February 22, 2013
Ethnic War in Myanmar Has China on Edge
By EDWARD WONG
Chinese Army units have been undergoing intense training near the border with Myanmar in anticipation of an ethnic war there spilling into southwest China, according to official Chinese news media reports on Friday.
The training has been taking place in the hills of Yunnan Province. It borders Kachin State in northern Myanmar, where a civil war between an ethnic Kachin rebel army and the Burmese Army has been unfolding. The fighting intensified in late December, and Chinese officials and news organizations reported that shells had landed in China and that Kachin refugees had begun living in hotels and the homes of family and friends in Yunnan.
Last month, the Myanmar government announced a cease-fire with the rebels of the Kachin Independence Army in order to hold peace talks, but foreigners in the area reported continuing attacks by the Burmese Army in the days after. One Chinese news report on Friday said there had been “no significant improvement” in the peace talks.
The goal of the military training in Yunnan was to ensure that the Chinese army units can “fight a battle, and be victorious in battle,” according to a report on Thursday by Xinhua, the state news agency, that was cited by several other news Web sites.
The Xinhua report said the training began this month, after the start of the Lunar New Year, and has focused on preparing border guards for “real combat.” Among other things, the soldiers have trained to march in bad weather and work in areas that have blind spots for communications signals.
The report said the hilly terrain in Yunnan presented special challenges, and troops were training to fight in the jungle, ravines and water. Some units have been setting up communications posts along the border.
Earlier, Yunnan military leaders set up a command center in the area. An article in January on the Web site of People’s Daily, a newspaper that speaks for the Communist Party, said border guards and police officers could be seen throughout one border town, Nabang, checking the identification cards of civilians. Many businesses had shut down because transportation was halted, and artillery fire could be heard through the night, the article said.
Chinese leaders have been emphasizing in general that the Chinese military should be prepared to fight and should proceed vigorously with modernization. Xi Jinping, the new leader of the Communist Party, visited army and navy units in southern China late last year and spoke of the need to strengthen the military.
The current round of fighting in Kachin State has centered on the town of Laiza, from which the Kachin army controls an autonomous area of the state. This winter, the Burmese Army has been pressing an offensive to capture Laiza or crucial military positions around it. The army has deployed fighter jets and heavy artillery, and residents have said civilians were killed.
Until a flare-up in tensions in June 2011, the Burmese military and Kachin rebels, who insist on maintaining autonomy, had been adhering to a 17-year cease-fire.
Chinese officials have expressed concern this winter over the violence, especially artillery shells falling within Yunnan; at least four have landed since Dec. 30. There are also worries about a potential flood of refugees.
Thousands of Kachin, who are mostly Christian, entered Yunnan after the war started again in 2011. Chinese Christians went to the refugee camps to provide aid, as did ethnic Kachin living in China, who are called Jingpo in Mandarin. Then in August, officials in Yunnan forced most of the refugees to leave the camps and return to Kachin State.
Thein Sein, the president of Myanmar and a former general, has been trying to introduce democratic practices to the nation’s authoritarian political system. But ethnic civil wars have afflicted the country for decades, and the conflicts raise questions about whether the demands of ethnic minorities like the Kachin will be given serious consideration by the evolving ethnic Burmese-dominated government.
February 22, 2013
No Exit: China Uses Passports as Political Cudgel
By ANDREW JACOBS
BEIJING — Flush with cash and eager to see the world, millions of middle-class Chinese spent the 10-day Lunar New Year holiday that ended on Monday in places like Paris, Bangkok and New York. Last year, Chinese made a record 83 million trips abroad, 20 percent more than in 2011 and a fivefold increase from a decade earlier.
Sun Wenguang, a retired economics professor from Shandong Province, was not among those venturing overseas, however. And not by choice. An author whose books offer a critical assessment of Communist Party rule, Mr. Sun, 79, has been repeatedly denied a passport without explanation.
“I’d love to visit my daughter in America and my 90-year-old brother in Taiwan, but the authorities have other ideas,” he said. “I feel like I’m living in a cage.”
Mr. Sun is among the legions of Chinese who have been barred from traveling abroad by a government that is increasingly using decisions on passports as a cudgel against perceived enemies — or as a carrot to encourage academics whose writings have at times strayed from the party line to return to the fold.
“It’s just another way to punish people they don’t like,” said Wu Zeheng, a government critic and Buddhist spiritual leader from southern Guangdong Province whose failed entreaties to obtain a passport have prevented him from accepting at least a dozen speaking invitations in Europe and North America.
China’s passport restrictions extend to low-level military personnel, Tibetan monks and even the security personnel who process passport applications. “I feel so jealous when I see all my friends taking vacations in Singapore or Thailand but the only way I could join them is to quit my job,” said a 28-year-old police detective in Beijing.
Lawyers and human rights advocates say the number of those affected has soared in recent years, with Tibetans and Uighurs, the Turkic-speaking minority from China’s far west, increasingly ineligible for overseas fellowships, speaking engagements or the organized sightseeing groups that have ferried planeloads of Chinese to foreign capitals.
Although the government does not release figures on those who have been denied passports, human rights groups suggest that at least 14 million people — mostly those officially categorized as ethnic Uighurs and Tibetans — have been directly affected by the restrictions, as have hundreds of religious and political dissidents. A representative of the Exit-Entry Administration of the Public Security Bureau declined to discuss the nation’s passport policies.
The seemingly arbitrary restrictions, not unlike those long employed by the former Soviet Union, also affect overseas Chinese who had grown accustomed to frequent visits home. Scores of Chinese expatriates have been denied new passports by Chinese Embassies when their old ones expire, while others say they are simply turned away after landing in Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong.
Returnees whose names show up on a blacklist are escorted by border control officers to the next outbound flight. Even if seldom given explanations for their expulsions, many of those turned away suspect it is punishment for their antigovernment activism abroad. “Compared to other forms of political persecution, the denial of the right to return home seems like a small evil,” said Hu Ping, the editor of a pro-democracy journal in New York who has not been allowed to see family members in China since 1987. “But it’s a blatant violation of human rights.”
Even those carrying valid passports are subject to the whims of the authorities. On Feb. 6, Wang Zhongxia, 28, a Chinese activist who had planned to meet the Burmese opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was barred from boarding a Myanmar-bound flight from the southern city of Guangzhou. Four days earlier, Ilham Tohti, an academic and vocal advocate for China’s ethnic Uighurs, was prevented from leaving for the United States.
Mr. Tohti, who was set to begin a yearlong fellowship at Indiana University, said he was interrogated at Beijing International Airport for nearly 12 hours by officers who refused to explain his detention. Speaking from his apartment in the capital, Mr. Tohti says that Uighurs have long faced difficulties in obtaining passports but that the authorities have made it nearly impossible in recent years.
“We feel like second-class citizens in our own country,” he said.
For decades after the Communists came to power in 1949, most Chinese could only dream of traveling abroad; the handful who managed to leave often escaped by evading border guards and swimming across shark-infested waters to what was then British-ruled Hong Kong. As China opened up to the outside world in the early 1980s, the government began providing passports and exit visas to graduate students who had acceptance letters from universities overseas.
All that changed in 1991, when Beijing issued new rules allowing Chinese to join group tours to “approved destinations” in Southeast Asia, and two years later, to the United States and Europe. These days, members of China’s ethnic Han majority can generally obtain a passport in 15 days.
But the rules are more arduous for Tibetans and Uighurs, who must win approvals from several layers of bureaucracy — including provincial authorities; the applicant’s hometown public security bureau; and for students, university administrators. Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan writer who has tried and failed to get a passport since 2005, says the denials are driven by fears that once abroad, minorities will speak out about China’s repressive ethnic policies or link up with exile groups.
“For the Han, getting a passport is as easy as buying a bus ticket,” she said. “But for Tibetans it’s harder than climbing to the sky.”
Since last April, the authorities have been confiscating passports from Tibetans lucky enough to have them in the first place. According to documents obtained by Human Rights Watch, the police in Tibet are also required to interrogate returnees and determine whether they have broken a signed pledge not to engage in activities that “harm state security and interests” while outside the country.
The new procedures were introduced after thousands of Tibetans attended a religious gathering in India that included an appearance by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader whom Beijing considers a separatist. Tibetan exiles say the restrictions also seek to limit information about the recent spate of self-immolations from reaching the outside world.
The frustrations of those affected by the tightened rules received a rare public airing after a 21-year-old Uighur college student blogged about her unsuccessful attempt to get a passport. The student, Atikem Rozi, said the repeated rejections had dashed her hopes to study abroad.
“Whenever the subject of a passport is mentioned, it brings me to tears,” Ms. Rozi, a student at Minzu University in Beijing, wrote last month. “My passport is still a riddle, a luxury.”
Widely forwarded, the blog posts prompted favorable coverage in one Chinese publication. But they also drew unwanted attention from the domestic security agents in Xinjiang, who during six hours of questioning this month suggested that she was “politically unqualified” to go abroad because she had used her microblog, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, to complain about discrimination against Uighurs.
The inability to travel has driven many Chinese to take desperate measures. In 2011, Liao Yiwu, a poet and author from the southwest city of Chengdu, escaped overland to Vietnam after the authorities rebuffed his passport application more than a dozen times and then threatened him over plans to publish a book overseas. He now lives in exile in Germany.
Wu’er Kaixi, who was No. 2 on the government’s most wanted list after he organized student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, has spent the last several years trying to get himself arrested by the Chinese authorities in an attempt to return home to see his aging parents. Mr. Kaixi, who lives in Taiwan, has tried crashing through the gates of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, and he once flew to Chinese-administered Macau and offered himself up to the police. He was promptly put back on a plane and sent home.
“It is unbearable to contemplate the idea that I may never see them again,” he wrote last year of his parents, who have also been barred from leaving China. “This is barbaric and cruel behavior by the Chinese government.”
Patrick Zuo contributed research.
February 23, 2013
North Korea Warns U.S. Forces of ‘Destruction’ Ahead of Drills
SEOUL (Reuters) — North Korea on Saturday warned the top U.S. military commander stationed in South Korea that his forces would “meet a miserable destruction” if they go ahead with scheduled military drills with South Korean troops, North Korean state media said.
Pak Rim-su, chief delegate of the North Korean military mission to the inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjom, gave the message by phone to Gen. James Thurman, the commander of the U.S. Forces Korea, KCNA news agency said.
It came amid escalating tension on the divided Korean peninsula after the North’s third nuclear test earlier this month, in defiance of U.N. resolutions, drew harsh international condemnation.
A direct message from the North’s Panmunjom mission to the U.S. commander is rare.
North and South Korea are technically still at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
The U.S.-South Korean Combined Forces Command is holding an annual computer-based simulation war drill, Key Resolve, from March 11 to 25, involving 10,000 South Korean and 3,500 U.S. troops.
The command also plans to hold Foal Eagle joint military exercises involving land, sea and air manoeuvres. About 200,000 Korean troops and 10,000 U.S. forces are expected to be mobilized for the two month-long exercise which starts on March 1.
“If your side ignites a war of aggression by staging the reckless joint military exercises...at this dangerous time, from that moment your fate will be hung by a thread with every hour,” Pak was quoted as saying.
“You had better bear in mind that those igniting a war are destined to meet a miserable destruction.”
Washington and Seoul regularly hold military exercises which they say are purely defensive. North Korea, which has stepped up its bellicose threats towards the United States and South Korea in recent months, sees them as rehearsals for invasion.
North Korea threatened South Korea with “final destruction” during a debate at the U.N. Conference on Disarmament on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Sung-won Shim; Editing by Nick Macfie)
February 22, 2013
Japan and United States Reaffirm Their Close Ties
By JACKIE CALMES
WASHINGTON — President Obama and Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, met at the White House on Friday to show that their countries were putting relations back on solid footing after several years of friction, and at a time when the allies face the challenge of an increasingly powerful China.
Their meeting yielded no announcements of major policy changes, and the leaders did not even address publicly whether Japan would speed the relocation of an important United States military base on Okinawa. But the summit suggested at least the potential for a warming, with the administration adding a White House luncheon including Vice President Joseph R. Biden to extend the leaders’ time together.
And a joint statement hinted at an opening that could give Mr. Abe political cover, once back in Tokyo, to push for Japan’s participation in talks toward an Asia-Pacific trade agreement among democracies in the region struggling against China’s growing economic clout.
Japan is central to Mr. Obama’s effort to shift America’s focus toward the Pacific Rim after years of preoccupation with war and with counterterrorism efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. And Mr. Abe, whose country is embroiled in an increasingly nasty territorial dispute with China, signaled his eagerness to maintain a close relationship with the United States, reversing signs sent by one of his recent predecessors who suggested Tokyo should pull back a little from Washington.
Mr. Abe is the fifth Japanese prime minister Mr. Obama has dealt with as president, a turnover reflecting the nation’s years of economic and political instability that has, in turn, complicated relations between Washington and its biggest Asian ally.
“Japan is one of our closest allies, and the U.S.-Japan alliance is the central foundation for our regional security and so much of what we do in the Pacific region,” Mr. Obama told reporters when they were allowed briefly into the Oval Office during a meeting with Mr. Abe.
Mr. Abe, sitting beside him near the fireplace, said, “I think I can declare with confidence that the trust and the bond in our alliance is back.”
Both leaders said they had agreed on the need for what Mr. Obama called “strong actions” against North Korea’s latest rebuff to the global community — last week’s underground nuclear test. Mr. Abe spoke of possible financial sanctions, and also said that the two allies would press the United Nations for a resolution calling for further international penalties.
With Japan also concerned about China’s claims to a group of Japanese-controlled islands, Mr. Abe said: “When we look at the security environment in the Asia Pacific, it’s becoming more and more difficult. And we need to create an order in this region based on cooperation between our two countries to secure the freedom of the seas and to secure a region which is governed based on laws, not on force.”
Mr. Abe also seemed to move closer to committing Japan to join the United States and other Pacific Rim nations in negotiating the regional free-trade agreement — and in a way that seemed intended to satisfy both leaders’ separate domestic political concerns. The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership has been a priority of Mr. Obama’s economic and foreign policy agenda since late 2011.
While Mr. Abe’s advisers have said he has personally favored joining the talks, in keeping with his emphasis on an economic stimulus program that has become known as “Abenomics” in Tokyo, he faces domestic political risks: Mr. Abe regained office less than two months ago, and his party faces critical parliamentary elections in July, when it will need the support of rice farmers skeptical of more open markets.
In a joint statement, the two governments agreed that if Japan does participate in the trade talks, there would be no exemptions stopping discussions on any products, a starting point the United States had insisted upon. But the statement also recognized “that both countries have bilateral trade sensitivities, such as certain agricultural products for Japan and certain manufactured products for the United States” and held that Japan would not have to commit to ending all tariffs upon joining the talks. Even so, the goal of the trade talks is a comprehensive agreement that eliminates tariffs.
With Japan still the world’s third-largest economy despite two decades of economic weakness, its participation in the negotiations is considered all but essential to any agreement’s success. But the Obama administration had opposed any exemptions or preconditions to secure Tokyo’s entry, especially given the opposition of American agricultural and manufacturing interests, including automakers.
A response to the leaders’ joint statement from Representative Sander M. Levin of Michigan testified to the skepticism within Mr. Obama’s party. “There must be a clear, concrete understanding that before Japan would join the T.P.P. negotiations that those negotiations would result in a real change in Japan’s policies and practices,” Mr. Levin said, referring to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
On another issue of importance to Mr. Abe, the prime minister indicated that Japan had American reassurance of support in Tokyo’s increasingly tense dispute with China over islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, though he did not specify what that meant. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last month warned China against “unilateral” actions challenging Japan’s control. But the United States is neutral on the question of the islands’ sovereignty and has cautioned both countries against hostilities, which could potentially draw in the United States since it is obligated by treaty to come to Japan’s defense.
Mr. Abe, who has taken hawkish stands in the past, also signaled that he had reassured the Americans that he would not act rashly and instead would seek to improve relations with Beijing.
On Friday, a Japanese government spokesman said Japan has asked Beijing to explain why Chinese ships placed several buoys near the disputed islands. When asked by the Japanese media if the buoys could be used to track Japan’s sophisticated submarines, Japan’s defense minister said they could possibly be used to track “vessels.”
Neither Mr. Abe nor Mr. Obama mentioned any real movement on the Okinawan base, one of the worst irritants in the two countries’ relations. Yukio Hatoyama, a recent prime minister from a different political party, had briefly backed off on earlier Japanese promises to allow the base to be relocated to a less populated part of the island.
Martin Fackler contributed reporting from Tokyo.
Can a text from ancient Persia break down mistrust between enemies?
Ian Black: The 2,600-year-old Cyrus Cylinder is embarking on a first US tour with a message of tolerance from Iran's past
Friday 22 February 2013 13.56 GMT
Thirty-plus years of mutual suspicion, demonization and hostility separate the United States from Iran, so it would be naive to hope for any sudden change — on the nuclear front or on any of the other thorny issues that divide Washington from Tehran. But an innovative exercise in cultural diplomacy might, just, make a small dent in the wall of prejudice.
Hopes rest on a rugby-ball sized object whose permanent home is in a glass case in the magnificent Iran gallery of the British Museum. It was there that a modest send-off ceremony was held the other day for the Cyrus Cylinder, heading off on a US tour to give American audiences a glimpse of an ancient civilization whose heritage is too often masked by contemporary clamour and aggression.
The cylinder, one of the most famous objects to have survived from the world of antiquity, is a clay tablet inscribed with Akkadian Cuneiform script. It was made shortly after the Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great of Persia captured Babylon in 539BC and records how he allowed deported peoples to return to their homelands. In the words of the Iran Heritage Foundation:
"It tells how the god of Babylon – the conquered land – has chosen Cyrus to improve the lives of the Babylonians, and it talks about Cyrus's efforts in repatriating displaced people and restoring temples across Mesopotamia, letting them worship the god of their choice, not the god of the conqueror. It tells the story of letting people living their lives even after their country was conquered, something that was not heard of at the time."
Strikingly — given the hateful nature of current Middle Eastern politics — those peoples included the Jews, who went back to Palestine to rebuild their Temple. Enthusiastic European reactions to the discovery of the cylinder in the bible-reading days of 1879 were influenced in part by the Old Testament books of Isaiah and Ezra, which portray Cyrus as a liberator of the Jewish exiles.
The hope, says the IHF, is that the exhibition — the cylinder and other objects — will appeal to the substantial community of expatriate Iranians living in the US (many of them refugees from the 1979 revolution) as well as to American Jews accustomed to the mutual hostility between the Islamic Republic and Israel, including outlandish Holocaust-denying statements by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The object is not itself Persian but Babylonian and was found in what is now Iraq by British Museum archaeologists, who acquired it from the Ottomans. It describes events from a Babylonian perspective and records Cyrus as having been guided by the Babylonian deity Marduk. It has however, become closely identified with Persia's pre-Islamic culture: when the British Museum loaned it to Iran in 2010 it was seen by 1m people in three months and there were briefly fears that it might not be returned to its Bloomsbury home.
The US tour will begin in the Smithsonian in Washington — in time for the Persian new year of Norouz - before going on to museums including the Metropolitan in New York and the J Paul Getty in Los Angeles.
Understanding of the artefact's historical and cultural significance has been enriched by the work of the British Museum's director, Neil MacGregor, who emphasizes its message of respect for diversity, tolerance and universal human rights - the reason a replica is on display at UN headquarters in New York. As Karen Armstrong, the renowned historian of religion, put it at the send-off event:
"The chief task of our time is to build a global community where people of different persuasions can look at each other's sacred traditions and learn to co-exist."
Other experts, however, have cautioned against too liberal and contemporary interpretation of a message from 2,600 years ago, recalling that the text is in essence a boastful proclamation by a conquering tyrant justifying his actions to posterity. In the words of theologian Jacob Wright:
"The values of tolerance that the Cyrus Cylinder has come to represent today must be held high. Yet in doing so, we must also heed the voices of those who opposed Persia's imperial reach. Otherwise, we lose sight of the danger posed by any power that would organize the world primarily for the purpose of greater control, exploitation and expansion."
February 22, 2013
New Drone Base in Niger Builds U.S. Presence in Africa
By ERIC SCHMITT and SCOTT SAYARE
WASHINGTON — Opening a new front in the drone wars against Al Qaeda and its affiliates, President Obama announced on Friday that about 100 American troops had been sent to Niger in West Africa to help set up a new base from which unarmed Predator aircraft would conduct surveillance in the region.
The new drone base, located for now in the capital, Niamey, is an indication of the priority Africa has become in American antiterrorism efforts. The United States military has a limited presence in Africa, with only one permanent base, in Djibouti, more than 3,000 miles from Mali, where insurgents had taken over half the country until repelled by a French-led force.
In a letter to Congress, Mr. Obama said about 40 United States military service members arrived in Niger on Wednesday, bringing the total number of those deployed in the country to about 100 people. A military official said the troops were largely Air Force logistics specialists, intelligence analysts and security officers.
Mr. Obama said the troops, who are armed for self-protection, would support the French-led operation that last month drove the Qaeda and affiliated fighters out of a desert refuge the size of Texas in neighboring Mali.
Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, signed a status-of-forces agreement last month with the United States that has cleared the way for greater American military involvement in the country and has provided legal protection to American troops there.
In an interview last month in Niamey, President Mahamadou Issoufou voiced concern about the spillover of violence and refugees from Mali, as well as growing threats from Boko Haram, an Islamist extremist group to the south, in neighboring Nigeria.
French and African troops have retaken Mali’s northern cities, including Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, but about 2,000 militants have melted back into desert and mountain hideaways and have begun a small campaign of harassment and terror, dispatching suicide bombers, attacking guard posts, infiltrating liberated cities or ordering attacks by militants hidden among civilians.
“Africa Command has positioned unarmed remotely piloted aircraft in Niger to support a range of regional security missions and engagements with partner nations,” Benjamin Benson, a command spokesman in Stuttgart, Germany, said in an e-mail message on Friday.
Mr. Benson did not say how many aircraft or troops would ultimately be deployed, but other American officials have said the base could eventually have as many as 300 United States military service members and contractors.
For now, American officials said, Predator drones will be unarmed and will fly only on surveillance missions, although they have not ruled out conducting missile strikes at some point if the threat worsens.
American officials would like to move the aircraft eventually to Agadez, a city in northern Niger that is closer to parts of northern Mali where cells of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other militant groups are operating. Gen. Carter F. Ham, the leader of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, visited the base last month as part of discussions with Niger’s leaders on closer counterterrorism cooperation.
The new drone base will join a constellation of small airstrips in recent years on the continent, including one in Ethiopia, for surveillance missions flown by drones or turboprop planes designed to look like civilian aircraft.
A handful of unarmed Predator drones will fill a desperate need for more detailed information on regional threats, including the militants in Mali and the unabated flow of fighters and weapons from Libya. General Ham and intelligence analysts have complained that such information has been sorely lacking.
As the United States increased its presence in Niger, Russia sent a planeload of food, blankets and other aid to Mali on Friday, a day after Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov warned of the spread of terrorism in North Africa, which the Russian government has linked to Western intervention in Libya.
Mr. Lavrov met on Thursday with the United Nations special envoy for the region, Romano Prodi, to discuss the situation in Mali, where Russia has supported the French-led effort to oust Islamist militants. But Russia has also blamed the West for the unrest and singled out the French in particular for arming the rebels who ousted the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
“Particular concern was expressed about the activity of terrorist organizations in the north, a threat to regional peace and security,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement after the meeting. “The parties agreed that the uncontrolled proliferation of arms in the region in the wake of the conflict in Libya sets the stage for an escalation of tension throughout the Sahel.” The Sahel is a vast region stretching more than 3,000 miles across Africa, from the Atlantic in the west through Sudan in the east.
In a television interview this month, Mr. Lavrov said, “France is fighting against those in Mali whom it had once armed in Libya against Qaddafi.”
On Friday, suicide attackers detonated two car bombs near Tessalit, a town in Mali’s far north, according to news reports, while Islamist fighters clashed with Malian soldiers farther south in Gao, where fighting has flared in recent days.
The twin suicide bombings in Tessalit killed three fighters for the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, known as the M.N.L.A., an ethnic Tuareg armed group that has allied with the French forces, a spokesman for the group said, according to Agence France-Presse. The attackers were killed as well. On Thursday, a guard and an attacker were killed in a car bombing in Kidal, south of Tessalit, that appeared to have targeted a civilian fuel depot, France’s Defense Ministry said in a statement.
Responsibility for that attack was claimed by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, an offshoot of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The group said it would continue to press its fight and also intended to retake Gao, hundreds of miles to the south.
In central Gao late Thursday morning, Malian and French forces killed about 15 militants from “infiltrated terrorist groups” that had seized the town hall and court, according to the French Defense Ministry. The initial firefight involved only Malian soldiers and militant fighters, the ministry’s statement said, but several French armored vehicles and two helicopters were later involved.
Two militants were killed outside a checkpoint north of the city after “sporadically” attacking the Nigerien soldiers standing guard, the Defense Ministry said. As many as six Malian soldiers were reported wounded.
On Friday, sporadic gunfire and at least two rebel rocket attacks were reported in Gao, according to a Malian officer cited by The Associated Press. Most of the militants fled to the east of the city aboard seven vehicles, the officer said.
Russian officials have pointed repeatedly to the unrest in North Africa and the political turmoil in Egypt as evidence that the Western-supported Arab Spring has created a dangerous and chaotic situation and potential breeding grounds for terrorists. Russia has also used the examples of Libya and Egypt to justify its opposition to any Western effort to oust the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Eric Schmitt reported from Washington, and Scott Sayare from Paris. David M. Herszenhorn contributed reporting from Moscow.
Originally published Friday, February 22, 2013 at 4:13 AM
Syria activists say battle for airport intensifies
The Associated Press
Syrian activists say the battle between rebels and government troops for the country's second-largest airport is intensifying.
The director of the Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdul-Rahman, says the fighting Saturday near Aleppo International airport is concentrated around a section of a highway connecting the city with a strategic facility the rebels have been trying to capture for weeks.
Rebels have recently taken control of two military bases protecting the airport. They have also cut off a highway the army has been using to transport troops and supplies there.
President Bashar Assad's troops have been locked in a stalemate with the rebels in Aleppo since July, when Syria's largest city became a major battlefield in the nearly two-year conflict.
February 22, 2013
Scud Missile Attack Reported in Aleppo
By HWAIDA SAAD and RICK GLADSTONE
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Antigovernment activists in Syria said the military fired Scud missiles into at least three rebel-held districts of Aleppo on Friday, flattening dozens of houses, killing at least 12 civilians and burying perhaps dozens of others under piles of rubble.
The assertion, which appears to be corroborated by videos posted on the Internet, came one day after Syrian government targets in central Damascus were hit by multiple car bombings that were among the deadliest and most destructive so far in the nearly two-year-old conflict.
The report said the Hamra, Tariq al Bab and Hanano areas of Aleppo were hit with Scuds, which are not known for their accuracy; it was the second report this week of the military using such missiles on rebel-held areas in the northern city.
Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial capital, has become one of the focal points of rebellion in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. On Tuesday, according to activists in the city, a Syrian missile leveled part of Jabal Badro, another neighborhood controlled by the rebels. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group with contacts inside Syria, said in a statement that the victims of missile explosions in Aleppo on Friday included children and that the number of victims “is expected to rise significantly because there are dozens of wounded under the rubble.”
Syria’s state-run news media made no immediate mention of the Aleppo attacks. The Web site of Syria’s official SANA news agency was dominated by the aftermath of the car bombings in Damascus on Thursday, which killed more than 70 people. The ferocity and scope of those bombings were unusual for central Damascus, which until now has been largely insulated from the carnage and destruction wrought by the conflict in the city’s outer suburbs and other parts of the country.
Most of the casualties in Damascus were caused by an especially powerful bomb near the headquarters of President Assad’s Baath Party and the Russian Embassy, which were both damaged, according to Russian news reports and witnesses contacted in the capital. SANA reported that a hospital and neighboring schools were also damaged.
No group has taken responsibility for the Damascus bombings, but the government has said they were carried out by terrorists, its generic description for the alliance of armed rebels seeking to oust Mr. Assad. The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the main Syrian group for the opposition, which was meeting in Cairo at the time, condemned the bombings, as did its Western supporters, including the United States.
Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, told reporters on Thursday that the United States denounced such bombings as “indiscriminate acts of violence against civilians or against diplomatic facilities.” The attacks violate international law, she said, adding that “perpetrators on all sides have to be held accountable.”
Nonetheless, the bombings appeared to create a new source of diplomatic friction between the United States and Russia, which has supported the Syrian government during the conflict and has rejected any proposed solution that would force Mr. Assad to relinquish power.
Russia’s mission to the United Nations accused the United States of blocking its attempt to seek approval of a Security Council statement that would have condemned the Damascus bombings as terrorism. The United States mission denied the Russian accusation, saying it had requested only that the Russian statement include a paragraph that also condemned the Syrian government’s “continued, indiscriminate use of heavy weaponry against civilians.”
In a statement posted online Friday, Erin Pelton, a spokeswoman for the United States mission, said, “Unfortunately, if predictably, Russia rejected the U.S.-suggested language as ‘totally unacceptable’ and withdrew its draft statement.”
Other insurgency-related violence was reported by the Syrian Observatory and activists elsewhere in Syria on Friday, including random sniping attacks in the north-central city of Raqqa that killed four people during an antigovernment demonstration, and seven people killed near a mosque in Dara’a, the southern city where the anti-Assad uprising first began in March 2011.
The Local Coordination Committees, a network of anti-Assad activists, reported that fighters with the Free Syrian Army and other groups had taken control of at least two military facilities in the suburbs of Deir al-Zour, an eastern city that has been a battleground for many months. The report, which could not be corroborated, also claimed that rebels had gained control of a missile facility in Deir al-Zour that was formerly the site of a partly built nuclear reactor bombed by Israeli warplanes in 2007. Syria disclosed the existence of the missile facility four years ago at a technical meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Activists reached via Skype also reported what they described as rival demonstrations in the city of Kafr Nabl in northern Idlib Province, a rebel-held area, between a group calling for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate and a group seeking a secular state. The demonstrations appeared to reflect the influence of militant Islamist groups like the Al Nusra Front, which have been welcomed by some in the Syrian opposition for their brave fighting skills but are regarded warily by others. The United States has been reluctant to provide weapons to the Syrian insurgency partly because it considers Al Nusra a terrorist group, with links to Al Qaeda militants in neighboring Iraq.
In Idlib, what appeared to be a deepening sectarian divide caused by the conflict has taken the form of retaliatory kidnappings between rival Shiite and Sunni villages in recent weeks. The Syrian Observatory reported on Thursday, however, that scores of hostages had been released.
In Cairo, the Syrian opposition coalition concluded its two-day meeting Friday with an announcement that it would convene again in Istanbul on March 2 and begin forming a provisional government by naming a prime minister. Members hope that such a government can begin providing services in rebel-controlled territories and help prepare for a transition, predicated on the assumption that Mr. Assad leaves power.
The coalition also pulled back from recent statements by its leader, Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, who had said he was open to talks with members of Mr. Assad’s government about a political solution to end the conflict.
“Bashar al-Assad and the security and military leadership responsible for the state of Syria today must step down and be considered outside this political process,” the coalition said in a statement after the meeting. “They cannot be part of any political solution for Syria and must be held accountable for their crimes.”
Hwaida Saad reported from Beirut, and Rick Gladstone from New York. David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting from Cairo.
February 22, 2013
Palestinians Protest Route of Marathon to Sponsors
By JODI RUDOREN
JERUSALEM — A lawyer representing Palestinian government agencies sent letters this week to an American sneaker company and an international hotel chain threatening a boycott and legal action if they did not withdraw their sponsorship of the Jerusalem Marathon, which the Palestinians say violates international law.
The letters to New Balance, a footwear company based in Boston, and the InterContinental Hotel Group, which includes the Crowne Plaza hotel in Jerusalem, say that the marathon, scheduled for March 1, is a “serious breach” of international law because it runs through East Jerusalem, territory that Israel captured during the 1967 war and later annexed. The Palestinians, and much of the world, consider East Jerusalem occupied territory, but the Israelis see it as part of their capital city.
“As the marathon neither caters to the needs of Palestinian civilians nor serves any genuine military purpose, the marathon constitutes an illegal activity in occupied East Jerusalem under international humanitarian law,” read the letters, sent on behalf of the Palestinian Olympic Committee, Athletics Federation and Higher Council of Youth and Sport. Citing United Nations resolutions, the Fourth Geneva Convention and an International Court of Justice ruling, the letters warn: “If your company does not immediately withdraw sponsorship of this illegal activity, my clients will be forced to pursue this matter legally.”
The letters do not specifically mention the United Nations General Assembly vote on Nov. 29 that upgraded Palestine to a nonmember observer state, but a senior Palestinian official said the companies could be targets if Palestinians leaders decide to use the new status to pursue claims in international courts. Another possibility is action by the Arab League, whose 22 member states called for a boycott of Adidas over its sponsorship of the Jerusalem marathon last year.
The mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, has described the marathon, in its third year, as an effort to make his bitterly divided and contested city “normal.” But normalcy is a challenge in a city that both Israelis and Palestinians see as their capital, a place that Jews, Muslims and Christians worldwide all revere as holy, a sprawling 48 square miles where 500,000 Israelis and 300,000 Palestinians live mostly in separate neighborhoods. Virtually none of those Palestinians vote in municipal elections, for fear of “normalization,” and many Palestinians in recent years have refused to attend meetings or hold official events in parts of Jerusalem for the same reason.
This week, Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, made headlines during a visit here for an offhand reference to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which Washington generally avoids. American consular officials joke that part of their job is to make sure the mail is addressed simply to “Jerusalem,” not “Jerusalem, Israel.”
Asked about the letters to New Balance and Crowne Plaza, a spokesman for Mr. Barkat said on Friday that the Palestinians were “trying to drag the marathon into a political cause.”
“This is not politics, this is sport, this is culture,” said the spokesman, Barak Cohen. “This is a major international event in a major international city,” he added, noting that 2,000 of the more than 18,000 registered runners were from 52 countries. “Arab residents and Jewish residents are welcome to participate and celebrate together,” he added.
A spokeswoman for New Balance, whose logo is at the top of the marathon’s Web site next to the slogan, “Let’s Make Excellent Happen,” did not respond to inquiries on Friday.
A spokeswoman for the InterContinental Hotel Group said the company was unaware of the marathon sponsorship, which she said was by the Jerusalem Crowne Plaza, a franchisee. She said the hotel’s manager could not be reached for comment because of the Jewish Sabbath.
German president: make English the language of EU
Joachim Gauck says Europe needs Britain's democratic traditions, political courage and sober-mindedness
Kate Connolly in Berlin
The Guardian, Friday 22 February 2013 21.24 GMT
Germany's president has called for English to be made the language of the European Union as he appealed to the UK to stay in the EU.
Joachim Gauck earned applause for his remarks, made in Berlin on Friday in a speech on Europe's future at a time of rising German scepticism towards Brussels.
"Dear English, Scots, Welsh, Northern Irish and new British citizens, we want to continue having you on board," he said. "We need your experience as the oldest parliamentary democracy, we need your traditions, your sober-mindedness and your courage."
He said that to encourage a greater sense of commonality, Europe needed a common language as well as encouraging multilingualism. "I am convinced that, in Europe, both can live side by side," he said. "The sense of being at home in your mother tongue, with all its poetry, as well as a workable English for all of life's situations and all age groups."
Appealing to Britons' sense of historical responsibility he emphasised the formative role the UK had played in founding modern Europe by its fight against Nazi Germany; if only for that reason, he said, the UK had an important role to play.
"You helped to save our Europe with your engagement in the second world war – it is also your Europe, and more Europe cannot mean a Europe without you. Only with you can we tackle the future."
The remarks, which took up two minutes of his hour-long speech, followed David Cameron's pledge to call a referendum on Britain's EU relationship, a prospect that has caused much consternation and criticism in Berlin.
Later on in the speech, which was made at his Berlin residence, Schloss Bellevue, Gauck cracked a subtle joke about the prospect of Britain leaving the EU, when he referred to the union's "27 states" before smirking and correcting himself, saying to laughter from the audience: "No, 28 of course."
Gauck used the much anticipated, nationally televised address to call for "more Europe" and greater communication between member states, but also sought to allay fears that Germany was becoming too powerful and aspired to impose a "diktat" on the rest of the continent.
"In Germany, more Europe does not mean a German Europe. For us, more Europe means a European Germany," he said, adding that Germans had a very specific relationship with and sense of obligation towards Europe precisely because of their past. "After all, it was from our country that the attempts to destroy everything European, all universal values, were unleashed," he said.
He pointed out that today's young Europeans "experience more Europe than everyone else before you", and that they had become so used to travelling across the continent without needing to show passports or change money, that they now took those advantages for granted.
But, he said, at a time of crisis, the time had come for Europeans to have a more active relationship with the union. "Don't ask what Europe can do for you, but ask what you can do for Europe," he said.
Italian election: L'Aquila's voters search in vain for a saviour
Historic town devastated by the 2009 earthquake is symbolic of a country seemingly incapable of recovery
John Hooper in L'Aquila
guardian.co.uk, Friday 22 February 2013 11.37 GMT
It is is many senses a neat metaphor for Italy itself: beautiful, but scarred and paralysed, battered by forces beyond its control, but seemingly incapable of resurrecting itself.
Almost four years after it was shattered by an earthquake, the mountain city of L'Aquila still looks as though it has been subjected to a sustained artillery bombardment.
Through gaping holes in the sides of buildings, cupboards stand with doors wide open, left by owners who snatched up their clothes to flee in terror in the early hours of 6 April 2009.
It seems unreal that a rich, western European nation in the 21st century could have made so little progress towards restoring to life a city of more than 70,000 people.
But the problem holding L'Aquila back is the same one that bedevils infrastructure projects and economic activity up and down Italy: the dysfunctional dispersal of power between various levels of government.
Responsibilities are divided between central, regional, provincial and municipal bodies, each of which can exercise a crippling veto over the others. To a large extent, L'Aquila's problems have stemmed from having a city council run by a different party from the one that held sway at regional and national level.
As a result, loyalties are divided in a bellwether city that more than once has switched allegiances in a way that reflected the humour of the nation.
The vote here was Silvio Berlusconi's to lose. In 2009, when thousands were made homeless by the quake, it was the then prime minister who ensured many had temporary, but comfortable, accommodation: a flat in a timber-built block with even – an archetypal Berlusconi touch – a bottle of spumante left chilling for each new occupant in the refrigerator.
"But I wouldn't vote for him today," said Francesca Luzi, whose husband and two boys were rehoused. "Ruby, 'bunga bunga' – it's so embarrassing."
She knows the woman who heads the centre-left's list for the senate to be a "marvellous person". So, despite reservations about the Democratic party (PD) and its leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, she will probably vote for them.
Why not Mario Monti, the head of Italy's technocratic government since Berlusconi left office 15 months ago?
"Noooo!" said Luzi, appalled. "Monti and [his employment minister, Elsa] Fornero have brought Italy to its knees."
Life has not gone well for Luzi since she was first interviewed by the Guardian, just after she moved to her emergency housing. One of her sons has suffered from post-traumatic stress; she has lost another job; and with the economy still shrinking after a year and a half, her husband has been told he could be laid off.
Monti, trailing fourth in the polls behind the populist Beppe Grillo, is paying for a lack of economic growth and the painful reforms imposed by his government to keep Italy from sinking further into the euro crisis. Yet, if Luzi's chances of returning to her home have improved in recent months, it is because a Monti minister cut through a poisonous dispute between L'Aquila's centre-left mayor and the rightwing governor of the surrounding Abruzzo region that had stood in the way of reconstruction.
Berlusconi's instant apartments were widely appreciated but having provided shelter for the neediest cases, his plan for dealing with the disaster, rather like his last government, ground to a halt. Angelo de Nicola, another city-centre resident and author of a book on the earthquake, said: "I still have no idea what will happen to my house. There is no plan."
Under Italy's much-criticised electoral law, introduced by a Berlusconi government in 2005, local issues have little impact. The constituencies are enormous – in this case, the entire region of Abruzzo – and the only choice for voters is between lists of candidates drawn up in their respective party's headquarters.
In last year's mayoral election, the candidate for Berlusconi's Freedom People movement (PdL) did not even make it to the second ballot. In response, the media tycoon and his party seem to have written off the city: Berlusconi has not shown his face there, and the first Aquilano on the PdL's slate for the lower house, the chamber of deputies, is ranked so low that he has scant chance of a seat.
Berlusconi's climb back from the political dead has been at the centre of campaigning. Gaetano Quagliarello, a leading PdL senatorial candidate was hoping he could waft the disunited party to victory in a region that is very much "middle Italy". "But this is a strange campaign," he said. "We're not used to campaigning in the snow."
A cold snap gripped central and northern Italy on Thursday and was expected to last till Monday. It could decide the outcome of this closely fought election. A high rate of abstention would be bad news for the PdL: pollsters say Berlusconi voters make up a disproportionate share of the likely abstainers.
What it will do to the vote for Grillo's Five Star movement is anybody's guess, because not enough is known about its voters. Depending on that huge variable, the most likely outcome is that the centre-left will win an overall majority in the lower house, but not in the upper, where it would need to form a coalition to survive.
Back in L'Aquila, the mayor, Massimo Cialente, said he knew all about trying to govern in difficult circumstances. Rome has so far allocated some €4bn (£3.4bn) to his city and the 53 other municipalities affected by the earthquake.
"We need at least €4bn more," he said, sitting chain-smoking at his desk. "The money runs out in September and from then on I don't know where it will come from."
As is the case for Italy, time is running out for L'Aquila. Just as young and enterprising Italians are leaving to go abroad, Aquilani who despair of their city ever being restored are giving up and moving elsewhere.
"This year, we've seen a sharp drop in school registrations," said De Nicola. "It's a sign that hope is dwindling."
**********Italy votes: 'State only takes from us'
Lizzy Davies in Lecce
guardian.co.uk, Friday 22 February 2013 14.08 GMT
In past Italian election campaigns, says Ubaldo Villani-Lubelli, the south has been a hot topic. The challenge of how to boost the Mezzogiorno's stagnant economy and close the gap with the centre and north has been something that political leaders have treated, rightly, as an issue key to the future prosperity of Italy. This time, however, it's a bit different.
"In this election, the south has been neglected. This is a problem," says the political blogger. "Or," he adds, with a smile, "maybe it's time for us to do something for the south. Because, in Italy, once you've spoken about a problem, you don't resolve the problem. This is the classic dynamic here."
Whether that is true or not remains to be seen. But Villani-Lubelli, a researcher at the University of Salento in Lecce, is not alone in noting the absence of the issue from the campaign.
Carlo Trigilia, an economic sociologist, wrote in Il Sole 24 Ore newspaper this month that the question of how to improve matters in the Mezzogiorno was missing from the political debate. But, he added, it was "inescapable" if Italy was serious about reducing its public debt, easing the tax burden and improving public services.
While the election campaign may have forgotten the south, the south has not forgotten the campaign. At least, not in Puglia, where many locals are disillusioned about the choice at the ballot box but passionate about the issues facing their local community.
"The governing class in Italy gives many reasons for not going to vote," says Paolo Paticchio, 26, a member of the council in Castrignano dei Greci, a small town about 16 miles south of Lecce. "But there is still this idea that a vote is a sacrosanct right."
For Paticchio, the generational problem developing in the Mezzogiorno is obvious. "We are the first generation which is certainly not going to have a better future than our parents," he says.
Unemployment among the under-25s – high across Italy – is particularly problematic in the south. If young people find work, he says, it is often precarious and badly paid. But often, they cannot. Some get involved with organised crime, he says, although this is not so much a problem in Puglia as elsewhere in the south. Others simply up sticks – either to the north or overseas. "We have seen the return of a phenomenon that was particularly strong in the 60s and 70s – that of emigration," says Paticchio.
Maurizio Melito, a 32-year-old youth worker, agrees. "I can see it because if you go, for example, to a small town in the south of Italy – not Lecce because Lecce is a bit different, but say 10km away – the 20-to-35-year-old population doesn't exist at all. There are just old people and children. So sometimes it's very hard for me to organise new activities for young people – because there are none."
Melito is fairly positive when it comes to the impact of regional government: under the current president, Nichi Vendola, he says, Puglia has pursued some policies which he feels have made a real difference. But it is not enough to make him vote – for SEL (Left Ecology Freedom party) leader Vendola or anyone else – in the national elections. "It's not the vote that's going to change the situation," he says.
Aside from the issues affecting young people in particular, there are plenty of other problems the people of Lecce would like to see fixed by the next government. One is female unemployment, which, as Loredana de Vitis, an artist and journalist says, particularly high in the south. "Where are the policies for creating work for women? They don't exist," she says.
Tax evasion is another. Alberto Milone, 29, says it makes him furious and that he remonstrates with people "all the time" about it. "They say you can get a discount if you don't want a receipt. I say no, give me a receipt. If I pay more you should too. It's a matter of principle for me," he says. Locals also complain of creaking, inadequate infrastructure and poor digital connections.
All this adds up to a picture where, in the words of Milone: "What we see is that the state is only taking from us, not giving us things in return. I think this is especially true for the middle and working class. We only see taxes."
The Monti government's announcement that it would raise VAT this year was a perfect example, he says, of how "the state doesn't really care" about its citizens. (The announcement was, incidentally, coupled with a tax cut for low-income earners.) "Basically, if you're rich and you can afford it, you get better services. Well," adds Milone, in a telling clarification, "you get services."
• Thank you to everyone who got in touch on my trip. You can contact me on Twitter at @lizzy_davies or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
*********Italian elections: why we should worry about the Berlusconi factor
Q&A on how the Italian elections this weekend could reignite the eurozone crisis and affect the world economy
guardian.co.uk, Friday 22 February 2013 19.33 GMT
Why should I care what happens? Just that the wrong result could reignite the eurozone crisis, affecting the world economy.
Why? Italy has huge public debts, amounting to over 120% of its GDP. If investors lost confidence in its ability, or willingness, to repay them, it would trigger panic on the bond markets where government debt is traded. That could happen in one of two ways: if investors felt either that the Italians had picked a government that could lose its grip on the budget (since budget deficits add to the debt) or one that would not introduce the reforms the economy needs to grow.
In other words, one led by Silvio Berlusconi? He does have previous. The public accounts spiralled out of control when he was in office from 2001 to 2006. During the 2000s, when he was in power for most of the time, the only countries with worse growth records than Italy were Haiti and Zimbabwe. It was market concern over his reluctance to impose painful reforms that took the eurozone to the brink of disaster in November 2011. Berlusconi stepped down to make way for a non-party government headed by Mario Monti, which has been in office ever since.
So a Berlusconi victory would be the 'wrong' result? Not the only one. Even worse would be no government at all.
How could that happen? The Italian parliament has two chambers and the upper house, the senate, has exactly the same powers as the lower house, the chamber of deputies. So if a party – or alliance of parties – won only one of the two houses, it could not pass laws.
But that's unthinkable … Unfortunately not. Because of an election law brought in by – right first time – Silvio Berlusconi, the rules for the two chambers are different. In the lower house, the alliance that comes first gets bonus seats to ensure it has a clear majority. But, in the senate, the bonus seats are doled out to whichever alliance comes first in each of Italy's 20 regions.
So there could be a majority for one group in the chamber of deputies …
And for another in the senate.
Nasty. But likely? Possible. The centre-left Democratic party and its allies started the campaign with a clear lead. But Berlusconi's alliance of his own Freedom People movement and the Northern League is catching up. At the same time, the polls show the Five Star Movement, fronted by a comedian, Beppe Grillo, overtaking the alliance that backs Monti.
Why does that matter? Grillo says his movement will not go into government with any of the mainstream parties.
Wow! I can't wait for the next poll
Dream on. Publication of opinion polls is banned in the last two weeks of campaigning.
************Italians weigh up 'least worse' option as election looms
Many are going to the ballot box uninspired and anxious that, instead of a turning point, the election will prove a dead end
Lizzy Davies in Rome
guardian.co.uk, Friday 22 February 2013 12.35 GMT
In a classroom in central Rome, the topic of discussion was the Italian elections, and on the whiteboard were scrawled English words. Among them was the phrase "least worse". Amid lengthy discussions of the choice awaiting them at the ballot box, this – more than any other phrase – had emerged as crucial vocabulary. "Why is there not a good leader?" asked Monica, a 39-year-old NGO worker who will cast her vote for the technocrat-turned-politician Mario Monti. "It's terrible that we are thinking about the least worst option."
Ahead of elections to choose a new government and parliament, the Italians who rejoiced when Silvio Berlusconi left office 15 months ago are well aware of the importance of the vote for the future of their country. Many have their own laundry lists of areas they say need improving or overhauling, from corruption and clientelism to the media and parliament itself.
But rather than speaking optimistically about the election's potential for renewal, many voters are going to the ballot box uninspired and anxious that, instead of providing a turning point, the election will prove a dead end. "We are worried that there will be this big change [politically] but that in fact nothing will change," said Eleonora, another of the class's English students. With just days to go, she, like an estimated 5 million people - 10% of the electorate – had not yet made up her mind who to vote for. "I don't know," she said. "I always voted for the left, but this time I'm really in doubt."
According to the last official polls released two weeks ago, the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) led by Pier Luigi Bersani is most likely – but by no means certain – to emerge with the most votes and lead a new government, probably backed by Monti. But the size of its majority – and therefore how capable it would be of producing a stable, reformist government – would depend both on how successful Berlusconi's attempted comeback ultimately proves and how many people shun mainstream politics altogether by casting their vote for the Five Star Movement (M5S) of former comedian Beppe Grillo.
The M5S has proved a powerful draw for disaffected voters fed up with the same old faces dominating Italian politics. In a front page editorial, the Corriere della Sera said it had become an outlet for rage and frustration: "The traditional parties are incapable of indicating any other course."
But, though the novelty is compelling, many are unsure about what Grillo stands for – and what his change might look like. "I think he will bring a breath of fresh air – people [elected to parliament] who are not politicians; that can be a good thing, although it isn't necessarily. But I also think he's a bit of a demagogue, so that's what I'm worried about," said Alberto Milone, a 29-year-old software engineer based in the southern town of Lecce.
Over Pugliese antipasti, Milone said that, despite the apparent array of choice available to voters, there was no obvious candidate for him: "I don't feel there's a person who really represents me." Like many, he will vote for the PD because he sees Bersani as a credible candidate for prime minister, even if he is lacking in charisma and is tainted – in the eyes of many – with the sins of his party's past, both as a feeble opposition and as a lacklustre government.
But Milone worries that the numbers won't add up for Bersani, and that he won't have a strong enough majority to be able to govern properly or to reform. He is far from the only one to think like this.
"The big problem for me is the fractured nature of the parliament. We need a strong majority," said Giovanni, a civil engineer also in the English class who will vote for the PD. "It is normally possible to govern [in Italy] with a big majority but impossible with a small one – and always more difficult than in Britain, France or Germany. Even a small party wants to be heard." He is terrified, he added, by the potential return of Berlusconi.
Though Italy has a historically high turn-out rate – it topped 80% at the last election in 2008 – there remain people who simply won't vote. Maurizio Melito, a 32-year-old from Lecce, is the definition of an engaged citizen: he is a youth worker, a cultural centre co-ordinator, a teacher, and he sleeps 10 nights a month in a rehabilitation centre for the drug and alcohol addicted. He speaks eloquently about the impact of policies on his native Puglia and votes in local elections. But he regards national politicians as "the educated mafia" and says they are the problem, rather than the solution to, Italy's woes. "I will not vote," he said. "It's not the vote that's going to change the situation … for me this is a shame. I would really like to be able to vote."
Eurozone recession set to continue
European commission backtracks on previous forecasts, blaming a lack of bank lending and record unemployment for the delayed economic recovery
The Guardian, Friday 22 February 2013 15.23 GMT
The eurozone will remain mired in recession in 2013 and leading nations such as France and Spain will miss debt-cutting targets, the European commission has admitted, backtracking on forecasts that the 17- country bloc will grow this year.
The European Union's executive body blamed a lack of bank lending to households and businesses, and record joblessness, for delaying the recovery. Unemployment in the eurozone is set to peak at 12% in 2013, or more than 19 million people, it said. Greece and Spain will be the worst-hit countries, with jobless rates of 27% this year.
The estimate highlights the widening chasm between Germany and France, the two largest eurozone economies, amid warnings this week that France is drifting closer to the bloc's periphery than its main economic rival. The commission predicts that Germany will grow by 0.5% this year, while France is expected to eke out just 0.1% growth. Joblessness among the French is expected to hit 10.7%, compared with 5.7% in Germany.
A senior ally of German chancellor Angela Merkel accused France of being a "problem child" in the eurozone. Michael Fuchs told German radio the French needed to save, implement economic reforms and work longer hours. "Other countries have done their homework a lot more intensively, for example Spain and Italy … but the French believed they could escape this," he said.
Marco Buti, the commission's director general for economic and financial affairs, said unemployment remained unacceptably high. This had grave social consequences, he said, and could weigh on growth in the future if it becomes entrenched. The figures also have consequences for the UK because the eurozone is the economy's largest trading partner and is the fulcrum of hopes for an export-led recovery in Britain's finances.
The commission said the threat of a breakup of the eurozone had receded and financial market conditions had improved substantially, but the impact had not yet fed through into the real economy. As a result, it said the 17 eurozone economies would contract by 0.3% in 2013 rather than grow by 0.1%, as previously predicted.
The figures harboured bad news for Spain and France's debt-cutting targets. Under EU budget rules, eurozone states can face fines if they fail to take action to meet deficit targets – the difference between income and spending – set by EU finance ministers. The main strggler is Spain, which badly missed the deficit target of 6.3% of GDP for 2012 with a result of 10.2%. This year, Madrid will have a deficit of 6.7% rather than the 4.5% it has been set. And unless government policies change, Spain will have a gap of 7.2% in 2014 against the target of 2.8%, the commission said.
France will also miss its targets. This year's shortfall will be 3.7% rather than the 3% agreed with the EU, because of weaker-than-expected growth.
There was a silver lining in the figures for the wider zone, however. The commission said the region has bottomed out and it expects economic activity to gradually accelerate, with GDP 0.7% higher in the last quarter of 2013 than in the same period last year. The commission expects domestic demand to rebound in 2014 and take over from exports as the main driver of strengthening GDP growth.
Economists said the grim forecasts could prompt the commission – which is part of the troika of lenders to crisis-hit countries – to ease its demands of austerity from eurozone governments, while the European Central Bank may be moved to adopt measures to boost the economy.
Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit, said: "A downward revision to the EC's economic growth forecasts for the eurozone suggest that governments will be given more time to reduce budget deficits without implementing harsher austerity measures, while at the same time putting more pressure on the European Central Bank to provide a further boost of stimulus, perhaps via a cut in its main policy rate."
Williamson said the weaker forecasts were a blow for the UK, which depends on the eurozone for export growth. "Given the outlook of persistent weak demand at home and a further year of contraction in the eurozone, there appear to be few drivers of UK economic recovery in 2013," he said.
The commission predicts that the UK economy will grow by 0.9% this year, although joblessness will rise to 8%. The wider European Union of 27 member states is expected to grow by 0.1% this year, with a jobless rate of 11%.
George Osborne under pressure as Britain loses AAA rating for first time
Chancellor vows to stick to course after downgrade by Moody's, which blamed subdued growth and rising debt burden
Jill Treanor and Rajeev Syal
The Guardian, Saturday 23 February 2013
Britain was stripped of its AAA-rated debt status for the first time ever on Friday night in a move that puts pressure on George Osborne, who had pledged to use his austerity measures to protect the rating.
The chancellor, who had 12 hours' notice of the decision by Moody's ratings agency, insisted he would stick to his course and had "redoubled" his resolve to tackle Britain's financial problems. However, the downgrading will have major political implications for the coalition.
Labour and the Tories acknowledge that the next election is likely to be decided on the debate over the best way of fixing the economy. Osborne, however, will be forced to listen to a series of opposing politicians reminding him of his previous promises that he would maintain Britain's top rating. Shadow chancellor Ed Balls saidon Friday: "This credit rating downgrade is a humiliating blow to a prime minister and chancellor who said keeping our AAA rating was the test of their economic and political credibility."
Moody's, the first of the major agencies to remove the UK from the elite club of AAA countries, blamed "subdued growth" and a "high and rising debt burden" for the decision to cut the rating by one notch to AA1.
The rating is significant because it can affect a country's cost of borrowing and is also symbolic to governments determined to prove their economic credentials. Sterling may now be expected to come under pressure on foreign exchange markets.
Osborne, who has often cited the importance of the triple-A status said: "Tonight we have a stark reminder of the debt problems facing our country – and the clearest possible warning to anyone who thinks we can run away from dealing with those problems. Far from weakening our resolve to deliver our economic recovery plan, this decision redoubles it. We will go on delivering the plan that has cut the deficit by a quarter, and given us record low interest rates and record numbers of jobs."
As far back as February 2010, he told an audience of Tory activists: "What investor is going to come to the UK when they fear a downgrade of our credit rating and a collapse of confidence?" In the Tory manifesto, published weeks later, he said: "We will safeguard Britain's credit rating with a credible plan to eliminate the bulk of the structural deficit over a parliament."
Balls said the decision by Moody's showed that chancellor was running out of credibility. "George Osborne said keeping the credit rating was the key goal of his economic policy. As his economic plan has floundered, it has been the last thing he has clung on to. And bizarrely his response tonight suggests he is not reflecting on why things have gone so badly wrong, but using this downgrade as one more reason to plough on with his failing plan – regardless of the damaging impact on struggling families and businesses. The issue is no longer whether this chancellor can admit his mistakes but whether the prime minister can now see that, with UK economic policy so badly downgraded in every sense, things have got to change.
"In the budget the government must urgently take action to kickstart our flatlining economy and realise that we need growth to get the deficit down," he said.
"If David Cameron and George Osborne fail to do so and put political pride above the national economic interest, we face more long-term damage and pain for businesses and families."
Moody's decision to cut the rating without awaiting the detail of Osborne's 20 March budget may surprise some economists, but it decided to move now because of the evidence of a "high and rising debt burden".
With the UK one quarter away from a triple dip recession, Moody's blamed "continuing weakness in the UK's medium term outlook with a period of sluggish growth which Moody's now expects will extend into the second half of the decade".
But it added that a "combination of political will and medium term fundamental underlying economic strength will, in time, allow the government to implement its fiscal consolidation plan and reverse the UK's debt trajectory".
Moody's has now placed the UK rating on a "stable footing" but its rivals Standard & Poor's and Fitch have the country under review for a potential downgrade.
Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem Treasury minister, told BBC News that losing the AAA rating was not a devastating blow and the government was getting Britain back on track.
"I would say this is disappointing news and that the credit rating agencies are one benchmark amongst many in terms of the economy, but actually our credibility as a country is tested every day in the financial markets," he said.
"We continue to command very low interest rates and also this country is continuing, despite all the difficulties and despite the fact that growth has been much slower than was originally forecast … to create jobs – a million jobs since we came into office."
Lord Oakeshott, the Lib Dem peer and close ally of the business secretary Vince Cable, said he believes the markets have fallen because bank lending and housebuilding are "flat on the floor".
"If there is no change, the economy is going to remain being stuck. It matters most for him [George Osborne] because he was the one saying that before the election that it wouldn't happen," he said.
"The policies are not bold enough, they are not working, the economy is flat and I am afraid that the economy is just not working."
As well as chiding the chancellor, Balls was critical of Moody's, and warned it was important not get carried away with what it or other ratings agencies said.
"Tonight's verdict does not change the fact that the credit rating agencies have made major misjudgments over recent years, not least in giving top ratings to US sub-prime mortgages before the global financial crash.
"But what matters is the economic reality that the credit rating agencies are responding to. Moody's themselves say the main driver of their decision is the weak growth in Britain's economy.
"Their judgment is in response to nearly three years of stagnation, a double-dip recession, billions more borrowing as confirmed this week and broken fiscal rules. This is why the chancellor is fast running out of credibility."
This quarter is regarded as crucial for the chancellor if the country is to avoid a triple dip recession following the 2008 banking crisis which led to sharp reductions in growth in early 2009.
The economy contracted by a surprise 0.3% in the last three months of 2012 and if it shrinks again in the subsequent three months it would be regarded as once again in recession. Employment, though, ended 2012 at 29.7m – the highest number of people in work since records began in 1971.
Sterling had been jolted earlier in the week when it emerged that Bank of England governor Sir Mervyn King had wanted to print more electronic money – quantitative easing – in an effort to bolster growth. In the last minutes of trading in New York on Friday, sterling was knocked down to $1.516, but is expected to come under pressure when Asian markets open for trading on Monday. Moody's also cut the central bank's rating last night.
"It's a pretty big deal. We didn't see a huge reaction in the pound because it's late in the New York session but you'll see some more aggressive selling when the market opens (in Asia) on Sunday," Kathy Lien, managing director of BK Asset Management in New York told Reuters.
02/22/2013 05:14 PM
Our Right to Poison: Lessons from the Failed War on Drugs
By Jochen-Martin Gutsch and Juan Moreno
The global war on drugs has cost billions and taken countless lives -- but achieved little. The scant results finally have politicians and experts joining calls for legalization. Following the journey of cocaine from a farm in Colombia to a user in Berlin sheds light on why.
"Pablo Escobar said to me: 'One shot to the head isn't enough. It has to be two shots, just above the eyes.'"
Jhon Velásquez, nicknamed "Popeye," is sitting on a white plastic chair in the prison yard. "You can survive one shot, but never two. I cut up the bodies and threw them in the river. Or I just left them there. I often drove through Medellín, where I kidnapped and raped women. Then I shot them and threw them in the trash."
Three guards are standing next to him. He is the only prisoner in the giant building. The watchtower, the security door systems, the surveillance cameras -- it's all for him. The warden of the Cómbita maximum-security prison, a three-hour drive northeast of the Colombian capital Bogotá, has given Popeye one hour to tell his story.
The experience is like opening a door into hell.
Popeye was the right-hand man of Pablo Escobar, head of Colombia's Medellín cartel. Until his death in 1993, Escobar was the most powerful drug lord in the world. He industrialized cocaine production, controlled 80 percent of the global cocaine trade and became one of the richest people on the planet. The cartel ordered the killings of 30 judges, about 450 police officers and many more civilians. As Escobar's head of security, Popeye was an expert at kidnapping, torture and murder.
Velásquez acquired the nickname Popeye while working as a cabin boy in the Colombian navy. He kidnapped Andrés Pastrana, the then-candidate for mayor of Bogotá and later president. He obtained the weapon that was used to fatally shoot Colombian presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán in 1989. He was involved in a bombing attack that was intended to kill former Colombian President César Gaviria. Popeye, acting on the orders of Escobar, El Patrón, even had his beauty-queen girlfriend Wendy murdered.
"I've killed about 250 people, and I cut many of them into pieces. But I don't know exactly how many," Popeye says. "Only psychopaths count their kills."
Popeye is a pale, 50-year-old man with a shrill voice -- a psychopath who doesn't count his kills.
The longer Popeye talks -- about his murders, the drug war and the havoc he and Escobar wreaked and that is currently being repeated in Mexico -- the less important my prepared questions about this war become. I realize that I might as well throw away my notepad, because it all boils down to one question: How can we stop people like you, Popeye?
He pauses for a moment before saying: "People like me can't be stopped. It's a war. They lose men, and we lose men. They lose their scruples, and we never had any. In the end, you'll even blow up an aircraft because you believe the Colombian president is on board. I don't know what you have to do. Maybe sell cocaine in pharmacies. I've been in prison for 20 years, but you will never win this war when there is so much money to me made. Never."
I'm sitting face to face with a killer: Popeye, an evil product of hell. And I'm afraid that the killer could be right.
The drug war is the longest war in recent history, underway for more than 40 years. It is a never-ending struggle against a $500 billion (€378 billion) industry.
A Global War on Drugs
On July 17, 1971, then-US President Richard Nixon announced: "America's public enemy No. 1 is drug abuse." A new archenemy had been born: drugs. It was the opening salvo in the "war on drugs."
To this day, the war on drugs is being waged against anyone who comes into contact with cocaine, marijuana or other illegal drugs. It is being fought against coca farmers in Colombia, poppy growers in Afghanistan and drug mules who smuggle drugs by the kilogram (2.2 pounds), sometimes concealed in their stomachs. It is being fought against crystal meth labs in Eastern Europe, kids addicted to crack cocaine in Los Angeles and people who are caught with a gram of marijuana in their pockets, just as it is being fought against the drug cartels in Mexico and killers like Popeye. There is almost no place on earth today where the war is not being waged. Indeed, the war on drugs is as global as McDonald's.
In 2010, about 200 million people took illegal drugs. The numbers have remained relatively constant for years, as has the estimated annual volume of drugs produced worldwide: 40,000 tons of marijuana, 800 tons of cocaine and 500 tons of heroin. What has increased, however, is the cost of this endless war.
In the early 1970s, the Nixon administration pumped about $100 million into drug control. Today, under President Barack Obama, that figure is $15 billion -- more than 30 times as much when adjusted for inflation. There is even a rough estimate of the direct and indirect costs of the 40-plus years of the drug war: $1 trillion in the United States alone.
In Mexico, some 60,000 people have died in the drug war in the last six years. US prisons are full of marijuana smokers, the Taliban in Afghanistan still use drug money to pay for their weapons, and experts say China is the drug country of the future.
Is Legalization the Answer?
One of the best ways to understand why, after more than 40 years, this is still an unwinnable war is to track one of the invincible enemies.
Take cocaine, for example. The story begins with a coca farmer in the Colombian jungle, then leads to smugglers on the Caribbean island of Aruba, past soldiers and drug cops, across the Atlantic to Europe in a ship's hold, then to Berlin, where the drugs end up in the brains of those whose demand is constantly refueling the business: we, the consumers.
It's also helpful to examine an idea that could change the world, an idea being contemplated by presidents, turned over in the minds of influential politicians and studied in a New York office. The idea is the regulated legalization of drugs.
After decades of the war on drugs, the desire for an alternative is greater than ever. The eternal front in the war is crumbling.
When about 30 national leaders met in Cartagena, Colombia, in April 2012 for the Summit of the Americas, there was only big, behind-the-scenes topic: a new drug policy. Suddenly Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was saying: "If the world decides to legalize (drugs) and thinks that that is how we reduce violence and crime, I could go along with that."
General Otto Pérez Molina, president of Guatemala, wrote: "Consumption and production should be legalized but within certain limits and conditions."
Uruguayan President José Mujica said: "What scares me is drug trafficking, not drugs".
Vicente Fox, the president of Mexico from 2000 to 2006, wanted to wage the "mother of all wars" against organized crime, sending the Mexican army into the drug war. Today, Fox says that the war was a "total failure."
The possession of small amounts of marijuana is no longer a crime in Portugal. After studying drug policy in Great Britain, an independent commission concluded that a policy of stiff penalties is just as costly as it is ineffective. Although the report does not advocate the legalization of drugs, it does call for a rethinking of drug policy. Too rarely "do lawmakers admit (that) not all drug use creates problems," the report's authors write. They argue that the possession of smaller amounts should no longer be a punishable offense and that cannabis cultivation by ordinary consumers should be decriminalized and perhaps even legalized.
Drug Anxiety in Germany
A new way of thinking is beginning to take root: If a war can't be won, and if the enemy has remained invincible for 40 years, why not take the peaceful approach?
German officials take a decidedly cool stance toward these developments. No top politician with a major German party is about to call for a new drug policy or even the legalization of marijuana. Drugs are not a winning issue, because it's too easy to get burned.
Martin Lindner, the deputy head of the pro-business Free Democrats in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, recently triggered a scandal when he lit up a joint on a talk show. The headline of a recent cover story in the Berliner Kurier daily newspaper read: "Has Martin Lindner gone off the deep end?"
"The subject is still completely taboo. When someone tries to relax the rules, he is immediately accused of not protecting our children," says Gerhart Baum, the German interior minister from 1978 to 1982. During his tenure, Baum experienced the so-called "heroin years," when the number of addicts in Germany exploded, images of young junkies were on cover pages and the film "Christiane F - Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo" ("We Children from Zoo Station") was playing in theaters.
This period shaped German drug policy, and it also affected how Germans feel about drugs: anxious, for the most part.
For many people, legalization sounds like an invitation to more drug use and addiction as well as a capitulating country that no longer performs its protective function.
From Leaf to Powder
Rarely is regulated legalization seen as what experts and even presidents imagine it could be, namely, as a more effective tool in the fight against drugs. For them, it could be a tool that doesn't just address consumers, but also destroys the supply chain that makes the cultivating, processing, smuggling and selling of drugs into a business worth billions. The goal is to disrupt a system: the economy of drugs.
The rainforest of Putumayo, in southwestern Colombia, is to cocaine what New Orleans is to jazz or Maranello, the home of Ferrari, is to fast cars -- a legendary place. Coca has been grown in Putumayo since 1974. It's the first region of Colombia that began cultivation and, as local residents say, the last that will abandon it.
Carlos Sánchez, a thin man with an unruly moustache, is standing in front of his coca bush, an inconspicuous, shoulder-high plant with a reddish bark and green leaves. "My coca," says Sánchez with a farmer's pride. There are hundreds more bushes in a clearing in front of him, a plantation covering about one hectare (2.5 acres).
Coca can be harvested up to six times a year. A coca leaf contains 0.5 percent cocaine. Any idiot can grow the shrub, says Sánchez, as he walks over to his horse and unbuckles two canisters of gasoline. He needs them in the laboratory. Someone from the city is coming tomorrow to buy a kilogram of coca paste. The word "laboratory" is a stretch for what Sánchez has cobbled together: a wooden shed that reeks of gasoline, where 200 kilos of coca leaves are ready for processing.
Two steps are needed to turn them into cocaine. First, coca paste is made from the leaves, and then the paste is transformed into pure cocaine.
Sánchez takes a trimmer and moves it through the coca leaves. Then he sprinkles a mixture of cement and fertilizer onto the leaves, shovels them into large vats and pours gasoline into the containers to dissolve the cocaine out. After a while, Sánchez removes the leaves and presses out a brown pulp, which is then treated with sodium bicarbonate and dried. Coca paste has a cocaine content of about 35 percent.
The second step takes place in a different, heavily guarded lab that Sánchez will never enter, but it's only slightly more complicated. The process requires hydrochloric acid, alcohol, ammonia, acetone and simple equipment. None of it is expensive or hard to obtain. Probably the most sophisticated piece of equipment is the microwave oven in which the chemical pulp is dried. The end product is cocaine hydrochloride, or pure cocaine. A good laboratory with a well-trained team can produce 500 kilograms (1,100 lbs.) a day.
Everyone in Putumayo knows that money isn't the only form of payment in the drug business. "I lost two brothers," says Sánchez. "One was shot to death by the local guerillas, and the other one by a drug dealer." Despite the risks, money remains the main incentive. "I receive 1.5 million pesos per kilo," says Sánchez.
A Pointless War?
That's about €630 ($830), a good income but only the beginning of an unparalleled price trajectory. Pure cocaine costs €1,300 a kilo in Putumayo, more than €4,000 at the Colombian border and, in nearby Jamaica, the price already approaches €6,000. The drug gets really expensive when it reaches Europe or the United States, where dealers make about €30,000 a kilo, depending on market conditions.
The European drug user, who only receives cocaine in diluted ("cut") form, doesn't pay a fixed price. Coke is cheaper in Spain than in Germany, for example, and it's cheaper in Berlin than in Munich. The going rate in Germany is about €100 for a gram of impure cocaine, while a kilo of pure cocaine can cost up to €400,000.
"No product on earth has profit margins as large as cocaine or heroin. Why? Because of prohibition."
These are the words of Ethan Nadelmann, the 55-year-old son of a New York rabbi. He studied at Harvard, has taught at Princeton and is considered one of the top drug experts in the United States. Nadelmann is currently the head of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that is fighting for a new drug policy. Its principal sponsor is George Soros, the business magnate and investor whose net worth of some $20 billion makes him one of the richest men in the world.
Nadelmann's office, on the 15th floor of a building in Manhattan, is filled with books with titles like "Alcohol in America" and "Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography." For the last 25 years, Nadelmann has been giving lectures, writing books and appearing as an expert on programs of major channels, such as NBC, Fox and CNN. "The business with drugs is capitalism," says Nadelmann. "As long as there is a demand, there's a supply. We can, of course, eliminate the demand. All we have to do is convince the 200 million drug users to stop buying dope. But does that sound at all realistic?"
The United Nations used to think it was realistic. Until 2008, the organization's goal was to "eradicate or substantially reduce" drug cultivation and the drug trade." The slogan of the UN drug campaign read: "A drug free world: We can do it!" Today, in 2013, the world is still about as drug-free as a so-called Fixerstube (fixer room) in Frankfurt's train station district.
For 25 years, Nadelmann has been convinced that the drug war is pointless. For 25 years, he has been calling for the controlled legalization of drug. And, for 25 years, his efforts have been completely unsuccessful. But now it seems as if things were finally about to change. "Boom!" says Nadelmann.
On the Front Lines of the War
Carlos Sánchez, the coca farmer from Putumayo, spent the entire night making his coca paste. The man who comes to pick it up will take it to Ecuador, to a guarded laboratory in the jungle where the paste will be refined into pure cocaine.
If everything goes smoothly, the cocaine will begin its journey after leaving the laboratory. There is probably no road -- or harbor, river or runway, for that matter -- in the northern part of South America that hasn't been used to smuggle drugs in the last 40 years.
The classic route to the United States passes through Mexico. Reaching Europe is a bit more complicated. A route through West Africa has become established in recent years, but much of the traffic still follows the traditional route, passing through the Caribbean or by plane from Brazil, Colombia and Argentina. Large shipments are sent by sea. Spain and the Netherlands are often the destination countries, although eight tons of cocaine, worth half a billion euros, were recently discovered in a container full of bananas in Antwerp, Belgium.
If things don't go smoothly, the drugs end up in the possession of a short, stocky man who, in his green coveralls, looks like a gardener.
General Luis Alberto Pérez, 53, is the head of the Colombian anti-narcotics police. He is in a very good mood because his men have just seized 1.8 tons of cocaine in a village on the Atlantic coast. After flying from Bogotá to northern Colombia in the morning, Pérez is now standing on a stage in the courtyard of police headquarters in Riohacha.
"That was a heavy blow against this plague that has infected our country," Pérez says into the microphone before a group of journalists.
Pérez's men tear open a few of the cocaine packets. "Top quality," says a police officer, smiling as he discovers the symbol on the compressed powder.
Each cocaine laboratory has a symbol, or label, to identify its product. This is important in case something isn't right with the product. "They apparently like German cars," says General Pérez. The Audi logo is displayed on each of the 1,500 packets of cocaine.
Pérez took more than 72 tons of cocaine out of circulation in 2012, or about 9 percent of global production. He also busted 1,200 cocaine laboratories, seized 400 boats and 150 small aircraft, destroyed 22 runways and arrested 76,000 people.
Of course, Pérez and his men aren't cheap. Colombia spends about 15 percent of its national budget on security, which includes the police and military. General Pérez has tanks and Black Hawk helicopters at his disposal. Narcotics agents in Colombia are equipped like warlords. "We are making progress," says Pérez.
Prices, Premiums and Demand
The Medellín and Cali drug cartels, which once controlled Colombia, have been destroyed with the help of American military aid. Nevertheless, the global trade has hardly changed. It has merely undergone a shift.
Dozens of smaller groups have now taken the place of the two big cartels. New fields in Peru and Bolivia have already replaced some of the 100,000 hectares of coca fields that Pérez has destroyed in Colombia. And the carnage committed by drug warlords no longer takes place in Medellín, but in Mexican cities instead, such Ciudad Juárez.
The drug trade is a straightforward business. The farther the product is removed from the coca plantation, and the closer it comes to some party in Los Angeles or Berlin, the higher the price. The final price has nothing to do with actual costs, which make up only a miniscule percentage of it.
Most of the purchase price consists of a sort of risk premium: the amount the dealer collects in return for the risk of ending up in prison. In other words, it includes an insane profit margin that can only exist because the product is banned.
Since the costs are irrelevant, the amount of cocaine that General Pérez confiscated is also practically irrelevant. From the standpoint of the dealers who have just lost almost two tons of drugs, this only means that, since the police are being vigilant, it's time to increase the price of our product.
The demand for narcotics is what is known as "inelastic." No matter how cheap heroin is, most people won't buy it, regardless of the price. But addicts will always pay. They have no choice, or else they wouldn't be addicts. To them, it doesn't matter what the drugs cost.
That's the economy of drugs.
Growing Resistance to the War
General Pérez has been a police officer for 35 years. He is likely to be named the head of Colombia's national police force soon. Does he believe that he is winning the war? "Of course, when we chop off one head another one immediately grows in its place," he says. "But I do believe we can destroy all coca fields."
No fields, no cocaine -- that's the equation. What does he need to achieve his goal? "More time, and more soldiers," says Pérez.
In other words, more war.
A few years ago, hardly anyone would have contradicted General Pérez. But, these days, the world is searching for alternatives.
"What is happening in Latin America is a revolution," says Ethan Nadelmann, the expert in New York. "Presidents are saying: 'Put an end to the drug war!' That was completely inconceivable for a long time."
For a long 25 years, Nadelmann was a revolutionary without a revolution. But now, all of sudden, he is in the thick of things. He met three presidents last year: then-Mexican President Felipe Caldéron, Colombian President Santos and Guatemalan President Pérez Molina. They were all seeking his advice to develop a new, more effective drug policy. "It's the best time I've ever had," says Nadelmann.
The resistance is building in Latin America, in the US's backyard, of all places. It is a part of the world where, for decades, the CIA brought down governments and helped install dictators in power. In principle, it is also a story of emancipation. Latin America is becoming more self-confident as its economies strengthen, and the fear of the Yankees to the north is subsiding. Nadelmann now wants to take advantage of "the momentum" and hopes to take the revolution around the world.
Prominent Drug-War Opponents Unite
On some days, it seems as if his plan could work. An astonishing press conference took place at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, in New York, in June 2011. The Global Commission on Drug Policy was introducing itself.
The members of the commission include former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana, George Schulz, US secretary of state under former President Ronald Reagan, and former US Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. It is the most prominent collection of drug-war opponents ever assembled.
The commission presented a 20-page report, the first sentence of which read: "The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world." Nadelmann wrote the sentence, as well as the report's entire executive summary. He advised the commission, and he also searched for high-profile members.
One of the speakers at the press conference in the Waldorf Astoria was an amiable man with glasses: César Gaviria, the president of Colombia from 1990 to 1994. While in office, he did almost everything except fight a war. Colombia was what Mexico is today: a country hijacked by drug lords.
"An irrational and pointless drug policy was partly responsible for that period," says Gaviria today.
He is standing in his office, looking out at Bogotá traffic through a bulletproof glass window. The entire office building is as heavily secured as an airport terminal. As the president who hunted down Pablo Escobar, Gaviria is used to living behind bulletproof glass.
For Gaviria, the drug war was long an incontrovertible part of policy. "We never questioned whether there was an alternative," says Gaviria. The war was simply a fact of life, as was waging it.
It was former Brazilian President Fernando Cardoso who convinced Gaviria, in long conversations, to start giving more thought to the matter. Cardoso described how the war on drugs was criminalizing politics in Latin America, and Gaviria was familiar with the power of drug money from his own experience. Drug money was used to buy police officers, judges and politicians. Escobar even bought the constitution when he used his money to bribe the government into prohibiting the extradition of Colombian citizens. And drug money was behind the attack on Gaviria that was planned by Popeye, the killer.
On Nov. 26, 1989, C4 plastic explosives brought down Avianca Flight 203, killing 110 people. Gaviria, a presidential candidate at the time, had missed the flight -- and survived as a result.
Governments are almost powerless against drug money, as Colombia was then and Mexico is today. "It's advantageous to withdraw from active politics. It gives you time to think," says Gaviria.
The Global Commission report circled the globe. It felt like a taboo had been broken. It wasn't marijuana hunters who were calling for a drug policy. Instead, it was now people like former drug warrior Gaviria and former NATO Secretary-General Solana -- people from the mainstream of world politics.
Like a Never-Ending Arms Race
A silver Toyota Corolla is traveling along Fortheuvelstraat with a man in a brown Hawaiian shirt at the wheel. He seems to be thinking about something. "There were Audi logos on the cocaine packets?" the man asks. The ocean comes into view as we approach Baby Beach, one of Aruba's famous beaches.
General Pérez suspects that the 1.8 tons of cocaine his men seized were supposed to be smuggled to Aruba, an island 20 nautical miles off the coast of Venezuela, and from there to the Netherlands. It's a classic route.
Geoffrey, the man driving the Toyota, is a New Yorker in his late 40s who speaks five languages. He prefers not to comment on the cocaine with the Audi logo. "A lot of people in this business kick the bucket because they talk too much," he says.
Geoffrey is a dealer. He buys Colombian cocaine and brings it to Europe. The white beach, the drinks, the girls -- he has no complaints about any of it. But, more than anything, Geoffrey likes the fact that Aruba has a duty-free port and daily flights to Amsterdam. Aruba is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which makes the island a perfect transit point for drugs.
Geoffrey points to Baby Beach. "I pick up a lot of loads here," he says. Large shipments arrive by speedboat and are tossed into the sea in watertight containers at prearranged locations. Geoffrey gets smaller packets from the supply ships coming from Venezuela. The cocaine is hidden in fruit crates, life vests and fish. "Everyone has his preferences," he says.
He pays €4,500 for a kilo of coke, and then sells it for about €30,000 to a contact in Amsterdam. Geoffrey's suppliers are Colombians. "Good guys, as long as you don't jerk them around. They even help out when you're in jail. They send you and your kids money." And if you jerk them around? "Then they shoot you and your kids."
Geoffrey likes to keep the business simple. He won't take the risk of dealing with anything more than 10 kilos. There is "too much money involved," he says. It's too dangerous.
But the risk is worth taking for quantities of less then 10 kilos. "It's all been done," says Geoffrey. Drugs have been hidden in the soles of shoes, bibles, as implants inside the calf, in women's breasts, in dead bodies and even in the stomachs of dogs.
The best way to imagine the drug war is as a never-ending arms race. The customs agents are given psychological training. The drug cartels have schools for their smugglers. The coast guard is given speedboats that can travel at 50 knots. The dealers buy boats that can go 60 knots. The navy patrols in the Pacific. The dealers build submarines that can cover 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) without surfacing. The drug war expands with each new battle. If there were demand for drugs on the moon, the launch of the first cocaine rocket would probably be imminent.
Geoffrey has an appointment. He parks the Toyota and says goodbye. The car is in front of the entrance to the Aruba cargo port. Among the containers stacked on the grounds are some painted bright red, together with the words "Hamburg Süd."
Imagining an Alternative to a Drug-Free World
Legalization is a difficult word, says Ethan Nadelmann in New York.
In fact, sitting in Nadelmann's office in Manhattan, it really is difficult to imagine a world without the drug war. A future in which marijuana and cocaine are legal and can be purchased in pharmacies or specialty drug shops? A life in which everyone decides for him- or herself: Am I going to take this drug? How much am I going to take? How do I protect my children?
It isn't an easy thing to imagine. In fact, the very thought of it creates a gut-wrenching feeling, and it makes you ask yourself questions like: Legalizing drugs? Are you folks nuts?
The international prohibition on drugs has existed for 100 years. It began with the opium conferences in The Hague and led to the UN's 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The ban has shaped the world into what generations are familiar with. It is an intrinsic part of our morality and culture, and there is hardly a greater taboo than to legalize drugs. Nadelmann calls this feeling "the fear of the unknown."
"Obviously, every drug is dangerous," says Nadelmann, including marijuana. But it's also the case that the world will never be drug-free, no matter what we do. It hasn't been drug-free for thousands of years. And a drug-free world would presumably be unbearable sometimes. The goal of those who favor legalization is to find the most tolerable way to live with drugs. Nadelmann believes that the best route is not prohibition, but "regulated legalization."
As Nadelmann explains it, this stance envisions the following scenario: Drugs would not be completely unrestricted. There would be maximum doses and age restrictions. Young people would not to be given access to marijuana and cocaine, but every adult would be permitted to have a small amount of each drug for personal use. Every adult would also be able buy these drugs legally from a specific source, which could be called something like the National Drug Provider. And, of course, the government would regulate both the provider and its products.
And, if this were the case, this is how he imagines the consequences: Mafia-like cartels would no longer control drugs. Their business model, a gigantic profit margin made possible by prohibition, would be destroyed, and so would their power. Instead, the government would control drugs, taxing them the same way it taxes tobacco or alcohol. Instead of the mafia or warlords in Afghanistan, the tax office would be the one collecting the profits. And, instead of criminals, licensed providers would be selling the narcotics. In the future, all the billions that were being spent on the drug war -- for soldiers, prisons and criminal prosecution -- would go into health education. This would include drug prevention and addiction treatment, as well as the targeted fight against a black market for drugs that will form despite legalization.
"How does that sound?" Nadelmann asks.
Like a huge experiment, with an outcome that no one can predict.
Nadelmann is a realist. "When we talk about legalization today," he says, "we're only talking about marijuana. Nothing else."
An Argument for Continued Prohibition
Of course, there are plenty of opponents and counterarguments to legalization.
In a huge office with a view of Vienna, Yuri Fedotov says: "Legalization is the wrong approach." Fedotov, a Russian, has hands the size of frying pans and, for almost three years now, has been the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Fedotov rattles off a few figures: Alcohol, a legal drug, kills about 2.3 million people worldwide each year. Tobacco kills 5.1 million. With illegal drugs, on the other hand, the numbers are much lower, with 200,000 people a year falling victim to heroin, cocaine or crack. For the UN, this number illustrates the success of prohibition.
Fedotov says that it's an illusion to believe that the legalization of drugs could break the power of the cartels, because drugs are only part of their business -- perhaps half. Nowadays, the cartels are also involved in weapons smuggling, prostitution and Internet crime.
Most of all, however, Fedotov believes in a simple drug logic that could be described as the intellectual rationale for continued prohibition: If drugs are legal, the thinking goes, there is no deterrent effect. If drugs are legal, access becomes easier. And something that is legal is taken more often, says Fedotov, noting that rising consumption will produce more addicts. In the end, he concludes, the drug problem will have grown instead of being contained.
In principle, the drug debate boils down to a number of key questions: What happens if drugs are legalized? Is this drug logic correct? Will consumption spin out of control in the absence of prohibition?
No one has a definitive answer to these questions. But it seems as if, these days, more and more people would be willing to hazard an experiment.
Growing Global Support for Legalization
On Nov. 6, 2012, the day of the US presidential election, Nadelmann was at an election party in San Francisco, and his phone seemed to be on fire. He was constantly taking calls from American media organizations. Everyone wanted a quote from him.
Obama had won. But much more astonishing was the fact that, on that same day, the citizens of the states of Colorado and Washington had voted in favor of bills to legalize marijuana.
In the future, every adult in Colorado and Washington will be allowed to legally possess roughly 30 grams of marijuana as well as purchase it legally at licensed outlets.
For Nadelmann, November 6 was the most important Election Day he had ever experienced. Elsewhere in the world, people were rubbing their eyes in astonishment. Legalization? In the United States? The biggest of all combatants in the drug war?
Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Miron has calculated that the legalization of marijuana could generate $8.7 billion in annual tax revenues in the United States. And money is an argument that can even sway conservative voters.
The second major argument is the prison population. Some 750,000 people were arrested for marijuana offences in the United States in 2011, most of them merely for possession -- of a substance potentially less addictive than alcohol.
Perhaps there will a day when Nov. 6, 2012 will be considered the beginning of the end of the marijuana prohibition. At any rate, what happened on that day has opened up the first holes in the system.
Although marijuana will be legal in Colorado, it remains illegal under US federal law. It's as if smoking a joint were permitted in the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania but illegal the minute you crossed into the neighboring state of Brandenburg. And how are the Americans going to explain to Mexicans that they are supposed to continue waging a drug war, one that claims many lives, so that Mexican marijuana doesn't cross the border into the United States, if grass is legal across that border? It's a conundrum.
A Lose-Lose Situation in Germany
The red containers marked "Hamburg Süd" at the port in Aruba will eventually be loaded onto a container ship that will carry them across the Atlantic. While the ship plows through the ocean, Harald Chybiak at the State Office of Criminal Investigation, in Berlin, will be trying to explain the cocaine market in the German capital.
Chybiak, 52, runs the narcotics division. He is Berlin's top drug hunter and the last man with the ability to stop the cocaine.
Berlin consumes 3.6 tons of cocaine a year, says Chybiak, more than any other German city. Of that, Chybiak intercepts between 100 and 150 kilos. "There is no question that by far the greatest part makes it through."
The red containers coming from Aruba are a case in point. Cocaine is loaded into the containers in Aruba. The "rip-off method" is especially popular, says Chybiak. This means that the drugs are shipped together with other, legal goods. The cocaine is hidden between banana crates or in machine parts.
More than 10,000 ships arrive at the Port of Hamburg each year. Nine million containers are processed there, including half a million from South America. Law-enforcement and customs officials examine the shipping manifests, looking for implausible information, and have suspicious containers searched. But only a fraction of the drugs are discovered and seized. Once the product has been picked up, it is distributed via dealer networks. The drugs gradually seep into the country, eventually making their way to Berlin.
"So what am I doing here? asks Chybiak. "Sometimes I pick a crumb out of the cake so that the crumb -- in other words, a dealer -- doesn't get too big. That's my job. But, of course, the cake -- or the business -- is still there."
Chybiak has never been to Colombia. He has heard about the legalization efforts in Latin America and the elections in the United States. But all of that seems very remote to him.
Martin Lindner, the FDP politician who smoked a joint on television, has advocated the legalization of pot for years. When his party meets for its annual convention in May, he will petition to have legalization included in the Free Democrats' party platform. If he succeeds, it would be a coup.
Former Interior Minister Baum, now 80, says: "I am in favor of having an open debate on the pros and cons of legalizing cannabis." But, today, Baum is one of the very few public figures in Germany to support legalization.
Another one is Hubert Wimber, the chief of police in the northwestern city of Münster. He also chairs the "Working Group of German Chiefs of Police," which makes something akin to a national chief of police. Repression isn't going to solve the drug problem, says Wimber. "You won't find a reputable study that claims the opposite is true." Wimber is calling for the legalization of cannabis. He can even imagine that cannabis "is only the first step," if we "finally want to effectively fight the giant market for illegal drugs."
But unlike Latin America and the United States, Germany lacks the political pressure to change. There were 986 drug-related deaths in Germany in 2011, the smallest number since 1988. Drug use is declining in all age groups. So why change anything?
The drug deaths we see on German television today are usually deaths in the drugs war in Mexico and Colombia. We can feel appalled for a moment, but then we change the channel.
Unfortunately, drugs are a global business. Western Europe consumes a large share of global drug production. Our demand keeps the business going. Simply put, one of the reasons people die in the drug war is that we can't leave the stuff alone.
Will we change? As consumers, we have hardly changed over the 40-year course of the drug war. But at least we could think about a new, more effective drug policy.
Sitting in Chybiak's office in Berlin, it's hard not to think about General Pérez, the drug cop back in Colombia. Chybiak and Pérez have the same job: fighting drugs. But Pérez is at war, while Chybiak is picking crumbs out of a cake.
Still, Chybiak doesn't look unhappy. What should he do? "If we increase the police pressure, we'll increase the price of drugs," he says. "That, in turn, increases the incentive to get into the business." For the police, that's a lose-lose situation.
The Hidden Costs of Pleasure
At the very end of its long journey, from the coca fields of Putumayo to the Caribbean island of Aruba, across the ocean to Hamburg and then to Berlin, the cocaine has only a few centimeters left to travel. The drug shoots through the mucous membranes of the nose into the bloodstream, is pumped into the brain and enters the limbic system, where emotions and urges are controlled. Breathing accelerates, blood pressure and body temperature rise, and euphoria sets in. It takes only two or three minutes to get high on cocaine. Cocaine is like a tiny god. "You are the most beautiful child of all, and I embrace you like my own blood," the German metal band Rammstein sings in a song about cocaine.
The high lasts about 45 minutes. It is offset by 60,000 deaths in Mexico, shattered countries, billions of dollars in war expenses and killers like Popeye. Almost everyone knows this. But does it make anyone forego drugs? Voluntarily?
Intoxication, whether it's caused by cocaine, marijuana or alcohol, is the opposite of reason. When intoxicated, we seek happiness, greatness, a loss of inhibition, comfort, escape and meaning.
In contrast, no one wins a war. At least not with the old weapons.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
My diary of a Nazi death camp childhood
Helga Weiss was sent to four Nazi concentration camps, along with her mother. Like Anne Frank, she kept a diary. Only now has it been published. Kira Cochrane meets her
The Guardian, Friday 22 February 2013 19.00 GMT
In 1944, Helga Weiss came to terms with the idea of dying – with one important condition. She was only 14 years old and had never been strongly religious, but as she waited in a queue at Auschwitz she prayed she wouldn't die after her mother. She couldn't face being left alone.
Helga is one of only 100 children to survive Auschwitz out of the 15,000 sent there from the concentration camp at Terezín, north of Prague. Altogether, between 1941 and 1945, she and her mother were sent to four camps: Terezín, Auschwitz, Freiberg and Mauthausen.
The first was Terezín, where they spent three years, sleeping two or three to a bed that was really too small for one, with little to eat and to keep out the cold. But sharing with her mother made the impossible bearable. "We had only one blanket," says Helga. "But we covered ourselves with our coats. We were together and it was a great help."
She closes her eyes, and folds her arms tightly about herself.
We are in Helga Weiss's living room on the fourth floor of an apartment building in Prague. At 83, she still climbs the steep stairs each day and is a lively, friendly presence, surrounded by family photographs and paintings produced during her career as an artist. Her late husband, Jírí Hošek, was a musician who played double bass with the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra, and her son, Jírí, is a cellist, as is her granddaughter Dominika.
Helga was born in this flat and it has always been her home, apart from the four years she spent in Nazi concentration camps. It was ransacked and occupied during the war but there are echoes of life as it was before the war. The piano in the corner, for instance, sits where her father's once did.
Helga Weiss family Helga with her parents, Irena and Otto, and her paternal grandmother, Sophie
Otto Weiss was a talented aspiring musician but as a soldier in the First World War, he sustained hand and arm injuries and went on to work in a bank. He married his wife, Irena, and in 1929 Helga was born. Those early years were happy. Otto encouraged his daughter musically, but she had no obvious talent for it; her gift was for art. She still has one of her very early sketch pads, which shows she chose subjects "perhaps other children don't. I always painted what I saw – a man in a meat store," for instance.
As war loomed, the eight-year-old Helga began to keep a diary in words and pictures. The first pages record the growing Nazi threat: air raid alarms, arrests, the expulsion of Jewish children from state schools, adults – including her father – losing their jobs, yellow Stars of David had to be sewn on clothes, and the constant, claustrophobic talk of "transports". It was because of the political situation, says Helga, that she remained an only child – a decision her father made.
In December 1941, soon after Helga's 12th birthday, the authorities came for the family. They were sent to Terezín, a walled 18th-century garrison town, also known during the war by its German name, Theresienstadt. Many of Helga's uncles and aunts were sent there too. Terezín was essentially a vast camp used as a transit hub for tens of thousands of Jews sent to Auschwitz and Treblinka.
Helga and her mother had no idea what lay ahead. They thought the war would soon be over. "We were allowed 50kg of luggage so we took just our clothes and something important to us. I took two very small dolls, a pad, watercolours and crayons," she says.
At Terezín, Otto was sent to the men's barracks and Helga stayed with her mother. Later, a Kinderheim – children's home – was set up and though she was frightened to leave Irena, Helga moved into a room with girls of her own age. Conditions were slightly better there and the group, "tried to stay human beings and be young," she says. They organised dances and celebrated birthdays and religious holidays – they once made a potato gateau as a treat, from food scraps they had managed to save.
One of Helga's happier sketches shows the girls gathering round a food parcel, jostling to see the contents. But the first drawing she made is a jolly picture of two children building a snowman – she smuggled it through to her father who sent back a crucial message: "Draw what you see."
She took his advice and began to record life in the camps. The pictures show queues for food; a bleak, basic washroom; a girl ill with tuberculosis; the crowded waiting room in the emergency clinic; people on stretchers; bread transported in a hearse marked "Welfare for the young".
Another drawing marks the birthday of her friend, Francka. The girls had been born in the same maternity ward, and the sketch shows them as babies in 1929, in their shared bunk bed in 1943, and in 1957, wheeling prams together. The last drawing is accompanied by a note to say that Francka died in Auschwitz before her 15th birthday.
Despite the horrors and strictures of Terezín – starvation rations, disease, the lice and bed bugs that crawled across their faces – there was a thriving cultural life. Many musicians had smuggled in instruments and one sketch shows families gathered around a violin trio giving a concert in a dormitory.
At Terezín, Helga met her first boyfriend, Ota, an orphan and chemistry student. He was in his mid-20s, she was not yet 15. "It was a half-childish love," she says. "We walked together and held hands ... and I remember the exact place in Terezin where we first kissed." She beams. "But nothing more happened than kissing."
In September 1944, the Germans announced that 5,000 men would be sent to build a new ghetto. Helga's Uncle Jindra would be in the first group, her father and Ota in the second. Helga describes the day her father left in her diary, the corners of his mouth twitching as he tried to smile, hands shaking as he held her. Then he was gone.
Three days later, she and Irena left. Just in time, she got her diary and a novel and some poetry by her father to her Uncle Josef, who worked in the records department at the camp. He bricked them into a wall to hide them.
Helga and her mother were sent to Auschwitz, where they joined the notorious queue as they arrived: older women and mothers with young children to the left, those deemed able to work to the right. To survive, it was essential to end up on the right. Prisoners who knew the fate that lay ahead on the left whispered warnings: "Don't say you are too young, don't say you are ill – say you are able to work. Don't say you belong together, that you are mother and child," remembers Helga."
She resolved to say she was older than 14; her mother would pretend to be younger. In fact, the SS man didn't ask questions and sent them both to the right. "He pointed – I don't know if it was luck, fate, a miracle. I have friends who are still alive – they are the same age as I am – but their mothers were [sent to the left]. So I was lucky twice. Not only that I was not sent, but that I was together with my mother."
Next day, at roll call, the women were addressed in German. "The speech was very long – I asked my mother to translate. She said, 'Oh, he says we are in an extermination camp.'"
Helga laughs explosively, a sound still full of shock and incredulity. They hadn't known about the gas chambers, the death camps. "We arrived and saw smoking chimneys – we thought it was a factory."
Other prisoners enlightened them – the smoke was rising from the camp crematorium. They were told to strip naked and their heads were shaved. Helga didn't recognise her own mother until she heard her voice.
Her 10 days at Auschwitz were worse than the three years at Terezín, but Helga suspects it was harder still for her mother. She remembers being outside, shaved head freezing, and Irena reaching over to cup her bare scalp. It was all the comfort she could offer.
From Auschwitz, they were sent to Freiberg, a subcamp of Flossenbürg concentration camp, where they worked as slave labour for five months, polishing aeroplane parts. Then came a 16-day transport by rail to Mauthausen in Austria. Irena was so weak she could hardly stand and both suffered from frostbite, lice and constant, raging thirst. Rumours flew about the war's end and some women escaped, but Helga couldn't be sure her mother was fit enough to try. In one four-day period they had nothing to eat but two potatoes, half a cup of tea and two spoons of sugar.
Along the route, news arrived that Berlin had fallen.
At Mauthausen,they went without food for five days. Had there been just one more day before peace was declared, Helga suspects her mother would not have survived. Days later, on 5 May 1945, the camp was liberated by the Allied forces.
She and Irena returned home to Prague and began to look for Otto. His name didn't appear on the registration lists for any of the camps other than Terezín. In the first months, they found it unbearable to be alone together in the flat, which was so full of memories of their life together before the war. In the evenings they walked the streets together until it was time to sleep.
Helga continued her Terezín diary, recording everything that happened after they moved on. It's written in the present tense because she was still caught up in the experience, she says.
The diary has been published as she wrote it in the 1940s, as it was found at the bottom of a drawer. The sheaf of yellow papers was given to Venetia Butterfield, a British publisher who heard about it in 2010 when Helga came to London for a concert to commemorate Terezín.
In the prologue of the book, Helga explains that although "the writing is childish, the style prolix, naive," she felt editorial changes would have affected the authenticity of the story. "May readers treat this diary charitably and accept it for what it is," she writes; an important record of life in the concentration camps, which adds to the memories of other child diarists, including, of course, Anne Frank.
Irena didn't want Otto to be declared dead but after a year the certificates were sent out, regardless. Helga believes someone may have known what happened to him, but didn't want to tell them. Some stories just weren't passed on. Her Uncle Jindra, for example, was sent from Auschwitz to Mauthausen and experienced such cold that his legs had to be amputated. He died as a result. His wife knew he had died and where, but was never told those details.
There was no question of Helga and her mother living apart after the war. Irena remained single and when Helga married, her husband shared the apartment with them. Irena helped with her son and daughter, and lived until she was 84. Last year, Helga's daughter remarked that Irena had never smiled. "I never thought about it, but maybe she didn't. Maybe she had no reason."
The legacy of the war has affected her children, she says. Her daughter can't bear to hear of anything ugly, and her son is "terribly anxious," she says. "When I am alone, I have to contact him twice a day."
But one of her granddaughters has been exploring her Jewish roots and it is probably this younger generation that will benefit initially from Helga's extraordinary journal of survival.
With her forthright attitude, and pride in her family, Helga's concern is, as always, for the future, and how people survive. There is only one moment during our interview when she wells up with emotion, but they are tears of happiness. Just last week, she says, her great-granddaughter got her first tooth.
Helga's Diary: A Young Girl's Account of Life in a Concentration Camp, by Helga Weiss, is published by Viking, £16.99. To order a copy for £13.59 with free UK p&p go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846
In the USA...
If you are an American ask yourself exactly why is the U.S. Supreme Court is bringing this up at all given that it is established law ....
NAACP warns Supreme Court: Thwart assault on Voting Rights Act or risk return to ‘old poison’
By Ed Pilkington, The Guardian
Saturday, February 23, 2013 2:27 EST
Debo Adegbile to go before supreme court to defend Voting Rights Act and argue key provision should not be struck down
The lawyer who will next week go before the US supreme court to defend the Voting Rights Act has warned that if a key provision of the law that prevents discrimination at the polling booth largely in southern states is struck down, it would “set the hands of the clock winding backwards” for millions of minority voters.
Debo Adegbile, special counsel for the NAACP, the country’s largest civil rights organisation, will have the momentous task on Wednesday of defending one of the mainstays of America’s prolonged struggle against racial discrimination.
Lined up against him will be an array of conservative lawyers and legislators, many based in the south, where the sting of the legislation is felt most keenly.
Wednesday’s hearing, in which the nine supreme court justices will hear oral argument before delivering a ruling expected in June, is being seen as the greatest threat to the Voting Rights Act since it was enacted in 1965. The focus of the debate will be Section 5, a provision under which 16 states – mainly though not exclusively in the south – are subject to stringent federal monitoring designed to prevent them discriminating against African American and other minority voters.
In Shelby County v Holder, representatives of one of the proscribed areas – Shelby County in Alabama – are calling on the justices to throw out Section 5 on the grounds that racial segregation and discrimination are in the past, and therefore such exceptional measures are no longer necessary. Under the terms of Section 5, any of the identified jurisdictions must seek “pre-clearance” from the Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington before they can make any substantial changes to their voting arrangements.
But Adegbile will go before the judges to argue that the blatant attacks on the voting rights of black and other minority citizens which the Act addressed were still very much a live problem. In comments to reporters, he said that there was an “unbroken chain of more than 100 years of intense and persistent discrimination against minority voters across large parts of the country.”
The 1965 Voting Rights Act was one of the towering achievements of the civil rights movement and the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. It was passed at a time when hundreds of thousands of black voters were still effectively disenfranchised through a range of dirty tricks, some as crude as imposing a poll tax on voting that weeded out poorer, disproportionately minority, citizens.
The NAACP brief submitted to the supreme court ahead of the hearing points out that the jurisdictions covered by Section 5 have shown a consistent pattern of discriminatory behaviour. Between 1982 and 2006, the jurisdictions collectively tried to introduce 1,300 discriminatory voting measures, all of which were blocked under the Act.
Drawing on a phrase used in supreme court deliberations in the past, Adegbile said that the method of discrimination might have changed over time, but “old poison was being poured into new bottles”. Alabama, the state from which next week’s challenge originates, has had almost 240 discriminatory voting laws blocked over that period.
The NAACP brief notes that “purposeful discrimination by Alabama lawmakers persists to the present day”. Though the population of the state is a quarter African American, there are still no black statewide elected officials.
In 2011, a federal court hearing a gambling case found that there was “compelling evidence that political exclusion through racism remains a real and enduring problem in Alabama” and that the desire to disenfranchise blacks remained “entrenched in the high echelons of state government”. Several white legislators involved in the case were recorded on tape comparing black voters to “illiterates” and “Aborigines”.
Paradoxically, Shelby County, the specific district that has brought the supreme court challenge, itself has dirty hands in terms of a persistent pattern of discriminatory offending. The county has a decades-old history of holding “at-large” elections – votes staged across the entire district to make sure that the majority white population always prevails.
It also has a history of “diluting” black representation by redrawing boundary lines to destroy majority-black districts. As recently as 2008, the small town of Calera in Shelby County introduced a redistricting plan that resulted in the defeat of the only black member of the city council – a move that was later overturned under the same section 5 of the Voting Rights Act that the leaders of Shelby County now want to strike down.
“This is not a theoretical concern,” said Adegbile. “The Voting Rights Act is strong medicine, for a strong problem.”
The enduring problem of electoral skullduggery in the US was on ample display during last year’s presidential election. Mainly Republican-controlled legislatures introduced an unprecedented number of reforms that erected barriers to voting that disproportionately affected minority communities.
President Obama on Friday lent his voice to the defence of the Voting Rights Act. He said that if the safeguards were removed, “it would be hard for us to catch those things up front to make sure that elections are done in an equitable way”.
Earlier this month Obama ordered the creation of a non-partisan commission to look into how the voting experience in the US could be improved, following evidence of considerable impediments, including long lines at the polls, last November.
Section 5 currently applies to nine states in their entirety: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. It also applies to identified parts of a further seven states: California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota.
New Hampshire is in the process of “bailing out” of Section 5, which means it has had a clean record under the terms of the Act for the past 10 years and is now being freed from its provisions. The NAACP argues that the process of the “bail out” rebuts Alabama’s claim that the legislation is too rigid and incapable of change.
© Guardian News and Media 2013
Experts: Florida’s Medicaid turnaround paves the way for Obamacare
By Chris McGreal, The Guardian
Friday, February 22, 2013 12:21 EST
Obamacare supporters say Rick Scott’s decision to back expansion of Medicaid is likely to pressure others to follow suit
Supporters of Barack Obama‘s health reforms are hailing Florida governor Rick Scott’s decision to abandon his opposition to a core provision of Obamacare as a “tipping point” likely to force the hand of other Republicans still attempting to block full implementation of the law.
Scott’s climbdown – in saying he now backs expansion of Medicaid to an additional 1.3 million people in Florida – is a significant retreat from a year ago when his state was at the forefront of the failed supreme court fight to overturn the Affordable Care Act.
Groups backing the reforms say the move is likely to pressure other Republican governors to follow suit.
“The fight over Obamacare is over. Rick Scott recognised that, and that’s why he made a decision based on the merits, and that’s why his decision is such an important tipping point,” said Ethan Roman, executive director of Health Care for America Now, a coalition of more than 1,000 groups, including doctors, trades unions and business interests.
“As each of the leading opponents of Obamacare embrace fully participating in Medicaid, it provides more cover for the rest of the governors and it puts pressure on them to do the right thing. It spotlights their decision-making.”
The supreme court upheld Obamacare last year, but gave state governments the right to opt out of a provision expanding Medicaid coverage for the poor. The measure is central to ensuring healthcare coverage for some of the most vulnerable Americans by including in it anyone who lives on less than 133% of the federal poverty level.
rick scott florida
At the time, Scott, pictured, and other Republican governors said they would stand by their refusal to have anything to do with the health reforms as a matter of principle, even though the federal government was paying almost the entire cost of the expanded coverage.
“Since Florida is legally allowed to opt out, that’s the right decision for our citizens,” the governor said last summer.
But it became increasingly difficult for Republican governors to explain why they were rejecting a benefit residents of their states were paying for in other states through federal taxes. Under the reforms, the federal government picks up almost all the cost of expanding Medicaid for the next decade, and 90% after that.
Scott recognised the dilemma in announcing his reversal, which he called a “compassionate, commonsense step forward”.
“Our options are either: having Floridians pay to fund this programme in other states while denying healthcare to our citizens, or using federal funding to help some of the poorest in our state with Medicaid as we explore other healthcare reforms,” he said. “While the federal government is committed to paying 100% of the cost, I cannot in good conscience deny Floridians that needed access to healthcare.”
Scott, who now favours a trial period of three years, said he was also moved by his mother’s recent death after raising five children “with very little money”.
“Losing someone so close to you puts everything in a new perspective, especially the big decisions,” he said.
But Scott acknowledged he faced a political reality that the healthcare reforms are here to stay following Obama’s re-election. “This is not a white flag of surrender to government-run healthcare,” he said. “We now have a supreme court decision and we have an election that says this is the law of the land.”
Those arguments have already persuaded other opponents of Obamacare -such as Arizona’s governor, Jan Brewer, who famously wagged her finger at the president over her objections to the law, and the Republican governors of Michigan, Nevada and Ohio — to sign up for the expansion to Medicaid. But others are still holding out, notably Rick Perry of Texas – whose state has the highest proportion of people without health insurance in the US – Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and South Carolina’s Nikki Haley.
Rome said that was as much about political ambition as what is good for their states. “I think Scott came to recognise that accepting federal funds to cover 1.3m people in his state was the best thing to do for those people, for hospitals, for businesses and for government because this isn’t about politics, it’s about what makes good sense,” he said.
“Sadly, if you want to know who’s likely to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, you can look at some of those governors who have said they won’t participate. But I think it’s only a matter of time. As each day passes, the hyperpartisan political nature of the decision made by Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal and others becomes more clear. The consumers, the hospitals and the businesses of those states are simply not going to tolerate their governors making a seriously bad decision based on self interest and politics.”
Although Scott’s decision is politically significant, it still has to be approved by Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature, where there is lingering resistance to Obamacare.
“Governor Scott has made his decision and I certainly respect his thoughts. However, the Florida legislature will make the ultimate decision,” said the Republican speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, Will Weatherford.
“I am personally sceptical that this inflexible law will improve the quality of healthcare in our state and ensure our long-term financial stability.”
Already, conservative organisations such as Americans for Prosperity are agitating for the legislature to defy Scott.
States do face some additional costs, but they are relatively low compared to the benefits received. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation report in November, the expanded coverage will cost the federal government $952bn while the states are on the hook for $76bn. Although the cost to a state such as Texas will be about $4bn, a large part of that is likely to be offset by a reduction in the number of patients who receive treatment at hospital emergency rooms without the funds to pay.
© Guardian News and Media 2013
[Correction: The headline originally referred to Medicare]
February 22, 2013
Obama’s Backers Seek Big Donors to Press Agenda
By NICHOLAS CONFESSORE
President Obama’s political team is fanning out across the country in pursuit of an ambitious goal: raising $50 million to convert his re-election campaign into a powerhouse national advocacy network, a sum that would rank the new group as one of Washington’s biggest lobbying operations.
But the rebooted campaign, known as Organizing for Action, has plunged the president and his aides into a campaign finance limbo with few clear rules, ample potential for influence-peddling, and no real precedent in national politics.
In private meetings and phone calls, Mr. Obama’s aides have made clear that the new organization will rely heavily on a small number of deep-pocketed donors, not unlike the “super PACs” whose influence on political campaigns Mr. Obama once deplored.
At least half of the group’s budget will come from a select group of donors who will each contribute or raise $500,000 or more, according to donors and strategists involved in the effort.
Unlike a presidential campaign, Organizing for Action has been set up as a tax-exempt “social welfare group.” That means it is not bound by federal contribution limits, laws that bar White House officials from soliciting contributions, or the stringent reporting requirements for campaigns. In their place, the new group will self-regulate.
Officials said it would voluntarily disclose the names of large donors every few months and would not ask administration personnel to solicit money, though Obama aides will probably appear at some events.
The money will pay for salaries, rent and advertising, and will also be used to maintain the expensive voter database and technological infrastructure that knits together Mr. Obama’s 2 million volunteers, 17 million e-mail subscribers and 22 million Twitter followers.
The goal is to harness those resources in support of Mr. Obama’s second-term policy priorities, including efforts to curb gun violence and climate change and overhaul immigration procedures. Those efforts began Friday, when thousands of Obama supporters were deployed through more than 80 Congressional districts around the country to rally outside lawmakers’ offices, hold vigils and bombard Congress with e-mails and phone calls urging members to support stricter background checks for gun buyers.
“There are wins we can have on guns and immigration,” Jon Carson, the group’s new executive director, told prospective donors on a conference call on Wednesday, according to people who participated. “We have to change the conventional wisdom on those issues.”
But those contributions will also translate into access, according to donors courted by the president’s aides. Next month, Organizing for Action will hold a “founders summit” at a hotel near the White House, where donors paying $50,000 each will mingle with Mr. Obama’s former campaign manager, Jim Messina, and Mr. Carson, who previously led the White House Office of Public Engagement.
Giving or raising $500,000 or more puts donors on a national advisory board for Mr. Obama’s group and the privilege of attending quarterly meetings with the president, along with other meetings at the White House. Moreover, the new cash demands on Mr. Obama’s top donors and bundlers come as many of them are angling for appointments to administration jobs or ambassadorships.
“It just smells,” said Bob Edgar, the president of Common Cause, which advocates tighter regulation of campaign money. “The president is setting a very bad model setting up this organization.”
Mr. Obama’s new organization has drawn rebukes in recent days from watchdog groups, which view it as another step away from the tighter campaign regulation Mr. Obama once championed. Over the past two years, he has reversed course on several campaign finance issues, by blessing a super PAC created by former aides and accepting large corporate contributions for his second inauguration.
Many traditional advocacy organizations, including the Sierra Club and the National Rifle Association, are set up as social welfare groups, or 501(c)(4)’s in tax parlance. But unlike those groups, Organizing for Action appears to be an extension of the administration, stocked with alumni of Mr. Obama’s White House and campaign teams and devoted solely to the president’s second-term agenda.
Robert K. Kelner, a Republican election lawyer who works with other outside groups, said the arrangement “presents a rather simple loophole in the otherwise incredibly complex web of government ethics regulations that are intended to insulate government officials from outside influence.”
The closest precedents for Organizing for Action exist at the state level. In New Jersey, a 501(c)(4) called the Committee for Our Children’s Future, set up by friends of Gov. Chris Christie, has run hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of advertising praising Mr. Christie’s proposals.
In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo encouraged the formation of a nonprofit group, the Committee to Save New York, that is run by business leaders allied with him, and it has raised millions of dollars from corporations, private sector unions, and individuals. The group supported Mr. Cuomo’s agenda — but it also thrust him into controversy when The New York Times revealed that gambling interests poured $2 million into the group as Mr. Cuomo was developing a proposal to expand casino gambling.
Organizing for Action said it would accept unlimited personal and corporate contributions, but no money from political action committees, lobbyists or foreign citizens. Officials said they would focus — for now — on grass-roots organizing, amplified by Internet advertising. Friday’s “day of action” involved half a million dollars’ worth of targeted Internet ads and events in Florida, Maine, Pennsylvania and California, among other states.
“O.F.A.’s first day of action was about bringing the issue of closing background-check loopholes into communities across the country that feel very strongly about supporting the president’s plan to reduce gun violence,” said Katie Hogan, a spokeswoman for the group.
Organizing for Action has also promised to steer clear of electoral politics, unlike the politically active nonprofit groups like the right-leaning Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies and Americans for Prosperity. Such groups spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising during the recent election campaign season, ostensibly for issue advocacy, spurring a wave of lawsuits, ethics complaints from campaign watchdogs and criticism from Mr. Obama himself.
But the distinction between campaigning and issue advocacy may be hard for Organizing for Action to maintain in the prelude to the 2014 elections, especially if it continues its emphasis on pressing lawmakers on delicate issues like immigration and guns.
In Wednesday’s conference call, Mr. Carson said the group hoped to form partnerships with other 501(c)(4) groups on the left, including America Votes, which was at the center of Democratic efforts to defeat President George W. Bush in 2004 and now serves as a coordinator for progressive advocacy organizations. He also said Organizing for Action wanted to be a counterweight to grass-roots organizations on the right, like the N.R.A., according to people who took part in the call.
There should be “as much of a price to pay if you tick off the gun violence people” as there is for angering the N.R.A., Mr. Carson said, according to those people. “Let’s build an organization that means that Republicans are embarrassed to have climate change deniers running for office.”
February 22, 2013
Fear of U.S. Cuts Grows in States Where Aid Flows
By MICHAEL COOPER
States are increasingly alarmed that they could become collateral damage in Washington’s latest fiscal battle, fearing that the impasse could saddle them with across-the-board spending cuts that threaten to slow their fragile recoveries or thrust them back into recession.
Some states, like Maryland and Virginia, are vulnerable because their economies are heavily dependent on federal workers, federal contracts and military spending, which will face steep reductions if Congress allows the automatic cuts, known as sequestration, to begin next Friday. Others, including Illinois and South Dakota, are at risk because of their reliance on the types of federal grants that are scheduled to be cut. And many states simply fear that a heavy dose of federal austerity could weaken their economies, costing them jobs and much-needed tax revenue.
So as state officials begin to draw up their budgets for next year, some say that the biggest risk they see is not the weak housing market or the troubled European economy but the federal government. While the threat of big federal cuts to states has become something of a semiannual occurrence in recent years, state officials said in interviews that they fear that this time the federal government might not be crying wolf — and their hopes are dimming that a deal will be struck in Washington in time to avert the cuts.
The impact would be widespread as the cuts ripple across the nation over the next year.
Texas expects to see its education aid slashed hundreds of millions of dollars, which could force local school districts to fire teachers, if the cuts are not averted. Michigan officials say they are in no position to replace the lost federal dollars with state dollars, but worry about cuts to federal programs like the one that helps people heat their homes. Maryland is bracing not only for a blow to its economy, which depends on federal workers and contractors and the many private businesses that support them, but also for cuts in federal aid for schools, Head Start programs, a nutrition program for pregnant women, mothers and children, and job training programs, among others.
Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia, a Republican, warned in a letter to President Obama on Monday that the automatic spending cuts would have a “potentially devastating impact” and could force Virginia and other states into a recession, noting that the planned cuts to military spending would be especially damaging to areas like Hampton Roads that have a big Navy presence. And he noted that the whole idea of the proposed cuts was that they were supposed to be so unpalatable that they would force officials in Washington to come up with a compromise.
“As we all know, the defense, and other, cuts in the sequester were designed to be a hammer, not a real policy,” Mr. McDonnell wrote. “Unfortunately, inaction by you and Congress now leaves states and localities to adjust to the looming threat of this haphazard idea.”
The looming cuts come just as many states feel they are turning the corner after the prolonged slump caused by the recession. Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, a Democrat, said he was moving to increase the state’s cash reserves and rainy day funds as a hedge against federal cuts.
“I’d rather be spending those dollars on things that improve our business climate, that accelerate our recovery, that get more people back to work, or on needed infrastructure — transportation, roads, bridges and the like,” he said, adding that Maryland has eliminated 5,600 positions in recent years and that its government was smaller, on a per capita basis, than it had been in four decades. “But I can’t do that. I can’t responsibly do that as long as I have this hara-kiri Congress threatening to drive a long knife through our recovery.”
Federal spending on salaries, wages and procurement makes up close to 20 percent of the economies of Maryland and Virginia, according to an analysis by the Pew Center on the States.
But states are in a delicate position. While they fear the impact of the automatic cuts, they also fear that any deal to avert them might be even worse for their bottom lines. That is because many of the planned cuts would go to military spending and not just domestic programs, and some of the most important federal programs for states, including Medicaid and federal highway funds, would be exempt from the cuts.
States will see a reduction of $5.8 billion this year in the federal grant programs subject to the automatic cuts, according to an analysis by Federal Funds Information for States, a group created by the National Governors Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures that tracks the impact of federal actions on states. California, New York and Texas stand to lose the most money from the automatic cuts, and Puerto Rico, which is already facing serious fiscal distress, is threatened with the loss of more than $126 million in federal grant money, the analysis found.
Even with the automatic cuts, the analysis found, states are still expected to get more federal aid over all this year than they did last year, because of growth in some of the biggest programs that are exempt from the cuts, including Medicaid.
But the cuts still pose a real risk to states, officials said. State budget officials from around the country held a conference call last week to discuss the threatened cuts. “In almost every case the folks at the state level, the budget offices, are pretty much telling the agencies and departments that they’re not going to backfill — they’re not going to make up for the budget cuts,” said Scott D. Pattison, the executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers, which arranged the call. “They don’t have enough state funds to make up for federal cuts.”
The cuts would not hit all states equally, the Pew Center on the States found. While the federal grants subject to the cuts make up more than 10 percent of South Dakota’s revenue, it found, they make up less than 5 percent of Delaware’s revenue.
Many state officials find themselves frustrated year after year by the uncertainty of what they can expect from Washington, which provides states with roughly a third of their revenues. There were threats of cuts when Congress balked at raising the debt limit in 2011, when a so-called super-committee tried and failed to reach a budget deal, and late last year when the nation faced the “fiscal cliff.”
John E. Nixon, the director of Michigan’s budget office, said that all the uncertainty made the state’s planning more difficult. “If it’s going to happen,” he said, “at some point we need to rip off the Band-Aid.”
Fernanda Santos contributed reporting.
Difficult path to papal conclave as Rome prepares for new era
As Catholic cardinals prepare to elect a new pope, the conclave may be overshadowed by a host of contentious issues
The Observer, Saturday 23 February 2013 21.33 GMT
When Pope Benedict XVI tendered the first papal resignation in almost 600 years, the more hopeful of his flock said it would help the Roman Catholic church make a break with its recent past and usher in a new era of missionary vibrancy untainted by intrigue and scandal.
The headlines of the past fortnight, however, have shown quite how unlikely that is. Not only has anger built over the role of several compromised cardinals in the choosing of a papal successor, but increasingly lurid claims have emerged about why Benedict chose to stand down in the first place.
A major new controversy, therefore, is the last thing that the Vatican needs. Rather than heralding a bold new dawn, the most unexpected and unpredictable conclave in centuries looks increasingly likely to be overshadowed – just as much of Benedict's papacy was – by scandal.
The clerical sex abuse scandals that dominated Benedict's eight years as pope have left several prelates due to take part in conclave facing questions over how they handled the affairs.
They include Cardinal Justin Rigali, the former archbishop of Philadelphia, who retired in 2011, five months after the archdiocese was stunned by an abuse scandal, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, who last week was questioned over the abuse of children by priests in his former archdiocese of Milwaukee. Lawyers are interested in knowing when Dolan learned of the allegations and when he made them public.
Closer to home, Cardinal Seán Brady, the primate of All Ireland, has come under pressure not to attend conclave next month. The prelate has faced calls to resign over his failure in the 1970s to report the activities of a serial abuser and his apologies have done little to quell the anger. Last week Christine Buckley of the Aislinn Centre for abuse survivors in Dublin told journalists Brady would express his apology best "by not going to Rome". Her appeal, however, will not be heeded; Brady has confirmed he will take part in conclave as planned.
Amid all these names, there is one in particular that has attracted most anger: the American Cardinal Roger Mahony, whose transgressions have emerged more recently and caused outrage among Catholics in Los Angeles, where he is archbishop emeritus. Last month, a court ordered the release of files relating to over 120 priests accused of child sex abuse which showed that Mahony, along with other officials, had protected the clerics. He was publicly reprimanded by his successor as archbishop of Los Angeles and stripped of his public and administrative duties.
But, in spite of incredulity at the grass roots, he has steadfastly insisted on his right to vote in conclave, claiming he has been "scapegoated" and unfairly disgraced. On Friday night, before he was due to be questioned under oath about a visiting Mexican priest accused of abusing 26 children, he posted a message on Twitter that read: "Just a few short hours before my departure for Rome. Will be tweeting often from Rome, except during the actual Conclave itself. Prayers!" His determination has infuriated Catholics in the US: thousands have signed a petition demanding Mahony recuse himself from the conclave – or, in its words, "stay home!"
It also appears to have caused consternation in the Catholic establishment in Italy, with the influential magazine Famiglia Cristiana running a poll asking readers if the American cardinal should attend or not. The answer was no.
In recent days conclave has not been the only cause of controversy. Benedict's surprise resignation has generated intense speculation over the internal machinations of the Vatican, with the latest report claiming he chose to quit after reading of a network of gay prelates in the church, some of whom were vulnerable to blackmail. According to La Repubblica, the pope decided to resign in December after receiving a report into the so-called Vatileaks affair which claimed that one of many "factions" within the church was a group of priests "united by sexual orientation".
Last week the pope's spokesman Federico Lombardi declined to confirm or deny the claims. But on Saturday he went on the attack against what he said was a rumour mill working overtime to discredit the church.
Writing on the website of Vatican Radio, he condemned the "gossip, misinformation and sometimes slander" that had been swirling in the wake of the announcement.
"Those who consider money, sex and power before all else and are used to reading diverse realities from these perspectives, are unable to see anything else, even in the Church, because they are unable to gaze toward the heights or descend to the depths in order to grasp the spiritual dimensions and reasons of existence," he wrote. "This results in a description of the Church and of many of its members that is profoundly unjust."
Cardinal Keith O'Brien is the leader of the Roman Catholic church in Scotland and has acquired a reputation for speaking his mind on homosexuality, abortion and secularism. In 2007, he compared the rate of abortion to "two Dunblane massacres a day" and last year called for women who want terminations to be shown ultrasound scans of their unborn baby. The Northern Irish-born 74-year-old is never short of an inflammatory remark, but it was his outburst on homosexuality last November that led gay rights lobby group Stonewall to award him its Bigot of the Year prize.
O'Brien was appointed archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh in 1985 and was initially thought to be somewhat liberal, defending the rights of gay teachers to work in Catholic schools. In 2003 Pope John Paul II made him only the third Scottish cardinal since the Reformation. He was part of the conclave to appoint Pope Benedict and will take part in the appointing of his successor next month.
In recent years O'Brien has been known for a more strident tone. He has vigorously opposed civil partnerships and says gay marriage is "like slavery". He also attacked the government over the 2008 embryo bill, calling it "monstrous" and "evil". Last week, to general surprise, he said he believed priests should be allowed to marry: "It's a free world and I realise that many priests have found it very difficult to cope with celibacy as they have lived out their priesthood and felt the need of a companion, a woman, to whom they could get married and raise a family of their own."
Born in County Antrim, O'Brien moved to Scotland as a boy. He was ordained in 1965 and trained as a teacher, working as a science teacher, then as spiritual director in two seminaries. He suffers heart problems and has a pacemaker.
Emotional Pope says God asked him to retire
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, February 24, 2013 7:13 EST
Pope Benedict XVI delivered an emotional last Sunday prayer in St Peter’s Square, saying God had told him to devote himself to prayer but assuring supporters he would not “abandon” the Church.
Tens of thousands of supporters turned out for the historic prayers ahead of the pope’s formal resignation on Thursday, often interrupting the pope with their clapping, cheering and chanting.
“The Lord is calling me to climb the mountain, to dedicate myself even more to prayer and meditation. But this does not mean abandoning the Church,” the pope told the crowd from the window of his residence in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican.
“If God is asking me to do this it is precisely so I can continue to serve with the same dedication and love as before but in a way that is more appropriate for my age and for my strength.”
The 85-year-old leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics has said he will step down because he no longer has the strength of mind and body to carry on.
His shock resignation ended an eight-year pontificate dominated by the priest child sex abuse scandal and efforts to counter rising secularism in the West.
He thanked the crowd with a final unscripted call, telling them: “We will always be close!”
The Vatican and Rome police estimated the numbers at more than 100,000 people — many times more than usually attend the traditional Sunday prayer.
“Holy Father, We Love You”, read one banner seen in the crowd. One read: “Thank You, Your Holiness” and another said: “Dear Father, We’ll Miss You”.
“I have come to support the pope and to ask for his blessing,” said Joao-Paulo, a 26-year-old trainee priest from Brazil who came with fellow seminarians.
Birgit Marschall, 37, a teacher from Germany, said: “He is an intellectual who speaks in simple language, who writes what we have in our hearts.”
Claire Therese Heyne, a 34-year-old theology student from the United States, said the pope “must have had a very strong reason” to leave.
“It is an act of courage and humility,” she said.
Benedict will be only the second pope to resign of his own free will in the Church’s 2,000-year history, and the first to do so since the Middle Ages.
But Gianpaolo, 33, said Benedict had been “less courageous” than his predecessors, and many people looked ahead to the pope’s successor and stressed the need for major reforms.
“The Church has to have a major reflection after this resignation. Something has changed inside the Church and this decision reflects this,” said Gianpaolo, who came with his two sons.
Forty-five-year old Linda came from Wales in Britain for the event, saying: “He was not so open as the last popes before him. A new pope should be more open to people, to new ideas.”
There was tight security in and around the Vatican, with more than 100 police officers and snipers on surrounding buildings, as well as two field clinics and hundreds of volunteers to help pilgrims.
The security is being seen as preparation for the pope’s final general audience in St Peter’s on Wednesday where around 200,000 people are expected.
Some Italian media have speculated his health may be far worse than the Vatican revealed, and others have said an explosive report into the “Vatileaks” scandal may be to blame.
The Vatican’s Secretariat of State — effectively the government of the Catholic Church — took the unusual step on Saturday of issuing a formal statement condemning “completely false news stories”.
The Panorama news weekly and the Repubblica daily said a report by a committee of cardinals into the leaks of confidential papal papers last year had uncovered allegations of intrigue, corruption and blackmail in the Vatican.
No clear favourite has emerged to succeed Joseph Ratzinger. But many observers say the cardinals, who make the choice, may plump for a much younger candidate who is a more pastoral figure than the academic Benedict.
A series of meetings of cardinals starting Friday will determine the date of the start of the conclave to elect a new pope. The Vatican has hinted that it could be brought forward to early March since there is no papal funeral.
Conclaves can last for days before a candidate wins a two-thirds majority.
The Vatican has said Benedict will retire to the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo near Rome for the next two or three months while a former monastery inside the Vatican is renovated.
Benedict has said he will live “hidden from the world” but Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi has said he could provide “spiritual guidance” to his successor and will likely continue to publish his theological research.
Vatican dismisses reports linking pope's resignation to gay conclave discovery
Pope Benedict talks of 'evil, suffering and corruption' in the world in remarks to Vatican Curia as he prepares to vacate papacy
Conal Urquhart, John Hooper and agencies
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 23 February 2013 14.23 GMT
The Vatican has attacked reports in the Italian media linking Pope Benedict XVI's resignation to the alleged discovery of a network of gay prelates as attempts to influence the cardinals in their choice of a new pontiff.
The Vatican secretariat of state said in a statement: "It is deplorable that as we draw closer to the time of the beginning of the conclave … that there be a widespread distribution of often unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories that cause serious damage to persons and institutions."
The statement was made as Pope Benedict XVI had his final meeting with senior clerics, lamenting the "evil, suffering and corruption" that have defaced God's creation in a final address to Vatican officials.
Benedict spoke on Saturday at the end of a week-long spiritual retreat coinciding with Lent, the period of 40 days (excluding Sundays) leading up to Easter. For the past week, Italian cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi has led the Vatican on meditations that have covered everything from the family to denouncing the "divisions, dissent, careerism, jealousies" that afflict the Vatican bureaucracy.
Ravasi's blunt critique of the dysfunction within the Vatican Curia comes as cardinals from around the world are arriving for the final days of Benedict's papacy and the conclave to elect his successor. Bureaucratic reform is a high priority for the next pope.
The pontiff's speech follows a report that has linked his resignation to the discovery of a network of gay prelates in the Vatican, some of whom have reportedly been targeted by blackmailers.
The Italian daily newspaper La Republica said the pope decided to resign on 17 December – the day he received a dossier compiled by three cardinals delegated to look into the so-called "Vatileaks" affair.
Last May Pope Benedict's butler, Paolo Gabriele, was arrested and charged with stealing leaked papal correspondence that depicted the Vatican as a seething hotbed of intrigue and infighting.
The newspaper said the cardinals described a number of factions, including one whose members were "united by sexual orientation". It added that some Vatican officials had been subjected to "external influence" from laymen with whom they had links of a "worldly nature". La Republica said this was a clear reference to blackmail.
The pope's resignation has finally revealed that the papacy is simply a job
The purposes of the almighty do not flow exclusively through the narrow weir of the papacy
The Guardian, Friday 22 February 2013 20.00 GMT
The resignation of the pope, whatever the reason that motivated it, may well have a consequence far beyond that of its intended purpose. It reveals that the papacy is simply a job, an office. And by so doing, it rightly challenges some of the cult of personality that has built up around that office, as if the job affords the office holder some special proximity to God. It doesn't.
The purposes of the almighty do not flow exclusively through the narrow weir of the papacy. But this news isn't really news to Protestants, nor indeed to the English.
Henry VIII, admittedly one of the greatest cultural criminals of English history, created the Church of England as a means of having his way with Anne Boleyn. His vast destructive ego demanded a legitimate male heir at all costs – and that required marriage. If it also required a break with Rome, then so be it. Nobody was going to tell Henry what he could or couldn't do, not even the pope. He wasn't especially enamoured of those earnest Protestant reformers and their new European ways. They were just a means to an end.
Still to this day our coinage reflects Henry's belief that he could shoulder the weight of Catholic Christianity on his own, without the pope. "Elizabeth II DG FD" is what is still written on all our coins. FD is an abbreviation of fidei defensor – defender of the faith. It was the honorific given to Henry by the pope several years before the break with Rome. And he wasn't going to give that one up.
So he effectively made himself the English pope – transferring the glamour of papacy to the English crown – and appropriated the wealth of the monasteries, knocking to the ground these traditional strongholds of Vatican power. He cared little that the monasteries were the National Health Service of the medieval world. He cared little that they were great centres of education and learning. That is why he was a cultural criminal of world historical proportions. But he wasn't a Protestant ideologue. Henry created a new church because the old one said no to him.
Henry's original sin is loaded into the constitutional DNA of the Church of England. "Is this a Protestant church or a Catholic church?" is a question tour guides at English cathedrals get asked every day. And the answer is completely baffling to visitors from mainland Europe: "It's both." It is pretty much impossible to explain to a Spanish tourist with broken English how this can possibly be. And it seemed pretty much impossible to several generations following Henry VIII as well. Yet I would describe myself as a Catholic, just not a Roman Catholic.
And that is not simply because I like smells and bells. Catholicism is bigger than the job description of a bishop of an Italian city. To be a Catholic is to regard oneself a part of the universal church, one the stretches back in time, yes, but one also that spreads out over the four corners of the earth.
Catholic Protestants, like me, believe in a form of Christianity with a far greater degree of institutional subsidiarity, a religion that is not just top down and doctrinally authoritarian. I guess that is why, at a certain level, we take a certain pride in our theological squabbling, however unedifying that may be at times. Politically, we are natural democrats. And democracy is messy, without the dangerous glamour of any cult of the strong leader.
The Church of England was born in disgrace. This has always seemed to me its strongest feature. What better way for a church to be inoculated from the outset against its own self-importance?
February 23, 2013
Church Helps Fill a Void in Africa
By ADAM NOSSITER
LAGOS, Nigeria — The young woman slept soundly on the cool marble floor before the altar, a break from the chaos at home. In the courtyard, neighborhood teenagers filled giant jerrycans with purified water from a stone fountain. In an aisle, a rail-thin young woman from a nearby slum said she had not eaten since yesterday but was expecting sustenance here.
Behind its high spiked iron gates in this frenetic megalopolis of anywhere between 11 million and 21 million, the church of Christ the King is protector, feeder and healer.
In the 6 a.m. darkness, this working-class church is already filled with parishioners in shirt-sleeves and T-shirts, a pool of hymn-singing light in a blacked-out neighborhood. Six Masses are celebrated here each Sunday for up to 10,000 people, and 102 people were baptized last Saturday. The parish priest, the Rev. Ikenna Ikechi, dreams of building a multistory community center to accommodate his growing flock. “Our only limitation is space,” he said.
The Roman Catholic Church’s explosive growth here and across Africa has led to serious talk of the possibility of an African cardinal succeeding Pope Benedict XVI, and clerics from Nigeria, Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has the continent’s largest Catholic population, have been mentioned as top contenders.
With 16 percent of the world’s Catholics now living in Africa, the church’s future, many say, is here. The Catholic population in Africa grew nearly 21 percent between 2005 and 2010, far outstripping other parts of the world. While the number of priests in North America and Europe declined during the same period, in Africa they grew by 16 percent. The seminaries, clerical officials here say, are bursting with candidates, and African priests are being sent to take over churches in former colonial powers.
Untainted by the child sexual abuse scandals, the church here draws parishioners, many in their 20s and 30s, who flock eagerly to services, which can last hours, with no complaints.
“After work, a lot of young people come to Mass,” said Chinedu Okani, 29, an engineer in Lagos who was attending a service at the Church of the Assumption in the Falomo neighborhood. “It provides a serene environment.”
He acknowledges another attraction, too: that the church is a functioning institution in a country that lacks them. “The welfare system is not working here,” Mr. Okani said. “We find a way to make up for it: the family, and the church.”
In Nigeria, at least 70 percent of the people live below the poverty line, and 80 percent of the country’s oil wealth goes to 1 percent of the population. The police do not respond to calls, and electricity is spotty.
Outside Christ the King, on the dirt streets of the Mushin neighborhood, there are armed robbers and no lights. It is little wonder that the priest must gently shoo away parishioners lingering to read or chat in the church’s arcaded meeting spaces under generator-powered lights.
“A lot of it is the challenge of living in Nigeria,” said Father Ikechi, who was educated at Fordham University in New York. “We can’t rely on the government for water, light, security. Whatever you want, you have to provide for yourself.”
For his parishioners, he said, “what they face is huge. So they tend to come to God as their last resort. You can’t go to the police. Who will you go to? You will go to God. Some of them, where they sleep is so bad, they just come to sleep here during the day.”
After a devastating bus accident recently the church paid parishioners’ hospital bills, the priest said. “Otherwise they would die,” he said.
In this way the church is fulfilling a role it played in its distant European past, providing for the people where the state cannot, but some question whether the African church’s growth and size can be sustained as the continent’s institutions develop.
“When people say Africa is the future, I say, ‘Oh, isn’t it the past?’ ” said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. “I see it as a repeat of the past, what happened in Europe centuries ago. What’s going to happen in Africa when everybody gets a television set, when modernity comes?”
For now, that question is largely academic here.
“Almost every system has collapsed,” said Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto, in northwestern Nigeria. “The entire architecture of governance has collapsed. The church remains the only moral force.
“The church offers the best schools, social services, medicine. The God talk in Africa is a mark of the failure of the economic, social and political system,” Bishop Kukah added, “We are being called left, right and center to mend the broken pieces of what are considered the failing states of Africa.”
In a continent rife with corruption, the church also provides a singular moral voice. Bishop Kukah, for example, has played a large role in good governance and human rights commissions, including the investigation into the 1990s military dictatorship.
In Congo, where the number of Catholics has more than tripled in the past 35 years, Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya of Kinshasa has fiercely criticized the government, including the tainted election results that secured President Joseph Kabila’s re-election in 2011. The Catholic Church deployed an extensive network of independent observers during the December elections, and the bishops’ council later denounced the “culture of treachery, lies and terror.”
“It’s the church’s engagement on behalf of the Congolese people, the promotion of the whole man, you’ve got to bring forth bread and the Gospels,” said Bishop Bernard-Emmanuel Kasanda of Mbuji-Mayi in Congo. “We have to be with the people. Moral authority, yes. This is what pushes people towards us.”
In Nigeria, where over $5 billion was reported missing from a minerals ministry on Friday, the latest in a series of seemingly endless government scandals, the church offers an alternative to a life mired in corruption, poverty and hopelessness.
Laurence Emeka, 30, who sells telephone accessories at an open-air stall, rose at 5 a.m. last Sunday to attend Mass at Christ the King before going to work. The service gave him a kind of sanctuary. “Peace, satisfaction, confidence in God,” he said. “It helps me cope with the circumstances of daily life.”
Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting from Rome.
Britain’s top Catholic Cardinal O’Brien subject of ‘inappropriate acts’ controversy
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, February 24, 2013 0:52 EST
Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric, who is due to vote on Pope Benedict XVI’s successor, has been reported to the Vatican over claims of inappropriate behaviour, the Observer reported on Sunday.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien, leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, contests allegations by three priests and a former priest which were sent to Rome a week before Pope Benedict’s resignation on February 11.
The four claimants, from the diocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh in Scotland, reported to nuncio Antonio Mennini, the Vatican’s ambassador to Britain, that O’Brien had committed “inappropriate acts” going back 33 years.
One priest claims he received unwanted attention from the cardinal after a late-night drinking session. Another alleges that O’Brien used night prayers as cover for inappropriate contact, according to the paper.
O’Brien has a vote in the forthcoming papal conclave.
The claimants, who are demanding the cleric’s resignation, are worried that their report will not be properly addressed if he is allowed to travel to Rome.
“It (the church) tends to cover up and protect the system at all costs,” said one of the complainants, according to quotes published by the Observer newspaper.
“The church is beautiful, but it has a dark side and that has to do with accountability. If the system is to be improved, maybe it needs to be dismantled a bit.”
O’Brien, who is due to retire next month, has angered the gay community with his conservative stance on homosexuality. He was named “bigot of the year” last year by the rights charity Stonewall.
He recently said that same-sex marriages would be “harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of those involved” and has long voiced opposition to gay adoption.