Global Notebook 12/03

Left-leaning Latinos Fuel Resistance
CARACAS — Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez was scheduled to speak at the UN in late September. But he abruptly cancelled his US trip. The main reasons given were security concerns and a lack of enthusiasm for UN summits. "A dialogue of the deaf,” Chavez called them, arguing that the world body is fundamentally undemocratic and should be democratized.

Meanwhile, weeks of rising anger and police violence in Bolivia climaxed in a September 29 general strike by unionists, backed by peasants, students, and merchants. Two days later, miners joined, paralyzing production. As a result, President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada resigned and fled to Miami. The confrontation, inspired by Evo Morales, popular leader of Indian coca farmers, involved a deal that would have sold Bolivian natural gas to the US and Mexico, via a Chilean port.

Lozada was a US ally and strong supporter of free trade and neo-liberal economics. His replacement is Vice President Carlos Mesa, a journalist and historian new to politics. But Morales, who opposes US dictates and calls for an indigenous, anti-capitalist future, is expected to play a major role as leader of the opposition Movement Towards Socialism. Mesa has pledged to hold a referendum before any future deal to export natural gas.

In Venezuela, Chavez is convinced that the CIA hasn’t given up on destabilizing regimes like his, and points to a video, secretly recorded by his security forces, that shows a CIA officer giving a surveillance class to Venezuelans. Chavez also claims to have evidence of US complicity in a 2001 coup attempt, but hasn’t produced it or issued a formal complaint.  

Whether or not US involvement is confirmed, the Bush administration is clearly upset by the rise of left-leaning South American leaders, including Lula in Brazil, who reject corporate globalization and US leadership.


Troubles Shadow Caspian Pipeline
BAKU — Rudyard Kipling’s phrase, "The Great Game," described the covert battle between the British Empire, Russia, and France to dominate central Asia. But even Kipling would marvel at US plans to control the area stretching from the Russian borders to the Mediterranean Sea.

Two former Soviet states, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, have three times the oil reserves of the US. The "game" is to find the safest route to Western cars. By 2010, the Caspian region could produce 3.7 million barrels a day. That would fill a looming hole in world supplies, expected to top 110 million a day by 2020.

At issue is the world’s longest export pipeline, snaking 1090 miles from the Caspian port of Baku in Azerbaijan to Turkey, via some of the world’s most conflict-ridden nations. Expected to cost up to $4 billion, it’s being built by a consortium of 11 companies. Most of the funding will come from bank loans, plus taxpayer money.

Opponents say the pipeline will wreak environmental, social and economic havoc, especially if something goes wrong, and even if things go right. The risk of a serious tanker spillage will increase, for example, and the Turkish part of the route lies in an earthquake zone. The Caspian is already one of the world’s most polluted bodies of water. Opponents also say legal agreements make BP the effective governing power over the corridor, able to override environmental, social, human rights, and other laws.

There are alternative routes. Iran has suggested the eastern shore of the Caspian to Turkmenistan, through Iran to the Persian Gulf. But its offer of $1.6 billion toward the cost is unlikely to be accepted. Another possibility is south-east to Afghanistan. And Russia wants to pump the oil through its network to a Black Sea port, but that could put US supplies at risk.


Iraq War Sparks US Suicide Watch
BAGHDAD — Why are so many members of the US military committing suicide in Iraq? From April to October 2003, eleven soldiers and three Marines killed themselves. That’s an annualized rate of 17 suicides per 100,000 soldiers; the usual rate is 13. In addition to confirmed cases, at least a dozen other Army deaths, and a Navy fatality, are being investigated as possible suicides.

"The number of suicides has caused the Army to be concerned," states Lt. Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, an army psychiatrist with a team sent in to investigate. "Is there something different going on in Iraq that we really need to pay attention to?"

Most of the suicides occurred after May 1, when major combat operations supposedly ended. Depression, harsh and dangerous living conditions, and long deployments and could contribute to the problem, experts say. The Army has sent almost 500 soldiers home for mental health reasons.


Airbase Exiles Get No UK Help
LONDON — Thirty years ago, thousands of islanders were cheated out of their land to make way for an airbase on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. In October, they and their descendants lost another round in the British high court. Justice Duncan Ouseley admitted that the Chagossians, the collective name for the islanders, were treated shamelessly by Britain. But their claim of “unlawful exile” has no legal basis, he concluded, and continuing the case would be a waste of public money.

Although a US base, Diego Garcia is a British overseas territory. Insisting that the islanders didn’t have residence rights, the UK tricked many of them into leaving from 1967 to 1973 to make way for the base. Most were moved to Mauritius, but some went to the Seychelles.

Losing the compensation claim is a setback, but they’re determined to appeal. The loss came three years after a high court victory over the Foreign Office that paved the way for some islanders to return. The government said it accepted the judgment, but stalled, and then claimed the cost of needed infrastructure was prohibitive. The US claims returning islanders would present security threats to the base, home for the Stealth and B-52 bombers used in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The judge admitted that losing homes, and dreadful conditions on the ship that took them into exile, "engendered many bitter memories of the horses being better cared for than the passengers." But he also noted that islanders have been compensated twice already: $650,000 in the 1970s and $4 million in the 1980s.


Probes Launched on Data Mining
MANAGUA — Despite dealing with US meddling for more than a century, Nicaraguans were surprised to learn that Uncle Sam’s long reach may now extend into their private lives. The latest intrusion was orchestrated by information companies, which root out identity documents, driver’s licenses, phone records, and other personal data, and make the information available to the US government.

In Nicaragua, Mexico, and elsewhere across Latin America, prosecutors are opening investigations into private information mining after discovering that the US Justice Department hired a Georgia company to collect personal information on up to 300 million people throughout the region without their knowledge. The company, Choice Point, Inc., which helped Republicans manipulate the Florida voting rolls in 2000, hired local subcontractors to dig out the information.

Company officials claim they only collect data from the public realm and never deal in sensitive information like bank records. But investigators want to know who is collecting what, and how it might be used.


Gypsie Removal
PARIS — France will continue to deport Romanian Gypsies, despite a human rights report criticizing the policy as a "total failure" that exposes returnees to poverty and discrimination. Reminded about the conditions faced by gypsies in Romania, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy recently noted, "I remind you that I’m not the Romanian Interior Minister."

Sarkozy has taken a hard line approach to illegal immigration, closing down a Red Cross-run refugee center, and backing the forced repatriation of undocumented immigrants from Africa and Romania. He softens the blows with promises of financial incentives for those who return home and speedier handling of genuine asylum applications.

In August 2002, he signed an accord under which France would help Bucharest clamp down on clandestine emigration by providing deported Gypsies with 153 euros (US $140), a ticket, and sometimes social aid. But Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) and the International Federation for Human Rights say it hasn’t worked. Around 1500 Gypsie squatters have been removed from French land, with 30 sent back to Romania. But less than 10 accepted the financial assistance. Most had one idea: return to France as soon as possible.

Of four people who accepted the aid, three had their passports confiscated by Romanian authorities and received no support in their villages. Instead, they were shunned and viewed as criminals. Human rights groups want France to provide temporary visas, and ask Romania to stop confiscating passports.


UPI Goes to Moon
WASHINGTON, DC — Eight years ago, Rev. Pat Robertson almost acquired what would have been the jewel in his media empire — United Press International (UPI). But a bankruptcy judge rejected the bid and allowed the wire service to be sold to Middle Eastern investors.

In 2000, the troubled company was sold again. This time the buyer was New World Communications, the thriving media arm of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church. Press accounts suggest a reason for the purchase: as an Internet provider, it can provide Moon’s media firms with access to the electronic market.

After the sale, veteran reporter Helen Thomas, UPI’s most revered employee, resigned rather than pick up her paycheck from Moon.

The Washington Times was launched in 1982 as Moon’s conservative alternative to the Washington Post. Dismissed at first, it gained credibility when President Reagan said it was the one paper he read thoroughly. It’s been a money-loser for almost two decades.

But for the Moonie empire, money apparently isn’t an issue.

Arnaud De Borchgrave, former editor of the Washington Times and currently UPI Chief Executive, says the new owners promise editorial independence. But his own ultra-conservative agenda, combined with Moon’s oversight, suggests that it will be Unification Press International before long.


Poverty Makes a US Comeback
WASHINGTON, DC — Nearly 1.3 million more people fell below the official US poverty line in 2002, according to the US Census. The number of poor swelled to nearly 35 million, including 20 percent of all children, and nearly half the new arrivals are young.

In July, a Census Bureau report also showed that more than 35 percent of the population was poor for at least two months between 1996 and 1999. The data indicated that, even during the boom of the late 1990s, a significant portion couldn’t make it from one paycheck to the next. Despite such dire statistics, Congress remains committed to the draconian welfare-to-work program signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996.

Unlike most industrial countries, which peg poverty at a percentage of median income, the US keeps its poverty level artificially low. The original thresholds were developed in the 1960s by determining the minimal cost of food for a family and multiplying that by three. The Census Bureau uses the consumer price index to update the thresholds.

After declining from 15 percent in the 1980s, poverty began to climb again in 2001, going from 11.3 percent in 2000 to 11.7 percent. But income inequality began increasing earlier. From 1979 to 2000, the income of the top one percent leaped 184.3 percent, while the income of the lowest fifth of households rose 6.6 percent. And even these gains are being erased by growing levels of unemployment.