Last week, I noted that rogue French trader Jérôme Kerviel had become a minor-league Internet superhero, largely through Facebook fan groups. (Today, the member count for the group "Jérôme Kerviel should be awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics" stands at 2,813.) But along with online jokesters, Facebook's members apparently also consist of highly motivated social activists.
On Monday, hundreds of thousands of Colombians, along with supporters around the world in nearly 200 cities, led protests against the pro-communist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The protests aren't unexpected—the rebel group has been terrorizing Colombia for more than four decades—but the method of organization is what's novel.
Roughly two months ago, after photos and video of FARC captives surfaced, enraged people began to join the Facebook group Un Millón De Voces Contra Las FARC ("A Million Voices Against FARC"). The group then grew with incredible speed to include more than 280,000 members, publishing its pleas for "No More! No More Kidnapping! No More Lies! No More Murder! No More FARC!" in Spanish, English, French, German, and Portuguese. The resulting protests are some of the largest ever seen on an international scale. Not bad for a Web site that started out as a networking platform for Ivy Leaguers.
In the Democratic camp, Super Tuesday confirmed nothing more than the continuation of the Clinton-Obama battle—one that Salon's Rebecca Traister describes as one of "nasty psychobabble of identity politics" that forces her to "tap one underrepresented population on the shoulder and say, 'I pick you to advance first.'"
Identity politics distracts from the issues, but there's a reason. Identity matters—maybe not in terms of legislation or policy, but certainly in terms of image. And image can go a long way, especially when you're the leader of the free world and your face is on every television around the globe, 24 hours a day. As I noted earlier this week, the U.S. race between a woman and a black man is turning heads in Belgrade. And on voiceswithoutvotes.org, (a recent extension of Global Voices), a Haitian blogger explains why these two candidates matter abroad:
As a Third World-er, I have always thought that there is little difference between American politicians… I have never felt more segregated than when I was in the United States. Here in Haiti world music, art, and science are accessible to all. There's nothing out of the ordinary about a young Haitian to be mad about Celine Dion, Bocelli, Monet or the human genome… What I learned is that in the United States, if you are Black and you listen to George Michael, for example, you are considered "black with white taste," that there are movies for Whites and movies for Blacks, music for Whites and music for Blacks…
It is undeniable that Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama want to shake the status quo. A woman and a black carried by the same dream of presiding over the world's most powerful nation."
Even if identity politics challenges democracy at home, it may do a world of good for the image of American democracy abroad. And on that front, the U.S. is in serious need of damage control.
At the market in the La Saline slum, two cups of rice now sell for 60 cents, up 10 cents from December and 50 percent from a year ago. Beans, condensed milk and fruit have gone up at a similar rate, and even the price of the edible clay has risen over the past year by almost $1.50. Dirt to make 100 cookies now costs $5, the cookie makers say.
Apparently, dirt cookies are a traditional remedy used by pregnant women to combat hunger pangs. But with food prices on the rise, more Haitians are eating the cookies—which are made by mixing clay with salt, flour, and vegetable shortening—to fill their bellies. More at this AP video:
BERLIN, GERMANY- German-born Turk Murat Kurnaz, a former detainee at the U.S.-run Guantanamo Bay prison, as he waits for the beginning of his hearing at the German Parliament in Berlin to give evidence at a parliamentary inquiry.
More than any other U.S. politician, John McCain is routinely lionized in the press as a "maverick" who takes bold stances against the reigning orthodoxy of his party, be it on climate change, tax cuts, immigration, torture, or what have you. There's some truth behind this straight-shooting image, as we noted when McCain told Michigan autoworkers bluntly that globalization means that their old jobs weren't coming back.
But even St. McCain, at the end of the day, is just another politician trying to win an election—as he proved this week while campaigning for Tuesday's Florida primary. Speaking in "Cuban-American hangout" in Miami, McCain called for the indictment of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Referring to the controversial Brothers to the Rescue incident from 1996, when the Cuban air force shot down two planes operated by a Cuban-American exile group opposed to the Castro regime, McCain had this to say:
I would be prepared to open that investigation immediately. It seems to me that the radio intercepts show very clearly that the shoot down of that airplane was orchestrated as an act by the Cuban government."
Orchestrated as an act? It's a tragic incident, but Cuba had been warning for months that it would shoot down planes that violated its airspace. McCain has also vowed to continue the U.S. embargo against Cuba until the regime holds free and fair elections. I'm no fan of the Castro regime, but even prominent Cuban exiles are now starting to say that the embargo has been counterproductive. I think McCain is letting his eagerness to win Florida get in the way of his better instincts.
Nestor Kirchner may be the former president of Argentina, but there's one person who has refused to obey his ex-presidential orders: his 17-year-old daughter Florencia.
Daddy isn't happy that his adolescent daughter, whose mother is current Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, has been posting wild-child photos on her blog. He is reported to have begged her to stop posting images. Like any smart teenager, though, Florencia simply changes her screen name. She has gone from "bananarepublic" to "coffelove" to her present "florkey."
Some photos are innocuous and reveal rare glimpses of the first family's life, such as a photo of Florencia backstage with her brother and two cousins at her mother's inauguration last year. Others, though, have alarmed some in the Argentine press, because they show her wandering around Buenos Aires with no security detail in sight (e.g. a photo of Florencia on the subway with a friend).
At least her parents may be happy to know that when she interviewed herself online, she said her favorite country was, "Argentina, I think."
Supermodel Naomi Campbell apparently really dug deep last week when she got the chance to interview Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez for the British edition of GQ. Asked which world leader is the best dressed, Chávez plugged his friend's radical chic:
Fidel, of course! His uniform is impeccable. His boots are polished, his beard is elegant."
The Venezuelan strongman also had some choice words for George W. Bush:
Like the fairy-tale, the emperor [George Bush] is naked. We've seen the emperor's ass."
And, bizarrely, the British royal family:
I like the Prince. Now he has Camilla, his new girl. She's not attractive is she?"
Don't be offended, Charles. He's probably just jealous.
It always makes me depressed to think about how little attention the vast majority of Americans pay to the rest of the world. Passport readers are, of course, an exception. But I'm reminded of how isolationist the general American public can be whenever I stumble across stories like this, Time magazine's Top 10 Underreported Stories of the year. Of the 10 stories on the list, seven of them have to do with international developments (OK, this item is arguably a domestic story, but I'm including it in my tally because it's about nukes). And of those seven stories, only one of them was a surprise to me: Brazil's announcement that it had made the largest oil discovery since 2000. (I'm chalking up missing this story to the fact that it happened around Thanksgiving time, when I wasn't paying attention to the news as I should.)
Granted, it's my job to pay attention to what's going on in the world. But honestly, should it really be new news to people that the U.N. reduced its estimates of those afflicted with AIDS, or that tensions are getting worse between Ethiopia and Eritrea?
At any rate, I suppose I should be grateful that Time is bringing its readers' attention back to these important topics. But for stories that really went underreported, check out FP's The Top Ten Stories You Missed in 2007. And make your family and friends add "pay more attention to international news" to their list of New Year's resolutions.
Bolivia appears to be on the verge of a constitutional crisis after four of its richest states declared their autonomy over the weekend. At issue is a new draft constitution—approved by supporters of President Evo Morales—that leaders in the energy-producing lowland states of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni, and Pando fear will put the country on the path to Hugo Chávez-style socialism. The new constitution would greatly increase the power of the presidency and give the central government greater control over the economy. There is a racial aspect to the split as well. The mostly European population in the lowlands object to new policies that would redistribute wealth to Bolivia's indigenous population, of which Morales is a member.
The state governments are now seeking support for a referendum that would place elections, public works, roads, and telecommunications under state control and protect private property rights to prevent redistribution of land. Morales meanwhile has declared their actions unconstitutional and placed the military on high alert. It should be stressed that this is a bid for greater local autonomy, rather than a declaration of independence like the one Kosovo will likely make in the next few weeks. However, Stratfor outlines how the situation could easily spiral out of control:
Morales cannot allow the country's sources of income to flout the authority of the center, and the lowlands cannot allow Morales to usurp both political and economic power from them. The questions now are: can Morales muster enough force to impose his will on the lowlands? Or can the lowlands resist?
Neither side has openly discussed the issue of secession or civil war, but once one security force starts firing on another, that is the next logical step.
That seems bit overly dramatic, but with Morales signing a $750 million deal with Brazil this week to exploit Bolivia's oil and gas reserves (most of which are in the lowlands), he certainly can't afford to lose control over his energy supplies. Could we be witnessing the birth of Latin America's Kurdistan? As Tyler Cowen complained on Sunday, this story should really be getting more attention.
Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee has been making great strides in Iowa polls over the last several weeks, and now he's starting to make a surge in national polls as well. A new CNN poll released Monday found that the Huckster has doubled his support among likely Republican voters in the whole country, bringing him into a a statistical dead heat with GOP frontrunner Rudy Giuliani. With a higher national profile, Huckabee has to start paying more attention to higher profile issues, too.
In the case of Cuba, it means a flip-flop. A few years ago, Huckabee joined a bipartisan crowd calling for an end to the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, saying it was bad for business. He even wrote a letter to President Bush in 2002 saying that it hurt Arkansas rice growers. On Monday, though, he took a hard right turn and said in a Miami speech that he supports the embargo and would not hesitate to veto any effort to end sanctions against Havana. Has he really had a change of heart? Or is this simply political move designed to appeal to voters of Cuban origin in Florida? Here's the presidential wannabe, in his own words:
Rather than seeing it as some huge change, I would call it, rather, the simple reality that I'm running for president of the United States, not for reelection as governor of Arkansas."
Credit where credit is due—Huckabee may be a flip-flopper, but at least he's being brutally honest about the reasons why.
Perhaps hoping to turn back time after last week's electoral defeat, Hugo Chávez has finally followed through on plans to set back Venezuela's official clock by half an hour. The move is being billed as a public health measure but, as far as I'm concerned, is basically just begging headline writers to come up with stupid puns. (Back to the future, anyone?)
The scheme was originally announced back in September, but was derailed by confusion over whether clocks were being set forward or back. (Chávez didn't seem too sure himself.) Now that the scheme has been made official, Venezuela joins Afghanistan, India, Iran, and Burma as countries that differ from Greenwich Mean Time by half-hour increments. Take that, imperialists!
The change is one of several initiatives in recent days that seem meant to show that Chávez is still capable of making policy after his constitutional changes were rejected by a close popular vote. If one of the only upsides of accepting defeat for Chávez was that it bolstered his credentials as a democrat, activities like hanging out with Belorussian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko and dedicating statues of Ho Chi Minh in Caracas don't really make it seem like he's trying to capitalize.
Here's a disturbing story. Jewish groups in Venezuela are protesting what they claim is intimidation by government forces on the eve of the country's national referendum.
The JTA and the New York Times report that Venezuelan paramilitary officers conducted a raid for suspected illegal weapons shortly before 1 a.m. on Sunday at the Israeli Union of Caracas synagogue during a wedding party; no weapons were found. The Jewish community in Venezuela has come under assault before: once in 2003 when Iraq war protestors attempted to vandalize another Caracas synagogue and again in 2005 when Venezuelan police raided a Jewish school looking for—you guessed it—weapons.
The small, 200-year-old Jewish community in the country has been critical of president Hugo Chávez. And for understandable reasons: Chief among their concerns is his relationship with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar Assad, who have both made their thoughts about Israel well known.
But perhaps more curious than the details of this peculiar raid is that fact that very few non-Jewish news outlets in South America bothered to report the story. In Venezuela, the raid was mentioned in only a single major daily newspaper, El Nacional. In fact, searches for any stories related to the Jewish community in other major, Spanish-language Venezuelan papers proved empty. Perhaps the other news outlets were too busy covering Chávez's first electoral defeat but then again... perhaps not.
Fridays can be a slog. But tomorrow promises to be an especially tough day for Maria Carolina, one of Chile's most famous prostitutes. She has auctioned off "27 hours of love" to benefit the country's annual Teletón (TV telethon) campaign for disabled children. Carolina, who typically charges about $300 per 90 minutes, says customers jumped at the chance to do it all for the kids. All available time slots have been booked. One customer, so moved by the cause, even paid up front.
Prostitution is more or less legal in the predominantly Catholic country, but not everyone is happy with Carolina's erotic form of philanthropy. Teletón host Mario Kreutzberger (at right getting his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame) — better known as Don Francisco, the gregarious host of Univision's "Sabado Gigante" — has said that Carolina's efforts are outside his moral boundaries, though he stopped short of saying that the money would be turned down. After all, as Carolina was quick to retort, "There are people who are going to be donating money that's a lot more questionable than mine." She's probably right about that.
The folks at the Cuba Transition Project at the University of Miami send along this interesting report (not yet online). Turns out it's not so much Hugo Chávez or Hu Jintao that are underwriting the Castro government, but European financiers:
From processing Havana's secretive international business transactions to providing lucrative high-interest loans to the Cuban government, European Union-based institutions have collectively bankrolled the Castro regime since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Today, quietly and behind the scenes, more hard currency flows in and out Cuba via European financial capitals than through Beijing or Caracas. While Venezuela's and China's multi-billion dollar credit lines for Cuba have done much to offset the loss of Soviet-era subsidies, such politically-driven deals are largely in the form of in-kind aid (oil and refined fuels from Venezuela and "soft" trade credits from China for the purchase of Chinese-made goods) rather than in convertible currency.
With more than US$1.6 billion in hard credit lines from European lenders, Cuban authorities have been able to conduct strategic international transactions ranging from policy-motivated imports of agricultural products from U.S. Congressional farm districts to financing the expansion of the island's nickel industry, in turn a major source of foreign revenue for the regime.
And Spain, as you might expect, is leading the way:
European capital also sustains foreign direct investment. Of 185 foreign-financed joint ventures with the Cuban government, two-thirds originate in Europe. The strong correlation between foreign financing and foreign investment is best exemplified by Spain's leading role in the Cuban economy. Home to nearly 40 percent of all joint ventures currently operating in the island, Spanish lenders are also the largest source of private capital -- upwards of US$581 million -- for the Castro regime.
It turns out also that the Netherlands and Spain are among Cuba's largest export markets.
I have to say, though, that I'm underwhelmed by the amounts here. $1.6 billion simply isn't a lot of money, and $581 million is even less impressive. Of course, nothing could be sillier than the unilateral U.S. embargo, which has failed to accomplish anything other than making Cubans worse off. If even a few hundred mil from the Europeans can prop up the Castro brothers, what's the point?
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is so hot right now. Not only is she one of the world's most eligible leaders, David Rieff in this coming Sunday's New York Times Magazine anoints her the leader of a new generation of female heads of state in South America.
But unlike Argentina's President-elect Cristina Fernández de Kirchner or former Argentine President Isabel Perón (or Hillary Clinton, for that matter), Bachelet did not have a powerful husband to grease the political wheels on her way into office. As Rieff puts it, she is "the first woman in South America who can be said to have earned the title on her own merits."
So she's ambitious. And she's tough, having survived interrogation and torture by former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's secret police in the 1970s. And she's a doctor by training, so she's smart.
Think you have a shot at her? It's doubtful—right now, she's got her hands full with Wednesday's earthquakes and Thursdays aftershocks. But check out this week's List to find out more about her and other eligible world leaders.
Days after King Juan Carlos of Spain told Hugo Chávez to "shut up" at the Ibero-American summit (after Chávez called former Spanish PM Jose Maria Aznar a "fascist"), Chávez has fired back from Caracas, comparing the king's treatment of him to the persecution of Jesus:
Should he accept the king's injunction to shut up, "the stones of the people of Latin America would cry out", said Chávez, paraphrasing a comment by Christ in Jerusalem shortly before his crucifixion. The Venezuelan information ministry issued press releases identifying the relevant part of the Bible.
The king of Spain told Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to "shut up" Saturday during a heated exchange that soured the end of a summit of leaders from Latin America, Spain and Portugal.
Chavez, who called President Bush the "devil" on the floor of the United Nations last year, triggered the exchange by repeatedly referring to former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar as a "fascist."
Aznar, a conservative who was an ally of Bush as prime minister, "is a fascist," Chavez said in a speech at the Ibero-American summit in Santiago, Chile. "Fascists are not human. A snake is more human."
Spain's current socialist prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, responded during his own allotted time by urging Chavez to be more diplomatic in his words and respect other leaders despite political differences.
The phrase used by the king, "¿Por qué no te callas?," is one that a parent might use on a disobedient child. Watch the exchange here:
I see that Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards is now taking potshots at the U.S.-Peru trade agreement that is now going through Congress and due to hit the Senate in November. Speaking on Saturday in Newton, Iowa, Edwards summed up his reasons for opposing the deal:
In short, this agreement does not meet my standard of putting American workers and communities first, ahead of the interests of the big multinational corporations, which for too long have rigged our trade policies for themselves."
This is his big strategy for victory in Iowa? As FP documented in June, bilateral trade between Peru and the United States is small potatoes: barely $2.5 billion in 2005. And most of that trade, $2 billion, was exports from the United States to Peru.
In fact, the dirty secret about the new agreement is that it would benefit U.S. exporters the most, as this summary of the deal (pdf) from the U.S. Trade Representative's office makes clear:
Eighty percent of U.S. exports of consumer and industrial products to Peru will become duty-free immediately, with remaining tariffs phased out over 10 years. Key U.S. exports will gain immediate duty-free access to Peru. Peru has agreed to allow trade in remanufactured goods, and will join the WTO Information Technology Agreement.
Peru already enjoys good access to the U.S. market thanks to previous trade agreements, so it's not as if the United States is suddenly going to be flooded with cheap chicha, alpaca wool, and mahogany. Edwards may think that spreading this silliness is going to help him win the Democratic nomination, or at least earn him points in protectionist Iowa. My guess is that Edwards knows better. That's probably why he chose Peru rather than, say, the South Korea deal, which is on a different scale altogether.
Many Passport readers have written in questioning an assertion made in my post from yesterday that Che Guevara "assisted in the persecution of homosexuals and AIDS victims."
Some of the comments I received were rude: "Either sloppy or lazy," one reader wrote. But, as you might expect from Passport readers, a good many more were constructive: "I have some trouble believing that a person who died in 1967 could have been persecuting victims of a disease whose existence was unknown before the early 1980s," one reader questioned. "In a future post, could you elaborate on this point?" another reader requested.
Sure thing. It's not my contention that Che magically came back from the dead to persecute the victims of a disease which proliferated a decade and a half after his death. I wrote, very carefully, that Che "assisted" in the persecution of AIDS victims. And here's what I mean: The labor camp system Che founded, most notably Guanahacabibes, was the predecessor to that which confined AIDS victims — and, incidentally, a whole host of other folks. Che's successors were "assisted" by his vision, if you can call it that, and the infrastructure he developed. Peruvian writer and FP contributor Alvaro Vargas Llosa explains:
This camp was the precursor to the eventual systematic confinement, starting in 1965 in the province of Camagüey, of dissidents, homosexuals, AIDS victims, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Afro-Cuban priests, and other such scum, under the banner of Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción, or Military Units to Help Production. Herded into buses and trucks, the 'unfit' would be transported at gunpoint into concentration camps organized on the Guanahacabibes mold. Some would never return; others would be raped, beaten, or mutilated; and most would be traumatized for life...."
Thanks to all those who offered thoughtful and constructive comments.
One of the oddest cultural trends of our time is the Cult of Che Guevara. I was just down in Peru, where street vendors proudly peddle Chinese-made tapestries and t-shirts bearing Che's image to U.S. college students. Hollywood—most notably Robert Redford—has glamorized Che on screen. And in more than one European hamlet will you find a "Che Guevara Bar," inevitably attracting hipsters with the same, sad tapestries, fake Cuban cigars, and cheap rum.
Today, the Cult of Che hit a new low, when a 3-inch lock of his beard and other items went up for sale at a Dallas auction house. The starting bid? $100,000. Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez is rumored to be among the potential interested bidders. The seller is Gustavo Villoldo, a retired CIA operative of Cuban heritage who was involved in Che's capture and was present when Che was buried. Villoldo says he cut the lock of hair because, "I wanted proof that I had completed my mission." His motive for selling it now appears to be profit. (This month marks the 40th anniversary of Che's death.)
It's disappointing to see Che glorified in this way. The man was a Marxist-Leninist of the worst kind: He presided over the Cuban Revolution's first firing squads; he assisted in the persecution of homosexuals [see note below]; he imprisoned dissidents. Che preached a dangerous breed of martyrdom and hatred reminiscent of the most radical jihadists of today's Middle East. You may see some familiar themes in this, one of Che's choicest lines:
Hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective and cold-blooded killing machine. This is what our soldiers must become...."
Today, we seem intent on remembering Che as a liberator in the Bolivarian vein, a freedom fighter. He was not. As Paul Berman has elegantly documented, Che inspired many middle-class Latin Americans to take up arms in insurgent campaigns that did nothing more than set the cause of Latin American democracy back decades. That a tiny lock of his hair can sell in Texas (of all places) for six figures is a sad comment indeed on just how severely his legacy has been distorted.
Editor's Note: This post was changed by the editor to avoid any confusion. It originally said that Che "assisted in the persecution of homosexuals and AIDS victims." Many readers asked about the original language. Mike explains here.
U.S. military officials have closed their investigation into who brought contraband underwear into the Guantánamo Bay prison. Despite questioning guards, medics, and prisoners' lawyers, investigators were unable to determine how the underwear—durable, stretchy Under Armour briefs preferred by athletes, as well as a Speedo swimming suit—made their way into two prisoners' cells.
After three prisoners hanged themselves in June 2006 with makeshift nooses, the prison made inmates change from briefs with wide elastic waistbands to boxer shorts made from flimsy fabric that tears when stressed.
It's easy to laugh about underwear, but it's also disturbing that prohibited items have made their way into the highly guarded and isolated prison, which houses 330 suspected al Qaeda members. First it's underwear; what's next?
There's a saying: Once a cheater, always a cheater. And now former Mexican presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo has proven that he exemplifies that saying perfectly. On Sept. 30, he completed the 26.2-mile Berlin Marathon in an astonishingly fast time of 2 hours, 41 minutes, and 12 seconds (or 6 minutes, 9 seconds, per mile). That time gave him a first-place finish in the men's age-55 category, a lot better than his humiliating third-place finish in Mexico's presidential election last year.
But the electronic tracking chip that runners wear on their shoes showed that Madrazo hadn't crossed two checkpoints and that he apparently ran a nine-mile stretch in just 21 minutes. (The world record for running 15,000 meters—or 9.3 miles—is 41 minutes, 29 seconds.)
Madrazo has a reputation for playing loose with the rules. Mexico's attorney general's office determined that his Institutional Revolutionary Party (the PRI) had exceeded campaign spending limits by tens of millions of dollars when he was running—without sneakers, this time—for governor of Tabasco state in the '90s. He also faked getting kidnapped to gain sympathy.
"If he's a cheat at one thing, he'll cheat at anything," said one Mexico City cab driver upon learning of Madrazo's suspicious marathon performance.
Madrazo has now been officially disqualified from the race. From now on, this cheater shouldn't be running any races—that goes for both the political and the athletic kinds.
(Editor's aside: FP editor Mike Boyer was prescient in pointing out Madrazo's tendency to be a repeat offender when he wrote in 2005 how the politician could become the Vladimir Putin of Mexico.)
So maybe Hugo Chávez does have a "prize-winning record of managerial incompetence," as Andy Webb-Vidal argues in a new FP web exclusive, "Dumb and Dumber," but perhaps he has other talents. For instance, can he carry a tune? It seems that when not admonishing his countrymen for buying alcohol, luxury cars, and breast implants ("the latest degeneration"), Venezuela's president can still get down with his bad self:
All of his sermonizing about vices and virtues might make Chavez seem like a prudish sourpuss to some, but he also likes to party — in his own clean way.
He says he unwinds with pickup baseball games or outdoor bowling matches known as "bolas criollas." And during marathon speeches he breaks into song frequently — so often, in fact, that one aide compiled recordings of him singing on an "All Time Hits" CD, which has yet to be released to the public.
"There I am singing, but it's terrible," Chavez said.
Forget Kevin Spacey, he should be talking to Timbaland! Check out Chávez on vocals here and judge for yourself.
It must be every power-hungry leader's dream to be able to control the hands of time. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez gave a botched attempt at this feat last week when he advanced his previously-announced plan to turn to country's clocks back half an hour. Yes, he admitted, this might sound a bit nutty:
I don't care if they call me crazy, the new time will go ahead, let them call me whatever they want. I'm not to blame. I received a recommendation and said I liked the idea.
Unfortunately, the erratic South American leader didn't turn out to be as effective an implementer as he was a timekeeper. Without a proper public campaign to explain what the heck was going on, Chávez confused even himself when he initially told the populace they needed to move their clocks forward instead of back. So the plan was postponed until January, citing a need to complete a couple necessary bureaucratic steps with international organizations before they could proceed. And why the awkward half hour? It's a way to prove that Venezuela doesn't need to follow the "scheme of hourly divisions dictated by the imperial United States." If successful, the country will join the ranks of those who are in half-hour increments off from Greenwich Mean Time: Afghanistan, Iran, and Burma. Way to stick it to the man, Hugo.
In a unique environmental scheme, Ecuador's government is asking developed nations to pay $350 million for them NOT to drill for oil in a major field in the heart of the Amazon. The sum represents about half of the estimated revenue that Ecuador would receive from drilling in the Yasuni National Park, a UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve that may contain up to a billion barrels of crude. Since Ecuador proposed the scheme last spring, politicians from Germany, Norway, Italy, Spain, and the EU have expressed interest, according to Ecuador's minister of energy. President Rafael Correa (pictured at left) had this to say:
Ecuador doesn't ask for charity [...] but does ask that the international community share in the sacrifice and compensates us with at least half of what our country would receive, in recognition of the environmental benefits that would be generated by keeping this oil underground."
Local residents are understandably skeptical that the government will be able to resist black gold's temptation for long. And despite their proven penchant for paying people not to do things, it seems unlikely that European governments would be willing to pay to keep the oil in the ground year after year.
Meanwhile, U.S. oil firm Chevron remains embroiled in a 14-year-old lawsuit from 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorians who claim the company poisoned their region by dumping toxic waste water. The controversial case is a major factor in many Ecuadorians' opposition to further drilling:
What happened here we can't let happen anywhere else, least of all Yasuni," said the plaintiffs' lawyer, Pablo Fajardo.
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nancy Soderberg's column in Monday's Financial Times (subscribers only) calling on Argentina to pay of its international debts and reject aid from Hugo Chavez, first raised eyebrows here at FP because of Soderberg misidentifying Mexico's current president as Vicente Fox.
Fox was, of course, succeeded at the end of last year by Felipe Calderón, a fact that should be well known to anyone in a position to comment on Latin American affairs (not to mention the FT's fact checkers). The paper has since corrected the mistake, but the piece still warrants some further scrutiny.
Soderberg—whose personal Web site describes her as an expert on a number of regions, which do not include Latin America—is described by FT as co-chair of the American Task Force Argentina. The ATFA, in case you were wondering, is a lobbying group funded by creditors, some of them so-called "vulture funds" or investment firms who bought millions of dollars worth of Argentine bonds when the country defaulted on its debts in 2001-2002. Whatever you think of the debt issue and the swing toward economic populism in Latin America that Soderberg denounces, doesn't The Financial Times owe its readers more context when it turns over its editorial page to a lobbyist for debt collectors?
Back in June, just as President Bush's fast-track trade authority was about to expire and Congress started to flex it's protectionist muscles, FP predicted that securing approval for pending U.S. bilateral trade deals with Peru and Panama would be a cinch. That is, at least compared to similar, but more complicated deals with Colombia and South Korea.
But we may have spoken too soon. Recently elected as head of Panama's National Assembly, Pedro Miguel González holds a less esteemed title here in the U.S.—he is a wanted man for the murder of an American soldier. González was indicted for the 1992 death of U.S. Army Sgt. Zak Hernandez in the Canal Zone, but acquitted by a Panamanian court in 1997. He still faces an outstanding warrant for his arrest in the United States, however.
González, who enjoys the support of President Martin Torrijos and is described by colleagues as a "great patriot," has some harsh words for los yanquis' meddling in Panamanian affairs:
The era in which the U.S. has the last word in determining who governed our nation and how they did so is over.
But for all his brave talk, The Guardian reports, González is leaving the possibility open of stepping down from his position if it threatens the trade agreement. And all this comes right as Panama has struck ground on a $5.25 billion expansion of the Canal. You don't have to look hard to see that the U.S. footprint is still there: Two thirds of all cargo that passes through the Canal is coming from or headed to the United States. Even González can't ignore that.
Unilateral sanctions on Cuba are probably the stupidest, least-effective U.S. policy going—and everybody knows it. And yet even though the Cold War is over, the policy stays due to an electoral quirk that has politicians like George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton "pandering to a cabal that has kept US-Cuba ties frozen in a 1960s cocoon," in the words of Steve Clemons. Cuban expatriates, you see, are a key segment of the vote in the electoral swing state of Florida.
I mention this because today, Libya proudly announced that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be visiting the country in October, the first such visit since 1953. Many pundits will no doubt beat up on the Bush administration for doing so, and there's plenty of ammunition in Libya's grotesque human rights record or its recent attempt to assassinate the King of Saudi Arabia. And then there's Muammar el-Qaddafi himself, a nutjob who is widely mocked across the Middle East—a region that knows a thing or two about terrible leaders. The mercurial Qaddafi refused to meet with Condi's deputy, John Negroponte, when he visited the country back in April. And still, the rapprochement marches on.
If only the Cubans were sitting on 39 billion barrels of oil reserves, perhaps Condi would meet with them, too.
As Hurricane Dean rips through the Caribbean and now Mexico, commodity traders who made contrarian bets on sugar--futures contracts for the commodity are down some 20 percent this year--are licking their lips:
While there's a projected surplus of 11 million metric tons of the sweetener, bad weather may cause the global stockpile to shrink, said Greg Smith, founder of Global Commodities Ltd. in Adelaide, Australia, manager of a $210 million commodities fund.
"The risk is now mostly in the upside as wild weather season approaches,'" said Smith, who said storm damage may send sugar prices doubling to 20 cents a pound, from 9.4 cents a pound as of Aug. 17 on the Nybot. "We consume a lot of sugar both for food and now energy, while unfortunately the weather patterns are becoming more extreme.''
The storm has wrecked sugar crops in places like Belize and Martinique, and may cause damage in Mexico. Still, there's reason to be skeptical of Smith's optimism. The economies of sugar-producing countries in the Caribbean depend heavily on sugar, but they're still only a small piece of the global trade. Brazil, Thailand, and India, some of the world's largest producers, are expecting bumper crops this year. And with India looking to dump excess sugar on world markets next year, the contrarians may be in for a bitter financial harvest in 2008. So far, the futures markets look unshaken by Hurricane Dean. Prices for Caribbean rum, however, could well skyrocket. Bad news for Jimmy Buffet.
Simon Romero reports on the latest developments in the Bolívaran Revolution:
Moved by claims that it will help the metabolism and productivity of his fellow citizens, President Hugo Chávez said clocks would be moved forward by half an hour at the start of 2008. He announced the change on his Sunday television program, accompanied by his highest-ranking science adviser, Héctor Navarro, the minister of science and technology. "This is about the metabolic effect, where the human brain is conditioned by sunlight," Mr. Navarro said in comments reported by Venezuela’s official news agency. Mr. Chávez said he was "certain" that the time change, which would be accompanied by a move to a six-hour workday, would be accepted.
(Thanks to KH for sending this in.)
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