eyes on the U.S.

From I-4 To Nov. 6 - The Road To The White House Cuts Across Central Florida

A French reporter travels to the heart of the most pivotal swing state in the Obama v. Romney showdown where economic uncertainty is the only sure thing.

Interstate 4 near Atlamonte, FL
Interstate 4 near Atlamonte, FL
Philippe Bernard

LAKELAND - Kate and Marcus Freeman are worried. They have been evicted from the house they could no longer afford. Voters like them could decide whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will be running the United States for the next four years.

People like the Freemans, suddenly shifted into a lower class by the real estate crisis and still undecided about the campaign, are the target of both parties battling out in what promises to be a close election on Nov. 6.

The couple live in Lakeland, a town in the I-4 corridor that runs across Florida between Tampa and Orlando. The region has attracted political scientists, pollsters and candidates because it has almost always voted for the winning candidate. The Republicans chose Tampa for their late-August convention for this very reason. Mitt Romney plans an intensive campaign here, while Obama landed here this past weekend.

The candidate who wins the I-4 corridor, a microcosm of the U.S. that runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, will carry Florida, the most populous swing state, and probably the presidential election. The New York Times has calculated that if Mitt Romney loses Florida, he has a 0.3% chance of winning the election.

So the Sunshine state, which also decided the Gore-Bush duel in 2000, is the epicenter of the 2012 presidential campaign. And this evicted couple from Lakeland is “the heart of the heart of the target” in the battle for Florida.

Who do the Freemans think is to blame for their troubles? Mr. Romney, symbol of the predatory banking system that destroyed their dream of home ownership, or Mr. Obama, the sitting President during the financial crisis?

At the beginning of the 2000s, Marcus lost his job at a Massachusetts medical school after credit restrictions decided by then-governor Mitt Romney. “He claims to defend the middle class, so why has he made so many people lose their jobs?” says the former accountant. As for the Bank of America, which gave the couple a mortgage loan before putting them underwater with interest rate increases, it was saved with an influx of public money by President Obama. “He saved the banks, but he forgot to save the people,” says Kate, whose salary as a teacher now supports them.

For the Freemans, the question comes down to: whom do they dislike the least? They are having a hard time making up their minds. They say they will decide after watching the big televised debates in October -- at the last minute. They are “100% sure,” though, that they will vote. “If you don't vote, you don't have the right to criticize.”

What about the rest of Florida's 200,000 voters (out of a population of 8 million) who gave Obama his victory in the state four years ago? Will they vote? “Florida has a lot of voters who are angry because of unemployment, which is higher than the national average 8.8% versus 8.1%, and the record number of housing foreclosures," notes Kelly Benjamin, who works for a consumer protection organization. "Even though the promoters and banks concerned are linked more to the Republicans, many people hold Barack Obama responsible simply because he was in office.”

A different Florida Latino

Blacks, Latinos, and young people, whose votes decided the 2008 election, are the focus of both candidates this year, all the more because their numbers are growing. Cuban-American Alex Fox, a Democrat and president of an association that supports closer ties to Cuba, says: “The enthusiasm of 2008, the excitement of seeing the first minority President, all that has gone away. A lot of people voted for the first and last time that year.”

The Latino voters of the I-4 corridor, he points out, are very different from the stereotype of the “rich Miami Cuban who still dreams of assassinating Castro.” These Latinos are Mexican, Puerto Rican, or Salvadorian. They still believe in, and in some cases have lived out, the American dream, and they mostly vote for the Democrats, particularly as they find Mitt Romney hostile to immigration. But their precarious employment situation can make them unreliable voters."

Young blacks, too, are not sure to vote. “In 2008, ordinary people were putting up tables in front of every store around here to register voters. That kind of intense mobilization is not happening this year,” says Connie Burton, a well-known activist in the black neighborhoods of East Tampa.

The new law making registration and voting more difficult for the poor, especially blacks, who are more likely to vote Democratic, could heavily weigh on the results in Florida. Although a federal judge has just suspended the law's application in certain jurisdictions, it is likely to have devastating effects. The number of new voters registered as Democrats has plummeted by more than 20% compared to the same period in 2008.

In Central Park, a neighborhood in eastern Tampa, decrepit but still inhabited houses alternate with abandoned, sometimes vandalized shells of sealed-up houses with “For Sale” signs after owners have been evicted.

“The only businesses that are doing well around here are churches,” says Burton with some bitterness. “Obama listened to the demands from gays, Latinos, women, Jews, unions, and adapted his politics as a result. We African-Americans are 95% for Obama, but he hasn't defended us. Things haven't gotten better for us."

Even so, it is impossible to find a single critic of the President in this segregated neighborhood. Betty Stewart, 43, is raising her seven children alone. “If Romney wins, we'll lose all our chances, we'll go back to slavery...Obama knows how to listen.”

The battle for Florida has only just begun.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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