The most dangerous and violent narcotics cartel the world has ever seen.

President Trump, addressing African representatives at the UN:

“I have so many friends going to your countries trying to get rich, I congratulate you.”

To many observers, this remark sounded a whole lot like neo-colonialism. Colonialism was not kind to colonized peoples, and there’s no reason to believe neo-colonialism will be. Especially when leaders of major military powers have “friends” trying to make money in far away lands. Here’s an example from another century.

The British East India company was one of the first joint-stock companies in the world. Interestingly, its charter permitted it to wage war. It maintained a mercenary army and engaged in equal parts trade and conquest. In 1757, the company’s mercenary army defeated the nawab of Bengal, gaining control over the region. Bengal was attractive to the company since it was the primary source of opium, which the company traded to great profit. In a sense, you could say the East India company was a narco-cartel that took over an entire state, Bengal, with a population of 30 million people. Of course, it helped that there were backed by the military might of the nascent British empire. This is what Betsy Devos’ brother Erik Prince thinks should happen in Afghanistan, with Blackwater/Academi playing the role of the East India Company. Except it’s already been done, with predictably terrible results.

In 1770, the east Indian regions of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa suffered a terrible famine, while the company controlled the region. 10 million people starved to death, though some some studies indicate the death toll may have been as high as 15 million. Death rates in some towns were over 60%, and for the region as a whole, 33-50%. In comparison, the better known Great Famine of the 1840s (in another British colony, Ireland) merely caused 1.5 million deaths. Reports of the Bengal famine of 1770 reached Britain swiftly. The company and its agents were severely criticized in several quarters. Among others, Adam Smith wrote about the company’s policies in Bengal:

The great fortunes so suddenly and so easily acquired in Bengal and the other British settlements in the East Indies, may satisfy us that, as the wages of labour are very low, so the profits of stock are very high in those ruined countries. The interest of money is proportionably so. In Bengal, money is frequently lent to the farmers at forty, fifty, and sixty per cent, and the succeeding crop is mortgaged for the payment. As the profits which can afford such an interest must eat up almost the whole rent of the landlord, so such enormous usury must in its turn eat up the greater part of those profits. (In their transactions with the inhabitants of India, the British substituted violence for trade; and the price at which they bought or sold was often very different, therefore, from the value of the market. They took what they wanted at their own price, and it was by this violence that they drained the country of its wealth.) — Adam Smith: Wealth of Nations

Yet, almost two hundred years later, during WW-2, another British government would stoke another famine in Bengal, killing 2 or 3 million people.

The great famine of 1770 was triggered by a failed monsoon the prior autumn. A decade of predatory tax harvesting by the East India company had left rural Bengalis and Biharis with few monetary resources. The company had raised land taxes over the prior decade, sending the proceeds back to shareholders in London. When the monsoon failed in 1769, many now impoverished Bengali families had no way to buy food. The company’s officers had stolen their savings via extortionate “taxes”, often employing violence and torture. The company’s policy of replacing food crops with opium likely exacerbated the famine. Smallpox broke out among the starving survivors.

In a pattern familiar from the more extensively documented famines of the nineteenth century, peasants tried to sell their possessions, even the plows and bullocks they would need n teh future to till their fields. In desperation they ate their seed corn, then turned to eating grass, leaves, and bark. Children were sold to anyone who would buy them: some survived the famine only as slaved in European and Indian households. There were reports, as so often when the intensity of India’s famine passed beyond normal comprehension, of hungry people driven to the extremes even of cannibalism; “There were persons who fed on forbidden and abhorred animals, nay the child on its dead parent, the mother on her child.” Large numbers died of starvation or disease before they could find relief or because they were too worn out and malnourished to absorb the food they received. Mortality was greatest among agricultural laborers, poor peasants, and artisans (cotton and silk weavers, lime workers, and the like), with Bihar and western Bengal suffering most. Only toward the end of 1770 did the drought and famine abate. — David Arnold: Hunger in the garden of plenty

As it happens, killing a third of your labor force isn’t a good thing for any enterprise, even a narco-cartel with a side business in tax harvesting. Opium production fell after the famine, and the East India company came under immense financial stress. Since many members of parliament held East India company stock, it wasn’t difficult to convince them to pass laws to bolster the firm’s finances.

The Company created a powerful East India lobby in Parliament, a caucus of MPs who had either directly or indirectly profited from its business and who constituted, in Edmund Burke’s opinion, one of the most united and formidable forces in British politics. It also made regular gifts to the Court: “All who could help or hurt at Court,” wrote Lord Macaulay, “ministers, mistresses, priests, were kept in good humour by presents of shawls and silks, birds’ nests and attar of roses, bulses of diamonds and bags of guineas.” It also made timely gifts to the Treasury whenever the state faced bankruptcy. In short, it acted as what George Dempster, a stockholder, called a “great money engine of state”.…

By 1773, the company had successfully lobbied the British parliament to grant it a monopoly on opium production in Bengal. That would solidify the company’s position as the largest producer and dealer of hard drugs in the world.

The East India company used the land taxes extracted from peasants to buy opium. Since it had a monopoly, it could control prices. The opium was then sent to China, to be traded for Chinese tea. And this is where the opium trade intersects with American history.

Goaded by the directors, Parliament passed the Tea Act of 1773. This legislation was meant to further bolster the company’s finances by allowing it to export tea, under preferential terms, to the American colonies. If this is beginning to sound familiar, it should. The Tea Act led to the Boston Tea Party, the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution.

If 10 million Bengalis hadn’t been starved to death by an opium cartel owned by British lords, this country might not have thrown off the colonial yoke when it did.

Let’s talk about this tea which American revolutionaries gleefully dumped into Boston harbor. With their monopoly on opium production, the East India company had solved one of its biggest dilemmas. Thus far, British merchants had to scrounge up gold and silver to buy Chinese goods. But if they could get enough Chinese people hooked on opium, that would serve as currency. And since they controlled production and prices, let’s just say it was a good deal. Over the course of the 18th and early 19th century, the East India company increased its opium exports to China manyfold.

At the turn of the 19th century, the Chinese government moved to make the opium trade illegal. British merchant-pirates resorted to smuggling to continue the trade. The Chinese government’s efforts were largely ineffective. By the 1830s, a large portion of the population (perhaps as high as 20%) was using opium. The Chinese government sought to restrict the trade even further.

Faced with a direct threat to their lucrative opium-tea trade, British naval forces and the armies of the East India company joined together to wage China. British forces fighting alongside the East India company’s mercenary army won the First Opium War of 1840-42. Casualties on the Chinese side (both civilian and military) were in the tens of thousands. British forces engaged in extensive looting and destruction of art works. The Qing dynasty government was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanking. It granted British merchants free access to numerous Chinese ports, and ceded the island of Hong Kong to Britain. British merchants resumed distributing thousands of tons of opium to China every year. The loss and burden of making reparations to Britain weakened the Qing dynasty and helped spark the Taiping rebellion. That bloody civil war cost 20-30 million lives and the First Opium War continues to be viewed as a seminal event in Chinese history.

The government and the company were severely criticized by some in Britain for initiating this war. Famously, this included the future Prime Minister Gladstone, who had seen his sister turn into an opium addict. Opium was widely available in Britain and Europe at the time, most commonly sold as laudanum, a mixture of opium and alcohol. Those treating addiction among heir friends and family were appalled that their government would wage war on Chinese administrators trying to do the same. The criticism was laughably ineffective when there was so much money to be made via drug-dealing.

In 1856-60 the British government fought a second opium war, seeking to renegotiate the terms of the earlier treaty. A key demand was lifting all restrictions on  the opium trade. The British also sought to expand the coolie trade. This system of indentured servitude took Indian and Chinese laborers to Caribbean and South American plantations to grow commodity crops for . It has been called near-slavery. The “coolies” were often kidnapped from their homes or given false assurances. US traders participated in this human trafficking, most often by selling Chinese laborers to Cuban plantation owners. Lincoln eventually signed a law outlawing the coolie-trade.

Over a four year campaign, British and French forces defeated the Chinese army and navy. It’s worth noting that they were aided by the US armed forces. A naval vessel, the USS San Jacinto was actively engaged in the conflict. Can you imagine the response if the armies and navies of Columbia, Mexico and Afghanistan lay siege to the port of Los Angeles, demanding the unfettered right to sell heroin and cocaine to Americans? Yeah, that’s probably what most Chinese people thought about it.

There are dozens of interesting stories about these events. Tales of colonization and its impact on peoples across the world.  Stories of narco-privateers sailing under the British flag who enjoyed the protection of the world’s most powerful navy. There’s that one time the US navy fought alongside dealers and smugglers of hard drugs. The tragic history of a famine that killed ten million living, breathing human beings, just like you and me. There’s the story of Chinese and Indian leaders who sought to protect their people and countries from colonization.

Are you likely to see a mainstream movie about any of this? Not really. Hollywood is too busy rehabilitating Georgian and Victorian era aristocrats with period pieces that showcase their tastes in clothing and leisure activities.

We are treated to sympathetic movies about the madness of George III, Victoria and her Scottish servant, Victoria and her Indian servant, Victoria and her German consort-prince, Young Victoria, Old Victoria, Middle-Aged Victoria.

What should we learn from this? That the desire to absolve and gloss over runs deep? If so, it means thirty years from now, perhaps sooner, we’ll all be watching bio-pics about Trump’s lovable forgetfulness and his unlikely friendship with Ben Carson.

— @subirgrewal


Kushner family touting Trump ties while selling green cards to foreign investors for $500k.

The EB-5 program allows investors to, in effect, buy a green card if they invest 1 million (or $500k in certain areas). The investment has to create or preserve a certain number of jobs in the US. Real-Estate developers have been using this program to offer investors apartments/equity with green cards attached for years. Trump himself has marketed properties and raised capital by wooing foreign investors with the same promise of a green card.

This week, Jared Kushner’s sister was in China, touting her family’s ties to the White House as she marketed there family’s development in Jersey City, NJ. The slides had a picture of Donald Trump on them, suggesting Jared’s father-in-law could expedite their visas.


Mr. Trump’s political power was palpable at the Shanghai event even if his name went unsaid. As on Saturday in Beijing, one slide that was presented to the Shanghai audience, describing who will decide the future of the visa program for foreign investors, included a photograph of Mr. Trump, as shown by a snapshot taken by an audience member. — NY Times

The Washington Post researcher for the story on the ground was threatened and harassed.

Journalists barred from China event pitching investment in Kushner project — The Hill

Jared Kushner still retains his interest in the family real-estate business, though he has resigned from his executive positions. The New Yorker called it his Trumpian “divestment” strategy.

Over several hours of slide shows and presentations, representatives from the Kushner family business urged Chinese citizens gathered at a Ritz-Carlton hotel to consider investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in a New Jersey luxury apartment complex that would help them secure what’s known as an investor visa. […]

The tagline on a brochure for the event: “Invest $500,000 and immigrate to the United States.”

And the highlight of the afternoon was Meyer, a principal for the company, who was introduced in promotional materials as Jared’s sister.

— WaPo

PS. This is a piece about the Kushner family trying to leverage their ties to the White House in their business. This isn’t about the EB-5 visa per se, though there are legitimate questions as to whether its use by real-estate developers to raise cheap capital is in keeping with the spirit of the program. There are numerous comments exploring the drawbacks of the program. Pres. Obama, Sen. Leahy and Sen. Feinstein have all been somewhat skeptical of the creative uses real-estate developers have put the program to. This PBS piece is a good place to start if you want to know more about gerrymandering and lobbying by developers to qualify for the lower 500k investment threshold.

The failure of the Evian conference and Likud’s insistence on a “Jewish State”.

Many see me as a pro-Palestinian voice on this site. A couple of recent conversations made me think about the Evian conference which I’ve only discussed in passing. There was a diary around  Helen Thomas’s retirement that mentioned Evian, but not much since. It deserves to be better known since it is a shameful episode and understanding it is critical to realizing the desperation and determination of the early Zionists to create a homeland that would serve as a permanent refuge for their people. It is crucial to understanding, and appreciating, the agony many feel over the deterioration or even demise of Israel’s Jewish character or Jewish majority. It is positively essential to the deep emotional connection many Israelis have with the idea of aliyah.

I cannot dismiss these concerns, and what happened at Evian has much to do with it. But first we have to talk quickly about the prelude.

Prior to World War I, much of Central Europe was a surprisingly cosmopolitan and diverse place. Under the Austro-Hungarian empire, professionals and merchants moved and settled across a broad swath of central Europe. Russia continued to experience pogroms and its institutions forced re-settlement and practiced harsh discrimination towards Jews. In Central Europe though discrimination was present, it was not as overt. Levels of international trade as a portion of global GDP were comparable to where they are today (partly due to colonial exploitation), and a global supply chain existed for many manufactured goods (as it does today for most). From many perspectives, the world looked quite tolerant and inter-connected. As it does to many today.

There is a real case to be made that our own interconnected world is just a thin, brittle veneer over deep, un-shakable tribal divisions that can flare up at any time. A subtext of exploitation, charged with race could be used by demagogues to embark once again on mass slaughter (as indeed we have seen in numerous episodes in Asia and Africa post World War II). If you look around you, there are places in the world (some in the Middle East) where things look quite horrific. As liberals we look for the humanity and good in all human beings, but we have to be aware of this criticism and acknowledge it as we work against such an outcome.

But back to Central Europe in the inter-war years. The Nazis acquire power in 1933 and begin implementing their campaign promise of racial purification. Zionists had already seen what was to come and frantically negotiated the Haavara agreement which offered to purchase German goods so Jewish emigrants could leave and realize some value, however small, for their property. In 1934, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Vienna, is shaken by shelling during the Austrian Civil War between various factions on the left and right, including fascist and Nazi elements (Patrick Leigh Fermor’s magnificent trilogy describes these incidents, which he witnessed). In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws are passed, Jews are no longer citizens, and Jewish life becomes untenable in Germany. The Nazi’s annex Austria (the Anschluss) in March 1938 and suddenly Jews are as persecuted in cosmopolitan, vibrant Vienna as they were in Germany.

Those who can, have been fleeing Central Europe through the 30s. This is possible for those with means and easier for those who have assimilated into modernist European society. The poor and those following traditional ways have limited opportunities.

It is in this context that FDR convenes a conference in Evian-les-Bains in France during early July 1938. The intention was to discuss what, if anything, could be done for Jewish refugees who faced limited opportunities to emigrate. The US still operated on the national origins formula which severely limited the immigration of many peoples, including Jews. *

Hitler made the following statement when informed of the Evian conference:

I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.

The national origins formula capped immigration at 30,000 a year from Germany/Austria. At Evian the US representative “magnanimously” made the entire quota available to Jewish refugees from those countries (though in practice it ended up being a bit higher). After the conference, Britain modified the refugee quota for mandate Palestine to permit 75,000 Jewish refugees a year to enter. It did not offer resettlement in its other colonies, though some Jewish refugees did find their way to India, and others made it as far as the diaspora community in China. Australia, New Zealand, Canada and much of South America explained their refusal to accept additional refugees by pointing to the depression. The tiny Dominican Republic offered to accept 100,000 refugees and set aside land for them but in the end only 800 refugees received visas and were re-settled.

In the end, the free world failed the Jewish populations of Germany and Austria. And it failed all other Jewish communities in Central Europe that swiftly found themselves subject to the same persecution as more nations fell to the Nazi onslaught. What sticks in many throats is that though Golda Meir was at the conference, she was not permitted to speak, only observe.

I’m for one state in Israel/Palestine, with a federal character and equal rights for all. It seems to me to be a difficult, but just and sustainable answer. In any such state, Jews will eventually be a slim majority or a sizable minority. The equilibrium state is likely to be very similar to Lebanon’s Christian minority. Israel/Palestine also has a 6-10% Christian/Druze population. Any such proposal has to overcome the objection that if the Jews do not have a homeland where they are a secure majority, the unthinkable is possible.

This objection is not just about a resurgence of a genocidal threat, which may sound far-fetched to many ears. It is also about the abject, shameful failure of the free, western world to provide a refuge at the exact moment when it was both necessary and possible.

And here’s the lesson for us on DKos. For liberals who idolize him, this is particularly distressing, because it was FDR. It doesn’t matter whether it was a failure of imagination, analysis or simply an unwillingness to exercise power. Nor does it matter that Poland and Romania demanded the same “right” to expel their Jews they saw the Nazis being offered, multiplying the number of possible refugees ten-fold to over four million. The fact is that FDR’s administration did not grasp the opportunity when it was presented. One of the most liberal administrations in American history, one we still hold as a lodestar in any discussion of social justice saw almost five million souls held in a vice and failed them.

I support one state in Israel/Palestine, with a federal character and equal rights for all. But it is a difficult cause to support given Evian (among many other events). It is difficult for me, as a gentile to support it given all that history. I understand how thoroughly impossible it may be for those who consider themselves a part of the Jewish people. It may be difficult to remember all this deep in a comment thread with those who support two-states or those who object to anything that would compromise Israel’s ability to defend it’s borders and further compromise its severely limited strategic depth. But let us all strive to remember the deep and true reasons for their views, and respect them.

* These racial quotas were not conclusively swept aside till LBJ’s administration and the 1965 Immigration reform act.

Sheldon Adelson says jump, some pols in the US and Israel ask how high.

Tom Friedman has an Op-Ed in the NY Times today discussing Sheldon Adelson’s impact on Israeli and US politics: It’s Sheldon Adelson’s World

…when it came to showering that cash on Republican presidential hopefuls and right-wing PACs trying to defeat President Obama (reportedly $150 million in 2012), and on keeping Netanyahu and his Likud party in office, no single billionaire-donor is more influential than Sheldon. No matter what his agenda, it is troubling that one man, with a willingness and ability to give away giant sums, can now tilt Israeli and American politics his way at the same time.

Netanyahu’s speech to Congress and the letter to Iran’s leaders from 47 Republican senators precipitated all this hand-wringing from Friedman. Friedman doesn’t discuss is how Adelson made his billions. So we’ll go to Forbes’ gambling analyst Sands Macao: The House That Built Sheldon Adelson:

Ten years ago, Sheldon Adelson was a Las Vegas B-lister who’d stumbled into the casino business, scrambling to pay the interest on junk bonds that financed his only hotel. Then, in May 2004, Adelson opened Sands Macao, Asia’s first American style casino, and he got richer faster than anyone ever. Sands Macao is the house that built Sheldon Adelson.

Bloomberg reports that Adelson may have benefited from some not-so-subtle pressure on government officials in Macau (Sands China Probes of Macau Officials May End Up in Court):

Sands China Ltd.’s secret investigation of Macau government officials, allegedly ordered by its Chairman Sheldon Adelson, is fair game in the feud between the billionaire and the casino operator’s former top executive.Steven Jacobs, locked in a four-year battle with Adelson, today won the right to use a report on the probe in his wrongful-termination lawsuit. Jacobs contends he was ousted in 2010 as chief executive officer of the China unit of Las Vegas Sands Corp. because he clashed with Adelson over demands he collect information on Macau officials to exert “leverage” on them.

which may be a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act

And that isn’t even the most scandalous thing about Sands Macau. Here’s the New Yorker on Sheldon Adelson and Macau

The end of that week brought a less glamorous headline: “Sheldon Adelson Denies Greenlighting A ‘Prostitution Strategy’ At His Macau Casinos.” That was a recap of the latest in a lawsuit working its way through Nevada courts, in which the former head of Adelson’s Macau operation has saddled Adelson with a range of lurid allegations involving Chinese triads, bribery, and criminal activity. (As I described in the magazine in May, those accusations have prompted the S.E.C. and Justice Department to investigate Adelson’s company.)On June 28th, the former employee making the accusations, Steve Jacobs, dropped a list of new charges into a sworn declaration, including that he wanted to rid the casino of “loan sharks and prostitution” but was stymied when “senior executives informed me that the prior prostitution strategy had been personally approved by Adelson.” That is all it says, so it’s unclear if the plan purportedly “approved by Adelson” was intended to preserve or prevent prostitution. (Local police reportedly arrested more than a hundred prostitutes and twenty-two syndicate leaders in a 2010 operation at Adelson’s Venetian Macau.)

and here’s the Atlantic on Adelson and unions in: Who Is Sheldon Adelson, the Gingrich Super PAC’s Billionaire Backer?:

3. He’s a union-buster. Some of Adelson’s bitterest political battles have been fought in his adopted home state against the forces of organized labor, which has a strong foothold in the casino industry. The Venetian opened in 1999 as the only non-union casino on the Strip and has been the target of protest from the hotel workers union, Culinary 226, ever since. Many Democratic politicians in the state continue to observe the union’s boycott of Adelson’s properties. Rep. Shelley Berkley, a Nevada Democrat now running for Senate in what’s likely to be one of 2012’s highest-profile races, was once Adelson’s top political lieutenant, but the two parted ways over labor issues. Adelson and Berkley have regarded each other as mortal enemies ever since — even though Berkley, like Adelson, is a hawkish, socially liberal Jew.

A lot of this has been covered on DKos before:
Adelson personally approved Hookers in
Around The World with Sheldon Adelson
Feds Probe Adelson’s Casino for Money Laundering Activities

Back to Friedman:

Israel has much stricter laws on individuals donating to political campaigns, so Adelson got around that in 2007 by founding a free, giveaway newspaper in Israel — Israel Hayom — whose sole purpose is to back Netanyahu, attack his enemies in politics and the media, and enforce a far-right political agenda to prevent any Israeli territorial compromise on the West Bank (which, in time, could undermine Israel as a Jewish democracy). Graphically attractive, Israel Hayom is now the biggest-circulation daily in Israel. Precisely because it is free, it is putting a heavy strain on competitors, like Yediot and Haaretz, which both charge and are not pro-Netanyahu.

There’s a bigger story in this paragraph, about media influence but who has time to worry about meta-issues like that when…

The Washington Post said that last November at a conference of the Israel American Council, a lobbying group Adelson has funded, he joked in a public discussion with another wealthy Israeli: “Why don’t you and I go after The New York Times?” Told it was family owned, Adelson quipped, “There is only one way to fight it: money.” At this same conference Adelson was quoted as saying that Israel would not be able to survive as a democracy: “So Israel won’t be a democratic state,” he added. “So what?”

I wonder how disposable Adelson thinks democracy in the US is?

When money in politics gets this big, when it can make elected officials bow and scrape in two different countries at the same time, it is troubling.

I would make the comparison between such politicians and prostitutes here, but I think that would be demeaning honest sex-workers everywhere just trying to keep body and soul together.