January 9, 2013
Abbas and Hamas Leader Meet at Egypt’s Invitation
By JODI RUDOREN
JERUSALEM — President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority met on Wednesday in Cairo with Khaled Meshal, the political chief of Mr. Abbas’s rival, Hamas, but it was unclear if they were able to overcome any of the differences that have fueled a bitter five-year feud.
The two were invited to Cairo by President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt, who first met each separately as he tried to broker a reconciliation. Mr. Morsi had hoped to convene trilateral talks, but they did not happen, officials said, suggesting that progress, if any, was minimal.
Since their 2007 split, Mr. Abbas’s Fatah faction, which dominates in the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, have signed four reconciliation agreements that have failed to come to fruition.
After meeting with Mr. Morsi, Mr. Abbas said in a statement, “We discussed the Palestinian conditions and the means to achieve reconciliation through implementing the agreed-upon steps according to the Doha and Cairo agreements,” referring to Fatah-Hamas pacts signed last year in the two Arab capitals.
The Egyptian peace-brokering efforts came after a huge turnout on Friday for a Fatah rally in Gaza that many saw as a signal of improved relations between the parties. Cairo’s involvement is seen as critical, because of its role as a regional powerhouse and its alliances with both the United States and Israel.
But many analysts say that the gulf between the militant, Islamist Hamas and the more moderate, negotiation-oriented Fatah remains deep on major policy questions like whether to recognize Israel and what the borders of a future Palestinian state should be.
While November’s eight-day conflict between Israel and the Gaza Strip and the United Nations’ upgrade of the Palestinians’ status intensified popular calls for reconciliation, experts say that neither leader seems willing to make the necessary compromises or risk losing power.
“Unity is again being driven by tactical considerations, not by a sincere desire to unify ranks,” Aaron David Miller, a longtime State Department employee who is now vice president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, wrote in a commentary posted Wednesday on foreignpolicy.com. “Unity talks with start, stop, start again, and perhaps even result in a formal accord. But beneath this faux process, the players will continue to dig in their heels.”
The three main issues on the table are the formation of a national unity government (and who would lead it); the scheduling of presidential and parliamentary elections; and the reconstitution of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Mr. Abbas leads, to include Hamas and other militant factions.
Both sides say they support all three, but Hamas argues that the new government should be formed first, and lead the elections process, while Fatah wants elections first. Saeb Erekat, a Fatah leader who accompanied Mr. Abbas to Cairo, said one possible outcome of Wednesday’s talks could be a meeting next month of the P.L.O. leadership that included representatives of Hamas and Fatah.
Diana Buttu, a lawyer in Ramallah who used to work with Mr. Abbas and is now critical of him, said Wednesday’s meetings were motivated in part by the Palestinian Authority’s deepening fiscal crisis, and the Egyptians’ ability to pressure Persian Gulf states to provide promised donations.
That the talks came on the anniversary of Mr. Abbas’s election in 2005 to a four-year term, she said, only underlines the need for new balloting.
“Reconciliation is ripe now, but I think they will both let the fruit spoil unless they are sent the message that their party’s survival depends on reconciliation,” Ms. Buttu said.
Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, in Jerusalem, said he thought that Egypt’s involvement could make a difference, and that when he met recently with Mr. Meshal, his desire for reconciliation seemed sincere.
“If there will be a political statement, it means we are in the right path,” Mr. Abdul-Hadi said in an interview. “If there is no political statement, the impasse is still there.”
Hours later, Mr. Erekat said Mr. Abbas would not be issuing a statement after meeting with Mr. Meshal.
David D. Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting from Cairo.
Britain should stay in European Union, says Obama administration
Intervention from senior US official comes as UK position on EU membership is criticised in Brussels and Dublin
Julian Borger, Ian Traynor and Nicholas Watt
The Guardian, Thursday 10 January 2013
The Obama administration issued a direct challenge to David Cameron over Europe, on Wednesday when it warned of the dangers of holding a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU.
A senior US official questioned the merits of holding a referendum as the prime minister's campaign to reset the terms of Britain's EU membership also came under assault from Brussels and Dublin.
With just weeks to go until Cameron delivers a landmark speech in which he is expected to promise to hold a referendum on a "new settlement" for Britain in the EU, the US assistant secretary for European affairs warned that "referendums have often turned countries inwards".
"We welcome an outward-looking European Union with Britain in it. We benefit when the EU is unified, speaking with a single voice, and focused on our shared interests around the world and in Europe," Philip Gordon said during a visit to London, adding: "We want to see a strong British voice in that European Union. That is in the American interest."
Gordon stressed that it was it was up to Britain to determine its European role but, in what appeared to be a clear reference to attempts to renegotiate UK membership with the EU, he said: "It would be fair to say that every hour at an EU summit spent debating the institutional makeup of the European Union is one less hour spent talking about how we can solve our common challenges of jobs, growth, and international peace around the world."
The intervention by Gordon, who was in London to meet the Europe minister, David Lidington, highlights the alarm in Washington as opinion polls show a rise in support for British withdrawal from the EU and the prime minister prepares to set out how he will repatriate powers from the EU.
Cameron is expected to say in his speech that, if elected with a majority in 2015, he will use an EU treaty revision to underpin new eurozone governance arrangements to repatriate some powers.
The new terms of British membership would be put to the UK public in a referendum.
It has been the US position for several years that close British engagement in Europe was in American interests.
But Gordon's remarks appeared to be a clear message to the government that the "special relationship" would be devalued in the eyes of the Obama administration if Britain left the EU, or got bogged down in drawn-out negotiations on the details of its membership.
A Downing Street spokesman said: "The US wants an outward looking EU with Britain in it, and so do we."
The forthright American intervention came as Cameron's plans also came under concerted attack from Brussels and the Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, whose country holds the six-month rotating presidency of the EU.
At an event in Dublin marking Ireland's assumption of the presidency, Kenny described the prospect of Britain quitting the EU as a "disaster", while Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, called on the UK to remain an "active, full, and leading" EU member.
Van Rompuy also cast doubt on whether a major revision of the treaty – essential to Cameron's strategy – would actually take place. He said EU states could not agree on what they wanted to change in the treaty, so the prospect of a renegotiation was remote.
"At this stage of the debate we don't need as much treaty change as people think," said Van Rompuy. "For those ideas for where treaty change is needed there is simply no consensus. So the possibility of having treaty changes in the near future or present are not very high."
He said he would wait to hear what Cameron said about Britain in Europe, although there is much confusion in EU capitals about when and where the prime minister will deliver a speech that has been given high billing for some months.
Cameron's stated strategy of securing a looser UK-EU relationship hinges on 27 governments re-opening the Lisbon Treaty, enabling Britain to push changes "repatriating" powers from Brussels.
In fact, the other EU leaders want to avoid treaty change as it could result in years of gruelling negotiations and open a pandora's box of competing claims.
Senior Irish politicians said other European governments were privately urging Cameron to desist. Kenny warned that the EU's "floodgates" would be opened if the Lisbon Treaty was revisited to suit an individual country.
"We would see it as being disastrous were a country like Britain to leave the union. Clearly the British government will form their own view," he said.
Van Rompuy said: "Britain is a highly appreciated, highly valued and very important member of the EU. I believe it is in British interests to stay, not only a member of the EU but a very active and full member, a leading nation in the EU. Of course it is for the British people to decide on their future."
Germany tells Cameron: don't blackmail the EU
Merkel ally Gunther Krichbaum says referendum on membership may cause economic disaster for UK and paralyse Europe
Patrick Wintour, political editor
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 10 January 2013 14.51 GMT
One of Angela Merkel's closest allies has warned David Cameron not to try to blackmail the rest of Europe. The prime minister was also told a UK referendum was a high-risk option that might paralyse Europe and end in economic disaster for Britain.
The chair of Germany's European affairs committee, Gunther Krichbaum, is leading a high-powered delegation from the German Bundestag on a two-day visit to Britain.
He said: "There is certainly a risk that [a referendum] could paralyse efforts for a better Europe and deeper integration. Britain would risk being isolated. That cannot be in Britain's interests."
Asked how Germany would respond to the UK's threat to block treaty changes designed to make the euro stronger if the UK is not granted the reforms it seeks, Krichbaum said: "You cannot create a political future if you are blackmailing other states. That will not help Britain. It needs a Europe that is stable. It needs markets that are functioning."
He also questioned whether Cameron would be able to control the terms of a referendum on renegotiated terms of membership.
"You have to ask yourself if it is wise to carry out a referendum. It is certainly possible to convince people of advantages of the EU. But there is always a risk that the referendum becomes – as Charles de Gaulle put it – less about the question asked and more about the person who's asking it."
He urged British Eurosceptics to think through the consequences of Britain leaving the EU, or adopting the same status as Switzerland or Norway.
"Some people claim that Switzerland is in a remarkable position. I highly doubt that: Switzerland needs the EU, but it cannot influence the political process within the EU. That is a big problem.
"If Britain loses the single market it would be a disaster for the British economy. If Britain left the EU, it would weaken the European Union and the idea of Europe, but it would also weaken the position of Britain vis-à-vis the EU and in the world."
Kirchbaum is a senior member of Merkel's CDU party. His remarks come a day after the US assistant secretary of state for European affairs, Philip Gordon, warned Cameron of the dangers of staging a referendum.
Gordon infuriated some British sceptics by saying a referendum might turn the EU inwards at a time when America wants an outward-looking EU with Britain in it.
Krichbaum also expressed fears that a British attempt to reopen its relationship with the EU at a time of a treaty negotiation sometime after 2015 would open a Pandora's box, with different demands being made by other EU member states.
Asked if Britain could reopen the Lisbon treaty, he replied: "That's first of all legally impossible because the treaties are done. But in the broader sense of negotiating a new treaty, it is neither wise nor useful to open Pandora's box, because every state in the EU, not just Britain, would again try to get their interests in."
He said he was convinced that although all EU member states need each other, Britain would suffer more from being outside the EU, than the rest of the EU would from Britain's absence.
He suggested Britain would need to renegotiate a series of bilateral trade deals to ensure its goods had access not just to EU, but to world markets.
Downing Street responded to the American intervention by insisting it wanted a change in the UK-EU relationship.
Cameron is due to make his landmark speech on Europe shortly, with growing signs that British business is becoming nervous that he is opening up a period of lengthy uncertainty that will damage Britain's trading relationship with the EU.
Krichbaim suggested the European economy was now strengthening after its crisis last summer, and suggested it may be necessary to pass treaty changes in two to three years' time to strengthen the euro.
"The crisis was not caused by 'too much Europe' but by 'too little Europe'. We had a common currency but we did not have a necessary common economic policy."
Other figures have suggested that the EU could strengthen its economic integration without resorting to treaty changes, a decision that would deprive Cameron of a negotiating wedge to demand changes in the UK relationship.
All treaty changes require unanimous support from member states, something Britain could withhold until it won its concessions.
01/09/2013 06:27 PM
Lower Saxony Election Looms: Half-Scot McAllister Battles to Stay in Office
By SPIEGEL ONLINE Staff
With Braveheart-style bagpipe music, David McAllister, the half-Scottish governor of Lower Saxony, is fighting to stay in office in an election later this month. A loss wouldn't bode well for Chancellor Angela Merkel, who could suffer the same fate in the September.
If German politics were just about personalities, then Lower Saxony governor David McAllister, the son of a Scottish soldier and a German teacher, wouldn't have much to worry about ahead of the Jan. 20 state election.
The leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the northern German state is exuberant and popular, and he knows how to sell himself. Some of the campaign posters of the 41-year-old politician are so gigantic that the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) have accused him of waging a "Cuban-style personality cult."
A CDU film made for the campaign highlights his Scottish roots with rousing bagpipe music and the lyric: "Our chieftain is a Scot and we're a strong clan."
His CDU is well ahead in opinion polls, scoring 40 percent according to an Infratest dimap survey completed on Jan. 2, compared with 34 percent for the SPD and 13 percent for the Greens.
But despite all that, McAllister is in serious danger of losing the state to his SPD challenger Stephan Weil, the mayor of the state capital of Hanover, a local technocrat so dull and unassuming that a third of Lower Saxons still don't know who he is, even after weeks of hard campaigning.
Weak FDP Poses Risk
The problem for McAllister is that his junior coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democratic Party, is mired in a chronic opinion poll slump, both at the national level and in Lower Saxony, and may fail to clear the 5-percent hurdle needed to remain in parliament.
If that happens and the Left Party and Pirate Party don't make it in either, the SPD and Greens could get enough seats to form a center-left coalition and send McAllister packing. German politics traditionally hinges on coalition-building and the biggest party doesn't always get to be in government.
The Infratest poll had the FDP at 4 percent and the Left Party and Pirates at 3 percent each.
A center-left win in Lower Saxony would be a blow to Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is hoping for a political boost that would give her momentum ahead of a September general election in which she is hoping to win a third term.
Dangerous Parallel For Merkel
A defeat for McAllister would serve as a reminder that she too could be toppled, despite her popularity and the strength of her party in opinion polls, simply because of the FDP's weakness.
In addition, if Weil were to become Lower Saxony governor, center-left parties would have an increased majority in the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, which would make it harder for Merkel to get legislation approved.
A nationwide opinion poll released on Wednesday gave Merkel a painful reminder of her dilemma: According to the Forsa institute, her CDU is at a record high of 42 percent -- but the FDP is at an almost negligible 2 percent.
The poll is likely to heighten pressure on the FDP's embattled leader Philipp Rösler, who is also Germany's economics minister, and could subject the party to more internal squabbling that is unlikely to improve its prospects in Lower Saxony.
In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE published on Wednesday, McAllister tried to sound confident. Asked about the poor showing of the FDP, currently polling at 4 percent in Lower Saxony, he said: "Where there are 4 percent one can quickly get 5 percent or more. I am sure that the Lower Saxony FDP will make it."
Pinning Hopes on TV Debate
He pointed out that 40 percent of voters hadn't made up their minds yet and that his upcoming TV debate with SPD challenger Weil could play a significant role.
"With the undecided voters I see much bigger potential for the CDU and FDP," McAllister said. "Weil and the SPD are clearly jumping the gun. Now they and the Greens are publicly talking about posts, big and little. That's presumptuous. And the people of Lower Saxony don't like that. The SPD is tired and exhausted."
In a tongue-in-cheek remark, he said he would welcome many campaign appearances in Lower Saxony by Peer Steinbrück, the SPD's increasingly gaffe-prone challenger to Merkel in the general election. "I wouldn't object to that," he said.
Steinbrück's bid for the chancellorship, already dented by controversy surrounding his income from lucrative speaking engagements in the last three years, suffered a further setback last week when he said German chancellors should be paid more.
"For me, it's an honor to hold the public office of Lower Saxony governor," McAllister said in a swipe at Steinbrück. "This is about serving, not earning."
McAllister has never stood in an election before. He took over as governor from Christian Wulff in 2010 after Wullf was elected as German president. He is seen as a potential high-flier in the CDU, though. Should he lose, Merkel might find him a senior position in Berlin.
Predictably, McAllister dismissed the idea this week. Asked if he would move to the German capital if he lost, McAllister said: "I'm governor and will remain governor."
Separatism: Keep calm and carry on
9 January 2013
From Scotland’s membership of the EU should it split from the UK, to handling requests for military help to put down pro-independence movements, the recent rise in European secessionist spirit poses tricky questions for the Union. EU leaders should keep their cool, argues a Greek journalist.
Despite claims to the contrary, the EU is essentially a union of nation states, and it will remain such until there is a radical overhaul of the acquis communautaire, which, at present at least, is not foreseen.
There is no better proof for this assertion than the fact that, even after its "upgrade" in the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament – the only institution directly elected by the people of Europe – is also the weakest of them all.
When the financial and sovereign debt crises posed an existential threat to the EU, the decision-making process immediately shifted from community institutions to national representations.
But when the integrity of its nation states comes under threat, the EU cannot keep a safe distance from the events unfolding in Flanders, Catalonia, or Scotland, much as some of its stakeholders would like to do so.
The recent resurgence of secessionist movements, in the aftermath of the crisis, will pose multiple challenges for Brussels.
Firstly, European regions aspiring to independence have already started to ask disturbing questions, implicitly for the moment, but soon also explicitly: Will Scotland have to re-apply for EU membership if its people vote in favour of independence in the 2014 referendum? Will Catalans be deprived of their current European citizenship if they choose to secede from Spain? How will the EU react if one of its members asks for security assistance because it faces a "national security threat" in the form of an independence movement?
Conventional legal wisdom says that if a new state pops up into existence in Europe, then it will have to go through the whole accession process and secure unanimous approval by all existing members of the Union before being accepted into the club. According to the Lisbon Treaty, European citizenship is “complementary” to national citizenship of a member-state.
Even if the EU could politically and legally handle an isolated secessionist incident (say, Scotland), a potential knock-on effect of similar demands in the Basque country, Catalonia, South Tyrol, Flanders, Alsatians and Corsicans in France, Poles in Lithuania, Frisians in the Netherlands and Muslims in north-eastern Greece would destabilise the Union as a whole.
Even today, the very fear of secessionist movements influences the conduct of EU policy. For example, five out of the 27 EU countries – Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain refuse to recognise Kosovo – in case it would embolden separatist movements on their home territories.
The situation is especially complicated in Cyprus, the only EU member state which, according to the UN, is partly under foreign (Turkish) occupation. EU approval for secession by any given region in Europe would be seen by Cypriot authorities as a green light for a de jure partition of the island.
Even in less complicated cases, such as the UK, a positive EU approach to Scottish independence would place further strain on London-Brussels relations.
So how should the EU respond? Above all, by keeping its cool.
Secessionist movements are not irreversible. For example, opinion polls show that in Scotland a clear majority is set to vote for the country to remain part of the UK. In Spain, the polls say Catalans want a referendum but they are divided on whether they will vote for or against independence.
Nationalists in Flanders appear willing to settle for a confederation rather than a full break-up, while the conundrum of who would get Brussels is difficult enough to help hold Belgium together.
Take a stand
The EU should adopt a clear position on the legal status of the breakaway regions – people aspiring to independence are entitled to make informed decisions. Feeling in Scotland and Catalonia demonstrates that the probability of being expelled from the EU is a strong deterrent to secession.
In most cases of secessionist movements, the major argument is that their people are sick of "subsidising" either their central government or poorer regions. The more effective use of EU structural funds in order to help poorer regions to catch up could be a matter of survival for some member states.
It is now almost certain that a Treaty revision process will start immediately after the 2014 EU elections. So far, doomsday scenarios about a eurozone or an EU break-up have proven dead wrong.
The crisis has sped up the European unification process in almost every respect – fiscal, financial, political. As the EU moves towards even more integration, its regions should also be given a stronger role in decision making.
The case of Germany – the most successful federal state in the EU – illustrates that strong regional governance and federalism are not incompatible.
On the contrary, regional self-rule in Germany gives democratic legitimacy to the federal structure.
Vladimir Franz: tattooed composer polling strongly in the Czech elections
University professor's pro-education, apolitical stance wins significant popularity in presidential campaign – although he has spent little and is also distracted by the premiere of his new opera
Associated Press in Prague
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 9 January 2013 13.32 GMT
Vladimir Franz, an opera composer and painter, is tattooed from head to toe, his face a warrior-like mix of blue, green and red. He's also running in a surprising third place ahead of this week's Czech presidential elections.
He seems the most unlikely of candidates for a prestigious post previously held by the beloved dissident playwright Václav Havel and by Václav Klaus, a professor credited with plotting the economic transition from communism to a free market.
During a televised debate, a caller compared him to "an exotic creature from Papua New Guinea". But he's not short of admirers in a country where voters are increasingly tired of politicians they say are corrupt and failing to deliver on years of promises, more than two decades after the fall of communism.
Franz has no political experience and confesses to little knowledge of economics. He says he only threw his hat in the ring after a group of admirers established a "Franz for President" initiative and begged him to shake up the race as a shock candidate. But he has stirred up such goodwill that a leading economist has offered his services for free and his campaign workers are also volunteers.
He has spent less than £16,000 from donations on his campaign and has not put up any posters.
Franz burst on to the political scene at the end of 2012 with an eye-catching 88,000 public signatures in favour of his candidacy – far more than the 50,000 required by law. Not affiliated with any party, he has campaigned mostly on a platform highlighting anti-corruption measures, the importance of education and the nation's moral standing.
"The [political] system is so enchanted with itself that it's lost the ability to self-reflect," he said in an interview with AP this week. Czechs, he said, were "fed up with this crap."
He has proved particularly popular with young voters – and those not yet eligible to cast a ballot. In a mock presidential election at 441 high schools across the country a month before the vote, Franz won by a landslide, winning more than 40% of the approximately 60,000 votes cast.
He is tipped to win around 11% in the first round on Friday and Saturday – not enough to make the runoffs. But he may end up a kingmaker, as the leading candidates – former prime ministers Jan Fischer and Milos Zeman – would be eager to pick up his supporters if the vote goes to a second round.
Education campaigner Karel Strachota, who organised the school ballot, said young people no longer identified with existing parties. Franz is seen as "a candidate who is not tainted by politics," Strachota said. "They look with sympathy at his nonconformity and the way he presents himself."
And, perhaps surprisingly, few take issue with his tattoos. "Personally, I wouldn't vote for him – but [the tattoos] are not a problem at all," said Tomas Pistora, a 33-year-old IT specialist from Prague. "The young people prefer him because they don't have a better choice."
Many Czechs, especially in the capital, are not shocked with Franz's appearance simply because the 53-year-old professor at Prague's Academy of Performing Arts has been around for years.
"The tattoo doesn't make any difference," said Jakub Fisera, a student in Prague, adding that Franz's lack of experience in politics was more of a problem.
Franz says his tattoos are simply body art and that the election is not a beauty contest. "A tattoo is a sign of a free will and that does not harm the freedom of anyone else," he said.
For the first time, the Czech president will be elected in a popular vote – a new system that makes it possible for independent candidates like Franz to run for the largely ceremonial post.
Klaus, the incumbent, opposed the change. He called it "a fatal mistake" and said he feared that someone like Franz might succeed him.
A total of nine candidates are running. Unlike the Eurosceptic Klaus, who has attacked the European Union at every opportunity, the favourites, Zeman and Fischer, have a more moderate approach to the EU, which the country joined in 2004.
The left-of-centre Zeman, who was prime minister from 1998 to 2002, leads the polls with about 25% support. Fischer, a centrist and a former state bureaucrat, gained significant popularity when he led a caretaker government in 2009-10. He is polling at about 20%.
As the campaign approached its end on Tuesday, eight candidates were busy on the stump. The ninth – Franz – had other matters to deal with: a final rehearsal of his work War with the Newts at the State Opera. Torn between art and politics, Franz cut short his appearance at an election debate to return to the opera house that is part of Prague's national theatre.
But he has committed to staying to the end of Thursday's final televised debate. He said it was not an easy choice, but he realised his credibility demanded that he take part.
"For a Czech composer to have a world premiere in the national theatre is something extraordinary," he said. "I had to make a choice between a service to the public and the fulfilment of my lifelong dream. I've made the choice and will be at the debate."
India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
January 10, 2013, 6:31 am
Where is the Indian Economy Headed?
By NEHA THIRANI
Is India's economy bottoming out, or getting worse?
It depends who you ask.
On Thursday HSBC cut its growth forecast for India for the current fiscal year, which ends March 31, to 5.2 percent, from a previous forecast of 5.7 percent. On Tuesday, Fitch Ratings restated a "negative" outlook on India's sovereign credit rating, warning that a possible downgrade could come in the next 12 to 24 months.
But other analysts, including Moody's Investors Service, Anand Rathi Financial Services and Angel Broking, said recently that India's economy is on the path to improvement.
The uncertainty seems to stem from the sheer number of problems the country is grappling with, and the ruling Congress Party government's inability to grapple effectively with inflation, the fiscal deficit, slowing growth and a weak balance of payments.
Just a few years ago, India was considered one of the world's fast-growing new economic powerhouses, and there were strong expectations that the economy could grow 10 percent a year. But in October, the International Monetary Fund cut its prediction for real economic growth in India in 2012 to 4.9 percent, the lowest in a decade.
On Thursday, HSBC said that a structural slowdown in the economy was the reason behind a lowered growth forecast. The bank also cut expectations for the next fiscal year from 6.9 percent to 6.2 percent. "Looking ahead, we expect non-agricultural GDP growth to move more or less sideways in the near term, and only recover very gradually thereafter as key structural reforms are slowly rolled out," the report said.
Fitch said Tuesday that a combination of widening fiscal deficits, slowing growth and persistently high inflation put the country's sovereign credit rating at risk.
"Our key concerns revolve around the fiscal situation in the country and any material decline in India's potential growth rate," Art Woo, director of Asia Sovereign Ratings at Fitch Ratings, said in a telephone interview. "If there is an acceleration in reforms, that would improve India's fiscal condition and would be cause for a positive outlook on ratings," he said, although these moves might prove politically unpalatable and difficult to carry out.
India's current account deficit, a measure of the difference between the value of exports and imports, hit a record high of 5.4 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) in the July-September quarter, according to data released by the Reserve Bank of India in December.
While Finance Minister P. Chidambaram announced measures in October to cap the fiscal deficit for this financial year at 5.3 percent of GDP, some analysts are skeptical. "In my opinion India will most likely miss its fiscal deficit target of 5.3 percent of gross domestic production - which has already overshot a previous target of 5.1 percent," Mr. Woo said.
Under pressure to spur the economy, the Indian government has introduced a series of economic reforms since mid-September, including raising the price of fertilizer and diesel, further opening the retail sector to foreign investment, and allowing foreign investment in the insurance, pensions and aviation sectors.
Not surprisingly, India's finance ministry remains confident about the country's economic future. "We are not worried. We have been saying we are on right track," Arvind Mayaram, Secretary at the Department of Economic Affairs at the Finance Ministry, said in an interview with the Press Trust of India on Tuesday, after the Fitch assessment became public.
Fitch views these measures as a "step in the right direction," but no guarantee for improved economic performance. "While opening up foreign direct investment and other measures taken by the government in the insurance, pension and aviation sectors are a positive development, there is still much uncertainty," Mr. Woo said.
Analysts from HSBC said the reforms will take some time to show marked results. They predict it will be another three years before growth returns to 8 percent on a sustained basis.
Others remain cautiously optimistic about India's economic future.
"The Fitch ratings outlook is more backward-looking than forward looking," said Sujan Hajra, chief economist and executive director of institutional equity at AnandRathi Financial Services. "In our opinion economic growth, inflation and the fiscal situation have all bottomed out and will show a gradual improvement in the coming two quarters," he said.
Why? "There have been significant reform measures undertaken and these will begin to show results soon," Mr. Hajra said.
Reform measures taken by the government since September 2012 are a good start, said Vaibhav Agrawal, vice president of research banking at Angel Broking. "They have been taking actions consistent with their announced intentions - so it's not all talk," he said.
In November, Moody's said that its outlook for India was stable and it maintained a "Baa3" rating, which is described as a "medium-grade rating with moderate credit risk." The ratings agency cited India's high saving and investment rates, relatively competitive private sector and diverse economy as rationale behind its decision.
However, the report said, "The rating is constrained by the credit challenges posed by India's poor social and physical infrastructure, low per capita income, high government deficit and debt ratios, a complex regulatory environment, and a tendency towards inflation."
Analysts and rating agencies are both looking ahead with some trepidation at the fiscal 2013 - 2014 budget, which will be announced before the end of March. Because it is the last budget to be announced by the current government before the 2014 general election, many fear that the central government will resort to populist but costly measures, threatening the country's fiscal and economic health.
"The government has to take some tough decisions in the coming budget on politically sensitive issues such as oil prices," said Nimish Shah, managing director at Fortune Financial Services. "The need of the hour is a largely reformist budget that reigns in expenditure."
India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
January 10, 2013, 3:46 am
In India’s Ancient Khajuraho, Eroticism Mingles With International Commerce
By RAKSHA KUMAR
When you pass the sign that says "Welcome to Khajuraho," you enter a different land. The roads become broad and smooth. Lush lawns and tall green trees line up on both sides of the street.
And, most strikingly, sex and eroticism are no longer taboo. Khajuraho - which is at the heart of Madhya Pradesh, a state called the "Heart of India" -- is famous for its 1,000-year-old temples full of highly detailed erotic art and stone carvings, which draw millions of visitors each year.
In 1968, when Elinor L. Horwitz visited the place for The New York Times, four Indian Airlines flights a week to Khajuraho from New Delhi had just been scheduled. There was only one place to stay overnight, a $6-a-night government bungalow, which also served the only tourist lunch in the area, a $1 affair that included "bland soup, hot curry and custard."
Recently, India Ink traveled to Khajuraho to see what has changed and what has remained the same in the four decades since.
In 1968, Ms. Horwitz observed, "of the original 85 temples, 32 baroque marvels remain intact in their 1,000-year splendor." Built between 950 A.D. and 1050 A.D., under the generous patronage of the Chandela Rajput kings of central India, the temples of Khajuraho have been grouped into three complexes based on their geographic location: east, west and south.
The western group of temples is the best preserved and was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1986. These temples are inside a huge compound, and a ticket is required for entry. Once inside, massive green lawns are interspersed with ancient temples dedicated to different gods.
The most magnificent temple in this complex is the Lakshmana Temple, whose walls are studded with beautiful idols and images of as many as 600 Hindu gods, animals and sensuous couples, which remain unchanged. Ms. Horwitz described them as "sinuous figures cavort, hunt, make love, make war, make music, smile at themselves in mirrors, twist, turn, wiggle and dance - all in level after level of horizontal friezes encircling the edifices."
The purpose of these sculptures is still being debated among scholars. Devangana Desai has written three books on Khajuraho, including "Erotic Sculpture of India: A Socio Cultural Study." She contended that erotic sculptures around places of worship of any society would require an explanation.
"What is the rationale of erotic depictions in religious art," she asked. "What is their thematic content? Is erotic sculpture confined to temples or particular religious cults? Could esoteric tantrikas display their own secret practices? This inquiry is concerned as much with the question of religious sanction as with the sociological factors generating the permissive atmosphere and mood for the depiction of sexual motifs."
Tourists who visit the temples have similar questions. Hans Mahler, 27, an antiques store owner in Germany who was visiting the temples wondered aloud how the Hindu society of a thousand years ago could be more open than the German society today.
Even if the sculptures haven't changed, pretty much everything else has. Today, there are several flights to the town from many cities every day, bringing in almost as many visitors as the Taj Mahal -- more than 2 million visitors during the peak tourist season, between February and April and between September and November. The small airport at Khajuraho is also getting a facelift.
Unesco, or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is not only giving this heritage site financial assistance for the upkeep of the sculptures, but is also instrumental in drawing foreign tourists to these artistic temples.
Those foreign tourists will find the town has changed to cater to them. Several restaurants boast of specializing in country-specific cuisine. Pizzerias are sprinkled across the town, as are Korean restaurants. A guide who could speak six international languages was trying to draw the attention of foreign tourists in front of the temple complex.
In a 1973 essay from Khajuraho, Anees Jung wrote in The New York Times that these "legendary" temples had very little impact on the lives of the people living in Khajuraho. That was about to change, she wrote, with the opening of a the "Khajuraho Motel, the first hostelry expressly for automobile drivers in this land of richly carved temples and mahua trees."
"The people who live in Khajuraho are not the same as those who built the temples," the curator of the Archeological Museum in Khajuraho told Ms. Jung. "They have been living in the village probably for only 200 years. Not one of them can sculpt in stone. Otherwise, they just live in the village and work on their farms and small businesses. They are quiet, unpretentious people, whose lives go on apart from the splendor of the past. The temples are just a natural part of their lives. What will probably affect them is this motel and tourism."
The curator was right. Today, the economy of Khajuraho is driven only by tourism. It has become a town that never sleeps, with restaurants and bars open until late in the night. And according to a resident, the aspiration of most young men is to become a tour guide.
Khajuraho also has many five-star hotels and luxury accommodations, like the Radisson, the Lalit and Hotel Clarks, all of them built in the past decade or so. For many years, the only decent place to stay used to be Hotel Jhankar, a Madhya Pradesh Tourism initiative. This hotel is still popular as it is located in the center of the town, close to all three temple complexes.
Amid the transformations that have changed the face of this little town, thousands of years of ancient Hindu iconography and sensual sculptures seem to be the only constant.
January 9, 2013
Restoring Iran’s Heritage of Magnificent Homes in an Age of High Rises
By THOMAS ERDBRINK
KASHAN, Iran — A petite woman in gray boots and a checkered scarf, Shanaz Nader had spent much of her adult life abroad, with long stretches in Tokyo, London and New York. But here she was braving a cold wind in this desert city three hours south of Tehran, making her way through a maze of high mud-brick walls.
Black-clad women waited at a small bakery as the rattling noise of a motorcycle in the distance echoed through the alleys. Finally, Mrs. Nader, an interior designer in Tehran, reached her destination: a large, two-panel wood door that opened up to her fully renovated weekend home, a majestic old Iranian house with four bedrooms, colored-glass windows, a separate office, two garden areas and a large rectangular marble fountain.
After boiling tea, Mrs. Nader, 68, sighed and sat down under an arched passageway. The sun reflected in the fountain, as the wind blew in faint sounds of the midday call to prayer.
“Whenever I dreamed of Iran while being in some faraway place, I dreamed of owning such a house,” she said.
For thousands of years, houses with secluded gardens and courtyards have been a cornerstone of Iranian architecture, which strongly influenced structures like the Alhambra and the Taj Mahal. Similar dwellings are described in literature from Achaemenid times, around 700 B.C., and their old Persian name is the root for the word “paradise.”
But in past decades the houses fell out of favor and were widely demolished to make way for glassed apartment blocks, especially in Tehran. The sprawling family gardens on the flanks of the Alborz Mountains in the capital have long since been demolished to make way for high rises, turning landowners into millionaires but wiping out Iran’s architectural heritage.
But Mrs. Nader and some others are beginning to reverse that trend. In recent years, dozens of houses and palaces in Kashan, a city known for its carpets and traditional Iranian architecture, have been painstakingly renovated into holiday homes and hotels.
She was drawn to Kashan in 2008 when the owner of one of the palaces, Manoucheri House, built 200 years ago by a local merchant family, asked for her help in transforming it into a boutique hotel. Well known in Tehran for her basic but tasteful furniture and printed textiles that strike a delicate balance between the old and the new, Mrs. Nader was an obvious choice for the job, and she jumped at the opportunity.
Now, all across the old neighborhoods of Kashan, laborers are renovating houses that until recently were neglected by their owners.
At first the newcomers stirred opposition from local people, apparently upset that some of the renovations were being done with government money, which they wanted for building modern housing. “Hundreds of people signed a petition asking for the old houses to be flattened instead,” said Akbar Arezugar, 54, a renovation supervisor from Kashan. “But when the renovation was done, the cleric who was leading the opposition personally called everybody involved, apologized and applauded the work we had done.”
While many Iranian cities face unemployment and an economic downturn because of sanctions and mismanagement of the economy, the burst of renovations — most of them by individuals — is keeping Kashan bustling.
Mohsen Shahi, a 26-year-old architect, said he much preferred working on the renovations to designing apartment buildings, something that many of his university friends are doing. “If I had an unlimited budget I would buy old houses and rebuild them the way they were,” he said.
Mr. Shahi was working on the Ameri House, a huge property with seven courtyards with fountains and dozens of rooms that is scheduled to open as a hotel in April. “For a long time it seemed as though our love for culture had diminished in our country,” he said. “Those old families that once built these beautiful houses were not thinking of profits, but of their legacies. Thankfully, now we are starting to learn from them.”
When her work on the boutique hotel was finished, Mrs. Nader looked for a place of her own. The first time she saw her house it was run-down and filled with dirt. Parts were even slated for demolition. “I bought it for $20,000 and people said I was crazy,” she said, while giving a tour of the house. The restoration cost another $300,000, she said, and has been worth every penny.
She is planning to write a book on traditional Iranian architecture, and has also built an office where she wants to work with local architects.
For most people, it is a labor of love. For the hotels, renovation costs are high, without much prospect of making profits. There are almost no foreign tourists anymore making their way to Kashan, which lies 30 miles north of Iran’s main uranium enrichment facility in Natanz. Many people fear the nuclear site could one day come under attack, with possibly deadly consequences for those living in its vicinity.
“Sometimes I worry about the future,” she said, standing on one of the roofs of her house. In the distance, snow-capped mountain peaks basked in the sun. “But history shows that Iran always lands on its feet. I’m not abandoning ship.”
01/09/2013 06:28 PM
The Waiting Room by the Sea: Times Are A-Changin' in Havana
By Walter Mayr in Havana
A new law easing travel restrictions goes into effect on the Caribbean island of Cuba on Jan. 14. With tentative reforms, the Castro regime is preparing for the 55th anniversary of the country's revolution. A sea change is already on the horizon in the capital Havana.
The first building on Havana's seaside promenade, Malecón 13, lies between the old city and the ocean.
It's still inhabited. Behind a crumbling façade, there is an open passageway, with rusty iron bars under a starry sky, the sounds of salsa music and the clattering of plates. The back of the building faces Calle San Lázaro, with its opulent but decaying colonial buildings. Residents hoping to avoid the threat of being crushed to death by crumbling caryatids on the open street can duck into Los Borrachos, a local rum bar.
The apartment at the very back of the first building on the Malecón, as seen from the ocean, is on the ground floor. Marcelino, the patron, appears through a barred window, next to scantily clad mixed-race women. Occasionally one of them gets up to provide nighttime passersby with rum, hot food or discreet shelter, complete with clean sheets for two.
The building at Malecón 13 is a reflection of life along Havana's quay wall, the 8-kilometer (5-mile) Malecón. Leonardo Padura, one of Cuba's most important contemporary authors, says: "The Malecón is a synthesis of this island and its society, of old and young, Emos and freaks, whores and grandmothers; for some people it's the end of the island, and for others it's the beginning; for some it's the end of hope, and for others it's the beginning."
For Cuba's revolutionaries, the Malecón was primarily a stage. Jan. 8 marked the 54th anniversary of the triumphant arrival of Fidel Castro and his comrades in arms, following the escape of dictator Fulgencio Batista. In 1959, they advanced into downtown Havana along the Malecón, as hundreds of thousands cheered.
Cuba, a US outpost in the Caribbean until then, reinvented itself, while President Dwight D. Eisenhower, born in 1890, continued to run the government in Washington. Eisenhower, an old warhorse, was just as unsuccessful as his nine successors during the ensuing half-century in bringing down the regime in Havana. It was only in 2008 that Fidel Castro, citing health reasons, announced that he was stepping down as Cuba's leader. His brother Raúl, five years his junior, has run the country since then.
The Sixth Decade of the Revolution
The Castro brothers, now 86 and 81, are running for seats in parliament one more time, during the election to the National Assembly of People's Power on Feb. 3. Under Raúl's leadership, they intend to guide their country through the sixth decade of the revolution, even as they allow tentative reforms. It is an unparalleled long-term experiment in socialism. Only one in five Cubans was alive at a time when the Castros were not in charge.
Dissatisfied Cubans have been allowed to leave the country periodically: In a 1969 airlift; when 125,000 people emigrated through the port of Mariel in 1980; and in 1994, when tens of thousands escaped a serious economic crisis with the help of homemade rafts and other vessels.
But now things could change, when a new travel law goes into effect in Cuba on Jan. 14. Under the law, Cubans will be allowed to travel abroad without official permission and at significantly reduced fees. But the people remain skeptical, because it is unclear which countries will even grant Cubans visas, and under what conditions; and because the regime in Havana, as it has announced, will still be able to deny any application for "reasons of defense and national security."
Members of the opposition call it a bogus law and a pseudo-reform. They point out that socialism in the island nation has always worked like a pressure cooker, with the Castro brothers controlling the valve and only loosening it when there was too much pressure.
Marcelino lives in the first building on the Malecón, in the back apartment. He was two years old when Fidel came to power, and he has always enjoyed the blessings of the revolution, including free education, healthcare and housing. Nevertheless, he says today, "if we could travel, we wouldn't be here anymore."
Little will change for Marcelino after Jan. 14, because he isn't in demand in the world outside Cuba. He lost his job as a bus driver, which earned him the equivalent of €9 (about $12) a month, years ago. His wife ran away with a Spanish traveler, taking their daughter with her. She now lives in Madrid and sometimes sends him tourists, who Marcelino takes on tours of the island.
He still has his waterfront apartment, but not for long. He will have to move soon, he says, out to the city's outskirts. His building, in Havana's most expensive neighborhood, is supposed to make way for a new 14-story hotel with a pool overlooking the ocean.
All that will remain of the building at Malecón 13 is the façade.
Seeing Castro Like Winning Lottery
The man who some believed was dead turned up at 5 p.m., wearing a straw hat. He chatted with employees in the lobby of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Standing in the garden, he took a look at the Malecón before disappearing again. But it didn't matter, because he had been seen -- alive. The evidence, in the form of a photo, was released to the world press on the next day, Oct. 21, 2012.
"When Fidel Castro, who is supposedly dead, is suddenly standing next to you, it's like getting six winning numbers in the lottery," says Antonio Martinez, director of the Nacional, Cuba's most famous hotel. Fidel's lightning visit -- made months after his last public appearance alongside the pope, and following rumors of a fatal stroke from a cerebral hemorrhage -- proved that the heart of the revolution, "my religion," as Martinez calls it, is still beating.
But for how much longer? And what happens after Fidel and Raúl? The Soviet Union financed the country for many years, and now Cuba depends on support from oil-rich Venezuela. Nevertheless, the incomes of ordinary Cubans today are still well below 1989 levels. To address the problem, the government has even sacrificed some of its socialist dogmas and issued commercial licenses to small businesses.
A Country without WLANs and Hotspots
Havana complains about the ongoing American trade embargo, claiming that it is responsible for losses of more than $100 billion. On the other hand, US citizens already make up the majority of guests at the Nacional. On this day, too, mojitos are being poured by the dozen, as tourists from Boston and Miami arrive for happy hour to the strains of salsa music.
Washington has given its blessing to tourists willing to shell out $5,396 for a 14-day visit to explore Cuban culture. Religious educational trips are also allowed. There are now dozens of direct flights to Cuba from the United States. The price of package tours includes the chance to learn how to see the world through different eyes. During a tour of bunkers in front of the Hotel Nacional, the tour guide tells American vacationers: "The CIA repeatedly tried to kill Fidel Castro."
From a park where Soviet anti-aircraft guns were positioned during the Cuban missile crisis, the tourists marvel at the Malecón, with its candy-colored antique US cars creeping along the quay wall like colorful insects, and they gaze out at the ocean, which is devoid of boats, with the exception of a coast guard vessel.
Florida, the dream destination of many Cubans, and home to more than a million Cuban immigrants, is only 90 miles away.
They stare at their goal like people dying with thirst confronting a well: men and women of all ages, gathered in a small park behind the most heavily guarded building on the Malecón, the United States Interests Section (USINT). Washington's Cuba policy is implemented in the former building of the American embassy, a 1950s glass-and-concrete monstrosity. Cubans are allowed to slip through the consular entrance to use computers with Internet access. Officials at the USINT also manage the annual lottery in which 20,000 permanent visas are awarded, as well as processing all applications for tourist visas.
The men and women assembled in the park below have been waiting an average of four years. They hope to be admitted on this day for an interview, which is required for the approval of all US tourist visas. According to Washington's diplomats, whether the numbers of applicants will continue to increase after Jan. 14 will only become clear after the new travel law comes into effect.
On this morning, the door to America's bastion in Havana, sealed off by Cuban police as if it were enemy territory, opens thanks to the authorization we received from the US State Department. We pass a portrait of President Barack Obama and continue up to the fifth floor, where anti-Castro propaganda was once broadcast to the Cuban people using a scrolling electronic billboard. The Cubans responded by erecting a wall of flagpoles in front of the building, along with billboards depicting swastikas and images of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib.
But the days of these propaganda battles are over, say US diplomats, who describe current relations as "frosty-to-cordial," while noting that the overall situation is difficult to gauge. "Cuba's government is trying to figure out how much reform is possible without triggering the regime's downfall."
Kcho's hunting ground lies where the Malecón ends and the Almendares River flows into the sea. It's where he collects flotsam and jetsam, objects that tell the story of a world beyond Cuba.
Alexis Leyva Machado, who goes by the pseudonym Kcho, is one of Cuba's most prominent artists. He has made a name for himself worldwide, as well as a reputation as Fidel Castro's favorite artist. He leaves little doubt as to which of the two is more important to him.
"I'm proud that Fidel calls me his brother," says Kcho, a large man in a white Ralph Lauren shirt with his assistant, who is nodding attentively, in tow. "I admire Fidel's intelligence as much as his sense of responsibility." Kcho's installations are exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and are sold for substantial sums, in dollars, at the Marlborough Gallery in Chelsea. At the same time, Kcho advises fellow Cuban artists to be content with "respect, acclaim and the satisfaction of doing the right thing" -- strengthening socialism.
It is one of Cuba's paradoxes that Kcho, a proven champion of the regime, has made a name for himself by creating works on the subject of escape. He is currently buying rafts made of Styrofoam sheets and boards from other Cubans. Owning the rafts is illegal, and yet fishermen and those seeking to escape have no alternative. He is combining the rafts to form a new installation: a labyrinth.
He collects what the sea washes up, says Kcho: "My obsession comes from the fact that I was born on an island. In Germany, you can walk from Bonn to Berlin if you have to. But you can't get anywhere on foot from Havana."
He says a few choice words about the people who call him "the dictator's favorite son," and then he drives away in his Toyota Landcruiser, which is worth the equivalent of the average annual salaries of about 300 Cubans.
'Things Can't Remain the Way they Are'
Cuba maintains contact with the outside world along the Malecón and behind it, thanks to the Nacional and other hotels with business centers. Hardly any Cubans have Internet access, at home or at work.
When she launched Cuba's first uncensored blog, "Generación Y," she still had to sneak into the hotels that cater to foreigners, says Yoani Sánchez, the country's most famous blogger. Those hotels are now open to Cubans, as well. For security reasons, Sánchez posts her columns, which she also contributes to the Huffington Post, in various locations.
Sánchez, who studied language and literature, has won numerous international awards -- a fact that doesn't help her reputation at home. Walking past prostitutes and beggars in front of the Hotel Inglaterra, she heads for a café, places her iPhone on the table and is about to start talking when the phone beeps. It's a message, together with a photo, from the "Ladies in White," a group of female regime critics who, all dressed in the same outfit, take to the streets on Sundays after church services. They've just finished their current campaign. Sánchez forwards the photos, and soon it's online worldwide.
How does this work in a country without WLAN and hotspots? "In the 1990s, we Cubans had something they called ground beef, but instead of meat it contained banana peels. Why shouldn't we manage to get on the Internet without having the Internet?" she asks, as she shows me how she can "blind-tweet" by sending text messages. Special software, paid for with donations, also enables her to find information offline.
Cuba's political leaders paint Sánchez as a CIA agent and cyberspace mercenary. Social networks alarm the regime, she says. "I'm the best example of that. I'm neither beautiful nor in an important position, and yet I can make a difference." On the day Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people worldwide, she "didn't even have 20 cents for a bus ticket" into the city, she recalls.
She says her dream is to "publish the first newspaper in free Cuba" following the end of the Castro era. After filing 20 unsuccessful applications for a visa to leave the country, one thing is clear to Sánchez: "Things can't remain the way they are. We receive food and water, but so do birds in cages." That isn't enough for her, because, as she says, "I want to fly."
A Revolution Loses Its Children
There is no place where Cuba and Europe are closer than in the last building on the Malecón. The 1830, a restaurant with an outdoor dance floor, attracts salsa aficionados of every stripe.
They come from hotels on the Malecón, like the Riviera, a former Mafia establishment with a coffin-shaped swimming pool: northern European women, some more experienced and others with stiff hips, with or without dancing partners. The going rate for Cuban professional dancers these days is about €8 an hour.
Sometimes the dancing partnerships flower into relationships between foreigners who have long dreamt about Cuba and Cubans who dream of faraway places. If only one-third of his female participants fall in love this year, it'll be well below the average, says one of the organizers.
A Remarkable Balancing Act
About 40,000 Cubans leave the island for good each year. The revolution is gradually losing its children. In 2011, the country of 11 million lost about 84,000 residents. Meanwhile, the tourist population is growing. Recent figures show more than 2.5 million visitors a year, generating more than $2 billion in revenues.
The consequences of this development are evident in Havana's historic old town, which is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. A large-scale laboratory experiment is underway there, conducted by 13,000 employees in the office of the city historian. Profits generated with hard currency from the tourist industry are being invested in the restoration of 3,500 run-down buildings, as well as social projects. It is a remarkable balancing act, guided by the desire for a compromise between a planned economy and unbridled capitalism.
La Bodeguita del Medio, an overcrowded bar once frequented by the likes of novelist Ernest Hemingway, charges $15 for main dishes. But tour guides sometimes take tourists to a grim-looking bodega only four doors down the street, to show them what a shop looks like where Cubans can buy black beans with ration coupons, under the portraits of Fidel, Raúl and Che Guevara.
"When Che was in the Sierra Maestra, I cooked beans for him and tried to learn from him," says Tomás Erasmo Hernández. At 15, he began working as a cook in the 8th column, under Che Guevara. He later became Fidel Castro's personal chef. Today he runs the Mama Inés Restaurant in Old Havana.
The restaurant is one of the pilot projects to enable the establishment of small businesses in government-owned buildings. Some 395,000 Cubans now work in the private sector, but the government still controls four-fifths of the economy. The building that was provided to Chef Erasmo is a former police station, complete with a prewar, dial-operated telephone with an ear trumpet. He hopes that this isn't the end of his career as a capitalist yet.
'This Country Has To Open Up'
"I was never a party member, but I'm a supporter of Fidel to this day," says Erasmo, although he admits that Cuba's self-imposed isolation makes like difficult. "My restaurant has no Internet address and I can't process credit-card payments, but I am allowed to pay taxes."
It's the wrong road into the future, says the man who once cooked beans for Che Guevara. "This country has to open up."
The island's top hospital, the Hermanos Ameijeiras, stands where the Malecón belongs to the boys with Mohawk hairstyles and the girls in tight tops, where they sit in tight embraces on the quay wall, because iPhones are still rare in Havana, leaving their hands free for other things, in other words, where the Malecón is what it has always been, a living room and a waiting room by the sea.
This is where 394 specialists defend the reputation of Cuba's healthcare system. The 16th floor of the new national bank building, where patients with pancreatic cancer lie today, had been completed when the revolution prevailed, and Fidel Castro announced that the planned cathedral of capitalism would instead be turned into a hospital.
It would be another 23 years before the official opening of the hospital, in the presence of the Máximo Líder, who raved that he had probably never "seen a hotel that would be better than this hospital." Since then, more than half a million patients have been admitted and another seven million treated on an outpatient basis. In celebration of the hospital's 30th anniversary, on Dec. 3, 2012, there were words of appreciation -- not from the staff to the Castro brothers, but the other way around.
And that's the way it should be, says Dr. Gonzalo Estévez, the physician-in-chief, as he looks out the window at the Malecón and the ocean. Those who rose to prominence from humble beginnings, as he did, have every reason to be loyal, he says, and no desire to leave Cuba. "I was 11 years old in 1959. I owe everything I am today to the revolution."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
01/10/2013 12:23 PM
Abandoned Colony in Greenland: Archaeologists Find Clues to Viking Mystery
By Günther Stockinger
For years, researchers have puzzled over why Viking descendents abandoned Greenland in the late 15th century. But archaeologists now believe that economic and identity issues, rather than starvation and disease, drove them back to their ancestral homes.
On Sept. 14, 1408, Thorstein Olafsson and Sigrid Björnsdottir were married. The ceremony took place in a church on Hvalsey Fjord in Greenland that was only five meters (about 16 feet) tall.
It must have been difficult for the bride and groom to recognize each other in the dim light of the church. The milky light of late summer could only enter the turf-roofed church through an arched window on the east side and a few openings resembling arrow slits. After the ceremony, the guests fortified themselves with seal meat.
The marriage of the Icelander and the girl from Greenland was one of the last raucous festivals in the far northern Viking colony. It all ended soon afterwards, when the last oil lamps went out in the Nordic settlements in Greenland.
The ancestors of the Vikings had persevered in their North Atlantic outpost for almost 500 years, from the end of the 10th century until the mid-15th century. The Medieval Warm Period had made it possible for settlers from Norway, Iceland and Denmark to live on hundreds of scattered farms along the protected fjords, where they built dozens of churches and even had bishops.
Their disappearance remains a mystery to this day. Until now, many experts had assumed that the cooling of the climate and the resulting crop failures and famines had ushered in the end of the Scandinavian colony. But now a Danish-Canadian team of scientists believes that it can refute this theory of decline.
From Farmers to Seal-Hunters
The scientists conducted isotope analyses on hundreds of human and animal bones found on the island. Their study, published in the Journal of the North Atlantic, paints the most detailed picture to date of the Nordic settlers' dietary habits.
As the research shows, hunger could hardly have driven the ancestors of the Vikings out of their settlements on the edge of the glaciers. The bone analyses prove that, when the warm period came to an end, the Greenlandic farmers and ranchers switched to a seafood-based diet with surprising rapidity. From then on, the settlers focused their efforts on hunting the seals that appeared in large numbers off the coasts of Greenland during their annual migrations.
When settlement began in the early 11th century, only between 20 and 30 percent of their diet came from the sea. But seal hunting played a growing role in the ensuing centuries. "They ate more and more seal meat, with the animals constituting up to 80 percent of their diet in the 14th century," explains team member Jan Heinemeier, a dating expert from the University of Aarhus, in Denmark.
His fellow team member Niels Lynnerup, an anthropologist and forensic scientist at the University of Copenhagen, confirms that the Vikings of Greenland had plenty to eat even as the climate grew colder. "Perhaps they were just sick and tired of living at the ends of the earth and having almost nothing but seals to eat," he says.
The bone analyses show that they rarely ate meat from their own herds of livestock. The climate had become harsher on the island starting in the mid-13th century. Summer temperatures fell, violent storms raged around the houses and the winters were bone-chillingly cold. For the cattle that had been brought to Greenland, there was less and less to eat in the pastures and meadows along the fjords.
On the smaller farms, cattle were gradually replaced with sheep and goats, which were easier to rear. The isotope analyses show that pigs, valued for their meat, were fed fish and seal remains for a while longer but had had disappeared from the island by around 1300.
The farmers, who had switched their focus to seal-hunting, apparently did hardly anything to avert the decline of their livestock economy. The scientists' analyses of animal bones show that the Greenlanders didn't even try to help their cattle survive the long, icy winter by feeding them something of a starvation diet of bushes, horse manure, seaweed and fish waste, a widespread practice in regions of Northern Europe with similar climatic challenges until a few decades ago.
It also appears that epidemics were not responsible for the decline of farm life on the island. The scientists did not discover more signs of disease in the Viking bones uncovered on the island than elsewhere. "We found normal skeletons, which looked just like comparable finds from Scandinavian countries," says Lynnerup.
So, if it wasn't starvation or disease, what triggered the abandonment of the Greenland settlements in the second half of the 15th century? The scientists suspect that a combination of causes made life there unbearable for the Scandinavian immigrants. For instance, there was hardly any demand anymore for walrus tusks and seal pelts, the colony's most important export items. What's more, by the mid-14th century, regular ship traffic with Norway and Iceland had ceased.
As a result, Greenland's residents were increasingly isolated from their mother countries. Although they urgently needed building lumber and iron tools, they could now only get their hands on them sporadically. "It became more and more difficult for the Greenlanders to attract merchants from Europe to the island," speculates Jette Arneborg, an archeologist at the National Museum of Denmark, in Copenhagen. "But, without trade, they couldn't survive in the long run."
The settlers were probably also worried about the increasing loss of their Scandinavian identity. They saw themselves as farmers and ranchers rather than fishermen and hunters. Their social status depended on the land and livestock they owned, but it was precisely these things that could no longer help them produce what they needed to survive.
Although the ancestors of the Vikings had adjusted to life in the north, there were limits to their assimilation. "They would have had to live more and more like the Inuit, distancing themselves from their cultural roots," says Arneborg. "This growing contradiction between identity and reality was apparently what led to their decline."
An Orderly Abandonment
In the final phase, it was young people of child-bearing age in particular who saw no future for themselves on the island. The excavators found hardly any skeletons of young women on a cemetery from the late period.
"The situation was presumably similar to the way it is today, when young Greeks and Spaniards are leaving their countries to seek greener pastures in areas that are more promising economically," Lynnerup says. "It's always the young and the strong who go, leaving the old behind."
In addition, there was a rural exodus in their Scandinavian countries at the time, and the population in the more remote regions of Iceland, Norway and Denmark was thinning out. This, in turn, freed up farms and estates for returnees from Greenland.
However, the Greenlanders didn't leave their houses in a precipitous fashion. Aside from a gold signet ring in the grave of a bishop, valuable items, such as silver and gold crucifixes, have not been discovered anywhere on the island. The archeologists interpret this as a sign that the departure from the colony proceeded in an orderly manner, and that the residents took any valuable objects along. "If they had died out as a result of diseases or natural disasters, we would certainly have found such precious items long ago," says Lynnerup.
The couple that was married in the church on Hvalsey Fjord also left the island shortly after their wedding. In Iceland, the couple had to provide the local bishop with written proof that they had entered into a bond for life under a sod roof according to the rules of the mother church. Their reports are the last documents describing the lives of the Nordic settlers in Greenland.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
In the USA...
Joe Biden: Obama prepared to use executive action on gun control
By Tom McCarthy, The Guardian
Thursday, January 10, 2013 7:00 EST
Vice-president promises swift action from administration at inaugural meeting of national task force on gun control
President Barack Obama is considering the use of an executive order to restrict access to guns or ammunition in the wake of nationwide revulsion in the US over the Connecticut school shootings, vice-president Joe Biden said Wednesday.
Such a move would be deeply controversial in the gun lobby, but Biden said the president was determined to explore every legislative avenue.
“The president is going to act,” Biden said in a briefing to reporters before the inaugural meeting of a new national task force on gun control. “Executive order, executive action that can be taken; we haven’t decided what that is yet. But we’re compiling it all with the help of the attorney general and all the rest of the cabinet members as well as legislative action, we believe, is required.”
Biden did not specify what kind of action the president might take. In the past the Obama administration has used executive orders, which have the force of law, to require gun dealers to report when customers buy multiple high-powered rifles and to increase penalties for violating gun laws. A new order, nearly certain to face legal challenges, could seek to tighten enforcement of laws governing private sales of guns or to beef up background checks.
“We are not going to get caught up in the notion that unless we can do everything we’re going to do nothing,” Biden said. “It’s critically important that we act.”
Any unilateral action by the president seemed sure to inflame gun advocates, who argue that gun sales are protected under the second amendment and who equate gun control with tyranny. Gun-rights groups are organising a “Gun Appreciation Day” on the weekend of the president’s second inauguration. The influential conservative website the Drudge Report illustrated the story covering Biden’s remarks with pictures of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin.
Biden said that the 14 December massacre at a Connecticut elementary school, in which 20 first-graders were shot dead in their classrooms by a man armed with a semi-automatic rifle, had mobilised the nation to act.
“Every once in a while there’s something that awakens the conscience of the country, and that tragic event did it in a way like nothing I’ve seen in my career,” Biden said.
The national taskforce includes the victims of mass shootings and gun control advocates. The group plans to meet Thursday with representatives of the National Rifle Association and gun retailers including Walmart. The taskforce was to deliver recommendations to the president as early as mid-month.
New York could become the first state to pass gun control laws after the Connecticut massacre, aides to Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in advance of his annual address planned for Wednesday afternoon. Lawmakers in Albany worked late into the night Tuesday to settle on new rules to further restrict the sales of assault rifles and large-capacity magazines, and to require the regular renewal of gun permits, among other measures.
The NRA has vocally opposed calls for new gun control legislation, saying that more guns are needed to improve public safety.
“If it’s crazy to call for armed officers in our schools to protect our children, then call me crazy,” NRA head Wayne LaPierre said a week after the Connecticut shooting. “I think the American people think it’s crazy not to do it. It’s the one thing that would keep people safe.”
Deaths from guns are on pace to surpass traffic deaths in the United States by 2015, according to a Bloomberg News study. In 2011, the latest year for which detailed statistics are available, there were 12,664 murders in the US. Of those, 8,583 were caused by firearms, down 3% from a year earlier.
The Biden taskforce is part of new wave of gun control activity across the country. Former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head in a 2011 massacre in Tucson that killed six, announced on Tuesday the formation of a political action committee to fight the NRA.
“Special interests purporting to represent gun owners but really advancing the interests of an ideological fringe have used big money and influence to cow Congress into submission,” she wrote in an editorial with husband Mark Kelly, an astronaut. “Rather than working to find the balance between our rights and the regulation of a dangerous product, these groups have cast simple protections for our communities as existential threats to individual liberties.”
New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is heading up a campaign called Demand a Plan that has produced dozens of videos in which family members of victims of gun violence call for new gun laws. Advocates have proposed a coalition of mothers against gun violence that would be modeled after Madd, the anti-drunken driving group that succeeded in lowering the legal blood-alcohol content for drivers nationally.
© Guardian News and Media 2013
January 9, 2013
New York Is Moving Quickly to Enact Tough Curbs on Guns
By DAVID M. HALBFINGER and THOMAS KAPLAN
New York State is nearing agreement on a proposal to put what would be some of the nation’s strictest gun-control laws into effect, including what Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo vowed on Wednesday would be an ironclad ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, and new measures to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and mentally ill people.
Lawmakers in Albany, seeking to send a message to the nation that the recent mass shootings demand swift action, say they hope to vote on the package of legislation as soon as next week.
The Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, told reporters on Wednesday that Mr. Cuomo and legislative leaders were “95 percent” of the way toward an agreement. Senate Republicans, considered the only possible obstacle to the governor’s proposal, indicated they did not intend to block a deal.
“When you hear about these issues all across the nation, whether it’s in the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., or Columbine, something needs to happen — something transformative,” said Senator Timothy M. Kennedy, a Democrat from Buffalo.
The dash to enact new gun controls made New York the first flash point in the battles over firearm restrictions that are expected to consume several state capitals this year.
But the debate also raged elsewhere on Wednesday, from Denver, where supporters of gun rights rallied to oppose weapon restrictions in the new legislative session, to Connecticut, whose governor, Dannel P. Malloy, in an emotional speech to lawmakers — he lost his composure talking about the mass killings at a Newtown elementary school last month — said, “More guns are not the answer.”
At the White House, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. met with gun-control advocates and said the Obama administration planned both to pass legislation and to use executive orders to try to reduce gun violence. “The president and I are determined to take action,” Mr. Biden said. “This is not an exercise in photo opportunities.”
Mr. Cuomo’s aides said the proposed legislation in New York would expand the definition of what is considered an assault weapon to match California’s law, currently the most restrictive in the nation. But the overall package would go further, they said, by limiting detachable ammunition magazines to 7 rounds from the current 10, and requiring background checks for purchases of ammunition, not just weapons.
Limiting magazines to seven rounds would give New York the toughest restrictions in the nation. Only around half a dozen states currently limit the size of magazines, and most of them allow magazines that contain up to 10 rounds, according to a survey by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which advocates gun control. The New York law would also close a loophole that has thwarted enforcement of limits on the size of magazines.
Even as Mr. Cuomo detailed his plans, gun-rights groups mobilized to oppose the new restrictions.
“We fully expect that New York state’s gun owners will be completely engaged in this debate and N.R.A. will be there to lead them,” said Chris W. Cox, the chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, which has donated more money to state politicians in New York than anywhere else, much of it to Senate Republicans.
And immediately afterward, Budd Schroeder, the chairman of the Shooters Committee on Political Education, a New York gun-rights group, said he planned to meet with every state senator he knew to ask them to stand up to the governor.
“The legislators are going to be getting a lot of phone calls in their district offices,” Mr. Schroeder said. “How is taking away my rights to own any type of firearm I choose going to change the attitude of a criminal?”
Yet Mr. Schroeder’s group, on its Web site, acknowledged the challenging terrain. “We can say with certainty,” it warned, “that anything short of overwhelming our legislators with calls, e-mails and letters, we have virtually no chance.”
Mr. Cuomo’s initiative drew praise from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who has made gun control his signature cause. “I was particularly struck by his passionate leadership on gun violence,” Mr. Bloomberg said in a statement. “New York State has led the nation with strong, common-sense gun laws, and the governor’s new proposals will build on that tradition.”
Mr. Cuomo is a possible 2016 presidential contender who is seeking to elevate his stature among Democrats base nationally, after a much-praised victory on same-sex marriage in his first year in office. His push for enhanced gun control even drew praise from Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, in a letter that otherwise criticized Mr. Cuomo’s support for abortion rights.
Mr. Cuomo had already stirred up anxiety among gun rights groups by saying in a radio interview in December that “confiscation could be an option” for existing assault weapons.
But on Wednesday, Mr. Cuomo backed away from that statement. “This is not about taking away people’s guns,” he said in his State of the State address. “It is about ending the unnecessary risk of high-capacity assault rifles. That’s what this is about.”
The expectation from Senator Dean G. Skelos, the Republican leader, and his aides that the gun-control legislation would come to the Senate floor for a vote is significant; Senate Republicans have consistently rebuffed efforts by Democrats to pass more restrictive gun laws.
But Republicans now have partial control of the chamber because of a coalition they recently established to share power with a group of dissident Democrats who favor more gun control. And Democrats believe that Republican leaders would rather accept a deal than jeopardize their warm relationship with Mr. Cuomo or risk a public relations backlash.
Many Senate Republicans sought re-election in part by touting their bond with the governor, who remains popular with Republican voters as well as with Democrats; Mr. Cuomo, recognizing the extent of his political power, has vowed to travel the state blaming Senate Republicans if they do not back his efforts for gun control.
The gun-control debate had already flared up in other ways in New York State since the shootings last month in Newtown and in Webster, N.Y., where two firefighters were killed. A newspaper’s publication of a map showing the names and addresses of gun owners in suburban Westchester and Rockland Counties set off a wave of threats against and harassment of the paper’s employees.
In his State of the State address Wednesday, the governor told lawmakers it was their duty to “stop the madness” of violence.
“Forget the extremists — it’s simple,” Mr. Cuomo said to a crescendo of applause. “No one hunts with an assault rifle. No one needs 10 bullets to kill a deer.”
Michael Cooper and Michael D. Shear contributed reporting.
U.S. oil output to soar to 26-year high in 2014
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:42 EST
US oil production will jump 23 percent over the next two years to a quarter-century high by 2014, reducing demand for foreign supplies from the world’s largest oil importer, according to a new official forecast.
The government’s Energy Information Agency said that booming production from shale and other “tight oil” formations will push the country’s daily production to 7.92 million barrels a day from 6.43 million barrels a day in 2012.
Production last year already gained 780,000 barrels a day from 2011 thanks to surging production from fracking operations tapping shale resources in the North Dakota region, the EIA said in the report released Tuesday.
The continuing rise will by 2014 push US production to its highest level since 1988, closing in on the world’s leading producer Saudi Arabia, which puts out more than 10 million barrels a day, most of it exported.
The rise in production will be paralleled however by a fall in global oil prices, the EIA said: the price for the benchmark Brent crude, which averaged $112 a barrel last year, will drop to $105 on average this year and $99 in 2014.
The falling price is driven due to higher supplies on the market of both oil and gas, thanks to growing exploitation of previously inaccessible oil shale and other tight oil and gas formations.
The rise in the past few years of fracking — which involves using high pressure to collapse complex rock formations, along with horizontal drilling, to release the hydrocarbons — has been at the root of the production surge.
January 9, 2013
Obama’s Pick for Treasury Is Said to Be His Chief of Staff
By JACKIE CALMES
WASHINGTON — With his choice of Jacob J. Lew to be the secretary of Treasury, President Obama on Thursday will complete the transformation of his economic team from the big-name economists and financial firefighters hired four years ago to budget negotiators ready for the next fiscal fights in Congress.
If confirmed by the Senate, the 57-year-old Mr. Lew — Mr. Obama’s current chief of staff and former budget director — would become the president’s second Treasury secretary, succeeding Timothy F. Geithner, who was the last remaining principal from the original economic team that took office at the height of the global crisis in January 2009.
While the team is changing, so far it is made up entirely of men who have been part of the administration since its first months. Gene B. Sperling, like Mr. Lew a veteran of the Clinton administration, is expected to remain as director of the White House National Economic Council. Alan B. Krueger, a former Treasury economist, continues as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and Jeffrey D. Zients, a former business executive, as acting director of the Office of Management and Budget.
That composition gives Mr. Obama a high degree of comfort with his economic advisers, who have experience in the budget struggles that have occupied the administration since Republicans took control of the House two years ago. Those struggles will resume later this month. Yet the continuity also plays into criticism that the president is too insular and insufficiently open to outside voices and fresh eyes in the White House.
Adding to a scarcity of female advisers among Mr. Obama’s top aides, Hilda L. Solis, the secretary of labor for four years, announced on Wednesday that she would be resigning, following the most prominent female Cabinet member, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, out of the administration.
Separately, administration officials let it be known on Wednesday that several Cabinet members will remain in their jobs: Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, who is expected to stay through the full adoption of the 2010 health care law in 2014; Eric H. Holder Jr., the attorney general; and Eric K. Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs.
If Mr. Lew is confirmed in time, his first test as Treasury secretary could come as soon as next month, when the administration and Congressional Republicans are expected to face off over increasing the nation’s debt ceiling, which is the legal limit on the amount that the government can borrow. Mr. Obama has said he will not negotiate over raising that limit, which was often lifted routinely in the past, but Republican leaders have said they will refuse to support an increase unless he agrees to an equal amount of spending cuts, particularly to entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.
Mr. Lew was passed over for Mr. Obama’s economic team four years ago, when Mr. Obama instead chose Lawrence H. Summers, a former Harvard University president and Treasury secretary, as director of the National Economic Council. Mrs. Clinton then hired Mr. Lew at the State Department, and in late 2010 — over the objections of Mrs. Clinton, who had come to rely on Mr. Lew — Mr. Obama made him budget director, the same post Mr. Lew had held late in the Clinton administration.
Mr. Lew in the 1980s was a Democratic adviser to the House speaker then, Thomas P. O’Neill, participating in fiscal talks with the Reagan administration. Mr. Lew is known for his low-key style and organizational skills.
While Mr. Lew has much less experience than Mr. Geithner in international economics and financial markets, he would come to the job with far more expertise in fiscal policy than Mr. Geithner did. That shift in skills reflects the changed times, when emphasis has shifted from a global financial crisis to the budget fights with Republicans in Congress.
The partisan tension suggests that Mr. Lew will be questioned closely by Senate Republicans in confirmation hearings.
But Republicans have not signaled the kind of opposition they put up to some of Mr. Obama’s other potential nominations.
Mr. Lew’s departure as chief of staff would create a vacancy for what would be Mr. Obama’s fifth White House chief of staff, a turnover rate that is in contrast with the stability atop Treasury the last four years with Mr. Geithner. The leading candidates are said to be Denis McDonough, currently the deputy national security adviser in the White House, and Ronald A. Klain, a former chief of staff to two vice presidents, Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Al Gore.
Before joining the Obama administration, Mr. Lew spent a brief period in the financial sector, at Citigroup, first as managing director of Citi Global Wealth Management and then as chief operating officer of Citigroup Alternative Investments.
By contrast, Mr. Geithner had been president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, which includes overseeing Wall Street. For the financial industry, Mr. Lew is a largely a blank slate.
“While he can undoubtedly learn the material on the job, we question whether he has sufficient relationships with the banking industry in the U.S. and abroad, which can be critical during a financial crisis,” Brian Gardner, head of Washington research for the investment banking firm Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, wrote to clients on Wednesday.
But Michael Schlein, who worked with Mr. Lew at Citigroup and is now head of a nonprofit financial services organization, Accion, countered: “People in the business community like to deal with people in Washington who they can trust. I think Jack already does, and will do, very well with Wall Street and with business leaders because he is a very, very straight shooter.”
Mr. Lew has a reputation as a fiscal progressive who, like Mr. Obama, is eager to protect Medicaid and other antipoverty programs from deep cuts. But advocates for tighter financial regulation of Wall Street question whether he is too conservative.
The question is relevant because major regulations under the 2010 Dodd-Frank law remain to be put into effect in Mr. Obama’s second term.
“He appears to share a Wall Street mentality, particularly when it comes to financial reform,” said Dennis M. Kelleher, the president of Better Markets, a Washington-based nonprofit. “Financial reform is all about making the banking system safer and preventing more taxpayer bailouts.”
Annie Lowrey contributed reporting.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 10, 2013
An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the surname of Michael Schlein, head of Accion, as Schein.
Auto union calls on Chrysler to go public
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, January 9, 2013 22:12 EST
An auto union pension fund has moved to push Chrysler to go public so that the fund can sell its shares in the automaker on the open market, Chrysler said Wednesday.
The number three US automaker said the UAW Retiree Medical Benefits Trust, which holds 16.6 percent of Chrysler shares, submitted a “registration demand” calling on Chrysler to register its shares under the US Securities Act.
The registration demand would force Chrysler to apply to list its shares on the stock market, opening the way for the trust to seek a market price for its holdings.
The move came days after Chrysler controlling shareholder Fiat said it wanted to exercise an option to obtain more shares in the automaker from the trust, which is controlled by the United Autoworkers union.
Fiat, which took control of Chrysler in June 2009 after the US government bailout had stabilized the company, aims to boost its shareholding by 3.3 percent to more than 65 percent through the purchase, priced at $198 million.
The move suggested that the trust also known as VEBA, was not happy with the pricing of the option, one in a series of options Fiat has to raise its stake over time.
Chrysler said in a statement that it would “comply with its obligations under the shareholders agreement and its operating agreement,” pacts mapped in 2009 to protect various interests while allowing the company to get back on its feet under Fiat’s control after bankruptcy reorganization.
However, it added, “There can be no assurance that a registration statement will be filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, or that if filed, that any such offering will be made or as to the timing of any offering that is made.”
Study: Even wealthy Americans in worse health than western Europeans
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:41 EST
Americans are in worse health, die earlier and suffer from more disease than residents of other wealthy nations, according to a new study out Wednesday.
The disadvantage spans all ages from birth to 75, said the report, conducted jointly by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine.
Some details were surprising: even wealthier Americans and those with health insurance were not as healthy as counterparts in other prosperous nations, it found.
“We were struck by the gravity of these findings,” said Steven Woolf, professor of family medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and chair of the panel that wrote the report.
“Americans are dying and suffering at rates that we know are unnecessary because people in other high-income countries are living longer lives and enjoying better health. What concerns our panel is why, for decades, we have been slipping behind,” Woolf stressed.
The report is the first of its kind to look at a range of illnesses, injuries and behaviors of people of all ages in the United States to run a comparison with counterparts in rich countries such as Australia, Canada, Japan and several countries in western Europe.
Among the countries studied, the United States was in last place or close to last in nine key benchmark areas.
They were: infant mortality and low birth weight; injuries and homicides; teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections; prevalence of HIV and AIDS; drug-related deaths; obesity and diabetes; heart disease; chronic lung disease; and disability.
Many of the health problems disproportionately plague children, the report found.
The United States has the highest infant mortality among rich countries despite the fact that it spends more on health care than any other country.
The report urges authorities to step up efforts to identify and pursue national health goals.
US President Barack Obama’s landmark overhaul of the health care system, which aims to provide insurance to the majority of those currently without, is due to come into force next year after being upheld by the Supreme Court.
January 8, 2013
Health Care and Profits, a Poor Mix
By EDUARDO PORTER
Thirty years ago, Bonnie Svarstad and Chester Bond of the School of Pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison discovered an interesting pattern in the use of sedatives at nursing homes in the south of the state.
Patients entering church-affiliated nonprofit homes were prescribed drugs roughly as often as those entering profit-making “proprietary” institutions. But patients in proprietary homes received, on average, more than four times the dose of patients at nonprofits.
Writing about his colleagues’ research in his 1988 book “The Nonprofit Economy,” the economist Burton Weisbrod provided a straightforward explanation: “differences in the pursuit of profit.” Sedatives are cheap, Mr. Weisbrod noted. “Less expensive than, say, giving special attention to more active patients who need to be kept busy.”
This behavior was hardly surprising. Hospitals run for profit are also less likely than nonprofit and government-run institutions to offer services like home health care and psychiatric emergency care, which are not as profitable as open-heart surgery.
A shareholder might even applaud the creativity with which profit-seeking institutions go about seeking profit. But the consequences of this pursuit might not be so great for other stakeholders in the system — patients, for instance. One study found that patients’ mortality rates spiked when nonprofit hospitals switched to become profit-making, and their staff levels declined.
These profit-maximizing tactics point to a troubling conflict of interest that goes beyond the private delivery of health care. They raise a broader, more important question: How much should we rely on the private sector to satisfy broad social needs?
From health to pensions to education, the United States relies on private enterprise more than pretty much every other advanced, industrial nation to provide essential social services. The government pays Medicare Advantage plans to deliver health care to aging Americans. It provides a tax break to encourage employers to cover workers under 65.
Businesses devote almost 6 percent of the nation’s economic output to pay for health insurance for their employees. This amounts to nine times similar private spending on health benefits across the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, on average. Private plans cover more than a third of pension benefits. The average for 30 countries in the O.E.C.D. is just over one-fifth.
We let the private sector handle tasks other countries would never dream of moving outside the government’s purview. Consider bail bondsmen and their rugged sidekicks, the bounty hunters.
American TV audiences may reminisce fondly about Lee Majors in “The Fall Guy” chasing bad guys in a souped-up GMC truck — a cheap way to get felons to court. People in most other nations see them as an undue commercial intrusion into the criminal justice system that discriminates against the poor.
Our reliance on private enterprise to provide the most essential services stems, in part, from a more narrow understanding of our collective responsibility to provide social goods. Private American health care has stood out for decades among industrial nations, where public universal coverage has long been considered a right of citizenship. But our faith in private solutions also draws on an ingrained belief that big government serves too many disparate objectives and must cater to too many conflicting interests to deliver services fairly and effectively.
Our trust appears undeserved, however. Our track record suggests that handing over responsibility for social goals to private enterprise is providing us with social goods of lower quality, distributed more inequitably and at a higher cost than if government delivered or paid for them directly.
The government’s most expensive housing support program — it will cost about $140 billion this year — is a tax break for individuals to buy homes on the private market.
According to the Tax Policy Center, this break will benefit only 20 percent of mostly well-to-do taxpayers, and most economists agree that it does nothing to further its purported goal of increasing homeownership. Tax breaks for private pensions also mostly benefit the wealthy. And 401(k) plans are riskier and costlier to administer than Social Security.
From the high administrative costs incurred by health insurers to screen out sick patients to the array of expensive treatments prescribed by doctors who earn more money for every treatment they provide, our private health care industry provides perhaps the clearest illustration of how the profit motive can send incentives astray.
By many objective measures, the mostly private American system delivers worse value for money than every other in the developed world. We spend nearly 18 percent of the nation’s economic output on health care and still manage to leave tens of millions of Americans without adequate access to care.
Britain gets universal coverage for 10 percent of gross domestic product. Germany and France for 12 percent. What’s more, our free market for health services produces no better health than the public health care systems in other advanced nations. On some measures — infant mortality, for instance — it does much worse.
In a way, private delivery of health care misleads Americans about the financial burdens they must bear to lead an adequate existence. If they were to consider the additional private spending on health care as a form of tax — an indispensable cost to live a healthy life — the nation’s tax bill would rise to about 31 percent from 25 percent of the nation’s G.D.P. — much closer to the 34 percent average across the O.E.C.D.
A quarter of a century ago, a belief swept across America that we could reduce the ballooning costs of the government’s health care entitlements just by handing over their management to the private sector. Private companies would have a strong incentive to identify and wipe out wasteful treatment. They could encourage healthy lifestyles among beneficiaries, lowering use of costly care. Competition for government contracts would keep the overall price down.
We now know this didn’t work as advertised. Competition wasn’t as robust as hoped. Health maintenance organizations didn’t keep costs in check, and they spent heavily on administration and screening to enroll only the healthiest, most profitable beneficiaries.
One study of Medicare spending found that the program saved no money by relying on H.M.O.’s. Another found that moving Medicaid recipients into H.M.O.’s increased the average cost per beneficiary by 12 percent with no improvement in the quality of care for the poor. Two years ago, President Obama’s health care law cut almost $150 billion from Medicare simply by reducing payments to private plans that provide similar care to plain vanilla Medicare at a higher cost.
Today, again, entitlements are at the center of the national debate. Our elected officials are consumed by slashing a budget deficit that is expected to balloon over coming decades. With both Democrats and Republicans unwilling to raise taxes on the middle class, the discussion is quickly boiling down to how deeply entitlements must be cut.
We may want to broaden the debate. The relevant question is how best we can serve our social needs at the lowest possible cost. One answer is that we have a lot of room to do better. Improving the delivery of social services like health care and pensions may be possible without increasing the burden on American families, simply by removing the profit motive from the equation.
January 9, 2013
Pap Test Could Help Find Cancers of Uterus and Ovaries
By DENISE GRADY
The Pap test, which has prevented countless deaths from cervical cancer, may eventually help to detect cancers of the uterus and ovaries as well, a new study suggests.
For the first time, researchers have found genetic material from uterine or ovarian cancers in Pap smears, meaning that it may become possible to detect three diseases with just one routine test.
But the research is early, years away from being used in medical practice, and there are caveats. The women studied were already known to have cancer, and while the Pap test found 100 percent of the uterine cancers, it detected only 41 percent of the ovarian cancers. And the approach has not yet been tried in women who appear healthy, to determine whether it can find early signs of uterine or ovarian cancer.
On the other hand, even a 41 percent detection rate would be better than the status quo in ovarian cancer, particularly if the detection extends to early stages. The disease is usually advanced by the time it is found, and survival rates are poor. About 22,280 new cases were expected in the United States in 2012, and 15,500 deaths. Improved tests are urgently needed.
Uterine cancer has a better prognosis, but still kills around 8,000 women a year in the United States.
These innovative applications of the Pap test are part of a new era in which advances in genetics are being applied to the detection of a wide variety of cancers or precancerous conditions. Scientists are learning to find minute bits of mutant DNA in tissue samples or bodily fluids that may signal the presence of hidden or incipient cancers.
Ideally, the new techniques would find the abnormalities early enough to cure the disease or even prevent it entirely. But it is too soon to tell.
“Is this the harbinger of things to come? I would answer yes,” said Dr. Bert Vogelstein, director of the Ludwig Center for Cancer Genetics and Therapeutics at Johns Hopkins University, and a senior author of a report on the Pap test study published on Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine. He said the genomes of more than 50 types of tumors had been sequenced, and researchers were trying to take advantage of the information.
Similar studies are under way or are being considered to look for mutant DNA in blood, stool, urine and sputum, both to detect cancer and also to monitor the response to treatment in people known to have the disease.
But researchers warn that such tests, used for screening, can be a double-edged sword if they give false positive results that send patients down a rabbit hole of invasive tests and needless treatments. Even a test that finds only real cancers may be unable to tell aggressive, dangerous ones apart from indolent ones that might never do any harm, leaving patients to decide whether to watch and wait or to go through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation with all the associated risks and side effects.
“Will they start recovering mutations that are not cancer-related?” asked Dr. Christopher P. Crum, a professor at Harvard Medical School who was not involved in the research.
But he also called the study a “great proof of principle,” and said, “Any whisper of hope to women who suffer from endometrial or ovarian cancer would be most welcome.”
DNA testing is already performed on samples from Pap tests, to look for the human papillomavirus, or HPV, which causes cervical cancer. Dr. Vogelstein and his team decided to try DNA testing for cancer. They theorized that cells or DNA shed from cancers of the ovaries and the uterine lining, or endometrium, might reach the cervix and turn up in Pap smears.
The team picked common mutations found in these cancers, and looked for them in tumor samples from 24 women with endometrial cancer and 22 with ovarian cancer. All the cancers had one or more of the common mutations.
Then, the researchers performed Pap tests on the same women, and looked for the same DNA mutations in the Pap specimens. They found the mutations in 100 percent of the women with endometrial cancer, but in only 9 of the 22 with ovarian cancer. The test identified two of the four ovarian cancers that had been diagnosed at an early stage.
Finally, the team developed a test that would look simultaneously for cancer-associated mutations in 12 different genes in Pap samples. Used in a control sample of 14 healthy women, the test found no mutations — meaning no false-positive results.
Dr. Luis A. Diaz, the other senior author of the report and an associate professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins, called the research a step toward a screening test that at first blush appears very effective at detecting endometrial cancer, though obviously less so at finding ovarian cancer.
“Probably one of the most exciting features of this approach,” Dr. Diaz said, “is that we wanted a test that would seamlessly integrate with routine medical practice that could be utilized with the same test that women get every day all over the world, the Pap smear.”
But, he added: “We can’t say it’s ready for prime time. Like all good science, it needs to be validated.”
He and other members of the team said it might be possible to improve the detection rate for ovarian cancer by looking for more mutations and by changing the technique of performing Pap tests to increase the likelihood of capturing cells from the ovary. The change might involve timing the test to a certain point in a woman’s monthly cycle, using a longer brush to collect cells from deeper within the cervix or prescribing a drug that would raise the odds of cells being shed from the ovary.
The technique also needs to be tested in much larger groups of women, including healthy ones, to find out whether it works, particularly at finding cancers early enough to improve survival. And studies must also find out whether it generates false positive results, or identifies cancers that might not actually need to be treated.
Michael H. Melner, a program director in molecular genetics and biochemistry for the American Cancer Society, called the research “very promising,” in part because it is based on finding mutations.
“It tells you not just that cancer is there, but which mutation is there,” Dr. Melner said. “As we learn more and more about which mutations are associated with more or less severe forms of cancer, it’s more information, and possibly more diagnostic.”
January 8, 2013
A Financial Service for People Fed Up With Banks
By JENNA WORTHAM
Like many people, Josh Reich got fed up with his bank after it charged him overdraft fees and he endured painful customer service calls to fight them. But unlike most people, Mr. Reich, a software engineer from Australia, decided to come up with a better way to bank.
Mr. Reich and a co-founder, Shamir Karkal, created Simple, an online banking start-up company based in Portland, Ore., that offers its customers free checking accounts and data-rich analysis of their transactions and spending habits.
Few entrepreneurs dare to set their sights on industries as large and entrenched as banking and expect to flourish. But Mr. Reich, 34, a professed data nerd who has built computers and tinkered with the innards of sophisticated cameras, holds a master’s degree in business and has a robust background in financial data analysis. He is confident that Simple’s minimalist approach — it promises not to charge any fees for any services — will draw fans and customers.
“Banks make money by keeping customers confused,” Mr. Reich said. “There’s no incentives to make the experience better.”
Of course, inviting people to trust a start-up with their money is a lot to ask. The company, which began signing up customers late last year in a deliberately slow fashion, now has 20,000 and has processed transactions worth more than $200 million.
It also has the backing of prominent venture capital firms including Shasta Ventures, SV Angel and IA Ventures and has raised more than $13 million. Simple has few, if any, direct competitors, although some services like SmartyPig and Mint offer analysis of bank accounts and financial transactions.
Simple is actually not a bank. It has deals with CBW Bank and Bancorp, federally insured banks, to hold its customers’ money.
And it has built slick apps for the Web and mobile devices to give customers an overview of their accounts and transactions. But it encourages customers to treat it as a bank, closing their more traditional accounts and only using Simple.
The company’s biggest challenge, banking analysts say, will be to persuade people to give it a try.
“It is extremely difficult to get consumers to change and leave their banks,” said Jacob Jegher, an analyst at Celent, a research and consulting firm. “Plus, although they are not a bank, they still operate like a financial institution, and they will face challenges that big banks have decades of experience with.”
After the financial crisis, smaller community banks and credit unions gained customers eager for alternatives to larger corporate banks. Experts say Simple could attract those customers as well.
Early adopters are warming to the service; during a speech last fall at a conference aimed at technology enthusiasts, designers and creative people, Mr. Reich asked how many in attendance were Simple customers. A majority of the crowd raised hands.
Mr. Reich said Simple was keeping its first group of customers small to allow it to work out any kinks. (Already there have been some flaws, like one that briefly locked several users out of their accounts in November.) At this stage, those who want a Simple account have to request an invitation on its site, though these are handed out fairly liberally to those who meet the minimal qualifications of Simple and its bank partners.
Customers receive a plain white card that can be used like a debit card. The company offers most traditional banking features, like direct deposit and money transfers. But there is plenty it does not offer, like joint or business checking accounts, or paper checkbooks, which may be a deal killer for some.
The start-up does not have physical bank branches or automated teller machines, nor does it plan to build any. As a result, Simple customers cannot make cash deposits and must rely on the Internet and phone for service.
Simple tries to make up for what it does not have with modern software design and data analysis.
Each Simple transaction is tagged with detailed information that allows customers to search their accounts with plain English commands like “Show me how much I spent on meals over $30 last month,” or “Show me how much money I spent on gifts in December.”
Customers can see transactions plotted on a map or search for all transactions in a particular state or country, something that would be difficult with a traditional bank account.
“Banks throw out a lot of data,” Mr. Reich said. “There are 80 fields of data per transaction, and banks only show you a few: the dollar amount, the place and the date. We can use much more than that to let people have real-time financial data.” The general approach is intended to appeal to technically adept people who are tuned into the rising interest in analyzing one’s personal data and behavior, as captured by tracking tools like Nike Plus and Jawbone’s Up bracelet.
In the same way that such tools can help people learn more about their physical activity and how many hours a night they sleep, Simple hopes to offer insights into spending behavior.
Simple will have to expand to survive. It makes money by earning interest on the cash it carries and from interchange fees, which it gets from each swipe of the card. It will require a large enough base of deposits and customers to cover its costs.
And there is always the risk that Simple’s greatest advantage — its data tools — could be copied by competitors, Mr. Jegher, the Celent analyst, said: “Can they get to critical mass before banks catch up with their own digital tools to offer a competing experience?”
Some of Simple’s early users are big fans, like Chris Lanphear, 30, a Web developer in Fort Collins, Colo., who signed up in July.
Mr. Lanphear said he had been hesitant to try Simple at first because of the company’s lack of physical infrastructure, “but then I realized it doesn’t ensure better service if you see the face of the person you are talking to.”
He said he had been impressed with Simple’s quick responses, via phone and e-mail, to questions about transactions and charges. The tracking features helped him realize he was spending too much on dining out, so he decided to cut back.
Mr. Lanphear was impressed enough to move over to Simple and close his old bank account. “I figured it couldn’t be worse than the alternatives,” he said. “But it’s actually turning out to be much better.”
January 9, 2013
Cash for Hay Driving Thieves to Move Bundles
By JACK HEALY
DENVER — Across the West, ranchers, farmers and county sheriffs are grappling with a new scourge: hay rustling.
Months of punishing drought and grass fires have pushed the price of hay, grain and other animal feed to near records, making the golden bales an increasingly irresistible target for thieves. Some steal them for profit. Others are fellow farmers acting out of desperation, their fields too brown to graze animals and their finances too wrecked to afford enough feed for their cattle.
“It’s the economics of the times,” said Jack McGrath, the undersheriff in Colorado’s Weld County, where hay thefts rose to 15 last year from 7 in 2011.
At Mark Reifenrath’s farm in northern Colorado, the thieves struck at night.
Two men driving a stolen pickup opened an unguarded farm gate by the side of the road, rolled into Mr. Reifenrath’s alfalfa field and headed toward their quarry: 800-pound square bundles of freshly cut hay.
They set to work that October night, hefting two bales onto a flatbed trailer. They might have gotten more, but an employee happened by and noticed flashlight beams bouncing around in the darkness.
Something was up. He yelled out, and the men disappeared into a patch of cattails, leaving behind a half-loaded trailer.
“Maybe it’s not the crime of the century, but it affects us,” Mr. Reifenrath said.
Sheriffs in rural counties in Colorado, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas say the spike in hay thefts is part of a broader rise in agricultural crime.
California’s farmers have grappled recently with growing thefts of grapes, beehives and avocados, and sheriffs say high prices of scrap metal have made agricultural machinery — whether it works or not — an appealing target. Dubious online merchants are selling feed to farmers but never delivering. On the range, wire fences are being clipped to allow interloping herds to poach grazing land.
Most thieves make off with less than a ton of hay — about $200 to $300 worth, depending on the quality. But on Labor Day in Wellington, Colo., thieves hot-wired a front-end loader and stole enough hay from Conrad T. Swanson’s ranch to fill the flatbed trailer of a semi.
“It’s not like someone was just driving by and took enough to feed a horse,” Mr. Swanson said.
Law enforcement officials said they could do little to prevent the thefts or catch the culprits. Most of the hay is nipped at night along remote roads, from fields and barns hundreds of yards from the nearest home. Because one bundle of hay tends to look like every other one, once a bale is stolen, reclaiming it is harder than finding a needle in a — well, never mind.
To ward off the hay thieves, farmers are padlocking their gates and painting their bales with their brands. Some are splicing their hay with ribbons that mark their ownership.
In Tillman County, Okla., hay thefts became so rampant that Sheriff Bobby Whittington decided to lay a trap. He bugged a bale in a particularly theft-prone field with a GPS unit and set to waiting, sure that thieves would strike. Sure enough, his phone rang one night in March last year with the news that the tracking device was on the move.
The sheriff hopped into his car and headed toward the signal. When he reached it, he found his culprits, and the bugged bale. Pulling them over, he said, he told the driver, “We need to talk about that hay bale you’ve got there.”
The men were belligerent at first, Mr. Whittington said, until he explained how he had tracked them down. Before being arrested, the driver offered a plea.
“He just hung his old head and said, ‘Can I take it back?’” Mr. Whittington said. “And I said, ‘No.’”
01/11/2013 01:07 PM
Hungary's Racism Problem: Orbán Friend Calls for 'Final Solution to Gypsy Question'
By Keno Verseck
Zsolt Bayer, a prominent conservative commentator, has sparked outrage in Hungary and abroad for comparing Roma to animals and calling for a "final solution to the Gypsy question." Criticism of the remarks is growing, but Prime Minister Orbán will likely keep silent.
Zsolt Bayer always pipes up whenever the Hungarian media mentions that Roma are suspected of involvement in a crime. The influential right-wing commentator then makes suggestions on what, in his words, a "final solution to the Gypsy question" could be. For example, he has written: "Whoever runs over a Gypsy child is acting correctly if he gives no thought to stopping and steps hard on the accelerator."
Bayer's most recent hate-filled tirade came last Saturday after a bar fight and stabbing on New Year's Eve in which some of the attackers were reportedly Roma. Writing in the ultra-right-wing newspaper Magyar Hirlap, which has close ties to the conservative government, Bayer argued for what amounts to genocide. He wrote:
"A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence. They are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals, and they behave like animals. When they meet with resistance, they commit murder. They are incapable of human communication. Inarticulate sounds pour out of their bestial skulls. At the same time, these Gypsies understand how to exploit the 'achievements' of the idiotic Western world. But one must retaliate rather than tolerate. These animals shouldn't be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved -- immediately and regardless of the method."
At the same time, investigators have yet to nail down all the facts surrounding the crime. What is known is this: On New Year's Eve, a massive brawl broke out in a bar in Szigethalom, a town near Budapest. During the fight, two young athletes -- a wrestler and a boxer -- suffered serious stabbing wounds. The police arrested one Roma, and another suspect is still being sought.
Bayer isn't just some random pathological Roma-hater. Instead, the 49-year-old is one of the founding members of the country's conservative governing Fidesz party and a close friend of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Although Bayer holds no official position, he is known within the party as someone with the pluck to express uncomfortable truths and for being able to capture the sentiment of the party base in a nutshell. But he is also notorious for saying things in ways that go too far.
Bayer is also one of the main organizers of the so-called Peace March events. A year ago, hundreds of thousands gathered in Budapest for one of these pro-government marches. Among the anti-EU slogans on display were "Hands off Hungary!" and "We will not be a colony!"
Cracks in the Party
In recent years, Bayer's anti-Roma and anti-Semitic articles have sparked repeated outrage. But no one within the Fidesz party leadership has ever taken public offense at the commentaries of its former chief press officer -- until now. Tibor Navracsics, who is both justice minister and deputy prime minister, has joined Roma organizations and Hungary's Jewish community in condemning Bayer's most recent column -- and called for his ouster from the party. On the private television channel ATV, he said that there is no place in an organization like Fidesz for someone who considers an entire group of people to be animals. In fact, even Tamás Deutsch, a prominent co-founder of Fidesz and member of the European Parliament who has publicly acknowledge being friends with Bayer, called the article "shameful."
This is already the second time in recent weeks that prominent Fidesz politicians have openly distanced themselves from racial hatred. On Dec. 2, Antal Rogán, the party's parliamentary floor leader, spoke at a protest against anti-Semitism after Márton Gyöngyösi, a representative of the right-wing extremist Jobbik party, had demanded in parliament that "all Jews living in Hungary be registered" and that "Jews, particularly those in parliament and the government, be evaluated for the potential danger they pose to Hungary." The demonstration against anti-Semitism was noteworthy for marking the first time in two decades that all of the pro-democracy parties in Hungary's parliament jointly attended a single event.
'The Party Speaks with Two Tongues'
Nevertheless, critics doubt that Fidesz -- and Prime Minister Orbán, in particular -- will distance themselves from right-wing extremism, anti-Semitism and antiziganism, a term denoting racism toward the Sinti and Roma.
Kristián Ungváry, a historian who has just published a 700-page book on the interwar years of the right-wing extremist Horthy regime, describes the party's policies as a "sham."
"The party speaks with two tongues," Ungváry says. "On the one hand, one distances oneself from right-wing extremism in order to maintain a good reputation abroad and because one notes that the political damage would be too severe. On the other hand, Fidesz pays tribute to anti-Semitic writers of the interwar period, such as Albert Wass and József Nyírö, or expresses right-wing extremist positions in regime-friendly newspapers."
This is especially the case with Prime Minister Orbán, whose public statements started moving farther and farther toward the right-wing extreme some time ago. This culminated last September, when Orbán delivered a "blood and soil" speech about the values of the Hungarian nation during a dedication ceremony for a monument. "The archetypal image of the Turul bird is the archetypal image of the Hungarians," he said, referring to the most important bird in the origin myth of ethnic Hungarians. "It is part of blood and homeland. We, the Hungarians of national solidarity, must squeeze all disunity out of Hungarian life. Strong nations stick together; weak ones break apart."
On the other hand, Orbán refrained from publicly commenting on Jobbik's call for registering Jews in Hungary. Indeed, it wasn't until a few days later that Orbán distanced himself in parliament from right-wing extremism, though in very general way. At the same time, a law was passed that permits monetary fines to be levied on parliamentarians who make racist statements.
A Deed Likely to Go Unpunished
György Dalos, a prominent writer and biographer, doesn't believe that Fidesz will fundamentally alter its two-faced policies. "Voters on the left run away from it on account of its restrictive social policies, so they need the voters on the right," Dalos says. "And it will continue to attract them with the appropriate rhetoric."
Attila Nagy, a political scientist at Budapest's Méltanyosság Institute, admits that there is genuine outrage about right-wing extremism in some parts of Fidesz. "But," he adds, "this part, which backs a clearer pro-European course, is currently not a decisive one within the party."
This, along with the fact that Justice Minister Navracsics has a reputation for holding little sway within the party, also makes it more likely that his call to have Zsolt Bayer ejected from the party will go unheeded. In any case, Fidesz spokeswoman Gabriella Selmeczi made this clear during a televised interview on ATV last Monday. She said that since Bayer had expressed his opinion as a commentator rather than as a Fidesz member in the incriminating article, the party would not take a stance on it.
Meanwhile, Magyar Hirlap, the paper that publishes Bayer's commentaries, has harshly criticized the outrage triggered by his article. "Because the left-liberals have destroyed the country, murderers and bestial, merciless criminals commit monstrous deeds in many places," the paper wrote. "We condemn the witch hunt against our employee and call on readers to stand behind him, behind our newspaper and behind our hard-working national government."
Tensions rising in Canada over aboriginal living conditions
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, January 10, 2013 16:42 EST
Canada’s governor general on Thursday invited native chiefs to meet with him amid growing tensions with aboriginal peoples over squalid living conditions on reserves.
The “ceremonial meeting” at Rideau Hall, the official residence of Queen Elizabeth II’s representative in this former British colony, is scheduled for Friday evening after planned talks between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the chiefs.
Harper previously agreed to demands for emergency talks to discuss treaty rights and ways to raise living standards on reserves after a four-week hunger strike by one northern Ontario chief put a spotlight on their plight.
But hunger-striking Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence this week suddenly backed out of the scheduled talks with Harper.
And a delegation of weighty native chiefs from Manitoba province followed suit on Thursday in support of her protest, raising doubts about what can actually be accomplished at these talks with key stakeholders expected to be absent.
Governor General David Johnston had originally declined to join in discussions with Spence and other aboriginal leaders, saying their plight is a political matter that must be taken up with elected officials.
Spence had said that the governor general’s attendance was “integral when discussing inherent and treaty rights.” Canada’s more than 600 indigenous reserves were created by royal proclamation in 1763.
She was not immediately available to react to Johnston’s invitation to meet separately.
In addition to complaints of severe poverty on reserves, many natives also blasted changes last month to environmental and other laws that they say impact their hunting and fishing rights, and allow tribes to lease reserve lands to non-natives.
Though the government insists the latter was meant to help boost economic development on reserves, some fear it will result in a loss of native control of reserve lands and eventually lead to the end of aboriginal communities.
The Christian Science Monitor -
Idle No More: Canada's indigenous 'Occupy' movement
By Bilbo Poynter, Contributor / January 10, 2013
Canada’s First Nations peoples and their supporters have been loudly protesting federal legislation that, they say, strips protections from dozens of Canada’s lakes and waterways and ignores the government’s treaty obligations to its indigenous inhabitants. Since November, dozens of demonstrations, blockades, and flash mob-style circle dances have sprung up across the country. Youth- and women-led, the social-media savvy Idle No More movement is being compared to last year’s Occupy protests and is gaining international attention and momentum.
Q: Who are Canada’s First Nations?
The First Nations are a collection of Canada's indigenous peoples, sometimes referred to as “Natives,” “Indians,” or “Aboriginals,” made up of 50 to 60 distinct nations and representing more than 600 communities, or "bands." All told, First Nations make up less than 3 percent of the population, though First Nations people under age 18 are the fastest growing segment of the Canadian population, according to the latest census data. They are similarly situated to but considered distinct from two other native Canadian populations, the Métis – descendants of mixed French and First Nations heritage – and in the far North, the Innu and Inuit.
First Nations people increasingly live in Canada’s urban centers, particularly in the western provinces, but many continue to live on remote reserve communities. Many of these reserves suffer from inadequate housing and utilities, access to schools, sky-high food prices, tragic epidemics of suicide, and other serious social problems. For example, according to Health Canada data, there were at least 117 First Nations communities under boil water advisories as of last November due to lack of adequate water-treatment facilities.
The main officially recognized representative body for First Nations people nationally is the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), made up of elected band chiefs from across Canada. There are also traditional governing bodies with hereditary chiefs in First Nations communities, not acknowledged by Canada, who have been at the heart of various First Nations struggles and claims in recent years. Further, Canada can and does enter into self-government agreements with individual First Nations bands, who often sit on resource rich lands.
Q: What is the relationship between Canada and First Nations?
The First Nations consider themselves to be sovereign people who have historically entered into agreements or treaties with Canada and, importantly, the British Crown. (The Queen is still the titular head of the Canadian government, represented by the governor general – who, somewhat paradoxically, is appointed by the elected prime minister.)
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Though the treaty relationship dates back to “contact” with European settlers, it was the Royal Proclamation of King George III of 1763 that recognized that Indian land could not be taken without Indian consent, thereby setting out the future terms for Canada’s relationship and responsibilities to the First Nations.
That relationship between the First Nations and Canada is now governed under the Indian Act, with the federal government controlling as much as 75 percent of the fiduciary relationship between First Nations and the Crown, while individual provinces bear responsibility for vital issues such as health and education. This has led to an incredibly complicated patchwork of governance and responsibilities that many First Nations view as one gigantic case of pass-the-buck historically when it comes to their communities.
Q: What is Idle No More?
Idle No More, known to many by its Twitter hashtag #idlenomore, is an informal First Nations-led movement that sprang from online conversations between four women in Saskatchewan who were concerned about the implications of Bill C-45. The bill is a sweeping piece of budget legislation, introduced by the government in October, that critics feel imperils the protection of thousands of Canadian streams and lakes (including on First Nations territory) and amends Canada's Indian Act without consulting First Nations, further eroding their sovereignty. The bill passed into law in December.
Idle No More quickly caught the imagination of Canada’s First Nations population online, and has resulted in dozens of actions across Canada since November. Idle No More protests include the blockade of the Toronto/Ottawa/Montreal track of CN Rail, occupation of major highways, and traditional circle dances by thousands of First Nations members and their supporters that have clogged major tourist and shopping districts from Toronto to Calgary. It’s estimated that the highway, shopping, and railway blockades have already cost the Canadian economy tens of millions of dollars.
Though a grassroots movement independent of the AFN, Idle No More enjoys support from First Nations representatives like elected AFN Grand Chief Shawn Atleo, who has stated his support for the group's aims. It has also received Instagram and tweeted pictures of support from as far away as Australia, Minneapolis (where there was a large Idle protest in the Mall of America), and Finland.
The Idle No More protests are part of a broader First Nations opposition to policies of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government. Unconnected to Idle No More, a group of elected chiefs in early December led a spontaneous march on Parliament Hill in protest of the government's lack of action on commitments made to the First Nations a year before.
It was also in early December that Theresa Spence, the chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation, began a hunger strike to seek a meeting with and demand action from Mr. Harper on the ongoing crisis in her remote northern Ontario community regarding lack of adequate housing and water. Her action, now in its 31st day, has been a rallying point for Idle No More.
Chief Spence now spends her days in a teepee on a Victoria Island in the shadow of the Canadian Parliament, surrounded by supporters and taking only broth and water. She is reportedly frail from the month-long effects of her strike.
Q: What are Idle No More and other First Nations members protesting?
The movement, like the broader First Nations community, has been extremely critical of the policies that the Harper government has adopted in regards to First Nations issues. Though First Nations leaders have accused successive governments of not recognizing treaty rights and of undermining land claim negotiations, there is growing concern among the First Nations community that the Harper government intends to extinguish the First Nations' collective rights.
Prominent native activist and scholar Pam Palmeter says that "It’s an assimilatory agenda. That’s the whole basis for assimilation and colonial policies, and none of that has changed over time.”
“They have a whole suite of legislation ever since they’ve been in [power] that has been very nearly unanimously opposed – certainly by First Nations groups anyway," she says. "And they all have a very, very similar theme, focusing on individual rights, disbanding communal rights, and focusing what will benefit Canadians, as opposed to what will benefit First Nations.”
The First Nations groups are not without leverage. Grand Chief Atleo, growing increasingly frustrated with the recent relationship between First Nations and Canada, has reminded his federal counterparts that First Nations currently sit on an estimated $600 billion worth of natural resources, including projected bitumen oil pipeline routes, considered by the Harper government as vital to Canada’s economic future.
And First Nations have in the past used media coverage to bring about a government response. Chief Spence made international headlines in 2011 after she declared a state of emergency to draw attention to the overcrowded and dilapidated housing in her Attawapiskat community, then gripped by frigid winter conditions. Due to the international scrutiny from the crisis, the Harper government made commitments to improve conditions in the community, while putting the affairs of Attawapiskat under federal receivership. But Spence says the government has yet to follow through on its promises, prompting her hunger strike.
Q: How has the government responded?
Until recently, Harper had not responded to either the Idle No More protests or Spence's hunger strike except to say that people have a right to peaceful protest. Sen. Patrick Brazeau, an Algonquin and member of Harper's Conservative party who is a polarizing figure in the First Nations, has been openly critical, saying he "wasn’t quite sure what it [Idle No More] was about,” while suggesting that Spence was setting a bad example for First Nations youth.
Harper has now agreed to meet this Friday with a small group of national chiefs – including Spence – to revisit stated commitments flowing from the Crown-First Nations summit last year. Friday's meeting was pushed up in recognition of Spence’s declining health.
But it is unclear whether or not Spence will attend, due to disagreements with the government over what officials would be present.
The chiefs had demanded that Governor-General David Johnston be at the meeting as representative of the queen, with whom the First Nations' treaties are technically binding. The government initially said he would not attend – prompting conflicting reports that Spence had dropped out as well – but later relented and promised to make Mr. Johnston available to the chiefs after the meeting with Harper. Spence has yet to respond to the government's change.
Meeting with the prime minister was Spence’s main demand, but it’s not clear if she will end her hunger strike even if she does meet with him tomorrow.
Idle No More has called for tomorrow to be a national day of action with protests and gatherings planned for across Canada.
01/10/2013 06:10 PM
One of Us: Women Left Behind on India's March to Modernity
An Essay by Kishwar Desai
The case of the student gang raped in Delhi reveals how deep-seated misogyny remains in Indian society. Even as women are encouraged to study and join the work force, prejudice is rampant. It is time for change.
In the past few weeks, something has happened in India that we never thought possible: We have seen an unprecedented show of solidarity and anger over the horrific gang rape of a 23-year old woman, who later died of her injuries. The brutal killing of this nameless student -- an ambitious young woman from a small town who worked hard to train as a physiotherapist and was a role model to her two younger brothers -- moves us because she was one of us, a sister, a daughter and a wife.
For years, I have been writing about rape and abuse, about the killings of female fetuses, of girls and of women in India. But when I heard about it happening right in the middle of Delhi, in the heart of our capital, on a public bus, it felt like it happened to me. Fortunately, I have never had to experience rape myself. During my growing up years, however, I of course experienced molestation and verbal abuse by males. And even as a working woman it was part of my life -- as it is part of any woman's life in India. Friends of mine have experienced much worse, and they have been traumatized by it.
The young woman has been called "Nirbhaya", the fearless, by the press, and she has become a symbol of India's terrible misogyny. India's middle class has held protest meetings and candle light vigils in many cities all over the country. The anger, despite reassurances from the government, refuses to die down. Even more unexpected has been the sight of young men pouring onto the streets, expressing their personal sorrow over escalating gender violence, as this emerging "superpower" becomes increasingly unsafe for women.
The response from the government has been slow and callous, with its clumsy attempt to squash the protests. This lack of empathy within the ruling coalition, and its inability to understand or comprehend the betrayal that Indian women feel today has left many aghast.
A Few, Shocking Hours
As Delhi was converted into a fortress to prevent protestors from assembling near the iconic India Gate, it was pointed out that most of the women parliamentarians who shed tears and spoke passionately about the gang rape victim lead extremely well-protected lives. Surrounded by security guards and the comforts of power, they have no idea about the daily humiliation and struggle of ordinary women. The disconnect between the hard working middle classes and their elected representatives was never more apparent than when the police was ordered to crack down on unarmed protestors recently. In those few, shocking hours, it was difficult to believe that India is a democracy.
It also showed the contempt with which India's rising urban masses (especially women) are treated by the government, whose chief preoccupation seems to be that of winning elections by throwing money at voters, particularly in rural areas. The government has spent much more time in recent weeks on explaining "direct cash transfers" to the poor in the countryside than on the alarming status of Indian women.
The government would have been content to ship the rape victim abroad for "treatment" (though she was already slipping into a coma) and secretly cremate her in the early hours of a winter morning so that people would forget her. But none of the diversionary tactics have worked. Thanks to the power of the Internet and the media, the memory of the gang rape victim and what happened to her continues to grab headlines, forcing the government to take at least this one case seriously.
The continuing outpouring of grief and rage has completely surprised the patriarchal system, especially because gang rape is nothing new to post independence, "modernizing" India. It has been used as a weapon of oppression for years, including during the partition of India and thereafter. Today, increasing numbers of young men are migrating to the cities for work, bringing sexual frustration and personal alienation with them -- along with a deeply ingrained misogyny. This has perhaps led them to target vulnerable women like the one in Delhi. Gang rape has become an increasingly worrying phenomenon and, with a slow, inefficient judiciary, perpetrators are assured of walking away without suffering any consequences. Indeed, it is often the victim who is forced to live with the stigma and in some recent cases, the woman has killed herself due to unending humiliation at the hands of the police, the courts and even the rapists themselves. In a very few instances, victims have taken revenge themselves, having given up on the system completely.
Much Needed Reforms
The best known case is that of Phoolan Devi in the 1980s. From the poor, Dalit caste, she had married at 11 only to be abused by her husband and then rejected. She was then raped by several men. To seek revenge, she joined a criminal gang and later killed one of her attackers. Phoolan Devi was ultimately jailed for 11 years without ever having been convicted, a fate escaped by the upper caste men who raped her. Upon her release she was elected a member of parliament and her life story was made into a film. But in 2001, she was shot dead in a hail of bullets on the streets of Delhi, murdered by a family member of one of her rapists.
Before women are forced into similar retaliatory violence for self protection, it is essential that the Indian government fast tracks the much needed reforms and laws which will secure and enhance the status of women, legally as well as socially. But there are many road blocks to empowering women, some of which are maintained by politicians to retain their hold on the masses.
One of the main problems is India's caste system, which has been revived over and over again by various governments to create voting blocks. Men are usually the beneficiaries; in each caste, the lowest social rung continues to be occupied by women, even in urban India, no matter how educated or well placed she might be.
This has meant that anti-women practices, like gendercide -- in which an estimated 30 million girls have been killed so far, through sex-selective abortions and infanticide -- bride burning or domestic violence (often for lack of dowry) continue to be practiced. Honor killings are also on the rise in both rural and urban areas. A skewed gender ratio, currently there are just 940 women for every 1,000 men, has meant that Indian women, despite recent corrective measures, are an endangered minority. And they are often at the mercy of predatory men, both at home and on the streets.
Delhi, which is governed by a woman, shamefully has one of the worst gender ratios in the country and a very high rate of sexual offences. More than 80 percent of Delhi's women have faced some form of sexual harassment and are actively discouraged from going out alone at night, or even during the day.
This is a harsh reality often denied by the Indian state, which prefers to call attention to favorable examples of successful women's groups and individuals rather than to address the larger issue of a willful neglect of millions of women who are being left out of the development story. These women have little or no security or help from the state -- nor indeed from their immediate social surroundings, a situation which often reinforces their fragile existences.
While most rural women have remained unrepresented in the recent protests, their status is no less vulnerable. Furthermore, they face greater hurdles to organizing themselves; most of them remain semi-literate, are dependent on their families and have no access to the Internet. Fortunately, thanks to the virtual world, the middle class urban woman is finally beginning to organize herself and her sisters onto a joint platform, which will undoubtedly change the environment within which women have become a deliberate target of violence and abuse.
It is a paradox: On one hand, women are increasingly educated and encouraged to join the work force -- and female deities are worshipped in the Hindu religion. On the other hand, the atmosphere in which women live and work remains unreformed and prejudiced. Patriarchy is a cruel beast that continues to prowl the streets of big cities just as it haunts the dusty lanes of villages.
Far Too Patriarchal
Thus, while there were no candle-light vigils for Phoolan Devi after she was killed more than 10 years ago -- nor for any of the subsequent thousands of victims of molestations and rapes -- this time women are no longer prepared to remain silent. They are now demanding the promised changes to rape law, which continues to be archaic and does not include marital rape. They are also demanding the passage of a bill providing for a gender quota in parliament, which would force political parties to field more female candidates. At present most political parties, including those headed by women, have a very poor record when it comes to adequate gender diversity.
Perhaps it will be a combination of political power and pressure from the streets which will ultimately give Indian women a much needed sense of security. At present, however, the fear is that the current government is far too patriarchal and out-of-touch with women's problems to make the required changes speedily enough -- even though it has finally set up one fast-track court to hear the high profile gang rape case. It has also asked for suggestions from the public for changes in the rape law.
Despite this, women have continued to be raped in various parts of the country, including in one case by a Congress Party leader in the state of Assam. The only hope now is that the public movement triggered by the very unfortunate rape and death of a brave young woman coalesces into a force for change. With general elections approaching in 2014, it might just be the prospect of losing the votes of middle-class urban women that will ensure that the government listens to them and their needs.
01/10/2013 02:32 PM
Alone by the Millions: Isolation Crisis Threatens German Seniors
By Guido Kleinhubbert and Antje Windmann
Communities have long worried about the physical safety of the elderly. But the swelling number of senior citizens living alone in Germany now has them scrambling to respond to even more pernicious threats: loneliness and isolation.
Even during these cold winter months, Erna J. regularly opens the balcony door of her small, two-room apartment in the Berlin district of Neukölln. The 93-year-old places a bowl of peanuts on her flowery carpet and watches the blue tits flutter into her living room and steal nuts. "The little birds are my subtenants," she says.
Aside from the birds, hardly anyone visits the elderly woman anymore. Erna J. has white hair and black leg braces and, like many people her age, is suffering from extreme loneliness. She was born shortly after World War I and moved into this apartment 50 years ago. Ten years later, her husband died. She has outlived all of her siblings and girlfriends. Her husband didn't want any children. "I should have insisted on it," says the former cook, "and then I perhaps wouldn't be so lonely today." Her phone almost never rings -- and when it does, there is usually someone from the health insurance company on the other end.
One day, she collapsed on the bathroom floor. With her last ounce of strength, she managed to crawl into the bedroom and dial the emergency number. Then firefighters broke open her door and helped her to her feet. Now she's feeling better, but she's still afraid that something like this could happen again -- and she could find herself helplessly sprawled on the floor. "To keep myself from stumbling, I've removed all the runner rugs and bathroom mats," she says.
At the same time, she's not ready to move into a nursing home yet. Her apartment gives her independence, she still enjoys cooking and she can still wash herself without any help. And, at home, she can decide when she gets up and when she goes to bed.
More than 2 million men and women in Germany over the age of 80 live alone, and most of them ended up isolated when their spouses died. Experts anticipate that their numbers will grow considerably thanks to today's increasing life expectancy. A study by Germany's Allensbach Institute finds that senior citizens in Germany are healthier and fitter than at any other time in history. Nevertheless, it's also true that people over the age of 70 spend an average of 17 hours a day alone -- longer than any other demographic group.
According to the German Center of Gerontology (DZA), over 20 percent of Germans over the age of 70 are in regular contact with only one person -- or nobody. One in four receives a visit less than once a month from friends and acquaintances, and nearly one in 10 is not visited by anyone anymore. Many old people have no one who still addresses them by their first name or asks them how they are doing. For many of them, soap opera actors have become a kind of substitute family.
What's more, the fact that more and more people are opting not to have children threatens to worsen the isolation experienced by older people. Indeed, childlessness significantly increases the risk of loneliness. Likewise, since people are becoming more mobile and live less frequently near their aging parents, the older generation can no longer depend on their children to remain an integral part of their lives and look after them someday. Consequently, the risk of loneliness among older people could possibly rise in the future, says DZA director Clemens Tesch-Römer.
The Berlin chapter of Friends of the Elderly (FAM), the German branch of the International Federation of the Little Brothers of the Poor, is working to alleviate this problem. FAM Berlin Director Klaus Pawletko and his colleagues organize activities such as zoo visits, boat trips on Berlin's waterways and discussion groups -- and they match volunteers with senior citizens for one-to-one visits. They also offer a service that they call "visiting on the phone," which gives elderly individuals a chance to at least chat with someone once a week.
Pawletko has seen a lot of poverty during his career, and he thinks it's a good thing that people in Germany are talking about inadequate old-age pensions. However, the social worker says that "old people actually find being alone much worse than their financial difficulties." Still, he adds, hardly anyone in Germany talks about that, and it's generally brushed aside as just a matter of perception.
Nevertheless, it has been proven that, in addition to making people sad, loneliness also makes them sick. Indeed, experts like Pawletko are not at all surprised that there is no age group with a higher suicide rate than the over-80-year-olds. "Many see death as a release," he says. To make matters worse, illness intensifies one's sense of loneliness. Anyone who is weak and has lost his or her mobility often suffers from isolation, says Tesch-Römer.
Irmgard Bielke, 78, knows how hard it is for an elderly individual to overcome loneliness. She lost her husband, Herbert, in 1994 -- and then her daughter, Gabi, a few years ago. Both died of lung cancer. Bielke had stopped nurturing outside friendships because she was perfectly happy with a life that revolved around her little family. "Now I'm paying a heavy price," she says with regret.
Bielke sleeps on her side of the double bed, leaving her husband's old side untouched. On the bedspread lies a cuddly elephant that has been rolled flat from years of snuggling. The stuffed animal belonged to Gabi when she was still a child. Bielke says she often feels completely depressed on Christmas and rainy days. When she can't stand being cooped up in her apartment anymore, she goes to cafés or takes short trips. But she never meets anyone. "It's hard to connect with people when you're old," she says.
Reaching Out to the Elderly
Bielke is more outgoing than most people her age. Many elderly feel overwhelmed just gathering information on the visiting and shopping services offered in their local communities. A number of municipalities and housing associations have realized that they have to reach out to and address the needs of senior citizens. In the northern cities-states of Bremen and Hamburg, for instance, agency workers knock on the doors of senior citizens who live alone and ask a simple question: Can we do anything for you?
In Hamburg, social workers came across an old woman who hadn't spoken with anyone for two years other than the supermarket checkout woman. An elderly man had been living for months in the dark because he had neglected letters reminding him to pay his electricity bills -- and didn't know whom to turn to.
Gabriele Broszonn, 45, is familiar with such cases. She works in Munich for the city-run housing association GEWOFAG, which is taking part in a project called "Preventative Home Visits." In the district of Ramersdorf alone, there are over 800 GEWOFAG tenants over the age of 75. There are even 12 people living by themselves who are over the age of 100.
Broszonn and her colleagues organize assistance for household chores and grocery shopping, get the word out about events for senior citizens and check to make sure that residential units have been altered to better meet the needs of the elderly. Broszonn has sat in the living rooms of more than 200 senior tenants.
Her first visit of the day is at 9 a.m., when she calls on Rosa Doll. It takes a while for the 92-year-old woman, who walks with a stoop, to reach the intercom buzzer. Doll has been living here alone for 20 years -- and she is standing at the entrance to the apartment with a smile on her face. She then shuffles into the living room in her checkered slippers. There, dolls are lounging on a corduroy sofa while zither music plays on the radio. Doll has put chocolate cookies on the table, and she is pouring coffee into cups with floral patterns.
Doll spends her time recording folk music from Bavaria's public radio broadcaster. She has recorded and catalogued nearly 2,000 audio cassettes. "My little tapes," she calls them.
During their conversation, Broszonn asks Doll how well she is managing with the apartment. "My back does ache a bit," Doll replies, adding that it makes it hard for here to get into the bathtub and then get back into an upright position. A support rail on the wall could help her, Broszonn says. "But is that still worthwhile for me? Will that pay off?" Doll asks. Upon leaving, the social worker gives Doll a hug and promises to send someone to install the support rail as soon as possible.
After the visit, Broszonn says that Doll made "a very good impression" on her. She notes that she often sees old people who would be much better off in a nursing home, but many of them are very reluctant to move. "Their apartments are all they have left," says Broszonn. Despite all the isolation and loneliness, she argues, having their own apartment is an important part of the independence that older individuals attempt to maintain, if at all possible.
Fortunately, technology can at least take away senior citizens' fear of accidents. Irmgard Bielke, the 78-year-old whose husband died of lung cancer, wears an emergency button on her wrist. When she presses it, the Johanniter aid organization receives an alarm signal. Erna J., the 93-year-old woman who likes to feed peanuts to birds, wears a button like this on a band around her neck.
Each day, the aid organization receives nearly 3,000 emergency calls from their 110,000 customers. However, with more than half of the calls, no one has fallen down or become ill. Instead, people press the button just to have someone to talk to.
The FAM association has now arranged for Erna J. to be picked up once a month to go play bingo. "It's a real highlight for me," she says.
Earlier, during a hospital stay, she had confided to a nurse just how isolated she felt. The nurse gave her the numbers of employment offices that can arrange for unemployed individuals to be hired to help older residents. "I really had to get my courage up before I called them," she admits.
Now, her shopping is done by one man on Tuesdays and another man on Thursdays. Erna J. has dubbed the two helpers her "Tuesday friend" and her "Thursday friend."
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen