Saturday, August 20, 2005

“Here we are different” 

While I’m on the subject of the U.S. here is a little update on something that happened last week. U.S. Senator Arlen Specter traveled to Venezuela to meet with various Venezuelan officials. While there he wanted to meet with President Chavez directly in order to discuss the recent dispute over Venezuela ending its cooperation with the U.S Drug Enforcement Agency and the possibility for increased U.S. investment in the Venezuelan oil industry.

So on Thursday Senator Specter, along with the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela William Brownfield, went to the Presidential Palace, Miraflores. Although Chavez kept them waiting for a little while he received them both in his office. According to the newspaper Ultimas Noticias the first words uttered by Chavez were directed at Brownfield: “Notice, here we are different”.

This was an allusion to the fact that Chavez was willing to meet with a prominent U.S. politician and the U.S. ambassador, while the Venezuelan ambassador in the U.S., Bernardo Alvarez, had never been received by the U.S. President or even the Secretary of State. According to Ultimas Noticias Brownfield didn’t have a response and said nothing.

Now, the first thing is why would Bernardo Alvarez WANT to meet with either Bush or Rice? In all likely hood he doesn’t. After all they don’t share much of a worldview and so would have very little to talk about.

But this does show a couple of things. First, the Venezuelan opposition has always asserted that it is Chavez who is responsible for the poor relationship between the two countries. It is true that he has called Bush and Rice some bad names. But, given how quick they were to applaud his overthrow a few years ago (if not directly orchestrate it) do you really expect Chavez to have a lot of respect for them? After all, it's not as if Bush and Rice have ever even apologized for what they did. But more to the point, to have a good relationship there has to be communication. And the only one who has an open door is Chavez. He meets with any U.S. official or politician who requests it. Doubtless, he would meet with Bush himself if such a meeting was requested. So in point of fact, it is the U.S. that is responsible for the chill between the two, with its open support for those trying to unseat Chavez, its refusal to engage the Venezuelan government, and its overblown rhetoric (in fact this past week a US official had this to say about Chavez: “A guy who seemed like a comic figure a year ago is turning into a real strategic menace”.

Second, its seems like we are starting to see a rather disconcerting pattern here. The U.S. insists that Afghanistan turn over alleged terrorist immediately yet drags its feet on turning over terrorists to Venezuela; it expects others to be subject to international law but demands it be exempt from an International Criminal Court; and now it likes to have direct access to the Venezuelan government while not reciprocating by giving Venezuela access to U.S. officials. Its getting harder and harder not to come to the conclusion that the U.S. has double standards.

Its unlikely this situation will change anytime soon. Chavez is a very open and magnanimous person. It is very unlikely he would ever refuse to meet with U.S. officials. He is indeed very different, and much bigger, than the people running the U.S. government.


A “two-tiered” system of justice? 

The U.S., the worlds sole superpower, constantly carries on about international law, the sanctity of treaties, countries living up to their “international obligations”, etc. The hyperpower U.S. is very quick to find fault with others and assert that they need to comply with the dictates of the United Nations Security Council, or the dictates of NATO, or the dictates of the G8, or, failing all of that, the dictates of George W. Bush. Persist in “non-compliance” and you’re likely to find yourself on the receiving end of a cruise missile. Having seen this U.S. government mentality in action of the past number of years it was interesting to read the following New York Times article on what happens to countries who think the U.S. should be subject to international law:

Bush's Aid Cuts on Court Issue Roil Neighbors

BOGOTÁ, Colombia, Aug. 18 - Three years ago the Bush administration began prodding countries to shield Americans from the fledgling International Criminal Court in The Hague, which was intended to be the first permanent tribunal for prosecuting crimes like genocide.

The United States has since cut aid to some two dozen nations that refused to sign immunity agreements that American officials say are intended to protect American soldiers and policy makers from politically motivated prosecutions.

To the Bush administration, the aid cuts are the price paid for refusing to offer support in an area where it views the United States, with its military might stretched across the globe, as being uniquely vulnerable.

But particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean, home to 12 nations that have been penalized, the cuts are generating strong resentment at what many see as heavy-handed diplomacy, officials and diplomats in seven countries said.


Most of the penalties, outlined in a law that went into effect in 2003, have been in the form of cuts in military training and other security aid. But a budget bill passed in December also permits new cuts in social and health-care programs, like AIDS education and peacekeeping, refugee assistance and judicial reforms.

Though the amounts are a pittance for Washington, their loss is being sorely felt in small countries.

In an outburst, in June, President Alfredo Palacio of Ecuador told a Quito television station that he would not yield to Washington. "Absolutely no one is going to make me cower," he said. "Neither the government, nor Alfredo Palacio nor the Ecuadorean people need to be afraid."

His nation has one of the region's largest American military bases and has become increasingly important as a staging ground for American surveillance of everything from the cocaine trade to immigrant smuggling. Still, Ecuador has lost $15 million since 2003 and may lose another $7 million this year.

When the International Criminal Court's 18 judges took their oaths in March 2003, the tribunal was backed by 139 countries and heralded by supporters as the most ambitious project in modern international law.

It was intended to replace the ad hoc tribunals addressing atrocities in Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone. This year the Security Council, with the United States abstaining, gave the court approval to prosecute cases related to atrocities in Darfur, Sudan.

Many legal scholars say it is unlikely that Americans would ever face the court because its focus is on the most egregious of war crimes, like systematic genocide, and the court is intended to try cases from countries where the judicial systems are unable or unwilling to handle such cases. There are also safeguards that would give the United States' own military and civilian courts jurisdiction over Americans.

But Bush administration officials, including some at the State Department, assert that the court could still move against American officials.

"The exposure faced by the United States goes well beyond people on active duty and it includes decision-makers in our government," said a high-ranking State Department official who was authorized to speak about the policy but only if he was not identified. "We're not hallucinating that our officials are at risk."


Others, like Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch, acknowledge that there are countries that may want to use the court "as a political battering ram."

"What's in dispute," said Mr. Dicker, director of international justice for the group, "is what kinds of safeguards are necessary to prevent these kinds of distortions. The United States has adopted a solution that's inimical to the rule of law, that says because we're the most powerful state in the world, we'll create a two-tiered system of justice."


In all, 53 countries, from Kenya to Ecuador to some European nations, have declined to sign the agreements, saying Washington's effort undermines their commitment to the court. Not all have been penalized and some, like Paraguay and Dominica, later yielded to American pressure and signed agreements.

In Latin America the immunity agreements, and the sanctions, have been especially hard to swallow for left-leaning governments who have come to power by rejecting American-backed economic policies.

"It's a contradictory policy and it's ungrateful," said Luis Hernández, a retired Ecuadorean Army colonel who was educated at the United States Army War College.

American budgetary records show that Uruguay, whose new left-leaning government has vocally declined to sign an immunity agreement, has lost $1.5 million since 2003. Costa Rica has lost about $500,000, and unstable Bolivia has lost $1.5 million.

In addition, the United States International Military Education and Training program, which pays for Latin American military officers to study in the United States, has cut its rolls by 770 officers a year, from an average class of 3,000, military officials said.

Most nations that have lost money are cash-strapped, like Dominica, a Caribbean island which lost $400,000 and was unable to operate its only Coast Guard boat for two years. That meant no drug patrols or searches for fishermen lost at sea, said Crispin Gregoire, Dominica's ambassador to the United Nations.

"We were reeling from the impact of lost aid, and our economy was not in the greatest shape," he said. "The government decided to yield and we ended up signing."

Peru, a close Bush administration ally, has lost about $4 million "You feel the cuts, yes," said Congressman Luis Ibérico, president of the committee that oversees military spending and the antidrug campaign. "These are small amounts, but nevertheless, they're necessary to support our military personnel."

Painful as the cuts are, many countries say they will not budge before American pressure.

"We will not change our principles for any amount of money," said Michael I. King, the Barbados ambassador to the Organization of American States. "We're not going to belly up for $300,000 in training funds."

Many officials argue that existing treaties already protect American soldiers. The new agreements go too far, they say, by adding protections for ordinary Americans, like tourists, and non-American contractors who work for American companies.

Here in Colombia, where the American military has rotated 8,000 soldiers in the past five years as part of its largest mission in the region, a new immunity agreement two years ago has upset some officials. Colombia already had a 1974 treaty protecting American soldiers from criminal charges.

"These treaties say that everyone in Colombia must respect the law, Indians, Chinese, the Colombians," said a Colombian senator, Jimmy Chamorro, who considers them illegal. "Everyone except the Americans."

Lets see, where to start on this. First of all, I guess this means that the money the U.S. give to countries to fight AIDS, or provide clean drinking water, or fixing their judicial systems really isn’t about the U.S. trying to make the world a better place. Rather, it seems to be giant influence peddling scheme whereby countries must vote as they are told to vote, do as they are told to do, and sign whatever piece of paper the U.S. tells them to sign. Either do as your told or the U.S. will all of the sudden the U.S. will decide it doesn’t care how many people die from AIDS, or don’t have clean water, or don’t have place to live, or hope for getting justice. Well, I guess at least its good to know what the U.S.’s true feelings and motives are. That way one can make an informed decision about whether to ever take this money in the first place.

Then we have the small matter of why the U.S. seems to be so afraid of having to stand before international justice just like everyone else is expected to do. Is the U.S. planning to carry out actions that would be considered crimes against humanity or egregious violations of international law? One would hope not. Or maybe, contrary to all its public assertions, it knows it already is engaged in crimes that could have it brought before an international court?

But even if that is the case, what is it afraid of? Presumably these are real courts, filled with real and highly competent jurists who will be deciding the cases brought before them based solely on the law. If that is the case then the U.S. should have no reason to fear any of its citizens being brought before this court. The U.S. has had no problem seeing other countries such as Yugoslavia have its political leaders brought before these tribunals. So if its a good enough court to be giving Slobodan Milosevic a fair trail isn’t it a good enough court for, say, Paul Wolfkowitz or Donald Rumsfeld or even whichever lowly GI they decide to scapegoat prisoner torture scandals with?

Maybe the what the U.S. is really arguing here is that this ICC cannot really be trusted to fairly apply international law. Maybe it is saying the court is subject to political pressures and will try people for political, not legal reasons. But if that is the case then why are others, from Serbia to Darfur, expected to stand before these courts? Why does the U.S. consider these to be legitimate tribunals for others to be brought before? If they can’t be trusted to administer justice fairly shouldn’t the U.S. be insisting that these courts either be fixed or abolished, rather than simply exempting U.S. citizens.

The U.S. position on this really has me stumped. The only thing that would seem to explain this is that the U.S. has some sort of double standards on these matters – something along the lines of “everyone in Colombia must respect the law... except the Americans”. Double standards? That just couldn’t be it, could it?


Friday, August 19, 2005

What the opposition really thinks of most Venezuelans 

The topic of race is certainly an interesting subject in Venezuela. Anyone who has listened to opposition propaganda for any length of time will know that the opposition makes the claim that Venezuela is almost virginal with respect to it. If fact, I have seen people, with a straight face, make the claim Venezuela has never known racism!! I guess we could call it “Venezuelan Exceptionalism”.

Of course, everyone knows this is non-sense. In fact Venezuela’s last dictator, Perez-Jimenez, actually opened the door to large scale European immigration in the 1950’s to try to increase the “white” population. Racism is alive and well in Venezuela even if it may have a different history and manifestation than in some other countries.

This manifests itself even in the ongoing dispute between the Venezuelan opposition and the Chavez government. I was reminded of that yesterday while reading opposition newspaper Tal Cual wherein was published the following cartoon:

The cartoon shows a guerilla with a gun saying “dangerous” while the guerilla with the oil drum says “extremely dangerous”. This reference to Chavez, his government, and his supporters as guerillas or monkeys have been quite common amongst the opposition. These references in Venezuelan society were normally used to reference people of a lower class or with a darker complexion, often the same thing in Venezuela. Now the Venezuelan opposition, which is largely composed of the upper and middle class elites, uses this as a blanket, and derogatory, reference to Chavistas. For example, here is another such reference, from the same newspaper, which is even more explicit:

The cartoon, showing Chavez giving a speech to his supporters, has a play on words as its caption. The word “monotheism” is divided with Chavez being the “mono” or monkey and his supporters having a religious worshipping of him, hence the “theism”. So Chavez is a monkey and by extension so are his supporters.

This type of class and racial hatred fostered by the Venezuelan opposition is despicable. And it goes along with other divisions that they try to promote such as homophobia and sexism. Anyone who attends an opposition rally (back in the days when they had them – thankfully they are no more) can’t go 10 minutes without hearing disgusting and vile references to Chavistas being monkeys, a drunk mob, faggots, and criminals.

Of course, the Venezuelan opposition really has nothing to offer to their fellow citizens – no ideas, no program, no hope for a better future with them. So all they can do is try to divide and foster hatred in this way. All I can say is thank god the sun is setting on these people.


Thursday, August 18, 2005

Picking up speed! 

Just a quick update.

The BCV (Venezuela's central bank) released the GDP statistics for the second quarter. It will be recalled the Venezuelan economy grew over 17% last year and 7.9% in the first quarter of this year. Many had predicted the growth of the Venezuelan economy would decellerate and come in at 5% or 6% for the year.

Well, its not looking that way now. In the second quarter the economy grew at an astounding 11.1%!!! This brings the year to date number for 2005 to 9.3% growth. So rather than decelerating the Venezuelan economy is clearly accelerating.

The note I saw didn't give all the details on different segments of the economy but it did mention the private sector grew at 12.1%. No wonder the opposition can't get anyone to show up to its rallies anymore. They're too busy making money!

When I get the full set of numbers I will post on them.


Ok here are the numbers from the BCV. First off I made a mistake. The 12.1% growth refers to the non-petroleum sector NOT to the private sector. Private sector GDP growth was even higher at 13.1%.

Here are the numbers a little better organized:

Overall growth: 11.1%

Petroleum sector: 2.5%
Non-Petroleum sector: 12.1%

Government sector: 4.5%
Private sector: 13.1%

Manufacturing: 12.4%
Commerce and services: 21.5%
Construction: 20.3%
Government services: 7.4%

Growth in private consumer spending: 18.1%
Growth in government spending: 7.4%

They also gave some commentary which I'll try to get to later. But for now suffice it to say the numbers are spectacular. Not unexpected given what the price of oil has been doing but still spectacular and very welcome (except by opposition politicians, media, and bloggers who are watching still more wind go out of their sails)


Wednesday, August 17, 2005

A dog with a bone 

Teodoro Petkoff seems very upset these days. Actually, he always seems upset. I think the main thing is that he is a bitter opponent of Chavez who wants nothing more than to see Chavez out of office (he was one of the primary cheerleaders for the coup that ousted Chavez for two days). For those who don’t know, he runs a newspaper, Tal Cual, dedicated exclusively to attacking Chavez – literally there is no virtually no other news in it. So as Venezuela does better and Chavez’s political fortunes improve Petkoff is not a happy camper.

In any event for the last couple of weeks he has been going on and on about the “morochas” and how they are unconstitutional (for an explanation of what they are see here). Ok, I’ll give him this – they do run against the spirit of the Constitution. I’ll concede that.

But what I don’t get and am hoping that someone can explain to me is the following:

Why in all his writings he never mentions that the first people to employ the “morochas” setting up a dummy party was the opposition. Opposition Governor Lapi of Yaracuy used them in 2000 and they helped his party get more representation than they were otherwise entitled to. And what did Petkoff have to say about this? Nothing. And what does he say about it now? Nothing. Bizarre. Could it be that Petkoff, rather than seeking to inform and set right a wrong is instead just seeking to propagandize? I would hate to think that but….

Next point. Petkoff thinks that the use of the “morochas” has made the opposition under represented on town councils – ie that they didn’t get a number of seats proportional to the number of votes they received. Actually though, I think they are over represented. Here is why. I noticed this clause in the Venezuelan constitution:

Article 67: All citizens have the right of association for political purposes, through democratic methods of organization, operation and direction. Their governing organs and candidates for offices filled by popular vote, shall be selected by internal elections with participation of their members.

So here is the rub. All candidates of parties are to be selected by internal elections, ie primaries, yet the only political party that actually did that was Chavez’s party, the MVR. So by rights wouldn’t all the candidates from other parties be banned from running? After all not a single opposition party has ever held a primary - all their candidates are appointed by party bosses. So it would seem to me the opposition has way more seats than it would if the Constitution was followed strictly. Following the Constitution the opposition wouldn’t have ANY seats.

I have yet to see Petkoff say anything about the opposition violating the Constitution by not having primaries. And I have to say, unless someone can come up with a good explanation for this I’m starting to lose faith in Mr. Petkoff’s objectivity and/or knowledge of the Venezuelan constitution.


Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Venezuelan Bits and pieces 

So much to blog and so little time but here are the essentials:

Contrary to all the opposition non-sense about PDVSA supposedly falling apart it keeps getting stronger. That was recognized by the U.S. business rating firm Standard and Poors when they upgraded PDVSA’s debt rating to B+ from B. I guess the fact that PDVSA released its audited financial statements showing that it was telling the truth about it production (contrary to all the lies and smears by the opposition) and that it has almost completely paid off its debt impressed S&P enough to warrant an upgrade. This comes less than a week after they also upgraded the credit rating for Venezuela as a whole. But when your oil policies are bringing in money hand over fist, your tax collection agency is the model for all of Latin America, and you have now $32 billion in foreign reserves (the highest ever) people will notice.

And not to pile on with the good news but Venezuelan owned Citgo released First Quarter financial results showing an increase in profits of 44.2%. I guess that “Buycott” is going pretty well.


A U.S. General sent a letter to high ranking Venezuelan officers explaining that the U.S. wants to continue having military exchanges between the two countries. Currently there are none as the Venezuelan government forced the U.S. military advisers and attaches to leave. But the U.S. General, Norton Schwartz said that he feels bad about the decision of the Venezuelan government “to cut a successful program with 35 years of history. The armed forces of the United States value the relations that generations of Venezuelan’s and Americans have worked to develop.”

Now, if you were a poor country with a government that was opposed by the United States why would you want U.S. military advisers running around your country and having contact with your own military? Does this person really think Venezuelans are so stupid as to not know what these U.S. officers are there for? I’m sorry but letting the U.S. go around and try to round up support for a coup and giving it advice doesn’t sound like a good idea. I know they want another bit of the apple after coming up just a wee bit short in April 2002 but I think Chavez is a little too smart for that.

Another farm worker was murdered by assassins working for landlords. The worker, Carlos Wilfredo Hernandez, was killed in Portuguesa state. This murder is on top of the scores of farm workers already murdered. But don’t expect to see this headlined on Globovision or Union Radio.


To wrap up, some good news on the environment. Venezuela will now begin selling only unleaded gasoline. Up to now, much of the gasoline refined and sold in Venezuela has contained lead with obviously negative consequences for the Venezuelan environment. This is a long, long overdue change. And it is more than a little ironic that it is done now under the current administration when the previous so-called “meritocracy” that was running things was never able to do it. Yet another example of where the merit truly lies.


A year from the referendum 

Eleazar Diaz Rangel wrote a good editorial on last years Recall Referendum in Ultimas Noticias today. Its worth reprinting:

On the 25th of August, 2004, the ambassadors of the 34 countries that make up the Organization of American States, after studying the report made by the mission to observe the Presidential Recall Referendum in Venezuela on Sunday the 15th approved resolution number 833 that in its central part said: “The Permanent Council of the OAS makes a unanimous call to recognize and accept the results of the Presidential Recall Referendum given, as is their responsibility, by National Electoral Council (CNE) and approved by the OAS observation mission, the Carter Center, and the other international observers”. It concludes congratulating the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, for the electoral triumph he had obtained with 59.25% (5,800,600) versus 40.47% (3,989,629). Among those who voted for this resolution was the U.S. ambassador John Maisto.

This call was not accepted by the opposition, which persisted in making accusations of fraud that they could never demonstrate at any time, either inside or outside of Venezuela, and whose effects were felt in the regional elections of last October when their vote went down by 2 million and, more recently, on Sunday August 7th when their vote went down another million.

Lets review the reasons to believe there was no fraud:

In two prior national elections (December 1998 and in 2000) the proportion was also 60-40 in favor of Chavez. The 8 diverse polls carried out between July and August, gave the NO [ie. in favor of Chavez – ow] as the probable winner with margins of victory between 6% and 34%. The audits by the observers also confirmed the results, as did the count of the 1,200,000 manual votes.

Since then, and with large scale support by the media, the opposition has tried to create an atmosphere of lack of confidence in the electoral system and the CNE which has increased abstention and which has hurt, more than anyone, the opposition itself who have now lost 3 governors and almost 100 mayors and now more than 500 town council members.

Nevertheless, in the period from August 15th, 2004 to August 15th, 2005 Venezuela’s economic indicators have improved substantially. The relationship between the business community and the government has improved and although the relationship between the government and the opposition parties and the church cannot be said to have improved there is a more relaxed atmosphere throughout the country.

Indeed. Since last August the Chavez administration, and Venezuela as a whole, has gone from strength to strength and victory to victory.

As for the opposition, they are as quite as can be on the anniversary of the referendum. Not a peep to be heard. In fact, they didn't even try to trot out a re-hash about all the alledged fraud they were so insistent on last year. Of course, over the past year it has been amply demonstrated by independant observers that there was no fraud. So maybe the opposition finally realized the best thing they can do is keep their mouth shut and pretend nothing happened.


Shattered lives 

The bureaucracy of the U.S. war machine dutifully informs on how many U.S. military personnel were killed in Iraq each day. And that number, as we all know, has been going ever higher. But there is another toll, very real and very painful, that is ignored by the war machines bureaucracy and the media – those who are not killed but who are physically and emotionally scared by the violence that is this war. The number of wounded in Iraq is swept under the rug and largely ignored even though the number of seriously wounded is almost 7,000 (not counting those returned to duty with which it would be 13,000). In referring to “casualties” the media seems now only to refer to those killed when historically the term has included killed AND wounded. But to in an effort to ignore the true cost of this war that part of the “casualty” equation is rarely mentioned.

Thankfully, Bob Hebert of the New York Times shed some light on the very real trails and tribulations of those who most would prefer just to ignore.

By Bob Hebert , NYT August 15, 2005

Sema Olson was in the living room watching television when the phone rang. It was the Department of the Army calling. A voice asked if she'd heard from her son in the past 24 hours.

Ms. Olson tried to ward off the panic. "Is he still alive?" she asked.

After verifying her identity, the man on the phone assured her that her son, Bobby Rosendahl, who was stationed in Iraq, was still alive. But he'd been badly wounded.

With that Saturday night phone call, life as Ms. Olson had known it came to an end. Her family's long, long period of overwhelming sacrifice was under way.

Bobby Rosendahl, a 24-year-old Army corporal (and avid golfer) from Tacoma, Wash., was literally blown into the air last March 12 when an improvised explosive device detonated beneath his Stryker armored vehicle. He remembers landing on his back, with fuel spilling all around him and insurgents firing at him from the roof of a mosque.

Ms. Olson, during an interview in Washington, D.C., where Corporal Rosendahl is being treated at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, quietly cataloged her son's wounds:

"Both of his heels and ankles were crushed. He had a compound fracture of his femur in two places. Three-quarters of his kneecap was missing. His thigh was blown away. He had many, many open wounds, which all have closed except four right now."

She paused, sighed, then went on: "His left leg was amputated three weeks after he arrived here. He's not willing to give up his right leg. He's hoping to save it. All he wants to do is golf again. But we don't know. He's had 36 surgeries so far."

When you talk to close relatives of men and women who have been wounded in the war, it's impossible not to notice the strain that is always evident in their faces. Their immediate concern is with the wounded soldier or marine. But just behind that immediate concern, in most cases, is the frightening awareness that they have to try and rebuild a way of life that was also blown apart when their loved one was wounded.

Ms. Olson, who is 45 and divorced, gave up everything - her work, her rented townhouse, her car - and moved from Tacoma to a hotel on the grounds of Walter Reed to be with her son and assist in his recovery.

"He was still in a coma when I got here," she said. "He didn't have his eyes open, and he was hooked up to all the machines. When he did open his eyes a couple of days later, he didn't respond. His eyes didn't follow me. That was a scary moment. But the following day his eyes started following me."

Corporal Rosendahl has improved a great deal since those days and recently has been allowed to go with his mother on brief excursions away from the hospital. "It's difficult for him," Ms. Olson said. "But in those first weeks here he couldn't move a finger. So this gives me so much hope."

Ms. Olson is a paralegal who did work for several lawyers in Tacoma. She also worked as a claims analyst for the city's transit system. With that work gone, she is now living on the $48 per diem she receives from the Army for food and lodging, along with money that she has reluctantly been drawing from her son's Army pay, and assistance she is receiving from another son, Keith, who is 27.

She has also received help from charitable organizations that assist military families.

"My son is the most important thing," she said, "and I knew that if I was going to be with him, I wouldn't be able to meet my financial obligations."

So she gave up the townhouse and "turned in" a Honda Accord that she had purchased just a year earlier. "Voluntary repossession," she said.

There is nothing unusual about Ms. Olson's situation. Families forced to absorb the blow of a loved one getting wounded frequently watch other pillars of their lives topple like dominoes. What is unusual with regard to this war is the absence of a sense of shared sacrifice. While families like Ms. Olson's are losing almost everything, most of us are making no sacrifice at all.

Ms. Olson said she is neither angry nor bitter about her son's plight or the misfortune that has hit her family. "I feel blessed that Bobby's still alive," she said. "To dwell on why it happened, or why it happened to him - well, I can't waste my time on that. I have to look forward."

She said she plans to find work in D.C., and "hopefully, get a place close to the hospital," where she'll stay until her son "is ready to go on with his life."


Monday, August 15, 2005

One year ago today... 

To go with the celebratory mood today I thought I would post some pictures of the celebration after Hugo Chavez's triumph in the Referendum last year. Enjoy.


Sunday, August 14, 2005

What goes around, comes around 

What goes around comes around

Today in the editor of Ultimas Noticias, Eleazar Diaz Rangel, in his weekly column made an interesting point regarding last Sundays local elections. The Venezuelan opposition has been complaining very vociferously about the “morochas” the setting up of dummy political parties to increase the number of seats an existing party can win (for a detailed explanation on how this works see the Election FAQ ). Interestingly enough, it turns out that it was the Venezuelan opposition that first came up with the idea of the morochas and used them for electoral gain. Diaz Rangel explains:

On a cool day in January of 2000 there was a meeting in San Felipe (the capital of Yaracuy) between the governor Eduardo Lapi, the head of Convergencia (an opposition party) Juan Jose Caldera, and the head of the electoral campaign Mauricio Vasquez where it was decided what the electoral strategy would be for the elections coming up that July: invent a “new” party, present the list candidates from Convergencia and the candidates by district from the new party. The German Mixed system that is used in Venezuela mandates that winning district candidates be subtracted from the number of seats won by that party in the list voting; the voting law of 1989 codified this system and the 1995 electoral law prohibited phony parties, but in 1998 the Venezuelan legislature overturned these laws and this change was taken advantage of by the Yaracuy political operatives.

The journalist Francisco Capdevielle reminded me about that new dummy party that was called “Lo que Alcanzo por Yaracuy” (what was done for Yaracuy) which had an acronym, LAPY, that phonetically was the same as the last name of the then governor of Yaracuy, Lapi. In the legislative elections Lapi’s parties got 54,000 votes against 37,000 for Chavez’s MVR, but using this system Convergencia and LAPY wound up with 4 deputies to only one for the MVR. If the “morocha” had not been used Convergencia would have received 3 seats and the MVR 2. This was the first breach of the principal of proportional representation.

The example from Yaracuy was taken by the MVR and applied to the municipal elections this past Sunday which permitted the MVR and its allies to win 85% of the seats with only a little more than 60% of the vote.

So here we have more than a little irony. The “morochas” which the opposition all of the sudden finds to unethical and illegal was actually developed by none other than – the opposition. Not to mention, the opposition themselves used the “trick” of the morochas in Zulia state almost completely freezing out Chavista candidates. This is all so typical of the opposition – “do as I say, don’t do as I do” should be their official motto. Their hypocrisy simply knows no bounds.


The best army money can buy 

The difficulties the U.S. military has been having finding people to volunteer for the meat grinder that is Iraq are well known. What is not as well known is one of the ways they have gotten around their recruiting difficulties – using mercenaries. The U.S. military, with the acquiescence of the media, have largely kept quiet about this. But today the New York Times (articlehere by subscription only) shed some light on it. The first thing of interest they pointed out was how widespread the use of mercenaries is in Iraq:

The firms employ, in Iraq, a great number of armed men. No one knows the number exactly. In Baghdad in June, in a privately guarded coalition compound in the Green Zone, I talked with Lawrence Peter, a paid advocate for the industry and -- in what he called a ''private-public partnership'' -- a consultant to the Department of Defense on outsourced security. He put the number of armed men around 25,000. (This figure is in addition to some 50,000 to 70,000 unarmed civilians working for American interests in Iraq, the largest percentage by way of Halliburton and its subsidiaries, doing everything from servicing warplanes to driving food trucks to washing dishes.)

The numbers involved here are amazing. The number of mercenary combatants is more than twice the entire number of soldiers the U.K. has contributed to the war. The 50 to 70k involved in support activities is also amazingly large. When added up the mercenaries make increase U.S. forces in Iraq by two thirds. And make no mistake about it – these people are mercenaries too. Driving supply trucks, setting up camps, preparing food and carrying out administrative duties are all functions historically carried out by uniformed soldiers. In WWII and Vietnam for example all of those functions were carried out by members of the U.S. military.

And as an aside, that when they give these jobs to civilians that they use only U.S. civilians is quite telling. After all, one would think they would want to help Iraqis with jobs and pump money into their economy. But the bottom line is they simply can’t trust Iraqi’s enough to let them drive a supply truck or work on a U.S. base. This simply goes to show that despite their propaganda and sham elections the U.S. knows it can’t trust average Iraqis.

And how much of a roll are the mercenaries playing in actual combat? Quite a bit it turns out:

It is impossible to say exactly how many private security men have been killed in Iraq. Deaths go unreported. But the figure, according to Lawrence Peter, is probably between 160 and 200. That's more deaths than any one of America's coalition partners have suffered.

It should be noted that above quote was only regarding the combat mercenaries. It doesn’t include, for example, civilian truck drivers killed when their convoys were attacked. So these Soldiers of Fortune are not sitting around drinking and sharing old war stories in bars. They are actively engaged in the war, killing and being killed.

And what brings these people, mainly retired soldiers, to Iraq? The same thing that has always motivated mercenaries – money:

Americans and other Westerners in the business tend to make between $400 and $700 a day, sometimes a good deal more. (The non-Westerners earn far less. Triple Canopy's Fijians and Chileans make between $40 and $150 dollars each week and sleep in crowded barracks at the Baghdad base, while the Americans sleep in their own dorm rooms. The company explained the difference in salaries in terms of the Americans' far superior military backgrounds and their higher-risk assignments.) Americans with Triple Canopy stay in Iraq for three-month rotations, working straight through. Then they're sent on leave for a month, returning if they wish. Depending on how much time they spend in the States over the course of a year, most of their income can be tax-free.

Four hundred to seven hundred dollars tax free is certainly a tidy sum. The article pointed out that such high pay has induced some members of the military to retire early so they can get in on the piles of cash being given away. To counteract this, it was further noted, some Special Forces units of the U.S. military have been offering $150,000 re-enlistment bonuses to keep their members. No wonder poor Iraqis can’t figure out why despite hundreds of billions being spent on this war their lives haven’t improved. The big money is going to military contractors and mercenaries!

What is more than a little ironic in all of this is that virtually every day the U.S. talks about how the Iraqi insurgency is on its last legs and is about to collapse. Personally though, I think the side that is having to resort to using highly paid mercenaries to do its fighting is the one that is in trouble.


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