Monday, February 28, 2011

Egypt, Wisconsin

The Canadian alt-rock band Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet once recorded a zippy little song called “Egypt, Texas”; listening that song recently, I wondered, could the same type of protests that drove Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt and now threaten to drive Gadhafi out of Libya happen in the United States? Far-fetched? Perhaps, but as recently as December 2010, who would have thought that we'd see popular uprisings in some of the Middle East/North Africa's staunchest autocracies? The protests had a common theme: the masses rising up against a government wholly unresponsive to their needs and uncaring about their plight. And though that lens, the ongoing protests in Wisconsin start to look remarkably familiar.

For more than a week, thousands (at times tens of thousands) have rallied in Madison, Wisconsin to speak out against Gov. Scott Walker's plan to impose not only cuts to the salaries and pensions of the state's teachers, but also a plan to essentially strip their union of its collective bargaining rights. Since the union had already agreed to the monetary cuts Walker's attack on collective bargaining rights can only been seen as what it truly is: a naked attempt at union-busting wearing a cloak of fiscal responsibility, a fact that Walker inadvertently confirmed to a journalist posing as one of his primary backers, billionaire businessman Scott Koch, the faux-Koch replied by saying: “Well, I tell you what, Scott: once you crush these bastards I’ll fly you out to Cali and really show you a good time,” to which Walker laughed in reply. Walker is not alone, governors, Republican governors, in New Jersey, Ohio and Indiana to name a few states, have launched their own attacks against the unions, blaming them for their respective states' financial plights (in New Jersey at least, the real culprit is more than a decade of fiscal mismanagement by the state government). It is shaping up as the Republicans final assault in their decades-long War on the Working Class, a war that began in earnest under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s – consider for a moment that the average inflation-adjusted wage has not increased since the Reagan era. The roots of this conflict though reach back even further, to the opposition against Franklin Roosevelt's “New Deal” package of social programs, something today's era of conservatives mark as the point from which we “lost” the Constitution (for a concise treatment of the conservative “Constitution in exile” movement, see the current issue of The Week magazine).

Strict conservatives see union rights, the minimum wage, environmental and labor protection laws and a host of other social programs as blatantly unconstitutional; their goal is to repeal them. All of them. In the process, they hope to turn the country back to the glory days of the 90s, the 1890s that is; a time known as the Gilded Age for its ostentatious concentrations of wealth thanks to laissez-faire government policies. Of course the 1890s were also a time of grinding poverty for the majority of Americans, who toiled six or seven days a week (children included) for wages that barely, and often did not, provide a living wage for themselves and their families. Today were seeing many of the same wild concentrations of wealth – today individuals in the top 1% income bracket control 43% of the nation’s wealth, though we still have the labor and environmental protections won over the course of decades in place, for now.

Sadly the Democrats in recent years have offered little in the way of opposition. So effectively have conservative voices dominated the economic debate that the Democrats today largely go out of their way to show they can be just as hard on the poor as their Republican counterparts. Case in point, President Obama's recent cuts to home heating assistance programs, since, he argued, fuel prices have dropped lessening the need for assistance. This may be true of natural gas prices, but in the cold Northeast, many houses are burn heating oil, not natural gas, and heating oil prices have been steadily climbing. It was an act of either utter, or willful, ignorance on the part of the President, but also one that shows how out of touch he is with the needs of the low-income population in his own country.

In short, America is coming to have the same type of out-of-touch government, which focuses its efforts not on meeting the needs of the masses but in serving the desires of the elites that we saw in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain, etc. Unfortunately, the only mass movement we've seen in the United States recently has been the faux-populism of the Tea Party: a collection (I think) of well-meaning people suffering with the economic realities of America in the 21st century, who have unfortunately been taken in by a collection of shills for the nation's elites; for example much of the early organization of “Tea Party” events came from Freedom Works, a DC-based lobbying firm run by former House Republican Dick Armey – not much populism there. The hidden hand of the elites behind the Tea Party, working in concert with compliant media outlets like Fox News, have skillfully managed to conflate the concerns of the average citizen involved in Tea Party rallies about the direction of their country is headed with the conservatives “Constitution in exile” agenda: that a cadre of “liberal elitists” is trying to “dismantle” the Constitution and “take their country away from them.” So Tea Party activists fight to dismantle the very protections that insure they at least make a living wage, that they have clean air to breathe and water to drink and that their children are ensured a basic public education. George Orwell would be proud.

That is why it is impossible to overstate the magnitude of the protests going on in Wisconsin, and that have been bubbling up in other states, since this is true populism at work: Americans lobbying their government for redress of issues affecting their lives. So far Gov. Scott Walker has taken the Hosni Mubarak approach of ignoring their demands, while former US Senator Rick Santorum went the Gadhafi route and compared the Wisconsin protesters to drug addicts.

It is quite likely that Gov. Walker's ham-handed, billionaire-fueled attempt at union-busting will prevail in Wisconsin; the only thing preventing it is a boycott by Democratic lawmakers, hardly a sustainable situation. When that happens it will be a setback not only for labor, but for small-“d”-democracy in the country as a whole as tens of thousands of workers will have ample proof that their government does not have their interests at heart. More will become disillusioned, more will turn away from a political system that relies on the participation of its citizens; remember that demos is Greek for “the people”. What we've learned in this winter of protests in the Arab world is that people will live for a long time under oppressive, non-responsive regimes, until one magical day, for one random reason, they do not any longer – the wave of uprisings in the Arab world were all sparked by the suicide of one young fruit vendor in Tunisia. And every day our government grows a little more unresponsive, a little more indifferent to the plight of its people is one more day we move closer to Egypt, Texas; and Egypt, Wisconsin; and Egypt, Ohio...
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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Pirates 3 a.m.

Back in the 2008 Democratic primaries, then candidate Hillary Clinton suggested that fellow candidate Barrack Obama wouldn't be ready as president to answer the emergency phone call that comes into the White House at three in the morning; now according to former George W. Bush press flack Ari Fleischer that call has come, in the form of Somali pirates.

“4 Americans killed by pirates. This is the 3:00am call that Hillary warned about. If O [Pres. Obama] doesn't want more killed, he must strike back,” Fleischer tweeted according to ABC News. Fleischer was of course referring to the four Americans aboard a hijacked yacht in the Indian Ocean on Tuesday at the hands of Somali pirates that had captured the ship over the weekend – though frankly a few things about that story don't make a lot of sense. Supposedly the pirates were negotiating with the FBI when gunshots were heard. Navy SEALS were dispatched from a nearby US warship only to find the hostages dead; two pirates were then killed in a shootout, two others wounded and 13 taken into custody. The problems I have with this story though are why would the pirates decide to shoot their hostages in the middle of negotiations? And 21 people seems like a lot for a 58-foot yacht... Perhaps a more plausible explanation is that this was a Navy-led hostage rescue attempt gone wrong.

But getting back to Fleischer, he went on to tweet: “If I was a Somali pirate & if O doesn't retaliate, I'd keep taking hostages. If crime/terror pays, there will be more crime/terror.” Fleischer is apparently unaware that the current wave of piracy off the coast of Somalia has been going on in earnest since 2008 and that literally dozens of ships have been captured so far and tens of millions paid in ransom. Equally as tone-deaf was Donald Trump at the recent CPAC convention when he said that all we needed to solve the piracy problem was a few ships and a couple of good admirals; again apparently unaware that at any given time there is a flotilla of roughly two dozen warships from navies around the globe, the US Navy included, engaged in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. The problem is that given the fact Somali pirates now range across several million square miles of ocean, to effectively combat the problem more than 100 warships would be needed. (Frankly it's also a little hard to believe that with protests roiling North Africa and the Persian Gulf, Fleischer keyed in on Somali pirates as Obama's “3 a.m. moment”.)

Fleischer's comments are likely a new conservative line of attack on Obama's foreign policy, slamming him over a fairly intractable problem that the global community has been happy to ignore for the past two decades; namely the lawless state that is Somalia. An increased naval presence in the Indian Ocean could help to battle the pirates, but the only real solution to ending piracy in Somalia lies onshore. A stopgap measure would be to put troops on land to capture and secure pirate port cities like Haradhere and Eyl; the only way to permanently solve the problem would be to restore security a functioning government to Somalia as a nation, which has essentially been lawless since the overthrow of Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. But the international community is reluctant to even offer financial support to the African Union peacekeeping mission that is maintaining a tenuous foothold in the capital, Mogadishu for Somalia's Transitional Federal Government, let alone doing anything bold like supplying equipment or troops to the mission. So until the international community gets serious about restoring Somalia to the ranks of functioning nation-states around the world, the piracy problem will continue, no matter how many tweets Ari Fleischer writes.

Finally, to wrap up on a more ominous note, this week Somali pirates operating out of the port of Haradhere agreed essentially to pay a “tax” to Somalia's main Islamic militant group, al-Shabaab. While there has long been a fear that Somali piracy was being used to fund the Islamic militancy in the country, the Islamists had only a slight involvement in piracy, while the Somali pirates were happy to spend their ransom money on women, alcohol and drugs – all things forbidden under the strict version of Islam pushed by groups like al-Shabaab. Late in December, militants moved into Haradhere, one of the main Somali pirate ports. Now under terms of the agreement, Somali pirates will kickback 20% of any future ransoms to al-Shabaab – a revenue stream of potentially millions of dollars, in addition to a one-time payment said to be in the millions as well.
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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Shake Djibouti

Add another country to those experiencing the wave of protests that started in Tunisia, and have swept across Egypt and much of the Mid-East/North Africa (MENA) region: Djibouti. The tiny nation perched on the Horn of Africa saw its own street protests erupt last Friday as an estimated 30,000 people turned out in the capital, Djibouti City, against the rule of President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh. While 30,000 might not sound like a huge turnout, keep in mind that Djibouti City only has 600,000 residents, so that would be like 350,000 turning out in New York City to protest against Mayor Michael Bloomberg; the Djibouti City rally turnout was also far larger than the opposition Union for a Democratic Alternative (UAD), which took the point in organizing the event, expected.

The protesters' complaints were what we're coming to expect: anger over the country's lack of development (the United Nations Development Program ranks Djibouti 148 out of 169 countries surveyed), low quality of life for the majority of the citizenry and an oppressive central government. The protests crystallized around Pres. Guelleh's apparently unconstitutional attempt to seek a third term in office, which began on January 1. Since then the UAD has tried to mobilize their supporters to protest against Guelleh, the UAD themselves have sat out the last two elections, which they said were rigged in favor of Guelleh.

Unfortunately the protests were not entirely peaceful. Late reports say that near the end of the rally the police began to fire indiscriminately into the crowd, wounding at least two people; the crowd responded by throwing rocks back at the police, killing one officer and badly injuring a second.

The protests in Djibouti have received practically no attention in the Western press, despite the fact that both the United States and France have military bases in the country – the US uses Djibouti as a central location for anti-piracy efforts against the Somali pirates plying the waters off the Horn of Africa, while the country is one of the home bases of the French Foreign Legion. Perhaps one reason why they've received little attention is that these protests can't be credited to Facebook since Djibouti has relatively few Internet users. According to reports, Friday's protests were largely organized using cellphones and SMS messages.
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MENA Protest Songs

Every great political protest needs its own song, so why should the pro-democracy uprisings of Tunisia, Egypt, and the rest of the region be any different? Of course today thanks to YouTube, these songs can reach beyond a cluster of people gathered around a campfire and to a global audience. Radio Free Europe has collected a selection of five protest song videos from the region including a reworked Iranian student protest song and an Egyptian anti-government rap. You can check them out here.
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Friday, February 18, 2011

Sudan Name Game

In case you were wondering, the world's newest country will be called South Sudan.

The provisional government of the breakaway southern region of Sudan made the announcement on Wednesday, ending speculation - and confusion - over what to call their nation when it formally gets its independence from the rest of Sudan this coming July. News reports seemed split on calling the region “South Sudan” or “Southern Sudan”, though apparently “Nile Republic” and the Biblical name “Cush” were also in the running (personally, I think Nile Republic has a nice ring to it). Confusion over a name hasn't kept South Sudan from already picking a flag and national anthem; and while the city of Juba will serve as the interim capital for South Sudan, according to Foreign Policy magazine, the country would prefer to build a new capital city from scratch in the future.

South Sudan's split from the rest of Sudan came after results of a referendum showed 99% voting in favor of independence. The referendum was part of a 2005 peace accord that halted a decades-long civil war between the largely-Christian south and the largely-Muslim north. So far the government in Khartoum is sticking with their pledge to respect the results of the referendum and allow South Sudan to breakaway, even though the south holds a significant portion of Sudan's oil reserves.

For an interesting visual representation of the North/South divide, check out the NASA photo below, which shows the north as largely desert, while the south (soon South Sudan) is a deep green blanket of grasslands and jungle.

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Russia, Japan and the Kurils Faceoff

The Falklands Island War between Great Britain and Argentina in 1981 was once described as making as much sense as “two bald men fighting over a comb.” That same description could be applied to the recent spat between Russia and Japan over the Kuril Islands. The Kurils are a chain of rocky, barren, sparsely-populated islands that stretch from Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula almost to Japan's northernmost main island, Hokkaido. In the dying days of World War II, Soviet troops seized the four southernmost islands in the Kuril chain and have held them ever since; Japan, meanwhile has long demanded that Russia return the islands to Japanese ownership. This dispute has prevented the two countries from formally signing a treaty to officially end World War II, even though the two nations have long had full diplomatic relations.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev caused a stir late last year when he became the first Russian leader to set foot on the Kurils. Now he's making waves again by declaring that Russia will deploy “modern” weapons to defend the Kurils which he then went on to claim were “an inseparable part” of Russia. His comments came just after February 7, which is Northern Territories Day in Japan, a day when the Japanese annually assert their claims of ownership over the four islands seized at the end of World War II.

A bigger question is why the two nations are engaging in such a high-profile spat over these islands in the first place. Of course ownership of them also gives one country of the other the right to use the rich fishing grounds around the islands and to explore the seabed for potential deposits of natural gas. But the dispute also threatens to derail Russo-Japanese relations; the two countries recently signed a joint deal to build a Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) plant on Russia's Sakhalin Island to supply Japan with natural gas, Russia also expects Japan to be a market for Siberian crude oil once their East Siberia Pacific Ocean (ESPO) pipeline becomes fully operational in 2013.

Past the mineral wealth attached to the Kurils, the reason for the dispute over the islands seems to be more tied up with notions of national pride more than anything else. Writing in the Moscow Times, author Richard Lourie argues that in addition to controlling the mineral wealth the islands may or may not contain, Russia wants to keep control of the entire Kuril chain since that bit of territory completes the encirclement of a remote branch of the Northern Pacific known as the Sea of Okhotsk – you may have heard of this body of water (probably the only reason you've heard of this body of water) was because of last month's operation by the Russian Navy to rescue four icebound fishing trawlers, which gives you a pretty good idea of what life is like on the Sea of Okhotsk. Without being encircled by Russian territory, it could be argued that the Sea of Okhotsk was an international body of water, something Moscow apparently does not want. For Japan, the Kurils are the second island dispute they've been involved in during the just past year alone. The other was a faceoff with China over a collection of rocks in the South China Sea that the Japanese call the Senkakus and the Chinese call the Diaoyutai. That dispute led to a collision at-sea between Japanese and Chinese boats and a strong-arm Chinese embargo of rare earth elements to Japan (rare earths are vital in the production of a host of high-tech goods, which are the cornerstone of the Japanese economy).

With Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev looking to burnish his tough guy credentials in the light of his ruling tandem buddy, the International Man of Action, Vladimir Putin, and with the Japanese not wanting to lose face, again, over an island dispute, both sides seem set to dig in their heels over the Kurils, even if it makes as much sense as bald men fighting for a comb.
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Friday, February 11, 2011

Somali Pirate Double Shot

This was perhaps the best week ever for the pirates of Somalia as they seized not one but two loaded oil tankers in the Indian Ocean. On Tuesday a pirate crew captured the Savina Caylyn, an Italian-owned tanker heading from Sudan to Malaysia, 800 miles off the coast of Somalia; on Wednesday another crew took control of the Greek-owned Irene SL, which was carrying two million barrels of crude oil from Kuwait to the United States. No casualties were reported in either incident and both tankers are now assumed to be headed to the Somali coast where they will be held for ransom. Somali pirates have captured a supertanker once before, the Saudi-owned Sirius Star, which was eventually ransomed for $3 million.

Pirates have been more active in recent weeks, following a pattern established over the past few years that sees an uptick in pirate activity after the start of the new year and the end of the monsoon season in the Indian Ocean region. The threat of pirate attacks has been a risk that shipping companies traveling in the Indian Ocean have had to deal with for the past several years, but the seizure of two oil tankers on consecutive days could signal an escalation of the problem according to the firm that owns the Irene SL. “The hijacking by pirates of 2 million barrels of Kuwaiti crude oil destined for the U.S. in a large Greek tanker in the middle of the main sea lanes coming from the Middle East Gulf marks a significant shift in the impact of the piracy crisis in the Indian Ocean," said Joe Angelo, the managing director of INTERTANKO, owners of the Irene SL, in an interview with Reuters. While a multinational flotilla of naval vessels is engaged in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, there is simply too much open ocean (several million square miles depending on how you count the pirates' range) to effectively cover, most of the flotilla's efforts have been in protecting the Gulf of Aden along Somalia's north coast, which is the gateway to the Red Sea and Suez Canal. Navies have also been extremely reluctant to engage in rescue operations once a ship is captured for fear of harming the captured ship's crew; one notable exception was last month when South Korean marines successfully freed the freighter Samho Jewelry, which had been held by pirates for several days.

But for the most part, companies have seen the possibility of paying a ransom for the release of their ship as the cost of doing business in the region. According to the BBC, Somali pirates are currently holding 29 ships of various sizes with an estimated total of 680 crew members among them. Whether the back-to-back tanker seizures changes the equation along the pirate coast remains to be seen.
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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Tajik Land Giveaway

Border disputes are nothing new in international relations, but the government of Tajikistan recently came up with a pretty unique solution to an ongoing dispute with China – they just gave away a sizable chunk of their country. The Tajik government signed over more than 1,000 square kilometers (that's more than 400 square miles) of remote, uninhabited mountains over to China to finally establish the land border between the two nations. For their part, spokesmen for the Tajik government hailed the solution as a triumph of diplomacy, noting that the area is uninhabited and that the land given away was a small portion of the 28,000 square kilometers that China had wanted from Tajikistan – roughly 20% of the country's landmass. Sukhrob Sharipov, head of a government-related think-tank echoed the sentiment and wisdom of the deal, adding that had China decided to take the land by force, the Tajik military wouldn't have been able to stop them and that no one would have come to their aid.

Of course there's more to this story than meets the eye. First, it's hard to believe that China would actually invade Tajikistan over a minor border dispute, especially when they have similar disputes with Pakistan and India over the borders of the Kashmir region. It's also hard to imagine that Russia would stand idly by during a massive military intervention in their “near abroad” - the Russian term for the neighboring countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, places where they still feel they have a privileged level of interest. And while the land in the Pamir Mountains might be remote and uninhabited, they are believed to hold vast reserves of gold, uranium and other valuable minerals, something that impoverished Tajikistan could certainly use. Opposition politicians in Tajikistan, the few that there are, slammed the deal. Mukhiddin Kabiri, head of the Islamic Revival Party suggested the deal was unconstitutional since the Tajik constitution declares: “that the territory of the state is single and indivisible”; Tajikistan's Communist Party meanwhile said that the government “had left behind a huge problem for our descendants.”

But if the Tajik government even heard the protests over the land deal, they apparently decided to pay no attention to them. The following week the government approved a plan to lease a swath of land in the southern part of the country to 1,500 Chinese guest farmers to grow cotton and rice. That agreement sparked another wave of public anger. One Tajik interviewed by noted that there are already land shortages in the area surrounding the capital, Dushanbe; jobs too are in short supply in Tajikistan – hundreds of thousands of Tajiks migrate for work each year, with many heading to Russia, some not returning home for years, if ever. Some estimates are that nearly 80% of Tajik families have at least one member working abroad as a migrant laborer.

Economics likely play a large role in the Tajik government's recent decisions to be so generous with China, in recent years China has given Tajikistan $4 billion in foreign aid, including underwriting several major infrastructure projects. But some like Tajik sociologist Rustam Haidarov see something else at work. “It is China's strategy to resettle its people in different countries. It's China's policy,” he was quoted as saying in EurasiaNet. “They occupy slowly, cautiously. They realize their own goals in Tajikistan and affect our economic policy. In time this will lead to an influence in [Tajik] politics.”
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Sochi Cute

Of course every modern Olympics needs a cute and cuddly mascot, though some are much better than others (anyone remember the Whatsit from the Atlanta games?), and online contests are a popular way of selecting things in the Internet age, so the organizers of the Sochi 2014 Winter Games have invited the public to select their choice for the official mascot of the Games with a site dedicated just to the selection competition. The industrious folks in Sochi are providing mascot fans with eleven choices for the cartoon face of the Sochi Games.  My personal favorite is the Dolphin, since of course when you think Winter Olympics you naturally think of dolphins; it's worth noting here that Sochi is on the Black Sea, enjoys a temperate climate and was once part of the “Soviet Riviera” during the days of the CCCP, so for Sochi the dolphin isn't out of place. My prediction for the eventual winner though are the Matryoshka dolls (the famed Russian wood-carved figurines that nest one inside the next) since there seems to be such a huge range of marketing opportunities with them.

And while the Games are in Russia, the mascot vote is open to people around the world.
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Monday, February 7, 2011

Aristide: You Can't Go Home Again

Ed's Note: Sometimes events catch up with you. Case in point, the post below, which I had written for The Mantle. I was about to post it when the news came out that Haiti had decided to finally issue former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide a passport so he could return to the country, which is the central argument of this piece.  But, I decided to publish it here anyway because it does give some background as to why things in Haiti are so bad today (hint: it's not just because of the earthquake). - E.

On its face it was one of the stranger political decisions of recent times: the sudden return of Haiti's notorious and brutal former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier from a quarter-century of exile ostensibly to help his people recover from the massive earthquake that struck the nation - a full year after the temblor devastated Port-Au-Prince and killed 300,000 people. At the same time though, another Haitian political drama was unfolding much more quietly: the decision to prevent Haiti's former democratically-elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, from making a similar return to his homeland. According to diplomatic cables unearthed in the Wikileaks document dump, following the January 2010 earthquake, the United States supposedly pressured Brazil – the nation heading up the United Nations-backed security and relief efforts in Port-Au-Prince – not to allow Aristide to return from exile in South Africa. Author Gwynne Dyer contends that the United States had long kept tabs on the exiled Duvalier, who traveled back to Haiti on an expired diplomatic passport; it's hard to imagine that airport security in Paris would have missed the fact that his passport was now invalid, meaning that both countries likely knew of Duvalier's travel plans and did nothing to intercede. This of course begs the question as to why the United States would feel the need to slap such an injunction on a deposed democratically-elected president yet not on a former dictator.

Sadly it seems a case of that old maxim attributed to President Franklin Roosevelt in action: “he may be a bastard, but he's our bastard.” For nearly 40 years the Duvalier clan – first Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, then after his death in 1971, his son Jean-Claude - ruled Haiti with an iron fist. But while the years of Duvalier rule may have been ones of oppression for average Haitians, brutally enforced by their secret police, the Tonton Macoute; for Haiti's elite and international business interests from the United States, Canada and France, it was something of a golden age. After a decade and a half of misrule, Baby Doc was overthrown and driven into exile in 1986, a chaotic time followed. Finally in 1991 Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Catholic priest, was elected president. When Aristide was subsequently overthrown, the United States actively supported his return to power as the “democratically-elected” leader of Haiti in 1994. By 2004, during his second term in office though, the United States' opinion of Aristide had changed. At this point, Aristide was making good on some of his populist pledges to try to lift the majority of Haiti's population out of poverty (Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere) at the expense of the nation's elites and international business interests. He had also disbanded Haiti's army, which most Haitians viewed not as an instrument of national protection, but rather national oppression, and had become the head of the Fanmi Lavalas, a populist/socialist political movement that enjoyed wide support from Haiti's underclass. When Aristide was deposed for a second time, the United States' official position was that this was a “domestic matter” for the Haitians themselves to resolve.

Aristide though has long contended that his second deposal was not a Haitian-led revolt, but rather one organized and funded by the United States (specifically the CIA) because of his attempts to reign in international business interests in the country and lift the rank-and-file Haitians out of poverty. It is tempting to dismiss Aristide's charges as mere sour grapes, that his powerful neighbor to the north provides a too convenient scapegoat for his own removal from power. What makes Aristide's claims even more compelling is the decision taken by the Haitian electoral commission ahead of the 2010 election, again supposedly at the urging of the United States, to not allow his party the Fanmi Lavalas to participate. Since Aristide's overthrow, the Fanmi Lavalas has not been allowed to run candidates in any national election, they were barred from the 2010 vote on the grounds that their official electoral paperwork was not in order.

Sadly the United States has a long history of involvement with Haiti that has seldom worked out well for the Haitians. Take for instance the impact the United States has had on Haiti's agricultural sector. As part of a package of neo-liberal economic reforms in the mid-1990s, the United States insisted that Haiti open up their agricultural sector to international competition. The effects on Haiti were devastating: their sugarcane industry all but collapsed and the country went from being an exporter of rice to relying on imports from the United States, which thanks to American farming subsidies, sold in Haitian markets for far less than the domestic product. Haitian agriculture was dealt another heavy blow when the United States insisted that Haiti cull all of their native hogs over misplaced fears that a swine-born illness could jump from the island to the United States mainland and decimate the American pork industry. The Creole Pig was uniquely adapted to thrive in the heat and harsh conditions of the Haitian hinterland, they also formed the basis of the rural economy: a farmer's wealth was often measured in large part by the number of hogs he owned. In return for killing the Creole Pigs, the United States offered to replace them with domestic stock, but these hogs, bred for life on American farms, were ill-suited to Haiti, needing special shelters to protect them from the tropical sun and special feed that was out of the budget of many small Haitian farmers (Creole Pigs foraged for most of their food). As a result, large numbers of farmers were forced to simply give up their land and move to the city – many to the poorly built slums that collapsed so readily in the January 2010 earthquake. President Bill Clinton himself seemed to have a change of heart about forcing open the Haitian agriculture market based on his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last March: “it may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake…I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did.” Aristide and the Fanmi Lavalas staunchly opposed the neo-liberal economic reforms imposed on Haiti in the mid-90s.

Of course history and international relations are complex things, which perhaps is why conspiracy theories – especially the darker ones – about the interplay of nations, seem to find such fertile ground. It must be noted that in the days and weeks immediately following the quake, no other nation arrived in Haiti with as much material and support as the United States. Yet at the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that for much of Haiti's existence, the involvement of the United States in their affairs has arguably done more harm than good. One has to ask if that pattern is not continuing with our apparent insistence that Jean-Bertrand Aristide not be allowed to return to his homeland, especially while Baby Doc sits in Port-Au-Prince.
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Sunday, February 6, 2011

If It Worked For Gbagbo...

The Ivory Coast (or Cote d'Ivoire if you prefer the Francophone version of the name) is now in its third month of being a country with two presidents as the defeated incumbent Laurnet Gbagbo still insists he is still the legitimate ruler of the country, while his opponent, Alassane Ouattara – the guy who actually won the election – remains holed up in a luxury hotel guarded by UN troops. While most governments across Africa are viewing this as a crisis, one politician is seeing an opportunity. So two years after his own apparent defeat at the polls, Gabon's Andre Mba Obame has had himself sworn in as Gabon's president.

Of course Obame has long insisted that the 2009 poll was fraudulent, with the outcome rigged to elect his opponent, Ali Bongo. Ali Bongo is the son of Omar Bongo, who ruled the southwestern African nation for 41 years before his death in 2009. Needless to say the government of Ali Bongo is not amused by Obame's move. According to the Global Post, Obame has been charged with treason and his National Unity party disolved; probably not the outcome Obame was hoping for when he had himself sworn in as president. Rather Obame was gambling that the wave of democratic uprisings sweeping Africa and the Mid-East would spread down to Gabon and sweep him into power. Unfortunately for Mr. Obame, so far though they haven't.
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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Body Snatchers Redux

Last Tuesday the Council of Europe voted to endorse a 27-page report accusing the prime minister and other members of Kosovo's government of operating a human organ smuggling ring during the Kosovo-Serbia War in the late 1990s. The alleged ring was discussed earlier in this post, but in short, a branch of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) known as the Drenica Group is accused of smuggling both Kosovars and captured Serbian soldiers into Albania, where they were executed and their organs harvested for transplant (for a tidy profit of course). This is on top of other more run-of-the-mill criminal activities Drenica is said to have engaged in like drug smuggling and prostitution. The man in charge of the Drenica Group at the time is Kosovo's current Prime Minister Hashim Thaci; much of the leadership of what then was the KLA is now Kosovo's government.

The Council of Europe report will do nothing to boost the image of Kosovo, which had already taken a hit over allegations that their most recent parlimentary elections were far from fair and open. Nor will they help to change a perception that Kosovo is less of a country than it is a massive criminal enterprise. Black market activities, like drug smuggling, are said to make up a large chunk of Kosovo's economy; in fact the joke going around Russia when Afghanistan recently recognized Kosovo's independence was that this marked the first time that a drug supplier had recognized the independence of one of their major dealers.

But the heinous nature of the crimes – the murder of people to sell their organs – trancends mere criminal activity. Not surprisingly, the government of Kosovo is vigorously denying the charges and Thaci is even threatening to sue the author of the report, investigator Dick Marty, for libel. What remains to be seen is if the European Union will take up the charges laid out by the Council of Europe. As Al Jazeera's Laurence Lee notes: “given that a number of Western countries, including the US, have now formally recognised Kosovo it's an open question whether there's the political will to pursue Hashim Thaci.” Good question indeed.

And frankly, for all their talk about support of human rights, the European Union has been fairly weak in taking steps to actually protect them, especially among certain less-favored populations: the Roma (or Gypsies) in Central Europe, ethnic Russian minorities in the former Soviet Baltic republics and African migrants in places like Italy and France. Since Kosovo is a pet project for the EU and the Serbs, at least until recently, were cast in the role of Europe's bad guys, it will be interesting to see if the EU takes the allegations contained in the Council of Europe report seriously. I won't be holding my breath.
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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Pharaoh Folds

Quick thoughts on this afternoon's announcement by Hosni Mubarak that he will not stand for re-election in September, effectively ending his 30 years of rule in Egypt.

On one hand, it is an amazing development, one you hardly could have imagined would happen just a few weeks ago when it seemed like Mubarak was set to die in office, with his son Gamal taking over the reigns of power when that day finally came. And his decision to stay until September does make a certain sense: the Egyptian protests are remarkable for their lack of leadership, if Mubarak were to have announced he was flying off into exile and called for a presidential vote next month, who would run in those elections? The only candidates likely organized enough to run would be members of his current regime, which would produce a result no one on the Cairo streets would find satisfying.

But at the same time, given the level of anger in Egypt today, it is hard to imagine how Mubarak can possibly govern for the next eight months until the scheduled elections. Already, the BBC is reporting that some of those protesting today fear repercussions for their actions from the now still-ruling Mubarak regime. Eight months also gives Mubarak's inner circle plenty of time to pre-rig the next vote for one of their own, or even for Hosni himself to concoct some kind of “emergency” to give him cover to postpone the elections and extend his stay in power.

Mubarak's decision tonight is one that won't satisfy anyone, meaning the Egyptian protests are far from over.
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Men With Hats

With all the serious news coming out of Egypt, a little comic relief is in order, and what better place to find it than North Korea, a country whose ruling regime I contended a few months ago has descended from mere evilness to levels of cartoonish super-villany. Case in point: Korea watchers are suggesting that North Korea's current overlord Dear Leader Kim Jong-il is sending a clear message that his No. #3 son Kim Jong-un has become his anointed successor based on their choice of hats.

It seems that a photo was recently taken with Kim the Younger wearing the exact same floppy fur hat as worn by his father Kim Jong-il, a hat that has become as much of a Dear Leader fashion trademark as his Members Only-style jumpsuits. Of course getting news out of North Korea is such an near impossibility that the mere fact the two are wearing the same hat is indication, observers say, of the desire for continuity in the Kim ruling dynasty... And just to add an extra layer of weirdness, Time magazine reports that a knock-off version of the Kim fur hat is quite popular among North Korea's elites, who apparently are hoping to catch a little of that Kim mystique.
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What's China's Problem With Egypt?

People around the world have been glued to their TVs, computers and smart phones by the ongoing story of the Egyptian protests - that is people around the world except for China. In the tightly-controlled world of the Chinese media, the Egyptian protests are apparently a no-go zone, or at the very least a go-if-you-tow-the-party-line zone. According to the Christian Science Monitor, media outlets across the nation have been told that they can only use the official news stories provided by China's state-run Xinhua news agency in their reporting of the events in Egypt, there have also been reports that Internet searches on the word “Egypt” were being blocked by China's aggressive web-filtering software.

The reason for China's hardline stance though doesn't seem to be fear that their own bitterly oppressed minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang will suddenly follow the lead of their Egyptian brethren, but rather just unease in the top levels of the Chinese government over where the protests are heading. Energy-hungry China relies on the North Africa/Middle East region for half of their imported oil, while the widespread belief is that Egypt will not be the last country in the region to face widespread protests aimed at their autocratic rulers. Faced with such uncertainty, the Chinese position seems to be to say nothing, or at least as close to nothing as it is possible to say about the biggest news event of the year. According to the CSM, Chinese media outlets were warned they could be shut down “by force” if they did not stick to the rule of only broadcasting Xinhua's version of the Egyptian events.
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