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Citing Democracy Now!/BBC Broadcast, Rep. John Conyers Confronts Bush and Demands Investigation of Vulture Funds

StoryFebruary 16, 2007
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House Judiciary Chair Rep. John Conyers (D–Michigan) joins us from Capitol Hill to talk about the war in Iraq and African debt. He calls for a cutoff of appropriations for the war in Iraq, saying, “That may be the only way that we’re going to end the war.” Conyers also reveals that on Thursday he met with President Bush and asked him to stop vulture investors from preying upon African debtor nations. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The House of Representatives is expected to pass a nonbinding resolution today opposing President Bush’s decision to send more than 20,000 additional combat troops to Iraq. The House has been debating the resolution since Tuesday. As many as two dozen Republicans are expected to vote with the Democrats in opposing the troop increase. If the resolution passes, it will mark the first time Congress has voted against President Bush’s Iraq War policy. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also indicated she would back Congressman John Murtha’s attempt to rewrite the president’s spending request to limit Bush’s options in prosecuting the war.

This is Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota. He’s the first Muslim to be elected to Congress.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: For six years now, while the deception has deepened, we were told to shut up, bite your tongues, you’re not as patriotic as me, you don’t love America as much as I do. None of that is true. We have to stop this polarizing language and really focus on the best way out of this. Even people who support the escalation can’t claim that we’re going to be in America forever. What is your plan for eventually getting out of this thing? We say let’s start the withdrawal now. Let’s start the diplomatic solution now. Let’s start the political solution now. I want to say, on behalf of those who really thirst for peace, who believe that peace really is the answer, that we need to look at the words of Martin Luther King Jr. when he spoke out against the Vietnam War. He said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” And so it is.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Keith Ellison on the floor of the House. Meanwhile, many Republicans criticize the Democrats for introducing the resolution. This is Congressmember Jeb Hensarling of Texas.

REP. JEB HENSARLING: Clearly, many, if not most, of the Democrats call for withdrawal from Iraq, as do several of my very respected Republican colleagues. And I respect their views, when they are heartfelt. But, Mr. Speaker, since Democrats now control both houses of Congress, why are we not voting on a withdrawal resolution? And that’s one of the reasons this is such a sad day. I mean, think about it, Mr. Speaker. How do you look a soldier in the eye and say, “You know, I don’t believe you can succeed in Iraq. I don’t believe in your mission. I don’t believe you can win this war. And I have the power to bring you home, but I refuse to do it. I refuse to do it”? Where’s the courage in that resolution? Where’s the conviction in that resolution? If you truly believe in your heart of hearts that our soldiers are needlessly risking their lives, don’t you have a moral obligation to bring them home?

AMY GOODMAN: Joining us now from Capitol Hill is the new chair of the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers of Michigan. On Wednesday, he and more than two dozen other members of the Congressional Black Caucus met with President Bush. It was the president’s first meeting with the caucus in over two years. Joining us still in studio is Joslyn Barnes and Danny Glover. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Congressmember Conyers.

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Always a pleasure, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how your meeting went with the president yesterday?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, we talked essentially about Iraq, Katrina and the domestic breakdown that’s going on right now. But it was my job, I felt, to raise the whole question of this bond speculation that goes on at the expense of poor debtor countries, in which their debt is bought up and then they’re sued for the full amount. It’s bought up at pennies on the dollar, and then they’re sued. And I wanted to thank you for revealing this to us, because it allowed me to ask President Bush two questions: one, about Paul Singer and Michael Sheehan; and two, whether he would be willing to stop this incredible misuse of our government’s charity toward funding aid to our poorer nations.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what was the president’s response to your questions?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: His response was, “I didn’t know anything about this.” And he assigned a staffer to get on it right away. And so, it’s our position that the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the Comity Doctrine brought from our Constitution allows the president to require the courts defer in individual suits against foreign nations. And so, we’re conducting a couple of things. First of all, we want to know where these practices are going on at the present time, and, two, how we can get this information to President Bush so that he can, as he indicated to us, stop it immediately.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Congressman, there was also the announcement of some debt relief for Liberia, as well. Why Liberia, particularly, and what’s happening with the rest of debt relief, in general, in terms of Africa, that the Bush administration has been promising?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, I think it’s moving very slowly. There was an announcement made by the president about debt relief to Liberia. Liberia, of course, with its first woman president, who’s made quite a splash here in Washington, has and enjoys, I think, a relatively favored status. But we want an investigation into this bond speculation, as it applies to anyone in our universe that’s helping exploit these very poor nations, in terms of the inability to repay international aid loans.

AMY GOODMAN: Danny Glover.

DANNY GLOVER: John, how are you doing this morning?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Danny, I’m so glad to hear you.

DANNY GLOVER: It’s good to hear you.

REP. JOHN CONYERS: You’ve been planning these — you’ve been planning these movies for 20 years.

DANNY GLOVER: Oh, yeah, many of them for 20 years. And thank you for your steadfast support in the works that, you know, all of us who have tried to do work as artists. We really thank you for that. One of the things, certainly, we were concerned about, and you know because you have some history with the idea of trade around the AGOA Act, African Growth and Opportunity Act, which Clinton signed into law in 1998. You were one of the ones — one of the members of the Black Caucus in Congress who really tried to question the motives of the act, also its benefits, etc., etc. One of the questions we were concerned about is, has the Congress taken up trade, the idea — the question around trade, fair trade and free trade? They call it “free trade.” We mean fair trade.


DANNY GLOVER: Has the Congress taken up that? I know they did that to some extent over the AGOA Act, but you look at how Latin America has defeated the Free Trade of the Americas, and as resounding as a defeat as that, called into question that. How has Congress looked at free trade? How have they looked at the debt itself? We have an opportunity now with a Democratic Congress to really call committees forward to look at this idea around the debt and free trade.

REP. JOHN CONYERS: There’s no question that we’ve got to turn free trade into fair trade. And I come from Detroit, and, as you know, our manufacturing base of automobiles is suffering greatly. It’s far easier to bring in a foreign car to this country than it is for us to bring an American product to anywhere else in the world. So that’s what we have to get to. The 110th Congress is two months old. We are working to repair so many things that have gone wrong, it’s not even funny. Our agendas in most of the committees — I know with Charlie Rangel — are overloaded and overtaxed, but we’ve got to, first of all, relieve these poor nations of debt. You, Harry Belafonte, Nelson Mandela, the Congressional Black Caucus, progressives throughout the country have been talking about getting rid of this debt and then promoting trade. And nothing, Danny, is more disturbing to me than last week’s announcement that the U.S. was building a huge military base in Africa. Question: What for?



REP. JOHN CONYERS: We’ve got to investigate all of it.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Congressmember Conyers, where is that military base being built, and what kind of oversight do you have of this as a congressman and as head, a chair of a committee?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, I’m not sure which country it was, but it was announced that the agreement had been reached. But I want to go there. This should be a number of our progressive members’ first CODEL, is to investigate why we’re increasing and maintaining a base anywhere on the African continent. And remember, we’re still trying to make sure that we’re not building permanent military bases in Iraq. That is a question that has come up repeatedly and has not been, to me, honestly revolved. Barbara Lee of California brought it up at our meeting with President Bush yesterday.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Congressman, speaking about that meeting, it’s the first one the caucus has had with President Bush in two years. The relationship has not always been a good one. What was your sense of the willingness of the president to address other major issues of concern to the Congressional Black Caucus?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, look, I have been a critic of President Bush’s, and for me to tell you that when 30 members get together and have a friendly meeting with President Bush in the White House, that I have some confidence that he is going to change in any of his policies, I would be either disingenuous or naive. I’m neither of those. So, this was a meeting that I felt I could not afford not to go to. And that’s why I attended, and I was happy to bring up this question of this incredible vulture funds bond speculation that’s ripping off the poorest of the poor nations in Africa and Latin America.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Conyers, after the Democrats gained control of both houses in the November elections, you wrote the following in a letter to supporters: quote, “As many of you also know, I have agreed with Speaker-to-be Pelosi that impeachment is off the table. Instead, we agree that oversight, accountability and checks and balances, which have been sorely lacking for the past six years, must occur. I have nothing but respect for those who might disagree, but that’s where I come out.” That’s what you wrote, but on January 27, you addressed that mass demonstration against war on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and had this to say regarding President Bush.

REP. JOHN CONYERS: George Bush has the habit of firing military leaders who tells him the Iraq War is failing. But let me tell you something. He can’t fire you. He can’t fire us. But we can fire him! We can fire him!

AMY GOODMAN: That was Congressmember Conyers in Washington, D.C. Are you calling for President Bush’s impeachment, Congressmember Conyers?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: The reason I am not, notwithstanding my fiery rhetoric at the rally, which I thought was quite appropriate, by the way, and I don’t retract, we’re firing — on November 7, we fired all the Republicans we could find that are supporting President Bush. Next year in November, we’re going to get hired to do the job of leading this country with a Democratic president and with a stronger House and Senate majority. You know, a one-Senate majority lead is not much of a majority. Fifteen-vote change in the House would erase the advantage that we have. And quite frankly, any impeachment proceeding that would go forward without taking out the vice president and the president, to me, would be a waste of time. We don’t have the luxury to impeach this president and this vice president. We have the responsibility to stop the war in Iraq, and I think it’s proceeding along sound lines, and then we will be able to deal with Katrina, the domestic underfunding of everything from healthcare to housing to job creation, to re-entry of former felons. All the things that need to be done have to be taken care of. A $2 trillion debt is what we are paying to stay in Iraq. We’ve got to stop that financial hemorrhaging as a first responsibility in the Congress.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Congressman, speaking about that hemorrhaging and the war, obviously, there is expected to be a vote today in the House on a nonbinding resolution, but everyone knows that that’s not going to have a major impact on the current policy. What do you say about the issue of those who urge cutting off funding for the war are not supporting the troops, and why are the Democrats settling at this point for a nonbinding resolution?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, I’m sure that the president laughs at nonbinding resolutions, as do most people, including myself. I want to stop the war. I don’t want to just stop the surge or the escalation. We’ve got to end the war. And this is the way that we start. I think it’s very sound. Now, we’ve got the Nadler plan, we’ve got the Kucinich plan, we’ve got the Barbara Lee-Maxine Waters plan, we’ve got the Murtha plan. Ted Kennedy has a theory of stopping it. We have plenty of opportunity to deal with the subject of ending the war in Iraq, but, of course, we’ve got to win, and I predict that we will, with Republican support, too. We’ve got to make this first statement against the president ’s war strategy as it exists at this present time.

AMY GOODMAN: One more question on the issue of impeachment: Wasn’t it you, Congressmember Conyers, who in the early ’80s co-sponsored a resolution to impeach President Reagan over the invasion of Grenada?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: I introduced the first resolution to impeach Richard Milhous Nixon. I don’t think I was in on that resolution, unless you’ve got an impeachment resolution on Reagan before you right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I thought you had, but I’ll double check that.

REP. JOHN CONYERS: No. But impeachments come to the Judiciary Committee. And, believe me, to tie up this government just as we’re trying to stop the war and the clock is running on both the president and vice president, I think would be a mistaken strategy. We’ve got to win the next election, which is next year.

AMY GOODMAN: We are going to go to break, but we’ll come back to you, Congressmember Conyers, as well as our guests in our firehouse studio, Joslyn Barnes and Danny Glover. We’re going to go to break with another segment excerpt of Bamako.


AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of Bamako, here on Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez. We’re going to stay with this film for a minute, as it concentrates on debt. I want to go to a scene that features a public debate between an attorney defending the international financial system and a local resident of Bamako, Mali.

DEFENSE ATTORNEY: [translated] In an inevitably open world, we must civilize globalization and give it a meaning. What do you think of those words? Can progress be made or not during the globalization process? For example, if the standards enforced by the International Labor Organization were made general, would that be good or bad? Or would that merely oppress the Africans even more?

BAMAKO RESIDENT: [translated] I strongly oppose your starting point: “the open world.” We don’t live in an open world, Mr. Rappaport. The words you just read provide an eloquent answer to the questions that you ask. If globalization needs to be improved and civilized, that means it decivilizes and dehumanizes. Today, we see Africans who opt for emigration who are economic refugees, arrested, handcuffed, deported, humiliated and sent back home. How can you claim, given that terrible situation that shocks the whole world, that we live in an open world? It’s clearly open for whites, but not for blacks.

AMY GOODMAN: Now let’s go to another clip from Bamako.

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] Today, we pay out much more than the true total of our budgets. This framework of action set up by the World Bank, what effect will it have? It will smother a fire that will continue to smolder. It’s simply the fire of imposed destitution. It’s the fire of a terrible form of colonialism. It’s the fire of an unspeakable form of exploitation. It means some countries will disappear. We are barely kept in this international system and take part in it just because we are good little markets and a source of money.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the new film Bamako. Danny Glover and Joslyn Barnes are the executive producers of that film. We’re still also joined by Congressmember Conyers in Washington, D.C. So, Danny, now you have a Democratic congress, both the House and the Senate.


AMY GOODMAN: You have been focusing on this issue of the debt. You were at the World Social Forum, couldn’t even make it back to the peace protest in Washington, because you were in Nairobi. What are your demands?

DANNY GLOVER: Well, certainly, the Congress has an opportunity look at the structure of debt and to really propose some legislation to really deal with the debt itself. They have an opportunity to talk about the debt, I think, unlike any particular time in its own history, whether it be Republican or Democrat, because now the face of debt has been — the debt itself has been uncovered, and we realize the impact that it’s had on the developing world. We realize that the neoliberal forms of development have devastated not only Africa, but Latin America, and even our own communities. We talk about Katrina and enraged at the aftermath of Katrina to see just how those ideas of development play out here on our own soil. So Congress has the time to either talk to people or to talk to the audience or talk to the citizens about what is really happening. And we expect that out of this Democratic Party, this Democratic Congress. Certainly in the conversations with Dennis Kucinich and also with my friend John Conyers, as well, we talked about the possibilities of bringing forth discussions, relevant discussions, that aren’t normally placed — often talked about in the halls of Congress.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Congressman Conyers, I would like to ask you, because before you joined us, we were talking with Danny Glover about the lack of understanding of the American people of the enormous impact of this debt crisis in the Third World and in the South. But there’s another side that the American people more clearly understand, which is the mass migrations from the Third World, that many of which are a result of these crises. How do you in Congress — are able to pass legislation and get this issue more clearly in the forefront of your fellow members of Congress?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: I think we have an enormous responsibility to do this and begin holding hearings and examinations to determine the horrible harm that the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and many of these institutions that have been considered friends of the poor countries in Africa — we know there’s a different story, and it’s got to come forward, and we’ve got to make these changes. And it seems to me that this is the moment to start with debt forgiveness, to re-examine our immigration policies about all the migration, to which you refer, but to really take these African nations out of this minor category of nations. You know, when we talk about a family of nations, 221 countries, we’re talking about nations sometimes so small that a international corporation can come in the country — Coca-Cola can have more actual political power than the country in which they might be in. And it seems to me all of this is under the microscope right now.

DANNY GLOVER: Well, you know, one of the things that was really critical, was really wonderful about the opening in the U.K. is that it was sponsored by Christian Aid. And Christian Aid U.K. has put forth a petition, which is being disseminated around the country, to request — demand that the Parliament, the British Parliament, withhold its contribution to the IMF and the World Bank. Of course, that’s a large contribution at $1.3 billion. They made a token withholding of $100 million, but it’s certainly token. But I think that kind of mass action in countries, in developed countries, can have a large impact here, the U.K., in the rest of the West, have a large impact on how people see the debt and understand the debt. And not only that, it certainly emboldens or supports those people who are crying out for some sort of voice.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to switch gears a bit, Congressmember Conyers, as we have you on for just a few more minutes, and ask you not only about the nonbinding resolution in Iraq and why it’s nonbinding, but about Guantanamo. And both are related to funding. There are many who’ve said, if you cut off the purse strings, if you cut off the appropriations for the war in Iraq, if you cut off the appropriations for the prison camps at Guantanamo, that they’ll have to close. Will you sponsor a resolution to close Guantanamo?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Absolutely. We have an obligation, based on what we’ve learned, to close that place down and also check out our role in other prison camps in Iraq, as well. There’s no question in my mind that we have to use the power of the purse. That’s why it’s in the Constitution. The founders wisely decided that this should not be an executive priority. It’s a congressional priority to declare war, to maintain peace and to determine how we will apportion our resources among our military. And this case before us right now, Amy Goodman, is precisely why that is an important part of the Constitution, and I intend to use it.

The notion that you cannot redeploy the troops out of Iraq without creating havoc and causing loss of life is so juvenile that it hardly bears comment. We can safely and orderly withdraw as many troops as we want, and we can safely and orderly put in as many as we want. This isn’t a helter-skelter rush for the ships and airplanes to get out of Iraq. It’s an orderly safe withdrawal with the concern of the welfare of the troops that are there as the first priority that we would observe in that removal.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Congressman, your fellow elder statesman in Congress, Charlie Rangel, has argued that if there was a draft, that more Americans would be conscious and be forced to take positions on the war. He has called for a reinstatement of the draft. What’s your view of this? Do you think this is helpful at all or that Congressman Rangel is on the right track on this?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, I was with him originally, but what I’m afraid of and the reason I went on his proposal first was that it would force everybody to participate in the military, at least for training, which does not exist now. It’s pretty clear who’s in the service now. We just lost a 19-year-old African American who graduated from Southfield High School last week, and the reason he joined was that he wanted to become a chemical engineer, and he thought he could get an education there. That’s what’s drawing people in. But right now, the president knows that nothing would win us most elective offices at the federal level were he to institute a draft. That’s what happened with Vietnam. And that’s why it exploded. And so, they’re not going there, and I don’t think now that we should either.

AMY GOODMAN: Will you support a cutoff of appropriations to the war in Iraq?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Absolutely. That may be the only way that we’re going to end the war. We’ve got to do it using any one of the six plans that I’ve identified from my progressive colleagues as a means to do it. And we have to build up understanding and confidence among the members, so that we can actually win. This is not about a exciting debate. It’s about the future of this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Conyers, we’re going to have to leave it there. Danny Glover, last question. It’s on another film you’ve been making on Haiti. And we only have 15 seconds. Have you managed to get funding for this major film that you’ve been both spending years on?

DANNY GLOVER: We’re still in the process of attracting funding to the project.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s the problem?

DANNY GLOVER: The problem is over getting sales estimates, you know, and getting the sales estimate, you know? That’s the main problem with this.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about it being Haiti?

DANNY GLOVER: It cannot be Haiti, unfortunately, because Haiti doesn’t have the infrastructure to make —

AMY GOODMAN: No, but what about it being a film on Haiti? Is that part of the problem of getting funding?

DANNY GLOVER: A film on the slave revolt is a part of the problem. The slave revolt had changed the whole direction of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, Danny Glover and Joslyn Barnes, and Congressmember John Conyers in Washington, D.C.

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