Stolen Babies Trials in Argentina

During the Dirty War in Argentina, that is the period between 1976 and 1983 which corresponds to the military dictatorship of General Jorge Rafael Videla, the military junta found a very convenient way of getting rid of their political opposition and of making sure the next generation would not be a problem. The regime would target young pregnant women among the opposition groups, arrest them but let them go through their pregnancies and give birth. THEN, the mothers would be killed and the babies were adopted by military families… that part alone really justifies the use of the term “dirty” in “dirty war.”

Argentina, as a country, is now dealing with the consequences of the dirty war through trials of the participants to the baby-stealing practice. But obviously, things are not easy, especially for a group that has been at the heart of exposing the practice: the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. The children of these women are the disappeared of the dirty war. Now, they want to know what happened to their grandchildren and be reunited with them.

But, as the trials gainst the actors of the junta started to happen, as related in the Independent:

“The 9-millimetre gun and the letter found next to the lifeless body of Lt-Col Paul Alberto Ravone seemed to indicate suicide. Argentine human rights groups, however, suspect foul play as he is not the first key witness in a baby-theft trial to turn up dead. (…) Ravone, 65 and retired, was due to testify on 3 March in a case involving the theft of twins born to a political dissident in a military hospital in 1976. Shortly before, the twins’ parents had been arrested and joined the ranks of the 30,000 desaparecidos or disappeared.”

The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo claim that witnesses are being eliminated. Ravone is not the first potential witness to die in suspicious circumstances. In addition to these suspicious deaths, the Independent relates two opposite cases of grandchildren.

Desparecidos

In the first case, Evelyn Vasquez, now 30, will not willingly submit to DNA testing because she does not want her adoptive parents prosecuted and she has no interest in being reunited with her biological family. Because of her refusal, the police raided her apartment in search traces of DNA. The second case is that of Maria Eugenia Sampallo who is now pressing charges against her adoptive parents for kidnapping and lying on her birth certificate. She has been reunited with her biological relatives but her parents, of course, both labor organizers, are dead. Her adoptive parents could spend up to 15 years in prison. Ms Vasquez is the exception. Those who find the truth about their parents are more likely to cut ties with their adoptive families.

It is an important case to remember that there is such a thing as collective trauma, when an entire society was brutalized. In this case, it has been over 20 years since the end of the dirty war and the Argentinian society is not done purging itself from the long-term consequences of the regime’s impact. Obviously, the truth commission did not do a complete job, largely because the military has stalled and tried to prevent the full disclosure of the extent of its deeds.

Photo Source: Wikipedia Commons

Deforestation Zero and Anti-Poverty Drive in Brazil

LulaSuch is the objective of Brazilian President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, as reported in Le Monde.

Amazonie brésilienne : la déforestation s’aggrave
LE MONDE | 29.02.08

© Le Monde.fr

This is a difficult challenge as deforestation has accelerated in the Amazon region since Summer 2007. During that period, 7,000 km2 were deforested to make room for beets, sugar cane and soybeans cultivation. At this rate, by Summer 2008, deforestation will have increased by 34%. Urgent measures are needed.

So, Lula has created a special police units, which should have 1,000 officers by April 2008, tasked with fighting illegal logging. He also reintroduced satellite surveillance. A major problem, according to Greenpeace Brazil, is that the fines levied on violators are too low to have any impact, and they’re hardly even paid in the first place.

As activist as the Brazilian government seems to be, the article states that Brazil is faced with a choice common to a lot of countries from the Global South: to choose between environmental conservation or economic growth. This is a very annoying view. Le Monde repeats the common nonsense that this is an either-or problem: either you protect the environment (with the implication that your economic growth will stink) or you focus on economic growth and environmental concerns and policies have to be out aside. Passing knowledge with the field of ecological social sciences, or just Lester Brown’s work, would have allowed Le Monde to realize that there is no incompatibility between economic growth, social responsibility and environmental sustainability (what is known in the responsible commerce movement as “the triple bottom line”)… but back to the article.

One of the problems for Brazil (and I would argue for global economic institutions such as the IMF or the World Bank and most thinking on the subject) is that, according to Sergio Abranches, a sociologist specialized in political ecology, the model of development that seems to prevail dates back to the 1950s.

Marina Silva, the Minister of the Environment in Lula’s government, promotes sustainable exploitation (something that should be common sense) in zones called “units of conservation” through the surveillance of public forests (40% of all forests). Privatization of public forests, then, should be conditioned on “clean” development.

According to Brazilian sources, it is in the interest of Brazil to take care of the Amazon area, otherwise, external pressure and intervention might lead to an internationalization of the management of the area. This would be an embarrassment that Brazil would rather avoid. But with the money to be made from burning down the rain forest, it is an uphill battle.

Unfortunately, this is not the only uphill battle that the government has to tackle.

From the BBC,

“The Brazilian government has unveiled a multi-billion dollar anti-poverty plan to provide jobs and infrastructure in the poorest parts of the country. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said the biggest cost to the country was not taxes but a century in which poor people had been forgotten. The programme, which will see some $6bn (£3bn) spent in 2008 alone, still has to be approved by Congress.

The initiative, known as “Territories of Citizenship”, is meant to help around 24 million people, including rural workers and indigenous communities. The money, which is part of the existing budget, will be used to supplement 135 policies, involving 15 government departments, that are focused on 958 towns in states across the country. The government is also promising to finally reach its target in the “Light for Everyone” programme to bring electricity to poor communities.”

Opposition politicians are suggesting that this initiative my have to do with upcoming elections. Maybe so, it does not mean such a program is not needed. Does it mean that governments should stop doing anything because it is an election year and any initiative would therefore be suspicious? That would be the case if it were a futile program.

And if the poor really do get improvements in their living conditions, then the government responsible for such improvements should be rewarded electorally. Period.

Microsoft gets Macrofine from the European Union

Via Der Spiegel,

“The European Commission on Wednesday levied the biggest fine in its history against Microsoft, penalizing the software company to the tune of €899 million. Microsoft has pledged to mend its ways — again.”

That would be $1.3 billion, give or take a few pennies. Do I detect a touch of skepticism on the part of our German friends regarding the sincerity of Microsoft contrition (I’d be contrite too with a fine like that though)? The fine is because Microsoft has not complied with anti-trust verdict already imposed in 2o04 by the Commission (hence Der Spiegel’s skepticism). So, the final tab for Microsoft is now at $2.5 billion after a 10-year battle with the EU.

“The record fine stems from a 1998 case triggered by Sun Microsystems, which complained that Microsoft had not required adequate technical information enabling non-Microsoft products to operate on computers running Microsoft Windows. In a number of decisions at the beginning of this decade, the Commission found that Microsoft was abusing its dominant market position to squelch competition and ordered it to make more information available so that server operating systems from other companies — such as Sun — could work with PCs running Windows.”

Well, yeah, it’s capitalism 101… you can’t have monopolistic behavior because then, we, consumers, get lousy products, not worth the amounts of money we spend on them. The EC has been pretty big on having competition in that domain. I have never been a big fine of the Commission, mostly because I see it as having too much power for a non-elected entity, as opposed to the European Parliament, and also as spending its time mostly pushing for deregulation, but in this case, I’ll suspend my hostility. And now that Microsoft has promised to behave, I guess all is right with the world.

But, man, that’s a BIG fine.

Fears of Food Scarcity

Via le Monde, the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) fears that overfishing and pollution are threatening the worldwide stock of fish in the decades to come. It is a serious problem considering that 2.6 billion people depend on fish as their major source of proteins.

The UNEP report estimates that climate change is making the situation worse through the destruction coral reefs and breeding sites for tuna and through the modification of marine currents which affect plankton, small fish and therefore the oceans’ food chains. Christian Nellemann, the main author of the report, estimates that it will take the earth about one million years to recover from everything we are doing to the earth. On a shorter term, he states that we can expect a 50% reduction in coral reefs by 2050 and the most heavily fished areas will be affected for at least a century, and by 2100, an increase in acid content in the water might prevent molluscs from growing shells.

But that is not the only bad news on the food front.
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Censorship at the Cesar Ceremony

Mathieu AmalricFor his performance in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Mathieu Amalric received the Cesar (French equivalent of the Oscars) for Best Actor. It is well deserved. However, on the day of the ceremony, the actor was in Panama filming the next James Bond film (there’s gonna be an another James Bond film?? Good grief). So, he had given a written version of his acceptance speech for the MC to read in case he won the Cesar.

However, according to Le Nouvel Observateur, only half of Amalric got read, leaving out the part where the actor criticized multiplexes and expressed support for independent movie theaters. Mathieu Amalric then released the complete version of his speech to the Agence France Presse. In it, he accuses multiplexes of caring only about the bottom line, of fostering solitude (“have you ever talked to someone at a multiplex?”) as opposed to the community connections that independent theaters establish with schools or the public in general, conducting underground work to dig up cinematographic gems.

Photo Source: SIPA from article.

Deindustrialization – Act II

Or at least, according to French economist Elie Cohen in le Monde:

Elie Cohen, économiste : “Après la période 1978-1985, nous assistons à une deuxième vague de désindustrialisation en France depuis 2002″
LEMONDE.FR | 18.02.08

© Le Monde.fr

Elie Cohen locates the first wave of deindustrialization between 1978 and 1985 (which cost France one third of its industrial jobs). He contends that a second wave started in France in 2002, with a loss of 500,000 industrial jobs, following major plant closings. However, deindustrialization also refers to the diminishing importance of industry in the overall economy, usually accompanied by an increase in the economic weight of the service sector.

This trend seems unique to France as other countries, such as Germany or Italy were better able to limit the extent of their deindustrialization whereas others such as Ireland and Spain actually industrialized during that period. This is a worrisome trend, for Cohen. It is all the more so that this loss cannot be attributed to delocalizations (closing down plants in France to open them somewhere else while reimporting production back into France). According to Cohen, delocalization represents between 3 and 10% of the loss of industrial employment.

However, outsourcing (replacing French suppliers with foreign suppliers for companies whose production remains in France) is more significant, for instance, as we see in the case of the automobile industry.

And then, there is relocalization: when a company that used to export from France, opens a subsidiary outside of France and exports from there.

According to Cohen, one of the problems is that France finds itself in competition with other countries for its high-tech, high-value industries and not just for basic industry, as a result of the lack of investment in R&D and innovation. And of course, the cost of industrial labor remains a central issue when emerging countries from the Global South can offer low wages. Additionally, the high cost of the Euro might actually hurt European exports. As a result, France’s position is deteriorating vis a vis not only the Global South but also other European countries.

Cohen’s larger point is that deindustrialization is a normal phenomenon for core countries. As part of the new international division of labor, core countries shed their basic industries. As they become richer, their citizens become greater consumers of services. In that case, France’s comparative advantage should lie in expensive labor producing expensive goods and services that are in high demands. But this has not happened because of the weakness in the network of small and medium-sized businesses dedicated to innovation for export. Germany has been more successful in that regard.

A good example of such a failure to innovate is seen in France’s automobile industry, which has not produced a hybrid line and a general aging of the line of vehicles. Considering the fact that China has made it clear that it wants to launch its own automobile sector, there is reason to worry.

What should be the role of the government in this? No nationalization, says Cohen, the time has come and gone for that. Industries that are non-productive and do not attract investments should disappear. However, there is a role for the government

  • Invest in innovation and R&D, with public/private partnerships and fiscal incentives

  • EU-wide innovation initiatives especially in the sectors of environment, sustainability, energy or health

  • Promote research centers within universities with competitive technology poles where university, research labs, local collectivities and business meet

  • Promote sustainable industries (solar panels, for instance)
  • Develop a specific public policy to promote small and medium-sized businesses

For Cohen, industry still plays an important part in French economy and should continue to do so, but it should not hold on to the old industries and should invest in new, profitable ones that are in high demands. The French economy still relies more heavily on industries than on services. It is not on the path to complete deindustrialization, as England did. There is still industrial growth going on in France.

This interview with Elie Cohen clearly flies in the face of simplified depictions of a completely deindustrialized Europe. There are nuances in structures and policies across these different national economies. The industrial sector is not itself dead but in transition from traditional industries, slowly disappearing, to new, high-tech / high-value / high-demand industries which should constitute France’s comparative advantage.

To be continued then…

Sexism in All Shapes and Forms – British Edition

I have a hunch that this sexism series will become a permanent, never-ending feature of this blog. First off, this article from the Guardian, relating to what happens to women’s careers once they have children. It is a familiar story but we need to report on these things as long as they happen.

“For decades mothers of young children have complained about not being taken seriously in the workplace, but research published today reveals for the first time the extent to which professional women are forced to slide down the career ladder to find jobs that allow them to spend time with their family.”

Employers are not exactly family-friendly when it comes to helping their female employees manage work and family decisions… well blow me over with a goddamn feather! But this time, there is a study with data to measure the extent to which this downward career slide happens.

“Almost half of women professionals who downgrade to lower skilled part-time roles move to jobs where the average employee does not have A-levels, leaving three years or more of higher level education and training underused, according to academics at Oxford University and University of East Anglia. “The ‘one-and-a-half breadwinner’ model is not doing well by the more highly-qualified among Britain’s mothers,” they conclude. “At present the low quality of many part-time jobs means that women are paying the price of reconciling work and family.””

The research article calls this phenomenon the “hidden brain drain”. I think we should keep this expression in mind because it encapsulates a profound and long-lasting phenomenon unlikely to disappear anytime soon. How extensive is the hidden brain drain?

“It found that a third of female corporate managers moved down the career ladder after having a child. Two-thirds of that number took clerical positions and the rest moved into other lower skill jobs. Women managers of shops, salons and restaurants were more seriously affected by occupational downgrading. Almost half gave up their managerial responsibilities to become sales assistants, hairdressers or similar roles when they sought part-time jobs after motherhood.”

The most women-friendly occupations are also the traditionally women-heavy occupations: nursing and teaching. But even then, 10% of women would quit to take on lower jobs. In most Western countries, part-time jobs account for a big part of the wage gap between men and women since women are more likely to be in such positions.

It is gender studies 101: these are choices that men hardly ever have to face. Having to figure out a decent or livable trade-off between career and family is more likely to be a woman’s dilemma that was described a long time ago by writers such as Arlie Hochschild. If it looks like nothing has changed, it’s because nothing has all that much.

“Mary Gregory, an economist at Oxford University and co-author of the report with Sara Connolly of the University of East Anglia, said: “This loss of career status with part-time work is a stark failure among otherwise encouraging trends for women’s advancement. Girls and young women are outperforming males at all educational levels. They are moving into an expanding range of occupations, and building successful careers. The gender pay gap is narrowing. But for many all this comes to an abrupt halt when childcare claims part of the working week.””

What is the solution? The research article suggests that offering flexible and reduced hours to professional women with children should be made mandatory. Even market advocates should get behind the idea of not losing professional women’s talents to childrearing. It does not seem good for the whole global competition thing. How about data comparing men and women?

“Before having children, more than four-fifths of working women are in full-time employment, but once they become mothers only a third of those who have pre-school children and work were employed full time. For fathers, the pattern went the other way, with 91% of working men employed full time prior to having children, while 96% of working fathers with a pre-school child are full time.”

Of course, once women start their downward spiral, there is less competition for men on their way up the corporate ladder. There is no question that even relatively progressive countries like England need to do a hell of a lot more when it comes to working women. The work structure is still largely organized as if the unusual “breadwinner – homemaker” family structure was the norm and as if there had been no economic, educational and social changes for women in the past thirty years. There need to be both attitudinal and structural changes.

Error 404 – Patent and Art

So, Amazon decided to patent error 404, you know when you click on a link and all you get is “HTTP 404 File Not Found”. The exact title of the patent in question is “Error processing methods for providing responsive content to a user when a page load error occurs“. The purpose of the patent is to provide live content on the error page, based on cached page, user navigation history or links. Of course, the error page could contain advertising and commercial content to retain the user. One only speculate how prominent an amazon.com link would be.

After reporting on this story, Liberation took a little tour on the Intertubes to check out customized 404 pages. Here are my favorites:

My personal favorite is no longer available, so, you get a screen capture:

404 - Electro Asylum

A gazillion creative 404 pages can be found here as well.

What Bad Governance Looks Like – France Edition

It seems that every time I read about a new political initiative by Nicholas Sarkozy and his government, it’s something stupid or something stupid AND harmful, or it has to do with our President’s nice temperament. Case in point, the national agriculture fair that takes place every year and where every president is required to go play folksy with the peasants, or more accurately, go be chummy with big corn and big cows. It’s a required ritual where the president and the agribusiness complex get to discuss how much subsidies they will demand from the European Union. But this year was different, as Le Monde reports:

“Pauvre con va”, glisse un Sarkozy vexé à un homme qui l’offense
LEMONDE.FR | 23.02.08

© Le Monde.fr

Le Parisien has the video of Sarkozy, shaking hands with the crowds, and when a man rejects his handshake (“don’t touch me, you’re gonna get me dirty” said the guy), then Sarkozy retorts “Then beat it, you jerk!.” Classy (the other guy was not much better). Mr. President can be testy. This is not the first time that he has such reactions when faced with non-supporters. It is also well-known that he only tolerates doormats in his team. Of course, it’s on YouTube

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/0tNdNxvmH-4" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Has this incident been blown out of proportion? Not really when one remembers that the President likes media attention when it’s convenient, like putting himself on display with his then-fiancee. But we have certainly never seen that type of rude behavior from a President. Any politician has faced rude people while working the crowd. That goes with the territory. The only question is whether Sarkozy is more likely to attract these kinds of rude comments as he tends to be aggressive when confronted and confuses rude provocation with straight talk.

As president, he is supposed to be above ordinary rude behavior. I think Arnaud de Montebourg’s analysis in Le Nouvel Observateur is spot on:

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Back to the Cold War – The New Arms Race

According to Liberation, and based on data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the world is rearming at a fast pace, except for countries of the European Union.

The data from SIPRI show that in 2006, countries spent $1,204 billions. That represents a 3.5% increase from 2005 and 2.5% of the world’s GDP. The bottom line is that we are back to 1988 / Cold War levels of military spending.

So, who’s ahead in the new arms race? India, China, Japan, Australia, Middle Eastern and North African countries, and South America to a lesser extent.

Who sells these weapons? The United States remains the major exporter (55% of arms sales), followed by the UK (14%), Russia (approximately 10%), France (around 6%), and Israel (around 5%). Some newcomers to the trade are pushing their way up, though, most noticeably South Africa, Brazil, China, South Korea, Pakistan and India.

Very reassuring.