12 CDs for the Price of 1!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

PAGE ONE


Is Florida Over?

By CONOR DOUGHERTY
September 29, 2007; Page A1

Tampa, Fla.

"Own Your Own Home in Florida for $350 down. Total Price $4,950 includes house and lot. It's Pompano Beach Highlands on the famed Florida east coast!"

--Advertisement in Life magazine, 1955

"It's just not the place I originally moved to. You've got overcrowded roads. The utilities are higher now. Taxes are unreasonable. Everything in Florida is more expensive."

--John Cypherd, retiree, who left Florida last month for North Carolina

For almost a century, Florida has been a magnet for mobile Americans. The state's plentiful sunshine and open space has attracted "snowbirds" fleeing winter, retirees living out the last chapter of their lives and down-on-their-luck workers in search of jobs. A steady flow of newcomers has kept the state's population growing faster than the nation's, often much faster, since the 1920s.

But for Americans on the move, Florida has become a less-appealing destination. Moving company Atlas Van Lines brought 6,700 families into Florida last year and took 8,000 out, the first time it has moved more out than in. The number of people from other states who switch to a Florida driver's license is down more than 8% from last year. And the state's crowded schools actually lost students last year, prompting many counties to cut back on their construction schedule and, in some cases, look to close schools. While foreigners continue to arrive at a rate of about 100,000 year, migration from inside the country is slowing.

[promo florida chrtbk]

Florida's pull has been weakened mostly by rising costs. Though real-estate prices are now falling, the median price for an existing single family home, at $231,900 remains 64% more than five years ago. That kind of price appreciation has increased property taxes, especially for newcomers and for snowbirds, whose primary residence is out of state. Florida is also recovering from a spate of hurricanes that have pushed up already high property-insurance rates. A two-tier tax system hits newcomers and part-time residents harder than long time homeowners.

Florida is also dealing with new competition. Looking to tap the economic boost seniors can give, many of the South's less-expensive, relatively warm states have been reaching out to seniors and fiddling with their tax laws in the hope of grabbing more retirees. Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue is pushing to exempt all retirement income from taxation as a way to attract and retain retirees.

"Instead of everyone making the assumption that they're going to move to Florida, now it's more of an open playing field," says Dave Schreiner, national vice president at Pulte Homes' Del Webb communities.

Florida has been soaking up migrating Americans since the 1920s and has had one of the fastest-growing populations ever since. The most prominent group, retirees, started pouring in after World War II. Just as Americans started living longer lives, with shorter work weeks and fat union pensions, developers responded with trailer lots and tract houses sold with slogans like "We Give Years to Your Life and Life to Your Years." Some Americans came to stay year-round, but about one million live in Florida just part of the year and return North to avoid the steamy summer.

Long before Disney World opened in 1971, tourists drove down to see aquatic theme parks with dolphin shows and roadside alligator pits. Last year, about 85 million people visited the state. Many of those tourists have later made Florida their permanent home.

[Florida]

"Growth is what Florida is known for," says Carl Hiaasen, the novelist and Miami Herald columnist. "Florida is in the business of cramming people into real estate for absurd prices."

Florida's reality has always been seamier than its sun-kissed image. In the 1950s, flim-flam men peddled mail-order real-estate schemes. In 1980s, the drug trade was celebrated in "Miami Vice." The state's lenient bankruptcy laws have long made the state a destination for debtors on the run. Florida's unrestrained growth has destroyed mangrove swamps and drained large swaths of the Everglades.

But growth has transformed Florida from an agricultural backwater to a key player on the national stage. Florida had just 10 electoral votes when John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960; he didn't carry the state, but won anyway. In 2000, Florida delivered the presidency to George W. Bush with 25 electoral votes.

A few months ago, Randy Quinones, a retired plumber in New Hampshire, was gearing up to leave the chilly Northeast and live out his days in Florida -- just like millions of retirees before him. He got ready to put his home on the market and told his buddies that he'd be in Florida soon. But Florida housing prices caused him to look elsewhere. "It didn't fit our budget, so we didn't do it," he says: Instead of Gainesville or Ocala where prices were $250,000 to $300,000, Mr. Quinones moved in May into a home outside Knoxville, Tenn., that cost $207,000.

Then there are the so-called "half-backs," northeasterners who move to Florida and then move halfway back home.

Faith Cohan moved to Florida from Rhode Island in 1982, with dreams of living on the beach and opening her own business. With the proceeds of their house sale, Ms. Cohan and her then husband moved to Florida and opened a store near Naples.

Two years ago, Ms. Cohan and her husband divorced. Ms. Cohan had planned on staying in their condominium, but after Hurricane Wilma, condo fees jumped to $3,200 from $1,220, reflecting higher insurance costs for the building. The couple sold their condo for $280,000 and split the proceeds. But instead of looking in Florida, Ms. Cohan paid $140,000 for a townhouse in Simpsonville, Ky. "I just couldn't stay another year and pay those kinds of fees by myself," she says.

After years of nonstop growth, many Florida cities have been caught off guard by slowing growth.

Between 2000 and 2005, the Tampa Bay region, with its 2.7 million residents on Florida's west coast, grew 10%, adding about 242,000 residents. The number of single-family-home permits doubled, as new residents flooded in, buoyed by subprime and no-down-payment mortgages. Tract homes on the outskirts of the county, in a town called Ruskin, have blossomed on land that was once set aside for oranges and tomatoes. The supply of new housing had everyone from the school district to local churches gearing up for years of booming growth.

But all this has slowed. Two years ago, Father Tracy Wilder, rector at Ruskin's St. John the Divine Episcopal Church, envisioned his parish growing 10% a year for the foreseeable future. He asked a church volunteer to do a feasibility study for an elementary school. That's now been shelved. Father Wilder says the number of new members has declined precipitously. When he first arrived in 2001, the church was signing up 70 new members a year. This past year there were 15. "We had to scale back some of our plans," he says.

Few organizations have been as rattled as the local public-school system. In recent years, the schools have added an average of about 5,400 new students a year, and have put overflow classes in portable trailers. This year, through the 20th day of school, Hillsborough County schools have between 400 and 500 fewer students than last year. Last year, the school district opened a new high school in the Ruskin area, one of five new schools built to relieve the crammed classrooms and address projected growth. But on the first day of school, Lennard High School had about 1,028 students, half of capacity. Every teacher in the school has a dedicated classroom plus an unused classroom where they've put copy machines and are storing computers and extra chairs. "We're not seeing the growth we anticipated," says Principal Denny Oest.

The school district now projects flat attendance for at least three years and has shelved plans for yet another high school as well as two elementary schools.

A decline in migration trends could spell broader trouble for Florida's economy. In addition to tourism, the influx of retirement savings and Social Security checks are a big driver of the state's economy. This, in turn, creates a huge stock of service-oriented jobs -- one reason why some of Florida's best-known businesses include homebuilding companies and restaurants like Outback Steakhouse and the Olive Garden.

Florida is always in need of doctors and nurses as well as civic employees like teachers. Over the past five years Florida has created 846,000 jobs, more than any U.S. state, and about as many as California and Arizona combined. The growth has helped out communities even beyond Florida: The state's demand for new workers has acted as a sort of a pressure release valve for many rust belt states that have seen unemployed workers leave for better opportunities in the South.

Michigan, Ohio and Illinois have long been among the biggest contributors to Florida's population growth. Yvette Thomas moved to Tampa from Dayton, Ohio, in 2002. In Ohio, Ms. Thomas had been working as a full-time substitute teacher in an elementary school, but had to move to a charter school after the teacher she was subbing for came back from maternity leave.

Then came a spring break vacation to Tampa. It was cold in Ohio; balmy in Tampa. Ms. Thomas and her future husband hung out on the beach, saw dolphins from a boat and ate fresh grouper. On a whim, they stopped by the school district's recruiting office. A recruiter called them the next day, and a few months later they were looking for a new apartment. "It was very easy for us to come in the system," she says.

[Cloudy Outlook]

Five years later, Ms. Thomas has her mind set on going back north. With the aid of a no-money-down mortgage, Ms. Thomas and her husband bought a $168,000 house. The mortgage, with property taxes and homeowner's fees, comes to about $1,500 a month -- more than half a month's pay. To supplement her income as a middle-school teacher, Ms. Thomas teaches night school two days a week. "There is no way I could raise a family here," she says. Next year, she plans to sell her home and move north, perhaps back to Ohio. "I thought it would be like a vacation," she says. "It turned out to be a hurricane."

Florida has been through this before. In the early 1990s, economic weakness and failures in the savings-and-loan industry pushed the state's unemployment rate to among the highest in the nation. Immigration slowed and some metropolitan areas had a net outflow of residents. The state recovered and the next boom came along.

Many economists believe that this lull, too, will be temporary. Despite a 41% drop in home sales in the past year, Florida's economy has so far skirted recession, and unemployment remains a low 4%, though joblessness has been rising. While domestic migration from other states to Florida has slowed, it hasn't turned negative. Last year, domestic immigration contributed 166,000 people to Florida's population, down 19% from the five-year average of 206,000, according to the census bureau. Those figures don't reflect the most recent trends.

But there are some signs of trouble in the economy. In July, retail sales declined 2.5% statewide from the same period a year earlier, compared with a 0.5% gain nationally. Car retailer AutoNation Inc. reported a dip in second-quarter revenue because of "a decline in new-vehicle retail sales especially in California and Florida." Over the past few months, retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp. and Lowe's Cos. Inc. have all reported sluggish sales in Florida.

A Florida rebound would likely require housing prices to fall further than they already have. With the help of subprime and no-money-down mortgages, the state became a place for rampant speculation that more than doubled prices in a four-year period. The price appreciation fueled a refinancing boom that gave consumers access to billions in home equity, and they spent it. Research firm Moody's Economy.com estimates the real-estate sector has been responsible for one in three new jobs over the past few years, everything from mortgage brokers to Home Depot Inc. stockboys. But the rise in prices also locked out a lot of prospective migrants from other states. While home prices were doubling, the state's personal income rose just 31%. That made it tough for anyone living on Florida wages to crack the real-estate market and recent declines haven't offset that.

What's more, as Florida's population has swelled, the state has created a two-tiered tax system that hit newcomers and part-time residents harder than longer-term residents. For tax purposes, permanent residents receive a $25,000 "homestead" reduction in the assessed value of their home, which reduces their property taxes. A 1992 amendment to the state's constitution caps the annual increase in residents' assessed home value at 3% a year or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.

The effect is that over the past few years, as home values have soared, newcomers have paid higher tax bills. For instance, the owner of one North Tampa house assessed at $214,764 paid $1,992 in taxes last year, according to the Hillsborough County property appraiser's office. A new owner, who made it his primary residence, would pay about $3,820 in taxes next year, assuming the house doesn't decline in value.

Rising insurance rates prompted by hurricanes are also eroding Florida's appeal. The average premium for homeowner's insurance in Florida was $929 in 2004, the fourth-highest of any state in the country. In Hillsborough County, rates on a five-year-old $150,000 house range from $940 to $2,313 a year.

Florida is now scrambling to reduce property taxes and the cost of homeowner's insurance. Over the summer, Gov. Charlie Crist signed a bill to roll back property taxes to last year's level. Next year, Floridians could vote on a constitutional amendment that would lower property taxes by increasing the tax exemption given to permanent residents. New legislation also requires the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. to freeze rates in 2007. The idea is to keep other insurers from raising their prices.

But none of that makes a difference to Mel Graves. He sold his New Hampshire software and advertising systems support company and moved to Florida in 2002. He spent $275,000 on a house near Sarasota on the Gulf Coast. In 2004, when Hurricane Charley bore down on their home, Mr. Graves and his wife left for their son's place in Tennessee. When the hurricane was past, Mr. Graves returned to Florida and sold the house for almost double what he paid for it.

"My wife said 'No way am I staying here,'" he says.

The Graves have decided to settle in Tennessee.

Thursday, August 23, 2007



Argentina unilaterally cancels debt. Cuba becomes a member of Mercosur. Brazil opposes U.S. subsidies to its domestic agriculture. Venezuela invests in large scale private and semi private Latin American petrochemical projects. Cuba opens its commercial ports, airspace and to semi-capitalist nation while opposing ultra left guerilla movements in Colombia.

The Capitalist Communist binary is over in Latin America. Pan Latin American market socialism is taking its place. A supra-nationalist minded policies supported by a domestic elite, labor and reformed socialists has replaced it.

We will offer our take on the shape of things but first we offer this essay by disgruntled leftist Dr. James Petras.


Latin America - Four Competing Blocs of Power
In reality there are four competing blocs of nations in Latin America, contrary to the highly simplistic dualism portrayed by the White House and most of the Left.
. 04.17.2007

Introduction

Each of these four blocs represents different degrees of accommodation or opposition to US policies and interests. Moreover much depends on how the US defines or re-defines its interests under the new realities.

The radical left includes the FARC guerrillas in Colombia, sectors of the trade unions and peasant and barrio movements in Venezuela; the labor confederation CONLUTAS and sectors of the Rural Landless Movement in Brazil; sectors of the Bolivian Labor Confederation (COB), the Andean peasant movements and barrio organizations in El Alto; sectors of the peasant-indigenous movement CONAIE in Ecuador; sectors of the teachers and peasant-indigenous movements in Oaxaca, Guerrero and Chiapas in Mexico; sectors of the nationalist-peasant-left in Peru; sectors of the trade union and unemployed workers in Argentina. In addition, there are numerous other social movements in Central and South America and a plethora of small Marxist groups in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and elsewhere. Together these organizations form a heterodox, dispersed political bloc, which is staunchly anti-imperialist, rejects any concessions to neo-liberal socio-economic policies, opposes debt payments and generally supports a socialist or radical nationalist program.

The pragmatic left includes President Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia and Castro in Cuba as well as a multiplicity of large electoral parties and major peasant and trade unions in Central and South America. Included here are the left electoral parties, the PRD in Mexico, the FMLN in El Salvador, the left electoral bloc and the labor confederation (CUT) in Colombia, the Chilean Communist Party, the majority in Peruvian nationalist Humala’s parliamentary party, leadership sectors of the MST, in Brazil, the MAS, the governing party in Bolivia, the CTA, the second largest labor confederation in Argentina, and a minority of the Broad Front and the labor confederation (PIT-CNT) in Uruguay. The great majority of left Latin American intellectuals are found among this political bloc.

It is worthwhile to examine why this bloc is referred to as the ‘pragmatic’ left. First of all Venezuela, Bolivia and the entire spectrum of above-mentioned social movements, trade union confederations, parties and fractions of parties do not call for or practice the expropriation of capitalism, the repudiation of the debt, the complete expropriation of US or EEC banks or multinational corporation, or any rupture in relations with the US.

For example, in Venezuela, private national and foreign banks earned over 30% rate of return in 2005-2007. Foreign-owned oil companies reaped record profits between 2004-2007. Less than 1% of the biggest landed estates were fully expropriated and titles turned over to landless peasants. Capital-labor relations still operate in a framework heavily weighted on behalf of business and labor contractors who rely on subcontractors who continue to dominate hiring and firing in more than one half of the large enterprises. The Venezuelan military and police continue to arrest suspected Colombian guerrillas and activists and turn them over to the Colombian police. Venezuela and US-client President Uribe of Colombia have signed several high-level security and economic co-operation agreements. While promoting Latin American integration (excluding the US) Chavez has looked toward greater ‘integration’ with neo-liberal Brazil and Argentina, whose oil production and distribution is controlled by European MNCs and US investors. While Chavez attacks US attempts to subvert the democratic process in Venezuela, it still provides 12% of total US petroleum imports, owns 12,000 CITGO gasoline stations in the US and several refineries.

Finally the Venezuela’s political system is wide open to influence by the private mass media, which are overwhelmingly hostile to the democratically elected President and Congress. US-funded NGO’s continue to act on behalf of US policymakers, as do a dozen pro-US political parties and a trade union confederation. The majority of pro-Chavez congressional members and officials are of very dubious nationalist credentials, having jumped on his political bandwagon more for personal advancement than from any populist loyalties. Many emigrated from defunct pro-US right wing political parties. In a word, Venezuela’s pragmatism spells out a very lucrative field for US investors, a reliable supplier of energy and alliances with the US’s major client (Colombia) in Latin America. The essence of the matter is that Chavez’s radical rhetoric and discourse on 21st century socialism does not now or in the proximate future correspond to the political realities. If it were not for Washington’s intransigent hostility and continued confrontation and destabilization tactics, even Chavez’s discourse would likely be moderated. That sectors of big business complain about increased royalty payments, profit sharing and taxes is to be expected, but hardly the basis for Washington to engage in arms boycotts, cheap rhetorical shots and undercover subversion.

US-Venezuela relations embody what is wrong and has failed in Latin America. By comparing Chavez’ policy with that of the previous Venezuelan client regimes during the 1990’s, Washington is painting Chavez as a ‘dangerous radical’. Taking into account the changed international environment of the 2000-2007 period and the limited social welfare, and tax and other reforms, and taking Chavez’ foreign policy pronouncements with a grain of salt, the US is in fact dealing with a pragmatic radical who can be accommodated. But that presumes that Washington rejects the 1990’s as a standard for measuring friends and enemies. It presumes that Washington realizes that the favorable international conjuncture of the 1990’s is gone and it must accommodate moderate reforms and foreign policy differences to avoid a social revolution.

The same is true regarding US policy toward Cuba and Bolivia. Cuba has established diplomatic ties with almost all US clients and allies in Latin America. It has explicitly extended a friendly diplomatic hand to US-backed Colombian President Uribe, rejects the revolutionary left (FARC) in Colombia, gives public support to neo-liberals like Lula of Brazil, Kirchner of Argentina and Vazquez in Uruguay and has signed a wide range of purchasing agreements with big US food exporters amounting to over $500 million dollars a year despite onerous terms. Cuba has provided free health services to a large number of US client regimes ranging from Honduras and Haiti to Pakistan. It is training thousands of doctors and educators from the poorest of US client states and has opened the door to foreign investors from four continents in all its major growth sectors.

Paradoxically as Cuba has deepened its integration into the world capitalist market leading to the emergence of a new class of market-oriented elites, Washington has increased its ideological hostility. By issuing military threats and exercising diplomatic pressure and provocations, the White House has strengthened radical tendencies in Cuban society. Washington has adopted a similar extremist posture toward the pragmatic-leftist Morales regime in Bolivia, whose ‘nationalization’ has not and will not expropriate any foreign-owned enterprise. One of Morales main purposes is to stimulate trade agreements between Bolivia’s agro-business elite and the US.

The third and most numerous political bloc in Latin America are the pragmatic neo-liberals which includes Brazil under Lula, Kirchner’s Argentina and the major trade union confederations in Brazil and Argentina, sectors of the big business and financial elites and the principal provincial political bosses handing out subsistence unemployment doles and food baskets. There are numerous imitators of these regimes among left-liberal opposition groups in Ecuador, Nicaragua (the Sandinistas and their split-offs), Paraguay and elsewhere. Both Kirchner and Lula have defended the entire gamut of legal, semi-legal and illegal privatizations, which took place in the 1990’s. Both have prepaid on their official debt obligations (though Argentina imposed a 60% discount on private debt holders).

Both have pursued agro-mineral export growth strategies. Both have vastly increased financial and business profits while restraining wages and salaries. There are also differences between the two. Kirchner’s pro-industry strategy has led to a growth rate over twice that of Lula and he has reduced unemployment by 50% (from a high base figure) compared to Lula’s failed employment policies. In other words, the investment environment for US business-people and bankers in Argentina and Brazil is as favorable to profit making (or even more so for US bankers in Brazil) as it was during the ‘Golden Years’ of the 1990’s.

The major changes in relations between the pragmatic neo-liberals and Washington are in the negotiations over a free trade agreement. The vast increase in global trade opportunities and the stronger market position of elite export producers and manufacturers within Latin America gives them a stronger negotiating position. Both Lula and Kirchner will have nothing to do with extremist-militarist US efforts to overthrow or boycott Chavez because they have growing and lucrative market investments and joint oil/gas projects in the works. They recognize the basically capitalist nature of the Chavez regime even as they reject most of his radical anti-imperialist discourse. Likewise both Presidents are diversifying trading partners and pursuing markets with US competitors in China and Asia because it is lucrative, revenue generating and part of their neo-liberal practice.

There is a clear difference between the market-oriented and free trade-driven policy of Argentina and Brazil and the militarist, ideologically driven US policy toward Venezuela, Cuba, the Middle East and elsewhere.

While Washington is not hostile to Argentina and has a friendly working relation with Brazil, it has failed to fully exploit the possibilities of extending influence because of its refusal to recognize the emergence of a kind of ‘nationalist’ free trade regime. Measuring Argentina against the 1990’s ‘Golden Age of Pillage’ under President Carlos Menem, Kirchner’s pursuit of negotiated agreements, regulated investments, tax collection and debt re-negotiations is seen as ‘nationalist’, ‘leftist’ and barely tolerable. Likewise Washington, accustomed to Cardoso’s role as a Washington client, is disturbed by the fact that Lula’s free market policies include a demand that the US end agricultural subsidies and quotas as well as Brazil. Once again Washington’s extremism sacrifices large-scale, long-term US entry into Brazil’s industrial and service sector in order to defend uncompetitive US farm enterprises. Washington’s attitude is more akin to a 19th century colonial (or mercantile) power than a 21st century market-based empire-builder, especially faced with pragmatic rulers looking to build their own regional power bases.

The fourth political bloc is the doctrinaire neo-liberal regimes, parties and elite associations, which closely follow Washington’s dictates. This includes the Calderon regime in Mexico, preparing to privatize the lucrative public petroleum and electrical firms, the Bachelet regime in Chile - the perennial agro-mineral-exporter, Central America – the tropical fruit and assembly plant exporters (El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica and Guatemala). The latter were brought into the US orbit subsequent to the killing of over 300,000 people between the late 1970’s and early 1990’s.

Colombia, another member of the hard-line neo-liberal bloc, is recipient of $5 billion dollars in US military aid since the late 1990’s. Peru, which over the past 20 years has privatized almost all of its mineral wealth is governed by US client President Alan Garcia who continues the same policies. Paraguay has become the biggest military base for Washington. In Uruguay, a regime of ex-leftists has signed onto a new free trade agreement with the US and agreed to a military training base. In the Caribbean, the US occupies Haiti via the UN after overthrowing and abducting the elected President Bertram Aristide and has a loyal ally in the Dominican Republic (President Leonel Fernandez). In other words, Washington dominates a ‘Pacific Arc’ of loyal clients extending from Mexico, through Central America down the Southern Pacific coast, including Colombia, Peru and Chile. While the political labels, rhetoric and degree of stability vary, these regimes all embrace US-backed doctrines of free market, mostly follow the US lead in regional and international forums and in one degree or another openly or surreptitiously oppose Venezuela and Cuba. Powerful pragmatic leftist movements challenge these client regimes, especially in Mexico, El Salvador, Peru and Colombia (including the radical left in the latter). Nevertheless for the immediate future, Washington has a loyal bloc of follower regimes, even as, over the middle course this could change abruptly.

Conclusion

Claims by Washington and right-wing ideologues that ‘radical populism’ is sweeping the region are self-serving and gross simplifications of a complex reality. Instead there is a ‘quadrangle of competing and conflicting forces’ within Latin America. There are also new and changing international scenarios, which complicate any attempt to ‘pigeonhole’ policies with ‘either/or’ choices. Washington has emphasized the subversive influence of Venezuela and Cuba in weakening US dominance in Latin America. A far more important factor is the across the board rise in commodity prices of goods which are major export earners for Latin America. This means that the Latin American countries have less need to rely on IMF ‘conditions’ for securing loans, thus severely limiting US political leverage. Secondly the greater liquidity means that commercial loans can be secured without resorting to the World Bank, another instrument of US influence in Latin American political and economic policy making. Thirdly the rapidly expanding markets in Asia and particularly the growth of Asian investment in Latin America’s extractive industries has further eroded US ‘market leverage’ in Latin America over and above what Washington possessed in the 1990’s. Fourthly with the slowdown of the US economy in 2007, the US is expected to lessen its investments and trade with Latin America. In other words, Washington has less market leverage over pragmatic leftists and neo-liberals than it possessed during the 1990’s. To continue to act in the late-2000s as if Washington’s relative loss of influence reflects the ebb and flow of political forces (radical populism) within the region is to pursue failed policies. Mislabeling regimes and exaggerating the degree and kind of opposition leads to the exacerbation of conflicts. Furthermore for Washington to persist in believing that it can secure continent-wide free trade agreements based on non-reciprocal concessions (particularly in agriculture) is to lose out on opportunities for trade deals.

Washington’s over-politicization and ideological labeling of changes in US-Latin American relations is a result of the ultra-conservative configuration of policymakers and their principal advisers in Washington.

If Washington has grossly misrepresented Latin American political reality and misreads the current regional and international context, the Left is hardly more prescient. Leftist intellectuals exaggerate the radicalism or revolutionary reality of Cuba and Venezuela. They overlook the contradictory realities and their pragmatic accommodations with neo-liberal regimes. The Left, with little historical perspicacity, continues to categorize pragmatic neo-liberals like Lula, Kirchner and Vazquez as ‘progressives’, lumping them together with pragmatic leftists like Chavez, Castro and Morales. In many cases they characterize parties and regimes based on their past leftist political identities rather than their current free market, pro-agro-mineral elite policies. The Left confuses the pragmatic neo-liberal regimes’ efforts to negotiate symmetrical free market trade agreements with the US as some sort of ‘anti-globalization’ policy or as a ‘counter-weight’ to US power.

The Left has to face up to the fact that while US power has declined relative to the ‘Golden Age of Pillage’ during the 1990’s, it has recovered and advanced since the mass rebellions and overthrow of client regimes of 2000-2002. The hopes that the Left had that the presidential victories of former center-left electoral parties in Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, would augur a reversion of the neo-liberal policies of their predecessors have been demonstrably dashed. The attempt to redefine the conversion of the ex-leftist-turned-pragmatic neo-liberals into something progressive or as a ‘counter-weight’ to US power is ingenuous at best and at worst compounds the initial error. The Left’s lack of political clarity regarding political changes has led it into a blind alley as damaging to its future growth as Washington’s failed efforts to recognize the new realities.

While US power over Latin America has declined since the 1990’s it has not been a linear process, a sharp fall has been followed by a partial recovery. The decline of the US has not been matched by a sustained rise in the power of the radical left. The real ‘gainers’ have been the pragmatic leftists and neo-liberals who rode to power with the demise of the doctrinaire neo-liberals and the favorable expansive conjuncture in world market conditions. There are neither inherent long-term ‘laws of imperial decline’ as some Leftist historians claim, nor ‘an end of the revolutionary left’ as their neo-liberal counterparts claim. Rather a realistic analysis demonstrates that political interventions, class conflict and international markets play a major role in shaping US-Latin American relations and more particularly the ascent and decline of US imperial power, social revolutionary forces and the other political variants in between.

March 2007

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Tax cuts hurt South Florida home sales, real estate agents say

Potential buyers fear reduced services, increased fees, real estate agents say

By R. Benedick

The scramble is on by cities to cut property taxes, but instead of luring home buyers, real estate agents say it may be discouraging some of them.

"A big question on people's minds is what will happen in terms of public services and does this mean schools will have less money, and what about public hospitals?" said Barry Rothman, sales associate with Lang Realty in Boca Raton. "Are we going to get even less service for our tax dollars?"

That's not what state legislators had hoped would happen when they ordered cities and counties for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 to freeze tax collections at current levels and then make an additional cut, ranging from 3 percent to 9 percent.

"People see the tax issue as a bunch of bull, so to speak, because insurance rates haven't gone down, home prices are still high and now interest rates are rising so people who were barely able to get in when prices were down can't afford to buy now," said broker Jeff Kahn, manager consultant with Century 21 Hansen Realty in Fort Lauderdale.

To make up some of the lost property tax revenues, some municipalities are hiking fees for fire protection, garbage collection, water, building permits and parks.

"It's like they're robbing Peter to pay Paul," said Lisa Mays, president of West Park's Miami Gardens homeowners association. "It's becoming a nightmare because you've got fee hikes now and everything seems to be going up, not down."

West Park is considering a 50 percent hike in the fire fee and a 40 percent increase in the garbage fee. Other cities also are weighing drastic actions to cover shortfalls. (Pic left, will school busing cutbacks lead to this?)

Tamarac is laying off 26 employees and may reduce the community bus service for seniors. Pembroke Pines is considering pulling the plug on some preschool programs, senior bus service and the mounted patrol while doubling its fire-rescue fee.

Boynton Beach is eyeing a water tax and Delray Beach may leave five police officer positions vacant and increase business taxes to raise revenue.

Broward County is looking to increase the cost of going to parks on weekends, returning overdue library books and licensing pets. Palm Beach County plans to raise bus fares.

The property tax relief signed into law in June is projected to save the average homeowner only $174 in taxes this year. The biggest savings would come next year if voters approve part two of the tax plan: They can choose to keep their Save our Homes tax cap or a "super" exemption.

Save Our Homes lets homeowners exempt $25,000 off the home's value and caps yearly tax increases at 3 percent. The "super" exemption allows them to shave off 75 percent of the first $200,000 of their home's taxable value and an additional 15 percent off the next $300,000.

If the "super exemption" constitutional amendment passes in January, cities and counties stand to lose millions more in tax revenue, officials said, meaning more cuts in services. (Pic right, neglected roads in South Florida.)

Because of the uncertainty, "a lot of people are waiting to see what happens with the taxes and prices," said Mark Heller, a Realtor and broker-associate at Century 21 Realty in Coral Springs.

His clients, Rivka and Dan Bushel, plan to rent for a year in Coral Springs before making any decisions.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Sunburned Economy Must Look North (2005 article)

The US economy is based on innovation and creativity. The tie to top research universities and urban economic growth is important. Those college rankings are a lot more important than many realize since they are based largely on the criteria of research money, quality of research professors and perceived quality of students.

Charlotte has become what it is because of Duke and UNC as well as Davidson. Atlanta relies heavily upon Georgia Tech and Emory. New York City has Columbia and NYU with Yale and Princeton less than an hour away. Los Angeles has UCLA, Cal Tech and USC. Chicago’s research centers are Northwestern and University of Chicago. Boston has MIT and Harvard. Nashville may be known for music but it is Vanderbilt and its ties to Oakridge National Laboratories that has fueled its economic growth. It is no surprise that Austin and Houston have developed a tech corridor when one of the largest premier research universities, University of Texas /Texas Tech (They share endowments and research funding) are leaders in public and private research dollars and Rice is the largest recipient of federal research grants in the deep South. Washington, DC has Georgetown, Johns Hopkins and UVa. I could offer numerous other examples but there is one example that states the case definitively. The Bay Area and its research universities, Stanford and Berkeley; no two schools have surpassed them as technology incubators and birth place to tech start-ups.

Miami has something that some of these cities do not. The city and the university share weather and beaches that enable it to attract talent for less pay than other regions.

UM, thanks to a failure of leadership has proven mind bogglingly adept in recent years at frittering away this advantage. A young university, for years Miami struggled to increase its name recognition and to shed the negative implications that came with its image as “Suntan U”. Early university leaders hoped to follow in the aggressive strategy that allowed some West Coast universities to vault their East Coast counterparts.

Miami also tried to convince Fortune 500 hundred companies’ Southern operations that Miami was a viable option for regional headquarters. Miami has long been said to be Los Angeles twenty years ago. Miami mimicked that city's attempts to encourage families to relocate through a network of development and business councils (GMCC and the Beacon Council). The Orange Bowl Parade, like the Rose Bowl Parade was identified as a method to advertise glorious weather and a prosperous city to workers and potential students. It integrated Blacks into leadership (albeit grudgingly) and ended segregation rather than risk the image of racial strife. (This attracted a significant amount of black professionals from throughout the region.)

The "Non-Group" led the way. This organization of business and civic leaders fashioned after "LA’s Committee of 25" and Charlotte’s simply monikered "The Group" and Boston’s "The Vault". Not surprisingly these leadership groups from each of their respective cities often met and shared ideas, visions and advanced trade.

As a result, Miami had one of the fastest growing economies in the nation. And each decade Miami roughly doubled in population, from it’s inception until 1980. Almost half of American GI’s from World War II trained in Miami and many moved to the city with their families following the war. They were said to have had “sand in their shoes”.

When Miami’s power landscape shifted, and Miami experienced crisis after crisis the Anglo elite left, taking their businesses and networks with them. It was a sign of the times when the huge media conglomerate Knight Ridder, publisher of the Herald decided to move to San Jose.

Today, well educated, ambitious and creative people, like the GI’s from years earlier still get “sand in their shoes”. What vacationer does not envision a life in America’s only large tropical city? (Sorry, LA you are a paved desert with a cold, dirty ocean.) The problem is that Miami has developed an attitude of insularity, distancing itself from domestic trade and talent.

This has a multiplying effect. The Anglo or African American Harvard grad who applies to a City of Miami job is turned down, perhaps because of ethnicity perhaps because of being an “outsider”. She does not move here with her MIT educated husband that is active with a start up utilizing nanotechnology or the like. A chain of talented people are turned away with each act of insularity and discrimination in hiring practices.

Again, even though Western Europeans and Canadians continue to be the largest foreign investors in Florida and US residents (not a few of them Black) are the largest source of tourism, local leadership has decided that as the self appointed Capital of Latin America its priorities lie elsewhere.

Effects: Miami’s banking sector has went from the headquarters to a number of flourishing regional banks to a bilingual forward sales force for banks headquartered in other cities. Light manufacturing has all but been replaced by freight forwarding for American items made in other places.

So, the Miami-Dade government and business community, ever looking southward, gives the cold shoulder to Scripps, claiming that it cannot do anything about the lack of available real estate for a research campus, while pushing the Urban Development Boundary back to make way for urban sprawl. Palm Beach, instead of Miami, cashes in on nearly a half billion dollars of incentive funding offered by Governor Bush to jump start Florida’s lagging tech sector.

How bad can it be? The Amazons, Genentecs, Googles, Microsofts, Facebooks, Yahoos, eBays, Def Jams, Tasers, AOL, Ciscos, Dells, Suns, Oracles, etc., formed by college students and recent graduates from elite universities continue to create a new economy based on information technology, communications and entertainment. Billions of dollars in research money go to universities that attract the finest students and professors regardless of background. As research spawns new technology and products industry is created that serves their surrounding economies.

This is not just an issue of shutting out the “new” economy. The older industrial based economy already has shored up its relationships with research universities and new tech companies. Non-tech professional, marketers, advertisers and designers continue to do business where they have the access to broadest and most qualified source of human capital.

Manufacturers and retailers, formerly the less technology dependent players in the economy now are dependent upon highly technical distribution systems. Product design is also technically driven in an economy where product shelf life is shortened and manufacturing is global. America is not a manufacturing economy but a design and innovation economy. Technology has allowed large talent pools in metropolitan areas to exchange ideas. These talent pools are dependent upon the educational and research infrastructure for their training, support and regeneration.

Miami is at the bottom of large cities for the percentage of adults with high school diplomas, bachelor degrees, and has the highest percentage of those for who English is a secondary language. (Florida has the lowest graduation rate in the nation.) This is a particularly worrisome state of affairs in a world that has made post graduate degrees the necessary professional qualification and English the world’s lingua franca. Miami now leads the nation in poverty, and disparity of income and housing prices. This is no secret as the Manhattan Institute, The International Journal for Economic Development and the Brookings Institute have all made exhaustive studies focusing on the poverty, crime and drug use tied to the lack of a well educated populace. Can you imagine Fortune 500 execs lining up to move their headquarters to Miami?

Here is another illustration of the need to look beyond Latin America northward. FIU's Graduate School of Engineering created a recruiting program including full scholarships and housing, in an attempt to recruit from Latin America and the Caribbean. This was to make up for a shrinking pool of Asian and African graduate students who would rather attend colleges with more research opportunities and a welcoming local economy post graduation. FIU found it nearly impossible to find qualified graduates from any part of Latin America or the Caribbean save Jamaica and Trinidad (Most of these students had been planning to go to England or the Northeastern U.S.)

The upshot is that until Miami welcomes the most qualified people in public and private sector hiring and lures national businesses to compete for our public contracts, it will continue to be the poorest city in America. Outside talent is, however only part of the solution. We must strengthen our educational infrastucture. This will take lots of dollars. It will also take the de-politicization of educational leadership.

The other side of this coin is that we must broaden our focus in trade. Miami must not value our trade ties with desperately poor Caribbean and Central American nations where there are five of the hemispheres poorest countries (Haiti, Nicaragua, Jamaica, El Salvador and Guatemala). We must also recognize that South America is looking inward, investing in its own economies. Even if this were not the case, Sao Paolo, Buenos Aires and Caracas hardly look to Miami as the capital of Latin America.

Miami must open its eyes to the largest market in the World. The death of the FTAA should have been a clarion call to General Jeb and his Dade junta who have continued this blind march into the Caribbean.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Miami Condo Glut Pushes Florida's Economy to Brink of Recession

By Bob Ivry

Construction cranes dot the skyline of Miami

July 20 (Bloomberg) -- In the middle of the biggest glut of condominiums in more than 30 years, Miami developers keep on building.

The oversupply will force prices down as much as 30 percent, the worst decline since the 1970s, and help push Florida's economy into recession as early as October, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at West Chester, Pennsylvania-based Moody's Economy.com, who owns a home in Vero Beach, Florida.

``Florida is the epicenter for all the problems that exist in the housing industry,'' said Lewis Goodkin, president of Goodkin Consulting Corp. and a property adviser in Miami for the past 30 years, who also foresees a recession. ``The problems we have now are unprecedented and a lot of people will get burnt.''

Thirty-seven new high-rise condos and 20,000 new units are being built in Miami's 1,040-acre downtown, where sales fell almost 50 percent in May, according to the Florida Association of Realtors. The new units will join the 22,924 existing condos in Miami-Dade County that were for sale in April, according to Jack McCabe, chief executive officer of McCabe Research & Consulting LLC in Deerfield Beach, Florida. That's the most unsold units since McCabe began tracking sales in 2002.

``Have you been to Miami lately?'' Florida Governor Charlie Crist said at a homebuilders' conference last week in Orlando. ``It's like we have a new state bird: the building crane.''

Construction Jobs

While the housing industry is responsible for 10.6 percent of the nation's jobs, in Florida it accounts for 20 percent, Zandi said. Florida construction jobs fell 2.9 percent in May to 626,200 from the peak in June 2006, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The national housing industry's weakness prompted Federal Reserve policy makers this week to cut their forecasts for U.S. economic growth for the next two years.

The economy will grow by 2.25 percent to 2.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2007 from a year before, compared with a range of 2.5 percent to 3 percent the Fed predicted in February, the board said in a report to Congress.

Florida's robust economy of 2001 to 2005 was driven by the thousands of well-paying jobs related to the real estate market and homeowners who used home-equity loans to pay for items such as boats and big-screen TVs, McCabe said.

``All those jobs are going away now, and we're seeing the trickle-down effect in declining sales in big-box retailers and home-furnishing manufacturers,'' McCabe said. ``Florida is headed to a recession.''

Influx of Retirees

A Florida recession could be averted and the state housing industry's ``serious problems'' solved by an influx of American retirees and foreign buyers, said David Denslow, a University of Florida economist in Gainesville.

``The wave of baby boomer retirees is gathering momentum, and the weaker dollar makes Florida seem like a bargain to Europeans,'' Denslow said. ``With any luck at all that will sustain us.''

Downtown Miami developers already are offering incentives for brokers who connect them to buyers. John Rosser, president of the Key Biscayne, Florida-based John Paul Rosser & Associates Inc. estate brokerage, said he is usually paid a commission of as much as 5 percent when a sale is completed. For the Capital at Brickell, a block off Miami's Brickell Avenue, he was offered what he called ``an unheard of'' deal to steer buyers to one of the 832 units proposed. A salesman said Rosser would be paid 5 percent -- payable when buyers put down a deposit. The project has just broken ground and won't open until 2011.

Puig Bankruptcy

Puig Development Group, a closely held company that converted rental apartments to condos, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on May 29. The Hialeah, Florida-based Puig and its subsidiaries controlled 2,900 units in Florida, including 980 condos, worth about $210 million, said Ronald Glass of Atlanta-based GlassRatner Advisory & Capital Group LLC, chief restructuring officer for the Puig properties.

``Puig got a little overzealous and a little overly optimistic, and was caught when the market slowed,'' Glass said.

Florida banks have already quit making loans to Miami condo developers, said Kenneth H. Thomas, a Miami bank consultant and a lecturer at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

``South Florida lenders were the first to put money into the condo market, they were the first to see the oversupply and they were the first to get out,'' Thomas said.

Because of the lag time between making construction loans and closing sales on completed condos, loan problems showed up for Florida lenders in first-quarter bank statistics from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in Washington, Thomas said.

Overdue Bills

Florida banks posted a 43 percent jump in the first quarter in loans no longer paying interest compared with the last three months of 2006, while the number for banks nationwide rose 13 percent, according to the FDIC.

Loan payments that were one to three months overdue to Florida banks increased 30 percent in the first three months of 2007 from the fourth quarter of last year. The same number for banks nationwide fell 1.8 percent, the FDIC said.

Angel Medina Jr., who runs the Southeast Florida operations of Regions Bank, a division of Birmingham, Alabama-based Regions Financial Corp., said Regions has financed projects by two of Miami's biggest condo developers: Related Group of Florida, headed by billionaire Jorge Perez, and Ugo Colombo's CMC Group.

The bank hasn't financed any Miami condos in the past 18 months because development is ``too aggressive,'' Medina said.

Chicago Lender

That leaves the business to lenders such as Corus Bank, a division of Chicago-based Corus Bankshares Inc. Corus has lent a total of $1.07 billion to eight condo developments in downtown Miami, according to the company's Web site.

Corus's net income in the first three months of 2007 was $26.4 million, a 39 percent drop from a year earlier, according to a company regulatory filing.

``It would not surprise us to see an even greater impact on earnings over the next several quarters, or even years, depending on when'' the national housing market improves, Chief Executive Officer Robert Glickman said in a statement.

Miami condo sales fell to 599 in May, a drop of 46 percent from a year earlier, according to the state realtors association. Condo sales in Orlando, home of Walt Disney World, have plummeted 80 percent, said Zandi of Moody's Economy.com.

``The statistics are scary,'' said Michael Wohl, a partner in the Pinnacle Housing Group, a Miami developer that has stayed out of the condo market. ``There's going to be a lot of blood in the water in the next 18 months.''

Hedge Funds

With prices falling, international investors, hedge funds, private equity firms and Wall Street banks are beginning to shop for deals, said Peter Zalewski of Condo Vultures Realty LLC, a consulting firm in Bal Harbour, Florida. Miami lags only New York in the number of foreign visitors to U.S. cities, attracting 5.3 million in 2006 from Europe, Canada and Latin America, according to the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.

``Bigger and bigger funds are coming to me wanting to buy,'' Zalewski said. ``Prices have yet to hit bottom because the bulk of Miami properties won't come on the market for another six months.''

Cement dust swirls at 10 high-rise condo construction sites on Biscayne Boulevard, with its prime locations overlooking the waterfront; at six sites on Brickell Avenue, home to the glass and steel offices of Banco De La Nacion Argentina, Banco Industrial De Venezuela and Banco Santander Brazil International; and at eight locations on the Miami River, which splits the city into north and south. That's according to data collected by the Miami Downtown Development Authority.

Covering Costs

Since it can take up to four years for a condo project to travel from conception to completion, many of the towers rising from the coral rock of Miami were planned and financed during the Florida housing boom, which lasted from 2001 to 2005.

Lenders typically require enough advance sales to cover the cost of a construction loan. Customers' deposits, however, don't always mean the sales will close, said Ian Bruce Eichner, a developer whose latest Miami Beach condo tower is scheduled to open in November.

``The market is as close to a depression as Miami has seen in 30 years,'' Eichner said. ``There's a gargantuan supply of homes and the overwhelming preponderance were built for speculators, not for people who are living there.''

As much as half of those putting down deposits for Miami condos are speculators looking to flip units, or sell them quickly for a profit without living in them, said McCabe of McCabe Research.

Buyers Walking Away

With sale prices falling, McCabe said he expects up to 50 percent of them to walk away from their deposits in the next 18 months rather than complete the sales.

``What's going to happen to all those units?'' Eichner asked. ``God only knows. You couldn't give me a piece of property in Miami for nothing. I like sleeping at night.''

Condo developers encouraged short-term investors, whose deposits helped them secure funding, Goodkin said.

``The developers didn't get to start building until they had a certain number of contracts signed, so anyone putting down money was good for them,'' Goodkin said.

Many ``flippers'' closed on their units and now can't sell them, said Michael Cannon of Integra Realty Resources-Miami Inc., leaving completed condo towers with floors of dark windows and empty balconies.

The Jade Residences at Brickell is an example, Cannon said. The 338-unit, 48-story waterfront tower, a block from the Brickell Avenue financial district, opened in August 2004 with buyers willing to pay as much as $5 million snapping up all the units. Now, the new owners have listed 112 condos for sale and 17 units totaling $15 million are in foreclosure.

Trade Center

Jade Residences developer Edgardo Defortuna, president of Fortune International Realty, didn't return calls seeking comment.

The desire to strengthen Miami's position as a center of international trade is spurring the growth, said Dana Nottingham, executive director of the Miami Downtown Development Authority.

``We want to be a premiere urban center, not just nationally but globally, and downtown residential development is part of the formula for a great city,'' Nottingham said.

Mayor Manny Diaz said he's happy about what he calls ``the unprecedented flurry'' of residential development because it reduces sprawl and brings more people and money into Miami.

``We will continue to build because I see more and more interest from foreign investors coming into Miami,'' Diaz said in an interview. ``I don't think we're done.''

Island Skyscrapers

For Rosser, a former Air Force and airline pilot who's been working in the South Florida real estate industry for 19 years, a puzzling transformation is taking place on Brickell Key, a 44- acre island made of dredged bay sand connected to the rest of Miami by a 1,000-foot four-lane bridge.

On Brickell Key, 10 high-rises loom over the island's two tree-lined streets. The development is the product of a ``building frenzy,'' Rosser said.

The island's master builder is Swire Properties Inc., a Hong Kong-based developer that's a subsidiary of Swire Pacific Ltd. Swire is building a $140 million tower on Brickell Key called Asia, which is slated to open in December, according to Stephen Owens, president of Swire Properties Inc.

``Anyone who says they're not concerned about the oversupply of condos is practicing the ostrich theory,'' said Owens, who lives and works on Brickell Key.

All of Asia's 123 units are sold, with the average size of the units, 2,800 square feet, and the top sale price of $6 million discouraging speculators, Owens said.

Prices Fell

In the 1970s, when condos were a new product, Florida developers built 500,000 units and prices fell 50 percent, said Brad Hunter of MetroStudy, a research firm in West Palm Beach.

``The difference is, back then they were two-story condo buildings that had $50,000 units,'' Hunter said. ``Nowadays they are $700,000 units in 20-story buildings. Instead of building too much stuff that people could afford like we did then, this time we built too much stuff that people can't afford.''

A lot of the inventory 30 years ago was sold off and converted to rental apartments, Goodkin said. That solution won't work now because prices have soared and properties coming on the market will compete with existing condos whose prices have plummeted, he said.

Goodkin said opportunistic investors will buy construction loans from banks at a discount of 30 percent or more.

``The vultures are in the trees,'' Goodkin said. ``Reality has become the new pessimism.''

Friday, August 03, 2007





A simple (if partial/non-specific) explanation why the excesses of the Real Estate Industry will effect the economy for a long time. A local story of greed gone wrong thrown in.

Beyond that, the local cuts in spending on education, capital improvements, infrastructure, etc. will have long lasting and devastating effects on the economy. Because government employment dominates the Miami job market- MDPS, FIU, MDC, MD County, Cities, etc. Real Estate jobs (especially on the financial side) have vanished and construction jobs have become catch is as catch can. Half finished projects are dotting the downtown landscape like Baghdad. Businesses in the Gables, the Grove and throughout the city have shuttered at a remarkable rate. (A recent walk through the Grove was like touring the land of commercial death.) Even media is affected as the advertising dollar (which was often spent and mispent with abandon during the hieght of the RE boom) have now dwindled and advertising people are cutting rates to barely above the price of ink. Miami is in it for a long time. Too bad there isn't something like the upsurge in cocaine popularity as in the 80's.

The real estate crowd keeps asking for tax relief when what they really want is to stay the bleeding by screwing Floridians. If the average man wants tax relief he would do much better in asking for a reduction in sales tax.

A better idea is to continue to root out corruption, increase the quality of education and life, make the area attractive for external capital and skilled workers (God know's there are enough vacant condos to rent). By ending the Banana Republic, Miami can come out of this downturn all the better for it.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The New Politics of Political Aid in Venezuela

Five years after U.S.-funded groups were associated with a failed coup against Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez, the U.S. government's political aid programs continue to meddle in Venezuelan domestic politics. A new focus of the "democracy builders" in Venezuela and around the world is support for nonviolent resistance by civil society organizations.

In the name of promoting democracy and freedom, Washington is currently funding scores of U.S. and Venezuelan organizations as part of its global strategy—including at least one that publicly supported the April 2002 coup that briefly removed Chávez from power.

When he first heard the news of the coup, the president of the International Republican Institute (IRI) praised those "who rose up to defend democracy," ignoring the fact that Chávez was the twice-elected president of Venezuela. Despite this declared support for a coup against a democratically elected president and for the opposition's blatant disregard for the rule of law, IRI still runs democratization programs in Venezuela that are underwritten by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The IRI, a supposedly nonpartisan institute established to direct U.S. democratization aid for which Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is chairman, is one of five U.S. nongovernmental organizations that channels funding from USAID to Venezuelan organizations and political programs. USAID also funds the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDIIA) and three U.S. nongovernmental organizations: Freedom House, Development Alternatives Inc., and Pan-American Development Foundation.

The United States has supported political groups in Venezuela since at least the early 1990s, but funding for "democracy-building" soared after Chávez was elected president in 1998. Both USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which funds IRI and NDIIA, sharply increased their funding to Venezuela's business associations, its official labor confederation, human rights organizations, and political party coalitions.

USAID's Transition Initiative

Several months after the unsuccessful April 2002 coup in Venezuela, the U.S. State Department established an Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) in Caracas, using money from USAID. Operating out of the U.S. Embassy, OTI has two stated objectives, according to the agency: to "strengthen democratic institutions and promote space for democratic dialogue," and "encourage citizen participation in the democratic process."

USAID established OTI with the explicit intention of aiding efforts to oust President Chávez. According to USAID, the new office would "provide fast, flexible, short-term assistance targeted at key transition needs."

Although it did not spell out what would be the desired "transition," in its 2001 job description for the new OTI director in Caracas, USAID stated that the director's responsibilities would include "formulating strategy and initiating the new OTI program in close coordination with U.S. political interests" and "developing an exit strategy and operational closeout plan."

Rather than directly funding Venezuelan organizations and political parties, OTI channels USAID funding through U.S. nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that in turn fund scores of Venezuelan NGOs and political party projects. In its January-March 2007 report, USAID reported 139 subgrants to Venezuelan entities working in 19 of the country's 23 states.

OTI, which has directed an estimated $30 million and an undisclosed private budget for its programs to Venezuela, is not the only source of U.S. political aid. The office describes itself as part of a "comprehensive assistance program to shore up the democratic voices and institutions in Venezuela," such as the NED and other State Department initiatives, including trips to the United States for selected members of the Venezuelan media. As U.S. economic aid decreases, OTI is seeking local funding to complement its own programs, noting in its January-March 2007 report that it succeeded in leveraging $3.5 million in local contributions in the year's first quarter.

In its January-March appraisal of its "transition initiatives," OTI boasts: "The partnerships that have formed between NGOs and citizens eager to participate directly in their own governance attest to the success of the program ... that is filling an important need that is laying the groundwork for a sustainable democratic future."

Although the NGOs funded by the U.S. government insist they are independent, they closely coordinate their programs among themselves and with U.S. officials. In February 2007, OTI's "team leader" visited Venezuela to participate in "a strategic planning" session with the "five implementing partner organizations," according to USAID.

OTI has also been organizing a meeting with two dozen Venezuelan NGOs "that promote citizen participation in local democratic spaces." In its January-March evaluation of ongoing operations, OTI says that "given the political parties' growing appreciation of the importance of democratic spaces, the meeting will provide opportunities to discuss the synergistic overlap between civil society and political parties."

With OTI support, IRI and NDIIA offer "technical assistance for political parties," working directly "with political parties to improve their capabilities in constituency outreach and institutional development," according to USAID. Both institutes say they offer their services to both government and opposition parties—although apparently only the opposition parties avail themselves of this "democracy-building" aid.

Freedom House is best known for its widely cited Freedom in the World and Freedom of the Press reports. But it is not commonly known that Freedom House is a major recipient of U.S. government funding—directly from USAID or through the government-funded NED.

Relying almost exclusively on government funding for its overseas operations, Freedom House says it works "directly with democratic reformers on the front lines in their own countries" in Central Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, the former Soviet Union, and the Balkans. According to Freedom House, its overseas activity "acts as a catalyst for freedom by strengthening civil society, promoting open government, defending human rights, and facilitating the free flow of information."

With USAID funding, Freedom House sponsors a "Human Rights Defenders" program in Venezuela that it promotes as "facilitat[ing] the interaction of Venezuelan civil society with counterparts in Latin America to help them improve domestic human rights reporting and to expand protections for human rights." The "longer-term goal," says Freedom House, is "to assist groups who will strive to safeguard and improve the functioning of democratic institutions in Venezuela."

For its part, in early 2007 the Pan-American Development Fund provided funding to Venezuelan NGOs to "document the following activities: the constitutional reform process, discrimination based on political affiliation, and persecution of human rights practitioners." Meanwhile, Development Alternatives Inc. has focused on "training in democratic leadership and values, increasing citizen participation at the local level, and supporting NGO participation in international events."

"Destabilization Plan"—An "Action Agenda" for Democracy

In May 2007, Eva Golinger, Venezuelan-American author of The Chávez Code and a prominent critic of U.S. aid programs in Venezuela, accused Freedom House and other U.S. organizations receiving U.S. government funding of orchestrating a "destabilization plan" (see Venezuelanalysis.com, May 26, 2007). Golinger claimed Freedom House was designing a campaign of nonviolent resistance to the Chávez government.

Freedom House collaborates with the Belgrade-based Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (Canvas), which has singled out Venezuela along with Zimbabwe and Ukraine as principal targets for its training programs. Describing Canvas's approach to political transitions, the center's website says: "Mass political defiance has occurred in Burma, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Tibet in recent years. Although those struggles have not brought victory over dictators, they badly harmed the authority of those oppressive regimes both in the countries and in the international community."

At a May 2007 press conference in Caracas, Golinger noted that the clenched fist featured on the flyer for a protest against the closure of RCTV, the country's largest television station (accused by the government of having supported the attempted coup), is the same logo used in opposition campaigns in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine—it is also the symbol featured on the Canvas website.
Comparison of logos used by opposition movements in countries where the opposition received funding from the NED.

USAID and NED funding of NGOs in Venezuela reflects the U.S. government's conviction that the democratic process is badly flawed and that such political aid will contribute to a "transition" to more democratic governance—or at least, to a leader more acceptable to Washington. The focus on NGOs shown by recent "democratization" aid is also a reflection of a new trend in aid that regards NGOs' participation in destabilization as the most effective instrument for moving dictatorships to democracies.

This new method of instigating regime change has been promoted by NED, Freedom House, Albert Einstein Institution, and the Council for a Community of Democracies. In recent years Freedom House prominently advocated orchestrating civil action to overturn dictatorial regimes. Its 2005 study, entitled "How Freedom is Won," concluded that 50 of the 67 "transitions to democracy over the previous third of a century" were driven in large part by "civil resistance, featuring strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, and mass protests."

Freedom House Board Chairman Peter Ackerman, who is also the founding chairman of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and coauthor of Strategic Nonviolent Conflict, is a leading proponent for international funding of NGOs engaged in nonviolent organizing against non-democratic states. Freedom House, according to a March 2007 address given by Ackerman, is "making every effort to improve the substance and scalability of training tools".

Another prominent advocate of the U.S. government funding political allies in the Third World is Mark Palmer, a State Department official who played a key role in founding NED and who now serves as the vice-chairman of Freedom House. In his June 8, 2006 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, entitled "Promotion of Democracy by Nongovernmental Organizations: An Action Agenda," Palmer called for the "radical strengthening of our primary frontline fighters for freedom"—namely, NGOs.

Palmer, who was instrumental in the creation of the Council for a Community of Democracies, lamented the fact that U.S. NGOs and "their governmental and private funders" have not made the funding of foreign NGOs involved in building "national movements" their primary objective. He advocated a major increase in government funding for "NGO programs focused on dictatorships."

Current U.S. funding of an array of NGOs and community groups in Venezuela, including training and consultation offered by organizations such as Canvas and the Albert Einstein Institution, raises concerns that the overriding objective may not be so much the advance of freedom, democracy, and human rights, but rather the furthering of U.S. strategic interests.

By including a democratic state such as Venezuela among the targets of national movement building, the independence and integrity of "democracy builders" in the United States can be called into question. Chávez supporter Golinger, for example, advised Venezuelans: "For the defense of the nation, it would be wise to end the actions of groups like Freedom House and the International Republican Institute, which serve as a front for the State Department and the CIA, and which operate openly in the country."

Democracy and Intervention

There is little doubt that democracy is being put to the test in Venezuela. With a history of democratic governance since 1958, Venezuela has been relatively stable, in Latin American terms. But a large part of that stability resulted from a pattern of elections in which well-established parties of the elite alternated in power. By breaking that pattern, Hugo Chávez disrupted that vaunted stability and at the same time made politics more inclusive. For the first time, the country's rural poor and urban workers had a voice in government. Winning several highly contested elections since 1998 by impressive majorities, Chávez has earned legitimacy as a democrat.

Questions about the integrity of U.S. democratization aid are now being used by the Venezuelan government to press its National Assembly to pass a new law that would subject all NGOs that receive foreign funding to governmental scrutiny and approval. If such a measure is instituted, at least part of the blame will lay with Washington and will constitute part of the antidemocratic legacy of U.S. democratization strategy.

It's past time for the U.S. "democratizers" to shut down their operations in Venezuela and make their exit. By intervening in Venezuela through NGOs, Washington lends credence to claims by Chávez and others who charge that the U.S. government is pursuing a policy of regime change in Venezuela.

The first step toward a more constructive foreign policy toward Venezuela should be an expression of support for the country's self-determination in its political and economic affairs. Concerns about the state of democracy, media freedom, or human rights in Venezuela could then be expressed through normal diplomatic channels without fueling suspicion that the United States and its shadow institutions are part of a campaign to undermine the elected Venezuelan government.

As things stand, however, Washington and its phalanx of democracy-building NGOs are not just raising concerns, but are also operating to influence internal politics inside Venezuela. Washington would not permit foreign countries and their agents to inject themselves into its own political process; it should assume no right to do unto others what it would not have done to itself.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Chávez is no enemy of free speech.

Hugo Chávez let Radio Caracas Televisión continue to air for five years after the station supported a coup attempt.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's refusal to renew the license of Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) might seem to justify fears that Mr. Chávez is crushing free speech and eliminating any voices critical of him. Amnesty International; Human Rights Watch; the Committee to Protect Journalists; and members of the European Parliament, the US Senate, and even Chile's Congress have denounced the closure of RCTV, Venezuela's oldest private television network. Chávez's detractors got more ammunition last week when the president included another opposition network, Globovisión, among the "enemies of the homeland."

But the case of RCTV – like most things involving Chávez – has been caught u

p in a web of misinformation. While one side of the story is getting headlines around the world, the other is barely heard. The demise of RCTV is indeed a sad event in some ways for Venezuelans. Founded in 1953, it was an institution in the country, having produced the long-running political satire program "Radio Rochela" and the blisteringly realistic nighttime soap opera "Por Estas Calles." It was RCTV that broadcast the first live-from-satellite images in Venezuela when it showed Neil Armstrong walking on the moon in 1969.

But after Chávez was elected president in 1998, RCTV shifted to another endeavor: ousting a democratically elected leader from office. Controlled by members of the country's fabulously wealthy oligarchy, incl

uding RCTV chief Marcel Granier, it saw Chávez and his "Bolivarian Revolution" on behalf of Venezuela's majority poor as a threat.

RCTV's most infamous effort to topple Chávez came during the April 11, 2002, coup attempt against him. For two days before the putsch, RCTV preempted regular programming and ran wall-to-wall coverage of a general strike aimed at ousting Chávez. A stream of commentators spewed vitriolic attacks against him – while permitting no response from the government.

Then RCTV ran ads encouraging people to attend a march on April 11 aimed at toppling Chávez

and broadcast blanket coverage of the event. When the march ended in violence, RCTV and Globovisión ran manipulated video blaming Chávez supporters for scores of deaths and injuries.

After military rebels overthrew Chávez and he disappeared from public view for two days, RCTV's biased coverage edged fully into sedition. Thousands of Chávez supporters took to the streets to demand his return, but none of that appeared on RCTV or other television stations. RCTV News Director Andrés Izarra later testified at National Assembly hearings on the coup attempt that he received an order from superiors at the station: "Zero pro-Chávez, nothing related to Chávez or his supporters…. The idea was to create a climate of tra

nsition and to start to promote the dawn of a new country." While the streets of Caracas burned with rage, RCTV ran cartoons, soap operas, and old movies. On April 13, 2002, Mr. Granier and other media moguls met in the Miraflores palace to pledge support to the country's coup-installed dictator, Pedro Carmona, who had eliminated the Supreme Court, the National Assembly, and the Constitution.

Would a network that aided and abetted a coup against the government be allowed to operate in the United States? The US government probably would have shut down RCTV within five minutes after a failed coup attempt – and thrown its owners in jail. Chávez's government allowed it to continue operating for five years and then declined to renew its 20-year license to use the public airwaves. It can still broadcast on cable or via satellite dish.

Granier and others should not be seen as free-speech martyrs. Radio, TV, and newspapers remain uncensored and unthreatened by the government. Most Venezuelan media are still controlled by the old oligarchy and are staunchly anti-Chávez. If Granier had not decided to try to oust the country's president, Venezuelans might still be able to look forward to more broadcasts of "Radio Rochela."

Wednesday, July 11, 2007



(Editor's note: WHOOPS, Wrong Video Earlier.)

Great work Dr. Rudy Crew, but it is just a little too late. The coaches at the fifth rank high school football team in the nation (teams seldom if ever play nationwide so it is an unofficial ranking) were fired for covering for a rapist on their "team". Too late for the young woman who was raped by Easterling (who will still get to go to college) and too late for the Taurean Charles, star player in the video above. These Miami Northwestern coaches should have been fired a long time ago. Incidentally, Taurean seems like a very nice if heavily burdened young man.

He didn't want to injure the smaller teammate and showed remarkable restraint by not beating the shit out of his fucked up "coach". He got into trouble however at the University of Florida and perhaps was scapegoated to cover for a bunch of players having serious legal troubles. It would seem that after getting new recruits the young man was expendable.

In 2004 Taurean was kicked off the team and put on partial scholarship. He transferred, attended Bethune Cookman. What many college scouts ignored because of his stellar play on a championship team was that his speed and his size are eclipsed by lots of other players at his position. He is 6'1 235 and running a 4'8 which isn't going to wow NFL guys. Had he put up game film in top college action it might have helped people to ignore all of this and the rap sheet going around. His arrest record is worse than what really happened according to witnesses, but it is too damning.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

It will all be Miami soon, all Miami. Latinos taking over, the local newspapers and white folks hate 'em but there is nothing to be done but to move away. Tancredo said it- America will all be a Third World banana republic ruled by a clique of inept bongo-beaters on the take, just like Miami. Or maybe not.

The mayor of Los Angeles was deemed to be a very skilled technocrat with support from a variety of ethnic groups and constituencies. But the man couldn't keep his dick in trou (being a man is soooo difficult) and the star may have dimmed momentarily for Villaraigosa in Los Angeles after his hot papi antics were revealed. (If you're not up on things he was cheating on his wife with a high-profile reporter on Spanish language television.) The mayor of L.A. may have a former mayor of N.Y.C. to thank if he weathers this controversy-- presidential candidate Rudy "Caligula" Giuliani has given cheating-on-your-wife-mutiple-times-in-public-divorcees more, ahem, moral space. (Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa left)


Other rising stars include Los Angeles D.A. Rocky Delgadillo, Harvard and Columbia Law graduate and protege to a power broker. Said power broker hopes to groom the man into a presidential candidate (realistically long after Scowcroft is gone from this world of course). There are a host of other would be stars in L.A. Hispanic political firmament. None are much like the politicians here in Miami either. In most cases these are fully assimilated, hyper-educated politicos in an American world city. Their bases are broader and their power is tied as much to unions as it is development money and big and small business. These fellas, and a few ladies, are as good with street organizing as they are with patronage. And they see unions as a way of spreading wealth and opportunity among the (Hispanic) underclass. They also value assimilation to American civic life and education. This isn't suprising as most began as union organizers, and civil rights and student activists. And they are spreading the gospel of unions throughout the South.


In the flurry of union activity that is happening now, South Floridians should understand that a power shift may be brewing. This is radically different than the ethnic warring, patronage job flipping, and planning and administrative debacle that has characterized Miami. It is the attempt to create a fair waged, worker empowered economy that in the long run will increase consumer power and broaden the middle class. Rather than examine it here however I will share a comparative study of two other cities that show the night and day difference union influence can have on the make up of politics.

Los Angeles and Houston

By the middle of the 20th century, Los Angeles and Houston were the dominant cities in the dominant states of the just emerging Sun Belt. Politically, though, they were both still tight, white little towns. (Rocky Delgadillo, right)

Each city had a remarkably small informal governing committee -- all white, all Protestant, all CEO, all right-wing -- that held sway over matters large and small. In Los Angeles, the Committee of 25 met regularly in Asa Call's office at Pacific Mutual Insurance, tending to the selection of pro-business mayors. To persuade Norris Poulson, a conservative congressman, to run for mayor in 1953, committee members had to promise him that they'd personally shell out for a chauffeured limousine should he be elected. (He was and they did.)

In Houston, the city's real business was conducted in Suite 8F of the Lamar Hotel. In the 1950s, recalled Leon Jaworski, later the Watergate prosecutor but at that time a young Houston lawyer, "Jesse Jones [a right-wing Democrat who'd served in the Roosevelt administration], for instance, would meet Gus Worthman, Herman Brown [of Texas's mega-construction company Brown and Root], and maybe one or two others and pretty well determine what the course of events would be in Houston."

Half a century later, the cities have evolved along strikingly similar lines. Each saw its black electorate grow to roughly one-quarter of the citywide total, and each elected and re-elected an African American mayor. But the most dramatic change, surely, has come to each over the past 20 years, during which both cities have been substantially remade by the epochal migration of Mexicans and Central Americans to the United States.

The racial and economic recomposition of the two cities has been little short of astounding. In 1950, Los Angeles was the whitest major American city (78 percent in that year's census), with Houston not far behind (at 73 percent). In 2000, Los Angeles had become the least white of America's eight largest cities (just 29 percent) with Houston lagging by only a bit (at 31 percent white). In both cities, the percentage of blacks has also been in decline for the past two decades as the Latino populations have soared. In Los Angeles in 2000, 47 percent of the city was Hispanic, while in Houston, the figure stood at 37 percent. In both cities, the percentage of registered Latino voters lag behind those of whites and blacks, especially because many Latinos are not citizens.

(Houston, pictured left)

To walk through the Hispanic working-class communities in either city -- and the immigrant communities in particular -- is to see American urban poverty. In Los Angeles, hundreds of thousands of immigrants live in the converted garages and slowly decaying single-family homes. In Houston, Sylvia Garcia is the only Latino on the Harris County Board of Commissioners, half of whose district is within Houston city limits. She comments, "I have a colonia in my district -- 95 percent of the residents speak Spanish, and most have incomes beneath $15,000."

Most of Houston's poor don't live in colonia-like conditions, but a large number don't have any more income than those who do. Eighteen percent of all Houston households had annual incomes below $15,000 in 2000; another 15 percent had incomes between $15,000 and $25,000. (Note- strikingly, these income levels still best Miami).

In Los Angeles, things weren't a whole lot better. In 200, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, the city's living-wage coalition, found that 60 percent of the city's Latinos lived in households making less than $30,000 a year. What's more, the low-wage sector of the L.A. economy -- in restaurants, day labor, non-union janitors, off-the-books factories, and the like -- was booming: Overall employment increased in Los Angeles County by a scant 2 percent during the 1990s, but the number of working poor grew by 34 percent. Once the epicenter of the post-World War II middle-class miracle, L.A. had become a poverty-wage boomtown, overwhelmingly Latino and immigrant.

But in the last two decades there is one way in which Los Angeles' and Houston's Hispanics have fared very differently: political power. In Los Angeles, with a great assist from the labor movement, the Latino community has achieved considerable political representation and, as part of a dominant multiracial Democratic political culture, helped build a movement for progressive change that has begun to affect the lives of many of its members. In Houston, absent a sizable labor movement and hemmed in by right-wing Republican domination of every aspect of state politics, a vast Latino immigrant community remains largely unmobilized and markedly underrepresented.

Most striking is the disparity in congressional representation. Houston has no Hispanic member of Congress, making it by far the largest Latino community in the nation not to have a representative. Los Angeles County has five Hispanic members, and the Los Angeles metropolitan area seven. (The total Los Angeles County delegation consists of the five Latinos, five white Jews, and three African Americans.)

Slightly less than a quarter of the members in each house of the California and Texas legislatures are Hispanic, but there the similarities end. In Texas, most Latino legislators and congressional representatives come from the long-established Mexican American communities that constitute virtually the whole southern part of the state; the vast new immigrant populations of Houston and Dallas remain woefully underrepresented. In California and Los Angeles, by contrast, most Latino officeholders represent Latino districts. In Texas, both houses of the legislature are overwhelmingly Republican, as is every statewide officeholder. In California, both houses are heavily Democratic, as is every statewide officeholder except, of course, Governor Schwarzenegger. The mayor and two recent Assembly speakers (Antonio Villaraigosa and current Speaker Fabian Nunez, a former political director of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor) have been Latino. (Los Angeles, right)

At the level of city and county, the disparities don't seem quite so great. Harris County and Los Angeles County each have one Hispanic commissioner or supervisor out of five. L.A. has four Latino city-council members out of 15; Houston has two out of 14. In his 2001 race for mayor of Los Angeles, left-Democrat Villaraigosa lost with 46.5 percent of the vote, while in Houston's mayoral race that same year, pro-immigrant but conservative Cuban Republican Orlando Sanchez lost with 48.5 percent of the vote.

But these differences are actually far greater than the numbers suggest. To begin with, L.A.'s Latina supervisor, Gloria Molina, is one of three liberal Democrats who control the board, while Houston's Commissioner Garcia is the only Democrat on her board. The four Latino Democrats on the Los Angeles City Council have nine other Democratic colleagues; there are just two Republican members. Eight Republicans sit on Houston's council.

Not surprisingly, the difference between the largely liberal Democratic control of California and L.A. and the conservative Republican stranglehold of Texas and Harris County (with a kind of centrist hegemony in Houston proper) has meant a huge difference in terms of legislation affecting the Latino poor. California has a state minimum wage that's $2.60 higher than the federal wage; Texas does not. California has 32 cities and counties that have passed living-wage ordinances, led by Los Angeles in 1997; Texas has one (San Antonio, a city that has been heavily majority Hispanic since the time of the Alamo).

Two days before the election that recalled him, then-Governor Gray Davis signed landmark legislation (Senate Bill 2, or SB2) that required employers with at least 200 workers to offer family health insurance by 2006, and employers with more than 50 workers to offer individual health coverage by 2007 -- in both instances, with employers picking up 80 percent of the costs.

Texas has the highest rate of medically uninsured residents in the United States; California is in the middle of the pack. But in both states, and in Houston and Los Angeles especially, a clear majority of Latinos have no coverage. Calling SB2 a "job killer," the California Restaurant Association has qualified an initiative for the November ballot to nullify it, and the issue is shaping up as the major state ballot-measure brouhaha of the fall election. Should SB2 survive, it will provide health benefits to more than 1 million Californians, the majority of them Latinos, who currently go without.

Why this disparity between California and Texas, and Los Angeles and Houston more particularly? It's not the weight of Hispanic numbers, at least not at the state level. Latinos constitute 32 percent of each state's population; they represented 20 percent of the turnout in the 2002 election in Texas and 17 percent in California. The major difference is at the local level: Hispanics constitute nearly half of all Angelenos but just over one-third of all Houstonians. With more than 4 million Latinos living in Los Angeles County, most in overwhelmingly Latino communities, not even a Tom DeLay could block the formation of large numbers of Latino-dominated districts. (And, of course, the California districts were drawn by Latino-friendly Democrats.)

But the disparity in power and outcome between Hispanics in the two cities is as much a result of qualitative as of quantitative factors. Foremost among those is the different political and institutional cultures of Texas and California. In Los Angeles, certainly, large numbers of white voters have been willing to make common cause with Latinos. Antonio Villaraigosa came close to being elected mayor in 2001 in an election where Latinos constituted just 22 percent of voters; he received about as many votes from liberal whites, clustered chiefly on the city's Westside, as he did from his fellow Latinos.

In Texas, of course, white Democrats are an endangered species. With Republicans in control of both chambers of the state legislature, it matters little that Latinos' share of the legislative delegation is the same as in California: There are way too few white Democrats in the legislature for Hispanic Democrats to claim any power. In Houston, the level of Latino representation in city and state legislative seats has actually declined in the past couple of years: They suffer from a dearth of white Democratic voters. (In both cities, tensions between the Latino and African American political elites -- and voters -- wax and wane, but the key differential in level of Latino power is the one between the two cities' white electorates.)

One big factor in this disparity is organized labor. The key institution in the rise of Hispanic political power in both Los Angeles and California has been the city's Latino-led labor movement, which mobilizes more Latino voters, anoints more Latino candidates, and constructs more progressive coalitions than any force in the state. Under the leadership of Miguel Contreras, who assumed control of the County Federation of Labor (the local AFL-CIO) in 1996, L.A. labor has registered and mobilized hundreds of thousands of new immigrant voters, turning out thousands of activists at election time to walk precincts and work phone banks. In recent city-council and state-legislative elections, the union has been able to produce 400 to 600 volunteers in a single district on election day; when Villaraigosa was running for mayor, the union had 2,100 volunteers working on the day of the vote. (Around the Ista's old hood in L.A. left)

Houston, by contrast, is a corporate-dominated city in a right-to-work state. Its labor movement is capable of writing some checks to candidates and mobilizing its own members -- but there aren't many such members, and the movement is still shrinking. Councilwoman Garcia estimates that in her election as controller in 1998, only a fraction of her 200 to 300 election-day volunteers were from unions. One young union activist in Houston estimates that on a typical weekend shortly before election day, local labor is doing well to turn out 20 to 30 volunteers.

What this means is that Hispanic candidates in Houston often have to assemble their campaigns from scratch. Houston does have a network of Latino elected officials, often referred to as "the Tejano Democrats," who hail from long-settled, nonimmigrant Mexican American families. In Los Angeles, by contrast, both Villaraigosa and Nunez, the two Assembly speakers, come out of the immigrants'-rights movement and have worked closely with Contreras to highlight immigrant concerns. Moreover, the two local unions that constitute Contreras' shock troops at election time are the immigrant-dominated janitors and hotel workers. (The two locals turn out more volunteers than any of the County Federation of Labor's roughly 350 other affiliates.) That explains why when the janitors bargained with management during their successful 2000 strike, they always had a number of elected officials joining them.

Since the mid-'90s, three L.A.-area congressional seats have switched from Republican to Democratic, in large part due to the union's efforts in closely fought elections; a fourth new seat was created in the latest reapportionment. Democratic funding sources and international unions spent vast amounts of money in L.A. to produce those outcomes. As well, the unions have forked over additional millions to mobilize Latinos for gubernatorial campaigns and a series of significant ballot measures. These efforts continually draw in new Democratic voters, most significantly from the burgeoning immigrant neighborhoods around Los Angeles.

No such outside assistance comes to Houston. For now, at least, all statewide elections are effectively conceded to the Republicans. There are no progressive initiatives with any chance of enactment. The kind of ongoing registration that's a permanent part of the L.A. landscape is absent from Houston's. Indeed, national Democrats come to Houston to take money out of it. John Kerry recently raised $2 million at a fund-raiser there, with everyone's full understanding that it would be spent in a faraway battleground state. Democrats "drag the bag in Houston," says University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray, "to spend it in Ohio."

That said, at least one national institution doesn't think that labor or the Democrats can afford to ignore Houston, or Texas, for the indefinite future. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Executive Vice President Eliseo Medina says that his union, in conjunction with other groups, will soon kick off a campaign to register 1 million new voters in the state, and that the SEIU will initiate a Justice for Janitors campaign in Houston later this year.

At least twice before, in 1938 and 1946, labor unions made a concerted effort to organize the South in the correct belief that a non-union South would be a huge impediment to progressive change at the national level. Now the SEIU is taking up that battle again, in fiercely anti-union terrain. But if Houston Hispanics are ever to achieve the clout of their Los Angeles counterparts, this is a battle they need to join. From their perspective, it should be the biggest game in town.