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 "

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Ecuador makes the international spotlight

graphic from

Ecuador is a South American country of 15 million people bordering the Pacific Ocean. It's major claim to fame stems from its world-renowned Galápagos Islands, over 600 miles west from the mainland.

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The Galapagos Islands, treasured for the isolated and unique varieties of animals and birds found here. Photo from

The Republic of Ecuador (which apparently in Spanish literally means "the Republic of the Equator") is also known for its capital city, Quito, situated high in the Andes (2300 metres or 9350 ft), being the highest of any national capital.

Quito, Ecuador's capital city (nice shot taken from the blog of an architect In the background is the world's highest (and active) volcano, Cotopaxi, and in the foreground, the striking Basilica del Voto Nacional.

Ecuador is a South American country that, like Peru, climbs precipitously from the Pacific to the spine of the Andes mountains, and then plunges further east back to low level jungle - the headwaters of the Amazon river. The country depends on its eastern low-elevation oil and gas deposits to drive its economy, a smaller mining industry sector in the mountains, and more important shrimp processing and flower raising industry sectors in the west.

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Geography makes for a challenge in unifying the country's economy with distribution of wealth among the disparate regions. Graphic from

Ecuador's recent political history brings it into tension with the US, Europe, and free market capitalism

Ecuador's current president, Rafael Correa, heads one of several left leaning regimes on the continent. Correa was first elected in 2006, and in February 2013, was re-elected to a third term. In 2010, according to BBC reporting, his administration announced it would begin renegotiating contracts with private oil companies as it moves to increase state control over the sector. "Under a new law, the current production-sharing agreements will be replaced by a flat fee. The Ecuadorean state will own 100% of the oil and gas produced. Foreign oil firms in Ecuador, which produces an average of 470,000 barrels per day, are currently responsible for 44% of output. The new legislation stipulates that the first 25% of gross income from oil sales must go to the state."

All fine and dandy, Norway after all leads the way in making sure its oil wealth benefits its citizens, and this is similar to Brazil's Roussef's announcement last week of oil wealth being directed to the nation's education.

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Ecuador President Rafael Correa, now beginning his third term. Photo from

Correa was a close ally to the late Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, and keeps Ecuador firmly within a bloc of four "indigenous socialist" nations: Bolivia, Peru, Equador, and Venezuela. With both political and economic visions noticeably different than the broad Western perspective, Ecuador has raised the antennas of its Western trading partners.

So what's the spotlight about?

First, Wikileaks, Assange, and Bradley Manning

In 2006, Wikileaks, a non-profit organization founded in Iceland, began publishing whatever it could find from secret government and business files. Its effort caught international attention in 2010, when it published thousands of documents having to do the the US war in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 201,0 a US Army soldier in Iraq, Bradley Manning, was arrested on suspicion of having passed classified material to WikiLeaks even as the organization further riled the US by releasing State Department files on a variety of diplomatic activities. In another unexpected turn of events, Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, was accused of rape and sexual assault by two women in Sweden, and because he was in the UK at the time, fled to the Ecuadorean embassy in London for political refuge.

Assange, Wikileaks founder, holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in the UK, wanted by Sweden to stand trial on sexual assault charges, and by the US for questioning regarding the leaking of secret US state department files. Photo from

Assange, a bit of a political left celebrity now, was granted political asylum by Ecuador, but the UK has not allowed him to fly to Ecuador, as he is wanted in Sweden. So there he has remained for just over a year, living in the Ecuadorean embassy.

The Ecuadorean Embassy in London - the media-stampede/police-protection dance, which pits individuals who've become leftist cause-celebres vs western governments. Photo by CNN

Second, enter Edward Snowden, a 29yr old employee of the US National Security Agency (NSA).

A couple weeks ago, an employee of the US National Security Agency rocked the political world by releasing information detailing the NSA's surveillance of US citizen phone records, then fleeing Hawaii where he was based, to Hong Kong. The US government requested extradition of Snowden on suspicion of espionage, but he left Hong Kong with what administration officials characterized China as "aiding and abetting" an individual wanted by the US under existing extradition agreements. Now the latest cause-celebre, Snowden ended up in Moscow, where he is apparently trapped in a legal vacuum, not officially in Russian space, but out of reach of the US law enforcement. And Russian President Putin is happily avoiding taking any action either, the second powerful country to snub the US government on the issue.

Ecuadorean reading a Spanish newspaper about Snowden stuck in airport. Photo from Christian Science Monitor

To complete a circle, Snowden has apparently been in contact with Wikileaks, whose leading officials are advising him to apply for political asylum with Ecuador ... similar to Assange, who found Ecuador to be sympathetic.

Interesting brief window in how governments pressure other governments.

In a recent CNN article, we read, "Trade between the United States and Ecuador totaled more than $16 billion last year, according to figures from the U.S. Census. About half of Ecuador's foreign trade depends on the United States. Analysts say the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act, which has allowed Ecuador to import and export goods with reduced tariffs, has fueled growth in trade and commerce between the two nations.

On Thursday, a U.S. State Department spokesman warned that Ecuador's economic ties with the United States could be in jeopardy if the South American country offers asylum to Snowden. "What would not be a good thing is them granting Mr. Snowden asylum," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters. "That would have grave difficulties for a bilateral relationship."

And in the past couple days, Ecuador's President Correa has taken a call from US Vice President Joe Biden, who is presumably spelling out the advantages for Ecuador to not grant asylum to Snowden, as well as the above mentioned costs. Even the influential US newspaper, the Washington Post applied pressure in its own way with its June 24, 2013 editorial titled, "Snowden case highlights Ecuador’s double standard"

The article begins, "CHINA MADE a show of disrespect for the Obama administration Sunday by facilitating the flight of Edward Snowden. Russia may do the same. But when it comes to anti-American chutzpah, there’s no beating Rafael Correa, the autocratic leader of tiny, impoverished Ecuador. Mr. Correa and his foreign minister said Monday that they were considering an asylum request by Mr. Snowden. If he can find his way to South America, it appears likely that the former National Security Agency contractor would receive the same welcome as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has spent the past year in Ecuador’s London embassy.

Taking in Mr. Snowden would allow Mr. Correa to advance his most cherished ambition: replacing the deceased Hugo Chavez as the hemisphere’s preeminent anti-U.S. demagogue. It would thwart the Justice Department’s attempt to prosecute the fugitive American. Yet, as we see it, that all might be worth it if the case were to focus public and congressional attention on Mr. Correa’s own repression of free speech — and his attempt to set himself up as a U.S. foil even while profiting from U.S. trade preferences.

For years, Mr. Correa has been known for his prosecutions of his own country’s journalists and his attempts to destroy the Organization of American States’ office on press freedom. But this month he outdid himself: The country’s rubber-stamp legislature passed a new media law, widely known as the “gag law,” that was aptly described by the Inter-American Press Association as “the most serious setback for freedom of the press and of expression in the recent history of Latin America.”

Mr. Snowden should be particularly interested in Section 30 of the law, which bans the “free circulation, especially by means of the communications media” of information “protected under a reserve clause established by law.” The legislation empowers a new superintendent of information and communication to heavily fine anyone involved in releasing such information, even before they are prosecuted in the courts. In other words, had Mr. Snowden done his leaking in Ecuador, not just he but also any journalist who received his information would be subject to immediate financial sanction, followed by prosecution."

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And the cartoons begin to flow ...Daryl Cagle,

A few new tangents

Not to be outdone by Ecuador's Correa, Venezuela's new President Maduro has announced he's willing to give Snowden asylum.

And the European Union leadership is furious at the US over continuing revelations that the EU offices may have been bugged by the NSA.

So jump on where you wish: Correa, Assange, Biden, NSA, European Union, Bradley Manning, Obama, Hong Kong, Maduro, flower growing industry in Ecuador, US Attorney General, espionage, Putin, China, Sweden, Moscow airport, UK embassy, cause-celebre....

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Brazil hit by massive protests, President Roussef promises reforms

Brazil, the powerhouse nation on the South American continent, was rocked by massive street protests this past week. The BBC reports, "The demonstrations began over transport fare rises in Sao Paulo, but quickly grew into rallies across the country against corruption and other issues. On Thursday night more than a million people took to the streets and there was violence in various cities in which dozens were injured and two people died."

More specifically, much of the protests was linked to the spending that is occurring to prepare venues and infrastructure for the 2014 World Cup, as well as spending on welfare and job creation that simply never trickles far enough into the world of those who most need it.

Brazil, territory-wise the largest country on the continent, with nearly 200 million citizens. The population is proud (for example of their football teams), but restive due to wealth inequalities.

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Massive spending on new stadiums for the upcoming World Cup tournament, while satisfying fans, is unsettling to those living in poverty literally next door.

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Neglected and crime infested slums definitely need the attention of the government, but too much of the action taken has looked like clearances of areas simply to put a better face before the anticipated flood of sports enthusiasts.

The Brazilian government reaction

Here is where we might be seeing some hopeful signs. The BBC article went on, "Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has unveiled a series of reforms in an attempt to end days of nationwide anti-government protests. In a televised address she said she would draft a new plan to benefit public transport and that all oil royalties would be used in education. She also said that thousands of doctors would be drafted in from overseas to improve the national health service."

Before a few tidbits on the proposed reforms, the Brazilian president has a particularly pertinent background. which came through during her prime-time remarks after a few days of silence during the protests. An AP article related Roussef saying that "peaceful demonstrations were part of a strong democracy, but that violence could not be tolerated ..., (and later, she stated,) "It is citizenship and not economic power that must be heard first."

Brazilian leader Roussef brings convictions regarding street protests..."

Ms Roussef was a former Marxist rebel who fought against Brazil's military regime in the 60s-80s, was imprisoned for three years, and tortured by the ruling junta," and in reference, she observed, "My generation fought a lot so that the voices of the streets could be heard. Many were persecuted, tortured, and many died for this. The voice of the street must be heard and respected and it can't be confused with the noise and truculence of some troublemakers."

Many listeners were swayed by her apparent sincerity, and Teatree was impressed with her singling out authentic protest issues as something that must be heard, rather than obscuring the legitimate by concentrating on the rabble rousers. But we will see... and hope. What a different reaction than Turkey's Erdogan who was nearly hysterically dismissive of all Istanbul protests against his plans recently.

Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan, who carefully cultivates his image of a moderate Islamic leader, wildly undercut his personna in the past weeks by cracking down hard on protestors of his domestic policies, denouncing them all as terrorists, etc.

And of course, a long time ago it seems, protestors in Syria peacefully demonstrated against President Assad. We know where that went ...

So, back to Brazil - Roussef has promised better public transport, oil revenues to fund education, and thousands of doctors to improve health service.

Public transport

Modern bus systems have long been part of Brazil's upgrade plans - if nothing else to help move people to football stadiums. For the country itself, the transport issue seems to be prioritized for urban situations.

Oil for schools

Brazil has found new and massive reserves of oil and gas just off its own shores.

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This British Petroleum oil platform (called P-52) is being positioned in the new oil finds and will soon be delivering fuel and wealth to Brazil.

Roussef has previously called for oil royalties to go towards education - a basic and far reaching endeavor that could impact all the country. While the Brazilian Congress has not agreed to date, perhaps this time after a million street voices have sounded off ...

Better health care with imported doctors

In spite of what is likely a carefully staged photo, nonetheless, health care in Brazil is a government priority that has seen significant results, while lots of further improvements are needed. Roussef has also called for more health care spending before the protests hit. Again, can she deliver something more substantive this time, with the protests as backdrop?

The World Health Organization has a review of the Brazilian health care system at Here is an excerpt, "Until the 1970s, Brazilians used to joke that they had to die before the authorities paid any attention to them. Dr Hugo Coelho Barbosa Tomassini recalls how they used to have a full-time “death secretary” to administer funerals in the city of Niterói, where he was once the municipal health secretary, but only one health unit to care for the living.

Much has changed since then. While long queues at hospital emergency departments, beds spilling into corridors, outdated and malfunctioning equipment and a scarcity of doctors and medicine in rural areas remain common complaints, on another level, Brazil’s national health system – Sistema Único de Saúde (SUS) – has been an outstanding success."

Dental exams - who needs chairs.

Teatree isn't sure where Brazil might go for more doctors - Cuba is always mentioned - but the focus on education and health care seem like the right choices that affect everyone in the country, while mass transportation issues for Brazil's urban populations are hardly frivolous.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Syrian civil war spreads, and morphs towards a Sunni-Shia confrontation

The Syrian civil war is heating up and spreading, more countries are finding themselves pulled closer to the conflict.

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In spite of many nations hopes this conflict would find a solution in the past two years, negotiations have gone nowhere ...

Regarding the US, as the Wall Street Journal put it a few days ago, "It took two years, 93,000 casualties, the use of chemical weapons, and the growing prospect of victory by strongman Bashar Assad and his Iranian patrons, but President Obama has finally decided to arm the Syrian rebels." The question remains who to arm: moderate rebel groups are the preference, but over time those factions have been diminished compared to the rising influence and military prowess of the extremist rebels (al-Qaeda affiliates), and then with what type and amounts of weaponry. I guess we'll find out.

Is this the look of things to come in Syria?

Now Egypt has shut down official diplomatic contacts with Bashar al-Assad. As a CBS news article yesterday noted, "Egypt's Islamist president announced Saturday that he was cutting off diplomatic relations with Syria and closing Damascus' embassy in Cairo, decisions made amid growing calls from hard-line Sunni clerics in Egypt and elsewhere to launch a "holy war" against Syria's embattled regime.

Mohammed Morsi told thousands of supporters at a rally in Cairo that his government was also withdrawing the Egyptian charge d'affaires from Damascus. He called on Lebanon's Hezbollah to leave Syria, where the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group has been fighting alongside troops loyal to embattled President Bashar Assad against the mostly Sunni rebels. "Hezbollah must leave Syria. This is serious talk: There is no business or place for Hezbollah in Syria," said Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president."

Egypt's leader Morsi is being called a co-conspirator with the US and Israel, of all things, by Syria. He has openly called for a no-fly zone in Syria to protect rebel held areas.

As mentioned in the CBS quote, Sunni clerics started issuing calls for jihad last week against Assad and his new supporter, Hezbollah. And with those calls, the division between the two main Islamic streams of doctrine are becoming more apparent and strident.

Sunni Muslims are by far the largest of the two groupings. The division stems from a dispute after the death of the Prophet Mohammed over who would next guide the Muslim faith. Iran's Shia revolution in 1979 increased the tensions between the two groups as well, leading to a quiet but serious rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran.

Just to be clear - there are plenty of terrorist/extremists groups in both camps. The Sunni perspective has the clear lead with al-Qaeda (and all its affiliates across North Africa), the Taliban, Chechnyan groups, and Hamas. The Shia have their own, on the other hand, in the form of Hezbollah.

Headgear and clothing. Sunnis wear kerchiefs ...

Shiites prefer turbans ...

And in both divisions, the closer or purer (or more extreme) perspectives of Islam become in regard to women, they "get" to dress like this.

The latest outrage from Sunni extremist attacks on women occurred in the past two days in Quetta, Pakistan, where a bomb on a bus killed 14 female students and injured 22, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi militants attacked a hospital treating survivors, where they killed another 11 people. Educated women are apparently a huge threat and offense to these extremists. But control of women's activities and clothing extend throughout the faith - honor killings, voting restrictions, and even limits driving are in evidence everywhere.

At the moment, we have Shia Iran supporting Shia Assad, with the help of Shia Hezbollah. The Sunni Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar have been quietly but actively supporting the Sunni-dominated Syrian rebels - in which the more extremist forms are in the ascendancy.

Iraq is becoming fragile as Sunni extremists are blowing up Shia civilians with increasing intensity, Sunni Jordan and Turkey are trying to maintain low profiles, and now we have the most populous Arab nation - Egypt - headed by a reasonably militant group itself, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, putting pressure on Assad.

US President George W. Bush's war in Iraq has been loudly and repeatedly condemned on a number of metrics. The deaths in that nation from 2003 to 2011 (from US invasion to withdrawal)have pretty well been pegged at 120-160 thousand. Yet in just over two years, Syria's conflict is approaching 100,000 deaths by all accounts, and chemical weapons have been clearly used.

And this war is still on the front end of a rising trajectory ...

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Meanwhile, rains in Central Europe cause rivers to rise ...

Rains in Central Europe, flooding along major rivers in Germany, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. Not earthshaking, though damaging and some loss of life.

We'll skip the surprising unrest in Turkey, the slaughter in Syria, the tensions in Lebanon, the deadly anger of Hezbollah, the continued US drone strikes in Pakistan, the spat between Sudan and South Sudan (again), and just show some pictures of what excess water does.

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This BBC map shows where heavy rains and resultant flooding has occurred. 15 dead and lots of damage ...

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The UK Daily Telegraph shows this aerial view of the Danube north of Budapest, Hungary.

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Time Magazine has a "nice" selection of photos of water outside the lines. This one is from the old town of Meissen, Germany.

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The statute seems surprised ... and offended.

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The statue of world harmony leader Sri Chinmoy has become part of the Vltava river in Prague Credit: REUTERS/David W Cerny

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A penguin in the Prague zoo, safe for now.

The crests of the floods make their way along the rivers, and will eventually subside, but a mess remains ...

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Hezbollah commits troops, Assad position firms

The Syrian civil war spread this past week with the public introduction of several thousand hardened Hezbollah fighters into the city of Qusayr in western Syria. The fighting in this city - which is by all reports a strategic junction for both sides - has left the infrastructure in ruins, the population cowered or scattered, and has sown the seeds for wider involvement.

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Qusayr, Syria

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The city is important to the Syrian rebels as it is a weapons route into Syria from their Lebanese supporters. At the same time, the city's location is important to President Assad's forces, as it sits on the way from the capital Damascus to his Alewite tribal stronghold in Western Syria, as well as to Syria's two Mediterranean ports.

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Syria's strongman, Bashar al-Assad, is a member of the Alewite tribe, an offshoot of the larger Shiite religious schism. His ethnic group provides core loyalty within the armed forces.

Describing the daily blow-by-blows of the path of this conflict seems pointless (and dark), however, the position of Syrian President Assad had apparently weakened so much in the past month that Hezbollah (with the blessing of its Iranian sugar daddy) felt it necessary to intervene directly and openly.

Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, openly vows victory in Syria...

... so now the coffins and burials back in Lebanon of Hezbollah fighters killed in Syrian fighting will add fuel to the fires

Summary -

* Injection of thousands of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon into the Syrian civil war. In retaliation, rockets are already being fired back into Lebanon, and the pot is being stirred by Sunni groups in Lebanon that support the Syrian rebels.

* Assad's position, bolstered by the open support of Hezbollah, has been strengthened at least temporarily, as Syrian rebels have begun reinforcing their own force levels in the Qusayr fight. At the same time, there are increasing reports of Assad's more than incidental use of chemical weapons. Over a month ago, use of chemical weapons was a red line that would prompt a "recalculation" of the US position. Apparently, isolated usage was tested by Assad, no one chose to officially take note, so his usage may be growing. Along with up-tempo Russian weapon shipments, these three factors have added to Assad's current uptick in advantage. ("Syria: French journalists catalogue extensive use of chemical weapons" May 27, UK Telegraph)

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This map provided by the BBC shows the extent of control by Syrian anti-Assad forces, and those of President Assad.

* Meanwhile, Sunni extremist groups in Iraq are roiling that country. The UN reports that over 1000 mainly civilians died in May alone from car bombs, etc. There are reports that al Qaeda in Iraq and in Syria have strengthened their own connections and may be trying to carve out their own new territory in power vacuums brought about by the Syrian conflict.

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Cleanup of a car bomb in Iraq. Fears are growing that government efforts to contain the most recent surge in sectarian violence are not sufficient

* As mentioned, Russia is declaring further shipments of advanced weaponry to Syria's Assad, even as the EU has ended its arms embargo to Syria, opening the possibility of more weapons headed to the Syrian rebels (already being armed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States).

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Weapons flow from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States into Turkey from where they are smuggled south into Syria. Iran supplies aid directly to Syria's Assad, crossing Iraqi airspace. The US wants Iraq to stop Iranian flights over the country, but Iraq's Shiite government does not consider it a high priority.

* Let's not forget Turkey. Last week, according to a Washington Times report, "Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said ... that Hezbollah, or “Party of God” in Arabic, should change its name to “Party of Satan,” blaming the terrorist organization for killing thousands of civilians in Syria. ... Bozdag made the remarks on Sunday at an international symposium in Ankara, titled “Problems of the Islamic World and Solutions,” Today’s Zaman reports." So much for the carefully measured words of diplomacy (while on the Syrian street, "Hezbshaytaan" is becoming part of the mainstream Arab Sunni lexicon - notes Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence blog). 

The conflict is spreading, not being contained. And Israel is watching closely.