Saturday, March 28, 2009

Turn out the lights!

Two reasons light's on my mind tonight. First, in about half an hour, 20:30 local time, or 8:30 pm for our American cousins, I'm told I should turn my lights out to support the Earth Hour initiative. Secondly, our clocks are set to jump forward for the summer here in Europe. A double shot of light craziness sure to throw my internal clock for a loop. Got me thinking about why we change our clocks twice a year; having always assumed it had something to do with conserving energy it seems very related to the savings and awareness being raised by the big switch off tonight. Or, is it?

Daylight Saving Time (DST), or summer time for our European friends (I know, I'm a crazy Canadian, speak like an American, do everything else like a European), is designed so afternoons have more daylight and mornings less. Being controversial, it hasn't been adopted by the whole world. Many countries have actually used it for awhile and then dropped it which makes it strange that it was extended a couple years ago in the States (and I'm guessing Canada). Then I remembered it was Dubya who signed in the extension, making me even more dubious than I am about tonight's worldwide electricity savings of an hour of darkness in 3,400 towns and cities across 88 countries. Last year the city of Toronto saw electricity usage dip from 2885 megawatts at 8 pm, already down from the normal 3000 (probably cuz most of the big consumers had started powering down) to 2738 megawatts by 8:54, an 8.7% drop, easily exceeding the 5% goal.

It's 20:30 and I've just switched off all my lights (had difficulty digging up a candle) and about half the lights in the other flats in my courtyard are still on. Should I start throwing rocks or just count on the savings we make changing our clocks? Oddly, the US government passed the plan that called for a new energy-impact study to be commissioned after the new energy bill that extended DST by a month became law in 2007. The last major study done before that in the US in 1970 showed DST saved about 1% overall, making the 5% savings worldwide for an hour seem merely symbolic. However, this world is a much different place than 40 years ago; energy usage patterns are no exception. The new study found that the total energy savings throughout the period of Daylight Saving Time add up to 17 trillion Btu of primary energy consumption, which was only .02 percent of the country’s total use in 2007. A lot of trouble to light a city of 150,000. Besides the electricity, proponents say there is less crime, fewer traffic fatalities, more recreation time and increased economic activity.

While Benjamin Franklin is credited with coming up with the idea of daylight saving in 1784 to conserve candles, many think it isn't worth the hassle today, and in fact may actually ultimately increase energy use. In a study done in Indiana in 2006 when they instituted daylight saving statewide for the first time (before then, daylight time confusingly was in effect in just a handful of Indiana’s counties) Matthew Kotchen and his colleague Laura Grant unexpectedly found that daylight time led to a 1 percent overall rise in residential electricity use, costing the state an extra $9 million. But it's good for golf! The golf industry told Congress in 1986 that an extra month of daylight saving was worth up to $400 million annually in extra sales and fees. Retailers in sports and recreation are some of DST's biggest supporters, so I've got to lose an hour's sleep tonight and remember that EST becomes EDT, Central Standard Time (CST) becomes Central Daylight Time (CDT), Mountain.. you get the idea.

The push for DST came with last century's world wars. They felt it helped to save energy for war production by taking advantage of the later hours of daylight between April and October. Therefore it was instituted nationally in the US for the war years, but during the interwar period and since WWII the choice of whether or not to observe has been made by the community. Farmers hate it, explaining Indiana's late adoption and Saskatchewan's continued non-use; Arizona (except some Indian Reservations), Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa are other American locations still opting out. Europe has been doing it since after WWI where Summer Time begins the last Sunday in March and runs through the last Sunday in October. Annoyingly, this does not directly coincide with Daylight Savings in the United States. Consequently, time variants between nations do not stay uniform year-round. Around the world most nation's ignore it with only one, Kyrgyzstan, observing it all year. 130 countries don't observe DST at all, 77 have at least one location observing and only 66 where the entire country turns their clocks this year.

It's the messing with the body clock that I can take. We're already slaves to the clocks on the wall (or more likely our phones and computers) but we're also forced to adjust a couple times a year, manually (that damn clock on the stove!) and physiologically. Remember that although we can stay in the bar an hour longer in October we get an hour less light at a time of year when the amount of daylight is growing smaller daily. By the winter solstice most people don't get any sunlight as they go and return to and from work in the dark. School buses are on the roads loaded with kids well before sunrise. Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and their colleagues looked at myocardial infarction rates in Sweden since 1987 and found that the number of heart attacks rose about 5 percent during the first week of Summer Time. In the October 30, 2008, New England Journal of Medicine, they suggested that this rise may result from the disruption of sleep patterns and biological rhythms. The near month difference in observation dates between Europe and North America causes huge headaches for communication and business, like the airlines. Religious observances and calendars tied to sunrise and sunset times are also be affected. Later sunrise during the extension periods hinders observant Jews' ability to pray at sunup and still make it to work by 9 a.m.

Well, it's after 10pm now, lights back on, noticed fewer lights on in the courtyard but it's probably due to people going out, it is Saturday night and all, of which there will be an hour less than normal tonight. There's so many other factors that aren't equally predictable when figuring the pros and cons of DST, not the least of which are the losses during winter. The Australian idea to turn the lights off for an hour tonight seems like an easier benefit to measure; here's hoping they reach their goals and get good press tomorrow. While the thrifty Franklin suggested Paris could save nearly 100 million livre tournois a year with DST, we're wasting plenty more with our excessively energy reliant lifestyles.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Turks and Caicos aka Taxes and Corruption

Turks and Caicos, a small Caribbean British protectorate, 230 miles of white sandy beaches, premier diving destination with one of the longest coral reefs in the world. Paradise. Thing is, it's also a paradise for tax evasion, making it a financial centre, which can only mean one thing these days - corruption and abuse of the system. Things have gotten so bad that on March 16th Gordon Wetherell, the Governor of the Turks and Caicos Islands (known as TCI), announced that he had taken the decision to suspend parts of the 2006 constitution; the British government plans on taking over administrative control of the islands. This follows a corruption probe into the governance of the territory, focusing mostly on the actions of the former Premier of the dependency Michael Misick, who resigned on the 23rd.

A little about Misick before we look closer at the island. After studying law and a short stint in the private sector, in property and finance, he entered politics in 1991 following in much of his family's footsteps. He became chief minister of the island when his Progressive Nation Party (PNP) took power on August 15th, 2003. When the islands new constitution came into force on August 9th, 2006, he assumed the role of Premier. Since assuming power, he's been a busy boy. In addition to being the elected head of government, he was also the minister for Civil Aviation, Commerce and Development, Planning, District Administration, Broadcasting Commission, Tourist Board, Turks and Caicos Investment Agency, and Tourism as well as being an estate agent, a law firm consultant and a director of property companies. What's that expression about absolute power? Something about corrupting absolutely I believe... Fulfilling this destiny, Mr. Misick has married and separated from a Hollywood actress, had a child with another woman, been accused of raping a girl in Puerto Rico, oh, and increased his personal wealth from an estimated $50,000 to $180 million.

The British Foreign Affairs Select Committee was conducting a routine review of administrations in Britain's 14 remaining overseas territories when they received dozens of allegations of corruption from TCI. Upon visiting the islands, they determined there was a "a palpable climate of fear", with people afraid to come forward and give evidence. Their report charged that Misick had built up a multi-million dollar fortune since he was elected in 2003 by enriching himself and fellow ministers "by selling off Crown (government) land to fund current investment." MPs were told that members of Misick's Progressive National Party, who had to borrow cars in 2003, now lived in beautiful mansions. A Commission Enquiry led by Sir Robin Auld was launched last July whose partial findings led to the British decision to suspend the constitution and seize administrative control.

His estranged wife, LisaRaye McCoy Misick, star of cancelled sitcom All of Us, was paid $300,000 from government funds to be the face of an international tourism campaign. During their courtship Mr. Misick paid $100,000 to hire a private jet for flights between the islands and her Hollywood home two or three times each month. They flew by private jet for a holiday in Africa, to visit her daughter at the school she attended in Switzerland and for trips to Milan, Prague and Los Angeles. Mr Misick spent £190,000 on jewellery and charged more than £600,000 to an American Express account with his wife in 2006. She told the inquiry there was no limit on the couple's spending.

How could an island of 30,000 inhabitants be big enough to fund all this you may be wondering? Easy, the islands have become one of the most glamorous destinations in the Caribbean. Tourism has risen from 87,000 visitors annually in 1996 to 264,000, thanks to the arrival of a succession of luxury resorts, while GDP has soared from $216 million in 2003 to $722 million. Most tourists are from Canada and America but the islands are also popular with British holidaymakers. Donna Karan and Bruce Willis have homes in Parrot Cay, where the price of villas starts at nearly £6 million. England footballer Rio Ferdinand has reportedly bought a £1 million villa and Sir Paul McCartney took Heather Mills there on holiday soon after they met. Oh yeah, did I mention the island has no income tax? This could be how Mr. Misick was able to secure undeclared loans of $20 million from a number of financial institutions.

No wonder Misick stepped down a week before expected, it's time to get outta Dodge as they say. For years the British government not only sanctioned, but encouraged the "tax haven" status of TCI where there are no taxes whatsoever, corporate or personal, on income, profits, capital or capital Gains. Further, there are no real estate taxes, estate or inheritance taxes, sales taxes or use taxes. Companies incorporated in TCI enjoy the same tax free status as individuals regardless of nationality of ownership. The commission heard how Mr. Misick and other ministers had grown rich by acquiring publicly-owned Crown land, selling it to developers and receiving commissions. One deal saw an east European mogul secure land worth millions for an annual rent of £170. Another illustration is provided by a letter which was produced from the islands' minister for natural resources, McAllister Hanchell, awarding himself a grant of Crown land: "Dear Honourable Hanchell, I refer to your request for a freehold title. I am pleased to inform you in accordance with Cabinet's decision, it has been agreed freehold title shall be granted. Yours sincerely, Honourable Hanchell." The inquiry's interim report said yesterday there was a high probability of systematic corruption or serious dishonesty, adding there were "clear signs of political amorality, immaturity and of general administrative incompetence".

A lot of trouble could have been avoided if TCI had joined Canada as has been proposed a few times over the past century. While the Brits have encouraged reckless banking behaviour, Canada's financial industry has been hailed as a model of consistency - the World Economic Forum recently named the Canadian banking industry the soundest in the world. Back in 1917, then Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden first suggested that Canada annex TCI. In 1974, Canadian New Democratic Party Member of Parliament Max Saltsman introduced a failed attempt at consolidating the islands. The idea was brought up again in 1986, but it was rejected by the governing caucus committee on external affairs. As an ammendment to the constitution may be necessary for the islands to join Canada as a province, the province of Nova Scotia voted to invite TCI to join the province in 2004, should the islands ever become part of Canada. Hmmm, a Caribbean island becoming part of Canada you say? Could be enough to lure me back to my homeland!

Monday, March 23, 2009

"Faux" News

How much is too much? Always a difficult question, especially when free speech is involved, but I think there comes a time when the line is crossed, and something needs to be done. In case you missed it, there's a late night show on "Faux" News called Red Eye whose topic the other night was the Canadian military. Words can't describe, well maybe I'll try, but first just watch:

Where to start? I've been accused of being anti-American in the past, but what I am is anti-whatever-it-is-that-people-like-this are. Let's start with the 20 second mark, making fun of the Canadian general for have an unusual name for a man because his surname is Leslie. Um, I'm guessing they know that people's gender is most often denoted by first names in our culture. Follow this up with some imagery of military personnel doing yoga, painting landscapes and running on the beach in white capri pants, playing on the homophobic leanings of the viewers. The minute mark brings the question of whether it's time to invade Canada due to lack of military resources for Doug, the resident genius who was unaware that Canada even had forces serving in Afghanistan. 2500 Canadian soldiers are currently serving in the dangerous area of Kandahar, 116 have lost their lives. The arrogance displayed by people like this probably goes a long way to explaining anti-American sentiment in the world.

At least that's what I thought until the next experts were brought on, who made it clear that Canada is only able to exist because it shares a border with the most powerful country in the universe! What are the Canadians trying to get away with anyway? Around the 1:30 mark and things start to get surreal. While the US has police officers with bullet-proof vests driving around in heavily armored vehicles, Canada has mounties in red uniforms riding horses. This is supposed to be an argument that makes the US a better place? The world is better where heavier artillery is needed? By the time talk of Sarah Palin and the Russians invading through Canada rolls around, my head is ready to explode. Can't type anymore...the world needs America...keep the world safe by making it more dangerous. Can somebody please make it stop?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Another One Bites The Dust

The results are in, ballots counted and the news agencies have confirmed it: Another country has turned against the dark side in a democratic election. El Salvador has elected a new president, Mauricio Funes of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (MNLF). No, the blogsphere wasn't alight with the news and it was only an afterthought in the mainstream press where they are too busy reporting the 'news' that the current economic model is simply a tool used by the rich and powerful to maintain their position, or the attempt to rebrand the Obama administration as Socialist instead of Liberal. The El Salvador result isn't simply a victory of the left over the right, it was in fact a victory of democracy over authoritarianism.

The two parties in the presidential election were ARENA and the FMLN. ARENA was formed in 1982 by Major Roberto D'Aubuisson, the man who the UN truth commission concluded ordered the assassination of Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero. A conservative Vatican appointment, Romero's crime was being transformed by the violence he saw directed against reformers, radicals and the poor. He was assassinated in the middle of conducting a mass. At his funeral, in front of the cathedral where his body now lies, army snipers opened fire on a weeping crowd of 100,000, killing 40. Within weeks, all-out war was on. By the end of the decade, 75,000 were dead, 600,000 had been displaced inside the country, and more than a million had gone into exile. A party born of death squads had won the previous four presidential elections since 1989. The FMLN tooks its name from Agustín Farabundo Martí, a member of the first generation of communist leaders in Central America in the 1920s that included Augusto César Sandino of Nicaragua, get it? Sandino - Sandinistas. Farabundo Martí took part in the famous peasant uprising of 1932, sparked off by the global economic crisis that led to a collapse of the coffee price, the country's principal export earner. The crisis was crushed by the US-backed military dictator of the time, General Maximilian Martínez, in what was called "La Matanza", or "slaughtering", in which 30,000 mostly indigenous people were killed. The movement became a political party at the end of the last war in 1992. The opposition ARENA characterized them as being "the former Marxist" party, or, in league with Hugo Chavez. Worse yet, Republican US Congress members Trent Franks of Arizona and Dan Burton of Indiana said Salvadorans living in the US could lose their immigration status and the right to send remittances home if the leftist FMLN party wins the vote.

El Salvador,the smallest country in the Americas, has become completely financially dependent on the US. Remittances back home via Western Union and the likes from those who have fled the country for America now make up the largest part of the economy, almost $4 billion or 17% of GDP. Additionally, the country dollarized in 2001. This is why it was very important that the US State Department clarified the US position of neutrality in the election after the Republican scare tactics of the past month. Five Republican Congressmen had given speeches on the floor of the House of Representatives threatening that Salvadorans living in the U.S. would lose their immigration status and be outlawed from sending money home to their families if voters in El Salvador elect the opposition FMLN party's candidate last Sunday. "Those monies that are coming from here to there I am confident will be cut, and I hope the people of El Salvador are aware of that because it will have a tremendous impact on individuals and their economy,” stated Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN).

Good try losers! It seems that another nation has moved away from “democracy promotion”, code for three guiding principles: neoliberal structural adjustment policies (privatization, trade liberalization, investment deregulation, social spending cuts etc.), propaganda in favor of the existing socio-economic order, and campaigns of terror against alternatives which would threaten the existing order or mano dura (iron fist). This has meant privatization of telecommunications, the national banks, import services, the export of coffee, the distribution of electricity, the administration of pension funds, education for all intensive purposes (public education is so costly among other factors, that the average Salvadoran child only makes it to 5th grade), along with successful attempts to privatize health care and water. Water issues may have been the decisive factor in the change of government, here, as in many other Latin American countries, water is the battle. Beginning in 1989, ARENA began stripping away tariffs on imported goods and taxation on large incomes, as well as controls which kept the prices of basic food stuffs low. In 2001, El Salvador made the dollar its national currency to further facilitate insertion into the globalized economy, giving away its independence. It was the first country of Central America to ratify the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States in 2005, and has since continued to entrench the neoliberal project through infrastructure megaprojects and a “development” model beneficial to the local and transnational elite. Propaganda is even more transparent that 'Faux' News in the US as the ownership of media outlets is highly concentrated. This was apparent when the US congressmen made their threats against Salvadoran remittances from abroad as the news was splashed across every newspaper's frontpage. Dealing with dissenting voices has been facilitated by the Amnesty Law of 1993 which protects those who committed war crimes during the Civil War in which 85% of the atrocities were committed by the state. This means the death squads created by the US have never been disbanded, a powerful tool to maintain obedience.

It is not surprising that El Salvador has become the second most violent nation on Earth after Iraq. With roaming death squads, Salvadorans turned LA gang members being returned home and the constant flow of drugs, weapons and cash through the tiny nation, it is awash in criminality. Extortion and violence touch every sector of the economy, from bus drivers to medical clinics. The nation is on pace to hit 4,500 homicides this year in a nation of about 7 million. On the bright side the troops are all back home from Iraq as of February. The last contingent from El Salvador had been the only Latin American forces their since '05 when the others pulled out with Spain. Saca's (the now former President!) relationship with the US was tight enough to sacrifice lives. More bodies are lost through emigration, mostly stateside. Even with a one-way airline dedicated to flying illegals back home (ABC video here), the flow is overwhelming - it's estimated that 700 leave the country a day, mostly for the US. Of the 20,000 returned last year, over 6,000 had criminal records. Many legally stay through The Temporary Protected Status that was introduced back in 2001 following the devastating (El Salvador tends to have a lot of natural disasters with the word devastating) earthquake. There are 3.2 million Salvadorans — equivalent to about 45 percent of El Salvador's population of 6.6 million - in the US today.

According to conservatives, Obama has driven the US to socialism, so I can no longer trumpet the MNLF victory in El Salvador as another country moving politically left away from America. I am becoming more interested in how the Obama administration deals with the region, but we may have to wait a bit with everything on their plate at the moment. The fact is Funes was the first presidential candidate for the party who didn't participate in the war; he's a former journalist and TV reporter. He's gone to great pains to allay fears of any radical moves. The victory was one over fear, ARENA's slogan was "I will not hand over my country" for crying out loud. Perhaps the saviour, El Salvador, has been saved.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Arrest That Man!

Could it happen? Picture this if you will: Today, George W. Bush makes his first trip across an international border as a private citizen, the plane touches down, he disembarks, but wait, what's this? There waiting for him are representatives of the International Criminal Court to arrest him for war crimes and crimes against humanity. And then we woke up. Not gonna happen, why? Cause he doesn't deserve it? No. Because he's landing in Calgary, Alberta, Canada - proof that he still has people around him doing his thinking for him as he couldn't pick a more conservative, oil loving, cowboy mentality, business friendly place on Earth. A place where instead of arrest, he'll find people lining up to pay $4,000 a table to hear him speak.

Here's the thing: it should happen. The evidence is there. The precedent is there. Now we just need someone with the balls to do it. My bet is that it won't be the Canadians. Legal experts have said that with the issue of a warrant for the arrest of present Sudanese President al-Bashir for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, the same principles of law could be extended to officials from the Bush Administration for the coercive interrogation techniques used on terror suspects. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) leaked a report claiming these techniques "constituted torture". Or perhaps they could get him for the illegal wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. If that weren't enough, there is also the argument that Bush is inadmissible to Canada under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Section 35(1) (a) states that a foreign national is inadmissible on grounds of violating human or international rights or for committing an act outside Canada that constitutes an offence referred to in sections 4 to 7 of the Crimes against Humanity and War Crimes Act. Also inadmissible (s.35 (1)(b)) are persons who are, or were, senior officials “in the service of a government that, in the opinion of the Minister, engages or has engaged in gross human rights violations…”. Of particular interest are articles 5, 7 and 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

"The test isn't whether the person's been convicted, but whether there's reasonable grounds to think that they have been involved," says Gail Davidson, who's with Lawyers Against the War (LAW), a group that has been pressuring the Canadian government to act. "...It's now a matter of public record that Bush was in charge of setting up a regime of torture that spanned several parts of the globe and resulted in horrendous injuries and even death. Canada has a duty."

Today being St. Patrick's Day, we'll see green beer, green rivers and green outfits. Unfortunately, it's the green of US wealth that flows into Alberta's oil rich province that will most likely prevent the Canadian authorities from acting on their moral and possibly legal obligations to arrest Dubya as he enters Canadian soil. I'm sure we'll see plenty of protesters but no arrest. At least I'll have my beer to drown my sorrow tonight.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Madagascar - The Unanimated Version

Once upon a time it was just a big-ass island sitting off the coast of Africa, home to 10,000 plant species, of which 90% are found nowhere else in the world, but Madagascar has been buzzing for the past few months. No, I'm not talking about another DreamWorks sequel, but political strife which has the 4th largest island in the world on the cusp of a civil war. While the movies were box office smashes, mounting protests in the island nation seem to be spiraling out of control. In yet another textbook example of the rich raping the poor, many have turned to a 34-year-old former DJ to protect them from the onslaught of neo-liberalism gone awry.

Madagascar is a dirt poor country (209 of 229 on the CIA factbook in GNP per capita). The economy is so small that when Coca-Cola changed formula to New Coke back in the 80's switching from vanilla to vanillin, it shook the economy of the world's largest vanilla exporter to the core. French colonialism gave way to independence in 1960, then military rule in the 70's. The military junta attempted to establish a socialist paradise, but it never materialized, eventually forcing the country to go hat in hand to the IMF in 1982. Of course the IMF's help comes with a price; in order to secure World Bank financing Madagascar had to submit to the dreaded structural adjustment programme.

Enter Marc Ravalomanana, winner of the highly disputed presidential election of December 2001 which wasn't decided until a recount in April the following year, he also won re-election in 2006. The former mayor of the capital city of Antananarivo is also the founder of the Tiako I Madagasikara party (I Love Madagascar, TIM) currently the largest party in parliament. His daughter runs MBS media group which controls the second largest radio and television network in the country. Ravalomanana has also been outspoken about his Christian faith and in 2005 he said that he "dream[s] of a Christian nation"; critics called this a violation of the constitution, which described the state as secular until a 2007 constitutional referendum removed that, along with other changes. In addition to World Bank money, foreign investment has begun pouring in, most notably a Rio Tinto project to develop an ilmenite mine in the south of the island and the massive project to lease vast swathes of farmland to South Korean industrial giant Daewoo and Sherritt International nickel digging/lemur killing billions. All this work in the name of reducing poverty. Funny thing happened on the way to the bank though, none of it reached the people, yet the president could still buy a new jet.

The opposition in the current battle is led by Andry Rajoelina, a former DJ turned entrepreneur, turned politician who was mayor of the capital city until his dismissal last month. His movement is called TGV - Tanora malaGasy Vonona (translation: Determined Malagasy Youth), from which his nickname comes - TGV also stands for the French high-speed train - many say he is similar in style. Less than a month after his election as mayor in December 2007, the state-run company Jirama cut off water and electricity, ostensibly for bad debts, though it was clearly a retaliation for loss of the mayoral race by the president's party. The latest trouble began when the government closed down Rajoelina's TV station, Viva, for airing an interview with the former former head of state Didier Ratsiraka - the opponent in the controversial 2001 presidential election - which was deemed "likely to disturb the peace and security". Rajoelina's call for protest led to huge demonstrations late in January, some peaceful, some not, with the army unsure of whose side to join resulting in some violence and looting. By the end of the month he proclaimed, "Since the president and the government have not taken their responsibilities, I proclaim I will now rule Madagascar and set up a transitional government".

More than a month has past, with intermittent protests and violence over a hundred dead and little dialogue between the two sides, the army has begun to show signs it's ready to take over. Last week a military committee forced the resignation of Defence Minister Mamy Ranaivoniarivo for ordering to fire on protesters. With over 100 deaths so far, the situation seems to be becoming more and more chaotic, to the point that the whereabouts of Rajoelina were in doubt as he had been in hiding since security forces tried to arrest him last week. Reports the UN and then the French embassy were sheltering him led to counter demonstration outside their buildings by pro-government supporters and inevitable clashes. While the French speaking organization Francophonie has claimed to have sent Togo's former prime minister Edem Kodjo to Madagascar to help "seek a lasting solution to the crisis", the army chief Chief of staff Edmond Rasolofomahandry had called for a solution by yesterday - without which he said the military would take control. With reports of mutiny by some units, the military police no longer taking orders from the government, mutineers moving tanks into the capital and mercenaries being hired, the stage seems to be set for civil war.

Rajoelina came out of hiding today for a rally in the capital following the president's call for the people to rally to his defense yesterday, a call that brought out only 500 supporters. Today, 5,000 of Rajoelina's supporters, clad in orange T-shirts and hats, gathered as he reappeared to speak at Antananarivo's 13 May Plaza, scene of popular revolts since 1960. He said, "There is only one demand, that's the departure of Ravalomanana...We will wait four hours. I, Andry Rajoelina, am ready to carry out the democratic handover of power...I am going to go to Iavoloha (presidential palace) to say goodbye to him." With the presidential palace surrounded by hundreds of loyal supporters and still no indication on which side the army will support, the powder keg is waiting to be lit.

In typical style the UN and US state department have been of little help, continuously calling for 'more dialogue' between the two sides when clearly the root cause of the crisis is financial and environmental. The majority of the population still lives on a dollar a day while the IMF clamours for tougher deficit fighting measures, loosening and tightening the economic choke chain. Together with the World Bank, they reward countries which violate internationally recognized labor standards and encourage economic policies that have led to disaster after disaster. The people of Madagascar are watching their land being stolen and poisoned as part of a new wave of neo-colonialism as rich nations try to secure arable farm land from poor countries. Daewoo's 99-year lease of 1.3m hectares, an area half the size of Belgium and half the country's arable soil, is a deal that even the Financial Times calls neocolonialism. The fickleness of foreign investors is exemplified by Canada's Sherritt International as falling nickel prices have suddenly forced them to need to restructure the nearly $4 billion deal to rape and pillage the land, including, surprise, lower labour rates. Today, we may finally see this slow motion coup come to a head, let's hope the penguins don't take control.

Update #1 - March 15th
President Ravalomanana called the opposition bluff and refused to step down, sensing that Rajoelina and the opposition don't have the stomach for a violent confrontation. The president seems to have raised the ante as well by offering to hold a referendum to end the stand off.

Update #2 - March 16th
Well, the army has taken the presidential palace and the central bank following moves by Rajoelina to set up a parallel government in which he installed his own man in the prime minister's office. While it's still not clear who will ultimately be in control, the military chief of staff, Col Andre Ndriarijaona, was quoted as saying "If Andry Rajoelina can resolve the problem, we are behind him...I would say 99% of the forces are behind him."

Update #3 - March 17th
It's official, Ravalomanana has ceded power to the military who have in turn handed power over to opposition leader Andry Rajoelina. Vice-admiral Hyppolite Rarison Ramaroson made the announcement in a radio broadcast from the capital of Antananarivo, he also claims to have rejected a move by the president to transfer his power to a military directorate. The African Union is up in arms at the non-democratic tranfer of power and are calling it a coup d'etat. It seems an election will be organized within two years.

Update #4 - March 20th
International pressure is growing against the new government. The AU has suspended Madagascar's membership for an "unconstitutional change of government", while the US has condemned the change as a coup as well. Non-humanitarian aid has been stopped while sanctions are being considered. Could it have something to do with Rajoelina declaring the contract with Daewoo to lease half the country's arable land null and void?

Update #5 - March 22nd
Rajoelina was officially sworn in as the new President of Madagascar at a ceremony held in a stadium in the capital, Antananarivo. Reportedly there were no foreign dignitaries in attendance. On Wednesday, Madagascar's Constitutional Court issued a statement endorsing the takeover but provided no reasons. It simply said Rajoelina could serve as president and that Ravalomanana had vacated his presidential post.

Update #6 - March 28th
Seems as though this story won't go away quietly. Supporters of ousted leader Ravalomanana have protested for the sixth continuous day in Antananarivo with security forces using tear gas and 30 people being injured, some from gunshot wounds. Remember that it was just such a trigger, security forces firing on crowds of protesters, which really brought about Ravalomanana's removal. A general strike is being called for Monday.

Update #7 - April 20th
Well, it seems the unrest will continue unabated. The international community has unanimously condemned Rojoelina's assumption of power as a coup and he seems to be showing all the signs of a tyrant. Radio stations have been closed down and now protesters are being killed. Add the fact that Ravolomanana has vowed to return to the island nation in the coming weeks and more violences seems assured.

Update #8 - June 3rd
It seems that Madagascar's court has sentenced Ravalomanana to four years in jail for abuse. Justice Minister Christine Razanamahasoa announced Ravalomanana, who is currently in South Africa had been sentenced in absentia for buying a a presidential jet - there was als a $70 million fine attached to the finding.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Haraam to Halal

While the West continues it's 'war on terror' in places like Afghanistan and desperately tries to staunch the flow of bank losses with ever growing bank bailouts, the Muslim world is quietly going about doing things in a different way. In case you missed it, the new president of Somalia Sharif Sheikh Ahmed bowed Saturday to demands from Islamist insurgents, agreeing to a truce and the introduction of Sharia law. Meanwhile, the Pakistani government agreed to the adoption of Sharia law in the Swat Valley in return for a pledge from local Islamist leaders to lay down their arms. Of course, we're up in arms over the agreement, particularly with Pakistan, where Taliban-like forces now control an area 250 km away from Islamabad, the capital of the nuclear-armed nation. Images of thieves' hands being cut off, girls' schools being closed down and women being stoned to death for venturing to the market saturate the western press. While it's hard to defend any of these practices, one story from the Muslim world and it's Sharia law seems to be thriving, Islamic banking.

RBS lost £24 billion last year; AIG lost $62 billion in 3 months! Inconceivable numbers. Too big to fail, so the British and American government continue to throw good money after bad. Banks losing money in a system they created. Their punishment? $180 billion dollars so far in handout for AIG so they can pay their executives 'retention bonuses', while the former RBS chief executive Sir Fred Goodwin, who was forced out last autumn, gets a £700,000/year pension at the age of 50! Yeah western banking system! Working well I see. Can we still sign up for that Sharia hand cutting off thing? Apparently, it doesn't even need to be that drastic. Sharia compliance in finance boils down to a couple of important points. One, the prohibition of Riba, or usury - interest; two, transactions must be backed by real assets with risks and profits that are shared by the bank and the customer - Mudaraba - therefore giving incentive to the banker to ensure the deals are sound. Investing in casinos, pornography, arm dealers or anything to do with pork is out; long-term investments in projects considered to benefit society are in. Interest payments, short selling and contracts considered excessively risky are also prohibited. That rules out some of the products that got Western finance into so much trouble such as sub-prime mortgages, collateralized debt obligations or credit default swaps.

As financiers are required to share borrowers’ risks, depositors are treated more like shareholders, earning a portion of profits instead of haraam (forbidden) interest. Financing deals resemble lease-to-own arrangements, layaway plans, joint purchase and sale agreements, or partnerships. The most commonly used loan is a type of mortgage, known as a diminishing musharaka (partnership) contract in which the bank and the client form a partnership, with the bank providing up to 90 percent of the purchase price, and the client at least 10 percent. Over a period of usually 10 to 25 years, the client buys out the ownership share of the bank which makes its profit from the rent paid by the client for the share the bank owns. In the event of a rental or repayments default, the bank may advance the clients an interest-free loan (qard hassan in Arabic) to enable them to continue their payments during tough times in anticipation that they will pay in full when the economy rebounds. Sukuks are the equivalent of bonds, but instead of selling a debt, the issuer sells a portion of an asset which the buyer is allowed to rent. There are some who don't believe these instruments are Sharia compliant and this is where things get foggy. An example of this is Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel prize winner in 2006 along with his Grameen Bank whose micro-credits have raised millions out of poverty in Bangladesh but are often criticized by fanatics for not being true Islamic banking. "Islamic finance does demonstrate good banking behavior that has been perhaps lost over the last 10 years or so," said Neil Miller, head of Islamic finance at Norton Rose and an adviser to the British government. "Islamic banking is saying we are close to our clients and we're only going to do genuine transactions where we can see the asset, we understand the asset, we can make an assessment of that asset: whether it's financing a ship or an aircraft they will go and have a look at the business. It's giving guidance as to what banking should be."

Still growing at 10-15% a year and valued at about a $1 trillion, 5 times higher than 2003, Islamic banking has been around since the time of Mohammed, but it's modern incarnation came into being in the late 60's in Egypt and the 70's with the first full fledged Islamic bank being the Dubai Islamic bank, born in 1975. Of course the gulf is still the heart of the movement where Al Rajhi Bank of Saudi Arabia has become the world's largest Islamic retail bank, but Britain is now home to five wholly Sharia-compliant banks, France and Australia are trying to lure business while Citibank, HSBC Amanah, Deutsche Bank and UBS of Switzerland all offer Islamic deposits and Sharia-compliant financing facilities. Future growth lies in Asia however, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia. Before we scoff at the prudishness of the no-interest clause in Islamic banking, westerners should remember that charging high interest rates to lend money is repeatedly condemned in the Bible. The Greek philosopher Aristotle denounced it, the Romans limited it, and the early Christian church prohibited it. Hoarding is frowned on in the Koran, so savings earn no return unless put to productive use. “Money should be used for creating better value in the country or the economy,” according to Rasheed Mohammed al-Maraj, governor of the central bank of Bahrain. “Money cannot generate money.” Well, not forever at least.

Money in our financial system is debt. What we're experiencing today is the result of nearly a century of creation of wealth from debt. It should come as no surprise that it is taking ever greater amounts of debt creation to sate the appetites of the banking behemoths. Their greed and disconnectedness from the source of the debts they created reached absurd proportions and now the price is being paid as the wheels of global finance grind to a halt. Clearly a system where every new product needs the religious stamp of approval isn't the answer to the world's financial woes, but maybe taking a lesson from Sharia will help us rediscover the connection between lender and debtor and help us get from haraam to halal.