Saturday, July 26, 2008

Guatemala (and other) Stor(ies) at Road Junky

Update: they've now put up this one as well, which has been renamed from its original title: "Crazy Beat Nights on the Panamericana". I guess they thought the Kerouac reference was either too obscure or too pretentious...

Further update: And also this one on the Bus Busker in Latin America. Not seen before on this blog, although friends and family may have been subjected to draft versions.

The chaps at Road Junky are putting up a few of my spare travel stories -- the more gonzo ones that I never managed to get a positive response to from the New Zealand newspapers and magazines (which is not to say that my net total of positive responses is even very high). This one has currently got fifth spot on their front page -- people who know me will recognize it as one I occasionally tell when everyone is bringing out their hair-raising travellers tales over a few beers.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Immigration Bill Has Elements of the Kafkaesque


The Human Rights Commission has made a highly critical submission on the Immigration Bill in which, carefully-worded independent Crown agency that the HRC is, it also saw fit to use the expression 'kafkaesque'. The HRC also picked out for special criticism clause 9 (1) (f) -- the one discussed in my original post that makes removal, deportation or exclusions from [any] other country sufficient (or mandatory?) grounds for denial of entry to New Zealand.

There is also now an anti-Bill website, and an online petition against the Bill. Those who sign the petition are able to submit a comment with their signature.

-- original post --

The new Immigration Bill currently working its way through the New Zealand legislative process should be of grave concern to anyone who cares about civil liberties, according to two detailed articles by Gordon Campbell.

The Bill gives a frightening new range of powers to immigration officials (search, seizure and detention without warrants) and enshrines the use of secret information to make accusations against people who will have no guarantee of being able to see a summary of the evidence against them. It removes current judicial oversight of immigration proceedings. It also requires institutions, businesses and individuals (including employers or accommodation providers) to provide information on a 'suspect' and allows for this information to be provided to a broadly-defined range of overseas agencies. It provides for the compulsory collection of biometric information (including from New Zealand citizens) and fails to establish safeguards on its use.

As with other bloggers, one clause sets personal alarm bells ringing: 9 (1), which states that "no visa or entry permission may be granted, and no visa waiver may apply to any person [who]" has (a) ever been convicted of a crime punishable by at least 5 years; (b) been convicted of a crime punishable by at least 12 months in the last 10 years; or (f) "has at any time been removed, deported or excluded from another country".

One blog commenter suggested that this may just be badly drafted and that an immigration officer may -- at their discretion -- deny entry to someone deported, removed or excluded from another country, rather than denial of entry being mandatory for someone in this circumstance.

Even in this case, these conditions are draconian. Presumably 9 (1) (a) and (b) would include someone who has been a political prisoner in a state like China or Saudi Arabia. Should a human rights activist from Burma be denied entry to New Zealand because she was thrown in jail by the dictatorship?

Clause (9) (1) (f) is just crazy. In this supposedly globalised world, the nation state still carries a fair wack of arbitrary power over personal movement. The rights which citizens of many states take for granted evaporate once a border is crossed, and you can be deported, removed or excluded from a country without being anything like a criminal or badly-intentioned person. When I was in Mexico a few years ago I had the chance to chat to a guy who worked at the New Zealand embassy, who said that his colleagues at the Spanish and Italian embassies had had to process the deportations of about 100 of their citizens in the past year, who had annoyed the Mexican military by volunteering as human rights observers in Chiapas. It was with this in mind that I narrowly decided not to do the same thing myself.

As other bloggers point out, you can be refused entry to a country through a simple misunderstanding, or because some petty official doesn't like the cut of your gib. You don't have to go far to find stories of a respected British journalist detained, strip-searched and deported at LAX by paranoid US Immigration because there was an irregularity in her paperwork. Is it the intention to turn all such people away from New Zealand?

Both major parties are supporting the Bill (only the Greens and the Maori Party are likely to oppose it), so with no 'horse race'-style story available, our lamentable excuse for a mainstream media is ignoring the Bill altogether.

Campbell comments that internationally centre-left parties have been only too willing to stengthen the authoritarian reach of the state, and it has been the crusty conservatives in the British and US courts who have been the last bastion of traditional civil liberties. Unfortunately, as I've argued previously, the principles of the 'liberal' right tend to disappear in the political arena. Campbell says:

[I]n New Zealand, the centre right and its libertarian wing seem concerned merely with corporate freedom and property rights, and not with the civil rights of individuals. Thus, Act and National seem certain to applaud the extensions of state power the Bill contains, and will vote with the Government to pass them into law. Much as they may whine on about the nanny state, the centre right in New Zealand has always had a love affair with the authoritarian powers of the daddy state

So it will be down to a couple of minor parties, civil groups like the Law Society and concerned citizens to oppose this overrreaching legislation.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Rescuing Ingrid Betancourt: Unanswered Questions

If the amazing tale of the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 others by the Colombian armed forces left me with some lingering doubts, it didn't take long for a concrete conspiracy theory to appear. A French-Swiss radio station claimed to have been informed by a reliable source inside Colombia ('put to the test many times in the past') that the FARC had been paid $20 million for the release of the hostages, and that the dramatic 'rescue' was staged.

This was vehemently denied by Colombian Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos, who said the government would have no reason to deny paying for the release of hostages, when it had already established a $100 million fund in recent months to pay rewards to guerrillas who released hostages, also offering them legal benefits. Santo said it would "look worse for the FARC" for them to have sold their comrades out.

France, Switzerland and the United Stated likewise denied they had paid a single cent for the release of the hostages

Claims that Operation Jaque ('Operation Check' -- as in chess) had been run by the Americans or even the Israelis were also dispelled. Although the army has admitted recieving training and technical assistance from the US, Israel and even the British SAS, Minister Santos swore that the operation was '100 percent Colombian'.

For the curious among us, the Colombian authorities have been drip-feeding some more details about how the operation was set up and run. Apparently, it started in April when a group of military intelligence operatives who had since December been tracking the guerrilla group that held Ingrid Betancourt, infiltrated the FARC's security ring and managed to gain the confidence of 'Cesar', the guerrilla leader directly responsible for the hostages.

By May, the the infiltrators were able to move freely in the zone, and reported the co-ordinates of the FARC camp to the Colombian Special Forces.

Military intelligence then began to hatch the cinematic plan that was agreed to by army chief Mario Montoya at the beginning of June and kept secret from all but the president and a few officials.

According to reports in El Tiempo, the inflitrators got a high-ranking guerrilla, whose indentity hasn't been revealed [my italics], to convince 'Cesar' that FARC leader Alfonso Cano had ordered the hostages to be brought to him by an international humanitarian mission to discuss a prisoner exchange. The contact with the international group had supposedly been made by another top FARC leader, 'Mono Jojoy'.

The key, according to the Colombians, was the FARC's fear of using the radio, ever since the raid into Ecuador in April that killed 'Raul Reyes' in a pinpoint bombing attack. 'Cesar' was thus unable to directly confirm the arrangement with his superiors. As the time of the operation drew near, the army surrounded what was thought to be the location of 'Mono Jojoy' to intensify this nervousness about going on air.

At the same time, the goverment circulated a false report -- picked up by the BBC -- that French and Swiss representatives were in the zone where 'Alfonso Cano' was thought to be located, to give extra veracity to the story of the exchange negotiation.

Meanwhile, from the middle of June a select group of soldiers had began to rehearse the roles they would have to play as representatives of the supposed 'humanitarian mission'. They developed details such as ensuring at least one woman was among the group (as had been the case in previous unilateral liberations by the FARC), bringing a 'cameraman' and 'journalist' along on the mission, and having a couple of the crew wear Che Guevara t-shirts to inspire confidence in the guerrillas. On the morning of the 2nd of July, army chief Montoya dispatched the entrusted few from their base with inspiring words and a reading from the Acts of the Apostles -- the one where Peter is rescued by an angel from the clutches of Herod.

The rest is history, with the moment of the hostages' liberation now available around the world in this edited video.

It's a fascinating account, but there's still something about it that seems not quite complete. There's a logistical void between the story of the 'infiltrator' bringing supposed messages from the FARC leaders to the hostage camp, and the detailed arrangements of the time and place for the helicopter pickup by the 'humanitarian organisation'. According to El Tiempo, the 'messenger' who was really a military agent, brought a message from Alfonso Cano approving the plan in the third week of June. The rescue was two weeks later, on the 2nd of July. How were the exact arrangements of time and place made, and why was 'Cesar' so sure he could trust them?

Athough the FARC may have been fearful enough to maintain radio silence, was there no way for 'Cesar' to get independent confirmation from one of his superiors, which didn't come from somebody who he'd only known since April?

If I had to hazard a guess at what we aren't being told, it would involve the mysterious 'high-ranking guerilla' who helped the military infiltrators. My guess would be that this person might be a bit higher ranking than has been suggested, and that the nature of the deal struck with him (or her) will not be publicly revealed.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

A Perspective from Inside Burma

The world (as defined by the international media) is now largely 'moving on' from the devastating cyclone Nargis in Burma/Myanmar, but of course reality proceeds at a more sluggish pace.

Recently I've been forwarded a couple of updates from a development practitioner working for an international NGO inside Burma and trying to assist the relief effort. The observations from this practitioner -- who we'll call 'John' -- provide a perspective that is different from the potted reports on the news wires. At times they read a little like an except from Catch-22.

In the first communique several weeks ago, 'John' described sitting in frustration in a comfortable hotel in Rangoon. All foreigners were restricted from visiting the affected areas in the Irawaddy delta, able only to blindly funnel aid through in the hope that it would reach the right people. The NGOs in the country were having proposals approved and were receiving funds, but were unable to obtain any detailed information from the affected areas or deploy staff skilled in programme logistics.

Meanwhile, great effort was going into restoring the ornamental parks of the capital to their former prettiness. Cranes, heavy machinery and workers toiled each day to repair the damage. At the same time, the principal waterways of the capital were still contaminated by rotting corposes, which were pushed away from the banks with long bamboo poles in the hope that they would float out to sea. It was too late for indentification, and John speculated that perhaps his 'host' didn't want to count the numbers dead, or couldn't spare the equipment for digging mass graves -- tied up as it was in the important task of park restoration.

Three weeks later, John forwarded another update. He had finally made it to the delta (six weeks late) and was endeavouring to take stock of the situation. What he found was a little different from the picture painted in the international media.

He said it was clear that many people had died needlessly, the Burmese regime cared little for the people, and there was a need for targeted humanitarian intervention.

Yet, as far as he could see, the local people had largely got on with the task of struggling through and rebuilding. In Bogale (one of the worst hit areas), by the time he arrived things seemed quite normal, the streets were clean, and all business were open.

Perhaps through no fault of the NGOs and the donors, the aid was late, and in many cases inappropriate. Post-hurricane, the 'experts' had worried about the risk of water-borne disease. International NGOs had arranged for airdrops of expensive water-purification kits, and a 747 had been chartered to bring in 15,000 50-litre plastic buckets. Yet this has turned out to be far less of an issue than predicted. Burmese village houses have guttering made of a split bamboo pole down which water runs into large clay pots (cheaper than and superior to the imported plastic buckets). Being monsoon season, there was plenty of clean drinking water and the rains were washing away parasites and mosquito eggs, meaning there wasn't much risk of water-borne disease or malaria.

Another practitioner with a food aid programme had returned from outlying villages where they had been distributing 'Kitchen Sets', complete with pots, pans, forks and spoons. He reported that people in the villages were quite mystified, having no idea what a spoon was used for.

The NGOs and development practitioners were left scratching their heads. Donor agencies had flooded the country with money and expensive equipment intended for an emergency which had largely passed and which in some cases was effectively useless. John wondered how much the donors really cared, given the overriding western agenda to open Burma up, and the opportunity to pump in money and people that the hurricane had offered.

On the other hand, the generals of the Burmese regime had seen this coming. Given their overriding interest in maintaining control of the country, their initial move of restricting the movement of aid workers, and ensuring they had little information about conditions in the hurricane-affected areas, made perfect logical sense.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

The Amazing Rescue of Ingrid Betancourt

The way it's being told by news sources, it was like something out of Biggles or Boy's Own. Six years after being kidnapped by FARC guerillas, former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt was today dramatically rescued by the Colombian military along with four US military contractors and eleven members of the Colombian police and armed forces.

Ever since she and running mate Clara Rojas wandered into FARC-controlled territory during the 2002 presidential campaign, Betancourt has been by far the most high-profile hostage of the guerilla group. With her political profile and dual French/Colombian citizenship, she went beyond just being a long-suffering hostage trapped in the jungle, to become a centre of political intrigue. French president Nicolas Sakorzy had personally sworn to secure her liberty. Hugo Chavez aimed to win kudos by leading the negotiations to free her and the other hostages, and was furious when Colombian leader Alvaro Uribe froze him out of this role in November 2007.

Uribe was then seen to have made a faux pas when he authorised the cross-border raid into Ecuador that killed FARC leader 'Raul Reyes' in March. Not only did this create an international incident, but Reyes had also been the main point of contact for international representatives -- including Chavez and Sakorzy -- that were seeking to negotiate Betancourt's release. With the FARC put on the defensive and Betancourt's health rumoured to be deteriorating, hopes of a timely negotiated solution had been deflated. Yet now it's Uribe and the Colombian military who have come up trumps.

Here's the story of the rescue, as told by official news outlets, and narrated in a press conference by Betancourt herself, shortly after her release, clad in army fatigues and looking in remarkably good order for someone who has spent so long in jungle captivity.

Members of the Colombian armed forces infiltrated the FARC unit responsible for holding the key hostages. The infiltrators managed to have three separate groups of hostages brought together in the jungle south of Bogota, and to convince the local FARC commandant 'Cesar' that the hostages were to be transferred to another site in the helicopter of a fictitious organisation that was supposedly negotiating with current FARC chief Alfonso Cano.

As narrated by Ingrid Betancourt herself, early on Wednesday morning, two white helicopters landed in the jungle clearing. Men identifying themselves as delegates of an unknown international organisation, but wearing Che Guevara t-shirts, got out and spoke with the FARC leaders. But no sooner had the helicopter which was transporting the hostages taken off, than it was revealed to belong to the Colombian armed forces. The four FARC guards were quickly overpowered, and the crew of the helicopter announced; "we're the Colombian army; you're freed". According to Betancourt, the helicopter then nearly crashed, as all the hostages jumped up with joy.

Of course, the release of the hostages is great news. And as a victory for law and order without a drop of blood being spilled, it ranks alongside the Peruvian police sifting through the garbage behind a Lima apartment to track down Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman. Betancourt glowingly speculated that only the Israeli special forces could have pulled off a comparable operation.

For Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, it's a massive victory, for him personally and for his no-compromise approach to the FARC. He and the Colombian army were made to appear magnanimous and humanitarian, as they reportedly left untouched another 60 or so guerillas that were in the same area, and which they had surrounded.

But I wonder if anyone else thinks there is something too good to be true about the story? How did the army operatives infiltrate the FARC so successfully? Were they on the ground with the other guerillas in the same zone, and if so, how long had they been there? And how were the battle-hardened FARC guerillas tricked so easily into delivering their crucial bargaining chip into the hands of an unknown group? Why did the freed American contractors not appear before the Colombian media but were flown straight to the US?

I wonder if there isn't a more complicated tale to be told -- and whether in fact the full story will ever be known.