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Inside London’s Struggle to Wean Itself From Russian Billions

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In the early hours of March 14, a small group of men, dressed mostly in black, pried open an entrance to one of London’s grandest mansions, triggering its alarm system. The six-story residence, with a white stucco frontage, sits on a highly trafficked 19th-century development that has for decades housed various viscounts, earls, and dukes. Not far from Buckingham Palace, the Palace of Westminster Parliament building, and an archway commemorating Britain’s victory over Napoléon, the property shares a prestigious zip code with the embassies of Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Turkey, and Norway. Once the home of Britain’s secretary of state for war and the colonies, 5 Belgrave Square has more recently been one of several London outposts for a rather different but no less acquisitive sort of empire—that of Russian wealth.

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The intruders called themselves London Makhnovists after an early-20th-century anarchist who sought to create a stateless society in what is now Ukraine. However, the target of their protest was not a state per se, but the 2003 purchaser of the building, with its list price of $39 million. Oleg Deripaska, a trained physicist who founded aluminum giant Rusal, is one of a handful of extremely rich Russian businessmen to have snapped up plum properties in the British capital. And so just a few weeks after Moscow’s forces had parachuted into Kyiv and millions of Ukrainians began pouring across the borders of Eastern Europe, the anarchists decided the vast, empty Belgrave Square property would be ideally suited to house refugees. They hung banners from its façade: a sky blue one asserting “this property has been liberated,” and a red one exhorting the Russian president Vladimir Putin to go fuck himself.

Their actions channeled a coalescing sense among ordinary citizens in various Western nations that the wealth of Russia’s elite businessmen—often built on the back of state-owned enterprises—should no longer be a welcome import. In the U.K. that view has coincided with an extraordinary shift at the heart of the establishment, in recent months concentrating the firepower of the justice system, finance ministry, and other levers of the state at several Russian individuals with alleged ties to Putin—after cosseting them for the past two decades with all the comforts, perks, and privileges the British capital and its political class has to offer. The men in question—for they have almost always been men—have wrapped their arms around soccer clubs, country estates, celebrity friendships, and society-column inches. Roman Abramovich, a one-time Deripaska business partner, bought a vast mansion just yards from Kensington Palace, around the corner from the Russian embassy, for well over $100 million. While still in college, documents show, the Russian foreign minister’s stepdaughter Polina Kovaleva paid $6 million cash for her swish London apartment in a luxury new-build; she has detailed her glamorous life of yachts, swimming pools, and sunny days in Kensington on Instagram. These real estate swoops have earned London the moniker Moscow-on-Thames, with oligarchs’ kids populating the city’s more prestigious schools and clubby society haunts. The wives, girlfriends, and mistresses shop at Harrods, frequent the Serpentine Gallery, and seek record-breaking divorce settlements in British courts. Practically overnight, their financial and physical assets, along with their social capital, have been put on ice. Some object that innocent individuals with no ties to the Kremlin, and their political donations, have been unfairly identified amid the fervor. Yet in interviews with Vanity Fair, more than a dozen activists, politicians, and former government ministers lament that it took such dire events to trigger these actions, and several questioned how long the budding allergy to Russian wealth can possibly last, particularly where the governing Conservative Party is concerned.

Either way, in Belgrave Square the city’s Metropolitan Police had not received the memo. Within several hours almost a dozen of its vehicles were stationed outside the property, with some 200 officers involved at a cost of more than $100,000. Following a drawn-out period of door breaches, clashes atop a cherry picker, and harnessed hard-hats haplessly attempting to scale a balcony, the protesters were forcibly removed. They had by then found a “basement full” of booze (no food) and captured video of opulent interiors, with furniture from a company founded by David Linley (a.k.a. the Earl of Snowdon, Queen Elizabeth’s nephew), along with “so much stuff that a normal human being shouldn’t have,” as one anarchist remarked to a journalist. The Makhnovists left no damage, but four were arrested for squatting.

Deripaska, an absentee landlord, appeared displeased—and far from eager to be identified as the landlord at all. He insisted through a representative that it was in fact members of his family who own 5 Belgrave Square. British land-registry documents identify the home’s legal owner as a company called Ravellot Limited, registered in the British Virgin Islands. But a U.K. high court ruling in 2007 recorded the Belgrave Square house as belonging to Deripaska, and there are no indications its title deed has been transferred since. His spokesperson said the family was “appalled at the negligence of Britain’s justice system shown by Boris Johnson’s cabinet in introducing the sanctions and colluding with the sort of people who raid private property.” Back in February, Deripaska had predicted there would be no invasion of Ukraine; after Russia’s assault, he called for peace talks. By late March he called the conflict a “madness” in which “all sides are recklessly gearing for a long-term war that will have tragic consequences for the entire world.” But when U.K. authorities targeted his assets, he lashed out, declaring there is “not a single fact in support of Boris’ cabinet’s fantasies.”

Forget Robert Mueller III’s inquiry into the links between Kremlin figures and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The complex, intertwined relationship between Russian billions and modern Britain goes far beyond high-priced real estate. Successive Conservative prime ministers, from David Cameron to Theresa May to Boris Johnson, have been obliged to respond to repeated geopolitical provocations, including Crimea’s 2014 annexation and the 2018 poisoning of a former Russian spy living in Salisbury. But at the same time, each has sought to avoid the kind of overt criticism that might impair their valuable relationships with a small coterie of wealthy political donors of Russian origin. February’s invasion of Ukraine made that already precarious tightrope nigh impossible to walk, however, and in the months since, government ministers have lined up to promote their anti-Putin bona fides with weapons shipments to Ukraine, yacht impoundings, property seizures, and bank freezes. The U.K.’s transport secretary—who famously fell victim to his own department’s COVID-related travel policies while on a family vacation—recently arrived at a London dock, news crew in tow, to publicize the detention of a superyacht called Phi. He said the vessel—with an “infinite” wine cellar and freshwater pool—had been “mired in all sorts of layers of almost deliberate, we think in fact deliberate attempts to hide its true ownership.” The Conservative government’s recent crackdown masks an insidious malaise, with a number of Russian chickens coming home to roost. As a Belgrave Square protester told reporters before police arrested him, “The same money that funds the Russia war machine funds the Conservative Party.”


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The ransom is still being paid

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Garment-workers-protest-021722-in-Port-au-Prince-Haiti-win-54-wage-increase-1400x781, Haiti: The ransom is still being paid, Featured News & Views World News & Views
The mass protest by garment workers on Feb. 17, 2022, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, won a 54% wage increase.

by Robert Roth, Haiti Action Committee

On May 20th, The New York Times published a meticulously documented series entitled, “The Ransom,” detailing the devastating impact of the so-called “Independence Tax” enforced by France in 1825 on the world’s first Black republic. As The Times reported, Haiti became the only place where the descendants of enslaved people were forced to pay compensation to the descendants of slave owners. With the first payment to France, Haiti had to shut down its nascent public school system. As the billions of dollars paid to France and then to U.S banks like Citicorp multiplied, Haiti’s economy disintegrated.

The Times series comes nearly 20 years after the administration of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide formally demanded $21.7 billion from France as restitution for the funds extorted from Haiti. Aristide’s initiative was a key factor in France’s cooperation and support for the U.S.-orchestrated coup that overthrew his democratically elected government. Mainstream media at the time, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, treated the demand as “quixotic” and a publicity stunt, as their reporters wrote one article after another demonizing the democratically elected Aristide administration, thus helping to lay the ideological justifications for the 2004 coup d’etat.

We do not anticipate self-criticism from The Times for its past reporting. Hardly. But as Times readers study the new series, they will hopefully demand to know more about the ways in which the U.S. and France continue to exploit Haiti’s resources, dominate its political life and prop up the tiny, violent and corrupt Haitian elite that now rules the country. And they will hopefully call for an accurate accounting of the powerful Haitian grassroots movement that continues to fight for democracy and true sovereignty.

Take for example the recent uprising of Haiti’s factory workers. On Feb. 17, 2022, thousands of Haitian garment workers, their families and supporters, filled the streets of Port-au-Prince to demand an end to starvation wages and horrific working conditions. The workers demanded a wage increase from 500 gourdes per 9-hour work day (approximately $4.80) to 1,500 gourdes per day (approximately $14.40). As the demonstrations continued throughout the next week, Haitian police fired on the crowds with tear gas canisters and live ammunition, killing a journalist and wounding many other protesters. 

Haitian-factory-workers-strike-demand-salary-increase-0222-by-Odelyn-Joseph-AP-1400x935, Haiti: The ransom is still being paid, Featured News & Views World News & Views
Factory workers in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, chant anti-government slogans during a protest demanding a salary increase. – Photo: Odelyn Joseph, AP

The garment strike came in the midst of double-digit inflation in Haiti, with the prices of food, fuel and other commodities soaring. To make matters worse, the government of de facto prime minister Ariel Henry recently announced that it would end fuel subsidies, leading to even higher prices. Workers chanted, “You raised the gas but didn’t raise our salaries.” 

The strategy of the Henry government was classic counterinsurgency: Denounce the militancy of the protests, unleash police repression to terrorize the demonstrators, and offer a modest wage increase (to 770 gourdes a day) to quell the uprising. In numerous interviews, workers expressed their outrage over the government response, pointing out that the cost of traveling to and from their factory jobs alone took up 40% of their daily wage. Add to that the cost of food and housing and you have a daily fight to survive.  

Who benefits from this sweatshop labor? Garment factories in Haiti supply T-shirts and other apparel to corporate giants like Target, the Gap, H&H Textiles, Under Armour and Walmart. Check out the label on your T-shirt. It may very well read, “Made in Haiti.” 

None of this is new. During the dictatorial reign of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in the 1970s and 1980s, garment factories supplying U.S. companies set up shop throughout Port-au-Prince, while the government unleashed terror campaigns against labor organizers and any grassroots opposition. 

In 1991, during Aristide’s first term as president, he was set to raise the minimum wage, when a U.S.-organized coup toppled his government only seven months into his presidency. In February of 2003, during his second administration, Aristide doubled the minimum wage, impacting the more than 20,000 people who worked in the Port-au-Prince assembly sector. The Aristide government provided school buses to take these workers’ children to school as well as subsidies for their school books and uniforms. In addition, his government launched a campaign to collect unpaid taxes and utility bills from Haiti’s wealthy elite. None of this sat well with Haiti’s factory owners, who played a key role in the U.S.-orchestrated 2004 coup d’etat.

The coup fast-tracked the implementation of the U.S.-imposed structural adjustment program, known in Haiti as the “Death Plan.”

Haiti is still living with the grim effects of that coup and the subsequent foreign occupation that enforced it. The coup fast-tracked the implementation of the U.S.-imposed structural adjustment program, known in Haiti as the “Death Plan.” Nowhere was this more apparent than during the aftermath of the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, which killed over 300,000 Haitians and left millions more under tarps and tents. 

Shortly after the earthquake, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to northern Haiti, declaring that “Haiti is now open for business,” as she hailed the inauguration of the Caracol Northern Industrial Park, now a key center of the garment industry and a target of the current labor protests and strikes. State Department cables obtained by Wikileaks revealed that Clinton and the State Department, along with USAID, were pressuring Haiti’s government to block any hike in the minimum wage, arguing that this would be detrimental to the development of the export sector. A series of compliant and corrupt Haitian regimes, selected and propped up by the U.S., have facilitated this plan, taking their cut along the way.

The ongoing battle of Haiti’s garment workers for survival and dignity is part of the broader popular movement in Haiti. The workers who are in the streets of Port-au-Prince return home at night to communities like Belair, Cite Soleil and Lasalin that have been targeted by Haitian police and paramilitary death squads, who have besieged them with massacres, kidnappings and gang rapes aimed at silencing their opposition to the current government. 

The garment strike came just days after the term of de facto prime minister Ariel Henry officially ended on Feb. 7. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians demonstrated for months their opposition to the continuation of this regime, which they rightly classify as illegitimate, a creation of the so-called Core Group (the United States, France, Spain, Brazil, Germany, Canada, the EU, the UN and the OAS) that controls Haiti’s politics. 

Numerous grassroots organizations, including Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas Political Organization – the people’s party of Haiti – have called for a transitional government to end corruption, stop the repression, respect the rights of workers, stabilize the economy, and set the stage for free and fair elections. Yet the State Department has doubled down on its support for the Henry regime and has insisted that it supervise new elections. This would simply lead to one more stolen election designed to keep the ultra-right-wing PHTK (Skinhead) party in power. 

Border-Patrol-agents-whipping-Haitian-migrants-with-horse-reins-092021-by-Paul-Ratje-AFP-1400x867, Haiti: The ransom is still being paid, Featured News & Views World News & Views
These images from last September of US Border Patrol agents whipping Haitians have been memorialized in racist “challenge coins” being passed around by the agents, proudly depicting those same attacks. – Photo: Paul Ratje, AFP

In the midst of the disaster that the U.S. has helped to foster in Haiti, the Biden administration continues its unconscionable mass deportation of Haitians, with the numbers now exceeding 25,000 since Biden’s inauguration. Remember those horrifying images of border patrol agents whipping Haitian migrants last September? Now comes the news that those images have been memorialized in racist “challenge coins” being passed around by border patrol agents, proudly depicting those same attacks

In the month of May alone, the Biden administration loaded up 36 planes to deport 4,000 Haitians. They return to the worst spate of kidnappings in Haiti’s history, where paramilitary groups have targeted with impunity everyone from market vendors to medical workers and teachers.

Only a fundamental change in Haiti of the kind envisioned, articulated and fought for by Haiti’s powerful grassroots movement, can reverse any of this. And the U.S. government, as it has been so often, is the biggest obstacle that stands in the way.

The ransom is still being paid. And reparations are long overdue. 

Robert Roth is an educator and was co-founder of the Haiti Action Committee. He can be reached at rhroth3633@gmail.com


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COVID cases up almost 18% worldwide as omicron variants run rampant | Ap

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While vaccinations have greatly cut down on hospitalizations and deaths, COVID-19 cases are on the rise again around the world.

More than 4.1 million cases were reported globally last week, up 18%, according to the World Health Organization.


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The ransom is still being paid

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Garment-workers-protest-021722-in-Port-au-Prince-Haiti-win-54-wage-increase-1400x781, Haiti: The ransom is still being paid, Featured News & Views World News & Views
The mass protest by garment workers on Feb. 17, 2022, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, won a 54% wage increase.

by Robert Roth, Haiti Action Committee

On May 20th, The New York Times published a meticulously documented series entitled, “The Ransom,” detailing the devastating impact of the so-called “Independence Tax” enforced by France in 1825 on the world’s first Black republic. As The Times reported, Haiti became the only place where the descendants of enslaved people were forced to pay compensation to the descendants of slave owners. With the first payment to France, Haiti had to shut down its nascent public school system. As the billions of dollars paid to France and then to U.S banks like Citicorp multiplied, Haiti’s economy disintegrated.

The Times series comes nearly 20 years after the administration of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide formally demanded $21.7 billion from France as restitution for the funds extorted from Haiti. Aristide’s initiative was a key factor in France’s cooperation and support for the U.S.-orchestrated coup that overthrew his democratically elected government. Mainstream media at the time, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, treated the demand as “quixotic” and a publicity stunt, as their reporters wrote one article after another demonizing the democratically elected Aristide administration, thus helping to lay the ideological justifications for the 2004 coup d’etat.

We do not anticipate self-criticism from The Times for its past reporting. Hardly. But as Times readers study the new series, they will hopefully demand to know more about the ways in which the U.S. and France continue to exploit Haiti’s resources, dominate its political life and prop up the tiny, violent and corrupt Haitian elite that now rules the country. And they will hopefully call for an accurate accounting of the powerful Haitian grassroots movement that continues to fight for democracy and true sovereignty.

Take for example the recent uprising of Haiti’s factory workers. On Feb. 17, 2022, thousands of Haitian garment workers, their families and supporters, filled the streets of Port-au-Prince to demand an end to starvation wages and horrific working conditions. The workers demanded a wage increase from 500 gourdes per 9-hour work day (approximately $4.80) to 1,500 gourdes per day (approximately $14.40). As the demonstrations continued throughout the next week, Haitian police fired on the crowds with tear gas canisters and live ammunition, killing a journalist and wounding many other protesters. 

Haitian-factory-workers-strike-demand-salary-increase-0222-by-Odelyn-Joseph-AP-1400x935, Haiti: The ransom is still being paid, Featured News & Views World News & Views
Factory workers in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, chant anti-government slogans during a protest demanding a salary increase. – Photo: Odelyn Joseph, AP

The garment strike came in the midst of double-digit inflation in Haiti, with the prices of food, fuel and other commodities soaring. To make matters worse, the government of de facto prime minister Ariel Henry recently announced that it would end fuel subsidies, leading to even higher prices. Workers chanted, “You raised the gas but didn’t raise our salaries.” 

The strategy of the Henry government was classic counterinsurgency: Denounce the militancy of the protests, unleash police repression to terrorize the demonstrators, and offer a modest wage increase (to 770 gourdes a day) to quell the uprising. In numerous interviews, workers expressed their outrage over the government response, pointing out that the cost of traveling to and from their factory jobs alone took up 40% of their daily wage. Add to that the cost of food and housing and you have a daily fight to survive.  

Who benefits from this sweatshop labor? Garment factories in Haiti supply T-shirts and other apparel to corporate giants like Target, the Gap, H&H Textiles, Under Armour and Walmart. Check out the label on your T-shirt. It may very well read, “Made in Haiti.” 

None of this is new. During the dictatorial reign of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in the 1970s and 1980s, garment factories supplying U.S. companies set up shop throughout Port-au-Prince, while the government unleashed terror campaigns against labor organizers and any grassroots opposition. 

In 1991, during Aristide’s first term as president, he was set to raise the minimum wage, when a U.S.-organized coup toppled his government only seven months into his presidency. In February of 2003, during his second administration, Aristide doubled the minimum wage, impacting the more than 20,000 people who worked in the Port-au-Prince assembly sector. The Aristide government provided school buses to take these workers’ children to school as well as subsidies for their school books and uniforms. In addition, his government launched a campaign to collect unpaid taxes and utility bills from Haiti’s wealthy elite. None of this sat well with Haiti’s factory owners, who played a key role in the U.S.-orchestrated 2004 coup d’etat.

The coup fast-tracked the implementation of the U.S.-imposed structural adjustment program, known in Haiti as the “Death Plan.”

Haiti is still living with the grim effects of that coup and the subsequent foreign occupation that enforced it. The coup fast-tracked the implementation of the U.S.-imposed structural adjustment program, known in Haiti as the “Death Plan.” Nowhere was this more apparent than during the aftermath of the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, which killed over 300,000 Haitians and left millions more under tarps and tents. 

Shortly after the earthquake, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to northern Haiti, declaring that “Haiti is now open for business,” as she hailed the inauguration of the Caracol Northern Industrial Park, now a key center of the garment industry and a target of the current labor protests and strikes. State Department cables obtained by Wikileaks revealed that Clinton and the State Department, along with USAID, were pressuring Haiti’s government to block any hike in the minimum wage, arguing that this would be detrimental to the development of the export sector. A series of compliant and corrupt Haitian regimes, selected and propped up by the U.S., have facilitated this plan, taking their cut along the way.

The ongoing battle of Haiti’s garment workers for survival and dignity is part of the broader popular movement in Haiti. The workers who are in the streets of Port-au-Prince return home at night to communities like Belair, Cite Soleil and Lasalin that have been targeted by Haitian police and paramilitary death squads, who have besieged them with massacres, kidnappings and gang rapes aimed at silencing their opposition to the current government. 

The garment strike came just days after the term of de facto prime minister Ariel Henry officially ended on Feb. 7. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians demonstrated for months their opposition to the continuation of this regime, which they rightly classify as illegitimate, a creation of the so-called Core Group (the United States, France, Spain, Brazil, Germany, Canada, the EU, the UN and the OAS) that controls Haiti’s politics. 

Numerous grassroots organizations, including Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas Political Organization – the people’s party of Haiti – have called for a transitional government to end corruption, stop the repression, respect the rights of workers, stabilize the economy, and set the stage for free and fair elections. Yet the State Department has doubled down on its support for the Henry regime and has insisted that it supervise new elections. This would simply lead to one more stolen election designed to keep the ultra-right-wing PHTK (Skinhead) party in power. 

Border-Patrol-agents-whipping-Haitian-migrants-with-horse-reins-092021-by-Paul-Ratje-AFP-1400x867, Haiti: The ransom is still being paid, Featured News & Views World News & Views
These images from last September of US Border Patrol agents whipping Haitians have been memorialized in racist “challenge coins” being passed around by the agents, proudly depicting those same attacks. – Photo: Paul Ratje, AFP

In the midst of the disaster that the U.S. has helped to foster in Haiti, the Biden administration continues its unconscionable mass deportation of Haitians, with the numbers now exceeding 25,000 since Biden’s inauguration. Remember those horrifying images of border patrol agents whipping Haitian migrants last September? Now comes the news that those images have been memorialized in racist “challenge coins” being passed around by border patrol agents, proudly depicting those same attacks

In the month of May alone, the Biden administration loaded up 36 planes to deport 4,000 Haitians. They return to the worst spate of kidnappings in Haiti’s history, where paramilitary groups have targeted with impunity everyone from market vendors to medical workers and teachers.

Only a fundamental change in Haiti of the kind envisioned, articulated and fought for by Haiti’s powerful grassroots movement, can reverse any of this. And the U.S. government, as it has been so often, is the biggest obstacle that stands in the way.

The ransom is still being paid. And reparations are long overdue. 

Robert Roth is an educator and was co-founder of the Haiti Action Committee. He can be reached at rhroth3633@gmail.com


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