By MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY
September 29, 2006
"Corruption is a regular effect of interventionism."
-- Ludwig von Mises
"Human Action," 1949
As Brazilians go to the polls on Sunday to elect a president for the next four years, most pundits are hedging their bets as to whether Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva of the Workers' Party (PT) can win re-election in the first round of voting.
A serious allegation of fraud inside the Lula campaign has become the main issue in the race over the past two weeks. Added to a host of other corruption charges implicating PT members close to the president in the past year, this latest scandal has the potential to force a run-off.
Lula may well be innocent, as he claims, of any involvement in the plethora of scandals now swirling around his party. But it is also true that if corruption has blind-sided him, he has only his own politics to blame. It has been the life work of Brazilian socialists -- of which the PT are among the most hardcore -- to empower the state, without limits, as an enforcer of "social justice" through the wholesome work of politicians and bureaucrats. Now they are reaping what they've sowed: a system that breeds corruption by its very nature, as von Mises warned more than a half-century ago.
The odds of a run-off remain slim. On Wednesday polling companies Datafolha and IBOPE released polls that suggest, after statistically adjusting for nullified ballots, that Lula will finish with 53% of the vote versus 35% for his next closest challenger, the two-term governor of São Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin. Yet with mud from scandal splashing higher every day, Alckmin supporters are holding onto the hope that Lula will fall short of the 50% plus one needed to avoid a second round.
Even then, an incumbent victory is fully expected. Lula is a charismatic populist who, in his first term, had enough common sense to avoid messing with the macroeconomic stability he inherited from predecessor Fernando Henrique Cardoso. He has also raised the minimum wage and expanded the welfare rolls to solidify his base. Brazil's majority poor heavily favor him.
Yet real damage may have been done to his second term. Even if he wins in the first round, the hard-left PT is expected to lose seats in the congress; if that happens, Lula will likely have to give up cabinet posts to coalition allies. While the PT is not the only party in Brasilia tarnished by charges of gross dishonesty, in recent years it seems to have elevated to an art form sophisticated practices of vote buying in congress, kickbacks on government procurement and, most recently, a fraudulent plan to commission and purchase a fake report designed to frame a political rival.
Brazilian disgust with the political class is widespread these days, but one wonders whether the more profound lesson is being learned. Long before von Mises wrote his masterpiece "Human Action," Founding Father James Madison warned that governments without limits are bound to become abusive. "All men having power ought to be mistrusted," he wrote. "If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."
Brazil's runaway corruption is not due to an unusual collection of greedy politicians in Brasilia. Indeed, it is likely that Brazilian politicians, like their American counterparts, fit well within the bell curve when it comes to human frailty. The trouble is that under the 1988 constitution, mere mortals are trusted to behave like angels.
The constitutional project began in 1987 with good intentions. Fundamentally, it was an attempt to right the wrongs of the military government by securing democracy. But when socialist ideologues piled into a room with an untold number of narrow special interests, the outcome was a roadmap to tyranny, no longer with guns but with the "law." As Mr. Cardoso recalled in his memoir, "Brazil was trying to create a welfare state at the precise moment in history when the welfare states of Europe were collapsing."
Slow economic growth and corruption are but two offspring of the monster government in Brasilia that has badly damaged Lula's legacy. Von Mises predicted it: "The advocates of interventionism pretend to substitute for the -- as they assert, 'socially' detrimental -- effects of private property and vested interests the unlimited discretion of the perfectly wise and disinterested legislator and his conscientious and indefatigable servants, the bureaucrats." In the world of the anticapitalists, he explained, "only those on the government's payroll are rated as unselfish and noble."
Von Mises anticipated the outcome: "Unfortunately the office-holders and their staffs are not angelic. They learn very soon that their decisions mean for the businessmen either considerable losses, or -- sometimes -- considerable gains." In other words, buying influence is normal when influence has a cash value. This is what one Brazilian family did when it allegedly paid kickbacks to politicians who helped it secure contracts for medical equipment.
Such simple observations from classical thinkers have been routinely dismissed as "ideological" by both Latin American socialists and fascists -- that is, by the left and right. Yet the wisdom has proven timeless and universal, and there is no shortage of oppressed citizens who can attest to its veracity. At a World Bank panel to discuss corruption last week, Dele Olojede (an award-winning journalist from Nigeria) had this to say about the problem: "We should recognize that in societies where the bureaucracy is vast, the press is weak, the private sector operates under the yolk of government, these are the clearest indications of corrupt societies, and you cannot begin to fight corruption if you have all powerful government in any society."
Whether or not the equality of outcomes sought by the Brazilian Constitution is morally defensible, experience shows that the power required by the state to achieve it produces highly undesirable consequences. Despite all of socialism's moralizing, when those clamoring for justice make their way to the seat of unchecked power, a portion of them turn out to be no better than their predecessors. Do-gooders too have clay feet. It is a lesson Brazil is learning the hard way.
Saturday, September 30, 2006
By MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY
Posted by Ramiro at 1:15 PM
Friday, September 29, 2006
By ROGER SCRUTON
Noam Chomsky's popularity owes little or nothing to the eminent place that he occupies in the world of ideas. That place was won many years ago in the science of linguistics, and no expert in the subject would, I think, dispute Prof. Chomsky's title to it.
He swept away at a stroke the attempts of Ferdinand de Saussure and his followers to identify meaning through the surface structure of signs, as well as the belief, once prevalent among animal ethologists, that language could be acquired by making piecemeal connections between symbols and things. He argued that language is an all-or-nothing affair, that we are equipped by evolution with the categories needed to acquire it, and that these categories govern the "deep structure" of our discourse, no matter what language we learn. Sentences emerge by the repeated operations of a "transformational grammar" that translates deep structure into surface sequences: As a result, all of us are able to understand indefinitely many sentences, just as soon as we have acquired the basic linguistic competence. Language skills are essentially creative, and the infinite reach of our understanding also betokens an infinite reach in what we can mean.
Although some of those ideas had been foreseen by the pioneers of modern logic, Prof. Chomsky develops them with an imaginative flair that is entirely his own. He has the true scientist's ability to translate abstract theory into concrete observation, and to discover intellectual problems where others see only ordinary facts. "Has," I say, but perhaps "had" would be more accurate. For Prof. Chomsky long ago cast off his academic gown and donned the mantle of the prophet. For several decades now he has been devoting his energies to denouncing his native country, usually before packed halls of fans who couldn't care a fig about the theory of syntax. And many of his public appearances are in America: the only country in the whole world that rewards those who denounce it with the honors and opportunities that make denouncing it into a rewarding way of life. It is proof of Prof. Chomsky's success that his diatribes are distributed by his American publishers around the world, so as to end up in the hands of America's critics everywhere -- Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez included.
To his supporters Noam Chomsky is a brave and outspoken champion of the oppressed against a corrupt and criminal political class. But to his opponents he is a self-important ranter whose one-sided vision of politics is chosen for its ability to shine a spotlight on himself. And it is surely undeniable that his habit of excusing or passing over the faults of America's enemies, in order to pin all crime on his native country, suggests that he has invested more in his posture of accusation than he has invested in the truth.
To describe this posture as "adolescent" is perhaps unfair: After all, there are plenty of quite grown-up people who believe that American foreign policy since World War II has been founded on a mistaken conception of America's role in the world. And it is true that we all make mistakes -- so that Prof. Chomsky's erstwhile support for regimes that no one could endorse in retrospect, like that of Pol Pot, is no proof of wickedness. But then the mistakes of American foreign policy are no proof of wickedness either.
This is important. For it is his ability to excite not just contempt for American foreign policy but a lively sense that it is guided by some kind of criminal conspiracy that provides the motive for Prof. Chomsky's unceasing diatribes and the explanation of his influence. The world is full of people who wish to think ill of America. And most of them would like to be Americans. The Middle East seethes with such people, and Prof. Chomsky appeals directly to their envious emotions, as well as to the resentments of leaders like President Chavez who cannot abide the sight of a freedom that they haven't the faintest idea how to produce or the least real desire to emulate.
Success breeds resentment, and resentment that has no safety valve becomes a desire to destroy. The proof of that was offered on 9/11 and by just about every utterance that has emerged from the Islamists since. But Americans don't want to believe it. They trust others to take the kind of pleasure in American success that they, in turn, take in the success of others. But this pleasure in others' success, which is the great virtue of America, is not to be witnessed in those who denounce her. They hate America not for her faults, but for her virtues, which cast a humiliating light on those who cannot adapt to the modern world or take advantage of its achievements.
Prof. Chomsky is an intelligent man. Not everything he says by way of criticizing his country is wrong. However, he is not valued for his truths but for his rage, which stokes the rage of his admirers. He feeds the self-righteousness of America's enemies, who feed the self-righteousness of Prof. Chomsky. And in the ensuing blaze everything is sacrificed, including the constructive criticism that America so much needs, and that America -- unlike its enemies, Prof. Chomsky included -- is prepared to listen to.
Mr. Scruton, a British writer and philosopher, is the author of "Gentle Regrets" (Continuum).
Posted by Ramiro at 1:00 PM
Thursday, September 28, 2006
If there were no Iraq war, extremists would just find another rallying cry.
September 28, 2006
OF COURSE the war in Iraq has made us less safe, and I didn't need the National Intelligence Estimate to tell me so. Who could possibly deny that Iraq has become, in the words of the NIE, a "cause celebre" for jihadists? One need only read the newspaper to conclude that Iraq is spawning more terrorists. (Indeed, one fears that all the authors of the NIE did was clip from the newspapers).
If you've ever stood up to a bully, you know how this works. Confrontation tends to increase the chances of violence in the short term but decreases its likelihood in the long term. Any hunter will tell you that the most dangerous moment is when you've cornered an animal, and any cop will tell you that standing up to muggers puts you in danger. American colonists were less safe for standing up to King George III, and the United States was certainly safer in the short term when we stood on the sidelines while Germany was conquering Europe. Heck, we would have been safer in the short run if we'd responded to Pearl Harbor by telling the Japanese they could have the Pacific to themselves.
After 9/11, there were voices on the left warning that an attack on Afghanistan would only perpetuate the dreaded "cycle of violence." Today, Democrats tout their support of that "good" war as proof they aren't soft on terrorism. Fair enough, I suppose. But guess what? That war made us less safe too — if the measure of such things is "creating more terrorists." A Gallup poll taken in nine Muslim nations in February 2002 found that more than three-fourths of respondents considered the liberation of Afghanistan unjustifiable. A mere 9% supported U.S. actions. That goes for famously moderate Turkey, where opposition to the U.S. ran three to one, and in Pakistan, where a mere one in 20 respondents took the American side.
In other words, before Iraq became the cause celebre of jihadists, Afghanistan was. Does that mean we shouldn't have toppled the Taliban?
Going back further, it's conventional wisdom that we helped "create" Osama bin Laden, or his Taliban and mujahedin comrades, when we supported the Afghan resistance to the Soviet Union. So we shouldn't have done that either?
Every serious analysis of the Islamic world today describes a genuine tectonic shift in a vast civilization, an upheaval that cuts across social, religious and demographic lines. This phenomenon dwarfs transient issues such as the Iraq war. Are we to believe that once-moderate and relatively secular Morocco is slipping toward extremism because we toppled Baathist Saddam Hussein? Do we believe that those mobs who burned Danish embassies in response to a cartoon wouldn't have done so if only President Bush had gone for the 18th, 19th or 20th U.N. resolution on Iraq? Millions of young men yearning for meaning and craving outlets for their rage would have become computer programmers and dental hygienists if only Hussein's statue still towered over central Baghdad? Would the pope's comments spark nothing but thoughtful and high-minded debate from the Arab street if only Al Gore or John Kerry were in office?
Iraq is the excuse du jour for jihadists. But the important factor is that these are young men looking for an excuse. If you live your life calculating that it's a mistake to do anything that might prompt murderers and savages to act like murderers and savages, you've basically decided to live under their thumb and surrender your civilization in the process.
For me, the truly dismaying news this week didn't come from the NIE but from the German media. A German opera house announced that it would cancel its staging of Mozart's "Idomeneo" because Berlin police concluded that staging the opera — which includes a scene in which Jesus, Buddha, Poseidon and Muhammad are beheaded — would pose an "incalculable security risk" from jihadists. Germany, recall, proudly opposed the Iraq war — but still narrowly missed a Spain-style terrorist attack on its rail system this summer.
A leading Muslim spokesman in Germany explained that he was all for free speech, as long as it didn't offend Muslims. The Germans' all-too-typical appeasement of terrorism no doubt makes them "safer" and "creates" fewer terrorists.
And all it cost them — for now — is Mozart.
Posted by Ramiro at 11:48 PM
Despair in Once-Proud Argentina
After Economic Collapse, Deep Poverty Makes Dignity a Casualty
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 6, 2002
ROSARIO, Argentina -- Word spread fast through the vast urban slums ringing Rosario. There was food on the freeway -- and it was still alive.
A cattle truck had overturned near this rusting industrial city, spilling 22 head of prime Angus beef across the wind-swept highway. Some were dead. Most were injured. A few were fine.
A mob moved out from Las Flores, a shantytown of trash heaps and metal shacks boiling over with refugees from the financial collapse of what was once Latin America's wealthiest nation. Within minutes, 600 hungry residents arrived on the scene, wielding machetes and carving knives. Suddenly, according to accounts from some of those present on that March day, a cry went up.
"Kill the cows!" someone yelled. "Take what you can!"
Cattle company workers attempting a salvage operation backed off. And the slaughter began. The scent of blood, death and fresh meat filled the highway. Cows bellowed as they were sloppily diced by groups of men, women and children. Fights broke out for pieces of flesh in bloody tugs of war.
"I looked around at people dragging off cow legs, heads and organs, and I couldn't believe my eyes," said Alberto Banrel, 43, who worked on construction jobs until last January, when the bottom fell out of the economy after Argentina suffered the world's largest debt default ever and a massive currency devaluation.
"And yet there I was, with my own bloody knife and piece of meat," Banrel said. "I felt like we had become a pack of wild animals . . . like piranhas on the Discovery Channel. Our situation has turned us into this."
The desolation of that day, neighbor vs. neighbor over hunks of meat, suggested how profoundly the collapse has altered Argentina. Traditionally proud, Argentines have begun to despair. Talk today is of vanished dignity, of a nation diminished in ways not previously imaginable.
Argentines have a legacy of chaos and division. In search of their "workers' paradise," Juan and Eva Peron declared war on the rich. During the "dirty war" of the 1970s, military rulers arrested tens of thousands of people, 15,000 of whom never resurfaced. And when then-President Carlos Menem touted New Capitalism in the 1990s, the rich got richer -- many illegally -- while the poor got poorer.
Yet some things here never really changed. Until last year, Argentines were part of the richest, best-educated and most cultured nation in Latin America. Luciano Pavarotti still performed at the Teatro Colon. Buenos Aires cafe society thrived, with intellectuals debating passages from Jorge Luis Borges over croissants and espresso. The poor here lived with more dignity than their equals anywhere else in the region. Argentina was, as the Argentines liked to say, very civilized.
Beatriz Orresta, 20, holds her malnourished son, in Rio Chico. She had been feeding her children soup made with the dried bones of a dead cow her husband had found. (Silvina Frydlewsky for The Post)
Argentines have watched, horrified, as the meltdown dissolved more than their pocketbooks. Even the rich have been affected in their own way. The tragedy has struck hardest, however, among the middle class, the urban poor and the dirt farmers. Their parts of this once-proud society appear to have collapsed -- a cave-in so complete as to leave Argentines inhabiting a barely recognizable landscape.
With government statistics showing 11,200 people a day falling into poverty -- earning less than $3 daily -- Buenos Aires, a city once compared to Paris, has become the dominion of scavengers and thieves at night. Newly impoverished homeless people emerge from abandoned buildings and rail cars, rummaging through trash in declining middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. People from the disappearing middle class, such as Vicente Pitasi, 60 and jobless, have turned to pawn shops to sell their wedding rings.
"I have seen a lot happen in Argentina in my day, but I never lost hope until now," Pitasi said. "There is nothing left here, not even our pride."
Wages Fall, Prices Rise
Late last month, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Eva Peron's death, thieves swiped the head of a new statue of her. Nothing, really, is sacred here anymore. Ads by concerned citizens appear on television, asking Argentines to look inward at a culture of tax evasion, incivility and corruption. But nobody seems to be listening.
Food manufacturers and grocery stores are raising prices even as earning power has taken a historic tumble. A large factor in both the price rises and the slump in real wages is a 70 percent devaluation of the peso over the last six months. But the price of flour has soared 166 percent, canned tomatoes 118 percent -- even though both are local products that have had little real increases in production costs.
Severe hunger and malnutrition have emerged in the rural interior -- something almost never seen in a country famous for great slabs of beef and undulating fields of wheat. In search of someone to blame, Argentines have attacked the homes of local politicians and foreign banks. Many of the banks have installed steel walls and armed guards around branch offices, and replaced glass windows decorated with ads portraying happy clients from another era.
Economists and politicians differ on the causes of the brutal crisis. Some experts blame globalization and faulty policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund. But just as many blame the Argentine government for runaway spending and systematic corruption. The one thing everyone agrees on, however, is that there is no easy fix.
Statistically, it is easy to see why. Before 1999, when this country of 36 million inhabitants slipped into recession, Argentina's per capita income was $8,909 -- double Mexico's and three times that of Poland. Today, per capita income has sunk to $2,500, roughly on a par with Jamaica and Belarus.
The economy is projected to shrink by 15 percent this year, putting the decline at 21 percent since 1999. In the Great Depression years of 1930-33, the Argentine economy shrank by 14 percent.
What had been a snowball of poverty and unemployment has turned into an avalanche since January's default and devaluation. A record number of Argentines, more than half, live below the official poverty line. More than one in five no longer have jobs.
"We've had our highs and lows, but in statistical and human terms, this nation has never faced anything like this," said Artemio Lopez, an economist with Equis Research. "Our economic problems of the past pale to what we're going through now. It's like the nation is dissolving."
The Suffering Middle Class
Every Argentine, no matter the social class, has a crisis story. Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat, 80, one of the country's richest women, was forced to offer up paintings by Gauguin, Degas, Miro and Matisse at a Sotheby's auction in May. For many of Argentina's well-to-do, the sale was the ultimate humbler, a symbol of decline in international stature.
Those suffering most, however, are the ones who had less to begin with.
On the morning of her 59th birthday, Norma Gonzalez woke up in her middle-class Buenos Aires home, kissed her husband on the cheek and caught a bus to the bank. There, before a stunned teller, the portly redhead, known by her family and friends mostly for her fiery temper and homemade meat pies, doused herself with rubbing alcohol, lit a match and set herself ablaze.
That was in April. Today, Rodolfo Gonzalez, 61, her husband, keeps a daily vigil at the burn center where his wife is still receiving skin grafts on the 40 percent of her body that sustained third-degree burns. She had no previous record of mental illness, according to her family and doctors, and has spoken only once about that morning.
"She just looked up at me from her hospital bed and said, 'I felt so helpless, I just couldn't take it anymore,' " Gonzalez said. "I can't understand what she did. It just wasn't Norma. But I suppose I can understand what drove her to it. It's this country. We're all going crazy."
Argentina long had the largest middle class, proportionally, in Latin America, and one of the continent's most equitable distributions of wealth. Much of that changed over the last decade as millions of middle managers, salaried factory workers and state employees lost their jobs during the sell-off of state-run industries and the collapse of local companies flooded by cheap imports.
Initially, Rodolfo Gonzalez was one of the lucky ones. An engineer for the state power company, he survived the early rounds of layoffs in the early 1990s when the company was sold to a Spanish utility giant. His luck changed when the company forced him out in a round of early retirements in 2000.
He was 59 and had worked for the same company for 38 years. Yet he landed a part-time job, and with his severance pay safely in the bank, he and his wife thought they could bridge the gap until Gonzalez became eligible for social security in 2004.
Then came "El Corralito."
Literally translated, that means "the little corral." But there is nothing little about it. On Dec. 1, Domingo Cavallo, then the economy minister, froze bank accounts in an attempt to stem a flood of panicked depositors pulling out cash.
Most banks here are subsidiaries of major U.S. and European financial giants that arrived with promises of providing stability and safety to the local banking system. But many Argentines who did not get their money out in time -- more than 7 million, mostly middle-class depositors, did not -- faced a bitter reality: Their life savings in those institutions, despite names such as Citibank and BankBoston, were practically wiped out.
Virtually all had kept their savings in U.S. dollar-denominated accounts. But when the government devalued the peso, it gave troubled banks the right to convert those dollar deposits into pesos. So the Gonzalez family's $42,000 nest egg, now converted into pesos, is worth less than $11,600.
As the family had trouble covering basic costs, Norma Gonzalez would go to the bank almost every week to argue with tellers and demand to see a manager, who would never appear. As prices rose and the couple could not draw on their savings, their lifestyle suffered. First went shows in the Buenos Aires theater district and dinners on Saturday night with friends. Then, in March, they cut cable TV.
Around the same time, the Gonzalezes' daughter, Paula, 30, lost her convenience store. Separated and with two children, she turned to her parents for support.
The Gonzalezes had been planning for 18 months to take Norma's dream vacation, to Chicago to visit a childhood friend. After the trip was shelved as too expensive, she seemed to break.
"I can't explain it, and maybe I never will be able to," Rodolfo Gonzalez said. He added: "But maybe you can start to figure out why. You have to wonder: Is all this really happening? Are our politicians so corrupt? Are we now really so poor? Have the banks really stolen our money? And the answers are yes, yes, yes and yes."
Scavenging Urban Trash
"There is not enough trash to go around for everyone," said Banrel, one of the participants in the cattle massacre. Rail-thin, he normally passes his days combing the garbage-strewn roads around the Las Flores slums in Rosario, a city of 1.3 million residents 200 miles northwest of Buenos Aires and long known as "the Chicago of Argentina."
If Banrel finds enough discarded plastic bottles and aluminum cans -- about 300 -- he can make about $3 a day. But the pickings are slim because competition is fierce. The misery villages, as shantytowns such as Las Flores are called, are becoming overcrowded with the arrival of people fleeing desperate rural areas where starvation has set in. About 150 new families arrive each month, according to Roman Catholic Church authorities.
With more people in the slums, there are fewer plastic bottles to go around. Banrel said he was getting desperate that day when he joined the mob on the highway.
His family of three -- his wife is pregnant with their second child -- had been surviving on a bowl of watery soup and a piece of bread each day. He earned at least $40 to $60 a week last year working construction. With that gone, and with food getting more expensive, he said, "You can't miss an opportunity, not around here."
"Am I proud of what we did?" he added. "No, of course not. Would I do it again? Yes, of course. You start to live by different rules."
Reality of Rural Hunger
For some rural families, the crisis has gone further. It has generated something rarely seen in Argentina: hunger. In the province of Tucuman, an agricultural zone of 1.3 million people, health workers say cases of malnutrition have risen 20 percent to 30 percent over the previous year.
"I wish they would cry," whispered Beatriz Orresta, 20, looking at her two young sons in a depressed Tucuman sugar cane town in the shadow of the Andes. "I would feel much better if they cried."
Jonatan, 2, resting on the dirt floor behind the family's wooden shack, and Santiago, the 7-month-old she cradled in her arms, lay listlessly.
"They don't act it, but they're hungry. I know they are," she said.
Orresta can tell. Jonatan is lethargic. His lustrous brown hair has turned a sickly carrot color. Clumps of it sometimes fall out at night as Orresta strokes him to sleep. Santiago hardly seems to mind that Orresta, weak and malnourished herself, stopped lactating months ago. The infant, sucking on a bottle of boiled herbal tea, stares blankly with sunken eyes.
Six months ago, the boys were the loudest complainers when their regular meals stopped. Orresta's husband, Hector Ariel, 21, had his $100 monthly salary as a sugar cane cutter slashed almost in half when candy companies and other sugar manufacturers in the rural enclave of Rio Chico, 700 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, were stung by dried-up credit and a massive drop in national consumption.
Ariel now earns just over $1.50 a day, not enough for the family to survive. The peso's plunge has generated inflation of more than 33 percent during the first seven months of the year, more than double the government's projection for the entire year.
Goods not in high demand, such as new clothing, have not gone up significantly in price, but staples that families need for daily subsistence have doubled or tripled. The last time inflation hit Argentina -- in the late 1980s, when it rose to a high of 5,000 percent -- the unemployment rate was half the current 21.5 percent and most salaries were indexed to inflation. Today, there are no such safety nets.
"I could buy rice for 30 cents a kilo last year," Orresta said. "It's more than one peso 50 now."
"At least we will eat tonight, that's the important thing," she said, stirring an improvised soup.
The concoction, water mixed with the dried bones of a long-dead cow her husband found in an abandoned field, had been simmering for two days. The couple had not eaten in that time. It had been 24 hours since the children ate.
Orresta, like most mothers in her village, started trimming costs by returning to cloth diapers for her two young boys when the price of disposable ones doubled with inflation. But then she could no longer afford the soap to wash them, and resorted to reusing the same detergent four or five times. The children began to get leg rashes.
By late January, the family could no longer afford daily meals. A month later, Jonatan's hair began turning reddish and, later, falling out. Although he has just turned 2, Jonatan still cannot walk and has trouble focusing his eyes.
Orresta stopped lactating in April. But the price of powdered milk had almost tripled by then, from three pesos for an 800-gram box to more than eight pesos. At those prices, the family can afford 11 days of milk a month. The rest of the time, Santiago drinks boiled maté, a tea that also serves as an appetite suppressant.
"You know, we're not used to this, not having enough food," said Orresta, with a hint of embarrassment in her voice.
She paused, and began to weep.
"You can't know what it's like to see your children hungry and feel helpless to stop it," she said. "The food is there, in the grocery store, but you just can't afford to buy it anymore. My husband keeps working, but he keeps bringing home less and less. We never had much, but we always had food, no matter how bad things got. But these are not normal times."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company
Posted by Ramiro at 11:34 PM
September 28, 2006
Last week's announcement by Wal-Mart that it will offer many generic drugs for $4 is welcome news for American consumers. Strangely, however, this isn't winning Wal-Mart any applause from its left-wing critics.
Take Paul Blank, director of the union-funded Wake Up Wal-Mart, who declared that "Wal-Mart cruelly ignores the fact that it fails to provide company health care to over half of its employees. . . . The Wal-Mart health care crisis grows everyday, and sadly this prescription drug initiative will not insure one additional Wal-Mart employee, one uninsured child, or reduce the billions of cost for taxpayers."
Or consider Ron Pollack, director of the Families USA lobby for government-run health care, who conceded that lower prices are "a limited good thing," but then dismissed the price reduction as being as much "a part of Wal-Mart's public-relations efforts to blunt the deserved criticism of its poor health coverage for its workers as it is a substantive improvement."
These and other Wal-Mart critics are the same folks who've complained for years about high drug prices, using the issue to argue for government price controls, shorter patent lives on new drugs, and reimportation of drugs from Canada and Mexico. The Service Employees International Union held a "Boston Pill Party" in July 2004 declaring that "Americans have an unalienable right to cheap Celebrex and Lipitor."
Wal-Mart isn't a charity, and its $4 decision is designed to lift its own sales by undercutting prices at competing retailers. But that's the way the market works, driving prices lower with competition. It turns out that Wal-Mart's critics really didn't care about prices; what they want is more union clout, and more government control over health care.
Posted by Ramiro at 11:10 PM
September 27, 2006
EVER SINCE 9/11, a dark view of Islam has been gaining currency on what might be called the Western street. This view holds that, contrary to the protestations of our political leaders — who claim that acts of terrorism are being carried out by a minority of extremists — the real problem lies with Islam itself. In this interpretation, Islam is not a religion of peace but of war, and its 1.2 billion adherents will never rest until all of humanity is either converted, subjugated or simply annihilated.
Is the war on terrorism really a "clash of civilizations"? The overreaction to Pope Benedict XVI's relatively innocuous remarks at the University of Regensburg on Sept. 12 would seem to lend weight to this alarming notion.
As part of a plea for combining reason with religion, the pope cited a 14th century Byzantine emperor who condemned Muhammad's teachings as "evil and inhuman" because of "his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." The pope subsequently made clear that these were not his own views, but this did not stop an explosion of animosity across the Muslim world. Amid calls from angry clerics to "hunt down" the holy father (a.k.a. "the dog of Rome" and the "worshiper of the cross"), various hotheads have taken to the streets and attacked Christian churches. This recalls the over-the-top outcry this year after a Danish newspaper dared to print cartoons depicting Muhammad as an instigator of violence.
Muslim spokesmen claim that these are unconscionable slurs. Yet, while demanding respect for their own religion, too many Muslims accord too little respect to competing faiths or even to competing brands of their own faith.
Where are the demonstrations in the Muslim street when the president of Iran denies the Holocaust and calls for the destruction of Israel? Or when Palestinian kidnappers force two Western journalists to convert to Islam at gunpoint? Or when Sunni terrorists in Iraq bomb Shiite mosques and slaughter hundreds of worshipers? All too many Islamic leaders prefer to harp on the supposed sins of the "infidels," however exaggerated or even fictionalized (no, the CIA didn't bomb the World Trade Center to create an excuse for invading Afghanistan), rather than focusing on the problems within their own umma (community).
And yet it would be a mistake to conclude that the woes of Islamic society today, serious as they are, are endemic to the religion itself.
It is true that, alone of the world's major faiths, Islam was founded by a prophet who used force to win converts. "I was ordered to fight all men until they say, 'There is no god but Allah,' " Muhammad proclaimed in his farewell address to his followers in AD 632.
Countless Muslims since then have followed the path of jihad — literally, "exertion in the path of Allah" but usually taken as an injunction for waging holy war. But countless Muslims also have been willing to trade with unbelievers, to live peaceably alongside them, to learn from them and even to enter into military alliances with them against Muslim rivals.
Religions are not monolithic. They have no fixed, eternal identity. Until the 18th century, Christianity was a militant faith whose adherents did not hesitate to kill "heathens." Throughout the Middle Ages, Islamic states usually offered greater tolerance to religious minorities and were more open to secular learning than their Christian neighbors.
Even now, most Muslim countries — from Senegal to Indonesia — are far more pluralistic and much less fundamentalist than Iran or Saudi Arabia. And even in the most militant Muslim societies, clerics are able to maintain a rigid orthodoxy only by force. Left to their own devices, the Saudi or Iranian people would opt for a less monastic existence — a danger that the guardians of official morality are keenly aware of.
The real enemy we face is not Islam per se but a violent offshoot known as Islamism, which is rooted, to be sure, in the Koran but which also finds inspiration in such modern Western ideologies as fascism, Nazism and communism. Its most successful exponents — from Hassan Banna and Sayyid Qutb to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Osama bin Laden — are hardly orthodox interpreters of Islam. They are power-mad intellectuals in the mold of a Lenin or a Hitler. The problem is that the rest of the Muslim world, by not doing more to curb the radicals — whether out of fear or sympathy — lends credence to the most objectionable caricatures of their faith.
Posted by Ramiro at 11:23 AM
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Across Buenos Aires, a Tango With Empanadas
IT is not that I didn't expect to try empanadas during a visit to Buenos Aires, but rather that I never guessed they would become an obsession. I had eaten empanadas, those crisp, flaky half-moons of pastry puffed with savory meat fillings, in other parts of Latin America and at home in New York. I wondered how much better they would be in the country that seems to have the grandest passion for them.
What surprised me were the intriguing regional variations, described by the native aficionados I met at the beginning of my two-week stay in November 1999. Some were devotees of the hotly spiced Bolivian empanadas, in which a little meat is stretched with potato, while others lauded the milder fillings favored in Chile. All raved about the juicy specimens of the Tucuman province in the northwest semidesert, which is said to have the country's most refined regional cuisine. And most knew the outposts for the variations of Salta and San Juan Provinces.
Thoroughly tempted, my husband and I embarked on an odyssey through this graceful city, with its broad tree-lined boulevards and 19th-century Beaux-Arts buildings that recall the elegant sections of Paris.
Following the custom of the Portenos, the cosmopolitan inhabitants of Buenos Aires, we relied on these hot, hand-held pies for quick lunches, often downing four or five as a meal, or two or three as a snack.
Early on, we got some useful background information from Dereck Foster, the longtime food critic of The Buenos Aires Herald. An Argentine born to English parents, Mr. Foster is working on a book about empanadas, and he generously parted with details of a few of his favorite outposts, also pointing out that the word empanada means ''in dough.''
Empanadas may be baked or fried, but each method requires a rich sugarless pie dough. The trimly fit Portenos seem to prefer empanadas ''al horno,'' baked in the oven, although I agree with those who insist that frying works best when the fillings are made of meat. (Any New Yorker who doubts that fried empanadas can be ethereally light and greaseless will be reassured at the excellent little Chimichurri Grill on Ninth Avenue.)
In Argentina, empanadas are beautifully put together as appetizers in formal restaurants. But they taste best in the small bare-bones bakery shops where these pies are made, primarily for takeout. Most provide narrow counter shelves where diners stand or perch on high stools; very few shops have really comfortable tables and chairs. Prices range from about $1 to $1.50 for a three-and-a-half-bite pie.
We began our search-and-devour mission at El Sanjuanino, in the high-fashion Recoleta neighborhood. With snug booths, dark wood paneling and bright tiles, this tavern-cafe provides an easy entrance into the delights of the empanada, the specialty here being those from San Juan Province with green olives, hard-cooked eggs and, it is said, a touch of tomato, although I detected none. Other standard fillings are pale pink ham with a rich, melting white cheese and a hint of onion, and choclo, combining the soft white corn stew humitas with some whole kernels for texture. Here, as elsewhere, chicken proved dry and banal. On a second visit, we discovered that Sanjuanino's empanadas are freshest from 6 to 8 p.m., when habitues drop in for a few little pies and a glass of beer or local wine.
Tucuman called next, and we ventured to the residential and shopping section of Barrio Norte, and to La Querencia, an inviting, comfortable cafe stylishly done up in black and terra cotta. Beef for empanadas in Tucuman is diced with a knife -- ''picada a cuchillo'' -- instead of being ground. That results in a more toothsome filling. In fact, diners are advised to wrap a napkin around their wrist to catch the drippings -- a precaution that proved unnecessary. So was the warning about hot spicing; the amount of chili is tempered to the gentle palates of the Portenos.
Satisfied if not bowled over by that experience, we tried La Cupertina, our other Tucuman outpost, in a far-flung corner of the middle-to-lower-class residential section of Old Palermo. It was worth the trip. The charming bakery-cafe, with its blue and white decor, lively counter where food is displayed, and comfortable tables, served one of the two best empanadas that we found. The shop is run by Tucuman natives, Ramon Torres and his wife, Cecilia Hermann, who is the very accomplished cook.
Cupertina features the most mouthwatering, beefy baked empanadas, brightened with minced scallion greens and heady overtones of cumin and paprika. Other fillings were equally good, with the zanahoria (carrot) being a local favorite.
On to El Horno, and Bolivia, we thought, wending our way toward this small, barren shop in a part of Palermo bustling with bookstores and schools. The shop's focal point is the igloo-shaped clay and brick oven that is native to Bolivia. It turns out plump, lightly spiced empanadas that tied Cupertina's for first place.
Two kinds of meat fillings are offered: picante, the spiciest and juiciest we encountered, and suave, which is more gently seasoned. Potato and egg pleasantly fleshed out both versions. Even better were the little round pukakapas, which combined onions, soft cheese and fiery red chilies, and the pascualina, or Easter empanada, stuffed with Swiss chard and chopped egg bound with a light bechamel sauce.
Back to Barrio Norte, we tried our luck at tiny El Ladrillo, meaning ''the brick'' and referring to the walls and oven here. The specialty is a house creation: souffleed empanadas, each a miniature semicircular balloon, with good versions of standard fillings, most especially one of beef, raisins and olives.
So much for the good news. Not all our searches proved as rewarding. Empanadas from Salta (at La Justina) and Chile (at Los Chilenos) were disappointing. La Justina's were bland and tasted of overheated grease; at Los Chilenos, they were sherbet cold at the center.
Although we had many delicious and even wonderful empanadas, we were a little disappointed that the regional differences were not as marked as we had been lead to expect. A flaw, Mr. Foster told us, brought on by attempts at seasoning to please the common taste.
So what else is new?
TUCUMAN BAKED EMPANADAS
Adapted from La Cupertina, Buenos Aires Time: 1 hour 15 minutes, plus 24 to 48 hours' marinating time
1 pound filet mignon, fat trimmed
1 cup finely diced and loosely packed beef suet (5 to 6 ounces) or very white, firm beef fat, or 3/4 cup sunflower or corn oil, or a half-and-half combination of beef fat and oil
1 cup finely chopped onion
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons sweet paprika, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon hot red chili powder (cayenne or crushed dried red pepper flakes with seeds), or to taste
1/2 to 1 teaspoon powdered cumin
1 cup finely chopped scallions, green and white portions
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
Empanada pastry (see recipe).
1. Dice beef into 1/8- to 1/4-inch pieces. Place in bowl and cover with 3 cups boiling water. Let stand for 5 to 10 minutes, or until meat loses its raw, red look. Pour off water and drain meat thoroughly.
2. In a 1 1/2- to 2-quart heavy saucepan, slowly cook suet or beef fat until it melts, or heat oil. If using suet or fat, leave in the browned bits that remain after fat is rendered. Add remaining ingredients for filling, except scallions, sugar and meat; stir. Reduce heat and saute, stirring, for 5 minutes, or until onion softens.
3. Add meat and scallions and stir. Cover and simmer over low heat for 2 or 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Add one cup boiling water, cover loosely and simmer gently for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring frequently and adding water if needed to prevent scorching. Cook until beef is tender and water has evaporated, leaving an oily red liquid that should remain.
4. Adjust seasonings to taste, adding sugar only to offset excessive bitterness. If more spices are added, simmer gently another minute or two. Remove from heat, and when filling is cool, cover and place in refrigerator for 24 to 48 hours so flavor develops and liquids are absorbed by meat. Remove from refrigerator 30 minutes to 1 hour before filling pastry. Stir to redistribute spices.
5. Make empanada pastry. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Set out two shallow pans, preferably jellyroll pans with rims, large enough to hold 10 to 12 five-inch-long empanadas with an inch of space between them.
6. Place a rounded tablespoonful of filling in center of each round. Moisten edges of round with cold water and fold dough in half, making sure filling does not spread to edges. Press edges with fork to seal, or pinch into tiny tucks. (Filled, unbaked empanadas can be frozen for up to two weeks; thaw for two hours before baking.)
7. Arrange empanadas on pans. Bake in upper third of oven for 10 to 15 minutes, until pale brown. Cool for 3 to 5 minutes, then serve.
Yield: 20 to 24 empanadas.
Time: about 30 minutes, plus 30 minutes' resting time
2 teaspoons salt
4 1/2 to 5 cups flour
3/4 cup solid vegetable shortening, or 6 ounces beef suet, margarine or firm white beef fat.
1. Dissolve salt in 3/4 cup warm water. Sift 4 1/2 cups flour into bowl or food processor. Divide vegetable shortening into small clumps, or cut suet, beef fat or margarine into small pieces; add to flour. Blend fat and flour until you have a fine meal.
2. Add salted water until mixture forms a ball. If dough is very sticky, work in flour a tablespoon at a time.
3. Shape dough into a ball and turn onto a lightly floured surface. Knead vigorously for 10 minutes, or until it is very smooth and elastic. Reshape into ball, place in a bowl and cover with towel. Let rest for 30 minutes.
4. With lightly floured rolling pin, roll dough to 1/8-inch thickness on lightly floured surface. Cut into rounds with 5-inch cookie cutter; stack rounds.Cover with towel to prevent drying.
Yield: 20 to 24 pastry rounds.
Posted by Ramiro at 1:52 PM
by Brink Lindsey
Brink Lindsey  is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies.
January 9, 2002
Argentina's miseries now cry out in the headlines: riots and violence, a farcical procession of presidents-for-a-day, and the gathering doom of default and devaluation. But behind the headlines lurk deeper ills that gnaw away at the foundations of the country's political and economic life. Those ills helped to bring about the current crisis, and they will persist long after the media spotlight now on Argentina fades away.
Argentina's woes are many, but underlying them all is the dilapidated state of its political and legal institutions. According to an annual index of corruption levels published by Transparency International and based on surveys of business people, academics and risk analysts around the world, in 2001 Argentina ranked a dismal 57th out of 91 countries. Worse, in other words, than Botswana, Namibia, Peru, Brazil, Bulgaria, and Colombia, and on par with notoriously corrupt China.
The same results came through in the 2000 Global Competitiveness Report, coproduced by Harvard University and the World Economic Forum, which surveyed business leaders from 4,022 firms in 59 countries on their perceptions of business conditions. Again, Argentina languished near the bottom: 40th for the frequency of irregular payments to government officials; 54th in the independence of the judiciary; 55th in litigation costs; 45th for corruption in the legal system; and 54th in the reliability of police protection.
It wasn't always this way. The disrepair of Argentina's institutional infrastructure is a legacy of its Perónist past. Look, for example, at the crucial question of judicial independence. Prior to the descent into statism, justices of Argentina's Supreme Court enjoyed long tenures undisturbed by political interference. At the beginning of Juan Perón's first administration in 1946, Supreme Court justices averaged 12 years on the bench.
It's been downhill since then. Since 1960, the average tenure has dropped below four years. After Perón (he left the presidency for the second time in 1974), five of 17 presidents named every member of the court during their term, a distinction that had previously been limited to Bartolomé Mitre, the country's first constitutional president (1862-1868). And so, while before Perón, it was typical for a majority of the court to have been appointed by presidents from the political opposition, that was no longer the case. The Supreme Court, the supposed bulwark of the rule of law, was reduced to a puppet of executive power.
The pro-market reforms of the early 1990s brought little improvement. President Carlos Menem, who deserves credit for stabilizing the currency and privatizing industries, nonetheless persisted in traducing the integrity of the country's institutions. Faced with a politically hostile Supreme Court, Mr. Menem responded with a court-packing scheme -- he expanded the court from five to nine members and filled the new slots with political supporters.
His transgressions did not stop there: Allegations of corruption swirled throughout his two terms in office. Those charges finally caught up with him in June of last year, when the former president was arrested for his alleged role in an illegal arms-shipments deal. But after five months of house arrest, Mr. Menem was set free by his hand-picked Supreme Court.
Corruption in Argentina extends far beyond Buenos Aires. To get a first-hand look at the problem, I visited the northwestern province of Tucumán earlier this year. During the "dirty war" of the 1970s, Tucumán served as a refuge for pro-Castro guerillas and was roiled by bloody fighting. Today it is better known as home to the world's largest producer of lemons, as well as a now-declining sugar industry, and its problems are more prosaic: bloated and corrupt bureaucracy, and a backward and unreliable legal system.
The public sector in Tucumán, for example, serves primarily to enrich politicians and fund patronage jobs. Out of a formal work force of some 400,000, there are nearly 80,000 provincial and municipal government employees and another 10,000 federal government workers. Elected officials siphon off small fortunes for themselves: The annual salary for provincial legislators is roughly $300,000.
Tucumán is by no means noteworthy for such abuses. In the impoverished province of Formosa on the country's northern border, about half of all formally employed workers are on the government payroll, and many show up only once a month -- to collect their paychecks.
Such profligacy lies at the root of Argentina's present financial crisis. Government spending as a percentage of gross domestic product climbed to 21% in 2000 from 9.4% in 1989 despite the fact that sweeping privatizations were alleviating significant fiscal burdens.
And while the country's mess may begin in the capital, free-spending provincial officials bear much of the blame as well. Operating expenses at the provincial level rose 25% from 1995 to 2000 even though inflation was nonexistent. The spending binge was financed by an unsustainable runup of external debt -- the reckoning for which has now arrived.
Meanwhile, as the public sector ballooned uncontrollably, vital government responsibilities went unfulfilled, among them the provision of a legal system that promptly and reliably vindicates the rights of the citizenry. As a result, the acute financial traumas that now beset Argentina are compounded by a business environment that is profoundly hostile to investment, dynamism, and growth.
In San Miguel de Tucumán, the capital of Tucumán province, I spoke with Ignacio Colombres Garmendia, the head of a major law firm in town. "The legal system is absolutely vital for our region's economic development," he noted, "but the politicians are blind to it. It's hard to see what doesn't happen because of a bad legal climate, and so nobody knows about it. But every day I see deals collapse -- I see potential investors who decide not to come to Tucumán -- because of the legal risks. They call and ask me about this or that legal issue, and I have to tell them, and they say 'Thank you very much' and that's the end of it. 'The world is a big place,' a client told me once, 'and we don't need Tucumán.'"
It takes an average of five years to foreclose on a commercial mortgage in Tucumán. And given the punishingly high interest rates that prevail now in Argentina, delays like that can render even excellent collateral insufficient to cover the amount ultimately due. In a vicious circle, the risks caused by delay and uncertainty serve to drive interest rates up even higher. And, lo and behold, the net effect of a system that leaves investors and creditors so badly exposed is simple: less investment, less financing, and less growth and opportunity.
It is fashionable now to blame Argentina's problems on the free market. The country's latest president, old-school Perónist and unabashed protectionist Eduardo Duhalde, has joined the anti-market chorus by vowing to break with the "failed economic model" of the past decade. But Argentina's tragic crack-up occurred not because pro-market reforms went too far, but because they did not go nearly far enough.
A healthy market economy requires not just the absence of statist controls; it requires the presence of sound institutions. And although the reforms of the Menem era made strides toward meeting the former requirement, they ignored the latter altogether. Today Argentina is suffering grievously from that oversight. Until it is corrected and the country's ramshackle political and legal systems are overhauled, there is little hope that a stable and prosperous Argentina can emerge from the wreckage.
Posted by Ramiro at 12:25 PM
Monday, September 25, 2006
September 25, 2006
It would have been more appropriate for Hugo Chávez to brandish Dante's "Divine Comedy" than Chomsky's "Hegemony or Survival" during his sulfuric broadside at the U.N. last week. In the first part of the Italian masterpiece, the author undertakes a journey through the nine concentric circles of the Inferno, each representing a type of evil. Dante's description reads like a script of present-day Venezuela.
Dante's first circle is for those who lack faith. In Chávez's Inferno, the first circle is made up of those who lack food. Cendas, a research center, maintains that 80% of Venezuelans cannot meet the cost of a basic daily diet. According to an official statistic the government inadvertently made public on the Web site of the Instituto Nacional de Estadística, between 1999, the year in which Chávez took office, and 2004, poverty rose to 53% from 43% of the population. The authorities attributed the figures to an outdated methodology and now claim the rate of poverty is 42%. If it were true, that would be embarrassing enough, because it would mean that poverty has remained at nearly the same level for eight years.
Dante's second circle is for those unable to control lust. Chávez's second circle is for those unable to control homicidal instincts. His government has degraded social coexistence so much that there have been more homicides in Venezuela during his seven-and-a-half years in office than there have been deaths in any single armed conflict around the world in recent years. Between 2001 and 2006, the number of homicides in Venezuela has been three times the number of victims in Afghanistan.
Dante's third circle is for gluttons who leave us with no food. Chávez's third is reserved for corrupt authorities who leave Venezuelans with no wealth. The major sources of corruption have been Plan Bolívar 2000, the state-owned oil company, and social programs known as "missions." Under Plan Bolívar 2000, the army took over development programs from the local governments. In the case of PDVSA, the energy giant, no one but Chávez and his cronies have access to detailed financial records. The budget for social programs, personally controlled by Chávez, is not included in any government ministry.
Dante's fourth circle is for misers. In Chávez's Inferno, the fourth circle is made up of bureaucrats who claim to provide social services but use funds to pay people to attend rallies or bust up opposition gatherings. Marino González, from Universidad Simón Bolívar, says that the "Barrio Adentro" program that purports to tend to all the pregnant women in the country only serves 2,000 expectant mothers out of a total of half a million each year. No country ever became prosperous through socialism, but for a government that claims to be able to tend to the needy, not being able to meet even 1% of the commitment is a particularly hellish sin.
Dante's fifth circle is for those who succumb to wrath. Chávez's fifth is for political persecution. Venezuela's human rights record is atrocious. Two violent incidents involving Chavista henchmen with many fatalities have gone unpunished, including the killing in April 2002 of 12 people who were protesting near the government palace. There are political prisoners such as Francisco Usón, former minister of finance in Chávez's government, who received a six-year sentence for saying he thought an incident in which a few soldiers died at Fort Mara in 2004 was no accident. Henrique Capriles, the mayor of Baruta, was jailed in 2004, accused of organizing a violent protest against the Cuban embassy which he had actually helped diffuse.
Dante's sixth circle is for heretics. Chávez's sixth circle is for heretic journalists who try to tell the truth. In December 2004, a "gag law" was imposed making it easy to prosecute journalists. The president continually threatens to withdraw TV and radio licenses -- the reason why there are no opinion programs on network TV. Government-controlled mobs called Bolivarian Circles, formed with the help of the Cuban intelligence apparatus, harass journalists.
Dante's seventh circle is for the violent. Chávez's seventh circle is another name for imperialism. His government has bought (or is buying) 100,000 AK-47s, 53 Mi-35 assault helicopters, fighter jets, transport planes, patrol boats, speedboats and Tucano jets from Russia, Spain and Brazil. Chávez is a long-time supporter of FARC, Colombia's terrorist group. He granted Venezuelan citizenship and protection to Rodrigo Granda, its "foreign minister," until Alvaro Uribe's government hired bounty hunters to bring him back to Colombia in 2005. The Venezuelan leader has given financial and political support to movements from Mexico to Bolivia. (His support for Ollanta Humala in Peru and Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico was a major factor in both men's recent defeats.)
Chávez buys influence through oil. It is a form of blackmail: At OPEC, Chávez fights for increasing prices, making life hard for poor countries that import oil, and then offers those very nations oil subsidies they have no choice but to accept. That is what happened with the 14 Caribbean countries that make up the Caricom group. He also sends 100,000 barrels of oil to Cuba daily; and 200,000 barrels to Bolivia every month in exchange for soy, poultry and political subservience. And he has bought $3 billion worth of Argentine bonds to entice President Kirchner's loyalty. Chávez is denying his nation its wealth from oil, somewhere between $40 billion and $50 billion a year. His annual "aid" budget totals more than $2 billion. He sponsors 30 countries, including some in Africa, in order to buy their vote for a seat at the U.N. Security Council.
Dante's eighth circle is for those who commit fraud. Chávez's eighth is fraudulent anti-Americanism. Chávez exports 1.5 million barrels of oil a day to the U.S. Since oil makes up half the government's revenue and the U.S. is the principal destination of Venezuelan oil, he pays daily homage to U.S. capitalism. Moreover, Venezuela imported $18 billion worth of goods and services from the U.S. in 2005. He may have signed 20 trade deals with Iran's Ahmadinejad, but what he really lusts for is U.S. capitalism. (Another type of fraud involves the electoral system. Chávez has manipulated the voter registration rolls, adding two million phantom voters, including 30,000 who are 100 years old and citizens named "Superman." Four out of five members in the Electoral Council are Chávez lackeys.)
Dante's final circle is for traitors. Chávez's ninth is for traitors, too -- and the place is getting crowded. Army officers betray Chávez every day. Labor leader Carlos Ortega recently fled with three officers from a high-security prison controlled by the army. They evaded security controls thanks to help from army personnel.
At the end of Dante's Inferno is the center of the earth, where Satan is held captive in the frozen lake of Cocytus. In Venezuela's Inferno, Satan is frozen in oil-rich Lake Maracaibo, a metaphor for astronomical wealth squandered by tyrannical populism. The journey through hell is now complete.
Mr. Vargas Llosa, author of "Liberty for Latin America" (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2005), is director of the Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute.
Posted by Ramiro at 12:17 PM
Thursday, September 21, 2006
By MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY
September 22, 2006
Fidel Castro is not far from death. That's one conclusion to draw from his failure to get out of bed for the summit of the non-aligned nations held in Havana last week.
The other telling sign that the long-winded tyrant is not coming back, despite Cuban claims that he is on the mend, was Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's performance at the United Nations on Wednesday. Clearly the revolutionary baton has been passed to the kook from Caracas, Castro's wealthiest and keenest protégé.
After this week, Americans are likely to be focused on the nexus between Venezuela and Iran, whose president rivaled Mr. Chávez as the scariest speaker at the General Assembly. Yet there is an equally pressing threat from Venezuela right in the U.S. backyard. The battleground is Bolivia, which Mr. Chávez badly wants to control so he can seize that country's natural-gas reserves and become the sole energy supplier in the Southern Cone. In doing so, he hopes to seriously damage the Brazilian economy and crush Brazil's geopolitical ambitions as the leader in South America. In its place he wants to plant the flag of Venezuelan hegemony. If he gets away with it, Argentine and Chilean sovereignty would also be diminished and continental stability lost.
To avoid this grim outcome and preserve Bolivian democracy, the U.S. could start by studying Mr. Chávez's path to power, which included help, both passive and active, from Washington.
Theatrics aside, the Venezuelan's verbal assault this week against the U.S. was hardly a news flash. Mr. Chávez has been spouting this stuff for eight years while Venezuelan democrats have been begging the world to take note of it. Democratic Congressman William Delahunt, former Republican Congressman Jack Kemp and the Washington law firm of Patton Boggs all worked to give Mr. Chávez an image makeover in the U.S. so that Venezuelan cries for help might be ignored even as the aspiring dictator was consolidating power.
It seems to have worked too. Let's not forget what happened when Venezuelans tried to remove Mr. Chávez in a 2004 recall referendum. The European Union refused to act as an observer, citing lack of transparency. But that didn't stop Jimmy Carter or the Organization of American States, both of which went along to "observe" a vote cloaked in state secrets. When OAS mission director Fernando Jaramillo cried foul at the many government pre-referendum pranks and Mr. Chávez complained about him, OAS chief César Gaviria yanked Mr. Jaramillo from the country just ahead of the vote.
Exit polls showed that the Venezuelan president was badly beaten in the contest but the chavista-stacked electoral council declared him the winner. Mr. Chávez refused to allow independent auditing of voting machine software or a count of paper ballots against machine tallies. Mr. Carter together with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roger Noriega and the OAS, rushed to endorse the vote despite the lack of transparency and many testimonies to state-sponsored intimidation and dirty tricks. In the heat of the battle, the National Endowment for Democracy cruelly threatened the country's most important independent electoral watchdog that if it didn't accept Mr. Chávez's victory, NED would pull its support.
Mr. Chávez now boasts that he was democratically elected and foments hatred against his neighbors, including the U.S. Wednesday's Castro-esque message claimed that the "non-aligned" movement intent on going nuclear has only pure motives, while the U.S. president is the devil.
Still Hugo knows that rhetorical bullying from the U.N. pulpit can take him only so far. Both Mexico and Peru rejected Chávez proxies this year in presidential elections. While he might still get a foothold in Nicaragua if Daniel Ortega wins there in November, what he really wants to do is knock Brazil down a few notches. And there is no better way to do that than to hit its energy supply. This explains the blitz the chavistas are now putting on in Bolivia to make that country a (hydro) carbon copy of Venezuela.
Mr. Morales rose to executive power by first using violence to bring down two constitutional presidents and then forcing a new election, which he won. He dreams of an indigenous, collectivist Bolivian economy under the thumb of an authoritarian government. Never mind that most native Bolivians are highly entrepreneurial.
His power is boosted by his support for Bolivian coca growers against U.S.-mandated eradication efforts. He is also being coached by Mr. Chávez. He has nationalized investments in the natural-gas industry and he ruled that agricultural land be redistributed to peasants. He has purged the military of its highest ranking professionals and he has arrested or threatened to arrest some 150 of his political opponents. Bolivia is now blanketed with Cuban doctors and teachers. Cuban security detail protect the president while Venezuelan energy advisers are said to be setting policy in the natural-gas sector.
Yet there is serious resistance in the eastern states and some admission from La Paz that the country is too poor to cut itself off from the world. Last week Mr. Morales had to fire his energy minister after Brazil threatened to exit the country when the minister announced the seizure of two more Brazilian owned refineries.
Such acquiescence toward Brazil has to be frustrating Mr. Chávez and any chance to defeat those in his way now lies with the rewriting of the Bolivian constitution. But there is a problem there too. Mr. Morales's party has just over 50% of the constitutional assembly seats. That means that in order to steamroll the opposition the government must force a change in the approval requirement to a simple majority from a two-thirds vote, which is now the law.
Seven of the nine state governors have objected to this but Evo's side is again threatening violence. Bolivia could use some help from the international community. One thing the U.S. could do to weaken Evo is end insistence on coca eradication, which while failing to reduce drug use has alienated peasants. What is clear is that doing nothing while Mr. Chávez seizes power on the continent is not an option.
Posted by Ramiro at 9:36 PM
The Battle for Guantánamo
1. A Warning From Shaker Aamer
Col. Mike Bumgarner took over as the warden of Guantánamo Bay in April 2005. He had been hoping to be sent to Iraq; among senior officers of the Army’s military police corps, the job of commanding guards at the American detention camp in Cuba was considered not particularly challenging and somewhat risky to a career. He figured it would mean spending at least a year away from his family, managing the petty insurgencies of hundreds of angry, accused terrorists.
“Is this what I went to bed at night thinking about?” he would ask nearly a year later, as he whacked at mosquitoes on a muggy Cuban night. “No.”
Bumgarner, then 45, received his marching orders from the overall commander of the military’s joint task force at Guantánamo, Maj. Gen. Jay W. Hood. A few weeks earlier, General Hood dispatched the previous head of his guard operation and two other senior officers for fraternizing with female subordinates. He was known as a flinty, detail-oriented boss with low tolerance for bad judgment, and his instructions to the colonel were brief: He should keep the detainees and his guards safe, Bumgarner says Hood told him. He should prevent any escapes. He should also study the Third Geneva Convention, on the treatment of prisoners of war, and begin thinking about how to move Guantánamo more into line with its rules.
It had been three years since President Bush declared that the United States would not be bound by any part of the Geneva treaties in dealing with prisoners in the fight against terrorism. He ordered that American forces treat captives in ways “consistent” with the conventions but hadn’t explained what that meant. Now, Bumgarner thought, the mandate seemed to be shifting a little. He was being asked to get more specific.
In the cramped bungalow headquarters of his Joint Detention Operations Group at Guantánamo, Bumgarner had his operations officer look up the conventions on the Internet and print out a copy. After nearly 24 years as a military police officer, Bumgarner knew the document well. He thought it obvious that many of the rights would never apply to Guantánamo detainees. No one was going to allow the distribution of “musical instruments” to suspected terrorists, as the 1940’s-era conventions stipulated for the captured soldiers of another army. No one was going to pay the detainees a stipend to spend at a base canteen.
But the assignment was more complicated than just cutting and pasting where he could. On some level, Bumgarner thought, he was being asked to weigh how far the military should go to improve the lives of prisoners whom the president and his aides had labeled some of the most dangerous terrorists alive. Or, as the colonel put it to me during our first conversation at Guantánamo in March: “How do you deal with an individual whom the president of the United States and the secretary of defense have called the worst of the worst?”
At that point, in the spring of 2005, he had little time to consider an answer. Tensions in the camp were surging, as the detainees tested a fresh rotation of Army and Navy guards. Of the 530 prisoners then being held at Guantánamo, most were classified as “noncompliant.” The two segregation blocks, which held prisoners who had assaulted guards, were full. So were two other blocks where detainees were sent for lesser infractions. “People were in a waiting pattern to get in and serve their time there,” Bumgarner said.
In older parts of the camp, the detainees would sometimes bang for hours on the steel mesh of their cells, smashing out a beat that rattled up over the razor wire into the thick, tropical air. Occasionally they would swipe at the guards with metal foot pads ripped from their squat-style toilets, declassified military reports say. The detainees rarely tried to fashion the sort of shanks or knives made by violent prisoners in the United States. But they did manage to unnerve and incite the young guards, often by splattering them with mixtures of bodily excretions known on the blocks as “cocktails.”
By the time Bumgarner took command at Guantánamo, information had emerged to suggest that many of the detainees were not, in fact, the hardened terrorists whom Pentagon officials had claimed to be holding there. Bumgarner did not doubt that his new prisoners were dangerous, but neither was he wary of getting to know them better. As he walked the blocks in Camp Delta, the fenced-in core of the prison, he soon began trying to engage some of the more influential detainees.
Military and C.I.A. analysts had been studying the Guantánamo population since the camp opened in January 2002. They observed that there were detainee spokesmen, who tended to speak English, and religious leaders, or “sheiks,” who issued opinions on questions of Islamic law. There was also a more hidden cadre, whose leadership the analysts defined as “political” or, when they could direct the protests of others, “military.” Nonetheless, there was much debate over who the most important leaders were, intelligence officials later told me. Like most guard officers before him, Bumgarner gravitated toward those who spoke English.
His ambitions were modest. “I was looking for a way, with what General Hood was wanting, just to have a peaceful camp,” he recalled recently. He said his initial message to the detainees was “Look, I’m willing to give you things, to make life better for ya, if y’all will reciprocate.” What he asked in return was “Just do not attack my guards.”
Bumgarner considered himself a take-charge, solve-the-problem kind of commander. A big, balding, garrulous man who speaks with a faint Carolina drawl and carries his 250 pounds easily on a 6-foot-2-inch frame, he grew up the son of a career Army sergeant in a family where military service was proudly taken for granted. In high school in Kings Mountain, N.C., a small town in the Blue Ridge foothills, he played quarterback for the football team and applied to West Point at his father’s urging. He quit the academy after only a few months but joined the R.O.T.C. to help pay his way through Western Carolina University. At Guantánamo, he was one of those officers who seemed to relish calling out, “Honor bound!” (shorthand for the camp motto, “Honor bound to defend freedom”), when a soldier saluted. Saying goodbye, he favored “Hoo-rah” over “See you later.”
But that image could be deceiving. Before deploying to Cuba, Bumgarner oversaw the development of detention doctrine at the Army’s Military Police School at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. Like many military police officers, he had been deeply embarrassed when the Abu Ghraib scandal erupted in May 2004 and was determined to see its legacy undone. “We were not going to let that happen to us,” he said.
At Guantánamo, Bumgarner moved quickly to try to reduce tensions in the camp. If the detainees wanted clocks on the cellblock walls, he saw no reason they shouldn’t have them. In response to endless complaints from the detainees about their tap water, he persuaded Hood to approve the distribution of bottled water at mealtimes. The only stocks available were the soldiers’ own, bottled with a stars-and-stripes label under the vanity brands Patriot’s Choice and Freedom Springs. To avoid any problems, guards were ordered to peel off the labels before they passed out the bottles.
The detainees did not respond as the military authorities hoped. In late June 2005, two months after Bumgarner took command, some prisoners went on a hunger strike, calling for better living conditions, more respectful treatment of the Koran by guards and — most important — fair trials or freedom. Although it was hardly the first such protest, the camp’s medical staff worried about the unusually large number of prisoners involved.
Soon after the strike began, Bumgarner was alerted to a disturbance in Camp Echo, an area of more isolated cells on the eastern edge of the detention center. The problem was with a 38-year-old Saudi named Shaker Aamer. The colonel had not previously encountered Aamer, but he was already familiar with the legend of detainee No. 239 — the one his guards called the Professor. They marveled at his English, which was eloquent, and his presence, which was formidable. Some intelligence officials said they believed he had been an important Qaeda operative in London, where he lived and married before moving to Afghanistan in the summer of 2001. (Aamer has denied having anything to do with Al Qaeda or terrorism.)
The colonel’s immediate concern was that Aamer was giving his guards fits, pressing one of the sporadic civil disobedience campaigns for which he was famous. “I finally said: ‘That’s it! I’m gonna go down to talk to him myself.”’ As Bumgarner remembers it, he burst into the small, hospital-white room as Aamer sat on his bunk, fuming behind the painted mesh that caged him into one corner. “You’re either gonna start complying with the rules,” Bumgarner recalls warning him, “or life’s gonna get really rough.” The colonel said he did not mean to threaten physical force, only to emphasize strongly that Aamer’s few privileges — like, say, his use of a toothbrush — hung in the balance.
Aamer, who wore a thick black beard and had his hair pulled back in a ponytail, was unimpressed. The prisoner, who was not wearing his glasses, squinted for a moment, trying to read the officer’s insignia. “Colonel,” he finally said, “don’t come in here giving me that.”
As Bumgarner settled into a white plastic chair, Aamer crossed his legs on the bunk and began to talk about his life. He spoke about his family, his travel to Afghanistan, his feelings about the United States. He told of working as an interpreter for American troops in Saudi Arabia during the first gulf war, and of later working at a coffee shop outside Atlanta.
“I got the impression that he was hanging around in clubs, drinking,” Bumgarner told me. “He loved women. But he said he had realized the error of his ways.” Aamer had a revelation, he told the colonel, “that this life of running around with women and boozing it up was the wrong path.”
“It was part of his charisma, that drawing me in,” Bumgarner said later. “He became a person.”
Much of the conversation centered on Aamer’s thoughts on the detention operation and what could be done to improve it. The Saudi’s ideas, it seemed, were perhaps not so far from Hood’s. “His implication was that if you applied the Geneva Conventions fully, everything would be just fine in the camps,” Bumgarner recalled.
After almost five hours, Aamer asked the colonel if he had made someone very angry. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t be in Guantánamo.
“Nobody survives Guantánamo,” he added. “You won’t survive, either.”
II. A Permanent Place
As part of the military’s standard tour of Guantánamo, visitors are driven to the end of a two-lane road that winds up to the northeast corner of the naval base on which the prison sits. They pause there on a small hill overlooking a locked gate that leads into Fidel Castro’s part of the island. The tour guide, usually a young Marine corporal with a black Beretta pistol strapped to his thigh, then recounts a brief history of Communist efforts to drive the American forces away.
At one point, the corporal says, the Cubans tried to cut off the Americans’ water supply. They trained floodlights on an American guardhouse to keep the soldiers inside from getting any sleep. But such annoyances were merely that. The United States never surrendered an inch of the 45 square miles it has occupied under a disputed lease since 1903, following the Spanish-American War. “We’re not as big a presence as we once were,” one tour guide, Cpl. Denis R. Espinoza, who is 22, said earlier this year. “But we’re still here, and we’re going to stay.”
In the Land of Unsubtle Metaphors that is Guantánamo Bay, the message of the tour is transparent: the United States fought a dangerous, implacable enemy here once before, in another war that seemed without end. Had we not held our ground then, the argument goes, the world might now be a darker place.
Despite the intense criticism it has drawn, the detention camp at Guantánamo has proved one of the more resilient institutions of the Bush administration’s fight against terror. It has weathered a 2004 Supreme Court decision that allows prisoners to challenge their detention in the federal courts. Scandals over the abuse of the detainees have come and gone, but Guantánamo has endured.
When President Bush announced broad changes in policies for the detention and prosecution of terror suspects on Sept. 6, he said the government “will move toward the day when we can eventually close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay.” But by sending 14 important C.I.A. captives there and pushing to try prisoners before reconstituted military tribunals, he appeared to be extending the life of the detention center for the foreseeable future. Even if many more detainees are sent home and dozens are tried, administration officials acknowledged, the United States could easily end up with 150 or 200 others whom it would want to hold indefinitely and without charge. As to how the military should treat such men, Washington offered only the most general guidance.
What impact the C.I.A.’s prisoners might have on the camp’s operations is unclear. Already, though, Guantánamo has been the scene of an extraordinary struggle between the detainees and their guards. Only a few episodes of this conflict have come to light, like the suicides of three prisoners in June. But what has hardly been glimpsed is the dynamic that developed as military officers tried to deal more closely with the detainees, easing the harsh conditions in which they have been held and asking for compliance in return.
This article presents a view inside the prison based on interviews with more than 100 military and intelligence officials, guards, former detainees and others. It shows that as pressure built among the prisoners and some threatened even to kill themselves in protest, Bumgarner and other guard officers — acting as much on instinct as policy — took surprising steps to contain the upheaval.
That experiment illuminates the challenge the United States faces in continuing to detain indefinitely some 460 men at Guantánamo, only 10 of whom have been formally charged with crimes. Perhaps not surprisingly, the military has sought to keep what has taken place there under wraps. Asked recently about his dealings with the detainees and those of his staff officers, General Hood would respond only through an Army spokesman, saying, “Operational security precludes any public discussions that could potentially jeopardize the lives of detainees or the security force at Guantánamo.”
Rather than making Guantánamo go away, the administration has tried to make it smaller and less objectionable. The ruins of Camp X-Ray, the provisional facility where the first prisoners were held in cages, are slowly being swallowed by the jungle. Tour guides display them as proof of Guantánamo’s progress. Inside the existing camp, a barricaded precinct of the quaint, 50’s-era naval base where off-duty soldiers play softball and stop to eat at McDonald’s, the guides point out Camp 6, a new $30 million facility modeled after a county jail in southern Michigan.
But the detainees have long memories, and the portraits drawn by those who have been released — sometimes horrific, often impossible to verify — have shaped global perceptions in ways that the Bush administration has been unable to overcome. Their stories have been set down in books, films, plays and raps, most of which depict an Orwellian world that is by turns brutal, calculated and inept.
“Every country has its own way of torturing people,” Rustam Akhmiarov, a 26-year-old Russian who was arrested in Pakistan and ended up in Guantánamo, told me after his release. “In Russia, they beat you up; they break you straightaway. But the Americans had their own way, which is to make you go mad over a period of time. Every day they thought of new ways to make you feel worse.”
Over the last two years, human rights groups and the International Red Cross have noted some improvements. Hood said that the use of more extreme interrogation methods was curtailed within months of his taking command, around the time that the Abu Ghraib scandal became public. Yet the larger questions that indefinite detention at Guantánamo raises — how to forestall the radicalization of the detainees; how to control men who have only the slimmest hope of freedom — have never been resolved by senior policy makers. They have been left to military officers on the ground.
III. Out of the Dark Ages
As Colonel Bumgarner landed at Guantánamo in April 2005, he sensed that the military was in the midst of what he called “sort of an effort to normalize things.” The Pentagon wanted to streamline the guard operation as part of a push toward a more modern, less labor-intensive detention facility. It also wanted to present a more humane face to the world. Both goals required lowering the level of conflict within the camp.
After his first briefing from Hood, Bumgarner put the printout of the Geneva Conventions on his desk and left it there. “I had my staff look at it,” he said. “For me, it was the only black-and-white piece of something that I could reach out and grab for guidance.”
At that point, White House officials were still opposed to adopting even the most basic Geneva standard for the treatment of prisoners, a provision that bans “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.” Bumgarner considered such issues above his pay grade. He tried to deal with the detainees man to man. “Human beings are human beings,” he said in one of a series of conversations. “I always think that I can deal with anybody. I feel like dialogue can’t hurt.”
Weeks before he would meet the Saudi prisoner Shaker Aamer, Bumgarner came across a tall, wild-eyed detainee who was screaming at the guards in British-accented English. It wasn’t clear what his problem was, but when the colonel asked, the man quickly calmed down. “You are creating these problems by the way you are treating us,” the prisoner said.
A day or two later, Bumgarner had guards deliver the man to Juliet block, a small, fenced-in courtyard beside his command center where Red Cross representatives meet with detainees at aluminum picnic tables. He asked a guard to uncuff the prisoner’s hands. “It puts them in a much better mood to talk to you,” the colonel explained.
Prisoner No. 590, Ahmed Errachidi, was a handsome 39-year-old Moroccan who spent 17 years in London. He worked as a chef at a string of restaurants, including the Hard Rock Cafe, before traveling to Afghanistan after the United States began bombing the country in October 2001. The military authorities accused him of belonging to a radical Moroccan Islamist group and training at a Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, charges that his lawyers have disputed. Intelligence officials told me they did not consider him a high-value detainee and noted that he had been hospitalized for manic depression. But the guards, impressed by his influence and sense of self-importance, had nicknamed him the General.
Errachidi seemed rather surprised to be sitting down with the commander of the detention group, Bumgarner told me. But in that meeting on June 6 and a second, longer one two days later, Errachidi seized the chance to inventory the prisoners’ grievances: The water was foul, he said, and the food terrible. The detainees were angry about the guards’ habit of walking loudly through the cellblocks at prayer times and even angrier that “The Star-Spangled Banner” sometimes played over distant naval-base loudspeakers during or right after the evening call to prayer.
The General “kept talking about ‘the dark ages,”’ Bumgarner would later recall. The prisoner complained, for example, that the guards often referred to the detainees in demeaning ways, calling out when they were moving a prisoner that they had “a package” ready.
“We are not ‘packages,”’ Errachidi told the colonel. “We are human beings.”
After the first meeting, Bumgarner received a piece of paper from a guard. It was a drawing by Errachidi, a sort of map. In one corner, it showed a shaded area labeled “the Dark Ages.” From there, a path wound through a thicket of obstacles. They had labels like “No ‘packages,”’ “Better food” and “Turn the lights down.” At the end of the path, Errachidi had drawn what looked like an oasis, with water and palm trees.
Back at Bumgarner’s command center, some of his staff officers wondered about the wisdom of trying to solve such complaints. They were used to their commanders walking the blocks and occasionally speaking to prisoners; they were not accustomed to sit-downs. Nor did they see why they should be the ones to pick through the Geneva provisions and suggest whether the detainees might be entitled to elect their own representatives or attend educational programs.
“We’re the guys on the ground,” the detention group’s former operations officer, Maj. Joseph M. Angelo, told me not long ago. “So why was I making recommendations on what portions of the Geneva Conventions we should implement? That just struck me as kind of weird.”
Still, the unease of Bumgarner’s staff did not compare with the reaction he got from the intelligence side of the Guantánamo task force. There had long been tension between the two military units, but this time members of the Joint Intelligence Group “were furious,” one staff officer recalled. There were few privileges to give out at Guantánamo, this officer and others said, and interrogators felt they should be the ones to dispense them — in return for cooperation from the detainees.
Before he deployed to Cuba, Bumgarner’s military police superiors had been emphatic that he should stick to his responsibilities and leave his counterparts in military intelligence to their interrogations and analysis. Bumgarner wasn’t worried about stepping out of his lane. “I run the camps,” he said.
Bumgarner set about trying to solve the problems he saw. He instructed members of the guard force to stop referring to the detainees as “packages.” On compliant blocks, he had guards start turning down the lights between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. and stop moving prisoners during those hours to allow the detainees to sleep. To avoid disturbing their prayers, he ordered guards to place yellow traffic cones spray-painted with a “P” in the cellblock halls at prayer times. He asked his aides to see that “The Star-Spangled Banner” recording would be played at least three minutes before the call to prayer.
Another of Bumgarner’s senior staff officers, Maj. Timothy O’Reilly, a reservist who is a lawyer in civilian life, began to recognize some of what he was seeing from jails and prisons in the United States. “The ultimate nirvana for anybody in law enforcement or corrections is compliance,” he said earlier this year. “In order to run an effective prison, you need to have people comply with your orders, and that’s no different from the smallest jail to the biggest high-security prison.”
But Guantánamo was clearly unlike other prisons in one important respect: The detainees found much less incentive to obey the rules. To some, exile to the discipline or segregation blocks was a source of status and pride, military intelligence officials said. And the punishments were limited. Striking or spraying urine on a guard brought 30 days’ segregation, the maximum length of any punishment under Geneva rules. There was no such thing as getting a few more years tacked on to your sentence.
In an American prison, O’Reilly and others noted, an inmate could be a sworn enemy of the prison authorities, respected among other prisoners, and still try to “run a good program” — avoiding trouble in an effort to reduce his time behind bars. At Guantánamo, compliance with the rules brought only prayer beads, packets of hot sauce, a slightly thicker mattress. It would not bring early parole.
Former detainees I met insisted that their defiance was provoked not only by their despair over their uncertain futures but also by unnecessarily harsh and arbitrary treatment from the guards. “If people’s basic human rights were respected, I don’t think they would have had any of these problems,” said Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taliban cabinet minister and ambassador to Pakistan who was the pre-eminent leader of Afghan prisoners at Guantánamo before his release in the late summer of 2005. “There were no rules and no law. Any guard could do whatever they wanted to do.”
Like other small, insular groups that live at the mercy of a more powerful force, the detainees have woven intricate, conspiratorial theories about their fate. In a closed world where prayer gives structure to daily life and the Koran is the one possession guards are never supposed to take away, prisoners were acutely sensitive to any perceived disrespect for their faith. But there were many other grievances. Some former detainees told me that early on, they were injected at Guantánamo with psychotropic drugs, a claim that military officials denied. Later, detainees continued to suspect hidden agents of social control in everything from the cloudy tap water to the configuration of their cells.
“Those blocks are designed so that you will not rest,” says Mohammed al-Daihani, a government accountant from Kuwait who was sent home last November. “There is metal everywhere. If anyone drops anything, you hear it. If anyone shouts or talks loudly, it disturbs everyone. If there is a problem at the other end of the block, you cannot possibly rest. After two or three weeks, you think you will lose your mind.”
Although the detainees came from diverse backgrounds and more than three dozen countries, there was only one real prison gang at Guantánamo. The authorities were convinced it was controlled by Al Qaeda members. An August 2002 study by the C.I.A. asserted that Qaeda detainees at Guantánamo had quickly begun “establishing cellblock leaders and dividing responsibility among deputies for greeting new arrivals, assessing interrogations, monitoring the guard force and providing moral support to fellow detainees, among other tasks.” (The study was posted in July on the Web site The Smoking Gun; two officials confirmed its authenticity to me.)
Such conclusions may have been drawn from the actions of detainees like Shaker Aamer, the man with whom Bumgarner spoke for hours at the end of June. Abdullah al-Noaimi, a Bahraini student who was released from Guantánamo last November, described in interviews at his home in Bahrain in June how Aamer initially organized their cellblock through sheer force of personality. “He’s always laughing and talking, very extroverted,” al-Noaimi said. “He was born to be a leader.”
Soon after his own arrival in Cuba, al-Noaimi recalled, Aamer rallied the detainees on the block to refuse to be weighed by the medical staff — a largely meaningless protest, he said, but one that infuriated the guards and thrilled the detainees. Eventually, he added, Aamer organized the 48-cell block into four groups of 12, with representatives for each unit and a spokesman for the block. “It’s the same thing John McCain did in Vietnam,” said Lieut. Col. Kevin Burk, who commanded the army’s first military police battalion at Guantánamo. “You continue your resistance.”
Some parts of the camp were easier to manage than others. The guards looked on the roughly 110 Afghans then at Guantánamo as relatively cooperative. They filled much of Camp 4, the newer wing where Level 1, or “highly compliant,” prisoners were allowed to live in communal barracks, serving their own food and moving freely in and out of small recreation yards. Most of the rest of the Afghans were in Camp 1, for Level 2, or “compliant,” detainees. Only a handful were held in Camp 5, the maximum-security area. Yet as more prisoners were released, the remainder were becoming a more cohesive group, military officials and former detainees said. They were also overwhelmingly Arab, and more likely to have endured more extreme interrogation techniques like sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation and threats.
Several former detainees insisted that it was not Al Qaeda that bound them at Guantánamo but a common adversary. In standard prison fashion, they developed ingenious ways to organize and communicate. They attached messages to long threads from their clothing with wads of hardened toothpaste and then cast them into neighboring cells. They shouted into the plumbing to talk between floors in the maximum-security unit. And as their frustration grew, their ability to organize was brought to bear in new ways.
IV. Aamer the Hero
The hunger strike that confronted Colonel Bumgarner in mid-June 2005 escalated quickly. Of the many strikes since early 2002, few had gone far enough to prompt doctors to force-feed the detainees through stomach tubes. This time, however, there were not a handful of hunger-strikers but dozens.
As they often had before, military spokesmen dismissed the protest as a publicity bid typical of Al Qaeda-trained terrorists. Officers at Guantánamo had tabulated hundreds of incidents of what they termed “manipulative, self-injurious behavior.” Privately, though, they began to discuss how to respond to a potential suicide. At the Pentagon, officials dusted off contingency plans for dealing with a body that would need prompt burial under Islamic law.
Senior members of the Guantánamo staff began to meet regularly with General Hood to monitor the strike. The chief medical officer, Navy Capt. John S. Edmondson, M.D., worried about the prospect of having to force-feed large numbers of detainees. The medical risk was relatively low, but there were other considerations. “Anytime you’re doing a procedure that the patient doesn’t want, it’s not a place you want to be,” he would tell me later. “What takes precedence? The patient’s rights, or their life? It’s not an easy question.”
Bumgarner soon turned to Aamer, who had been on strike since around the time of their first meeting in Camp Echo. During that first encounter, he said, the prisoner had been “trying to convince me, in a very subtle way, that he could help control things in the camp.” He decided to consider the proposal.
Over a couple of more conversations with Aamer, Bumgarner made his case: He wanted the detention camp to run more smoothly, to make things easier for detainees who obeyed the rules. He was prepared to move closer to the standards of the Geneva Conventions in some parts of the operation, including discipline. What did Aamer think it would take, the colonel wanted to know, for the hunger strike to end?
Aamer summarized his discussions with Bumgarner in a statement he dated Aug. 11, 2005, and later gave to his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith. In it, he said the hunger-strikers demanded ending “the secret abuse project of Camp 5” (which he did not explain) and either bringing the detainees to trial or sending them home. Meanwhile, they wanted better medical and living conditions. Aamer wrote that the colonel promised him “that justice would come to Guantánamo at last.” The prisoner, his lawyer said later, had “decided that this was a man who he could trust.”
Bumgarner said he tried always to bring the talks back to what he could deliver: modest improvements in the detainees’ living conditions. He said Aamer told him: “‘If you can get me to go around the camps, I can turn this off.”’
There were no precedents for chaperoned consultations among detainees. But by July 26, 2005, the number of detainees refusing to eat was at 56, and doctors were becoming concerned about the health of several of them. Bumgarner decided to act. “I saw the chance to end it, and I just did it,” he said.
The colonel went to see Aamer at a small hospital inside the detention camp. He was sitting on a bed, one ankle chained to the frame, surrounded by some of the other more determined hunger-strikers. According to Bumgarner, Aamer told him that several of the detainees had had a “vision,” in which three of them had to die for the rest to be freed. Still, he agreed to try to persuade them to drop the protest.
Aamer agreed to suspend his own strike on July 26, his lawyer said, but was unsuccessful in persuading others. That evening or the next, Bumgarner said, he had guards retrieve Aamer from the hospital and meet him at Camp 5, the imposing maximum-security unit. Once inside the heavy doors, they went through the cellblocks one by one, as Aamer spoke with a handful of the most influential detainees.
Aamer went first to see Saber Lahmar, an Algerian-born Islamic scholar who was arrested in Bosnia in a supposed conspiracy to bomb the American Embassy in Sarajevo. (Lahmar denied any involvement in such a plot.) Trailed by the colonel and a military interpreter, Aamer continued through the tiers, crouching down to speak to a handful of others through the slots by which they received their food. His last stop was the cell of Ghassan al-Sharbi, a 30-year-old Saudi who studied electrical engineering in Prescott, Ariz. Al-Sharbi, who was later charged in the military tribunals with joining in an Al Qaeda conspiracy to manufacture bombs for attacks in Afghanistan, was reluctant to give up the strike. When he finally agreed, the others went along, two military officials said.
As they prepared to leave Camp 5, Bumgarner says, he asked Aamer if he needed to speak with some of the other hunger-strikers there as well. “No,” Aamer answered matter-of-factly. “The others will put the word out.”
The colonel and his prisoner drove to Camps 2 and 3. As they entered some of the blocks — Bumgarner in his camouflage fatigues, Aamer handcuffed to a chain around his waist — the cells erupted with applause.
“He was treated like a rock star, some of the places we would go in,” Bumgarner recalls. “I have never seen grown men — with beards, hardened men — crying at the sight of another man.” He paused, searching for an analogy. “It was like I was with Bon Jovi or something,” he said.
Former detainees who witnessed the visits recounted to me that Aamer, speaking in Arabic, proposed to end the hunger strike and explained that other detainees in Camp 5 were in agreement. In return, he said, the military authorities promised to try to resolve problems the prisoners faced and to observe parts of the Geneva Conventions.
The colonel’s subordinates had grown accustomed to his hands-on style of leadership. But they worried more openly about his meetings with Aamer. The Saudi, one officer pointedly said, “has an almost hypnotic power over some people.” Two others referred to Aamer as “Svengali.”
Bumgarner himself struggled with Aamer’s frequent demands. One morning, as Aamer was being sent off with other officers to brief detainees, he had a new one for the colonel: Now he wanted to move around without the leg shackles that were standard for detainees being transported outside their cellblocks.
“Look, Shaker, don’t make a big deal out of this,” Bumgarner recalled telling him. “Let’s get on to the bigger thing here. I can’t take you out of those shackles.”
“I’m not going unless you just handcuff me,” the prisoner responded.
“Shaker, don’t do this to me,” the colonel said. “It’s just going to make it harder.”
“No,” he quoted Aamer as saying. “I’m not doing any of this.”
Bumgarner ordered the shackles removed. The handcuffs stayed on. Aamer finally went ahead with his briefings to the other prisoners. “It was clearly a risk — not in terms of putting anybody in danger, but in terms of perception,” Bumgarner told me later. “But I thought that in the end, in order to keep things going, I was going to have to do it.”
Mullah Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador, had just finished his prayers in Camp 4 when a sergeant came to his dormitory. “There is someone who wants to see you,” the sergeant said. Zaeef had never had an unannounced visitor at Guantánamo before.
He found Aamer waiting. The two men had known each other in Camp 1, where they were briefly neighbors. Zaeef, who spoke Arabic, noted that many of the Arabs respected the Saudi’s leadership. Aamer told Zaeef about his conversations with the colonel.
“We thought maybe they were becoming softer in their policies,” Zaeef recalls. “Or we thought maybe they were trying to trick us. But we thought that we should see which one it was.”
When I met him in Afghanistan almost a year later, Zaeef still seemed a bit uncertain about what had taken place. He is an elegant, professorial man who wears wire-rimmed glasses and the black silk turban favored by the Taliban. He described the episode during two long interviews in the well-guarded government guest house on the dusty outskirts of Kabul, where he has lived since returning home last September.
According to Zaeef, Aamer described a scheme of representation for the detainees that he had worked out with Bumgarner — one that vaguely echoed the Third Geneva Convention’s rules for a prisoner-of-war camp. Detainees in Camp 4 were to choose two inmates to represent them, one for the Afghans and another for the rest. With guards by his side, Zaeef said he then went from one block to the next, explaining the situation. After some discussion, he was chosen by acclamation to represent all of the Camp 4 detainees. Still, Zaeef recalled, “people were very skeptical.”
Nonetheless, most of the hunger-strikers suspended their protests by July 28. Disciplinary problems on the blocks eased. The mood in the camps swelled palpably, some military officials told me. Later Bumgarner would refer to this interlude as “the Period of Peace.”
The colonel then turned to some of the issues the detainees had raised during their strike. He and Aamer were sitting at one of the picnic tables near his office, debating the camp food, when Aamer insisted that the detainees’ meals were being poisoned.
“That’s asinine!” Bumgarner said.
“I don’t see you eating the stuff,” he said Aamer shot back.
Over a dinner of fish sticks and fries, they began working out a solution. Not long after, Aamer sat down with the head of the mess hall, the base nutritionist and a logistics officer on the military staff. According to one officer briefed on the meeting, Aamer unfolded a piece of paper on which he had drawn up an elaborate two-week meal plan with daily suggestions for four different diets: a standard menu, a vegetarian menu, a vegetarian-with-fish option and a bland diet for older prisoners and those with intestinal problems. Two officials said Aamer’s proposal eventually became the basis for a new meal plan that raised the amount of food offered to detainees each day from 2,800 calories to 4,200 calories.
After weeks of discussion with his aides, Bumgarner also instituted a new program to simplify the discipline in the camp. Under the previous four-level system, misdeeds were punished with the loss of various “comfort items” like prayer beads and books, or stints in the discipline or segregation blocks. The system was so complicated, military officials said, that its application often seemed arbitrary.
The new plan called for all or nothing. Every detainee was restored to compliant status and issued all of the comfort items generally available, including prayer beads and bigger bars of soap. Those who broke the rules would be busted down to “basic issue,” or B.I., with nothing in between. To symbolize the new order, all detainees in punishment-orange uniforms would be reoutfitted in tan.
The change might have made a dent in the prisoners’ abiding sense of humiliation. The problem, some officers said, was that the plan was set in motion before enough tan clothing could be requisitioned to outfit all the detainees. Some of those left in orange complained loudly.
“We did not think that through like we were playing chess,” Major Angelo said. “We thought like we were playing checkers. And that didn’t work.”
V. The End of Peace
A couple of days after Aamer visited Zaeef to explain the new plan for prisoner representation, a guard approached Zaeef with a cryptic message. “At 6 o’clock you are going to go somewhere,” he said. At the appointed hour, Zaeef was led out of the camp and put on the rumble seat of one of the small John Deere utility vehicles used to transport detainees around the detention center and driven to Camp 1.
The guards led him to the small, fenced-in exercise yard for Alpha block, where two picnic tables had been placed. Ala Muhammad Salim, an influential Egyptian religious leader in the camp who was known as Sheik Ala, was already there. The two prisoners sat down and began quizzing each other about what was going on. Four others trickled in. They included Aamer and two of the men he met with in Camp 5: Saber Lahmar, the Algerian scholar, and Ghassan al-Sharbi, the Saudi engineer. The sixth was Adel Fattoh Algazzar, a former Egyptian Army officer with a master’s degree in economics. Bumgarner did not attend the meeting, but when all of the detainees were seated, his deputy arrived with two other officers. Al-Sharbi acted as the Arabic interpreter.
According to other officers I spoke with, the deputy delivered a simple message: The six were being asked to provide their input on how to improve conditions in the camp. Each of the detainees responded in turn.
“Do not mistreat us anymore,” Zaeef recalled saying. “Be respectful of our religion and our Koran. Respect us as human beings, because we are human beings. If we are criminals, take us to court. But if we are innocent, let us go.”
News of the meeting buzzed through the camp. Right away, several former detainees said, the prisoners began to debate what was taking place. “We had never talked to the colonels before,” Abdulaziz al-Shammari, a Kuwaiti teacher, said. “But this Bumgarner came around all the time, wanting to negotiate with us.”
The younger detainees pressed Aamer to push past the matter of living conditions and focus on their demands for trial or release. “The shabab said to him, ‘We must not go only for the small things; we should go to the core issues,”’ al-Shammari said, using the Arabic word for “young people” or “youth.”
Mohammed al-Daihani, the Kuwaiti accountant, now released, said that soon after the colonel and Aamer visited his cellblock, Ahmed Errachidi, the Moroccan known as the General, challenged others there to analyze the possible motives of their captors. “He said: ‘Why is a colonel from the most powerful country in the world coming to negotiate with the detainees? They must be under some kind of pressure.”’
The skeptics on Bumgarner’s side were also growing more vocal. “I was one of the few who thought we should let the leaders come talk to us,” the colonel acknowledged. Hood was clearly uneasy with the negotiations, other officers said. He told aides not to refer to the six as “the council,” as the detainees did. Still, several officers emphasized, the talks would never have gone forward if Hood had not approved them.
On the evening of Saturday, Aug. 6, shortly after the council’s first meeting, the colonel convened the six again, officers said. This time, he sat with the group himself. Aamer had insisted that they should not be handcuffed or shackled. “These are leaders,” he told the colonel.
Bumgarner agreed, and the handcuffs were removed. Guards armed with pepper spray stood by, while an immediate-reaction team waited just out of sight. The colonel later summarized his introduction thusly: “You’re here. I’m here. You’ve got my attention. Tell me what the grievances are, and we’ll work through them.” He added, “This place ain’t going away, so we might as well make the best of it.”
As Zaeef recalled the encounter, Bumgarner made several promises: He would allow the circulation of religious books among the detainees and try to resolve problems that arose with the guards. He would assure that the prisoners’ food was “adequate.” Zaeef said the most important thing the colonel pledged was to send another official who would be able to speak with the detainees about their “future.” Bumgarner said he promised only that guards would act “in the spirit of the Geneva Conventions” and that he would see that Guantánamo’s discipline was consistent with its terms.
On the following Monday, the officers said, the six detainees were allowed to meet alone in the fenced-in yard. A pair of military interpreters were positioned nearby to monitor their conversation, officers said. According to both Zaeef and military officials, the detainees began using pens and paper they had been given to write notes. An officer observing the meeting interrupted them: they were not to pass notes, he said. When they insisted on confidentiality, he stepped forward again. But as the officer moved to confiscate the notes, some of the detainees popped them into their mouths and began chewing.
Hood pronounced the experiment over. “‘This group is not meeting anymore,”’ the colonel recounts him saying. “‘And you are not going to be meeting with them anymore.”’
The “period of peace” came to an abrupt end. According to various sources — military officials, former detainees and Aamer’s lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith — the detainees were also angered by a few incidents that had taken place over the weekend before the second council meeting. In one case, a prisoner had been forcibly extracted from his cell, only to sit waiting for hours to be interrogated. In another, the questioning of a slight Tunisian detainee by a much larger criminal investigator ended in a violent scuffle involving a cut nose, the possible hurling of a mini-refrigerator and the investigator’s being ordered off the island.
A couple of days after the negotiations were shut down, officials said, a riot broke out in Camps 2 and 3. Dozens of detainees tore up their cells, wrenching foot pegs from their toilets and using them to try to pry loose the mesh that separated them. Guards were pulled from the tiers and deployed to surround the perimeter of the blocks. Water and electricity were shut off, and Bumgarner finally got on a bullhorn with an Arabic interpreter to persuade the detainees to be escorted from their ruined cells. The repairs took weeks.
The guard officers were unsure what the detainee leaders had been up to. According to military and intelligence officials, there were indications that Aamer and al-Sharbi had been at odds. Al-Sharbi, the accused Al Qaeda bomb maker, once told a military review panel it was his “honor” to be classified as an enemy combatant, declaring, “May God help me to fight the infidels!” Paradoxically, he was believed to be the more pragmatic negotiator, urging that the detainees try to improve conditions in the camp. But Aamer, who had denied any involvement in militant activities, took a different position. According to the officials, he argued more directly that the detainees should use the talks to pressure the military into either trying them fairly or setting them free.
Aamer told his lawyer the military had “sadly betrayed its word on every occasion a promise has been made.” He blamed the colonel personally. At the time, Bumgarner said, he felt similarly betrayed. But when he recounted the story months later, he sounded merely disappointed. “We almost liked each other,” he said of the two Saudis, Aamer and al-Sharbi. “I shouldn’t say we liked each other, but when we spoke together, there was no animosity.”
By mid-August, the hunger strike that military commanders thought they had resolved was picking up strength. Complaints about living conditions were de-emphasized, military officials and lawyers for the detainees told me. Instead, the prisoners focused on their future legal status. The renewed protest hit a peak just after Sept. 11 of last year, with 131 prisoners refusing meals for at least three straight days, officials said.
Many of the officers doubted that the protesters were willing to take their own lives. Islamic law strongly forbids suicide. Abdulaziz al-Shammari, the Kuwaiti teacher who was one of the most frequent hunger-strikers, said he never considered taking his own life. “We saw that they would not let us die,” he said of the military doctors. “This was merely the most extreme side of the protests.”
Al-Shammari, who has a university degree in Islamic law, was one of a half-dozen more learned detainees to whom others turned for religious rulings on countless problems of their captivity. He said he knew of no relevant exceptions to the prohibition against suicide.
Two officials familiar with intelligence reporting from Guantánamo said that sometime in the late summer of 2005, Saber Lahmar, the Algerian religious leader who served on the six-man council, told other detainees of a fatwa that said it was lawful to take your own life in order to protect state secrets or to defend the common good. Other detainees spoke about the prophetic dream that Shaker Aamer mentioned to Bumgarner, in which three prisoners had to die for the rest to be free, the officials said.
As doctors began to tube-feed the more recalcitrant hunger-strikers, the strike consumed the medical staff. Specialists were flown in from naval hospitals in Florida. Most of the detainees maintained their weight at above or near 80 percent of their so-called ideal body weight. But as the strike dragged on, several slipped below 75 or even 70 percent of that measure, doctors said.
For detainees who obeyed the rules, the military offered new perks. Exercise time was extended once more. On Hood’s instructions, Gatorade and energy bars were given out during recreation periods. Wednesday became pizza night. Guard officers suggested soccer and volleyball tournaments to the compliant detainees in Camp 4. The detainees came back asking that a prize — two-liter bottles of Pepsi — be awarded to the winners. (The detainees disdained Coca-Cola, guards said.) Before the games could begin, however, the detainees changed their minds, the officers said. They had concluded that the contest was a scheme by the military to divide them.
While increasing the incentives for compliance, the colonel also tried to clamp down on disruptive behavior. The segregation and discipline blocks were overhauled. The rules became stricter, the guards tougher. When detainees in segregation tried to shout to one another through the walls, the guards were to turn on large, noisy fans to drown them out.
Worried about Shaker Aamer’s influence, Bumgarner also took an unusual step. In September, he had Aamer moved to Camp Echo, where he would be even more isolated than he would be on the segregation blocks. But Bumgarner did not cut off contacts with the detainee leaders entirely. He approached Zaeef to assure him that he wanted to continue to improve things for compliant detainees. He also developed a rapport with Ghassan al-Sharbi.
Al-Sharbi was described by people who know him as an intelligent, almost ethereal man from a wealthy Saudi family. (In an appearance before a military tribunal, he sat placidly with his hands folded at the defense table and told the presiding officer in plain English: “I’m going to make it easy for you guys. I fought against the United States.”) The colonel said he found al-Sharbi a useful interlocutor and met with him repeatedly. After August, he never spoke with Aamer again.
The guard officers saw some indications that the tougher approach was working. The number of detainees in the discipline and segregation blocks fell substantially. Only later did the officers begin to suspect that the more combative detainees were so focused on the hunger strike that they had little energy for other protests.
VI. The Suicides
To some of Colonel Bumgarner’s officers, it seemed that the latest group of hunger-strikers were being allowed to get too comfortable. They had hospital beds, air-conditioning, attentive nurses and a choice of throat lozenges to ease the pain of their feeding tubes. The arrangement also allowed some of the hospitalized detainees to communicate relatively easily.
By late November, while many of the strikers were maintaining their weight, four or five of them were becoming dangerously malnourished, Dr. Edmondson said. By sucking on their feeding tubes, they had figured out how to siphon out the contents of their stomachs. Others simply vomited after they had been fed.
On Dec. 5, the guard force ordered five “restraint chairs” from a small manufacturer in Iowa. If obdurate detainees could be strapped down during and after their feedings, the guard officers hoped, it might ensure that they digested what they were fed.
Days later, a Navy forensic psychiatrist arrived at Guantánamo, followed by three experts from a Bureau of Prisons medical center in Missouri. Bumgarner said the visitors agreed with him that the strike was a “discipline issue”: “If you don’t eat, it’s the same as an attempted suicide. It’s a violation of camp rules.” In addition to feeding prisoners in the chair, some of the more influential hunger-strikers were sent off to Camp Echo with the hope of weakening the others’ resolve. The number of strikers, which was at 84 in early January, soon fell to a handful.
Lawyers for the detainees were appalled. The lawyers quoted their clients as saying detainees had been strapped into the chairs for several hours at a time, even as they defecated or urinated on themselves. The doctors told me later that they had run out of options. “I would have preferred to have waited,” said Dr. Edmondson, the chief base physician, who other officials said opposed the restraint chairs. But he added, “I seriously believed that we were going to lose one of those guys if we didn’t do something different.”
In the spring of 2006, General Hood and Colonel Bumgarner were suggesting that the mood at Guantánamo had turned. A handful of hunger-strikers were still at it — a few young Saudis and Yemenites, and Ghassan al-Sharbi. But the officers saw them as zealots whose threat to the smooth operation of the camp could be controlled. Otherwise, disciplinary infractions and attacks on the guards were down, they said, and many of the detainees were responding positively to new incentives for good behavior.
In an interview in late March, Hood said he believed that many young Arab detainees — sheltered, passionate young men who had gone to Afghanistan to fight what they thought would be a noble jihad — were beginning to see the light. They hadn’t been radicalized at Guantánamo, he insisted. Rather, as conditions at the camp had improved, their preconceptions about Americans had worn away. “They discover, ‘You guys aren’t so bad.”’
“I think the hard-core people have lost ground over the last four years,” Hood said. “They are clearly losing ground.”
As he prepared to turn over his command in April to Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., Hood was upbeat about the future. “We are going to establish the most world-class detention facilities, and we are going to show the world that we’re doing this right,” he said. “Every provision of the Geneva Conventions related to the safe custody of the detainees is being adhered to. Today at Guantánamo — and, in fact, for a long time — the American people would be proud of the discipline that is demonstrated here.”
Six weeks later, as guards in Camp 1 patrolled one of the blocks, they came upon a detainee comatose in his cell and frothing at the mouth — symptoms of an apparent overdose. “Snowball” — the guards’ radio code for a suicide attempt — was called out over and over. In all, five detainees were found to have ingested medication that they and others had hoarded, and guard officers concluded that at least three were making serious suicide attempts. (Military spokesmen said that only two had really tried to kill themselves.)
Later that afternoon, May 18, a riot broke out among the “highly compliant” detainees in Camp 4 as guards moved to search their dormitories — and their Korans — for pills and other contraband, officials said. Detainees in one block of the camp set on guards who stormed their barracks after another guard saw a staged hanging and mistakenly called out “blizzard,” the code for multiple suicide attempts. The guards’ quick-reaction force fired rounds of rubber bullets and voluminous blasts of pepper spray to contain the disturbance.
Doctors later determined that the detainees had ingested sleeping pills, antianxiety medication and antipsychotics — whatever they could get their hands on. Since none of the men had been prescribed the medicines they took, it was evident that other detainees had colluded in the plan. (A cache of about 20 more pills was later found in one prisoner’s prosthetic leg.) Still, the military authorities seemed uncertain how to respond.
Some officials recalled the detainees’ premonition about three of them having to die. The medical staff tried to more closely monitor detainees with mental-health problems. But that screening apparently did not factor in the possibility that the men might have been determined to kill themselves for other reasons — like loyalty to a cause.
Sometime before midnight on June 9, three young Arab men, who were being held near one another in a single block of Camp 1, moved quietly to the backs of their small cells and began to string up nooses that had been elaborately made from torn linens and clothing. The bright lights had been turned down for the night. Still, the prisoners had to work quickly: guards were supposed to walk the block every three minutes.
After anchoring the nooses in the steel mesh walls of their cells, the three — Mani al-Utaybi, and Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, both Saudis, and Ali Abdullah Ahmed, of Yemen — piled clothing under their bedsheets to make it appear that they were asleep. They stuffed wads of fabric into their mouths, either to muffle their cries or perhaps to help themselves suffocate. At least one of the men also bound his legs, military officials said, apparently so he would not be able to kick as he died.
With the nooses pulled over their heads, the prisoners slipped behind blankets they had hung over the back corners of their cells and stepped onto their small, stainless-steel sinks. The drop was short — only about 18 inches — but adequate. By the time they were discovered, doctors surmised, the men had been asphyxiated for at least 20 minutes and probably longer. Military and intelligence officials said it appeared that the other 20-odd prisoners on the block knew that the suicides were being prepared. Some may have prayed with the men, the officials said, and a few may have assisted in carrying out the plan. What is certain is that in contrast to most previous suicide attempts at the camp, none of the detainees made any effort to alert the guards.
When doctors reviewed their files on the three men, they found that none of them had shown signs of depression or other psychological problems. All three had been on hunger strikes — one of them since the previous August — and at least two of them had been evaluated when they abandoned their protests. One doctor recalled one of the men telling him brightly: “I’m sleeping well. I feel well. No problems.”
What the men hoped to communicate by their deaths may have been contained in brief notes they left behind in Arabic. The notes have not been made public, and a Navy investigation into the suicides continues. But military leaders at Guantánamo were not waiting on its outcome. They concluded immediately that the suicides were a blitzkrieg in the detainees’ long campaign of protest. At a news conference hours after the suicides, the new Guantánamo commander, Admiral Harry Harris, described them as an act of “asymmetric warfare.”
VII. Tightening Up
I sat down with Colonel Bumgarner one blazing afternoon in late June, as he was preparing to give up command. He looked tired and stressed, and slumped into a chair in his small, cluttered office. As Shaker Aamer did the previous summer, Bumgarner used words like “trust” and “betrayal.” Bumgarner, at the time we spoke, was briefly suspended from duty while the military investigated whether he improperly disclosed classified information to a North Carolina newspaper reporter who, around the time the suicides occurred, had been in Bumgarner’s headquarters reporting a feature article on the colonel from Kings Mountain. (He was absolved of any wrongdoing.) But he seemed more worried by something else: Had he completely misunderstood the prisoners he was trying to reach?
“We tried to improve their lives to the extent that we can — to the point that we may have gone overboard, not recognizing the real nature of who we’re dealing with,” he said. “I thought they had proven themselves. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I did not think that they would kill themselves.”
Bumgarner said he could not discuss the suicides because of the Navy’s continuing investigation. But several officials said that the three detainees had taken advantage of some of the colonel’s quality-of-life reforms, including the nighttime dimming of lights and the availability of extra clothing. There were also indications that Ghassan al-Sharbi, the colonel’s onetime interlocutor, had helped plan the suicides, two of the officials said.
Looking back, Col. Kevin Burk, the commander of the military police battalion, said: “With any population like this, you’re going to have a battle. It wasn’t like we were all going to ‘Kumbaya’ together. But we were trying to find that middle ground, where the tension in the camp would even out. As far as we could see, no one had really tried to find that equilibrium before.”
It is unclear if or when the military might try again. By most appearances, Guantánamo has been tightening up. Since the May riot and the suicides, the military has increased security to prevent further disturbances or deaths. In its ruling on the military tribunals in June, the Supreme Court left the government no choice but to abide by the minimum standards of treatment contained in the Geneva Conventions. But what other privileges and freedoms the detainees are allowed may come even more into question as the Guantánamo population is winnowed down to a harder core and joined by the most notorious terror suspects captured by the C.I.A.
One hint of Guantánamo’s future may lie in the retrofitting of Camp 6, the brand-new medium-security facility that was to have opened this summer. Until this spring, the new camp was to embody the sort of conditions Colonel Bumgarner and other officials had hoped to institutionalize, with spaces for communal meals and larger recreation areas where compliant detainees could play soccer and other sports. After the riot and the suicides, the camp was substantially remade. When it eventually opens, military officials said, it will look somewhat more like Camp 5, the maximum-security unit down the road.
Posted by Ramiro at 12:59 PM