India cracks down on US embassy club in diplomatic row
India says US embassy must cease commercial activities benefiting non-diplomats, after Indian envoy's arrest in New York
Jason Burke in Delhi
theguardian.com, Wednesday 8 January 2014 11.17 GMT
India has ratcheted up the pressure on US diplomats in Delhi as the deadline nears for the indictment of an Indian envoy in New York charged with visa fraud and underpaying a maid.
Washington has been told that restaurants and other facilities at the social club in its Delhi embassy will have to close to non-diplomats and that inquiries into the tax affairs of US staff will be pursued aggressively.
The arrest last month of Devyani Khobragade, the Indian deputy consul general in New York, enraged Indians and has prompted the biggest crisis in relations between Delhi and Washington for many years.
Tensions rose further when the prosecutor handling the case in New York issued a hard-hitting statement accusing Delhi of turning a blind eye to exploitation of domestic workers serving its envoys overseas.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, has expressed his "regret" over the arrest, but this falls far short of the full apology that India wants.
Delhi has demanded that all charges against Khobragade be withdrawn and has applied to the US state department for permission to transfer her to its mission at the United Nations. This would give her full diplomatic immunity.
Khobragade, 39, is accused of declaring on visa documents that she would pay the nanny she brought from India the minimum wage in New York, and then making her work long hours for a fraction of the agreed rate. Freed on payment of a $250,000 bond, she is due in court on 13 January and could face a maximum sentence of 10 years if convicted.
Her lawyer is believed to have applied for the date by which the diplomat has to be charged to be pushed back to allow discussions with prosecutors.
The American Embassy club is based in a vast compound located on embassy grounds in the centre of Delhi, and boasts a swimming pool, baseball pitch, stores selling imported US products and a number of restaurants. Along with the American Embassy School, it is central to the social life of families of many expatriate employees of US corporations in India.
Indian officials said the latest move was "simply in line with a policy of strict recipricocity". India had already curtailed privileges offered to US diplomats to bring them in line with the treatment of Indian envoys to the US. Since December the US ambassador in Delhi can be subjected to airport frisking and most consular staff have had reduced levels of immunity.
Concrete security barriers were removed from a road near the embassy last month, apparently in retaliation for the loss of a parking spot for the Indian ambassador in Washington.
India is also preparing to take steps against the embassy school, which it suspects may be employ some staff in violation of visa requirements, government sources said.
Indian diplomats recently received support from one slightly unlikely quarter – their hostile neighbour Pakistan. "In the entire world, there is only one way … the Vienna convention ought to be respected in letter and spirit by everybody," Salman Bashir, the outgoing Pakistan high commissioner, said this week.
The arrest of Khobragade touches a range of sensitivities in India. Almost all middle-class households in India employ at least one, and often several, members of staff who will undertake tasks from cleaning and cooking to childcare and driving.
With few Indian diplomats paid wages that would allow them to legally employ local staff to perform such functions in postings in the west, the practice has long been for Indian workers to be flown out and paid rates that, if illegal in US and elsewhere, would be generous at home.
Preet Bharara, the prosecutor in Khobragade's case, said last month: "In fact the Indian government itself has been aware of this legal issue, and that its diplomats and consular officers were at risk of violating the law. The question then may be asked: is it for US prosecutors to look the other way, ignore the law and the civil rights of victims … or is it the responsibility of the diplomats and consular officers and their government to make sure the law is observed?"
In response to Bhahara's statement, a spokesman for India's ministry of external affairs said: "There is only one victim in this case. That victim is Devyani Khobragade, a serving Indian diplomat on mission in the United States."
There have been several previous incidents involving senior Indian diplomats in the US and domestic staff brought from India. In 2011 the Indian consul general ambassador, Prabhu Dayal, was accused by his maid of forced labour and sexual harassment, charges he called "complete nonsense" and that were later dropped.
A year earlier a US judge recommended that an Indian diplomat and her husband pay a maid nearly $1.5m in compensation for being forced to work without pay and suffering "barbaric treatment" in their luxury Manhattan apartment.
The outrage in India has been fuelled by politicians' unwillingness to seem out of step with public mood with a general election only months away.
Relations between the US and India have long been rocky, though steadily improving since a nadir in the 1970s. Barack Obama received a warm welcome on his visit in 2010. However, there remains deep suspicion of Washington in Delhi, and in India more generally, and many US officials see India as a difficult partner.
India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
January 8, 2014, 2:52 am
To Lower Maternal Deaths, India Urged to Reconsider Role of Midwives
By MALAVIKA VYAWAHARE
PATRA, West Bengal — In this village 30 miles south of Kolkata, three generations of women have depended on Saira Bewa to deliver their babies.
On a languid July afternoon, Ms. Saira, 61, squatted on the mud porch of her house in Patra and narrated the story of how she became a midwife. “When I was a teenager, I used to help deliver calves and goat kids at our home,” said the great-grandmother, who goes by one name (Bewa indicates she is a widow). “That is how it started. Soon, I was helping deliver babies.”
In over 40 years as a dai, as traditional midwives are known in India, Ms. Saira helped deliver scores of babies in this village of 6,500, which has a predominantly Muslim population, armed with a basin of hot water, a blade to cut the umbilical cord and her bare hands.
Women in rural India have traditionally relied heavily on midwives like Mrs. Bewa, but after decades of stubbornly high mortality rates, in 2005 the Indian government introduced the Jnani Suraksha Yojana program, which offered cash to poor women and those disadvantaged by caste, or their status as tribes, who delivered at a medical facility instead of at home.
The number of institutional deliveries rose dramatically, from about 40 percent of all births in 2005 to over 70 percent in 2009, but the fall in mortality numbers has not been equally pronounced.
With more than 55,000 women in India dying from pregnancy and childbirth-related complications each year, health experts and nongovernmental organizations are now pushing the government to re-incorporate midwives into the strained health care system by training them in modern childbirth practices and equipping them to handle complications.
“Community needs are at a point that if you suddenly remove all of the traditional birth attendants and home-based attendants, there will be no alternate for a lot of people,” said Dr. Rajiv Tandon, a pediatrician and public health and nutrition expert.
A 2013 Unicef-funded study in India documented “serious, persistent gaps in safe delivery capacity at the primary level, especially subcenters and remote primary health centers.”
According to government figures released last month, India’s maternal mortality ratio, or the number of maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, has fallen from 212 in 2007-09 to 178 in 2010-12. But it remains among the highest in the world and still significantly higher than the Millennium Development Goal target of 109, to be achieved by 2015.
A United Nations Population Fund study estimated the number of registered midwives in India in 2008 to be 324,624 and that India would be short 25,620 skilled birth attendants to meet 95 percent of the demand by 2015. Midwives like Ms. Saira are not included in these figures as they fall under the category of traditional birth attendants instead of skilled birth attendants, which includes trained midwives, nurse-midwives and doctors.
For a long time, the Indian government recognized that it did not have enough skilled birth attendants and ran programs to retrain women already doing this work, which was found in one study to improve patients’ use of maternal health services. The emphasis of these programs was on cleanliness, which was seen as generally lacking in deliveries performed by traditional practitioners, who combined their experience with religious ritual and superstition.
But in 2005, the government decided to refocus its efforts to encouraging women to give birth in medical facilities. Himanshu Bhushan, a senior Health Ministry official in charge of maternal health, said a government review clearly showed that a majority of the traditional birth attendants, like untrained midwives, could not identify birth complications, which delayed treatment that could have saved women’s lives.
Even with incentives to give birth in a facility, a 2009 United Nations Population Fund study of five states that fare poorly on maternal and child indicators showed that in Uttar Pradesh 52.5 percent delivered at home and 50.9 percent in Bihar. An overwhelming majority of women who did not have institutional deliveries said they found home births “convenient.”
“Where is the need, unless there is a problem?” was Ms. Saira’s response when asked why women in her village were not going to hospitals.
Women in Patra also expressed an unwillingness to be put in the hands of a stranger, especially a man, and voiced fears of knives and of being cut open.
“The ride to the hospital rattles the bones” is how Ms. Saira described a trip in the open rickshaws on unpaved, rocky paths, where ambulances cannot reach, to the nearest bus stop a few miles away. From there, the only options for the poor are overcrowded tempos, the local train or buses to the nearest government hospital equipped to handle deliveries.
Those who can afford it go to the private hospitals, despite the high costs of such care. Those women who make it to the public hospital near Patra complained that they don’t receive the care they needed.
And institutional deliveries by themselves are not necessarily translating into better child care practices.
“We used to think that just because you had institutional delivery breastfeeding will take place,” said Nita Chowdhury, a senior official in the Ministry of Women and Child Development. “But we found that in facility after facility the health worker would urge the mothers to breastfeed their babies, but the mothers refused, saying they wouldn’t do anything till their mother-in-laws were present.”
Saving the lives of mothers and infants would require more than monetary incentives to deliver at a hospital, said Sarah Pinto, anthropologist and author of “Where There is No Midwife: Birth and Loss in Rural India.” Women like Ms. Saira, who enjoy trust within communities, should play an important role, Ms. Pinto added.
However, one major hurdle is that traditional midwives are resistant to giving up a lifetime of folk wisdom in favor of clinically proven practices.
For example, Ms. Saira said she insisted that the newborn drink water instead of breast milk in the first hours of birth, a common practice that is particularly harmful in areas where the water is likely to be contaminated. International guidelines recommend that a newborn be breastfed in the first hour of birth and continue to be fed only breast milk for the first six months.
What is especially dangerous to a child’s health is the discarding of colostrum, or the first breast milk produced by the mother, which doctors say is not only wholesome and nutritious, but also builds immunity in children. In Ms. Saira’s village, this first milk, which is thick and yellowish in color, is often discarded because it is believed to be curdled.
Bangladesh, India’s smaller and poorer neighbor, may have some lessons to offer. It is on course to meeting its Millennium Development Goals for maternal mortality, which declined from 830 in 1990 to 194 in 2010. A United Nations Population Fund report credits the reduced mortality rates to the Bangladeshi government’s investments in training community-based skilled birth attendants to provide care for pregnant women and mothers who deliver outside of facilities.
Syeda Hameed, a member of India’s Planning Commission, asserted that the Indian government recognizes the value of traditional midwives.
“It is true that despite the fact that and we have pushed so hard on institutional delivery, many women are still delivering at home,” Ms. Hameed said at a recent conference in New Delhi to promote breastfeeding programs. “These dais are the ones who are a bridge between life and death for them.”
“We are very supportive of not letting go of this institution of midwives,” Ms. Hameed said.
In the absence of a well-trained cadre of community-based midwives who can handle complications and with no government plans to retrain the traditional attendants, rural woman who don’t trust the health care system will remain vulnerable to pregnancy-related deaths.
Midwives in Uttar Pradesh told Ms. Pinto that even though local women were offered incentives to give birth in facilities, the government first needed to follow a popular proverb: “First, you set your house in order and then invite guests.”
This story has been facilitated under the OneWorld-POSHAN Fellowship grant.
China’s largest online marketplace bans Bitcoin and other virtual currencies
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, January 8, 2014 7:07 EST
China’s largest online marketplace, Alibaba Group’s Taobao, said Wednesday that it would ban the trading of Bitcoin and other virtual currencies from Jan. 14, after a government crackdown on the units.
The People’s Bank of China (PBoC), the country’s central bank, in December ordered financial institutions to halt Bitcoin-related services and products and cautioned against its potential use in money-laundering, according to a statement.
Bitcoins — a form of digitally-created “e-money” — are stored in a virtual wallet, and can be sent directly to another person, bypassing banks and remaining largely anonymous.
The PBoC also banned domestic third-party payment companies from providing clearing services for virtual currencies, according to state media reports.
“In order to better promote the healthy development of Taobao Marketplace and effectively safeguard interests of Taobao members, Taobao will adjust its management practices on prohibited goods according to related state laws and regulations,” Taobao said in a statement on its website.
“Newly added rules include a ban on sales of Internet virtual currencies like Bitcoin and Litecoin,” it said.
Taobao said the trading ban also applied to tutorials on how to “mine” virtual currencies, as well as hardware and software used to obtain them.
Taobao Marketplace, a consumer-to-consumer platform, has nearly 500 million registered users, according to the company.
A spokeswoman for parent Alibaba Group told AFP that the ban applied to the trading of Bitcoin and other virtual currencies through Taobao, which lists more than 800 million products.
However, Taobao had never accepted Bitcoin as a payment method, she said.
Alibaba, which is preparing for an overseas stock listing which some analysts expect to rival Facebook in how it values the Chinese company, also operates China’s leading third-party online payment platform, Alipay.
Taobao said in its statement that the PBoC had ordered payment providers, which include Alipay, to shut down payment channels using Bitcoin and other such currencies.
Before the government ban, Chinese speculators poured money into Bitcoin, driving the price on the BTC China exchange up 9,122 percent from January 1 to November 30 last year and making the country at times the world’s biggest Bitcoin market.
Bitcoins were created in 2009 in the wake of the global financial crisis by an anonymous programmer who wanted a currency independent of any central bank or financial institution.
China blocks the Guardian, censorship-tracking website says
Some attempts to access the Guardian site in Beijing fail, but no clear reason for China's leadership to take issue with recent content
Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing
theguardian.com, Wednesday 8 January 2014 12.07 GMT
The Guardian’s website has been partially blocked in China, according to a censorship-tracking website.
The website was first blocked on Tuesday, according to the website greatfire.org. Numerous attempts to access the site from multiple browsers, devices and locations across Beijing failed without the aid of firewall-circumventing software. As of Wednesday afternoon local time, the Guardian’s mobile and iPad apps were still uncensored.
While users around the country have reported problems, some of those commenting below this story say they reached it without difficulty; one, using the name zangdook, said the block "comes and goes". Other users were able to access the website front page briefly but could not reload it moments later and could not reach other sections.
China's leadership is known to block websites that it deems a threat – Bloomberg and the New York Times have been blocked since 2012, when they published lengthy investigations revealing the vast wealth accumulated by the families of senior leaders.
China’s foreign ministry brushed off a question about the block at a regular press briefing on Wednesday. "This is the first time I have heard of this,” said ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, according to Reuters. "I don't understand the situation. You can inquire with China's relevant department."
The reasons for the Guardian block are unclear – no China-related stories published by the Guardian in the past two days would obviously be perceived as dangerous by the country's leadership. One article, published on 6 January, explores tensions in China’s ethnically-divided north-western region Xinjiang, but the Guardian has covered the subject before without any noticeable fallout.
It is also unclear whether the block is permanent or temporary. The Chinese-language versions of Reuters and the Wall Street Journal were blocked in November, but unblocked after about a month.
A Guardian News & Media spokesperson said: "Obviously we are dismayed that theguardian.com has been blocked in China. The reason for this is currently unclear but we are investigating the extent of the block and hope that access to our website will return to normal in the very near future."
North Korea parliamentary elections could offer glimpse at possible power shift
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, January 8, 2014 7:35 EST
North Korea will hold elections to its rubber-stamp parliament in March, opening a rare window on possible power shifts in Pyongyang following the recent execution of leader Kim Jong-un’s uncle.
The presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) decided the election, held every five years, would take place on March 9, the North’s official KCNA news agency said on Wednesday.
The last parliamentary vote — a highly staged process with only one approved candidate standing for each of the 687 districts — was held in 2009 under the leadership of Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il.
Kim succeeded his father in December 2011 and the candidate list for the March election will be closely watched for indications that he is seeking to strengthen his grip on power.
Kim has already overseen sweeping changes within the North’s ruling elite — the most dramatic example being the purging and execution of his powerful uncle and political mentor Jang Song-thaek last month on charges of treason and corruption.
In his New Year message last week, Kim said the country had been strengthened by the removal of “factionalist scum.”
Jang, like many top North Korean officials, was a member of the SPA and the March vote will provide an opportunity to see if any senior figures are removed from the candidates’ list.
“It will also be interesting to see who the new faces are, as some of them may be tagged for a key role under Kim Jong-un,” said Kim Yeon-chul, a professor at Inje University’s Unification Department.
Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute think-tank in Seoul said the election could herald a “generational change” under Kim Jong-un.
The young leader celebrated his birthday on Wednesday and is believed to be 30 or 31 years old.
Kim was expected to mark the day watching an exhibition basketball match in Pyongyang organized by the eccentric ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman.
The former Chicago Bulls player has been accused in the US of pandering to North Korea, which last April sentenced American missionary Kenneth Bae to 15 years hard labour on charges of plotting to overthrow the regime.
In an interview with CNN on Tuesday, a furious Rodman hit back at the criticism of the exhibition game matching a group of ex-NBA players against a North Korean team.
“I don’t give a rat’s a** what the hell you think,” Rodman told the interviewer in an angry tirade broadcast from the North Korean capital.
The four-time All Star voiced frustration at the fact that Bae’s case and Pyongyang’s human rights record in general had overshadowed the birthday event.
The Swiss-educated Kim Jong-un is reported to be a keen basketball fan, with a special liking for the Chicago Bulls.
Rodman says he views Kim as a close friend after the two struck up an unlikely relationship when the player made his first trip to North Korea nearly a year ago.
Kim might well be among the candidates in the March election, if he chooses to follow his father’s example of standing for parliament.
The rubber-stamp assembly usually sits twice a year for a day or two to pass government budgets and approve personnel changes.
The last session in April 2013 adopted a special ordinance formalising the country’s position as a nuclear weapons state – a status that both South Korea and the United States have vowed not to recognise.
“We will not accept North Korea as a nuclear state,” US Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated Tuesday at a joint press conference in Washington with his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se.
The very public purging of Jang amounted to a rare admission of dissent within North Korea and triggered concerns that the regime might try to promote unity by targeting the South.
Kerry said an additional 800 US troops would be deployed to South Korea for a nine-month tour from February.
“We will continue to modernize our capabilities so that we are prepared to face any threat,” he told reporters.
The United States already has 28,500 troops in the South.
Both countries have rejected overtures from the North about resuming six-party talks on its nuclear program, insisting that Pyongyang must demonstrate some commitment to denuclearization.
Following the execution of Jang Song-thaek, rumours have swirled around the fate of his wife and Kim Jong-un’s aunt, Kim Kyong-hui – a major political operator in her own right.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency on Wednesday cited a senior government official as saying she was in a “critical condition” as the result of a heart condition exacerbated by alcoholism.
Kim visited Russia between September and October last year for medical treatment, the official said, echoing a recent report by the dissident news website Daily NK.
A leading South Korean newspaper reported on Monday that Kim may have already died – either of a heart attack or by suicide.
She has not been seen in public since September.
Israeli minister: Middle East peace talks could be extended past April
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, January 7, 2014 16:28 EST
Middle East peace talks could be extended beyond their April deadline, Israel’s defence minister said Tuesday, insisting current negotiations were aimed solely at providing a framework for final talks.
The remarks came a day after US Secretary of State John Kerry left following four days of intense meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, during which he failed to broker agreement on a framework to guide the talks forward.
“We are now trying to reach a framework to continue negotiations for a period beyond the nine months some thought would suffice for reaching a permanent accord,” Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon told reporters during a tour of a military base.
“We are not working on a framework agreement, but on a framework for negotiations, for continuing negotiations for a longer period,” Yaalon was quoted as saying in a statement from his office.
Kerry kicked-started nine months of direct peace negotiations in July after a three-year hiatus.
But his latest visit was clouded by bitter recriminations, with leaders on both sides accusing each other of not being serious partners in the search for peace.
According to Israeli media, Kerry was due back in the region next week.
“What’s clear is that there are large gaps, they are not new, but our interest is definitely to continue negotiations and continue to act to stabilise the situation and our relationship with the Palestinians,” Yaalon said.
Yaalon, a hawkish member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, said the crux of the conflict was the Palestinians’ refusal to recognise Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people”.
A peace treaty would deal with all the divisive core issues, including the contours of a future Palestinian state, refugees, the fate of Jerusalem claimed by both as a capital, security and mutual recognition.
Meanwhile, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett warned that his far-right Jewish Home party would leave Netanyahu’s coalition if Israel cedes territory to the Palestinians and agrees to the creation of a Palestinian state.
“We won’t sit in a government that would endanger the future of our children and divide our capital,” he said in a speech at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
But Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is also Israel’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians, warned that without a peace agreement, “the IDF (Israeli military) will be dragged to international courts”.
“We have not reached the stage of an agreement yet,” Livni said at a Hebrew university speech in Jerusalem in remarks relayed by her office.
“We are working on a framework to see if there is a basis for further progress,” Livni said. “If it (the framework) will be balanced, we can advance and hopefully reach an arrangement.”
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
January 7, 2014, 4:54 pm
Overhaul of Israel’s Economy Offers Lessons for United States
By STEVEN DAVIDOFF
Americans may talk about income inequality, but Israel has done something about it.
The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, has voted to break up the country’s corporate conglomerates. The move followed mass protests in 2011 over the concentration of wealth in Israel.
The protesters, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, had focused their ire on the “tycoons,” a handful of Israelis whose holding companies control about 30 percent of the economy. Much of the tycoons’ business is done through “pyramids” — a family or individual who owns a public company that in turn controls many other public companies.
Take the heavily indebted IDB Holding Corporation. At its peak, the company, headed by Nochi Dankner, was Israel’s largest pyramid. It controlled numerous companies including the airline Israir, one of the country’s largest insurance companies and the Super Sol supermarket chain, while also finding the time to make a huge investment in Las Vegas real estate on the eve of the financial crisis.
A number of journalists at the Israeli newspaper Haaretz led the charge, claiming that Israel’s public shareholders often lost out as the tycoons used them to subsidize their collection of businesses. The tycoons could put down little money but control vast swathes of the Israeli economy. These pyramids also used their size to crowd out competitors and take on excessive debt by lending among their companies. The Israeli economy was viewed by some to be uncompetitive because the concentration of businesses arguably drove up prices and decreased competition. In the small Israeli economy, the pyramids were behemoths that some termed too big to fail.
Added to this witches’ brew was a growing bout of income inequality. In 2008, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported that the top 10 percent of Israeli income earners made 13 times more than the bottom 10 percent.
In October 2010, the Israeli government formed a committee of 10 government regulators known as the concentration committee to examine the issue of the tycoons’ control of the Israeli economy. The committee was advised by Lucian A. Bebchuk, a Harvard Law professor and occasional contributor to DealBook, who strongly advocated breaking up the more significant pyramids.
Committees are usually where things go to die, but the 2011 protests along with Haaretz’s sustained campaign kept the cause going. The concentration committee’s report was issued in 2012, and it struck directly at the pyramids, aiming to overhaul the Israeli economy. The committee recommended the breakup of the pyramids in the hope that if they were destroyed, prices would come down in the wake of greater competition, helping the average Israeli and addressing income inequality.
The committee also recommended the prohibition of significant cross-holdings between financial and nonfinancial groups. To put this in American terms, this would mean that General Electric, for example, could no longer have its financial unit, which holds more than $500 billion in assets. The result would be that the pyramids could no longer fund themselves, using their access to cheap financing to give themselves an unfair competitive advantage over their rivals.
It also ensured that financial institutions did not bring down entire corporate groups if they imploded.
This was all well and good, but the big question was, what would happen when the bill was introduced into the Knesset? Indeed, a furious battle broke out as the big pyramids hired a slew of lobbyists and law firms to persuade lawmakers to either kill the bill or remove their own pyramid from its strictures. (Sound familiar?) The lobbyists’ attempts to influence legislators got so bad that at one point in a Knesset committee meeting, the lobbyists were asked to identify themselves and leave the room. It even got personal, with one lawyer for the tycoons claiming in an interview with an Israeli paper that Mr. Bebchuk had “hypnotized the committee.”
Then a funny thing happened. In light of the support of Israeli’s regulators and many Israelis, the conservative government of Benjamin Netanyahu supported the legislation. The head of Israel’s central bank at the time, Stanley Fischer (now a leading candidate to be vice chairman of the Federal Reserve in the United States) also supported the final bill.
The case for breaking up the pyramids was also helped by the insolvency of IDB, which was brought down by bad investments, excessive borrowing and overly aggressive financing practices. A few weeks ago, a bankruptcy court removed Mr. Dankner from his controlling position, a move that rocked Israel.
In December, the Knesset passed the bill unanimously.
To be sure, the final bill was not as strict as some wanted. It did not completely separate financial and nonfinancial companies, a change that Mr. Fischer opposed in a speech by comparing such a restriction to recreating the troubled Greek economy. But at the end of the day, a populist movement was able to show it had the votes, and backed by strong economic arguments, the politicians couldn’t fight. The committee’s recommendation to break up the pyramids and separate significant financial and nonfinancial companies became law.
In other words, with a single bill and a few big changes in its corporate law, Israel is looking to overhaul its economy and hopefully reduce income inequality.
The new law sets up an interesting experiment. In the near term, the winners will be the lawyers and investment bankers who will now handle a wave of deal-making as the pyramids break up.
But the real question is whether all it takes is a breakup of a handful companies to make an economy more competitive and reduce income inequality.
And are there any lessons for the United States?
Certainly, in the wake of Bill de Blasio’s election as mayor of New York and recent speeches by President Obama, income inequality is an increasingly prominent issue. A large part of this argument is based on the fact that rich Americans are pulling ahead of their brethren. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the income of the top 1 percent of Americans rose 275 percent from 1979 to 2007, but only 18 percent for the bottom 20 percent.
This disparity has been accompanied by a concentration of the financial system in the hands of a small group of institutions. As of the end of 2013, the five biggest banks in the United States held 44 percent of the financial assets of the banking industry, or $6.46 trillion, according to SNL Financial. In 1990, the five biggest banks held only 9.67 percent.
Inequality may be a problem in the United States, and concentration of assets a problem in the banking sector, but the American economy is very different from Israel’s. In Israel, the economy is more like South Korea’s when its chaebols dominated or West Germany’s in the 1950s when family groups controlled a number of industries. In the United States, businesses are competitive, and outside the financial sector, there is vibrant competition. Even in finance, there are good arguments that a $15 trillion economy needs large banks.
Not only is the economy different, but the political system needed to revamp the economy is not present in the United States. For example, the Occupy Wall Street movement appears to have fizzled.
Still, while we await the outcome of Israel’s great experiment, it is clear that where there is the perception that harm is being done and where there is the will to change, a democracy can overcome even the most powerful corporate lobbyists. In Israel, at least.
Saudis Back Syrian Rebels Despite Risks
By ROBERT F. WORTHJAN. 7, 2014
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — On his eighth trip to fight with the rebels in Syria, in August, Abu Khattab saw something that troubled him: two dead children, their blood-soaked bodies sprawled on the street of a rural village near the Mediterranean coast. He knew right away that his fellow rebels had killed them.
Abu Khattab, a 43-year-old Saudi hospital administrator who was pursuing jihad on his holiday breaks, went to demand answers from his local commander, a notoriously brutal man named Abu Ayman al-Iraqi. The commander brushed him off, saying his men had killed the children “because they were not Muslims,” Abu Khattab recalled recently during an interview here.
It was only then that Abu Khattab began to believe that the jihad in Syria — where he had traveled in violation of an official Saudi ban — was not fully in accord with God’s will. But by the time he returned to Riyadh, where he now volunteers in a program to discourage others from going, his government had overcome its own scruples to become the main backer of the Syrian rebels, including many hard-line Islamists who often fight alongside militants loyal to Al Qaeda.
The disillusionment of Abu Khattab — who asked that his full name be withheld because he still fears retribution from jihadists — helps illustrate the great challenge now facing Saudi Arabia’s rulers: how to fight an increasingly bloody and chaotic proxy war in Syria using zealot militia fighters over whom they have almost no control.
The Saudis fear the rise of Al Qaeda’s affiliates in Syria, and they have not forgotten what happened when Saudi militants who had fought in Afghanistan returned home to wage a domestic insurgency a decade ago. They officially prohibit their citizens from going to Syria for jihad, but the ban is not enforced; at least a thousand have gone, according to Interior Ministry officials, including some from prominent families.
But the Saudis are also bent on ousting Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and his patron, Iran, which they see as a mortal enemy. Their only real means of fighting them is through military and financial support to the Syrian rebels. And the most effective of those rebels are Islamists whose creed — rooted in the puritanical strain of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia — is often scarcely separable from Al Qaeda’s.
Abu Khattab, a slight-figured man with bulging eyes and the scraggly beard of an ultra-orthodox Salafist Muslim, embodies some of these paradoxes. He now volunteers here once a week to warn young men about the false glamour of the Syrian jihad at the government’s rehabilitation center for jihadists. “There is a shortage of religious conditions for jihad in Syria,” he said. Many of the fighters kill Syrian civilians, a violation of Islam, he added.
But as Abu Khattab talked about Syria, his own convictions seemed scarcely different from the jihadists he had carefully denounced (two officials from the Interior Ministry were present during the interview). He made clear that he considered Shiite Muslims and Mr. Assad’s Alawite sect to be infidels and a terrible danger to his own people.
“If the Shiites succeed in controlling Syria, it will be a threat to my country,” Abu Khattab said. “I went to Syria to protect my country.”
At times, his sectarian feelings seemed to outshine his unease about the excesses of some of his more extreme comrades. He did not deny that he had often fought alongside members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the brutal jihadist group affiliated with Al Qaeda.
Abu Khattab also mentioned proudly that he is no stranger to jihad. He fought as a teenager in Afghanistan (“With the government’s permission!”) and, a few years later, in Bosnia. He chose not to fight the Americans in Iraq “because there are too many Shiites there,” he said, with a look of distaste on his face.
Yet this is a man who lectures inmates at the rehabilitation center every week about ethics and war. The center, like many Saudi institutions, has been somewhat embarrassed by the contradictions of Saudi policy with regard to Syria. Although the center incarcerates some men who have been arrested for trying to travel to Syria, last summer the nephew of Abdelrahman al-Hadlaq, its director, was killed while fighting there. His mother posted statements on Twitter saying she was proud of him.
More recently, the center suffered an even more stinging disappointment involving one of its best-known graduates, a reformed jihadist named Ahmed al-Shayea. He became famous in Saudi Arabia after surviving his own suicide bombing in Iraq in 2004, a bombing arranged by militants with Al Qaeda’s Iraqi branch.
Mr. Shayea was burned and disfigured, but after months in the hospital he emerged and proclaimed himself cured of the jihadist mind-set. He was known as the “living suicide,” and in 2009 the American author Ken Ballen devoted an entire chapter to a glowing portrait of him in his book, “Terrorists in Love.”
In November, Mr. Shayea slipped out of Saudi Arabia to Syria, where he is now fighting with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. He proudly trumpets his return to jihad on his Twitter feed, which features a picture of him clutching a rifle with his mangled hands.
The Saudi authorities say that they have urged their citizens not to go to Syria, but that they cannot keep track of every Saudi who wants to go fight there. “We try to prevent it, but there are limits to what we can do,” said Mansour al-Turki, a spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry. “You cannot prevent all young men from leaving the kingdom. Many of them travel to London or other places, and only then to Turkey, and Syria.”
Abu Khattab’s path to Syria was similar to that of many others here and across the Arab world. He read about the uprisings in 2011, but it was Syria that touched his heart. It was not just because of the bloodshed, he said, but because his Sunni brothers were being killed by Alawites and Shiites.
When he first went, in the summer of 2012, he flew directly from Riyadh to the Turkish city of Antakya, near the Syrian border, he said. There were other Saudi men heading for the battlefield on the flight with him, he said, and no sign of a Saudi government effort to monitor or restrain them.
In Turkey, he found many other foreign fighters, and Syrian rebels who were eager to take them to the battlefield. “They especially like Saudis, because the Saudis are more willing to do suicide operations,” he said.
Over the next year, Abu Khattab said, he returned to Syria seven more times, usually on holidays, leaving his wife to care for their four children and staying for 10 days to two weeks each time. He fought with a variety of groups, seeing battle many times — in Aleppo, in Homs and in the countryside of Latakia, near the coast. He wielded a Kalashnikov rifle most of the time, but sometimes a heavier Russian-made machine gun known in the field as a 14.5.
Gradually he became disillusioned with the chaos of the battle. He often found himself among men who openly branded the rulers of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states as infidels, deserving slaughter. He said this bothered him, but it did not stop him from returning to the battlefield.
In the end, it was the slaughter of innocents that made him decide to quit, he said, and a broader feeling that the rebels alongside him were not doing it for the right reasons. “If the fight is not purely to God, it’s not a real jihad,” he said. “These people are fighting for their flags.”
But there was another reason he gave up the fight.
“Bashar has started to put Sunnis on the front line,” he said of Syria’s leader. “This is a big problem. The rebels do not want to fight them. The real war is not against Bashar himself, it is against Iran. Everything else is just a false image.”
Ethiopian Migrants Expelled by Saudis Remain in Limbo Back Home
By BENNO MUCHLERJAN. 7, 2014
LEGUAMA, Ethiopia — Mohammed Jemal left Ethiopia two years ago. He wanted to be independent, to support his family — and to escape the mockery of having squandered a big chance for a better life.
“I went to college and dropped out. I somehow failed,” he said. If he had gone back home and started a simple life with a poorly paid job, he said, “people would have called my family names.”
So, like many Ethiopians, Mr. Mohammed left his small, rural hometown in central Ethiopia to seek his fortune in Saudi Arabia. He entered the country illegally, he said, having walked most of the way through Djibouti and Yemen. Once he got there, he said, he worked as a guard and receptionist.
Despite the many challenges, the money was worth it, he recalled thinking, until he was tossed out of the country in a mass deportation in which nearly a million people who had entered the country illegally from Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia were pushed out of Saudi Arabia last year, according to the International Labor Organization.
For decades, rich Arab countries in the Middle East have been a major destination for migrant workers from developing nations. Deportations had happened before, but the scale of the recent expulsions from Saudi Arabia is virtually unheard-of, the labor organization said.
About 150,000 Ethiopians have been forced out of the country. Their expulsion puts the Ethiopian government under strain because the remittances they sent had greatly contributed to the country, which has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies but is still very poor.
Now, as Mr. Mohammed rode a bus past the mountains of his native country, old worries returned to his mind. On the bus with him were about 50 other Ethiopians who had also recently been deported from Saudi Arabia, most of them silent as they crossed the Ethiopian highlands into an uncertain future.
When Mr. Mohammed got off the rickety blue bus and took his luggage down from the roof, a group of friends and family gathered around, hugging him. Many of them had also returned from Saudi Arabia. In fact, one resident said, almost all the youths of Leguama, a town of 5,000, had left because of poverty and had now come back.
Mr. Mohammed’s father, Jemal Endris, waited in front of his house and kissed his son on the cheeks and said softly, “Alhamdulillah,” Arabic for “Praise be to God.” Ethiopia is a largely Christian country, but Leguama, which is about 100 miles north of the nearest big city, is Muslim, as is the rest of the area.
The family’s sparsely furnished mud house was no bigger than 322 square feet. The family had built it with the money Mr. Mohammed had sent from Saudi Arabia. Some mattresses lay in the living room. A bulb gave off a dim light at night. There was a bed in the next room. In the front, the father had created a small sewing room. The river behind the house served for washing and doing laundry.
“Obviously, all this is a big problem,” said the father, a farmer like most people here, where there are not many other options. “The remittances were the pillar of our living.”
Without jobs, factories and better infrastructure, he said, people would continue to leave. His second son, Endris, had already thought about it but remained torn about the decision.
Many things in Leguama had been built with money from the sons and daughters in Saudi Arabia: houses, shops, four mosques, a school. The community had collected money for an ambulance, but it did not know if the project would still be realized.
Mr. Mohammed’s mother, Zemzem Oumer, was not as worried about the future as his father.
“Even if you have money, you always worry,” she said. “We’ll see what’s going to happen.”
She said she had been to Saudi Arabia before Mr. Mohammed traveled there. She went as a pilgrim to Mecca, stayed illegally, worked as a maid and returned only when her husband told her that he could not raise the children by himself any longer.
She lived through some of the horror stories many Ethiopians tell. Sometimes she did not get food, and sometimes she was locked away. Mr. Mohammed said he had been insulted. Other migrants said they had been beaten and often not paid. Reports of rapes of young Ethiopian women set off protests against the mass deportation in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital, in early November. Three Ethiopians died in clashes with the police.
The Ethiopian government has stated that diplomatic and trade relations with Saudi Arabia will remain unchanged. It is one of the biggest foreign investors in Ethiopia apart from China, Turkey and India. According to the Ethiopian government, Saudi businesspeople have $369 million involved in Ethiopia.
Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia’s image will be damaged, said Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, director of the Institute for Peace and Security Studies in Addis Ababa, the capital.
“They could show some sort of solidarity, some sort of sympathy to what has happened to these migrant workers,” he said. “These people were not living for free in Saudi Arabia. They were just working. They were actually doing the dirty jobs for the Saudis.”
Mr. Mulugeta hoped his countrymen would stop trying to leave Ethiopia for supposedly better horizons. After paying for higher costs of living in Saudi Arabia, some migrants do not earn much more than in Ethiopia, he said. The transit is dangerous and costly, too. And life away from family and friends is hard.
Still, the desire to leave remains high for many. Mr. Mohammed said he had earned $780 a month in Saudi Arabia. The annual per capita income in Ethiopia is about $390, according to the World Bank.
Saudi Arabia also expelled 400,000 Yemenis, as well as people from India, Sudan, Somalia and Egypt. They worked in construction and as maids, shepherds and cleaners. Their mass deportation was part of a nationalization program of the Saudi labor sector. Azfar Khan, a senior migration specialist for the Arab states at the International Labor Organization, said the program was a product of the Saudi government’s fear of an Arab Spring. Nine million people, a third of Saudi Arabia’s population, are foreign workers.
The Ethiopian government has allocated $2.6 million to help migrants reintegrate. The fund supports those who have some savings left and want to start a small business. But the government expected only about 30,000 returnees. Their number increased fivefold.
“We believe there won’t be any social disaster,” said Dina Mufti, spokesman of the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Because this is a vibrant economy which is growing.”
Mr. Khan, however, saw a risk of social upheaval if reintegration of the returnees failed. “It has happened in a latter kind of situation in Tunisia, for example, when the fellow burned himself and set himself on fire,” Mr. Khan said, referring to Mohamed Bouazizi, the young fruit vendor in Tunisia who set himself on fire in December 2010 and started the Arab Spring. “I mean, what was he complaining about? It was essentially that they don’t have any jobs, they couldn’t generate an income.”
Many of the returnees are frustrated. Urban unemployment in Ethiopia, a country of almost 90 million, is at 17.5 percent.
Mr. Mohammed said he wanted to go back to college. He did not see a future in Leguama. It was his mother’s savings from Saudi Arabia that had allowed him to study physical education; the savings were used up when she became sick with kidney and gastric problems and needed treatment. He blamed himself and left to earn money.
“If there is a safe way to go back to Saudi Arabia in the legal system, this is an option,” he said.
Mary Sibande – poking at power relations in post-apartheid South Africa
Artists' alter-ego Sophie transforms from domestic worker into Victorian queen in series of life-sized sculptures
Joyce Bidouzo-Coudray for Another Africa, part of the Guardian Africa Network
theguardian.com, Tuesday 7 January 2014 13.52 GMT
The work of South African artist Mary Sibande tells the tale of her alter-ego Sophie, a domestic worker who finds refuge in dreams where she emancipates herself from the ghoulish realism of an ordinary existence, cleaning other people's homes.
Exploring the construction of identity within post-apartheid South Africa, Sibande's work probes the stereotypical contextualisation of the black female body.
The imaginary life of Sophie is collated through a series of human scale sculptures – moulded on Sibande herself. Don't be fooled by her seemingly calm demeanour and closed eyes, nor her large blue dress topped with a crispy white apron. This hybrid Victorian garb is in fact a gateway to uncharted elsewheres.
As her working uniform is gradually transmuted into towering attires, Sophie is granted access to the glitzy world of Europe's high-ranking monarchs and social elite; some might say, a far stretch from the ungratified life of a post-apartheid South African maid.
By the magical intervention of some fairy godmother, Sophie transforms into a myriad of epic characters. A lady heading to a ball, a Victorian queen riding her horse, a general leading an army towards victory, a pope blessing a congregation of fictional devotees or a conductor waving his wand to the beat of a muted symphony. There's even a hint of modern day fictional heroes, the likes of Superman.
At times, Sibande's reflections on female identity and social development oddly resonate with the symbolism in the literature of Lewis Carroll or Charles Perrault. Confronting the very inkling of a disempowered African female, her work aims to crack the morse code associated with western ideals of beauty and how they can appeal to black women.
By way of Sophie's mythical uniform, Sibande obliterates self-degrading notions of inferiority that could be inherent in her own family's history or by extension her socio-cultural background. She is the first in her family to achieve academically, henceforth true freedom. Her mother and grandmother both worked as domestic servants.
Poking at the power relationships between women, the art of Sibande also sheds new light on issues of race and gender. More so, it offers a counter-reference of significance to the colonial "slave & master" archetype. Her battle against injustice and ignorance through the medium of art is in itself a triumph over prejudice.
Sibande's The Purple Shall Govern is currently on view at Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town until 15 January.
She had an artistic residency at the MAC/VAL Museum of Modern Art in France last year, where she created a groundbreaking new installation entitled A reversed retrogress. scene 2.
Her work is on show in the French suburbs of Ivry-sur-Seine, Vitry-sur-Seine and Choisy-le-Roi until 28 January, with seven monumental photographic prints displayed on the streets – inspired by photographs from Long Live the Dead Queen, an exhibition in Johannesburg during the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Mary Sibande was born in 1982 in Barberton, South Africa and lives and works in Johannesburg. Her work has featured in several public and private exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale and Paris Photo in 2011. Mary Sibande is represented by Gallery Momo
Dirty war over clean fuel: Farmers in Honduras terrorized by U.S.-backed security forces
By Nina Lakhani, The Guardian
Tuesday, January 7, 2014 11:01 EST
The west’s drive to reduce its carbon footprint cheaply is fuelling a dirty war in Honduras, where US-backed security forces are implicated in the murder, disappearance and intimidation of peasant farmers involved in land disputes with local palm oil magnates.
More than 100 people have been killed in the past four years, many assassinated by death squads operating with near impunity in the heavily militarised Bajo Aguán region, where 8,000 Honduran troops are deployed, according to activists.
Farmers’ leader Antonio Martínez, 28, is the latest victim of this conflict. His corpse was discovered, strangled, in November.
Peasant farmers say they are the victims of a campaign of terror by the police, army and private security guards working for palm oil companies since a coup in June 2009 ended land negotiations instigated by the deposed president, Manuel Zelaya.
Witnesses have implicated Honduran special forces and the 15th Battalion, which receives training and material support from the US, in dozens of human rights violations around the plantations of Bajo Aguán.
They say private security guards regularly patrol and train with the soldiers, and have even been given military uniforms and weapons for some operations.
The military denies the allegations, blaming the United Peasant Movement (Muca) for escalating violence in the region. Repeated requests for comment from the US embassy in Honduras failed to elicit a response.
The Bajo Aguán dispute dates back almost 20 years, to a World Bank-funded land modernisation programme. The farmers say thousands of hectares of land used for subsistence farming were fraudulently and coercively transferred to agribusinesses that grow African palms, which are lucratively exported to the west for biofuel, and are traded in the carbon credit market.
Since then, they have tried to reclaim the land using the courts, as well as roadblocks and illegal land occupations.
Zelaya launched an investigation to resolve the conflicts, but this came to an abrupt halt when he was toppled in a coup in 2009 that was backed by the business, political, military and church elites.
In December 2009, groups of subsistence farmers started large-scale illegal occupations on disputed land also claimed by the country’s biggest palm oil producer, the Dinant Corporation, which is owned by Miguel Facussé, one of Honduras’s most powerful men.
Dinant says 17 of its security guards were killed and 30 injured in clashes with farmers.
The region was heavily militarised in early 2010, and the farmers who were occupying the land were forcibly removed by soldiers enforcing contentious court orders. Accusations of human rights violations have escalated ever since.
In one incident, in 2012, Neptaly Esquivel, 32, a father of five, was permanently disabled by a bullet to the hip fired at close range by a soldier, whose face was hidden by a balaclava, during a peaceful protest against education reform. His case is with the inter-American court of human rights.
In another incident, Matías Vallé, 51, a founder member of Muca, was shot dead by two masked men on a motorcycle as he waited for a bus. Witnesses said a car full of private security guards was parked a few metres away.
His wife, Dominga Ramos, said he had rejected money from Dinant employees to stop the farmers’ movement, after which he was told there was a price on his head.
Ramos said: “I witnessed one police officer trying to hide a bullet shell in the ground with his foot. We buried him in a secret place so they couldn’t remove his head. I am tired and scared.
“My two sons left because of threats. We just want to work our land in peace.”
Dinant strongly denies any direct or indirect involvement in death squads or human rights violations.
It denies collusion between its security guards and government security forces to target peasant groups, and says it is committed to corporate social responsibility. The company says government security forces have been deployed against trespassers, who Dinant says are guilty of murder and other crimes.
A spokesman said Dinant was “not familiar” with the cases of Martínez, Esquivel or Vallé, and it had never been investigated for any suspected involvement. The company said it remained committed to “a quick and peaceful resolution to the Aguán conflict”.
Another recent case is the disappearance of Josbin Santamaría Caballero, who was allegedly shot and taken away in an army helicopter on 30 October 2012 as his wife and two young daughters cowered in their kitchen of their home.
The Dinant spokesman said the company was ignorant of his case, too.
Caballero, 25, son of a prominent peasant activist, had been publicly denounced as a violent criminal by Colonel German Alfaro, commander of the joint police-military Xatruch operation in the region.
Alfaro, trained at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly the School of the Americas) in Fort Benning, Georgia, denied any military involvement and said Muca, the most organised peasant group in the region, was responsible for the current violence.
Alfaro said: “Muca and other groups encourage farmers to confront agro-industrialists, maintain constant tension and insecurity, and commit crimes to destabilise the area with armed groups.”
The Aguán conflict mirrors a wider struggle over land and natural resources across Honduras that for decades has pitted the poor majority against the country’s 10 oligarch families. Honduras became the world’s most violent country outside a war zone in 2011, and it is one of the poorest and most unequal in the Americas.
Activists say the use of state security forces to suppress protests against landgrabs, dams, mining and oil concessions has intensified since the 2009 coup. Over the same period the US has built up its military presence, with several bases in the country, which has become a major transit point for the international drugs trade. Between 140 and 300 tonnes of cocaine are believed to pass through Honduras every year en route from South America to the US and beyond.
Elections late last year boosted the status quo when the rightwing National party returned to power on a pro-business, pro-security manifesto amid allegations of electoral fraud and voter intimidation.
Bertha Oliva, director of the Committee of the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared, said: “The police and military are using the cover of the US-led war on drugs in Honduras to eliminate many people, maybe including me: I am on the death list again.”
An investigation published in February by the Canadian group Rights Action (pdf) detailed 34 acts of violence and other crimes directly implicating the 15th Battalion. It said these typically occurred “in co-ordination with private security forces of palm oil corporations, Honduran national police agents and other military units … in what can only be characterised as death-squad activity.”
Karen Spring, from Rights Action, said: “The role of the military in terrorising and criminalising communities in the Bajo Aguán shows the complicity of the Honduran state and US government in supporting big business regardless of the killings.”
The use of private security has increased exponentially across Honduras, which now has five private security guards to every police officer.
The UN working group on mercenaries described consistent reports of guards using illegal weapons to carry out with impunity human rights violations including killings, disappearances, forced evictions and sexual violence.
Patricia Arias, who led the UN group, told the Guardian: “The most worrying information is about private security guards acting together with the police and army, for example the Xatruch operations in Bajo Aguán.”
Héctor Castro, vice-president of the Federation of Palm Growers, said both sides had committed abuses and broken the law. He added: “We don’t have a government or authorities which look for conciliation or apply the law equally.”
Vitalino Alvarez, a Muca leader who survived an assassination attempt in November 2012, said: “Each threat, disappearance and murder is part of the campaign of terror against us. We are blamed for killing each other and publicly called assassins, drug traffickers and drunks. We live, work and negotiate with guns pointed to our heads.”
From bananas to biofuels
Honduras was the original, archetypal banana republic: a small, poor, fertile country controlled by a small group of wealthy families with ties to transnational business interests such as Chiquita, formerly the United Fruit Company.
Bajo Aguán, with its lush terrain, sunny climate and myriad rivers, was once dominated by banana trees. In this landscape, poor campesinos barely scraped a living from back-breaking work.
Banana companies withdrew from the region in the 1930s, and its population declined. But by the 1980s the Aguán was one of the most diverse crop regions in Honduras, producing coconuts, pineapples, grapefruits and almost half of all the country’s bananas.
But African palm plantations have increased by almost 50% in the past three years, and now dominate the Bajo Aguán landscape, having replaced bananas and other edible crops. African palms, the saturated oil of which is a staple ingredient in processed foods and biodiesel, are now the most profitable crop in Honduras.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014
Former Miss Venezuela Monica Spear and British ex-husband shot dead in robbery
Mónica Spear, a telenovela actor and former beauty queen, dies with ex-husband in robbery that also injures five-year-old child
Virginia López in Caracas and Jonathan Watts
theguardian.com, Wednesday 8 January 2014 09.15 GMT
A Venezuelan beauty queen and her British ex-husband were shot and killed after their car broke down on a roadside near Puerto Cabello on Monday night.
Mónica Spear, who won the Miss Venezuela crown in 2004, and Thomas Berry, a travel company boss from London, according to his Facebook page, are believed to be the victims of an attempted robbery or kidnapping in one of the world's most dangerous countries.
Their bodies – along with their injured five-year-old daughter Maya, who is now receiving hospital treatment – were found in a Toyota Corolla that had apparently broken down on the way from Puerto Cabello to Valencia.
Reflecting the high profile of Spear, President Nicolás Maduro made a statement on the killing, saying it reflected wider problems. "It is very sad to hear of the loss of this young woman … It is a problem of social violence," he said.
After giving up her beauty crown, Spear became a successful TV presenter and telenovela, or soap, actor.
The couple divorced in 2013, but remained on good terms and kept close ties with Venezuela. Berry's Irish father lives in Caracas, where he was a professor of mathematics at Simón Bolívar University for several decades before his retirement.
Spear had returned to Venezuela from her new home in Miami for a working holiday. In an earlier interview, she said she had moved to the US due to fears of crime in her home country. Spear was due to return to Miami later this week.
Her recent tweets suggest she had been enjoying the trip. Berry's Facebook photos show the couple have travelled extensively.
Police are investigating the deaths and have sealed off the area. According to the local broadcasters Globovision and Union Radio, detectives are working on the assumption that the car's engine malfunctioned, forcing them to wait by the road for the arrival of a tow truck. Opportunistic thieves then attempted to rob them and started shooting when the couple resisted.
Local reports said Berry, 39, was shot in the chest while his former partner suffered multiple gunshot wounds. Their bodies were taken to a morgue in Valencia, which is about 110 miles west of Caracas.
The couple's daughter is in a stable condition after treatment for a bullet wound to her leg. Her grandparents were said to be with her in hospital.
Spear's death has shocked her many fans. Her Twitter account has more than 355,000 followers, many of whom posted messages of condolence to her family and expressed anger at the killers.
"I'm so sad for my Venezuela, my condolences for Mónica Spear's family. Rage and impotence are what I feel right now," wrote Venezuelan salsa singer Oscar D'León.
Monica Spear Mónica Spear carved out a successful career as a TV presenter and actor after her beauty contest win. Photograph: Andrew Alvarez/AFP/Getty Images
The minister for communications, Delcy Rodríguez, tweeted her condolences and promised the "full weight of the law" would be used to find the perpetrators.
Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates in the world with more killings than the United States and Europe combined, according to one estimate.
The Venezuelan Violence Observatory said the rate had risen fourfold in the past 15 years. The NGO estimates that 24,763 killings occurred in 2013, pushing up the homicide rate to 79 per 100,000 inhabitants.
The government says the rate is about half this level, though that would still make Venezuela more dangerous than many warzones.
Polls consistently show violent crime to be the main concern of voters. President Maduro has declared it his top priority, but several previous campaigns to improve public safety have failed to halt the worsening of the situation.
Henrique Viloria, a radio host, who announced the deaths, said the government needed to pay more attention to the issue of crime and place less emphasis on handing out electronic goods – a reference to the military-imposed discounts at shops before Christmas.
How cosmetic surgery is changing the shape of Venezuela's mannequins
They do things differently in South America. While women's clothes stores in Scandinavia are earning widespread praise for using "normal-shaped " size 12 mannequins to model lingerie, and our very own Debenhams recently put a dozen size 16 dummies on display in its flagship Oxford Street store, the new shop-window favourite in Venezuela is apparently a fibreglass model sporting a dramatically enlarged bust, an unnaturally sculpted rear, a tiny wasp waist and never-ending, super-skinny legs.
According to the New York Times, mannequin manufacturer Eliezer Álvarez has transformed his business by introducing a line of shop-window dummies based on the exaggerated body shape he thinks Venezuelan women would really like – and, increasingly, are giving themselves with implants and plastic surgery. Fuelled by an oil-rich culture of consumerism and instant gratification, cosmetic surgey has become routine for wealthier Venezuelans and commonplace even among poorer women who spend cash they can't really afford on breast implants, tummy tucks, nose jobs and buttock lifts.
The country's late, long-serving socialist president, Hugo Chávez, described the interventions as "monstrous". But the paper argues that Venezuela's obsession with beauty and physical perfection has been influenced more by its repeated success in 1970s and 1980s beauty pageants, when three Miss Venezuelas – the first sporting a nose job suggested by the competition's organiser – were crowned Miss Universe. "When there is a defect, I correct it," Miss Venezuela chairman Osmel Sousa told the paper. "If it can be easily fixed with surgery, then why not do it? I say inner beauty doesn't exist. That's something that unpretty women invented to justify themselves."
Such has been the success of the new-model mannequins that Nereida Corro, Álvarez's wife and business partner, apparently now refers to them as the company's "normal" range. Until recently, she told the NYT: "mannequins were natural, just like women were natural. The transformation has been both of the woman and of the mannequin."
Not a view, one feels, that's very likely to sway UK equalities minister Jo Swinson, who recently urged fashion stores here to stop reinforcing the idea that "there's only one way of being beautiful" by using only 5ft 10in, size 10 or size 8 mannequins when the average British woman stands 5ft 3in and wears – like the new Debenham's dummies – a size 16.
below: Shop-window dummies with enlarged breasts, tiny waists and unnaturally sculpted rears are catering for the national obsession with implants and plastic surgery
In the USA...United Surveillance America
Revelations about cyber-espionage dismay Barack Obama’s most loyal fans
Jan 4th 2014
ABOLISHING privacy is the next big trend in American shopping, industry types told Lexington recently. Store bosses dream of identifying shoppers by their smartphones or with cameras and facial-recognition software. Then, by rummaging through a customer’s online history, a firm might learn, for instance, that she had looked for tennis shoes the night before, so needs to see sales pitches for sneakers flash up on her phone or on in-store digital screens.
A certain resignation about lost privacy may help explain a muted public response to Edward Snowden, an ex-contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA) now in Russia after exposing details of American cyber-spying worldwide. Mr Snowden’s leaks have caused most fuss abroad. Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, called off a visit to America over reports that she was spied on along with a state energy giant, Petrobras. Politicians and the press in Germany, where memories of Nazi- and communist-era spying are undimmed, vie to sound more outraged about Mr Snowden’s leaks, including reports that NSA spooks targeted Chancellor Angela Merkel. The European Parliament (a body whose default setting is chuntering indignation) is keener on debating the NSA than Congress is in Washington. Angered by reported spying on EU offices, various Euro-bigwigs have called for a pause in talks on an EU-American trade pact, as well as curbs on transAtlantic data-sharing.
Over the holiday season the NSA did generate domestic American headlines, but none matching the Donner und Blitzen from Europe. In the space of a few days, two federal judges offered sharply differing views on the legality of an NSA programme that scoops up “metadata” on most telephone calls to, from or within America. The first, sitting in a district court in Washington, DC, called metadata collection, which records phone numbers and the length of calls but not their content, “almost Orwellian” and probably unconstitutional. The second, sitting in New York, called the NSA’s scouring of phone records quite legal. He added, for good measure, that had metadata been collected before 9/11, the agency might have joined the dots between intercepted calls to al-Qaeda and one of the future hijackers, then in California. Higher courts will now have to weigh in, and perhaps the Supreme Court in time. Even as the two judges issued their duelling opinions, a review panel appointed by President Barack Obama, including senior ex-CIA and White House officials, took a middle path, offering changes to fix NSA programmes rather than shut them down. The panel submitted 46 recommendations, from requiring individual court orders for each metadata search to tighter rules around spying on foreign leaders. (Criteria for bugging far-off presidents and potentates might include suspicions that a foreigner is “duplicitous” with American envoys, the panel suggested.)
For all this activity and argument, cyber-spying hardly dominates national debate. As 2014 begins Republicans in Congress seem keener on bashing the Obamacare health law. Democrats prefer to talk about Republicans letting unemployment benefits lapse. Many news outlets seem more interested in a different privacy story, involving the hacking of payment-card details for up to 40m customers of Target, a chain store. Yet the NSA saga is already causing Mr Obama real headaches. Specifically, it comes at a bad time in relations with two previously loyal groups: young Americans and foreigners. The two groups are distinct, yet have made parallel journeys towards disappointment. For somewhat different reasons, young Americans and foreigners of all ages, notably in Europe, fell heavily for Mr Obama, thinking him a break with politics as usual. Both groups had high hopes dashed.
Hope and change, meet Sturm und Drang
Start with Mr Obama’s foreign fans. There was always a dose of naivety to their zeal, not to mention clunking racial tokenism. Many Europeans mistakenly assumed that because Mr Obama opposed the policies of George W. Bush and so did they, he would be in some sense their president too. Now they have learned their lesson: their idol is, first and foremost, America’s leader. A dose of hypocrisy suffuses much allied grumbling about the NSA because, in truth, everyone spies on everyone. Still, public anger in Berlin, Brussels or Brasília is real enough, and is strengthened by the pain of asymmetry; nobody else has the capabilities exposed by Mr Snowden. EU officials have told the White House that support for transAtlantic free trade may founder unless Mr Obama offers concessions to foreigners on spying, perhaps in his state-of-the-union message.
A special dilemma is presented by Germany, a rich, important and highly offended ally. America may well want to offer the Germans carefully-crafted spying guarantees, but only privately, in case everyone else wants the same. But Mrs Merkel precisely needs a public pact to wave at voters. Even friendly EU governments and officials are impatient for more robust assurances that America never, ever conducts economic espionage; talk of spying on Petrobras has jangled allies’ nerves.
Mr Obama also faces domestic fallout. His approval ratings among young Americans fell markedly in 2013, making a once-loyal age cohort look much more like other adult Americans. It is not that the young are united in enmity towards the NSA; a recent poll of Americans aged 18-29 by Harvard’s Institute of Politics found that a quarter thought Mr Snowden a patriot, a quarter thought him a traitor, and half were unsure. But they do report feeling disengaged from politics. Mr Obama needs the young to believe in government solutions—starting with Obamacare, a policy that will fail unless lots of fresh-faced, healthy adults sign up for insurance. Instead, the NSA saga has given America’s most tech-savvy generation fresh reason for cynicism. At home and abroad, Mr Obama can ill-afford this latest loss of faith.
Obama Speaks of Better Days for Economy, With Asterisk
By MICHAEL D. SHEARJAN. 7, 2014
Obama Calls for Action on Unemployment
The president said Congress should pass legislation that would restore benefits to millions of people who are struggling to find work in an economy that is still recovering from a deep recession.
WASHINGTON — Only moments after the Senate advanced an emergency extension of unemployment insurance benefits on Tuesday, President Obama stood on an East Room stage full of people without jobs and defied the traditional logic of White House strategy that normally emphasizes good news over bad.
The president, who sought to dramatize the need for Congress to extend the benefits, delivered what amounts to his broader economic message for 2014: Despite an improving economy, too many people are being left behind. The tableau demonstrated the challenge for Mr. Obama as he seeks to advertise the financial recovery while arguing for action to help a still-besieged middle class.
“Our businesses have created more than eight million new jobs since we hit bottom,” Mr. Obama said while somber-looking unemployed Americans, invited to the event by the White House, served as his backdrop. “America’s getting stronger and we’ve made progress.” But the president quickly added that “we’ve got to do more to make sure that all Americans share in that growth” and warned that “there are still a lot of people who are struggling.”
A short time before Mr. Obama spoke, the Senate voted to move forward on the extension of the unemployment benefits, winning the votes of six Republicans to overcome a filibuster by a vote of 60-37. The bill still faces debate, negotiation and another vote in the Senate before possibly moving on to the House.
In opposing the unemployment legislation, some Republican lawmakers found themselves arguing against their own political story line that Mr. Obama’s economy was still anemic. Instead, they said that the nation’s financial straits had improved to the point that an emergency extension of the benefits was no longer justified.
In 2008, Senator John McCain of Arizona, then the Republican presidential nominee, tripped over a similar rhetorical challenge when he said at a rally that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong” but added immediately that “these are very, very difficult times.”
Mr. Obama, then Mr. McCain’s opponent, seized on the phrase that the American economy was fundamentally strong and rode it to the White House.
Now it is the president who must find a way to navigate a complex economy. White House officials say that Mr. Obama intends to focus this year on trying to narrow the gap between the rich — who have profited from rising incomes, increasing home values and a 30 percent gain in the stock market — and everyone else.
To do that, Mr. Obama plans to campaign in 2014 for universal preschool, an increase in the minimum wage and an administration effort to make college less expensive for the middle class.
That approach, which White House officials have foreshadowed for weeks, is rooted in statistics that are at best mixed for Mr. Obama. He is presiding over an economy that has improved sharply in the five years since 2009, when it was buckling under the weight of a severe recession, but decades-long shifts in technology and globalization have left more people out of work for extended periods than at any other time in the past 50 years.
Like Mr. Obama, President Ronald Reagan also ended his fifth year with unemployment at 7 percent after a devastating recession. But Mr. Reagan was sunnier in public as the country’s financial fortunes turned around, and ran for re-election in 1984 with an advertising campaign that declared “It’s morning again in America” for a country weary of economic distress. Mr. Obama has chosen to be more restrained in his enthusiasm.
“There is a reality in politics, as in life, that you have to play the hand you are dealt,” said Geoff Garin, a veteran Democratic pollster. “The question comes down to whether you think Americans have a capacity for nuance. President Obama has always operated on the presumption that they do, and that is the approach he is taking now in talking about the economy.”
With congressional elections on the horizon and his legacy at stake, Mr. Obama does at times peddle economic good news like any other president, as he did at a news conference last month when he said, “I firmly believe that 2014 can be a breakthrough year for America.” He repeated that line on Tuesday.
But to make the case for his agenda and to convince skeptical Republicans in Congress, Mr. Obama is also emphasizing how the recovery has fallen short. In a speech in December that aides described as a preview of the president’s State of the Union address later this month, Mr. Obama spoke in depth about the economic problems he still confronts.
“The basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed,” Mr. Obama said.
The president’s language is to some degree the latest version of what critics call the muddled economic message the White House has been delivering for years. In 2009 and 2010, Mr. Obama and his top economic advisers regularly pointed to minor improvements in the economy even as they acknowledged the suffering that many felt. Now that the economic recovery is moving more quickly, the administration remains cautious about declaring victory.
“We could be an administration that just comes in here and tells you nothing but the good news that’s happened, or the improvement,” Gene Sperling, the president’s top economic adviser, said Monday. “But that’s not what we’re about.”
David Axelrod, who was Mr. Obama’s senior adviser at the beginning of his first term, said the president had always had to confront what he called a “duality” in the economy.
“The economy is indisputably much better than it was a few years ago and far better than it was when he took office,” Mr. Axelrod said. “But there are structural ramifications that have created this long-term unemployment.”
Mr. Axelrod said it would be wrong for Mr. Obama to try to ignore the economic struggles of so many people.
“I think to pretend that ‘It’s morning in America’ is a misreading of the times in which we live,” he added. “The great challenge for us is how do we build an economy for the future that allows for people who work hard to move up. He should not run away from that issue. He should own it.”
Stuart Stevens, who was the chief strategist for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012, said that Mr. Obama was trying to have it both ways by embracing the economy’s improvement even as he focused on people who were not doing well.
“The message seems to be,” Mr. Stevens said, “the economy is great — send emergency relief!”
Obama presses Republicans on extending unemployment benefits
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, January 7, 2014 18:45 EST
President Barack Obama made an emotional, moral and economic case for extending long-term unemployment benefits on Tuesday, kicking off his first skirmish of the year with Republicans.
The spat over prolonging the lifeline to 1.3 million Americans, among millions looking for work, represents the first political test of wills in Washington at the start of a mid-term election year.
“I can’t name a time when I met an American who would rather have an unemployment check than the pride of having a job,” Obama said, surrounded by people who lost their benefits when Congress failed to act last year.
“The unemployed are not lazy, they are not lacking in motivation, they are coping with the aftermath of the worst economic crisis in generations,” Obama said at the White House.
Moments before the president spoke, in an early sign of the rising political pressure on the issue, the Senate narrowly advanced a bill to extend jobless benefits.
The federal government’s emergency unemployment compensation program, which extends the aid beyond the 26 weeks provided by most states, expired on December 28, leaving hundreds of thousands of families in the lurch just three days after Christmas.
Most Republicans objected to the $6.5-billion price tag for the proposed three-month extension, and the lack of a plan to pay for the cost without expanding the national debt.
Six Republicans joined majority Democrats in the 60-37 roll call to move toward a final vote on the measure, which could come later this week.
But the bill faces a tough battle in the Republican-led House of Representatives.
Obama argued that there was a strong moral case to extending the benefits, saying that anyone could find themselves out of work and out of luck, and requiring government help to get back on their feet.
But he also said that the money for jobless benefits would be directly injected back into the economy and would help spur growth.
“Letting unemployment insurance expire for millions of Americans is wrong. Congress should make things right,” Obama said.
Senator Dean Heller, from the state of Nevada, which leads the nation in unemployment rates and who is the lone Republican co-sponsor of the bill, said it was “just not right” to have the benefits expire.
“I understand my colleagues’ concerns about the cost and their desires to pay for this extension. I too want to see our federal debt brought under control,” Heller said late Monday.
But “helping those in need should not be a partisan issue,” he added. “Providing a limited social safety net is one of the responsibilities of the federal government.”
House conservatives will likely block the measure unless there is a deal to pay for the benefits.
“One month ago I personally told the White House that another extension of temporary emergency unemployment benefits should not only be paid for but include something to help put people back to work,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement.
“To date, the president has offered no such plan.”
But Senate Democrat Jack Reed, who co-sponsored the bill with Heller, said it was more important to immediately “help these families” who were “pushed off an economic cliff on December 28.”
Reed also noted that the program, begun under Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush, had routinely been extended without offset payments because it was deemed an emergency measure.
White House officials say they are prepared to talk to Republicans on paying for the benefits in the long term, but only once a three-month extension is agreed.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested a deal on how to pay for the aid would open a window of opportunity.
“I understand the majority leader (Senator Harry Reid) didn’t rule that out, and the administration hasn’t either. So I think it’s worth talking about,” McConnell said.
Reid said he was open to discussing any “reasonable” offset offer by Republicans.
While the economy has improved slightly, with the jobless rate now at a five-year low of 7.0 percent, Americans are taking longer to find work.
The Congressional Budget Office says inaction could shave 0.2 percentage points or more off US gross domestic product, which experts say could cost 240,000 jobs.
Speaker Boehner Admits That He Won’t Lift a Finger to Help Unemployed Americans
By: Justin Baragona
Tuesday, January, 7th, 2014, 1:38 pm
On Tuesday, after the Senate passed a bill to extend unemployment insurance to the long-term unemployed, and President Obama held a press conference requesting the GOP-led House to also pass it, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) released the following statement:
WASHINGTON, DC - House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) released the following statement after the Senate vote on the extension of “emergency” unemployment insurance.
“Far too many Americans are still unemployed in President Obama’s economy. For each of them, it’s a personal crisis that we cannot overlook. Getting these people back on their feet starts with a strong safety net – six months of unemployment benefits – that we continue to have in this country. But the ultimate solution to joblessness is more jobs.
“That’s why the House has passed bill after bill that, taken together, would create a better environment for economic growth, investment, and new hiring in America. Dozens of bills are awaiting action in the Senate that would provide job skills training for the unemployed, ease job-destroying burdens on small businesses, promote innovation and education, create energy and infrastructure jobs, and get rid of the president’s health care law that is making it harder to hire workers in this country. To help Americans find new jobs, the president should call on the Senate to act on them.
“One month ago I personally told the White House that another extension of temporary emergency unemployment benefits should not only be paid for but include something to help put people back to work. To date, the president has offered no such plan. If he does, I’ll be happy to discuss it, but right now the House is going to remain focused on growing the economy and giving America’s unemployed the independence that only comes from finding a good job.”
NOTE: The recently-expired “Emergency Unemployment Compensation” program is put in place only in the worst economic conditions and is designed to be temporary. According to the House Ways and Means Committee, the recent program, which went into place as we entered a recession in 2008, was in place longer (66 months), was extended more times (12), aided more people (24 million), cost more ($265 billion), and added more to the debt ($210 billion) than any previous program. The expiration of this temporary program does not take away the vital safety net that provides all eligible unemployed workers 26 weeks of benefits. The unemployment rate is lower today than it was when emergency benefits were allowed to expire following the recession of the early 1980s.
First off, how about the brass cojones on Boehner to put the word emergency in quotes at the beginning of the press release. For quite a few Americans, this is an emergency. They have had their only source of income unceremoniously cutoff and Boehner and his staff feel that it is best to trivialize it. One can actually imagine Boehner doing air quotes while reading it.
However, what this statement really says is that Boehner is not going to bring this bill up for a vote. To cover himself, he points out that he wants to provide the promise of more jobs to those who are unemployed. Therefore, he wants any extension of UI benefits to be tied to GOP-led bills that are supposed to spur the economy and create jobs. Except, the reality is that the so-called House GOP jobs bill is anything but. It is just an effort to get regulations cut for businesses and tax cuts for the wealthy. In other words, pure and simple trickle-down economics.
Boehner knows that the President and Democrats won’t go for this, no matter how many times the Speaker calls it a ‘jobs’ bill. The other thing that Boehner may want to trade for is the Keystone XL pipeline, which Republicans have constantly touted as both a job creator and energy producer for the country. However, the fact is that the pipeline won’t create a real net benefit in American jobs and will do nothing for improving energy needs and independence for the country. However, what it will do is give the Koch Bros. a profit of $100 billion over time if it is approved.
With most of the country dealing with bitterly cold temperatures and heavy snow, it seems especially cruel to try to extort massive profits for the rich in order to allow the less fortunate to survive. Hopefully, the amount of negative reaction to the House GOP refusing to act on this will force Boehner to cave. But for now, it is apparent that the Republicans are going off of a strategy of being cruel to the poor, especially when you combine this inaction with the recent vote to cut SNAP benefits and GOP-led states refusing to expand Medicaid.
Conservatives Don’t Want To Talk About Income Inequality. That’s Why We Should.
By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, January 7, 2014 12:45 EST
Do you believe people don’t work because they’re lazy? Why not offer them a job and prove it?
Jesse Myerson wrote a great piece in the Rolling Stone rolling out five bold ideas for reducing—permanently—the very serious problem of income inequality. As he says in the piece, while some of these ideas may seem outrageous, they aren’t new or untried ideas. In some places, such as Alaska, things like having the government buy up a bunch of stocks and bonds and pay the dividends directly to the people are already in place. The point of the piece is to be bold and to start pushing progressives to think big, particularly as there’s starting to be a lot more support for progressive economics in the larger public. It also caused right wingers to go on major meltdown alert, as Brian Beutler explains.
But conservatives went absolutely apeshit. So severe was the apoplexy that they failed to recognize that included in these ideas were a bunch of things conservatives like — replacing income taxes and replacing paternalistic welfare programs with cash transfers — and that already exist successfully in the non-communist world. It was amazing.
In their rendering, Myerson hadn’t sketched out a road to serfdom. He’d planned a massive frog-march to Siberia for our society.
Part of this was emotional affect. Myerson’s Twitter bio is satirically hashtagged #FULLCOMMUNISM. Combine that with the article’s hyperbolic framing and many conservatives reacted tribally.
He wisely points out that the reason they’re going over the top like this is not because they think Myerson’s going to get his way any time soon on any of these agenda items.
I don’t think the ongoing freakout over the Rolling Stone article is simply a reflection of cultural anxieties. It also reflects an effort to limit the scope of that debate, so that progressive ideas fall outside the sphere of mainstream public debate.
Conservatives, perhaps because they come to the conformist mentality more easily than liberals, tend to be more cognizant of how much political discourse is governed by the Overton window and not by niceties like intellectual honesty and rigor. So they’re attempting to make an example out of Myerson for the rest of liberals: Do not even consider bringing up policy ideas to fix our income inequality problems or this will happen to you. Conservatives are clearly afraid, particularly that the public might warm to these ideas. Which is all the more reason for liberals to start pushing harder. If conservatives are this afraid to have a discussion about income inequality, it’s because they know that it’s a weak spot for them and a strong spot for liberals.
This is particularly true for Myerson’s first suggestion:
1. Guaranteed Work for Everybody
Unemployment blows. The easiest and most direct solution is for the government to guarantee that everyone who wants to contribute productively to society is able to earn a decent living in the public sector. There are millions of people who want to work, and there’s tons of work that needs doing – it’s a no-brainer. And this idea isn’t as radical as it might sound: It’s similar to what the federal Works Progress Administration made possible during Roosevelt’s New Deal, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. vocally supported a public-sector job guarantee in the 1960s.
It’s a piece of received wisdom on the right that unemployment and use of social services is the result of laziness, not lack of opportunities. That’s the justification for cutting food stamps and unemployment benefits. The argument is that the jobs are out there, but people aren’t taking them because they have unemployment checks and food stamps, so all you need to do is take social services away and voila! Full employment. Advocating for guaranteed work, therefore, not only is the right thing to do, but it means calling the conservative bluff on this. “Okay,” you say to conservatives, “How about we start a new WPA and when people come in for food stamps and unemployment, we offer them a decent-paying job on the spot doing work that needs to be done anyway?” If they really believe that people aren’t working because they’re lazy, there’s no danger in making that offer, right? After all, people will turn it down and their point will be proved. But if we’re right—and we are—then we would be moving millions of people out of poverty and into good-paying work that will build up their resume so they can get other jobs elsewhere. That’s a situation conservatives desperately don’t want, so they’re trying to use hyperbole and pile-ons to prevent it from happening. And that’s why we need to keep pressing the point.
I’m happy to say that people seem to be figuring this out, as Hamilton Nolan at Gawker has echoed Myerson’s cry and is also saying it’s time to bring back the WPA.
Al Franken Says Janet Yellen Will Help Address Growing Income Inequality
By: Sarah Jones
Monday, January, 6th, 2014, 7:21 pm
Senator Al Franken (D-MN) was pleased with the Senate’s historic vote to confirm Janet Yellen as the next Chair of the Federal Reserve Board today, praising her focus on unemployment and growing income inequality in a statement.
“I couldn’t be more pleased that the Senate confirmed Janet Yellen to be the next Chair of the Federal Reserve. With her substantial experience in the Federal Reserve System and as a bank regulator, Ms. Yellen brings the leadership necessary to successfully helm the Fed, which is exactly why I pressed President Obama to appoint her. I think her focus on reducing unemployment will help us address growing income inequality and continue us on the path of economic recovery, and I look forward to working with her.”
Franken urged President Obama to appoint Yellen in July of last year, based on her past experience.
My colleague Justin Baragona also noted Yellen’s focus on unemployment in his write up of this historic vote, “Yellen also seems highly concerned with unemployment and will likely steer the Fed’s policies in a way to help job creation.”
We can only hope, as the one thing this country really needs is a big push behind job creation to overcome the Republicans stubborn refusal to do anything that would help the economy.
Russia's southern Stavropol region on alert after bodies found
Five bodies with gunshot wounds and an explosive device discovered just over a week after suicide attacks in Volgograd
Reuters in Moscow
theguardian.com, Thursday 9 January 2014 08.55 GMT
Russia has put security forces on combat alert in the southern Stavropol region after the discovery of five bodies with gunshot wounds and an explosive device, a regional security spokesman said.
Russia has already tightened security before next month's Winter Olympics in Sochi – on which President Pig V. Putin has staked a lot of political and personal prestige – and is on high alert after suicide bombers killed at least 34 people in separate attacks in the southern city of Volgograd last month.
The five bodies were discovered on Wednesday in four cars in two separate districts outside the regional capital Stavropol, a gateway to the North Caucasus, where Russia faces an insurgency by Islamist militants who have threatened to prevent the Olympics going ahead.
An unidentified explosive device was also found near one of the vehicles, said a spokesman for Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) in Stavropol. No other details were immediately available.
Pig Putin said after the Volgograd attacks that he would annihilate all terrorists in Russia.
The Winter Olympics open in Sochi on 7 February. The Black Sea resort is on the western edge of the Caucasus mountains, where the insurgents want to carve out an Islamic state.
The head of Russia's Olympic committee has said no more can be done to safeguard the Games because every measure possible is already in place.
Russian forces went on combat alert in Sochi on Tuesday and about 37,000 personnel are now in place to provide security at the Games, Russian officials say.
Former Nazi guard charged in France with Oradour massacre
Unnamed man suspected of being a member of armoured SS division that killed a total of 642 villagers
Kim Willsher in Paris
The Guardian, Thursday 9 January 2014
An 88-year-old former SS guard has been charged with taking part in one of the most shocking massacres carried out in Nazi-occupied France.
The man, who has not been identified, is accused of the cold-blooded murder of 25 people and with being an accomplice in the murder of hundreds of other civilians at the village of Oradour-sur-Glane in 1944.
He is suspected of being a member of the armoured SS division that killed a total of 642 villagers in an atrocity that is etched on French memories.
"The prosecutor's office in Dortmund has charged an 88-year-old pensioner from Cologne over the murder of 25 people committed by a group, and with aiding and abetting the murder of several hundred people," said the Cologne regional court in a statement.
The man, who was 19 at the time of the slaughter, is among six suspects still facing possible prosecution for war crimes in Oradour-sur-Glane. He has denied the charged and has been given until the end of March to appeal.
"He acknowledged that he was in Oradour-sur-Glane at the time and was a member of the SS, but disputes any involvement in the murders," Andreas Brendal, Dortmund's state prosecutor said.
Oradour-sur-Glane has been left abandoned its blackened ruins preserved as a memorial to the slaughter of the villagers, 254 of whom were women and 207 children.
The SS armoured division marched into Oradour-sur-Glane on 10 June 1944 in retaliation for the alleged kidnapping of a German officer by the French resistance. The village was sealed off and its inhabitants rounded up in the market place where the men were separated from the women and children. "The men were then divided into four groups ... and taken by execution squads to four barns to be killed," read the German charge sheet.
The survivors were finished off with pistols or killed in fires lit by the German soldiers who then herded the women and children into the local church, locked the doors and set fire to it. Anyone trying to escape through windows was shot.
"It's important that we find someone even if it's 70 years afterwards," Robert Hébras, one of the six survivors, told French broadcaster BFMTV.
Oradour is an ambiguous symbol because it represents not just the atrocities committed by the Nazis but also a post-war failure to punish the perpetrators.
Heinz Lammerding, the Waffen SS general in command of the unit that committed the massacre, was captured by allied forces but never extradited to France and was sentenced to death in absentia by a Bordeaux military court in 1951. He died in his bed in Bavaria in 1971.
The presidents of Germany and France, Joachim Gauck and François Hollande, visited the village in September and held hands with one of the few survivors of the massacre, in a symbolic moment of commemoration and reconciliation. Germany opened a new war crimes case into the massacre in 2010, when documents implicating six suspects, now in their 80s, were discovered.
Polish politician calls for Tesco boycott over migrant benefits row
Suggestion Poles snub supermarket response to Cameron's push to stop EU migrants claiming benefits for children abroad
Rowena Mason, political correspondent
The Guardian, Wednesday 8 January 2014 19.33 GMT
A senior Polish politician has called for a boycott of Tesco after David Cameron ignited a diplomatic row by saying he wanted to stop the country's migrants sending home their child benefit.
The suggestion came from Jan Bury, leader of Poland's junior coalition party PSL, who was quoted by the state news agency as calling Cameron's policies "unfriendly and scandalous towards Poland and Poles".
He said: "As Poles, we can also say 'no' to prime minister Cameron and his policies. We call on Poles to boycott British retailer Tesco."
Several Polish politicians have expressed fury after Cameron said he wanted to change EU laws to stop benefits being paid for migrants' children who live abroad. He also called it a "monumental mistake" for Britain to have opened its borders so fully to the country in 2004.
It forms part of Cameron's plan to push for changes to EU rules on welfare, as he seeks a new settlement with Brussels before a referendum on Britain's membership before the end of 2017. His spokesman said this week the remarks were "perfectly fair".
But in a press conference on Tuesday, Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, said he would veto any attempt by Cameron to change EU laws on the issue "today, tomorrow and forever".
He added: "No one has the right to single out Poles as a special group that is abusing or taking advantage."
Amid growing tensions, Cameron spoke on the phone to Tusk last night to reiterate his position that the benefit system for EU migrants should be reviewed and reformed. It is understood the tone of the conversation was robust on both sides but there were no raised voices. The issue of a Tesco boycott was not raised during the exchange.
A Downing Street spokesman said: "On EU free movement, the prime minister made clear his longstanding view, reiterated in recent days, that the lack of transitional controls for new EU member states in 2004 was the wrong approach and had put pressure on local communities, and that we need to address the impact on countries' benefits systems, including for example paying child benefit to families living abroad.
"The prime minister emphasised that this was a pan-EU issue relevant to all member states and people should engage with the substance of the PM's proposals. Moving forward, they agreed to hold further bilateral discussions on how the UK and Poland can work together to better manage the impact of intra-EU migration on social security systems."
A number of Polish politicians have joined the debate in recent days, with Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, arguing that Polish immigrants contributed twice as much to the British state as they claimed in benefits. Poland's ambassador to the UK, Witold Sobków, told Cameron not to stigmatise his countrymen as benefit cheats.
Tesco told Reuters the company deals in "retail, not politics".
Greece begins EU presidency by saying austerity policies are intolerable
Greek government quick to criticise imposition of austerity, spending cuts and fiscal policy by Berlin and Brussels
Ian Traynor in Athens
The Guardian, Wednesday 8 January 2014 17.26 GMT
Greece kicked off six months in charge of the European Union on Wednesday declaring that the imposition of austerity, spending cuts and fiscal policy by Berlin and Brussels could no longer be tolerated.
Coinciding with a growing backlash across the EU against the austerity policies mainly scripted in Berlin, the start of Greece's EU presidency reinforced the isolation of German chancellor Angela Merkel, who has dominated the policy response to the EU crisis for the past four years.
Following four years at the sharpest end of Europe's debt and currency crisis and €250bn in bailout funds, the Greek government declared enough was enough.
"Greece does not want to have any more fiscal conditionality," the finance minister, Yannis Stournaras, said on Wednesday. "It is out of the question because it is already too tough."
The cry of exhaustion from a country that went broke, sank into years of slump and mass unemployment, slashed labour costs, and saw incomes collapse by more than a third is finding an echo not only across southern Europe but in the prosperous north, too, as leaders fear for their career prospects.
They have had enough of austerity, leaving Merkel, the main architect of spending cuts as the cure to Europe's malaise, isolated as seldom before in what is becoming less of a financial crisis and more of a political battle for Europe's future direction.
"The acute phase of the financial crisis is now over," the US financier, George Soros, said last week. "Future crises will be political in origin." He foresaw a bleak period of Japanese-style stagnation worsened by constant bickering between EU national leaders.
"What was meant to be a voluntary association of equal states has now been transformed by the euro crisis into a relationship between creditor and debtor countries that is neither voluntary nor equal. Indeed, the euro could destroy the EU altogether."
The political frictions are visible, with leaders using vivid language to try to sway one another and win the argument. Merkel recently likened the situation to that of 1914, complaining of complacency and speaking of sleepwalking European leaders who led the continent into the first world war. She also evoked parallels with growing up under communism in East Germany, a rare public reference to her childhood experiences.
Describing the mood among most EU national leaders, a senior policymaker in Brussels said: "The worst of the crisis is over. So the pressure to take tough measures is off. We've had enough of discipline, enough of sanctions, we're sufficiently unpopular already. The worst is over, so let's stop now."
Merkel, whose steering of the euro crisis propelled her to soaring popularity at home and a third term, has become increasingly resented among elites in other EU capitals, underlining the differences between Germany and the rest.
"The problem in Europe is that there is a government headed by one person," a west European ambassador said in reference to Merkel. "That's the issue and how to deal with it. All decisions are taken by one leader. This is what is happening now."
If that has been a big part of the narrative for the past few years, however, the story went into reverse just before Christmas in the first week of Merkel's new term. She went to a Brussels EU summit determined to push a new policy of compelling structural reforms on the economies of the eurozone. But she found herself supported by not one single other national leader, opposed not only by her foes, but also her friends such as the Dutch, Austrians and Finns.
"It was really a strange discussion," said the policymaker, "difficult from the start, full of prejudice, ideology and fear." Merkel was said to be disappointed. That much is clear from her private remarks to fellow leaders at the summit. A transcript of the exchange, obtained by Le Monde, highlighted her frustration.
She said: "Sooner or later the currency will explode without the necessary cohesion. If everyone behaves as they could under communism, then we are lost."
Merkel's plan was to empower the European commission in Brussels to police structural reforms in eurozone countries and to sweeten the pain of the changes by partially subsidising them. She denied that she was dictating anything, but said it was better to spend €3bn on the changes now than €10bn later.
She was supported by three European presidents, José Manuel Barroso of the commission, Herman Van Rompuy chairing the summit and Mario Draghi at the European Central Bank. None of the trio have to face the voter. All the other elected leaders were against and the plan was shelved.
One prime minister warned that the years of austerity had given rise to increasing populism. In Athens on Wednesday, the deputy Greek prime minister, Evangelos Venizelos, spoke of the growing appeal of neo-Nazis, racists and xenophobes. "In most of the EU we see a new wave of euro-scepticism."
Soros went so far as to blame the German chancellor for this. "Angela Merkel's policies are giving rise to extremist movements in the rest of Europe."
The strength of the new anti-European movements on the far right and the hard left will be tested in the elections for the European parliament in May when they are expected to make gains at the expense of the centre and possibly win the poll outright in countries such as Britain, France, the Netherlands and Greece.
Fear of the impact of more extreme politics helps to explain the current aversion in most of Europe to the crisis solutions scripted in Berlin.
Nordic countries team up to spread music worldwide
Nordic Playlist shares music from throughout the region with fans wherever they are
theguardian.com, Wednesday 8 January 2014 16.26 GMT
The five Nordic nations have teamed up to launch a service showing off their best musicians to the rest of the world – and to themselves.
Nordic Playlist offers a weekly snapshot of the hottest artists in the region, through a curated 10-track playlist showcasing for free the work of two musicians from each of the five countries: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland.
The inaugural playlist, which includes songs such as Limbo by Finland's Sin Cos Tan and Candy Tongue by Denmark's Trentemøller, was selected by the site's editor Francine Gorman, the London-based editor of Ja Ja Ja and former features editor of new music site The Line of Best Fit. Gorman hopes that the site "will offer fans from around the world a single destination to enjoy the best new Nordic music".
Future playlists will be selected by guest curators, while a separate section of the site offers a bi-weekly mix from DJs around the region, launched by Denmark's Kasper Bjørke with Iceland's Sexy Lazer following in late January. Gorman's main role will be running the "up and coming" section of the site, which currently highlights Helsinki's Black Twig, Oslo's Andre Bratten and Cophenhagen's Broken Twin, who pens "warm, sumptuous ballads led by exquisite vocals and piano melodies".
The site has changed markedly since early prototypes, according to Anna Hildur, the programme director of Nomex, the pan-Nordic music export agency which is behind Nordic Playlist. Initially, she told the You Are In Control conference in Iceland, "we wanted to crack the question of whether we can make a Nordic playlist based on chart mentality: what are the top songs in the Nordic region? We analysed this with computer scientists… but there were too many obstacles. This kind of interactivity isn't exciting, it's demanding."
NOMEX made the decision to retool the site, and switch to an editorially-driven model over one based on pure analytics. At the same time, it decided to push more of a pan-Nordic image. "We were still very much in this world of 'we are five different countries'. And then we had the Faroe Islands, so we were at least six. And then people asked about Greenland and Åland as well… We thought that people would be curious about a song being from Finland, or where ever."
Nordic Playlist hooks into other Nordic initiatives, as well. Sweden's Spotify and Norwary's WiMP are two of the three platforms where users can stream the playlists for free, with the third being French service Deezer.