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This Week in Colltales

Greece Takes a Step Forward, Colltalers

Greece said no. It wasn’t a fair bargain anyway, and the decision to refuse loads of cash from European banks in exchange for giving up the pesky idea of questioning the terms of such loans has at least one noble merit: it preserved the dignity of Greeks (and Trojans).
But the plebiscite’s result did leave a few unsettled issues to be sorted out, not the least of them the fate of Greece within the eurozone. Regardless of the good show of will displayed by the people, the outlook continues to be muddled as to whether the asphyxiation the currency regime imposes is worth going through, even if the reward of belonging to a collective such as the E.U. does have its benefits.
With the vote, P.M. Alexis Tsipras comes out stronger, if not with any particularly new mandate to conduct the resistance against Germany-led European investors and policy makers, who had forced him into an impossible corner: accept the terms and be branded a betrayer of his own government platform, or defend a national refusal, and likely lose his political support.
Such quagmire may have already damaged the precarious confidence Greeks had on their own democratic institutions’ ability to lead the country out of chaos, opening the doors to a right-wing regime that would promise to cure the country’s ills via an authoritarian rule.
Also, the reductionism of selling a single vote as solution to the complex political and economic impasse, which is not, along with an exit from the euro, now very possible, may compromise Greece’s path to the future and any crucial attempt at a national reboot.
More than ideological independence, though, or rebellion against the single-currency knot, the aftermath of this taxing process will hardly spell relief or produce an immediate change for the Greek people’s current miseries, or even halt the fast-moving erosion of the country’s stability. In other words, this week and at least for a few years more, Greece will be exactly the same as it’s been since 2010.
There’s something profoundly wrong, however about this abyss faced by the Greek. Their alleged culpability about falling off the cliff pales in comparison with the absurd orthodoxy of austerity that has wreak havoc throughout Europe in the past several years.
The cult of tearing social programs and charging high rates from already battered governments has been positive only to lenders and financial brokers, and left irreparable disruption on its wake. Despite increased unemployment, mounting personal savings losses, and increased social exclusion, the concept of austerity remains insulated from questioning and free of any sense of accountability.
Many a conscious economist, and there are some who even carry a Nobel Prize under their belts, have pointed to how Europe in the past decade has been a textbook for the case of a patient falling terminally ill from the medicine prescribed to save it in the first place.
Portugal, Spain, Ireland, even Finland, have all accept demands from the IMF, the World Bank, or a multitude of international banks, eager to hover and profit from their misery, so to be ‘awarded’ loans that, after all cuts to serve the debt, have hardly made a difference.
Those countries, and a few others, were thrown into a perpetual cycle of ‘tightening belts’ in exchange for a type of financial aid that prioritizes the interests of those in a position to dispose capital, over basic necessities of the working population. No wonder there’s now a growing contingent of disenfranchised citizens roaming European streets, along with the already familiar unwanted immigrants.
Judging by the two most recent decisions by vote in the U.K., for instance, we’re not holding our breath that the Greek will be able to see clearly what direction to take. How could they? Whatever they choose, they will pay dearly for it. Whereas the Scots may learn from their loss in the plebiscite to leave the U.K. and strengthen their resolve, even in victory we’re not sure the same will happen in Greece.
Take David Cameron’s re-election, too, as another example when a sense of dissatisfaction was successfully diverted and manipulated to assure a surprising win for continuation of the obtuse, ideologically dishonest, and ultimately flawed Tory project of government.
A word for those who still mistake the euro, and its failure to galvanize diverse nations around a single currency system, with the ideal of a united Europe, which proposed to replace centuries of strife and war with a egalitarian, altruistic commonwealth.
Whereas the former was adopted at least several years prematurely, and enforced before a proper implementation and unification could take place, the latter was an idea that had to come, and has delivered, on its own limited way, much of what was expected from it.
Europe has enjoyed a time of peace among its nations, and the idea of a military aggression from one of them against another has been, at least for now, placed safely at a distance, no closer than economic sanctions, for instance, an official rebuff or so, or even harsh words exchanged at some intercontinental conference. Roughy speaking, it’s incalculable how many lives have been saved in the process.
The currency, however, has always been an entirely different matter. Take the ECB’s policies: its insistence in pursuing rigorous anti-inflation and price stability rules, even to the cost of higher continent-wide unemployment, as well as, its absolute omission on the issue of migratory influxes and their impact on regional economies, has been arguably absolutely misguided and indefensible.
To compound it, save the catastrophic financial collapse of 2008 and its consequences, the bank has no one but itself to blame. As soon as the euro was up and running, there was a rush to impose it as a condition for entry into the great project. Thus an untested regime was slated to become a step stone for admission to an in-progress project of collective government no one had much idea about it yet.
Worse. As soon as extreme differences between countries began to take their toll, the ECB played favorites, and decided to punish and award nations as if they were good or bad kids: if you curb inflation, I’ll give you just enough. But if you don’t, I’ll charge you higher interests. No wonder that soon, political leaders began to rebel against rules that seemed to have been dictated from above.
Indeed, the issue of sovereignty may become a key selling point to any authoritarian regime worth its bootstraps. Through it, the whole ideal of sharing common ideals may be swept away, to be replaced by the xenophobic goal of ridding the country of ‘foreign’ ideas.
It could happen to Greece, as it could with any other nation within the eurozone. That, by the way, may be the final consequence of an eventual Greek tragedy: that it’ll lead it to leave the euro, followed by a string of nations, to ultimately dismantle the whole construct.
We hope, against hope, that it doesn’t come to this. That the proverbial ‘third way’ will emerge, and that Greece will remain with the euro and get the aid it needs, but without losing its government and aspirations to pursue its own democratic way of being a nation.
And that they do not believe the banks’ rhetoric, always ready to preach restrain to other people, while granting themselves the largess of fat commissions and interest rates. Or that a country’s direction cannot be conditioned to the people’s will, when in reality, it can and should. Or that the pursuit of independence from a rigged international system is vain and can’t possibly work. It is not and it can.
Greece needs the support of the international community, and its government needs the conditions to provide a viable economic solution to its people. Whatever the Greeks decide it’s best for themselves, based or not on today’s vote, should be nurtured and respected.
It may sound rhetorical but all modern societies owe part of their ability to remain vibrant and diverse to that part of the world. It’d be ungrateful if now the world would turn its back to it, and team up with the international capital. Despite our natural pessimism, we’re in pins and needles over what happens to Greece, and to the ideal of a unified Europe, because we care. So should you. Have a great one.

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There’s Work Left Undone, Colltalers

It’s been a remarkable time to be living in the U.S., absent any sense of misplaced patriotism. And last week was a particularly gut-wrenching one, with a handful of worth-following breaking news that drove us collectively from agony to ecstasy in just a few days.
Grief, which took over the nation following the June 17 murders of nine black church folk in Charleston, and joy, for the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, were the brackets of a week that forced other, less relevant reports to recede to the background.
Not that everything else did not count, inside the U.S. or abroad. But it’s still rare to see a few history-making stories to top the headlines. As the media in this country has all but given up to accurately report real, unvarnished news, the change was refreshing.
We’ll go back to those still developing stories in a moment, but it’s also important to comment on two other events that helped make this one of President Obama’s best weeks in office: congressional approval of fast-track authority, giving him power to negotiate the Trans-Pacific trade agreement without pesky input from anyone, and the Supreme Court’s other vital ruling in support of Obamacare.
Fast-track authority gives the president a huge edge to pass the TPP legislation, whose full text hasn’t yet been disclosed. Based on WikiLeaks documents, though, there’s an unfair bias for protecting American corporations’ interests above all, including other nations’ own regulations and sovereignty. No wonder the administration is so reluctant to publish the terms of the agreement.
What’s curious is that Democrats in Congress argued successfully to thwart the approval of fast-track powers to the president, two weeks ago, because of the trade’s expected negative impact on jobs and wages of American workers. They did that by including and opposing (yes, that’s possible in Washington) a piece of legislation aimed at protecting workers likely to be affected by the TPP.
But the removal from the bill of that, the Trade Adjustment Assistance – in any case, insufficient to minimize the agreement’s impact on labor – has been what ultimately helped pass the fast-track gimmick the second time around.
It was quietly reintroduced and approved in the House last week, as a standalone bill, and will probably sail through the Senate in the coming weeks, preferably when no one will be paying much attention. It’s not the first time labor legislation is used as a paw in Washington’s political games, and as such, it still remains weak and pro forma as originally conceived.
Besides the potential damage it may have on already demoralized labor relations, the biggest criticism about the TPP is how it grants almost unrestricted powers to big companies to dictate and change laws, so to optimize their profits, now on a global scale.
And despite President Obama’s misguided cheerleading and personal involvement on its approval, this accord has less to do with global trade than with exporting a certain way of doing business that’s at the odds with the very idea of sustainable progress.
As for the other piece of positive news in the past week, albeit one full of qualifiers, the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act was an immense win, this time not just for the president, but for at least 15 million Americans who risked losing federal subsides for their health treatments, if the decision had gone the other way. It was thus the least that the court could have done.
Now, that Obamacare is flawed, there’s no denial. It continues to rely upon, and make huge profits to, insurance companies, who remain more important in the equation of public health than both their two main players, the patient and his or her health providers.
With all the energy, and political capital, spent in six years by the administration to establish Obamacare as the law of the land, one could argue that the much better option, the single-payer system, or some variation of socialized health care systems in effect around the world, would’ve had full support of the American public. Still, the fight to defend the law has been admirable nonetheless.
Moving on. The national grief over the South Carolina shootings has all the markings of a game-changer, as it reignited debate over racism and boosted the overall acknowledgement that there’s, indeed, something heartbreakingly wrong about America on its regard. Signs were everywhere, and the public demotion of the 1961-created ‘Confederate Flag’ was as good as any to illustrate such change.
The massacre also forced some elected officials to promise support for any efforts to get rid of such a hate-gathering flag, but we’ll see about that. Even if it comes to fruition, it’d be just a gesture, and in itself, it’ll do little to advance racial equality.
Some stores are now refusing to sell such fake Civil War memorabilia, but there remains the question: what will it take to gear this conversation towards real change? For there seems to be more factors conspiring against it than Republican presidential candidates.
Something way more substantive is required to bring justice about what happened, given the attacked church’s storied past as a temple to race struggle in this country, and the fact that the shooter’s a millennial, member of a new generation of domestic terrorists.
As we mourned the victims, and the president himself offered a rousing, singing eulogy to them, five churches in black communities of Southern states and Ohio were burned this week, most with suspicion of arson. And just so no one forgets, white supremacists are already ostensibly and unapologetically attempting to own the murders with promises of more to come. No, no change as yet.
Just as the reduced debate on guns fades quickly after yet another mass murder, and few lawmakers have the guts to push legislation to prevent a new one, the much needed conversation about a new batch of domestic terrorists may go the way of concealed guns too.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that we’re lacking a social glue that will tie these movement against racial-motivated aggression within our society, with other progressive struggles that move other millions of Americans, sharing a common thirst for justice.
So, we’re glad that gay rights, for instance, have reached a point of seemingly no return, and we all will benefit from their accomplishments, just as the entire American society benefited from the fight by the black community for equal rights in the 1960s.
But may we suggest to gather women’s reproductive rights advocates in this front too? And labor leaders and undocumented immigrants, and fighters for better and affordable housing and education, healthier food and also environmental activists?
Going back to that bloody but progressive decade, the movement against the war may have been arguably the one that galvanized all others. And they had then what’s not hard to find among our own contemporaries: a genuine desire to improve our society, to change the world, and conquer the right to dream a better future for people, not corporations. That’s why we all have homework to do.
To the Supreme Court, great, you did well and we’re reassured by your autonomy. Now, let’s go back and devise a constitutional amendment to fix your biggest mistake so far: let’s reverse the Corporations Are People ruling and put back democracy on our electoral process, shall we? Since we’re at it, why not fix the second amendment too, and get the scourge of guns out of the streets?
To the LBGT community, we can’t be more proud of you, or glad that you’re now a reference point to human relations. Your fresh approach to marriage and example of dedicated parenthood are reminders that yes, it’s all about love, and it does win sometimes.
Now, let’s extend equality to work, housing, education, and specially, to the still much discriminated transgender people, to whom even the act of going to a public bathroom can lead to years of humiliation and despair. They too deserve as everyone else the right to live dignified and productive lives, without fear of draconian laws that religious zealots and racist goons wish to impose on all of us.
This week, the focus will likely switch to Greece, whose progressive new government, and disenfranchised people are facing an uncertain future. The world should care about the Greek, for if it’s true that the European union is a dream worth fighting for, it’s also true that it doesn’t belong to government bureaucrats, or big banks, or austerity hawks, preaching sacrifices to other people’s kids.
We’ve had a hell of a week in the U.S., with both sobering and exhilarating news. But while headlines fade, our resolve should not. There’s a lot to be done, but luckily, we can handle it. Enjoy the extra leap second tomorrow night, and the heat of the northern July.

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6/22/2015 Racism Is a Loaded Gun, Colltalers

The tragedy at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston was a calculated act of terrorism, its timing and victims carefully chosen, and the shooter’s intent crystal clear. And unlike the appearances, he was not alone.
So will this be it? We’ve lost track of how many times we came this close to do something about it, and we don’t mean going back the intervening century and a half that’s supposed to separate our era from the official end of the American Civil War.
We’re talking about less than a decade, for instance, and President Obama’s 2010 inauguration is as good a time to start counting as any. And still, we lost count of how many times racism has shown its raw, brutal face, and we failed to act.
So is time ripe enough now? Or again we’re about to engage in yet another exercise of self-delusion, by some, and convenient excuses, by others, and offer the ‘isolated nut’ theory as the scapegoat for this massacre, so most of us can go back to sleep?
The more we learn about the murder rampage in S. Carolina, the harder it is to adhere to the usual suspects school of thought, which seems ever so casual but comes from the same place that’s been brewing racism in this country since, well, ever.
Even if the despicable idea he (we’re not mentioning his name on this space) had was very likely his own, it wouldn’t have come out of his deranged mind if it weren’t for the environment of racial hatred that nurtured his upbringing.
Nothing was casual: besides choosing the church for its historical significance in 200 years of racial struggle, this young thug had already made clear his intention to harm black people on his Website, picked a particular night to attack, drove 120 miles to get to the city, and like any cold blood psychopath, sat down and talked with his victims before slaughtering them.
The fact that he’s a certified killer, though, doesn’t exempt his community – and us – of responsibility. He was given the tools, the hate rationale and motivation, even literally the weapon, and thus he must’ve felt chosen to be the one to pull the trigger.
In other words, to focus on his apparel and universally recognized white supremacist symbols (everything but the swastika?), may distract us from the crucial fact that he, and millions like him, remain sore and bent on resettling a score that the Civil War was supposed to have settled all those years ago; it’s as if only part of the grand illusion of racism was defeated on the battlefield.
Why is it still alive and unwell in America? How is even possible that we tolerate state members of the union to openly profess segregation as a valid way of life, and racial hatred towards blacks (and one assumes, any race but white) as a matter of principle, while allowing Confederate Flags to be displayed in government buildings, and roads named after its heroes?
We don’t claim to know the answer but we offer that it may have something to do with so many still nurturing ill-feelings toward Jews, sex ‘minorities, feminists and civil rights activists. Or the growing contingent of ISIL volunteers. And yes, even those oh so well intentioned, who’ve declared racism over in this country, and still can’t quite consider it a serious threat.
For how’s that a young person develops such a stupefyingly flawed view of the world, where the methodical brutality of the Rhodesian regime, or the cruelty of Apartheid ideology, serve as cognitive beacons to their path in life, without a hint of the collective remorse we feel about the plight of millions of Africans who suffered or were exterminated under them?
The Charleston bloodbath is so completely engulfing on its message against racial equality, and specifically, in the way it signals towards some kind of evil final solution towards black people, that its meaning surpasses even the power of that other disgrace about life in America: easy guns. That may be a way to approach what happened but it can’t be the only way.
It’s a reductionist tactic to narrow and credit this barbaric act to how easy it is for anyone with a police record to acquire or, in this shooter’s case, to be gifted, with a gun. For there are already plenty of tragedies involving sick individuals with just a personal grudge against society. Even then, we haven’t changed any meaningful gun control law in their wake.
But it’s a scarier thought to think that this was not an isolated act, and the shooter, not a solitary wolf. This nation must show guts and accept that reality is indeed that bleak. And it’ll remain so if we don’t decide that enough’s enough.
For now we must keep on message and, if we’re to get anything done this time, then be done out of our revulsion against racism. Soon enough, we’ll sure to go back to another run-of-the-mill mass murder ignited by our ‘guns for everyone’ credo.
But will it be different this time around? Is it now the right time as it’ll ever be to reset this vicious cycle, and start treating racism as a crime worst than, say, protesting against government surveillance, or in favor of bringing troops home, or for the right of demand a better country for all Americans? Can we finally put a definitive end to the Civil War already?
We owe that to Revs. Clementa Pinkney, Daniel Simmons Sr., DePayne Middleton-Doctor, and Sharonda Singleton, and to Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, and Myra Thompson. We owe it to all black people whose unjust death we’ve read daily on the papers. And we owe it those slaughtered in South Africa and in the former Rhodesia.
Above all, we owe it to ourselves to become the Americans who finally decided, unanimously and unequivocally, that we can’t live like that: either we commit as a whole population against racism, or tomorrow we’ll be reading about yet another massacre. It’ll definitely take more than contrived words and prayers for change, but it can be done. Have a peaceful summer.
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6/15/2015 Behind Francis’ Liberal Push, Colltalers

When the chief of an institution with an estimated membership of over a billion declares that two percent of its almost 500,000 lieutenants are child molesters, and that he intends to set up tribunals to judge and kick them out, one by one, that’s big news.
We’re talking, of course, of Pope Francis I who announced last week the Catholic Church’s first practical step to identify and defrock at least some of those allegedly 100,000 pedophile priests still speaking about Jesus and committing horrific acts.
No question, it’s a positive step in the right direction and all that. After all, just a few years ago, the church was spending an obscene amount of hush-hush money, just to keep its child molesters out of jail and off the headlines, victims and their destroyed lives be damned. Also, it’s the first time a pope acknowledges that there is, indeed, a problem, and that it’s hurting the faithful.
Plus, such a move is a relief to the majority of priests and bishops and archbishops and cardinals who, to be fair, felt disgusted with the conduct of their peers, but had to face a big dilemma as to whether to denounce them and lose their careers.
Francis, who’s collected plenty of street cred with statements about the poor, gays, women, climate change, and even the evils of capitalism, has shown that he’s as shrewd a populist as any politician, except perhaps Alexander VI, or Roderic de Borgia.
But even as he’s displayed a flair to capture the attention of both the impoverished and the nauseatingly wealthy Catholic, with this decision, he actually goes from the merely stated to the actually enforced, or so it seems according to the Vatican.
In a statement, it said that the tribunals would operate under the feared Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, and that the goal is ‘to judge bishops with regard to crimes of the abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors.’
It’s a carefully worded statement, but nevertheless one issued by the powerful Sé, as it’s known by insiders, which used to be presided by the previous Pope Benedict XVI. Joseph Ratzinger, then an archbishop under Pope John Paul II, took pains in ‘filing’ abuse allegations as quickly as they seemed to multiply in the 1990s. Luckily, he’s no longer in charge of anything.
On the other hand, the decision can be perceived as yet another maneuver to divert attention of the real issue of ingrained child abuse at the core of the institution – how it got to be that way and how come no one took the initiative from inside before the allegations surfaced – focusing instead on singling out a few individuals whose expelling would help bury all about it.
SNAP, a well known organization of victims of pedophile priests, has said that the pope should have gone much further, but at least for the moment, it’ll ‘withhold judgement’ until the panel that will lead the judicial proceedings prove its worth.
So far, few have pointed out that, by creating a separate tribunal instead of using the court system, the church is in fact emulating a well-proven corporate tactic of self-regulating. It’s what allows big corporations to avoid stiff penalties for their offenses, while almost always delivering spotty results to consumers. One may even argue that the Catholic Church is just like a corporation.
It also allows it to be as opaque about its inner proceedings as it deems necessary to be, and where it differs radically from a business company is also where it gathers the most strength: since it’s not a public company, it owns accountability to no one.
On top of that, there is also the matter of rhetoric, and how at times a gesture, a limited set of measures, or a grandstanding statement can go a long way of establishing a pseudo-new reality, while having to realistically change very little.
In other words, even an initiative as concrete as the tribunals plan seems to be, can look much more effective on paper, and presumably in front of the cameras, than it is in reality. Besides, no one yet know how they will operate, based on what criteria prelates will be submitted to this new Inquisition-like public expiation, and what, ultimately, will be their punishment.
Will those accused of misconduct be then handed to the court system to be possibly retried, since it’d be the only judicially accepted way for them to be sent to jail? Or they’ll only ‘prescribe’ some sort of reparations from the abusers to their victims?
One could spend an afternoon stretching all implications of an institution of the size and scope of the Catholic Church engaging in a judicial process that is not part of its original ‘mission statement.’ Will the accused be simply handed to god, then?
But the plan and its limitations and flaws should not be the main focus of attention here. For besides everything else, it’s so far just a plan, and it’s doubtful that even once it’s in effect, it’ll be opened to public scrutiny or hijacked by its critics.
More important is to take this latest foray of the church into a kind of self-flagellation path, no unlike the one it often advises its own followers to take, in the context of today’s challenges it faces to remain relevant. Never before it’s been confronted by two formidable and polarizing extremes threatening to undermine for good its former hegemony: growing Islam and atheism.
The threat is not new, only it seems to have shifted just as the very foundation the Catholic Church has planted its claim has also been shifting. Besides those two adversaries, Francis has also to contend with a resurgent Evangelical movement in Latin America, specially its radical branch, the Messianism, which has also taken hold of large swaths of Africa and even of the U.S.
In fact, whereas Africa has been plagued by a certain brand of extreme Christianity – which turned out to be an America export -judging by the way some rightist presidential contenders speak, there’s a reactionary movement taking hold of increasingly impoverished communities throughout the U.S. that runs counter the direction Francis seems to want Catholicism to head.
Between these two ideological extremes, fighting an inflamed Islamism and widespread Evangelical proselytizing, and dealing with the Vatican’s own hawks, already mounting an offensive against his liberal moves, Francis has only one force he may gain strength from, in order to remain atop his firm: the masses. So, naturally, he embraces them and their causes, up to a point.
All and all, as it’s been said before on this space, it’s an interesting turn of events that the first South American pope, whose controversial dealings with the Argentine military dictatorship in the 1970s have not been completely scrutinized, is becoming the pope of the masses and of popular causes. In a rhetorical level, at least, he’s been unbeatable. And well liked. Good for him.
Not completely clear is whether such a willingness to take up big social themes, and making statements that have frightened even American politicians of the right, will translate into actions and, going forward, mark his legacy with a positive slant.
Child abuse is not, unfortunately, exclusive of the Catholic Church, the same way that male institutions founded on the principle of denying entry to women – from seminaries to Boys Scouts, the Armed Forces to jails, and so many others – are often festering with violent sexual repression and destructive behavior. They’re also places where gays and transgender people suffer terribly.
Which doesn’t mean that protecting children from that special kind of entitled predator, such as priests but also educators, coaches and authority figures in general, shouldn’t be a top priority, and that church’s efforts to rid itself of them are not valid.
Sexual molestation of minors, rape, emotional manipulation of youth and underlings are not about sex but power, and it’s despicable that someone graced with it would use it against the innocent or the vulnerable. Society seems to concur, as there’s so much animosity towards child molesters, even if at times, they too are lifetime victims and emotionally crippled by it.
Back to the church, it’s either a place of comfort for those who seek it for shelter and support, regardless of their status or even previous beliefs, or it’s just another useless point of sale, trying to push wares we don’t need in exchange for our loyalty.
When it serves as a hideout and protection to sexually dysfunctional adults preying on children entrusted to their guard, it has no longer any right to exist. It already has no use to billions, but if it allows monsters to wear its garb, then it should be outlawed. So kudos to Francis if he’s sincere in his efforts. But from our part, the court system should suffice. Have a great week ahead. WC

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6/07/2015 What the World Needs Now, Colltalers

Words such as hero or villain always get in the way of actual reality. While it may be easy to define an act of heroism or atrocity, who’s to determine who’s a hero or villain? Lionizing or demonizing someone does little to gauge the nature of their actions. Last week, for instance, marked the two years since NSA contractor Edward Snowden met two journalists in a Hong Kong hotel room, and produced the most comprehensive trove of documents about the inner workings of that government agency. They ignited a global debate about security and individual rights, and shed a spotlight on the secretive agency that’s become a mammoth after 9/11. Naturally, he’s demonized by government hacks, and embraced by a resurgent civil rights movement. Since that meeting, Pvt. Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley), and CIA analyst John Kiriakou, were sent to prison, and the WikiLeaks organization has become a target of the intel community, all for disclosing unrelated information deemed classified, but in fact way more trivial and damaging to personal freedoms than originally admitted, both in the U.S. and abroad. Something else happened since 2013 too: public awareness of what’s being done on citizens’ behalf with taxpayer money became more acute, and scrutiny over routine procedures adopted by the NSA, CIA, and even the FBI, more critical. These agencies have found themselves in the embarrassing situation of having to justify their failures with little to show in the way of success. It was then a momentous coincidence that the U.S. Senate allowed the Patriot Act, created to wage war on terrorists but that, in 14 years, has managed to mostly spy on law-abiding individuals, rather than validate its own existence. That Congress and the Obama administration rushed to enact a replacement legislation doesn’t take away the fact that the Patriot Act is now officially defunct. Despite a feverish effort to discredit both Snowden and the documents’ veracity, showing NSA’s worldwide surveillance of peace activists, political leaders, and even ally government officials, nothing substantial came to light. Instead, Snowden’s critics had to swallow even that old horse of an argument, that disclosure of classified documents always endanger troops on the ground. Lately, their focus has been re-engendered to frame the computer analyst as an opportunist who ‘chose’ the opaque regime of Russia as a shelter, as if that was a matter of choice. It’s been a while since anyone has mentioned the real reasons why he’s in Russia, in a parallel situation to WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, who’s stranded at the Ecuador Embassy in London since 2012. For all we know, they both face similar fate as Manning and Kiriakou if they’d venture outside their ‘incarceration.’ The Dept. of Justice has no qualms about prosecuting Snowden for what it considers an act of treason, a seriously misguided charge. But even if the summary of the events leading to his current situation are helplessly brief and incomplete, no one is reading anything close to even that on the U.S. media. Apart from a few progressive publications, Snowden remains an elusive figure, who may have done what he did for personal gain, another phony and gratuitous charge that’s often mentioned along his name. In fact, he sacrificed more than many Americans would be willing to, even considering the massive amount of private information everyone surrenders on a daily basis, in exchange for surfing the Internet. His status as an American citizen is all but revoked, his life has been uprooted, and he may as well become a pariah even in Russia, due to his recent criticism of Putin’s leadership. Not just Americans have benefited from his revelations, but millions more around the world did too, in what he’d like to see as the ‘critical role of informed citizens in correcting the excesses of government,’ as he wrote in a NYTimes Op-Ed article. Perhaps; he’s surely earned his optimism but not everyone sees it just as clear. On the reaction wave that celebrated, or aimed at debunking, the documents, there were those who minimize Snowden’s role, along others who lionized him uncritically. Calling him a hero, or villain, adds nothing to the significance of what we now know about the actual extent of secret government operations here and abroad, and it has had little to do with the demise of the Patriot Act. On the contrary, labels will likely neuter the new found awareness of what’s wrong with too much power in the hands of a few, and what happens when we ignore the signs. Saturday also marked another anniversary: 71 years ago, allied forces landed in Normandy and inflicted one of the seminal defeats of Nazi Germany. A regime that called itself eternal and had started with a democratic win, it engendered history’s largest ethnic cleansing ever documented, following the lead of a man obsessed with his hatred of Jews and determined to rule the world. There’s no comparison with Hitler’s reign of terror and America now or ever, but ideals that guided democracy in this and other countries, the rule of the people and for the people, continue in need to be reinforced and reenacted. The worst part of suspecting that Big Brother realities may be alive and well, albeit hidden, in our world today, may be not knowing who’s our ally . Mottos such as ‘if you see something, say something,’ and, if you don’t have anything to hide, don’t worry about government surveillance, are too close to a totalitarian, nightmarish vision of a future that was thankfully aborted by the sacrifice of thousands on the French shores. It’s the powers that be that shouldn’t be so fearful of citizen’s awareness and demand for transparency. As for Edward Snowden, or Chelsea Manning, and all others paying dearly for selfless acts for public empowerment, whether they are heroes or not, is not the issue. As mentioned, it’s not hard to call a firefighter’s sacrifice entering a burning house, for instance, as an act of heroism. That being said, who cares whether he or she can ever live up to our highfalutin expectations? Before we go, a clarification about last month’s Curtain Raiser Newsletter, The Cure for Medical Debt: in discussing efforts to buy and extinguish debt, we failed to mention RIP Medical Debt, which is all but leading the charge. They’re campaigning to raise, through donations, $14.4 million that will serve to buy and erase about $1 billion in personal medical debt. Click and donate. Again, they’re not heroes or even care about such nonsense. But their selfless efforts equate that of so many whistle blowers that literally ruined careers and hope of a personal life, so to do something for everyone else. Enough of these big words and empty rhetoric about ideals and equality and all that. Let’s all just start small, doing something relevant every day. Have a great week. ***

6/1/2015 Empty Raid, Useless Act, Colltalers

On the surface, the raid of FIFA’s Zurich offices that dominated global headlines last week, is a relevant issue for billions around the world. In reality, it affects but a minority of privileged individuals, unlikely to spend a day in jail for their alleged crimes. With much more power to change the world that we know is an entirely different matter, being discussed mainly within the U.S. by yet another group of privileged individuals: the expiration of the Patriot Act, which officially took place at 12am last night. One is a rare crossover issue that allowed Americans to finally pick an angle they like about soccer, the world’s most popular sport; it felt good to see corruption being exposed at its higher echelons, and even those who couldn’t care less about sports may have had the pleasure to insert their own two cents into the watercooler discussions that followed the FBI-requested raid. The other is an argument over how the task of protecting citizens from terrorist attacks became a either-or matter of giving shadowy intel organizations the power to spy on them, without being accountable for it in the court of law. The bulk collection of personal data, phone calls, and emails of everyone, is the Patriot Act’s main tenet, even if it’s based on hard-to-prove assumptions. Taken together, the two issues only reveal just how easy a discussion about corruption in organized sports – even if it touches billions and involves obscene amounts of money – can be perceived as more important that our own privacy and freedom, and right to the presumption of innocence from the part of those assigned to protect us. It is not and we’ll see why. First, a few words about FIFA, basically a regulatory organization that has grown to de facto own international soccer, and whose president, Joseph Blatter, has just been reelected for a record fifth term, amid ever increasing allegations of corruption. Under his helm, or rather, in exchange for his quasi-perennial reign, soccer has been extended globally, which is good. Support to Blatter now comes mostly from Asian and African members, not Europeans. But it’s all been built almost always through illegal maneuvering, and favor-granting to corrupted local officials, and cash, lots of untraceable cash, and that’s very bad. In theory, it’s a political strategy not unlike that of the Vatican, or even the Republican gerrymandering in the U.S. It allows Blatter to dole out money to impoverished soccer federations that need it the most, while weakening the power of influence of wealthier European countries and clubs. But there’s a dark side to such a paternalistic approach. Resources and cash favors are funneled through a few local mavericks, and are rarely trickled down to help the poor communities from where more often than ever, international players are plucked from. Just like city incentives to sport stadiums, residents are often left out in the cold, and have no part, or benefits, from all that cash flow said to be injected into their neighborhoods. Brazil, as the nation with the most World Cup titles, has been joined at the hip to FIFA since at least the mid-70s, when France-born Brazilian Jean Marie Havelange was its president. Havelange, known as João, personally groomed Blatter to succeed him. Brazilian state federations, and club leaderships, all follow the same ingrained opacity FIFA and Blatter so enjoy. No one is elected by popular vote, there’s no public accounting of their finances, no one knows how much ‘futebol’ makes in Brazil, and as a result, many expect that the catastrophic performance of the national team at last year’s edition will likely to be repeated. There may be hidden motivations for the U.S. Department of Justice to have finally brought charges to what, in the world of football, was well known as FIFA’s standard procedure. But it’s not exactly the one the old fox Blatter invoked right after being elected (he hasn’t been indicted or accused of any wrongdoing. Yet.): that is was all done as an act of revenge. See, the U.S. (and the U.K.) were both candidates to host the World Cup, either in 2018 or 2022, but both lost their bids to Russia and Qatar. Blatter invoked that fact as the underlying reason why the DOJ took such a shining interest in FIFA. It’s unlikely. And irrelevant, anyway, given the much more powerful arguments against Qatar, and the appalling state of its preparations. And it’s not even the fact that no one thought about its over 100-degree average temperatures in the summer. The most serious allegations against Qatar are the more than 1,200 deaths of foreign workers, enduring slave-like conditions, and trapped in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, a fact that FIFA has blatantly ignored despite the evidence. At this point, it’s still unclear how the tournament can be held under the heat; as for the poor workers, not even the DOJ is interested. That’s the kind of tragic by-product FIFA’s policies brought to international soccer, along with turning athlete trading into an open meat market, incentives to a wheeler and dealer culture that puts a higher price on speculation than on the health and future of players, all the while, avoiding new technologies that would ensure fair play and improve rulings on the pitch. The arrest of a few well funded second-tier officials, then, will do hardly anything to the betterment of the sport. Those currently on the new U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s crosshairs have already scattered to their own countries, where they’re likely to be protected from further prosecution, and in the end, it’ll probably be a janitor the only one to do time for all this shebang. In fact, it’s doubtful that the decision to go after FIFA had much to do with the need to clean up a sport that moves such large piles of resources and charges billions for its goods, while giving back so little to the masses and countries which adore it. More likely is that, after months on a limbo awaiting congressional confirmation, Attorney Lynch may have seized such a high profile issue to insert herself in words affairs without much domestic heavy lifting. One wishes, though, oh, never mind. As for the Patriot Act, not much consequence should be expected if it’s allowed to expire either. Despite dire warnings of a suddenly hawkish President Obama, it’s worth noting that more than a decade of undiscriminated surveillance has produced little useful intel, according to even former NSA personnel, and a stratospheric backlog of files still to be poured through by analysts. In other words, most reports about the security flaws that allowed 9/11 to happen found that the breakdown was in the communication between the many agencies in charge of this country’s security, not the lack of warning or info gathering. The Bush administration had extensive paperwork about al-Qaeda but chose not to dig into it analytically to understand what it all meant. The evidence shows that the hijackers’ previous activities in the U.S. were well known by those same agencies, which instead of being instructed to coordinate their efforts, were engaged in a still running turf war with each other. What’s ironic, however, is that the main opposition in Congress against the extension of the Patriot Act is being led not by a Democrat, but a liberal Republican, Rand Paul, who’s relishing the headlines he wouldn’t otherwise have in no other issue he supports. It’s startling omission and lack of leadership from the Democratic Party, when not even its presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton has been a factor in this fight that affects all Americans and billions around the world. And that’s our final point today. The reason why the fight against government surveillance of its citizens, out of reach of courts and laws, is pertinent to everyone, even if it’s taking place in the U.S., is that many countries, not necessarily U.S. allies, gladly jumped in this bandwagon and brought the nightmare taken from the pages of George Orwell a little closer to the life of their own citizens. If it hadn’t been for Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange’s Wikileaks, former CIA analyst John Kiriakou, and so many other whistleblowers, languishing in jail or all but banned from a normal life because of the very same DOJ’s misguided zeal, we’d never have known the massive extent of surveillance in our lives or how ineffective it’s proved to be. Only public awareness of the ill-consequences of an intelligence community running amok can reverse, not only the nefarious Patriot Act, but also the whole rationale of spying on innocents, and torturing the accused, for that matter, as a valid strategy to protect us from harm. We’ll get no sympathetic ear from those invested in protecting their jobs above public interest. There are other ways, and public opposition to secret files being kept on citizens is growing. We just wish the president would stand with us on this and other issues, but never mind. Change is coming and, as we prefer it, through the law. Enjoy June.

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5/25/2015 The Cure for Medical Debt, Colltalers

It’s Memorial Day in the U.S., and Americans of all nationalities will likely hear about our troops’ vitality and our debt to them, along parades and somber recollections. Plus BBQs. One thing we’ll hardly talk about, though: bringing the troops home. Another type of debt also elicits a similar quagmire: although more Americans now have healthcare coverage than a decade ago, since 2013, their mounting medical bills have become the main driver behind alarmingly high rates of individual bankruptcies. We’re so used to the official narrative about the heroics of military service, often used to justify our state of permanent war, that we forget how narrow has become the slice of the U.S. population that actually sacrifices itself and wages war on our behalf. You’ve read here about this disconnect a few times before, and it’s likely that you’ll be hearing about it again throughout the day. If anything, this holiday does give Americans pause to read and discuss its combatants, and their distant war cries. But while it’s been noted the discrepancy between Congress’s eagerness to send troops into harm’s way, and its indifference once they return, wounded and broken, there’s little doubt that in at least one particular, they still have an edge over the rest of the population: the V.A., despite underfunding and appalling bureaucracy, is better than most healthcare plans available to civilians. Even though more Americans have health insurance now than before, thanks to the Obamacare, the plan’s main, and possibly fatal, flaw is that it made us all hooked to a for-profit, insurance-company driven system that remains out of reach to millions. Rather than proposing a form of so-called single payer system, which like Medicare and the V.A. itself, eliminates the insurers’ role as arbiters of care and cost, President Obama chose to let them in, hoping to ease the Affordable Care Act into congressional approval. But industry support to Obamacare has only made the president’s signature legislation vulnerable and unfulfilled. Health care spending did slow down with the plan, and we’re unlikely to top the almost $3 trillion Americans spent in 2012 in medical bills. However, now that it is in its second year, one in four people remains uninsured, while almost two million are expected to file for bankruptcy this year. They simply can’t keep up with premiums and deductibles of their coverage. The focus of both the administration and Congress has been so far to mitigate the impact of medical debt on a person’s credit worthiness, which can further add up to their financial burden. The Medical Relief bill, currently being considered by Congress, is just such an example. But that seems like a palliative measure since it doesn’t address the main cause of rising medical costs. Treating exorbitant cost for medicines and therapies as a necessary evil to extend health insurance to a larger group of people hasn’t even improved the quality of care, which in the U.S. lags far behind other industrialized nations. Plus such a ‘relief’ would come only to a minority of lucky eligible patients, not an across the board measure to benefit everyone under the Obamacare. Lastly, it would stay clear of the very merit of such debt, or why coverage is not, well, affordable. Despite complains, the insurance industry has been by far the great beneficiary of the president’s plan, and continues to profit from the larger number of patients turned into consumers with no other way to access medical care but through them. Thus the debt. But it may be time to ask: at what point such debt is declared ‘uncollectible’ and written off on the corporations’ balance sheets? And why they continue pursuing payment, via intimidating debt collection agencies, when it is already written off? For one of the ironies, or by-products, of treating medical care as a commodity is that often debt can’t be collected. That happens despite all rigors of bankruptcy laws, which allow collectors to pursue payment even from relatives, if the debtor is deceased. When debt can’t be collected, corporations declared it on their balance sheets and move on, selling its nominal price for pennies on the dollar. Like hyenas, collector agencies are eager to purchase and repurchase the debt and go after the debtor. Americans are pretty much on their own to face these agencies, whose industry has also profited handsomely from the status quo, hence the increased number of bankruptcies. Just as with student debt, it’s been independent organizations and groups that have taken the lead in proposing alternatives and radical changes to the system, only way to rescue those buried in medical bills. One such group is the non-profit Rolling Jubilee, a splinter group of sorts from the Occupy Wall Street movement, founded with the mission of buying and eliminating medical debt. Such straightforward goal has already produced results way more effective than anything the Obama administration, or Congress, for that matter, has put on the table, as a form a medical debt relief. An initial fundraising campaign has raised about $600,000, which for under a nickel on the dollar, translates to over $11 million in direct relief. The big difference from collectors, though, is that Rolling Jubilee buys the debt and immediately extinguishes it. That’s an astonishingly simple way to effectively deal with consumer medical debt, as it is with student debt too. Why it hasn’t found a sympathetic ear in Washington says a lot about the compromising position most politicians and elected officials are, and how their ties to insurers prevent them from being on the side of Americans being suffocated by debt. Recently, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has announced that all three major U.S. credit reporting agencies have agreed to change the way they register medical debt on someone’s report, a measure received with moderate approval. For even though Equifax, Experian, and Transunion, agreed not to add delinquent medical bills under 180 days of their due date, they are not distinguishable from any other unpaid bills one may have. Which means that missing the credit card payment bill is equivalent to not being able to afford a medicine crucial for the person to function, and presumably be able to work to pay bills. Rolling Jubilee cites other ‘devilish details,’ such as credit scores still being negatively affected by old past dues, for instance. But its main aim is to eliminate debt, instead of allowing a successive number of parties to profit from it, while the debtor sinks further. While they profit, unpaid bills are having an even worst effect on Americans: raising the number of suicides. So, it’s true that Americans are deeply indebted to the high sacrifices U.S. troops have been paying for way too long, because of unconscious politics and self-serving public servants. And today is as good as any day to meditate on such sad reality. But there’s also an unpaid debt, of a different nature, that big corporations owe the American people, which is the moral obligation of stopping profiting from human misery. And as we see it, there are a lot that they can do, without curtailing their profits. Whether they will, it’s a matter of how much pressure can we put them under. While that doesn’t happen, there’s something anyone can do to alleviate the debt burden over the shoulders of those who can least afford it: support and contribute to organizations aimed at eliminating consumer debt, be it medical or student. And today is a good a day as any to start. Yes, Washington should be playing a bigger role in consumer debt relief, rather than supporting the growth of insurers and debt collectors. But when was the last time we got something without demanding it and doing our own part? Enjoy May’s last week.

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5/17/2015 AIDS Walks Are Big Steps, Colltalers

Some 34 million people around the world are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, including about 2.5 million children. But even as Africa leads the number of cases, many would be shocked to know that almost two million Americans have the disease. That’s right, the world’s richest nation is also where AIDS remains a threat, specially among males ages 20 to 29. Prevention and treatment have made great strides, but it seems unlikely that an effective cure, or vaccine, will be developed by the decade’s end. That’s why thousands of people march every year in New York, and all over the world, as a powerful reminder that, since the early 1980s, HIV infections have never completely gone away, despite growing awareness and billions of dollars thrown at it. The AIDS Walk, now on its 30th year, has been a symbolic display of solidarity and proof that, at least thousands if not millions of people, won’t forget that the most lethal of the infectious diseases, will remain as relentless and ruthless as it’s been ever since. Particularly insidious is the fact that, despite the enormous economic gap between the U.S. and African nations, there are at least two common factors at the root of the spread of AIDS on both sides of the Atlantic: extreme poverty and rising cultural intolerance. In addition, many impoverished African nations began to spouse in recent years the same repulsive cultural prejudices that plague some American states. That can be traced to an increased number of U.S.-based messianic preachers and radical-right politicians, who have targeted Africa to disseminate their fiery brand of religious sanctimony and political hypocrisy. Take Texas and Louisiana, for instance, two states where there has been a spike in HIV infection rates among 16 to 24-year olds. Both states are dominated by conservative politics, strict policies towards the poor, high numbers of teenage pregnancies and high-school dropouts, discriminatory policies concerning women reproductive rights and sexual minorities, and hostility to immigrants. By the way, the so-called Deep South has become, as a whole, the epicenter of the AIDS pandemic in the U.S. Nine states account to 40 percent of HIV diagnosis, despite representing only 28% of its population. Why? something to do with the previous graph. Now consider Uganda and Zimbabwe, to name but two African nations. The stigma of poverty – which has little to do with control of all national resources by only a few – is just one of the drivers behind new HIV cases. Religious intolerance is the other. In Uganda, homophobia is actually part of the law of the land, with the infamous 2009 Anti-Homosexuality Bill, a.k.a., kill the gays law. Again, the irony is that while the official rhetoric blames gays for the spread of AIDS (incidentally, they’re also being accused of being pedophiles) HIV rates overwhelmingly affect straight women. A similar case could be made for much of the rest of Africa. It’s not hard to figure the impact that a growing number of women infected with a potentially terminal disease, may have on emerging economies. As often their families’ breadwinners – for men tend to be enlisted in the region’s omnipresent cycle of war and carnage – when they’re sick and/or die for lack of medical support, entire generations are affected and resources permanently depleted. But knowing that AIDS is only one of the more recent of Africa’s hefty woes is not really the point here. Efforts to cut through the rhetoric of hate and to continue raising awareness about it are apace and may realize positive change in the long run. What’s unforgivable though is the fact that in the U.S. there’s still resistance to increase funds, education, and openness about the AIDS scourge. It’s inadmissible that even basic programs, with a proven track of success in Europe and elsewhere, such as free condoms, needle exchange initiatives, and obligatory and honest sex education, continue to face religious and political opposition. In the meantime, the numbers pile in. In 2011, 1.7 million people died of AIDS-related illnesses, and every year, there are about 2.5 million new cases worldwide. In the U.S., 50 thousand new cases are reported annually, and among the Americans already infected, a staggering 20 thousand have no idea they carry the virus. In less than 30 years, AIDS has killed 30 million people. That’s but one reason why the AIDS Walk, be it in New York or anywhere, count so much. Not for the funds raised, which in 1985 totaled about 650 thousand dollars and this year may reach the 5 million mark. Or because of the growing number of people who donate time and effort to the cause of finding a cure, which, why not? also includes walking and raising a few dollars. What’s most important, however, is the constant reminder that there’s not yet a cure, current treatments may be effective to the majority but not to everyone, medicines are expensive, and awareness is still a vital, if not the greatest, defense against AIDS. Yes, there are issues of transparency in the use of funds, and just as with cancer research, many question the way resources are channeled to a few multimillion dollar labs, that develop drugs based on their commercial appeal, and not on health priorities. But in the meantime, we’re still walking. We do miss the aggressiveness of organizations such as the ActUp, which in the 1980s and 1990s, were instrumental to force governments and private pharmaceutical companies to develop the current therapies. But that’s not an excuse either, so keep walking. Compassion is still a value worth pursuing and it was at full display yesterday in Central Park, when 30,000 marched. Despite all the hoopla and occasional grandstanding, exposure is fundamental to keep the focus on it. Doctors, celebrities, politicians, and many who’re HIV positive, have expressed interesting views about the tragedy of AIDS, the horror that’s visited among whole communities, and also about the good that it eventually brought out of some people. It’s a cliche to end posts with quotes, but since AIDS awareness in the 1980s was often represented by a red ribbon, American comedian Gilbert Gottfried has summarized with rare foresight the role of reminders that people usually play during dark times. ‘Any advancements that came towards fighting AIDS were not done by scientists or doctors – it was people with little ribbons on their lapels,’ he said, when a diagnosis was an automatic death sentence. We’ve come a long way, that’s for sure. A great week, everyone.

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5/11/2015 The Power of One Act, Colltalers

The power and influence of the vote – that most explicitly of the democratic exercises of individual expression in the electoral process – continues to be eroded and depleted by its three main enemies: money in politics, misinformation, and manipulation. Around the world, both consolidated and emerging democracies, once proud to promote ample and vigorous citizen participation in the construction of their future, have been under heavy artillery from that formidable triad and their influential sponsors. Not surprisingly, the U.S. takes the lead on the money front, and as if it were just fine that elections would carry a price tag just like any commodity, the 2016 presidential one has been estimated to cost upwards of $10 billion. A record and a travesty. The current two frontrunners of each party, Democratic Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican Jeb Bush, are on their way to raise each some two billion, by conservative estimates, from donors who’ll certainly demand a lot in exchange from their checkbooks. Going down the checklist of challenges to a truly representative democracy, there’s a new surprising entry: the U.K., which just held one of the most disheartening political public contests in recent memory (not unlike Israel), which put polling institutions to shame. Despite predictions of a tight contest, and dire economic conditions under Prime Minister David Cameron’s leadership, which has alienated large swaths of an already despondent working class, his Tory Party soundly defeated Labour Party’s Ed Miliband. And then there are the usual, well known ways – terror tactics, gerrymandering, manipulation of results, coups, assassinations, and a whole roster of strategies, devised to intimidate voters – used since time immemorial to undermine the will of the majority. Such strategies, along with more subtle ways to reverse poll results and manipulate the electoral process, have always been part of the democratic process. But even as other aspects of the classic Greek concept of people’s representation have little resemblance to our contemporary regimes, election by voting has been the common foundation by which governments acquire, or not, legitimacy. Back in the U.S., the coming elections may bring about a ‘perfect storm’ combination of factors to potentially damage permanently its cherished democratic institutions, which, let’s face it, are already on a slump towards irrelevance for quite some time now. On one side, there’s a two-party political system, whose inadequacy to properly frame or serve as an outlet to any ideological debate in contemporary American politics, winds up squeezing the life out of the process by the time a new president is elected. Then either because of ingrained indifference, qualified ignorance, or downright manipulation, there’s the misinformed American electorate, media-fed a diet of provocative half-truths fueling the (false) premise that all politics are corrupt and, by definition, ineffective. In other words, why participate when it’s common knowledge that the game is rigged in favor of the powerful? Anchored on an educational system that privileges individual accomplishment over communitarian goals, and gathering of information over ethics and critical thinking, Americans learn very early on to trust beliefs and suspect ideas. No wonder vote is facultative and attendance to polling stations by the active workforce demographics is in steady decline since the 1980s. Another factor is the unchecked growth of so-called special interests and their impact on policy and even respectful institutions such as the Congress and the Supreme Court. From big corporations to faith-based groups, from segments of the economy to once fringe minorities, what boosts their power is not how many would benefit from their lobbying but how much they can pay for influence. These cores of interests, albeit part of any functional democracy, can have a destabilizing impact on the basic fairness of the system when they are explicitly allowed to throw loads of cash at elected officials and entire political parties. That’s what’s happening. The greatest constituent of American politics, circa 2015, is unfortunately money. Lots of it. And the seminal moment that may have changed U.S. democracy for good happened in 2010, with the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which introduced the absurd concept that corporations are people, and as such, are allowed to contribute freely, and financially, to the political process. That ruling, which only a constitutional amendment may be able to reverse, opened the floodgates to whoever is the wealthiest, can and will exercise the most sway over the nation’s fate and direction. Exactly what the popular vote system was created to prevent. Money in politics (have you heard how much a presidential candidate is going for in the market these days?), misinformation (attention shoppers, conspiracies at half-price on aisle three), and downright manipulation (Texas is convinced it’ll be taken over by the U.S. government. Again.) have all one single common enemy: you, the voter. When you cast yours, you shorten theirs by one. The other factors mentioned, from backwater fear tactics to corporation-sponsored presidential candidates, are all part of a cast of characters launched to counter your fundamental right to express your allegiance to one approach to government and not another. And they’re all counting on your alienation or self-doubt about the power of one to make much of a difference. They’ll even pretend that you don’t really count, if that makes sure that you’ll ignore the coming campaign and stay at home November 8 next year. But just because it’s time to give our inner Jeremiah a pause, it doesn’t mean that we’re about to go all Pollyanna on you, and declare our unwavering faith on the capacity for redemption of the American voter and his or her unalienable right to pursue justice. There’s certainly a middle ground but it’s not to anyone but you to determine where it is and what’s your saturation point. Specially if you’re tired of hearing that the only thing the U.S. has proposed to lead the world is by military action. As if morals and ethics can carry a price tag. As if democracy can’t be exercised, only preached about. As if you and I and everyone we know no longer count. For if voting was so irrelevant, there wouldn’t be so many attempts at undermining it. Have a great one.

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5/4/2015 To Those Left Behind, Colltalers

The much-parroted myth of a growing demographics of aging workers who can’t get back to the labor market for lack of technological skills, continues to wreck havoc the global workplace, ruining millions of productive lives in the process. It’s a prefab lore benefiting a well known set of players, while disenfranchising entire segments of the population, which despite formidable odds, remain defiant, well informed, and resilient. But what they lack always beat them at the end: a steady paycheck. We’ll go back to those beneficiaries of such a configuration, but let’s first survey those thinking that they’ve got the better side of the deal, even though in reality, they’re also necessary cogs in the overall scheme devised by the masters of the new economy. In a sub-set of that aforementioned myth, the under-40 crowd is the most desirable demographics, based on their current position in the evolutionary ladder, and of course, the disposable cash in their pockets, funneled from their mainly circumstantial resources. But often they easily lose that enviable but fleeting status the moment they’re convinced it’s a permanent credential. Their natural arrogance being manipulated as it is, they’re easily convinced that they’re the new order of things until, well, they’re no longer. To believe that one’s the vanguard has the awful side effect of blinding them to the reality that they may already be knee-deep into it, and it doesn’t look that promising. To appear hip and attractive to industries and consumer fads, the majority slaves in underpaid job duties that cater to an ever thirsty demand, which extends to personal time; just be on call 24/7, even while partying after hours. Tastes and wardrobes are shaped to fulfill the implicit mandate for season-limited consumption, and for ‘uniforms’ that conform to the latest dictum of labels and stylists. These, from their part, are the least interested where their product is getting manufactured and assembled (mostly in impoverished nations’ slums) or who’s doing the sowing and stitching (underage preteens). Just don’t ask. Standing to gain the most from ‘free-trade’ agreements, such as the recent one Congress granted the Obama administration fast track powers to move it along, corporations are happy to keep these new armies of pre-adulthood soldiers in their payroll, along with lobbyist and ideologues, even though both the latter are compensated with considerably more digits than the self-willing former. Speaking of adulthood, one of its components that may be lost in this devilish bargain is exactly the one that used to be reflected in older generations’ material gains: housing, top education for the kids, prosperous retirement after 30 or so years of work. Even though measuring human achievement by the scope of material possessions is one of those bourgeois traditions the post-war generation made sure to detonate from the list of worthy causes to pursue during a lifetime, at one point – possibly frozen and lost forever in time – they served as a paradigm to some sort of achievable ‘happiness’ on earth, i.e., stability and family legacy. Since we’re in the same thematic neighborhood, let’s not forget that there’s also always the need for generations to rebel and, if necessary, break the pattern laboriously left by their predecessors. Or don’t we all recall the derision that those born in the reconstruction period that followed the two wars felt about what’s now capitalized and revered as the greatest generation? But whereas rock’n’roll ruptured the sedated postwar balladry tradition, it was not so much at odds with the equally powerful American Standards songbook, for instance, to which somehow it’d join as yet another quality peak of pop music expression. The rebel attitude associated with the new, blackish beat, though, was crucial to reintroduce the right to disagree and dissent into the dominant, paranoid sentiment Cold War hawks were eager to disseminate in American culture, and to a certain degree, succeed. Rock then served as the connecting tissue underlining the Civil Rights era, the anti-war movement, the reclaiming of minorities, and as such, it did help change the world in a most radical and non-violent way. (Paging Lennon and many others here.) Going back to the unpaid hordes of ‘new economy’ emulators and enablers, their rupture with the previous order is not even conscious, as they were still in their teens when unions and labor leaderships were being dismantled by Ronald Reagan and his ink. Still, it wouldn’t hurt if those so eager to point older workers their supposed lack of techie skills to do some homework themselves and learn that much of what passes for workplace relations these days is simply old-fashioned exploitation. And of that, there were plenty of examples from way before the first Labor Day, the May Day we missed having celebrated last week, was established. In other words, despite their pose, they’re not ‘innovating’ or ‘pursuing new ways to revalue the exchange of goods in society,’ as we see it pompously called, but merely reconnecting by omission to unfair labor practices many fought hard to end a century ago. Now, you may be wondering whether this is a youth-bashing rant, by some frustrated out of worker old timer, cursing the guts of the so-called new godamned order. But we’d rather see it as a honest effort at assessing a status quo which seems out to get us all. About that status quo: guest what? it hasn’t changed much since, well, before the wars. Food, health, and energy conglomerates are still at the top, dictating national economic targets. Again, due to those rapidly multiplying trade agreements, there’s no longer containment from sovereign border or ideological differences; no wonder those industries are their top supporters. As for the cliche about the explosion of consumer gadgets and the wealth generated by the Internet, relatively recent phenomena, those who quickly became their bosses seem to be doing an exemplar case for reproducing old, discriminatory practices. Case in point: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his latest attempt at disguising his bottomless gumption for power within a patina of charity. Fortunately, his shameful proposal to ‘sell’ his latest product, Internet.org, to poor Asian countries, is backfiring. Critics didn’t take long to see his idea for what it is: a way to privatize Web access, gain another billion of potential customers to his services, and undermine efforts by civilian organizations to protect net neutrality, or guarantee free access to the whole Web for all. It’s another typical self-aggrandizing gesture of the man who, with the help of the sharing economy’s willing demographics, made sure to disrespect every individual privacy rule, just as his own was being protected by tall walls he ordered built around his home. Naturally, Facebook is not the only one, of course. There’s Ubber, with its business model that wrecks labor rules just as it extends its reach internationally. The same with Airbnb, which turns regular tenants into managers of their profit, destroying the ability of cities to provide low-income housing to its residents in the process. And yes, the resurgence of the freelance professional. That’s the realm of millions of highly-trained workers, who lacking a regular job, submit themselves to the tyranny of the permanent on-call availability: no benefits, no paid vacations, no sick days. Just the sheer administrative duties entire Human Resources departments are paid to take care of, with none of the advantages of knowing where the next payment will come from. All of a sudden, we’re back into the pre-1929 stock market crash, when rubber barons and their kin enjoy their riches in the roaring twenties, while the masses, well, they hardly roared; they just worked, then lost it all, and then were left to their own devices. But whereas huge U.S. government programs in the 30s, and yes, the business of war, put millions back into the nation’s workforce, another picture emerged after the financial debacle of 2008. As it’s well documented, the banks that caused it, got rewarded with a huge, taxpayer-fueled program that brought them back to business, while the masses, well, they just hardly roared again. Or walked. That’s what’s behind the still enormous contingent of highly skilled but unemployed workers, at least in the U.S. and Europe. They lost their jobs with the crisis, ravaged savings and family resources in the years that followed, and now face an unbeatable foe to get back to the workforce: ageism. Dire warnings that the same may happen to those now refusing them jobs have fallen into deft ears. These professionals are not ‘out of step with the age’s technological advances,’ as it’s often heard. Only, not that impressed by it. Neither they’re intimidated by what comes next; only fearful that it’ll be, in essence, much of the same as before. And most definitely no, their knowledge and experience do not necessarily drown them in cynicism; only make them think more critically. ‘The bad news (or good news, depending on your point of view) is that things have always been like this,’ wrote Thomas Piketty on his Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which finds economic parallels between now and the 1800s and early 1900s. And, in a surprisingly somber quote from an often misquoted genius, Albert Einstein, usually known for his, er, forward, optimistic thinking: ‘Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.’ Or bringing it all effortless home, dissenters and contrarians are always crucial into moving the herd forward. As the skinny-jeans crowd is co-opted by private interests, and conned into handing personal info in exchange for a few hundred Twitter followers, for instance, the role of rebels is often, and surprisingly, played by the ‘have been around the corner a few times’ crowd. But there’s no heroes in this farce. Only the traditional winners picking themselves at will, and an enlarged demographics willing to offer them cushion, and even perform their dirty deeds on their behalf. All of this so they can be ‘Liked?’ No wonder even 35-year olds are considered cranky and uncooperative. You would too, if you knew your (cheap) price, er, value. Have a good one.

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4/27/2015 The Earth Moves; We Hurt, Colltalers

The mega earthquake that hit Nepal Saturday has already triggered a familiar set of obvious realizations, callous statements, and the usual few insights that could potentially make a difference going forward, but most likely will soon be ignored by all. We’re sure that those who can help, will, and in fact, we wish to express our sadness and solidarity with the ones having their time of reckoning. But we can’t help it but see a worn out sequence of reactions about to play out as it has many times before. As aftershocks and the search for victims continue, news coverage will be centered on the devastation and on calls for international aid in the weeks ahead, with the occasional proverbial digression about the unpredictability of natural disasters. Not to be flippant, but one can be sure that there’ll be wall-to-wall reporting, dramatic rescue footage, and the customary show of human solidarity, which is authentic but fits a bit too snugly into the calculated media approach to this kind of tragedy. And just as predictably, a few weeks down the road, news organizations are bound to switch gears, and divert our attention elsewhere – in all likelihood, to something tragic as well. For all but those directly affected by the quake, it’ll be a new morning. For the Nepalese, of course, this darkest of the nights will remain just as bleak and insufferable for months and possibly years. Just as it happened in 1934, when the slightly more powerful Nepal-Bihar earthquake killed an estimated 17,000 people. Casualties may be higher this time around. While it remains one of the world’s poorest countries, just as it was in the 1930s, Nepal’s population has swelled to 28-million people, almost six times what it was then, in a mostly chaotic and inordinate growth. If there’s a parallel to Nepal’s quagmire it is, unfortunately, equally impoverished Haiti. The 2010 quake killed 200 thousand of its 10 million population, despite being less powerful than the one in Asia, and five years later, some parts of the country still look as if it it all happened yesterday. $10 billion in international aid has seemingly sunk in the open sewages of capital Port-au-Prince. We’ll purposely skip over the aforementioned grandstanding we’re condemned to witness in times of grief and human misery, but let’s see what kind of non-obvious insights we can gather, without pontificating too much on someone else’s worst nightmare. First, there’s the glaring irony that Mount Everest and the Himalayas, de facto drivers of Nepal’s economy, are also where a major earthquake seems to take place every 80 years or so. The giant mountains grow four millimeters annually exactly because of the unbelievable pressure between two tectonic plates under the Kathmandu Valley rubbing against each other for millions of years. But that’s the inevitable part of the equation. Overpopulation, poor construction standards, and simply lack of urban planning, on the other hand, are at least technically, not as inevitable. Then again, considering the world’s current income distribution, no one is surprised that poverty is the biggest aggravating factor whenever a natural disaster occurs. See Haiti, Earthquake, 2010. There, as it’ll likely happen in Nepal, help came promptly, in the form of food and health supplies, and temporary shelter, along with an army of volunteers, dedicated soldiers and well-intentioned celebrities, ready to make an immediate difference. But even as they did, it was a limited run. Another army, considerably more sinister, of opportunist investors, took over and made an easy buck out of the usually rushed rebuilding efforts. As a recent report by Vice has shown, most were themselves, or in some capacity, government contractors, with a pre-fab agenda and no intention to address the needs and concerns of the locals. Finally, among the long list of valuable insights that tend to be quickly overlooked and forgotten just a few months after a catastrophic event like that, there’s the confusion between what has been destroyed, and what was already broken way before it. Political insularity is a major deterrent to any continuous collaboration with international relief groups. There seems to be always a moment when either the outside help believes that it knows better what should be done to mitigate the consequences of the disaster, or the local powers that be decide that it’s time to kick out the intrusive foreigners. Relief organizations, such as the Red Cross and others, are not designed for long term rebuilding, and usually spend a great deal of donated funds in their own bureaucracy and administrative needs. On the other hand, groups focused on more progressive goals, such as human rights, for instance, as the Carter Center, often clash with local authorities and become prey of their own mission. In other words, when the media spotlights are turned off, and the international aid runs its course, it’s still up to the people affected to pick themselves up and carry on. The compounding tragedy of a disaster of such magnitude, as the Nepal earthquake will certainly prove to be, is that it disables and handicaps the already precarious resources that could help them do just that. Speaking of earthquakes, and irony, this one only reaffirms a quite obvious realization about natural disasters: how little almost three centuries of technological progress is actually capable of doing to alleviate their reach and consequences. Yes, we can predict with a bit more accuracy at least where a quake is likely to strike, but we’re far from knowing when, in advance, or preventing people from settling in areas that are known for being prone to violent earth moves. One doesn’t need to be cynical to say that in only one particular we’ve become infinitely better than our predecessors: counting the number of victims. But while we can’t foresee a disaster with any clarity, we’ve become astonishingly better at actually provoking them. Take hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for example. Two separate studies released this past week showed that ‘man-made’ quakes are now frequent and intense in the U.S., in areas not near fault lines, whose attrition used to be the most likely cause for them. Oklahoma, for one, is now the leading earthquake state, with a rate that jumped from less than two a year before 2008 to a whopping 2 1/2 daily temblor. It beats California, which sits on a notorious fault line that has caused the biggest one in the country. Both the U.S. Geological Survey and the FEMA studies point to the increase of fracking, a procedure that injects tons of water miles below the surface to break shale rocks and release natural gas. Besides the amount of water that it uses, it also mixes it with dangerous chemicals, which contaminates underground reserves and winds up ruining the land that sits above the wells. Natural gas production has grown exponentially and its advocates, mainly the oil and gas industry, defend the procedure as a pragmatic alternative to energy from burning fuels. Such contention is, obviously flawed and biased towards the industry, according to organizations fighting for more benign alternatives to supply our energy needs, such as wind and solar power. While the argument for natural gas is based on solid profits and investments already in place, two factors the wind and solar technology still lack, their proponents never mention the environmental damage that fracking is wreaking across the U.S. Now that the evidence is becoming overwhelming, and the risks of a man-made earthquake happening near a major urban center have proved to be too real to be ignored, it’s possible that public awareness will rise and demand a halt in fracking projects. We’re not holding our breath, however, lest counting on a tragedy to happen, just so we can say, we told you so, is morally questionable. But if Nepal and recorded history offer us some valuable insights, then we mess with earthquakes at our own risk. Oklahoman lawmakers, apparently, have a different opinion about risk, though: right after the release of the USGS and FEMA’s findings, they passed a measure to curb cities and counties from banning fracking within their borders. That will make much easier for fracking companies to exercise pressure over the legislative and continue to go about their business. ‘Opinion has caused more trouble on this little earth than plagues and earthquakes,’ wrote in a letter French philosopher Voltaire in 1759. Even out of context, the quote frames his view of man’s vanity, while alluding to the great Lisbon quake four years earlier. Shocked by the devastation visited upon the Portuguese capital, Voltaire also wrote a famous poem, registering his adamant refusal to believe in some sort of benign providence. The quote neatly uses the disaster as a metaphor to gauge the even stronger power a (wrong) opinion possesses to cause irreparable damage. Oklahomans should’ve known better. Enjoy April’s last week.

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4/20/2015 These Rights Are Our Rights, Colltalers

In less than two years since Edward Snowden’s leaked NSA documents revealing a vast, global network for citizen surveillance, orchestrated by the agency and aided by some of the biggest social media companies, the issue never stopped being red hot. It’s getting even hotter with antitrust charges filed Wednesday by the European Union against Google, two cybersecurity House bills with major implications to individual privacy being debated this week, and the outlook for reauthorization of the Patriot Act in June. On the surface, these developments may seem unrelated, but they’re part of a common, fundamental discussion over our stand as a free society. Or whether a shady government agency or private enterprises should have unrestricted to individuals’ personal data. Since Snowden’s disclosures, it became clear that the NSA has engorged its ability to collect data on anyone around the world, with help from both powerful social networks and an outdated, faulty legislation. That, and of course, the widespread paranoia about terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11. No wonder that tragedy is often invoked whenever basic individual rights are about to be violated. It goes beyond that; the false dilemma between security vs. privacy has been the preferred argument to increase government powers to spy on citizens’ private affairs. The whole concept of intelligence has been somewhat thwarted to privilege secretive, circumstantial gathering of information over the larger context of the civil right of individuals and groups to assembly and dissent. That’s why the EU’s suit is commendable, as it addresses a nefarious side-effect of the Internet age: corporate access to personal data. Yes, it wouldn’t be possible for them to have such access if users wouldn’t have given them all for free, or in exchange for peanuts. But if you’d want the government interfering on anything, it’d be to protect your privacy. Instead, as the documents attest, both corporations and the government have been intimate allies on this front. The EU filing is a breach on this non-written agreement. Which is significant, since up to now, those two social network giants, plus Twitter and others, had been diverting their operations to European countries, such as Ireland, so to avoid U.S. anti-trust and, timid, privacy laws. So much for the Obama administration’s image as a severe prosecutor of whistleblowers, while being utterly complacent about the alleged crimes they are denouncing. Not that the Justice Department has shown any signs that it’s changing its beat. As of now, there’s no deal on the table for Snowden, Chelsea Manning languishes in a federal prison for disclosing an even smaller trove of classified secrets, and an array of journalists and former government employees face imprisonment for trying to warn the American public about what’s been done in its name. To be sure, the anti-trust suit brought against Google by European regulator Margrethe Vestager is tangential to the big debate over privacy laws. It alleges simply that it used illegal practices to beat its competitors in the lucrative market of search results. But after years trying to persecute it based on possible infringements of Europe’s personal privacy laws, and getting nowhere, catching it on a technicality may just be enough. Also, the upside of the multibillion dollar suit may be to ignite new restrictions in the way social networks profit from personal data, hindering, in the long run, their deputizing by the NSA to mine individuals’ data. That it’s happening in Europe has yet another unintended collateral: it may discourage companies such as Twitter from using the continent to avoid complying by NSA’s court requests for its users’ sensitive information. Again, in this complicated dance over profiting from Internet users’ personal information, corporations play allies in one instance, and intrusive snitches in another. Facebook, another nation-size power prying and profiting on its customers’ personal lives, has been on this shady side of privacy laws many times before. So it’s no surprise that it’s been reported that it’s allowed a CIA-funded company to scan its chat rooms. The EU’s decision to go after Google, regardless whether it may directly affect the way the Mountain View, California, company goes about its business of offering quick search results at your fingertips, is not nearly enough to set up a trend, however. More crucial is the U.S.’s ability to muscle its way through foreign markets, avoiding privacy restriction laws. Such somber prospect suddenly became closer to reality Thursday, when congress gave the Obama administration fast-track authority for trade deals. Preventing trade partners from protecting themselves from the onslaught of American digital goods and data flows crossing in and out of their borders is the government’s gift to big U.S.-based social network and Internet companies. Free to operate without constrains from pesky local legislations, they’d in theory be more than willing to help the NSA to do its dirty data-collection deed. The measure will speed up the far from transparent Trans-Pacific Agreement and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the EU, both set to ‘impose global trade rules benefiting transnational companies,’ according to privacy policy advocates. For a Congress which has been ineffective to the point of complete paralysis, when it comes to social legislation and measures to boost the economy, its willingness to jump into granting the president Fast Track powers for trade is notable. And depressing. The Republican-controlled House, for instance, is calling this a Cyber Week, as it prepares to vote on two bills to support companies against hacker attacks, but that offer no protection against government snooping on personal data of these companies’ customers. As it’s widely known that many members of congress don’t have much use for the Internet, with some admitting that they don’t even email, it’s doubtful that they’d share the same concerns of the now majority of the mankind, which does use it daily. But a legislation of that caliber, with its supposedly heavy backers, once passed, does have the power to move the needles on other privacy laws. Finally, the rotten cherry on this malodorous cake of unfulfilled privacy expectations is, of course, the Patriot Act, and its possible reauthorization in a little more than a month from now. One of the most stringent pieces of legislation ever introduced into a democratic state, this relic of the post 9/11 days of fear and paranoia is set to expire and be reintroduced in Congress for approval. It’s essentially the act that made the NSA’s massive collection of personal data possible, along with the rationale that individual freedoms restriction is necessary if we’re to be safe from those who wish us harm. That’s a totally arguably point, of course. In an ideal world, and with a frank debate, proponents of the reauthorization would have no chance against the practicalities of reality, as spies can’t argue in open court how exactly they do their business. The intel community is already mobilized, however, to make sure it’ll all be decided behind closed doors, invoking national security. On that scenario, we’re all bound to lose. 14 years since the al-Qaeda’s attack, thousands of American, Iraqi, and Afghan lives have been lost to not much purpose, dozens of prisoners still languish without due process in Guantanamo Bay, and there’s an overall feeling that U.S. armed interventions did little to prevent new global focus of hatred against Americans. In some ways, it made our standard in the world considerably worse. But we still see a daily parade of hawks advocating for more surveillance, more weapons, and above all, more funding for the U.S. to continue on the same path that has cost billions of dollars with little practical result. We’re definitely not safer now than we’ve ever been, and no amount of further intervention abroad is likely to revert such situation. On the contrary, diplomacy may just be it. As for Snowden’s revelations and the American people, the news are not that much encouraging. A few weeks ago, comedian John Oliver went to Russia, where the whistleblower is stranded since August 2013, for what turned out to be a quite revealing interview. Oliver listened almost dismissively to Snowden’s idealized view of Americans as an interested, well-informed, and transparency-loving people, who’d be highly supportive of the public service for which he’s lost his personal freedom to deliver. No chance. In a series of quick street interviews, most had no idea, or had the wrong one, about who Snowden is and why he’s at odds with the Justice Dept. Some were even angry at him for supposedly having betrayed the trust of his former employee, a NSA subcontractor. That’s when Oliver did the work that most professional journalists have failed to do: put the core of the revelations into simple terms and proved why it matters. His strategy? nude pictures that people sent over the Internet in the assumption that they’re, well, private. Immediately, the most serious concerns of those who didn’t know what the fuss about Snowden was about, came into focus, and they suddenly realized what was at stake, when a society entrusts an unaccountable government agency with their most personal secrets. Hopefully, they’ve now joined the many millions who already knew that what’s been revealed has nothing to do with national security and everything with civil rights, regardless if some creepy dude has access to pics of our naked bodies and anatomy. Again, no one forces us to share our most intimate thoughts and concerns with an all-absorbing faceless entity that does with them much more than simply delivering it to those we name recipients, this post included. But that doesn’t mean we’re signing off our rights over our data, even if we may need to step back and stop using the system altogether, so it can be fixed and made it safer. Not a chance, of course. Change will come in leaps and backsteps, and no one’s sure that the individual will beat the collective in the end. We must try it, though. After all, Google, Facebook, the government, all work, or should, for us, even if some of us do work for them too. For that, their power must be curbed and, above all, the Patriot Act must not be renewed. Have a joint today.

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4/11/2015 Short Memory & Data Overload, Colltalers

The digital technology explosion has given a boost to the U.S.’s self-appointed ‘leader of the world’ role . But that’s been quickly undermined by the dizzying multiplication of means to capture information, which have far outpaced any ability of processing it. This collision of mere data collecting with its purpose has also widen the gap between what needs to be historically kept, and what gives meaning and relevance to our collective memory. The past week may have further enhanced this disconnect in the U.S. Take last Wednesday’s revelation, for instance, that the Justice Dept. and Drug Enforcement Administration secretly collected billions of calls, years before NSA’s even more massive surveillance program that mirrored it. But they did not prevent 9/11 from happening. Or the 150th anniversary, on April 9th, of the end of the Civil War – by sheer number of casualties, the bloodiest American conflict so far – and slavery, just a few days after the shooting and killing of yet another unarmed black man by a white policeman. But the news cycle also offered another perspective, as to how society can turn to memory and information to either bastardize or change its future: the handshake between President Obama and Cuba’s Raul Castro may have buried half a century of bad connections. The digital revolution, continuously spitting gigabytes of pseudo-free information at us, gives us the illusion of knowledge and control, but it’s actually designed to cloud what we see, by simply dumping on us impossible amounts of encrypted data we have little use for. That is, if we’re not part of a rising elite of manipulators, who maneuvers and makes decisions based on just such an impossibility. No matter how vast and particularly cruel an episode of massive loss or extermination, of ethnic cleansing or methodic murdering, may be, there’s always been the risk that beyond the few generations directed affected by it, oblivion and forgetfulness would set in. That danger still exists today. While the reminder of the Holocaust, for instance, is now more accessible to everyone than ever, and its memory is constantly reinforced by historical account and even more data, many remain ignorant, or worse, doubtful of it. But either before or since it, we’ve already experienced and forgotten the unspeakable massacre of millions or just a few dozen, with the same easy as we page through the Internet and find information about an ancestor. Most likely, we do it by specific agency towards it, or pure luck, rather than by the source availability at our fingertips. There’s a lot of data out there but it mainly blind us to it all. Speaking of fading memory of atrocities, Kaname Harada, a 94-year old former pilot of the feared Imperial Japan’s Zero squadron, now spends his days telling new generations about the horrors of war. People in their 50s had no clue about what he’s been talking about. His mission is to fight the alarming signs that Japanese leaders are preparing to change the country’s pacifist constitution. We offer that such insidiousness is more poisonous than forgetfulness, or death of everyone directly related to an event, which used to afflict those who came before. To some of the living today, the world’s only six thousand years old, just as bible fanatics would want everyone else to believe, and there’s no way that some contemporary conflicts are just perennial reenactments of medieval grudges. This is the age of more available data that can possibly be processed, so we tend to deputize our memories to digital robots, which actually follow their own, separate agenda. The result is not that we lack the data, but the ability to see what it’s revealing to us. Google, Facebook, or the local branch of your bank, having the power to amass and draw meaning from such data, control what they need to know, and when, so to make anyone do exactly what they need anyone to do. They’ll remember it wholesale for you. The NSA will too, but won’t tell you, and may actually come after you for it. In both cases, these enterprises operate above your grasp of your basic rights, because they essentially are not elected by you to run their business; instead, they often control the elected too. The disconnect mentioned above is not new. When slavery was declared illegal in the U.S., it marked to millions, the beginning of the struggle for equal civil rights in this country. Even far from accomplished, it’s still the noble memory linked to the Civil War. More relevant, however, were economic factors rendering slavery costly and untenable to the growing nation, even if its end meant loss to a large segment of the upper class at the time. That dollars and sense aspect was the flip side of the end of human trafficking. But even that noble memory hasn’t traveled well in the century and an half since, as the grossly under reporting of shooting deaths of black people, their overwhelming presence in American prisons, and general reluctance to even discuss their disfranchising in the U.S. have constantly reminded us. In this context, to mention the open prejudice still directed at the president is almost a diversion. Such mistrust, though, didn’t prevent him from breaking the thaw with Cuba, a tiny island which, without U.S.’s obsession, would’ve likely become just another vacation spot by now, and not the perceived villainous, retro-dictatorship that it still is these days. Memory, which the digital age purports to preserve, is actually more endangered now than it’s ever been, and not just because of the technology’s shortcomings. If in the past, memory’s ultimate relevance and truth – history is indeed told by the victors, after all – has always been up to whomever records it, and how, and for whom, today is at par with people’s ability to correctly decode it. The underlying theme of memory, lost, disrupted, or corrupted as in data exposed to the elements, was again in evidence yesterday, when a former U.S. first lady, presidential contender, and Secretary of State for President Obama, announced her new run. Hillary Clinton’s reentry in the race for the White House is as predictable as her eventual main opponent’s, yet another Bush, may be. While some joke that it’ll be deja vu all over again in America – the Clinton & Bush 1990s America roadshow revival – history, as it’s been said by Marx, may repeat itself as farce again. Or not repeat itself whatsoever, since old Karl is as remote a political figure in American politics as voter power and ideas are in this campaign cycle. She’d, however, be the first American female president. Brazil, whose own first female president’s struggling to survive her second term, could also use some of that memory chip; not the 1990s but the 1960s kind. As new street rallies ask for Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, some displayed banners begging for another military takeover. Despite all data available about those cruel, dark years, many not around then have no way to apprehend it now. ‘Yes, we did produce a near-perfect republic. But will they keep it? Or will they, in the enjoyment of plenty, lose the memory of freedom?’ The so-apropos quote is by U.S.’s Founding Father and third-president Thomas Jefferson, whose 272nd birthday’s today. He may’d been speaking of himself, but it could’ve also been about Brazil’s dissatisfied middle-class, or Americans, brought up in the wealth of data and information, who don’t seem to care, however, whether in 2016 they’ll finally vote, or be still glad they can exchange some personal data for free latte and another phone. Here’s hoping they wise up. Good luck on Tax Day.

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4/06/2015 Talk’s Mightier Than Nukes, Colltalers

Only in these irrational, defense-dominated, paranoid-inducing times a peaceful agreement, which all but guarantees a commitment by a major Middle East player of not enriching weapons-grade uranium, would still be at risk of not being endorsed by the U.S. Congress. For it’s been an arduous battle to get Iran to even discuss giving up its nuclear ambitions, while strife-prone Pakistan and India next door are allowed to keep their own programs alive, not to mention Israel, which remains adamantly against any such accord, period. But so it’s the nature of foreign relations in our time, as they tend to belittle diplomacy and overstate the efficacy of warfare. While the latter has been failing over and over, and costing lives and billions, the former is greeted with derision and given limited credence. Despite such poor record controlling the ever growing, and unrestrained, aggression plaguing the region, the military defense complex and global weapons industry seem to always have undue influence over what ultimately prevails in that part of the world. With their most staunch allies residing in the Republican Party-controlled American congress, there’s been already a call to arms for mobilization of the best lobbyists money can buy to undermine this latest attempt at finding lasting stability in the Middle East. No one questions that a race to proliferate weapons of mass destruction would be catastrophic to the 200 million-plus living on that already gigantic powder keg. And that any prospect to prevent it from happening would necessarily pass through an Iranian accord. So, apart for the well-founded but mainly emotional fears expressed by Israel, the only other major factor playing against a diplomatic solution in the region comes from the industry whose own raison d’être is threatened by just such a phase out of armed conflicts. President Obama, who’s received praise for having kept at it when skeptics had given up on the cause, is already engaged in ‘selling’ the just-signed agreement to the world, as flawed but still our best bet to assure relative security for all nations involved. Despite widespread support from the American people, his biggest foes are in Capitol Hill and the Pentagon. We can only wish him good luck. And so engaged are Iranian officials too, as President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have the herculean task of convincing Iran’s Ayatollahs and assorted hard-liners that this arrangement is to their country’s benefit. Good luck to them too. For the Iranian urban and well educated population also seems to be on the same page; that it’s better tone down any grandiose plan of regional domination in exchange for a lifting of the onerous sanctions that have been burden the country for so long. Still, there seems to be some contention about the U.N.-imposed, U.S.-supported embargo, which has ultimately penalized its thriving demographics, causing failure of entire segments of the Iranian economy, with little effect on its military and defense industries. That and other details need to be iron down, and it’s what makes any congressional attempt to derail the accord’s general terms so foolish. The moment is to consolidate not just the specifics of the agreement but also the openness of the dialogue between Iran, the U.N., and the so-called P5+1 group – the U.S., France, Germany, the U.K., Russia, and China – while the irons are hot, so to speak. One curious note about the Obama administration is that it can be said that this is its second, and likely, last chance to strike a permanent agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. That is, considering the 2010 proposal brokered by Brazil and Turkey, which was all but disavowed by then Sec. of State Hillary Clinton. That’s meaningful because she’s now a major contender for the U.S. presidency. Even though that proposal lacked the substance the latest one seems to have, its major goals were the same: to suspend uranium enrichment, move what was already enriched to medical purposes, and allow complete transparency of its program, all in exchange for the lifting of the sanctions. Supposedly, the U.S.’s main excuse to refute the accord then was the volatile Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Well, he’s out of the picture now. And so is Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, while Turkey’s Recip Tayyip Erdogan’s conspicuously sitting on the sidelines (he’s perhaps expected to get his feet wetter in Iraq at the moment, rather than Iran). With President Obama a year and an half from leaving the White House, time may be riper than ever to get a grip on Iran’s nuclear program for good. Speaking of getting feet wet, while Iran’s already up to its neck with ISIL and arguably Syria, Israel’s so far dangerously refused to dance. So it may be up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin to step in, and of course, China’s Xi Jinping, who hasn’t shown yet the same level of engagement of his predecessor Hu Jintao. Russia and China both have veto power in any resolution of the U.N. security council. The point is that there’s a particularly singular set of circumstances favoring a diplomatic solution for such a complex issue. And that it may involve the world’s biggest powers, working in tandem to grant the agreement its much needed weight and relevance. With the already mentioned conflicts in Iran and Syria raging, and a hopefully punctual spike in terrorist activity through selected pockets in the Middle East, Europe, and specially Africa, the world could certainly use some good news about nuke control. Coming to think of it, it’s been a while since we heard anything reassuring about nuclear programs and conflict resolution via the power of the pen, and not of the sword. We’ve been so battle-scared by the shortcomings of using fire to try to atone divisions dating from several centuries ago, that we easily forget the power words and compromise have to solve global differences. Because that’s not all. We need to move the needle even higher and try to apply the same drive to tackle other, arguably more important, issues, related to the survival not just of a country, a region, or an ideal, but of the entire world populations, no hyperbole employed. For if nukes can destroy us all, so can climate change, ocean pollution, extreme hunger, and the exhaustion of natural resources on a global scale. But going back to the opening graph, we do live in bizarre times, and often only the burden of proof is no longer enough to mobilize enough people towards clarity and peaceful resolution. The Iran agreement can’t be singled out as some litmus test of our current ability to move on; on the other hand, we simply can’t be satisfied with accepting that brute force is the only M.O. possible. We can’t bomb ourselves out of ever present conflicts, no matter how hawks and war mongers and profiteers and belligerent fanatics seem to demand. Rather, we must sit and talk and keep talking, as needed. And find another use for drones too, since we’re at it. We may be far from an ideal nuke-free world. But given its potential to global annihilation, no effort towards it should be spared. It may sound sanctimonious, or preachy, but we’ve done already damage to keep us busy reversing it, if at all possible, for decades to come. Used for defense purposes, nuclear power poses insurmountable challenges hard to fathom, as we all remember Hiroshima. But even without geopolitical implications, we shouldn’t forget what it’s capable of. And yet, last week, most of us did just that, when the 36th anniversary of the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island came and went almost unnoticed. Later this month, it’ll be Chernobyl’s 29th. One final thing this latest nuclear agreement may allow us to consider is that it reduces the chances of another accident such as those, or worse, a terror attack, at least in Iran. And there’s no need for only Iranians to feel relieved by such prospect. Have a great one.

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3/30/2015 Brazil’s 3-Decade Democracy, Colltalers

For at least one reason, Brazilians could be celebrating tomorrow the 30 years since the military dictatorship got bumped down from power: there hasn’t been any threat to Brazil’s constitution ever since. Instead, there may be no party as many are angry at their democratically elected government, and a minority has even asked for another coup to depose President Dilma Rousseff and her ruling Workers’ Party, the PT. Credit that to the majority of the population, not yet born in 1964 and with no memory of what the military did then. Or to a staggering string of corruption scandals plaguing the PT. Or even to the apparent inability by Dilma, as she’s known in Brazil, to provide economic relief and fresh ideas for the country. Either one or all of the above, plus other factors, the fact is that there’s a distinctly sour mood permeating Brazil nowadays. Granted, to some corners of the world, Brazilians not willing to party is sort of an oxymoron. But even if much of what’s going on is still growing pains of a young democracy, with opposition parties typically engaging to magnify PT’s woes, there is the underlying reality that, for a country with such a gargantuan ambition to play a bigger global role, these days it’s simply not looking the part with the confidence it requires. Thus as Dilma fights for political survival, just as her mentor, and Brazil’s arguably most popular politician, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, struggles to protect his own legacy, Brazilians look as if on the verge of reaching a risky boiling point They’re still unsure whether showing discontentment in the streets is enough to force change, and restore morality in all levels of power, that they see crucially necessary. But whereas the most visible part of such discontent is political and involves painful reforms the congress seems incapable to promote (Americans can certainly relate to that), it’s in the economic front that the situation seems bleaker, and directly impacts large swaths of the population. Many have pointed to similarities between now and the pre-1964 military coup, when the middle class also took to the streets, and openly espoused conservative causes against the João Goulart administration. The memory of the terrible 21 years that followed his ouster is what now seems conspicuously absent from the national debate. The Brazilian economy, slated to remain contracted for at least another quarter, has been the most concrete sign that the PT’s proposals for the country may have run their course, and have now lost their universal appeal, despite undeniable achievements in the social realm, income redistribution, and civil rights. One fears that if too abrupt a change materializes, even those good governance practices may be reversed or nullified. It’d be like throwing out the baby with the dirty water, of course, but even the higher echelons of the party are far from engaged in defending them from the onslaught of criticism. On the contrary, the PT leadership is willing to double-down in the face of the evidence, and has sent out the wagons to circle its inner core, rather than take the initiative of cleaning up its house, only way it could possibly disarm its political rivals. Again, Brazilians are impatient too, and not likely to offer the party yet another lifeline to recoup and preserve its clout. It’s been already a while since PT’s lost its mandate as the most popular, and inclusive, political platform in Brazil’s politics. What’s really troubling, however, is that the leftist and liberal ideals it used to represent are nowhere close to be taken over by the opposition parties jockeying to replace it in power. If the economy has run out of gas, with declining exports of durable goods, and over dependence on its agricultural output, Brazil’s political spectrum has also experienced an astounding contraction, which unlike its GDP, cannot be blamed on external factors. Somehow, progressive parties, such as the socialist PSOL and the Green Party, have lost resonance with voters, and their demographics are on a receding path. Even more disturbing is the rise, on the other side of the political spectrum, of the religious right, as messianic faiths and sects continue to gather power and influence on their rise to power. While some now control a respectable share of Brazil’s media organizations, to ostensibly proselytize their conservative agenda and elect politicians in sync with their views, others are openly promoting a form of neo-fascism, with the creation of private armies, and a shameless agenda against the civil rights of minorities, in special, women’s reproductive rights, racism and homophobia. Worse: their cavalcade has encountered few obstacles. For if there are two major issues that don’t seem to awake passion in Brazilians, or drive them to the streets to protest, they are the rise of political intolerance and obscurantism, of which the religious right serves as its most formidable and organized supporter, and the almost absolute lack of discussion about the environment, the Amazon and climate change, in the current national debate. To flip the stereotype upside down, Brazilians could be excused for refusing to party if it were all in the name of these two crucial issues, directly connected to the future of the country’s institutions and its oh so desired enhanced role in the concert of nations. Instead, more than a fight for morality, and the exercising of citizenry by all, Brazil’s national discussions are reduced to a parochial debate between two conflicting social views, none of which completely identified with the realities of the country, circa 2015. Neither the PT’s the purveyor of a socialist ideal of equality and justice, as it once claimed to be, nor PSDB, its main opponent, the dictatorship-era classic opposition party PMDB, or the smaller, mostly pro-forma denominations, represent the political and economic changes most Brazilians are desperately seeking and are, ultimately, entitled to achieve. Tomorrow marks the 51th year since the military deposed the president, restricted individual freedom, persecuted with salvage zeal its enemies, and threw the country into an increasingly debt spiral that became unsustainable by the time it was peacefully driven away by popular forces. But Brazilians won’t be celebrating much the fact that it’s been an accident-prone but relatively steady run ever since. Democratic institutions being taken for granted as they are, people will be instead most likely arguing over the constitutionality of a presidential impeachment, without much thought about what kind of Pandora box that might open. But it’s all part of the chaotic, at times, unpleasant, frustrating, and ultimately, caustic democratic process that was hard earned in 1985, all casualties and personal tragedies included. It’s been said that compared to other South American dictatorships of the time, Brazil was one of the mildest. But, for such a spurious end, even if it had cost one life, it’d have been one life too many. The fact that a few even dare to ask for a return to that dark era, as understandable as it may be, is also nothing short of an insult to those who perished or lost loved ones, and the institutions that had to be arduously rebuilt so that a new country could emerge. Certain lessons are hard to learn, goes the cliche, and many a relatively young nation had to spend an inordinate amount of time going backwards twice as far as going forward, until it accomplished its full potential. As much as any other country, Brazil also deserves the respect and time to resolve its basic internal turmoils and fulfill its destiny. It just can’t take too long or too much of its already over extended and righteously indignant society. While others may choose to blame Brazilians for not knowing exactly where to push or when to slack, a more productive attitude is one of support and understanding. Perhaps a lot of important changes have already taken place, or are in the process of opening new venues, without many realizing it. It’s also possible that these massive rallies of outrage may breed a new sense of accountability from the country’s political elites. plus a whole new generation of leaders with effective, and even optimist, forward views. Here’s to hope that at least a fraction of those masses show up tomorrow to celebrate the end of a nefarious and cruel political regime, not to ask it to come back. For they’ll be celebrating the only Brazil that’s desired by everyone, democratic and viable. Enjoy April.

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3/23/2015 Drink it But Lose the Bottle, Colltalers

Water, Earth’s arguably most important element, is having quite a busy time. From playing villain in the climate change drama to disappearing in vast regions, while showing up unannounced in distant moons, it seems now ready for its top billing closeup. Since 1993, when the United Nations began to observe March 22 as World Water Day, increased demand has caused extended droughts where people need it the most, and, indirectly, the threat of rising sea levels to billions living in coastal areas. What appears as a contradiction has, in fact, a common cause in our predatory way of living and wasteful use of natural resources, combined with overpopulation. We tend to forget how finite and vulnerable a resource water really is. Even when it’s tangential to progress, water can determine the fate of entire ecosystems and the communities depending on them. In this context, its commoditization has aggravated both its scarcity and the possibility that it’ll choke the livelihood of so many. Consider bottle water, whose over consumption – Americans, for instance, consume an average of 30 gallons a year – has created an explosion in plastic pollution in landfills and, specially, the oceans, wreaking havoc with marine life and metastasizing the effects of environmental damage on climate. From manufacture to discarding, everything about a bottle of water is wasteful. And yet, its main consumers are irony-free advocates of a ‘natural’ lifestyle. Most would be interested in replacing soda in their diet for water. It’s when the conversation veers to what to do with the containers that the room usually gets quickly empty. Water also closely tracks the staggering inequalities of our world: while we pay top dollar for our designer bottle, even when tap water in most Western cities is often superior, billions lack the potable kind, or risk life and limb walking miles for it. Rising sea levels are triggered by the daily release of tons of heat-trapping gases, such as carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. These gases, generated by burning fossil fuels, increase global temperatures and accelerate the melting of ancient glaciers and permafrost. Besides causing floods and reducing coastal lands, this process also releases methane, another heat-trapping gas. Many a climate change denier have invoked just such a chain of events to declare that, if water is what we need, what’s the problem with having a few inches, or even feet of water added to the oceans? Forget it, it’s not worth arguing with them. The most obvious problem with this rationale is that it ignores the fact that we can’t survive on salt water, and current desalinization technologies are still extremely costly and energy draining. But even if it were reasonably easy to turn ocean into potable water, we’d still be missing the point: instead of reigning on a destructive way of life, we insist in hanging on to it. Scientists have recently found yet another factor contributing to rising sea levels: over-pumping of groundwater wells. Again, overpopulation is behind the increased demand for water to irrigate crops and provide to towns. Problem is, all this water – over 4,000 cubic km since 1900 – has found its way into rivers and pathways that ultimately lead to the oceans. Aquifers and groundwater rivers are abundant inside Earth, but they are in there for many reasons, chief among them, to support life. They replenish river beds, counter the effects of droughts, and allow people to live in regions too far from sources of surface water. But its function is to remain a reserve, not to irrigate lawns or golf courses just because their owners can afford it. Such a utilitarian view of water is also part of the problem, and why we pay so high a price to continue burning fossil fuels, while we haven’t really invested in new, practical ways of preserving such an infinitely more important resource. In India, there’s a man who’s just won the 2015 Stockholm Water Prize, for bringing it to a thousand villages. Rajendra Singh, the ‘Water Man of India,’ used an old technique that ‘harvests’ water and keeps it underground for future use. In the meantime, just to show that the problem is not exactly lack of water but ways of doing what Rajendra did, to harvest it, there are the surprising findings that two more moons in the solar system may contain generous amounts of it. It’s long known that Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa has a vast internal ocean, and that there’s some in our own moon. Now, one of Jupiter’s other giant satellites, Ganymede, and Saturn’s Enceladus, may join in the roster. Suddenly, it’s everywhere. Out there, as on Earth, water is a synonym for life. But since there’s this small matter of how to bring it here, we may find it much easier to simply preserve it. And if you can do one thing about it, don’t buy bottles of water. Have a great Spring.

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3/16/2015 Hoping for a New Israel, Colltalers

The most important political event this week, relevant to the U.S., the Middle East, and to the world, is tomorrow’s Prime Minister election, in Israel. It’s a crucial vote even if it grants an unprecedented, but expected, fourth term to incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu. But unlike what he and his Likud Party would like us to believe, a win won’t necessarily represent an endorsement to the aggressive settlement expansion and military policies, along the paralyzing fear, with what his leadership has subjugated the Israeli society. Before going any further, though, a word about approaching this highly sensitive subject, which often entangles even seasoned political commentators – which we’re definitely not -, and provokes exacerbated reactions and passionate opinions from anyone. For what’s usually lost in most views about Israel and its troubled neighbors is the fact that criticism of its political leadership does not ultimately translates into anti-Semitism, or support to the terrorist tactics of its enemies, however justified they may feel about them. Also, it’s important to note that there’s no historical equivalence between the systematic extermination of Jews, by Nazi Germany during WW2, and the current oppression and denial of basic rights to the Palestinian people by Israel, even if the specific brutality of the conflicts between the two is indeed comparable, and that the Israeli military is overwhelmingly superior to the Palestinians. Finally, and that’s what makes this even harder to discuss with an even mindset, it’s necessary to emphasize that, according to generally accepted democratic principles, one doesn’t need a set of pre-conditions before being allowed to express his or her opinion. Such principles should apply even if said opinion is not politically correct or fair, or accurate, and the person expressing it hasn’t physically visited the area, or holds an elective office, or has even marginally an interest on the issue, apart from a personal view. On to the theme. Israel election hangs on three major issues, only one of which Netanyahu discussed on his speech to Republicans in Congress two weeks ago: the Palestinians, domestic social policies, and the one-note samba he seems to always invoke whenever he comes to the U.S., Iran. We’ll come back to the speech later, but let’s focus on his favorite foe for just a moment. First of all, Israel has the same right of fearing Iran’s nuclear capability, as any New Yorker now fears being crushed by a commercial airliner, just as an Iraqi farmer must be constantly afraid of ISIL thugs, or an Afghan civilian of being killed by a drone. But in the same token, so do Palestinians in relation to Israel’s own nuclear power, or anyone living in the region, in case of a fatal escalation with Iran, and the rest of the world, for that matter, since it’s unthinkable what that could trigger globally. So, if Israel’s fears make sense, Bibi has only stoked them to his own political gain. Although Iranian president Hassan Rouhani is not completely in charge of the country, since his 2013 election, anti-Israeli rhetoric in the country has been considerably toned down. And then there are the U.S.-led talks with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, which continue and have, indeed, made more progress lately than in several years. It’s a credit to the Obama administration that it remains committed to a diplomatic solution that would imply concessions by Iran, and could lead to some stability in the region. Arguably, Israel is the one standing to gain the most with it. Its prime minister, however, has done almost everything in his power to sabotage and undermine any prospect for a peaceful solution, even though it’s clear that it could not sustain on its own a, heaven forbid, nuclear conflict with Iran. He’s been following the same old, and dangerous, pre-emptive approach prescribed by the Likud, just as he’s done with potential new interlocutors in the Gaza strip. Isolationism, and a bit of victimhood theatrics, has thus been the tenor of his administration. One would think that there couldn’t be anything else to be added to Netanyahu’s brazen attempt to bring his campaign to his non-voting constituency in the U.S., but as it turned out, there was: the now infamous 47 Republicans who signed a letter to Iran, going behind President Obama’s back and against his will, and threatening to derail every hard-fought progress made in the nuclear talks. The spectacularly misguided, and unacceptable, act of mutiny, by a congress bent on embarrassing the president, but that has, instead, embarrassed itself, may have already run its course without much damage to anyone else. It opened a reckless precedent, though, that should be dealt with by its leadership with stern resolve. But it’s doubtful that the GOP will exercise humility and admit the blunder. Most likely, the talks will reach a workable point, from which to built trust and empower diplomacy as the tool of choice for dealing with international conflicts. It’s too bad that it’s unlike that such an example will be applied to other conflicts as well, at least for now. That Netanyahu’s new version of the same speech he’s made in 2011, then to both Republicans and Democrats, is being used in his campaign in Israel shouldn’t surprise anyone; again, the GOP is the one to be publicly shamed here, as it served as his political pawn. But what’s much more important is why he hasn’t been challenged by anyone for blatantly avoiding the Palestinian issue on his speech, specifically, the fate of totaled Gaza post-bombardments, and Israel’s continuous push for new settlements. Both Republicans and Democrats should be chastised, even those of the ‘Israeli-wing,’ always so afraid of losing Jewish support. Bibi’s biggest threat in this election is not his opposition rivals, Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni, supported by Labor and center-left coalitions, but it’s the Likud losing Parliament seats, which would immediately compromise his position for the first time since 2009. They, and other candidates, have gained in the polls by pointing at Israel’s high costs of living, diminished job prospects, and apathy towards the strengthening grip of the religious right on the country. Another unexpected force jockeying for influence over its future is a group of wealthy Western evangelicals, hoping to see deranged biblical prophecies fulfilled on the backs of regular Israelis. In other words, just your normal, run-of-the-mill domestic politics that any nation is supposed to examine during its election cycles. That the internal politics of a young and small country suddenly has the potential to disrupt the world’s precarious power balance has less to do with its historical U.S. connection than with its geographical position, nuclear weapons, and the vagaries of globalization. Israel’s clear and present danger is not Iran, but its unsettling relations with the Palestinians, their mutual economic co-dependence, and the appallingly subhuman existence of over 1,800 million Gazan, indeed a threat to their more powerful next door neighbor. Perhaps what concerns Bibi and the Likud is Iran’s potential ascension as a stabilizing force in the region. With ISIL fighting al-Qaeda over Iraqi supremacy, besides fighting their common enemies, the coalition forces, and the Syrian civil war reaching its fourth year, Iran may just seize the opportunity, which Israel’s has lost with Bibi, of playing a constructive role for a change. At the end of the day, we hope that nuclear talks with Iran succeed, not only for the sake of Israel, but for the whole region. And that it, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt finally realize that the Middle East doesn’t need to be a place where the U.S. periodically is called upon to wreak havoc. It’d also disarm the unattainable demand for the American military complex to be constantly on the ready. No matter how much Netanyahu wishes to make his campaign an American issue, or Pentagon hawks defend the need for U.S. military involvement, history has proved that we always managed to turn the situation worse. Each day, as the body count mounts, there are less reasons for anyone to be bombing those countries back to the Middle Ages. Sorry, Israel, but it’s for your own good. As the sole democracy in the area, amid a lot of dysfunctional but very rich countries, it’s now, as it always should be, up to Israelis to determine what’s the best course to take. Chances are, short of a U.S.’s open-ended military hand, such course may favor a peaceful solution of coexistence, tolerance, and mutual respect with its neighbors, Palestinians and Iranians included. Happy St. Patrick Day.

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3/09/2015 Racial Equality Will Set Us Free, Colltalers

The pace of social transformation takes generations to complete its cycles. That should bring some comfort to those discouraged with the continuous struggle for racial equality in America since the three voting rights marches, from Selma to Montgomery, 50 years ago. They should take at heart that, while the walks were all violently disrupted by the police and white vigilantes – the first 54-mile trek between the two Alabama cities, on March 7, 1965, became known as Bloody Sunday – they ultimately succeeded in their purpose. The marches jump-started the 1960s civil rights movement, despite the assassination of several black leaders and opposition from politically conservative Americans, and culminated with a series of landmark rulings that, at least on paper, have changed the country. But it’s not easy to see the changes we undoubtedly underwent in five decades, when the past few years have shown a particularly nasty strain of racism and lethal violence against black youth, often coming from society’s own organized forces. The police, for instance. The spike in incidents of institutionalized brutality against racial minorities nationwide have shown how far we still are from the ideals those thousand of marchers were aiming at, and how the depth of their commitment and sacrifice can be so easily brushed aside. ‘Our march is not yet finished,’ said President Obama in Selma Saturday, in another display of his gifted oratorical skills. ‘But we’re getting closer.’ It’s arguable that an event of such magnitude would’ve deserved full White House attention if the president wasn’t black. But his words set in a long line of inspired speeches made since those marchers forced President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act and other legislation aimed at leveling the playing field and promote Americans of color to the full benefits of citizenry. That we haven’t succeed yet speaks more of our collective inability to move on closer to ideals professed by the Founding Fathers, through the Constitution, than on the eventual fragility of such laws, even though that was made evident two years ago. That’s when the Supreme Court, in a startling display of short-sightedness and lack of judgement, gutted crucial provisions of the Voting Right Act. Going back to constitutional times, though, throws us back in the loop of the unresolved quagmire of racial disparity. And that’s what those discouraged by current events find solid ground for their despair: slavery was, and remained for over a century, integral to the economy. Racial equality was arguably not in the horizon for those enlightened leaders, who got so many other things right. That used as an argument, however, is purely a stinking pile of waste. We should know better by now not to blame those who lived in another time for our present sins, or even worse, try to find pseudo-constitutional justification for what’s clearly more than a social flaw. The anniversary of Selma – the second 1965 march took place on this day and the third, 21st of March – coincides with the conclusion of a Department of Justice investigation of grave systemic problems in the police department serving the City of Ferguson, Missouri. The resulting report, which stemmed from the Aug. 9, 2014, killing of city resident Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot by a white police officer, acquitted of any responsibility on the crime, validated much of the public dissatisfaction with the verdict. As it turned out, the widespread riots that followed the trial and acquittal called attention to a long-term, ingrained disrespect towards the majority black population, by exposing a predominantly white police force displaying a pattern of ‘racial bias’ on its conduct. Internal emails using racial stereotypes, manipulation of traffic violations disproportionately targeting the mostly impoverished black community, and above all, ‘excessive and dangerous’ force against it, showed that the problem predates the tragedy of Michael Brown. The DoJ report suggests that to solve them, the Ferguson PD may need to be completely reformed, which obviously didn’t please city officials. But what they think is irrelevant, at this point, since the same racial bias is being identified throughout the whole country. For any American reasonably attuned to the times we live in, such conclusions hold few surprises. In fact, some would say that they fall short of effecting any immediate change, since it’s unlike that officers accused of abuse of authority will be prosecuted, go to a retrial, or even be dismissed solely based on the report. But, again, even such a timid step is already progress in the struggle for racial equality. So there may be many still discouraged with the glacial pace of social change. Or rather, slower than glacial, given that climate change has quickly outpaced even the most conservative predictions. But it’s important to assure that such social change comes from the letter of the law and not from the barrel of a gun. And let’s face it, the black community has been exceedingly non-violent at all times. In reality, despite fear of riots and lawlessness, manipulated by some media outlets, and the tragic deaths of countless black youth, with an appalling proportion of acquittals of the uniformed officers who pulled the triggers, there hasn’t been a single incident of coordinated incitement to breaking the law from the part of those being victimized. On the contrary, black leadership has been all about justice. Which shows that the non-violence advocacy professed by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who took part of the marches and was killed only three years afterwards, continues to resonate and remains a guiding principle for those seeking redress on racial matters. It’s been said before but it’s worth repeating: there’s no possible reconciliation for the American society, today as there wasn’t 50 years ago, without it climbing over this hump of racial bias that poisons our relationships, and undermines all sunny but misguided statements about some sort of exceptionally that’s supposed to distinguish us from other nations. It’s either racial justice or no justice at all. While experiments such as Affirmative Action and others may or may not have fulfilled their purpose, bringing some semblance of race equality, time is now ripe for trying something new, even if it feels like the ‘old fashioned’ way of applying the same law to everyone. If one thinks about what’s involved in taking new steps toward racial justice, such as police accountability, transparency, oversight, a less repressive and more collaborative approach, then it becomes clear that we need them taken also for a variety of social ills that affect us. In other words, the Obama administration could extend its current zeal to other areas too. Banking accountability comes to mind. As for those deeming that too much has been made out of ‘isolated’ incidents, they’re part of a receding minority, not attuned to the times. We became a better society when desegregation, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Voting Rights Act, to name a few, became the law of the land, period. Any attempt to dismantle such will of the people is unpatriotic and simply un-American. Have a great one.

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3/02/2015 They Always Come for the Kids First, Colltalers

There’s been a growing lament coming from what the media calls ‘well-to-do’ Western families: why my well-educated, comfortably living son or daughter, who seemed perfectly content with his or her life so far, has suddenly joined a terror organization. Pulled to the forefront of the exploitative coverage – to give ‘a human face’ to the stories news agency are ghoulishly profiting from – these mothers and fathers look genuinely perplexed by the likely sorrowful and tragic fate awaiting their babies in some distant land. What made them do it? What could we’ve done to prevent it?, they ask the cameras, and the world, blindsided by the glare of spotlights and their own grief, absolutely at lost to understand what blood and carnage can possibly hold as appealing to their sweet kids. But there’s familiarity in their pain and puzzlement, and without even digging too deep into the relationship between parents and their children, we realize that we’re all very much used to such an inter-generational widening gap. Specially when precarious bridges of pseudo-trust and ‘understanding,’ i.e., an over-rewarding system built to give us a phony sense of normality, fails us all miserably. ‘Why would she treat us so thoughtlessly? How could she do this to me?’ It seems almost quaint to quote the Beatles’ ‘She’s Leaving Home,’ which gives a poetic and definitely benign twist to what was then considered a middle-class obsession, the plight of runaway kids. In the lyrics, the drama is centered on the old theme of teenage love, circa 1960s, and their drive to elope with their paramours, away from the tight-knots of family life. In the same England but 400 years earlier, the Bard had already borrowed the same theme (and even names) to pen his own slant to an ancient story, in the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. We’ve come a long way from these two works of genius. There’s little love in this modern teen version of leaving the nest, unless devotion to invisible beings count. And the world they’re so enraptured with is not one when they’ll finally be accepted for the caring beings that they may be, but their ability to learn the trade. That such trade involves murder and dismemberment is what distinguishes that mere youth angst and desire for identity of yesteryear, from today’s brutal realities of political strife, religious ideology, and our ever-expanding abilities to harm each other. Again, such themes are integral to the very pathology of being a human, and, through millennia, we’ve excelled at it. These kids are also ‘joining the army,’ just the way all governments demand their youth to gladly give their lives to their countries, no questions allowed. 26-year old Muhammed Emwazi has, arguably, grown up in a prosperous London suburban household, surviving the trappings of coming of age in a foreign country (he was born in Kuwait) and even managing to graduate with a degree in information science. When he was reportedly identified as the infamous Jihadi John, who was filmed taking part in gruesome beheadings promoted by the ISIL, there was an almost audible grasp around the world at the apparent irreconcilable sides of his so far sketchy biography. As his script now follows the common pattern of manhunt and punishment, his parents – and those of the countless affluent young boys and girls estimated to have joined, or attempted to, the ranks of extremely blood-thirsty organizations – are left with not much but the feeling that a crucial segment of their learning curve was somehow yanked away from them, even before their kids reached puberty. We sympathize with these Moms and Dads’ quandary, and even with their kids, who’re obviously being deceived into ‘making a difference,’ when they’re just being manipulated as asses. But something must be said about the ultimate similarity of their fate, and of soldiers enlisted into an illicit war of occupation, for instance, or an ethnic cleansing rampage, or in the name of a revengeful god. It’s not just parents who’re puzzled about their kids’ behavior. The times have considerably upped the ante as to what used to drive youth rebellion, as a quest for individuality, and love, and ‘to conquer the world,’ are now akin to a passport to collective murder. We’re not being nostalgic about a world that never existed. Nor we’re selectively choosing to highlight despicable acts committed in the so called war on terror, so to excuse the devilish attraction of a set of brutally simple laws, and their allegiance to the power of the sword. Instead, we wish to point to the responsibility of the ‘fathers of the nations,’ even more so than unprepared and unequipped parenthood, in the repeated betrayal of whole youth generations, wasted at waging wars in the name of not a single ideal that could possibly justify it. The only thing these killing ideologies are doing differently is that now they track organized society more closely, emulating the same campaigns that governments sponsor on a regular basis to recruit new blood. So they’re using social media, technology, mass psychology, so what? Aren’t these the same official techniques used to lure both the privileged and the unprivileged to join in the armed forces? That it’s mostly the underclass who choose to wear their country’s uniforms should offer some clues as to why so many of the materially well-served are flocking in droves to ragtag armies attempting to take over the world by the blade of their razors. These groups may be also festering in the alarming gaps of the empty accumulation of information that passes for high education these days. As students train to become consumers and to game the system, they miss out learning about the great schools of thoughts of antiquity, of social responsibility and non-religious moral choices, and the humanism that’s supposed to mark us as a unique species. Perhaps such knowledge gaps are finally catching up with us, as a premium is placed on material achievement and sheer greed, while educational (for-profit) institutions act as assembly-lines, manufacturing year round breeds of apathetic buyers and trend-pursuers. Beyond lashing at materialism and the ‘soulless’ spirit permeating our age, however, there’s the parallel tracing the resurgence of these brutal, free-range terror groups, with their appeal to the young, and the appalling lack of awareness and overall disinterest about the great themes of our age, such as climate change, pollution, mass extinctions, social justice, hunger and diseases, and so on, professed by most. We shouldn’t need religion, or capricious ideologies, or hypocritical sermons on the virtues of family and nation, so to know when to stop the bloodletting of our children. We shouldn’t need their sacrifice or misguided allegiance to snap us out of our complacency. Mothers and fathers will grieve as they must, and leaders will serve irrelevant platitudes, and defense think-tanks will offer prescriptions to the ‘cure,’ all predictable and properly ineffective. In the meantime, millions of kids will choose the dicey, strings-attached, comfort of strangers, on the streets of big cities, or in faraway lands, where their anger and contempt can be channeled to someone else’s agenda. We’ll always grieve for them as they kill and are killed endlessly, fed by our world of amenities and our air-conditioned nightmares. In the micro-realm of quantum mechanics, even the tiniest local move has consequences across the universe. We may be failing to understand this equivalence, between everything we do in our drive for immediate satisfaction, and what our actions cause to the world at large. There may be another way, but we wouldn’t dare prescribing it to anyone, lest our best words turn into insufferable sanctimony. But, since the bar is set so low, whatever we may come up with must be a bit better than what breaks our hearts everyday. Have a great March.

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2/23/2015 May Greece Save the Euro, Colltalers

There’s been measured enthusiasm with the election of Alexis Tsipras as Greece’s Prime Minister last month, and the rise of Pablo Iglesias-led year-old Podemos party in Spain, which has quickly become a contender for the December general elections. But as their ascendancy is a sign that there’s finally resistance to the European Central Bank’s ineffective and poverty-boosting austerity policies, they actually run counter the overall tendency within the remainder countries sharing the euro and beyond. Europe is in fact experiencing a resurgence of hatred towards immigrants, anti-Semitism, and religious obscurantism, rapidly manipulated by the continent’s right-wing parties, that no populism seems capable, at least at the moment, to reverse. More, there’s already been a well-articulated backlash against these two courageous but still timid counterpoints to the dominant ideology. In the past weeks, for instance, tax fraud allegations against Juan Carlos Monedero, a political scientist and co-founder of Podemos (We Can, just in case), have been swirling around in Spain, placing the party’s probity image under scrutiny. As for Tsipras, he’s facing criticism within his own Syriza party, after the latest round of negotiations between Greece and the other euro countries over debt agreements signed in exchange for loans, now all but unlikely to be timely paid. Even as Greece was granted a four-month loan payments extension Friday, supporters have accused Tsipras of capitulating on campaign promises of refusing any unfair agreement. And that very 11th-hour small reprieve can come undone today, if policy measures to be adopted in exchange for the extension are not to the creditors’ liking. A pickle, indeed. While it’s only fair that Monedero clarifies the consultancy fees he’s received from four Latin American countries, there’s no question that even if he does, PM Mariano Rajoy, and his center-right Partido Popular, have caught a precious break. But although some have been quick to call off the movement against austerity – the NYTimes said that European leaders don’t want to ‘finance the Greek-led revolt’ -, what’s been left out is the wreck such policies have visited throughout Europe. That is, except in rich Northern countries, Germany in special, whose banks, not coincidentally, are the region’s major lenders. More than a populist ideal of reform ‘for the people,’ however, what may turn the tide against austerity is the pragmatism that allowed those same banks to take advantage of lending opportunities, opened by the increased membership in the eurozone. Not that anyone would detect it in mainly German officials’ rhetoric, but the threat of a bankrupted Greece may cause more damage to the euro project, and the continent’s political stability, than if it’d squeeze a cent more from the Greek Treasury. For those loans, whose payment is now endangered, hardly touched the ground of both Greece and Spain, before returning to the lenders’ coffers. And besides banks, only brokers and corrupt officials benefited from them, pocketing commissions and, in Greece, looting the state with an absurdly regulation-free privatization wave that further eroded its ability to pay its debt. It remains to be seen whether Tsipras’s success in the polls will be followed by enduring policies, and he’ll remain loyal to the principles that led him to power. The same way in Spain, as we still have an almost full year before Iglesias has his shot at real power. But even in their best case scenario, it’s doubtful they’ll be able to reverse Europe’s overall ideological trend. What’s clear is that a Greece exit from the eurozone may reawaken old separatism feelings, and precipitate the end of a social-liberal dream, which once held the promising outlook of replacing Europe’s violent history of ethnic strife with a commonwealth of equal opportunities, peace and stability for all. Who’d stand to win with such scenario? the banks, of course. But even with that, if a country breaks free from the euro, it’ll be a failure not just of a principle, but also of the system’s wardens and executors. Imagine bank runs, and the end of depositors’ trust, which has already been severely challenged throughout. All the austerity policies, and pseudo-morally sound lessons on rectitude, have done to millions of middle and underprivileged classes in Europe, was to reaffirm the sanctimonious, quasi-religious fervor of some of its political leaders. Take Germany, for instance, a country whose economy would be on the toilet if it didn’t depend on its powerful union system, and progressive workers’ rights. Despite of that, it has no problem enforcing the payment of outrageously high-interests on loans its banks have irresponsibly allowed to accrue, even if it destroys other countries’ own unions and working forces. It’s hypocritical when Chancellor Angela Merkel advocates a unilateral payment of debts contracted during the financial crisis, by Greece, Spain, Ireland, Portugal, and others, while at home, her administration wouldn’t dare preaching the same gospel. Some say that the chancellor is gambling that a Greek exist wouldn’t disrupt the euro, but no one’s buying it. Even Aegean fisherman know that a resurrected drachma, at this point, would force a debt restructuring that would ultimately hurt Germany. As for Iglesias and the We Can party (a bitter-sweet name to many Americans these days), Spain, Portugal, and other European countries humiliated into submission by the ECB’s orthodoxy, could do well supporting Greece’s efforts to stand up to money merchants and their cronies at the bank. No one can tell that they won’t be under the gun again pretty soon. In the end, either because of a multi-nation political populist movement, or the banksters’ sheer opportunism, the single-currency project can still be salvaged from the reactionary credo spell it’s has fallen under. To the point that its own survivability may be conditioned to its ability to change and reset priorities according to the socialistic principles it was founded upon. It’s fracture, or demise, however, may reproduce without much variation, a sad string of idealistic proposals sabotaged by incompetence and greed. And that’s the fertile ground where tyrannies and despots have historically arisen from. The Weimar Republic comes to mind, even though our age being afflicted by a startling lack of clarity as it is, that prewar period is also characterized as Germany’s golden age of ideas and cultural breakthroughs. What misnomer will our own time be referred to in the future is up to contention. But it’s possible that Greece and Spain will be referential brackets to it. The Greek ‘resistance’ hardly resembles what used to be known as such, in the same way that the wave of ‘leftist’ South American governments elected in the early 2000s – a precursor to what many believe should be happening in Europe any day now – had little to do with Marx or some sort of response to the market capitalism and authoritarian repression that preceded it. One hopes other populist leaders are waiting in the wings to take center stage in European politics. Chances for them to step in and give muscle to the movement will only increase if the euro project picks different winners this time. Workers, for instance. Tsipras knows that it’s more important to prioritize the Greek people’s needs rather than the euro project. But perhaps he can do both, by insisting in renegotiating the terms of his country’s debt – no money down right now – and, in the process, wrestling control of ECB policies from financiers and money managers trying to protect their own wealth. Be good and till March.

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2/16/2015 Fixing Our Moral Compass, Colltalers

Money and war, inevitable twins supporting our deliciously wasteful way of life, were at it again this past week: revelations that HSBC has helped clients evade taxes, and President Obama’s request to Congress to authorize use of military force against ISIL. Both were big news that may experience limited endurance at the top of the headlines. While the president has been rightfully battered for his request, but will ultimately probably get his wish granted, it’s already hard to find the bank’s name mentioned anywhere. Congress could exercise an admirable role in restraining the U.S. from getting openly involved in yet another endless war. But we sincerely doubt it. And the irony of having a big bank being caught red handed may be lost only to those living under a rock. There’s a common link between ISIL, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, their assorted extremist allies and enemies, and the Pentagon hawks: they all have no qualms about sending innocent people to their deaths, and profess a firm belief on the state of permanent war. Oh, yes, they also have a common defender in a former presidential candidate, who used to rally against just such two instances of ideology running amok, but who since moving in to the White House, has been just a bit short of a full-time military cheerleader. As for the U.K.-based bank, it’s been accused of money laundry and tax evasion activities since at least 2009, barely a year after the Wall Street-induced global financial crisis, and resulting taxpayer bailout, the TARP program, rescued delinquent institutions. HSBC wasn’t part of the bailout, but it did funnel over $3 billion from the program through then disgraced AEG. All rescued banks and insurers are doing fine, by the way. Their rescuers, however, i.e., regular stiffs like us and your unemployed spouse, not so much. President Obama’s supporters would like to point at the requests to use military force against terrorists, of Sept. 2001, and the Iraq War Resolution, roughly a year later, by President George W., as unjustified antecedents contrasting with the latest request. By doing that, however, they’re only emphasizing the similar nature of both administrations, and how that bodes poorly to President Obama. First, because the president was doing so well, turning his years left in office into an opportunity to take a stand on important issues, such as net neutrality and the Keystone pipeline, among others, even though he hasn’t yet actually exercised his veto power in neither. Secondly, because by asking for powers to wage war, never mind his proposal’s vague terms about goals and gauging results, he adds his name to a string of presidents who, with the exception of still living one-term Jimmy Carter, have engaged American lives in overseas battles of dubious accomplishments, and almost always unnecessary loss, besides generating hatred towards the U.S. How is the president suppose to sell the American public to yet another open-ended conflict abroad, after his poor job selling his own signature healthcare bill, by now under threat of being unravel by the Supreme Court and/or the insurance industry’s dirty tricks? Before you hedge your bets, it’s instructive to remind everyone that the debate has already lost its substance – whether we should even get involved in the reengaging of such an ancient, all-out war within Islam-dominated nations – to a more media headline-friendly emphasis on whether the president’s request is er too convoluted and could use some editing, you know, to make it more palatable. Finally, instead of recognizing that the ‘ideal’ of waging war from the distance, via killer drones, didn’t quite pan out the way it was supposed to, having arguably killed even more innocent civilians that the 2007 Surge, we’re back into familiar territory, the ‘all options are on the table’ scenario, so dear to the defense military complex and the network of murder for hire contractors. What gives? ‘HSBC… admitted to laundering $881 billion that we know of from Mexican and Colombian drug cartels… It paid a fine but no individual was banned from the bank and there was no hearing to consider shutting HSBC’s activities in the U.S…. How many billions of dollars of drug money do you have to launder before someone consider shutting down a bank?’ Senator Elizabeth Warren’s pointed indictment of the U.S. government and how it uses two different weights to judge the same crime – since prisons are stuffed with drug users but not a single bankster accused of profiting from drug money – came during a 2013 Senate Banking Committee on HSBC’s money laundering scandal. As noted, the bank has been there before. For that it was fined less than half of what it’d profited from the TARP program, a drop in the bucket for a bank that posted in 2013 a pretax profit of $22.6 billion, up nine percent from the $20.7 billion in the year-earlier period, according to public records. Although government officials knew all along about HSBC’s global and ongoing tax-evasion woes, it’s very likely that little was going to be done about it, until the scandal involving the bank’s Swiss arm finally got leaked to the public, via French newspaper Le Monde. An International Consortium of Investigative Journalists report documents how HSBC ‘profited from doing business with arms dealers who channeled mortar bombs to child soldiers in Africa, bag men for Third World dictators, traffickers in blood diamonds and other international outlaws.’ (Do yourself a favor and forget about what politically incorrect language is; it hasn’t helped us much anyway.) What it’s clear is that it involves over 100 thousand clients, $118 billion in assets, and 203 nations around the world- including Brazil, where it’s compounding to already embattled state-run oil giant Petrobras’s own running scandal – and it may also shake HSBC’s cozy relationship with the U.K government. But anyone expecting an eventual breakup of the bank should at least take a seat. Prepare for a lot of grandstanding, and heartfelt apologies, and promises of fees and penalties, against rhetoric about how banks of such a scope and magnitude simply can’t fail and all that. Just don’t wait for any list of guilty parties involved, or parade of indicted high-ranking bank executives on their way to jail, no matter how Warren and oh-so few others will charge against such immorality. This could be an honorable action to be expected from the departing president: to ask Congress to make this an example and come down as hard as it hasn’t in seven years on one of the most blatant consequences of the financial crisis: impunity. And please spare us from the archaic argument that HSBC, being at least on paper a British corporation, is out of reach of U.S. laws. In 2008, when needed it, it didn’t take much for a coalition of rich nations to come together and rescue banks on the brink of collapse, regardless of where they were headquartered. In any event, most of them were indeed American, in case you were wondering. Instead, we’ll have to regurgitate yet another request to send American troops to an inhospitable region, whose main accomplishment may be to unify centuries-old rivalries against a common enemy. A free blender to whoever correctly guesses who that may be. Money and war have a way of extrapolating their inevitable functions to become means on themselves. In the hands of corrupt executives and shortsighted officials they can also be lethal to everyone but to the party that has control over them both. The only way that the remainder 99 percenters have left to crash that party is to use exactly what it lacks: moral compass and the interest of the people. That’s why ISIL can’t win, nor can trillionaires who stand to get away once again this time around. It may seem a contradiction but what’s life and the pursuit of justice if not a never ending quest to restore balance? Have a great week.

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2/09/2015 New York’s New Buccaneers, Colltalers

As headlines top even the goriest fiction, slapping us with the most blood-soaked, brutality-infused news, it’d be an outrage to speak about first world problems, or as it goes, New York real estate for that matter. But that’s exactly what we’re about to do. Talk about the city is fitting, though: it became New York 351 years ago today, as the British took it from its founders, the Dutch. Even before that, it’d never lost its international vocation, and appeal to foreigners, from the poorest to the wealthiest of them all. But unlike the traders, the religious refugees, pirates and adventurers, and the successive waves of immigrants who’ve built it into the colossus that it is today, there’s a fairly distinct class of spoilers taking over it this time around: global mega-billionaire crooks. Needing to laundry their ill-earned money, they’re gobbling the New York skyline by the blockfull, since it’s cheaper to pay its wealth-friendly taxes, and earn archaic taxpayer incentives to build, than to risk losing it all in their own countries. There’s a point in crossing this rotten-tomato fire line, and discuss wealth and the spending habits of the fabulously criminal, while so many are being driven to frozen parks and street corners, or to the few unsafe city shelters, just to make it through the night. New York has a way of being hit first, and lately, what bad has happened to it, has spread out quickly to the rest of the country. In fact, one of the unsung unfairness of Sept. 11 has been that it hurt the one U.S. city that’s always been the most open and welcoming to ideological diversity, since Giovanni da Verrazzano and Henry Hudson landed on its shores in the 1600s. Again, it sounds flippant to accuse Osama Bin Laden of having the discourtesy of not reading first the memo before attacking the city. And it’s besides the point that the nouveau riche taking over the city’s landmark buildings, and constructing some pretty ugly ones of their own too, also display complete disregard about the libertarian, labor and human rights traditions espoused by New York. Apart from that, there’s the old moaning cliche about ‘salvage capitalism’ killing the city’s cultural idiosyncrasies and originality. For centuries, New York has been in a permanent construction lot, neighborhood-altering state, and that won’t probably change. Speaking of culture, it may have already lost its supposed leadership role to others, but even that concept is questionable. There was once a billionaire mayor who thought that to boost the city’s cultural and artistic prominence in the world all that needed to be done was to support its museums and established cultural institutions, traditional theaters and even some vanguard groups. It doesn’t work, of course. Whereas Addis Abeba or Dubai can invest billions in top notch cultural houses, and galleries, and world class schools, none can be compared with New York’s unmatched street life, the vitality that inhabits its subways, and immigrant and ethnic corners, its inspiring unpredictability. That can’t be recreated, no matter how much money one throws at it. So, in that way, yes, an unscrupulous luxury real estate market, catering to Russian oligarchs, and relatives of China’s ruling elite, and corrupt Greek industrialists, and the current assortment of powerful mega-baddies from Malaysia to Mexico, from Colombia to Kazakhstan, does have the potential to kill what spontaneity is left, what sense of wonder can still be found by the Hudson river. This parcel of the world’s top 0.1%, by the way, is not being selectively chosen for their nationality, as their gumption brings none of their cultural upbringing and heritage, and a lot of what’s known to Americans of a certain income bracket: undying love for the dollar and its ability to melt moral compasses across the political and economic spectrum, including many a New York bureaucrat. Curiously, stories on the inflow of foreign capital dominating the city’s real estate, from investors hiding under shadow corporations – which is no wonder, since most of them are suspected to belong to organized crime or made a killing wrecking impoverished nations – have carefully avoided the term ‘laundry money.’ But since there’s no other way to put it, we don’t have to. To add insult to injury, the city’s real estate laws may be tough for the unwashed low-income crowd, but exceedingly generous to the ultra-rich. Thus, one of them, ‘a mysterious buyer,’ was able to receive a full 95% tax cut to buy the $100 million penthouse at the city’s now tallest building, an ugly glass and concrete tower in midtown, an expense to be naturally footed by stiff taxpayers. While these ghastly condos continue to rise up, residents and peculiar, unique storefronts, that used to distinguish the city, along with fire escape ladders of tenement buildings and water tanks atop Lower Manhattan, are being evicted at record rates. Things change, but in 10 years, an unusually high number of watering holes, some opened since the great war, have gone out of business. For those at the top, the disappearance of drunken spots, of bohemian groups and guerrilla art organizations, of non-sponsored buskers and graffiti artists, doesn’t register. In fact, a vanishing free-thinking culture of Greenwich Village, or of Nuyorican poets, the gentrification of Loisaida and Alphabet City, or the increasing irrelevance of a countercultural attitude, may be to their liking. But while they hire and co-opt pop stars to entertain their privileged kids’ birthday parties, we mourn a place that used to champion the right to be unusual, offensively smelly, and still democratic, open ended and ahead of its time. A place where conservatism never took hold, unlike every outrageous idea about humankind to infuse and inspire the world in the past few centuries. But just as the Dutch realized that they couldn’t control it, the British were unable to turn it into another Boston, tidy and mindful, and many Americans are still weary of its unruliness, there’s still some of the wild, unrestrained spirit left, after all this time. Thus, even these arrogant, obscenely wealthy buccaneers may be out of depth in New York. In the end, those unwashed and smelly crowds will save the day. From atop our fish crate, we salute this great city, the only place we’d ever choose to be reborn. Have a peaceful week.

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2/02/2015 A Reboot for Rousseff & Brazil, Colltalers

​If you’re the president, second terms in office are tricky. Some, like President Obama after his party’s crushing midterm defeat, reverse the expectations and instead of resigning to a lame duck role, go on the offensive, and grasp, may actually get something done. Such prospect seems at least distant at the moment for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Since her bare-knuckled win in October, she’s been battered daily by, yes, the opposition, but also, former allies in her own PT party, media pundits, a middle class sold on conservative ideals, assorted snipers from various political allegiances, even by traditional pillars of any government: public and private companies. On top of it, Dilma, as she’s known in Brazil, is also facing an economic retraction, contrasting sharply from the eight years of growth of her predecessor and mentor, Inácio Lula da Silva, and, grasp again, a severe and unprecedented drought in Brazil. Worse, rain shortages gripping São Paulo, South America’s largest city and capital of Brazil’s most powerful state, may naturally divert resources allocated by the new Congress inaugurated in Brasília yesterday. A congress where PT, the Workers’ Party, finds itself no longer in control may be fertile ground to sink its teeth on the biggest crisis of the Rousseff administration: the Petrobras scandal. It’s arguable whether the drought could’ve been prevented. But unlike those pointing to its possible environmental and pollution causes, all but ignored by the national media, long before Dilma’s first term, allegations of corruption against her party were out and quite loud. For the record, PT is not alone in this crisis. The state-run oil giant has been often called a cash cow for a succession of administrations even before the fall of the military dictatorship in 1985. And accordingly, it’s been at least part of a number of political schemes before. The current downfall, nicknamed the Car Wash Operation, started as quaint as the previous big scandal of Brazilian politics, the Mensalão, a graft corruption scheme that quickly mushroomed into a gargantuan sore on Lula’s record. Even if it didn’t knocked out the president, it landed several of his close allies in jail, and considerably less charismatic Dilma has all reasons to be very weary about it. It exploded in March of last year, when an estimated $1.6 billion kickback scheme, from Petrobras executives skimming from the company’s profits to politicians in exchange for contracts, was uncovered by the Brazilian Feds, and it only went downhill from there. The arrest of a ‘doleiro,’ an informal money exchanger, caught red handed, ignited the crisis. Soon, a former supply director at the company was also arrested, revealing that the scheme benefited PT, PMDB, and PP, three parties that form the government coalition, and a number of executives of big Brazilian corporations that do business with Petrobras, such as Camargo Corrêa and Odebrecht. There are now five separate Federal Police inquiries into the dealings that drove Petrobras, once poised to join the world’s top three oil companies, to lose much of its market cap and credibility. In fact, the crisis has generated so much fallout, which will likely lead to indictments and prosecution by Brazil’s Public Ministry, that even its inner workings and mismanagement have been exposed. It was flagrant at the $1 billion 2006 acquisition of the Pasadena refinery in Houston, which had been sold by merely $50 million only two years before. Such blatant lack of due diligence is crucial to Dilma, who was part of Petrobras’ board of directors at the time. Unlike Lula, she can count on only a few of her former political allies, and just like him, may depend a bit too much on an economic recovery that seems remote, at least for now. In other words, she may not be as lucky as her predecessor was, landing on her feet. Media coverage has been pointing relentlessly to her apparent ‘deer in the headlights’ reaction to the escalation of the scandal, and daily highlights her perceived weaknesses and lack of popular support. It also helps (them, not her) that many of the media corporations are either aligned with chief opposition party PSDB, or belong to the radical religious right, none of which supported her reelection. So, since it’s been hard to find shoulders to cry on lately, perhaps Dilma should take a page from President Obama’s playbook, and soldier on with reforms that could revitalize the economy, boost investments, and reverse Brazil’s trade deficit, all in her agenda. Problem is that fiscal overhauls, albeit necessary in Brazil, are hardly the stuff that fires citizens’ imagination, even though there have been plenty of street rallies demanding changes in the legislature and governance of the country, which of course amount to the same. But more than a better PR, Dilma has to take the lead in issues that seem appallingly under-covered by the media, and everywhere else but in Brazil, are deemed important enough to mobilize people. For instance, the environment, climate change, and the Amazon. For anyone not biased by the immediate view of Brazilian politics, it’s startling that the country that shelters the world’s biggest Rainforest – whose deforestation and landowning archaic and slavery-driven structure may have devastating effects for generations ahead, on millions that live off the forest and billions around the world – doesn’t seem at all concerned about its biggest natural resource. That was the missing issue during the past presidential campaign, even when a former Environment Minister, Marina Silva, was a contender. Not just environmental protection wasn’t high on her proposed agenda, but she wound up entangled with the religious right and lost precious support among women and several progressive segments of society for it. It’s also astonishing that Brazil would choose to invest so much on oil, as it’s proved to be at the roots of climate change and environmental destruction worldwide. Even in-depth studies on the likely catastrophic consequences of an accident in Petrobras’s Campos subsalt basin reserves, off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s postcard metropolis of eight million people, are practically non existent. Such one-track mind approach to energy resources has also compromised its hydro power potential. Taking advantage of Brazil’s huge network of fresh waterways makes a lot of sense; building mega dams, such as Belo Monte in the Amazon region, instead of smaller ones, most definitely does not. The brutal impact such a dam will have virtually counters any savings to be had for investing in hydroelectricity. Back to Dilma, it’s time she realizes that efforts to shield the PT from what appears to be an ingrained sense of entitlement within its rank and file, and an insulated attitude at governance, are wasting her political capital, and instead, start preparing the country for a new era. Like President Obama, she certainly has little to lose. She’s already at odds with student movements, labor unions, landless workers, and many grassroots groups that used to be the staple of PT’s political support. But she needs to find her mojo fast, and reboot her presidency. Otherwise, her office in Brasilia is bound to become the loneliest place in Brazilian politics. Have a good one and a benção, Iemanjá.

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1/26/2015 Pulling Strings for a Bad Accord, Colltalers

Some 20-plus years ago, the concept of globalization had all the bells and whistles of a new promising era for humankind, one of elimination of political and physical barriers for all nations to congregate and share resources and riches equally. A flurry of intercontinental trade agreements were soon envisioned, so to guarantee the free flow and access to goods and knowledge, already enjoyed by those living at the center of the developed world, for those living in its outskirts. Or so went the rationale behind these accords. On the surface, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) seems to follow just the same credo. By now, we all should’ve known better, though. A considerably harsher reality had already settled in, even before the dawn of the new century. Behind such a rosy prospect of a truly global democracy, corporations and governments were busy making sure that their commercial interests would supersede those of developing nations’ regional, ethnic, and cultural needs and differences. What’s now clear is that much of what globalization’s done is to consolidate an already unbalanced world, where permanently impoverished economies, and their starving masses, enslaved themselves to the benefit of those perennially perched at the top. There’s no reason to believe that the TPP accord, now being pushed by the Obama administration, will be any different. Red flags went up already about its secrecy, as no full version of the agreement has been officially disclosed so far. To be sure, the 12 countries engaged on the TPP signature – Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the U.S., and Vietnam – represent a wide swath of diverse interests and social-economic clouts. But that doesn’t mean that they and their neighbors won’t be affected in unequal ways, which may explain why its architects have kept everyone but a precious few in the dark about its content and implications. Take intellectual property, for instance. As the always vilified (guess by who) Wikileaks has leaked a draft of provisions on the subject, grassroots organizations are truly alarmed with the prospect of its approval, since it seems to unfairly benefit big pharmaceutical laboratories, the entertainment, and broadcast industries, plus assorted conglomerates, and negatively affect free speech and due legal process. The office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and the Justice and Commerce departments, have been criticized for their attempt to strong arm already powerful commercial partners, giving them the ability to go after small governments and independent organizations for royalty rights violations, based on laws and regulations they have written themselves. Among a range of issues, concern about the TPP is greater over access to medicines, such as cancer and new therapies, digital copyrights, privacy rights, liability for Internet providers, and patent plant genes, with the bloc led by the U.S. and Japan favoring big corporations, such as Hollywood producers, some broadcast and satellite firms, and even agricultural giant Monsanto. Amid the debate over the TPP’s scope – if approved, it stands to control almost 40% of the world’s GDP, a quarter of global trade, and over 11% of the population -, there’s the U.S. president, who seems engaged in seeking its approval even if behind doors. Having kicked the last two years of his term with a renewed focus on an array of social issues, it’s at least puzzling that President Obama would show such willingness to push for a deal benefiting exactly the forces that helped neutralize many of his initiatives. However he sees his legacy being built, or bent out of shape, by his efforts to strengthen U.S.’s trade with the world, he’d do much better by adopting a more critical stance on the TPP or it may wind up actually undermining his credibility. Jobs shipped overseas, by corporations taking advantage of tax loops, and onslaught of cheaper goods, produced by authoritarian regimes with lax labor laws, are but two of globalization’s arguably most nefarious consequences. Nafta, for instance, has been implicated in the weakening of several segments of the U.S. economy, as well as increased criminality in Mexico. As the dream of a world economy, equal and magnanimous for both rich and impoverish nations, began cracking even before most dreamers were fully awake, and eventually destitute, in its place a nightmarish vision of an all powerful, and exceedingly wealthy, elite began to replace it on the ground. As it goes, we’re far from this process to have come to a full cycle. Just last week, a new Oxfam report indicated that in a couple of years, the top 1% may own at least half, if not more, of the entire world’s wealth. On the present course, such lucky few may become, in effect, richer than the rest of the world combined. The tide may not be completely on their side, or at least, not yet, however. Unlike previous years, the annual World Economic Forum that just ended in Davos, Switzerland, an event that usually highlights the priorities of just a minority, has failed to capture headlines this time around, obscured by way more relevant events around the globe. But don’t count them out just yet. One of the earliest voices against the dire effects of globalization – and its combination of market deregulation, privatization of state assets, and unrestricted trade policies -, 2001 Nobel Economics Joseph Stiglitz is now in the rarefied position of having gotten it right all along, while so many remained blindfolded, or chose to believe in the myth of a self-correcting market. Others followed, or at least humbly admitted they didn’t immediately see the risks of trade rules being written by socially unaccountable players such as big corporations. Paul Krugman, another Nobel winner (2008), comes to mind. Both economists, and a growing spectrum of progressive forces, rights activists and labor organizations, are now ostensibly critical of trade agreements, such as the TPP, signed in secrecy and with little input from those expected to foot the bill. Many of us still believe in a future where barriers and borders won’t prevent cooperation among people. But beyond yet another platitude about global communion and unrealistic prosperity ideals, must be the necessary drive to bridge distances and mend differences, so we can all stand a chance for survival, not just that 1%. Have a good one & Happy belated 461th Birthday, São Paulo.

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1/19/2015 Hot Years Are Here to Stay, Colltalers

2014 was Earth’s warmest year since records have been kept. While debate rages over what’s free speech and what’s incitation to racism and xenophobia, here’s one issue whose discussion is beyond words, but what concretely should be done about it. We’ll get back to the issue of speech later on this post, and probably many times after that, but this fresh piece of staggering news on what was once thought to be a puzzle about global warming has the power to stop all talk on its track, or at the very least, it should. Still, one wonders how much more evidence is needed to spring governments and corporations into action, after we’ve learned that the 10 warmest years in recorded history have all happened since 1997. As it turns out, that was also the year of the Kyoto Protocol. Initially adopted by 193 countries (Canada withdrew from it later), it was an agreement to reduce man-made carbon dioxide gas emissions to the atmosphere, a proven factor in rising surface and ocean temperatures, as they trap heat just like a greenhouse does. It was to be implemented by the Doha Amendment, in 2012, but consensus over what to do next all but evaporated. Some nations dutifully followed through and were assigned targets to reduce their gas emissions, but others, including the U.S., not only did not ratify the Kyoto accord, but also exempted itself from any commitment to be legally bound to reduce emissions. Such negative leadership did a big disservice to the cause, giving credence to nations around the world, whose heavily carbon and mining-dependent economies can’t afford to transition to cleaner fuel alternatives, specially when the big boys are left off the hook. In fact, even today, a search through U.S.-based Websites for data on man-made emissions offers a deceiving mix of corporate-P.R. and sponsored pieces, which helps confuse and hide reports and studies published by independent scientific organizations. Depending on what keywords are used, you may find yourself buried deep into double-digit pages before finding data presenting a straightforward relationship between greenhouse gas emissions, by the oil, gas, and cement industries, and global climate changes. Against an overwhelming consensus of scientific studies and hard, statistical data, showing alarming increases in temperature and acidification of oceans around the world, along the melting of ancient glaciers and permafrost in the poles, there’s a roster of sites proposing all sorts of denials and supposedly disclaimers against our responsibility in the planet’s fast changing climatic conditions. It’s almost as if the devastation and, often, permanent damage to the environment we all witness so often, whenever there’s an oil spill, simply vanishes whenever that same oil is processed and injected into the engine of the latest model of the year. At times, defense is based on that old workhorse of populism and political grandstanding: job creation. But take the less than 150,000 jobs related to the U.S. coal extraction industry, for instance, including mining, transportation and power plant workers. Each year, the industry is directly responsible for releasing 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide, 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, and other 10,000-plus tons of nitrate oxide, among other heavy-metal pollutants, into the atmosphere. All three are main greenhouse gases that are mentioned in every study on global warming, causing forest damage and acid rain in the process. But for an industry that provides so few jobs, compared to millions of jobs the U.S. economy supports, and the costly damage it causes to unrepairable natural resources, plus the health impact weighting heavy on the country’s healthcare system, you’ll see too few a politician standing against it. Again, a ride through the Internet can be awfully instructive, if one keeps a cautionary distance. Besides those jobs not coming cheap to taxpayers, as a whole, the industry hasn’t been a model of probity either. A just released Center for American Progress study found that some companies in Wyoming, the biggest coal producer state, are selling it not to power plants or utilities, but to their own subsidiaries, so ‘to dodge’ federal and state royalty payments and maximize subsidies. On the subject of the economic impact of carbon dioxide pollution, a Stanford University study raises considerably the estimates for the social cost of carbon – or what we all pay for changes associated with a warming planet: from $37 per ton, in EPA figures, to $220 per ton. That may also reflect a global tendency by governments to underestimate the costs of pollution on their budgets. To be sure, unlike climate change, this is not an exact science, in what too many variables are still too far off the realm of practical observation to accurately be accounted for. But it’s not a guessing game either: much of this research is supported by extensive analysis of the impact of increasingly stronger storms on food production, for instance, or, on housing, public health, and so on. 2014 beat 2010 for the warmest year, but overall, Earth has gotten 1.4 degree Fahrenheit since 1880, which offers another clue to the relationship between human development and climate: the tail end of the Industrial Revolution saw heavy machinery already in place, and the beginning of large scale exploration of oil, iron and steel, and the beginning of the industrial production line. Soon, automobiles and railroads, plus the WW1, accelerated technological development and we were off to the races. With global economic growth, came widespread burning of native forests all over Europe, North America and Asia, and an explosion in the world’s population. If the 20th century was the one of ‘more, more’ more,’ will the 21th be the one of restrain and preservation?’ Even as climate change is still little understood, and may require decades of scientific data and observation to a full understanding of its delicate balance, there’s absolutely no reason to stall any efforts to cut down emissions, other than to make a buck. Those who think we can’t afford a wait-and-see attitude about climate change have been chastised as ‘alarmists’ by the industry and its profiteers. But with the Arctic, and thousand-year-old glaciers, already melting, resulting in rising ocean levels, then, yes, we should all be deeply alarmed, and not just the 600 million living in low areas, within 60 miles from the water. Think about it. It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the U.S., so let’s have a word on the debate over what kind of free speech should be protected, and what’s considered a call to violence. An unfortunate byproduct of a terrorist mass murder episode, as the one against the French magazine Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, and others that followed it, was an immediate renewal of restrictions to everyone’s liberties. Raids, arrests, ostensive presence of troops in streets of Paris and other major cities in Europe, are supposed to be an unequivocal response to the despicable assassinations, but may boost exactly the opposite reaction from those it purports to scare: the terrorists. While citizens coexist with increased fear and heightened security measures, caused by attacks they had no role instigating, perpetrators double down and prepare for more warfare. Caught in the middle, non combatants like us are fair game for both sides. Even more complex is the issue of free expression, symbolized by the targeted magazine, which makes a point of pushing all limits of pseudo-provocation, in a not always good-humored machine-gun way of diatribes directed at a variety of holy cows of society. In a lamentable slip, Pope Francis, for instance, who had been gathering a positive momentum among even non-believers, with his stand on progressive causes, expressed was on the minds of many right-wing and politically correct segments of society: that Charlie Hebdo had gone ‘too far,’ which is not true, and somehow criminalizes the victims of a horrendous act of revenge. The French government followed suit, arresting the Fascism-sympathizer comedian Dieudonné, for antisemitic statements. There’s no question that Dieudonné is as an apologist to extreme right-wing views as unfunny, but is he liable to be arrested like a terrorist? The distinction has been blurred because different measures were applied to similar instances of free expression. The brutal demise of the cartoonists, who were hardly celebrated by their particularly acrid brand of humor, usually to the cost of poor Muslims and African immigrants, even if always satirical, served to reaffirm an important human rights value, through huge rallies of support. But when Dieudonné was arrested, the message was switched to something more in line with the scrupulous but often hypocritical political correctness of our times: some things you can’t make fun of. Call it what you want, but that’s definitely not free speech. Yes, Americans are familiar with the concept of punishable hate speech, but despite spending years blabbering viciously against progressive causes wingers, or the president, no one would suggest to arrest Rush Limbaugh, for instance, for his hate speeches. So it’s all relative; we knew that. But something in this debate’s lost and it’s crucial for us to have a more nuanced view of what democracy entails. Even those claiming to defend it, like major newspapers, wouldn’t republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that Muslims, and the Pope, deem offensive. Mercifully, we’re leaving out what Francisco did to illustrate his point. Have a good one.

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1/12/2015 The Casualties of Paris, Colltalers

Some news can’t go unreported. Even for those of us, let’s say, not graced with the audience of millions, but still speaking to many people in all continents, it’s virtually impossible to find a subject other than the one glaring on every world headline. Which doesn’t make it any easier finding an angle that hasn’t already been so thoroughly dissected to be sucked it out dried of any meaning. Or to avoid falling into the trap of taking sides, for that matter, the ultimate capitulation to the ‘us against them’ quagmire. Consider the events that unfolded in Paris this past week, with the murder of several cartoonists, a Muslim cop (more on that later), a few hostages, and three of the alleged accused of having invaded the Charlie Hebdo magazine with intent to kill. The particularly bloody attack left us with a few options: either to dutifully line up what’s known from a distant point, as an unqualified but no less involved bystander, taking the ethical precaution of consulting more than a few sources at every step of the way. Or to go on a diatribe against everything we see that’s so blatantly clear about what’s wrong with the times we live in. Good luck with either one, you may say. Both ways seem utterly irrelevant: neither one more recapitulation of the events that gripped, or rather, grabbed the world by its throat will shed more light on what’s going on, nor will simply complaining about it. But the three million who marched yesterday in Paris, in solidarity to those massacred, did have something meaningful to say. And so had the many Muslims, Jewish, Catholics, and members of pretty much all walks of the French society, who condemned the brutal killings, and that now have a gargantuan task of toning down their own indignation with necessary calls for temperance. To the world at large, which includes the mentioned ‘involved bystanders,’ the battle is equally challenging, as the intelligence agencies, which failed to prevent the attack, now go on the offensive, asking for more security, surveillance, and funds for going after their perceived enemies. Never mind that billions of dollars spent spying on common citizens just proved once again useless. Fear that, no matter how much money governments spend on gathering information on extremists across the world, we’ll remain unsafe and constantly at risk for acts of terrorism, may fuel another dangerous wave of phony patriotism, xenophobia, racial hatred, ethnic cleansing, just like the one that followed, in varying degrees, the unconscionable 9/11 attacks in the U.S. We’ve all suffered the consequences, not just of the attacks themselves, but of what came in reaction to them: widespread paranoia against people who didn’t look like us, and a crippling feeling that shady organizations, both within governments and independent from them, know more than they should about everyone, even while consistently failing to protect us. The rampage in Paris didn’t occur in a vacuum either. Rallies against immigrants in Germany, growing anti-Semitism in Europe (which Israel’s right-wing leaders have shamelessly used for political gain), and the 800 million pound (of TNT) sitting in the middle of the room, the open conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, all play out as a disgraceful context for the assassinations. But none of that can’t be admitted as justifications for murder, if we’re to preserve respect to human dignity, and the democratic right to disagree, allegiance to which have tenuously separated us from barbarism (a misnomer we’ll let it slide for now). Take Ahmed Merabet, for instance, a police officer and the first to be shot dead by the ‘two false Muslims,’ as his brother Malek put it in a moving statement for tolerance. He couldn’t possibly envision that he’d be killed by those claiming to be avenging the Prophet, to whom they all piously prayed through their lives. And neither could he be placed in the same context of his killers. But that kind of nuance may have already become another casualty in the aftermath of the tragedy, as security forces have already arrested over a dozen suspects, while hunting for Hayat Boumeddiene, the fourth accused of having planned the attack. As the episode becomes a police matter, as it should, the larger issues surrounding it are bound to be reduced to the usual cliches that have marked the debate over terrorism, security, religion, right to self-determination, race, do we need to keep on going? ‘Clash of civilizations’ has been tossed with abandon, even as some of those detained have already been released, and the four Jews killed during a hostage situation at a kosher supermarket, may have been chosen randomly, or even been hit by police bullets. There’s no possible uplifting moral to be drawn from Boko Haram’s latest massacre, where it’s said to have wiped an entire Nigerian village. Speaking of misnomers, it’s instructive to know that the name could mean ‘Impure Books’ in a rough translation, which, nonetheless, is clear in its Fahrenheit 501-like hatred towards education and knowledge, and used to justify murder. If fact, for the same reason that there’s no lesson to be learned in suicide bombings, there isn’t any merit in the media’s reductive reporting of them. Case in point: the latest, despicable twitter that media mogul Rupert Murdoch wrote about Muslims. Then again, what possible moral standard can be squeezed out of the fight to eradicate Islamic State extremists in Syria, for instance? It was only after a human rights group said that up to 50 civilians may have been killed by a U.S.-led coalition airstrike against ISIL, late last month, that the Pentagon felt compelled to investigate some claims, while still disputing that number. It is indeed an outrage that, despite billions of dollars spent, attempting to kill 41 suspected terrorists, the majority of whom almost no one can name, American drones have killed an estimated 1,147 people, according to a different human rights organization. So much for ‘target killings,’ and even to drone technology, that’s supposed to save soldier lives on the ground, and small fortunes in the defense budget. We’re certainly not seeing these ‘savings’ being reverted to increase worldwide literacy, curb hunger and poverty, improve basic infrastructure, and other efforts to promote human beings here and abroad. Thus this open-ended, and deeply incomplete, post that, it’s been said, neither enumerates nor elucidates the scourge that got the best of everyone in France, before some took to the streets to declare their unwavering rebuff against hatred, religious or otherwise. For we already knew that the majority of people all over this planet do not consider bloodshed as an acceptable alternative to settle disputes, even when justice is so often poorly served. But given the media coverage the tragedy in Paris has received so far, we’re not optimistic about what comes next. Which doesn’t mean that the senselessly murdered have been killed in vain. Jean Cabut, Stephane Charbonnier, Philippe Honore, Bernard Maris, Michel Renaud, Bernard ‘Tignous’ Verhlhac, Georges Wolinski, plus Frédéric Boisseau, Elsa Cayat, Yohan Cohen, Yoav Hattab, Philip Braham, François-Michel Saada, Ahmed and fellow cop Franck Brinsolaro, and a still unidentified number of victims, will get their due of recognition from their loved ones. We’re memorializing them here, and even if for a brief moment, we’re making their pain ours. Now if their sacrifice could count for anything longer than their human lives, it’d be a perfect way to end this post. As it goes, however, it is not, and we’re bracing ourselves for more. What a terrible way to start a new year. Now there’s only 353 days for us to make it better. Stay strong.

12/5/2015 To the Boys & Girls of 2014, Colltalers

It’s been a tough for year teenagers, and we’re not talking about their choice of iPhone here. Around the world, the plight of adolescents often accurately reflected the state of their societies, either by achievement or, most likely, by the relentless sacrifice of their lives. Using demographics to pinpoint the ills of our times may not be the most comprehensive way of going about it. But the past year has shown, with stark clarity, the kind of world we’re setting up for those we’re breeding to occupy it. And the picture is bloody. There has never been a time when being an adolescent was easy, regardless of what a certain brand of parenting may prescribe. Since the post-Industrial Revolution era, that ever evolving segment is constantly oppressed between their innocence lost and the brutal awaking to a world mostly indifferent to their needs and aspirations. Some perished, by the dozen, while some excelled. In the U.S. and the Americas, in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, their voices have been heard, but only briefly, and usually right before being silenced by the thunder of gun barrels and the proselytizing of homicidal leaders, pursuing their intolerant agenda. Thus it was a small miracle that, at the year’s end, a courageous 14-year Syrian boy, Usaid Barho, refused to ignite his suicide vest inside an Iraqi mosque. For most of the months prior have been a story of lives destroyed before they even reached their 20s. Take the U.S., for instance. Throughout the year, scores of black teenagers have been shot and killed by police, joining the ever open graves of racially-motivated murders, whose numbers are already inflated as if we were all back in segregated times. For such an underprivileged segment of the American society, 2014 has gone to the books as a blood-red blotch, as law enforcement institutions continue to downplay their own lack of preparedness to deal with this country’s glaring racial inequalities. Since crime has been on a statistically downward trend, and even recent fatal shootings of cops, albeit tragic, remain rare, how come so many black youth have been killed in the streets, and thousands more continue to swell the jail population to record levels? The young is always getting into trouble, one may say, brains still forming and all. But what we blame on them is exactly what governments and societies use to manipulate them into being unquestioning soldiers, loyal militia members, and gun-bearing vigilantes: their idealism, cluelessness towards danger, longing to belong. In 2014, we’ve betrayed them even more than usual. Consider the more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls, kidnapped by a terrorist outfit, to be possibly never returned. Reports on their forced ‘marriage’ and religious conversion would be shocking enough, if the exact same rules didn’t apply to all young women in some societies. The girls’ hopes for an education were dashed because that’s what terrorists and autocratic societies fear the most. Other kidnappings of young girls by terrorists seeking ‘wives’ and concubines have been reported in Nigeria and elsewhere, but governments’ routine militaristic approach may be credited with their absolute lack of progress getting any of them back. On Dec. 16, another horrific incident, and the attempts at finding the culprits, mirrored with precision what happened in Africa. Militants strapped with explosives broke into a military-run school in Peshwar, Pakistan, killing 148 people, 132 of them teenagers. Again, instead of finding answers and accountability about the massacre, the Pakistani army has gone in a shoot-to-kill spree, and claims to have killed the leader of the operation, no questions asked, along with estimated 500 people accused of being involved. But if the pursuit of school children to kidnap or kill has scared the hearts of thousands, it has also produced its first certified hero, Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the face on her way to school, recovered, and became a symbol of resistance to intolerance for millions. Despite being less than popular in her native Pakistan, her Nobel Peace Prize is the best news of the year for the young. Malala, 17, not just survived the shooting but also refused to cower before her still at large aggressors. By correctly identifying their fear of young girls being educated as their biggest vulnerability, she beat them by turning her recovery into her most powerful asset. Other examples of engaged youth abound. In Boulder, Colorado, another 14-year old, Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez, has become an environmental activist at an age when many kids spend hours in the mirror, popping pimples and wondering what to wear. He too, quickly, gauged the fear he could instill in the powers that be and, instead of retreating, soldiered on. A performance of an anti-fracking rap song with his brother at his school, prompted angry comments online and threatening calls to his home. Of course, in this or any other year, millions of children and teenagers are killed by violence, religious obscurantism, or simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. So there’s a certain level of generalization about their collective plight in this post. But we can’t tell each of their stories, and sometimes, an example encapsulates better both context and depth of a tragedy, than an interminable list of casualties that may be effective as a statistics infograph, but lacks the bone and flesh of experience. We all roll our eyes when the topic turns into the Middle East, or the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. But the image of the bodies of four brothers, killed while playing on a Gaza beach, remains indelible as a symbol of the cruelty and brutality of that war. Speaking of education, it may be difficult to understand how it can change lives from a teenager’s point of view, or how any kid would decide to find time in their busy schedule to use what they’ve learned so far to help others. But it did happen in 2014. 13-year-old Shubham Banerjee, for instance, invented a low-cost braille printer that will improve the lives of millions in the developing world. And so will 17-year-old Kenneth Shinozuka’s sensor to be worn by Alzheimer patients. The printer will improve how sight-deficient people communicate with others, while the sensor saves lives by alerting caretakers that their patient is on the move. There are more, of course, but these should offer enough respite to the terrible events involving children we’ve witnessed these past 12 months. From parades full of soldiers too young to say no, to the oblivion to constant school shootings (of another kind) in the U.S., to terrible parental choices making the headlines, to unspeakable crimes committed by them or onto them, 2014 was a doozy. Then again, there was Usaid, and Malala, and Xiuhtezcatl, and Shubham, and Kenneth, and millions more, all alive and promising to make this a better world we ourselves have managed so far. Now if we could only somehow multiply this crop of teenagers coming to age in the worst possible times, we could gather enough reasons to be hopeful about 2015 and beyond. But ultimately, this is the world we’ve built for them, and it’d be unfair to expect that they would forgive us, and change it for the better. We’ve lost the moral higher ground on this one, and they’ll be righteously rebellious against what we think should be done. But that’s the nature of being a teenager now and ever. This post it to say that we still believe in their power. Have a great new year.

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12/22/2014 10 Year-Stopping News, Colltalers

News headlines can’t describe what happened in the past 12 months. The more media organizations have become all but branches of a myriad of economic interests, the more what mattered most to people’s lives has been passed over for some celebrity salacious bit. Nevertheless, most of those who spent 2014 a few hours awaken everyday, or night, know exactly what pieces of information really moved and impacted their lives. Humbly, we’ll attempt to line up those that affected us too, so later we can all compare notes. We’re not innocent bystanders in this, and unwittingly, we play a part by choosing to tune in to the fake news report, instead of what truly depresses us. After all, we’re humans, and who could stand 24-hours of relevant information, right? It turns out, many. More on that later, but first, let’s lay down some of the groundwork that helped us devise the Top 10 news stories of 2014, without sound too pedantic, or bias towards that pesky liberalism that seems to be always swiftly drowned in the spilled blood of reality. Colltales is a U.S.-based site (weren’t you warned about pedantry?), so it’s unavoidable that the start point of this retrospective reflects it as much. But in the final mix of stories, those based here are but in the minority of the themes that dominated the past year. Many of the headlines that mattered had enough of a balance of local and international flavors, exposing and changing for better or worse, the lives of many. Obviously events, not news, come first in shaping lives and perceptions about the world. But news worth reporting should carry enough of a punch to knock us out of our complacency, and that, dear readers, is what this list does. Speaking of themes, they hardly change year after year, to be sure. War, crime, disease, poverty, prejudice, agony and hunger are constant features, along with tales of jubilation and the nobility of the human spirit. Somehow, the first part comes out easily and can hardly be contained within a 10-item list; the second, however, the ‘good news report,’ so to speak, is still a work in progress. Finally, this list may comprise more than 10 stories, as it makes more sense to combine two or more of them under a common theme, even if they took place in different places and time, rather than strictly adhere to some uni-dimensional concept. Here it goes: 1.) U.S.-Cuba Relations – It may seem odd to pick the normalization of diplomatic relations between two nations to top our list, but this was in the making for half a century, and has huge implications both to U.S. internal politics and foreign policy, and to Cuba’s political and economic prospects. With Fidel Castro still alive, it’s an overdue but still surprising masterstroke by President Obama. 2.) Government Torture Reports – Yet another Latin American country, this time Brazil, joined the U.S. to make huge news around the world. Almost simultaneously released, both the Senate’s report on CIA interrogation methods, and the Comissão da Verdade’s dossier on the military dictatorship’s brutality, suddenly exposed in black and white the ugly realities of power left unchecked. 3.) Latest Bombing of Gaza – Incurring the risk that between now and the end of the year, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ignites again (as some fire was again exchanged between them recently), the July campaign all but obliterated the strip, with hundreds of casualties as vicious and indiscriminate as ever. Although both sides bear responsibility, the burden of restrain continues to elude Israel. 4.) Terrorism, Class of 2014 – Boko Haram, the Pakistani Taliban, and the ISIL helped soaked the year with innocent blood. Besides brutality and taste for broadcasting their massacres, the three share other despicable traits: an avowed hatred of education, and women. Fueled by the ‘war on terror’ industry’s own gullibility, and the West’s heavy-handed revenge-driven responses, these groups thrive in the outskirts of civilization and have as much chance of being eradicated as we do of setting a compassionate example. 5.) Mexico’s Mass Graves – Another year of staggering tragedy for the Mexican people. As the corrupt ‘war on drugs’ rages on, they’re hopeless as Mexico has become both the prized portal to the coveted American market, for other Central American drug lords, and the place where citizens and students are daily fair game for the crossfire and may wind up buried in some dusty campground. 6.) The Great Ebola Flareup – Suddenly, America has become aware of an over-20-million-old virus, which appears on a regular basis in Africa. It only caught the headlines here because Americans were briefly (and erroneously) enlisted as potential victims. As soon as it was clear it had no chance to wreak havoc in the U.S., interest was lost, never mind the 7,000 lives it already took abroad. 7.) Racism, American Style – Suddenly too, we were all back to the 1950s, and a nationwide spate of lethal shootings of unarmed black citizens by a mostly white police force, or gun-totting vigilantes, have exposed what many had already realized: Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, ever so prematurely, for a very clear reason: to interrupt the movement for race equality and justice in this country. His job unfinished, we’re still reeling from a stunning lack of progress in the issue, exacerbated by increased social disparity. 8.) Russia, the Deflated Bear – Vladimir Putin started the year on a strong note, with domestic support for the annexation of Crimea, gaining the upper hand over Ukraine in the process, and the boost provided by the Sochi Games’ built-in global P.R. But momentum melted like winter ice in the Black Sea. Ukrainians were not about to play dead to his ambitions as the conflict marches on, and a plunge in international oil prices pulled the rug under the Russian economy and currency. Watch out for more bad news for old Vlad. 9.) The Plane That Vanished – The least relevant, and more predictable, news of the year received, nonetheless, the longest, and most inane, coverage by 24h-cable stations. The wall-to-wall news about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 neither helped our understanding of what happened, nor our awareness of what matters in the world. But it was transfixing just the same. 10.) A Cup Full of Shock – Finally, a sporting event that routinely mobilizes about a billion people every four years, had a surprising component this time around: grief. Soccer powerhouse Germany won for its fourth time the World Cup, but the host nation, and its record breaking winner, Brazil, suffered such a humiliating defeat that it transcended the limited scope of the game itself. Images of Brazilians crying when their beloved Seleção lost 7-1 to the Germans flooded the Internet and won’t be soon forgotten. As mentioned, a full report on the exciting, optimistic news of the year will have to wait for another time. Clearly, neither that nor the list you’ve just read are complete or comprehensive, and many may object its content, ordering, format, even why does it have to exist in the fist place. After all, lists are such a common place at this time of the year, and we’re all sick and tired, and so on and so forth. Left out were more U.S.-based news, such as the temporary reprieve undocumented immigrants received from the administration, or the fight for a minimum-wage, valiantly waged by those at the bottom step of the economic ladder (lately, riddled with several gaps), fast-food workers. Or healthcare (doing better), economic recovery (still lacking), justice for Wall Street banksters (nonexistent). We may also be comfortably snuggled or precariously tethering on the tip of opposing solstices, both in the Northern and Southern Hemisphere, but rising global temperatures continue to burst records, and we still don’t seem to be doing a damn thing about it. Just because there wasn’t much space given to Syria, as well as other not so isolated conflicts throughout the world, it doesn’t mean that they’ve somehow ceased, or are taking a holiday break. And in any case, aren’t you happy we haven’t mentioned Afghanistan? But there’s an upside to today’s post: hoping to have wiped the slate clean, moving all the bad stuff out of the way, you may now have, yes, a nice holiday break, and why not? You’ve worked hard, that’s for sure, and if you’ve been lucky enough to still have people rooting for you, then you also must’ve done something right. So, go ahead, have a jolly time and happy winter to all.

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12/15/2014 The Abyss Stares Back, Colltalers

It could be said that it was a coincidence waiting to happen. Two major reports on government torture were published in the U.S. and Brazil almost at the same time last week: the Senate Committee’s Report on C.I.A.’s Use of Torture, and the report of the National Truth Commission (CNV) on human rights violations perpetrated by the dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. It may not have been by chance, after all, since last Wednesday marked the International Human Rights Day. And in any case, both reports were expected, feared, and suffered delays and last-minute attempts to be kept under wraps until an unspecified later date. But unlike annual surveys by organizations that track abuses, these two have the weight of being government-issued. The ‘comprehensive review of the CIA Detention and Interrogation Program’ was set up by the Senate in 2009, while Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, herself a former prisoner of the military, sent to congress the bill that created the CNV, approved in 2011. The reports, albeit partial, incomplete, and heavily criticized, reveal nevertheless a similarly horrible picture of what happens when government power is left unchecked. Graphic descriptions of interrogation practices used by the CIA after Sept 11, and the Brazilian military during its reign of terror, can mine any confidence left on the ability of a security apparatus to heed by the law. Chilling similarities – whose gory and horrendous details are all over the global media, mercifully sparing us the need to reprint them here – and differences aside, what these partial summaries represent is a step, however timid, towards accountability and redress of justice for hundreds, many of them certifiably innocent, who suffered and even perished at the hands of their butchers. One notable difference: while the C.I.A. report names those tortured in the bowels of prisons located outside the U.S., acknowledging responsibility mainly by implication, the Brazilian one specifically names over 300 members of the security and paramilitary forces that did the generals’ dirty work, inexplicably leaving off many of the victims who were killed or disappeared. That may be the result of the different attributions of both reports, but it also shows the pressure their authors endured to produce something that may serve as a foundation to further action. At the end of the day, it’s almost a miracle that they came out at all. They were both overdue. Brazil remains one of the few Latin American countries still resisting a thorough investigation of crimes committed by the troops that stormed deposed democratically elected João Goulart in 1964, unlike Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, to name its closest neighbors. It even passed an amnesty law for those accused of torture, which the report now all but voided. And since the terrible Sept. 11 events, a paranoid and, as it’s now clear, ineffective U.S. doctrine of ‘national security’ has pervaded all segments of society, restricting citizen rights and, as with the other dark titan of American security agencies, the NSA, building a surveillance network that continues, secretly, collecting information on almost every person in the country and abroad. Curiously, Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the committee, once ostensibly supported the NSA’s spying tactics – ‘it’s called protecting America,’ she said in January 2013 – only to backpedal when she realized that she too, and her staff, were being watched. We’re seeing the same reaction again. As expected, a unified platoon of apologists in both hemispheres jumped at the opportunity to look good before the intelligence community, by criticizing the findings and defending torture, rape, and waterboarding, as ‘justified’ means to win the war on terror. It’s also expected that those responsible would fret and kick the hot potato to someone else’s patio. That former President George W. Bush, and members of his administration, and former CIA officials would emphatically defend their actions wouldn’t surprise a camel. Neither that Dick Cheney would throw him and everyone else under the bus, by declaring that unlike popular belief, everyone knew that they were breaking the law, as if that somehow justifies him breaking it too. But aside the obscene role played by two overpaid psychologists in the program, there are those who should be denouncing the immorality of torturing prisoners for information, but instead, all but endorse the barbarian practices. Case in point: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and his misguided musings about the lack of specific reference in the Constitution about it. In Brazil, too, the aging apologists were both expected and irrelevant, while those named in the report remain hidden in the limbo of impunity, only broken by some diatribe to a local paper. The heaviest hit came, naturally, from the military establishment. Weeks before the release, a group of generals and former members of the Armed Forces criticized the report for being biased. Essentially, their ‘we did not start the fire’ defense tries to divert the issue away from accountability to whether they should or should not have acted, which is, of course, besides the point. Similar to the ‘following orders’ credo, such stand implies that no responsibility is due by those defending the status quo. Except that in their case, they did start the fire and tear up the constitution. Their manifest states that no apology is due to the Brazilian people, widespread illegal incarcerations, torture, political assassination, censorship, and discretionary laws. The once feared Clube Naval also issued a note, calling the CNV ‘illegal,’ and its findings, void. Equally expected is the reaction of former members of the security establishment, now aging and all but irrelevant to the mainstream of Brazilian politics, but still arrogant. The curiosity comes from a former punk musician, and now staunch right-wing advocate, Lobão, whose claim to fame is to voice a corollary of pseudo-liberalism and posed rebelliousness, along with a couple of 1980s hits. He, and many right of his positions, have all a place in the diversified, messy, and yes, far from functional, Brazilian democracy. But tethered to such a politically innocuous segment of the spectrum (nouveau droit rich?), Lobão, who has no public service record, risks being taken as an inarticulate buffoon, a Brazilian Stephen Colbert sans humor, who can’t help disguise his inflated self worth. Now that they’re part of the public record, both reports may be implemented, augmented, argued about, challenged, detracted, and even, heaven forbid, have redactions removed in the case of the senatorial summary. But neither can be dismissed, which leads us to wonder what should come next. A number of obvious answers come to mind, along with a few others that may be up to discussion. The CNV, which was formed with the specific mandate of compiling the report, has fulfilled its mission and now folds. After an ample, national debate on the findings, and possibly an victim-focused addendum, the next steps could include an instruction phase and, ultimately, start a judicial process to assign proper responsibility and reparations to those involved and their families. Back in the U.S., the Senate has the authority to extend the inquiry and pressure the C.I.A., as well as other intel agencies, to disclose their own war on terror records, a task that’s proven costly and has a surprising opponent: the Obama administration. Internationally, both reports received a great deal of attention. The CNV was praised by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who focused on the document’s potential to jump-start a process of national reconciliation. Despite her clout as a survivor of the dictatorship, however, President Rousseff may be too weakened to pursue an aggressive followup agenda on the matter. With the C.I.A. report, there are other implications, and so far, U.S. allies have offered only guarded support for the findings, perhaps concerned about how a global inquiry may compromise their own anti-terror tactics. There’s been plenty of criticism, though, however expected, from nations long in the cross hairs of American gun barrels, and naturally, its most ardent enemies. One thing is almost sure: there’s no way forward without a due judicial process, following their publication. The findings are simply too serious, extremely tragic, and downright illegal to be ignored, and to deny their day in court would be to deny the need of having a judicial process in the first place. Or, allegations stop being so when proven by facts, and the next step is necessarily the law. Much of what will happen next will be up to presidents Obama and Dilma, one with less than two years left in office, and the other just reelected. The American president may have a tougher time, as his administration hasn’t really distanced itself from the Bush legacy of secrecy and torture. Cynics may say that it has updated its counterterrorism tactics with political assassinations by drones. The Brazilian president, on the other hand, has four years to tackle what all other civilian presidents before her have avoided: confront the armed forces, before most of the protagonists of the dictatorship die of old age. Demanding secret files the Army may or may not have kept, however, won’t be a task to be accomplished on her own; the whole Brazilian society has to be on board. If that happens, neither the usually rightwing-aligned private sector, nor those doing its deed, will stop the march of history to put this chapter behind and move forward. Sadly, perhaps the biggest challenge in Brazil is to get the society to care enough about it. That will be vital too in the U.S., of course, and the prospects are a bit stiffer, as Republicans have already criticized the report on C.I.A. and may prevent the followup process from progressing, when they take charge of the majority in both chambers of congress. Ultimately, though, the floodgates may have been opened for good now, and no amount of political calculation may stanch the flow of further revelations and outrage caused by the continuous failure of brutal methods of interrogation to produce actionable results. We’re not ready to declare a rosy new day in the Americas just yet, as there still a lot to be accounted for, both societies continue busy reeling from under-performing economic conditions, and all that. Also left for another time is how both reports may impact the related, and red-hot, present issue of police brutality and over-militarization, which the CNV has made recommendations about it. ‘When you look into the abyss, the abyss gazes back at you,’ as Nietzsche put it. No civilized society can call itself as such if it allows what’s described in both reports to happen with impunity. Or we risk becoming the monsters we claim to set up ourselves to slay. Have a great one.

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12/8/2014 Shipping Problems Away, Colltalers

It’s one of the most surprising developments of an issue that’s been a source of contention and grief for the Obama administration: six Guantanamo Bay detainees are being sent to Uruguay, as part of an agreement with President José Mujica. The move, a step towards closing the infamous prison, comes with its own set of hard-to-explain rationales. But it’s taken a small South American country to actually add a merciful note to a sore wound that has made the U.S. look terrible before the world. For President Obama, who as a candidate had vowed to close the prison where alleged enemy combatants have languished for years without formal accusation, picking six out of the current 136 inmates is hardly a show of resolve for mending this wound. Granted, to his defense, all attempts at bringing the accused to U.S. soil and judge them in the court of law, both civil and/or military, have been fiercely opposed by a spineless Congress, and a Republican party bent down on denying support to any of the president’s initiatives. Then again, he does share responsibility for at least having being so ineffective rallying his own party. Also, shipping war prisoners, if that’s what they are, to other countries, under some kind of little understood diplomatic accord, does not exempt the U.S. from their ultimate fate. Or from coming to terms with the constitutional breach it allowed to last for over a decade, of having people detained with no prospect of due legal course or resolution of their situation one way or another. Finally, what the ill-advised denial of due process for the accused of terrorism, and worse, force-feeding them against their will, may do is to assure bloody retaliations by those on the other side, besides compromising any outlook for peace. We’ve already seen the nefarious response to such practice in the increasingly gory, on-camera executions of journalists and relief workers. For President Mujica, the motivation for what may become one of the final acts of his term, couldn’t be clearer: himself a tortured prisoner of the military dictatorship of Uruguay in the 1970s and 80s, he said that it was a hospitality gesture to ‘human beings who have suffered a terrible kidnapping in Guantanamo Bay.’ One word about the intrepid but notoriously humble Uruguayan president: despite having been mocked for refusing to move to the presidential palace, – or selling his old Beetle -, he’s the one who legalized pot, and may be instrumental in doing the same for abortion, as his political ally, and the president he succeeded in 2010, Tabaré Vázquez, is set to take office again in March. Naturally, Mujica’s decision to receive the Gitmo inmates was not free of controversy. After all, Uruguay is assuming a caretaker role for nominally a U.S. problem, or six of them, and already said that it may turn them all lose to travel to any destination. In truth, Americans who have denounced the flagrant disrespect to its own laws shown by the U.S. government, when it decided to open an offshore facility to detain those it accused of being criminals, can’t possibly conceive that shipping them to other countries is any more honorable or even acceptable, even if it brings Gitmo to a close. It’s startling that so few voices have consistently stood up to the pressure, by hypocritical politicians or other interests, to keep them abroad, when having civilian trials in U.S. soil, with all guarantees of defense, would only empower our judicial system, and our faith on it. But justice is exactly what’s being sacrificed here, and it’s fair to suspect that many fear the outcome. While Uruguay will now be guarding the four Syrians, one Tunisian, and one Palestinian, 50 other countries have offered to shelter Gitmo detainees, showing that the Obama administration still has some political capital in order to ask that kind of favor. But the whole thing reeks of a stratagem for diversion, to keep away from the national scrutiny important decisions taken by the government on behalf of a mostly unaware citizenry; just like the tragic realities of the multiple conflicts we’ve been engaged have vanished from the headlines, and public attention. Since they’re kept apart from our prying eyes, they may as well not exist. Or so would go such a faulty rationale. In reality, we’re postponing any real solution to the Gitmo problem, wherever it may spread around the world, because the Pentagon may have acquired too much weight on foreign policy decisions. Cynics would even relate such increased power with the number of wars the U.S. is poised to tackle, in great part for wrong military decisions. When even a war hero turned into pacifist turned into a war Secretary of State, such as John Kerry, is lobbying Congress not to release a crucial report on torture practices adopted by the CIA, in the name of some fuzzy national security credo, we can be sure that we’re in trouble. So much for the transparency in government the candidate Obama promised long ago. Since Capitol Hill has refused to engage into an open debate about our military adventures, leaving to defense hawks, the weapons industry, and contractor lobbyists, the task of determining foreign policy priorities, few believe that those reports, documenting the institutionalization of practices declared illegal by the Geneva Convention, will ever see the light of the day. Still, we should be inspired by the example of courage given by a 4-million people nation such as Uruguay, to take in prisoners based on a principle, and not any direct involvement. Or the one previously displayed by Ecuador, roughly four times as populous, when it decided to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, despite strong opposition from the U.S. and its allies. Two nations that, combined, have less people than New York State, can indeed put into shame a frightened giant that likes to consider itself the leader of the world, but is afraid that its own laws may rule against the interest of a precious few. This could be the moment for some life reaffirming truth or self-fulfilling vision of achievement and grandeur. Instead, is a poor way to end one more chronicle about our failing ideals. Thankfully, there’s still plenty to be inspired by. Have a good one.

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12/1/2014 The Illusion of Small Evil, Colltalers

‘Tis the season for shopping in western societies, and shop will be performed with abandon and savage zeal. Never mind supporting a retail industry that globally pays undignified wages to its workforce, or the need for restraining frivolous spending, as most of what’s being purchased over these few weeks depletes natural resources, takes precedence over food production, and will be sitting on landfills soon enough. To another industry, though, shopping extends for more than weeks. Just in time for the holidays, a PAX report released last week found that financial institutions around the world are on a $27 billion spree since 2011. What are they buying? Stocks from companies that make cluster bombs, which are banned by international law because, like land mines, they remain active long after their purpose is fulfilled. As big cities around the globe light up their Christmas trees, and genuinely well-intended people harbor feelings of goodwill and grace, their pension funds are busy betting their retirement money in the assumption that war is good for business, everything else be damned. We’re not being naive here, or blaming investment managers for following the smoky trail of profits on the back of scorched villages and bodies burned to a cinder. But, as Hanna Arendt wrote about Nazi lieutenant Adolf Eichmann, the ‘banality of evil’ is that it’s done ‘by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.’ In other words, crimes committed in our name are indeed our responsibility. What aggravates the study done by PAX, a Netherlands-based peace advocacy organization, is the already rising costs of the U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIL in Syria, the Iraq campaign’s daily costs, and the fighting in Afghanistan. As defense hawks have gleefully declared as inevitable, it’ll help engorging the Pentagon’s budget and boost consequent spending in homeland security. The report names a who-is-who in the American pantheon of financial corporations, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, along with well known insurers Aflac, Fidelity Investments and MetLife, and defense contractor BlackRock, plus companies in China, South Korea and the U.K., among others, all acting as asset managers, banking-service or loan providers. 115 countries, including all of the above, signed the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, prohibiting multiple explosive-parts bombs. Nevertheless, their use has continued, if not increased, worldwide, and as recent as September, evidence was found that they’ve been deployed in Ukraine and Syria. To have an idea, cluster bombs dropped in Laos, 50 years ago, continue to claim lives. But the strictly material costs of war, and consequent profit to be gained from it by people who haven’t ‘made up their minds,’ or just don’t care about it, can approachh levels so out of the majority’s reality that it’s hard to find comparisons to give some proportion to the figures. Or how can anyone correctly access the significance of the $365,297 an hour we spend in Iraq, since 2003, to a total, by conservative estimates, of over 800 billion dollars, according to the National Priorities Project. That’s what’s behind the argument for yet another military adventure in that country, for apparently we are bombing ISIL for the bargain basement price of ‘only’ $7.5 million a day. If this lack of proportion, and the scale of the dreams of warmongers everywhere, boggles the mind, try adding what we’re expected to have dumped this year in the Afghanistan war, whose end just got postponed again: $79.5 billion. Since 2001, from 4 to 6 trillion, according to the Washington Post. Hard to believe that these 13 years also comprised the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. It’s no wonder that, jumping on the taxpayer bandwagon to a future of permanent war, the defense community is already floating the idea that the campaign against ISIL will escalate to $1.5 billion a month, a figure that’s been called ‘inevitable’ by their enablers in the media. The murderous Islamic army has thus become the all-encompassing excuse for defense spending, fear spreading, and above all, financial opportunity. Caught in the middle, some may play dumb, but don’t hesitate to dip their toes in the market whenever defense stocks rally. Life goes on, and to some segments of society, Black Friday lasts a few years, increasing its feverish pitch whenever there’s a spike in any conflict around the world. You may go on a limb here and insert your own consideration about child slavery and the dark side of globalization and free trade agreements between nations with unequal power leverage. We’ll take a moment for you to come back. Actually, adding our own two cents, behind the transmutation from the mostly religious and deserving, albeit artificial, end-of-the-year celebrations into a crass shopping frenzy, we can help but pointing to what’s fueling the irrationality: people’s willingness. Just as in the so-called war on drugs we’ve discussed the other week, repression won’t end it if demand keeps rising. Now that everybody’s properly depressed, it’s safe to say that no matter the talk about technological marvels of today’s weaponry, of ‘surgical strikes’ and ‘smart bombing,’ the cost-savings advantages of drones, and a future of half-robot super soldiers roaming virtual battle fields but inflicting real damage, the most insidious massacres will likely come from lowly gunpowder and hidden land mines. Cluster bombs will ensure that, even when there’s a break in the rain of bullets or evil takes a day off, civilization will continue to be blown to pieces, at most unsuspected moments. Unless, of course, we enforce the law and send to jail those who produce them. Stretching it to an ill-advised metaphor, war wouldn’t be so profitable if we hadn’t already pawned our moral compass, so to have change for shopping. Or something to that effect; we’re not very good at sermons. One last thing before you leave the room, however. Given all heart wrenching testimonies by Vets, wounded and disillusioned by the grandstanding belief that they were defending democracy, the restoration of human values and notions of dignity may as well start in the rank and file. Most generals and commanders are already too compromised to make a stand for peace and purpose. Another passage of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem may sound familiar to those who’ve been around the corner a few times, and know that our everyday, trivial moments often hold and define the essence of who we are, regardless of having people around or not. Noting that neither Hitler’s commander nor his peers were themselves sadistic or bent on performing despicable acts against humanity, even though they did it, she’s nevertheless haunted by their apparent nonchalance towards what was going on during the Nazi regime, which we should all fear the most. ‘Normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together,’ she wrote. It’s easy to dwell on the fact that Goldman and JPMorgan and BoA are making a killing out of investing and supporting a shameful industry. It gives us the illusion of moral superiority and that we could never condone such callous approach to doing business. But we should feel considerably less assured knowing that not just those lucky enough to have retirement money being invested in the market, but also shoppers getting into fistfights to get the lowest price of some junk, share something in common with them: greed. It’s what makes us prioritize the most convenient way to live our lives, and choose to buy not according to how and by whom goods are made, but how cheap they cost. It makes us to ignore labels, so there are no hard decisions to make, and look the other way while knowing that most of those tending to our needs over the holidays are not being compensated for, well, working in the holidays. It turns us into accomplishes of the factory of graves and misguided allegiances that fuels all modern wars. It’s what, ultimately, kills any sense of justice and respect for the overrated human spirit we so like to invoke to win arguments at the dinner table. Talking about such platitudes won’t prevent us from saying, though, that we can do better. What all these stratospheric numbers above fail to reveal is the extent of anyone’s commitment at not being pawn of the rigged, black and white and gray chess game of geopolitics. If that’s as good an excuse as any to you, kick the board into pieces and take a hard look at your life. Who knows? Perhaps you’ve been doing alright all along. Have a great December.

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11/24/2014 Open Graves Across the Border, Colltalers

President Obama’s decision this week to temporarily allow about four million undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. may have another positive implication, besides its intended goal of giving them a fairer chance to apply for legal residency. It may help weaken Mexican drug cartels’ bloody reign, specially in combination with the increasing decriminalization of pot use in this country. Even if much remains to be done on both fronts, and that south of the border immigration has been on a steady decline, such broader context approach doesn’t come a minute too soon. The recent ‘disappearance’ of 43 Mexican students, now all but presumed death, only exposed once again the horrible collusion between officials and drug lords, aggravated by U.S. aid to the so-called Drug War. More on the missing, and on the president’s decision, later, but let’s start with the money trail. It’s estimated that the U.S. has spent, or rather, wasted, some $3 billion dollars since the inception of what former President Felipe Calderón considered in 2006 a priority for Mexico’s future, the elimination of drug traffic. The evidence of the catastrophic failure of such approach is all over the two countries. In less than a decade, about 150,000 Mexican nationals have been killed or ‘disappeared,’ while U.S. consumption driving demand has only increased. The iron-fisted handling of the social crisis caused by drug criminality and its impact on public health resources has also being paired with violations of civil rights, childhood abuse and neglect, and the rampant institutionalized rape of poor women. And while repression against minor drug offenses, mostly by blacks and Hispanics, has caused the inmate population in the U.S. to soar to unprecedented levels, in Mexico, lacking the American for-profit, minorities first, one-way-only-ticket-to-prison, model, there’s just one likely outcome for anyone caught in the crossfire between the pro and con drug armies: untimely death. The Mexican society seems to be slowly waking up to the reality that after two years, President Enrique Peña Nieto won’t play any role in a eventual resolution of the crisis, and last week, tens of thousands took to the streets to demand a government response. Their answer came in the form of riot-geared police, and what was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration, wound up in violent clashes. What happened to that particular group of 43 students and teachers would be enough to fill volumes of sorrow and grief by an entire nation. According to what’s known, three busloads of Rural Teachers’ College students were stopped Sept. 26 by the bullets of the local Iguala police, and then later, by an unidentified ‘armed commando,’ which left six of them dead. What came after is little understood. Eyewitnesses and video footage indicate that the police delivered the survivor group to the criminal gang Guerreros Unidos, which later said it had executed and buried them all. No trace of any of them has been found so far. But as the national manhunt has failed to produce evidence that they’re still alive somewhere, as their families would wish, another terrifying glimpse of the Mexican drug wars has unfolded: search parties started to uncover, one after another, unrelated mass graves. The sinister findings were not new. Rights organizations had already denounced the lugubrious practice, shared by drug gangs, corrupt police forces, and paramilitary groups, to bury their victims, and a 2013 Human Rights Watch report had documented at least 250 disappearance cases in many parts of the country. Now add to them several other separate mass graves, found just in October. These clandestine burial sites are still to undergo a thorough forensics analysis to identify their human remains, some badly burned, hacked, and in several stages of decomposing. Worst, some of the holes in the ground had no bodies, as if waiting for the next batch. As long as this is considered normal in Mexico, and assuming that the 43 ‘undead’ may never be found, the country won’t be able to move on. But while that’s a high call to make, it’s not impossible for a nation so proud of its tradition of resistance and endurance. That’s why the current liberalization of draconian pot laws in the U.S. is so timely, for it ultimately may deplete Mexican cartels of at least fifth percent of its money clout. With all but only four states still considering it illegal, not just many lives will be saved on both sides of the border, but the parallel underworld of high-powered weapons and political corruption may also suffer big losses. For those still arguing for the validity of throwing billions of dollars on law enforcement tactics, without proper oversight of how it’s spent, or whether it’s unfairly benefiting only one side of the political spectrum, it’s instructive to invoke the massive number of casualties and the abhorrent culture of corruption the ‘war on drugs’ has been sowing in Latin America’s most impoverish nations. A new standard may be set by U.S. states where pot is now legal, to break the cycle of drug addition and criminality. Aside obvious gains for the economy, the injection of fresh, taxable revenues can be used for public health programs focused on rehabilitation. That brings us back to the president’s executive order on immigrants. Although mostly directed at the undocumented already living in this country and caught in the absurdities of our immigration law, it may also benefit the biggest inflow of immigrants, which now comes from other drug and poverty-ravaged Central American countries, such as Honduras and Guatemala. As the situation of Mexican natives or descendants gets settled here – and chances are that even a Republican Congress will lack the power to reverse the president’s directive – millions will be also positively affected back home. Remittances from now tax-paying relatives living in the U.S. are expected to rise, while involvement and ‘careers’ in the drug trade may lose much of their appeal. That’s not a stretch. Even conservative think tanks consider poverty and lack of social opportunities major reasons for people to risk everything and come to the U.S. What’s still up for argument is to where this steady demographic rise will tilt the political balance. A less drug-war devastated Mexico may also set an example for the whole region. Perhaps then, U.S. aid will finally fit a higher purpose, that of building schools and hospitals, not army barracks and weapons trade. As for how far this new push for immigration reform may lead to a comprehensive cultural change in how we perceive what it means to be an American, and even why we insist in punishing countries that tend to our collective addiction to drugs and cheap labor, is also a matter for heatedly and possibly alcohol-fueled discussions. One thing is for sure: throwing taxpayer money at it won’t do the trick. Instead, what this temporary order may carry as its main driver is to give those who’ve been living lawfully here in every other sense, a shot at contributing to the common cause. And those seeking shelter from the drug battlefields of Honduras City, Izabal, and Juarez, a chance at rebuilding their productive lives within a safer environment. Before we go, it’s important to note that comprehensive immigration reform, and drug liberalization and rehab programs, are but components of a complex set of variables that need to be addressed, if we’re to succeed over the scourge of drug cartels’ power. But no amount of militarization of issues that are essentially of a social nature can make a dent in the problem, as past decades have shown. Unlike many of those other components, these two are most workable, if there’s minimal honesty and sense of justice. We may be arguing here until there’s no fruit left in the American diet, or adults who don’t routinely get high to face their taxing lives, but the truth is, most dreams are realized by the combination of hard work and fair conditions, not unenforceable laws and injectable junk. In other words, we can’t continue funding the brutal massacre of citizens of neighboring nations, on the guise of staking the moral ground, while hypocritically feasting on their steady supply of cheap labor and processed drugs. Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

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11/17/2014 The Unfinished Business Pope, Colltalers

In the end, Jorge Mario Bergoglio can’t complain. But after a fairly good run at the top, the extended honeymoon that greeted and insulated Pope Francis I, the first Latin American pontiff, is officially over. And it’s unlikely that he even cares about it. Gone are the niceties; in are the heavy guns. Criticism that he’s been too liberal, or overzealous against the conservative right within the Catholic Church, however, won’t get our nod. But dark allegations about his past just might. One of the stiffest tests of his papacy so far may be what comes out of the U.S. bishops conference, held last week in Baltimore. Despite public assertions that all is fine with Francis’s steerage of the church, there have been plenty of signs to the contrary. Perhaps weary of those signs, just days before the conference, the pope took the unusual step of demoting a major critic of his policies, American archbishop Raymond Burke. He was summarily knocked out of his cushioned Vatican’s Supreme Tribunal of Apostolic Signatura post to a ceremonial role, after characterizing Francis’s charting course as a ‘ship without a rudder.’ Still, as the religious press has been reporting, the pope’s facing an uphill battle with some segments of the church, comparable in its predicament to, say, what a certain Democrat president faces with a majority congressional opposition, or even an entrenched majority of supreme court justices nominated by previous commander-in-chiefs. Not a pretty picture, for sure. Taken on the surface, Francis’s ascension to the Vatican has been an unlikely revolution, at least to his flock. After two popes bent on keeping a strict and tight lid on any hint of liberalism through the church’s rank and file, and who have all but prioritized the doctrine over social concerns, Bergoglio did bring in a breath of recycled air to the musty millennial institution. Instead of disavowing the legitimacy of the Theology of Liberation in South America, as John Paul I did, or reinforcing the secrecy of files on priests accused of sexual abuse, as fashioned by Benedict XVI, in little over a year, Francis has managed to stir some of the church’s most sensitive subjects, from gay marriage, to celibacy, to women priesthood, to income inequality. Nothing too substantive so far, it must be said, but still, even talking about these themes has been enough to conjure both hopes, to those long ostracized by the Catholic hierarchy, and downright disgust by traditionalists. To the latter, he’d do much better sticking with matters concerning pomp and ceremony, or even Vatican finances, which are reportedly ridden with irregularities. On the other side, applause to the pope’s timid incursions into new territories has come from progressive quarters of the faith, to whom he could venture even further, perhaps turning some of his informal homilies into practical and more enforceable policies. Both irreconcilable sides, however, are unlike to see fruition in Francis’s tenure, for reasons that go from well established procedures, carefully watched over by the Vatican’s inner circles, to ingrained beliefs still shared by the majority of Catholics around the world, to the more prosaic matter of his own’s political stability at the top of such a large organization. But, even when taken into context and in their totality, these issues represent only a superficial, housekeeping approach to Bergoglio’s papacy, one that will be eventually settled, if some of them are not already, into a plateau of half-measures and crowd-pleasing compromises. Make no mistake, expect no earthshaking changes under this Jesuit’s skillful watch. Potential for a real, destabilizing blow to his legacy, however, comes from a theme haunting his trajectory since his priesthood days in Buenos Aires and could shatter way more than his affable public image: his relationship with the brutal military juntas that ruled Argentina for the mid 1970s to 1983, a period roughly coinciding with his Society of Jesus’s Provincial Superior post. As a high-ranked Jesuit, his critics have pointed to his past as an indictment to his alleged coziness with the militaries. And, an even more serious charge, that he somehow facilitated the adoption of children, whose parents had been killed and persecuted by the regime, by members of the military. He’s repeatedly refuted such claims ever since. But they arise just often enough to throw a shadow over his sunny public disposition. The issue came up once again a couple of weeks ago when he hosted Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo President Estela de Carlotto and her recently ‘recovered’ grandson, Guido Ignacio Montoya Carlotto, who’d though that his parents were a couple of rural laborers. Even though Guido’s is not the typical narrative of a baby from assassinated activists being given to members of the same institution that killed them in the first place, it took Estela 36 years to find Ignacio ‘Hurban,’ and tell him about how his real parents died. Other kids, with less serendipitous but equally sinister birth-to-adulthood trajectories, haven’t been so lucky. It’s estimated that Argentina’s dictatorship killed up to 30,000 opponents, and so far, almost a hundred of their children have been recovered from adoptive parents, military families and/or their acquaintances. Most had no idea they were linked so dramatically to the so-called Dirty War, and numbers vary because many have chosen to remain anonymous or loyal to their adopters. So it goes that the national trauma caused by the regime’s violent years has sown deep scars into the core of the Argentine society and, in many cases, on some of its survivors. A considerable group of individuals simply refuses to be part of this painful process of reintegration of their origins into their current lives, for reasons only they can explain. But who can blame them? Many have led stable and productive lives, sheltered by extensive familial bonds, and the prospect of a rupture with the only identities they’ve ever known – which may even involve having to turn their backs to and point fingers at those who raised them – is not just daunting, but also deeply disturbing and in no way, guaranteed to be safe and sound. Albeit the role Bergoglio may have played is hard to determine, and he may have done a lot of good since to somewhat compensate and redeem himself from past sins, there’s no doubt about the struggle and heroism displayed throughout that sad chapter and beyond it, by others, such as the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, and even the victims themselves. In other words, he may not have to come clean on this matter, to justify being now the so-called pope of the dispossessed, as he wish, or at least, a pope with a different kind of social agenda than his predecessors. But true to his trajectory, he remains a deeply two-sided public figure, one whose foes include both the ultra conservative right and the revolutionary left. Which one may finally overtake the other, when the time comes for biographers and historians to write about Pope Francis, remains a matter of scholarly, and more or less irrelevant, debate, at least for now. What seems important at this point is whether his public advocacy in favor of more equality for women, gays, and the dispossessed will ever be matched by his actions. He may be the one to reset the Catholic Church back into a more humanitarian and ecumenical path, one once alluded to by Pope John XXIII and Paul VI. And in the process, to rechristen the institution as a more tolerant alternative to rising obscurantism and downright blood-thirsty doctrines. That could be good even to those not personally invested in that or any particular faith. We can’t see any other way for the chief of over a billion people around the world to pursue a relevant, and transforming, course in the coming years. But it’d certainly be even better if, besides reaffirming his public discourse with real change within the church, the pope that came from the troubled South America could also findO a way to be transparent about his past, warts and all. After all, one of the dogmas that has run its course is the one about papal infallibility. He is, after all, human and flawed, and as such, deserves a second chance as much as any within or outside his realm of influence. Will he take the clue and follow a righteous path, or as any politician, will pick battles to suit and consolidate his position? Time will tell. Have a great one.

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11/10/2014 Priorities Are Few, Colltalers

This entire post could be an autopsy of the U.S. midterm elections, its catastrophic impact on the Democratic party, and what it meant to those south of a 100K income bracket, and north of understanding, say, reality as something verifiable by anyone. We’ll get to that, if only briefly because it can easily become an exercise of self-flagellation and despair for non-millionaires and tolerant individuals. To prevent that, we’ve searched for some good news to serve first as a counterbalance for the week. It wasn’t easy because we didn’t want to go all Pollyanna over our readers, just to produce a diabetes-inducing moment of relief. But we did find a few relatively positive stories to help everyone cope with the daily torrent of bad news flooding the headlines. From a strictly humanitarian standpoint, we could lead with North Korea’s release of two Americans, Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller, who unwittingly became the latest paws in the ideological struggle between the U.S. and the Kim Jong-in regime. To stay ‘local,’ we could also call promising the latest economic data, showing unemployment reaching its lowest point since the recession started, and that President Obama is now willing to use executive power to pass some form of immigration reform. Although low wages continue to be a deflating factor in the economy, and for any immigration bill to survive a GOP congress, it’ll probably lack substantive backbone, both issues may represent an improvement, albeit modest, on the lives of millions. On a global level, it’s also great that Pope Francis has excommunicated an Argentine pedophile priest, José Mercau, and demoted a powerful conservative American cardinal, Raymond Burke, in a seemingly rupture of the Catholic Church’s with its recent past. It shows the leader of over a billion people concerned about the church’s eroding influence, declining numbers and dwindling relevance, and how crucial it is for him to reposition it as a moral alternative to the rise of religious intolerance in the world. Now, about that autopsy. It’s hard to make an argument that any of these hard-sought gems of good news can offer a serious counterpoint for what the midterm elections may wind up costing to progressive segments of the American society. Everyone and their crazy uncles seem to have a take on likely causes for such a lopsided defeat by Democrats. But while it’s clear that a lot – some say the majority of Americans – have lost at least something with the elections, money was its biggest winner. So, giving credit where it’s due, blame should be placed at the doorstep of the Supreme Court, which opened a can of expensive worms with its ‘corporations-equal-to-people’ ruling, arguably its most misguided, and politically driven, decision so far. Citizens United, along with mangling the historical 1965 Voting Act, stand as travesties because their absurdity doesn’t hide the fact that they’re unmistakably ideologically motivated, which is one thing the Founding Fathers did not want the court to be. The 2013 decision to lift restrains placed on states known for their discriminatory practices against minority voters, had the immediate effect of curtailing voting registration. And the 2010 Citizens ruling flooded the electoral process of anonymous cash, which turned this into the most expensive election of its kind, ever. Almost $4 billion are reported to have been poured into it. The Supreme Court’s interference on the voting accessibility for low income, minority, and supposedly Democratic-inclined voters did count for a big handicap for the president’s party. But money supported and was spent almost equally by both parties. So that can’t solely explain the Dems’ big beating of 2014. In quick succession, then, other possibilities could be: redistricting, or gerrymandering; low turnout; a conservative media, uninterested in covering campaign issues; and the fact that many candidates actually lacked a clear proposal agenda, and some even chose to distance themselves from the president’s few achievements. About that turnout: preliminary studies reveal that an estimated 60% of the electorate did not show up to vote. And among those who did, young voters – the real contemporary swing demographics – represented a lower percentage that’s been in past elections. Going beyond the bare skeleton of possible causes, including others not mentioned here, it’s worth determining why the Democrats are losing steam among black, Latino, young voters, and even women, traditionally, the base of their constituency. Aside from demographics; it’s the party itself that seems adrift. While ‘favorites’ got kicked out or lost to incumbents, progressive issues, such as raising minimum wages, workers rights, pot and gun reform, even abortion, have stealthily passed in many states. That shows the disconnect between political representatives, ever so busy fund raising, and matters that mobilize people. Or was it because few showed spine when it counted? Who cares? A better quest is finding out what’s keeping corrupt and mentally unbalanced politicians as perennial Washington residents, when it’s so clear where their economic and political allegiances lie. An easy, and painful way, to emphasize that disconnect is the fact that the campaign of almost all candidates, both gubernatorial and to Congress, largely ignored some of the most relevant issues affecting our lives today, in the U.S. and abroad. President Obama’s decision to send 1,500 additional troops to Iraq, for instance, was not in the horizon for those running on a so-called national security platform. Neither an issue for ‘pro-jobs’ contenders was that Wall Street chiefs continue to profit from the general misery of an underpaid and overexploited American workforce. In both cases, just follow the money to find out why. Candidates were also equally out of synch or tone deft to attempts to kill Net Neutrality, or the administration’s relentless push against whistleblowers, investigative journalists like James Risen, or people like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. And many other issues (we sort of warned you, the list is long and depressing). So, perhaps the beating was not out of place, and won’t mean much to ordinary citizens. Like the stuff that’s buried deep in your closet for years, you probably no longer need it. What we do need (besides ending this post) is an injection of new blood, new ideas, a new social contract that restores to the electoral system its ability to promote real change. In that way, the reversal of Citizens United is, now more than ever, a priority. As is voting integrity, increased accessibility to polling stations (why on earth can’t we vote with our smartphones?), even some level of accountability, so to prevent that only one third of the voter universe is granted governing power over the majority. Not that you don’t already know this, but the one-sided promotion of a very rich strata of society, to the cost of everyone else, is simply unsustainable. Or as W.B. Yeats masterfully put it over a century ago, things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Speaking of holding on, it’s very likely that it’ll get harder, before any improvement. Winter is coming; prepare accordingly. But even that shall pass too. In other words, ‘step on the gas and wipe that tear away.’ We’ll meet on the other side. Have a good one.

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11/3/2014 The Phony Inevitability, Colltalers

If you’ve been living in the U.S. for a few decades, you may have noticed that quality of life for an increasing majority has deteriorated. You probably have your own ideas as to why some have grown so rich, while so many are falling through the cracks of the system. You’re likely to have heard too that there’s little you can do about it. That there’s no evidence backing this fact, and since no one has taken to the streets to protest, it may be all a ploy to get you into trouble. So why bother voting tomorrow, right? Don’t fall for it. Similar thing happens all over the world: climate change? it’s not proven. Global hunger? intractable. War and refugees? it can’t be fixed. Those, and there are a few, who invoke the absurdity of such claim of impossibility, given the human stake on this planet, tend to be discredited as either naive or seriously intent on destroying democracy or, worse, brace yourself, etc, capitalism as we know it. Although certainty is not what science and empirical knowledge, cause and effect, even rationality, for heaven’s sake, are made of, what’s behind equating fact with guesswork is a well concerted effort at preventing any action that may jeopardize the status quo. Coming down to a reality even detractors of income inequality – and climate change for that matter – can understand, the flow of billions of dollars may be seriously interrupted if enough people start questioning the causes of such global and overriding phenomena. What had worked for the tobacco industry, for instance, is being used once again. Efforts to undermine scientific research – which long ago had already shown that cigarettes do cause cancer – effectively delayed any action, until it was too late for thousands of people. Profits sill flowed, even when the first cases were reaching the courts, and denial was rampant by those in the big corporations’ payroll. That that included politicians, lawyers, even scientists, is not the point, as another cynical assumption that comes from the same place would also add that ‘everybody can be bought if offered the right price,’ which isn’t or has never been completely true, of course. That doesn’t really matter for as the saying goes, if enough sand is thrown into the air, many will believe they’ve gone temporarily blind. And that sort of obliviousness is what winds up helping those with financial interests at risk, if the truth comes out. But if you’re living above the ground for at least enough decades, you already know that the massive amount of money spent in political ads, for example, is usually addressed as a ‘boring’ piece of news, as if it happens inevitably by divine providence, or that yet another incident of gun violence is always reported loudly, graphically, with readily-assigned guilty roles, and devoid of any context. Speaking of equating reality with fiction, it’s also a given that the steady diet of gore, sports, weather, and celebrity news that we’re fed around the clock robs the airwaves of any space to feature the issues that affect exactly those whose taxes pay for their bandwidth. So even in the last minutes before tomorrow’s midterm elections, one still can hear that there’s so much money in politics these days, that your vote and participation in the electoral process in the U.S. no longer will make a difference. Again, don’t fall for it. Voting is the only free opportunity left to Americans to influence anything even remotely related to their lives, as the flood of requests for money you probably got by mail or email – from those running to keep their seats or gain new ones in Congress – can attest. You are right, quality of living in the world’s richest economy has taken a dive to the worst for millions of citizens, who can’t afford to fall sick, or retire at a still active age, without risking winding up on the streets. But unlike what you may have heard, there are things you and everyone you know can do about it. And one of them is presenting itself free of charge, tomorrow, at the polling station. Yes, contrary to what you’ve read, there’s a way back from the brink, both in income inequality or the somehow related issue of climate change. And no, the richest do not have the edge electing their cronies, not if you and millions of your closest allies vote against them. A lot of polls have already called out this election as the moment when Senate change hands, and we’ll have a new Republican Congress to battle the Democrat president. Not so fast, not yet anyway. And being as it may, only if not enough people show up. Voting is obligatory in certain countries, such as Brazil, which has just reelected its president, a woman as this country is yet to elect. But here, voting is considered an option, like choosing to tip your server, or drinking diet Coke. If you think about it, the system is designed to give you the impression that you actually have alternatives. But you know better; a civic duty is an obligation, not a choice. If voting wasn’t important, there wouldn’t be so much invested to prevent it or make it harder to exercise it, as it’s happening across the nation. All of a sudden, voting has become a hurdle race, where one insignificant detail can derail you from practicing your right. But don’t be discouraged and make it to the booth on time; those who can’t will be ever grateful. For you’ll have the backs of not just your fellow Americans but also millions around the world, who’re fighting to have themselves the privilege of casting their vote. There’s no inevitability, or we wouldn’t be telling our children that they must rise and go to school, that they need to have humanitarian ideals, that they don’t live in a bubble, and that whatever they do may have unintended consequences for the rest of their lives. There’s no determinism, and in what may be familiar to many in the U.S., what you do does count. But when it comes to build a better nation or world, individual feats are fine and inspiring, but nothing compares with the strength of many. Voting is an individual choice, yes, but has consequences that affect way more than the voter. It’s another thing we tell our children: no one wins or loses alone. You’ve heard enough about the score being already set, and that most people won’t show up at the polls tomorrow. Be doubtful; like dogs barking at to your cavalcade, there’s a reason, or a million of them, for you to push ahead. Carry on, and let those dogs lie. Have a wonderful November.

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10/27/2014 Brazil Gives Dilma a New Run, Colltalers

After one of the most contested elections in at least 12 years, Brazil has chosen to reelect Dilma Rousseff, of the Workers’ Party, for a second term as the country’s president, in a show of support for the continuity of its current political course. But even with this win, Dilma emerges from this election bruised and battered. Allegations of financial scandal in the state-run oil giant Petrobrás reached very close to home, since she was part of the company’s board and, as president, is de facto, in charge of it. For the world, even though it was feared by some in Washington and Wall Street, because of her sharing the populist tinges of her predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, her reelection may represent little since even that role remains largely unfulfilled. In fact, Dilma didn’t have to feel pressured to impose a new direction for her economic and growth policies, not any more than simply listening to a large segment of Brazil’s middle class, which spent great part of her first term complaining of her lack of commitment. She could’ve as well heard and paid more attention to the massive street rallies that market the two major sports competitions that the country hosted, both of the national passion, soccer: the Confederations Cup in 2013, and the World Cup, this past summer. But despite a few spare-of-the-moment measures, she failed to heed the clamor of dissatisfaction and pretty much continued to pursue the same priorities set still during the Lula administration. Dilma, to be perfectly blunt, hasn’t marked her term in office with much to distinguish herself from him, and lacking his popular appeal, has failed to convey even a timid idea of a caring leader. On the positive side, however, her party, known as PT, can be credited to scoring some victories for the country’s extreme poor, with social programs that remain among the most effective and pragmatic to restore at least some semblance of class balance in a country marked by gargantuan social problems. For good or worse, such programs may have been exactly what guaranteed Dilma’s reelection. Either because there was too much fear that they would represent an unjust income distribution, based more on class than on merit, or because they do represent a threat to the familiar mix of power that has ruled Brazilian politics for decades, these programs in general, and the Bolsa Familia in particular, have been prone to attract the most vociferous voices pro and against them of all PT’s policies. The Bolsa, roughly translated as Family Allowance, provides zero-to-low income families with a stipend, which is conditioned to a series of assumptions, not the least among them, that household school-age children perform satisfactorily in class, and that the adults enroll in the few government-sponsored technical apprenticeship programs available in their county. Despite being by far the most vilified program among PT’s social initiatives, it has been credited to lifting a considerable segment of the very impoverish citizenry, which has turned, to no one’s surprise, into the bulk of the party’s constituency in the northeast of the country. The most serious criticism of the PT’s majority rule, though, has been about ingrained corruption in its ranks. Chief among them was the vote-buying scheme that became known as the Mensalão, which dragged members of Lula’s cabinet and some of his most trusted political operatives into a multiyear inquiry and ultimately jail. But the commander in chief managed to be spared from any role in the fiasco. Despite allegations of improper handling of public funds, embezzlement, and illicit enrichment, no inquiry proved Lula’s involvement. To this day, however, his party can’t seem to shake a reputation of cover ups and attempts to mute those who accused it of criminal acts. For Aécio, this election marked two catastrophic and mostly personal defeats: not just he failed to project a winning image, through sharp policies designed to contrast with Dilma’s, but he also couldn’t capitalize on the gathering momentum opposing the PT. Twice during his campaign he had a chance to shorten the distance separating him from the president, and twice he succumbed to a lack of initiative and/or political leadership: one, when Eduardo Campos, the Socialist Party candidate who was killed in a plane crash in August, left a vacuum ready occupied by Marina Silva, his vice president and a former environment minister. While Marina grew on the polls, Aécio sunk badly. But then she committed a tactical error, gathering support from the Evangelical right, which undermined and compromised her position before an important segment of voters: women. That once again opened the door for the Social Democrat to step up his efforts to appeal to a larger constituency of the electorate. And once again, he failed to appear electable. Or so it seemed. Despite the efforts of a very successful former president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and the PSDB party machine, neither could bridge the gap or divert the suspicion that his was the candidacy favored by banks and financiers. And that buried him. For those following Brazil’s politics, this election has been no novelty, in terms of turmoil, or much of the same, either, for the country is bound to change gears either way towards a future that, for a moment, seems so close, only for the next, to appear all but unattainable. It’s been already a bumpy ride all along. After 20-plus years of military dictatorship, Brazilians got a fresh start in 1985. That’s when Tancredo Neves, grandfather of Aécio and a master of behind-the-scenes political articulation, was chosen as Brazil’s first civilian president, even if by indirect vote. But then something unfathomable happened: Tancredo died on the eve of taking the oath of office. The ascension of his vice president, José Sarney, a politician whose trajectory’s trademark was that of collaboration and support to the regime, was a cold shower on the feverish enthusiasm the end of the dictatorship had represented to the country. But it was what it was. All hopes were raised again when the legislature approved the direct presidential vote, and in 1990, Brazilians went to the polls for the first time in 30 years and elected Fernando Collor de Melo, whose soap opera good looks betrayed a corrupt politician that, only two years later, was to become the only president to be impeached and kicked out of office. Many thought the dream had turned into a nightmare. But after a transitional mandate by Itamar Franco, in the land of first names, yet another Fernando, the Cardoso, became the first civilian president to stay a full term in office (a military coup cut Goulart’s short in 1964) in a very long time. The Social Democrat made history by finally tackling Brazil’s twin evils of its chronic economic woes: astronomical inflation and staggering undervalued currency. In two terms, Fernando Henrique’s policies put the country on track for an economic boom, sowing the seeds for much of what the then dark horse of Brazil’s politics, Lula and the PT, would later take credit for and further extend. Having been defeated three times before, however, the charismatic former union leader and the party were now both ready to take the country by storm, and when that happened, nothing could compare with the exuberance of his two terms in office. Lula quickly projected a winning image for the country abroad, fueling Brazil’s old aspirations to become a world leader, while dominated its internal politics, despite a string of allegations of corruption and graft within his cabinet and inner circle of political operatives. His influence was so powerful that his nomination of Chief of Staff Dilma Rousseff as his successor four years ago was a smooth sailing. Brazilians often forget that the turmoil that surrounded the current election cycle is more in line with past presidential elections than the Lula years in office, which were by all accounts, the exception. Now, with Dilma’s reelected, it’s likely that a period of calm will follow. From the inside or from abroad, one hopes that the president retakes some of the most crucial issues that Brazil faces, if it still aims at becoming a global powerhouse and an inspiration to billions, which were all but ignored during the presidential campaign. Illiteracy, social programs, jobs, infrastructure projects and, perhaps the most visible one, the environment cause and fate of the world’s biggest rainforest, the Amazon, can no longer be shoved under the rug of political expediency and contempt by the country’s leadership. In a way, the campaigns of both Dilma and Aécio, and even more sadly, that of Marina Silva, were a tremendous disappointment to anyone minimally interested in the well being of Brazil. Instead of focusing on those issues, the three engaged in a pathetic dance of convenience, each trying hard to appear above the political fray, and then going for the jugular of personal attacks. It was an appalling spectacle of seasoned politicians, who should know better, doing their worst to gain votes, to the startling point when some segments of the population began to long for the ‘good’ old times of the military dictatorship. It was as if the scars left by those dark years, when no questions were asked, decisions were made by decree, and many were being tortured in the bowels of the brutal regime, were meaningless or conveniently forgotten, in favor of what was recalled with nostalgia. Even more vexing was the realization that a new political player, the radical political right wing of the Evangelical movement, has now an engorged role in the country’s direction. That’s bad news because much of its recipes signal a backlash against society’s most treasured and inalienable achievements, such as women’s and sexual minorities rights, science teachings, and separation of church and state. Now that campaigning is over, and a new political alliance between citizens and the upper echelons of power is bound to be concocted, Brazilians of all nationalities, and with a minimum grasp on a coherent vision for the country, expect that nothing less than a push towards decency, civility, freedom, and above all, sacrifice, are in the works, and will guide all parties in the quest to a new Brazil. Time is ripe for Brazilians to finally take upon themselves the task of writing a new social contract, which is crucial for their future. The world is simply too busy, or otherwise, too indifferent, to care or be blamed for whatever ills it’s bound to spill over onto Brazil. We should all be so proud in seeing Latin America’s largest economy to succeed and set a new balance in world power. Given all new realities plaguing billions of people around the world, it’s about time new ideas emerge to contribute in the solution of the great tragedies of our age. Hunger, extreme poverty, income inequality, even terrorism, are all common causes that seem to test the old world order. It’s worth noting that voting was also underway yesterday in two other countries acutely affected by such challenges: Uruguay, where a new president will come out of a runoff, and Tunisia, the Arab Spring’s birthplace and the only one where it seems to have taken root, is choosing a new parliament now, and a president in a month. Together, they may upstage even the U.S.’s midterm elections, next week. If a country can peacefully tackle the aforementioned challenges within its own borders, it’ll earn the credentials and qualifications to offer the world what it needs to mend. Brazil, for its diversity, size, and strategic geopolitics positioning, may as well be the one to do it. Thus, it’s up to you, Brazil. Wake up and go to work. The world anxiously awaits your powerful input. All the best to you all.

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10/20/2014 The Misappropriation of the News, Colltalers

If you want to be remotely informed about what’s going on in the world, do yourself a favor and do not watch any of the major 24-hour news channels this week or ever. For a truly educated view about our times, you may have to do a little research of your own. In fact, a half hour of what passes as news these days is enough to completely misinform you. Most of what you see is not news and what’s going on around us remains as under reported as it used to be before modern communications became so prevalent. These two pieces of gratuitous, and mostly unsolicited, advice may run counter all you’ve heard about the need to stay current of global affairs, pay attention to the issues that affect you life, and be able to hold a coherent conversation about your place in this world. It’s particularly regrettable, and even dangerous, to the young, assigned to be news cognizant by their well-meaning teachers. So much hearsay and opinion disguised as facts can pose a risky proposition when handed to minds still lacking a fully developed critical vein. In the long run, however, it’s our own collective loss, as such a massive mix of hysteria, conjecture, assumptions, and celebrity gossip, has quite a deleterious effect on society’s psyche, to the point of saturation, or worse, feelings of complete impotence before reality. But mind you, there’s more to it than a pure drive to raise ratings and advertising dollars, which is the business model of all contemporary mainstream media outlets. Beyond that, there’s also a Machiavellian manipulation of people’s expectations and attitudes. Joseph Goebbels comes to mind, as even the choice of headlines, concocted for maximum efficiency either at pulling heartstrings or emptying pockets, has the built-in ulterior motive of forcing your eye to the effects and diverting your attention from the causes. It’s all designed to maintain control over people’s impulses and to clamp down on their arguably innate willingness to seek the truth. Along the sheer monetary value of turning masses into herd, there’s the allure of power, of being atop the heap, dictating what’s next. Before we get too preachy, though, let’s do some housekeeping and admit, right upfront, that Colltales and million bloggers alike, also have a shared responsibility in blurring the frontiers between fact and opinion. And if anything, that’s what this post is supposed to be. So any hypocritical attempt of placing blame solely on our big cable brothers, should be taken at a deep discount and tons of salt. That being said, however, we still feel sick about how the Ebola, for instance, has become an all-encompassing drive to get asses in front of screens by any means necessary, including or rather, preferably, by numbing all other parts of their functioning bodies. Or that, at the same time, the U.S. and its allies are already in a state of permanent war, despite all evidence that this military slash armed contractors reliance has proven catastrophic again and again. And that disarming diplomacy and disavowing international institutions such as the U.N. can only do us all harm. And that defense and weapons corporations are salivating. And so on and on. Perhaps even worse, it is as if such compulsive-driven media coverage, allied with yet another devilish push for sending Americans into harms way, has the power to paralyze all else happening in the world at this moment. Which is, in itself, a cruel joke on the reality of billions, and an absolute disgraceful way to channel public sensibility and attention. But as we said, it’s not by accident but design. The second piece of unsought advice – which as everybody knows, if it had any value, it’d be charged anytime someone would offer it -is that one should always research when it comes to the news, so to have a few different streams of information before absorbing it. That means that no one should rely on a single source of reporting, specially when there are so many to choose from. Again, without being too professorial here, it’s crucial to distinguish between what a news agency, or newspaper, is publishing, from the countless ‘aggregators’ and even syndicated vehicles, that repackage and often reproduce content without much double-checking for accuracy. Such distinction is important because, for all their flaws and corporate tinge, organizations are liable by law to substantiate their reporting with tangible proof. And unless one is prepared to do just that, they’d better be transparent about what they say. Besides that, voicing opinions is everyone’s right, as is to say pretty much what they like, minus slandering. It’s a readers beware world out there. The still thousands of papers circulating today, however, have something else in common: the majority is owned or controlled by a few billionaires, people and corporations, which in itself shouldn’t be a factor to impact independent reporting, but in practical terms, it is. The modern concept of media ownership has completely trampled the anti-monopolist idea that prevailed in the 20th century, which prevented the creation of single-opinion news juggernauts. Not coincidentally, it was also the golden age of investigative journalism, and writers, editors, photographers and war correspondents, specially, were expected to have full autonomy to report on the military. Such reign of the Fourth Estate, that of freedom of press, is no longer possible, at least, not in the way it used to. But some were very hopeful that the Internet, with its democratic access, would compensate for that, providing a fast medium for multiplying information. Those are now bitterly disappointed, of course. Not just the majority of what’s considered news on the Internet is the product of single-minded individuals, carrying on their unique agendas, but that the powers that be have already moved in, to curb that so-called democratic spirit of free access to the Web. That fight is still going on and the threat of ending the Internet as we know it is very real. So what’s left for the earnest citizen who wants to have a reasonable idea of what’s going on, both in the surrounding community and around the world? As we said, research. We’ll not insult your intelligence suggesting you how or where. Only that you must. Check who’s saying what and why, and what did they say before. Ask where the reporting is coming from and whether it adds anything fresh to what you already know. Above all, make sure you’re getting views from both working people, deeply involved with the subject being discussed, and also certified experts, scientists, those who actually can prove they’ve studied and dedicated their lives to it. Don’t get fooled by the pseudo unsophisticated, because they, as anyone, can only pass along what was fed them beforehand. Or by the pompous, know-it-all pundits, whose ‘expertise’ is never explicit. Use your noise to smell rats, and instinct, to read between the lines. These are but a fraction of things one should consider before forming an opinion about any issue, including those directly affecting their lives. Critical thinking, like empathy and tenacity, is a muscle to be exercised, and the more one do it, the better to see the world. We know there’s nothing new about what we’re saying here. But in the interest of preserving that precious gray matter that orients your decisions and path in life, we thought it’d be useful for you to know that you’re not alone feeling despair by what’s taken as news today. We too go out of our minds trying to figure who, or what kind of invested interests, are behind of most of what we are bombarded on a daily basis, and every once in a while, it’s not just OK, but absolutely necessary to zoom out and, honestly, have a life of one’s own. Striking this balance between what’s relevant to one’s private realities, and what’s important to be aware about the planet we all live in is what, ultimately, makes us functional human beings and citizens with an irrevocable right to have a political role in our society. Unlike the illusion of the 25-hour cable news, no one can be ‘on’ all the time. Opinions must be loaded with facts, and go beyond a for-or-against approach. Searching for what’s real, or truthful, or barely palpable, is a progressive, ever-evolving effort, based on honesty of purpose and motives. It’s also a courageous and dangerous quest, as jails and cemeteries are loaded with many who’ve tried it. Not to end on a full-blast bummer, discouraging note, though, we must add that one of the conditions to become better informed about the world has already been accomplished by many: people are generally more skeptical about what they read and watch on the news, judging by how many more outlets of information are sprouting about, and what they say when given a chance. Or so we hope. Opinion polls, consumer quizzes, and most of all, elections, are also reliable ways of gauging such assumption. However, specifically about the news, it’s never too much to remind everyone that the most effective way of showing your dissatisfaction with the established media is not to support it. In other words, do not watch the news. Or what they call as such. Even as the term has been all but wrongfully appropriated by corporations, and these days one often finds better content in the realm of so-called fake news, as in comedy shows of all places, we should still demand the right to be informed according to our needs as people, not as advertisers and war profiteers. Have a peaceful week ahead.

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10/13/2014 A Debate of Little Substance, Colltalers

Poor old Chris: since the 1960s, he never seems to catch a break. Every year a new spark adds flame to the bonfire and demotion of the Columbus legacy lore. From intrepid conquistador, ‘first global man,’ to the greatest agent of ethnic cleansing in modern history. In truth, debate over the discovery of America (actually, what’s now Bahamas, but never mind), 522 years ago yesterday, is now more nuanced, and his legacy, a bit better understood. Seattle, though, couldn’t wait: Oct. 12 is now Indigenous People’s Day. That it rarely falls on that particular day (as a movable holiday, it’s marked on the second Monday of the month) is not the point. The movement to turn it into a celebration of the millions of natives who perished when the Genovese landed in the Caribbean island has gained momentum worldwide and other places are expected to redefine the day according to a new understanding of that. Revisionism aside, though, political correctness not always work on hindsight and often tends to turn a well worn tradition into an incoherent travesty, with no bearing either to the historical record or justice to the figure itself. In the case of Columbus, however, it makes sense reassessing the myth, add context, and reestablish a narrative that may serve a higher purpose. Despite Seattle’s early move, though, today will likely proceed as planned, following a familiar pattern of most American holidays: parades, political grandstanding, shopping, and B-B-Qs. And time off, of course, which for many won’t even be part of the bargain. This year, the official story was assailed from the left field, by a respected discipline, unrelated to the controversy: underwater archeology. Last May, a team of ocean explorers thought they had found the shipwreck of Columbus’s flagship, the Santa Maria, off the coast of Haiti. If further studies would confirm it, this could revive the dog-eared holiday with a fresh paint of wonder. But it wasn’t to be. U.N. investigators have proven that the carcass was of much more recent vessel. Copper nails, found at the site, were exactly the ones sinking the theory for good, since at the Italian mariner’s time, shipbuilding would use iron nails, not copper. More: at least one historian, American-Portuguese Manuel Rosa, is now questioning even the belief that the Santa Maria ever sank. To him, the ship was hauled onto the Haitian shore, used to house sailors left behind by Columbus, and later, burned down. Even if neither of these findings relates to the ongoing cultural and political revaluation of the sailor – who supposedly lost his way to ‘the Indias,’ and the lucrative spice markets of Asia, but found a spanking new world – globalization and its woes certainly has. What was expected to be the end of border wars and the creation of a global market of all goods produced by mankind to benefit all corners of the world, with free trade and exchange of knowledge and riches among all, became another nightmare of even greater contrasting realities between the mega rich and the miserably poor. Worse: it’s accentuated a hundredfold racial and ethnic hatred. The arrival of Christopher Columbus to a new continent – strangely not named after him, but after a rival navigator, the Portuguese Amerigo Vespucci who never stepped foot on it – also brought about the first global epidemic, the spread of a sexually-transmitted infectious disease, syphilis. First diagnosed in 1495 among his crew, within years, it’d exploded in Europe and jumped to Asia. It’s unfair to blame Columbus for the ills of civilization four centuries after his demise. But expansionism ideals and dreams of world domination through occupation and trade control, drove European crowns to sponsor his journeys and of others like him. These special group of individuals were imbued of equal parts of scientific curiosity to explore the unknown world, and to pillage it, whenever necessary, so to achieve glory and immortality most certainly beyond the reach of their humble upbringings. Much of this contrite drive to reassess history is also part of our own undeniable debt to these conquerors’ rampage and massacre of native cultures, some lost forever, others obliterated to eternal submission, and yet others turned into a multi-century race of slaves. If it’s all reduced to stereotypes, Columbus is a mere figurehead, a convenient scapegoat for a mostly white culture to safely express feelings of shame and regret. That such a reductionist view downplays the inherent miscegenation experienced by world populations since his time, only betrays its fatal shortcomings and inadequacy to frame the current reassessment of his cultural role. It’s very likely that Columbus’s Day, as it’s marked now in the U.S. and other nations, will continue to undergo its extensive facelift, perhaps linking it to the struggle of disappearing cultures, and not just the ones he’s wiped out. Or adjusting it to less nationalistic tradition, and closer to a call for awareness about how globalization has become yet another instrument of domination. But the zeal to sanitize and dress up old civilization myths, however reactionary they may be, seeking to exhume them to what’s acceptable to a contemporary sensibility is questionable in and on itself, as it’s often focused on form and not content. There’s an inherent fascism on rewriting history to adapt it to current mores. Intentions apart, the end result is often catastrophically tilted towards authoritarianism, calls for ‘a new order,’ and other dangerous cliches. While we focus on what Columbus Day may or may not represent, Reservations remain the most brutal and accurate portrait of Native American life in this country today. If we’re not willing to discuss the social impact of corralling an entire culture within the confines of fences, and pretend a solution thought out (badly) in the 1800s should still be acceptable today, then much of what’s being discussed is of little consequence. In other words, however you mark Columbus Day, or ignore it like the majority, celebrate it or despise it, it matters less than what can still be apprehend from our habit of erecting icons to figures of the past we know almost nothing about, besides the trail of destruction and cultural ruin left on their wake. By now, you know where we stand on the debate about statues of famous people. We’ll probably never return to a time when it was possible for a Spanish architect, Alberto Palacio, to conceive an 1000ft in diameter monument to the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival. Designed for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, it never got built. It was probably the last time Western civilization was so giddy about his accomplishments, and in typical self-serving manner, was so eager to memorialize the man who, indirectly, made possible many of us to come to be, then and now. Compared to that, celebrations have been considerably toned down. And even when rife for discrimination, as when some attempted to ban gays from parading, they also served an unexpected, positive purpose: showcasing prejudice at its most despicable, right under a patina of traditionalism and dignity. Hadn’t it been for them, arguably, that would’ve remained hidden. So Italians, and anyone, can have their parades, and school children shouldn’t be prevented from drawing those three mythical ships, or learn how the drive to explore isn’t always about slash and burn, at least for a while. Truth, though, should always be told. As for those who deplore the demotion and lack of real heroes to inspire new generations and all that, they may be barking at the wrong statue. Maybe it’s time to draw heroes not from war commanders but from entire ethnicities, traditions, ideals, ideas even. The whole concept of worshipping could use a rehash itself, perhaps bending it towards showcasing human experience, and not so much the individual quest, albeit they’re more relatable and easier to encapsulate a moment in time for those who come after. There’s often a deeper truth in the fate and trajectory of a whole group than in the sum of its individuals, however heroic each and everyone of them is. In a less glorifying view, Christopher Columbus was a skillful and pragmatic man, whose personal quest still speaks to us, and who like us, was also uterly unaware of which of his many decisions in life would guarantee him immortality. His persistency and sense of purpose, which drove him to seek sponsorship from another crown not of his own tiny nation, by all means, deserve a monument or two, books retelling his adventures, and songs and dance too. A ticker tape parade? not so much. If you’re not seeking a hero but an inspiration, Malala Yousafzai would be the one instead, anytime of this Columbus Day or night. If she accomplishes some of what she’s set to, the world will finally have a chance of becoming better than the one the arrival of Christopher Columbus to America ignited so long ago. Have a great week ahead.

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10/6/2014 Brazil’s Quest for Change, Colltalers

Brazilians voted in mass for president yesterday, seeking to accomplish one of at least three things: reelect their first female president, Dilma Rousseff, replace her with a first black president, Marina Silva, or end the Workers’ Party’s 12-year reign over the country’s politics. Dilma came out on top but still short of preventing a technical tiebreaker on the 26th, against Social Democrat Aécio Neves. There a fourth thing, however, that Brazilians arguably won’t be able to accomplish even when they come back for the second round: real change. That most of electorally-able citizens of this country of almost 200 million showed up was no surprise: voting is still obligatory in Brazil (more on that later). Also expected was that a second vote would be needed, as Dilma’s majority in the polls was never overwhelming, and Aécio and Marina (note: people refer to each other on a first name basis in Brazil) alternated their positions as second runners throughout the campaign. In fact, ‘not a surprise’ and ‘expected’ have set the tone of this presidential election, Brazil’s eighth since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985, and its seventh by direct vote. Gone are the passions that ignited the country with civic fervor in the 1980s, and the PT’s ascension to power through Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former union leader and still Brazil’s most popular president and politician ever, all constraints abandoned. On the contrary, since Dilma’s succeeded Lula four years ago, Brazil has hit a brick wall, as an unprecedented cycle of economic growth and global projection gave away to Latin American old foes: graft and political corruption allegations, falling GDP, inflation, unemployment, and general discontent, by a reemergent middle class, about its lot and the country’s fledgling democracy. That has been the tenor of Dilma’s tenure. To be sure, Lula’s overreaching shadow continues to exert a considerable influence over Brazil’s politics, and even as his rise to power was far from unexpected – he lost three presidential contests before winning in 2002 -, he seems to have carved a permanent niche in the country’s psyche. While in power, Lula’s managed to inspire, if not completely being responsible for, a widespread feeling of optimism for a nation long mired in the malaise of being considered ‘the country of the future,’ but hardly having ever caught even a sight of what that future could actually be. He presided over growth amid a global financial crisis, and under his tutelage, a huge swath of the ‘economically challenged,’ i.e., downright dispossessed, was able to experience a timid sense of what the country’s resources could offer them, something that hadn’t happened since at least the 1930s, with dictator-turned-president-elect (in a second coming) Getúlio Vargas, with whom Lula’s brand of populism is often compared. However, even as his popularity soared within Brazil and abroad, Lula’s was plagued by an ingrained culture of privilege indulged by PT’s political operatives and within his inner circle of advisers. The biggest political scandal in Brazil’s modern era, the Mensalão, has happened under his watch, and even as he’s been cleared so far of any wrongdoing, very close allies of his were sent to prison for their role in the graft scheme. Somehow, odds may have been stacked too high against Dilma, and her quest to continue Lula’s legacy, and also, imprint the country with her own brand of leadership. To many Brazilians, she’s failed at both, which is, oddly, surprising, since her almost boorish personality and guerrilla past could well stand on their own: known for speaking her mind, she was tortured and a political prisoner of the dictatorship in the 1960s. One would think that such credentials, along with the fact she’s a cancer survival and was Lula’s Energy Minister and later Chief of Staff, would qualify her to the challenges of being Brazil’s first female president. Somewhat, though, none of it became apparent through the past four years. Politically, she’s been perceived as a shy and calculating politician, often behind the curve of important political developments shaping Brazil, such as the mass rallies against social exclusion of the summer of 1993 and onwards, approval of a troubling pro-logger Forestal Code, in 2012, which seemed to counter efforts for protection of the Amazon, and allegations of corruption favoring PT at Brazil’s state-run oil giant Petrobrás. Along with that, she seems to lack what many political leaders often exude, including her predecessor: pure political luck. Since her 2011 election, Brazil’s economic boom, and the glare it projected over other emerging economies, has receded to the background, overshadowed by the explosion of international events such as the Arab Spring, the Ukraine and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, and now the bloody rise of Isil. Remember how much safer the world seemed to be when the only ‘threat’ was represented by Iran’s refusal to dismount its nuclear program? Neither do we, but for someone as charismatic and unencumbered as Lula, it may have been the perfect opportunity to shine on globally. Not for someone like Dilma, though, whose woes also included her inability to groom political successors and craft a lasting legacy, again, as her mentor did with her and for himself. And that’s all we’ll be saying about how the Brazilian president has been battered by her own predicaments. Speaking of the Amazon, her biggest challenger to up to few weeks ago, Marina, seemed to have all the credibility Dilma lacked on the globally-resonant issued of the environment, and real chances to defeat her too. But Aécio’s well-oiled political machine made sure that didn’t happen. A former rubber-taper herself who grew up in the Amazon state, member of the same trade union of Chico Mendes, the activist assassinated in 1988, and the Environment Minister in Lula’s first term, Marina seemed to have what it takes to represent a potential radical change in Brazil’s politics, when she was nominated last October as vice president of Eduardo Campos, on the Socialist Party ticket. That possibility became closer to reality when she assumed the top position of the ticket, after Eduardo was killed in a plane crash in August, in what was pretty much the only dramatic development of this presidential elections cycle. But then, she chose Beto Albuquerque, a Southern politician with close ties to farmers and the agribusiness, and her environmental clout started to come undone. Plus, she’s received and embraced support of Brazil’s extremely wealthy and influential, and also radically right-wing religious brand, the messianic Evangelicals, who openly oppose a woman’s right to choose and rights over her reproductive system, as well as condem homosexuality and any other of what they consider ‘sexual deviations.’ And that did it for the progressive Brazilians and their overwhelming urban majority. Quick aside about Brazil’s religious mores: to show the rise of the Evangelicals on its politics in a what’s considered the biggest Catholic country besides Italy, two out of the three candidates, with chances to become Brazil’s president, are Evangelicals, as Dilma like Marina, also professes a messianic denomination, Pentecostal; her faith, though, was never an issue during her tenure. Aécio is the sole Catholic contender. The Social Democrat candidate, who’d bring back to power the party of former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, is another curious case of sameness in this campaign. The grandson of a legendary Brazilian politician, Tancredo Neves, the behind-the-scenes negotiator who died the night before becoming the country’s first civilian president after the military rule, in 1985, has run a spectacularly lackluster campaign. A former governor – his trajectory is very similar to that of former governor Eduardo Campos, who was also running a bland campaign when he died nine years to the day of his grandfather’s passing, political firebrand Miguel Arraes -, Aécio is known as a competent administrator, plagued by accusations of drug use and personal excesses. Another figure in Brazil’s politics with contrasting styles in personal and public life. His numbers were shattered right after Eduardo’s death, boosting Marina’s, but he recovered a couple of weeks after, helped in no small measure by his direct adversaries’ foes, more so than his own efforts. Although in public life for some two decades, and Brazilians more or less know what to expect of his presidency, one thing is almost sure: he seems hardly likely to propel Brazil towards any out-of-the-ordinary course. That brings us back to the beginning, as none of the candidates has engaged and rallied their constituencies as past presidents did, and neither their personal histories, as storied and inspirational as they may be, became staples of their own rhetoric to seek, or retain, high office. On the contrary, while Brazilians seem transfixed about yet another set of corruption claims surrounding Petrobrás, and marginally, the set of timid reforms proposed by each candidate, they seem out of step with the great issues threatening to destabilize the world at large, some of them closely related to what’s happening within Brazil’s own borders, such as climate change, the threat to global peace, terrorism, privacy, and so on. Brazil’s deep into an insular political realignment that appears to underestimate the impact worldwide changes surrounding it can bring to the country’s stability. And even battles that have a direct effect on the quality of life of its citizens, such as women’s rights, racial and sex minority protections, church and state separation, end of fossil-fuel incentives, may have been muffled in favor of a more parochial approach to politics. The world in general, and the U.S., in particular, could learn from the Brazilian experience, including the fact that voting is still obligatory, a factor that has been instrumental in avoiding the electoral process from becoming inconsequential, as it’s becoming in American politics, for instance. There are also challenges that Brazil faces that could serve as textbook for any other nation to fulfill its own destiny, such as an option to no armed conflict engagement, strict gun control regulation, a renewed focus on its faltering welfare system, and a general disposition to play a positive part in a world plagued by rising hunger, economic uncertainties and overall lack of security for its citizens. But Brazil has still a long way to go to fulfill its own ambitions of becoming a world power, not the least of it, in the crucial task of forming new, revolutionary, young leaderships, more apt at addressing the issues of our time. Despite great clamor against political corruption, and increased participation of Brazilians in the national discussion, we still see apathy and disengagement as two of its most enduring, crippling obstacles. While for Americans, roughly comparing, just showing up to vote a month from now will already be a powerful display in support of U.S. electoral process, to Brazilians, it’s not enough, compulsorily as voting is. They need to also make sure that a new crop of candidates springs out, willing to seize that constantly receding ‘golden’ future for their country. Perhaps some expect change to come from the most unexpected ways. We don’t. In fact, not everyone has the religious fervor of believing in invisible powers and out-of-the-blue miracles, but in hard, thankless work. Not many are convinced that it’s enough to publicly decry corruption in the upper echelons, while spurning personal ethics and rules of conduct on their own. Finally, perhaps what’s going to determine the ultimate fate of Brazil in the next four years will be the elections at state level, gubernatorial and legislative. Or how much a progressive presidential candidate such as Eduardo Jorge, from the Green Party, will fare today. Just because we don’t put much credence in suddenly turnarounds, doesn’t mean we can’t admit that change is not always apparent from the get go. In any instance, it’ll be an ample effort, not only a partisan push but a full engagement of young voters, the middle class, and more issue-specific campaigns, what may turn the tide towards a better country. It’d be a great end of the year when Brazil lost its bid to win the World Cup at home, something Brazilians are still reeling from, if this elections would determine a really new dawn for the country. There’s a great longing in Brazil for it to become a beacon of peace in the world and a reference to personal fulfillment to everyone. But Brazilians will have to be brave, and self-critical, and willing to work extra hard to make that into their new reality. Using a beaten sport metaphor, it’s time for everyone to stop just watching and complaining about the game, and come down from the bleachers to score a few goals for the common good. Above all, we all still love you Brazil and want you to be the best that you’ve ever been, the best that you can possibly be, and will be rooting for you all the steps of the way. Good luck today and ever.

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9/29/2014 The President’s Choice & Yours, Colltalers

The U.S. has been at war in the Middle East for all but the first nine months of the 21th century. President Obama may have just signed the guarantee that it’ll remain so for at least another 10 years. Worse: the world seems no longer hesitant to follow such trail of fire as it once did. After a time of healthy self-doubt, when he warded off Pentagon hawks, weapons industry lobbyists, and a defense contractor-sponsored congressional caucus, the president seemed to have completely disavowed his own professed aversion to engage in open ended conflicts. We may not need a whole century to see his capitulation as his biggest mistake, and whether this is an understatement or not depends of which part of his legacy you’d rather see etched in stone. With his act, though, such legacy will hardly be that of peacemaker, that’s for sure. In some ways, his tenure has always been singed by the twin conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, whose expensive bill was handed over to him by George Bush and his merry warmakers. He, and by extension, we, thought it was all figured out, though: troop withdrawal from Iraq, check, troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, about to be checked. The rest was supposed to take care of itself. Or if it wasn’t, we could no longer afford to care. (Let’s pretend for a second that we didn’t wreck those countries for good, bending them out of shape, along with their neighbors, and did the opposite of what every doctor swears by: primum non nocere, first do no harm. Oh, and produced hundreds of thousands of incapacitated human beings, both here and abroad, doomed to carry to their grave the bitter taste of signing up to serve their country, and winding up being had by it.) Thing is, al-Qaeda’s endurance kept giving rise to successive groups of avengers against everything the American gun barrel symbolizes, until it culminated in the alphabet soup of intolerant thugs such as Boko Haram, then ISIL, and now, Khorasan, and who knows what tomorrow. Each one of them was baptized by military hawks and warmongers, and dutifully echoed by the media, as ‘terrorists, bent on destroying America,’ as if, first, such thing was even possible, and second, any group holding a religious grunge, posing, or posting gory videos, with American-made machine guns, or machetes, and screaming hatred words, can qualify to the high status of being on the haywire of the Pentagon drones. We’ve created these monsters, and by committing the whole country to an all-out war against them, regardless of national borders or whose interests and allegiances they may serve at any particular moment, we are in fact giving them the legitimacy that they crave to grow and thrive. It may be President Obama’s biggest miscalculation because it’s one that has global repercussions that may take generations to mend and heal. Just as Bush squandered the international sympathy and support received by the U.S. after 9/11, engaging in the illegitimate invasion of Iraq, which had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks, the president now is squandering even the little goodwill his election had raised around the world. No wonder some groups are demanding that he returns his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, for so far, just two years to the end of his stay at the White House, he hasn’t neither been a promoter of nuclear nonproliferation nor has he fostered new relations with Muslims, two reasons invoked by the Nobel Committee to award him such a high honor so early in his tenure. They should have waited a bit longer. Americans, and the world, however, may not have such a luxury. Despite much more serious challenges to global peace, represented by the climate change, hunger, illiteracy, assaults on women’s rights and the general dignity of human beings, all issues in need to be urgently tackled by all nations, we’re once again diverting resources to yet a new front, which will only benefit those who profit from the business of war. As for doomed efforts to restore the powers of diplomacy, it should be noted that nations stop talking to each other for some of the same reasons that people do: conflicting views, past grievances, debt, ethnic differences, unfair treatment, unrealistic expectations, inequalities perceived and/or real, and so on. Such issues do not resolve themselves by any other means but conversation, the search for a common ground, and acceptance. It’s obvious that another million rounds of ammunition rained over mostly civilians won’t improve the misery in Syria, or bring about an end to the sprout of intolerant mass murderers. What’s even scarier is that this time no one, not President Obama, not even those who in the past declared, falsely, that another war would be a breeze (it never is), is saying much about when it’ll all end. And what’s to be accomplished. No one should be surprised, though, that for the prospect of another costly adventure in the Middle East, Congress will spring into action to approve it, in the very bi-partisan, unified way that it didn’t when the issue was about minimum wage, affordable health care, end of dark money in politics, gun control, racial justice, women’s equal pay, and so many other demands that the majority of Americans were really invested in. There’s still a slim chance that the war train stops in its tracks just before the wreck, at the last minute, as it actually happened last year about the same Syria that we’re now bombing away. In fact there’s an opportunity as good as any for Americans to show their discontent with the current state of politics in this country and what’s really being done with our taxes: it’s called the midterm elections and they happen on November 4. Be it as it may, bought as it can be, voting is still available for those who want to have a saying in the country’s direction, but can’t afford taking time off to rally the streets (though they will come) and get arrested. If nothing else, at least visit a booth on that Tuesday and say that you won’t take it lying down. If you’re not a billionaire, strength is still in the numbers. Give peace (and your voting rights) a chance. And be good.

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9/22/2014 The Climate Alarm Went Off, Colltalers

The U.N. Climate Summit, which starts tomorrow in New York, is a last-ditch effort by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to engage governments and corporations in the climate change issue. It’s also a way to prevent next year’s official conference in Paris from turning into a fiasco. Thus, just in case the urgency of the matter is lost to those decision makers, thousands have marched yesterday in major cities around the world, to demand action and pressure political and corporate leaders, who so far, have shown an appalling, less-than-enthusiastic response to the crisis. As the decision to call up the summit has been criticized by many, for giving equal footing in the conversation to both governments dedicated to increase environmental protection rules, and well-known polluters, it may also put the spotlight on both parties’ true intentions. Just as the rallies, which were organized by climate organizations, seemed to have underlined a powerful message: we, the world, will be watching you. And the U.S., as usual, has an oversized role to play, if it chooses to do so. Or should we say, a lot of catch up to do, since the Bush administration decided, in 2001, to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, an already timid agreement to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Whereas measures such as carbon capture or increased taxation were also on the table, overall, the protocol did have its shortcomings. But the U.S.’s rejection opened the floodgates and gave tacit approval to the fossil-fuel energy industry to boost even more investments in oil drilling in pristine regions and ramp up coal prospection, ultimately giving rise to highly pollutant new technologies such as fracking. It’s been since a costly game of hide and seek by American officials, both from the Bush and Obama administrations, as the oil and gas industry continues to dictate the nation’s energy policy, and investments in alternatives remain plagued by partisan gridlock in congress. Speaking of costs, Ban Ki-moon’s has emphasized that policies with a minimal chance of being effective have to be backed by hard cash. The richest among the 125 nations gathering tomorrow will be asked to commit between $10 billion and $15 billion, according to The Guardian. Once again, the U.S. has stricken a dismal note, as White House officials have said that investments in the Green Climate Fund, to help poor nations to implement environment protection measures, is not part of the administration’s agenda for the summit. Naturally, some of its allies may follow suit. In fact, it’s been a cruel joke of sorts when the developed world demands that emerging economies right their wrong, pollutant, ways, without committing to also do so themselves. And lately, there’s a new scapegoat in the block: China. There’s no question that vertiginously fast industrialization of China has been a contributing factor in the rising levels of smog and environmental pollution around the world. Then again, what may not be as equally invoked, is that China has led the world in investments in solar and wind power energy, and has addressed with considerably more emphasis than the U.S. its troubling problems with air quality. An Energy Transition Research Institute report shows that China is now the biggest wind-power generator, largest market for solar power, and also the world’s top hydro-energy producer. Only last year, it’s invested some $56 billion in renewable energy. So, although coal is still a dominant resource feeding the country’s huge energy demands, the rationale that U.S. action would have zero effect on global pollution, since China’s industry grows larger every day, simply doesn’t pan out. The U.S. must lead or China will take it from there. So, yes, the world will have to shell out some dole in order to get things done. But if we think that the costs are too high now, wait until coastal lines begin to flood, entire city populations find themselves underwater overnight, and billions go in desperate need of disaster aid. Besides, costs may not be that high, according to a new U.N.-sponsored study – Better Growth, Better Climate – which gathered data refuting the notion that we either fight climate change or grow the world’s economy. And 2008 Economics Nobel Award winner Paul Krugman concurs. ‘Saving the planet would be cheap; it might even be free. But will anyone believe the good news?,’ Krugman wrote in a recent column. Along with the U.N. study, he also quotes from an International Monetary Fund working paper, ‘that strong measures to limit carbon emissions would have hardly any negative effect on economic growth, and might actually lead to faster growth.’ Factors supporting such guarded optimism are the implementation of sensible policies, such as pricing carbon pollution, to force corporations to reduce emissions, the already falling costs of renewables, such as wind and solar power, and job creation, a by product of any new technology, in the long run. Apart from that, even the complete elimination of some industries, such as coal, would have positive health benefits for all. Ban Ki-moon’s personal push for the success of the meeting is also understandable. Despite the criticism, its ‘non-official’ character may give him a chance to plead directly to the world’s biggest polluters, often left off the hook when it comes to environmental accountability. After all, barely four years since the record-breaking environmental accident, the April 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, its main culprit, BP, and partners in crime, Halliburton and Transocean, continue using the court system to try to weasel their way out of responsibility, all the while posting sizable profits. Despite all evidence to the contrary, some of the most affected by the disaster are still to be fully compensated. For the Secretary-General, the summit may be also a chance to salvage a legacy that will be seriously hindered if, coming December of next year, nations fail to reach a meaningful agreement on climate change. So far, the prospects for exactly that to happen are clear and present. It’s been positive, then, that the People’s Climate March has displayed some universal muscle, with people showing up in numbers large enough to maybe scare elected officials to action, as they’re wont to do in such situations, and warn corporations about a new twist in consumer trends. Who knows, we may be even seeing the dawn of a new era of mass rallies towards causes that are dear and vital to people, regardless of their nationalities, just as housing, jobs, health care, and racial and economic equality have been. Some of these themes have been successfully carried by movements such as the Occupy Wall Street, and even local, regional drives towards democracy, freedom, and cultural identity. Gathered under the umbrella of the fight to reverse climate change, however, such causes acquire a new resonance, a renewed commonality and reason to be. It may have a disproportionate impact on the impoverished, the socially outcast, and the vulnerable. But it affects the economy of the whole system, on a global scale, and therefore, it’s a cause relevant to both rich and poor, the affluent and the marginalized. Unlike divisive issues such as religion, race, and ethnicity, the climate is a reason to find common ground among nations, and as such, it’s definitely worth every penny spent to fight it, and now. Let’s hope this is also the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Have a great one.

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9/15/2014 Heading Forward to the Past, Colltalers

We’re back to our miserable ways again, a steady, media-fueled, seemingly inexorable path to yet another war in a faraway land. As we all now know, this chain reaction always starts when ‘advisors’ are sent. Then come the air strikes and shortly thereafter, a full blown intervention. Whether President ‘Hope’ Obama is to blame for lighten up the wick this time, or events on the ground in Iraq are simply too strong an allure to avoid an armed response, may be theme for countless books to be published in 20 years or so. For now, what’s clear is that we’re A-Go. Which means that we haven’t learned zilch from our pass experiences, some of them still in progress. Afghanistan remains an open wound, Pakistan and Libya are germ-festering inflammations, and the situation in Ukraine and Gaza is far from coming to a peaceful resolution. On the contrary, both Russia and Israel took quick advantage from falling off of last week’s headlines, to advance their questionable claims over neighbors’ territories. As the world can’t keep its focus on more than two or three conflicts at a time, they may be just being pragmatic. And so is, for completely different reasons, the Ebola virus, which keeps thriving in poverty-stricken Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, spreading undeterred through entire regions. It’s killing both the sick and also the doctors and medical personnel engaged in treating them. There’s no need to continue listing the well-know corollary of illnesses and pestilence sickening this world of ours. But the point can’t be missed, that yet another multi-billion war effort, and the certain loss of thousands of lives taken with it, can’t really be the solution to anything. About that hope thing, and unfulfilled presidential promises. The election of Barack Obama has been the single, most unpredictable fact in American politics since, arguably, the JFK assassination (which may be revived once again next week, with the Warren ‘Single-Bullet-Theory’ Commission report’s 50th anniversary). After over 200 years of republic, the U.S. finally elected a black man to its highest office. Hooray. His ascension from a bright but little known Chicago politician to a position to, first, challenge heavy-weights of the Democratic Party, and then take on the still large racist percentage of this country, was a historical, and unprecedented feat of far reaching consequences. More than his race would imply, however – in what was likely done by design -, what the candidate Obama attracted was an earth-shattering mandate to heal the nation, reassert its democratic role in the world, and, yes, reassess social and economic priorities, race relations included. It took less than a year for such promising mandate to start collapsing under the weight of a congressional body far removed from ideals of social and race equality, and the complexities and geopolitics of a world in constant transition. Plus a handful of poor decisions of his own. But while cynics rushed to slap ‘I told you so’ all over our flatten faces, it’s a fact that most campaign promises rarely survive a few months in office, so this commander-in-chief is not alone in succumbing to serious shortcomings while transitioning from candidate to president. Then came reelection (don’t worry, we’re not about to run an Obama inventory just yet, and we’re just about to get to the point), and, despite considerable nail bitting, the president’s win also put on a display his new-found pragmatic approach to the politics of the possible. Some say that’s when we write the death sentence of our high humanistic aspirations for the future. Perhaps. But what’s puzzling now, when President Obama is not yet quite the lame duck he’s about to become in a year or so, is why he’s already showing a certain fatigue, and renewed willingness to get even closer to Pentagon hawks and the same warmongering politicians who’ve worked so hard to undermine his presidency. That he’s now reasserting a similar rhetoric, that in the past led this nation to spill rivers of blood and sink billions into the warrantless Iraq war, only gives credence to the claims that the president has abandoned some of the principles that got him elected in the first place. Never mind the ‘novelty’ of his race as a defining factor, young voters’ enthusiasm, or the muscular social network campaign that they’ve ignited. Indeed, a recurrent criticism of President Obama has been how quickly he adopted the mantle of protector of this country’s military hegemony, rather than its tradition of civil rights, and how often he’s parroted the national security credo to justify political assassinations, spying on citizens and progressive organizations, and support a defense doctrine that constantly runs over and demoralizes diplomatic efforts. As for the president’s Wednesday speech, outlining and formulating what could be characterized as a familiar set of prerequisites, in order NOT to go to open war with ISIS, including his denial that’s he’s willing to do just that, it was easy to detect some of the flaws of his rationale. For despite his oratorial skills, he couldn’t avoid implying that ‘a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat,’ is still on paper and to date, no country not named U.K. has formally signed up to it. Even more glaring is the absence of America’s most disreputable friend, Saudi Arabia. A radical religious dictatorship, the country’s been the inconvenient American ally, largely invisible and rarely mentioned in the same sentence with the word terrorists, like Iran and the Palestine ever so casually are, even though Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 9/11 bombers were Saudi nationals. Would that be because its majority is as Sunni as ISIS? or is it because it’s also the world’s largest oil producer? Both, perhaps? Just as others before him, President Obama either subscribes to a flawed belief that the U.S. is in a position to purge the sins of the world, and not be called upon its own, or has fallen into the trap defense contractors have set up to him. In any case, he’s at an all too common quagmire. Lacking the political clout to confront unrealistic expectations about containing what’s been a religious bush war since the 7th century, the president could’ve tried to seek guidance from a political demographics he hasn’t consulted with since his early days in office: his constituency. Instead, he appealed to an indifferent congress, whose many members of his party are at peril of losing their own comfy political seats in the coming midterm elections. Or even worse, to Republicans who, from day one, have never for a single moment supported any of his decisions. You may gather by now that we’re not optimistic about the outlook for a nuanced solution for the Middle East, specially because we don’t live in that zip code and those who do, don’t seem to give a damn about finding common ground as we do. Gee, with all the efforts to becoming energy-self-sufficient relying almost exclusively on fuel-based sources, one wonders why we remain so fixated on that part of the world. Coming full circle, for as long as there are powerful interests at risk, underlying and dictating our involvement out there, we don’t see how even more weapons will bring about a lasting solution for that mess. Specially while ordinary Americans are left to rot for lack of jobs, housing, better health care, and, yes, racial equality. Or why vilifying ideologies that oppress and deny citizens most basic rights sound so familiar. They may talk about leadership as if it were synonymous with bigger weapons, when most people know, or should, that one leads by example, by deeds, by standing in defense of those who can’t fend for themselves. The hungry, the sick, the homeless, deserve as much, if not more, compassion, and willingness to wage war, as those engaged in a death match to decide whose god is best, and whose followers are worthier. With the level of media manipulation we’ve been submitted, is not likely that a large-scale anti-war movement, a coalition of progressive forces of society, here and in the rest of the world, will hit the streets anytime soon. Not until blood starts spilling again, or some kind of draft is reinstated, forcing sons and daughters of privilege to serve and give their lives for the country, as it’s required from the poor and the immigrant. Short of that, we hope against hope that calmer minds and kinder hearts prevail, and peace efforts come to fruition and all that, of course. We haven’t given up but won’t apologize for not being overtly positive about our current predicament either. Still, as we tell each other and mean it, have a great week, for despite everything, we still have at least one condition to make all the good possible in this world: we’re alive. Since we’ve spoken of the U.K., a last, wee word to wish luck to our Scottish friends (and possibly distant relatives) at their own moment of reckoning. There’s no right or wrong way to go about it, so choose wisely and may your vote count for something good for all Scots.

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9/06/2014 The Dignity Collectors, Colltales

If you’re an American resident, you may live in a household that owes $15K in credit card debt. If there’s a mortgage, its outstanding debt may be $150K. And if there’s one or more college students sharing your last name, then there’s another $33K each to be added to the bill. Thus, without counting living expenses, just the fact that you live in the world’s richest country means that you’re also one of its most indebted human beings. No wonder that, amid a troubled economy, there’s a seemingly unbeatable business, reaping profits: debt collection agencies. Now, the data above may be gathered via Internet under the grand total of 5 minutes or less. No need to add insult, reminding those who owe money how hard it is to even make it, either. There’s a crucial, invisible, component to this dire calculation, however, that most are unaware of. And what average Americans don’t know about their own debt can actually ruin them, and it’s actually already doing it, stealthily. That is because, pinch your nose and hold your breath, no matter the amount that they owe, it has already being sold over for pennies on the dollar. This devious aspect of consumer debt is the hidden side behind the moralistic rhetoric of Dickensian concepts such as ‘living within one’s means’ and ‘personal responsibility.’ For these are all sound and truthful only and for as long as those who owe money remain indebted. The financial system, and in fact the entire economy, rest on the notion that debt is as much a factor of their liquidity as earned income and capital invested. But while for a government, the amount of debt is often an indication that it’s being used to build and provide infrastructure so to support the functioning of society, for an individual, such amount is indicative of his or her ability to contract more or less credit. Contrary to concerns of the ultra-rich, it’s not a government’s highest priority to be debt-free, as long as it’s under a well-determined balance of spending and output. But for individuals, such condition is often the key to opportunities for material improvement and security. As it happens, unlike governments, one can’t issue debt to cover bills, so if you owe money, you need to pay it up, and fast. Unfortunately, while a different set of rules applies to the wealthy, for the rest of us, falling into debt is often a condition that leads to even more indebtedness, and even social ruin. So we may struggle and skip meals to pay that bill on time, and not having to be burdened by higher rates. That’s when that utterly non-productive but highly profitable industry comes into play: the collection business. Most people think that its job is to contact debtors on behalf of creditors, work some kind of plan, collect a commission for their service, and be on their way. Since there are plenty of people behind on their bill payment schedules, one would think that’s enough of a business. They’d be wrong, of course. A debt collection agency’s main purpose is to purchase people’s debts, and they do so, legally, by pennies on the dollar. (To find out exactly how much less than the principal they’d pay for your debt is one of those Internet searches that will take way more than five minutes to know.) But the moment they purchase your debt, you have, in practice, two creditors coming after you: that agency, and your original credit card company, or mortgage holder, or online gaming provider, or retailer of specialty bras, whoever you owe money to. While the agency may offer you a deal, your original creditor will most likely not, adding instead, a stiff rate and penalties for your non payment. Now, at this point, while you scramble to sell stuff on eBay, or contact that distant relative/friend who owe you money, in order to come up with some to quench the monster, you debt is already on its way to change hands yet again. The agency that’s still sending you letters proposing you to settle, is also negotiating to sell that debt, again at a discount, to yet another agency, which may, you guessed it, come after you too. You’d ask, how can this be possible, that one bill’s default has potentially generated two others, and you’re being charged the original amount even as third-parties are buying it at a discount? Well, it’s a loophole or it’s a way for the system to feed itself, even as it pressures you to stop feeding yourself, so to speak. Also, by now, you may be wisen up to the scheme and thinking, why can’t I buy my own debt for pennies too? You can’t, as a matter of fact. Or you could, if you become, yourself, a licensed debt broker. We don’t know how are the job prospects on that market, so it’s up to you. But not all is greed and manipulation of people’s dignity by unseen forces in this world, and we can prove it. Enter initiatives such as the Rolling Jubilee, a network of debtors that gathers donations and buys consumer debt the same way a collection agency would. Except that, instead of reselling that debt, while still pressuring the indebted to pay up, it turns around and abolishes it. Debt forgiveness, in these hard-hearted times, may sound like a refreshing concept in the financial context, but it’s as ancient as the word jubilee itself. Christian and Judaic traditions already had a tradition to save a date, every 15 years, to forgive debt, free slaves, and generally be nice to god, who as everyone knows, was then as now prone to irrational, scorched-earth outbursts, which usually cost a, oh, but we digress. The organization, one of the most practical ideas to come out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, is now approaching its second anniversary, and has abolished close to $15 million in mostly medical debt, which was purchased with less than 1 million in donations. Of course, a non-profit initiative that’s supported by a network of volunteers and headed by an unpaid board of directors, has some gargantuan challenges to achieve its goals, not the least of them, fund raising and accounting. But there are other, even bigger obstacles to overcome too. One is raising awareness and trust from a citizenry already pounded daily by collectors with dubious claims. Also, debt stats are daunting and it’d take hundreds of similar groups to deflate debt shared by 77% of households, or the approaching $1 trillion figure of college tuition fees. Nothing compares though with the sheer power of the keepers of the status quo, in charge of making sure your debt is never redeemed but with yet more debt, and that your kids are on the hook for your defaults, and vice-versa, death be damned, unless you win the lotto or something. Take student debt, for instance. What was meant to open doors of higher education to low income candidates has metastasized into the opposite of its original purpose. It’s now a cash cow manipulated at will by for-profit colleges. These multimillion dollar institutions, by the way, have de facto become the nightmarish overlord of contemporary American education, assuring that only those who can afford it gain access to quality education. Rolling Jubilee’s stated purpose has always been to buy and abolish student loans, but their biggest chunk is government-guaranteed and not available for purchase. Private, unsecured student loans, however, are, and as the Rolling Jubilee set its sights on them, it also got in a collision course against the powerful lobby of the Apscu, the for-profit college’s trade group that’s been accused of unethical recruiting and advertising. Speaking of powerful interests, Sallie Mae, the biggest private student loan corporation, manages close to $200 billion in debt for more than 10 million students, the bulk of it sold to debt buying companies. Naturally, one’d expected that it’d sell its loans to the Rolling Jubilee too, since it was created in the 1970s as a government-sponsored enterprise to boost demand for college education by American students. But just as naturally, one would be dead wrong, for reasons that have little to do with the fact that, since 2004, it’s severed its ties to the government and it’s now publicly traded. Despite selling loans for as little as 15 cents on the dollar to two unnamed debt collection agencies, which as you now know, will gang up along with it on those students in default, Sallie Mae has officially refused to sell any of its portfolios to Rolling Jubilee. Even if it had offered a clear rationale for its decision, it simply doesn’t make any sense even from a strictly business standpoint. Which is obviously besides the point: the very likely cause is, you guessed, Rolling Jubilee’s plans to abolish the debt. Perhaps because of that, and other factors, Rolling Jubilee is searching for other ways to tackle the issue of crippling consumer debt that it’s mining hope of an entire generation to ever be in a position to contribute to this nation’s future. It says that ‘collective action is needed to address the systemic economic problems that force people into debt for basic needs like education,’ as reported by the Nation of Change paper. At this juncture, one wonders what other organized forces in American society would be interested in joining the efforts to turn all 2 to 4-year public colleges free of tuition, as it’s the Rolling Jubilee’s intention, or fighting to reduce credit card fees, or mortgage rates and foreclosures. Certainly very little should be expected from the average millionaire Congress member. After all, this affects only 99% of the population. But don’t be discouraged. While we’re not quite ready to unveil a homily on the virtues of debt forgiveness or a sermon on the irrevocable value of human dignity, we must add that no nation can prosper if it doesn’t give priority to the education and sheltering of its citizens. The enslavement of an entire generation by ever compounding debt woes is not just deeply unfair and unsustainable: it makes as much sense as building a country full of millionaires who don’t feel obligated to build the infrastructure they rely upon to secure their wealth. We were going to end this post with an ironic comment about the possible link between workers’ spending the least amount of vacation time, among industrialized nations, and our record levels of personal debt, but that may be in bad taste, considering that the majority of Americans simply have no time to relax and kick the wind. We leave you, instead, with the hope we can do something about it. Have a nice week.

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9/01/2014 The Plastic Oh, No, Band, Colltalers

‘I just want to say one word to you. Just one word… Are you listening? Plastics.’ That was the career advice offered to Benjamin Braddock, in the 1967 movie The Graduate. If the word was just a joke then, almost 50 years later, it now defines our way of life and may point to our demise. Its presence permeates almost everything considered essential to our living in this planet, plastic may also choke to death its lifeline, the oceans. Everyday, millions of discarded pieces of it reach the world’s waterways and join what’s an already incalculable amount of floating garbage. In fact, in this past half century, we’ve seen how insidious plastic clogging the world oceans has become: it has been found everywhere, from vast extensions, forming giant invisible islands of flotsam, to deep under the Arctic seas, and out of dead seabirds’ bursted open stomachs full of it. As part of our daily life, it’s also all over: in the computer where this post is being composed to cellphones, medicine bottles, to product packaging, food containers, to throwaway utensils. It’s almost discouraging to realize how hard it’d be for us do dig ourselves out of this lifestyle hole. But perhaps not all is lost. Two of the more ominous of its uses may represent both a way out and a method to wean ourselves from such pervasive product: plastic bags and bottles. They both encapsulate extremes of our societal behavior and offer interesting metaphors to our way of living. Take bags, for instance, banned this past week in California, which may be one of the most important steps taken against plastic pollution since recycling rules have been instituted in the U.S. A positive sign, indeed, that should ignite a chain reaction and lead to a nationwide ban. Created solely out of convenience, these bags are utterly replaceable, and yet, have a level of adherence in all walks of life that would baffle social scientists searching for common habits shared by all classes. It’s, however, one of the most environment-damaging habits we could possibly partake. So a ban, as it’s being pursued in New York and other states, and following some European countries, would represent a big step towards controlling ocean pollution, where they inevitably wind up, after decades in landfills. Would a ban also instill a reflection on our shopping obsessions? Nah. The other ominous use of polymers is even more ridden with the contradictions of our very own highfalutin approach to a natural lifestyle: bottles. Drinking bottled water became one the most terrible by-products of the ‘living healthy’ movement, one that added millions of tons of plastic to our already expanding garbage piles, beating even, oh, the irony, bottles of soda. And the makers of these products are still unaccountable for it. No wonder. Even those professing respect for nature have no problem paying top prices for water, spending thousands of dollars every year that could as well be directed to improving treatment plants. That would, arguably, result in better potable water coming from everybody’s taps. That’s not the point here, though. While a ban on bottles would be unpractical, recycling has made strides into curbing their waste. One would be surprised with the creative ways that even some very young people have come up with for recycling, turning plastic into fuel, street pavement, finding other uses for it, including art, filtering, composting and combining with natural elements, the list fortunately goes on and on. Across the world, thousands of volunteers have been cleaning beaches and resorts, collecting by hand tons of pieces of plastic that others leave behind, or the sea brings ashore. Most of what was once a toothbrush, or a container’s cap, or even a refrigerator door, is usually found as a fragment of eternal garbage, bound, if not picked, to remain there ages after everyone you know is gone from this earth. Science has also played a part in the efforts to reverse this toxic trend of civilization. Some types of fungi, for instance, have shown to feed on polyurethane. And research continues on bisphenol A, or simply BPA, a synthetic carbon compound known to emulate the effects of estrogen in the human body, found in most polymer products. Over or under exposure to estrogen can wreak havoc with human hormones, behavior, and brains. Apart from that, there are myths and misconceptions about both how sustainable the use of toxic products in our daily life is for the environment, and how pointless may be current efforts at recycling and reusing the same materials, so to extend their natural life cycle even longer. At the same time, we’re prone to sit and sulk over whether to change, while years go by and we still keep doing the same things over and over again. An interesting piece of trivia is that, while the first viable method to create plastic was developed by Leo Baekeland (remember Bakelite?) in 1907, according to Wikipedia, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has recently detected propylene, used to make plastic food containers, on Saturn’s moon Titan. Much closer home, the also recent discovery of rocks formed out of clumps of plastic on the shores of Hawaii is way more disturbing, as it shows the artificial element combining with the environment to form something at least as unpalatable to life on earth as an ocean choked up on plastic. And while we still argue about whether banning plastic bags, or recycling bottles for sports teams’ jerseys, are shortsighted approaches to the imminent danger of losing marine sea life at a catastrophic rate, at least they’re both things that anyone can do about the survival of this planet. As we mentioned, one promising component of current research on the recyclability and/or elimination of plastic is the work of teenagers from all over the world, contributing with their enthusiasm and clever solutions. They should put to shame anyone with doubts about their generation. Much more than previous ones, including ours, theirs is one engaged in fostering their own future, right now. Besides, of course, complaining about it. So before becoming preachy or having to pile up tons of links and references, to keep you abreast of what’s going on, let’s end it here. Surely you can manage it without our help. But today is the first day of a new month, as good as anytime to start something new. Why not get acquainted and, if at all possible, jumping into the fray of like-minded citizens, searching for a way out of plastics? Have a great Labor Day and see you in September. ***

8/25/2014 What May Not Change for Brazil, Colltalers

A little over a week from the final month before the October 5 Brazilian presidential election, what had been a relatively easy ride to reelection for President Dilma Rousseff has turned into turmoil after the shocking death of former Pernambuco State Governor Eduardo Campos. But even as the fateful plane crash has moved some vital pieces on the chessboard of Brazil’s politics, the essence of the game is slated to remain pretty much the same, with seasoned players reaching out to their well-known bag of tricks to prevent neophytes to get pass the front door. Campos was a distant third in the race, a curiously mild candidate coming from a combative political dynasty – his grandfather, Miguel Arraes, a charismatic former governor deposed and driven to exile in 1964 by the military coup, also died in the same August 13, nine years before. As it happens in politics, Campos’s Veep, Marina Silva, a former environment minister in the Lula administration, has jumped in the pools since his death, and now threatens to take the incumbent to a second round, when presumably, her chances for winning may even increase. The accident also caused another unexpected development in the race: the apparent derailment of the campaign of Aécio Neves, also a former governor with a famous grandfather, Tancredo Neves, and the candidate of former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s party, the PSDB. Before going further, let’s quickly review the acronyms soup that characterizes Brazil’s party politics: Rousseff is a member of PT, the Workers’ Party, a dominant force in Brazilian politics even before President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was elected in 2003 for the first of his two terms. He succeeded PSDB’s Cardoso, also a two-term president, who despite claims of having tamed the hyper-inflation or stabilized the real currency, of which nevertheless he was instrumental, will be remembered mostly for having presided over a period of political stability, a relief for a nation that was, and to some it still is, reeling from 20-plus hard years of dictatorship. Cardoso did usher back a better country to Brazilians. His Brazilian Social Democracy Party has been the other major political force in the country politics, representing the upper elites, which once again are jockeying to regain some of the power they once enjoyed and have been somehow deflated by Lula’s brand of populism. In reality, while both emerged from the old warhorse PMDB of dictatorship times, the PT has ruled with the same pragmatic zeal, and at times, spurious alliances with more conservative forces, that marked Cardoso’s years in Brasília. Beside scandals that singed both administrations, and those that also spilled over to Rousseff’s, both continued better attuned to their constituencies than to ideology and the old left-right signposts. As a party perceived to favor corporations and privatization, flags tirelessly waved during the rallies for Neves, one of its most wide ranging policy accomplishments was the establishment of early programs of income distribution that the PT’s gladly took ownership of afterwards. The PT, on the other hand, while redefining and extending such programs into national policies designed to focus on the so-called Class C, or lower income Brazilians, has been criticized for its opening to foreign capital and relatively high reliance on its banking system. Despite its inability to cleanse itself from corruption and political compromising, its lack of a fresh set of ideas to move the country forward, and an over-ambitious gumption to remain in power, there’s little doubt that the PT has effectively promoted tremendous social change in Brazil. But whereas both parties differ in the candidates’ rhetoric, and some superficial points of their platforms, they’ve recognized early on the importance of a strong finance system and an independent central bank. Taken together, these were two of the most crucial reasons why Brazil was hardly affected by the U.S. subprime crisis of 2008 and following Great Recession that wrecked havoc with the global financial system. Then there are the new realities of this election cycle, with Campos’s Brazilian Socialist Party now poised to make strides toward a political representation it lacked even when Marina Silva left PT and joined it, in 2009, and early this year, was nominated vice-president candidate. Among the other contenders to the high office, who’ll likely be stopped on the first round, there’s an assortment of candidates supported openly or not by the Evangelical right, which may consolidate its power as one of the richest and most influential political forces in Brazil right now. Not swayed by such a dangerous trend, we’d singled out PSOL, the Socialism and Freedom Party formed by PT politicians expelled in 2004 for opposing Lula’s pension fund reforms. It’s Brazil’s most leftist party today but is far from being a political force to be reckoned with. And Partido Verde, the Green Party, which after notable progresses in the 1990s, along with its European counterparts, has faded arguably for lack of talented leaders and/or a common global agenda in defense of the environment. Not unlikely to what happened in the U.S., by the way. The environment and the Amazon rainforest have been two missing themes in the current campaign, even though they offer some perspective about both Rousseff’s tenure and Marina Silva’s credentials. They don’t explain, however, why most Brazilians don’t seem to care about them. Amazon’s rate of deforestation has slowed down but it may have been less a result of Rousseff’s policies and more due to factors outside her sphere of influence. In fact, under the president’s watch, Brazil’s has passed a deeply troubling Forest Code, deemed a backwards move by environmentalists as it lessens penalties and accountability of old culprits of the deforestation, and increases the forest peoples’ vulnerability. As an Environment Minister, Marina Silva has fought powerful agribusiness interests, and gained the fame and enemies for being resistant to compromises on that front, until she stepped down in 2008, during Lula’s second term. But now, with her vice president running mate, Beto Albuquerque, having close ties with farming interests, she may tone down considerably her fervor. Which would be a loss to Brazil. Apart from that, her own links to the Evangelical right may be a handicap in this election, as she’s likely to be questioned about crucial themes related to working women, reproductive rights, and sexuality, compared to the more tough-minded and politically capable Rousseff. As for the president, whose personality as an abrasive and straight talking politician stands in contrast with her timid efforts, in the political realm, to imprint Brazil with causes dear to her, she’s been nonetheless successful in navigating the country through diminishing economic returns and Lula’s shadow, which can be counted both as a powerful protection and an emasculating presence, hindering her efforts to stand out. Neves, stunned in the past months by intense scrutiny over his personal conduct, family fortune, and surprising hesitancy affirming his leadership strengths, has also being the target of a vicious campaign that threatens to divert all attention from his proposals. Brazilian politics are tough, but to Neves, they’ve been particularly nasty; just check his slur-ridden Wikipedia page, which seems to have been hijacked by enemies. Public record manipulation is not exclusive to Brazil, of course, and the line between what’s a fact and what’s a downright lie gets blurred as often there as anywhere else. But it’s still startling that a major presidential candidate’s campaign hasn’t been able to revise his Wikipedia bio yet. As the choice for a new leader of Latin America’s largest economy hits the homestretch, there are already two certainties about what’s next for Brazil, regardless of who wins, or what party will control the most congressional seats, apart from the fact that none will be able to rule alone. PT and PSDB are set to remain the two dominant forces in Brazilian politics, the major strains through which runs the bulk of political ideas to animate the outlook for Brazil in the next four years. No other party comes close to their political and economical clout. But, and that will be a first, there’s now a legion of contenders to lead the nation, if not in this election, at least in the next, who did not live through the dictatorship and some weren’t even born before it ended, in the mid 1980s. They may set the tone for a big change going forward. At 49, Campos was the youngest among those with chances to win the presidency: Rousseff will be 67 in December, and Marina Silva is 58. So even though many called out his age as a compounding loss in his untimely death, neither he, nor the next president will be part of the generation that grew up with the Internet, or is someone who’s never made a call using a rotary phone. A wide-scope demographics analysis puts at over 16% the percentage of Brazilians between 15 and 24 years old, among the estimated 194 million population. Some of them will be voting now, as it is obligatory in Brazil. But all are expected to vote four years from now. As we witness the astounding power of the Internet and social networks in contemporary politics, and how the new trend’s catapulted President Obama to the White House in 2010, it’s fair to expect that a generation more in synch with global themes of environmental protection, climate change, and alternative sources of energy, all relatively absent in this campaign, may demand a more substantive change in Brazilian politics. We’re not holding our breath for that to happen, of course, but the rise of Marina Silva, despite her shortcomings as a politician and religion allegiances, may represent the push Rousseff needs to veer the country into a new, less insular and parochial, direction. As the election approaches, we’ll get back to the subject, possibly finding new angles to discuss in a way you can relate to it, as usual. In the meantime, have a great week.

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8/18/2014 The Ones They Pick, Colltalers

Young, poor, and black. It’s tempting to highlight these three stereotypes to qualify the brutal street combat going on in cities across the U.S. these days, pitting a growing contingent of the able and willing but disenfranchised and excluded, against a military style, armory-clad police force. It’s also easy to characterize such violent confrontations, between unarmed civilians, picked individually or in group, against overly equipped law enforcement soldiers, as an escalation of anarchy, growing lack of discipline or downright disrespect for the law of the land. Such gross simplifications, though, despite being trumpeted 24/7 by the mainstream media – a term that by now has all the derision of a slur -, can have not just a dehumanizing but also a deeply damaging impact on any attempt to access the roots of what’s going on in America, circa 2014. Taken one by one, each of such characterizations holds some truth to explain the killings of innocent Americans within the homeland – and not in far away places, since those aren’t even part of the current debate. The same homeland often invoked with sacrossant zeal by those trusted to protect the law, when they happen to break it themselves. In the end, though, every stereotype fails to unravel the hidden picture behind the shootings. By isolating factors such as age, social class, and race, be them as encroached and incendiary as they may, we risk derailing efforts to find context-based solutions, historical, social, and demographic elements that don’t easily fit in the soundbites fed us by the news cycle, and ultimately miss the point of what it is to be, nowadays, a citizen in the land of the free and home of the brave. Because that’s what should be at stake here. What kind of society we’re building, what type of generation we’re forming, and even more important, what part of what this nation was build upon we’re willing to give up, in order to reaffirm dangerous ideals of supremacy and exceptionality, of power to the already powerful, and survival of the fittest to everyone else. For as long as we refuse to formulate these themes into the national conversation, we’re doomed to repeat ourselves. Take age, for instance. It doesn’t pass even a relatively lax scrutiny, for along so many young lives befallen under law enforcement bullets in inner cities across the country, unfortunately another huge, and not so young, segment of the mentally impaired, the disabled, and the dispossessed, to mention but a few, have also fell victim of indiscriminate and institutionalized violence. So, that sort of yardstick simply doesn’t cut it. Neither does the one about rising poverty, which indeed breeds fertile grounds for blood spilling and impunity, but could never per se shed light on explosive class confrontations, mainly because they, alas, haven’t yet taken hold in the U.S. It does a bit to explain the increasing sophistication of police weaponry, however, and we’ll get back to that flaming issue in a moment. For the purpose of isolating causes, though, it’s inadequate. And finally, race, which is by far, the most assertive of such causes, as there’s no doubt left about it being the main trigger behind the killings of Ferguson’s Michael Brown, of New York’s Eric Garner, and way back when, Sanford’s Trayvon Martin (it feels like it was ages ago, doesn’t it?), again to name but three. And of countless tragic incidents of profiling, which absolutely wouldn’t have happened if we were living in saner times. Scenes of confrontation between people and police this week in Ferguson, do indeed report us all back to the 1960s, and the street battles for civil rights that led to important progresses for racial equality in this country. Although cynics point to the fact that the Missouri city having a majority of black people, and a white police force, is a sign that those battles are all but conveniently forgotten by now, we don’t subscribe to that. Then again, neither can we subscribe to the idea of racism, as raw and unresolved and surprisingly still ingrained as it is, as the sole cause for what’s happening. Or that it can put us on the road to understanding why this nation is hurting so much and when did we exactly stopped caring enough to realize that this can’t be the place we’d call the united states of our home. More like Soweto in the same 60s, or Baghdad just about now. Racism continues to be a nefarious motivation behind the relentless, and unjust, victimizing of innocent Americans, who just like they’d in post-slavery times, Apartheid Africa, and the U.S. in the 1950s, continue to be singled out and hunted like ravenous beasts. It has the nasty effect of uncover our worse qualities and no American should rest until it’s completely eradicated in this country. It’s just not a catchall for what’s going on. For its part, the media boost ratings by highlighting half-truths, misplaced and disguised as causes for the turmoil. Case in point: the military gear and high-destructive power that police departments have been endowed with in the last years. The half-truth goes on the account that it’s indeed an absurd that a force designed to protect rights of all individuals seems better prepare to military campaigns on a battlefield. The half that’s missing about such a focus of coverage, never mind the copious descriptions of weaponry and almost salacious language to please any militiamen, is that this surplus of equipment has been funded by an overinflated Pentagon budget, mass produced by defense contractors, and, when they proved inadequate to wage modern wars overseas, promptly dumped on local politicians’ coffers. Cops certainly enjoyed them as gifts. But they’re not the ones that should be getting the attention, and the good graces of local and federal politicians, though, and that may lead us to trace the tread of causes, not quite glamorous enough to enhanced the headlines on the current and past urban crisis. Talk about age? What kind of education this generation has been getting anyway? In the past decade, cuts in resources, teachers’ salaries, and quality of education have been so deep that even institutions not prepared to offer a free, science-based instruction, gladly stepped in the gap, offering their mix of superstition and faith in lieu of teaching principles of humanism and moral, democracy and evolution pupils so crave and lack. About class, what about the costs of higher education? The price of a degree became so incredibly high in the span of a single generation, that today it’d be virtually impossible for Barack Obama to become president, even if one subtracts the glaring fact that he’s, above all, a black man. Speaking of race, what a young, poor, black boy to do today to get himself out of his birth setup? Not much, as it turns out, with Affirmative Action programs being discontinued by colleges across the country – many with higher real estate investments and executive pay costs, than educational programs and social assistance – and dropout rates growing steady from middle to high school, and translating in dwindling numbers in universities. Plus, with local politicians being content in supporting the manufacturing of obsolete tanks in their districts, since payout is considerable, money for technical learning skills programs and community colleges has become scarce to the point that even a prestigious but free, working class institution such as Cooper Union, in New York, is fighting students and activists to start charging tuition. So, the killing of 18-year old Brown, as of those before him and, tragically, the ones to certainly follow his fate, is obviously not an easy, three-pronged situation that’s suddenly escalated out of control, leading to yet another sad chapter of our increasingly militarized streets and backyards. And we didn’t even mention the abundance of guns, another ready-made argument often invoked as a cause, and then filed again, to explain these confrontations. We’re not saying that it should, but it’s likely that all the commotion and sadness left in the wake of yet another unjustified police killing, will also be filed away in a few days, before we dwell any deeper than the last time around on its underlying causes. But if it’s said that history progresses at a glacial pace, it also advances in unexpected leaps, always vulnerable to reversals and setbacks, yes, but always moving forward nevertheless. Social pain has a cumulative effect; there’s a moment when the storm gathers enough static energy to unleash its transformative power. Those already drenched have an edge, but anyone can have a part on the changing conditions and healing process. If the last metaphor was too obscure, let’s just say that any discussion about contemporary America today has to cut deeper than formulaic approaches to age, class, and race. It’s ultimately unfair to the not-yet spoiled hope of millions of young, poor, and black, who believe they can be the future. Bless their shining vision of a better country tomorrow. It starts today, and for your week ahead, all we wish is for it to be peaceful and better.

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8/11/2014 The Hidden Sickness, Colltalers

As the marathon of grotesque headlines continues to pound and puncture our collective bubble, one moment being about the restart of carnage at Gaza, another about U.S. airstrikes on Islamic State of Iraq forces, it’s hard to wrap our heads around any single issue. Some may choose the Ebola virus outbreak, as desperate that may be, either because it’s contained within Africa, and chances of spreading out of there are nearly nil, or out of a natural humanitarian concern, a muscle we can all develop and exercise. Another look at what’s happening, though, even if hindered by that aforementioned limited ability of grasping events one at a time, may uncover deeper roots for what appears to be a world suddenly out of whack. And, surprise, surprise, they’ve been there all along. Staying with the health disaster of having a virus running rampant through fertile grounds of insanitary, raw-sewage-at-the-doorstep, so familiar to Africa, Latin America, Asia and, grasp, America, we come quickly to the realization that, first, this latest crisis is neither purely medical nor new, and even if this virus is ‘over there,’ there are other dragons to slay right outside our own door. Let’s skip, for the sake of this argument, the fact that viruses have been around before most species came to be, and will probably be here long after our own civilization is gone the way of the saber-toothed cat and the dodo. In other words, they’re invincible. Never mind that, for a moment, and focus instead on the fact that contagion of most viral diseases is directly related to unsanitary conditions, untreated human waste in the scale needed for urban settlements, and lack of access to proper preventive drug therapies. That’s where we run out of excuses, because for at least a century we’ve been aware of what takes for humans to live together in society, and the massive infrastructure that warrants the continuation of the species, even if that’s not your priority these days. In the textbook on the confluence of public health and urban development, we can’t help it but using Africa yet again, a continent that’s served to both noble flights of voluntarism and entrepreneurship, and also for downright gangsterism and greed. Take South Africa, for instance, a country of 51 million, with a GDP close to $400 billion which is, by no stretch, not your average African economic stats. It’s plagued, however, by staggering gaps between the very rich and the most miserable, something we’ve become well acquainted to, whether in São Paulo, Los Angeles, or Paris. But knowing that can’t prepare us for what we’re facing. It’s long known that AIDS has been a catastrophic public health scourge, and that in Africa it counts much of the sexually active female population as victims. Since such dire prospect is compounded by the fact that other at-risk demographics, so-called sexual minorities, are publicly scorned and persecuted, what you get is that sad, stereotypical portrait fed to the world by the media. Now, though, there’s yet another stunning twist: a rising young population addicted to a homemade mixture of cheap heroine, rat poison, cleaning products and, please have a seat, HIV antiretroviral medication. You read it right, the same medicine developed to beat AIDS from a dead sentence into a chronic disease, is being used for a highly-debilitating drug habit, in yet another health crisis. Again, what’s new about all of that is not the devilish creative ways humans, specially the predatory kind, will find to get its prey high, but that in a country with such a hefty GDP, unemployment, illiteracy, and poverty still oppress a quarter of its population. Which means that even if the cure for AIDS or even addiction, for that matter, would be found, say, tomorrow, conditions fueling the crisis created in their wake would remain in place and take the same deadly toll on countless lives, that could otherwise thrive. In the case of Sierra Leone and Liberia, the bizarre twist is that people are actually being advised to flee hospitals, said to have the virus ‘on their walls,’ and seek refuge in improvised outdoor tents, where they’re vulnerable to a whole host of other woes. Unreal. Except that it isn’t. From the now identified 2-year old Patient Zero for this crisis, to the estimated 2,000 dead in the past months, the chain of events leading to contagion of ever wider populations necessarily goes through lack of sanitation and running water. Even if the rate and speed of the contamination and death are indeed staggering, however, it’s statistically unsustainable, according to public health experts, and as with any other viral spread, it’ll subside by a combination of care and the own nature of virus outbreaks. We’re not making thrift of those who fell to this terrible disease, and what it does to a healthy human being. Or dismissing efforts to contain the Ebola being done in Africa and the U.S., where fears of an outbreak are not just exaggerated but also manipulated. For they now serve also the xenophobic and racist impulses of so many with unduly space voicing their nasty prejudices on mass media. But the hidden crisis, which won’t go away and runs deep underneath public displays of despair and intolerance, is likely to remain in place for as long as will the kind of politics that many African leaders favor, with little regard to human dignity and right to be free. If it all sounds rhetoric, and it is, we haven’t talked about the drugmakers’ role yet, our final twist for today, as surprising parallels can be traced between the most forsaken pockets of poverty in the underdeveloped world and the planet’s richest economy, the U.S. Such links are possible because there are only some two dozen pharmaceutical companies controlling production and, more relevant, development of all new drugs. Thus, interest in producing another headache medicine is likely more important for them than to venture in the risky task of creating one for an exotic disease, whose potential consumers may not even be able to afford buying it. That, in a nutshell, is the essence of the business of profiting out of human illnesses: first and foremost, it’s a business, so they’ll produce more of what’s already selling, and less of what may ultimately not sell at all. Humanitarian and/or medical considerations are not a priority. No wonder, the revolutionary drug cocktail that controls AIDS was initially developed with government funds. The parallel is that, while AIDS organizations successfully forced some labs to cut prices of vital medicines and work with local governments, to provide them to those in need, drugs are still expensive and have to be constantly kept from getting even pricier. Again, to keep the conversation going, we’re not talking about efforts to deliver and administer them, as difficulties of access and the strict regularity required to follow a prescription regime can derail even a well planned treatment. A New York Times story last week showed how Sovaldi explains charging $1,000 a pill of its new Hepatitis C drug, said to have 95% rate of cure in a fraction of the time taken by previous treatments: soaring demand for it and expected short time for its use. With estimated 3,2 million Americans infected, one wonders what kind of treacherous rationale is the one that spins the need and efficacy of a new drug, not to eradicate the illness for which was created, but to justify prohibitive prices and maximize profits before enough people are cured and no longer need it. The one-side story, by the way, completely skims over patient activists’ arguments. In that particular, the situation in the U.S. is worse than even comparable economies, such as in Europe. A good example is the medication for Asthma, which afflicts about 40 million Americans, and costs them several times more than to European patients. That’s because, unlike the U.K., France, and other countries, the current U.S. health system limits the government’s bargaining power to lower drug and therapy prices, except within Medicare. Although Obamacare’s been an improvement, insurance corporations and drug labs still have the upper hand setting up prices, and determining what gets to the market and how much it will cost. And don’t let us get started with the cancer drug industry, which feeds off the general public’s empathy but hasn’t made much inroads towards a real cure in the past 40 years. Patients still go through the traditional, and gruesome, routine of harsh drugs, chemo and radiation therapy, terrible side effects, and a relatively low rate of remission for most cancers, that has been around since the 1970s. For similar reasons that we now must fight the tendency of averting our eyes to the resuming hostilities in Gaza, fatigued by so much death and apparent unwillingness by the parties involved to seek a permanent solution, we can’t think that once U.S. warplanes obliterate advancing ISIS armies in Iraq, or the latest Ebola outbreak is controlled, we’re safely on our way home. We need to keep paying attention, for neither peace will be achieve by the roars of explosive charges, nor a single drug therapy will lead the world out of the grips of a lethal virus. Long after the Middle East fires cool off, and way before a new virus rears its infinitesimal head inside a human body, the system that breeds both things will remain intact and ready to host new tragedies. New rules and restrictions, on a global, governmental scale, will have to be imposed on the billion dollar business of drug producing. Big labs can’t possibly heed only to the siren call of money-counting machines, and thrive unbound by ravages of disease, which give them reason to be, if we’re to survive as an entire civilization, not just a wealthy group of individuals who can afford being sick. It may be time to reset our collective moral compass and force a conversation about what means for a corporation and its shareholders to do business involving human health. For it’s a right of every individual that’s being neglected with disturbing consistency and impunity. Now let us all go back to that unfortunate other business of death and destruction in the Middle East. Despite of it all, we still wish you a great week.

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8/04/2014 As Gaza Burns, Africa Pays a Visit, Colltalers

For the second consecutive week, we’ll try to duck the beast in the room, and avoid expressing our disgust with what’s happening in Gaza. Not only the reality on the ground shows no sign of letting up anytime soon, but, even if it did, it would no longer make a difference. So it happens that a record 50 African leaders are coming to the U.S. this week just as some dramatic news – a deadly Ebola outbreak and a partial victory for gay rights – are calling attention yet again to the continent, that is, as if the usual menu of miseries was not enough. More about that below, but first let’s update the bloodbath in the Middle East with a surprising new element coming to the fore: the almost unanimous condemnation of Israel’s actions by Latin American leaders, in sync with growing street rallies in support of the Palestinians. A region that’s been experiencing sustained economic stability, despite growing pains and setbacks, is now also affirming its new found political clout, and the manifestations in its cities this past week have set a new front of opposition to Israel halfway across the globe. That front widens the gap between the U.S. and its allies, and isolates even more its unquestioning support of PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s military offensive against Hamas, which does seem willing to sacrifice as many lives as it deems fit in order to hold its grip over Gaza. The irony is that support for Hamas before the conflict, was already faltering, both among the Palestinians and by Iranian hardliners, and it wouldn’t have gained the upper hand if Israel’s own hardliners hadn’t opposed the agreement to share power it signed in April with Fatah. The point is that, although an organization such as Hamas should’ve never come to control the fate of almost two million Palestinians, given its hate policies and terrorist tactics, responsibility for the bloody escalation must be placed also with Bibi and his Likud Party, for making concessions to extremists, encouraging settlements on Palestinian land, and relentlessly campaigning to demoralize Fatah. Finally, an additional reason for many Latin American, and European, nations to now withhold unqualified support to Israel’s position, may have to do with an old suspicion that haunted the U.S.’s own invasion of Iraq: the drive to control Gaza’s rich natural reserves. In this case, that may be more than a suspicion: in the previous Gaza conflict, in 2007, Israel’s then Defense Force (IDF) chief of staff, and now current Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, had expressed concerns that newly discovered gas fields could fall under Hamas control, despite being located in territorial waters off the coast of Israel and Gaza, and disputed by the two, plus Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus. Ya’lon – who’s a ‘distant relative’ of Hadar Goldin, a soldier reportedly kidnapped by Hamas Friday, or killed in action, according to the IDF – has not said that the gas fields are a war priority this time around. And neither has any other authority. But it’s a fact that growing demand for energy has been used as a justification for war by many a nation, and there’s no reason to believe Israel wouldn’t do the same. Even if some troops have already been pulled out of Gaza, something seems to have broken for good old assumptions about war etiquette, held on since the Geneva Convention: the undiscriminated bombing of hospitals and schools full of innocent children and civilians. Despite months of preparation, and superior weaponry (provided by the U.S. defense industry, of course), the increasingly desperate military has failed to hinder Hamas’s ability to hurt, guerrilla style, Israel, through its intricate, and still largely undetected, maze of tunnels. Perhaps unprecedented support from other Arab states has clouded Israel’s usual concerns about public opinion in the West. With the revelation that its intel agencies have kept tabs on Secretary of State John Kerry’s communications, time is ripe for the U.S. to take stock and leverage its position as weapons provider, by forcing an unrepentant Netanyahu to consider other options. For soon enough, he may find that waging war on Hamas as proxies for old enemies won’t prevent Israel from still being seen as the bad guy by the world. Back to Africa (so much for ducking the gorilla, but if you’re anything but deeply frustrated by the apparently inexorability of the events in the Middle East, we haven’t done our job): the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit’s stated goal is to boost economic ties with the continent. But even for a region usually rife with seemingly intractable developmental ills for the 15% of the world’s population that it holds, the past months have been particularly emblematic, with two major issues offering a summary of sorts for the extremes that usually call it home. One is the fight for gay rights, which has suffered tremendous setbacks in several countries, from Uganda to Ivory Coast, Rwanda to Senegal. In fact, in 38 of its 55 nations, homosexuality is illegal and may be punished by death, either by the state or by vigilante groups. So it was a rare, and major, victory for the LBGT community in Uganda, when an American Evangelicals-inspired anti-gay law was stricken down, even if on a technicality and with not much of a repercussion on the country’s sex-restrictive colonial legislation. Even as there have been calls for President Obama to disinvite Ugandan dictator, Yoweri Museveni, it makes more sense to let him, and the many others just like him, to come and be forced to explain themselves before the American public and a world audience as many African leaders of vicious regimes form the bulk of the political thugs being sought by international criminal courts such as The Hague. There are many other important items in the agenda of discussions, including protection to wild life, social investments, and government accountability, but to start demanding more respect to gay rights in exchange for aid is as good a way as any to set the summit’s tone. The other major issue, equally scarier if more restricted in scope, is the troubling outbreak of the Ebola virus in the West of Africa. The latest crisis has already killed over 600 people in just three weeks, and cost the life of a leading virologist, Liberia-born Dr. Samuel Brisbane. Kent Brantly, an American doctor who was researching the virus, has also been infected and is back in the U.S. for treatment. Now, viruses have preceded mankind on this planet and most likely will outlive our civilization, so that’s not the news about the recent outbreak. Neither is the fact that they can’t be prevented from appearing or that, once they reach a certain stage of infection, most are fatal. We can, however, control and minimize the chances for them to pop up and take hundreds of lives before a global coordinated effort can be put into place. Thus, this is an issue that deserves to occupy a central role in the summit’s panels. And despite all, so far unfounded, fears of contamination on a global scale, the U.S. and Europe, where most drug corporations are based, are crucial for the solution. That’s where the Obama administration has to be a capable mediator to bridge the financial and political gaps between an impoverished populace in need of medical solutions, and the pharmaceutical industry, which tends to invest only on therapies with proven potential for profitability. It may not be easy, of course, as many African leaders are also fully invested in raising their own personal wealth. The world seems in a hurry to go to hell in a basket, if one believes that sort of thing, and may feel tempted to kick the bucket and embrace the cliches for good: we’re all going to die anyway. But don’t buy it and don’t give up; not yet, anyway. If you’re spending your morning reading this, it means that you still have a choice to make a difference, one that’s been denied as we speak to billions of people. We’re not about to go Pollyanna all over you this late in the game, but there’s still a big, glaring difference being doing what you can to make it better and being, well, indifferent one way or another. For those falling amid the rubble of Gaza, or being chased down by a ravenous mob for their sexual orientation, or bleeding to death under a tent in a desert somewhere, no such luxury has been given. Either we do it in their honor, or for any other what-the-hell reason, most of us can hardly have a chance to do anything more important with our lives, rather than to be sentient to the needs of those we don’t even know. Have a great August.

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7/28/2014 Things We Don’t Understand, Colltalers

The struggle to wrap our minds around multiple, escalating conflicts in the world today can trick us into embracing questionable assumptions, so to cut corners and arrive quickly at a deeply delusional position: that of being the ones dolling out judgement and decisions over the lives of millions. As unsustainable as such a stand is, is the growing list of things we simply can’t understand. We’re not talking about big themes here, hunger, poverty, even war. Humbly, we’d like to focus today on only three of the many baffling things that we have no grasp of in contemporary America. We don’t know how can a movement exist for a new armed intervention in Iraq, given not just what’s already happened but what’s actually happening in that scorched region. Second, we have no clue how come polls point to a GOP victory in the November elections, regaining the Senate and keeping the House, when the party’s been in the wrong side of history lately in pretty much every conceivable modern issue. And, lastly, we confess our ignorance of what made the Obama Administration endorse the use of air guns for seismic exploration of oil and gas in the Atlantic, preparing the way for drilling off the Eastern seaboard, considering the proven damage these blasts cause to marine mammals and, for crying out loud and for the one hundredth million time, our urgent need to stop prospection and use of petroleum-based fuel for energy. Admittedly, these three, almost randomly selected issues, pale in comparison with what’s going on Gaza, for instance. We’re watching hopelessly killing and destruction verging on genocide, arguably smaller in scale but not unlike what we’re unfortunately used to seeing happening in Africa. We could be talking about Boko Haram’s relentless campaign of terror in Nigeria and even across the border, specially against women as they’ve just kidnapped the wife of Cameroon’s vice prime minister, which is still horrible but surprising, considering their usual slant towards teenage girls. Or Ukraine, Russia, Syria, Afghanistan. Never mind war, what about the Ebola outbreak in Serra Leone and surroundings? Under such rationale, whatever our self-delusional fancy strikes, offering our take about every issue known to man, is fair game. But we can’t subscribe to any of that. Further into this digression, that’s why our choice of themes is as unpredictable as events randomly develop, so not to preach and also to pick our fights as we go. That is, if you can even call it a fight the act of writing about what goes on around, within the safe confines of one’s secluded cave. Back to those three puzzles, how can we even discuss another intervention in Iraq, after spending a decade wrecking the country, spilling the blood of over 4,400 Americans, plus hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, besides maiming a combined several hundred thousands, and wasting close to a trillion dollars in costs, by conservative estimates? All to see the ancient conflict between Sunnis and Shiites to be reawaken over and over again. The invasion of Iraq, based on lies concocted by the Bush administration, its media cronies, and an at least one unquestioning ally, the U.K., was a tragedy not just in terms of human and material costs, but also for squandering the brief world support the U.S. got after the 9/11 attacks, and taking away for good the now discredited perception of us always picking the moral side of human rights and the rule of the law on global issues. It’s also infuriating when a ghoul such as the previous U.S. vice president, who promoted a criminal, self-serving agenda on behalf of a nation too stunned to act on its own volition, reappears now, unapologetic as ever, craving for the bully pulpit he once occupied with particular cruelty. Speaking on not being on the human side, how can a number of polls indicate with such conviction that in the midterm elections, Republicans are set to regain Senate majority, while keeping theri grip on the House, when they’ve been blatantly proud of being mistaken about every relevant issue of our time, from women reproductive rights, to church and state separation, to corporate greed, to immigration and gay rights. How can a party that has consistently alienated the interests of over half of the population, women, undermining every hard won right to choose, be a favorite to win any election, let alone that of local representatives? Is it even possible, if most women decide to vote in November? How can the GOP, having sheltered religious extremism and anti-science movements, denying evolution and man-made climate change, be scientifically ahead on the polls, unless they’ve been conducted among the wealthiest, who are known for not being too keen about voting rights? And how is it possible for the party of the gun-rights advocates, and anti-immigration, and against ‘big’ government and social inclusion, but that nevertheless, has a massive number of members supported by federal welfare programs, be also the one pro-corporations, unless they are, in fact, artificially fueling much of the discontent with a black president, and articulating behind the scenes, the latest craze, the calls for his impeachment? Finally, how can a president who has been unfairly chastised for his push towards the development of alternative sources of energy, and who’s faced more than his share of criticism for his stand (even if not much else) against big oil, now, in the last years of his term, allow it to explore potential petroleum fields, miles under the Atlantic surface, with a technology that’s known for being harmful to whales and dolphins? As with evolution and man-made global warming, the connection between the powerful submarine blasts and the worldwide beaching of whales and dolphins has been thoroughly established, since the Cold War days when the Navy conducted experiments with high frequency sonars. Despite all that, the Navy plans to intensify its testings in the next five years, which involve the air gun cannons. And now, the door has been opened to even less concerned parties, as the Department of Interior gave clearance to the oil and gas industry to blast their riches away. We know we’re playing a bit coy here, by using some beaten rhetorical figures to prove a point. But many of us do get flabbergasted on a regular basis by just the sheer enormity of what we don’t know, and following the headline news of the day simply won’t help us to catch up with any of it. We may sound arbitrary in picking these and not other issues, or even for deciding to say something about them. Considering that we’re aware we’re not adding anything anew, it’s no wonder that each of our readers would have a different set of issues to focus on a daily basis, at any given time. But what’s behind a renewed push towards invading Iraq yet again may be a desperate need to keep those defense dollars flowing, as simply bombing everyone we don’t like can no longer be a valid foreign policy. And behind polls that seem so apart from the reality on the ground, one has to wonder whether it’s not all part of an effort to move voters in just such a direction. As for how the GOP may stage a win, we still have no clue. And if we have to overstate our case, nothing is more political than our energy policies. The fact that it’s now, once again, being swayed back to one of oil exploration, along with multiplying fracking projects countrywide, and talk of a nuke rebranding, what we may be witnessing is a troubling trend towards undermining wind and solar energy projects, while doubling down on old choices that assure the dominance of the status quo. Now, that’s a fight we can take up on and win, with no blood to be spilled but many heads to roll, so to snatch a nation from its profiteering puppet masters, and rescue an ocean for its majestic creatures. Enjoy the last days of July.

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7/21/2014 Speaking of Known Evils, Colltalers

The two brutal events that have seized worldwide headlines this past week – the newest flareup in the age-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the downing of the Malaysian commercial airline over Ukraine – have visited their victims with the prospect of a lifetime of grief and regret. To everyone else not directly involved, however, even a qualified analysis of these tragedies can become a minefield of self-important punditry and rancorous radicalism. To navigate such a path with a minimal sense of justice and impartiality is simply no longer an option. The magnitude of these events have also the ability of covering up, even if only for the duration of a 24h news cycle, all other tragic, ongoing miseries festering around the world, from the street trenches of Aleppo, to raging firefights in Kabul, to the Central American refugee children crisis in the U.S., to widespread hunger, poverty, and environmental woes that won’t fail to exact their grim tolls, just because we aren’t looking. After all, it is all too human to prioritize our attention, and set sights on a few targets at a time. That doesn’t exempt or redeem anyone from the objectionable crime of dozing off or zooming out of the catastrophes all around us, so to get some sleep, literally or figuratively. But even invoking the word human seems out of place, when you think about the ferocious shelling of Gaza, incited or provoked as it may have been by the Hamas or the Israeli extreme right, or to count among the victims of Flight MH17, dozens of children and important AIDS activists. That’s when tragedy crushes our tenuous grip on reality and reaches out to a realm of pure, unjustifiable and hopelessly irredeemable terror, and any attempt to make sense out of ruthless fate or shameless political motivation is not just utterly naive, but also absolutely abhorrent. We can’t avoid rushing to judgement based on the emotional jolt we all felt upon learning that some 300 travelers may have been blown out of the sky by mistake, at the very least, or because of some downright evil calculation. Nor can we stop ourselves from jumping at possibly the wrong conclusions when picturing people running for shelter in Tel Aviv, or trapped in Gaza, with no way to hide from the raining bombs. Taken apart, however, these two sources of incredible heartache gracing our thoughts today have little in common, beside their complexity and deep roots. And, obviously, the apparent lack of any short term solution in the horizon, which signals to their long lasting endurance. To avoid jumping at rushed conclusions about Israel and the Palestinians, one needs to look farther back into the past. It’s hard to pick a breaking point, though, if last April’s Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, or the now dead peace talks started last year, or the Six-Day War of 1967, farther back to the creation of the state of Israel or even farther, to pre-Christian times. Pick as one may, it’ll always be an incomplete choice. And then there are issues of terrorism, Hamas’s hatred of Israel, Israel’s insistence in building settlements in occupied land, the supremacy of right-wing party ideologies over its politics, role of the U.S. and the global community, and the parade of useful cliches that support each side. As for the shooting down of Flight 17, the misinformation adds the particularly cruel twist of an extra layer of grief to the already shattered lives of friends and relatives of those who perished, besides serving the unattainable settling of yet another ancient, unresolvable, ethnic conflict. As it happened in the midst of a U.S.-led campaign to isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is also doing an outstanding job towards the same goal, the disaster has the bleak distinction of adding 298 more corpses to Ukraine’s centuries-old struggle to pull apart from Russia. But despite unproven claims that it was Russian separatists operating at the border who bombed the plane out of the blue sky, even if by accident or sheer troop drunkenness, there’s at least an equal possibility that the missile was shot by Ukraine’s regular forces. The fact, as it’s been reported by the media, that the equipment, or troop training, for that matter, were all Russian is absolutely besides the point, of course. The truth may or may not come out, eventually, but for now, it continues not to be a deterrent to defense operatives, lodged in the upper echelons of media conglomerates, to dictate and spin what’s been reported digitally, electronically and in print, about this tragedy. As it’s been noted elsewhere, other commercial airlines have also been shot down for political or national security reasons by both the U.S. and then Soviet Union, in well-documented incidents of military calculation gaining the upper hand and orchestrating the mass killing of civilians. And as we’ve pointed before, most people can’t help it but adding yet more noise and mud to the free-range speculation that mar newscasts and Sunday talk shows. The irony is that such views, however numerous, tend to be quickly reduced to one or another side, nuance be damned. What we can, and should avoid, though, individually and collectively, is to allow being manipulated by and corralled into the political machinations, and economic interests, that control the background of armed conflicts. Often, the only way to do that is to simply shut the hell off. Not an easy thing to do when one has a blog, we concede, for what else is there to talk about if we choose not to use our space to vent about what keeps us up all night? Oh, yes, there are the flowers and love and the simple joys of living one’s life fully. But we’re as far of all that at this moment as one would, if given a choice, from the shores of Palestine, the tribal corners of Pakistan, or the charred fields of Ukraine. The two staggering events that have seized worldwide headlines this past week are unfortunately neither the first nor the last time we’ve stopped in horror in our tracks. There’s no getting used to carnage, no growing accustomed to the monstrous grinding of war machines. But even if to spare ourselves from utter despair, we keep on writing, sole weapon of diminished destruction, so not go completely insane. Not so much about our opinion, which as it’s been said, just like anatomy, everyone has one, and plenty of it. Nor only to point fingers, lest them not be cut out of spite and prevent us from even having them to pound the keyboard. And neither just for the sake of posting as a trivial compulsion. We write to say no. To pledge no allegiance to any side that considers life a fair game to spend in route to the top of the body heap. We write because we can’t help it, yes, but also because we can’t silence in the face of what we see; we simply can’t shove down our throats so much grief. Ultimately, we write this to those who’ll never have a chance to read it, who have already showered as hail over a desolated field, or blown apart in route to a better day. Fighting the lump, we may be also writing for those who won’t even see tomorrow’s light or a new day on this planet. In their memory, even the grandest of thoughts pales, while the smallest of the gestures, grows meaningfully. We claim neither with these words, just the record of another blood-soaked step in our cavalcade through the neighborhood of pain. Despite of all, have a peaceful week ahead.

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7/14/14 Joy & World Woes By the Cup Full, Colltalers

The monthlong 2014 World Cup, which closed in Rio yesterday with Germany’s victory over Argentina, had its fair share of ecstasy, agony, fulfillment and heartbreak. As it goes, it also reflected, with frightening accuracy at times, the troubled and deeply divided world we all live in. For even before it started on June 12, it’d already collected a number of ominous signs revealing more than its organizers, Fifa and the Brazilian confederation, would like us to see, about brutal realities hidden just behind the exuberance of the game of football in modern times. Good and bad, the cup will leave lasting impressions, as any event of such magnitude, memories to recollect, lessons we’d better not forget, and an index of sorts for some of the most nefarious and persistent ills of our age. Displays of racism, homophobia, neo-nazism, evidence of social exclusion in game attendance, ticket fraud, corruption of national confederations, violence in and out of the field, it was all out for anyone to see. As the host, Brazil led the charge, and last summer, as the warm-up competition Confederations Cup was in progress, Brazilians staged the first massive rallies since the end of the military dictatorship, in the 1980s, in protest against Fifa and the government’s preparations for the cup. By then, it’d become clear that in the five years since Brazil had been chosen to host both tournaments, huge investments supposed to fund them and flood the economy had already been diverted. On the ground, the only palpable sign of their influx was in the construction or rebuilding of mammoth stadiums, some of them in cities without a Brazilian league team, and, it was found later, mainly funded by taxpayer money. So where was their money? asked thousands of citizens. It’d certainly not gone to Brazil’s decaying infrastructure, hospital facilities, or in the building of much needed schools. Such an explosive realization, which served as the trigger for the rallies that ebbed and flowed up to today, got then a temporarily relief, relatively speaking, as Brazil won the Confederations. Now that it lost the big prize, it’s all up for grabs again. When a group of German black-faced fans showed up for the game against Ghana, or another one ran into the field with a Nazi SS tattooed on his body, their intentions were clear. And so were chants of ‘monkey, monkey,’ and a homophobic call from Mexican supporters during other games. Brazil’s social inequality was also exposed during the cup. Critics pointed to high price tickets as one way to keep the poor out of the stadiums, and for the white Brazilians majority attending the games, in higher percentages than the social and racial mix of the nation’s demographics. Such social divide was at display in the ‘silent army’ of garbage pickers too, hired by the organizers to collect and sort the average five ton of garbage generated by every game. As hundreds of thousands Brazilians already make a living out of ‘mining’ landfills, in a country with few recycling programs, their presence was considered a positive one, even if it doesn’t cover up for the inherent indignity of the have-nots’ lot in life. Another black eye that may be credited to cup organizers is the alleged elimination of stray dogs from the streets of some host cities in Brazil. Just as it happened in Sochi, Russia, the Humane Society has received reports of the animals being ’rounded up and removed,’ no one knows to where. But the biggest scandal that broke during the games has been the allegations that a company partner of Fifa, Match Hospitality, was running a giant ticket scalping scheme, worth a few million dollars. Brazilian authorities arrested its CEO, Raymond Whelan, who promptly escaped custody and is now the target of a police manhunt. Despite denials, Fifa is expected to answer to an official investigation into the ring. Fifa is also involved in two other somewhat revealing matters: the suspension of the Nigerian team from international appearances, until the government reinstated the entire soccer governing staff that it fired for poor performance in Brazil. And a copyright dispute with Univision. In both instances, lack of sensitivity and zeal protecting its interests were typical. About Nigeria, despite the expected venal government truculence, it’s hard to find winners in the decision, since the players are the ones ultimately punished by it. As for giant Hispanic broadcaster Univision, well, it certainly doesn’t need us to take its side, regardless of who has the most rights over the labor exercised by, again, the players. It all sounds minor, compared to what Fifa has been accused by community groups, from supporting the displacing of thousands to install its ‘Fan Fests,’ to forcing the lift of a ban on alcoholic beverages at stadiums, so to help its sponsors, to being generally oblivious to the demands for social justice just outside the game venues. But it compounds to the tournament’s picture emulating what the best and worst the world has to offer. Take the contrast, for instance, between the request for asylum by a group of Ghanaian fans, who are Muslim and persecuted at home, and the Brazilian government’s invitation to watch the final in Rio, sent to some notorious African dictators. Equatorial Guinea’s Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who’s ruled since 1979, Ali Bomgo Ondimba, whose family controls Gabam for decades, and Democratic Republic of Congo’s Joseph Kabila, in power since 2001, are among the ‘dignitaries’ invited. All rule with an iron fist three of the world’s poorest nations, even as their personal wealth is estimated to be in the billions of dollars. As for the asylum seekers, Brazil’s still considering their request. So much for fairplay at the closing ceremony. This cup has also been chockfull of curious tidbits, some almost predictable, some verging on the bizarre, and others just plain discouraging. Thus, the two most expensive teams, host Brazil and 2010 champions Spain, had both disgraceful performances and stopped being contenders before anyone expected. Among the early departed were Russia, Chile and others which had banned sex for their players during the cup. But the most excruciatingly incident to be remembered about this edition was the biting of an Italian player by Uruguayan Luis Suarez, a brilliant but unbalanced striker. Fifa has dutifully punished him out of the competition but, just the past week, he was ‘rewarded’ with a multimillion dollar transfer and a multiyear contract with prestigious Spanish team Barcelona. Apparently, his two prior biting incidents were not a factor. The episode, a pathetic public display of savagery broadcast around the world, and its follow up of sorts, certainly marked a missing teaching moment, sending the wrong message and all that. Unfortunately, that’s part of the game, along with player theatrics diving and referee mistakes. New World Champions Germans, however, proved in every instance that they had been cut from another stump, as social networks and the local press have documented. Upon leaving the Bahia facility they’d built and lived during the cup, they gave it away to the local community, along with a fully equipped ambulatory van, a soccer field, and an undisclosed amount in donations to their school. Truly champions indeed. This has been an exciting month, and Colltales has been swept, engaged, lifted, and emotionally drained by its coverage. We wouldn’t miss it for the world, though, and hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as we did. Now, we must go back to our regularly scheduled duties. Good luck to y’all.

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7/7/2014 The Rise of Backward Thinking, Colltalers

There are many positive things the world identifies with America that are currently under attack within this country. Voting rights, citizens surveillance, separation of church and state are but a few hard-fought principles whose status as the law of the land is at risk of being demoted. And just as a lot of ground has been covered towards civil and gay rights – enduring sources of inspiration around the globe – other fronts of backward thinking, such as opposition to public vaccination, have been opened lately, conspiring to undermine America’s beneficial influence. For anyone who can look beyond today’s news cycle, and with a healthy ability of holding two or more thoughts at the same time, the concerns are clear: just as the brutal backlash against gay rights in Africa has been credited to a defeated minority of American religious zealots, dwindling here but influential in there, any threats to civil rights in the U.S. sends a message of intolerance and radicalism to the rest of the world. It’s long been established that Americans’ perception of themselves is at serious odds with reality for at least a few decades, and one wonders if we are finally catching up with the fact that this nation has gone way far from the old ideals of land of opportunities and peaceful intent. To be fair, much of this reactionary pull has been triggered by new geopolitical realities of the 21st century beyond the realm of control and reach of the U.S. But that does not exempt it from responsibility, and one could argue that recent foreign policy decisions have indeed added to it. As glaring economic inequalities continue to breed an emergent dominant class, with deep pockets and influence in high places, even a bastion of America’s balance of power, the Supreme Court, has been hijacked by special interests and became biased towards the wealthy and the powerful. In fact, many credit what’s now derisively referred to as ‘the Roberts Court’ as being instrumental in rewriting the rules and ridding them of any semblance of equanimity, at times, displaying a grotesque sense of justice, as when it eliminated protections of abortion clinics, for instance. By ostensibly engaging in an one-side religious and ideological drive, the court has lost almost all credibility as the interpreter of the constitution, at a time when Congress fails to legislate anything for the common good, and the Executive acts as if it’s been locked out of the house. Speaking of the White House, there’s indeed a widening gap between President Obama’s civil rights rhetoric and his own administration’s actions. Nowhere such contradiction has been clearer, and what side is really coming on top, than what concerns the defense of NSA’s spurious practices. Despite new revelations, predating even Edward Snowden’s leaks, about indiscriminate surveillance of Americans and unlawful spying on foreign officials, aside the wholesale witch hunt of whistleblowers and investigative journalists, the agency continues to enjoy the president’s confidence. But what is the most troubling about the political struggle for the hearts and minds of this nation, is that much of the debate is not about ideas but ideology, not about what’s scientifically proven, such as man-made climate change, but how it’s been sold and accepted by the American public. Thus, for every serious study about the nefarious effects of global warming, glacier melting, extreme weather, and their impact on food supplies and Earth resources, there’s a biased, energy industry-sponsored fake counterargument, receiving equal media time, as if they were equivalent. It seems obvious that the debate about gay rights in the U.S. is now over: the people – everyone, really – won. The right for anyone to live their lives according to their own sexual orientation has been approved by the immense majority of states and it’s on its way to cover the whole nation. So why losers of this battle are finding new fertile grounds abroad, disseminating an ideology of hatred that’s at the roots of the violent repression of gays in several African countries? Wouldn’t it be for the fact that religion, as a political force, is still playing an oversize role in this country? For if a company can deny health coverage based on the beliefs of its owners, not on the right of employees to receive coverage, and that decision is supported by the highest court in the land, what’s that saying? that faith has precedence over law and that we may as well invoke the bible every time a ruling doesn’t go our way. Even more startling, such decision affects members of more than half of the world’s population: women. Considering that the court also removed the physical protections for those heading to abortion clinics, in place since lethal attacks have killed patients, doctors and health professionals in the past, it’d be not a stretch to think that other so-called sexual minorities are also at risk. Yes, the march towards gay rights seems inexorable in this country, but a contradictory message is also being sent as well, countering that advance: at the end of the day, the rights of some have more value than the rights of others. Sorry, but what about that for the ‘land of the free?’ The point is not bashing the self-deluded but to keep in mind that those who are being singled out now, being American women, gays in Africa, or African-Americans here, may be us, tomorrow. And any gesture against the persecution of your street neighbor today will empower your family’s rights and increase the safety of your own home and borrow, someday. It’s been said that good deeds are contagious, so be it. You’ll soon learn that the choice of the word ‘contagious,’ we admit, is not random. It serves to tie it all to our final observation today, about the emergency of new, startling backward thinking fronts, referred to above: the Internet-based misguided movement against public vaccination. Just like climate change or HIV as the virus causing Aids, it makes no longer sense to discuss whether immunization is effective or not; that boat sailed almost a century ago and since then, many infectious diseases that previously decimated entire populations have been virtually eradicated. But a quick Internet survey (when they’re not?), shows that suspicions about immunization abound, and reputable medical research organizations, such as the Centre for Disease Control, are now aggressively advising parents to inoculate their children, and warning them of the consequences. The reason can also be found under the same general search criteria: there has been a rise in cases of Measles, which is deadly and already considered the world’s most contagious disease. A common childhood ailment which baby boomers learned about only through its routine use in public immunization campaigns, it’s still rampant throughout the world, despite billions of dollars invested on vaccines and public awareness. The relatively small group of anti-vaccination advocates in the U.S. is already facing a backlash as reports about commonly treatable illnesses staging a dramatic comeback, due to lack of preventive vaccination, have increased. But what about the rest of the world? A lack of conviction about such an effective public health weapon, irradiated from the world’s most powerful nation, may exact a similar kind of devastating impact that other ill advised cultural exports have had, and it wouldn’t be out of proportion to bring up again the issue of gay rights. It also fits a rising pattern, within segments of American society, of denying the scientific method to evaluate reality, and treat it as speculation, either for ignorance, or religious intolerance, or both. It would be all a matter of cultural discrepancy, of little consequence, if it didn’t cost lives. But since it does, both in this country and abroad, we simply can’t afford letting this terrible idea to fester any longer. Parents do have rights over their children, but such rights have limits, specially when their little bundles of whatever infect other kids. Have a great week.

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6/30/2014 The Myth of an Endless War, Colltalers

There was a common denominator in most stories about the 100th anniversary this past Saturday of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, by a Serbian teenager, which sparked the beginning of World War I a month later, on July 28th, 1914: few can point exactly why it happened. The war that’s only identified as the first now because it was followed shortly after by the second, turned Europe into cinder, killing over 8 million and wounding another 20 million, and changed forever the continent’s inner borders, while erasing entire empires from its map. As it was not restricted to Europe, it’s ironic that such grim milestone happens just as pressure for a third military intervention in one of those countries it indirectly ‘bred,’ Iraq, is being rehashed by Pentagon and congressional hawks as the only response to recent events on the ground. More of Iraq in a moment, but the killing of an arguably useless heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, which would not just pulverize that powerful empire within years, but take with it Europe’s political stability, continue to puzzle historians for the sheer destructive power that its 4-year carnage unleashed. Also for the profound and still very much open wounds it inflicted within the core of some of the region’s key nations. Chief among them, of course, sits Germany, which unlike the empire, was still standing when it was finally defeated in 1918. Many see that humiliating defeat setting the ground for its renewed nationalist drive to dominate Europe politically, which caused the even more catastrophic World War II, and the horrendous ‘final solution’ it devised to accomplish its hegemonic goal. As wars usually ignite long dormant racial hatred, the depressing division of the continent’s booty that followed the end of the first one only aggravated the same old intolerance among the ancient ethnicities forming present day Europe, and may be again fueling contemporary conflicts. Except for the crucial difference that such conflicts are no longer being fought on European soil, the same old enemies continue doing battle in most of the Middle East, Asia, and north of Africa, with not coincidentally some of the most ancient nations fighting the newest ones, ‘tailor-made’ after the war to serve the Western powers’ interests that created them. Sadly, at the end of the day, most of the blood spilled was wasted. Thus the question about WWI may be not so much why it started, and got so viciously out of hand, but at what ends and to whom it ultimately served. What separated then the few countries that declared war on each other, from the dozens that got involuntarily involved, may be more or less the same factors that keep them apart today, and a quick look at their GDPs goes a long way to show which ones are the real winners. The causes for the war that pretty much determined the existing political organization at the time the baby boomer generation was born were by then almost irrelevant, for a much sharper conflict, in terms of reason and effect, was already taking place by then: the WWII. As for the ancient conflicts mentioned, if anything, history has proven that they will remain active as far as the only way for those with power to intervene is if their own underlying economic interests are at stake. Once they decide to step in, there’s usually only one possible outcome that they’ll pursue relentlessly, even if that involves quickly losing sight of the needs of those that called upon them to mediate in the first place. Speaking of Serbians, the relatively recent conflict in the Balkans in the early 1990s may serve as a good example. Even though the multinational forces enlisted to help did manage to stop the undiscriminated ethnic cleansing, as soon as that was accomplished, Bosnians and Croats and all other minorities that had been forced to co-exist within the former Yugoslavia, were left to fend for themselves. In other words, the process of empire partitioning along ethnic lines, that started at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, was designed to generate small and impoverished nations, whose welfare never seemed to have been central to the alleged motivations for the war. On the other hand, the same aforementioned ‘Western powers’ continue to dominate the world, the same way they did, some more than others, right after the second decade of the 20th century. With the potential exception of China, things may not change much looking ahead. Which brings us to what also doesn’t seem to change much, and that’s not only the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, once again gearing up in Iraq, but the resolve of some dominant forces within the U.S. government to prove that military failures should never be prevented from being repeated, no matter how many lives and costs and resources and political duplicity it may take in order to re-stage them. Once again, the underlying reason why the powers that be are so willing to sink billions of dollars and risk thousands of American and Iraq lives for the third time around is nowhere to be discussed in the established media: the ruthless but impossible dream of cheap oil. The same media that’s once trumpeted the lies about the Saddam Hussein regime and its supposedly mass destruction arsenal that the Bush administration was feeding it, is now reopening its prime time slots to the same warmongers who led the U.S. into that unjustified war. Fortunately, such factor has been hammered everywhere else, and it remains to be seen how eager the American people is to swallow a not so different rationale for another military intervention in the Middle East, after over four thousand troops lost their lives, uncountable civilians were also sacrificed, and a whole country was completely wrecked. Specially since that dream of cheap oil is ever more unattainable. There are encouraging signs that it may be considerably harder to convince Americans that a religious conflict that started in the 7th century, between ancient tribes, really spells trouble to the national security of the U.S. Problem is, if there’s another way to serve a constructive purpose for the region, without committing troops and weapons that will likely be used against us, it’s still completely off the table at this point. Lacking any better solution – which is startling since we’re talking about a country that lacks almost every ‘amenity,’ such as potable water, 24-hour power, and sanitation, in great part because war made it all impossible to function – it’d be advisable not to incur in the same, arrogant premise that it’s within the U.S. the power to ‘fix’ the situation. What, it’d be in fact criminal to even consider dealing it such a hand again. But that seems to be a mystery wrapped in a puzzle and sold as a solution, just like the precise reason why the killing of an egomaniac ruler to be, one hundred years ago, caused so much harm for those who could as well have lived longer hadn’t been for the likes of him. What this whole false debate, about whether to commit troops to a region where humanitarian support would be way more necessary, does is to distract us from the meaningful conversation this nation was finally having about the extreme inequality of contemporary America. Once again, issues about the environment, immigration, job opportunity, social promotion, education costs, and free universal health care, that could really unite and strengthen the American society, got bounced out of the room, and in came the war drummers and profiteers. We need to kick them out of the conversation for good, for listening to their deranged worldview hasn’t really worked out to anyone but themselves. Or risk not even being able to spend another century of war ‘celebrations,’ since waging them may as well kill us all. Now back to our regular World Cup programming. Have a great July.

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6/23/2014 The Amazon’s Losing Game, Colltalers

There are many Brazilians who either couldn’t care less about the World Cup, or don’t even like soccer or sports in general. And then there’s Nilcilene Miguel de Lima who’s neither; marked to die by the enemies of her Amazon activism, she’s simply too busy trying to survive. Earlier threats had failed to faze her. But she was finally forced to go into hiding, after her home was burned down, her dog killed, guards sent by the Brazilian government to protect her ran away frightened, and at least three of her fellow campaigners got shot in cold blood. Even for someone who’s been wearing a bulletproof vest for over two years, and whose almost Quixotic quest – to prevent loggers and ranchers from seizing land from small holders, subsistence communities and indigenous tribes – takes place thousands of miles away from the cheers and attention Brazil is attracting from the world, there has to be limits. You may say grimly that hers is already a dying breed. And unless Brazilians dedicate equal passion to the preservation of the Amazon as they do to football, her lifetime work, as that of her forebears like Chico Mendes, will remain unfulfilled, a gargantuan task that seems at odds with the country’s rush towards development at all costs. The connection to Chico, the rubber tapper leader who was murdered in 1988 for his activism defending the world’s biggest Rainforest, has a lot of resonance to Nilcilene, as her father worked alongside him in their native Xapuri, Acre, and she saw firsthand the toll such activism can exact. Just as the Amazon is vast, so is its complexity and the initiatives designed to protect it, or at least, preserve it so to safeguard it to the future. And for each new project that advances just such a notion, there’s a multitude of powerful interests running against it, from big landowners, including Brazilian and international corporations, to growing demand for its natural resources, and an increasingly political expediency at play. Also, the forest being shared by eight other nations with their own needs for expansion and development, the task of coordinating an effective preservationist strategy is virtually unfeasible and the one-size-fits-all approach has been soundly defeated every time it’s been applied. Besides logging (timber from the Amazon region, extracted illegally, can be traced all over the world), predatory deforestation to clear land and the general massacre of indigenous peoples’ lifestyle and subsistence, an expected oil boom and even fracking projects have now become immediate threats to the survival of the forest. While Ecuador, last month, all but gave up on its intention to protect a large swath of the Amazon within its territory, Brazil’s own oil giant, Petrobras, has quietly started a large scale project near the Tapauá river which also threatens a few still uncontacted tribes in the area. Brazil, which was quick to join the chorus of criticism of Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa’s decision to allow oil exploration in Yasuni, which the U.N. had declared a ‘biosphere reserve,’ has been otherwise tight-lipped about its state-run company’s ill-advised incursion into the jungle. Which is appalling since, as the holder of 60% of the total Amazon, it should set a better example to its neighbors. Once and again, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has declared her support to conservationist efforts, and for the record, some progress has been made under her watch. But the easy way a new Forest Code, which tilts disproportionally to big landowners, has recently become law with the tacit approval of her administration, reveals another picture. And in her reelection year, she seems more concerned about squeezing what political dividends the World Cup will grant her, if all ends well, rather than risking her capital on the apparently intractable issue of the Amazon. Which is depressing. But despite it all, there are hundreds of effective or at least, well intentioned, projects and organizations, fighting to protect the forest and its creatures, a collective push which is what’s behind recent reports documenting a significative reduction in the rate of deforestation. Speaking of the cup, for instance, sales at an Xapuri-based condom factory have skyrocketed during the tournament, a not so unexpected result but good news nonetheless, since the manufacturer is providing hundreds of sustainable jobs for local rubber tappers collecting latex from trees, and at the same time, promoting safe sex through close collaborations with the Brazilian government’s own public health efforts. Also recently, Arpa, a coalition of 22 organizations, has pledged to pursue a long-term agenda to protect 150 million acres of jungle, which ads to a never too crowded field of independent initiatives, that includes, of course, the indigenous peoples of the forest themselves. Under that perspective, even a project such as supplying high-flying balloons to carry and spread out the Internet signal throughout the forest are welcome, as they provide crucial logistics and real-time information among the many environmental groups operating in the region. It’s too bad that such resources were not available when Chico, as well as, Adelino Ramos, Raimundo Nonato Chalub, and Dinhaha Nink, to mention only the latest victims, were all gunned down, after denouncing illegal logging within the officially protected land. Even if it’s arguable that capturing footage of the tragic moment of their assassinations could even be possible, one of the few weapons against paramilitary groups hired by big landowners in the Amazon is exactly communications, the power of public opinion, the world watching over it. So as the Brazilian national team walks on the field today, and you may see players and supporters singing the national anthem with fervor, Nilcilene and others like her will have little cause to cheer, their personal freedom curtailed and legacy squandered by greed and politics. Fortunately, most Brazilians know that, more than soccer, it’s their handling of one of Earth’s greatest natural resources that will mark their legacy to future generations. And that if the Amazon were a team, it’d be already losing and the game’d be approaching the end of the second half. People like Nilcilene didn’t have a choice to be in the predicament she’s in now; she just saw it as the only possible way that she could be Brazilian and proud. She shouldn’t be alone on her quest, or her four children shouldn’t be at risk of losing their mother. Have a great one and good luck today, Brazil.

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6/16/2014 Time to Hit Fifa’s Fiefdom, Colltalers

By now, everyone knows how soccer aficionados get carried away with the game, from the players’ theatrics on the pitch to the fans’ fervor on the stands to the seemingly endless shouts of ‘goaaaaaallll’ everywhere. That’s our excuse for such a hyperbolic title, anyway, and we’re running with it. But along with everything already expected from the World Cup taking place in Brazil, there’s the renewed discussion about who owns the game and why, or rather, how come an opaque entity such as Fifa came to control it and has managed to reap profits from it on the scale of a small nation. Such discussion has reached a feverish pitch this past week when the international federation that doubles as a regulator and monopoly of global football quietly cleared the way for its president, 78-year-old Joseph Blatter, to stand for another term, his fifth, and possibly beyond that. Thus, just as its supremacy over all things soccer has remained unchallenged for over a century, Fifa’s also showing that it’ll keep doing its business behind closed doors just like any secretive and unaccountable corporation, which in fact it has become. But perhaps change is on the horizon. In fact, serious allegations have been raised against Fifa this time around, including claims of match fixing, corruption in the way it grants nations the rights to host its cash cow, the World Cup, and even the way it ignores public outcry against its methods, as it’s been the case of the protests against it in Brazil, favoring instead a collection of deep pocket sponsor corporations, and acting only according to its own monetary interests. Fifa stands to make $23 billion in Brazil, according to Forbes, from revenue generated by TV ads, billboards and sponsorships. It’s a staggering leap compared to the $3.65 billion it made four years ago, in South Africa, according to its own figures. As the magazine puts it, that’s equivalent to the seventh largest business in the world, behind oil giant BP and ahead of Japanese Toyota. That much money can only attract even more greed. That’s arguably the worst part, that the majority of national federations has supported this system in exchange for a piece of the pie, which can be colossal and served throughout the year. Not coincidently, such federations are also private and unaccountable, so whoever is not part of the club, is out of luck. That naturally means Brazilian taxpayers, who will spend a gargantuan $13 billion footing the bill to organize the event. The two most unsettling corruption charges against Fifa concern its possible link with a match-fixing ring, that may have influenced results in international friendly games leading to the 2010 cup in Africa, and the granting of the 2022 edition of the tournament to Qatar. In both cases, a pattern of secrecy and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering typical of Fifa threaten to spill over the perceived integrity of the game itself, which imperfections aside, has enjoyed an enviable image of wholesomeness all over the world. A recent New York Times story, based on Fifa’s own confidential probe, uncovered how a Singapore-based company, linked to a match-rigging syndicate, manipulated the score of a few international matches, through the infiltration of at least one corrupt referee in Fifa’s assignment roster. The games-fixing scheme, which represented big payouts to bettors, showed how high-level international sports events, such as the World Cup, can be vulnerable to corruption, specially if they are controlled solely by a self-appointment governing body, insulated from public scrutiny. The investigation, which Fifa was forced to disclose after the story was published, also revealed a bit of the inner workings of the organization, which relies upon an ample network of connections, not always morally sound, to expand its horizons, i.e., revenue streams. In the U.S., for instance, that became a textbook for future reference with the notorious Chuck Blazer, a.k.a., Mr. Ten Percent, a member of Fifa’s executive committee that created the current Major League Soccer. He’s credited for the many ways that the MLS has succeed and profited when previous leagues failed, and his involvement also extended to the confederation that runs soccer from the Caribbean to Canada, Concacaf. Found guilty of bilking the entity and taxpayers, Blazer was fired in 2011 and banned from both the MLS and Concacaf. But the whole episode illustrated with accuracy Fifa’s M.O., even though its involvement with his hiring was proven to be circunstancial. The other stunning set of revelations concern the bidding process that led Fifa to grant the 2022 World Cup edition to Qatar, an enclave of billionaires, smacked in the middle of the desert and ruled by a dictatorial monarchy, with no recognizable club or national soccer team to speak of. The Sunday Times reported that Fifa may have sold the bid for $5 million, paid by a Qatari official who’s a former president of the Asia Football Association, and who was also part of the 24-member committee that chose his own country. The Qatar bid caused surprise around the world because it defeated well funded bids by Australia and three former hosts of the cup, the U.S., Japan and South Korea. This past week, Fifa’s internal probe was concluded but the results are to be made public only in six weeks, which is convenient because by then, with the competition in Brazil finished, furor over the allegations may have subsided a bit. Or not. The inquiry, which many see as a Fifa’s attempt to save face before increased pressure for transparency, has produced its highest profile casualty so far: Franz Beckenbauer, a member of that same executive committee, which incidentally also granted the 2018 World Cup to Russia. He was suspended for 90 days for refusing to respond to Fifa’s inquires. Beckenbauer, a football great who won the cup twice for Germany, as a player and as a coach, said in a public statement that he ‘wouldn’t be able to contribute anything to clear the matter.’ The choice of Qatar has been unfortunate for other reasons too. Besides registering temperatures that exceed 122 degrees Fahrenheit, which is completely impossible for the practice of outdoor football as Fifa’s own rules require, there were terrible accusations of slavery and brutal working conditions for the crews already at work on the stadiums for the tournament, long before bribing allegations had surfaced. It’s as if claims of slavery and unsafe conditions in Brazil had been multiplied tenfold, almost a full decade before the competition is slated to begin. Reportedly, workers, mostly from Nepal and India, labor up to 19 hours a day, are not properly fed, live in squalor accommodations, and have their passports confiscated as soon as they enter the country. Even more serious, government data cites over 300 deaths in the past two years. An international union confederation estimates that there’s a potential to 4,000 migrant workers to be killed until 2022. Such terrifying estimates have been corroborated by many global labor organizations for over a year, but since they don’t involve million-dollar figures, they have been consistently ignored by media and even those reporting on street protests against Fifa in Brazil and elsewhere. They’re also a separate issue, more related to Qatar’s authoritarian (and wealthy) regime than with Fifa. But as an organization that purports to represent, and is sustained by, the billions worldwide who’re following the games in Brazil, it is in fact its moral responsibility to take factors such as extremely harsh social conditions and corrupt rulers with whom it does business, into consideration, even when its bottom line may be affected. After all, no one has elected Fifa, or has even been consulted as to whether the commoditization of a particularly popular sport should be the domain of a single, private, multinational enterprise. Going back to the hyperbolic and over inflamed football jargon, Fifa is being given a Yellow Card, for all it’s worth, and that can be turned to Red, if it remains unwilling to offer transparency and consider the needs of those that it treats as patrons. Best of luck to your team.

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6/09/2014 The Heartbreak of Immigration Dreams, Colltalers

Last week’s pictures of the appalling conditions that hundreds of children, who crossed the U.S. border illegally, face at an Arizona holding center may stop for a full minute the juggernaut of obliviousness and draconian tactics that has marked immigration policy by this and past administrations. After that moment under the spotlight, though, despite all outraged and semi-heated debates over the issue, chances are it’ll return quietly to the back burner of political expediency, the control of a quasi-vigilante mindset and, ultimately, the corporations running the border’s jail system. For the immigration debate seems stuck in the mud of faulty assumptions and a questionable moral compass. Short of compassion and integrity, any attempt at reforming it is compromised by grandstanding and ulterior motives. Pity those who still believe in the founding ideals of this nation. The photos, published by a conservative Website, had the obvious intent of indicting the Obama administration over its treatment, or lack thereof, of illegal immigrants. But that could backfire and serve as an indictment also of the Republican Party as it has consistently fight the issue from making progress in Congress. They did it again last month, blocking efforts to offer residency for those who came here as children and joined the military. And before we move on to other aspects of what has become a moot issue in American life, that of people who, despite living, working or fighting for this country, or even being born here, are still considered aliens, most of ‘Mexicans’ coming to the U.S. are not from Mexico at all, but mainly from Central America. In fact, immigration from the south of the border country has been drastically reduced in the past decade. Also, even if it’s painful to see unaccompanied kids being thrown into the gruesome detention centers at the border, the issue shouldn’t depend of pulling heartstrings, as if we’d care more if they’re children. No immigration policy can be serious if it ignores the tightly wound familiar ties of many Latin American societies, and the economic realities that force parents to send their young to brave such a brutal trek to the U.S. Conservatives all over, however, do share a trump card on their criticism of President Obama: the over two million undocumented immigrants who have been deported under his watch. And who, for the most part, unlike the administration’s claims, were honest, law abiding citizens. Perhaps no other issue, with exception that of the prosecution of whistleblowers or the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, show with more clarity the profound disconnect between the president’s arresting oratorical talents, and the devilishly pragmatic approach of his administration’s policies. At times, it seems as if Obama, the candidate, is still on the campaign stump, arousing us with his libertarian ideas, tolerance, and all that, while Obama, the president, has been more often a leader of continuity, meaning, preserving many of the restrictive and unfair policies that preceded him. Such schizophrenic appraisal of the president who went through an unprecedented political bashing for pursuing an outstanding, albeit imperfect, piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act, and is committed to bring all active troops home, although not soon enough, may sound itself unfair. But it is not too farfetched when it comes to immigration reform, even though enacting the overhaul of such a wide reaching law, which just like the Obamacare, will have long lasting impact on American society, is no task for a single man, even for the admittedly most powerful one on earth. It is, however, a task that will have to be tackled better than it’s been since the times when promoting immigration was a condition to fuel progress of this nation. It’s ironic that a country that rose to the top of the world on the backs of its immigrant force, now can’t find ways to address the issue, without involving xenophobic fears, arming to the teeth its border patrols, or providing business to a corrupted private jail system. We’re halfway through 2014, and over 140 thousand have already been detained at the Rio Grande Valley. Most of them will spend months of idle imprisonment, waiting to get deported, as there’s no possibility, under current laws, that their cases will be judged on their individual merit. The very issue of breaking the law is often invoked to deny potential immigrants access to the U.S. courts. But when seasonal demands require, a huge contingent of people born south of the border, often whole undocumented families, are the only help the agricultural industry can count on. And even that model, so convenient to the multinational corporations that run our farms, which owe no allegiance to such a cheap labor force, is already outdated, as other industries benefit even more from illegal immigrants, from hospitality to manufacturing to construction. According to recent numbers by the Pew Hispanic Center, only 4% of the estimated 8.3 million illegal immigrants working in this country, are seasonal, agricultural workers. Incidentally, the figures debunk the old myth that these are jobs Americans won’t do. Paid fairly, everyone will apply. This is in fact one of the confusions clouding the issue of immigration: that it’s a problem because the U.S. is failing to attract skilled, specialized workers, and is pretty much stuck with low-education applicants to legal status, who come from poverty-ridden countries. One the best concepts, built-in the Dream Act, which by the way was indeed felled by a stubborn Republican leadership in Congress, was that it provide ways for undocumented students to get an education, and that was a complete departure from that old myth of an uneducated alien. Given that conservatives seem to be on the wrong way of progress in so many issues, such as immigration, reproductive rights, wages and jobs benefits, one wonders how come several polls point to a Republican win coming November. Oh, yes, money. But that’s for another post. Going back to the unfairness of current immigration laws, President Obama did no favors to those afflicted by it when he decided to postpone a review on deportation policies until the end of the summer. Not to be flippant about it, but that means, raids will continue until morale improves. Immigrant advocates have been calling attention to the fact that such raids, in which the main breadwinner is arrested, have often the immediate effect of destroying a household, throwing whole families into the streets. There can’t be possibly an upside in pursuing such policy. Few can explain why this sudden spike in children crossing alone the Mexican border. Estimates for this year set the numbers at around 60 thousand, not counting those caught with their parents or relatives. But it’s easy to see the perils they faced all the way from Central America to the U.S. It’s a good thing that the almost 800 kids shown in a Nogales detention center, last week, have become the focus of national attention and federal authorities have ordered supplies to be sent to tend to their immediate and most basic needs. It’s unlikely they’ll receive much more than that, though. According to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, neither there’s sign that the policies of routing immigrants to that detention center will change, as a thousand, mostly children, were expected to arrive there over the weekend. But coming from Gov. Brewer, such news have to be taken with a grain of salt. After all, the good governor is known for having signed one the toughest, and most unrealistic immigration policies just a couple of years ago, and was the biggest supporter of infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who conducted a relentless hunt for illegal immigrants that ultimately cost him his job. He’s been forced to retire and is still under court supervision for racial profiling and suspicion of tempering with evidence. Good riddance. The governor and her trusted henchman carry now little relevance in the great immigration debate. It’s up to the president, the majority of the U.S. population, who has blood in this race, and even to the incompetent crop of ‘representatives of the people,’ current ensconced in Congress, to realize the transcendence of this issue and take its control away from the unprepared security forces and politics currently holding it hostage. No project of nation can come to fruition without fully acknowledging fundamental ethnic and cultural streams that may support it, or drive it astray. This sentence, generic enough to be useful to any nation, is crucial to the U.S. of now and future, no excuses or delays allowed. Speaking of which, the controversial World Cup in Brazil, is finally about to start, and with its multinational roots, million of Americans, immigrants or not, will be following it with an almost undue passion. Besides turning soccer into football for at least one month, it’s fair to expect it to teach us something else about nations congregating peacefully and the will of peoples of all races to spend time in each other’s company. Good luck to you all.

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6/02/2014 The 10 Thousand Too Many, Colltalers

All the justified indignation (and some phony righteousness too) about the scandal of treatment, or lack thereof, of U.S. veterans by the Dept. of Veterans Affairs, and the resignation of chief Eric Shinseki, has obscured an almost equally scandalous piece of news: President Obama’s speech last week about his decision to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan, even as combat operations will be officially over at end of this year. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first let’s make something clear: life for U.S. Vets won’t improve with Shinseki’s exit, and not just because his 5-year tenure started already halfway through the wrecking the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was exacting on armed active troops and reserves. On the contrary, his term was marked by his low key, straight talk personality, and his commitment to the wounded and the severely impaired being shipped from those hellholes by the planeload, and dropped on a daily basis at the doorstep of the VA system. Neither was ever in question his under-reported behind-the-scenes struggle to tackle a task that proved each day bigger and more complex, by the sheer numbers of its caseloads, and the ingrained bureaucracy the agency’s inherited from past administrations. In the end, for all attempts at curbing corruption and streamlining workflows, it was all too much – at one point, the simple task of digitalizing files got so vast that it became ‘easier’ to store them under lock and key than to transfer them – and staff began the undignified job of hiding files nationwide, manipulating numbers to appear efficient, while desperate former combatants languished and many died for lack of care. As for the ‘phony righteousness’ mentioned above, consider that some of the same warmongers who led us to the unjustified tragedy in Iraq, and kept pressuring for troop increases in Afghanistan, are now the ones to lay the blame for the VA scandal on President Obama. Not true, of course, but at this point, that’s besides the point: partisan fervor never lets facts get in the way of the ‘small government’ motto. Slashing social programs and administration jobs comes first, even if they wind up hurting veterans’ ability to seek outside help for their woes. That being said, it’s worth noticing that the VA’s annual budgets under President Obama have risen 78%, to $65.9 billion, according to White House figures, even as Defense spending did not. For comparison, the entire U.S. military budget is set to be over $756 billion through 2015. That doesn’t bode well to Shinseki’s leadership style, as many have pointed to his inability to seek specialized, tech-savvy outside help, choosing instead to preserve trusted ranks until it became clear that his position was unsustainable. His resignation may’ve come a few months too late. But the root of the problems the VA is facing is set to remain in place even beyond 2015, and for that, not even if we’d had years of preparation, and a twice as big budget, there could be possibly a way to handle the harrowing task of tending to increasing rows of sick soldiers. The reason why many are skeptical of the president’s assessment is based on the fact that, although the 38,000 combatants still left in Afghanistan are a far cry from the 88,000-plus that were there in 2011, this war for all practical purposes, is or should be over already. Or over 2,000 dead American, plus an estimated 20,000 more civilian casualties, America’s longest war ever, and the slim pickings it managed to accomplish, are still not strong an argument to prove the point that, whatever we were fighting for over there, is no longer achievable? Additionally, either because since the end of the draft, U.S. troops have been drawn from a relatively narrow swath of the population, while the majority tends to simply tune out their struggle overseas on a regular basis, or because it was a war whose objectives were hard to quantify to begin with, the American intervention in Afghanistan, albeit more legitimate than the one in Iraq, has produced exactly one visible result. The killing of Osama Bin Laden, laden, no pun intended, with morally dubious justifications for revenge and psychological cleansing of the trauma of Sept. 11, can’t even begin to be assessed under a balanced rationale, without turning the issue into an inflamed diatribe over who’s more patriotic than whom, and why proving the world that the U.S. is a nation of laws wouldn’t quell its internal thirst for the blood of an enemy. Thus, if what’s done is done, and few would dare challenging the Obama administration’s self-appointed apex of military accomplishment, which indeed put to shame the supposedly ‘macho’ antics of Dick Cheney and President George W., then it’s more than time to move on. Yes, the U.S. is still responsible for the busting of Afghanistan’s already frail economy and society, as it’s in Iraq, and it’s fit to observe here, no one can tell that both countries are better off now than they were before being attacked, but that’s a theme for another post. And yes, the U.S. still needs to mark its presence on those two countries, but as a collaborator with other ally nations, in the real reconstruction of infrastructure, educational and medical facilities, and, as often is the case, building from scratch what was not even there in the first place. But it’s time to bring the troops home, and this year, not 2015, and almost 10,000 soldiers left there is almost 10,000 soldiers too many to be left there. Whatever the U.S. hasn’t achieved in 13 long, hard, bloodshed years, it won’t be accomplished in the next 24 months. It’d be great if, as part of the same effort of retiring for good the self-attributed sobriquet of ‘world police,’ we’d also be prepared to bring home the thousands of Americans stationed since the end of WWII in countries such as Japan and Germany, but that, we know it, is asking for too much. We’re already approaching 20% of the 21th century, and almost haven’t seen a day yet when U.S. troops are not killing or being killed in some inhospitable faraway land, under convoluted reasons. At the same time, we’re probably already as much time behind tackling other, way more important problems, such as climate change, unemployment, income inequality, with the ability to really destroy us without firing a single shot. Talking about shots, there’s the issue of killing drones and how their infamous industry would thrive, with no more troops on the ground in Afghanistan and elsewhere. We’ve all seen what kind of hell they’re capable of exacting on innocent lives. But not even the most heavily armed of them all is a match for the will of civilian society and human hunger for peace. We’re betting on that side. Enjoy June ahead.

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5/28/2014 Left to Be Occupied, Colltalers

There were almost no positive things left from the 2008 financial crash caused by an out-of-control banking system. Not the least among them was the shameful impunity the culprits for the crisis have enjoyed ever since, unlike millions of working stiffs left to foot their multibillion unpaid bills. But to this day, the Occupy Wall Street movement stands as the sole earnest popular reaction to the millions of lost jobs and the hundreds of thousands of broken families, due to the worldwide systemic failure the crisis ignited, while not one major chief of industry did time for their crimes. However, as the roots of the quasi-bankruptcy of the economy remain pretty much in place, and banks and financial institutions have already multiplied profits to levels even higher than the pre-crisis period, the OWS has had a hard time even remaining relevant. Before writing an obituary of the revolt and indignation against the dominance of the financial industry over all other productive segments of the economy, though, it’s instructive to dig a little bit into the likely causes that doomed the movement’s momentum, and why it’s failed to galvanize a wider swath of contemporary society, both in the U.S. and abroad, despite the clarity of its message and legitimacy of its opposition to the status quo. For those following it closely, the most glaring of such causes has been its adamant refusal to narrow goals into a political platform, a not out-of-place concern, given the trappings and compromises inherent to the trajectory of any movement priming itself for possible electoral contention. Another argument was about the ambiguity OWS’s briefed recognized leaders fell about, well, leading, and/or exercising some sort of political housekeeping, so to articulate its transition from a series of passionate and engaged street rallies to a muscular opposition party in the making. This quixotic refusal, albeit noble in essence, singed the movement with the sophomoric watermark that routinely brands and undermines political ideas, hindering its ability to dialogue in equal footing, and work together, with other progressive forces of the left, which, let’s face it, was the only side of the political spectrum willing to embrace a movement staked against bankers and powerful financial interests. And there’re those who see the OWS’s own rejection of traditional political models of resistance, right from the early discussions taking place at Zuccotti Park, as the crucial decision that doomed the movement’s long-term viability and its status as a progressive incubator of new ideas. Obviously, such flaws in the OWS’s strategy going forward were quickly manipulated and exacerbated by the ideological right, both at the GOP and its inflamed mole, the Tea Party, along with many closet conservative Democrats, government hacks and their Wall Street benefactors. Talking about the misnamed Tea Baggers, and their erroneously equivalence as the ‘Occupy of the right,’ at least they too seem to have exhausted all their blowhard fuel and, despite a steady flow of free cash, were crushed by the Republican establishment in last week’s primaries. Good riddance. As if to confirm the lopsided logic of injustice and impunity that has characterized the collapse and reborn of the 1% economy, while no banker or hedge funder of note has even been trialled, the OWS has produced its first judicial martyr, if you would, in a spectacular mishandle of justice. Cecily McMillan, despite all video evidence NOT being considered by the court, and witness accounts exempting her of wrong doing, was sentenced to three months at a high security prison, the infamous Rikers Island in New York, for a felonious assault on a police officer almost twice her size. The incident in 2012 was but one in a number of massive NYPD interventions, promptly dispatched to disperse a growing but peaceful crowd that had begun to congregate at the park in lower Manhattan in the previous year, leading to confrontation and widespread arrests of protesters. Since no other party took ownership of the public outrage, the street rallies became the only display of discontent about how governments of the G8 bloc planned and dealt with one of the biggest failures of the economic system in history, and the catastrophic Great Recession that followed it. To financial officials in the U.S. and the other nations of the bloc, the way forward was a two-pronged strategy: first, inject an obscene amount of taxpayers money into the system, to prevent it from going back to the 18th century. And then, send in the cops to curb dissent. Such ‘solution’ was not designed to address the pain that the crisis inflicted to millions around the world, of course, only of those swimming at the top. But when the movement threatened to spontaneously mushroom into a global quagmire, it became simply intolerable to the powers that be. Ms. McMillan is a tragic victim of a system that grew stronger in the same proportion as the OWS receded in internal turmoil, and even though we used the overwrought term ‘martyr’ above, the likelihood is that she’ll become an unfortunate foot note in the much larger context of why the movement couldn’t find a way forward and become a reliable political force, or even be considered an ally to other progressive forces of society. Much is being talked about the failure of our political and electoral system, and how much damage money, lobbying and gerrymandering may have already caused to its ability to correctly reflect the will of majority. It all will become clearer in the midterm elections later this year. One thing is already sadly clear, though: the OWS won’t be a player. That’s puzzling because many of its themes, still resonant to a dwindling working class in the U.S., have been positively appropriated by other, more traditional, channels of political expression in the country. That a veteran such as Senator Bernie Sanders or a neophyte as Senator Elizabeth Warren are the two most visible voices of a platform that would hold Wall Street barons to accountability, just like the OWS would want, is a testament to both the endurance and breadth of its embryonic political ideas, while, at the same time, underlines its failure to articulate the ownership of an ideological space further left than both senators could occupy. To be sure, the system still remains vigilant against and highly attuned at any possibility of an unlike reborn of the OWS, as many of the surveillance and ‘fusion centers’ and an assortment of intel agencies continue to collect data on its former members and, yes, its recalcitrant leaders too. That shows how close, for a brief moment, the OWS was of connecting with society at large and transition from an idealistic ragtag confluence of rebelliousness into a coordinated grassroots movement, with at least a limited scope of influence to leverage towards progressive change. That ship seems to have already sailed, though, and even splinter groups that originated from the initial core at Zuccotti, and later found relevance in community efforts for causes such as Hurricane Sandy and popular housing, may have been diluted into the mainstream of the institutionalized left. It’s our loss, of course. Even though arguably the election of Bill de Blasio as Mayor of New York wouldn’t have happened with the OWS and what came after, there are very few positive things left from what could’ve been a galvanizer of public discontent in the U.S.’s most important city. Maybe another time. Not to inject levity into a discussion that needs to be better and further articulated, it’s not completely by chance that we talk about loss today, Memorial Day in the U.S. Albeit its contrivance, the designated date of remembrance, personal and national, is still one that visits millions of Americans with heartbreak even deeper than usual. In its respect, we leave the woes afflicting the Veteran Affairs for another post. Enjoy the last week of May.

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5/19/2014 A Walk in the Tolerance Side, Colltalers

The march to legalize gay marriage in the U.S. and step up efforts to protect the individual’s choice of living according to his or her sexual orientation has finally sped up and may’ve reached a point of no return. It’s arguably one of the few reasons Americans still feel very proud about this country. As a cause, it has raised our compassion and empathy toward each other almost like no other, turning lofty aspirations for equality and respect into a pragmatic tool of change. Which is just as well, as we need this renewed sense of community if we’re to successfully tackle the challenges of our age. As a all-encompassing movement, sheltering the full spectrum of the human sexual experience, the fight for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights has extrapolated its ‘minority’ confines to serve a larger purpose, recognizing and embracing with no bias all segments of the American society. We did have come far in the four-decade-plus since the Stonewall riots. Saturday’s 10th anniversary of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, and the Obama administration’s consistent engagement with the movement, are but just two testaments to such winds of change. But before we start patting each other’s backs and breaking the self-congratulatory champagne, we’d better understand that if this fight for equal rights is making strides in rich Western societies, it’s far from packing much of a punch, or bringing change, throughout impoverished regions of the world. Sexual oppression, as a leverage for power, has always been associated with rampant ignorance and religious intolerance. For hundreds of millions of people, trapped in medieval living conditions, it remains the rule of the land, exacting a brutal toll as a crushing weapon for domination and control. It’s not a bad proposition to serve as a paradigm of hope for those around the world who, beside having to endure absolute miserable odds stacked against them, have an extra layer of hardship in their lives merely for being what they are. In consequence, many have had their very core of individuality violently teared out from them, physically and psychologically, as despicable traditions of sexual mutilation continue to be enforced. There, as in dwindling pockets within more organized societies, the need to claim one’s sexual identity, however ‘different’ or ever evolving it may be, is still a threatening but empowering torch for whole communities, not just for those brave enough to set the pace and become pioneers. Or martyrs. For at the end of the day, it should no longer be about what each one is or feel comfortable being, but how we’re willing to use our diversity to build a better common good. In other words, there’s urgency for the gay rights movement to reach its maturity because the whole world needs to mature along with it. The angrier people’s sexual preferences make dictators and warlords and bigots all around, the better this world is bound to become. Ultimately, it’ll be a coalition of what’s still inadequately called ‘minorities’ – sexual, racial, agnostic, and whatever else is out there challenging the repressive status quo – what may help turn the tide against the most serious ills of our civilization, our unmitigated ambition as a species, our wretched ways of treating each other and the planet, the bottomless greed of a receding few for exploiting till the last drop of blood the goodwill of the majority. Among the many tangential, but highly relevant, issues making the gay rights movement an inestimable asset to society at large has been the fight against AIDS and the still ongoing struggle to develop better drugs and, ultimately, the cure for HIV infection. Even though it’s not quite as visible as it was in the terrible 1980s, when it affected a mostly middle class, highly educated demographics, it is still a fight mainly led by the movement. Much has changed since then, including the battleground: instead of the glaring discos and jet set lives of artists and entertainers, it’s now mostly localized in huge stretches of poverty in Africa, Asia and Latin America, with women having become the tragic carriers of the virus. That’s not fault of their own, of course, but since they are the main providers in much of these regions, and rape is an integral part of the arsenal in the state of constant war they live in, the speed that the disease progresses and the social devastation that it causes is worst now than it has ever been. There are an estimated over 34 million people infected with AIDS in the world, these days, and many of them don’t even know it. The strict regime of multi drugs required to keep the disease at bay is itself another obstacle to eradication; and then there are those who can’t even tolerate it. The terrifying kidnapping of almost 300 young girls by the Boko Haram group, in Nigeria, only gives us a barely focused picture of what it means to be a young girl seeking education and a way out of poverty in Africa, for instance, and the mortal threats they face every single day. We’re not optimistic that this particular group of children will ever be rescued and no amount of firepower or righteousness preaching can change such a somber prospect. By invoking this horrible event, however, it may sound as if we’re trying to overreach and stretch its implications. But it shouldn’t be hard to foresee what’s very likely to come next for these girls: those who survive multiple rapes, their captors’ violence, unsanitary conditions, and even indoctrination, have a higher than average risk of becoming, and the children they may bear, HIV positive. Nevertheless, the model therapeutic approach developed in the early days of the epidemic by organizations such as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and others, is often the only hope that drugs and treatment will be made available for them and those like them, except that applied by local groups. Lastly, the inestimable contribution of the gay movement can not be reduced only on their early and ongoing role in preventing disease. It also reaches out to housing, nutrition, education and support, social issues much beyond the restrains of a sex minority, affecting a large segment of the population. As the income gap spreads globally, many a runaway kid in the U.S., or a teenager mother, victim of political or religious violence in Africa, have found shelter within a gay-oriented community group, often the only one around not to demand any sort of allegiance in order to administer help. In fact, concerns about the young getting unwittingly infected are still at the top of priorities for AIDS prevention organizations, as infection rates at an early age never reached a negligible level. Then as now, teenagers remain vectors of a vicious cycle of disease and not always successful treatment. As millions who annually donate time and money for AIDS Walks around the world can attest – we were there yesterday, along 30 thousand strong, in Central Park, New York – the most radical notion about the gay movement has nothing to do with what goes on in the bedroom, but with a profound sense of solidarity, guided by an empathetic brand of humanism, high morals, and a sense of ethics and duty towards our fellow human beings. As far as mass movements go, it’s hard to find one that’s more comprehensive and concerned about the general well being of the whole population, not just its former outcasts, the once named Gay Liberation Movement. As said before, it’s not a bad paradigm to be identified with hope and choice, rather than conformity and intolerance. Have a great week.

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5/13/2014 Time for Congress to Show Spine, Colltalers

As the NSA backpedaled on its policy banning current and former employees from referring to leaked news by ‘unauthorized’ sources, a bill going through our do-nothing Congress, the USA Freedom Act, aims at restoring some judicial accountability for the agency and give us back our privacy. It won’t be enough, but it’s already a step forward in what’s been mostly a tale of outrage against the NSA’s widespread spying on the lives of common citizens, here and abroad, and the Obama administration doubling down and reaffirming its questionable security-at-all-costs credo. All the while, Edward Snowden, the man responsible for igniting a new sense of awareness about what intel agencies really do with taxpayers money, and how insulated they’ve become to pressure from the civil society, remains caught up in a legal limbo and self-imposed exile in Russia. Despite receiving the Sam Adams Integrity in Intelligence and the Ridenhour Truth-Telling awards, or being instrumental for the Pulitzer and the Polk awards granted to Glenn Greenwald and Laura Pointras, the two journalists who published his revelations, Snowden continues to languish outside his country of birth, wondering if he’ll ever regain his full rights as a citizens, before his visa at the convoluted nation expires next month. There has been, in fact, talk about his return to the U.S. to ‘have his day in court,’ in the words of National Security Advisor Susan Rice. But several issues may conspire against him having the chance to justify his actions before Americans. Chief among them, the Justice Department, which may intervene and prevent him from even talking publicly, invoking, you guessed it, reasons of national security. He’s trapped in a judicial Catch-22. Besides, the Obama administration has been particularly litigious against whistleblowers, denying them the chance of defending themselves, before being ushered into obscurity, in spite of candidate Obama’s avowed commitment to protect truth tellers, in those long ago final months of 2008. There’s a justified fear that as soon as Snowden touches down on American soil, he too will be rushed to some undisclosed location, allegedly to ‘be briefed,’ but for all purposes, to be silenced and likely not being heard from for years to come. Even though there’s no jurisprudence for such a draconian approach to dissenters in the U.S., his stature as a challenger of the security status quo may be a fitting excuse to do just that. That’s why most of the blame, or rather, accountability must be placed at the White House doorstep, not just for what may happen to Snowden when and if he comes back, but also, indirectly, for what happened to Chelsea Manning, from whom we probably won’t be hearing again anytime soon. Her judgment and relative swift sentencing exemplify with accuracy the administration’s willingness to pursue those who clearly had solely a moral, not financial, reason to leak government classified information, even when such leaks did not damage or harm Americans forces in the field. Throughout Manning’s process and now Snowden’s, President Obama, whose old speeches as a candidate and as Professor of Constitutional Law are at complete odds with his present stance on security and the handling of state secrets, made a risky calculation that took more into consideration his support among the intel establishment than the interests of the civil society’s right to know what the government does with its tacit approval. That simply doesn’t bode well to a president in middle of his final term, who should be doing more to put emphasis on individual freedom for dissent, now that his relentless opposition, the GOP, seems to be stuck into a mad stride, going from one hayride to insanity (opposing Obamacare) to another (reinvestigating Benghazi). What a missed opportunity to ‘make a change,’ to paraphrase from any one of his inspiring stump speeches. As the NSA engages into more deceit and veiled threats, in a disingenuous attempt to discredit its critics and preserve its privileges, the Freedom Act has received qualified support from important civil rights groups, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union. Apart support from these and other organizations, though, the bill is far from being an assurance that it’ll give us back our rights to privacy, or that it even won’t be weakened further. Time for society to pick up the slack and push for its implementation in an even more meaningful way. And to be approved by the Senate, of course. Talking about missed opportunities, Congress has a golden one to catch up with the real needs and aspirations of the majority of Americans, since it’s been at considerable fault when it comes to all other issues people care the most about. It may be almost flippant to say, but since they won’t act to extend unemployment benefits, or stop preventing enhancements to job creation and income distribution measures, our legislators could show some backbone on this issue and stand on the side of the civil society, for a change. As we continue to benefit from the courage of Manning, Snowden and many others, as well as the reporters who gave them a global pulpit, so we can now be discussing personal freedom and demanding the government to stand behind our constitutional rights, all we hope is that they too, and others like them, receive the acknowledgement they deserve for risking their lives and sacrificing their careers for the common good. No national security interests should rule a nation founded on principles of individual freedom and the rule of law, no matter how dismayed Americans may be with members of the Judiciary Power, and how fearful we are of the consequences from having a central government determining how we should conduct our lives and speak our minds. Perhaps now is good a time as any to guarantee net neutrality and free access for all. Have a great week.

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5/5/2014 Bibi’s Bid for Supremacy, Colltalers

As the U.S.-led world cuts its teeth trying to grasp Russia’s next move in Ukraine, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues quietly but resolutely pushing his agenda of power consolidation, with a repertoire of deft moves and elaborate games of public opinion maneuvering. When his Likud party opens its long-delayed convention Wednesday, it will happen at the end of a two-month string of victories for Netanyahu, masterfully disguised as concessions to the party’s hard-liners, which include the repositioning of some of Israel’s most transcendental issues. On the outside, everything seems to have fallen into place, to his ever so casual advantage: the collapse of the latest round of talks with the Palestinian Authority, dragging the Obama administration’s two-state proposal pretty much to the gutter, the president’s once-again tacit support of the Likud’s policies, even the party’s internal negotiations that delayed the convention from March to now, it all seemed unrelated and/or pure luck. But for those who’ve been following, a bit longer than Secretary of State John Kerry’s own tenure, the quagmire of the Middle East puzzle, of which whatever happens between Israel and the Palestinian people may determine the direction of the several regional conflicts surrounding the two, almost nothing if ever that has occurred for the past two thousand years in that part of the globe has happened by chance. And for at least four years of those millennia, no matter what happens, things seem to always improve the stability at the top and personal biography of only one person: Netanyahu. But, curiously, things have a way to hide his role, as if all else around him, his party’s radicals, Israel’s electorate, even the Palestinian Authority to some extent, are somehow conspiring to force his hand, and he’s innocently caught in the middle. Take the collapse of the peace talks, at least for now, on the surface brought about because of an agreement signed between the two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, to set the stage for an interim government and general elections. The PM took the ideological position, and let’s face, dangerous radicalization of one of the two, Hamas, as a leverage tool against Fatah, the side that has for years bent backyards to Israeli demands, to declare their unified front, and the whole thing, an unacceptable threat to Israel. Missing from such a B&W rhetoric, of course, was the fact that, for as long as he’s been in charge, Fatah has been the focus of a demoralizing campaign by his party, specially when it pushed for a symbolic U.N. vote for a State of Palestine, slightly a year ago. Never mind that, technically, that’s a necessary step in the much beaten path of the Roadmap for Peace, which Israel is supposed to have officially embraced. But even if such an undermining campaign were the sole product of right-wing radicals, encased deeply in the Likud’s bowels, Netanyahu never cared to distance himself from them, or even pay lip service to Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas and his efforts to find consensus among his constituency. Again, on the surface, the appearances are of a leader troubled by the loose cannons within his own party, on one side, and a sect full of hatred against the State of Israel, supported by the much-vilified, and at least potentially, only other nuclear power in the region, Iran. Looking closely, the story has been that, radicals or not, his permanence as head of Israel for four years is a testament of how well he controls his party’s internal machinations, even when it looks as if they’re having their way, as was the case of the convention’s postponement to this week. Things couldn’t be more favorable too from the part of the American Jewish leadership, the coalition that has been instrumental in supporting his policies, and maintaining the status quo within Israel, when it voted to reject a young, progressive organization from joining in its umbrella. J Street, a six-year old organization, ‘pro Israel and pro peace,’ as it defines itself, had its bid to be part of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations defeated, in a predictable vote this past week. Despite the democratic nature of the process, many saw the unequivocal behind-the-scene muscle of segments that oppose J Street’s independent positions in a number of critical issues affecting Israel. Main among them, of course, is the continuous building of settlements in the West Bank territories, for instance, which along with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, are expected to be part of a new land configuration in a future two-state solution. But while those claims by the Palestinians have been supported by J Street and the international community, and figure in most negotiation terms, Israel has adamantly ignored them. Plus, the group’s opposition to the maze of walls and fences separating both nations, effectively fracturing the Palestinian territories in impossible multiple ‘islands,’ the Gaza blockade, and the increased militarization of Israel’s foreign policies, have all but sealed the deal against it. With pesky opposition groups like that out of the way, along with scores of respected figures, including former President Carter, unable to put enough pressure on him, Netanyahu has a clear path at the convention to sell his golden idea, one that has the potential to all but bury any possibility of successful Palestinian bid in the near or far future: his proposal to enact legislation for the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. What’s in a name, you may ask. Indeed, and again on the surface, the idea would be just a pro-forma way of characterizing Israel as a benevolent host to its people. But behind such a florid rhetoric, lies something more sinister: the consolidation of Israel’s claim on a land that’s historically shared by Muslims and Christians alike, besides having terrible ramifications to the increasing percentage of non-Jewish Israeli residents. The PM is again playing his hand masterfully, throwing the ball on the Palestinian Authority’s corner, and declaring that it’s all an inevitable consequence of its neighbor’s new-found unity. Which is a disingenuous way of mischaracterizing the legitimacy of the Palestinians’ need for a unified leadership, one that should be more concerned about improving their miserable living conditions than waging war against Israel. One underlining question many have asked, however, is how come a democratic nation whose population’s medium age is slightly south of 30 years old, has such an anemic political presence and support to more progressive, and less militaristic agendas, for their country. Adding to this apparent apathy from the young, is a new development, that has Israeli politics experts scratching their heads for its implications. Soldiers, who’ve always been an important demographics of Israeli society, are now taking to social networks to voice discontent about their difficult position: thrown into an explosive, hostile environment, policing deeply unhappy Palestinians, while at the same time, being threatened with court martial and jail, if caught brutalizing their charges, which happens often and inevitably ends up on the Internet. An incident in Hebron the past week marked this potentially disturbing twist, and if you’re the government of a tiny country, heavily dependent on its military, squeezed among suspicious neighbors, you’re now in the unenviable position of having to curb its armed forces. As for the U.S., which may have picked the wrong horse, and now has to sit, hopelessly, on the sidelines, every power-building move by Netanyahu and his Likud, has the deleterious effect of mining even more American allies’ confidence on this country’s ability to lead. Finally, it’s tragically ironic that American Evangelicals have decided that the best way of bringing about the second-coming of Christ, or at least a civilization-ending military conflict to fit their deranged ideas of a rapture, is to boost hatred for Israel by its neighbors. As it’s been prescribed by that ancient war manual, the bible, the radical righteous, as they’ve done in Africa, have the potential to wreck havoc in the Middle East, which for them, would be all worthwhile, since would also trigger a mass conversion of Jews into Christianity. We can’t begin to fathom the extent of such downright insanity, but it’s all substantiated by proselytizing and massive investments in Israel by American Christians, which according to some studies, have now outspent even the contributions of U.S. Jewish organizations. Israel has the right to exist and thrive, and the creation of that nation is still one of the greatest global humanitarian responses to the despicable cruelty of the Nazi regime and the tragedy of the Holocaust. But before it reaches its seventh decade of existence, Israel must come to terms with the needs and aspirations of its neighbors, and none more crucially than the still stateless Palestinians. As another Israeli PM, Yitzhak Rabin, said, ‘Israel has to join the global journey toward peace, reconciliation and international cooperation.’ Let’s hope that such journey starts before we reach the 20th anniversary of his assassination in 1995, by a far-right Israeli. Happy Cinco de Mayo and remember, don’t go straight to the fifth; start off with dos, first.

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4/27/2014 Black & White & Muddy All Over, Colltalers

Just when two stirring issues, deeply relevant for the U.S. going forward – income distribution and government-sponsored surveillance of common citizens – were getting some traction in the prime real estate of public debate, another one, supposedly from the past, reared its ugly head: racism. Apparently, America can’t help it getting constantly muddled up and overwhelmed by the racial divide, no matter how many historical steps forward have been accomplished, and how in the Supreme Court’s fictitious land of racial equality, racism has all but being completely conquered. Far from it, as the court itself and last week’s two shocking public statements have highlighted it so well. So much for a country that has finally elected, and reelected, an African-American as president. Sadly, such toxic discussion is not ready to be coralled within the academia just yet. The brutal reality is that this is not only fiction but a cruel tale of failed expectations and betrayed ideals, where black and other so-called racial minorities lag behind in major indicators of income, education, and social promotion, or simply languish in record numbers in overcrowded jails. What’s fast becoming known as the Roberts court, with all the nuanced punch of a racial-profiled, stop-and-frisk police harassing of an unarmed black teenager, was the one to fire the opening salvo of the week, with its Schuette v Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action decision. In it, it went along with Michigan in denying college and university applicants the right to invoke race in their applications, one more state to strike down the Civil Rights-derived legislation that allowed President Obama, for one, to even consider applying to an Ivy League institution. The Roberts court simply reused the same mold it did last July, when it also took a swipe at yet another piece of the 1960s’ civil movements legacy, the Voting Rights Act, employing the same infuriatingly disingenuous rationale that ‘our country has changed,’ the racial divide is no longer, etc. All that this process of dismantling the few treads supporting an already tenuous balance of race, and its close cousin, class, has managed to do so far is to underscore the vulnerability of the Obama administration’s claims that it’s actually lowering the odds staked against racial minorities. Even considering the constitutional separation of powers, there’s little doubt that the Executive branch has had its own share of flaws dealing with non-discriminatory practices within its own ranks, or going after for-profit academic institutions, with a lot to benefit from the Schuette ruling. After all, it’s been under the president’s watch that tuition prices and education costs have skyrocketed, just like student debt and university profits, while studies on the demographics of upper education entries show that it continues to be heavily overrepresented by whites over all other races. Justice Sonia Sotomayor correctly observed, on her dissent, that the decision allows the legacy status (‘daddy went to school here’) or the athletic skills argument (talent to engorge the university’s bottom line) to get more sympathetic ears than those declaring simply that they are black or Hispanic and poor. With the strike of a pen, the court once again set back decades of civil rights laws once approved to set a level playing field. It was downhill after that. In fact, the past week offered two of the ugliest public displays of outlandish racism in recent memory, and we only won’t go as far as to call them the worst ever because, one, they are not, and secondly, have you been watching international football lately? Leading the charge of unapologetic supremacists, Nevada cattle rancher Clive Bundy, who if he wasn’t white and relatively well to do, would be rotting in jail, suddenly irrupted into the open with an anti-government diatribe, which he explicitly does not recognize, for daring to attempt to collect grazing fees due to his cows’ two-decade roaming of public land. Conservative pundits and politicos quickly gathered on his support. Fox News was in the middle of its 200-hour plus daily coverage of this lawbreaker’s 15 minutes, who held court on the open pasture, surrounded by an armed-to-the-teeth militia, when a previous video resurfaced where he dispenses his staggeringly prejudiced views on ‘the Negro.’ By the time he uttered a second reference to slavery, and how African-Americans would be better off if we still had it, his ‘lifetime’ friends in Washington and the media, who’d called him a patriot and praised his straightforwardness, had jumped overboard faster than rats from a shipwreck. The saddest part, though, goes beyond his hateful rhetoric. It’s the fact that he said bluntly what many in the GOP, the conservative media, right-wing talk show hosts, and even members of the privileged elite have also been saying, but through ‘code’ words and covert expressions. Otherwise, what is a ‘moocher’ if not someone who ‘doesn’t belong here,’ who’ll never be ‘one of us, and whose stench of unemployment and social exclusion is not suitable to even stay in the same room as the piles of cash the 1% has shipped abroad for the exact same reason. Talking about the 1%, along came the K.O. punch on the many who still hope the U.S., circa 2014, is not all about race and dwindling opportunities to minorities: the now widely publicized remarks made by LA Clippers’ owner, Donald Sterling to his much younger girlfriend. In a long, boring and otherwise pointless argument that somehow got recorded, he chastises V. Stiviano for taking a picture with a black person, who happened to be Magic Johnson, and ends with a pearl to, hopefully, haunt him to the end of times: ‘Don’t bring ‘them’ to my games…’ No one, in right mind, would be surprised to the extent of racism in the U.S., today and now, except perhaps that fictitious realm of white man in black robes, but ultimately, it’s a good thing that these outrageous statements come to light, even if in themselves they sound petty and infantile. They go a long way to prove that, to segments of the contemporary American society, there’s a willingness to continue pursuing an unreachable ‘ideal’ of racial purity, akin to ethical cleansing, that not even the deadliest war this country has ever waged seem to have been able to purge. So, even though we’d prepared an inspired piece during the break, on those two transcendental themes, that of the miserable state of class relations in the U.S., and the nightmarish fears of shadowy intel agencies collecting data on everybody, it was race the topic to take over and run this post. But it’s fine; we can all hold three conversations at the same time, and we’ll get to those issues of wealth distribution, income inequality, Thomas Piketty and all that, along with Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and whatever we may feel we could add something fresh to the discussion. For now though, we’re utterly flummoxed, flabbergasted, apoplectic even, about how little progress we seem to have accomplished when it comes to something so basic, so crucially vital but ultimately irrelevant such as the color of everyone’s skin. If you too are feeling this way, you’re not the only one. It may be time to revisit once again why we’re stuck in the moment, and what can we all do to move on to another day. Have a nice one.

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4/14/2014 Not Here to Amuse Us, Colltalers

Animal welfare organizations are celebrating this week’s decision by the U.K. to ban the use of wild animals in circuses, effective at the end of next year. England thus officially becomes the 10th country to do it so, following a mixed bag of nations with hardly anything in common. Some, as the Netherlands, had done it as early as 2008, while others, like Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Paraguay, Slovenia, Greece and Cyprus, only prove that no nation needs to be in the now reduced G7 bloc, or even have a booming economy, to take sensible steps towards animal well being. The ‘dark horse’ of this list is China, which despite having shown tolerance to widespread animal abuse and cruel practices, surprised the world three years ago by enacting a ban. Critics say that, unlike rules preventing government criticism, for instance, such ban is hardly enforced. That doesn’t undermine the fact that even within an authoritarian regime, animal welfare is still a cause worth debating even by those who do not consider it to be of the same gravity as human rights violations and free expression, to name but two other serious issues. In fact, how we treat animals in itself is a not entirely separated issue from what we deem inherent qualities of being human. How we relate not just to other species, but to the natural world and the planet has the potential to inexorably tilt a needle towards the whole range of cruelties we associated with ‘the beast,’ and definitely away from our noble pursuits of equanimity and justice to all living beings. Which, in any case, is just an abstraction. But we digress. The debate over why we use animals to our own entertainment is as offensive now as it used to be in Roman times, when the Caesars perceived its potential (as in Panis et Circenses) to divert the masses’ attention from their own misery, and thus keeping them content and satisfied. It was certainly used before for similar purposes, but despite 20 centuries of civilization, the history of the modern circus is one of abject exploitation of the physically handicapped for entertainment, no moral consideration given, and that includes cruelty towards the most vulnerable, wild animals. There seems to be a growing tide towards considering any kind of imprisonment and bounded conditions towards animals, with its implicit lack of consent, the same way we already view it if it’s being done towards one of our own. And we even have a name for it: torture, pure and simple. But if there’s indeed such a trend, we may be still on its early stages, and progress has been as slow and full of backlashes, as what it took for ending slavery, for example, all puns intended. Running out of excuses, defenders are prone to invoke the argument about ‘the kids’ and the ‘science.’ It goes like this: city kids have rarely an opportunity to come in touch with wild beasts, apart from circuses and zoos (we’ll get to that in a minute), thus it’s justifiable to ‘expose’ them under a tent, performing stupid tricks to our amusement. It’s neither about kids nor about science, of course. Circus animals have little left of their true nature, and what they undergo in order to ‘perform’ is something that even kids know it’s associated with banned medieval practices of containment. At the end of the day, it’s doubtful anyone would continue supporting it if they’d know about them. Talking about cities, a parallel movement to ban horse-drawn carriages has been taking hold for a while too, but at a much smaller pace than the accidents, and resulting victimization of the animals, that they cause, and with as many rocks on the way as the cobblestones that punish their hooves. Actually, to say that they cause accidents is a gross misinterpretation, as if it’s not obvious that introducing a slow-moving vehicle pulled by a fully restrained animal, in the middle of some of biggest concentrations of speeding cars on earth, wouldn’t itself be an irreconcilable problem. Opponents of such a brutal practice, that keeps causing horse fatalities and mishaps, thought they had a champion in New York City’s new Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was elected on a platform supporting a ban on horse carriages. But, wouldn’t you know it? they were very wrong. The mayor has postponed any decision on the matter to ‘later in the year’ (which can be read as, perhaps never), failing to recognize an opportunity to give his city a leadership role in an issue that seems to have the approval of all but one resident: Irish action hero actor Liam Neeson. Despite similar movements to ban, or prevent from starting, horse-drawn carriage attractions in some cities of his native country, Neeson has been on record defending the tiny community of carriage drivers. Many a worthier cause wish they had these two heavy-weight champions on their side. Despite the setback, the ban in the U.K. has the potential to first, be extended to all animals, and then to other countries too including, why not? the U.S. Since the advent of enterprises such as the Cirque du Soleil and others, which do not use animals, only a few remaining organizations still carry acts with them, many of which have been accused of animal abuse as one of the oldest, the Ringling Bros. has been in the recent past. Circuses like it are running against a modern trend of valuing the work of well trained, and obviously willing, human athletes, and there’s been a healthy revival of showing amazing feats of physicality that do not involve the participation of any performer not sentient enough to give its consent. A word about yet another segment of the ample philosophical discussion of how should we relate to animals, whether as our subordinates, forced to give their lives to our sustenance and entertainment, or rather as our partners in the upkeep of the planet: the reason for the existence of zoos. As we get to learn more about animal intelligence and the conditions to which they thrive in the wild, it’s been increasingly harder to build an argument based on the rationale of keeping them in captivity, for as elaborate their enclosures may be and as humanely treated as zoos claim they are. In fact, a disturbing number of incidents, when animal abuse in zoos was captured on tape, really attests to the contrary. And then there’s the even more complex issue of animal melancholia and depression, well documented in captivity to no one’s surprise. Even manipulative breeding programs have at times failed to guarantee the preservation of some genetic strains, research of which is crucial to define a zoo’s very reason to be. And then there is the absurdly incongruous practice, albeit not as irrational as it may look, given the restrains of choosing such an animal research path, which is the selective killing of perfectly healthy ones, under the excuse of clearing room for new, more genetically diversified specimens. The Copenhagen Zoo has provided last month one of the most glaring examples of this tremendous contradiction. It not just killed a healthy giraffe and gave its meat to be devoured by lions in front of a live audience of children, as it later killed four lions too. So much for genetic diversity. Taken in this context, zoos are not far from private sanctuaries, which breed animals with no scientific claims, and wind up raising a homogeneous and vulnerable genetic pool, far from what natural conditions provide. The startling fact about these amateur animal parks, despite all the love and dedication some do involve in their foundation, is that there are now more wild animals living in them in the U.S., for instance, than in the wild. The fact that many of such sanctuaries, here and elsewhere in the world, are built out of vanity only aggravates the problem, and clouds even further the argument that they may represent the only chance of survival for those animals involved, many rescued from, you guessed, abusive circuses. But about zoos, they did fulfill an important role at the beginning of the century, and yes, part of it was to inculcate empathy on children about their existence and the threats to their survival. But that was when HDTV was not anticipated even on novels by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Research done in the past two decades, which offered us a deeper understand of elephants, and how their highly evolved matriarchy society operates, have began mining the argument that scientific research has to be done in the sterile, although controlled, environment of a zoo. There’s now a scientific consensus that there must be another way, and such forward thinking has determined an end altogether to elephants in captivity. The same attitude towards other animals may soon follow this new understanding, but we shouldn’t expect all pieces to simply follow into place. Since we’ve began ‘collecting’ animals for scientific curiosity and amusement, their natural habitats have been severely depleted, trade of animal parts have reached grotesque levels of cruelty, and a demographic explosion has pitted impoverished communities against preservation’s best interests. We could end it with an edifying, thought-provoking, heart-warming, teachable-moment inducing quote, by any of the many geniuses of our race, who have meditated on this issue with depth, clarity and customary zeal. Ultimately, though, we don’t really believe much in words of a quote. Rather, it’d be advisable to support a course of action that would ban circus animals, as those countries did, and any exhibit featuring some if not all live animals, as the world-class NY Bronx Zoo has done. Some would say, and stop eating them too, but, hey, not everyone can be Paul McCartney. Enjoy the spring break.

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4/7/2014 A Markdown Democracy, Colltalers

Two major events, apparently unrelated but whose timing reeks of surprise and irony, have framed the past week: a U.S. Supreme Court rule, which struck down crucial restrictions to the role of money in politics, and a presidential election in Afghanistan, which has come to a peaceful close. It’s indeed surprising that the first-ever democratic transfer of power, in a country where the American-led 13-year long ‘war on terror’ has turned into one of the most violent places on Earth, has concluded with virtually no incidents of violence, despite a seven-million-voter turnout. And there’s no shortage of irony either, considering that the court’s ruling, which effectively eliminates limits to the amount of dollars donors can give to candidates, parties and political groups, happens in the land that aims at being a bastion of democracy and of the will of the common people. We’re, of course, paraphrasing with abandon constitutional notions about representative power and a self-attributed role of guardian of democratic principles, which have both served us well when it comes to reprimand and discipline countries that, in our view, are threatening to stray from them. That’s our new, self-inflicted moral vulnerability, though, acquired as recently as a decade or so ago, when we engaged in the unjustified Iraq war. And it’s been only the most visible tip of the iceberg, as critics and U.S. haters, most of them of our own manufacturing, won’t stop pointing it out. But there was one thing America used to do well, despite all contradictions of its foreign policy, racial divisiveness, obsession with power, and the ingrained self-assurance that some rules didn’t apply to itself: its nurturing of a political process that did work as an equalizer for over a century. Among great U.S. presidents and political leaders, there were also many ‘John Does,’ who rose to power by the sheer power of the popular vote. And guess what? while many faded to obscurity, some actually remained relevant, and others became actual standard bearers of citizen excellence. We take exception here to name at least one, still living and still increasing his stature as a world class statesman: James Earl Carter, Jr. Mentioning Jimmy Carter is never out of context, given the role the U.S. now seems unsure how to play, for he’s the only president not to deploy American troops anywhere, and whose Nobel Peace Prize years after leaving office is as relevant now as President Obama’s was far too premature. What the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission rule, which some have called a Citizen United 2, has just determined is that the wealthier the donors, the more they can inject into the political process, by explicitly ‘investing’ in as many candidates as they’d like to see in office. Since political donations, by definition, imply an exchange of cash for work – by the politician and/or party on legislation that favors the donor – this means that whatever time a legislator spends in Congress, he or she’ll be working for the donors’ interests, and not for the voters. Ah, yes, and then there’s the Voting Rights Act, which in another decision last June, the Supreme Court also decided that was time to be depleted of some of its crucial tenets, which included eliminating measures that directly protected and guaranteed the vote of minorities and the poor. Or that was the end result, anyway. We’re not wasting time in the serendipitous ways, and startling perverse rationale, behind recent decisions by the court led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts. He and his four minions have proved once again to be below the role the nation has entrusted them. The nuanced approach to the increased role that money has been playing on every level of the political process, and its deleterious impact on the U.S. democracy, however, is that no single court decision is entirely responsible for it, and no party is exempt of its own role in this debacle. A January report by the Open Secrets found out that more than half of the 534 current members of Congress had an average net worth of $1 million or more in 2012, which makes up their overall median net worth to reach over a million. No wonder jobless protection laws are so hard to pass. That figure also compares terribly with the Census figures for those they’re supposed to be representing while elected: the average household income in the U.S. in 2011, for instance, household meaning a minimum of two people but usually more than that, was only $52,000. In the meantime, although voting was almost violence-free in the land of the ‘Operation Enduring Freedom,’ where over 2,300 American troops, and hundreds of thousands of Afghans, have died, no one expects that to remain so in the six weeks or so that it may take for results to come out. And money did play a prominent role there too, as it has during President Hamid Karzai’s entire two terms. Despite scrambling, and failing, to find an ally to support in power, his prospects, and those of his broken country, remain dire after the U.S. occupational forces leave at this year’s end. On the other hand, results for the hemorrhage of billions of dollars wasted both in tragically misguided armed adventures on far corners of the world, and on political campaigns for those formerly known as representatives of the people, may be even more nefarious than the war in Afghanistan. Ascendancy to power of community organizers, grassroots activists, civil rights advocates, and any sort of idealistic ground-up progressive effort, is now more than ever dependent, not on their gift to galvanize supporters and gather enough votes to join in the process, but on their ability to ‘sell’ ideas, and ‘advertise’ goals to as many wealthy ‘investors’ as possible, which obviously implies compromising the very principles they may represent. This crooked concept of ‘sponsored’ democracy has clearly caused the shameful disconnect between what the majority of Americans support, about income equality, jobs, gun control, social investments, reproductive rights, and, yes, health care, and what’s actually being waged on Capitol Hill. That widening gap is becoming our greatest moral stain, superseding obsolete notions of a classless society and delusions about a nation that tends to its own with equanimity. What’s not surprising about the rise of money in politics is how it cheapens our sense of what a true democracy should be. As the Supreme Court continues to perform an insulting disservice to the U.S. and what it should stand for, is is fair to expect that society will rise up to reaffirm principles most of us would like to believe this nation was founded upon? Hoping you can answer that better than we’d ever could, we must leave at that. Have a peaceful week.

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3/31/2014 What Brazil Can’t Forget About March, Colltalers

There are a few facts both baffling and predictable about Brazil, as it marks today the 50th year anniversary of a military coup that deposed democratically elected president João Goulart and, for over two decades, controlled and terrorized every segment of its society. One is how little public awareness exist about the dictatorship’s impact on the nation’s psyche, still jolted by irrational fears and an almost bipolar drive to earn the world’s respect, and on its institutions, which went through a forced, across the board and humiliating, overhaul, to survive. Other is how surprisingly ignorant most Brazilian seem to be about the nefarious legacy left by a regime that had no constrains about persecuting its political enemies, destroying in the process the dream of building a free society that the optimism of the late 1950s in Brazil warranted. That promise was interrupted for 21 years, and some say, remains unfulfilled, despite a number of democratic institutions having been built since the 1980s. One thing about Brazil’s recent economic boom and present turmoil is that it’s exposed the huge vulnerability of such institutions. Lastly, another startling fact about the military rule in Brazil is the virtual impunity of those accused of having taken part in the widespread torture and murdering of regime opponents. Some of these voices are still present in the national debate and remain adamantly unapologetic. It’s to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, a former guerrilla and the country’s first woman in high office, the merit of facilitating the creation of the Truth Commission, dedicated to investigate the dictatorship’s crimes, and that’s been the sole organ to do so, despite almost 30 years since the last general headed back to the barracks. It remains in the open whether it’ll gather enough evidence leading to persecution of notorious torturers. Such complacence and nonchalance towards its recent dark past has hurt Brazilians in more ways they seem willing to admit. In fact, indignation against what such past did to Brazil is the single greatest theme absent in the massive street rallies throughout the country’s biggest cities. Corruption, self-serving politics, widening income gap, police violence, education and health, are all commonly invoked issues, and rightly so, in large demonstrations that often turn violent. However, the Military’s public image remain unscathed, and, worse, the fallacy of its alleged benign role as neutral normalizer of society struggles, which is not even constitutionally correct, is often invoked as a solution to end the ‘anarchy.’ Thus a whole generation may have not been taught what really happened in the early 1960s, when the country’s cultural awakening and quick urbanization were being espoused by a drive to become politically relevant to the world (yes, that old dream was already being dreamed). Many in reality may have been told, otherwise, that fears of a communist threat, expressed by a middle class then frightened by street clamors for agrarian reforms and a more socialistic approach to political change, were more than they really were, mostly manipulation by rightwing forces. Such segments, unhappy with Goulart’s populism, were supported by the U.S., now it’s been openly acknowledged, but not because Americans were afraid that such reforms would lead to a civil war, as militaries were preaching at the time, or that Brazilians would suffer with them. The coup, most historians agree, marked Brazil’s insertion into the Cold War, furiously waged at the time for control and dominance of the world south of the equator. Brazil was a mere pawn, albeit a large one, in a risky geopolitics game that lasted almost as long as its own dictatorship. To be sure, U.S. support was not nearly as strong as what would destabilize Chile’s also democratically elected President Salvador Allende only nine years later. But recently unearthed documents attest to the important role U.S. Ambassador Lincoln Gordon, for instance, played in the coup. Still, responsibility in great part for the horrors that took place in the dungeons and ‘houses of death, kept by the militaries during their rule, where an estimated 200-plus Brazilians were tortured to death, has to revert back to the Brazilian society that enabled and supported the comfy delusion of being ruled by an uniformed elite that would make all decisions on their name but that remained absolutely unaccountable to any crime. A final observation about some of those who’ve been studying the rightwing dictatorship in Brazil is how quickly they dismiss the number of ‘desaparecidos’ and victims of the repression, when compared to those who shared the same unfortunate fate in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and so many other nations. Almost as if they’re talking about breaking eggs and omelet, and not of human lives unjustly sacrificed. There’s been a flurry of horrific revelations about the miserable final hours of some Brazilians, well known and anonymous, who were killed for daring to oppose the armed forces, as well as documents and books detailing episodes that may have changed Brazil forever and not for the better. There hasn’t been an equivalent amount of admissions of guilty and voluntary testimonies of people who granted themselves a mandate to hunt and kill their fellow citizens, along with those who ordered and commanded them to do so. And that’s a double insult to the memory of their victims. No one will ever know how many promising political leaders were either killed or intimidated into oblivion by the dictatorship’s goons and death squads, a fact that can easily be traced to the unfortunate number of unprepared representatives elected to Brazil’s legislature in the past decades. In the weeks leading to this sober milestone, the Brazilian press has been extensively uncovering personal accounts and, at times, sensational revelations about what really happened then. The effort is laudable but limited as the median itself, as context is often sacrificed to benefit impact. There are too few works of scholarly research about the period, still, and the issue remains elusive in academic dissertations. Which is again, baffling, considering Brazil’s history of military coups, and how they shaped and at times, hindered, any possibility of progressive change. As Brazilians take the streets to protest the flaws and grievances of a still incipient democracy, it’s always timeless to remind everyone when protesting was simply not an option, and the heavy price many paid for challenging the establishment and demanding a fair and free society. In the 1960s, while mass movements led to political change in the U.S. and Europe, hippies and civil rights activists left a lasting legacy of rebellion and integrity. But while the Soviet Union crushed the former Czechoslovakia with tanks, as it’d done with Hungary a few years earlier, Brazilians were crushing themselves into submission to a fascist power, helped, yes, by a grateful U.S., but still in a gesture of their own making. The military coup in Brazil would ignite a tragic chain reaction that destroyed democracies of many other Latin American nations and it’d take a whole generation for some, but not all, of those nations to restore any semblance of a democratic state. Some wounds, however, remain open. What’s missing in the tragic, even if unintended, consequences of the military adventure, supported in Brazil by a radical segment of society that in many ways, regretted their folly, is a level of contrition without which there won’t be much of a hope for redemption and moving forward. Brazilians should be glad to be electing representatives on a regular basis now, but a great risk to democracy is to take it for granted. The country’s apparent willingness to forget its past, which is mirrored by vote restricting measures against minorities in the U.S., for example, attests to the need for constant awareness about how the power from the people and to the people and all that can be easily snatched away from everyone. Have a great showerless April you all.

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3/24/2014 The Slick Charm of Oil Spillers, Colltares

When a barge carrying almost a million gallons of marine fuel oil collided with another ship in Texas Saturday, spilling oil from one of its tanks into the Galveston Bay, it barely registered with the wall-to-wall Malaysian plane disappearance slash Russia’s Crimea annexation coverage. Although those are indeed news worth covering, albeit not breaking at the moment, the risk of becoming oblivious to oil spills can’t be overstated. Specially when even minor ones, like this one appears to be, still have the potential to disrupt irreparably the local environment. Besides, they should always at least remind us about the Big One: the BP-caused Gulf of Mexico crude oil spill of 2010. In fact, a funny thing happened about that disaster, a.k.a. the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the worst in history by most accounts: despite having killed 11 people, and a still unknown but surely staggering number of marine species, having caused permanent damage to that once pristine coastal environment, plus destroying another unknown number of local fishing business, it really didn’t affect much the oil industry. In the sole measure that counts for the world’s five biggest oil companies, profit in 2013 reached $93 billion, helped by a combination of tax exemptions and loopholes that allow them to duck costly liabilities in case of mismanagement and, yes, oil spills. BP, which is one of those five, is a typical, if somewhat pathetic, example of how it all works. After a U.S. government Sept. 2011 report found its unit, Macondo Prospect, guilty of operating a defective well, it was fined almost $5 billion and ordered to set up an estimated $20 billion fund for compensations, besides losing its fat licenses to operate in the gulf, in what should have been a tight lid case of crime and punishment. Surprise, surprise. After four years, and the fund reportedly having cost the company twice that initial amount, not all compensation claims have been honored and much of the gulf states’ fishing and tourism economy remains depressed, while its ecosystems’ diversity may never recover. It gets worse. As its other giant partners in crime, Transocean and Halliburton, have all but absconded from the public eye, BP’s been spending millions in ads, crying foul and litigating all it can to fight claims on the basis of their strict merit and not, their overall legitimacy, as it should. The full-page newspaper ads, suffused with outrage at what it alleges are ‘fictitious’ filings for compensation, almost give you the idea that BP’s the real victim here, being unfairly taken advantage of by unscrupulous lawyers, and that, in the rush to quell public anger and the huge backlash that hurt its sales for a whole, gasp, minute, it got into a ‘too generous’ agreement, that’s benefiting undeserving parties. Since we know how skilled corporate legal teams usually are, and how they always prevail in the end, our hearts are definitely not bleeding for BP. But such cry wolf antics was, nevertheless, getting some mileage, as indeed, the process has become chaotic. Until a judge set them straight. Ordering BP to resume paying the millions of dollars in business-loss claims that it’d unilaterally held, our new hero, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Leslie Southwick, ruled the other week that the settlement agreement does not require claimants to submit evidence in order to be paid. Because, just to keep it all in perspective, no amount of settlement monies paid would be enough to fix the environmental damage the spill caused, and for which much less has been done, let alone restore confidence to a myriad of small business owners who have since simply folded. BP, of course, will continue arguing and appealing till the dolphins return to the Gulf, naturally, to keep on increasing profits, even if by ‘unnatural’ ways, if you pardon the pun, and, again, will eventually prevail, judging by the Obama administration’s dismal record on the matter. What, you didn’t think that we were going to leave President Obama and his own legal team (the Justice Department) off the hook, did you? For the president had one of those unambiguous ‘opportunities,’ right at the dawn of his term at the White House, when that cheap valve blew up and gushed an estimated 5 million barrels of crude for three months straight, to make good of his pro-environment campaign rhetoric. And at first, it seemed that he was really going to seize that moment and implement the kind of long term strategy required for an event of that magnitude. But soon enough he got distracted by other issues and now it’s clear that things didn’t work out the way that they need to. Now, despite that appeals ruling, the EPA’s just agreed to allow BP to compete again for hefty federal contracts and lucrative oil exploration leases. Right on cue, it jumped at an Interior Department auction of licenses held in New Orleans last week, with a bid worth over $40 million. As for the latest slick on the waters off Texas, in a habitat for migratory birds, no less, crews continue efforts to contain the still unknown amount of oil spilled. As usual, much of those crews are formed by voluntaries, and public and nonprofit agencies, since it’d be obviously too risky to leave it to the as of yet unnamed companies that own the thick, sticky oil known as bunker that’s now contaminating the water. We could delve in semantics here too, as in how many times it takes an accident to no longer be considered as such, if it keeps repeating itself over and over again. Or we could get down and dirty with the many spills that have happened since the Gulf of Mexico’s tragedy. Instead, there’s another clear and present danger hovering in the background, not just of catastrophic oil spills but the U.S.’s own energy policy, the thousands of miles long gigantic snake slithering in the room: the Keystone Pipeline project which, if the latest indications offer any hint, may be signed, (hardly) sealed and delivered from the Obama administration straight to the pockets of oil corporations operating in the gulf. It’s possible to prevent that from happening, if hope’s still effective at galvanizing hearts and minds, but it doesn’t look good. Perhaps this newest spill can be the best excuse to phase out a project that’s rife with more potential to cause damage to Americans than benefit the economy. As for why dedicate a whole diatribe about an unfortunate but routine oil spill at a place that’s already a terrible record of them, it may be useful to remind everyone that 25 years ago today, the Exxon Valdez tanker collided with a reef in Alaska and spilled over 700 thousand barrels of crude into the Prince William sound, igniting one of the biggest oil cleanup efforts on record. The area, though, will never be the same. Neither will we. Have a great final week of March.

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3/17/2014 Brazil Looks Back in Anger, Colltalers

There’s a verse in the Brazilian national anthem that it’s one rare unanimity nowadays in Latin America’s largest economy: everybody seems to hate it. That’s because it may, arguably, underscore a bit too uncomfortably how the country feels about itself, irking everyone to no end in the process. After meandering about its newly gained independence from Portugal, and natural geographic beauty, the hymn hits a markedly less inspired second stanza, with the loosely translated turkey, ‘Eternally laying down on splendid cradle,’ in Joaquim Osorio Duque-Estrada’s overtly symbolistic lyrics. It drives Brazilians mad, specially now, that the whole country seems seething with unprecedented anger towards government, politicians, the quirks of its budding democracy, and even with itself, as the also unprecedented period of economic growth seems to be waning. And that without having made much of a dent on Brazil’s ingrained structural foes, appalling income distribution and, once again, historically endangered middle class. It’s a strikingly bleak picture for a country about to host the world’s biggest sport event, the World Cup, in just three months, and a major Olympic games, two years after. Perhaps almost as depressing as it also looks that it’s been to its reelection seeking president, Dilma Rousseff. After some of the biggest street protests took it by storm last June, rallying against the cup itself, which is already a radical action for a soccer-crazy population, some of the same political currents are getting ready to stage them all over again during the games. And that won’t be pretty. While last year’s mass rallies were linked to a smaller (and cheaper) soccer competition, the Confederation Cup, which Brazil won to the relief of many, this time, if such rallies hit a similar pitch under the glare of the whole globe, the consequences may have more serious implications. Many are not waiting for the kickoff to take place, and public discontent with the way the Rousseff administration managed the massive investments the games attracted, and how little of it has or ever will trickle down to the great majority, has never been so high and potentially explosive. Much of this anger is directed at Rousseff’s Workers’ Party, in power for almost a decade, and since embroiled in the same corruption schemes, graft allegations and downright fraud as many previous, right-leaning, administrations had been. From PT, as it’s known, though, more was expected. Take José Dirceu, for instance, one of PT’s main leaders, a man who during the military dictatorship of the 1960s became a symbol of the student opposition movement and was imprisoned in 1968 for conducting ‘subversive’ activities, who marked his 68th birthday yesterday, behind bars but for a more prosaic, and deeply demoralizing reason: he was found guilty of leading the vote-buying scandal known as Mensalão. The scandal, which has seriously tarnished the party’s image of probity, has also potential to compromise the legacy of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, one of Brazil’s most charismatic presidents, who emerged from the unions movement to lead the country in two successive terms. So far, Lula’s reputation remains untouched, even though Dirceu was his Chief of Staff, unlike Rousseff’s, the first woman ever to preside the country, who owes to Lula her ascension to high office. Once again his help will be crucial for her to remain four more years in Brasilia. Nevertheless, and despite Dirceu and quite a few members of an entire generation of former guerrilla and opponents to the military rule, who joined PT’s rise to power, only to fall from grace on charges of corruption, a much scarier prospect has reared its ugly head lately, and again, it’s not pretty. The threat of a coup with some sort of military backing, if it hasn’t ever left the thoughts of Brazilians of a certain age, has discreetly inserted itself in the national debate, judging by some highly articulated segments of the political spectrum, supported by a demographics infused with many not yet born when militaries returned to their barracks in 1985. Suddenly, there’s a nostalgic rewriting of what the dictatorship really did to the country. Among all the terrors that assault Brazilians trying to keep their minds afloat, amidst the cacophony of accusations, rich in name calling but relatively short of substance, the prospect of reinstating by force and populism, a rule of extreme exception, isn’t just unrealistic; it’s actually absurd. Almost parallel to this newly-bred, and possibly fabricated, rosy-lightened reevaluation of the role of militaries, there are continuously pesky reminders of how terrible that period really was. The week’s highlight on this topic was the admission, by an unidentified retired colonel, that former congressman Rubens Paiva was indeed murdered, buried, exhumed and finally dumped in some unknown point in the Atlantic Ocean in 1971. For long, Paiva’s fate following his arrest and disappearance has been widely known, but the disclosure adds sordid details to it, and explains why his body was never found. The colonel, who was involved in the murder and cover up, has testified in a Public Ministry’s criminal process against a group of militaries involved in torture and murder. It’s in every way, shape or form, an accurate portrayal of the military’s stamp on Brazil’s history. Credit must go to the National Truth Commission, which’s been relentlessly investigating crimes committed by the dictatorship, a great majority of which remains unsolved and their perpetrators, unpunished. It’ll take much more than name calling for Brazil to exhume that dark time of its history. Baffling, those revelations and the commission’s arduous work have all but failed to capture the outrage of common citizens and their thirst for justice. Brazilians seem more willing to engage in shouting slogans against corruption, than realizing how, at a much more local and individual level, many reproduce faithfully the same lack of ethics and propriety of conduct displayed by the disgraceful politicians they so rightly abhor. For such an ambivalence towards the law and flawed notions of individual’s rights are at the core of Brazil’s cherished auto-satisfying myths, such as of being friendly and always finding a way of bending rules and regulations. Even if that’s not a widespread indictment of the country’s archetypal nonchalance, or a blame-the-victim reductionism, it’s still the part hardly ever included in the national debate on corruption in the public sphere. It may continue to be so, judging by how polarized the explosive mix of legitimate public dissatisfaction with manipulated radicalization behind the scenes is affecting Brazil right now. So much so that issues relevant to its long term prospects, such as education, public health, jobs and an alternative growth model have had little mileage among the uninterrupted grind of street protests and fraud allegations against public officials. The lyrics of the national anthem also allude to Brazil’s gigantic size, and it’s often heard how the country’s been a ‘sleepy giant,’ with the implication that it’s finally rising from its ‘splendid cradle,’ and getting ready to take control of its own destiny. Or so many would hope. For as much as Brazil’s economy did experience a quantum leap from the late 1990s till about three years ago, with a reenergized middle class and the GDP hitting record highs, much of such growth leaned heavily on agricultural commodity exports and the exploration of natural resources. Trade balance continues to be shamefully light on the side of manufactured goods, cutting edge technology, and high skilled labor. So in some ways, despite great recent strides towards its ambition of becoming a world power, the second decade of this century has seen a turning back to many nightmares citizens had been told were a thing of the past, such as out of control inflationary spirals and a spike in criminality stats. Thus, while any possibility for a debate of ideas continue to be run over by the volatility of the streets and absolute lack of tolerance for nuance and critical thought in the political discourse, chances are that the giant is indeed rising up but perhaps not too fortunately, it’s very angry. Avoiding the crossroads cliche, Brazil is at a critical point and unlike in the past, this time the world has come to watch. Whether it’ll beat this challenge and emerge a more generous nation to its own citizens may be a quest for another cup. For at the moment, there’s an urgent need to prioritize what’s more important for it to tackle and how come such an inspiring promise of democracy has turned into such a sour brew. There must be a way for Brazilians to aim at taking part rather than dominate the exchange of ideas, and retool institutions so to allow more critical and forward-looking views, rather than return to an obscene, cruel, muzzled reality of being ruled by the barrel of a gun. Springtime officially starts this week, in the North Hemisphere. Here’s to those who endured an exceptionally nasty winter: you have earned it, now go and enjoy it.

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3/10/2014 The War on Those Bearing Witness, Colltalers

Another war, another renewed threat to the journalism profession. News that reporters covering the Crimean conflict got beaten up last Friday, by Russian militiamen supporting the takeover of the Sevastopol Ukrainian military base, are just the latest of a rising and deeply disturbing trend. In fact, news scribblers who take chances at trenches of what’s happening to reveal what otherwise no one would ever know, have been under siege as much as the multiplication of armed confrontations around the world seem to be reaching numbing levels of carnage and complexity. There’s no need to place the plight of journalists above that of those caught in the crossfire, the refugees, the children, even those who signed up to bear a weapon and go after the ‘enemies of their country,’ as any conflict is frequently sold to those who enlist. But even if misery for all involved goes on, regardless whether there’s someone to report it or not, public awareness is arguably the most needed step to be taken in order to stop it. In other words, it’s hard to feel sympathy for those massacred in the name of who knows what’s today’s word of order, if we don’t know who they are, how they’re getting crushed and, as it’s often the case, how their reaction to their predicament resembles one’s one family, son and daughter. Just to extend the Russian fodder, that particular country and region has been rife with threats lately not just to journalists but to, you guessed it, gays, as the recent Sochi games offered an unvarnished look into the ongoing persecution of people who don’t fit the official behavioral mold. The analogy between gays, for what it’s perceived as a challenge to so-called ‘family values’ (which are never shy of enforcing prejudice and genocide, when it comes down to it) and reporters, for what they ‘shouldn’t’ be reporting, is not without purpose. Both groups face daily threats of violence and mortal danger only on the account of their mere existence, a frightening notion that should put on the highest alert the whole society. We could go on and on about the witch hunt against gays and basic freedom of expression in far reaching regions of the world, Africa being the most blatant example of a newly minted institutionalized persecution against people for their sexual choices, and against those who dare to report it. But the stinging reality is that it’s in contemporary U.S. that one finds some of the most glaring attempts at curbing constitutionally-sanctioned press freedom, with a shameful record in increased prosecution of journalists and whistleblowers, threaten by lengthy jail sentences and public scolding. Such threats find resonance only in Nazi Germany and other past or present totalitarian societies, or fictional nightmarish views of the future, such as George Orwell’s. But for as much as 1984 offers us a glimpse of how such societies operate, it doesn’t come close to what’s actually happening. When even celebrity anchors wonder aloud whether colleagues should face jail terms for their reporting, we know we’re much farther than good ol’ George could’ve possibly conceived. Then again, who could’ve predicted that the Obama administration would lead the charge against journalists? We’re not making this up: this administration has prosecuted, or is trying to, more news professionals and whistleblowers than all the previous ones combined, despite campaign promises renewed by the president during his reelection, according to most organizations dedicated to the category. From the Committee to Protect Journalists to Reporters Without Borders to the International Federation of Journalists and many others, even government-funded Broadcasting Board of Governors, such groups have all condemned the administration for its harsh treatment of the press. But one could argue that, at the same time, the gay rights movement has staged unprecedented victories in the past few years in this country, and that’s admirable not just to gays and so-called sexual minorities but to society at large, religious right intolerance and hatred notwithstanding. One doesn’t cover up for the other, though, and in large parts of the globe, minorities depend on the press ability to report freely, which grant it, it rarely does. Whereas in richer societies the constrains are economic and political, in impoverished nations, the butt of a gun speaks louder. The revelations by Edward Snowden about the NSA widespread spying on common Americans and foreign governments, besides a whole Pandora Box of misdeeds and downright violations in the name of public safety, have been a negative factor not just to Snowden, and Glenn Greenwald, the journalist that brought them to light, but to every investigative reporter and the privacy of their sources, which may be now deeply compromised. The CPJ committee, which issues reports on the state of the profession around the world, has dedicated a whole two-page account on the impact of NSA revelations on the exercise of journalism and the only way reporters can speak true to power: constitutional protection to their sources. Thus, it’s not just Egypt, with its chilly video of Al-Jazeera journalists being interrogated, or wholesale attempts against press freedom in Somalia, Cameroon, Mexico, Colombia and the Brazilian Amazon, the governments preventing us from knowing what’s really going on with their charges. It’s also the U.S., with its considerable influence on an already biased media establishment, lately turned, in large part, into a mouthpiece for government views. We haven’t come that long of a way since the Bush administration characterized Al-Jazeera as an aid to terrorist groups, eh? The recent proliferation of misleading reports on the war in Ukraine and the street protests in Venezuela are also part of a general pattern of inseminating misinformation, which is sold as the truth, in order to establish yet another layer of control over dissent and independence of opinion. As the situation on the ground evolves in Ukraine, the U.N. Security Council held talks last week on ways to increase the safety of journalists covering the conflict. The RWB group is pushing for it to turn attacks against reporters into war crimes, liable to prosecution in the court of law. It may or may not be enough. Taking a page of the gay rights movement book, only public pressure can reverse the trend, and that’s where such reversal stands its best shot, as common citizens start to realize that their basic rights are being threaten too, along with those who reported them. Without that, we’re doomed to become a society of yay sayers, to whom whatever is relevant to the powerful is what we’ll be told, while behind the curtains, the insidious finger pointing without proof and trial-less sentencing will be leveled against dissenters without us knowing anything about. We couldn’t finish without acknowledging our own bias towards the profession of journalism. While we’ve never been threaten for exercising it, we can still denounce the attempts to curb the freedom of others to do it, and the assumption that war journalists are fair game to the warring parties. For as much as we’re forever grateful to the personal sacrifice of non-journalists, such as Pvt. Chelsea Manning and Snowden, who dared to report what they witnessed just like a reporter is supposed to do, we can never stopped being vigilant against further threats to the profession in general. Press freedom is not just a tenet of democracy in name and written laws only; it’s also a condition for which all other individual liberties can be exercised. It’s foolish and reckless to underestimate the plight of those covering armed conflicts as being something that happens to ‘them’ only. Many say that what brought the end of the Vietnam war was a confluence of several civic groups, rights organizations, and ‘minorities’ working in tandem towards peace. But it was also the daily deluge of carnage coming to American homes via TV images beamed by news reporters. It’s only when Mr. and Ms. Smith saw their son being slaughtered on camera in the evening news that the mobilization against the war gained momentum and critical mass. That can’t happened anymore by how wars are covered these days. So another way has to be found. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is that then, as now, some decided to bear witness to the newest ways we find to annihilate each other. Without those, there’s only government rhetoric telling us how well the surge is progressing, so we can go back to our dinner and a movie routine. Let’s not go back to our dinner and a movie routine. Let’s make sure those who attempt to silence reporters are treated as the war criminals they are. And let’s not fall into the fallacy that what we now know as evening news is even news anymore. You’d better not Belieber. Short of an end to all wars, or safe haven for millions of refugees around the globe, we owe to ourselves to fight for freedom and safety of the press. Have a great one.

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3/3/2014 The Other War We’re Losing, Colltalers

It may be a tad premature, but it’s fair to consider the Affordable Care Act President Obama’s signature accomplishment, one on which he’s invested most of his two terms advocating and defending. It was his greatest political gamble but also one with the biggest potential dividends to his legacy. On the environmental front, however, the president’s record is dismal, if not downright disastrous, having shown an inconceivable lack of resolve and political will. Two major recent developments may not just overshadow that legacy but also undermine every one of his accomplishments. First, about Obamacare. It’s still a work in progress, warts et al., or it’d better be, but its beneficiaries can be already counted in the millions. It’s also short of the free universal care citizens of most western societies enjoy, and far from the effectiveness of other comparable government initiatives such as Social Security and Medicare. But as far as government policy is concerned, it has its heart in the right place and it’s bound to be improved. That being said, the really startling fact about Obamacare is how it became one of the president’s few moments of clarity and forward thinking. From the start, there was the idea, the needed steps to be taken, and minimal political unwavering to accomplish it. And he did go through with all of it. No other crucial issue he was confronted with got that kind of personal commitment from him. And arguably, no other one stands to be greatly enhanced by future administrations. Not the same luck greeted his timid initiatives towards job creation, curbing Wall Street, providing for Vets, etc. One may argue, yeah, but the Republicans, Congress, the Koch Bros., the Washington establishment, even former officials of his administration who went on to work as lobbyists, stood firmly on his way, preventing most of his initiatives from even making it to the floor. Who are we kidding here? Take an issue such as immigration, for instance. The current set of bills, slated to be once again sabotaged by the GOP, happens to have a lot of leftovers from, you guessed it, Republican administrations (from Reagan all the way to George W.) in it. And it’s still dead on the water. Consumer rights? Wasn’t this administration the first to undermine the person it had groomed to lead a federal agency, Elizabeth Warren, the moment she starts showing some willingness to bite? That she now stands as a rock in Hillary Clinton’s presidential shoe is just rope for another hanging. One can go on about an ‘economic recovery’ that leaves out some 20 million Americans from its calculations, an increasingly powerful oligarchy of wealth individuals dictating self-benefiting policies, a hesitant foreign policy that seems to know only two instances, state of pre-intervention or full-blown war, and at the end of a nauseatingly long pipe of missed opportunities, there’ll still be a president unsure about what to do next. That brings it all back to that polluted, industry-controlled, profit-driven, vision-challenged environmental front, which’s also about rusty pipes and fatal leaks, of chemical and radioactive waste spills and an absolute appalling record at convicting the big guys responsible for them. When the Interior Department published a study minimizing the impact on marine life of air gun blasts to be conducted in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico by oil companies, the administration confirmed the worst fears that its policies continue to serve the fossil fuel industry first and foremost. Similarly, when the Department of State released a report on the Keystone XL pipeline, all but denying the evidence of its potential for pollution, it was signaling to the president to sign it into a law, never mind the environmental scientists who have been begging him for months not to do it. In the case of the gun blasts for yet more oil to be extracted from the bottom of the sea, the study contradicts even the Navy’s own research, which has confirmed in more than one occasion that the noise of its deep water sonar tests disturb some species of whales and dolphins and their habitats. The Navy actually not just estimates but expects that tests in Hawaii, the California and Atlantic coasts, and the Gulf of Mexico, to be conducted through the next five years, may deafen or even kill thousands of whales and dolphins, who depend on sound to navigate and live. But that doesn’t matter for oil and gas corporations, interested only in survive the threat of obsolescence represented by the development of alternative means of energy. They’ll keep blasting their way through land and sea, raising even more the levels of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. As for the official review of the Keystone pipeline, there’s yet another troubling aspect to it: the firm hired to make the assessment, which straight-faced concluded that the giant tar sand oil duct won’t increase pollution on its route, has actually been subcontracted by TransCanada, which owns an 875-mile leg of the project, a glaring conflict of interest. That’s when the president steps in and declares it unacceptable. But did he? Not yet, and, judging by biased-media reports, he’s actually preparing to sign on the project, environmental concerns be damned. The point that the project has little benefit for the U.S., that it’ll create only a few dozen permanent jobs in American soil, and that’s an even harder form of cheap oil processing, has yet to be raised by the Obama administration’s public statements about the pipe and its energy policy, for that matter. Which is shameful. The president who faced the worst environmental disaster in the U.S., the BP-caused Gulf of Mexico oil spill of 2010, and who also presided over a string of oil spills all over the country, just in 2013, can’t seem to make it a central issue of neither his two terms. By the way, BP, which reportedly had an over $10 billion tax-cut on the account of the ‘accident,’ and has continued to post profits on multiples of that figure ever since, keeps on fighting (and spending millions in ads) the agreement it signed with those hurt by its tragic mismanagement. So, yes, it may be too early to be gloomy about an Obama legacy, as what was greeted with such fervor by so many all over the world may be turning into just another unfulfilled set of promises that, as time recedes, reeks of vote-gathering tactics only. Heaven hopes it is not. Ironically or not, the environment, along with the outlook for a more peaceful world, weighted much more than health care for Americans, on the minds of those around the globe who placed so much expectations on the president. Truly, they’re not alone in their disappointment. What may be remembered about the administration of the first African-American president, long after 2016, may not have anything to do with the greatest challenge of our age, climate change, a battle he should’ve started at his first day leading the country home of the world’s biggest polluters. His may be a way more prosaic accomplishment, even if not minor by any stretch: the right for every citizen to see a doctor without having to pawn a leg in the process. It’d be an even greater accomplishment if we were living in 1850s, a time when the sense of human dignity was solely conditioned by the color of one’s skin. Have we really traveled far from that nightmare, or was just the race card thrown in the mix that still makes us all cringe? It is unfair to place so much responsibility on President Obama’s fatigued shoulders, but it may be a last ditch effort to call him into task to take a meaningful stand about these two crucial environmental issues, marine life protection and phasing out fossil-fuel projects. After all, he owes that on the account of all that hope for change he once inspired all over the world and rode on to Washington. The clock is ticking, Mr. President. About that 800-pound bear in the room: we simply had to duck the issue of what’s happening in Ukraine, at least for now. For it’s hard, and probably pointless, to comment on what sadly reinforces our losing faith on mankind: peace, that other world-relevant cause, besides the environment, has once again slipped into the realm of impossible dreams. Wiser minds may advise temperance at this time but to many, that’s simply not an option anymore. Have a safe March ahead.

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2/24/2014 An Industry’s Sagging Ethics, Colltalers

Among the many negative factors compounding the harrowing conditions faced by garment workers around the world, one that particularly stings, stinks and stands out is the fact that teenage shoppers in big urban centers, the biggest consumers of their wares, are mostly oblivious to their plight. The staggering socio-economic abyss dividing the two groups, wider than most segments of the chain of production, can obviously explain, at least in part, why that’s so. And so can an arguable rise in the alienation towards social causes currently experienced by the American youth, specially. However, given that both groups share a statistically close age bracket, it’s almost baffling that this occurs with a generation that puts almost as much credence on the way they dress, and the brand-awareness they sport, as on the way they see and want to be perceived by the world. From child labor to slavery, from unsanitary conditions to hazardous workplaces, where risk of being electrocuted or crushed to death is just another punch on their usual 12-hour shiftcards, this industry is long due to a radical departure from the 1800s lock and chain dungeon where it now rots. While dominating and controlling the economy of countless impoverished nations, it successfully peddles its goods to a deep-pocket demographics that couldn’t show awareness about its brutal business model even if their collection of expensive, Made in China, Nikes would depend on. Then again, those who do not partake neither the age group nor a particular bias towards attire, are often reminded to not make assumptions about how much credence youth place on anything, these days. It does sound like yet another reason for the gloomy aging to speak ill of sprightly ripe. Regardless, a spate of catastrophic events related to the garment industry in the past few years should give pause even to the callous of spirit or the politically unmoved, right? Maybe. But it all could lead to yet another global high-horse cavalcade charging to a land of further indifference. Only when the master puppeteers behind such appalling snapshot of the consumer society we all share and love, circa 2014, come into full glare, though, that we’re forced to confront our twisted allegiances about the issue (never mind how bad we really want that new faded-blue jeans). And wouldn’t you know them? Walmart, Sears, Gap, Target, Urban Outfitters, J.C. Penney, and many others, including outfits linked to stellar names such as Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, have all been in either side of this trade quagmire: as part of its aggravation or solution. We probably wouldn’t be talking about this now if it hadn’t been for the tragedy of Rana Plaza, an eight-store building in Bangladesh, that collapsed and killed over 1,100 people last April. Almost all casualties were garment workers, and their families are still to be compensated if ever. It was after forensics and reverse engineering of that horrific event that it became clear what is really behind the purchase of a pair of pants from a designer brand in New York City, without having to declare bankruptcy afterwards. In other words, ideally cheap and affordable for teenagers. For behind their low price is the culmination of a multi-nation, peripatetic trip through some of the poorest countries in the world, from windowless, exposed-electrical-wire sweatshop rooms, with hundreds of 10-year olds working around the clock, to the air-conditioned, cologne-wafted shopping malls of America. That and, as it’s been mentioned, a deeply ingrained lack of awareness about what’s hidden behind the labels. It’s also disguised inside that strip of exposed underwear you spot on Justin Bieber, the glitter-infused slacks worn by Kate Perry, or the lamé-covered bra sported by Beyonce on her dance routines. Many of these top-selling performers, by the way, are heavily sponsored by the industry. It’s hard to catch news about violations by big American retailers’ sub-contractors against their own employees, even when they hit the streets to protest, and are violently repressed and shot at by security forces. It happens in Cambodia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Australia, and others places. Uzbekistan enlists just about everyone for the annual harvest of cotton, a staple of its agricultural-based economy and one of the most basic links between slavery in the crop fields of Asia and the bosom of T-shirt-wearing Americans, libertarian slogans imprinted on them notwithstanding. No one’s surprised about learning of labor violations in Haiti, or that Walmart is as equally ruthless to its U.S. workers as it is to those it does business with around the world. There’s, however, an unsuspicious, and way more startling, ‘character’ playing a role in this vicious cycle. The U.S. government, which according to a NYTimes recent story, has been sub-contracting for years some of the most ethically-challenged companies in Asia, to manufacture uniforms and other official apparel to its personnel. Which contradicts just about every, oh well never mind. Between Rana Plaza and the many other fires, death traps, shootings, and all sorts of horrific and preventable tragedies dooming thousands of garment workers, before and since, there’s the one standing as the worst in American soil, that should’ve taught us something long ago. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, that destroyed a Union Square building in New York City, killing 146 underpaid workers 103 years ago a month from next Tuesday, should’ve set lasting standards of safety and dignity in the work place not to be ever violated. It did it but no longer. In fact many of the accomplishments and guarantees workers enjoyed for over 70 years in the U.S. are tied by the efforts that unions and labor organizations fought for in the aftermath of that fire, even if that’s little comfort for those poor immigrants who perished, and their descendants. Guess what became an ominous side effect of the Reagan administration’s efforts to dismantle unions in the 1980s? sweatshops. Boosted by labor’s demise, they’ve became an accepted, albeit immoral, business model. With their return, so came back the violations and yes, the tragedies. But a determinant factor to fuel the changes that followed the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911 was that consumers became aware of the inhumane conditions people like them were being submitted to, in order to provide whatever fashionable garments they too would die to wear at that time. A similar push may be required now, and those who at the trenches of this social blackhole are the same to whom the world is grooming to take it by the hand to a new era. Or more of the same. At the end of the day, we can’t possibly expect our kids to shoulder our battles by commission. Still it may be up to us to help them pick the ones with the most meaning. Specially when they share identical rites of biological passage, if worlds away from each other. That shouldn’t be an excuse in a world of interconnected delusions and widespread peeking on each other’s underwear. Have a great one.

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2/17/2014 A Short-Sighted Sex Assault Bill, Colltalers

The most recent proof that the U.S. military seems incapable of prosecuting cases of sexual abuse within its ranks was on display again last week. Lt.Col.William Helixon, the Army’s lead prosecutor in the sexual assault court-martial of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, has quit. His resignation is a de facto derailment, at least from now, of the case against Brig.Gen. Jeffrey, who’s accused of having an extra-marital affair with an unidentified captain under his command, who also claimed that she was forced to perform sex acts even after she’d ended the relationship. Reportedly, Lt.Col. Helixon wasn’t convinced enough of the woman’s sincerity, which is typical of sexual crime cases, when the accuser has to endure suspicions that the claims are fabricated, while the accused’s rarely prosecuted. The case may also put an end to her professional career. To many, though, the prosecutor may have been afraid of where the case could lead to, and represent to his own career, an issue at the heart of two competing bills, sponsored by Sens. Kristin Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill, being considered by Congress since November. On the surface, they are pretty similar. They both finally address the ingrained culture of sexual assault in the military, a fact that albeit heavily tilted against women, has also its smaller share of male victims. This is but a single case, by the way; there were over 20 thousand in 2012 alone. The crucial difference is that Sen. Gillibrand’s proposal would’ve have independent military prosecutors pursuing sexual allegations, instead of members of the victims’ chain of command. Of course, the Pentagon and many lawmakers protested and may support Sen. McCaskill’s more hierarchy-mindful version. Her bill may prevail and be voted as early as this month, but the Sinclair affair just showed how wrong its approach is. Similarly to what happens in the civilian population, but even more exacerbated in the military, rape is never about sex, but power and subjugation. Understatement aside, it’s a brutal, damaging, and long lasting mechanism to impose control and crush dissent. It’s been used as weapon of war since humans have been around, and is still used to settle ethnic and tribal disputes in far corners of the planet. That it happens in the U.S. military, the world’s most powerful army, though, and not nearly taken as seriously as it should, is just unacceptable. The organization has been dragging its feet to pursue cases of sexual abuse, and the lack of impartiality in military trials is a serious impediment. But corporations always place their own interests above those of their own members. Just see the extent that the Catholic Church, for instance, and the Boy Scouts of America, and Penn State, and the NFL, even, went to stonewall scrutiny and protect their business, never mind the victims. Those who’re part of the inner cogs of these and other big assembly lines of power, who have invested a big chunk of their lives and dreams to climb the ladder to the upper echelons, may lose everything if they dare to point fingers at superiors, even when they’re also their tormentors. Sometimes attempts to cloud the issue by the military could even be taken as comical, if the subject was one to be distilled down to a few jokes. In Oct., the Navy released the Commander’s Guide to Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, which seems to have spent more time coming up with a title than it did researching the subject with any depth and scientific zeal. One of the highlights of the report, and wouldn’t you know it, is that ‘false allegations of sexual assault are a (whooping) 3% per NCIS data,’ which is a reference to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, according to Stripes.com, a site focused on military issues. The puzzling piece of statistics invoked by the report, however, has no acknowledged source or where it’s been originated from, which Stripes finds to be a ‘dubious’ claim, given the overwhelming majority of cases that are proved beyond doubt, even when not fully pursued by victims. Despite such attempts at diversion, there seems to be a troubling increase in the number of U.S. soldiers expelled for crimes or misconduct, not necessarily of a sexual nature, from military bases in Japan to the trenches in Afghanistan, according to data reported by AP. And then there are the pundits and experts to harp on the issue too, which is not always conducive of any progress about it. An often used term is ‘culture of rape,’ and how our servicemen are becoming monsters, getting away with acts of depravity with no fear of persecution. But here’s the thing. To throw the blame exclusively on the troops, and even their immediate commanders, for what seems to be essentially a built-in characteristic of a mostly male-dominated enclosed society (yes, we’re talking about you church, scouts, and football leagues), would exempt the rest of society, which means us, from any responsibility not just on the matter itself, but for the whole circumstances leading to it. For what about the real culture of war we’ve been all thrown in, which has placed the U.S. at the center of non-stop armed conflicts around the world for over a decade now, and arguably, even before that, always relying on a tiny segment of its general population to do the fighting. It’s important to resist the urge to pile on top of that mostly anonymous contingent of hundreds of thousands of Americans who we’re sending and resending away to take bullets for us, while mining any prospects for their successful integration back into society. Worse, the majority of these young lives we’ve tossed out of our public focus, is coming back in troves deeply wounded, with much fewer prospects of pursuing a productive life than when they’ve left. The ever growing backlog of disability claims rotting at the Vets Administration should be a source of national shame, along with the staggering number of former combatants who’re now homeless and/or mentally ill or both. For a nation whose defense budget dwarfs that of a combined dozen others, and whose foreign policies have been dictated more by the power of its drones than by the strength of its morals, we’re doing a particularly nasty job at betraying those who we demand to give up their lives for us. In the case of a countless number of female soldiers and high ranked uniformed Americans, the betrayal starts from almost their first tour of duty, and they shouldn’t have to endure the cold shoulder of military justice on top of what was done to their personal integrity. We do hope that the case of Brig. Gen. Sinclair continues on, despite its momentary derailment. It’d be a travesty if the former commander with the 82nd Airborne Division, who’s chosen to deny responsibility while posing for the now customary picture alongside his supporting wife, would be able to resume his career, while his accuser, and other alleged victims of his sexual proclivities, would have to shut up and fade to obscurity. Have a great snowless week.

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2/10/2014 Snowden May Come to Brazil, Colltalers

Amnesty International joined this past week a global push to convince the Brazilian government to seriously consider granting asylum to NSA contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden, or at least to provide an official reply to his December passionate letter seeking shelter there. The organization is now part of an eclectic mix of privacy advocates, grassroots movements for government transparency, community activists and a wide array of political leaders the world over that sees merit in Snowden’s request, and possible benefits for Brazil, despite the likely downsides. If President Dilma Rousseff may wonder, why Brazil?, the fact is that, among all world leaders affected by Snowden’s revelations of NSA widespread spying on their personal and national affairs, she may be the one whose biography most closely tracks his current woes. For she’s now that rare elected president whose past as a political operative put her at odds with a dictatorship; the one that ruled Brazil in the 1960s, kept tabs and reportedly tortured her, deeming her a ‘subversive.’ So she would be in a unique position to understand Snowden. Or not. A lot has happened since the end of the military rule in Brazil, in the middle of the 1980s, and as the country enjoys an unprecedented high global profile, it’s possible that many a hawk on her corner would be advising her against welcoming a man the U.S. is so invested in throwing into jail. When Snowden, who’s been granted temporary asylum till August in, of all places, Russia, released to the public documents showing how the NSA has enjoyed for years unrestricted power to gather intelligence in any way it sees fit, including spying on law-abiding citizens, he single-handedly ignited an overdue debate over the limits between a state’s security interests and the constitutional right of individuals to their own privacy. The discussion gained momentum throughout the world and weakened the agency as the documents also clearly showed that much of such intel gathering hasn’t provided meaningful breakthroughs in the so-called war on terrorism, and instead, has been spent on industrial espionage. That a U.S. agency has been so focused on uncovering foreign government and corporate secrets, something definitely not in its job description, was the one reason invoked by President Rousseff to cancel a U.S. visit in October: Brazil’s Petrobras, as it turned out, was also a NSA’s target. That, and the disclosure that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal cellphone, among others, had also been tapped, caused a ruckus and an outcry against the U.S., at a critical moment when Germany starts to slowly regain a domineering role in Europe, and the U.S., on the other hand, finds itself politically and economically vulnerable. The Obama administration’s simply couldn’t ignore the serious implications that it all represents. But let’s make a distinction here, before going any further. Absolutely no one is or should be startled by the realization that nations, allies or not, do spy on each other, and dedicate an enormous amount of resources to know exactly what every other one stands on any issue at any given point. Thus, personal presidential phone calls, or state-run corporations’ business strategies, are and have always been fair game, at least since Sirs William Cecil and Francis Walsingham helped Elizabeth I consolidate her power through spy mastery, setting the fundaments of modern intel. Chiefs of state, however, will do what they possibly can to prevent such basic principle of power exercising from becoming currency, feigning indignation in ‘I’m shock, shock’ statements, lest not the veneer of good governance be scratched by an unhinged onslaught of public disconcert. But the public already knows it better. What’s truly startling and worth all concerns is the flip side of NSA’s two-pronged approach to surveillance: the widespread, massive gathering of information culled from pretty much anyone, without judicial cause or, let’s face it, any cause whatsoever. Fueled by enormous, and still increasing, funding made possible by the paranoid post-9/11 climate, where an once preposterous, and now not too-far-out idea, that everyone’s out to hit us, has become an obvious easy sell, the American intel community has grown into an Orwellian monster that even old George would find disturbing, and worst, all sanctioned by a secret, shadowy judicial system few knew it even existed. But it took Snowden to provide the crucial, undeniable proof of such unrestrained power. The deeply ethical way that he went about making that information available to the world, has also made him an exemple of patriotism of the highest kind, not the robber of proprietary secrets the U.S. government is trying to make him out to be. There’s little doubt that, at least for now, amnesty from his home country won’t be forthcoming. Facing a similar quagmire to the one Moscow faced when Snowden got stranded there last year, Brasilia now have both a headache and a singular moment to reaffirm its sovereignty in its hands. Whether to sway in favor of granting him asylum, as many segments of the Brazilian society seem to favor, and further isolate U.S. and the U.K., for that matter,, is one of Rousseff’s greatest challenges to decide in this reelection year. She’ll have to weight the possible fallout, and likely implications to foreign and trade policy, even though the U.S. has never been so far apart from Brazil in both counts, with the advantages of earning a leadership role in redefining the relationship between two crucial tenets of democracy and the role of government: to guarantee freedom rights to every individual and to provide security and protection for the state where they live in. One thing is for sure: hadn’t been for Snowden and his daft maneuvering, passing the documents to an experienced world-class journalist such as Glenn Greenwald, the discussion about surveillance would still be in the Facebook and Google realm, which tend to turn any issue of privacy into a supposedly personal choice. It isn’t, of course, but it took a massive trove of documents to convincingly demonstrate how it can’t possibly be. While commercial enterprises such as FB and others will continue to profit from people voluntarily giving away their secrets, since it’s done for a price, it can’t be tolerated that a taxpayer-funded government will have similar free access, specially when it hasn’t received our consent to do so. Thus, Snowden may have inadvertently put himself in the position of serving as this era’s litmus test for the state of our ideals of democracy, circa 2014: if he’s offered asylum, so will the always relevant idea that an act of conscience does have precedence over mindlessly following the rules. If, however, the jurisprudence established by the Nuremberg Trials is overruled by a new set of ordinances, privileging form over content, and as former Pvt. Chelsea Manning, he’s kept under lock and key to be heard again possibly never, then part of everyone else’s investment in the right of citizens to speak truth to power will also be locked with him. We’ll have certainly another reason to be afraid, very afraid. By the way, if you care one way or another about this issue, several organizations around the world will mark tomorrow as an Online Protest Against Surveillance. And unlike Snowden or Manning, you won’t have to leave your computer to take part in it. Have a good one.

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1/27/2014 Time for Serious Housekeeping, Colltalers

The bloody revolts in Egypt and Ukraine; the bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan; the testy peace talks on Syria; killings and prejudice in the streets of Africa; the unrest in Brazil. The world in 2014 hasn’t gone much far from exactly resembling the world in 2013. For heaven’s sakes, even the Pope’s ‘peace doves’ were seized and probably slaughtered yesterday by a crow and a seagull, presumably the kind that lives away from the sea, right after he blessed and released them from the Apostolic Palace window to the stunned St. Peter’s Square crowd. But little if any of such incendiary foreign policy issues will be mentioned tomorrow by President Obama, at his State of the Union address, a mostly pro-forma tradition that has hardly any impact on the country’s year ahead. It’ll be, nevertheless, a crucial speech for the president. Most likely he’ll focus on two major challenges facing Americans today: the widening inequality gap, which contrasts with the official rhetoric about the future, and the very role of the government, as the scandal of NSA spying on citizens continues to mine our trust on his sincerity. To be fair, as of today, the U.S. has put some distance from the terrible consequences of the Great Recession of 2008, and economic indicators have indeed pointed to a slow but seemingly steady recovery, depending on whether one agrees with the way such numbers are computed. And the president’s bound to reaffirm his commitment to human rights, even thought his tame lectures on the importance of reliable intel against terrorism clashes with the reality that, despite its growing budget and de facto free reign, the NSA has failed to produce palpable results. But as a nation with such a vibrant history of political independence, and defense of individual freedoms, whose constitution is modeled after Greek ideals of equality and the pursuit of happiness, the U.S. today seems closer to a backwater republic whose citizens simply gave up hope. Despite such glowing economic indexes of recovery, a cross-section of some 40 million Americans remain jobless, homeless, uneducated and mired in insurmountable social conditions preventing even the most recognizable self-attribute of America’s pride: the power of social mobility. With a nominally Democrat leadership, both in the White House and the Senate, the legislative powers that lost two presidential election cycles nevertheless have managed to methodically dismantle support networks responsible for 75 years of social stability in this country. Under his watch too, the power of the unproductive part of the economy, its financial system, have exercised an undeserved sway over policies affecting all segments of society, consolidating the reign of the stock market and money managing over everything else citizens really need. As a result, a prohibitive price was placed on what was once America’s treasury, its free educational system, which fueled its leadership role in innovation and technological advance for years. In some areas of scientific research, the U.S. is no longer even among the top 10 in the world. The president’s legacy achievement so far is Obamacare, which against all odds, has indeed started to make a difference. Even as it kept and boosted health insurers’s profit, it’s on target to reach 10 million Americans covered by the end of March, many of them for the first time ever. It remains on the defensive from spurious attacks, which may postpone its inevitable evolution to a single-payer system, or Medicare for all, that should have been its main goal all along. As it stands, however, is already the one social change the president’s has managed to accomplish. But the whole mood of the country has tone down dramatically in the last decades, and more now than ever, dropping from the enthusiasm and drive of the 1960s to the low, simmering resilience of contemporary America. Rampant disengagement seems to be the tenor of our era. No wonder, old cultural battles are being restaged, mostly to undermine hard-fought achievements in women, voting, and human rights issues. New allowances to how money can be injected and spent in our electoral system mean that elected officials now have a price, unaffordable by grassroots and progressive movements. No major political figure may emerge without compromising at some level ideas in exchange for funds. Thus, at the start of the last three years of his administration, legacy and how far it may have already strayed from his campaign promises may be the president’s main concern. From candidate of high hopes, he may have turned instead into the leader who presided over low expectations. As for the world at large, burning as it is, it’s not so much that it ceased being a U.S. concern, but that it may temporarily be shoved to the noisy background that it’s always been, and guess what? if diplomacy gets all the empowerment it needs, it may just be enough to get the job done. Because, let’s face it, the U.S.’s role has been for far too long less than of a peacemaker in most issues, and at one time or another, many an ally has wished we could’ve just shut the hell up and listen for a change, instead of being the fully-armed, unstable menacing bully in the room. So it’s unlikely that the world’s missing the input (read, the killer drones and the faulty war strategy) from the expensive American defense complex. We may have, in fact, overstayed our welcome even in countries we’re currently engaged. If we seriously want to help, we’d better leave. If we really want to build consensus, it’s time to pay attention to others. Overall, it’s doubtful we have anything else at add at this point. President Obama has achieved many firsts, even before taking the oath of office: first African-American at the White House, first Nobel Prize winner. Even his oratorial gifts have placed him at the very top of the American presidents, and tomorrow won’t be an exception. Problem is, time is running out for him to match the arousing power of his words to concrete actions. Just talking about inequality, without going after Wall Street elites which bankrupted the country and never had to face jail; about the NSA, without setting clear judicial limits to its unhinged power; about gun violence, while allowing the gun lobby to influence policy, just won’t do it this time. He can move us all to tears talking about his poor upbringings and the fortunate curve his life’s been, closely tracking the American Dream. But it’ll mean little if he’s not willing to prevent higher education to become an untenable goal to millions; and even less if banks are not criminalized for continuing to push subprime lending while enforcing widespread foreclosures on those who can’t keep up with rising rates. Three years go very fast, and the president may have wasted too long a time just picking wrong battles and turning his back on the constituency that brought him to Washington. Tomorrow’s speech may need to be more than arousing: it may also need to be truthful. Have a good one. ***

1/20/2014 The Enemy at the (Internet) Gates, Colltalers

This was supposed to be a short, clear-cut newsletter about the U.S. Court of Appeals’ decision last week to throw out federal rules preventing broadband giants, such as Verizon, from creating tiers of Internet accessibility, effectively killing so-called net neutrality, the ability of anyone to access the Web equally. The ruling, a defeat for the Federal Communications Commission, may in fact mark the end of cheap, high quality Internet service for those without deep pockets. If it stands, it’ll determine that you may continue to access Nike’s Web site, or Google’s almost immediately, as you do now, while visiting Colltales, for instance, will take a big chunk of your day; you may find yourself back in the days of buffering…buffering… buffering. Which is indeed unfortunate and not only to our unwaveringly loyal readers, but to all who still believe the Internet is and should remain a basic right to every citizen, just like to it is access to clean water, electricity and gas services, if you live in a minimally organized society. Thus, free speech advocates and civil rights organizations around the world are fully mobilized to fight the ruling and prevent big corporations from turning the Internet into the kind of shameful cable services we all love to hate, where you don’t get to choose what you get but still pay a lot for it. A deeper look into the issue, however, shows that, as it was formulated, the FCC’s regulatory stance concerning Internet providers was hardly defensible, as it insisted, back in 2002, that Internet giants were not utilities, like landline phone companies, or carriers, like telecoms, but ‘information service providers,’ a special classification in line with the financial interests of the providers themselves, not the customers. That definition, essentially, is what turned net neutrality such a fragile concept, from a judicial and regulatory point of view, since the FCC has no authority to impose the same restrains on information service providers as it does over carriers and utilities. Hence, Verizon’s victory. Before we dig further into what this all means, let’s just clear the air about why fighting for open and equal access to the Internet for everybody is so important, and not just a ‘first world problem,’ as it’d be easy to characterize it. The reality is that the power of such access has already proved to be instrumental for many progressive global movements, regardless of their result or consequence. The Arab Spring is but one recent example. Plus, wirelessly or via satellite, even impoverished nations without a reliable electrical grid can theoretically benefit from Web access, the NSA spying and malignant malware creators notwithstanding. As the technology improves, so will the connectivity among peers, groups and nations. Also, aside all the potential applications and promises of increased communications regardless of physical distance, something that only radio in the past was capable to deliver almost from the get go, there are other implications a free Internet may represent as an empowering tool for communities big and small, and to what it means to live in a multicultural society, again, all the bullying and malfeasance notwithstanding. The latest round in the ongoing fight over Internet access, which corporations seem to have gained an important upper hand, albeit, momentarily, one hopes, may have the best correspondence in the ‘concrete’ world with the fight over real estate, between the haves and the have nots. Just like those undesirable city areas to where artists, squatters, low income and downright pauper communities are pushed to, and through the years, ‘colonize,’ only to be kicked out later by powerful landowners and speculators, who evict them, gentrify the area, and turn it into a golden mine, which would’ve been impossible without those who were there before, so is the mere concept of a free, and democratic Web. The situation also reminds us of how most drug researches are developed: like the Internet, they usually start with sponsorship and support of only not-for profit and academic institutions, when not exclusively by public government agencies. It’s only after a new medical breakthrough gets to its final stages of development that big pharma shows up, muscles in and takes over the process, to commercialize it at a high profit. Going back to net neutrality, there can’t be any doubt that it’s crucial that it remains so, even that it’ll be tricky to keep a balance between the need to protect it from becoming a privilege and property of the well-heeled, and to allow the kind of free enterprising spirit that boosts innovation. To defend a solution that would keep the government out of the equation, given the justifiable paranoia ignited by the revelations about the NSA’s breach of privacy abuses, and that the market has the ability of regulating itself, would be the same as to trust to foxes the guard of chickens. At the same time, one can’t advocate locking said chickens inside an air-tight chamber, under the excuse of protecting them, and expect that they won’t suffocate. Before taking this bad metaphor any further, it’s suffice to say that too much oversight is almost as bad as no oversight at all. In other words, it’s not the content and access to the Internet that needs to be regulated, but those who deliver such access and content to everybody else. Big providers have as much right to charge for their services as consumers have not to buy them, as long as there are other choices. And that’s where their edge resides, and where regulation may provide the counterbalance. There are many ways that that can be achieved, without closing the door both to technological breakthroughs and equal-footing free access to anyone: individuals, groups or commercial enterprises. A final word about the aforementioned innovation, which is supposedly boosted by a free enterprising environment: at least at the current stage, it has been driven mainly by the lure to profit from an ever increasing customer base, rather than by the pursue of technological breakthroughs. As it is now, the Internet’s basic principles haven’t changed much since its original conception as an integrated platform of global communications, created in the early 1960s as an academic and military tool. Digital technology, in comparison, has evolved faster in a relatively shorter timespan. Which means that, since big corporations and phone companies have gotten into the game, its ever-evolving process of development has somewhat slowed down to a set of basic rules and procedures. That should say something about these self-appointed job, er, ‘innovation creators.’ But it’s almost a given that, as we deplore the FCC’s failure to defend in court its very own reason to exist, which is to ‘promote competition, innovation and investment in broadband,’ big Internet providers are feverishly searching for ways to consolidate their newly reinforced domination. Thus, short of congressional action (who are we kidding?), it’s very likely that the government agency will choose to have another go at its fragile position and appeal the court decision. A more effective approach would be to classify providers for what they are: a licensed operator for a common good vital to all society and, as such, forced to guarantee equal access to anyone regardless of their social strata or financial position. If that’s to happen, though, it’ll take a large mobilization from all segments of society, even bigger than the global movement, two years ago this month, that defeated the ill-advised SOPA/PIPA legislation which, under the pretext of curbing piracy on the Internet, actually came close to establishing mechanisms of online censorship. Behind the proposed rules were the same cast of characters. They’ve lost then are but are back on the saddle now. It may be hard but they can’t prevail. And with your help, they won’t. Have a great week. ***

1/13/14 Back to the Middle East, Colltalers

Welcome back, friends. You find us trying to make sense of three breaking news stories that may be intrinsically connected: Iran’s agreement to scaling back its nuclear program, the death of Israel’s former PM Ariel Sharon, and the 12th anniversary of the Guantanamo Bay prison. The first step of the gargantuan agreement set in November as a textbook diplomatic breakthrough, hits the ground a week from today, with Iran beginning to reduce its uranium stockpile and, effectively, taking measures to get out of the business of producing nuclear weapons. That’s part of a six-month ‘interim’ that should lead to the lifting of economic sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy for decades. Three, to be exact, as there hasn’t been anything close as to what the five U.N. Security Council nation-members, plus Germany, have achieved in Geneva. So it’s ironic that Sharon’s 8-year coma has ended in death, just as Israel seems the most isolated and mistrustful of all interested parts in the accord. After all, with an ill-advised 1982 Lebanon invasion, Sharon may have unwittingly powered the most belligerent pro-Iran group, Hezbollah. Even before his burial today at Negev, the debate over his legacy had already flared up, ranging from his ‘Bulldozer’ nickname, for a military-mind, whose main goal was to expand Israeli borders at any costs, to his efforts to reach out to moderate Palestinians to accept his conditions for peace. Which brings us to the third part of this equation, that of the Guantanamo extrajudicial detention camp, which still holds three Iranian nationals, among its 155 captives, mostly not yet charged with any crime, some being forced fed to prevent hunger strikes, and all in miserable conditions. Despite President Obama’s campaign promises to close the facility, which at one point held up almost a thousand prisoners, the camp became a judicial black hole, a catastrophic institutional limbo, that baffles anyone with a minimal understanding of the rule of law or streak of empathy. No one is surprised that the nuclear agreement with Iran is facing stiff opposition in Congress, who despite a full year as one of the most inactive collective of lawmakers in U.S. history, nevertheless chose to spring into action and try for yet a new set of restrictions against Iran. The fact that any such accord is fragile in its nature should also be a given, as Iran’s political system is far from having a final word on what direction the country will take. That’s up to the ‘supreme’ leaders, the Ayatollahs, and not to the new, quasi-liberal president, Hassan Rouhani. It also goes without saying that Israel’s democracy has been successfully muzzled by the rightwing Likud party and its current PM, Benjamin Netanyahu, and their powerful allies within the U.S., who have already expressed extreme hostility towards any approximation with Iran. As for Sharon, he simply couldn’t help it, apparently. Unlike Yitzhak Rabin and other Israeli military commanders who had a change of heart in the way of viewing the Palestinians, and made a meaningful transition from the barracks to the government, he was simply not as bright. When Rabin was murdered in 1995 by an Israeli rightwing extremist, his comprehensive timetable to achieve peace with the Palestinians, including a timely withdrawal from the occupied territories, set during his second term as PM, had all the chances of success as he coming back to life. In October, when Rabin’s grandson led a crowd of over 30 thousand, marking 18 years since his assassination, we were reminded of Rabin’s comment, about Sharon having left the ‘genie out of the bottle’ with the invasion of Lebanon, which boosted Hezbollah’s local and global profile. Behind the appeal is the frustration of young Israelis with their utter failure in swaying their government towards peace with the Palestinians, which in exchange compromises their country’s security, while also helping Iranian hardliners to continue pursuing their anti-Israel rhetoric. Although the current agreement is far from being a guarantee against Iranian or Palestinian, for that matter, hostilities, it still is Israel’s best possible hope for a stable, permanent channel of communication with its enemies. Now, that’d be something that would get the whole world behind Israel. Compared with that, the outlook for Guantanamo is way cloudier and unpredictable. The 11 prisoners proven innocent and transferred out of the Cuban facility since the summer are said to be mentally broken, after enduring a decade of horrors no constitutional U.S. law would endorse. The remainder, if not already irremediably damaged, in all likelihood will go on to join welcoming terror groups, with a renewed hatred for the U.S., just like many of those who got out before have done. 12 years and there’s still no viable plan to bring anyone there to the court of law. Thus, the three strains of news do have an underlying common denominator, as the nuclear accord with Iran may be the start of a safer world for everyone, and even a benign sendoff of Sharon and others like him, who simply can not see the world without a fortified wall surrounding them. And who knows? maybe President Obama will act towards moving that prospect for a safer world closer to reality, by fulfilling his promise as a candidate and ending that maligned experience of jailing perceived enemies without proof which is symbolized by Guantanamo. Have a great one. ***

12/30/2013 A Time Ripe to Do Right, Colltalers

‘We’ve done this for 51 weeks in 2013, sending Colltales editorial commentary to our friends every early Monday.’ That’s how we’ve started our Newsletter last week, in what became the first part, the first six months of the year, of a retrospective of some of the themes that dominated 2013. Picking it right up where we’ve left it off, by July the revelations about NSA spying on common citizens, which is well above its stated purpose, had started to take hold of the national debate, and challenge the Obama administration’s intentionally dismissive tone denying them any merit. By dispatching its minions to occupy media outlets with a rhetoric centered on a global manhunt for Edward Snowden, the government, through the Justice Dept., tried to divert what had become obvious: that the leaks were an intolerable violation of U.S. citizens’ constitutional rights. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, made history by declaring the Defense of Marriage Law, and its ugly clones, unconstitutional, effectively opening the way for same-sex weddings nationwide, which was great, but failed voters miserably, by striking down a key Voting Rights Act component. The results showed right away as many southern states moved to restrict access to minority voters, in what’ll be another attack on our electoral process going forward. Back to spying, the nightmarish reality of the existence of a parallel court system in the U.S. was finally confirmed. We’re in shaky ground when hopes rest on August, and it wasn’t any different this time, as the SEC finally took an almost unknown bond trader to court, and fined Goldman Sachs $500 million for their roles in the great financial swindle of 2008, which is a drop in the bucket for the giant bank. With net income close to $2 billion in a mere quarter, it was an obvious display of incompetence from a regulatory agency with subpoena powers. It got worst, when the DoJ fined Halliburton $200 thousand for destroying evidence related to its multibillion dollar Gulf of Mexico oil spill. What takes 23 seconds for Halliburton to recoup, BP, the other culprit for the disaster, spends daily in ads trying to get out of its obligations. Unsurprisingly, Pv. Manning was found guilty and Snowden became a target for the U.S. global intel, until he got stranded in Russia and was granted a temporary asylum. August also marked another grim milestone: the 1,000th journalist since 1992 was killed covering an armed conflict. September will be forever stained by the 9/11, but we added some perspective mentioning the 9/11/1973 CIA-supported coup that deposed and killed Chilean president Allende. We’ve also added the anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street, whose early demise has been greatly exaggerated. But the biggest news of the period was the looming threat of yet another armed intervention by the U.S., this time in Syria. For a moment, it seemed all but inevitable, until a good old fashioned dose of diplomacy averted the crisis. Which is still on but could have become much worst. When October broke, the NSA revelations (no, we won’t let it up) had become even more insidious via UN, with reports of U.S. spying into foreign corporations, diplomatic corps and even citizens, because, why stop there? The GOP was about to have its day in the (dark) sun, though. And it was as ugly and disgusting as having a shotgun aimed at 300 millions heads, demanding them to go back on what they’d already reaffirmed in two presidential elections: Americans want jobs, more government support to the economy, not less, and are not interested in budget cuts. Almost surprisingly, President Obama himself didn’t budge this time around. But almost six months later, with the cuts to unemployment and food stamps programs going into effect, even without casting the vote of the majority, the Republicans did score a victory then and now. It didn’t help that the rollout of the president’s signature law, the Obamacare, was an inexcusable disaster, as it squandered precious political goodwill, wasted a great opportunity to exercise government efficiency, and showed exactly why a single payer system is still a better idea. We’ve concluded the month with a quick view of the new pope’s style, the horrible witch hunt of the Roma in Europe, the chosen scapegoat for all evil, and the sad tale of how long it took Army Capt. William Swenson to get a Medal of Honor for his acts of heroism in Afghanistan. Last month, we traced a fair but obviously one-sided comparison between two young titans of our era, Snowden and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and how their radically opposing characters have shaped the world we live in into a schizophrenic duality of absolute abhor and incredible hope. Born within a year of each other, Zuckerberg, driven by ambition, became a billionaire with an invention that makes the scary prospect of a 24/7 surveillance state ever more possible, while penniless Snowden has added a courageous dimension of human dignity to what means to be a citizen. Twice in November we were visited by the climate change issue, what’s causing to our world, and what we’ve been doing, or rather not, about it: Typhoon Haiyan left indelible scars in the Philippines, and a UN climate conference in Poland was hijacked by global polluters and their lobbyists. Our centerpiece of the month, though, was Brazil and its process of reawakening to its past, while seriously reconsidering its options for the future. Since June, the whole country seems to be willing to go where it hasn’t before, even if it takes questioning the merit of hosting the World Cup. There’s no question that the cup will happen, but the fact that Brazilians are even putting that on the table, along with painful recollections of the dark years of the military dictatorship signals progress towards a more equalitarian and enlightened society. Brazil can use that, no doubt about it. And dark is the prefab tradition of Black Friday and its disgusting underbelly of bare knuckled crassness and greed, all wrapped into a senseless shopping marathon no different from the ancient Roman art of entertaining the crowds by staging them being devoured by wild beasts. The month proceeded with no much hope of a last minute turnaround towards some badly needed, and under served, priorities, as yet another multination conference, this time over international trade, was taken over and dominated by a narrow agenda favoring the world’s biggest powers. A timid provision of the Dodds-Frank set of regulatory reforms of the financial system went finally into effect, without much expectation that it’ll reign in on out of control banking practices, of betting against customers’ best interests or even adding more transparency to their inner workings. As the year ends with the prospect of an extended recession, at least for millions of working and out-of-a-job stiffs, while corporations get ready for another boom of sky high profits, we need to resort to a certain measure of irrationality to wish us all the strength we’ll need coming January. Fittingly, such irrationality may come from a dead hero, Nelson Mandela, whose powerful message of tolerance and hope in the future will certainly outlive the living and still serve as guiding lights to the children of our children and beyond. As he was laid to rest, we took a moment to reflect on the inspiring arch of his trajectory, and how in life and death he’s always managed to stop the world on its tracks and reset its priorities. ‘We must use time wisely and realize that it’s always ripe to do right,’ reads one of his quotes. We couldn’t improve on that even if we wanted to. Our best wishes to Colltales readers, for your kindness gracing us with the power of your attentive eyes and ears. Thank you all so very much.

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12/23/2013 Tales From a Troubled Year, Colltalers

We’ve done this for 51 weeks in 2013, sending Colltales editorial commentary to our friends every early Monday. At one point, the Newsletter fused with the weekly Curtain Raiser, so now everyone receives it too. That’s why we’re doing something different today and next week. Out of these monthly ‘letters from the editor,’ we’ve picked those that best encapsulate each of the 12 30-odd days in the life of this planet, circa 2013. Despite such arrogant quarterbacking, what emerged was indeed a full picture of a time one hopes was not completely lost. We’ve started off the year already fearing for President Obama’s lack of environmental resolve (which continues), as the oil and gas industry set strong footholds on his policies. As a result, fracking for gas and the Keystone oil pipeline are now all but an official ‘go’ by the administration. In January, we’ve laid our best hopes for the president’s second term, as well as traced parallels between Brazil’s Lula, and the late Venezuela’s Chaves, and their oversize role in reshaping Latin America, but the main theme of the month was one to also dominate the year: whistleblowers. We were still six months away from Edward Snowden’s crucial NSA revelations, but the looming trial of Pvt Bradley Manning, later, Chelsea Manning, and wholesale persecutions of a variety of whistleblowers by the administration, got us to seriously doubting the president’s sincerity. Immigration was, and still is, a fundamental issue that’s been handled by a coalition of self-interests and racism. As they fail in February to reach a fair agreement, the now-profitable U.S. prison system had everything to celebrate from such indecision: jails have been full of illegal immigrants. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday prompted a meditation on the role of leaders bringing about change, but the unexpected meteor that hit Russia brought everyone back to the same sobering page: to errant sky rocks, we’re fair game and the whole civilization may be just another hit away. That sinking feeling that we’ve been lied to got aroused once again with multiple reports of U.S. drones killing innocent civilians, worlds away from American shores, and worst, deflagrating a race by other nations, to build their own so to retaliate, possibly, but surely to spy on their own citizens. Manning and the military culture of covering up rape suffused our first March Newsletter, while also pointed out to the media obsession with the search for a new pope, and deliberated minimizing of the real, transcendental piece of news during the period: climate change. A staggering research about how we’re now living with the highest temperatures ever registered on the planet in at least 4,000 years deserved no meaningful debate and fell straight into a deep well of silence, likely because causes for the warming are too damaging to the fossil fuel industries. Before the month was over, we’ve discussed what’s driving elephants to extinction, and how hard may be to laugh with late night talk shows, given an increasing income gap, an out of control defense military complex, and an obscene resolve not to restrict gun sales to unstable people. With unemployment and hunger being no laughing matter, and Congress wasting taxpayers’ money on budget talks, we wonder how well are we doing, really. And concluded it with an interesting sentence: life in America may serve well comedy, but it’s better fit for tragedy, these days. April events in Greece reminded us the many tax havens spread out around the world, and how the wealthy and corporations easily keep their riches away from governments and common citizens. For a moment, we were happy Mitt Romney, with his offshore deposits, was not the president. It didn’t last long: when the Obama administration finally got the funds to keep the government functioning for the rest of the year, it also accepted an almost hidden provision, the so-called Monsanto Protection Act that effectively keeps the giant food producer shielded from any legal action. That’s serious because, first Monsanto has control over the growingly profitable genetically-modified food market. Secondly, the clause, which rode the appropriations legislation undetected, assures that, even if its goods are proven to be a health hazard, it won’t be forced to halt their production. The horror in Boston, and the coming First of May completed our book of the month, with the required asides about the actions of the police hunt for the suspects of the attack, which all but closed down a major U.S. city, and the meaning of having a Labor Day stripped of its raison d’etre. May was highlighted by the public demoralization of two eminent economists, Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart, ardent defenders of the theory that austerity, not government investments or job creation, should be the way to coach an embattled economy back to prosperity. But what caused their demise was not their theory’s complete failure to provide us with proof that it was sound; quite the opposite, judging by the U.S. and European economic downward. As it turned out, just like any backwater bookeeper, they had all but cooked the books too. Shame. Millions suffered by the kind of rhetoric their work inspired, and many won’t ever recovered from their governments’ mistakes, made while enticed and fooled by the myth of austerity. And given the arrogance displayed by the two so far, no forthcoming apologies should be expected either. At the end of the month, Brazilians showed signs that they were about to awaken from a long slumber about their past, the dark years of the military dictatorship that started in 1964, and their current predicament, as highly indebted hosts of next year’s World Cup. Following a few processes put in motion to identify and possibly bring to justice some of the participants of torture and human rights violations during the military rule, there was an explosion in the streets of Brazil’s main cities, with a mass movement not seen in over 20 years. Brazilians had finally realized that the dream of bring the cup, and the Summer Games two years after, would cost too much, not just in public funds for dubious, multimillion dollar sport complexes, but to the majority kept insulated from the capital being poured into a few pockets. It was a truly inspiring, if somewhat rude, awakening of a populace mistakenly known for its sunny, nonchalant approach to reality. That movement, dormant for end-of-the-year and carnival follies, is expected to rise again before the games start, six months from now. Time will tell. June also marked the court martial of Pvt. Manning, which expeditiously dispatched a courageous and patriotic young man to rot in jail for the rest of his days. The victory of obscurantism and the forces trying to mute the conscience of idealistic Americans wouldn’t last long, though. Along exploded the powerful revelations by Snowden about how the NSA has been spying on regular citizens, governments and foreign companies for years, how deeply troubling such activities are to the Constitution, and how little they produced in terms of real intel. The leaks, which are still going strong, have had enormous repercussions and are bound to reset the U.S.’s moral compass, bringing it back from the ideological wilderness of killing drones and privacy violations, to the true unwavering north of a country that respects its own laws. June was also the beginning of the end of life for late great Nelson Mandela, who agonized for six more months, before finally expiring in Dec. It was the first bracket marking the final throes of a giant warrior whose arguably greatest legacy was that of infinite tolerance and reconciliation. His comeback of sorts, to close the year’s proceedings, will also wrap our next Newsletter, covering the other half of 2013. We hope we haven’t lost you on the way, as we relived some of the great themes of our times: climate change, immigration, the environment and extinction of species, income disparity, hunger and political corruption, along with the right of citizens to hold power and governments in check. As many of these themes continued to be present as the year rolled by, will revisit them if only to try to extract some lessons out of an apparent random succession of highs and mostly lows, and what it means to be alive at this day and age. Have a great holiday season.

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12/16/13 A Rule Confirms the Exception, Colltalers

With much fanfare, a timid segment of the Dodd-Frank financial reform of 2010, the so-called Volker Rule, has finally been approved by U.S. regulators, ‘only’ five years after Wall Street’s recklessness finally caught up with reality and drove the world economy into a ditch. We won’t display here our poor academic qualifications to gauge the reach of the measure, but according to government officials, it’ll ensure that banks no longer practice what’s known as proprietary trading, i.e. trading for their own gain, even if against their clients’ needs. Yeah, right. As in most legislation passed in response to the financial collapse of 2008, which taxpayers’ were forcibly enlisted to salvage, the rule’s terms and potential efficacy curbing an entitlement culture of gambling with somebody else’s money may trip into confusion even the most earnest of those same taxpayers. That may be by design, but you won’t find anyone admitting it. At least not before calling you a ‘financial illiterate,’ i.e. a moron. In the real world, of course, little of that will improve life for working stiffs, who’re busy getting low balance warnings from their banks and have no way of knowing, or no longer care to bother checking, how much of the fees they’ve been charged line a CEO’s compensation package. On paper, the rule does require financial institutions to be yearly reviewed for compliance, but when it comes to how many ways speculative trading can be packed to look like needed profit-generating strategies demanded by shareholders, we all know what that paper is good for. The Volker Rule, named after a former chairman of the Federal Reserve, doesn’t fare well even in the grandstanding front. To properly illuminate the myriad of obscure measures taken since the crisis hit, a litmus test of sorts has emerged: how many big heads landed in jail. We know that score. Thus, no matter how much patting in the back goes on in Washington, at the expense of this or any other narrow-aiming rule, the majority of Americans are not that impressed by the rhetoric that the Obama administration is indeed serious about controlling Wall Street excesses. It really couldn’t, nor it would find enough sympathetic ears in Congress to support radical change. It’s now a regular part of being elected a ‘people’s representative,’ the evaluation of how much this or that legislative seat costs, and what corporations are willing to foot the bill. Without such calculation, anyone relying ‘only’ on grassroots movements and sign-in lists would be laughed out of Capital Hill and wouldn’t be able to find a wooden crate to stand on, or stand out for their beliefs, no matter how high their moral standing, and/or popular support, would be. It may be not a coincidence that this business approach to ‘serve the people’ has prevailed since the financial crisis. Money in politics, specially of the ‘dark’ kind, has risen so much to make possible to be insanely nostalgic about the ‘good’ old days of only lobbying influencing policy. Which hasn’t diminished either, as many former government operatives have switched sides to work as lobbyists now more than ever. Such highly trained professionals remain in demand because they’ve honed their craft in the intricacies of governing, in the privileged, inner circles of power. But not to worry; cold, hard cash continues to work its way through politics as well, behind a sea of front organizations, financed by extremely wealthy individuals and groups, who are deeply invested into paying for having a say in policies that will affect the rest of us. So, after five years, we have a few legislative drives, of which the Volker Rule is only the latest, but no Wall Street big wig rotting in jail; and a multiplication of ‘nonprofits’ with financial stakes in policy making, besides a lot of serious looking people asserting the need to rein in on greed. On the other side, while this has been one of the strongest years for the stock market, the unemployment rate remains depressingly high, given corporate profits, and all talk about raising the minimum wage has had little resonance to prevent a steady dismantling of social programs. In other words, there remains a gaping disconnect between what Washington has been battling about and the needs of working families, left to fend for themselves by their representatives. But it could be worse: we could be talking about the failure of affordable health care for millions instead. A footnote on Nelson Mandela, laid to rest yesterday, whose funeral was the focus of one of the most bizarre coverages of the passing of such a global figure. Both at local and international levels, we’ve cringed about the images and were actually glad that he wasn’t around to witness them. Colltales hopes that much of that distraction, along with the absurd sanitization of his accomplishments, and the toned down of his political militancy, will fade away, and give rise to the stature and lasting legacy of the man. In fact, we owe him to teach our children about the dignity that the coverage all but stole from him at his final hour. Have a great week.

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12/9/2013 Few Goods in the Bali Package, Colltalers

By most accounts, the 159-nation World Trade Organization conference that ended Saturday, in Bali, Indonesia, hasn’t accomplished much. And that ignites yet another round of scrutiny about the WTO’s own relevance as a moderator with regulatory power over international commerce. For despite approving measures that will lower even more barriers and potentially increase global trade in some $1 trillion dollars in the near future, the crucial issue of agricultural subsidies failed to gain traction and was all but disavowed by the wealthiest and biggest food exporting nations. At its core, the issue boils down to whether big multinational corporate farms, which produce close to 50% of the food the world consumes and control much of the land where it’s produced, regardless of country, deserve to continue receiving multimillion dollar government aid packages. On the other side of this equation, sits a myriad of small farms, still crucial to local economies throughout the developing world, which are being squeezed out of global trade, plagued by unfair competition from the big boys, and diminishing resources for a viable model of subsistence. Thus the ‘Bali Package’ is more like a workable primer of the state of current global trade, as it prioritizes the lowering of trade barriers, so countries with the muscle to increase food exports can also optimize profits, while leaving intact the issue of fairness of competition for small farmers. The hopes of anti-poverty groups and food sovereign advocates were dashed when the WTO meeting chose not to press on steps that would increase environmental protections, improve farm labor regulations, and reaccess the organ’s role in boosting measures to reduce global hunger. In the end, it was a victory for big corporations such as Monsanto and Tyson, and government policies of food-producing countries that focus on their agricultural goods-dependent economies and trade policies, regardless of the miserable conditions on the ground where they’re produced. The irony of it, and believe us, there’s always some kind of cruel irony to be added whenever these expensive multi-country bodies gather, is that the meeting took place in Indonesia, a notorious ground of some of the world’s worst labor violations, including child labor e other abuses. Just as Southeast Asia’s largest economy continues to contract (it reached its slowest pace of growth in four years, partly on its misguided protectionism policies), population growth in and around it is not expected to slowdown any time soon from its current over a billion people. That obviously means more mouths to feed, and more pressure on the region’s assortment of fragile democracies, semi-restrictive regimes, and tumultuous politics, with strong undercurrents of religious fundamentalism and the threat of military radicalism still reeling from its recent past. Such explosive mix keeps busy both environmental and human rights organizations, as well as a not negligible continent of geopolitical hawks that use the argument to successfully lobby for more armaments and inflated military defense budgets everywhere (specially, of course, in the U.S.). There were, however, modest advances arduously pushed through during the WTO meeting, such as some temporary protections for food security policies, which are supposed to be part of a larger set of rules to be implemented next year. Few are holding their breaths for it to happen, though. The underlying theme of the current state of global trade relations, with its emphasis on facilitating measures for cross-border exchange of goods, and little attention to the implicit inequalities driven by the huge gap separating the nations that have and those that have not, lies elsewhere though. It’s of little consequence to pressure developing nations, whose agricultural goods form the core of their trade balance and, in many cases, are the effective pillar of their economies, to stop diverting so much of their wealth and natural resources to boost food exports at any price. That’s why the reason to be and fate of organizations such as the WTO are so much in question. Because no rich country, or bloc of countries as in the case of the European Union, will voluntarily overrule their own corporations and push for a more equalitarian model of global trade. That is, or it should be, the WTO’s role, and GATT, which preceded it, since it’s part of its charter to ensure ‘a level playing field for all,’ and to take measures to protect ‘not only the environment but also public health, animal health and plant health.’ To anyone familiar with the terrible living conditions of food workers all over the world, including the seasonal migrants in the fields of the U.S. food belt, the WTO has been a shameful failure, and has managed to accomplished little to nothing to fulfill at least this part of its mission. More disgusting is the fallacy that issues concerning population explosion, food production, and trade among nations, are virtually impossible to tackle without subjecting impoverished nations to ever more hardship. And that the only way we’ll survive is to burn forest to produce more food. It’s sad because while the rest of the world is forced to swallow such utterly false and ugly rationale, rich nations afford themselves the benefit of delaying measures to curb carbon emissions, reduce food waste, improve their own food workers’ living conditions, and promote social equality. Rampant unemployment, homelessness, hunger and the appalling lack of health support that are now more than ever common sights of rich cities, while the stock market soars and corporate profits double, seem all to reflect a worldwide trend of absurd distribution of resources among nations. As fewer people and larger corporations increasingly control and manage the majority of the planet’s wealth, the WTO once again has failed to fulfill its mandate, and ignore the reality that truly free global trade is only possible, and enduring, as an instrument to implement social justice. Have a great one.

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12/02/2013 The Black Heart of American Retail, Colltalers

Among the terrible things that have been assailing that now all but unattainable American dream, starvation by retail, by which the industry’s been quickly getting to be known for, is arguably one of the stingiest and most cruel. Specially at this time of the year. No longer working long and hard hours, in two, sometimes three jobs, with hardly any sleep to reboot and, underneath it all, a growling empty stomach for most of the time, is enough to sustain oneself, feed the family, and protect the kids, even without getting into health care just yet. As once again depressing hordes of bargain hunters have trampled each other on Black Friday, in an annual crass display of consumerism, a couple of things became ever clearer across America, none of which is the irony that these ‘little people’ are the ones footing the bill of economic recovery. What all this rush to mass purchase goods, mainly done by children in China and Bangladesh, have brought to the fore with particular intensity is that many of those standing from dawn to dusk, ready to serve, are depending on social programs and even on the charity of other employees to eat. Also, that no matter how many piles of low quality inventory they help push out of the stores, their meager salary won’t be compounded by any archaic notion of a merit bonus system, or even a reliable contract that would include benefits. After the sale is over, so will be their extra hours. But the biggest stain in the labor contract workers have been stuck with in present day U.S. of A. is the staggering, widening, obscenely humongous gap between what the big chiefs of the retail industry are making and what millions of peons who work for them see on their paychecks. And no other company reflects more acutely such a divide as Wal-Mart, the country’s largest retailer, and the world’s second biggest company, which is still synonymous with the opulence and callous lack of empathy routinely sported by the children and family of its founder. Even though the Waltons have only one of its own in the board, there should be no doubt about who controls it, and where does such ruthlessness come from. As the industry leader, it sets the tone for all others, including those who go to great lengths to emulate its autocratic business model. Thus, Thanksgiving or Hanukkah, Christmas or Independence Day, no gods or civility will get in the way of its Juggernaut, and if workers care a bit too much about family life or, heaven forbids, their own health, they can always search for temporary employment at McDonald’s for all it cares. While family members zip around the globe in private jets, their fortunes among the very top of the heap of the world’s billionaires, even without having worked a day in their lives, Wal-Mart employees, and many American workers, for that matter, have to manage near-slavery conditions. There’s no exaggeration in using the S word here, and many point to the beginning of the dismantling of the unions, started in the 1960s, as the turning point for today’s normal: workplaces full of near-poverty employees, many already homeless and incapable to provide for their families Over the weekend, rallies in protest for working conditions at Wal-Mart and other retailers not just failed to land a single headline in the national media, which was expected, but also may have cost yet a few more sub-employed staff their jobs. One only hopes that some lasting impact remains. The discussion did manage to reach dinner tables, though, as many a Thanksgiving meal served as settings for heated arguments of whose fault it is. That many probably blamed the black man at the White House shouldn’t discourage anyone searching for good news, though. Or some sanity. While there’s little to do to eviscerate deeply rooted right wing arguments against President Obama, by those who either work the system to their advantage, or others who simply need government aid more than they seem to admit, an important step was taken by certain segments of society. Even though corporate bosses were quick to call in the cops and hundreds of arrests have been made, for ‘disorderly conduct,’ at least the people who, despite all appeals to the contrary, did go to shop at notorious labor-violator retailers, saw that those being arrested were very much like they. That’s because what not too long ago was being called ‘the real America,’ and promptly manipulated to serve the political cause of less taxes to the wealthy and less workers in the payroll, is now being pushed to sub-employment in record numbers, that is, if there are even jobs available. Also that America is now a heterogeneous mix of mostly first generation immigrants, a multiracial array of demographics and accents, which is a far cry from that delusional white, exclusively English-speaking society, that supposedly had the right to rule over so-called minorities. We couldn’t be further now from that, yes, archaic notion of women as a minority either, which never made any sense to begin with. More than at any time, the American woman has achieved enormous leverage in political decisions by the sheer weight of their role in the productive scale. The American society as a whole has only to gain as their power transcends constrains of gender politics, and tackles the great issues of our time, such as labor rights, family planning, defense budget, reproductive laws and all other issues the debate over Obamacare imply. Their fight is at the core of the protests for decent wages, including raising the minimum, and full, cheap and high-quality health coverage that the Waltons have consistently denied to their workers for over 50 years. If women keep the pressure on, that won’t last for much longer. So the sight of an elderly woman being arrested and peaceful protesters being handcuffed and taken away on Black Friday, on charges of civil disobedience, are all poignant in the human side, but emblematic within the larger context of Americans finally waking up for social justice. It’s been all part of a slow learning curve that’s finally started to place value in the worth of the American worker, and the rights that were protected all the way to the last decades of the 20th century, when they were none to subtly yanked out of everybody by the rise of corporate power. For the same way that women are not going back to the subservient role forced upon them throughout the ages – or Colltales will stop writing for that matter – neither will workers be forced to trade their dignity for leftovers, not if this country still aims at fulfilling the promises of equality and freedom of its constitution. Have a great December.

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11/25/2013  As Polluters Change the Subject, Colltalers

After the chaotic two-week U.N. conference on climate change ended in Warsaw, it was hard to know whether the event has caused some permanent damage to the overall movement of awareness about the issue, or it was simply the most disastrous meeting of its kind ever. Marked by a heavy presence of coal, oil and gas industry lobbyists, and hosted by a nation whose own energy policies tilt heavily towards coal, and that halfway through it, dismissed its own environmental minister, who was chairing it, no wonder the conference ended Friday with a massive walkout of progressive environmental organizations. They hardly had a chance to squeeze a word in the deliberations anyway. Deemed a failure by those who’ve spent decades trying to drive home the point of man-made causes for rising of global temperatures, and its consequent disastrous impact of higher ocean levels on millions living near bodies of water, the event was also compounded by an ongoing dispute. While the Philippines picks up the pieces left by Typhoon Haiyan, counting its dead in the thousands and the costs both human and material in the hundreds of millions, the issue that neither this nor any other natural disaster is bound to settle is that whether such storms are a direct consequence of climate change. Which is really irrelevant to everyone involved, but the tabloid media, which tends to trivialize and reduce the matter to a few bombastic, easily dismissible statements, or for those who are truly engaged raising awareness and battling powerful interests that want to mute it. For everyone else, including victims, the discussion is beside de point. Which, at least in the case of the compromised media, may be by design: picking the element that can be easily lost in grandstanding diatribes, and leaving out what’s way more revealing: the sea levels rise. More on that later, but first let’s make the point that whoever thought that big numbers and human devastation would be enough to make governments and the public opinion jump into action, is clearly losing the argument. We’ve grown numb and, so far, hopeless at loosening the grip of big corporations on the issue of man-made climate change, either by misinformation campaigns, and/or the power of sheer money. The U.N. conference was just another sample of how this discussion has been framed, as Poland held a parallel event with members of the very industry that’s, by all accounts, accelerating the irreparable damage in the name of profits still to be made out of fossil fuel dependency. According to a new research on historic levels of pollution, all but seven of the 90 companies that produced 63% of cumulative emissions of industrial carbon dioxide and methane between 1854 and 2010 are oil, gas and coal producers. The remaining are cement manufacturers. The paper, published by the Climate Accountability Institute in Colorado, states that half of these estimated emissions were produced in the past 25 years, when, as The Guardian points out, the effects greenhouse gases have on the atmosphere were already well understood. The study does justice to at least one other aspect of what seemed to have been the tenor of the Warsaw discussions, about who’s responsible, or rather, who should be held accountable for the situation we find our species at this point, which hinges on our own survival on the planet. Although it’s easy for the West to blame Poland and other Eastern European nations, China and much of industrialized Middle East and Africa for their reliance on coal to foot progress, it’s the U.S. that’s the main supporter of an arguably even more polluting form of energy. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the highly pollutant and aggressive form of natural gas exploration, has already started to cause irreparable damage to once pristine swaths of North Dakota, parts of the midwest, Pennsylvania, and now threatens to take over more eastern states too. As with the myth of ‘clean coal,’ there’s also already been talk purporting that there are ways of ‘safely’ exploit for gas, which, more than a tall order, it’s obviously a blatant attempt at creating a distraction from the fact that that’s virtually impossible with the current technology. Other countries are guilty for trading in fallacy too, and that also means you, oh, Canada, and let’s not get into Japan’s shameful excuse, that since its misguided option for nuclear power has failed, as anyone could’ve expected, it’ll therefore raise, not cut down, its emission targets. So, whether climate change caused by carbon dioxide and methane is triggering ever more powerful storms may or may not be determined for sure in the future, if there’s even one left. But we can’t wait to be sure that the big wave rising in the horizon is a tsunami or just a trick of our sore eyes before running for higher ground, can we? By the way, that’s a much more measurable phenomenon, and we all know it. The melting of the glaciers, and its consequent impact raising global ocean levels means that people living near water will have to seek relocation, regardless of what happens next. And so should people who live in historical paths of hurricanes and typhoons. That’s not even climate change; it’s pure logic, and as hard as it is for those who keep losing everything year after year, the reality is that to rebuild over and over doesn’t really make sense. Specially when even a small disaster can cause so much damage. The fact that most people can’t afford to move without help is a consideration that must be part of any solution designed to minimize the effects of natural disasters which, again, as we know, will happen no matter what. And that’s an issue of accountability worth discussing. For all the admirable global efforts to help the Philippines’ recovery effort, what amounts to charity can’t really be a consistent approach to a multifaceted problem that’s bound to strike us in many directions and as many times as the world goes round. As long as environmental polluters spend billions of dollars, not to find ways to switch to alternative ways of energy, but to sabotage even timid initiatives, such as carbon trading and pricing, we’re all as trapped in this quagmire as the gases they produce are in the atmosphere. Colltales could’ve found a better pun to explain it, of course, but the point should be well taken by now. If the U.S. and other western nations refuse to take the lead in this issue, and the U.N. allows itself to be manipulated by the industry, where should hope come from? How to expect that Greenpeace and other grassroots movements, often at odds with local laws, risk their activists’ lives to call for protection of the Arctic, for instance, while we passively keep our commitment to fight for air and water quality for everyone to a negligible minimum? The North Pole, by the way, may be the next battleground of this war, as it’s already causing much hand wringing among world corporations, as it melts and may open new shipping routes and oil drilling, with all the disastrous consequences it’ll cause to global temperatures. We don’t mean to depress you on this Thanksgivukkah week, but we do have very little to thank for about the state of the Earth these days. Not that we wish to provide ammo for heated discussions at the holiday table but it does beat discussing Uncle Bob’s eccentricities, doesn’t it? Have a safe time.

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11/18/2013 A Giant Learns Humility, Colltalers

It may have been its easiest step in a steep climb, but Brazil’s National Commission of Truth has finally gathered the headlines around the world its mandate deserves: the body of João Goulart, the last democratically elected president deposed by the 1964 military coup, was exhumed last week. No results as to whether Jango, as he was known, was poisoned to death in 1976 in Argentina, or died of a heart attack, are expected any time soon. The exhumation, which may turn out to be merely symbolic although still powerful enough to ignite similar probes, may mark a turning point for Brazil, in ways that would surprise many and with a strong possibility for resetting the country towards a more enlightened future. For the past decade or so, news about Brazil have been mostly of an unrestrained optimism about its economic prowess, potential for becoming a world leader, peaceful nature of its people and other jargons of political propaganda that hardly convey the complexities of the country’s inequalities. Lately, though, such rosy assumptions have been assailed by doubts as to whether staggering social challenges and ingrained corruption of its political may be finally catching up with the news. There seems to be a new momentum to question such arrogance when there’s still so much to be achieved. Ironically, it had to be the fears that a looming economic downfall may yet again undermine the country’s aspirations that may have bred this new sense of humbleness, in which the search for answers in Brazil’s history may be one of the most reliable strategies to restart it anew. For among Latin American nations that went through a brutal wave of military coups, political assassinations, torture, disappearances of union and student leaders during the 1960s onward, the largest and arguably most economically successful of them all has been slow at probing its past. While many argue, callously, that the military rule didn’t reach there the stratospheric levels of cruelty and violence that it did elsewhere in the region, with Chile, Argentina and Uruguay leading the sorrowful pack, Brazil’s still to come to terms with the implications of its fascist legacy. Not that any of these countries have fully grasped the significance of having been ruled with impunity by violent and corrupt leaders for so long and how it’s effectively stunted their path towards democracy and social justice. Time’ll tell, of course, but it helps when something’s done meanwhile. Brazil didn’t have a charismatic organization such as Argentina’s Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who helped increase international pressure on the regime, or the almost happenstance of a referendum going awry in Chile, which is credited for having finally tilted the balance against the generals. At one point or another, the core of opposition to the dictatorship in Brazil rested on fragile mini-organizations such as Mothers’ Clubs, and even a segment of the Catholic church, as most political leaders pre-coup had either being exiled or were left with a dwindling power of representation. It’s been told that Jango was offered the military muscle and some political conditions to resist the coup by force, but that he declined the offer, due most likely to his shrewd calculation that such armed resistance would lead to much blood spilled and arguably slim chances of success. He retired to neighbor Uruguay, doubtless under some kind of backstage agreement with the generals, as that country was itself also being ruled by a junta. Such accord, if it ever existed, held firm for 12 years, until he suffered a mysterious sudden illness and died officially of a heart attack. Around the same time, middle of the 1970s, a sinister multinational coalition of repressive forces, codenamed Operation Condor, created by the right-wing dictatorships of several South American nations to unify resources and intel and go after opponents of the regime, was at full blast. The suspicion that Jango was yet another victim of such paramilitary squad, rumored for years, gained a foothold in Brazil’s national debate a few years ago, when an agent who claimed to be part of the ex-president’s surveillance team, revealed that he knew for a fact that Jango had been killed. Even though his allegations lack any material evidence, they fit a certain circumstantial scenario and may be true. It’s admirable that, despite all the political pressure against it, the Commission of Truth took it upon them to decide for the exhumation of the body of the former president. The 7-member group has had a full agenda in the past two years, mainly focused on the overriding issue of human rights abuses. Among its many task forces, the one dedicated to probe crimes against native peoples by the dictatorship has the potential to surprise Brazilians, as few know the extent of what went on during the brief, ill prepared and desperate guerrilla efforts waged by some groups in the northern jungles of the country during the 1960s. As for Brazil, where the word irony becomes redundant whenever one tries to gauge the country’s startling contrasts, there seems to be indeed a new momentum arising, triggered by intense discontent of the mind boggling amount of money being tossed at next year’s World Cup preparations. The past week, some of the 25 associates to the ruling Workers’ Party convicted in a widespread corruption scandal, known as mensalão, that plagued President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s first term in the early 2000s, began finally heading to jail to fulfill their sentences. Convicted for running a network of kickbacks in exchange for support to the party, the process took years to reach its trial and sentencing phase, and a last minute appeal to the Supreme Court failed to prevent what most Brazilians wanted to see happening: jail terms for those found guilty. That includes José Genoíno, a former chairman of the party, with a previous distinguished trajectory as a opposition leader to the dictatorship, and José Dirceu, former Lula’s chief of staff, along with an assortment of political operatives that have done a great deal of damage to the party’s image. Lula himself, despite remaining hugely popular, may have had some unwanted attention diverted to himself from the scandal. But it had to be this way, and it may turn out to be an important milestone in Brazil’s traumatic recover of its past, and assertion for a dignified present and future. Great nations were never made of speeches and promises of a better future, but through the painful, gut-wrenching but ultimately rewarding courage to confront its own myths and the possibility that they are not, well, that great. Unless its citizens and society rise up against inequality. If it all sounds like hollow words it’s because they’ve been overused and tossed meaninglessly to become almost deflated of any meaning. But it’s nonetheless always inspiring to witness when people awaken and start actively putting pressure towards righting the wrongs that have been done in their name, now rather than later. Don’t give up now, Brazil. For Colltales, this is truly more important than to win the World Cup. Have a great one.

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11/11/2013 Something Else Missing in the Storm, Colltalers

As shocking images of the devastation the Typhoon Haiyan start to hit newswires around the world, igniting a number of predictable reactions both charitable and patronizing, we’re confronted with the inevitability that these kinds of catastrophic natural disasters have become ever so common. But even though we’ll be well primed in coming days about its multiplying casualties, the miserable path of destruction it’s carved on the Philippines and the dire predictions for other Southeast Asian countries on its path, something crucial has already been missing by the media coverage of it. The reason why this is happening with increased frequency, and how come it’s not the focus of daily investigative efforts to find the solution, has again been buried in the weather forecast-like, almost business-as-usual reporting, which tends to highlight the effect and hide the cause. That’s by design, by the way, make no mistake about it. And some media outlets are fully aware of it. Earlier this year, the Guardian, for one, published a report about Donors Trust, a secretive organization that has invested a staggering amount of money funding climate change denying. To boost thinktanks and activist groups’ anti-science message, and sway coverage about environmental issues, the trust has given away $30 million in 2010 alone, which, the report says, dwarfs even notorious funders of climate change denying such as ExxonMobil and the Koch Brothers. By sponsoring a constant flow of talking head ‘experts,’ and spinning misleading information about changing weather patterns, no fault of our heavy reliance on carbon fuels, of course, and nothing to worry about, really, the trust and other groups have managed to set a tenor for the coverage. It’s virtually impossible to gather the causes of why this is happening and what can be actually done in order to prevent them from happening again, amid the cascade of gory stats on how many are dead or dispossessed, how humongous is the storm, and, yes, granted, how Americans can help. Not all of them do, though. As it goes, deniers in positions of power have often displayed a callous approach to victims of disasters of great magnitude, as it happened when the Bush administration faced the unspeakable damage Hurricane Katrina was inflicting on their own constituency. They let them rot for several days, and the president himself only touched the ground in New Orleans nearly two weeks after the storm. But the fact is that, however nations deal with the aftermath of a disaster has little to do with what should be done in a more structural level to prevent them. Storms and hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis are bound to happen, regardless of human action. But the increased frequency of some of them can indeed be prevented if we’re willing to treat them as consequences of an overriding pattern and attack their causes before they get out of hand. We hate to break the news, but according to many scientists, that has already happened. They may have a point if one thinks of 2012, for instance, the hottest year on record in the U.S., and oddly, one of the coldest globally. That may be the norm from now on, rather than the exception. One last seemingly puzzling thing about those billionaire deniers. It’s hard enough, but absolutely conceivable that big oil companies are heavily invested in denying the effects of carbon monoxide and other greenhouse gases, by-products of their, well, product, on the environment. After all, for over a century, such corporations have defined and imprinted the very core of our progress as civilization with their goods, amassing in the process a stultifying level of power and wealth. But then again, one can always go back to that old workhorse: corporations are not people. With due respect to the sick, they grow like cancer, and their myriad of ramifications reach out to and envelop every human endeavor on this planet. As a business, they’re as impersonal and ruthless as a parasitic fungus growing from inside out of a tree. It won’t stop until the tree is dead, and then, if it can, it will move on to the next and the next, until the whole forest will be leveled. No regrets and no possible ‘humane’ arguments here. But to understand why an elderly billionaire, or rather, a group of stratospherically rich old men, would be oblivious to the nefarious consequences of their efforts, going out of their way to make sure millions of people won’t have any way out of a chocking, toxic planet, is another matter. In fact, it’d be unfathomable to picture how these patriarchs of vast empires deal with their ever growing number of relatives, little children, that is, and whether they even think about the world their own blood will be forced to live in as a result of their unstoppable drive to increase profits. It’d be if it weren’t for two reasons, though. First, they have 20, 30 tops, years left to live, which could give them a ‘devil may care’ mentality, even though that’d be the exception: the majority of their peers would rather achieve a sense of wisdom about the relativity of time as they grow older. So, that’s a matter of spiritual maturity, whatever that actually means, that they, obviously, lack. And the other reason, which ironically show their senility, is that to invest in measures to prevent, or at least, minimize climate change would be much more profitable in the long run, than to deny it. For if we’re to survive the next 50 years (some scientists are already cutting that window way shorter), we must find a way to capture, recycle, transform, and ultimately conquer the lethal gases we’ve been sending to the ar we breathe, before they literally choke us to death. That would spell a business opportunity in a planetary scale that would overshadow any of the enterprises these stubborn devils have managed to turn them into the zillionaires they are. Then again, we know nothing about how their minds work, so that could be a moot point as well. By now, you know that to invoke words such as redemption, or expect some kind of rapture-like realization of their wrong ways is not only not Colltales style but would be something downright unbelievable. Most likely these old bats will died peacefully, with no remorse, and yes, richer. As for Haiyan, it may sound insensitive to pontificate and preach about its causes, while by the latest estimates, it has already taken tens of thousands of lives. It does sound callous as well, for if you’re in the thick of it, how good it is that someone is even talking about causes? But all we ask is that you keep an eye on the kind of coverage we get about these cataclysms, as they happen, and how the same familiar pundits do their utmost to divert attention from the fact that here we are, once again, ever more often, talking about a monster we have no defense against. See how easy it is to get lost in the minutia of disconcerting facts, and the arcana of ‘human stories,’ and the dollar figure of the costs, and the global efforts to aid the victims, to the point of forgetting that we are, indeed, the only ones to blame for what’s happening. Have a great week.

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11/4/2013 Two Kids Who Bent the World, Colltalers

The Big Brother age has produced its first titans whose duality mirrors the ambiguity and radical transformation of the way we live now. Edward Snowden and Mark Zuckerberg, born within a year of each other, have both, perhaps unwittingly, made decisions that are defining these times and cast them either at the reboot of government accountability, or our downgrade to a totalitarian society. They made their choices and so will we. By creating FaceBook, Zuckerberg had only one thought on his mind, besides, of course, getting dates: to get rich and powerful, which he achieved by swiftly eliminating early collaborators and potential competitors, and quickly establishing his wraparound, impenetrable hold of a niche market. He succeed beyond his most outlandish visions of power, and remains unapologetic for creating and enforcing the tenet of his business model: the complete eradication of any notion of personal privacy, except his, and the catering to young minds as crucial leverage tools for generating wealth. On the other side of the chip sits Snowden, who’d been just another nerd in the anonymous army of millions that feeds data to the NSA and other surveillance concerns, all but untroubled by the massive implications their technological expertise serves. Until, of course, he snapped out of it. We don’t know what deviant streak pushed him out of the assembly line and into the rows of the U.S. national security targets. It’s likely that he wasn’t fully aware of what he was about to trigger by ringing a world class journalist, but he’s inhabited the role of whistleblower with great skill. That’s why we’re singling out these two – one fully graced with the privileges and special treats reserved to fellow billionaires, and the other broke and disgraced, unbowed but forced to the humiliating position of asking for clemency – as the exemplary role model brackets of this century so far. Sadly, there’s no question who will be feted and celebrated, and who’ll be avoided as a plague by the powerful and the influential. Mark’s everyone’s pall, and could be doing even more of the celebrity circuit weren’t his sweat glands so awkwardly drawn out by the floodlights of media studios. Edward, on the other hand, has struggled to find a sympathetic ear, and once he’s out of the voluminous but ultimately limited, arsenal of leaked surveillance documents, he’ll be outgunned and may be finding the prospect of rotting in an American prison for life hardly avoidable. For, although many countries have shown rhetorical support for his decision in leaking classified information, and the U.S. secret forces’ propaganda machine has had a hard time creating an equally powerful narrative to counter the resonance of his gesture, it’s all been played out for the bleachers. The photo op posing ‘I’m shocked, shocked’ attitude, taken by U.S. allies upon ‘learning’ that their top officials, along with some key industries, have been mined for confidential information by the NSA, allegedly even without President Obama’s explicit knowledge, couldn’t last, of course. Unless one’s been living in some alternative universe (under a rock is definitely not an excuse, since many of these officials do have bunkers), the realization that political leaders and their apparatchicks profusely spy on each other is yesterday’s news, with yesterday being circa 1917. What’s really an insidious factor about all this ‘spy you, spy me’ parlor trick is the fact that it obscures the still overriding reality that technology now allows them to keep fat and engorging files on regular citizens, not agents or organizations with their own invisible cameras and poison umbrellas. Again, no surprise there, as the progressive nanotization of recordable knowledge had no complains when used to get us a better mousetrap and fast. That less than suddenly turnaround was years in the making, and if now your toaster is looking at you funny, well, it comes with the territory. Which is why this myth that technology is a neutral tool, there to help us navigate the natural world by constantly obliterating it, but ever under orders, because, really, who wants a robot who won’t take our commands, is a fallacy. The real question is, on whose orders are they being shaped? Soon-to-be Dr. Z., on the account of honoris causa doctorates he’s bound to get, is rewarded not for the social network he owns, for that too is an old idea, but for cashing in so flawlessly on people’s willingness to surrender their inner lives in exchange for a platform to be trivial in a global scale. For Snowden, the outlook for cashing in his chips couldn’t be more discouraging. The act of dumping his own life and career continues to fade and be upstaged by the relentless efforts of those he rattled, the state security apparatus and shadowy organizations that unwelcome his flashlight. The nations that benefited from the disclosures, and may use them for leverage negotiating trade agreements and cozy contracts with the U.S., are unlikely to be willing to sacrifice all that, and incur in the wrath of the administration, by granting Snowden political asylum in less than a year. As illustrated by the case of Chelsea Manning, former Pvt. Bradley, of whom we won’t be hearing from anytime soon, personal sacrifice in the name of conscience is deemed, in the cynic age of FB, another form of showmanship, highly punishable at the least hint of threatening the powers that be. Even Glenn Greenwald, the articulate journalist who was instrumental in getting Snowden’s revelations into the public discourse, hasn’t been able to protect his personal life and those he loves: David Miranda, his Brazilian partner, has just been accused of ‘terrorism’ by U.K. authorities. The charge is as outrageous as calling Snowden a traitor, or Manning an enemy of state, for that matter. For Miranda’s rights (pardon the poor pun) are the ones that got violated when he was detained for nine hours by security forces at Heathrow in August, with no access to legal counsel. And some of the spies who actually profited from selling secrets to U.S. enemies are done with their sentences and now walk free, something that’s been denied to Manning, and probably will be prescribed for Snowden too, in his eventual prosecution. That is, if the president won’t intervene. For in just a couple of years, aided by the perspective of time and the pressings of salvaging a tainted legacy, the prospects of a pardon for Manning and Snowden may represent some sort of redemption for an administration that has been marked by double talk and drone assassination missions. We’re not holding our breath though, nor should you. And what would be effective, and possibly ironic, for those who wish to do something, and rescue Snowden from the system that’s staked against vulnerable targets like him, to a more deserving place in history? why, to start an FB campaign for his pardon. Since that’d make Zuckerberg even wealthier, Colltales would be probably excused from being part of it. But may we suggest adding another petition to the same page? to demand the right of every subscriber to gain full, ungarnished access to his profile. And of course, privacy for everybody else. Have a great one.

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10/28/2013 They’re Going for the Witches, Colltalers

As the world economy continues to falter, the rounding up of the usual suspects and the open hunt season for scapegoats got underway on both sides of the Atlantic, with reason to suspect that much of what’s going on south of the equator and Asia is also linked to this new age of going backwards. In the U.S., despite a bruising and ultimately failed attempt to hijack the government, the Tea Party continues its puppetry act over the GOP, and poor Americans brace for yet another round of vicious slashes on Social Security, Medicare, the Food Stamp and other federal programs. That, compounded by errors plaguing the Affordable Care Website, overwhelmed by demand from millions whose states still refuse to provide health coverage, has taken away any momentum President Obama and the democrats could have enjoyed in the aftermath of the government shutdown. In Europe, the hunt has been directed to the centuries-old Roma, an ethnic group that’s so far managed to ward off attempts at cultural genocide, paying a heavy price for it. Mythical outcasts, with layered and cross-referencial traditions, they are now indistinguishable from the world’s poorest. Also known by a misnomer, the Gypsy, as it was believed they’d come from Egypt, not India, the Roma diaspora had been all but contained for most of the 19th century in what’s now Eastern Europe. Two world wars though helped dislodged them and forced them to continuous migration. It’s hard to think about any worldwide event that haven’t affected negatively the Roma. Pretty much every war of conquest, change of borders, independence movements that took place in Europe in the past century has had only one role for them to play: that of the displaced scourge. Being an essentially nomad community has helped them to maintain a loose, underground network that preserved at least part of their rich but still untapped cultural heritage. But when push comes to ethnic cleansing, first thing ‘local authorities’ usually do is to go after the Roma. The latest and yet familiar reawakening of anti-Roma sentiment, instigated by Europe’s fascist and ultra-right conservative groups, was initiated, of course, by the spectacularly misguided austerity push of the past five years, orchestrated by the leadership of the European Central Bank. Anchored by bad economics theories, and a savage defense of the euro, it’s caused an unprecedented wave of extreme poverty in the region’s weakest economies, and the complete erosion of the social contract that guaranteed the political and social stability of many nations. And yet, despite having driven Greece to bankruptcy, and Spain, Portugal and Ireland, to name but the worst case scenarios, to a nearly unsustainable level of public indebtment, unemployment, homelessness, and hunger, the ECB shows no signs of changing direction. If that sounds familiar, it’s because many of the ‘ideologues’ of these tough love policies have found fertile ground in the U.S., and produced, not surprisingly, the same results. The president didn’t help either, with his timid growth policies and a cabinet full of Wall Street economists. But in Europe, the Roma are, once again, the easiest target, aggravated by rampant xenophobia and an immigration crisis exacerbated by racial hatred. Despite all that, the lowest blow was perpetrated by an until then unsuspected source: France’s President François Hollande. Deemed a moderate, Hollande presented himself as an alternative to his predecessor Nicholas Sarkozi’s flashy center-right bravado, but had been quietly continued the same immigration policies ever since. That is, until he stepped smacked at the malodorous core of the racially-tinged battle. When a few weeks ago, the French police stopped a school bus and took a 15-year old girl of Roma origin straight to deportation, along with her family, it ignited a public uproar, but it was merely a continuation of the country’s currently hostile sentiment towards immigrants. Pressured by France’s dismal economic growth, the rise of the far-right, and by his own constituency, Hollande made then the decision that many see as the unfortunate signature of his government: he allowed the girl, Leonarda Dibrani, to go back to France, legally, but without her parents. Such disastrous, thoughtless intervention, which was promptly rejected by Dibrani and pretty much everyone in France, left and right, may have stunned Hollande, but we wouldn’t lose our sleep over it. Much worse is what’s once again already happening to the Roma. In fact, the consequences of discrimination and unfair profiling of the group in France and the U.K. have already spread out, with repercussions as far as Ireland and Kansas City, Missouri, where some believe a baby who disappeared years ago may have been abducted by Gypsies. In raid after raid, that ‘expert’ in genetics and anthropology, the ever-so-careful immigration police, sounded the alarm that an inordinate number of blue-eyed children have been found living with the Roma, who, still according to such scholars, must have only brown-skinned children or else. Thus began an yet another nauseating round of racial profiling, as the children were separated from their parents for costly DNA match studies, in most cases, only to conclude that they were indeed children of their parents. With one exception, so far, which opened another Pandora box. When authorities raided a Gypsy camp in Greece, they found ‘Maria,’ a blue-eyed girl living with a couple, and took her away, because her parents failed to provide papers for her. That got people in Kansas all excited for absolutely no reason; the girl’s biological parents have since been found. A Bulgarian woman provided the DNA match for the baby she had had in Greece but gave away, because she couldn’t afford to raise her. Now the focus is whether she sold the baby to the couple, a costume the Roma has been chastised for practicing, but it’s not unlike the Indian dowry system. While the parents got indicted by Greece on charges of abduction, another development has been reported: in Dublin, the police took another blond girl from her Roma parents, under the same racist assumption, but had to return her back once it was established that she really was their daughter. In the kind of needless heartbreaking story tabloids love so much, the McCanns, a British couple whose three-year old daughter Madeleine disappeared in Portugal in 2007, are said to have ‘hope’ that their case will be finally solved. Someone should tell them, but it won’t be us. And even more disturbing, that kind of approach to complex issues of ethnicity and government policies by the way of trivializing family ties based on unscientific assumptions, is a distraction from the main point about the xenophobic fever taking over Europe. It may be particularly cruel to the Roma, as it is to the elderly, the poor, the dispossessed, refugees, and the hordes of immigrants crossing one border to the other, hopeful with no base on reality, that they’ll meet a better fate than the often war and poverty ravaged territories they’ve left. For it’s the forced choice of the lesser evil that austerity policies, racial profiling and indiscriminate fascism that’s the real heartbreak in the world we’re living today and that any person with a working moral compass and a progressive sense of human decency should never put up with. If by now you’re slightly depressed or borderline disgusted, Colltales has once again operated its miracle. Of course, we could be talking about much more heartwarming stories, instead, such as surveillance or voting rights, but somehow we’ve decided to lighten up today. Hope you do the same and enjoy the Halloween ahead.

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10/21/2013 Phony Leaders & a Weary Hero, Colltalers

President Obama, always one for words, has summarized the aftermath of the latest prefab crisis brought about by the extreme right: we’ve got to get out of this habit of governing by crisis. It’s not a habit, though; it’s an addiction. And it’s not ‘we.’ Most Americans didn’t cause this. We’re just sick of it. With the end of the U.S. government shutdown, at least for now, we’ve entered a period that some have smartly characterized as a ‘cease fire.’ We wonder how much further damage can the Tea Party inflict on us in the next assault, and how much more it’ll cost to this country’s economy. For while the attempted hijack may have flushed over $20 billion and counting down the drain, the same shady characters giving public service a bad name have shown no remorse to those millions of poor Americans who voted or not for them, and are getting ready for some more come February. That they’ve further weakened an already tenuous U.S. credibility, at least financial, in the world, and their folly hurt thousands of families for months ahead, is not even a factor in their public pitches. No, they actually act as if they’ve truly enjoyed having brought the world to an almost standstill. As their well paid cronies in the media dutifully fail to report, it’s as if the crisis was a result of mutual intransigence, so ‘natural’ in politics. The fact that it wasn’t, and that it had a well known cast of architects, bent on getting by force what the polls have denied them, goes virtually unchecked. Not surprisingly, a good look at the weekend news, plus the almost all-white male cast of Sunday talk shows, only reinforced the idea that preparations have already started to demand more cuts in government spending which, if the recent past serves as an example, means only slashes in social programs. Yes, there’s talk about some trimmings in the military budget, but we’re afraid that they refer to further restrictions in health coverage for Vets, both by reducing choices in the specialized care they need, and by slowing down even more the processing of the shameful backlog of their claims. Talking about Vets, there’s an interesting, if somewhat discouraging, tale surrounding Ret. Army Captain William Swenson, who’s just received the first Medal of Honor given to an army officer since the Vietnam War. Hint: it’s not about his feats of courage in a hellhole battle in Afghanistan. He’s earned it by saving fellow soldiers, rescuing Afghan troops and retrieving bodies of several Americans who died during the Battle of Ganjgal in 2009. Between then and last Tuesday, when he was finally given his award, lies a disturbing tale that says something about America, circa 2013. For right after that particularly gruesome combat, Capt. Swenson broke ranks and dared to openly criticize his superiors for not providing enough air and artillery support. And here comes the interesting part: despite indicated for a medal for his actions, the Army said his nomination packet got lost. So, for four years, while many within the organization wished that people would forget all about his bravery and independent position, a behind-the-scenes struggle took place to grant him the well deserved honor. It’s doubtful that anyone will offer an explanation about what really happened. Even now, since having ‘quietly resigned’ from the Army in 2011, the case is a glaring example that despite ample financial support to whatever the Pentagon decides are national security goals, the buck stops at the doorsteps of those actually making the ultimate sacrifice to fulfill such goals. Capt. Swenson is unemployed and, by some accounts, detached from any productive segment of civilian life, a fate not unlike the great majority of Vets, in the name of whom some of the most catastrophic foreign policies have been enforced, and who once back in the U.S., are promptly ignored. In a David Nakamura story, on the Washington Post, he emerges as a deeply troubled, still young, man, visibly hurt by the 4-year dispute with his employer over the narrative of the firefight and what really went on that day. There’s no dispute, though, over his leadership and sacrifice in battle. Five U.S. soldiers, 10 Afghan troops and an interpreter were killed in Ganjgal, with more than two dozen coalition troops injured, when they were ambushed by some 60 heavily armed Taliban combatants. It’s very likely that many more would have died if it hadn’t been for Capt. Swenson. But what this tale illuminates goes beyond his personal ordeal. For with all due respect, his is far from being a unique story about someone who fulfilled his duty with valor but whose life now is all but wasted in the outskirts of society, in his case, in the rough mountains of Seattle. What it illustrates is the disconnect between thousands of highly trained young Americans, who can find no way to employ their hard-earned, valuable skills to the task of making this country better, and the wealthy minority in Washington that gets to drive it to a ditch every few months. As Capt. Swenson and many like him have all but given up the hope of ever seeing their sacrifice transformed into a palpable sense of contribution, we also agonize that many stories like these don’t even get to be told. Our children may never know that some of us really do make a difference. President Obama thanked the captain for ‘being there for his brothers’ and for ‘all of us.’ We hope the president doesn’t forget that we count on him for the same reason, against those who’d never even consider sacrificing themselves with such altruistic fervor as the good captain and many like him did. As they regroup to lead another charge against programs crucial to the most vulnerable among us, all disguised under the pretext of balancing the budget, we may have less defenses than the last time, let alone the sort of leaders that are being forged by fire, blood and betrayal in Afghanistan. Stop by at Colltales and have a good one.

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10/14/2013 The Man in the White Cloth, Colltalers

The stupid misspelling of Jesus’s name, which forced the Vatican to recall thousands of medals celebrating Pope Francis’ term as the new head of the estimated 1.2 billion Catholics, brings to mind that old saying, as ancient as the church itself: not everything that shines… For even though the incident itself has little to do with the misguided feeling, fueled by an ailing church hierarchy, that suddenly Catholicism is again relevant, it serves as a fit stop sign to all the hoopla about a supposedly progressive bent shown by the first Latin American pope in history. Yes, his coy, but apparently spontaneous, declarations in support for gays, women in service, even atheists, who healthily remain skeptical, as well as criticism of the Vatican’s unchecked wealth, and its present role in relation to world affairs, are indeed refreshing. Stories have circulated about his vowed personal stoicism, refusal to live in ostentatious luxury, or, god forbid (say the insurers) taking John Paul II’s favorite ride, all traits that do represent a contrasting change compared to his two previous predecessors. Who would be against that? We can’t say we hate to thrown some iced, unholy water on top of so much adoration fervor. But we must say, it all sounds nauseatingly hollow. For starters, why a ‘commemorative coin’ at the beginning of anyone’s term? Sure, it’s tradition, but so what? It’s obviously premature, as shown by the Nobel Peace Award granted to President Obama while he was still learning the controls of the Nuclear Briefcase. The rest has been sad history. It’s been noted that there’s a culture of rewarding effort foremost, and then, maybe, achievement, and even if that’s not a black and white issue, there’s one point that people, even and specially young little leaguers, have to lose, and feel bitter about it, just like everyone else learns about life. Absolutely, much of what compounds success is simply showing up, as one’d say to those considering pressing the snooze button one again. But we don’t, should not get rewarded for doing the expected, the correct, the right thing. Whatever happened to challenge oneself and reach to our best? If we don’t know how bad it feels to lose, and despite the hurt, act with grace to try it again, how are we supposed to congratulate the winner who just beat us? And believe us, many have not just beat us, but dragged us through the mud and made us wallow in our grief, and… but we digress. The point is, a shake of hands suffices in most cases, no need for trophies. Back to our man Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who willingly applied to the position of being the ‘vicar of god’ on earth, he’s not above criticism, and no one can say they know him after just a few months ‘in office.’ After all, he presided over the Argentinian church during the ‘dirty war,’ when the military dictator juntas, and its assortment of criminal generals, went after their political opponents with a salvage zeal equal only to, well, other South American country rulers during the same time. Clearly, he skillfully avoided any confrontation with them, despite being in a position of power himself. And, except for a few documented cases of personal intervention in favor of dissidents being chased after by death squads, as a political leader, he pretty much kept it to himself. But our annoyance with all this cult of Francis’s ‘style,’ as opposed to Joseph Ratzinger’s flashy ‘Imelda Marcos’ collection of red shoes, goes beyond the man now wearing white skirts to focus on what his employer, the ‘company’ (at one point even called ‘of Jesus’) has represented over the years. Never mind early Christians and a religion that may or may not have been a Roman concoction. Let’s jump to South America, 15 centuries after, shall we? In the early years of the Discovery Era, Portugal and Spain were, even if briefly historically speaking, the two super powers of the day. Both crowns were sponsored and given a mandate by the church to turn the new-found lands an extension of its domain. While nations were staking political claims in the worlds they’d discover, to the Vatican it didn’t matter who’d win the wars of conquest, as long as the winner carried a cross. Those wars came to a head at the southern cone of South America, with Spain dominating the Pacific coast and Portugal, the Atlantic. In the middle, rich soil, fertile ground, and free labor, were a given, and the church’s own armies of missionaries were already ‘working the crowds.’ There were many socio-experiments in the Vatican’s attempt to extend its doctrine to the ‘salvages,’ but none as remarkable and relatively poorly understood as what came to be known as The Missions, the culmination of two centuries of Jesuit efforts to colonize native South-Americans. Between late 1500s and the early 18th century, they coalesced into a highly organized village settlement complex, covering an area several hundred miles wide, where natives followed an odd combo of Catholicism and their own belief system, could read, and even play orchestra instruments. Plus, they became economically successful, with some of their goods trading at the Buenos Aires exchange, and modestly self-sufficient militarily, with a militia created to fend off slave traders’ attacks. A true utopia that some say may have inspired Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract. Their demise was a confluence of economical disputes, as the Jesuit Reductions, as they were known, become a bit too successful for their own good, and inner fracturing within the Catholic church. The order was officially expelled from the two countries’ worldwide colonies in 1767. But to the reductions, the final straw was both a tighter collaboration between the Spanish and Portuguese crowns, eager to cash in the region’s now profitable trade, and their secret agreement splitting their domains at the cone, the missions smacked right in the middle of it. The result, the Guarany War, (which to be sure, had many other components to it too) was one of the worst genocides of native peoples of South America in its already bloody history, as arch-and-bow-armed tribes were massacred by the firepower of an entire army of trained soldiers. The Jesuits, who had tamed and protected the natives, were by then nowhere to be found, and the Vatican, presided by another Pope Benedict, stood by while the settlements were ransacked, burned and destroyed. Their ruins remain standing, though their history has been all but forgotten. There were other instances when the Vatican stood by while horrors and autocratic carnage were visiting and ravaging their flock. It happened when Nazis roamed and terrorized Europe in WWII, and in Brazil in the 1960s, when Theology of Liberation was crushed by the military dictatorship. That, by the way, was a political movement that, very much likely Bergoglio’s own statements these days, attempted to realign the church to its original poverty and social justice vows, by actively fighting tyranny. Curiously, during the 1960s, Bergoglio missed completely the movement. Thus, there has to be much more than words for the pope’s charms to impress Colltales. There are signs, though that an internal backlash has already started. A succession of commentary both by Vatican officials and its press corps have began deconstructing his most far-out statements. We’re not surprised. Time will tell, of course, but even if it turns out that the Argentine is a nice chap, after all, so what? What changes? It wouldn’t even be in synch to what the church aims at, which is to crush its competition. And its competition doesn’t get our vote either, none of them. Unless, it’s almost needless to say, he goes to Washington, excommunicates the Republicans hijacking the government, feeds a few other congressmen to wild beasts, and gives away the Vatican’s earthly possessions to charity, effective immediately. It won’t happen. Have a great one.

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10/7/2013 Oblivious to the Open Wound, Colltalers

As the U.S. braces for the second week of the Republican assault against the Obama administration, which hit instead millions of already embattled Americans, is there anything equally as negative as having a group of taxpayer-funded public servants doing their worst to paralyze a whole nation? Try our indifference about the Afghanistan war, for a fit, despite of over a decade of carnage and missed opportunities. As four more U.S. troops got killed there over the weekend, one wonders whether their ultimate sacrifice can be treated with any more disrespect than it’s been and for how long. It’s as if the latest casualties have been diligently added to the more than 2,000 Americans, almost as many troops from other countries, and most likely a multiple of 10 of this total in Afghan combatants and innocent civilians, and then promptly forgotten until it can be turned into a new commodity. The war that started 12 years ago today shows no signs of having become any less brutal than it was, for the few months that it made some sense, right after the Sept. 11, 2001. A war that, by all accounts, has lost its purpose, if there’s ever one in wars, and now it’s just a gigantic grave, swallowing human lives and compassion, a gaping black hole where all hope for a better world gets buried daily. The inferno that’s been raging longer than any previous American conflict, however, is no match in the news headlines for the disgusting display of political expediency by such a small, exceedingly wealthy group, trying to achieve by force of obstruction what the popular vote denied them. Despite some expected coverage about the status of the U.S. plan to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014 (hint: not so good), and predictable grandstanding by a variety of buffoons, the tenor of what’s going on in Washington is likely to increase towards the end of the week. That’s when the U.S. Treasury may run out of borrowing means and default on its bills, a potentially catastrophic event for the world’s financial system. Faith on U.S. bonds and its ability to pay is a cornerstone of global trade, and even a threat of default may destabilize the entire system. That’s the second of the two-punch combination, which has been concocted and brewed for a long time deep in the bowels of the GOP’s radical right by the tea party movement, its ideologues and sponsors. Even though it’s causing fractures and bringing to its knees the old-guard leadership, all Republicans have a lot to gain from an implosion in the U.S. social contract, millions of Americans and the world’s stability be damned. And while the first punch, the 40th-plus failed attempt to de-fund the Affordable Health Act, followed previous ones and didn’t cause as much pain as their architects hoped – millions sought to enlist in the new exchanges, system flaws and coverage gaps notwithstanding – the second does pack heat. There are two ironies to be highlighted here about this attack on the government, and they both run parallel to other absurdities implied on this costly act of truly treason against Americans. One is that a default would shatter Wall Street, the engine behind the personal and collective wealth of many of the bandits now trying to subjugate the power of those elected by democratic vote. Unless, of course, their offshore riches is indeed much bigger than what they all stand to lose at home with a default. Still, it’s a reckless act even by those standards. The other startling fact is that despite cuts in vital functions and all levels of government, and serious consequences to large segments of the American society, many rendered completely helpless by the shutdown, guess what activities were deemed untouchable and remain operating at full blast. Why, the military, of course. Not the care for millions wounded Veterans, or their families, or the few programs designed to streamline the processing of their health and retirement plans, help them to reintegrate in society, or at least prevent them from signing off in the worst possibly way. These kind of programs will continue to lag and falter and be kept at the very bottom of the priorities, if not of the expensive shoes worn by the lobby-assisted and the well-heeled voter buyers of DC, now in full barbarians-at-the-gate regalia. Our ability to kill and be killed in faraway lands, though, or hire subcontractors to do our bidding, (and to monitor the private lives of individuals here at home too, we guess) is and must remain open, thank you very much, unobstructed, fully funded and operational at all times and circumstances. That hasn’t prevented those four troops from being blown into pieces yesterday, or the many more that will come, no matter how the Pentagon budget gets even more inflated, or the U.S.’s defense spending, which continues to be higher than the next 13 other nations combined. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who’ll end his term next year and can’t be reelected, continues to articulate the conditions of an American exit from his country, in terms of how he can maximize his future, profitable role, while at the same time, looking tough with the U.S. before his countrymen. Officially, as expected, he advocates a partial withdraw, which means having troops there beyond 2014 enough to guarantee (his) security, and ending U.S. raids, which he obviously knows is not going to happen. But what he really fears is the Taliban coming back and seizing his personal assets. He won’t win, neither will we, and Afghanistan has already lost. There’s no way that the U.S. will give up its self-granted prerogative of ‘hunting terrorists’ at will, or get on the bad side of the nuclear ally next door, Pakistan, to many, the real breeding ground of American-hating groups. Thus we mark this grim milestone date with diminishing hopes that we’ll get our priorities reversed back to a fairer course. Even though the default is unlikely to happen, not because of charity, but out of self-interest and preservation, we fear for what will be offered in return for its avoidance. The shutdown will be extended, for it affects a group that’s been increasingly disfranchised by Washington power elites, and frankly, no longer have even the means to argue to the contrary: simply put, the majority of Americans who have no stocks in Wall Street, or love lost for politicians. At Colltales, we’ll take a moment today to pay respects to those who’re spilling their blood everyday, so we can have the twisted luxury of watching, and being hurt, by a rabble of irresponsible hacks, whose moral compass got stuck at zero the moment they sold their vote to the higher bidder. In other news, though, one century ago today Henry Ford started the moving assembly line to speed up production of its Model T., so there’s probably a silver lining here somewhere. Have a great week trying to find it.

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9/30/2013 The Incoming Wave, Colltalers

The threat of shutting down the U.S. government, by the GOP-led House, and the opening salvo of President Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act, are set to dominate headlines in the week ahead, even though the costly threat is ultimately hollow, and the new policy may take a while before taking hold. Of course, we’ll offer our two cents on these two issues, only artificially linked by the Republican shotgun tactics, mainly because the possibility of a U.S. handcuffed and unable to pay its bills is indeed a scary prospect for the rest of the world, let alone millions of already miserably poor Americans. There is, however, another issue, way more transcendental, that’s been accumulating an impressive scientific literature of horror about it, and starting to dramatically increase its hold on the lives of not just Americans but literally, with no exaggeration possible, every living being on earth: climate change. Let’s get rid of that loose change in our pockets, first. It’ll be cheap but not to worry: we’re already broke and sick of listening to the litany of terrible things that will happen either because of the Obamacare, or its one-year delay, and possible demise, as Republicans dream. It’s not going to happen. On a practical level, the Tea Party, the Koch Brothers, and all their billionaire associates simply don’t have the votes to muscle their way in and prevent the law from going into effect. They lack a crucial ally in this fight, one that stands to still make billions either way: the insurance industry. It’d probably be harder if the Medicare-like Single Payer idea, an altogether simpler, more cost-effective, and really universal way of tackling health care coverage, had won over over its competition, the system about to be adopted. Then again, more people would be behind it, so who’s to say? Also, this idea of holding the government, and millions of citizens’ lives, under the barrel, so to get what two presidential elections, and 40-plus attempts to derail it have denied the GOP, has wreak havoc among the party’s rank and file, and even within it’s upper echelons. It’ll fail as it did before. Much less talked about is the unnecessary, wasteful, and downright cruel, costs such futile exercises of ego-boosting politics imposes on the growing majority of Americans who have been increasingly depleted of even the most basic needs to survive, never mind of maintaining a semblance of dignity. We may be in for a long, cold winter of high energy bills, delays in the processing of benefits, Veteran service cuts, slowdowns at emergency care wards, food assistance programs and work safety inspections, and don’t even mention parks, zoos and museums, among other indirect consequences. Apparently that one thing that’s ironically saved us in the past, even if we can’t remember the last time we boarded a plane, won’t be able to save us again: the shutdown won’t affect air traffic controllers. God forbid it; that’d have grounded politicians in Washington and perhaps force them to end it. If you say we’re out of luck, we’d say that you ‘ain’t seen nuthin.’ Confusion over health coverage, or how to choose one if you, like the majority, do not have a regular job, along with feeling hopeless about that callous, fully-covered Washington bunch we’ve elected, may mean little overseas. For largely transcending our arguably parochial discussion over health care for Americans, and those who stand in the way of it, is the latest assessment report on climate changes, its fifth, issued by the IPCC, an international scientific panel set up by the United Nations. In it, over 200 authors and editors, plus 600 other contributors, concluded for ‘unequivocal’ evidence of severe man-made climate change, with implications to billions of people around the world, as global sea levels will be rising at a much more accelerated pace than in the past 40 years. Even though denial of such evidence, spearheaded by many of same characters now threatening to eliminate $40 billion in social programs that help the poor, has been a rigged, and heavily sponsored charade (see Koch, brothers), it’s the categorical statement that we’re the ones doing it what adds to it. As the report proves with rigorous analysis that the culprit is the massive among of CO2 and other greenhouse gases that we throw daily into the atmosphere, it once again leads us all to a familiar smoking, in fact, smog-loaded gun: our addiction (and loathed self interest) in fossil fuels. But before you consider that ledge, the report also points to practical ways that we can and absolutely must do to reset the doomsday clock, and head into another direction. Just like we did it in the 1960s about nuclear power. Ops, sorry, we shouldn’t have said that in the age of Fukushima. Still, there are ways but they definitely require whole governments, not just individuals, despite the fact that they, and us, indeed count. We can’t imagine what we’d hardly even know about this issue by now hadn’t been for green activists’ efforts and grassroots environmental movements. That’s what makes this foolish, if it wasn’t also tragic and borderline criminal, takeover of our political process to advance causes that polls disavowed several times over, so wrong in so many ways. Because it’s time and resources wasted that could be used to actually do something for everyone. Perhaps if millions of dollars weren’t being thrown at the unrealistic task of defeating what yet another set of powerful interests is entrenched to defend, and in this rare case, so is some almost 30 million uninsured Americans, we’d be paying better attention to President Obama’s environmental record. Because just as we speak, the administration is rumored to be working a backroom agreement that may lead to the approval of the Keystone XL project, for instance, a 1,700-mile long oil pipeline that will carry catastrophically pollutant crude from oil sands in Canada to Gulf Coast refineries. Keystone which, even before being fully operational, has already caused major spills in its path, would be another step in assuring that the U.S. energy policy remains firmly hijacked by oil and gas interests, along with the already devastating hydraulic fracturing probes going on in the American soil. It’ll be a week of a lot of political grandstanding, shallow media debates over whose responsibility is to give up on the well being of millions, and the general chaos that follows any new policy initiative of late. What will go on way beyond next Monday, however, is the climate change issue. And that’s something that places Americans interested in doing something positive for the planet side by side with other citizens of the world, who most likely also have to deal with heartless governments and financial concerns way above their walks of life, but still believe that it’s a fight worth having. Honestly, even though Colltales has signed hundreds of petitions and side up with progressive forces demanding change in Washington, we all know where that all led us. That doesn’t mean we should stop joining them. But there are other things we can also do with our scarcely available time. Since the fight to preserve the Earth, and find ways of derailing this speedy train to ecological disaster, is one we take on behalf of peoples and species not yet even born, even some redundant proselytising may come in handy. There can no longer be doubts about who’s causing global warming. So there can’t be any doubts either about who may be able, if at all possible, to reset this countdown. Sure it’d be great if we all had elected better leaders. Absent of that, obviously, it may be all up to us, that is, if we really give a flying, er, hoot? about the children of our grandchildren. Have a safe October.

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9/23/2013 The Company We Keep, Colltalers

When Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff speaks at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly tomorrow, the thorny issue of the NSA spying on her private conversations as well as on high-level affairs of Brazil, will likely get a fresh paint of rebukes and recriminations. After all, just a few weeks ago, she was forced to cancel her official October visit to the U.S. in response to an enormous political fallout that followed the revelations, made public out of the secret documents leaked by former CIA contractor Edward Snowden. More about that in a moment. In fact, President Obama is probably bracing for a beating at the U.N. this week, as a host of countries seem very unhappy with the way the U.S. is treating its former allies, and almost recklessly vying for fights no one is sure it can handle on its own, or extricate itself soon enough. Thus, before even leaving South America, take Bolivia, for example. This past week, President Evo Morales said his country will sue the U.S. for ‘crimes against humanity,’ no less, for allegedly preventing Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from flying over Puerto Rico on his way to China. This gesture of regional solidarity, which would certainly have the late Hugo Chavez wringing his hands with glee, can also be traced back to the former contractor: in July, Morales’s plane was rerouted because the Obama administration suspected that it was carrying Snowden out of Russia. The U.S. never admitted it’d a hand on the incident, which caused a minor diplomatic ruckus, but French and Portuguese authorities did deny clearance for the plane to fly over their countries, forcing it to be held up in Austria. And the Department of Justice had in fact made public its intention to call on countries that would dare offering help to Snowden, and Bolivia, for one, did just that. As did Russia, of course. Which confirms that perhaps unwittingly President Obama has been sowing bad blood at a frightening rate among countries that until recently were considered useful allies (or at least, no longer foes), and bullying behind the scenes others that refused to go along with the Pentagon’s wishes. The crisis in Syria seems to be exposing more than ever this arguably new reality: they, the countries and the wishes, have been multiplying lately. No major European power so far has supported the president’s threat to strike Syria, and even a ‘coalition of the willing’ now seems improbable. Even the U.S.’s ‘special friend,’ the U.K., toed the line and refused to endorse Washington’s war plans (and planes). That cut both ways, since P.M. David Cameron, who hasn’t found much love neither at home nor among his European counterparts, was counting on getting at least that done. Some invoked George W.’s nefarious legacy as the beginning of the end of global goodwill towards the U.S. For despite having had a rare moment of worldwide solidarity, following the Sept. 11 attacks, he took immediate steps to ignore allies and engage in a costly war on false premises. Something must be said, however, about President Obama’s own inability to pick the right fights, and align his agenda with that of his constituency, even considering the barrage of dishonest opposition he’s faced from day one. The president can add himself to the list of his own biggest foes. Now it’s as if the domestic shortcomings of his two-term presidency have started to spread out to his foreign and defense policies, and he’s been doing an exquisite job of looking and acting as autocratic and isolated as Dick Cheney, er, the Bush administration, when it comes to global relations too. Thus if the U.S. has been getting it from all sides (did we mention that Germany and France have all but abandoned the American ship of foreign intervention since the Iraq war, and that Angela Merkel’s win yesterday signals more of the same ahead?), one has to wonder: so who are our friends? And that’s when a grim prospect becomes a losing proposition, for many of the traditional political alliances, forged during the Cold War, have vanished or evolved into a whole new ballgame these days, where trade interests often take precedence over old-style politics. Economics being a slippery slope, it’s only part of the pragmatism of our times that many former strong commercial partners of the U.S. are also, well, jumping ship, in this case, to China. Brazil, for instance, has in the Asian mammoth, not the U.S., its biggest trade partner. Case in point, Egypt. Not only the U.S. has been consistently caught in the wrong side of the country’s complex politics for at least 40 years, but it’s also captive to supporting the Egyptian army as the only reliable protector of its commercial interests in the region, the Suez canal chief among them. Of course, no one ever mentions that big energy corporations hidden behind such self-interest-driven official policy, stand to gain a lot from U.S.-sponsored military-enforced security of facilities and trade in the area, despite contributing close to nothing for the overall effort. The case of Russia is also exemplary, in what it shows that the two countries remain effective commercial partners, even if not in a grand scale, but way better than during the Cold War anyway, while about their political relations, not so much, or rather, not at all. Actually, disastrously so. Other ‘friends’ of this special list include Saudi Arabia and Yemen and Ryhad, as everybody knows, bastions of democratic institutions and individual rights, plus a handful of dictatorship and regimes throughout the world, all reportedly extremely unhappy with the U.S.’s ‘hesitancy’ in Syria. With friends like that, it’s hard even to shop for new ones. Take Iran. If winds of change confirm what many hoped for so long, that it may veer towards a negotiated solution for its nuclear aspirations, how is the U.S. supposed to walk back its past inflammatory rhetoric against it? Worse, what of the small elephant in the desert, Israel, or rather, its current leadership and its own vituperative stance against Iran? Would this other ‘special relationship’ suffer an irreversible turnaround? For it’s not that it hasn’t already dug hole after hole for the burial of any peace process. But let’s pause here, for just like the U.S. foreign policy, we’ve been all over the place. Colltales also enjoys a special relationship of its own, with Brazil, as our readers know. That being said, it’s fair to expect that President Dilma, as she’s known at home, will hardly speak only about the NSA. Since she also took a beating of her own a few months ago, with massive street rallies against perceived corruption in her administration, just as she was about to sail through a reelection campaign, she most likely will use the occasion to appear resolute and viable to her own constituency. In other words, as with many U.N. speeches, hers may also be a combination of two parts grandstanding against vague threats to sovereignty, and one part striking of the same one-note samba of political expediency, calls for universal peace, et and al. Pardon if we don’t sound impressed. As for the U.S., and being extra careful not to rehash old cliches about friendship and solidarity, the main challenge to President Obama may be to convey the idea that strength is on flexibility and willingness to collaborate, and not on a renewed gathering of weapons and boots, out for blood. Just as Obamacare, the president’s most viable horse in the domestic race, is being led to the gate, and Republicans getting ready to re-stage the hijacking of national interests in the name of their defeated-in-the-polls agenda, no single U.N. speech will be one destined to turn all tides around. In other words, his, and Rousseff’s, are sure to be rousing, and little else. But the gathering of many former friends, the glaring absence of real ones, the ‘evolving attitude’ of old foes, and the intense maneuvering to get the Security Council to agree on anything, will surely bring their own rewards. Even though the U.N.’s long lost its patina of peace-promoting body, compromised by too many instances of rubber stamping or just plain inaction, the fact that the U.S. was forced to resort to it may be the best silver-lining yet coming out of that tragic and tempestuous cloud hovering over Syria. It’ll be also a good time for President Obama to find out what kind of friends he’s been cultivating all along. Hopefully, he’ll have better clarity than when he picked his economic team out of the very industry they were supposed to monitor, all the while turning into a typical fair-weather friend for the rest of us. Have a great one.

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9/16/2013 A Place to Rest Our Sore Hopes, Colltalers

The myth of American exceptionalism suffered, this past week, a severe blow. Shockingly, it wasn’t because of some cumulative effect what study after study has demonstrated, that the U.S. is no longer the nation where values such as egalitarianism and individual sovereignty are untouchable. Neither was the indignation we read and heard so much lately in the media about the mind-boggling jump in U.S. income inequality in the past five years, or the statistical data showing that poverty levels have risen for the fourth consecutive year. If you know all about that, you’re indeed depressed. But no. The source of this misguided discontentment came from a NYTimes article penned by a former KGB officer who’s been Russia’s strongman for 13 years. He could’ve been any of the tyrants we’ve been supporting all over, except that we kinda hate him, even if he’s been voted into office. Also, this being Vladimir Putin, with his special knack to irk American officials and his hands at the helm of a former ally-turned-into-formidable-foe in the post WWII years, the suitors of our prefab patriotism see the situation as an affront to our most dear traditions of not ever being talked back to. The much ado is, of course, about not much. Central to Putin’s Op-Ed piece was an appeal of sorts against a U.S. military strike, and possible long term involvement, in Syria, an act of aggression that unlike others in the past, has already been vigorously opposed by the American people. That Putin joined a number of Republicans in Congress, plus liberal and progressive forces, grassroots anti-war movements, and a majority of common citizens, indeed makes for an interesting crowd sleeping together for this issue. But we dare not to anticipate how they’ll see eye to eye in the morning. For sure, Republicans refusing to go along with Pentagon hawks in any given issue is anathema. But underlying their stand, lies a deep-seated will to sabotage President Obama, so there’s no surprise here. Unless, of course, you mention a certain Nobel Peace laureate and his warmonger role of late. But let those particularly vicious dogs, if hardly sedated, lie for now. What really irritated the self-appointed guardians of our the-world-is-our-shell arrogant attitude was the fact that, halfway through the article, Putin touched the subject of American exceptionalism, and how ‘extremely dangerous’ it may be to tell people how exceptional they are. He should know. His regime’s sent to jail or to a life of harassment countless of such individuals, some even rich, others who happened to be gay, and anyone on the other side of any political issue dear to the Kremlin. In the current situation, as usual, he’s just managing to manipulate the issue to his own gain. That’s what wealthy bastions of American capitalism, and their suit of blowhards and acolytes, couldn’ bear: that a powerful despot could actually make a populist point and find resonance with so many Americans, to whom such bastions could as well live in Russia for all they care anyway. For an early 20th century concept, that equated ideals engraved in the U.S. Constitution to a universal set of humanistic goals, regardless of class or race or religious differences, which by most accounts, is sadly in its death throes, exceptionalism turned into the ugly contemporary myth that the U.S. has the god-given right to bomb whoever it wants, the poor, the unemployed, the dispossessed, even the agnostic be damned. No wonder most Americans were skeptic about the official rhetoric that a proposed air strike of Syria would be the ‘humanitarian’ right thing to do, even if it’d be obvious that hundreds or even thousands would immediately perish with such ‘help.’ Never mind who we’d be aiding in such scenario. Sunday also marked the five years of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, when Wall Street firms singled-handedly drove the world’s financial system to the brink and started the Great Recession. Even if Lehman is gone, every other bank involved is doing really well nowadays, thanks for asking. Boldfaced names of the Wall Street big swindle of 2008, rescued by a taxpayer-funded government program they have since paid back, are even more incredibly profitable, and even retired CEOS, who mismanaged resources and the lives of millions, will never have to work a day in their life. Or spend time in jail, apparently either. Promises of regulations, of enforcing investors’ (and common citizens) rights with a series of proposals to reign in costs of mortgage loans, banking and credit card rates, and executive compensation are not even promises anymore. Let’s face it, we’ve been had. About those millions. They’re are the core of those falling fast through the cracks of our social networks, severely impaired by austerity measures that seemed to have been applied only to working classes and have all but saved pennies. But there’s also another anniversary to be marked ahead. Tuesday will be the Occupy Wall Street movement’s second year of existence, and if some talk about the ‘terrible two’s,’ and others insist in its fading from the media’s headline news, it remains the only popular movement to address the impunity and jail-free card that bankers have clearly purchased. In two years, the leaderless loose-coalition of the aware did find relevance at key moments, adjusting its non-rigid agenda to fast-moving events, such as the Hurricane Sandy, and public discussions, as in the increasingly levels of indebtedness by students and the society at large. More than a cultural phenomenon, captive to a few industrialized nations, the OWS proved inestimable to bring to discussion the inherently dishonesty of our economic system, which is rigged in favor of a minority that grew astonishingly wealthy, even when most of everyone else fell apart financially. And of course, for creating the deceivingly simple, headlines-friendly ’99ers’ adage, which by now has overcome its initial hyperbolic restrain, that of defining the unemployed, near-poverty, and under served in this country, to reach global resonance as the clearest way to illustrate income disparity. Thus in such calamitous times for so many, it’s almost outrageous to be outraged by what some political leader we never particularly cared much about is saying about us or doing with his finger, all the while letting our own citizenry feel they’re under siege, penniless in a 24h-surveillance state. It’s even worst to lecture the world on its supposedly wrongdoings, while invested in a lethal high-stakes game of political grandstanding and pseudo-moral superiority. As is also depressing that it’s all happening under the watch of President Obama, a man who we voted for and, oh never mind that. It can’t be about names anymore. We’re way past the agony of watching Sec. John Kerry, a decorated combatant, once instrumental to ending the Vietnam war, now engaged in playing into the Pentagon’s hand, leading us to what may be yet another senseless conflict, boots on the ground et all. Of Putin’s skillful manipulation of public opinion; billionaire bankers enjoying their off-shore accounts; wealthy politicians doing the bidding for the military complex; an administration that has been painfully tone-deft to the wishes of most Americans, an economy that seems to be recovering along the lines of the stock exchange, and pretty much stagnant for those who can’t afford being in it, it can’t be too hard to choose the OWS. As far as good news, or at least, hope to be cherished, we can’t think of no other date to be celebrated with some pride as the Sept. 17th. After all, way before Colltales was around, this month has been plagued with some of the worst about war, terrorism, recession, and unemployment. At least the inception of a peaceful movement that’s still open for democratic debate and invested in change for the rest of us should deserve our utmost respect. On Tuesday, there’ll be few places more charged with hope than Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan. If you’re around, stop by and say hello.

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9/9/2013 Two Tuesdays in September, Colltalers

In November of 1970, while most South and Central American nations were already battling a wave of military coups that would ultimately break the spine of the region’s incipient democracies, Chile elected Salvador Allende, a socialist with an agenda of social reforms and industry nationalizations. Despite ample popular support among working Chileans and in intellectual and artistic circles, within three years we was facing insurmountable challenges from political elites and business leaders, fully engaged in finding ways of ousting him, even if it’d take external help to make it happen. Such crucial help came from the U.S., who saw in the budding socialism sprouting at the tiny country shadows of a Cuban style revolution, which of course it was not. As docs now show, Sec. of State Kissinger’s behind-the-scenes maneuvers was all that Chilean militaries needed to stage the coup. Thus in 1973, at the early hours of another Tuesday 9/11, armed forces bombed and stormed the presidential palace La Moneda, killing Allende and starting Latin America’s bloodiest dictatorship to date, whose main architects have either died or have yet to face the court of the law for their crimes. Fingerprints of U.S. intelligence services were also all over the car-bomb assassination of Chile’s former ambassador Orlando Letelier in Washington, three years and 10 days after the coup. For Chilean agents contracted for his murder wouldn’t have had a chance without tacit support from the CIA. The official count of political assassinations orchestrated by the Pinochet regime stands now at over six thousands, plus an unknown number of desaparecidos. But just as in Argentina and other nations, such estimates are far from offering a reliable account of the real number of the dead. Despite the particular brutality of the regime, though, and its attempts at erasing records of that dark period, Chileans never really stopped pushing for a return to democracy, which came symbolic full circle with the election of a former activist who’d spend years in exile, Michelle Bachelet, in 2006. Proving that much of what happened during the state-sponsored terror that Chileans had to endure is yet to come to light, there’s been disturbing and also encouraging news about two respected intellectuals of the period, the poet Pablo Neruda and less internationally known songwriter Victor Jara. By a request from his family, the body of 1971 Nobel of Literature laureate Neruda has been exhumed recently, to quell persistent rumors that he was killed by an undercover agent, instead of dying of cancer, as it was reported at the time. The results so far, however, have been inconclusive. And last week, the family of Jara, possibly the most famous artist assassinated in the early days of Pinochet’s rule, has filed a lawsuit in a Florida court, against one of the army officers indicted last year by a Chilean judge in his death, who’s been a U.S. resident since the early 1990s. Wednesday, when most Americans will mark the anniversary of the terrible terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there will be once again much room for teary recriminations against the usual suspects, along with the depressing parade of politicians grandstanding about the carnage for their own interests. It’s quite possible, though, that for the families of those who perished, or of the first respondents, many still fighting to get health coverage and compensations they deserve, and the thousands related to troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, our official response to the attacks, the date means something else entirely. Apart from the personal dimension of those still reeling, who wish it all would simply go away, at least the phony and cruel manipulation of their intimate losses for vengeful purposes and gains, there may be a significant amount of humility to be learned from these two great tragedies. May we consider also their implications to a larger narrative of governments being co-opted by commercial interests and waging unjust wars on our behalf, successfully conspiring against democratically elected leaders, while propping up authoritarian regimes and blocking any dissent. We’d humbly suggest that we reserve this Sept. 11 to keep to ourselves and friends and family, and avoid these scheduled pre-fab pseudo-somber ceremonies, set mainly to erase any questions about the ‘official version,’ and reinforce a toothless, idealized picture of a past that never was. It may be our best opportunity yet to show the disconnect between our expectations for a better world, following the heavy price thousands of North and South Americans paid, and the absolute lack of results we got in return for endorsing an strategy based on weapons and political assassinations. Both Chile and the U.S. survived those events and many others before and since, because of the relentless desire of Chilean and American citizens for peace and understanding, and never because of the wars and massacres and assassinations and institutionalized terror orchestrated in their names. It’s just relevant that in the eve of yet another attempt at manipulating public opinion in favor of a multi-billion-dollar military adventure, one bound to cause more killings of civilians and sacrifice of public servants, that we turn inward and ponder of what can we do differently this time around. At Colltales, we see no other way of paying respects to those who were betrayed in their ideals of democracy and peace, 40 years ago south of the equator, as well Americans who’d never endorse the annihilation of entire villages in faraway corners of the world, just so to avenge the brutal demise of their loved ones. Let’s not let this one out, let’s insist and demand for peace once and for all. Have a great one.

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9/2/2013 This Can’t Be Happening Again, Colltalers

The Obama administration’s case for striking Syria is so clumsy, so devoid of popular and ally support, so fraught with nonsense at its core, that even if Congress gives the go-ahead for military action, this may stand as one of the president’s worst decisions, right up with the many campaign promises he’s failed to fulfill, and in line with a now long list of opportunities to promote peace in the world that he’s missed. Because, let’s get something right up front: this is the 2009 Peace Nobel laureate that we’re talking about here, given such a high honor for his ‘extraordinary efforts’ to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. With all due respect, we really hardly knew ye, had we? The case for striking Syria is wrong because it’ll kill people under the pretext of saving them. Just like in the Gaza strip, civilians caught in the crossfire of this multi-directional war have no way to run, hide, or duck. We’ll simply be adding more bombs to the ones already showering on them. The case for bombing Syria is also flawed because we don’t even know who it’ll benefit, but most likely it’ll include some of the fiercest U.S. enemies, both powerful haters of the so-called ‘western lifestyle’ embraced by Americans, and a few groups listed as terrorist organizations in our own hit list. The case for entering the Syrian conflict is indeed a mistake because we’ll be stepping alone into someone else’s fight, and likely be blamed in the end for the misery and carnage that’s already going on in streets of Damascus, Alepo, Homs, and beyond. Plus, we have no ticket to get out of there either. That, plus widespread protest by Americans against the U.S.’s involvement in yet another war in a distant land, at the heart of the Middle East, no less, while at home the economy has hardly showed that it’s ready to crank up enough jobs to rescue millions out of poverty, seems downright insane. What are they thinking? That we can ask again to the same 1% of the population to stretch their sacrifice and save face for our military, and go get slaughtered and come back in pieces to fall through the cracks of an overwhelmed Veteran system that’s already been failing our troops for a decade? For who’d say, with a straight face, that a couple of airstrikes will ‘teach a lesson,’ and beat al-Assad into the negotiation table. Most likely, ground troops would follow it and so on and so forth. By the way, the opposition is not nearly unified enough to sit together, let alone show up for peace talks. About that opposition, now endowed by the endless wealth of one of the most brutal regimes in the region, Saudi Arabia: even that the conflict itself remains relatively locked within Syria, vicious infighting and political assassinations have been reported in the north and spilled across its borders. Worse, Pentagon hawks seem tone deft to the implications of who is fighting whom there, making this foul stew, overflowing with calls for bloody revenge by Hezbollah and al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, and multiple Jihadist splinter groups, enough to sicken guts and spin heads. What’s missing in all this talk about ‘helping Syria’ is what of the over a million refugees, and counting, to whom no plan has been formulated, or is on the way. Unlike the 100,000 already dead, who may lack even a proper burial for months to come, help is still possible to this staggering calamity. That’s when the U.S. could become a factor. Because, beyond the ones who got away, which is being kind when referring to people who had to leave families and country and life for a tent in the middle of the desert, there’s also those trapped in the battlegrounds that took over their neighborhoods. Who says that we can only be of help when we bring our weaponry and our contractors and our military experts, all asking for more ammo and more bombs, and more drones and all that? If we really want to help Syria, we must attend to those who’re not given any choice in this fight. We either exercise a humanitarian role, or no role at all. For we’ve lost our moral authority to condemn governments’ use of chemical weapons when the CIA helped Saddam Hussein use sarin gas against Iranian troops in the 1980s, according to the agency’s own recently declassified docs. Talking about Iraq, it’s no small measure of disappointment that it shares something else with the present situation: once again, we’ve been forced to witness the sad spectacle of a war hero doing the bid for an attack based on false premisses. Sec. of State John Kerry, meet Sec. of State Colin Powell. Both will be judged by history but our guess is that their legacy, even their one-time bid to become president, will be greatly tarnished in the light of what they’ve done for the governments they’ve served, way after, and despite how honorably, they’ve fulfilled their duties to the country. We also pity the American people whose only hope now lies with Congress, a prospect, or a predicament, that haunts even the most level-headed voter. And if you think that Republicans, who’ve been relentless at sabotaging President Obama’s every move, may be getting ready to have another go, think again; although pleased he’s seeking support for the decision he’s already made, some say he doesn’t need ‘535 members’ to enforce it. It’s doubtful he’ll listen to contrarian arguments made now by politicians who just a few months ago were pressuring him into bombing Syria. But he should definitely pay much attention to the increasing clamor of the streets. Or perhaps consult the NSA; we hear they really listen to people. At Colltales, we join hundreds of thousands of Americans, Syrian-Americans, Vets, peace organizations, bloggers, grassroots activists, along with millions around the world, to say, ‘President Obama, hands off Syria,’ at least until we have a clear path to help promote peace. Have a great one.

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8/26/2013 When Ideas Can Do Without Leaders, Colltalers

In just a few weeks, the Occupy Wall Street movement reaches its second anniversary, still seeking to bring to justice the financial industry’s big wigs who caused the estimated $22 trillion meltdown of the global banking system of 2008. It’s been a bumpy ride, to say the least though. It’s premature to draw a balance of the movement just yet, but one sticky point, apart from the fact that no CEO, or CFO, or any other Wall Street chief of this or that, has been tried so far for possible malfeasance, is the issue of how much a movement depends on its leaders. An issue that may be moot for the civil rights movement as it marks Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s rousing speech, 50 years ago Wednesday. Rallies and another March to Washington over the weekend have driven the point that we’re still tragically short of racial equality even after all this time. Less discussed, but perhaps equally painful, is the fact that the movement hasn’t produced a leader of his magnitude, or Malcom X’s, for that matter, two polarizing but complementary figures whose assassinations may have derailed for several decades the ideals they embodied. We bring this up because one of the most piercing, albeit not fair, critical assessments of the Occupy movement, is the staunch resistance by its ‘conductors,’ for lack of a better word, to embrace and invest a leader or leaders with a mandate to speak in the name of the movement. Not coincidentally, such approach has its biggest defenders in some of the movement’s most charismatic figures, which we’re not crazy to mention by name here. The idea of someone having ‘authority’ to organize even a list of demands for the majority was always a non starter. Many see in the refusal to follow traditional hierarchical venues for organizing the source of a splintering process that may have threatened to defeat the group’s ability to act. Others see it a source of strength in such strategy and cite the Strike Debt and Occupy Sandy as examples of the movement pursuing independent, and equally progressive, agendas, which arguably wouldn’t be possible if it’d remained a solid block. Nevertheless, the fundamental worth of the Occupy Wall Street’s rise has been already achieved: bring to national debate the unaccountability of a whole industry with so much leeway into government policy as to literally use it as a get out of jail card, even as it pickpockets taxpayers. Still, when we see the ‘godfication’ of Dr. King and the distance of his message from the reality on the ground of inner city America and the monstrously unequal race relations in this country, as every statistics have shown, from jail populations to unemployment and poverty, one can’t help it but think what did they really kill on that April 45 years ago? How come the myth survived but not much of the man’s ideas? There seems to be an almost wise resistance against placing the hopes and possible agenda of a whole group or ethnicity or race or lifestyle choice or whatever we need to push forward, in the hands of a single, necessarily flawed human being. Who can blame such weariness? The world’s full of these cynical figureheads and their catastrophic betrayals and manipulation of their people, driving them to unspeakable mass carnage, and we’re not just talking Middle East here, but yes, you can name Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia, Yemen, you know them all. The assassinations of Yitzhak Rabin, Rafic Hariri, and Benazir Bhutto, to name but three, have in effect derailed perhaps the greatest chance that Israelis, Palestinians, the Lebanese and the Pakistanis had in recent years for advancing their century-old desire for peace and stability, even though no one could completely vouch for their integrity as politicians or ability as leaders to fulfill their peoples’ aspirations. To prove that the issue is at the center of modern mass uprisings, even of the non violent variety, one of the first assertions coming from the surprising rallies that took over the streets of Brazil this June, was that the protesters refused to name a leader or a political cause for their movement. Apparently, as a first matter of principle, it was crucial for participants to detach themselves from traditional power structures. No wonder, charges of behind-the-scenes manipulation by an elite of former political operatives, with an invested interest in destabilizing the current party in power, were immediately leveraged, in what may have been yet another form of political counter-maneuvering as well. The thousands of Brazilians who still occupy neighborhoods, albeit with less frequency now, deny any affiliation, just as the Occupy here and in Europe, refuses to form permanent alliances with unions and other grassroots movements, mindful such associations could empty their own M.O. In the end, it’s not easy to pinpoint where they may gain strength or weaken from such a strategic choice. Dr. King, of course, as any of the leaders we’ve mentioned, is a far more complex character than history and the myths surrounding his march, however they overall wound up helping the civil rights movement, give him credit for. Thus, before we forget, he would definitely be more effective having survived all attempts against his life, than as a martyr, as he’s treated now by the media and the establishment. Which has been all along, the whole problem of glorifying the rhetoric over what no set of words can etch into reality: actions. That’s why the recent assault into the Voting Act, for instance, can cause more damage to the future of democracy in this country, than even one of the greatest speeches such as “I Had a Dream” can do to keep the ideals of the civil rights movement, and of race relations, alive. There are many sides of this ‘chicken and the egg’ quagmire. But make no mistake: when forces of darkness target a leader for execution, their political calculation, that beheading a movement is the fastest way to do the more damage, is usually proven right. No ideal can persevere without people supporting it, and no leader comes out of thin air to take on the helm. They depend on each other. But for all the apparently spontaneous nature of some mass uprising, such as the so-called Arab Spring for example, the convergence of so many different visions for what’s best for everyone often requires someone, or at least a well-defined set of principles, to move forward. That so few are willing to viscerally commit to lead, and many of those who do either are corrupt, or get killed, or both, may speak volumes about how the gap between the masses and the power capable of changing their fate has grown so wide in these 50 years. As for those bemoaning President Obama’s leadership flaws and diminishing inspiration to black Americans, despite well intended efforts and orator gifts, let’s let history run its course. And hope that in his long life, he fulfills at least some of the hopes he once arouse in all of us. Have a safe week and stop by at Colltales as often as you like.

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8/19/2013 We Are the Stories They Told, Colltalers

The Committee to Protect Journalists has just put out a grim slideshow of the 1,000 newspeople who have been killed since 1992, while covering armed conflicts around the world. Even such a high number, though, however unacceptable, fails to convey the tragedy and heartbreak behind it. More to the point, the significance of this figure lies on what it says about the brutal times we’ve been living in. It’s almost foolish to decry the absolute contempt contemporary warring factions reserve towards those risking their lives to bring us, the precious few, a front view of the carnage. Many would also identify another layer of complexity, when checking such sad records: news personnel who cover wars, as enlisted forces, had at one point or another a choice in the matter, unlike the innocent civilians who’re caught in the crossfire and treated as legitimate targets. Still, whether newspapermen or war correspondents from yesteryear had it harder than our contemporaries, the Geneva Convention notwithstanding, or that it takes a certain type of individual to choose to report while literally bullets fly by, the even sadder truth is that most of these stories are either falling on deaf ears or failing to move us. What these 1,000 documented cases attest is to a larger narrative, that of conflicts being defined by their impersonality and seemingly random violence, a constant of mass slaughter so often and so savage to go straight to our unconscious mind, never stopping at the brain’s reflection centers. As the killing is performed by an unmanned flying executioner, annihilating from existence entire communities we never knew existed, in the name of causes we can’t comprehend, it’d be up to journalists to tell the stories as if they were our own. Except when they become themselves subjects. That’s when we examine the faces on the slideshow, searching for traces of the kind of determination we’d expect from warriors and soldiers, or bewilderment we’re used to seeing from unarmed bystanders. Instead, we see us, who are neither trained to kill nor had our village visited by doom. These writers, reporters, photographers, cameramen, sound technicians, or simply people who got a recorder and followed a rally, somehow could be us because many may have wound up smack in the middle of gunfire in some faraway land out of a casual, fateful decision made long ago. You’ll find the expected veterans, scarred survivors of many a bomb explosion that befell those surrounding them, but also the not so predictable few, who one day had dreams of making a living telling heartwarming stories and the next, found themselves swimming in rivers of blood and fire. Many didn’t have to go to war to meet their fate, such as Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist critical of the Russian government who was murdered while leaving home in 2006. One of her alleged assassins for hire was just shot in the leg this past week, in a possible attempt at silencing him. You may pontificate here how dangerous some countries have become for journalists and how the insidiousness and impunity of their murders seem to compare to places like Syria and Egypt, for instance, where at least four newspeople have been killed in the ongoing massacre just the past week. But it’d be unfair to single out these countries, obviously under extreme circumstances, or even Russia, for being dangerous places to be a journalist. As matter of fact, the U.S. is arguably fast become one of the worst offenders when it comes to freedom of the press. We’re aware that the previous statement would’ve been an oxymoron at least on paper, only a few years ago. After all, no nation maintains a reputation as being the most powerful democracy on Earth for an entire century, without assuring freedom of the press to its citizens. But as the Obama administration unleashes its Justice Department after investigative reporters with a zeal fit for bloodhounds, many Americans are increasingly afraid that a devilish mix of truthfulness and legal trickery may be enough to mute and intimidate an entire class of professionals. With not so much as a flimsy handful of secretive interpretations of the Constitution, it’s argued and defend the case for a culture of indifference or fear of speaking truth to power, with a chilling impact not on what’s reported by the media, but what it’s deemed too dangerous for us to know. Not all journalists are whistleblowers, or selfless martyrs pursuing highfalutin causes. On the same token, not all stories that we most definitely need to know are told by media professionals, as the cases of Pvt. Bradley Manning and the CIA subcontractor Edward Snowden show. But it’s unquestionable that reporters, either offering a narrative in close proximity to carnage and conflict, or simply refusing to rubber stamp the official word about reality and history, remain vital and the mining canaries for the state of democracy of any given country, ours included. A quick review of the U.S.’s recent history shows how much that means, for there wouldn’t have been the Watergate scandal, if it weren’t for the pursuit of the case by two newspapermen, and we probably be still in Vietnam, hadn’t been for the Pentagon papers released by Daniel Ellsberg. There’s always a wider scope behind the killing of journalists, be it in action or as a consequence of stories they told, as much as when someone is indicted for an idea, or persecuted for pursuing facts. Such background pervades that sobering parade of faces published by the CPJ. For all talk about the demise of the press, and the potential for social networks to cover events in real time as they develop, news are only as relevant as their impact on our lives and future, and only a free, undaunted, flesh and blood human being is capable of expressing the whole spectrum of their unvarnished truth. Here’s to your next visit to Colltales and to a meaningful week ahead.

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8/12/2013 Let’s Hear It For Amarildo, Colltalers

The gruesome legacy of the Latin American military dictatorships that spread out during the 1960s has deeply scared the nations they terrorized. Some, such as Argentina e Chile, may be arguably coming to terms, albeit slowly, with that dark era. Others, like Brazil, are still to fully acknowledge it. It won’t be able to keep up with that for long, though. This week, newly declassified files from the period shed light on yet more details about the regime’s inner workings, including how Brazilian generals spied on their over the border neighbors. And then, almost on cue, one Amarildo Dias de Souza vanishes. The construction worker, a resident of one Rio’s biggest favelas, Rocinha, was abducted in July 14 by members of a police squad, as shown by recently released surveillance footage. The squad was raiding the slum, allegedly after drug lords, but Souza had no proven involvement with the traffic. The way that he disappeared, though, leaving behind wife and six kids, is an eerie reminder of the dictatorship’s favorite way of doing away with opponents of the regime. Even though the number of ‘desaparecidos’ in Brazil pales in comparison with other countries in the region, they did happen there too. We’ll get back to that in a minute. But let’s remind everyone that two months ago, when massive rallies erupted all over Brazil, few weren’t caught by surprise. Up to then, Brazil had been the textbook example of a functional democracy promoting prosperity south of the Equator. Not just the world was simply not prepared for what exploded in the streets of Brazilian cities, but President Rousseff has also lost all the assurance that her reelection a year from October is within reach. That, if it seemed then already won but still distant, it’s now far from secured, and approaching really fast. Ignited by the not too sudden realization that huge investments flowing into the country, in preparation for the World Cup next year and the 2016 Olympic Games, were being diverted from needed public works and towards mammoth and over budget soccer stadiums, Brazilians simply couldn’t take it anymore. The small Confederations Cup was good enough of a trigger for the widespread expressions of discontent, followed by acts of police brutality and repression that only helped fueled the loose movement. As with the Occupy Wall Street rallies, it refused to be driven by the traditional leader plus political cause flags. Despite having fallen off the main media glare, and to many, to disarray due to internal fractures over which direction to take, dissatisfaction still runs high, and public awareness of what really ails Brazil (whose growth seems to have chocked, generating economic and political instability) is still very much alive. Thus Amarildo, as the daily laborer is known, has been the galvanizer of the moment. His disappearance gives citizens a platform to demand answers from the police, which had denied any involvement until the footage surfaced, and the government, seemingly unaware of the scary shadow that his case projects. His is far from being a unique event: Rio de Paz, an independent agency, puts at a staggering 35 thousand the number of Brazilians who vanished since 2007 in connection with police raids and arbitrary arrests. That’s as many as the believed to have missed in Chile, for instance, in the hands of Pinochet’s brutal forces. So the only surprise about the secret files from Brazil’s EMFA, the armed forces’ command during the 1960s, is that besides conducting torture and intimidation, it also spied on its regional allies, with whom it had a working relationship to share intel about political activists fighting in other countries too. Brazilian generals, who at the time would pose with their counterparts of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Bolivia and so many others, to show a unified, and terrifying front, against the opposition, regardless whether they spoke Portuguese or Spanish, also kept close tabs on them all. Information about troop movements, arms, logistics, training, even how many horses los hermanos had prepared to help crush street rallies, were part of a constant flow of field surveillance, a collection of data that probably only assured the Brazilian militaries that they had nothing to fear from across the border. Sunday, several organizations led by Amnesty International gathered in Rio, to mark the 28 days since Amarildo was taken. Typically, following the peaceful act, gunfire was heard at Rocinha, which not coincidentally was one of the first raided by the Military Police in 2011 as a preparation for the World Cup. As elsewhere in Rio, São Paulo and other cities, the zeal to raze and reoccupy wide swaths of the urban favelas, in the name of security for the thousands of tourists expected for the games, has represented a boom for the private construction industry and local governments, and a disastrous homeless explosion. What the Rousseff administration doesn’t seem to get about the mass movements, unheard of since the 1980s, is that the more it sells an international image of progress and might, the more increases its own responsibility to assure the inclusion of all Brazilians left out of its model for prosperity. Whatever happened to Amarildo, rampant street violence, unrepentant corruption of law enforcement and governments alike, and the insistence in ignoring the dictatorship’s legacy of terror from which it emerged less than three decades ago are all part of what ultimately may trip Brazil over its own ambitions. The president, whose party has been under heavy artillery for failing to abide by the most basic ethical standards, must heed the warnings the streets of Brazil are sending. No amount of goals the Seleção may score will be able to mute public indignation about impunity. Stop by at Colltales and have a great week.

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8/5/2013 A Second Set of Books, Colltalers

With all the fanfare and gravitas of a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new bridge, an almost as rare an event, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has finally brought to trial a relatively minor figure of the great Wall Street swindle of the world’s financial institutions of 2008. As Fabrice Tourre, an ex Goldman Sachs bond trader, stands accused alone of misleading investors in a mortgage investment scheme, one can’t help but thinking that he’s just a convenient scapegoat, or rather a lamb offered to be slaughtered so to keep crowds artificially fed, and the status quo untouched. It’s all about drops in a golden-plated bucket. Tourre’s former employer, which paid the SEC a $550 million fine for the shady deal right after dumping his sorry behind, has just reported that it made seven times as much revenue in the second-quarter as in the same period last year, with a $1.86 billion net income. While Goldman along with most U.S. and European banks that caused the subprime mortgage crisis have since more than recovered, investors are still to recoup, if ever, some $1 billion they’ve lost in the adventure. Worse: the great majority of working classes around the world are not even within this picture. For now, though, this pro-forma show will have to do it, even though it is but a parcel of the disaster that ruined the global economy but that, at least for the sake of the perpetrators, was promptly averted by a rescue package put together by G-8 governments – and obviously unwittingly funded by taxpayers. Before we come to an all but sure conclusion that the SEC will administer a vehement pat on the wrist of Tourre, at least for getting caught when so many got away, his trial remains relevant for being a shamefully rare effort to punish those whose malfeasance rigged the system and have profited from it all. His expected mild admonition will be at par with the Department of Justice’s $200,000 fine imposed on Halliburton, for destroying incriminating evidence of its role in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which cost tens of billions to clean up; an amount that it takes 23 seconds to make. And yet, Halliburton’s admission of guilty of such a grave crime, and the ridiculousness of its fine, are not even the worst news coming from that tragedy: behind the scenes, its twin villain, oil giant BP, has been frantically maneuvering to deny compensation of claims from victims of the catastrophe. That includes families of those who lost their lives in the explosion, entire communities whose economies were devastated by the spill, and environmental organizations still knee-deep in their efforts to usher the recover of a large swath of wild marine life, as terminally depleted as it stands today, three years later. BP went as far as to ask a federal judge to shut down the $20 billion-plus settlement program it was forced to put in place, to compensate for its misdeed, alleging that some of the claims were fraught with fraud. Thankfully, it’s been losing that front as its request has been denied, at least for now. Then again, despite these slight contretemps, Europe’s second-biggest oil company, along with Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell, have all been consistently beating profit estimates, so it’s not that paying what they rightfully owe has been more than, well, a drop in the bucket. In the end, the corrupt trader, the guilty-as-charged Halliburton, and the slippery BP, share more than the week’s headlines, hurriedly rushed to the papers’ back pages. While on the surface they come from relatively different areas of the economy, they live and breathe the same toxic atmosphere of impunity. Their blatant amorality and accountability-proof way of doing business, and the absurdly innocuous punishment prescribed by the various government agencies in charge of protecting us against them, would be no match to the rigor and thoroughness applied to, guess who? whistle-blowers, for instance. (We concede: our attempt to avoid the subject has just suffered a major blow). Because it’s not lost to anyone standing by some decrepit bridge to nowhere, that while punishing white collar criminal behavior hasn’t had much track with the government, judgement administered to dissenters has been swift and brute. Pvt. Bradley Manning was found guilty by a military trial of a corollary of crimes, none yet proven to have caused personal harm to anyone, unlike the Wall Street crisis, and CIA contractor Edward Snowden, even though granted a temporary asylum by Russia, has in fact become grounded for life in that country. By the way, that’s something that would be inconceivable to any multinational corporation such as Halliburton or BP, for that matter. Haven’t somebody said that corporations are people too, my friend? Theirs, not ours, of course. As for Manning and Snowden, theirs are the saddest possible epilogue for two of the greatest examples in recent memory of individuals making choices out of morality and principle, and to the beat of great personal loss. After been eviscerated as traitors by the multimillion media concerns funded, not coincidentally, by some of their accusers, they’re now most likely headed to limbo, pariahs of their own land of birth, a fate no human being should have to endure. It’s almost as if they’ve been judged by a completely different set of books, one that prioritizes the state’s self preservation, over the right of its own citizens to disagree, and that’s willing to bend the rules and carve a whole new jurisprudence, if it sees fit to assure its supremacy over the individual. In the meantime, there’s a new vague threat for us to fill our hearts and minds with fear, we’re told: that in the near future, we won’t be able to find undergarments to wear. That’s right, today is Underwear Day, so be sure to wear a clean one. As for Colltales readers who’ve inquired: what embassy closings? We have no idea; lately, we’re trying not to follow what they call ‘the news.’ Have a great one.

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7/29/2013 Tips Are Not Optional, Colltalers

Hidden within the debate over the minimum wage in the U.S., which studies show, has lost so much of its value as to be unfavorably compared to the Great Depression, is the large segment of workers who earn even less than the current $7.25 per hour. Your waiter will be right with you. Without getting into the merit that, at such rate, a full time worker makes an average $15,000 a year, which is clearly poverty line-territory, what is often overlooked is the fact that the salary of most restaurant workers is made up of only a percentage of that minimum. The rest is compounded by their ability to earn tips, i.e., the kindness of strangers. We could get here into a full nuanced analysis of how this works in America, and pretty much nowhere else, where workers are paid not by their employer, but by the employer’s customers. But as the overall debate is dominated by broad, and often inaccurate, strokes, much of such argument would be wasted. For when a billionaire such as Charles Koch gets wide media exposure for disingenuously saying that even the existence of a minimum wage ‘hurts’ workers, and the Internet is abuzz with ‘independent’ voices arguing against tipping servers, we can see that nuance and accuracy are the first ones to go in this debate. Before we get to why paying, er, tipping your waiter is not optional, and that if one really wants to discuss the fairness of the system, stopping adding gratuities to your restaurant bill is most definitely not the way to start it, let’s quickly go back to the incredibly shrinking wages in the age of the billionaire CEO. A recent Forbes study found that some chief executives make over a thousand times their employees’ typical pay, in some cases, regardless if their company is making a killing in profits, or it’s actually tanking. When it comes to compensation package at the top, it seems, company performance is often not relevant. The greatest example, of course, was the financial crisis of 2007, which brought the world to its knees almost exclusively because a few dozen Wall Street banks and financial concerns rigged the system so much that, as W.B.Yeats would put it, the center could no longer hold. Everybody knows what came out of it: millions lost their savings, global unemployment spiked, economies of entire countries got ruined, and governments scrambled to print money and keep the system afloat. But no culprits were sent to jail, and in fact, most of them are now wealthier than ever. We didn’t want to get into any parable of malfeasance here, but as we see that most of those same financial institutions have recovered so well, with no little help from tax payers’ money, while millions remain either unemployed or paid less than they need to survive, if ever, we simply couldn’t help it. Recent studies, including one by the Department of Commerce, have shown that private-sector wage increases in the new century have been less than in any 10-year period since the WWII. As this has been a time for slashed government budgets, you know why workers couldn’t disagree more with Koch and his friends. Then, there’s an often invoked saying, attributed to Karl Marx but probably completely apocryphal, proposing that capitalism aims at rewarding labor with gratuities in lieu of decent salaries. Since tipping is part of the American culture, many feel that whoever came up with the thought had definitely a point. After all, how come the hospitality business is allowed to pay its workforce less than what the government mandate states, in itself a pittance as it is? At what point did the system break down so a whole category of professionals have been left out of even its flawed labor regulations? Again, any thorough explanation of the issue would immediately lose readers, even if it’d mention Herman Cain, the colorful one-time CEO of the other NRA, and his efforts to shield the restaurant business from the rules affecting every other U.S. employer. Suffice to say that they’re only part of the problem. Perhaps more disappointing are the other cogs of this big, unjust chain of lobby-driven regulations that ultimately force an entire class of professionals to literally hustle to compound wages through the whims of the tipping system. As such, most of those Internet voices cited above are wrong. Along with a few high-end restaurants, that now decided that tipping is wrong but still won’t increase staff salaries, many have expressed misguided opinions on the matter, considering that they should not be under obligation to tip waiters, which may be correct, because the service is bad, which is utterly wrong. What some choose to ignore is that, regardless of the service, which let’s face it, in reputable eateries all over big American cities, is mostly highly professional, these estimated three million workers have no idea how much, and if it’d even be enough, they will make at the end of the month. To say that those who seem all too eager to stop tipping may have only a vague, uneducated guess about who Marx was would be almost as unfair as complaining about a meal to the person who delivered it to your table, and not to those whose business is to make and sell them to you. We’re definitely for increasing the minimum wage in the U.S., which according to many economists, including Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, represents ‘good policy,’ and for ending the brutally unfair system of paying workers with tips. But while the first is facing fierce opposition from most likely some of the same CEOs who broke the banks in 2008 and still profited from the crisis, the second may be even harder to come to fruition since it’s been successfully ‘boxed’ inside the overall issue. In other words, we’re not about to stop tipping, if we can help it. And guess what? an informal and unscientific pool we’ve discretely conducted the other week, hinted that some of the best tippers are those who, themselves, don’t know how much money they’re going to earn, if any, at the end of the month. There’s probably a moral in all of that but we’ll abstain from spelling it out. But who knows, maybe things are really heading in the right direction. Even fast-food restaurant workers, which for the most part, can’t even count on tips to make up their meager earnings, have been organizing and finding ways of achieving a bigger piece of the profit pie enjoyed by their rich employers. So, perhaps the issue of tipping, and why it’s so absent-mindedly tossed as a synonymous for gratuity, is finally seeing the light of the day. Or heading to an incoming freighter, we’re not sure. If you do want to be certain, we only ask that you inform yourself before expressing an opinion. And for that, we thank you. By the way, to say thank you and be polite is nice and dandy, but is no substitute for your gratuity, and a 20% of the total will be greatly appreciated. Even though that’ll never be required from anyone spending time at Colltales, it’s all but mandatory for those who dine out or order in. Be nice, tip your server. ***

7/15/2013 What Your Last Message Could Be About, Colltalers

As you probably know, the world’s last telegram was sent yesterday from India, ending over 150 years of communications by telegraph. Apart from the sign-of-the-times, long-live-Instant-Messaging and all that, the fact got us imagining the content of at least one of those sent in the 11th hour of the system. Dear American friend, would go the sender, who’d proceed to ask questions about the U.S. and the world, ca. 2013. Being that a pretentious fool’s errand as it may, and before you wish us well, let’s just line up what would be some of the things we’d be commenting about at this particular juncture. He’d start it off broadly, inquiring about Ramadan, and why some hunger-striking prisoners of Guantanamo Bay are being force-fed as we speak. Wasn’t President Obama the one who’d promised to close down that shameful facility, and finally give some of its inmates their first day in court? Oh, by the way, he’d continue, what’s with the hunger strike by prisoners going on, even of the non-political kind? Is that true that in California 30,000 began refusing to eat a few weeks ago, and over 10 thousand are still at it, in protest against widespread solitary confinement and jail overcrowding? ‘Tell me my friend, why Americans are so vocal against the inhumane conditions that garment industry workers endure here in Asia, when the Immigration Bill currently being discussed in Congress would actually make way more difficult to underpaid immigrants to ever achieve full citizenship in the U.S.?’ Is that because the still high number of unemployed Americans are now moving to farms and to the back kitchen of restaurants across the U.S., to take over jobs traditionally done by immigrants, or is it because all of a sudden, your fellow citizens are no longer interested in eating your vegetables and fruits? Naively, the sender would wonder whether the estimated $39 billion cost of increased border security would perhaps be better spent in job programs and education, including illegal immigrants already working in the country, rather than feed the U.S.’s shadowy defense contractor industry. As he’s writing this, a news flash comes across the screens at the agency, about the Not Guilty verdict of ‘that son of immigrants,’ with a story of violence and dreams of becoming a law enforcer, who shot an unarmed black teenager he’d followed, despite being told not to by the police. The sender mentions how the president once said so eloquently that the victim looked just like a son of his would, if he’d one. The fact that the sender can’t grasp the division of power prescribed by the U.S. Constitution is understandable. Even the executive branch has problems getting it too, apparently. But wait, he muses out loud: wasn’t a black woman in Florida just sent to 20 years in jail for firing a warning shot against the man who was physically abusing her, and hadn’t she also invoked the twisted self-defense argument in the state’s law? He obviously can’t understand our country. Then again, he’s just as lost as the president himself, when it comes to comprehend the vast complexities of what’s going on in Egypt and Syria, in Turkey and Brazil. And then comes a low blow, when he brings up the multi-billion surveillance system recently uncovered by whistle-blower Edward Snowden. As it turns out, the sender did some studying on U.S. history, and can’t seem to fathom that only 40 years ago, similar revelations about the Vietnam war and a president’s lies, brought down the government, while Snowden is being hunted as a criminal for exposing an official illegal surveillance network. His segue is, naturally, Pvt. Bradley Manning, whose ultra-redacted trial is about to wrap up and, just as it happened with the hundreds of thousands of American troops overseas, has been reduced to the inner pages of American newspapers, and almost no word at all on the airwaves. At this point, the sender can be forgiven for not mentioning the strictest abortion law just approved by Texas, which will likely force countless American women, who’re not in condition to become mothers at this time, to cross the Mexican border. Or go back to back alleys, like in most of Asia itself. Or how the U.S. global leadership role in the fight against climate change and search and development of alternative sources of energy is being prop up by the same highly-subsidized coal, oil, and gas companies that are fully engaged in environmentally disastrous fracking and mountaintop removal mining. We should also thank our lucky starts that we haven’t heard much lately about the Palestinians and the Gaza strip, even though we know that their condition hasn’t improved a bit, or may in the near future. And that Nelson Mandela’s still with us. Boy, aren’t you glad this is the very last telegram? Following the secret intel agencies’ strategy of shifting focus away from the message and onto the messenger, to receive such a telegram would make us so depressed as to wish that Samuel Morse had never invented the whole thing or even sent the first one, all the way back in the 19th century. Which is silly, of course. The more we shove dirt under the carpet, the more it threatens to slide under us or turn into a monster sandstorm to choke us. So, with all respect to mailers who rushed to send out their precious regards, it’s doubtful that anyone has included this laundry list of discontent with them. Most likely, besides personal messages of care to loved ones, India’s residents chose to invoke some light entertainment fare, or the latest about cricket. We, for ones, would conclude it with an invitation to stop by at Colltales, and to never fully trust that we know much about this crazy world. Have a fine one.

Wesley

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7/8/2013 Passport to Unsteady Times, Colltalers

While Egypt’s political turmoil, and the incredibly disturbing sight of a uniformed strongman announcing the suspension of the constitution, have transfixed the world the past week, on home ground Americans have began to wise up to yet another scary reality: the existence of a parallel court system. Excuse us if that sounds like a Web conspiracy theory, for it’s not and we’d rather let those dogs lie. We refer, instead, to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which coming in the trail of the NSA revelations, is to secrecy what those Russian dolls are to each other: a secret inside a secret. Now, thanks to those revelations, we may be learning more about it. Its judges were named by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, and its decisions are beyond appeal. Oh, and yes, that’s the judicial body that endorsed the wholesale surveillance of Americans and foreign nationals in the past 10 years. Created under the assumption that the U.S. is under a hypothetical permanent attack from its enemies, its existence may last just as long. Only in 2012, its 11 judges have rubber stamped, er, approved all the almost 1,800 NSA spying requests. We’ll get back to it but first, a quick trek back in time. During the 1960s and 70s, a wave of military dictatorships turned most Latin American countries into places where democracy and the rule of law had all but died. Political assassinations, torture and ‘disappearance’ of opposition activists, human rights violations, vote rigging, were all too tragically common. At the same time, the U.S., and Europe for that matter, were enjoying both economic growth and ideological freedom. Mass movements for civil rights and the end of the war in Vietnam, for instance, wound up breeding a new citizenry, aware enough to oust a sitting U.S. president, for lying to Americans. So it’s nothing less than ironic to see that the new Millennium has brought an inversion of sorts. While economic stability has helped democratic institutions and the press to grow stronger south of the Equator, the U.S. has seen a steady questioning of democratic values dear to its history and traditions. It’s not that America has become a totalitarian state, not yet anyway, but there’s now more than ever clear class distinctions, for example, fueled by gaping social disparities, that all but compromise the constitutional notion of ‘all men are created equal.’ And a less than independent media, to boot too. Worse, there’s a sinking feeling that our electoral system is in shambles, and, for those born on the wrong side of the tracks, prosperity is no longer guaranteed solely on the fruits of labor. Plus, since Sept. 11, these have been tough times for libertarians and freedom of expression constitutionalists. Thus, while the Obama administration has issued a worldwide manhunt against Edward Snowden, the American accused of exposing secrets of the U.S. intelligence apparatus, four Latin American nations have offered him asylum, a judicial notion as ancient as the Greek democracy itself. That Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador, not too long ago, the paradigm of violent political instability and corruption, are now taking a stand towards the rule of law, and the necessary assumption for any righteous state, that one is innocent until proved guilty, is nothing less than startling. Meanwhile, the U.S. has revoked Snowden’s passport, putting him in the terrible company of traffickers, pedophiles, terrorists, mass murders, nazis, and small-time tax cheaters, in the present day, and at least one outstanding American in the past, the singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. That’s as far as we’ll go in our attempt to contextualize the politics of South, Central and North America, from the second half of the 20th century on. But we’re still in shock by what we’ve been witnessing, and about the fact that those leaked secrets are yet to be proven that they compromise our security. Which may mean, as they say, that the beatings (of individual rights to dissent and protest increased government monitoring of all citizens, with no court order or burden of proof to produce) will continue, until moral (that is, until there’s peace on Earth apparently) improves. Even if this past Fourth of July had not been marked by rallies in support of the Fourth Amendment, the one against surveillance without court order, there’s still reason to meditate on the wisdom of the Constitution that instituted three separate powers, to serve as check and balances to each other. It did not include, however, the existence of a shadowy group of judges, forming legal precedence on the go for government acts at least questionable in nature. That’d be as if we’d have to do away with freedom of expression, civil rights, and democracy, in order to ward off threats to them. In other, considerably less relevant, news, Colltales may undergo its own instability time, and we may not be posting articles as frequently as we’d wish. No one should lose any sleep over it, though, and we still appreciate you taking the time to support us. Have a great week, month, and years ahead.

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7/01/2013 Pride, Race & Good Old George, Colltalers

A busy week for the U.S. Supreme Court, with its predictable mix of good and bad rulings, was not enough to flush from the headlines the shocking, and still growing, revelations that a government intel agency has been spying on Americans for years. The media’s focus, however, is as misguided as usual, hyperventilating about the now known whereabouts of Edward Snowden, the man who brought up the NSA’s err, indiscretions, rather than investigating them further. And much remains to be probed, as it seems the surveillance was not limited to Americans. SCOTUS did manage to dominate the conversation, with two rulings: one, momentous, on the unconstitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, and California’s Proposition 8, both draconian laws that had prevented thousands of same-sex couples from marrying, and the other, shameful, striking down a key component of the historical Voting Act Rights, under a preposterous assumption. These two contradictory decisions have the power to frame at least part of how we want to see ourselves as a nation going forward. In that sense, the one doled out in the middle of Gay Pride Week celebrations is about tolerance and of a U.S. view as a more egalitarian society. The other one, not so much. For the group of justices currently manning the highest court of the land have added yet another catastrophically wrong decision on politics, along the lines of last year’s ‘citizens united’ ruling, which effectively allowed an obscene amount of secret money to drown the fairness of the American electoral system. This time, the court decided that the ‘country has changed,’ as Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority, implying that therefore it no longer needs to guarantee rights to black voters in the south, the focus of the law that had been in place since Dr. Martin Luther King’s times. By allowing states to change election laws without federal approval, the court may have set the clock back 40 years, a time when black demographics was barred from being a factor under an array of excuses. Part of the reason that the country has changed is exactly because the act outlawed such racist practices. Justice Roberts’s disingenuous statement hardly covers up the ruling’s real potential: to derail a process that has brought to the polling stations millions of black voters, i.e. Democratic Party voters, and as such, his court’s decision is not only questionable but indeed ideological. As an immediate consequence, Texas has already taken steps to enact its state ID and redistricting maps plan, two extremely strict measures specifically designed to make more difficult for impoverish communities and so-called minority citizens to exercise their right to vote. But not even the Supreme Court can disfranchise the black constituency, or prevent it from occupying its legitimate place in American politics, the Confederate past of this nation notwithstanding. It’s only deeply disappointing to see such a distinguished institution all but proclaiming that racial inequality is now over. Right on cue to the contrary, racism itself again stuck its ugly mug to the cameras, as the murder trial of the self-appointed vigilante, who shot dead unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, got under way, and, to a lesser extent, through the self-inflicted fall of butter-rich southern culinary matron Paula Deen. As we said, though, no amount of diatribes from that privileged body of justices can possibly supersede the enormous implications of what’s been coming out from the disclosed NSA files, the latest of which being that it bugged the European Union offices in DC. This may further complicate the disconnect between President Obama’s public persona – his storied run to office and earth-inspiring speeches – with his behind-the-scenes strong-handed endorsement of discretionary policies, from possible killing targets to killer drones to widespread surveillance of U.S. citizens. Ironically, a surprising sample of such disconnect happened in Africa, of all places, where he was chided by political leaders, not for the above reasons, main source of growing disenchantment with his administration at home, but from that very same SCOTUS ruling, on same-sex marriage, that he had no part of. On that account, it’s unfair to the president, who would have our vote any day against such leaders. They’re obviously steeped in ancient and obscurantist religious dogmas, and have no problem watching some among their own people being massacred daily by the mob because of their sexual orientation. Strange times. We’ve been so busy with the contradictions, and the disconnects, the good-cop, bad-cop playing, and the nightmarish vision of a whole security state invested in apprehending someone for giving away some of their tricks to the people who pay its salaries, that some of us may’ve forgotten something. A week ago tomorrow, it was Eric Arthur Blair’s 110th birthday, and his most famous novel, 1984, has been in everybody’s mind, since at least the moment we’ve learned that billions of calls and Internet links are being recorded every day. That’s right, old Georgie had warned us about that, back in 1949. His book has now risen to the top of best selling lists, higher than even when it was first published or ever since. Perhaps someone (other than a shady government agency) is also paying close attention. While we keep watch on Nelson Mandela, stop by at Colltales for a quick visit and have a great July.

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6/24/2013 A Big Man’s Last Breath, Colltalers

We write this as Nelson Mandela agonizes in a Pretoria hospital. We hope for the best but fear the worst. All the while, it’s hard to miss what he represented in the struggle against the apartheid and the white minority rule in South Africa, and what’s next for the recent global mass movements. As he reluctantly personalized his people’s struggle, from the agony of 27 years in prison, to the ultimate ecstasy of gaining freedom and going on to lead them towards democratic rule, millions of citizens in the streets of Brazil and Turkey ponder how to keep the pressure of airing their political and social grievances on, without a galvanizing figure such as his to lead the fight. Two important caveats before going any further, though: what happened in South Africa isn’t in any way what set the tone for the upheavals that followed it around the world. And having a central personality helping usher a new era is not always the best case scenario for those who long for it. More likely, Mandela was just a beautiful exception, hardly ever repeated (perhaps, there’s a parallel with Václav Havel and the events that led to the peaceful transition of former Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic). Recent history has also shown that the assassination, for instance, of a charismatic leader, all but decapitates the momentum for change. And it may even set back the time (Dr. Martin Luther King, or Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin come to mind, as but two sad examples) by several decades, if not ever. We should actually thank our lucky starts for having witnessed Mandela reach his old age as a still inspiring, still dignified symbol of good. In so many instances, the rule has been carnage, and the emergence of yet another authoritarian regime (Arab Spring, anyone?) following an idealistic turnaround. Still, as the Occupy Movement has experienced in the U.S. (following a similar pattern of its Spanish precursor), the lack of such focus, however flawed it may be, has presented a whole set of issues, in need to be dealt with before they become distracting factors, conspiring against any palpable achievement. Even that the Occupy’s decentralized strategy has led to positive ways for channeling popular mobilization, in the form of raising awareness about society’s indebtedness, for example, or hurricane relief efforts, the momentum it once had in the national debate about Wall Street malfeasance has been all but lost. We wouldn’t insult those still in the thick of it, finding meaning in less glamorized tasks as local community organization, or ongoing housing or citizenry projects, by saying that they are not as ‘sexy’ as being beaten, pepper-sprayed, or arrested by cops, as Brazilians and Turkish protesters have been lately. But those crowds are bound to slim down, as it’s hard to keep thousands in the streets for too long. At the end of the day, people have to carry on with their lives. Thus the race to identify demands that can be successfully translated in some sort of social adjustment and, hopefully, improvements, is already on. We don’t mean to sound pessimistic here, but there are other conspiring factors too. In Brazil, one of the groups that sparked the mass movements of protest against a bus fares hike, has decided to call off any new rallies, namely because most state governments have rolled back the hikes. The real reason behind the decision, however, may be the fear of widespread, escalating violence and, in yet another polarizing discussion going on in Brazil right now, a possible manipulation of citizens’ anger towards the country’s social inequalities by the its very much active extreme right. For the record, the violence has been ignited by a brutal and unprepared police force, and the undeniable tacit support of the Rousseff’s supposedly left-leaning administration. Many have also argued against such characterization of the president’s government, despite her own past as a leftist activist. The call for a reprieve in street rallies, whether heeded or not, may have sounded like a retreat. But to anyone familiar with Brazil’s relatively recent political past, the spectrum of the dark years of military dictatorship is still present, despite the patina of economic growth and dreams of becoming a world-class democracy. In fact, there have been worrying signs last week, calling for a return of the armed forces, supposedly, to ‘restore order.’ As for Turkey, there’s already been a positive result of the mass mobilization of the past month: Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s coalition, once deemed unbeatable, is no longer widely supported, as he may have missed a rare opportunity to show leadership when he sent the cops to crush dissenters. Leadership, in the form of extreme lucidity, self sacrifice and forward thinking is Nelson Mandela’s greatest legacy, a word that we fear will be overused to complete oblivion, once the great man is gone. But in his case, there’s no other way to put it. He went from prison to the presidency, which he gracefully agreed to share with a throwback puppet of the old regime, just so to get the ball rolling. His only term in office was another example of restrain, although age also played a role in his decision to step aside and let South Africa grow on its own. His physical departure may also be a relief for a man who saw his dreams of democracy for his country all but evaporate in face of the harsh realities of extreme poverty, hunger, and corruption by those he once supported. Even more embarrassing was the public display of avarice from his enlarged clan, who simply couldn’t wait before litigating to get a hold of his modest savings, which he’d diligently planned to serve for many of their generations ahead. No man could have lived up to the hype that bred the label ‘Mandela,’ appropriated by as many commercial interests as idealistic dreams. Not even Madiba himself. He did a pretty good job, though, even without trying and as unimpressed with the accolades as any hardened long-time inmate would. Crowds in Brazil and Turkey, and in Syria, Gaza, Cairo, Africa, of course, perhaps even Pakistan and China, and in the many corners of the world where his life and times resonate, may take a moment of pause to pay respects to Nelson Mandela today. If we’re to learn a thing or two about how change can be achieved, however imperfect and flawed it may be, and how violence can and should be stopped, so we may sit down with our enemies to search for a common ground, then somehow we must give credit to Nelson Mandela. Here at Colltales, we can think of only a handful of people whose lives have helped sustain our own, very precarious faith in our fellow humans. Once this warrior is gone, this world will simply be a lesser place, despite his lasting legacy and example. Have a great week, everyone.

Wesley

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6/17/2013 A Season of Untamed Fires, Colltalers

As new street protests irrupt, this time in Brazil, it’s becoming harder to keep track of popular unrest against corruption around the world. Which makes this either an exciting moment, if you need to learn something, or a fool’s errant, if it’s just to keep yourself abreast. The Turkish youth had already been leading the way for a while, and as violent confrontations are now escalating to unpredictable new heights, there are concerns that hard-core radicals may gain the upper hand in the government, and try to crush dissent one way or another. What began as peaceful demonstrations over the fate of a sliver of public space in Istanbul, has now spilled over and galvanized most of Turkey’s society. However, the much needed national debate that people in the streets are demanding may be short lived. While support for the protests grows amid grassroots groups and unions, which called for widespread strikes, much of the initial push for transparency and an increased role for citizens in decision making may be drowned out by the thunder of firepower. Of course, by most accounts, for as much as the situation in Turkey is serious, the tragedy in Syria is ‘the’ world crisis du jour, and the U.S. and other global powers made an unfortunate contribution to its worsening last week, when they signaled intention in stepping into the carnage. You can be sure that such a step will be disastrous for it most certainly will involve some heavy-handed combat gear, and not much else of anything, except increasing exponentially the number of weapons and corpses all around. We do seem to have completely lost the sense of what to do, other than nothing or bombing someone, in any and every kind of situation. For to seriously consider picking sides in this obscenely insane conflict, there must be a gargantuan cognition breakdown at the core of our foreign policy. In fact, it’s so clear that any type of military intervention would be catastrophic, that one doesn’t even need to play out the likely scenarios: they’ve already been played not too far from Syria: in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re all fully aware of how well that’s worked out so far for all parties involved. But the Middle East quagmire being what it may, there are some who’re truly shocked shocked with what’s happening in Brazil. And while skeptics may dismiss Turkey, for instance, as just another spring and summer fad, it’s actually winter in the Southern Hemisphere, so skeptics be damned. Half a world away, Latin America’s biggest economy was supposed to have the perfect antidote to a predictable, albeit still disquieting, slowdown of the virtual cycle of growth it had experienced in the past decade: two major global sports events, the World Cup next year, and the Summer Games in 2016. Because of the scope of such mega events, the rationale would go, a flood of investments and a renewed interest in Brazilian culture would certainly compensate for the impact of declining commodity prices on its economy, which is heavily tilted towards agricultural exports. The dress rehearsal for those two events is the currently under way Confederations Cup, which predictably has attracted a windfall of investments and extended Brazil’s turn into the spotlight. But just as the soccer ball started rolling, so did the urge of the society to show that not all is going according to the script. Thus, this past week a massive wave of rallies in Brazil’s biggest cities has started to dispute that same world spotlight with its football stars. After a long while, Brazilians have taken to the streets to protest a hike in public transportation prices and, by extension, official corruption. And then, surprise surprise, law enforcement was called in and demonstrations turned into bloody battles, just like those seen during the Arab Spring and now in Turkey. So much for the fun loving, samba-dancing Brazilians, a description that most of them abhor as stereotypical and unfair. It got considerably worse when members of the country’s organized press corps, reportedly one of the most combative and independent segments of the civil society, got beaten and shot at by the police. More rallies are set for this week, and the Rousseff administration’s already behind the curve. If this scenario has become familiar, and the street protest are encouraging from a democratic point of view, confrontation between citizens and the armed forces are never a sight to be cheerful about. And that’s what Turkey and Brazil have in common, at least at this particular juncture. The governments at the two nations seem to be clueless on how to handle what’s essentially Democracy 101: freedom of speech. Worst yet: calling them traitors and vandals can only aggravate the proceedings, besides being an open invitation for even more intolerance and violence against civilians. What about the G8 summit in Northern Ireland, of all places, you may ask? We very much doubt that anything concrete towards eliminating tax havens for billionaires, for instance, will come out of it. And since the group doesn’t really care much about anything or anybody else, neither should we about it. Much worthier of notice is the Moral Mondays, a striking new movement of North Carolinians rising against discretionary policies against the poor and ‘extreme conservatives’ heading the state’s GOP. We wish them well, and don’t count us among the cynical and the jaded who seem ever so eager to dismiss their intent. There’s much more, of course, but as we’ve mentioned above, who can keep up with it all? As for the weary and the restless, a good place to calibrate that angst is Colltales, even though we’ve been posting ever so lightly lately. Among a thousand-plus stories, though, you’re as likely to find one that you can use, as we are to write another to keep us going. Have a great one.

Wesley

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6/10/2013 The Opposite of a Snow Job, Colltalers

At this point, the world definitely doesn’t need yet another unsolicited take on the National Security Agency, and its ability to electronically collect and store massive amounts of personal data, its scary, exponentially growing capacity to do so notwithstanding. Or so we thought. After all, and we’re glad to report, the debate over the individual’s right to privacy seems to be at the core of our national conversation at the moment, and the apparent disregard for the rule of law displayed by the U.S. government’s agency has been getting the proper attention it deserves. For our own sake, it’d better last. This kind of issue does have a way of falling through the cracks, no little help from President Obama’s dismal attempt to dismiss its merit. And that’s not even mentioning the considerable power that the NSA has to scare the bejesus of even the most earnest law-abiding citizen. But if two expected denials, from Congress and tech corporations, hadn’t disgusted us enough to step into the fray that, let’s face it, it’s sizzling with much meaning and implications, then a single act of standing up and delivering restored our faith, if not in mankind, at least in the genuine good will of some people. Make room for Edward Snowden, who’s just jumped into that fray with the clear-eyed resolve we were beginning to doubt it’s still possible, and told the world that he leaked the details of the NSA’s secret Prism project, (or how to drag everyone on its net, and see what they may have done now or in the past, later). It was a pre-emptive strike, even though by the end of the week, security hawks were already busy trying to divert the attention from the illegality of NSA’s actions to the familiar ‘enemy of state’ grounds, where they potentially can go after, wrestle with, and crush whistleblowers like Snowden. We say illegality because, the last we’ve checked, wiretapping still requires a court order. But, unlike the Nixon era, which seems oh so quaint now, the continental-size data-interception capability that security agencies have gathered lately would demand a whole new set of rules to be even remotely contained. Which brings us to the source of that initial disgust we had as soon as members of Congress were dispatched to go for bat for the administration, and the tech companies issued their clever mischievously-worded denials. What about the hawks saying that it was all necessary for our security? We’ll get to that soon. The fact is that our elected representatives have known all about the Prism and other still in the shadows programs for over seven years, and we say that because it’s relatively safe to assume that it’s more likely 12 years, when the intel community was thrown under the bus by the Bush administration. The fact that they did provide the crucial info in time to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks, and Bush & co. chose to sit on it, is now sadly beside the point. It’s only logical though to expect that security agencies turned scapegoats for the tragedy may have gotten an engorged budget in exchange for their public expiation. So, just to be clear, there shouldn’t be any doubt that the current group of politicians residing in Washington D.C. just added another incredibly shameful omission of their constitutional roles to an already long list, now routinely associated with their teflon-like reputations. And then there are the ‘categoric’ denials by Facebook, and Google, and Microsoft, and Apple, and the whole lot of them, the Zuckerbergs, the Pages, the Mayers, whose business model is essentially to trade privacy info for a profit, and now, as it’s been proven, also to allow it to be shared by law enforcement. But let’s stop here for a moment. We could easily say, shame on you all, and be done with it. But we’re not about to let us, exemplary citizens, off the hook that easily, are we? For we elect the politicians we deserve, and we’re are the ones turning the Internet into our personal confessional pulpit. As for the tried and almost never true argument, that security agencies need the information they’ve gathered, Glenn Greenwald put it succinctly, if not in the same words: that every terrorist worth his or her ignominious vest already knows that everything is being heard and can and will be used against them. So, shouldn’t we? One important redeeming circumstance, that render most of us impotent to even operate away from the Internet, the telephone, social networks, our jobs, personal banking, and whatever else our lives are chained to these days: we’re living an era that if you’re not on, you simply don’t exist. We do have a few hopes up our sleeves, though. First, of course, is that more Snowden, and Mannings, and Greenwalds, and Ellsbergs, and so many more do continue to follow their conscience, and choose non-violent but irreducible acts of civic disobedience, for which we all benefit. Also, let’s hope that, as the technology keeps speeding up, that it heads our way, for a change: that new encryption systems and open, free software become widely available as alternatives to the big search engines and domains that have quickly enslaved us and now, auctioned our digital prints to the best buyer. Finally, let’s make sure that those sticking up their necks, so we can safely continue to text our little nothings as if they had any relevance, are not being thrown in dungeons alone, or made to look as if they’re speaking on their own behalf and not ours, or be denied their constitutional right to free speech. It’s a fact that much of the suspicion about the government is fabricated, and has a carefully designed and executed agenda behind it. But it’s also a fact that no government can rule from within closed doors and pursue secret policies unchecked by those it’s in power to protect. There will be attempts to turn this into a matter of a few individuals, of whether this president is just like the previous one, the permanent threat of terrorism, a crazy set of conspiracy theories, or just the little annoyances of a participative democracy. Let’s not play around, though. This is essentially how we want our nation to navigate the treacherous waters of a changing world. It’s about what we must hold dear as principles and how far we’re going to preserve the rule of law, and, above all, what we absolutely won’t allow to be thrown overboard in our name. Have a great week.

Wesley

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6/3/2013 Whistle Blowing Is on Trial, Colltalers

Today starts what old newspaper writers would call the ‘trial of the century,’ but until at least yesterday, you wouldn’t know its importance by just checking the world’s oldest ‘bastions of journalism,’ on print for a century or more, including those that played a backstage role in the case. United States v Bradley Manning, the court martial of the 25-year old U.S. Army Private First Class accused of passing classified material to WikiLeaks, will finally get under way, three years after his May 2010 arrest in Iraq. He says he did it for conscientious reasons; the Army says it was treason. The excerpts of over 250 thousand cables sent to the State Dept. by diplomatic missions around the globe that WikiLeaks had began publishing since the previous February, was its official crash into the oh-so entertaining party of international media vehicles and world politics. While exposing a venal banality of most exchanges among those in charge of the U.S. foreign policy, it’s on background of the cables where resides the most serious reality, one that few Americans would be willing to endorse: the support by the U.S. of questionable regimes in the Middle East. Many credit the WikiLeaks exposée, stamped on the cover of two of those bastions of print news, the NY Times and U.K.’s The Guardian, as the crucial match that helped ignite the Arab Spring, and the fall of two of the wealthiest and most unpopular strongmen in the region: Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Both ruled their countries with iron-fists, to use another throwback expression from the 20th century, and full Pentagon support. Perhaps still linked to that on-again, off-again string of protests in the Middle East, which went into a hiatus since the fall of yet another long-time ‘useful’ dictator, Muammar Gadaffi, assassinated by his own people in 2011, is the current wave of rallies in Turkey, and somehow the carnage taking place in Syria. But even if these themes play out in apparent sync with one another, one strife feeding off frustration and resentment left by the previous, all under the artificial geopolitical bracket of the region, and the WikiLeaks’ ascension as whitleblower-extraordinaire stature, Pvt Manning’s case is of another nature. In fact, the main undertones of his tragic predicament are, or should be, about conscience, courage, morals, and how far can any individual take upon himself the responsibility to try to change history, despite a high personal cost such decision would imply. And by absolutely non-violent means. For even though it remains to be proven beyond doubt and in the court of law, that he was, in fact, the source of the leaking, the trove of classified data he supposedly leaked have not put U.S. forces in the field or undercover at risk. Otherwise, that would be the military’s main argument against Pvt Manning. Instead, it’s now pushing to close off the trial to everyone but the military, and deny access to the media room, which will serve as its pool of live streaming coverage, to stenographers, as requested by the Guardian, the Verge, and Forbes. In other words, it wants to turn opaque what Manning’s turned transparent. Just imagine how the public, and history, would’ve been short changed, if it hadn’t been able to follow the Nuremberg Trials, for instance. Note also, how this ‘just because I say so’ has been creeping up within society, specially when it comes to personal surveillance of civilians, and warrantless searches. Whether Pvt Manning will be found guilty in any of the 22 offenses he’s been accused of, including the high-treason charge of aiding the enemy, only time will tell. But a few things are beyond dispute, despite appearing only below the fold of most news stories about his court martial. One is that he’s already served three years of his life even before found guilty. Other is that his trial calls into question how much right do the American people have left to question what it’s being done in their name, since it’s their taxes that fund our spectacularly expensive Defense budget. It’s a tricky situation when citizens begin to vacate their right to know, in exchange for personal safety. For while the concept of ‘homeland security’ is being stretched to the limit in the trial of Pvt Manning, the U.S. remains curiously vulnerable to bombings, poisonous letters, and general world hostility. As for the Obama administration, itself entangled in issues of illegal wiretapping and pursuit of whistleblowers em general, and WikiLeaks in particular, it’s rather pathetically playing second fiddle to the flights of paranoid fancy of military hawks, and their attempts to shove the genie back into the bottle. Old newspapermen, a particular flinty bunch, at times heroic, or double-stabbers, or both, as portrayed in post-war novels of espionage and betrayal, would be startled with the lack of spine and conviction of present-day media scribes. For few seem willing to go to bat for a meaningful story, for a change. Those jaded, and largely fictional, newsroom dogs, would surely come up with at least better headlines for such a multifaceted trial, suffused with old politics and high-tech gadgetry, soaked with intrigue and drowned by blotchy, full-redacted transcripts. They’d hardly use naive as a derogatory aside. However, even those potentially fatuous titles the trial will elicit, and their modest placement below the entertainment news of the day, will literally rest on the broken back of Pvt Manning, a young soldier with a previously spotless record to this country, whose name’s forever tarnished but for the wrong reasons. We hope justice will prevail, of course. Along with an account of his actions, we also hope to learn how they may’ve affected U.S. foreign policies, or the military’s role in keeping the nation safe, or the right for every citizen to blow the whistle for truth and accountability. See you on Colltales.

Wesley

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5/28/2013 Brazilians Begin to Remember, Colltalers

Almost 30 years have passed since the end of military dictatorship and Brazil’s still struggling to come to grips with its dark legacy. But now, a commission established to investigate the period may be the South American giant’s best shot yet to prove that it’s serious about its history, and ready to move on. It won’t be easy. Unlike neighbors Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, with whom it shared a common past under authoritarian regimes in the 1960s and 70s, Brazil’s been disappointingly slow in taking steps toward confronting its demons and getting on a faster track towards national reconciliation. A string of civilian presidents, whose public and personal lives are rooted in the political struggles of the era, have been elected since the military returned to its barracks, just as it happened throughout the region, but unlike elsewhere, former members of the regime never had to face the courts for their role. Even though, by all accounts, those killed, tortured or who simply disappeared during the military rule were not as many as Argentines and Chileans, to name but two, there are thousands of Brazilians who have been affected directly or indirectly by the right wing wave that followed the March 1964 coup. Brazil won’t be able to fulfill its destiny for as long as the fate of those persecuted by the military for their political affiliations remains unknown. Their memory, friends and families deserve much more than what history has so far granted them: a little less than complete oblivion. Even before a former union leader, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was elected president, followed by its current commander-in-chief, Dilma Rousseff, a political dissident who was tortured by the military, there’s been talk in Brazil of bringing to justice those responsible for crimes against humanity during the period. But the first official inquiry into it, the National Truth Commission established in 2011, has had limited powers and time constrains to probe human rights violations. Fortunately, other factors may contribute to raise public awareness within the Brazilian society, even after the commission folds. While it’s still expected to compile a comprehensive dossier of potential criminal acts incurred by law enforcement during the dictatorship, the most practical result of the commission’s work may be to give cause to Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights to persecute those it may find liable. The commission has already found serious discrepancies in the information contained in a 1993 report provided by the three branches of the Brazilian military, about the fate of a group of people who vanished after being detained by the Navy. The report was requested by then president Itamar Franco. The revelation has stirred old passions and prompted at least one former member of the military to aggressively react to it. As it happened elsewhere in Latin America, those who took part in the vicious persecution of the opposition have enjoyed an amnesty that has all but exempted them from criminal liability. Such self-serving amnesties, though, have since been disavowed under international law. That’s how generals of the savage juntas that literally crushed their opponents, were finally judged in the court of law and sent to prison in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. (Sadly, Guatemala was just put on hold). While past militants, even those now in office, have shown restrain when it comes to name names, so to speak, a former Army colonel, accused of being a torturer for the dictatorship, displayed the same familiar unapologetic defense of his actions as demonstrated in the past by the Argentine junta members. Last week, as if three decades of impunity were not enough for him to at least ponder on this tragic chapter in Brazil’s history, Col. Carlos Ustra went on the offensive, accusing President Rousseff of having fought to impose Communism by force in Brazil. The problem with this kind of belligerent rhetoric is not that it exists, as no democracy would be worth its polling polls if it didn’t. But it’s the fact that’s being uttered by someone who’s made a career out of denying everyone else the benefits of free expression and living in an open society that he now enjoys. Worst, these are hatred words spoken by someone who’s never been confronted about the choices he made while in power, and whose many victims still around, who have positively ID’d him, have been crippled for life either physically or emotionally, while he wines and dines on taxpayer money. Among encouraging recent signs is the release, by the Public Documents Library of São Paulo State, of over 200 thousand files and notes about the dictatorship. The documents made available contain an array of data on Brazilians, secretly gathered by organs of repression and paramilitary groups. As the bulk of the material is being researched and may provide fresh insights into the era going forward, many have been astonished by its level of detail about the regime’s inner practices, and fear of well-known sports and arts figures, whom it spent years closely monitoring. More insights are sure to come. One of the disheartening consequences of the young democracy that’s still thriving in Brazil is the popular notion that politics is intrinsically corrupted, dominated by those who should not be trusted (sounds familiar, U.S. of A.?) Such public perception certainly has its roots in sound reality. But perhaps Brazil is in a unique position to be the exception that disproves the rule, as more of its citizens learn that not too long ago, there was a generation who may have been singled out and decimated for exercising a sense of politics, long lost, of ideals and aspirations for social justice. Thrown under the tanks of an increasingly intolerant military force, supported by you know who, er, international powers, the Brazilian amateur politicians of yesteryear may have shed not only their blood but also a particular form of altruism that’s still to be recovered and honored by today’s political elites. It’s up to citizens to first, rescue the personal stories of those who fought so hard, through finding their identities, faces, and bodies. That may be painful but it’s fundamental. Secondly, to strive to reignite the ideals by which they were willing to sacrifice everything. That may imply finding out who did what, and yes, who must be sent to jail according to what they did. It may also require what the fight to acknowledge the existence of racism in Brazil, for instance, has long been short of: the courage as a nation to take the first concrete step towards eradicating it. Colltales join in and support the Brazilian people in its quest to bring out of the shadows the memory of such brutal period. It’s a story whose time has finally come to be told, and it’s a hard-learned lesson that may be served only by transparency and justice, to the full extent of the law, to prevent a repeat. May this Memorial Day in the U.S. be the last one to be held, for years to come, while American troops are still engaged in wars overseas. Be nice to each other and have a great week.

Wesley

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5/13/2013 The 400 & the Keystone Crowd, Colltalers

Give it a few days and, to many of us, the depressing news about last week’s environmental milestone — that carbon dioxide gases in the atmosphere have reached the staggering level of 400 parts per million — should be all but buried under the usual onslaught of media debris that chokes our senses and airwaves. Out in the world at large, the majority of the population is already more concerned about being hungry, homeless, and chronically ill, than about greenhouse gases, automobile emissions, and higher consumption of fossil fuels. There’s simply no time left from the daily grind for survival. Thus, the task of worrying about and losing sleep over what happens next may be up to the 0.000000half percent left out of that life-or-death equation. You know, either those who actually enjoy that morning tsunami of trivia we call news. Or distinguished citizens such as, well, yourself, for instance. Cheap compliments aside, the milestone itself is actually meaningless. It’s been known for a while that the air we breathe is already chockfull of emissions, and even if we could shut down right now cars, engines, machines, and entire economies of the world, environmental damage would’ve been already done. We’re trailing way behind the curve on this one, and there isn’t an effective way to capture and store carbon in a global scale. Oceans, which have been playing this role for hundreds of years, are also saturated, and their alarming acidification may trigger a whole age of rapid extinction for many species. Still we like dates, and whole numbers, specially those full of zeroes, and it’s worthwhile marking this as a significant turning point, even if it’s a few years off the mark. Every once in a while, news like that can have the power to blow our spoiled wish of having coffee in bed right out of the window. The 400 number does mean something palpable and straightforward, which is usually missing in grand speeches about global warming and climate change. No need to insult your intelligence about what carbon dioxide does to oceans, glaciers, coastal lines, crops, pollinators, plants and animals. What such doom and gloom line of reasoning may mask, though, is the fact that there are things that we can still do, and we’re not talking about arresting the world’s economies by immediately paralyzing all production and use of fossil fuel. As if that would be even possible. It’s just that we can do is not as quantifiable as pollutants in the atmosphere, or nearly as scientifically proven as what they do to life on Earth. Besides no amount of mass protests, even in an unimaginable planetary scale, could reverse the process that, as we said, has reached critical mass some years ago. So what’s the point of doing anything? That’s precisely it: some of mankind’s greatest achievements were not accomplished because there was a big goal to be conquered, a collective target everyone could aim at. Much of what makes us great gets done exactly because there is no apparent point about doing it. You’re probably thinking that we’re sinking fast in the mud here, but stay with us for just a few more sentences. For example, people rallying at President Obama’s visit to New York City, today, will nominally do so to demand that he disavows once and for all any support to the Keystone XL project, a massive, 2,000-plus mile long pipeline to deliver tar sands oil from Canada to Midwest refineries. Completion of the project has been plagued by lawsuits and criticism from environmentalists and alternative-energy advocates, but the president has been dragging his feet to make a decision for months, which doesn’t bode well to his prior speeches against big oil and all that. Those at the rally know full well that odds are against them, so what would the point or being there, in what most certainly will be cut down to a five-second soundbite in the evening news? What makes this not a losing cause, suitable to those deluding themselves they can do something to rescue it? They will be there, and that’s the point. And so should we. Why? because if there wasn’t anyone there the first time around, the decision would have already been made, and there’d probably be but a hundred new projects, by now, as dangerous and flawed and greedy as Keystone is, with no one to stop them. We understand that such crooked logic doesn’t fly that easily, for it takes time for all the implications to sink in, and minds skilled at reflecting to even consider it. But think about it: if you hadn’t simply showed up at crucial times of your life, you probably would no longer have one to live by now. That is to say, 400 is a heavy and inevitable number, but is neither a match for those against Keystone, nor an excuse to let the future go up in smoke. In other news, friendly folks at Colltales tell us that you’re due to a visit, in case you need a reminder. Refreshments will be served. Have a great one.

Wesley

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5/6/2013 Of Arthur, Kenneth & Carmen, Colltalers

Proponents of austerity measures, the Draconian slashing of government spending and social programs as the only, unarguable, solution to all problems affecting the global economy, have suffered many setbacks lately, including from one of the bastions of global capitalism, the International Monetary Fund. But beyond any heartwarming socialist speech about the fallacy and inherent cruelty of capitalism, there’s at least one study in contrasts that illustrate with great clarity the bizarro world behind our current woes: the case of the fraudster that was honestly right, and the cheating elite economists who got it all wrong. More on that in a moment, but let’s drive the first point until the nail crushes the vampire’s heart. Or the zombie’s brain, for those who belieber it. Regardless. One may be able, albeit ill-advised, to dismiss the hundreds of thousands of people, who on Labor Day this past week, took the streets around the world to protest austerity policies their governments have been shoving down their throats, with no visible benefits, but mounting nefarious consequences. But even those controlling the strings can’t ignore that there’s no longer a consensus, if there was ever one, about the efficacy of spending an obscene amount of capital, political and otherwise, on a proposition that alienates the majority of the world population, whose sweat and labor supports the very wealth at the top. Neither the Reagan-era ‘greed is good’ bumper-sticker capitalism of the 1980s, and its phony tales of Cadillac-driving welfare queens, could’e envisioned economic growth led by a skyrocketing stock market, huge CEO compensations, and a global network of tax havens for billionaires, standing on the backs of starving laborers and millions of unemployed roaming the streets. And yes, it has happened before, but there’s no need to go there. After all, despite all historic examples and the books to prove it, many in charge of making economic policy decisions show a disturbing obliviousness about the lessons they were supposed to have mastered with the expensive degrees they’ve earned. Or as we see it, one must be at least suspicious about being among the few still paying attention to evidence and ‘reality-based’ cause-effect (even for using quotation marks, which would be absurd if we were in fact living in a rational world), while those holding the cards seem to overlook it all so easily. That’s what made us think about Arthur Batista da Silva, who got it right about what was happening to Portugal, even though he was not who his countrymen thought he was, and Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart, the Harvard economists who everyone thought should know better, but as it turned out, did not. Last year, when Portugal was negotiating a $100 billion bailout with European banks, in exchange for cutting government spending, i.e., welfare programs to near zero, Silva became a fixture of Portuguese talk shows, exactly for going against the grain and issuing dire warnings against the whole package. Billed as a ‘U.N. economist,’ he displayed a rare sense of prescience and forwardness as almost the sole voice among experts to advice his country to ‘renegotiate its bailout package or risk social problems spinning out of control,’ as reported by Reuters in December. Less than six months later, his words have a ring of truth no other European forecaster can claim, as leaked EU-IMF documents attest now that Portugal may need yet another injection of fresh money just to keep afloat amid the stiff interest payments of the first loan. Not mentioned with enough emphasis, of course, or rather, still with no paternity claims on sight, are the social costs, widespread recession, and unemployment that have only got worse with the austerity measures imposed in exchange for the initial cash. It’s too bad that Silva won’t be claiming his correct foresight any time soon, so busy he’s been with threats of persecution and lawsuits for having ‘deceived’ everyone about his real ex-con identity. In other words, they’re throwing the book at him, but leaving off the hook all who profit from the country’s bankruptcy. As for the distinguished Harvard economists, they’ve authored ‘Growth in a Time of Debt,’ a paper celebrated by conservative governments and pundits around the world. Roughly summarizing it, it all but blamed government debt on diminishing rates of economic growth. Well done, they were almost universally cherished. According to seemingly complicated graphs, the paper’s most excerpted snippet was deemed an instant classic: it supposedly proved that whenever a country would reach a debt exceeding 90 percent of its annual GDP, it would necessarily experience slower growth than its more social stringent peers. Proponents of austerity as a way to purge the sins of government spending (mostly on poor people) were exultant. Except that it was all a fraud, even if apparently unintentional. Not that huge amounts of reality-based evidence would be enough to the undoing of such a baseless theory. No, what did it in was simple math. All it took was a Thomas Herdon, an economics graduate at Amherst College in MA, to crunch the numbers, and bingo, they wouldn’t add up. Again, not that the discovery of such an astronomical flaw derailed any austerity policy already in place. Neither Rogoff nor Reinhart have apologized for anything yet. On the contrary, they not just have since taken to Op-Ed pages of major newspapers (you know who you are) to somehow justify their blunder, but they’re also taking the world famous ‘janitorial defense,’ or in their particular case, the ‘Excel excuse.’ You’re probably familiar with some version of it: blame the fire that razed a whole city block on the janitor. Or the nuclear facility malfunction on a intruding rat, as they did (twice) in Japan. Such save face works wonders for the perpetrators, and changes nothing to those they’ve hurt with their mistake. While the two cases exposed both the fallibility of pundits and experts in accessing a multifaceted economic crisis, and our own gullibility in accepting their analysis at face value, the connotations go beyond that. For hidden behind the paper’s wrong numbers and biased calculations, are livelihoods lost and the despair of an entire generation. At the same time, what the deception helped bury in Portugal was the courage of the fraudster, as the media called him. He was right, though, and the media, wrong again. Perhaps it’d be preaching to say that as the talking heads exhaust airtime, literally sucking the oxygen out of our ability of thinking for ourselves, the fate of professions and occupations may be decided by an ill-conceived algorithm, or a complete fabrication. The value of such currency, though, is tender only by taking it straight to the bank, instead of refusing to trade in dignity in order to get it. Or something like that, you know, preaching. Which, by the way, is something Colltales won’t endorse. Didn’t know it? Go and check it out. Have a your (good) way in May.

Wesley

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4/29/2013 You May (First) Have to Show Up, Colltalers

Pardon the lame pun (and the late hour) but there is indeed a chance to make a public statement this week that hopefully won’t cost you any money or your personal freedom: on Wednesday, take the streets of your city and peacefully join millions all over the world. First of May is not known in America by its most distinctive feature: its identification with over a century of struggle for the rights of workers for decent wages, regulated labor journeys, paid time off, health and child care support, and retirement benefits. But you, as billions, have been helped by such struggle in more ways than you can possibly recognize. As a result, more than at anytime since the post-WWI time, the past decade has seen a resurgence of the meaning and principles that have made this such a storied and worth remember date. It is, after all, one of the few nonreligious, unmilitary, and unsanctioned holidays celebrated across the globe, even that if it were up to most governments, it’d have been erased from the calendar long ago. The fact that it hasn’t shows the power of what people do for a living and how it must be justly compensated. As such, it’s as good an opportunity as few others to reaffirm our faith on the redeeming qualities of full employment, specially at this day and age, when it seems so much more convenient (and economically sound) for employers to do away with the whole concept. It’s also a day to party and show one another solidarity in our common struggle to raise tomorrow’s new citizens, despite the still present challenges we thought had been vanquished yesterday. It’s another chance to renew our commitment to a basic principle, bestowed to us as an immemorial bargain of sorts: if you work hard, then you may earn and deserve to get everything that you need to survive on this earth. It’s way more complicated than that, of course. Then again, so is to be able to make ends meet for hundreds of thousands of families, whose breadwinners have been forced to work longer hours than their parents had, have a number of menial jobs instead of a single place of employment, and still managed to raise law abiding upright voters, crucial to the nation’s future. Wednesday may also be a great way to avoid all the empty rhetoric about how we’re in this together, when we clearly are not, while ignoring the speeches and political grandstanding that come with it. Even if it may be reduced to a split-second soundbite on the corporate media, it’ll be still worth showing up. It’s too bad that, unlike in the rest of the world, May First is not a holiday in the U.S. But again, judging by the hordes of the unemployed in Europe, South America, Asia, Middle East, and Africa, that’s no longer the big difference it used to be just a few decades ago. So, even though skipping a paid gig may not be an option to so many, we can still mark the occasion in a small, effective way. A simple action still beats doing nothing, and more than symbolic, it informs ourselves our will to change. After all, small gestures do count towards lasting social justice. It’s the kind of thing we can’t delegate or pay someone else to do it for us, even if we could afford it. In fact, chances are, we may meet many who actually could afford skipping it altogether, but who choose instead to show up and be counted. We could all use their help, and help ourselves too. If you need to take a moment to educate yourself about the day’s history, by all means, do it. You may be surprised to learn how the odds were stacked against even the existence of such a date. And yet, it prevailed and it’s still celebrated and it still means something to billions. It’s also as good a time as any to demand a couple of minutes, out of the busy social networking life of your kin and kids, to give them a courtesy of your enlightened understanding of what means to be a responsible, but impoverished, adult in this day and age. Before they put the headphones back on, you should be able to squeeze in a few instructive and, believe us, ever lasting words of wisdom for those who, most likely, will either change and reverse this inhumane trend, or be forever overwhelmed by it. Just keep it all short, say, under two minutes, tops. For those of us who usually take way more than that to even understand simple directions, it may not be as easy as a walk in the park. Hey, that’s an interesting idea worth pursuing: what about allowing yourself the time to stride through a public space or watch some improvised performance? Perhaps there’s yet another reason why the First of May has managed to retain such a riveting power: as the season transitions, from cold to hot in the north, and from hot to chilly in the south, the day is bound to have mild temperatures all across the planet. Or everything is already screwed up by climate change all over, in which case, there’s another compelling fact for you to be out there, along with your friends and neighbors. But if you choose to stay in, you may still write someone about that too. You can always check Colltales too. Have a safe week, everyone.

Wesley

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4/22/2013 A Hard Rain’s Been Falling, Colltalers

Here’s the understatement of the season: it’s been very uncomfortable to live in the U.S. circa 2013. Also tragic to many, disturbing to others, and unaffordable to the majority. We seem to be racing to a point of utterly confusion about who we are, what we stand for, and, let’s face it, where on earth can we turn to. That and, of course, the bombing of the Boston Marathon, the fusillade that followed it, and the brief moment of relief with the capture of a living criminal, all heavily specked with widespread fear, a delirious media coverage, and, at some point, revealing displays of deep xenophobia by elected politicians. Like the pressure cooker used in the bombing itself, the disgraceful attack was also loaded with ammunition to last a lifetime, both in a personal level, for the victims’ families and survivors, and for our justice system, as some are already wondering out loud whether it has the ability to trial such a high profile case. Brace yourself, for what those two stupidly misguided brothers managed to do may reach beyond their original intent, which hopefully remains elusive to those like them: their crime made us even more determined not to be intimidated or cowed into a corner, instead rallying around goodwill and citizenry best practices. On the other hand, a whole unholy lot to come out of that tragedy may hurt us as its sharp nails. Withholding the reading of the Miranda Rights to the suspect, for instance, may have opened a nasty can of bugs ready to chew up yet again everyone else’s civil rights. Also, it didn’t take long for innocent people to be misidentified and publicly exposed as protagonists of the developing drama. We can only wish them good luck extricating themselves from the kerfuffle, caused by overeager agents and unscrupulous tabloids. Other spillovers should surely follow. Such as the potential blow it can inflict to an already weakened immigration overhaul bill. It’d be a convenient excuse to some less than dignified representatives to put a damper on it and bury once again the aspirations of millions of people who have proved time and again how worthy Americans they can be. Talking about those less than dignified politicians (we’re fighting our gag reflex when talking about them here), they truly outdid themselves last week. Their shameful stand on the gun control legislation, shot down despite an unheard-of 86% popular approval, was arguably our biggest lost in the period. It’s not that the terrorist attack, or anyone like it, with the same deranged logic, emotional impact, and irreparable personal damage, wasn’t worth all the fraying of our nervous system, or that it could be reduced to its physical casualties. But the approximately 3,500 gunshot deaths since Newtown, according to some statistics and using a watershed moment that marks at least the latest round of public advocacy in favor of a new gun legislation, exacts a number of fatalities that no amount of such attacks ever inflicted in this country can rival. Unlike the horror of Patriot Day in Boston, squad teams, highly trained sharpshooters, investigative wizards, or even high tech surveillance cameras, can’t make a single dent or predict when carnage will strike next (including the one that’s very likely happening now, as you read this). It’s as if the shrapnel of a bomb blast is already speeding through the air, searching for human flesh to rip apart, with no way for us to know when or where it’ll hit. Unless, of course, we’ve already disarmed those whose mental state would disqualify them from a career in law enforcement, for example. Again, Capitol Hill dwellers (we’re fighting our urge to call them by another name) may have committed an even worst offense against the American people and ought to be held accountable, if not as criminals, at least with a serious challenge in their next bid for reelection. The following day, as if that wasn’t enough damage for a single (disastrous) legislature session, they also took the first step to kill the right to privacy on the Internet as we know it. Helped by their corporation lobbyists, House representatives voted to exempt companies from liability for selling our personal data. That’s why the spectacle of seeing these pants-on-fire all making self-righteous rounds of Sunday’s talk shows, calling for the death penalty for the 19-year old bomber, is so disgustingly depressing. Their hypocrisy and callousness should never be forgotten, even though, it will, we fear. Which brings us to our last point about the discomfort about living in America today: how sick is our democracy, when a majority vote of 54 against 46 nays, to pass an already watered-down gun legislation, was still defeated in Congress, still not enough? What does it say about our nation, so full of armed ‘patriots,’ self-appointed 2nd Amendment defenders, ready to rant against the bogeyman, the ‘government,’ and hunt down the foreign ‘terrorist,’ while remaining oblivious to the daily massacre of innocents across the land, or to what was really shot down last week? No wonder Colltales took a quick hiatus from the maddening crowd, to regroup. The stories never left the site, mind you, and if you haven’t already, we invite you to pay a quick visit; we assure you that you’ll find something exciting to read, or your bitcoins back. It’s been a depressing time to be living in America, that’s for sure. But that doesn’t mean that it needs to remain as such. Perhaps even you can do something small, hardly noticed, that may help us all recover our faith in our fellow humans. We’ll certainly try. Again. Be strong and have a safe one.

Wesley

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4/8/2013 We’re Choosing to Hear No Evil, Colltalers

Two recent farm-related stories have got us thinking whether we’re becoming a nation of messenger killers, or we simply no longer care about what they’re trying to tell us. That or we can always blame that old catch-all excuse: lack of time. When President Obama reached a bipartisan agreement to allow funding for the government for the rest of the year, something else, with an entirely different purpose, was also signed into law: a hidden provision that’s now known as the Monsanto Protection Act. What such a ‘rider’ does is to essentially prevent consumers from seeking judicial protection in case genetically-modified food products are proven to pose a health risk. The provision guarantees that no legal action will be able to stop the planting and selling of GMO foods, no matter what. It was an astonishing victory for the world’s biggest producer of DNA-manipulated crops, despite hundreds of thousands of signatures begging the president not to sign it. As expected, many elected politicians alleged ignorance about the cleverly camouflaged Trojan clause. Yeah, and we’ve just won the Lotto. The other story is about efforts in several state legislatures to criminalize taping of farm animal abuses, which may be used to instruct legal action. Since corporations that run meat and food producing farms are far from upfront about their practices, actionable proof would be virtually impossible to obtain. Legislators in Indiana, Tennessee, California and Pennsylvania have been debating and may vote shortly on these ‘ag-gag’ bills, as critics call them, which is another template proposal concocted by Alec, the notoriously right wing group responsible for the racially loaded ‘stand your ground’ laws. To be sure, similar bills were soundly defeated in New Mexico and New Hampshire, and face stiff opposition from animal rights advocates and celebrities in Wyoming. But the battleground of such debate is, of course, the combined food belt states, and there, animal abuse lawsuits may be on their way out. It’s disheartening to see how bills drafted by lobbyists for special interest groups get an easy pass in Congress and state legislatures, while immigration, gun control, climate change protection measures, or a jobs bill languish in procedural mud and are filibustered to death by our ‘representatives.’ What these two instances may speak of, though, in a deeper, more gut-wrenching level (i.e., where everyone of us has a part to play), is our increasing ‘I don’t want to hear it’ syndrome. Everything seems so unattainable and out of reach that we may be relinquishing crucial duties in the drama of our own lives. Americans are not alone in this modern malaise of investing more on life-emulator social network sites than fully living one’s own. The collective time we spend now on Facebook, for instance, is arguably much greater than the blood, sweat and tears shed by past generations to make a single personal connection. Without getting too abstract here, we’re in fact giving up one of the most basic functions of being a citizen: the right to seek legal protection against those who produce our food and profit from our patronage, if their goods present a health risk to us. Heard the one about a flame retardant ingredient in Gatorage? Also, as keepers of the Earth and everything in it, we’re breaking another basic principle: first do no harm, specially in what animals are concerned. Thus we’ve institutionalized torture and suffering into the ‘manufacturing’ of food forcibly extracted from them, and that’s beyond immoral: it’s downright criminal. If it weren’t for underground footage made public of unspeakable abuse committed against farm animals, though, such systemic violations would be abstract at the most, and easily dismissed by an industry driven by profits, not morality. Only the brutality of the images seems able to shake us out of our oblivion. Many would object to a typical Colltales segueway to this issue but we can’t help it: it’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, and throughout this week events will help refresh our collective memory about the millions of Jews and minorities methodically hunted down and murdered by the Nazis during WWII. But if the numbers and circumstances are astounding, even for today’s ‘standards,’ it was the gripping footage of the concentration camps and their survivors, shot after liberation, that imprinted its way onto our public awareness. Yes, we all realized, we are capable of doing that to each other. The images were one of the most decisive proof that instructed all the legal proceedings towards at least some reparations and justice that followed the war. On the same token, without them, the movement to protect and guarantee humane treatment of animals that we eat will lose much of its teeth. As for Monsanto, there’s an even harder battle to be fought. For it may be to its advantage that no known footage or iconography has had the ability so far to encapsulate and frame its growing dominance over this country’s agricultural output, or sway over government food policies. Not yet anyway. So there’s hardly anything to actually see to understand what it does; there’s just the fear about possible consequences represented by GM crops to public health and the environment. In other words, only noise. That’s why it’s really tragic that so many of us choose to cover our ears. Please keep yours wide open.

Wesley

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4/1/2013 The Tax Havens’ Movable Feast, Colltales

While yet another depressing run to the banks reaches a critical point in Cyprus this week, U.S. taxpayers face their own run, as we approach the April 15 deadline to declare income earned in 2012. As it turns out, the two events have more than their share of coincidences. First because both Americans currently running out of time, and Cypriots trying to get their deposits back, may constitute their countries’ majority. Most likely, the wealthy and the affluent on either side of the Atlantic have already managed to safe keep their loot and evade all penalties, thank you very much. Also, as both North American and European economies soured in the past few years, while unemployment soared, millions of working families have had to scramble to get by on a-single-salary, or freelance income, if any. Thus, for better or worse, Tax Day just doesn’t have the same ring as it used to, at least here. More importantly, though, is what ultimately brings the financial situation in Cyprus close to the U.S. tax system: while global investors in the Mediterranean island have enjoyed a profitable and way more cushioned ride than its working classes, here such inequality is euphemistically known as tax loopholes. Cyprus, despite throwing a welcoming mat to international cheaters, has hardly benefited from their billions, or loyalty. At the first signs of euro instability, the money evaporated, leaving those with no other choice but to trust the banks to swallow the draconian austerity pills prescribed by the ECB and German lenders. Similar unfairness may have found its way into the U.S. tax system, according to ‘Who Pays,’ a study by non-partisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, released in January. It shows, among other things, that those at the lowest income bracket pay higher rates than the top one percent of the population. So as millions of dispossessed Cypriots are expected to never recover savings they had entrusted to the Laiki Bank, unlike similar account holders elsewhere in Europe, millions of poor Americans will dutifully pay their taxes, even against the illogical conservative myth that ‘the poor don’t pay taxes.’ As the ITEP study shows, most of them not just do pay taxes, but their dog-eared tax filings ended up covering up for some 21,000 lucky Americans who earned $200 thousand in 2009, but paid no taxes at all, according to an IRS study. But despite much grandstanding and pseudo-uproar about such basic unfairness, which privileges those with access to sophisticated ways of avoiding paying taxes like the ‘little people,’ or even calls to raise taxes coming from billionaires themselves, such as Warren Buffett, nothing’s likely to change. Thus, money earned through low-waged, overextended shifts, no overtime or benefits included, is generally expected to be declared at the fullest, under the strictest letter of the law. Stock market profits, inheritance, or contributions to ‘charity,’ (mostly wealthy museums, colleges and hospitals), not so much. Likewise, Cyprus’s possibly temporary demise as a tax haven may not contribute a single silver dollar to the cause of reforming international finance laws that allow corrupt oligarchs, bloody-thirsty dictators, and unconscionably greedy CEOs to park their money away from the reach of any regulations. Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Cayman Islands, old table-holders at the international casino, along with relatively newcomers such as Dubai, Singapore, and also eurozone member Malta, have already stepped up their efforts to lure to their shores shady jet setters and their ill-earned fortunes. What wouldn’t be surprising, though, even that we may never know it, is whether some of those who are now so adamantly against taxing a fairer amount of the wealthiest Americans, are also secretly moving their container-high piles of cash away from the crumbling Cypriot banking system. As for Colltales, returning from (somebody else’s) Spring break, it’ll never be about taxing the reader, running banks, or searching for a heaven. Closer to our heart is the Occupy’s Strike Debt group, for instance, as it has successfully abolished just over $1 million in personal medical debt. While its Rolling Jubilee is letting a thousand people in Kentucky and Ohio know that their individual debt has been abolished, we wonder what could possibly be a better letter to receive, amid massive printed ‘reminders’ and insistent ‘courtesy’ calls from debt collectors. Have a great one.

Wesley

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3/25/2013 Hard Times for Laughter, Colltalers

An unexpected announcement last week grabbed Americans by their throats, blanketing the media and social networks with a storm of interviews, opinions, and commentary as only news that directly affect our lives should. We’re talking about Jimmy Fallon replacing Jay Leno at the Tonight show, of course. Now, right there, hardly noticed in this ill-engendered writing device, lays the scariest thing about contemporary America, circa 2013. Simply put, that so many can be riveted by so little. Our disconnect (a word we’ve promised not to use any longer but can’t help it, apparently) is truly staggering. For way lower on our attention-span scale, stand some of the most crucial discussions of our age, bound to determine one way or another how we’ll be living and perceiving ourselves as a society years from now. And unlike other times, none of them is currently completely invisible. Take for instance, the issue of the U.S.’s use of drones, both abroad as a undiscriminated lethal force, and domestically, as a nightmarish surveillance tool, and President Obama and the Department of Justice’s lack of empathy to the legitimate fears such a secretive policy instills in the heart of our citizenry. Or the Senate’s catastrophic failure to heed the clamor of society to step in and regulate assault weapons. As the Democrats in Congress feign impotence, it becomes ever so clear how compromised our elected politicians really are; their loyalty tilts towards the gun lobby and away from their constituency. Or the once again dwindling debate over immigration law reforms, as it’s fairly obvious now that such discussion is of no interest to the powerful private prison complex. Meanwhile, the U.S., with its overcrowding jails, full of attorney-less immigrants, sits atop all nations in number of its incarcerated people. Any of such issues has the power to derail our stand as a world leader, and debunk for good the myth of a benevolent country to its own citizens. But you wouldn’t know it, even if for saving your life, by monitoring news programs or scanning the nations’s cultural pulse. What Sunday talk shows, and their usual roster of while male pundits, have been all about lately is a shallow, uncritical, and ultimately, pointless discussion about the federal budget, one that consistently tiptoes around the inflated military spending and the pathetic lack of action in the employment front. It’s a predictable script that always veers towards taxes, takes a few asides about the number of proposals rusting in the corridors of Capitol Hill, and ends up being dumped into the abysm between what could be done, and what actually will never be done. There’s hardly ever mention about the disgraceful widening income gap, the party in Wall Street and the stock market while 40 million-plus Americans sleep hungry every night, the appalling state of our food and meat industry, the paralysis about the dramatic climate change, the list goes on and nauseatingly on. Looking ahead, this week the Supreme Court weights in on the same-sex marriage. Judging by what it recently let out about the Voting Act, though, it doesn’t inspire much confidence. At this point, it could do everyone a favor and abstain from it, letting those most affected by it to decide it: you guessed it, voters. So whether the jimmies will take over where once the johnnys and the jays were kings, is relevant only because, given all the above, we may need someone to extract a few laughs out of us about the whole thing. Life in America, however, may serve well comedy, but it’s been a better fit for tragedy, these days. Don’t forget to stop by at Colltales, where stories can be about diversity, trust, or the human frailty, but never fail to reward your precious time. Laugh, be well, and have a strong one.

Wesley

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3/18/2013 Forgetting All About the Elephants, Colltalers

We interrupt our regular weekly homily, er, ranting about the things that make us slightly insane, to add yet another one: there’s a systematic massacre of elephants going on around the world, that threatens to drive the species to extinction much before anyone would’ve predicted just a few decades ago. What’s tragic and ironic is that such a potentially incalculable loss may happen just as we’re becoming more cognizant to how intelligent these creatures really are. Remember, not too long ago, when their numbers were in the millions, we still thought they were mute and relatively unscathed by widespread poaching. It’s believed that there are now some 600,000 elephants in Africa, plus less than 50,000 in Asia, but these figures are far from precise. The dramatic slaughtering caused by a recent resurgence of poaching for their tusks, as widely reported that it’s been, is yet to make it to any official statistics. With prices for ivory reaching staggering levels, more elephants were killed in the past five years than in the whole previous decade, according to wildlife organizations. Only in Tanzania, over 10,000 have been killed in average since 2008, with Kenya and other African nations following closely. At this rate, they could disappear from the continent as soon as 2020, with the same happening in Asia just a few years later, an alarm that conservationists and organizations dedicated to wildlife have been sounding for a while now. Unfortunately, few have been heeding to it. (Before we proceed, unlike our regular posts on Colltales, we’re not providing links to those organizations on this article. But rest assure that we’re culling the data from a host of most reputable sites, such as Nature Conservancy, WWF, International Fund for Animal Wellfare and many others.) To be fair, there have been many progresses in our relationship with elephants during the same time. The most important zoos worldwide, for example, no longer have exhibits dedicated to them, since it became evident that, despite a hundred years of attempts, elephants proved particularly unsuitable for captivity. Also, research into their low-frequency, acoustically intricate language has made great strides toward understanding its role as a glue for social ties, and ability to keep in touch and communicate with their kin though long distances. So have studies into their matriarchy system, crucial to understanding the erratic behavior of young bulls during the bleak 1990s. Just like teenagers without parent oversight, gangs would roam the expansions of Africa literally looking for trouble, and engaging in destructive behavior, by stabbing to death rhinos, for instance. As it turned out, those were bulls whose mothers had been slaughtered, so they were left to fend for themselves. So just as we begin to turn the corner on the old cliches about elephants, and finding out how they mourn and grieve over their dead, how their extended families remain close throughout their lives, and other sophisticated clues of social organization previously thought to be exclusive to great primates, we may be forced to wave them goodbye. Which is indescribably sad. Just like with whales and dolphins, with great apes and tigers, and so many other ‘great and small’ creatures, we may be doing almost nothing to prevent them from leaving this Earth in the worst possibly way: by our own hand. Imagine if it comes a time when we’re able to establish an effective way of actually speaking with animals, but there’s no one to speak with. And we say to be capable of communicating with them not in a anthropocentric way, or expecting them to become one more propped up interlocutor to our endless chatter, just like robots and synthetic speech, but on their own radically different point of view. What then? As a coda, it’s a fair criticism often aired that those who include animals in their diets, should not speak with any moral detachment about their fate. We simply don’t agree with that, not just because it’s an ultimately reactionary and intolerant argument, but because we need every single person to stop the slaughter first. Whether this will lead to more enlightened ways for the privileged few to stop eating meat, or sustainable ways for the world hungry to live off a healthy, substantial vegetarian diet, it’s a cultural quagmire of which the outlook is muddled with politically-correct hypocrisy and infused with money and economics. Either the massacre of elephants stops within the next few years, or we’ll be just adding another self inflicted wound to our long rosary of shallow priorities and downright stupid choices, which place a premium on a silly tchotchke made of ivory, over the majestic creatures who evolution bestowed its creation. It’s been a different kind of week, but your invitation to stop by at Colltales remains wide open. Have a great week and see you there.

Wesley

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3/11/2013 Firing Up the Climate Headlines, Colltalers

It’s a common rule of modern print journalism to use and center the news around the people who make them. Rather than the data, the event, the setting, and anything else comprising the full spectrum of written communications, to invoke the ‘who’ first is often considered the fastest, most effective way of grabbing the reader’s attention. But sometimes we need to break the mold to highlight an important issue, even when there’s not a single name attached to it, at least, not in a significant way. Fair enough, though; the past week had several boldface names drawing attention to relevant issues concerning contemporary life on Earth, circa 2013. John Brennan’s nomination and Senate approval for head of the CIA dominated the news in the U.S. That was mainly because of what it represented for one of the crucial themes of our time: the use of drones and the scary prospect of granting governments the power to target for killing their own citizens. Hugo Chavez’s death in Venezuela has brought to the fore what’s happened in Latin America in the last decade, including the continent’s democratic pains, its economic boom and growing political independence, and Chavez’s particular brand of populism, with all its shortcomings. The pope, or rather, the absence of one, and the process to elect a new one amid an unprecedented crisis of faith and confidence on the Catholic church, was the other nameplate captivating at least a billion people during the period. That, and the person who now lurks in that particular shadow, Joseph Ratzinger. Now here’s the news that supersedes all others in its global reach, implications for all life, and absolute urgency for our own survival: we’re now living with the highest temperatures registered on the planet in at least 4,000 years, according to the latest research in climate change. And, no disrespect to Oregon State University Shaun Marcott, who led the scientific team behind the study, this has been the kind of news with the power to upstage any big name, including the countless of serious researchers, visionaries, and well-meaning politicians who have been attached to the subject. Perhaps it shouldn’t be that way. Our reliance on names and personalities is at the root of the highly profitable, and completely unscrupulous, celebrities industry, and it cripples people’s ability to see beyond their leaders’ flaws, and press on for political change, even when they fail or are violently sidelined. The fact remains, though, that despite its seriousness and implicit call for immediate action, its evident impact on the lives of billions now and in the next 10 years, and the number of industries that would need to evolve to face the challenges it implies, climate change continues to be a faceless issue. That means that, even though it may as well help end our species’ run of the land sooner rather than later, it simply can’t compete with the more immediate, either important or shallower, name-linked issues that affect our daily lives. Not in the headlines, anyway. So that brings us to a surprising, humbling realization: current standards of communications, and the contemporary golden rules of journalism, are slightly inadequate to frame one of the most relevant news of our times in any galvanizing, engaging, or even meaningful way. Unless, of course, the pope’s resignation was a direct consequence of climate change, or the cure for Chavez’s cancer could’ve come from the Arctic’s melting glaciers, or Brennan had come up with a way to use drones to reverse global warming, instead of what he’s known for. But that would be a useless exercise of naive ‘what ifs’ no one would benefit from. Still, the media prioritizing of irrelevant news follows every modern assumption of what news communications should be about. And it fails miserably to add any meaning to the lives of billions in the process. In other words, something must be amiss if even our serious endeavors of reporting what’s going on around the world depend on having to do with what Chris Brown said about women last week, or what part of her body a famous supermodel will decide to expose on Twitter the next. We take responsibility for the fact that this Newsletter’s central point has been buried amid a thicket of commentary about what’s actually distracting us from it. It’s entirely our fault that we’ve chosen to focus on an obscure aspect of news reporting over what the content should actually be about. ‘The planet is catching fire’ should’ve been mentioned first, since it’s the main underlining premise of this article, so now, it’d have been exactly what we needed to end it. Instead, we engaged in a flawed detour through form, to explain why few would’ve made it beyond its likely boring second graph. We followed our instincts, though, and from a journalistic standpoint, if we can’t convey such an arresting piece of news, climate change, without resorting to a celebrity name to anchor, then we’re already burned to a crisp, along with vast swaths of the planet. If we’re to have people in the streets, rallying against the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we may desperately need a new style manual for the way we cover and report it. For at the end of the day, it may be anonymous, selfless little actions what may tilt the balance towards a solution. Hanging in the balance could be Colltales’ middle name, by the way. Thus the past week we wrote about the twin horrors haunting Afghanistan boys, the disconnect about religion in the U.S., and, on March 8, a quick review of some issues affecting women. Stop by if you haven’t already, and thanks for those who do it on a regular basis. Their comments often make our day a bit brighter. Stay strong and have a great one.

Wesley

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3/4/2013 The Infallible Lies & the Accused Rises, Colltalers

While the global media has been fully invested the past week with the Vatican con game of smoke and mirrors, the real news of the week, at least as far as the fundamental democratic right of dissent is concerned, came from a court in Fort Meade, Maryland, military base. After 1,000 days and a week since he was detained, in May 2010, accused of leaking classified information from the organization he serves, Pvt. Bradley Manning had a chance to read a 35-page prepared statement, taking responsibility and offering, for the first time, his reasons for acting the way he did. Before we delve into what that means to our own sense of patriotic duty, and to live in an open society at the age of terrorism, let’s get a final take about that expensively conducted but ultimately crass masquerade ball going on in Italy. We now know that Joseph Ratzinger’s seemingly sudden retirement had been on the planning for at least several months, as pressure was mounting from the twin scandals of child abuse by Catholic priests, and possible financial malfeasance inside the once powerful Vatican bank. The prelate formerly known as Pope Benedict XVI was central to both issues, and it’s clear that he’s no intention to come clean about them. The elaborate game of deception has been carefully concocted so to ease him into retirement before any serious criminal inquiry could start, and conveniently beyond the reach of the law that regulates the lives of everyone else, including his flock. As a sitting honcho, he’d probably have a better chance to beat the rap, but alas, neither the pope is infallible, nor eternal. So age is indeed a factor, even if for reasons other than those he’s invoked. The bottom line here, though, is time, hence the distraction offered by the election of a new pontiff. The prefab thriller of such a closed guarded procedure, along with the cheap intrigue and the manipulation of millions to be awed on cue, is guaranteed to shave months of the momentum gathered after so many years of immorality and impunity, of suffering and malversation. In the end, in Vatican’s likely calculation, it pays off sending to the sidelines an uncharismatic pope, who in several occasions revealed an absolute lack of empathy to the millions of children victimized by the Church, while taking every opportunity to chastise the society at large that feeds and supports his little life of luxury. We’ll leave it at that, since it’s unlike that anything will go off the script in this deviously crafted stage play. For all intent and purposes, he’s already gotten away with it, as his name will be hardly ever linked to the countless suicides and illicit enrichment engendered by the doctrine he’s been the chief enforcer for so long. Ratzinger’s example has been shamed by what Bradley Manning has demonstrated this week: the real mark of a man taking full responsibility for his actions, and adamantly standing behind his personal convictions, despite the great likelihood that he’ll be severely punished for it all. If there was any doubts that Manning was fully aware of what he was trying to accomplish, that was all put to rest with his statement to court. Even if some may question the way he went about trying to ‘spark a domestic debate of the role of the military and foreign policy in general,’ the power of these words resonates deeply as we, as a society and a nation, have grown stupidly numb about the crucial need to even have such a debate. That a soldier, one of the hundreds of thousands we’ve sent in the past decade or so to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, has grown disillusioned with the U.S.’s war strategy and foreign policies shouldn’t surprise anyone, if only by the sheer number of the dead and the wounded such efforts have produced, with none of the palpable results we were all promised to expect. That a member of this unjustly overtapped segment of the population, chosen to serve and die for the country while the 98% of the rest obliviously frolic with award shows and YouTube videos, is now the most visible face of the once-thought dead anti-war movement, is also another given. And so is the fact that the same military-defense complex, whose disproportional sway on the government has pushed the U.S. to the brink of ungovernability, is now activating every rule in its book (short of the rule of law, of course), to press on Manning’s conviction and assure his silence. It’s doing it so under the all-encompassing umbrella of the ‘war on terror,’ even though there is the national security need to protect our troops and borders against cyber threats and, more often than not, through controlling the flow of digital information. That doesn’t preclude the right of U.S. citizens to partake and question decisions made by the government they’ve chosen to put in power. Also, about that rule of law, in this case, it’s been completely demoralized, and that’s the real lasting damage the persecution of Bradley Manning may exact on our institutions. There’s a great deal of differentiation between Manning’s conduct, which was borne out of conscience and the fundamental right to dissent, and that of hack who does it for hatred, profit, or personal vendetta, and who wouldn’t care, as Manning did, whether his actions would cause harm to Americans on the ground, uniformed or otherwise. For instance, to the source who informed on him, Manning was emphatic about his motivations, and said that he was positively not interested in selling the classified data. By the way, he thought that person, with whom he shared his doubts and possible course of action, was a pastor, of all things. Sounds familiar? In any event, now that it’s in the open, we do expect that the trial of Pvt. Manning incite Americans to a heartfelt discussion about the role of whistleblowers in society. How easy it is to doubt their character, and to forget even considering the merit of their accusations, or vulnerability of their personal stand. As a coda, we’d also like to point the finger at the Obama administration, so lax in persecuting still wealthy, still entitled Wall Street corporate chiefs, for the staggeringly costly malfeasance they’ve caused to the U.S. economy, while allowing the military to exercised every extra-judicial procedure trick in order to go after whistleblowers in their midst. That includes, besides Manning, an unknown number of women and men brutalized by a culture of widespread rape and cover up in the name of hierarchic merit, as well as conscientious objectors, whose pleas for justice and accountability have been as ignored and punished as his were. For those like us who abhor the overuse of hyperbolic labels to sports, entertainment, daily life and even political figures, assigning them with undue mythical powers, or the curse of a lifetime, to settle for a word that would eliminate all nuance about someone like Bradley Manning is not an option. Soon enough though his sponsored detractors will be calling him traitor and falsely accusing him of having done harm to Americans, which he most definitely did not, so to justify sending a voluntary soldier with a previous impeccable record, to live for the rest of his life among hardened criminals. Even the sympathetic progressive media has already been calling him a folk hero, which boxes him into a sub-category that, in the long run, may only help to undermine the significance of his ordeal. Perhaps the future is the best judge of that. We just can’t bring ourselves to call Manning a hero, or a symbol, or an example. To do it would be like robbing him of his humanity, of the immediacy of the reality he’s facing on his own, with no possible comfort to be found in the strict letter of the law, let alone in a silly word that would only enhance his disconnect. We can, however, however, enlist him with the likes of a Daniel Ellsberg, a Harry Markopolos, a Joseph Wilson, a Frank Serpico, and maybe in the future, even Julian Assange, along so many others that even Wikipedia has trouble concisely naming them all. Manning, as Ellsberg and only few others though, wouldn’t be out of place mentioned in the same sentence with Alfred Dreyfus, perhaps the text-book example of whistleblower who exchanged everything he had, including name and reputation, in order to keep his conscience. To prove that we’re not above some cheap self-aggrandizing, tales of name and reputation are in no short supply on Colltales, in case you’re still wondering. May we kindly suggest reading about the current state of our seafood, or checking the picture essay on the perennial scapegoats, the Albino? Have a great one.

Wesley

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2/25/2013 The Only Debt Worth Discussing, Colltalers

As we brace for another round of the make-believe crisis the U.S. is supposed to be facing, that of the budget deficit, the real rage behind the scenes is the increasing ideological gap between President Obama’s rhetoric and his administration’s opaque anti-terrorist policies. That a group of billionaires is heavily invested in the outcome of the so-called battle of the federal debt is just part of the charade being played on in Washington. Under the guise of a ‘bipartisan’ agenda, what it’s on is that old-fashioned game of political grab by the way of who can shout the loudest. Also thrown in the mix are a history of unfulfilled dire predictions for the economy by an elite of familiar analysts who should know better by now, and, of course, the veiled threat against every low-level government job, or program focused on social welfare. These convenient scapegoats are now being called into duty to drain the costs of the unpaid military adventures of the past decade. But never mind such lame attempts at forcing the government’s hand into doing what the majority of voters made sure it wouldn’t: give in to the special interests of a minority. What’s really widening our collective sense of bewilderment with the president, from a slight sense of amusement to a serious feeling of betrayal, is how the administration’s idea of protecting U.S. interests around the world is turning into a dangerous precedent to undercover and illegal actions against its own citizens. It’s almost ironic that the tip of this iceberg has been the widespread use of unmanned drones, which originally had been hailed as the perfect solution to prevent American blood from being spilled in faraway wars most of the nation can’t even understand, let alone support. That quickly changed when it became clear that it’s virtually impossible to wage war by remote control, even when using, well, virtual reality to guide the strikes. Too many mistaken targets and thousands of innocent lives lost, in a relatively short period of time, all but showed that no military conflict can be managed from inside a bunker, full of anonymous officers making quicksand decisions and responding to no one in particular. Compounding that incredibly fast accumulation of tragic wrongs, another sinister specter became an integral part of this lethal wall of mirrors: U.S. citizens, first primarily living abroad, but now – be afraid, be very afraid – domestically. Two other factors could be added too, both operating in that shadowy realm of political assassinations and killing lists: first, the increased power of government agencies dedicated to spy and monitor, through a sophisticated array of surveillance software, the lives, associations, social interactions, and personal activities of Americans. The other is, naturally, that now every other nation has started operating its own murderous drone assembly line, modeled in the U.S.’s own receipt to targeting from afar and blast them to oblivion, before anyone has a chance to invoke that pesky little concept this nation was founded upon: the rule of law. Now, we’re no experts in defense policy. Also, despite the myopic rationale of arming a country to the teeth, expecting that everyone else won’t respond in kind, and escalate their own military budgets attempting to match it, we too live in and fear this world of senseless aggression and random violence. What really irks us, though, is that the president we’ve just reelected, based on two fundamental assumptions: one, that he was the best man who showed up to do the job, and secondly, because he was once the candidate of hope and righteousness, the one who took upon himself to articulate some of the dearest ideals animating the American saga in the world, has been so ambivalent about one of the most crucial issues of our time: individual rights. He’s, in fact, pursued a surprisingly timid and pragmatic agenda of many ‘possibles,’ even before trying for what the impossible could represent. In a first term of severely diminished expectations, and granted, a barrage of obstacles and sabotage thrown at him by the GOP, he barely managed to remain relevant. But he did choose Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday for his second inauguration with his usual rousing speech to match. Was it all just about words? For as much as the president’s agenda has been systematically eviscerated by congress – and not much should be expected from the toothless gun legislation that’ll finally pass – his record of fighting for human rights, corporate restrain, for persecution of financial crimes, protection of individual privacy, and right to defense is simply deplorable. Even considering that a president’s role should be of another nature, he’s still commander-in-chief in all assertions of the word, and if he hasn’t been a factor in such an important issue, be it political dissent or simply the right of individuals to being sure no one is prying on their business, then, well, he hasn’t been a factor. Never mind the budget deficit we don’t have, or the Social Security shortfall that may not happen within a generation. The real debt we should be wrapping our minds and hearts around is the one we owe to the great tradition of freedom and rights of this nation. And that’s to our utter disappointment with the president. To cut a little slack, take your boots off and stop by at Colltales. Here’s hoping better minds and more generous hearts prevail on this week, and the next, and the next.

Wesley

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2/18/2013 A Reminder From Outer Space, Colltalers

Humankind had a rare, and sobering, moment of pause, this past week, when stunning pictures flooding our screens seemed so unreal, as to make us think about one too many CGI-infused Hollywood blockbusters. We’re referring, of course, to the 50th birthday of Michael Jordan. The images of the basketball player at his prime, some 20 years ago, were quite impressive, and people from all over the world had yet another chance to appreciate his greatness. OK, enough of that. We know we shouldn’t be making light of the truly frightening event that unfolded over the skies of Russia last Friday, but without that distracting intro, you would’ve probably turned the page on this post by now. The explosion of the meteor just above the surface, injuring people, shattering glass windows, and altogether bringing to a halt our collective confidence that nothing of the sorts will ever happen in our lifetime, had also a number of firsts about it. The first shooting star to directly hurt people; the first to be documented with such a multitude of cameras; the first to be powerful enough to give anyone a clear idea of what would’ve happened, had the angle of the object’s entry into our atmosphere been slightly sharper. There were many other aspects of it that could be called first, but arguably, the most important one is far from being a first: we know what these space rocks can do to life on earth, and as it’s happened in the past, it’ll surely happen in the future too. Also, despite all forewarnings about the need for us to be serious and prepare for such a likely probability, the meteor explosion exposed, with a blindly blast, how little we know and badly it can hurt us not knowing. That millions of us were actually distracted by another visitor from space, a considerably larger but, we know now, a much farther away piece of the stars to brush Earth’s orbit, only compounds the precariousness of our current means of tracking these rogue rocks. The question is, obviously, what we’re going to do about it. Many bright minds, some with even very deep pockets, are already at work in what, until last week, was a relatively remote possibility of having to intercept one of these potentially civilization-ending meteors from even approaching our planet. But the truth is, apart from a few timid calculations, several dozen observers, and a lot of heated arguments over what method would be best to accomplish such a technologically complex task, nothing literally has taken off on that direction. There are many who have a pragmatic view of the eventuality of our time on Earth to suddenly come to a screeching halt. Either because they don’t believe anything can or really will be done about it, or because doing it doesn’t seem that important compared to world hunger and war and social strife. Or even for any and all other reasons that anyone can come up with, all valid, including because some just don’t feel like doing anything about anything, anytime, anyway. Fair enough. We’d also partake of such a view, on the sole account of the state of the world, and what we’re doing to each other in a daily, make that, in a minute by minute basis, or to animals, the environment, whatever. Besides, we’ve already created the conditions that, if left unattended, a possibility ever more concrete, will take care of that pesky matter of ending the world as we know it. Nuclear power, climate change, yes, again social injustices, are all factors with enough power themselves to do us all in. However, there’s something we sometimes resort to, to justify any rationale for action, as opposed to no action whatsoever: the fact that some things, perhaps even more complex, are being built and accomplished at the same daily rate basis, even though they’re guided by much more malefic intent and purpose than such a prosaic idea as to prevent a space rock from crashing our party. Drones, for example, to stay with bad things coming from above. We’ve now entered a phase when they’re constantly being built, in all sorts of sizes, purposes, and most important, weaponry-able versions, while the discussion about the moral implications of their own existence is still in the drawing board. Not just that; while they exact a growing toll of innocent victims being caught in their hellish firepower, we’re still to learn who’s ordering what, or rather, under whose command are they being dispatched in their murderous sorties. Apparently, no one can be held accountable for any fatal inaccuracy either. Which brings us all to the easy conclusion that we’re not doing anything, on a global scale, against errant meteors, because we’re getting busy doing things that, ultimately, will contribute to the obsolescence of an interstellar catastrophe to ever be needed to finish us off. In other words, never mind the hecatomb that may come from outer space; we’ll take care of our own annihilation ourselves, thank you very much. Sorry to bring up the subject of death and destruction on such a bright Monday morning, but you’d understand it if you’d consider the choices we had. Let’s see, have you heard that the leader of a global organization accused of widespread pedophilia and child abuse has come out last week with an important announcement? No, not that his employer, the Catholic Church, will finally be honest about how it’s covered up the malefic activities taking place in its core, with the full knowledge of its highest hierarchy. No, that leader, the pope, is ‘courageously’ resigning of his post, full retirement benefits intact. Or we could’ve led this newsletter with President Obama’s State of Union address, which trumpeted a number of important issues, but once again missed the golden opportunity for, it too, coming out about its secretive drone and surveillance policies. Or we could’ve approached several other relevant matters, including the rally of thousands in Washington, D.C., demanding climate change action from the president; the latest round of bombings and carnage in Pakistan; the Middle East’s usual bloody fare; even, well, Jordan’s birthday. Now, do you see? It was a week that forcibly reset the news cycle with a roster of fresh and unexpected subjects, to say the least. But among the political, religious, societal, military, belligerent, environmental, or police-related reports, a diet we’ve unfortunately grown so used and numbed by it, the meteor blast stood out as the truly global event of the week. Whether it’ll fade at least until the next time, or prompt a reset of our priorities, with the full spirit of cooperation among nations towards a common enemy, only time will tell. Apart from the proverbial skepticism that we’ll never spring to action as one-single race, even if, to remain in the realm of sci-fi that the Russian explosion briefly elicited, we were finally greeting our first alien humanoid, bent on enslave us, your educated guess is probably better than ours. Colltales did its part and, as if almost nothing had happened, and posted at least two stories that got a lot of mileage: The pope’s charade, which served as a counterpoint to our humble celebration of Darwin and Lincoln’s anniversaries, and the kilo and its strangely obesity-afflicted weight. Naturally, we’re keeping an eye in the sky. If there was a (burning) silver lining about the whole reality imitating fiction imitating reality, though, was in the quality of the images that documented the event: unlike those shaky, grainy pictures we’re so used to of UFOs, these were in the glorious HD. Be careful and have a great week.

Wesley

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2/10/2013 We Should Care Like They Do, Colltalers

Few words have been more overused, in the context of politics, as leadership. Though no one disputes the decisive role visionary leaders played in changing history, the idea that a revolution, or at least, steps taken towards it, need one to happen is preposterous. Take the Arab Spring for instance, or a movement that many believe may have inspired it, the Occupy Wall Street, or the popular uprising in Greece, or the political unrest that brought about the turmoil in Syria; taken as a whole, one would be hard pressed to point a single name leading the charge. Again, political assassination often proves the exception to that rule, as it may cut off momentum or derail the urge for change for a full generation. In different measures, you could invoke the murders of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Yitzhak Rabin. One, arguably set back the civil rights movement, specifically in what race is concerned. And the other, got the Israeli-Palestinian peace process completely off the track. Nevertheless, it was a shopkeeper who almost unwittingly set in motion the events in Tunisia. Or a crowd of faceless protesters who ignited the Egyptian revolution that followed it. The same with the teenager whose graffiti challenged Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and precipitated the current carnage for justice. It may be easy to think of America’s own Revolutionary War as having been deflagrated by a set of privileged minds, who we now call the Founding Fathers, and that’s an accurate way of putting it. But it’s definitely not the whole story, as testimony after testimony by those same protagonists indicate. Yes, the independence would have probably taken longer without them. But they wouldn’t be able to carry on its ideals if it wasn’t for a large demographics of revolutionaries backing them up. It was then a perfect-storm combo of the right leaders and people wanting change badly enough to make it happen. Elsewhere, one or the other of these two key elements may be lacking. But that doesn’t mean that change is still not possible. Which brings us to the point of the current political quagmire in the U.S. There’s no question that we need a new generation of leaders in Washington, even if the validity of such a desire is proportional to what the present ones can do to open the doors to usher them in. That’s naive or at least questionable to expect. At the same time, we may need something else too. Make it that a new kind of American, who feels personally invested in a changed reality. One to whom the issue is not government against people, but a quest for a new citizen. Freedom not to be measured by guns but by trust. We desperately need a reformed American, with a belly full of fire, and a hunger for education, history, idealism, civility, respect, equanimity. We need fighters of inclusive ideas, for resetting our moral compass as a nation, to restart our sense of empathy and political expression, to reboot our society. Risking sounding unfair, one can point to the fact that while the Arab Spring was still raging about freedom from oppression, for affordable living conditions, for political rights, in the U.S. at the time, there was more concern about the financial needs of a minority who already makes a million dollars a year. While people in Libya were finally seeing its ruler for what he was, a rich despot with a populist penchant, we were enraptured about Beyoncé, or what kind of app is best to connect to Facebook. At any given time, there are more of us on Twitter than there were voters in the last U.S. presidential election. And we did allow the wealthy media to ignore the Occupiers camped for most of 2011 in downtown Manhattan, in what was the first, and so far only, serious effort demanding prison terms for the architects of the world’s worst financial crisis of the century, in dollar amount. And we still hardly know their names. Regardless whether those daring souls have or will succeed in convincing the mainstream of the American society that their cause is, indeed, that of the majority of Americans, they have already done something that same majority has refused to do all along: they showed up. For, under a strict political point of view, it’s very likely that change in the Middle East, North of Africa, and in Washington even, will take much longer than the new smartphone model will hit the stores. But what’s permanent there, but not quite here, is that people are still showing up. Politics are flawed, but people’s efforts are always legit. Despite great personal risk, and even mortal danger, citizens of the world are out fighting for dreams and aspirations, unlike a lot of Americans, who’re glad to be consumers and clients, instead. That’s why we say: we should care as much, if not more, than they. Because no new American leadership will be forged, if the people it’s supposed to represent and lead won’t bother articulating their demands for justice and opportunity for everyone. Talking about change and the new may be cheap, but Colltales has been doing its part, telling stories. They may be simple or not quite destined to posterity, but they keep on showing up. The past week saw tales of kings and paupers, of far out worlds to future nightmares. As we publish our 1100th post in just a few days, there’s got to be a particular something in there dear to your heart. Come, check them out, and have a safe week.

Wesley

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2/4/2013 Immigration’s a Cornerstone U.S. Issue, Colltalers

Once again, an immigration reform bill is doing the rounds in Washington, and again the usual suspects are trying to either sabotage it or water it down so much as to resemble the anemic legislation passed during the Reagan administration, in 1986. Then, as now, there seems to be a concerted effort to ignore basic elements of any debate over immigration reform: its economic implications, the need for it to be inclusive, even the fact that Latinos specially, its biggest segment, are more than ever a formidable political force to be reckoned with. New to the current discussion is the fact that labor conditions for undocumented immigrants are now barely below that of a large demographics of naturally-born Americans, and also that the U.S. market is no longer as attractive to foreign-born workers as it used to be. Thrown in the mix by self-appointed immigration experts, with apparent little sense of historical perspective, scientific analysis, or even hard facts to back their claims, are a number of secondary issues that nevertheless are either being given priority, or used to distract the focus of what needs to be done first. Highly-skilled immigrants, professionals who’ve spent years in U.S. universities and research centers, who whose specialized visas are about to expire, have a completely different set of needs and requirements than seasonal farm hands, or workers at the service and hospitality industry, for example. More than anything, any sensible immigration reform needs to address the communities that are, have been, or will possibly benefit from an overhaul of the draconian laws now in place. But alas, the current debate, as many in the past, is instead geared to shallow issues of patriotism and legality. It makes no sense to expect that millions of immigrants, who’ve already put up with years of menial occupations in the lower echelons of the U.S. job market, out of reach of minimal wage laws, will leave the country and try to formally apply to legal status, when there’s no defined, timely path to citizenship. In the meantime, it’s been glaringly unrealistic to claim that the issue of illegal immigration can even begin to be addressed with more border patrol or higher fences, which in any case, would be profiling the kind of immigrant who has been a tenet of the U.S.’s two centuries of prosperity: the working type. Regardless of what you may hear in the weeks ahead of hyperventilation over the issue by the conservative media, the Census Bureau estimates the number of illegal in the U.S. as being 11.1 million, which is actually down from 12 million in 2007. Of these, eight million are actively involved in the workforce, or 5.2% of its total. That’s not just much less than what you’re bound to hear in the debate, but also a proof that, even when offered subhuman conditions, earning less than many Americans on welfare currently earn, immigrants still show up to work. They’re also likely to be paying taxes as any worker, but since most illegals use fake Social Security numbers, that unknown, and probably significant, revenue stream remains uncollected and untapped by the IRS. There’s no talk about regulating and redirected these monies, even after workers acquired legal status. Also, as usual, almost never addressed is the fact that some opposition to immigration reform comes from those who either were once immigrants themselves, or descend of ancestors born outside this country. It’s a cultural issue that deserves a place in this often strident debate. Finally, it’s almost ironic that the Obama administration, whose foreign policy towards Latin America has been of little substance to say the least, may be the one to finally give the issue a boost. It may not be by chance, though, if you ask those hardened enough to be generally cynic about U.S. politics. That’s because it seems obvious that the president’s party is the one which stands to gain the most if a large contingent of residents acquire full citizenship and with that, the right to vote. After all, President Obama has just won the reelection on the back of a strong showing of Hispanic voters. It’s been said that the so-called Dream Act, which failed to gain full support in Congress, but that’s not completely out of commission yet, has been one of the greatest lost opportunities of the president’s first term. Its defeat has certainly disrupted a hard-won coalition of different voices that were pushing for it. But immigration is such an integral part of what defines the history of this country, from its founding to the economic might it achieved the past century, to its hope of continuing providing to all Americans in the future, that the issue is bound to continue percolating for a long time to come. Pitfalls will come, some even more demoralizing than before, until we have a comprehensive legislation that accommodates the need for welcoming those willing to help the greatness of this country, with standards of fairness and the rule of law. The Obama administration has shown that’s not above some political trickery, when it comes to pass and enforce legislation that most Americans do not endorse, such as secret and unaccounted drone strikes, or surveillance of their private lives. This could be one of those times that it go along, instead, with the majority of Americans who’re tired of this charade of equating hard working immigrants with law breakers, and the travesty of diverting law enforcement to persecute poor, undocumented workers, while leaving off the hook white collar criminals. Colltales, despite being unaffiliated to any particular activist group, is nevertheless aligned with the struggling and noble immigrant experience in this country. We must demand justice and clarity of purpose in the discussion about who’s earned and deserves the right to be called American, regardless of origin or political allegiance. The immigration issue is one of human rights and underlines any other concerning the U.S.’s prosperity and future. Have a great one.

Wesley

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1/28/2013 The President Must Heed His Own Words, Colltalers

While the streets of Washington were being cleaned, and the last remnants of the big inauguration party were being carted away, a group of selected Americans had little cause to be impressed by President Obama’s rousing speech: the so-called whistleblowers. In fact, the more we are awed by the president’s oratory skills, and the milestones he’s carved in his words, passionately mentioning once taboo themes, such as ‘our gay brothers and sisters,’ the defense of minorities, and so many other meaningful moments, in some restricted but no less crucial segments of society there was a big sigh of almost discouragement. As if on cue, for instance, this past week, former CIA agent John Kiriakou was sentenced to prison, accused of revealing the name of an undercover agent. Unmentioned, and likely the real reason that set him on a collision course with the agency, was his criticizing of torture and renditions, both trade’s tools of the Bush administration, openly discussed in his book, The Reluctant Spy. Even though he followed protocol and communicated his displeasure for having to go along with what was a clear violation of the law, he was made a scapegoat by those who continue to defend the use of despicable means to gather dubious intel information, under the cover of secrecy and unaccountability. That the current U.S. Dept. of Justice pressed for his conviction is not just startling, but makes anyone question whether our Constitutional Law professor president’s made any attempt to differentiate himself from Bush, specially on this particular issue. Kiriakou’s sentencing was also a reminder of a similar incident, under the former president, when an active agent was outed by Karl Rove and his inner circle of media minions. While the ‘leak’ crashed her career, those who threw her under the bus were able to at least keep their jobs and influence. Her outing, as everyone and their personal Deep Throat now know, was utterly petty and completely political: her husband had dared to debunk one of Bush’s crucial phony ‘evidence’ for invading Iraq. Of course, that made no difference for thousands of Americans who died in that tragic military adventure. The most disturbing fact about all this is that it’s far from an isolated act of bullying by the administration. The sad truth is that five other people also have been charged under the same WWI relic Espionage Act, which is more than all past presidents combined have done. The same vetust precedent that was used against Daniel Ellsberg, whose Pentagon Papers helped turn the tide against the Nixon administration and the war in Vietnam, has been invoked against Pvt Bradley Manning, who even without facing trial, has already been held incommunicado for two absolutely lawless years. Manning, who’s accused of copying classified documents, and WikiLeaks, which published them on the Web and is also a target of the DoJ, may have formed a doomed alliance. But their transgressions don’t come close to the damage that the outing of agent Valerie Plame caused to her and other careers in the field, or the open scar in our moral conscience represented by the practice of institutionalized torture by the U.S. military. So, it may seem that we’re ganging up on the president, whose reelection we supported, but it’s now a moral imperative that he gets the progressive, ethical and unpatronizing opposition some of his policies deserve. And he has to be on board for this discussion too about what’s a principled objection and what’s your garden variety treason. For at the end of these four years, what legacy President Obama will leave won’t have much to do with the necessary but ultimately transitory battles he may wage against extreme right conservatives, military hawks, religious zealots, and the wealthy demographics to whom what happens to the majority of Americans is not of their concern. What really may grant Barack Obama a position in the roll of our most forward-leaning leaders or not will be his assertion, defense and reframing of the debate over constitutional precepts conceived by Adams, Jefferson, Madison and other Founding Fathers, and not away from them. Curiously, as it’s been said before, the president should look no further than his own campaign speeches, and even his transition agenda, released as he prepared to take office in 2008. ‘Such ([whistleblower]) acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled,’ the document said. As usual, no one could have expressed with more clarity and simplicity such a complex combination of ethics and sense of duty, constitutionally assigned to citizens, as the president can. But in these next four years, we’ll need more than eloquent words; we’ll need acts to match them. Even without knowing what the future holds, Colltales has approached this same theme almost a year ago, and it may be worth a reread. Otherwise, you may go for some of the stories published this past week, such as the 40th year of Roe v. Wade; what to do when fate strikes; and some mad science going around. It’s all in good faith and with a hopeful, open mind that better things are coming our way, of course. Have a great one.

Wesley

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1/21/2013 Dreaming With Eyes Wide Open, Colltalers

President Barack Obama’s second-term inauguration today somehow reloads the hope of a new direction for the U.S., which four years ago many had expected that we’d be far into it, by now. For those who’re not about to give it all up just yet, today’s is in fact a joyous occasion. Despite the already long list of missing opportunities and downright disappointments cluttering any aspirations for another day in America, there is in fact a realistic chance that the president gets on board, and on the right side, of some pretty hairy but crucial issues. Before we get to that, though, let’s remind everyone of the heartbreak of the two George W. Bush inaugurations. In the first one, worst than seeing victory being snatched away from the candidate with most votes, was what followed it: the dawn of even more despairing years than anyone could’ve anticipated. And the second, which for peaceful and hard working Americans, was the bitter realization that waking up in the wrong side of power also meant being helpless to change it. It also meant being universally blamed for the catastrophically bad decisions the government was making in their name. So if the cosmic relief of four years ago, fueled as it were by the pent up desire for radical change, made the majority in this country go back to the business of dreaming a better future, what could’ve happened last November would’ve been enough to disheartened even the most ardent hope advocate. In other words, cheer up. The president has shown that he can be moved, or rather, forced into positive action, when enough pressure builds up. The recent example is, obviously, the gun control issue, which wasn’t even in the horizon just a few months ago, despite the current trivialization of mass murders in the streets of America. Cynics were quick to observe that such kind of headline-grabbing action is arguably effective in the long run, and that he’d have earned much more credit if the initiative to do something about it had been his. Perhaps. We worry that the urgency may fade away, along with the will to pass a comprehensive bill. But at least, we are talking about the issue of assault guns in the hand of one too many a crazy and deranged people, and that’s a progress. Time will tell. Much more disturbing is, of course, the fact that only a few weeks ago, congress approved the renewal of a warrantless surveillance legislation to be in effect at least one year longer than his own second term. And that the measure passed without so much as a moan from those who claim to stand for the constitution. Also disturbing is how the president has conducted negotiations with the congress minority, making every effort to appease those who lost in the polls the right to have the final saying. His lack of conviction to stick for those who voted for him has been truly disheartening throughout his administration. Under his watch, the GOP has manipulated every single loophole in the book to hold the country hostage to its ‘race to institutional bottom’ agenda. While they festered and clogged the arteries of his administration, we were left to avert our noses to what’s essentially designed to prevent its governability. Neither we have seen his political muscle put into any climate change legislation, except for piecemeal efforts. We still have the same industry-driven energy policies inherited from Bush, which deems coal ‘safe,’ nuclear power viable, oil companies all but above accountability, and investments in green energy scarce. President Obama has also chosen to virtually ignore the biggest progressive event of his first term: the Occupy Wall Street movement. He’s had and will have no part on whether OWS will manage to keep its popular appeal and momentum going, or fall through the cracks of history, and that’s shamefully sad. For if nothing else, the rag-tag rally of a few dozen individuals that sprouted two years ago in downtown Manhattan, and quickly spread out to the world, has been still the most consistent effort ever attempted at bringing to justice the financial industry for having solely rigged and breaken the system. It was startling to see the president distancing himself from the OWS, emulating the same politicians he clearly loathes. Thus to this day, not a single Wall Street boss involved in the financial disaster that bankrupted the U.S. and much of the world’s economy has been charged with any crimes. On the contrary: banks and financial institutions, that once got help from the administration to pool taxpayers’ money and save them from their self-made brink, are now more powerful than ever, while hundreds of thousands they ruined are still much worst than they were before. For that, Mr. President, you must be held accountable. Also for the obscene costs of your reelection, and the anonymous donors that flooded the gates and weighted on it. It’s was fortunate that most of their money was wasted, but it did set a horrible precedent: the U.S. electoral system can and will be bought. Finally, our foreign strategy has been a frightening failure, with its uncontrollable military drive, a rule-of-law free policy of assassinations, a murderous squad of drones wrecking destruction and misery all over the world, and almost no consistent humanitarian effort towards rescuing innocents caught in the crossfire. The U.S. has no distinguishable Latin American or African policy if it doesn’t involve weaponry or yet more troops on the ground. If it’s true that our presence in Iraq and forthcoming withdrawn from Afghanistan are at pace with campaign promises, we’re leaving these places in much worse state that we found them. Assigning the biggest military decisions to generals and war hawks has been a mistake that, in the case of Bush, was inevitable, since he lacked even basic skills of geopolitics leadership, but in the case of President Obama, is depressing. You can interject here your views about the still-operational Gitmo prison. There’d be much more to mention and even more to rant about, but as such, we must leave at that. As we said, many will find reasons to be hopeful and re-energized about the second term. His speech, for sure, will be as rousing and passionate as his hand at the helm of nation has been cool and detached. But hey, count your graces because you’re not watching the coronation of that what’s-his-name guy. So there is indeed hope. One thing was painfully clear in these past four years, though: the better future that this country deserves is not resting on President Barack Obama’s hands. Or any other leader’s, for that matter. What’s going to make a difference, or rather, who’s about to make a difference for better or for worse is you, dear reader. There’s no other way to put it. If you’re not sitting on your pretty behind, hoping that some guy or god will come and rescue you from everything you have fought against, then you’re in. More than the first term, this one is going to be your call. Americans must show that they care enough to fight, not for the pathetic right to bear arms, for if you think you need one, perhaps you shouldn’t have one, but for the right to have decent jobs, health costs covered, affordable housing. The U.S. must again lead the world to reduce its environmental footprint, to turn the corner on climate change, and to eliminate once and for all all carbon-based fuels of its economy. Our kids have the right to have parents, not militia-commanders, conspiracy-nuts, or racist-survivalists. The president deserves the support of all Americans, including Colltales, and after 12 terrible years of war and economic strife, Americans deserve all the peace and prosperity that has been denied to them. We see no other way but to renew our hope in the future and what we can mutually inspire in each other towards it. Thus, even that we know that many will remain jadedly skeptical, and we need them too, we must all hold steady to that dream that was once so eloquently dreamed and imagined: the dream of living in a world of peace, free at last, with nothing to kill or die for.

Wesley

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1/14/2013 It’s High Noon for Two Latin American Titans, Colltalers

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s ailing health, and former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s possibility of having to fight charges of graft during his admistration, may usher yet a new turn of South American politics. They’ve been the most dominant political figures in the region in the past 20 years, presiding over a period of unprecedented economic stability, and doling out equal doses of populism and personal charisma. What happens to them may potentially derail or consolidate such climate, besides, of course, of ruining their legacies. While Chavez, who’s too sick to attend his own inauguration, has been the most controversial of the two, and Lula, the most popular, they both have run against and defeated very powerful coalitions of military and conservative forces in their rise to power. Whether they fulfilled the popular clamor that brought them up to power is still up to heated arguments. One thing is for sure: unlike Latin America’s previous short-lived and sporadic overtures toward democracy, the coalitions that got them both elected and re-elected got virtually no support or sympathy from Washington and, to a certain extent, happened despite of its so-called consensus. In Brazil, a combination of strong monetary policies and implementation of social programs, along with external favorable conditions for the country’s commodities, helped Lula ride a wave of prosperity and increased global profile. In Venezuela, high international oil prices and policies focusing on previously neglected lower classes were enough to grant Chavez the upper hand in his struggle with the country’s wealthy elites. Its resentment towards him may have unwittingly boosted his popularity in the polls. Now, the situation is becoming radically different. Lula, who’s successfully undergone cancer treatment right after leaving office, in 2010, finds himself in the difficult situation of having to explain his role, if any, in a widespread corruption scheme that tainted his administration, and got many of his allies and friends in the wrong side of the law, albeit few are seriously expected to spend time in jail. To many, the Lula who finally conquered enough votes to become president, after two failed attempts, had little to with the combative union leader who rose to prominence during the heady late 1970s in Brazil, when massive popular rallies demanded the end of the military dictatorship in power since 1964. As a more pragmatic leader, not averse to the foreign capital and armed with a capable economic policy team, he succeed by taking steps to strengthen the country’s currency and international reserves, and boost exports, to finally get a previously stagnant economy moving. Through the sheer appeal of his personality, he also attracted to the workforce, a large segment, now numbered in tens of millions, that had been all but invisible. Having helped elect Brazil’s first female leader, Dilma Rousseff, a former political activist even more pragmatic than him, although much less charismatic, Lula was on his way to enlist himself as his country’s most popular and, perhaps, even most important president in history. That’s what under threat, if Brazil’s top prosecutor goes ahead and finds merit in charging him as part of Mensalão, the vote-buying scheme that shocked the nation. The flamboyant Chavez, who had to contend and lose the post of Latin America’s most important leader to Lula, has been called an old-fashioned dictator, the impersonation of hope for the Venezuelan poor, and a buffoon. He, of course, was none of the above. In fact, despite his taste for authoritarian tactics, and inexcusable censorship of the press, he was democratically elected to office, a fact that helped him gain support from other leaders in the continent to return to power, after being temporarily ousted by the military in a coup in 2002. But Venezuela became perhaps the best known example that owning rich natural resources does not a rich nation make. In a time when global oil prices skyrocketed, and despite Chavez’s having de-facto seized control of state-run Pedevesa oil company, diverting much of its profit to social projects of his liking, very little trickled down to the population. Either for lack of imagination or pure incompetence, little of what Chavez attempted to do to fix Venezuela’s woes had any impact on its ingrained poverty and huge income gap. Neither fear can be dismissed too as a cause for such disastrous management of the country’s economy; for Chavez, of suffering another coup, perhaps with even more explicit support from the U.S. For his close allies, of falling off from his volatile graces. He’s faced quite formidable adversaries during his two previous terms, and the next that starts Thursday which he may not be able to fulfill, but in the end it may not be his undisclosed cancer, or the current ‘severe respiratory infection,’ what may do he in. What might deliver the final punch on this battle-scared politician, and that Chavez’s probably pondering about right now, is his failure to become the ‘liberator’ of Venezuela, as he’d liked to see himself, and his most likely modest place in his country’s history, if you use social progress as a measure stick. It’s kind of sad, really, since there’ll probably be a while until two oversize figures like these two rise to prominence in a continent that desperately needs more managers than ambitious political leaders. It has already too many of the latter, presently and in the making, but it’s awfully short of the former. After they’ve gone, even if Rousseff gets reelected, and since Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner is half-way through her second term in office, much of the era of flashy leaders would have become a footnote of history. Bolivia’s Evo Morales, whose biggest credential is being the only member of indigenous populations to ever be elected a president in Latin America, couldn’t be more averted to the spotlight, and is also on his final term. And don’t count Uruguayan President José Mujica to step in Lula and Chavez shoes either. Not that the former guerrillero, who’s made headlines around the world for refusing to accept a salary for his position, or move into the government palace, needs any more publicity. Since he’s in office, Uruguay has passed same-sex marriage laws, and is about to liberalize the use and sale of marijuana. Before you start wondering, we too have no interest in applying to such a risky and, ultimately, thankless job. Besides, Colltales is being busy doing what it does best: telling stories. Halfway through January and there are already at least seven new ones, from a surprising alternative source of energy, to drinks that people drink, to what a notorious corporation is doing with our food. Never mind the nuts and bullies, check the nuts and bolts, and forget that you’ve already forgot what you’d promise to do in the new year. Much healthier is to pay attention to what’s going on around you, in your community, country, and planet. Be good and have a nice week.

Wesley

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1/7/2012 Hope We Can’t Fracking Believe, Colltalers

Among the greatest disappointments about the Obama administration has been its energy policy. Much of what got Barack Obama in the White House was the promise of change in the U.S.’s approach to its energy needs. But alas, many fear that it won’t come, even after the inauguration, three weeks away. That’s because the president has been tone deaf about the terrible environmental impact of two major components of his energy policies, natural gas and clean coal. Despite their utterly deceiving names, the current process of extracting gas from the soil is nothing like ‘natural,’ and there’s no such thing as ‘clean’ coal. While we know so well about the irreversible devastation that two centuries of coal extraction has caused all over the world, so-called fracking, which is how naturally-occurring gas reserves, thousands of feet deep in the bedrock, are tapped, is a relatively new process. The issue has an enormous urgency for New Yorkers because Governor Andrew Cuomo is readying his own energy policies for the state. Despite initial signs that he’d be against the technique, a Congress-requested, EPA-produced report seems to favor it, unlike dozens of previous studies on the contrary. Hydraulic fracturing is a drilling process in which millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and more than 596 toxic chemicals, are pumped into shale formations 8,000 feet below ground. The pressure fractures them to release the natural gas they hold inside, to quote Wikipedia. While from an industry standpoint, gas capture is considerable, much of it and chemicals remain in the environment and may contaminate the groundwater under entire regions. The most blatant evidence is the thousands of farms across states that allow the procedure, whose faucets hiss with gas and, in fact, can be lit with a lighter. So much for calling the process ‘green’ or even associating it with the word natural. Plus, the EPA progress report, which is part of a larger study to come out in its entirety only next year, seems to be designed without addressing a major point of contention: drinking water contamination. Add to that, as a given, the fact that the natural gas industry is busy lobbying Congress and the public opinion in favor of fracking. According to New York-based non-profit Common Cause group, it’s been outspending environmental groups four to one, blanketing airwaves and even screenings of a Matt Damon movie against it. Those environmental groups, along with thousands of farmers whose properties are all but ruined by ground pollution, and a few celebrities who care, have all, so far, failed to get access to President Obama’s ears. The last time he said anything about it, and coal, was in favor of both, in the presidential debates. It’s one of the issues where activism may need to step up a notch in order to even get in the same room with the powerful energy lobby. Since that has also contributed to elect many in the current Congress, it’s doubtful that any legislation against fracking will come spontaneously to the fore. That’s why to many, the president’s second term has already started to feel more like the beginning of his first, when he seemed to have undergone an overnight change, from an enthusiastic and progressive candidate, to one who’d completely lost sight of the grassroots movement that brought him to office. There are many other issues where the Obama administration’s record is either dismal or alarming. The extension of warrantless electronic surveillance, a defense bill that effectively prevents the closing of Guantanamo Bay prison, lack of action on climate change, the list continues and we won’t hesitate to invoke it. But energy policy, which affects people’s lives and all aspects of the economy, requires decisive leadership from the president, even if governors such as New York’s Cuomo could also take the opportunity to set a courageously high standard, when it comes to prioritize the environment over industry interests. For far too long, U.S. energy policies are determined by interests of the carbon-fuel industry. Which, surprise surprise, also includes ‘natural’ gas producers. Fracking, as coal a generation ago, only brings the issue yet again to a boil, since its impact on natural resources is so fast and so radical. Not too fast but arguably radical have been some of the spikes in Colltales’ readership these past two months. Despite two and a half years and over 1,060 posts published, plus this Newsletter that seems to run on its own track, we still feel like growing and making new friends. We hope you join us on line too. Have a great week ahead.

Wesley

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1/01/2013 There Will Be Many Other Cliffs Like These, Colltalers

This week’s Newsletter is mostly to thank all of you for supporting Colltales throughout 2012. You have been, if not the largest group of people we have ever kept a conversation going in a continuous basis, then certainly the nicest. It’d be a waste to revisit this past year yet again, though, and at this point, everything we hear and read about 2012 sounds like the following graph: ‘This year was one of the most blah blah blah, and here’s our list of the best and the worst blah blah blahs we’ve been through. It’s been a time for blah blah blah, and never in our history we have witnessed anything like blah blah blah…’ By laying bare our lack of eloquence about the 365 days that just went by, we’re risking losing you before we get to the next sentence. But we can hardly indulge any more of your generous attention, as we seem to be so short of it ourselves. Let’s hope we’ll see better days in 2013, and not give in to our darkest inklings about why we don’t seriously think we will. Words do have power, though, albeit limited and conditioned to what kind of action they trigger. We’re failing them both by keeping searching for ways to wrap this up, instead of just making a surgical, and sharp cut. So, honoring a time tradition started about two minutes ago, and before those blahs take over again, we’ll be as brief and restrained as we wish the bad news had been in the past 12 months. Let us wish you a progressive, radically positive, and adjective-free 2013. Heaven knows how short we’ve been of the first two, and how we’ve used up way more than our share of the latter this almost-past year. Keep honoring us every Monday morning, of course, and come visit Colltales online often. Its one thousand-plus posts are read in no less than 157 countries, we’re told. There are many challenges ahead for us, both on a personal level and as a community. We’re still ashamed of the many acts of hatred, brutality, senseless killings, despicable injustices, and cruel indifference toward our fellow humans, that we couldn’t possibly or didn’t even try to stop in time. But we remain hopeful that we’ll fulfill our dream of peace on earth and goodwill among people still in our lifetime. After such a gigantic cliche, there’s nothing else to add, so we sign off. Be good and all the best to you and everyone you love.

Wesley

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12/17/2012 We Need to Get Started, Colltalers

The biggest challenge of writing this Newsletter comes not from lacking of what to talk about, but whether we should add our voice to the main discussion transfixing the nation today, along with parts of the world: the massacre of Newtown. It was so brutal and yet so predictable, so final and yet so open to happen again, so intrinsically unique and yet so familiar to anyone living in America, circa the 1990s and 2000s, that there’s little anyone could contribute to it at this point. At least, that it hasn’t already been put forth by pundits, self-appointed experts, politicians, and interest group spokespeople, to mention those with access to airwaves. Shoved in the background are the ever more relevant insights of millions of parents, educators, and health professionals agonizing over the event. There’s a part of us who feels that it’s insensitive, self-serving, and utterly pointless to stick our spoon into this foul stew, only to come up with some rancid comment on the state of our affairs, dripping with sorrow about the victims, and laced with anger towards those who profit from tragedy. A sure way to ignore their gag-inducing commentary would be, of course, not to offer any of our own. After all, following their hypocrisy-laden and political expedient take, who’d still have the guts to stomach either the anchors’ half-chewed bits of self-righteousness, or our own bile-covered diatribes? In some way, it’s insulting to believe that we may even have anything to placate the pain and grief of those affected by this tragedy. On the other hand, though, how can we talk about anything else? We feel collectively betrayed, hopeless, and jaded about all the tearful speeches by public officials, even though we do believe in the sincerity of President Obama’s heartfelt statement and speech. At this point, though, as a nation and as proof of our solidarity, we’d do no harm simply shutting the hell up about it. If we could only stop interviewing little children, or offering ‘portrays’ of the killer, or mentioning him by name, we’d at least deny hundreds of thousands of mentally disturbed youth watching this from being assured that they’ll be remembered, no matter how horrible and despicable their act may be. Only putting a period on this rationale, and starting a new paragraph today, we’ll be able to actually do something about it. Again, the president could start this next paragraph by naming a task force to elaborate a set of principles guiding legislation for new gun control and free long-term mental health care. There are those to whom you either fix everything, changing the bloody ways we go about imposing our views to the world, for instance, or do nothing because, after all, this war is already lost. But history proves that putting a foot on the door is sometimes better than hoping it’ll open up on its own. The tragedy also seems to have put to rest a catchy but ultimately flawed argument. On the same Friday, a man stabbed 22 children in China, but none of them died. Now will anyone have the nerve to tell those Newtown parents that this is not about guns? Meanwhile, the past week was a busy one for Colltales. We greeted Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s new book of aphorisms, hailed a group of Indian slave children being freed from a sweatshop, and commented on the American Atheists’ billboard in Times Square. 2012 has proved to us that it won’t drop out of sight without a lot of blood, sweat and tears. It has put us all to task, whether questioning our willingness to go to war, to let the poor starve to death, to ignore the warnings of a change in climate, or be complacent with assault guns in the streets, amid so much more. It’ll be up to us to turn its final corner with the political resolve and will of character to face what ails us as a society, and take responsibility for our destructive ways. This end of the year, while there’s much to be thankful, there’s also lots for us to prove once and for all that this time we’ll make it count. Have a great one.

Wesley

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12/10/2012 Don’t March to This Drumbeat, Colltalers

Do you hear that? The drums of war, banged by hawks and media pundits alike, are rising once again to the feverish pitch that usually anticipates, and red-carpets, military actions of large scale. We bet that you hardly even notice it by now, though, as it’s been a constant background humming since at least 2001. Or rather, we’ve heard this same particular noise, right before our first warplanes departed to Iraq. The hum had a reference name then, as it does now: it’s goes by some initials, WMD. See, it’s all over the ‘news’ today: the Syrian government may be readying chemical weapons of mass destruction to crush the opposition. Where have you heard that before? Not surprisingly, the claim is immediately followed not by the evidence supporting it, but by a teasing, if it weren’t downright criminal, line of questioning as to whether the U.S. should finally directly intervene on that conflict. Now, before we wonder whether our military belongs in that bloody civil war, let’s take a step back and examine a fundamental element, that should be a given any time a serious geopolitical claim is made: proof of its validity. Well, isn’t that the darnedest thing? for the claim is being made by anonymous sources, and their secrecy comes labeled as national security. In other words, don’t ask for further info, and don’t count on the media to investigate it either: that kind of journalism has been banned from the airwaves long ago. So all we get is that some ‘Internet chatter’ should be enough to get us on the run, while our forces, drones and all, leave to bomb yet some faraway land. We all know where that ‘chatter’ belongs to, or what reference to bodily functions one’d use to classify its content. The worst part is that these prefab fears are already taking hold of those who’re employed exactly to avoid being swayed to costly, tragic, disastrous military adventures, that do good only to weapon makers and contractors. The nuance of Syria’s situation is that it doesn’t need any help from the U.S. to be more screwed up than it already is. Here’s a despot desperately hanging on to his illegitimate power, through the sheer muscle of his family wealth, which in itself was built on the back of his impoverished nation. There’s the sectarian hatred, fueled by those who profit from the inability of its castes to accept different takes on the same set of retrograde religious principles. And entering the picture, a just re-empowered, and refinanced, guerrilla movement, pursuing an agenda of regional dominance. The newest boost to this movement, Hamas, by the way, has been provided in great part by Syria’s most ambitious neighbor, Israel. It’s naive to deny the link between the Israeli prime minister’s confrontational approach towards Hamas’s main sponsor, Iran, and the defiant grow of the organization. So just the thought that a few hundred thousand troops on the ground, or warplanes overhead, to the tune of a few billion dollars, will put out this fire, can’t be considered only senseless; it must have come out of the need to preserve the currently under-attack U.S. defense budget, while justifying a rhetoric of permanent war. As for Colltales, we are and always will be for a non-violent solution to human conflicts. The sad anniversary of John Lennon’s murder last Saturday found us asking ourselves: if the idea of peace and all that now sounds like a cliche, why there’s always an effort to kill its messengers? There were also stories about an expensive brand of coffee, and why animals are the ones paying for it; old underwear worn by peasants and queens; and how cities such as Damascus and Tel Aviv look so peaceful seen from above, despite all the strife on the ground. As Menorahs are lit, we enter that inevitable part of the year when celebrations, and good wishes, and excuses to do the right thing, are aplenty. Whatever your case may be, don’t let the drums of war, or end-of-the-world fanatics, distract you from what’s important: we need peace and we need it right now. All the best.

Wesley

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12/3/2012 The War We’ve Already Lost Still Costs Us Billions, Colltalers

An undeserving sideshow of the reelection of President Barack Obama was the fact that two U.S. states, Colorado and Washington, chose to decriminalize pot, marijuana, weed, grass, or whatever ‘kids of varying ages’ are calling it today. The issue has utmost significance specially now, as neighbor Mexico has also elected a new leader, Enrique Pena Nieto. That’s because for most of former president Felipe Calderón’s 8-year administration, Mexico has undergone a vicious, brutal, and endless ‘war on drugs,’ following closely a Washington DC prescription, including tens of billions of dollars in military aid, with not much, or rather, almost no success. The country seems to be ruled equally by its central government, with its triumphant, but fictitious, rhetoric, and the gritty reality on the ground, of a runaway war between factions jockeying for control of the lucrative drug trade, in which the U.S. consumer plays a prominent role. While Americans consider the vote in those two states, along with the 18 others that allow some sort of medical use for pot, a cultural issue, of lifetime choices and personal freedom, what’s easily ignored is the growing incarcerated population that such war has continuously fed to the mostly private-owned U.S. prison system. And the devastation that such approach has caused just south of the border. It’s clearly that Calderón’s failed to make a dent on the illegal trade of drugs in his country, despite all that American taxpayers’ money wasted on weapons, at least some of which may have found its way into the pockets of powerful supporters of his policies. On the contrary, the grizzly assassinations, the mass murders of innocent civilians, extortion, kidnappings, and widespread official corruption, have all only increased. Mexicans seem to be, once again, out of luck: supported by the return to ruling of old oligarchic PRI party, which has been in power longer than any other, movie-star looks Pena Nieto’s big idea is to ‘combat the crime’ associated with the drug war,’ according to his campaign. Sounds familiar? In other words, you may choose your cliches here: either, it’s business as usual, and all signs indicate that investments in Mexican economy will continue; or the beatings will continue until morale improves, which in this case means, they’ll provide anti-drug enforcers a lot more bullets, and see what happens. The qualifier used in the first graph refers to the fact that, despite moving billions and causing thousands of deaths in Mexico, and of inmates in the U.S., President Obama seems content with the way things are, and the occasion has even provided some ill-timed comic relief for some in his inner circle. This lack of seriousness in the approach to drug traffic and its connection with powerful crime cartels, is bound to harm everything that Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and Americans hold as dear as individual rights, as well as undermine even the economic ties between the two countries. Pot decriminalization should be welcomed, not just by those who favor it, but by any sensible policy maker, who can no longer ignore the damage the current prescription to eradicate it – heavy artillery and disregard for the rule of law – is causing, even under a strictly economics point of view. It may be up to the American president to lead the way, and immediately halt all aid to this lost war in Mexico, and condition any fresh funds to a structural change of strategy. That may require redirecting resources toward medical education, social programs, and yes, decriminalization of at least pot. Far from imposing its will on another sovereign nation, such turnaround would mean what seems obvious to everyone, but the White House and the Palacio Nacional: that what’s been in agreement between the two governments is no longer representative of the will of the citizens they represent. While in the U.S. the issue seems to have finally gotten in solid step with the times, Mexicans arguably also long for a time when they’ll stop having to pay often with their lives, for the struggle between a minority of users of a controlled substance and the government’s efforts to crush it. Once the government would start collecting legal taxes on the corner of the market drug cartels now control, they could be very likely rendered toothless. Such taxes, by the way, would have the additional plus of being fresh revenue streams for both cash-strapped governments. Without their main source of income, those private armies would be hard to keep, just as the end of Prohibition drove the old-fashioned racketeering-happy illegal bootleggers out of the equation. That they diversified and pursued other branches of criminality is an entirely different story. As for Colltales, which also lacks a main source of income, but strives to provide some cultural relief week in, week out, the past one was prone of happenstance and luck strikes, as two Powerball tickets shared the over $500 million jackpot. For them and for most of the millions who didn’t get it right, the transfixing issue of becoming filthy rich overnight dominated the proceedings. For the rest of us, to whom personal wealth is not that important (yeah, right), another issue was equally as intoxicating: cows losing their tails. Yet for a growing segment who’s under attack, the period served for a set of depressing news of another nature: journalists as targets of government’s bullets. Overall, though, as a Fortune Cookie recently disclosed to us, ‘your good efforts were not without notice by an important party.’ Whether it’s someone you know, or a platoon of deranged vigilantes out to get you, we regret to inform we have no other information. Let’s hope it’s the good kind of party, though. Be good and have a nice week.

Wesley

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11/26/2012 We Can’t Remote-Control Our Foreign Policy, Colltalers

One of the many issues loading President Obama’s new term in office has finally given Washington a juicy bone of consequence to chew about: the use of drones to kill perceived U.S. enemies. But although the discussion is long overdue, we wonder whether an even bigger picture may be still amiss: that of the U.S.’s foreign policy being heavily shaped by our defense-military priorities. Even before the discussion over remote-control assassinations had boiled over, the president was already under pressure to define his priorities about the C.I.A.-managed, officially-classified program. For a while, the use of unmanned aircraft to pursue and execute alleged terrorists abroad seemed to fit the need for an economical way for ‘quick’ fixes of problematic sources of conflict. No need for expensive armies, or costly congressional approvals in order to ‘surgically’ strike so-called bad apples, a strategy that seemed to have worked specially with Al Qaeda. Or so went the intel-community rationale. Soon enough, though, such solution was neither cheap nor accurate: entire villages of innocent bystanders were being bombed ‘by mistake.’ When U.S. allies got into the action, the practice of shooting first, properly identifying targets later was widespread and out of control enough to cause serious global concerns. And there was no cost-savings to speak of, as our troops were still being deployed and spent all along. So now there’s intense talk about setting clear rules for using drones, which have already killed more than 2,500 people, justifiably or not, according to the NYTimes. We bet that there’s a lot of patting in the back too, for the issue to have finally reached the point where it can no longer be ignored. It’s certainly a step in the right direction, we’re all supportive, and all that. Problem with focusing solely on whether sending troops or flying machines to kill people thousands of miles away, tend to rob our attention from the reasons why we’re sending either of them in the first place. And it goes back to what kind of country we want us to be: one that sets its foreign policy based on a set of principles, or a list of targets to kill. It’s positive that, as a nation, we’ve found the resolve of facing up to the fact that having someone inside a windowless office operating a killing aircraft on the other side of the world may not be the best way of going about resolving conflict. But we hope that the Obama administration go much further than that, and get the opportunity to reset the whole U.S.’s foreign policy in the process. Ultimately, we can be neither guided by our fears nor think with our weapons, if we are to remain globally relevant in the years ahead. Thinking globally and being guided by relevance are, coincidently, two of the dearest principles inspiring Colltales. The past week was short and had us at our most grateful with the precarious but still holding cease fire in Gaza. It made for a much more palatable Thanksgiving that would’ve been, at least for those who care about this sort of thing. We do and we hope you do to. As with murderous drones, illegal killings, statehood disputes, and so many other hard-core issues defining the current state of affairs in the much of Asia, the first thing to do is to give a rest to the arsenals and have the parts involved sit down to talk. Have a great week ahead.

Wesley

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11/19/2012 Bombs Can’t Settle Conflict, Colltalers

As Americans prepare for a short week, topped by the biggest shopping day of the year and, oh yes, Thanksgiving, another conflict ignites a faraway land, and the U.S. is again enrolled as an interested party. Which means, we’re again endorsing a war only a minority has been consulted about it, has any knowledge of its implications, or stands to gain from. And that’s very likely to advance nothing in the cause for peace in the Middle East. First, let’s state the obvious: Israel has a right to exist, defend itself, and protect its citizens from outside aggression, and does not depend on U.S.’s approval to do whatever it supposedly deems necessary to its survival. End of the official party line. The escalation of a military confrontation between a supremely well-equipped Israeli Army and a rag-tag of untrained missile operators, however lethally armed they may be, could never be characterized as fair. If it’s true that Hamas hasn’t done anything to promote the well being of the Palestinian people, and even less to strengthen its diplomatic ties in the region, it’s equally true that Israel’s current leadership may have been already preparing for this latest flareup. For months now, under the excuse of pressuring Iran and its nuclear ambitions, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been actively selling the cause of an armed solution to what’s essentially a diplomatic impasse. Which makes even a casual observer conclude either one of two things: Netanyahu never believed that he needed to keep working on the two-state solution with the Palestinians. That could mean that all the sporadic, and ineffective, bombing from Gaza in these past few months, was not being taken really seriously. Neither the Palestinian recent push for statehood at the United Nations. Or, a bit more sinister, the apparent buildup to a possible armed intervention in Iran, so passionately defended by the prime minister as to threaten undermining the support of its main ally, the U.S., was only a show for the bleachers. Indeed, in order to acquiesce the opposition’s demands for early elections, which he was forced to anticipate to Jan 22, he desperately needed the maintain support from the country’s armed forces. So, nothing like the allure of another war. Then again, cynics may say that all these possibilities were long within Netanyahu’s political calculations, and looked like a win-win outlook for him and his Likud Party. Before going any further, though, it’s important to emphasize that we’d never believe that the prime minister, its political alliances in the Israeli Parliament, the country’s armed forces and its citizenry were in any way reeling for this conflict. In fact, there’s an arguably large part of the Israeli electorate that must be tired of the threat represented by incompetent and irresponsible leaderships such as Hamas and the Hezbollah, but don’t necessarily subscribe to the Likud’s recipe for dealing with the occupied territories. And then, of course, there’s President Obama, fresh from a bruising reelection who, nevertheless must help to articulate a yet new coalition of regional powers, to immediately cease the hostilities, and restart the negotiations for a two-state solution. A last word for the cynics, who insist that we’ve been down this road so many times before that one more ride won’t make any difference: shut the hell up. Few of us had to spend our lives trapped in a dusty strip of land, with nowhere to run when the rain of bullets come down. With the two sides so physically and intrinsically connected for so many centuries, only a lunatic would believe that an armed conflict will settle once and for all their differences. Apparently, there’s an excess of lunatics in power for flareups such as this latest to even be possible. So those who’re under that rain of bullets have only non-lunatics to count on, among which we must include the U.S. President. For the Palestinian and Israeli families, directly affected by another round of carnage and destruction, our deepest, sincerest sorrow. And for Americans, let’s hope new voices can be heard this time in support for peace. Colltales is always proud of being part of such an effort, through the only way it can: telling stories. Like the one about a grassroots, peaceful movement such as the Occupy Wall Street, which has found a new creative way to erase consumer debt. Or the fate of three citizens of the world, caught within extraordinary circumstances, and how they cope with their lot in life. And much more. After all, since we’ve crossed the 1000th threshold, and before we reach the next thousand, there are at least a million more stories to tell. Hope you’ll be with us all steps of the way. Have a great one.

Wesley

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11/12/2012 The Usurpers Are at the Gate, Colltalers

That didn’t take long. Even though the reelection of President Obama was not a landslide, and Democrats have failed to snatch back control over the House, a few extra Senate seats notwithstanding, soon after (almost all) votes had been counted, the losing side was acting as if it had the upper hand again. It’s clear that this has been no smashing victory, but it’s a victory all the same. And even those who believed, or rather, who tried to sell the theory that the president was bound to lose at least the popular vote, were resoundingly proven wrong. Nevertheless, we may be heading back to a bruising, distracting, and ultimately, revenge-driven fight over the end of the Bush tax cuts. Which, in itself, was already a shotgun arrangement forced down the throats of Americans, and to the tune of millions of wasted dollars. Once again, sensible voices, progressive forces, working classes, and, for crying out loud, the majority of people in this country, all are telling President Obama to hang tough and not to concede an inch of his hard-won political mandate, a word that’s in itself beginning to fill us with dread. That’s because the author of rousing speeches, including the one in the early hours of the day-after the elections, has a poor record of coming out of the table of negotiations with the same kind of reassurance we get from his rhetoric. That poor record did hurt his political capital, and by extension that of the millions who voted for him, in his first term. Will he show a different combat mode, now that his presidency has a definite expiring date? And will he also take on the most progressive issues left out since his 2008 campaign? Because for large part of the ideological debate over the president’s legacy, being waged since his first day in office, this has been a center-right presidency, led by a constitutional professor who’s at times painfully shy of tackling constitutional issues directly affecting Americans. Aside from welcome advances in lifestyle choices, such as same-sex marriage and drug decriminalization, still in their infancy as issues but nevertheless heading in the right direction, the blatant oversight of the diminishing protection of individual rights, for example, has been utterly disturbing. From the constitutionality of keeping such a large number of Americans imprisoned and guarded by for-profit concerns, to the inability of our court system to swiftly handle judgement errors, to the statistically eloquent fact that most of those in jail belong to what used to be called minorities, the issues abound. From the free-reign given to corporations to trade on personal data, which imply gross, secret, and consistent trampling of the most basic rights to privacy, to the lack of clear definition of these same rights, to a growing government-sanctioned police-surveillance establishment, the list goes on and on. We can’t forget that issues such as individual freedom and the right to a fair trial, besides being tenets of our state of law, concern everyone, including those deemed terrorists. Instead, their presumed crimes and culpability are becoming ever more opaque and at times even erased from the public record, in a startling breakdown of any notion of legality. There are also unanswered questions related to the use of our military force, lack of transparency about foreign policies concerning aggression and intervention, and the use of drones without any sort of due legal process. Also, since today is Veteran’s Day, it’s always useful to point it out the lack of serious programs to reintegrate them back into civilian life, apart from the profuse parading and much grandstanding you’ve been witnessing all day. Notice that we came this far without mentioning the deficit, budget, job creation, health care, welfare, immigration, student debt, campaign finance, lobbying, global warming, the war, and so many other issues dominating, rightly so, our national debate. Electing a president is about endorsing a certain view of where the country should head to. But if we want that view to advance our needs as society, we need to establish points of pressure, to drive policy. Paraphrasing LBJ, if you want the president to do it, you need to ‘force’ him to lead us to it. The reelection of President Obama was the confirmation that the American people are still ahead of biased pundits and political maneuvering, and still above the power of millions and millions of dollars, albeit we don’t know for how much longer. For skeptics, his win must serve the argument that the presidency can not, yet, be outright brought by a set of interests. But our political process has shown so much vulnerability, so many cracks through which any usurper could and did take advantage of our citizenry, to be cause for alarm. The president must consolidate the signature initiatives that rode him to the White House, for sure. But this second and last term, is his last chance to really advance the country towards its compassionate and progressive destiny, so to place his own legacy at part with great presidents of the past. Because, as we mentioned before, the party that’s lost its national argument in the polling stations for the second time in row is already flexing its muscles behind closed doors as if nothing happened, jockeying for an equal footing in policy formulation, which would be a travesty of the electoral process. Colltales, as usual, has been closely watching the proceedings, and contributing the only way it sees fit: by telling stories. On election day, we gathered a few tids and bits easily overlooked among the excitement. And we followed it up with other factors concerning, Sandy, the storm may have tilted its outcome. And in the typical fashion readers are used to and love about the site, we topped the week with a completely unrelated story, celebrating the birthday of a space visionary. We hope your vote carries us all a long way towards a more peaceful future, one that doesn’t imply the sacrifice of so many young men and women thrown into harm’s way thousands of miles from home. Stay safe.

Wesley

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11/5/2012 Sandy Had a Silver Lining, Colltalers

It was a dark and stormy week for U.S. east coast residents. It’s been a trying and devastating time for Americans for much longer than that. As for the rest of the world, it’s gotten as bad as it possibly could in the past decade, whether with or without our help. Nevertheless, despite all destruction and despair that Hurricane Sandy’s visited on millions of Americans, something almost unbelievable also happened: it brought up to the forefront, and with impeccable political timing, the issue of climate change. We can’t pretend that much of what’s gone wrong will be magically righted by tomorrow evening, neither in the recovery efforts, nor in the political process; these things do take time. But there’s indeed a lot of room for stuff to get even worse, if we all decide that we can’t possibly be bothered. So if you can and are able to vote, there’s no reason for you or anyone not to. Even if you no longer believe in democracy of representation, or are already too jaded to hope for the better, or has long ceased to put much faith on either candidate. For make no mistake, many will celebrate your absence just on the account that it makes their job easier. Since you and everybody else only get on their way, when you show up and demand to be counted, they’d rather that you’d spend the day at home. Also, if you really care to make a statement against the status quo, the way votes are cast, the Electoral College’s flaws, or how big money’s about to hijack our democracy, the day that dawns tomorrow, of all the ones that have dawned in the past four years, is the only wrong one to express it. Finally, if you’re so mad, and rightly so, about our politics, and how dirty it’s become, there’s no other way around it: you’ll need to get your own hands dirty. You won’t change a thing sabotaging the only time you’ve been asked to step forward and be heard. Everyone’s already part of the outcome of this election, regardless of who’ll be elected U.S. President. So, if you do have a choice, you’re not in such a bad shape. For many throughout the land won’t be so lucky, even if they’re willing. And hold off your criticism even for those who’re oblivious about the political process, and think how fortunate you are that you know different. We’ve all been lied to, of course, but if they believed what they’ve been told, that’s just too bad. Which brings us to this past week’s darkness, and also its very bright spot, if you can believe it for just a moment. For in 99.9% of the cases, when people won’t say anything, and politicians play numb about an issue, it’s usually doomed and destined to the waste bin. In the rarest of the cases, however, issues have a way of crashing our party like uninvited guests. That’s what happened in the wake of the misery that Hurricane Sandy has exacted on the right side of our geography. As it turned out, such misery had also a silver lining: its perfect electoral timing. Just when we thought that there was no more time to discuss climate change before the vote, the storm unleashed its destructive power over our heads, as if we needed another reminder. Apparently, we did. As we brace for another possible hit, from an approaching nor’easter, we obviously hope you and everyone you love are doing fine. This election, if anything, may serve to remind us why it’s so important to vote, if only to say how much we care about what happens to them. For the sake of transparency, readers of Colltales know full well that we support the reelection of President Obama too. But, regardless of your own inklings, we do hope you exercise your citizen’s right and vote tomorrow, and have everyone you know do the same. There’ll be still a country, and world, that will need to be tended to, from Wednesday on. What this election may determine is how hard our task will be. Have a great one.

Wesley

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10/22/12 Women Will Be the Difference Again, Colltalers

As President Obama and his GOP challenger head to their third and last debate, tonight in Florida, one can’t help but wonder whether a few more of those, or not having had any of them at all, would’ve made much of a difference. For coming Nov. 6, a crucial but underrated issue may be more decisive of who’ll emerge the winner, than even a frank, open discussion of issues, which let’s face it, hasn’t happen and most likely never will. More on that in a moment. In fact, these debates do make a difference, but for all the wrong reasons. After all, what’s been broadcast is the candidates’ ability to ‘control the narrative,’ even if by lying and ignoring simple rules of civility; their ‘command’ of the issues, that is, skill at reciting campaign talking points as if they were self-evident, and all hyperbolic jargon the media always manages to pack in. As it’s become common practice in our ‘purchasable’ democracy, nominees for higher office now train for debates like heavyweights, sparring with members of their inner circle, and rarely trying new combinations if the fight is worth a title. Which means that eventual asides and unexpected blows, if any, will be rigorously contained. By the way, the stultifying amount of money spent on this election has been enough to give this campaign a few solid black eyes, even before the contenders entered the ring. The anonymous Super Pacs and lobbyists act as their de facto coaches and trainers, barking instructions from the corners. On the other hand, familiar finger pointing will be repeated for emphasis, meaningless stats will be invoked for diversion, and unchallenged half-truths will be regurgitated for effect. In the end, it may make for good TV sitcom drama, but hardly to serve as a reference of what’s at stake. However inflated is the importance that advertisers and pundits may assign to these debates, and regardless of their format, they’re designed to stifle in-depth discussion. Not even the proverbial third-party alternative has managed to squeeze in, this time around. And progressive, grassroots movements have long been all but banned from prime airwaves. Which brings us back to that underrated issue mentioned at the beginning: who’ll show up. The 2008 election may have been decided because an unusual large number of new voters did just that. Along with all other kinks elections usually produce, that was the defining factor tipping the scale, then. Republicans recognized this early on, and have built a whole strategy around it. Under the guise of fighting voter fraud, they’ve concocted a devilish, Trojan-horse maneuver that has made harder for a traditionally Democratic demographics to register to vote, in most cases, effectively preventing it from even reaching polling stations on election day. But Democrats have an obvious voter segment that’s potentially unsurpassed, albeit surprisingly not unanimous: women. With the GOP’s open attack on reproductive rights, vow to restrict health care to women, and threat to rewrite laws protecting choice, it’d be a given to expect that they would all support the president’s reelection. They still may, of course, and in fact, the majority of Americans hope that they do. The reality, though, is that they may not. For reasons that not even the most diabolical political strategist would explain, the candidate who has repeatedly said that he’d curtail women’s right of choosing what’s best for their bodies, has a baffling prestige among them. One may credit that to an army of well-honed and loyal drones, political operatives deployed at religious and ideological organizations, pushing for a ‘Christian’ agenda. Also, the wealthy and affluent tend to apply a different moralistic rhetoric to common folk than they allow themselves to enjoy. And many voter registration groups are religious zealots, plain and simple. Ultimately, though, it’ll be up to the better part of the estimated 160 million female Americans the task of stand up for the rights that affect all of us. For when a woman receives the best possible health care, it’s her family, her community, and her country that, in the short and long run, will benefit from it. In other words, all of us. We’re not sure we’ll have the stomach to watch the full ‘show’ tonight. But it seems clear that either this election is already decided, or is hopefully still up for grabs, and in either instance, it’ll be the women’s power the one to make a difference. If you do care about this country, you need to remind your friends and family, mothers and sisters, about this. As for Colltales, which has published its 1000th post this past week, it’s been nothing but a witness to those who care too. Take the story about body suits, for example, and how they can help the disable to walk again. Or the kid’s letter to Mitt Romney, which has briefly restored our faith in the wisdom of new generations. Or even that body hair, wouldn’t you know it, can save lives. Tune in tonight and may those and many more stories just like them help you get through the week ahead. Have a great one.

Wesley

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10/15/2012 What the World Knows About Us, Colltalers

A few events this past week have highlighted the increasing disconnect between what’s happening within the world’s most expensive democracy, and the global turmoil that surrounds it. While Americans were being fed a steady, but fact-free, diet of misleading stats about the coming presidential election, the world was actually rearranging itself in disturbing ways. For an unquestioning but economically powerful media, such divide works either way: whether we’re distracted with the ultimately irrelevant vice-presidential debate, and the political dividends that it may have generated to or subtracted from both parties, or simply ignoring the few potentially game changers happening elsewhere. Hugo Chavez got voted to remain in office for another six of what will be his almost two-decade rule; a bright school-age Pakistani girl got shot by the Taliban; Israel, continues determined to use its military to prevent another relief boat, or any humanitarian aid, to reach Gaza. It was also a week that saw a spectacularly ill-timed Nobel Peace Award being given to the European Union. It may have been even worse than when it awarded the prize to President Obama, practically in the same week he’d gone back on his campaign promises to cut down the U.S. military budget. Did we also mentioned that street protests in Greek, Spain, and Portugal, against the colossally unfair, EU-endorsed austerity measures, have had the curious effect of being both justified, and having awakened some of the worst, long-dormant racists fears about Europe since WWII? While many Democrats expect the president to use at least some of his vice Joe Biden’s unmeasured candor during the next debate with Mitt Romney, or else, we’re still failing to acknowledge what’s, to the rest of the world, an almost certainty: for way too long, the U.S.’s foreign policy has been managed by its military complex as its own independent ‘little’ project, with almost no accountability, or connection, to this country’s diplomatic geopolitical goals. It’s most excellent, in an evil, 1980s caricatured Reagan way, then that the media itself has been given kudos to itself, while it continues failing to press any of the issues even remotely related to the downward spiral of humanistic ideas going on all around us. In the meantime, Latin America which for a brief moment, saw a resurgence of socialist and democratic aspirations, after so many years of brutal military dictatorships, has been quietly settling for either absolute populism, with little hope of social promotion, as in Venezuela, Argentina, and Chile, or for an open grab for social mobility, to anyone willing to pay or cheat for it, as the sad example that Brazil has been setting lately. Let’s hope some of the region’s new political institutions that blossomed in the past 20 years are still strong enough to prevent a complete backlash. Unlike the U.S. media, for example, the Brazilian press has matured into a real interlocutor to power. And so has its judicial system for the most part. The girl, who once dared to raise her voice against the Taliban, remains under mortal danger in Pakistan, even if she’s likely to pull through her current wounds. As anyone awake since 9/11 would know, the Taliban’s gained a huge Pakistani presence, which renders our multi-billion dollar, and hundreds of thousands of human casualties in Afghanistan tragically ineffective. As for Israel, its PM offered only the latest round of its case for bombing Iran last month at the U.N. His presentation was so ridiculously shallow and unhinged, that he brought along his own crude drawing of a bomb to illustrate it, as if the whole world was composed of first graders. But if that wouldn’t convince even those kids, the PM’s still dangerously determined to keep the Palestinians stranded and deprived from even the most basic living conditions, which only makes his own Israeli people ever more vulnerable to desperado attacks. Will they elect him again to stay in office? We’ll see. You wouldn’t have felt any despair by reading Colltales this week, though. Bees are at it again, and this time their honey has new colors and tastes. It’s as a bittersweet story as the guy who died after winning a bug eating contest. No word yet on who’s stand to collect his prize, a python. And if that makes you think about what you’ve been putting in your mouth, then read the two-part on the stomach, and what goes inside it. We find very instructive to pay attention to what goes on outside the U.S. It’s the least that voters living in the world’s biggest immigrant country can do to prepare for next month’s election. Much of the policies our two candidates have been hesitant to discuss are already at full fruition in Europe and elsewhere. Apart from that, be good and we’ll see you on the other side of the week.

Wesley

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10/8/2012 Don’t Fall Off the Flat Earth, Colltalers

America celebrates its anniversary this week, the 520th year since the first European, the Genovese Christopher Columbus, landed here. That being said, pretty much everything about this first sentence can be called into question. The name America, derived from another Italian navigator, Americo Vespucci, may be how the U.S. is known outside its boarders, but it’s really a shortened version for the whole continent. Also, Oct. 12 is not a date but a range, anytime between Aug. and the end of this month, according to the historical record. Columbus didn’t actually land here, but on an island off the coast of Florida, Hispaniola, that it’s now shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti. And research shows that he was not even the first European, since Vikings and other explorers may have reached these beaches eons before him. In other words, as everything else about our modern age, it’s all relative. Other terrible assumptions have been associated with the myth of the discovery of America, even though we’re not about to start calling it as such any time soon. Oh, and that Columbus was terrible with the natives too. Much has been thrown at the date, and Columbus, and contemporary U.S., and more needs to be uncovered to properly anchor the event that brought us all to existence to the historical record. But short of that, it’s a holiday and parade day, and a time to celebrate the Italian heritage in the U.S. That those navigators had to overcome the fear of a flat-out Earth, where ships were at risk of falling off the side of the planet, is truly baffling, perhaps even more than the fact that many of them got to name places not yet discovered then. Not bad for that hardly literate Italian, one may say. His is still a tale of unshakable confidence, ignorance about the odds, and pure luck on the execution, that still finds resonance on life in America, circa 2012. We know now that, despite all controversy and likely inaccuracies about the what really happened then, Columbus did leave an indelible print in own world. The question is, will this year be as remembered five centuries from now, as 1492 is today? The president’s dismal performance and his opponent’s blatant lies on last week’s debate notwithstanding, will either of them have a chance to leave a footprint on the future of this nation, as unequivocal as the Genovese did? We may as well be at the edge of another flat Earth era, and reality-based daredevils will have to overcome fears of what may lie on the other side of this age. But one thing is for sure: history wasn’t kind with those who barked and cursed, while navigators set sail to found a new future, five hundred years ago. On the same token, Colltales won’t last nearly as long, so you’d better hurry, if you want to read about our present days. A time when birds collide with buildings, people fight for the right of not wearing protection to their brains, and, well, mad cows. A time to keep things short and in perspective too. So play nice and set those plans for your own immortality in motion. It may be all an illusion, but it definitely kept Columbus and his contemporaries from giving up to the naysayers. Have a great one.

Wesley

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10/1/2012 Never Mind an October Surprise, Colltalers

Just when we were about to greet the month as a turnaround for at least some things (the so-called ‘last Westerner detainee’ being released from the infamous Guantanamo prison, hundreds of civilian Libyans deposing their weapons, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez saying that even he’d vote for U.S. President Obama), reality blows up on our face and makes us ashamed once more. The war in Afghanistan just claimed its 2000th American life, a figure that can be multiplied by at least three to estimate the number of Afghan casualties of their own. And that’s pretty much what this war, as any, can achieve: death, devastation, and the further sinking of the U.S.’s moral standard in the world. We don’t mean to be flippant about such a grim milestone. Neither any of those ‘things’ listed above holds a comparable weight to it. But it does raise the issue of our stagnant progress towards being a force for peace and justice. And if you’re thinking, that’s preposterous, the world can take care of itself, you’re the one being flippant now. We’re still sending our young men and women to such an inhospitable land, known for burying powerful armies and ambitions throughout the millennia. All we get back from its fields are planes full of body bags and damaged survivors, who’ll spend their remaining days on prescription drugs and isolation. Those 2000, their families and friends, form now a contingent of citizens we insulate ourselves from. They’re destined to continue fighting, and losing, their inner wars, while we’ll be out, cheering every new prefab American idol. That the Guantanamo prison remains open; hundreds more of Libyans and Pakistanis live in fear of the robotic death from drones we rained on them daily; and that’s so easy for a political buffoon such as Chavez to be perceived as a serious interlocutor, are but a few of the wounds this war has inflicted on our national self-respect. The president enters the final leg of his marathon to get reelected and pool after pool places him ahead in the finishing line. The ultra-right’s possible biggest mistake was to double-down on unconvincing claims about his supposed ‘radicalism,’ where there was none, and hope that the American public was just to enthralled with the Kardashians to noticed their fake numbers failing to add up. But it’d be an even bigger mistake to believe that this race is all but done. And even though the main base for the argument is the abysmal amounts of money fueling both parties’ campaigns, the president’s main adversary at this point may be of his own making, meaning what he did fail to accomplish as promised. Under his watch, the military defense complex remains dictating U.S. foreign policy. Shadowy security organizations, such as the ‘Non Such Agency,’ festered and acquired even more control over surveillance of American citizens. And not a single corrupt Wall Street chief got persecuted or is under any threat of spending a day in court or jail. In this context, the economy, that high horse that those who drove it to the ground before now use to gallop over any reasonable assertion that it’s actually improving, is in reality going the president’s way, all record unemployment figures considered. Furthermore, even his own reelection may hinge now more on a Democratic resurgence in the House, than on favorable stats of GDP recovery. So as we reach this staggering body count in a conflict that hasn’t solved a single issue related to terrorism or otherwise, even advocates of a proverbial ‘October surprise’ may be on the verge of settling for the ‘no news is good news’ motto. It’s advisable that everyone exercises some restrain at this point, though. It’ll be up to those who support the reelection to remind the president that if it does happen, it’ll be on the account that we never add another thousand on that gory figure. And that we do reign on military spending. And that our constitutional right to dissent remains sacred and protected. And that we finally land a few of the bankers who caused the bankruptcy of millions of Americans where they belong: in jail. But just because we’re hopeful, we’re not skipping our weekly dose of Colltales stories, just in case, and at least for now. Where else would you find combined stories about faulty fathers, poisoned rice, and texting while you drive in a single post? Or another sample of that old nasty habit of hiding the poor from visitors that local officials like to indulge in so often? Or even a report of what the rulers of starving countries do when they come to New York. Fifty years ago this month, a group of four working class lads recorded their first single, an almost Zen plea for unrestricted love, that unwittingly ignited a cultural revolution based on some assumptions about idealism, faith in the future, and, well, love. The single (songs used to be released that way back then), ‘Love me Do,’ had a hard time reaching the charts (again, at that time, well, you know what? just don’t ask), even in that remarkable year. In the U.K., it peaked at #17 and it took two more years to finally be the #1 song in America, along with a handful of other Beatles songs. It’s now arguably seen as the beginning of the 1960s, even though the Cold War was about to finish building its most durable, and ugliest, monument, the Berlin wall,, and the pill was far from taking center stage of the sex revolution that followed. It also marked the beginning of the overuse of the word ‘love,’ which lasted until people started to hate it all over again. Perhaps it’s unfortunately that we’re not about to see a renaissance of neither the word nor of its meaning in what’s ahead. Be it as it may, though, we do hope you’ve found a certain measure of both in your own life and, with luck, are able to share them with those around you. It’s certainly a good way to start the new month. Have a great one.

Wesley

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9/24/2012 The Power of Showing Up, Colltalers

The U.S. presidential campaign heads to the homestretch still hijacked by a dominant theme: the takeover of our political process, and democracy, by money and privilege, while leaving no room to globally relevant issues. This electoral cycle has reduced our national debate to a shouting match between the haves and the have-nots, and the unduly ascendence of a flawed sense of religious morality. It’s not that either issue has lost its p