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September 10, 2009
Spanish judge under fire for opening old wounds

Baltasar Garzón, Spain’s most prominent jurist. Photo: Presidencia Argentina

A right-wing organization in Spain has tried to turn the tables on Baltasar Garzón, the country’s most prominent jurist. Garzón found himself in the dock this week in Madrid, charged by a group calling itself “Clean Hands,” for allegedly overstepping his authority by investigating atrocities during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco three-quarters of a century ago.

Garzón never faced such scrutiny on his other prominent campaigns: He had the freedom and temerity to indict Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, file charges against Argentine military officers for their role during that country’s “Dirty War” of the 1970s and 1980s, and criticize and consider indictments against U.S. officials during the Bush administration for the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo.

Garzón testified for more than three hours on Wednesday in Spain’s Supreme Court. He has said his responsibility was no more and no less than to apply the law “to investigate the facts, to ferret out responsibility for the protection of the victims.”

The matter at hand is unfinished business: Charges of mass graves, kangaroo courts and barbaric human rights violations committed by the Franco regime. The challenge to his authority makes it clear: the Spanish Civil War still roils emotion and divides political sentiment. The conservative opposition Popular Party, which was in power and closely allied with the Bush administration during the Iraq invasion, virulently opposes Garzón’s investigation. So does the Catholic Church in Spain, which warns that an investigation would “open old wounds.”

Thirty-four years after Franco’s death, the children and grandchildren of those who defended the Spanish republic against Franco -– who was supported by Hitler and Mussolini in a dress rehearsal for World War II –- seek a full accounting of the past. There are numerous stories around the country of mass graves still undiscovered, atrocities not documented. For some, it is a matter of conscience; for others, like those who challenge Garzón, it is dangerous to cast light on the violence of the Franco period.

Garzón, by the way, is not considered a left-wing ideologue. In the course of his career, he has faced criticism from both sides of the spectrum. In the matter at hand, he is defended by the governing Social Democratic Party and supported by significant editorial comment.

The influential Madrid daily El Pais, for example, expressed outrage that “ultra-rightwing” political groups could influence the Supreme Court.  “There is no explanation, unless it has to do with pure repression based on ideology,” El Pais said in an editorial. “One cannot cease to be astonished that, in effect, the judge that brought Pinochet to justice and who investigated crimes against  humanity in the Southern Cone during the 1970s, should be pursued criminally for trying to do the same thing in his own country. If this doesn’t stop in time, the case will turn grotesque and cause enormous international shock.”

The battle brings to mind the wise old words of George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Garzón has sought to hold international leaders to a simple test of justice under civilized law. It is a lesson of all.

– Peter Eisner

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September 9, 2009
Iran won’t benefit much from Venezuelan gasoline

Venezuela has agreed to export 20,000 barrels of gasoline per day to Iran.

Here’s something from the Associated Press that needs some refining:

TEHRAN, Iran — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sealed an agreement to export 20,000 barrels per day of gasoline to Iran, state TV reported Monday. The deal would give Tehran a cushion if the West carries out threats of fuel sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program.

The two countries signed the agreement late Sunday during a visit by Chavez, who pledged to deepen ties with Iran and stand together against what he called the imperialist powers of the world.

Before we start fretting about Hugo Chavez giving aid and support to an enemy (it’s not helpful to talk about Venezuela or Iran that way), let’s take a look at the reality. Iran’s oil production of about 4 million barrels daily is twice as large as Venezuela’s. Its refineries have a capacity to produce more than 1.5 million barrels of gasoline daily — Chavez’s generous offer to Iran amounts to about 1.5 percent of Iran’s ability to produce refined products. Iran has been a gasoline importer, but is taking steps to halt imports within four years.

In short, Iran won’t benefit much with gasoline from Venezuela, its fellow OPEC member. If the United States and Europe were to follow through with sanctions, Iran probably would still be importing all of the goods it needs and its refineries would still be running. (Not to get too technical: a barrel of oil is about 42 gallons, and that yields roughly 19 gallons of gasoline)

Chavez is actually making a small deal with Iran to thumb his nose at the United States, an exercise he and Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad practice whenever they can. Europe is part of the game in this case, because Chavez is supporting Ahmadinejad’s defiance of a deadline declared by U.S. and European officials, threatening sanctions by the end of September if no progress is made on reining in Iran’s nuclear program.

Whatever you want to call Chavez, whose country sells roughly 1 million barrels of crude to the United States daily, you’re not going to change his mind, or change the policies of the Iranian government by employing threats and boycotts. Ahmadinejad and Chavez share something -– they are both reactionaries in the true sense of the word: They do and say things to be provocative.

The Obama administration, in both cases, appears to understand that better than its predecessor, which railed and saber-rattled to no end. Meanwhile, boycotts and embargoes, state-sponsored, rarely if ever work. The United States imposed a boycott on Cuba 50 years ago, and that policy is widely considered a failure. The United States slapped a grain embargo on the Soviet Union in the 1980s after the Communist government invaded Afghanistan — international grain merchants kept the grain running through subsidiaries in places like Brazil and Argentina.

Sanctions usually paper over the lack of a policy. The problem with Iran and Venezuela is that the United States would do well to find ways to negotiate. Unlike George W. Bush, President Obama has said that you don’t only talk to friends; sometimes you have to negotiate with people you don’t necessarily like.

It is one of many challenges that will define U.S. foreign policy these years, and provocative acts and speeches have to be understood and kept in context.

– Peter Eisner

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Magnera under a Creative Commons license.

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September 1, 2009
Argentina still trying to pin down Iran as bombing culprit

The site in Buenos Aires where a car bomb killed 85 people in 1994.

Today, Iran’s parliament came out in support of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s nominee for defense minister, Ahmad Vahidi, who is wanted by Interpol for his suspected role in the 1984 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.  According to the Iranian news agency FARS,  an Iranian lawmaker who planned to speak against the nomimation offered his support instead, along with a denunciation of Israel.

Worldfocus editorial consultant Peter Eisner blogged about the issue recently.  Check back this week for Peter’s new updates on the story.

On July 18, 1994, a car bomb killed 85 people and wounded 300 others at the Jewish Community Center in downtown Buenos Aires. The Argentine government and many international intelligence agencies have long contended that Iranian and Hezbollah agents were responsible for the attack as part of a series of retaliations on predominant Jewish targets.

But the claim of Iranian responsibility has often been mixed with political attempts by successive U.S. presidents to cast Iran as a sponsor of international terrorism. And Argentina’s former president, Nestor Kirchner, once told me he thought his country’s original investigation of the attack was faulty.

The government of his successor and wife, President Cristina Kirchner, continues to pursue the Iranian case. More than 15 years after the bombing, the political ramifications are still seething.

This week, the Iranian government rejected criticism from Argentina when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad designated a man blamed for involvement in the attack as his new defense minister. The new appointee, Ahmad Vahidi, is wanted by Interpol for his alleged involvement in the Jewish community center attack.

Argentina said Vahidi played a major role and has sought his capture since 2007. The Argentine government, according to the Buenos Aires newspaper Clarin, expressed “its ‘most energetic condemnation’ of the decision of Ahmadinejad to propose Avhidi as minister of defense of his government, and declared that it represented and ‘affront’ to Argentine justice and the victims of the attack.”

Iran denies any involvement in the attack on the center, which is known by its Spanish acronym as AMIA.

“We recommend that, instead of playing a blame game and propaganda, try to identify real culprits of the terrorist attack that based on the documents and evidences available in Argentina, the main terror agents can be identified,” said Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hassan Qashqav.

There is substantial information, according to U.S., Argentinian and Israel intelligence agencies, that links Hezbollah and Iran to the AMIA bombing. It took place at a time in which other attacks were carried out on predominantly Jewish targets in third countries, including the bombing of a Panamanian plane, and an attack on the Israeli Embassy in London.

Despite circumstantial evidence, an extensive report last year in The Nation concluded that the charges against Iran were part of a Bush administration frame-up to isolate Iran diplomatically. The magazine, for example, quoted Clinton administration-era diplomats posted in Buenos Aires as saying the evidence against Iran for the AMIA bombing was “flimsy.”

The Nation reported:

James Cheek, Clinton’s Ambassador to Argentina at the time of the bombing [said] “To my knowledge, there was never any real evidence [of Iranian responsibility]. They never came up with anything.” The hottest lead in the case, he recalled, was an Iranian defector named Manoucher Moatamer, who “supposedly had all this information.” But Moatamer turned out to be only a dissatisfied low-ranking official without the knowledge of government decision-making that he had claimed. “We finally decided that he wasn’t credible,” Cheek recalled. Ron Goddard, then deputy chief of the US Mission in Buenos Aires, confirmed Cheek’s account. He recalled that investigators found nothing linking Iran to the bombing. “The whole Iran thing seemed kind of flimsy,” Goddard said.

If those former officials are right, and while Argentina and Iran continue their charges and denials, it appears unlikely we’ll know the real culprits in the horrible AMIA attack anytime soon, if ever.

— Peter Eisner

Photo courtesy of Flickr user crylov under a Creative Commons license.

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August 17, 2009
Cold warriors are still with us, and history is now

In December 1971, President Richard Nixon and Brazilian President Emilio Garrastazú Médici met to discuss Brazil’s role in efforts to overthrow the elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile. Photo courtesy of the National Security Archive.

Back in the days of the cold warriors – those righteous Americans who knew might was right and Communism was the devil’s work – U.S. officials set out to overthrow governments that seemed a shade too pink for their liking. The results were invariably bloody.

Echoes of the past came back to us this weekend thanks to the National Security Archive, which published documents showing that President Richard M. Nixon had sought help from Brazil in 1971 to overthrow Chilean President Salvador Allende. Whether or how much Brazil actually helped or not is still not known, but Allende, Chile’s democratically elected president, was in fact deposed on Sept. 11, 1973.

Nixon, his then-National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, and their intelligence apparatus pushed and promoted the coup. By day’s end, it was a bloody overthrow. Allende was dead; labor leaders, intellectuals, artists and others were corralled in the Santiago soccer stadium. Thousands were killed. The right-wing Chilean military imprisoned tens of thousands more, and drove hundreds of thousands into exile. A dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, was thus born, reviled by many around the world for his suppression of human rights. He ruled for 16 years, supported as a friend by successive U.S. governments.

Much was previously known, but the independent National Security Archive, based in Washington, has been tracking additional details of the U.S. role over the years. Here is a transcript of a tape five days after the Chilean coup, declassified and obtained by the archive in 2006.

Nixon: Nothing new of any importance or is there?
Kissinger: Nothing of very great consequence. The Chilean thing is getting consolidated and of course the newspapers are bleeding because a pro-Communist government has been overthrown.
Nixon: Isn’t that something. Isn’t that something.
Kissinger: I mean instead of celebrating – in the Eisenhower period we would be heroes.
Nixon: Well we didn’t – as you know – our hand doesn’t show on this one though.
Kissinger: We didn’t do it. I mean we helped them. [garbled] created the conditions as great as possible.
Nixon: That is right. And that is the way it is going to be played.

In the Brazilian case revealed this week, Nixon met with Brazilian Gen. Emilio Medici in 1971. Both agreed that Allende was a threat. [By the way, the CIA also worked with the right-wing Brazilian military in 1964, supporting the overthrow of that country’s democratic president, Joao Goulart]. The Archive information is accompanied by copies of the documents on line. It’s worth reading:

The Top Secret “memcon” of the December 9, 1971, Oval Office meeting indicates that Nixon offered his approval and support for Brazil’s intervention in Chile.

The President said that it was very important that Brazil and the United States work closely in this field. We could not take direction but if the Brazilians felt that there was something we could do to be helpful in this area, he would like President Médici to let him know. If money were required or other discreet aid, we might be able to make it available. This should be held in the greatest confidence.

“The U.S. and Brazil,” Nixon told Médici, “must try and prevent new Allendes and Castros and try where possible to reverse these trends.”

Nixon was not interested in stopping with Brazil. He discussed overthrowing Fidel Castro himself, and connived to dump the then president of Peru, with the picaresque idea of planting news in the media that the Peruvian had fathered a child with his mistress, Miss Peru.

More than three decades later, what have Americans learned from history? How many people died, how much suffering took place, and for what, exactly?

The cold warriors are still with us. The architects of the Iraq War, former vice president Richard M. Cheney and former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, are veterans of the Nixon administration. History is now.

– Peter Eisner

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August 12, 2009
What’s in a name? For Japan and Korea, everything

This map, courtesy of the CIA World Factbook, uses the “Sea of Japan” label, but Koreans demand it be called the “East Sea.”

Geographical names — the names of cities, countries and oceans — can kill.

You don’t think so? Try referring to the archipelago of 778 islands 300 miles off the coast of southern South America as the Falkland Islands, and an Argentinian may think you’re picking a fight. Their name for the British-controlled islands, for which they claim sovereignty, is Islas Malvinas. Britain and Argentina fought a war over the islands in 1982, and 907 people died.

A hapless Iranian journalist with the Associated Press in Tehran during the days of the shah received visits from the Iranian secret police, and was threatened with jail and worse every time the news agency described the portion of the Indian Ocean between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula as “The Arabian Sea.”

“Please, please,” the poor Iranian reporter begged editors at AP in New York on a crackly telephone line. “Don’t call it that; call it the Persian Gulf.”

I’m reminded of all this by a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post (page A15, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2009), in which a vaguely-named organization calls on journalists to use the name “East Sea” for the portion of the Pacific Ocean between the Korean peninsula and the Japanese Islands. The ad noted that the newspaper had used the geographical term “Sea of Japan” in a news story on July 5.

I suspect strongly that the Web site is linked to the South Korean government’s effort to change the recognized name of that body of water to East Sea. Some organizations, such as National Geographic, have been convinced to use both names together — publishing maps and gazetteers that read “Sea of Japan (East Sea).” That is somewhat appeasing to South Korean tastes.

South Korea has been lobbying for years that the body of water be officially renamed worldwide. The case hearkens back to Japan’s occupation of Korea in the 20th Century. South Korea (and North Korea is generally in agreement, in this case) argues that Korea was controlled by a colonial Japanese government when it accepted the world-recognized designation of Sea of Japan in 1929.

Japan argues that “Sea of Japan” predates the Korean occupation and denies influencing its international use.

The dispute has been considered without resolution by a commission on standardizing names at the United Nations.

What is remarkable to me is the fervor with which South Korea has dedicated efforts — and a considerable amount of money — to change the name. Diplomats, university professors and statesmen have been sent around the world to visit governments, news media and others simply to get them to change the name in their official usage.

I don’t have any advice for the Washington Post, my former employer, where I was once the editor in charge of Asian news, and where I once received an earnest and convincing delegation of South Koreans who wanted to discuss the issue. Days later, I also received a visit from the Japanese embassy, where officials apparently had gotten wind of the lobbying effort.

But wouldn’t there would be a lack of incentive to make a quick decision on changing the name? The latest advertisement must have added well-needed revenue to Washington Post coffers somewhere in the range of $40,000-60,000. Using the “wrong name” more than once could add up to real money.

P.S. I even suspect that a South Korean tracking program spotted the use of “East Sea” and “Sea of Japan” in this blog item. While it sounds like good money, WorldDesk doesn’t run advertising, doesn’t accept funding from government organizations and seeks to be balanced at all times. We’ll go with both names, right down the middle, for free.

– Peter Eisner

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August 11, 2009
Hollow words as Obama praises Mexico’s war on drugs

President Barack Obama with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts at a trilateral meeting in Guadalajara on Monday. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

I’ve had some telling glimpses over the years of how politics and diplomacy really work. There was the time years ago when I sat in a U.S. ambassador’s office in Bolivia and listened to him brazenly giving orders to the country’s interior minister.

Or when I watched how an American official tried to cajole the president of Honduras into a military dispute with Nicaragua.

And the time when I was told that a top U.S. official was traveling to Mexico City to observe Mexico’s drug interdiction program.

“What drug interdiction program?” a confused Mexican government spokesman asked me. I had gotten advance warning of the visit. “We don’t have a drug interdiction program.”

Five minutes later, the same Mexican spokesman called me back and said — without a trace of irony — that I was invited to attend a meeting between U.S. and Mexican officials who would be discussing Mexico’s “drug interdiction program.” It had somehow materialized.

Those anecdotes are the product of the last century, but I was reminded this week that things haven’t changed much.

The U.S. government arrogantly figures that the governments of other countries can meet the imposed values that the United States expects. One can respect the people of Mexico and honor that country’s heritage and sense of pride, but still say: The Mexican government is over-gunned by drug dealers and will not be able to stop the violence and out-of-bounds profits earned by the narcotics trade.

For some sense of the absurdity of the fight, have a look at the New York Times story about Mexican prisons, headlined: War Without Borders: Mexico’s Drug Traffickers Continue Trade in Prison

The cycle of violence and death waxes and wanes, but the reality hasn’t changed for decades; there is too much money in drug dealing to stop the industry. Drug cartels practically own the Mexican prisons where they are held. Plagued by corruption, drug producing nations have been unable over the years to control the production and flow of illegal narcotics.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon won praise from President Obama this week during the annual North American summit in Mexico:

We will work to make sure Mexico has the support it needs to dismantle and defeat the cartels.  And the United States will also meet its responsibilities by continuing our efforts to reduce the demand for drugs and continuing to strengthening the security of our shared border — not only to protect the American people, but to stem the illegal southbound flow of American guns and cash that helps fuel this extraordinary violence.

I have to say that the words are mighty, but if history is a guide the U.S. Congress will do little if anything to halt the sale of guns southward. And the United States has not shown signs of augmenting Mexican security efforts to the degree needed. International money laundering of drug trafficking  appears beyond control. I’d love to end up being surprised that I’m wrong.

A must-read to see the depths of the problem is an extensive report in the Washington Post by my old colleagues Steve Fainaru and Bill Booth.

This paragraph sums it up:

Beyond the reach of the U.S. and Mexican governments in their fight against drug traffickers is an intimate, complex world of communal violence and crippled institutions. At the center of the drug war is Michoacan, a rugged, rural state in the southwest where all forms of traditional authority — city hall, the military, police and even the Catholic Church — have been unable to protect the people against the assassinations, kidnappings and extortions associated with the narcotics trade.

The United States has acknowledged the obvious many times: that U.S. consumption of drugs is a driving part of the problem of the international narcotics trade. But no politician in the United States will seriously consider drug decriminalization, or broad social programs and education that will change the formula of drug consumption, or laws that — heaven forfend — would curtail gun sales.

The promises are all words, and nothing changes.

– Peter Eisner

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August 4, 2009
Chavez shuts down dozens of Venezuelan radio stations

Venezuela shut down 34 radio stations.

My guess is that you are one of the poor deprived people among us who has not had the opportunity to watch and understand the charming, engaging, benevolent, all-knowing president of Venezuela — Hugo Chavez — in action.

It also could be that you are doing this on purpose — that would make you not just deprived, but depraved. Perhaps you are an agent of Venezuela’s enemies.

Fortunately Chavez is protecting Venezuela against you and all such agents. Last week, to root out the vermin that spread lies and plot against the people, President Chavez shut down several dozen private radio stations. His parliament — whose members understand exactly what needs to be done in all cases — has promoted new libel laws that protect the Chavista revolution from foul lies that could be spread on the airwaves. “Any person who speaks out in any form in the news media” can be considered a “media criminal” for disseminating seditious opinions, we’ve learned from Teodoro Petkoff, a long-time Venezeulan political analyst. Petkoff’s column last week was titled with a large headline reading “Censorship Law.”

It all makes perfect sense.

Venezuela’s enemies fall into two categories — you are either well-meaning but deceived and brainwashed; or you are an enemy of the revolution, and you could be a spy sent by the Central Intelligence Agency.

I learned this by watching Chavez’s televised performance at a meeting of his Cabinet in February, during his successful campaign for a referendum that abolished presidential term limits. Chavez apparently has a little button he can press when he wants to preempt all television and radio broadcasting in Venezuela to speak directly to the people. In the particular meeting, he told jokes, gave orders and questioned Cabinet members seated around the table, who looked uncertain when to laugh, agree, disagree, or react in any way, fearing for their heads. He also denied any involvement, as the CIA-stooge opposition was charging, in an attack on a synagogue in Caracas some days earlier.

In any case, when you can have the president speaking directly to you, why do we need a filter from these troublesome, CIA-funded newspaper and broadcast reporters, who are certain to be on a vendetta to destroy the country? If the president is all-knowing, infallible and looking out for our interests, who needs critics, dissent, or anything that will get in the way of the true path that the president has now set out for us?

Such a filter is Teodoro Petkoff, the journalist and politician, who has been a prominent critic of Chavez. Petkoff, by the way, is an ex-guerrilla, a student leader, and ran against Chavez briefly for the presidency in 2006. Beware — how can he be reliable? He disagrees with the president.

Nevertheless — understanding that the president of Venezuela doesn’t want you to hear about this, read about it, or even think about it — here’s what Petkoff has to say about the new censorship law promulgated by Chavez:

The proposed law has to be sent to all the governments of America, to all the news media of the world, so that they might see for themselves the dictatorial and totalitarian monstrosity that has been placed before our nation. It is not necessary in any way to even comment about it. It is so obvious, so naked in its repressive intent, that it explains itself. For us, Venezuelans, this “law” is a call to battle stations. One can hope that everyone is listening.

– Peter Eisner

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August 3, 2009
In China, quality health care at a fraction of the cost

Health care in China comes at a fraction of the cost compared to the U.S., writes Peter Eisner.

Here’s an antidote to the delirium pills that some in the U.S. health care industry want us to swallow during the universal health care debate. The fact is that many countries think that good health care is a right, not a privilege; as a result people don’t have to mortgage their lives when they get sick.

The latest case I’ve come across is a report from a close friend who just back from the central Chinese city of Wuhan — population at least 6 million, 650 miles west of Beijing.

She woke up one day with a painful case of shingles, a nerve disease produced by the chicken pox virus that can lie dormant in the body for years. By the second day, it was clear that she needed to see a doctor. But she had no idea of how the Chinese medical system works, and doesn’t speak Mandarin.

First, she telephoned a doctor in the United States, who confirmed that she did in fact require treatment right away.

Then, with the help of a translator, she went to an outpatient clinic at Wuhan University Hospital. She was examined, diagnosed and treated in less than one hour. She had feared primitive conditions and scant supplies, but encountered an efficient, patient-friendly system. She saw both a dermatologist and an ophthalmologist who worked in a well-organized setting, including computer tracking of each patient. The doctors confirmed the diagnosis of shingles, and they set out a regimen of treatment.

After that, she was straight off to the billing window — the visit with the two doctors totaled 8 Yuan, little more than $1. And then another quick stop at the pharmacy, where she filled four prescriptions. The bill: 136 Yuan, about $17.

She called home to tell a doctor about her treatment; the physician was impressed, and said the medicines prescribed were well chosen, including the latest anti-viral product.

Two weeks later, the medicine was doing the job and she improved every day, still on the road. For those who complain about discussing medical care in a Communist country, the next stop was Japan, where my friend also had quick, efficient and reasonably-priced checkups.

Her husband concludes, “We can learn from our less-developed Asian counterpart and the more modern Japanese system. The care we experienced randomly was quite professional, effective, expedient, endorsed by the U.S. medical personnel we consulted, and inexplicably inexpensive.”

Case closed.

– Peter Eisner

Photo courtesy of Flickr user televiseus under a Creative Commons license.

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July 30, 2009
U.S. must help break Haiti’s cycle of misery

Haiti is plagued by severe poverty and life expectancy is some 20 years lower than in the U.S.

Imagine a country in which a child is 10 times more likely to die before reaching five years of age than a child in the United States, a country where the overall life expectancy is 57 years old, nearly 20 years less than in your own country — a country where human beings sometimes eat dirt pies for nourishment.

And imagine finally that something can be done to resolve the tragedy facing the majority of the 9 million people who live in a nation not far south of the United States. That country is Haiti.

Haiti comes to the news pages when there is some new spot event, like the sorry case of a boat overloaded with 200 migrants capsized in the Caribbean this week, throwing a number of people to their deaths. But the nightmare of desperation never ends for Haitians, wracked by violence, hunger, fear and deprivation across generations.

Forget for the moment that U.S. policymakers looked the other way during decades of kleptocracy by the Duvalier family in Haiti during the 20th century; or that the Bush administration essentially tricked the elected president of the country, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, out of the country in 2004; and that thereafter, the United States has cared little and thought less about Haitians, whose lives were made even worse last year after the punishing hurricane season.

Change could come in the form of a new commitment to attacking the cycle of misery. The first signal was the appointment of former President Bill Clinton as the United Nations special envoy to Haiti. His role is intended to raise awareness of the problem and he has already won more than $300 million in pledges for international aid to Haiti. That’s not enough, not by a fraction.

Significant change could come if Dr. Paul Farmer, as expected and hoped, is named the new administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which happens to exist on the flow chart under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Farmer has been in the running for the job for months now, with no announcement.

He is the visionary co-founder of Partners in Health and established a free health clinic in Haiti 20 years ago, treating the dire problems of disease and nutrition among Haiti’s impoverished majority. He has now extended his formula of consciousness-raising and local-based problem solving to Rwanda and Malawi. Partners in Health looks beyond individual health care to sustainable ecology and infrastructure. And the organization is careful to work with local governments, rather than dictating solutions on high.

Farmer’s inspiring mission was the subject of Tracy Kidder’s 2003 book, Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World.

It could be that the administration doesn’t want another high-profile issue on the front burner. Farmer, meanwhile, might not want to be dragged down by government bureaucracy. Whether or not he gets the job, his commitment inspires people to move mountains –- and the need in Haiti and other countries requires new thinking and global commitment to change. We are all diminished by suffering of such a scale that goes along chronically, untreated and ignored.

– Peter Eisner

Photo courtesy of Flickr user glasshalffull91 under a Creative Commons license.

For more Worldfocus coverage of Haiti, visit our extended coverage page: Haiti’s Poor.

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July 28, 2009
U.S. turns off Havana news ticker, but Cubans await more

The Cuban government had erected flags to block the view of the U.S. interest section’s news ticker in Havana.

It’s interesting to hear — but not very significant — that the United States under President Obama has turned off the useless news ticker that was running in the windows atop the U.S. interest section in Havana. The move is one more in a series of steps that leaves U.S.-Cuban relations still awaiting some major breakthrough after 50 years of hostility.

The news crawl was a vestige of the belligerent and unsuccessful U.S. policy toward Cuba during the administration of George W. Bush. The Bush administration pretended that it was a means of providing unfettered news to the Cuban people, but the streaming headlines did little more than to give the Cuban government a chance to rally support against American policies. At the time, Fidel Castro established a freedom plaza in front of the U.S. diplomatic building –- located along the Malecon, Cuba’s seafront — and big black flags obscured vision of the ticker when people drove past.

While Obama has rolled back a few other Bush era measures — allowing easier transit by Cuban-Americans to the island, and dropping strictures on how much money family members were allowed to send to their relatives on the island — nothing else has changed. The Cuban government, under Fidel’s brother, Raul, has toned down anti-U.S. rhetoric hoping for an eventual opening to U.S. tourism and other measures that could bring big economic changes in Cuba.

When I was in Cuba earlier this year, I didn’t see any indication that Cubans on the street were lacking information about the basics of what is happening in the United States and the world. And those I spoke to were also surprisingly willing– on camera — to criticize the government for not providing enough
employment, food and opportunities for improving their lives. Young and old were as enthusiastic as people around the world about the prospect of a vigorous, open-minded president of the United States, who happened to be a person of color. And they hoped that Obama would break the logjam.

Cubans appear to know the score, and they’re just tired of waiting for changes that will give them more contact with their friends and relatives in the outside world. Fifty years of the U.S. economic embargo has done nothing to incite popular insurrection in Cuba — if that was the goal — and most people in the United States, even a majority of Cuban-Americans, think it’s time for the embargo to go.

Political reality in the United States makes that difficult. Sen. Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican, is promoting phased-in engagement with Cuba, and an eventual end of economic sanctions. The rationale is that increased contact will put the United States in a better position to promote a shift toward democratic change.

His middle-of-the-road approach clashes with hard-line opponents of the Castro brothers who want no change in relations unless Cuba makes a move first on political freedom. They note that several hundred political prisoners are held in Cuban jails. But the United States is unlikely to have leverage to bring any change under the current stagnant formula.

So Cuba and the United States continue plodding along, dealing with vestiges of failed rhetoric and policies passed. The news sign is off on the U.S. interest section, but there’s no sign in the short term that the Obama administration plans to go much further than that.

– Peter Eisner

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Indrani Soemardjan under a Creative Commons license.

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Peter Eisner is an editorial consultant with Worldfocus and a 30-year veteran of international news. He has been an editor and foreign correspondent at The Washington Post, Newsday and The Associated Press. He co-authored “The Italian Letter,” which details fraudulent intelligence leading up to the Iraq War. He was founder and president of Newscom, an international online news service, and speaks Spanish and Portuguese.


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