Sunday, November 30, 2008

Bolivia seeks to indict opposition leader

Is Bolivia's effort to indict the leader of an insurrection in the country's four eastermost provinces an example of good government or repressive rule? That's the question raised by La Paz's decision Sunday to press for the indictment of Branko Marinkovic, leader of an autonomy movement blamed for violent protests that threatened to split the country in September. "We have enough evidence in this investigation to allow us to link Mr. Marinkovic with the acts of terrorism that occurred in several parts of the country in September," government minister Alfredo Rada told state radio, according to the Reuters international news service. Supporters of Marinkovic contend he is the victim of political persecution, Reuters said. Twenty people have already been jailed on charges related to the September violence, in which 17 people were killed and government buildings were attacked. The four provinces, which have white-majority populations and are the country's richest areas, seek more authority over resources and to limit the authority of the central government and its president, Evo Morales, the country's first indigenous leader. Morales took office in 2005 and promptly nationalized Bolivia's energy industry, including its burgeoning oil production. He has aligned himself with Venuezuela's Hugo Chavez, whose animosity towards U.S. President George W. Bush is acknowleged internationally, and Cuba's Fidel Castro. Bolivia is the poorest nation in South America.

Iraqi court teaches U.S. military a lesson in freedom

It figures to take an Iraqi court to teach the U.S. military a lesson about the First Amendment. On Sunday, Iraq's Central Criminal Court ordered U.S. forces to release an Iraqi freelance photographer who was detained in September but never charged, according to the Reuters international news service. The court found there was no evidence that Ibrahim Jassam Mohammed, who freelanced for Reuters as well as Iraqi media, had committed any crimes. Yet Jassam had been held at the U.S. military's Camp Cropper prison near Baghdad International Airport, probably because he had photographed something the military didn't like. Jassam was arrested by U.S. and Iraqi forces and his photography equipment seized in a raid on his home in Mahmudiya, Reuters said. Mahmudiya, 20 miles south of Baghdad, was one of the most violent areas of Iraq before a recent falloff in attacks across the country. Unfortunately, Jassam's case is not so unusual. International media rights groups have repeatedly criticized the military's refusal to deal quickly with cases that arise from reporters' legitimate activities in Iraq. In August, the U.S. military freed another Reuters cameraman after holding him without charges for three weeks. "I'm pleased to learn that a court ordered Ibrahim Jassam released as there was no evidence against him," Reuters News Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger said Sunday. "I hope the U.S. authorities comply with this order swiftly [and] reunite him with his colleagues, friends and family." Next up, a lesson about the Fourth Amendment. U.S. forces currently hold nearly 17,000 Iraqis without charges but will have to release them or charge them by next year.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Wal-Mart worker killed by stampeding Black Friday crowd

What is wrong with people? One dead and four injured, including a pregnant woman, trampled by a crowd trying to get into Wal-Mart to go shopping? Shoppers at the Valley Stream, N.Y., store found a way to turn "Black Friday" -- so-called because the expected rush of shoppers looking for bargains puts retailers into the black for the first time all year -- into a real black Friday. The annual rite is celebrated all over the country, with anxious buyers sometimes waiting all night for stores to open. The Friday after Thanksgiving is typically the biggest shopping day of the year. But how can so many people lose control of themselves just to shop for consumer goods? The 34-year-old man who was killed was a temporary worker hired over the holidays, according to the Reuters international news agency. Local authorities are said to be investigating whether to file charges against any of the shoppers, at least against the ones caught on the store's security tapes, or against the store, Reuters said. New York's largest grocery workers union, United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1500, blamed the tragedy on what it called "Wal-Mart's failure to provide a safe workplace" and called on federal, state and local authorities to investigate. Wal-Mart said it had added more security personnel and workers and had worked closely with local police prior to Black Friday. "We also erected barricades. Despite all of our precautions, this unfortunate event occurred," Hank Mullany, a Wal-Mart senior vice president, said in a statement. Whether Wal-Mart violated its duty to protect shoppers is up to the civil courts to decide, and whether any crimes were committed will be decided by the criminal courts. But it's not the responsibility of law enforcement to prosecute breaches of common morality, nor should it be. That is entirely up to us.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Swedish banking secrecy laws could be victim of global downturn

The global downturn could lead to the elimination or at least to limitations on Switzerland's famous banking secrecy laws if a U.S.-launched tax investigation has the desired effect. The United States has demanded the identities of 17,000 account holders it claims are hiding billions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts to avoid U.S. taxes, but Switzerland has only agreed to consider releasing a few hundred names. Swiss banking giant UBS said Thursday that an internal investigation has found only a few cases of tax fraud, according to the Reuters international news service. "Our investigations have uncovered a limited number of cases of tax fraud under both U.S. and Swiss law," UBS Chairman Peter Kurer announced Thursday at a meeting of shareholders in Lucerne, according to Reuters. Kurer said bank-client confidentiality "is not there to protect cases of tax fraud," hinting at a possible settlement of the U.S. government's claims. UBS has lost billions of dollars in the global economic downturn and has been forced to write off $49 billion in subprime loans. But it's still difficult to trust Switzerland, which still refuses to come clean about its handling of billions of dollars seized by Nazi Germany during World War II and has only reluctantly begun to acknowledge the billions of dollars in deposits from German Jews and others slaughtered in Nazi concentration camps during the Nazi era.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

FBI abused power in pursuing Bush administration critic in anthrax probe

Did the FBI go after U.S. Army scientist Steven Hatfill to the exclusion of other suspects in the 2001 anthrax attacks because he was a Bush administration critic? Recently released records of the FBI's investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks demonstrate the dangers of giving law enforcement agencies unlimited authority to investigate anything and in entrusting enforcement of the Bill of Rights to a government that is hostile to it. The FBI's incorrect focus on an innocent U.S. Army scientist to the exclusion of other suspects probably was influenced by Steven Hatfill's criticism of the government's preparations against chemical attack. According to the Reuters international news service, agents relied on unsubstantiated statements from unidentified witnesses to pursue Hatfill in the poison mailings, which killed 5 and sickened 17 shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. Hatfill did have access to anthrax and had written a novel about anthrax attacks. But Hatfill turned out to have had nothing to do with the attacks while the real criminal, fellow Army scientist Bruce Ivins, was not on the FBI's radar, even though he presumably had the same access to anthrax. The difference appears to be that Ivins was not a critic of the government. The FBI spent millions of dollars investigating Hatfill and the Justice Department was forced to spend nearly $6 million more to settle after Hatfill sued for breach of privacy rights. The Justice Department even tried to prevent the public from gaining access to the search warrant used by law enforcement to search the homes of Hatfill and his girlfriend during the investigation, but a lawsuit by the New York Times and Los Angeles Times won a court order to release the documents.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Recession is the word from Canada

The word from Canada is recession. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a 30-nation group founded in 1961, recommended Tuesday that Ottawa cut interest rates to help its contracting economy recover, according to the Reuters international news service. The OECD report said Canada's economy will continue to shrink at least until the middle of next year because of the global economic crisis. Stephen Harper, Canada's prime minister, blamed the global crisis on the United States on Saturday at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru. "Our closest neighbor and largest trading partner is the epicenter of the financial earthquake and global slowdown," Harper said in a speech to business leaders in Lima. The OECD predicted deficit spending for Canada's federal and provincial governments, a situation unheard of in many countries but standard operating procedure in the United States. OECD's reports said the deficits were "cyclical" and "not alarming," but cautioned against any increased spending, even as unemployment is expected to rise. Sounds familiar.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Season of sharing

Did they or didn't they? Today's subject, of course, is a federal jury's conviction of five former leaders of an Islamic charity who were accused of conspiring to support terrorism and launder money for Hamas, the militant Palestinian organization considered a terrorist group by the United States. Two of the five, Shukri Abu Baker and Ghassan Elashi, face sentences as long as life in prison for their participation in the Dallas area-based Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, which was said to have supplied more than $12 million to Hamas from 1997-2001. The three other foundation leaders, Mohammad El-Mezain, Mufid Abdulqader and Abdulrahman Odeh, face up to 15 years in prison for supporting Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian Authority last year and set up an independent government in the territory. The foundation was closed by the U.S. government after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. But lawyers for the convicted men denounced the verdict as "a great injustice" and promised to appeal, according to Cable News Network (CNN). John Boyd, a lawyer for Abu Baker, said there was "no evidence that any of Holy Land Foundation's funds went to anything but charity." Bush administration officials applauded the verdict as a victory in the war on terror, CNN said, even though the federal government took 15 years to investigate the foundation and an earlier prosecution ended in a mistrial. "For many years, the Holy Land Foundation used the guise of charity to raise and funnel millions of dollars to the infrastructure of the Hamas terror organization," said Patrick Rowan, an assistant attorney general for national security, told CNN. "This prosecution demonstrates our resolve to ensure that humanitarian relief efforts are not used as a mechanism to disguise and enable support for terrorist groups." But if the case was such a slam dunk, what took so long? Sure, if the foundation was funneling money to Hamas terror operations, its leaders belong in prison. But it seems far more likely that Holy Land actually was offering humanitarian aid in Hamas-controlled areas and this was a technical -- but hardly egregious -- violation of U.S. law. Constitutional law experts critical of the prosecution probably have it right. George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, a Bush administration critic, called the case an "example of excessive and vexatious prosecution," CNN said. "Many Muslims believe the intention was to chill Muslim charities in the U.S., and that is exactly what happened," Turley said. "Areas of Palestine are controlled by Hamas and if you want charities to go in, you will give money to outlets that are probably somehow associated with Hamas.", a Web site for defendants' families, said Holy Land did not fund violence, according to CNN. "It simply provided food, clothes, shelter, medical supplies and education to the suffering people in Palestine and other countries," the site said. It would be nice to know what the truth is.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

How can General Motors seriously consider bankruptcy?

It's not at all reassuring to hear that directors of General Motors Corp. are considering declaring bankruptcy if efforts to secure billions of dollars in subsidies from U.S. taxpayers prove unsuccessful. The ramifications for the U.S. economy would be dire, since the largest U.S. automaker employs thousands of people and has spawned entire industries of suppliers. But the implications would be even worse, since it seems nearly impossible that a multibillion-dollar corporation with partners and affiliates across the world should be caught unable to keep its doors open. Yet, in a statement released Friday, members of GM's board said a bankruptcy filing was still an option for the company that has seen its share price drop from $42 last year to $3 Friday, according to the Wall Street Journal. What's worse, the board's statement seemingly contradicted comments by Chairman and Chief Executive Rick Wagoner, who told Congress this week that GM management does not consider bankruptcy a viable option. In other words, GM management and directors don't know what they're doing. And that figures, considering how they drove what was the world's most powerful automaker to the brink of collapse. GM spokesman Tony Cervone told the Wall Street Journal that the company would do everything in its power to avoid bankruptcy. The automaker is said to be spending $5 billion a month to keep operating and will be out of cash in a few months.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Time running out for Mugabe in Zimbabwe?

What is the world waiting for in Zimbabwe? By now, it should be obvious to everyone that Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's president, has to be removed from office if he remains unwilling to leave on his own. The latest reports from South Africa say Zimbabwe has refused to admit a delegation, which included former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, that wanted to assess the humanitarian crisis believed to be unfolding in that country, according to the Reuters international news service. Zimbabwe's economy is collapsing because of mismanagement and rampant theft of aid and the country, once seen as the southern African region's greatest economy, is suffering from rampant inflation and shortages of food and fuel. Mugabe, who has led the country since it declared independence from Britain in 1980, says the Zimbabwe is being sabotaged by his enemies, including Western nations. Efforts to resuscitate the country's economy are now on hold because of a political crisis, with Mugabe refusing to accept defeat in national balloting in March. Former South African president Thabo Mbeki has been trying to negotiate a power-sharing agreement but Mugabe has refused to uphold his side of any proposed arrangement. Yesterday, in Lima, Peru, U.S. President George W. Bush called Mugabe's government an "illegitimate regime" and called for a new government. "We call for an end to the Mugabe regime's brutal repression of basic freedoms and for the formation of a legitimate government that represents the will of the people as expressed in the March 2008 elections," Bush said in the Peruvian capital, where he is attending an Asia-Pacific summit. Members of the humanitarian delegation told Reuters they were denied visas to travel to Zimbabwe despite Mbeki's intervention of former South African president Thabo Mbeki, who is mediating the political conflict between President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). "We had hoped to go to Zimbabwe this morning but we had to cancel because the government has made it clear they will not co-operate," Annan said in Johannesburg, according to Reuters. Annan, Carter and Nelson Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, represent a group of prominent figures and former statesmen called The Elders. But Zimbabwe's government denied it had refused the three Elders permission to enter the country. "The government of Zimbabwe has not barred Mr Annan and his team from coming to Zimbabwe," Simbarashe Mumbengegwi , the country's foreign affairs minister, told reporters in Harare. Mumbengegwi said the group was asked merely to reschedule the visit.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Syria might want to stay an outlaw after all

New efforts to discourage a U.N. agency from investigating allegations that Syria was building a nuclear reactor at a site bombed by Israel demonstrate Damascus' ultimate refusal to conform to international standards of behavior. Syria refused Friday to permit inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to revisit the site of the bombing at Al-Kibar, according to the Reuters international news service. Instead, Syria's nuclear energy chief, Ibrahim Othman, attacked the findings of Wednesday's IAEA report that said the bombed structure had similarities to a reactor and said inspectors found large amounts of uranium particles in the area in June. The IAEA report also said Syria had refused to provide documentation requested by the agency and ignored requests to visit three other military sites believed to hold evidence linked to Al-Kibar. "What they are now saying about uranium particles -- collecting three particles from the desert is not enough to say there was a reactor there at all," Othman told reporters after an IAEA meeting. I think to follow up there should be a good reason to say there is something there. In our opinion, this file should be closed." Syria has one declared atomic facility, an old research reactor. The United States saw the report differently, which could endanger recent efforts by Syria to normalize relations with the West. "The report reinforces the assessment of my government that Syria was secretly building a nuclear reactor in its eastern desert and thereby violating its IAEA (non-proliferation) safeguards obligations," said Gregory Schulte, the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, according to Reuters. Diplomats said the United States and some allies were now considering blocking a Syrian request for technical assistance in building a nuclear power plant. Washington also might also seek a resolution demanding Syrian cooperation, they said.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

CIA blocked inquiries into deaths of missionaries in Peru

Question: Will the long Bush administration nightmare ever end? Answer: Not for years, even after all of the elected officials leave office. Reverberations from what is probably the most incompetent government in U.S. history will go on for decades. What brings this to mind is a classified report released today that an internal CIA investigation has determined that the spy agency deliberately interfered with probes by Congress, NSA and Justice Department to avoid responsibility for the mistaken 2001 downing of a plane carrying U.S. missionaries in Peru. According to the Reuters international news service, the CIA's inspector general said the CIA itself found "sustained and significant" violations of procedure in the agency's conduct of a U.S.-sponsored drug-interdiction program in Peru but had refused to reveal the findings to Congress, the National Security Council and the Justice Department. "Between 1995 and 2001, the agency incorrectly reported that the program complied with the laws and policies governing it," the report said. The 2001 attack killed a missionary couple, Veronica and Jim Bowers, and seriously injured the pilot when a Peruvian jet shot down their plane after the aircraft was tracked by a CIA surveillance plane. Videotape released later indicated the CIA questioned whether the Bowers' plane was carrying drugs before it was shot down. It wasn't. The investigation also found the agency's general counsel advised agency managers not to write anything down to discourage criminal charges being brought against CIA officers and found the agency ignored questions from Condoleezza Rice, then President Bush's national security adviser, about the program. The report was released by U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Public wins right to see documents in anthrax case

Now that a federal judge has ordered the Justice Department to release documents explaining why investigators suspected Steven J. Hatfill in the 2001 anthrax mailings, we the people could learn why the FBI mounted a dogged pursuit of an innocent man that cost taxpayers nearly $6 million in damages. U.S. District Court Chief Judge Royce Lamberth ruled Monday that the public had a "strong need" to review the documents filed under seal, including the grounds for searching the homes of Hatfill and his girlfriend, according to the Reuters international news service. The anthrax mailings, which were sent to politicians and news organizations shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, killed five people and sickened 17. The FBI focused exclusively on Hatfill for years, even though investigators eventually concluded that another U.S. Army scientist, Anthrax expert Bruce Ivins, was solely responsible for the mailings. Ivins killed himself in July. Early in the investigation, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly identified Hatfill as a "person of interest." In a 15-page ruling, Judge Lambert said the public need outweighed the privacy concerns raised, perhaps ironically, by the Justice Department. "In this case, the public has a strong need for access to the documents at issue," Lambert wrote. "As conceded by the government, the anthrax investigation was one of the most complex, time-consuming and expensive investigations in recent history. As a result, American citizens have a legitimate interest in observing and understanding how and why the investigation progressed in the way that it did." The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times that sought access to the documents. Hatfill sued the government for violating his privacy rights and was awarded $5.85 million in a settlement in June.

Friday, November 14, 2008

President Bush still clueless as global economic summit convenes

U.S. President George W. Bush unabashedly displayed stubborn cluelessness to world leaders Thursday, a day before the historic global economic summit convened in Washington, D.C. Bush strongly defended free markets and warned against aggressive regulation in his speech, as if the corrupted view of so-called "free markets" in the United States was not at the heart of the global crisis. Indeed, it was the lack of regulation of financial markets that caused the current crisis to erupt in the United States and spread around the world. The summit meeting involving leaders from the world's 20 largest economies is scheduled to begin Saturday at the National Building Museum in Washington. A senior U.S. official told the New York Times that the most that could be expected from the meeting is a commitment to coordinate banking regulations and to continue to meet regularly. World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick warned the gathering to remember the fate of the world's poorest countries, which were not represented yet might suffer the most if economic turmoil continues for years.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Is religion on the ropes?

It's going to be hard for our earth-centric religions to rationalize this. We're talking, of course, about pictures of planets outside our solar system released today by astronomers at NASA, the U.S. space agency, and by Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California. The photographs, taken by the Hubble telescope and two Hawaii observatories, show planets orbiting stars other than our Sun -- proving the existence of other solar systems. The findings of both organizations were published Thursday in Science Express, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, according to the Cable News Network (CNN). The existence of more than 300 planets outside our solar system ("extrasolar" planets, to our earth-centric astronomers) have been assumed based on observations of gravitational effects on stars seen from earth. "This discovery is the first time we have directly imaged a family of planets around a normal star outside of our solar system," said Christian Marois, lead astronomer in the Lawrence Livermore lab study, according to CNN. "After all these years, it's amazing to have a picture showing not one but three planets," physicist Bruce Macintosh of the Lawrence Livermore lab said, according to CNN. "The discovery of the HR 8799 system is a crucial step on the road to the ultimate detection of another Earth." The existence of solar systems and planets outside our own was, obviously, not anticipated by early thinkers and is not part of modern religions. Their very existence is a threat to the view of humans as alone in the universe. But, then again, none of the planets found thus far are habitable, as least as far as humans understand life.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Bush Supreme Court takes crack at monumental issue

Whether a Utah city is obligated to permit a religious group to place a monument in a public park near a Ten Commandments marker is a much more difficult question than appears at first glance. The question, on which the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments today, could impact the future of the First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom and freedom of speech against government interference as well as the power of government to control public property. And whatever the court decides to do could impact religious displays on public property in communities across the country, especially if the court wants that to happen. At oral arguments Wednesday, the nine justices seemed divided over whether Pleasant Grove City in Utah acted legally when it refused to allow the Summum religious group to put up a monument to the tenets of its faith in a park that contains a Ten Commandments monument, according to the Reuters international news service. Some of the court's most-conservative justices appeared to be concerned that a ruling in favor of the religious group would mean public parks anywhere in the country would be forced to allow privately donated monuments expressing any viewpoint. "You have a Statue of Liberty; do we have to have a Statue of Despotism? Or do we have to put any president who wants to be on Mt. Rushmore?" Chief Justice John Roberts asked, Reuters said. But some liberal justices seemed to agree that allowing one religious message on public property but not others violated free speech rights. In fact, Justice John Paul Stevens even asked whether a city could decide to only allow messages in a public part that it agreed with, Reuters reported. An appellate court ruled that the city must allow the Summum monument to be erected. The city argued that the lower court ruling was in error and a lawyer for the U.S. Justice Department agreed, saying the government can choose what monuments and opinions it wants on the National Mall in Washington and in other public parks across the country. "The Vietnam Veterans Memorial did not open us up to a Viet Cong memorial. When the Martin Luther King Memorial is completed on the Mall, it will not have to be offset by a monument to the man who shot Dr. King," the U.S. government contended. The attorney representing the religious group, Pamela Harris, argued that the city cannot allow a Ten Commandments display while denying Summum access for a display about its faith. "That's a violation of the core free-speech principle that the government may not favor one message over another in a public forum," Harris said. Both sides are correct. A public entity cannot choose one religious message over another, but a city (or a state, or the federal government) has a right to determine what it will or will not allow in its parks. There has got to be a reasonable way to resolve this so the government's authority ends where religious freedom is threatened. A ruling is expected by June.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Overwhelmed American Express sells its soul

News that American Express has agreed to greater federal regulation in exchange for access to federal bailout funds is a typical good news, bad news situation. The good news, of course, is that AmEx likely will not implode and disappear like so many of its competitors in the financial services industry -- some with names as well-known as Lehman Brothers. But there's also the bad news. Selling its soul for government intervention cannot be seen as anything other than a total capitulation on the part of AmEx, long a titan of the capitalist system. "Given the continued volatility in the financial markets, we want to be best positioned to take advantage of the various programs the federal government has introduced or may introduce to support U.S. financial institutions," AmEx Chief Executive Kenneth Chenault said today, two weeks after the company's announcement of 7,000 layoffs, according to CNN. The independent credit card issuer operates a small bank, American Express Centurion Bank, and a savings and loan, American Express Bank, which have a combined $50 billion in assets and $14.4 billion in deposits. But AmEx depended on bundling its credit card debts and selling them as securities, an idea that now seems laughable. If some of your loans are risky, how can more of the same loans be less risky? AmEx is the third financial company to convert to a bank holding company since September, joining Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.

Deadlock over Zimbabwe government continues -- for good reason

The latest from Johannesburg, host of the latest Zimbabwe power-sharing talks sponsored by the South African Development Community, is that opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has rejected a compromise suggested by the SADC to end weeks of deadlock. The compromise, under which Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change and President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party would share control of the powerful Ministry of Home Affairs, had been proposed by the SADC to help resolve months of uncertainty following Zimbabwe's disputed presidential election. Tsvangirai's latest rejection came Monday at a SADC summit, according to CNN, which cited a report from the Associated Press. Tsvangirai's rejection of the proposed compromise is perfectly understandable and appears well-justified. Mugabe, Zimbabwe's president since its independence from Great Britain nearly 30 years ago when it was called Rhodesia, is not willing to surrender any power, as his disgraceful efforts to hold onto power following the March election demonstrated. It is an exercise in wishful thinking to believe that a settlement along the lines of Kenya's power-sharing is possible in this case. In fact, it's difficult to understand how it is working in Kenya, either. But in Zimbabwe, where the government encouraged intimidation and violence to subvert the will of the people, any reasonable settlement would appear to preclude Mugabe's continuation in office. It is Mugabe who had been blocking any settlement, likely because once in power, the MDC would be better able to unravel the layers of corruption and deception that has plunged Zimbabwe into poverty and food shortages. In the end, Mugabe will probably be willing to trade it all for some kind of amnesty and protection -- perhaps as an asylum seeker in another continent.

Economic turmoil takes toll on Starbucks

Want to know the real state of the U.S. economy? Look no further than your neighborhood Starbucks store which, if you live in a small or large city, is probably on the next corner. Earnings have been dropping for the massive international coffeehouse chain, despite last year's move to close more than 600 stores in the United States and in other countries. Starbucks shares have dropped below the $10 level, more than 50 percent lower than a year ago, even as the company's stores and coffee products seem to become even more ubiquitous. Analysts say the stock has continued to lose value because Starbucks profits have been lower than expected as cash-strapped consumers cut back on expensive coffee purchases, according to CNN. In its fourth-quarter report, released today, Starbucks reported an 8 percent drop in sales, although its sales for 2008 rose 10 percent over last year. But Starbucks, which forever changed the neighborhood coffeehouse from a locally owned family business to an overly aggressive, corporate powerhouse, still has more than 15,000 coffeehouses worldwide.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Continued bad news from U.S. automakers

Reports from Detroit, Mich., that General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. suffered bigger-than-expected quarterly losses cast further doubt on the survival of the U.S. automobile industry in the global financial crisis. The two largest U.S. automakers said they would aggressively cut costs in the fourth quarter, according to the Reuters international news service. But the two companies, whose share prices have tumbled in recent years, reported spending nearly $15 billion in the quarter just to stay in business. "The issue in short-term liquidity is the state of the auto industry and so we said we're going to put all our efforts on focusing on that issue for now," GM chief executive Rick Wagoner told CNBC television. Let's make this easy for you -- build better small cars that compare favorably with those being built in Japan and Germany. How hard is that to understand? It's more than 30 years since the Arab oil embargo put the world on notice that it would have to be more efficient, yet U.S. carmakers seem not to have heard. Instead, domestic output has involved poor-quality vehicles and heavy-duty lobbying for tax breaks. Why is it still not a crime to run richly profitable and esteemed companies into the ground?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

U.S. finally takes action against rogue Colombia army units

Reports from Bogota offers at least one explanation of why the anti-U.S. rhetoric of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Boliva's Evo Morales seem to resonate in their South American countries. The U.S. government announced today that it had suspended military aid to some army units in Colombia, a staunch U.S. ally, for their roles in the killings of innocent civilians, according to the Cable News Network (CNN). Some of the units had allegedly been involved in "illegal executions" of civilians, CNN said, citing an unnamed U.S. official. The suspension followed Tuesday's resignation of Gen. Mario Montoya, who had recently been feted for the rescue of three long-held hostages, and the Oct. 29 firings of 27 army officers and senior non-commissioned officers for involvement in earlier killings. In a statement last week, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, called the killings "systematic and widespread" and called on Colombian authorities to investigate and prosecute "the perpetrators," CNN said. Fifteen of the 27 dismissed officers had received "some form of individual training" in the United States, the U.S. official said. Under U.S. law, the United States reviews the conduct of Colombian army units before they can receive any part of the $5 billion in military aid it has provided to Colombia since 2000. There were 780 investigations of killings by the military started by Colombia's attorney general between 2003 and 2007, CNN said.