market think tank project would now be global: a nonprofit dedicated to continuing his work of establishing libertarian beachheads in every country of the world. “The more institutes established throughout the world,” Fisher declared, “the more opportunity to tackle diverse problems begging for resolution.”
    Fisher began to fundraise, pitching corporate donors with the help of letters from Hayek, Thatcher, and Friedman, including an urgent call for donors to help reproduce the success of IEA through Atlas. Hayek wrote that the IEA model “ought to be used to create similar institutes all over the world.” He added, “It would be money well spent if large sums could be made available for such a concerted effort.”
    The proposal was sent to a list of high-level executives and soon, money began pouring in from corporate coffers and Republican mega-donors, including Richard Mellon Scaife. Companies, such as Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, and Shell, all gave to Atlas. But their influence would need to remain cloaked for the project to work, Fisher contended. “To influence public opinion, it is necessary to avoid any suggestion of vested interest or intent to indoctrinate,” Fisher noted in a proposal outlining the purpose of Atlas. Fisher added that IEA’s success hinged on the perception that it was academic and impartial.
    Atlas grew rapidly. By 1985, the network featured 27 institutions in 17 countries, including nonprofits in Italy, Mexico, Australia, and Peru.
    And the timing could not have been better: Atlas’s international expansion came just as the Reagan administration was doubling down on an aggressive foreign policy, hoping to beat back leftist governments abroad.
    While in public, Atlas declared that it received no government funding (Fisher belittled foreign aid as just another “bribe” used to distort market forces), records show the network quietly worked to channel government money to its growing list of international partners.
    In one 1982 letter from the International Communication Agency, a small federal agency devoted to promote U.S. interests overseas, a bureaucrat at the Office of Private Sector Programs wrote to Fisher, in response to an inquiry about acquiring federal grants. The bureaucrat said he was barred from giving “directly to foreign organizations,” but could cosponsor “conferences or exchanges with organizations” hosted by groups like Atlas. He encouraged Fisher to send over a proposal. The letter, sent one year after Atlas’s founding, was the first indication that the network would become a covert partner to U.S. foreign policy interests.
    Memos and other records from Fisher show that, by 1986, Atlas had helped schedule meetings with business executives to direct U.S. funds to its network of think tanks. In one instance, an official from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the principal foreign aid arm of the federal government, recommended that the head of Coca-Cola’s subsidiary in Panama work with Atlas to set up an IEA-style affiliate think tank there. Atlas’ partners also drew funding from the coffers of the National Endowment for Democracy, a government-charted nonprofit, founded in 1983, that is funded largely by the State Department and USAID to build U.S.-friendly political institutions in the developing world.
    Alejandro Chafuen, of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, back right, shakes hands with Rafael Alonzo, of Venezuela’s Freedom Center for Economic Studies, CEDICE, left, as Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa applauds during the opening of the “Freedom and Democracy” international forum in Caracas, May 28, 2009.
    Photo: Ariana Cubillos/AP

    With corporate and U.S. government funding pouring in, Atlas took another fortuitous turn in 1985 with the arrival of Alejandro Chafuen. Linda Whetstone, Fisher’s daughter, remembered in a tribute that, in 1985, a young Chafuen, then living in Oakland, showed up to Atlas’s San Francisco office “and was willing to work for nothing.”
    The Buenos Aires-born Chafuen hailed from what he described as “an anti-Peronist family.” They were wealthy and, though raised in an era of incredible turmoil in Argentina, Chafuen lived a life of relative privilege. He spent his teenage years playing tennis, dreaming of becoming a professional athlete.
    Chafuen credits his youthful ideological path to his appetite for devouring libertarian texts, from Ayn Rand to booklets published by FEE, the Leonard Read group that had originally inspired Fisher. After studying at Grove City College, a deeply conservative Christian liberal arts school in Pennsylvania, where he served as the president of the student libertarian club, Chafuen returned to his home country. The military had stepped in, claiming a threat from communist revolutionaries. Thousands of students and activists would be tortured and killed in the crackdown on left-wing dissent following the coup d’etat.
    Chafuen remembers the time in a mostly positive light, later writing that the military had acted out of necessity to prevent a communist “takeover of the country.” While pursuing a teaching career, Chafuen encountered “totalitarians of every style” within academic life. After the military coup, he wrote that he noticed that his professors became “gentler,” despite their differences with him.
    In other Latin American countries, too, libertarianism was finding a receptive audience among military governments. In Chile, after the military swept out the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, Mont Pelerin Society economists quickly flocked to the country, setting the stage for widespread libertarian reforms, including the privatization of industry and the country’s pension system. Throughout the region, under the watch of right-wing military leaders that had seized power, libertarian economic policies began to take root.
    For his part, Chafuen’s ideological zeal was on display as early as 1979, when he published an essay for FEE titled “War Without End.” He described the horrors of leftist terror, “like the Charles Manson family, or in regimental strength, like the guerilla troops in the Middle East, Africa, and South America.” There was a need, he wrote, for the “forces of individual freedom and private property” to fight back.
    His enthusiasm garnered attention. In 1980, at age 26, Chafuen was invited to become the youngest member of the Mont Pelerin Society. He traveled to Stanford, an opportunity that put him in direct contact with Read, Hayek, and other leading libertarians. Within five years, Chafuen had married an American and was living in Oakland. He began reaching out to Mont Pelerin members in the Bay Area, including Fisher.
    Throughout the region, under the watch of right-wing military leaders that had seized power, libertarian economic policies began to take root.
    According to Atlas’s board meeting notes, Fisher told his colleagues he had made a $500 ex gratia Christmas payment that year to Chafuen, and hoped to hire the young economist full-time to develop Atlas think tanks in Latin America. The following year, Chafuen organized the first Atlas summit of Latin American think tanks in Jamaica.
    Chafuen understood the Atlas model well and worked diligently to expand the network, helping to launch think tanks in Africa and Europe, though focusing his efforts in Latin America. Describing how to attract donors, Chafuen once noted in a lecture that donors cannot appear to pay for public surveys because the polls would lose credibility. “Pfizer Inc. would not sponsor surveys on health issues nor would Exxon pay for surveys on environmental issues,” Chafuen noted. Libertarian think tanks, such as the ones in Atlas’s network, however, could not only present the same survey with more credibility, but do so in a way that garnered coverage in the local media.
    “Journalists are very much attracted by whatever is new and easy to report,” Chafuen said. The press is less interested in quoting libertarian philosophers, he contended, but when a think tank produced a survey people would listen. “And donors also see this,” he added.
    In 1991, three years after Fisher died, Chafuen took the helm of Atlas and would have the opportunity to speak to donors with authority about Atlas’s work. He quickly began to rack up corporate sponsors to push company-specific goals through the network. Philip Morris contributed regular grants to Atlas, including a $50,000 contribution to the group in 1994, which was disclosed years later through litigation. Records show that the tobacco giant viewed Atlas as an ally for working on international litigation issues.
    Journalists in Chile, however, found out that Atlas-backed think tanks had worked to quietly lobby against smoking regulations without disclosing their funding from tobacco companies, a strategy similar think tanks repeated across the globe.

    Corporate giants, such as ExxonMobil and MasterCard, were among Atlas’s donors. But the group also attracted leading figures in libertarianism, such as the foundations associated with investor John Templeton and the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, which lavished Atlas and its affiliates with regular contributions.Chafuen’s fundraising prowess extended to the growing number of wealthy conservative foundations that were beginning to flourish. He was a founding member of Donors Trust, a secretive donor-advised fund that has doled out over $400 million to libertarian nonprofits, including members of the Atlas Network. He also serves as a trustee to the Chase Foundation of Virginia, which was founded by a Mont Pelerin Society member and similarly sends cash to Atlas think tanks.
    Another wellspring of money came from the American government. Initially, the National Endowment for Democracy encountered difficulty setting up U.S.-friendly political nonprofits. Gerardo Bongiovanni, the president of Fundación Libertad, an Atlas think tank in Rosario, Argentina, noted during a lecture with Chafuen that the early seed money from NED’s grant partner, the Center for International Private Enterprise, totaled $1 million between 1985 and 1987. The think tanks that received those initial grants quickly folded, Bongiovanni said, citing lack of management training.
    Atlas, however, managed to turn U.S. taxpayer money coming through the NED and Center for International Private Enterprise into an important source of funding for its growing network. The funding vehicles provided money to help boost Atlas think tanks in Eastern Europe, following the fall of the Soviet Union, and, later, to promote U.S. interests in the Middle East. Among the recipients of the Center for International Private Enterprise’s cash is Cedice Libertad, the group thanked by Venezuelan opposition leader María Corina Machado.
    Sebastian Gorka, White House deputy assistant to the president, participates in a television interview outside the West Wing on June 9, 2017, in Washington, D.C.
    Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

    At the Brick Hotel in Buenos Aires, Chafuen reflected on the last three decades. Fisher “would be overall pleased, and he would not believe how much our network grew,” Chafuen said, noting that perhaps the Atlas founder would not have expected the level of direct political engagement the group is involved in.

    Chafuen lit up when U.S. President Donald Trump came up, offering praise for the president’s appointees. And why not? The Trump administration is littered with alumni of Atlas-related groups and friends of the network. Sebastian Gorka, Trump’s Islamophobic counterterrorism adviser, once led an Atlas-backed think tank in Hungary. Vice President Mike Pence has attended an Atlas event and spoken highly of the group. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Chafuen were close through their leadership roles at the Acton Institute, a Michigan think tank that develops religious arguments in favor of libertarian policies — which now maintains an affiliate in Brazil, the Centro Interdisciplinar de Ética e Economia Personalista.Perhaps Chafuen’s most prized figure in the administration, however, is Judy Shelton, an economist and senior fellow at the Atlas Network. After Trump’s victory, Shelton was made the chair of the NED. She previously served as an adviser to the Trump campaign and transition effort. Chafuen beamed when he talked about it. “There you have the Atlas people being the chair of the National Endowment for Democracy,” he said.
    Before ending the interview, Chafuen intimated that there was more to come: more think tanks, more efforts to overturn leftist governments, and more Atlas devotees and alumni elevated to the highest levels of government the world over. “The work is ongoing,” he said.
    Later, Chafuen appeared at the gala for the Latin America Liberty Forum. Along with a panel of Atlas experts, he discussed the need to ramp up libertarian opposition movements in Ecuador and Venezuela.
    Listen to reporter Lee Fang discuss his investigation of the Atlas Network on our podcast Intercepted:


    Danielle Mackey contributed research to this story.
    Last edited by Peter Lemkin; 08-13-2017 at 02:54 PM.
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  2. #2

    Default Libertarian or Neocon?

    A new investigation published by The Intercept exposes how a libertarian think tank called the Atlas Network is remaking Latin American politics with the help of powerful conservative institutions and funders in the United States, some of whom you may recognize, like the Koch brothers. This is part of a promotional video released by the Atlas Network.
    ATLAS NETWORK VIDEO: Welcome to the Atlas Network. We’re your connection to a network of freedom champions across the United States and around the world in more than 80 countries. Atlas freedom champions are knocking down barriers to wealth creation, fighting corruption and fostering free enterprise by reducing the role of government and protecting individual liberty. While politicians operate within the confines of what they consider politically possible, Atlas and our global partners think it’s more cost-effective in the long term to change what is considered politically possible.
    AMY GOODMAN: The Intercept reports the Atlas Network is behind dozens of prominent groups that have supported right-wing forces in the antigovernment movement in Venezuela, as well as those that ousted Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
    For more, we’re joined by The Intercept’s investigative reporter Lee Fang, who covers the intersection of money and politics, his new piece headlined "Sphere of Influence: How American Libertarians Are Remaking Latin American Politics."
    Lee, welcome back to Democracy Now! Explain how you discovered what the Atlas Network was and what it is doing.
    LEE FANG: Amy, thank you so much for having me.
    This is kind of the very first look at the Atlas Network and its history from a critical perspective. This is a relatively obscure think tank and foundation in Washington, D.C., but it’s played an incredibly prominent role in taking the successful conservative strategies to push a hard-right libertarian policy agenda—you know, ideas like cutting taxes for the rich, privatizing industry and privatizing pension programs, deregulation and attacks on labor unions—and taking the model of, you know, groups like the Heritage Foundation or the Cato Institute or the more local think tanks that we’ve seen proliferate around the Midwest, and teaching libertarian activists and business leaders all over the world to duplicate the American model in their home countries, you know, flying out local—foreign leaders to Washington, D.C., to teach them management techniques, fundraising techniques, modern communication strategy, including even creating very clever YouTube videos to make these ideas go viral. And they’ve played kind of a quiet role in reshaping the politics in countries all across the country—or, all across the world. But they’ve had a special focus in Latin America, and we’re seeing their efforts really pay a large dividend with the political changes that are going on all across Central and South America.
    AMY GOODMAN: And explain its title, the Atlas Network.
    LEE FANG: Yeah. I think the Atlas Network is pretty clear tip of the hat to Ayn Rand. The current president of the Atlas Network, Alex Chafuen, grew up in Argentina. He was kind of in a family that was part of the Argentine elite, and kind of grew up in the turmoil of the '60s and ’70s with multiple military coups and, you know, incredible violence towards leftists and perceived leftists. And Alex Chafuen was a devotee of Ayn Rand. He's still the president of Atlas Network today. And, you know, this is a group that’s worked very closely with a small network of libertarian economists, folks like F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, to basically push back and win the war of ideas. And, you know, the model that they’ve kind of set up in the United States is very well known, but what hasn’t really been reported is how they’ve translated these libertarian textbooks, but also exported the political strategies, that have put these policies in place in the United States, to other countries.
    AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to go to Brazil, one of the places you’ve mentioned they’ve been involved, to the former President Dilma Rousseff, comments she made last year after the Brazilian Senate voted to impeach her.
    DILMA ROUSSEFF: [translated] They’ve just overthrown the first woman elected president of Brazil, without there being any constitutional justification for this impeachment. But the coup was not just carried out against me and my party or the allied parties who support me today. This was just the beginning. The coup is going to strike, without distinction, every progressive and democratic political organization.
    AMY GOODMAN: So that was the ousted Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Talk about the significance of what she said and how you think the Atlas Network was involved.
    LEE FANG: We can’t point to one single factor that led to the downfall of Dilma, but what I can say is that the Atlas Network has made a special effort to develop their think tank and kind of independent institute model in Brazil, so that the Atlas Network has over a dozen separate entities as part of their partner affiliates in Brazil, each organization kind of working using its own strategies but with the same goal. And the goal recently has been the impeachment and downfall of Dilma and her Workers’ Party. So, you know, one organization that’s in the Atlas Network in Brazil is the Students for Liberty youth group that organized these mass demonstrations focusing anger at Dilma. There are Heritage Foundation-style think tanks that develop policy papers and host media pundits, who have, you know, gone out into the media and try to channel public outrage at Dilma. They develop YouTube videos, which have been very effective in spreading kind of viral political attacks against Dilma. There’s a religious institute that’s an affiliate of the Acton Institute, which is affiliated with Betsy DeVos, now the education secretary. But they’ve created an affiliate of that think tank in Brazil, that makes kind of a theological argument for hard-right economic policies.
    So, you know, there’s a network effect here, where the recent downturn in the Brazilian economy, these recent corruptions scandals have presented an opportunity. And the Atlas Network—and this is what they’ve told me—they’ve taken the kind of political and economic crisis and seized it and used it as an opportunity to focus anger at Dilma and to push their very narrow set of economic ideas, you know, ideas that were popular in the United States in the early '90s—you know, privatizing prisons, privatizing the education system. They're using the political crisis in Brazil to now push this very narrow set of, you know, once very unpopular ideas and push them to the forefront by taking advantage of this crisis that, in part, that they’ve helped orchestrate.
    AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Venezuela. I want to go back a few years, to—I think this was 2014, to the Venezuelan opposition figure María Corina Machado thanking the Atlas Network.
    MARÍA CORINA MACHADO: Thank you to the Atlas Network, to all freedom fighters and democrats around the world for your support and inspiration. The well-funded silence of international complicity is overpowered by your voices of encouragement. Although the regime will not let me be there in person, through this means, I want to assure you that we Venezuelans remain firm in our quest to tear down the walls of oppression.
    AMY GOODMAN: That was the Venezuelan opposition figure María Corina Machado thanking the Atlas Network. Lee Fang?
    LEE FANG: Right. Well, you know, Venezuela is another country where this model has been applied, for a very long time. The Atlas Network works with a number of different think tanks in Venezuela to criticize, first, you know, the Hugo Chávez government, now the Maduro government. And again, you know, there’s an unrelated crisis. You know, the Maduro government has suffered from a dependence on oil, and oil prices are low. There are a number of other corruption scandals and other kind of problems with managing the country. Well, the Atlas Network has seized upon this opportunity to push antigovernment protest. The leader we just heard from is affiliated with one of these Atlas think tanks, CEDICE, which is in Caracas. It’s been there for a very long time. It’s been funded by the Atlas Network.
    And one of the other revelations in our piece today is basically that, you know, the Atlas Network talks about how any government funding is illegitimate, that foreign aid is basically a bribe, and they’re against foreign aid. At the same time, Atlas Network think tanks all over the world, including in Brazil, including in Venezuela, and in other countries, have relied on U.S. government money. The State Department, the National Endowment for Democracy, which is a government-funded think tank that’s funded by taxpayer dollars, has quietly financed think tanks and Atlas affiliates in Venezuela and many of these other countries. And I think the simple reason is they hope that the Atlas Network helps to push American-friendly governments, that they help transform the politics of the developing world to be more friendly to American foreign policy aims. But it is kind of an interesting irony or hypocrisy that this libertarian think tank network has relied for a very long time on U.S. government money.
    AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to take Venezuela to the current day. This is CIA Director Mike Pompeo talking about Venezuela just last month at the Aspen Institute.
    MIKE POMPEO: Any time you have a country of—as large and with the economic capacity of a country like Venezuela, America has a deep interest in making sure that it is stable and as democratic as possible. And so, we’re working hard to do that. I’m always careful when we talk about South and Central America and the CIA. There’s a lot of stories. So, I want to be careful with what I say. But, suffice to say, we—we are very hopeful that there can be a transition in Venezuela. And we—the CIA is doing its best to understand the dynamic there, so that we can communicate to our State Department and to others, the Colombians. I was just down in Mexico City and in Bogotá, week before last, talking about this very issue, trying to help them understand the things they might do so that they can get a better outcome for their part of the world and our part of the world.
    AMY GOODMAN: So, this is very ominous, Lee Fang. This the current CIA director, Mike Pompeo, talking about Venezuela at the Aspen Institute, working very hard, he said, on Venezuela. What exactly that means? And that leads to my question about how does the Atlas Network’s machinations in Latin America compare with those of the CIA, or dovetail with them—CIA, multinational corporations, etc., now and in the past.
    LEE FANG: Yeah, that’s a very interesting dynamic, you know, and we know some of the answers to that question thanks to the work of a number of journalists who have filed Freedom of Information Act requests in the past, also the diplomatic cables that were released by the whistleblower Chelsea Manning. If you take a look at those files, you see, at least historically—you know, we don’t know what’s going on today in 2017, but we do know historically that U.S. diplomats have leaned on the Atlas think tank network to set up meetings with opposition groups, to coordinate with protests against governments that we have an adversarial relationship with.
    Venezuela is another great example of this. From FOIA documents, we see that, going back to, you know, the late '90s, just after Hugo Chávez's—Hugo Chávez came to power, the State Department, the National Endowment for Democracy started providing large amounts of money to the Atlas think tank network in Venezuela to orchestrate protest movements, to criticize his government, to try to delegitimize his government. In fact, when there was the kind of brief 2002 coup, that brought Hugo Chávez from power for, you know, not a very long period, but there was an attempt, and we see from these documents that the Atlas think tanks sprung into actions to try to legitimize the new coup government. There was the Carmona Decree, this kind of document that said—you know, from business leaders in Venezuela, saying, "Hugo Chávez has gone, and we’d like to move on and have a new government." We see from this cache of documents that they are working hand in glove with the U.S. government, that these libertarian leaders, that had been trained in the United States and funded by the Atlas Network and from the U.S. government, were part of a larger strategy to bring down the Chávez government.
    Now, we don’t know exactly what’s going on now, but we know from the diplomatic cables from Chelsea Manning that after that period, there were repeated attempts to orchestrate large antigovernment protests, to channel anger at the Chávez government and to hope for a similar situation where the opposition would be strong enough to bring the government down. So, I think it’s very likely that a similar strategy is playing out right now with the crisis in Venezuela. And indeed, we see the CEDICE and other Atlas-backed think tanks in Venezuela promoting the opposition.
    AMY GOODMAN: Talk more about who is behind the Atlas Network and the money behind it.
    LEE FANG: Well, you know, the history of the Atlas Network is very interesting. You know, this kind of goes back to the postwar period in both the U.K. and the U.S. There was a big kind of debate within the big business community: How to push back against the postwar welfare state? You know, in the U.K., they were nationalizing the healthcare system, creating the NHS. The U.S., the New Deal was still going on, you know, big spending on infrastructure and social welfare and the GI Bill. And there was the discussion: How do you push back against these ideas? And they struggled with the problem of credibility. Any time you try to call for economic libertarian ideas of cutting taxes for the rich or, you know, cutting welfare, it was looked at as an idea that simply benefited the upper crust.
    So, you know, working with economists like F.A. Hayek and others, a British businessman created what we now call, you know, the conservative think tank. The Institute of Economic Affairs was the model, developed in London, that could do a rapid response kind of media pushback that provided an academic veneer to these, at the time, very fringe ideas. That was, you know, very successful in pushing and promoting the Margaret Thatcher revolution in the late ’70s. Similar strategies were applied in the U.S. and created the Heritage Foundation model. The founder of the first of these types of think tanks, Antony Fisher, this British businessman, saw the incredible success in taking these once-fringe ideas, these hard-right economic libertarian ideas, and the think tank model, and he came to the conclusion that, you know, it should be duplicated in every country all around the world, that there should be a global revolution using these type of methods that have been honed in the U.S. and the U.K.
    And big business chipped in very quickly. You know, companies like Pfizer, Shell, General Electric, they started providing a lot of money secretly to these think tanks. And they were hoping that, you know, they would receive tax cuts and deregulation, not just in the U.S. and U.K., but in other countries where they do business. So, it was always kind of a close partnership between these libertarian ideologues and these big business interests that hope to benefit from these policies.
    So, Antony Fisher eventually passed away in the '80s, and he gave the reins to Alex Chafuen, the Argentine American who's still the president of the group today and has really been successful in exporting this model. You know, as you mentioned earlier and that clip mentioned, Atlas is active in now almost a hundred different countries. They’re very prominent in Latin America, but they also play an influential role in Europe and in Asia and other parts of the developing world.
    AMY GOODMAN: Lee Fang, talk about your conversation with Fernando Schüler. Describe who he is and his role in undermining organized labor.
    LEE FANG: Yeah, you know, this is the—that was a very interesting conversation. I went to Buenos Aires to attend an Atlas conference kind of focused on their Latin American efforts. And Schüler basically made the argument that, you know, they got lucky with the Dilma impeachment. You know, this was kind of—the stars aligned in terms of the economic situation and the political climate. But there is a long way to go to implement his kind of radical libertarian agenda—you know, a lot of the ideas, like privatizing prisons or the education system, aren’t popular in Brazil—and that they would need to kind of change the fundamental institutions in Brazil for long-term policy change. And, you know, he pointed to the U.S. You know, in the U.S., there are large foundations that provide money for these strategies.
    But also we talked a little bit about the role of labor unions. And, you know, the Atlas Network has studied the strategy used in the Midwest in the U.S., in places like Michigan and Wisconsin, where Scott Walker pushed through really radical attacks on labor unions, you know, pushing right-to-work laws, taking away or weakening collective bargaining rights for public sector workers, hoping to basically change the balance of power in that state, saying that, you know, their main ideological and political opponents are labor unions, so our first attack should be against labor unions. Schüler, in Brazil, made a similar argument, saying that, you know, for long-term political change, he hopes to weaken Brazil’s labor unions, because labor unions are the greatest obstacle to their reform.
    And what’s interesting here is that Atlas Network has facilitated an exchange of ideas. The same kind of small think tanks in Wisconsin and Michigan and other states that pushed these labor reforms or labor changes have been brought in to teach the Atlas Network how to duplicate that model, how to outmaneuver the left, how to produce these slick videos and policy papers that delegitimize labor unions. And, you know, with this exchange of ideas, Brazilian think tank leaders and student protest leaders are being flown to D.C. and taught these very techniques.
    AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to the president. Now, last weekend, the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, Minnesota, was bombed, and the Minnesota governor condemned it as terrorism. President Trump has yet to condemn this attack. Interestingly, the deputy assistant to the president, Sebastian Gorka, went on television and suggested that the Minnesota mosque bombing was a "false flag" attack. Gorka was speaking on MSNBC.
    SEBASTIAN GORKA: There’s a great rule: All initial reports are false. You have to check them. You have to find out who the perpetrators are. We’ve had a series of crimes committed, alleged hate crimes, by right-wing individuals in the last six months, that turned out to actually have been propagated by the left. So let’s wait and see. Let’s allow the local authorities to provide their assessment, and then the White House will make its comments.
    AMY GOODMAN: The Jewish newspaper The Forward reports Gorka has links to a Hungarian far-right, Nazi-allied group and supported an anti-Semitic and racist paramilitary militia in Hungary while he served as a Hungarian politician. Talk about Sebastian Gorka and the Atlas Network, Lee Fang.
    LEE FANG: Yeah, the Atlas Network has incredible connections to the Trump administration. Sebastian Gorka, this very anti-Muslim pundit, he’s, you know, been active with a number of conservative websites and kind of just suddenly sprung to power by being appointed to this very senior White House role. He once managed a small Atlas think tank in Hungary.
    But that’s just one of many different examples. Mike Pence has attended Atlas Network events and spoken highly of the group. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has served on several boards along with Atlas Network President Alex Chafuen. And, you know, the Acton Institute, this think tank that’s heavily backed by DeVos, now has affiliates all over the world as part of the Atlas Network, including in Brazil.
    And, you know, I think one of the most salient and interesting examples of the Trump administration connections to this Atlas Network is that the National Endowment for Democracy, this government-chartered foundation that’s kind of an arm of American soft power abroad, that provides extensive financing to the Atlas Network think tanks all over the world, including in Venezuela and other places, after Trump was elected president, an Atlas Network economist and fellow, Judy Shelton, was elevated to be the chairperson of the National Endowment for Democracy. So now you have many Atlas Network think tank leaders or fellow travelers in senior positions in the administration, but also an Atlas Network employee helping to manage the U.S. foreign policy arm that’s financing the Atlas Network all across the world.
    AMY GOODMAN: And as we’re talking about Sebastian Gorka, in addition to the other roles he’s played, he was an editor for the—for national security affairs for Breitbart News, which, of course, another key White House figure, Steve Bannon, was the head of.
    LEE FANG: That’s right. Sebastian Gorka has, you know, really operated on the fringes. You know, he’s been a figure on talk radio, on some of these very conspiracy-laden, anti-Muslim websites. But, yes, he’s been on Breitbart for a very long time, editing pieces, advancing very ugly anti-Muslim conspiracy theories. So it’s incredible to see a figure like him, who’s really operated on the fringes of American society, elevated to such a prominent role in the White House.
    In terms of influencing the debate, you know, these aren’t just policy arguments that they’re making. The so-called Breitbart of Brazil—there’s a pundit named Rodrigo Constantino. He kind of uses very acidic, conspiracy-laden arguments to try to delegitimize the left, basically saying that, you know, even the World Cup logo, the use of the color red, is a conspiracy to advance communism. You know, he makes all kinds of arguments, you know, some of them similar to the Cadillac welfare queen argument that we’re familiar with in the U.S. He’s popularized these attacks on social welfare programs in Brazil. He’s actually backed by an Atlas think tank, the Instituto Liberal, in Brazil, and affiliated with a second one, as well. So, you know, the Atlas Network is not only managing the protests on the street and the policy proposals, but they’re also introducing the Breitbart-style commentary and media figures in countries like Brazil.
    AMY GOODMAN: Tell us who James O’Keefe is, the conservative political activist, and how he fits into this picture.
    LEE FANG: Well, as part of the Atlas Network exchange of ideas and management training seminars, you know, they frequently fly conservative leaders to Washington, D.C., and to teach them in the latest in communications technology and management techniques for running a successful political operation and think tank. They also bring in conservative kind of tacticians and leaders to teach about their tactics and methods. So, you know, they brought in Grover Norquist, the antitax activist who’s played a very prominent role in tax debates in the United States. They’ve brought in the folks who were involved in pushing the Scott Walker reforms in Wisconsin.
    And they’ve also brought in people like James O’Keefe. James O’Keefe is a kind of internet and online provocateur. He teaches young conservatives to go undercover and to go to different left-leaning organizations, you know, places that help register poor people to vote, to Planned Parenthood, to other organizations that are affiliated with the Democratic Party or with the center-left. And he has these individuals engage in undercover videos, and, in some cases, has edited these videos to disparage the victims of these videos or to make—in other cases, to make these—the targets of his films look foolish or perhaps like they’re breaking the law. And, you know, he’s played a very prominent role in recent political debates. He helped kind of destroy the organization ACORN, which is a local community organizing group. Well, you know, he’s given seminars, as well, to the Atlas Network, to teach them his methods. So, you know, we might be seeing those type of strategies in Brazil or Venezuela or elsewhere.
    AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Lee Fang, what were you most surprised in your research into the Atlas Network? And have they responded to your piece?
    LEE FANG: I do not know if they have responded publicly. You know, I interviewed quite a few number of Atlas Network people for the piece.
    The most surprising part of this was finding about—finding out about the extensive U.S. government financing for this network, especially given their antigovernment rhetoric. You know, I went to Buenos Aires, I went to New York, Las Vegas and Honduras, to speak to different Atlas Network leaders. But I also went to the Hoover Institute archives at Stanford University and went into the personal papers of Antony Fisher, the original founder of the first of these style think tanks, the Institute of Economic Affairs, and the original founder of the Atlas Network. And, you know, the government financing comes from the very beginnings of this group. You know, Atlas Network was originally technically founded in 1981. As early as 1982, I found letters from Antony Fisher writing to Reagan administration officials, asking for government money. So, I thought that was probably the most interesting revelation in all of this.
    If there is no struggle there is no progress. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” - Frederick Douglass
    "Let me issue and control a nation's money and I care not who writes the laws. - Mayer Rothschild
    "Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience! People are obedient in the face of poverty, starvation, stupidity, war, and cruelty. Our problem is that grand thieves are running the country. That's our problem!" - Howard Zinn

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