Thursday, April 26, 2007

Nation Mag: The Changing of the Guard in Cuba


[from the May 14, 2007 issue]

What has happened in Cuba since Fidel Castro yielded power to his brother Raul? How do Cuban authorities see the changing international arena, particularly the trend to the left in Latin America? And what, almost fifty years after the Cuban Revolution, does the Castro government want in its relations with the United States? To address these questions, The Nation convened a forum of veteran Cuba analysts and a longtime Cuban diplomat, moderated by guest editor Peter Kornbluh.

The Nation: Since Fidel Castro surprised the world last July by transferring his duties to his brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro, Cuba has experienced nine months of a semi-succession of power. How do you evaluate this unprecedented period?

William LeoGrande: What's noteworthy is what has not happened. There have been no demonstrations, no rush of rafters setting sail for Miami, no noticeable difference at all in how the leadership team has governed the island. Fidel must be pleased. The succession machinery he carefully constructed over the past decade is working as planned. His illness lets him watch from the sidelines to see how well his successors manage without him, and they seem to be doing just fine. We all like to think we're indispensable, and no one has been more indispensable to the Cuban Revolution than Fidel Castro. But the last nine months have shown that people in Miami and Washington who expect the Cuban government to collapse the instant Castro dies are going to be disappointed.

Ramón Sánchez-Parodi: I agree. What we have experienced in Cuba has been a kind of rehearsal, a foreshadowing of what will take place in the event Fidel exits from political life--which could happen for biological reasons. Much to the surprise of those who predicted dire straits for Cuba--exodus, uprising, mass protests against the Revolution, infighting--life goes on as usual.

Saul Landau: And the people who started the Revolution in 1953, Fidel and Raul, still prevail.

Alberto Coll: It was as if you did a major emergency fire drill and everything functioned the way it was supposed to--even if it turns out to be only a drill instead of the real thing. Its relative success can only serve to emphasize the massive failure of the US policy of isolation, which has served only to isolate Washington and deny the United States any kind of influence over the people currently running the country.

Philip Peters: All who watch Cuba have had a question in the back of their minds: Is it a one-man show that dissolves when Fidel Castro leaves the scene, or is it a political system that carries on? These nine months have answered that question pretty clearly. This is a stable government, though one cannot minimize the challenges a successor government will eventually face.
Whole Thing


Monday, April 23, 2007

With Yeltsin Dead, the Media Confused on Legacy

Deaths are always an interesting time for a watcher of the world. Insta-history has now become a full-on participatory sport, with a death as the Olympics. But only in certain instances, such as today’s demise of Boris Yeltsin, do the contradictions of myth versus reality fully expose themselves to wondrous effect.

Consider the lauded tributes raining down on this man from every corner of the world (the Americas and Europe for the MSMs purposes). That he played a decisive role in “beating Communism” is beyond dispute, nor is the “fact” that this was one of the best things to ever happen to the world. Except in all the glad-handing, someone forgot to ask the Russians what they thought.

In the West we were taught to view things in terms of freedom and democracy, good and evil. Yeltsin turned an evil empire into a capitalist paradise, which made it free. He was elected after the most shameful spectacles of a bought-off election every seen in the world, which made him democratic.

But for the people living in Russia, who knew the questions were never so simple and of a matter of literal life and death, a 3% approval greeted his departure from politics. I can not find an article that states this fact, nor mentions the way Russians themselves are greeting this event. Since we did not care while his unpopular policies were being rammed down Russia's throat (with Bill Clinton and the West's moral assistance), it is fitting we should care less today.

Here is a man who presided over an unprecedented giveaway of a nation’s resources to a tiny elite, who bought up oil and mineral reserves at bargain basement prices and made themselves fabulously rich. Russia endured massive corruption, the rise of a Russian style of organized crime, rapid increases in alcoholism, poverty and disease at the same time public health went to the birds. Day by day the nation sunk lower into the abyss of irrelevance and mockery as their drunken President could barely show his face in public. At the end of his reign, the nation of Russia had lost nearly 2 million of its citizens to early deaths and a pointless, political war in Chechnya that would constitute a crime against humanity if it had happened anywhere else in the world.

Even if one believes that condemning millions to lives of poverty and misery was worth it for the “greater good” of freedom and democracy, they would have to be blind to give kudos on those scores. As the otherwise glowing obit in the Independent UK says,

“Contrary to the myth that some have cultivated, he was not a democrat as most people would understand the word, nor was he a principled proponent of free speech or the free market. Nor, though, was he the drunken exhibitionist of the televised clips that were aired time and again last night."

I think Mikhail Gorbachev said it best:

"I express the very deepest condolences to the family of the deceased, on whose shoulders rest major events for the good of the country and serious mistakes. A tragic fate."


Friday, April 20, 2007

LA Times: A Terrorist Walks - And Cuba Fumes

No additional comment needed. The Times editorial stepped up on this one. I don't see too many other major US newspapers paying attention though. Most of the AP and Rueters stories insist on calling him an "Anti-Cuba Militant."

A Terrorist WalksLuis Posada Carriles has boasted of bombing Havana hotels, yet American justice lets him go free.

April 20, 2007
WITH A MISGUIDED decision upholding bail for Cuban-born terrorist Luis Posada Carriles, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans has done more than free a frail old man facing unremarkable immigration charges. It has exposed Washington to legitimate charges of hypocrisy in the war on terror.

By allowing Posada to go free before his May 11 trial, the court has released a known flight risk who previously escaped from a Venezuelan prison, a man who has boasted of helping set off deadly bombs in Havana hotels 10 years ago and the alleged mastermind of a 1976 bombing of a Cuban airplane that killed 73 people. Posada's employees confessed to the attack, and declassified FBI and CIA documents have shown that he attended planning sessions.

In other words, Posada is the Zacarias Moussaoui of Havana and Caracas. Moussaoui is serving a life sentence without parole in a federal prison in Colorado for conspiracy in the 9/11 attacks; Posada is free to live in Miami.

Posada, a 79-year-old Bay of Pigs veteran who served time in Panama for plotting to kill Fidel Castro, has never been charged with crimes of terrorism in U.S. courts. Instead, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement nabbed him for lying to immigration authorities after he sneaked in the country in March 2005 and held a news conference announcing his triumphant return. Both Customs and the Justice Department lobbied to keep Posada behind bars, but U.S. law enforcement has never shown a strong interest in trying him for more serious crimes. In turn, Posada's lawyer has preemptively warned that if charged, his client would likely reveal extensive collaboration with the CIA.

The United States keeps 385 suspected terrorists imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, many in isolation and all without U.S. norms of due process. Yet Posada, a confessed terrorist, is sent home with an ankle bracelet.

The United States has not been able to persuade any of seven allied nations to accept Posada. A federal judge has ruled that he can't be extradited to Cuba or Venezuela because he might be tortured. The best solution would have been for the court to refuse bail until trial while the State Department keeps searching for a third-party country that would agree to try him on terrorism charges.

Instead, Castro receives a propaganda victory gift, the White House has its moral authority undermined and the victims of Carriles' alleged crimes see justice delayed once more.

The U.S. government has done many odd things in 46 years of a largely failed Cuba policy, but letting a notorious terrorist walk stands among the most perverse yet.

Meanwhile the reaction in Cuba is as one would expect if Bin Laden were to be let out of a prison somewhere on a technicality.

Students yell slogans during a protest against anti-Castro Cuban exile Luis Posada Carriles' release from jail, in Havana April 19, 2007.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Resounding Victory for Correa in Ecuador

QUITO, April 17.— With 99.60 percent of the ballots counted a huge
81.7 percent of Ecuadorians said YES to President Rafael Correa's
request for a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution and
radically transform the country.

By press time, a total of 5,317,698 citizens had voted in favor of the
Assembly while the NO votes were 810,274 for 12.45 percent. The
Electoral Supreme Court also ruled 5.85 percent of the ballots as
either invalid or blank.

The results are seen as a major victory for President Correa and a big
defeat for the traditional parties (Social Christian and Christian
Democrat), reported Prensa Latina.

After announcing the final results, the electoral authority has eight
days to convene the Constituent Assembly, making possible candidate
inscription. This could occur as early as April 25.

With the Assembly now a given, the different political and social
movements, including those that had opposed the idea of a new
constitution, are already preparing their lists of candidates, marking
the beginning of a new electoral campaign.


US Should Give Up Guantanamo to Cuba

A decent article here with a terribly skewed headline on the way Guantanamo Bay is viewed by Cuba... from the eyes of US Cuba watchers. Apparently finding any official Cuban position on the island was not possible for this reporter. All it took me was a few seconds on the Fidel Castro speech database to find countleess clear statements like this to Clinton in 94:

"I was thinking that if it is true that they -- as they say want to establish a more mature relationship and withdraw their bases from Latin America, they must not forget to close the Guantanamo base."

Yes it is true that Cuba has higher ranked problems with the US than Guantanamo. But to argue Cuba secretly likes having the "most dangerous people the the world" occupied by the Americans on their soil is pure fiction

Guantanamo not that high on Cuba's wish list
Even as it is rankled by the U.S. troop presence, Havana may find the base serves a better purpose as a symbol of American hegemony.
By Carol J. Williams, Times Staff Writer
April 18, 2007

GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA — Fidel Castro wages silent protest against the U.S. military "tenants" of this bay in southern Cuba from a drawer in his desk.

There lie 47 uncashed checks drawn on the U.S. Treasury, each for $4,085, the annual rent fixed in a 1903 lease agreement that has vexed the Cuban leader since a leftist revolution brought him to power nearly half a century ago.

The presence of U.S. troops on Cuban soil has long rankled Castro, who, before taking ill in July and temporarily ceding presidential authority to his brother Raul, often ranted about the "imperialist occupation" in speeches and broadcasts.
In a report issued last month on Guantanamo's role in the troubled diplomatic relationship between Havana and Washington, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs think tank concluded that returning the territory to Cuba would be essential to ending the United States' perceived domination of Latin American neighbors.

During President Bush's trip last month through Latin America, even friendly leaders reminded him of the message conveyed to the region by U.S. military occupation of the Cuban territory, said the council's director, Larry Birns.

"Guantanamo is the symbol of 19th century gunboat diplomacy practiced by Washington," Birns said. He added that a movement was gaining ground throughout the Western Hemisphere "questioning the United States' legitimacy in occupying Guantanamo under the present arrangement."
The U.S. government gained control of Guantanamo Bay and its surrounding territory in 1903 under an agreement between the newly independent Cuban government and its U.S. liberators after the 1898 Spanish-American War.

At the time, the military wanted a base to position U.S. forces to protect the Panama Canal, then under construction. The base also played an important role during the Cold War, allowing U.S. forces to monitor Soviet movements in the region.

But since the 1991 demise of the Soviet Union and its communist empire and the 1999 return of the Panama Canal to its host nation, the U.S. base has lost its strategic significance and now serves as little more than "a colonial relic," Birns asserted.

The 103-year-old agreement limits use of the Cuban territory to "coaling and naval purposes only," neither of which appears to cover the prison or tribunal operations.

The agreement also expressly prohibits "commercial, industrial or other enterprise within said areas," but the U.S. base now sports a McDonald's, two Starbucks outlets, a Subway sandwich shop and other American concessions.

Such breaches of the treaty render it voidable, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs stated in its report urging the U.S. government to cease its use of Guantanamo against the host country's wishes.

Although U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have publicly acknowledged that many foreign allies view the detention center and war crimes tribunal as illegitimate, some U.S. officials argue that the base remains crucial to American interests in the region.
Whole thing


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Chavez Denies `Ethanol War' Divides Venezuela, Brazil

Presidents Nicanor Duarte of Paraguay, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia join hands at the petrochemical complex of Jose in Venezuela's eastern city of Barcelona April 16.

Despite the proliferation of words like "dispute" and "public spat" in MSM descriptions of the energy policies of Brazil and Venezuela in recent days, the reality is nothing of the sort. The media has long tried to create division in Latin America, obviously afraid at the growing chorus of unity and independence. We saw this last when Lula was supposedly bad mouthing Chavez in privite around election time, only to make a trip to Venezuela (and hugging Chavez) his first event after being elected. Today the issue is ethanol, which most reporters apparently can not conceive as both a good and bad energy source. Good, if properly applied as an additive to gasoline utilizing sugar cane. Bad if meant to compensate for unchecked energy use of the world's largest energy user and utilizing inefficent corn and other food supplies.

By Theresa Bradley and Alex Kennedy
April 17 (Bloomberg) -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez denied that Latin American leaders are at an impasse over conflicting Venezuelan and Brazilian goals for supplementing oil production with ethanol output in the region.

``The press is saying there's an ethanol war,'' Chavez said at the first South American Energy Summit in Porlamar, Veneuela, today. ``No. Ethanol is a valid strategy as long as it doesn't affect food production.''

Chavez called for the construction of 13 new Latin American oil refineries to slash reliance on U.S. plants, suggesting that ethanol factories be built next door to boost output of hybrid gasoline, rather than ethanol alone. Chavez has dismissed an ethanol accord signed last month by President George W. Bush and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as ``craziness'' destined to misdirect agricultural resources.

Ministers from 11 nations debated regional biofuel goals for 11 straight hours at the summit yesterday. One point of contention is Brazil's agreement last month with the U.S. to boost energy supplies by lifting output of ethanol derived from sugarcane. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has said the deal will tighten the U.S. grip on Latin America's resources and that mass output of biofuels will drain food supplies and increase poverty.

Chavez also today invited governments from the 11 nations attending this week's summit to form joint ventures in Venezuela's heavy-crude rich Orinoco Belt region, where his administration is pushing out private, foreign stakeholders in favor of state-run joint enterprises. Venezuela is the world's eighth largest exporter of crude; Brazil is the world's largest exporter of ethanol.


Monday, April 16, 2007

Ecuador: Landslide Victory for Constitutional Change

I hope the world is paying attention to Ecuador tonight, because when the editorials start flying around calling President Rafael Correa a leftist dictator (like some usual suspects shamefully already have), they will not mention April 15, 2007.

It appears the "Si"vote for the constitutional Constituent Assembly was even higher than I was going to predict yesterday - it's already at 83% (with 19% counted). Ecuador has voted for change and Mr. Correa has given them that possibility. Now the hard work will begin. But no one can ever say this process of change did not come democratically. Here's what the majors are saying:

QUITO (Reuters) - President Rafael Correa said he wanted a radical overhaul of Ecuadorean politics after he overwhelmingly won a referendum that should enable him to wrest power from a Congress reviled as corrupt.

With 19 percent of ballots counted, 83 percent of voters backed Correa's call for an assembly to rewrite the constitution and strip powers from a Congress they see as tainted for appointing cronies to state firms and the courts.
The clear referendum win is expected to bolster Correa's mandate and allow him to push ahead with initiatives such as ending the lease on a major U.S. military base, renegotiating oil deals and restructuring the national debt.

"Correa and the new constituent legislators (have) a very strong mandate for change and to go far and deep in terms of the scope for the reforms," Alberto Ramos, a senior economist at Goldman Sachs, wrote in a research note from New York.

And from the <IHT/NY Times:
"We need an abrupt change that repositions the presidency in relation to Congress, while also strengthening the state's capacity for regulation," said Juan Paz y Miño, a historian who supports Correa. "This doesn't mean abolishing private enterprise, but rather making the private sector more socially responsible."

And the BBC:
Mr Correa said "fear had been left behind".

"The future was at stake, the country was at stake and Ecuadoreans have said yes to that future."

Mr Correa responded to the referendum with an announcement that Ecuador had repaid its final debt to the International Monetary Fund.
But many of his critics have accused him of trying to increase his power and follow President Chavez, who has brought in controversial reforms in Venezuela.

Former Ecuador president Oswaldo Hurtado said of the referendum: "It's not a project for a better democracy. It's a project to accumulate power. All dictators always have had constitutions made to fit them."

The assembly at the centre of the vote would be elected within three months and have six months to draft the constitution. The document would then be put to a second referendum. Mr Correa has said he wants to depoliticise the courts and decentralise the state.


Friday, April 13, 2007

Cubans Protest Terrorist's Release from US Jail

One of thousands of groups of Cubans protesting the imminent release of terrorist Luis Posada Carriles.

Giustino Di Celmo, father of Italian bombing victim Fabio Di Celmo (killed in a hotel blast in Havana claimed by Posada), talks during a news conference at the International Press Center in Havana April 11. 2007.REUTERS/Claudia Daut (CUBA)


Thursday, April 12, 2007

Cuba "Dissident" Should Not Receive Press Freedom Award

Below is a letter I wrote to the honchos over at the PEN America Center, who have decided to award their 2007 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award to Cuban "dissident" Normando Hernandez Gonzalez. Mr Gonzalez was one of those arrested in 2003 for working with the US Government to undermine Cuba.

Dear PEN,

I was very surprised to read that a distinguished orgnization like PEN would bestow its BG award to someone like Mr. Normando Hernandez Gonzalez from Cuba. Though facts are sorely lacking on your biography of him, I hope someone at PEN has adequately researched the background of Mr Gonzalez's case. If not, pleae allow me to summarize some things you can find in his detailed case file, which is available online here.

Mr Gonzalez is certainly not "independent" and his qualifications as a journalist are also lacking. Gonzalez made his living on the payroll of the United State Government, contributing more than a hundred times to the blatant US propoganda channel called Radio Marti. His other outlet was in the heavily US funded CubaNet online site (gets funding streams from USAID and NED). That his work corresponded to the stated interests of an enemy power would make him an "agent" in most any liberal definition (at least not independent). The US has detained people for far less (journalist Susan Lindauer, Carlos Alvarez and the Cuban 5 to name a few).

Gonzalez's reports were paid for by the US Government because they are the sort of thing they need to justify an internationally condemned, illegal, devastating economic embargo - and who knows what else in these post-Fidel days (the US has a secret annex in its Plan for Transformation, which insiders say relies heavily on these agents). The law Gonzalez was charged under is not one you or I support. But it is important to note that it was only put into effect after the US Government allocated funds for these exact purposes - as well as facilitating regime change (the US stated policy) and underminding the independence of Cuba.

Gonzalez's articles, which I have gone back and read on CubaNet, hardly reach the level of journalism. Doesn't journalism requrie some sort of attempt at investigation or telling both sides? What self respecting country can allow its citizens to make thousands of dollars for writing such non-serious things in paid service of an enemy that has killed thousands and costs it billions every year? How can the Cuban people sympathize with someone living like a king by doing a major part to keep the economic stranglehold of the embargo in place?

I fear this award will only embolden the forces in the US who want to continue to ramp up such illegal funding, which will only lead to more restrictions and crackdowns in Cuba and other countries around the world.The only hope of achieving more freedom in Cuba rests with US de-escalation and removal of active regime change policies. Then we can focus on removing the corresponding laws in Cuba that do indeed restrict freedoms. But to legitimize the US hardline approach will only nullify Cuban reformers.

So I formally and urgently request that PEN further research the case of Mr Gonzalez and to respond to the allegations put forth here. Does PEN really believe Mr Gonzalez was independent or a journalist? if the Miami Herald can fire reporters for working for Radio Marti on the side (as it did earlier this year) why is Gonzalez worthy of support? Is he really the Cuba you want to recognize, when there are hundreds more doing truly independent work, outside of the arms of Washington? Those brave souls who resist the tempation are the ones groups like PEN and RSF need to seek out.

I will await a response.


Cuban Terrorist: USA Today's Insane Headline of the Day

Check out that headline USA Today placed on the latest AP story about the scandelous impending freedom of the hemisphere's most deadly terrorist, Luis Posada Carriles... an "anti-communist"??? I could not have found a better way to twist the story 180 degrees if I spent all morning trying. I mean what blue blooded USA Today reader is going to need to read any further. I mean, unfortunately, a dispute between "anti-communists" and Chavez/Castro's is not a fair fight when paired like that.

For some perspective,here are other slightly more accurate and descriptive headlines for the same exact story:

Victims Protest Cuban Militant's Release
Bombing victims' relatives protest pending release of Posada
Castro: Us About To Release 'Monster'
Castro condemns decision to release Cuban militant

Wow, I found another unbelieveable headline, from San Diego's terribly conservative paper:
Castro editorial stirs anti-US campaign

Here is the beginning of the actual AP article:

HAVANA (AP) — Tearful relatives of those killed in bombings blamed on Luis Posada Carriles lashed out at Washington on Wednesday, outraged that the jailed former U.S. operative could soon be released on bond.
Convalescing leader Fidel Castro echoed those sentiments in a signed statement, accusing American authorities of freeing a "monster" after a U.S. judge upheld a decision to grant bail to Posada.

"I'm outraged," said Iliana Alfonso, whose father was among those killed on a 1976 Cubana de Aviacion flight that exploded off Barbados. "In the United States they are talking about good terrorism and bad terrorism. To me, all terrorism is bad."

Posada, a Cuban-born former CIA operative and naturalized citizen of Venezuela, is wanted in Cuba and Venezuela for masterminding the jetliner bombing, which killed 73 people — charges Posada denies. Cuba's government has repeatedly accused the U.S. government of protecting Posada by holding him on a far less serious charge.
In a statement, Venezuela's Foreign Ministry accused the government of U.S. President George W. Bush of trying to protect "the terrorist because he has been a loyal and dependable employee of the U.S. intelligence services for more than four decades."

Whole thing


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

US Certifies Human Rights Record of Colombia, Freeing $55 Million

I thought this might be an April Fools joke considering the already huge, but still developing paramilitary-military scandal that is rocking Uribe's Government to the core (see below). But since only a half dozen US newspapers have even reported on the story, I should not expect this usually routine US announcement to raise any eyebrows among any 'normal' people.

If police and military working with terrorist groups to commit war crimes is not bad enough to warrant some pause in the billions we send their police and military, we have another (again unreported) human tragedy unfolding in the Narino region, where thousands of civillians are displaced and without water - right now. The UNHCR has had to issue a plea to the Colombian Govt to get their act together.

If you want to read an interesting piece of artful bureaucratic twisting and concealing, check out the actual 53 page State Dept. report that officially certifies the Colombians as 'all clear' on the human rights front. I pity the poor folks in Foggy Bottom that had to write this up.

The report has tedious detail, listing out the 178 Admirals, Colonels and whoever else that was removed from the armed forces in 2006. But there is not a single word on the extremely serious allegations against the Chief of the Armed Forces (Gen. Montoya) that appeared on the front page of the LA Times 2 weeks ago, based on a leaked CIA report. about Not a word about the document in US posession that says that the fine General signed his name to a plan where the military would stand watch and protect while a terrorist group murdered and 'disappeared' nearly 100 slum dwelling civillians.

As for the 2,000 (99%) of Colombian labor union leaders who've been killed with impunity, don't fret - the US Government did not forget you. They certified that your Government "has taken action" to find your killers - though actual progress is another matter, as the weak language suggests.

If I need to spell it out the point again, just imagine if Colombia's President Uribe was one of those 'bad-left' Latin socialists, or that the paramilitary 'terrorists' were not right-wingers. State would not be the Department charged with coming up with bullcrap to justify terrible US policy, it would be Defence possibly getting to implement Bush's supposed Afghanistan doctrine.

PS - Sorry for the tone. I get angry when the press writes hundreds of stories about every Chavez or Castro hiccup, but next to nothing about the most serious human rights abuser in the hemisphere - a country that our Government makes excuses for and recieves billions of our taxpayer money.

Published: Tuesday April 10, 2007
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has concluded that Colombia is fulfilling US requirements on human rights and can receive 55 million dollars in military aid, her spokesman said Tuesday.

Rice certified to Congress on April 4 that Colombia's government and armed forces "are meeting statutory criteria related to human rights and severing ties to paramilitary groups," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

The release of the 55 million dollars, budgeted in fiscal year 2006, depended on Rice's ruling.
Colombia is Washington's top ally in South America, receiving four billion dollars in US aid since 2000 through Plan Colombia to combat drug trafficking and left-wing rebels that have battled the government for four decades.


Colombia: Murder of Union Members May Hinder US Trade Deal

While the rest of the mainstream media has studiously ignored this huge story from our closest South American ally, at least we have a few newspapers that care about the possibility that our tax dollars and corporations are (again) funding murder and mayhem.

Unionists' Murders Cloud Prospects for Colombia Trade Pact
By Juan Forero, Washington Post
Tuesday, April 10, 2007

SANTA MARTA, Colombia -- Zully Codina was a mother, veteran hospital worker and union activist. The last role was the one that cost Codina her life at the hands of paramilitary death squads, whose records show they collaborated with the country's intelligence service to liquidate her and other union activists.
Recent disclosures about the purported role of the Colombian intelligence service, the Administrative Security Department, or DAS, in the murder of Codina and several other union leaders has ignited a political firestorm here that is reaching Capitol Hill just as the Bush administration is fighting for congressional approval of a free-trade pact with Colombia, the third-largest recipient of U.S. aid.
The Uribe administration's efforts have been hurt by the February arrest of the DAS's former chief, Jorge Noguera, who was charged with working with paramilitary members as they infiltrated the political establishment and silenced adversaries along the Caribbean coast. The illegal militias, organized a generation ago to fight Marxist rebels, have morphed into a Mafia-style organization dedicated to drug trafficking and extortion.

A clandestine paramilitary operative named to DAS by Noguera said in a recent interview that the intelligence service compiled lists of union members, along with details about their security, and handed them over to a coalition of paramilitary groups known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.

"This list went to Jorge Noguera, and he made sure it reached the Self-Defense Forces," said the operative, Rafael Garcia, now in jail and working with prosecutors. "The DAS knows the movements of union members."
"I think the trade pact is in jeopardy," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who recently met with union leaders in Colombia. "With each passing day, it goes higher and higher. It goes to military leaders, the head of the secret police and prominent politicians. I don't know how far this leads, but it's too close for comfort."

The disclosures are now reaching two American firms here. An Alabama coal company, Drummond, is being sued in U.S. District Court by Colombian workers who accuse company executives of contracting with paramilitary groups to kill three union leaders. Colombian prosecutors are also going to investigate the smuggling of 3,000 assault rifles in 2001 to a Chiquita Brands International dock in northern Colombia; the weapons wound up in the hands of paramilitary fighters, according to an extensive report by the Organization of American States.
Even so, 72 union leaders and activists were murdered last year, making Colombia by far the world's most dangerous country for trade unionists, according to the National Union School, a labor research group in Medellin, Colombia's second-largest city. Of 2,100 murders of union members since 1991, there have been only 30 convictions.

Paramilitary documents seized by authorities bolster allegations that intelligence operatives worked closely with the paramilitary groups.

One lengthy document, under the heading "Information DAS Friends," lists union members murdered by paramilitary fighters. An internal attorney general's report notes that DAS officials in the city of Barranquilla pinned rebellion charges against union activists, the main accusation made against guerrillas. Those activists, once freed for lack of evidence, were then killed by paramilitary hit men, who labeled the victims as rebels.
Carolina Barco, Colombia's ambassador in Washington, said that while the disclosures have been troubling, they cannot tarnish the whole government. "This is definitely not state policy," she said.
Whole thing

Of course not Carolina. Just because the head of the national intelligence AND now the armed forces have been proven in documents to be conspiring with terrorists and murderers does not mean a thing. We should continue to give the government (mostly military) billions of our tax dollars, and we should negotiate a trade pact that gives Colombia preferetial status. And when we write supposed "human rights" reports, we must not include any of this unpleasantness. Sure...


Monday, April 09, 2007

Hugo Chavez vs. Exxon-Mobil - A Showdown in Venezuela

A water line installed courtesy of increased Venezuelan social spending from oil revenue.

An important piece here by Simon Romero, previewing one of the most important battles you'll ever see - a country with more reserves than Saudi Arabia trying to gain control from some of the richest corporations in history.

This is a typical sly NY Times piece... well researched but titled towards US interests. What starts as a portraitof the epic story becomes something else - another blatant pro-market, slime Chavez piece of garbage.

The piece sees fit to mention that Venezuela highly subsidizes domestic oil consumption (20 cents/gallon), but neglects to mention that Chavez has recently proposed hiking those prices on environmental grounds. Romero and other anti-Chavez folks argue against nationalization by citing the loss of production at PDVSA. But they never seem to provide any useful context. Romero mentions a "strike" - but does not link it to production nor mention that it was an political employer-led strike. The culprit seems to be Chavez's "social spending," the effects of which seem to not interest Romero. Neither do the details of Chavez's plan to double production in 7 years, the investments in pipelines and capital raised to accomplish the plans.

Still there are some interesting passages in this piece. Here's the flavor:

“Chávez is playing a game of chicken with the largest oil companies in the world,” said Pietro Pitts, an oil analyst who publishes LatinPetroleum, an industry magazine based here. “And for the moment he is winning.”
Over the last several decades, control of global oil reserves has steadily passed from private companies to national oil companies like Petróleos de Venezuela. According to a new Rice University study, 77 percent of the world’s 1.148 trillion barrels of proven reserves are in the hands of the national companies; 14 of the top 20 oil-producing companies are state-controlled.
The talks have bogged down over how much the oil companies’ stakes in four big Orinoco projects are worth, whether Venezuela’s cash-short oil company would pay for the assets in oil instead of cash and, most important, who would manage the reduced operations of the foreign oil companies.
“If the United States wants to diversify its oil supplies for reasons of national security, then Venezuela should be allowed to diversify its customer base for the same reason,” said Mazhar al-Shereidah, an Iraqi-born petroleum economist who is one of Venezuela’s leading energy experts.
No one sees an immediate crisis at Petróleos de Venezuela. But its windfall from high oil prices masks the devilish complexity and rising costs of producing heavy oil.

Meanwhile, the company acknowledged last month that spending on “social development” almost doubled in 2006, to $13.3 billion, while its spending on exploration badly trailed its global peers. And Petróleos de Venezuela’s work force has ballooned to 89,450, up 29 percent since 2001 even as production declined.


Spies and Secrecy in New York City

Every once in a while I have to shine the light at home, for some perspective. A terrifying glimpse of America in 2007 pulled from Huffington's blog, written by E.A. Hanks.

David Cohen's personal website isn't up at the moment, which is fitting. He's the former C.I.A. official who headed up the New York Police Department's infiltration of peace groups, student activist associations, and other groups that came together before the Republican National Convention in 2004. The N.Y.P.D. was spying on Americans, not just here in New York, but in California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montreal, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Washington, D.C.. There were also agents working in Europe.

Mayor Bloomberg says this was a safeguard against terrorists. Somehow, I'm not convinced.It might have something to do with the fact the N.Y.P.D. is refusing to release the files they compiled on American citizens. David Cohen was supposed to testify for the second time on March 30, but canceled because of a dispute about how much information the public deserves to know. He'd spoken before, but city lawyers have sealed the transcript of that testimony.

Who knows what mayhem Vegans for Milk-Free Peace could have wreaked on the streets of Manhattan! What are civil rights or American Democracy in the face of the fearsome Drum Circle Dudes for Democrats?

Everyone knows fascism couldn't happen here. We've got checks and balances! Well, I mean, unless the judiciary becomes politicized and we start hiring and firing lawyers because of their adherence to a political goal. Also, we've got a free press! Except for that part when the papers have the threat of the Espionage Act hanging over their heads. I mean, not when President Ford's Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld and his Deputy Dick Cheney nearly slapped Seymour Hersh with indictments. I mean now, when the New York Times "threatened national security" by unveiling a national program to spy on Americans. That's a different program than one for the R.N.C. - it's hard to keep your breaches of civil rights straight. So many travesties to keep track of!

So of course fascism couldn't happen here! It's not like we're in Egypt, where political blogger Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman has been thrown in jail. Unless...Unless we're counting American blogger Josh Wolf, who's been in jail since August 1, 2006, longer than any other American journalist. He's there because he's refused to hand over video tapes of an anarchist protest rally held in San Francisco while the G8 was meeting in Scotland.

It could never happen here, unless if you count that it already has.

Check out the few public documents and read more at Amnesty USA.


Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Castro, Brazil, Ethanol and the United States - A Historic Debate

Here is a "mash-up" of recent news stories related to the suddenly controvertial issue of ethanol.

All of a sudden, everybody hates ethanol.

Among the criticisms: Ethanol takes more energy to produce than it yields ... it can't be easily shipped ... it's driving up the price of food ... it's perverse to put food in fuel tanks while people starve.

What is the reason for this "sudden" switch of attitudes, that I admit I am also guilty of? There were always sceptics but they were being ignored until the article by Fidel Castro last week. He had another go on the same topic in Granma today, written after watching the press conference of Lula's privledged trip to Camp David - and reading Lula's editorial in the Washington Post.

In the WP piece Lula goes out of his way to address some of the concerns of Fidel's first piece (which was not about Brazil's ethahol technology/policy at all):

Lula says Brazil has ample empty land to grow food, that Brazil's process is clecan and efficient and that small farmers and producers will benefit. But he continued his public jabs at the hypritical US tarrif on Brazillian ethanol. He also echoes Fidel's central concern:

"After all, the subsidies provided under America's corn-based ethanol program have spurred an increase in U.S. cereal prices of about 80 percent. This hurts meat and soy processors worldwide and threatens global food security."

Fidel replied:
"It is not my intention to harm Brazil, nor get mixed up in affairs related to the internal politics of that great country,"
(But) "Nobody at Camp David responded to the main question. Where and who is going to supply the more than 500 million tons of corn and other cereals that the United States, Europe and the rich countries need to produce the volume of gallons of ethanol that the big U.S. companies and those of other countries are demanding as compensation for their sizeable investments?

Indeed who and how will this affect prices on basic grains that much of the poorest world depends on for survival? Grains that are also at risk because of water shortages. It is fine for Brazil to develop its own industry because of its unique conditions, but that does not mean the US can just jump on the bandwagon. Lula is correct that Brazil is able to be self-sufficient, but the US clearly is not. I lost the link to a story where even the most bullish of US corn-ethanol experts said "corn-based ethanol has upward limits of around 15-billion gallons of (domestic) production per year." President Bush wants to mandate use of 35-billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2017.

Right-wingers are also no fan of the Bush approach, because it relies on massive subsidies:

And youre actually paying more for less performance. Its difficult, (Heritage Foundation's Ben) Lieberman notes, to transport ethanol from its Midwestern home base to far-off markets, and that adds to the price you pay at the pump. Ethanol cant be sent in an energy-efficient way through pipelines like gasoline can, because it would be contaminated by moisture along the way. Ethanol must be shipped instead by trucks, barges and railroads.

Ethanol lowers fuel economy -- according to the Department of Energy, a gallon of ethanol contains only two-thirds the energy content of a gallon of gasoline. (Corn-based ethanol, the kind being produced in the United States, is eight times less efficient than Brazil's sugarcane version of the biofuel).
In the end, Lieberman concludes, ethanol may wind up putting about as much carbon dioxide into the air as it takes out. So, from an environmental perspective, well be paying more to more or less maintain the status quo.

Peruvian conservative writer Alvaro Vargas Llosa also attacked Bush's plan as inefficient, given the tarrif - and ineffective at the important second goal, which is isolating Chavez and Castro from Lula and Central America.

The best overall article of the bunch was this one from OneWorld.

NEW YORK, Apr 3 (OneWorld) - The Bush administration's plans to increase biofuel imports could add to the suffering of millions of impoverished peasants in Brazil and other developing countries, food rights and environmental groups say.

ActionAid, like many other groups, fears that the growing U.S. demand for ethanol fuel could force agribusiness in Brazil to indulge in unhealthy competition for profits that might end up causing monopolies over farmlands and damage to the environment.
Emphasizing that local ownership and sustainable agriculture must be considered as "crucial" elements of the United States' biofuel policy, Hansen-Kuhn described Bush's approach as a "headlong rush."

Some researchers claim as well that investments in ethanol to fuel automobiles are driving price hikes in food products around the world.
This unprecedented diversion of the world's leading grain crop to the production of fuel will affect food prices every year, according to EPI. As the world corn price rises, so too do those of rice and wheat as consumers substitute one for the other and the crops compete for land.

The U.S. corn crop accounts for about 40 percent of the global harvest and 70 percent of the world's corn exports. On average, every year, the United States exports 55 million tons of corn, which is fully 25 percent of the world's total grain exports.

"Substantially reducing this grain export flow would send shock waves throughout the world economy," says EPI's Lester Brown in a recent article on the impact of the demand for grain to fuel automobiles.

Describing the automotive demand for fuel as "insatiable," Brown estimates that the same amount of grain needed to fill a 25-gallon tank with ethanol one time can feed one person for a whole year.

"The competition for grain between the world's 800 million motorists who want to maintain their mobility and its 2 billion poorest people who are simply trying to survive is emerging as an epic issue," he says, in reflecting that soaring food prices could lead to urban food riots in many countries.
"The world desperately needs a strategy to deal with the emerging food-fuel battle," says Brown. "We need to make sure that In trying to solve one problem -- our dependence on imported oil -- we do not create a far more serious one."


Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Mexico City: Leftist Mayor Tackles Big Problems

As someone work works for local government, I have been intrigued by the recent spate of news out of Mexico City. It seems like there has been a torrent of interesting stories relating to the actions of Mexico City's leftist (PRD) mayor Marcelo Ebrard. While it appears he's been watching a lot of European Mayors, I like the effort. City's do a lot of the grunt work, but have little room to engineer real substantial change. They can do little things though, as the following stories show.

Above you can get a glimpse of the latest story, a plan to install artificial "beaches" around the conjested city, for those who can't get away to Acupolco. The rich are calling it naco, but the masses are flocking. They have big pools and volleyball as well.

This is the best thing they have done in Mexico City in a long time," said Anaberta Castillo, 32, as her six children romped in the sand and splashed in a nearby pool. "The kids love it."

Then we have the BBC on the 'lead by example' anti-traffic pledge by the City's Mayor. He is pledging that City Hall workers bike to work once a month.

Only 0.7% of all journeys in the capital are by bicycle - and Mr Ebrard aims to increase to 2% in three years' time and 5% in six years. At the same time, the mayor says he will improve public transport, including building more special bus lanes.

This morning I read that the Mexico City is probably going to beat Los Angeles to the punch and install city wide wi-fi internet access. He saw the city was already installing a fiber optic network for the police department and decided to piggy back on it that for the people.

But of course the biggest news in the US has been the abortion Bill that seems ready to pass, making Mexico City the only place in Mexico where the procedure will be legal (joining only Cuba and Guyana). Apparently they are also on the vanguard of allowing gay unions (joining Cuba).

Oh and I almost forgot about this: The City is also giving away XBOXs to those who trade in high powered guns (and also taking back neighborhoods once lost to drug dealers and fencing gangs.


Cuba: Salvador Gonzalez, Painter of the Alley

This post was inspired by the great Cuba flickr set up over here. I saw a picture of the unbelievably painted Callejon de Hamel (or Hamel's Alley) in Centro Havana. It is a place you have to see to believe. All praise due to the artist and mastermind Mr. Salvador Gonzalez.

Check out a five minute video tour.

Visitors can find products related to Afro-Cuban works and rites. This place is also a space of interaction between art and community due to the festivals organized with the participation of children and neighbors of the area. Every Sunday alley concerts/parties/Santeria rites take place.

The man himself. Salvador Gonzalez - buy his art here.

The Havana barrio where this is located is called Cayo Hueso - the Cubanized version of Key West, because a lot of transient tobacco famers settled in the neighborhood 100 years ago.

In the Hamel alley art is made by ordinary tools and materials, and show images and representatives of the African beliefs.


Monday, April 02, 2007

Venezuela: Chavez Stops Inflation in its Tracks

Oh, I do get some joy when things like this happens. Readers will remember last week I called out the NY Times (and IHT) for running a ill-researched opinion piece off as news. The writer Simon Romero stated with complete assurance that Chavez's plan for fighting the increasingly problematic inflationary pressures would fall flat. "Demagoguery and showmanship will do nothing to solve Venezuela's 20 percent inflation rate...." he wrote.

Well today, Mr Romero has some serious explaning to do. Turns out Chavez's anti-inflation moves dropping the VAT tax have had an immediate effect even more positive than Chavez could have hoped. What was termed "runaway inflation" by the Western press the previous month appears to have suddely turned around. Bloomberg reports:

Venezuela Consumer Prices Unexpectedly Fell in March
By Guillermo Parra-Bernal and Theresa Bradley

April 2 (Bloomberg) -- Venezuelan consumer prices had their biggest monthly decline since at least 1990 in March after the government slashed the value-added tax on all consumer goods.

Consumer prices fell 0.7 percent last month, the central bank said today in an e-mailed statement. Only one of 12 economists surveyed by Bloomberg predicted a drop in prices. In February, prices rose 1.4 percent.

``In the short term, we're going to start to quickly see a decrease in inflationary pressures,'' Armando Leon, a central bank director, told reporters in Caracas today. He predicted inflation will continue to slow during the second quarter.

The government cut the value-added tax rate to 11 percent from 14 percent on March 1 to help ease a surge in consumer prices triggered by shortages of goods from foodstuffs to car parts. Economists such as Tania Reif of Citigroup Inc. said the effect of the tax reduction will be temporary and that a growing economy and restrictions on foreign exchange trading may push up inflation again in a few months.

Inflation for the 12 months through March slowed to 18.5 percent from 20.4 percent in February, compared with the 20.1 percent median estimate in the survey. Venezuela, where inflation has topped 10 percent a year since 1986, has the fastest pace of consumer price increases in Latin America.

``The behavior of the price index reflects the impact of the series of tax measures taken by the government last month, as well as recent adjustment in some regulated prices and the substantial improvement in the supply'' of certain consumer goods, the central bank said the statement.
Food prices fell 4.7 percent in March, the bank said. Telecommunications prices, including cell phone fares, dropped 2.6 percent and the cost of transportation fell 0.3 percent.
Whole thing


Colombia: US Ambassador Visits Gen. Montoya

The commander of Colombia's army Gen. Mario Montoya reads a sign in an official visit to a school in Medellin, Colombia - the city where at least 36 people died and 50 went missing in an operation he led with terrorists in 2005.

No one seems to care about the massive human rights abuses our best friend in the region is committing, but the scandal grows every day. Montoya will probably remain free forever because no one really wants to investigate or cooperate, particularly the Bush Administration and apparently the LA Times. The US Ambassador in Bogota made a point of visiting the potential war criminal the other day too.

Here's two LA Times letters to the editor. Guess which one came from me?

Suspected ties in Colombia
March 31, 2007

Re "Colombia army chief linked to outlaw militias," March 25

Shame on The Times for publishing a front-page article that is mainly designed to play into political games with the clear objective of making Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's government look bad. It is amazing that I have to read more than half of the article before I find that a CIA spokesperson said the sources are unconfirmed. The Uribe government has enjoyed tremendous support among Colombians, and Colombia has been our best friend in the Americas. Since Uribe took office, Colombia is at peace in most of its territory and has benefited from Uribe's policies of attracting foreign investment, commerce and tourism and achieving a high economic growth rate.

I commend The Times for coming forth with the leaked CIA report on suspected Colombian military links to terrorist groups and operations. Considering that more of our tax dollars go to Colombia's military than to the rest of Latin America, getting to the bottom of this and expunging U.S. culpability is a must. Colombia's army commander, Gen. Mario Montoya, has called on The Times to produce the documents. Will The Times join the Bush administration in not allowing those documents to be seen?

The Times basically have already said (in the original piece) that they are not going to provide any of the details that would prove the illegal cooperation between the army and the right-wing paramilitaries (on the US terrorist list). As the CIA didn't want them to print anything about this, it is doubtful the Times will blow the whistle on a major ally. But as the investigation goes forward in Bogota, this piece of evidence may be the crucial link to blow the entire thing open. Also, watch the democrat led Congressional hearings on the $700 million a year we send to these guys. The scandel may yet get more interesting.


Cuban Colada: Build Bridges, Drink Rum

A second Cuban oriented blog has launched from the writers over at the Miami Herald. This one is from Frances Robles and is called Cuban Colada. I've been over there typing my thoughts on each post seemingly alone, but I know there are more reading. Here is a sample of the types of things you can only really get from someone so in the loop on Cuba:

Build Bridges, Drink Rum
The Spanish daily El Pais on Sunday published an interview with Roman Catholic Cardenal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Havana, titled, "At this delicate moment, Cuba needs dialogue, not pressure."

The archbishop's advice: build bridges, dialogue and reconciliation."The path is dialogue, with pressure you get nowhere."

To read the entire interview in Spanish, click here:
In other news last week, Cuba's Havana Club rum brand sold a record 2.6 million cases last year, fueled by a 30 percent sales surge in the island's domestic market, company officials told The Associated Press.

Enrique Noste, Havana Club's director of marketing for Cuba, said the company's rums now rank 34th out of the world's 100 top-selling spirits.

Most sales are on the island itself. Some 960,000 cases of Havana Club were sold in 2006 and sales are expected to top a million this year, Noste said.

That's a whole lot of booze being guzzled up by locals. Is there some sort of celebration going on we don't know about?

"It's a sector that is very popular with the population," Noste said. "Undoubtedly, it's a type of drink that has been a big hit with the Cuban people and it's the base of growth for us. We have had growth in other sectors, but it's the strongest.''


Castro: Bush's Ethanol Policy Will Hurt Poor, Environment

Sectors of the Western media seem intent on doing the Bush Administration's work in manufacturing discord between the "good" and bad" left in Latin America. Case in point is the recent editorial by Fidel Castro on ethanol. A certain AP reporter kicked up the dust in earnest, by making hay about a mostly respectful quote about Castro's piece from Brazil's ForeignMinister, who had not even read the piece. Unbelievable that an editor would such obvious non-news as that and give it a headline like "Castro's biofuel Criticisms Old." If the distinguished FM would have read the piece he'd find that Castro made special praise of Brazil's use of ethanol thus far.

He may have also found that Castro made some undeniable points. It seems impossible for the Bush ethanol plan not to significantly drivs up basic food prices and harm the land and water. If anyone has been paying attention to Mexico, he would certainly worry more (corn and torilla prices have doubled in recent years, promting hunger and protests - and a promise to control prices from President Calderon). The following is from a recent Wired magazine article, which asks if Castro is right?:

Michael Pollan, Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley and bestselling author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Botany of Desire, says Castro actually made some good points. "I was surprised to find myself in agreement with Castro," Pollan told me. "For example, shifting U.S. corn to ethanol production is wreaking havoc on the food economy in Mexico. Now that everyone is tied in together by things like NAFTA, our food prices affect theirs directly. There's been a lot of unrest in Mexico because of their links to our food-industrial complex."

As for ecological damage, says Pollan, "No one is counting the carbon released as we burn down forests to grow 'green' fuel." And despite the standard rhetoric, Pollan says, "This agricultural biomass is not free. All that 'waste' is very important to soil fertility. Where do we get it back? In effect, we're mining the soil. In some respects, it's not so different from the fossil fuel economy."

Finally, Pollan asks, "Why is ethanol so popular? Because it doesn't require us to change anything except which liquid we pour in the tank. It's essentially a one-to-one substitution. No one has to change the way they live or how much they consume." Why ethanol and not, say, conservation or public transit? Because ethanol doesn't rock the boat. "What important interests are against ethanol?" asks Pollan. "There aren't any. That should tell you something." After a brief pause, he adds: "Except Castro."