Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera waged a crusade to save the forests of Mexico, and were imprisoned for it. Three members of the New York City Council waged their own crusade -- to get the two environmentalists out of prison. Last year, the council members sponsored a resolution calling on the Mexican government to release Montiel and Cabrera from a jail thousands of miles from New York's City Hall.
The two activists were in fact freed.
Did the officials from Staten Island and Manhattan have anything to do with an event that occurred at the opposite end of the continent? If you ask the Sierra Club, the answer is yes, sort of -- they and "thousands of people around the world."
The members of the council were indulging in a prized New York City tradition. They were playing at foreign policy.
In the past 18 months alone, the City Council has passed some two dozen foreign-policy resolutions, calling on the Japanese to stop "scientific whaling," condemning anti-Semitism in the Egyptian press, and endorsing the "Abidjan Declaration" for Africa, though some members of the council may not have known exactly what that was. Next Tuesday, in what promises to be a rancorous departure from the usual unanimity in such proceedings, a council committee will debate four separate resolutions relating to the Middle East. One asks President George W. Bush to throw the Palestinian Authority out of New York, while another calls for an "evenhanded" policy in the region.
"The council spends an awful lot of time and energy debating things that we can do little about," says Councilmember Lewis Fidler, who nevertheless sponsored one of the Middle East resolutions. (See his article in Searchlight).
New York's elected officials long have felt compelled to weigh in on burning issues and pressing problems elsewhere on the globe. David Dinkins used his position as mayor to advance the fight against the apartheid government of South Africa. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani made Clinton administration officials blanch in 1995 when he kicked Palestinian Authority chairman Yasir Arafat out of a Lincoln Center concert marking the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.
It is true that New York is a sophisticated world city, the headquarters for the United Nations, and a longtime haven for political exiles, several of whom have gone on to become a father of their newly liberated nations - Jose Marti of Cuba, Eamon de Valera of Ireland, Giuseppe Garibaldi of Italy. But the fervor of New York City officials for all things international may be the ultimate example of talking globally, but thinking locally. In a city of immigrants, it is just smart politics for candidates and office holders to tell their constituents what they want to hear, even (especially) in matters over which they have no control.
This goes back a long way. In his very first campaign for public office, in 1914, Fiorello LaGuardia attacked his Irish-American opponent for being insufficiently anti-British; in subsequent campaigns, as one of his biographers puts it, LaGuardia "celebrated each of the parochial positions in turn" of his Irish, German, Italian and Jewish constituents.
Still, some would argue that this local political practice was given new validity after September 11. If people from foreign countries could kill New Yorkers because of U.S. foreign policy, why shouldn't city officials take their own stands on international affairs?
THE WORLD AS THEIR WHISTLESTOP
For some 50 years, New York politicians made visiting the "three I's" -- Ireland, Italy and Israel -- the ancestral or spiritual homes of many New Yorkers Ăś an inevitable part of their campaigning.
It is a tradition that continues. Both Democratic candidates for governor, State Comptroller Carl McCall and Andrew Cuomo, have visited Israel in the past six months, with McCall taking shooting practice, M-16 in hand, with the Israeli Defense Force.
When Cuomo was U.S. housing secretary, he met with Arafat. This year, McCall responded to that meeting by calling his opponent a "friend of Arafat," although his office has since distanced itself from the statement.
But the tradition of international involvement has expanded. Governor George Pataki visited Puerto Rico, as part of the growing protest against the Navy weapons tests on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. This gave him favorable publicity, but nowhere near that of the Reverend Al Sharpton, who, along with Adolfo Carrion Jr., Roberto Ramirez and Jose Rivera, three New York politicians of Puerto Rican descent, spent time in jail for trespassing on the island. Carrion, a council member when he was jailed last summer, easily won election as Bronx borough president several months later.
After American Airlines flight 587 crashed in November, Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg went to the Dominican Republic to meet and mourn with victims' families. Giuliani also courted New York's expanding Dominican population, visiting the nation in 1998 after a hurricane.
With 36 percent of the city's population foreign born, more than at any time since 1910, and with the most diverse population ever, it will probably not be too long before the campaign itinerary includes mandatory stops in China, India and Pakistan.
THE CITY'S RESOLVE
Unlike laws, the hundreds of resolutions that the City Council passes annually lack any power of enforcement. If the argument is that they help focus attention on a matter of conscience, it is unlikely that many of the resolutions garner much publicity. (Others passed since 2000 include a condemnation of human rights abuses in Sierra Leona, official praise for the crew of a U.S. plane shot down over China, and endorsement of World Breastfeeding Day.) Such resolutions, rather, could easily be seen as providing members of the council with little more than an opportunity to feel self-important, to vent, or to court voters. Indeed, the council leadership is said to have discussed doing away with resolutions about foreign affairs and other issues outside the council's jurisdiction. After all, even the target audience does not seem to notice them. Few Italian-American New Yorkers, for example, were seen dancing in the streets when the council officially declared "the primacy of Antonio Meucci in the invention of the telephone."
But the city government is not impotent to affect foreign affairs. It has economic clout.
It can, for example, refuse to invest its billions of dollars of pension funds in companies that conduct business with a certain country.
This tactic gained prominence during the international fight against the apartheid regime in South Africa. And New York participated. New York pension funds were divested of $500 million worth of stock in companies that did business in South Africa. The City Council also passed a bill that allowed the city to rate banks based on their opposition to apartheid.
While it would be difficult to gauge with precision the effect of New York's actions alone, there is no question that they were part of an international economic campaign that hastened apartheid's demise.
In 1997, then New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi sought to revive this tactic to force Swiss banks to help Holocaust survivors recover assets that had been looted in Nazi Germany. The threat of such action undoubtedly helped convince the banks to reach a compromise.
That same year, then Council Speaker Peter Vallone introduced a proposal calling for the city to sever ties with banks and other concerns that operated in 15 countries where, Vallone said, Christians were being persecuted. The list included China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The New York City Partnership and Chamber of Commerce helped form a coalition called Don't Sanction New York to fight the measure, thereby acknowledging that it could have had some effect. Vallone backed down.
But the New York City Council did bar New York from depositing money in banks, or signing contracts with firms, that do business in Burma, a nation frequently condemned for human rights violations. In its economic sanctions, it joined more than 25 cities and states, including Los Angeles and Minneapolis.
This year, the council's foreign policy energies have focused on the Middle East. This is hardly surprising in the city that still has the second largest Jewish population in the world. And concern with the regions dates back at least to 1840 when New Yorkers spoke out in a case called the Damascus Affair in which Syrian Jews were falsely accused of ritually murdering gentiles.
On July 9, the council Cultural Affairs committee will consider resolutions condemning suicide bombings, calling on the United Nations to do the same and demanding an end to anti-Semitic violence in Europe and other Western nations.
It will also consider whether to brand the Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation organization as terrorist groups and urge President George Bush to close the authority's New York City office. Earlier this year Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage had asked the council to kill that resolution and the measure's sponsors retreated for awhile.
At the same meeting, the committee will review a measure with a different perspective. Proposed by Councilmember Charles Barron, it calls "for an even-handed policy in the Middle East and a halt to the killings" and urges the council "to serve as facilitators of peace and not to appear to take sides in the conflictĆ’ [J]ust as the council supports Israel's right to existĆ’so too must the council support Palestinian self-determination."
"All life is precious; we cannot continue this uneven policy that gives no recognition to the Palestinian people," Barron said when he proposed the resolution in April.
Although no one publicly objected to the resolution then, it does not have the unanimous support that normally accompanies council resolutions on matters far from home. "I don't think you can look at the Middle East and term Mr. Barron's resolutions even-handed," Fidler said. "Israelis don't strap bombs on themselves and go into marketplaces and kill innocent people."
A recent NY1 poll found 44 percent of New Yorkers supported Israel. But 39 percent were undecided, and 17 percent expressed more sympathy with the Palestinian cause. The division may in part reflect increased diversity in the city and the growing Muslim population
However, the political establishment remains less divided than the overall population. Indeed, until recently, New York politicians took more extreme stands than many Israeli officials did.
Since the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, began in September 2000, council resolutions have condemned Palestinian suicide bombings and the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe, but spared Israel even the rather muted criticism made by the Bush and Clinton administrations.
Shortly after assuming office in January, Councilmember David Weprin proposed naming a street in his Queens district after Rehavam Ze'evi, an assassinated Israeli Cabinet minister who, in the words of the Jewish newspaper The Forward, "brought the concept of 'transfer' -- the mass expulsion of Palestinian Arabs -- out of the shadows where it belonged and into the mainstream of Israeli political discourse." After Ze'evi's political beliefs were aired, the resolution was not introduced.
Some debate the wisdom of the council's involvement. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, has objected to actions aimed at evicting the Palestinian Authority from New York. As the host city for the United Nations, Bloomberg said, "Even when it is painful and disgraceful and disgusting, any term you want to use -- we have to be willing to let anybody that the UN wants to credit, or visit them, come here."
Councilmember Fidler says that despite his ambivalence about the council engaging in such issues at all, he is compelled to speak, particularly on matters concerning the Middle East; "As an American and as a Jew, I know that silence in the face of bigotry helps bigotry to grow."
AFTER THE ATTACKS
The events of September 11 gave New York more credibility on foreign policy, if no official role. Rudolph Giuliani became one of the few mayors ever to address the United Nations' General Assembly. He thanked the members of the assembly for "your support for New York and America, and your understanding of what needs to be done to remove the threat of terrorism." This was quite a change from four years earlier when Giuliani attacked UN diplomats for not paying their parking tickets and said he wouldn't care if the international body left the city.
In one of the most striking demonstrations of international support for the city, the World Economic Forum, which had always convened previously in Davos, Switzerland, moved its 2002 meeting to the Waldorf Astoria.
But shortly after September 11, Giuliani rejected a $10 million check for humanitarian aid from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal because the Saudi issued a press release asking America to "reexamine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause." Giuliani won widespread praise for his action. Where else but in New York could a statement about what is happening abroad be more important than hard cash to help solve a problem at home?