Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bush 2.0

Medea Benjamin and I have a new piece up saying mean things about our president during a time of war. Check it out.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The speech

You can call it too little too late, but last night President Obama finally -- and in no uncertain terms -- condemned Israel's 2008-2009 assault on the Gaza Strip, which killed more than 1,400 Palestinians:
"Innocent people were targeted for killing. Hospitals and ambulances were attacked. Journalists were arrested, sexually assaulted, and killed. Supplies of food and fuel were choked off. Water for hundreds of thousands of people ... was shut off. Cities and towns were shelled, mosques were destroyed, and apartment buildings reduced to rubble. Military jets and helicopter gunships were unleashed upon people who had no means to defend themselves against assaults from the air."
Haha, jk! Obama was talking about Afghanistan Iraq Libya. Worth pointing out, though: whether it's in Gaza or Misrata, assaults on civilians are being carried out with American weapons. So, you know, hurray freedom!

The funniest, laugh-out-loud line of the speech:
"Mindful of the risks and costs of military action, we are naturally reluctant to use force to solve the world’s many challenges."
... says the guy who has deployed U.S. special forces in more than 75 countries and oversees a global empire that maintains military bases in more than 130 nations.

My take: Dude's funnier than Bush. More full of himself, too.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

I don't know where I'm a gonna go


On the one hand, he offered to hook me up with some weed. On the other – through a combination of simple inexperience and what can only be termed sheer, unmitigated dumbfuckery – he almost got me killed, at least two dozen times, on the side of an active volcano.

No hard feelings, though. I suppose that's what you get for being that one-in-a-hundred tourist (i.e., jackass) who insists – demands – to be taken not just to the viewing area three-quarters the way up Volcan Concepcion like all the other good little sightseers, but to the motherfucking top. Like, looking-into-the-crater-and-inhaling-a-year's-worth-of-sulfur top.

After all, I paid 20 American dollars, damn it.

Usually when I visit a place or move somewhere new, I  wait a few days, maybe even a few weeks, before doing something deathly stupid. I'm old fashion: I need to settle down in to a place before I can feel comfortable risking the lives of myself and those around me.

Not in Ometepe.

After spending a wonderfully lazy two months on Nicaragua's Pacific coast living in the beach town of San Juan del Sur – if you ever visit, I'm the white guy who doesn't have dreads – I took the occasion of a friend visiting from the states to visit Ometepe, a volcanic island situated in the freshwater lake that dominates Nicaragua's geography. Consisting of two volcanoes, Concepcion and Maderas – the former still active – Ometepe is beautifully green even during the height of the dry season, with Capuchin monkeys as common as stray dogs.

If San Juan del Sur is a place where time slows down, then Ometepe is where it stops altogether – or goes to die, with the pace of life what Nicas would call “muy tranquilo,” or “slow as fuck” (not an exact translation). A typical day here is hanging with your family by the beach, swimming and catching fish that is then cooked into a soup renowned for its supposed ability to cure all that it ails you.

In recent years, tourism has picked up on the island, with the main town of Moyogolpa lined with hostels, bike rentals and pizza places. And why not? It's gorgeous. It's got monkeys and volcanoes. And, perhaps most importantly, beer is cheaper than water, though it tastes roughly the same.

With the pickup in the tourism industry, many locals have taken up jobs as guides, taking tourists, an unusual number from Germany and Canada, up the sides of its twin volcanoes.

Jesse, a rotund, jovial 29-year-old, was to be my guide. At an all-too early 6:30 in the morning, he and Miguel -- introduced as his "friend," which I later learned meant he wasn't an actual, knows what he's doing guide -- arrived at my hostel ready to kick some volcanic ass.

I had no idea what I was setting out to do. Nor could I have predicted that, over the next eight ours, Miguel would repeatedly – perhaps unknowingly, perhaps not – try to kill me.

I blame my friend. Just 40 minutes into what was to be an all-day hike, said friend called it quits, wheezing and heaving with a look of death upon his face. Unable to walk any further, he turned back with Jesse – the dude who knew what he was doing – presumably to find a nice cool, comforting place to die. As it turns out, his recovery was quick: despite not speaking a word of Spanish beyond “cerveza,” the asthmatic friend spent the rest of the day with Jesse the Guide biking, swimming and, so I hear, smoking copious amounts of Guatemalan ganja.

I, by contrast, spent the day battling to maintain my will to live. Dick.

At first hiking with Miguel was fine. Chill. Tranquilo. About 90 minutes after ditching mi amigo muerto, we reached a clearing – just beneath the clouds that envelop the top of the volcano – where you could enjoy a brisk breeze and a stunning view of the island and mainland Nicaragua. Next to us was a group of college-age German students talking German and whatever else it is German people do. This, I was later informed, is where 99 percent of people stop and turn around.

Not I. “Arriba,” I said, a look of disdain on my face for the mere mortals around me who would go through life never knowing what it is like to almost die on a volcano. “Arriba.”

A half hour later I found myself climbing – not hiking – up the side of what felt like a foreign planet (a feeling exacerbated by my having watched too much Star Trek growing up), the crumbling, volcanic rocks disturbingly hot to the touch, all signs of life long since vanished. It was both fascinating and unsettling.

And then it started raining.

But hey, I can roll with the punches, thought your idiot narrator. And at least I'm with someone who knows where they're going. Right?

Another hour of climbing volcanic rock that tumbled down, nearly taking you with it, whenever touched, and we reached the crater – or rather, we got 10 feet below it. That's when my guide sat down, refusing to walk further and simply pointing to where I -- if I were so stupid -- could go to look over and into the sulfur-spewing lake of death. If I wanted (hint: don't do it). Why, I inquired? “Tengo miedo,” he replied. “Tengo miedo.” (I'm scared.)

Great.

After glancing into the sulfuric, cloudy abyss for about all of five seconds, a bit freaked out by my suddenly not so macho guide's fear – totally worth it! – we began the descent into my own personal hell.

Before the hike, I had heard going up to the crater was dangerous, “peligroso,” and that I really shouldn't do it. But then, I heard that from my guide, so I assumed he just didn't want to go all the way to the top, preferring to stop where those German tourists did so they could make it back home in time for American Idol. And while I may be stupid -- painfully so -- I ain't no sucker.

Or so I thought. As I discovered, if it's “dangerous” to climb up to the very top of Volcan Concepcion with nothing more than running shoes in the way of gear it's plain stupid -- like really, really you-fucked-up stupid -- to climb back down.

Thanks to the zig-zagging pattern we took going up and my guide-who-wasn't-really's unfamiliarity with the volcano, we spent the next four hours falling on our asses (by my count, at least 100 times between us) while engaged in the sort of death-defying jackassery that, though it didn't kill us, frankly should have prevented us from ever passing on our genes.

When I found myself overlooking a huge 100 foot drop in front of me, a 150 foot fall into a lava-formed river to the left of me and another 50 foot drop to right is probably when I first thought I might actually, for-real die. Though my guide coached me out of that position (I ended up having to retrace my steps and climb – and I mean rock-climbing wall climb – another 200 feet back up), I could only think, “Jesus, aren't you supposed to have equipment to do this shit?”

And then I saw one of the hooks drilled into the stone next to me that, you know, rock climbers use to tie their rock-climbing ropes to.

Shit.

By the time, after 90 minutes of descent, we found ourselves on the wrong, barren side of the volcano – just 20 sloping feet away from a huge drop to Ometepe below – I had gone through about two dozen such near-death experiences. And not oh shit, I'm-asking-my-crush-to-homecoming scary, but like in a this-ain't-Disney-World-this-is-real-fucking-life, is-it-socially-acceptable-to-cry scary. The only comforting thought I had was that if I did in fact die on this rock, it would be an undeniably bad-ass way to go.

“So did you hear what happened to Charles?”

“Nah, what?”

“He got his ass killed climbing a volcano in Mexico or some shit. And get this: they never found the body.”

“Fuckin' gnarly, dude. Man, I hope I die on a volcano. Like, while I'm doing it. With a chick.”

“You and me both, bro'."

*Spoiler Alert*: I didn't die. After several more hours of going up and down the side of the volcano (who was a total asshole, by the way), my guide – when not trying to inconspicuously whistle for help – repeatedly declaring “estamos cerca... estamos cerca," which, invariably, meant we were lost again.

On our fifth (!) attempt down, we made it back to the trail, meaning we had just a measly four hours to go. And you don't know how happy that made me. Now if I were to die, it would be because I ran out of water two hours earlier, not because I tripped and bashed my head in on a rock, dying agonizingly slow as I waited for a helicopter that was not to come.

I found that comforting.

Finally in something resembling safety, my guide and I became more relaxed, only partly due to our mutual dehydration. After a brief discussion of acclaimed musical artists Cypress Hill, he pulled out the bag of weed that, I regret saying, I now believe may have been a contributing factor, if not the cause, of our four hours of wandering lostness. This brief respite was fatally tarnished, however, by the final, gut-punching insult of the day: he didn't have any papers.

What if I just made it look like the coconuts attacked him, I wondered. The perfect crime.

After annoyingly remembering my commitment to non-violence -- god damn principles -- I decided to spare Miguel. Not before winking at a coconut, though.

While I can joke about it now, for a time I honestly thought there was a better than 50/50 chance I would die on that volcano -- which, as I mentioned, would be pretty fucking bad ass. For several hours, I was left to ponder how I might fashion a message to my girlfriend that I love her -- and gosh, it would be awful nice if you'd delete the porn off my computer.

At least I learned a few lessons for the next time I get an asshole idea like "hey, let's climb a volcano" -- like, before you leave, make sure your guide is competent. And most importantly: bring papers.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

But how would Boeing & friends make money?

In our latest column, Medea Benjamin and I take on the "humanitarian" case for war in Libya and argue that, instead of the currently vogue cruise missile liberalism -- which, by the way, entails not just bombing dictators, but those forced to live under them -- the U.S. government would be better off simply ending its practice of funding, arming and otherwise propping up dictatorial regimes that oppress their own people. Rather than fire cruise missiles that will inevitably kill the people they are ostensibly being fired to save, the U.S. could simply stop providing such deadly weapons to the not-so-good folks in client-states like Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain.

That assumes, of course, that the U.S. and its coalition partners' motivation is protecting innocent life wherever it may be threatened and not, let's say, safeguarding certain natural resources and corporate investments. I have my doubts.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The traveling salesman

The United States is the world's biggest arms dealer -- guns and bombs are the only thing America really makes anymore -- and Barack Obama is the national-salesman-in-chief, jetting across the globe to sell foreign governments on how, with no down payment and low APR financing, they can be the proud owners of a U.S.-made weapon of mass murder. He'll even throw in a free undercoating.

While those who fetishize political power and the cult of the presidency would like us all to believe the American head of state meets with his counterparts abroad to engage in weighty, high-minded discussions about John Rawls and the burden of maintaining the social contract, the reality is Obama -- like Bush, like Clinton, like Reagan -- is little more than a well-dressed shill for the military-industrial complex. But don't take my word for it.

"President Barack Obama made a strong pitch for the Boeing F-18 jet fighter in a meeting with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff," the White House announced on Sunday, according to Reuters.

Not willing to let a U.S. Manufacturer of Death lose out to some limp-wristed French company, "President Obama underscored that the F-18 is the best plane on offer," Dan Restrepo, the Leader of the Free World's top adviser on Latin America, told reporters. And boy, would you listen to that baby purr?

This is the reality, folks -- *cough* liberals. When you cried over this empty suit's election, so did Lockheed Martin's board of directors, which finally had an eloquent new spokesmodel to replace that tired, twangy one. And since taking office, Obama has served them well, waxing eloquently one day about the virtues of democracy, bringing tears to the eyes of the liberal faithful at home and in Norway, and the next selling $60 billion in fighter jets to the dictatorship in Saudi Arabia.

But that the U.S. president is a shill for Corporate America isn't exactly breaking news; it's part of the job description. Still, Obama's sales trip to Brazil does highlight something else: what separates a moderate Latin American reformer from a thuggish Latin American tyrant. As the article from Reuters notes, Brazilian President Rousseff's decision earlier this year to restart the bidding process for the purchase of American fighter jets was seen as "one of the earliest signs of the pro-U.S. shift under her administration"; it wasn't her commitment to freedom, liberty and apple pie -- it was her willingness to buy flying war machines that say "Made in America."

Hugo, Evo, Rafael, Danny -- take note: If you want that imperial power to the North off your back and to be seen as "pro-U.S." in the eyes of the Washington foreign policy establishment, just purchase some war-tested, Obama-approved American weapons. After all, it's better to buy them now than to have them delivered whether you like it or not.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Looking back at a crime against humanity

With the U.S. and its allies inching closer to a war to "liberate" Libya from the man they just six months ago were arming with the finest weapons stolen oil money can buy, it's worth looking back at that war crime of yesteryear -- the 2003 invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation, which celebrates its eighth anniversary on Saturday -- and how that previous war of liberation (or rather, imperial aggression) worked out.

And oh, hey, it looks like Medea Benjamin and I did just that in our latest piece, "From 'Liberation' to Occupation," which you can read over at Counterpunch.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Whistleblowers and neocons

My latest piece for Inter Press Service on the problems whistleblowers at the World Bank and other multilateral lending institutions (say that 10 times fast) is now up.

The Institute for Policy Studies' "Right Web" project has also published a lengthy piece of mine on neoconservatives' views on Latin America and U.S. policy toward the region.

Coming Soon: How this bastard almost killed me.

Sunday, March 06, 2011