Global Notebook 7-27-05


Theroux blames big oil for Ecuador ‘catastrophe’

CAPE CODE, MA – Describing a trip through the oil towns of Ecuador, writer Paul Theroux recently called the area an “ecological and social catastrophe” that includes spilled oil, brothels, gun running, deforestation, poverty and displaced people. In an interview with, he placed the blamed on Occidental Petroleum and Halliburton, accusing both of exploiting the region and damaging the ecosystem.

“I was in the Oriente Province, visiting the Secoya people on the Aguarico River,” Theroux said. He went to Ecuador to do research for his new novel, Blinding Light. “An Ecuador-based environmentalist named Manuel Pallares took me on what he called his ‘Toxic Tour,’ ” he explained. The novel begins with a description of his protagonist’s journey to a remote Ecuadorian village, according to an early review in The Observer.

Halliburton, which reportedly makes at least $1 billion in Latin America annually, recently informed investors about new contracts in Ecuador. The Houston-based company has an office in Quito, and sells oil-drilling platforms and energy services to other companies operating in the country, including Chevron, Occidental Petroleum, Arco, Maxus Energy Corporation and Petroecuador.

“The Indians get a pittance,” Theroux said. “They do not own what is under the ground – that is the property of the Ecuadorian government, which makes the deals with Occidental and Halliburton. As there is no EPA in Ecuador, there are oil spills everywhere and leaky pipes along the roads. As far as I know nothing has been written about this region, which is east of Lago Agrio.”

British genes little changed since Ice Age

LONDON – Despite invasions by Saxons, Romans, Vikings, Normans and others, the genetic makeup of white Britons hasn’t changed much in 12,000 years, according to The Tribes of Britain, a new book by archaeologist David Miles. "There’s been a lot of arguing over the last 10 years, but it’s now more or less agreed that about 80 percent of Britons’ genes come from hunter-gatherers who came in immediately after the Ice Age," Miles told National Geographic.

Recent genetic and archaeological evidence puts a new perspective on the history of the British people. Nomadic tribes followed herds of reindeer and wild horses northward to Britain as the climate warmed, says Miles, research fellow at the Institute of Archaeology in Oxford, England.

The most visible British genetic marker is red hair, he added. The writer Tacitus noted the Romans’ surprise at how common the color was when they arrived 2,000 years ago. "It’s something that foreign observers have often commented on," Miles said. "Recent studies have shown that there is more red hair in Scotland and Wales than anywhere else in the world. It’s a mutation that probably occurred between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago."

Latin American TV goes global

CARACAS – As the U.S. House of Representative adopted legislation that would let the U.S. government initiate radio and TV broadcasts to Venezuela, Telesur, a new all-Latin American TV station, began its regular broadcasts via satellite last week. The plan is to provide its audience with an alternative to North American-based news.

“It is a Latin American look at Latin American reality,” Executive Director Aram Aharonian told Agencia Brasil, a state-run news service. “We have an information agenda totally different from what we get from the North. Multinational networks all send the same image of us. We only make the news when there is a disaster. Up there they see us in black and white. And here we are, a continent full of color, bursting with diversity and plurality."

One of Telesur’s main goals is to allow Latin Americans to look at themselves with their own eyes, and not through the perspective of the Western media, he said.

Co-founded by Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba and Uruguay, Telesur has launched bureaus in Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil and Venezuela, and is about to open others in Argentina, Cuba, Mexico City and Washington. Programs are broadcast in Spanish and Portuguese. News will take up about 40 percent of its airtime. Once fully operational, the station will be accessible to viewers in Western Europe, North Africa and across the Americas.

Ugandans eager for ICC action

KAMPALA – The International Criminal Court (ICC) has announced plans to issue indictments against Ugandan rebel leaders. To broaden discussion in anticipation of the ICC’s first intervention, the International Center for Transitional Justice and the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, have released a report, Forgotten Voices: A Population-Based Survey on Attitudes about Peace and Justice in Northern Uganda, based on interviews conducted in April and May 2005, with more than 2,500 Ugandans.

The report is the first comprehensive survey of the people most affected by the conflict – residents of the northern districts of Gulu, Kitgum, Lira and Soroti, many of whom are routinely terrorized by rebel attacks. It also is the first study of its kind to be conducted in the midst of an ongoing conflict.

Among the findings are some of the highest levels of exposure to traumatic events ever reported, including killings, abductions, mutilations and sexual violations, the organizations claim. Forty percent of the survey respondents said they had been abducted by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA); 45 percent had witnessed the killing of a family member; and 23 percent had been physically mutilated at some point during the conflict.

Respondents expressed strong support for transitional justice mechanisms, including a truth commission, reparations and the ICC. More than 80 percent said that they want to speak publicly about the abuses they have suffered. When asked what should happen to LRA leaders, 66 percent favored punishment, but 25 percent suggested forgiveness, confessions to the community and compensation. Of those who had heard of the ICC, most believed that the court would contribute to peace (91 percent) and justice (89 percent).

War has raged between the LRA and government forces for 19 years. LRA fighters have killed and mutilated civilians, abducted as many as 30,000 children and many more adults to serve as soldiers and sex slaves, and displaced up to 1.6 million civilians, who now live in refugee camps.

The Ugandan government has tried both military action and mediation to end the conflict, without success. In December 2003, Pres. Yoweri Museveni referred the situation in Northern Uganda to the ICC, which is expected to issue indictments against top LRA leaders. Due to talks between the rebels and government officials this spring, some observers say that conditions have never been a better for peace.


Short honeymoon for Supreme Court pick

WASHINGTON – The early line on U.S. Supreme Court nominee John Roberts was that Pres. George Bush had made a tactically brilliant choice that virtually ensured confirmation. A headline in The New York Times proclaimed, "Court nominee’s life is rooted in faith and respect for law," while an ABC report explained that the “Washington establishment, and the media establishment, know him and like him.”

Many Democrats were initially cautious, saying that they anticipated few problems as long as the administration and Roberts provided any requested documents. But last week the White House complicated the situation by signaling that it doesn’t plan to release documents produced by Roberts during his service in previous presidential administrations, according to press reports.

Fred D. Thompson, the administration’s point person for the nomination, explained that internal memos and other documents are protected by attorney-client privilege. Roberts, who has been a federal appeals court judge for less than two years, has mainly worked for private clients and Republican administrations, including a stint in the solicitor general’s office under the first Bush administration.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, noted that other nominees, including Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, complied with requests for materials they wrote in confidence while working for an administration.

Two rulings during Roberts’ brief tenure as a federal judge have attracted attention. One involved the arrest of a 12-year-old for eating a French fry on the Washington metro. The child’s mother argued in a lawsuit that an adult committing the same offense would have been issued a ticket. Roberts disagreed. The arrest, he wrote, advanced "the legitimate goal of promoting parental awareness and involvement with children who commit delinquent acts."

Critics also suggest that he is hostile to environmental regulation, pointing to a ruling in a California land development case, which they view as an attempt to weaken the Endangered Species Act.

Reproductive-rights activists point to a brief he prepared as a deputy to Solicitor General Kenneth Starr in the Reagan years. In a family-planning funding case, Roberts included a footnote arguing that Roe v. Wade was "wrongly decided and should be overturned." He has since explained that this merely reflected administration policy.

Late-night comics aren’t waiting for the hearings to offer their spin. “Bush searched far and wide before he made the risky choice of a white guy in his 50s," quipped David Letterman. At NBC, Jay Leno noted that Roberts’ youth suggested that he could be on the Supreme Court in 40 years – “when we pull out of Iraq” – and that the Senate’s decision is extremely important, since “these are the people we choose to pick the next president of the United States."

Oakland wants to ‘chip’ man’s best friend

SAN FRANCISCO – Pet owners in Oakland will be in the doghouse if they don’t obey a trend-setting requirement to implant their canine companions with identification microchips, Agence France Presse reports.

"This is a case where Oakland was ahead of the ball instead of behind it," explained police Sgt. David Cronin, who helped draft the ordinance as head of the animal services department. “It’s a relatively new idea. I think we will see most communities make it a requirement in the coming years.”

The microchips are about the size of rice grains and easily implanted under the skin of dogs’ necks, Cronin said. The animal services department charges owners $10 to implant a chip, which stores an identification number that can be read by a handheld scanner.

Dog “chipping” is aimed at helping police deal with problems ranging from theft to owners surreptitiously swapping tags from one pooch to another, similar to the way people switch license plates on cars. The ordinance, which bans people from owning more than three dogs without an exemption, is expected to take effect by the fall. It also will bar the ownership of roosters, a move designed to stop illegal breeding operations.

Plame investigators follow the memo

WASHINGTON – As special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald tries to unravel exactly how the name of a CIA agent ended up in a newspaper column by Robert Novak, persistent leaks continue to trickle out from his investigation. One example is the report cited last week by and other media that Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, told Fitzgerald that he first learned the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame from NBC News reporter Tim Russert. But Russert has testified that he didn’t tell Libby her identity, says a Bloomberg source.

According to the Washington Post, former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer also may be implicated. He told prosecutors that he never saw a classified State Department memo that disclosed Plame’s identity, but a former State Department official reportedly saw him perusing it on Air Force One.

The timing is significant, since the presidential trip on July 7 came one day after Ambassador Joseph Wilson, Plame’s husband, published a column criticizing the administration.

At the center of the investigation is White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, who told Fitzgerald that he first learned about Plame from Novak on July 8, the day after the memo was seen on the president’s plane. Novak’s version is that Rove already knew about her when they spoke. 

At first, Rove didn’t tell investigators about his conversation with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, claiming their talk was mainly about welfare reform. But Cooper has testified that welfare reform didn’t come up.

One grand jury witness and lawyers for others say the memo identified Plame as a CIA officer in a paragraph marked “S” for sensitive. According to sources quoted by NBC’s David Shuster, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and others, including John Bolton, have testified about the memo.

Among other things, Fitzgerald is investigating whether Libby, Rove or other administration officials made false statements during the course of the investigation. The larger questions are whether any administration officials violated a 1982 law that makes it illegal to knowingly reveal the name of a covert intelligence agent, and how the leaks relate the pre-Iraq war intelligence.

‘Drug war’ bill calls for mandatory help

WASHINGTON – House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-WI, is always on the lookout for ways to toughen anti-drug legislation and prison sentences. But his latest brainstorm is more than tough, it’s total: a legislative proposal that could draft the entire U.S. population into the war on drugs.

According to a report by Bill Piper distributed by Alternet, Sensenbrenner’s proposal requires anyone who witnesses or hears about certain drug offenses to report them to law enforcement within 24 hours and to provide "full assistance in the investigation, apprehension and prosecution" of those involved. Anyone who doesn’t could face a mandatory minimum two-year prison sentence, and a maximum sentence of 10 years.

The reporting requirement covers relatives and anyone else. Taking time to discuss treatment doesn’t buy any more time, Piper noted. The legislation “could also put many Americans in danger by forcing them to go undercover to gain evidence against strangers,” he wrote.

Even without Sensenbrenner’s so-called “spy” provisions, the bill would impose harsher sentences on college students, mothers, people in drug treatment, and others with substance-abuse problems.

Socialist donor list can remain secret

SEATTLE – A Socialist candidate for mayor in Seattle, WA, has won the right to conceal the names of his campaign donors from public disclosure. Chris Hoeppner, a member of the Socialist Workers Party, sought the exemption from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, citing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found exemptions appropriate if donors to candidates with unpopular political views could reasonably fear harassment, the Seattle Times reported.

Though the office of Seattle mayor is nonpartisan, Hoeppner’s attorney presented evidence indicating that supporters of candidates identifying themselves as socialists have been threatened and harassed in Seattle and across the country. Although some commissioners expressed discomfort with the idea of hiding donors’ identities, they noted that the city lost a federal court case after the commission denied a similar request by a Socialist candidate in 2003. The exemption was approved unanimously.

Crossing guard gets walking papers

HOUSTON – A 79-year-old school crossing guard was fired recently over a drug test, but not because he failed. The problem was Francis Light’s refusal to take a random drug-alcohol test, which violated Houston Independent School District policy.

Light was a familiar face at Oak Forest Elementary School in Houston for 16 years as the school’s crossing guard. "It hit me the wrong way,” he told Houston‘s Channel 3 news. “I’m old, old-fashioned. School’s about out, and here I am going on 80, why do they want to take a drug test on me?"

Members of the community say Light did more than escort kids across the street, and some of the children nominated him in a contest for heroes. "He’s the only one with loving touch,” said student Kenneth Bonte. “He knows you by name.”

Uncle Sam seeking some older, good men

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon has a new plan to compensate for recruitment shortfalls – raising the age limit for military recruits to 42. The current age limit is 35 for those who want to join the regular U.S. Army, and 39 for people without previous military experience who hope to enlist in the National Guard or Reserve. But CBC News reports that the Department of Defense has asked Congress to pass legislation that would change that.

If approved, it would be the second such age increase in 2005. In March, the Pentagon raised the maximum age for enlisting in the Army Reserve and National Guard by five years to 39. The Pentagon also may increase the number of illegal immigrants allowed to enlist. Together, these moves would add millions of people to the potential pool of recruits.

"There is a segment of the population that is older that would like to serve," David Chu, the Under-Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, told a congressional hearing. On the other hand, accepting older recruits will cost more in benefits and pay.

Lt. Col. Leah Sundquist, recruiting commander in the Oregon National Guard, told The New York Times that there also is an "endurance factor – your muscular energy. It is hard as you get older to maintain the stamina that a younger individual would do in terms of heat, rigorous movement and the gear you’re wearing."

To lure recruits, the U.S. military has been offering large signing bonuses. The latest incentive for recruits into the Army is an unprecedented $100,000 in bonuses, college funds and extra pay for accepting high-demand and potentially dangerous jobs. This amount includes up to $14,400 for soldiers who enlist for three years or longer, bonuses up to $20,000, and college funds up to $70,000.