Friday, June 23, 2006

Quick Update

Well, it's been a very busy week. I'm teaching an awful lot of English at the moment, which is both bad and good. The good is that I'm making a bit of money. The bad is that I'm not really enjoying teaching English very much. Well, at times it's bearable, at other times it's pretty bad. For now, it's good for us, but it's clearly not a long term solution. Half the time I'm wishing class will finish quickly (English) and the other half, I'm wishing class would last longer (Spanish).

The Spanish is progressing. I'm at the point where I can understand an awful lot and I can read pretty well (when the vocabulary allows), but I'm still not speaking properly. Sometimes it's pretty frustrating, but I have patience. I've been here for 3 months, so I have to measure my progress accordingly. Still, the sooner I become reasonably fluent, the better.

Very soon (as in the next 5 minutes), I'm grabbing a cab, picking up the wife, and heading to the airport. She has a conference in Cartagena this weekend and we're going for the weekend. I'm excited. She'll only have to work about half the time and Monday is a holiday, so we'll be able to spend some quality time.

Anyway, we're moving on the 1st of July and things are pretty busy right now. Hopefully things will even out and I'll be able to post more regularly at some point.

Monday, June 19, 2006

June 18, 2006

As I type this on a truly glorious father’s day, I’m in a finca (country house) that we rented for the weekend. In fact, more accurately, I’m sitting in a hamocka (hammock) and resting contentedly before I start up the barbeque for lunch. Pleasantly listening to the Gypsy Kings as well. Nothing like a little “Bem, bem, bem Maria” or the soothing melodies of “Allegria”. Not to shabby for a bunch of Spaniards.

At any rate, the finca is about 70 kilometers in the direction of Medellin – which is more or less northwest. The house is a modest three bedroom property with a private pool, a barbeque pit, numerous areas for lounging (ahem, drinking) and a very calm atmosphere.

The finca is sandwiched amidst a variety of medium sized mountains and it just has the feel of a place that one could never experience in the US. In fact, this place vividly reminds me of a scene in Contact when Jodie Foster’s character was in Central America, a tropical place, and it started raining suddenly to relieve the humidity. That’s happened twice already. It’s totally amazing to be swimming in the pool or sitting in a deck chair and then suddenly, with no warning, it’s a downpour for the next 10 minutes.

The drive through the mountains was one of the most visually impressive experiences I’ve had in my life. Never had I seen such vividly green valleys, sharply rising peaks, and scenic views that stretch for miles. Each bend of road revealed new scenery, new details, and new pueblitos (small towns). Leaving Bogotá gives on a more authentic Colombian experience. Of course, living in the big city is great, but to truly see how most of the people live, well, traveling to the country shows a different Colombia.

In some senses, the country reminds me of the Cotswold in England. The Cotswold is a vast hilly plain (similar to the llanos here) that engulfs the southwestern portion of England (and by England, I mean, England – not Whales or Scotland or the entire UK). The plain is beautiful and stretches for miles…much like the plains here in Colombia. The difference, of course, is that when you’re amidst the Andes, you can see the vast expanse of terrain in all of its beauty from an ideal vantage point.

Truly, Colombia is one of the most beautiful places in the world. As far as I know, no other country has the mixture of terrains that Colombia has. The country has deserts, swamps, jungles, plains, mountains, snowcapped peaks, and fantastic beaches. It has hills and valleys, farms and cities, and everything in between. With the possible exception of China (I only know what I see from kung fu), I don’t think another country in the world has the same mixture. As they say, “Colombia, Que lindo pais.”

Friday, June 16, 2006

Free Trade v. Fair Trade

I got into a fairly heated argument in Spanish class today. Actually, it should be referred to as "compounded stupidity" because anytime you try to argue in Spanish with a couple of gringos, well, you're going to have misunderstandings.

At any rate, two gringas took exception to my claim that "fair trade" is little more than a stepping stone to "free trade". Ok, that's not exactly how I described it. I said that fair trade is similar to free trade - which I suppose passionate (and idealist) advocates would take exception to (and of course, I take exception to them). Their argument was that "fair trade" was antithetical to free trade because it opposed lifting trade barriers, for example. My claim was that "fair trade" is merely a stepping stone to "free trade" because it seeks to protect vulnerable, less advantaged countries from economic powerhouses like the US and Europe, as least in the short term.

Maybe I'm wrong. But if I am, I shouldn't be. And here's why.

It's totally unrealistic to assume that the inevitable global march to free trade can be arrested by a handful of semi-violent protesters or clever NGO's that operate in the developing world. In fact, I believe it's irresponsible to dedicate vast amounts of time, energy, capital, and intellectual prowess directed at achieving that goal. Instead, passionate advocates should focus on integrating their "fair trade" ideas into the WTO free trade process. I'm totally in favor of protecting vulnerable developing markets from economic giants that actively subsidize their domestic industries...for a time, at least. But at no point will I argue that free trade should be halted or reversed.

Here's an example. Colombia recently completed a free trade deal with the US. While the exact terms of the deal are unknown (it hasn't been released publicly), it is clear that there will be some tangible benefits. For example, cars and electronics are more expensive in Colombia than in the US. Why is that? Well, simply, because of trade tarriffs. If the new deal removes those tarriffs, those prices will drop - in some cases by about 30%. That's good for Colombian consumers and US industries.

Of course, the flip side is that the agreement may negatively impact Colombian agricultural industries because the US has large subsidies that make US grain, for example, artificially competitive. That's a bad thing. The real risk is that US ag will jeopardize the longterm competitiveness of Colombian industries - but not because the US companies are better, smarter, or work harder. This is where "fair trade" comes in. Free trade doesn't mean that all trade has to be tarriff free immediately. Some can be protected for a time, especially when it's in the best interests of the regional or global economy.

And this is where the "free trade" activists divorce themselves from reality. See, no examination of global macroeconomic forces can ignore those very forces. It's inconceivable that someone could advocate altering the global march to free trade without examining the long term development impacts and economic factors of the dominant nations. What I'm aiming for here is that rich nations don't do jack squat for charity - they act for self-interest. Like it or not, the annals of history testify that strong nations do good things when it's in their interests, as well as the interests of the weaker parties. So, when I hear overly optimistic and ideological leftism, well, it pisses me off because I feel it does a disservice to the very subject they care so passionately about and taints leftists as myopically idealistic and disconnected from reality.

But hell, I'm a pragmatist, so maybe I just can't ever understand idealism in it's varying forms. Of course, don't take my word for it. Just take a gander at the Millenium Challenge Corporation. As best as I can tell, it's a realistic initiative to provide economic development to underdeveloped nations in the hopes that they can join the global economic community.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Otras Cosas

Ok, so the big news out of Iraq this week is that after several months of tracking, intel, and secret stuff, the US managed to take out Al-Queda leader Zarqawi. This is being hailed as a great success.

Like one of the best movie lines of all time, "Let's not start sucking each other's d*cks just yet, ok?"

First of all, what the hell is Al-Queda and who the hell was Zarqawi. In short, not much and no one. "Terrorism" in Iraq is not being waged by Al-Queda. Sure, the loosely organized group that the US press likes to call Al-Queda operates in Iraq. But to suggest that Al-Queda is running the opposition is akin to suggesting that I'm in charge of Amway. Even our gloriously profound President admitted as much the other day.

And really, aside from providing foreign recruits, what does Al-Queda have to do with Iraq? Look, we're fighting, and losing a war we can't win. This is a domestic conflict that we ignited by taking out a stabilizing (bastard) named Saddam Hussein. Even a rank novice of the history of the Middle East is aware that the Shiite-Sunni conflict has long, deep, and religiously significant roots spanning the centuries. Like it or not, US policymakers woefully underestimated the extent, significance, and tenacity of this historical conflict and now the people of Iraq are paying a grave price. I hate to say it, but they were undoubtedly better off with Saddam.

At least in the short run. In the long run, the US led invasion might turn out to have transformative effects on Iraq and the whole Middle East. It's a possibility that can't be discounted. But don't sell that to the countless thousands that have paid the price for simply wanting to live and prosper. First they had a tyrannical and occassionally genocidal dictator that we propped up (hello Mr. Rumsfeld), now they have a constant fear of a different sort.

On a completely different note, and something I haven't seen written anywhere, I'm fairly certain that releasing photos of a dead Zarqawi is a clear violation of the Geneva Convention, which the US is a party to. The first protocol to the Convention states unequivocally that, "the remains of persons who have died for reasons related to occupation or in detention resulting from occupation or hostilities ... shall be respected, and the gravesites of all such persons shall be respected, maintained, and marked."

I don't believe that braggadocio photos of Zarqawi is in accordance with the "rights and dignities" afforded to enemy combatants. This is especially true since it is US policy not to produce photos of US war dead or even allow their coffins to be videoed coming off the plane, something the State Department has claimed is necessary to preserve the dignity of US war dead.

Of course, Bush's State Department would probably claim that Zarqawi is not an "enemy combatant" because the Geneva Convention only applies to nation-nation conflicts and not insurgencies...a dangerous precedent at best. But of course, along with the rest of the fecal matter spewing forth from the Bush admin, the argument is fatally flawed. Article 2 cleary states that even if one of the "Powers" in a conflict is not a party to the treaty, the signatory power is still bound by the tenents of the treaty. I.E. The US is a party, insurgents aren't, and it don't matter.

Of course there's a whole 'nuther factor that should be considered when having any international legal debate and thats the principle of customary international law. "Jus cogens," as the term is formally known, states that common international practices become accepted as having the force of law when a majority of nations behave in the same way for an extended period of time. For example, it's "custom" not to invade your neighbors. Assuming there wasn't a treaty to govern the international rules of conflict (there is), it would still be impermissable to invade, say, Canada without just cause.

So, even if the US wanted to argue that the Geneva Conventions refer to "nations" and not "terrorists," a fine distinction that they would invitably lose in Court, it still wouldn't matter because Jus Cogens requires nations to refrain from a variety of practices, including publishing undignified pictures of war dead...especially to gloat. I'm not an expert, but I'm fairly certain this is an open and shut case.

At any rate, killing Zarqawi did prove one thing: when you drop 1,000 pounds of explosives on a dude's house, there's a better than average chance dudes gonna have a really bad day and might even die. Way to go USA!

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