News & Current Affairs

September 16, 2008

Leaders debate Bolivia turmoil


Leaders debate Bolivia turmoil

President Evo Morales speaks on arrival at Santiago airport on 15 September 2008

Mr Morales wants to give more rights to Bolivia’s indigenous community

An emergency summit of South American leaders has opened in Chile to address deepening tensions in Bolivia.

In the last week, at least 30 people have been killed in violence between government supporters and opponents.

Bolivian President Evo Morales has likened the unrest in opposition-controlled regions of his country to an attempted coup.

He said the meeting was important as democracy had to be defended not only in Bolivia but all of South America.

The unrest represents the most serious challenge to Mr Morales since he took office almost three years ago.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet called the emergency meeting of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) on Sunday, to help resolve the crisis.

Energy fears

Arriving in Santiago, Evo Morales said he had come “to explain to the presidents of South America the civic coup d’etat by governors in some Bolivian states in recent days”.

“We’ve seen looting, the ransacking of institutions, attempts to assault the police and the armed forces,” he said

The unrest centers on his decision to hold a referendum on a new constitution in December.

Bolivian Vice-President Alvaro Garcia (right) opposition leader Mario Cossio (left) hold talks in La Paz

The Bolivian vice president has held talks with an opposition representative

Mr Morales says he wants to re-distribute Bolivia’s wealth and give a greater voice to the large indigenous community.

But opposition leaders oppose the plan and demand greater autonomy as well as more control over natural gas revenues in their areas.

Trouble has flared in several eastern provinces and cities, with opposition supporters occupying government buildings. On Friday, Mr Morales declared martial law in the Pando region, which has seen deadly clashes between rival factions.

Most of the leaders of Unasur’s 12 member-nations are attending the summit in a bid to solve the crisis.

The correspondent in the region says that no one in South America wants the situation in Bolivia to escalate.

Neighboring Brazil and Argentina are particularly worried about their supplies of natural gas, which come from the east of the country where the dispute is at its most severe.

But, our correspondent adds, it is not clear what the meeting in Chile can achieve. Representatives of Bolivia’s opposition are not attending the summit.

map

There have been some talks between the two sides, however.

On Sunday night Bolivian Vice-President Alvaro Garcia met opposition representative Mario Cossio, the governor of Tarija province. They agreed to hold more talks when Mr Morales returns from Chile.

The unrest in Bolivia has triggered a downturn in relations with the US.

Last week Bolivia accused the US of supporting the opposition and expelled its ambassador. Venezuela followed suit to show solidarity and Honduras has refused to accept the credentials of a new US envoy.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said the unrest in Bolivia was “a conspiracy directed by the US empire”, likening it to the 1973 CIA-backed coup which ousted Chile’s President Salvador Allende.

The US says it regrets the recent diplomatic expulsions and has rejected Bolivia’s allegations against its ambassador.

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September 13, 2008

Expulsions stoke US-LatAm dispute

Expulsions stoke US-LatAm dispute

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

US-Venezuelan relations are said to have hit a new low

A series of tit-for-tat expulsions has left the US without ambassadors in three Latin American countries.

Bolivia and Venezuela have expelled their US envoys, accusing Washington of trying to oust Bolivia’s government.

Meanwhile, Honduras has refused the credentials of a new US ambassador, postponing his appointment.

Washington has responded by throwing out envoys from Bolivia and Venezuela and freezing the assets of three aides to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The US regretted the actions of Venezuela and Bolivia, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

“This reflects the weakness and desperation of these leaders as they face internal challenges, and an inability to communicate effectively internationally in order to build international support,” he said.

Bolivian and Venezuelan allegations – including that the US supports continuing anti-government protests in Bolivia – were false “and the leaders of those countries know it”, Mr McCormack added.

Relations between the US and Latin American opponents such as Mr Chavez had seemed to be on a holding pattern – but the situation has changed in a matter of days.

This week’s arrival in Venezuela of two Russian bomber planes taking part in a military exercise is not thought to have helped the situation.

And with more joint military exercises in the pipeline, our correspondent says it could take a while for tensions to subside.

Bolivia accusations

Freezing the assets of the three Venezuelan aides, the US Treasury accused them of “materially assisting the narcotics trafficking” of rebels in Colombia.

All three had “armed, abetted and funded the Farc, even as it terrorised and kidnapped innocents”, according to a statement from the US Treasury referring to the left-wing rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

Analysts say the trio – Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios, Henry de Jesus Rangel Silva and Ramon Rodriguez Chacin – are members of Mr Chavez’s inner circle.

Bolivian President Evo Morales (10 September)

Evo Morales accused the US envoy of meddling in Bolivia’s internal affairs

Mr Carvajal Barrios is a military intelligence director who has protected Farc drug shipments from seizure, claimed the US statement.

Mr Rangel Silva is another intelligence chief who had pushed for greater co-operation between Venezuela and the Farc, the US Treasury alleged.

And Mr Rodriguez Chacin, who until Monday was Venezuela’s justice minister, is Caracas’ main “weapons contact” for the Farc, the statement charged.

The flurry of diplomatic expulsions began on Thursday, when Bolivia threw out the American ambassador to La Paz, Philip Goldberg.

President Evo Morales said the US envoy had been siding with a violent opposition movement in the east of Bolivia, where groups are demanding greater autonomy and a bigger share of gas export revenues.

‘Go to hell’

US officials said the allegations were baseless, but nonetheless expelled the Bolivian ambassador to Washington in retaliation.

This prompted the Venezuelan leader to step into the fray alongside his Bolivian ally.

President Chavez gave US ambassador Patrick Duddy 72 hours to leave Caracas, telling him: “Go to hell 100 times.”

On Friday, Washington responded by giving the Venezuelan ambassador his marching orders.

Now Honduran President Manuel Zelaya has refused to accept the credentials of a new US ambassador.

“We are not breaking relations with the United States. We only are [doing this] is solidarity with Morales, who has denounced the meddling of the United States in Bolivia’s internal affairs,” Mr Zelaya said.

In a separate development, Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega said he supports Bolivia, but did not announce whether he would take any action against the US envoy in Managua.

A growing number of left-wing Latin American governments have backed Mr Chavez’s anti-US rhetoric.

The region has also benefited from the Venezuelan leader’s generosity with oil.

But the US is a leading trade partner and a major aid donor to Latin America, so few in the region will be happy relations have plummeted to this new low, according to our correspondent.

He says this diplomatic row is serious but will probably soon blow over, while Bolivia’s problems are only likely to get worse.

September 12, 2008

US sanctions Venezuela officials

US sanctions Venezuela officials

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

The US Treasury move comes a day after Mr Chavez expelled the US envoy

The US Treasury has frozen the assets of two senior Venezuelan officials it accuses of aiding Colombian rebels, in an escalating diplomatic row.

The US said Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios and Henry de Jesus Rangel Silva were “materially assisting the [Farc rebels’] narcotics trafficking”.

The move came as the US revealed plans to throw out Venezuela’s envoy, after Caracas expelled the US ambassador.

The US and Bolivia have also engaged in tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions.

Relations between Washington and Caracas are not thought to have been helped by this week’s arrival in Venezuela of two Russian bomber planes taking part in a military exercise.

The latest row began when Bolivia threw out the US ambassador in La Paz, Philip Goldberg, accusing him of meddling in the country’s internal affairs.

President Evo Morales said the American envoy had been openly siding with an increasingly violent opposition movement in the east of the country.

US officials said the allegations were baseless, but nonetheless expelled the Bolivian ambassador to Washington in retaliation.

This prompted the Venezuelan leader, a Bolivian ally, to step into the fray.

On Thursday, President Hugo Chavez gave US ambassador Patrick Duddy 72 hours to leave Caracas, telling him: “Go to hell 100 times.”

The spat between oil-exporting Venezuela and the US is in neither side’s interest.

The US is a leading trade partner and a major aid donor to Latin America, so few in the region will be happy relations have plummeted to this new low, says our correspondent.

September 7, 2008

Venezuela plans Russia navy visit

Venezuela plans Russia navy visit

Russian navy ships in Sevastopol

The exercises will be the first of their in the region

Venezuela says it plans to hold joint naval exercises in its territorial waters with Russian forces in November.

A senior Venezuelan naval officer said four Russian ships would take part in the exercises, which would also involve Venezuelan aircraft and submarines.

Correspondents say the move is likely to raise concern in the US, whose relations with Russia have been soured by Moscow’s recent conflict in Georgia.

Washington already has rocky relations with Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez.

In July, he called for a strategic alliance with Russia to protect Venezuela from the US.

Caracas and Moscow agreed to extend bilateral co-operation on energy, with three Russian energy companies to be allowed to operate in Venezuela.

Regional first

On Saturday, Venezuela’s Rear Admiral Salbatore Cammarata Bastidas said four Russian ships and 1,000 Russian troops would take part in exercises in Venezuelan territorial waters from 10 to 14 November.

“This is of great importance because it is the first time it is being done (in the Americas),” he said in a statement quoted by the AFP news agency and local media.

President Chavez supported Russia’s intervention in Georgia last month and has accused Washington of being scared of Moscow’s “new world potential”.

Earlier, US Vice-President Dick Cheney launched a furious attack on Russia over the recent conflict in the Caucasus.

Mr Cheney described Moscow’s actions against Georgia as an affront to civilized standards and said it was reverting back to old Soviet tactics of intimidation and the use of brute force.

He added that Russia was also seeking to use its energy resources as a weapon.

August 25, 2008

Russian MPs back Georgia’s rebels

Russian MPs back Georgia’s rebels

An Abkhaz separatist tank crewman relaxes in the Kodori Gorge on 14 August

Abkhazia used the Ossetia conflict to drive out remaining Georgian troops

Both houses of Russia’s parliament have urged the president to recognise the independence of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The unanimous votes in the Federation Council and State Duma are not binding on President Dmitry Medvedev.

But they could provide Mr Medvedev with bargaining chips in talks with the West, analysts say.

Russia fought a brief war with Georgia this month after Tbilisi tried to retake South Ossetia by military force.

Most of Russian ground forces pulled out of Georgia last Friday, following a French-brokered ceasefire agreement between Moscow and Tbilisi.

It’s a historic day for Abkhazia… and South Ossetia
Sergei Bagapsh, Abkhazian leader

But some Russian troops continue to operate near the Black Sea port of Poti, south of Abkhazia, and have established checkpoints around South Ossetia.

On Monday, a senior Russian commander said Russian troops would be carrying out regular inspections of cargo in Poti.

Moscow has defended plans to keep its forces near the port, saying it does not break the terms of the truce.

Russia has also said it will not allow aerial reconnaissance in the buffer zones it had set up.

The US, France and UK say Russia has already failed to comply with the ceasefire terms by creating buffer zones around South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Both regions have had de facto independence since breaking away in the early 1990s.

While they have enjoyed Russian economic and diplomatic support, and military protection, no foreign state has recognised them as independent states.

Since the fighting over South Ossetia ended nearly two weeks ago with the ejection of Georgian forces from both provinces, the Russian military has established controversial buffer zones along their administrative borders with Georgia proper.

‘Hitler’ comparison

The upper house, Federation Council, voted 130-0 to call on President Medvedev to support the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The lower house, the State Duma, approved the same resolution in a 447-0 vote shortly afterwards.

South Ossetians demonstrate for independence in Tskhinvali on 21 August

South Ossetians rallied for independence last week

The Federation Council speaker, Sergei Mironov, said both Abkhazia and South Ossetia had all the necessary attributes of independent states.

During the debate in the two chambers, several speakers compared Georgia’s military action in South Ossetia with Hitler’s Second World War invasion of the Soviet Union.

Both Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh and his South Ossetian counterpart, Eduard Kokoity, addressed the Russian lawmakers before the votes, urging them to recognise the independence of the two regions.

“It’s a historic day for Abkhazia… and South Ossetia,” UK said, adding that Abkhazia would never again be part of Georgia.

Mr Kokoity thanked Russia for supporting South Ossetia during the conflict with Georgia, describing President Medvedev’s move to deploy troops as “a courageous, timely and correct” decision.

He said that South Ossetia and Abkhazia had more rights to become recognised nations than Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia earlier this year with support from the US and much of the European Union.

Both houses of the Russian parliament are dominated by allies of President Medvedev and his Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin.

The lawmakers interrupted their summer holidays for extraordinary sittings, formally called at the request of separatist leaders in the two Georgian provinces.

Thousands of people attended pro-independence rallies in the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi and war-ravaged South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali on Thursday.

Kosovo or Northern Cyprus?

While both provinces have been pushing for formal independence since the break-up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Russia’s official line at least until now has been similar to that of the West, the BBC’s Humphrey Hawksley reports from Moscow.

BBC map

But in March the State Duma passed a resolution supporting independence should Georgia invade or rush to join Nato.

After Monday’s votes, the bill will be sent to the Kremlin for approval.

Analysts say the Kremlin might delay its decision while it carries out wider negotiations with the West on the crisis, says our correspondent.

If it backs the move, the two regions could apply to the United Nations for recognition, which would almost certainly be vetoed in the Security Council.

They could also ask for support from Russia’s allies from as far afield as Venezuela and Cuba, our correspondent notes.

Analysts say the two new aspirant nations could end up like Kosovo and be accepted by a substantial number of governments.

Alternatively, they could become largely isolated and recognised only by Russia, in the same way that Northern Cyprus is recognised only by Turkey.

Much of it would depend on the measure of Russia’s international influence, our correspondent adds.


Should Abkhazia and South Ossetia be independent? Can normal life ever be resumed in Georgia?

Send in your comments

August 14, 2008

Around the Olympics in 800 minutes

Courtesy BBC

Beijing

If they ever do get around to trimming tennis from the Olympics, I would like to suggest a thoroughly amateur activity to take its place: competitive spectating.

The game is simple: you watch as much live, in-the-flesh sport as possible within an allotted time.

Like cricket, there are shorter and longer versions of the game, but unlike cricket there is no time for lunch or tea. I believe the one-day format would work best at an Olympics.

It requires speed, planning and a change of shirt. I know this because I have tried it and I think I’ve set a new world record.

Beijing tour map

Between 10am and 11pm on Wednesday, I rode my mate’s mountain bike (cheers Paul) to 19 different Olympic venues and saw world-class sport in 15 of them, world-class press conferences in three more and 20 Chinese volunteers pretend to be modern pentathletes in another.

I covered about 50km, drank 20 bottles of water, went through three maps and met the entire judging panel from the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles.

Perhaps the best way to tell that story, in fact, the whole story, is to start at the beginning. So I will.

Like all elite athletes I think breakfast is the most important meal, so I decided to skip the fare on offer in the media village and have a slap-up feed in a decent hotel downtown – they may now be reconsidering that all-you-can-eat deal.

Adequately fuelled and aboard my mode of transport, I set off from the Financial District and headed southwest for the softball. The thinking here was to start at my southernmost point and move around the city in a clockwise fashion.

Having meandered my way to Fengtai, I found myself at the top of the seventh inning with China pounding Venezuela 7-1.

I can’t remember much about the game mainly because I was worrying about Paul’s bike being destroyed in a controlled explosion.

Because while Katie Melua may be right about there being nine million bikes in Beijing, none of them are welcome at an Olympic venue. Not if you ask for permission first, that is. I would learn that as the day progressed.

From softball I rode north to Wukesong to taste two more slices of Americana, baseball and basketball.

Here my arrival was not particularly well received and my gestures to say, “Can I chain my bike to this please, officer?” were met by stern shakes of the head. Perhaps they didn’t understand my gesture. Strange, I thought that one was universal.

In the end I left it behind some portaloos. I’m not proud.

I got into the baseball in time to see Canada’s Stubby Clapp (honestly, look him up) pop up to right field and was looking at my map when one of his team-mates blasted a three-run homer minutes later. That made it Canada 3-0 China.

Canada's Stubby Clapp

I then went to the basketball and watched Spain’s Anna Montanana drain a jumper for two of her 20 points in the win over the Czech Republic.

From there it was northeast towards the Capital Gymnasium and a dose of clothed women’s volleyball. To be honest, even regular volleyballers don’t wear much and there was a lot of leg on display in this clash between Russia and Kazakhstan.

The Russians were winning but the highlight for me was seeing Kazakh volleyball’s answer to Peter Crouch. I didn’t catch her name but she was wearing number five and you’d know her if you saw her.

Four hours in and I was at the Institute of Technology to see some gymnastics – the hundreds of people heading the opposite direction should have told me I was too late.

I went in anyway, though, and listened to two minutes of a Chinese press conference. As I left I heard a group of volunteers singing little ditties to each other through their megaphones. One of them might have been the girl who actually sang at the Opening Ceremony.

Table tennis was next and the hardest thing here was getting in. You see the staff are only trained to deal with very specific tasks. A journalist coming in through the main entrance (and not arriving by media bus) causes the system to grind to a halt. The fact he was sweating profusely probably didn’t help either.

This would become a recurring theme but competitive spectators have got to deal with these kinds of problems so I was able to overcome all this and catch eight different games of ping-pong at once.

Too much of a good thing? Yes, probably. I tried to concentrate on Ma Lin’s tussle with Panagiotis Gionis of Greece and not the cute Spaniard playing on the other side of the room.

China's Ma Lin in action against Panagiotis Gionis of Greece

It was judo next. Not much to say here except I filled my pockets with Oreo cookies in the media lounge and saw a Colombian beat an Italian in the women’s 70kg category.

Six hours in and it was time to wrestle. To be honest, it was all starting to blur a bit now and the only real difference I can remember between the judo and the wrestling is the costume. And it’s a big difference.

I also got lost in the bowels of the venue (I’d come in the “wrong” entrance again) and ended up in a room with 20 muscular blokes in blue blazers. They were the judges.

I eventually saw Steeve (usual spelling) Guenot beat Konstantin Schneider, apparently, and he would later win gold. Good lad.

I then pedalled hard past the Olympic Village and pushed on to my northernmost point, the Olympic Green Sports Cluster – archery, hockey and tennis.

This is where my ride started to become a cyclo-cross event. Bikes really aren’t allowed this close to the heart of the “Green Olympics” so I was forced to park and proceed by foot.

The next 30 minutes saw me show my face (very briefly) at the tennis (Nadal was winning), narrowly miss Alan Wills’ last-dart victory in the archery (I saw a Korea-Qatar match-up instead) and try to gain entrance to the Great Britain changing room at the hockey (it was locked).

That was 11 venues and 10 sports in just over seven hours. I was knackered. But then I remembered Emma Pooley’s words after her silver-medal performance: “there’s no secret, you just have to make it hurt”.

So I headed south to the Water Cube for swimming, wandered around the corridors under the pool for about 15 minutes and eventually sat down to watch Malta’s Madeleine Scerri win a three-woman, 100m freestyle heat. Now that’s what the Olympics are really about, Michael.

From there it was a short trip to the National Indoor Stadium and an even shorter stay. It was locked. But the fencing venue was just across the road for me to bring up my dozen.

Fencing, by the way, is a great sport to watch. I wish I could have stayed for longer than three minutes. That was long enough, however, to see Yuki Ota of Japan win his semi-final and go absolutely bongo.

Japan's Yuki Ota on his way to a semi-final victory over Italy

I probably should have stopped now. It was dark and I was tired, hungry and smelly. But I wanted more and I really, really wanted to see some handball.

So it was south again to the Olympic Sports Center cluster for five minutes of Norway’s demolition of Kazakhstan (I think I was bad luck for the Kazakhs all day) in the women’s event.

I will definitely return if only to hear more from the American announcer who ticked off a Norwegian player for “roughhousing”.

The next 30 minutes saw me just miss the last water polo game of the day and follow my ears to the modern pentathlon stadium, where Olympic volunteers were pretending to be show-jumping ponies and the stadium announcer was practising his medal ceremony script (he thinks Cuba is going to win).

What happened next was an Olympic event of its own – the 20-minute time-trial to the Workers’ Stadium for the last 10 minutes of the Argentina v Serbia football match.

And my lung-busting, salt-staining effort was rewarded when I flopped into a commentary position to see Diego Buonanotte curl a free-kick home from 25 yards out. Good night, indeed, Diego.

This was my 18th venue, 14th sport and 12th hour. It was time for the coup de grace. Step forward, you beauty, David Price.

Now is not the time to relay all that happened in the Workers’ Gymnasium at around 2200 local time but suffice it to say Team GB’s boxing captain hit the world number one from Russia harder than he had ever been hit before and he didn’t like it.

Cue huge celebrations from Price and his loyal band of Scouse supporters. It was also great to see his team-mates James DeGale and Joe Murray jumping in the aisles too.

So that’s the challenge. Can any of you top 15 different sports in a day?

Until I hear otherwise I’m going to assume it’s a world record. I reckon it will be safe for four years at least.

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