Friday, April 29, 2005

Remembering one democracy activist

Last September, I mentioned an article in the New York Times Magazine about Fern Holland, the 33-year-old idealistic lawyer from Oklahoma who was, along with Bob Zangas, the first civilian employee of the Coalition Provisional Authority to be killed in Iraq.

Today I received a letter from her sister, which I'm placing here in full:
David -

You didn't know Fern and neither did Rubin. Nor was Rubin interested in the "life of Fern Holland"; she wrote a political piece and used Fern as a vehicle for "her" story. In time the truth will be revealed, then you might want to reconsider Rubin's sources and what you think you know about Fern.

Fern did not attempt to impose her ideals about "women's rights".....She was instilling the ideals of freedom in all of the Iraqis. She was not a "feminist", she was a soldier of human rights. The media has turned her into a "women's rights activist". They fail to mention all the Human Rights and Democracy centers she opened; helping primarily men.

Before Fern's death she co-authored, with Professor John Norton Moore of Virginia, a concept/proposal for the creation of a permanent democracy and rule of law educational institute in Africa. She was seekinReg funding for this project when she was offered the opportunity to serve democracy and the people of Iraq. I'm proud to inform you that this project was recently funded; Freedom House was granted "seed money" for the creation of a Fern Holland Democracy Institute in Africa.

I recently returned from Guinea West Africa where I spent two weeks retracing Fern's steps and documenting her work. The legal aid clinic in Nzerekore now bears her name and the staff of the clinic in Kissidougou requested a name change as well. I interviewed numerous women and men who worked with Fern and who benefited from the services of the clinics. I also interviewed Guinean lawyers who worked many long hours investigating the crimes, researching the laws, and helping to create the clinics. Still to this day, as they speak of Fern, tears spill down their checks....I found Fern still alive in the hearts of these amazing people, 8000 miles away from our home, in her beloved Africa.

There has been a tremendous amount of interest, from the film industry, in Fern's murder. But my sister would not want to be remembered because of her death or the brutal way she died. She would want to be remembered because of her life and the way she lived. Fern held two core beliefs: that all people deserve basic human rights, and that one person really can make a difference in the lives of others - and, she did.

All the best and warm wishes David.

Vi Holland

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

On the new pope

Really, no time for this, so I'm just going to quote something I came across in the comments section of a post on Ratzinger in TalkLeft, by Conscious Angels:

I am a little disappointed that they have selected a Catholic again. I think a Unitarian would have shaken things up a bit.

If you want a more conservative era, go with a Southern Baptist, but no the Cardinals did it again, another Catholic. How many is that now in a row?

Has anyone explained diversity to the folks at Vatican City?

At least a latin american would have been familiar with the language. What does a German guy know about latin?

Friday, April 08, 2005

Foreign Affairs pop quiz

So I had a little fun last night, and played WorldQuest with the Maine Council on World Affairs. My Latin America expertise came in handy at a few points, but it also highlighted out a glaring blind spot for me.

Ready to play? No cheating:
Ellen Gracie Norfleet is most well-known as....

a) the first female admiral in the Canadian Navy
b) the president of UNIFEM
c) the first female justice of the Brazilian Supreme Court
d) the provost of the United Nations University
The answer is here.

How about this one:
How are North and South Korea most dissimilar:

a) literacy rate
b) population
c) life expectancy
d) (can't remember)
After arguing against an emerging consensus that it must be literacy (based on my Latin American experience that socialist countries do quite a good job on that score), the answer turned out to be: b) population. In other words, in social-economic terms the two countries are not all that dissimilar.

Okay, so getting back to the first question, if Randy Paul is out there anywhere, could you please recommend a couple of books for me to brush up on Brazil basics? I also thought Brazil might be the top exporter of cocoa in the world. After all, in recent years all those yummy Brazilian chocolates turned up in Salvadoran supermarkets.

The answer: Ivory Coast. (Note: they also use child slaves to harvest cocoa beans.)

Maine and Chile

I'd never heard of John O'Leary, a former mayor of my new hometown (Portland, Maine) and former US Ambassador to Chile, until I read this week in the local paper that he'd died. Sounded like a decent guy.

But then I just saw that Marc Cooper sings his praises:
Not only was John O’Leary a warm and personable man, but he did everything he could to rectify the American record, the American presence in Chile. He opened his Embassy to all, regardless of their political stripe. And after General Pinochet’s arrest in 1998, Ambassador O’Leary took aggressive measures to expose archives of U.S. documents on Chile to public scrutiny. As American Ambassador he also helped support the opening of new investigations into the deaths of three Americans, including Charlie Horman, the subject of the classic Costa-Gavras film, Missing. For international human rights activists working to clarify the record of the Pinochet era, Ambassador O’Leary was a reliable and stalwart ally.

...He was, in short, the best face that America could put forward to the world. Indeed, his approach, his compassion, and his sensibilities are all quite the opposite of the American diplomacy we see today.

How to sabotage democracy

Reading Denise Dresser's piece in the Los Angeles Times on the attempted take-down of Lopez Obrador -- Mexico City mayor and leading presidential candidate -- reminds me of how elites use "legal" means to thwart at all costs the rise to power of even moderate leftists. According to Dresser, Lopez Obrador seems to have fallen into the trap, and slowly looking more like the radical leftist the dominant powers feared, and less like the pragmatic politician he has actually proven himself to be in practice.

I started this blog long after El Diario de Hoy, in particular, helped to end Hector Silva's ill-fated attempt to be the FMLN presidential candidate (in that case, Silva ended up getting the boot from the FMLN for daring to stake out a more pragmatic position on the medical strike of 2003).

Of course, when the FMLN or other leftist parties uses "legal" means to achieve democratic ends (for example, withholding votes on the budget in order to get a voice at the table, or some minimal concessions from the government), they are seen (by elites) as sabotaging democracy.

Too bad that what it means to be a democrat in Latin America today still very much depends on the eye of the beholder.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Life in the fast lane

Somewhat moved into my new digs in Maine, but finding little time to write, read or blog. Some of the things I'm quite happy about: superfast internet connections, a comfortably cold climate (I sleep well at night), absence of crazy drivers (after logging 300 miles on my car in 4 days, I have yet to come across anything that compares to what I find within 5 minutes of leaving my house in El Salvador.)

Back to news. Bill Barnes sent me a piece by Jonathan Tepperman in the New Republic last week, in which he uses the Negroponte nomination to once again revive the issue of the Salvador option. I have a lot of reactions, and it does seem more nuanced than most pieces on the issue, but still somewhat flawed. However, I think once I get a few other things out of the way, I'll try to write something a bit more final on this issue (i.e., not just random blog entries.)

Eric Umansky notes today this story in the New York Times, which is about the closest I'll come to saying anything on the social security debate:

As the debate over Social Security heats up, the estimated seven million or so illegal immigrant workers in the United States are now providing the system with a subsidy of as much as $7 billion a year.

While it has been evident for years that illegal immigrants pay a variety of taxes, the extent of their contributions to Social Security is striking: the money added up to about 10 percent of last year's surplus - the difference between what the system currently receives in payroll taxes and what it doles out in pension benefits. Moreover, the money paid by illegal workers and their employers is factored into all the Social Security Administration's projections.

Illegal immigration, Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, co-director of immigration studies at New York University, noted sardonically, could provide "the fastest way to shore up the long-term finances of Social Security."
Okay, this is so fascinating, I'm going to quote a bit more.

Starting in the late 1980's, the Social Security Administration received a flood of W-2 earnings reports with incorrect - sometimes simply fictitious - Social Security numbers. It stashed them in what it calls the "earnings suspense file" in the hope that someday it would figure out whom they belonged to.

The file has been mushrooming ever since: $189 billion worth of wages ended up recorded in the suspense file over the 1990's, two and a half times the amount of the 1980's.

In the current decade, the file is growing, on average, by more than $50 billion a year, generating $6 billion to $7 billion in Social Security tax revenue and about $1.5 billion in Medicare taxes.

In 2002 alone, the last year with figures released by the Social Security Administration, nine million W-2's with incorrect Social Security numbers landed in the suspense file, accounting for $56 billion in earnings, or about 1.5 percent of total reported wages.

Social Security officials do not know what fraction of the suspense file corresponds to the earnings of illegal immigrants. But they suspect that the portion is significant.

"Our assumption is that about three-quarters of other-than-legal immigrants pay payroll taxes," said Stephen C. Goss, Social Security's chief actuary, using the agency's term for illegal immigration.

Other researchers say illegal immigrants are the main contributors to the suspense file. "Illegal immigrants account for the vast majority of the suspense file," said Nick Theodore, the director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Especially its growth over the 1990's, as more and more undocumented immigrants entered the work force."

Using data from the Census Bureau's current population survey, Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, an advocacy group in Washington that favors more limits on immigration, estimated that 3.8 million households headed by illegal immigrants generated $6.4 billion in Social Security taxes in 2002.

A comparative handful of former illegal immigrant workers who have obtained legal residence have been able to accredit their previous earnings to their new legal Social Security numbers. Mr. Camarota is among those opposed to granting a broad amnesty to illegal immigrants, arguing that, among other things, they might claim Social Security benefits and put further financial stress on the system.

The mismatched W-2's fit like a glove on illegal immigrants' known geographic distribution and the patchwork of jobs they typically hold. An audit found that more than half of the 100 employers filing the most earnings reports with false Social Security numbers from 1997 through 2001 came from just three states: California, Texas and Illinois. According to an analysis by the Government Accountability Office, about 17 percent of the businesses with inaccurate W-2's were restaurants, 10 percent were construction companies and 7 percent were farm operations.

Most immigration helps Social Security's finances, because new immigrants tend to be of working age and contribute more than they take from the system. A simulation by Social Security's actuaries found that if net immigration ran at 1.3 million a year instead of the 900,000 in their central assumption, the system's 75-year funding gap would narrow to 1.67 percent of total payroll, from 1.92 percent - savings that come out to half a trillion dollars, valued in today's money.

Illegal immigrants help even more because they will never collect benefits. According to Mr. Goss, without the flow of payroll taxes from wages in the suspense file, the system's long-term funding hole over 75 years would be 10 percent deeper.