Newsletter II

This Week in Colltales 

4/17/2017 Help Brazil Save the World, Colltalers

Eight Brazilian cabinet ministers and a dozen politicians, mostly from the multiparty base of President Michel Temer, have been named last week in a giant government corruption probe. But most major media outlets are covering it as if involving Workers’ Party members only.
PT, the party of former presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, impeached by Congress last year, is indeed among the 108 listed, but the majority is from the president’s PMDB, and from PSDB, the party of another past leader and ally, Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
Brazil’s biggest political scandal has reached such a significant pitch in part due to the way the investigation, Lava Jato (Car Wash), as it’s known, is being conducted. In this stage, for instance, bosses and employees of once powerful Odebrecht Organization have been providing the Supreme Court names, in exchange for lesser penalties or no prosecution, in a process that, critics say, has become itself tainted.
It’s hard to bring down to a few, essential points, this dizzying array of conflicting views and possible bias, wrapped up into a multi year investigation that started at state-run oil giant Petrobras, and, one wouldn’t know it by the coverage, was encouraged by Lula and Dilma.
The first startling point is that Temer, so often associated with corruption, embezzlement, and secret Swiss bank accounts, is not on the list. That he successfully warded off all efforts to include him show how skilled a politician the former #2 on Dilma’s ticket has become.
The second point is how the Brazilian media, which is controlled by half a dozen powerful families and politicians of the religious right, remain king makers of the country’s politics. Pretty much every major news outlet was behind the public pressure and political manipulation that led to the impeachment of Brazil’s first female president, even as they failed to build a strong and independent legal case against her.
Similarly to what happens in Trump’s country, most of those who took the streets and banged kitchen pots against Dilma, for two straight years, starting by her 54 million-vote reelection, in 2014, remain unaware that the 24/7 negative media coverage against her was crucial to drive them into angry rallies. We may dedicate a future column to this and other similarities of the U.S. and Brazil’s political momentum.
Over the weekend, Estadão, one of Brazil’s biggest communications group, which along the O Globo organization was crucial in the movement to depose Dilma, found an unarguable way to defuse the aforementioned majority, and still keep its focus on demonizing PT.
It diluted the breaking Justice Luiz Edson Fachin’s list by headlining instead its own research, on the total number of Lava Jato interviewees. On that list, yes, PT has the majority. But the fact that’s not what’ll move the process along, but the Justice’s list, is another of Estadão’s trickery Brazilians have grown used to. And the week is likely to be dominated by the paper’s own report over the official document.
The third important point to be made about just such a momentum is, obviously, the economy. Even critics of PT recognize that during its 13 years in power, Brazil became the seventh-largest economy in the world, lifted some 29 million from extreme poverty into the workforce, foreign investment and reserves, as well as consumer confidence, reached all-time highs, while federal debt was at a record low.
Eight months since the impeachment, however, the economy dropped to ninth, GDP is stagnant, trade shrunk, the unemployment rate spiked, and banks and corporations, drivers of the country’s unprecedented growth during the Lula years, have called off expansion plans.
Some accused the probe of having also eroded investor confidence, besides crippling domestic giants, such as Odebrecht and Petrobras, and BNDES, Brazil’s development bank. It goes without saying, the country’s once budding global influence has been severely reduced too.
Much worse, though, is the so-called reforms proposed by the Temer administration. Besides freezing investments in education and public health, the government is now engaged in revamping social security, with predictable cuts in pensions and social welfare programs.
But the naming of key administration members, accused in a laundry list of impropriety and downright theft of public funds, may not be enough, or come in time, to impair the government’s ability to approve its reforms. The Supreme Court, which has been itself charged with political bias, is still in the initial stages of building its case. There’s likely enough time for Temer to act, before a decision is handed down.
If the case against Dilma was weak, but she was still penalized by a draconian judgment issued by proven corrupted cronies, the one against Lula, which has always been the main target of the political right, is flimsy at the most. And there are differences between the two.
While Dilma lost the battle for the hearts and minds of Brazilians due mostly to her lack of charisma and skills as a leader, Lula remains as popular as ever. He’s still leading in most polls for the 2018 presidential election, and unless a major fact is presented in court against him, an untimely event, and of course, increased media manipulation of public opinion, he’s slated to become Brazil’s next president. Again.
The media, and a poorly informed electorate, are but two of those similarities mentioned above about the U.S. and Brazil. There are others. But while many American news organizations have since woken up to fulfill their professional duty, the Brazilian press remains stunted by the monopoly of a few conglomerates, and in consequence, most Brazilians are still in the dark about what’s happening with their country.
Perhaps, a well-known malaise affecting the population is back exercising its ill sway. After all, the period of optimism, progressive laws, engagement of all segments of society, and economic growth, experienced in the early 2000s, was actually an exception in Brazil’s history.
The continuum, that comes from as far back as the colonial era of dependence of Portugal, is that of a nation eternally on the verge of, but never quite actually blossoming. The sad reality is that there’s a risk that such a great country, full of promise and potential, may be always short of fulfilling its destiny, and that which is already ingrained in its fabric, has also contaminated the spirit and core of its population.
In other words, and contrary to a global perception, Brazilians are in reality a frustrated and unhappy populace, prone to blame others and burst with violence, that at every few decades or so, seems ready to allow unjust and illegitimate leaders to drive it back to the past.
However, Brazil also has unlimited resources, both human and natural, still untapped. And above all, the generation that grew up during that exceptional time of vigor of the early 2000s, that may choose a different dream to pursue, and a new energy to be motivated by.
They desperately need support on their quest to change and take charge of their place of birth. For the many of us rooting for them are also committed to something that exists only in that still unfulfilled vision of a new Brazil: a special dream of a nation, that is vast and still young, multicultural and yet hopeful. A nuke-less nation that may actually save our world from nukes. Brazil, we’re there for you. Have a great one.

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4/10/2017 A Step Into the Quagmire, Colltalers

It’s hard to start a column with two cliches, ‘here we go again,’ and ‘we told you so.’ But the U.S. 59 Tomahawk missile strikes rained down on Syria this week was not just predictable, but in typical fashion, will accomplish many crucial goals benefiting only one person: Trump.
Again, he’s managed to drag the world into a narrative that artificially boosts his profile, while shoving aside every objection – and they’re still mounting – being raised domestically even by soon-to-be former supporters, and by an increasingly alarmed international community.
Yes, last Tuesday’s horrible Bashar al-Assad-ordered chemical attack on his own people did crush our ability to even comprehend such brutality. It was as if we were back in 1917, before chemical weapons were banned and were still being routinely used in the battlefield.
But the administration’s claim that weapons are the appropriate response to such act of terror, and that suddenly, we care about Syria, is both unacceptable and disingenuous. Worst, it’s likely that the strikes are not part of any thought out policy but a one-track minded, hasty gesture.
For a similar attack occurred back in 2013, and nothing was done to prevent it from happening again, neither by the U.S. nor its allies. Plus, one of the leading voices demanding President Obama not to act on impulse, despite the overwhelming aversion caused by similar footage of poor civilians gasping for their last breath that came out in its aftermath, was exactly a then conveniently much more restrained Trump’s.
The same one who, once elected, has locked all doors to Syrian refugees. And who lashed at the former president’s stance for being ‘weak’ in that and all the many conflicts around the world, where American troops are still being killed in the name of an ill-formulated foreign policy.
Before getting to the ‘what ifs’ related to an alternate reality with Obama or Hillary Clinton as presidents, it’s just common sense to heed to the word of many sincere experts in the tragic sinkhole Syria has become, which continue being ignored by the administration. There’s an almost consensus that something like 17 separate conflicts are currently being waged in the country. And only one relates directly to Syria.
What makes the strikes something way more sinister than a mere ‘precipitated military response,’ to use words of a sole Sunday talk shows interviewee, is the callousness and hypocrisy of the president. Specially when he cited Syrian children as his motivation. It’s not just that, dead or alive, they could never enter the U.S. now, but that the strikes, just like the one in Raqqa, last month, also killed kids and innocents.
There may be many, and will be more with or without new sorties. But what many organizations working towards the only possible solution for the Syrian conflict – immediate cessation of all armed actions – have reiterated is that it’s morally bankrupted to selectively decide which deaths should be avenged and punished, if any, and which ones are perfectly fine, as long as they’re inflicted by our side, whatever it may be.
The estimated 16 other conflicts that don’t care about the fate of the Syrian people, involve an assortment of nations, such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, the U.S., Israel, gosh, should we just keep going? sects, ethnic groups, and of course terrorists organizations such as Daesh.
Above all, this is a bloody game that already has a winner, no matter what may finally work out as a solution to the situation: the industrial-military complex, led by U.S. corporations on the payroll of the Defense Dept., and also several multinational weapon manufacturers.
It’s realistic to say that even a possible peace agreement will have to be secured by the barrel of silent guns provided by these immeasurable powers. But that doesn’t mean that they should run the show and have carte blanche to act as de-facto arbiters of other countries’ grievances.
Domestically, it’s hard to say which is worse: to watch a previously budding opposition to the regime melting away in support to yet another U.S. military adventure; to see that as expected, all other issues take a secondary role to the new situation; or to catch the utterly despicable spectacle of media big wigs calling the strikes ‘beautiful,’ in awe of the ‘entertaining value’ of weapons of mass destruction being deployed.
There shouldn’t be any doubts about the real aim behind the strikes, and it has nothing to do with the Syrian people, conflict resolution, war on terror, safeguarding the integrity of American borders, or to reaffirm, against the evidence, the U.S. as a force for goodwill in the world.
The real motivation is, and may continue to be, to soothe the wounded mind of a man-child, who is losing control of the many destructive forces he unleashed, and credibility to appeal to his own supporters. And to divert once more charges that the Putin regime has propped him up at the presidency. While refuting, albeit without any proof, many claims leveled against him, Trump’s kept somewhat mum about Putin.
Anyone can see what this will lead us to. While in his own mind, he may think the strikes prove his critics wrong, and show independence towards Russia, over there they’re not taking it lightly. A longtime supporter of Assad, Putin sees the attack as a perfect excuse to undermine even more the U.S.’s credibility, and even as he keeps a low profile on the matter, will use it to boost his agenda for the entire region.
For unlike Trump, Putin is a seasoned political warrior. He won’t hesitate to cash in the political benefits he may believe he’s earned with the president’s win, and in the background, continue to work intensely to reinstate Russia as a world dominant power as the U.S.S.R. used to be.
As for parallel world assumptions, it’s unlikely that President Obama would’ve resisted much longer the urge of igniting a full-fledged armed offensive over there. In actuality, he did accomplish almost the same effect – killing civilians – resorting only to drones. Clinton would sure have had her finger on the triggers too. And no one doubted that eventually Trump would get to it as well, but maybe not just that fast.
They’re all misguided, of course, as there will be no peaceful solution to Syria without hard and complex work, and willingness from the international community to support it. Arguably the hardest task would be to get the military to stand down – so good luck with that.
Syria has unfortunately earned the dubious notoriety of having become the world’s worst humanitarian tragedy. We should expect even more waves of grief, of millions of desperate refugees, political grandstanding in a planetary scale, and for-profit ugly displays of military macho.
The U.S. should take the lead not with weapons but with a comprehensive effort to evacuate and help find shelter to the refugees, because if we really care, our immediate priority should be the people, not the political quagmire. For that, there’s diplomacy at its highest level.
It’s Tax Week in the U.S., which means that over 120 million Americans are dutifully reporting their income, including immigrants, with or without papers, black families of those shot by the police, even few of those incarcerated in world record numbers. That would serve to fund healthcare for all, to better pay teachers and public servants, to lower education and housing costs, repair infrastructure, and to keep us safe.
But that’s ideally, for proportionally the lion’s share of it is diverted to fund unjust wars no one would vote for. Worst is that unlikely to be part of the above list is the president, his family, some mega-corporations, and a wealthy elite with the means to find exemption loopholes.
So let’s use this week, along with doing our civic duty that will benefit those we share the country with, to demand Trump to release at least 20 years worth of his income taxes. As he’s about to send more Americans abroad and to their graves, nothing could be more just than for him to set the example, and come clean about his wealth and business interests. Meanwhile, for the rest of us, here’s to a fat refund check.

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4/03/2017 A Single Healthcare Choice, Colltalers

The defeat of the Trump-proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act, last month, was justly celebrated by a majority of Americans. That includes the president’s supporters, who were covered by it, even if unaware Obamacare – a term most professed to hate – was its other name.
But if partying about it may premature – the GOP will certainly come back for more and, after all, this is just one of a couple of wins so far against the regime’s authoritarian streak, along with the ban to the immigrants ban – there’s something to be built upon the momentum.
When Senator Bernie Sanders introduces his Medicare for All bill later this month in Congress, a full turnaround in the way accessible health insurance is perceived may be completed. The issue may be finally wrestled away from its main detractors, big healthcare companies and the politicians they sponsor, who helped sowed unfounded fears about it, and into the embrace of those it’ll benefit the most, the public.
Such was the fallout from the defeat of the so-called Obamacare ‘replacement,’ that it actually led to a positive outcome: more people now understand that it’s a government constitutional role not just to protect its citizens’ health and well being, but also step in on their behalf against for-profit corporate interests. That is, even before moral considerations and the bottom line for such an intervention: to lower costs.
For most estimates of how much nearly-free health care for every taxpayer would cost, come to the same conclusion: according to Physicians for a Health Care Program, just the $400 billion the industry spends in billing, sales and marketing, mostly to deny coverage, or 31% of its total budget, would be enough to fund much of a single-payer system. PHCP is one of many non-partisan organizations engaged on this issue.
But let’s understand a bit of each of these systems, and why an extension of Medicare/Medicaid programs to everyone is the most rational way of making sure the richest country in the world is no longer one of its sickest too. For they’re all complex but not that complicated.
Take Obamacare, the ex-president’s signature issue Republicans spent eight years, and millions of dollars, trying to prevent, undermine, and ultimately, laden it with industry concessions that hindered its efficacy. It’s funded by two main sources: on everybody’s contribution to it, which creates a Social Security-like foundation, and on higher taxes from the minority that earns several times the income of the lower half.
Without getting too deep into figures, the first thing that cut short its success was giving states the option of not receiving federal funds to subsidize those who couldn’t afford insurance. GOP governors refused the funds, and as a result, claimed their states couldn’t afford it either.
That diminished the pool of contributors, already smaller than needed, because the clause forcing healthy people to sign up for coverage was not being enforced in those states. Then, predictably, insurers began to withdraw from the system, alleging lack of profitable margins.
The other punch designed to knock Obamacare out has just been enforced by the Trump administration: the rollout of tax cuts to the wealthy, which effectively has the potential to defund the plan. Still, despite those efforts, two factors are startling about the law of the land even now.
One: it does provide coverage to 20 million, possibly more, Americans who had no way of being covered before. Another: despite crying foul by the industry during the Obama years, shares of the six biggest managed care companies beat their Standard & Poor’s industry index. Their stocks gained nearly 300 percent in seven years, against the index’s 135.6% in the same period, according to Bespoke Investment Group.
But in order for Obamacare to pass, and being confirmed by the Supreme Court, two other considerably better options were eviscerated on the floor of Congress: the so-called public option and the single payer, which now is better known by the name Sen. Sanders gave his bill.
The main criticism President Obama’s plan received from consumer advocates and progressives was that big insurers were left in the game, unlike for instance, the socialized Canada’s healthcare system which now, again, may serve as the blueprint for a reformed U.S. system.
But looking back in perspective, it’d have been a non starter then, what with Republicans and most Democrats openly hostile to just such a possibility. If the president hadn’t been pragmatic and pushed through what was possible then, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation now. Essential support to his plan did come from those corporations and now we all know full well why they were behind it.
A quick word about the public option, which many mistakenly think is the same as a single payer plan. While Medicare is a government agency that negotiates lower costs with medical providers, and relay them to consumers, in the public option, the government would have to build from the ground up a whole structure with hospitals and care centers, with their own bureaucratic support, to provide coverage.
Costs would probably soar, management would likely be problematic, and performance would certainly suffer. It was a better option then, at least on paper, but even then, it was riddled with opportunities for sabotage and ultimate failure. By now, we’d be back to the ground zero.
Now, how to sell to a corporation-controlled Congress that an entire industry needs to go, specially if it’s one generating billions in profits, fat returns to investors and stockholders (hum, one wonders who are these people), and handsome compensation packages to chief executives?
Well, assuming Democrats will drop the ball on this one too, that’s exactly why the current momentum, and renewed public support, are so important. It may take considerable artistry, though, to make consumers aware of the industry’s size and scope, without putting them to sleep. For its numbers are indeed staggering, and how well they’re presented is crucial too. Does anyone have Beyoncé’s number? We may need it.
Take UnitedHealth, the biggest, and giant Aetna, for instance. Last July, the first posted a quarterly revenue of $46.5 billion, $10 billion more than the same period the previous year. In 2015, Aetna reported an annual operating revenue of over $60 billion, its biggest to date. What these numbers mean may be hairy to explain during an elevator ride. But that’s exactly what every Democrat should be practicing right now.
And a good way is to focus on the CEOs. They’re easy to single out, since they rose to the top of the reap of Wall Street, and they’re usually vain enough to take offense. That’s an opening, and a valid talking point. For example, Stephen J. Hemsley took a pay cut in 2015, but don’t get tear-eyed just yet. He made $20 million in salaries that year. Now, how many people have you ever had for dinner with that kind of cash?
Heard of Mark Bertolini? Neither did us, and that may be by design. In the great nation of ours, where nevertheless, 20% of the population is way below the poverty level, Aetna’s Mr. Bertolini cleared $27.9 million in 2015. Flushed with generosity with his good fortune, he vowed to donate it all to Doctors Without Borders, since like all CEOs, he doesn’t actually need to spend that money in living expenses. Just kidding.
There are three things the government should and must be in charge of, in the interest of its citizens, three areas that should be granted as a right to all, and where profit margins and short-term solutions shouldn’t even be part of the equation: defense, education, and health care.
Unfortunately, it’s been at least half a century that wars became such a profitable business, that most of them are fought not by soldiers but contractors. We’re now in throes of defining, once and for all, whether health care must remain a right or just a business opportunity. Next to be compromised or not, thanks to a president who actually owns a for-profit ‘educational’ institution, may be the right to free education.
We’ve already lost the war, pun intended or not, and chances for curbing military expansion is limited at best. Accessible healthcare and education are our generation’s fights, ones that define how we want our nation to be and treat its incredibly diverse citizenry. We need to get our stories straight and our front united. We want public education. And we want Medicare for All. Forget T.S. Eliot; April is actually nice.

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3/27/2017 What Hasn’t Gone Away, Colltalers

Here’s something that cannot be blamed on Trump: the state of permanent war. But it’s another obscenity of our era that his administration may aggravate tenfold. There was another reminder of the issue, if hardly a wake up call, on the March 17 U.S. airstrike in Mosul, Iraq.
In one of the worst civilian massacres, over 200 people were killed, another miscalculation on the battle against Daesh. Yes, the Internet is again under fire, the survival of Obamacare was but a single win amid so much already taken, but there’s no reason to forget about the war.
That’s when archaic notions about good and evil lose substance. We’re down to basics of action-reaction here. While assaulting the concept of shared reality undermines democracy, and ultimately individual freedom, the killing of non-armed citizens can only feed the death cycle.
If proponents of the ‘go back to your country’ motto can’t grasp fundamental principles about American pluralism, then the idea that killing innocent people overseas put us all in mortal danger at home is likely lost to them. But it shouldn’t be to everybody else, no matter how busy we all are trying to salvage humanistic values amid the onslaught of xenophobic intolerance. For nothing compares to a rain of bullets.
It’s indeed ironic that as we play catch up with reality – invented or inexorable -, we also get distracted, unsure where to focus on next. We may list, rearrange, and prioritize things, hoping to get a handle on them, and still miss the point of even caring about it in the first place.
When Hannah Arendt covered the 1963 Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, in her now famous ‘banality of evil’ report, she was warning in part against what many fear about the Trump administration: that its con, packaged with enticing lies, will now be the ‘new normal.’
But what the thick insulation of oblivion against the horrors of war provides to the West is also a variation of that same normalization of evil. Not the one used to excuse soldiers of a dirty war, under the rubric of ‘following orders.’ But one whose complicity is enhanced by numbing repetition, devoid of emotion and abbreviated to media soundbites, of the ever increasing carnage of women and children in faraway lands.
The sanitizing of war coverage, and its dissociation from most people’s lives, warps everyone’s sense of reality too. It eases the process by which defense contractors and high-hierarchy hawks sell the next chapter of the endless conflict that they manage and profit from.
In any given week, U.S.-led coalition blankets Mosul with bombs, artillery and mortar shells, ground- and drone-launched rockets missiles, according to news reports. But even if these figures were actionable, crystal-clear arguments to arm a powerful reaction against them, most Americans were thrilled instead about the performance of Beauty and the Beast at the box office. Or so the media would lead us to believe.
Yet, even if many may think that they know, in essence, why this war is being waged – ‘to fight Isis,’ they’d say, likely unaware of the ‘Daesh’ acronym, which militants themselves hate -, in an accountable world, no troops should be sent to die under such a vague, deceiving premise.
Among thousands of conflicts being waged right now, the fight in Iraq and Syria are the two most people claim to understand. Not to put anybody down, but they most certainly don’t. Rising anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment currently sweeping the world prove it.
As for the Internet, there’s a month free of cable to anyone who could claim, convincingly, that they didn’t expect big companies to be given carte blanch by Trump’s FCC, to trade without asking, everybody’s browsing history. Bonus installation if you have no problem with it.
Actually, no, but that’s not the point. Double offer (since we’ve heard Mexico is footing the bill) to those who believe Neil Gorsuch won’t make it to the Supreme Court, or that all Democrats will go along on the planned filibuster to his appointment. That’s not to say that every action to be taken by Jeff Sessions, Scott Pruitt, Rex Tillerson, and Betsy DeVos, to name the most notorious, won’t literally make us sick.
Is not that throwing everything – including Trump’s golden throne, pretty please – at the administration’s actions, is wrong or not effective. Or that too many rallies lead to fatigue. But like Judge Judy would put it, ‘let’s not play with each other.’ This is going to be a long run.
Wars, on the other hand, can be started on a whim. We wake up and the country’s at it. Again. And speaking of long run, they’re also terrible to dissenters, as there are so many ways tyrants can manipulate public opinion on their favor, and resources away from citizens’ well being.
Then again, with the clear and present danger of North Korean striking the south, the impossibility for the U.S. to abstain from diving right in, likelihood that China would spring into action, and possibility that Russia, well, should we keep going or your lungs are already filled?
So, yes, it’s worthy fighting to safeguard civil rights, and for at least a resemblance of democracy. But the unifying force that packs the real punch here is a renewed antiwar movement. Now, before we come to regret not igniting it in time. At last it’s Spring, here comes the sun.

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3/27/2017 Of Rotten Meat & Sanctimony, Colltalers

If anything, social networks exacerbated the ancient human trait of claiming superiority above others by downplaying their right to exist. When shocking events trigger public outrage, it’s a given that some will blame others for it, often leaving the real culprits off the hook.
Thus, when several meat producers in Brazil, including the country’s two largest, were raided by federal agents last Friday, finding rotten meat packaged and ready to be sold in public schools, and exported to Europe, eating habits were blamed first for it, not a sick industry.
This being Brazil, the grizzly discovery of gross health violations is also linked to a scheme involving bribing inspectors and administration officials. Authorities scrambled to assure global partners that those were isolated incidents, rather than a sample of an multi billion dollar, under-regulated industry, mostly left at its own devices when it comes to health concerns. But common sense indicates that it’s the opposite.
Taking the scandal out of the context of widespread corruption and draft, that seem to pervade the current government, may be insulting to that same common sense, but some sort of insane defense may argue that lax regulation, disregard to basic hygiene practices, and special favoritism by officials are all ingrained to the industry globally. And in Brazil, as in the rest of the world, consumers are not aware of them.
That’s like blaming the industry’s ‘raw material,’ i.e., the animals, of being too messy for continuing to have physiological functions even as they’re squeezed by the hundreds into the place of their own slaughter. For that’s exactly what happens and it’s the underlying cause for chronic contamination of meat plants. Not their bodily functions, of course, but the massive and inhumane system they’re forced to be part of.
Still, the matter is more serious than it’s being addressed in the Brazilian corporate media, and chances are, the scandal will die out within weeks. Given that part of the affected is so vulnerable – the impoverished public school system – and the industry’s lobbying muscle, we may be reading next week or after that the problem is being resolved, low level inspectors got fired, and there’s nothing else left to see here.
Behind the scenes, though, the P.R. battle will be even more intense than the ones waged publicly by the companies. Brazil’s trade balance relies heavily on meat exports, and such a disaster can undermine its powerful agribusiness and overall credibility before its partners.
And that’s the aspect that it’s so common to the very structure of global commercial relations. From a strictly standpoint of scandals, Europe itself is still reeling from the disaster that revelations about illegal addition of horse meat to some of its delicacy meat exports have caused.
Everybody plays the part of the indignant and the unaware – or, ‘how could you,’ the produces, ‘do this to me,’ the governments? But the underlying reality is that there’s always a point when some officials are in bed with those they’re supposed to keep an eye on. Even though, nominally, regulators are acting on behalf of the consumer, in fact, they’re there to prevent the industry’s lack of scruples from being exposed.
Many despise organizations such as the People for the Ethical Treatments of Animals, and even those sympathetic with its cause, have no stomach to watch yet another video of farm animals being, well, brutally farmed, or lab torture of pets, for literally cosmetic purposes.
But they serve a purpose, albeit arguable for its methods, which is to warn consumers about the way goods they patronize are manufactured.
If shock value has an expiration date, our conscience should not. No vulnerable creature should be systemically turned into a commodity, as modern society allows it to happen to animals. And worst, turning its back to their physical torment, inflicted in the name of our well being.
Only in the past five years, scandals within the meat industry beat even more well known culprits: the oil and gas industry, car manufacturers, and makers of products for children. While these face regular public scrutiny, even without suffering much consequence, – and unlikely the gun industry, which absolute lacks challenges to its practices – by nature, meat producers represent a moral notch lower than all the rest.
And they tend to at least connect to one or all of the world’s biggest meat producers: the U.S., Brazil, and the European Union. So, when a scandal broke out in China, where a huge company was found to be shipping old and discarded meat, to domestic and abroad consumption, it turned out that its factory was U.S.-owned, despite heavy media coverage blaming, with some reason, China’s poor food safety record.
Two years ago, when a group of whistleblowers published a report on five U.S. pork meat processors, denouncing a new system of self-regulation, which allowed a series of violations to be ignored, it was the whistleblowers who ran into problems with the law. While they were left to fend for themselves by the system, violators paid standard fines, recalled some products, but mostly carried on their business as usual.
Often not only animals endure ghastly and subhuman conditions in meat factory facilities, even though they are the ones paying the ultimate price. According to a 2016 Oxfam report, top poultry producers in the U.S. are meeting rising demand by cutting bathroom breaks of their workers, forcing them to wear diapers while on duty. It notes that such breaks are considered by employers to be a privilege, not a right.
Another study, published in 2013 by an Alabama group, found out that workers were restricted to a limited number of 5-minute bathroom breaks, during shift, forcing them to strip naked on their way to the toilet so not to waste time. That fact was behind an increase in accidents, as workers would rush and fall on the slippery floors of meat plants, covered of blood, fat, and body fluids. An unbearable picture indeed.
Yes, that was a bit too graphic, and we should be just about done with this subject. But going back to what happened in Brazil, other aspects have also come to the fore on the issue, as in many ways, people are becoming increasingly ambiguous about eating animal products.
Social networks immediately exploded with vegetarian and vegan posters berating their fellow Brazilians for eating meat and not considering the consequences of their habit. Although, they have a valid point, much preaching is seemingly done less out of an enlightened attitude towards nature and more out of the desire to lecture other people on their ‘wrong’ ways. And what a satisfaction that is.
Others pointed that one of the main causes for the acceleration of the Amazon Rainforest’s current rate of deforestation is being caused by the burger industry, as many a high profile multinational is replacing ancient trees by pasture. All as demand for meat keeps increasing globally.
But apart from the valid points such groups present, and abstracting the blatant and abject trolling of people for their personal, private lifetime choices, the discussion belongs to a more effective economic and political context, and in the latest flare up, should be treated as such.
Like the pharma industry, and the overall food industry, since the Industrial Revolution, meat producers have enjoyed a privileged position in the global economic system, driving development, subsidizing growth of nations, and boosting their power for commercial bargaining.
But just as well, much of these privileges are out of sync with contemporary reality, specially as far as super population and environmental pollution is concerned. Compared to other agricultural goods, meat production is by far the most expensive, complex, and monopolistic of even those industries artificially sustained by government subsidies, from which it also benefits too. There’s also another factor to add.
In the U.S., Brazil, and the European Union, meat producers have unrestricted access to power, which means that, no policy, legislation, and yes, politician, is elected without their support. On their perch, climate change measures, for instance, have little change of being approved.
Thus, rather than shock value, our bet is on consumer education, if we’re to find ways to restrain the meat industry’s boundless influence on public policy. And even if it’s Meatless Monday, treat each other like adults with a choice about their own diets and eating habits.
Maybe not for long, admittedly. But the enemy is not those who’re being sold on the supposedly irreplaceable nutritive properties of meat; it’s the sophisticated apparatus built to squash dissent, even if using dubious scientific arguments. The key is education, not conversion.
There’s much to learn about the animals some choose to eat, while others treat as pets, and how perception about them is based on economic interests. Even to vegans, it may come as a surprise that cows, for example, relish human contact, chickens problem-solve, and pigs, unlike some religions, are sensitive to others’ needs. There’s no hierarchy in the natural world, survival is irrelevant, and ours is not its priority.
Being atop the food chain is a position, not a self-fulfilling right to be in charge, or a mandate of superiority. For centuries, Western societies no longer rely on their capacity to hunt. Ultimately, eating or not meat does not define anyone (see, Hitler, Adolf); personal awareness does.
Sadly, we’ve lost Chuck Berry, one of the greatest storytellers and stylists of rock and roll, and a lifetime musical hero. To some extent, he embodied all that a popular art form can be in order to change the world. And by Beethoven, he did it. In peace you go, Johnny, go.

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3/13/2017 Rolling With the Punches, Colltalers

Spoiler alert: we’re losing. As disheartening as it is to start off on such pessimistic premise, current global social and political conditions warrant our utmost concern. In the U.S., oblivious to all, the regime is still bolting our civil rights to the ground, nail by executive nail.
Don’t get this wrong; everyone is doing their absolute best to show their discontent and resist the Trump administration’s truculence. But all massive rallies and unprecedented community organizing may not be enough. It’s time for another course of action to be also pursued.
May we suggest the Rope-a-Dope? And before we go any further, to those with ‘sport-metaphor fatigue syndrome,’ a quick word: first, they don’t require knowledge or taste for any particular game to shed light on a subject. Also, arguably 90% of those vulnerable to discriminatory social policies and abuse of power do follow sports. So, in the spirit of inclusion, and for the sake of this post, let’s not get fussy, shall we?
In 1974, an aging, past his prime Muhammad Ali went to Zaire to fight heavyweight champion George Foreman, in what many believe was the end of his career. That impression held on for most of the Rumble in the Jungle, until Ali knocked down the champ and the rest is history.
In Leon Gast’s Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings, writer Norman Mailer, hired as a ringside commentator, notes that after the first round, Ali was back at his corner with ‘fear in his eyes.’ All the punches he had thrown at Foreman had little effect. Across the ring, stood a bigger and stronger opponent than him, one he could not dominate or avoid confronting. It was Ali’s moment of reckoning.
The genius of the late Ali was to play against expectation. He executed a plan – leaning on the ropes, taking Foreman’s body blows, and striking back here and there – despite the advice of his own corner, who grew desperate as the fight went on, and with a measure of humiliation, which in boxing means getting pounded. The entire world press corps thought he’d fail, but he pulled the sport’s greatest upset.
Apart from the African crowd, which he’d captivated the moment he landed on the continent, Ali was mostly hated at that time, specially by Americans who despised his arrogance, and above all, his mouth. He was at least a decade from the beloved pacifist he was to become later.
Even as Ali could say, and did, anything to Foreman, consensus was that before long, he’d be flat on the canvas. Except, of course, for the thousands chanting ‘Bomaye’ (‘Kill him!’) in the stadium, whose unwavering support to him was finally rewarded on the 8th round.
The metaphor is fitting: Ali never gave up, outboxing Foreman and scoring points, but that wasn’t enough. What did it was his endurance. He was hit mercilessly, which made an ultimately exhausted Foreman confident. But when the moment came, he cut the lights out of him.
Since the inauguration, rallies and marches have made clear the popular disgust with Trump’s ban of Muslim immigrants, the dismantling of Obamacare and replacement with another tax cut for the wealthy, his threats to the press and Internet, and legislation allowing broadcasters to sell individual privacy data. We, like Ali, must continue punching till morale improves. But a more nuanced touch is needed in the mix.
For Congress is about to approve a newly depleted health care plan, which will immediately cancel coverage of millions; undocumented immigrants, some living and working and paying taxes (unlike the president!) in the U.S. for years, are being deported, many with no judicial hearings or consideration for their American-born kin: and the FCC is readying a new package to effectively privatize the Internet.
These are not conspiracy theories, or fake news; they’re already happening, and their reversal will be lengthy, costly, and not at all assured to succeed. Thus, judging by firings of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and dozens of Justice Dept. staff, the political leanings of heads of EPA, Energy and Education departments, among the many cabinet billionaires, we should indeed prepare and brace for further heavy blows.
Again, this is not to dismiss the courageous and dignified efforts the American society is engaged on to defend its democracy from those who have shown, in such a short time, so much disregard to it. Make no mistake, powers that be did take notice of it, and they’re not happy.
Speaking of the ban, what’s in a name? Muhammad Ali Jr., son of the great champion, was detained twice at two different airports, the second time around last Friday. He was about to flight out of DC, where he’d just testified before members of Congress about the first incident, in Florida last month, when he was informed by security that there was ‘a problem’ with his ID card. We can’t make this stuff up.
It’s important that the women’s movement, the Black Lives, Occupy Wall Street, immigrant rights and the many progressive organizations that traditionally fight for civil rights, take periodic breaks from slogan shouting, to focus on prioritizing different agendas across the board.
There’s a need to extend the basis of the resistance to include more LBGTQ and labor union activists, student and fast-food workers, among many others. But every group must join the opposition front already having a working strategy to deal with their internal divisions. Yes, we need the power of numbers to back us all up, but we also need to speak the same language. Keep calm and prepare for the blizzard.

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3/06/2017 What Makes Women Strong, Colltalers

The Jan. 21 Women’s March in DC, echoed by its many sister rallies countrywide and around the world, was a breakthrough event that not just upstaged the previous day inauguration, in numbers and significance, but also reinserted the word ‘resistance’ into public conversation.
So why now, with a strike planned for Wednesday, International Women’s Day, there’s a reported schism over the very idea of feminism, and questions about the movement’s leadership and direction? Some fear that A Day Without Women may miss something else too.
In the past two centuries, at least, any time women gathered and organized around a cause, the whole society wound up pushed closer to ideals of equality, civil rights, and freedom of expression. The same spirit seemed to have been behind the march in Washington.
It immediate ignited Americans, and effectively put on notice the Trump administration. Whether it hit the spot, history will tell. After all, the president, his male-dominated cabinet, and Republican enablers, did proceed undisturbed with their utterly discriminatory agenda.
But it’s safe to say that a crucial segment is paying attention: women who support Trump. Their influence on the White House cannot be measured by the so far negligent attendances to their own rallies. They’re on the forefront of a feminism backlash and likely to be called to the trenches of what’s much more than a cultural war. March 8 may be a day to show just how important is unity for the women’s movement.
All popular uprisings have their splits, specially ideologically, or race or gender-driven ones. But political success is defined by how much change may be achieved, and the required pragmatism of choosing well the battles to be fought. Progressive women organizations need to wise up because this round may be lost, despite all the noise they’ll hopefully produce; in other words, doubt has infected the core.
It’s hard to make a case against the International Strike day platform, with its call to ‘working women, women of color,’ disabled, immigrant, Muslim, ‘lesbian, queer and trans women.’ That is, even considered the myriad of other issues affecting them and in consequence, society.
By picking charged words, from a context of labor and equal-pay rights, anti-racism and inclusion, fair paths to citizenship, religious and sexual freedom rights, and others implied by the platform, the organizers show a shrewd pursuit of a practical agenda, relatable to anyone.
For ultimately, the goal is to challenge the administration’s authoritarianism, and unduly use of a police state to enforce its whims. Even such a progressive platform, though, may be a non starter, if the reasons why some women don’t think it speaks to them are not addressed.
Many card-carrying liberals have dismissed this group, ignoring that if they hadn’t voted for Trump, a woman would be now the president, or exactly because of that. But that may be a fatal mistake; refusing to acknowledge dissent is a page from the other side’s playbook.
Not surprisingly, social networks and the regime’s right wing media mouthpieces, have already seized the opportunity to undermine the women’s march. There’s now a slew of sites with female Trump supporters expressing feelings of being ‘disenfranchised’ by the movement.
Naturally, is hard to see what some see in a man who bragged about being a sexual predator; went on record to boast about having sex with his current wife, while still married to his second; who claimed to entering unannounced the dressing room of teen beauty contenders; who alluded to a female reporter’s period in an offensive remark, the list is long. Some do, and instead of banned, they should be asked why.
The organizations behind the march – a group well known for years of activism and fight for reproductive rights, women’s health and family care, as well as minimum wage, clean water, and alternative sources of energy – must find ways of framing their struggle on social and progressive pathways, not petty battles for control. Their biggest role is finding common issues, not reinforcing ideological differences.
At the end of the day, all Americans need what the platform of the women’s movement is pursuing. Or the ideals Black Lives Matter fights for, the core of it being, of course, to erase racism and promote opportunity to all. And all efforts to assure law-abiding immigrants to have a fair chance of becoming citizens, which was always one of America’s best aspects, and with which, it lecture endlessly the world.
For even beyond a coordinated agenda among the various women’s factions, we will need a coordinated agenda of all of these and other groups, if we’re to build a national front, with muscle to defend a free Internet, for instance, and teeth to shred the re-emergent Fascism.
Above all, we can’t be adjusting our opposition, and fine-tune our rallies, every time another deranged step is taken by the administration to beat us into submission. We already have our own action book of priorities; let’s execute it meticulously. We’ll do it with or without media support and/or liberal politicians. But never without women. We’ll do it for the sake of human decency. Have a great week ahead.

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2/27/2017 There Is More to It, Colltalers

The past week was an exciting one for those of us whose important chunks of childhood were spent laying on the backyard, dreaming of stars. NASA announced that it’s discovered another solar system, a mere 40-light-years away, with not one but seven Earth-like planets.
Somehow, though, the announcement failed to produce its due impact, either because other, arguably more urgent news are in need of our undivided attention right now, or we have become too jaded to care about space. But we shouldn’t. Now more than ever, science matters.
It’s yet another instance when the ‘staying power’ of scientific breakthroughs is not enough to dislodge, even momentarily, the onslaught of fake and celebrity news that these days we call, well, news. And another opportunity to start a public debate over our future is lost.
In the prime real estate of broadcast time – which is constitutionally granted by the American people to the media so to serve the public interest – there’s little room for public interest. And learning about even the most distant worlds is to everyone’s benefit, even if not for reasons suggested by the two cute but ultimately shallow questions the media always ask: could we live there? and, will there be aliens?
There’s nothing wrong about asking and trying to answer these questions. That is, if they’d come near the bottom of a long list of way more relevant doubts humankind has to respond in order to survive; not on Mars, the Moon, Pluto or somewhere out there, but here, on Terra.
The 7-planet system, spotted by the Spitzer Space Telescope and called by the acronym Trappist-1, gravitates around a much-smaller-than-the sun, ultra-cool dwarf star. That compensates for their position, closer to their star than our own rock and its companions in the solar system are of ours. For despite the different distances, their location allows for warm weather and liquid water, a tenet in the search for life.
That’s what the scientific community is interested on. Not rushing humans on an technologically impossible trek, but understanding how life spreads, so to better preserve ours. We may eventually send a mission there, but much can be done right here and now, in less than 40 years.
Perhaps one of the sources of our recurrent confusion about why and what we’re trying to learn about life, the universe, and everything, to quote the late Douglas Adams, may be traced back to the origins of the space age. For it was, at least initially, a by-product of the then more relevant weapons race with the Soviet Union, and all other ramifications the Cold War imposed on U.S. geopolitical priorities.
Nevertheless, the moment the Sputnik was aloft, while American intelligence scrambled to respond to the threat of space domination by the Soviets, people all over the world became enthralled with something else entirely: the realization that we can touch the vastness of what’s out there, and since they’ve mentioned, what’s really out there? It’s one of those quests that will outlast civilization, but still worth pursuing.
With America joining in, space turned into a new brand of hope, and not the unlimited weapons storage place the military were expecting it to be. It was time for the space adventure to occupy its proper mythical seat among the most ancient, and treasured, dreams of mankind.
We finally had a shot at our innate aspiration of one day be one with heavenly bodies, and not bound by limitations of our physicality. Just as visionaries, philosophers, mystics, artists, and sci-fi writers, had envisioned. More than flying, we could actually inhabit the great beyond.
It was a dream, and as such, it was not to last, of course. Some say that even setting up material goals, meaning lands to conquer, betrayed the very idea of space being the realm of winged creatures and immensity. Perhaps. But who could blame JFK for setting the nation alighted with his 1961 speech? And if we hadn’t decided to reach for the Moon, would we have achieved the so much more we did by trying it?
Above all, and not trying to shoot you down with a bad pun, the dream of reaching the stars equates to the need to dream, period. History is littered with failed utopias, that looked good on paper, but lacked, or grew weary, of this other side of being human, aside being a morally responsible citizen: the need for air and time and space to waste in reverie every once in a while, lest life becomes too unbearably boring.
It’s not at all surprising that even progressive segments are again questioning the validity of spending money in space exploration, or on NASA, whose stated purpose is expanding our knowledge of life, in all forms and under any conditions, on Earth, deep within the body, and out there, among distant galaxies. They argue, with some reason, that instead, we should be investing on preventing climate change, for one.
But guess which government agency was among the first to sound the global warming alarm, even before the EPA had been created? And which one, apart from the Dept. of Energy, may have the biggest number of scientists on its payroll? Well, at least before Jan. 21, 2017.
We have so many challenges and social issues needing to be urgently addressed, that we wind up forgetting that much of their solution is to increase funding for scientific research in all areas, specially one that gave us so much hope. And, yes, the microwave oven and iPhone too.
We forget that science and free, accessible education both took dramatic dives since that time when presidents had vision. And we tend to overlook the value of dreaming about the unresolvable future, too, to which the infinite space above us is the best metaphorical example.
As promised, we wrote a whole post without mentioning you-know-who (and it’s just as well, given the name of this new planetary system). Yes, we’re all entitled to lift our heads, and take in the wonder of what’s around us with a deep breath. No warrior would show up for battle, without periodically allowing the experience of being present right now, to be all that matters. Hope is in the now. Have a great one.

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2/20/2017 Kicking the Nuclear Football, Colltalers

It’s been a month since Donald Trump received the keys to the White House, and we haven’t written about anything else. Which means that, at least in part, we’re all falling for his dangerous histrionics. That’s something not to be proud of, but there’s more to it than a mere cop out.
For after leaving out the reality show skills he uses to direct attention to himself, there’s always an underlying urgency that needs to be reported. From our part, we’d choose the North Korea incident at Mar-a-Lago, last Monday, and the reelection rally Saturday, both in Florida.
They’re but brackets of yet another deranged and utterly concerning assortment of acts taken and statements made by this administration. As it mishandles pretty much everything it touches, from spur-of-the-moment nominations to threats to dissenters to renewed efforts to kick Muslims and Mexicans out, a growing feeling of dread, along a sense of general alarm, starts to take hold of most still sane Americans.
Trump’s plans to give the ban a new push, and the ongoing nationwide raids and deportation of Mexican-Americans and Latinos in general, happen at a particularly ominous time: 75 years ago this past Saturday, up to 120 thousand Japanese Americans were forcibly moved to the infamous wartime internment camps. Most would spend there the next four years, in one of the darkest actions taken by the U.S. in WW2.
Also extremely serious is the administration’s declaration of war on the media, ‘officially’ launched on Wednesday, during a fittingly zany sideshow-like news conference. For over a hour, the president that the majority of Americans did not vote for chastised and berated members of the press, chose what questions to answer, and often preferred to go on unhinged digressions whenever he didn’t like what was asked.
Two moments stood out: one, when a journalist took the now rare instance of challenging Trump on his often repeated, and incredibly blatant, lie about the Electoral College vote; and when another, representing a Jewish organization, was unceremoniously told to ‘sit down.’
In the first case, the reporter did stand his ground, another rarity, and delivered the facts, which frontally contradict the president’s assertions. But while his question hit the target, there was no followup to it, and he seemed deflated amid a room full of frighteningly silent journalists.
The Orthodox questioner was clearly not up to the task of calling on Trump’s anti-Semitism, and allowed him to walk all over, with claims about his self-acknowledged exceptionally. Both incidents, however, were cringe-inducing and should make us all appropriately alarmed.
It’s not only that fewer reporters, not more, are openly challenging Trump, in public, rather than on the safety of their newsrooms, when the TV soundbite has long being overtaken by the ‘Trumpian’ lie. Or that someone at least related to a crucial U.S. foreign policy debate, one about Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, was shut down in plain view of the nation, and there wasn’t a strong media reaction to it.
The gravity of this, yes, Fascist ‘war on the press,’ seemingly lifted straight from Goebbels’ textbook, and followed closely by every dictator worth his death squads, cannot be overstated. There’s no democracy without free press, and intimidation of it is liable in the court of law.
Granted: the U.S. established media has to bear responsibility for promoting Trump to a presidential contender, giving him unlimited free airtime, even when it became evident that his rallies were awakening and energizing long dormant foes of civil rights. Since the campaign was generating a huge profit to big conglomerates, they raised no objections about the presence of white supremacists at his gatherings.
It’s actually disingenuous for them to cry foul now, and there’s a certain grace in the karma of CNN and others being tagged ‘enemies of the people,’ in the old Mao Zedong style. But make no mistake: they may be the target but have power enough to withstand the pressure and will,
eventually even join in. What’s at stake is the fate of individual expression and right to disagree, supported by small news organizations.
The thought of enraged crowds adopting this discourse, mistakenly convinced that facts reported are fake, as Trump has repeatedly stated, is terrifying. In the eyes of bootlicking members of his administration, the president should dictate the news, and the media, simply report it.
Of the two ‘brackets’ mentioned above, we begin with the second: a re-election rally on the first of a 48-month term. It may sound bizarre, but it’s certainly part of a big plan we don’t dare to imagine that it’s already in the works. Again, the reality TV shtick is to distract us from its real purpose: to familiarize everyone with the idea that there’s already a candidate to U.S. president in 2020, and you just can’t wait to meet him.
But the other horrifying news was the impromptu stunt put in full display at that Palm Beach resort now known as Winter White House (membership fee: $200K, with full access to the president, his cabinet, and family): once it was reported that North Korea had launched a test missile, Trump invited Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe, in an official visit, and whoever was at his table, to ‘deliberate’ the U.S.’s response.
Worst, other people also gathered around, including someone kind enough to use her own cellphone (with the camera disabled… just kidding) to light up the paperwork laid down on the dinner table. It was a startling demonstration of complete disregard to security protocol, a charge Trump successfully capitalized against Hillary Clinton. There are simply too many scenarios, all bad, to deduct from this single episode.
To put a (rotten) cherry on the cake, one of his wealthy buddies had the gall to brag on social media for having met the officer who carried (for the last time, presumably) the so-called ‘nuclear football.’ That’s security jargon for the suitcase containing the codes for nuclear missiles that follows the president wherever he goes. And he outed the poor guy with a picture on Facebook. That was enough to keep us up all night.
There are many disturbing and menacing things already indicting this administration. But suddenly seeing the actual suitcase with buttons that could literally explode the world are just too Dante-esque a picture to think that, in any shape or form, we’re not playing with fire here.
We must keep the pressure on because it’s clear that Trump will govern to and for the wealthy, and he’s definitely not the man to protect us from those who can harm us. Indeed, some are actually working within the administration. Otherwise, rest assured: we’ll keep on trying to write about something else. Meanwhile, we hear that Winter Jasmines are blooming now and they’re beautiful. Bring some home tonight.

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2/13/2017 Beware Unsolicited Gifts, Colltalers

Somebody must deliver an urgent message to Edward Snowden, the ex-NSA contractor, whose asylum in Russia has just been extended: don’t fall into a trap. Those floating the idea of returning you to the U.S., ‘as a gift,’ don’t have your best interests at heart. Also, they’re crazy.
In fact, now is possibly the worst time to play pawn in the hands of the Trump-Putin regime. Given what’s happening, ‘president’ Steve Bannon may be hedging his bets with a Pentagon overture, in case things go south, and he needs a war of diversion to remain in power.
Snowden, who’s still considered a traitor by large segments of the armed forces, would fit nicely in this equation. Having him trialled and sentenced to prison – for revealing the staggering extent by which U.S. intelligence spies on ordinary citizens here and abroad – would not just avenge the enraged community, but also place this administration on the good side of those who ultimately control the U.S. war machine.
Snowden, who is also a former CIA employee, has so far displayed exemplary restrain and self-sacrifice. He did not voluntarily choose to be stranded in Russia, it’s always useful to mention, but was forced to seek asylum there in 2013, after the U.S. threatened to throw him in jail.
Whether his was a act of civil disobedience, as rights organizations consider it, or treason, as the Pentagon declared it, is a matter to be decided in the court of civil, not military, law. After all, his revelations ignited an important conversation about the right of individuals to be protected from prying eyes of shadowy intel agencies, operating mostly above the law. And they did not cause harm to agents in the field.
Passing confidential information to the press, however, was a violation of at least the terms and conditions of his employment, and as such, a matter that deserves to be taken to court. Even though he wisely chose a team of reputed journalists to vet and decide what part of the large trove of documents he copied should be published, and did not profit from his actions in any way, it’s still a serious legal issue.
Just so happens that the U.S. Judiciary has had one of the most meaningful weeks in recent times, perfectly exercising its constitutional role to serve as a checks and balances to acts of the government. And handed the Trump administration its most resounding defeat so far.
Twice in less than a week, independent judges denied the president his intention to ban immigrants to the U.S. based on origin and religion.
Since Congress, with its Republican majority and complicit Democrats, has shown no autonomy and rubber stamped everything that came their way from the Executive branch, the majority of Americans were supported only by the U.S. court system, which demonstrated that it’s alive and well. It was a time to give due credit once again to the Founding Fathers, who over two centuries ago, foresaw just such a situation.
There’s no saying how long the legal apparatus will be able to withstand the pressure that the administration has mounted, to intimidate it and make it a mere tool of its agenda. The president, as now it’s usual, even penned a ‘see you in court’ tweet (as if judges work anywhere else).
But the other good news of the week was the irruption of protest rallies all over the country, showing that citizens are more than ever engaged on defending America’s democracy against a president who’s shown only contempt to it. In less than a month (it’s still hard to believe it) of the new administration, more Americans may have taken to the streets than the entire 2016 presidential campaign, and possibly even longer.
Speaking of Twitter, Snowden also responded to the speculation that his name may have been discussed in the inner circles of Washington and the Kremlin, as a possible bargaining exchange. And has expressed an unexpected, if somewhat old-fashioned, guilelessness about it.
‘Finally: irrefutable evidence that I never cooperated with Russian intel. No country trades away spies, as the rest would fear they’re next,’ he wrote. It’s a view that wouldn’t be out of place during the Cold War, circa 1951. Now, it only shows a misguidedly blind faith on the system.
He’s not just assuming that, oranges being oranges, countries still count on spies to abide by honor and patriotism rules. But also completely ignores how different animals U.S. and Russian are these days, who are the protagonists of this drama and what they’re trying to achieve here.
Neither Trump nor Putin are the least interested in providing Snowden with any resemblance of justice, or even a fair trail process. For all we know, the military is eager to get him to make his case an example, as it had done with Chelsea Manning before, and even more now that she’s been pardoned by President Obama. Who, yes, could’ve done the same for Snowden, but see now what he’d have gotten himself into?
Also, we mentioned the stellar performance of the Judiciary in staring down the administration, but it did so in great part out of popular pressure against a series of unfair and totally disastrous decisions, that only sowed chaos and confusion and yes, made the U.S. appear weak.
The circumstances that make Snowden an extraordinary figure in the recent history of the U.S. civil rights movement have again receded to the background, and the historical significance of his actions are not yet incorporated into the larger context of the movement’s struggles. Thus, the impact of his revelations are still too raw to be properly processed and given the importance that would ultimately exonerate him.
Give it time, and they will, and he will too. He deserves the nation’s undivided attention, and an eventual trial should be able to include ample debate about the very role of intel agencies to effectively protect us, without taking away our civil rights. We’re now too busy to be distracted by yet, another venue of dissatisfaction, us being a short-span nation of coach potatoes as we are. Not an easy suggestion, we admit.
But someone should, we insist, tell him that he needs to wait a bit longer. We’re very sorry, but by rushing to ‘offer’ himself as part of whatever ‘clash of civilizations’ Bannon may have on his mind, in order to perpetuate his position, Snowden may disarm a crucial weapon in his restrict arsenal, even there, in Russia: the possible public uproar against his deportation, which may appear despotic, and a Putin backlash.
A final, and sad, note about the stranding of over 600 pilot whales in New Zealand, this week, one the biggest ever. Despite hundreds of volunteers, who rushed to Farewell Spit beach to try to save and guide them back to deep water, only a fraction has managed to survive.
Marine scientists are yet to determine the cause to such heartbreaking phenomenon, which has increased exponentially since the 1950s. But one possible theory, which best explains it, is that whales become disoriented with the worldwide network of powerful undersea sonars, that used to track the movement of submarines after WWII for the military. They’re no longer used for that purpose but are still active.
It’s another man-made disruption of natural life, in this case, one that has caused irreparable damage to a complex and still unknown creature that shares this planet with us. Who knows for how much longer, as incidents like these don’t bode well to any optimistic view of the future.
In any event, please message Snowden, and to end on an upbeat note, kiss your darlings tomorrow and be happy: it’s Valentine’s Day.

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2/06/2017 What May Lie Beyond the Lies, Colltalers

Amid the growing chaos, outrage, and despondency the Trump presidency has sowed all around in just weeks, few things are easy to predict where they’ll lead us to; others are impossible to guess; and many may go either way. And yet, they all offer hints to enlighten anyone.
If what has happened in less than a month will be the norm, brace yourself for a lot more of the same: the president will continue to amass a staggering collection of mistakes, rallies will continue to resist and try to push them back, and not much else is likely to be accomplished.
Among last week’s deranged highlights reel, was his promise to ‘destroy’ the 1954 Johnson Amendment, pillar of church and state separation; rollback of regulations put in place to prevent another 2008-style financial meltdown; and the blatant invention of a political massacre that never happened, to justify the refugee ban. At this point, however, to simply recap the lunacy is futile; we’d rather add elements of analysis.
Because, for the around-the-block crowd, as unpredictable as it all seems to be, there are actual ways to gauge part of what’s happening, and its outlook, with some accuracy, given the appropriate pondering and sense of perspective. History, for instance, is always a good friend.
Thus, as Trump seems far from exhausting his arsenal of misfires, insults, and misrepresentations, public disgust and opposition toward them continue to increase. And this dynamics has already shown that it won’t be contained by U.S. borders, or diplomatic filters. Beyond the foregone conclusion that this collision course may only bring about disastrous consequences, though, all else is really up for grabs.
Will his non-sensical, and ultimate dangerous, course of action hit a wall and be curbed by circumstantial limitations? Will he be stopped by his own party, in an extremely rare display of cojones? Will he choke on his own intoxicating rhetoric and be forced to sit out or be gone?
Will the resistance on the streets coalesce into an organized movement of opposition? Will different progressive forces in society eventually cannibalize themselves, and undermine any possibility to offer solutions millions desperately need them to provide? Will many simply grow tired and decide that nothing can be done, and we may all as well go home and hope that it all goes away and a new day dawns?
All such possibilities, of course, are on the table along many others, even without including their repercussions around the world. In this particular set up, we may be players or pawns, and what everyone does will add up or not to a final resolution. But there are other scenarios.
One is that there’s a devilish method to the chaos and if not the president, then someone close and evidently cleverer than him, is already arming a few moves ahead of the outcome of the current ideological clash. Whether the Trump administration succeeds in dismantling over two centuries of democratic institutions and opens the way to a fascist regime in the U.S., these dark knights already got an answer for it.
That’s not a speculation on conspiracy theories, or an attempt to fuel the flames of insanity that have engulfed Potomac River banks. Instead, it’s the pure realization that the group that finds itself atop of the world’s most powerful nation did it so out of a methodic strategy and sheer determination. And it’d be risky and naive to expect they’ve not prepared for at least a few steps ahead of the present situation.
Again, a number of probabilities come to mind, if one takes a crash History course; there are many examples, and variations, to guide the dedicated student. But be forewarned: there’s no sugarcoating them, as historical facts are rarely devoid of immense tragedy and hardship.
Let’s keep it simple, logical, and granted, obvious, just so we can move on. One such scenario, which has happened so many times, is what one would call, the ‘disappointing curve.’ Let’s focus of that almost 30% of Americans who voted for Donald Trump hoping for the best.
Not all but most of them are still expecting he does good on his word of ‘cleaning up the swamp,’, doing away with a perceived Wall Street sway over Washington, promote an immediate revival of industries long put out of business, and reestablish America’s domination of the world (as it never have), just to keep it brief. It’s clearly obvious that every single one of these premises has already been compromised.
But let’s suppose most still don’t see it that way. And let’s face it, unless there’s a cataclysmic event between now and 2018 (knock on wood), only the midterm elections may deliver the first visible blow to his masquerade; it may be the first moment they may start thinking about it.
Then the race to his reelection will be on, and anyone can be sure, he’ll be very much interested in re-impress them all again, by promoting some sort of sleight of hand to keep his viability still afloat. It’s possible. But what if, at that time, things may not turn out that easy his way?
That’s the moment of reckoning every American should fear, and work as hard as possible for it not to ever happen. Why? Because we fear that, when Trump’s lies lose their power, and they very likely will at some point, and his image of a screaming bully no longer is enough to compound the illusion that he’s an effective leader, what will happen? Trump steaks and ‘the very best’ real estate deal to the right guessers.
That’s right: when all else will fail, Trump will surely declare an international war, just to divert the inconvenient attention. And we’ll know then that that’s was the plan all along. It’ll seem so obvious, and it’s even possible to picture a number of public figures lamenting they haven’t thought of it before. A war of convenience, a war to boost business, a war to please hawks, and above all, a war to assure his second term.
This is really a frightening prospect, Colltalers, and it pains us to realize how it’ll ‘perfectly’ fit and cap this mad agenda we’ve seen put into place by the White House. That is, if we leave it all up to them to decide. We do not want to be alarmist about this, for there’s indeed enough screaming and shouting about nothing in the world these days, to make us question even the relevance of raising yet another terrifying flag.
But it needs to be mentioned. War has served as just such a purpose as recently as 2003, in Iraq, and many times before. Once again, overnight, people will be forced to change the subject of conversation, and even if the ‘evidence’ is dubious, to complain then about jobs and unfulfilled campaign promises will be deemed unpatriotic. The only room left, if any, will and must be then occupied by opposing the war.
We’ve seen signs that his machine gun of gagging responses has already been directed at China, Mexico, Iran, Australia, for crying out loud, and if you’re wondering what nation would or should be coming up next, boy, do we have a few dozen that would fit this horrific bill.
There isn’t any point to wonder which. What we must is to prevent one of Trump’s dim-witted spurts of anger to coincide with a Pentagon’s well-oiled, ready-to-go geopolitical target, because then, as they say, who are you going to call? The current spineless Congress? No kidding.
For now, though, the beatings will sure as hell to continue, and we must keeping on saying no, no, no. No, we’re not to be silenced, no, we’re not submitting to it, no, we’re not folding banners and going home anytime soon. What’s happening is simply too important to take a time off.
Yes, there’s reason to be positive about it; there are signs that people who never even cared about any of it are suddenly joining in and taking attendance of friends and neighbors. And yes, much remains to be done and many still to be reached and comforted at this difficult time.
We’re in the thick of it, so it’s Ok to feel a bit of despair, and a lot the bitterness about our current predicament. It’s fine that we’re still reeling, for we’re humans and all that. But we can’t drop out, even if we’re personally still safe; many are not, and may depend on those who can still raise their arms and be counted. We’re not asking anyone to join a party here; but we need your solidarity. Winter is almost done.

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1/30/2017 Beat the Big Brother, Colltalers

Hard to believe it, but this is only the second Monday of the Trump administration. And things are already at least as bad as we feared. The reality TV host who now occupies the White House had a busy week, tweeting and lying, while checking items off his agenda of diatribes.
In fact, he threatened to executive-order America to death. But if his actions had any substance, they boosted at least one professional field: that of therapists and mental health workers. It’s that old cautionary tale: if the leader seems insane, everybody doubts their own sanity.
From the get go, he invested against Obamacare and abortion funding, revived the Keystone pipeline, hand-cuffed the EPA, terrorized immigrants, picked up a fight with China and Mexico, bullied our U.N. allies, while pushing his vote fraud fantasy. Nothing on Putin, though.
Did we mention that he and his minions lied too? A lot. By the end of the week, several groups had taken the streets to protest, and there was chaos at major airports, with mass detentions of refugee applicants. No wonder, several senior State Department agents wound up walking out too.
Luckily, as government workers, they’re insured, unlike so many who are now realizing that they voted for a president who wants to do away with their health care. Not be cynical about such a scourge as the opioid epidemic, but it’s likely that drug companies won’t have any trouble filling it in for long-term therapy: a study found out Trump won in counties with the highest rates of death from drugs, alcohol, and suicide.
Yes, that proves little without the context of a widening income gap. The resurgence of large-scale addiction to opioids, heroin and other street downers, has the common element of hitting those the GOP leadership deems freeloaders: the long-term unemployed, with chronic, and costly, diseases, Vets, former unionized labor, that is, hardcore blue collar workers, once a dignified staple of American workforce.
They were the ones a well-funded, comprehensive, and market integrated social welfare system was supposed to help back to their feet. But social programs and networks of support have become synonymous to laziness to the political elites of America. And they got the ear of a segment of the population, manipulated into thinking that that sort of expenditure is not as important as the next Pentagon’s shopping list.
Among the many nightmarish signs that we may be facing the rise of an authoritarian regime in the U.S., there’s also been a surge in political movements based not on a partisan line, but directed at specific targets, which makes a lot of sense. Led by the Women’s March in DC, last week, there’s seem to be a renewed spirit of organizing to protect, protest to be heard, and keep the pressure to remain on the issues.
It’s an energizing sentiment. No relevant movement of resistance can exist without this clarity about what’s at stake, what are the resources available to pursue an agenda of radical change, and how deeply involved are the people directly affected by it, to make it all happen.
But it’s also crucial that voting suppression, voter apathy, class and racial divisions, and above all an easily understood and agreed upon set of unifying priorities are addressed at all levels of representation, from a local food bank to student organizations to community centers.
That’s when the power of a party machine, such as the Democrat, may be needed. Or, if we really want, that still remote dream of a third party, whose supporters always show up when it’s ‘electoral primetime,’ i.e., presidential election, but hardly anytime else. A year ago, crowds supporting Bernie Sanders were ready to bring on the revolution. But since November, they seem to have all but abandoned the Senator.
They need to come out of the woodwork, along seasoned Occupy Wall Street activists, the already out there Black Lives Matter, an array of LBGT militancies, and so many others, to present their contribution to an at least 4-year battle for the hearts and minds of Americans.
Time is ripe to all join in those segments already being pushed back by the Trump doctrine, women, immigrants, Muslims, environmentalists, so far, with more certainly to come, to unite and decide on a common strategy of action. Because, after all, street rallies can only go so far.
We can’t expect to resolve all differences before getting our feet wet; it’s a given that our strength is on chaotic diversity. Waste time on the finishing, and we risk losing sight of the big picture: human rights are at stake. Which issues should prevail will depend on where and how. The essential thing, though, is to retain and build upon this momentum, without giving them the luxury of a single good night of sleep.
Publishers and bookstores have seen a recent surge on sales of literature about dystopias. Suddenly, classics about totalitarian regimes, still present in many countries around the world, have a new found resonance on contemporary U.S., in ways many never thought possible.
Among such classics, George Orwell’s 1984 is back at the top of best selling list. Thus it’s almost poignant that we lost John Hurt, last week, the great British actor whose portrayal of Winston Smith – cue the torture scene – will be forever imprinted on our collective nightmares.
We’re not close to what Eric Blair feared, but not too far either. No matter what the Big Brother thinks of himself, there are over two centuries of the Constitution staked against him. We’ve come too far, or not enough. But it’s up to us, no him, to decide which is which. At some point, we may need to change the conversation but for now, he’ll not divide us; awareness trumps intolerance. Welcome to the Year of the Rooster.

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1/23/2017 Cancel the Fire Sale, Colltalers

On Friday, some 70% of Americans who didn’t vote for Donald Trump watched or chose to ignore the swearing in of the 45th President of the United States, before an estimated 160,000 crowd. Saturday, the Women’s March gathered three times as many people to protest it.
That split in Washington may be the tonic of the next four years in America. In one side, a new administration led by a group of billionaires ready to take on the country. On the other, an entire genre calling all segments of society to join in and resist. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Yes, we’re back, if not exactly freshened up. Thanks for all the personal messages of encouragement and support, during our break, and of course, for your continuous readership. Although advocacy is not our purpose here, we’re glad to be part of a common defense of civil rights.
Every little action will count, apparently. And all signs indicate that the president is determined to pursue an agenda of hostility disguised as ‘America first,’ and contrary to our best values as a nation, will indeed consider everyone who disagrees with him his personal foe.
From his brief and dark-toned inaugural speech as Commander-in-Chief, loaded with words such as ‘carnage,’ ‘pain’ and ‘fear,’ to his first executive orders, signing an obscure set of instructions to undermine the Affordable Care Act and President Obama’s mortgage fee cuts program, the new boss of America has shown that, along with his nominees, decisive steps will be taken to disable his predecessor’s legacy.
He made a reference to the ‘little guy,’ and that such a figure of speech is now in charge of the White House. But it’s hard to know how, given that his appointed cabinet’s material wealth is actually greater than the combined income of a third of low-income Americans.
While some millions of women and their supporters around the world joined in the Saturday’s protest, Trump was already busy blaming the media for supposedly under-counting crowd numbers at his inauguration, despite the evidence presented by photos of the event. In typical fashion, he refuse the facts, and also lied about his fully documented criticism of the intel community, which he now denies having done it.
We may get used to that kind of M.O., which has been on display practically from day one of his campaign. That doesn’t mean we will find it all ‘normal,’ because it is not. Despite what Trump says, he does not have a mandate to govern, and his every action will be contested.
Specially when his every action has been so far so wrong. Or is there any ‘right’ about eliminating the Climate Change-dedicated page, from the White House Website? Did it have to be exactly when NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration both released independent data, asserting that 2016 was the hottest on record, beating the two previous years that had consecutively held the spot before?
As for the DC march, it’s possible that many of his supporters understand why women, of all races, classes and beliefs, are leading the charge for preservation, and extension even, of civil, reproductive, and freedom of expression rights, painfully fought over by the American people. But, in case there should be a redundant example to show why, and why by women, tell them this: female labor is not paid equally.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ‘weekly earnings of full-time workers were $827 in the third quarter of 2016,’ with women earning ‘81.85 of the $911 median for men.’ White women earned 81.5%, blacks 87,3%, Asians 75%, and Hispanics, 88,9%, as much as men.
And in case one lets the current baseless, fact-free paranoia about government manipulation of economic indicators take the best out of them, keep in mind that the Obama administration, more than any other, would love to claim some kind of reversal on the trend, under its watch. The fact that it didn’t is not only a reflection of the former president’s morals, but a matter of accepting reality and/or working to change it.
As for us, we’re not having a hard time accepting that the pseudo-millionaire – we may never know for sure, if he can help it – is now in control of the world’s most powerful army, and don’t even start with his nominee to manage our nuclear arsenal. Elections almost never go our way. What we won’t accept is not that we may have lost, but that American institutions may be treated like assets for a big fire sale.
We won’t allow Trump to start another war, or short-change education, or undermine clean energy projects, in order to boost his nominees’ private businesses. They may try to dismantle Obamacare but it won’t be easy to enroll his supporters on that, since the majority are actually covered by it. Then again, if you think we believe that they’ll simply drop it and give up, you’re forgetting that it’s the year that’s new, not us.
For the odds are indeed against us. Saturday, as people hit the streets of the world, demanding equal rights and fair income distribution, some of Europe’s most notorious right wing politicians gathered in Germany, trying to work a common agenda to capitalize on Trump’s ascension.
It’s also not hard to imagine, and maybe even fear, the day when believers of his promises of a return to a ‘buy American and hire American’ world, of manufacturing jobs and an immigrant-free workforce – as if there was ever one – realize that they were sold a bag of goods.
Between the billionaires, now about to profit from the ‘swamp,’ and the message of resistance and inclusion, sent by millions of women now committed to man the trenches of social injustice, the choice may be clear even to those who voted for the scion of a real estate mogul.
It’s good to be back, just as mourners have to, at some point, put aside the black band, and carry on with the business of being alive. That’s a privilege we all have. People in New York, California, and other cities, and those lucky enough to have a shot at success in life, including, yes, scions of the mega-rich and millennials alike, may not realize why we need to insist, stick out, and say no to power, whenever possible.
We do, or else we should, because not just that lower third of our fellow Americans, but people throughout the world need to occupy our voices and speak up about the damage global warming is already causing to their lives. And against the obscenity of the wealth of only eight individuals being worth half of the population of this planet. And that, ultimately, no one can’t take a dime along when they leave this planet.
We depart as we come, naked, hungry, and vulnerable. Between these two moments, some change the world, while others, suck it out dry. There are many shades in between but the way each one of us leans to through life, is what really will outlast us all. Have a great week.

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12/19/2016 Of Loss & Regrouping, Colltalers

The periodically vilified Electoral College, a tenet of U.S. democracy, votes today to ratify the Nov. 8 election results. Few expect any of these 538 special voters to stray from their parties’ directive; barring a political cataclysm, they will confirm Donald Trump as the president.
More than their constitutional duty, though, they’ll be exercising a far less formal attribution of their position: loyalty to those who nominated them. They’re not accountable to Hillary Clinton’s popular vote win, and most likely will remain oblivious to it, and her. Because they can.
Sadly, accountability itself was another concept to leave this world in 2016. The election was neither the first nor the last example of it. For apart from the boastful and the graceless, jubilant with Trump’s win, no one else is claiming responsibility for anything, one way or another.
From Republicans’ embrace of a lying master they claimed to reject when he burst out of party’s bowels, to broadcast media’s profiting from Fake News and his diatribes, to highfalutin moralists, to whom Clinton was too indigestible, to a Democrat establishment that failed to heed to his populist skills, no one is taking responsibility for the rebirth of authoritarianism Trump’s set in motion, even before the inauguration.
The president-elect himself has already taken a number of U-turns on critical themes he defended on his campaign, and seems confident that he won’t be forced to own up to any of them. Assuming, with some reason, he’s above any serious questioning, he’s become the bastion of unaccountability, an unfortunate trend that may have already fatally infected large segments of this country’s political intelligentsia.
We’ll all come to regret this sorry state of affairs, of course. Specially those whose convictions about what public service should be about, and moral duty towards society, and paying your dues, are all grounded on a sense of being accountable, of standing up and be counted.
Those who can’t conceive that such a catastrophic collapse of social responsibility could’ve happened suddenly, are quick to note how fast it seems to be spreading out and setting up roots deep into our collective psyche. Rather, such a far reaching rejection of what we use to call human decency has to have well known progenitors, if one looks hard enough, and precedence, even if not always easily acknowledged.
In this context, it’s also easy to verge on cynicism about the strident, and so far, devoid of any proof, calls of Russia’s intervention in the U.S. electoral process, by intel agencies. It’s as if rivers of cash flooding politics, given legitimacy by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, depletion of the Voting Act, gerrymandering, and other shenanigans hadn’t already undermined the entire construct of our democracy.
No one denies that any country would like having the power to directly interfere in the American political process, even knowing that there are perfectly legal ways of doing so, both from abroad and, mostly, by sheer lobbying power of multinationals and special interest groups.
Russia would, indeed, be eager to attempt it, as the authoritarian Putin regime stands to gain a lot from having someone like Trump in the White House. Also, because nowadays computer networks, even those highly protected, are still vulnerable to hacking and state spying.
But besides Russia, there are a number of nations around the world who have experienced first hand what it means to have a foreign country ostensibly undermining their sovereignty, and arguably most of them point fingers to the U.S. That the majority lacks the technological muscle to fight back is beside the point. It is an integral part of geopolitics for countries to wage this kind of secret wars against each other.
Whether Putin has actually ordered his techie goons to invade U.S. government and political institutions would surprise absolutely no one. Neither is credible that our own goons have been told to stand pat while this was happening. There are no sitting ducks in this range.
What’s truly baffling, and downright unoriginal, is that the Obama administration is fully engaged in blaming the Russians so late in the game, which invites speculation about its motives. And shouldn’t the president have important issues of legacy to take care of instead?
Like, pardoning a number of whistleblowers, for instance. Starting by Chelsea Manning, who turned 29 last Saturday, and Edward Snowden, two of the many who pretty much have destroyed their lives trying to warn fellow Americans against government excesses and the serious risks of letting intel agencies run unencumbered their own narratives, and versions of reality that best suit their own needs, and no one else’s.
Chances are, under a Trump administration, these two and others like them will languish in a limbo of phony righteousness, and public obliviousness, while merchants of the temple run away with the collections money. President Obama may be their very last hope to clean the slate, by offering them a second chance to show how their sacrifice has actually contributed to the welfare of every American.
It was crucial to learn what we now know for a fact about how the intel community has been operating in this country, and we all owe that to them. We’d never have known about how our privacy is routinely traded in the most vexing ways, or taxpayer money is wasted on senseless surveillance, by spies who should be busy protecting us from hackers and foreign interests, geared to undermine our electoral will.
It’s the whistleblowers’ word against the same intel community, as essential and needed that it may be, now throwing an old horse under its own carriage, and that was either missing or clearly biased in the alleged hacking and vote manipulation some are only now learning about.
What U.S. spies, and Putin, the GOP and the Democratic parties, the Obama administration even, and so many enablers and now fervid supporters of Trump have yet to do, whistleblowers have done from day one: they stood up and took responsibility. They remain as accountable as none of their accusers will ever be, and that integrity is intrinsic to the unfairness of their sentencing, official or presumed.
In the heat and shock of the post-election results, when it became sure that Clinton had lost, Van Jones, a black political commentator and former Obama administration member, offered the night’s most heartbreaking, and sincere, assessment of what had just happened.
‘People have talked about a miracle; I’m hearing about a nightmare. You tell your kids, don’t be a bully, don’t be bigot, do your homework and be prepared. And then you have this outcome,’ was arguably the best summation of that moment, one of the saddest to millions.
We’re certainly not over the fact that the man who incited hatred towards immigrants, Muslims, women, minorities, and blacks, was rewarded with the world’s most important job. Empathy, compassion, inclusiveness, equality, respect to the environment, were defeated, even if not by that much. But when Jones offered his humble feelings of hopelessness, he revealed a lucidity that went beyond that moment of doubt.
He, and others, pointed to the work laying ahead of us. That we may have to double down, and be even more specific about what we tell our children. That that man didn’t actually win, but we did lose, and that we’ll have to be better, even less of bigots, and even more prepared.
We’re taking a little break in the coming weeks, to gather our strength and hopefully recharge our frail moral batteries. For if anything, it’s pointless repeating what we’ve already expressed about everything, for 50-plus weeks of this sorrowful year, with varying degrees of clarity. It’s been rough and we’re nearly spent. Thanks for being on the receiving end of our tame idiosyncrasies. Here’s for a better New Year.

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12/12/2016 Change the Climate Channel, Colltalers

With 2016 likely to be called the hottest year on record, there was no need for president-elect Donald Trump to make the fight to reverse climate change any worse. But by nominating fuel industry insider Scott Pruitt for the Environmental Protection Agency he did just that.
So get ready to a new year of increased temperatures, melting polar caps, carbon and methane emissions, man made and from permafrost, plus more glacier cracks and lose icebergs, to be only half of the problem. The other will be a climate-change denying administration.
Practically every environmental organization has denounced Oklahoma Attorney General Pruitt’s many legal battles against the agency he’s now set to lead, President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and other environmental initiatives, such as those signed at the 2015 Paris Conference.
With other attorneys general, he joined in the infamous 2014 29-state lawsuit against the CPP, which is still pending and may advance to the Supreme Court, where a majority vote, potentially boosted by a future Trump nominee, may undermine years of efforts to control pollution.
But the biggest case for Pruitt’s unfitness to head the EPA is his links to the industry he’ll be in charge of regulating. For instance, he was accused of signing letters, dismissing the environmental impact of natural gas drilling in OK, that turned out to have been written by Devon Energy lawyers. Also, the co-chairman of his 2013 re-election campaign was Continental Energy CEO Harold G. Hamm.
If a GOP-led Congress confirms Pruitt, and there’s really no reason to expect that it won’t, and the possible appointment of Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, for Secretary of State, groups fighting for further environmental protection rules may have their job cut out for them.
It’s not just that one is a skilled litigator, and the other a wealthy executive, loyal for 40 years to one of the most profitable, and worst polluter, corporations on earth. But it’s the fact that the two nominations signal a sharp course of action from the Trump administration. There’s a clear choice of insiders and the superrich to write government policy, and concerns about environmental issues are not a priority.
The news about the nominations caps a particularly tough year for the already severe signs that the climate is the biggest issue of our era, for its dramatic impact on the chances for survival of billions of people, and for its potential to end the civilization in decades, not centuries.
Here are the facts: a November study by NASA and University of Colorado at Boulder scientists showed that ‘Arctic Ocean and neighboring seas have been slow to freeze, setting both daily and monthly record lows.’ Caused by warmer waters and atmosphere, plus wind patterns, the phenomenon reveals a long-term, potentially climate-impacting trend towards accelerating melting levels at the Arctic polar circle.
Two other studies spelled out the recent bad news coming from the north. A consortium of scientists found out that the concentration of methane, a greenhouse gas more powerful than carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere, is rising faster now than in the previous decade.
That study follows an August research project, by a University of Alaska Fairbanks team, showing evidence of increased permafrost releases of ancient carbon. Old methane, stored for centuries under the permafrost, is released as carbon, which multiplies the already toxic effects on public health and quality of life for billions, caused by massive daily man made emissions released worldwide into the air we all breathe.
Another research, this time based overseas, highlights yet another of the president-elect’s misguided campaign promises, that of reviving the coal industry. Scientists from China, the U.S., and the U.K. have finally traced back to coal burning the cause for the infamous London fog that, 64 years ago this December, killed over four thousand people, sickening another 150 thousand, and was never properly explained.
Using lab experiments and atmospheric data from Beijing and Xi’an, two heavily polluted Chinese metropolises, they found that sulfur and nitrogen dioxide combined and released by the burning of coal, created ‘an acidic haze’ that covered London and choked people to death.
The tragic event propitiated the passage of the British Clean Air Act, in 1956. The irony is that, although China’s economy is still highly dependent of coal production, it is being phased out, there as here, as part of both countries’ commitments to the Paris Conference goals.
Ready for some soothing Fake News already? Not yet, not here. We’re almost done and the thing about facts is that they stay with us, inform us, and after a period of extreme discomfort realizing that things can indeed get worse, they compel us into action. Some of us, anyway.
Let’s move south, then. Heard of the Antarctica Crack lately? Just last March, it was a 14-mile long gash, but recent satellite and aerial photos confirmed to have grown to over 70 mile in length and, at some points, 300 feet wide, almost twice the length of a football field.
At this pace, this 2,300-square-mile ice colossus will split off from the Larsen C Ice Shelf, within a year. If the Shelf itself melts off completely by 2020 as scientists expect, after having remained intact for 10 thousand years, it will add four inches to world’s sea levels.
Even counting with concrete steps taken to slow down climate change, by that year many more Pacific islands will have sunk, and their populations will be engorging the hordes of dispossessed, nationless citizens, predicted to boost the next wave of global migrations.
They’ll be as hungry as many inland field and food workers, who will be hit by severe droughts and incontrollable storms, raging wild fires and terminal soil depletion. Climate and land availability have always been factors in the production of agricultural commodities. But increased weather unpredictability may render large portions of arable land unsustainable, and prices, prohibitive to most.
This is not some alarmist warning to the future; it’s already happening. And it’s not taking place in remote regions, but in food belts of major world economies, starting right here, in the ol’ U.S. of A. In keeping with other of Trump’s deceiving campaign promises, imagine if diminished plantation lands also suffer from lack of crucial immigrant hands to bring it all to the dinner table of thousands of Americans.
The president-elect and his chosen circle of billionaires won’t be concerned about that, not personally anyway, since they can afford whatever price sturgeon caviar costs at any time. Too bad for the remainder 99%, who never seem to think that it’s just a matter of paying a lot more for food, housing, and health. There, problem solved. What, they can’t afford it? Why do they keep making bad choices in life then?
Every day, the 89 million subscribers of the Weather Channel are expertly warned about the weather perils at their neck of woods, possible hazardous conditions on their commute to work, and a likely delayed trip home at the end of the day. The constant stream of graphs and dramatic in-loco footage is only interrupted by commercials full of happy middle class families, with clean houses and safe automobiles.
What’s missing by the channel’s lineup of good looking, and racially homogenized, anchors is news about the already ongoing impact of climate change on their audience’s lives. That partially explains why so many are still confused between what’s weather and what’s climate.
This is not meant to single out a particular broadcaster. Yet one wonders where’s its accountability on reporting facts and explaining the science behind of what’s happening? No one doubts the value of shows featuring ‘human stories’ of survival and courage, rescue and happy endings to the life threatening ‘wild side’ of weather. But they don’t fulfill the need to inform, as good journalism should be about.
The same with school curriculums and the dissociative pattern of ‘forcing feed’ knowledge into young minds, while denying them the tools to understanding the political implications of life as it happens. Perhaps we’re going about this the wrong way, trying to tame the bull by its tail.
There’s a game change in place, and the U.S. will again no longer be in the lead of environmental and climate change issues. At the end of the day, billionaires don’t share our same interests. Trump will do as Trump does, and we’ll be left out in the cold, no pun intended.
Maybe instead of putting so much currency on elected officials, the key is searching for facts that connect our daily lives, and those of our children, to a higher purpose. We could probably use the help of those interlopers who show up every four years arguing the case for a third party, and then vanish, when the hard, headlines-ignoring work of community organizing has to be done. But let’s not wait for them either.
The stream of bad news about the climate that 2016 has brought us will probably continue, and with those nominees in charge, it’ll probably become a litany of despair. But we do have a choice and things do change with effort. Isn’t what we still tell our kids, as if we firmly believe it? For no matter how many new enemies of the earth may show up, we’ll always be more than them. Enjoy the Geminid meteor showers.

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12/05/2016 The Dangerous Liaisons, Colltalers

Would it be possible that we’re already beyond George Orwell’s nightmarish view of the future? Two recent incidents signal that we may: a Website promoting a watch list of supposedly ‘leftists’ professors, and the verbal assault of a Muslim woman on a New York subway.
Both could be dismissed as product of fringe ideas, rejected by the mainstream of American society. But eerie similitudes with the 1930s Germany, and the fact that so many are choosing not to acknowledge that it’s even happening, may turn out to be the very reason it will.
After all, only in the first 10 days after the Nov. 8 presidential vote, some 900 episodes of hate were reported across the U.S. From black students insulted in classrooms, to swastikas and ‘Whites Only’ spray-painted on schools, churches, and synagogues, to Nazi flag appearances. If anything, Donald Trump election seems to be telling something terrible to a suddenly empowered group: it’s OK again to hate minorities.
Before going any further, though, we don’t yet believe that half a century of civil rights and progressive reforms toward racial and religious equality are in immediate threat to vanish overnight. But just like a thousand-mile trek starts with one step, well, you get the idea.
This is not a conspiracy, or the unfounded belief that a group of individuals are consciously planning our derailing as a nation. But this is a not unintentionally charged political climate, conducive to a witch hunt, in which the hunted is the majority, and the hunters are well armed.
One event, video of which surfaced last week, was particularly chilling, and took place not in some backwater town in the middle of nowhere but in Washington DC: a group of people cheering the president-elected with the Nazi salute. They actually said it: Hail Trump.
For those who have dismissed as sore losers millions of Americans concerned about a white nationalism resurgence, the gathering couldn’t have been more explicit. The historical parallel was unmistakable and the irony is that it could not happen in contemporary Germany either.
Even worse is the the established media’s adoption of the preferred term this group would like to call themselves, at least for now: alt-right. A title fully endorsed by the first openly white supremacist to have an official role in the U.S. federal government: Steve Bannon.
That not even during the arguably darkest times for racism in America – the biggest part of the 20th century until the 1960s -, there was such a blatant ‘Aryan nation’ apologist in the White House, at least not self declared, should be enough to raise the hair in the back of our necks.
But just as the thugs who patrolled the Berlin and Rome of the 1940s called themselves Hitler’s Youth and the Brown Shirts, only later being labeled for what they really were, murder squads in uniforms, the xenophobic of our times would rather be called something hip as ‘alt.’
Speaking of the president to be, as he starts a national ‘thank you tour,’ similar incidents of violent rhetoric and threats, common during his campaign, were reported. But unlike the lavish coverage, the intent seems to be not so much to thank anyone, but to divert public attention.
For while some focus on a celebration of a ‘landslide’ that never was, healthcare, education, and free Internet, are moving right along to be gutted, given the background of those nominated to be in charge of them. And it’ll affect many of those now being lured by the coverage.
No one should be glad about this, but it seems all but certain that many Trump voters will face a rude awakening regarding campaign promises. They may find that medical expenses without government subsidies are prohibitive, that education that’s not free is beyond their reach, and that access to Internet is an actual need and should be a right to every citizen, not just a luxury enjoyed by ‘spoiled city folk.’
But Tom Price, Health and Human Services nominee, is on board to replace Obamacare with a system that’d reduce the number of Americans covered. Likely Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been a fierce advocate of school vouchers and charter schools but public education, not so much. And Mark Jamison and Jeffrey Eisenach, indicated for the Federal Communications Commission, oppose net neutrality.
These are but three examples of nominees with either support from trade or interest groups, questionable views about public policy, or downright ties with the industry they’re supposed to regulate. Remember the Hillary Clinton’s ties to Wall Street charge? Oh, never mind.
Going back to those recent incidents, there’s something equally disturbing about either of them: a ‘list’ of educators, who are being accused of ‘leftist propaganda in the classroom,’ and a woman being verbally abused in New York City, and no one doing anything to defend her.
A group of academics have denounced the site, Professor Watchlist, run by one Charlie Kirk, who writes that it’s time to expose ‘out of line’ college teachers in the U.S. But 18-year-old student Yasmin Seweid had to endure three young men shouting ‘Trump’ at her face, calling her a terrorist and threatening to rip off her headgear, on her own, while straphangers stood by. So much for New York’s famed ‘liberal bias.’
One of the most remarkable things accomplished by the 1945-46 Nuremberg Trials, besides a level of justice for six million victims of the Nazi, was the introduction of the concept of ‘guilty by association’ in large scale. Which meant that soldiers could no longer invoke the ‘I was following orders’ as a defense. After all, the call of duty should not involve the total collapse of one’s moral principles. Ideally, that is.
War tends to override all of that, of course. The very mention of ‘conscientious objector’ conjures charges of cowardice and lack of patriotic fiber by hawks and combatants alike. It’s often negatively equated to deserters too, an issue pertinent to U.S. Army Sgt Bowe Bergdahl.
On the other hand, it took Muhammad Ali, another of this dispiriting 2016’s great losses, to turn ‘conscientious objector’ into his cause célèbre e emerge from it an even larger than life man. But it was never on the Geneva Convention, not it could’ve been invoked by the Nazi.
The Tribunal judged and convicted 24 of prominent Third Reich political and military leaders, while involuntarily sparing the infamous Adolf, Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels, all suicidal cowards. It did convicted Martin Bormann, even as in absentia, though.
It was the brilliant Holocaust-survivor Hanna Arendt, thought, who died in New York 41 years ago yesterday, in her superb ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem – A Report on the Banality of Evil,’ a compilation of her coverage of that other Nazi Adolf’s trial, who best understood the complexity of following orders and live (at least until one’s trial and death penalty), or to refuse it, based on moral concerns, and be shot.
Not an easy choice to make but one that those who made it have defined their entire lives by its consequences. While sociopaths like Eichmann wouldn’t take responsibility for their part in one of History’s worst, and better documented, genocides, others did choose to be shot.
There’s no glory per se in dying for a cause, or worse, for a leader and his or her deranged ideas. On the other hand, in the face of despicable deeds we know we’re perfectly capable of committing, there can never be excuses for omission – or Swiss claims of neutrality for that matter.
For when someone anonymously names a teacher to the ‘Professor Watchlist,’ or as such, a Nevada math instructor, David Buch, threatens to report his undocumented students to the Immigration, we’re all being threatened. If we don’t denounce it for what it is, we’re no conscientious objectors, or patriots; what we’ve become then is enablers of that ‘banality of evil’ that ultimately murders our dignity and humanity.
Rather than telling on someone from anonymity’s spineless comfort, the Orwellian post-911 spirit of ‘seeing something, saying something’ – against people who don’t look like us -, we’d better scream on the top of our lungs that we’ll have no part in such totalitarian world.
No, we need no martyrs, or heroes ready to avenge a lifetime of saying yes to an unfair system. But we need even less the criminal omission of those subway riders who said nothing while a young woman was being victimized. Or parents whose children show no compassion to the vulnerable, or who have never been taught that everyone counts here, in the world’s biggest nation built by and home of immigrants.
Many are despondent that their future may be determined by a group of privileged bigots, with the worst possible idea of government. But they’ll only achieve what Eric Arthur Blair once feared, if we give them our blessing. Or oblivion. Will we be found guilty by association?
The great German people followed some wretched leaders into the homicidal adventure of devastating wars, but learned to be on the lookout for psychopaths. Will we stop this express of doom from running us over too? Because it will and we must. Have an excellent one.

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11/28/2016 Hell or High Water at Standing Rock, Colltalers

Most Americans spent Thanksgiving blissfully, which was great, but oblivious to what’s going on in North Dakota, which isn’t. There, 300 tribes of the sixth-largest Native American reservation, are blocking construction of a pipeline that may poison the entire region’s water.
About 4,000 supporters are congregated in the area, and tensions with law enforcement are rising. Despite freezing temperatures, on Nov. 20th, police doused protesters with water canons, causing injuries, and was accused of throwing a grenade that blew up an activist’s arm.
Making matters worst, on Friday the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has told the Standing Rock Sioux that from Dec. 5 on, it’ll block access to the area north of the Cannonball River, which it claims to be ‘Corps-managed land, so ‘to prevent death, illness, or serious injury to inhabitants,’ due to harsh winter conditions. Which would be nice if it wasn’t the first time ever the agency has shown such concerns.
But not to worry, the cavalry is on its way, says former Army officer Wes Clark Jr. He’s organizing a three-day deployment of U.S. military veterans to the reservation, in support of the resistance movement. It’ll be unusual but much more in character than the Corps’ stance.
While the government agency’s role is defined as of ‘public engineering, design, and construction management,’ normally associated with dams, canals, and flood protection in the U.S. and abroad, in this pipeline issue it has also strangely assumed a role of law enforcement.
The Veterans Stand for Standing Rock, on the other hand, is bringing retired police officers, fire fighters, emergency medical personnel and other volunteers to ‘prevent progress’ of the pipeline, and ‘draw national attention to the human rights warriors of the Sioux tribes.’
We’re all hoping that it’ll also help prevent further escalation, moving the issue to the political realm which is where it can be fought more effectively. Nevertheless, the heroic efforts Native Americans, and now Vets too, are engaged on show that for some, words no longer cut.
President Obama, who about a month ago said that ‘there’s a way to accommodate sacred lands,’ and that the ‘Corps is examining whether there are ways to reroute this pipeline,’ has got to step up efforts to bring the construction of this potential environment hazard to a close.
The 1,172-mile pipeline would run from ND to southern Illinois, crossing beneath the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, and part of Lake Oahe, near the reservation. Cutting through such a huge swath of land, this ‘black snake’ is almost bound to cause irreversible damage.
It’d require major disruptions and fracking, a central objection for the tribes fighting the project. Worst, despite assurances, Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline’s owner, has a troubling environmental record. Since 2005, it’s lost over 18,000 barrels of crude oil in spills, across the country, and along with its subsidiaries, in six years it’s been fined more than $22 million in environmental and other violations.
Moreover, besides being another confrontation between residents defending the environmental integrity of their land, and powerful oil interests, the months-long Access Pipeline protest has became a focal point of an even wider conflict: that over the rights to potable water.
That’s where the confluence of finding alternatives to fossil-fuel sources of energy, and ending the permanent damage caused by the extraction of coal and natural gas, become coincident with the rights of citizens to preserve their property’s value and natural resources.
But while the few hundred terrible coal-related jobs are finally on their way out nationally, leaving behind generations of workers whose health is forever compromised, natural gas extraction, which depends on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, continues to grow.
Few factors are behind this artificially-sustained increase in projects throughout the country. One is that gas, unlike oil, in its final consumption-ready stage is relatively clean, a sales pitch that the industry smartly uses when spending millions of dollars to advertise.
That this is an illusion, considering the wide array of high pollutants it employs to get to that final stage, is what’s often missed, except by those whose land became sterile, groundwater poisoned, and whose own health is deteriorating. Respiratory diseases, skin rashes, digestive disorders, neurological problems, and incidences of cancer, have all been reported whenever fracking activity is present. And earthquakes.
Given its wealth-generating potential, it’d take a powerful political push to phase out and ban this highly unstable method of extraction from the U.S.’s palette of energy source options. But it’s possible, now that solar and wind power have become profitable, generating good quality jobs in a relatively short span of time. Then again, beyond health concerns, the fight at Standing Rock boils down to potable water.
In 2014, Michigan offered a tragic textbook example of what happens when public water is not protected. A spectacularly misguided decision, by Governor Rick Snyder and others, caused widespread lead contamination in Flint, in a crisis whose consequences are not completely mapped yet. One thing is for sure; thousands of Michigan children will forever suffer neurological and developmental problems.
In his waning weeks in office, and given the prospect of energy regulations being rolled back by the new administration, President Obama’s decisive support to the Standing Rock movement against the Access Pipeline could be a defining and ever lasting moment for his legacy.
He could use his executive power, and his still considerable mandate, to determine that construction should be called off, control over the land being reversed to its original Native American ownership, and declare the area an environmental sanctuary for future generations.
For thousands of years before the arrival of the first Europeans to North America, the Sioux and a myriad of native nations had already proven to be the truly defenders of this land and all its resources. It’s just fair that they’ve now earned the title of Water Protectors too. The least that they can expect from us, direct benefactors of their history of courage, is to lend them our support. Have a great week.

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11/21/2016 Talk About the Bird, Instead, Colltalers

Suddenly, there’s another reason to feel jittery about Thanksgiving. Aside a shift in public perception about Americas’s most beloved holiday and how it reflects both a changing culture and degrading economic conditions, there’s a new fear this time around: the fear of speaking up.
Or rather, of arguing about politics with people you love, at the turkey feast. Americans feel dread that it may all escalate and further the split between the liberal wing and the conservative aisle of those who share DNA or upbringing, or at least used to enjoy each other’s company.
Blame it on one of the most divisive campaign leading an outsider to the White House, and the deep resentment and fear that it awoke among race, gender, and religious minorities. And on frustration and dismay overwhelming a voter majority whose candidate did not win.
Some of these are always present in contested elections. What’s different now is that, with changing demographics of the group arguably most identified with Thanksgiving, working families, one of the few annual occasions to get together and be merry may be ruined for good.
It may be hard for the world to understand how this particular holiday soothes the American soul. But its myth of cooperation and peace among invading foreigners and soon to be conquered natives, even as it’s unlikely to have happened as such, is a recurrent redemptive dream, one etched on the idealized view of the nation by its Founding Fathers, and one that still appeals to every resident of this big land.
As it congealed into a celebration of hard-earned emotional connections, timed to coincide with ancient pagan feats hailing the first harvest, Thanksgiving became a national symbol for overcoming harsh conditions and getting together to prepare for the long winter ahead.
The passage of time, though, has dramatically eroded this sepia-tinted view. The last Thursday of November has come to be known as an excuse for confrontation among angry relatives, thrown to different latitudes of the economic ladder, and their mutual dissatisfaction and distrust about the fairness of the system. Many a carved turkey wound up wasted on the floor at the end of these now common battles.
Still, millions will travel thousands of miles this weekend, spent over $4 billion, and eat about 45 million turkeys, just for a chance to spend sometime in what used to be the safe environment of their family home, hoping against sense, that no one will get too upset over anything.
An almost panic feeling has set over social networks, with psychologists, professional counselors, even hostage negotiators, offering advice to would-be quarrelers, in articles titled ‘How to Survive Thanksgiving When My Family Voted for the Other Guy?’ or ‘Should I Kill My Bigot Uncle If He Corners Me & Gloats About the Election This Thanksgiving?’ Advice is, of course, cheap; moderation, however, is not.
That’s a word not usually associated with the holiday. People stuff themselves with food – didn’t you know that a side dish is called ‘stuffing?’ -, arguably out of anxiety, and drink too much too, but heaven forbid if one should tell an American to avoid drinking in a date like that.
Arguments, and there’ll be a lot of them, won’t be over the election’s result. They would, had Hillary Clinton won. For months, Donald Trump told supporters that it’d be rigged and to prepare to fight. But he won, so nothing happened; it was never an option for Democrats.
Instead, people will get worked up over nominations to the new government, the lobbyists and Washington-insiders he’d promised to fire, who’re already flooding his transition team, and clear signs that he was serious about his Tweeting, dissent, and preferred views of reality.
Republicans are elated, jubilant, outspoken, and why not? hopeful that this will be a period of exceedingly optimism, and reaffirmation of a fictional America, where everyone is white, wealthy, and self-entitled to do as they please. The rest of the country is having nightmares.
Likely issues to arise over the dinner table will concern climate changing, income equality, foreign policy, immigration, civil rights, women’s reproductive rights and respect, even specific topics such as the Black Lives Matter movement, Trump’s own (undeclared) taxes, and more.
The general rule is to state your own position, if you may, but refrain from preaching. You’ll have to listen to a lot of unpleasant, fact-free things about President Obama, the economy, the Clintons, NATO, Muslims and Mexicans, and possibly safety net government programs.
Don’t take the bait. Once voices reach a certain level (you set your own internal dial of tolerance), there’s no point to try to add anything, let alone winning the argument. That, actually, is out of question: the GOP won following the rules its candidate dismissed, but they still won.
If it’s impossible for you to understand why people make the choices that they do, even when you, and everyone else, can see the contextual reality and how it makes them the wrong choices, then you can’t call yourself tolerant, willing to see what’s better for everyone, not just you.
It’ll be a humble lesson of humility, and a stretched-to-the-point-of-rupture test of your ability to live through a democracy, not an idealized view of it, one no one is up to it, anyway, but a flawed, dirty, unfair, liable of manipulation regime that sometimes may call itself democracy.
More than the many religious holidays clogging the American calendar, including the biggest of them, Thanksgiving still welcomes people of all colors, credos, genders, and nationalities. Once distilled to its basics is still a powerful example of what we can accomplish together.
As broken up as the very concept of modern family may be, we still depend on it for identity reassurance and emotional reference, even if it’s less than blood, or stronger than fear, what connects us to them, even as, all things considered, there shouldn’t be ‘them’ in family.
So we do have a mandate to fulfill this week, and that has nothing to do with the ever changing political allegiances of a group of wealthy individuals, who don’t actually need our hate or love to thrive. Our mission is simpler and yet more meaningful: heal ourselves.
On this or any other Thursday, we won’t be able to change anybody’s minds. Or history. Or the fact that we still kill millions of animals just to prove to each other that we’re celebrating. One thing, though, you’re still capable to do: show love and respect. Happy Thanksgiving.

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11/14/2016 The Coming Right Years, Colltalers

Barely a few hours after Donald Trump was declared the next U.S. president, the soul-searching process of finding out the causes for his stunning win was already at full steam. The thought of having him as the leader of the free world, though, may take considerably longer.
But while the autopsy of this election may last all four years leading to the next (oh, dear), it’s likely that a strong answer may not be among the top possible reasons considered by American pundits for Hillary Clinton’s defeat: the disturbing rise of the political right in the world.
We’ll get to it, but since it’s been less than a week, let’s briefly review a few of the most discussed factors Clinton’s supporters, and an increasingly wisdom-challenged class of political analysts, see as the bottom line for one of the biggest upsets in the history of U.S. politics.
Obviously, we must start by the candidate herself. It’s been a constant of this campaign to blame her for lacking arresting proposals, even as she was well articulated, substantive, and remained focused on issues till the end. Of Clinton was said that she was aloof, slow to respond to fast-moving situations, and too obsessed with programmatic minutia – and that is ignoring poorly-factual charges from her opponents.
Since winning a contested primary against a way more charismatic, and arguably morally unflappable Bernie Sanders, she never achieved the level of credibility her long and, ultimately, positive public trajectory should’ve entitled her to receive, and would’ve assured her the White House. Skirmishes between disgruntled Sanders’ supporters and hers plagued her campaign and certainly hurt her with voters.
Throughout these past two years, she was often caught deer-in-the-headlines like when events on the ground proved too volatile to respond without pausing first to consult her base. For instance, the most significant mass movements of the Obama era, the Occupy Wall Street and the Black Lives Matter, received no meaningful attention from her campaign, except for pre-fab statements of vague support.
She did change her Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement stance, but as we speak, a Native Americans-led, months-long protest against an oil pipeline in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, with serious risks of a violent confrontation with law enforcement, has had no backing from Clinton. The issue is pertinent because oil and gas pipelines are at the heart of so called free trade agreements such as the TPP.
There are other issues, of course, specially her flawed proposal for a resolution of the Syrian bloody impasse. But she can’t be crucified for defending a misguided approach to a conflict that no one seems to offer a sound solution. Being wrong isn’t the problem; not admitting is.
And that’s one of her underrated qualities: that she’s changed positions and admitted to errors. Moreover, in this campaign, she was pretty much left to fend for herself by her party. At some point, as in the phony issue of emails, it was her, Bill, and the president. No one risked their neck on her account, except for the self-interested, careerist-minded Democratic Party leaders who are now finally being confronted.
The party has not just failed Clinton in this campaign, from inside out and in Congress, but also has failed its constituency, and has been failing, by extension, the American people for years. No wonder working class voters, and minorities, abandoned it in mass last Tuesday.
We should mention here the almost criminal role of broadcast media in this election. Its appalling lack of fact checking, investigative reporting, and independent analysis, combined with ratings-hungry debates, and a deceiving habit of equating verifiable reality with self-serving fabrications, the false equivalence, clouded rather than shed light on the issues. Too bad that no one will be held accountable.
The big networks and cable news channels have conspired to tainted the outcome of the contest, and thus betrayed their constitutional duty to provide clarity while educating the electorate. Unfortunately, the chance of having a Congressional hearing on their role is absolutely nil.
And finally, it’s fair to say that it was ultimately Americans who missed the historical opportunity of choosing not just a woman, but one of the most prepared candidates of any party to seek higher office. Not unlike Al Gore, also crushed by the mediocrity pervading our politics. Then again, that’s not new: the better candidate lost; how many times that happens everywhere only in the course of a single day?
Speaking of mediocrity, of the dangerous kind, it is also responsible for the fact that, instead of discussing whether Trump will do what he promised he would (he will and he won’t), we’re not having the conversation about an overriding fear the election spiked: that the U.S.’s turned to the right will ease Europe to follow suit, with upcoming elections in Austria and France being possible starting points.
As a wave of ‘measured’ conservatism has been sweeping South America – after a unprecedented period of popular socialism-led prosperity -, the rise of authoritarian leaders, identified with strong government concepts and fewer civil liberties, has become a disturbing trend. Ironically, it’s a German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who seems to stand in opposition to such trend. Different times indeed.
This wave could’ve not come at worst time. After years of impasse, the world has finally step up efforts to address climate change, the single most important global issue of our time, but many countries may elect deniers that the problem even exists, as the U.S. just has.
It’s also a dramatic time in what income equality is concerned, as a dwindling minority is controlling ever more world resources, while the majority sees their meager wages and faltering health worsen. As a state of permanent war, fueled by the weapons and defense industries, consolidates itself in vast swaths of land, it’s also expected that hordes of refugees will be greet by even more racism and xenophobia.
Fear is also the operating word, as it’s now freely associated with software, technology, privacy and surveillance, and the fight to keep the Internet free. What’s scary is that none of those leaders to be, and again, ours truly, considers those issues a priority. Their rhetoric actually runs contrary to promoting humanistic values, such as peace, a health environment, and the right for individuals to be left alone to thrive.
And that, we argue, goes beyond the fact that voters can be so utterly manipulated as to betray their own best interests, and embrace causes with absolute no relevance to their well being and survival, such as patriotism, racial supremacy, moral zealotry, or political allegiance.
Yes, the world became a notch more dangerous with someone who tweets at 3AM messages of hatred in control of the world’s top nuclear arsenal. To Americans, perhaps even more so than another terrorist attack in home soil. But the cumulative risk of having leaders with authoritarian sympathies in the American and European continents, let alone the Middle East and North of Africa, is really terrifying.
These past few days saw growing anti-Trump rallies in the U.S. and some major Western cities. Their core legitimacy rests on concerns sparked by the fact that the president-elect has explicitly singled out a nationality and a religious ethnicity as sources of American problems. And that he has demonstrated throughout his public life contempt and an objectionable attitude towards gender and racial minorities.
Rallies may be a healthy way of expressing discontent but are hardly an effective tool to exercise political pressure, specially when open ended as these are. The harder part will be to make the transition to action before the feeling consumes itself, and reality settles in. As it stands, there’s no questioning the validity of the president. And the institution he now represents still deserves our civil respect.
Now it’s the time for community organizing, to work for specific causes at a local level. Time for a third party, perhaps, as long as it doesn’t show up only every four years to spoil the election for everyone in the name of over ambitious agendas. It’s time for high school students to come out and participate. And for housewives to support indigenous rights, for instance, or fight police violence and racial profiling.
This intermingling of different resistance groups is our best hope. For the good guy or gal to win, we’ll all have to be the good guys and gals. We’ve lost but not our hearts or our compassion. Sadly, we won’t be able to count with yet two other great musicians that this troubling year has taken: Leonard Cohen and Leon Russell. May they rest in peace. As for us, let’s keep at it, it’ll hurt less, and enjoy the Supermoon.

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11/07/2016 This Mother Should Know, Colltalers

Donald Trump has already won. You may not like it put this way, but at this point, whatever happens tomorrow won’t change the fact that a considerably more frightening America will emerge from this election. What we do about that new reality will make us better or destroy us.
That being said, what happens tomorrow is still crucial. Both sides will remain influential after January, but only one will have a mandate given by the majority to veer the country into a certain direction. The vote will determine whether that mandate is inclusive or exclusionary.
For what it’s worth, we support Hillary Clinton. The reason we’re all so critical of her is because, for almost 30 years, she’s been under public scrutiny, and her every bad decision or character flaw broadcast to the world. She’s still managed to get better at every turn, though.
No other American politician in recent memory has been so vilified and kept at it, mostly on the side of good causes, and often admitting to being wrong. Even in this particularly ugly campaign, she never claimed to be the voice of those she represents. She just spoke for them.
These are two important qualities any leader should be about. And yet, they hold so little currency in a culture that privileges notoriety over merit, and being famous over being accomplished. To millions of women, Hillary’s steely ambition is an inspiration for them to succeed.
Yes, even those who’ll vote for her must exercise independence of thought, express criticism about whatever misguided positions she takes, or has taken in the past, and fulfill the obligations of any responsible constituency. Latin America and the Middle East come easily to mind.
For instance, we must press on about her role in the 2009 Honduras coup, which ousted democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya, by the U.S.-backed military. Recent murders of green activists and a general state of lawlessness only underscore what that cost the country.
Wikileaks-released private emails show that some of her actions related to Honduras, and also to Israel, are in contradiction to her public positions on them. Then again, South America hasn’t been a priority of U.S. presidents for a long while, and none would have gotten elected, without declaring unrestricted support to Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians, however grandstand-ish and uncritical that support may be.
Also, it’s arguable that any of the assorted U.S. Middle East ‘policies’ has been effective or less than disastrous. That includes pretty much everything that Hillary has stated about Syria, for example, from the Fly Zone proposal down to arming so-called rebels.
There are other relevant issues that President Hillary will have to be questioned about, and some that will require her to downright change her mind about. But that’s exactly it: she will be open to be questioned about that and anything, because that’s her nature. And we need that kind of humbleness. Unlike probably anything Republicans are ready to throw at her, this is the kind of issue worth thoroughly discussing.
Truth is, one has to go back perhaps to Jimmy Carter to find the last ‘principled’ American president, and we’re not sure whether the fact that he’s excelled as a world-class humanitarian since the end of his term isn’t clouding our view. But if it is so, so be it. He’s above reproach.
Everybody else got elected on sheer politics, and that’s not saying it’s a bad thing. However, if any of them had been charged with the ‘crimes’ Hillary has been, for the entire length of her political career, none of them would’ve been elected, support to Israel or ‘values,’ or not.
There are clear indications that much of what’s leveled about her is because of her gender. Just imagine a black woman running for the U.S. presidency. Or going further back, a draft-dodger, ex-drug and alcohol abuser. Or a philanderer (not to say, womanizer) candidate. None of these facts about our last presidents, going back to the 1990s, would allow a woman to even have a shot at running for office.
One word about President Obama. The overwhelming politics of race in this country prevented anyone from seeing what we now know: that he, and his wife, are truly principled people, who since early on had an understanding of what public service means, in all levels. The same for Bernie Sanders, whose 40 years of YouTube videos only show what he still is: someone whose life and career are dictated by principle.
U.S. presidents are not known for being ideologues, or voted to the White House based on moral convictions. That’s a useful reminder to those who despise Hillary’s public persona: Americans long ago have learned to loath ideologies, specially about the leaders they choose.
As for Trump, where to start? And who should be blamed for his straight-through run to the most powerful job in the world? These would be challenging questions to answer only for an editor, in charge of picking just a few examples, out of hundreds, due to space constrains.
Obviously none of the considerations described above – moral, political, historical, or of gender -, are relevant when it comes to him. Unlike his propaganda machine, he’s the one being favored by the ‘liberal’ (read, establishment) media, and not for lack of substance but style.
That starts to answer the second question. For the state of mass communications in the U.S., circa 2016, is so appalling that someone who’s aiming at controlling the lives of billions is judged by the way he looks on camera, and is handy with one-word zingers and catchy slurs.
Yes, one could certainly point fingers at his enablers, the usurpers of the Republican Party, who turned it into a promoter of the economic interests of the 1% (remember them?), while manipulating an aging working class into believing that they’re acting on their behalf.
For years, the GOP has used race politics, and xenophobia, and crass moralism, as tools for inflaming their base to vote for their restrictive agenda. Until they simply gave up. Then, along came Trump, with the same purpose but a slightly more straightforward rhetoric: the ‘different,’ the ‘other,’ ‘them,’ are the problem, and they’re all out to get ‘us.’ I, and I alone, can give you back what you never had. It worked.
And how. He stepped into a political vacuum, and it’s really unfortunate that Holocaust, and Fascism, survivors are no longer a meaningful demographics. They could remind everyone how they heard it all before. And what it allowed those who followed it, to do to dissenters.
The thing about charismatic dictators is that they impersonate a benevolent father figure to hordes of dispossessed outcasts. Trump’s blatant cult of personality is similar, and has arguably blinded many in his camp. American politics is not too familiar with such self-aggrandizing terms, but they’re common at its fringes; those there now feel welcome in the mainstream. No wonder the KKK endorsed him.
To his supporters, Trump’s only flaw is perhaps not articulating enough their idealized, and dangerously unhinged, views. To everyone else, is the fact that’s he’s a prolific liar, an unrepentant sexual predator, an unforgivable misogynist, a dishonest business owner, and a tax cheater.
That’s why Trump already won. Because between 40 million to 50 million Americans will vote for him tomorrow. That means, they endorse not just those but a laundry list of other character flaws, none of which he has show any inclination to walk back or apologized for.
They will be saying that it’s OK to abuse women, specially the vulnerable and the young, it’s funny to mock the disable, that Muslims should be denied entry in the U.S., Mexicans immigrants are rapists, and John McCain and Capt. Humayun Khan’s sacrifices were meaningless.
While some busy themselves with Hillary emails, the rest of us feel a deep, throat-clogging sentiment of shame and guilt for letting down billions around the world. We allowed an objectionable individual to come this far and stand a chance to lead earth’s most powerful nation.
Once again, we teared apart the little trust left on us, squandering a bit more the solidarity and support we got on Sept. 11, even that everyone knew we were no innocent lambs. Again we found a way to put our navel-based politics above the interest of those we so often crush and invade and promise to do better the next time around. Those millions of Trump supporters are our latest ‘screw you’ to the world.
That’s why the least that we can do tomorrow is to vote him out of contention. For there will be others like him, for sure. Better Trumps, smarter, younger, more handsome. Those behind him have learned the way and will follow it through. For now though, he must not win.
We owe to the future to support candidates who’ll fight climate change, are committed to equal pay, and won’t stand for race injustice. Little can be done to ‘improve’ a con man, but electing someone who actually listens will make us better. It’s about time for a Madam President.

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10/31/2016 Students Jolt Brazil Politics, Colltalers

When Brazil’s elected President Dilma Rousseff was removed from office, last August, by what’s all but confirmed it was a legislative coup, many segments of society expressed outrage, both inside the country and abroad. But one important demographics was not quite heard.
Until Wednesday, when 16-year old Ana Júlia Ribeiro gave her Paraná state’s Assembly a lesson in citizenry and political engagement, and reintroduced the voice of millions of Brazilian students into the national debate. Her arresting 10-minute speech has since gone Web viral.
Her appearance came as part of the student occupation of over a thousand schools in Brazil, in protest to a government decree that freezes education spending for 20 years, changes the national curriculum, and imposes other questionable restrictions on access to education.
Despite incidents of violence, Brazilian politicians have been slow to support the occupations. Congress has already approved the so called reforms, and as the Temer administration takes steps to dismantle a legacy of social programs left by the Workers’ Party, the revived student movement has been the most, if not the only, consistent political opposition current at pace in Brazil. Now it also has a public face.
Projections for the results of Sunday’s second-round municipal elections show that traditional conservatives forces are back at the helm of Brazilian politics. Take the election of a Trump-like businessman as mayor of its biggest city, São Paulo, for instance, or of an Evangelical bishop in Rio. PT, as the former ruling party is known, was thoroughly defeated, and with it, its seemingly socialist platform.
That doesn’t bode well to a possible come back in the 2018 presidential election. Specially if a crucial piece from this back-to-the-past puzzle is finally in place: the political burial of its biggest star – more like a fuzzy nebula these days -, ex president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
After been relentlessly battered by the new leadership in Brasilia, and several months of pounding, Lula and supporters start to show signs of fatigue. Even though he still leads, by comfortable margins, every poll that’s been taken about 2018. That may finally change, though.
He’s currently embroiled in a widespread corruption probe, as a head of the PT and also individually, being indicted and accused of taking kickbacks from private companies, in exchange for contracts and special favors, plus a laundry list of offenses put together by a government task force. Most stem from a two-year investigation of state-run and former oil giant Petrobras, which also doomed Rousseff.
To ‘petistas,’ the Petrobras probe was the opening salvo of a two-pronged strategy to change Brazil’s regime. It was followed by ending the company’s exclusive exploitation rights of huge pre-salt oil reserves in Campos Bay, near Rio, and opening its fields to foreign companies. The move reverses a decades-long policy that could’ve finally put Brazil on track to self sufficiency as one the world’s top oil producers.
Now as the PT agonizes, and its once dominant leadership wanes, no other segment of Brazil’s society but that of students has stepped up opposition to the current government. Too bad that the middle class crowds that rallied against corruption – and show no concerns about serious allegations and lawsuits against Temer and members of his cabinet – don’t seem inclined to join the fight over the reforms either.
That’s why Ana Júlia’s eruption into national prominence is so meaningful. First, coming to age during the Lula years, she experienced Brazil’s at its best times, when an estimated 30 million people were lifted out of extreme poverty, even as the economy was at its strongest.
Also, she and her generation represent the best hope yet for new faces in Brazilian politics, who, with a bit of nurturing and lots of luck, will replace the current notoriously mediocre crop of leaders, progressive or otherwise. The way she conducted herself at her first major public exposure shows that she has the chops, is fearless confronting those in power, and is in command of the issues affecting those she represents. She’s in excellent company too. After all, some historians see Brazilian students as first responders to the 1964 military coup that interrupted democracy in Brazil. It was also a teen student, Edson Luis de Lima Souto, who became arguably the insurrection’s first national martyr.
The comparisons stop there, but one can’t help but tracing at least some parallels to the quagmire Brazil faced in the emblematic year of 1968, when Edson was shot and killed in the streets of São Paulo, to what may lie ahead, if Brazilians fail again to answer the call to action.
As boots crushed young skulls in Brazil, students barricaded sidewalks of Paris, and the U.S. Civil Rights and Antiwar movements were at their peak. Sadly, Dr. Martin Luther King was killed, and so were Jeffrey Miller and others, at the 1970 Kent State University shootings.
We’ve been selective here, picking elements that best illustrate our (limited) perspective. But hopefully, we’re focusing on the right narrative, even if not on an entirely linear way: for it’s all about the power of engaged students as a transformative element for improving society.
For many of us, in these nervous final days before the U.S. presidential election – and the heartbreaking prospect of sending to the White House someone with the moral compass of a gambler – to have hope is not a luxury, but a sense of duty, worked on day after day.
Critical education, the learning curve necessary to mutate from pupil to an influencer, is a tool of hope maintenance. We desperately need that kind of fearlessness Ana Júlia expressed, even without being completely aware of how important she’s become for Brazil’s future.
Or maybe she is, and it’s us who can’t see it coming. She may not have a degree yet, but has already displayed a masterful talent for directing our attention to the real issues at stake. In Brazil, nothing comes close to access to first-class education to all. Happy Halloween.

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10/24/2016 Nasty Women Push Back, Colltalers

An off-the-cuff remark by Donald Trump has thrown, almost by chance, the U.S. presidential campaign into global relevance, by adding it to a growing discussion about sexual harassment. It catapulted the issue to center stage, just as allegations against him gained momentum.
By calling his opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton, a gratuitous, ‘nasty woman,’ at their last debate, the GOP candidate unwittingly hooked up the long and mostly shallow campaign to a wave of worldwide protests against violence toward women. Clinton should thank him.
Internet memes, of course, followed. More importantly, thought, it was a fitting coda for their third confrontation, in the final weeks of a particularly, well, nasty run, that’s barely touched other major issues of our time, such as climate change, poverty, and nuclear weapons.
Now, whether the proverbial half of the population will take the hint and cash it on the polls, it’s another matter. Pollsters have often failed to gauge voter turnout or the precise extent of women’s power to elect officials attuned to issues such as reproductive rights and equal pay.
Also, while some of those issues concern everyone, not just women, when it comes to choosing leaders committed to progressive policies, it’s wise to avoid focusing on gender, or race, or class, for that matter, as that may hinder a more comprehensive approach to change.
This sort of dynamics may explain Trump’s support among females, after even more offensive sexual asides have come to light. Or the surprising number of African Americans who did not feel kin to or endorsed the candidacy of Barack Obama, or cared for his presidency.
It’ll be a historic milestone if the U.S. elects its first woman as president, but in context, the remarkable fact about it is that it’s taken so long, way behind one too many nations that have already done it. And although her tenure will mean a lot to women’s rights everywhere, it’d be too unfair to expect that her election per se, or the power of her office alone, will be enough to settle all questions related to such rights.
Remember, some accused President Obama of not only not having done enough against ingrained racism in this country, but that on his watch, racial hatred has been aggravated, a charge that is as unjust and inaccurate as it’s leveled with the primary intent to soil his legacy.
For in some ways, while the presence of the first African American in the White House may have enhanced racial issues that predate his administration, some of the violence was just another calculated effort to undermine his authority from actually promoting needed changes.
Even that President Obama could not prevent the brutal massacre of black youth in U.S. streets of the past eight years, his election did move the needle of racial equality. The terrifying number of incidents aside, more Americans felt affected by them than in the past, and not always in a negative way. Change travels by bike, while public dissatisfaction moves to the speed of light, specially through social media.
In the case of a woman president, it’s not just the glass ceiling that will come crashing down, but an entire establishment and chain of command, not used to follow a Commander-in-Chief who wears makeup and has spent 30 years of her womanhood under public scrutiny.
Many in Washington, and certainly everyone on Trump’s camp, may not want a President Hillary, but the world is definitely ready to finally deal with a woman holding the most powerful job in the world. And so it happens that it was her opponent himself who may have linked her directly to what thousands in Argentina, Poland, Brazil, India, Pakistan, Mexico, Israel, among other places, took to the streets to protest.
Over the last few weeks, rallies in major Latin American cities have called attention to the rape and murder of an Argentine teenager, demanding more than justice for the victim. The unprecedented emphasis is being pushed for laws that really protect all women.
Solidarity marches in Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Mexico have driven the point with one of the few tools women have in their arsenal to demand change: rally in increased numbers to force powers that be to act. That and to vote, naturally.
In Poland, a draconian anti-abortion legislation failed to make the cut after thousands of women, dressed in black, denounced what would have essentially punished mothers and families, and left off the hook dishonorable men, besides not addressing related social implications.
In India, Pakistan, and other Muslim countries, women are pushing back against the notoriously misogynist Qumran-inspired Talaq law, which grants a husband special divorce privileges denied to women. By threatening a ‘food boycott,’ nothing less, wives are calling attention to an ancient travesty of tribal rule, often used as a (‘justified’) defense by those accused of the horrible practice of honor killings.
And it’s also made of women, 13 of them, the group behind the humanitarian flotilla trying for years to break Israel’s maritime blockade, so to deliver aid to Gaza Strip Palestinians. Once again, the Women’s Boat to Gaza was stopped and escorted back to port by the Israeli Navy.
The group included 1976 Nobel Peace Mairead Maguire, and retired U.S. army colonel Ann Wright, and it was unharmed. But a similar flotilla was raided in 2010 by an Israeli command, killing all volunteers on board. A single revolver was found on the boat, it was reported.
Even Saudi Arabia has seen some carefully monitored progress of women issues with its recent first time ever elections that included them both running and voting. Indeed, that really means something for a male-run, authoritarian regime, known for routine public beheadings, and lack of a constitution, where women can’t venture alone in the streets, and drivers are constantly harassed simply for driving while female.
It’s more than happenstance that Trump’s insult connects these unrelated protests around the world to the Americans who formed a human chain in front of his properties in the U.S.: they’re fighting against the same sex harassment and discrimination they’re all target of, being in South America, Asia, Africa, or anywhere else. In that context, a Hillary presidency will indeed make a huge, beautiful difference.
Two final points before we all get home to dinner: it’s true that being a women doesn’t automatically turn a leader into an advocate for reproduction rights, equal labor compensation for both sexes, income inequality, and less use of military force to achieve political goals.
History is full of female leaders who have purposely ruled authoritarian regimes, or whose natural inclination showed an absolute lack of empathy to members of the same gender, or equally oppressed minorities. Call it the Margaret Thatcher standard, if you want. We won’t sue.
Like her, many of these leaders actually reversed arduously conquered civil rights and labor concessions aimed at working mothers, for instance, or freedom of choice. And some have done that without losing support from a large swath of constituents sharing their gender.
Why? Ask some smart people. Our second point is about the many men who feel conflicted, not about siding up with women on harassment or inequality, but about their own flawed nature as individuals and the instances that their behavior towards women was also condemnable.
Often, the politics of social change, and the need to support a tough platform that leaves no room for violence and sexual oppression of women and minorities, are at odds to one’s domestic demons, or inability to act with integrity and be accountable to inexcusable behavior.
All we can say to these men and partners, who are willing to face the consequences of their actions, and are truly engaged in making it better, even if it means losing those they actually hold dear to their hearts, is: don’t give up. Try again. Get help. Be truthful no matter what.
That’s one of the many unintended consequences of electing a female to president of the nation: it forces people, men and women, to confront issues hardly ever addressed by male leaders, mostly not by fault of their own. Society, even liberal models in the so called West, are far from just, and male privilege is a given not everyone wants to revisit. But they should, and if they need it, a Ms. President can help.
In the 1970s, a white male rock star was criticized for using a slur word on one of his hits. But what was missed by those objecting what now is called race appropriation was the essence of what John Lennon was singing about. ‘Women Is the Nigger of World’ is, as often his lyrics are, an accurate and unvarnished observation about the reality we all share, where even slaves treat badly their wives.
That reality hasn’t changed much, as the rape and murder of the teen in Argentina attests. Not as long as a candidate to the presidency of the most powerful nation has no qualms about insulting women on national television. Or while such candidate is still supported by them.
Neither that will change on Nov 8. Or the day or year after, even. But one day it will. And what’s happening now will have a lot to do with that change. Hopefully those around then will be able to say they helped it to come to reality. I hope you join us. Have a peaceful week.

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10/17/2016 In Praise of New Americans, Colltalers

Among the many variables to decide the U.S. presidential elections – likely party crossover, Republican gerrymandering, changes in the Democratic base – two could deliver the White House in dramatic fashion: the immigrant vote, and an unexpected surge in overall turnout.
Given its candidate’s rhetoric on immigration, the GOP has reasons to worry about, say, more voting Latinos. But that’ll depend on legal residents becoming eligible in time to vote. As for turnout, it’s been a great puzzle, and an unfortunate handicap for American politics.
Speaking of puzzles, why undecided voters are given such a king maker role in the U.S. electoral proceedings? After almost two years, how can anyone justify being so utterly oblivious to the presidential campaign? Specially considering that both candidates have been such public figures in American life for way over this time, and even people who don’t speak English know very well who they’ll vote for.
To give this kind of deference to a contingent of the population with such staggeringly minimal awareness of what’s going on with their own nation speaks volumes about politics in America, circa 2016, and also may help to explain why so many stay at home on election day.
Of 325 million Americans, 215 million are eligible to vote. Only 153 million, though, have registered to do so, and even less are expected to show up at the voting booth. So much for a presidential contest that may be the most diverse in U.S. history, according to analysts.
On a global scale, considering eligibility percentages and a universe of only 35 nations, the U.S. sits comfortably, probably on a couch with some chips and a cold beer in hand, at the 27th position. And this is a country that loves to lecture the world on the wonders of democracy.
Despite get-out-to-vote campaigns, sponsored by the government, parties, and specially independent and demographically-focused organizations, failure to show up at the polls on election day runs across the board and involves all segments of the population.
Many factors can be attributed as causes for this dysfunctional aspect of U.S. democracy, from efforts to disenfranchise race and class minorities to gerrymandering to artificial barriers designed to undermine the power of voters. But arguably the most unbelievable among them all may be the massive amount of money thrown into the contest, a large part of it dedicated to prevent people from voting.
For there have been many proposals to increase turnout, such as moving election day to weekends, allowing voting via Internet or social networks, simpler rules, and extended voting periods, even turning the vote obligatory, so to ease this crucial exercise of citizenry rights.
But against them stand powerful interests that directly benefited from lower turnout, helped by the now infamous Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling. With that in place, it’s no wonder that, at every election cycle, voters face a bulkier set of draconian voting rules.
There’s more: in 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote by half a million votes, but lost the presidency to George W. Bush, due to a highly compromised Supreme decision, a disturbing aspect of the U.S. electoral process was exposed: the outcome was settled – with flagrant congressional omission and against the will of the majority – by a clearly partisan-driven, ideologically-vulnerable Supreme Court.
16 years later, a convoluted, and still uncompleted, transition to a ‘smart’ system offers yet a full new range of opportunities for hacking and interference that may impact results. The alarming possibility was recently brought home when Democratic Party files were allegedly hacked by Russian intelligence officials. If that threshold has been indeed violated, it’s downright scary to imagine what may come next.
But these are external circumstances, no pun intended, conspiring against the fairness of the electoral process. The single most important factor undermining the election’s outcome is voter awareness. And that requires a whole set of conditions to be addressed, not the least of them, education, public involvement, and political will, among others. Regrettably, we’re far from even the starting point of this issue.
And then there’s the immigrant vote. As it usually happens during presidential election cycles, a record number of legal residents have applied for naturalization. But this has triggered an extensive backlog, groups promoting citizenship workshops say, and applicants are slowly waking up to the prospect of not being able to vote at all in this election, a major reason for them to apply in the first place.
Using their customary hyperbole, the media calls this the most polarized presidential campaign in U.S. history. And indeed, one may be fooled by the copious amounts of (fact-free, often biased, auto-centered and irrelevant) coverage into thinking Americans are mobilized.
Don’t fall for that. Or for the apparent implosion of the Trump campaign. Or the illusion that Clinton will be coronated three weeks from now. Despite all the rage and almost daily controversies, fabricated or not, the average U.S.-born citizen remains unmoved. Or undecided.
It’s exactly the people to whom the system seems to be stacked against – young blacks, undocumented and legal, tax-paying immigrants, and a still small share of social activists – who’re engaged the most on the issues that may turn November a ground zero for social equality.
Curiously, they can also teach us a thing or two about being pro-active in defense of democratic principles, confidence in people’s ability to build something positive together, and being generally upbeat about the future. There’s no reason to doubt or remain undecided over this.
History sides with those whose fight for inclusion is coincident with principles of equality and tolerance. Let the unwise root for a land of walls and fictional glory, while we build a nation of opportunities to grow together. And tell your neighbors they’re awesome.

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10/10/2016 Lies We’re Constantly Told, Colltalers

Americans decrying the apparent ‘normalization of lying’ they see the U.S. presidential campaign spearheading, may be concerned out of the damage already inflicted to our collective moral compass. But what they perceive as a domestic phenomenon is clearly a global trend.
While they’re right to demand restoring integrity to the political discourse – and good luck with that -, what’s going on in Latin America and Europe has long extrapolated your garden variety expedience by candidates to public office, to what’s now unavoidable for getting elected.
To be sure, there are fundamental differences in the tactics employed by, say, the right wing coalition that ousted Brazil’s president, or sold the British into exiting the European Union, and the religious politics used to convince Colombians that peace can wait another 50 years.
Fingerprints of a resurgent radical nationalism have always been all over Europe’s politics, usually backing clamors for border tightening and refugee scapegoating. Many see these as neither new nor happening in some vacuum caused by the continent’s toothless democracies.
And it’s also familiar how a growing contingent of the underprivileged, the excluded, and the downright dispossessed, would break ranks, choose to support the policies of the dominant elite, and join in the fight against other impoverished crowds, who only differ from them in basic racial and religious markers. In other words, the current era just found an excuse to reawaken old, and not quite dormant, sentiments.
That politics is dirty, and politicians lie should shock no one not living underground for the past, well, ever. But even psychopathic leaders may unwittingly help usher progressive change, and we take that as long as they’re prevented from using it to consolidate power.
But when critical thinking is hijacked from the collective mind, and a candidate is hailed for trading into chaotic, disastrous times, despite evidence pointing to the contrary, then the problem may er lie elsewhere. Specially if the media volunteers a Greek chorus to chant along.
Verging on insult, matters are made even worst when, in the aftermath of a whole campaign of baseless alarmist claims and fuzzy math, the proponents of such irresponsible views simply abandon, or get dropped from, the rudderless ship, as it happened with Brexit.
Months after one of the most misguided referendums to succeed in tapping public discontent to serve a hidden agenda, their original leaders are already on to better (for them) things, and find no particular allegiance, or face accountability, to the rotten process they’ve ignited.
While Brits who voted for the exit of the U.K. from the E.U. can’t be excused or allege ignorance in voting for a measure they now regret, the uncertainty it’s still responsibility of those who stood to profit politically from it, even if they seem too incompetent to manage even that.
No matter. It’s the so-called common people who’ll be footing the bill for the delusional adventure, despite efforts by a new leadership to find the sense of it all, even if they too, benefited from that momentary lack of reason, and are likely to be spared from its costs.
What happened last August to Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff, and in 2012, to Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo, serves as twin text cases, showing how relatively easy it is to manipulate public dissatisfaction to serve a corrupt, hidden agenda. And get away with it.
Both leaders fell victim to a political conspiracy, a legislative coup, orchestrated by a cast of secondary characters, whose true nature was all but evident from the start, even as claiming they were on the side of ‘public decency.’ Now safely ensconced in power, they can even afford to tell the truth, with no fear of consequences. The current Brazilian chief admitted that much in a New York press conference last month.
Colombia now seems to have inscribed itself in this embarrassing row of nations whose apparent majority was manipulated to support a decision that’s bound to keep hurting it, long after the religious right, which pulled the strings for that to happen, has sucked all political capital it was seeking to gain in the first place. And the Nobel Peace prize given to president Juan Manuel Santos didn’t help it either.
Despite the Swedish committee affirming that it was a ‘tribute to the Colombian people,’ seasoned Latin American analysts called it premature, one-sided, and ill-timed, if the aim was really to support a permanent peace agreement with the country’s hardened guerrillas.
As it stands, the president gets to nicely keep his award, but Colombia’s society is thrown into a crippling lack of confidence that the conflict will be ever resolved. Meanwhile, conservative forces are already moving in to occupy the vacuum generated by the failed referendum.
Which brings us back to American politics, and the rise of such an unrestrained ‘truther,’ who’s used every trick in the book without being seriously confronted, or even questioned by his party, for his outrageously conflicting statements. And this comes from a lowly observer, if not in any way undecided. For let’s face it, at this point, there are one too many corroborated examples to render such charge impartial.
Not that it’s what’s really important, of course. Regardless how even Trump supporters feel about reality, or some form of alternate version of it, there are views and then there are facts, and while the former can be many and ever changing, the latter admit no revisions.
For the Republican candidate did say what he said, and it’s unbelievable that anyone has to iron that point every time he denies it. On the other hand, although his opponent, Clinton, is known to shape her political narrative to fit a manufactured profile, nothing that she’s said, even when contradicting herself, has the same vitriolic quality that Trump seems to exude. And thick skin to never back down from it.
There’s no need to engage into a point-by-point discussion of both candidates’ platform, and when and how often they failed to offer a coherent picture. But even within the realm of false equivalences, the rate of offensive, racist, dangerous, and clearly clueless, recorded declarations, is simply too massively slanted toward Trump over Clinton. And that’s a fact. Then again, facts get a bad rap these days.
We should be concerned about that, but it’s even more important to recognize when facts get trampled to the benefit of a good story, full of potential soundbites and calls for action. When that happens, conspirators cleverly hide behind the atmosphere of arresting enthusiasm.
It happened in South America, and some say, it never stopped happening in Europe. The explosion of undeclared wars, free reign on foreign policy by Washington or Kremlin hawks, and staggering gaps in social equality, may be the main causes for the world to slip too fast and so tragically into carnage and the rule of the bigger gun. But make no mistake: there are those who stand to benefit from our misery.
They used a well-tested strategy adopted since the time Christopher Columbus sailed the conquering sea, possibly 524 years ago this week, give or take a few territories that would be annexed to the general banner of America. It’s a narrative powerfully endowed by tales of dare and bravery, and even if they are likely fake, they can’t be revised. Only a new account, written as we speak and live through it, could.
Just because it happened then, and it happens now, and it may be ever part of future geopolitics, we can still add a new element this time around: the proven truth, based on verifiable facts. And we need to be redundant here: there shouldn’t be any arguments about that.
The campaign for U.S. president has been a heartbreaking attempt to slay reality, an embarrassing freak fest, but the world still count on us to imbue it with some form of decency. Now and in the following weeks, we have a chance to do just that. Enjoy the Columbus break.

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10/03/2016 We Don’t Need Another Phone, Colltalers

The news was disheartening: last month, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stayed at that symbolic but real threshold of 400 parts per million reached in 2012 for the first time since at least 800,000 years. And in September, which is usually when such emissions drop.
That clearly shows that whatever (little) has been done to cut them down to breathable levels is not enough. Just in time, however, and without making too much of it, recycling – a crucial tool against pollution – has been revived with the new Reuse Not Replace movement.
Sweden is taking the lead on the matter, as it’s introducing a legislative proposal to give tax breaks to those who fix, rather than dump on landfills, their bikes, appliances, and apparel. If approved, time and labor could be written off, and entitle fixers to receive tax refunds.
The proposal represents a step forward onto the idea of the now very popular Repair Cafes, which popped first as a community novelty, a few years ago in the Netherlands, and are now widespread throughout Europe and some cities in the U.S. Could we expect the same toward the increased sea of discarded, and highly pollutant, electronic gadgets producers have been replacing with maniac frequency annually?
Not so fast. It’d surprise no one to know that it’s the industries, of appliances, clothing, so-called durable goods and yes, phones, computers, tablets and everything in between, that are the biggest enemies of the new trend. And have mechanisms in place in order to prevent it.
It’s the draconian ‘digital rights management,’ which allows brand manufacturers to criminalize anyone who’d attempt to break the software coding, even if to diagnose or fix it. For a few years now, ‘Right to Repair’ bills have been proposed and failed to pass by U.S. states, the only way those who paid top dollar for their now broken device, have to fix it, without discarding it and having to buy a new one.
The DRM constrains is obviously by design. And as long as the industry has the support of cronies in Congress, chances are that, as with many things nowadays, Americans will have to wait to be able to exercise what should an ownership right: fix the damn thing themselves.
The industry has taken the car makers’ playbook and applied it to their products. So, while up to the 1950s, cars were routinely expected to last a few decades, now ‘old’ vehicles, meaning, the average 10-year four-wheel drive, are considerably costlier to repair and keeping it running. Insurers promote the idea that they may be actually more prone to break downs and charge more to cover them.
From an economic standpoint, the justification is that new products mean new jobs, and the more, the merrier. Such view no longer makes any sense, as changes in the marketplace determined a new, even if not exactly better, reality: the manufacturing sector has been shrinking for decades, plants have been moving abroad, and service and hospitality industry jobs now far outnumber those coming from other areas.
Still, you have now an iPhone, for instance, you don’t need being launched every year or so, along with ‘improvements’ that may hinder the performance of your trusty old device, when they’re not simply incompatible with it. And good luck if you happen to drop it on the concrete.
It’s also the idea behind the concept of fashion and couture, which dictates that your old wardrobe must be replaced from top to bottom every couple of years, or you may just be writing yourself off from new professional opportunities, dates, and social acceptance.
The falsehood of such approach to life may be ironically represented by the fierce drive of the clothing industry to emulate, repackage and promote as new the spontaneous street look sported by many an innate but penniless fashionista who simply couldn’t afford otherwise.
Just as low prices (or outrageous, if you can put up with them) hide the brutal reality of Asian sweatshops manned by 8-year-olds, slaving in 18-hour shifts, for pennies to the dollar, the flashy world of the latest communications gadgets also has an untold dark story to confess.
Besides being a source of extremely pollutant gases, when improperly disposed, every electronic gadget has a few grams of Rare Earth materials, a set of 17 elements that drive an almost hidden multi-billion dollar market currently dominated by China. Their mining, refining, and preparing for trade wreaks havoc through mostly impoverished regions of the world in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Just as the phenomenon known as Blood Diamonds, its commerce depends on a totally unregulated workforce, literally coerced into laboring under inhumane conditions. But unlike the precious stones, R.E. have few trade restrictions, and with higher demand, so is abuse.
Electronic giants have made little effort take any responsibility on where some of its raw materials come from or are generated, just like big fashion labels have so far failed to be part of solutions, which granted, are very complex. The local economies of neighborhoods and often entire regions where apparel is assembled, or elements are dug up from the soil, depend heavily of the revenues raised from them.
So, it’s not just a matter of throwing money at it, and inviting a celebrity to publicize their marketing. The global retail industry needs to become social partners of local economies, so to help create alternatives to the vicious cycle of exploitation of cheap labor.
But we digress. The good news can’t be obscured by the unfair realities of what once was called throwaway culture, and the ‘new economy’ only exacerbated. For what’s a ‘independent contractor’ if not a discardable tool, used as need by big corporations no longer under obligation to guarantee a minimum set of rules of employment or stability? As it’s been said, the new economy already had its heyday: in the 1800s.
Once a number of industry-imposed obstacles are overcome, the whole concept of reusing something, by fixing it instead of replacing it with a new version, may boost another inspiring sub-industry that seems to have hit a snag lately: that of recycling. Even though every major city in the world has its program to recycle goods back into their basic materials, programs tend to prioritize light metals and paper.
Significant reductions of deforestation, with its consequent increase in levels of clean air, can be credited to just such efforts, as well as lower costs of canned food due to recycling. As for other potentially recyclables, though, not so much. Mainly, because it’s hard.
The Reuse movement may revive the classic urban character of ‘the man,’ which in contemporary society has been appropriated by the drug culture. Not too long ago, it indicated simply the person behind a small counter who could fix your stuff, cheaply, or at least buy it for parts.
It’d help recent immigrants coming from societies that may still value manual labor, and lack formal education, at least in their adopted land. Lastly, a restored notion of fixers helps retirees too, who could add a badly needed buck to their meager fixed income. Going on a limb here, we’d add yet another concept in short supply lately: human dignity, represented by our ability to take responsibility for our own er garbage.
Last year, the Paris Conference on Climate Change, signed by 195 nations, gave us all some hope that we could, indeed, bring the runaway problem of green gases being dumped in the atmosphere under control. It still does. Successive record hot months, though, which seems to have become a disturbing routine, dampened a lot of that initial optimism. And the recent data only contributes to our general malaise.
That’s because last month is annually the time ‘when carbon dioxide is at its lowest, after a summer of plants growing and sucking it up in the northern hemisphere,’ according to the report by Scripps Institute for Oceanography, which monitors levels of the gas in the atmosphere. Since they did not dip below the 400ppm, the recent measuring is an indication that we may have climbed above that threshold for good.
As bad as the news is, however, we can’t take our eyes off the ball, which is to reduce pollution, even if innovative but small efforts are rarely trendy. Private interests won’t do a thing about it, unless forced by governments. Governments will only act if citizens force them. But ultimately, citizens don’t need to be forced by anyone but themselves, since they’re on the frontlines of destructive climate change effects.
We are arguably the most wasteful society in history, our oceans are full of detritus leftover from our expansive lifestyle, and even the highly educated average citizen recycles but a fraction of his or her footprint. Chances are, the very computer these post was written on will wind up in a landfill for another millennium. But we can still do a lot about it, and that’s a fact. Have a great October.

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9/26/2016 The Streets of Aleppo & America, Colltalers

As the Charlotte, N.C., police finally released the disturbing videos of Keith Lamont Scott’s killing by a cop, we inch ever so close to an explosive, nationwide boiling point. Lethal racial profiling and tragic police misconduct are just the right matches to lit up this fire.
The issue is likely to dominate today’s first debate of presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It’s understandable if it does but it shouldn’t. Race relations should be definitely approached by the two candidates. But they should mostly clash over something else.
Specifically, what’s happening almost six thousand miles from Washington, DC, in Aleppo, Syria. Given their already expressed opposite views of racism, we’re bound to waste our time hearing empty soundbites about it. Considerably harder is to discuss foreign policy.
For on race, Trump’s malodorous mix of violence incitement, misplaced blame, and self-aggrandizing will likely crush Clinton’s policy proposals, however well thought out they may be, even if half the audience remains awake to hear them. It’s a sure score for the Don.
Not so with Syria and the daunting task of articulating an intelligible plan of action, without mentioning the myriad of factions, sects, tribes, external powers, and naturally Daesh, before being interrupted by a news-challenged moderator. But it’s a land whose queen is Clinton.
In fact, that’s her chance for scoring some informative points – granted, mostly with the already cognizant – when speaking of Middle East and Asian conflicts, as long as she doesn’t engage in pontification, lecturing, or offering what may be perceived as some prefab formula.
It’s hard to picture Trump sustaining even a brief of the situation on the ground up there, even if he resorts to phrases of dubious effect. For several months, there hasn’t been a single instance where he showed knowledge about Syria, and the whole region for that matter, besides declaring that he would bomb the hell out of everybody. As if it’s not already happening. Then again, the bar with him is set very low.
Even her detractors admit that Clinton knows personally most of the world leaders in power today, and some even from the yesteryear, and for good or worse, this is the least we expect of a leader of our own, when things go south quickly, and someone is ready to engage.
But the time you’re reading this, Aleppo has become hell on earth, and thousands of people are trapped or dead. Syrian, Russian, or whoever warplanes are doing the bombing, under whatever excuse, there seems to be a new determination to massacre every last civilian.
And they will, because to the many parties now involved what’s important is to defend their little truth about the conflict, even if that requires to throw under the tanks scores of innocents who did not choose to be born there, and may not support any of the parties involved.
And they will also because the world doesn’t care. If hundreds manage to escape and engorge the lines of millions of refugees, preparing another terrible global wave of the dispossessed, the angry, the rejected, it won’t be of concern to military contractors, mercenaries, nutcase volunteers, and the too young to realize, that seem to fester and make up the bulk of the combatants in Syria.
Lastly, whatever their rationale, it doesn’t consider the fact that what’s happening is the best recruitment tool for terror organizations. Bring me the famished, the ravenous, the religious zealot, lots of them, and I’ll form the most salvage and cruel revenge army you’ll never defeat.
The complexity of that conflict is one of the reasons that many world leaders chose studied apathy instead of open intervention. And if it’s true that President Obama has refused to allow boots on the ground there, the definition of that very own term is under review. Why, because drones don’t count? hired guns? special forces? even robots, if we had them, would be surrogates to our geopolitical ambitions.
And in any event, their presence wouldn’t exempt anyone from moral responsibility over the escalation of atrocities and gut wrenching hostilities displayed by Bashar al-Assad, in his murderous attempt to hold on to power, his allies and or his many enemies.
But here’s the thing: Clinton can offer a pondered vision about a resolution, not a recipe but a guide that may entice everyone to be part of that solution, with the understanding that anything else is an expensive and obscene humanitarian bill we all will have to foot eventually.
As for Trump, fuhgeddaboudit. That’s why is very likely he’ll divert the debate over to race, and how he, etc etc. After all, it’s the kind of issue worthy screaming at each other about it. That’s something he knows well. And many Americans are indeed already doing just that.
How much longer we’ll endure the absolute lack of discernment and lax oversight displayed by police officers in the line of duty, whenever they approached a black person. Even when, as in the case of Scott, the cop is also black. Or female, like the Tulsa, Okla., officer who shot and killed an unarmed black man. One more. One too many. Their carrying a badge and a gun is actually a risk to the whole force.
But for that, we don’t need another screamer. Or simplistic solutions either. A (mostly private-owned) prison system is already full of black and Latino and poor youth, even as crime went down. The nation is suffused with guns, legal or not, and everyone is already on the edge.
Plus, let’s repeat it again: the media is betraying its constitutional role in this election cycle. Under a patina of ‘fair and balanced,’ (which it’s actually fake equivalence coverage), it’s granting millions of dollars in free advertising to what’s essentially a message of hate.
It must stop calling ‘white anger,’ – as exemplified by K.K.K.-inclusive Trump rallies, and their feast of name calling and blaming galore – as ‘legitimate,’ while (white) talking heads nod in support to those ‘whose country is no longer theirs’ (it never was), and ‘thugs’ whenever black youth rallies in response. It should focus instead on why so many poor and underprivileged are supporting an egomaniac millionaire.
The human tragedy in the streets of Aleppo, and the tragedy of blacks being vilified and killed in the streets of America, will both require the undivided attention of the new president. And so will a number of other important issues not likely to be discussed on tonight’s debate, despite what the benefits that such discussion would represent to the record 100 million-plus voters who are expected to tune in.
But while Trump may instantly connect with his constituency using his customary lout persona, Clinton will have to walk the razor edge between in-depth analysis and counter punch abilities. In the end, it’d be crucial to state her case not to the ‘deplorables’ set, who’ll never ever, and shouldn’t, support her, or defense hawks who sadly already do so, but to the still unaware of what a Trump presidency will be like.
The fallacy of Fascism is to fool you that solutions to complex problems may boil down to two components: how badly you want them solved, and what you’re giving up, so the state can act unobstructed on our behalf. That’s why Il Dulce was so beloved. And wound up hanged upside down. The ‘problem’ with morality is that it makes us change and grow, even as it demands that our soul remains intact.
Or that every careless attempt to reduce it to a soundbite sounds obscure and contrite. The killing of innocents in Aleppo and in America is unacceptable. Let’s hope candidate Clinton proposes the compassion we’re not expecting candidate Trump to propose, as the tool to make it stop. Here’s to the first decade without Maria Eva. Thinking about you, always, and hey, female presidents are still a big deal.

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9/17/2016 A Pardon to Move Us Forward, Colltalers

‘Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud and abuse of authority in government.’ That’s on the platform that candidate Obama signed on to become U.S. President. And one of the biggest broken promises of his tenure.
Now a campaign seeking presidential pardon to Edward Snowden, the man whose actions resonate with everything the president once sworn by, only to have his administration label him a criminal, may become one of the most important issues of his final months at the office.
To The Guardian, Snowden made a passionate plea for his case. ‘It’s clear that in the wake of 2013 (the year a trove of documents he publicly disclosed showed the NSA’s widespread surveillance of individuals, regardless of any legal proof or court-issued permission to do so), Congress, the courts, and the president all changed their policies,’ with no ‘evidence that any individual came to harm as a result.’
The campaign, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, counts as supporters Sen. Bernie Sanders, Daniel Ellsberg, Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, Black Lives Matter activists, and other civil rights movement luminaries.
Support from Ellsberg adds historic context to the drive. In 1971, he brought to light the top-secret Pentagon Papers, which showed how the government was deceiving and manipulating public opinion to support the then already lost Vietnam War. The disclosures earned him the wrath of the Nixon administration, and he was prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act, the same that’s been used against Snowden now.
Two years later, charges were dismissed as baseless. Ellsberg avoided prison time, but the ordeal all but destroyed his military analyst career. His revelations, though, helped end the war, and he’s now the co-founder of the respected Freedom of the Press Foundation.
While support for a pardon to Snowden has been steadily increasing, two important, or rather, decisive, parties remain unmoved: one is the outgoing president, who has been conspicuously mum to the public clamor. The other is his possible successor, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Before that, a quick aside. WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange has taken a strong stance against Clinton, but there’s no sign that if her opponent, Donald Trump, wins, life will be easier to whistleblowers like him. Or Snowden. They both have a better shot with Democrats here.
To many, President Obama has little to lose by pardoning the person who introduced into a global conversation about privacy, the disturbing notion that intel agencies can and do track our every move, with little need to show justification to do so. The president’s legacy could actually be enhanced by the move. Without it, on the other hand, Snowden has no realistic chance of getting a fair trail in the U.S.
The obvious precedent is Chelsea Manning, of course, the former Army soldier who disclosed to WikiLeaks a trove of mostly diplomatic cables that shed some light on the inner workings of second and third-tier levels of diplomacy, and profoundly embarrassed the government.
It did not cause any proven harm to agents on the field. But to Manning, the consequences were catastrophic: she was convicted by court-martial in 2013 to 35 years in prison.

A recent scary suicide watch has forced officials to allow her to have a sex reassignment surgery.
A pardon to Snowden could also arguably improve the situation of a number of other whistleblowers who languish in federal prisons with little hope to freedom, or even to remain relevant as citizens. Unlike their more famous counterparts, their revelations may not have brought down unscrupulous industries or greedy corporations, or even rescued them from anonymity, but they were still crucial to democracy.
For whistle blowing is as vital to individual freedom and society fairness as journalism is, and it’s no wonder that both are always under pressure by powers that be. When Mark Felt, then known as Deep Throat, helped Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward to unravel the corrupt Nixon administration, through Watergate, he like them, had little to gain but risked going to prison.
Everybody knew that tobacco companies were deceiving the public about smoking for years, but it was one Jeffrey Wigand who came up with that facts that finally exposed them. Manning, Assange, Karen Silkwood, Frank Serpico, John Kiriakou, Jay Rosen, Jeffrey Sterling, William Beeny, Thomas Crane, and others, made us better by following their consciences, at a great cost to their individual rights, and lives.
While they risked name and skin exposing questionable actions, others stood still, either for fear, which is natural, or self interest. The list of claimants does include a few moral midgets who traded and profited from government and corporate secrets, sometimes costing others’ reputation or lives, and the cruel fact is that many of those were actually rewarded for their ‘loyalty,’ and have kept their 30 silver coins.
In Snowden, President Obama has an opportunity to redeem his administration for having prosecuted a record number of whistleblowers, the most of any other presidency, despite all his credentials, and public mandate, to have performed a much better job on this particular.
Unlike all the hysteria of Pentagon hawks and right-wing gung-ho military groups, Snowden has conducted himself with utmost dignity and high moral standards, in sharp contrast to many johnny-come-lately in Congress, who’re now joining in with chants to thrown him in jail.
To absolutely no one surprise, the House Intelligence Committee has chimed in last week, releasing a three-page report blasting Snowden’s character and calling for his prosecution. To many, however, the report’s timing may be designed to counter whatever sympathies an Oliver Stone docudrama about him, his spectacular escape from Hong Kong, and current limbo life in Russia, may receive from the general public.
By aiming, with almost pettiness, at Snowden’s alleged workplace transgressions while working for a NSA-hired contractor, the barely credible paper makes clear that all the fuss about the so called damage his revelations caused on the field are all but a ruse to indict him.
The reality, however, is that this is an opportunity that the president will most likely miss. One can’t help thinking that, by pardoning Snowden, he’d force Clinton to take an independent stand on the issue, which then may undermine his support to her candidacy. On the other side, if she’d decide to follow his lead, which she most definitely should, it’d cause also a radical rearrangement of her campaign’s priorities.
One thing that seems painfully clear about Clinton has been her inability to at least appear that she’s capable of thinking on her feet while making decisions, without having to consult with focus groups first. That inability may rise uncomfortably high if it all comes to it.
That being said, public antipathy, or her uneasiness, even tone-deftness when making off-cuff remarks, are not important qualities for a U.S. president. It’s time for Americans to wake up to the fact that we need a leader prepared to make thoughtful rather than quick decisions, not be a daft player, well versed on smiling and producing bombastic soundbites. And that’s something that deeply distinguishes both candidates.
Clinton supporting a pardon to Snowden, coming from someone who’s perceived as a hawk, may surprised some, and bring an important demographic to her cause: progressive millennials. Actually, never mind millennials, all progressive segments of American politics are fully backing a pardon to him, since he did contribute to the U.S. to become a more transparent society, even if that’s not a reality yet.
His gesture put him side by side with visionaries who went out of their way to fulfill moral duties and, in the process, helped the plight of million of fellow citizens they would never meet. And like those he honorably joined, Snowden has collected only hardship for his acts.
That’s the way it should be, though. Instead of trying to attract Trump’s irredeemable constituency, who thankfully would never acquiesce to her anyway, Clinton would do much better by standing on the side of personal freedom, individual privacy, and civil rights.
Above all, pardoning Snowden will allow us all to reconsider our priorities and move forward as a nation. We must take a hard look at the spectacularly misguided effort of gathering staggering volumes of confidential data, without transparency, or intelligence, to sort it all out.
Despite their stratospheric budget, the security establishment’s faulty intel has often resulted in terrible mistakes, death and imprisonment of innocent people, bombing the wrong army, with no palpable progress in the war on terrorism. Whistleblowers’s clarity of purpose and effectiveness addressing wrong doing stands in stark contrast with the lack of confidence that scary, secretive surveillance instigates.
People like Snowden have a lot to contribute to the national conversation on civil liberties and constitutional rights. Someone willing to sacrifice a cushy lifestyle on the principle that’s everyone’s right to know what’s done on their behalf, should be encouraged, not prosecuted.
The president, and those aiming at filling his shoes, should take this opportunity of reconciliation to move us forward. Have a great one. WC

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9/10/2016 Native Brazilians’ Newest Woe, Colltalers

There’s another concern related to the ouster of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, aside weakening of democratic institutions, end of most social programs, and widespread feeling of dread about the political process: increased vulnerability of the country’s indigenous peoples.
The issue has been highlighted by the uproar about an official press release of the Summer Paralympics, currently taking place in Brazil. On it, the games’ organizers unwittingly gave credence to an old, unsubstantiated claim accusing a Brazilian tribe of infanticide and other crimes.
Explaining the choice of Iganani Suruwahá, who has cerebral palsy, to be a Paralympics torch bearer, they stated that her mother, Muwaji, fled their Amazon tribe to prevent the child from being killed due to her disability. But they offer no proof about the story’s veracity.
Also not mentioned is the fact that the claim was made by the Evangelical missionaries who adopted mother and daughter. And that there’s a concerted effort, by Brazilian messianic religions, to pass legislation to regulate what they see as indigenous ‘pagan’ customs and practices.
Two of the most articulated political groups in the Brazilian Congress, both intimately involved in the dubious Rousseff impeachment process, are the so-called Bible block, and the ‘Ruralistas,’ big land owners who’ve been Brazilian indians’ traditional, and powerful, enemies.
During the impeachment, faith-controlled Brazilian media routinely showed pastors praying for Rousseff’s demise. But at the end of the day, they did way more than that: besides voting for her ouster, the 87 congressmen and five senators actively engaged their flock against her.
Even though their qualified support to Maronite Catholic Michel Temer depends on Brazil’s former vice president, and now its new unelected leader, to periodically wave exemptions and benefits to the block, no one doubts that, when needed, they are part of his political constituency.
Unlike Catholic Rousseff, who was largely perceived as agnostic, and whose disastrous overtures to the religious right may have aggravated her political isolation during her last year in office. In Brazilian politics these days, however, no one gets anything done without their votes.
As for the Ruralistas, it’s not hard to see why they favored the forced change of direction in Brazil. After all, four successive election cycles won by the Workers’ Party, the PT, meant defeat to their expansionary claims, specially in the Amazon region. And some progressive legislation, such as extension of land for indigenous peoples, passed during the PT’s tenure, was downright against their best interests.
To be fair, though, the PT in general, and Rousseff in particular, were not exactly champions of indigenous causes, and during their time in power, crimes against activists and community leaders actually increased. Brazil is sadly the world’s number one on that category.
The new Forest Code, for instance, approved while PT’s was still enjoying its peak popularity, it’s known to have pleased pretty much no one. But it still was specially generous to land developers and big property owners, and glossed over their past violations depleting the forest.
The Ruralists, however, want more, of course. Their interests may now reach out across Brazilian borders, and with the new government, will face no likely challenges to their intentions. You haven’t heard it from us, but they may as well seek an alliance with the religious right.
Going back to the Suruwahá, hostility from Christian missionaries towards their ‘primitive’ ways, shared also by other tribes, comes from Brazil’s colonial past. The struggle of Europeans settlers to control the territory set a centuries-old pattern of violence against them.
It has also decimated their populations, from over five million in the 1500a, in modest, estimated figures, to the currently less than a million. To have an idea, some studies number pre-Columbian native Americans in the 18-million range. The current 10.2 million amounts to about two percent of the U.S. population. For comparison, of the over 200 hundred million Brazilians, less than 0.2 percent are natives.
To Brazil’s religious right, the effort to regulate the lifestyles of indians sits within the context of a larger cultural war it’s currently waging. Crucial to such strategy is to dictate, and if necessary, dial back achievements of the women’s rights movement, for example.
Even PT detractors agree that the unprecedented national conversation about rape, abortion, equality, and other women- and family-centered issues wouldn’t be possible without it. And it’s has been beneficial to the Brazilian society as whole, despite a rise in sexual violence.
Thus, using a vulnerable and isolated community, such as the relatively small indigenous population, may be just the testing grounds needed to a larger, overarching effort to dominate the conversation, redirect it to a familiar faith-based context, and pass legislation accordingly.
Moreover, strident allegations of brutality, sexual abuse, slavery and ‘harmful traditional practices’ are not new, and have long been the tenor of evangelical missions, or ‘visionaries,’ trying to convert natives. The Internet if full of videos of some quite bizarre characters, who all of a sudden decided to make their lives a quest to bring them to their faith. Some won’t hesitate to make outrageous claims in order to achieve it.
But Hakani, a 2009 disturbing movie seen by almost a million people, goes beyond the solitary zealot on a mission theory. It claims to show a child being buried alive by her tribe, creating the illusion that infanticide is widespread. But despite being debunked by experts as staged, the missionary group that produced it has refused to withdraw it from the Web, and the video still incites hostility against native Brazilians.
Without the above context, it’s almost inexplicable to see the point of the Paralympics organizers to stray into the hot minefield of cultural wars in Brazil, in what may be a demoralizing stain on such a progressive initiative: after all, the main point of the games is inclusion.
But they went as far as supporting the ‘Muwaji’s Law,’ a Bible block-sponsored bill, that uses Iganani’s case as a springboard to allow the breakup of tribal families, if one of these claims is invoked. The new political winds may increase the chances for the bill to become law.
A final word about so-called traditional practices: some should most definitely be fought and ended, as in the case of ancient, and repulsive, child marriage, and the Bacha Bazi, customs, female circumcision, the caste system, and so many other despicable beliefs around the world. Nothing should be preserved just because it’s old. We’d love to list religion here too, but OK, we understand, it’s still too early for that.
The Muwaji is not it, however. Regardless how their sponsors got the Paralympics on their side, it’s a clear effort to what used to be called ‘culturalization’ of native Brazilians, many of whom, who survived its last wave in the 1970s, are still reeling from its nefarious effects.
Although the fate of Brazil’s indigenous peoples is a complex and challenging issue, needing clear goals and political will to be addressed, it is above all, a social matter. Many of its intricacies can be approached from a sociological and humane standpoint, but never from a religious one. It needs advocates within the Brazilian society, not interest groups aiming at controlling them. Here’s to the new Equinox.

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9/03/2016 A Forgotten Riot & Goodwill, Colltalers

It’s Labor Day in the U.S., so people may take it easy, as hard as that may be nowadays. It’s also the unofficial end of the Northern summer, a time to barbecue, and a few others things. What it is not is what 80 others countries celebrate on May 1, rather than today.
That’s a curious historical diversion. What’s considered the inspiration for today’s date, happened in Chicago, 130 years, and four months, ago: the Haymarket Riot, when police ended a union rally for the eight-hour shift by killing and maiming scores of people.
It may sound harsh a description but the May 4, 1886, gathering in support of striking workers had been peaceful until the cops showed up. The riot inspired organized labor around the world to set up a date that’d memorialize the dead and the workers’ cause for fair laws.
In an all too familiar turn, four protesters were convicted and hanged for conspiracy a year later. Soon after, though, laws were passed imposing limits on the length of a day, and week, work, along several other rights most people enjoy even now, thank you very much.
Thus, even though Labor Day in September is as far as resonating the history of the movement as the month is from May, it still offers an opportunity to meditate on the decline of worker unions in the U.S., and how that impacts, or not, the upcoming presidential election.
While a separate date betrays the early attempt to drill holes in the unity of the emerging labor movement, it now sheds an uncomfortable glare on the so-called ‘American exceptionalism.’ The arrogance of the concept is so ingrained on the American psyche, that few see it at the root of our isolationism, and another reason why, labor-wise, we may be experiencing a backslide to a dark, pre-labor laws era.
Over 50 million workers are now freelancers, or as the ‘new economy’ calls it it, independent contractors. To employers, this growing pool of available hands, found outside the constraints of the eight-hour shift or any traditional, labor-achieved laws, is the new gold.
Many hail the new status quo, arguing that anyone now may choose when they ‘want’ to work, or take time off; there’s always someone else to call to fill in. Workers, though, can hardly afford to out-of-pocket their vacations; they’d be most likely applying somewhere else.
We’d even call Orwellian this seemingly attempt at spinning what’s a well-worn trend of capital exploitation of labor. But in America, there’s already a better term to label it: Reagan-esque. For few presidents could claim ownership over unions demise as the Gipper.
Labor statistics can hardly show the impact of organized worker associations on American prosperity and political stability. Neither they reveal something as incidental as the effect a president may have on their numbers. That said, there’s a curious dip in union membership around the time of Reagan’s emergency into national life: from 21 million American workers, in 1979, to 17.7 million, in 1983.
More relevant is considered his intervention on the then powerful Professional Air Traffic Controller Organization, which was striking for better wages. Threatening to fire thirteen thousand seasoned professionals was a huge gamble. Many things could go the other way, including a major air tragedy. But he was lucky as always, the strike was declared illegal, and he came out of it with a big win.
As with anything about him, his feat was aggrandized, and many saw then the beginning of the end of the organized labor in the U.S. Perhaps. He did help pass legislation declaring some categories off limits to the right to strike. That by extension, scared the union ID cards out of millions of professionals, whose lifetime jobs – what’s now an anachronism – could summarily end up in the waste basket.
Union decline has tracked overall changes in the global economy, with radical shifts in manufacturing and the way goods are traded across borders. Technology has also greatly impacted the workplace, and giving current trends, that’ll only increase. Robots, anyone?
Globalization, political unrest, a state of permanent war in vast regions of the world, have also contributed to a widening gap between haves and have-nots. Income inequality has been the scourge to which no solution seems to be worth the attention of political leaders.
Speaking of which, we may hear speeches about labor today, by the two U.S. presidential candidates, as well as a few parades and some local rallies here and there. The overall feeling towards working relations in America, however, is one of apathy and contempt.
Long ago, and with no little credit to the Republican party, labor issues have been relegated to close-door discussions among employers, or as they prefer, ‘job creators.’ Even without being privy to their agenda, 99% of the population know exactly what they’re about.
Which brings us to another date that’s considerably more relevant to American workers: the five-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement, on the 17th. Or rather than the date, the idea that fueled it, and the almost surprising effectiveness of its flexibility.
Almost from the start, its drive was not strictly about accountability of financial institutions for the almost collapse of world economy, without being penalized for it, but the rise of a new way to voice popular dissatisfaction outside traditional channels of political change.
It was a risky proposition, one that veered dangerously close to irrelevance. But one that, instead, proved itself resilient and capable to adapt as the movement evolved. Even without recognizable leaders, OWS has been present in a vast array of political and social contexts.
Since that September, independent outfits of the umbrella-acronym have been associated with storm recovery efforts, the $15 minimum wage fight, resistance against foreclosures, and the crucial, and extremely relevant, battle to eliminate medical debt, among others.
In the case of the latter, it tackles a multibillion-dollar industry that thrives on the inability of most Americans to afford health care, which traps them into gargantuan debt wells. RIP Medical Debt’s Jerry Ashton and Craig Antico use their former experience as collectors to turn what was believed to be an intractable problem into a solution: just like the industry, they purchase debt by pennies on the dollar.
But whereas industry hacks, despite having already collected their dues on the cut-down price, go back to hunt down debtors, RIP does away with the debt. They’ve already single-handedly erased millions in debt, with no cost to naturally grateful, and cash-strapped, debtors.
It’s the sort of pragmatism and goodwill put to service of a worthy social cause that politicians consistently seem unmoved by. All the more reason to demand their attention. It also proves that to help other people may not take grand gestures, or a holiday that has lost its bearings. So it’s OK to take time off to B-B-Q or go vegan, if we may, and relax with our loved ones. It gets September going on the right note.

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8/28/2016 A Foretold Political Exit, Colltalers

Brazil’s suspended President Dilma Rousseff appears at the Senate today, to make a final appeal to keep the job that 54 million Brazilians in 2014 entrusted her to do. But it’ll likely be her last act as elected president, as her impeachment seems to be already all but on the books.
It’ll be a sad epilogue to a rather prosaic political saga, a tug of war she’s lost the moment the opposition grabbed reins of a rising anti-corruption sentiment and use it to batter her lack of original ideas, and the administrative sins of her Workers’ Party, the then ruling PT.
No one is expecting her to frame her debacle as a tragedy and an incalculable loss to democracy in Brazil, as she could, because among other things, Rousseff was never known for oratorical skills or arresting rhetoric. On the contrary, she may commit the same mistakes that marked most of her public appearances: a bureaucratic zeal for the procedural and an absolute absence of passion and ability to inspire.
While her predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, could rouse crowds to their feet with colorful speech patterns and folksy tone, using his lack of formal education as an effective way to convey his message, Rousseff’s speeches were a prime on political jargon.
Evidently, she hasn’t lost her presidential seat solely on the poor quality of her words, or even policies. But she did unwittingly contribute to her own demise when she chose a conservative course of action, to reignite the economy, for instance, when the momentum was crucial and ripe for a radical reassessment of Brazil’s GDP priorities, circa 2012, 2013, in the face of adverse conditions in world markets.
She underestimated the level of dissatisfaction with PT, by then deeply embroiled in corruption probes and scandals of abuse of power, and the ability of the parties it had defeated in the polls for over a decade to articulate the strategy that would ultimately cost her job.
Above all, segments of the Brazilian upper classes were beginning to feel left out, amid so much emphasis by the party on social programs, and its own constituency, the lower strata of society. It was a strategy that never ceased to unsettle the traditionally privileged.
A great number of Brazilians cite the massive anti-corruption rallies, and folkloric banging of cooking pots, that took over city streets for almost two years, as the reason why Rousseff was declared impeachable and now waits to all but the confirmation of such verdict.
To many, it may be very hard to admit that that was far from being what really caused her fall. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be today so many politicians and officials, who are themselves fighting serious allegations of corruption and abuse of power, in charge of her impeachment.
Suddenly, the clamor against corruption ended on cue with the Congress’ first steps to impeach Rousseff. It reminded some of the self-congratulatory, and criminally deceiving, ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner that greeted U.S. President Bush in the early years of the Iraq war. The regime’s supposed weapons of mass destruction were never found, thus the premise was false, but the war raged on way after it.
Unlike her accusers, it has been established that Rousseff did not engage in theft or any other serious crimes, and she stands to be ousted based on a misguided, but not illegal, maneuver she took with the federal budget, in order to prevent Brazil’s economy from taking a dive.
That it did anyway shows more of her inability to lead at the moment the country needed it the most, and less, much less, in fact, her intention to deceive Brazilians. That is also something that still makes those who supported her impeachment restless, as they feel they too were engaged, or rather, manipulated by false premises, not by the president, but by those with an invested interest in deposing her.
Before going any further into this painful semi-forensics of what will, and it definitely should, be a long, excoriating process to understand what happened to Brazil, it’s important to share a personal take about what’s going on with millions of extremely sad citizens.
Yes, we’re very disappointed with ourselves, with our once again failure to reach greatness – and it seemed so very close this time around – and we have no idea, yet, of how come in just a few years, we became the world’s sixth-largest economy, were poised to be a powerful global voice, and suddenly, have collapsed back into what we’ve been for decades prior: a gigantic land led by a corrupted political cast.
So, no, we’re not blaming ‘the Brazilians,’ but us, Brazilians. And we do have a big job to do, and will do it, you can rest assured. Just not today. We must first endure the embarrassment of watching the assigned ‘snake in the grass’ of the hour, Michel Temer, dismantle in just a couple of months, what took years for the people – not PT, not Lula, and most definite, not Rousseff – to build: a more equanimous nation.
That was then, let’s face it. In her final act, the president is unlike to seize the moment and deliver an earth shaking conclamation, of her unwavering faith in the future, and the power of the people to operate real change and all that. And, yes, we’ll all be sorry for that too.
To many, this has taken such an emotional toll, and too long a wasted time, that it’d rather be done already, so they could get some sleep. They obviously may be up to an unpleasant wake up call, of course. For as hard and sticky it may be an exercise of foreseeing the future, before it gets any better, it will get considerably worse. But the signs may be clear only to those not forced to be under such a dark outlook.
Residents may think that those living abroad are the lucky ones, but that’s never the case. Even pointing to the evidence is all the more painful to those, because they have no direct dog in this race, and just the same may be liable to stand accused of acting on self-interest and not for the betterment of the majority. It’s all true, of course. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have a voice.
And it doesn’t help anyone to ignore that the end result of the legitimate rebellion against the status quo in Brazil, one that pitched friend against friend, and relative against relative, hasn’t produced a decent score. On the contrary, there’s now in power in Brazil, arguably, one of the worst generations of politicos, almost none voted to their current position, all rich and considerably more corrupt that the one before.
By definition, they will have no interest in maintaining anti-corruption probes, or social programs to promote the poor and protect the competitive edge of minorities, or support human rights, women’s causes, or any progressive issues of gender, race or class.
Since they engendered their own ascension to power, they may feel disobliged to the masses that supported the deposition of their political enemies, and their very own ideas on how to run a country, and will pretty much respond only to themselves. Unless, Lula.
And that is the last uncomfortable notion we’ll invoke, in a post particularly full of them. And that is that unless Lula runs again to the presidency, perhaps even not be elected but to give a decent show of force, this claque may have an interrupted six to 10 years in power to run the country. No other current political power in the country still has a reserve of support as the PT still has, and that hurts, I know.
If Lula is successfully shut out of the next electoral cycle, and no other leader with enough power to shake the polls in 2018 ‘reports for duty,’ then we’re very sorry to say that there are a number of wealthy politicians, including from the religious right, eager to grab the prize.
We’re overdoing it; for measure, think progressive Americans clipping their noses and voting Democrat in November. For the alternative may be handing the White House to the dangerously unqualified, and fortunately still under-represented, ultra right. ‘Politics is dirty’ is a cliche, but also unavoidable; even rejecting it, we’re still up to our necks in it. Goodbye, August; here comes Brazil’s 194th September.

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8/14/2016 Heat & the Fire Next Door, Colltalers

The heat is on. But that has little to do with current high temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere. Unlike those, climate change, and related global warming, is man made, a concept only reinforced by disturbing recent news. In fact, heat is the least of your concerns.
For the Olympics-unchallenged, who keep count of everything, mankind’s already low score in the fight to reverse climate change, has just sunk lower: melting permafrost has triggered a deadly anthrax outbreak in Siberia, and exposed U.S.’s radioactive waste in Greenland.
The (bad) news adds up to an already alarming trend caused by the Arctic’s diminishing ice cap, reported last year: the exposure of ancient pools of methane, a heat-trapping gas that, when released into the atmosphere, packs more heat than fuel fossil-produced carbon dioxide.
Mankind’s count is down because, despite steps to counter the effects of climate change, reducing emissions and phasing out coal and oil-based energy, for instance, taken by governments around the world, they have been systematically undermined by well known players.
First, there’s a global campaign to minimize those steps, fueled by a rising, right-wing nationalist sentiment, that threatens to turn back the clock. Behind it, energy industry-sponsored politicians have worked non-stop to enforce just such an agenda.
Then, there’s a still staggering economic and social gap between the industrialized world and developing nations, already plagued by an unfair wealth distribution system, and a corporate-driven globalization that has all but cheapen labor and sabotaged environmental efforts.
Lastly, everything takes time. While global temperatures have been breaking every record – 2015 was the warmest year in history, and last May, the warmest month ever – efforts to counter the trend may take years to produce any traceable result, let alone reversing the effects. And that even if those with an invested interest in the matter, which means, all of us, were 100% behind them, which we are not.
Time to invoke the familiar, if not completely convincing, premise of the hypothetical alien. Facing such overwhelming evidence, the choice would be clear to such an enlightened creature: do something and survive, or nothing and perish. Not humans, though, apparently.
Despite all arguments to the contrary, we are not logical creatures. Rationality informs our world but it’s incapable to explain it. We build material works of wonder, and commit despicable acts of cruelty, only to duck any responsibility and credit it all to invisible beings.
Comparing weather and climate, and many still don’t see a clear distinction between the two, while we’ve developed sophisticated and effective ways to avoid the devastating impact of the former, we’re just learning what actually contributes the most for the latter.
Speaking of heat and cold, we’ve created incredible machines to lessen their extreme effects. After that, making them less disrupting to the environment should be easier. Not if you’re human, though. That final mile is proving to be the one we may not even make it.
Few knew that the 1950s U.S. ‘research facility,’ in Camp Century, Greenland, was in fact part of another deranged Cold War project: to build an underground network of nuclear launch sites, less than 1,000 miles from the Arctic. When it was clear that it wouldn’t work, it was closed down and buried, along with records of its existence. Now, melting ice is about to expose its lethal by-product: nuclear waste.
With so much post-WWII confidence on the power of the atomic bomb to settle conflicts, one wonders how many more of these unhinged projects remain vulnerable to climate change and even sicker minds wishing to harm the world.
The anthrax outbreak in Russia had little to do with terrorism, but like in Greenland, everything with the ways we’ve built our civilization: high temperatures caused the melting tundra to uncover what’s believed to be vectors of deadly 18th and 19th-century infections.
It has killed one boy, so far, and sickened over 70 people since Friday, some of which remain under observation. The outbreak has also killed over 2,000 reindeer, but there’s no proven culprit, and reports are sketchy about what’s been done to prevent an epidemic.
Although researchers have long pointed to just that kind of situation as one of the nastiest effects of climate change, specially in remote regions, anthrax raises some extra red flags for its association (in its lab-synthesized version) with chemical warfare and terrorism.
No one needs to be an Olympian number cruncher to realize what this all adds up to. By now, even deniers admit that the freak weather patterns, and raging wildfires and flooding, being reported ever more consistently all over the world, are signs of change.
The world has shrunk, and we’re not talking about your cat pictures being liked by readers in Kuala Lumpur or Porto Alegre. Receding lands, overtaken by rising sea levels, may send an even bigger wave of refugees into overwhelmed ports, just as pollution from wildfires may turn arable land into deserts. Your cat, in fact, may be a good sight to sore eyes, but people will need much more than that to survive.
One final word about the Northern ‘scorcher’ heat wave, which threatens to end civilization as we know it, according to the weatherman and people we pass by in the street: no, it won’t. Unless you either work outdoors and/or is under 2 or over 80.
That said, to those born in warmer zip codes, it’s amusing to hear all this complaining about a fact of nature, which usually lasts two weeks, yearly, and not nearly enough of a bleep, when the thermometer dips and gets stuck into subzero temperatures, the rest of the time.
Something to do with bias, from the lucky few who actually enjoy the heat. When it comes to climate, though, choices can’t be biased; those yet to be born will certainly need to do more than complaining. We should leave them a fighting chance too. Have a cooler week.

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8/08/2016 Rushing the Doomsday Clock, Colltalers

It may be hard to grasp this but the world was a bit safer on last year’s grim 70th anniversary of the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That’s because, unlike in 1945, there wasn’t a realistic possibility of a U.S. president to even think about using nuclear power for war again.
Not anymore. Suddenly, the thought of some 2,000 nuclear weapons being at the fingertips of a would-be president who’s currently on a nasty Twitter battle with a dead American soldier’s grieving family, became all too real, at least to those who know what it all implies.
Granted, that’s too much power to be granted to a single individual, and given a choice, most would have reservations, even if the Pope or the Dalai Lama were in control of them. Be as it may, however, in our world, someone does have the codes for that suitcase from hell.
Also, to peace and anti-nuke activists, there’s not much difference between Republican candidate Donald Trump’s cavalier, and supposedly rhetorical, line of questioning on ‘why can’t we use them?’ and Democrat Hillary Clinton’s expected reaction as a president, in case the U.S. is threatened by another nuclear power. Both responses could lead to the end of civilization. But the comparison is a false equivalence.
At the World Social Forum, which gathers in Toronto this week for a second annual conference, nuclear armaments and their inherent risks to world peace will be central to several of its panel discussions. Which goes along with its overall theme, ‘Another World Is Needed.’
Created in January 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, as a humanistic alternative to the better-funded World Economic Forum, which gathers annually, also in the same month, the world’s wealthiest individuals and corporations to Davos, Switzerland, the WSF has grown in stature and relevance. Groups from 95 countries will be at this year’s second edition, taking place for the first time in a northern country.
While decisions made with Alps ski resorts in the background rule the way life is determined to most people, without their consent or knowledge, it’s in the other forum where the impact of those decisions is scrutinized. And, as it goes, things don’t look too good.
To mark the bombing of Nagasaki, 71 years ago tomorrow, a special panel on the nuclear threat will open the forum tonight. Then, from Wednesday on, issues such as climate change, the war in Syria, Palestinians, income inequality, and women’s rights, will be discussed.
These days, the threat of a nuclear disaster is a constant concern. The current turmoil in Turkey, for example, in the aftermath of the failed July 15 army coup, has exposed yet another instance where weapons of mass destruction may wind up being used, intentionally or not.
Along massive arrests of alleged suspects, President Tayyip Erdogan accused the high-ranking military commanders in charge of NATO’s nuclear storage facility in Turkey of having had a part in the coup, and ordered the police to detain them in a raid to the compound.
Even scarier are the U.S.’s plans to ‘modernize’ its nuclear arsenal to the beat of $1 trillion in the next 30 years. Not the kind of question you’ll see the media asking either presidential candidates, it is nevertheless one that we probably already know their likely similar answers.
In fact, pressure from the Pentagon to update the U.S. armament, by spending the equivalent of what it’d take to vanquish poverty and hunger in the entire world, has already overridden even one of President Obama’s shiniest, and shallowest, promises as a candidate. And in all likelihood, even if Senator Bernie Sanders were to be the next president, he wouldn’t be able to prevent it from going forward either.
Neither there’s need to mention the number of international conventions and peace agreements it would also violate. Defense hawks seem to believe that they’ve got an airtight argument in their favor: if nukes are dangerous to maintain as they are, aging nukes are even worse.
Never mind that we haven’t found a satisfying, and safe, way to dispose of lethal by-products left over in the manufacturing of weapons. That a ‘modernization’ would compound to the problem doesn’t seem to concern that much its advocates in Washington.
Despite a seven-decade effort to make nukes an alternative to carbon fuels as a source of cheap energy, it’s clear that we not just haven’t tamed it to an acceptable level of risk, but even from an economics point of view, they’ve never justified their costs. On the contrary.
Speaking of WWII and how it all ended, it’s ironic to note that while France has one of the highest levels of nuclear power consumption, Germany is phasing out completely their presence in the national power grid. Shouldn’t we have been the first to do it?
Instead, the U.S. and Japan have both a network of aging, technological-obsolete, unsound-located, and ultimately cost-demanding plants, spread out throughout the territory and way too close to cities and urban communities. Plus, the U.S. has all those weapons too.
The relevance of gatherings such as the WSF is that, all said and done, there are almost no forum for anyone to address the kind of issue that seems uninteresting to the establish media, powers that be, corporate investors, and those who live off government defense contracts.
We’re about to embark into another week of reading about every fleeting thought that crossed the troubled mind of Trump, and every single canned answer Clinton’s been given to the same set of questions for years. We’ll probably hear about their spouses too, and how there’s growing dissatisfaction brewing among American voters. Give or take a few endorsements, everything we’ve already heard before.
What we’re not likely to hear, though, or read about, or get by email, is how to regain control over the discussion about our own future. Specially because another future is needed. And we’re the only ones who can build it. Hydrate, remain calm, have a good one.

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8/01/2016 The Hack, the Ignored, & the Unwise, Colltalers

Buried deep in the coverage of the latest hacking of the Democratic campaign computers, if mentioned at all, is the fact that cyber-snooping of U.S. politics is now a worldwide game, alongside more traditional defense moves such as military spying and industrial espionage.
Finger pointing (to Russia) and retaliation threats took center stage, besides much grandstanding about the stunt. Less reported was acknowledgement that hacking cuts both ways; no one has the monopoly of outrage, and U.S. intelligence is mostly gathered that way too.
Ultimately, as we enter a new age of high tech sophistication, digital security breaches are just the way the game is played these days, and the staggeringly costly and oh so secretive government spy community needs to be up to speed, or somebody will, for sure. After all, isn’t in the name of preventing just such breaches that those shady agencies so often break the law everybody else has to abide by?
Moreover, if a powerful organization such as the Democratic Party is vulnerable to have its files invaded by an alleged foreign power, what’s to be expected of regular stiffs like us, and our pitiful indiscretions and dick pics and online escapades? Well, don’t answer that.
There’s also no surprise that the media would run, almost without questioning, yet another spy agency’s prefab theory about a security breach. The administration’s efforts to portray Russia as a rogue state have gotten a free, uncritical ride for quite a stretch now.
Even when, as it seems to be the case, evidence points to the Putin regime – whose Machiavellian doctrine gets no sympathetic nod from this corner – it’s hard to swallow the feign indignation of intelligence officials or the patriotic-tinged headlines occupying the airwaves.
As with past instances of security breaches of civic and civilian institutions – the military rarely discloses attacks against it, but it’s safe to assume they’re even more often – these increasingly disturbing hack incursions always seem to happen within a certain political context.
China, for instance, has been a constant foe. Last year, it was accused by the U.S. of having stolen military secrets and sensitive files of millions of Americans, which caused a big ruckus between presidents Obama and Xi Jinping. That, of course, wasn’t the whole story.
What was mostly missing from the headlines was what is largely perceived as the real cause for that particular show the force: a reprisal to U.S.’s opposition to China’s building of artificial islands and territorial claims over waters of the South Sea. That and the obvious economic and military advantages that all nations are constantly jockeying to gain from spying on each other. Specially of and from the U.S.
North Korea is another, even more boringly obvious case of a nation desperately trying to overcome its own, let’s say, power shortcomings with massive acts of security hacking. Kim Jong-un’s dangerous attempts to bridge that gap with a single act should not be underestimated.
If journalists do their jobs, officials reveal unexpected candor. When inquired about China’s snooping, for example, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said that ‘we’d have done the same thing.’ He could’ve said, ‘we do it all the time,’ to the same effect. The problem is finding reporters diligent enough to ask that kind of question to high profile officials like Clapper. And then, to ask them again.
It’s been three years since Edward Snowden leaked secret data about the National Security Agency’s routine surveillance programs, for spying on foreign governments and regular citizens alike, with help from telecommunication companies and European governments. Even before, troves of secret diplomatic cables, revealed by WikiLeaks, had already made clear how the intel community uses its huge budget.
Revelations concerning the Spy vs Spy stuff. which nations engage in since before Elizabethan times, weren’t nearly as resonant and scary as the knowledge that snooping on law-abiding taxpayers had become an integral part of intel agencies’ unwarranted power. And thanks to the Bush administration, were at that point already fully incorporated into a parallel law and order system, then unknown to Americans.
But when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump openly called for Putin to hack into Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s files, the Orwellian nightmare we all fear, and even the Jason Bourne movies allude to, became a bit closer. It was an unprecedented act of treason, promptly shoved under the rug of collective bafflement, and it inaugurated a new chapter no one wants to admit may come next.
It went beyond Trump’s usual deference to the Russian president, in what may be an attempt to preserve credit lines with the country’s oligarchs. By calling on a foreign power to illegally insert itself into American politics, he entered treasonous territory: many now are questioning a U.S. quasi-policy of sharing intelligence briefings with presidential candidates, in the months prior to the election.
As for Snowden, three years under public scrutiny as a U.S. castoff citizen in exile (you know under whose guard) haven’t tarnished his image, not yet anyway. But the same can no longer be said about WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange, which has just taken a darker turn.
Frustrated with his own 4-year exile in London’s Ecuador Embassy, and the U.S.’s relentless pressure to prosecute him, this Australian officially inserted himself into American party politics (along Putin?) by declaring he’s determined to prevent Clinton to become president.
It’s a bold move, to which he’s entitled, and it has no bearing on the public service he did provide with the disclosure of classified material. Despite allegations, there hasn’t been any proof that his revelations, or Snowden’s for that matter, have endangered agents on the field.
It may not have been his wisest decision, however, specially if he produces anything, as he’s promised he will, to derail Clinton’s campaign and help elect Trump. Given both candidates’ contrasting views on crime and punishment, there may be even less hope for him to avoid charges of rape he’s yet to respond in Sweden, if a Republican is occupying the White House after November. Remember, torture?
In talking about the current cycle of politics in America, circa 2016, all hyperbole, and even colorful but hollow language are more than ever unnecessary, of course. Even as it narrows down to two big headliners and a varying cast of second, third and fourth tiers, we’ve already blew our absurd quotient index, if there was ever one, many times over, and we’re still 100 days away from the first vote to be cast.
Some things are bound to change, evolve, get more clarity, or reach new heights of meaning and consequence. The majority of everything else, however, is very likely to remain the same. Thus, don’t count on the media to help you make your choice if you care even a little for your own sanity. Whatever will be said from now on, apart from strictly campaign platform issues, won’t have much impact either.
Local casting is probably close at this time too, but don’t count the world out of this play just yet. After all, it and us, all have meaningful speaking parts in the big drama. And while no one knows who’s directing this thing, we’ve already guessed what may be in store ahead.
Speaking of making a choice, if you haven’t made up your mind, you’re already behind the curve. But even if you have, stay awake, keep listening, and do not sit this one out. Let’s not lose sight of whoever controls that coded suitcase. Have a great, mad dog free, August.

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7/25/2016 Fear of Reliving the Past, Colltalers

At the end of last Thursday’s darker-than-thy-soul Donald Trump’s speech, ‘accepting’ the Republican Party’s presidential candidate nomination, a truly disquieting notion – at least for many Americans and people around the world – began to settle in: he may really win.
It’s a disturbing fear because we seem to be entering an alt-reality, one of hyperbole and scary comparisons with the past. The most recurrent of them, that of an official rise of fascism in America, is actually beginning to fit the narrative, as his popular appeal increases.
The convention itself had plenty of ugly displays at critical moments. As when the crowd cheered on calls for Hillary Clinton’s arrest, with almost no hint of hyperbole. Or when Ted Cruz, of all people, spoke of ‘conscience’ while voting, and was booed off the stage.
And it was present throughout the week when all the right buttons – from public dissatisfaction with politicians, to the increasing number of Americans feeling left out, to the paralyzing fear of terrorism – were being pushed. But only to justify a totalitarian vision of the world. Permeating every speech was this idea that the U.S. has been slighted and it’s time to crush its enemies. And the man for the job is ready to embrace his role as the nation’s sole savior. That sort of rhetoric has lent some legitimacy to those comparing Trump with Mussolini.
In fact, his theatrical repertoire of gestures and facial expressions at times seemed to be lifted straight from old YouTube footage of il Duce urging already inflamed crowds to get to arms. His military alliance with Hitler’s Nazi German was the scourge of WWII, but the Blackshirts’ terror inflicted on regular Italians who opposed him is what may raise red flags to this country’s immigrants and minorities.
For there’s an unmistakable wave of radicalism surrounding Trump, one that has awaken even old scourges of our own, such as white supremacists and religious zealots, who feel reinvigorated enough to come out from under the rock they’ve been buried for generations.
With no hint of self-awareness, for instance, David Duke, a card-carrying member of the Klus Klux Klan, is now a candidate to elective office, again. Then, he had a minimal amount of votes, but now, it’s hard to estimate his appeal. Like the KKK itself, after decades of being on the fringe of an evolved society, and deservedly so, he’s suddenly acting with the confidence of other mainstream politicians.
This is a democracy, but come on. His rebirth is a travesty because his ‘home-grown terrorist organization’ was never brought to justice for a century-long of criminal activity, while families of its uncountable victims are still paying in suffering for what they did.
That Trump, who very likely joined the campaign with an eye on his own bottom line and commercial brand, suddenly got to ride a populist wave, mostly on the account of vague promises and a compromised media establishment, is not even the worst of it.
What’s really staggering is that, among his spitfire of self-aggrandizing statements and grievances against a black president he tried to prove was not an American citizen, he couldn’t find time to disavow support from such deeply questionable segments of society.
Whether he will pay for such a lack of ethical posture, is irrelevant. Winning or losing, he’s already won and his name is now known around the world. What’s more important to Americans is to figure if the nation Trump wants to lead is the same one they want to support.
That’s why so many are deeply concerned about what’ll come out of the November polls. If a U.S. that, in case of hardship, will tell its allies that help will be on the way, but only maybe, or if they can count on it if another Fuhrer is ready to take on the world.
And, of course, whether he is, heaven forbid, a born and bred American. The warnings are beginning to sound too loud, and history is a reminder that when we act and evolve as equal rights citizens, we’re a nation. But when we ask some of us to be shot, we’re just a mob.
Again, the YouTube is oh so instructive. Millions on a public square, roaring, can be many things, including a crowd demanding hatred and intolerance. No leader with the nation’s best interests at heart would accept that kind of support, just so to reach high office.
The most important speech of his life was centered on a single idea he relishes repeating: I’ll do it. Politicians lie, cynics would say, so we’re better off, but that’s the false equivalence we hope won’t tarnish further the national conversation. For it’d be foolish if it does. He offered no actionable diagnostic of the U.S., only a set of opinions, which, honestly, like a certain part of the anatomy, everybody’s got one.
We were going to list the Top 10 List of factors that may lead Donald Trump to the White House, but since most of them can still be reversed – #1: Americans don’t show up to vote – we leave that to another time. Better to focus on what we want our homeland to stand for. If the list starts with compassion, equanimity, or acceptance, we’ll surely be rallying for a better future. Have a peaceful one.

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7/18/2016 When We Lost Catalonia, Colltalers

Today marks the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish civil war, the seminal event that led Francisco Franco to power, after crushing a democratic elected leftist coalition. It was arguably the last great revolution to polarize the world in two clearly defined sides.
One, the Republicans, attracted unprecedented global support from progressive forces and artists, who defined their lives and times by the idealistic (Quixotic?) fight for restoring democracy in Spain. The other, the winner side, was that of Franco, helped by Nazis and fascists.
The world was never to be so cleanly ideologically split. Even WWII, which followed, took years of political calculation by world powers before enlisting to it, (while Germany was already engaged in racial cleansing), to become the war won by the ‘just’ side.
Not that eight decades have taught us much. After a particularly gruesome week in America, with race and hatred-tinged murders, the world responded in kind the following one, with the horrific trunk rampage in Nice, and the attempt coup in Turkey early Saturday.
The anniversary of the Franco’s uprising in Spain offers a rare glance at how an uncomplicated a fight for justice and restoring the rule of law could be then. Such an approach would be unpractical these days, of course, with the complex motivations that lead nations to war, and the kind of resistance they create and have to fight back, as Daesh, al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are eager to show.
When it became clear that Spanish republicans were going to be crushed by generous support of the Hitler’s Luftwaffe and Mussolini’s Black Shirts, it was one of those historical moments when intellectuals, artists, and humanists the world over felt personally accountable to a positive outcome which was not to be: Franco not just won but ruled unchallenged until his peaceful death of old age in 1975.
His campaign of horror left half a million Spaniards and freedom fighters dead, including one of Spain’s most celebrated authors, Federico Garcia Lorca, shot and anonymously buried in a mass grave by Franco’s ruthless supporters. Otherthree world known artists were to become forever linked to the Spanish Civil War, but thankfully survived it: Catalan Pablo Picasso, Englishman George Orwell, and American Ernest Hemingway.
As with the Holocaust and similar tragedies, the world was slow to take notice of what was going on, and until Robert Capa’s dramatic pics came out, even liberal forces were oblivious to the Spanish plight. Not Picasso, though, who created one of the greatest depictions of the horrors of war, and his most powerful political statement: the painting of Guernica, about the 1937 aerial raid by German bombers.
But even if ultimately the sacrifice of thousands was not sufficient to prevent the installation of a long-lasting dictatorship, whose trauma Spain still struggles from recovering, the episode may have marked one of the last worldwide displays of empathy towards a cause, one that motivated idealists of all colors to join the fight and eventually be blown to pieces in the name of human rights and decency.
It’s a sharp contrast with the wars of our age, most of them we have no idea what they’re supposed to accomplish, when they may end, if ever, and what cause are they serving, other than that of weapon manufactures and merchants, or ideologues with no skin in the game.
To many, the 1968 Prague Spring, or even the so-called Arab Spring, a few years ago, had a similar feeling, both mirroring Spain even in the way they were crushed, and wound up littered with even more corpses that we could possibly identify and empathize with. But while the Czech people have indeed managed, like the Spanish, to build a democratic nation on the ruins of misery, the Middle East, well…
The attempted coup in Turkey, while not giving anyone reason for supporting it aside from military ego maniacs, would have not much reason for any idealistic grieving over it either. For some time now, Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has promoted a confrontational agenda that has puzzled even his Islamic supporters, despite an increased radicalized religious zealotry and censorship of the press.
Perhaps in modern times, the only other revolution that attracted progressives, not because of a charismatic Fidel Castro-type of political leader, but in support of a liberal idea was the one the Sandinistas conducted in Nicaragua, despite fierce opposition from the U.S.
They did manage an institutional reboot of the country, without turning into the oppressors like Anastasio Somoza that they defeated. But the comparisons must stop right there, as Central America as a whole remains as economically impaired as Europe, and Spain, never were.
There will never be a good, wholesome justification to war, or to send the young to die on behalf of those who should know better. No cause or ideology, much less religion, can possibly be better off by the endless string of mourned cadavers and the kin they leave behind.
Something captured by the short-lived Spanish Republic though, as with the Wiemar Republic too, was enough to engage the best minds of the age to treasure and, later, attempt to preserve them. Most paid dearly with their own lives, so others would live and not forget it.
War is a different animal nowadays, done with high precision and maximum impact packed in each devastating blow. It’s also more undiscriminated, both in motivation and geography. The decision to wage one now rarely involves the defense of an ideal, or correcting of a wrong inflicted against a vulnerable people, race, or beauty. The misery of the art of killing is more lethal as it is less acknowledged.
As we brace for a new week, hoping that another episode of unbearable carnage is not at the ready to pounce at us all, at the least expected moment, we can again remind each other how monsters such as Franco, Hitler, Mussolini and so many others come to be. And how we’re breeding them and their followers by our disengagement, obliviousness, lack of empathy with the still breathing and living.
For as much as the memory of the dead and how they died may be inspirational and healing, it’s the fully alive that should be the target of our compassion and relentless pursuit of a, yes, Quixotic quest to achieve peace in this world. Stay safe and survive.

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7/10/2016 Hurt & Loathing in America, Colltalers

Racism. Police violence. Guns. Grief. Inequality. Americans have been desperately trying to find the words that’d lend sense to what happened last week. It’s an almost impossible task: it was not just one of its most brutal, but amid all the acrid smell of spilled blood and gunpowder, it also reeked of repetition and escalation.
When Alton Sterling, of Louisiana, and Philando Castille, of Minnesota, both black and unarmed young men, were shot and killed by cops, it ignited a visceral but expected countrywide reaction of anger and disgust. But then, a black Army vet ambushed and killed five Dallas policemen, and suddenly we landed on new territory.
America’s infected, festering wound, which in over two centuries, never quite healed, is once again bleeding, and while racism oozes, society agonizes in pain, trapped in a vicious cycle with no discerning end. Many of us commiserate, grieving either direct or indirectly, over why we’re still stuck in this, even though we know very well why.
For most of us know exactly why and what has to be done to end this madness. But just as we watch hopelessly another unjustifiable killing followed by another massacre, we remain numb and desensitized, convinced that there’s little that can be done, and what there is won’t be probably put into effect, even if hell and high water is all we see.
A self-defeating delusion, to be sure, but one that holds some logic to it, since it’d take more than the proverbial ‘little things’ often invoked by shallow policymakers, as needed to stop the bleeding. For the whole country has to be on the same page about racism, and police bias, and rampant criminality, and disfranchisement, and disconnect.
They were all or in part at full display in Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, and Dallas this past week. Arguably, the worst part of being hurt is to be aware that the best solution to stop it is not even an option. Like the pain of even a flesh-wound gun shot in the arm, which could easily go away if the limb were severed, but who’s ready for that?
So we endure and grieve and regress to basic feelings of anger and frustration, rather than hoping beyond hope that we’ll ever be in the same page about race and class inequality, inclusion and social justice. Thus the reason for that soldier to gave in to fake retribution and revenge, and winding up contributing to more collective misery.
The irony of America acting like a hurt teenager when facing such complex issues is the fact that we often not only lecture the world on exercising magnanimity when dealing with ethnic and social differences, but inflict and make it pay for our own contradictions. No wonder there’s little sympathy from abroad about this particular foe of ours.
Syrians, Iraqis, Palestinians, refugees, migrants, and a whole set of countries and regions that have been forced to host our wars, know that for every flesh wound, there’s a potential escalation into dismemberment and death; that the sound of battles is their only possible lullaby; and that help won’t be forthcoming unless it’s for our best interest.
Given that they’re bound to live with this sense of dread, this ever-present state of mortal danger, a reason for the world’s lack of empathy with our predicament may be the fact that it’s actually baffled by our impotence to heal. For isn’t this the very reason why we spend more than anyone else in defense, so to preserve peace in the homeland?
Instead, even our police departments resemble small armies, and mass killings are now as common and American as baseball and ingenuity once were. We’re searching for the right word, the correct tone, the adequate remedy to what essentially we’ve incorporated as integral to our D.N.A., our M.O.: we shoot, that’s what we do in the U.S.
We come up empty on this one. This post can’t offer comfort to the wounded and their broken social ties, without sounding itself hypocritical. Thus we share the pain. We’re hurting, we need to stop shooting, and there’s no way but down from now on. We know what needs to be done, and it must be done together. A better week to all.

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7/04/2016 Let’s Not Play Games in Rio, Colltalers

The beauty of Rio de Janeiro has been celebrated in song, dance, and literature. It’s the main cash cow of Brazil’s tourism industry. But in about a month, it may also be exposed as a symbol of Brazilian officials’ despicable disregard for the city’s natural treasuries.
When the 2016 Summer Olympics opens on Aug. 5, the expected half a million visitors may have a disturbing glance of what lies behind the world famous postcards of the gorgeous Guanabara Bay. Hint: they may have to literally cover their noses against the stench.
Two major failures can already be pointed about the preparation for these games, with potential to doom them or at least, mar their success: failure in dealing fairly with community relocation, and lack of environmental measures to address toxic and raw sewage pollution at sites cleared for building its facilities. These two factors may trigger a nightmare of security and health issues for both athletes and the public.
The games, which cap a decade of mega sport events in Brazil, starting in 2007 with the Pan American, and including the 2014 FIFA World Cup, were supposed to crown the country as a destination for world class competitions. Instead, it may be remembered for what clearly won’t be able to deliver: a safe and healthy environment for tourists and visitors, who’ll pay serious cash to attend them.
Part of the blame, if such a rare south-of-equator edition of the Olympics fails to meet expectations, may be entirely circumstantial: a worldwide economic slowdown, which provoked an unprecedented chain reaction in the Brazilian economy, irked millions into almost three years of non-stop street rallies, and caused a political and institutional crisis that culminated with a presidential impeachment.
By May, when democratically elected President Dilma Rousseff was ousted from office – in an ill-advised legislative coup, according to growing consensus – the project of turning Brazil into a mecca for global sport events was already in shambles, along with over a decade of government policies by then ruling Workers’ Party. The Games seem now reduced down to their dismissible, vanity-driven component.
There’s also the explosion of cases of microcephaly and other serious medical conditions caused by the outbreak of the mosquito-borne Zika virus. It’s become a major public health crisis in Brazil, along with the spreading of other, all too common infectious diseases.
Zika’s vector mosquito, aedes aegypty, however, has already been infecting Brazilians with dengue and yellow fever for decades now. So the crisis wreaking havoc in Brazil is mainly caused by chronic lack of funds for prevention and poor decisions made by health officials.
For such a catastrophic prospect to be looming so large over the event there must have been a prior, long-standing lack of engagement, despite the optimistic rhetoric, by those in charge of completing the facilities, and assuring the physical integrity of everyone involved.
Such lackadaisical attitude is behind the reportedly rampant corruption of politicians, contractors and local authorities, while Rio remains a giant construction lot with no sign that all needed infrastructure and organization will be up and running by the opening ceremony.
Allegations of massive evasion of investments continue to pour in, just as they had before and during the World Cup. Thus, it’s fair to expect that, after Aug. 21, a similar assortment of useless, half-finished structures, will be left behind, but none of the promised potential lasting benefits to disrupted communities, and that were integral to the sales pitch that brought the Games to Brazil in the first place.
Cynics would say that it’s all part of the old Brazil that’s back, the one once run by an authoritarian regime and a cast of technocrats, its picked winners, oblivious to systemic political violence, and always eager to go to bat for a phony public image of a well-adjusted society.
As if to pour some salt on old wounds, some would even volunteer the fact that then, at least, Brazil used to win World Cups. As if in some fantasy recreation of the old order, winning sport tournaments was all that it’d take to make that a nation of contented people.
Somehow this picture of a Brazil that no longer exists must be rejected, as it’s painted by a minority who profits on common despair and refuses to be accountable. Despite the recent string of incredibly questionable decisions, the average Brazilian citizen today is much wiser.
There may not be, unfortunately, rescue for these games, even though crowds will certainly roar and athletes will surely put their best foot forward. There may flaws, and mishaps, and lamentable incidents involving trusting foreign tourist. There will be a few embarrassing moments that will shame decent Brazilians, and momentarily set back the world’s goodwill, all before the medals will be given away.
Then again, it’s time to leave sport metaphors behind, and demand more than trophies, if we’re to have a better nation coming back from dire straits. Because if it does, it’ll won’t be for accolades but for justice as every Brazilian deserves a better country to call his or her own.
Rio is not London, is not Vancouver, or Sydney. Just a few years ago, Brazil itself was closer than it’d ever been of being considered part of the world’s elite nations. It was close but didn’t get to smoke the cigar, which says something about what’s it’s still missing to get there.
With all due respect to sport lovers, tourists, and Brazilian admirers, there are many way more important issues to be addressed right now, including matters of life and death. So if a competition, which was primarily pursued to showcase the country’s image and natural good fortune, eventually fails to convey that high-falutin ideal of competence and progress, so be it. It’ll be different, and better, next time.
As for Zika, help may be on the way. These days, mosquito-transmitted diseases are no longer monopoly of warmer places; the whole world is much warmer now. So they will happen for sure, everywhere, but there’ll be more people invested in fighting their outbreaks.
Finally, make no mistake: there’s great valor in the personal stories of dedication and redemption that always come out of the Olympics. They reassure us of our innate ability to pick ourselves up by the bootstraps and fight to leave a positive mark on this world. Who can argue against that? They’re just not everything that counts, or non athletes would have an even harder time picking themselves up in the morning.
All we can hope is for a safe Olympics, and that deserving winners reach their marks, and nobody gets hurt, and that Daesh and their scum continue to ignore Brazil. Other than that, we most likely won’t be keeping track of the games. Viva the Fourth and be as hot as July.

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6/27/2016 When to Leave Is Not a Choice, Colltalers

The overweight adjectives keep piling up, even after four days of the referendum that determined the U.K.’s exit of the European Union. Stunning, shocking, astonishing. And so are the dire predictions about market turmoil and the grim economic outlook.
But while pundits are beside themselves trying to explain what happened Thursday and what happens next, it is another important event that took place in the same day that may have, potentially, a greater impact on the U.S. and likely Europe itself.
A deadlocked Supreme Court blocked President Obama’s plan to prevent millions of undocumented Americans from being deported. The court’s lack of a ninth, decisive vote thus put a final nail on the president’s two-term effort to play a meaning role in the great, unresolved drama of immigration in the U.S. This issue is thus dead here, at least until there’s a new White House resident.
The U.K. out of the E.U. has certainly serious implications, and it happened for several reasons. But the populism behind it is as illogical and baseless as a certain presidential candidate’s support to it, all the way from the other side of the pound. They share a similar, xenophobic rhetoric about immigrants robbing natives of jobs. The fact that they’re not doesn’t seem to have been a factor.
But since everyone and their forgetful aunt are on a 24/7 blabbing mode, guessing the decision’s impact on everything, from global trade to TV series Game of Thrones, we’ll return briefly to it in a moment. For unlike Brexit, immigration is the overriding issue here.
There are over 41 million foreign-born people living in the U.S., and a multiple of that number who are related by blood to immigrants. Then there are the 11 million-plus, referred to in one of the most vile speeches by a U.S. presidential contender in history, who have no papers. President Obama was trying to address only a fraction of them through an executive order.
Many are born here, and according to the Labor Dept., most work and pay taxes, but for a variety of reasons don’t qualify as residents through current laws. They are not seasonal workers or live in the U.S. with academic or working visas; they simply have American families and social connections. And no criminal record. What they don’t have, though, is a hefty banking account.
In fact, many relatives of the Chinese ruling elite, or kids of Russian oligarchs, and even family members of notorious African despots, along jet-setters and playboys, do have U.S. Green Cards, on the sheer strength of their possibly spurious wealth, no questions asked. Many are still to set foot on the multimillion luxury condos they own in New York, or even speak English.
Regardless. Those familiar with the immigration issue, in any country, are used to dealing with policies suffused with hyperbole and grandstanding. They are usually designed to filter people not on the base of their worthiness but on the depth of their pockets.
The politicians in the Capitol Hill, as well as Supreme Court justices, have nothing to fear from the undocumented workers they consistently deny a fair shot at the so-called America Dream, even when they work on their kitchen or private golf courts. Except perhaps that when they are not around, breakfast may take a little bit longer, and the fruits and veggies are not great either.
But even abstracting the U.S.’s stature as the world’s biggest country of immigrants, or at least by far the most powerful, the way it’s been treating that almost quarter of its population, who speaks another language at home, is downright shameful. On that note, it’s inevitable to bring up what’s happening in Europe, which continues facing its biggest inflow of refugees since the war.
To many, the crisis may have exposed the E.U.’s callous approach to governing, interested only in the big savings the union would represent for corporations, and big profits for its financial system. In other words, two thousand years of political strife and ethnic hatred, but apparently there was no overall plan to deal with the social impact of suddenly tying up 28 different nations.
That’s when the American political elites’ betrayal of workers who happen to lack papers is so damaging to the U.S. For it’s another lost opportunity to compassionately lead the world, with the big plus of not having to deal with the same complications faced by Europe.
Instead of being the ones that used to say, Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free, we’re now the kind that asks you, point blank, Do you have any cash? That attitude only renders us impotent to have a say in a world to be blanketed by billions of dispossessed people, driven from one corner to the other; we, like the E.U., have nothing constructive to add.
Startling is the fact that the U.K. has been dealing with immigration issues way before the E.U. was formed. Shocking is the fact that the biggest Google search in England, Wales, Scotland and the Irelands, right after the vote, was about what the hell is the E.U. And astonishing, or not so much, is Germany, France, and other nations having already asked the U.K., why are you still here?
The 51.9% may have been sold a rotten bag of goods, and a lot of them are sporting a sore case of buyer’s regret. But chances are, it’s as a done deal as Prime Minister John Cameron’s tenure. As he was swallowed by his own political ambition, he may have managed not just to open the door for a possible return of the Labour Party to power, but also to implode the whole kingdom.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has signaled that the country may try to reverse Brexit. Since that seems remote at best, given the quickly unravel taking place in Europe, she may instead lead another go at independence from the U.K. Then, perhaps Wales will follow suit, and Northern Ireland will reunite with Ireland and… wait, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Sorry.
It’s really impossible to predict where it’ll all lead us, and pundits should prepare extra lozenges to babble a bit more. Sadly, what’s not going to happen, though, is the U.S. taking a leading role in the issue of immigration, starting at home, of course, in what may be the eve of great mass movements of refugees and landless hordes. Unlike Britons, they were never offered a choice. Have a great one.

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6/20/2016 The Amazon’s Biggest Foe, Colltalers

The Amazon Waters Conference in Lima, Peru, and the World Economic Forum, in Medellin, Colombia, which happened over the weekend, may have offered a limited view of the outlook for environmental policies in the continent, in the next few years.
One reaffirmed the commitment of over a dozen global entities along a few governments to preserve the Amazon basin, home of one out of every ten species in the world. The other was about finding economic opportunities for corporations with interests in the region.
The two views, not necessarily exclusionary of each other, exist in the context of profound political and economic changes taking place in Latin America right now. Given recent developments, it’s fair to expect that environmental efforts will be conditioned to their ability to generate returns to investors, despite studies showing the important link between the Amazon basin and global climate changes.
This flippant attitude toward conservation of natural resources, although not new, is fatal for such a large and yet fragile ecosystem as the Amazon. Human occupation when guided solely by commercial interests and profit is the very reason the rainforest is now shrinking at a variable but still unsustainable high rate. It’s the biggest enemy conspiring to the survival of million of species.
Things may get worse with the sharp right turn happening in many countries below the equator. After a dozen years, out are the left-leaning governments that prioritized social programs, and back in is a new crop of technocrats, eager to appease multinationals and wealth investors’ needs. It’s a new morning in South America and by heavens and the I.M.F., it looks very much like 20 years ago.
To be sure, not all of the political parties that ruled the first decade or so of this century in Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Colombia, and others, including Central America, were left-wing. Neither they severed ties with the international capital during their brief moment in the sun. Also, many of them had poor or not very well-thought environmental policies to speak of during that time.
But as the new leaders establish their priorities, with like-minded others to potentially follow, there are concerns that their business background will determine the weight that preservation and care of the nine-country Amazon forest will receive.
The final document of the Lima conference sets a list of seven goals, from expanding ecosystem management to promoting more research, and some of the biggest threats to the basin, such as pollution, exploitation of natural resources and invasive species.
By numbers, the whole system is staggering large, some three million square miles, and richly diverse, with indigenous peoples, plants and species, some yet to be discovered. It’s also central to the statute of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the conference’s host.
Threats are many, and interests, powerful. Gold mining, deforestation, giant dams, basic human occupation, all cause the forest to lose the equivalent to two soccer fields a minute, according to Reuters data. The analogy is fitting, easy to relate to, and also, incredibly sad.
Another lethal threat, not mentioned on the Lima document, is directed at those fighting to preserve it: the threat of being murdered. Only in 2014, 29 environmentalists were killed in Brazil, and 25 in Colombia, to cite two. Most of those crimes remain unpunished.
The World Economic Forum, on the other hand, attracted over 500 participants to discuss Reigniting Latin America’s Inclusive Growth. It’s an interesting choice of words for a title of a conference presided, from Geneva via video link, by its founder, Klaus Schwab.
He exhorted the array of corporate chiefs (no civil or independent parties) present to prepare for the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution,’ which will offer ‘consequence and opportunities for the region, particularly in terms of required skills.’ And praised the example of Medellin’s recovery, since Colombia started discussions (in Havana, Cuba) about a permanent state of peace with the guerrilla Farcs.
We all know the enormous growth potential that Latin America has always had. The problem is that such a promise of a completely industrialized continent, made since, well, at least the first Industrial Revolution, has been broken one too many times. And one of the reasons for that may be exactly this business-first approach that seems to be back in vogue, defended by the region’s new leaders.
It’s a model that requires increased debt, heavy capital inflows and little regulation, projects based on corporate and not local community needs, and above all, reliance on a strongman political regime, of the kind the continent was known for most of the 20th century.
No wonder the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are also back in most conversations about ‘rescuing’ Latin America for business. Even the concept that the region is in need to corporate rescue may be arguable. For little can be accomplished by propping up subsidies and agricultural firms, or open yet more local units, their usual M.O., while global commodity prices remain under pressure.
What’s needed is another kind of model, one that considers wider access and structural changes in education, development of new technologies, and focus on a more diversified trade balance. And that, to a certain extent, was already part of the region’s ‘great left experiment’ that never was. Ironically, under left-leaning Workers’ Party (PT), Brazil, for one, was at its most ‘business friendly’ mode.
Again, the ideal may be some kind of combination of the two. But for the nine nations sharing this extraordinary set of natural resources
that is the Amazon basin, the answer may be well beyond a signed document with a summit of wealth corporations to back it up.
Ultimately, a coordinate effort to nurture and protect the Amazon requires the participation of all nations, not just those nine. After all, we don’t even understand yet why it’s there, what it contains, and what exactly does to keep global climate trends under check.
But if we were to neglect it to extinction, not even all the efforts of every single individual, country and corporation, if that would be even possible, would be enough to bring it back. Most likely, we’d be extinct well before even trying. Enjoy the sun but use protection.

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6/13/2016 Politics & Citizen Responsibility, Colltalers

There’s a common notion that all politics is dirty; every politician then can’t help it but being it too. Given what we read daily on the news, it’s a fair enough assumption. To understand it a bit beyond that, though, requires a great deal of soul searching and honesty.
It’s not always clear the connection between what elected representatives and people in power do, supposedly on our behalf, and how we conduct our personal business. It’s actually quite surprising to find out that often one world accurately reflects the other.
The issue is relevant as ever now that there are only five months until a new U.S. president takes the oath of office, and Americans seem deeply divided about what the two contenders, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, stand for. Or not.
It’s also an issue not restricted to the U.S. In fact, this link between what goes on in inner circles of power and in kitchens of citizens the world over can be easily traced elsewhere. And most readers of this column won’t mind that we pick Brazil, as a parallel.
A newly released research by Paris-based consultancy firm Ipsos, conducted in Brazil between April and May, showed that the traditional, and despicable, ‘jeitinho,’ – a way many Brazilians use to get around rules and regulations – is on the increase.
Of the 1,200 people interviewed in 72 cities, 62% admitted that they resorted to illegal practices to get their business done, in the past year, a jump from the 49% percent who did the same in 2014. That, despite another Ipsos study having indicated that 72% of a similar universe of interviewees believed that the operation Lava Jato, or Car Wash as it’s been called abroad, would help ‘clean up’ Brazil.
The Car Wash probe, started in 2014, when under-impeachment President Dilma Rousseff was still in office, went from investigating money laundering by officials to mismanagement at state-run oil giant Petrobras at a time when Rousseff was a member of its board.
The Ipsos findings are disturbing since for, two years now, Brazil’s been through political turmoil, allegedly because citizens got fed up with corruption at the higher echelons of power. That it wound up allowing a group of particularly corruption-tainted politicians to take charge of the country is a separate matter. What the research shows is that most people don’t see the personal-social connection.
To a few social scientists in Brazil, a more nuanced approach is to take the findings in the context of a failed economy, and the desperate need of citizens for services that the state no longer has been capable of providing on an equitable, and timely, manner.
So the jeitinho reflects the lack of options or simply the impossibility of getting anything done without it. To an already depleted medical and social structure, the turmoil couldn’t have come at worst time, specially to those at the bottom of the social ladder.
Others, defining jeitinho as a grey area where personal favor intersects with rule bending, are not so sympathetic. They noted that people interviewed belong to all social strata, including members of the upper classes, and professionals with cushy jobs and college degrees.
Be it as it may, it’s unfair to assign blame for the mess in Brasilia on hard working citizens, who need the state to do its part. On the other hand, they must take a harder look at that office equipment they’re taking home for the kids, or that overcharged bill they’re including in their income tax report, if they really don’t want to be perceived as doing exactly what the politicians they despise are doing.
Back to the U.S., is hard to find anyone who openly, and outside their familiar grounds, would call themselves racist, xenophobic, or intolerant. But given the right cues, many would rant at will about how we need to ‘take back’ this country (implying, from the black president), how Mexicans ‘steal’ American jobs, and why terror attacks ‘seem’ to be driven by devotion to the ‘wrong’ kind of god.
The worse part of this slippery slope of diatribe disguised as ‘straight talk,’ is the completely disregard to proven facts and scientific evidence that make each one of such assumptions not just false, but code words to justify violent action and the embrace of fascism.
Americans and Brazilians are deeply dissatisfied with the way politics is being conducted by those in power, who seem to be getting richer, and more oblivious to their plight, while the great majority sees their basic standards of living quickly deteriorating.
But they’re also both being manipulated by powerful elites, not necessarily of politicians, that are capitalizing on their rage to advance a self-serving, discriminatory agenda. Many wonder whether isn’t time already for a reawakening and a resetting of priorities.
It may not be easy to many to walk back on actions that still feel legitimate and morally sound. Or take personal responsibility for the moment, lost in the streets, when rallies ceased to be about principles, and became mere extensions of old political ideologies.
But such moment of reckoning must happen both in the U.S. and Brazil, and preferably very soon. This time, though, it may take place not in the streets, or not only there, but in the intimacy of our kitchens, which is where so many important decisions are made.
It may be implicit to politics to be dirty and amoral and pragmatic. But it’s an imperfect world and we all have choices to make. For a change, we should make sure to conduct our personal business with propriety, one that we certainly don’t expect from politicians.
That’s what gives voters the right to demand decency in exchange for their support. And what may turn the political process into a moral learning curve to every citizen. We’re mourning (again) in America so our thoughts go to those massacred by a gunman in Orlando, Fl.

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6/06/2016 Brazilian Women Take Charge, Colltalers

Brazil can’t seem to catch a break. After a convoluted impeachment process forced democratically elected President Dilma Rousseff to an 180-day leave, the vice president Michel Temer government, which has replaced her, has been an utter embarrassment.
Things got worse with news last week that a 16-year old was raped by some 33 men, not far from where the Rio Olympic Games take place from Aug. 5 on. Over the weekend, women organizations staged protests throughout the nation, as a sign of defiance.
It was a positive development, a show of strength from a crucial demographics that arguably stands to lose the most if Rousseff’s oust becomes permanent. Brazil’s first female president took several steps to address the ingrained problem of violence against women.
Rallying against what they called ‘the culture of rape,’ they seized the momentum of political uncertainty to highlight issues that ultimately affect and benefit the core of the population. The tragedy of rape, of violence against the vulnerable, is that it reveals the underbelly of society, the true stage of maturity, or lack thereof, of its citizenry. In Brazil, the picture is grim, to understate it.
We’ll get to some really cruel numbers, showing that rape is not the exception, but often the preferred power tool used by oppressors to impose their will. But first, let’s point to some of the underpinnings of this seemingly constant street rallies we’re seeing in Brazil. For since around 2013, with external economic conditions and Rousseff’s own lack of leadership conspiring to reverse the country’s ‘golden years’ she’d inherited from her predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, people had taken to the streets.
It was a fertile period for conspiracies. Congress’ multitude of parties and interests stopped supporting her proposed reforms, and opponents, smelling blood, began to believe they could defeat her on the pools the next year. They lost, as it was, but within those two years leading to her reelection, Rousseff totally spent whatever political capital she had left and went into a survival mode.
The culmination was the vicious chain of events that cost her job, at least temporarily; newly-revealed evidence of political treachery to depose her is now of little relevance. There’s an empty space at the center of Brazil’s government, and Temer’s cabinet, full of corrupted white men, along with himself, shows that’s hardly prepared to provide the country with a new start.
Along with that, there’s the deep-rooted, underlying violence of Brazilian society, marked by seemingly insurmountable social gaps between the haves and the have-nots, of which Rio serves as both stage and metaphor. If Workers’ Party (PT) supporters may claim 13 years of advances in income redistribution outside Brazil’s great capitals, they can’t say the same about urban areas.
Last October, a study by watchdog group Brazilian Forum of Public Security showed a high of 58,000 homicides in 2014 in Brazil, 3,000 more than 2013, with murder having top billing, followed by crimes committed by on and off duty policemen. Rio police’s ‘shoot first, ask question later’ credo is also the focus of Amnesty’s You Killed My Son report, released two months before.
Then, in January, Mexico’s own Citizens’ Council for Public Security came up with the world’s 50 most dangerous cities, 21 of which are in Brazil. And you thought two-punch disease zica mosquito was enough of a threat to those who are going to the games. Also, just like everywhere, many think that the solution for this bullet-ridden homicidal wave is… more guns. That’s right. There are some who want to relax Brazilian gun-control laws, which compared to the U.S., land of daily massacres, are considered very strict.
While the sheer power of these statistical figures are in sharp contrast with Brazil’s persistent image of tropical, i.e., sex paradise, they become a national security problem when one adds specific studies about the violence, and murder rates, involving women.
In November, the Latin American Social Science Institute published Homicide of Women in Brazil, which showed that an average of 13 women has been killed every day since 2013, 21% more than a decade before, with one aggravating factor: black or mixed raced women – Brazil’s majority of female population – were 54% more likely to be murdered that year than in 2003.
The report corroborated the disturbing trend that was also evident in the 2014 study, by the same group. Then, murders within black, or rather non-white, i.e., most Brazilians, communities had increased ‘only’ 29%, while dropping 25% among whites. It’s also worth noting that in Brazil, about 49 million black women represent 53% of the population, while their white counterparts, 45%.
But it is rape that is so emblematic of Brazil’s brutal social and gender differences. One woman is raped every 11 minutes in the land of laidback samba lovers. Probably more, because is the type of crime that often goes under reported, out of fear or simply lack of access for help. A great percentage of it takes place at home, by those they love and trust: husbands, companions, and even fathers.
The Applied Economics Research Institute (IPEA) reports that one in every 200 women in Brazil, or about 527,000, have been victim of some form of sexual violence. Besides the trauma that can trigger life-long addiction, prostitution, and worse, rape is also at the root of heart-wrenching social woes, like public shaming and child pregnancy, since abortion is still mostly illegal in Brazil.
The impoverished teenager, whose horrific ordeal was recorded and broadcast on social media by her tormentors, was initially discredited on her claims. She was publicly accused of having either made up the story or somehow ‘provoked’ the aggressors.
Until the police chief in charge was removed from the case, the investigation was slowly going nowhere, even though the Internet was teeming with insults against the victim. He even declared at certain point that there was only ‘suspicion’ of violence, implying that she had invited the 33 – he disputed that figure too. (Asked what she expected from them, though, she answered, ‘a daughter.’)
But despite this disheartening scenario, a way too familiar collision of extreme poverty, illiteracy, violence against the vulnerable, and police insensitivity, the public rallies that popped up all over Brazil were a good sign that women won’t take it all down.
Not this time, it seems. The episode, and the furor that it caused in the Brazilian media, was also seen as a boost to Rousseff, and the few achievements of her administration. Suddenly, even women who a few months ago were out asking for her oust, realized what her presidency really represented to Brazil, which has been internationally recognized by the advances of its pro-women policies.
For the record, only with PT in power Lei Maria da Penha, and Lei do Feminicídio, two laws giving teeth to legislation to protect women, became possible. The same with other programs dear to Rousseff, focused on the physical integrity and dignity of women, including the Casa da Mulher, a shelter system for violence victims, and the free help hotline Ligue 180, now disque-denúncia.
The pressure is now on the interim government to preserve and enlarge such programs, so negative stats like those mentioned are not so sadly mind boggling, and rape is no longer part of what Brazil has to offer, along beautiful beaches and friendly weather.
There as in the U.S. and the rest of the world, so-called ‘women issues’ are, in fact, humankind issues. Income equality, respect to the individual, housing, health care, free and safe abortion, and decent jobs are all essential for everyone to thrive. Women, however, are the ones usually on the vanguard of the fight for them. And they too often pay a terrible price for it. Have a great one.

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5/30/2016 Forgetting to Remember, Colltalers

With the staggering amount of money and hours we as a society spent on entertainment, of the escapist ‘dropping it out and letting it all go’ kind, it seems an anachronism to call it Memorial Day. For most Americans, today’s just the beginning of summer, period.
But even as the bulk of the population now has hardly any personal ties to the reason why we honor Veterans at all, the day itself still fulfills a relevant purpose, all political grandstanding notwithstanding. It’s a necessary reminder of what we tend to forget.
Throughout the day, judging by the parades, the crowded military cemeteries, even the cynical speeches, there may be a hint that we’re celebrating those killed by the ever increasing conflicts the U.S. has been involved in. Without it, not even such a day would exist.
As for remembering why they were killed in the first place, it’s been a while since that’s become a considerable muddier issue. If wars ever made sense, they’re incomprehensible now without weighting in their business ‘angle,’ and downgrading their moral motivations.
Demographics is no longer a factor, as the U.S. armed forces don’t represent a meaningful swath of the population, in sheer numbers, anymore. That’s probably why it’s so easy these days for Americans to forget those fighting on their behalf, in faraway lands, or that Vets are among a growing contingent of mentally unstable, homeless men and women left to rot on the streets by a failed system.
No wonder there are very few business leaders, politicians, even elected officials, who are ex-combatants from contemporary wars, in positions of power. Most Vets, when not struggling themselves, or even if they are, are fighting from the outside, for rights and general compassion for their fellow comrades
from the part of the rest of Americans, whose thoughts today are mostly on BBQs and time off.
With the economy shifting back to an era supposedly buried a century ago – where workers had no vacation time to plan for, no 40-hour workweek, and jobs came with no benefits – most can count on their fingers the number of days they can afford to take off. Not many. So it’s your guess what those luck enough to have today off are thinking about right now. And who can blame them?
The official opening of beach season in the U.S. won’t disappoint anyone; they’ll be crowded by a deserving horde. And so will parks and block fairs, for those who can’t afford it otherwise. There are certainly a few superhero flicks to spend an obscene amount on too.
War, like the one being fought in Afghanistan by future Vets, only occasionally makes it to an above-the-fold newspaper headline. Even Daesh, the murderous militia created by the disastrous Iraq invasion, struggle to come up with ever more shock-value acts to attract the world’s attention. And President Obama’s honorable, if somewhat short on purpose, visit to Hiroshima also failed to remind most Americans of WWII, whose dwindling Vets deserve to be honored by more than a holiday upstaged by a season’s symbolic change.
So, since we’re constantly having to be reminded to remember, we can surely use a day to meditate on what it means to live in a country whose presidential candidates have such cavalier war views. After all, neither them nor anyone of their kin may ever have to face combat.
In fact, war does not figure in anyone’s platform, among those running to the White House. Which is disturbing given the $600-plus proposed Pentagon budget one of them will have to deal with, and none has promised to challenge it. Which it also figures.
Out of the left field, comes this idea that people forgetting about things, about their past, about history, has something to do with rise of the extreme right in the world. It’s a crazy enough idea to leave you to ponder on today, since we may eventually forget all about.
Some link this thirst for a strongman that we’re witnessing, with growing despair, in Europe, Latin America, Africa, as well as steady support for the ones they’ve already got, like in Russia, Turkey, and now, sadly, in the U.S. presidential campaign, with that general lack of memory. And we’re not going to blame it all on the entertainment industry, as callous as their business practices may be.
It may be more related to a disconnect with the past, with more people being alive today, who have spent all their lives in the cushioned accommodation of democracy, even of the flawed kind, that simply can’t imagine how much blood was spilled on its buildup.
For instance, most Americans can’t compare the tactics used by white supremacists, who suddenly see a U.S. presidential contender they can rally behind, with the Brown Shirts in Italy, or Nazism in Germany, during the 1930s, because they either haven’t been taught in depth about Mussolini and Hitler, or even spent enough hours at school to get to the facts behind the pop icons they’ve both become.
In Austria, Brazil, Peru, or Gambia, the largest contingent of voters may be the most critically misinformed of the electorate, but they’ve done enough to drive their countries back to a road very well known to many we’re honoring today. Who are old and going.
Memories that we create are vital to our mental health, thus the vital need to take time off, and be merry, and simply enjoy oneself almost mindlessly. But nations can’t afford to lose their memories. And that depends on relaying them to new generations.
With so much pressure into education to be a means to a profitable profession, and so little invested in what learning from a collective experience means to our civilization, much has been left out. Not the least of it, why critical education is so essential to a community, an ethnicity, an entire country. Thus we most definitely need more more than a day per year to remember what we are all about.
This Memorial Day, by all means, let’s honor those who took bullets on our behalf, regardless of why they were sent to do it in the first place. But let’s not forget to also remember why it’s crucial to learn how we all got here. It means more than to follow a series saga till its finale. For a country is always in season, and as a work in progress, it relies upon what we remember of it. Have a great summer.

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5/23/2016 Of U.S. Voter Dilemmas, Colltalers

Americans have now three candidates, and six months, to choose who should be the new president. Trump is all but certain on the Republican side, while Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have still some slaughter to do against each other.
But theirs has been the rational side of discussions on race, foreign policy, the economy, and challenges facing the U.S., in sharp contrast to the likely GOP nominee’s speeches, heavy on diatribes and light on policy, despite a free wall-to-wall media coverage.
So we’ll skip commenting on, say, his refusal to declare his income taxes, and focus instead of what seems to be a familiar aspect of presidential contests around the world, but relatively new in the U.S.: choose with your heart or with your mind?
For none of the contenders to President Obama succession, despite glaring vote dominance of one over the other, has stamped the July convention ticket just yet. Yet, their campaigns offer insights of what we expect from our political leaders, and ultimately, what defines us as citizens making a choice towards the future. Besides, obviously, their richer background compared to Trump.
They both offer a historic first for America, and one different than what the president himself represented in 2008: Clinton would be the first female, and Sanders, the first Jew, to be elected president, two counts the U.S. is sorely trailing behind the world.
That is no small feature. Instead of choosing another white, rich male, Americans may be making a statement about race and gender. That, while still a work in progress within society, either is no longer an excuse to vet anyone aiming at higher office.
However, zeroing on the public perception about two different government and leadership views, proposed by Clinton and Sanders, is an even bigger issue. For it resonates with the way we make our most intimate, and crucial, daily decisions.
How we strike an effective balance between what we feel passionate about, and what we believe possible to be achieved, is everyone’s challenge. We all get blindsided sometimes by being too eager to see through something we’ve dreamt about for too long, or by excessive caution and lack of daring to ask for what we really want. In both cases, we have to live with the consequences.
We’re talking about perception, of course. As individuals, Clinton and Sanders seem perfectly capable of making important decisions by a combination of passion and rationality, which is, at the end of the day, what we expect from our leaders anyway.
But as such, they represent something beyond their individualities. And to those following closely this long and winding presidential campaign, they sit in parallel ideals of what the next White House occupant should be. And that is important.
Even before her defeat to Barack Obama, when she was an outspoken but publicly humbled first lady, Clinton has followed a well recognized curve of apprenticeship, which led her to become an accomplished, and elected, member of the president’s cabinet.
Along the process, her political ambitions and determination became clear, but also her preparedness to the biggest job she’ll ever want to have. These days, despite struggling in the warm and sympathy category, no one questions her knowledge of the issues.
That’s been serving her well in the campaign. The way she’s constantly questioned, and comes up with pondered, insightful opinions on a variety of relevant themes is admirable, all the slips and momentary returns to prefab answers being considered.
From the start, she’s done her homework. She’s the pragmatic candidate; flawed, questionable, and not exactly conveying sincerity in her public appearances. But one whose reassuring thick-skin approach may be what’s necessary to the job at hand.
By far, the most remarkable aspect of the Sanders candidacy has been its ability to enrapture his supporters. In fact, if it wasn’t for candidate Obama’s own take-the-country-by-storm campaign, eight years ago, this would be the most passionate on record.
In common, both Obama’s and Sanders’ campaigns share an underlying theme of integrity, of moral correctness, that arguably hadn’t been linked to a candidate since Jimmy Carter. His socialist-infused speeches have injected a humanistic soul in this campaign.
Despite being older than Clinton, it is Sanders too who enjoys stronger support on the Internet, Twitter, and other social networks. YouTube clips of the Senator, going back almost four decades, have been a refreshing testament to his unwavering character.
Lastly, he exudes genuine passion to the challenges he’s proposing to tackle. His is not a clinical view of government, and his plain talk style has spoken deeply to a despondent young, urban generation, who seems invested in making a difference.
All and all, two outstanding candidates, worth to succeeding the president in his quest to reposition America as the land of hope and tolerance. And that’s how their campaigns can be perceived as choosing a pragmatic approach, or a passionate one. In reality, we won’t choose solely based on that, and whatever we get, whoever wins, won’t be stuck with one or other approach either.
But placing Clinton and Sanders under different aspects of the human experience – the need to think hard and make decisions based on evidence, and the importance of caring, of following the intuition about things – may be useful to inform our choice.
We need integrity, respect to the truth, and deep connection being restored to the political process. As well as we need to consider even the malodorous aspects related to govern 350 million people and inspire other several billions around the world. In all, one thing is for sure. That’s the sharp contrast mentioned before, in relation to the Trump campaign. And we definitely sign on for that.
Let’s leave to another column to elaborate on potential shortcomings of both Clinton and Sanders for closing the deal, as the campaign progresses, and the GOP internal differences become less obvious. And may heaven preserve our sanity to endure it all.
In the meantime, we must not lose sight of what the world needs now, and from now on, and the possible consequences resulting of the decision we’re about to take next November, at the polls. For there’s never been so much at stake. Have a great one.

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5/16/2016 Brazil’s Self-Inflicted Wound, Colltalers

There was a moment of utter amusement, amid the long, chaotic and distorted process that culminated with Brazilian parliamentarians voting to impeach President Dilma Rousseff: it was last Monday, when the impeachment was annulled.
And just as swift, the moment evaporated, and the process to put an 180-day break in Rousseff’s 18-month second term, one that started with over 54 million votes in October 2014, was back on track. In the meantime, there’s a self-appointed government in place.
More that in a minute, but first a recap of Brazil’s current political woes. For instance, the author of the unexpected act, Waldir Maranhão, is a virtually unknown deputy who only became lower house’s speaker because its titular, and Rousseff’s executioner, the infamous Eduardo Cunha, had been himself impeached. In case you’re wondering, yes, Maranhão is also accused of corruption.
(Apparently, Russian dolls-like model is another thing Brazil shares with Russia, besides being part of the BRICS trade bloc.)
Let’s quickly summarize what the international press has been reporting, often with gross generalizations, about Brazil’s turmoil: Rousseff is being impeached for alleged manipulation of fiscal numbers, and other decisions, to make the economy look a bit better just in time for her reelection. The fact that none are impeachable crimes hasn’t prevented her opposition from building its case.
About that opposition: 60% of the 594 Congressmen (including few of PT’s 57 block) are accused of bribery, kidnapping, and murder, but are shield by laws some of them helped write. No one seems to do time for illegal enrichment, i.e., secret Swiss banking accounts, the most common charge. Cunha is but a poster boy for a widespread habit of politicians all over, and Brazilians in particular.
Ironically, despite headline-grabbing huge corruption schemes plaguing government and elected officials, such as kickbacks linked to the privatization of public companies in the 1990s, and the Mensalão after the Workers’ Party (PT) came into power, in 2003, it was that party’s rule what finally ignited a string of serious probes that did land some big corporate and political big wings in jail.
None among those who voted for Rousseff’s impeachment, however, are likely to follow suit. A who-is-who of Brazilian dark stars of political corruption, they include among others current and four-time Senate President, Renan Calheiros, an éminence grise from a party that’s been the definition of what means to be an éminence grise in Brazilian politics for over 40 years, PMDB.
Founded when a military dictatorship was still in control of Brazil, in the 1960s, the then called MDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement in loose translation) more than a party, was a congregation of opponents to the authoritarian regime. In the era of the ‘for us or against us,’ it was the sole party to shelter a dizzying array of libertarian ideas, under the ‘fighting to restore democracy’ umbrella.
But even before the militaries returned to the barracks, in 1985, it’d already drowned into an undistinguished ideological mud. In place of clear ideological principles, it had become the unavoidable stop to every coalition on its way to power, in Brazil, with a growing constituency of king makers and political warlords to match. The PT had to enlist the PMDB to get elected, which it did.
It’s now Brazil’s biggest party to never having elected a president, and doesn’t even offer contenders to the position. But enough of boring behind-the-scenes machinations, the power behind the power in Brazil, that animates only those personally invested into it.
No one is mourning the death of idealism at the core of the PMDB, the party of interim Brazilian President, Michel Temer, who pushed the rug under Rousseff by withdrawing its support from her coalition and, you’ve guessed, is also accused of corruption.
One word about Brazil’s judiciary, led by Supremo Federal Tribunal, which has had a less than stellar role in the impeachment process that has paralyzed the nation for almost two years now. It has been startling hesitant, and frightening agreeable with the blatant flaws of the entire movement to remove Rousseff from power. And now, in the push to incriminate her sponsor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Still possessing a respectable mandate among a majority of Brazilians, not in little part from his accomplishments as a two-term president, Lula has faced a relentless barrage of accusations since his first term, that only now are beginning to take their toll.
To PT’s opposition, it was always clear that the way to get to the Palácio da Alvorada, site of Brazil’s government in Brasília, was to defeat Lula. But that was never an option at the polls in four consecutive elections; the contention was only close in 2014.
Thus, according to some, the campaign mocking his lack of college education and humble origins (the first president from the impoverished Northeast). But despite allegations that he owns multimillion-dollar farms and properties, his vacation croft in São Paulo state is estimated to have cost less that a hundred thousand reais, to make it habitable, well within his presidential wages.
But if that, and other assets under his name or one of his kids, are but a fraction of the $40+ million Cunha is believed to hold in Switzerland, it was enough for the public prosecutor to order the federal police to publicly arrest and parade Lula in March.
An ongoing investigation into state-run Petrobras involves Rousseff and prominent politicians of PSDB, PT’s biggest opponent, and party of former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Since its creation, in the 1940s, the oil giant has been a cash cow to the government, used as a convenient flush fund. The two-year old current probe, though, is not exactly about that. Enough said.
As for the PSDB, Cardoso, and other would-be presidents with invested interest in demoting the status quo, they all witnessed with dismay the opportunity to return to Brasilia being snatched away by the old foxes of PMDB. But don’t cry for them just yet.
When Maranhão stunned his own party, announcing the annulment of Rousseff’s impeachment based on a procedural rationale, he caught not just the president by surprise, but even jurists who have found fatal flaws in the process, and denounced its political character. None had been enlisted for his support, and Maranhão’s motion fell through under its own phony gravitas.
Needless to say, he’s done for the near future, but one never knows: in Brazilian politics, it’s been open season to the bizarre and the unpredictable. To have a pale idea, one of Rousseff’s few supporters is former president Fernando Collor de Mello, who was also impeached in the 1990s, but by proven evidence that he embezzled and broke the law while in office. He’s again facing inquiries.
This past week, Brazilians already had a glimpse of what a Temer administration will look like. His all-white, all-male ministry took the oath of office, while measures to cut down government jobs and a profound retooling of the economy were announced.
That means that, beside the immediate end to diversity in the upper echelons of government, something else more sinister may be apace. Even while declaring that PT’s groundbreaking social programs, which lifted millions from extreme poverty and enlarged the country’s middle class, won’t suffer budget cuts, the beast will be starved by not having enough public servers to manage the system.
Soon enough, cuts may be all but inevitable. And since declining global commodity prices and a faltering trade balance don’t show signs of relenting, the same ills that strangled Rousseff’s economic strategy may force the country towards a sharp austerity turn.
In others words, is not hard to imagine that Brazil will soon be knocking on the World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s doors, which it hasn’t done since the 1990s. That is, for all senses and purposes, it’ll be the 1990s again in Brazil, as inflation is already there.
But such a somber prospect doesn’t have to come into fruition. Rousseff may as well be done, but a new generation of Brazilians, who grew up with PT’s liberal policies, anti-discrimination laws, the affirmative action that allowed an unprecedented number of blacks and minorities into higher education, is coming to age now, and may push to keep what it helped the country to achieve.
Ultimately, it’ll be up to them, along with progressive segments of society, to make this er interruption be just that, a momentary lapse of reason. And two years from now vote again to chose who they want to lead the nation back to the future. Have a great one.

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5/09/2016 Legal Drugs & the American Pain, Colltalers

Since the early 2000s, there’s been an explosion of overdoses and suicides in the U.S. And those affected don’t fit the ‘war on drugs’ template, of illegal trade and victimized minorities, which corrupted law enforcers, enriched a few, and wrecked the life of millions.
Drugs involved now are mostly legally prescribed, and manufactured in sophisticated labs, not shacks in South American jungles. And many, who are getting hooked and ultimately poised by them, are middle-aged, former middle-class professionals, driven by despair.
Two separate statistical studies – about overdoses by prescription opioid pain relievers, and suicides by impoverished white Americans – help shed some light on this alarming trend, even as there isn’t yet scientific research establishing a link between the findings.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2001 and 2014, there has been a jump in lethal overdoses of prescription opioids, from less than 6,000 to almost 20 thousand, and rising. And from 1999 to 2013, a study by Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, 2014 Nobel laureates, showed a spike of 20% in the rate of suicides of white Americans, aged 45 to 54.
Even without comprehensive research on these data, other stats have shown that they intersect, revealing a troubling trend of life in the U.S., circa 21st century. The CDC has its own figures for suicides and they somehow converge to those of Case and Deaton.
For instance, while deaths by own hand haven’t changed for younger and older people, there was a noticeable rise of 28 percent for those between 35 and 64 years old, from 1999 to 2010, and in the case of whites, a 40 percent increase in the same period.
The focus on race, in this case white, is appropriated, because of the general perception that it’s the one with the most privileges. That’s been true for over two centuries, and the fact that U.S. demographics have changed so much in the past decades may offer a clue to the causes behind the trend. But there are others too, concerning gender, race and ethnicity, that speak of the U.S. as a whole.
The most dramatic is, of course, income inequality. By now, we’re all cognizant about how a ridiculously small percentage of the world population controls half of its wealth, including material possessions and natural resources. In the U.S., the lucky top 0,1% individuals, worth as much as the struggling bottom 90%, could all fit in a commute bus. But they’d probably refuse to board it.
What they’re unlikely to refuse is to invest in pharmaceutical companies, among the most profitable industries of the past decades, along their relatives of sort, healthcare insurers, banking and finance, food corporations, and weapon manufacturers.
In fact, according to Statista, pharma’s worldwide revenue went from over $390 billion in 2001, to almost a trillion in 2014. Given that not many major diseases have been eradicated in the period, and considering the increased prescription drug use, and abuse, is not hard to get the picture: we’re being sold annually an ever more expensive aspirin, while our health continues to fare poorly.
The recent breakthrough in the treatment of Hepatitis C, for instance, offers a glimpse of the appalling state of healthcare in the U.S. And how the better and shorter-term therapy isn’t likely to help most of the estimated world’s 150 million afflicted by the disease.
A cure for the virus, which causes progressive liver damage, possible cancer, and need for transplant, was finally reached with a new drug combination, centered on Gilead Sciences’ Sovaldi. Besides reducing treatment to three months, from an average two years or never, in case of complications, the drug was also hailed for lack of severe side effects linked to old treatments. Great, right?
Well, you haven’t heard how much the lab is charging a pill: $1,000, $84 thousand for the entire treatment. Now guess how many of those already infected have the financial means, or a reasonable healthcare plan, to afford the treatment. Which means few having access to it, whose condition will remain a burden to the country’s already overextended and underfunded public health system.
Speaking of access to affordable health care, regardless of what Obamacare has accomplished, is still out of reach to older workers, who, no longer having jobs with benefits, are contractors, another pearl of archaic labor practices, revived by the ‘new economy.’
Other factors, hidden or interrelated, compound to this deadly mix of addiction to prescription drugs, due to age-related physical ailments, and depression, for diminished opportunities for growth. In the case of males, too, there’s another reference that is also a throwback of the past: the stigma of no longer being provider and head of household, today a role increasingly exercised by women.
Behind the stats, there’s also low education as a drive for misconceptions about race and class, and feelings of frustration that often turn violent. Some would add here that that’s exactly the fuel a certain party and a certain presidential candidate have both been prone to stoke and benefit from. That is unlikely that either one will take responsibility for what comes next is both sad and tragic.
Two final points about this above-average depressing post, even for our low standards: the escalation inherent to the addiction spiral, and the spirit of the age we’ve all been living, which has been far than uplifting, and in the case of a great majority, downright bleak.
Where the studies about drug overdoses leave off, and the headlines pick it up, is what happens when someone is hooked on a powerful opioid, say Percocet like Prince, but unlike him, can no longer afford a prescription. They generally hit the streets after the ‘real’ thing, heroine. And that’s been too often the case, when a middle-aged mother is found on her kitchen floor with a needle.
And speaking of Prince’s tragic demise, is another reminder that even someone that talented and celebrated can, and often will, fall prey to addiction trying to cope with physical and psychic pain. Close associates are often oblivious or not helpful preventing it.
Such sense of isolation is, ultimately, another drive for suicide, or other forms of self-punishment. When all is said and done, we all have to deal with our personal demons, which is not necessarily only of the material kind, as in lack of rent money, for example.
It’s heartbreaking that in the very ‘home of the brave and land of the free,’ more people are neither. With little sympathy for those who don’t fit the cliche, many are simply too ashamed to reach out to peers or medical professionals, to share their fears and hopelessness.
We’re fast becoming a cruel nation, that won’t forgive anyone who’s not famous and privileged; a place where teachers and community leaders are mocked on social media: and the rhetoric of politicians jockeying for high office is made of up of petty insults, epithets of hate, and self aggrandizing. A country that quickly turns its back on the wounded and the frayed, for not looking too good on TV.
It’ll take more than labs producing cheap drugs to save lives, not their shareholders’ bottom lines, and medicines that alleviate pain, without adding to another self-destructive habit. But a compassionate society could as well start there, valuing the effort that many go through just getting up every morning, and making sure they’re measured up by the depth of their character, not their checking account.
We should be worried that too many of us are giving it up, or wasting their days in search of relief, physical or otherwise. We must find a better way of sharing an already trying time, and honor the ideals we like so much to lecture the world about.
What the stats don’t say, and the headlines make a point to ignore, is that those whose pain is so unbearable that they could only see one way out, went through their moment of reckoning as if they were the only humans left on earth with such a burden to bear.
There are already too many children at the shooting rage, and not enough volunteering; enough black teenagers slain in the streets, and even more minorities sent to prison; we need to stop sending our young to wars no one understand, and teach them a different lesson.
This is the inclusive nation that generations of immigrants shed blood and tears to make it their home. We shouldn’t need sad stats or a tragic headline to remind us that it should be also the heart and soul to our humanity. Have a great week ahead.

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05/02/2016 The End of Restraint, Colltalers

Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. special forces five years ago today, in Pakistan, as President Obama and his advisers watched it live. It was supposed to be the official closure of the Sept. 11 tragedy, and the final cleanup of the mess left by the Bush administration.
It ended, however, hardly anything. Not just bin Laden had already become irrelevant, and, isolated in his quarters, as good as already dead, but the world he unleashed had taken a horrific turn of its own, way bigger than him, and by then impossible to be reversed.
It’s a world where the killing of innocents is justified under any excuse or cause. For him, it was a personal grudge against American allies, and his own country, Saudi Arabia. The same Saudis now threatening retaliation if their role in the 911 is disclosed.
The same world also where the American military has finally admitted last week that it did bomb ‘by mistake’ a hospital and killed almost everyone on sight, last October in Afghanistan, after months of denials. Despite all mea culpa about that so called mistake – the NYTimes Sunday published an elaborated story on how it happened but not why – it’s already declared it case closed. Sorry about that.
It’s in fact frightening to follow such logic: since no one is being seriously persecuted for the mass killing of innocents, this mere admission places the planet’s most powerful nation, and its army, side by side with the terrorists they claim to be fighting.
This is the new world order that was drafted in the first hours after the Twin Towers got destroyed in New York. Surveillance and suspicion became synonymous of security, rule of law be damned, and the state is reaffirmed in its total control over the individual.
The raid in itself was a military pay back statement. It was arguably the president’s greatest achievement as commander in chief. That being said, it was however no more than the closing of somebody’s else account, a fact he seemed fully aware of in May 2, 2011, when he announced it to the American people. Even the small, localized street rallies in its celebration were excessive, of course.
On the surface, President Obama did what George W., Dick Cheney, and their minions failed miserably to do in eight years of inflated Pentagon budgets and meaningless bravado. But in retrospect, they were never that focused on finding bin Laden, despite all grandstanding: while no one was looking, they were busy fabricating the excuses to fight the war they had planned to fight all along.
So when special units of military and CIA tactics invaded the Abbottabad compound, to find the world’s former biggest villain sleeping amid a pile of VHS porn tapes, the U.S. was already fully engaged in Iraq, on the way to fill over 4,000 body bags and a still unknown number of Iraqi troops and civilians, and Afghanistan, where we’ve recently crossed the disgraceful 2,300 dead Americans threshold.
No need to remind anyone that we’re still in both places, still waging unwinnable wars that seem to only have one certain result: the manufacturing of new generations of justifiable U.S. haters. To be fair, President Obama has tried to set withdraw schedules, and deadlines for armed troops, and cutting downs of the so called boots-in-the-ground factor in both countries.
Truthful that this may be, at the same time, we have unleashed a demon of our own, whose wrath is as oblivious to the American public as the unfortunate deaths in the Middle East: drones. For what was once considered a way of ridding the world of bad guys has become the ultimate soulless assassination scheme. Killing of civilians, often at the wrong wedding party, has grown to a despicable routine.
Yes, they were supposed to reduce casualties and, most of all, the use of troops, which still have the downside of being regularly shot and killed, and have to be replaced in a constant basis. What we got, instead, was more unaccountability. And more deaths.
In war, it’s a given that we never know, or care, who killed whom, but now we have a geek in a bunker, thousands of miles away. Following screen prompts, he’ll kill with no empathy to the unknown flesh and blood pixels that are being viciously ‘deleted.’
President Obama had not much of a choice, even though many saw in the killing of bin Laden a lost opportunity. One to show the world that the U.S. chooses law and justice, not revenge, to right its wrongs. But that opportunity is still being wasted in Guantanamo, and in the persecution of whistleblowers, and the impunity of white collar criminals, so no one has any delusions about it anymore.
But even when perpetrating his deadly deeds, and bragging about killing in the name of a religious lie not even him believed in, by the time bin Laden was awakened by his judgment day, he had already been dead for a while. Even the 911, in the context of other acts of terrorism in the world before and, specially, since, was most crucial by what it ignited, than by what it actually represented.
Millions of people are awakened daily by their particular 911, and the world takes little notice. That won’t change, at least while there is a powerful weapon industry trading on human blood, and countries still going to war for domination and each other’s resources.
Other surges of global terrorism have flared in the past; the difference about this new century is that the current wave has rearranged geopolitics itself. Casualties are the least of concerns populating the spreadsheets of the behind-the-scenes masters of permanent war.
One of the most enduring legacies of that mass murderer who met his undignified fate five years ago is the absolute lack of restraint by which any madman now decides to prove a point. Be it in the name of faith, or ideology, it doesn’t make much of a difference, and it’s wise to exercise caution about even those invoking justice for all, as their motivation, as the U.S. often does to justify its actions.
For us, bone collectors left in the dark of the darkest motivations for killing another human being, nothing really justifies it, even when our own lives are in danger. After all, modulating the intensity of our reaction in the face of threats is what makes us humans.
The new normal, though, is to ignore such morality call and proceed, by any means necessary, to the complete annihilation of the opponent. It’s also the motto for every mass murderer in history: shoot first, shoot often, reload, shoot again, get the hell out of there.
Fortunately, many are capable of compassion, solidarity, and nobility of purpose, even as gun powder clouds the air and clogs our hearts. We need more of them, as there’s seem to be always an endless supply of new psychopaths ready to take on the world.
Let’s hope against hope that our current wars are not manufacturing other bin Ladens, just like we did back in the 1980s, making him a convenient asset, when Afghanistan was fighting our official nemesis Soviet Union. But chances are that, indeed, we already are.
In the same token, against the tide and beating incredible odds, fighters for a better world are also known to rise. They’re among us, if only by laws of probability, and count on us to stand up. If no one does it, let us be the ones who do. Enjoy the beautiful month of May.

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4/25/2016 Reasons to Stay Awake, Colltalers

North Korea’s launch of a ballistic missile from a submarine over the weekend has made yet more people to lose sleep over that country’s nuclear ambitions. It’s another step bringing them closer to a catastrophic mistake, and even its timing is somewhat sinister.
Tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, in Ukraine, still the world’s worst. That, and Kim Jong-un’s deadly hissing, all fit into the nightmarish narrative we fear, of chain reactions in a global scale, followed by a nuclear winter.
For someone who’d have missed these three decades, North Korea’s aggressive incursions toward full capability of delivering an atomic head to the heart of arguably its biggest enemy, the U.S., could represent a rude awakening. But it’s doubtful that there are many people in such predicament. Apart from climate change, the risk of a nuclear attack remains most people’s biggest fear.
Back in 1986, however, there was growing awareness that unleashing the power of the atom had greater potential for destroying civilization rather than solving its energy needs. And what happened in Ukraine was already a second serious warning we got.
Seven years and a month earlier, almost to the day, there had been the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania, and between the two, public pressure was growing to place at least a temporary ban in this technology. Which, of course, never happened.
While the meltdown of a Three Mile Island had no human casualties, the costs for evacuation and cleanup, which lasted until 1993, were over $1 billion. Chernobyl was considerably more serious but, thank goodness, it happened in a much more isolated area.
Still it killed 31 people and forced the removal of over a 100,000. Claims of illegal logging, of radioactive wood, no less, within its fenced perimeter have been denied by the government, which now doesn’t even have Soviet Union to assign blame.
For that tiny number of people who have been in a coma, or something, to wake up to the news that there’s still a country actively developing a nuclear weapon, while its people starve and the world considers it a pariah, is enough to wish they could go back to sleep. For everyone else, though, that’s not even the worst that has happened in 30 years, and yes, that’s an understatement.
For if Three Mile and Chernobyl were big red flags that, praise the heavens, remained mostly just that, since them the threat of small but thousands of times more lethal dirty ‘chernobyls,’ say a cellphone-size device in the hands of a maniac in the middle of Times Square, is really what’s giving us all insomnia. And turning the company that produces Ambien into a multibillion dollar enterprise.
From the slightly under five billion souls that feared for their lives in 1986, we also grew to a 7.4 billion scared bunch, with the real possibility that such maniacs are not isolated. They’re actually considered foot soldiers of an undiscriminated war that’s taking place thousands of miles from the West, or in downtown Paris, in the mountains of Afghanistan to the Big Ben’s shadow in London.
We’re caught in the middle, even if as not as stranded as entire countries under siege, like Syria, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories, with no realistic outlook for the future. Guess what’s in everyone’s minds there when they despair about being slaves of geopolitics.
It’s easier to focus, and fear, a tyrant like Kim, having grandiose dreams of world destruction. We can even laugh picturing him as Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, languishing in some luxurious dent, kicking a world-shaped balloon with his behind.
But there’s nothing jocose about the obscene growing gap between the powerful, owning almost half of all the planet’s resources, and the miserable, who is as starving now as their parents were in the 1980s. In fact, it’s downright tragic that we have now a multiple of the armed conflicts we had them, and that even countries engaged in world peace efforts are also the world’s biggest weapon makers.
The age that saw the Chernobyl tragedy as a scourge somehow reversed itself and gave rise of even more nuclear plants, all over the world. Some are not just close to major urban centers, but also in geologically vulnerable land, like those in the U.S. West Coast.
Speaking of which, what happened in Fukushima, Japan, five years ago last month, added yet another layer of disturbing aspects that come to play as far as nukes are concerned: corporate greed, lack of government accountability, and management ineptitude.
The disaster of Daiishi, officially caused by an earthquake and resulting tsunami, despite not having directly killed anyone, was another instance, a third red flag if you’d prefer, when an almost perfect storm got close, but not quite, of causing an age-disrupting event. The fact that it didn’t, despite billions in costs, may have made us more complacent, and distracted about its crucial causes too.
For official deceit, conflicting versions, poor science, and unreported, and still impossible to estimate, long-term damage are still an integral part of what we know, or don’t, about the accident. And that happened in Japan, a country rightfully proud of its awareness about natural disasters and technological prowess. Let’s not even consider if it all had happened somewhere in, say, Africa, shall we?
As usual, some of the positive results when an event of such magnitude occurs can’t possibly be predicted. In the case of Fukushima, it was Germany, of all countries, that decided to phase out its nuclear program. It’ll take decades, but it’s a start. Overall, however, after Chernobyl, the world assumed that there was nothing to be learned about it, and proceed to built more nukes. Heaven help us.
Even President Obama doesn’t seem to discard completely the nuke option, right when a fraction of the investment that was required to get the fossil fuel industry going, over a century ago, is finally finding its way to clean alternatives to energy: solar and wind.
Naturally, they too are subjected to the same ills that affect any business, specially one that relies on relatively new technology, so never mind the ones that go bankrupt in the process. For, despite billions in constant investment and notorious false advertising, the coal industry, in all its mighty, is already sinking, and solar batteries haven’t even completely taken off yet. Good riddance.
As with everything, it’ll be a combination of political will, public pressure, and granted, a good amount of good faith, what it may change the tide, if ever. It’s as hard and feasible as it’s been to reverse, or at least halt, the effects of climate change. We’re losing that score, by the way, and if the Arctic reaches a certain level of glacier melting, then there won’t be much we’ll be able to do about it.
We’re not quite there yet, though. The race is on to keep sources of carbon dioxide, and even more lethal methane gases, buried for thousands of years under the permafrost, exactly where they are. Gambling with nukes with an outdated technology we have clearly not yet mastered should be out of question. Just like fracking, it’s the kind of man-made intervention we need to live without.
A simply mishap at one of those aging nuclear plants may destroy an entire city, the same way how just a tiny amount of that fuel, in the wrong hands, can end the world. With over a billion people going hungry every night, and every single month and year registering higher temperatures than the ones before, don’t we have enough problems to keep us busy for another century? Have a great one.

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4/18/2016 When Legality Is a Ruse, Colltalers

They did it. Brazil’s lower house of congress started proceedings yesterday to impeach President Dilma Rousseff. It’s an expected but no less stunning decision, that disenfranchises 54 million Brazilians who voted in 2014 to reelect their first woman as president.
More in a moment, but first something else that, despite its similar veneer of legality, disenfranchises common citizens too: the practice, by corporations and wealthy individuals, of keeping profits in offshore accounts, out of the reach of their countries’ tax laws.
Just like the process in course in Brazil, where one group is selectively using the legislation to pick winners and reverse poll results, loopholes in regulation do create conditions for a precious few to avoid paying taxes, while the great majority foots the bill.
Worse. Such conditions are not ultimately illegal, even if only some are in a position to take advantage of them. But they’re clearly against the very spirit of a law designed to be fair to everybody. Or, in the case of Brazil, to preserve the rights of the majority.
Since today is Tax Day in the U.S., as it’ll be too in Brazil a week from Friday, the issue is relevant and the implications go beyond income and politics. At the very least, it’s about the own concept and validity of having just and fair laws to regulate society.
Two reports that came out last week shed a critical light on the supposedly inherent fairness of tax laws in the context of increased income inequality: Oxfam’s Broken at the Top report and a U.S. Government Accountability Office study, requested by presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. Both are about the staggering amount of earnings that American corporations stash in tax havens.
Oxfam, an anti-poverty charity organization, lists for instance, Apple, Walmart, and General Electric as having accumulated and hidden away from the U.S. tax code, a combined $1.4 trillion between 2008 and 2014, through an obscure string of over 1,600 units.
They’ve got another $11.2 trillion in federal loans, bailouts and loan guarantees, in the same period, ultimately paid for by taxpayers, of course. In the end, corporations pay an average 26,5% tax rate, below their 35% statutory rate, and the 31,5% U.S. workers pay.
The GAO report is no better. It found that at least two-thirds of U.S. companies have paid zero federal income taxes between 2006 and 2012, a time when the U.S. economy suffered its biggest blow in almost a century by the 2008 financial collapse and its aftermath.
The studies show, however, that while most individuals are still struggling to recover, corporations have rebounded just fine.
The rise in income inequality has also generated another side effect: while regular tax payers are mostly restricted to their working income, high earners, individuals and corporations, can use sophisticated means to optimize profits, and pay less taxes.
Naturally, to the budget-constricted, reduced workforce IRS, it’s way easier to go after individuals than high earners. Which is what may be reinforcing the public perception that there’s been an increase lately in auditing of people who make less than 50K a year.
Just two weeks ago, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other news outlets began reporting on a massive trove of documents leaked from an offshore financial firm, Mossack Fonseca.
What came to be known as the Panama Papers offered an unprecedented, if not completely ignored, glimpse of the closely guarded world of undeclared income, which corporations and wealthy individuals use to hide their fortunes. The amounts and prominent leaders and celebrities involved caused all the proper commotion, even if only a fraction of the documents has so far come to light.
But what was hardly emphasized in the diminishing reports about the leak was not so much the extension and depth of the riches kept from having any positive impact on the world’s biggest ills – poverty, hunger, education, and health -, but that it exists at all. Or rather, that such a gargantuan movement of cash circulates through more or less legal conduits, even if they’re clearly an abhorrence.
Exposure, rather than any formal investigation so far, is what has caused any counteraction to the astonishing revelations. But apart from the fall of a few big government wigs, or others who may fall shortly, no serious, coordinated official effort exists to curb it.
In other words, despite all government rhetoric in both sides of the Atlantic, when it comes to taxing wealth, or regulate income in the billion bracket, there’s a resolute attitude that nothing that can be done will fix the problem. So, nothing will. After all, such income sustain the very system designed to regulate it. As in a tale of foxes and hens, this goes way beyond a mere conflict of interest.
Back in Brazil, what started as a legitimate campaign to rid the government of, at least, the most blatant acts of corruption and graft, may put the country in the hands of three politicians so enmeshed with illicit enrichment that any court would have no qualms sending them straight to jail: Eduardo Cunha, lower house speaker, vice president Michel Temer, and senate leader Renan Calheiros.
Problem is, if the Rousseff impeachment goes through, they may not have to go, even if found guilty. That is because Temer may be the next president, Cunha, his vice, and Calheiros, well he’ll may play bench for now, in one capacity or another, all shield from prosecution by the same laws they’re so diligently applying to Rousseff, even without her votes, honorable past, and accomplishments.
Cunha is slated to go to trial at the Supremo Tribunal Federal on charges he stole as much as $40 million in bribes and laundered it through an evangelical megachurch. A probe also has found illegal accounts in Switzerland under his name, despite his denials.
Temer is accused of involvement on a large scheme to buy and profit from ethanol fuel. And evidence points to bribes that Calheiros has received through state-run oil giant Petrobras, a curiously similar charge leveraged at Rousseff that investigators failed to prove.
Thus, Brazilians who cried all over the Internet when the national soccer team was humiliated by Germany in the World Cup at home, may have another reason, way more unsettling, to weep for: they’ve been duped into believing they were fighting the good fight against corruption, but were actually setting the scenario of a coup for a regime change. And it was all apparently within the law.
Speaking of which, it’s not over, of course. Along Brazilians and international jurists who expressed serious doubts about Rousseff’s public shaming, and disavowed the constitutionality of the Cunha-led maneuver, artists, intellectuals, political leaders, and more than half of Brazil’s 200 million population vehemently disagree with what’s going on. Whether they will succeed, though, is up for grabs.
Many of those who since before Rousseff’s reelection were giving the impeachment a serious thought have lately become more aware of what may be lost in the shuffle. Even if such a radical proceeding is ultimately guaranteed by the constitution, Brazil’s young democracy and strength of its institutions are being tested to the extreme, and as the poet once put it, the center may not hold.
And it’s not lost to the world that a president, against whom no charges of personal enrichment or illegal acts have been leveled, is being judged by a legislative body, whose members have among them a high percentage of criminals or under suspicion politicians.
Even from a biased, or at least uninformed, U.S. media, the tide seems to be turning. From reports tinged by empty claims, such as ‘people’s revolt,’ or ‘fight against corruption,’ there are now some critical views on the role of the Brazilian media and right-wing elites in creating a charged atmosphere of confrontation and political impasse. But it’s all now a little too late, that’s for sure.
A baffling aspect of our shared reality is the ‘appearance’ of legality standing in for legality, truthiness instead of plain truth, loopholes as integral components of the law. But such built-in ways out are accessible only to a few. Thus corporations cheat taxes because they can. Or a case might be brought out against a political ideology even when it’s trading in principles of inclusion and fairness.
It’s a fact that many people can and will be fooled but hopefully never for very long. For now, though, us, officially part of ‘the rest,’ will watch from the sidelines what was already set in motion. Public pressure is an effective, but short-breath, way of seeking change.
An international probe on tax havens may be bound to fail from the start because what may be accomplished favors those who can’t even imagine how to go about taking advantage of them. One country could lead by exemple, though. Hum, which one will stand out?
As for Brazil, maybe enough people will realize that the time for a regime change is not May, or only up to the Senate, but at the polls in 2018 and if the majority really wants it. Too impatient? Hey, look at how long the country’s been waiting, on a standing still.
History may be told by the victorious, but memory belongs to losers, the dispossessed, the disenfranchised. We’ll still pay our taxes, because that’s our way of pitching in for the benefit of a majority. And democracy will not betray Brazilians, even if those in charge of enforcing it have failed them. Keep knocking on their door, and the next time around, we’ll have our day. Chin up and enjoy the week.

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4/11/2016 Latin America Steps Backwards, Colltalers

The presidential election in Peru, whose first round failed to produce a winner yesterday and is heading to a June runoff, may be placed within the context of a reversal to a model of conservative government policies that’s happening all over Latin America.
Keiko Fujimori, daughter of ex-president Alberto Fujimori, in prison for corruption and crimes against humanity, couldn’t beat Wall Street investor Pedro Kuczynski and congresswoman Veronika Mendonza, but still has a shot at winning it all.
Violent protests have erupted against a possible return of a Fujimori to power, showing that promises not to pardon her dad were not convincing to many of Peru’s 30 million population. But her very ascent to a contender position seems part of larger ideological counter-wave in the continent, seeking to dial down the social policies that have dominated its politics in the past decade.
Brazil’s democratically elected President Dilma Rousseff, a former guerrilla imprisoned by the 1960s military dictatorship, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, a left-of-center populist, and Bolivia’s first indigenous president Evo Morales, to name three governments elected on an agenda of social promotion, are facing powerful forces seeking to oust them.
Rumors of a coup, which are now back in full against Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa too, are of course eerily familiar to the continent as a whole, and we’re not talking about 40 years ago. They effectively announced the ousting of Honduras’ Manuel Zelaya in 2009, and forced, through a parliamentary maneuver, Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo to step down, in 2012.
But this wave of conservative thinking threatening to disrupt Latin America’s slow return to democracy, masks crucial particularities and the incredible diversity of the region, as exemplified by what’s happening in its three other powerhouses.
Take Argentina, whose new center-right president, Mauricio Macri, has already been caught in the scandal of offshore accounts known as the Panama Papers. His two predecessors, husband and wife Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, could never be called left wingers. They benefited from the favorable environment but theirs was mostly an old fashioned populist ruling brand.
For the Kirchners, old, archaic Argentine power currents, such as the Peronism, informed and gave background to much of their policies. No wonder money laundering charges now being leveled at Cristina do resemble the old tenor of Latin American politics.
In Chile, where another former exiled, Michelle Bachelet, was elected president for the second time, in 2014, the opposition has hardly anything to use against her, except for a shady land deal worked on by her son. Not enough for rumor mill, we’re told.
On the contrary, under her presidency, Chile has worked hard to bring its terrifying past to light, and its perpetrators to justice, even if not fast enough. Bachelet’s pragmatic, if not forward thinking, economic policies have also helped the rebuilding of a new future.
And Uruguay, so far the region’s jewel of democracy, cultural tolerance, and economic stability, is doing just fine, thank you. Despite its equally disturbing past in the hands of military butchers, the little nation proved that it definitely could.
President Tabaré Vázquez’s return to power, following immensely popular José Mujica, has been relatively scandal-free, and actually steady in support of progressive causes, such as abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and liberal marijuana laws.
Criminality is down, literacy and education levels are rising, and the economy as a whole, even if still semi-industrialized, remains robust. And the Internet is faster than in New York too. Yes, it’s a tiny country, but that should never be held against it.
In the context of the U.S. presidential elections, though, Latin America has been no more than a soundbite, and except for Mexico, remains completely absent from the candidates’ platforms. It’s is as if over 600 million potential allies don’t count.
It’s a mistake that the Obama administration is as guilty of as the Bush term that preceded. Whoever becomes the new American president will, like his or her predecessors, have to start a new continental dialogue from scratch. Even they even bother, that is.
In fact, judging by past efforts to establish cooperation ties, or worse, interfere with the region’s politics, in order to defend U.S. interests or just out of ideological paranoia, many South Americans are just fine with the way things are. See Mexico, War on Drugs, for reference. Or further in the past, Google Chile, Salvador Allende coup, Henry Kissinger, for education.
It shouldn’t be that way. The Allende template is still being tried on to this day, in different packages, and the results are never healthy. Look at Honduras, Venezuela, Mexico, and how U.S.-instigated instability has come back to haunt its own foreign policy.
Just like in the Middle East, heavy-handed interventionist has produced some of the most intractable and disastrous consequences, which have undermined diplomacy and tainted with suspicion even genuine, independent humanitarian efforts.
Back to the powerful local media-supported conservative wave that may still replace Brazil’s Rousseff with a strong-armed right-wing coalition, or finally doom Venezuela’s Maduro, and prevent Morales and Correa from governing, it should be all cause for alarm.
The beginning of the 2000s saw many wars starting, serious economic crashes, worsening of African and Middle East violence and intolerance, and instability, or downright terror, in Europe. In Latin America, however, never a paradise, it was a period for growth.
Millions were lifted out of extreme poverty, and not due only to party-driven policies. Social tensions were reduced, and a potential new prosperity era could be envisioned. It actually offered a welcome counterbalance to the horror happening elsewhere.
Peruvians tired, or rather, terrified of a return of the persecutions, torture, and callous embezzlement represented by Fujimori, are eager to seize the possibility of electing a more progressive leader. And the whole continent could use the good news.
While the U.S. may miss yet another opportunity to play the good guy, Latin America can’t allow a step back when it used to be its ‘backyard,’ (as in the 2013 unfortunate but not out of context remark by Sec. of State John Kerry). For a change, voters in several countries realized that and chose candidates from the working class for president. And for a while, at least, it worked.
Perhaps that much needed moment of collective lucidity south of the Equator was not isolated, and the reaction to it may turn out to have short legs. Democracy strengthens when, instead of being handed over to its spoilers, it’s recast as the people’s defense.
Dreamers get discouraged by reality, as change never comes fast, and when it does, it may not last long enough. There are no easy answers, only uncomfortable questions to ask. But no political system is viable if it won’t include everyone. Have a great week.

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4/04/2016 What’s Eating the Beautiful Game, Colltalers

A disturbing Amnesty report about FIFA’s 2022 World Cup, to be held in Qatar, and the death of architect Zaha Hadid, who designed one of the competition’s venue, reminded everyone last week how ugly the business of global soccer has become.
The 2010 choice of the authoritarian monarchy-ruled nation to host the cup ignited a firestorm at FIFA. The report’s adds new details to claims of slave labor at the building of its venues. And for a moment, Hadid got caught in the middle of the discussion.
The first reason why Qatar, a tiny, Sharia law-following kingdom with a big GDP in the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, seemed like a terrible option to host an outdoor sport competition is natural: average temperatures in the summer can reach 120º F degrees.
Rich as it is, however, that’s not a factor for its rulers: weather-controlled stadiums and other measures are in the works. Also, being a country that abide by a strict, male-oriented, religious observance, Qatar is at odds with contemporary Western values.
Which means that, for foreigners, the risk of misinterpreting the law and landing in jail is real. And once there, as many have found, your nationality won’t cut you any breaks: depending of the gravity of your ‘sin,’ you may be up to some long, harsh penalty.
Little of that, however, is at the heart of the turmoil and claims of corruption and bribery that involved FIFA, from top officials in Switzerland to pretty much all soccer federations throughout the world. The crisis culminated with an eight-year ban of its long time president, Sepp Blatter, who had just been re-elected, and Michel Platini, handed down by the organization’s own ethics committee.
Plus, out of nowhere, the U.S. Justice Department stepped in and indicted almost 50 officials in a continuing investigation into the alleged corruption, which includes the process by which Russia was chosen to host the next WC edition, two years from now.
Even soccer great Franz Beckenbauer may be indicted too, forming with Frenchman Platini the only two legendary players so far mentioned in the allegations. But unlike Platini, who in his retirement years headed UEFA, FIFA’s European division, as a Blatter’s protegé, the Kaiser is celebrated for lifting the trophy twice, as a 1974 player and coach of the German team in 1990.
We’re not far into this probe, even as FIFA has a new president, Gianni Infantino, but cracks and business as usual began to pop up. First, Blatter has been granted the right to appeal the court decision, which however it turns out, won’t include jail time for him.
Boosted by renewed confidence, he went on the offensive and has called the decision to indict him, ‘political’ from the part of the U.S., whose own bid to host the cup again was defeated, a fact not lost to European football officials and analysts everywhere.
Not exactly a nation bursting with soccer tradition, the entry of the American highest judicial authority, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, into the fray raised some flags. Specially in the case of choosing Russia as a host, given its poor relations with the U.S.
Not to be left without a counterargument, now FIFA itself has submitted last week a Request for Restitution of tens of millions of dollars to the attorney’s office, seeking damages from former officials and other organizations cited in the court process.
It’s a bizarre but not completely without merit move. For after all, the DOJ stands to collect a fortune in forfeited funds, sales, seized marketing rights, and a variety of other sources, not counting bonds paid by defendants out on bail or awaiting trial.
So, even if the process winds up sentencing to jail that notorious criminal, the janitor at FIFA’s luxury building in Zurich, and Blatter is rehabilitated, and corrupt heads of national federations, such as Brazil, never spend a day in prison, the enterprise has already generated plenty of cash and actionable global projection, just in case, to all those involved, thank you very much.
‘The Ugly Side of the Beautiful Game,’ on the other hand, the Amnesty International’s 51-page report, tells a brutal, even worse story about FIFA’s practices and what’s really wrong for so long with the way it conducts its global soccer business.
It documents over 200 cases of Asian migrants working at the Khalifa International Stadium, living in squalor, prison conditions, unpaid for months and prevented from leaving Qatar until paying illegally charged recruitment and Gulf admission fees.
A 2014 exposé by The Guardian had already compiled data that showed that Nepalese laborers working at the stadium were dying at a staggering rate of one at every two days. Then as now, Qatari authorities showed no action beyond a few prefab statements.
Such conditions, by the way, echo the harsh realities of modern slavery around the world. Farms and mining pits in Brazil, high-sea pirates, forced to loot tankers and fishing boats for Thai and Somali crime lords, the Indian and Pakistani garment ‘industry,’ cotton pickers in Uzbekistan, even instances in the U.S. and other Western societies, they all share similar horror stories.
As for celebrated starchitect Hadid, who died last week and was part of a generation of high profile, globe-trotting professionals, there would be not mention of her name here, apart from the fact that she’s designed the al-Wakrah, a.k.a. the Vagina Stadium.
But when asked about the Guardian story, reporting the death of more than 500 Indian migrant workers, and the 382 dead Nepalese, all doing construction related to the World Cup, her declarations were perceived at least as insensitive, and at most, callous.
Used to be paid in the hundreds of millions for her work, she saw the laborers’ deaths as disturbing as ‘deaths in Iraq,’ for instance, in what there’s little she could do about it. She said that it was up to the Qatari kingdom to address the issue. End of the story.
It was the typical answer that was given throughout history, with or without consequences, by artists hired to beautify tyrants’ lives, being by building their palaces, hosting their private functions, or entertaining their kids. The question of either accepting or not on moral grounds is thus diluted through some rarefied rationale, of ‘I’m a professional,’ or ‘it’s up to others to do something about it.’
Not doing too much out of it, this lack of empathy, or at least, of scruples while doing business is but one more component of an entire cycle of exploitation and misery, perpetrated by the sport and entertainment industry. Soccer for instance, as striking architecture, remains as loved and important in Yemen or the U.K., in the Palestinian territories as in jungles of South America.
What distinguishes some from the others is exactly that kind of humane dimension that characterizes as transcendent, works of art, while dismissing multibillion efforts to celebrate some powerful personality, political leader, or yes, a sport celebrity.
We all know who are the villains in this story. The Amnesty report is but a portrait, a sketch of a reality that did not come to be out of the blue. Modern slavery is a business model in some quarters, as labor hazards are computed like defective bolts, and subtracted without remorse from the bottom line. The passion of football has turned into a tragedy, and we should take a hard look at it.
Instead of throwing yet more of our hard-earned cash at it, we may consider other ways of keeping our love for the sport within morally accepted conditions. No matter what, injustice and inequality are still fed by ignorance and obliviousness. Have a great one.

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3/28/2016 Kids Argentina Misses, Colltalers

As the new bloodbath inflicted by Daesh on Europe upstaged President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, it’s hard to make a case for any other issues that were also quickly dropped from the world headlines. That includes the week’s all other suicide bombings.
The 40th year anniversary of the military coup in Argentina, however, which started the infamous Dirty War that killed thousands and wrecked the country, deserves a few notes, specially in the light of the president’s particularly ill-timed stopover there.
Aspects of that dark time are still pretty raw in the country, as shown by protests that marked the visit. One of the most sensitive is the so-called Stolen Kids, children of the ‘desaparecidos’ killed by the military, who then ‘gifted’ them amongst themselves.
Kept in the dark, dozen of these children found out about the truth only much later, and most still struggle with the trauma of learning that those who had raised them had, in fact, ordered the murder and disappearance of their biological parents.
Most of these now adults were tracked and identified for whom they really were by the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, a group of mothers who camped in the front of the Casa Rosada presidential palace, in Buenos Aires, practically from the coup’s zero hour.
Whereas the four-decade is a sad milestone for Argentina, the courage of these women is what’s worth celebrating. They were behind every effort to oust the military, which finally happened in 1983, at first, with little consequence to the perpetrators.
Unlike Hollywood, though, the process of national reconciliation takes more that a few trials and jail sentences, which did happen too. From the exact number of missing opponents to the regime, to the limitations of current laws to punish and curb others from attempting another betrayal of democracy, the pain from those years is now very much part of the Argentine soul.
Just like in Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil, as well as other Latin American nations, which in larger or lesser extent have experienced, or are still dealing with, the damage the military have caused to the whole continent between the 1960s and 1980s.
In Brazil, for instance, where military rule was not nearly as extensive but still brutal, some of those wounds seem to have been reopened in the past years, as rallies have called for the return of the dictatorship that started with the bloodless coup of 1964.
It’s been a disturbing sight to see, in the middle of crowds demanding President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, signs begging the military to come back. And the fact that Rousseff was detained and tortured by the dictatorship doesn’t even begin to explain it.
To some, Brazil and other nations ruled by barrel and bayonet are yet to have a thorough, and surely painful, examination of that period. It explains, at least in part, the lack of awareness of the cost of such a military adventure to any country.
Argentina and Chile, where former junta members were put on trial and, in some cases, sent to prison, are exceptions. As it turned out, that’s only the start of a still much needed national conversation. The issue of the disappeared and their stolen kids is as current now as it’s always been, and if terrorism upstaged Obama’s latino tour, he too was accused of upstaging Argentina’s soberest date.
A day the mothers, and now grandmothers, have marked since Juan Perón’s wife, President Isabel, who took over after his death in 1974, was herself deposed but not before assuring safe heaven for her and her allies. Most of everyone else, though, got screwed.
But as part of the Argentine society was hopeless running for cover, or savagely being tracked down and killed by the regime that counted among its own allies then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the mothers stood their ground. And prove their worth.
They have so far successfully found and DNA-identified 119 kids who were picked by the military to become a perverse form of reward to their friends. If the U.S. opens its files on the dictatorship, as President Obama promised, this number is sure to increase.
Now adults, the group was unwittingly granted a lifetime of psychological challenges, which have caused some to fight attempts to contact them, so naturally attached they are to the fictional narrative about their past, taught to them by their current families.
In some cases, even coming out from behind forged names assigned to them by the military, to finally meet biological relatives, some chose to remain fiercely private. It’s their choice, of course, but it somehow undermines the fight to locate others like them.
This is but one collateral heartbreak of the military coup, visited upon them by a right-wing elite that, in 1982, did not hesitate engaging Argentina into an unwinnable war with the U.K., over the Falklands Islands. In order to hold on a little longer to power, the junta sent thousands of young, inexperienced Argentines to fight the British professional forces; 649 of them never returned.
The regime would take a years to finally relinquish power, but the damage was already done. Even in jail or dead, most of those mad generals also became wealthy. No such luck was likely granted to what some estimate to be over 2,000 other Argentines.
As for the current world’s most famous Argentine – apart perhaps of football star Lionel Messi – Pope Francis: it took some wriggling but he finally agreed to meet, in 2014, Estela Barnes de Carlotto, one of Mothers’ leaders, and her then just identified grandson, Ignacio Guido Montoya Carlotto. Still, he went farther than President Obama, who missed a great opportunity to do it.
Francis has been on the receiving end of pretty charged accusations of for his actions at the time, but so far has managed to come out clear. Perhaps, one day we’ll know exactly what the then Cardinal did, or did not, during the military rule. But perhaps, not.
Going to Cuba was a remarkable, if predictable, act for an American leader, and we’re glad that President Obama did it. Latin America as a whole, however, has been an afterthought to his, and at least two previous White House occupants’ foreign policies.
Sadly, things may not improve much, regardless who’s the next president. And there’s even little hope for relations with South and Central America if a Republican wins, judging by party leaders’ recent comments. But that’s for another day. Have a great week.

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3/21/2016 The Supreme & Supremo Courts, Colltales

Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling that political spending is a form of protected free speech, has not only flooded American politics with corporate money, but it’s also assigned the judiciary with a clear ideological bias.
Similarly, the same branch of government has been given an oversized role in Brazil’s current political crisis. The difficult circumstances trapping the presidents of both countries are matched only by two painfully self-serving legislative classes.
While President Obama’s leaves office within a year, President Dilma Rousseff may be forced out even before that. Such limits, along with inefficient congresses, grant legal courts in both sides of the Equator a unique, and extra, charge of power.
To their constitutional role of interpreting the law, judges are being asked to reflect society’s rifts too, as exemplified by recent decisions split along partisan lines. Developments in both countries have only highlighted this new political reality.
While U.S. Justice Antonin Scalia’s death has added a new twist to an already disturbing presidential race, in Brazil the fate of President Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor Luis Inácio Lula da Silva may rest solely in Justice Gilmar Mendes’ hands.
The first, immediate impact of Citizens United was, obviously, financial: at this point, the cost of the campaign is estimated to be already in the billions, but no one can determine exactly how these staggering funds are being channeled to candidates.
But a more pervasive effect of that overextended role may be at play even before a new president term starts. As a new judge is urgently needed to restore the U.S. Supreme Court’s odd number of justices, a condition for it to reach decisions by vote majority, it’s already clear that ideological orientation, more than experience at the bench, will be the determining factor for the choice.
President Obama has done his constitutional duty by picking moderate judge Merrick Garland as the nominee. By the Republican majority in Congress is already set not to vet anyone for the job before 2017, ideally under a Republican president.
While it’s likely that the impasse will not be resolved by the November elections, it’ll certainly influence it politically, all along and beyond. Even though it’s impossible to foresee how a nominee will weight on Supreme Court decisions once there, his (or hers?) sponsors will make sure that their political interests will be met and served well on future rulings.
It’s been said that the court presided by Chief Justice John P. Roberts has reached some historical decisions, not always reflecting a conservative bias, such as the Same-Sex Marriage ruling, for instance. Citizens United, however, followed a strictly partisan approach, as it was originated by a lobby group’s appeal to air a critical advertising film against Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The 5-4 decision effectively opened the gates of the American electoral process to opaque corporate money (and of unions, but they no longer hold the sway over voters as they did in the past), and cheapened the value of individual contributions. Until, and if, it may be overcome, the Jan 2010 ruling remains the single, most influential factor in the U.S. electoral process.
In Brazil, the first decade of the new century saw unprecedented economic growth and optimism, out of ruling Worker’s Party’s daft policies, and a charismatic President Lula. But, behind the scenes, something way more malodorous was also at play.
Despite successful social programs, which lifted millions of Brazilians out of extreme poverty, PT became synonymous of scandals and corruption schemes, undermining its public moral stand. As successive probes came on knocking on Brasília’s Palácio do Planalto, the opposition, led by the Social Democrats of PSDB, saw blood in the water and seized the momentum.
By the way, in terms of Brazil’s sad tradition of political scandals, the PSDB is no different than PT. It’s also been caught in serious misconduct practices, including when it elected one of its own, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, as president. But in comparison, it’s done a better job keeping its members away from the headlines, with much help from a sympathetic media.
The movement that’s now seeking to remove Rousseff from office found its hero in federal judge Sergio Moro. He’s been leading an investigation into a huge kickback scheme involving the government and a few corporations, named Operação Lava Jato (which Wikipedia poorly coined as Operation Car Wash), and even managed to send some big corporate wigs to jail.
That’s the probe that caught Rousseff at the board of state-run giant Petrobras, when it conducted a series of disastrous investments and played flush fund for the Lula administration. One thing led to another, and suddenly Brazil’s most popular politician faced the sobering prospect of having his shiny biography rewritten as another Banana Republic corrupt leader.
Moro, though, perhaps tripping over too much popularity, lost the restrain expected from a judge in charge of such a high profile case and reprehensibly leaked to an already biased media, a secretly recorded private talk between Lula and Rousseff.
Despite no bombshell revealed on the tapping, it fueled last week’s massive rallies seeking the president’s impeachment and a possible jail term for her predecessor and mentor. When PT reacted with a questionable maneuver, attempting to give Lula a Chief of Staff position, which would have insulated him from the probe, along came Supremo Tribunal Federal Minister Mendes.
President of Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court, Mendes’ been at odds with Rousseff and the PT’s 12-year rule since at least 2009. And, just like Moro, he isn’t one to hold in check his partisan sympathies, both in private and on social media.
Interestingly, he was on the losing side of the Supremo’s 8-3 ruling last year, preventing corporations from contributing to electoral campaigns. But now, he’s in a position to expedite the process to remove the reelected president from office.
That brings us full circle. Suddenly, the judiciary branch of both Brazilian and U.S. governments has enhanced, and some say, undue, influence in the electoral process of two countries with a combined voter universe of almost half a billion people.
By any measure, this is definitely not what the American Founding Fathers had envisioned, when they came up with their clever system of checks and balances. And for a young democracy such as Brazil’s, it’s a downright risky situation.
Whereas in an ideal word, there would be little objection to judges doing double, er, triple duty, legislating, interpreting, and executing what would be, in essence, the interest of the majority, there are considerable advantages to a multiple system.
We won’t skim over the structural differences between the American and Brazilian governments in order to prove a point. But, just as the verbiage lawyers and jurists like so much, form may bury substance, if one loses sight of what’s at stake. In other words, there’s no need to go to law school to identify what’s common sense and what seems to be an aberration.
President Obama will serve democracy well by forcefully ushering the ninth justice to the Supreme Court, and congress, which has stood immobile on so many meaningful issues, must do its job. The same way, we wish almost against hope that cooler minds will prevail in Brazil, specially of those in charge to interpret the constitution and the rule of law. Both countries deserve it.
A steady court nomination process in the U.S. may counter some of the damage done by Citizens United. A show of maturity by Brazil’s highest court may strengthen its democracy by moving the nation forward. Have a great Spring.

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3/14/2016 Missing in the Streets of Brazil, Colltalers

Thousands of protesters demanded Sunday that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff steps down before her second term in office expires in 2018. That caps another week of political turmoil in Brazil, already reeling from a severe economic slowdown.
Even Rousseff’s mentor and predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is under scrutiny for a possible role in a graft scheme. On Friday 4th, he was briefly detained and even paraded by the federal police into a local version of a perk walk, on his way to a deposition.
It was a sad, and unnecessary, public humiliation for a leader who presided over Brazil’s best period of stability and growth of its history. Both events are also a measure of popular discontent with the two presidents’ Workers’ Party and its 13-year rule.
The party Lula has helped to create has indeed been implicated in a wide range of corruption and unethical practices, specially at state and municipal government levels. Before his second mandate was out, though, charges had already hit his administration, with accusations of corruption and graft against some of his key strategists and most loyal friends, inside and out his cabinet.
Despite all of that, when he handed over the presidency to Rousseff, he was not only Brazil’s most popular leader ever, but the most recognizable face of the unprecedented wave of democratization and economic growth of Latin America of the early 2000s.
The world is a different place these days, and its short-span attention has moved on to somewhere else. Besides, much of the continent’s populist euphoria has been already replaced by the sober realization that some of its woes won’t go away so easily.
If the PT, as it’s known, is to be replaced in power now, and not in 2018 as the constitution prescribes, it’ll represent the second time Brazil demands a president to step down, since it returned to democracy in 1985. That’s when a popular movement led by Lula and others, and not unlike current street protests, overcame the military elite that had deposed President João Goulart in a 1964 coup.
Helped by high agricultural commodity prices, an expanded industrial park, and new trade partners, Brazil’s sailed relatively unscathed through the two major crisis of the new century: the 9/11 attacks and the financial industry’s 2008 near global collapse.
It was a period when the Lula administration displayed rare shrewdness, allowing a fully independent central bank’s to dictate monetary policy and control external capital inflows, while focusing on populist social projects. As those benefited millions of low income workers, they also helped creating a new, emergent consumer market, with strong demand for credit and durable goods.
Such conditions sustained growth and stability, helped by many corporations and banks, which thrived with such far-from-leftist economic model. Suddenly, and apparently way too briefly, Brazil had a vibrant middle class with disposable cash to spend.
But just as the country started receiving the global acknowledgment it had longed for so long, factors were already at play to conspire against it: among them, PT, which metastasized and created its own monsters, as graft allegations began to surface. And its opposition, led by the Social Democrats of PSDB, that got ready for an attack on the presidency, which was aching to regain.
By then, state-run oil giant Petrobras, which became the biggest catalyst for the current crisis, had rosy prospects, boosted by reserves discovered in the Campos basis. That would assure, it said at the time, Brazil’s complete oil self-reliance, which seemed an entirely credible premise, since the country has a considerable hydropower potential, and was an early adopter of ethanol as fuel.
As it turned out, it wasn’t to be. Besides huge investments required to extract oil from sub-salt depths, the world was going in another direction, away from fossil fuel. Oil prices headed south, while Petrobras got stuck with costly expansion plans.
Worse of all, as previous administrations had done, the PT was also helping itself and its allies with the company’s profits, and not in the most kosher way. That’s when Rousseff was caught deer-in-the-headlines like, as she had been a board member at the time.
Her adversaries – ironically much of that same ascending middle class that had enormous material gains with PT policies – found there their stronger argument to replace her with one of their own. They failed twice, however, in two highly contested elections.
The big street rallies that have been staged by the opposition for over two years now may finally produce what the polls have denied it, this time with open support of powerful allies, mainly, major media conglomerates, and the expanding religious right.
Curiously, for as much as political dissatisfaction is not to be dismissed, and strength of Brazil’s democratic process, which hasn’t been affected by the surrounding political turmoil, there’s a level of insularity, of missing the big picture in the current events.
Internally, both PT, PSDB, the old PMDB and a myriad of other political parties, haven’t come up with fresh, exciting ideas for governability, or promoted young, progressive political leadership ready to take on the onslaught of right wing and conservative proposals flooding the legislature. And as far as the world is concerned, Brazil became oblivious to the great themes of our age.
The environment, climate change, alternative sources of energy, issues that the country would seem naturally inclined to lead, are not part of the political discourse in contemporary Brazil. Talk about protection of the Amazon Rainforest, and survival of its indigenous communities, would probably draw a blank from political leaders and even most participants of Sunday’s street rallies.
That’s but one issue that have taken center stage, and ignited passionate debates worldwide, even if there’s much to be done in the race to save the planet. But in Brazil, it’s been moved instead, to a back burner of political posturing and grandstanding.
And that’s one of the arguably biggest flaws of PT’s project for the country, as neither Lula nor Rousseff seemed willing to bet their mandates for making a dent in the status quo. Even considering that more land was marked to Brazilian indians in the past decade than ever before, it meant little, as there’s been little or no government effort to enforce and guarantee respect to the new laws.
The safety and physical integrity of Amazon’s green activists and rural environmentalists are worth as much as the tons of flyers of yesterday’s march, that underpaid Brazilian sanitation workers are picking up and disposing right at this moment. To be an advocate for preservation of the forests in Brazil, as in much of Latin America, is one of the world’s deadliest occupations. Check the stats.
Being born in the 20th century, we’re biased to masses taking it to the streets and affirm their right to express their discontentment. Many a revolution has started with the spark of rallies, forcing unjust leaders to either lead or step down.
That’s not exactly what’s happening in Brazil, however. While the demonstrations should, and may as well, continue, to demand change and fight corruption, they’re mostly driven by the side of the political spectrum that’d hate seeing Lula being re-elected.
In other words, this is not a fight of people against an oblivious or repressive government; this is the dispute between one political faction, relegated to the opposition, against another, which has been democratically elected to office for eight straight terms.
In the end, there must be an alternative to what the PT has come to represent, and there’s not much honor in its fight for survival at this moment. But Brazilians would do a better job for themselves by demanding a more concrete, progressive idea of government.
Slogans and rallies can go only too far. But it’s in the local, institutional, democratic process that sustainable change is achieved. No political proposal for a country can be serious if it’s not designed to engage it in the concert of other nations. Have a good one.

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3/07/2016 Green & Bloody Red All Over, Colltalers

The murder of Honduran environmental activist Berta Caceres, last week, barely registered on the U.S. media, busy as it is with the embarrassing freak show the presidential campaign has become. But it should, and not just for its relevance to our world.
Her assassination tops a staggering long list of ‘unsolved’ killings in Central and South America, where environment and human rights activism are deadly occupations. And highlights the intrinsic challenges in the global fight to control climate change.
For Caceres’ supporters, she was killed for leading the opposition to the internationally-backed Agua Zarca hydroelectric complex, four giant dams to be built in the Gualcarque river basin, with little concern about its potential environmental impact.
Co-founder of the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras, and last year’s recipient of the Goldman Environment Prize, she was one of most recognized faces of a growing movement in Honduras, and elsewhere in the region, demanding accountability for public projects that cause mass evictions of indigenous communities and native species, and hardly bring any local benefits.
Despite having reported threats against her life, the police called her death a result of robbery. Few doubt, however, that Caceres’ assassination, shot at home on the eve of her 43rd birthday, was designed to send a chilling message to those who share her activism.
A recent Global Witness report lists Honduras at the top of places where most environmentalists per capita have been murdered in the last five years. But countries such as Brazil, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico, are not too far down on such grim list.
Increased agribusinesses, mining, logging, and hydropower projects, and almost no oversight from national governments, are forcing individuals and small communities to the forefront of the fight to defend natural resources, the study finds.
As a result, about 116 ‘land and environmental defenders,’ as the organization calls them, have been killed in 2014. In Brazil, 29, Colombia, 25, 12 in Honduras, and 9 in Peru, among other countries, totaled the list of mostly unpunished assassinations.
Again, Honduras is typical for its large indigenous demographics occupying prime land, and because the military elite that ousted democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya in a 2009 coup, has given priority to just such industries mentioned above.
The situation is not less tragic in Brazil, where the assassination of community environmentalists follows a well-known script: if caught, there’s a pro-forma trial of the usually contract-killer accused, a brief stint in a poorly-guarded local jail, and an escape. The hired gun is then either killed too, or disappears for a few years, until no one remembers anything anymore.
It’s a familiar template in the Amazon region, since Chico Mendes, the union leader and environmentalist, was gunned down in 1988. Over a quarter of a century later, neither his proven murderers nor those who paid them have been properly punished.
The killings of Raimundo Santos Rodrigues, last year, and Zé Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva, in 2011, both shot dead with their equally activists wives, and that of Sister Dorothy Stang, the American-born nun, in 2005, have all something else in common, besides their collective rainforest activism: their killers, in large part, or those who hired them, are mostly walking around free today.
Global Witness names 448 Brazilians assassinated between 2002 and 2013, mostly for standing in the way of powerful interests in the region’s natural resources. But one would hardly notice that when checking what’s fueling the current political turmoil in Brazil. Even strong opponents of ruling Workers’ Party don’t even seem to care about its seemingly under-par green policies.
Rojas Gonzales, killed last December, Edwin Chota, and three other Asháninka leaders, murdered in 2014, are but the most well-known Peruvian environmental activists, who faced threats and then lethal bullets, to prevent the poisoning of rivers, power plant projects, palm oil crops in detriment of all others, illegal deforestation, and other billion-dollar ill-projects in the Amazon.
They’re part of yet another daily massacre throughout Latin America, aside the usual deadly crossfire of drug trafficking, racism, and scarcity: that of impoverished and unarmed citizens standing for what should be everyone’s concern: the defense of natural resources against greedy corporations and special interests, willing to suck dry nature, in order to cash in on its riches.
And their deaths, even when particularly predictable and cruel, such as Berta Caceres’, are mostly ignored by local police, and not reported by those that profit from the business of informing the world, and us, about what’s really going on.
Beyond the irreplaceable loss of the few who refuse to back down from a role that obviously transcends their immediate needs, their fate should worry everyone. After all, they’ve paid the ultimate price to protect resources that are keeping us all alive.
By now, there should be no question that climate change may end our civilization even before we reach critical mass in global hunger, super population, wars, and an ‘accidental’ nuclear holocaust. But even if we get to work on cutting down greenhouse gas emissions, cleaning the oceans, protecting water resources, we can’t afford losing selfless, courageous people like these.
They obviously have no choice: either face the powerful with sheer determination and wit, or become slaves, helping deplete the land they’ll never be able to own. But, more than so-called moral obligation, we have absolute no right to stand idle, while they continue to be massacred. Or rather, is it fair that they perish so we can keep eating our one-dollar burgers? Have a good one.

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2/29/2016 When We Talk About Race, Colltalers

The national conversation about racism has now reached a segment that’s enjoyed Americans’ undivided attention, and cash, for over a century: the entertainment industry. Given the billions it generates, it’s only natural that it too be involved, even if reluctantly.
It is about time a healthy dose of racial discomfort would be added to the stiff ticket prices we pay to be comfortably numb by pop culture. Not that it’s the first time a parade of the precious and the well healed would trip all over themselves to look engaged.
But neither it’s a question whether it adds up to the discussion. As the home of the sequined and land of show business, we find easier to acknowledge oppression as a motion-picture, or hit song, first, and then, as the messy reality we have to live through daily.
Be it as it may, though, that also gives us insight into one of art’s noblest functions: turning an eye towards injustice, even if it’s in the form of a over-produced song and dance number. It’s as much on our DNA as our delusions of grandeur or addiction to escapism.
Thus last night’s Oscar show, apart from its arrogant self-importance, may have indeed moved the needle closer to an acceptable north in racial relations in this country, even if exactly for everything it wasn’t and hasn’t been all these years: a critical mirror to society.
Well, it shouldn’t be, not in itself anyway; staggering dollar amount, and respectable reach around the world, notwithstanding, it’s just an award ceremony, not a celebration of life, happiness, and the pursuit of sponsored dreams. Not for the majority anyway.
We are going through, in fact, one of the necessary stages of acceptance. This time, it has to do with a simple reality: much of U.S.’s wealth, and position in the world today, were built in the broken backs of black slaves, as it was in most of Europe and its colonies too. We’re past due overcoming this historical thorn that splits us apart, in the best, most morally reaffirming way.
So there are excesses that need to play on, and misguided expectations that now, all of a sudden, the ‘black issue’ has to be answered with honest-to-god sincerity, by all strata of society, and racial justice restored without hesitation. Now, now, now.
It won’t happen, of course, and in the end, it’d be irrelevant for the future, as there are much more urgent, immediate, crucially essential quests about racial equality and social opportunity, that should take precedence over pro-forma speeches and posturing.
Shoving the issue on every face and context however is valid, and can not be dismissed. Chris Rock’s brilliant job may become a dot in a sea of more resonant periods and punctuations about black power, but it’ll be still a necessary dot to be pontificated.
Racism, or the ongoing struggle to bring it to the fore of public debate in America, is also a catalyst to address and hopefully solve other grave issues. It offers a multilayer way of seeing our growing pains as a nation, far from a mere black and white dilemma.
For when an unarmed black kid is shot by police, there’s the immediate level of the tragedy, of a lost or crippled life, and its impact on the fabric from which it flourished, and there’s the institutional level, of race and law enforcement running amok. And more.
The same about the growing number of U.S. prisons, ever more populated by people of color, even as overall crime figures have declined. That’s an indictment of our justice system, and a contextual flaw that’s improperly picking social groups to play losers.
Race’s apparent quagmire has so many implications, from urban challenges such as housing and community-building strategies, to open and affordable education, to social opportunity, accessible jobs to minorities, integration, and so on, that only a fool, or supremacist- and intolerant-inclined, not to realize that the woes and ills affecting one particular group, affect society as a whole.
We’ve come a long way since the 1960s, and not nearly long enough, when it comes to civil rights in general, and race relations in particular. But even with little patience for history’s glacial pace, it’s not a coincidence that it’s again being debated with passion: after all, without any undue credit to him, such a renewed debate does have African-American President Obama’s fingerprints all over it.
The issue has also produced a curious situation in the campaign to choose his successor: Bernie Sanders, the candidate with a long, recorded track of fighting for civil rights has somehow underestimated a crucial tenet of American politics, the black vote.
He may have unwittingly handed that constituency, and potentially the race, to Hillary Clinton, despite running an inspiring campaign, rooted on idealistic views of socialism, and galvanized by a progressive, and enthusiastic, segment of die-hard supporters.
Sanders’ oversight – of which Republican candidates have become specialists – may have been fatal to his ambitions, as he was crushed by Clinton Saturday in South Carolina, and may see her clinching the Democratic nomination in tomorrow’s Super Tuesday.
For all their deranged clamor for ‘making America great again,’ or ‘bringing back our country’ (which is a clear reference to a black president), what white, racist America fails to realize is the importance to world peace of having a frank conversation about race.
What here’s, summarily, about white privilege, black oppression, and immigrant discrimination, everywhere else is about the principle that no ethnic group should have institutional dominance over any other, and some kind of democratic rule of law to go along with it.
That involves way more than a list of racial conflicts around the world, for sure, some predating the Common Era, others as a result of wars of conquest (Iraq invasion anyone?), stealing of natural resources, and so on. But with no diversity (a term that’s quickly turning into a cliche), and cross-pollination, miscegenation even, no center will hold, no matter how powerful its seams.
So here’s an idea: four years from now, in the next Leap Year, we’ll be engaging in yet another presidential campaign, and it’s a sure bet to guess that race will still be a central theme. But maybe we’ll be then discussing not equanimity in the rarefied and exclusive entertainment world, but where most people actually live: in communities, workplaces, schools, and law enforcement conflicts.
There also a chance that, by then, we may have just had a Madam President for the first time, and again, having one in the White House will still require everyone to fight for their rights and to consolidate their presence on all battlefields of society.
For it’s either all black lives matter, or no one matters at all; every woman is paid equally, or there’s no sense in calling ours a nation of equality values. Each gender and race is treated with dignity, or we’re asking for the cruel Amerika to occupy our land.
If at every four years, we need a full day to synch time in the calendar, every single day is needed to have a fulfilling lifetime. Happy Birthday to those lucky enough to have it coming around not too often, and enjoy the new March ahead.
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2/22/2016 Talking About Revolution, Colltalers

There are few words as loaded with political significance as revolution, specially when it equates to change. But to evoke it may be misleading, either for being out of step with reality, or for reflecting yet another exercise of wishful thinking.
Lately, ‘revolution’ is being mentioned with abandon by supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders, one of the two Democrat candidates to U.S. presidency, in the context that either he’s already leading one, or, if not elected, one is about to break out.
However, even when discounting the implicit alarmism in such assumptions, it’s not clear that the word is properly invoked, or that its proponents are even fully aware of its meaning. Specially when they call Sanders the only candidate for change.
Throughout history, of course, there are many eventful and indeed shattering instances of political revolution, when people’s desire for a new day evolved into popular unrest and, combined with the right kind of political leadership, resulted in permanent change. Other times, though, things went nowhere fast, and it all wilted, at times violently, under the weight of convenience.
Also, the outcome of revolutions are unpredictable, even when guided by similar principles. French and American revolutions are good examples: despite a common ‘power to the people’ theme, they’ve produced radically different results. While in the U.S. the process became at least functional within decades, France remained soaked in blood and intolerance for years.
In modern times, however, ‘revolution’ generally follows a well-known pattern: popular unrest at first, and then coronation of yet another strongman or party, who then proceed to dismantle or persecute the groups that prompted their ascent to power. The Arab Spring comes to mind, as do uprisings during the Cold War, all of them brutal and disappointingly ineffective.
Successful instances when populism rises to power and succeeds at establishing a new state, or at least, a new power configuration, seem to draw on revolt against dominance, as the case of Russia in 1917, and the wars for independence by former European colonies in the 19th and 20th centuries. But they all had, as did the American Revolution, a powerful, almost inexorable component to them.
Other instances only served to political manipulation of masses by skilled leaders, who used the ideal to power their own agenda. Mao’s Cultural Revolution, or the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran, to name two, could be cited as producing their own grotesque brand of oppression disguised as change. Thus, there’s plenty of reasons to be suspicious about the concept.
Sanders’ supporters, and the senator himself, would be eager to distance themselves from those historical examples. But words have meaning, and can bring about a whole slew of unintended consequences when used without much thought or context.
They’re likely seeking to contrast between their candidate and the campaign of fellow Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, which despite a huge initial lead in the polls, managed to squander it by sticking to bare-bone, and not always inspiring or fresh, tactics. To a great number of registered voters, the former First Lady lacks ‘likability’ as a candidate, whatever that means.
That, and of course, the Iraq invasion endorsement, close ties to Wall Street, a lurking President Clinton – himself a divisive figure – and the general sense that she dabbles on issues according to what’s trending, and not by a ‘personal’ choice.
That last point is an illusion, as are most issues related to appearances in politics. Still, Sanders has an impeccable public record, both as an elected official and political leader, and old YouTube clips of his career have generally bode well for him.
One wonders if that’s enough in American politics, however. Being slow at acknowledging the contemporary black movement resurgence hasn’t exactly helped him, and neither claiming, as some of his supporters do, that he’s an outsider in Washington.
It may be hard to accept but Donald Trump is indeed the only outsider this time around, as a self-appointed maverick who’s making it all up as he goes along. He may become the Republican presidential nominee even as the party implodes at certain point under the weight of so much money wasted to defeat him. Not even Trump, though, is calling anything a ‘revolution.’
Back to Democrats, the last time a platform generated that much heat among traditionally non-voters – a category that tends to recede a little but never hoovers consistently above the 30% average – was the campaign that elected President Obama.
And its arguable biggest disappointment was not exactly with the limitations of the office that segued the enthusiasm greeting his election, but the closing of virtually all newly opened venues of youth activist that were instrumental for his election.
It was as if the mobilization and efforts of progressive forces got all spent on the campaign, and nothing was left for what came after. When the new administration was sworn in, it was as if there were no further tasks to be assigned. History may correctly assess the causes for that, but even before it does, we may be heading for a repeat with the Sanders movement.
While Trump may have figured it all out, and win the nomination, the battle between the Democrat senators is far from over. But there’s reason for concern about what comes next, regardless the outcome even of the November general election.
There’s much wasteful rhetoric between the candidates’ supporters, including poisonous assertions about Sanders’ supposedly lack of electability, and ‘no difference’ between Clinton and Trump (remember Ralph Nader in 2000, about Al Gore and George W. Bush?), and little in the way of ushering the important issues of the era into the next administration’s priorities.
For climate change, affordable education, racial equality, money in politics, infrastructure and many other themes have been discussed by the candidates (Democrats but not Republicans), but where’s the coordinated response by communities directly affected by them? Activists may lose their voices trying to talk over each other, but once their candidate wins, then what?
Or is it enough to discuss to death better means of, say, raising the minimum wage without even bothering having wage workers actively involved in the discussion? Can we find ways to lead these to becoming the basis for the new White House or we are destined to drop them all for lack of local venues, or congressional involvement, to nurture and help them flourish?
It’s fine and peachy talk about revolution with friends and on social media, sign a few progressive petitions, and study with a critical eye our candidates’ platform and proposals. But name-calling won’t change what has to happen after Nov. 7: more than a new president, we’ll need a whole new constituency, still passionate for change. Have a great week ahead.

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2/15/2016 A Court Bully & The Presidents, Colltalers

Up to now, the Republican presidential race has been an expensive, shallow, and embarrassing public display of the worst of American politics, with as much interest to anyone who doesn’t stand to profit from it as a street brawl. This may change now.
The sudden death of Supreme Justice Antonin Scalia, and a slur all but lost in the blur of one too many, during the latest candidate debate, may alter the campaign from its current sheer madness to an actual point where the stakes may be too high to ignore.
That is because Justice Scalia, in three misguided decades of supporting deeply anti-social causes, and bullying his court mates to try to derail some basic achievements of civil rights era, was also a rabid opponent to any effort to address climate change.
Scalia was, of course, instrumental in the Supreme Court 5-4 ruling last week that temporarily prevents the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing President Obama’s policy on cutting carbon pollution from power plants by 32% by 2030. His vote gave a chance for coal producers and GOP states, to frivolously challenge the law, a tenet of U.S. climate policy.
After the Paris Conference, the U.S. has effectively seized the lead on initiatives to reverse climate change, and that leadership has already had a positive impact on other nations. Flawed as it may be, pressure on coal producers to comply are still vital.
But as recent as 2012, in a exchange with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute President Shirley Ann Jackson, he was still absurdly justifying his 2007 vote denying EPA the authority to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.
That rule had wide implications in the government agency’s ability to go after notorious corporate polluters, besides muddling the debate over the human role in saturating the atmosphere with toxic gases. But he wasn’t having any scientific argument.
‘The issue was simply whether carbon was an environmental pollutant or not,’ he explained. ‘I did not think it was ever regarded as that,’ he added undeterred. That view was also consistent with a statement, made during a 2006 court argument, that as a Justice, ‘I don’t want to have to deal with global warming.’ Well, now, no disrespect to the dead, but everyone will be better off that he won’t.
Despite all historical revisionist, already at full pace, about his positions, Scalia was never shy from chastising the only agency with teeth sharp enough to bite, albeit with little consequence, big oil interests in what hurts them most: the wallet. Now that profits are down (relatively) and solar and wind energy sources are becoming a reality, they will badly miss his handouts.
The other component of the Republicans’ campaign that suddenly acquired a more transcendent meaning, came out of what’s been a bloody cockfight between lout demagogue Donald Trump and a particularly mediocre field of contenders, including Jeb Bush.
During the Saturday debate, hold on to your seats, folks, he said that George W. Bush not just did not keep the U.S. safe, having 911 happening, but also, shocking, shocking, lied to the American people in order to get into the ‘big mistake’ of invading Iraq.
Isn’t amazing that no one has said that before? Seriously, though, coming from the frontrunner’s loud month, it has to cause a profound schism within the entire party. Which, from top to bottom, past and present, has yet to even acknowledge the facts.
By now it’s common sense that the Bush administration ignored warnings about Osama bin Laden, and then artificially engendered a monster of its own creation, in the figure of Saddam Hussein, in order to pursue a prefab Middle East agenda.
For all the decade-long slurs and name calling fest that GOP debates have become, that’s one sticking point that may extrapolate the confines of the campaign and provoke yet another round the public debates over the Iraq war. Because, well, Daesh.
The ascendancy of a murderous Islamic gang, bent on topping what even during al-Qaeda’s reign of terror in the years leading to the new millennium, and a decade into it, was exceedingly cruel and despicable, can be directly traced to the disbandment of the Iraqi armed forces, and the chaos of carnage, missing billions, and sacrificed lives that greet the U.S. ‘liberators’ in 2003.
After almost 5,000 troops dead, half a million maimed to life, and an inestimable multiple of that in combatants and civilians, no one from the previous administration, or those who took the Republican bastion from them, has publicly taken any responsibility. It’s unlike that they ever will, given that Jeb and most of the others love to aggrandize Bush’s legacy. Despite following it up with promptly debunked half truths about his own role during the invasion, Trump may have done us all a favor.
There are unresolved issues that still trace us back to 911, and the facts that led to it. From the still on Afghanistan war, which killed more civilians than ever in 2015, according to a United Nations report, to the nightmare of security and surveillance states preying on citizens, apart the periodic explosion of bodies in terror attacks, not even Orwell could’ve envisioned it being so bad.
Now if only Democrats would seize the moment and turn that into a progressive discussion over public accountability and transparency, it’d make a huge difference. For what their own campaign may lack in grandstanding, it has plenty of hot air too.
President Obama may have an opportunity to advance the climate change agenda that benefits us all, and the American people, another chance to meditate on the arguably greatest mistake of this generation, the Iraq war and what it meant to the world.
That, however, is for another time, lest not bore to death our overseas readers with American politics. Even that at some point, we’re bound to pay attention, just as with the current glacial temperatures in the Northeast, for now, stay safe and have a great week.

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2/07/2016 What Else Is On This Bite, Colltalers

The irruption of the Zika virus, now detected in 23 countries, is the latest global scare do jour. It’s what the Ebola virus had been and what many others may become: a virtually invisible threat that periodically sponsors our collective nightmares.
But it’s neither a new virus – none of them are – nor the worst happening now or at any given time. And if we can hold the paralyzing hysteria for a second, it may actually shed light into two crucial issues of our age: abortion and child brides.
That’s not making light of the devastating effects Zika is visiting upon those communities exposed to its outbreak. Fear of widespread microcephaly is indeed worth of an international effort to contain it and develop a quick vaccine against it.
But the pressure on societies that still deny women their reproductive rights has a new-found momentum, and a public debate over it is all the more relevant in the long run. Which means, suddenly, the ever so smiling Pope Francis is on the spot.
In fact, if anything, that may be the perfect moment for him to move from rhetoric to more substantial actions, and confront the obscurantism of the Catholic Church head on. It’s the right time for the ‘progressive pope’ to own his P.R. mantle.
That kind of public discussion should be welcome, of course, and its timing couldn’t be more appropriate. After a few years basking in the glow of a populist image of change, Francis may have hit a snag. Call it overexposure fatigue, if you would.
But if this moment is ideal to revive and reaffirm his avowed intention of bringing back Catholics from the brink of social irrelevance, even among other religions, somehow we have our doubts that he’s looking forward to re-engage the Vatican.
Rome conservatives seem to be slowly regaining the upper hand, as even the commission in charge of investigating priest sexual abuses is beginning to look as if it’s going nowhere fast. A female clergy and abortion issues may wane as well.
But assuring rights for women to make decisions affecting their futures, and that of their communities, is crucial to address the threat of Zika, and not just because there’s a heartbreaking birth defect involved. The church must be on board for that.
Time and again, women have been at the forefront of infectious diseases outbreaks in poor countries, and considering their vital role as a force for social stability, entire communities are directly at risk. More so if choice equals a crime and a sin.
The other issue that may be highlighted during this crisis is the either religious-promoted or poverty-driven, or both, child marriage institution. Ingrained in Africa and Asia, it’s also common in much of the Polynesian islands and Latin American countries, in what has been established as pathways for this virus, all the way to New York, via U.S. backwaters.
‘Children should not have children,’ specially physically and mentally challenged ones. Guess who’s going to handle this extra burden of social responsibility? yes, adult women who are not even free to make their own reproductive decisions.
Somehow the backlash always comes to, well, bite back women, being armed conflicts, refugee crisis, extreme poverty, race or sexual discrimination. If church, and us, are not willing to challenge the status quo, why bother with anything else?
But apart the focus on Zika, the world is not holding anything back. North Korea and its mad dreams of leveraging nukes for power, and political instability in Haiti, are but two, not completely unexpected, also-ran bad news of the week.
Fortunately, for millions in Brazil and elsewhere, it’s time to dive into that Hedonistic pagan party, carnival, while billions throughout Asia celebrate a new year today. And why not? we need to be glad to fully exist, virus or high water be damned.
We’ve been doing this way before war, diseases, social mores, and religion have tried, and failed, to spoil the fun of being human. Enjoy the Year of the Monkey and Fat Tuesday. And congrats to Peyton Manning, his beautiful career and great win for the Broncos.

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2/01/2016 Following the Bouncing Ball, Colltalers

The sports world is under an expanding cloud of suspicion and corruption. Virtually, all major sports face a confidence crisis. And yet, excellence still rules and records keep on falling. Some even required new standards to be appreciated.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that, as money continues to pour into the opaque structures of organized sports, so are claims of fraud, game fixing, and illegal betting. But whether responding or not to it, elite athletes keeping on pushing farther.
Allegations of corruption, health risks, and influence peddling have done little to diminish attendance at big arenas. And leagues and global competitions still command obscene amounts of cash, from sponsors to moguls with shady agendas.
Let’s start with football, soccer for Americans, and the implosion of its normative organ, Switzerland-based FIFA. An ongoing probe has already produced arrests and lifetime bans to many officials, besides uncovering a multi-billion dollar global scheme of kickbacks and off-the-books deals. It may finally break a century of ingrained corruption.
Yet, the sport is at an all time high, both in popularity and profits, at least at a club level. It has bred a great generation of incredibly fit players, whose achievements have to be accommodated under a whole new set of standards.
King among them is the Argentine Messi, whose feats in the Spanish Liga top a talented field, even though neither he nor his top challengers, Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo and Brazilian Neymar, ever won a World Cup. Club performance has finally outpaced the quadrennial tournament that used to be the gold standard to judge excellence in soccer.
Neymar, who’s been accused of hiding taxable income and allowing the price of his transfer to Spain to be manipulated, has his star on the rise and many name him as Messi’s successor as the world’s best, with or without a cup win.
It’s a different era and Pelé, the Brazilian considered the best player ever, with three world titles and over 1200 goals, would have arguably a hard time shooting to the top. Messi won’t win as many titles even if he may someday outscore Pelé; but he’s definitely richer already. And so are a few dozen players, who also happen to be savvy businessmen.
German Bundesliga is the other major European organization battling corruption claims and heaping profits, just like the Italian Serie A, perennially plagued by accusations of game fixing, continues attracting enthusiastic crowds.
Speaking of sports as a multi-billion dollar business, all major American sport leagues have been at the crossroads between proving themselves viable or risking becoming toothlessly over regulated. But have also never been richer.
A week from the Superbowl, sponsors anticipate record profits, even after a terrible year for the league’s P.R. Research on health risks, arrests for domestic violence and drug busts, and coaches and players accused of spying on rivals, cheating, even deflating balls, who knows exactly why, have not hindered the game’s popularity and expectations.
In its junior version, College Football, health hazards and troubles with the law are also norm. Plus the aggravation of forcing unpaid professionals to support colleges and communities, without so much as a national conversation about it.
Rampant steroid use is a common denominator between American football and baseball, once the most popular. But it not just remains profitable despite an excessive number of games, it’s also big in some Caribbean nations and Japan.
Asia, incidentally, hasn’t been different and the combo profits and popularity, plus illicit activity feeding off the main menu, is eerily similar to what’s happening all over the world. Take its most popular, cricket, for instance.
Since 2000, there have been scandals of match-fixing, gambling, and sport ban to reccurring offenders, in Australia, India, and Pakistan. At the same time, some of its biggest, and wealthiest, stars can’t walk into the streets without being mobbed by fans. In Southeast Asia, the contrast between their social status and surrounding poverty is also striking.
From Olympic games to more localized, almost fringe sport modalities, the notion of fair play seems to have become an afterthought. From rugby to ice hockey, from figure skating to the Paralympic games, corruption allegations are often in tandem with risen popularity, and resulting increased sponsorships, from private and taxpayer money.
Even those driven by individuals, not teams, such as tennis and golf, have become targets for crooks out to make a (million) bucks, on the sheer (and correct) assumption that we’ll still be rallying and paying for the next ace or stroke.
In Europe and elsewhere too, the politics sips right through in. The refugee crisis, and the expected clash of cultures that followed, brought up ugly displays of racism and xenophobia, which now became too common in big arenas.
And yet, ticket prices continue to rise, sales of clubs and federations merchandise has never been so high, with a big help from the Internet, and teams and players find themselves working year around to meet a growing demand.
Every year, Americans spend more than the previous on their kids’ sport activities, despite the reality that professional leagues are dominated by foreign players, groomed and trained elsewhere before hitting pay dirt in U.S. stadiums. What all that cash produces is not fresh players but future consumers of big league sports. And that’s just fine with sponsors.
And an even newer phenomenon, that of billionaires purchasing multiple, international teams, is now a formidable factor to be reckoned with. They were always a feature of U.S. organized sports, but now are a worldwide factor.
Their presence helps inflate the price of transfers, and force teams to engage in a hyper driven schedule, to keep up with multiple competitions and off-season global tours. Put it bluntly, for owners, teams are just a way for ducking taxes.
Since time immemorial, no world leader has been oblivious to the idea of the circus as a tool for mass control. Still it’s remarkable how entertainers have carved a niche of their own too, in the modern society’s pantheon of made-up heroes.
Whether some of them are willing to use such power for social change is up to discussion. Some, without fully giving up their traditional role of cash cows, have indeed become more politically aware, beyond the upward mobility cliche.
It’s not always that way, of course. But even knowing what we now know about organized sports, and its not so noble aim at distracting people from demanding social change, hasn’t prevented us from still following well chiseled bodies chasing a ball for glory and a big paycheck. And we always count their wins as our own personal victory.
Not all is as silly. We may feeding this frenzy, by pushing our kids to win, even as we lie er tell them that what’s important is to compete. To many parents, that means kicking them out of the house to not spending time with them.
To some of us, there are few life pleasures as witnessing other people compete, while we, well, watch. The flip side of such carefree sensation, however, may be the human beings being auctioned, or enslaved, or discriminated against.
A different way would be to teach kids a higher sense of morality, along the physical exercise, and demand absolute transparency in the global business of sport competition. Perhaps then, we may be able to restore some of that classic ideal of beauty and self-sacrificing implied in the practice of sports. In the meantime, keep kicking that bouncing ball.

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1/25/2016 Losing Cats & Whales, Colltalers

‘Scientific.’ That’s how Japan calls its annual slaughtering of minke whales, which it resumed last week, defying public opinion and a 1986 international ban. While it disregards current wild life preservation efforts, it’s not an isolated act.
Just as last summer’s unconscionable killing of Cecil, the beloved African lion, by a prize hunter, didn’t halt the booming bred-for-hunt industry, what follows grief over violence against animals is more often inaction than institutional change.
One of the most disturbing trends, captive breeding of big cats, is actually increasing in Africa and in the U.S., even as their numbers in the wild are quickly receding. It’s not just that the morals of raising such amazing animals for the enjoyment of a few wealthy individuals is utterly questionable. But that such practices result in poor genetic pools due to in-breeding.
It produces disease and physical deformities-prone animals, that could never survive if released. Unfit to replenish the diversity found in nature, they could also represent a high risk of rushing extinction if in contact with wild populations.
There are now more big cats living in the U.S. than anywhere in the world, but the great majority of them has been raised in captivity. Since, thank heavens, they’re not bred for being hunted, there’s also the issue of how to create enough sanctuaries to provide for aging animals whose amateur caretakers are no longer capable, or willing, to see to their well being.
That kind of distortion, of allowing individuals without training or unaffiliated with any program for wild life preservation, to raise wild animals, is but one of many discouraging signs related to this issue. Others could be the proverbial lack of funding for research, and even the impossibility of preventing wars from displacing them from their natural habitats.
Which is not to say that indignation about cruelty is meaningless, or not much has been accomplished to protect land and sea creatures. Despite our diminished attention span, there’s progress in several fronts, whether or not we learn about them.
Take the global trend of phasing out animal acts in circuses and zoos, which started with elephants and now is slowly involving big cats, apes, and some birds, while other species may be also considered soon. But, again, change takes time.
For every major zoo in a big city such as New York, London, or Amsterdam, that has or is in the process of eliminating exhibits of big, endangered species, thousands of others continue to abuse them for the sake of selling a few extra tickets.
The same with some of the world’s biggest circuses, such as the Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey, which vowed to end the century-old practice, even as animal rights groups press for it all to happen much sooner already.
Even countries formerly from the Soviet Union bloc, such as Kyrgyzstan, where traveling dolphin shows, called Dolphinariums, long-banned in the West, remain popular, are under pressure to do way with that kind of entertainment.
In the U.S., after a string of deaths and instances of animal mistreatment, enterprises like SeaWorld have struggled, as audiences seem less interested in paying to see lifelong captive, small tanks-confined performing whales and dolphins.
Even though trapping and displaying wild beasts as a form of mass entertainment dates from thousands of years, collecting animals in zoos, for study, or presenting them as part of variety shows, as in circuses, are relatively recent.
The post Industrial Revolution years were marked by increased demand for leisure activities and urban entertainment, and attractions centered around exotic animals drew big crowds, curious to see them performing stage routines.
For over a century, there was no other way for people in the West to come face to face with a wild animal, and that also helped to create a new found awareness of the natural world. But we live in a completely different era now.
The steppes and jungles of Africa, Asia, and Latin America are no longer as mysterious as they once appeared, and even without ever leaving her room, a child of the 21st century can experience and understand what lays beyond it.
There are many contradictions and unresolved questions at the core of the international movement to preserve wild species, and the race is on to find ways to do it best, before they all vanish as many already have. No excuses for inaction, though.
There’s a lot that can and is already been done about preventing a mass extinction in our lifetime. Many are small, localized acts. After Cecil’s death, for instance, it’s now illegal for hunters to bring back to the U.S. their big game ‘trophies.’
No disrespect to groups and organizations which, in ways aggressive or not, have been pushing for a different approach, it’s often individual actions, focused bills here and there that may do the trick of changing our mentality about animals.
And then there’s a major, civilized, admirable even nation such as Japan, which along with Norway and Iceland, has the power and resources to advance the issue, but instead, dials it back at least 50 years. Their resistance, though, may not last, given the continuous pressure by the Japanese, and Norwegian, and Icelandic people. They should count on us too.
For conditions do change. Economic interests shift. New ways of thinking arise. Something can always be done. It’s either that or an incredibly depressing world with no animals, left to people who did not avoid their demise. Have a great one.

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1/18/2016 Our Horse in This Race, Colltalers

It’s inaccurate to say that the U.S. presidential campaign is about to get started. Although the July Republican and Democratic conventions, and the November election, are all fast approaching, we’ve already been in the thick of it all for at least the past two years.
From a GOP standpoint, a state of ‘permanent campaigning’ has been declared the moment President Obama took the oath of office, in 2008, and it only got louder, as his two terms progressed. The difference is that now, we’ve got an idea about his successors.
Well, good day, dear readers, and welcome back to our weekly homily (?) about the state of the world that extends a few inches beyond our bellybutton. With American politics, we’re picking it up right where we left, due to its obvious global relevance.
If you’ve been distraught, at times, and appalled, ever so often, by U.S. foreign policy and heavy-handed conduction of world affairs, and not particularly impressed with this president’s successes, we won’t lie to you: things have the potential to become a lot worse.
You may also consider yourself luck if you haven’t lived in the U.S. in the past decade, or last few years: you’ve been spared a disturbing display of brutal street violence, along an equally criminal inane political debate, to discourage even an eternal optimist such as yourself – or someone you know. Racial tensions, economic inequality, and an overall foul mood have been all but a given.
And so has a sorrowful defeatist attitude towards real change, a deafening silence by Americans who seem resigned to accept a Congressional term devoid of any spine, that for the most part exercised blatant subservience to the interest of corporations. At most of every turn, this legislature has made sure that social welfare and ‘justice for all,’ for instance, were not in any way championed.
And yet, most representatives have been rewarded with reelection. Almost as if acting in tandem, the Supreme Court has also done its part in depleting important elements of citizenship, from the Voting Act to financial transparency of the electoral process, i.e., money in politics, to women’s rights for full healthcare, to church-state separation in public policy (and buildings), the list is long.
Throughout this legislature and justice cycle, important rights about immigration, fair trials, disclosure of citizen surveillance, and many of the achievements of the Civil Rights movement for racial equality, have been either assailed or downright ignored.
Granted, there were specks of light that, given their relevance to society, deserve to be lauded here, such as the Supreme’s decision on the Fair Housing and Affordable Care acts, as well as the landmark legalization of same-sex marriage in all states.
But most of these important issues, catastrophically covered by a damagingly biased media establishment, has been reduced to their most polarizing essentials and villainized to death by hate-mongering pundits. And the majority of the current crop of a dozen or so candidates to president have shown no ability to approach such issues without falling into a sophomoric name calling diatribe.
It’s come to a point when it’s no longer possible to get a straight piece of information from the traditional media, not if one doesn’t do due diligence and check multiple sources. And that’s not just unfair, but impractical to be required from a would-be well-informed voter. The Internet does offer those alternative sources, but only amid an even wider array of misinformation and hidden interests.
It’s impossible, and dishonest, to speak about the American political process, and not to position oneself in either one of the sides of the equation, the two major political parties. So, full disclosure, Democrats have not been the solution for a long time, but if the alternative is what we’ve seen from the Republican front-runners, it’d be completely insane to support a White House gear change.
If the GOP current political discourse is any indication, a Republican president would immediately destroy the few achievements of the Obama administration concerning, above all, the environment and the threat of climate change, along with Obamacare, the work-in-progress universal health care coverage system, and some of the no-nonsense decisions the president has fortunately got right.
Also, after the disastrous Bush terms in office, the U.S. has slowly regained its leadership position, beyond its reductive and more often than not disruptive role as world police. Despite his critics, President Obama did restore some dignity to the country’s position in the world, and, for a change and in no small measure, for what was accomplished with the power of its diplomacy, not guns.
Iran, for instance, whose sanctions and threat of a nuclear conflict have been lifted, at least for now, has become a poster nation of sorts of some of those accomplishments. Yes, it’s still under-acknowledged and mostly treated as an enemy, but there has been undeniable progress in its situation as a world pariah of just a few years ago. Now if only the same could be said about Saudi Arabia.
Regardless, we’d rather have a million times an Iran speaking its mind than as a secret purveyor of world terrorism. Again, what about the Saudis? And yes, there’s Syria and the tragedy of its nation-shattering civil war, right in front of our eyes, and the multimillion waves of refugees that it’s generating. And there’s also North Korea, and Israel, and Yemen, and, should we stop now?
The point is that these and other problems are everyone’s responsibility, not a single, military power. We ‘cant’ try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis, even if it’s done with the best of the intentions,’ the president said on his last State of the Union, Tuesday. Which would sound arrogant coming from any other country but the U.S. Coming from us, it rings true.
This ‘nation rebuilding’ rhetoric, thoroughly debunked in Iraq as the tragic fallacy it really is, is a built-in addiction that comes from putting too much currency on the ability of guns to solve the world’s ills – and of course, having too many defense contractor mouths to feed. Elevated into national security priority status, it only brought us derision and fear from our allies.
But it was clearly not an accident or by-product of the U.S.’s multiple military adventures. It was consciously sold by the Bush administration as a panacea that would justify the carnage and pillage that preceded it in Iraq. Despite being prevented at the last minute from being applied to Libya, it’s now being advocated by Pentagon hawks, as a Hail Mary solution for Syria.
It’s a complicated world out there, but even as an understatement, such realization would embody a terrifying reality if Americans do not choose wisely their next president. So far, there haven’t been many reassuring signs that the current crop of Republican contenders to the White House are up to the task, even though the Democratic field of two has problems of its own too.
While Donald Trump and Ted Cruz lead the GOP race, and have begun an open, all out but ultimately witless and disgraceful battle to be the nominee, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have each a huge handicap of their own.
The first would-be U.S. female president was never closer to achieve what has eluded her since her days as a First Lady who had to, er, swallow her words and sing ‘Stand By Your Man,’ while still residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave: legitimacy as an elected leader.
Such careful qualification is required, for few believe she’ll overcome another element of her handicap to be sworn in: honorability as a politician. In fact, she hasn’t been able to shake the public perception that she’d cut off her own foot in order to get elected.
That’s not an uncommon perception about politicians, though, and to be honest, it’s actually considered a compliment, if paid to male candidates. Alas, she’s not getting any free passes on that one, as no woman would from the mostly conservative U.S. electorate.
But if you have a problem running for president just because you’re a woman, and think that being a man would give you a pass, try being a Jew and old, for measure. In the case of Bernie Sanders, add also the fact that you’re not exactly attuned to black issues.
That’s a crucial demographics for Democrats, and a mere six months from the convention, he’s already behind it. Yes, Sanders does have a lot to cover, even when one ignores for a second how Americans value image over substance, and youth over anything else.
Neither Clinton nor Sanders can do much about that kind of shortcoming, but both could run on the two things that set them apart from recorded history: gender and ethnicity. It’d be refreshingly specific, rather than look phony by trying to appeal to everything and everyone. Besides, only a hypothetical black Jewish woman, running on a socialist platform, could appear more progressive than that.
That bounces the ball dangerously back to the GOP corner, and they’d be sure to use it to their advantage. Problem is, what does Trump, Cruz, Rubio and all the rest have to say to black families, whose young have been targeted by law enforcement, to whom discrimination is an everyday occurrence, and whose national income averages pale in comparison with whites, and Latinos?
Speaking of them, if Democrats have usually counted on the black vote to win, and Sanders needs to catch up with that real soon, Latinos may sink a Republican win, if anything, on the account of them failing to put forth a viable immigration reform plan.
These issues will certainly be regurgitated as the year progresses, on an even more chaotic way that this post have lined them up. Credit that to us being a bit rusty, if you would, and don’t forget to add to the mix all variables that may sway the outcome of the election. Climate change, race, civil rights, income inequality, are all worth discussions leading the way to Washington DC.
But one last big theme has sadly fell out of sight in many past voting cycles and we, for one, would like it to top them all: world peace. In fact, even the president haven’t been mentioning much about our need to reverse the world to a state of relative, possible peace.
And that’s lamentable. Today being Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the U.S. is as appropriate a time as any to refresh that almost forgotten concept: it was part of his dream, and it should be part of ours. Give it another shot and have a great one.

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12/21/2015 Their Words, Our World, Colltalers

Another December, another end-of-the-year balance of the risks of news reporting around the globe. Spoiler’s alert: bringing the world to your doorstep has cost many reporters their freedom, at a price often paid with their own lives.
We’re not talking about those killed in one of the many ongoing wars. Or places where a free press is not a priority. Among the 20 deadliest countries of 2015, the Committee to Protect Journalists report names France, Brazil, and the U.S.
We’ll get back to that, but let’s first throw the spotlight on this month for two reasons: the 11th anniversary of Gary Webb’s strange death; and Donald Trump’s use of a Vladimir Putin’s endorsement to dismiss killing journalists as a serious crime.
There’s much to unpack here. To start, we’re weary of claims in defense of journalists coming from a politically right-wing TV pundit, even if Russia is indeed no reporter’s paradise. It’s actually downright bizarre having someone named Morning Joe playing the role of bastion of civil liberties while throwing softball with a journeyman he’s not far from endorsing.
We’d also call it all part of Trump’s headline-grabbing strategy, including his doubling-down of the statement, and phony doubting of Putin’s accountability. Above all, it displeases us to no end having to even mention their whole lot here.
As for Webb, who may’ve uncovered evidence of a CIA-Contra-crack epidemic link in the 1990s, and saw his career and character destroyed – the focus of a straight-to-cable movie released last year – his fight for transparency is still relevant.
Take the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act which has been stealthily added by Congress to the government’s budget and sent for President Obama’s signature. It’s virtually the same bill derailed last year by consumer groups and major tech companies, such as Apple, Twitter, and Facebook, for allowing the surveillance of citizens without a warrant.
That it became known that FB for one, had supported it, even as publicly opposing it, is now a non-issue. The bill faced little opposition this time because no one had time to study it as it was included at the 11th hour in the overall legislation.
Going back to the CPJ report, it names 47 journalists murdered in 2015, while covering crimes such as corruption, human rights violations, and politics. The list includes those killed at the Charlie Hebdo newsroom, in Paris, and six Brazilians.
In the U.S., the inclusion of the brutal murder of two Virginia reporters caught on live television, by a killer with a personal score to settled with them, makes sense as they were performing their jobs and died mainly because of that fact.
The murder of journalist Evanir José Metzker tops a terrible year for Brazilian news professionals. Behind it, and of 19 others killed in the past two decades, there’s only one reason: the probing of big land owner dealings in the north of Brazil.
What’s shocking, apart from the human tragedy and what it means for the country’s democracy, is the impunity and consistency that they’ve been happening, which not even a government popular among the poor has been able to tackle.
Once too often we pick the execution of a Mexican journalist by a drug gang, for instance, over the horrendous routine of murders of professionals in Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. From a humane standpoint, though, it’s all just as bad.
2015 has also brought the 500th day of imprisonment of journalist Jason Rezaian in Iran, and the continuous captivity of other 53 journalists around the world, according to Reporters Without Borders’ own report. That includes many held in Syrian and Iraqi, and let’s face it, those practically already sentenced to a horrible, possibly public execution by Daesh.
That realization being deeply disturbing as it is, however, should not distract us from the growing hostility U.S. authorities have been showing against reporters, even if for different reasons and with many obvious attenuating factors involved.
When new restrictions are issued to news professionals covering a notorious political detention center such as Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba, as it happened last week, we do have a serious problem that compromises every American’s right to know.
In its warning about risks facing the press in Turkey, the International Center for Journalists has also called attention to the violent confrontations between police and participants of rallies for racial justice, such as in Ferguson, for instance.
Race and politics have indeed been at the core of incidents of police brutality. But the aggravating factor here is that, unlike the countries mentioned, freedom of the press is a constitutional right in the U.S., assured by the First Amendment.
Laws and constitutions apart, however, the point here is not to make martyrs out of those caught at the wrong place and time,while in pursuit of a piece of information that may or may not make it to our daily media coverage consumption.
Their sacrifice is our gain as citizens, but society is only worth if we all have the right to ask questions, write what we see, and speak truth to power, with no fear of retaliation. We’re taking a short break. Greet with hope the New Year, we must.

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12/14/2015 In Praise of All Summits, Colltalers

Let’s talk. Humanity may’ve been spared the ultimate doom a few times over by the sheer power of these three words. As another equivalent of a personal heart-to-heart concluded in Paris, this time on climate change, we should hold on to them for our dear lives.
The final document of the U.N. conference on the environment may not say much. Leaders of 195 nations may’ve wasted a lot of translator hours all week, without clear conclusions. But at the end of Saturday, there were a document, and that’s what we’ve got.
Of course, it could’ve been better. They could’ve at least established clearer monitoring regulations, for instance, or set goals in tandem with respect to human rights. Critics also heard little on climate change-damage already inflicted, unfairly, on poor nations.
It should be added too that there are always those demanding faster action, and a more radical approach against big oil and coal, the industries most directly responsible for profiting out of an economic model that’s progressively destroying the entire planet.
But we take what we get, and what we’ve got was clearer better than before. Here’s a thought to be entertained whenever someone shows impatience with this kind of high-level conference, for lacking ‘action:’ what’s the alternative?
The Paris Conference on Climate Change ended just as many before it, but a bit closer to what may assure us a tomorrow. Yes, there was a lot of wasteful rhetoric, a lot of grandstanding, and just as many attempts at clamping it down as the threat of terrorism, now a staple to scare everyone into paralysis, made it possible. But the good news is that, despite all of that, it did get closer to that future.
Among the resolutions, nations have agreed to keep global temperature averages from rising above 2 degrees Celsius (3,5 F) from pre-industrial levels; to be accountable about emission-reduction commitments, and gather every five years to check progress; and to support impoverished countries in their efforts to abandon carbon-based models for growth, without collapsing economically.
And more, but many may still say that it is not much. And it isn’t. Where’s the focus on preparing workers for the new labor market realities? How does the role of women as providers fit in this scheme, and what exactly will be done for boosting environmental literacy and education around the world? Enough unanswered questions to discourage even the stronger willed among us.
To some, all the money, and speeches, and contrived statements, and terse negotiations behind doors, along with the massive carbon imprint left from the conference itself, could’ve been better spent with the very problems these nations claim to be willing to address.
Perhaps. But so what? Like diplomacy, and peace talks, and special summits, and high-level security meetings, what’s not accomplished still beats the devastating consequences of not having tried. It’s the common denominator between those who say they’re ‘starving,’ for having skipped a meal, and those whose next meal may not come in time for saving them from starvation.
Peace talks, for instance, were two particularly vilified words during the 1960s. Mocked and reduced to a punchline, they reflected the public puzzlement of having so many of them without anyone knowing what the hell they were supposed to accomplish.
Well, surprise, surprise: the very real threat of an atomic bomb attack on a major city never materialized and guess what may’ve prevented that from happening? All those silly, tax-payer wasting, anxiety-fueling, and tension-ridden ‘détente’ talks, that’s what.
As a rule, we should all be weary about those who constantly ask for more ‘action,’ for their minds may be a tad too suffused with that American myth, of the unflinching hero, created mainly by those who scream that word for a living: Hollywood movie directors.
Even though for the majority, there is no way to confuse films with reality, there are still those who trust better the trigger and the barrel over the human ability of coming to an understanding, and we’re afraid that a significant number of them have Pentagon jobs.
So a summit is not a catchall or panacea, but as long as resolutions are reached, and common ground found, the negotiations table will always beat the carnage in the battlefield as a way forward. And, mind you, it’s no place for the faint of heart either.
Half-jokingly, others may add that, compared to what goes on between some couples and/or extended families, to invite someone to talk is always a better proposition that its cousin, ‘we need to talk.’ But let those sleeping dogs lie undisturbed for now. We digress.
As for the issue of climate change, and the consequences of rapidly degrading global environmental conditions, the ultimate task to be accomplished, the one no world leader, or expensive forum, can accomplish, is to change the hearts and minds of people.
That means you and I, and our relatives, and close circle of friends, our local communities and elected representatives, and specially, those under our charge, who depend of our example and actions to take upon themselves the commitments needed for it to advance.
There will be always talk, and thank goodness for that. But when it comes to action, we should trust ourselves rather than delegate it to armies and generals. They’ll be more than willing, naturally, but most likely, will make a mess of it all, as they usually do.
Here, a world of caution, though: don’t become an insufferable bore, preaching and torturing those poor souls who once dared to stick with you, and now have to endure you endless diatribe about how we need to save the world. For you may find yourself quickly on your own, with no one wanting to sit next to you at dinner parties. Plus, they will call you a dope behind your back. Just saying.
We don’t want that. And if we require yet more talks and summits, and endless discussions, and proposals that need much improvement, and ideas that are thirsty for support, so be it. Because, after all, what’s the alternative? Have a great one.

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12/07/2015 The Fault in Our Screens, Colltalers

With all due respect to victims of violent crimes, and their families and friends, there is such a thing as making even the aftermath of a tragedy worse. For instance, the gun massacre that killed 16 people in San Bernardino last Wednesday.
There’ve been already plenty of mass shootings in the U.S. this year. But what was shamefully different this time around was a televised media invasion of the suspects’ home, that was almost as despicable as the murders themselves.
For what appears to be an undue exaggeration – equating the violation of someone’s privacy to human carnage – may not be so when considering the callous act’s implications, and how poorly it bodes to the state of what’s deemed news nowadays.
First, there are the major media conglomerates, NBC, CNN, and others, which allowed their reporters to step all over any code of professional conduct to show, live, what was essentially a pointless ‘behind the scenes’ look at the accused murderers’ home. That they all knew that at least two other people lived in the house only attests their staggering lack of common decency.
They furthered their decent into the realm of unrestrained trivialization of a bloodbath by rebroadcasting parts of the invasion throughout the afternoon of Dec. 2, as if airing again, with pride, some Pulitzer Award-winning news segment.
Lastly, in what may be the most serious implication among a sorrowful collection of reprehensible acts, the media seemed to have endorsed one of the tenets of any authoritarian regime: that ‘criminals,’ and/or those perceived as such, have no rights.
Now, we may all argue whether the rule of law merits providing a shield to those who break it, and those close to them, until the bullets stop flying and guns are finally properly regulated. But the matter has already been long settled by this nation’s Founders circa 1776. And their decision is that, yes, it does, and anyone who chooses to ignore it is also breaking the law.
When we declare that the assumption of culpability is enough to move to an unrestricted punishment phase, we’re opening the gates for the same to happen even to those whose possible misdeeds are not yet judged by a court. Which means, all of us.
For one of the greatest strengths in the arsenal of any democratic society is its ability to use well established weights and measures to gauge a criminal act, and promptly isolate and protect all elements, and people, non related to the act itself.
Which means that one of the San Bernardino killers’s mother should’ve never had her personal data displayed in front of the cameras. And that their baby shouldn’t have to become a sideshow for wild speculation about his or her parents. That these two are alive and will have to somehow pick up their lives after all that atrocity should be enough of a punishment.
As is, the media companies’ behavior became their own indictment, and why there’s a current discussion seeking to reevaluate the concept of what’s news. For there’s hardly ever a situation when the media itself is part the news, unless, of course, they’re the perpetrators. By irresponsibly inserting themselves in the middle of a story, they showed lack of judgement and ethics.
Naturally, we’re purposely leaving out the overall context of what happened last week, the brutality of the act itself, the killers’ probably insane motivation, and what every other piece of news about it has invoked: that the death of 14 people plus the two shooters adds up to an increasing, and lethal, trend of deranged people executing people to prove an ideological point.
But whether one uses the system compiled by The Guardian, related to efforts to curb gun violence, which shows that we’re almost at a rate of one mass (four people or more) murders per day, in 2015, or the Mother Jones’ criteria, which excludes robberies, gang violence or domestic abuse, and counts four such incidents this year, either way is utterly unacceptable.
All misguided mentions of the 2nd. Amendment, the National Rifle Association’s lobby in Congress, race, or the political or religious affiliation of the murderers notwithstanding, it’s important not to leave the media off-the-hook just yet. For the incident offers an opportunity to discuss their role as tools to understanding reality, which evidently they’re badly failing.
It may be a chance to discuss manipulation of the information to serve this or that purpose, an issue that resonates deeply within American society. Are we being told the whole story about this apparent rush to go to yet another war, this time in Syria? Do we know how many innocent civilians are being killed in the name of making a macho point against Daesh?
Even without having to pick a long list of important issues that are consistently ignored by news organizations in the U.S., for instance, it’s fair to wonder why there’s so much prime broadcast real estate spent on celebrities and irrelevant ‘human stories,’ while real American lives are being lost in so many places in the world. Or even why we’re all over in the first place.
When reporters took cameras inside a post-crime scene location, to expose the intimate but irrelevant quarters of a group of people involved in a terrible slaughter a few hours before, they’ve crossed the line from being journalists to become vultures. Like the paparazzi pursuing the famous for a buck, they’ve reduced an entire profession to a hunt and display game.
As a result, we’re once again fed a distraction, a diversion big enough to fill hours of news programs and talk shows, only to ultimately prevent us, then and now, from having an insightful understanding about what really happened that day.
It’s possible to enlarge the perspective a bit, to include the role police and the building’s landlord had. Having thoroughly searched the place, it’s inexcusable that investigators simply walked away, without sealing it.
That’s not just lack of ethics, it’s simply not following police procedures. As for the manager of the property, it may have been a miscalculation, but his attitude, and TV appearances, are no less questionable. The media, though, took it a step beyond.
One of the main principles of democracy is a free, uncompromising press, where the search for the truth is crucial so to inform everyone about what, when, how, and why something happened. Ideally. Broadcast is also a public concession, which means that taxpayers are ultimately the bosses of the media. Theoretically, but hardly enforceable. Money always talks louder.
Nevertheless, it is in fact a violation of its mandate, and a betrayal of the constitution, when the media neither inform nor exercise restrain covering the news. Such an omission should indeed be actionable. Since it’s not, we’re left with the realization that a lot about even an astonishingly cruel, but straightforward act such as the San Bernardino shootings will remain unknown.
Conspiracy theories aside, that shouldn’t be an excuse for stop demanding the truth from those who charge us to do just as much. Otherwise, left to their own devices, media organizations too may be performing a particular toxic brand of terrorism that no one with a conscience and minimal sense of compassion should accept. Happy Hanukkah and have a great one.

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11/30/2015 A River Died in Brazil, Colltalers

The Amazon usually follows any mention of the words Brazil and environment, but not this time. On Nov. 5, an iron ore dam in Minas Gerais suffered a catastrophic failure, spilling 60 million cubic meters of mine waste and killing 13 people so far.
The disaster flushed tons of heavy metal-saturated mud into the Doce river basin, and has now spread out into the Atlantic. Sadly, despite its timing, it’s unlikely that the U.N. Paris Climate Conference that starts today will focus too much on it.
Brazil’s government is filing a lawsuit against the giant multinational miners Vale S.A. and BHP Billiton, whose joint venture Samarco operates the wastewater dam, to create a 20-billion reais fund to pay for the environmental disaster.
Pardon our skepticism but that won’t be enough, of course, even if it ever comes to fruition. The scale of the preventable accident, along with the many ways big companies can weasel their way out of responsibility, and Brazil’s not so stellar record protecting its natural resources, conspire against any optimism about a solution. So let’s keep our expectations low for now.
Despite the ‘20,000 Olympic pools of toxic mud’ estimated to have spilled into the river, according to U.N. special rapporteurs John Knox and Baskut Tuncak, Vale for one has already denied that a major catastrophic event even took place. The company did detect led, arsenic, nickel and chrome along the river banks but nothing that they’d lose sleep over, apparently.
The envoys’ figure is appropriate to the situation, since Brazil is hosting the Olympic Games next year, in Rio, and has already been accused of lax oversight of the heavy pollution found in the Guanabara Bay, a site slated for water competitions.
It’s also fair to point the region affected, which practically lives off its river, whose name now sounds almost bitter – Sweet, in Portuguese – and the fact that Vale used to have it incorporated in its own name since its 1942 inception. It got rid of the Rio Doce denomination when it became a public company in the under-regulated fever of privatizations in Brazil in the 1990s.
It’s another big state-run company that used to be a proud centerpiece of Brazil’s economic prowess, along the now embattled Petrobras, which was also on the brink of being sold. Vale took the opportunity to grow exponentially, cashing on the demand for iron ore spiked during the emerging markets’ economic boom of the last decade of the 20th century and early 2000s.
Now, both Vale and BHP are pro-actively taking a page from the playbook oil giant BP has been using since the crisis of the 2010 mega oil spill it caused into the Gulf of Mexico, in the U.S., by trying to minimize the consequences of their actions.
If BP and its $20 billion fund can serve as an example, it’s unrealistic to expect that even a fraction of that, given the real exchange with the dollar, will be spent on the actual cleanup process, a massive and always inadequate undertaking.
It may get worse. There are still 11 people missing, and all estimates about the pollution’s impact on the region are preliminary at best. And then there’s the contamination of the open sea, as the wave of mud continues to expand into the Atlantic.
Brazilians usually adopt a defensive attitude whenever the world points fingers at their poor role as wardens of the environment treasures of their country. It’s one of the issues absent in the ongoing, and vicious, campaign against two-term president Dilma Rousseff, which invokes a number of issues, her critics say, that she’s irremediably failed at, to justify her impeachment.
Her spotty record on the care and protection of Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest, and the indigenous peoples who live there, however, was never among such issues. And it’s doubtful that what’s being called the tragedy of the Rio Doce will be added to them.
That’s a curious ambiguity about Brazilian politics, that some of the most visible matters that affect the future of their country, and the world, as the environment and land distribution, for instance, has been hardly ever part of the national dialogue.
Dilma, as she’s known in Brazil, won two grueling presidential campaigns by responding to a huge spectrum of challenges that never pressured her questionable decisions about the Forestal Code, for one, or arguable lack of original ideas.
As for the Climate Change Conference, to which over 150 world leaders are supposed to report their efforts and progress, and discuss some kind of global cooperation in the future, it’s already dominated by factors outside its original agenda.
Terrorism, obviously, will be a major point of discussion, even if no one will admit that, in the long run, it may not be more important than the threat of rising sea levels or extremely fast climatic changes. After the horrible attacks in Paris, that and the search for balance between security and privacy have practically dominated every round of global talks of any kind.
Even worse, there’s again pressure for more personal privacy compromises, even though it’s been proved to be a false equivalence; since 911, under the excuse of increasing security, a lot of concessions have been given without any visible signs of improvements in return. More often, it’s all used to settle government and corporation scores against individuals.
Then again, all of that may have the positive effect of undermining false promises and grandstanding rhetoric, while bringing forth more actionable plans to reverse the effects of violent whether, already experienced by two quarters of mankind or more.
Fresh ideas on how to tackle the general apathy and lack of funds most environment-friendly, technology-driven projects face, would be welcomed to bridge the still huge gap between innovation and the practicalities of viability and costs.
We’ll see. But the catastrophe of Bento Rodrigues, the little town created around Samarco’s caustic mining operations, is not likely to be central to world leaders’ short-span attention, dining and wining on our buck, in the name of the environment.
It all may be too local to move their needle, specially as the situation keeps evolving on the ground. At the most, they’ll issue a note expressing their concerns. Which means, it’s up to Brazil and the Brazilians to own the issue and find the solutions to it.
That may be complicated, at least for now. Headlines in Brazil have been about corruption scandals in the government, and by elected politicians, which is good, and nasty racism and class prejudice erupting on social media, which is definitely not.
But there’s reason for some optimism, in the form of past experiences, the lack of proper regulation exposed by the accident, and even the lessons learned in the aftermath of the oil spill in the gulf. Brazil shouldn’t be alone tackling such complex issue.
And neither should be anyone pondering about yet another troubled year. For, yes, 2015 could’ve been a much better one, but at least it’s about to sign off. Hopefully it’ll also take with it the bad news it brought forth. Meanwhile, here comes December.

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11/23/2015 The Right to ‘Disagree,’ Colltalers

No one knows why President Obama seems to believe that the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement will be approved by Congress before the end of the year. Or his term, for that matter. He should review what happened to the Obamacare for measure.
If his signature bill took most of his two terms and it’s still periodically challenged, despite having some significant public support, why would it be any different with the unpopular and, in certain instances, downright wrong approach to free trade, the TPP?
Even though it involves a record 12 nations, in the largest regional trade agreement in history, secrecy covering its 5-year negotiation period seemed to indicate that a lot that was being discussed would not exactly favor the interests of citizens around the world.
When a draft of its content was finally released, a few weeks ago, and some of those fears were confirmed, general suspicion over the rush to give it only 60 days for debating it, sending it for approval in Congress, and turning it into law, made even more sense.
For since early drafts were leaked this year, it became clear that this was a far-reaching accord requiring closed-door deliberations, in order to be ironed down according to the specifications of some of the world’s biggest multinational corporations.
That was never a recipe for guaranteeing rights and safeguards to the interests of the public. Now that much of those early suspicions have been confirmed, opposition to its approval will most likely grow, a fact that the president should be well versed on.
From labor organizations to food safety groups, from AIDS and low-cost generic medicines advocates, to free Internet defenders and environment activists, there seems to be a large swath of civil and minority rights willing to raise up their voices against the agreement.
If it’s reasonable to expect that corporations will fight tooth and nail to reduce costs and optimize profits, it’s also fair to expect that people who may be directly affected by a lowering of standards of their living and working conditions would be up in arms too.
Problem is, this fight is anything but fair, and while the big industry has the luxury of counting President Obama as an ally, common citizens and advocates have only a limited arsenal to provoke debate and challenge the TPP. Their proverbial ‘power in numbers’ platform may be hindered if the very tools of such power are strangled, as it would if the Internet, for instance, becomes private and ‘priceable.’
Shouldn’t the president, with exactly a year left in office, rather perfect the few things he got right, ask many hoping he would turn his attention to worthier causes, instead of being spokesman of an agreement with already so many fathers that his role will probably lose any meaning over time? Aren’t better, more humanitarian fights to list on his resume, and prescribe as legacy highlights, than this?
What about redirecting the Dept. of Justice’s priorities, for instance? Or consolidate diplomatic achievements of his foreign policy, so his successor would have no choice but improving it, instead of promising to dismantle it, as GOP candidates are saying they will?
It’s been said on this space that he’s a puzzling president, who seems to enjoy keeping his constituency always unsure as to whether give him unwavering support, or wait on the sidelines to see where he’s going with his latest moves. His support to the TPP proves the point.
Even the radical right core of the Republican Party, all for corporation rules and tax exemptions to the top less than one percent, and all that, has shown lately that they may not be on the same page as the president when it’ll come time to approve the agreement. Why? Just because it’s President Obama, for heaven’s sake, isn’t that already clear? But they will eventually turn around, of course.
There are no doubts troubling progressive organizations, always on the lookout for signs of the corporate finger over public policy. There’s no question about their weariness about the ultimate goal of this ‘free’ trade agreement. Why can’t the president take a page of theirs, or even his own, playbook, and check when their caution was unfounded, or when he got the support from the political right, like, ever?
To take on the hairy problem of health coverage in this country, the president counted with a record mandate, and at the time, a seemingly endless political capital. The fact that what came out of an excruciating battle, with all concessions he gave to an unwavering opposition, is still an often unaffordable system, far from the quality and accessibility of other major economies, should offer him a sobering example.
President Obama should snap out of this ridiculous cheerleading role, and focus instead on helping elect people who could take further ahead the more progressive issues of democracy, voting rights, right to assemble, free expression, that he’s arguably failed to advance.
After all, Wall Street, big corporations, the professional racist politics aimed at him can no longer touch him, and he may as well step down as a humanistic leader who pursued environmental protection laws, restored decency and proper decorum to the office of the presidency, and helped start a healing process between the U.S. and the nations that supported and fell slighted after the 911 attacks.
It’d be the least that he could do, since he won’t prevent weapon sales to human rights-abusing countries such as Saudi Arabia, or reengage parts of the world, such as Latin America, which were either relegated to the sidelines or heavy-handed by his administration. For Argentina, specially, it’d be a timely opportunity since it’s just elected the star technocrat of its conservative opposition, Mauricio Macri.
A week from today, he could start his honorable discharge from office at the Paris Conference on Climate Change with new environmental initiatives and a reasonable record to back them up. A lot of positive things can be accomplished in a year, rather than support interests of the still highly profitable American corporations. As for the TPP, we’re glad to disagree with this agreement. Enjoy the last of November.

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11/16/2015 Our Insane Heart of Darkness, Colltalers

129 death. 532 hurt. The grim tally of last Friday’s bloodshed in Paris keeps rises as grief and indignation overcomes the world. Once again, we’re frightened by an invisible monster who seems to erupt at random and violently rips out the lives of innocents at will.
But if there are many realizations about yet another act of brutal terrorism, its apparent open-ended expansion and choice of settings to strike, there’s also one that we’ve known all along about this sort of massacre, however horrific it may be: it teaches us nothing.
If anything, it only reinforces everything that’s wrong about our world, our mutual hatred towards people who don’t look like us, our misplaced sense of entitlement and patriotism, our abhorrent ways to seek total, and ultimately impossible, submission of enemies.
Even to pontificate on the sins of our age is also a by-product of going through this unrealistic exercise of searching causes that we already know for conflicts that we keep on making possible. In the end, it’s hard to distinguish which is more unbearable: to experience deep sorrow for the victims, or witness the callousness of political leaders, ready for anything that’ll boost their profile.
The only thing that this new massacre may have accomplished is also not new: it’s moved the needle a bit closer to the breakdown point. It won’t gather any more sympathy or repulse towards ISIL or terror groups just like it, nor was it designed to do so. Neither it will make any more acceptable the quasi-institutionalized doctrine of permanent war in the Middle East pursued by Western powers.
For every time that another terrible attack like these happens, we’re reset back to the same starting point from where all others took off. The needle is indeed moving, but all else, including us, seems stuck into an infernal repetition. Only the names change.
Thus, so to spare anyone of yet another useless opinion, one that has been stated on this space over and over, and that we’re sure, are multiplying all around as we speak, let’s keep this as brief as it should. Surely, we had to write about it, but there’s no need for eulogies about a disappearing open world of gentility and peace. Or another disastrous theory explaining it all, as if you were a child.
What? Will that justify yet another wave of bombings in some faraway land? of course. Will it be used to tighten our cities’ security and surveillance of all citizens? have no doubt about it. Is already prompting nauseating speeches about the sanctity of the human life and the absolute need to wipe out all radical militancy from the face of the planet? You bet. Will anything change? Are you kidding?
Pardon us if we seem too despondent as we pick up pieces of our own naivete, and ultimate failure to solve the problems of the world in just under-1200 tidy words, give or take a few. The world is really not enough, as we need to solve first our own malaise about it.
We’re obviously very sorry for those who died or got hurt in the most abject way, and for the fact that their sacrifice won’t change the way these things work. We’re so incredibly sadden that this is beyond history repeating itself as farce, one too many times. More likely, it’s history mocking our grip and willingness to withstand the consequences of our choices, however benign they may seem.
For if we really wanted to change this deplorable and ultimately unstable state of affairs, we would’ve done it already. But who’s interested in changing their thinking instead of preaching, and preying, on other people’s minds? Who even thinks that self-introspection and restrain have any value now? Perhaps more than we give it credit for, you may say.
As for that being enough, solely or along a plethora of self-improvement strategies, we’ll say what’s seldom said in so many bombastic recipes for world peace and understanding, complete with assuring techniques and even a great deal of compassion: we don’t really know. But we’ll keep on trying and hope someday you join us. Have an easier week ahead.

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11/9/2015 The President Who Baffles Us, Colltalers

Hard to guess. A common denominator about President Obama’s two-term in office could be its unpredictability. It was again on display last week, when he buried the TransCanada’s Keystone XL Pipeline project. Because it could have gone either way.
In fact, less than two years to the end of his White House residence, the president has already left a bewildering trail of seemingly contradictory decisions, which to some have been mostly liberal biased and to others, just plain, and deeply, disappointing.
That’s a premature and unfair assessment of his presidency, to be sure, as it’s been ludicrous the profoundly racist abhorrence he’s faced throughout his terms, mainly from extreme right-wing segments of American society, but also from the Republican Party.
Having received one of the greatest popular mandates of any high-office holder, on the account of his personal trajectory and gifted oratorical skills, the first African-American president proceed, once elected, to favor neither his racial constituency nor that of the great majority of progressive forces in this country, who had seen in him a perhaps unduly hope for real change.
Not that he hadn’t fueled such hopes during his presidential campaign, which explicitly traded in just such a word. Few at the time cared or could afford to sort it out between what was essentially his powerful way with words, or even his personal brand of integrity, from the political expediency required of any neophyte willing to break through such a high-stakes challenge.
That a black man with a name such as Barack Hussein Obama II would be elected a U.S. President was, in itself, a triumph of long odds of the first magnitude. But it’s also such a meaningful and overriding event, that even extraordinary acts of sheer benevolence that may have followed it, wouldn’t be able to rise above it without being completely overshadowed by it.
But President Obama neither betrayed completely all campaign promises nor succeeded much advancing some of the most crucial issues he told us he wanted to address, when he applied for the job. What he did accomplish was to keep us all guessing.
Thus, as soon as he took charge, he opted to go after health care coverage for Americans who couldn’t afford it, a worth cause long thought to be as untreatable as most cancers. For a moment, it seemed that the whole country, except his avowed enemies, was behind his efforts, and approved the fact that he was willing to employ his political capital in order to achieve it.
Then, a curious thing happened on our way to finally have, as most Western nations already have, universal medical coverage: the president buckled and allowed insurance companies to be his partners in the enterprise. Right there he wrote into the fundamentals of the new U.S. health care system the same rotten elements that have been undermining it all along.
He also immediately lost, if not the support, at least the enthusiasm of everyone who had given the matter a thought or two and concluded that only a so-called single payer system, i.e. Medicare for all, would work, no insurers involved, thank you very much. With them in the loop, costs could eventually fall, but not their ultimate control over how much we all pay.
After a two-year bruising battle, that pretty much emptied that ‘political mandate’ account he’d received, a system was finally in place, one that has defeated a record several dozen attempts at destroying it. But it’s also one that’s far from meeting the demand of millions of uninsured or underpaid Americans, besides being still expensive and lagging behind that of other nations.
It did help between 20 to 30 million citizens, even though establishing clear data about the system is depending on a number of factors – or what kind of source is consulted. Still much better than it had ever been and that’s a credit to his administration.
But it’s far from what those who voted him into office expected and likely the reason that they did not return in the same numbers, when his reelection came around. He won that one with the help of an almost completely different constituency, one that’s expected to rally behind front-runner 2016 presidential contender Hillary Clinton, and not her more progressive competitors.
The point though is that, for all his incredibly inspiring campaign rallies, which defeated not just Clinton but a whole prospect of things getting even worse for the U.S. than George W. Bush had managed to make them, the candidate Obama remains years ahead of President Obama in pretty much all issues the former convinced the nation that the latter would certainly accomplish.
Thus a comparison between the two continues to be a sobering exercise into where ‘politics of what’s possible’ radically differs from the perhaps too idealistic view that when a country comes together behind a gifted leader, things really change.
Just the other week, another major tenet of his presidential campaign has received the all but final blow: the promise of bring troops home. Not just the Afghanistan stay has just been extended, but he’s recommitted American forces in Iraq and now Syria, and left hanging to dry all diplomatic efforts to bring a pacific solution to the U.S. involvement in the Middle East.
Then again, reinforcing our central theme, such a disappointing decision is not, in any way, in line with others he’s made recently, including the arguably most transcendental one of his administration: the agreement with Iran over its nuclear program.
There are, however, at least three factors to be considered, before anyone is ready to discard the whole idea of a representative democracy as an effective instrument for social change and justice. And they’re crucial in the case of this president.
The first is the aforementioned racism. The hostility and malevolence that greeted Barack Obama in Washington have no parallel in the history of the Republic and it’s no wonder that racial issues have reawakened, if ever dormant, with a particular nasty streak of vengeance since he’s in office. Congress, specially, did its part undermining and trying to sabotage every one of his initiatives.
Secondly, if 911 ended the myth of an open society, the collapse of the financial system at the eve of his inauguration did the same for another myth, that of upward mobility. Instead of forcing a reassessment of big corporations and financial institutions as undue pillars of a nation’s economy, the crisis somehow boosted even more their power. Wall Street beat Main Street to a pulp.
Thirdly, for all he represents, even taking into consideration his rise from community organizer to a constitutional law professor, Barack Obama was always far from a political firebrand. Excepting his intellectual brilliance and the color of his skin, he’s been a moderate, who in Washington sought an Abe Lincoln-style consensus building in his decisions. And failed spectacularly at it.
In this context, his administration’s zeal prosecuting whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning and John Kiriaku, keeping for years prisoners without charge at Guantanamo Bay, despite such a blatant violation of international law, his lenience towards Wall Street – personally barring Senator Elizabeth Warren from going after it – all but seem to be part of right-wing pattern. Or is it?
Because it is not when one considers his rejection of Keystone Pipeline. Or the not comprehensive but still positive blocking of some Arctic areas for drilling until at least he’s out of the office. Or reducing carbon dioxide emissions. And a few others.
They all come with caveats, political concessions, crucial details missing, and/or altogether not really expected to be more than to make him look good on the books, even though many are not expected to last much longer after he’s out, unfortunately.
But that’s the idiosyncrasies of the political process for a president who has had to go alone in more issues than one, and at important moments lacked support even from his own party. Or call it pragmatism from the part of a leader who’s had his share of political burnings even before his hair began to turn completely gray as it’s often the case with people in high offices.
By most accounts, the Keystone Pipeline was not just the right decision but one that should have been taken at least two years ago, when it first came to his desk for consideration. Then as now, the picture was the same: while generating only a few dozen jobs, the project had huge potential for environmental disaster, all in the name of a dubious partnership with a Canadian corporation.
On the other hand, critics point that, overall, the president’s decision won’t have any meaningful impact on the hairy issue of transporting tar sands oil by a foreign enterprise through thousands of miles of American soil, which may still happen anyway. Which means that they see that more like a symbolic act, not related with our sick dependence on fossil fuels. Fair enough.
But it’s one of those things: a decision had to be made and it’s better that it went that way and not the other way. And we all just wish that many more just like it had also gone in the same direction. The Arctic again comes to mind. Next time, perhaps.
For now, we’re left with a puzzling president who, despite six years in office, remains close to completely inscrutable when it comes to decisions that may or may not influence not just his legacy but in certain cases our own future. Some, however, would call that refreshing, since it shows his willingness to independently sort his way out of political quicksand without sinking into it.
Perhaps. When it’s about the environment, we take anything we can. It may be all a political calculation for the upcoming U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris, in just a few weeks; after all, the U.S.’s desperate need to lead, in this case, coincides with the interest and desire of the majority of Americans. And the Earth certainly stands to gain with it. Have a great one.
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11/02/2015 The Beef With Going Meatless, Colltalers

There’s a common argument made about non-vegetarians speaking up against meat. Not unlike the suspicion that’d greet predators standing up for their prey, those not committed to a plant-based diet have hardly a leg to stand on when the conversation gears to personal choice and health concerns. Further clouding the issue, research on eating habits is usually biased by industry funding.
The Hitler’s diet factor often follows the demolition of would-be anti-meat preachers, turning the discussion into similar derbies about whose god is the best. A moot point indeed. But the meat issue is resilient, if not fibrous, and in recent years has involved a relatively unexpected, but powerful component: the environment or, as you’ve guessed it, radical climate change.
Overpopulation and income inequality have always been behind the depletion of Earth’s natural resources, and our ability for timely replenish them. But extreme changes in weather patterns are beginning to take precedence, responding for a whole array of concurrent illnesses of contemporary society, which includes wasteful means of production, monoculture, and many others.
The meat industry however is overdue for reevaluation, as it’s spending more and more of arable land, water, and government subsidies just to keep up with a growing demand. And that comes mostly from the U.S., closely followed by emerging China.
Meat consumption in these two nations alone has already reached an unattainable level, with potential to compromise efforts designed to contain it. You see, the world envies what Americans have had for too long: 200 annual pounds of meat per capita.
The industry is near total dominance among the food segment of the U.S. economy, despite a recent surge in vegetarian and vegan farming production. The so-called meat lobby in Washington is a powerful influencer of policies and has no match when it comes to protect and maintain its interests. Elected officials and politicians fear them even more than its close ally, the NRA.
Worse, most are not even aware of how much of their personal alimentary choices is dictated by a platoon of corporate lawyers working 24/7 to enforce favorable conditions to the meat industry to thrive. And thrive it does. In 2012, total meat and poultry production in the U.S. reached more than 93 billion pounds, according to the North American Meat Institute, an industry group.
Beef and ‘beef variety’ exports, too, are a weighty arm of trade balance, at over $800 billion exported last year only. That feeds a lot of lobbying dollars in Congress, used to ward off initiatives such as Meatless Monday. After a Dept. of Agriculture newsletter recommended employees to support the initiative, based solely on its health benefits, it had to back off, with a disclaimer.
‘The U.S.D.A. does not endorse Meatless Monday,’ read the terse statement just a few days later. Even taken out of context, such a position is an oxymoron, as promoting health habits for Americans is among the agency’s tenets. That is, until actual dollar figures come to the fore. The statement was followed by ‘spontaneous’ displays of support by politicians. Surprised yet?
Reality is, though, on the account of sheer power to fund and control votes and influence in the highest spheres of power, the meat industry’s contribution is not as nearly impressive. According to its own figures, meat companies offer direct employment to less than a million workers, which is a number usually associated to single manufacturers, not to an entire segment of the economy.
NAMI claims that U.S. meat production employs over 6 million people, but only when it adds what it calls workers at ‘ancillary’ industries, which may include everyone, from truck drivers to delivery people. They could even be vegans, for all we know.
But size and scope of an industry, be it politically powerful and articulate as it may, should not per se be an indictment of its product. Nor the fact that it may cause harm to public health, at least, not as far as free will and choice and all that are concerned.
What really may have changed the equation is the fact that current means of livestock production in the U.S. mostly, but many Western economies too, are not just inadequate but damaging to the environment. And unlike what some may have heard, the problem is not the cows’ farting either, but their dehumanizing, antibiotics-loaded living animals-as-food-product approach.
We’ll get into the inevitable animal aspect in a moment, but for any discussion about finding ways to feed billions in the most effective and sustainable way, it’s not always wise to take the moral or compassionate route. It can turn a rational search for solutions to a complex issue into an fruitless shouting match, usually won by whoever preaches the loudest. It never works.
Climate-changing gases, or the catastrophic droughts in California, Brazil, the Caribbean, and parts of Eastern Europe this year, can’t be resolved by deciding which set of moral or religious precepts is the godliest, even if such a matter could ever be settled.
Neither the devastating effects the return of El Niño is expected to inflict on world crops can be regulated based upon ancient rituals. Otherwise, thousands of sacrificed virgins to old gods of the weather would’ve really saved their peoples from extinction.
Which is not to say that a certain level of individual commitment and sense of responsibility doesn’t count. On the contrary, and it’s at display when such a well-heeled industry is frightened by a commendable but limited effort such as Meatless Monday.
Individuals do make a difference, even before they take the leap of deciding to stop eating meat, or at least, restrict consumption. Or not. Keep in mind that those who still have a choice of shopping for food alternatives, and can afford paying more for them, are not in the majority. As global Poverty Lines rise, we see less and less choice to most people, not the other way around.
And if compassion does not necessarily make for sensible public policies – or birth control by way of medical procedures wouldn’t be at all needed -, it’s still important for guiding personal choice. Which brings up the issue of animal-as-food vs animals as individual, sentient beings, here on their own volition, and not bound by any natural law to serve as our diet.
Even though animals do fulfill a vital agricultural role, turning inedible grass, scraps and garden waste into nutritious food, we’ve long lost the scale by which such role is in any way viable. While such model may’ve worked in the past, now it’s leading to massive environmental disruption, massacre of millions of corralled animals, and grow of a brutally unscrupulous industry.
Worse: all this unconscionably institutionalized cruelty, for which most of us remain oblivious or blissfully ignorant, has been consistently failing to make a dent on world hunger. Most likely, its product it’s mainly catered to the privileged and the well-fed.
We’re reproducing faster and faster, and yes, environmental damage caused by carbon fuels – of which the industry is one of its main pillars -, along geopolitical and, we grant it, moral quests, do contribute as much to an unbalanced and unequal world as the meat industry. Curiously, all these issues are, in great part, a global governmental failure to promote sensible policies for growth.
That does not exempt, however, the role of big, multi-billion dollar corporations, and their insane pursuit of the bottom line at all costs. Neither of what individuals can and should do, even if they have to take the lead where private and official institutions show no inkling to do so. After all, as it is, improving the world may be up to the Davids’ benefits, not the Goliaths.’
Many of us routinely forget the power of small decisions, actions we take every single day, and how they can compound to building a beneficial, or toxic, situation. What to eat is just one of such decisions, and albeit small, is obviously crucial.
There’s an argument to be made about how to go about changing the world, and a million discussions as to why nothing anyone can do will help it in any way. But it’s the power of choice between the two that may make any difference. So it happens that today is Monday, and no one will be asking you to stop eating meat. But just today, would it be at all possible? Enjoy November.

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10/26/2015 What Trips Israelis & Palestinians, Colltalers

There’s growing fear, even among some conservatives circles, that Benjamin Netanyahu’s drive to disenfranchise the Palestinians, as he panders to the Likud’s most radical, and paranoid, right wing views, may ultimately hurt the stability of Israel.
In the long run, his confrontational policies are sowing seeds for a state of permanent conflict in the region, strengthening both Israel’s traditional enemies and the Evangelical right, which’s fully invested on a biblical Armageddon-ushered Rapture fantasy.
Take his recent blaming of Hitler’s final solution on Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Palestinian leader and Great Mufti of Jerusalem during WWII. Designed to rally apathetic Jews against the Palestinians, it only made clear that he’s ready to do and say anything to ward off pressure from the ultra right. Even if that implies distorting history and using the Holocaust as a tool.
His statements may’ve fueled an emerging view that Netanyahu’s becoming a loose-canon, engaged in the impossible task of catering to an ultimately unsatisfiable segment of his party to whom only the absolute banishing of Palestinians will suffice.
In that way, it’s no wonder that he seems so aligned to the American Republican Party, which is equally under a radical brand of money-powered and irrational beliefs, that’s vetting only the more outrageous presidential candidates viable to get the presidential nomination. Not coincidentally, there’s also a very active religious wing operating here. We’ll get back to the GOP shortly.
There’s no need to qualify here any of these elements as ‘too crazy.’ Neither the prime minister’s political ambitions nor the state of Middle East turmoil are anything out of the extraordinary at this point, and both follow predictable patterns.
As for the increased influence of American Messianic religions over Israeli politics, yes, that is insane. Specially because it’s based on the assumption that, if all goes according to plan, Israel will be the seat of a civilization-ending conflict.
Millions of Americans take the Bible literally and believe that Jesus is about to return to Earth any day now. But in order for that to happen, some feel that they also have to lend a hand to the prophecy by boosting hatred against the State of Israel.
That twisted form of ‘support’ to Israel is often lost to many Israelis who welcome support from wherever they can get it, not many questions asked, apparently. But it’s definitely not lost to politicians who see it all as an opportunity to withhold power.
It’s that old story, some 2.000 years old to be more or less precise, that of a good warmongering as a sure way to preserve the status quo. And Netanyahu, who’s likely aware of the implications such a volatile combo may have for the future of Israel, the Middle East, and since we’re talking crazy here, the world, acts as if his own must take precedence over everyone else’s.
A quick aside before we get any deeper into this controversial theme. Every time we discuss Israel in this space we risk getting stuck in the mud of strong passions and very little rationality. But the subject does have profound implications to our world, and taking Israel politics to task offers an interesting albeit loaded possibility to understand a bit of what’s going on.
After all, much of what’s happening predates the modern State of Israel and can be traced back to wars waged centuries ago. We’re still trying to overcome that outdated view of the world as a battle field, without an unified approach to peace and tolerance.
How we get there, and we must, hinges on the fate of that part of the globe and also inside our most treasured possession as humans: our brains. Given what conflicting beliefs have brought us to, can we now try the seat of our conscience for a change?
It’s the gazillion dollar question, for sure, but it’s still worth identifying those who show no intention to prevent war and carnage, if it advances their political careers, and those trying to weight and consider the consequences of the current course of action.
The increased hostility between Israelis and Palestinians of late, however, is not exactly a change from what was already going on for the past decade or since Netanyahu’s been Prime Minister (he was first elected in 1996). But it still counts.
From the part of the Israeli politics, there’s been less talk of a two-state solution and more efforts to support settlers on illegally-taken territories. Also, either there’s been tremendous electorate apathy towards the political process, or Israelis simply agree with, or got used to, the state of constant fear and suspicion being fed daily by their leaders, the media, and skillful political bogeymen.
As for the Palestinians, in view of the overwhelming militarization of the State of Israel, they can only count on support from the international community to regain land and become an independent state. But count the GOP out of that equation.
In fact, going back to American politics and the quagmire Republicans have found themselves in, there seems to be this not terribly well-thought strategy of supporting Israel for what it’s failing the most: using the army in lieu of diplomacy.
By refusing to hold Israel’s leadership accountable for the failure of the two-state solution, and issuing blank statements in support of ‘our friends, the Israeli people,’ who’ve been short-changed by them, Republicans may be embarking on a similar no-win, unfulfillable quest to appease the most irrational fringe of the party. To which, even that is unlikely to be enough.
The current Palestinian stand also has its short-comings. Not the least of them is the vulnerability of its political leadership and almost non-existent institutions. That plus an overly Israel-dependent economy, the dire state of its social conditions, political cold shoulder from other Arab nations, and an overall feeling that they’re so impoverished that they lack clout to be heard globally.
These factors can always be changed, of course. Some add that the election of more progressive country leaders, being it in the U.K. or potentially in the U.S. and others, during the next couple of years, may also represent an important element of change.
Time will tell. Half-empty ‘cupers,’ on the other hand, point to the massive rise of money in politics and power-making machines as an overriding trend with the potential to swallow all others, however positive and beneficial to the majority they may be.
Speaking of majority, there are ways for increasing its participatory role in the modern democratic process, so basic needs for peace and prosperity can’t be so easily manipulated. We just need to pursue them with the same zeal we do our own interests.
Trying to find some balance on this impossibly complex equation is, of course, way beyond our ability. But history shows that even iron-fisted, thick-skinned politicians such as Netanyahu are also subjected to the ebb and flow of political change.
In his case, we’re all for it. And so should ordinary Israelis whose legitimate fears and security needs have been all but boxed into another building block of his on and off 11-year occupancy of the Knesset. For it’s becoming ever more apparent that Netanyahu and what he represents are major obstacles to peace and for Palestinians to reign over their fate. Have a great Halloween.

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10/12/2015 Blogging for a Change, Colltalers

This may be our 270th Newsletter, give it or take it a few (could never add math as a LinkedIn skill). Nothing to awe the competition, by any stretch, but still a chance to take stock. As to whether, being an opinion piece, it’s made any difference.
Spoiler alert: it hasn’t. Everyday, posts about ‘what I think’ fill up digital mailboxes, as if they count or make the world a better place. Plus all the ‘in this day and age’ soliloquies blaming social media for the explosion of individualism of our era.
And the one too many celebrities. And authors. And life coaches. And, yes, bloggers. Rather than let facts speak for themselves, we’re ever more obsessed about signing up common reality as ours, by adding our initials to it.
And off we go, claiming authorship over historical monuments (hint: take a selfie in front of one and it’s yours to keep); original ideas (heard of Spotify?); even the shared experience of living, which adds fathers and subtracts physicality: we’re quickly transitioning from a tactile world to one where the only part of our body that touches it are our fingers. Wearily.
The meaningless ‘but enough about me’ is almost always followed by yet another sanctimonious pontification. We claim to be tired of so much self-referential babble while proceeding to scribble, yet, another post on the subject. Plus the food pic.
Speaking of self-references, what this over-extended preamble meant to introduce is Blog Action Day which takes place Oct. 16. A global event run by different non-profit organizations since 2007, with a focus on human rights, poverty, the environment and other social issues, it’s been extending its reach to social media, activist groups and writers.
This year’s theme is Raise Your Voice. It’s far from the only blogging organization not about what to wear today, or how aliens took over the government at the early hours of 2001, but at least it’s about something within context.
To keep the record fair, blogging, specially of the opinion kind, is not unlike investigative journalism. Except for being easier and safer to write anything without proof or the hard legwork that it takes to filter gossip from real news. In the case of news print, for instance, despite all the advertisers’ muscle, such an ability has ultimately been its historical reason to be.
And journalism, of the courageous kind, with its extremes and potential to speak truth to power, still is a hazardous occupation. The point has been made painfully clear again this week, when an Iranian court convicted Jason Rezaian, on charges of espionage. The still unknown verdict will be appealed by the Washington Post reporter’s defense team.
A wave of assassinations targeting bloggers in Bangladesh, on the other hand, only confirms the worst suspicious about religious intolerance, which like authoritarian rulers, hates being challenged. It’s worse when they’re also religious.
However their spurious motivations, the four confirmed, and grotesque, killings so far this year place the country on the 12th position on a list of 14 nations notoriously hostile to writers. It’s compiled by the Community to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, as one of the most respected organizations fighting to keep journalism reporting free of violence is known.
It’s been a terrible time for being a journalist. The CPJ counts at over 1.100 the number of professionals killed since 2012, although others mention a lower figure. But considering their occupation, to report facts, even one’d be already too many.
Perhaps almost as tragic is the fate of those who are threatened or thrown in jail for reporting news that the powers that be dislike. It’s like an oxymoron to say that in the ‘land of the free,’ where freedom of the press is a constitutional right, they’d face jail time for refusing to name their sources, for instance, or play whistleblowers on disputes with the Dept. of Justice.
Risking overstate our case, there are also those who face persecution simply for playing the role of journalist, even without being one, academically speaking. Either working in tandem with established media vehicles, or independently, giving voice to wronged insiders, there’s a new crop of citizens willing to take up the risk of losing personal freedom for a cause.
Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, John Kiriakou, and others come to mind, none of which has ever stepped in a newsroom. But while reporting world-changing news, they’ve got the U.S. government going after them.
We mention these facts not to aggrandize what we do once a week in the crowded comfort of our own office. On the contrary, citing them only puts into perspective what we actually do, what it means, and whether it’s of much relevance.
For most bloggers are able and ready to answer that probing question: does the world need another opinion about this or that? Almost invariably, and no matter how self-invested some writers are, the answer is not just clear, but obvious: no.
Not that what we do is meaningless. Each of these 200+ newsletters has been tortuous to come by. We may be mostly gladly tortured, let’s add, since writing itself is, indeed, an one of a kind pleasure. But with that comes accountability.
Still, being confessional is not one of principles we’ve set ourselves to accomplish. Commenting on the news is, and as for this year’s Blog Action theme, raising our voice about worthwhile causes, be it income disparity, refugees, or money in the U.S. electoral process, definitely beats talking about Justin Beaver pics. Bieber. You know, this year’s Britney.
Before ending, though, let’s go over a few disclosures. This Week does have an agenda, and pet issues to boot, to which we come back to often. Also, there’s always a choice, whereas journalists on assignment, or facing a trial, usually have not.
We too suffer that common blogger’s cold, that is repeating ourselves, reaching the verge of preaching to a choir, or being excessively self-conscious about our limitations, which are many. But we do believe (beliebe?) in what we do and how it keeps us from wasting time feeling miserable. So it’s also a form of therapy. Whether it’s working, we’re not too sure.
Blogging can be great (the Arab Spring), a tool for change (Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept); or a waste (well, you pick that one). It can also be self-indulgent (editor’s note: the writer’s thumb is turned against his chest), redundant (Supermodel _______’s Musings), annoying (Trump properties anyone?) or downright scary (any religious/militia recruiting sites).
It’s also as vast and vulnerable a medium as the Internet. Which means that any day now the ones with no sponsorship and low bandwidth (editor’s note: he’s doing it again) can be swallowed into the void never to be accessed again, taken over by hackers, or raging trolls, ready to gripe about even a peaceful site with Zen meditation instructions for the common man.
Meanwhile, we’ll occupy a corner of your Monday mailbox till you say stop, or other factors play on. And the message may vary but will be as consistent as it’s been for five years: write something you can live with. Have a great week.
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10/05/2015 Beyond Borders & Wars, Colltalers

In a week that has had its fare share of breaking news, to pick the U.S. tragic bombing of a hospital run by the volunteer organization Doctors Without Borders in Afghanistan as the one with the most resonance and implications may be at least highly arguable.
But neither the Russian strikes in Syria, whether against ISIL or, as the U.S. charges, forces fighting president Bashar al-Assad, nor yet another massacre by a gun-lover maniac at an American school, have as many layers to unpack than what happened in Kunduz.
For it’s frightening but predictable the fact that President Vladimir Putin apparently thinks that taking a more active role in an already messy civil war will, somehow, change its course. Most likely, it’ll reposition his country as another formidable foe to peace.
And there’s been expected dissatisfaction with the Obama administration’s course of action till now. Which doesn’t mean that a switch from preaching non involvement while arming a network of rogue activists behind the scenes will necessarily bring home the bacon.
The world is in fact astonished to realize that once again the stage is set for another dangerous Russia-U.S. confrontation, with no role, or foreseeable benefits, left to anyone else. And that both are clearly focused on accomplishing their own goals rather than Syria’s.
Even if one sees the former as having more at stake in that particular quagmire, and that the latter could apply a more humanitarian and less militaristic view of the situation, their involvement does look like as if driven out of self-interest and old imperialistic ideas.
Similar dismal reaction came from the brutal killing of eight students plus a teacher and the shooter at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College. Once again, the most obvious answers are quickly discarded in favor of a strange rhetoric that mixes hypocritical claims of rationality (it’s people, not guns, etc), phony sentimentality (our prayers to the victims), and rushed dismissal (time for ‘closure’).
Such terrible events, now happening almost on a daily basis in America, have bred a cruel automatic response, that goes fast from shock, search for answers, rejection of all sensible explanations, to detailed descriptions of both the carnage and the shooter’s previously life, along a few stock hero narratives to easy the blunt, blatant self-promotion by local officials, and not much else.
How unbearable it must be to those related to the dead, in addition to their natural, unresolvable pain, to put up with betrayal by a society clearly in love with the figure of the violent avenger, but indifferent and unaccountable when it strikes one of their own.
Highlighting air raids and the likely upcoming ground troops, in Syria, however, or the recurrent nightmare of a deranged gunman on the loose, doesn’t mean to dismiss all else, good or bad, that went on around the world last week, including in your own household.
But as far as implications to the Obama administration and its management of multiple conflicts, and the sheer horror of watching a peaceful organization succumb to bombs, there’s nothing as the death rained over that medical facility in northern Afghanistan.
Doctors Without Borders, a humanitarian group known by its French acronym, MSF, was founded after the Biafran War in Nigeria, 43 years ago, and has been one of the sole organizations providing aid to Afghans living in one the world’s most inhospitable regions.
The hospital, a far cry from the multibillion dollar complexes we’re used to in Western cities, had been a haven for years to those without the option of being rescued and taken to a first-class facility, even if on a shoe-string budget and with no safety guarantees.
That’s because, despite the Geneva Convention, hospitals and schools have indeed become targets lately, in places such as Gaza Strip, Yemen, and China. As far as we know, the MSF-run clinic was not intentionally hit, but it’s still disturbing that it was, and possibly even worse if it was all a mistake. For we may expect that from a terrorist group, but never from a powerful army such as the U.S.
The bombing followed, or is consequence of, the bloody struggle that has been to retake Kunduz from the Taliban, by American and Afghan forces. Reports are conflicting, but the destruction of the MSF hospital may have been a result of rushed decisions and poorly-thought strategies to ward off the increased escalation of hostilities. That being said, it’s hard to even conceive such an escalation.
After all, the Afghanistan war is the U.S.’s longest, declared in response to the 9/11 attacks but one that the Bush administration half-aborted in 2003 to pursue its already pre-conceived Iraq invasion. The rest is history, including the tens of thousands of lives lost.
That we’re now still talking about a ‘Taliban offensive’ speaks volumes of that initial catastrophic disruption, and its architects, who to this day, refuse to take responsibility for the damage they caused to the so-called American values and stand in the world.
Nevertheless, we’re still in Afghanistan, still producing corpses, and still without a goal to be accomplished, except the inevitable killing of innocent people, with or without intention. Specially now, four full years after Osama bin Laden was found and killed.
The Obama administration is now scrambling to find a scapegoat for the massacre of 12 staff workers and 10 patients in Kunduz, but the fact that the air force was engaged with nearby militants will likely serve as the foundation for an excuse now being articulated.
The MSF has been a known presence in the area, and it said that the U.S. and Afghan military had been alerted of their operations. That apparently was not enough to prevent the repeated attack, as it’s been reported that the plane came back after the initial fusillade.
The first consequence of the bombing was announced yesterday, as the MSF said it’s leaving the area. With no other medical facility nearby, except for the U.S.-provided mobile infirmaries, chances are that we won’t even hear from casualties there from now on.
Also, with a flesh and blood pilot on the plane controls – unlike in mistaken attacks by drones -, it’s fair to expect not just those hardy volunteers to be unwilling to stay any longer, but also all other humanitarian groups operating in the front lines of war.
At closer scrutiny, though, none of these events add anything to what we already know. Be it about war, the willingness of some leaders to sacrifice bone and skin of others in pursuit of their own agendas, or the twisted rationale of a nation enthralled by the delusional allure of conflict-resolving by the way of the barrel, the world of headline news often cuts and lets it bleed but rarely heals.
We want more than that. Even lacking the eloquence of visionaries such as the MSF and others like it, we still need to ask: is that really it? That’s why we built nations and cities and hospital facilities in the wild, so someone can send in death by fire and bury it all?
In a week that has had its fair share of breaking heart news, we must pick another set of reasons to move ahead. They may focus on the power, the fire, the number of victims, the apparently lack of sense in the human endeavor. We’d rather zero in on the dignity of those who serve, who run to rescue, who move their bodies forward and take the bullets, so others, strangers to them, won’t be hurt.
There’s no other way or reason to get up everyday believing that what we’ve built is lost or wasted or means nothing. War is what means nothing, not our aim to do good and better and a tad more and then some. That definitely means something. Have a great one.

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9/27/2015 The U.N. Steps Into Relevance, Colltalers

As dignitaries of 193 nations leave New York, after the U.N. Summit on global goals for sustainable development, we’re once again ambivalent as whether such an agenda has any teeth, or the U.N. itself remains relevant on the year of its 70th anniversary.
Partially due to the staggering power acquired by multinational corporations in the past few decades, or if you’re based in the U.S., because of open hostility by the radical right, the first impulse is to believe that the organization may have run its course.
After all, despite annual summits, conferences, and resolutions, the U.N. has been often either ignored by the world powers’ military pragmatism, hopeless to prevent armed conflicts, or merely behind the curve, as with the current mass refugee crisis in Europe.
Also, given its formidable mandate and historical significance, it’s constantly strapped for funding and its gargantuan bureaucratic apparatus is often an obstacle to quick action and effective intervention. On the same token, having to physically be present in far corners of the world requires it to count on and cooperate with local armed forces, a strategy fraught with opportunities for failure.
Episodes of abuse of power and incompetence handling conflict are common, as are even more serious instances of sexual abuse and slavery conducted by troops credentialed by the U.N., which is supposed to represent and defend high moral standards.
Whereas the former are a consequence of a simple fact – the U.N. is not a military or police institution, and has no expertise of its own on the matter – the latter is much more disturbing, since it’s a result of bad management and poor oversight of human resources.
For the U.N. is, by definition, a non-ideological, non-politically biased structure, dedicated exactly to the management of decisions taken by its nation-members. When it fails militarily, that may be credited to the specific country or countries that are in charge of that particular mission. But when it fails to manage its operations appropriately, then it has no one but itself to blame.
Without going too deep into the corollary of sins that the U.N., as an organization created to set standards of diplomacy and to abide by the world’s best possible aspirations for peaceful coexistence among nations, may be arguably guilty of there’s its very own power sharing structure, which can be frustratingly ineffective and at times seriously unjust. But that seems to be the nature of the game.
There wouldn’t be any need for such an institution if it wasn’t to give a space to even the most undemocratic regimes, and at least ideally, have them be heard and accountable in the concert of nations through principles of tolerance and understanding.
For that, much of what the U.N. lacks in terms of judicial power and enforcement of universally accepted rules of government conduct is somehow fulfilled by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, even though that many don’t recognize it. It’s valid to say that, if the two international forums could work better in tandem, the world could indeed become a better place. Perhaps.
But as it’s been shown by the summit that just ended, and the recent agreement between a group of nations and Iran over its nuclear program, the U.N. is still the most effective place to bring together conflicting sides and have them work out their differences. Even the most well intended initiatives may be bound to fail if they are short of its nation-members’ powerful endorsement and support.
This summit’s agenda was loaded with ambition, and the 17 goals that more than double the Millennium ones set in 2000, are far reaching but maybe fatally too lofty to fulfill by 2030 as proposed. Indeed, some of them sound more like a wishful thinking list than a pragmatic set of steps to be followed. In that way, they mirror a common pattern of seven decades of U.N. resolutions.
But they do set priorities for humanity if it’s to survive another century. And for as much as the list is long on directives and short on strategy, it does fulfill the U.N. mandate of bringing nations together to work a common ground of actions for a better world.
Pope Francis, who threatened to upstage the conference with his road show in Cuba and the U.S. in the days leading to his inaugural U.N. speech on Friday, made another call for action against climate change, an issue central to many of the world’s ills today.
But even if he may have stolen the thunder of President Obama, for instance, on that particular issue, more was happening on the sidelines of the summit, and that may have a more immediate impact of world affairs than much of the official agenda.
Although refugees continue to test Europe’s ability to cope, without losing its footing, with its greatest humanitarian crisis since WWII, it only managed to collectively commit about a billion dollars to it during the conference, an amount that may prove too short for any considered solution. The increase of immigrant quotes previously announced by some countries may have a much greater impact.
Still, a step in the right direction. The Obama administration, on the other hand, which has promised to welcome Syrians fleeing their homeland without much conviction and already a lot of opposition, continues to avoid linking that crisis with its own contradictory immigration policies. And proceeded to prioritize its meetings with the Chinese and Russian presidents over any other issue.
A rare visit by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who’s speaking today at the U.N., does deserves the undivided attention of a so far less than welcoming U.S., specially if the world community is to have any shot at a negotiated solution to the Syrian civil war.
But it’s China that unwillingly provides the hook to this year’s most underrated issue at the summit, and it’s neither its $3 billion partnership with the U.S. to fight climate change, vowed commitment to reign in on domestic hackers, or one billion pledge to help eradicate poverty. The surprising factor is its co-hosting of a conference on women’s rights, which gathered over 70 world leaders.
The idea of putting China in charge of such a meeting, given its notorious imprisoning of women activists and opaque civil rights record, is either dumb or, as pointed above, actually very clever, for shedding light on a country known as a bully.
It was the one event that made clear the common flaw of Pope Francis’ embrace of contemporary liberalism, Mr. Putin’s own civil rights record, and the Development Goals’s agenda itself: they all deny, belittle, or refute women’s transformative role in society.
Ignoring half of the world’s population has been the mistake of a lot of well intended initiatives that run to the ground. When the U.N. agenda calls for gender equality and women empowerment, but fails to acknowledge that its success is intrinsically connected to the well being of women – workers, leaders, wives and mothers – there’s room to question the call’s efficacy, breadth and scope.
The week also marked Saudi Arabia’s tragic poor planning hosting the annual Hajj, a 2-million strong Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, as a stampede killed almost 800 people. It adds up to another 100 killed a week before in an accident nearby. And the first year since the disappearance and allegedly execution by drug traffickers of 43 Mexican students, whose bodies are yet to be uncovered.
These are but just a couple of breaking news events that the U.N. conference has not fully acknowledged, despite them being related to two dominant discussions of our era: religious fervor and drug criminality. However, the organization should not be blamed for choosing a long view strategy to set its goals, instead of following a more topical approach for action. Leave that to politicians.
For despite its vagueness, lack of practical ideas to enforce it, and over a decade in the making, the 17-goal agenda has finally managed to find common ground among a large group of nations, a victory of persistence and reaffirmation of the U.N.’s mandate.
We’re now on to the even harder task of engendering ways to fulfill it, if not this October or the next, then one in a hopefully not too distant future. The U.N. may be a relic from a time when idealism hadn’t cracked up one too many times. But it’s still our decent hope to have different countries and political enemies sitting at the same table and committed to a better world. Have a great one.

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9/21/2015 Popping Questions to the Pope, Colltalers

Pope Francis I will do this week what Jorge Mario Bergoglio could never attempt in 78-odd years: visit the U.S.. The nation Francis will land on tomorrow, however, coming from Cuba, is several degrees of separation from the country padre Jorge once avoided.
In fact, it’ll be curious to see him facing this disconnect in the U.S. between those more or less admiring of his recent liberating statements, and those who claim being deeply Catholics but have shown signs that they don’t care much about what’s he has to say.
Something to do with supporting same-sex marriage, or women who’ve had abortions, or some mambo jumbo about the poor and climate change, no doubt. But this selective ignorance will mean less by the time he returns to the Vatican than whether he’s proven by then to be a galvanizing force behind a new church, or merely the bearer of a message hopelessly loss among the religious right.
The now minority among 72 million Catholics in this country paying attention to the first Latin American pope – trying to gauge his impact on church’s doctrine and global influence – have their job cut out to them, for sure. But it’ll take them time before any discernible conclusion is reached. Most likely, at least the entire length of his papacy, which is not too say much, considering his age.
What’s already clear now is that, as a religious leader of an one-billion strong flock, Francis is a skillful politician, touching once taboo subjects just enough to awaken heated discussions, but without leaving many prints that could trace it all back to him.
Also, despite the explosive nature and reach of some of his statements in the two years he’s been the Vatican’s chief executive, there’s been little in way of structural reforms that would allow, for instance, his encyclicals to pierce the inner membrane of church bureaucracy and become actionable policy. Thus, like most CEOs, the pope is but a figurehead of a ruling, and opaque, organization.
If in the outside, Catholicism has been shaken by his controversial appeal and ostensive displays of personal humbleness, the way denser waters of the church structure remain relatively undisturbed, and away from prying eyes as far as anyone can tell.
There remains staunch strongholds of conservatism inside the Vatican, and the shadowy doctrine keepers at the Holy See, once led by former pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, continue their business as usual approach to religion matters, for all we know.
And just like many deceivingly smart world leaders have done in the past, Francis has already made clear that he, as formidably powerful as he may be, is too subject to constrains preventing him from pushing too hard for reforms. He may be outwardly humble and play the simple man card to public consumption, but that shows that he’s as concerned about losing his job as you and me.
Or is he? In that kind of rarefied atmosphere, history has been brutal to dissenters at the top, and conspiracy buffs have usually a field day just detailing tales of betrayal and poisoning at the organization to which the very term ‘holier than thou’ was created.
But for all his sunny public persona, and his ‘man of the people’ demeanor, Francis has so far successfully concealed the enigma that hides in plain sight at the center of his rise to papacy. Misinformation and a shallow media coverage have been his allies concocting willfully or not this tale of a Latin American rebel priest who faced the continent’s darkest political era in history.
This is the part of any story about Francis that gets shortchanged and, full disclosure, this post won’t exactly change that. But the gist of it is that he presided over the Argentine Catholic Church during a military junta dictatorship that mercilessly punished its enemies with anonymous death, creating, along Chile, Uruguay, and to a lesser extent, Brazil, the profound trauma of the Desaparecidos.
Those ‘disappeared’ victims, many of which remain unidentified and without a proper burial 40-odd years later, are the haunting legacy of those regimes that terrorized Latin America in the 1960s and 70s. They could’ve never perpetrated their crimes without tacit support of organizations such as the church to which padre Jorge belonged to and within which he rose to Bishop of Buenos Aires.
Even devoid of formal accusations, and with only one proven instance where his name is linked to the Dirty War, such tales have swirled around him and preceded his arrival in Rome, and he hasn’t really gone out of his way to disprove them. In that way, he’s been less transparent than even Ratzinger, who was forced to account for his past as member of the Hitler Youth.
That he surprised everyone with his clarity about contemporary issues former popes wouldn’t touch with a 20ft cross, is a statement to his ability as a leader to control the narrative that concerns him, and direct it to a most favorable light. That he may lose support in the ultra right may be part of this calculated risk, for who in his or her right mind can afford to side up with those religious nuts, anyway.
Oh, that’s right, there’s the U.S. church, its losing space to other Christian groups, and in the larger context, to the revival of Islam in the world. For even being a minority, with less public expression than many a charismatic faith, has been no impediment for radical groups to influence the political debate and even compete with billionaires and interest groups for the attention of policy makers.
In fact, the Catholic Church has lost so much ground in the country, a fact often pointed out by the rising minority of people who don’t particularly care to invisible beings one way or another, and have little to do with professed atheists (no, they’re not the same), that Evangelicals represent a much bigger political risk of destabilization in the world, today, with their obsession with Zionism.
By investing heavily in real estate and proselyting in Israel, hoping to provoke its neighbors, supposedly to deflagrate the vindictive biblical Armageddon, they pose a real threat of a final Middle East conflict. Ask any devout Muslin, in case you doubt it.
So Francis’ soothing rhetoric about a possible opening to groups the church’s historically rejected may suit just fine Vatican hard-liners, for the publicity and repositioning of Catholicism as a relevant power. All as long as it doesn’t imply any real change, that is.
He’ll end his tour of the U.S. east coast with a speech at the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals Summit on Friday, where he’s likely to dazzle all 193 state delegates by picking an important subject, climate change and poverty, from his speech tool box.
To be fair, it is a crucial subject and his embracing of it has been so far arguably the strongest stance any pope has ever taken over a secular issue. It no doubt took guts to even approach it, specially taken into account the hidden pressures he faces on his job.
But we’re not holding our breath, expecting his visit will convince the unconvinced or bring the Catholic Church a bit closer to the 21st century. That won’t happen with speeches, as charged as they may be, or small gestures designed to inform his humble origins.
Not until women may be allowed to become priests, although one wonders what for. Or priests allowed to marry or be openly gay, and that’s just what other denominations have already had for years, without any noticeable change in the needle of their relevance.
These will almost certainly not be on this week’s headlines about Pope Francis. Most likely, it’ll be his ‘sympathy,’ ‘straight talking,’ and personal demeanor that will make up for media coverage. And some petty venting by New Yorkers about his cavalcade clogging streets and ruining traffic. You know, the usual, who he thinks he is, etc. As for the rest of us, let’s have a safe and happy time.

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9/14/2015 We’re Better Off With Peace, Colltalers

War, hunger, overpopulation. In the 20th century, these, and our increasing energy needs, were the most alarming trends threatening humanity’s survival. Now, while none of these factors have been subtracted, we’ve added an even scarier one: climate change.
But there’s an underlying thread that links all the great challenges of our age which, not coincidentally, is also an age-old challenge: peace. It’s what’s been sorely missing every year of this young century, as it was already absent in most previous ones.
The quest for peace is about much more than a world without wars, even though such a revolutionary option would have completely remade for the better the world as we know it. But it’s hard to even picture borders being marked by agreement instead of conflict.
We’ve been so completely sold on the idea that it’s in the nature of man to wage war, as the sole mechanism of progress and discovery, that we tend to dismiss, and even mock, all attempts at establishing a state of permanent peace. It simply can’t last, they say.
They, in this case, are not hard to identify, so we won’t insult your intelligence naming them. But the same paradigm by which we’ve developed such a self-defeating approach to peace, as a show of weakness to be avoided, we’ve also embraced the pragmatic realization, now a cliche, that war is good for business, and boosts country economies like no other multi-nation effort, specially talk.
Except that a truly peaceful determination would be a more effective way to distribute resources and wealth than war, since it wouldn’t pre-require a nation to arm itself to the teeth before even thinking about promoting more effective economies and growth prospects.
From agriculture to industry, from craftsmanship to technology, any form of population sustenance is always tied up to the nation’s ability to defend itself first, from external aggression and internal strife. Only then, we can talk about jobs and prosperity.
Also, we’ve been led to believe that to negotiate is to lose, for no agreement can be established for the interest of one side only, an intrinsic by-product of war: there can’t be no argument or opposition raised from those who were vanquished because they’re dead.
However, the notion that we’re bound to lose something when we discuss our differences willfully ignores a crucial result of any agreed-upon solution: the extra contribution that only comes when both sides are free to offer something, not to take it away.
Peace also transcends narrow boundaries set for social development, as it doesn’t discriminate along political lines; society needs are met by tapping into all available resources, not just those set by dominant forces dictating priorities according to their own agenda.
Whereas war sets and consolidates mechanisms to preserve the goals that ignited it in the first place, a state bound by principles of cooperation and equanimity has no need to enforce military objectives. Or laws cannot be broken by the weight of armies.
Lastly, a state of peace entails the most suitable approach to the ‘newest,’ and now greatest, threat to our survival, climate change. And the reason is simple: it does not require the continuous rape of nature and rapid exhaustion of natural resources demanded by violent power struggles. Arguably, even the exploration and consumption of fossil fuels would diminish during peace times.
It goes beyond that: without the defense-industrial complex to feed and support, all human and natural riches of a nation could be redirected to the sole promotion and progress of its civilian society. Of course, we’re now reaching into utopia territory. So we stop.
Fortunately, others won’t. Even if we rarely hear or learn about their efforts, billions continue to believe that war and the carnage it visits upon communities are not necessary or at all inevitable. Most are focused on changing minds first, before any preaching.
Of course, it all may sound like yet another platitude about the need for non aggression and peaceful coexistence, present in every innocuous accord ever broken. Then again, to offer yet another recipe for world peace doesn’t really make sense either, does it?
For it’s this biased way of thinking, that we simply can’t do a thing to reverse our inexorable walk towards doom, what undermines and sabotages even the most well intended form of peace activism. So, the first thing to do may be just that: to think differently.
Many have tried, and succeed, to make that kind of radical change, so to envision a viable and more sustainable way for us to survive on this planet. Historically, though, few serious political attempts were made to achieve it. It just can’t be done, they keep on saying.
Perhaps. But try as you may to address any of those civilization-ending threats mentioned above using the power of the barrel, and even on paper, it doesn’t work. It may be a cliche now but isn’t time to ‘give peace a chance’ yet another go? Have a great one.
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9/07/2015 A Summer to Remember, Colltalers

Both Labor Day, which is celebrated today in the U.S., and the unofficial ending of the northern hemisphere summer that the holiday marks, feel artificial: while the season still has two weeks left, for 80 other countries, First of May is Labor Day.
Being as it may, we can always list and cross reference a few events, to see whether the past three months will be missed or we’re better off that they’re finally over. It’s a mixed bag, as it turns out. The heat fell good, but the world remains deeply troubled.
So what? By now, we’re used to that kind of simplification. After all, they’re only artificial conventions, by which we attempt to make sense out of an endless sequence of days and nights. Yes, the end of the summer does bring the sour out for some people.
There have been things that remain just as bad as they ever were, others that improve beyond what anyone could’ve expected, and still others the solution to which will be just as challenging even to the minority who’s still care desperately to see them through.
Let’s start with the worst, shall we? By far, still seizing headlines on the global front, it is, of course, the refugee crisis, that seemed to have exploded out of nowhere. It’s actually been here, and consistently ignored, however, at least for the past 15 years, to stay in this century (and the clear side of made up timeframes). But it did hit a feverish peak this summer.
Either because millions are now on the move, driven from their lands by war or climate change, or because suddenly they’ve flooded the gates of major European cities, the fact is that the dispossessed finally earned a speck of our collective attention.
They had been more easily ignored while camped by the thousands in incredibly unsanitary conditions at the Syrian borders, or trapped by invading forces within Middle East cities, or completely at mercy of their own oppressive governments. It was only when they began to move, and die by the hundreds, that we have finally been forced to notice. Whether this will help, who knows?
Also, if you’re living in the U.S., are black or member of a racial or sexual minority, and possibly unemployed and broke, your life has lost considerable value. In fact, that particular demographics is under heavy fire, and you may have plenty of reasons to see the police as your most explicit enemy. Racism has had a stronger hold on this summer than pretty much any other issue.
South Carolina wound up being the stage for the two events that have bracketed the season of race struggle like no others: the massacre in June of a black church congregation in Charleston, and the long-overdue coming down of the Confederate flag from the state government buildings less than a month later. Once again, it may have taken a tragedy to right a half-century wrong.
Before, during and after, of course, a succession of unarmed black youth have been shot, and throughout the season itself, guns continued to be the common denominator of so many shootings and massacres. But Americans remain numbed and unable to address the gun issue with any clarity, notwithstanding such a bloody routine, so it was again successfully ducked by the usual lobby.
Not coincidentally, there’s been a spike in crime in major U.S. cities, but despite all racial tensions, rampant social and income inequality, and a astonishing availability of heavy street weaponry for the take, authorities seem ‘baffled’ by the rise.
Chicago, Baltimore and New York lead this ravenous pack, but Milwaukee is the one with the biggest increase compared to last year’s numbers. Precise statistics are suddenly hard to come by but even a superficial analysis of where, when, and who are the most affected segments brings to light the kind of evidence that so displeases police and law enforcement officials.
Violent death in the U.S. streets is way more prevalent than the wars the nation wages in distant lands and equally underestimated. But no presidential candidate has stepped forward with a feasible strategy. In other words, the beatings will continue.
In the category of things that are not nearly as bad as they may become real soon, climate change has been highlighted with the heat waves that staggered India, Pakistan and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Europe.
Now, it was summer, for crying out loud; when is it not supposed to be hot? The problem is, though, that record high temperatures continue to be broken, and if the pattern confirms, 2015 will be topping the warmest year on record: you guess it, 2014.
The thing about climate change is not about its peaks, however; it is the consistency. Just a few years ago, to think that the Arctic would be a valid trade route was nothing less than a joke. Now, instead of laughing, nations are jockeying to profit from it.
But once again, their approach to occupation is all wrong. In the climate front, President Obama took one step forward, with a new energy policy proposal, and unfortunately, two backwards, with his endorsement of drilling in selected areas of the Arctic.
Of course, no one can ignore the geopolitical implications of letting Russia and other countries rush to the region and establish bases and routes there. The U.S. couldn’t possibly miss that. But to allow an oil mammoth with a spotty environmental record to have a go at it was probably not the president’s shiniest moment. And we all stand the potential to suffer from his decision.
As we’ve just passed the 10-year mark of the worst natural disaster in the U.S., the Hurricane Katrina, and the still very much present impact it’s left in the south, one can’t help but wonder what the current hurricane season still has in store for us.
We’ve been lucky, apparently, but a new ‘edition’ of the global weather phenomenon known as El Niño may compound to a winter with higher instability and heavier than usual rain downpours. Hopefully still in time to put out the West Coast wild fires.
Finally, in the segment of things to which summer has been OK, there are the twin Supreme Court June decisions. One validated, and is supposed to end the discussion over, health care coverage, with yet another ruling supporting Obamacare. And the other confirmed the same-sex marriage legality in all American states, which may have buried for good all arguments opposing it.
As a coda for the season, it’s also important to remember that it was the one that saw the Iran nuclear agreement signed and, most likely, to be approved by the Senate; the rising of an American flag in Havana, Cuba. And the relative stabilization of Greece, which remains to be seen whether it’ll pull itself together, but should be also grateful to be left off the headlines for a moment.
So there you have it: a three-month summer summary, even if you still have hopes of taking time off before it completely recedes in the back mirror. It’s been tragic to many but probably magical to others too. From our part, we can’t forget to wish that, despite all of the above, and everything else, you have also fallen in love this summer. Just because it feels good. Enjoy the last warm days.
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8/31/2015 What Comes After Refugees, Colltalers

The heartbreaking discovery of over 70 decomposing bodies in a truck parked on an Austrian highway, and the drowning of some 200 people in the Mediterranean, did what few refugee crisis news had been able to do in a long while: shock the world.
Whether it’ll be enough to sustain the momentum for a much needed redress of the biggest wave of the expatriated since WWII remains to be seen. But it does force a critical meditation on so-called globalization ideals of unifying peoples and nations.
The only difference about the dead on the road from the Austrian-Hungarian border is the route their brutal smugglers had taken from presumably war-torn Syria. Determining that is now a priority, along with ID-ing the victims, and a few expected arrests.
There was no novelty in the sinking of yet another crowded boat loaded with Libyans trying to reach Western Europe: even modest estimates place at 3000 the number of deaths at sea of would be migrants and war refugees in recent years. If it hadn’t coincided with the grim truck discovery, it’s doubtful that so many officials would be even talking about a refugee crisis today.
Such mix of fatalism and indifference hasn’t been a monopoly of government officials, though. Our bipolar, short span attention-driven news cycle rarely allows for more than a few days for any issue to remain top news for long, and often, when they do, the repetitive focus is on the more superficial, sound-bite friendly aspects of the theme. Adjectives, not nouns, have thus prevailed.
This being already the second week, expect some cooling of the coverage, along grandstanding by officials of the European Union – which remains lacking any comprehensive plan to address the massive migration movements that have afflicted the continent in the past decade – and members of richer Euro-zone nations, who have no intention of changing their border policies.
For, if we must be fair, plenty of predictable warnings and proposed solutions, even if short sighted and hardly practical, have been issued and discussed within the context of the U.N. throughout the years. Their lack of resonance, and effective power, though are only another consequence of efforts by those same rich nations, including the U.S., to undermine the U.N.’s mandate.
Also, it’s hard to time frame the refugee issue just as it is to contextualize it without starting an empty blame-attribution game, that would necessarily leave off crucial elements that characterize and define the geopolitics of our time. Not even the causes can be easily pigeonholed into a neat set of bullet points. Just see how easily even professional politicians get entangled explaining it.
Which doesn’t mean that anyone with a reasonable grasp on reality couldn’t nail it in a few strokes. Because, unlike politicians, regular people don’t need to constrain themselves to what’s, well, politically correct, they can usually pinpoint its causes.
Since Nazi Germany, war has been exactly the main cause for massive migratory currents. Despite all rhetoric in contrary, borders are authoritarian and fluid by definition, and no amount of police containment is able to prevent them from leaking.
That includes not just armed conflict and strife, but also threat of ethnic cleansing, regime propaganda, and racial hatred, which politicians are masters at manipulating. Many a refugee family has been split open just out of marriage conventions, for instance.
Other well known motivation for people to leave their birthplace and migrate to distant lands is, of course, job opportunities, whose status are often determined by, you’ve guessed, the previous cause of migration, war. Consider how the U.S. has become so powerful in the past century using as a measure stick its ability to absorb immigrants, and you may see half of the picture.
Don’t worry, we’ll go back to the U.S. in a moment, but let’s get to the biggest new issue behind the modern migratory waves that has the potential to become the biggest cause for them in a very short while: climate change. And it’s already happening.
But first, let’s get out of the way the distinction between migrant and refugee, which may not last too much longer anyway. Despite being used interchangeably in this post, the accepted difference lies in the fact that all refugees are migrants, but not all migrants are refugees. While the former flee from an adverse situation on their own land, the latter are a separate economic entity.
Determined as such at the 1951 Refugee Convention, following WWII, and agreed upon by 146 nations, the status of refugee has been consistently disrespected and violated on a regular basis ever since, but it does provide a legal framework for enforcement.
Migration, on the other hand, is what’s built modern society, and there’s no hyperbole about it. Migratory movements centuries BCE have driven progress and occupation of the planet by humans (and the few animal species that followed them), and a still to be compiled comprehensive study of its effects on the environment would be an eye-popping compendium of revelations.
The environment is probably where the confluence of both terms merge, as migrants fleeing their homes may invoke man-made climate change as grounds to seek refugee status. That’s because, as we all know, war and inequality can indeed exhaust natural resources and negatively affect the conditions that allow for people to survive. In other words, pollution is no ‘act of god.’
Ocean warmth trends, for instance, have been identified as causes for the desertification of the Sahel region, and so is the sinking of coastal islands in Bangladesh. They are yet new ways that human gracefully disgrace the living hell out of other humans.
This is not a treatise on the thousands of conflicted areas driving migratory waves, whether by armed conflicts or simply because of those same societies’ nasty habit of dumping their waste on poorer regions, and profiting from it. Thus we’ll neither list them here nor start a long diatribe on just exactly how we’re constantly finding new ways to screw up the poor.
But it’s time to add climate change and environmental pollution to the usual suspects for the staggering poverty, homelessness, disease, crime, and downright violence people fleeing war in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe are facing these days.
It’s amazing too that, back in the U.S., an obscenely rich impresario has been making strides in the pool of presidential candidates, with a baseless, violent anti-immigrant rhetoric. For those he calls Mexicans (in fact, every non-white person living in the U.S.; blame them first, ask for their cultural status after) are intrinsically linked to the economic wealth of the country.
And, contrary to what his phony rants would suggest, they’re not a meaningful component of crime and violence affecting Americans, even though they’ve becoming a major slice of the current record inmate population in the U.S., along with blacks.
That someone could blame immigrants to America for a laundry list of ills affecting the country, many inflicted by a generation of chief executives like him, who wouldn’t blink on sending plants abroad, and contracting cheap foreign labor, if it’d save them a buck, is a depressing reflection on the multi-billion dollar presidential campaign going on in the U.S. right now.
In some ways, he and his ink are no different from the vultures charging an average thousand dollars to bring you from a war- or environment-ravaged region to a spot on the curb of a developed society, or locked in the airless back of a truck. Through hidden ways, both kinds profit from a seemingly intractable situation, and almost always manage to elude detection or punishment.
But just like the pseudo-debate that always surge in the days following another gun massacre in the U.S. (there are now one per day, in average), it’s likely that public indignation will subside and political expediency prevail in the refugee/migrant quagmire.
As for mentioning globalization and ideals in the same sentence, it’s an old die-hard habit of ours. It’s now obvious that one had very little to do with the other, and judging by the stunning impoverishment of ever larger swaths of the world, that was actually by design, not chance. It’s fair to say that the concept was created first to pillage and then, if convenient, to open borders.
Countries sharing the euro are facing a similar awakening of sorts to this reality: the more they mingle, the more they seem to resent each other, just like in the good old days. Exposure to those of different cultures and languages did not boost tolerance and understanding, but exacerbated differences. Is that because social class must come before race and blood? Letters to the editor.
In any event, apart from the search for and awareness of the causes for what’s happening in Europe, and how stupefyingly oblivious we remain about its connection with the hate rhetoric against immigrants common in the U.S., more important is to ask ourselves, how can we help? And there is a myriad ways of inserting oneself in the solution of a global crisis like this.
It may be necessary, though, move your behind on your day off, for those lucky enough to have them, and visit unfamiliar neighborhoods, to gauge how the phenomenon touches every strata of our rich, and wasteful, society. And ask questions.
What’s always lacking in the presidential debate, for example, is the lack of inquiry, of critical response, of willful counter-reaction against the half-truths and blatant lies told by candidates. Don’t count on the corporate media to ask them for you.
Who does what so your life is easier? Where does the food you buy comes from? Who actually makes it affordable and healthy, so you can feed your family? Where does the help come front? Who clean our streets? Who, what, you got the gist.
Also, it may imply exercising a long-dormant, and probably stunted, muscle, that of compassion. We insulate and protect ourselves so well, even if for good reason but almost always without realizing, that suddenly our neighbors are strangers, and we no longer recognize the faces that serve us coffee in the mornings. Chances are, we don’t even know our postman’s name.
For it’s not grand gestures, loud displays of sympathy, or phony preaching what may make a difference in this world, even if in the small realm that surrounds us. It’s the commonality of purpose, the acting as a community in the interest of everyone, in the spirit of inclusion and acceptance, and that’s as far as this Sunday homily will go, folks. Apologies for the excesses.
Misguided resentment, or staggering indifference toward immigrants is not a new phenomenon. Neither are outstanding acts of solidarity monopoly of people we admire, or unsuitable to our sense of decency. Something can always be done, you can bet your precious smartphone on that. Did you know, it’s a two-way with the world? But cheer up, September should be better.
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8/24/2015 The Risky Lives of War Translators, Colltalers

As war serves its grievous menu, new heartbreaking news streams never cease to pop up. Although it’s supposed to be waged by the willing and the well trained, we all know who ultimately pays for any military adventure: innocent civilians, reporters, history itself.
Add to this list too interpreters who risk their lives in the front lines. Liaisons for and between combating forces, they’re often killed for either facilitating communication or for helping turning it into a weapon cocked at them. In either case, most die ignored by both sides.
Stories of translators being denied visa to countries for which they’ve served, frequently against their own family and country, abound, and having helped a departing occupying force is a fatal skill, most likely rewarded with death by those who have been fighting them.
But while troops enlisting help of multilingual locals is probably as old as warfare itself, contemporary notions of conflict globalization and the state of permanent war have increased, even if far from overexposing, this reality. Linguistic skills can often get you killed.
Much of the tactics adopted by rogue armies such as ISIL and others owe to annihilation traditions that date back to pre-Common Era, but going after translators perceived as collaborators is akin to Khmer Rouge’ s 1970s strategy of targeting college-educated civilians.
Behind such barbaric approach to power, of course, is the fear that people with academic credentials, or who speak the ‘language of the enemy,’ somehow also share its values, and are fair game, after serving their purpose. Education is always a foe for warmongers.
We don’t hear much about war translators not just because they’re mostly left behind by the troops they help, or killed after those leave, but also because few are eager to reveal what they did at war. As a job, and a extremely hazardous one to boot, serving as an interpreter in a volatile situation, as during an armed conflict, offers none of the safety the profession enjoys within a different context.
It’s fair to say that, as a skill, translating has the potential for allowing many a professional with few other skills to nevertheless fulfill an important, well paid, and culturally rewarding role in contemporary society. Full disclosure: we include ourselves in this category.
That being said, no amount of idealism or gumption would compel us to join the fray and jump in the trenches of warfare. In fact, to most of those who do it’s never a choice. Opportunity arises as the bombs drop, and one has a limited time frame to literally speak up.
In any idealized world, the physical counterpart to the ability of speaking more than one language is a bridge: we build them so people from each bank of the river can join in, collaborate, and understand each other as members of the very same race and species.
In the militarized world, linguists are weapons just like drones and grenades: their sole purpose is to stealthily infiltrate enemy lines and inflict damage from within. Translators are often sent along scouts and public relation officers to gauge the resistance and, if convenient, earn some hearts and minds to their cause. Intelligence of the other side’s resources hangs on their ability for being accurate and shrewd.
But once the talk stops and the actual fight starts, or resumes, there’s little need for them. Thus the thousands of interpreters who worked for years with allied forces and having been denied asylum or protection from those they’ve helped, apart from a Thank You note.
Few are known by name, allegedly to protect their identity from foes. In reality, that’s also a convenient way of ignoring them as flesh and blood combatants, and restrict their existence to an obscure war contract clause. They’re part of ‘local resources,’ along grieving widows and easily co-opted children and informants; acknowledgement of their presence lasts just the duration of the conflict if ever.
While across the world, the role of translators and interpreters is on rising demand, constantly updated and challenged by technology and data-collection robots, in the theater of war they’re a commodity, just like the kind that pool journalism has become: they’re there by grace of the military, on call 24/7, and absolutely refrained from reporting anything that’s not required by the strategic protocol.
There are no stats on how many interpreters have been killed at any one conflict, even if we restrict our search to those hired for their skills, and exclude multilingual soldiers. In fact, there are no figures to estimate how many are being used at any given time, period.
Neither there is available information on the number of new immigrants given legal status, in the U.S. or anywhere, just on the account of linguistic duties performed in the Middle East, and that’s just one region among thousands where different cultures are at war.
Many professional organizations are dedicated to support, train, provide opportunities, and study translation as an occupation. A myriad of categories split it up by attribute, academic background, and professional field. But none is focused on its application to conflict solving or nation building, two concepts used with abandon by ideologues of war and occupation of foreign lands. Not a good sign.
That means that those who happen to live within an area considered important enough to bomb and send armed troops, will most likely be drawn to the action on the sheer assertion of their usefulness for battle goals. Much less certain will be both their freedom to refuse to take part in it, or their own survivability and that of their loved ones. When war comes to town, there’s rarely a chance to stay neutral.
There are a number of reasons why there must be a distinction between those who wage war, either promoting it from the safety of their luxury offices; enlisting to fight in it for idealism or family; or profiting from its fat contracts, and those affected by it simply for being around it; for covering it; or volunteering to help the wounded and the dispossessed. Add to it also those who translate it for the parties.
We said it, there’s no neutrality, no ‘we just work here.’ in this scenario. But the role of those whose particular talents can be used either way, and their immediate need to make a living out of it ought to be computed. Whether they’re manipulated into serving someone else’s purpose, is beside the point; their forced collaboration should give anyone pause once again about the inherent immorality of war.
It’s disturbing, if not unexpected, that some’s ability to speak multiple languages can be degraded and become another instrument of carnage. And that the nobility of understanding others’ tongue can be so mindlessly loaded like a bullet to do harm to human beings.
But it can and it has been since time immemorial. To restore such dignity we must give translators and interpreters working at the front lines of war their due and proper recognition. Above all, safe shelter for the lives they’ve saved. Enjoy peacefully August’s last days.
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8/17/2015 A Taste of Latin America, Colltalers

The historic, but decades behind, raising of the American flag in Havana was not the only Latin American news dominating the week. Thousands in the streets of Brazil and a U.S. presidential candidate’s absurd musings about Mexico have also shared the headlines.
Not that the world would take more than a second to savor news in español or português, before going back to its steady diet of carnage, hatred, and dispossession we’re all so numb about. But suddenly the ‘other’ Americas jumped to relevance even if for a day.
Cuba has been a 5-decade mistake that even the most humble act of diplomacy would have fixed, and decoupled from the Cold War’s menu of terrors. Instead, successive administrations have promoted to this impossibly attainable apex of ill-intent against the U.S.
But even before the fall of its dangerous backer, the Soviet Union, Cuba had already come into its own precarious way by managing sparse resources, and according to Miami Cubans, oppressive regime into a workable, and surprising effective, semi-socialism.
Never the utopia 1960s idealists would attribute to it, Cuba under Fidel Castro was nevertheless capable of forging a political identity that, unlike most dictatorships, did not completely brain-washed its citizens. While many expected it to export its brand of authoritarian, it became instead known for offering first-class, highly-trained doctors and healthcare personnel to nations in crisis.
So much for the ‘exporting the revolution’ credo embraced by Che Guevara, which got him killed in the jungles of Bolivia less than a decade from Castro’s 1050 takeover of El Capitolio, and turned him into a culturally world-known but politically blank pop icon.
In fact, the pragmatism of Cuba radically contrasted with the billions of dollars wasted by the U.S. to depose its leader, which only helped him consolidate power and galvanize support and sympathy to the regime’s ultimate isolation from global affairs.
As a military or ideological threat to the U.S., Cuba has been as irrelevant as the rhetoric used for demonizing it has been riddled with contradiction. How John Kennedy’s arguably biggest blunder as a president became such an inflexibly misguided policy remains to be explained by independent historians. It may be only up to them to make sense of these five lost decades to future generations.
While any effort at a détente with Cuba was quickly steamrolled by self-serving politicians and Pentagon hawks, even Richard Nixon found necessary to warm up towards bigger ‘evils’ such as China. Perhaps something about size and scale was at play here.
In any respect, in contrast with Cuba’s forced stagnation and political quarantine, Brazil’s arch from the 1950s to the present is way more dynamic, complex, and still challenging. From a U.S.-sympathetic (and partially funded) military dictatorship, to the 1980s mass movements for democracy, to the current rallies seeking to impeach its democratically elected president, much has changed.
In between, while its population swelled from some 70 million to over 200 million, and the country’s GDP grew from slightly over 200 million to close to two trillion, Brazil’s experienced a surge of relevance in the context of Latin America and the world, a fact not lost to those now protesting against its failing economy, nightmarish inflation, and exchange rates not seen in almost 20 years.
But much of the opposition in the past few years to the ruling Workers’ Party and second-term President Dilma Rousseff, ostensibly because of a wave of scandals involving segments of the government and even the country’s biggest state-run company, Petrobras, may be hiding a more ingrained motivation: the middle classes’ feeling of being left out of PT-driven socialist programs for the poor.
Used to being pampered by successive administrations, through incentives and protective measures in exchange for political and financial support, well-educated urban dwellers who have strongly influenced Brazil’s direction into the 21st century have had a sudden attack of mortal jealousy, expressed in traditional center-right media bastions and well-orchestrated social media campaigns.
Helped by a charisma-free president who has staggered and failed to propose a direction of her own, independent from her mentor and predecessor, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, the confidence crisis in Brazil, albeit not new, threatens the very stability and freedom of expression fought so hard by those who helped to finally defeat the military and restore democracy in the 1980s.
Again, curiously, the accusations of ineffectiveness against Dilma, as the president’s known in Brazil, and lack of leadership miss badly the mark by not addressing what she, and her party, have indeed failed Brazilians: among them, a vigorous stance about the environment, clear path towards sustainable growth, investments in technology and education to make Brazil minimally competitive.
The gap between what the street crowds identify as the problem with Brazil, and the country’s real social, political, and economic vulnerabilities is so wide that one would be at loss to explain why no one questions the government’s energy policies, preference for an outdated agricultural commodities exports model, and serious lack of ideas about how democracy should work for the people.
While some 300 thousand asked for an unrealistic and baseless impeachment of the president, the political elites have enjoyed a free ride in Congress, with a feast of influence trafficking and favors, along a stunning insensitivity about the country’s needs. Take the discussion over the approval for hiring contractors without labor law guarantees, for instance, or age reduction to convict teenagers.
Neither discussion is being framed within proper historical context. Despite a functional union-backed professional system in place, which assures some worker rights and security, the argument pro-‘terceirização’ (the term for hiring contractors) is based on the age old myth that it’ll help the economy. Have them heard of what the so-called ‘new economy’ is causing American workers for instance?
And it’s astonishing the lack of analysis of other legislations regulating youth criminality. What ignoring education’s role in teenage rehabilitation, while pushing for more severity has caused. But in that case, they’d better not look at the U.S., for comparison.
That’s not in the agenda of the leaders behind today’s manifestations, which certainly will advance the cause for even more rallies against Dilma’s perceived peccadilloes against the middle class, even if at the end of the day, it may only corner the PT and drive it to double down on its segmentation. For if there’s anyone in Brazil expecting it to collapse, they don’t know what’s coming for them.
The last piece of the Latino puzzle that’s making headways into the national debate in the rest of the Americas is the incredibly high-rated rhetoric of ignorance about Mexico and the role of its immigrants in the U.S. economy uttered with fanfare by billionaire Donald Trump. It wouldn’t deserve a single mention in this space if we didn’t know that it’ll be one of this week’s main headlines.
Bi-partisan hopes that his candidacy would’ve collapsed having been all but faded fast by now, Trump’s offensive non-sense has had more (undisclosed) resonance within the Republican Party than most would have the guts to admit. But the point here is not about him but about Mexico, a country that seems to have itself abandoned its U.S. immigrants to their own short luck long time ago.
While unofficially controlled by big criminal cartels, who feed on the war on drugs and political corruption to remain just a tad away from justice or obsolescence, whichever comes first, Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto, on the other hand, has lost so much of his credibility easily conceding to his party’s bag of tricks, that Mexicans wouldn’t really need another American bully to insult it.
In short shrift, that’s the state of the Latin America we may hear about throughout the week, so we just wanted to warn you and somberly advise you to take it all with a grain of salt. After all, we’ve spared you on purpose from mentioning Argentina.
Neither the opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba, albeit positive and needed, is what either country most needs at this juncture, even as it marks another milestone on the embattled but ultimately punctual Obama administration, nor much will change onwards.
Brazil is not on turmoil because of the failure of its institutions or profound popular frustration about both PT and the president, as you may read about in the established media. That would have been a way more positive movement we’d be talking about here.
But there is indeed a serious disconnect between what representatives of the will of the people would like to propose, if ever, for the current crisis, and what a huge, influential segment of its population is willing to discuss, or rather, bash for the world to see.
What’s missing too is the fact that so much ado about, well, something, but not exactly what ills the country, is already causing a ripple on the always skittish markets, compounding to the country’s shaky economic fundaments. Recent Brazilian bond downgrades by credit agencies (why are they still relevant? we need to talk about that sometime), is but one sign of this Catch-22.
In a nutshell, Latin America is head-butting the world not by virtue of its human rights, technological achievements, or solutions for the world’s most prominent foes, but as usual, by its sheer, sinuous, disconcerting realities and constant lack of deliverance. We’re used to it. Which does not necessarily mean that we’re fine about it. Just thought you should be warned about. Have a great one.
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8/10/2015 Fight at the Roof of Earth, Colltalers

There was a collective sigh in Portland, Oregon, a week ago today, when the MSV Fennica crossed St. John’s Bridge. Despite months of skirmishes, environmental activists could not prevent the Royal Dutch Shell’s icebreaker from heading to the Arctic.
Time will tell but the ship’s journey may be the opening salvo of a potentially disastrous era of oil drilling in the North Pole, an effort to which Shell has already spent over $6 billion and several years to make it into reality. Other multinational oil giants may soon follow.
The final straw came last month, when the Obama administration decided to allow the digging in the Chukchi Sea as long as a spill-response equipment is deployed in the area. The Fennica, which was being repaired in Portland, is part of this untested strategy.
To be sure, Shell still has not presented a comprehensive plan, if that’s even possible, for the case of a spill. And its record is far from confidence-boosting as it’s had already a string of relatively minor mishaps drilling in a nearby region.
For environmentalists such as former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, to green light Shell’s plans is nothing less than ‘insane,’ given the Arctic’s harsh conditions and pristine areas. Besides its record, they also point to current melting of ancient North Pole glaciers, due to climate change, and the potential for a drilling race by other oil producers, as reasons to declare the Arctic off limits to oil companies.
Stung by the criticism, President Obama has used public appearances, and even social media, to defend the decision and highlight the restrictions imposed to Shell, including the requirement of having a capping stack, which would minimize damage of a well blowout.
In 2010, the cap of a well in a field operated by BP in the Gulf of Mexico blew up, causing the explosion of a rig, 11 deaths, and a record oil spill that still compromises life and the economy of several states in the region. BP’s still fighting a judicial order that condemned it to pay an estimated $20 billion to some of those affected. Massive wild life losses however will never be recovered.
That tragic but preventable accident dwarfed the extension of what was then the largest oil spill in U.S. waters, the 1989 grinding of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker in the Prince William Sound, Alaska. The event most people now associate with the high risks of digging for oil in such an untamed area, teeming with wild life, may be dwarfed even further if another similar mishap were to happen.
A strong argument to give the president some environment cred is his rule on carbon emissions which U.S. power plants need to cut to 32 percent by 2030. Think it’s too much time for that to be effective? Not so, judging by the industry’s strong reaction, and up to 16 states that already have expressed opposition to the measure. If they’re so against it, the president may be on to something.
Besides, without it, the U.S. will have little to show at the U.N. Climate Change Conference, to be held in Paris later this year. While even China has taken steps to curb emissions, we remain entangled in a sterile discussion as to whether climate change is even real.
In the end, Obama’s decision to allow Shell to dig owes more to geopolitics and the new realities dictated by changing whether patterns, and less to environment concerns or prospects for cheap oil. For while digging will immediately impact the already fragile balance in the Arctic basin, with unforeseen consequences to wild life, increase in oil production will be negligible at least in the first 20 years.
Powerful interests drive a potential race by multinationals to owe and explore the North Pole, to be sure, and the president is being pragmatic, as his support in Congress in matters concerning energy is tentative, at the most, and downright negative as a norm. After all, big oil openly sponsors members of his own party, and we all know what it’s expected from them in return.
But speaking of Arctic, there’s always a big bear smacked in the middle of the circle. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has been trying for years take ownership of vast extensions of the region, and has once again submitted a petition to the U.N., claiming over a million square km of the sea shelf, and using ‘scientific’ facts to dispute similar claims from the U.S., Canada, Denmark, and Norway.
Just as in 2002, Putin believes that a big chunk of the North Pole belongs to Russia, obviously concerned about embargoes and trade restrictions it’s been facing from the West, as well as the area’s rich potential for not just oil and gas but also precious metals.
It’s unlikely that the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea will acquiesce his ambitions or that Putin will ever give up. And neither the nations jockeying for a potential horse on that particular sweepstakes will let their guard escape the gate. Besides, Putin’s not alone either in wanting to have a military presence in the coming age of a snowless Arctic as the U.S. Navy has plans of its own there too.
Thus the fight, or rather, the confusing brawl taking place at the ceiling of the planet, which is another less than inspiring way to call what’s essentially a misconception; let’s face it, since when Earth has a top and a bottom? And never mind whose Mapa Mundi it is.
The point is that on this contentious dispute, either the U.S. steps in, armed with stiff regulations and restrictions, or risks losing relevance. It’s simply not realistic to expect that it’ll be able to unilaterally curb oil companies from moving in for the literal kill.
As for the ‘kayactivists’ who bravely tried to prevent the inevitable, all credit to them for doing our bidding and making a point to Shell that the world is watching its every move. That’s goes to every other oil giant salivating to get drills into the melting tundra too.
Or so it should. Fact is, if it’s up to what we read and hear from the media, the top of the world could as well crash all over our heads for all anyone would care. But we do, because we’re with the ones who’ll drown tomorrow, who’ll lose their homes and cross the globe seeking shelter from the floods, the raging storms, the scarcity of resources that’s already been caused by man-made climate change.
Most of us won’t be around for a complete meltdown of the North, and the South, Poles for that matter. But the process has already started and what will determine whether it’s a reversible one is our ability to keep most of those areas untouched. That has been proved challenging but it’s not at all impossible. World citizens may play an important role demanding restrain from their governments.
It’s a moral duty to Americans to back leaders committed to environmental causes, and the protection of the Arctic, if we’re to stand a slim chance for survival in this ongoing meltdown. A good way to know a presidential candidate’s inkling in this matter is to check who’s funding his or her campaign, how many buts they add to their qualified statements, and whether their hair is unnaturally blond.
We may all get distracted in the turf war of modern politics, one that threatens to do away with a democratic electoral process, and replace it with the sheer power of cash. But please keep your eye on the ball, that big, solitary, beautiful blue ball that depends on our commitment to provide us with life in return. All other matters pale in comparison. Have a great week.
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8/03/2015 Behind the Killing of a Big Cat, Colltalers

It was as swift and definitive as the killing itself was not. And it showed just as effectively how the global media at times accurately reflects the bipolar aspects of our short attention span. And seemingly endless ability for changing the subject.
When news broke that Cecil, a supposedly protected lion in Zimbabwe, felled to an American amateur hunter’s high-powered bow, coverage of the universal grief that followed it immediately interrupted all the other news of the day.
Almost gone from the headlines was ISIL’s murderous campaign, Turkish air raids of Kurds in Iraq and Syria, change in Taliban leadership with Mullah Mohammed Omar’s death, the Palestinian toddler killed by Israeli settlers, and that’s just skimming through the usually bloody but limited and biased coverage of the Middle Eastern cauldron.
In the U.S., outrage provoked by the beloved feline’s killing has also managed to wipe from front covers the extremely rare indictment of a white police officer in the death of yet another unarmed black male. And divert speculation about the suspicions death of Sandra Bland, a black professional who hung herself in jail, following her arrest for a traffic violation.
Cecil’s death sent in fact such a powerful shockwave around the world that many decried it, on the assumption that people care more about animals than the preventable killing of innocent humans singled out for their race or social status.
But even if there’s some truth to that – after all, advocates say, animals would never be accused of a crime against humans -, such misperception is less about a supposed ranking of species with, you guessed it, us on top, than with the seemingly insurmountable precariousness of sustaining momentum for discussing race relations in the U.S. now or ever.
Specially when combined with the leeway law enforcement agents enjoy to make life and death decisions, shortcomings of their psychological training, centuries of racial injustice and, of course, the gun issue, arguably another non starter.
Two other issues, both converged under the general bracket of cruelty against animals, got bonus mileage on the back of Cecil’s headless carcass, and we’re not corroborating threats to the Minnesota dentist by the ever agreeable Internet trolls.
One, the rapid expanding endangered species list, of which lions are now part, unlike say a few decades ago. Which is true to most species. Not coincidentally, the compilation includes some of the most majestic animals that have ever graced this planet. Besides lions, tigers, leopards, elephants, whales, rhinos, gorillas, monkeys, dolphins, do we have to go any further?
We’re quickly approaching the time when a reversed list, with species not on the road to extinction, will make more sense. Although all life’s worth saving, knowing that hundreds of thousands are disappearing one by one do us no favors: if we fail to show empathy for the plight of a formidable creature such as a lion, what hope is there for, say, a tiny ant?
The other issue sits like a fat but still gentle cow in the middle of the room but is not as easily identified with animal rights as the senseless killing of them by deep-pocket hobbyists: why we separate animals we call pets from those we call food.
It’s a passionate issue, with some misplaced radicalism that derails both sides’ arguments and belittles its implications, not unlike the right of some to worship an invisible entity, which is legal, without forcing it onto others, which is not.
The preaching that goes with the rationale of eating or not animal meat is one of the reasons that the above mentioned solidarity to Cecil’s fate was at odds with the personal eating habits of those exercising their empathetic muscles.
Again, what’s missing on this discussion – whether eating meat is or is not sanctioned by an ethical way of living – are facts, in this case, deeply linked and cause of much of Earth’s environmental depleting and increasing natural resources scarcity.
It’s a fact, for instance, that the industry sustaining our beef eating habit costs more to the environment than the pollution caused by our motor vehicles, discounted, one assumes, all parallel economies that feed off the oily veins of civilization.
It’s also a fact that meat is not a all-inclusive nutritional component for our bodies’ sustenance, requiring an array of complementary aliments to fulfill a balanced diet requirements. A long-term meat-only regime won’t keep us alive.
And finally, it’s an almost proved fact too that certain illnesses are linked to meat, despite copious research pointing to the contrary. That’s not a contradiction, just an acknowledgement that the same meat industry, being so invested in preserving the misperception that we absolutely need meat to survive, pays handsomely for that kind of study. Hence the ‘almost.’
The news cycle is bound to turn a corner, however. And soon enough, we’ll feel that the subject’s changed too fast, before any actionable measure in defense of endangered species, and lions in particular as it goes, has been enacted and enforced.
But many are not fully at mercy of what multimillion dollar enterprises, which just happen to be in the news business, may decide that’s important, and how many hours to dedicate to it. Long ago, headline-driven news stopped being relevant.
Except of course, when it’s not. In the case of Cecil, much of it has been spent speculating what sort of punishment, if any, someone like that Midwest animal killer (ed. note: we don’t publish names of accidental newsmakers for it may ultimately add credence to him or her) deserves, and little on the culture that produces just such a character.
We know that a hunter he is not: he kills not to feed but to entertain himself; he’s never in any danger, as he hires help to back him up; and he doesn’t respect the object of his aim, or give it a fair chance. Like a lowly killer, he just takes a life.
But since he’s an American, heaven forbid to say anything about the ‘sport’ of hunting, and the fact that those adept to it pay a small fortune to belong to such an insensitive and egotistical club. And since we’re on the subject of things we should never ever question, we won’t bother bringing up the gun issue to the fore. Again, heaven forbid start arguing over the 2nd.
And yet, these issues are correlated to the African lion’s killing, or whenever an elephant is downed (100 today, as every day), a whale is killed for ‘scientific purposes,’ a gorilla is hit by a stray bullet, or a turtle is caught on an illegal fishing net.
The upside of such a wall-to-wall coverage, flawed and misdirected, is that it’s also dislodged from the top of the news that starlet caught on a drug binge, another famous for being famous person’s latest Twitter diatribe, another pic from the endless British royalty lineage, or, in the case of the U.S., yet another stupidity uttered by the Republican’s front runner.
Speaking of which, another corner will be turned this week with a pseudo-debate of the also endless string of candidates to be former U.S. presidential candidates. And, sad to say, another toxic whiff of that malodorous concoction’s coming up.
But it’s unwise to expect it all to return to a hypothetical normal; chances are, more is coming our way. Which doesn’t mean to say that Cecil, and the grief his death has provoked, was all in vain, and will be forgotten in the weeks ahead.
Giving it in to those who are almost jealous for the attention animals receive, compared to that directed at humans in distress, certain losses hit us in such a primeval center of our beings that we can’t help it but responding in kind. We too are adept at exercising our empathy muscles rather than our trigger-pulling fingers, and Cecil just gave us a complete workout.
The media will report whatever its wealthy sponsors dictate, with exceptions few and far between, about what mostly makes you depressed anyway, while shoving personal habits of the fabulous and the infamous on our unimpressed faces.
But while most will act as if last week didn’t exist, and whatever is on deserves their eyes, some will remain concerned about our fellow partners on the stewardship of this planet. And will demand a reprieve on trophy hunting, at least until we create robots to be shot at, and remain engaged on veering our entertainment and eating chops toward ethical choices.
We won’t forget about ISIL, and the Turks, and the troops stuck overseas, and the plight of Palestinian children, or the continuous misery faced everyday by refugees and undocumented immigrants in Europe and the U.S.
No need to forget anything so to stop patronizing an industry that treats living beings as commodities, and how its very existence is the flip side of having wild animals rot in private yards, and ‘traditions’ of slaughtering beasts for fun still being carried on. Lest even the cutest of our pets can be tortured in cosmetic labs, or considered food in other cultures.
Behind the killing of wild animals, for riches, pleasure or neglect, there are vested interests and global traffic, spurious black markets, and entire societies anchored on the morally dubious notion that we stand above all other species.
Trust no one but yourself to keep this from falling into the cracks of media disposable grinders. Pages may turn but the book’s the same; we have an obligation to get it right. Just as a life wasted to war or hunger is a life too many, so is another stupid killing of a creature evolution trained to live and let live. Ladies and gentleman, it’s August out there. Enjoy.
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7/27/2015 Twin Scourges Stalk Us, Colltalers

We’re at the middle point between the anniversaries of two historical milestones: the U.S. horrific atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and the Russell-Einstein Manifest, ten years later, which decried the scarier world that emerged from its wake.
It was an early warning shot against a pervading fear that would transfix the world for half a century. But as it turned out, it soon found a companion fear, equally threatening to our very existence: the radical climate change that’s wreaking havoc with our ability to survive.
Albeit different in relevance and global impact, the two events being highlighted accurately illustrated both the atomic age’s newly revealed power to destroy mankind with unprecedented expediency, and our own ability of growing a conscience to fight against it.
The destruction of the Japanese cities 70 years ago Aug. 6 and 9, which killed about 240,000 people on impact and from the radiation that followed the bombs, is generally credited with ending WWII and thus preventing more deaths from that conflict.
But it was perhaps the single most tragic incident of instant mass murder ever perpetrated by a state, even if against a nation then bent in supporting Hitler’s cavalcade to world domination. Never before, or since, one country had the ability to deliver sheer destruction to its enemy in such a deranged practical way and with such a potential to cause even greater harm on a global scale.
The Call for Sanity document, drafted 60 years ago last July 9, by Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein, and signed by a roster of scientists and Nobel Prize winners, became an important step stone to mark the global reaction against the escalation of a state of permanent war in the world, signified by the ever increasing, and state-sponsored, production of weapons of mass destruction.
Many other manifests of the kind exist, but what distinguishes that one is the fact that some of its signers had contributed, in one way or another, to build the bomb in the first place, Einstein included. Remorse was evident in the central tenet of the manifest, which posits to world leaders and fellow humans: ‘Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?’
These jaded times may have us automatically strip such tone from its artificial gravitas and expose it for the rhetorical naivete that it conveys. But if then a nuclear arms race was already apace, six decades later mass-production of WMD has become the devilishly matter-of-fact reality – the banality of evil? – as we keep adding way more sophisticated civilization-ending devices to our arsenals.
Japan has recovered and thrived in the post-war years, at one point even becoming the world’s second-largest economy. And its past militaristic ambitions are mostly contained, despite a minority pushing to re-form its national army.
Nuclear power, however, and the risk of a catastrophic fallout, continue to define, and scare, the Japanese society, in what may be an arguable sign of Little Boy’s legacy and imprint on its psyche. On that, check Nuclear Disaster, Fukushima Daiichi.
No one is saying that the two themes, that of nuclear power for civilian use and uranium-enrichment to produce weapons should be conflated into one single, radioactive mess, as the agreement between Iran and six U.S.-led nations has made sufficiently clear.
Still, one can’t help but think that the world has forgotten what happened at the end of WW2, and the consequences of having the Nuke option at ready; warmongers who oppose the accord seem to believe that once one has it, one must be unburdened to use it at will.
It didn’t take long after the carnage for the Soviet Union to join the U.S. in the shameful club of nations possessing the bomb, jump starting the Cold War. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were trialled and executed in 1953 for passing the atomic secrets to the Soviets.
Since then, a few nations have also developed the bomb, either because they were at the top of the coalitions supporting the two sides, or because they simply crashed the ‘party’ and/or got help to do it. But the exact number of ‘nuclear nations’ remains elusive.
As the world will mark the date next week with the expected pomp and circumstance, the risk of one of these devices to go off for any reason and worse, setting a chain reaction throughout the planet, remains almost as critical as it was in the nuclear age’s first hours.
But, surprise, surprise, in the meantime, almost effortlessly, we have also developed other ways to exterminate life as we know it. In fact, today the ongoing impact of climate change on our chances for survival, for instance, is now considerably more burdensome than any threat of a nuclear holocaust. And that is because the disastrous consequences are already being felt and seem all but unstoppable.
That’s why the essential take of the Call for Sanity manifest remains as relevant now as it was dutifully ignored all those years ago. For understanding its call to arms, pun not intended, aided with the perspective of time, is still a precious weapon we have to reverse the current course. Almost as if we’re having to deal with the global fallout of a multi-head nuclear explosion that never went off.
There will certainly be a voice or two invoking the fact that the nuclear option is no longer allowed by the rules of contemporary conflict, whatever that means, and that is progress compared to the Cold War years of multiple nuclear missiles pointed at our heads.
But just as the meager efforts to contain the effects of rising sea levels and harsher weather on our species’ life expectancy will do little to solve the problem in a million years, we’re not nearly close at shutting completely the threat of an ‘accidental’ nuclear faceoff.
‘We have to remember that, if the issues between East and West are to be decided in any matter that can give any possible satisfaction to anybody, (…) whether Asian or European or American, whether White or Black, then these issue must not be decided by war.’
What Russell and Einstein hoped was only partly achieved 20 years ago last May, with the indefinite extension of the Non-Proliferation Nuclear Weapons treaty, which is subscribed by 191 nations, but not by India, Israel, Pakistan, South Sudan and North Korea.
Judging by contemporary America, we’re still far from applying the same principles to race relations, or to the hardly foreseen conflicts rooted on religious differences, income distribution, egalitarian access to natural resources and so many other issues of our age.
No one is truly expecting that at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris, later on this year, a document of similar reach and depth will be signed. Still the world needs, at least on writing, a greater commitment to tackle the issue, specially from the part of the U.S.
60 years back, a manifest by ‘human beings to human beings’ put it succinctly on writing: ‘remember your humanity, and forget the rest.’ It was a reaction to what its signers hoped had only been a terrible hiccup of mankind a decade before: the razing of two entire cities.
It wasn’t, of course, and there’s no redeeming factors justifying the deterioration of the environment and human relations from then on, which makes the Iran accord a possible shining exception, for all it’s worth. And we’re in need now for way more than nice words.
But it’s a necessary commitment all the same, one that each person must exercise on his or her private as well as public lives. Naive or not, we most definitely need to progress into a world without war and a future of redialing back the destruction of the environment.
Just as the brave Hiroshima and Nagasaki people have shown the world, we can’t avoid the burden or rewrite history, but we must rebuild and reengage peaceful alternatives and safer interactions with this planet. Or we won’t survive. Enjoy the rest of July.
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7/20/2015 Pluto, Iran & Our Future, Colltalers

More than mere date coincidence, there are a few connections between the New Horizons probe that has just visited Pluto, and the nuclear agreement between Iran and a group of six U.S.-led nations, and that’s is beside the fact that both impressed the world.
The very origin of the space program, the satellite’s use of plutonium as a fuel, the fact that congress has a way of picking budget priorities, concerning NASA and the weapons industry, and a basketful of issues related to world domination all come to mind.
The U.S. space program, regardless its noble intent and benefits to humanity, was born at end of WWII and the dawn of the nuclear age, out of need to build better weapons. Given the A-Bomb’s breathtakingly tragic ‘success,’ it was soon off to the races.
And a race it became, not at all coincidentally, when the Soviet Union forcibly crashed the nuclear club of one, and began making both rockets and warheads, whose technology also served its own space program. Again, for all Cold War’s nefarious by-products, and the inextricably link between space and the weapons programs, going to orbit was clearly the nobler pursuit by both nations.
Seven decades later, a spacecraft traveling too far from the Sun needs to rely on sources of energy other than solar power. In the case of New Horizons, as in others, that was the radioactive isotope plutonium-238, which is created from uranium-238, and after it decays into neptunium-238. It’s used for thermal power for its relative low cost. But you could’ve read this all on Wikipedia.
Two important things to note, though: first, solar cells technology was developed with the space program, and it’s one of its earliest application for energy, even when other sources are available. Second, you probably noticed how the very name of those nuclear-derived elements are based on the name of planets, right? Enough said.
Completely unlike any weapons program on the Defense Department’s menu, NASA is used to fight tooth and nail to get a decent budget. The New Horizons is called the little spacecraft that could, and did, because it almost never left the ground, due to budget constrains. Specially now, when a particularly science-averse crop of congressmen is bent on nay-saying funding for science.
NASA itself has evolved from a celebrated agency, popular with the masses during the 1960s and its culmination, the man on the Moon program, to a lower-standard pragmatism of prioritizing projects that could be more easily sold on Capitol Hill.
A string of catastrophic mistakes, which took lives and increased costs, didn’t help it either. Sadly also, perhaps because times are different, and we take for granted technological feats which took centuries to achieve, space travel lost much of its old glamour.
Another important component of this slow decline in public interest about a space program that seems at times unfocused or too eager to please, the One-Way Ticket to Mars project notwithstanding, may not even have to do with itself but with Nukes.
While the space exploration’s achievements and benefits to mankind are quite impressive, in the same 70 years, nuclear power has proven costly, unreliable, quick to dangerously become outdated, and volatile and risky enough, as ever, to cause mass destruction.
Because it takes a few decades for new, safer technologies to be applied to nuclear plants, almost all of those currently operating around the world are doing so with old technology that predates modern computers and environmental science, and heavily reliant on aging electrical grids. Even decommissioning them is costly. Plus, they’re the stuff of wet dreams for evil doers everywhere.
Nuclear weapons, however, are another story, one whose bullets we’ve been dodging since its inception. They’re banned from war, thank goodness, and a few meltdowns and mishaps haven’t been enough to cause widespread panic, or even come close to the damage caused to the environment, public health, and global economic relations that the use of fossil fuels has. Aren’t we lucky?
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, between Iran and China, France, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S., all permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany and the European Union, won’t stop the Iranian nuclear program per se, but prevent the country from implementing its weapons development industry, at it drastically cuts down enriched-uranium production.
Naturally no country in the world could be completely incapacitated from waging war, if it’d choose to do so, since weapon manufactures have often more power than entire nations. It’d be naive and, well, lethal getting on their way of doing business.
At the same time, leave it to the Ayatollah in charge to put his own holy foot in his mouth, and give all the arguments Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu loves to use to convince his country’s hard liners that there’s just one acceptable outcome to Israel’s existence: the complete annihilation of Iran. Again, not at all coincidentally, such rhetoric is wholly embraced by the Ayatollahs.
Thus, a positive outcome from talks over Iran’s nuclear program can only be possible if these two are not sitting at the same table at the same time. For, with their one-track minds, they may actually agree on a final solution, rest of the world be damned.
But Israel does have one legitimate fear that at least part of its security may have been diluted with this agreement: the fact that no other Middle East nation has been involved, which may mean that they’re not lending regional legitimacy to its terms.
That’s no good, albeit typical of the Arab world; Israel gets no sympathy, even when the lives of millions may be at stake. For a religion that’s often at the center of Middle Eastern conflicts, Islam as a whole is also awfully shy about supporting this accord.
Then there’s the U.S. Congress, and the picture darkens even more. That is because the GOP agenda of sabotaging President Obama may be running out of time. Derailing this deal could be one still attainable goal, to counter eight years of few successes but mostly failed attempts to embarrass the administration before the world. In fact, some Democrats could even join them.
That, of course, could be a mistake, to be sure. Not only because having Iran agreeing on some major reductions of its nuclear program cannot be credited only to the president, but also because it could set a template to resolve other issues in the region.
Breaking the agreement would undermine the power of diplomacy for solving delicate conflicts peacefully, of gathering consensus with a group of nations as the preferable alternative to simply sending the drones to bomb them to oblivion. Remember, we’ve been trying that for the past 20 years and it really hasn’t gotten us to a position of security. On the contrary, it’s only increased fear.
Lastly, even though agreements are flawed, and can’t guarantee their own fruition, we haven’t seen one of this magnitude being broken in a long while; despite all fears to the contrary, they actually only get better implemented with time.
It was a coincidence but of the good kind. While the world was watching pictures of Pluto sent from a plutonium-driven satellite, seven nations were capping 30 years of negotiations to diffuse a potentially harmful situation: that of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Just as fears that a malfunction would send New Horizons and its tiny radioactive chamber hurling back to Earth proved greatly exaggerated, so let’s hope that dire predictions that Iran is deceiving the world and plans exactly what it, and Israel, fear the most, also prove baseless. Neither a new Cold War nor a Nuclear Winter should be our legacy to the future. Have a great one.

7/13/2015 Brazil’s Torn by Lynchings, Colltalers

Aside clichés that Brazilians tolerate about themselves – nation of Carnival and football; racial democracy; their supposedly natural indolence and blissful disposition -, there are others that they not just wholeheartedly despise but are also stung by.
The overwhelmingly reality of past decades, however, is that Brazil’s one of the world’s most violent places, and even to the few hardened but pragmatic of its citizens, the rise in public lynchings as a form of popular justice is an absolutely abjection.
The mounting evidence was only enhanced last week when no less than four mob lynchings were reported all over Brazil, most of them resulting in the horrible death of the accused, who was given no chance or right to a fair trial.
The trend has been heatedly argued on Brazil’s press and social media, and a tabloid has published a remarkable cover, displaying side by side the depiction of the flogging of a black slave and the lifeless body of Cleidenilson Pereira da Silva, who was killed by a mob, both tied up to poles and surrounded by a crowd. The staggering fact is that 200 years separate both ‘sentences.’
That was the rhetoric but pertinent point of the Extra story: in over two centuries, ‘have we evolved or regressed?’ And just as on cue, another brutal lynching followed, whose perpetrators will likely remain unaccounted for, just like the ones preceding it.
Even more disturbing, this cycle of vigilantism and impunity, of ‘taking matters into one’s own hands,’ regardless the corollary of likely social causes and context, has a vocal and organized support system, both on social media as in the echelons of power.
In fact, many a politician and religious leader, popular talk show host and ‘expert’ on the press has openly supported the ‘right’ of citizens to act as their own police, when the police itself is too afraid, or corrupted, to act on their behalf. Of course, for such a rationale, whether the accused is guilty or innocent is besides the point. What counts is the brutality of the gesture.
Thus, there have been documented instances when the accused was indeed innocent, which did not prevent them from being punished either by death or by suspicion, which from the standpoint of someone’s life and reputation, are virtually the same.
In one of the most tragic cases of travesty of justice and mistaken identity, a São Paulo state housewife was beaten to death last year, accused of having abducted children. The baseless claim spread out from a Facebook post with a sketch of the alleged abductor, inciting a ravenous mob to gather and seek the victim. To this day, the real kidnapper has not been identified.
To USP sociologist José de Souza Martins, who’s just published ‘Linchamentos – A Justiça Popular no Brasil,’ lynchings are far from being the exception, and his 30 years of research produced 2,000 documented cases. More likely, they’re the norm.
He found that cases of violence against individuals are the most numerous. And to study them, he created a ‘protocol’ to trace the arch of events leading to lynchings. From the chase of the alleged culprit, to stoning, beating, direct physical aggression, to mutilation and, the limit, the burning of the still alive victim, such arch is in itself a depraved chain of criminal incidents.
Even admitting that the full protocol is rarely fulfilled, Martins writes that, if not contained at its beginnings, a lynching goes very quickly from indignation to anger and hatred, at which stage stopping the crime becomes extremely difficult.
He goes on to analyze context and circumstances making such a horrendous crime common, including lack of confidence on the judicial system and its slow pace to determining criminal accountability, its ever present risk of convicting innocents, along with social status and income as contributor factors to impunity, and the country’s cultural environment in which it occurs.
Thus, while in Mozambique, for instance, accusations of witchery are common triggers for lynching, and in Tanzania, being an Albino is enough to put anyone at risk to death at the hands of the mob, in the U.S., they were motivated by racial prejudice.
In Brazil, the explosive mix of chronic police corruption and law enforcement underfunding combines with how easy false claims spread through social media and extremist talk shows, to reinforce the notion that justice is for those who can afford it.
As it’s disproportionally staked against the poor and the dispossessed, such populist discourse does little to help addressing Brazil’s staggering income gap, racial tensions, and other easily identifiable causes for social unrest, and a lot for the banking accounts of many a political and religious leader. Their incendiary claims often distort and control the debate over criminality.
As if to illustrate the myopia of such debate, the right wing-dominated Brazilian Congress is on the verge of reducing the age of criminal responsibility, from 18 to 16, after a spate of violent teenager crimes transfixed the nation. A final vote is expected this month. It’s another misguided legislative grandstanding that focuses on the effect, while ignoring its possible causes.
Brazil is not unique on this, of course. Neither it has the monopoly of violence, or social unrest, or a particularly parasitic political class, not afraid of fanning extremist claims for self promotion. As the opposition to President Dilma Rousseff and her Workers’ Party continues strong among the affluent and the middle class, dysfunction is the currency of choice in Brasilia.
But going back to clichés mentioned above, if there are two things that irk the most Brazilians, about their country, culture, and standings in the world, one is how it misperceives itself as a land of opportunity and a nation well suited for its dreamed future.
The other is about the Amazon Rainforest, but let’s not get into that now. The commonality of lynchings, and their periodic placement in the inner pages of major newspapers is what seems to be finally coming into focus, for and about Brazilians.
Given that clichés are by definition exaggerations, or gross misrepresentations of reality, Brazil’s acceptance to what it is known for around the world should be taken, well, with a grain of salt. It’s of little relevance for those who live and breathe within its borders, because that same reality often extrapolates the constrains that worn old sayings can capture or express.
But for a wounded nation, whose pride has been assaulted by an economic slump, its rate of growth currently being the lowest among Brics nations, and with a large segment feeling left out by the government’s socialism-tinged programs, such sobriquet is one characterization too many, if not exactly unfair. No redeeming qualities for such a less than wholesome public image.
With three to four lynchings weekly, in Martins’ estimates, Brazil can’t waste time arguing over what kind of adage it’d rather be known for. Even as Marin writes that ‘lynching is an altruistic crime, that is, a social crime with social intentions,’ it’s still a crime, one that doesn’t even appear in Brazilian Penal Code. Thus the difficulty of estimating the precise number that it occurs.
A recent U.N. report, comparing the urban violence in Brazil to the Syrian civil war, was specially upsetting to those already predisposed to be suspicious to negative reports and blog posts about the country by outside organizations, or expats.
But the systematic brutality of mob lynchings, their regularity, complicity from law-abiding citizens, and obvious bias towards the disfranchised, along with a tactic support by those in position to make a difference and prevent them, must not be ignored. And if it takes an international uproar to at least provoke a rightful sense of indignation, and desire to change it, so be it.
In the era of fictional superheroes, there’s no lack of desire for vigilantes, and some may even see sense in impersonating justice when its agents fail to fulfill their responsibility. However, the mob rule, so popular in the bible and other so-called holy texts, has produced some of history’s most sanguinary times and tyrants, often ruining social harmony and true justice.
There’s constant blabber in Brazil about it being the nation of the future, and how it’s being groomed and primed to be the world’s leader. But behind such grandiose myth, there’s the arrogant belief that it has already achieved what it takes to earn such a self-serving accolade. And the assumption that no matter how flawed its dreams may be, it’ll all work out in the end.
It won’t, and the fact that we’re deploring the rise in lynchings in a 200-million plus nation, fast approaching its 600 hundred years of history, is but a small sample of how misplaced such drive really is. For it simply ignores the thousands of citizens weekly martyred in the streets of Brazil, by the worst possible form of punishment, torture, and death, and with absolute impunity. Have a safe week.
***

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