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Facebook Phreaks and the Fight to Reclaim Time and Attention

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A Minimalist Trend

Last week, I sent a note to my email list asking readers about their personal digital minimalism strategies. I’ve only just begun wading through the more than 250 responses, but I’m already noticing an interesting trend: there seems to be a non-trivial subgroup made up of individuals who use Facebook in very narrow ways, and are very worried about this service’s attempt to manipulate their time and attention to bolster profit.

To accommodate both these realities, this group deploys aggressive tactics and tools to reshape Facebook into something that provides them exactly what they need, without all the other frustrating noise.

Reshaping Facebook

Members of this group, for example, often remove the Facebook application from their smartphone. Almost no important use of this service requires that you can access it at any time or place: loading the site through a web browser is typically sufficient.

Facebook pushes the mobile application mainly because it allows them to monetize your time attention in places that advertisers previously could not reach — standing in line, bored in a meeting, waiting for the metro. This is great news for Facebook investors, but bad news for those trying to maintain some autonomy over their time and attention.

Members of this group are also quite suspicious of the Facebook news feed — a source of engineered distraction sprinkled with injections of social inadequacy and annoyance.

Some respondents explained to me how they aggressively culled their “friends” down to essentially zero to neuter the feed. A surprising number deploy custom web browser plug-ins that block the feed altogether when they load the Facebook site.

Another common observation I heard from this group is that Facebook recently unbundled its messenger application from the rest of its services — allowing those who use the service mainly for communication to avoid having to see the feed altogether.

I’ve also received multiple notes from entrepreneurs who hired people to do the types of marketing related posts that seem necessary these days, while saving the entrepreneur’s more valuable time and attention from the Facebook vortex.

So what do these people use Facebook for? There seem to be three main reasons: participating in carefully curated Facebook groups, communicating with family and friends who are on Facebook but don’t use other communication tools as much, and marketing.

They reject the notion that any one of these reasons should require them to transform into a dehumanized gadget in the Facebook profit machine.

The Facebook Phreaks

I’ve taken to calling this group the Facebook phreaks, an homage to the phone freaks (including, famously, Steve Jobs) who used to hack the telephone network to place long distance calls for free. These modern day phreaks are doing something similar to Facebook’s massive network, except instead of avoiding paying a payphone quarter, they’re preserving the value of their time and attention.

I don’t know how widespread this movement is, but it provides me some hope. Just because a small number of companies have temporarily succeeded in monopolizing much of the Internet doesn’t mean we have to acquiesce to their dominance.

The phreaks are pushing back.

(Photo by Joe Piette)

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I Went to a Pro-Islamophobia Rally Hosted by Canada's Breitbart in My Hijab

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Indigenous and settler students hold UBC president accountable for reinstatement of Furlong

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Dear Dr. Santa Ono,

We are writing this letter to demonstrate our opposition to the reinstatement of John Furlong as the keynote speaker at the University of British Columbia’s upcoming 18th Annual ZLC Millennium Scholarship Breakfast on February 28, 2017. As both Indigenous and settler students studying at UBC on the unceded, ancestral, and traditional lands of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) peoples, we are deeply troubled by your decision to reinstate John Furlong as the keynote speaker. This action affirms him as an important contributor to athletics in Canada while neglecting survivor testimonies that state he abused Indigenous youth at the Immaculata (Residential) School near Burns Lake, BC, in 1969-1970.

As many Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars, writers, artists, and activists at UBC and across the nation have explained in their work, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has only begun to articulate the deep-seated and present day manifestations of settler colonialism. We recognize your decision to not only invite but celebrate this man at UBC to be completely in opposition to the foundational efforts of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. This act is also a direct assault on the contributions made by Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars at UBC and across Canada who identify the ongoing colonial violence of institutions such as UBC as obstacles to Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination. It is essential to understand that your choice to re-invite John Furlong not only displays a visible disregard for the sexual safety of students on campus, but also, like residential schools, communicates that violence is justifiable when enacted by colonial figures on Indigenous bodies.

On September 12th, 2016, you spoke at the First Nations House of Learning in Sty-Wet-Tan Hall to announce that construction had begun on the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, located across Main Mall from Koerner Library and the Office of the President. In this speech, you stated that with the construction of the IRSHDC, UBC is committing itself “to assisting survivors and communities in navigating the extensive and complex archives of the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] and we are dedicated to providing curricular support and public information about this complex and important history […] This will help to form the basis for more productive interactions in the future.” By reinstating Furlong as the keynote speaker at the upcoming Scholarship Breakfast, you have violently silenced the voices of survivors and deeply troubled the commitment you made on behalf of the UBC community to the survivors of Canada’s residential schools, some of whom are likely attending our university. There is nothing ‘productive’ about your decision, rather it is a decision that condones violence against Indigenous peoples by erasing their voices. If we, as a campus, are truly going to be able to have productive and healing conversations under the banner of Truth and Reconciliation, we must start with listening to the peoples most affected by Canada’s colonial past and present. UBC has a responsibility to uphold and respect relationships with Indigenous peoples, specifically stated in the memorandum with xʷməθkʷəy̓əm. In this time of truth and reconciliation, it is of utmost importance that these relationships take priority. As students attending UBC, we expect better guidance from our president.


Concerned UBC Students

Show your support by signing our open letter to Dr. Santa Ono.

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Canada’s Hemisphere | Jacobin

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In recent years, the Canadian state has lent its support to a repressive post-coup regime in Honduras; it has provided military and ideological backing for a repressive regime in Colombia, one which boasts the hemisphere’s worst record on human rights; it has aggressively interfered in the domestic affairs of left-of-center Latin American governments, such as that of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Rafael Correa in Ecuador; it has supported ecological destruction and the dislocation of vulnerable populations in the region through its support for Canadian natural resource companies; it has provided cover for exploitative working conditions in the factories of Canadian companies operating in the export processing zones of Central America; it has sought to delegitimize, coopt, or coerce popular movements that have directly challenged the economic interests of Canadian capital — this is the reality with which any honest study of Canada’s growing political and economic engagement with Latin America must start.

These are not extreme or isolated examples, unrepresentative of the broader character of Canada’s foreign policies in the Americas. These trends are at the core of Canadian foreign policy in Latin America, animating both Canadian capitalist expansion and popular resistance in the region.

Canadian multinational corporations (MNCs) have expanded rapidly into Latin America as a whole since the 1990s with devastatingly destructive force. Their deleterious impact on human rights has been matched only by their enormous ecological offences — indeed, the two often go hand in hand. Expansion of Canadian capital has in turn engendered waves of creative and militant community resistance, which has proved the most successful way thus far of containing predatory Canadian MNCs and the state policies that abet their operations.

This dialectic of capitalist expansion and popular resistance is well understood by Canadian policymakers. For example, Stockwell Day, the former minister of international trade, frequently noted the increasingly large amount of Canadian foreign investment flowing into Latin America. Summing up the drive of Canadian foreign policy towards the region quite effectively, he said, “these are substantial figures, and they indicate where our interests lie.”

But as a considerable portion of that investment is in the land-hungry and environment-imperiling resource sector — sometimes linked simultaneously to the Canadian financial sector — the realization of those Canadian interests, we argue, is never fully guaranteed. As surely as Canadian investment spells future mega-profits for the investor, it faces opposition from local communities.

Even when some governments do not openly oppose Canadian resource investment, their plans are not strictly reducible to the interests of the investor: an Ernst and Young report cited “resource nationalism” as the biggest risk to mining companies in 2013, up from tenth-largest in 2008. “Resource nationalism” encompasses moves by governments of the Global South to capture a greater share of windfall profits earned during the most recent commodity boom.

A central part of our argument is that Canadian “interests” are, by their very nature, fraught with contradiction and instability in Latin America, and require state protection if they are not to be undermined. Providing such protection is the overarching goal of Canadian foreign policy in the region — whether in its diplomatic, developmental, or security form — to ensure the successful expansion of Canadian capital in its relentless and insatiable drive for more profit.

“Canadian” Capital?

Now, one objection to our theoretical framework might be that it no longer makes sense to use the term “Canadian” capital. There is a widely held notion that in an age of transnational globalization it is no longer accurate to refer to national capitals and their particular interests; rather, it is said that we should speak of transnational capitals which root themselves in this or that nation-state opportunistically and flexibly.

While we recognize that there has indeed been a certain intensification of trends in transnational coordination of capitals (alongside ongoing competition) over the last forty years or so, we maintain that it continues to be crucial to retain the concept of national capitals, and in our case, to speak of Canadian capital — that is, capital that has a clear and indentifiable Canadian owner, whether as an owner of a private company or as a majority or minority (with controlling influence) shareholder of a publicly traded company.

Imperialism Today

Our fundamental analytical and empirical concern is the role assumed by the Canadian state within the worldwide system of capitalist imperialism in relation to Latin America. Capitalist imperialism is characterized by deep structural inequalities between regions and countries of the world. These inequalities are exacerbated by the uneven development of global capitalist relations, and are reproduced through the active policies adopted by imperialist states and powerful international financial institutions (IFIs), such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

Capitalist imperialism involves the draining of the wealth and resources of poorer countries to the benefit of capital of the Global North, at the cost of the majority of the peoples of the Global South. The majority of inhabitants of imperialized countries experience imperialism through the blunt end of economic, political, ideological, and military bludgeons.

“Underdevelopment” or “dependency” in the Global South is not a necessary structural corollary of growth and development in the imperialist core — as per classical dependency theory. Rather, it is a product of the uneven way in which capitalist growth takes shape, itself a product of the logic internal to capitalism at the national, regional, and global levels that leads the most productive capital to concentrate in already wealthy regions and spread slowly, haltingly, and often under fairly specific conditions (for instance, to access raw materials, or in response to economic crisis at home) to other parts of the globe.

What concerns us here, however, is not simply a question of uneven development, or simply market forces internal to capitalist accumulation. We are interested in the manners in which uneven development is amplified and reproduced through the actions of capitalist states of the Global North in order to create and recreate conditions to the benefit of northern capital.

In some cases, these actions benefit all capital, but because of uneven development the patterns of contemporary capitalist imperialism tend to concentrate benefits in the hands of capital from the Global North. State managers of core imperialist countries introduce policies such as structural adjustment, free trade, market liberalization, and political interference of various kinds in order to structure the domestic political economies of weaker nations to the benefit of imperialist capital.

Dependency of peripheral countries on the core, therefore, is not a necessary product of capitalist accumulation, but rather the frequent outcome of the combination of uneven development and conscious actions taken by imperialist states. This is not to say imperialist states are attempting consciously to reproduce the impoverishment of dependent countries necessarily (though it may be the case in some instances), as much as they are trying to shape the political and economic dynamics of dependent states such that they remain politically subordinate to the interests of capital from the core. Patterns of dependency are, therefore, a combination of intended political action and unintended by-products of capitalist accumulation.

The strategic orientation of imperialist powers such as the United States and Canada vis-à-vis Latin America over the last fifteen years has been driven principally by an effort to assert control over access to the region’s immense natural resource wealth. The importance of this dynamic has intensified as opportunities for accumulation have been opened up in the context of the neoliberal privatization of natural resources, and, until recently, increasing prices of basic commodities on the international market.

At the same time, in geopolitical terms, both the United States and Canada have been interested in containing through persuasion, and/or eliminating through coercion, the rising tide of popular social movements and left-leaning governments in the region, an important part of whose mandates has been precisely to reclaim popular sovereign control over natural resources and reassert political and economic autonomy in the region vis-à-vis dominant external powers.

It is worth remembering here that Latin America and the Caribbean contain 25 percent of the world’s forests and 40 percent of its biodiversity. The region contains 85 percent of all known reserves of lithium, and a third of copper, bauxite, and silver. Latin America and the Caribbean are similarly rich in coal, oil, gas, and uranium, with 27, 25, 8, and 5 percent respectively of all discovered deposits in the world currently being exploited. New underwater oil reserves, meanwhile, are regularly being discovered along the region’s vast coast lines. Finally, the region contains 35 percent of the globe’s potential hydro-electricity and the biggest reserves of freshwater under its soil.

Indigenous Dispossession

As is the case with ongoing capitalist expansion within Canadian borders, much of the land Canadian resource companies are pursuing in Latin America is inhabited by indigenous peoples. Canadian natural resource companies often ignore indigenous claims to the land, and act as if these territories were terra nullius: empty and going to waste. It is up to MNCs to transform that land into a source of commerce and profit, and any indigenous communities that challenge the authority of investors — that are not grateful for the help foreign investors are bestowing upon them — are seen as obstacles to progress. They are to be removed, by force if necessary.

The mere fact that they do not demonstrate reverence to the interests behind capitalist development, and see the land as more than a means for capitalist exploitation, is cause for them to be dismissed as backward and naïve. This worldview also regularly provides justification for the repression of indigenous communities in resource-rich areas by legal and illegal security forces. Given the history of capitalism within Canadian borders, Canadian business and political leaders are well-practiced in these dynamics.

Ecological destruction of indigenous or poor peasant communities in the South transforms those communities in profound ways. Dislocated from the land and its resources, indigenous patterns of social reproduction are undercut, putting new pressures on women in particular who are often the primary caregivers for the young. The ability to sustain themselves on the land is threatened, and greater integration into market relations is encouraged by the IFIs and national aid programs, including Canada’s. But the sheer scale of displacement from the land over the last two decades has meant that market relations in poorer countries are not a realistic option for survival for most people. The natural resources sector has very low employment levels as a ratio of investment.

The growth of low-wage manufacturing zones in the Third World has drawn millions of dispossessed peasants, primarily women, in search of work, despite extremely poor working conditions. The new proletarians are desperate to eke out an existence on the rough margins of global capitalism. For many others, the only option for survival is migration to the Global North, leaving family behind in a desperate search for work at what is, inevitably, the very bottom end of the labor markets in North America, Europe, and the Middle East.

In the Global North, racist exploitation of migrant labor is cloaked in the language of citizenship to exclude these foreign-born workers from the basic rights won by workers born in places such as Canada and the United States. In the neoliberal age of global mass migration — the scale of which is unparalleled in history — the social reproduction of increasing numbers of poor people of color is an international process.

The FDI Panacea

Articulations of modernization theory today, coming from institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, argue that foreign direct investment (FDI) ipso facto represents a necessary source for Third World development and improvement in the standard of living of the peoples of the Third World. And, indeed, the position is reiterated, albeit in a different register, in some Marxist theories of imperialism.

The goal of FDI has never been development per se, nor improved standards of living for peoples of the Global South. The goal, rather, is profit. Investors look for opportunities in scenarios that will allow for the repatriation of as much profit as possible with as little interference from local governments and communities as possible. If there is excessive “regulation” or “red tape,” or if demands from local communities threaten to make serious inroads on profitability, investors will move elsewhere when possible.

Leaving aside for the moment the matter of what kind of development is most desirable for social justice and the future of the world’s ecological systems and human population, a simple uptick in FDI does not constitute a formula for improved living standards or endogenous industrial growth. As economist Anwar Shaikh has demonstrated, FDI flows facilitate and intensify uneven development and poverty, while simultaneously generating profits for corporations in the Global North, as well as a thin layer of the population in the imperialized country (mainly capitalists and politicians).

Any theory which suggests that FDI is the central driver for meaningful development, or which uncritically situates FDI as a solution to problems of poverty and inequality in the Global South, is dangerously simplistic and needs to be challenged.

Expansion of Canadian Capital

The scale of the expansion of Canadian capital in Latin America in the form of FDI over the last quarter-century has been phenomenal, following the liberalization of capital flows, the rewriting of natural resource and financial-sector rules, the privatization of public assets, and so on. In 1990 it stood at only C$2.58 billion in stock (that is, cumulative FDI flows). It rose to C$25.3 billion in 2000, an increase of 880 percent, and to C$59.4 billion — amid the deepest global economic recession since the 1930s — in 2013, an increase of 134 percent from the year 2000, and 2,198 percent from the year 1990.

The figures for 2000 and 2013, moreover, are certainly an underrepresentation of the extent of Canadian capital’s penetration of the region, as Statistics Canada’s data, from which these figures are primarily drawn, do not include Canadian investment that is routed through the Caribbean Offshore Financial Centers (OFCs), which, if it did, would likely double to triple the figures for some countries given how strong Canadian financial capital’s presence is in the Caribbean OFC, as we note below.

To put the growth of Canadian investment into Latin America into perspective, American FDI into the region over this same period, while not surprisingly much higher than that of Canada in absolute terms (at US$283.9 billion in 2012), increased at a slower pace: by 79 percent from 2000–2012 and by 555 percent from 1990–2012; and, notably, as a share of total FDI into Latin America and the Caribbean combined, US FDI decreased from 46.8 percent in 1990 to 38.7 percent in 2012.

From 2007 to 2012, Canada was the second largest external source of FDI to Latin America and the Caribbean combined behind the United States — it was the third largest source if Latin America as a whole is included as a source region — a jump from fifth during the period from 1995 to 2005. And while American investment is much greater than Canadian, the rate of the latter is much greater than that of the former. The Canadian economy is roughly one-tenth the size of its American counterpart, but Canadian foreign investment in Latin America and the Caribbean combined is one-fourth that of the United States.

Finance and Mining

Canadian investment is occurring across a range of sectors. In Honduras, for example, one of the largest sock and t-shirt manufacturers in the world, and the largest private-sector employer in the Central American country, is Montreal-based Gildan Activewear. Canadian oil and gas, pipeline, and construction companies also play prominent and controversial roles in the hemisphere. But it is clearly in the financial and mining sectors where Canadian companies are most prominent. Canadian financial companies have long-established historical roots in the region, going back to the nineteenth century, often connected to US-backed dictatorships.

But the neoliberal period has seen a sharp expansion of Canadian financial capital in the western hemisphere, growing from 15 percent of Canadian FDI in the early 1980s to close to half in the 2000s. Scotiabank, for instance, the Canadian bank most well-established outside of North America, generates more than one-fifth of its profits from its extensive international investments, the majority of which are in the Americas. It spent approximately C$6 billion on more than twenty acquisitions in the Americas from 2007 to 2012 — part of a wave of Canadian takeovers of foreign financial assets following the 2008 global crisis.

Canadian banks dominate the financial sector in the English Caribbean, controlling its three largest banks. Three Canadian banks — RBC, Scotiabank, and CIBC — own over C$42 billion in assets there (61 percent of total Caribbean banking assets), forty times greater than what approximately forty-odd local banks own. The significance of this influence extends beyond the English Caribbean, of course. As the Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean notes:

The share of [Canadian] FDI going through international financial centers has increased significantly and represents a very important distortion, because these flows of Canadian capital do not remain in OFCs, but go on to final destinations in third markets, mainly in Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia, the United States, and Europe.

Canada’s mining industry, meanwhile, is the largest in the world. Approximately two-thirds of the world’s mining companies are based in Canada, with its permissive tax and legal regime, long mining history that has nurtured an aggressive exploration and producing sector, and unflinching foreign policy support for companies with international ambitions. Those international ambitions, coupled with the Canadian state’s legal and diplomatic fealty, has led Canadian companies, big and small, to the four corners of the globe in pursuit of profit.

But the Americas (Latin America plus the Caribbean) account for over half of Canadian mining assets held abroad — C$72.4 billion. Whereas there were only two Canadian mines in operation (i.e., not simply exploration properties or mines under construction) in 1990, that jumped to eighty in 2012, with another forty-eight in the development or feasibility stage, according to the Canadian International Development Platform (whose numbers are drawn from the InfoMine industry database).

These operating mines generated combined revenue of C$19.3 billion in 2012 for Canadian companies. According to the Northern Miner (an industry web publication) database, in 2014, 62 percent of all producing mines in the region were owned by a company headquartered in Canada. The size and international leading role of the Canadian mining industry is no doubt the reason Toronto is the most important financial nodal point of the global mining industry. In 2013, for example, C$6.9 billion was raised in equity financing on the city’s two exchanges (the Toronto Stock Exchange and the Toronto Venture), representing 84 percent of the global total.

Super Profits

The dominance of Latin America’s natural resource markets has showered the owners of Canadian companies with super-profits. Looking only at the earnings from mines that were still operational in 2013 (fifteen gold mines in total), the three largest gold-mining companies by revenue — Barrick, Yamana, and Goldcorp — earned a combined net profit of US$14.9 billion between 1998 and 2013. The rate of profit for these operating mines was an astounding 45 percent; with taxes and royalties factored in for Barrick, it was still an incredible 42.4 percent. The average rate of profit for the Canadian economy as a whole from 1998 to 2013 was 11.8 percent.

Here, presented quite plainly, are the Canadian “interests” at stake in Latin America. As we discuss further below, the argument from Canadian governments of various stripes and the companies themselves, repeated ad nauseam, is that Canadian resource companies are not simply getting filthy rich off of the resources of impoverished and dispossessed communities. Canadian companies are, instead, improving the living standards of the communities where they are digging gold, silver, copper, and other toxic riches from the ground.

In truth, very little of the company profits are invested in local communities. Barrick and Yamana’s combined “community investment” spending — part of the companies’ “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) agendas to create the fiction that they give back to communities whose land they exploit — was a miserly 1.4 percent of net earnings in 2012 and 0.9 percent in 2011 (comparable figures for Goldcorp were not available). But beyond the supposed “community investments,” after construction is completed there is very little new inflow of money from these companies into the countries in which they are operating mines; and the construction costs of new mines are usually made back within the first few years of the mines’ operations. New capital expenditures on operating mines by Barrick and Goldcorp averaged 39.9 percent of previous years’ net profits during the period studied. These are thus reinvested earnings, not new inflows.

Most of their profits, in other words, leave the country, and after the construction period, mining represents a significant net outflow of value. It is important to keep in mind, as well, how poor a job creator large-scale industrial mining is, on top of the human displacement and irreparable ecological damage these mines, by necessity, cause. In short, these companies and their owners are getting incredibly rich from Latin America’s mineral wealth, at the expense of the often impoverished communities that are left to deal with legacies of dislocation, poisoned water sources and, not uncommonly, the violence that makes all this possible.

Capital and the State

Canadian capital’s penetration of Latin America has not been accomplished on its own; it has received the steadfast support of the Canadian state — from the prime minister’s office to Foreign Affairs, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) (as of 2015 Foreign Affairs, CIDA, and International Trade are now part of Global Affairs Canada), National Defense, Natural Resources Canada, and Health Canada. Canadian foreign policy in Latin America has been intimately bound up with the outward expansion of Canadian capital, both responding to the imperatives and shaping the actions of Canadian MNCs as their investment in the region has steadily grown and encountered various political and social obstacles. Canadian state managers have prioritized new and aggressive engagement with states in the region, hoping to create the best possible conditions for the accumulation of profit.

Further expansion of Canadian investment into the region has become a strategic goal of policymakers. Latin America was clearly on the radar of the Jean Chretien and Paul Martin Liberal governments of the 1990s and early 2000s, who signed the initial free-trade agreements (FTAs) in the region, as well as a series of bilateral investment treaties (or Foreign Investment Protection Agreements as they are called in Canada), including the North American, Chilean, and Costa Rican FTAs. But foreign policy engagement in Latin America was given an extra boost, and received clearer articulation, under the Harper Conservatives, who signed another four FTAs while attempting to sketch out — publicly and privately — an agenda for Canadian intervention.

This observation should not be taken as suggestion that Canadian foreign policy is reducible to the whims of a particular government, whether Conservative, Liberal, or even New Democratic. Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party, replaced Harper as prime minister in October 2015. While it is too early in his administration to make any decisive claims about its foreign policy orientation in Latin America, there is little reason to expect any significant rupture with the Harper legacy. Clearly the Harper Conservatives left their cynical imprint on Canada’s relation with the Americas (and the rest of the world for that matter), and, having been in power from 2006 until 2015, their actions deserve a lot of scrutiny.

But, to stress a point raised earlier in our discussion of contemporary forms of imperialism, Canada’s external policies, like those of other countries, are framed by the rhythms of capitalist accumulation, with all its economic and political demands, contradictions, and ecological limits, and by the country’s place within the privileged hierarchy of the world system.

These policies will persist — with changes in inflection, priorities, and aggression to be sure — in the absence of a fundamental reordering of the deep structural roots of global capitalist imperialism, even in the absence of Harper. Sober reflection of Canadian engagement in Latin America over the last two decades reveals that the Conservatives did not represent a radical departure from their Liberal predecessors, and with Trudeau now in the helm we should, once again, expect more continuity than change.

Adapted from Blood of Extraction: Canadian Imperialism in Latin America, out now from Fernwood Publishing.

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In Search Of The Red Cross' $500 Million In Haiti Relief : NPR

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When a devastating earthquake leveled Haiti in 2010, millions of people donated to the American Red Cross. The charity raised almost half a billion dollars. It was one of its most successful fundraising efforts ever.

The American Red Cross vowed to help Haitians rebuild, but after five years the Red Cross' legacy in Haiti is not new roads, or schools, or hundreds of new homes. It's difficult to know where all the money went.

Haiti, just days after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake destroyed much of the country on Jan. 12, 2010. The disaster uprooted many of its residents and killed more than 200,000 people. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

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David Gilkey/NPR

NPR and ProPublica went in search of the nearly $500 million and found a string of poorly managed projects, questionable spending and dubious claims of success, according to a review of hundreds of pages of the charity's internal documents and emails, as well as interviews with a dozen current and former officials.

NPR and ProPublica

The Red Cross says it has provided homes to more than 130,000 people, but the number of permanent homes the charity has built is six.

The Red Cross long has been known for providing emergency disaster relief — food, blankets and shelter to people in need. And after the earthquake, it did that work in Haiti, too. But the Red Cross has very little experience in the difficult work of rebuilding in a developing country.

The organization, which in 2010 had a $100 million deficit, out-raised other charities by hundreds of millions of dollars — and kept raising money well after it had enough for its emergency relief. But where exactly did that money go?

Ask a lot of Haitians — even the country's former prime minister — and they will tell you they don't have any idea.

Today, Campeche, part of the larger Carrefour Feuilles neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, is where the Red Cross boasts one of its marquee housing projects. Marie Arago for NPR hide caption

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Marie Arago for NPR

Today, Campeche, part of the larger Carrefour Feuilles neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, is where the Red Cross boasts one of its marquee housing projects.

Marie Arago for NPR

"Five hundred million in Haiti is a lot of money," says Jean-Max Bellerive, who was prime minister until 2011. "I'm not a big mathematician, but I can make some additions. It doesn't add up for me."

On a recent day, Bellerive was sipping coffee in his living room, high above Port-au-Prince, with Joel Boutroue, who was the United Nations deputy special representative in Haiti before the earthquake and an advisor to the Haitian government afterward. Boutroue says he can't account for where the nearly $500 million went either.

They considered the Red Cross' claim on its website and press releases: That all the money went to help 4.5 million Haitians get "back on their feet."

"No, no, not possible," Bellerive says. "We don't have that population in the area affected by the earthquake."

Joel Boutroue (left), the United Nation's deputy special representative in Haiti and Jean-Max Bellerive (right), Haiti's former prime minister, at a Dec. 18, 2006 press conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone/AP hide caption

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Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone/AP

"You know," Boutroue chimes in, "4.5 million was 100 percent of the urban area in 2010. One hundred percent. It would mean the American Red Cross would have served entire cities of Haiti."

It's not unheard of for the Red Cross to make such a claim. Not long ago, the charity hired a group of consultants to review one of its projects in the north of the country. They found the charity's math unreliable when it came to counting people it helped. There was double-counting, undercounting, and in one instance the Red Cross claimed to have helped more people than actually lived there.

David Meltzer, the Red Cross' general counsel and head of the international division, says the charity helped millions through trying and difficult circumstances, including a cholera outbreak and a government in disarray.

"The Red Cross has provided clean water, sanitation, vaccinations, disaster preparedness, cholera prevention," he says. "All of the money that has been spent has been focused on benefiting the people of Haiti."

Meltzer says the Red Cross took the almost $500 million and split it into sectors. For example, the organization spent $69 million on emergency relief, $170 million providing shelter and $49 million on water and sanitation efforts.

The Red Cross also has outlined over the years some of the projects it has funded, such as millions of dollars given for new hospitals, vaccination programs, and disbursement of tents and water tablets. The charity says it has done more than 100 projects in Haiti, repairing 4,000 homes, giving several thousand families temporary shelters and donating $44 million for food.

But the charity will not provide a list of specific programs it ran, how much they cost or what their expenses were.

Map of Haiti

Meltzer says the public can see in the organization's five-year report: a pie chart showing the percentage of the money that went to each sector. But he will not provide greater detail about where the money went.

"We have provided, through our public website, where the money has gone by sector, and we stand by the accuracy of that information," he says.

The charity's own documents, however, give some insight: Much of the money never reached people in need.

The Red Cross gave much of the money to other groups to do the hands-on work, resulting in additional fees.

First the Red Cross took a customary administrative cut, then the charities that received the money took their own fees. And then, according to the Red Cross' records, the charity took out an additional amount to pay for what it calls the "program costs incurred in managing" these third-party projects.

In one of the programs reviewed by NPR and ProPublica, these costs ate up a third of the money that was supposed to help Haitians.

To really understand what happened, take a look at one of the Red Cross' marquee projects — a housing project. The housing sector received more than double the funds that other sectors received, and it's the area in which the Red Cross made its biggest promises.

Campeche and the surrounding neighborhoods are home to one of those projects. The town sits in a ravine in the hills of Port-au-Prince. People live inside shacks made of tarps and tin. There's no running water. Trash and human waste piles up at the bottom of the hill.

Evening in Campeche, a neighborhood that sits in the hills of Port-au-Prince. The neighborhood is part of a $24 million project the Red Cross has designated for a "physical renewal." Marie Arago for NPR hide caption

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Marie Arago for NPR

Evening in Campeche, a neighborhood that sits in the hills of Port-au-Prince. The neighborhood is part of a $24 million project the Red Cross has designated for a "physical renewal."

Marie Arago for NPR

In the steep, tight alleyways, residents smile warmly and greet passers-by with a Creole "bonswa." Above them all, at the top of the hill, the Red Cross has painted its name and logo across a large concrete wall.

Jean Jean Flaubert, one of the neighborhood's leaders, was here when it was painted.

He explains in Creole that about three years ago the Red Cross came with glossy booklets saying it was going to build hundreds of new homes, a water and sanitation system and a health clinic.

None of that happened.

Jean Jean Flaubert (lower right) says he was there when the Red Cross painted its logo on a wall in his neighborhood three years ago. Since then, he says, not much has changed. Marie Arago for NPR hide caption

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Marie Arago for NPR

"We still have tents," he says. "I am going to show you that the Red Cross has not intervened here at all. If you're talking about change, people should not be living like this still."

The Red Cross promotes this project heavily in its annual reports and press releases, under the headline "Rebuilding Neighborhoods." It's costing $24 million.

From the main roadway, Flaubert calls to the other leaders to join him in the one-room community center. Inside, the men pull plastic lawn chairs around a metal desk.

Simon Julnet opens a filing cabinet and spreads out the booklets that the Red Cross gave them in 2012. Inside is a list of priorities they and the Red Cross agreed to for their area: homes, clinics, water and bathrooms. Asked about each one, the men shake their heads no.

"First, three years ago," Julnet says, "the main plan was to build houses."

The men say they think it's possible that the Red Cross will still build them homes. Flaubert says they have asked the Red Cross repeatedly to tell them what's going on.

"We're fighting now with the Red Cross but we still do not have any answers," he says.

When shown a Red Cross promotional brochure about the project, the men are stunned.

The brochure says the project is scheduled to end next year. Far from new homes and new neighborhoods, it says the Red Cross will do smaller projects such as repairing some homes, walkways and schools. The Red Cross is also building a road. The brochure says the project is costing $24 million.

"I don't understand an organization like the Red Cross acting like that," Julnet says. "If they have received that kind of money, maybe they paid their employees with it? That is OK. But that kind of money spent here in the community? No, that cannot be said."

The men break into a heated conversation in Creole. They pause for a moment and ask us if they can meet with the Red Cross.

Later that night, the Red Cross' head of public affairs in Washington, D.C., sent NPR and ProPublica an email saying we had mischaracterized the project, though they did not dispute the information in the brochure.

A man works on a pathway in Campeche. As the Red Cross prepares to leave the neighborhood at the end of this year, residents say the hundreds of houses the Red Cross told them would be built do not exist. Marie Arago for NPR hide caption

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Marie Arago for NPR

A man works on a pathway in Campeche. As the Red Cross prepares to leave the neighborhood at the end of this year, residents say the hundreds of houses the Red Cross told them would be built do not exist.

Marie Arago for NPR

NPR and ProPublica were "creating ill will in the community, which may give rise to a security incident," the email says. "We will hold you and your news organizations fully responsible."

No security incident happened — but residents did ask if they could keep the brochure.

The Red Cross' internal emails and memos from the Campeche project show that the residents were right: The original plan was to build 700 new homes with living rooms and bathrooms. The Red Cross says it ran into problems acquiring land rights.

Their internal memos, however, show there were other serious problems, including multiple staffing changes and long bureaucratic delays. And then there was a period of almost a year when the whole project appears to have sat dormant.

While all this was happening, a thousand miles away in Washington at Red Cross headquarters, things weren't going much better.

The Red Cross' own memos and emails offer clues into what was happening. There were multiple warnings about internal delays clogging up efforts to get projects off the ground. Frustrated managers in Haiti wrote notes to supervisors waiting for approvals from headquarters.

Lee Malany, who ran the Red Cross' shelter program in Haiti starting in 2010, says problems started right after the earthquake.

"They never had a real plan for what they wanted to do in housing," Malany says.

Malany remembers flying in the fall of 2010 from Haiti to Red Cross headquarters, where he and other colleagues gathered in a conference room with the charity's top leadership. He says the senior managers didn't seem to have any idea how to spend tens of millions of dollars set aside for housing.

The national headquarters for the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

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Alex Wong/Getty Images

The national headquarters for the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

"When I walked out of that meeting, I looked at the people that I was working with and said, you know, 'this is very disconcerting, this is depressing,' " Malany recalls. He says that there was "no talking about what is our overall program, and if we do this where's it going to go, and is this the best place to go."

He says the leadership, including Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern, seemed more concerned with which projects would generate good publicity.

"She was the one who made the statement 'well, I think that would be OK and that will look all right,' " he says. "And the way I read it — to translate it — is: 'This will look OK on the checklist, and we can give it to the public and not get any pushback.' "

Red Cross 'Diverted Assets' During Storms' Aftermath To Focus On Image

Red Cross officials dispute Malany's recollections of the meeting, saying that a housing strategy was discussed at the meeting and that the organization never would have put public relations over Haiti's needs.

Three years later, though, documents show that officials in Washington were still struggling with how to spend housing money. McGovern wrote an email to her senior staff in November 2013 saying that a particular housing project was "going bust."

"We still are holding $20 million of contingency," she writes in an email. "Any ideas on how to spend the rest of this? (Besides the wonderful helicopter idea?) Can we fund Conrad's hospital? Or more to [Partners in Health]? Any more shelter projects?"

Red Cross officials wouldn't say what she meant by the helicopter idea, but it's a common reference in economics to giving money away — as in, throwing it out of a helicopter.

Either way, that's not what she promised donors and the public in 2011. Back then, McGovern went to a luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington and said that a fifth of the money the charity raised would go to "provide tens of thousands of people with permanent homes ... where we develop brand-new communities ... including water and sanitation."

The charity built six permanent homes and, according to their own account, no new communities.

Many of the projects it started ran into trouble.

There was a $13 million development effort in the northern part of the country. An internal review of the project found that local residents were angry because it had been more than two years and they hadn't seen anything useful happening. The review observed that neighbors had begun to "reject the project" entirely.

The review also found that officials spent some of the money teaching residents to wash their hands with soap and water — and that the residents did not have access to either soap or water.

Another project, started in a place called Quartier-Morin, was wracked by delays and high turnover, according to a government review. First it spent two years on hold, and then it was canceled. Then the Red Cross worked with the U.S government to come up with a replacement project – which took another year.

Now the U.S. government is holding the money and is currently trying to find a different charity to run this 4-year-old housing project, which has yet to produce a single home.

Meltzer, the Red Cross lawyer, says that land ownership and government issues often were outside of the charity's control.

"For the American Red Cross and the Red Cross in general, shelter has been a priority," says Meltzer, adding that the Red Cross has "provided homes for more than 130,000 Haitians.

"If you go to [those] people and ask them where they are living today, they will tell you 'I am living in my home,' " he says.

But if you go in search of those tens of thousands of new permanent homes in Haiti, you won't find them.

The American Red Cross says it "provided homes" for more than 130,000 Haitians, but acknowledges that much of that is made up of people who went to a training seminar on how to fix their homes, received temporary rental help or lived in shelters like these in Bon Repos, which start to disintegrate after three to five years. Residents say they don't have bathrooms, kitchens or running water. Marie Arago for NPR hide caption

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Marie Arago for NPR

After several emails, the Red Cross acknowledged that the "130,000 Haitians" figure is made up of people who went to a seminar on how to fix their own homes, people who received temporary rental assistance, and thousands of people who received temporary shelters — which start to disintegrate after three to five years.

Archaic land title and government requirements make building in Haiti very difficult and time-consuming, but other charities have built almost 9,000 homes so far, according to figures from Global Shelter Cluster.

For example, Global Communities and PCI are building multifamily homes with running water after completing more than 300 homes in the neighborhood of Ravine Pintade.

John Wildy Marcelin, a Haitian engineer, is head of construction for the project, and says the new homes will have kitchens and bathrooms.

He says the project has been successful because the majority of the staff and managers are also Haitian — and are passionate about rebuilding their country.

"All this work that you are looking at now, the calculation was made by Haitian people, Haitian engineers, Haitian architects, Haitian foreman," he says. "We know what to do."

The Red Cross does not seem to have used that strategy. In one internal memo, the top manager of the Haiti program complains that Haitians were not being hired for top positions — and in some cases were treated disparagingly.

In a 2011 memo, the then-director of the Haiti program, Judith St. Fort, wrote that senior managers had made "very disturbing" remarks disparaging Haitian employees. St. Fort, who is Haitian-American, wrote that the comments included "he is the only hard working one among them" and "the ones that we have hired are not strong, so we probably should not pay close attention to Haitian CVs."

Several current and former employees told NPR and ProPublica that many managers could not speak French or Creole.

"Going to meetings with the community when you don't speak the language is not productive," says Carline Noailles, one of the former staffers. Sometimes, she recalls, Red Cross staffers would skip such meetings entirely.

The Red Cross says it has "made it a priority to hire Haitians" and enlisted the help of a human resources firm. It says more than 90 percent of its staff is Haitian. Yet interviews with former staffers and a review of the charity's staff lists show very few of those Haitians made it to top positions.

That has proved costly for the charity. According to an internal Red Cross budgeting document for the project in Campeche, the project manager — a position reserved for an expatriate – was entitled to allowances for housing, food and other expenses, home leave trips, R&R four times a year, and relocation expenses. In all, including salary, it added up to $140,000.

But those weren't the only problems hindering efforts. Memo after memo sent to Washington by managers in Haiti warned of problems like gaps in staffing, high turnover, and severe internal delays — many caused by the Washington office.

The problems most notably affected the charity's efforts to fight cholera. That was in the critical early weeks while thousands of people died.

Paul Christian Namphy, a Haitian water and sanitation official who helped lead the effort to fight cholera, says early failures by the Red Cross and other NGOs had a devastating impact.

"These numbers should have been zero," he says.

St. Fort summed up her 2011 memo: "To maintain the status quo, will only yield the same failed results."

Minouche Lamour, a member of the Community Platform for Development in Campeche, says she doesn't see how millions of dollars from the Red Cross could have been spent in her neighborhood. Marie Arago for NPR hide caption

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Marie Arago for NPR

Minouche Lamour, a member of the Community Platform for Development in Campeche, says she doesn't see how millions of dollars from the Red Cross could have been spent in her neighborhood.

Marie Arago for NPR

Meltzer, the Red Cross lawyer, says the charity did not fail.

"When I look at where Haiti is today, I feel very good about the progress we have made as the American Red Cross and the entire humanitarian sector," he says.

These days the American Red Cross is preparing to leave Haiti — it's handing over operations to the Haitian Red Cross next year. It's also getting ready to leave the hills of Campeche and its surrounding neighborhoods, where it will have spent $24 million and once promised residents it would build new homes.

The residents here will get a new road, and some homes and schools will be repaired. But like much of the American Red Cross' work in this country in the five years after the earthquake, that was not what residents expected.

Journalist Mitzy-Lynn Hyacinthe contributed reporting to this story.

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