Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Dying for Change

Human Rights Watch, one of the few NGOs doing good work in Guinea (though I can't comment on the controversy over their reporting in Israel), published their report on Guinea's recent riots a few weeks ago, interviewing more than 115 eyewitnesses to the country-wide riots.

The incredible eyewitness tesitimonies from those chaotic days in late-January and early-February make the report a must read.

For those who don't know all the background behind the strike, jilted union leaders galvanized in January to launch an unlimited general strike to absolutely paralyze all activity in the country (after having launched two smaller scale strikes last year). A good summary of the events leading up to the strike can be found here.

The goal of this strike was to see that government promises of wage increases and price controls on basic commodities (rice, kerosene for lamps, and gas for transportation) be met so that Guineans could continue to work and feed their families. The strike launched peacefully on January 10th, but the government made it clear early on that it was unwilling to make concessions; strike leaders decided to make the strike political for the first time in recent years, demanding sweeping government reforms, demanding that President Lansana Conté and his entire Congress step down from power.

The government's unwillingness to meet the strike leaders' demands is not hard to understand: Guinea is bankrupt, the result of decadent and systematic corruption over recent years that has earned it the reputation as the second most corrupt country in the world: Those who own posts of power steal money destined to fund projects and development to buy themselves mansions and Mercedes. In short, the country languishes in poverty and fails to provide basic services, such as electricity and running water, in its capital and major cities (the vast majority of the country has never been electrified and is without running water).

On January 22nd, tens of thousands of ordinary Guineans spontaneously took to the streets, carrying banners such as "We are ready to die for change." President Conté obliged them, ordering the army to open fire on protesters on the crowds. More than 60 people died that day.

I'm posting a segment detailing the bloodiest day of protests on January 22nd only as encouragement to read the entire 66-page report:
According to the government’s own figures, the brutal crackdown resulted in at least 129 dead and over 1700 wounded, hundreds of them by gunshot.
The massacre traces its origin to an economic collapse, and rampant corruption such as the president Lansana Conté securing the release of two of his rich friends who had been arrested on charges of embezzlement in which he
"...traveled to Conakry’s central prison with his motorcade and personally secured the release of two close allies charged with embezzlement from Guinea’s Central Bank, reportedly telling his entourage, 'Je suis la justice' ('I am the law)."
This story, which was to be widely circulated around the country in the following weeks, would prove to be "the final straw" for trade unions who were utterly exhausted with Contés promises. Of the massacre, we now have extensive eyewitness reports, including testimony from the vicitms themselves:
The day I was shot, I was going out to try to find some rice to eat. ...I saw a group of youths protesting on the street. Some of them were throwing rocks at a large group of nearby policemen, who immediately started shooting at us. I felt a sharp pain and looked down and saw blood flowing from my leg and I fell down. I couldn’t walk. ...The police came up and I heard one of them say they should kill me. Then one of them kicked me in the face and I felt the blood start to run. The police left me there...
On January 22nd, one of the largest protests ever seen in Guinea—a veritable "human tide"—took to the streets. In the words of one of the protestors: “When we came out on Monday, we were determined to change the system in place. It’s been 48 years since independence, and we have nothing.”

The scene came to a head that morning near central Conakry. Testimony from one of the eyewitnesses:
During the march on January 22, I was one of the stewards. Our role was to keep marchers from throwing rocks and engaging in acts of vandalism. We wanted to improve upon the marches of January 17, where some youths had thrown rocks and wanted to insult the it was important to calm things down. Those playing this role were just organized informally, and were older guys from the neighborhood who the youth respected. We didn’t get orders from on high.
Nonetheless, security forces did not respect the non-violent nature of the march. Another eyewitness account from the 22nd:
When we arrived in Hamdallaye, there were lots of police and gendarmes and there was lots of firing in the air and lots of tear gas. But it wasn’t frightening people, so they fired straight into the crowd. There was no stone throwing at Hamdallaye. Nothing. Two died there that I saw. One was hit in the forehead, and the other in the chest. I don’t know if it was a policeman or gendarme who fired those particular shots. We took the bodies and put them on a piece of corrugated tin and carried them on our heads. The security agents backed off as we approached with the bodies and we passed forward towards Bellevue.
The scene came to a head at Le pont de 8 novembre ("The Bridge of November 8th"). Another protestor's testimony:
As we neared the bridge, we were chanting, “We don’t want Conté anymore.” We also had a Guinean flag. We had no stones, no arms of any kind. Our only weapons were little tree branches that we were waving above our heads. Around 2 p.m., we arrived at the bridge. There were police, gendarmes, and Red Berets there. The police were there in strong numbers. There were fewer Red Berets, but I tried to stay closer to the police because the Red Berets were firing more. I saw the Red Berets firing straight into the crowds and several people fall on the ground. We panicked and tried to flee. As my friend was trying to climb a wall into a nearby cemetery to get away, someone fired and hit him in the shoulder. He fell town and tried to climb again, and they shot him again in the lower back side. I knew if I tried to climb the wall they’d shoot me too, so I ran towards the police because they weren’t firing as much and they captured me. They struck me with their rifle butts on the back and arrested me.
A foreign diplomat on hand to view the carnage corroborates this accounts:
From what I saw of the march of the 22nd, security forces were firing on an absolutely peaceful march. The protestors had no stones or arms of any kind. At first, security forces did use tear gas to try to push people back. But then the first wave of protestors that was advancing toward the bridge got closer and closer. One protestor was carrying a Guinean flag. A group of protestors got down on their knees in a non-threatening position in front of the soldiers. But the soldiers fired at the one in the first row holding the Guinean flag, as he stood there on his knees. They literally fired directly into the crowd. The Red Berets were firing, but so were the police and gendarmes. Several were wounded at the bridge, hit in the stomach, so they couldn’t have been firing in the air. I saw police kick those who were already lying prostrate wounded on the ground, so the security forces were clearly over-excited. Groups of protestors would disperse in all directions only to come back again. I don’t know why the demonstrators kept advancing. Maybe they thought because they weren’t armed, they wouldn’t be hurt.
For much more, including descriptions from doctors at the local hospitals, families whose homes were sacked by marauding soldiers, and accounts from the strike leaders themselves (who report having been threatened with murder by the president himself), see the report.

If you're still wondering why you should care, even if you've never visited or even heard of Guinea, Guinea visits you every day. The country is the world's second-largest producer of raw aluminum (bauxite); so the spoon you use to eat your cereal or the car you drive to work have been, in a sense, carved from its red rocks. As citizens of the world, we owe it to the people of Guinea to inform ourselves about this tragedy that has unfolded in the country over the last few months. Their loss is our own.

Thumbs Up

My favorite movie reviewer, Roger Ebert, recently published a notice on his website that he has begun his recovery from cancer of the salivary gland with only a final surgery remaining.

You'll notice from the photograph that the surgeries have disfigured the acclaimed critic's face, but as he mentions in his webpage update: "We spend too much time hiding illness."

When my father used to manage a Barnes and Noble bookstore, I used to visit him during his overnight inventory sessions and more often than not, I would spend those nights with one of Ebert's many review compliations open next to me (he's reviewed more than 5,500 movies). I loved reading his thoughts and opinions on film; it didn't matter if I recognized the film he was reviewing or not. His reviews gave me not only an appreciation of the film being discussed but of a clear, simple kind of criticism that is all too often ignored (I'm looking in your direction, Pitchfork).

In short, Ebert taught me that movies should do more than entertain, and encouraged me to analyze them as an art form. I'm grateful for that lesson.

For all his critical skill, Ebert never takes himself or his craft too seriously; I cite as evidence his review of Basic Instinct 2:

"Basic Instinct 2 is not good in any rational or defensible way, but not bad in irrational and indefensible ways. ...Here is a movie so outrageous and preposterous it is either (a) suicidal or (b) throbbing with a horrible fascination. I lean toward (b). It's a lot of things, but boring is not one of them. I cannot recommend the movie, but ... why the hell can't I? Just because it's godawful? What kind of reason is that for staying away from a movie?

"...I grinned at that absurd phallic skyscraper that really does exist in London. Of Sharon Stone, what can I say except that there is within most men a private place that responds to an aggressive sexual challenge, especially when it's delivered like a lurid torch song, and Stone plays those notes like she worked out her own fingering. ...My 1-1/2-star rating is like a cold shower, designed to take my mind away from giving it four stars."

You should read his update yourself, but in case you don't, you should know that he's able to get around on his own and should make a slow, if not full, recovery. Regarding the attraction his physical condition might garner, Roger says in his website update:
"I was told photos of me in this condition would attract the gossip papers. So what? I have been very sick, am getting better and this is how it looks. I still have my brain and my typing fingers."
And the world is a sight better for it.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Movie-making à l'africaine

Not even Hollywood is immune to the African corruption bug, nor, apparently is its Sexiest Man.

The LA Times recently ran this article talking about cost overruns for that silly explod-a-thon, Sahara. As one could imagine for a movie that cost nearly $200 million dollars while only pulling in half that in its box office run, producers broke the bank—but not in the way you'd imagine:

"Courtesy payments," "gratuities" and "local bribes" totaling $237,386 were passed out on locations in Morocco to expedite filming. A $40,688 payment to stop a river improvement project and $23,250 for "Political/Mayoral support" may have run afoul of U.S. law, experts say."
The former payment was made to delay construction of government sewage system that would have interrupted filming. Imagine that ministerial conversation:

Poor Local Civil Servant: "These people would like to be able to flush their toilets, sir."

Corrupt Moroccan Fat Cat: "No time for that, my good man, we're making movies!"

The corruption on Sahara ran as thick as its famed sands:
"Cold cash came in handy. ...16 "gratuity" or "courtesy" payments were made throughout Morocco. Six of the expenditures were "local bribes" in the amount of...$7,559."
Morocco has earned a favorable reputation among Hollywood producers in recent years as a haven of cheap labor and corrupt officials: Kingdom of Heaven, Babel, and Black Hawk Down, among others, were all filmed here.

Never mind the possible legal ramficiations of bribes, which
constitute buying business advantages, a violation of U.S. law, listen to the Hollywood spin:

"It's a bad choice of words in a document, but it's a perfectly normal and cost-efficient way of getting a film made in a place like Morocco," said David A. Davis of FMV Opinions Inc., a Century City financial advisory firm. "
You've heard it here first: Corruption and graft—perfectly acceptable vices "in a place like Morocco" if the end result is motion picture magic; and, especially if the magician is that dreamy Matthew McConaughey.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Smartest Americans: "Stoned Slackers"

Editor and Publisher revealed the results of a Pew Survey that finds that the most informed viewers about current events are those who watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert. This is troublesome news for Bill O'Reilly and his Fox cronies, who like to refer to Stewart and Colbert's viewers as "stoned slackers...who can vote"—though hopefully not after Patriot Act 2.0, right Bill?

Here is the highlight:
"Among those surveyed...those who scored the highest were regular watchers of Comedy Central's The Daily Show and Colbert Report. They tied with regular readers of major newspapers. ...Watchers of the Lehrer News Hour on PBS followed just behind."
And then this jewel:
"Virtually bringing up the rear were regular watchers of Fox News. ...Told that Shia was one group of Muslims struggling in Iraq, only 32% [of surveyed Fox viewers] could name 'Sunni' as the other key group."
There are a few different ways to interpret these results; first, Fox viewers need to hit the books (or at least start watching the other comedy channel from time to time) . Second, one can't watch shows like Stewart's and Colbert's and appreciate the politcal satire unless one already understands something about the topics being skewered.

Despite the high scores, and the fact that
a suprisingly amount young viewers gets its news from Comedy Central's two shows, Stewart and Colbert never portray themselves as anything but entertainment.

The aforementioned O'Reilly refuses to admit he's cut from the same cloth; instead, he preens himself as a commentator "inspired by Mike Wallace, Howard Cossell, and Tom Snyder." Such a lofty claim, however, is thrown into question by ridiculous heated exchanges, such as this one between him and Geraldo last week. You can almost see the handlers pumping the testosterone in the studio.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Development at Work

Continuing today's theme celebrating women's liberation, your Miss Conakry 2007:

"Le jury a eu à trancher sur la base des critères comme la beauté, la démarche, la tenue vestimentaire et l'expression orale."
("The jury based its decision on beauty, presentation, dress, and oral expression.")

I knew all those Peace Corps Girls Conferences we organized were good for something.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Politics à la française

As the primaries in the US turn into a race for money, I thought I might take advantage of my perspective in faraway France to talk a little bit about how politics here are shaping up.

We're less than two weeks away from an election that ought to shake up the old French Republic

Once upon a time, there were 22 potential candidates. 22 became 12 about a month ago when each of these candidates had to get the "patronage" of elected officials around the country. Each candidate needsed 500 signatures from these "notables" in order to get on the ballot. It's a wacky setup in that it would seem to deny access to potentially popular canidates who might want to "buck the system," yet it seems to have worked this time as there are some pretty potent pickles remaining in this bunch of 12.

Of these 12 candidates who managed to get on the election day ballot, seven of them are even more left wing than say, Dennis Kucinich or Ralph Nader: You're looking at four radical women (all Green/Socialist/Communist candidates), seven dour men, and one José Bové, my personal favorite.

No way Bové!

The moustachioed maverick doesn't have a lot going for him: He barely managed to get his 500 signatures in time (he got his last one a few minutes before the deadline), may potentially have to sit out the election in prison (he was arrensted for destroying a wide swath of genetically modified crops in a political protest and has yet to serve his four-month sentence), and he's only pulling 5% of the vote. But he's got this yankee's support for the following reasons:
  • Promotes purely organic farming and calls for a ban on all genetically modified crops
  • Dictates that no comapny making a profit can fire an employee
  • Promises to nationalize of all major industries
  • Suggests a competition among school children to rewrite the lyrics of La Marseillaise because "when you talk about some bloody war, you're not talking about peace."
So, obviously, he has no chance, but I like his gumption, his moxie, and his certain je ne sais quoi. Oh, and the handlebar moustache is a nice touch.

Let's get real

Of course, it's coming down to Ségolene Royal (fairly socialist) and Nicolas Sarkozy (fairly conservative). The latest polls in France have Sarkozy holding a consistent four-to-five point margin over Royal, but more than a third of French voters have yet to make up their minds and more than 50% of the youth vote remains undecided. Ségolène is counting on this undecided bloc of youth voters breaking for her by a decisive margin to make up for her current deficit in the polls; pundits in France believe it's possible that's exactly what will happen. If it does, that will mean she and Sarkozy will duke it out alone in the two-person runoff scheduled for next month.

But wait, there's more

But in the last few weeks, an unknown centrist named François Bayrou has suddenly pulled up out of nowhere to near even with the big two. It's an interesting twist on an otherwise ordinary campaign because if he could somehow make it to the second round of elections, it's predicted that he would trounce either Royal or Sarkozy easily in a two-person run-off. But can he make it that far? As of last week, he is still down several points in the polls to Royal.

In talking with some of the French here, the general consensus is that Bayrou isn't exactly a standout candidate; rather, he represents the "lesser of three infectious diseases." One student explained it to me thusly: "...Entre la peste, la grippe et un gros rhume, je choisis le rhume." ("...Between the plague, the flu, and a bad cold, I choose the cold.") My guess is that his support comes from those who would conceivably vote for him to prevent either extreme (Royal on the left and Sarkozy on the right) from taking power.

A viable third-party candidate challenging the two-party establishment? We're not in Kansas, anymore.

So what?

Maybe all the cheese and wine have gone to my head, but I'm wondering if perhaps the French are on to something worth. Their electoral system, though flawed, at least ensures a wide number of candidates get their voices and opinions heard, as well as promises that each of these candidates gets equal time on any of the French public television and radio stations (which is practically all of them). The system, like most of Europe, even goes so far as to require gender equality, meaning an equal number of men and women must present themselves as candidates from each party.

The United States' mostly closed primary system keeps the fights over political doctrine behind closed doors; by the time the Democratic and Republican candidates emerge for voters' consideration, they've already become indistinguishable from each other as they race to the middle, softening their stands on practically every conceivable issue in order to suit every taste.
The French system succeeds in avoiding this; each pretender to take stands on issues they'd rather avoid as matter of distinguishing themselves from the rest: You may not like your choice, but at least you know what you're getting.

Imagine an America where communists and libertarians and greens could actually get their agendas debated without getting laughed outof the room—maybe even get a congressperson-or-two voted into office.
Right now, we've got to settle for one lone socialist senator amid a sea of Democrats and Republicans. Nothing would shake up the current political establishment more than a little friendly competition to keep the Big Guys on their toes, n'est-ce pas?

Could the French system actually work in the U.S.? Not without huge fights from both sides of the aisle. The moneyed interests who fund both Democratic and Republican candidates would suddenly they'd have to share ear-whispering time with their favoirte politicans with, ugh, the American voters. However, given the current apathy and discontentment with our terribly flawed system, there's no reason not to consider and advocate reasonable alternatives, even if they come from the home of Freedom Fries.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Hand Me Those Ronsons, My Good Man

While perusing the bookshelves of our regional volunteer house one especially fun and frolic-filled weekend, Ton Oncle and I found our interest piqued by a particularly intriguing selection: Tobacco Control in Developing Countries. Having witnessed firsthand the ubiquity of cigarettes in Guinea, we decided the massive tome might be worth a read. From our experience, it seemed that no matter how small a village one visited, there would always be a cigarette stand selling at least two or three different brands. We also recalled volunteers who had planned to use their service as an opportunity to quit smoking, only to see their habit grow when confronted by the product's pervasiveness and low cost. Not to mention those of us who had always dreamed of developing a pack-a-day habit, but were previously discouraged by the expense. Anyway, upon perusal, the book seemed to be quite chock-full of meaningful charts and graphs, as well as simply brimming with useful analysis concerning the efficacy of tobacco control measures based on economics and public policy. This wealth of raw "information" was probably the main reason neither of us ever got around to finishing it (although you'd have to ask Ton Oncle for sure). Our limited inspection of the behemoth's contents, however, did leave us with the conclusion that there was very little basis for many of the arguments against tobacco control made by this guy ------------------------------------->

Because smoking rates continue to decline in the U.S. and other highly developed countries, tobacco companies must continually search for alternative means of increasing their revenue. One obvious way to do this is by raising the level of addiction in developing countries. Often, this can be accomplished rather easily, primarily because of a lack of public awareness as to the health hazards associated with tobacco use. Certain populations may also be especially vulnerable to the temptation of that pernicious yet highly desirable compensation offered faithful smokers:
Apparently tobacco companies are still doing their best to keep addiction high here at home also, by secretly raising the levels of nicotine found in their products! Philip Morris claims that these findings represent "random variations in nicotine yields, both upwards and downwards," but we all know the claims made by the tobacco industry have a storied history of being blatantly false. Not to mention that this Harvard study shows on average, there was a 1.6% increase in the amount of nicotine per cigarette every year between 1998 and 2005. Now that I think about it, the fact that I have been steadily smoking more crack each year during the same time period was probably a random variation as well, and not due to spiraling addiction. Phew, what a relief!

Americans' complacency with respect to this and other tobacco opportunism probably arises in part because we have already done much to regulate the industry domestically, as well as raise public awareness. This complacency should not extend to the actions of tobacco corporations in developing countries, however. Because of the fragile economies in such countries, as well as the health problems already caused by malaria, mal-nutrition, and AIDs, the economic and social costs resulting from a continued rise in tobacco use are especially high.
One impediment to implementing controls in developing countries is the fact that many such countries are growing tobacco themselves. This can in turn lead to smuggling operations across the borders of neighboring countries with differing regulations. Confronted with the high prices of European and American cigarettes, I almost smuggled home some Supermatch and Gold Seals myself. Not to mention that the fancy American brands can't beat ERA for pure flavor! The authors of Tobacco Control argue that such smuggling, however, has more to do with the level of corruption in a particular country than the cost of cigarettes. The authors also claim that increasing the cigarette tax has its greatest effect on the number of smokers in developing countries, but again corruption and lack of infrastructure can significantly impede the implementation of such measures.

Despite these challenges to increasing the regulation of tobacco sales worldwide, it is an issue that deserves attention. Simply because smoking-related costs are decreasing domestically does not mean that the same problems should be ignored in other countries. Our knowledge of the societal costs of smoking should be used to help educate those in places where the problem is just beginning. And perhaps the largest deterrent to lighting up could be the fact that it's the favorite activity of this "God-appointed" "president."

Something's growing on here.

I'm going to conjecture that the purpose of a blog with four former Peace Corps Volunteers is to talk about Africa, Peace Corps, and Africa, though not necessarily in that order.

The great thing about a blog with Peace Corps volunteers means that you don't have to suffer the hoity-toity, high falutin' standards of news organizations like Reuters, BBC, or IRIN. In short, it means is that we can talk about stuff like:

Perhaps you don't recognize one of the greatest alcoholic beverages known to Man. That's OK; that just means you haven't visited Guinea yet.

Speaking of The Greatest Country in the Universe
, nothing much of interest is going at the moment as the new prime minister is still in the midsts of organizing his new government while the general populace holds its breath and the international community pretends the whole charade may actually result in positive change—but we all know who is still wearing the pants in this dysfunctional family (a certain diabetic chain-smoker, son excéllence, le Général Lansana Conté).

Meanwhile, the few media outlets that exist are still trying to make sense of the massive riots that tore apart the country last month. The always redoubtable has posted an interview with my former prefet, Mouctar Banti Diallo (now occasional-prefet of Pita—when he isn't getting chased out of town). It's an interesting read if you can suffer his penchanct for long-winded extemporations.

Ol' Mouctar was an acquaintance of mine as we lived next to each other when he was Prefet in Tougué and I drew water from his family's pump every other day-or-so and diligently greeted his wife in her multi-colored complets beneath the mango tree. That somehow makes me feel close to him, though why I'd want to feel close to him is another question altogether.
Assuming you speak French, you can read his reactions to the riots that lead him to take his family and flee the town while his office and home were sacked and looted, as well as his explanations as to the causes.

Then when you're tired of feeling bad for the state of the world, cheer yourself up with the Garfield comic generator:
They literally write themselves!

This one, however, is still my favorite: