Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 28, 2012

Paul Baizerman— ¡Presente!

Filed under: nicaragua,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

Like Proust’s madeleine dipped in tea, Google has always helped to stir up remembrances of things past: high school, Bard College, the SWP, etc. I pop a name into the search field and a flood of hyperlinked associations wells up.

Paul Baizerman on an delegation to observe the Nicaraguan elections in 2001

Yesterday I googled “Paul Baizerman” to check on my erstwhile compañero from Tecnica, a technical aid volunteer project for Sandinista Nicaragua and the liberation movements in southern Africa that existed from the mid-1980s to the early 90s. During my stint as president of the board of directors, I had come into contact with many good people, including Paul.

I was sad to discover that he died last December, a month after suffering a heart attack. A paid announcement in the NY Times stated:

BAIZERMAN–Paul, 67, died December 6, in New York City. Teacher, activist, leader, organizer, community builder, friend, mentor in New York City, Cuba and Central America. Survived by wife Yudalmy Llanes Jenky, brother, and loving family and friends.

There was also this communication from Shelley Sherman that showed up on a Yahoo mailing list dedicated to slain American volunteer in Nicaragua Ben Linder who worked with Tecnica:

We just got news that Paul Baizerman died today in New York City, accompanied by his wife Yudi and his brother, Mike. He had been really sick and in the hospital about a month. He had lost a lot of weight and was quite weak. Apparently he had a heart attack, and wasn’t strong enough to rally. We had been hoping to see him at the end of December, but only found out this weekend that he had really taken a turn for the worse. Paul was a hard worker and a committed friend. We don’t have more news yet, and I am not sure who to notify, but thought I’d start with you. Please pass the word along.

Abrazos,

Shelley

Shelley ran the Tecnica office in Managua and, like Paul, was someone I hadn’t had contact with for over 20 years.

Despite all the time I spent in conversations with him about Nicaragua work, I never asked Paul once about his political background. My tendency is to impute CPUSA affiliations to any Jew from Brooklyn (racial profiling?) but looking back in retrospect, it is probably more accurate to see Paul as not much different than me—someone who got radicalized by the war in Vietnam.

Indeed, doing a bit of research on Google yesterday led me to this conclusion. A book titled Justice, justice: school politics and the eclipse of liberalism by Daniel Hiram Perlstein mentioned Paul:

Whereas the class-based, organizationally disciplined politics of the Communist Party lacked appeal, the civil rights and peace movements animated the young activists. In the late 1950s, Susan Metz participated in the Youth Marches for Integrated Schools organized by Bayard Rustin, and later she picketed northern Woolworth’s branches in support of southern sit-ins. In college Metz was campus chairwoman of the Student Peace Union. While in college, Bronx elementary school teacher Vivian Stromberg joined campaigns against strontium-90 and bomb tests. In the early 1960s, Stromberg went south as a freedom rider. Brooklyn teacher Paul Baizerman became involved in protests against racism and the Vietnam War while attending Brooklyn College between 1961 and 1967.

I should add that Vivian Stromberg became deeply involved with Central American issues in the 1980s, serving as the executive director of MADRE.

Paul went down to Nicaragua on a Tecnica delegation mainly to support his brother-in-law Mark who was an electrician but who did not speak a word of Spanish (Paul was fluent). The two of them came back to New York totally fired up with a commitment to recruit other skilled trades people and line up material aid for state-owned enterprises that were desperately in need of spare parts and tools. Somewhere along the line I suggested to Paul that he set up a Skilled Trades Task Force to organize the work and he embraced the idea. Long after Tecnica folded, an outcome almost guaranteed by the loss of Sandinista power in Nicaragua, the task force continued providing material aid to those enterprises that clung to the revolutionary ideals of the past.

Michael Urmann

From the very moment Paul got involved with Tecnica, he clashed with the founder and executive director Michael Urmann, an economist from the University of Utah who founded Tecnica. Michael was resented by Tecnica volunteers in Berkeley who preferred a more “horizontal” model for the project. He insisted that in order for the project to do any good, it had to have a professional apparatus run like a nonprofit. I agreed with his perspective and defended his approach to people like Paul. My guess is that there would have been a lot more static if I had not served as his defender in the organization.

I grew fairly close to Michael in this period, mostly because we had a similar past. As a member of the Progressive Labor Party, he had “colonized” an ILWU-organized warehouse in the Bay Area long before my own ill-fated attempt at joining the industrial working class in 1978 and with pretty much the same results. Backbreaking work and working class indifference to his “communist” message convinced him to resign from the PLP and concentrate on an economics degree.

Despite his academic pursuits, Michael’s real passion was entrepreneurialism. After arriving in Salt Lake City to begin teaching, he was disappointed to discover that there were no good movie theaters. This led him to start his own, a decision influenced by his father-in-law’s own entrepreneurial drive.

Hari Dillon in 2004

Perhaps in an effort to buffer his own top-down and even haughty manner from the displeasure of the Tecnica rank-and-file, Michael hired Hari Dillon to serve as project director for Tecnica. Like Michael, Hari was a former member of the PLP but unlike Michael had remained an activist over the years, earning respect particularly for his anti-apartheid work.

Hari co-authored a book with Jim Dann, another PLP ex-member, titled The Five Retreats: A History of the Failure of the Progressive Labor Party. Their analysis was shared by Michael Urmann. Moreover, they came to conclusions not that different from my own. This made collaboration between the three of us all the more possible, even when Hari and I were troubled by Michael’s stubborn refusal to work with others as a team.

In November 1968, PL’ers at San Francisco State led one of the most important student strikes of the time. One of its main demands was to create a Black Studies Department, something that university presidents were far more reluctant to satisfy back then than today. For his part in the protests, Hari spent a year in prison on riot charges. One of the other key leaders of the struggle, although not a PL’er, was fellow student Danny Glover who became close friends with Hari.

In 1991 Michael Urmann’s unilateral decision-making went too far. He began making financial decisions that went against Tecnica’s board of directors’ oversight and was fired. He was replaced by Hari Dillon who tried to keep the organization going until a shortfall of donations traceable to the collapse of the Sandinista project shut our doors.

Not long after Tecnica collapsed, Hari landed a job as executive director of the Vanguard Foundation, a Bay Area funding source for many different left causes. Every so often I googled “Hari Dillon” to see what he was up to, just as I do for Michael Urmann (he appears to be a retired professor.)

After discovering that Paul had died, I checked to see if I could find a current email address for Hari to tell him the news. He probably had much less interest than I did in a figure from his past, but I felt obligated to spread the word.

What I discovered truly shocked me:

Glover fraudster faces prison

By WENN.com | Friday, November 11, 2011

Samuel Cohen, 53, approached Lethal Weapon star Glover when the actor was a director of the Vanguard Public Foundation in 2002, offering to allow the organisation to profit from a Microsoft buyout of his software company.

Glover introduced Cohen to Vanguard president Hari Dillon, and they eventually invested a total of $30 million in Cohen’s company – but the Microsoft deal didn’t exist and Cohen was no longer even working for the business he claimed was about to be sold.

A court in San Francisco, California heard Cohen spent the profits of the scam on flashy cars, priceless gems, private jets, and a luxury home.

On Wednesday (09Nov11), he was found guilty of 29 counts of fraud, tax evasion and money laundering. He is due to be sentenced in February (12).

This scandal has sent shock waves through the liberal and leftist foundation world. You can find a three partanalysis by Richard Cohen (not the dreadful Washington Post columnist) on the Blue Avocado website (part one, part two, part three) that is devoted to nonprofit issues.  To put it mildly, Hari Dillon’s mishandling of finances made Michael Urmann’s look like stealing a dollar or two from a cookie jar by comparison.

Under a subheading titled Character Counts, Cohen observes:

Dillon and many of the Vanguard people are hard to find now or won’t speak on the record, but Mouli continues to issue self-congratulatory pronouncements on his website. It’s hard to imagine that the philanthropic values of Mouli Cohen (or his wife, the author of the Kosher Billionaire’s Secret Recipe) were any kind of comfortable match with those of the foundation.

For instance, representative of Mouli’s philanthropic activities were support for the European Center for Jewish Students, which works to increase the Jewish population of Europe against the threat of intermarriage and assimilation; a Jewish orphanage in Odessa; facilities development at the Ukraine tomb of a Lubavitcher Hasidic rabbi; and a library and museum in Israel affiliated with the Lubavitcher Hasids. In addition, he claims to be a leader and donor to several organizations which mention him nowhere on their websites, including Camp Okizu, Seva Foundation, and Soroko Medical Center.

Doesn’t sound like the kind of guy who would identify with the goals of a foundation that donated money to the ANSWER coalition, does it?

Cohen adds that Dillon’s ambitions, ironically mirroring Michael Urmann’s back in the early 90s who gambled that work with the ANC would pay huge dividends, amounted to political hubris:

Hari Dillon and the donors were frustrated with what they saw as relatively little impact through making small grants to others. Instead, they dreamed of the impact and profile they could have with millions of dollars deployed directly on Vanguard’s own staff-led initiatives.

Poignantly, donors and Dillon even became convinced that they had “converted” Mouli into a progressive left-winger. They brought him to a program of “urban peace awards” for the opportunity to observe his reactions. Later they congratulated one another on Mouli’s solemn statement that he was “moved.”

Back in the early 90s, after Tecnica’s collapse, I made a mental note to myself never to get involved with the world of liberal foundations again. There is something rotten at the core of such enterprises since they are based on values that run contrary to my own socialist beliefs. When you have to rely on the generosity of millionaire liberals, who might decide that Nicaragua is not “sexy” enough for them, you are at their mercy.

Paul Baizerman, with his pronounced Brooklyn accent and love for the average Nicaraguan worker, was about as far from that world as can be imagined. The future of humanity rests on the gathering together of such people into a powerful movement that can eliminate the profit motive and usher in true democracy for the first time in our history.

Paul Baizerman— ¡Presente!

Tecnica at work in Nicaragua

9 Comments »

  1. Thanks for the Tecnica analysis. When I did my now three articles for the Blue Avocado about the Vanguard Public Foundation, I tried to find information about Hari Dillon’s Tecnica experience, but it was difficult, so I simply focused on what happened at Vanguard between Hari, the board, and the execrable Mouli (no relation to me) Cohen. It is a very sad story. Glad you filled some more of the story in. And you’re right, I’m not the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen.

    Rick Cohen

    Comment by Rick Cohen — March 28, 2012 @ 9:15 pm

  2. The PLP in my experience is lovingly Stalinist, they despise Trotsky. They also believe the death totals of the Purges are exaggerated. They are however good at beating up Neo Nazis.

    Comment by patriotic schoolteacher — March 28, 2012 @ 11:22 pm

  3. Lou, what a fascinating piece! I did not know all the Michael Urmann history, but was with Paul in coming to not trust Hari’s ambitions. We found out about this Vanguard scandal after Paul died, & have often thought how much I would have enjoyed talking to him about it! Good to hear from you.

    Comment by Shelley — March 29, 2012 @ 4:07 am

  4. One clarification about #2, while it is true that PLP is lovingly Stalinist in some pretty absurd ways it is also true that the purge totals frequently have been exaggerated. There was a stupid claim made by Solzhenitsyn in Letter to the Soviet Leaders where he asserted that as many as “66 million” deaths had been caused by the Soviet state. There are other less dramatic but equally absurd claims which are floated around by Cold War propaganda. Hundreds of thousands were executed or died in the Gulag because of the purges and this is not something which can be overlooked when examining the record of the Soviet state. But Cold War propaganda doesn’t help any either.

    Archibald Getty is an author who has written much on the purges that sets the record straight. Also, Mark Tauger has effectively debunked the old “manmade famine” myth which frequently promoted by West-Ukrainian nationalists and Cold Warriors like James Mace, Robert Conquest or more recently by the Right-wing hack R.J. Rummel. None of this is ever going to justify the lunatic idea that Trotsky was a Nazi agent as claimed in the Moscow Trials, but it is still true that Cold War propaganda has never been satisfied with simple valid criticisms of the Soviet state and has always depended upon major exaggerations.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — March 29, 2012 @ 2:27 pm

  5. As a resident of Nicaragua at the time I had no idea of any of this, nor did I hear about it working in the Bay Area. It makes me wonder what other kinds of unground rivers are flowing.

    The day to day Technica volunteers made a difference in who we could count on for technical knowledge. I first got to know Ben Linder’s projects at the electric company visiting the Las Cabañas hotel looking for skilled people willing to do good work. Before that Ben and I only knew each other for juggling. He and I would visit and see what people had for backgrounds. We were always looking for depth and diversity of background. We often found it along with the ever important farming familiarity.

    The Tecnica volunteers also made a difference in our social contact with US residents. I knew Paul and enjoyed many an in depth political conversation with him. Paul and Shelly were very responsible and did not forget things that were small to them, but mattered much to us working without much foreign trade in a general condition of poverty. It is hard to describe how important a tool, a book, or a message delivered was to a person earning $25 a month. Paul did not need to have that explained to him twice. He was one of the few bright lights among many a self important dimm bulb.

    Comment by Donald Macleay — March 29, 2012 @ 3:29 pm

  6. Thanks to Richard Cohen’s mentioning of his 3rd article on this scandal (I will update my post with a link), it turns out that Hari will go to jail.

    https://www.blueavocado.org/node/719

    Comment by louisproyect — March 29, 2012 @ 3:32 pm

  7. I met several TecNica people, no doubt Paul among them. The office I knew was down the road from the UCA, where I volunteered (while also doing my research on music elsewhere.) I was blissfully ignorant of the details of problems within TecNica, though I heard about troubles generally. What I did experience was an amazing dedication by people to get computers working with the equivalent of paper clips and bubble gum; helped put my complaints of bad batteries in perspective. These are the heroes that should be celebrated. A little book for the 7th and 8th grade market on U.S. volunteers in Nicaragua, able to talk of peaceful volunteers doing unarguable good things for impoverished people, is just what my son can not find as he does his project on the contra war and N. Americans in Nicaragua. So he’ll interview me — but we could use some Howard Zinn work on progressive heroes to pass down as examples for future internacionalistas.
    T.M. Scruggs
    tm-scruggs@uiowa.edu

    Comment by T.M. Scruggs (El Marimbero Gringo, nickname from Carlos Mejía Godoy) — March 29, 2012 @ 4:26 pm

  8. Try this book:

    http://www.nicaliving.com/node/8222

    Comment by Donald Macleay — March 30, 2012 @ 7:02 am

  9. [...] with Hari Dillon later that day since he had come down with food poisoning. You may remember my write-up  on Hari from a while back, when I recounted his legal and political problems as executive [...]

    Pingback by I left my heart in San Francisco « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — May 28, 2012 @ 8:18 pm


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