A victory for Venezuela, via the English legal system

Good news from Hands Off Venezuela! on events in the bourgeois courts:

A London High Court judge on Tuesday suspended a court order which froze 12 billion dollars (7.6 billion euros) of assets owned by Venezuela state oil firm PDVSA in a dispute with US energy giant ExxonMobil.

“The judge hasn’t allowed his court or his country to be an instrument” of Exxon, Samuel Moncada, Venezuela’s ambassador to the U.K., said in an interview. “This decision should have an effect on any reasonable court in the world.”

Addressing a group of solidarity activists gathered to hear the ruling, Moncada added: “Over 2 weeks it has been argued, and an English judge has decided not to support the Exxon case, but to support the Venezuelan case. Your slogan, Hands off Venezuela, is more relevant than ever, today.”

Hands Off Venezuela has mobilised , together with other solidarity activists, outside the High Court in London and outside the ExxonMobil offices to protest against this move to freeze PDVSA assets.

ExxonMobil started a number of judicial cases against PDVSA, after the Venezuelan government decided, in March 2007, to nationalise the massive oil reserves of the Orinoco Belt, in which the US multinational was operation as part of a “strategic association” with PDVSA.

The overwhelming majority of the companies operating in that field accepted the new proposed agreements, in which the Venezuelan PDVSA has a majority stake with a minimum of 60% of the shares, but US based ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips, refused and went to international arbitration.

At the beginning of February, ExxonMobil obtained cautionary rulings from courts in the United States, Britain, the Netherlands and the Dutch Antilles to freeze 12 billion dollars of PDVSA’s global assets.

The London High Court judge, Paul Walker, will issue a detailed explanation of his ruling on Thursday.

Exxon was ordered to make an interim payment of 380,000 pounds to cover legal costs within 21 days, although the final bill is expected to be much higher.

PDVSA lawyer George Pollock said damages the state oil company could claim included increases in the cost of corporate borrowing for its projects.

Exxonmobil’s lawyer, Catharine Otton-Goulder, said she had no comments to make.

Hands Off Venezuela activists present in London expressed their joy at the ruling. “This was part of a campaign of intimidation and threats by imperialism against the Venezuelan revolution”.

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White: making racism respectable

I’ve posted before (that is to say, posted other people’s stuff!) on the execrable BBC Two “White” season of programmes. Here’s a review from Socialist Appeal:

TV review: ‘White’ – Making racism respectable
By Ian Aylett
Tuesday, 18 March 2008

This series suggests a significant change at the BBC. Generally Auntie’s representation of the working class has been shaped within a tradition of liberalism which is supportive of the underdog or sympathetic to those who fall through the welfare state safety net.bbc-whitemed.jpg Though each programme was made by different people and companies, the strand has been initiated and the proposals selected from amongst many by one Commissioning Editor. So it’s reasonable to assume some sort of overall intention. At the moment readers can judge for themselves at the website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/white/

The first, ‘Last Orders’, made by American Henry Singer (who made the recent controversial C4 Diana documentary) was set largely in a Working Man’s Club in Yorkshire but followed one of the drinkers to his council house to meet his son, who just happened to have a Swastika flag hanging behind him for one interview. It felt like an uneasy amalgam of the documentary Singer would probably have made left to his own devices and the remit from the BBC. Which was to talk about exclusion, immigration and racism.

There was an elegiac and nicely photographed story of the slow decline of the Club, which left to its own devices as a metaphor for the decline of the old white working class would have been a more cohesive film. It has to be said though that the same things have been happening in similar clubs for the last 30 or more years.

The one most open to direct political criticism was ‘Rivers of Blood’, written and narrated by Denys Blakeway who has worked with Thatcher and John Major. This was a not unsympathetic account of Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 speech attacking immigration and predicting it would lead to bloodshed in Britain.

There was some interesting balancing material – the son of the local Wolverhampton newspaper editor told how his mother and father who had been friends of Powell’s broke with him over it and were victimized for it. But unless I’ve forgotten something there was no challenge beyond ‘wet’ Tory Michael Heseltine.

Above all it depicted the white working class as supporting Powell en masse. The only opposition shown came from the radical middle class, no mention of trade union action to counter the highly publicized marches by sections of dockers and the Smithfield meat porters. The existence of working class opposition was totally ignored despite many mobilizations to expose the danger of Powell’s demagogic stirring up of racism.

‘White Girl’, as a drama was a different kind of exception. Written by Abi Morgan, who had a big success with drama-doc style Sex Traffic, and well-directed, it was much more in the BBC liberal tradition.

A young white working class girl, completely alienated from her dysfunctional family, especially drug dealing, wife-beating dad, is attracted to Islam by a series of much nicer, kinder and well balanced Muslims and eventually converts. It was undoubtedly open to accusations that the Muslim characters and lives were seen through rose tinted glasses.

‘The Poles Are Coming’, presented by Tim Samuels was an in-house BBC production, and was arguably the most accomplished of the documentaries. Samuels went out to Gdansk to meet a Pole who was coming over to Peterborough in Britain for work. The Mayor also traveled over to appeal to his countrymen to return and help overcome the labour shortage. A veteran ex-Labour councillor turned independent and self-appointed residents group complained their area had too many immigrants and that government didn’t provide corresponding resources. Overall, it was very tongue in cheek and a fairly gentle way with the problems it touched on.

Unfortunately, I missed ‘The Primary’ which was set in a primary school in Handsworth, Birmingham, with 17 ethnic groups represented and never more than 10 white kids out of 480 pupils.

‘All White in Barking’, directed and shot by Marc Isaacs, felt the most posed and set up. He filmed several older people in Barking and their interaction with immigrants. An old Polish market trader and concentration camp survivor shared his house and life with a Nigerian woman who had a husband and children at home.

A white couple accepted and returned hospitality from their Nigerian and Albanian neighbours. The Albanian explained that none of his countrymen would let their daughter marry a Serb.

An old BNP activist bounced his mixed race granddaughter on his knee and ignored the fact that his other daughter’s boyfriend was also mixed race as they chatted at his BNP stall in the main street. He moved out to Canvey Island where he ended up eating fish and chips on the beach, promising to finish in the sea if immigrants reached Canvey.

I’ve described ‘White’ film by film partly for readers who didn’t see them but also to communicate how easily the case for the defence can smooth over the real problems it poses.

Right wing ideas are often smuggled into the political discourse under cover of ‘objectivity’ and ‘impartiality’ and defended as ‘freedom of speech’. We have to oppose them but also be careful not to deny realities like the existence of racism or ordinary people the right to express their fears.

This series doesn’t simply ‘reflect’ white fears. It was an ideological exercise. These documentaries assume what they appear to prove. They set out to show that the white working class feels excluded, blames immigration and the Labour Party for allowing it and neglecting them.

The other intention was to show that the ‘liberal’ policy of ‘multiculturalism’ has lead to a failure of integration and feeds separateness and hostility between ethnic groups and different nationalities. It presented specific areas of high immigration as generally representative.

The widespread attack on ‘multiculturalism’ ignores the failure of ‘integration’, the traditional state policy, in France. The truth is that capitalism causes the conditions in which racism breeds – and that is the real problem.

White Girl’ was clearly there for classic BBC ‘balance’, but with its middle class lack of realism couldn’t have been better designed to alienate working class or potentially reactionary viewers, rather than take on their prejudices in a realistic way.

The film-makers all depict a poor and alienated working class, whether it’s the old people in Barking or the inarticulate young guys outside the job centre in Peterborough who won’t do the jobs the immigrants are doing but blame them nonetheless.

There’s a very selective choice of subjects – barely a single white working class person with a steady job for instance. There’s also not a single normal cross race or cross national relationship in the entire series. The idea of working class solidarity is out of bounds.

This is not to pretend that huge problems don’t exist in many areas or that racism isn’t a common problem. Successive governments have failed the white and black working class. That is the real point. And racism will tend to rise as the economic crisis hits.

There’s also a clear assumption that racism is a working class phenomenon which is a typical middle class prejudice. Indeed, traditionally racism it finds its political base amongst the frightened middle layers.

Above all, this series fuels the problems by making racism respectable and writing working class solidarity out of history. It also presages the rise of Thatcher’s children within the media-ocracy. Be warned – Tories at work – Auntie can turn nasty.

Army to spend two million pounds on war propaganda campaign

The top brass of the army are spending two million pounds on a propaganda campaign to legitimise the wars in the Middle East by utilising the public support for serving soldiers.

Supposedly this just happens to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Yeah, right. No one thought to check up on the date? Hmm – I think that they did…

People are invited to send comments to a website to show support for the armed forces – all very well, but would the not money be better spent on helping those families who have lost loved ones in recent conflicts, assisting survivors and refugees? What about improving forces housing?

No, not for the British ruling class. They are running out of fresh cannon fodder – its thought recruitment will be ten per cent less than the target, this even after the standards have been lowered. It’s also becoming more difficult to retain

Public support for the wars has not been significantly improved, and that’s despite:

* lies and exaggerations about service personnel being insulted and assaulted on the streets (maybe on the streets of Afghanistan and Iraq, but certainly not here!) when wearing their uniforms.

* Prince Harry’s phoney war in Afghanistan (covered up by the mainstream media) from which he was quickly withdrawn

* the media campaign for an Armed Forces Day, championed as part of Brown’s “Britishness” agenda

As for the war in Iraq, might we get an inquiry into the decision-making that led to the UK government joining the US “coalition of the willing”?

I doubt it:

Tories and Liberal Democrats will next week put renewed pressure on Labour MPs to back a Commons motion calling for a public inquiry into the conduct of the war in Iraq, and the level of pre-war planning.

In a letter to the Fabian Society , Gordon Brown said Labour agrees in principle to mounting an inquiry, but that he could not hold an inquiry now into events five years ago since it might jeopardise the position and morale of British troops in Iraq.

The decision to call a fresh Commons debate next Tuesday demanding an inquiry was taken by the Conservatives. The shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, said: “As we reach the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq it is becoming imperative to begin an inquiry before memories have faded, emails have been deleted and documents have disappeared. The remaining arguments against an inquiry could just as well be used to justify its indefinite postponement.

“Now that our troops are in an over-watch role it should be possible to begin the inquiry, which the whole nation wants.”

Hague’s initiative won the support of the Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesman, Ed Davey. He said: “Anything [that] gets the government to hold a full inquiry into the Iraq war as soon as possible will have the support of the Liberal Democrats.”

The Lib Dems believe that Brown wants to postpone an inquiry until after the next election, using the continued indefinite deployment of British troops, or the fragility of Iraq’s democracy as a reason for delay.

Govt admits tax avoidance costing each houshold more than £1,500

Here’s one from the TUC last week that I forgot to blog, and note that this is interesting considering the Tories aren’t willing to promise immediate tax cuts if they win the next election – it would be easy to have revenue neutral tax cuts by through enforcement of the law…

In a document published late on budget day with no publicity, HMRC has said that the cost of tax avoidance in the UK could run as high as £40 billion a year. This tax avoidance could cost every household in the UK more than £1,500.

The HMRC admission, contained in the report ‘Measuring the tax gap – an update’, estimates that in 2005 tax avoidance was between £10b and £40b. This figure is even higher than the £25 billion a year estimated by the TUC in it’s ‘Missing Billions’ report. The HMRC say that avoidance has fallen since 2005.

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said: ‘Even if the HMRC claim is true it still leaves huge amounts of unpaid tax by the super-rich – enough to cut taxes for ordinary people, boost public services and do far more to tackle child poverty than the limited measures in yesterday’s budget.

‘The Government has been hit by concerted lobbying by non-doms and the super-rich, who describe even the mildest attempt to make them pay a fair share of tax as a prelude to the sky falling in on national prosperity. But rather than retreat, ministers should pay more attention to ordinary voters, who are becoming more and more aware that a significant group of Britain’s wealthiest people dodge paying fair taxes.

‘The Chancellor was wrong to rule out further efforts to tax non-doms. Instead, he should call their bluff when the super-rich exodus fails to materialise, as a result of yesterday’s very modest changes.’

Coming soon: Repossession, Repossession, Repossession?

Interested in the recent crisis, the credit crunchiness? Finding it hard to get your head round the whole thing?

I know I am.

For example:

The Bank of England pumped an extra £5bn into increasingly strained money markets on Monday morning, its first emergency provision of liquidity since September.

Okay. Go on…

Responding to what it described as “conditions in the short-term money markets“ in the wake of the sale of Bear Stearns to JP Morgan, the Bank said it was willing to offer the money for three days until its normal weekly refinancing operation on Thursday.

Traders reported a huge shortage of dollar and sterling liquidity on Monday with overnight interest rates rising above 5.5 per cent, compared with the Bank’s official 5.25 per cent rate, and widespread reports of bank’s hoarding money and refusing to lend to others – even overnight.

Philip Shaw of Investec said: “If you can’t raise overnight cash, the implications are very serious”.

The provision of cash at the official 5.25 per cent rate was highly oversubscribed, with the Bank of England reporting mid-morning that £23.6bn funds were requested, far in excess of the £5bn on offer.

Well, don’t fear! There’s help at hand – Socialist Appeal‘s economics wonk, Mick Brooks, who’s latest article I include here, explains what’s going down:

Financial meltdown: another day, another finance house bites the dust

Last Thursday it was Guernsey-based Carlyle Capital Corporation’s turn to go belly-up. Carlyle Capital is a spin-off from the Carlyle Group that has George Bush and John Major on its board and has done very well out of the Iraq war. It is a private equity finance company. (See Private equity  finance – a new capitalist mutation.) These are privately owned firms that borrow other people’s money usually in order to take over other firms and loot their assets. Under capitalism firms do eat each other. Now it can be argued that, without jackals, the veld would be full of wildebeests that had died. Jackals keep the place tidy. But, unless you’re New Labour, you wouldn’t really praise jackals as wealth creators.In Britain private equity finance has been driven by a favourable tax regime. SVG’s Nicholas Ferguson is a millionaire thanks to private equity finance. He’s a rare example of a capitalist with a conscience. He finds it odd that he “pays less tax than his cleaning lady.” It is not just odd – it’s wrong

As we argued a year ago, private equity finance is a typical product of the overheating stage at the end of a boom. It’s part of a financial bubble. And bubbles burst.

Carlyle Capital had assets of $700m. It managed to borrow $21bn, thirty times what its assets were worth. Its main line of business was buying mortgage securities, bits of paper whose assets were based on people’s mortgages. That was fine as long as house prices were going up. The bits of paper would be worth more and more. So Carlyle Capital depended for its existence on the house price bubble.

Carlyle was worth $700m last week. Now it’s worth nothing, zilch. Now you see it, now you don’t. That’s what happens when bubbles burst.

On Friday it was Bear Stearns’ turn. ‘Bad news Bear’s’ demise was a bigger hit to the global financial system than Carlyle Corporation. It was the fifth largest bank in the USA. Last week it was worth $140bn, five times as much as Carlyle Capital. This week it has been swallowed up by JP Morgan Chase, pressured to do so by the Fed. Now the Bear’s not worth anything. With $11.8bn of capital, Bear succeeded in clocking up $395bn in loans – greater ‘leverage’ than Carlyle had managed. It was phantom money.

Bear’s specialty was lending to hedge funds. They dealt in obscure financial instruments called Credit Default Swaps. It sounds complicated, but basically hedge funds bet. They bet on what currencies will be doing tomorrow or next year. They bet on what commodities will be playing at. And sometimes they lose. They lost, and Bear Stearns lost too.

Speculator Joe Lewis bought a $860m piece of the Bear when shares were trading at more than $100. Financial commentators kindly described his acquisition as ‘counter-intuitive.’ Bonkers is more like it. He’s lost the lot.

Ten thousand jobs are to go in the City. It seems the ‘wealth creators’ can only create wealth in a rising market when paper wealth is blooming all round through ‘leverage’. What we’re witnessing now is called ‘deleveraging’, and very painful it is too. Financiers are suffering withdrawal symptoms from taking leave of cloud cuckoo land. Money has been borrowed on the basis that payouts will keep going up for ever, and the consciousness has now dawned that they won’t.

Hold on to your hats. The American Central Bank, the Fed, is due to meet this week to talk about interest rates. It’s odds on they’ll cut again. The trouble is, the more they slash rates the more people can smell the fear.

Robert Peston, economics commentator for the BBC, comments, “As for central banks, they increasingly look not like supermen but seven-stone weaklings.

They’ve been reducing official interest rates, but that’s done little to cut the cost of credit for most of us or increase its availability, because banks have taken the opportunity to rebuild their profit margins.

And what about central banks’ new willingness to allow banks to swap financial assets of dubious value for hard cash or liquid government bonds?

Well that may have encouraged lenders to seize dodgy assets from borrowers that are in trouble in order to dump them on a central bank like the New York Fed.

In other words, central banks may inadvertently be accelerating that fateful deleveraging process.”

As of Monday March 17th stock markets are in shock. Later this week the big US banks are set to write down another $3bn in assets – assets that are no longer assets.

Two million households in the USA face repossession of their homes. Repossession is not just heartbreaking for the families involved. It poisons and pollutes the whole housing market.

And over here the Financial Services Authority guesstimates that two thirds of the mortgages taken out over the past two and a half years (with sums like six times household income on offer) are horribly exposed. Capitalist crisis – coming to your local area soon!