Marble columns for sale, slightly used

If you've got a spare billion or so dollars lying around, and have ever dreamed of owning or operating a mid-size Mediterranean lottery system -- let's just say you may want to circle May 16 on your calendar.

That's when the Greek parliament, troubled by loads of sovereign debt and a stalled economy, is set to pass a radical new financial program, complete with an itemized list of state assets to be sold off at cut-rate prices. It's an audacious fire-sale, one that hopes to raise at least 15 billion euros over the next three years, and some 50 billion euros by 2015 - enough to get a new line of credit to pay off some of its existing creditors. The real goal is to prove to the country's European neighbors that it is making a good-faith effort to get its books in order -- the better to entice better terms on the next EU loan.

Of course, the Greek government is aware that even mass privatization doesn't amount to a long-term solution for the troubled country: The IMF estimates that even if the privatization plans proceed according to the most optimistic scenario (which is a very optimistic scenario), that would only reduce the country's debt to 134 percent of GDP  -- hardly enough to alter the country's junk-bond status.

But, that shouldn't deter anyone from attending Greece's state auction after combing his couch cushions for stray billion dollar bank notes. Indeed, there's plenty on offer.

If real estate's your thing, you might consider purchasing newly-available government land near the Rio-Antirio bridge near the port city of Patras; or a stretch on the island of Rhodes that the government hopes can be turned into a golf course. The government is also looking for buyers for the stadiums it built for the 2004 Olympics -- arenas that have since gone unused.

But most of the assets come in the way of state-held companies. The national electricity and sewage utilities are up for sale, as is the Greek railway, its postal service, its sole racetrack and horse-racing corporation, and the national lottery system. There are also a number of airports, ports, and marinas up for grabs, as well as the state nickel mining industry, and something called the "Hellenic Football Prognostics Organization". A more comprehensive list can be found here.

In the abstract, the Greek public supports the privatization plans, with 74% of the country saying that the measures are "probably" necessary. But the question is how Greeks will respond when the measures begin to affect them personally. There, the signs are less auspicious. Locals have already vowed to block efforts by the Qatari government to build a new financial district on the site of an abandoned airport on the outskirts of Athens; the mayor says he wants to open a public park instead.


Why does Central America still love Taiwan?

A new WikiLeaks cable sheds some light on the surprisingly interesting topic (no, really!) of Panama-China relations: 

Panama is one of only a few countries that recognize Taiwan and therefore forgo relations with its neighbor and traditional rival China.

The Feb. 23, 2010-dated cable from then U.S. Ambassador to Panama Barbara Stephenson came in the midst of President Ma Ying-jeou's efforts to improve ties with China. The cable was released May 8.

Stephenson wrote in the cable that Martinelli had told her in May 2009, the month he won national elections by a landslide, that he would recognize Beijing because "he thought that Panama's business community would benefit as a result."

Stephenson said Martinelli's high hopes were dashed when his Foreign Minister Juan Carlos Varela was told by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi during an Asia visit in January 2010 that Beijing would not take on Panama to avoid foiling warming cross-strait ties.

The U.S. transferred its recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979 and the People's Republic has occupied the "China" seat at the United Nations since 1971. But there are a number of countries who maintain formal relations with Taiwan. According to Wikpedia, they are:


Burkina Faso,

Dominican Republic

El Salvador






Marshall Islands






Saint Kitts and Nevis

Saint Lucia

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines

São Tomé and Príncipe

Solomon Islands



Vatican City

Pacific islands like Nauru clearly like being wooed by a Taiwanese government desperate for increased international legitimacy in any form it might take and the Vatican's anti-Beijing position makes sense.

But what's with Central America?

According to this article, "Between 2000 and 2004, the volume of trade between Taiwan and the Central American and Caribbean region amounted to 3.3 billion dollars." That doesn't seem like quite enough to keep the world's second largest economy from winning these countries over if it wanted to. It seems like there's a combination of inertia and indifference from Beijing at work here. Haiti's non-recognition of Beijing didn't stop China from sending post-earthquake aid, for instance.