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« Reply #10650 on: Dec 14, 2013, 06:45 AM »


Mafia top boss's family members arrested in Sicily

Sister, nephew and two cousins of Matteo Messina Denaro, Cosa Nostra's fugitive 'boss of bosses', accused of mob association and extortion

Reuters in Palermo
theguardian.com, Friday 13 December 2013 13.40 GMT   

Close family members of the Sicilian mafia's fugitive "boss of bosses" have been arrested in what police have called one of the most significant anti-crime operations in Sicily in years.

Police hunting Matteo Messina Denaro, who took over the reins of Sicily's Cosa Nostra as a fugitive after his predecessors were nabbed in recent years, arrested his sister, his nephew and two cousins on Friday.

In total, police said, 30 people were arrested around Trapani in the west of the Italian island in a major operation that they called a "hard blow" to the mafia leadership surrounding the fugitive boss.

Messina Denaro, 50, was once known as the "playboy boss" because he liked fast cars, women and gold watches. He has been on the run since 1993.

He has been running the crime group since the arrest in 2006 of Bernardo Provenzano after nearly four decades as a fugitive.

Police said they believed Messina Denaro's 43-year-old sister Patrizia and other arrested family members maintained contact with the boss and helped him run the crime syndicate.

The arrested were accused of belonging to a criminal group and of extortion related to the control of a number of construction companies in Sicily.

They also said they confiscated some €5m (£4.22m) worth of property believed to belong to the missing crime boss and his family.


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« Reply #10651 on: Dec 14, 2013, 06:47 AM »


Italy hit by wave of Pitchfork protests as austerity unites disparate groups

Demonstrations point to frustration with traditional politics, with minister warning parliament of a country in 'spiral of rebellion'

Lizzy Davies in Rome
theguardian.com, Friday 13 December 2013 19.02 GMT   
   
They blocked roads and stopped trains,occupied piazzas, clashed with police and closed shops. From Turin and Milan in the north to Puglia and Sicily in the south, Italy was hit this week by a wave of protests that brought together disparate groups and traditional foes in an angry show of opposition to austerity policies and the government.

"They [politicians] have brought us to hunger; have destroyed the identity of a country; have annihilated the future of entire generations," read one poster from the "December 9 Committee", an umbrella organisation urging Italians to rise up against the euro, Brussels, globalisation and, primarily, Enrico Letta's government. "To rebel is a duty."

In a loosely formed movement which has gone largely by the name of I Forconi (the Pitchforks), lorry drivers, farmers, small business owners, students and unemployed people staged protests venting their fury at a political class which they blame for Italy's longest post-war recession and want to "send home".

But they were not alone. Alongside them were anti-globalisation groups, members of the Veneto Independence movement, elements of the far right and – for good measure – football "ultras". Among the sights "rarely seen before", reported the Turin-based daily La Stampa, were supporters of arch-rivals Juventus and Torino standing "side by side".

Although the protests had been publicised, especially on the internet, their scale and occasionally violent nature – particularly in Turin, a historic city of protest – appeared to take many by surprise.

In a country struggling to exit a two-year long recession, in which unemployment is at a record high of 12.5% and one in 10 children is thought to be living in absolute poverty, the causes of the unrest are hardly unfathomable.

But what has been made clear by the Pitchforks protests, say analysts, is not just the depth of anger on the streets but a feeling that traditional politics – even after the dramatic election breakthrough of Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement – is not responding to their needs.

"These protests show Italy's massive crisis of political representation," said Duncan McDonnell, a political scientist at the European University Institute in Florence. "These people don't feel that anyone's actually listening to them … It really shows how there are big sections of Italian society that don't feel represented by anyone – political parties, trade unions, interest groups or business."

Beyond ousting the current coalition government, the protesters' goals are unclear, even if popular targets include the euro, the banks, and Equitalia, Italy's inland revenue.

For many observers, however, the tactics of a minority have overshadowed the movement's wider aims. Property has been damaged, and some shopkeepers have complained of intimidation from protesters urging them to shut up shop and join in.

In the north-western town of Savona, the staff of a bookshop said protesters had burst into the store yelling: "Close the bookshop! Burn the books!"

The incidents prompted the leader of the original Pitchforks – which started several years ago as a group representing farmers in Sicily – to distance himself from "thuggish and violent" newcomers.

But the leaders of the movement's various divisions have also provoked criticism. One, Andrea Zunino, while criticising the power that banks have over Italy, told La Repubblica on Friday: "It's curious that five or six of the richest people in the world are Jews."

Another, farmer Danilo Calvani, did not do himself or his cause any good after he was filmed jumping in the back of a friend's waiting Jaguar.

Speaking before parliament on Thursday, interior minister Angelino Alfano warned that the protests could "lead to a spiral of rebellion against national and European institutions".

But, while condemning the violence, he acknowledged the authorities' duty to "resolve the problems of social hardship which are at the roots of the protest".

On Friday, Letta announced that the government had agreed to abolish state funding of political parties, which he said was an important step for the "credibility of politics".

If it is to have any chance of responding to the unrest, said sociologist Aldo Bonomi, Italy's political class needs to move from "a debate which is often self-referential" to a "politics that is more in sync with the ways in which society is changing".

Bonomi added: "This problem will not be resolved on talk shows. It will be resolved by the lowering of politics' centre of mass to the level of social hardship."


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« Reply #10652 on: Dec 14, 2013, 06:49 AM »


Serbia: 'hundreds of Albanians' found in mass grave

Bodies of Albanians killed during the 1998-99 war in Kosovo found more than 14 years after war ended

Reuters in Pristina
theguardian.com, Friday 13 December 2013 20.23 GMT

Human remains believed to be the bodies of hundreds of Albanians killed during the 1998-99 war in Kosovo have been found just inside the Serbian border, a Kosovan official said on Friday.

Authorities in Kosovo have been pressing Serbia to continue to look for bodies on its territory that may have been moved by Serbian forces trying to cover up killings of majority ethnic Albanians during the war.

"For many years, we have cooperated with informers and they told us that there may be more than 250 bodies, they even mention there may be 400," Prenk Gjetaj, head of Kosovo's state commission for missing persons, said.

About 10,000 people are believed to have died in the crackdown by Serbian police and army on an ethnic Albanian rebellion in its former province. The war ended when Nato launched air strikes against Serbia in 1999.

Most victims were Albanians. More than 1,700 people are still missing.

The inquiry leading to the discovery was a joint effort by Kosovo, Serbia and the Eulex, the EU justice and police mission in Kosovo. Officials from Kosovo and Serbia are expected to meet soon to discuss how to proceed with further excavations. The war crimes prosecutor's office in Belgrade declined to comment.

The bodies were found after excavators removed a concrete pavement in the yard of a road maintenance company in Rudnica, just inside southern Serbia, near its border with Kosovo.

Gjetaj did not say how many bodies were found but said a big office building on the site had to be destroyed during the dig.

If confirmed, it would be the sixth mass grave found since 2000. The largest, containing the bodies of more than 800 Kosovoan Albanians, was found in 2001 in pits at a police training ground outside Belgrade.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but relations with Serbia have only started to normalise in the past year, after the EU brokered a deal to integrate the mainly Serb north with the rest of Kosovo. In exchange, Serbia was offered talks on EU membership, expected to start in January


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« Reply #10653 on: Dec 14, 2013, 06:53 AM »


Iran arrests man on charges of spying for Britain

Media report says man has confessed to exchanging information with four British intelligence agents

Associated Press in Tehran
theguardian.com, Saturday 14 December 2013 08.37 GMT   

Iranian authorities have arrested a man on charges of spying for Britain, according to media reports.

The semiofficial ISNA news agency said on Saturday that the man was arrested in the town of Kerman, south-east Iran, after authorities spent months tracking him down.

A Kerman judiciary official, who was not named by ISNA, said the man had exchanged information with four British intelligence operatives. The man has not been identified but the report says he is currently standing trial and has confessed.

Iran periodically announces the arrest of alleged foreign agents. Often few further details are released.

The arrest comes as Iran and Britain are patching up ties following the election of President Hassan Rouhani in June. The British embassy in Tehran was closed in late 2011 after hardliners overran the building.

************

John Kerry hopes Iran nuclear talks will resume in ‘next few days’

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 13, 2013 13:09 EST

US Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday nuclear talks between world powers and Iran were expected to resume soon, after Tehran said it was quitting the negotiations.

“We’re making progress, but I think we’re at a point in those talks where folks feel a need to consult, take a moment,” Kerry told reporters in Tel Aviv.

“There is every expectation that talks are going to continue in the next few days,” he said of the talks.

Iran on Friday accusing Washington of going against the spirit of a landmark agreement reached last month in Geneva by expanding its sanctions blacklist.

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« Reply #10654 on: Dec 14, 2013, 07:00 AM »


UN asks India to review gay sex ban

Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner on human rights, describes the high court move as a 'significant step backwards'

Jason Burke in Delhi
theguardian.com, Thursday 12 December 2013 14.02 GMT      

The UN has called on the Indian government to seek a rapid review of the country's supreme court's decision on Wednesday to criminalise gay sex.

The decision by the court to reinstate a ban on same-sex relationships overturned four years ago by a lower court represents a "significant step backwards for India" and violates international law, Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner on human rights, said.

"Criminalising private, consensual same-sex sexual conduct violates the rights to privacy and to non-discrimination enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which India has ratified," Pillay, a South African former judge, said in a statement issued in Geneva.

The international support will hearten stunned local campaigners who have waged a long battle for same-sex relations to be legalised in the world's biggest democracy – though it could strengthen opposition from conservatives who have described homosexuality as a "disease" imported from the west.

Anjali Gopalan, an activist, said she had been "horrified by the judgment".

"It reflects a conservative mindset. After so much effort we are back to square one. Whatever we have gained over the years we seem to have lost," Gopalan, director of the Naz Foundation Trust, told the Guardian.

Dozens of Bollywood stars have now come forward to criticise the supreme court's decision to reinstate Section 377 of India's penal code which bans "sex against the order of nature" and is widely interpreted to mean gay sex. The colonial-era rule was introduced under British rule in the 19th century.

Aamir Khan, one of India's biggest film celebrities, described the judgment as "very intolerant and violative of basic human rights".

Freida Pinto, who starred in the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, said on Twitter she was "absolutely appalled by such narrow mindedness".

The supreme court judges argued that the Delhi high court had overstepped its powers with the decision four years ago as only India's government could change the law. Section 377 should therefore be reinstated, they said.

Sonia Gandhi, the president of the ruling Congress party on Thursday called on the national assembly "to address this issue and uphold the constitutional guarantee of life and liberty to all citizens of India, including those affected by this judgment".

Gandhi described Section 377 as "an archaic, repressive and unjust law that infringed on basic human rights" and said that [the Indian] constitution "has given us a great legacy … of liberalism of openness, that enjoin us to combat prejudice and discrimination of any kind".

Kapil Sibal, minister of law, said that the government was "considering all possible options" but that time was short.

However, it appears unlikely that parliamentary time will be found soon to debate new legislation. It would be unusually bold for an administration widely seen as weak to take on such a controversial issue months before what promises to be a tricky battle to retain power at a general election due next spring.

There has been no clear indication of the position of the opposition Bharatiya Janata party, which has roots in deeply conservative Hindu religious and cultural organisations, on the supreme court judgment.

The fierce debate, at least among metropolitan elites in India, over the last 24 hours is a further example of how sexuality has become a battleground in the fast-changing country, often revealing cultural splits between generations, between urban and rural dwellers and between those who invoke a "traditional past" contaminated by western influences and those who stress a local history of pluralism and tolerance.

Few expected the legal challenge launched by conservatives – including Muslim and Christian religious associations, a rightwing politician and a retired government official-turned astrologist – against the 2009 decision to succeed. The supreme court is known for its broadly progressive judgments that often order politicians or officials to respect the rights of the poor, disadvantaged or marginalised communities.

Gay rights activists say that gay people face significant discrimination and police harassment, even if prosecutions for same-sex activity have been rare. Criminalising gay sex makes them vulnerable to blackmail, they say, and causes misery for many who already face prejudice from even close family members.

On Wednesday Vikram Seth, the Indian author, spoke of many gay men in India living lives of "quiet desperation".

Defenders of the supreme court decision said the objections of the judges to the repeal of section 377 were "constitutional and legal, not moral".

However, critics said that the wording of the judgment – which refers to the "so-called rights of LGBT persons", describes same-sex relations as "against the order of nature" and says that "lesbians, gays, bisexuals or transgenders constitute only a miniscule fraction of the country's population" – reveals deep prejudice.

Pillay, the UN human rights commissioner, said she hoped the supreme court might now exercise its review procedure, in effect agreeing to re-hear the case before a larger panel of judges.

However activists are not hopeful of any swift reversal of Wednesday's decision. "I'm not holding my breath," said Gopalan, of the Naz Foundation.


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« Reply #10655 on: Dec 14, 2013, 07:01 AM »


Execution of Kim Jong-un's uncle raises fears of instability in North Korea

Experts say purge of Jang Song-thaek may suggest powerful groups are jockeying for power in secretive state

Tania Branigan in Beijing
theguardian.com, Friday 13 December 2013 17.00 GMT   
   
North Korea's brutal purge and execution of Kim Jong-un's uncle has raised fears of instability in a state with a nuclear weapons programme and a willingness to ratchet up regional tensions.

Jang Song-thaek was accused of everything from plotting a coup to instigating disastrous currency reforms and dishing out pornography in a report issued by the official news agency KCNA early on Friday morning. It denounced him as "worse than a dog" and "despicable human scum".

The Rodong Sinmun newspaper showed him handcuffed and held by uniformed guards in the courtroom of the special military tribunal that found him guilty of treason.

Experts were divided on whether his violent end indicated that Kim was consolidating his power ruthlessly – or that powerful groups within the elite were jockeying for power.

Before his ousting Jang was one of the North's most powerful figures and was regarded as a mentor to the youthful leader. But even his marriage to Kim's aunt – whose situation remains unclear – was not enough to save his life.

The culmination of Jang's fall from power, first heralded by the announcement that he had been stripped of his posts and expelled from the Workers' party, was announced in thundering, vitriolic state media reports in unprecedented fashion.

In Pyongyang, people crowded around subway station billboards displaying the morning paper and news of the execution, Associated Press reported. Others sat quietly and listened as a radio broadcast piped into the subway listed Jang's crimes.

North Korea watchers are struggling to understand why the normally secretive nation has made the case so public.

Accusations of factionalism or scheming are not in themselves new. "The most surprising and unprecedented thing is not that someone was planning to overthrow the state … but the implication that he had a substantial number of followers. That's the first ever official admission of significant disunity in the North Korean state itself," said Brian Myers, an expert on ideology at Dongseo University in Busan.

The lengthy, bombastic and at times downright bizarre report from KCNA took a scattershot approach to Jang's crimes. It quoted an alleged admission by Jang that he sought to destabilise the country, triggering discontent among the military and others. He planned to become premier if North Korea approached collapse and use illicitly acquired wealth to ensure that "the people and service personnel will shout 'hurrah' for me" and his coup would succeed smoothly.

It also claimed he pursued a "decadent capitalist lifestyle" – squandering at least €4.6m in 2009 alone, including in a foreign casino – and deliberately hampered construction projects in Pyongyang.

He sold off natural resources "at random" and committed treachery by selling off land at the Rason special economic zone for five decades, it added, apparently in reference to a deal with Russia.

"They are using this opportunity to scapegoat Uncle Jang by relegating responsibility for all policy failures," said Leonid Petrov of the Australian National University.

But other offences cited include halfhearted applause when Kim received a key promotion and Jang's "reckless" instruction to security forces to erect a granite block with Kim's signature in a shaded corner rather than in front of their headquarters.

"I think it is really dangerous. It certainly isn't a sign of strong leadership. Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were really tough but managed the factions and you never saw any public [issues]. I think this is a sign you have all-out war between various family interests," said Hazel Smith, an expert on the North at the University of Central Lancashire.

"To me it's all about money; you have had the growth of trading companies whose cover is provided by people related to six or seven key families … No one wants to see their interests smashed up."

She warned that the North's command and control systems appeared to be breaking down and suggested further instability lay ahead. While the elite had previously remained cohesive because of fears the regime would otherwise fall, "the execution of Jang Song-thaek … will reinforce the idea they should look after themselves. If he is not protected, who is?" she said.

That was all the more concerning given the country's nuclear programme, she noted.

Ruediger Frank of the University of Vienna said the handling of the case was "extraordinary".

He added: "I think it's pretty obvious that it has been done by Mr Kim. Somebody must have told him though; it's always one group against another, trying to get the support of the leader."

Frank argued Kim had made his mark remarkably quickly as a leader and saw other reasons for the unusual publicity. One clue might lie in the references to his dealings with foreign powers and the suggestion that he sold his country short in key deals.

"The public nature of the whole thing might perhaps be a message to China: we have got your man and stay out of our business. The other [possibility] is that economic trouble is coming – if not already there – and there's a need for a scapegoat," he said.

Whoever is responsible for Jang's demise, further purges are expected to follow. Other names have already vanished from state media reports as Jang's has been edited from the archives. Even as the reverberations are felt through the top levels of power in the North, the vilification of Jang may raise difficult questions for the leadership amid the broader population, noted Myers. His ability to cause so much damage for so long implies almost negligence on the part of leaders, and his case sits uneasily with North Korea's use of collective punishment.

"This is a member of the clan in a culture where the regime tends to punish entire families for crimes committed by one of them. So it seems odd to be so explicit about [his] crimes," Myers said.


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« Reply #10656 on: Dec 14, 2013, 07:03 AM »


US and Chinese warships nearly collide amid tensions over airspace

USS Cowpens was near Liaoning aircraft carrier in South China Sea when another Chinese ship closed in, officials say

Reuters in Washington
theguardian.com, Saturday 14 December 2013 03.30 GMT      

A US guided missile cruiser operating in international waters in the South China Sea was forced to take evasive action last week to avoid a collision with a Chinese warship, the US Pacific Fleet has revealed.

The USS Cowpens had been operating in the vicinity of China's only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, at a time of heightened tensions in the region following Beijing's declaration of an air defence zone farther north in the East China Sea, a US defence official said.

Another Chinese warship came near the Cowpens in the incident on 5 December. The US ship was forced to take evasive action to avoid a collision, the Pacific Fleet said in its statement.

"Eventually, effective bridge-to-bridge communications occurred between the US and Chinese crews, and both vessels manoeuvred to ensure safe passage," said a defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Cowpens had been in the Philippines helping with disaster relief in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan, which hit the region in November. The US navy said it was in the South China Sea conducting routine "freedom-of-navigation" operations – which are intended to assert the right of passage through a disputed area – when the incident occurred.

China sent the Liaoning to the South China Sea in the midsts of the tensions over the air zone, which covers the skies around a group of tiny islands in the East China Sea that are administered by Japan but claimed by Beijing as well.

Beijing declared the air zone in November and demanded that aircraft flying through provide flight plans and other information. The United States and its allies rejected the Chinese demand and have continued to fly military aircraft into the zone.

Beijing claims most of the South China Sea and is involved in territorial disputes with several of its neighbours in that region as well.

Asked if the Chinese vessel had been moving toward the Cowpens with aggressive intent, an official declined to speculate on the motivations of the Chinese crew. "US leaders have been clear about our commitment to develop a stable and continuous military-to-military relationship with China," the official said.


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« Reply #10657 on: Dec 14, 2013, 07:06 AM »


Qantas: Tony Abbott hints foreign takeover might be allowed

Prime minister suggests Australian majority share rule could be relaxed as airline argues it needs overseas finance to compete

Staff and agencies
theguardian.com, Saturday 14 December 2013 07.40 GMT      

Tony Abbott has backed releasing Qantas from restrictions on foreign investment, saying it is not an unreasonable request for the Australian airline to be allowed more than 49% overseas ownership.
Federal opposition leader Tony Abbott (AAP Image/Dean Lewins). Tony Abbott. Photograph: AAP Image/Dean Lewins

"Where we can be helpful we will certainly try to be helpful but as I understand it, what Qantas wants is to be unshackled [from the 49% restrictions]," he told the Financial Review newspaper. The prime minister had previously said "the Australian economy would be a stunted impoverished thing without foreign investment", while ruling out the government subsidising the airline or acting as a guarantor for its debt.

The Qantas Sale Act 1992, under which the airline was privatised, limits foreign ownership to just under half. The Qantas chief executive, Alan Joyce, has said the airline is not competing on a level playing field, with competitor Virgin receiving a $350m injection from its foreign owners Etihad, Air New Zealand and Singapore Airlines.

Qantas has announced it plans to shed 1,000 jobs, impose pay freezes and make cuts across the board as it confronts the prospect of massive losses. Its credit rating was downgraded to junk status by Standard & Poor's after it unveiled half-year losses of $300m and said it needed to cut $2bn from its costs over the next three years.

The independent senator Nick Xenophon has challenged Joyce to show one dollar of profit since setting up Jetstar Asia and other offshoots. "If the CEO Alan Joyce and the chairman Lee Clifford go, that will transform the airline because they have presided over monumental strategic mistakes including the failed Jetstar experiment in Asia where they have burned hundreds of millions," he told AAP.

"The airline is now vulnerable to a private equity takeover because the share price is so low. The private equity buccaneers are now circling the airline."

The Labor MP Matt Thistlethwaite backed the restrictions in the Qantas act. "Given what happened to private equity in the global financial crisis you could probably fairly say if we didn't have the Qantas Sale Act … Qantas would not be here today," he told Sky News.

The Liberal Josh Frydenberg MP said Qantas was an iconic Australian brand that should survive and proper. "It would be negligent of us not to investigate the various ways we could help Qantas," he told Sky News.

"Ultimately if you were to change the ownership restrictions, that would be an issue for the Australian parliament."

Chris Bowen, the Labor shadow treasurer, has said the government could intervene to support Qantas but argued that relaxing the foreign ownership restrictions is not the answer. Its problems accessing capital needed to be minimised and "if there's a role for government to constructively play we would lend our support to the government of the day to do so".

***************

Chris Bowen: Qantas is effectively 'too important to fail'

Shadow treasurer says some kind of government intervention may be necessary to keep the national carrier afloat

Australian Associated Press
theguardian.com, Sunday 8 December 2013 00.41 GMT

Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen says Qantas is "effectively" too important to fail, and Labor would be open to the idea of the federal government intervening to help the national carrier.

But the government remains unenthusiastic about stepping in, stressing that Qantas is a commercial operation that needs to get its finances in order.

Qantas will shed 1,000 jobs over the next 12 months, impose pay freezes and make cuts across the board as it faces huge losses.

It has blamed the strong Australian dollar, high fuel costs and Virgin Australia "distorting" the market, and says "government action" will be key in enabling it to keep competing on a level playing field.

Bowen said on Sunday Qantas had problems getting access to capital and the government could play a role "assisting" with that.

"Of course we would want to see that minimised," he told Sky News.

"But if there's a role for government to constructively play, we would lend our support to the government of the day to do so."

Labor did not agree that relaxing foreign investment restrictions on the airline was the answer to fixing its woes, he said.

Asked if Qantas was too important to the Australian economy to collapse, Bowen replied: "Effectively, yes."

The parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, Josh Frydenberg, echoed those sentiments, but disagreed about the need for government intervention.

"We do not want it to fail, but it's a commercial company and it needs to get its house in order and make the adjustments necessary so it can return to a profit," he told Sky News.

He said Qantas was competing on an uneven playing field against Virgin, but the national carrier could be assisted to the tune of $100m if the carbon tax was abolished.

Frydenberg disagreed with Labor's "default position" that government should provide a bailout when companies ran into trouble.

"Our default position is to say leave it to business, leave it to the individual, leave it to free enterprise, and try to keep government's role to a minimum," he said.


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« Reply #10658 on: Dec 14, 2013, 07:08 AM »


December 13, 2013

Land Disputes Slow Recovery in Philippines

By KEITH BRADSHER
IHT

TACLOBAN, the Philippines — A mile offshore from this typhoon-wrecked city lies a postcard-perfect tropical islet fringed with golden sand beaches and topped with a mansion and swimming pool: the private island of one of this country’s most powerful families, the Romualdez clan of the former first lady, Imelda Marcos.

Facing the island are the devastated remains of what used to be the city’s most densely populated squatter settlement, a flattened jumble of broken boards and twisted sheets of corrugated steel on land also owned by the family. An estimated 1,000 people in this settlement alone drowned a month ago when Typhoon Haiyan sent a tsunami-like storm surge rushing across the peninsula, obliterating the spindly homes in its path.

Now the Romualdez family, which has dominated city politics for decades, is locked in a battle with the squatters, trying to block rebuilding on the site.

The family says it is for the squatters’ good; the area was so exposed that even the evacuation center, in a school, was overwhelmed. Waves and wind slammed cars and other debris repeatedly into bodies that were trapped against the school’s walls, a local official said, sending sprays of blood onto terrified parents and children seeking shelter there. Even some in the federal government, stacked with rivals of the Romualdez family, say such vulnerable land should be abandoned.

The squatters doubt the family’s sincerity, and the ability of the government to help them build lives in a safer place. They contend that the clan sees the storm’s devastation as a way to finally clear the land, which some in the family have wanted to do for years.

The immediate payoff: The national government is considering buying the land to extend the runway of Tacloban’s airport for international flights — a move that could not only benefit family members financially, but also embellish their political fortunes by making their hometown a bigger, more important city.

“They should provide jobs and a place to live to help us recover,” said one of the squatters, Rowena Versoza, who lost 15 family members to the storm and has almost single-handedly rebuilt her hut. “No one talks to us about that.”

Land disputes at this settlement and similar shantytowns up and down the coast are among the many reasons the recovery effort here is faltering. The typhoon destroyed or severely damaged the homes of four million people — more than twice as many as those left homeless by the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. Virtually no new permanent houses are being built yet, as the local and national government wrangle about which areas are too vulnerable to storm surges to be rebuilt.

But the standoff over the roughly six-acre strip of land owned by the Romualdez family is particularly fraught, emblematic of troubles that have plagued the Philippines for decades: an unequal distribution of property that keeps many mired in poverty, together with a degree of lawlessness and political expediency that allows the poor to settle on land that is not legally theirs. An estimated one-third of Tacloban’s residents are squatting on other people’s land.

The landowning aristocracy includes not only Mrs. Marcos’s clan — Romualdez was her maiden name — but also the family of the president, Benigno S. Aquino III, which has begun to parcel out rural land to more than 6,000 tenant farmers under a court order.

Hanging in the balance here in Tacloban is the fate of up to 175,000 people who lived in crowded, rat-infested shantytowns with no sewage systems before the storm. The national and local governments say they will build temporary wood homes inland, and Mrs. Marcos, who now lives on the main island of Luzon, has offered her estate on the southern outskirts of Tacloban for some of those shelters.

That is not enough to calm the squatters. Many are fishermen who do not want to move inland, and practically all distrust that enough new government housing will be built in an impoverished country with a history of graft.

So far, the squatters on the Romualdez land appear to be winning. They trampled a recently erected barbed wire fence around the area and are building new shanties from the scraps that the typhoon left behind. But they worry that with so many members of the Romualdez clan in government — among them, Mayor Alfred Romualdez and his cousin who represents the city in Congress — their victory will be short-lived.

The Romualdez family has owned the shoreline property for generations, since before Gen. Douglas MacArthur chose the southern outskirts of Tacloban in 1944 for the American invasion that began the liberation of the Philippines from Japanese rule.

The American military quickly built an airport and other facilities that helped transform what had been a college town and provincial capital into the fast-growing economic hub of the east-central Philippines.

The largess of Mrs. Marcos and her husband, Ferdinand, during his two decades as the country’s autocratic leader also enriched the city and won Mrs. Marcos and her family a loyal following here.

Facing much bigger political challenges during the chaotic last days of Marcos rule in the 1980s, the Romualdez family did little as squatters began moving in large numbers onto the sandy grasslands at the end of Tacloban’s airport runway.

As the city continued to boom — reaching 235,000 permanent residents before the typhoon, plus a similar number of students, migrant workers and other temporary residents — the family chose not to risk a confrontation by trying to evict anyone. Like those in other parts of the country where large numbers of former farmers and fishermen have poured into cities, vote-conscious politicians and the police have been reluctant to push out squatters, who register in large numbers to vote.

Congressman Martin Romualdez, who has played a leading role in the family’s discussions over the years about what to do with the site, said forcing people out would not have been “politically correct,” nor necessary, given the family’s many holdings in real estate and mining.

The family did, however, enhance one of its other properties in the city; in 2003, when the mayor was the current mayor’s father, the city government set aside a 100-acre marine sanctuary off the island that bans fishermen from its spectacular coral reefs.

“When we go near it, we get shot at,” said David Yano, a fisherman who said he had lived in the squatter settlement for 35 years and is rebuilding there.

The latest battle began when Armando Romualdez — a 76-year-old uncle of the mayor and congressman, and a younger brother of Mrs. Marcos — showed up at the settlement three weeks after the typhoon and demanded that residents leave, nearly a dozen residents said. They said he told them he wanted to sell the land for the airport expansion.

When Jerry Yaokasin, the deputy mayor and a political independent, was told several hours later about the visit, he shoved his chair back, let out a plaintive “aieee,” and rushed out to speak with aides. He later explained that while he was upset by Armando Romualdez’s visit, he personally believed the squatter settlement should be relocated because of the danger.

Mayor Romualdez said in a subsequent interview that his uncle had only voiced concern for the safety of those rebuilding there during his visit. “He lost a friend who died in the area and he does not want it to happen again, and he feels guilty,” the mayor said. Armando Romualdez, who lives in a ranching town on another Philippine island, did not answer numerous calls or text messages seeking comment.

Buildable land without squatters in the immediate vicinity sold for $500,000 to $1 million an acre before the typhoon. But the mayor also noted that the value of the land was most likely diminished by the storm.

In any case, he said, his uncle had been mistaken in telling longtime residents that they had to leave by next month. The mayor promised that residents would not be evicted until they had homes elsewhere.

Then the barbed wire went up.

Tecson Lim, the city administrator, said he had encouraged property owners throughout the city to put the fences up to prevent the reappearance of squalid settlements he described as posing a health risk. The mayor and his cousin, the congressman, each said they did not know who had put up the fence, but Mr. Yaokasin, the deputy mayor, said the neighborhood’s elected leaders determined it had been erected by the uncle’s representatives.

For now, residents of the settlement say, their government is simply making their lives harder. In the tortured logic of the country’s unending land disputes, the city is refusing to deliver food there, forcing traumatized residents to walk 20 minutes for sustenance. Otherwise, the mayor says, new squatters will come, replacing those swept out to sea.

Robert Gonzaga contributed reporting.


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« Reply #10659 on: Dec 14, 2013, 07:09 AM »


Which way will South Africa's young turn now Nelson Mandela is gone?The post-apartheid generation has been chanting revolutionary songs but is the ANC in tune with its hopes and fears?

Gary Younge in Johannesburg
theguardian.com, Friday 13 December 2013 11.20 GMT       

At the memorial service for Nelson Mandela earlier this week, Sipho Matlane, 26, held his African National Congress flag high as he led a historic chant calling for the former ANC chief Oliver Tambo to tell the former apartheid president PW Botha to release Nelson Mandela. Matlane was two when Botha stepped down; three when Mandela was released; six when Tambo died and seven when apartheid ended with South Africa's first democratic elections. So where did he learn the song?

"Everybody knows it," he says. "I don't remember specifically when I learned it. But if you grow up in Soweto then you grow up with these songs. It's our culture."

Like Matlane, a generation of South Africans have only known Nelson Mandela as a free man. For their entire politically conscious lives the country has always been in transition, the ANC has always been in government and apartheid has always been history. In Zimbabwe, they are known as the "Born Frees" and have proved among the least impressed by Robert Mugabe's credentials as a national liberator.

But over the past week South Africa's young have been out in force singing the praises of the disbanded ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) and decrying the "Mellow Yellow" – armoured police vehicles once synonymous with brutal township policing and now an exhibit in the apartheid museum.

They have been among the most vocal revellers and mourners across the townships and at the various events marking Mandela's demise even though for much of their adult lives he has been out of the public eye. "Mandela has been an absent presence for some time now," explains Ebrahim Fakir of the Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa. "But he and many of the other giants of the liberation struggle like Walter Sisulu or Oliver Tambo still loom just as large as before, just not in the same way."

"They're not singing it with the same sense of historicism that their parents did," says Eusebius McKaiser, writer and radio personality. "They know there's greatness there but I'm not sure they always know why."

The question, particularly following the booing of the prime minister, Jacob Zuma, at Mandela's memorial ceremony, is the degree to which these attachments reflect personal affection for Mandela as opposed to political affiliation to the ANC. The world did not just lose an icon last week; the ANC also lost the man who most clearly symbolised its moral centre and political history as a liberation movement. For those who were not there for its glory days, what is there left to identify with?

Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg, says he can see no evidence of a demographic electoral shift. "The sense that someone inevitably looks at the world entirely differently to the way their parents do just doesn't stand up," he says.

The annual survey conducted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation indicates there is far more variation in political attitudes between races than generations and a significant erosion in the nation's political leadership across the board.

Fakir points out that while the young and old may have lived through different eras, they have not necessarily had very different upbringings. "There is some social mobility but a large number of black kids live almost exactly the same lives as their parents did. They believe the ANC is their best hope; starting from a base of zero there have been incremental improvements."

Alexandra township bears some evidence of progress. More paved roads and newly built homes in this densely packed township indicate it has not been entirely forgotten. But nonetheless the general impression almost 20 years after Mandela's first victory remains one of grinding poverty and desperation. "You can't say the government has done nothing," says Thembile Nkosu, 30, balancing a baby on her hip. "But they haven't done enough and they need to do more. Where are the jobs? Without work how can we live?"

Nationally, unemployment among 15- to 24-year-olds stands at more than 50%. Among black South Africans the figure is far higher. "I'm not sure how free the 'Born Frees' really are," says Friedman.

"The whites are still racist," said Thami Manana, 29. "It's not the same as before but it's still bad. Look at the houses they live in and the areas where we live."

Andile Mngxitama thinks this discontent will be the ANC's achilles heel. "There is a disconnect, particularly among the young, between remembering Mandela and remembering the ANC. What you have seen this week is a combination of nostalgia and melancholy. The ANC has the weight of its history pulling people towards it and the weight of its record in government pulling it down."

Fakir argues these disappointments don't necessarily negate young people's appreciation of the ANC's historic achievement in creating a non-racial democracy. "Even for people who are struggling the fact that they have liberty and freedom still gives them dignity and hope," he says.

Mngxitama is one of the senior figures in the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a new political party started earlier this year by Julius Malema, the former ANC Youth League leader who was expelled for making racially inflammatory remarks. He claims the Mandela today's young people are embracing is not the same as the one who has been showcased in the media for most of this week. "They are remembering the military guy, the guy who fought. They are not celebrating the reconciler and the saviour. They're not chanting for the five years when he was in government. They are talking about the 27 years when he was in jail."

The EFF – a potent blend of Leninism with black consciousness – believes it can win the youth from the ANC and that the absence of Mandela will make it easier.

With an election looming that looks like wishful thinking, not least because, as in almost every country, the young are the least likely to turn out. Only 12% of eligible 18- to 19-year-olds and 65% of 20- to 29-year-olds are registered. Those motivated enough to go to the public events mourning Mandela's death in the teeming rain are, in all likelihood, among those most likely to vote. But beyond the faithful the sense of malaise is real. It seems to go beyond the ANC to a disillusionment with the choices the democracy is offering in general – Indignados Africanus. More than a third of South Africans said they would rather not vote than change their party allegiance – a position more deeply entrenched with young black people than their white counterparts.

"When it comes to local elections people are refusing to vote because they say it's not worth the effort," a young man told pollsters in the Western Cape. "Most times they just don't care because every promise that gets made does not get delivered. That's what threatens democracy at the end of the day because people just don't care any more. Things are just carrying on. Nobody cares about them, so why must they vote people into positions which don't do anything for them?"

Mngxitama points to the young people leading protests against poor service delivery across the country as evidence that this disaffection need not curdle into despair.

"We never stopped singing resistance songs," he says. "Because after 10 years of neoliberal democracy the opportunities for resistance are still there."


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« Reply #10660 on: Dec 14, 2013, 07:11 AM »

December 13, 2013

African Crisis Is Tougher Than France Expected

By ALISSA J. RUBIN
IHT

PARIS — With photographs emerging of children toting guns and estimates of more than 400,000 displaced people in camps, the crisis in the Central African Republic is proving more complicated, violent and desperate than the French expected, according to Western diplomats, analysts and human rights activists.

The scale of the humanitarian needs and the growing animosity between the country’s Christians and Muslims threaten to overwhelm President François Hollande’s goal of quickly restoring order, disarming militias, expediting emergency aid and preparing for elections in 2014.

The French ambassador to the United Nations, Gérard Araud, has described the country as verging “on the brink of mass atrocities.” But a number of Western diplomats and human rights advocates fear that the country is already so deep in a spiral of revenge killings that it will be difficult for the French soldiers — who have a substantial task ahead just in Bangui, the capital — to slow the mayhem nationally.

More than 600 people have been killed in the past week in the sectarian violence and lawlessness convulsing the Central African Republic, and the turmoil is getting worse, the United Nations refugee agency said Friday.

This crisis is far different from the one in Mali, another former French colony, where France intervened militarily in January to halt an advance by Islamist insurgents.

“In Mali you had a pretty identifiable enemy in one part of the country, albeit a large part, but in the Central African Republic you have communities breaking into violence all over the country — it’s not just one group,” said a Western diplomat familiar with the situation, who asked not to be named because of he was not authorized to discuss the situation with reporters.

The full contingent of 1,600 French troops arrived over the weekend, and the United States is now helping to transport reinforcements from other African countries to join an African Union force of about 2,500 soldiers already deployed, with the goal of increasing that force to 6,000. The soldiers are authorized to pre-empt violence under a United Nations Security Council resolution approved last week. President Obama has ordered $60 million in nonlethal military equipment to be sent.

It is unclear whether that will be enough.

“What we are facing today is a bit heavier than we expected,” said a French diplomat speaking in Washington this week, referring to some of the Muslim militias active in Bangui and elsewhere. “We plan for everything,” said the diplomat, who, under the diplomatic protocol established by the French government, declined to be identified. “But some have hidden weapons in the capital city and are behaving in a very unconventional way with fake uniforms. Some are wearing civilian clothes. We have to cope with that; we hope we can.”

The genocide in Rwanda in 1994 casts a long shadow. The French have been blamed for not doing more and accused of allowing the escape of some notorious figures who were involved in perpetrating the carnage, and they now appear committed to preventing a similar cycle of killing.

French military intervention in its former colonies carries other risks. Islamic insurgents linked to Al Qaeda, seething over France’s deployment in Mali, retaliated with a deadly attack on a desert gas field in neighboring Algeria that left at least 37 foreign hostages and 29 attackers dead. While Qaeda operatives are not believed to have turned their attention to the Central African Republic, some analysts worry that it has the kind of lawless and remote profile that could attract jihadist cells.

The Central African Republic is France’s fourth military engagement in Africa in 10 years, including Mali, Ivory Coast and Libya. Thirty-four French soldiers have been killed during that period in combat operations in Africa, with the largest number in Ivory Coast. All except Libya have been part of France’s colonial past, and each has a complex relationship with its former overlord.

France had hoped that its engagement in Mali, where it has deployed 2,800 troops, would be winding down by now, but those plans have been delayed.

From the start, the Central African Republic was a challenge of a different order, analysts said.

The country is poorer and farther from Europe, making it less of a celebrated cause than Mali, whose culture and tradition of democratic stability and religious tolerance are admired far beyond its borders. Mali attracted financial support from the European Union as well as from individual members to help with its rebuilding.

The Central African Republic, by contrast, is much more isolated, with the world’s fourth-highest infant mortality rate and a life expectancy of about 50 years.

One of the toughest problems France faces is trying to reach the lawless areas outside the capital. In large parts of the countryside, communities belonging to the Christian majority have formed militias known as the anti-balaka to repel attacks from the largely Muslim rebels, known as the Seleka, who took power after toppling the government this year. Some analysts say the rebels’ allies include foreign mercenaries and warlords from neighboring Sudan and Chad.

“The French haven’t reached many of the towns where the Seleka are present, and they haven’t reached the countryside, where the anti-balaka militias are, and the countryside is armed and ready to fight to overthrow the Muslim rule,” said Peter Bouckaert, director of emergencies for Human Rights Watch, who was visiting the country for the past two weeks.

“It is very scary to walk into some of these villages and see everyone other than yourself armed,” said Mr. Bouckaert, who posted a photo on Twitter of a boy, about 12 years old, carrying a gun near Bossangoa, a more heavily Christian area in the country’s west.

The child had been pressed into service by the anti-balaka Christian militias. Disarming such groups, one of the French objectives, could backfire unless both Christian and Muslim militias are disarmed, said Mr. Bouckaert and other analysts. Human rights advocates have already documented instances in which the French disarmed Seleka leaders, who were then lynched by Christian militias within hours.

Africa analysts worry that France does not have a clear plan for how to contain the sectarian violence and create an environment for a caretaker government to bring stability.

“The most difficult thing at the moment is the disarmament of the population,” said Thierry Vircoulon, the central Africa project director for the International Crisis Group.

“Communities are armed now; they will try to hide their weapons,” he said. “The second thing is what to do with the Seleka fighters,” he continued. “If they go to their barracks and agree to disarm, the French have to offer them an alternative future.”

French officials argue that they had an overriding reason for sending in troops. “If we hadn’t intervened,” said Mr. Hollande, speaking on Tuesday, shortly after French troops arrived, “there would have been further massacres, there would have been more women raped, more children would have been killed.”

Michael R. Gordon contributed reporting from Washington.


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« Reply #10661 on: Dec 14, 2013, 07:14 AM »


Uruguay's president José Mujica: no palace, no motorcade, no frills

In the week that Uruguay legalises cannabis, the 78-year-old explains why he rejects the 'world's poorest president' label

How does your leader compare to José Mujica? Have your say

Jonathan Watts in Montevideo
The Guardian, Friday 13 December 2013 13.37 GMT      

If anyone could claim to be leading by example in an age of austerity, it is José Mujica, Uruguay's president, who has forsworn a state palace in favour of a farmhouse, donates the vast bulk of his salary to social projects, flies economy class and drives an old Volkswagen Beetle.

But the former guerrilla fighter is clearly disgruntled by those who tag him "the world's poorest president" and – much as he would like others to adopt a more sober lifestyle – the 78-year-old has been in politics long enough to recognise the folly of claiming to be a model for anyone.

"If I asked people to live as I live, they would kill me," Mujica said during an interview in his small but cosy one-bedroom home set amid chrysanthemum fields outside Montevideo.

The president is a former member of the Tupamaros guerrilla group, which was notorious in the early 1970s for bank robberies, kidnappings and distributing stolen food and money among the poor. He was shot by police six times and spent 14 years in a military prison, much of it in dungeon-like conditions.

Since becoming leader of Uruguay in 2010, however, he has won plaudits worldwide for living within his means, decrying excessive consumption and pushing ahead with policies on same-sex marriage, abortion and cannabis legalisation that have reaffirmed Uruguay as the most socially liberal country in Latin America.

Praise has rolled in from all sides of the political spectrum. Mujica may be the only leftwing leader on the planet to win the favour of the Daily Mail, which lauded him as a trustworthy and charismatic figurehead in an article headlined: "Finally, A politician who DOESN'T fiddle his expenses."

But the man who is best known as Pepe says those who consider him poor fail to understand the meaning of wealth. "I'm not the poorest president. The poorest is the one who needs a lot to live," he said. "My lifestyle is a consequence of my wounds. I'm the son of my history. There have been years when I would have been happy just to have a mattress."

He shares the home with his wife, Lucía Topolansky, a leading member of Congress who has also served as acting president.

As I near the home of Uruguay's first couple, the only security detail is two guards parked on the approach road, and Mujica's three-legged dog, Manuela.

Mujica cuts an impressively unpolished figure. Wearing lived-in clothes and well-used footwear, the bushy-browed farmer who strolls out from the porch resembles an elderly Bilbo Baggins emerging from his Hobbit hole to scold an intrusive neighbour.

In conversation, he exudes a mix of warmth and cantankerousness, idealism about humanity's potential and a weariness with the modern world – at least outside the eminently sensible shire in which he lives.

He is proud of his homeland – one of the safest and least corrupt in the region – and describes Uruguay as "an island of refugees in a world of crazy people".

The country is proud of its social traditions. The government sets prices for essential commodities such as milk and provides free computers and education for every child.

Key energy and telecommunications industries are nationalised. Under Mujica's predecessor, Uruguay led the world in moves to restrict tobacco consumption. Earlier this week, it passed the world's most sweeping marijuana regulation law, which will give the state a major role in the legal production, distribution and sale of the drug.

Such actions have won praise and – along with progressive policies on abortion and gay marriage – strengthened Uruguay's reputation as a liberal country. But Mujica is almost as reluctant to accept this tag as he is to agree with the "poorest president" label.

"My country is not particularly open. These measures are logical," he said. "With marijuana, this is not about being more liberal. We want to take users away from clandestine dealers. But we will also restrict their right to smoke if they exceed sensible amounts of consumption. It is like alcohol. If you drink a bottle of whisky a day, then you should be treated as a sick person."

Uruguay's options to improve society are limited, he believes, by the power of global capital.

"I'm just sick of the way things are. We're in an age in which we can't live without accepting the logic of the market," he said. "Contemporary politics is all about short-term pragmatism. We have abandoned religion and philosophy … What we have left is the automatisation of doing what the market tells us."

The president lives within his means and promotes the use of renewable energy and recycling in his government's policies. At the United Nations' Rio+20 conference on sustainable development last year, he railed against the "blind obsession" to achieve growth through greater consumption. But, with Uruguay's economy ticking along at a growth rate of more than 3%, Mujica – somewhat grudgingly, it seems – accepts he must deliver material expansion. "I'm president. I'm fighting for more work and more investment because people ask for more and more," he said. "I am trying to expand consumption but to diminish unnecessary consumption … I'm opposed to waste – of energy, or resources, or time. We need to build things that last. That's an ideal, but it may not be realistic because we live in an age of accumulation."

Asked for a solution to this contradiction, the president admits he doesn't have the answers, but the former Marxist said the search for a solution must be political. "We can almost recycle everything now. If we lived within our means – by being prudent – the 7 billion people in the world could have everything they needed. Global politics should be moving in that direction," he said. "But we think as people and countries, not as a species."

Mujica and his wife chat fondly about meetings with Che Guevara, and the president guesses he is probably the last leader in power to have met Mao Zedong, but he has mixed feelings about the recent revolts and protests in Brazil, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere. "The world will always need revolution. That doesn't mean shooting and violence. A revolution is when you change your thinking. Confucianism and Christianity were both revolutionary," he said.

But he is cynical about demonstrations organised by social networks that quickly dissolve before they have a capacity to build anything lasting. "The protesters will probably finish up working for multinationals and dying of modern diseases. I hope that I am wrong about that."
Life history
Shot, arrested, jailed and elected

1969 Active in the Tupamaros revolutionary group, which earned a reputation as the "Robin Hood guerrillas" by robbing delivery trucks and banks and distributing the food and money among the poor.

1970 Arrested for the first of four times. Mujica escapes Punta Carretas prison in a daring jailbreak. Shot and wounded numerous times in conflicts with security forces.

1972 Imprisoned again. Remains in jail for more than a decade, including two years' solitary confinement at the bottom of a well, where he speaks to frogs and insects to maintain his sanity.

1985 Constitutional democracy is restored in Uruguay and Mujica is released under an amnesty law.

1994 Elected deputy and arrives at the parliament building on a Vespa scooter. A surprised parking attendant asks: "Are you going to be here long?" Mujica replies: "I certainly hope so."

2009 Wins presidential election. Only words to the media that day: "Despite all this lip service, the world is not going to change." Adopts a ruling style closer to centre-left administrations of Lula in Brazil and Bachelet in Chile, rather than harder-left leaders such as Hugo Chávez.

2012 Lauded for a speech at the UN's Rio+20 global sustainability conference in which he calls for a fight against the hyper-consumption that is destroying the environment. "The cause is the model of civilization that we have created. And the thing we have to re-examine is our way of life."

2012 Announces that the presidential palace would be included among the state shelters for the homeless. Meanwhile, Mujica continues to live in his small farmhouse outside Montevideo.

2013 Mujica's government pushes the world's most progressive cannabis legalisation bill through Congress. "This is not about being free and open. It's a logical step. We want to take users away from clandestine business," he says.

Additional reporting by Mauricio Rabuffetti


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« Reply #10662 on: Dec 14, 2013, 07:16 AM »

Previously unknown DNA code could help humanity defy aging and death

By Travis Gettys
RawStory
Friday, December 13, 2013 10:59 EST

Scientists have discovered a second code that’s been hiding within DNA that could change the way genetic instructions are read.

A team of University of Washington researchers discovered the secondary code, which was published Friday in Science, and could help scientists better understand both disease and health.

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is present in the cells of all humans and most other living organisms, and scientists have assumed since the 1960s that it was used exclusively to write information about proteins.

But researchers discovered that information was superimposed over another set of instructions that cells use to control genes.

“For over 40 years we have assumed that DNA changes affecting the genetic code solely impact how proteins are made,” said Dr. James Stamatoyannopoulos, who led the UW team. “Now we know that this basic assumption about reading the human genome missed half of the picture. These new findings highlight that DNA is an incredibly powerful information storage device, which nature has fully exploited in unexpected ways.”

The researchers discovered that some codons, part of the 64-letter alphabet which makes up the genetic code, can have two meanings – one related to protein sequence and another related to gene control.

These duons apparently evolved together, researchers said, and the gene control instructions appear to stabilize beneficial features of proteins and how they’re made.

The discovery has major implications for the way scientists and physicians interpret genomes and will likely change the way diseases are diagnosed and treated.

“The fact that the genetic code can simultaneously write two kinds of information means that many DNA changes that appear to alter protein sequences may actually cause disease by disrupting gene control programs or even both mechanisms simultaneously,” said Stamatoyannopoulos.


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« Reply #10663 on: Dec 14, 2013, 07:17 AM »

China’s first lunar rover to land on moon Saturday

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 13, 2013 13:13 EST

A space module carrying China’s first lunar rover is scheduled to land on the moon Saturday, authorities said Friday, describing the manouevre as the mission’s greatest challenge.

The spacecraft is scheduled to make touchdown 12 days after the Chang’e-3 mission blasted off on a Long March-3B carrier rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in the country’s southwest.

“On the evening of December 14, Chang’e-3 will carry out a soft landing on the lunar surface,” said a post on the mission’s official blog on Sina Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter.

The task was described as the mission’s “most difficult” in the post, which was written by the Chinese Academy of Sciences on behalf of the country’s space authorities.

The Chang’e-3 mission is named after the goddess of the moon in Chinese mythology and the rover vehicle is called Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, after her pet.

The landing is expected to mark the latest step in an ambitious space programme which is seen as a symbol of China’s rising global stature and technological advancement.

China is aiming to become the third country to carry out a rover mission, following the United States and former Soviet Union decades ago.

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« Reply #10664 on: Dec 14, 2013, 07:27 AM »

In the USA...United Surveillance America

NSA will continue to be headed by a ‘dual-hatted’ military officer

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 13, 2013 13:11 EST

The White House has decided to maintain the “dual-hatted” arrangement which sees a single military officer head the National Security Agency eavesdropping service and US cyber warfare operations, an official said Friday.

The move comes as the administration finalizes a review ordered by President Barack Obama into the NSA’s sweeping worldwide data and phone record collection, following revelations by fugitive intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.

Some critics of the current system had argued that the NSA and the military’s cyber warfare command should be headed by different officials to avoid too much clandestine power residing in one official.

But National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said that after an interagency review, the administration “decided that keeping the positions of NSA Director and Cyber Command Commander together as one, dual-hatted position is the most effective approach to accomplishing both agencies’ missions.”

“NSA plays a unique role in supporting Cyber Command’s mission, providing critical support for target access and development, including linguists, analysts, cryptanalytic capabilities and sophisticated technological infrastructure.” Hayden said.

In practice, the decision means that the NSA will continue to be headed by a military officer — as the head of Cyber Command will of necessity be a senior member of the armed services.

The current head of the two agencies, four-star General Keith Alexander, retires early next year.

Obama said last week that he would introduce some restraints on the NSA following the review.

Officials said that the study into NSA operations in the wake of the Snowden affair was still expected to be delivered to the president by Sunday.

It remains unclear when Obama will present unclassified findings of the report publicly.

**************

December 13, 2013

Boehner’s Jabs at Activist Right Show G.O.P. Shift

By CARL HULSE
NYT

WASHINGTON — While Speaker John A. Boehner was harsh in his public criticism of conservative advocacy groups opposed to a new bipartisan budget deal, his attack on the organizations was even more pointed when he was behind closed doors.

“They are not fighting for conservative principles,” Mr. Boehner told rank-and-file House Republicans during a private meeting on Wednesday as he seethed and questioned the motives of the groups for piling on against the plan before it was even made public.

“They are not fighting for conservative policy,” he continued, according to accounts of those present. “They are fighting to expand their lists, raise more money and grow their organizations, and they are using you to do it. It’s ridiculous.”

Representatives of the activist groups dismissed that assertion and called the speaker’s denunciation a diversion tactic.

Still, Mr. Boehner’s tough talk in taking on interests considered vital to generating Republican voter enthusiasm and building fierce opposition to President Obama’s agenda appeared to represent a turning point in Republican coalition building in the aftermath of the government shutdown.

His break with the groups was magnified because it came after Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, had condemned a conservative group that has backed one of his opponents. And Mr. Boehner went on the offensive just as the executive director of the Republican Study Committee, the main organization for House conservatives, was dismissed, adding to the appearance that ties between the activist right and elected Republicans were unraveling.

Republican congressional leaders blame advocacy groups like Heritage Action for America and the Senate Conservatives Fund for the shutdown — for goading House and Senate Republicans into a dead-end insistence on financing the government only if the new health law was overturned. The predictable impasse over that demand and the eventual Republican capitulation damaged the standing of Republicans as well as Congress.

“The shutdown was the first time a group largely drove the Republican Party in the Senate towards something that was disadvantageous,” said one top Republican Senate official.

In addition, some congressional leaders are no longer willing to remain silent to avoid antagonizing important political partners. They have seen a clear downside to the rising influence of outside conservative organizations that promote divisive primary fights, producing flawed candidates who lose winnable seats to Democrats.

The 2014 election cycle probably represents Mr. McConnell’s last chance to regain the title of majority leader, and he seems determined not to let conservative activists spoil his chances. His actions and comments both publicly and privately since the shutdown have shown that he does not intend to brook much interference from conservative activists.

Just as important, Mr. McConnell does not want to regain the majority only to find himself surrounded by conservative firebrands like Representative Steve Stockman of Texas, who is now challenging Senator John Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican. Mr. Boehner has proved that presiding over an ungovernable majority is not an enviable job.

Seeming to relish his new liberation, Mr. Boehner on Thursday skewered the organizations for a second straight day, just a few hours before the House overwhelmingly approved the budget plan at the center of the dispute with the support of 169 Republicans. Sixty-two opposed it.

“They’re pushing our members in places where they don’t want to be,” Mr. Boehner said. “And frankly, I just think that they’ve lost all credibility.”

Conservative leaders said they viewed Mr. Boehner’s attacks as tantamount to a declaration of war and accused him of trying to change the subject from a budget plan that increases spending and sacrifices earlier hard-won fiscal victories by House Republicans.

Dan Holler, the communications director for Heritage Action, said he found it particularly remarkable that one of the biggest fund-raisers in Washington would suggest that a group was doing something to generate contributions.

“This is absurd,” Mr. Holler said. “Only in Washington could you have guys who go to PAC fund-raisers at swanky restaurants accuse outside groups of doing something for fund-raising. It is one of those petty attacks that is intended to shift the conversation away from the policy.”

The activists also say the effort to point to the shutdown as a rationale for trying to limit the clout of the groups is something of a feint to disguise the fact that some House Republicans felt hemmed in by the existing spending levels and were eager to generate some new money through the budget deal.

“There are a lot of Republican appropriators and Armed Services Committee members who hate being limited to $967 billion,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, another group that strongly opposes the budget plan. Without a deal, discretionary spending would be reduced to that level next month under sequestration cuts.

Activists differed on the political fallout from the intensifying feud. But at a minimum, one warned, it has the potential to sap energy from the conservative base that will be critical for the party in the midterm elections. Others said it would almost certainly fuel efforts by movement conservatives to challenge incumbent Republicans and try to move the party further to the right.

“It’s time for Americans to rise up and begin replacing establishment Republicans with true conservatives in the 2014 primary elections,” said Matt Hoskins, the executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, the group that has drawn Mr. McConnell’s wrath. “There’s no question anymore about where these leaders stand.”

Top advisers to House and Senate Republicans say their bosses have reached their limit with the threats of primary challenges and retribution from supposed allies on conservative policy. And they note that many of the groups opposing the budget deal because it breaks the spending caps set in the 2011 Budget Control Act fiercely opposed that deal as well and now see it as inviolable.

As for Mr. Boehner, he did not seem too alarmed at the prospect of political repercussions. He just seemed fed up.

“I don’t care what they do,” he said.

**************

December 13, 2013

Bipartisan Budget Deal Forged in House Faces Opposition in Senate

By JONATHAN WEISMAN and JEREMY W. PETERS
NYT

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan budget deal that sailed through the House on an overwhelming, bipartisan vote is running into difficulty in the Senate, where Republicans — some furious, some conservative and some running for office — are vowing to vote against the measure, which would roll back broad spending cuts.

After two years of legislation passing the Senate with bipartisan support only to implode in a conservative firestorm on the House floor, myriad Senate Republican grievances have combined in a legislative twist, threatening the comity that was supposed to end the budget wars, at least for now.

The two Republican senators with presidential aspirations — Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky — are actively working up opposition. Republican senators running for re-election in 2014 and facing Tea Party challenges have all come out no or leaning no.

Senator Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, is angry that his House Budget Committee counterpart, Representative Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, left him out of the negotiations that produced the accord. And some Republicans cannot declare their support for the deal after the Democratic strong-arm tactics that changed the Senate’s rules and ended filibusters of presidential nominees.

“I appreciate the dilemma Paul Ryan was in, but I’m disappointed,” said Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee and someone who was expected to be a “yes” vote. “For three years in a row, Congress has spent less on discretionary programs than the year before. Unfortunately, the deal announced this week busts these budget caps without making meaningful changes to mandatory programs, so it violates the only real progress we have made in getting our fiscal house in order.”

Senators and aides from both parties said Friday that they expected the two-year budget agreement ultimately to pass next week on the strength of the House’s 332-to-94 vote, which lost the chamber’s most conservative and liberal members. Speaker John A. Boehner was leaning on Republican senators to come around, and enough senators were still undecided to assure passage if most of them decided in favor of the bill.

Some Republicans are likely to vote to break a filibuster, even if they intend to vote against final passage. That would all but ensure passage on the strength of Democratic support alone.

“I’m not supporting it,” said Senator Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama. “I’m not going to vote for it. Some people will. It got a big vote in the House.”

Senator Mike Johanns, Republican of Nebraska, said: “The fact of the matter is we’ve got to face up to this. At the end of the day, if you believe in my crystal ball, this gets the votes.”

But considering the deal has been hailed for days as a critical turning point in Washington’s dysfunctional descent, its difficulties are a surprise. So far, Senator John McCain of Arizona is a declared Republican supporter, with Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, a likely yes, at least to end debate and allow a final up-or-down vote.

“I’m not O.K. with it, but I think it’s better than shutting down the government,” Mr. McCain said.

The trouble with the budget deal came as the Senate worked past another political crisis. The partisan tension over a rules change that limited the power of the filibuster and infuriated Republicans eased Friday as both parties said they were calling a weekend cease-fire that will allow them to move on to more pressing issues next week like the unfinished budget and a major Pentagon policy bills.

If the mood for most of the week was sour, on Friday senators seemed more exhausted than anything else, having endured two late-night sessions in a row. Because senators were on the floor at virtually all hours, they worked in shifts. Democrats occupied the presiding officer’s chair while Republicans took turns speaking from the floor to denounce what they said was an effort to stifle debate and dissent.

But the majority leader, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, announced late Friday morning that he would allow senators to go home for the weekend and return Monday evening to continue voting on a backlog of President Obama’s nominees. By Tuesday they could start debating the budget bill. They also would likely vote on the nomination of Janet L. Yellen to lead the Federal Reserve.

“We’re doing our utmost to finish our business here a week from today so that we can go home for Christmas,” Mr. Reid said. “I personally thank the senators for their cooperation this week.”

Mr. McCain summed up the thaw, saying: “Both sides didn’t want to work over the weekend. Come on! The zeal sometimes dissipates when you get into Thursday. And by Friday, it’s gone.”

The problems with the budget deal are different from the objections it faced in the House. The deal mitigates across-the-board spending cuts to military and domestic programs, raising spending to just over $1 trillion in this fiscal year and the next but ostensibly cutting the deficit slightly over 10 years.

Conservatives have opposed it for trading immediate spending cuts for the promise of program changes and savings that are years away and may never materialize.

But in the House, defense hawks backed it for undoing large cuts to the military. In the Senate, some hawks, such as Kelly Ayotte, Republican of New Hampshire, and Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, have seized on one provision that slows the growth of military pensions, saving about $6 billion over 10 years.

“After careful review of the agreement, I believe it will do disproportionate harm to our military retirees,” said Mr. Graham, who is also running for re-election next year against challengers on his right flank. “Our men and women in uniform have served admirably during some of our nation’s most troubling times. They deserve more from us in their retirement than this agreement provides.”

Trying to stem the defections, Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, announced that his committee would review the pension change before it goes into effect in December 2015.

****************

December 13, 2013

Shuffling Staff, Obama Strives for a Recharge After a Tough Fifth Year

By PETER BAKER
NYT

WASHINGTON — As he finishes a fifth year in power that proved far more vexing than his fourth, President Obama is shuffling his staff to recapture lost momentum and confront the daunting challenges of the midterm election season.

With each passing day comes word of another personnel change as the president seeks to recalibrate a White House operation that failed to win passage of most of his top legislative priorities for the year, struggled to preserve his public standing and bungled the rollout of his signature health care program.

A fresh infusion of people and energy can sometimes recharge an administration stocked with officials who have grown exhausted and, some argue, insular after five or six years of 14-hour days on the campaign trail and in the White House. But Mr. Obama has not made clear whether the new arrivals in the West Wing signal a more fundamental course change or are merely an effort to more effectively execute the same approach.

Mr. Obama has opted against a dramatic announcement of a slate of new advisers, but added up, the changes could be significant. The latest came Friday, when he replaced his legislative director, Miguel Rodriguez, with Katie Beirne Fallon, an aide with ties to Senate Democratic leaders. That followed the recruitment of John D. Podesta, President Bill Clinton’s last chief of staff, and the return of Mr. Obama’s former adviser Phil Schiliro.

“You always need fresh horses, and yet at the same time the horses have to work as a team, so it’s not as easy as people think,” said Paul Begala, who was part of a similar infusion of personnel in Mr. Clinton’s second-term White House. “John, Katie, Phil, they all have fresh energy, and, importantly, they are known and respected and accepted by the folks who have been killing themselves for this president.”

The White House played down the significance of the moves, describing them as the sort of turnover often seen at this point in a second-term presidency.

“We’re in Year 5 of an administration,” said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary. “People come and people go after working harder in these jobs probably than they’ll ever work in their lives.”

“But,” he added, “I think those are specific on-off, if you will, assignments and personnel moves that I think reflect the normal kind of churn you see in White Houses over the years.”

Other White House aides rejected the characterization of a shake-up, saying each change reflected individual circumstances, and they argued against a broader interpretation.

But they said that the moves signified an effort by Mr. Obama and his chief of staff, Denis R. McDonough, to shore up specific areas and bring particular people on board for the challenges they foresee in 2014. Mr. Podesta, for instance, has specialized in the past in using executive power to get around an opposition Congress, and Mr. Schiliro will oversee the health care efforts, drawing on his own background in passing the legislation in Mr. Obama’s first term.

The legislative affairs office under Mr. Rodriguez has come in for sometimes withering criticism in Congress not just from Republicans but also from Democrats, who complain that they have inadequate contact with the White House. Mr. Rodriguez, an aide to Hillary Rodham Clinton when she was in the Senate, joined the legislative affairs office in October 2011 and was promoted to director as the president was opening his second term, but he was not a well-known figure on Capitol Hill.

Some lawmakers complained that even after two years, they would not know him. Republicans recalled an event when Mr. Rodriguez appeared not to recognize two senior lawmakers. White House officials disputed the account, saying Mr. Rodriguez certainly knew the lawmakers and denying he was at an event like that described by Republicans.

Either way, Mr. Rodriguez was hurt by the perception that he was not a significant presence on Capitol Hill. Colleagues defended him, saying he is smart and was effective for Mrs. Clinton, even as they acknowledged problems in his latest assignment. Although the White House said Mr. Rodriguez left to pursue other professional opportunities, officials said privately that Mr. McDonough decided to use the moment to revamp the legislative office.

Mr. McDonough, who has tried this year to reach out to lawmakers personally, arranged a meeting between Mr. Obama and Ms. Fallon “to diagnose the challenges” and “come up with a plan for addressing them,” said a White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters.

The official said Mr. McDonough had been thinking about how to restructure the legislative office “so that it is deemed to be more responsive to concerns on the Hill and better calibrated to promote the president’s agenda.”

Ms. Fallon worked for Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, a top Democrat, before joining the White House recently as deputy communications director. “There’s nobody — nobody — better suited for this job,” Mr. Schumer said. “The president made a wise choice, and it will serve him, the Congress and the country for the best.”

Still, House Republicans said privately they did not know Ms. Fallon any better than they did Mr. Rodriguez. And some in both parties suggested that Mr. Obama’s problems were too big to be fixed by a few appointments.

The changes indicate an effort by Mr. Obama to put in place a team that can help him move past the difficulties of recent months as he and Democrats look ahead to challenging midterm elections. Mr. Obama’s poll numbers have sagged in the year since his re-election as the disastrous health care rollout undercut his credibility and his hopes of passing gun control and immigration legislation this year were dashed.

White House aides hope they have begun to turn a corner now that the health care website is performing better, and they were relieved to see a bipartisan spending plan pass the House this week as part of a truce in the fiscal wars. They also took solace in a New York Times/CBS News poll suggesting an uptick in the president’s approval rating.

Both Mr. Clinton and George W. Bush made similar changes in their second terms. “It can make a difference,” said Tony Fratto, who was brought in as part of a similar shake-up under Mr. Bush. “I think there should be an expiration date for White House staff. It takes six months to a year to figure the place out, but no one should serve for longer than three or four years.”

What helps, he said, are “new eyes, new perspective, no memory of what was tried earlier, less sensitivity to earlier efforts.”

Joel P. Johnson, who was likewise brought in late in Mr. Clinton’s tenure, said presidents get a better sense of how to staff their White House over time. “In the first term, you get the people you want,” he said. “And they may or may not turn out to be the people you need. In the second term, you know more exactly what and who you need, and you recruit the talent to fill that need.”

*************

December 13, 2013

Obama Tells New Mayors He’ll Help Fight Inequality

By PETER BAKER
NYT

WASHINGTON — President Obama vowed on Friday to join Bill de Blasio, the mayor-elect of New York, and other urban leaders in an effort to combat growing inequalities in American society and pressed Congress to extend unemployment benefits now set to expire.

“What we know is we’ve still got a lot of work to do to deliver a vision that we all share, which is an America where if you work hard, you can make it,” Mr. Obama said as he welcomed Mr. de Blasio and other newly elected mayors to the White House.

The meeting was an opportunity for the president to summon the momentum of Mr. de Blasio’s election as he increasingly makes the themes of disparity between rich and poor a theme of his second term. Many liberals hoped that Mr. de Blasio’s strong victory in November on such a platform signaled newfound public support for policies that would help lower-income Americans left behind as the economic recovery powers a surge on Wall Street.

Mr. de Blasio emerged from the White House enthusiastic about the budding alliance. “There was real passion in the president’s voice,” he said in the driveway outside the West Wing. “We all now know clearly that he will be a partner in all we do.”

Mr. de Blasio was one of 16 new mayors on hand for the meeting. Others included those from Boston, Charlotte, Jersey City, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Rochester, St. Petersburg and Seattle, as well as Mike Duggan, the mayor-elect of Detroit, which is going through bankruptcy. Joining the president was Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and top aides.

While the themes of inequality flavored the discussion, the most immediate issue on which the president and mayors agreed was the desire to extend unemployment benefits. An extension was left out of the new bipartisan fiscal plan making its way through Congress, but Mr. Obama argued for separate legislation to help more than one million jobless Americans whose benefits will soon expire.

“You’ve got potentially 1.3 million people who, during Christmastime, are going to lose their unemployment benefits, at a time when it’s still very difficult for a lot of folks to find a job,” Mr. Obama said. “And that’s not just bad for those individuals and for those families. That’s bad for our economy and that’s bad for our cities.”

Mr. de Blasio’s postelection debut at the White House signaled that he may emerge as a leading national voice on the issues that animated his campaign. While a clutch of mayors gathered to meet with reporters after the meeting, it was Mr. de Blasio who spoke first, and most, as the others deferred to him.

He spoke of a movement beyond New York’s border that he hoped to tap. “It’s clear something is happening around the country that the inequalities we’re facing are becoming just fundamentally unacceptable,” he said.




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