Though economic conditions have improved in Zimbabwe since the days of 231 million percent inflation, this week brought some pretty disturbing news:
After paying public workers' salaries last week, the balance in cash-strapped Zimbabwe's government public account stood at just $217, Finance Minister Tendai Biti said Tuesday.
"Last week when we paid civil servants there was $217 (left) in government coffers," Biti told journalists in the capital Harare, claiming some of them had healthier bank balances than the state.
"The government finances are in paralysis state at the present moment. We are failing to meet our targets."
It's hard to think of a public servant than a less enviable job than Biti's, but despite this week's news, he deserves some credit for a pretty remarkable turnaround. The inflation that made the country world famous is now under control, thanks to his decision to abolish the country's currency. And there's been GDP growth every year since he came into office following a decade of contraction.
Nonetheless, the state's cash flow problem is made more dire by the international sanctions on Robert Mugabe's government -- Biti is allied with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change -- which may make it harder to borrow the funds need to keep the state operating. The constitutional referendum and elections scheduled for this year, which are estimated to cost at least $104 million, will also not help.
With President Barack Obama due to pitch his new immigration reform plan today -- a plan that is likely to include a number of new border security measures in addition to providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants -- the release of a new report from the South Texas border by the Washington Office on Latin America seems particularly well timed. The authors, Adam Isacson and Maureen Meyer, reach several conclusions that are rarely discussed in the U.S. media but are worth keeping in mind as the new debate over border security heats up:
1. The migrants crossing the border are increasingly non-Mexican. Overall, arrests along the border are down since the mid-2000s, suggesting that fewer people are attempting to cross. The exception is the area the authors examine -- the Rio Grande Valley sector in South Texas bording Mexico's Tamaulipas state, where there was a 60-70 percent increase in apprehensions in 2011.
Virtually all of this growth consists of what local authorities call "OTMS" -- other than Mexican. This migrants are mostly from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador and in addition to economic concerns, are often motivated by the skyrocketing crime rates in their home countries. For the first time, non-Mexicans now account for the majority of migrants apprehended in South Texas. The Tamaulipas-Texas section of the border is the closest geographically to these countries.
2. Deportations can be death sentences Though it continues to be painted as soft on illegal immigration by Republican opponents, the Obama administration has touted the record number of deporations it has carried out, more than 1.5 million so far, as evidence that it takes border enforcement seriously. But there's been less discussion of the often dangerous fate that awaits these immigrants when they arrive back in Mexico. Isacson and Meyer write:
Despite the region’s security crisis, the U.S. government continues to deport apprehended migrants to these Mexican border cities in large numbers. Mexican migration authorities have counted more than 58,000 deportees arriving in Matamoros alone in 2012. In this city, agents of the Grupo Beta—Mexico’s National Migration Institute’s search and rescue unit—told us that rather than rescuing migrants in distress, their main task is now protecting repatriated migrants. In addition to Mexicans detained in the interior of the United States and deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the relatively new U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Alien Transfer Exit Program (ATEP) deports some detained migrants “laterally” by sending them to Mexican border towns hundreds of miles from where they were captured in order to break the link between the migrant and his smuggler. Most migrants apprehended in south Texas who end up being deported through ATEP get sent on a near-daily flight 1,000 miles westward to Calexico, California, from which they are sent into the relatively low-crime city of Mexicali, Baja California. However, a smaller but very troubling number of ATEP migrants are still detained elsewhere and deported into Matamoros. As they arrive in this unfamiliar city, these deportees face a high probability of being preyed upon—or even recruited—by the criminals who control illegal activity. That U.S. authorities would be moving migrants from elsewhere along the border and deporting them into high-risk Matamoros is inexplicable.
In fact, a review of data from Mexican security and migration authorities reveals a troubling trend: as border zones become less secure, they receive more deportees. In every Mexican border state that saw an increase in homicides since 2009, deportations from the United States also increased. In Mexican states where homicides declined, deportations also declined.
The authors make clear that they're not suggesting U.S. immigration authorities are intentionally putting deported migrants in harm's way, but the data suggests their eventual safety is not a major concern.
3. Increased drug trafficking is not leading to "spillover" violence Increased security measures along the border does not appear to be slowing down drug smugglers, with seizures of heroin, marijuana, and increasingly popular liquid methamphetamine continuing to rise in South Texas. However, the authors find a wide concensus among local law enforcement agencies that the drug trade has not led to an increase in violent crime on the U.S. side of the border. In fact, 10 of the 13 largest U.S. cities along the border have seen their violent crime rates drop.
4. Weaker cartels may not necessarily be good for migrants The report finds that the Zetas cartel's traditional hold on this area of the border may be slipping due to internal divisions over control of the smuggling routes and a drawn-out war with the rival Sinaloa cartel. Analyzing the report, Elyssa Pachico at Insight Crime suggests that despite the fact that Zetas have frequently victimized migrants along the border, their diminished control may not necessarily make things safer:
As InSight Crime previously documented in a three-part report on the dangers facing migrants, the Zetas are not the only organization who pose a threat to those moving northwards from Central America. The Zetas typically contract street gangs to harass, rob, and even kidnap migrants as they move along their route. With the Zetas weakening, this could possibly empower street gangs to prey on migrants even more aggressively, in order to keep the money extorted from migrants for themselves. If the Zetas continue to lose power and influence along the US-Mexico border, it will likely make migrants' journey even more dangerous and unpredictable.
None of these issues are likely to be much discussed in the forthcoming debate on the border policy, but they're an important part of the bigger picture.
The trial of Russian lawyer and whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky officially began yesterday, but has been postponed for several weeks. This was not, as one might expect, because Magnitsky died in prison more than three years ago, but because his defense team has chosen not to participate in the bizarre proceeding:
In Monday’s hearing, it was unclear who or what, exactly, went on trial. Mr. Magnitsky’s co-defendant, William F. Browder, the manager of the Hermitage Capital hedge fund, has been barred from entering Russia since 2005, so he did not appear in court.
The hearing was of a type in Russian practice that indicates that the police consider their work complete, and that the case can go to trial, Aleksandra V. Bereznina, a spokeswoman for Tverskoi Regional Court, said in an interview.
Judge Igor B. Alisov promptly postponed the trial because the defendants did not appear in the courtroom — as expected — but neither did lawyers representing their interests.[...]
The hearing took place in a closed courtroom. The defendants’ chairs were unoccupied, Ms. Bereznina said. Mr. Browder and relatives of Mr. Magnitsky have said they will boycott the proceedings.
Posthumous trials are nearly unheard of in modern law. The AP's Jim Heintz has attempted a listicle of other examples, but the most recent is Hitler's personal secretary Martin Borman, who was tried in absentia at Nuremberg but later turned out to have been dead at the time. The others are all macabre examples from centuries ago like the posthumous beheading of Oliver Cromwell and the infamous Cadaver Synod of 897.
Browder wrote about the case for FP last March.
Next year, curbs on Romanian and Bulgarian citizens living and working in Britain will expire. In order to prevent an influx of immigrants from those countries, the Guardian reports that the British government is reportedly considering a plan to trash their own country's image:
The plan, which would focus on the downsides of British life, is one of a range of potential measures to stem immigration to Britain next year when curbs imposed on both country's citizens living and working in the UK will expire.
A report over the weekend quoted one minister saying that such a negative advert would "correct the impression that the streets here are paved with gold".
There was no word on how any advert might look or whether it would use the strategy of making Britain look as horrible as possible or try to encourage would-be migrants to wake up to the joys of their own countries whether Romania's Carpathian mountains or Bulgaria's Black Sea resorts. With governments around the world spending millions on hiring London-based consultants to undertake "reputation laundering" there would be a peculiar irony if Britain chose to trash its own image perhaps by highlighting winter flooding of homes or the carnage of a Saturday night A&E ward.
Downing Street has not confirmed or denied the plans. If the new proposed immigration deal doesn't work out, perhaps the U.S. government could follow with ads throughout Latin America focused on economic inequality, obesity, and gun crime. It's the next frontier of nation branding!
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Islamist rebels apparently decided to take one last shot at the city of Timbuktu's cultural heritage as they fled Malian and French troops. Reuters reports:
Timbuktu Mayor Ousmane Halle reported that departing Islamist gunmen had set ablaze a South African-funded library in the city containing thousands of invaluable manuscripts.
"The rebels set fire to the newly-constructed Ahmed Baba Institute built by the South Africans ... This happened four days ago," Ousmane told Reuters by telephone from Bamako. He said he had received the information from his chief of communications who had traveled south from the city a day ago.
Ousmane was not able to immediately say how much the concrete building had been damaged. He added the rebels also set fire to his office and the home of a member of parliament.
The Guardian explains the importance of these manuscripts:
Timbuktu's famous manuscripts, believed to number in the hundreds of thousands, mainly date from the 14th to 16th centuries, when the city was an important hub for trade and Islamic knowledge. Often written in Arabic but also some local languages, they cover areas such as medicine and astronomy, as well as poetry, literature and Islamic law. Many were kept for centuries in private family libraries, passed down through the generations.
The city's huge and priceless cultural heritage, a legacy of its medieval status as an African equivalent to Oxford or Cambridge, complete with bustling university, was little known in the outside world, with even the French, Mali's colonial rulers until 1960, carrying away some manuscripts to museums but doing little to unearth the full story behind them.
As outside interest began to grow, in part when the infamously remote city became more accessible, the Ahmed Baba Institute started to collect and preserve significant parts of this cultural heritage, protecting it from damage through poor storage or being sold to collectors.
The manuscripts are the most valuable piece of the city's cultural legacy remaining since the destruction of its famed Sufi shrines last summer. The Globe and Mail recently reported that a researcher who had been working to digitize the library recently made a covert visit to the facility -- which rebels were using as sleeping quarters -- to retrieve as many of the digital images as he could on his hard drive. Private owners of manuscripts in the city have also reportedly been smuggling them out of the city or burying them underground to protect them from destruction.
EVAN SCHNEIDER/AFP/Getty Images
As I noted earlier this month, it's not particularly unusual for mainstream Italian politicians to defend Benito Mussolini these days, but a Holocaust Remembrance Day event was probably not the most appropriate forum for it:
"It's difficult now to put yourself in the shoes of people who were making decisions at that time," said Berlusconi, 76, who is campaigning ahead of elections in February.
"Obviously the government of that time, out of fear that German power might lead to complete victory, preferred to ally itself with Hitler's Germany rather than opposing it," he said. "As part of this alliance, there were impositions, including combating and exterminating Jews. The racial laws were the worst fault of Mussolini as a leader, who in so many other ways did well."
In 1938, Mussolini passed laws barring Jews from academia and many professions. After 1943, when Germany occupied parts of the country, more than 7,000 Jews were deported to Nazi concentration camps, with many perishing at Auschwitz.
Berlusconi's remarks have been criticized by Jewish groups and Berlusconi's leftist opponents, one of whom is calling for a criminal investigation of the remarks. But it's not exactly news that Berlusconi -- whose party is allied with the late dictator's granddaughter's bloc in parliament -- admires Mussolini. In 2011, he compared himself to the wartime fascist dictator shortly before leaving power. In 2003, he told the Spectator that Mussolini "never killed anyone" and merely "sent people on holiday to confine them."
TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images
For my debut on Bloggingheads.TV, I spoke with Diego Arria, a former governor of Caracas, Venezuelan information minister, and representative to the United Nations, about his country's current leadership vacuum. In the clip above, he discusses Cuba's role in the crisis.
It appears that HSMPRess, the obnoxious and occasionally horrifying Twitter feed of al Qaeda-linked Somali militant group Al Shabab has been suspended. (A few possible replacement feeds have already emerged though it's difficult to tell which ones are actually linked to the group.) The Atlantic's Brian Fung posts chached images of the feeds last messages, which were threats to execute Kenyan prisoners. The Kenyan government has denied requesting the takedown, however.
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