Friday, October 31, 2008

Libya pays damages to settle U.S. lawsuits

News from the U.S. State Department that Libya has paid the last $1.5 billion it owed to settle remaining claims from terrorism cases and open the door to full diplomatic relations with the United States is strange news, indeed. It's hard to think of an outlaw nation like Libya and its crazy leader, Moammar Gadhafi, rejoining the world of civilized nations, but that's precisely what happened today when U.S. President Bush signed an executive order restoring that country's standing, according to the Reuters international news service. After all, this is the same North African country that has been blamed for acts of international terrorism, such as the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people, and the 1986 bombing of a discotheque in Berlin. U.S. warplanes bombed Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986 after the discotheque bombing that killed two U.S. soldiers. The top U.S. diplomat in the Middle East, David Welch, who negotiated the complex deal with Libya, called the country's rehabilitation from terrorist nation to U.S. ally "historic." The author of the Libyan Claims Resolution Act, Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, applauded Friday's development. "American victims and their families have waited decades for Libya to pay for its deadly acts of violence and today they have received long-overdue justice," he said, according to Reuters. "I am pleased that our relentless pressure and support for terror victims has led to this historic moment." Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice visited Libya in September, the first visit by such a high-ranking U.S. official since 1953, after negotiations that took months to resolve.

Keeping secrets

Is it any wonder that the military tribunal system being used for Guantanamo inmates has been widely panned and discredited? Friday's verdict in the trial of a man accused of being Osama bin Laden's media director, Ali Hamza al Bahlul, is another amazing example. The military jury in the case of Al Bahlul, who could face life in prison, reached its verdict on Friday but officials have decided not to announce it until Monday because the judge, Air Force Col. Ron Gregory, wanted to give the military guards the weekend off, according to the Reuters international news service. While everybody needs a day off once in awhile and the process of moving a detainee from the prison to the court is said to be laborious, it certainly seems astonishing disrespectful to the suspect and disrespectful of his inalienable right as a human being to deprive him of the knowledge of what his future is going to be because of convenience. And this is no exception. The history of the Guantanamo Bay prison for terrorism suspects and, indeed, its very creation, illustrates a profound lack of respect or understanding of societal principles on the part of the Bush administration and, to the rest of the world, the United States.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

"No more" means "a lot more" in market bailout lingo

Surprising news out of Washington today is that the U.S. Treasury Department is not interesting in subsidizing General Motors Corp.'s proposed acquisition of its long-ailing competitor, Chrysler. The Bush administration told General Motors that it could get enough money to survive from the $25 billion in factory retooling funds approved by Congress last month, according to the Reuters international news service. The administration will try to speed up distribution of that money, an unnamed official told Reuters, but does not favor giving the country's largest automaker any more money. General Motors asked for the $10 billion earlier this week, on top of the $25 billion intended to help lubricate the development of fuel-efficient cars, industry sources told Reuters. "Treasury is not negotiating with the automakers, the administration is working to get the $25 billion Congress already authorized to the industry," the official said. But the Treasury Department also confirmed that GMAC and Chrysler Financial, the financing arms of the two companies, would be eligible to sell distressed loans to the government under the administration's $700 billion market buyout plan if they registered as bank holding companies, Reuters said, making that "no more" seem disingenuous. GM has already begun the registration process, Reuters said. To add to the looming cost, ailing Ford Motor Co., the nation's second-largest automaker, also said Thursday that it expected a "degree of parity" if the government gave billions of dollars to GM.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

U.S. government finally focuses on foreclosure victims

Thousands of foreclosures and $700 billion later, has the U.S. government finally recognized that its responsibility is to its citizens, not to its financial system? The Reuters international news service reported Wednesday that regulators are working on a $600 billion program to keep homeowners from losing their homes to foreclosure. As many as 3 million foreclosures could be avoided under the plan being drafted by Treasury and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Reuters said. The plan provides federal guarantees to encourage lenders to ease the terms of troubled mortgages at minimal cost, since the intent of the program is to prevent defaults on home loans, according to Reuters. "We are working with the White House and through the policy process on a range of foreclosure-prevention options," Treasury spokeswoman Jennifer Zuccarelli said. That's about the best news yet in the financial crisis threatening to cause a worldwide recession or worse, and it's about time. Instead of worrying about where the banks that caused the problem are going to get taxpayers' money to pay dividends to their shareholders, it's about time somebody paid attention to the real victims of the lending meltdown. "We're always reviewing proposals to help homeowners," White House spokesman Tony Fratto said, as if nobody has been paying attention to the attention the Bush administration has been paying to wealthy investment companies. The government will be announcing the program in the next few days, an unnamed source told Reuters.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Reality bites chief Palestinian negotiator

Thanks for stating the obvious, but how could anyone still think that Palestinian and Israeli authorities would be able to wrap up a peace agreement before U.S. President George W. Bush leaves office? It should seem obvious that both sides know what has to be done but neither has the political will or guts to do it. This non-story returned to the news Monday when top Palestinian peace negotiator Ahmed Qurie told a conference in Israel that "I don't think that we will be able to reach an agreement this year," according to the Reuters international news service. "The process is difficult and the political situation on both sides is difficult," said Qurie, a former prime minister when Yasir Arafat led the Palestinian Authority. Thanks for the help. It doesn't take a genius to speak the obvious truth, but it does apparently take someone with more honesty than Qurie. Qurie, and most analysts, equate the political turmoil of coalition-building in Israel with the open rebellion dominating the Palestinian Authority. These things are not the same. Even Reuters called the situation "divisions among Palestinians and political instability in Israel." Divisions among Palestinians? They're in open revolt, with millions living under a different government than the Palestinian Authority. Political instability? That's politics in most of the West -- and that would be stability, not instability. Egypt has called a summit between the Palestinian factions in Cairo on Nov. 5, and will try to bring them together. Otherwise, there's no point to negotiating with the Israelis.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Dalai Lama admits failure of autonomy talks

Troubling news from India is that the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who has long campaigned for autonomy from the Chinese government, has given up hope for a peaceful settlement. "Because of lack of response from the Chinese, we have to be realistic -- there is no hope," Tenzin Taklha, an aide to the Dalai Lama, told the Reuters international news service on Sunday. The statement was somewhat of a surprise since another round of talks between Tibetan and Chinese officials was expected by the end of October. The two sides have been negotiating since China expressed fears that pro-autonomy protesters would try to disrupt last summer's Beijing Olympics. But the Chinese government also accused the Dalai Lama, who fled to India in 1959 after a failed uprising, of treason after rioting broke out in Tibet in March. The Dalai Lama has called for a special meeting of Tibetan exiles in November to discuss the future of the Tibetan movement. "His holiness does not want to become a hindrance to the Tibetan issue, and therefore has sent a letter to the parliament regarding what options he has," Taklha told Reuters. The Dalai Lama advocated a conciliatory approach to negotiations with the Chinese, a philosophy opposed by many exiled Tibetans and by the young, Reuters said. "We are not against the middle way approach of his Holiness; the fact is that China is not sincere and has never been sincere in talking about the middle way," said Tsewang Rigzin, president of the pro-independence Tibetan Youth Congress.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Timing of Bolivia suspension is suspicious

It's hard to draw any other conclusion but that the Bush administration is suspending a $300 million trade deal with Bolivia to penalize the Evo Morales government for being too far to the left. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said the suspension was in reaction to Bolivia's alleged failure to boost anti-drug efforts, even as envoys from the South American nation arrived in Washington to promote its participation in the Andean trade pact, according to the Cable News Network (CNN). The pact lowered tariffs on Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador in Peru in exchange for cooperation in the war on drugs. Only last week, U. S. President George W. Bush signed a six-month extension of the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act. Bolivia estimated the suspension would cost more than $300 million in lost exports and that more than 30,000 jobs would be lost. But the timing of the suspension, which came just as Morales agreed to a referendum on a new constitution that would increase the authority of the central government over white-majority eastern provinces that seek more autonomy, raises the likelihood that possibility that it is political. The Morales government, which has aligned himself with the anti-U.S. governments of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and the late Fidel Castro in Cuba, is struggling to keep order in a country convulsed by strikes and demonstrations by pro- and anti-constitution partisans. But its relations with the United States have gotten worse. Bolivia accused the U.S. ambassador of conspiring with anti-constitution partisans last month and kicked him out of the country, and the United States expelled Bolivia's highest-ranking diplomat in response, CNN said. Rice denied there was anything political in the suspension and said there was no ideological test for friendship with the United States. Republican Sen. Dick Lugar took issue with the suspension and said greater engagement, not less, was called for, according to CNN. "When Bolivia stands at the cusp of a new era, with a new constitution, U.S. assistance should be forthcoming as an effort to help Bolivia, and not to be an impediment to its progress," Lugar said.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

World economic leaders to convene in Washington

World economic leaders have agreed to meet in Washington on Nov. 15 for the first of a series of meetings to plan a unified approach to the global financial crisis, the Reuters international news service is reporting. U.S. President George W. Bush will host the international summit, which he advocated to develop a consistent strategy to preclude a worldwide recession. Reuters said Bush agreed to host the summit after pressure for changes to the world economic system from members of the European Union, which includes some of the closest allies of the United States. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said leaders of G20 countries, which includes the largest industrial powers and emerging economies, will discuss the progress of efforts to address the crisis, analyze the cause of the credit crisis and collapse of housing markets, and begin to develop recommendations. The G20 includes the Group of Seven major industrialized nations and countries such as China, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and India. Leaders of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, United Nations and the Financial Stability Forum also are invited. "Everybody will come with their ideas and the president recognizes that every country is going to have a responsibility but not every country is going to have the same solution," Perino said, according to Reuters."We don't know what that president will want or not want to do, and so we'll just leave that open for now." Plans for the summit were finalized just four days after Bush met with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. Sarkozy said the meeting would be the first in a series "aimed at rebuilding the international financial system and making sure the current crisis does not happen again thanks to better regulation and more efficient surveillance of all players." The White House said Washington was chosen as the site of the summit because foreign leaders would have their embassies nearby.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Bolivian leaders agree to referendum

Reports from Bolivia say Congress has approved plans for a national referendum on a new constitution that would give more power to the left-leaning central government to the detriment of the country's mostly white eastern provinces, which want autonomy. President Evo Morales, Bolivia's first leader from the majority Indian population who is pushing the new constitution against considerable opposition, agreed to serve only one term if the new laws are adopted, according to CNN. The agreement was reached Tuesday after an all-night debate that began Monday, CNN said, citing the Bolivian Information Agency. Parties to the deal hope the planned Jan. 25, 2009, vote will diffuse demonstrations and clashes in La Paz, the capital, that have threatened to split the country. Supporters of Morales, an ally of Venezuela's anti-U.S. president Hugo Chavez and former Cuban President Fidel Castro, took to the street of La Paz on Monday to express support for the referendum. The deal follows weeks of negotiations and demonstrations that resulted in more than 30 deaths. Points of controversy also include the distribution of wealth from Bolivia's burgeoning oil industry.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Egyptian proposal could move Palestinians toward peace with Israel

A welcome new proposal from Egypt could help Palestinians clean up their political disarray and get ready for serious negotiations with Israel on a permanent peace deal in the fractious Middle East. Reports Monday from Gaza say the Egyptian government in Cairo has proposed an alliance between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, the breakaway Islamist group that seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, to end their power struggle and focus their attention on negotiations with Israel. The Reuters international news service reports that Cairo presented a four-page proposal to the PA, which is led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah organization, and to Hamas. Egypt came up with the proposal after meetings with 13 Palestinian factions and called for a Nov. 9 meeting in Cairo between all parties. Israel has long complained, and rightfully so, that agreements it reaches with the Palestinian Authority would not end their conflict with Palestinians because more-radical groups would reject it. Fatah apparently understands this, because it accepted the Egyptian proposal on the condition that Hamas accept previously negotiated agreements with Israel, Reuters said. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said his group would accept the proposal with "some amendments ... and some clarifications." But Hamas has always refused to accept the existence of Israel and rejected past agreements, making a permanent settlement unlikely.

So what's new? Regional summit on Zimbabwe postponed

Knowing what we do about Zimbabwe's government, it should be no surprise that a regional summit planned this week in Swaziland has been postponed. Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe's prime minster-designate under last month's power-sharing agreement, refused to attend the summit after the government refused to issue him a new passport, according to the Reuters international news service. Tsvangirai outpolled Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe in the March presidential election but pulled out of the June runoff due to apparently state-sponsored violence against his supporters, exacerbating the current crisis. Mugabe denies involvement in the violence, but has recently taken control of crucial government ministries in violation of the agreement. The emergency summit was called to try to resolve the dispute under the auspices of the 15-nation Southern Africa Development Community, which has been trying to mediate the crisis. "(MDC) President Tsvangirai was supposed to attend, but due to some technical problems he could not attend," Swaziland King Mswati III told a news conference in Mbabane on Monday, Reuters said. "That is why the meeting is being postponed." The summit has been rescheduled for Oct. 27 in Harare. Zimbabwe offered Tsvangirai a temporary travel document but Tsvangirai refused it, apparently fearing he would not be readmitted to the country. The leader of a breakaway faction of the MDC, Arthur Mutambara, whose party also was included in the power-sharing deal, demanded the cancellation of the summit after Tsvangirai refused to attend. "In the context of the agreement what sort of goodwill is that?," Mutambara asked. Former South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has mediated the crisis since 2007 for the SADC, and leaders of South Africa, Swaziland, Angola and Tanzania also were expected to attend the summit. African leaders have promoted the power-sharing deal as the best way to get Zimbabwe's once-prosperous economy back on track and get its ruinous currency inflation under control. The crisis has forced millions to flee Zimbabwe for neighboring countries.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

No surprise here -- FBI economy probes left underfunded

Sadly, it's no surprise to hear that the FBI says it doesn't have enough resources to investigate allegations of criminal wrongdoing that could have caused the global financial crisis. In fact, the Bush administration has been shortchanging the FBI's criminal investigative workforce since 2004 despite being aware of the looming mortgage collapse, the New York Times reported Sunday. The Times said the Bush administration ignored FBI requests for additional funding to investigate corporate wrongdoing as it refocused the agency on national security after the Sept. 11 attacks. "The administration's top priority since the 9/11 attacks has been counterterrorism," Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr told the Times. "In part, that's reflected by a significant investment of resources at the FBI to answer the call from Congress and the American public to become a domestic intelligence agency, in addition to a law enforcement agency." Data compiled by the Times shows sharp cutbacks in investigation of white-collar crime, particularly mortgage fraud. Fraud prosecutions directed at financial institutions dropped by nearly one-half from 2000 to 2007, insurance fraud cases fell 75 percent and securities fraud decreased by 17 percent, the Times said. "Clearly, we have felt the effects of moving resources from criminal investigations to national security," FBI Assistant Director John Miller told the Times. "In white collar crime, while we initiated fewer cases over all, we targeted the areas where we could have the biggest impact. We focused on multimillion-dollar corporate fraud, where we could make arrests but also recover money for the fraud victims." But the Times and the Reuters international news service reported that former law enforcement officials said senior White House and Treasury Department officials cautioned the Justice Department and the FBI to be more pro-business. Reuters said administration officials described aggressive corporate prosecutions, such as the Justice Department's national task force to investigate the collapses of WordCom, Adelphia and Enron, as "over- deterrence."

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Fundamental differences imperil Bush global summit

If U.S. President George W. Bush expects next month's international summit of world leaders to follow Washington's efforts to cope with the global financial crisis, he may be in for a surprise. Saturday's remarks by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, prior to a meeting with Bush and European Union President Jose Manuel Barroso on Saturday, strongly indicate that a collective approach to the crisis may not be very easy to find. At a news conference at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, Sarkozy responded to Bush's warning about going too far to repair the current damage by saying he thought it was time for major changes in the international financial system. "Those who have led us to where we are today should not be allowed to do so once again," Sarkozy said, according to the Reuters international news service. "This sort of capitalism is a betrayal of the sort of capitalism we believe in. And that is the reason why ... we have come to make Europe's voice heard." Bush apparently was hoping to reach a quick agreement based on the U.S. plan to inject hundreds of billions of dollars into leading lenders to induce them to begin offering long- and short-term loans again. The credit collapse is threatening to force the world economy into a severe recession or worse. "We must resist the dangerous temptation of economic isolationism (and) continue the policies of open markets that have lifted standards of living and helped millions of people escape poverty around the world," Bush said. But Sarkozy last week called for an overhaul of the international system and said the Bush summit would be a "great opportunity" to re-examine the world system.

IMF chief faces investigation over extramarital affair

Hmm, this sounds familiar. The word from Washington is that the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is under investigation for abuse of power over an affair he had with a subordinate who got a buyout package to leave the institution. According to the Reuters international news service, the investigation of Strauss-Kahn, a former French finance minister, was launched at the behest of Shakour Shaalan, the head of the IMF's board of directors, who learned of the affair over the summer. "All allegations, particularly those involving senior management, are taken extremely seriously," an IMF spokesman said. "The dean has asked external counsel to conduct an independent investigation and determine the validity of the allegations." The spokesman said the probe was being handled by outside counsel and was expected to be completed by the end of the month, Reuters said. Strauss-Kahn said he was cooperating with the investigation. "At no time did I abuse my position as the fund's managing director," he said. A lawyer for the subordinate, Piroska Nagy, a former IMF senior economist, said she was not given preferential treatment before or after she left the IMF in August. Reuters said IMF critics contend that members with knowledge of the affair could have used the information to their advantage in policy and funding disputes with the fund. Strauss-Kahn is considered a leading candidate to head France's Socialist Party, Reuters said.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

U.S. sort-of reaches deal on troops with Iraqi government

Anybody else notice the item today that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was backing a draft agreement with the Iraqi government to allow U.S. forces to remain after the U.N. mandate ends at the end of year? The strange negotiations between the United States and the sort-of elected government in Iraq has apparently been rocky because, apparently, a lot of the citizenry are still opposed to the U.S. military presence there. The talks took months, and were finally resolved yesterday, according to the Reuters international news service, with a deal that would sort-of require U.S. forces to leave by 2011. The agreement also would sort-of subject U.S. soldiers who commit crimes to the Iraqi court system. Reuters said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters that the defense secretary was "comfortable with the document," and had begun lobbying members of the U.S. Congress to get support for the deal. On the surface, the agreement represents a change in policy by the Bush administration, which has long opposed setting a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. But the details of the pact reveal that the deadlines are merely advisory, because they are subject to conditions in Iraq. "These are not ad hoc, willy-nilly, arbitrary timelines," Morrell told reporters, according to Reuters. "These are goals that ... will only be followed if the conditions on the ground provide for it." The agreement to allow U.S. troops to be prosecuted applies only in exceptional circumstances, Reuters said. But if the Iraqi government does not believe it needs U.S. military support any longer, why does the Bush administration?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Syria offers relations with Lebanon to encourage U.S. ties

Syria's long overdue recognition of Lebanon's sovereignty would be a lot more positive if it was offered because Damascus finally understands how illogical and self-damaging it is to refuse to talk with your neighbors. But that is not yet the case. Syria still has a lot of explaining to do about its 29-year military occupation of Lebanon and its longer-term and, apparently, continuing interference in Lebanese affairs. Maybe Syria has fessed up about the past to the United States, which has been trying to entice Damascus to break away from radical Arab states and join the broader community of nations. U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack welcomed the planned exchange of ambassadors between Syria and Lebanon but said Syria had a lot more work to do. "That's a positive step," McCormack told reporters in Washington, according to the Reuters international news service. "The Syrian government has previously said that it's going to establish diplomatic ties and exchange ambassadors, set up an embassy." But if Lebanon, which still blames Syria for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005, suspicions echoed by a United Nations investigation, can make up with Damascus, maybe there's hope for Israel. Syria is so committed to improving relations with the United States it has been making moves to engage Israel, including negotiating through Turkey. But whether Damascus wants actual peace or is just maneuvering to try to reacquire the Golan Heights, which it lost in its ill-fated attack on Israel in 1967, is still to be seen. Syria and Lebanon were created by Britain and France after the collapse of the Ottoman empire, and have never had diplomatic relations, Reuters said.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

GM merger talks portend further decline of U.S. auto industry

News that Chrysler and General Motors have held preliminary merger talks casts doubts on recent reports that GM finally planned to invest in designing a quality small car to compete with international rivals. A deal for Chrysler doesn't make sense, as Chrysler also is losing money with unpopular cars, and the very fact that the No. 1 U.S. automaker is exploring one indicates that General Motors would rather make money playing with money than by building a great car. This does not bode well for the future of the U.S. auto industry. It's been 30 years since U.S. automakers were put on notice about the current oil price shock, and it's been 30 years of stalling and lobbying for tax breaks instead of building small cars. The Reuters international news service cited unnamed sources as saying General Motors and Cerberus Capital Management LP, Chrysler's majority owner, have been talking for several weeks about a possible merger. Reuters said the deal included an equity swap that would give Cerberus the remaining 49 percent of GMAC, GM's finance company, in exchange for Chrysler's auto business. But GM said Chrysler was being overvalued and turned the deal down, Reuters said. Cerberus bought an 80.1 percent stake in Chrysler from Daimler AG for $7.4 billion in 2007 and bought 51 percent of GMAC in 2006.

Mugabe appointments demonstrate lack of regard for coalition partner

How many times must Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, violate common decency before African leaders force him to resign? The latest outrage Saturday concerned Mugabe's decision to take control of the ministries of defense, home affairs and finance, even though his ZANU-PF party is supposed to be in the midst of negotiating the allocation of those ministries with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Mugabe simply does not want to give up any power, as the improprieties and violence around the election amply demonstrated. The coalition government negotiated by former South African president Thabo Mbeki -- in which MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai was made prime minister -- was modeled after the power-sharing coalition put together when Kenya began to unravel following the disputed 2007 presidential election in that former African economic powerhouse. But Mugabe's reluctance to cooperate with the MDC, supposedly based in large part on personal dislike for Tsvangirai, makes the Kenya model unsuitable for Zimbabwe. Mbeki plans to return to Zimbabwe on Monday to reopen talks, according to the Reuters international news service. But what can Mbeki accomplish in the current climate, when the MDC has no reason to trust Mugabe and considerable reason not to. Mugabe's appointments were made public Saturday in a public notice that showed that the ministries of defense, home affairs and finance were allocated to ZANU-PF. MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa said the Tsvangirai's party had not agreed to such an allocation. "This is ZANU-PF's arrogant wish list that puts the whole deal into jeopardy. It is unilateral, contemptuous and outrageous," he said. "The MDC totally and absolutely rejects this nonsense. ZANU-PF is taking people for a ride and there is a price for that."

Friday, October 10, 2008

Peru's cabinet resigns in bribery scandal

Well, word comes from Peru that the entire Cabinet of embattled president Alan Garcia, a U.S. ally, has resigned over the country's unfolding bribery scandal. According to the Los Angeles Times newspaper, Prime Minister Jorge del Castillo and 14 others resigned Friday as the scandal intensified. Alan Garcia, Peru's former leftist turned U.S.-aligned president, accepted the resignations. Peru's Congress has launched an investigation into allegations that cabinet members accepted bribes from a Norwegian oil company in exchange for potentially lucrative oil-drilling leases. "In no way will we be an obstacle for continued growth and all that is good for the fatherland," Del Castillo, who was Garcia's top aide, told the Times. Leaked audiotapes detailing the payment of more than $100,000 forced the recent resignations of former minister of mines and energy, Juan Valdivia, and two other officials. But it may be too late to save Garcia's presidency. His popularity had alrady dropped to 20 percent even before news of the alleged bribery broke as Peruvians grow angry at corruption and poverty in the rapidly growing nation, the Times said. Teachers, farmers, doctors and others go on strike regularly, blocking major roads, to protest conditions. Peru is scheduled to host the annual forum of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation next month at which U.S. President George W. Bush and 20 other world leaders are expected to attend.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Will U.S. automakers learn from this?

U.S. automakers have no one but themselves to blame for the precipitous drop in the value of their stocks. General Motors shares fell as much as 33 percent to $4.65 on Thursday before rebounding slightly on the New York Stock Exchange, according to the Reuters international news service, and Ford shares closed down 21.8 percent at $2.08. Sure, the automakers will blame the results on the global downturn in the financial markets, but we know better. U.S. automakers have been losing money for years because they refuse to make high-quality fuel-efficient cars. Complaining loudly and demanding a government bailout may keep them afloat for awhile, but there will be no long-term relief until they address their fundamental disconnect with the auto-buying public. We feel for the auto industry employees who will be laid off and for the auto-related industries that will suffer as a result of these developments, but the responsibility falls on management. There hasn't been any word from Detroit on company managers forced to resign, although there should be. The auto industry should have stopped relying on tax breaks and accounting tricks years ago, but instead went for short-term gains at the expense of long-term planning. Now we're all paying for it. Instead of building quality small cars like they should have starting doing 30 years ago, U.S. automakers conceded the market to foreign automakers as if there was no consequence. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler took advantage of tax breaks afforded by overly generous government officials to build inefficient and environmentally damaging SUVs instead. Now, analysts are warning of even further declines in automobile sales, particularly if the economy contracts, Reuters said. J.D. Power predicted General Motors sales in the United States will drop by nearly 3 million vehicles next year.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Minor dispute over Navy's sonar use raises major questions

Arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday over whether the U.S. Navy must obey federal environmental laws offered a sometimes unpleasant look at what divides this country. Questions from liberal and conservative members of the court demonstrated the philosophical division that has paralyzed Congress and allowed the Bush administration to assume executive powers not anticipated by the U.S. Constitution. The case involves the question of whether a federal judge has the power to order the Navy to adhere to restrictions on the use of sonar off the southern California coast and whether President Bush can exempt the Navy from federal environmental laws, according to the Reuters international news service. Environmentalists had challenged the Navy's use of sonar during military training exercises near the coast, contending that it was damaging to whales and dolphins. The government appealed after a federal judge ordered the Navy to take precautions to limit possible harm to marine life. A federal appeals court upheld the judge's ruling after the president issued an order exempting the Navy from the environmental restrictions. At oral arguments, the court's four more-liberal members seemed to agree that the Navy should have studied the environmental impacts of using sonar. But the court's four-most conservative justices, including Chief Judge John Roberts, appeared to agree with the administration's contention that the courts should accept whatever the Navy, and Bush, have requested. Solicitor General Gregory Garre, the federal government's top courtroom lawyer, argued that the Navy's ability to use sonar to locate and track enemy submarines is "vitally important" and "critical to the nation's own security." A high court ruling is not expected until next year.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Outrage in Peru over business as usual

From here, it's outrageous to think that thousands of Peruvians have taken to the streets to protest alleged corruption in President Alan Garcia's government. While it's easy to understand the anger over an alleged scheme involving the government's sale of oil exploration rights off Peru to a company that paid more than $100,000 to benefit of two powerful officials, it's downright refreshing to see citizens protesting over activities that are expected and accepted as ordinary business practices in the United States. In the Bush administration and many administrations before that, top company officials traded places with government agency leaders on a regular basis, the vice president meet secretly with industry insiders over regulatory matters and refused to reveal what was said or decided, industry leaders hostile to government regulation were appointed to lead regulatory agencies and top government officials have left for lucrative positions in the industries they were regulating. But U.S. citizens largely stay in their homes -- even, as in the case of the Bush administration in 2004, re-electing the government. In Peru, the leader of the country's largest labor federation, the CGTP, called for Garcia to shake up his cabinet and give up his free market policies, which are credited for reviving Peru's economy but blamed for failing to raise ordinary people's incomes, according to the Reuters international news service. "Something stinks," said Mario Huaman, the head of the CGTP, Reuters said. The scandal has forced three top Peruvian energy officials to quit, including Mines and Energy Minister Juan Valdivia. Alberto Quimper, a director of Perupetro, the state energy agency, and Cesar Gutierrez, president of Petroperu, were canned after they were caught on tape agreeing to give favorable treatment in drill bid auctions to Discover Petroleum, a small Norwegian company that had paid more than $100,000 in direct and indirect payments to Quimper and Gutierrez, Reuters said.

Free at least

It had to happen -- perhaps the strange national nightmare is ending. Slowly but certainly, and without the help of Congress, the U.S. courts are repairing years of the Bush administration's most grievous abuses of power. On Tuesday, a federal judge in Washington ordered the immediate release of 17 Chinese Muslims who have been held at the Guantanamo Bay prison for seven years despite being cleared of terrorism suspicions. Judge Ricardo Urbina said the ethnic Uighurs, who live in an autonomous region in western China, had to be resettled in the United States because the U.S. government said it was unable to find another country to accept them, according to the Reuters international news service. The Uighurs were arrested in Pakistan after fleeing the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. At the time, U.S. intelligence officials suspected them of being affiliated with the East Turkmenistan Islamist Movement, which the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization. The Uighurs denied any such terrorist connections, and the United States cleared them in 2004. But they remained in custody at Guantanamo Bay. Urbina ordered the detainees to appear in his courtroom Friday morning for a hearing on how the U.S. government would resettle them. "There is a pressing need for them to be released," Urbina said in court, according to Reuters. The government announced Tuesday afternoon that it would seek an emergency stay to stop the judge's order.

Friday, October 3, 2008

At least somebody's making money

The U.S. economy may be going into recession or worse with the world economy sure to follow, but isn't reassuring that at least somebody has $16 billion to throw around? Today's subject, of course, is Wells Fargo & Co.'s $15 billion offer for Wachovia Corp., which everyone thought was about to be acquired by Citigroup Inc. with the backing of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The surprise Wells bid came four days after Wachovia agreed to sell its banking assets to Citigroup for $2.2 billion provided the federal government guaranteed $312 billion in mortgages. The Wells bid does not require any government backing, according to the Reuters international news service. Citigroup's response was to demand that Wells drop its bid, saying it had an agreement from Wachovia not to negotiate with other parties. But Wells chairman Dick Kovacevich told Reuters he was "confident" that the deal would be approved by regulators, according to Reuters. Wells' offer includes Wachovia's brokerage, Wachovia Securities, and asset manager, Evergreen, while Citigroup also offered to buy Wachovia's banking assets. Citigroup's stock fell more than 18 percent, their biggest one-day drop since 1987, because analysts believed the Wachovia acquisition would have helped bolster Citigroup's branch network. But Wells also might be able to get support from the federal government through the $700 billion program approved by the House of Representatives on Friday, Reuters said. The offer is consistent with the rush by U.S. banks to acquire other banks, a cheaper way to acquire assets than borrowing during a credit crunch.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Praise from Rice means it's time to worry on India nuclear deal

As if the Bush administration's dogged pursuit of a nuclear technology-sharing deal with India wasn't troubling enough, Thursday's glowing endorsement from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice means it's really time to worry. On the surface, it sounds good to include the world's largest democracy in the nuclear club since India already has tested atomic weapons in its rivalry with its nuclear neighbor, Pakistan. But India has steadfastly refused to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and was banned from nuclear trade with the United States after it first exploded a nuclear device in 1974, according to Cable News Network (CNN). The new agreement with India, which was approved by U.S. Senate on a 86-13 vote Wednesday evening, commits New Delhi to allowing international inspections of its civilian nuclear generating facilities but not its military ones. "The initiative will help India's population of more than one billion to meet its rapidly increasing energy needs in an environmentally responsible way while reducing the growth of carbon emissions," Rice said in a written statement, according to CNN. The deal also includes a provision terminating nuclear cooperation if India resumes testing, CNN said. President George W. Bush was solidly behind the deal, and called it a "major milestone" in relations between India and the United States. But the Bush White House has been wrong so often, it is difficult to accept the administration's counsel. Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa warned that approving nuclear trade with India at the same time the United States was trying to keep other nations from developing nuclear technology was hypocritical. "If we pass this legislation, we will reward India for flouting the most important arms control agreement in history, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and we will gravely undermine our case against hostile nations that seek to do the same," Harkin said. The major-party presidential candidates, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, both voted for the bill, CNN said.