Babs

Babs is the owner of a fruit stand on Park Avenue. He is Pakistani, from the city of Lahore, a place made famous by its reputably beautiful women and mouth-watering cuisine.  I tell him I’m cooking up an a Chicken-Biriani, a recipe handed down to me by Pakistani students I befriended in Manchester years ago.  He produces a crescent smile that highlights his salt-and-pepper stubble to his clean-shaven scalp, and his beading brown, watery eyes widen with a rare glow. He cuts a ghostly appearance, with a skin complex ripe for battling scorching suns but now left without a battle to fight. “I work all the time,” he says, “and winters are too long. I need a vacation.”  I nod with empathy.

This quiet and gentle man has a darker side to him; or so they say. Mabs has been in  bitter rivalry with a fruit stand just a few feet away, and that not long ago, when it went up in smoke, the mood was heavy with suspicion. Mere rumors I suppose. What I do see is a man whose eyes speak of struggle and sweat, of nostalgia for a sun-drenched land and its delicacies.

For a long time he had assumed the girl with whom I shopped was my girlfriend.  When I told him she wasn’t, his eyes lit up, we smiled,  and the ghost of his, at least for a moment, departed.

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The Fate of Two Cuban Men

Arnaldo Ochoa
Guillermo Fariñas
Arnaldo Ochoa was one of the most respected generals in the Cuban Armed Forces. A veteran of the guerrilla warfare that overturned the Batista regime in 1959 and a key player in choking the U.S. invasion two years later, he had been given the title of ‘Hero of the Revolution’ by Fidel Castro in 1984. Five years later, he revisited ‘el paredon’, the infamous wall stained with the blood of enemies of the state. But this time the rifles were aimed at him, and the General was granted the honor of giving the firing squad the final order to fire upon himself.

Guillermo Fariñas was still a young soldier steeped in revolutionary zeal when Ochoa fell under a hail of bullets. But the swift trial and execution of such a reverent figure made him question the official line given by the Castro regime. Arnaldo Ochoa had been accused of corruption and drug trafficking, but such activities were the daily bread and butter of the political elite. So why was he singled out? Perhaps the media caught a smelly fish, and to save face the regime had to set an example. Another possibility was that realpolitiks rained down on the veneer of idealism. He was executed in 1989, a turbulent year for the Soviet Union and Cuba, and Fidel felt the ground shake beneath him. A general increasingly popular among the military, with close ties to a dying empire desperate for change, could someday organize a coup against him.

The truth might be buried forever. But the Ochoa case echoed in the chamber of Fariñas’ own encounters with the regime. Decorated for his military services in Angola and the Congo, he too was praised and honored. Yet his denunciation of corruption against a hospital board director, and his subsequent imprisonment, cast Cuba’s revolutionary reality in shadows of power, not justice. History had absolved Fidel; but in Fariñas eyes it had absolved the wrong man.

Fariñas has been on a hunger strike since Febuary 26, demanding the liberation of 26 political prisoners. His emaciated body speaks of hunger, but Fariñas doesn’t want food, he wants martyrdom. Willing to die so that the world pays attention to what is happening in Cuba – a place where political dissent can put you in prison for decades, the use of the internet without government permission is an act of treason, where individual thought is repressed, where small girls prostitute themselves to  sex tourists while the government looks away. Fariñas is battling a formidable censorship and propaganda apparatus, but foreign media, and more importantly, emerging Cuban bloggers such as Yoani Sanchez (http://desdecuba.com/generationy/) are giving it a run for its money. Hopefully his case will not be shrouded in conspiracy theories.

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The Story of Pulitzer Winner Kevin Carter

He had been awarded the most prestigious award a photojournalist can ever wish for: the Pulitzer Prize. It was May 23 1994, and he was just two months shy of killing himself. He had witnessed far too many violent scenes before and after media coverage of the anti-apartheid struggle reached fever pitch, and this time he’d be calling the shots and didn’t want any. He had driven down to the Braamfonteinspruit river, a place laced with childhood memories, secured by the tranquility of what is past. As the gas made its way from the exhaust pipe to a crack in the window, Carter wrote until his pen slid across and dropped onto his knees. “I have got to the point where the pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist…I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain…I am haunted by the loss of my friend Ken…”

He had meet Ken Oosterbroek back in the early 1980’s whilst on assignment, two young white Afrikaans bent on photographing injustice, getting a libido kick out of danger or simply fending off identity crises amidst a mass black revolution. Ken had a craziness with which Kevin could relate. “I hope I die with the best fucking pic of all time on my neg. -it wouldn’t really be worth it otherwise…” Ken had ominously written in his diary in 1988.  He was taller than most men, almost perching over his peers, a field of view that gave him a sense of superiority that tainted his character with arrogance and narcissism. Though Kevin resented him at first, the risks and perils of war photography cemented a spirit of camaraderie shared and understood only by those who brave darkness together.  When Ken’s brazen risk-taking for that best picture got him shot, Kevin wasn’t there to brave it with him, to carry him to safety whilst bullets whizzed by, and the guilty thought traversed him, as it usually traverses the surviving actors in a tragedy, that Ken might have lived had he been present on that fateful day.

Ken’s attempt to take a picture cost him his life. It was Kevin’s success in taken one that would cost him his, the final drop that brimmed his depression. Kevin had won the coveted prize for photographing what would spread like wildfire and utter the word famine in the mouths of millions in the rich world.  A grayish-brown photo, of a kneeling and emaciated Sudanese girl in the foreground, with a vulture a few meters away, eyeing her patiently.  It is a haunting image that shook Kevin to his very core. He had reached professional glory, but the moment was anti-climactic. It wouldn’t take long for the mea culpa of the shot to be redirected from the erstwhile indifference of the world to the apathy of that single man behind the lens. They called him a callous opportunist: the carnivorous vulture and the media vulture, both stalking the bait. However much Kevin would insist he chased the bird away, the feeling of being a spectator in the face of monstrosities gnawed at him relentlessly.

Alone in a remote patch of Africa sat a man stricken with grief, having lost faith in the one thing that boxed his most darkest thoughts – a camera capable of bringing him and the world some redemption. A sad story that ends with a hint of salvation nonetheless, for Kevin’s last sentence speaks of finally finding peace. “I have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky.”

The Pulitzer picture of Kevin Carter  http://iusbpreface.files.wordpress.com/2007/04/kevin_carter.jpg

Ken Oosterbroek is shot and killed http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qwbKPod2DtM

A documentary on the legendary war photographer James Nacthwey  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zMiz9a1kjs4

A  beautifully penned book on the famous BANG BANG club, in which Ken and Kevin were members, and written by the two surviving members Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva,  can be bought on Amazon here http://www.amazon.com/Bang-Club-Greg-Marinovich/dp/B0026IBXG4/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1247590767&sr=8-1

A photo-reportage website worth visiting http://www.reportage-bygettyimages.com/#p=features

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Des banquiers gros comme des chats

Enfant durant la deuxième guerre mondiale, mon père passait des heures à pourchasser des rats à travers les décombres qui jonchaient les villes et les campagnes polonaises. Mais des rats comme ça, nous décrivait-il,  en gonflant ses bras et nos yeux. Car la prolifération de nourriture cadavérique les engraissaient à un tel point qu’on aurait dit des chats – mais un peu moins mignons, pour être juste.

Quoique les rues sont dépourvues de corps, le calvaire économique gavent de nos jours une autre saloperie : le banquier.

Après avoir été directement complices à la création de la bulle immobilière aux Etats-Unis et avoir participé à l’amplification de produits financiers douteux, les banquiers se font la grande bouffe des contribuables pour sauver leur peau bien rose, en laissant sous leurs petites pattes noires des corps éperdus, tellement sonnés par le cataclysme qu’ils ne réalisent même plus qu’ils nourrissent eux-mêmes la cause de la maladie contagieuse.

L’expansion financière a certes eu de nombreux advantages. La liquidité du crédit a permis à un individu de surmonter la barrière salariale et de s’endetter, lui permettant ainsi un investissement qui l’arrache de son statu-quo économique et social. Ceci s’applique tant au niveau individuel que sociétal.

Mais un système financier qui permet à un groupuscule de prendre en otage la société par son avarisme, la vider de son sang et réclamer une rançon pour la libérer squelettique mais sauve, n’est qu’un engin qui nous tourbillone en vidant de notre potentiel.

Laisser les banques américaines faire faillite serait néanmoins une grave erreur, comme l’histoire de la grande dépression nous a bien instruit. Il faut avaler des médicaments qui nous arrachent le ventre, accepter la violation de notre bons sens pour éviter la très réelle possibilité de nous retrouver le ventre vide.

Par-contre, ce serait le meilleur temps de méditer sur les supposés bien-faits d’un système banquaire monopolistique qui entrave la stabilité économique des citoyens au bénéfice royal de certaines personnes qui agissent avec impunité. Une régularisation stricte et imperméable aux changements ideologiques, avec une participation des citoyens ne peut nous faire du mal. Ne soyons pas naifs. Sans bouger, on nous mangera tôt ou tard.

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La guerra fría de China contra el FMI y el Banco Mundial

Durante la mayor parte del siglo anterior, el FMI y el Banco Mundial tuvieron casi un monopolio en los asuntos de ayuda internacional. Los Estados Unidos y su tripulación occidental echaban de por el mundo sus cheques, consejos y condiciones escondiéndose bajo el supuesto anhelo de desarrollar países desdichados pero con el fin sutil de imponer sus propios agendas políticas y económicas. Al igual de Santa Claus arrastrando su bolsa de regalos, el FMI entraba con sigilo en la tormenta soberana y distribuía paquetes a países que se han comportado bien, es decir, a su gusto: quitado cualquier impedimento al comercio extranjero, estabilizado sus financias, aceptado la democracia y el fin de la corrupción, entre más requisitos. En el mismo soplo el gordito -emblema del capitalismo puro – cosechaba entradas para que su marcado tuviera más vías de crecimiento. Eso incluye acceso barato y total a recursos naturales necesarios para alimentar su apetito feroz y nuevos mercados para que compren sus regalos, desde Coca-Colas hasta productos agrícolas y manufacturados. A raíz de esa cooperación un país accedía a dinero crucial para rescatar su economía aunque perdía gran parte de su soberanía. Este fenómeno, el de una píldora neo-liberalista tragada por fuerza, o bajo el mas provocador apodo ’el neo-colonialismo’ está enfrentándose con un adversario que anteriormente ha rechazado a la píldora y ahora enreda el juego occidental. Por el bien o por el mal, las reglas se revuelcan.

Con reservas exteriores superando un trillón de dólares China tiene un apetito descomunal debido a su crecimiento extraordinario desde hace varias décadas. Lo inquietante por el es que le hace falta mantener aquel empuje por miedo de ver un desempleo que crezca con una población explosiva, un paro que pueda amenazar la legitimidad frágil de la clase política. A diferencia de los EEUU rodeados de amplios recursos naturales en su proprio territorio, China tiene una escasez de lo necesario para alimentar el horno de la industrialización. Por tanto China está negociando con varios países bajo el mismo juego, el de la ayuda internacional. El quid pro quo consista en intercambiar recursos naturales por paquetes de ayuda, paquetes con características muy distintas de los ofrecidos por EEUU. China no quiere involucrarse en los asuntos políticos de sus socios y por tanto trae ayuda sin condiciones que ataquen el poder de decisión de los mandatarios. Además, China tiene más experiencia en el campo del desarrollo que muchos economistas occidentales fingen saber, conque sus consejos son entonces más pertinentes. Esto significa que, por primera vez en la historia moderna del desarrollo internacional, países pobres tienen una real selección de ayuda. ¿Por qué escoger el FMI o el Banco Mundial cuando China nos ofrece ayuda más limpia? Se preguntan países como Sudan y Angola.

Hay que esperar si países en desarrollo van a beneficiar realmente de este nuevo tipo de ayuda, o si al contrario la entrada de China solo agrega un nuevo gran pez que come los más pequeños y lucha constantemente contra carniceros rivales. Lo cierto es que en el corto plazo el FMI y otras instituciones occidentales tendrán que cambiar sus modus operandi cuando trafican sus paquetes, eso gracias a un mercado de ayuda que se va creciendo y ofreciendo productos de mejor calidad.

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Review of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine

As the dust settled over the crumpled Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall in the early 90s, the celebrated political analyst Francis Fukuyama swiftly proclaimed the end of a vicious battle of ideologies: free market and its sidekick liberal democracy had triumphed over the tyrannical central planning, heralding an unfettered spread of freedom and neo-liberal policies that would bring incommensurable global wealth. But something was amiss: how could the neoliberal trinity –privatization, deregulation and social spending cuts – a set of policies that primarily favor the rich, be voted in by a majority that is poor and who identifies with a social-democratic platform -redistribution of income, social spending and regulation? Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine debunks the myth of democratically led neoliberal agendas, arguing that citizens have been coerced into them following episodes of rampant disorientation, confusion and fear; in other words, shocks. Shocks of any nature – natural disasters such Hurricane Katrina and the 2005 Asian Tsunami; civil wars in Chili, Brazil and Iraq;  economic meltdowns in Bolivia, Poland and Russia- all provide a gateway through which elite policy makers circumvent the democratic process and march their economic agendas on a stricken population. Klein parallels the effects of societal shocks to those experienced in torture chambers: The victims have lost their sense of worth, of dignity. Most crucially though, their capacity to resist is obliterated and they become pliable to authority. In the same way functions a society, a vulnerability Hitler and other dictators understood all too well.  But what is unprecedented now is the institutionalization of trauma –the Shock doctrine- by neo-liberal hawks.  Starting in the early 1970’s and under the aegis of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School, the role of shocks has been textbooked and become the first step in forcefully reshaping a society according to a pure economic ideal. From the Chicago Boys’ economic tabula rasa experiments in Latin America to the Thatcherist method in Britain and the ”’shock and awe” strategy of the Iraq war, Friedman’s toolbox for radical change has been used over and over. Naomi Klein paints a mosaic of events, revealing  a pattern of cutthroat capitalism that is morphing into a cynical and systemic industry: the Disaster Capitalism Complex – a part of the economy that feeds of shocks (whether natural or induced by extreme neo-liberal policies), forces foreign economic policies on sovereign countries and provides a wealthy minority with national assets.  In such a world dreamed up by neoliberals, the citizen has bequeathed his democratic rights to the greed of a few. What’s worse, Klein warns, is that economic policies that exclude the worse-off may give rise to extreme nationalism and racism, precisely societal diseases Milton Friedman thought could be cured only by implementing free trade and reducing government spending.

What is impressive and refreshing with Naomi Klein’s book is the sheer amount of research that has gone into backing her claims. With 60 pages of references and notes covering both ends of the political spectrum, Klein’s less orthodox ideas get denied the claims of conspiracy theories, a labeling that has been used by the mainstream to quiet out diverging views. Moreover, the abundance of case studies, covering more than thirteen countries, from third world countries to developed ones, provides a vivid sense of the magnitude of the neoliberal grasp on the world economy and its pervasion into the lives of millions of people. What is important in Klein’s book is that she doesn’t dwell on the perennial debate Marx and Smith have been having ever since their deaths. Her attack is centered on the illegality of Smith’s unduly check mate. Rather than leaving social democracy to prove itself as a valid mean of conducting a society, neo-liberalism has stifled its rival by unacceptable and undemocratic means.  Violence, torture, assassinations, bribery and intimidation have been used by old tyrants and modern institutions to impose a belief that, as of yet, has only been mathematically proven within the constraints of economic models. Worst still, some policy makers have acted under the façade of neo-liberalism to further their own personal finances -Klein’s exposure of members of Bush’s cabinet profiteering from the Iraq war is enough to raise the ire of any partisan reader.   Klein’s critical thinking and flexibility is also laudable in other aspects.  In one revealing episode in the book, she accuses Amnesty International for failing to understand or focus on the reasons behind the torture under Pinochet rule. By maintaining its apolitical stance, the NGO thwarted an opportunity to reveal the darkness beneath the veal of the nascent economic doctrine.  Her final message is a hopeful one: Though neo-liberalism is difficult to combat because of the power structure the world finds itself in, citizens can protect themselves from shocks by simply being aware of them and girding their loins before the next wave hits. Her book is thus intended for a wider audience, not just as an informative tictac break, but mostly as a counter-toolbox against neo-liberalism.

 

Naomi Klein sees people power, authentic democracy as  a weapon against political and economic abuses. It is thus difficult to criticize this approach lest one appears elitist.  Nonetheless it is a truism that in every democratic cloud lays a golden elite sliver, whose ambitions and interests are of different color than that of the mass. Her analysis covers a particular point in time when a powerful minority identified with neo-liberal policies, and saw the need to overcome a democracy-conscious mass opposition  by shocking it into oblivion. In a twist of irony, the advent of democratic consciousness may have created the need for shocks, allowing the elite to breathe its interests again. Shocks then may just be a new set of instruments yanked from an old toolbox, in the same way  propaganda and the deintellectualization of the mass was and still is being used.   Klein may be facing a  vertical structural reality that is present within every society no matter its democratic claims, and this might be too difficult a fact for Klein to admit. Nevertheless, her written battle against elite wrondgoing is worthy of praise, and her idealism may influence enough heads to make that steel structure more horizontal.

 

A highly commendable book. 

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The bubble that nudged the global economy to the brink

In 2001, two ingredients blended into the American economy, making it go sour: a previous stock bubble that had gone bust, and the attacks of 9/11 which seeped fear into the minds of consumers and investors. Alan Greenspan, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, duly lowered interest rates to a 40-year low in the hopes of spurring a flagging economy. Unbeknown to him and many Wall-Street pet economists, the 1 percent interest rate would indirectly induce a housing bubble-and-bust that now threatens the livelihood of millions. Who do we blame and how do we solve this crisis?

There is a saying, that, when you point a finger at someone, your three other fingers are pointing back at you. This caution might apply to those who accuse Greenspan entirely for the sub-prime crisis and the potential real economic turmoil that trails behind it. Once the balance of faults is weighted, perhaps only the man’s naivety should stand trial, for he believed low-interest money would cascade down into productive sectors of the economy. For all its seductiveness, cheap money has an intrinsic vice: because it doesn’t cost much to acquire, borrowers are less worried about how smart their investments are. Little suprise than that it wound up being spewed by commercial banks into the most unproductive and risky sector of the economy: real estate. The partners in crime include the mortgage lenders, Wall-Street and small-time investors. All played a game all too familiar to history, the game of the gold rush.

For some reason humans like to entertain the belief that a treasure lies buried somewhere; with a little diligence it can be discovered. And so every century seems specked with irrational exuberants that makes people run after fantasies weaved together by myths of hidden treasures. Regrettably, most of these discoveries end up ruining not the finders, but the flocks of ecstatic sheeps that ruminate behind . In such matter unfolded the story of the real-estate rush, a stampede of thousands of self-proclaimed average-Joe investors who discovered a gold mine in the very house they lived in.

Following the turmoils of World War II, the house regained its reputation as a good store of value; home owners could invest in it without the fear of losing money. With the post 9/11 era of uncertainty, its position strenghtened. This is one piece of the puzzle. Comes the role of interest rates. A fall conjured by the Feds adds liquidity to the banking system, allowing commercial banks to lend money at a cheaper cost. Because they borrow in big chunks, mortgage lenders become popular clients of banks. These unregulated middle-men engage in predatory lending to not-so-financially-stable home-buyers in the sub-prime market. The demand for housing takes off. Eyeing the steady increase in housing prices, Joe dons his investor suit and enters the stage. He chats with the mortgage lender, who offers him all too willingly a loan to buy a house. A few months later, Joe sells the now pricier house, repays the loan, and makes a handsome profit. Get a house, get rich. The copy cats that proliferated from this bonanza spurned the biggest demand for housing (the bubble) in the history of the United States. According to the Economist Robert J. Shiller, the average price of a house nearly doubled from 1997 to 2006.

What made this bubble unprecedented was not only its height, but also its width: financial innovation of the past decades has allowed this debt to be gift-wrapped by Wall Street into mortgage bonds as to spread the risks of defaults to many owners. With a large chunk of the world’s foreign capital seeking high returns on U.S assets, these hot mortgage bonds were being stockpiled by investment banks across the world. From Chinese farmers in the hinterlands to ordinary mom’s and pop’s, many were banking on these notes to reap financial rewards.

In 2004, the make-up started wearing off. With a looming inflation, The Feds had to put a squeeze on the supply of money. This meant that the interest payments made by home owners on their mortgage was going to be bumped up. Soon, some found themselves making 13 percent interest rate payments on their mortgage, up from the 8 percent offered to them just a while back. Worse,  compound interest, the greatest force in the Universe according to Albert Einstein, was now wreaking havoc on repayments. Too eager to distribute the loans, mortgage lenders had done an abysmal job at checking the balance sheets of their clients. Within a span of a few months, defaults on payments were skyrocketing. Eyeing once again the falling price of his own home, Joe was now better off abandoning his home than paying off a loan that was more expensive than his house. In some neighborhoods in Los Angeles for instance, one of the epicenter of the boom, 1 in 4 houses lays abondoned and foreclosed. Mortgage bond owners –the likes of Bear Stearns, Northern Rock, BNP Paribas- were now waving deflated bonds, frantically trying to sell them off as they inched towards the brink of bankruptcy.

The real threat to the global economy is not the billions of evaporated money. It is the fear instilled in the veins of the financial sector, and the perceived loss of wealth the housing market had wrought on the consumer’s spending habits. In the first place, banks become wary of lending to one another. This mistrust creates a credit crunch. Credit is the grease that makes the motor run smoothly. Without it, the engine convulses and the whole contraption faces the possibility of a break-down. Secondly, consumption represents 70 percent of the American GDP, and by association an important chunk of global consumption, considering Americans consume much more than they produce. With housing prices creeping ever so higher, Americans were themselves high on wealth. They saw no need for saving their income, feeding the consumption beast with loans after loans and counting on their ever-expensive house to rescue them from debt. But with the housing gone bust, their consumption frenzy might also follow the same route. And this can have a huge repercussion on GDP growth and employment, not only in the United States, but in countries heavily dependent on trade with the economic powerhouse.

In the 1930’s and 40’s, global calamities followed the bursting of economic bubbles in the United States. Some economists argue that the great depression could have been averted had the government acted to suppress the aforementioned threats. Ben Bernanke is one of them. Now Chairman of the Federal Reserve, he is frantically pulling out all the cards up the Reserve’s sleeve. Pumping billions of dollars into the economy, reducing interest rates to almost 0 percent and by acting as lender of last resort, he is trying to rescue the entire banking system from bankruptcy. But lowering interest rates in a shaky economy is dangerous in a liberalized capital market: With a large share of the U.S. debt in the hands of foreigners, a rush to sell low interest-yielding government bonds and other American assets (such as the U.S. dollar) may stifle the inflow of capital from abroad and propel interest rates to crippling heights. With limited remedies to the crisis, the stakes are high and the future uncertain. What is sure is the tinge of irony that floats to mind. The money being pumped is extracted from taxpayers to rescue those principally responsible for the mess: the investors, from the big boys to the little Joes. Worse, the lowering of interest rates, in an environment of higher inflation, may be further encouraging Americans to continue their rampant spending, sinking them into a debt that already represents 140% of their yearly income.  The banking sector and consumers’ habit, instead of getting a thrashing for their bad behavior, receive a pat on the shoulder. Lessons might not be learnt.

The American economy cannot grow solely on the basis of interest rates tweaks, even if accompanied with proper regulations in the financial sector. In the long run, the U.S. must reshuffle its priority from being a consumer society to a producing one. Investment in education and health, in research and development and the promotion of competitive sectors, now that’s the type of grease that keeps any engine healthy.

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