Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Christians Running in Place


Following Monday’s Beacon about the energy of American Protestantism and the Catholic response, here’s a Los Angeles Times piece on how Protestant Persians in Sunnyvale, Calif. are reaching out to their brethren and sistren in Iran:

Spreading Christianity is the mission of the Iranian Christian Church, which has affiliated with three other congregations in Northern California that primarily serve former Muslims.

The churches, which have a combined membership of about 450, produce six hours of Farsi-language Christian programming Mondays through Fridays in a television studio under the same roof as the Iranian Christian Church. Those broadcasts, as well as the Sunnyvale church's Sunday service, are transmitted by satellite to Iran and other parts of the Middle East.

The weekday program, "Mohabat TV," instructs viewers in such things as how to find the Bible on the Internet and recommends studying Scripture for at least a year before starting a home church by sharing the faith with a spouse, then children, then relatives — all in secret.

Does the ICC want Iranian converts to flee West, where they’d be safe and free to practice their faith? Not quite:

[Pastor Kamil] Navai hopes that the new converts will influence other Muslims.

"We're not in the business of bringing people from Iran to the United States," he said. "Iran needs these new Christians. We teach them to start home churches and to be leaders."

Unfortunately, conversion to Christianity is a capital offense for Iranian Muslims in Iran, and one interviewee was stabbed in the stomach after his acceptance of Christ became known. This doesn’t seem to deter worshippers at the Iranian Christian Church, however:

The high-tech evangelical Christian service is aimed at worshipers in Sunnyvale, with few reminders that it also is intended to gain converts abroad. But once during the service, two huge video screens at the front of the church displayed a map of Iran overlaid with a cross.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Beacon No. 84: Protestant Eye for the Catholic Guy


The area where I grew up in New York’s Hudson Valley was heavily Catholic, to the extent that Protestants seemed a trickle next to the flood of second- and third-generation Irish, Italians and Poles flocking to Mass each Sunday. My 10-year-old reaction on discovering John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic U.S. president was, How had any Protestants gotten elected in the first place?

This area—Newburgh, New York—had Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans and a few Jews, but Catholicism was so dominant that its prime position seemed organic, at least to someone growing up Catholic. (This idea was reinforced by the younger, coked-up Don Imus, whose Billy Sol Hargis character on WNBC-AM epitomized New York stereotypes about Bible Belt holy rollers.)

The American Church that seemed so pervasive in my late 20th century has lost much ground. Catholics have become less devout and even been lured away by younger, more energetic Protestant denominations—especially Southern Baptists, considered a mere Southeastern fringe group prior to the Reagan administration. Protestant groups have mastered a brand of Christianity that appeals to Catholics seeking a more relevant form of worship, or who are fleeing the scandals surrounding many dioceses.

The American Church realizes its danger and has started to look for ways to compete in the marketplace of religious ideas. That’s not to say it’s changing its core philosophy to resemble Protestants’; but according to Gretchen Ruethling’s “Billy Graham Is the Role Model; Catholicism Is the Creed,” the Roman Catholic Church is taking marketing tips from Protestant megachurches:

"A good percentage of people who are in the megachurches are former Catholics," Father [Kenneth] Boyack [president of the Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association] said. "They're really attentive to try to connect to people exactly where they are. And the language they're using is not great theological language."

Megachurches, experts say, effectively use sermons that link Scripture with everyday problems. They also use pop music, social events, the Internet, informal settings and small-group fellowship to foster a sense of community.

"They're not leaving because they don't like the Catholic Church," said Tim Kruse, executive director of the Evangelical Catholic, a group in Madison, Wis., that helps campus ministries develop programs to foster evangelical life. "They're leaving because Protestant evangelicals have communicated the Gospel to them in a meaningful way."

"Protestant Eye for the Catholic Guy" is a workshop at the St. Paul's Institute of Evangelical Catholic Ministry next weekend in Madison that is expecting about 300 representatives from campus ministries, dioceses and parishes. In the workshop, an evangelical Protestant pastor will talk about how to make sermons more vibrant. In Iowa, the third annual Martha & Mary Women's Conference — aimed at filling a religious void among Catholic women — this year drew 450 women, almost three times the number it drew the first year.

In 2004, Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit became the first seminary in the world to offer a postgraduate degree on "new evangelization," said Ralph Martin, director of graduate theology programs in the new evangelization. New evangelization, an idea promoted by Pope John Paul II, is aimed at taking into account globalization and an increasingly secular culture when devising strategies to connect people to the Catholic faith.

Implications for the Western Hemisphere
If the Catholic Church can energize its own faithful and gain new converts in the U.S., this would have major implications elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, since American Protestant missionaries have made deep inroads in traditionally Catholic Latin America.

My last trip to South America in 1996-97 showed American-sponsored cracks in the facade of the powerful Roman Church. I rode a bus from Asuncion to western Paraguay beside a Protestant doctor/missionary from Augusta, Georgia who was helping to save Paraguayans’ sight in that underserved country. Later in the trip, the waiter I had in an Italian restaurant west of Sao Paulo, Brazil proudly announced himself a Mormon.

Observers give many of the same reasons for Protestant success in South America as in the U.S.: Missionaries who cater more effectively to Latin Americans’ rising individualism; dislike of the Catholic hierarchy’s autocratic style; major and minor scandals that have sapped Church authority.

On top of all this, the charismatic John Paul II, who could warm the entire edifice of Catholicism with his weary, confident smile, is gone. His replacement so far seems unlikely to win many new converts, or even hold ground against Protestant successes worldwide.

Just as in the U.S., the Church has been slow to respond in Latin America, and Protestants in South America are now a major political and cultural force. The Catholic slide may be irreversible; in a century, it may be just another sect in areas where its word was absolute for centuries.

But in the 1,700 or so years since Constantine Christianized the Roman Empire, the Church has shown itself the master of adapting and thriving under pressure. Perhaps the next Catholic Counter-Reformation will originate in the U.S. and spread south to Latin America, with major consequences for hemispheric politics.

The Chicago model of Ruethling’s story may be an early step in this adaptation. If success in a Western Hemisphere competition for souls with Protestants means turning Mass into something a little less grand and a little more like a rock concert, I have no doubt the Catholic Church will eventually rip out the pews to install a mosh pit and a day-care center.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Public Diplomacy and the Video Gamer


USC Center on Public Diplomacy’s Joshua Fouts turned up in San Jose at the Game Developers’ Conference, the premiere annual proving ground for video-game-related ideas. What does public diplomacy have to do with video games? Fouts, who has recently spent some time studying massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), was interviewed on the subject by a BBC reporter:

Can Massively Multiplayer Online Games be used for public diplomacy, asks Joshua Fouts, Director for Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California.

Yes, he concludes: while government and public diplomacy ambassadors believe - when polled - that "a coffee-table book" is the best form of media communication for public diplomacy, Fouts understands that there is a generation growing up with their communication mediated almost entirely via texts, instant messages and videogames who wouldn't give a coffee-table book a second glance.

Unless, of course, it were a digital artifact on their digital coffee table in their digital house: videogames are a medium that has relevance and resonance to a generation growing up as well as their parents, themselves weaned on Atari and Pac-Man.

People at State interested in probing how other cultures work without having boots on the ground—or in State’s case, wingtips—could find MMORPGs an effective tool for training people in foreign cultures; MMORPGs let players safely inhabit and learn from worlds with distinctive, frequently foreign cultures. Take the case of Lineage in South Korea, for example.

In addition to the potential for teaching cultural do’s and don’ts, MMORPGs enable researchers to quantify human behavior in ways that are hardly ever possible in real life:

I spent yesterday in an all-day session examining the social in games. I've learned that in real life, men stand further away from other men when in groups than women do from other women. Does this behaviour translate online? Why, yes it does: male avatars stand further away from each other while in groups than female avatars do from each other.

We're even at the point where researchers can measure the amount of avatar-to-avatar eye contact. Now that's progress.

(Thanks as always to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the initial item.)

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Mesopotamian Speakers Needed


Eccentric Star prints part of an account of time spent in Baghdad by Robert J. Callahan, a Foreign Service Officer who was the press attaché at the American Embassy in Baghdad from mid-2004 to mid-2005. It makes several interesting points:

—A simple lack of statistics makes reporting on any progress in Iraq more difficult. Iraq simply does not measure itself right now.

—The language environment for Americans working in Iraq—in government, relief organizations, the media—is even more complex than generally understood:

I knew only two journalists who spoke fluent Arabic and none who spoke Kurdish, Turkmen or Syriac, the language of many Christians, although all educated adult Iraqis, regardless of ethnicity, spoke Arabic. Among American diplomats, fewer than a dozen had sufficient Arabic to use in an extended conversation and, like the reporters, none spoke Iraq's other languages. That meant that either our contacts spoke English or we relied on interpreters. In the case of the most senior Americans – the ambassador and a few other civilians, generals with three or four stars – the interpreters were superb. But the rest of us, diplomats and journalists, had to rely on bilingual Iraqis who often weren't professional interpreters. Some were capable, most just adequate and a few deficient. When we spoke with Iraqis, using interpreters or making do in English, our discussions were halting and lacking in nuance. Add to this the inability of most of us to read Arabic newspapers and understand television news programs, and we worked in a communication twilight. Nothing ever appeared in sharp focus.

The Washington Post’s Anthony Shadid, a fluent Arabic speaker, was apparently the major exception to the rule.

—The information scarcity caused by the language problem actually made the diplomats and the press trust each other. Unfortunately, both groups also wound up speaking with many of the same Iraqis, limiting their ability to discover new information.

—Publicizing the good news about reconstruction projects quickly went out of vogue since the publicity invited terrorist or insurgent attacks.

Callahan’s full piece is also printed at the official ink-stained-wretch mag of my alma mater, the American Journalism Review, here.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Beacon No. 83: Iran’s Power of Reputation


Although I primarily write about soft power, some stories straddle the line between soft and hard. One of these is David Ignatius’ “Iraq Should Be Used to Widen American-Iranian Talks.”

Ignatius’ home paper is the Washington Post, but if you click on the link below you’ll see that I read his article in Lebanon’s Daily Star, a moderate English-language newspaper in Beirut. It’s a testament to both Ignatius’ ability and the Post’s syndication bureau that he gets read that far afield; they both have soft power.

Ignatius’ topic today is the recent opening for Iranian-American dialogue over Iraq:

... [A]fter almost 30 years of official enmity, a U.S.-Iran conversation seems about to start in earnest, focused initially on mutual steps to achieve political stability in Iraq. The moving force has been America's ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, who won White House approval last fall to seek such meetings. Khalilzad got some useful political cover last week when Iraqi Shiite leader Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim asked the Iranians to meet with the United States. Two days later Iran's national security adviser, Ali Larijani, announced that Tehran was ready to talk.

The talks in Baghdad aren't likely to begin for a few weeks, until Iraq's political leaders have made progress in forming a new government. American officials aren't discussing what the agenda might be, but it's sure to be limited at first to Iraqi security issues. Khalilzad explained the U.S. stance this way in an interview with CBS: "Our goal will be to encourage cooperation as well as to halt support for extremist groups, training, arms, intelligence, Revolutionary Guard presence. Those are all points of concern."

The dialogue with Iran is an important step in the right direction. The two countries have a common interest in stabilizing Iraq. The worst thing that could happen, from Iran's standpoint, would be a civil war that leads America to withdraw its troops quickly, before it could secure a new democratic government that, given Iraq's demography, would be Shiite-led. So the two sides start with similar goals.

I doubt that America can stabilize the Middle East without building a new regional framework that includes Iran. Right now, the Iranians are poised to obstruct America at every crossroads - in Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian territories and even Persian Gulf states such as Kuwait and Bahrain. The Iranians aren't supermen, but they do have a network of dangerous proxies. A successful American policy for the region must take account of Iranian interests, and vice versa. The alternative is war.

Ignatius, who I’ve attended conferences with twice in the past few years, and who had already been to Iraq several times when I saw him last in late 2004, seems on the money.

To counter U.S. attempts to isolate it and to stave off the possibility of Israeli attack, Iran has patiently and steadily made itself the indispensable player in southwest Asia. It has friends everywhere in the region, influences events in Iraq and western Afghanistan, and underwrites militias and terrorists in the Levant.

If pushed, Iran can push back, violently or not, in both flashpoint countries like Lebanon and relatively stable U.S. allies like Kuwait and Bahrain, all without initiating direct military action. It has created a large, stable sphere of influence without needing major-league conventional forces and, if current trends continue, Iran will have a small nuclear deterrent by the 2010s and be essentially untouchable.

For now, apprehension about Iran’s possible actions—in other words, its reputation, a component of its soft power—give pause to all the actors in the region without Iran needing to be a military or economic powerhouse.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Languages Like Passenger Pigeons


Adam Jacot de Boinod wrote on Sunday about the rapid decline in the number of the world’s languages, which are inevitably being replaced by dominant tongues like English, Spanish and Mandarin:

About 25 languages are being lost to humanity a year, and the pace is accelerating. Currently, there are 6,800 languages, and roughly one dies a fortnight. The world is shrinking, the rarity of isolation is contributing to the disappearance of languages, and the Internet, commerce and the media are causing English to increasingly dominate the international landscape.

We should all lament this loss, and many of us do. But not just for sentimental reasons. Each language is, at least in part, a unique map of the same shared territory of human life on Earth, and each language contains within its lexicon something to teach the rest of us.

This increased homogenization of world languages, as regrettable as it is inevitable, should please rationalists everywhere: It will simplify the job of intrastate and international communication, reduce occasions for misunderstanding and, most importantly, make it easier to have a one-size-fits-all marketing campaign that can be used by governments and corporations around the world.

Or will it? Firesign Theatre’s Peter Bergman recently told me that although English is becoming the world’s dominant language, recent converts to it are also appropriating words from their old language or even making new words up for everyday use. The result is a vast horde of words that no one from “English-speaking” countries ever hears, that nonetheless constitute generally understood English in some corner of the world.

These words will never make it into the Oxford English Dictionary, Bergman pointed out, and soon someone will have to create, say, an Oxford Asian English Dictionary to capture the richness and variety of all the English that will only be spoken in Asia. If other languages are dying, the importance of local dialects—of English—appears to be increasing, and learning them will become the job of U.S. diplomats in the 21st century.

Hopefully those dialects will make up for the loss of some of the richness of other languages:

There's so much arresting beauty in words that describe things for which we have no concise expression in English, such as wabi, Japanese for "a flawed detail that enhances the elegance of the whole work of art," or wamadat, Persian for "the intense heat of a sultry night." You find words for all stages of life, from paggiq, Inuit for "the flesh torn when a woman delivers a baby," to torschlusspanik, German for "the fear of diminishing opportunities as one gets older."

Friday, March 17, 2006

Beacon No. 82: Secretary Rice Plays Winston Churchill


There’s a parallel universe—maybe Harry Turtledove will get around to writing about it—in which Winston Churchill spent the 1930s warning Britain’s allies about an expansionist Japan, rather than the menacing Germany that consumed his attention in our universe.

We’re not in that parallel universe, but Secretary Rice is playing a Churchillian role on her current trip around Asia and the Pacific. To hear Steven R. Weisman write about it in “Rice and Australian Counterpart Differ About China,” the Secretary of State is spending her time warning America’s allies, not against an expansionist Japan, but against the supposedly sinister intentions of Beijing. And she is being politely ignored by nations that don’t want to risk irking the region’s new giant, the same way that Churchill was in the run-up to Germany’s invasion of Poland.

Secretary Rice has some valid points about China: It is spending heavily to modernize its military. It has locked up access to needed resources around the Pacific Rim and beyond for decades into the future. It continues to oppress its people and anchors its foreign policy in reining in the “renegade province” of Taiwan.

But she is having difficulty being heard by Asian governments that either fear China’s wrath or prefer to drown out the Secretary’s voice with the sound of money that pours forth from Beijing’s coffers. Even Australia, usually one of the most reliable allies of the U.S., is asking the Bush administration to please pipe down:

Before Ms. Rice arrived, [Australian foreign minister Alexander] Downer told Sky News: "We don't support a policy of containment of China. I don't think that's going to be a productive or constructive policy at all." His comments were described in the Australian press as an effort to assuage China's concerns about American-Australian policies.

To go back to the 1940s analogy once more: Many Japanese believed—and may still believe—that Pearl Harbor was not the beginning of the Second World War, but that U.S. attempts to isolate it internationally and cut off flows of fuel, metals and other resources were aggressive acts by the U.S.

This same complex scenario is playing out with the People’s Republic today, except that China is making great efforts to secure its standing with suppliers and other allies in order to head off direct confrontation with the U.S. Beijing recognizes that a war would be bad for business and prefers to simply preempt Washington by demonstrating to everyone what a great deal it is to be in China’s corner.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Shocking Even the Brits


Victoria Brittain writes entertainingly in Tuesday’s Guardian about a British radio interview with Colleen P. Graffy, the deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs at State and a longtime London resident. Graffy was apparently on air to counter negative perceptions relating to the latest Guantánamo detainee scandal: force-feeding.

Graffy ... was in London last week on a propaganda offensive. Ms Graffy had visited Guantánamo and witnessed no unpleasant interrogation, no torture and plenty of sports facilities, she told Jeremy Vine on Radio 2. The imperturbable Vine was speechless when she drew from her bag a sample tube used for force-feeding prisoners and explained to him that it had no metal edges and was therefore humane.

I didn’t hear the Graffy interview and don’t know whether Jeremy Vine is imperturbable. Brittain herself is a partisan of the detainees, considering that she has just written Enemy Combatants with a detainee named Moazzam Begg, so her writing on the subject should be taken with a grain of salt.

But still: No one, absolutely no one, cares whether any force-feeding that occurred was provably “humane.” It is not even beside the point, from a public diplomacy perspective, to mention that a force-feeding tube won’t damage the body it is used on. All that anyone will care about is that force was used the quell the only protest that detainees—criminals or not, terrorists or not, enemy combatants or not—have remaining to them.

The fact that someone in Graffy’s orbit went to the trouble to ship a feeding tube to England, thinking that this would somehow score points in the sphere of public diplomacy with our allies, doesn’t even pass the laugh test.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The High Cost of Staying Overnight


I complained some months ago about how high-ranking Bush administration figures seem almost allergic to staying overnight in countries where courtesy and hospitality are more valued than in the U.S.

Well, President Bush did stay overnight on his recent trip to Pakistan, largely because President Musharraf insisted. It gave the Secret Service fits, as Elisabeth Bumiller reports:

White House officials will not say whether Mr. Bush overruled the Secret Service in making the trip, or even if he was told not to go. But it is no secret that the service was in a state of anxiety during his time in Islamabad.

Reporters were not told that Mr. Bush would be spending the night in Pakistan until 24 hours before, which was the same day that a suicide bombing in Karachi killed an American diplomat. In Islamabad, Air Force One arrived and departed in the dark, with its running lights off and shades drawn, so that it would be less of a target for a missile attack. Once the president was on the tarmac, it was impossible to tell whether he got into a waiting motorcade — or slipped into a Blackhawk helicopter for the trip to the fortresslike American embassy, with the motorcade speeding below as a decoy.

Either way, the route of the motorcade was the site of two of four assassination attempts on Mr. Musharraf, hardly a comfort to the Secret Service. In December 2003, a large bomb detonated on a bridge 30 seconds after Mr. Musharraf's motorcade passed. Eleven days later on the same route, two suicide bombers plowed their cars into the motorcade, killing 15 people and cracking Mr. Musharraf's windshield.

Mr. Bush, on his way back to the Islamabad airport at the end of the trip, engaged in no motorcade feints — he and the first lady went by Blackhawk. A dozen Secret Service agents surrounded the helicopter as the couple disembarked and then climbed aboard Air Force One, which taxied to the end of the runway and took off in complete darkness.

I've always disagreed with people who have said the president was somehow a coward or not terribly bright. The reason is that Bush qualified on and flew jet fighters, a notoriously demanding and dangerous task regardless of whether the jet happened to be over Saigon or Plano. I would add the stay in Islamabad to this argument, even though someone else had to do the flying.

Beacon No. 81: Unintended Consequences in Beirut


The Times’ Michael Slackman poses this question about post-Syria Lebanon: With Damascus’ military and intelligence forces mostly ejected from the country, who will emerge as Lebanon’s dominant player? Not the Lebanese, to read “As Syria’s Influence in Lebanon Wanes, Iran Moves In”:

Nearly a year ago, not long after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, who was twice prime minister of Lebanon, Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon, unleashing a wave of patriotism here that prompted many to say that the Lebanese might finally be able to take control of their destiny.

But the intensity of the moment and the rush of emotions eclipsed at least one important and largely unanswerable question: With Syria gone, or at least its troops gone, who would fill the power vacuum?

At the time, Iran did not appear to be the answer. But that is what is happening, according to government officials, political leaders and political analysts here.

Iran, long a powerful player in Lebanon, has been able to increase its influence, partly through its ties to the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. That has given Tehran a stronger hand to play in its confrontation with the United States and Europe over its nuclear program.

Slackman continues by noting that Tehran has been courting not just Lebanon’s Shiites, but its other religious factions as well:

[In the past year,] Lebanese officials and academics and religious leaders were increasingly feeling the generosity of the Iranian state, officials said, with invitations to conferences in Iran and offers of aid.

Lebanese officials say that Iran has been careful not to appear heavy-handed, so as not to alienate Sunni, Druse and Christian factions. After years under the fist of Damascus, many people here said that Iranian power was preferable because of geography — Tehran is far away — and because the Iranians appeared to be more intent on winning allegiances, not forcing them.

"Iran is omnipresent in Lebanon, not only with Hezbollah," said Ridwan al-Sayyid, an adviser to the prime minister and a professor of Islamic studies at Lebanese University. "They are strong, not like Syria, but they shape their presence in different ways. They are helping many, many organizations—Sunnis, Shias and Christians. They are benevolent."

It sounds like the Iranian government—however disorganized it seems when anyone at the top opens his mouth—has an organized soft-power program that’s bringing other countries’ leaders and opinion leaders on junkets to Persia.

It’s also telling that Iran is taking pains to be even-handed toward the different Lebanese sects—that “winning allegiances” line is significant, showing Iran knows it can’t just back its Shi’a co-religionists in Lebanon without precipitating another civil war. In that case, the U.S. would likely step in as it did in the early 1980s with strong backing for anyone who wasn’t Hezbollah, and another proxy war would be under way.

This could make for strange bedfellows indeed as the U.S. might seek to aid minority sects like the Alawites—who also happen to rule Syria.

Slackman wraps up by implying that Iran’s increasing soft power in Lebanon is partly a side effect of the U.S. exercise of hard power on Iran’s borders:

This is not the first time that the United States has seen Iran benefit, however unintentionally, from events that were initially regarded as strengthening the Bush administration's hand. With each American military strike in the region, first against the Taliban in Afghanistan and then against Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Iran has found its influence in the region grow as its enemies have been defeated by American military might, political analysts said.

"Iran now has many more cards in confronting the United States than the United States has in confronting Iran," said Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Twenty-First Century Bolívar


Hugo Chávez’s calls for Latin American unity against the U.S. continue to resonate, according to Mark Weisbrot’s “The Failure of Hugo-Bashing”:

IT WAS YET ANOTHER public relations coup for Venezuela: Vila Isabel, the samba club sponsored mainly by the Venezuelan government, won the parade competition in Rio de Janeiro's Carnaval last week. A float with a giant likeness of Simon Bolivar, combined with thousands of ornately costumed participants parading down the avenue, trumpeted the winning theme: Latin American unity.

Weisbrot then examines why Chávez, the Nasser of South America (or the Bolívar of the 21st century, if you prefer), is such a popular figure in South America nowadays. First, Venezuela under Chávez is still a functioning democracy, or at least hasn’t followed Peru’s authoritarian path or descended toward Colombia’s narcotics-fueled chaos yet.

Second, the U.S. countered its usual democracy-promotion language by publicly endorsing, and possibly even aiding, the anti-Chávez coup in 2002.

Finally, cash-rich Venezuela has become the new favorite lender for neighbors being squeezed by the International Monetary Fund or other U.S.-influenced institutions:

With oil at nearly $60 a barrel, Venezuela has used its windfall proceeds to win friends in the hemisphere, providing low-cost financing for oil to Caribbean nations. When Argentina needed loans so that it could say goodbye to the International Monetary Fund, Venezuela committed $2.4 billion. Venezuela bought $300 million in bonds from Ecuador. Washington has historically had enormous influence over economic policy in Latin America through its control over the major sources of credit, including the IMF, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. Venezuela's role as a new "lender of last resort" has reduced that influence.

If oil dropped back to $40/barrel, much of Chávez’s current advantage would evaporate; but meanwhile, Weisbrot ends on an ominous note:

... While Vila Isabel was winning the Rio Carnaval, Connecticut became the eighth American state to participate in the program by which Citgo Petroleum Corp. provides discounted heating oil for poor people. Citgo is owned by the Venezuelan government. In the contest for the hearts and minds of the hemisphere, Venezuela is clearly winning.

(Thanks as always to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the initial item.)

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Out for a Bit, March Edition

I'll be down-periscope for a few days and will resume posting on Tuesday.

Beacon No. 80: Vaya Sin Cuartos, Fidel


According to various news reports, the U.S. Treasury Department apparently leaned on the Hilton María Isabel hotel in Mexico City to evict 16 Cuban officials who were staying there to meet with U.S. energy execs at a trade conference. The Hilton, across the street from the U.S. Embassy, complied, beginning an uproar throughout Mexico:

"The expulsion of the Cubans … is a shameful act," Humberto Musacchio wrote in the Mexico City newspaper Reforma. His was one of a flood of columns in the Mexican press denouncing the hotel.

The eviction was "practically a declaration of war" because Mexico's "national honor has been sullied."

Raymundo Riva Palacio, a columnist for the newspaper El Universal, wrote that it was common knowledge that the fifth floor of the hotel once functioned as "the headquarters of the CIA" in Mexico.

Honor and face matter as much in Mexico as anywhere. It would be one thing to deny the Cuban officials rooms in the first place, hopefully while they were still as far away as possible, like when they called Hilton’s reservations line. It’s another to literally send them packing.

This is poor timing by Treasury, considering these factors: This episode occurred in the capital city of Mexico, a country already prone to feeling slighted by the U.S., by President Vicente Fox’s former pal President Bush, by an increasingly anti-immigrant Congress and statehouses, and in the midst of Mexico’s presidential campaign, where the eviction immediately became an issue (see “Welcome to the Sheraton, Ignore the Red Stickers”):

Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez, a member of the conservative National Action Party, initially said the Mexican government would not intervene. Later, in the face of mounting criticism, he said the hotel chain had shown a "disregard for Mexican law" that could lead to "appropriate sanctions."

Mexico City's government, controlled by members of the Democratic Revolution Party, whose presidential candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, was once mayor, beat the federales to the punch. City building inspectors showed up days after the eviction.

Virginia Jaramillo Flores, the head of the city borough in which the hotel is located, said Tuesday that the inspectors had found dozens of violations at the Sheraton.

In a nation where illegal construction is the norm, the hotel was cited for allegedly failing to obtain a permit for 32,000 square feet of new construction. In addition, inspectors found two bars lacking licenses, and not enough parking spaces.

Jaramillo said city inspectors were not aware of the violations at the landmark hotel — President Kennedy stayed there in 1962 — because no one had complained before.

The closure would commence immediately and remain in effect until the offending construction was removed and 1,000 parking spaces added, Jaramillo said. Plus, there was a $15,000 fine to be paid.

An hour later, inspectors were pasting the "closed" signs on the hotel's doors, which nonetheless remained unlocked.

Of course, it’s a sort of comic-opera closure where everyone agrees quite loudly and on camera that the Hilton is closed, yes, most definitely—there’s that idea of face again—and yet it unofficially remains, most definitely, open:

Red stickers announcing that the Sheraton had been "closed down" were pasted on its front doors. Various government officials pronounced it closed, effective immediately. Mexican television announced that all guests would be evicted in two hours.

City inspectors posted a series of handwritten notes on a hotel bulletin board in half a dozen languages, telling the guests they would have to leave. Then the inspectors went home. Two hours passed. The hotel remained open.

Arriving at the hotel just after sunset Tuesday, British guest Anthony Thompson set down his bags, frowned at the "closed" signs and uttered an English expletive understood by the Mexican journalists encamped outside the lobby.

A concierge in a natty aquamarine uniform told Thompson not to worry, then escorted him into the hotel.

"It's open," the concierge told another guest in Spanish. "If the reporters ask you questions, don't answer."

Off camera, the mayor wins, the federales win, the Hilton wins. The only losers here may be the folks at Treasury, who have damaged U.S. interests by picking the worst possible time and place to enforce trading-with-the-enemy laws.

And how did they discover Cubans were staying at the Hilton in the first place?
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