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A Commentary on Anti-Semitism in Belarus

Filed under: Eastern Europe

This article is by Adam Goodman of The BEING HAD Times blog, which covers news and commentary on Belarus. I visited him in Pinsk last year and consider his observations very poignant when most commentary about the country is ill-informed and hysterical. Check out what he has to say about Lukashenka's remarks and see his blog as well.


The first thing I would like to say is that despite being named as such, I am not a Lukashenka apologist. My position is and has always been that Belarus has the right to self governance, that their methods of democracy are extremely normal and natural to them (Russian politics follow exactly the same model) and that constant antagonism from the west is generally unwanted as is seen as disturbing the peace. This last not only by the regime, but also by the general population- Well, certainly by the bureaucracy. This attitude is not just a holdover from the times of the USSR; the European press has been extremely negative towards all things Belarus and there has also been constant pressure in the form of restrictions and trade sanctions placed on the country by the west. Because of this, though the current attitude is that Europe is welcome to invest money, Belarus has taken an antagonistic stance against European and American political intervention. Or in other words, Belarus may wish to wear European clothes but they are not Europe.

This having been said, the first question that needs to be asked is: How inherently anti-Semitic was Lukashenka's remark about Bobrusk and Jews?

The first answer is that it was incredibly anti-Semitic. It singled out Jews, described them as dirty, irresponsible people and implied that Belarus has been better off or at least more capable without them. From the Jewish perspective these are not only repetitions of ancient themes and negative stereotypes which have followed them from times of the blood libel, but to hear it from a modern, 21st century international figure is both shocking and remarkably inappropriate. And more so, hearing this at a time when Russia has been supplying uranium to Iran, the remark comes close to sounding like a declaration of war. Most probably Israel's recalling of its ambassador would have been therefore a reasonable and appropriate answer.

But before we become hysterical, we should ask some more questions. Firstly, did Lukashenka know what he was doing by singling out the Jews, or was it simply an irresponsible slip of the tongue?

First let's assume that the remark was intentional but that it was not intended as an insult to Jews. Taking the statement literally, we see that it is actually a call for wealthy Jews to come back and enter into an economic competition for Belarusian ownership. Currently Belarus has strong economic ties to two inherently anti-Semitic "friends": Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Mohamed Ahmadinejad in Iran. Chavez according to a speech last year wholly buys into the "Jewish circle of power" conspiracy theory and of course Ahmadinejad based his elections platform on the promise of wiping Israel off the map.

(As an aside, one local rabbi once told me that he likes reading about Jewish conspiracy theories on the net:

''I go on the internet because I am bored and tired and I hate that I have no money and can't do very much. When I go to these sights I can read how I am really rich and powerful and have control over the whole world. This makes me feel much better.")

Looking at it this way, the president's remarks could have meant that if the Jewish community is not careful, the country could go completely against Israel politically. In this situation, the president would only be inviting increased investment on the Jewish side for the purposes of equalizing the playing field and stopping these two "evil" countries from completely taking over their native homeland. If this is so, we are not speaking of anti-Semitism, but rather the creation of a situation where Lukashenka is simply playing one side against the other; Belarus coming out the benefactor in either case. This I guess would also be a standard sales methodology for the arms trade; in the gun business, friction always equals profits.

A second avenue is to consider is whether the president was simply using plain talk?

Though the actual percentage of genuine ethnic Belarusians is only about 25% (the death toll in the war, Stalin's re-seeding' the territory after and outward immigration primarily responsible), there is still such a thing as a Belarusian mind set. People here do have a habit of referring to others by a physical trait such as the color of their hair, or of course by their ethnicity. In the much more multi-ethnic west, this is called profiling but here it is thought of as "plain talking". When using this way of identifying each other though, there is also an additional sub question which asks if the group in question is real or strong. This particular cultural facet is shown brilliantly in the late Serei Bodrov's mafia masterpiece "Brat II". In a conversation with a Russian prostitute in Chicago, Bodrov asks why it is so wrong in America to use the word "Nigger":

"You can't call him a nigger."

"And who is he then?"

"He's an American."

"And what's the difference?"

"Nigger, for people outside of their own kind is a bad word to use"

"But we learned this in school a long time ago: From China comes Chinese. From Germany, Germans. From Israel, Jews. So here is a nigger."

"To me it seems as though their strength lies in their circle. They live like animals, but they have something we long ago lost and therefore they are strong. And they can feel that this (word) makes you afraid."

To be sure, you hear talk like this all the time here and not only about Jews but also about Ukrainians, Americans, Russians and Polaks. I have been constantly "named" here from the beginning and that name is always at the basis of how people speak to me i.e, I am the American so therefore we should talk about your cousin who lives in Arkansas, or I am a Jew so therefore I need to be asked questions about Jewish history or practice. Using this as an axiomatic cultural truth, Lukashenka's "Jewish" remark might not have specifically been anti-Semitic but rather it could simply have been a statement about the way things are: If we are speaking of Bobrusk, we are speaking of a "Jewish Town". The town was dirty before, therefore the Jews were to blame. The town is now clean which means Belarus is a good place to invest in and as long as we are talking about Bobrusk, why not ask the Jews to invest here? See how easy it is?

But what if it was wasn't anti-Semitism, plain talk or business?

In the opinion of one high ranking member of the local Jewish community, who insisted on only be referred to as a businessman, despite referencing Jews specifically, the president in this case was simply crowing about how beautiful the new Bobrusk was. And in fact, he thought the president was absolutely right in general with all of his comments: Belarus these days is much cleaner than Israel and Bobrusk, before getting a facelift courtesy of the state, had been a slum. The main point to him was absolutely that the president had the right to crow over the rebuilding accomplishment and that by inviting Jews who had previously run away to return to Belarus, the president was demonstrating his openness towards the Jewish nation and religion. Bobrusk by the way still has one of the larger Jewish populations in the state; there are two synagogues and at least several hundred Jews still in residence.

He also pointed out that the country has elected several Jewish mayors which means that, right along with the natural tendency toward profiling, there would also seem to be a belief that hiring a Jew to do the job might not be such a bad idea. This is actually the case in Pinsk as Konevski, the number 2 man in the government happens to be Jewish. Konevski is proud of his heritage and once made a rather famous speech saying that though the Jewish community has only 1.5% of the population, in terms of accomplishment, it seems much, much bigger. When we first actually met in fact, his remark to me, in typical Jewish fashion, was that he was surprised that Pinsk had not heard more from me. I guess he doesn't read the English language internet.

As for myself on this subject, well, I don't really like speaking in such general terms but frankly, the students at the new Pinsk Yeshiva have been notorious for leaving the synagogue littered with clothes, empty bottles, packages, overfull ashtrays and cigarette buts. Though supposedly a holy place, they obviously had a general disinterest except for Shabbos and holidays in the condition and cleanliness of the room. This was especially true of a room above the synagogue which in theory had been set aside for special guests. Once the students found out there was a computer with an internet connection there, that area became a veritable pigsty.

Of course acting like pigs is not restricted locally only to the Jews; Pinsk as a whole seems to completely misunderstand that garbage needs to find its way to a proper receptacle. Almost anywhere you look you see discarded wrappers or broken glass, even where children would play or along the beaches. Even keeping people from urinating or throwing their garbage into our garden requires constant vigilance.

So what is the answer?

It is just as possible that the remark was much more crowing about the state's rebuilding efforts than it was about hatred or even exploitation of Jews. Bobrusk, like all of Belarus has been undergoing a facelift over the last few years and the president's presence there was in fact to commemorate this accomplishment. It is also possible that the president simply dropped into the vernacular and said something that would be taken by locals as a completely normal or even a clever business idea. However, despite "understanding" potentially where the remark was coming from I really wish he had not said what he did. The remark was crass. Of this there is no doubt. Almost all the civic centers in Belarus from the time of the Pale of Settlement until the holocaust were Jewish centers but now are not specifically because of the times before, during and after the Pale of Settlement and the holocaust. Unfortunately, no matter how much you want to believe that there is no difference between calling a Ukrainian a Banderovtsi a or a Polak a Pisheky, I think there really is a difference when speaking of Jews and the former Soviet Union. I would also seriously prefer not to believe that we are revisiting Berlin in 1932.

I am also not sure, if it was just "business", that I personally would be willing to respond to such a challenge with my wallet. To me it sounds like a con. Maybe a Russian or a Polak could be bated into such a deal, but I personally wouldn't. To me, though I understand that Belarus is now open to "all kinds" of potential investors, I would much rather bet on a transparent and honest business plan, one that had a potential for mutual gain and had some real assurances against theft, abuse and corruption. Personally I would much rather invest in a trustworthy situation than in a circus. And quite frankly, remarks like this make me very, very, very nervous.

So I guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens next. Israel is very, very angry but it is not clear whether or not Belarus wishes to do something about that. For the sake of my own, rational fears about any sorts of steps taken towards World War III, I certainly hope they do. But regardless of actual intention or whether or not we get an apology, like it or not, the man who said what he did is the president of the beautiful and interesting Republic of Belarus and he gets to run things as he likes. This, for sure we all know is the case.

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When "People Power" Fails

Filed under: Asia

In the past two weeks, the free world has simultaneously cheered on and mourned for the some 100,000 brave Burmese civilians who, spiritually guided by the country’s revered Buddhist monks, took to the streets in an unprecedented show of public protest unseen in nearly two decades. It has been compared to the great 1986 People Power revolution in the Philippines that overthrew the corrupt dictator Ferdinand Marcos from power. Some have even drawn a comparison to the 1998 uprising in Indonesia that saw the toppling of General Suharto.

More recently, the past few years have seen a flurry of non-violent “colored revolutions” topple autocratic regimes in the post-Soviet space, from Serbia to Georgia to Ukraine. People power has since become something of a media phenomenon, as pictures and videos from the scene, shot by everyday citizens, flood the airwaves and the internet and capture the imagination of the world. “Democracy is on the march,” I remember, was a common motto of sorts back then. We believed anything was possible – that any authoritarian regime could be wiped off the face of the planet simply by showing up.

The same hopes were expressed for Burma. What began as a simple protest against economic conditions and prices turned into a massive outpour for democracy and end to military rule. They marched hand-in-hand, creating a line miles long at times, being a constant body barrier for the monks who passed through them.

Yet nearing the end of last week, the bullets started flying. Images continued to come out of Burma at lightspeed, but rather than people rallying in the streets, corpses and blood were everywhere. These same brave people were being beaten into submission – if not, then shot – and the supposedly untouchable spiritual core of society, the monks, have been rounded up by the thousands and sent to far away prison camps while their monasteries are destroyed. International outcry has been enormous, but no matter. Everything soon went black, and news has been a slow trickle since.

What we often forget is that while people power and colored revolutions have swept the globe, thrusting old political elites from their thrones, their more tyrannical counterparts have somehow managed to maintain their power for all of these years.

In the 2005 election (a word used loosely here), Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe not only retained power but embarked on a campaign to crush the urban opposition by flattening the homes of an estimated 64,677 families. And who can forget the famous Andijon uprising in Uzbekistan, where Islam Karimov tightened his iron fist by murdering hundreds of people? Lastly, in Belarus, strongman Alexander Lukashenko not only gave himself an astounding 82.6% of the vote, but crushed pro-democracy protests with riot batons and the threat of repercussions for anyone caught participating. Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Burma all make this list as well, employing some of the most brutal tactics known in modern human history to keep power.

The romantic notion of the people versus their oppressors is hard to overcome, but the world is never so kind with such simplicities. If this were actually the case most of the time, the people, faced with a solid and united regime, which generally has a monopoly on the use of massive force, would almost inevitably lose. This is what has been the case in nearly all the tyrannical governments listed above. Comparisons between the people power we saw in Burma and the people power we’ve seen elsewhere in Asia and the rest of the world are inherently wrongheaded in the sense that the conditions that allowed these other revolutions to succeed are completely different from those that caused Burma’s to fail.

The first factor one must look at is the internal unity of the regime itself. In the Philippines, Indonesia, Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine, we saw major splits within the political and economic elites of these countries, thus creating rival centers of power to compete with the current powers that be. The big money, clout, ideas, and leadership of these alternative powers, backed by an overwhelming amount of people giving them street legitimacy, is what deposed these governments.

In Burma, the situation is completely different. After decades of socialist planning and race baiting, the new State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) – established in a 1988 military coup – pursued an aggressive form of crony capitalism. It is a powerful military autocracy, fitted with the latest weapons exported from China, mired in a symbiotic relationship with the ethnic Chinese residents of the country.

Comprising just 5% of the population, the ethnic Chinese control all major commerce and industry, from street vending to stores to hotels to gem mines and to opium fields. All major businesses are co-owned between Chinese billionaire businessmen and the military government. Teak, minerals, and drugs cross the border into China daily, while SLORC officials are paid off every step of the way. It has gotten to the point that the two – the military and the Chinese business community – cannot exist without one another. Their relationship is as solid as steel, which is why it is very unlikely to see the kind of split we saw in these other countries.

The second point I have identified is the willingness and motives of this regime to use force against the people that it represses. Are the powers that be truly inhumane enough to unleash a large, unthinkable massacre in the face of resistance? Yes, most definitely. These ruling elite have billions and billions of dollars to protect; they’re also thinking about their own lives. What started off as a protest against economic conditions must inherently have an anti-Chinese edge to it. Many in the Chinese community fear that all these years of plundering Burma will lead to a massive anti-Chinese backlash much greater than that which occurred in the 1998 revolution in Indonesia, where thousands of charred Chinese bodies laid in the street. Burma models Suharto’s Indonesia in many ways, especially with regards to Chinese cronyism, but to a much worse degree than was ever replicated there. The regime believes that should the opposition come to power, whether right or wrong, every Chinese person and military official will be sent down the river much like they have done to others. Because of this they will continue to shed blood.

The exceptional notion of people power is romanticized in the fact that these people were able to overthrow their oppressors without a shot being fired; but really, what is truly exceptional are the more pacifist actions taken by the governments rather than the people.

The people power and colored revolutions all featured more developed (though obviously still developing) countries where conditions were much different than in Burma or other tyrannies. In terms of a monopoly on force, the aforementioned elite splits gave soldiers a choice to switch sides, and this turned out to be that of the non-violent demonstrators. Furthermore, the crimes of these regimes were not so horrendous as to warrant a near-genocidal backlash or confiscations. They did not, as a general policy, threaten a soldier’s family with death and withhold food if he didn’t shoot at a crowd of people. They had a lot of room to move even without political power. Many of the elites in these regimes simply realized that they could relinquish power and still maintain their massive wealth and influence. They were both logical and, one would hope, at least a little right-headed in not wanting to shoot the demonstrators.

As we witnessed this week, there was very little hesitation on the part of the Burmese military junta to kill as many people as it took to put down the uprising. Whether life or wealth, they simply have too much at stake to give up power that easily.

Outside of the internal dynamics that have been discussed, the third most important thing to consider is the international dynamic. Short of an invasion, Western democracies have little to no influence over the Burmese government, while China practically owns the place. It has repeatedly vetoed resolution in the Security Council aimed at investigating and censuring human rights abuses in the country. Furthermore, the vast shipments of arms that goes to the junta is itself tacit support and a green light to remain in power. China is hungry for the natural resources crossing its borders at bargain basement prices. It wants these all to itself, while repressing the Burmese economy so that it can’t develop a powerful rival manufacturing center of its own. A free, democratic, prosperous Burma is nowhere on China’s agenda, and there is very little that Western democracies can do about it. On the other hand, the people power and colored revolutions all had significant Western and international support that was at least tangible politically and economically.

Unfortunately for the people of Burma, the comparisons between their demonstration and other people power movements just don’t hold. While both featured large amounts of people taking to the streets, the internal dynamics of Burma are completely different from these other, less tyrannical countries where the people prevailed. Rather than winning their freedom this time, another generation, like that of 1988, is being slaughtered like animals. There is simply no indication that this slaughter will end soon or that the Burmese people have the ability to overcome it at this time.

What is heartening, though, is that they were in fact able to muster the courage to demonstrate in such large numbers. Having seen each others’ faces in full view, knowing that they support each other even as their comrades fall due to the actions of an oppressive government they all hate, there is a public solidarity that can now only grow. If the brutality of their conditions makes them stronger, the fervor of their spirituality guides them, and the desire for freedom stays with them than I’m sure that there is at least a glimpse of a possibility that the democracy movement can overcome their obstacles.

I only hope that one day they can, so that I can one day eat my own words.

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Reality Check

Filed under: Middle East

Those who hoped that once Hamas will lead the government it would be a new period of tahydya (calm) and prosperity for the Palestinians have now the proof that they were deadly wrong. Hamas slogans were powerful and correct to a certain extent. Fatah is the personification of corruption. But Hamas is the incarnation of nihilism.

They do not want a state, two states or three states solution. They want to keep killing Jews and apparently they have no problem in killing their own kind either. The difference between Fatah and Hamas is not their objectives but rather their tactics.

President Abbas sacked the Hamas led government. But that does not change a thing on the ground. Hamas has taken Gaza. Hamas is the elected government of the Palestinians.

What more can be said? Except that the Palestinians have what they wanted all along. Outside Israel people often excuse Palestinian violence by saying it is a reaction to the pressure, but hostile Arabs surround Israel, Hezbollah's missiles threaten it, Iran threatens it with a a nuclear
attack and Palestinian Qassams land weekly in Israel's towns and villages.

This is the cult of violence and death preached by Hamas. Racism, hate and murder seem to be a national obsession. It is a deeply troubling fact but that is the reality and we have to call a spade a spade.

In the past few years Iran and Syria have been constantly undermining any chance for a Palestinian coalition. They have been paying Hamas not to negotiate or recognize Israel, not to release the kidnapped soldier, not to form a unity government with Abbas. Hezbollah trained
Hamas and Syria offered safe heaven to individuals such as Khaled Meshal.

What the Palestinians as a people failed to see or admit is that their interests are being used by Arab Muslims and by Muslims for decades. No one cares about them period. They are and always were proxies in the war of others to gain regional preeminence, to escape isolation, justice, to gain better deals from the West etc.

Hamas is only leading the Palestinians into more despair and misery. Palestinians do not need a savior. They never needed one. They need to stand united, end terror, negotiate with Israel a lasting peace, not a hudna and start building a nation. If they want to be recognized as a people and not as a bunch of criminals they need to start acting like one.

When the Iranian money and support ends, and it eventually will, the Palestinians will be even further from having their own state than they are now. The world has spent 59 years giving Palestinian Arabs a chance. And what has it gotten the world? For that matter, what has
it gotten Palestinian Arabs? They used all this time trying to kill as many Jews as possible and obliterate Israel instead of building lives for themselves.

When Israel withdrew from Gaza, Hamas and those who elected it had a chance to prove that they are indeed capable of running it, that they can deliver what they promised. Has anyone seen what the Palestinians have done with Gaza? State-of-the-art greenhouses that used to provide food and products that were high on demand on the international market have now been turned into tunnel openings.

The terror groups will never allow Palestine to be a separate entity because they do not benefit from it. They do not want to work for themselves and for their own people; they simply want to keep on stealing the money the international community is sending and terrorize the Jews.

The Palestinians should accept written agreements, end all acts of terror, violence and the incitement to terror. If and when they will do it only then the international community should help them financially. Meanwhile let their Iranian and Syrian sponsors pay. Let the oil rich Arab states send money to them if they want, but the US, Israel and EU money should not be used to support and enhance a terrorist, lawlessness entity. It is illogical and it will cause more deaths and destruction in Israel, Gaza and West Bank on the long term.

Terrorist actions have terrible consequences for all involved parties. The only way to get away from the vicious cycle of violence is for the Palestinians to get out of the Islamic propaganda box and be responsible.

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The Catholic Church Can Save Zimbabwe

Filed under: Africa

"The structures of sin [are] rooted in personal sin, and thus always linked to the concrete acts of individuals who introduce these structures, consolidate them and make them difficult to remove. And thus they grow stronger, spread, and become the source of other sins, and so influence people's behaviour."

Pope John Paul II wrote the above in 1987 on the cusp of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Western leaders of liberty Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were driving home a campaign to hasten the evil empire's demise from abroad, but the Pope had something unique that they couldn't have hoped to match: a direct connection with the more than 90% of people who were professed Catholics. Besides the fact that he himself was Polish, the church itself could connect with people in a way that even the ideas of freedom coming from Western leaders never could. Religiosity can transcend borders, fear, and even death itself.

What matters most is that by the 1980s, Catholicism and the church's organizational structure had completely permeated Polish civil society. The Pope's message of resistance -- his identification of the inherent evil in the totalitarianism of the Soviet-sponsored state -- passed through the ears of the cardinals, from their mouths to the ears of the archbishops, and so on to the ears of the laity. For example, significant support had been given to the Solidarity movement, which was crucial to filling its ranks.

The Church was also instrumental in preaching non-violent struggle; using its organizational structure to ensure compliance with this tenet. Father Jerzy Popieluszko, the unofficial spiritual adviser to Solidarity who became a martyr following his murder by state security officers, constantly urged millions of believers not to be goaded into violence. Doing so would only recreate the same structures of inhumanity that they currently lived under, whereas mass non-violence would ensure a peaceful transition from oppression.

Do not struggle with violence. Violence is a sign of weakness. All those who cannot win through the heart try to conquer through violence. The most wonderful and durable struggles in history have been carried on by human thought. The most ignoble fights and most ephemeral successes are those of violence. An idea which needs rifles to survive dies of its own accord. An idea which is imposed by violence collapses under it. An idea capable of life wins without effort and is then followed by millions of people.

The fight against foreign communist occupation was one such wonderful and durable struggle, and it succeeded in transposing that regime with new, democratic one based on respect for human rights and dignity. This was able to occur precisely because of the doctrine of non-violence. Its adherence by both the leaders and people of the new Poland created a new structure from which opportunity and freedom could flow rather than corruption and destruction. An idea capable of life grew out of the people who had created the new structure.

Even the security services, whose very nature was based on the violent protection of the previous regime, would not fight the millions of countrymen, neighbors, and families who stood in their way. The price of participation had become too high, and it dissolved away.

In Zimbabwe, where President Mugabe has ruthlessly oppressed his own people, religiosity has begun to take on an increasing light in the social sphere. Whatever is left of civil society takes place very often in the sanctuary of the country's churches. With nearly a quarter of the population identifying with Roman Catholicism, and many more clamoring for spiritual leadership against oppression, the church is in a significant position to lead the people of Zimbabwe in their quest for freedom.

Church involvement in Zimbabwe has been going on for quite some time already. But as the country reaches the height of its crisis, its organizational outreach has also sought new levels.

Over the Easter holiday, the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference, which includes the nine archbishops and bishops of the country, released perhaps the most condemning pastoral letter since the struggle for independence. Titled, "God Hears The Cry Of The Oppressed", it was posted to congregation bulletin boards, distributed roundly, and read aloud all over Zimbabwe, with people scrambling to know its content. In the letter, the bishops call Mugabe's regime exactly what it is, using the same quote by Pope John Paul II above. Additionally, it relates the current struggle to another that all Zimbabweans know dearly: the one for independence.

Black Zimbabweans today fight for the same basic rights they fought for during the liberation struggle. It is the same conflict between those who possess power and wealth in abundance, and those who do not; between those who are determined to maintain their privileges of power and wealth at any cost, even at the cost of bloodshed, and those who demand their democratic rights and a share in the fruits of independence; between those who continue to benefit from the present system of inequality and injustice, because it favours them and enables them to maintain an exceptionally high standard of living, and those who go to bed hungry at night and wake up in the morning to another day without work and without income; between those who only know the language of violence and intimidation, and those who feel they have nothing more to lose because their Constitutional rights have been abrogated and their votes rigged. Many people in Zimbabwe are angry, and their anger is now erupting into open revolt in one township after another.

The people are growing in their revolt. Even the security forces, loyal to Mugabe only because of the paychecks, are torn in their actions. Underneath the oppressive regime is the development of an alternative structure to supersede it. This structure must continue to be nurtured and led, with a focus on mass non-violence, so that Mugabe's replacement does not follow his lead.

For this reason, the Catholic Church at the highest levels should become involved. Generally, it has yielded to protecting its flock, which at times has meant forgoing resistance under the threat of a severe crackdown. At other times, such as in Poland, it has resisted when its flock comes under the great pressure of totalitarian or atheistic ideas.

The time for that resistance is now. In his "Urbi et Orbi" Easter address, Pope Benedict XVI spoke all too briefly of the impending crisis: "Zimbabwe is in the grip of a grievous crisis and for this reason the Bishops of that country in a recent document indicated prayer and a shared commitment for the common good as the only way forward."

More can be done. The mantle of Pope John Paul II needs to be taken up. Pope Benedict is in the position to endorse the bishops of Zimbabwe, aid them, and speak to them and their congregation directly. He can fly in, preach resistance to a huge crowd in the middle of Harare, and even Mugabe wouldn't be able to touch him. (If he did, he'd really be in trouble).

The international community cannot be relied on, or trusted, to pressure Mugabe to leave power and dismantle his regime. Many countries driven by the ideology of freedom, such as the United States, simply do not have enough influence and organizational structure with the people of Zimbabwe. Other governments that are much closer and influential, such as South Africa, have proven that they do not feel the moral imperative to act on the behalf of simple human dignity alone; only proving that its leadership is of a similar kinship. Denying him would be denying themselves.

The considerable influence, not to mention moral and spiritual authority, of the Catholic Church and its leaders may be the only thing standing in the way of Mugabe. At this critical point in the country's history, these brave souls who are already in the thick of this struggle for freedom need all of the support and guidance that they can get. It is only right, indeed only moral, that the church's doctrine of resistance to oppression not lay solely on the square of the shoulders of the laity, but on those of pontiff as well.

There need not be martyrs, just the belief in the eternal righteousness of human liberty and the desire to see it made. In this, the church can help Zimbabwe save itself.

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A Gentler, Softer Iran

Filed under: Middle East

Now that Iran is planning to release the 15 captures British sailors, the blogosphere's post-mortem is already beginning. It's necessary to look back over the past few weeks and ascertain just exactly how this began, what was went wrong and right throughout, and especially what should have been done instead. Austin Bay, for example, takes a look at this in the context of the intelligence operations wars between the United States and Iran.

In fact, most people are looking at this entire affairs in those terms. The U.S. has taken a few of their guys, so they took some Brits. It's all a huge effort to humiliate us, and especially our governments, by testing just how pacifist they'll be in dealing with the situation. Given how long this dragged out and the response they received, I'm willing to bet that the mullahs are feeling pretty smug and snug right now.

Another benefit that Iran got out of this was the media attention. Austin Bay describes the entire crisis as a diversion from other pressing issues like UNSC sanctions and the developments of Tehran's nuclear weapons program. No doubt this is true, but more importantly, Iran knew what to do with this media attention. All cameras on the crew, Ahmadinejad worked the Western public.

While most people are adamant that the sailors were forced to confess and act happy on camera, or were just too unwilling to resist, unless they say otherwise in the freedom of their homeland I am absolutely convinced that the Iranian government treated them with the utmost respect and generosity. It only makes sense. Though the media is now redirecting attention to the hostage crisis rather than sanctions or nuclear weapons, Iran has been using the attention to convince the Western public that indeed Iran does not deserve such sanctions or treatment. While the British and American governments talk about the unacceptability of Iran's actions, people are seeing video confessions and smiles. Some people don't know what to think. On the one hand, according to our governments, Iran is the arch-enemy of Western civilization. On the other, it's all right there -- Iran is treating the sailors with great respect and their capture was just a mistake.

Unlike the Iranian government, the Western democracies are actually susceptible to public opinion. While at least a majority of people won't believe a word that Ahmadinejad says, there will always be the internationalist, anti-American Left that does. Furthermore, as the legitimacy of the Bush Administration and Tony's Blair's government continues to crumble as the war in Iraq continues, more and more doubters are likely to appear. Doubters of the West, that is.

The reason that sanctions have been steadily moving forward at the UN Security Council is because America has brought the Europeans on board. But if Ahmadinejad can convince enough of the European public that indeed the entire affair was a misunderstanding on their part and that the British sailors were treated well, then -- against all evidence of rampant human rights abuses in the country -- people will believe that Iran is not such a bad place. Why should we place sanctions on it, or consider it a renegade country trying to blow up the world with nuclear weapons? There will no longer be large support for it, and if we can use history as any precedent, the Europeans will quickly back away from any further action. Game, set, match.

There is no way to know what the now-released British sailors will say once they've been debriefed. But one thing is certain -- they will be the most sought after people in the media. Iran knows this. Do not be surprised if they tell all of Britain that they were not tortured, forced to confess, and kept in a jail cell. Do not be surprised if they tell us that they were treated with respect, fed well, and allowed to play games. Do not be surprised if they say that they freely confessed to crossing into Iranian territorial waters after being told that there is no clear agreement specifying the border. And last, do not be surprised if they think that Ahmadinejad is a pretty swell guy after they met with him.

It would be a lie if they didn't say that if it were true, because to them Ahmadinejad actually is a pretty swell guy and gave them a pretty leisurely accidental capture. That's their own personal story. But they would also be naive to believe that it is the overall policy of his government, that their treatment is the rule rather than the exception.

They are just pawns in a greater strategy to disarm Western civilization, not through nuclear weapons, but through the media.

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U.S.-Brazil Summit: More Alliance Than Ethanol

Filed under: Latin America

This weekend, Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will camp out with George Bush near Washington, at Camp David. It's the first time ever that a Brazilian leader has been accorded such important relations with the U.S., or merited the honor of an overnight stay at Camp David. It heralds the growing warm ties between the U.S. and Brazil's leaders.

The U.S. and Brazil have never been enemies - in fact, never had anything but minor disagreements, but on the other hand, we have never been close. But it's logical that we should be. We are the dominant powers on our respective continents we share one hemisphere with. We are multiracial nations that are proud of it, founded on the idea of freedom, not bloodlines. We are both democracies, we both fight the stain of slavery, yet we both have rich diverse cultures in the wake. We also have spectacular ecologies, each of our nations its own trip around the world within one border, so big they're impossible to see completely. Our nations are both known for their innovation, and each of our nations leads the world in certain kinds of technology - both love cars and airplanes - and both love the future. It's natural that we should be close allies and in the jet age, that our citizens visit each other's countries all the time. But we are not that close.

Economic inequality and the Cold War have something to do with that - Brazil has not been nearly as successful as its northern neighbor; in fact, it has many poor people. It also has a recent legacy of military despotism from the 1970s. Washington tolerated it, because Brazil was a counterbalance against the Soviet Union, but the longterm effect of this focus on a single issue has been to leave a lingering legacy of resentment, because living under a tyrant - who cleverly kept opposition from Washington off by not aligning with the Soviet Union - is still living under a tyrant. But we are hardly responsible at the root for that, and to be honest, much of the public resentment in Brazil on such grounds is just garden-variety jealousy. But as Brazil's economy grows - and Goldman Sachs did a recent study finding that Brazil's economy was way bigger than anyone realized - there is less resentment and insularity - and more interest in friendship with and working with the U.S., because increasingly, we have more and more in common - mutual admiration not the least of it.

In America, we need friends like Brazil.

So this is a sweet moment. Bush and Lula, two men from very different political parties - Bush flaming right and Lula flaming left - have paired up for the common good. Where the hell elsewhere do we see such amity in the world, such putting aside of political differences, all because both sides agree on the exact same goal of opportunity and prosperity for all people? Both men hate poverty and are willing to use the most modern tools and experiences of economics to get rid of it. It's a thing of beauty.

Our very natural commonality and our natural alliance is taking its first step in the great ethanol accord that Brazil and the U.S. are signing. We will cooperate with each other to create an ethanol market for the benefit of not only ourselves, but the battered little nations in Central America and the Caribbean which have no choice but to rely on Venezuela for oil.

Oh yes. That's a factor. Brazil and the U.S. see it happening and they don't like it. Hugo Chavez doesn't just hate us, he hates everyone who does the same things we all do to get prosperous. He's screamed at the U.S. publicly, but he's imposed his will on Brazil, stealing its gas wells in Bolivia, and forcing its state oil company, Petrobras, into new worker collectives with his own state oil company in violation of contracts. No one in Brazil likes this and they also don't like him walking into Brazil's big trade alliance, Mercosur, and trying to take over. Brazil has plenty of reasons to be wary of Chavez and to use its growing might to check his economic power. It's not their style to do it in open confrontation, but they will not let this pass.

So, together, Brazil and the U.S. will do a project together. We will use our already developed talents to help the Central Americans and Caribbeans develop their own sugar-cane and corn-producing capacity so that they too can be self-sufficient to some extent in energy and no longer will be bullied and kicked around by a Venezuelan caudillo who demands absolute fealty.

The implications of this will be amazing. Huge Brazil and huge America are united in a common purpose to halt the rising and arrogant power of Hugo Chavez, whose oil fueled earnings are being used to intimidate other nations. Now Hugo is encircled by two big clouds, Brazil to his south and the U.S. to his north, both of whom are determined to develop their ethanol industries to reduce Chavez's monopoly on energy. Ethanol is not a cure-all and won't replace oil as an energy source, but it will widen the pool of available energies, and that's important because right now, China's and India's rises have narrowed the margin of excess, making every drop that Chavez produces a critical one because there isn't any extra. Hence. Chavez's monopoly and power.

Already Hugo Chavez grasps the significance of this alliance. He's screaming about it. He's going off like a banshee and now Cuban dictator Fidel Castro has chimed in, denouncing the U.S. for growing corn-based ethanol because he claims it will create starvation. I suppose he should know - he's destroyed his own sugar industry and left Cubans hungry. But more signifiantly, he sees resources as finite and thinks feeding our cars with ethanol is no different from taking food out of poor people's mouths. He doesn't understand the economic concept of the expanding pie at all. But he does see the geopolitical picture and right now he knows that if the U.S. and Brazil can reduce dependence overall on oil consumption, it's very bad news for his boy-wonder and money patron, Hugo Chavez, whose spread of his own revolution is Castro's long-held dream.

It's amazing how this is working. It shows that Bush and Lula are far cleverer than Hugo Chavez who is no idiot on the wiliness front himself. Through ethanol and more importantly an alliance, Bush and Lula are reducing the significance of Hugo Chavez. They are making him smaller as they grow bigger through genuine economic production, not artificially high oil prices derived from shortages. This move has got to be one of the most brilliant of both men's careers. They are on the same page and together they are moving forward.

Leaving Chavez in the dust.

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When you hire a Truthteller...

Filed under: Latin America

...You shouldn't be surprised if he tells the truth.

Over in Colombia, that doesn't seem to be entirely clear to President Alvaro Uribe.

Now, as you know, I'm his biggest fan. But he did something today that struck me as incoherent. He chewed out his new foreign minister, Fernando Araujo, for telling the truth about Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Not as in namecalling, like I might do. But as in a story about an experience in his life.

Do you know who Araujo is?

If you don't, let's just put it this way: while you and I were celebrating our Christmases three months ago, Araujo was tied up, stuck in a jungle cage, starved, deprived of human company (his captors definitely aren't human) and smothered in the dark - for his sixth straight year. He had been an economic development minister in Colombia back in 2000 and was jogging on the beach in Cartagena one day. Suddenly, hooded thugs with guns sprang out and kidnapped him taking him away to deep deep into their jungle hideout and away from civilization. His life was never going to be the same. For six long years, he was a prisoner of the FARC, the odious Marxist narcoterrorist guerrillas who have made Colombia a living hell since 1964.

While there, he focused on survival, focused on getting his kidnappers not to kill him. He wanted to live. He had no knowledge of 9/11, didn't know about the Iraq war, had no idea who the U.S. president was, never heard of iPods, and the last he heard of the U.S. was news about how Al Gore was disputing the 2000 U.S. election with George Bush. After that, his life was all about trying to stay alilve.

Some of it was tragic: his wife had left him for another man two years into his captivity, assuming he would never return - and many people he knew had died during his six long years in a FARC dungeon - he only got to learn who they were when he eventually escaped, later saying it was like all of the people he'd known dying in one day.

His escape was a breathtaking one. Alvaro Uribe had gotten intelligence on a FARC hideout deep in the jungle. He sent his helicopters in, shooting, and as the FARC narcoterrorists shot back, Araujo realized he had one flash moment in his six years captivity to escape. He took it ... running through a miles of minefields the guerrillas had encircled themselves with to protect their hideout. He ran though tall grass and machinegun fire. He dodged bullets. He made it to the forest and from there, walked around for five days, free at last, but marooned in the terrifying jungle full of savage wild animals and things with sharp teeth. Five days later, he spotted a villager outside the wilderness and ran into his arms and told him who he was. After that, he made it back civilization for the first time in six years, awed and full of wonder. Colombia celebrated his extraordinary escape with huge parades and rejoicing. Newspapers put it on the front page. A dead man had come back to life.

The story got even more dramatic in February. Not two months away from the clutches of the FARC, Uribe asked him if he would be his foreign minister. It was awfully soon, but Araujo's indomitable spirit of survival had impressed him. In fact, it impressed everyone. Putting his country about himself, Araujo said yes.

It was like Magic Realism.

Araujo was chosen because Uribe was having political troubles. The U.S. Democrats in Congress were threatening to cut off aid to Colombia and Colombia needed to win its war on terror. They didn't want to be left high and dry. The FARC remains a formidable enemy and flip flopping on war funding was only going to embolden them. But the Dems were obsessed with supposed human rights violations as if winning the war was not urgent. Uribe needed someone who could bring Colombia's true story of courage and suffering forward to the Americans. Who better than someone who suffered six years as a hostage of the FARC - even though it was only a few weeks ago. The aim was to get someone who could tell the truth compelling, and who wouldn't turn heads in Washington like a man who'd suffered from narcoterror as a hostage for six years up until just a few weeks ago? It was risky to pick him but it was also a brilliant idea. Colombia needed a truth teller to the world, to tell the truth about the FARC and its evil.

Araujo was in Washington this week and he did tell the truth, from the pit of his soul, from his own experience. He said what he say in the FARC camp - he said that the FARCsters were big worshippers of Hugo Chavez who was their hero. With his own hostage eyes, he watched as they mooned over the Venezuelan dictator's speeches, studied them in the camp, and gushed whenever he came on TV. Chavez really excited them. Araujo said that Chavez was their ideological leader. There was no question that they were crazy about Hugo Chavez. The FARC and Hugo were like lips and teeth.

Simple truth of course, something everyone expected.

But it wasn't so simple as that. Hugo Chavez screamed about the truth telling, saying Araujo had disrespected Venezuela in so doing. Chavez always like to silence the truth tellers. The FARC's drooling over him didn't bother him - Araujo's truthtelling did. See here

President Uribe scolded Araujo today, saying he needed to be more 'wise' in his choice of words around Chavez. Uribe is looking at the pragmatic picture - Hugo Chavez could badly damage the Colombian economy by threatening to shut the border. Chavez would do just that because being a dictator, he no longer has to answer to voters on the Venezuelan side or look out for their trade. But Uribe could face political consequences from voters if the border were to shut. That's why he acts with caution. He also needs the minimal support he can get from Venezuela in its war on narcoterror. I would call it less appeasement than pragmatism and usually it works pretty well.

But not this time. Araujo was hired to tell the truth about Colombia's plight to the world. He experienced it himself, with his own body, mind and soul, for six long years. Yes, he knew the truth about the FARC and its love of Chavez. He said it. It needs to be said as often as possible. An eyewitness is a powerful person to say it. So he did.

But now he's being accused on all sides of being undiplomatic.

I look in askance at Uribe's go-softly approach. Pragmatism can become appeasement pretty darn quickly if enough pragmatic moves are made. Now the word is out about what the Colombia government really thinks about Chavez. They're not alone. I've had lunch with Mexican cabinet officials in the past who've totally lashed out at Chavez in private. But no one wants to go on the record with the truth about the antidemocratic, criminal, gangsterly nature of chavismo. Everyone just wants to preserve the polite fictions, the most fictitious of these being the idea that Chavez was elected democratically. He wasn't.

Sooner or later, the truth will out. It already has come out with the ex-hostage Araujo. When will it come out for everyone else?

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The Middle East's new democratic model

Filed under: Africa ~ Middle East

Mauritania's military coup in 2005 yielded widespread international condemnation from all quarters of the globe. The United States, for example, unleashed a barrage on the junta by stating, "We oppose any attempts by rogue elements to change governments through extra-constitutional or violent means." Such statements were not only premature at best, but completely baseless and hypocritical at worse. The junta of colonels had just overthrown a tyrant that had himself curbed all constitutional laws, released hundreds of political prisoners ordered into jail by said tyrant, and promised a return to democracy under a more transparent constitutional system with a reinvigorated civil society. This was an opportunity, not a setback. And as the months pressed on, it became readily apparent that the promised reforms were underway with the inclusion of all segments of society.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, reforms have come to a halt in all but the most rapidly liberalizing countries. The hope brought by Iraqi elections has burned out for now, leaving the region's dictators legitimately ruling under the popular fear the democracy will breed civil war. Lebanon's Cedar Revolution is being crushed by the overbearing Syrian security state and Iran's imperialist ambitions. Egypt is cracking down hard on Islamic and secular activists alike. Algeria is effectively doing away with term limits for its very own strongman. The list goes on and on. Once sought after, the holy grail of a democratic and liberal Islamic world has disappeared out of reach.

Except for Mauritania. But you wouldn't know that because the media hasn't been reporting on its astounding moves toward democracy.

Mauritanian women stand in line to cast their ballots in Nouakchott, Mauritania, Sunday, March 11, 2007. Men in flowing white and ochre robes lined up under the light of the moon at voting booths Sunday with hopes that whoever wins Mauritania's first presidential election since a coup two years ago will not plunge the country back into totalitarian rule. Courtesy: Associated Press

A new constitution developed through the inclusion of all of society's major groups was widely approved. Just as we may be seeing some of today's leaders around 30 years from now, this new constitution guarantees that presidential terms will be limited to two five-year terms. They must also swear to Allah that they will not try to change this law. The legislative branch and judiciary have also been strengthened relative to the president -- good news for a loose opposition coalition that garnered 41 of 90 seats in parliament. The country is hosting an open presidential debate. Civil and political society have strengthened greatly without government interference. The rise of radical Islam is now on the decline.

This month's presidential election is the real test, though. Out of twenty candidates running, none had a majority in the first round, which means that a runoff will be held in just less than two weeks now.

For continuity and stability's sake, the military has favored Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdullahi even though his opponent, opposition candidate Ahmed Ould Daddah, is neck'n'neck with him. But what current government would not prefer that a certain candidate win? What matters is what they are doing about it, and up until now, the election process has been regarded as totally peaceful, transparent, and with every attempt to make it as fair as possible.

In fact, Reporters Without Borders, hardly an uncritical institution, had this to say about the first round of the presidential election: Presidential campaign being covered fairly by public media. Eghad! Is that milk that just flew out of my nose? And while RWB says that media coverage of the junta's favored candidate has been skewed, it admits that it is largely due to the amount of former candidates defecting to him which results in more media coverage. Aside from that, other imbalances have been corrected. Furthermore, there has been no intimidation of candidates or restrictions to their or their supporters' ability to speak and act freely.

How often does this happen in the Islamic world?

This isn't to say that Mauritania is a shining bright spot on the world. It's one of the only places in the world where slavery is still practiced to a large degree; racism has historically been extreme. Economic and cultural liberalization have been slow to take hold and in most cases outright suppressed since independence.

Yet politically, Mauritania is becoming generations ahead of its neighbors in the rest of Africa and the Middle East. The development of a more democratic system, complete with free elections and a newly found spirit of civil and political society, has clearly put the country on the path of liberalization. Its people will be able to drag themselves out of the same spiral of repression under backwater dictatorships that is only intensifying elsewhere.

While the media may not be paying attention to these historic developments, you can bet that regimes from Zimbabwe to Iran are paying attention. Mauritania's transition to democracy is predicated on a split by the country's own military with the government's corrupt officials, rather than an all out intervention from Western forces. They acted as a temporary stabilizing force rather than a new tyrant. The transition is therefore wholly its own rather than one overseen and partially illegitimized by a foreign power.

If successful, Mauritania's experiment will prove to be a landmark and precedent for other countries to follow. It shows one way that democracy can potentially be established while also stemming the rise of radical Islam. Most of all, it shows that democracy itself is not a dead idea and must be taken seriously by democrats and dictators alike. Iraq may have turned many off, but Mauritania's successes show that such reforms can work.

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