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Cablegate: The Ortega Administration at 15 Months: Slipping

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P 081738Z MAY 08
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E.O. 12958: DECL: 05/05/2018
TAGS: PGOV EAID ECON PTER PREL NU
SUBJECT: THE ORTEGA ADMINISTRATION AT 15 MONTHS: SLIPPING
DOWNHILL

REF: A. MANAGUA 520
B. MANAGUA 500
C. MANAGUA 443
D. MANAGUA 340
E. MANAGUA 325
F. MANAGUA 289
G. MANAGUA 263
H. MANAGUA 130
I. 2007 MANAGUA 2135
J. 2007 MANAGUA 1730
K. 2007 MANAGUA 964
L. 2006 MANAGUA 2611

Classified By: Ambassador Paul A. Trivelli for reasons 1.4 b & d.

1. (S/NF) Summary and Background: Fifteen months into his
second administration, Ortega continues to skillfully use his
political pact with former President and convicted felon,
Arnoldo Aleman to keep pro-democracy forces divided,
vulnerable to coercion, and unable to mount sustained
opposition. Ortega continues to allow U.S. and other donor
assistance programs to operate, though he regularly attacks
the evils of "savage capitalist imperialism." Our
cooperation with the Police and Military remains good, both
for training and in fighting narcotics and other forms of
trafficking--but Ortega continues his quest to bring both
institutions under his direct control. Ortega's has
strengthened ties with Iran and Venezuela, and become openly
sympathetic to the FARC. Our access to the government has
decreased dramatically, with even routine items requiring
Ambassadorial intervention. Civil Society and the media are
under attack. Elections on the Atlantic Coast remain
suspended. Underlying the political and policy turmoil,
Nicaragua's economic indicators are not encouraging. This
message provides an assessment of some of the trends we
observe from Ortega and his government after fifteen months.
End Summary.

Ortega's Faltering Economy
- - - - - - - - - - - -

2. (SBU) In 2007, the Ortega Administration coasted on the
achievements of the Bolanos government, but that ride is
about to end. The government essentially adopted Bolanos'
2007 and 2008 budgets, and used them as the basis for
negotiating a new Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility
Agreement with the IMF. Foreign investment remained stable
in 2007 thanks to commitments made during the Bolanos years.
Exports are up this year by 21% over 2007 levels. In most
other respects, however, the Ortega government is not faring
well. Growth expectations have fallen while inflation
expectations have risen. In 2007, inflation reached 17% and
annualized inflation is running at 22% for 2008, the second
highest rate in Latin America. The lack of a strong policy
response to rising oil and food prices worries independent
economists, some of whom suspect that hidden foreign
assistance from Hugo Chavez has created excess liquidity.
Minimum wages rose 30% in the last year, but still do not
cover the soaring cost of food and transportation. To quell
demand and keep prices down, the government removed import
tariffs on basic food items through December 2008, made
documenting export shipments more difficult, and instructed
the state-owned grain storage company to intervene in local
markets. So far in 2008, the Agricultural Ministry has
failed to deliver needed seeds to farmers in time for
planting, although it has become aware of the urgency need to
do so. More radical measures related to food supply may be
coming, as President Ortega has just concluded a regional

MANAGUA 00000573 002 OF 008


"food sovereignty" summit in Managua on May 7. In other
areas, line ministries continue to fall short of spending
targets, leaving needed infrastructure and other capital
projects on the drawing board and causing the construction
sector to suffer. Tourism and power sectors, both key to
national economic development plans, limp along as the result
of government mismanagement. While the economic slowdown in
the United States, Nicaragua's largest export market and
source of investment, has attracted political rhetoric, the
government has no clear policy response. The Central Bank
has lowered its expectations for economic growth in 2008 to
3.8% from 4.5% in January, but most economists believe that
the figure will be closer to 3.0%.

Manipulating Economics for Political Ends: CENIs
- - - - - - -

3. (C) In December 2006, we identified several key
indicators (REF L) that would guide our assessment of how
well Ortega was fulfilling his campaign promises to the
Nicaraguan people, including adherence to fiscally
responsible, sound macroeconomic, free market policies.
Fifteen months later the results are disturbing. On April
15, the government failed to pay on a set of government bonds
(CENIs) that it has issued to compensate healthy banks for
absorbing the assets and liabilities of insolvent banks at
the beginning of the decade (REF C) . The bond issue was
originally politicized in 2006 by Arnoldo Aleman, but
resurrected by President Ortega to investigate the leading
opposition figure, Eduardo Montealegre, who is running for
Managua Mayor against the FSLN candidate, former three-time
world champion boxer, Alexis Arguello. Nonpayment on the
bonds may damage Nicaragua's relationship with the IMF and
other international financial institutions, and already
caused credit rating agencies to put two Nicaraguan banks on
a ratings watch. As a consequence, since April 15, the
government has been unable sell public debt instruments--no
one is buying. Nevertheless, key government officials are
seemingly convinced that they can navigate this slippery
slope to their political advantage, much as they did when
they deployed Sandinista judges and government institutions
to force ExxonMobil to buy Venezuelan oil.

(C) U.S. Citizen Property Claims ) A meltdown in the works?
- - - - - - - - - - -

4. (C) Another of the vital markers we identified in 2006
was government progress on resolving outstanding U.S. citizen
property claims (REF L). Here again the trend is worrisome.
As of May 1, 2008, the Ortega Administration had resolved
just 12 Embassy-registered claims for the 2007-2008 waiver
year; significantly fewer than the 86 resolved during the
last full year of the Bolanos Administration. We have
continued to press for the resolution of the remaining 657
U.S. citizen claims, which include some of the most difficult
and complex. Our efforts have been frustrated by the decided
lack of cooperation on the part of the government. The
Property Superintendent limits her agency's contact with
Embassy staff to just one meeting per month and no longer
allows Embassy staff to accompany U.S. claimants to
individual meetings with the government. The Attorney
General requires that all communications on property be
directed to him via Ambassadorial letter. In the meantime,
the Attorney General has administratively dismissed 54 U.S.
citizen claims; then categorized them as having been
"resolved." He recently passed to us a list of an additional
88 claims that he dismissed because the claimants were
somehow connected to the Somoza regime. If the situation

MANAGUA 00000573 003 OF 008


fails to improve, we may need to consider implementation of
Section 527 sanctions. While implementing Section 527
sanctions would conflict with the January 2007 Deputies
Committee-approved strategy of "positive engagement" with the
Ortega Administration, we fear that taking no action would
undercut the credibility of Section 527 as a tool to pressure
action on outstanding claims. For this reason, we suggest as
third way, such as a letter from the Secretary putting the
government on notice.

(C) Security Forces: Still Independent, for the time being
- - - - - - - - - - - -

5. (C/NF) The security forces continue to be a bright spot.
The Nicaraguan Army and the Nicaraguan National Police (NNP)
remain two of the few independent, apolitical forces in
Nicaragua despite the Ortega Administration's clear goal of
reverting both the NNP and the Nicaraguan Army back into
completely subsidiary organs of the Sandinista Front, as they
once were during the days of the Sandinista Revolution (REF
G). The continued institutional independence and
professionalism of the NNP and the Nicaraguan Army has been
one of the few positive indicators remaining under Ortega's
increasingly authoritarian regime and has been the foundation
of our strongest remaining areas of cooperation with the
current administration. However, Ortega's continued attacks
against the NNP, in general, and against popular NNP Chief
Aminta Granera, in particular, have taken their toll. Most
notably, since Ortega's dismissal of several high-level NNP
officials in March 2008 (REF F), Granera has shied away from
the public spotlight and avoided even the appearance of
acting against Ortega's interests. The NNP's failure to
intervene in the violent protests that recently erupted in
the RAAN have cost both the organization, and Granera
herself, credibility in the eyes of the Nicaraguan public and
is a clear indication of Ortega's success in his drive to
reassert personal control over the organization (REF A). A
recent spike in crime rates has further damaged the NNP's
image, especially a worrisome increase in brazen,
foreigner-targeted crimes. Granera's long term prospects as
police chief are uncertain at best. If the FSLN does well in
November's municipal elections, most observers of the NNP
believe that Granera will retire and make way for her current
second in command, Carlos Palacios. Palacios is an Ortega
loyalist who has alleged, albeit unproven, ties to organized
crime and corruption in Nicaragua. Despite this, we believe
that he will still be a cooperative, if difficult, partner to
work with on future law enforcement assistance efforts.

6. (S/NF) One of Ortega's first efforts in 2007 was an
attempt to bring the military under his direct control.
After the National Assembly forced him to abandon two
separate candidates for Defense Minister, he chose to leave
the top two seats at Defense vacant and bestow the "rank of
minister" on a weak, but personally loyal Secretary General
with no relevant experience. The Ministry has since been
purged of all professional-level technocrats, with all key
positions now staffed by FSLN ideologues. The
marginalization of the Defense Ministry has allowed the
uniformed military to largely retain its professional and
apolitical stance, but has left no civilian buffer between
Ortega and Chief of Defense General Omar Halleslevens. Thus
far, the popularity and sheer personality of Halleslevens, as
well as the personal relationship between the General and the
President, have prevented Ortega from asserting direct
control. However, beginning last July, Ortega has used his
speeches at all military events and venues as a platform to
attack the U.S. and our "interventionist policies." On

MANAGUA 00000573 004 OF 008


multiple occasions Ortega has singled out U.S. military
personnel in attendance to receive his verbal lashings.
Halleslevens has been careful to avoid public disputes with
Ortega, but has also repeatedly and firmly asserted the
military's apolitical stance and its obligation to defend the
Constitution, not a particular political party. We have not
observed the political interference in military promotions
and assignments that we have witnessed with the National
Police. In fact, most military observers believe that
Halleslevens will complete his full term through 2010, though
they predict Ortega will move to install a more malleable
figure to replace him. This appears to be borne out by
recent sensitive reporting.

(S) Ortega Foreign Policy: Petulant Teen or Axis of Evil
Wannabe?
- - - - - - - - - - - -

7. (S/NF) As expected, Ortega's foreign policy shifted
substantially to the left after January 2007 (REF L).
Despite Ortega's early and reassuring move to name moderate
Sandinista Samuel Santos as foreign minister, over the last
fifteen months Ortega's infatuation with Venezuela and Iran,
and the promotion of the ardent U.S.-hater Miguel d'Escoto
for UNGA president (REF B), would indicate that Ortega's
guiding principle in foreign relations seems to be, "Will
this annoy the U.S.?" Over time, Santos and the ministry
have played an increasingly ceremonial role. Routine tasks
normally be handled at the working-level require
Ambassadorial advocacy and, despite Santos's assurances to
the contrary, almost never seem to gain traction. Recently,
we were advised that Ortega sought a meeting with Embassy TDY
visitors. We found the Ministry had no knowledge of the
meeting nor the means to obtain any details. We were only
able to confirm the details after sending an email directly
to First Lady Rosario Murillo. We agree with our diplomatic
circuit colleagues that the Ministry has virtually ceased to
function.

8. (S/NF) Chavez "Mini-Me": With respect to Venezuela,
Ortega is a willing follower of Chavez who has replaced
Castro as Ortega's mentor. Initially the relationship seemed
largely a mutual admiration society with Chavez slow to send
assistance; however, the ALBA alliance has finally begun to
produce monetary benefit for Ortega and the FSLN. We have
first-hand reports that GON officials receive suitcases full
of cash from Venezuelan officials during official trips to
Caracas. We also believe that Ortega's retreat last year
from his demand that the Citizens Power Councils (CPCs) be
publicly funded was due in part to the fact that the
Venezuelan cash pipeline had come on-line. Multiple contacts
have told us that Ortega uses Venezuelan oil cash to fund the
CPCs and FSLN municipal election campaigns. Several
unconfirmed reports indicate that Ortega will have as much as
500 million dollars at his disposal over the course of 2008.

9. (S/NF) Unrequited Love for Iran: Regarding Iran, Ortega
had earnestly hoped to improve relations with Iran, which he
views as Nicaragua's revolutionary soul mate, both having
toppled authoritarian regimes in the same year, 1979. But
Ortega's early flurry of activity that re-established formal
relations and saw reciprocal state visits appears to be a
case of unrequited love. Iran has sent multiple "private
investment delegations" (REF E), but to date, Tehran has
signed no investment deals nor responded to Ortega's request
to forgive Nicaraguan sovereign debt held by Iran. In fact,
Taiwan has been more forthcoming with direct assistance than
Iran.

MANAGUA 00000573 005 OF 008


10. (S/NF) "What the FARC?" Perhaps the most disturbing
recent development in Ortega's foreign policy relates to his
increasingly public support for the FARC. Ortega and the
FSLN have a long-standing, clandestine relationship with
Manuel Mirulanda and the FARC, but which publicly had seemed
dormant until five months ago when Ortega initiated
saber-rattling against Colombia over the San Andres
archipelago during an ALBA meeting in Caracas. Tensions
reached a peak in March when Ortega, at the behest of Chavez,
broke diplomatic relations with Colombia, following its
strike into Ecuador against FARC leader Raul Reyes, only to
restore them a day later after a tempestuous Rio Group
meeting. Since that point, Ortega has come perilously close
to declaring open support for the FARC. In late April,
Ortega appeared at the airport to greet Lucia Morett, a
Mexican student and alleged FARC supporter who survived the
March attack. Media reports persist that Ortega offered
asylum and citizenship to Morett. The Foreign Ministry's
reply to our direct questions on the topic was "nothing was
requested, nothing was offered," insisting that media usage
of the terms "asylum" and "refugee" are incorrect. Sensitive
reporting indicates that recently the Government of Ecuador
rebuffed Ortega's request, through intermediaries, that Quito
send two additional Colombian survivors to Managua.

(C) The Opposition and Municipal Elections: Quixotic Errand?
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

11. (C) The most important event on Nicaragua's political
horizon is the November municipal election. Given Ortega's
unpopularity, the current economic decline, and several
political factors, one would expect Ortega opponents to hold
excellent odds at the ballot box. Even so, opposition
parties have fumbled about without setting a clear direction.
Confusion reigns in the Liberal camp. The Supreme Electoral
Council (CSE) decision in February to remove Eduardo
Montealegre as leader of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance
(ALN) party -- forcing him to re-activate his Vamos Con
Eduardo (VCE) political movement -- followed quickly by
Eduardo's decision to run for mayor under a PLC-VCE alliance
banner, left many in the Liberal rank-and-file feeling angry,
betrayed and confused. Polling shows that many Liberals
still believe a vote for the ALN is a vote for Eduardo. The
shortened electoral calendar forced parties to set up party
machinery and identify candidates more rapidly than in past
years. As a result, candidate selection was rushed, with
many choices made based more on personal connections than on
electoral viability. The presence of "the Pacto," the
de-facto power-sharing alliance between Ortega and former
President Aleman, was felt as well, perhaps most strongly in
Matagalpa. In February nine opposition parties, including
the ALN, MRS and a PLC that had rejected Aleman, banded
together to select consensus candidates. A unity slate was
announced, but only days later cast aside when Aleman
insisted on picking the mayoral candidate for Matagalpa under
the new PLC-VCE alliance. The nine-party unity evaporated
with each party now putting forward its own individual slate.

12. (C) The Liberal unity of the PLC-VCE alliance is
tenuous. We see parallel, rather than complementary
structures for policy formulation, strategy, voter outreach,
fundraising, etc. Guidance and funding from National-level
leadership is almost non-existent, with many candidates
unclear how to proceed. We often come away bemused from
meetings with rural mayoral candidates who appear oblivious
of the need to develop platforms and campaigns. Many such
candidates, several of whom could be described as

MANAGUA 00000573 006 OF 008


"charisma-challenged," seem to believe that simply being
non-FSLN will be enough to get them elected. The perennial
problem of funding persists. Several times a week we are
approached by local candidates for campaign financing, voter
registration support and the like. Even with the
environmental advantages enjoyed by opposition candidates and
parties, training and clear direction by opposition parties
will be essential to seriously challenge Ortega's
well-organized, highly-disciplined, and apparently
Venezuelan-financed FSLN/CPC election machine.

What About the Atlantic Coast?
- - - - - - - - - - - -

13. (C) On April 4 the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) voted
to delay elections in three communities on the Atlantic Coast
for six months. The CSE, whose magistrates owe their loyalty
to President Daniel Ortega and Aleman, ignored widespread
support from hurricane-affected communities in the RAAN to
proceed with elections as scheduled. In the weeks leading up
to ) and since ) the CSE decision, tensions between pro-
and anti-election supporters have run high, causing violence
and bloodshed on at least one occasion. Liberal leaders in
surrounding municipalities are convinced the government will
use the delay to manipulate voter registries by moving
pro-FSLN voters from the affected coastal municipalities to
Liberal-dominated interior municipalities thus tipping the
vote towards FSLN candidates.

14. (C) On April 24, the National Assembly -- on its second
try -- issued a non-binding resolution overturning the CSE's
decision. On April 25, the Assembly's Justice Commission
voted out two decrees, one formalizing the Assembly's
decision of the day before, and the second calling for an
authentic interpretation of electoral law to prevent the CSE
from exercising such authority in the future. Both decrees
will face serious challenges as the FSLN will use its control
of the Supreme Court and CSE to nullify these measures. As
the legal struggle plays out in the legislative, judicial,
and electoral branches of government, pro- and anti-vote
supporters in the RAAN are preparing for a possible struggle
of their own, including the use of violence, even armed
tactics.

Un-unified Civil Society Concerned By Diminishing Democratic
Space
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

15. (C) Across the political spectrum Nicaraguan civil
society actors are concerned about the anti-democratic
tendencies of the Ortega Administration and see an
increasingly hostile environment for organizations seeking to
operate freely and independently. Since Ortega assumed
office in January 2007, many NGOs, particularly those openly
critical of the government, have experienced various forms of
harassment, interference, intimidation, financial pressure,
and threats both from the government and FSLN loyalists.
Although some actions appear to be innocuous on their
surface, e.g. unannounced audits by tax authorities and
related financial penalties, the overall cumulative effect
appears to be part of a slow, deliberate effort by the
government to discourage and undermine the independence,
credibility, and operations of these groups and their
advocacy of citizen rights and freedom. NGOs, including the
traditionally left-leaning Office of the Civil Coordinator,
often have been targeted based on an arbitrary application of
the law or trumped up charges. Others, such as the
center-right Permanent Commission for Human Rights (CPDH),

MANAGUA 00000573 007 OF 008


have received death threats against members of their staffs
and families. Most civil society groups regard the
establishment of the Citizen Power Councils (CPCs) under the
central control of the FSLN's executive branch as a direct
attempt to sideline and ultimately supplant the work of civil
society.

16. (C) These organizations, which represent diverse
elements of Nicaraguan society, share a common conviction
that civil society is the only viable sector that can keep
Nicaragua on a democratic path and stop Ortega's
authoritarian aspirations. Unfortunately, they lack clear
direction on how to reach their destination and have missed
many opportunities to really make their mark. Although they
mounted a successful protest against the CPCs in September,
they were unable to produce a ripple effect that inspired a
wider pro-democratic movement. Initially galvanized to come
together to oppose the government's encroachment on citizen
rights and freedoms, civil society has not yet demonstrated a
capacity or commitment to building any sort of unified
alliance or response to the challenges facing the country.
Some organizations, led by the Movimiento por Nicaragua
(MpN), have pledged to unite as a coalition, but to little
avail. Most NGOs suffer from a shortage of resources and
lack of a long-term vision to work proactively on concrete,
sustainable projects. Internal divisions, egos, leadership
rivalries, and competition for donor resources and
international cooperation also present impediments to
building a long-term civic alliance. Despite the weaknesses
of Nicaraguan civil society organizations, however, they
remain one of the strongest forces working in defense of the
country's democratic spaces. Support from the international
community will be crucial if they are to make an impact,
given the pressures they face. On our part, we have begun a
USD 1 million small grants program for our democratic civil
society friends.

Shut Them Up: Independent Media Being Squeezed Too
- - - - - - -

17. (SBU) In the first few months of 2008, there has been a
marked decline in press freedom in Nicaragua. Recent threats
to press include the politicized use of the judicial system
to convict a prominent local newspaper owner and editor of
libel, and the mounting of a dubious public radio and TV
campaign against the same media owner and an opposition
leader, Montealegre, for alleged public theft. Journalists
continue to report that only "official Sandinista" media
outlets, often those owned and operated by children of the
President and First Lady, have access to government
information. The Ministry of Health has selectively banned a
reporter from its premises for reporting that was not in its
favor. In a space of two weeks in April, four national radio
stations (3 independent and 1 Sandinista) reported serious
equipment theft at their transmission towers which knocked
them off the air for 8-12 hours each. To date, there are no
convictions for any of these crimes. A few months ago,
private, apparently partisan security forces surrounding the
president handcuffed a local reporter when he tried to
approach the Ambassador to tape public comments at an outdoor
event.

Comment
- - - -

18. (S/NF) Our bilateral interests and commitment to the
Nicaraguan people remain unchanged. Our goals are to keep
Nicaragua on the democratic path; to combat corruption,

MANAGUA 00000573 008 OF 008


terrorism and all forms of trafficking; to promote private
sector-led development and to protect the interests of U.S.
citizens residing in Nicaragua. Though our interests remain
unchanged, Ortega has made it increasingly difficult for us
to work towards these goals, by restricting our access and
pressuring our partners. He has scrupulously avoided either
an outright rejection of U.S. assistance or a direct policy
confrontation with Washington. However, he has worked
assiduously to undermine any domestic opposition, and thus
our ability to find partners capable of imposing pressure for
meaningful change. The Ortega-Aleman political pact remains
active, and the single greatest, though not the only,
obstacle to a more open, transparent Nicaragua. Ortega has
mis-managed the economy and has repeatedly permitted, if not
instigated, government intervention in the energy and finance
sectors for clearly political ends. Ortega continues to
close the space in which independent voices of civil society
and media can educate and defend the rights of Nicaraguans.
Though he has not publicly abandoned his post-election
commitments to keep the country on a democratic path and
maintain responsible free market policies, there are multiple
signs that Ortega seeks only one goal ) consolidation of
power to perpetuate his rule.
TRIVELLI

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