01 January 2013 - 11H39
Plan B for business in Beirut to avoid bust
AFP - As civil war rages in neighbouring Syria and with tourism from the Gulf non-existent, hardened Lebanese merchants are surviving on a mixed bag of individual initiative, well-off Syrian tourists and help from expats.
Sitting in her lifestyle boutique, with evening gowns displayed opposite a fully stocked bar, Sophie Salame says the Lebanese "always have a plan B."
"We have had tough times, but I cut costs and by the end of the year came up with better results," she said.
Her strategy included early sales and personally emailing Arab clients whose governments she wishes had not issued travel warnings.
"The Arabs are boycotting us. They want to take a stand on the government's position on Syria," she said, adding that a holiday influx of expatriates and an exodus of upper class Syrians has been a saving grace.
"There are two kinds of refugees," she said.
Since the 21-month revolt erupted, hundreds of thousands of less fortunate Syrians have fled to Lebanon, where a weak and divided government has adopted a policy of "disassociation" from the bloody conflict.
Over the summer, the oil-rich Gulf states urged their citizens to avoid Lebanon after Syria-linked clashes and kidnappings rocked the long-time shopping and nightlife hub.
This badly affected tourism and the economy in general, said Violette Balaa, an economic analyst and strategy manager at First Protocol, an event planning agency.
"On the surface, this decision was security-related, because of fears of instability or kidnappings, but it is political and aimed at punishing Lebanon for its position on the Syrian issue," she said.
There has been a dramatic slump in tourism, which normally accounts for 22 percent of GDP but has dropped as low as 10 percent, Balaa said.
The decline in tourists from the Gulf did not stop Salame from flying in a designer from London to create her dazzling window displays.
"It cost me a small fortune. But I could not let Christmas pass without it," she said. "Lebanese love life and they love to spend money, even in tough times."
The luxury Beirut Souks shopping centre is still packed, but according to Balegh, who works in a fashion store, most people were "cruising and not buying."
Business nosedived after the assassination last October of intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan, which was widely blamed on the Syrian regime by Lebanon's pro-revolt opposition, he said.
Joanna, in a lingerie shop, said customers are buying only the basics and constantly bargain-hunting.
"We mostly count on tourists, but there are no tourists in Lebanon now," she said. Most of her customers are Lebanese or Syrians.
Sales are far lower than in previous years, she said -- "not only in this souk, all over the country."
In one sign of hard times, the traditional New Year fireworks display sponsored by construction giant Solidere was cancelled.
Tony Eid, founder of the merchants' association in central Beirut, expressed regret, but added: "In times of crisis, everyone has to double his efforts in order to gain the most... or lose the least."
Tony Salame of Lebanese luxury boutique Aishti, said retailers must put their best foot forward.
"If you take away the window displays, the fireworks, the advertising, people are going to think it's over, that Beirut is no longer a destination. And that's not the case."
"It's easy with a recession to cut down on everything but in the medium term it will hurt us."
Francois, 49, works in Saudi Arabia and brings his family back for 10-15 days every holiday season out of patriotism.
"With the money we spend here we could go to many places in Europe or Asia, but we come here to help the economy," he said.
Not all foreign tourists have been scared off. In mid-afternoon two Jordanians rushed out of the Souks, crisp bags from Aishti and chocolatier Patchi in hand.
"Just a teeny bit of holiday shopping," beamed the well-heeled young woman as her friend hurried her along to catch their flight home to Amman.
Pope slams ‘unregulated financial capitalism’ in New Year’s message
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, January 1, 2013 7:52 EST
Pope Benedict XVI prayed for world peace, condemning the inequality between rich and poor and “unregulated financial capitalism” at a New Year’s mass in St Peter’s Basilica on Tuesday.
The pope spoke of “hotbeds of tension and confrontation caused by the growing inequality between rich and poor and the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mentality also expressed by unregulated financial capitalism.”
But he added that humanity had “an innate vocation for peace” and prayed for “the gift of peace” this year, quoting a Biblical passage saying: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.”
The Roman Catholic Church celebrates New Year’s Day as World Peace Day.
December 31, 2012
Coveting Horns, Ruthless Smugglers’ Rings Put Rhinos in the Cross Hairs
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, South Africa — They definitely did not look like ordinary big-game hunters, the stream of slender young Thai women who showed up on the veld wearing tight bluejeans and sneakers.
But the rhinoceros carcasses kept piling up around them, and it was only after dozens of these hulking, relatively rare animals were dead and their precious horns sawed off that an extravagant scheme came to light.
The Thai women, it ends up, were not hunters at all. Many never even squeezed off a shot. Instead, they were prostitutes hired by a criminal syndicate based 6,000 miles away in Laos to exploit loopholes in big-game hunting rules and get its hands on as many rhino horns as possible — horns that are now worth more than gold.
“These girls had no idea what they were doing,” said Paul O’Sullivan, a private investigator in Johannesburg who helped crack the case. “They thought they were going on safari.”
The rhino horn rush has gotten so out of control that it has exploded into a worldwide criminal enterprise, drawing in a surreal cast of characters — not just Thai prostitutes, but also Irish gangsters, Vietnamese diplomats, Chinese scientists, veterinarians, copter pilots, antiques dealers and recently an American rodeo star looking for a quick buck who used Facebook to find some horns.
Driven by a common belief in Asia that ground-up rhino horns can cure cancer and other ills, the trade has also been embraced by criminal syndicates that normally traffic drugs and guns, but have branched into the underground animal parts business because it is seen as “low risk, high profit,” American officials say.
“Get caught smuggling a kilo of cocaine, you will receive a very significant prison sentence,” said Ed Grace, a deputy chief with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. But with a kilogram of rhino horn, he added, “you may only get a fine.”
The typical rhino horn is about two feet long and 10 pounds, much of it formed from the same substance as fingernails. Yet it can fetch nearly $30,000 a pound, more than crack cocaine, and conservationists worry that this “ridiculous price,” as one wildlife manager put it, could drive rhinos into extinction.
Gangs are so desperate for new sources of horn that criminals have even smashed into dozens of glass museum cases all across Europe to snatch them from exhibits.
“Astonishment and rage, that’s what we felt,” said Paolo Agnelli, a manager at the Florence Museum of Natural History, after three rhino horns were stolen last year, including a very rare one from 1824.
American federal agents recently staged a cross-country undercover rhino horn sting operation, called Operation Crash, “crash” being the term for a herd of rhinos.
Among the 12 people arrested: Wade Steffen, a champion steer wrestler from Texas, who pleaded guilty in May to trafficking dozens of horns that he found through hunters, estate sales and Facebook; and two members of an Irish gang — the same gang suspected of breaking into the museums in Europe.
In an e-mail to an undercover agent, an Irish gangster bragged: “Believe me WE NEVER LOSES A HORN TO CUSTOMS, we have so many contacts and people payed off now we can bring anything we want out of nearly any country into Europe.”
Corruption is a huge element, just like in the illegal ivory trade, in which rebel groups, government armies and threadbare hunters have been wiping out tens of thousands of elephants throughout Africa, selling the tusks to sophisticated criminal networks that move them across the globe with the help of corrupt officials.
Here in South Africa, home to the majority of the world’s last surviving 28,000 rhinos or so, the country is throwing just about everything it has to stop the slaughter — thousands of rangers, the national army, a new spy plane, even drones — but it is losing.
The number of rhinos poached in South Africa has soared in the past five years, from 13 killed in 2007 to more than 630 in 2012. The prehistoric, battleship-gray animals are often found on their knees, bleeding to death from a gaping stump on their face.
“Ever seen a dead rhino?” asked Philip Jonker, who works for a private security firm that has gone into wildlife protection. “It’s worse than going to a funeral.”
The only answer, some contend, is to legalize the trade, which would flood the market with rhino horns, lower the price and dissuade rhino poachers from risking their lives — or so the argument goes. Rhino horns regenerate, and the horns can be shaved down every few years and sold off without significantly hurting the animal.
One of most passionate advocates of this legalization movement is John Hume, a South African entrepreneur who now owns more than 800 rhinos, with names like Curly, Titan, Hillary and Pinocchio, and has amassed a 2,000-pound mountain of horn worth millions of dollars — if he is ever allowed to sell it.
“Why shouldn’t the person who breeds rhino get a reward?” he asks.
Every time Mr. Hume’s ranch hands trim down a few rhinos, they organize an armed escort to take the horns straight to a safe-deposit box in a bank because the same gangs that waylay armored bank trucks are now cruising around South Africa looking for rhino horns.
But many wildlife groups say legalizing the rhino trade would be a disaster.
“The consuming power in my country is growing so rapidly that the supply would never meet the needs,” said Jeff He, spokesman for the Chinese branch of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “And besides, it’ll always be cheaper to poach an animal than raise it.”
Kruger National Park, an enormous wildlife refuge in South Africa’s northeast, is where many rhinos are being poached. The park lies on the border with Mozambique, a much poorer country still scarred from years of civil war. Park rangers say Mozambican gunmen are pouring through Kruger’s chain link fences, downing rhinos left and right.
Some sophisticated poaching rings use helicopters to spot the animals and veterinarians to dart them with tranquilizers. Others don women’s shoes, to leave misleading tracks. “At any one time, there are up to 10 groups operating inside the Kruger,” said Ken Maggs, a South African National Parks official. “These guys are trying new methods daily.”
Scientists say that maybe a million rhinos once roamed the earth, and for some reason, humans have been fascinated with the horn for ages. The ancient Persians thought rhino horn vessels could detect poisons. The Chinese thought rhino horn powder could reduce fevers. The Yemenis prized the horn for coming-of-age daggers, presented to teenage boys as a sign of manhood.
In Asia, faith in traditional cures runs strong, fueling demand as Asian economies grow, though there is no scientific proof that rhino horn can cure cancer.
In 2008, a Vietnamese diplomat in South Africa’s capital, Pretoria, was caught on camera receiving rhino horn — in the parking lot of the embassy. Around the same time, a Chinese company opened a secretive rhino breeding center in Hainan Province, reportedly to produce rhino-based medicine.
In the past 50 years, the overall rhino population has plummeted by more than 90 percent, despite an international ban on the trade in rhino parts since 1977.
But in South Africa, it is legal to hunt rhinos, creating the loophole that the Thai prostitutes sauntered through. Hunters must agree to keep the horn set (rhinos have a large front and smaller back horn) as a trophy and not sell it, and hunters are allowed to kill only one white rhino every 12 months. (Black rhinos are critically endangered and very few are hunted in South Africa.)
According to South African law enforcement officials, gang leaders in Thailand and Laos decided that to maximize the number of rhinos they could kill, they would enlist Thai prostitutes who were already in South Africa with valid passports, which were used for the hunting permits. The women then tagged along on the hunts, often dressed in catchy pinks and blues, but somebody else — usually a professional hunter — pulled the trigger.
“I don’t know whose idea it was to use the ladies, but it was a damn good one,” said Mr. O’Sullivan, the private investigator.
None of the two dozen or so prostitutes involved have been prosecuted — the intent was to get the big fish. So Mr. O’Sullivan leaked a photograph of an enormous stockpile of ivory and rhino horns to one of the women, along with a message for her boss, a bespectacled Thai man named Chumlong Lemtongthai, that everything was for sale: “I wanted the big man himself to come here and negotiate.”
Mr. Lemtongthai did exactly that, and he was arrested soon after. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced in November to 40 years.
“I do not want to see a situation where my grandchildren will only be able to see rhino in a picture,” said the judge, Prince Manyathi.
Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting from Rome.
December 31, 2012
Rangers in Isolated Central Africa Uncover Grim Cost of Protecting Wildlife
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
ZAKOUMA NATIONAL PARK, Chad — Just before dawn, the rangers were hunched over in prayer, facing east. They pressed their foreheads into the dry earth and softly whispered Koranic verses, their lips barely moving. A cool wind bit at their faces.
All of a sudden, Djimet Seid, the cook, said he heard “one war whoop — or maybe it was a scream.”
And then: “K-k-k-k-k-k-k,” the angry bark of a Kalashnikov assault rifle, opening up on fully automatic.
In an instant, an entire Chadian squad of rangers was cut down with alarming precision by elephant poachers who were skilled at killing more than just animals. Crouching in the bush, the poachers fired from a triangle of different spots, concealed and deadly accurate.
“If you go look at the infantry books, it’s exactly how you do a first light attack, exactly,” said Rian Labuschagne, a former paratrooper and now the manager of Zakouma National Park in southern Chad. “Our guys didn’t have a chance.”
Out here, among the spent bullet shells and the freshly dug graves, the cost of protecting wildlife is painfully clear. As ivory poaching becomes more militarized, with rebel groups and even government armies slaughtering thousands of elephants across Africa to cash in on record-high ivory prices, a horrible mismatch is shaping up. Wildlife rangers — who tend to be older, maybe a bit slower and incredibly knowledgeable about their environment and the ways of animals, but less so about infantry tactics — are wading into the bush to confront hardened soldiers.
The outcome, too often, is not only firefights and battles, but also coldblooded murder, with dozens of African wildlife rangers killed in recent years, many in revenge-driven ambushes. Ivory poachers, it seems, are becoming increasingly wily and ruthless.
This summer, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a militia of infamous elephant poachers, sneaked up to the headquarters of a wildlife reserve and killed 5 people and 14 okapi, a rare animal with a giraffelike neck and zebralike legs. One guard who narrowly escaped said the attackers sliced open the chest of a downed colleague and ate his heart. In Zimbabwe, poachers are spreading deadly poisons on elephant carcasses to kill vultures. By taking out the birds that serve as a natural early warning system that a kill has been made, the poachers make it even more dangerous for rangers because they have no idea when the poachers are around. In Mozambique, the authorities said that poachers have recently begun using land mines.
Kenya, which is considered tame compared with some of these other places, has lost six rangers this year, more than in recent memory. One of them was Florence Hadia Abae, pregnant and the mother of a small boy. In March, she was following the footprints of suspected poachers near Tsavo National Park, a fabled tourist destination, when a poacher popped out of the bush and shot her in the face.
One of her colleagues was killed in the same ambush, shot in the leg, then finished off with a short, brutish stroke of an ax.
“They had no idea what they were walking into,” said Rob Dodson, a British conservationist working near Tsavo.
In the Zakouma attack, which happened about 50 miles outside the park boundaries in September, five rangers were killed on the spot; one remains missing and is presumed dead. Mr. Seid, the cook, was seriously wounded. The attack appeared to be revenge for a raid on a poachers’ camp, and much of the evidence points to the Sudanese military. For years, wildlife groups have blamed the janjaweed — Sudanese horseback raiders who traditionally work in tandem with the government military — for wiping out many of Central Africa’s elephant herds.
But specific evidence recovered from the poachers suspected of killing Zakouma’s rangers strengthens the Sudanese government link, the Chadian authorities and human rights groups say. A few weeks before the attack, Zakouma rangers raided a poachers’ camp nearby and discovered one uniform for Abu Tira, Sudan’s notorious paramilitary service, which has been blamed for burning down villages and committing other atrocities. The rangers also found several elephant tusks and a stamped leave slip from the Sudanese Army granting four soldiers permission to go to the Chadian border.
Most incriminating, though, were the digital photos recovered from a phone showing stacks of elephant carcasses that looked similar to photos from a horrific massacre of hundreds of elephants in Cameroon this year, suggesting that the Sudanese poachers who killed the Zakouma rangers may have been involved in one of the biggest single elephant slaughters in decades.
“This is not some random group of thugs,” said Jonathan Hutson, a spokesman for the Satellite Sentinel Project, a nonprofit group that helped analyze some of the evidence. “They’re poaching for profit to fund mass atrocities in Sudan.”
Officials at the United States Africa Command, based in Stuttgart, Germany, have also been helping analyze some of the forensics.
At first, Rabie A. Atti, a Sudanese government spokesman, reflexively dismissed the evidence.
“Pictures can be fabricated,” he said.
But then he added, “If there is concrete evidence, and someone is proven to be corrupt, he can be taken to court.”
There is something noble but quixotic about the 50 or so Zakouma rangers, many in their 40s, some even in their late 50s, turbans wrapped around their wrinkled, sandblasted faces, tasked with protecting a spectacularly beautiful but extremely isolated stretch of savanna in the middle of one of the poorest, least developed regions on earth. Even the architecture of Zakouma’s headquarters, with its crenulated, fortresslike walls, belies a sense of siege.
“Death can come any time,” said Adoum Abdoulaye, a ranger at Zakouma. “I’m always thinking about it.”
And people here are used to it.
In 1998, Mahamat Abubakar, a veteran ranger, was shot and killed by poachers lying in wait. His son, Zachariah, took over, but two years later, Zachariah was gunned down in an ambush as well. His younger brother, Hissein, was then offered the job, but instead of picking up a Kalashnikov and trotting into the field, Hissein asked to be a welder.
“My mother couldn’t take anymore,” he said.
Zakouma’s rangers are trying to make a last stand. The park’s once-great herd of elephants has been nearly exterminated. Ninety percent of it has been poached off in the past 10 years, one of the most drastic declines of an elephant population anywhere in Africa.
In 2002, there were 4,350 elephants; now maybe 450. Chad has endured several rebellions in recent years, sucking away resources from wildlife and creating instability along the Sudanese border, which allowed hordes of poachers to pour across. There has been only one confirmed birth of an elephant calf in the past two years.
“With all the shooting and stress,” Mr. Labuschagne said, “they don’t breed.”
Mr. Labuschagne, a tall, lean South African who has been the manager of Zakouma for nearly two years, wants to build a unit of highly trained — and younger — rangers to confront poachers. He has worked in many places in Africa but says there is something uniquely untouched about Chad.
In November, he flew a small plane to Zakouma from the capital, N’Djamena. In the middle of the country, a set of granite mountains rose up from the plains, jagged, gnarled fingers of rock reaching up, trees clinging to their base, mist shrouding their tips. It was a landscape prehistoric and breathtaking, inscrutable and mysterious.
“There are no people here,” Mr. Labuschagne said, stabbing his finger down. “In two hours, we’re going to pass one road.”
“The rest are just tracks,” he said.
A few chutes of smoke rose in the distance, the only sign of man.
Isma’il Kushkush contributed reporting from Khartoum, Sudan.
December 31, 2012
12 Foreign Stories From 2012 Worth Revisiting
There were hundreds of memorable foreign stories from Times correspondents in 2012. Here is a sampling of 12 from across the world in reverse chronological order.
1. For Congo Children, Food Today Means None Tomorrow
KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo — Today, the big children will eat, Cynthia, 15, and Guellor, 13. Tomorrow, it will be the turn of the little ones, Bénédicte, Josiane and Manassé, 3, 6, and 9.
2. Dublin Journal: Not Worth the Paper It’s Built On
DUBLIN — As an emblem of the modern Irish condition, Frank Buckley is almost too apt. Dead broke, he lives in a house made of money.
3. American Children, Now Struggling to Adjust to Life in Mexico
Shaul Schwarz for The New York Times
IZÚCAR DE MATAMOROS, Mexico — Jeffrey Isidoro sat near the door of his fifth-grade classroom here in central Mexico, staring outside through designer glasses that, like his Nike sneakers and Nike backpack, signaled a life lived almost entirely in the United States. His parents are at home in Mexico. Jeffrey is lost.
4. Egypt’s Everywoman Finds Her Place Is in the Presidential Palace
CAIRO — Naglaa Ali Mahmoud wears an Islamic head covering that drapes down to her knees, did not attend college and never took her husband’s last name, because that is a Western convention that few Egyptians follow. She also refuses the title of first lady, in favor of simply Um Ahmed, a traditional nickname that identifies her as the mother of Ahmed, her eldest son.
5. A Superstar Televangelist in Pakistan Divides, Then Repents
Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times
KARACHI, Pakistan — THE audience erupted as Aamir Liaquat Hussain, Pakistan’s premier televangelist, darted around the television studio, firing off questions about Islam. “How many gates are there to heaven?” he challenged.
6. Elephants Dying in Epic Frenzy as Ivory Fuels Wars and Profits
GARAMBA NATIONAL PARK, Democratic Republic of Congo — In 30 years of fighting poachers, Paul Onyango had never seen anything like this. Twenty-two dead elephants, including several very young ones, clumped together on the open savanna, many killed by a single bullet to the top of the head.
7. Young Lives, Lost in the Fog of War
KABUL, Afghanistan — These days, Abdul Farhad tries to sleep with the lights on in his bedroom and his eyes wide open, because as soon as he closes them he is back in his shop in central Kabul and it is 11:30 a.m. on the eighth of September.
8. Corruption Is Seen as a Drain on Italy’s South
Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times
REGGIO CALABRIA, Italy — Italy’s A3 highway, begun in the 1960s and still not finished, starts outside Naples in the ancient hill town of Salerno and ends, rather unceremoniously, 300 miles farther south as a local street in downtown Reggio Calabria.
9. Reporting a Fearful Rift Between Afghans and Americans
SISAY OUTPOST, Afghanistan — How far is Kabul from the war? These days, if you drive south or west, no more than an hour and a half. You can go and be back for dinner — if you aren’t kidnapped or blown up.
10. Billions in Hidden Riches for Family of Chinese Leader
BEIJING — The mother of China’s prime minister was a schoolteacher in northern China. His father was ordered to tend pigs in one of Mao’s political campaigns. And during childhood, “my family was extremely poor,” the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, said in a speech.
11. Long Retired, Ex-Leader of China Asserts Sway Over Top Posts
BEIJING — In a year of scandals and corruption charges at the commanding heights of the Communist Party, a retired party chief some had written off as a spent force has thrust himself back into China’s most important political decisions and emerged as a dominant figure shaping the future leadership.
12. Horrific Fire Revealed a Gap in Safety for Global Brands
ASHULIA, Bangladesh — The fire alarm shattered the monotony of the Tazreen Fashions factory. Hundreds of seamstresses looked up from their machines, startled. On the third floor, Shima Akhter Pakhi had been stitching hoods onto fleece jackets. Now she ran to a staircase.
Benito Mussolini: a dictator for all seasons in Italy?
Reverence for Il Duce, who adorns calendars and T-shirts, is spreading from neo-fascist youths to the Italian mainstream
Tom Kington in Rome
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 1 January 2013 13.07 GMT
Pasquale Moretti pulls the latest Benito Mussolini calendar off the shelf at his Rome cafe and flips it open to a photo of the pouting, strutting dictator taking part in a grain harvest.
"I was born in that era and he put bread on the table," said the 78-year-old. "I cannot betray my culture."
Every year, around this time, Mussolini calendars appear in newspaper kiosks up and down Italy, offering a year's supply of photos of the fascist leader.
Mussolini calendar A 2012 calendar. This year will bring a new crop featuring the dictator.
They are often tucked away with the specialist magazines, but according to the manager of one firm that prints them, they are much in demand.
"We are selling more than we did 10 years ago," said Renato Circi, the head of Rome printer Gamma 3000. "I didn't think it was still a phenomenon, but young people are now buying them too."
Sixty-eight years after the fascist dictator was strung up with piano wire from a petrol station in Milan following his crushing of Italian democracy, his racial laws and his disastrous alliance with Adolf Hitler, Mussolini has quietly taken his place as an icon for many Italians.
Among his adherents today are the masked, neo-fascist youths who mounted raids on Rome schools this autumn to protest against education cuts, lobbing smoke bombs in corridors and yelling "Viva Il Duce".
A masked mob which ambushed Spurs fans drinking in a Rome pub in November, was also suspected of neo-fascist sympathies. When Spurs played Lazio the following night, Lazio fans chanted "Juden Tottenham", using the German word for Jew in reference to the club's Jewish heritage.
But the cult of Il Duce has also slipped into the mainstream. The decision by a town south of Rome to spend €127,000 (£100,000) of public funds this year on a tomb for Rodolfo Graziani, one of Mussolini's most blood-thirsty generals, was met with widespread indifference.
Other more mundane examples include the leading businessman who proposed renaming Forli airport in Emilia Romagna – the region of northern Italy where the dictator was born – as Mussolini airport, or the headmaster in Ascoli Piceno who tried to hang a portrait of the dictator in his school.
The man who gets some credit for dusting off Mussolini's reputation is Silvio Berlusconi, who famously described the dictator's exiling of his foes to remote villages as sending them on holiday.
Berlusconi's subtle rehabilitation of Mussolini came as he brought Italy's post-fascists, led by Gianfranco Fini, into his governing coalition in 1994 and 2001, following the "years of lead" in the 1970s and early 80s, when neo-fascists and communist sympathisers battled in the streets.
"Today, Mussolini's racial laws against Jews remain an embarrassment, but people don't care about his hunting down anti-fascists," said Maria Grazia Rodotà, a journalist at Italy's Corriere della Sera. "That became one of Berlusconi's jokes."
Admiration for Mussolini is common in Berlusconi's circle. Showbusiness agent Lele Mora, who is now on trial for allegedly pimping for the former prime minister, downloaded an Italian fascist song as his mobile ring tone, while Berlusconi's long-time friend, the senator Marcello Dell'Utri, has described Mussolini as an "extraordinary man of great culture".
After Mussolini's murder by partisans in 1945 – as the Allies pushed up through Italy – the country did not exorcise the ghosts of fascism, as Germany sought to. A 1952 law forbidding fascist parties or the veneration of fascism has never been seriously enforced.
"It was not used partly because banning parties was potentially anti-constitutional, and also due to a sneaking admiration for fascism," said James Walston, professor of politics at the American University of Rome.
Decades on, the memory of Mussolini as the strong man who put a post office in every piazza and made the trains run on time has been decoupled from the ideology of fascism, said writer Angelo Meloni.
"He is now a pop icon, an arch-Italian, a personality whose legend is linked to the years of consensus in Italy," he said. "Just as people who don't go to church like Padre Pio, so 90% of those who buy Mussolini calendars will never have voted for a fascist party," he said.
Gamma 3000 promotes Mussolini calendars on its website alongside ones featuring the Catholic saint and mystic Padre Pio, guerilla leader Che Guevara, topless models and cute kittens.
But for Italy's modern neo-fascist groups, including Casapound, Il Duce is still very much about ideology.
"Whoever buys the calendar admires his work – the two things cannot be separated," said the group's vice-president, Simone di Stefano.
"There is a need today for his politics, for someone who will put the banks and finance at the service of Italy," he said. "Youngsters who come to us already see Mussolini as the father of this country."
Casapound's student offshoot organisation, Blocco Studentesco, is a mainstay in Rome youth politics, polling 11,000 votes in school council elections in 2009 and even enrolling the mayor of Rome's 17-year-old son, who was photographed on holiday in 2012 giving a straight-armed fascist salute with friends.
The well-to-do streets around Piazza Ponte Milvio, north of Rome's football stadium, are today plastered with posters and graffiti by numerous neo-fascist groups, including Casapound, and the local bars have become a hangout for gangs of rightwing lads in regulation Fred Perry shirts and Ray Ban Wayfarers.
"Many teenagers now avoid Ponte Milvio since the people who go there have shifted further to the right," said Rodotà.
Further down the road, the entrance to the stadium is marked by a massive fascist-era obelisk, still standing, with "Mussolini" written in huge letters down the front. Nearby, the bar run by Pasquale Moretti, where Lazio fans meet before games, contains a mini-supermarket of fascist memorabilia, from bottles of wine with Mussolini's portrait on the label, to fascist flags and T-shirts, and oil portraits of Il Duce.
"He built housing for workers, something no Roman emperor did," said Moretti. "How can I not respect that?"
Benito Mussolini: Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is responsible for starting the rehabilitation of Mussolini (below) in Italy. Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
In the USA....
January 1, 2013
Senate Passes Legislation to Allow Taxes on Affluent to Rise
By JONATHAN WEISMAN
WASHINGTON — The Senate, in a pre-dawn vote two hours after the deadline passed to avert automatic tax increases, overwhelmingly approved legislation on Tuesday that would allow tax rates to rise only on affluent Americans while temporarily suspending sweeping, across-the-board spending cuts.
The deal, worked out in furious negotiations between Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, passed 89 to 8, with just three Democrats and five Republicans voting no. Although it lost the support of some of the Senate’s most conservative members, the broad coalition that pushed the accord across the finish line could portend swift House passage as early as New Year’s Day.
Quick passage before the markets reopen on Wednesday would likely negate any economic damage from Tuesday’s breach of the so-called “fiscal cliff” and largely spare the nation’s economy from the one-two punch of large tax increases and across-the-board military and domestic spending cuts in the New Year.
“This shouldn’t be the model for how to do things around here,” Mr. McConnell said just after 1:30 a.m. “But I think we can say we’ve done some good for the country.”
Mr. Biden, after a late New Year’s Eve meeting with leery Senate Democrats to sell the accord, said: “You surely shouldn’t predict how the House is going to vote. But I feel very, very good.”
The eight senators who voted no included Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida and a potential presidential candidate in 2016, two of the Senate’s most ardent small-government Republicans, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, and Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, who as a former Finance Committee chairman helped secure passage of the Bush-era tax cuts, then opposed making almost all of them permanent on Tuesday. Two moderate Democrats, Thomas R. Carper of Delaware and Michael Bennet of Colorado, also voted no, as did the liberal Democrat Tom Harkin, who said the White House had given away too much in the compromise. Senator Richard C. Shelby, Republican of Alabama, also voted no.
The House Speaker, John A. Boehner, and the Republican House leadership said the House would “honor its commitment to consider the Senate agreement.” But, they added, “decisions about whether the House will seek to accept or promptly amend the measure will not be made until House members — and the American people — have been able to review the legislation.”
Even with that cautious assessment, Republican House aides said a vote Tuesday was possible.
Under the agreement, tax rates would jump to 39.6 percent from 35 percent for individual incomes over $400,000 and couples over $450,000, while tax deductions and credits would start phasing out on incomes as low as $250,000, a clear victory for President Obama, who ran for re-election vowing to impose taxes on the wealthy.
Just after the vote, Mr. Obama called for quick House passage of the legislation.
“While neither Democrats nor Republicans got everything they wanted, this agreement is the right thing to do for our country and the House should pass it without delay,” he said.
Democrats also secured a full year’s extension of unemployment insurance without strings attached and without offsetting spending cuts, a $30 billion cost. But the two-percentage point cut to the payroll tax that the president secured in late 2010 lapsed at midnight and will not be renewed.
In one final piece of the puzzle, negotiators agreed to put off $110 billion in across-the-board cuts to military and domestic programs for two months while broader deficit-reduction talks continue. Those cuts begin to go into force on Wednesday, and that deadline, too, might be missed before Congress approves the legislation.
To secure votes, Senator Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, also told Democrats the legislation would cancel a pending Congressional pay raise — putting opponents in the politically difficult position of supporting a raise — and extend an expiring dairy policy that would have seen the price of milk double in some parts of the country.
The nature of the deal ensured that the running war between the White House and Congressional Republicans on spending and taxes would continue at least until the spring. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner formally notified Congress that the government reached its statutory borrowing limit on New Year’s Eve. Through some creative accounting tricks, the Treasury Department can put off action for perhaps two months, but Congress must act to keep the government from defaulting just when the “pause” on pending cuts is up. Then in late March, a law financing the government expires.
And the new deal does nothing to address the big issues that Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner hoped to deal with in their failed “grand bargain” talks two weeks ago: booming entitlement spending and a tax code so complex that few defend it anymore.
Though the deal ultimately passed the Senate, it was greeted with skepticism on Capitol Hill when it was first outlined on Monday. Republicans accused the White House of “moving the goal posts” by demanding still more tax increases to help shut off across-the-board spending cuts beyond the two-month pause. Democrats were incredulous that the president had ultimately agreed to around $600 billion in new tax revenue over 10 years when even Mr. Boehner had promised $800 billion. But the White House said it had also won concessions on unemployment insurance and the inheritance tax among other wins.
Still, Democrats openly worried that if Mr. Obama could not drive a harder bargain when he holds most of the cards, he will give up still more Democratic priorities in the coming weeks, when hard deadlines will raise the prospects of a government default first, then a government shutdown. In both instances, conservative Republicans are more willing to breach the deadlines than in this case, when conservatives cringed at the prospects of huge tax increases.
“I just don’t think Obama’s negotiated very well,” said Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa.
With the legislation now headed to the House, Republicans there signaled that enough of them, in combination with Democrats, could most likely pass the legislation, just weeks after Republicans shot down Mr. Boehner’s proposal to raise taxes only on incomes over $1 million.
“I don’t want to say where I am until I read the legislation, but it is certainly better than the alternative,” said Representative Charlie Dent, Republican of Pennsylvania.
With the threat of huge cuts agonizingly close, official Washington was prepared for the worst. The Defense Department prepared to notify all 800,000 of its civilian employees that some of them could be forced into unpaid leave without a deal on military cuts. The Internal Revenue Service issued guidance to employers to increase withholding from paychecks beginning Tuesday to match new tax rates at every income level.
“No deal is the worse deal,” said Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, rejecting the assertions of liberal colleagues that no deal would be better than what they would see as a bad deal.
Despite grumbling among Republicans and Democrats, it was clear that a deal hashed out through intense talks between Mr. Biden and Mr. McConnell had given both sides provisions to cheer and to jeer.
Under the deal, tax rates on dividends and capital gains would also rise, to 20 percent from 15 percent, on income over $400,000 for single people and $450,000 for couples. The deal would reinstate provisions to tax law, ended by the Bush tax cuts of 2001, that phase out personal exemptions and deductions for the affluent. Those phaseouts, under the agreement, would begin at $250,000 for single people and $300,000 for couples.
The estate tax would also rise, but considerably less than Democrats had wanted. The value of estates over $5 million would be taxed at 40 percent, up from 35 percent. Democrats had wanted a 45 percent rate on inheritances over $3.5 million.
Under the deal, the new rates on income, investment and inheritances would be permanent, as would a provision to stop the alternative minimum tax from hitting middle-class families.
Jennifer Steinhauer and Robert Pear contributed reporting.
December 31, 2012
Grand Deals Give Way to Legislative Quick Fixes
By JENNIFER STEINHAUER
WASHINGTON — The confusing struggle to head off a national fiscal crisis has made one thing crystal clear: The era of the Big Deal is over.
Despite repeated, intense and personal efforts by President Obama and Speaker John A. Boehner as well as bipartisan coalitions, gangs of senators, supercommittees, special commissions and wonky outsiders, the grand bargain remains the elusive holy grail of fiscal policy and seems destined to stay that way for now.
“We don’t seem to be able to do grand bargains very well,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, who has long been a force for compromise.
Some groups have produced the framework for smaller deals and even gained some bipartisan support, particularly the 2010 Simpson-Bowles plan, which fell just short of a 14-vote threshold required to get before Congress. But the alchemy of Mr. Obama and the current Republican-controlled House, not to mention the ideologically diverse Senate, appears hopelessly inhospitable to accomplishing something huge.
As Mr. Obama all but acknowledged Monday, big bipartisan legislative dreams seem all but certain to be miniaturized as incremental policy visions.
“My preference would have been to solve all these problems in the context of a larger agreement, a bigger deal, a grand bargain, whatever you want to call it,” he said. “Maybe we can do it in stages. We’re going to solve this problem instead in several steps.”
Republicans appear to agree. “We’ll continue to work on smart ways to cut spending,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said on the Senate floor. “But let’s not let that stand in the way.”
The list of unrealized goals from Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner’s last attempt at a grand bargain two weeks ago are breathtaking in their number, particularly when compared with the probable outcome of these final Congressional negotiations. Ambitious plans to overhaul the individual tax code, tackle corporate rates, revamp the Medicare program and possibly consider changes in Social Security appear to have given way mainly to a tax increase for big earners.
Members in both the House and the Senate said perhaps that was O.K.
“We can’t do the task all at once,” said Senator John Hoeven, Republican of North Dakota. “I pushed for a big deal, but in this case this time we can only get the tax piece done, so we need to move we need to get it done.”
The downside of incrementalism is apparent every month in Washington, as a new battle emerges and legislative Band-Aids are affixed to fiscal gunshot wounds.
While Congress appeared on Monday to be lurching to a deal to avoid significant tax increases for millions of Americans, the emerging patchwork tax deal would push a series of fights into the next Congress, most of them very likely to be marked by the same 11th-hour, rancorous dynamics that have been the signature of every other fiscal deal.
Most pressing, Congress will have to come together as early as next month to lift the debt ceiling, which Republicans are already hoping to leverage to eke more spending cuts from Democrats. A similar fight almost led to default in 2011, and damaged the nation’s credit rating.
In March, Congress will spar again over a short-term spending agreement to keep the government open, the same sort that led to a near shutdown almost two years ago. It appeared on Monday that scheduled spending cuts to the Pentagon and other parts of government — the result of last year’s debt ceiling agreement — will be delayed for two months, yet another short-term kick of the can. Republicans and Democrats will most likely revisit the recurring question of revenues versus spending cuts when those two months are up.
Because the sharply divided 112th Congress and the White House repeatedly eschewed large-scale deals in favor of quick fixes, myriad bills left undone will be in the hands of the 113th Congress, set to convene at noon Thursday.
The legislation includes a farm bill to replace the one that has expired, a lapse that may result in soaring milk prices; a transportation bill; a funding mechanism to supplement the waning gas tax reserves to meet infrastructure needs; and even a measure, once completely uncontroversial, to prevent domestic violence.
Also left to the new year is a bill to help states hit by Hurricane Sandy. The Senate passed such a measure last week, but House Republicans, as has been the case with every disaster relief bill in this Congress, disagree with Democrats on its level of spending, and a final deal seems unlikely until the next Congress. The House was also set to vote on Tuesday on a quickie measure to deal with dairy prices.
Doing business in pieces may end up a productive formula — in the sense that walking 100 miles will still transport a person absent an airplane or a bus — but many outside Congress do not think such halting forward motion should be confused with actual success.
“That’s the nature of the dysfunction,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton. “For the parties, it gives them temporary cover and to fight again on the issues in the next few months. The parties please their base, but the country does not get a solution.”
But that seems to be the nature of what constitutes progress in such a sharply divided political world.
December 31, 2012
Chief Justice Prods Congress to Resolve Budget Talks and Control National Debt
By ADAM LIPTAK
WASHINGTON — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. used his year-end report on the federal judiciary to give Congressional budget negotiators a little nudge.
“Our country faces new challenges, including the much-publicized ‘fiscal cliff’ and the longer-term problem of a truly extravagant and burgeoning national debt,” he wrote. “No one seriously doubts that the country’s fiscal ledger has gone awry. The public properly looks to its elected officials to craft a solution.”
The chief justice said that his branch of the government provided an example of doing much with few resources. The federal judiciary makes do with a budget appropriation of about $7 billion, he wrote, “a mere two-tenths of 1 percent of the United States’ total budget of $3.7 trillion.”
“Yes,” he went on, “for each citizen’s tax dollar, only two-tenths of one penny goes toward funding the entire third branch of government!”
In the report, Chief Justice Roberts said the judiciary was doing what it could to cut costs in rent, salaries and computer services. The Supreme Court “continues to set a good example,” he said, asking for a smaller appropriation in the last fiscal year than in the previous one. This fiscal year, the request rose slightly, “largely in response to new judicial security needs,” he said. He did not elaborate.
An appendix to the chief justice’s report on the workload of the federal courts showed decreases in the Supreme Court’s docket and in the number of cases it is deciding. In the term that ended last year, the number of requests for Supreme Court review dropped by almost two percent from the previous term. The justices issued just 64 signed opinions in the most recent term, down from 75.
The federal courts went to great lengths last year in trying circumstances, notably after Hurricane Sandy. “As just one example,” he said, “the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York conducted emergency hearings in Lower Manhattan the day after the storm hit, working in a building without heat or hot water that was only sparsely lit by gas-fueled emergency generators.” Though Chief Justice Roberts did not say so, the Supreme Court also showed fortitude the day the storm hit, hearing arguments when the rest of official Washington was closed.
He called on President Obama and Congress “to be especially attentive to the needs of the judicial branch and provide the resources necessary to its operation.”
“Because the judiciary has already pursued cost containment so aggressively, it will become increasingly difficult to economize further without reducing the quality of judicial services,” he wrote. “Virtually all of the judiciary’s core functions are constitutionally and statutorily required. Unlike executive branch agencies, the courts do not have discretionary programs they can eliminate or projects they can postpone.”
The number of judicial vacancies does not help matters, he went on. “At the close of 2012, 27 of the existing judicial vacancies are designated as presenting judicial emergencies,” he wrote. “I urge the executive and legislative branches to act diligently in nominating and confirming highly qualified candidates to fill those vacancies.”
Fiscal cliff: America goes to the brink, but millions already fell into poverty
By Heidi Moore, The Guardian
Tuesday, January 1, 2013 5:13 EST
Whatever the outcome of the political haggling, Congress has failed the 50 million Americans below the bread line
The one comfort of government incompetence is that it is never a surprise: it is, if anything, a starting point for the public’s expectations of Washington.
Still, even that certainty doesn’t pay the bills, and that is a problem for 2.1 million Americans who have been out of work for more than 27 weeks and will be cut off from unemployment insurance tonight. No matter what happens, the fiscal cliff talks have been a failure: Congress will not achieve a “grand bargain” to save Americans from the brunt of ill-considered, sweeping tax hikes and government spending cuts.
That’s why we’d be better off talking about the “fiscal conscience”, the era of which seems to be coming to a sharp end tonight. Unemployment is the American crisis you hear about; poverty is the one you don’t. And what the fiscal cliff covers up is what will be the slow transition of the US unemployment problem into a serious poverty problem.
The biggest failure of the fiscal conscience is the disregard for those unemployed Americans. Some of those 2.1 million Americans who stand to lose their benefits tonight only started collecting unemployment in July. Those who have been out of work for more than six months make up 40% of all the unemployed people in America.
The predicament of the long-term unemployed only has a passing relationship to the fiscal cliff. There happens to be no one in the government who can put their hand up and protect the unemployed. As Congress goes about wrecking confidence in the economy, there are other agencies that can pick up some of the slack.
The Treasury Department is finding room to avoid the debt ceiling. The Internal Revenue Service has said it will hold off on imposing tax increases. The Defense Department has promised it will do what it can to delay cuts.
But the unemployed have no one to protect their benefits. There is no agency to buy them some time: they are at the mercy of congressional bickering.
Nothing new. For the unemployed, the fiscal cliff is the final boot on the neck of their prospects, not the first time they’ve been knocked down by an aggressive Congress. Congress has been chipping away at unemployment benefits for well over a year.
Lawmakers in Washington have been pretending to pass “extensions” to unemployment benefits, but what they have really been doing is cutting them. From 2009 to 2011, when nearly one-sixth of the country was out of work, some Americans could receive 99 weeks of unemployment insurance. This year, Congress cut that maximum down to 73 weeks and, with the help of some states, put further barriers to unemployment insurance, including drug tests and national job search requirements.
This would make sense if unemployment insurance were taking money out of the pockets of other, worthier programs; but it’s not. American taxpayers and employers pay for unemployment insurance through taxes imposed on every paycheck. When the economy is good, and few people are unemployed, the government collects a surplus, because many people are paying the unemployment tax but few are collecting it.
In that case, unemployment taxes reduce the deficit, and no lawmakers complain. When economic times turn, however, Congress rounds on unemployment benefits as deficit-burning incentivization of laziness.
This congressional hostility towards unemployment benefits is misguided on a number of fronts. The most obvious is that employment and the economy are subject to cycles: if you’re caught in a bad cycle, just keep going until things get better. They always do. In fact, there’s already evidence that the labor market is improving, albeit at an excruciating pace.
The second problem is that the focus on unemployment benefits really covers up a bigger problem: what happens when they run out. Unemployment benefits are one economic rung above one of America’s economic plagues: growing poverty. This was an issue that briefly held the stage during the protests of Occupy Wall Street, but seems to have faded under the force of the election and the giddiness of a recovering economy and strong holiday shopping season.
The options for those without unemployment benefits are grim: unless they have family to fall back on, they have no money to pay their bills. They may immediately fall into poverty. That makes them eligible for food stamps and welfare benefits – which is a greater financial cost to government than unemployment benefits alone.
There are also other cuts embedded in the fiscal cliff that would hit the poor. Homelessness assistance would get cut by $156m, which would leave 146,000 people without a place to live, according to National Center on Family Homelessness. Another 185,000 low-income families would lose out on rental assistance.
Domestic violence programs will be cut, leaving over 100,000 families without emergency shelter services; another 170,000 people won’t get help for substance abuse. Over 400,000 people would lose out on job training and employment services.
This would occur at a time of peak poverty in the United States: the US census bureau found that 49.7 million Americans live in poverty. That number rose by 700,000 people between 2010 and 2011. Congress, always out of touch, incorrectly estimated that the number of people in poverty would not rise, but actually drop – actually drop – by 3.2 million people that year. That rift in expectations is the approximate gap between lawmakers and the real world.
That is why the fiscal cliff is not just about taxes and government spending. It’s about social conscience. The people who will be asked to be pay more in taxes are, largely, gainfully employed. But there are still 4.8 million Americans who count as long-term unemployed – that is, unemployed for more than 27 weeks – and their ranks are growing.
The fiscal cliff cuts were designed to be bad policy – so bad that no rational lawmaker would let them come to pass. Unfortunately, in the petty Washington game of score-settling and oneupmanship, rational lawmakers don’t seem to have much of a voice these days.
That’s not great for the middle class, but it’s even worse for the growing ranks of the poor.
© Guardian News and Media 2012
December 31, 2012
Employers Must Offer Family Care, Affordable or Not
By ROBERT PEAR
WASHINGTON — In a long-awaited interpretation of the new health care law, the Obama administration said Monday that employers must offer health insurance to employees and their children, but will not be subject to any penalties if family coverage is unaffordable to workers.
The requirement for employers to provide health benefits to employees is a cornerstone of the new law, but the new rules proposed by the Internal Revenue Service said that employers’ obligation was to provide affordable insurance to cover their full-time employees. The rules offer no guarantee of affordable insurance for a worker’s children or spouse. To avoid a possible tax penalty, the government said, employers with 50 or more full-time employees must offer affordable coverage to those employees. But, it said, the meaning of “affordable” depends entirely on the cost of individual coverage for the employee, what the worker would pay for “self-only coverage.”
The new rules, to be published in the Federal Register, create a strong incentive for employers to put money into insurance for their employees rather than dependents. It is unclear whether the spouse and children of an employee will be able to obtain federal subsidies to help them buy coverage — separate from the employee — through insurance exchanges being established in every state. The administration explicitly reserved judgment on that question, which could affect millions of people in families with low and moderate incomes.
Many employers provide family coverage to full-time employees, but many do not. Family coverage is much more expensive, and the employee’s share of the premium is typically much larger.
In 2012, according to an annual survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance averaged $5,615 a year for single coverage and $15,745 for family coverage. The employee’s share of the premium averaged $951 for individual coverage and more than four times as much, $4,316, for family coverage.
Starting in 2014, most Americans will be required to have health insurance. Low- and middle-income people can get tax credits to help pay their premiums, unless they have access to affordable coverage from an employer.
In its proposal, the Internal Revenue Service said, “Coverage for an employee under an employer-sponsored plan is affordable if the employee’s required contribution for self-only coverage does not exceed 9.5 percent of the employee’s household income.”
The rules, though labeled a proposal, are more significant than most proposed regulations. The Internal Revenue Service said employers could rely on them in making plans for 2014.
In writing the law, members of Congress often conjured up a picture of employees working year-round at full-time jobs. But in drafting the rules, the I.R.S. wrestled with the complex reality of part-time, seasonal and temporary workers.
In addition, the administration expressed concern that some employers might try to evade the new requirements by firing and rehiring employees, manipulating their work hours or using temporary staffing agencies. The rules include several provisions to prevent such abuse.
The law says an employer with 50 or more full-time employees may be subject to a tax penalty if it fails to offer coverage to “its full-time employees (and their dependents).”
Employers asked for guidance, and the Obama administration provided it, saying that a dependent is an employee’s child under the age of 26.
“Dependent does not include the spouse of an employee,” the proposed rules say.
Thus, employers must offer coverage to children of an employee, but do not have to make it affordable. And they do not have to offer coverage at all to the spouse of an employee.
The administration said that the rules — which apply to private businesses, nonprofit organizations and state and local government agencies — would require changes at many work sites.
“A number of employers currently offer coverage only to their employees, and not to dependents,” the I.R.S. said. “For these employers, expanding their health plans to add dependent coverage will require substantial revisions to their plans.”
In view of this challenge, the agency said it would grant a one-time reprieve to employers who fail to offer coverage to dependents of full-time employees, provided they take steps in 2014 to come into compliance. Under the rules, employers must offer coverage to employees in 2014 and must offer coverage to dependents as well, starting in 2015.
The new rules apply to employers that have at least 50 full-time employees or an equivalent combination of full-time and part-time employees. A full-time employee is a person employed on average at least 30 hours a week. And 100 half-time employees are considered equivalent to 50 full-time employees.
Thus, the government said, an employer will be subject to the new requirement if it has 40 full-time employees working 30 hours a week and 20 half-time employees working 15 hours a week.
Originally published Monday, December 31, 2012 at 11:40 AM
Intelligence agencies faulted for Libya fallout
By LARRY MARGASAK
A Senate report has found that the White House did not make major changes in the talking points that administration officials used after the attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya. Some Republicans had questioned whether the president's staff rewrote the statements for political reasons.
Instead, the report cited changes made by intelligence agencies, including the FBI and the CIA, in its probe of the origin of confusing explanations that came from the Obama administration.
The report issued Monday by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said the White House was only responsible for a minor change.
The committee, led by independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, also said the director of national intelligence has been stonewalling the panel in holding back a promised timeline of the talking point changes.
The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans were killed in the Sept. 11 attack. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said she used the talking points to say in television interviews on Sept. 16 that the attack may have been a protest that got out of hand.
Rice's incorrect explanation may have cost her a chance to be nominated as the next secretary of state, as Senate Republicans publicly said they would not vote to confirm her. President Barack Obama instead nominated Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is expected to win easy confirmation.
The State Department last month acknowledged major weaknesses in security and errors in judgment exposed in a scathing independent report on the assault. Two top State officials appealed to Congress to fully fund requests to ensure diplomats and embassies are safe.
Testifying before two congressional committees, senior State Department officials acknowledged that serious management and leadership failures left the diplomatic mission in Benghazi woefully unprepared for the terrorist attack. The State Department review board's report led four department officials to resign.
The Senate report said that on Sept. 19, eight days after the attack, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen told the Homeland committee that the four Americans died "in the course of a terrorist attack."
The same day, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the department stood by the intelligence community's assessment. The next day, Sept. 20, presidential spokesman Jay Carney said, "It is, I think, self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack." Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also used the words "terrorist attack" on Sept. 21.
Olsen's acknowledgement was important, the report said, because talking points prepared by intelligence officials the previous week had undergone major changes.
A line saying "we know" that individuals associated with al-Qaida or its affiliates participated in the attacks was changed to say, "There are indications that extremists participated."
The talking points dropped the reference to al-Qaida and its affiliates altogether. In addition, a reference to "attacks" was changed to "demonstrations."
The committee said the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, and representatives from the CIA, State Department, National Counterterrorism Center and FBI told the panel that the changes were made within the CIA and the intelligence community. The change from "we know" there was an al-Qaida connection to "indications" of connections to "extremists" was requested by the FBI.
The report said the only White House change substituted a reference of "consulate" to "mission."
Intelligence officials differed over whether the al-Qaida reference should remain classified, the report said. It added, however, that the analyst who drafted the original talking points was a veteran career analyst in the intelligence community who believed it was appropriate to include a reference to al-Qaida in the unclassified version.
The analyst came to that conclusion because of claims of responsibility by a militant group, Ansar al-Sharia.
The committee said Clapper offered to provide the committee a detailed timeline on the development of the talking points. Despite repeated requests, the committee said the information has not been provided.
"According to a senior IC (intelligence community) official, the timeline has not been delivered as promised because the administration has spent weeks debating internally whether or not it should turn over information considered `deliberative' to the Congress," the report said.
The report added that if the administration had described the attack as a terrorist assault from the outset, "there would have been much less confusion and division in the public response to what happened there on Sept. 11, 2012."
"The unnecessary confusion ... should have ended much earlier than it did," the committee said.
December 31, 2012
F.D.A. Approves Drug for Resistant Tuberculosis
By KATIE THOMAS
The Food and Drug Administration announced on Monday that it had approved a new treatment for multidrug-resistant tuberculosis that can be used as an alternative when other drugs fail.
The drug, to be called Sirturo, was discovered by scientists at Janssen, the pharmaceuticals unit of Johnson & Johnson, and is the first in a new class of drugs that aims to treat the drug-resistant strain of the disease.
Tuberculosis is a highly infectious disease that is transmitted through the air and usually affects the lungs but can also affect other parts of the body, including the brain and kidneys. It is considered one of the world’s most serious public health threats. Although rare in the United States, multidrug-resistant tuberculosis is a growing problem elsewhere in the world, especially in poorer countries. About 12 million people worldwide had tuberculosis in 2011, according to Johnson & Johnson, and about 630,000 had multidrug-resistant TB.
A study in September in The Lancet found that almost 44 percent of patients with tuberculosis in countries like Russia, Peru and Thailand showed resistance to at least one second-line drug, or a medicine used after another drug had already failed.
Treating drug-resistant tuberculosis can take years and can cost 200 times as much as treating the ordinary form of the disease
“This is quite a milestone in the story of therapy for TB,” Dr. Paul Stoffels, the chief scientific officer at Johnson & Johnson, said in an interview. He said the approval was the first time in 40 years that the agency had approved a drug that attacked tuberculosis in a different way from the current treatments on the market. Sirturo works by inhibiting an enzyme needed by the tuberculosis bacteria to replicate and spread throughout the body.
Sirturo, also known as bedaquiline, would be used on top of the standard treatment, which is a combination of several drugs. Patients with drug-resistant tuberculosis often must be treated for 18 to 24 months.
Even as it announced the approval, however, the F.D.A. also issued some words of caution.
“Multidrug-resistant tuberculosis poses a serious health threat throughout the world, and Sirturo provides much-needed treatment for patients who have don’t have other therapeutic options available,” Edward Cox, director of the office of antimicrobial products in the F.D.A.’s center for drug evaluation and research, said in a statement. “However, because the drug also carries some significant risks, doctors should make sure they use it appropriately and only in patients who don’t have other treatment options.”
The consumer advocacy group Public Citizen opposed approval in a letter to the F.D.A. in mid-December, saying that the results of a limited clinical trial showed that patients using bedaquiline were five times as likely to die than those on the standard drug regimen to treat the disease.
“Given that bedaquiline belongs to an entirely new class of drugs, it is entirely feasible that death in some cases was due to some unmeasured toxicity of the drug,” the letter said.
Sirturo carries a so-called black box warning for patients and health care professionals that the drug can affect the heart’s electrical activity, which could lead to an abnormal and potentially fatal heart rhythm. The warning also notes deaths in patients treated with Sirturo. Nine patients who received Sirturo died compared with two patients who received a placebo. Five of the deaths in the Sirturo group and all of the deaths in the placebo arm seemed to be related to tuberculosis, but no consistent reason for the deaths in the remaining Sirturo-treated patients could be identified.
Doctors Without Borders and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, both active in the fight against tuberculosis and other global diseases, applauded the F.D.A.’s decision.
Jan Gheuens, interim director of the TB Program for the Gates Foundation, called it a “long-awaited event” and said the fight against TB had not benefited from new drugs in the way H.I.V. had. Beyond the benefits of the drug itself, he said the quick approval process could be a model for other drugs sorely needed in the developing world.
He also suggested, however, that more trials should be conducted to get a better understanding of the side effects that led to the black box warning.
The F.D.A. approved bedaquiline under an accelerated program that allows the agency to conditionally approve drugs that are viewed as filling unmet medical needs with less than the usual evidence that they work. The drug’s approval was based on studies that showed it killed bacteria more quickly than a control group taking the standard regimen, but it did not measure whether in the end patients actually fared better on bedaquiline. Johnson & Johnson will conduct larger clinical trials to investigate whether the drug performs as predicted.
In a statement responding to Public Citizen’s letter, a spokeswoman for Johnson & Johnson said the company was committed to supporting appropriate use of Sirturo and would “work to ensure Sirturo is used only where treatment alternatives are not available.”
Dr. Stoffels said the hope was that other new tuberculosis drugs would also be approved that, when used in combination with bedaquiline, could shorten and simplify the current standard of treatment. “That is still a long time away,” he acknowledged, but “this is a first step in a new regimen for TB.”
December 31, 2012
As Pheasants Disappear, Hunters in Iowa Follow
By JOHN ELIGON
ELKHART, Iowa — Mike Wilson glared dejectedly through the mist on his silver-frame glasses at the soggy field of tall, dense brush, tilting the barrel of his 12-gauge shotgun toward the gray clouds.
“All I want to do,” he said, “is see a bird at this point.”
More than two hours into this pheasant hunt, the colorful rooster that one of Mr. Wilson’s hunting partners had shot that morning was now a distant memory. Only one other pheasant had graced the skies since, and it was too far off to even try a shot.
The pheasant, once king of Iowa’s nearly half-a-billion-dollar hunting industry, is vanishing from the state. Surveys show that the population in 2012 was the second lowest on record, 81 percent below the average over the past four decades.
The loss, pheasant hunters say, is both economic and cultural. It stems from several years of excessively damp weather and animal predators. But the factor inciting the most emotion is the loss of wildlife habitat as landowners increasingly chop down their brushy fields to plant crops to take advantage of rising commodity prices and farmland values.
Over the last two decades, Iowa has lost more than 1.6 million acres of habitat suitable for pheasants and other small game, the equivalent of a nine-mile-wide strip of land stretching practically the width of the state. And these declines have been occurring nationwide.
The overall amount of land enrolled in the Agriculture Department’s Conservation Reserve Program has dipped to 29.5 million acres from a peak of 36.7 million in 2007. Under the program, the government pays owners a certain rate to plant parts of their land with grass and other vegetation that create a wildlife habitat. Land in the program is most suitable for pheasants and other upland game, and owners often make it available for hunting. But as the price of corn and other crops has risen, so have land values, and the rates paid by the government under the program have been unable to keep up.
Each of the top seven pheasant hunting states have seen sizable reductions in the number of pheasants shot and the number of pheasant hunters over the last five years, according to data provided by Pheasants Forever, a group advocating for the expansion of wildlife habitat and land for public hunting. Last year, there were more than 1.4 million pheasant hunters nationally, a drop of about 800,000 in two decades.
“We’re at a tipping point, and we have to decide how important it is to keep traditions for upland bird hunting alive and into the future,” said David E. Nomsen, the vice president of government affairs for Pheasants Forever.
Federal wildlife officials say the money that sportsmen and -women pump into the local communities is vital. More than $33.7 billion was spent on hunting in 2011, including $2.5 billion on small game, which includes pheasants.
“In these times of fiscal restraint, when budgets are being slashed, we need to do all we can to make sure hunting and fishing remain viable pastimes,” Daniel M. Ashe, the director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an e-mail.
In Iowa, the issue essentially has pitted the interests of the state’s recreational industry against its biggest economic driver, farming.
Among farmers, “it’s being passed down, from generation to generation, ‘How much can you get out of this land?’ ” said Mr. Wilson, the pheasant hunter, a 49-year-old former naval officer who hunts about three times a week. “ ‘Yes, you’ve got to take care of it — blah, blah, blah — but how much can you make for your family out of this piece of land?’ It’s not about ‘Is little Billy going to grow up to be a hunter?’ anymore.”
Bruce Rohwer, the president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association, said he believed that farmers were as concerned as ever about being good stewards of the land and allowing natural habitats to bloom where they would prevent soil erosion and water contamination. But farmers also have to contend with economic realities, he said.
“As much as some people have romantic ideas that farming is just something that happens,” he said, “it is the way in which we make a living, so you have to consider all factors.”
In 2011, there were just fewer than 46,000 pheasant hunters in the state, about one-fifth the number 25 years ago. The state used to average 50,000 out-of-state pheasant hunters a year, but that number was down to 8,800 in 2010. Iowa hunters shot 108,905 pheasants in 2011, compared with more than a million in 2003.
The economic benefit of pheasant hunting in Iowa fell to $135 million in 2006 — the most recent figure available — from $200 million in 1996, and it has most likely dropped even further since. This impact was in stark relief on a recent morning at a diner in Ankeny. Amid several empty tables, Jared F. Wiklund, a regional representative for Pheasants Forever, explained that the restaurant used to be packed during pheasant season. A waitress overheard the conversation and chimed in that she had only one table on opening weekend in October. The season in Iowa ends Jan. 10.
One of the problems in Iowa, hunting advocates said, is that less than 1.5 percent of the state’s land is public (where people can hunt for free), ranking near the bottom in the country. While private landowners generally do not charge people to hunt pheasants in Iowa, there are fears that could change as more landowners lease out parcels for hunting deer and other game.
Land has become so sparse in Iowa that some natives have dared to venture out of state to hunt pheasants.
“It is a hard decision,” said Kent Rupiper, 49, who owns 170 acres of hunting land in Iowa but has hunted out of state. “I’d rather support the local economy if I could.”
But things have changed since his childhood, he said, when “we could go anywhere and shoot our limit of birds.”
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, traveled to the state in October to announce the allocation of 400,000 acres nationwide — including more than 92,000 in Iowa — to specifically create habitat for species like pheasants and quail. But landowners may not begin enrolling new property in the program until Congress reaches agreement on the stalled farm bill, and that uncertainty was the biggest impediment to conservation efforts, Mr. Vilsack said.
Himself a hunter, Mr. Vilsack said the sport had a crucial place in rural American life.
“Oftentimes what happens in a hunt, stories are told, people relax, you see your father or your grandfather or your son or your daughter in a different light,” he said. “It’s really about values.”
December 31, 2012
1991 Victory Over Iraq Was Swift, but Hardly Flawless
By MICHAEL R. GORDON
WASHINGTON — As the 1991 Persian Gulf war drew to a close, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf told an anxious nation that an American-led juggernaut had swept across the desert, stunned its foe and evicted Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait.
“We’ve accomplished our mission,” the commander declared in a presentation deemed such a tour de force that it was known as “the mother of all briefings.”
“The gate is closed,” he added confidently, on Iraq’s “war machine.”
Now, General Schwarzkopf’s death, and the hospitalization of former President George Bush, 88, have returned the spotlight to the war they prosecuted together, which some of its architects have cast as a model for a successful intervention abroad.
The gulf war appeared to have it all: a foreign tyrant who committed an indisputable act of aggression, a president who rallied the international community to roll back the occupation of a defenseless oil-rich nation, and an American military eager to prove itself in its most demanding test since Vietnam.
For some former officials it was, plain and simple, the “good war” — a war that set limited objectives against an invader, was waged in a mere six weeks and was then punctuated by victory parades. The battles yet to come, more open-ended conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, proved to be far more costly in lives and treasure.
And yet the Persian Gulf war occupies a more complex place in military history than the hagiography suggests. The generalship was not without its faults, and the White House decision to bring the conflict to a close before all of Mr. Hussein’s Republican Guard divisions were destroyed has remained a subject of debate, even among ranking officers who were on the battlefield.
The 1991 gulf conflict may have been a “war of necessity,” as its supporters say, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq a “war of choice.” But it was the outcome of the first gulf war, which left Mr. Hussein in power and forced the United States to carry out more than a decade of air patrols over northern and southern Iraq, that presented the United States with that choice.
The act that precipitated the gulf conflict was Mr. Hussein’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, an attack that caught the White House flat-footed despite intelligence warning of the Iraqis’ military preparations.
The first task was the defense of Saudi Arabia, which General Schwarzkopf’s command took on from a position of considerable disadvantage. His Central Command, based in Tampa, Fla., had no forces to speak of in the region, or even a regional headquarters.
As the months went by, the planning shifted to offense as Mr. Bush and his team set their sights on evicting Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
Mr. Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III secured the backing of the United Nations Security Council and garnered broad international support. Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and even Syria were part of the fighting coalition.
Maintaining support at home was more challenging. The Senate resolution authorizing the use of force was adopted by a narrow vote of 52 to 47. (Senators Al Gore of Tennessee, Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Harry Reid of Nevada were among the Democrats who voted for the measure, but Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware voted “no,” as did Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia.)
Iraq had a formidable arsenal of chemical weapons. Yielding to American warnings, the Iraqis did not employ poison gas. But nobody on the American side could be sure it would not be used.
Guided by Gen. Colin L. Powell, who was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the United States assembled an overwhelming force. The four-day ground war was preceded by more than five weeks of bombardment.
When the shooting ended, it was clear that the all-volunteer military had been a success. Stealth aircraft and precision weapons had proved themselves on the battlefield. Though the United States deployed about 540,000 personnel, 148 were killed in action or died of their wounds, according to the Defense Department.
Importantly, the ghosts of Vietnam had been exorcised. For the first time since that bloody war in Southeast Asia, the United States armed forces demonstrated that they could win a major land war in a foreign land.
Still, the gulf war was not as decisive as some of its proponents had hoped.
Trying to secure their hold on Kuwait, Iraqi commanders had erected a defense in depth. The most expendable Iraqi forces were arrayed in southern Kuwait behind mine belts, sand berms and oil-filled ditches that were set aflame.
Iraq’s armored and mechanized forces were arrayed in the interior of Kuwait, along with considerable artillery. Behind them were Republican Guard divisions, the best-equipped and most loyal units in Mr. Hussein’s army.
Iraq’s plan was to bloody the American forces as they pushed north into Kuwait so that the Republican Guard troops could deliver decisive blows.
General Schwarzkopf sought to turn the Iraqi strategy on its head. The plan was for the Marines, fortified by an American armored brigade, to attack into Kuwait and draw the attention of Iraqi commanders. A Marine amphibious force afloat would also be used as a feint to tie down Iraqi troops.
Then the Army’s VII Corps, which was deployed to the west of the Marines in Saudi Arabia and reinforced by a British division, would outflank the Republican Guard forces. The Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps, which was deployed in the far western desert in Saudi Arabia and reinforced by the French, would also participate in the envelopment, which became known as “the left hook.”
The goal was not merely to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait but also to destroy the Republican Guard units in order to deprive Iraq of the ability to menace Kuwait and other gulf states in the future.
But the American strategy did not entirely work as planned. Instead of being lured into a kill zone, many of the Republican Guard troops began to flee. General Schwarzkopf found it difficult to accelerate the main Army attack, and the war tuned into a race.
The Army’s 24th Mechanized Infantry Division and 101st Airborne Division were beginning to catch up and hoped to bottle up the fleeing Republican Guard forces near Basra, in southern Iraq.
At a 2011 conference at Texas A&M University, Walter E. Boomer, the retired general who led the Marine attack into Kuwait, recalled that he had told General Schwarzkopf over the radio that his Marines were also prepared to pursue the fleeing Iraqi forces.
“I said, ‘We’re poised to launch for Basra, and we will police up the rest of these folks if you want us to,’ ” General Boomer said. “He said, ‘Stand by.’ And then the next message that I received was not directly from him but through my headquarters that we had in fact stopped.”
With American warplanes attacking Iraqi columns fleeing Kuwait City, Mr. Bush was eager to avoid the charge of piling on. He decided to end the ground war at 100 hours, with the strong encouragement of General Powell.
General Schwarzkopf supported the decision, though it later emerged that amid the confusion on the battlefield not even he knew the precise location of some of the attacking American units.
“On balance, we had accomplished the mission,” General Powell said at the conference. “The Iraqi Army was fleeing. And it is easy to say, ‘Well, you should have just kept killing.’ But this is an army that we did not want to totally destroy.”
But General Boomer offered a different perspective in a 2011 interview with a North Carolina radio station. “I continue to be asked if we stopped too soon,” he said. “The answer in retrospect is ‘yes.’ ”
According to American intelligence, half of the Republican Guard tanks escaped as of March 1, 1991. Significantly, headquarters units also survived, and this helped Iraqi generals reconstitute their forces and put down the Shiite uprising that began in the south afterward.
At cease-fire talks that were held in Safwan, Iraq, General Schwarzkopf agreed to an Iraqi request that the Iraqi military be allowed to fly helicopters in southern Iraq because so many bridges had been destroyed. But the Iraqi military abused this concession by using the helicopters to attack the Shiite insurgents. The United States, along with its British and French allies, did not establish a no-fly zone in southern Iraq until August 1992.
Ousting Mr. Hussein would have gone beyond the formal mandate for the military campaign, and Mr. Bush and his aides were determined not to march on Baghdad and take on the burden of occupation, a decision supported by Dick Cheney, who was Mr. Bush’s secretary of defense. But declassified memorandums from Mr. Bush’s presidential archives made clear that he had hoped the war would facilitate the dictator’s exit.
In a discussion with Mr. Bush on Nov. 19, 1991, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, delivered a message from King Fahd, the Saudi monarch. “We have a lot to do to finish with Iraq,” Prince Bandar said.
“Tell him not to worry,” Mr. Bush replied. “We must do whatever it takes to get rid of the guy. Tell him we are not changing one bit. We are talking about ways of undermining him. There will be no letting up on sanctions or inspections. We are looking into what we can do with broadcasts. We will not go back to the status quo ante.”
« Last Edit: Jan 01, 2013, 08:53 am by Rad »
Delhi gang-rapists tried to run victim over with bus after attack
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, January 2, 2013 6:03 EST
A gang of rapists who assaulted and murdered a woman on a bus in New Delhi last month tried to run her over with the vehicle after the attack, reports said, citing a grisly police account of the incident.
Her boyfriend, who was beaten up and thrown off the bus after the girl had been repeatedly raped, managed to pull her to safety just in time, police are set to allege in a 1,000-page charge sheet to be presented in court on Thursday.
The 23-year-old female medical student, whose ordeal has brought simmering anger about widespread sex crime in India to the boil, bit three of her attackers as she attempted to fight them off, local newspapers and TV reports said.
These injuries on the suspects, as well as forensic evidence such a blood, semen and hair samples and the testimony of the injured boyfriend, are expected to form the main evidence against the accused, reports and police sources said.
Five men have been arrested and are expected on Thursday to formally face murder and rape charges in a fast-track court set up to try them. A sixth suspect is aged 17 and is expected to be tried in a court for juveniles.
“The woman and her friend were stripped and thrown out of the bus,” The Indian Express reported. “Her friend pulled her away when he saw the bus reversing to run her over.”
The Times of India newspaper said the charge sheet would likely begin with details on how the driver of the private vehicle, who allegedly took part in the rape, got his group of friends together and set out for a joyride.
One of the charges against the accused relates to the destruction of evidence, the paper said, since the driver had tried to wash the bus and had burned the clothes that were snatched from the victim.
The woman died at the weekend after a 13-day struggle to survive injuries so grievous that her intestines had to be removed. She also underwent three major surgeries and suffered a cardiac arrest before being flown to Singapore.
The brutality and horrific nature of the attack has led to protests in the capital and elsewhere, and has prompted calls for the death penalty for the rapists.
The government, which has faced a wave of public anger over the attack, on Tuesday set up a special 13-member committee to look into safety issues and review the functioning of Delhi police on a regular basis.
A panel to recommend changes to the criminal law dealing with sexual crimes was set up last week.
January 1, 2013The Unspeakable Truth About Rape in India
By SONIA FALEIRO
I LIVED for 24 years in New Delhi, a city where sexual harassment is as regular as mealtime. Every day, somewhere in the city, it crosses the line into rape.
As a teenager, I learned to protect myself. I never stood alone if I could help it, and I walked quickly, crossing my arms over my chest, refusing to make eye contact or smile. I cleaved through crowds shoulder-first, and avoided leaving the house after dark except in a private car. At an age when young women elsewhere were experimenting with daring new looks, I wore clothes that were two sizes too large. I still cannot dress attractively without feeling that I am endangering myself.
Things didn’t change when I became an adult. Pepper spray wasn’t available, and my friends, all of them middle- or upper-middle-class like me, carried safety pins or other makeshift weapons to and from their universities and jobs. One carried a knife, and insisted I do the same. I refused; some days I was so full of anger I would have used it — or, worse, had it used on me.
The steady thrum of whistles, catcalls, hisses, sexual innuendos and open threats continued. Packs of men dawdled on the street, and singing Hindi film songs, rich with double entendres, was how they communicated. To make their demands clear, they would thrust their pelvises at female passers-by.
If only it was just public spaces that were unsafe. In my office at a prominent newsmagazine, at the doctor’s office, even at a house party — I couldn’t escape the intimidation.
On Dec. 16, as the world now knows, a 23-year-old woman and a male friend were returning home after watching the movie “Life of Pi” at a mall in southwest Delhi. After they boarded what seemed to be a passenger bus, the six men inside gang-raped and tortured the woman so brutally that her intestines were destroyed. The bus service had been a ruse. The attackers also severely beat up the woman’s friend and threw them from the vehicle, leaving her to die.
The young woman didn’t oblige. She had started that evening watching a film about a survivor, and must have been determined to survive herself. Then she produced another miracle. In Delhi, a city habituated to the debasement of women, tens of thousands of people took to the streets and faced down police officers, tear gas and water cannons to express their outrage. It was the most vocal protest against sexual assault and rape in India to date, and it set off nationwide demonstrations.
To protect her privacy the victim’s name was not released publicly. But while she remains nameless, she did not remain faceless. To see her face, women had only to look in the mirror. The full measure of their vulnerability was finally understood.
When I was 26, I moved to Mumbai. A commercial and financial megalopolis, it has its own special set of problems, but has, culturally, been more cosmopolitan and liberal than Delhi. Giddy with my new freedom, I started to report from the red-light district and traveled across rough suburbs late at night — on my own and using public transit. It seemed that something good had come out of living in Delhi: I was so grateful for the comparatively safe environment of Mumbai that I took full advantage of it.
The young woman, however, will never have such an opportunity. On Saturday morning, 13 days after she was brutalized, this student of physical therapy, who had, no doubt, dreamt of improving lives, lost her own. She died of multiple organ failure.
India has laws against rape; seats reserved for women in buses, female officers; special police help lines. But these measures have been ineffective in the face of a patriarchal and misogynistic culture. It is a culture that believes that the worst aspect of rape is the defilement of the victim, who will no longer be able to find a man to marry her — and that the solution is to marry the rapist.
These beliefs aren’t restricted to living rooms, but are expressed openly. In the months before the gang rape, some prominent politicians had attributed rising rape statistics to women’s increasing use of cellphones and going out at night. “Just because India achieved freedom at midnight does not mean that women can venture out after dark,” said Botsa Satyanarayana, the Congress Party leader in the state of Andhra Pradesh.
Change is possible, but the police must document reports of rape and sexual assault, and investigations and court cases have to be fast-tracked and not left to linger for years. Of the more than 600 rape cases reported in Delhi in 2012, only one led to a conviction. If victims believe they will receive justice, they will be more willing to speak up. If potential rapists fear the consequences of their actions, they will not pluck women off the streets with impunity.
The volume of protests in public and in the media has made clear that the attack was a turning point. The unspeakable truth is that the young woman attacked on Dec. 16 was more fortunate than many rape victims. She was among the very few to receive anything close to justice. She was hospitalized, her statement was recorded and within days all six of the suspected rapists were caught and, now, charged with murder. Such efficiency is unheard-of in India.
In retrospect it wasn’t the brutality of the attack on the young woman that made her tragedy unusual; it was that an attack had, at last, elicited a response.
Sonia Faleiro is the author of “Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars.”
The Lede - The New York Times News Blog
December 31, 2012, 4:12 pmMourning for Rape Victim Recasts New Year’s Eve in India
By ROBERT MACKEY
As my colleague Sruthi Gottipati reports, thousands of protesters marched on Monday in New Delhi, pledging to "take back the night," as India remained in mourning for the 23-year-old victim of a gang rape who died on Saturday.
Thousands marching for gender justice on New Years eve. Many holding candles. #DelhiRape
- Sruthi Gottipati (@GoSruthi) 31 Dec 12
"The whole night is ours" protesters chant pouring out of JNU campus. "Reclaim Karo!"
- Sruthi Gottipati (@GoSruthi) 31 Dec 12
Monday night's march in the capital was the latest in a series of protests across India in recent days.
The Indian news channel IBN Live reported that New Year's Eve celebrations were scaled back or canceled in many parts of the country, replaced with protests, candlelight vigils and marches expressing widespread outrage at the failure to hold rapists accountable.
The death of the gang-rape victim came just days after an 18-year-old woman in Punjab State committed suicide by drinking poison after being raped by two men and then humiliated by male police officers. In the wake of the deaths, Indian women, who are long accustomed to "regular harassment and assault during the day and are fearful of leaving their homes alone after dark," poured into the streets to demand protection from the mainly male police force.
Pics:Women from Northeast #India came together in solidarity at #JantarMantar at recent #DelhiProtests http://t.co/qUb2e15k
- Binalakshmi Nepram (@BinaNepram) 31 Dec 12
Another Indian broadcaster, NDTV, also focused its coverage on the debate over sexual violence in the country on Monday, with a panel discussion of possible actions the government could take to address the crisis and an overview of the protests in recent days.
Watch here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ridI9tO3HtI&feature=player_embedded
And here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=2z1ZZ_c7_qA
India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
January 2, 2013, 3:33 am
In Mumbai, Privacy Is Hard to Come By
By NEHA THIRANI
On Marine Drive, a popular seafront area in Mumbai, you will invariably find a few couples cuddling on the wall facing the sea, seemingly oblivious to the blazing afternoon sun and the endless stream of cars just behind them. In this city of cramped homes and crowded public spaces, these couples will take whatever time alone that they can get, even if it's in full view of others.
This need for privacy has inspired a comprehensive study by Partners in Urban Knowledge, Action and Research (Pukar), an independent research collective based in Mumbai, which analyzed how the scarcity of space in the city has redefined the concept of privacy for the residents.
Among its findings, Pukar reported that a majority of the female respondents did not find public spaces accessible to them because of safety, sexual harassment, public perceptions and family restrictions.
The lack of open spaces in Mumbai has been the focus of much research and debate, even as the problem continues to worsen because of increasing development and a boom in construction. Earlier this year, a study carried out by the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Environment Improvement Society found that Mumbai has just 11.6 square miles of open space, with about nine square feet available per person.
"In this era of urbanization, cities have become stronger engines of growth than ever before," said Anita Patil-Deshmukh, the executive director at Pukar. "And that brings with it a whole host of problems. While certain problems are common to all global cities, the issue of privacy and public spaces is particularly relevant for Mumbai."
The Pukar study was commissioned as part of the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a traveling research team that deals with urban issues, which is based in the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai until Jan. 20. First conceptualized in December 2011, the study was conducted in and around greater Mumbai and includes 39 qualitative video and audio interviews, 800 surveys conducted in the homes of interviewees and in public spaces and photographic documentation.
"From our initial explorations in the city, the lab team thought it might be interesting to look into how people experienced private moments in Mumbai and how the meaning of privacy is different from the various places we all come from," said Aisha Dasgupta, one of the BMW Guggenheim Lab members in Mumbai. "We found that not only did the versions of privacy vary greatly across cultures, but also within Mumbai, approaches to privacy vary according to economic background."
One of the biggest themes that emerged from the study was the lack of access to public spaces: 87 percent of the women felt that public spaces are inaccessible to them. Out of those respondents, 22 percent cited safety as their biggest concern, while 18 percent said that they were afraid of "Eve teasing," or sexual harassment.
About 14 percent women said that they felt uncomfortable going to public spaces alone because of societal perception, while 11 percent cited family restrictions. "That collectively 25 percent women felt that they could not access public spaces because of the societal or familial judgment shows the deep-seated entrenched patriarchy we are dealing with," said Ms. Patil-Deshmukh. "Women still feel that if they go to a bar or a tea stall alone they will be considered loose women."
The study also revealed a rather surprising trend, as 53.5 percent of the respondents said that the place where they find time for themselves is home, followed by their workplace and their commute. Home was also the most popular place to meet partners or friends.
"In a city where the average size of the home is about 80 square feet, and the average size of the family is four people, this is rather shocking," said Ms. Patil-Deshmukh. However, she said that the respondents might have been inhibited in answering because their interviews were carried out in front of other family members.
The study also revealed the changing patterns of relationships in a new India shaped by growing international exposure and Western influences. When asked with whom they would like to spend time, 36 percent of the respondents said friends, while 26 percent said they wanted time for themselves.
About half of the respondents said that they needed privacy from their neighbors and family. "Given that Indian culture is so deeply people-oriented, and family, friends, neighbors and relatives traditionally play such a large part in society, one has to wonder if more and more globalization is making the younger generation more self-centered," said Ms. Patil-Deshmukh. "My sense is that this is more true for the younger generation than it was before."
The BMW Guggenheim Lab is working on a larger project covering 4,000 Mumbai residents. As part of the ongoing study, visitors to the lab at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum are also invited to participate in the survey.
Though similar studies have not yet been carried for other cities, the BMW Guggenheim Lab hopes to extend this research globally. The lab will soon introduce an online survey dealing with issues of privacy and public space. "It would interesting to see how the responses of people in very different cultural contexts compare," said Ms. Patil-Dasgupta.
Researchers at Pukar said some simple solutions can help increase the amount of open space in Mumbai, like the adoption of public parks and open spaces by private companies that will be asked to maintain the space in return for visibility. The authors of the study also proposed that specific public spaces be carved out for senior citizens and young children.
"I would like to send this study to the city planners, but I'm not confident they will make use of it since they are struggling with so many other issues," Ms. Patil-Deshmukh said. "A slum dweller I interviewed summed up the situation saying: 'If the government cannot give us a reasonable place to live in, what right do I have to ask for a public space like a park?' "
02 January 2013 - 12H33
Myanmar army uses airstrikes as conflict escalates
AFP - Myanmar's army has used air strikes against northern ethnic rebels, sources from both sides said Wednesday, in an escalation of a conflict that has raised doubts over the country's reform drive.
Fighting between the country's military, known as the 'Tatmadaw', and the armed wing of the KIO (Kachin Independence Organisation) has worsened in recent days as the army battled to regain one of its bases, a government negotiator involved in peace efforts told AFP.
"We heard the military used helicopters and training jets while trying to get their camp back," said Hla Maung Shwe, who is also an adviser to President Thein Sein.
He declined to specify how the aircraft were used, but a report on the military's Burmese language Myawaddy news website said a key base had been seized from the rebels on December 30 "with the help of air strikes in the region".
Tens of thousands of people have been displaced since June 2011, when a 17-year ceasefire between the government and Kachin rebels broke down.
The rebels are calling for greater political rights and an end to alleged human rights abuses by the army.
Clashes in Kachin, along with communal unrest in western Rakhine state, have cast a shadow over Myanmar's widely praised emergence from decades of army rule.
KIO deputy chief of foreign affairs Colonel James Lum Dau said that the fighting in Kachin had become "more serious" since last week, adding that it was concentrated in an area about seven miles (11 kilometres) from the rebel headquarters in Laiza on the Chinese border.
"Before they (attacked) with helicopters, now they are using jets with rockets and bombs," he said.
AFP was not able to independently verify whether the jets had been used to fire on the rebels.
A close observer of the situation, who asked not to be named, said there had been a "marked escalation" in fighting.
"They are firing a lot from helicopter gunships and using heavy artillery. It has been very close to the KIO headquarters," he said.
Civil war has gripped parts of Myanmar since independence from Britain in 1948.
Myanmar's new quasi-civilian government has reached tentative ceasefires with most of the country's other major ethnic rebel groups, but several rounds of talks aimed at resolving the conflict in the country's far north have shown little tangible progress.
Government spokesman Zaw Htay, who declined to give details of the latest fighting, said the Kachin rebels had not responded to an invitation for further dialogue.
The UN recently appealed to Myanmar to stop blocking aid to tens of thousands of displaced people in rebel-held territory in Kachin.
Myanmar prison art tells story of repression
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, January 2, 2013 5:11 EST
Painted on scraps of clothing with carved soap, cigarette lighters and even syringes, Htein Lin’s artworks were his lifeline during years in Myanmar jails — and the spark for an extraordinary love story.
“These paintings were really dangerous and also precious,” said the 46-year-old former student protest leader, who produced more than 200 works during his six-and-a-half years in jail under the junta.
“I really wanted to tell the government that locked me up for nothing: ‘you might have put me behind bars but you cannot imprison my creativity’,” he said.
Htein Lin was arrested in 1998 and imprisoned on the basis of an intercepted letter from a former “comrade” naming him as potentially still interested in opposition activity.
Jail was fraught with hardship such as beatings, solitary confinement and unsanitary conditions, but it also became his “studio”.
Using any material he could get his hands on Htein Lin — who had previously focused on performance art — channelled his creativity to express the injustices that were a part of life during decades of military rule.
With names like “Shadow of Hope”, “Back from the Chain Gang” and “Self Torture for 6 Years”, the paintings writhe with colour, depicting anything from contorted figures to abstract designs.
Held first in Mandalay prison and then at Myaungmya, close to his home town in the Irrawaddy delta region, the artist was able not only to receive the occasional batch of smuggled paint, but also to sneak the collection out.
The paintings are “strongly entwined with my life”, Htein Lin told AFP in Yangon on a recent rare visit to Myanmar, where political changes under a reformist government have raised hopes of a new era of openness.
After he was freed in 2004 the artist came to the attention of then-British ambassador Vicky Bowman, who visited him and persuaded him to let her take the paintings for his own security.
“When we met, she told me that these paintings were dangerous for me to keep and I should give them to her if I trusted her. So I gave them all to her — I really felt like I was giving her my whole life,” he said.
The meeting, the first of many as the pair catalogued the works, was to kindle a love affair between the diplomat and the dissident.
“She became my life,” said the artist.
The pair married in 2006 and live in London with their daughter.
Bowman was able to smuggle the paintings out of the country and the collection is now in Amsterdam at the International Institute of Social History.
In March Myanmar saw its first exhibition of works from former detained dissidents and organiser Tun Win Nyein, himself an ex-political prisoner, hopes the country will one day have its own museum devoted to prison art.
“We want to show the next generation what people went through for the country,” he told AFP.
Htein Lin said each painting tells the story of the people around him in prison — from the fellow political or criminal prisoners who donated their uniforms for canvasses, to the guards who helped smuggle in materials.
One piece, a geometric design called “Map of Rat”, was inspired by a guard who smuggled a batch of paintings out of prison but on seeing the images mistook them for escape plans and destroyed them.
On another occasion his jailers became suspicious and searched his cell, but failed to spot artwork under their noses.
“They were looking for something particular, with a frame, a portrait or something,” he said.
A trained lawyer, Htein Lin said he hopes the political reforms in his homeland mean he will one day be able to exhibit all his prison art in Myanmar.
He has so far resisted all offers to buy the paintings — even those from celebrity fans.
“The last one who wanted to buy these paintings was the singer Bono from U2. But I explained to him that I have to bring all these paintings back to the country one day,” he said.
“This was part of history. We should not forget.”
02 January 2013 - 08H58
Bashir agrees to Friday summit with S. Sudan: media
AFP - Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir has agreed to attend a summit on Friday with his South Sudanese counterpart to push stalled economic and security deals, official media said.
The meeting, which the SUNA news agency said is slated for the Ethiopian capital, would be the first since Bashir and South Sudan's President Salva Kiir late September signed the deals which they hailed as ending the conflict but which have not been put into effect.
The two countries fought along their undemarcated border in March and April.
In a report late Tuesday, SUNA said Bashir "has accepted the invitation" by Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to meet with Bashir in Addis Ababa.
Sudan's presidential press secretary, Emad Sayed Ahmed, told SUNA that the meeting would "discuss means of speeding up the implementation of the issues agreed upon at the summit between the two presidents" three months ago.
Khartoum accuses South Sudan of supporting rebels inside its territory, which has been a major obstacle to implementing the agreements.
The South, in turn, says Sudan backs rebels on southern soil.
Tensions have persisted along the border, most recently last week when Sudan's military said "armed groups" from South Sudan clashed with Arab tribesmen in Samaha, one of five areas disputed by Khartoum and the South's government in Juba.
Sudan considers the area, around the Bahr al-Arab River, to be part of its East Darfur state.
The Samaha incident prompted France to call for an end to fighting along the Sudan-South Sudan border, saying it could threaten efforts to normalise relations between the two states.
In late November Sudan's army said it attacked an area north of Samaha where rebels had had set up a compound, but South Sudan said bombs landed on its territory, killing several people.
The September deals called for a demilitarised border buffer zone and allowed for a resumption of South Sudanese oil exports through northern pipelines, a move vital for both economies.
They also said border points would be reopened for general trade.
South Sudan separated in July 2011 under a peace agreement that ended a 1983-2005 civil war.
January 2, 2013
Central African Republic Rebels Halt Advance
BANGUI (Reuters) - Rebels in Central African Republic said they had halted their advance on the capital on Wednesday and agreed to start peace talks, averting a clash with regionally backed troops in the mineral-rich nation.
The Seleka rebels had pushed to within striking distance of Bangui after a three-week onslaught and threatened to oust President Francois Bozize, accusing him of reneging on a previous peace deal and cracking down on dissidents.
Their announcement on Wednesday only gave the leader a limited reprieve as the fighters told Reuters they might insist on his removal in the negotiations.
"I have asked our forces not to move their positions starting today because we want to enter talks in (Gabon's capital) Libreville for a political solution," said Seleka spokesman Eric Massi, speaking by telephone from Paris.
"I am in discussion with our partners to come up with proposals to end the crisis, but one solution could be a political transition that excludes Bozize," he added.
The rebel advance was the latest in a series of revolts and coups in a country at the heart of one of Africa's most turbulent regions.
CAR remains severely underdeveloped despite its rich deposits of gold, diamonds and other minerals. French nuclear energy group Areva mines the Bakouma uranium deposit in CAR's south - France's biggest commercial interest in its former colony.
Diplomatic sources have said talks organized by central African regional bloc ECCAS could start on January 10.
RELIEF IN BANGUI
The United States, the European Union and France have called on both sides to negotiate and spare civilians.
News of the rebel halt eased tensions in Bangui, where residents had been stockpiling food and water and staying indoors after dark.
"They say they are no longer going to attack Bangui, and that's great news for us," said Jaqueline Loza in the crumbling riverside city. "It is best for everyone if all sides go to the negotiating table."
ECCAS members Chad, Congo Republic, Gabon and Cameroon have sent hundreds of troops to reinforce CAR's army after a string of rebel victories since early December.
Chad President Idriss Deby, one of Bozize's closest allies, had warned the rebels the regional force would confront them if they passed the town of Damara, about 75 km (45 miles) from the capital.
Bozize came to power in a 2003 rebellion whose fighting force was equipped and trained in Chad.
Central African Republic is one of a number of countries in the area where U.S. Special Forces are helping local soldiers track down the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group which has killed thousands of civilians across four nations.
About 1,200 French citizens live in CAR where they mostly work for aid groups or mining firms, and France has a 600-strong force in the country which it says it is using only to protect its nationals.
Paris used airstrikes to defend Bozize against a rebellion in 2006. But French President Francois Hollande turned down a request for more help, saying the days of intervening in other countries' affairs were over.
(Additional reporting by Paul-Marin Ngoupana; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Andrew Heavens)
January 1, 2013
Central African Republic: President Asks Rebels to Lay Down Arms
President François Bozizé on Tuesday urged rebels threatening to enter the capital to lay down their arms and let him complete the last three years of his term. “I will not be a candidate in the 2016 election, so let me finish my mandate,” he said in an address on state radio. “I only have three years left.” He also criticized his army for a string of defeats during the Seleka rebels’ three-week advance on the capital, Bangui, and thanked troops from neighboring Chad for intervening. The rebels, camped within 45 miles of Bangui, accuse Mr. Bozizé of reneging on a 2007 deal to give money and jobs to former rebels, and their leaders are now split over whether to accept an offer of new talks.
Netanyahu list losing ground to right-wing ‘Jewish Home’ ahead of January 22 election
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, January 2, 2013 4:46 EST
The joint list being fielded by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in this month’s snap elections is continuing to lose ground to the Jewish Home faction, a new poll showed on Wednesday.
The survey, published in the daily Haaretz, still puts the list combining Netanyahu’s Likud party and the Israel Beitenu faction far ahead of the opposition, three weeks before the January 22 poll.
But it found the list had slumped to an expected 34 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, down one from Haaretz’s last poll, and a drop of at least three seats from early projections.
By contrast, the national religious Jewish Home party, which holds just three seats in the current Knesset, is now expected to win at least 14 seats, according to the Haaretz poll.
That puts it just behind the Labour party, which is projected to win 16 seats, down one from Haaretz’s last poll.
The newspaper said Labour’s narrow lead over Jewish Home, as well as the national religious party’s soaring fortunes, could see the once-obscure faction become the second biggest player in the next Knesset.
That would be a stunning turn-around for the rightwing faction, which has seen a resurgence in popularity under its new leader Naftali Bennett.
Despite the surprise surge by Jewish Home, Netanyahu can still be assured another term as prime minister, with the Likud-Beitenu list far ahead of its competitors, and the rightwing bloc of parties guaranteed a clear majority.
The Haaretz poll showed the rightwing bloc winning around 67 seats to the leftwing’s 53 seats.
The main uncertainty remaining is over the composition of the next government, with Netanyahu likely to have to award several posts to Jewish Home in the wake of their electoral showing.
Likud members call for Israeli annexation of West Bank territories
Prominent members of ruling party urge annexation of 'Area C' as battle for rightwing votes intensifies before general election
Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 2 January 2013 12.34 GMT
Prominent members of Israel's ruling Likud party have proposed the annexation of part of the West Bank as the battle for rightwing votes intensifies before the general election in less than three weeks.
Government minister Yuli Edelstein told a conference in Jerusalem that the lack of Israeli sovereignty over Area C – the 60% of the West Bank under full Israeli military control in which all settlements are situated – "strengthens the international community's demand for a withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines".
Ze'ev Elkin, the chairman of the governing coalition, said Israel should adopt a "salami" approach to annexation. "We will try to apply sovereignty over as much as we can at any given moment," he said.
A third Likud member, extreme rightwing settler Moshe Feiglin, proposed that the state of Israel should pay Palestinian families to leave the West Bank, using funds earmarked for security measures. "We can give every family in Judea and Samaria [the biblical term for the West Bank] $500,000 [£307,000] to encourage to emigrate … This is the perfect solution for us," he said.
The comments, delivered at conference organised by a radical settlers' organisation, "removed the masks" of the Likud-Beiteinu electoral alliance, said Tzipi Livni, former foreign minister and leader of a new centrist party, Hatnua. "Likud-Beiteinu is extreme rightwing, and will lead to the destruction of Zionism and the establishment of a binational state," she said. The rightwing "will make Israel into a boycotted, isolated and ostracised state".
The Likud-Beiteinu alliance – led by the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and Avigdor Lieberman, who recently resigned as foreign minister ahead of a trial on fraud and breach of trust charges – is facing an unexpectedly strong challenge from Jewish Home, a party even further to the right and led by Netanyahu's former chief of staff, Naftali Bennett.
A series of polls over recent weeks has indicated that Jewish Home is gaining votes at the expense of Likud-Beiteinu. The latest survey, published in Haaretz on Wednesday, gave the alliance 34 out of 120 parliamentary seats, compared with 42 currently held by its two constituent parties. Jewish Home, whose policy is to annexe Area C of the West Bank, is predicted to take 14 seats, and could overtake Labour to become the second biggest party.
Despite Likud-Beiteinu's drop in the polls, Netanyahu is still on course to form the next coalition government. But the strength of Jewish Home's vote is likely to give it leverage in the coalition horse-trading that will follow the election on 22 January.
Many observers believe that a string of recent announcements by Netanyahu about expansion of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is an attempt to contain the loss of votes to Jewish Home.
Following the comments on annexation of the West Bank, Likud sources told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth: "These extreme statements are actually good for Netanyahu electorally. They serve him in the battle for the rightwing votes that have shifted from the Likud to the Jewish Home."
Bennett, 40, who served in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit of the Israeli military and is still a reservist, recently said he would go to jail rather than obey orders to evacuate settlements or outposts in the West Bank.
"If I receive an order to evict a Jew from his house and expel him, personally my conscience wouldn't allow it," he said. "Expelling people from this land is a terrible thing. I will work with all my soul and all my might not to let this happen."
However, he stopped short of encouraging soldiers to disobey orders.
According to the Haaretz poll, the rightwing bloc of parties is set to win 67 seats in the election, while the centre-left bloc, including Israeli-Arab parties, is on course to take 53 seats.
January 1, 2013
With U.S. Set to Leave Afghanistan, Echoes of 1989
By THOM SHANKER
WASHINGTON — The young president who ascended to office as a change agent decides to end the costly and unpopular war in Afghanistan. He seeks an exit with honor by pledging long-term financial support to allies in Kabul, while urging reconciliation with the insurgency. But some senior advisers lobby for a deliberately slow withdrawal, and propose leaving thousands of troops behind to train and support Afghan security forces.
This is a nearly exact description of the endgame conundrum facing President Obama as he prepares for a critical visit by Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, planned for early January.
But the account is actually drawn from declassified Soviet archives describing Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s closed-door struggles with his Politburo and army chiefs to end the Kremlin’s intervention in Afghanistan — one that began with a commando raid, coup and modest goals during Christmas week of 1979 but became, after a decade, what Mr. Gorbachev derided as “a bleeding wound.”
What mostly is remembered about the withdrawal is the Soviet Union’s humiliation, and the ensuing factional bloodletting across Afghanistan that threw the country into a vicious civil war. It ended with Taliban control and the establishment of a safe haven for Al Qaeda before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
But scholars who have studied the Soviet archives point out another lesson for the Obama administration as it manages the pullout of American and allied combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
“The main thing the Soviets did right was that they continued large-scale military assistance to the regime they left behind after the final withdrawal in ’89,” said Mark N. Katz, a professor at George Mason University and author of “Leaving Without Losing: The War on Terror After Iraq and Afghanistan” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).
“As long as the Afghan regime received the money and the weapons, they did pretty well — and held on to power for three years,” Mr. Katz said. The combat effectiveness of Kabul’s security forces increased after the Soviet withdrawal, when the fight for survival become wholly their own.
But then the Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991, and the new Russian leader, Boris N. Yeltsin, heeded urgings of the United States and other Western powers to halt aid to the Communist leadership in Afghanistan, not just arms and money, but also food and fuel. The Kremlin-backed government in Kabul fell three months later.
To be sure, there are significant contrasts between the two interventions in Afghanistan. The Soviet invasion and occupation were condemned as illegal aggression, while the American one was embraced by the international community, including Russia, as a “just war,” one with limited goals of routing the Taliban and eliminating Al Qaeda. That war of necessity has since evolved into a war of choice, one the Obama administration is working to end as quickly as is feasible.
Despite the differences going in, both the Soviet Union and the United States soon learned that Afghanistan is a land where foreigners aspiring to create nations in their image must combat not just the Taliban but tribalism, orthodoxy, corruption and a medieval view of women. As well, Pakistan has had interests at odds with those of the neighboring government in Afghanistan, whether Kabul was an ally of Moscow or of Washington.
“The Soviet Union did not understand religious and ethnic factors sufficiently, and overestimated the capacity of Afghan society to move very fast toward a modern era, in this case socialism,” said Svetlana Savranskaya, director of Russian programs at the National Security Archive, an independent research center at George Washington University.
“Here I see similarities with the approach of the United States, especially with all the discussion about trying to leave behind an Afghanistan that is democratic and respects the rights of women, ideas that simply are not accepted across the broad society there,” said Ms. Savranskaya, who has written extensively on the Soviet archives.
If the Soviet experience offers any guidance to the current American withdrawal, she said, it would be to accelerate the departure of foreign combat forces — but to leave in their place a “sustained, multiyear international involvement in military training, education and civilian infrastructure projects, and maybe not focusing on building democracy as much as improving the lives of the common people.”
And she noted that the United States should already be seeking partnership with Afghan leaders beyond Mr. Karzai, who is viewed across large parts of the population as tainted by his association with the Americans.
Pentagon officials have signaled that they are hoping for an enduring military presence of 10,000 or more troops, but may have to accept fewer, to cement the progress of the years of fighting. Those troops would focus on training and supporting Afghan forces along with a counterterrorism contingent to hunt Qaeda and insurgent leaders.
In a parallel, one of Mr. Gorbachev’s closest early confidants, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, the foreign minister, advocated a slow withdrawal pace — and pressed for 10,000 to 15,000 Soviet troops to remain to support the Communist government. The Soviets left only 300 advisers.
But after losing more than 15,000 Soviet troops and billions of rubles, the Kremlin knew it had to somehow justify the invasion and occupation upon withdrawal.
Mr. Gorbachev had “to face up to a difficult problem of domestic politics which has puzzled other nations finding themselves in similar circumstances,” Rodric Braithwaite, a former British ambassador to Moscow, wrote in “Afgantsy” (Oxford University Press, 2011), his book on the Soviet intervention based on Communist Party documents.
“How could the Russians withdraw their army safely, with honor, without looking as if they were simply cutting and running, and without appearing to betray their Afghan allies or their own soldiers who had died?” Mr. Braithwaite wrote of the internal Kremlin debate, in terms resonant of the Americans’ conundrum today.
Around the time of the Soviet withdrawal, an article by Pravda, the Communist Party mouthpiece, clutched for a positive view as the Soviet Army pulled out. Read today, it bears a resemblance to the news releases churned out by the Pentagon detailing statistics on reconstruction assistance.
“Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan repaired, rebuilt and constructed hundreds of schools, technical colleges, over 30 hospitals and a similar number of nursery schools, some 400 apartment buildings and 35 mosques,” the article said. “They sank dozens of wells and dug nearly 150 kilometers of irrigation ditches and canals. They were also engaged in guarding military and civilian installations in trouble.”
The Kremlin had learned that its armies could not capture political success, but Soviet commanders made the same claims upon withdrawal that are heard from NATO officers today: not a single battlefield engagement was lost to guerrillas, and no outpost ever fell to insurgents.
That understanding seemed to animate Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta as he toured Afghanistan recently in a traditional holiday visit with the troops.
At each stop, Mr. Panetta acknowledged that significant challenges remain to an orderly withdrawal and a stable postwar Afghanistan, and not just the resilient insurgency.
He cited unreliable Afghan governance, continuing corruption and the existence of insurgent safe havens in Pakistan. None of those are likely to be fixed with American firepower.
Keeping US consulate in Benghazi open was 'grievous mistake'
State Department accused in Senate committee's report into deadly attack in Libya
guardian.co.uk, Monday 31 December 2012 23.09 GMT
The State Department made a "grievous mistake" in keeping the US mission in Benghazi open despite inadequate security and increasingly alarming threat assessments in the weeks before a deadly attack by militants, a Senate committee said on Monday.
A report from the Senate homeland security committee on the 11 September attacks on the US consulate and a nearby CIA annex, in which Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans died, said intelligence agencies were at fault for not focusing tightly enough on Libyan extremists.
It also slated the State Department for waiting for specific warnings instead of improving security.
The committee's assessment, Flashing Red: A Special Report on the Terrorist Attack at Benghazi, follows a scathing report by an independent State Department accountability review board that resulted in a top security official resigning and three others at the department being relieved of their duties.
Joseph Lieberman, the independent senator who chairs the committee, said that in thousands of documents it reviewed, there was no indication that secretary of state Hillary Clinton had personally denied a request for extra funding or security for the Benghazi mission. He said key decisions were made by "mid-level managers" who have since been held accountable.
The attacks and the death of Stevens put diplomatic security practices at posts in risky areas under scrutiny and raised questions about whether intelligence about militant activity in Libya was adequate.
President Barack Obama said on Sunday that the US had "very good leads" about who carried out the attacks, but did not provide details. The FBI is investigating who was behind the assaults.
The Senate report said the lack of specific intelligence of an imminent threat in Benghazi "may reflect a failure" by intelligence agencies to focus closely enough on militant groups with weak or no operational ties to al-Qaida and its affiliates.
"With Osama bin Laden dead and core al-Qaida weakened, a new collection of violent Islamist extremist organisations and cells have emerged in the last two to three years," the report said. That trend has been seen in the Arab spring countries undergoing political transition or military conflict, it said.
The report recommended that US intelligence agencies "broaden and deepen their focus in Libya and beyond, on nascent violent Islamist extremist groups in the region that lack strong operational ties to core al-Qaida or its main affiliate groups."
The Senate committee said the State Department should not have waited for specific warnings before improving security in Benghazi.
It also said it was widely known that the post-revolution Libyan government was "incapable of performing its duty to protect US diplomatic facilities and personnel," but the State Department failed to fill the security gap. "That was a grievous mistake."
The Senate panel reviewed the changing comments made by the Obama administration after the attack, which led to a political firestorm in the runup to the November presidential election and resulted in Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, withdrawing her name from consideration to replace Clinton, who is stepping down.
Rice had said her initial comments that the attack grew out of a spontaneous protest over an anti-Islam film were based on information provided by intelligence agencies.
January 1, 2013
Used to Hardship, Latvia Accepts Austerity, and Its Pain Eases
By ANDREW HIGGINS
RIGA, Latvia — When a credit-fueled economic boom turned to bust in this tiny Baltic nation in 2008, Didzis Krumins, who ran a small architectural company, fired his staff one by one and then shut down the business. He watched in dismay as Latvia’s misery deepened under a harsh austerity drive that scythed wages, jobs and state financing for schools and hospitals.
But instead of taking to the streets to protest the cuts, Mr. Krumins, whose newborn child, in the meantime, needed major surgery, bought a tractor and began hauling wood to heating plants that needed fuel. Then, as Latvia’s economy began to pull out of its nose-dive, he returned to architecture and today employs 15 people — five more than he had before. “We have a different mentality here,” he said.
Latvia, feted by fans of austerity as the country-that-can and an example for countries like Greece that can’t, has provided a rare boost to champions of the proposition that pain pays.
Hardship has long been common here — and still is. But in just four years, the country has gone from the European Union’s worst economic disaster zone to a model of what the International Monetary Fund hails as the healing properties of deep budget cuts. Latvia’s economy, after shriveling by more than 20 percent from its peak, grew by about 5 percent last year, making it the best performer in the 27-nation European Union. Its budget deficit is down sharply and exports are soaring.
“We are here to celebrate your achievements,” Christine Lagarde, the chief of the International Monetary Fund, told a conference in Riga, the capital, this past summer. The fund, which along with the European Union financed a bailout of 7.5 billion euros for the country at the end of 2008, is “proud to have been part of Latvia’s success story,” she said.
When Latvia’s economy first crumbled, it wrestled with many of the same problems faced since by other troubled European nations: a growing hole in government finances, a banking crisis, falling competitiveness and big debts — though most of these were private rather than public as in Greece.
Now its abrupt turn for the better has put a spotlight on a ticklish question for those who look to orthodox economics for a solution to Europe’s wider economic woes: Instead of obeying any universal laws of economic gravity, do different people respond differently to the same forces?
Latvian businessmen applaud the government’s approach but doubt it would work elsewhere.
“Economics is not a science. Most of it is in people’s heads,” said Normunds Bergs, chief executive of SAF Tehnika, a manufacturer that cut management salaries by 30 percent. “Science says that water starts to boil at 100 degrees Celsius; there is no such predictability in economics.”
In Greece and Spain, cuts in salaries, jobs and state services have pushed tempers beyond the boiling point, with angry citizens staging frequent protests and strikes. Britain, Portugal, Italy and also Latvia’s neighbor Lithuania, meanwhile, have bubbled with discontent over austerity.
But in Latvia, where the government laid off a third of its civil servants, slashed wages for the rest and sharply reduced support for hospitals, people mostly accepted the bitter medicine. Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, who presided over the austerity, was re-elected, not thrown out of office, as many of his counterparts elsewhere have been.
The cuts calmed fears on financial markets that the country was about to go bankrupt, and this meant that the government and private companies could again get the loans they needed to stay afloat. At the same time, private businesses followed the government in slashing wages, which made the country’s labor force more competitive by reducing the prices of its goods. As exports grew, companies began to rehire workers.
Economic gains have still left 30.9 percent of Latvia’s population “severely materially deprived,” according to 2011 data released in December by Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency, second only to Bulgaria. Unemployment has fallen from more than 20 percent in early 2010, but was still 14.2 percent in the third quarter of 2012, according to Eurostat, and closer to 17 percent if “discouraged workers” are included. This is far below the more than 25 percent jobless rate in Greece and Spain but a serious problem nonetheless.
“I’m always asking people here, ‘How can you put up with this?’ ” said Juris Calitis, a Latvian-born Anglican chaplain whose family fled Soviet occupation in the 1940s and who returned when the Soviet empire crumbled.
“It is really shocking,” added Mr. Calitis, who runs a soup kitchen at his church in Riga’s old town. Latvians, he said, “should be shouting in the streets,” but “there is an acceptance of hard knocks.”
Latvia has certainly had plenty of those, enduring Soviet, Nazi and then renewed Soviet rule, learning that discontent is best kept quiet. After Moscow relinquished control in 1991, decrepit Soviet-era plants shut down, gutting the industrial base. The economy contracted by nearly 50 percent.
The collapse of Latvia’s largest bank in 1995 wiped out many people’s savings. Latvia then was hit by debris from Russia’s financial blowout in 1998. Then came a dizzying boom, fueled by a lending splurge by foreign, particularly Swedish, banks, followed by a catastrophic slump as credit froze when the global financial crisis swept into Europe in 2008.
“Conditions were very tough,” recalled Mr. Dombrovskis, but few people resisted his argument that harsh austerity offered the only way out.
In contrast to much of Europe, Latvia today has no tradition of labor activism. “What can you achieve in the street? It is cold and snowing,” said Peteris Krigers, president of the Free Trade Union Confederation of Latvia. Organizing strikes, he said, is nearly impossible. “It is seen as shameful for people who earn any salary, no matter how small, to go on strike.”
Also largely absent are the leftist political forces that have opposed austerity elsewhere in Europe, or the rigid labor laws that protect job security and wage levels. In the second half of 2010, after less than 18 months of painful austerity, Latvia’s economy began to grow again. Other European countries “should not miss this point,” said the prime minister, noting that the “debate in Europe often goes the opposite way: that austerity destroys growth.”
Yet the pain of many ordinary people continues.
“They say the crisis is over, but I don’t feel that,” said Marika Timma, a mother of three whose husband lost his job in construction when the property bubble burst. Ms. Timma used to work as a cleaner but quit when her wages were cut in half, to just $168 a month.
Several of her good friends have emigrated to Britain and Ireland to look for work. “They won’t be coming back,” she said.
Since 2008, Latvia has lost more than 5 percent of its population, mostly young people, to emigration. The recent exodus peaked in 2010, when 42,263 people moved abroad, a huge number in a country of just two million now, according to Mihails Hazans, a professor at the University of Latvia.
Daniels Pavluts, Latvia’s economics minister, recently visited Dublin and London and met with émigré associations to encourage his compatriots to come home. Latvia’s economy, Mr. Pavluts said, “is now doing well” and “offers a future.”
Alf Vanags, director of the Baltic International Center for Economic Policy Studies here, is skeptical. “The idea of a Latvian ‘success story’ is ridiculous,” he said. “Latvia is not a model for anybody.”
A better and more equitable way out of Latvia’s troubles, he believes, would have been a devaluation of the currency, an option closed to Greece and 16 other countries that use the euro. Latvia kept its currency pegged to the euro, putting itself in much the same straitjacket as euro zone nations.
But Latvia’s high pain threshold and unusually open economy set it apart, enabling a relentless squeezing of wages, said Morten Hansen, head of the economics department at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga.
“You can only do this in a country that is willing to take serious pain for some time and has a dramatic flexibility in the labor market,” he said. “The lesson of what Latvia has done is that there is no lesson.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 2, 2013
An earlier version of this article misstated the amount of a bailout given to Latvia in 2008. It was 7.5 billion euros, not $7.5 billion.