The worldwide rate of obesity more than doubled between 1980 and 2008 and over 500 million people are obese around the world today. Once confined only to wealthy countries, obesity rates are skyrocketing in developing powers like Brazil and China as well. The economic effect is substantial as well, with 21 percent of annual medical spending in the United States going to obesity related illness.
But what does it mean for your portfolio? A new Bank of America/Merrill Lynch Global Research report looks at how investors can take advantage of what they call the "globesity" trends. Opportunities include:
- Pharmaceuticals and Health Care: We look at companies taking advantage of the FDA's increased support for obesity drug development. We also highlight companies tackling related medical conditions and needs including diabetes, kidney failure, hip and knee implants. We also consider equipment such as patient lifts, bigger beds and wider ambulance doors.
- Food: We position companies on their efforts to access the $663 billion “health and wellness” market, as well as on how they are reformulating their portfolios to respond to increasing pressure such as “fat taxes” to reduce sugar and fat levels.
- Commercial Weight Loss, Diet Management and Nutrition: Up to 50 percent of some western populations pursue dieting, targeted nutrition and behavioral change making it a $4 billion market in the U.S. and growing globally.
- Sports Apparel and Equipment: This is the longer-term play, but we believe that promoting physical activity will become a key priority for more government health policies.
All seems pretty sound. Though it might also be worth keeping a position in Big Gulps as a hedge just in case there's a backlash to the backlash.
PATRICK LIN/AFP/Getty Images
Word on the street here in Cairo is that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has become an Islamist overnight.
It's not a joke. Clinton was greeted by protests upon visiting Egypt this weekend -- but this time it wasn't just Islamists who were denouncing the United States. Rather, opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood rallied to object to what they saw as Clinton's support for President Mohamed Morsy, who hails from the Islamist movement's ranks. Tawfiq Okasha, a staunch supporter of Egypt's military establishment, led a protest outside the Four Seasons hotel, where Clinton was staying. In the city of Alexandria, protesters taunted Clinton with chants of "Monica, Monica" -- a reference to Monica Lewinsky -- and threw tomatoes and shoes at her motorcade.
The dissatisfaction can't be dismissed as the work of a few rabble-rousers. Leading members of Egypt's Coptic Christian community refused to meet with Clinton due to the U.S. government's "support for Islamism over other political and civil forces." The meeting with Coptic leaders who did show up apparently did not go any more smoothly: According to human rights campaigner Hossam Bahgat, one speaker accused the White House of being infiltrated by Islamists -- and pointed to Clinton's deputy chief of staff, Huma Abedine, as evidence.
If Hillary Clinton is indeed a covert Islamist, she's not doing a very good job eliminating the tensions between the Muslim Brotherhood and the U.S. government. The list of potential issues goes on and on: The Brotherhood's uncertain guarantees of equal rights to Copts and women, its shaky commitment to inclusive democracy, and its antagonism toward Israel are just a few of the subjects that could trip up relations with the United States. Decades of built-up antagonism and suspicion can sabotage even the most basic cooperation: Just this month, a spokesman for the Brotherhood's political party accused the American NGO workers who were arrested under the former military government of being involved in "intelligence work." (start at 34:40)
As Clinton said at the presidential palace in Cairo on Saturday, being forced to choose between Egypt's diverse political forces is exactly what the United States doesn't want to do. "President Morsy made clear that he understands the success of his presidency -- and indeed, of Egypt's democratic transition -- depends on building consensus across the Egyptian political spectrum," she told the assembled media. Only such a coalition, she said, will allow him "to assert the full authority of the presidency."
Egypt's leaders, however, have shown little sign that they are willing to accommodate Clinton's ecumenical approach. Supreme Council of the Armed Forces chief Mohamed Hussein Tantawi seized the opportunity following his meeting with Clinton to say that the military would prevent Egypt from falling under the control of a "certain group" -- a reference to the Brotherhood. If the conflict does reach a crisis point, we may finally see how far Clinton's sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood goes.
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
It pains me that I even need to explain this to some smart people who should know better -- I'm looking at you, Tyler Cowen -- but here are 5 reasons why Mitt Romney is not going to pick Condoleezza Rice as his running mate, no matter what Matt Drudge would have us believe. As Red State's Eric Erickson colorfully put it, "I don’t know who is hitting the crack rock tonight in the rumor mill, but bull shiitake mushrooms."
1. She's pro-choice. Among the many things conservatives dislike about Mitt Romney is the fact that he once espoused pro-choice views. He needs them to donate money and knock on doors and turn out on election day, so he's unlikely to do something so clearly guaranteed to alienate ye olde base. And this is to say nothing of the fact that the right has plenty of other reasons not to like her, from her torture fights with the Dick Cheney wing of the Bush administration to the fact that she has never married.
2. She's not interested. How many times has Condi Rice explained that she's just not that into politics? These are not the usual protestations of not being enamored of the veep job in particular; they are blanket denunciations of the very concept of being a politician. Condi doesn't want to kiss babies; she doesn't want to shake hands; she doesn't want to dial for dollars; she doesn't want to eat rubber chicken every night; she doesn't want to be Mitt's attack dog. When she says she'd rather be commissioner of the NFL, she means it.
3. She has no experience. Condi served as a not-so-great national security advisor and a pretty good secretary of state. She's generally a well-liked and well-respected public figure, and she's been smart about distancing herself from George W. Bush. But she has no record -- none -- of being interested in the big domestic policy issues like health care, jobs, entitlement reform, education, and so on. To foreign-policy wonks, these are deadly dull subject, and commenting on them is fraught with real pitfalls. Remember when Wesley Clark, a retired general, tried to talk about domestic policy? Yeah. And what's he doing now? Running a game show on NBC.
Romney, although he's a former governor, still comes across as a n00b when he talks policy. He'll want someone well versed in the ins and outs of Medicare, Social Security, and tax reform. That's not Condi.
4. She's being floated as a distraction. You don't have to be a political genius to recognize misdirection when you see it. Romney was having a tough news cycle yesterday, fueled by the Boston Globe's reporting that the candidate had spent longer as the official head of Bain than his campaign claims -- a tar-baby of a story that gets more difficult to explain the more you try.
Hey look, media, over there! Veep rumors! Condi's the perfect kind of story to get the chattering classes going -- an out-of-the-box pick that shows how tolerant and moderate Romney is. An elegant distraction, however transparent. And it seems to have worked.
5. Her name was leaked. The very fact that her name was given to Drudge -- assuming that actually happened -- suggests that she's expendable and therefore not a serious contender. Wake me up when we get a lot closer to the convention.
As my colleague Uri Friedman discussed in today's Morning Brief, the Spanish government has unveiled tough new austerity measures to reduce its deficits after securing a nearly $37 billion bailout from the European Union. The measures, part of the conditionalities attached to the bailout money, include cuts to unemployment benefits, the elimination of Christmas bonuses for civil servants and a rise in the value-added-tax.
The government is already facing a backlash, including protests by miners over subsidy cuts, but data on past interactions between governments and international financial institutions suggests that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government is actually in the safest period of the crisis. When economic conditions improve is when he will have to worry about his government's political prospects.
A paper recently published in the journal International Organization seeks to answer the question of whether IMF and World Bank interventions induce political crises. The authors, Axel Dreher of Heidelberg University and Martin Gassebner of the Swiss Economic Institute, began their research before the recent round of European bailouts but in an interview with Foreign Policy, Dreher said he sees similar dynamics at work in the recent crises.
The paper examines more than 90 developing countries between 1970 and 2002 and finds that intervention by one of the two international financial institutions significantly increases the likelihood of political crisis. These crises can be anything from coups and assassinations to mass demonstrations and general strikes.
An illustrative example discussed in the paper is the political turmoil which struck Bolivia in 2003, when more than 100 people were killed in political protests spurred by governments moves to raise taxes and increase natural gas exports. This followed 15 years of IMF-imposed structural adjustment program. The violent clashes led to the resignation of President of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and, three years later, the rise of populist President Evo Morales.
The paper's other significant finding is that the likelihood of a political crisis actually increases as economic prospects improve under assistance from an international financial institution. When times are really tough, the Dreher argues, the "government's leeway is increased due to the availability of additional loans." Governments are able to blame unpopular programs on the necessity of cooperating with the outside institution and voters are unable to tell is the government is merely incompetent of if its hand are tied by the conditions of the loan.
"If the government remains under an arrangement while the economy performs better, this signals that the government is more incompetent because a really competent government would no longer need the help of the international organizations," Dreher says.
Countries like Spain, Italy and Greece may have more robust democratic institutions than developing countries like Bolivia, but they are no less susceptible to moral hazard.
"You can see that [European governments] are able to implement certain conditions by using the troika -- the EU, the ECB and the IMF -- by way of a scapegoat," he says. "They say, we don't want to implement these conditions, we think they are too harsh, but we need the support of these organizations to stay in the Euro."
This is essentially the case Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy made to voters today, according to the New York Times, telling the public, "I know these are not pleasant measures but they are necessary."
But Dreher suggests that this kind of excuse won't work forever. "If the situation becomes better and the government remains in these partnerships with the conditions that come with the money, probably voters would turn against the government," he says."
Dreher and Gassebner's research suggests that if governments like Greece and Spain want to stay in power, "they would have to try to get out of these programs as soon as the situation becomes better."
Of course, given the scale of the economic woes these governments are currently facing, that's probably a problem they wouldn't mind having right now.
LUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images
WikiLeaks' document dump of emails from Syrian government officials has so far been light on scandalous details about either the Assad family or the opposition. But today's release did provide one unexpected revelation: Bashar al-Assad appears to be an avid student, and critic, of English. It's not exactly George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," but the Syrian president forwarded the following Internet joke to his translator with the subject line "ENGLISH IS A STUPID LANGUAGE!"
Let's face it. English is a stupid language.
There is no egg in the eggplant,
No ham in the hamburger
And neither pine nor apple in the pineapple.
English muffins were not invented in England.
We sometimes take English for granted,
But if we examine its paradoxes we find that
Quicksand takes you down slowly
Boxing rings are square
And a guinea pig is nighther from Guinea nor is it aa pig.
If writers write, how come fingers don't fing?
If the plural of tooth is teeth
Shouldn't the plural of phone booth be phone beeth?
If the teacher taught,
Why didn't the preacher praught?
If a vegetarian eats vegetables
What the heck does a humanitarian eat?
Why do people recite at a play
Yet play at a recital?
Park on driveways,
And drive on parkways?
How can the weather be as hot as hell on one day,
And cold as hell on another?
You have to marvel at the unique lunacy
Of a language where a house can burn up as
It burns down.
And in which you fill IN a form
By filling it OUT.
And a bell is only heard once it GOES!
English was invented by people, not computers
And it reflects the creativity of the human race
(Which of course isn't a race at all)
That is why when the stars are out they are visible
But when the lights are out they are invisible.
And why is it that when I wind up my watch, it starts,
But when I wind up this poem,
Assad also seems to have a fascination with American idioms (admittedly tricky devils). In another email to his translator, he includes a multiple-choice quiz with such questions as: "My friend likes hardcore trance music but it's not (my preference)." A) my cup of tea B) a fine kettle of fish C) the icing on the cake D) the cream of the crop.
Assad appears to be a very good student -- there are reportedly more than 800 emails between him and his translator in the WikiLeaks files.
Obviously this is not the blog for analysis of the U.S. Supreme Court's healthcare decision today, but as we get further into election season, I thought it might be worth noting that it's not a good day for frequently-cited prediction market InTrade, which as of two days ago was giving the individual mandate a 77 percent chance of being struck down.
Financial blogger Barry Ritholtz rounds up some more past examples of Intrade being spectacularly wrong on political predictions noting, "Futures markets are really a focus group unto themselves: When the group is something less representative of the target market, they get it wrong with alarming frequency. Indeed, the further the traders are as a group to the target decision makers/voters, the worse their track record." Given that the decision makers in this case were nine people deliberating in secret, it should have been a tip-off.
But even in the case of elections, the usefulness of Intrade is pretty questionable. As Slate's Daniel Gross noted in 2008 after Intrade's not-so-impressive performance in the Clinton-Obama primary, "The price movement tends to respond to conventional wisdom and polling data; it doesn't lead them."
Most of the people making bets on Intrade don't have access to better information than anyone else. It's not surprising that the betting market on Obama's re-election tracks pretty closely with his polling averages over the last year -- falling to a low point last fall, rising steadily over the summer, falling again in May. One could read some significance into the fact that InTrade gives Enrique Pena Nieto an 87.5 percent chance of winning this weekend's Mexican presidential election, or you could just take a look at the polls giving him a 17.4 percent lead.
The wisdom of the crowds -- or at least the wisdom of the crowds as filtered through Irish bookies -- may not be all that wise.
This morning, Turkey made the startling announcement that it had lost contact with one of its F-4 military jets near the country's southern border with Syria, and that it had launched search-and-rescue efforts for the plane's two pilots.
Details about the incident are still fuzzy. Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News is reporting that Syrian authorities have apologized to their Turkish counterparts for downing the aircraft (and cooperated on the rescue mission), while the BBC notes that the Turkish government has called an emergency security meeting and that witnesses in the Syrian coastal city of Latakia have told BBC Arabic that Syrian air defenses shot down an aircraft. But none of the key details -- the plane's mission, the cause and location of the crash, the whereabouts of the pilots -- have been nailed down.
"We've lost a plane and as yet we don't know have any information as to what happened and whether it was brought down," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a press conference on Friday.
Even with the shifting facts, it's worth asking: Could this incident -- or an incident like it -- trigger more aggressive action against Syria by the international community? After all, Turkey is a member of NATO, and Article V of the Washington Treaty outlines the alliance's commitment to collective security:
The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.
A day after 9/11, NATO invoked this very provision for the first (and, to date, only) time, pledging to support U.S. military retaliation if it were determined that the terrorist attacks had been perpetrated by foreign nationals. The United States soon satisfied this condition in briefings with NATO members, but ultimately chose to topple the Taliban government in Afghanistan outside the NATO framework. (It's also worth noting that NATO forces are involved in plenty of operations that don't involve Article V.)
If Turkey has reason to believe that Syria shot down its plane, might NATO respond in a similar fashion? It's not an entirely unreasonable question. The bloody and protracted crisis in Syria has poisoned relations between Ankara and Damascus, and Turkey suggested in April that it might turn to NATO under Article V to help protect its border in response to incursions by Syrian forces -- a threat Syria condemned as "provocative."
But Kurt Volker, the executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, points out that Article V simply offers NATO allies an opportunity to consult with one another and does not necessarily entail a military response. If Turkey wanted to bring today's incident to the alliance, it would most likely instruct the Turkish ambassador in Brussels to work with NATO's secretary-general on calling a formal meeting to discuss the episode and formulate an appropriate response.
"A response could be anything from a statement reiterating the inviolability of security guarantees to members coordinating activities so that they can respond to further attacks on Turkish interests," Volker says.
He doesn't believe today's incident alone will alter the international community's response to the Syrian conflict, but he does think a NATO meeting on the matter could nurture a broader discussion about how to intervene militarily in Syria outside the U.N. Security Council, where Russia and China have repeatedly opposed such action. One scenario, he adds, could be Western and Arab countries joining forces to create "safe zones" in Syria, support the Syrian opposition, and conduct aerial strikes against Syria's offensive military assets.
"I do get the feeling that the patience of the international community is growing thinner," Volker explains. "With the recent village-by-village slaughter [in Syria] and brazenness of the Russians in trying to arm the Syrians, I think we may be approaching a point at which this kind of coalition intervention is more thinkable than it was a couple months ago."
James Joyner, the managing editor of the Atlantic Council, points out that if Syria shot down the lost Turkish plane in Syrian air space, it would not be considered an attack under NATO's charter. Even if NATO determines that Syria attacked Turkey, he adds, he doesn't think the alliance has any appetite for going to war with Syria.
"It would be one thing if Syria sent ground troops into Turkey and started shooting," he says, "but shooting down a plane that might have been surveilling Syrian air space is just a different animal than that. This is more of a harsh words and sanctions kind of thing, and frankly there's not much more of that that we can do in terms of Syria."
Update: After an emergency security meeting, Prime Minister Erdogan's has issued a statement indicating that Turkey believes it was indeed Syria that shot down its fighter jet and that the pilots have yet to be found. Most ominously, the statement added that Turkey would respond decisively once it had established exactly what took place today, according to the BBC.
A Syrian military spokesman also issued a statement on the Turkish jet, noting that "an unidentified aerial target" had "violated Syrian airspace" on Friday morning and that "the Syrian anti-air defenses counteracted with anti-aircraft artillery, hitting it directly as it was 1 kilometer away from land, causing it to crash into Syrian territorial waters west of Om al-Tuyour village in Lattakia province, 10 kilometers from the beach." The aircraft, the spokesman added, "was dealt with according to laws observed in such cases."
Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images
Fidel Castro has never really been into the whole brevity thing. This is, after all, the man who gave the longest speech in the history of the U.N. General Assembly. But since June 11, Castro has dedicated his semi-regular newspaper column "Reflections" -- normally devoted to lengthy screeds against all manner of imperialist perfidy -- to mysterious paragraph length koans on a number of topics.
It began with this "reflection" on former East German Communist leader Erich Honneker, who died in 1994:
THE most revolutionary German I have known is Erich Honecker. Every human being lives in his or her era. The current one is of infinite change, in comparison with any other. I had the privilege of observing his conduct when he was paying bitterly for the debt contracted by the man who sold his soul to the devil for a few shots of vodka.
I retain for Honecker the most profound sentiment of solidarity.
His thoughts on former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping are not so fond:
HE thought of himself as a wise man and, doubtless, he was. But he made a small mistake.
"Cuba has to be punished," he said one day. Our country never even pronounced his name.
It was a totally unwarranted offense.
THE conditions have been created for the country to begin massively producing Moringa Oleífera and mulberry, which are sustainable resources [for the production of] meat, eggs, milk and silk fiber which can be woven by artisans, providing well-remunerated employment as an added benefit, regardless of age or gender.
YOGIS do things with the human body which are beyond our imagination. There they are, before our eyes, via images arriving instantaneously from vast distances, through Pasaje a lo Desconocido [Cuban TV program]
I respect all religions, although I do not share them. Human beings seek explanations for their existence, from the most ignorant to the wisest.
Science is constantly seeking to explain the laws which govern the universe. At this very moment, they see it during a period of expansion which began some 13.7 billion years ago.
The posts have provoked some bafflement among Cuba watchers:
For Miami analyst Eugenio Yañez, Castro needs to stay in the limelight. “Like a mediocre starlet of cheap and superficial shows, [he] needs to feel like he’s in the center of the spotlight, even though at his age he’s only getting boos and hisses,” Yañez wrote in an Internet column.[...]
“Evidently he does not feel coherent enough to write longer pieces,’’ said Jaime Suchlicki, head of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami.
And Phil Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute, joked in an Internet post that perhaps Castro “is getting in shape for Twitter,” which restricts users to 140 characters.
Many in Cuba are doubtless wondering if the 86-year-old has finally lost it completely, though something tells me he may be having a good laugh.
L'Osservatore Romano Vatican-Pool/Getty Images
The kerfuffle of the day is President Barack Obama making a reference to "Polish death camps" while posthumously awarding Polish resistance hero Jan Karski a Presidential Medal of Freedom last night. The White House says the president misspoke and was "referring to Nazi death camps operated in Poland," rather than inferring that the camps were operated by Poles, but that hasn't satisfied Prime Minister Donald Tusk who says he is looking for a “stronger, more pointed reaction” that could eliminate the phrasing “once and for all.” Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski went further, calling the remark a matter of "ignorance and incompetence."
There's been a concerted effort by the Polish government in recent years to combat the use of the phrase, which has succeeded in pushing a number of publications including the AP and the New York Times to update their style-guides. The Polish embassy, in the wake of the John Demjanjuk trial, posted a guide on its website urging readers to write web comments and letters to the editor when they see the phrase being used. The page also objects to the phrases "Sobibor camp, located in Poland," asking that "German-occupied Poland" be specified, and "Polish concentration camp survivor" since it "conveys that someone survived a Polish concentration camp, which, of course, is impossible since Polish concentration camps did not exist."
I understand why the phrase rankles, and as the Economist's Edward Lucas points out, it's not the first example of the Obama administration's clumsy handling of relations with Poland. But I also think that given the context in which Obama's remark was made -- honoring Karski for exposing the Nazi mass killing of Jews to the world -- no reasonable listener would assume that Obama was accusing Poles of running the camps, just as no one assumes the invasion of Normandy was targeted at Normans or that the North African campaign was waged by North Africans.
The "Polish death camps" controversy may be so controversial because it taps into a larger debate over actions perpetrated by some Poles against Jews during and immediately after the Holocaust. This debate kicked into high gear in 2000 with the publication of Polish-born Princeton historian Jan Gross's book Neighbors, which details a brutal pogrom carried out by the Polish residents of the town of Jedwabne against its Jewish residents during the Nazi occuption. The numbers, specifics, and methodology in Gross's work are controversial, but an official investigation confirmed its basic premise and President Alexander Kwasniewski made a formal apology at Jedwabne in 2001. Gross's follow-up Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz, created yet another firestorm in 2006.
But of course, that clearly wasn't a debate Obama had any intention of entering into by giving an award to a man who risked his life to expose Nazi atrocities. In the wake of the Neighbors affair, public intellectual and former dissident Adam Michnik wrote a piece about the "schizophrenia" he felt: "I am a Pole, and my shame about the Jedwabne's murder is a Polish shame. At the same time, I know that if I had been there in Jedwabne, I would have been killed as a Jew."
For these people who lost their lives saving Jews, I feel responsible, too. I feel guilty when I read so often in Polish and foreign newspapers about the murderers who killed Jews, and note the deep silence about those who rescued Jews. Do the murderers deserve more recognition than the righteous?
Last night's award for Karski was an attempt to provide that kind of recognition. And that the remarks that accompanied it are being portrayed as an accusation against the country because of a poor choice of words may be the most unfortunate thing about this episode.
The Obama administration, this month, decided to take up the fairly unrewarding task of pushing for the ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. In a piece for FP today, James Kraska explains why ratification is long overdue. The treaty, which lays out rules for both military use of the seas and extraction of resources, went into effect in 1994, has been accepted by 161 nations, and was supported by both the Clinton and Bush administrations as well as U.S. Naval commanders. However it will still face a tough fight in Congress where many lawmakers feel it would constitute an unwarranted intrusion on U.S. sovereignty.
But the Law of the Sea is hardly the only major international agreement waiting for either a U.S. signature, or for Congress to approve ratification. Here's a quick look at a few of the other international treaties and conventions where the United Statates is conspicuous by its absence:
Entered into force in 1990, signed by U.S. in 1995
Number of states parties: 193 (Fellow non-ratifiers: Somalia, South Sudan*)
Signed by U.S. in 1980, entered into force in 1981
Number of states parties: 187 (Fellow non-ratifiers: Palau, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Tonga)
Entered into force in 1999, never signed by U.S.
Number of states parties:159
Entered into force in 2008, signed by U.S. in 2009.
Number of states parties: 112
Entered into force in 2010, never signed by U.S.
States parties: 71
Entered into force in 2006, never signed by U.S.
Number of states parties: 63
Entered into force in 2010, never signed by U.S.
Number of states parties: 32 (91 have signed)
One could, of course, make the case that the fact that countries like Iran, North Korea, and Belarus have ratified many of these treaties suggests they don't actually accomplish very much. On the other hand, it doesn't look very good that the United States is considered a likely no vote when it comes to new human rights treaties, and at this point there's enough evidence from other states parties to suggest that ratifying an agreement on say, the rights of children, won't lead to U.N. bureaucrats telling parents how to raise their kids.
*In fairness to South Sudan, it has only been a country for about 10 months.
Hiroko Masuike/Getty Images
This story involving labor abuse, Cold War intrigue, and everyone's favorite discount furniture empire has been brewing for about a week but has gotten surprisingly little attention in the U.S. The Miami Herald reported last Friday:
A report that Swedish furniture and housewares company IKEA employed Cuban prisoners to build tables and sofas in the 1980s has provoked a strong reaction among Miami exiles.
The German daily newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, of Frankfurt, recently reported that in September 1987 Cuban authorities negotiated for 35,000 dining tables, 10,000 children’s tables and an unspecified number of sofas to be built for IKEA.
The newspaper said German reporters found the information while reviewing archives of the Cold War era and that East German officials facilitated the deal with Cuba.…
According to information in the archives, East German officials met with Lieutenant Enrique Sánchez, identified as the person in charge of a Cuban agency known as EMIAT, which supplied patio furniture to diplomatic houses and high-ranking Cuban officials. They discussed furniture to be built “in prison facilities of the Ministry of Interior.”
IKEA has already launched an internal investigation into allegations that it contracted to use East German prison labor during the 1970s and 1980s and now says it will broaden the scope of the inquiry.
According to a follow-up story today, records kept by East Germany's infamous STASI show that "an IKEA subsidiary in Berlin and an East German company had contracted for Cuban prison labor to build 45,000 tables and 4,000 sofa groupings in 1987" as part of a larger deal between companies run by Cuba's Ministry of the Interior and the East German government. The deal also "involved Cuban antiques, cigars and guns, according to a researcher in Berlin."
The six Cuban-American members of the U.S. Congress have written a letter demanding a meeting with IKEA executives.
This report is just the latest in a slew of bad press for the Swedish furniture giant in recent years, including allegations of bribery in Russia and a recent book alleging that founder Ingvar Kamprad's past ties to Swedish Nazi groups may have gone on longer than he has admitted.
John Moore/Getty Images
The first episode of Julian Assange's new TV show, The World Tomorrow, premiered on RT today with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah as the first guest. Aside from a quick intro and a goofy theme song by M.I.A., it's a pretty spartan affair, consisting solely of Assange and his translators speaking with Nasrallah over skype. The newsiest quote was probably Nasrallah's fairly staunch defense of Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on protesters:
From the beginning of the events in Syria, we’ve had constant contact with the Syrian leadership. We’e spoken as friends, giving each other advice about the importance of carrying out reforms. Right from the beginning, I personally found that President Assad was very willing to carry out radical reforms. This used to reassure us regarding the positions that we took.[...]
We contacted even elements of the opposition to encourage them and to facilitate the process of dialogue with the regime. These parties rejectged dialoguel. Right from the beginning we’ve had a regime that is willing to undergo reforms and open to dialogue. On the other side, you have an opposition that is not prepared for dialogue and is not prepared to accept any reforms. All it wants is to bring down the regime.
The house-arrested Assange is a fairly generous interviewer by cable news standards, letting his guest do most of the talking. The questions were mostly softballs along the lines of "What was your earliest memory as a boy?," "How did you manage to keep your people together under enemy fire?" and "Why do you think the United States government is so scared of [Hezbollah satellite network] al-Manar?
Things got a bit odd with Assange's last question, in which he asked the reglious extremist, "Isn’t Allah, or the notion of God, the ultimate superpower? Shouldn’t you as a freedom fighter also seek to liberate people from the totalitarian concept of a monotheistic god?" Not surprisingly, Nasrallah didn't buy the premise of the question.
It wasn't the most penetrating interview -- interestingly, there was only one question about the contents of a WikiLeaks cable and Nasrallah denied the veracity of it -- but that's probably why Nasrallah was willing to talk with him in the first place. (According to Assange, this was his first interview with "western" media since the 2006 war with Israel.) If he can keep getting the kind of high-profile guests who would never go near a mainstream journalist with a ten-foot poll, the show will probably continue to be worth watching.
Who would you like to see sit down with Assange next?
In his classic essay Shooting an Elephant, George Orwell describes an experience he had as a colonial police officer in Burma. Under public pressure from a crowd of townspeople, he puts down an out-of-control elephant against his own wishes, describing it as the moment he "first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East." As the people of the town debate the merits and legality of his actions, he wonders "whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool."
It's tempting to wonder if any similarly penetrating insights or self-reflections have come to Spanish King Juan Carlos as he lies in the hospital, having injured his hip on an elephant shooting trip in Botswana that has ignited a firestorm of controversy.
In addition to being about the least politically correct way to spend your vacation (was the baby seal-clubbing junket all booked up?) the optics of this were pretty terrible at a time when more than half of young Spaniards are out of work and Spanish banks are facing yet another downgrade. Plus, it turns out that the king -- who is Spain's official head of state -- didn't inform the government that he was leaving the country and might have used public funds in the process.
Some leftist parties are calling for the king to abdicate or hold a referendum on returning to a republic. That doesn't seem to likely at the moment, but the king may still want to stick to the beach next time if he doesnt want to his country's surging ranks of unemployed.
Kilis, Turkey — Just as international efforts to reach a ceasefire in Syria intensify, the long-running crisis appears to be growing even bloodier. On Monday, the violence spilled over into both Turkey and Lebanon: A Lebanese cameraman was killed while filming from the northern town of Wadi Khaled, while two Syrians were killed and more were wounded when they were fired upon at a refugee camp inside Turkey. Two Turkish nationals attempting to help the fleeing Syrians were also injured in the crossfire.
The clash at the Turkish-Syrian border began when Syrian regime troops launched an offensive in the town of Azaz, on the Syrian side of the border, in the dawn hours of Monday morning. Syrians who lay wounded in the hospital in Kilis said that violence began when Syrian soldiers opened fire on refugees who walked to the border to protest the attack on Azaz.
The camp, which lies about a fifth of a mile from the border, was established to provide aid to the thousands of Syrians who have fled President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown. Over 9,000 refugees are living in the Kilis camp, and more are expected to arrive to alleviate overcrowding in other camps. As we drove from the Turkish province of Hatay to Kilis, five buses filled with Syrian refugees traveled ahead of us, making their way to a new place of supposed refuge.
In Kilis, we walked into a ward where three Syrian men lay sprawled on hospital beds, blood seeping from fresh wounds where bullets had just been removed. "We were watching the attack over the border," explained Betar, a Syrian man who was shot twice in the leg while inside the Kilis refugee camp. As Syrian forces attacked Azaz, refugees across the border in the camp looked on helplessly and began to protest the violence. "When [the Syrian Armed Forces] heard us say ‘Allahu Akbar' they started to shoot at us," he said.
Betar, who lives in the Kilis refugee camp with his family, thinks the Syrian regime is following them into Turkey to kill them. Snipers fired on the camp from less than 500 meters away, noted his friend, who recounted how he picked up bullets from rooms within the camp. Around 21 Syrians have been wounded and three have died, according to wounded Syrians within the Kilis hospital. (Other reports said that two Syrians had died).
Turkish officials, eager to prevent the cross-border violence from spiraling out of control, are limiting access to information for inquiring journalists. Police stopped us while we were interviewing a badly injured Syrian man and directed us to a small room, where we were questioned for two hours. They interrogated our Syrian translator on his opinions of the Assad regime. Two other French-speaking journalists were being questioned as well.
The Kilis refugee camp has become an easy target for Syrian forces, and eye-witnesses within the camp say the Turkish police did not fire back when the attack began. Betar described how Turkish police in the camp fell to the ground to protect themselves, but did not retaliate.
With the end to the conflict nowhere in sight, Syria's refugees have found little comfort in escaping Assad's brutal crackdown. They left Syria in the hope of finding safety and peace, but violence still seems to follow them wherever they go.
Sophia Jones, a former editorial assistant at Foreign Policy, is an Overseas Press Club fellow and freelance journalist based out of Cairo. Erin Banco is a Cairo-based freelance journalist.
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Gary Shteyngart, the Russian-American novelist whose books Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante's Handbook enliven the farcical edges of living in a totalitarian society, returned recently from a two week reporting trip to China, the cruel and prosperous land of the future. "We suck," Shteyngart said over the phone. "The saddest flight in the world is Beijing Capital to Newark." FP interviewed Shteyngart about Jews in China, how to build a successful business, and the world outside Brooklyn, edited and condensed for clarity.
Foreign Policy: Did you tell people you were Jewish in China?
Gary Shteyngart: I did. They said ‘why are Jews so sad and anxious? Why can't you cheer up?' What I said to that, was, you know, the Holocaust. They said we were kind of similar that way. I don't know what happened [to the Chinese] exactly, I read about it on Wikipedia.
FP: You mentioned in a tweet that you started your own boutique investment firm in Shanghai but it failed after five hours. What did you get from it?
GS: A lot of dignity. You can't really monetize dignity.
FP: What did you talk to the Chinese about?
GS: A lot of people in the United States want to be Chinese. A lot of the Chinese want to be writers. They're adorable. I told them not to do it. It's so sweet -- I was talking to one young lady, she was so touched that I would speak to her. Kind of a rough and tumble society, China. We gentle Jewish professors of creative writing are just incredible to them.
FP: What did you feel after you came back from China?
GS: The saddest flight in the world is Beijing to Newark. Beijing is Charles De Gaulle, Newark is Burkina Faso. I'd feel better if America looked great -- but we don't. We've been working too hard, we need to retire now and let someone else do it. It's not easy. The pollution in China. I'm still coughing up some weird petro-chemical things out of my lung (and I've been back for ten days). My whole cardio-vascular thing is so affected.
FP: What did you perform at Racist Park [a Chinese theme park that shows all of the minorities living together in harmony, now known in English as China Ethnic Culture Park]?
GS: I did the ol' Fiddler in the Roof. I was the third daughter, the one who married a goy. Fiddler on the Smokestack.
FP: What about Shanghai?
GS: I went to Pudong and saw that they're building the (world's) tallest building there. It's going to be taller than the other buildings.
We went to a steampunk club, called #88; [people were wearing] all sorts of Victorian corsets -- I guess some people had the leisure time to look appropriate. The world is so fascinating, I'm telling you -- this is what I tell young writers: Get out of Brooklyn.
Oh, and I drank this horrifying thing. If there is one of thing chaining civilization back, its baijiu. You're burping sorghum for the rest of your life. There's no cure for baijiu.
FP: What do you recommend a young writer do in China?
GS: I'd start in the financial side -- young guy or girl, just out of Princeton, gets involved in some sort of private equity thing, learns about the corruption, and at the same time learn about the Asian work ethic. That's amazing that there hasn't been a great expatriate novel; it seems like half of the Ivy League is holed up in Shanghai.
FP: What about for the Williams environmental science grad?
GS: Well, they can go teach English. English teaching is sad, because everyone does it; it's the last resort. Or you could do NGO work. I met some NGO people, they were cute.
Writers, though. You have a lot of power as a writer here; anything with an embossed business card gives you face.
FP: Did you hand out copies of an embossed business card in China?
GS: No, I brought 800 copies of my book to give out to China, and handed them out with two hands to people all across the country, cab drivers...
FP: What did cab drivers think of your book?
GS: The cab drivers loved that it has both postmodern and traditional aspects.
FP: Best business idea in China that would last for more than five hours?
GS: We could have Communist Party youth league people collect used wire, and use this used wire in the penal system to flog people, or just to poke people with the wire. It's green. [environmentally friendly]. It's a good way to get in on China's growing penal system.
In media, timing is key to breaking news and getting recognized for original journalism. But it can also sting you, as Vogue and Condé Nast Traveler learned during the Arab Spring after publishing, respectively, a glowing profile of Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad and a list of the "15 Best Places to See Right Now" that included Libya.
Today, the New York Times fell victim to the timing trap. The paper led its print edition with a story by Jeffrey Gettleman entitled "A Taste of Hope in Somalia's Battered Capital," only for a suicide bomber to attack a gathering of Somali officials this morning in Mogadishu's National Theater, killing the heads of Somalia's Olympic committee and soccer federation, among others.
Gettleman had even mentioned the National Theater in his piece (key lines in bold):
Outside, on Mogadishu's streets, the thwat-thwat-thwat hammering sound that rings out in the mornings is not the clatter of machine guns but the sound of actual hammers. Construction is going on everywhere - new hospitals, new homes, new shops, a six-story hotel and even sports bars (albeit serving cappuccino and fruit juice instead of beer). Painters are painting again, and Somali singers just held their first concert in more than two decades at the National Theater, which used to be a weapons depot and then a national toilet. Up next: a televised, countrywide talent show, essentially "Somali Idol."
Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, which had been reduced to rubble during 21 years of civil war, becoming a byword for anarchy, is making a remarkable comeback. The Shabab, the fearsome insurgents who once controlled much of the country, withdrew from the city in August and have been besieged on multiple sides by troops from the African Union, Kenya, Ethiopia and an array of local militias.
Today the theater is a scene not of cultural renaissance but of carnage:
Yet only weeks ago, when the theater was reopened, the atmosphere at the Chinese-built complex very much matched Gettleman's description:
On Twitter, some people are tweaking the Times for being a bit trigger-happy on the optimism ("NYT story on
#Somalia illustrates the danger of proclaiming peace in such
places; new violence was bound to happen," argued the Atlantic Council's Barbara Slavin), while others are simply discouraged ("Wanted so badly to believe NYT's article on Somalia today," photographer Ed Suter wrote. "Guess it was a bit premature").
The Times, for its part, has put the two stories into a dialogue of sorts on the World page.
And it's worth pointing out that Gettleman tempered his report with the sober assessment that Mogadishu "and the rest of Somalia still have a long way to go," citing a recent attack on the presidential palace in the capital as just one example.
"Who says it's just bad news coming out of Somalia?" Gettleman tweeted early this morning. Indeed, any positive news out of war-torn Somalia is welcome. In the news business, sadly, you can never pick the right day to highlight a heartwarming story.
Abdurashid Abdulle/Stringer/AFP/Getty Images
In 2003, Volkswagen launched its first ever SUV, the Touareg. ‘"Touareg" literally means "free folk" and is the name of a nomadic tribe from the Sahara,'" they wrote in a press release, explaining their decision to borrow the name of the nomadic North African ethnic group. "A proud people of the desert, the Touareg embody the ideal of man's ability to triumph over the obstacles of a harsh land. To this day, they have maintained their strong character and self-reliance."
The "strong character" of the Tuareg -- as it's more typically spelled -- has been in the news lately. Tuareg rebels, formerly brought to Libya to be mercenaries for Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime, have been steadily advancing though Northern Mali, capturing several military bases as well as the ancient city of Timbuktu. Believing themselves inadequately equipped to take on the heavily armed Tuareg fighters, a rogue group of Malian army officers overthrew the country's president last week.
The nominally Muslim Tuareg are reportedly working with local Islamists who have instituted Sharia law on some of the captured towns. Oxfam says that in some parts of the country as much as 70 percent of the population is facing "acute food insecurity."
I was curious as to whether, with the Tuareg in global headlines, Volkswagen was reconsidering its, in retrospect, odd, decision to name an SUV after an ethnic group that has been involved off-and-on in a low-level insurgency against the government of Mali and Niger since the 1960s.
"I cannot comment on whether we would consider changing the name of the car. We are not politically involved with this tribe. We don't have an opinion on this yet," said Christian Buhlmann, a spokesman for Volkswagen AG. "I wasn't even aware of that situation until you told me about it," he added.
Ron Sowell, a salesman at Martens Volvo and Volkswagen in Washington, DC, hadn't heard the news in Mali either, and doesn't think it will affect the car's sales to its target audience, which he describes as "people pretty well educated, degrees, making more than $100,000". He added, "I just think that an automobile and what a tribe does elsewhere doesn't have anything to do with the car they're driving."
What about VW customers a bit closer to the action? A salesman for Volkswagen based in Accra, Ghana said that "now everyone is hearing about the Touareg, but it hasn't affected the popularity of the car." People in Ghana "aren't concerned with what is happening in other countries," said the salesman, who wished to remain anonymous.
Buhlmann added that he could only comment on "what kind of engines we have in the car and where the name came from." He said the name comes from VW's view that people living in the desert are "peaceful," and that "our vehicle would be a very good desert vehicle."
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
Romney's camp seems to be pushing its luck with the aftermath of last week's "hot mic" incident judging by this response to a request from the Obama campaign for the candidate's tax records from his time at Bain capital:
“The Obama campaign is playing politics, just as he’s doing in his conduct of foreign policy," Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul wrote. "Obama should release the notes and transcripts of all his meetings with world leaders so the American people can be satisfied that he’s not promising to sell out the country’s interests after the election is over.”
The argument that all statecraft should be conducted in public so that voters can be sure there's nothing nefarious going on is a pretty impractical one, as quite a few people pointed out when WikiLeaks was making it. (Romney described the WikiLeaks CableGate release as "treason" for what it's worth.)
But questions of practicality aside, it's tempting to wonder just what might be in those transcripts -- or what Romney hopes is in them:
Obama: Mahmoud, I've got to keep up this sanctions stuff until the election. Then I'll get you those centrifuges.
Ahmadinejad: I will transmit this information to the Supreme Leader.
Obama: It's an election season, Hu. You know I've got to talk tough. Next year, I promise I'll get you those 100,000 American jobs I promised.
Hu: I will transmit this information to Xi.
Obama: Stephen, this Keystone stuff is just until November. Then we open up the border and roll out the plan for the Amero.
Harper: I will transmit this information to the NAFTA supercouncil.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images; CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images
Mapmakers and geologists divide the Yangtze River, the third largest in the world, into three sections: China's mighty "Mother River" begins in the Tibetan plateau, slowly gathering strength as it meanders through a relatively barren expanse of rock and ice; then rather suddenly, the river begins to run rapidly as it plunges down a steep gradient, meanwhile swerving around hairpin turns and through steep gorges; in the final stretch, the river courses across relative flatlands and past increasingly large cities before emptying out into the Pacific Ocean near Shanghai.
The upper-middle section is the Yangtze's contested stretch. The steep gradient and fast-running water make it enticing to dam developers, yet this section is also spawning ground for about 40 species of endangered fish, including the Chinese paddlefish, Dabry's sturgeon, and the Chinese suckerfish.
After construction began on Three Gorges Dam -- which changed the river's hydrology and drastically reduced the habitat of fish dependent on low-range rapids to lay and hatch eggs -- China's central government established a protected zone where dams could not be built: the "Upper Yangtze National Nature Reserve for Rare and Endangered Fish" was designated along a free-flowing stretch of the Yangtze between Tiger Leaping Gorge and Three Gorges Dam. It lay, notably, within the boundaries of sprawling Chongqing municipality.
Yesterday, however, ground was broken in Chongqing for development of the Xiao Nan Hai power station. A massive cascade of at least 14 dams is now slated for construction between Tiger Leaping Gorge and Three Gorges Dam. How can this happen? The reason is that in late 2011, the boundaries of the national fish reserve were moved upstream, in spite of the protests of Chinese environmental groups and a series of critical articles in state-run media.
To move a national reserve's boundaries would have required the sign-off of the national Ministry of Environmental Protection, the Ministry of Agriculture (which oversees fisheries), and the State Council. To make this happen would have required the advocacy of someone with substantial political capital.
The developer of the dam cascade is the Three Gorges Dam Corporation, and local media estimate project costs will tally about 33 billion RMB ($5 billion). That's a hefty sum, even though the overall economics of the project are questionable. In terms of per-kilowatt costs, "it will be 2 to 4 times more expensive than dams above and below it," says Li Bo, head of the Beijing-based NGO Friends of Nature, adding: "It's really the last straw for the fish - this is the only remaining free-flowing stretch on the main course of Yangtze River."
Plans to build dams on this section of the Yangtze have been floated since at least the early 1990s, but economic and environmental concerns have repeatedly tabled dam proposals. That changed in 2009 when the Chongqing municipal government, under the leadership of recently deposed Party Secretary Bo Xilai, began to advocate strongly for the Xiao Nan Hai hydropower project, adding it to its list of key projects for the 12th Five-Year Plan period (2011-2015).
One might wonder if pushing the dam project forward was as much about raising Chongqing's GDP -- padding it with that 33 billion RMB -- as about keeping the lights on. "The beneficiary of this dam is going to be Chongqing municipality completely," notes Li Bo. "And we don't understand why one municipality has such a power to abuse nature and threaten the biodiversity of the whole nation."
Since 2009, Li Bo and other Chinese environmentalists have repeatedly surveyed scientists about potential impacts and written concerned letters to Beijing ministries and to the Chongqing Municipal Government. (A video created by the Chinese NGOs about the expected impacts of the dams is visible here.) "This is an extremely important area for biodiversity - and yet all these unbelievable [regulatory] barriers have fallen," says Ma Jun, author of China's Water Crisis and director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs. "It's a very hastened process, even by Chinese standards."
Yet perhaps none of this is surprising in Chongqing. In recent years, the southwestern metropolis has earned a reputation as a place where breakneck development has been advocated at any cost - where varied obstacles, from green regulations to local mobsters, have been unsentimentally flattened. Chongqing's growth target for 2011 was 13.5 percent GDP, the highest in China. And it was this startling growth rate that helped propel Chongqing's former Party Secretary onto the national radar and almost into the very innermost sanctum of Chinese politics. Until his star came crashing down.
The sad irony now is this: The brakes have been slammed on Bo Xilai's political career - but not on all his tenure wrought.
PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images
While, for now unsubstantiated, coup rumors sweep China, a very real coup is underway in Mali. Renegade troups have appeared on state television to announce that they have taken power away from President Amadou Toumani Toure, who they say inadequately supported them in the fight against an ongoing insurgency by Tuareg rebels in the country's north. The army has apparently shut the borders and the whereabouts of Toure, who has been in power since 2002, are unknown. Soldiers are reportedly looting the presidential palace.
Twitter's probably the best way to stay on top of the fast-moving story at the moment. Alex Thurston's Sahel Blog has some good suggestions of feeds to follow as well as some valuable quick analysis.
Given that it was only two years ago that the government of neighboring Niger was overthrown in a military coup, and just weeks since President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives was forced from office -- he claims -- at gunpoint, it's tempting to wonder whether military coups, which are often seen as a relic of Cold War ideological struggles, are returning to the world stage. (The SCAF's seizure of power in Egypt certainly exhibits some classic coup characteristics as well.)
As you can see, the two successful coups we've had this year were essentially the baseline throughout the 60s and 70s. Moreover, the coups that do happen today are more likely to end in at least semi-democratic elections. As Thurston writes of Niger:
Soldiers in Niger intervened to “reset” the civilian democracy after President Mamadou Tandja manipulated the constitution to stay in power. There was no war in Niger at the time. But in light of the coup in Niger, it is not surprising that the coup leaders in Mali have taken on the rhetoric of democracy, naming themselves the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDR) and saying, “We promise to hand power back to a democratically elected president as soon as the country is reunified and its integrity is no longer threatened.”
They may well make good on this promise. If the coup succeeds, there will be massive pressure – in a sense there already is - for Mali to hold elections. In Niger, although again, the situation was different, soldiers were in power for slightly longer than a year before organizing new elections.
Similarly, the Hondruan military leaders that overthrew the government of Manuel Zelaya in 2009 organized elections later that year. There are still a handful of governments run by leaders who took power in recent coups -- Fiji, Mauritania, and Madagascar, for instance -- but it's pretty rare. (The political future of the Maldives is still very much unsettled.)
The reason is that in contrast to the Cold War era, there's generally considerable international pressure brought to bear against new military juntas, rather than incentives from ideologically-driven superpowers for them to remain in power. We're already seeing that pressure brought to bear in Mali:
The African Union said the "act of rebellion" was a "significant setback for Mali".
Kenya's Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula and his delegation are stranded in the country, as Bamako's airport is closed, after attending an AU meeting on peace and security.
The West African regional body Ecowas said the mutinous soldiers' behaviour was "reprehensible" and "misguided".
Additionally, the U.S. has pledged its support to Mali's previous government, and former colonial power France has suspended security cooperation since the coup.
All this means that if Mali's new military rulers are successful in their putsch, there will likely be enormous pressure to go ahead with the presidential election that was already scheduled for next month, and indeed they have already pledged to do so. Of course, with Tuareg rebels making major gains in the north of the country, a return to stability may be too much to hope for.
ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images
Last week, controversial politician Bo Xilai, whose relatively open campaigning for a seat on China's top ruling council shocked China watchers (and possibly his elite peers, as well), was removed from his post as Chongqing's party secretary. He hasn't been seen since. Rumors of a coup, possibly coordinated by Bo's apparent ally Zhou Yongkang, are in the air.
Western media has extensively covered the political turmoil: Bloomberg reported on how coup rumors helped spark a jump in credit-default swaps for Chinese government bonds; the Wall Street Journal opinion page called Chinese leadership transitions an "invitation, sooner or later, for tanks in the streets." The Financial Times saw the removal of Bo, combined with Premier Wen Jiabao's strident remarks at a press conference hours before Bo's removal as a sign the party was moving to liberalize its stance on the Tiananmen square protests of 1989. That Bo staged a coup is extremely unlikely, but until more information comes to light, we can only speculate on what happened.
Reading official Chinese media response about Bo makes it easy to forget how much Chinese care about politics. The one sentence mention in Xinhua, China's official news agency, merely says that Bo is gone and another official, Zhang Dejiang, is replacing him. But the Chinese-language Internet is aflame with debate over what happened to Bo and what it means for Chinese political stability.
Mainland media sites have begun to strongly censor discussion of Bo Xilai and entirely unsubstantiated rumors of gunfire in downtown Beijing (an extremely rare occurance in Beijing). Chinese websites hosted overseas, free from censorship, offer a host of unsupported, un-provable commentary on what might have happened in the halls of power. Bannedbook.org, which provides free downloads of "illegal" Chinese books, posted a long explanation of tremors in the palace of Zhongnanhai, sourced to a "person with access to high level information in Beijing," of a power struggle between President Hu Jintao, who controls the military, and Zhou, who controls China's formidable domestic security apparatus. The Epoch Times, a news site affiliated with the Falun Gong spiritual movement (which banned in China), has published extensively in English and Chinese about the coup.
Speculation is rife: A Canadian Chinese news portal quoted Deutsche Welle quoting the Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily quoting a netizen that a group of citizens unfurled a banner in a main square in Chongqing that said "Party Secretary Bo, We Love and Esteem You," and were subsequently taken away by plain-clothes security forces. A controversial Peking University professor Kong Qingdong, a 73rd generation descendant of Confucius, said on his television show that removing Bo Xilai is similar to "a counter-revolutionary coup;" one news site reported his show has since been suspended.
The Wall Street Journal reports that searching for Bo Xilai's name on Baidu, China's most popular search engine, lacks the standard censorship boilerplate ("according to relevant rules and regulations, a portion of the search results cannot be revealed") that accompanies searching for top leaders like Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao. A recent search for other Politburo members like Bo rival Wang Yang and People's Liberation Army top general Xu Caihou were similarly uncensored. Conversely, searching for Bo's name on Sina's popular Weibo micro-blogging service now doesn't return any relevant results. A censored fatal Ferrari crash on Sunday night has raised suspicions of elite foul play, possibly realted to Bo. The bannedbook.org reports that Hu and Zhou "are currently fighting for control of China Central Television, Xinhua News (the official Communist Party wire service), and other ‘mouthpieces,'" which have been eerily but unsurprisingly taciturn about Bo Xilai.
What we do know, as one message that bounced around Sina Weibo said, is that "something big happened in Beijing."
Norbert Mao is a lawyer and politician in Uganda. He was a presidential candidate in the 2011 general elections. He represented Gulu in the national parliament between 1996 and 2006 and was head of the Gulu Local Government from 2006 to 2011. In 2006 and 2007 he made several trips to South Sudan and the LRA base in Congo campaigning for peace. Here, he shares his thoughts on the Kony 2012 campaign and controversy:
On January 12, 2003, I received my first phone call from Joseph Kony, the elusive leader of the Lord's Resistance Army. At the time, I was a member of parliament representing an area that was the epicenter of the war in Northern Uganda. The call lasted about two hours -- which was remarkable given that Kony was in the bush, and using a sat phone, to boot.
"People should seek to understand the political agenda of the LRA," Kony said over static when I was on the line. "Why are we in the bush?" he asked? "It is because we are resisting oppression. Many people have been to the bush in Uganda. We are also resisting murders committed by the NRA [the National Resistance Army, which brought Uganda's current president, Yoweri Museveni, to power]. You go to places like Acholi Bur, Paimol, Bur Coro, and Anaka and you will find there the mass graves of our people," he told me. "People must recognize that there was a problem. Kony is not the problem. The problem existed before Kony."
The LRA has a complicated history, to say the least. When the group first emerged in 1986, it cloaked itself in the garb of Christianity -- a group that had risen from the ashes of previous rebellions to save the Acholi of Northern Uganda from the onslaught of the National Resistance Army, which had just swept the state a few months earlier. At the time, Uganda was in the throes of state collapse and civil war, with over twenty rebel groups raging throughout the countryside. One by one, the new government managed to pacify each group. The LRA managed to survive, but let its mask slip in the process, the true predatory face of Kony emerging to feast on the people he purported to save.
Over the years, I've spoken to Kony many times and eventually met him face to face in August 2006, when I led a community peace delegation to his hideout in the Congo. We pinned our hopes on him reaching a peace agreement with the Uganda government. Eventually, though, he walked away due to mistrust, an ICC indictment that would have sent him to The Hague, and probably pressure from his backers (the Sudanese government, among them). A great opportunity was missed.
Kony is now heading a multinational guerilla force comprised of mainly abducted children and adult soldiers who were first taken as children. He roams the bush in Sudan, South Sudan, Congo, the Central African Republic, and Chad without hindrance. He has defied the U.N. peace keeping force in Congo. He has also survived many military expeditions aimed at defeating him. He has redefined the rules of asymmetrical war.
This man with whom I've had many encounters is now the subject of a powerful video that has captured the imagination of the world. Is the video a bad thing? I would say no. Has it got gaps? Plenty.
First, to give the impression -- even by omission -- that the victims themselves were passive and did little or nothing to relieve their own suffering is wrong. Before Invisible Children there were many efforts to let the world know what was going on. But the world was distracted. In 1998, in the middle of the insurgency, Bill Clinton came to Uganda and declared the country a peaceful nation. A few weeks later, the LRA marched from Congo into Bwindi National Park in Uganda and killed tourists who were gorilla tracking. Most of the victims were American. For a moment, Kony got some international media, but it soon went quiet. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands in Northern Uganda were displaced and the killings went on.
Second, it has to be said that official neglect on the part of the Ugandan government is responsible for much of the suffering we witness in Kony 2012 -- suffering that was brought on by an incompetent counterinsurgency strategy that, at its height, herded over one million civilians into disease infested and poorly protected camps. Right now it is a point of controversy that U.S. troops are standing shoulder to shoulder with certain Ugandan officers who ought to be charged with war crimes. Americans should shudder at this partnership and demand that the Ugandan government hold accountable those members of its military establishment who need to be tried for crimes against humanity.
Having said all that, I still view the release of Kony 2012 as a positive development. To those critics who say that the video was propelled by less than savory aspects of western media culture that perpetuate the mentality of the white man's burden, I say that western advocacy matters and can make a difference. From the anti-slavery struggle to the anti-colonial struggle, voices from the West have been indispensible. The key is for Africans to influence the direction of that advocacy. We cannot stop it, but we can redirect it. So how do we respond to this video that has convinced the world to bear witness to the untold suffering of Northern Uganda? We can complain about the gaps, but we also have to celebrate the fact that at least part of our story has been told. And told powerfully.
It's clear that the aim of the video was never intellectual stimulation. I don't think the founders of Invisible Children are the foremost analysts of the complicated political, historical and security dynamics in our troubled part of Africa. They certainly wouldn't earn high marks in African Studies. But I will go to my grave convinced that they have the most beautiful trait on earth -- compassion.
Such sentiments matter, even today. There are those who say the war is over in Northern Uganda. I say the guns are silent but the war is not over. The sky is overcast with an explosive mix of dubious oil deals, land grabs, arms proliferation, neglected ex-combatants, and a volatile neighborhood full of regimes determined to fish in troubled waters. What we have is a tentative peace. Our region is pregnant with the seeds of conflict. The military action in the jungles of Congo may capture Kony, but we need to do more to plant the seeds of peace founded on democracy, equitable development, and justice. Like peace, war too has its mothers, fathers, midwives, babysitters, and patrons. Perhaps Kony 2012 will help sort out the actors. The video has certainly shaken the fence, making fence-sitting very uncomfortable, indeed.
The current debate is thus timely. One hopes that the ICC will now have to investigate the Ugandan government. The scrutiny of Invisible Children (its finances and activities) is also a good thing. Communities emerging from conflict need more results than noise. But even more important is that all actors see the need to act with humility. This volatile place is not a project. It is our home. That is why we will never accept anyone closing the door to peace through dialogue.
For more on Kony 2012, see Michael Wilkerson's initial response to the video, David Kenner's comparison to the situation in Syria, past Ugandan government negotiator Betty Bigome's take, and David Rieff's piece on the dangers of Invisible Children's brand of advocacy.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute was come out with the latest update to its Arms Transfers Database, which shows Asian countries -- particularly India -- continuing to drive the global demand for small arms:
India's military build-up, particularly in naval firepower, was FP's top "Story You Missed" in 2011. Altogether Asian countries accounted for 44 percent of global arms imports from 2007 to 2011.
Another major development in this year's numbers is China's transition from weapons importer to exporter. The volume of its exports grew 95 percent between 2002-2006 and 2007-2011, making it the world's sixth largest arms exporter after Britain.
The U.S. is still the world's top arms supplier, accounting for 30 percent of global exports.
Israeli Defense Minister and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak can now add another title to his resume: real estate mogul. On Sunday, it was reported that Barak had sold his notoriously luxurious Tel Aviv apartment in the Akirov Towers, a five-room compound on the 31st floor whose amenities include a gym, outdoor pool, spa, and breathtaking views, for $7 million. In 2003, he paid a mere $3.87 million for the 450-square-foot space.
Naturally, Barak took to Facebook to explain his decision:
"My wife Nili and I decided that the sale was inevitable faced with the recognition that this place of residence created a sense of alienation and detachment from vast sectors of the public."
In true Ehud Barak fashion, the apartment was sold to a foreign company. The veteran kibbutznik, who was raised in a 12-by-9 foot room with no running water or toilets and described his childhood as "happy" and "warm," entered the private sector after stepping down from a failed premiership in 2001. His business ventures included oil shale rock in Jordan, a stint as president of Satcom Systems, Ltd., a mobile communications company with ties to repressive African regimes, a post on the advisory board of venture capital firm Tamir Fishman & Co., and a network of parking lots in Istanbul (which failed). All of these expeditions, though, were peas and carrots compared to his passion for working with international hedge funds. According to son-in-law Zvi Lotenberg, "the bulk of Barak's activity takes place abroad, for a number of the world's largest hedge funds and investment firms, whose names he declined to reveal."
Barak may maintain that he has been transparent regarding his business transactions, and that he has paid his taxes, but in 2006 he put away some money in a favorite tax haven, using "an account of 38 million Japanese yen (the equivalent of $380,000) in the Cayman Islands branch of Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank as collateral to obtain a loan from the bank."
Compared with the corrupt financial escapades of Israeli leaders like former prime minister Ehud Olmert, this is pretty vanilla, but there are certainly more than enough former government officials with extensive tastes in the world. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to the United States, built the 95-acre estate of Hala Ranch in 1991 just miles from Aspen, which was the "most expensive single-family residential property in the nation on the market" when it was listed for $135 million in 2007. Former British prime minister Tony Blair bought a house in London's posh and swanky Connaught Square for 3.5 million pounds. When Jacques Chirac stepped down from the French presidency in May 2007, he rented an apartment overlooking the Seine on Paris' Quai Voltaire. What makes Barak notable is that he's still on the government payroll.
So where will Barak end up next? Perhaps the David Promenade? Or maybe he'll downsize to this four-bedroom stunner on Atzuk Beach? Wherever he ends up, the next home for this cigar-chomping pol promises to be far from the kibbutz.
The Guardian appears to have come across a major scoop: a cache of 3,000 emails written by Syrian regime insiders, including President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma. The e-mails were reportedly leaked to a Syrian opposition group by "a mole in the president's inner circle," and many of them were verified to the Guardian by a number of people whose emails appear in the cache. The emails also include information -- family photographs, Assad's identity card, and a family member's birth certificate -- that would be difficult to fake.
The emails paint a picture of a Syrian leadership that is more bumbling and oblivious than villainous: On the day after the Syrian military began shelling the city of Homs, for example, Bashar sent Asma a video of country crooner Blake Shelton's song God Gave Me You. A look at the president's iTunes purchases also shows that he purchased the iPad game Real Racing 2 in February and is a fan of American singer Chris Brown.
The Assads also apparently communicate in an informal English rather than Arabic. In one email, Asma, to express her detail that Assad said he would be home at 5 p.m., writes: "This is the best reform any country can have that u told me where will you be, we are going to adopt it instead of the rubbish laws of parties, elections, media..."
The e-mails also provide hints of Iranian involvement in the efforts to suppress the uprising that has threatened Assad's rule for the past year. At one point, a media advisor provides Assad with a long memo ahead of a speech in December, saying that the points covered had been cased on consultations with "the media and political adviser for the Iranian ambassador." The same memo urges Assad to employ "powerful and violent" language to attack foreign influence on Syrian affairs.
But it's the pervasive sense that the Assads are out of touch that shines through in the e-mails, beyond anything else. Perhaps Vogue had it right all along: Asma is apparently an Internet shopaholic, buying enough luxury items to stock a Tom Wolfe novel: Necklaces of amethyst, diamond, and onyx; a Ming Luce vase; and roughly $15,000 worth of candlesticks, tables, and chandeliers -- all while the country was falling apart around her.
But while the Assads may be out of touch, it appears that at least some in their inner circle understands the gravity of the situation. In response to one e-mail from Asma about a pair of $4,000 Christian Louboutin heels, one friend replied: "I don't think they're going 2 b useful any time soon unfortunately."
MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images)
Here's a puzzle. A video calling for international action to capture Joseph Kony, a Ugandan guerilla who commands a couple hundred men and has killed 151 civilians during the past year, has been viewed by a whopping 76 million people on Youtube. Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- who boasts 600,000 men under arms, along with almost 5,000 battle tanks, and who often kills over 100 people a day, according to activists -- generates exponentially less outrage.
The imbalance is particularly striking on Twitter. According to al-Jazeera social media head Riyaad Minty, the #Syria hashtag has been used around 6.6 million times over the last three months. By comparison, the #Kony hashtag has been used 11.5 million times -- in the past seven days. Obviously, there's something about Joseph Kony that pushes an audience's buttons in a way that Syria fails to do.
I asked Minty why he thinks that is. He said that he wasn't surprised by the disparity in the coverage between Syria and Joseph Kony: The uprising in Syria, after all, has been dragging on for a year, and the coverage -- often captured in grainy YouTube clips or dry accounts of dozens of people slaughtered in an anonymous city -- isn't favorable for attracting a wider audience.
"Syria isn't as personal, in terms of the narrative that is being presented," Minty said. "There's a lot of death and destruction, but it just doesn't have that personal connection for people."
The Kony video, by comparison, is just the opposite. It was professionally produced, told a straightforward story of victims and villains, and advanced a simple message: Stop Kony. "The way it was done -- it was like a Hollywood production," said Minty. "It was very slick, it was targeted to a very specific audience, and it got people's emotions up because you could connect with it."
That's the formula for attracting the likes of Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga to your cause, and becoming the fastest-growing viral video of all time. Syria, where the debate over intervention often seems to be a choice between a series of flawed options and journalists in the country have reportedly been targeted by Assad's forces, will have a hard time duplicating the Kony video's success.
The bigger question is whether any of this Internet-based sturm und drang can be translated into real-world action. Minty found that, during the peak of global interest in the Kony video, only about 140 tweets came out of Uganda regarding the story, and that Ugandans wrote only about 2,000 comments on Facebook out of a pool of 5 million -- a drop in the bucket compared to the deluge of comments coming from the United States and Europe.
Sure, many Syrians would love to see a viral video bringing international attention to the Assad regime's atrocities. But it's going to be the hard realities on the ground, and the decisions made by calculating men in foreign capitals -- not YouTube -- that determines the future of Syria.
The Sydney Morning Herald reports:
The Pacific nation of Kiribati is negotiating to buy land in Fiji so it can move islanders under threat from rising sea levels, in what could be the first climate-induced relocation of a country.
Anote Tong, the Kiribati President, said he was in talks with Fiji's military government to buy up to 2000 hectares of freehold land on which his 113,000 countrymen could resettle.
Some of Kiribati's 32 flat coral atolls, which straddle the equator over 3.5 million square kilometres of ocean, are already disappearing. The total land area is 811 square kilometres and the average elevation is less than two metres above sea level.
Relocation is still a last resort. Kiribati President Anote Tong is hoping to start by relocating some of this citizens to the Fijian island, to farm, and haul away landfill by barge to stop the sea's encroachment on his own country.
Obviously relocation on this scale would be unprecedented, but Kiribati isn't the only Pacific island facing this dilemma. Now-ousted Maldives President Mohammed Nasheed tried to highlight this emerging crisis with his underwater cabinet meeting in 2009.
Since 2003, the government of Papua New Guinea has been slowly evacuating the entire population of dwindling Cataret Islands. Sun Come Up, a 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary on the Cateret evacuation is well worth a watch.
TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images
Bolivian authorities say at least 30 people have been injured in a fight between two communities over land for growing quinoa, the Andean "supergrain" whose popularity with worldwide foodies has caused its price to soar.
Oruro state police chief Ramon Sepulveda says combatants used rocks and dynamite against each other Wednesday and Thursday. A government commission was dispatched to the two high plains communities south of La Paz.
Farmland in the region is owned not by individuals but communities.
Authorities say the dispute is related to climate change because quinoa can now be cultivated in areas previously subject to frequents frosts. Bolivia produces 46 percent of the world's quinoa, which has nearly tripled in price in the past five years.
For the "How Food Explains the World" package for the last May/June issue, I looked at how quinoa's international popularity has effected eating habits in Bolivia. Prices have skyrocketed thanks to export demand and domestic consumption of the nutritious grain has fallen by more than a third, prompting fears of an obesity epidemic as Bolivians switch to rice and white bread. President Evo Morales' government subsidizes quinoa as a "strategic foodstuff."
ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images
As pundits debate whether or not Xi Jinping will follow in the footsteps of current President Hu Jintao, we at FP would like to point out something he does share with his predecessor: a dangerously enticing name for Anglophone headline writers to abuse.
Xi, visiting the United States this week, will likely be appointed this fall as China's next President. Journalists, let us be the first to sound the warning: avoid the temptation (that we have already succumbed to several times) of a Xi headline pun!
From the FP editorial staff, here's a list of ten Xi headlines NOT to use:
1. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea: "Xi's Gotta Have It."
2. A profile of his teenage years: "Xi was only 16."
3. His second visit to Iowa: "There Xi Goes Again."
4. His portrayal in Chinese state media: "Isn't Xi Lovely?" (Or "Xi Will Be Loved.")
5. A Chinese Gorbachev: "Xi Change."
6. Bizarre policy choices: "Xi Moves in Mysterious Ways."
7. A definitive chronicle of his speeches: "That's What Xi Said."
8. His meeting with Henry Kissinger: "The Old Man and the Xi."
9. On a conflict with the current head of the disciplinary committee: "He Said Xi Said."
10. His stylish sartorial choices: "Ain't Nothing But a Xi Thing."
This is by no means a comprehensive list. Please let us know any suggestions you have for other Xi headlines that should be banned- either write them in the comments section or send them to me via twitter: @isaacstonefish. Whoever comes up with the worst Xi headline pun will win a free copy of the book "Becoming China's Bitch."
Update: After careful consideration, we at FP have decided that the worst headline pun imaginable is China announces new high speed train line: "Xi's Got a Ticket to Ride." Thanks to twitter user @james_s_evans for his submission! Honorable mention to @christophercherry for his China Daily all-purpose headline: "Every Little Thing Xi Does is Magic." We look forward to future contests if Shanghai Party Secretary Yu, Standing Committee Member He, or Director of the United Front Work Department Du become trending topics.
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
In the category of least-surprising news of the weekend, Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov was reelected with 97 percent of the vote. The remaining three percent was spread among seven "opposition" candidates who spent most of the campaign lavishing praise on the former dentist.
Berdimuhamedov seems to have gained some support, or at least some confidence, since 2007 when he was elected with 89 percent of the vote following the death of his predecessor and mentor Saparmurat Niyazov. It doesn't quite match Niyazov's 99.5 percent in 1992, but it puts him well ahead of regional peers like Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov and Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev, who won the comparatively paltry totals of 90.77 percent and 80.7 percent respectively in their most recent reelections.
In today's world, even the most blatantly undemocratic governments feel the need to hold periodic elections to reaffirm their legitimacy. But I'm always interested by the final numbers in elections where there's absolutely no question of who will win. The 90 percent mark seems to be a useful line to distinguish between the authoritarian governments that care about the international perception of their elections and want to present the appearance of having an opposition, and those that care only about demonstrating their absolute control to their own citizens.
While neither is a democratic contest, there is a difference -- in intended effect at least -- between Hosni Mubarak getting 88.6 percent of the vote in 2005 and Bashar al-Assad getting 97.62 percent in a “presidential referendum,” with no opposition candidates, as he did in 2007. Then there’s the 99 percent club, which includes the Castro brothers, and Kim Jong Il. Saddam Hussein went for the full 100 percent in 2002, but then again, he was overthrown a year later. (Why a dictator decides between winning by 97 percent or 99 percent isn't quite clear.)
In general, when a former 90-percenter start slipping below that mark – as Mubarak did in 2005 -- it’s not a good sign for the future of the regime. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union won 100 percent in every legislative election until 1984, when the party, led by General Secretary Konstantin Chernenko, won 71.5 percent, with the rest going to handpicked “independents.” Seven years later the Communists were done.
Today's Russia is something of a hybrid. In the last legislative elections, the ruling United Russia party took 64.3 percent of the vote nationwide, the kind of number you see in an authoritarian country that feels the need to demonstrate that it has at least a token opposition. (Iran, for instance.) But in Chechnya, United Russia took a Turkmenistan-like 99.48 percent of the vote with 99.5 percent turnout -- quite a show of support in a republic that recently saw a bloody nationalist uprising against Moscow.
Another related question: what’s the most lopsided victory in a national election generally considered democratic? Jacques Chirac beat Jean-Marie Le Pen with 82.21 percent of the vote in 2002 French presidential election, but that was a run-off after he had failed to break 20 percent in the first round. Same with Lech Walesa’s 74.3 percent in Poland’s first democratic election.
The winner among current democratic leaders – readers please correct me if I’m wrong – might be South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, who took 65.9 percent of the popular vote in 2009. This is slightly less than Nelson Mandela won in 1994, the first year black South Africans were allowed to vote.
The numbers can often be a bit lopsided in new democracies. India’s Congress Party, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, won 44.99 percent of the vote in India’s 1951 election, compared to only 3.29 percent for the second-place party.
In the first two U.S. presidential elections, George Washington ran unopposed and took 100 percent of the vote. James Monroe also ran unopposed in 1820. The most lopsided contested presidential election in U.S. history was Thomas Jefferson’s victory over Charles Cotesworth Pinckney in 1804. With a bit over 72 percent of the popular vote, (electors were chosen by state legislatures in 6 of the 17 states at that time), the author of the Declaration of Independence won with a higher percentage than Vladimir Putin or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have ever managed to muster.
Question for readers: Has any national candidate ever won over 90 percent in a first-round election against real opposition without cheating? 80 percent?
Update: Several readers suggest the 2004 post-Rose Revolution Georgian presidential election in which Mikheil Saakashvili won 96 percent of the vote. The vote got a mostly clean bill of health from the OSCE.
This blog does not have any specific about information tied to it.