While you were watching the Olympics…

The Iconic Image of the Event: Celebrating brilliance is one thing, forgetting the rest of the world is a mistake. © The Guardian

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for celebrating British achievement and the fact that the Olympics weren’t the fiasco everyone was expecting them to be. The Olympics have been here, there and everywhere these past two weeks as people from all over the country have taken leave of their prejudices, their differences (and sometimes their senses) to come together and stick to their televisions for up to eight hours a day.

However in all this ‘We are #teamGB’ we have seemed to forget that a real world exists outside the shiny, happy wall to wall coverage of attractive, athletic types winning Gold medals.

For instance, a twelve year old girl, Tia Sharp, disappeared from her home in Croydon last Friday and her body was discovered the following week in her grandmother’s house. Her grandmother and two men have been arrested on suspicion of her murder.

On a national level, David Cameron has abandoned plans to reform the House of the Lords and pave way for the major reform promise of all three major parties at the last election out of fear for back bench rebellion angering his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats into threatening the stability of the coalition by rebelling over boundary reform.

Across the pond, Republican presumptive nominee Mitt Romney announced his running mate for the American Presidential election in November, a pro-life, economic liberal called Paul Ryan who has been branded as an ‘extremist ideologue’ by the Obama camp with a budget plan that supposedly only benefits billionaires. Romney also used the opportunity to add another gaffe to his collection by calling Ryan the ‘future President of the United States’.

In other world news, Syrian rebels have been promised an increase in ‘non-lethal’ aid by British foreign secretary William Hague despite being accused of human rights abuses by Human Rights Watch as the civil war moves into the second city, Aleppo.

In another part of the world recently touched by the Arab Spring, Egypt’s President Mohammed Mursi has ordered the retirement of the country’s powerful head of the armed forces, Field Marshal Mohamad Hussein Tantawi. This has widely been seen as a strike against the narrow limits imposed by the Generals during the election. He has also announced a constitutional declaration to curb Presidential power has been shelved.

Finally, there was a massive earthquake in the north west of Iran and about 250 people have died with over 2000 people being injured and homes and villages flatten. The relief effort is now on to get people into adequate shelter before the onset of winter. Casualty figures are expected to rise as hospitals are struggling to cope with the influx of patients.

Iranians mourn over the covered bodies of loved ones in the village Baje-Baj, near the town of Varzaqan, © ATTA KENARE/AFP/GettyImages/Sky News

I’m not saying the Olympics isn’t important. I am not saying I wasn’t cheering on Mo Farah like everyone else but I can’t say it made me any prouder to be British (or from Yorkshire). There are individuals who have succeeded and I will cheer them on but I don’t feel they really represent me; the girl who disliked sport at school and loathed her self-aggrandising PE teachers even more. I was however proud to be an alumi of the University of Birmingham when Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake (possibly my two favourite athletes ever) praised ‘Birmingham People’ for doing such a good job hosting them before the games started because of my personal attachment to the place and the people in it.

The overwrought and overstated emotion attached to these games is misplaced. A video montage detailing Tom Daley rise to promience ahead of the diving final yesterday treated him like he was poised to pull a sword out of a stone, not get a bronze in the diving. Why is this necessary? Ultimately all sport is just a game and it will be played over and over again. It makes the individuals money and it makes many others happy but it doesn’t change the world and it certainly won’t change London.

Yes its great that this country has so many talented young people, yes its great that they can excel, but that doesn’t make the other citizens any less obese, any richer and it certainly doesn’t make Britain more ‘great’. We are still a fading world power that is so riven with internal division that we can’t get the other 90% of young people who weren’t blessed with athletic ability out of the dole queue.

The Olympics won’t change us. We may be united on Twitter and in front of the television now but how long will this last? I give it until Wednesday until we’re all bickering again. What has the Olympic said about us? We can make the trains run (sort of) on time for two weeks of the year? Some of us run fast?

I’m not saying the Olympics shouldn’t be on television, I’m not saying it shouldn’t be celebrated. However ultimately its just a sporting tournament that happens every four years and given London has hosted it more often than any other city on Earth and is full of tourists all year round anyway I think its probably time the Tube got a rest.

We can dangle the gold medals in front of faces to distract ourselves all we like but the real world isn’t going away. Young girls are still getting murdered, Middle Eastern dictators are still waging war on their own country and their citizens are committing atrocities in retaliation. Natural disasters  will still kill more innocent people .

By all means, celebrate tonight and go back to hating each other in the morning. I have no problem with the Olympics being front page news, it just shouldn’t be the only news. I know its a miserable thing to say but the real world isn’t going away just because we want it too.

A Review of the Year: Latin America in 2011

Latin America

Latin America’s 2011 is dominated by drug abuse, conspiracy and power politics as the drug cartels increase their stranglehold on the Central American supply routes in North America leaving a trail of blood and destruction in their wake, cultural clashes between the rich and the poor, the majority and the minority and politics gets a shake up from democratic and non-democratic sources shaking up the received wisdom about Latin American political elites.

The War on Drugs: The US government’s funding of the ‘Merida Initiative’ launched in 2007 to provide financial backing to police forces in Central America to crush the drug cartels operating in the area, drew fresh criticism in a peaceful march from the border city of Ciudad Juarez to a rally in El Paso, Texas to highlight the thousands of Latin America lives already lost. Javier Sicilia, a Mexican poet who led the march said ‘Americans have to realise that behind every puff of pot, every line of coke, there is death, there are shattered families’ and the UN published a report in the same month concluding that the ‘war on drugs’ had failed as battling dug cartels in one area simply means they move to another. Whilst the USA continues its ‘Just Say No’ policies, Central America is increasingly being overrun by criminal gangs who infiltrate politics, the police force and the judiciary. They also silence journalists through fear and intimidation, Reporters Without Borders calls Central America one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist.

Political Shake-up In Peru: Every now and then, power politics in Latin America will surprise you. Normally when the son or daughter of a previous president runs for office, they will get it no matter whether or not their father was indicted for corruption. Sucession is seemingly just the done thing a lot of the time. However this year that theory backfired for Keiko Fujimori after she narrowly lost the Peruvian presidential election to Ollanta Humala, the former army office who attempted a coup to throw her father Alberto out of office in the first place. What was not so new was Humala’s position as a populist, left-wing firebrand who promised the usual redistribution of wealth, an end to corruption and cronyism and an end to drug cartel influence in Peru. After he was sworn in this summer he began to his campaign to rid the police force of corrupt officers, forcing 30 out of 45 police generals in retirement in October. However critics say this was a tactical move to get rid of his enemies and stuff the force with his allies. Peru retains the highest perception of crime against its actual crime rate than in any other Latin American country, it is also the world’s second largest producer of cocaine after Colombia but its detection and eradication rates are much lower. Humala also invested in another 5000 troops to create what he claims will be a stable and reliable police force. However, he now faces a new challenge as he tries to meet the mining and gas interests in his country while still placating the thousands of protests against the projects which are swarming around Peru. He pushed through a law meaning companies have to consult local communities before developing and imposed a $3 billion mining tax but he is currently walking a tightrope between his countries interests and their finances.

Chavez’ Cancer Plot: Despite strenuous denials, Venezula’s Hugo Chavez finally announced what the world already guessed back in July; that the reason he was going to Cuba was to seek medical treatment for an unspecified form of cancer. This comes a huge setback to the leader who needs to be filled with his usual amount of energy to get through the upcoming election in 2012. Instead of putting this done to misfortune, Chavez publicly speculated whether it could have anything to do with US dislike for his socialist self-styled ‘revolutionary’ politics that are at odds with American foreign policy in the region. He claimed in December, whilst at pains to stress that it was not an accusation, that the USA may have engineered a plot to infect Latin America leaders with cancer in light of the news that Argentinian President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner will undergo treatment for thyroid cancer in January. He said he was not making an accusation but noted that the evidence that the USA infected over 2500 Guatemalans with STDs during medical experiments in the 1940s and warned Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador, to ‘be careful’.

Haiti’s Reconstruction: After the devastation of the Haiti earthquake in January 2010 there was an outpouring of aid and sympathy from the Western world as money and help was pledged to get Haiti back on its feet again. Already one of the world’s poorest countries, the small Caribbean island struggled to get back on its feet and the world’s news cameras drifted away to other disasters such as the Pakistan floods. A year later the cameras return to document what progress had been made and then promptly left again. The Haiti Reconstruction Fund has been set up by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the United Nations (UN) and the World Bank and other donors to provide aid indefinitely to finance Haiti’s reconstruction. There has been some progress but there are still 600,000 people living in tents in the capital, Port-Au-Prince. In September 2011, the UN announced they were scaling back the number of peacekeepers in the country. Reconstruction has been hampered by the lack of authentic land ownership documentation and it is proving impossible to determine who owns what. The new President, Michel Martelly, a popular singer, was sworn in March 2011 and he has vowed to reform agriculture, streamlining the delivery of humanitarian aid and restoring law and order by bringing back the military disbanded a decade ago over human rights abuses.

Brazil’s ‘pacification’ of its slums: The residents of a sprawling slum, Rocinha, in Rio de Janiero woke up to the sounds of seven helicopters, 24 armoured vehicles and at least 3000 police officers in the early hours of a Sunday morning in November as Brazilian authorities started clearing the city of drug lords in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics being held in the city. Police Special Operations Unit (BOPE) carried out the removal of approximately 10,000 people from the hillside slum home to some of the city’s poorest inhabitants but situated next to one of the country’s most luxurious beach resorts. The slum, Rio’s largest, is said to be its largest drug provider and the aim of the operation was to root out drug gangs as part of the wider operation that has already hunted down 18 drug gangs.

Chile Protests: Much like in the rest of the world, for Chile 2011 was a year of protest. The biggest movement of the year as been the ongoing Education Protest with its supposed leader, Camilla Vallejo, becoming an internationally lauded figure in a way a British student protester could only dream of. There has been little investment in public education since the fall of the Pinochet dictatorship in the early nineties, although university student numbers have swelled, private universities take most students. Due to public support for the movement, 72 to 81 per cent of Chileans polled in August said they supported their demands down to a still impressive two-thirds in November contrasted with failing approval ratings for President Sebastián Piñera down to 26-30 per cent, the government has been forced to make concessions by sacking their Education Minister (twice) and passing a bill that would end ‘for-profit’ education. So far one protester has been killed in violent clashes with hundreds of students being injured or arrested. The movement has inspired another, more peaceful protests from other disenfranchised groups in Chilean society.

Drug Policy At The Heart of Peru’s Left Wing Political Shake Up

Ollanta Humala Promised To Tackle Poverty And Corruption During His Election Campaign. Courtesy of Associated Press/Nytimes

Much like every European or North American leader claims to have a magic salve to fix the deficit, every Latin American leader promises to fight corruption. Some have no intention of doing so, some do but are swept up into the system they tried to destroy but some surprise you.

When left-wing Ollanta Humala was swept into power at the beginning of June he, like every other democratically elected President before him, promised to fight poverty and social exclusion by tackling the lingering corruption and cronyism endemic in the Peruvian political and justice systems.

A former army officer who staged a short-lived rebellion against President Alberto Fujimori (who is currently in prison for embezzlement and bribery as well as being the father of Humala’s rival in the election, Keiko Fujimori), many were worried that in power he would follow the interventionist policies of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, especially after his previous election campaign in 2006 where he campaigned for a ‘socialist revolution’. The stock exchange in Lima, the capital, fell 10 per cent on the result.

Humala’s record seemed that he would become a leftist firebrand but previous experience more often than not would indicate that he would go the way of his predecessors and begin to prop up the existing system he campaigned against.

His move to force 30 of the country’s 45 police generals into early retirement last week seems to show he’s going to keep up his interventionist, radical ways. He wants to tackle what he sees as corruption in the police force which helps Peru’s illegal drugs trade to flourish. Peru is one of the world’s largest cocaine producers. One of the chiefs removed was General Raul Becerra who was head of Peru’s anti drugs division, Dirandro.
Continue reading Drug Policy At The Heart of Peru’s Left Wing Political Shake Up

Chile Protests Columbus Day

A Protester in Traditional Mapuche Dress- Many were dressed in traditional costumes and carried Mapuche flags. Courtesy of BBC Online
‘How do I define history? It’s just one fuckin’ thing after another.’ Rudge said famously in one of my favourite movies, the classic History Boys in 2006.

People don’t always realise how important history can be in certain parts of the world and how, even over 500 years later, the wounds of the past can still affect the people of today.

Take the discovery of the West Indies by Christopher Columbus in 1492. For millions his discovery is the start of what would eventually be their home countries but for many its the start of when their homeland got destroyed.

Yesterday marked the 519th anniversary of when Columbus made landfall on 12th October 1492 and to mark this there have been celebrations all over the Americas. The day has been celebrated under various different names across the landmass for centuries despite only becoming a national holiday in the 20th century. However, for the Mapuche people of Chile it is seen as a day of mourning. Continue reading Chile Protests Columbus Day

Have We Lost The War on Drugs?

Courtesy of BBC News Online/Reuters

A ‘peace caravan’ that has been winding through Mexico cross over the border last week to attend a rally in El Paso, Texas to criticise the United States’ Drug Policy and its effect on Central America.

The USA’s ‘War on Drugs’ has a long history, its first use was by President Nixon in 1971 as a hardline reaction to a report on Vietnam War which suggested that 10-15% of troops were addicted to heroin. It has undergone many different guises through harsh punishment of convicted drug users to the patronising ‘Just Say No’ campaign launched by Nancy Reagan in the late eighties and early nineties. However, the current ‘Merida Initiative’ launched in 2007 and led by the US along with Mexico, Central America, Haiti and the Dominican Republic is fiercely condemned by critics as it has led to an exponential rise in the level of violent crime and instability across Central America.

The aim of the $400m scheme is to eradicate the illegal smuggling of drugs such as cannabis and cocaine through Mexico with the agreement and support of Mexican President, Felipe Calderón. So far it seems however, all the scheme has done is push the trade southward into the harder to govern countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala as well as cost the lives of thousands of people (an estimated 35,000 have died since Calderón deployed the army to the streets in 2006).

The caravan, led by poet Javier Sicilia whose grandson was killed in the violence, crisscrossed Mexico in a 1550 mile journey with a retinue of 20 coaches arriving at the border city of Ciudad Juarez, which has become the frontline of the drugs war with 3100 deaths alone in 2010, on Friday 10th June before crossing the border into Texas on Saturday.

At the rally in El Paso, Mr Sicilia claimed that the US government had ‘a grave responsibility for failing to tackle the drugs crisis’ and partially blamed American drug takers.

Stephen Muller's Graph Comparing The Death Rate in the Iraq War to the Drugs War

He said ‘Americans have to realise that behind every puff of pot, every line of coke, there is death, there are shattered families’.

This month, a UN Global Commission on Drugs Policy published a report declaring that the ‘The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.’

The War on Drugs is designed as a relentless battering of the drugs cartels that operate across Mexico and its southern neighbours. In some ways it has been successful as it drove the drug smugglers out of Florida and the Caribbean ten or so years ago but instead of eradicating them completely, they have simply moved base to Mexico.

The Commission called for a more complex drugs policy based on education, prevention and understanding instead of the current battering ram approach. The USA’s policy on tackling drug abuse within their borders is no more sophisticated than an IT technician whose idea of fixing a computer is repeatedly kicking the hardrive.

Parallels between the current drug prohibition policies and the 18th Amendment passed against alcohol in 1919 have not gone unnoticed by the world’s media. The Act was inspired by the efforts of the Temperance Movements that sprang up at the end of the nineteenth century to cure what they thought was a moral depravity throughout America. However despite widespread seizures of liquor and an initial decline in the level of alcohol consumption, by 1929 there were more ‘speakeasies’ than there had been saloons in 1918. In New York City alone, they had between 30,000 and 100,000 speakeasies by 1925. It also led to an almost uncontrollable rise in gang control, particularly in Chicago. Breweries in Mexico and Canada and the other border countries flourished as gang leaders like Al Capone controlled thousands of speakeasies and a bootleg operation from Canada to Florida.

This is why their current approach will never work. It’s a guerrilla war that cannot be won by bloodletting. Similarly the ‘Just Say No’ campaign would never work either. True, the figures of teenagers taking soft drugs did fall but was this due to greater education rather than teenagers suddenly blindly following what the First Lady says. You cannot tell a person what to do, especially with something that is fundamentally their choice, without explaining why they should do it.

The answer to solving the drugs crisis coming from solving the problems within America rather than hammering the supply routes on its borders. Instead of exacerbating the problems of other countries it should face up to its own. There has been a lot of argument about legalising the use of drugs in America and whether this would lead to more or less dependency. An argument for legalisation of ‘softer drugs’ would be the downgrading of Cannabis from a class B to a class C drug in Britain in 2004 led to a fall in consumption despite the reclassification in 2009. On the other hand, against it is the legalisation of personal drug use in Portugal which has no led to any decline in consumption.

However, this is perhaps because the legislation does not go far enough; economists like Milton Friedman, George Akerlof and Vernon L.Smith suggest that the supply of marijuana without reducing the demand causes the price, and hence the profits of marijuana. Therefore it does nothing to stem the flow of narcotics across the border. Legalising the drugs trade is a controversial one even amongst the most liberal groups in America and it is not going to solve the problems of drug dependency over night but it should alleviate the suffering of Central America which doesn’t deserve to take all the backlash of American domestic policy.

Furthermore, Jeffrey A. Miron estimated in a 2008 study that legalising drugs would inject $76.8 billion in America’s indebted economy; $44.1 billion from law enforcement savings and $32.7 billion in tax revenue. Now these figures do seem a little generous but it is worth noting the bankrupt California’s illegal marijuana trade generates $1 billion a year.

Maybe, its time America admitted defeat. It cannot control the domestic habits of its citizens so instead of laying down the harsh hand of the law they should educate and inform their citizens to take better care of themselves.