Monday, December 31, 2007

Chavez Pardons Those Accused of Coup

While the Colombian government and Western media seem to be having a laugh at the expense of the 3 hostages and Hugo Chavez's sincere attempt to free them, Sr. Presidente phoned up the local TV station to announce this unempected act of New Year's forgiveness. Expect the lack of news out of Villavicencio (or news about Oliver Stone) to take higher media precedence. But this is quite a feat of turning the cheek, considering the seriousness of the crimes committed by the coup-mongers.

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Hugo Chavez granted amnesty Monday to those accused of involvement in a failed 2002 coup that briefly drove him from power.

Chavez said he signed an amnesty decree that would also pardon others accused in suspected attempts to overthrow the government or assassinate him. It was not immediately clear how many accused opponents would be affected by the amnesty.

"It's a matter of turning the page," Chavez said in a telephone call to state television on New Year's Eve. "We would like a country that moves toward peace."

Chavez read aloud the law, which grants amnesty to those who signed a decree recognizing the interim government that briefly took power during the 2002 coup. Chavez was ousted by dissident military officers, but within two days he was returned to the presidency loyalist generals amid protests by his supporters in the streets.

Opponents accused of violently taking over the state television channel would also fall under the amnesty, along with those who sought to violently sabotage oil tanker ships during an opposition-led strike that followed the coup.

He reiterated that regardless of the law, no one in Venezuela is jailed "for his political ideas."

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Ecuador: Government Hikes Private Salaries 18 Percent

Cuenca, Ecuador

In two months I will be honeymooning in Ecuador (and either Galapagos or Havana) and the US Congress will make an important decision about whether to cut Ecuador off from a lucrative preferential trade program (favored status). The program has resulted in a export boom of 53% since 2002, but is in favor of being blocked by legislators increasingly spooked by the left-wing politics coming out of Latin America. Meanwhile, Correa made another move sure to worry the capitalists - he stepped into a dispute between unions and employers and raised all private sector salaries 17.6% next year.

QUITO, Dec 27 (Reuters) - Ecuador on Thursday decided to hike the minimum salary for private sector workers by 17.6 percent next year in a move that could fuel more tensions between the leftist government and business groups.

The increase that will set the minimum wage at $200 per month is one of the largest since Ecuador adopted the U.S. dollar as its national currency in 2000 after a crippling economic crisis. Ecuador expects to register inflation between 2.7 and 3.2 percent in 2008.

President Rafael Correa, a leftist former economy minister, has vowed to battle the oil-producing country's rich elite and help the poor majority. He has clashed with business leaders over his proposed legislation to reform the tax law, which could force businesses to pay in advance part of their income tax and hike duties on unproductive lands.

Business trade groups says Correa's plans to boost state control over the economy will erode the Andean country's finances in the long-run.


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Parasitic Worms Infecting Quarter of US Inner City Minorities

y Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Roundworms may infect close to a quarter of inner city black children, tapeworms are the leading cause of seizures among U.S. Hispanics and other parasitic diseases associated with poor countries are also affecting Americans, a U.S. expert said on Tuesday.

Recent studies show many of the poorest Americans living in the United States carry some of the same parasitic infections that affect the poor in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, said Dr. Peter Hotez, a tropical disease expert at George Washington University and editor-in-chief of the Public Library of Science journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases.

Writing in the journal, Hotez said these parasitic infections had been ignored by most health experts in the United States.

"I feel strongly that this is such an important health issue and yet because it only affects the poor it has been ignored," Hotez said via e-mail.

He said the United States spent hundreds of millions of dollars to defend against bio-terrorism threats like anthrax or smallpox or avian flu, which were more a theoretical concern than a real threat at present.

"And yet we have a devastating parasitic disease burden among the American poor, right under our nose," Hotez said.

He noted a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, presented in November, found that almost 14 percent of the U.S. population is infected with Toxocara roundworms, which dogs and cats can pass to people.

"Urban playgrounds in the United States have recently been shown to be a particularly rich source of Toxocara eggs and inner-city children are at high risk of acquiring the infection," Hotez wrote, adding that this might be partly behind the rise in asthma cases in the country. Up to 23 percent of urban black children may be infected, he said.

"Because of its possible links to asthma, it would be important to determine whether covert toxocariasis is a basis for the rise of asthma among inner-city children in the northeastern United States," he added.

"Cysticercosis is another very serious parasitic worm infection ... caused by the tapeworm Taenia solium, that results in seizures and other neurological manifestations," Hotez wrote.

He said up to 2,000 new cases of neurological disease caused by tapeworms are diagnosed every year in the United States. More than 2 percent of adult Latinos may be infected, and with 35 million Hispanics in the United States, this could add up to tens of thousands of cases, Hotez said.

"In the hospitals of Los Angeles, California, neurocysticercosis currently accounts for 10 percent of all seizures presenting to some emergency departments," he wrote.

"We need to begin erasing these horrific health disparities," Hotez wrote in the paper, available online at here.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Colombia: Chavez Wins FARC Pledge to Release Hostages

Farc pledges to release three hostages
By Benedict Mander in Caracas
Published: December 19 2007 01:38

Colombian rebels said on Tuesday they would release three hostages to Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president, including an aide to former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt held captive since 2002.

Clara Rojos, her son Emmanuel, who was born in captivity, and Consuelo Gonzalez, a former lawmaker kidnapped in 2001, would be released in Colombia to Mr Chávez “or someone he designates”, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, said in a statement to Cuban news agency Prensa Latina. The statement, dated December 9, did not say when the release would take place.

Mr Chávez recently put relations with Colombia “in the freezer” after Alvaro Uribe, Colombian president, cancelled his role as mediator in the hostage crisis.

The leftwing guerilla group called its decision “compensation” for the families of the kidnapped and for Mr Chávez, whose treatment by Colombia’s government it described as “diplomatic ­barbarism”.

Mr Uribe terminated Mr Chávez’s role as mediator on November 21, after it became clear the Venezuelan leader had contacted Colombia’s army chief despite being asked not to. Mr Chávez reacted angrily, calling Mr Uribe a “pawn” of the US.

Videos were subsequently released showing prisoners, including Ms Betancourt, a French-Colombian politician captured during her presidential campaign in 2002, were still alive.

“It was thanks to Chávez that we got the proof of life of Ingrid and that the problem was recognised by the international community.” Lorenzo Delloye Betancourt, Ms Betancourt’s son, said. “I ask Chávez to continue.”

Mr Delloye Betancourt urged the international community to increase pressure on the Colombian government to achieve the release of the 45 hostages held by Farc in exchange for 500 imprisoned rebels.

Farc said Mr Uribe’s offer this month of a 250-sq km “meeting point” where a possible prisoner swap could be discussed was “unacceptable”. Instead, it continued to demand a larger demilitarised zone in southwest Colombia for the talks.

Luis Carlo Restrepo, Colombia’s high commissioner for peace, said the news should be treated with “caution”, since Farc had previously said it would release prisoners without fulfilling its promise.

Farc’s statement thanked Mr Chávez for “his dedication, his colossal effort as a facilitator, his good faith, [and] his solidarity with the peaceful cause of the Colombian people”.


US Censors Movie Poster

The poster for the winner of a number of prestigous "best documentary" awards has been censored by the MPAA. The film tells the story of an Afghan taxi driver arrested on false charges and later killed there. The image can be seen above. As you can see, there is no blood, no torture - like the horror flic billboards allowed everywhere over the summer. There is simply an REAL image of 2 GIs escorting a detainee in the way our regulations advise = hooded. There should darn well be a shit storm about this, but we will see. Americans don't like to beleive their is censorhip in the "freeest country in the world" but alas, further proof is before us. Shame on the MPAA.

The MPAA has rejected the one-sheet for Alex Gibney's documentary "Taxi to the Dark Side," which traces the pattern of torture practice from Afghanistan's Bagram prison to Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay.
ThinkFilm opens the pic, which is on the Oscar shortlist of 15 docs, on Jan. 11.

The image in question is a news photo of two U.S. soldiers walking away from the camera with a hooded detainee between them.

An MPAA spokesman said: "We treat all films the same. Ads will be seen by all audiences, including children. If the advertising is not suitable for all audiences it will not be approved by the advertising administration."

According to ThinkFilm distribution prexy Mark Urman, the reason given by the Motion Picture Assn. of America for rejecting the poster is the image of the hood, which the MPAA deemed unacceptable in the context of such horror films as "Saw" and "Hostel." "To think that this is not apples and oranges is outrageous," he said. "The change renders the art illogical, without any power or meaning."

The MPAA also rejected the one-sheet for Roadside Attractions' 2006 film "The Road to Guantanamo," which featured a hooded prisoner hanging from his handcuffed wrists. At the time, according to Howard Cohen, co-president of Roadside Attractions, the reason given was that the burlap bag over the prisoner's head depicted torture, which was not appropriate for children to see.

"Not permitting us to use an image of a hooded man that comes from a documentary photograph is censorship, pure and simple," said producer, writer and director Gibney. "Intentional or not, the MPAA's disapproval of the poster is a political act, undermining legitimate criticism of the Bush administration. I agree that the image is offensive; it's also real."

ThinkFilm plans to appeal the ruling, although Urman admitted that he "doesn't know what that entails. I've only appealed ratings before."

If ThinkFilm ignores the MPAA and uses materials that have not been approved, it runs the risk of having the rating revoked, which is what happened earlier this year to "Captivity."

The "Taxi" ad art is actually an amalgam of two pictures. The first, taken by Corbis photographer Shaun Schwarz, features the hooded prisoner and one soldier. Another military figure was added on the left. Ironically, the original Schwarz photo was censored by the military, which erased his camera's memory. The photographer eventually retrieved the image from his hard drive.

"It's the photo that would not die," Gibney said. "This movie is not a horror film like 'Hostel.' This is a documentary and that image is a documentary image."

Read the full article at:


US Homeland Security Distracted by Focus on Cuba

Photo from Don Gurewitz Photography.

Catching Americans who travel illegally to Cuba or who purchase cigars, rum or other products from the island may be distracting some American government agencies from higher-priority missions like fighting terrorism and combating narcotics trafficking, a government audit to be released Wednesday says.

December 19, 2007

The report, from the Government Accountability Office, says that Customs and Border Protection, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, conducts secondary inspections on 20 percent of charter passengers arriving from Cuba at Miami International Airport, more than six times the inspection rate for other international arrivals, even from countries considered shipment points for narcotics.

That high rate of inspections and the numerous seizures of relatively benign contraband “have strained C.B.P.’s capacity to carry out its primary mission of keeping terrorists, criminals and inadmissible aliens from entering the country at Miami International Airport,” says the audit, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times.

The audit also called on the Treasury Department to scrutinize the priorities of its Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces more than 20 economic and trade sanctions programs, including those aimed at freezing terrorists’ assets and restricting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, but has long focused on Cuba.

Between 2000 and 2006, 61 percent of the agency’s investigation and penalty caseload involved Cuba embargo cases. Over that period, the office opened 10,823 investigations into possible violations involving Cuba and just 6,791 investigations on all other cases, the audit found.

Critics of the American embargo on Cuba seized on the report as evidence that Washington’s policy, which began in the Kennedy administration and has grown more stringent ever since, was outdated.

“This is not good policy,” said Representative Charles B. Rangel, Democrat of New York, who requested the report a year ago with Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California. “It’s vindictive. It’s stupid. It’s costly. And now we find out it’s a threat to our national security.”

The Bush administration’s tightening of the Cuba sanctions in 2004 appears to have discouraged many Americans from visiting the island. Manuel Marrero, Cuba’s tourism minister, acknowledged as much in a recent interview in Havana, blaming the “blockade,” as Cubans call the embargo, for scaring Americans away.

“Sooner or later, there will be justice for the people of the United States, and they will be allowed to visit and share with our people,” Mr. Marrero said.

Most of the Americans who visit Cuba each year do not go directly from Miami but use third countries like Canada, Mexico, Jamaica or the Bahamas. Catching them is difficult but not impossible. In some cases, American immigration officials simply observe them getting off flights from Havana at foreign airports where the United States has a presence, officials say.
Whole thing


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Iraq War Veteran Testifies About Cuba Travel Trestrictions

Mr. Lazo is a sergeant and combat medic in the Washington Staet National Guard and is an Iraq War veteran. He testified yesterday about the insanity that is our Cuba travel policy, which forbade him from visiting his 2 sons who live in Havana after returning from Iraq. I'll let him tell the story and make the case against the travel restrictions, as he does so eloquently:

Statement of Carlos Lazo Washington State National Guard
Committee on Senate Finance
December 11, 2007

...In Iraq, I was risking my life on a daily basis. All I wanted to do was to
hug my boys and spend even a few hours with them. In a war, time is
precious, life is uncertain, and this visit had profound significance to me.

I flew all the way from Iraq to Miami intending to board a plane to Havana
from there. By that time, though, our government had imposed new
restrictions limiting travel to the island. These new regulations, among
other things, limited family visits by Cuban Americans to once every three
years. The new rules also re- defined the concept of a family.

I returned to Iraq to fight for freedom, to fight for my adoptive country
and to promote American values and ideals in Iraq. But what about my freedom
to visit my children and my other family members in Cuba?
That freedom was
denied to me.

I served and I survived. After more than a year, and I completed my tour of
duty in Iraq, I tried once more to visit my sons and family in Cuba, but I
was again denied a license to do so. Not even the fact that one of my sons
was gravely ill and in a hospital was good enough reason for our government
to allow me to spend a few hours to travel to Cuba.

These Cuba travel restrictions make no exceptions for humanitarian reasons...
What does this mean, no humanitarian exceptions? For example, if I were to
visit my father in Cuba and three months later he were to die, there is no
legal or humanitarian mechanism in place which would allow me to go to his
funeral. These licenses may be granted but once every three years - and
there are no exceptions.

These regulations were supposed to deprive the Cuban government of money and
thereby accelerate the so-called Cuban transition to a more democratic
society. But after four years, all these rules have done is impose even
greater suffering on Cuban Americans here and their families on the island.
These laws have created only a greater sense of family separation and
suffering with no discernible impact on Cuba`s economy or its government.

Wouldn`t it be better if the greatest ambassadors of democracy - Cuban
Americans - could visit the island and relay our message of freedom and
American values? What better way of promoting these basic values intrinsic
in our society than through people to people contacts.

When I tell my American friends about the obstacles that stop
Cuban-Americans from visiting their family members in Cuba, they
automatically assume that they have been imposed by the Castro government.
Even after I explain the truth to them, they cannot believe that the travel
restrictions were created by our government. The real victims of this
cruelty are not the Cuban government or its leadership, but Cuban families
and America`s highest ideals.

These restrictions are cruel, they are inhumane, they are irrational, and
they are unjust. Most of all, rules that prevent families from visiting, and
helping, and loving each other, are un- American. But you have the power to
undo them. These rules may have no humanitarian exemptions, but I cannot
believe there is no humanity here in the United States Senate.

With the greatest respect, I implore you to eliminate these restrictions so
you can reunite Cuban families on both sides of the Florida Straits.

I would like to conclude with this quote by Alex Haley. He said, ``In every
conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future.``
Let me leave you with a question: Will America allow its future to be
defined by the cruelty of these regulations or will we instead win over our
enemies with the love that a united family provides? Thank you.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Colombia: Documents Suggest Uribe Family Drug Link

A justice minister -- later assassinated -- complained in the 1980s that drug dealing had infiltrated politics, possibly even the Uribe family, documents showed. This is not the first time in recent months evidence of this sort has come out. Add that to the terrorism angle of these associates and you have the US's model "good guy" President in the region.

El Nuevo Herald

Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, Colombia's former justice minister who led a campaign against drug trafficking in the 1980s, once said President Alvaro Uribe and his father were models of how Colombian society had been infiltrated by drug dealers, according to legal documents obtained by El Nuevo Herald.

In a sworn declaration made in 1984, Lara Bonilla's sister declared that he had cited the case of a helicopter that had been captured in a huge cocaine laboratory in the south of Colombia that, according to government information, was owned by the president's father, Alberto Uribe Sierra. He had made the statement just weeks before his assassination by ''sicarios'' from the Medellín Cartel.

President Uribe has denied any wrongdoing by either himself or his father and family, saying that the helicopter had been sold a month before the seizure. But there is no document showing the transfer of the chopper in the aeronautics registry.

Lara Bonilla's son and Colombia's current anticorruption czar, Rodrigo Lara Restrepo, told El Nuevo Herald that neither he nor his brothers had read the files of his father, who was killed in April 1984.

''Now that I know [of] these documents, I believe it is a delicate topic, and I will give a declaration the next few days,'' he said.

Weeks before he was assassinated, Lara Bonilla complained about drug traffickers infiltrating all sectors of society. His remarks weren't generic. They came with names, dates and places....
Whole Thing

Mexico: US and Cuban-Americans to Blame for Smuggling

The rising numbers of Cubans forsaking the dangerous 90 mile boat ride to Florida in favor of a safer trip to Mexico and guaranteed admittance at the US border has become a larger issue this past year. Now, Mexico is speaking up, telling the US its discriminatory Cuban migrant policy is to blame, as are Cuban-Americans financing the trips.

MEXICO CITY -- Cuban-Americans are financing the smuggling Cuban immigrants through Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, an illegal trade that is fomented by the U.S. policy of granting Cubans automatic asylum, Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora said Monday.

A violent ring of immigrant smugglers operates in Mexico, where Cubans land on the coasts in rickety boats before crossing overland to the U.S. border, Medina Mora told reporters.

"This has been legally proved, that people of Cuban origin but who are citizens of the United States are involved, financing these people-smuggling operations, obviously with the complicity of Mexicans," the attorney general said.

"This has to do with U.S. policy toward Cubans," he said. "Those who make it to (U.S.) territory by their own means can get automatic refugee status, so that policy serves as an incentive" to smuggle Cubans here.

Under the so-called "wet foot, dry foot" policy, the U.S. turns back Cubans intercepted on the seas but grants asylum to most who make it to shore. To avoid capture by U.S. authorities before making it to land, many Cubans decide to go through Mexico.

Mexico is struggling to deal with a series of gangland-style slayings apparently related to the trafficking of migrants from Cuba, which lies only about 130 miles east of the Yucatan Peninsula, just slightly farther by boat from Cuba than Florida.

In a new trend, nearly 90 percent of all undocumented Cubans who make it to the United States now travel overland rather than reaching U.S. shores by boat, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Mexico also is having problems with its burgeoning population of detained Cuban migrants, most of whom want to go to the U.S. Most Cubans are released after being held 90 days at a Mexican immigration center. Only about one-third of all those arrested in 2006 were repatriated to Cuba, Mexican migration officials say.

Last week, three Cuban immigrants were treated for dehydration at a Mexican hospital after going on a hunger strike to demand release from a detention center. They were returned to the center and are awaiting decisions in their cases.