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On the March 5, 2013 Paulo Portas, the vice prime-minister of Portugal, and leader of the Partido Popular (the right-wing neo-liberal member of the austerity governing coalition) visited India for a business trip. The objective of this short visit on behalf of the vice admiral of a sinking Portuguese vessel was to insure a safe route for the influx of foreign capital — in this case Indian capital — to reinvigorate the ailing Portuguese economy. There, in New Delhi, and in front of flashing cameras and journalists Paulo Portas gave out  the first ‘Golden Visa,’ which has become quite infamous in Portugal over the past weeks.

Now this ‘Golden Visa’ might seem like the Golden Ticket in the fable of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and that idea isn’t that far off. The system of Golden Visas was implemented, in the words of its promoters, to facilitate foreign investment in Portugal, and to boost the economy with innovative projects. Thus any foreign citizen with enough money and a project to invest in some section of the Portuguese economy a considerable amount of money was given access to the Via dei Fori Imperiali, a sort of express lane without tolls which would allow the rich and the affluent, in other words, the job creators of this world to come and spread their magical dust, and spread economical healthiness throughout the land of Lusitans. It was the magical solution to resolve of Portugal’s economic woes, insourcing entrepreneurship and the audacity of the foreign masters of capital.

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The only problem with the entire scheme is that things didn’t quite work out according to plan. Thus on November 13, a political earthquake shook Lisbon. Four public offices became the targets of special anti-corruption unit raids: Portuguese border services agency, the entity which was in charge of directly issuing the Visas; the Ministry of Justice and the Institute of Registries and Notaries, the equivalent of our Ministry of National Revenue; and the Ministry of Internal Administration, the equivalent of our Ministry of Public Works and Governmental Affairs.

The heads of all these institutions have been questioned by Portuguese police, and have been accused of, corruption, trafficking of influence and money laundering, among other things. Two companies Golden Visas Europe and JMF-Projects and Business Inc. offered services for foreign private investors looking to dry their money in the sun on some picturesque Portuguese beach.

A travel agency for capital, Marx would have been delighted!

Both of these companies had direct ties to the legal public authorities, who were quintessential in the issuing of the infamous Golden Visas. For example Miguel Macedo the Minister of Internal Administration had a direct stake in Golden Visas Europe; he had been the founding partner of the enterprise — even though he was already minister at the time — with a young lady by the name of Luísa Oliveira Figueiredo, who happened to the daughter of António Figueiredo, the head of the Institute of Registries and Notaries.

Miguel Macedo

It was all a coincidence obviously!

In the year 2013 alone, 110,000 Portuguese of all ages, and from all walks of life migrated and initiated ajourney whichwe call saudade, the longing for the return to the mother land. Austerity measures continue to hit Portugal hard, but at least some at the top of the Portuguese political ladder have understood the mechanisms that will allow them to profit from the suffering and the misery of the common Portuguese Joe or in this case João.

Some authors in the past spoke of monopoly capitalism when referring to the uber concentration of capital within the orbit of a few corporations, multinational enterprises, of wealth. For Paul Sweezy, capitalism under Pax Americana in the mid-1960s was far from being the rule of the ‘free-market’ that Adam Smith had theorized. Rather it was an oligarchy, a saturated orgy of the rich and powerful that always reproduced their power through new business ventures and “created” new markets when necessary.

The scandal of the ‘Golden Visas’ underlines the hypocrisy of the extreme right-wing rhetoric, which is in vogue throughout Europe, and is represented in Portugal by the Partido Nacional Renovador (PNR). Hundreds and thousands of poor and toiling African immigrants amass at ‘Fortress Europe’s’ borders; the “wretched of the earth” as Frantz Fanon said. Upon their arrival in Europe they join the ranks of the lowest of the lowest classes, yet form the invisible and voiceless backbone of an economy in shambles.

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We demonise them, tarnish their image. They are the incarnation of all the wrath that the laborious people of Portugal feel. In the meantime multi-millionaire gangsters have made a paradise, coached in the misery of both the Portuguese and the migrant working classes. The focus that the extreme right puts on immigrant populations is a diversion tactic, used as a veil to hide the real illegal immigrants that capitalize on the economic crisis: The ‘Golden’ immigrants, the avatars of the ‘free’ circulation of capital. Unfortunately for them, this inherent contradiction has been unveiled and the emperor is revealed to be naked.

The Golden Visas and the story of Portugal since 2011 is the perfect example of the rise of a new form of capitalism, which can be called ‘casino capitalism.’ It is a mix between libertarian paradise and state-capitalism à la Xiaoping. Its most brutal manifestation is this system of Golden Visas; a rigged lottery which only favours the ‘free’, and the automatization of capital servant of the markets and financial cartels pushed through by a neo-liberal state — the state after all isn’t that bad when it serves the interests of capital!

Within this new economic world everything becomes possible. While millions of young and talented Portuguese leave toiling to put an end to their precarity, the country is being stripped to pieces and sold to the highest bidder. Soon every aspect of Portuguese life will be liberated from the constraints of the state — no regulation whatsoever. In this brave new world modeled through the lense of Atlas Shrugged, everyone will be under the yoke of those that have enough influence and power to make and break the market, those that write the laws of an unfree market.

A luta continua!

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Last week’s RCMP bombshell dump revealed a few things about the private e-mails of PMO staff and their counterparts in the Senate. For the dozen or so Harper administration staffers, lawyers and spin doctors, the documents give the Canadian public a rare glimpse of the way that the ultra-secretive Harper government operates in a major political crisis.

Though they do not vindicate the Prime Minister or corroborate his wildly implausible story of being completely unaware of what his chief of staff, Nigel Wright, was doing in his attempts to contain the damage being done to the Prime Minister’s brand by Senator and former Harper bagman Mike Duffy’s various acts of fraud. They do not provide the smoking gun type of evidence that would expose the Prime Minister as the mastermind behind botched efforts to put the corruption scandal to bed.

This doesn’t mean Harper’s out of the woods yet. On the contrary, the now infamous Wright quote that his boss was “good to go,” with respect to negotiations he was having involving both the PM’s lawyer Benjamin Perrin & Duffy’s lawyer Allison Payne on the conditions that would be acceptable to all parties concerned, would suggest that there is definitely some fire to go with all the smoke coming out of the Prime Minister’s office at the moment.

While it may still be true (though this would not excuse Harper’s ignorance of the situation) that the Prime Minister had no clue that his right hand man at the time was cutting a $90 000 personal cheque to silence an embarrassing Senator and in the process committing a crime under federal law, it seems that Harper at least knew about the first proposed solution Wright made to pay, out of Conservative Party funds, Duff-man 32K in order to reimburse him for the amount that was being demanded by the Senate Rules committee for illegally claimed expenses related to his secondary residence in PEI. This idea was eventually nixed by President of the party and Senator appointed by Harper in 2009, Irving Gerstein, forcing Wright to find an alternative to, in his words, “close out” an increasingly irksome problem and Senator (Duffy).

Duff-man may be proclaiming his innocence from the bully pulpit, but the documents released by the RCMP make it clear that he was not simply the victim of bad accounting and a vindictive Prime Minister more than happy to throw him and his other former Senate cronies under the bus. In fact, it’s almost hard not to sympathize with Wright who appears to have become rather impatient with the Senator and his lawyer’s constant haggling with the PMO over the terms of his bail out.

More to the point, Duff-man appears to have hatched a cover story involving taking out a line of credit from the bank with the intention of duping the media and public into believing that the this, rather than the cheque from Wright, would be used to repay the Senate. Incidentally, I love Duffy’s cynical insistence on inserting “PEI-isms” into the media lines he was given to deliver.

It’s not all bad news for the government. It appears that at least one staffer, Chris Montgomery, working for then Government leader in the Senate and Cabinet Minister Senator Marjory Lebreton (remember her infamous lashing out at the media over reporting on the scandal as “Liberal elites and their media lickspittles”) tried in vain to prevent the Prime Minister and his minions from imposing their will on the damning Senate Committee report that would have denounced Duffy and his colleagues for their financial recklessness with the tax payer’s money. For this display of integrity, Montgomery earned the scorn of Harper lackey Patrick Rogers who is quoted in the e-mail as saying “This is epic. Montgomery is the problem.”

Indeed, defending the independence of the Senate and democratic institutions against the meddling of the executive is regarded by Harper and his staff as an unforgivable sin.

Canadian Money Shot

Forget The Sopranos, The Godfather even Goodfellas. Forget guns and sleeping with the fishes.

The Montreal mob has a new weapon in their arsenal. It’s not exciting, flashy or even remotely interesting.

Quite the opposite. They now know how to bore the general public to the point where we all lose interest.

It worked on me. Then, by chance, two people I respect brought up the same thing in the same night: the Charbonneau Commission.

Wait, that’s still going on? Yes, despite a large portion of the general public (and yours truly) loosing interest after the commission claimed the political careers of longstanding mayors Gerald Tremblay and Gilles Vaillancourt.

The sacrificial lambs were thrown to the slaughter…and by slaughter I mean a pretty comfortable retirement and no need to answer any more questions. Corruption problem solved!

But the commission continued, undeterred and unnoticed. Witnesses testified, mainstream media reported on it out of duty not interest.

Yeah, a few times the commission tried to get provocative like when they asked city employee Gilles Vezina if he ever accepted the services of a prostitute as a bribe. But alas, the answer was no, the wine and hockey tickets were enough for him, and he wasn’t high profile enough to warrant pursuing the matter further.

Now, it turns out that one of the witnesses, Martin Dumont, felt pressured and asked for his testimony to be stricken. His lawyer threatened to take the matter to Quebec Superior Court if the request is refused. From there, the Supreme Court of Canada becomes an option.

Following a case up the legal food chain is hard enough to do even when it’s salacious and sexy. This is anything but.

If only it was this easy (image: http://earthenergyreader.wordpress.com)

How do you make something already mired in public apathy less appealing? You bog it down in legal procedure, that’s how. Absolutely brilliant.

If it gets to the Supreme Court, everything could be thrown out. If it does, who will notice and moreover who will care? We’ve already got the big names, who cares about the rest?

But we should care. Those are our roads cracking and overpasses crumbling because of shoddy work done by those who got insider contracts and overbilled the taxpayer. Those are our elected officials and unelected bureaucrats taking bribes from the mob. Those are our streets turned into impromptu rivers that sweep McGill students away for a kayak-less ride down to Sherbrooke. This is our public inquiry that risks disappearing without anyone noticing.

What is supposed to be a battle between right and wrong, public good and corruption has turned into a fight to keep the ratings up. On one side, we have the Charbonneau Commission trying to remain relevant and sexy without any big name talent. On the other, the mob and corrupt officials are working their hardest to get this show cancelled midseason. No syndicated reruns, no DVD box sets, just done and gone.

While this analogy may have almost run its course, so has the Charbonneau Commission. Maybe we should make some sort of petition to keep this show going or at very least start paying attention.

It may seem boring, but when you think about it, bringing down the graft that has been institutionalized in Quebec since the 50s or maybe earlier is probably the sexiest most exciting story possible.

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*This article originally appeared on Rabble.ca.

So I guess now we know what former premier Jean Charest was so worried about. Speculation ran rampant this summer that the curious timing of Quebec’s provincial election was forced by the fear of what would come out as the Charbonneau commission resumed hearings into corruption in the construction industry in mid-September.

It turns out that pre-election bombshell revelations from the likes of Jacques Duscheneau, who alleged that over 70 per cent of political contributions in Quebec consisted of illegal ‘dark money’, were simply the tip of the iceberg.

Over the last several weeks former construction magnate Lino Zambito has blown the lid off of a system which is rotten to its very core. In testimony before the commission he has alleged that Montreal and surrounding municipalities are “closed markets”, where participation in a corrupt system of bid rigging and payoffs is required for anyone seeking municipal contracts.

According to his testimony, the Mafia worked hand in hand with Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay’s Union Montreal party to defraud taxpayers and profit off of an elaborate system of fraud and bid rigging. The Mafia would take 2.5 per cent off the top of all public works contracts in exchange for operating the system which favoured a select group of contractors. For their part, Union Montreal would take another 3 per cent off the top of each contract.

Tremblay denies the allegations, but at this point is there anyone left in the city who believes a word he says?

To the surprise of few, the rot doesn’t stop at City Hall. Zambito alleged that the same type of collusion and corruption funds political parties at the provincial level, most notably the Quebec Liberal Party. He testified to personally having arranged hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal donations to the Liberals, as well as smaller amounts to the PQ and ADQ (the predecessor of the CAQ). He testified to handing over envelopes stuffed with cash, falsifying the source of supposedly legal donations, and organizing fundraisers that brazenly violated election financing law.

“I fixed contracts, I financed political parties, I corrupted officials,” Zambito testified. “But the system was constructed such that you had no choice … the system is sick and corrupted.”

As usual, the Montreal Gazette‘s Monique Muise is doing a tremendous job of covering all the sordid details in English, so I recommend her archive for blow by blow coverage of the commission’s work.

These new details, predictably enough, have Quebec’s political class in a tizzy. Everyone is shocked, they tell you, shocked and appalled by these terrible things of which they had absolutely no knowledge.

Liberals are huffing and puffing about their besmirched honour, while their provincial rivals seem to be adopting an attitude of, okay, so we did a little bit of this, but the Liberals did more so let’s not sweat (our) small stuff okay?

Meanwhile, Mayor Tremblay looks like he’s living through a nightmare of his own making as he pleads with the populace to ignore the overwhelming evidence that he is a corrupt sleazeball, and take him at his word when he flatly denies involvement in any type of corruption.

Everyone is promising to get to the bottom of things, and clean up the rotten system, but it couldn’t be more clear that all they want to do is slap a band-aid on the problem and sweep it right back under the rug.

At the municipal level, it’s hard to understand how Tremblay hasn’t resigned yet. If there was ever a question that he would stand for re-election in 2013, it has now been answered. As media and citizens alike howl for his head, he seems to be staying on in some vain quest to clear his name, a fool’s errand if ever there was one.

His party looks unlikely to recover from this scandal, and Liberal MP Denis Coderre seems to have delusions of himself as some white knight who will swoop in and be elected mayor. One assumes he’s banking on Quebeckers losing sight of the more distant federal Liberal sponsorship scandal in the haze of pervasive corruption at the municipal and provincial level. It should also be mentioned that Coderre was one of only two opposition MPs to vote with Harper’s Conservatives for a bill which would make it an offence punishable by up to ten years in prison to wear a mask at a protest. Something tells me that’ll come up in this city of civil society and protest.

Vision Montreal leader Louise Harel has taken to the hustings to denounce the scandalous behaviour of her colleagues in Union Montreal, but her denunciations ring a little hollow given that Vision has a track record of corruption almost as sordid. Her former deputy leader Benoit Labonte admitted to taking a $100,000 bribe from crook-extraordinaire Tony Accurso in 2008. After his downfall he alleged that 80 per cent of city hall was controlled by the Mafia, and alleged widespread corruption in his party as well as that of the Mayor.

The one party as yet unbesmirched by corruption allegations is Projet Montreal. Running against corruption and with a bill of ethical health from Justice John Gomery in 2009, they went from one seat to ten and picked up several borough mayoralties. Since that election they have welcomed a number of defectors from Vision Montreal, and now look to be the prime challenger to Coderre’s ascenscion to the mayor’s post.

At the provincial level, I have little confidence in the PQ to clean up this mess, and less still in the Liberals or CAQ. The truth is, without constant pressure and agitation from the population this whole mess will get a new coat of paint and be allowed to continue draining the public purse.

So don’t let this slip your mind. Keep the pressure on the PQ government to do whatever it takes to rebuild trust in our political insitutions. For my money, that starts with a total overhaul of political financing, preferably along a public funding model where all expenses run through the office of the Chief Electoral Officer.

At the municipal level, Tremblay must resign. What does it say about us if we allow a demonstrably corrupt fraudster who has been robbing us blind to continue claiming to represent us?

Write letters to the papers. Call the radio stations. Howl your outrage to the skies. Don’t let him slink off into the sunset, force him out now. Together, we have the power to do just that.

And when it comes time to vote next year, shake up the old patterns. There’s no excuse to vote for Union, and little more to do so for Vision. Our political leaders cannot and will not clean up this mess. Only sustained public pressure will make a dent in this sick and corrupted system.

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When the Charbonneau commission opens this week dozens of witnesses will testify and be cross examined by representatives from groups as diverse as Hydro Québec to hard core provincial lefties Québec Solidaire. The only oddity with the proceedings will be the conspicuous absence of a single representative from Liberal Party of Quebec. This is rather like having the O.J. Simpson trial without ‘The Juice’ (as he’s sometimes called), testifying before the court. After all, the whole purpose of this inquiry is to establish whether there is any connection between the awarding of juicy pork barrel government construction contracts (corruption never tasted so good!) and the financing of political parties in Quebec.

Yet, the PLQ had no qualms about participating fully in the hearings of Judge Bastarache with regards to the allegations of Charest interfering with the independence of the judiciary by appointing cronies to the bench with the help of former Provincial Justice Minister Bellemare. Ditto, the federal liberal’s at their own inquiry led by Justice Gomery into the Adscam political patronage scheme. So is this a case of LPQ shirking its democratic duty to be accountable to the citizenry then?

Let’s examine the case against them and others, in greater detail. In a report that got leaked by an unknown source, within the governments anti-corruption unit (UPAC) formerly headed by Québec’s answer to Eliott Ness (Jacques Ducheasnau), until he sang like a canary to a parliamentary committee and was promptly given his marching papers. In his report (available online), which does not single out the LPQ, he details the unholy menage a trois between Transport Ministry employees, contractors construction business and engineering firms who get government contracts, then make hefty profits of the deal, ultimately returning the favour by donating to political parties. In the process, biker gangs, organized crime and mafiosos, all take their cuts.

Government cuts to inspectors and engineers exacerbates the situation by putting the government in the difficult position of assessing bids without sufficient expertise to evaluate the costs involved in proposed projects. And like the days of Al Capone’s infamous criminal empire that flourished in Chicago back in the prohibition era of the 1930’s, some of the engineering firms are such cash cows for political fundraising purposes, that they basically become, in the words of an anonymous former political aide, ‘untouchable.’

Naturally, the current Liberal Minister of Transport Pierre Moreau dismissed the problem with his department as being ‘a few bad apples.’

In other related news, the head of the Securité Québec’s escouade Marteau (The hammer squad!) commenting on the recent bust of several high profile ‘business men’ with extensive political connections, namely Paolo Catanio, Frank Zampino and Bernard Trépanier, said that a massive fraud that the men had perpetrated, also involved an unspecified political organization in Québec.

Charest certainly has his hands full these days, what with the city of Montreal rebelling against his authoritarian bill 78, on a nightly basis, and the student strike threatening to spoil the summer tourist season. One can’t help but wonder how all of this might be distracting people from an issue that once was on everyone’s lips, but now seems to be getting a lot less attention. That, of course, doesn’t excuse Charest and his government for their shameful absence from the inquiry that they supposedly committed themselves to.