North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Remembrances and Reconciliation

Very long standing tensions remembered between Serbs and Kosovars

Grudges and injustices are not easily forgotten. Some shouldn't, others by festering simply prolong the inability to progress. The "remembering" to everyone's disadvantage can be seen in Northern Island, where yearly parades and commemorations keep the 300-400 year old animosity between Catholics and Protestants alive. In a more lethal manifestation, the Serbs and Kosovars will not drop injustices that occurred in the 1300s, the continually stoked outrage having now triggered World War I, and part of the bitter Balkan war of the early 1990s.

Turkey and Armenia are stepping feebly along a more productive path of restoring relations. The long bitter wound (charged as genocide) from the 1915-17 conflict where the Turkish empire crushed the subject land of Armenia from moving towards independence, remains a potent barrier.

Tiny Armenia to the east of modern day Turkey - once were both part of the Ottoman Empire

A most profound and positive example of reconciliation is between Germany and Israel after the holocaust caused by the Nazis from 1938-1945. In 1950, Hermann Maas became the first German to be officially invited to Israel. In 1952, the Prime Minister of Israel David Ben Gurion and the Chancellor of West Germany Konrad Adenauer signed an emotional reparations agreement. Over the years - through 2007 - Germany has paid 25 billion euros in reparations to the Israeli state and individual Israeli holocaust survivors. West Germany and Israel established diplomatic relations in 1965, and since then, mutual state visits regularly occur.

Would that more nations study the steps taken between these two nations rather than nursing grievances from the past. Here current leaders Netanyahu and Merkel discuss an item

But to come full circle, as Israel gained its independence in 1948, a new stage was set for unending conflict. Palestinians living in and among Jewish settlers were told to leave by neighboring Arab states, who were anticipating a successful, brief, full scale attack on the new country, thereby driving Jews into the sea.

When the unthinkable occurred, and Israelis beat back the attacks, the displaced Palestinians had nowhere to go and were placed in refugee camps set up by the defeated Arab nations. Instead of these countries (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran) assimilating their brothers, the leadership encouraged the new refugees to nurture their grievances, as well as make promises that soon another attempt would be made to drive the Jews to the sea. Several unsuccessful attempts later, millions of new refugee descendants over the course of 60 + years, have become a force of restlessness and resentment beyond any Arab coalition's ability to control (think Hamas, Hezbollah, Gaza Strip ...).

The point of all this? Another buried lead? It is the nurtured violent grievance towards Danish cartoonists who disrespected the Prophet Muhammad in 2005. As 2010 comes to a close, Danish police have arrested five jihadists intent on seeking murderous revenge towards the cartoonists and the newspaper business who published them.

Another terror attempt

From the BBC, "five suspected Islamist militants have been arrested for planning a gun attack at the Copenhagen offices of a Danish newspaper that printed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005, police say. The men intended to burst into the Jyllands-Posten office and kill as many people as possible ..."

The small Baltic nation of Denmark

With all that, let's pointedly enjoy a positive reminder, that of traditional Danish food based around the natural bounty of this tiny land, with fresh fish from the seas and rivers, and famous pork and dairy products from its farms. (Havarti cheese should be on everyone's grocery list.)

The Danish countryside

Danish havarti cheese on bread - pretty simple fare

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas around the World

A "Norman Rockwell type" Christmas setting

The US or the Western world is not alone in celebrating Christmas. From Wikipedia, "Christmas Day is celebrated as a major festival and public holiday in countries around the world, including many whose populations are mostly non-Christian. In some non-Christian countries, periods of former colonial rule introduced the celebration (e.g. Hong Kong); in others, Christian minorities or foreign cultural influences have led populations to observe the holiday. Countries such as Japan and Korea, where Christmas is popular despite there being only a small number of Christians, have adopted many of the secular aspects of Christmas, such as gift-giving, decorations and Christmas trees..."

The Christmas celebration is not limited to December 25, nor to gift-giving. "Eastern Orthodox national churches, including those of Russia, Georgia, Egypt, Ukraine, the Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and the Greek Patriarchate of Jerusalem mark feasts using the older Julian Calendar. December 25 on that calendar currently corresponds to January 7 on the more widely used Gregorian calendar." Parades, feasts, and singing are other methods to celebrate the holiday.

Christmas is criticized by many Western Christians as too commercialized, too harried, too full of expectations and resulting depression. Its origins are debated over it being an actual pagan celebration of the winter solstice. Religiously, of course controversy rages over the religious aspects, a miracle of a Virgin birth, or for that matter the more cosmic implications of God sending His Son to earth as a Savior for humankind.

Yet it does not prevent believers from true celebration, and enjoyment if only for a brief time by all of a glimpse of kinder human possibility.

Nigerians have special traditions they follow to celebrate Christmas. Almost everyone goes to church on Christmas Day. Weeks before the day, people buy lots of hens, turkeys, goats and cows. Children hover around the beasts, taunting, and mostly gawking at them. There are feverish preparations for travel, holidays, and exchange of gifts, caroling and all manner of celebrations.

On Christmas Eve, traditional meals are prepared. In Yoruba, such meals usually include Iyan, (pounded yam) eba or amala, served with peppery stewed vegetables. People find themselves eating this same meal three to four times on that day, as they are offered it at every house they visit; and according to Yorùbá customs, it was considered rude to decline to eat when offered food.

Nigerian Iyan

In Bangladesh, Christmas Day is celebrated by Bengali Christians as Boro Din, or Great Day. The day is a national holiday and is officially celebrated by the President of Bangladesh in Bongo Bhaban. Bengali Christians greet family and friends by saying Shubho Boro Din, or Greetings of the Great Day, and offer traditional sweets and pithas (traditional Bengali cakes). Their homes are decorated with local Christmas handicrafts while artificial stars signifying the Star of Bethlehem are hung on rooftops. Christmas celebrations are also popular with the urban middle class in the country with hotels, cafes, restaurants and theme parks hosting festivities and special events.

Bangladeshi pithas

Encouraged by the commercial sector, the secular celebration of Christmas is popular in Japan, though Christmas is not a national holiday. Gifts are exchanged and children's presents are left next to their pillow at night. Christmas parties are held on and around Christmas Day; the Japanese type of Christmas cake is often a white whipped cream cake with strawberries. The first recorded Christmas in Japan was celebrated with a Mass held by Jesuit missionaries in Yamaguchi Prefecture in 1552.

Japanese Christmas white cake

The Czech Republic and Slovakia
Christmas Eve (24 December) is celebrated as 'Štědrý den', which means "Generous Day", when the gifts are given in the evening. However, 25 and 26 December are also public holidays. According to tradition, gifts are brought by Ježíšek, or "baby Jesus". Many very old Christmas traditions are followed, mostly for fun. People usually fast on Christmas Eve until a ceremonial dinner is served, in order to be able to see a "golden piglet", which brings good luck. Carp and special homemade potato salad are a traditional dish for the dinner. The gifts are secretly displayed under the Christmas tree by one of the adults, usually just before or during dinner. Children have to wait for the ringing of a christmas bell (one of the decorations on the christmas tree) - the sign that 'Ježíšek' - little Jesus has just passed by - to run for the presents. That happens at the end of their Christmas dinner (again ringing done by one parent sneaking out).

Yum! Carp and potato salad!

In Venezuela Christmas is celebrated as a religious occasion. Presents are brought by “El Niño Jesus” (Baby Jesus) instead of “Papá Noél” (Santa Claus), that still has an important role during this season. The unofficial start of the Christmas festivities is after the celebrations of "Feria de la Chinita", second half of November. The origin of this festivity is the cult to Virgin Mary of Chiquinquirá, when various religious activities, processions, and music festivals with the typical "Gaita (music style)" to honor "La Chinita"(nickname of this Virgin). After this festivity, the Christmas Spirit is every where and many activities take place including musical events of Gaita, firework displays, and many other events planned by other cities across the country.

In many cities, small rural towns and neighborhoods get together for the "patinatas" night festivals where kids go and play with skateboards, roller blades and bicycles. Also still in some neighborhoods there is the "Parranda" where people go from one house to house with music and Christmas songs, in exchange for food and drinks. In the mountainous Venezuelan Andes, villagers carry an image of "baby Jesus" called "Paradura del Niño." Children write request letters to Baby Jesus, and the presents are sent by said baby at midnight, then most people have a party which goes on until sunrise.

Hallacas, the Venezuelan Christmas specialty made of a corn-and-meat filling (and at times raisins, nuts, olives and hard-boiled eggs) wrapped tightly in a banana leaf.

This blogger finds comfort and joy in an old Christmas song, "I heard the Bells on Christmas Day"

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And mild and sweet their songs repeat
Of peace on earth good will to men

And the bells are ringing
Like a choir they're singing
In my heart I hear them
Peace on earth, good will to men

And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men

Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Iraq forms new Government, 9 months after elections

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announces new government to Parliament

Normally, this sort of delay would be an indicator of a failed state, a rigged dictatorial sleight of hand to show "the world" democracy while retaining firm control in reality.

But in the case of Iraq, the presence of a government representing more than 30 fractious parties - ethnic and religious - that have fought each other and remain deeply suspicious of each others intentions, is probably a significant step forward.

The Prime Minister, incumbent Nouri al-Maliki, has filled 29 of 42 open ministerial positions, and the remaining 13 are filled with "interim" individuals still needing approval of Parliament. al-Maliki himself presides over the party that came in 2nd 9 months ago with 89 seats, while Ayad Alawi's party gained 91 seats. Alawi was unable to forge a coalition with enough other parties to hold a majority, so al-Malaki was given a chance and succeeded.

Huge challenges lie ahead - the country has always suffered from its artificial boundaries left over from the Turkish empire days ending after WWI, followed by Britain's establishing the new boundaries binding Kurds in the mountains, bedouins in the desert, and farmer and merchants along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. These natural ethnic components have a history of distrust, extreme violence against one another, and are not helped by foreign influences from Iran, al-Qaeda, and an antipathy against the West and Israel in particular.

Reconstruction continues, albeit fraught with inefficiencies and conflicting priorities

It is an ongoing irony that the US, with its military intervention and principles in such contrast to conservative Islamic tenets, has handed the population a bloody opportunity to move beyond the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, now dead for four years. There are oil revenues to be shared, national political institutions to be rebuilt and strengthened, and corruption to be resisted.

Women's issues and status are still at a crossroads, and in the 325 member parliament now seated, there is only one woman ...

Beyond the politics and institutions, a new perspective on religious identity and tolerance for others is needed. A Christian minority is exiting the country after extremists attacks, and the role of women is still in flux. Historically, Iraqi women had more liberties than elsewhere in the Arab world, but over the past nearly 20 years of conflict (Gulf War I in 1991, sanctions, US invasion in 2003, civil war through 2006), inevitably the freedoms have suffered. Availability and quality of education and income opportunities for women will vary by region, but remain a critical element in rebuilding society.

The roles and freedoms afforded women in Iraq vary tremendously by region and religious background. These women in Baghdad enjoy different dress norms than those in Basra or rural areas.

To soften the challenges ahead and injustices to be borne, it is a nice reminder that Iraq has enough of a national identity to select a national dish! If the opportunity for a new start can be given by invasion (and that by a Western "decadent" power) is ironic, then a positive irony may be that this country can draw upon a rich heritage of cuisine and traditions as uniting factors.

This is Masgoof. It is a delicacy and considered Iraq's national dish. It's a type of fish originally from the Tigris River, but now raised on fish farms. Masgoof actually means the cooking style, not the name of the fish itself. The fish is sliced open butterfly-style, sprinkled with salt, skewered and placed next to an open fire and slowly smoked until flaky-perfect.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Followups and an antidote

Occasionally, narratives of events and stories posted here deserve a bit of followup. Here are four updates on festering issues, balanced by one chilly, yet warming story of optimism.

The Ivory Coast standoff continues. Current President Gbagbo is facing sanctions by the European Union unless he retires from office. The UN also squarely places the responsibility on Gbagbo, siding with Alassane Ouattara. Nearly 20 citizens were killed in the past two days in a outburst of violence between the two sides.

City streets filled with military and tense civilians

Violence in Mexico between drug cartels and Mexico's central government continues. More than 30,000 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon took office four years ago, the government says. Almost 12,500 have been killed so far this year, a sharp increase on 2009. Mexico's attorney-general said the number of deaths was "regrettable", but showed that the security forces were having success in their fight against the drugs gangs. President Calderon has sent thousands of troops to battle the cartels.

Bound hands are mute testimony to lethal violence delivered by one rival gang to another, and lethal violence received

South Korea and the US are pursuing another military land/sea exercise in the same sea and island which North Korea recently shelled. North Korea has blustered that if the exercise goes ahead, they will retaliate. Tensions between South and North Korea remain high and volatile.

South Korean marines patrol on the island of Yeonpyeong

Haiti continues in chaos. Still suffering from a lingering cholera epidemic, new violence has broken out among various supporters of 16 presidential candidates, 14 of whom did not make a two person runoff scheduled in the near future.

A supporter of one of the many losing presidential candidates, takes cover from UN peacekeepers attempting to control a riot

We could write and read of ongoing drone attacks in Pakistan, a recent shipwreck off an Australian island where 30 immigrants lost their lives, or the rescued Chilean miners who continue to enjoy new opportunities offered them (They traveled to the UK recently to watch a football match), but let's finish in Iceland.

From a recent article, "Iceland tourism officials wouldn't wish a volcanic eruption on any country, but while the world famous (and virtually unpronounceable) Eyjafjallajokull volcano created misery for millions of travelers, it resulted in a 16 percent increase in tourism to the island nation for the first 11 months of 2010, versus the same period last year."
The unpronounceable volcano seen in the distance last April

The article goes on, "For a while there last April, it seemed as if Iceland was about to slip into the sea. Some farmers were displaced by the floods and ash, and Keflavik International Airport near the capital city was closed for a few days when the wind shifted west -- a mild inconvenience compared to the headaches the eruption caused to flight operations in Western Europe. As the lava cooled and the volcano simmered down, tourists started to arrive. So-called volcano tours began as enterprising Icelanders offered guided excursions to view the volcano and the few ash-filled valleys below. By summer, visits to the volcano rivaled attendance at the country's other best-known attraction, the famed Blue Lagoon spa.

"The eruption became our best advertising," says Einar Gustavsson, the New York-based Tourism Director for Iceland in North America. "Travel in 2011 is expected to be up 20 percent over 2010, helped in part by Delta which launches new service in spring 2011." It will be the third airline to serve the country, adding seats to those already provided by Icelandair and Iceland Express.

The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland’s most visited sites with more than 400,000 visitors annually. The hotel and spa is 100% powered by geothermal power, and the lagoon itself holds six million liters of geothermal brine all of which is renewed in 40 hours. Blue Lagoon’s guests actually bathe between two continents as the Euro – Asian and American tectonic plates meet at the Blue Lagoon.

And so we're up to date.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sweden the target in mis-timed terror attack

Sweden known globally for its compassion, giving, and tolerance

Unfortunately, the scenario is now familiar. A radicalized Muslim with murderous intent, hoping to kill a maximum number of civilians in the name of Allah. The unexpected component of the story is that the target was Sweden, long known for tolerance and aversion to violence.

Would-be terrorist was 28 years old, husband, and father of two young daughters

Iraq-born Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, 28, is believed to have died minutes after setting off a car bomb in Stockholm, Sweden on Saturday. Two other people were hurt. A Swedish spokesperson for the government said police were now trying to work out exactly what the bomber's target had been before he blew himself up prematurely. "He had a bomb belt on him, he had a backpack with a bomb and he was carrying an object that has been compared to a pressure cooker. If it had all blown up at the same time, it would have been very powerful," he said.

Fireman put out burning car set off by the terrorist

A car, registered to Abdaly, containing gas canisters blew up first in a busy shopping street in the area of Drottninggatan in the evening followed minutes later by a explosion in a street several blocks away that killed the bomber.

"It is likely that something happened, that he made some kind of mistake and part of the bombs he was carrying went off and caused his death... This was during Christmas shopping in central Stockholm and he was extremely well-equipped when it came to bomb material. It is not much of a stretch to say he was going to a place with as many people as possible." Possible targets included the city's central train station or Aahlens, a popular department store, according to investigators.

Swedish shopping district during Christmas season

Investigators have since learned that Abdaly was born in Baghdad and moved to Sweden in 1992 (he would be 10 or so years old), before arriving in the UK in 2001 (around 19) to study. He had married in 2004 (22 years old) and had two young daughters.

British police have been searching Abdaly's house in Luton. His wife and children are reported to live in the UK, although their exact whereabouts are not known. Apparently, Abdaly had attended the Luton Islamic Centre but left after other members accused him of having a "distorted view" of Islam. In subsequent gathering of evidence for motive, Abdaly said Swedish military presence in Afghanistan as part of ISAF was justification for his actions.

So, a quick overview of Sweden's offensive behavior in Afghanistan. Linked to an Afghan Provincial Reconstruction Team in Mazar-e-Sharif, (in northern Afghanistan, which Sweden commands), there are currently 500 personnel, some who provide military advice to help build up and support the Afghan army, a transport aircraft unit, a medical helicopter unit, and coordinators to implement long-term assistance to Afghanistan from approximately SEK 300 million to approximately SEK 500 million within the next few years.

Police guard Abdaly's house in Britain, while searching for his wife and daughters

A BBC security analyst said the blast appeared to have been of the same relatively unsophisticated nature as recent attempted attacks in New York, Glasgow and London. Such attacks, carried out by individuals, were especially hard for the security agencies to trace and are an increasing cause for concern, he added. Abdaly was completely unknown to Swedish security services before the blasts.

Other Iraqi Swedes took a stand against terror attacks

More will no doubt emerge concerning this latest attack by Islamic extremists, it is sobering to realize that the interpreted doctrine subscribed to by such a large number of individuals treats innocent lives so lightly. Early in the rise of suicide bombers, analysts and commentators were very much agreeing with each other that this was a result of poverty, lack of opportunity, the oppression by Israel or the West, etc. That commentary is heard much less 15 years later, simply due to the number of middle class, though alienated, individuals (living in liberal democratic societies) who succumb nonetheless to the thinking.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sudan's Referendum looms

Sudan today - as large as the United States east of the Mississippi.

The largest country in Africa - Sudan - is soon to hold a momentous election that will determine whether a large portion of the south of the country will split from the north and form a new nation. Today, voter registration for the January 9, 2011 vote ended, and Southerners are widely expected to choose to form a new country, having fought two civil wars with the north over the past several decades.

The north part of the country, governed from the capital city, Khartoum, is Islamic, and its President, Omar al-Bashir, has been charged with war crimes over the conflict in Darfur, becoming the first sitting head of state issued with an arrest warrant by the international criminal court (ICC). Bashir, who is 65 and has held power for 20 years, is held largely responsible for the humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur.

Current Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, also indicted for war crimes

After the uprising in February 2003 by mainly non-Arab rebels who complained of marginalization and neglect, his government armed, trained and financed bands of Arab nomads to attack villages across Darfur, killing, raping and looting as they went. The army provided air and ground support. His strategy caused 35,000 violent deaths, and several groups believe Bashir wanted to eliminate the Fur, Marsalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups, whom he believed supported the rebels.

When the 20 year old civil war was negotiated to an end in 2005 through the Naivasha Agreement (conducted in Kenya) between the Khartoum central government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M), a referendum on a possible split was agreed to as part of the terms.

Southern Sudan lost its long time and popular General/leader John Garang soon after the 2005 peace accord in a helicopter crash, and since then Salva Kiir Mayardit has filled the role of President of the autonomous region of South Sudan. Like John Garang, he is from the Dinka tribe, and is popular among both the military wing of the SPLM for his battlefield victories and the populace for his unambiguous pro-secession stance.

South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardit

Along with the North South referendum, a small oil rich district called Abyei, situated near the border of North and South Sudan, is supposed to hold its own referendum on the same day. There, voters will be asked to decide whether to retain Abyei’s special administrative status in the north or become part of Southern Sudan, irrespective of the outcome of the south’s own referendum on secession. The result of the referendum will be determined by a simple majority of votes cast.
Arab and Islamic influence in North Sudan (Orange); Darfur (green) in the throes of violence is part of the north, as is the Eastern Front (purple)which had its own conflict with the Khartoum government; South Sudan which could become the world's newest nation (blue), and the strategic district of Abyei (red), which will also vote January 9 to either stay with the north, or secede with the South. Two sparsely populated regions (pink), Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile have been left somewhat in limbo, merely called upon to hold "popular consultations" in 2011.

Due to a breakdown in North-South negotiations over logistics in Abyei, Abyei’s referendum may not happen on time. Many observers are watching closely to see whether Abyei will resolve its problems peacefully or, in the worst case scenario, become ground zero for a new Sudanese civil war.

Southern Sudanese are black, tall, and proud, varying from Christian to traditional in their worship.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Ivory Coast election ends in two swear-ins

The two self-sworn-in Ivory Coast Presidents, Laurent Gbagbo - left, and Alassane Ouattara - right.

In contrast to the recent blog about a small positive step forward in Guinean governance, another West African nation is descending into further chaos from its recent national elections.

The Ivory Coast (Republic of Côte d'Ivoire) was once considered a promising African nation after its independence from France in 1960. Through production of coffee and cocoa, the country was an economic powerhouse during the 1960s and 1970s, but went through an economic crisis in the 1980s, leading to a long period of political and social turmoil and decline. It has experienced two coups d’état (1999 and 2001) and a 5-year long civil war from 2002 to 2007. The country in those years became divided along ethnic lines North and South, with the Northern half of the country controlled by the "New Forces."

The country divided partly along ethnic lines, but often fueled by former colonial patterns of patronage

The incumbent President, and leading candidate in the 2010 election, Laurent Gbagbo, first became the nation's president in 2000, and held the position through the civil war and the post war political arrangement. His main electoral rival then and now, Alassane Ouattara, was disqualified in 2000 by the country's Supreme Court due to his alleged Burkinabé nationality.

According to Wikipedia, Gbagbo's original mandate as president expired on October 30, 2005, but due to the lack of disarmament in the ongoing civil war it was deemed impossible to hold an election, and therefore his term in office was extended for a maximum of one year, according to a plan worked out by the African Union; this plan was endorsed by the United Nations Security Council.

A peace accord between the government and the rebels, or New Forces, was signed on March 4, 2007, and an agreement was reached among the rival parties to proceed with elections but were postponed numerous times due to delays in its preparation.

Elections were finally held in 2010. The first round of elections were held peacefully, and widely hailed as free and fair. Runoffs were held late November 28, 2010, with Laurent Gbagbo as president running against Alassane Ouattara, himself a former Prime Minister from 1990 - 1993. On 2 December, the Electoral Commission declared that Ouattara had won the election by a margin of 54% to 46%. In response, the Gbagbo-aligned Constitutional Council rejected the declaration. Gbago's government announced that country's border's had been sealed.

Mr Gbagbo, who has the backing of the head of the country's armed forces, was sworn in for a third term in office at the presidential palace on Friday. But within hours, Mr Ouattara was himself sworn in at his Abidjan hotel. Ouattara immediately re-appointed Guillaume Soro as his prime minister. Mr Soro had tendered his resignation in Mr Gbagbo's administration just hours earlier. Mr Soro - who is the head of the New Forces rebels in the north - has warned that overturning the results threatens to derail attempts to stabilise and reunify the country after the 2002 civil war.

So, two men, each having held the Presidency or Prime Minister position before, are both declaring themselves winners, regardless of the effect on the country's future. While the UN and most Western nations believe Ouattara is the legitimate winner, Gbagbo is not budging. The situation is so serious that South African former leader Thabo Mbeki has arrived in the country to attempt to mediate a way through the standoff.

Mbeki arrives at Bouake airport

Ghosts of the 2002 civil war now loom over this once promising nation, which provided a recent positive image with its soccer team in the World Cup.

The Ivory Coast orange football squad was popular in the World Cup

Cocoa beans have long been an export staple of the Ivory Coast

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Guinea High Court declares Presidential Winner

The small African nation of Guinea took another step towards democratic rule when its Guinea's Supreme Court confirmed opposition leader Alpha Conde as the winner of last month's presidential run-off election. According to the BBC, the court said Mr Conde, leader of the Rally of the Guinean People (RPG), had won with 52.52% of the vote.

Alpha Conde declared President

Former Prime Minister Cellou Dalein Diallo of the Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (UFDG) and veteran opposition leader Alpha Conde of the Rally of the Guinean People (RPG), came first and second respectively from a pack of 24 contestants in the first round. Diallo declared election fraud, but the court found otherwise

A successful conclusion to the election, with the ascension to power by Alpha Conde would mark the end of 52 years of authoritarian rule. However, it is not yet clear that the country's tensions between parties and groupings will subside, as the elections themselves were marred by violence and delays.

Northern rural Guineans were displaced from their homes due to election violence, but polling stations were set up for their participation.

The two men represent the two most populous ethnic groups in the country, but many Guineans are concluding that regardless, as one trader from Conackry said, "it's Guineans who should take pride in the fact that they've finally ushered in real democracy in their country after over half-a-century”

Guinea has the largest deposits of bauxite in the world but again from the BBC, p"oor management and corruption by the previous two dictatorial regimes of first President Sekou Toure and then Lansana Conte have rendered Guineans among the poorest on the continent and indeed the world."

Bauxite mining and profits in Guinea have not yet positively influenced Guinea citizens

Finally, from a reading of a number of Western observers, Guinea's current interim military leader Gen Sekouba Konate, unlike previous military rulers, has showed willingness to hand over political power to civilians. In fact, Konate, who is quite popular with Guineans has said he would be willing to work under the civilian president as the Defense Minister.

The military under interim leader General Sekouba,has generally acted positively in the recent elections

Perhaps we are seeing one small step in one more country in Africa moving in the right direction. Both candidates had declared that their highest priority was to raise the living standards of the nation's citizens.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Preparing for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics

Brazil has a typical modern sector adjacent to urban slums

Brazil is a country building in economic strength and international influence. It is one of four countries whose economies, at least from 2005 to 2008, were projected to become new economic powers, creating a broader set of economic centers than that of just the US, Japan, and Western Europe. The new foursome, Brazil, Russia, China, and India, were referred to as BRIC. In the economic slump of the past two years, Russia perhaps has lost much of its economic luster as oil revenues slumped, but the remaining three have powered on.

Often talked less about that the growth and potential of China, and India, Brazil has nonetheless continued its growth and social maturation. It has the world's eighth largest economy, and it is a leader in green transportation fuels processed from sugar cane. Besides being the successful bidder for the 2016 Olympics - a highly sought after status breakthrough - Brazilians recently elected their first female president, Dilma Rousseff, who will take office, January 1, 2011.

Brazilian President-elect Dilma Rousseff

There are a few "issues" to deal with ahead of time however, and the past several days, one such action has brought its own share of attention. From an AP article, "Police and soldiers charged into Rio's most dangerous slum at daybreak Sunday, seizing the bastion of the city's biggest drug gang in a battle to make the seaside metropolis safe for the Olympics and soccer's World Cup.

Soldiers sweep a street in one of Brazil's urban slums

Black-clad officers poured into the Alemao slum complex amid heavy gunfire, with helicopters flying low overhead. But the officers encountered less resistance than expected and they declared victory two hours later, even if many gang members still remained inside.

A Brazilian flag was raised at the shantytown's highest point at midday. It was the biggest victory yet in a two-year effort to drive drug gangs from their strongholds in the hundreds of shantytowns, many draped across the hills around Rio's beaches, a crusade driven in part by the need to make foreign visitors feel secure for the final matches of the 2014 World Cup and for the 2016 Olympics that are meant to be showpieces of Brazil's emergence as growing world force.

Rio de Janeiro Gov. Sergio Cabral said the campaign against gangs will go forward. "We will continue to conquer more territories and give peace to our citizens and the foreign visitors who come here," he told Globo TV. Officials have already imposed order on more than a dozen other former gang strongholds, even encouraging tourism along streets once echoing with gunfire.

The gangs, feeling threatened, reacted violently, mounting mass robberies of motorists on key highways, burning more than 100 buses and cars and shooting up police outposts. The government counterattacked with hundreds of soldiers and thousands of police in armored vehicles, first driving the gangsters from the Vila Cruzeiro slum on Thursday, then neighboring Alemao — their most ambitious target yet — 72 hours later."

Statue of Christ overlooking Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janiero is the home of Carnival, and the famous statue of Christ overlooking the city. While the festering slums have long been a blight on the nation's image and no doubt an ongoing vale of despair and precariousness for its residents), the recent action signaling a will by the government to change the status quo stands in contrast to Mexico's violent, and stalemated war on drug gangs.

Carnival is known around the world