Thursday, February 28, 2008

Dangerous Liaisons: Sarko and the Press

Marie Valla has a sharp rundown on the way French President Nicolas Sarkozy spins the press on the France 24 Web site, and not only because she quotes me. (It's in English as well as French -- even though Sarko keeps talking about shutting down the English television service):

Even before the dust has had a chance to settle from French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ‘get lost you cretin’ mishap at the Agricultural Fair, a new Elysée faux pas has become the talk of the French media. French Daily Le Parisien admitted on Wednesday that the President’s interview published in the paper the day before had not only been reread but also modified by the Elysée press service.

This infringement by the Sarkozy administration blurs the lines between politics and journalism. “In Moscow, they used to hide the official portraits of personalities who had fallen into disfavor. At the Elysée, they rewrite interviews given by the President,” wrote newspaper L’Humanité in its Wednesday edition.

In the interview, Sarkozy stands by Saturday’s outburst adding that “Just because you become President doesn’t mean that you suddenly become something people can wipe their feet on.” L’Elysee thought best to add the sentence “At the Fair, I should not have answered,” thereby significantly changing the tone of his initial answer. “This sounds like a press aide desperately trying to do damage control after the fact,” says Christopher Dickey, Newsweek bureau chief in Paris.

But the bigger problem is the fact that the Le Parisien editorial team - arguing that they were providing useful information to the reader - failed to mention which portions of the interview were an addition. “This is inappropriate,” says Stefan Simons, Paris correspondent for the German weekly Der Spiegel. It isn’t so much the fact that the interview was reread that’s problematic but “the way in which it was done. At Der Spiegel, heads of state are always given the possibility to read and fix their interviews before publication,” he adds....(more)

France to Sarko: "Casse-toi pauvre con!"

Premiers pas mouvementés de Sarkozy au salon de l'agriculture - Le Parisien
Premiers pas mouvementés de Sarkozy au salon de l'agriculture - Le Parisien

Premiers pas mouvementés de Sarkozy au salon de l'agriculture - Le Parisien
Changement de présidence et changement de style au Salon de l'agriculture. L'événement était très apprécié de son prédécesseur Jacques Chirac, qui s'y prélassait presque. Là, c'est quasiment au pas de charge que Nicolas Sarkozy a inauguré la plus grande ferme du monde.

A mi-parcours environ, il s'est soudain vu vertement repoussé par un visiteur du salon auquel il s'apprêtait à à accorder une poignée de main. Ambiance surchauffée et cohue, le Chef de l'Etat s'est alors emporté: "Casse-toi, casse-toi pauvre con" a-t-il lancé, avant de reprendre son parcours mouvementé. Un écart de langage qui n'est pas sans rappeler sa colère face aux pêcheurs bretons.
Video de leparisienvideo

A rough but polite translation:

"Change of president, change of style at the Agriculture Fair. Jacques Chirac liked the event so much that he sort of settled in for a good time. Nicolas Sarkozy, on the other hand, opened the biggest farm in the world charging full speed ahead.

"About halfway through his tour he's suddenly seen brusquely dismissed by a visitor to the show to whom he'd just extended his hand. Amid the overheated crush of people, the head of state let himself get carried away: 'Get lost, get lost, you jerk,' he said before going on, a linguistic departure that's not without echoes of his anger in front of Breton fishermen."

And for those of you interested in the fine points, these are the relevant entries from the very British Dictionary of Modern Colloquial French, by René James Hérail and Edwina A. Lovatt (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984):

casser v. trans. reflex. 1 To 'toddle off', to 'run along', to go away. Il est cinq heures, il faut que jue me casse! It's five o'clock. I'll have to split! 2 Ne pas se casser: To take life easy, to worry very little about day-to-day matters.

con n.m. 1 'Cunt', 'pussy', vagina. 2 'Cunt', 'twit', imbecile. Espèce de con! You bloody idiot!...

Le Nouvel Observateur has a particularly sharp cover story about where all this fits into the astonishing plunge of Sarko's approval ratings. Its lead article: "And if this were to end badly ..."

For more about this, see the post on the Newsweek blog "Why It Matters."

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Taxi to the Dark Side

This film about American torturers is artful, clear, compelling and examines the issue from all angles. This is not Michael Moore stuff. "Taxi to the Dark Side" looks at the hell suffered by torture victims, but also the emotional and psychological pain suffered by good soldiers used for evil purposes. For better or worse, it is about us, not them.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Mort Rosenblum on Waterboarding, El Submarino and The Many Friends We Have Lost to Torture

Mort Rosenblum's latest on Huffington Post:


Ask any reporter who knows brutal regimes: No hairs can be split over torture. Victims see no ambiguity. The memory stays fresh all their lives. More than pain, they recall smoldering contempt for their torturers.

You might have asked Baudouin Kayembe, the courageous owner of a weekly paper who helped me when I covered the Congo in the 1960s. But he died from his torture.

Over 40 years, Baudouin's intimates never forgave Mobutu Sese Seko, the man responsible, nor American authorities who kept Mobutu in power.

I saw this repeatedly in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. But nothing made the point like Argentina's "guerra sucia," its dirty war on terror.

Government goons particularly favored "el submarino." They held suspects' faces underwater until lungs nearly burst. Sometimes they waited too long.

As is usually the case with torture, it backfired. Little useful intelligence was gained. Survivors talked to anyone who would listen. Decent societies reacted. And it took Argentina decades to live it down.

Each time I interviewed victims, hearing their bitter words and watching their hands shake, I felt a flash of gratitude for the blue passport in my left pocket.

We Americans reviled torture, as individuals and as a nation. When it was exposed, we reacted. Torture was one reason we invoked for overturning Saddam Hussein.

Today, we Americans have come up with "waterboarding," which sounds like a fraternity prank. It is el submarino: cruel and, for a people that respects itself, unusual.

Obviously, we are a far cry from an Argentine military which put thousands to death in a long nightmare of official terror. But what are we prepared to accept? ... (MORE)

I have posted variations of this video about Mort all over the place. But, what the hell. I enjoy it every time I watch it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Adios, Fidel

When news broke this morning that Fidel had resigned, I wrote a quick piece for the Web suggesting some lessons we might learn about Cuba and the world from the nearly 50 years spent trying to bring down his regime: "Converting Castro."

As background reading, I looked up a piece I had written from Havana in 1982, which caught the spirit of the island pretty well, I thought, and at considerable length:

Sinking Expectations Keep Castro's Revolution Afloat

By Christopher Dickey, Washington Post Foreign Service, August 31, 1982

Dateline: Havana

"We ought not to fool ourselves. We have difficulties and we are going to have difficulties in coming years and the difficulties could be even greater."
-- President Fidel Castro on the Cuban economy, July 26, 1982.

For more than two decades, Cuba's economy has been sailing in shallow waters without ever quite running aground. American analysts point to massive Soviet subsidies as Castro's salvation, but there are other less tangible factors that have helped this country and this regime to survive.

Shortly after Castro's latest prediction of economic hardship and call for sacrifice, one of hundreds he has issued in his 23-year rule, a Latin diplomat on assignment to Havana from an ardently capitalist country cited what he considered the salvation of the Cuban revolution:
"Expectations are less than in other nations. Because of that, this is a country that has great flexibility. They take what they can get, but [when] they don't have, they adapt. Today it's much easier for them to run with lower expectations because there is more happiness with smaller gains. It's a society that is based on small expectations."

As its economic troubles continue, the extent to which Cuba really has become a revolution of lowered expectations may be crucial to its future and especially to its relations with the United States. It is vital for Castro's resistance of the 20-year-old embargo, but it could also become a factor if trade with Cuba somehow were renewed.

In his July 26 speech, Castro painted a gloomy picture of Cuba's economic expectations. Despite the special relationship with the Soviet Union, which buys Cuban sugar at high prices and sells Cuba oil at well below market rates, the Cuban economy has come to depend on the West for more than 20 percent of its trade -- and for many items necessary to its further development, from food to technology. The question now is whether Cuba can afford these imports.

According to Alberto Betancourt Roa, director of West European and North American trade for the Ministry of External Commerce, Japan and Canada are Cuba's major trading partners.
Despite attempts to cultivate Western trade, to expand the variety of its exports, and even to promote some limited Western investment, primarily in the tourist industry, Cuba remains dependent on sugar sales for the vast majority of its hard-currency earnings. And sugar prices are at a record low.

Some Cuban officials interpreted Castro's bleak forecast as a means of preparing the nation early for its likely inability to make projected economic goals over the next few years.
There is a whole school of thought among Western analysts that suggests Cuban consumerism may be one of the most potent weapons Washington could use against Castro. Many Western diplomats and analysts say that by dropping the embargo, the United States could so penetrate this country's economy that Cuba would at least have to take Washington's views into account.
But there is also evidence that the time is too late for that.

Notwithstanding the exodus of Cubans to the United States through Mariel two years ago, which arose in part from the frustration of people who wanted the freedom to consume, many Cubans seem convinced that from the point of view of social justice and basic needs, their communist island offers more to them than any other Latin country offers its people.
This may be the result of reason or simply of insistent indoctrination. It never lets up. When Henry Fonda died, the Cuban television report showed the hospital where he was treated and noted as an aside that poor people in the United States could never afford such care.

It may also be true that expectations really are not low at all, but that they are hidden in the face of omnipresent and intimidating "revolutionary vigilance" that rewards the revolutionary faithful with the kind of consumer goods the nation as a whole is asked to forgo and deprives dissenters of all but the barest essentials.

Some images and opinions from 10 days on the island:

Gema Perez is a party militant who was 11 when Castro turned Cuba's revolution to communism and she cannot or will not imagine a better life for herself and her people.
Perez was born in the town of Castillo de Jagua in the same tidy frame house where she lives now, nestled among the tile-roofed picture-postcard buildings of the fishing village at the narrow entrance to the Bay of Cienfuegos. In her breezy home are two large Soviet-made television sets, a sewing machine locked in a cabinet and a refrigerator.

Dominating one wall is what looks like a piece of cheap religious art, a framed portrait of Christ. But it is not Christ, Perez hastens to point out. It is a romanticized print of revolutionary hero Camilo Cienfuegos, long-haired, bearded, his hat back on his head so its brim seems a halo.

Before the revolution, says Perez, "this town didn't have anything." Its men led rough lives at sea and earned next to nothing. There were no public utilities; even drinking water had to be collected from cisterns or brought by boat from the city of Cienfuegos. It was, said Perez, "the way one lives in a regime where there is capitalism and you are poor."

Now, for the 1,200 people who dwell in the shadow of the village's colonial fort, there is electricity, a post office, a day-care center, telephone service, a school. New apartments have been built and a technical school, where Perez's husband is a "professor of soldering," was established for both local and visiting workers who are to construct one of Cuba's first nuclear power plants about 10 miles away.

Her four brothers still go to sea for 20 days at a time, but especially since wage increases were instituted in 1980, they earn what are considerable incomes by today's standards in Cuba. Their base pay is about average, but with good catches they receive bonuses of from $400 to $1,000 each trip. "We do not consider ourselves rich," said Perez. "They are remunerated economically for their labor."

In Castillo de Jagua, Perez concluded, "life has not improved a lot -- it has improved entirely. Now there is freedom."

"You mustn't report anything that would let them identify me," a service worker in his late 20s told a journalist in downtown Havana. "State Security works very well."

The reporter had asked if it were true, as some Cuban officials contend, that there is freedom of speech at the personal level even if there is not in the state-run mass media. "Why do you think you see people standing on corners acting like worms, running down the revolution?" a functionary had asked, answering himself: "Because they know they can get away with it."

"That is not true," said the fearful, frustrated worker. In Cuba, a man's politics, apparently, are inseparable from his economic well-being. "You can't stand on a corner and denounce the revolution. You do that and they accuse you of being a counterrevolutionary, and that's a crime. People who talk like that are left without work. If you were an engineer, you're no longer an engineer. If you were a manager, no longer. You're sweeping streets."

The worker seemed to be embittered by a sense of class conflict that Cuban officials say does not exist here. His hatred was directed at what he called the "high life" led by favored party functionaries who, as he described them, live in newly built apartment complexes in East Havana, wear Italian pullovers, Lee blue jeans and smoke Winstons or Marlboros.

"The party militants, they are the socialist bourgeosie," said the man. "But you can't say that either."

He tended to blame these people for almost all the country's problems while discounting their charges that what they describe as the U.S. blockade and the CIA are responsible for Cuba's hardships.

"The blockade and the CIA, those are the revolution's reasons for everything. Always 'the hand of the CIA.' My wife is heating milk and it boils. 'Aha!' I tell her. 'The hand of the CIA,' " he said. "I was forged by this 'socialism.' But let's just say I don't have the intellectual capacity to understand it."

Eugenio Balari is the guru of Cuban consumerism.

The head of Havana's Institute of Internal Demand has a favorite Marxist credo, but not the utopian communist notion of "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." Rather, as it says on one of Balari's economic flash cards, "To each according to the quantity and quality of his labor."

Balari is a bit of a showman. When he offers coffee to a visitor in his air-conditioned office -- in a reconditioned mansion a block from the seafront -- the coffee is a new instant that can be bought for the equivalent of about $8 a can "outside the ration book."

Fresh coffee is rationed, and an individual's 15-day allotment only makes about three little pots, carefully brewed. But since Cubans are great coffee drinkers, that clearly is not enough. It took more than 20 years after rationing was introduced to meet the demand by creating Instacafe, but now that it is here, Balari says it should help relieve the seemingly perpetual shortage of the favorite beverage. In the universal language of marketing he says, "It has found a great deal of acceptance."

The ration book once controlled virtually all purchases here. Now it's down to 30 percent, but it still makes interesting reading as the Cuban consumer's hated little passport to survival.
A month's supplies for one person include 10 ounces of beans, one bar of soap to clean yourself and one for your clothes plus seven ounces of detergent, half a pound of cooking oil, five pounds of rice, four cigars and four pounds of sugar -- the one thing there is a lot of in Cuba, although many sweet-toothed Cubans complain there is never enough.

The ration book limits trousers and shoes to one pair a year. "You have to be very careful with your pants," a cab driver said with barely a smile. The policies Balari advocates attempt to better rationalize the ration system and make more goods available outside it.

Alongside the cups on the conference table are copies of Opina, a monthly tabloid edited by Balari that offers feature stories providing some lightweight balance to the heavy political-intellectual fare in most of the government's publications. But most important, it publishes want ads: classified offers to sell 1952 Oldsmobiles in this city that has no traffic because it is almost without cars; offers to spray-paint refrigerators in this society where workers compare the merits of General Electric appliances made 35 years ago to those made 25 years ago.

Balari's government institute also brainstormed the peasant food mar- kets and the craft markets that raised publicity last year as the first apparent steps toward loosening the tightly controlled economy.

But even though the markets still operate, they have suffered some setbacks as the Cuban Communists found that a little capitalism, like a little learning, can be a dangerous thing. The free markets around Havana generated a new class of unauthorized middlemen.

There was the problem of shoes sold in the craft market in front of Havana's cathedral, for instance. Shoes, Balari conceded, are generally a problem in Cuba. There is always a shortage. The ration book allows only that one pair. So craftsmen making decent shoes and selling them in the open market had no trouble getting high prices and making a lot of money.

This raised suspicions. There was an investigation and, sure enough, "there appeared some subtractions of leather from some state factories. From there it was easy to find who did it." Some such middlemen, Balari said, "have had to confront revolutionary justice."

Balari can martial many statistics to show how much life has improved for Cuba's people since the triumph of the revolution on Jan. 1, 1959.

His numbers are displayed on colorful cards indicating everything from a 23-year rise in life expectancy (now 73) to the number of televisions (up from 6 per 100 families to 79). Yet Balari says it is doubtful that the country will achieve the goals set in its current five-year plan. "We are entering a stage in the life of the people that is austere but decorous," he said.
Asked about the kind of austerity that had a 15-year-old pressing her face against a store window one night recently to sketch the dresses on the rack so she could try to sew them by hand at home, Balari said, "You see, she can get the cloth."

On a hot, clear afternoon recently, 18-year-old Zenen Pumariega and his half-brother Fernando were swimming off the rocks below Havana's seafront boulevard, the Malecon, a quick escape from the stifling closeness of the residential streets in the decaying older sections of the city.
Neither Zenen, a cafeteria worker and part-time student, nor Fernando, who is about to enter the Cuban Army, can think of a much better place to live than here.

There was a time when members of their family wanted to go to the United States, said Zenen. Two years ago, a sister and uncle left through Mariel. But the latest word from the sister in Miami is that "life is pretty hard," according to Zenen.

The two teen-agers were asked what they would buy if they could buy anything in the world.
"A house, a car, food, clothes," said Fernando.

But any special car, any special food or clothes?

"Nothing special," said Fernando.

"A car that would get me to work, get me to school and get me to the beach," said Zenen.
But the boys still want to know how much things cost in the United States, and how much they cost in the dollar stores at the Havana tourist hotels to which they are forbidden access.
Zenen, who just wanted basic transportation, who seemed to have no dreams of Trans-Ams, Camaros or Mercedes, had just put on Sasson jogging shoes brought to him by a relative. The price for such luxurious footwear, noted Fernando as he donned some old army boots with a hole in the toe, would be about $120 on the street in Havana.

"And how much," Zenen wanted to know, "would a bottle of Paco Rabanne cologne go for?"

Copyright 1982 The Washington Post

Monday, February 18, 2008

Italy's Agony and Ecstasy

This week's Newsweek International cover story written with Jacopo Barigazzi in Milan and Barbie Nadeau in Rome is about what went wrong with Italy, and what's still right with it.

The full text was translated into Italian by La Repubblica in its print edition on Monday, February 18, but the only extended version I could find on line (and it's not the whole thing) is at Clandestinoweb: "Caos Calmo."

I think it's pretty clear we all love Italy, for all of its faults, and sometimes because of them.

One point of irritation writing the story, however, was that none of the right-wing politicians, commentators or businessmen we approached seemed able to find the time -- over the course of a month -- to give us interviews. At the top of that list would be Gianfranco Fini, who was perfectly pleasant, but just didn't have ten minutes to spare. We also approached Giuliano Ferrara, who is a wonderfully agile thinker and writer close to Berlusconi, but, again, he just couldn't be bothered. -- C.D.

This viral video by Bruno Bozzetto has been around for a decade, but Jacopo's article about it, and the video itself, are not to be missed. Just click on the picture below, then click on "Play":

Recent articles:

The latest:

Newsweek Internatonal Cover: Agony And The Ecstasy, 17 February 2008
Italy barely functions. Yet its people are happy. What explains this? (With Jacopo Barigazzi and Barbie Nadeau)

Also see, Italy: the Viral Video, by Jacopo Barigazzi, 15 February 2008.

Earlier pieces:

Newsweek International Roundtable: 'A Good Anchor,' 11 February 2008
Turkey's top tycoons speak out on ties to Europe, headscarves, the military and other controversies.

OnFaith: Low Motives and Higher Laws 1 February 2008
Once you can claim that a critical press is on the wrong side of God's law, after all, you can do just about anything you want to shut it down. That's not only a problem for Afghanistan or for Islam. I think that's a danger in any country where politicians claim they answer to a higher law.

Shadowland: The End-of-the-World Economic Forum 30 January 2008
In this great age of denial, Davos may seem out of touch, but the Bush administration is so much worse.

Shadowland: Of Cops and Candidates 11 January 2008
America still faces clear and present dangers. So why are the presidential debates about national security increasingly detached from reality? (There is also a video shot in New York -- "NYPD Unseen" -- linked to the article.)

Newsweek Issues 2008: The Ghost In The Machine 28 December 2007
Don't blame America. Cultural remix has been around since Roman times. It just happens a lot faster today.