Sunday, June 28, 2009

Honduras takes giant step backward -- military coup topples leftist government

No doubt, the military geniuses who engineered Sunday's dawn overthrow of the democratically elected president of Honduras, leftist Manuel Zelaya, thought they were doing the right thing. And maybe they were. The Supreme Court said it had ordered military commanders to remove the president after he precipitated a political crisis last week by firing the armed forces chief, Gen. Romero Vasquez, over a disagreement about a national election Zelaya had called in an effort to change the constitution to allow him to run again, according to the Reuters international news service. Zelaya was put on a plane and flown to exile in Costa Rica over objections from the United States, the European Union and other nations; and the Honduran legislature named Roberto Micheletti, a member of Zelaya's Liberal Party, as the new president of the poor Central American nation. Micheletti immediately declared a curfew for Sunday and Monday nights as the streets of the capital, Tegucigalpa, filled with pro-Zelaya protesters, Reuters said. U.S. President Barack Obama called for the reinstatement of Zelaya but Micheletti refused, Reuters said. "I don't think anybody here, not Barack Obama and much less Hugo Chavez, has the right to come and threaten," Micheletti said. It was Zelaya's growing relationship with Chavez, the leftist Venezuelan president famous for his angry anti-U.S. rhetoric, that appears to have upset the generals, Reuters said. The court ordered Zelaya's removal, saying he had exceeded his authority by firing Vasquez. The coup was a rather painful reminder of the political turmoil that characterized Central American governments last century, but which had calmed down in the past few decades as democracies became firmly established. The United States still has 600 troops stationed at Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras, Reuters said.

There's good news and bad news in House energy bill

U.S. President Barack Obama applauded Sunday the passage of an historic energy bill by the House of Representatives aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and moving the United States away from oil dependence, according to the New York Times. The bill is historic because it would, if passed by the Senate and signed by the president, begin turning the United States from being one of the world's largest emitters of the gasses blamed for global warming and from its profligate use of fossil fuels. The proposal includes a cap-and-trade program to encourage emissions-reduction and support for solar energy and wind power, the Times said. "I think it's fair to say that over the first six month, we've seen more progress on shifting us away from dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels than at any time in several decades," Obama told a group of reporters in the Oval Office, citing his administration's raising of automobile mileage standards and including support for energy research and home weatherization in the economic stimulus bill. But Obama took issue with one provision in the bill passed bythe House that could impose tariffs on countries that refuse to adopt limits on greenhouse gas emissions. "At a time when the economy worldwide is still in deep recession and we've seen a significant drop in global trade, I think we have to be very careful about sending any protectionist signals out there," Obama said. Okay, the president still sees the big picture on the economy. The best way to rein in the uncivilized regimes out there is by getting them engaged in the world economy -- there's enough money to be made out there for everyone, assuming the recession ends. Look at how it has been working with China. Instead of remaining a belligerent enemy, China has greatly benefitted from engagement and is working with the United States and the West on many issues. It's hard to remember the last time Beijing railed against U.S. "hegemony" -- the name the old Chinese Communists had for Washington's use of economic influence. And it's certainly a lot better than worldwide saber-rattling with nuclear arms, like we're seeing on a smaller scale with North Korea and Iran. But will Obama veto the bill if the Senate does not remove the tariff provision before it gets to him? He doesn't seem to have any choice, and is most likely working behind the scenes to make sure it doesn't come to that. Of course, it would have been nice if he had spoken equally eloquently about removing provisions from the bill that offer additional support for nuclear power and so-called "clean coal" technology. Nuclear power is simply too dangerous to depend on, and burning coal on a larger scale has catastrophic environmental consequences. It's far better, as Obama did say, to put the most energy into safe, renewable energy resources.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

NATO agreement with Russia is a glass half-full

It's not exactly bad news that NATO and Russia have agreed to resume military cooperation in the aftermath of the suspension that followed Moscow's unfortunate war with Georgia last year. But it certainly can't be called good news, either. "The NATO-Russia Council is up and running again also at the political level," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told a meeting of ministers Saturday in Corfu, Greece, according to Cable News Network (CNN). Russa is not a member of NATO but consults with the alliance and takes part in its international activities through the council, which was formed in 1982, CNN said. Of course it's important to keep a military power like Russia engaged in world diplomacy, but the Georgia crisis is far from resolved, at least as far as Western nations are concerned. Russia intervened military and humiliated the Georgian armed forces in a 5-day war last August after Georgia sent its military to try to prevent the secession of its South Ossetia and Ahzbakia provinces. Russia declined to attend last year's meeting and was suspended from the council, presumably to punish Moscow for extending immediate diplomatic recognition to the two provinces as independent countries and for not withdrawing its troops from Georgia as provided in last year's ceasefire accord. Well, it's nearly a year later and the situation remains the same. Russian troops still occupy South Ossetia and Ahzbakia, only now ostensibly to protect their soveriegnty, and Nicaragua is the only other country in the world to recognize them as independent states. It is counterproductive to pretend, as NATO has, that everything is back to normal. Scheffer said at the Corfu meeting that NATO-Russia cooperation on "common security interests" -- such as Afghanistan, arms control and fighing drug trafficking, terrorism and piracy -- was more important than the disagreement over Georgia. NATO ministers "are in the process of examining the current institutional structure of the NATO-Russia Council and have agreed to make it a more efficient and valuable instrument for our political dialogue and practical cooperation," Scheffer said. Tell that to our friends in Tblisi, the Georgian capital. And tell that to any other countries considering joining the Western alliance. Georgia's application to join NATO is said to have provoked Russia into launching last year's attack.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Business at usual at State Department: U.S. gives weapons to Somali goverment

Just when it seemed the new Democratic Party-led U.S. government was reversing the policies of the George W. Bush administration comes word from Washington that the United States has provided 40 tons of weapons to the embattled government of Somalia. The military aid, mostly small arms and ammunition, as well as payments to Uganda and Burundi to train Somali troops, is aimed at helping the embattled transitional federal government of the strategic East African nation defeat an Islamic insurgency linked to al-Qaida, according to the Reuters international news service. Aid delivered in the past six weeks totals less than $10 million, Reuters said, citing an unnamed U.S. State Department official. Al Shabaab fighters control most of southern Somalia and are battling for control of the capital, Mogadishu, Reuters said. "We've shipped probably in the neighborhood of 40 tons of arms and munitions into Somalia, the official told Reuters. "We remain concerned about an al Shabaab victory, and we want to do as much as we can to help the TFG." U.S. officials fear the insurgents want to impose a strict Islamic regime on the country, which shares borders with Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia, and is across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen. U.S. President Barack Obama apparently is stepping up efforts to counter al-Qaida influenced insurgencies around the world, like his recent moves to bolster U.S. and Afghani forces battling the Taliban in Afghanistan. Reuters said the United States had hoped that the election in January of a moderate Islamist to lead Somalia would lead to some type of reconciliation between the warring factions, but al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden -- who the United States blames for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington -- declared Somali President Sheik Sharif Ahmed an enemy in a March videotape and called on the insurgents to defeat the government.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Iran wins war with protesters but is losing the peace

Word from Tehran is that while the massive street demonstrations that followed the disputed June 12 re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad appear to have been put down by force, a behind-the-scenes battle is raging inside the country's ruling religious establishment. A rift between hardline Ahmedinejad supporters and backers of challenger Mirhossein Mousavi, who has refused to concede, is threatening to split the usually unanimous leadership councils, according to the Reuters international news service. The rift has pitted Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has backed the official election results showing Ahmedinejad winning, and the Guardian Council legislative body against other influential religious and political leaders who support Mousavi's call to annul the vote. Former presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, as well as dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, have backed Mousavi, Reuters said. Mousavi supporters planned to release thousands of balloons Friday with a message commemorating the life of a young woman slain in a demonstration last week, Reuters said, in a protest against an apparent government crackdown on dissent. Mousavi's daily newspaper, Kalameh-ye Sabz, has been shut down and its staff arrested, Reuters said. New York-based watchdog group Committee to Protect Journalists said 40 reporters and media workers have been arrested in Iran since the election. New U.S. President Barack Obama criticized the government crackdown, saying he was "appalled and outraged" by the move. The Group of Eight ministers plan to release a statement Friday condemning the violence and calling for Iran to respect its citizens' "fundamental rights, including freedom of expression," Reuters said.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Palestinian leader agrees his people are not ready for statehood

Sure, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's speech Monday was full of the usual unproductive rhetoric that has long characterized the decadeslong dispute over the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war. But the speech at Al Quds university near Jerusalem, billed as the Palestinian answer to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's June 14 address accepting an independent state on the West Bank of the Jordan River, also included a major concession that his people are not ready for statehood despite years of self-governance. According to the Reuters international news service, Fayyad said the Palestinians would need at least one year, and possibly two, to set up their new country. "I call on all our people to unite around the project of establishing a state and to strengthen its institutions ... so that the Palestinian state becomes, by the end of next year or within two years at most, a reality," he said. "Achieving this goal within two years is possible." Of course, bureaucrats always give the most optimistic estimate of anything they have to do, so a more likely estimate is three-four years, even though the 15-year-old Palestinian Authority essentially operates like a government already with ambassadors in many world capitals. But since the PA doesn't even control its own territory, having lost power over the Gaza Strip and its 1.5 million residents to the radical Hamas organization after a short war in 2007, a more-realistic view is that two years will be needed just to reunite the Palestinian people under the same government. Then, the PA might be able to get ready within two years, assuming it is government that prevails. Israel may indeed be responsible for a lot of what ails the Palestinians -- the PA certainly thinks to -- but if the goal at the end is statehood, there's a lot more work to do. And that is the Palestinians' responsibility, not Israel's, regardless of the rhetoric.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Just a little late, federal regulators take action against Madoff schemers

Well, we all figured one guy couldn't steal $65 billion on his own, didn't we? Today, the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission began shedding some light on how disgraced Wall Street kingpin Bernard Madoff made off with tens of billions, in full view of government regulators and everyone else, by bringing civil fraud charges against auditors and a Hollywood investment adviser for allegedly advancing the massive investment scheme. At least the regulators, whose job it is to prevent this kind of crap from happening, have finally decided to stop sitting this one out -- not to stop or prevent the fraud, just to exact a little after-the-fact justice. In three lawsuits filed in federal courts in New York, the SEC accused executives of a Madoff-founded brokerage of helping to cook the books and accused a high-profile Hollywood investment adviser of knowingly steering wealthy clients to the scheme in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars in fees, according to the New York Times. The new filings revealed more about how Madoff and his associates were able to perpetrate the massive fraud for decades. One of the lawsuits claimed California money manager Stanley Chais, who handled investments for famed Hollywood director Steven Speilberg, demanded that Madoff never show losses in any Chais account, the Times said. An attorney for Chais, Eugene R. Licker of Loeb & Loeb, denied the SEC accusations. “Like so many others, Mr. Chais was blindsided and victimized by Bernard Madoff’s unprecedented and pervasive fraud,” Mr. Licker said in a prepared statement. “Mr. Chais and his family have lost virtually everything — an impossible result were he involved in the underlying fraud.” Executives of Cohmad Securities Corp., the brokerage that had offices alongside Madoff's, who were named in the suits included Maurice J. Cohn, the co-founder and chairman; Cohn's daughter, Marcia Beth Cohn, the president and chief operating officer; and Robert M. Jaffe, the vice president. A third suit was filed in federal bankruptcy court by the bankruptcy trustee, Irving Picard, seeking Madoff assets to distribute to victims. A lawyer for Cohmad and the Cohn family, Steven R. Paradise of Vinson & Elkins, denied any knowlege of the scheme. “Our clients continue to be as shocked as anyone at the revelations,” Paradise said. “We look forward to the opportunity to challenge both the S.E.C.’s and Mr. Picard's allegations in court.” Attorneys for Jaffe called the SEC lawsuit impulsive and self-justifying. Madoff, who pleaded guilty to fraud charges in March, is scheduled to be sentenced June 29.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Drug industry gives in on costs while facing push for national health insurance

News out of Washington that drug manufacturers have agreed to offer $80 billion in discounts on prescription drug discounts to Medicare recipients shows how fearful the U.S. medical establishment have become that President Barack Obama and his administration will succeed in getting a national health insurance plan through Congress. "The agreement reached today to lower prescription drug costs for seniors will be an important part of the legislation I expect to sign into law in October," Obama said today in announcing the deal, which will help close a gap in Medicare drug coverage, according to the Reuters international news service. Under the Medicare drug plan, recipients have no coverage for expenses between $2,700 and $6,154. coverage, Reuters said. "The existence of this gap has been a great injustice that has placed a great burden on many seniors," Obama said. The deal was negotiated between Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a leading industry association. Baucus also is leading a panel drafting healthcare reform legislation, Reuters said. The momentum toward national health coverage is so strong that even the industry association endorsed it after the agreement was announced. "This commitment to support legislation that will help close the coverage gap reflects our ongoing work with Congress and the Administration to make comprehensive health care reform a reality this year," the group said in a statement, according to Reuters. The developments, including a recent national poll indicated U.S. residents support health care reform by an overwhelming margin, are far different than the reaction that greeted President Bill Clinton's universal health coverage plan in 1993. Business groups, doctors and the insurance industry lined up with Congressional Republicans to kill the Clinton plan without a vote. But Democrats hold majorities in both houses of Congress this time around. Universal health care proposals still draw opposition from Republicans and some Democrats, however, because of the cost, which has been estimated at $1.6 trillion.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

George W. Bush's Supreme Court nominees forget the basics

Today's U.S. Supreme Court decision refusing to allow a convicted rapist to try to prove his innocence with DNA evidence demonstrates -- yet again -- the problem with appointing right-wing idealogues to the bench. This time, both George W. Bush appointees joined with three other conservative justices to find that prisoners do not have a constitutional right to use DNA evidence after trial, even if the evidence was not available but was developed after they were incarcerated, according to Cable News Network (CNN). Why not? Is the purpose of the justice system to convict, or to find justice? Why would it be called the justice system if the purpose was not justice? The 5-4 decision, issued today, reversed a federal appeals court ruling that said Alaska's "refusal to open the evidence locker" was trying to "foreclose" his possible innocence. But let's be perfectly honest here. The convict, William Osborne, appears to be a perfectly awful person -- a monster. He and another man were convicted of a brutal attack on an Anchorage prostitute in which they raped her, beat her with an ax handle, shot her in the head and dumped her in a snowbank near the city's airport, according to CNN. Osborne was sentenced to 26 years in prison, with five years suspended. Within months of being paroled in 2007, he was convicted of assault and kidnapping for a home invasion in Anchorage. This is not a nice guy. But that is supposed to be beside the point. The principle here is whether people accused of crimes by the government have ample opportunity to defend themselves. It's not god accusing them, it's other people -- fallible people. Because people make mistakes, 44 states have passed laws allowing defendants access to biological evidence after conviction. Alaska is not one of those states. "He has no constitutional right to obtain post-conviction access to the state's evidence for DNA testing," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. But in dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens understood what the majority had decided. "There is no reason to deny access to the evidence and there are many reasons to provide it, not the least of which is a fundamental concern in ensuring that justice has been done in this case," he wrote, joined in dissent by Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. According to The Innocence Project, which helped represent Osborn, CNN said, DNA testing has exonerated 232 wrongly convicted people in the past two decades, including 17 men on death row.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Congress takes new interest in government's domestic surveillance program

News out of Washington, D.C., that members of the U.S. Congress are taking renewed interest in the government's domestic surveillance program is better than nothing, but still is years late. According to the New York Times, Rep. Rush Holt (D-New Jersey), chairman of the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, has been investigating domestic wiretapping and e-mail interceptions by the National Security Agency and no longer believes government assertions that any illegal monitoring was inadvertant. “Some actions are so flagrant that they can’t be accidental,” Holt told the Times. Three Congressional committees have opened investigations into the monitoring program since April, when revelations surfaced that surveillance of domestic communications went beyond legal limits last year and early in 2009, the Times said. Little has been disclosed publicly about the probes, which are being conducted in secret. But recent testimony reportedly has revealed that the monitoring has been much wider than previously known. Holt said one of the problems in overseeing the conduct of the NSA was that few lawmakers understood the laws authorizing the program, which were passed by Congress. “The people making the policy don’t understand the technicalities,” Holt said. The Times said a former intelligence official who demanded anonymity said he was trained in 2005 to routinely monitor e-mails sent by U.S. residents without first obtaining warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret panel charged with overseeing the surveillance operation. The e-mails were collected in a secret database with the code name of Pinwale, the official said. A renewal of the program approved by Congress last year gave the NSA more leeway in collecting information but only if innocent e-mail communications from U.S. residents were filtered out of the millions of messages monitored by agency computers. The NSA declined to comment, the Times said. But a spokeswoman for National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair told the newspaper that "inadvertent errors" could not be avoided because of the complex nature of the surveillance operation. “When such errors are identified, they are reported to the appropriate officials and corrective measures are taken,” said the spokeswoman, Wendy Morigi. The domestic surveillance program was started under the previous administration of George W. Bush. Bush's successor, Barack Obama, said in April that his administration had taken steps to bring the NSA program back into compliance with the law.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Negotiating with Netanyahu may be tough but when did talking become the problem?

What's most curious about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's endorsement of a Palestinian state Sunday was not the most surprising thing, that the right-wing leader offered a state at all -- but that officials of the West Bank and Gaza government reacted with such vehement opposition. Netanyahu's statement about accepting a Palestinian state -- albeit with conditions the Palestinian leaders obvious found unacceptable -- marked a reversal of his repeatedly stated rejection of statehood for the residents of the Israeli-occupied territories. Netanyahu's conservative approach to the Palestinians was why he was able to form a coalition to become prime minister after the February election. But pressure from the new U.S. government apparently convinced him to change his stance, presented in a speech at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, according to the Reuters international news service. "If we receive this guarantee regarding demilitarization and Israel's security needs, and if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, then we will be ready in a future peace agreement to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state," Netanyahu said in Sunday's speech. Yet instead of seeing the new Israeli position as a potential breakthrough that could lead to statehood as early as this year or 2010, the Palestinian leadership blithely rejected Netanyahu's initiative as "sabotaged," Reuters said. "Netanyahu's remarks have sabotaged all initiatives, paralyzed all efforts being made and challenges the Palestinian, Arab and American positions," said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. "The peace process has been moving at the speed of a tortoise," said Saeb Erekat, a PA official who has negotiated interim peace accords with the Israelis. "Tonight, Netanyahu has flipped it over on its back." Netanyahu's speech was widely seen as Israel's answer to U.S. President Barack Obama's speech 10 days ago in Egypt, in which Obama called for "a new beginning" in relations with the Moslem world. Obama advocated the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel and for a halt to Israel's settlement building in the West Bank. The timing has never seemed better for an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, yet the parties have rarely seemed further apart. In fact, the Palestinians are seriously divided amongst themselves, even to the point of setting up separate, diametrically opposed governments in the territories. They actually are in no position to negotiate with Israel, even though negotiations are precisely the way to proceed from this point. That may be the key to understanding where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at this point. The demands being made by the Palestinian leadership -- to set up a state without acknowledging Israel's right to exist, to have its capital inside the capital of an already existing country and to negotiate on behalf of people they are warring with, are so untenable as to be preposterous. There really must be a secure peace for the Palestinian people, even at the price of discomfort for Israel, but the current PA leadership does not want even that. The very existence of the current leadership is dependent upon maintaining conflict, not on reaching an agreement with Israel that will bring peace and prosperity to its people. Complaints about Israeli settlements are a distraction that exposes this unfortunate situation. Settlements are a problem only if the new Palestinian country intends to refuse to allow Jewish people to live in it. Otherwise, the borders of the new state could be drawn without regard to the settlements -- the ones that are in Israel would be part of Israel and the ones that are not would be part of the new country. That this possibility is not even being considered reveals that real peace between Israel and the new Palestinian country is not part of this equation. And the fact that an obviously astute political thinker like Obama does not seem to understand this is highly troubling.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

World's richest nations plan economic recovery

Maybe the worldwide recession actually is over. The world's eight richest nations ended two days of talks Saturday in Italy to plan for the expected worldwide economic recovery, according to the Reuters international news service. Or maybe the recession is about to be over for them. Meeting in Lecce, finance ministers of the world's eight richest nations began getting ready for the end of stimulus programs propping up their economies. "The force of the economic storm is receding," U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said as the Group of Eight meeting concluded. "There are encouraging signs of stabilization across many economies." Ministers agreed that the stimulus programs would not be ending anytime soon, however, and also agreed to ask the International Monetary Fund to help them figure out the best way to bring the programs to a conclusion. But there appeared to be sharp disagreement on how to roll back stimulus spending plans and how to stress-test each country's banks, Reuters said. In fact, Russian finance minister Alexei Kudrin called the meeting "stormy" since there were major arguments about what stage the crisis had reached. Conservative nations like Germany and Canada are pressuring other G8 nations to end stimulus programs to keep interest rates from rising too rapidly once the recovery takes hold. But Geithner said the United States would probably not be tightening monetary policy anytime soon. "It is too early to shift toward policy restraint," he told the ministers. Reuters said a G8 source who did not want to be named said the IMF report would likely be presented in October at the fund's annual meeting in Istanbul. Private sector economists do not expect tightening of fiscal and monetary policy before next year, Reuters said. The other G8 nations are Japan, Britain, France and Italy.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Federal judge revives hope for legal system to reverse Bush legacy

Friday's federal court ruling allowing a convicted terrorist who claims he was tortured to sue a former Bush administration lawyer who authorized harsh treatment of detainees offers a genuine opportunity for the U.S. legal system to repair some of the worst constitutional damage done by the executive branch. In a lawsuit brought by the family of Jose Padilla, the Brooklyn man who was held in solitary confinement for more than three years after being accused of trying to set off a radioactive "dirty" bomb explosion in the United States, U.S. Judge Jeffrey White decided that the allegations were sufficient to proceed with the case. White, who was, perhaps ironically, appointed to the Northern District of California bench by George W. Bush, rejected nearly all of the government's claims of immunity in a 42-page ruling issued late Friday, according to the New York Times. White ruled that the suit had adequately alleged that attorney John C. Yoo, who wrote many of the so-called torture memos that authorized the use of invasive interrogation techniques when was a deputy attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel from 2001 to 2003, could have started the "series of events that resulted in the deprivation of Padilla’s constitutional rights,” the Times said. Padilla claimed in his lawsuit that he “suffered gross physical and psychological abuse at the hands of federal officials as part off a systematic program of abusive interrogation intended to break down Mr. Padilla’s humanity and his will to live” while he was held in the U.S. Navy brig in Charleston, S.C. White said in his ruling that the case raised the question of the balance “between the requirements of war and the defense of the very freedoms that war seeks to protect,” the Times said. Yoo, now a law professor at the University of California in Berkeley, did not respond to requests for comment, the Times said. But he did write in the Wall Street Journal column last year that "the legal system should not be used as a bludgeon against individuals targeted by political activists to impose policy preferences they have failed to implement via the ballot box.” A U.S. Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the decision, the Times said. Padilla eventually was sentenced to 17 years in prison for conspiracy to commit terrorism in an unrelated case.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Hard-to-believe election drama plays out in Iran

Does anyone find it difficult to believe that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad can possibly be voted out in Friday's election? As amazing as it sounds, the unseating of Ahmedinejad, yet another virulently anti-U.S. leader of an oil-rich nation, appears to be a possibility when voters go to the polls to between him and Mir Hossein Moussavi, a former prime minister, according to the Cable News Network (CNN). Moussavi seems to have closed a huge deficit in the polls as late as 10 days ago and could be poised to win, based on the crowds that attend his rallies and the amount of campaign bunting on the streets of Tehran, CNN said. But this is Iran, where Shiite religious leaders hold enormous power, even the power to block whatever the parliament tries to do, according to Mohamad Bazzi of the Council on Foreign Relations, writing in the Washington Post. The country's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, controls the 12-member Guardian Council, which has the power to block candidates and veto legislation. It's impossible to tell what the council will do if Moussavi, who supports detente with the United States, wins the election. More likely, neither Moussavi or Ahmedinejad will get a majority of the votes in the four-candidate election, and will be forced into a runoff. The other candidates are Mehdi Karroubi, a former former speaker of Iran's parliament, and former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezaee. Iran has had reform candidates win before, since the Islamic revolution in 1979, but the power of the senior clergy was not seriously challenged.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Venezuela turns attention to soda pop

Nice to see Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez still has a sense of humor. Chavez's government, which has in the last few years concerned itself with harsh criticism of the United States while cracking down on critics at home, banned the sale of Coke Zero today and ordered the product removed from store shelves. "The product should be withdrawn from circulation to preserve the health of Venezuelans," Health Minister Jesus Mantilla told the government news agency, the Reuters international news service reported. The ban appears to be in line with recent nationalizations and stepped-up government examination of businesses operating, Reuters said. Venezuela has seized two Cargill facilities and threatened U.S. drug giant Pfizer this year. Coca-Cola Co. introduced Coke Zero in Venezuela in April, around the same time that CocaCola Femsa of Mexico announced that it would increase its sale of low-calorie sodas, Reuters said. Chavez had toned down the anti-U.S. rhetoric since the election of Barak Obama, and even hugged the U.S. leader at the Summit of the Americas conference in Trinidad and Tobago in April. Chavez and former U.S. President George W. Bush were famously opposed to each other, with Chavez calling Bush a "devil" at the United Nations in 2006.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

New era of capitalism deepens -- Chrysler sale OK'd by high court

The new post-financial system collapse era of American capitalism took off in earnest today when the U.S. Supreme Court lifted its stay and cleared the way for Chrysler Corp. to be acquired by its union and Fiat, the Italian automaker. According to Cable News Network (CNN), the high court voted to turn down an appeal by Indiana state pension funds that had challenged the complex deal, removing the last impediment to the White House-backed sale. The court had delayed the sale Monday, apparently to review last-minute filings from the parties. The ruling means Chrysler, for decades the third-largest U.S. automaker, will emerge from bankruptcy owned primarily (55 percent) by the United Auto Workers trust with minority ownership (20 percent) by Fiat. The governments of the United States and Canada also will own smaller stakes, CNN said. "We are delighted that the Chrysler-Fiat alliance can now go forward, allowing Chrysler to re-emerge as a competitive and viable automaker," the White House said after the Supreme Court order, according to CNN. The quick action by the high court was vital to avoid Chrysler's liquidation, CNN said, because the automaker had shut down operations after its bankruptcy filing last month and was losing $100 million a day.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Dismantling of General Motors picks up speed

News from Detroit that General Motors Corp. had agreed to sell its Saturn brand to Penske Automotive Group Inc. seems to be good news for 13,000 Saturn employees but not such good news for the largest U.S. automaker. The dismantling of bankrupt GM, which sought bankruptcy protection Monday, raises real doubts about whether the automotive giant will ever emerge as a viable company. GM has already agreed to sell its Hummer brand to a Chinese company and its Saab subsidiary to a fellow Swedish automaker, Koenigsegg Automotive AG of Angelholm. GM and Penske plan to complete the sale of the brand and its 350 dealerships by this summer, according to the Reuters international news service. GM has said it plans to reorganize in bankruptcy court and return as a smaller company concentrating on its core brands, Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac, Reuters said. Penske, which operates hundreds of car and truck dealerships and supply stores across the United States and Britain from its headquarters in Bloomfield, Mich., was one of more than a dozen bidders for Saturn, which was created by GM in 1984 and began selling cars in 1990. GM announced it would sell the Saturn brand in February. Under the agreement with Penske, GM will continue to build the Saturn Aura, Vue and Outlook as a Penske contractor, Reuters said.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Top U.S. official attends inauguration of leftist as president of El Salvador

Just in case anyone still thought things hadn't changed in Washington, word comes from San Salvador that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended Monday's inauguration of Mauricio Funes as president of El Salvador. Funes is the leader of the FLMN, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, the formerly Marxist group that fought a bloody civil war against a series of U.S.-backed governments in the Central American country from 1980 to 1992. The United States was one of 75 nations that sent representatives to the inauguration, according to the Reuters international news service. ""It's a real testament to the strength and durability of democracy in the Americas," Clinton said Sunday as she arrived in El Salvador for a three-day visit to Latin America, Reuters said. Funes said the leftist government he would lead would work with the United States on regional issues such as migration and drug smuggling, and said he would not model himself after anti-U.S. leaders Hugo Chavez of Venezuela or Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua. Chavez and Ortega did not attend the inauguration, Reuters said. Funes' cabinet will have more pro-business officials than ex-guerillas, Reuters said. Funes said in his inauguration address that he would work to restore relations with Cuba, a possible source of friction with the United States, which does not have diplomatic relations with Havana despite recent developments. Clinton also is scheduled to travel to Honduras for a meeting of the Organization of American States, at which a majority of members are expected to push to readmit Cuba over U.S. objections. Funes' election in March ended two decades of rule by the pro-U.S. ARENA party. More than 75,000 people, many of them civilians, died in the El Salvador civil war, Reuters said.

GM sticks with failed strategy all the way to bankruptcy

What is truly disturbing about today's bankruptcy filing by General Motors is not that the largest U.S. automaker collapsed right after No. 3 Chrysler -- these are volatile economic times. No, what is most unsettling is that GM set the decline in motion -- and kept it in motion -- by blithely continuing to pursue the same strategy that had already failed. Yes, the car company managed a few extra years of prosperity by lobbying Congress to allow exceptions to mileage and pollution standards, but it never could build the kind of quality cars that rocketed Japanese auotmakers to record sales in the United States. Everyone, except GM, Chrysler and Ford, apparently, knows what this was about. Does the United States have a small car that can compete on quality with Honda or Toyota models? This is 30 years after the first OPEC oil embargo jolted the oil importers of the world into rethinking their dependence on fossil fuels. Nothing? What U.S. automakers apparently figured was that they were too big to ever have to give into the demands of the buying public -- that they were too big to fail. But that's what some of the largest U.S. banks thought, too, before the self-induced collapse of the financial sector. It's not that they were too big to fail, they were just too big, and we can blame government financial regulators in the United States and elsewhere for that. Remember the days when the government regulated companies for more than putting botulism in our food? Remember the days when banks and big corporations could be trusted to do more than overpay their executives? Maybe those days will make a comeback, now that the U.S. government has taken major ownership interests in so many major companies under the Obama administration. U.S. taxpayers will own 60 percent of General Motors when it emerges from bankrupty this summer, according to the Cable News Network (CNN).