See more by Valentine Pasquesoone
BOGOTA — How dirty can business get? In Colombia, it can get as dirty as a diaper. An investigation by the country's Superintendence of Industry and Commerce (SIC) has uncovered a series of illegal, coordinated price hikes in the highly lucrative diaper industry.
Trade and industry inspectors started investigating price-fixing practices in late 2013, with the aim of ridding Colombia's economy of illegal business activity. They looked into product industries as diverse as rice, sugar and cement.
Thanks to the Benefits Program for Collaboration, a project that follows the U.S. practice of protecting whistleblowers, investigators found a "diaper cartel." This group of domestic and international companies is suspected to have "artificially" raised prices from 2000 to 2013.
Colombia's Trade Ministry has announced that it would file charges against a total of five companies and 44 individuals — including directors and employees — for the unfair practices. Evidence began emerging in November 2013, when two accomplices gave inspectors ample proof of the formation of the cartel.
Diapers are big business in Colombia. With two million babies using disposable diapers there, consumers buy a billion of them every year.
The discovery is the government's first major blow to illegal price-fixing practices since the investigation started nine months ago.
A market of matchmaking has sprung up to wed poor Cambodian women and middle-class Chinese men, spurred by both China's newfound wealth and one-child policy. It's not all roses.
HUANGGANG — It is a hot and sticky midsummer day in a small village along the Chang River in the northeast Jiangxi Province. The most popular spot is the pergola in front of the local grocery where a few women are playing mahjong as children chase each other around.
In the corner, sitting separately, are two young women, whispering. With darker complexions, deeper eye sockets and thicker lips, they look distinctly different from the locals. One of them wears a pair of high-heeled shoes, a short T-shirt and tight jeans, out of place with the more traditional local environment. The other woman is pregnant and is playing with her big-screen smartphone.
"They are our Cambodian brides," says one local woman. "Every village along the Chang river area has at least three or four of them."
It was about seven or eight years ago that the first Cambodian bride appeared in Huanggang, a rural township with two dozen or so local villages scattered along each side of the river. Some villager had gone to work in Yunnan — a province bordering Vietnam, Laos and Burma — and his client introduced him to a girl from his family. Thanks to her satisfaction with her new life in China, she spread the word to other women that they should come to Jiangxi.
Finally this riverside township, which used to be famous only for having floods every year, has turned into China's most famous "collection and distribution center" for Cambodian wives.
Huanggang now features more than a dozen "brokers" specialized in bringing together Cambodian women and Chinese men. In the past three years, thanks to Cambodia's convenient new regulations for marrying foreigners, Jiangxi's official marriage registration department has counted more than 2,000 cases involving Cambodian women; this far exceeds the number of Vietnamese brides. Massive numbers of Cambodian women are also flocking into other coastal provinces such as Fujian and Zhejiang.
Marrying far from home
"I was willing to marry this far away," said Xiaoyan, 30, who already has a strong local Jiangxi accent and has a one-year-old Jiangxi son. She got married two years ago, and not long after their wedding her husband was obliged to go to the coastal region of Zhejiang to work so as to repay the debt to the matchmaker and furnish their brand new three-storey house. Xiaoyan sees him only once a year.
As one of the world's most under-developed nations, 20.5% of Cambodia's population live in poverty, according to the most recent figures in 2011. That means some 8 million people live on less than $2.30 a day.
As Xiaoyan pointed out, in her village the poorer you are, the earlier a girl gets married. She didn't get married until she was 28-years-old. She married a Chinese man because "the Cambodian men are too poor."
Before 2010, Chinese men were not Cambodian girls' first choice. Massive numbers of Cambodian women married via intermediaries with South Koreans. In 2008 South Korea accounted for over 25,000 newly wedded Cambodian brides.
Today, China is overtaking South Korea to become Cambodian women's main destination for marrying a foreign man. Xiaoyan said she had not a clue what it was like in China except that "it's a lot richer and bigger."
Meanwhile, whereas marital violence is commonplace in Cambodia, she heard that "Chinese men don't beat their wives."
Through the referral from a co-worker at her factory, she was introduced to a Chinese man with a promise of a dowry for her family. "So my mom happily sold me!" she said, half-jokingly.
Cambodian women usually enter China in a group. Agents from Huanggang then hire a truck and pick them up from Guangzhou or Shanghai airport and bring them back to the township. Local people reckon it's only men who haven't been able to find a Chinese wife who would consider marrying a foreign one.
"There are too many single men in the countryside. For years Huanggang's birth control was extremely stringent," complained an unlicensed truck driver. In his view, since every couple could only have one child and prefer that the child is a boy, the sex-selective abortions have caused this all too common "left-over" men state of affairs.
And Huanggang is not an isolated case. After decades of harsh family planning policy China is now facing the critical negative effect of a serious gender imbalance. In China, the sex ratio at birth of girls and boys is 100 to 118. It's estimated that by 2020 China will have about 30 million "bachelor" men of whom the majority are from poor rural areas.
Take Huanggang as an example. Two types of men have meager chances of finding a wife: the handicapped and the destitute. As the villagers pointed out, local people marrying their daughters still follow the custom of asking for 200,000 RMB ($32,400) of dowry. Even though it is a relatively rich village in China there are nonetheless men who can't find wives.
Xu Gang is a 37-year-old man. Though healthy and not too poor, he only has four years of elementary education and has an "introverted character," in his own words. After two failed relationships, he was determined to get married so he finally accepted a matchmaker's proposition of a Cambodian wife. He still regrets this decision bitterly.
Xu Gang paid a "finder's fee" worth several thousand dollars, which put him in debt. A blind date was arranged. Though the intermediary emphasizes that the match-making “goes two ways,” the man usually gets to choose the girl he likes first. Afterwards the girl would visit the boy’s home and decide if she wants to marry him. If not, she can make another choice.
“In general as long as the man has a house the girl doesn’t turn down the proposition of marrying him,” said one villager.
When Xu Gang “chose” his bride, there was only one girl left from that batch of Cambodian women. This girl whom he and his family called Suping was 23-years-old. When she was brought to Xu Gang’s home, she was clearly very angry. She talked in an agitated manner though Xu and his family did not understand a word. The intermediary then called her to one side to talk with someone in Cambodia on the telephone. After a while the intermediary came back to tell them that he had managed to persuade the girl to marry him.
It was not until a year later that Xu learned from another Cambodian bride living in the same village that Suping had been cheated by the intermediary in Cambodia. She had been told that she was supposed to come to work in China but she realized only after arriving at Xu’s home that she was supposed to marry him.
Over the past three years, the Jiangxi foreign adoptions and foreign marriage registration center has become a crowded place. More than 2,000 Sino-Cambodian marriages have been registered since 2011. Whereas Vietnam demands Chinese men marrying Vietnamese women go to Vietnam to register in person, Cambodia asks only for proof that the to-be-married is a single woman.
Though Wang Wenliang, director of the registration office, confirmed that he had seen Cambodian girls arrive at the office crying for help, he said he didn't sense any abnormality when Xu and Suping processed their marriage license at the center.
In Xu's words, he and his family treated Suping as a "distinguished guest" after their marriage. He bought her new clothes, a mobile phone, and even subscribed to an international calls service so she could regularly talk with her family. Suping wasn't expected to work very much, in or outside the home.
However, Suping remained obviously unhappy. Because of the language barrier there existed almost no communication between her and Xu. There were also fights over food, with Suping not used to the spicy fare of Xu's family.
Apart from eating and sleeping together the couple couldn’t find any common ground between them. Xu knew absolutely nothing about Suping's family either.
Suping didn't get pregnant either. Xu Gang had given up going to the city as a migrant worker in the hope that he'd have a child soon, and yet nothing happened. Xu even suspected that Suping had secretly been using contraception.
After making the acquaintance with other compatriots in the village, Suping started going out for entire days at a time. Xu's home just became like a free hotel for her. Lacking the possibility of communication, "we couldn't even argue," Xu recalled.
It was later that Xu found out that Suping was busy fixing up another Cambodian girl from her hometown to marry a Chinese guy, taking a commission as a matchmaker. Using that money, she went back to Cambodia.
There are of course far worse outcomes. Since the second half of last year, Cambodia's consulate in Shanghai has received numerous Cambodian women's calls for help. Last month, they sent six women back home who had fled from this region, while another ten are hiding in a basement near the consulate waiting for formalities to return home.
Hong Thavery, 19, told us her story. She was abducted by a Cambodian woman in Phnom Penh who told her she could earn good monthly wages in China working in the factory. She agreed. Then a Chinese man came to pick her up, along with four other girls, to take them to an undisclosed airport to catch a plane to an undisclosed location.
She wound up with a Chinese man, forced to work at home and not allowed to go out. Her husband frequently raped her. When she fled to the police, they just sent her back again. Very often she was not even given food. "I was just like a slave."
He Yunxiao, coordinator at the UN's anti-human-trafficking office in China, confirmed that since last year the Jiangxi police have uncovered several Cambodian women trafficking cases. They mostly involved coercion, and included women forcibly married to physically or mentally handicapped men.
Still, Wang Wenliang says forced marriages involving violence or fraud remain the exception. He did acknowledge that there were numerous cases of women who had "voluntarily" married their Chinese husbands, but did not feel accustomed to the local life and got divorced or fled after constant conflicts with their Chinese spouses and families.
"In essence, even if these girls came by their own will, it's still a mercenary marriage. Such abnormal wedlock is inhuman. To put it plainly, one does it for money while the other is in it for sex," Wang said.
Zhang Zhiwei, a lawyer and activist long involved in rescuing abducted and abandoned children, said that China's serious gender imbalance is to blame both for individual marriage problems and a broader social instability in the country.
He reckoned that in the global context of uneven economic development there would always be women willing to exchange for a better material life at the expense of their freedom and happiness. It's a question of demand and market. He called on governments, including the Chinese authorities, to face up to this kind of cross-border migration and find fundamental solutions instead of simply fighting human trafficking.
Meanwhile, since last January, Jiangxi's relevant departments have paid visits to the Cambodian consulate in China to reconsider policy related to cross-border marriages.
As for Xu, he continues to lament his loss, financial and otherwise. At the very least, he hopes Suping will come back to grant him an official divorce. "I'll take whatever she can afford to compensate me and accept my fate," he said.
Current privatization proposals for the telecom and energy sectors suggest Mexico has learned little from the partial, and failed, liberalization processes of the past.
MEXICO CITY — Insanity, Einstein once said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Thirty years ago, during a deep recession Mexico chose the path of liberalization and privatization to try to finally achieve the economic growth that had been eluding the country during the final period of rule of the center-left Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
In that first period of reforms in the 1980s, the country privatized an ample range of firms (telecommunications, banking, broadcasting, steel and agriculture). A significant sector of the population was not happy. While certain privatized firms prospered, others, especially banks, went bankrupt and generated enormous costs, which the public had to pay through taxes.
More importantly for our purposes here, many of the privatized firms evolved into oligopolies — with a few suppliers controlling the market — obstructing the population's creative capabilities and curbing the potential for economic growth.
Unfortunately many of the reforms being discussed today in Mexico seem to be heading in that direction.
The countries that have had success opening up their economies, liberating protected markets and especially those dominated by state-affiliated firms, share one key characteristic: They've built competitive models that allow the market to function. That happened in the United Kingdom and Chile, two successful cases by any measure.
Things went differently in Mexico. What was owned by the former monopolistic state firms went into private hands, but there was no truly free market wherein transparency and competitiveness determine results.
I remember a debate in the late 1980s involving a prominent member of Mexico's privatizing entity and another official whom Chile had entrusted with privatizations some years before.
The Mexican official explained his logic in the privatizations process, saying firstly that the most important criterion was that the highest bidder should win, to assure the transparency of the process. He said the lesson of past privatizations was that despite experts' advice to start by selling small firms to win experience, in Mexico they had decided to privatize large firms first, to send investors a strong signal.
The Chilean official, who had prepared a long presentation, understood these comments to mean that privatization had not actually even begun in Mexico. He refrained from making his presentation in order not to seem to be contradicting the Mexican official's statements. Instead, he spoke for barely two minutes, simply stating that the aim of privatization in Chile had not been to make money, but to restructure markets and develop industries.
The criticism was brief but withering, and the subsequent years have proven him right, both in Mexico and Chile.
A quarter-century later, debates here show that Mexico has learned nothing. Instead of discussing how the energy market would be after the current opening up, all that seems to matter is how much will stay in state hands. Instead of trying to find a vibrant and competitive energy market, discussions are all about keeping a Sovereign Fund as an unending source of unaudited monies for all-too-familiar goals.
The same goes for the recent electoral reform, where power was the only thing on legislators' minds. Who would control the electoral process and the business opportunities affiliated with it. With telecoms, the rumor mill (the only, really buzzing market in this country) has it that the reforms are being tweaked and fine-tuned. But discreetly, in the backrooms. Which means we are sticking to our usual logic of clientele politics, influence-peddling, control and corruption. Einstein would remind us not to expect different results this time around either.
The experience in both historical moments suggests there is something in the DNA of Mexican politics that impedes the country from doing things in an open and transparent manner, through market competition. Political leaders seem to reject relying on the creative capacity of Mexicans, and above all abandoning the tradition of using the public sector for personal enrichment or to purchase the intentions that help you win or keep power.
We all know the learning curve is costly, and in that sense, such hiccups would be explicable if we lacked experience. The problem of course is that experience isn't lacking, and in contrast with previous decades, we now also have overwhelming evidence and data.
Our experiences of the 1980s and 1990s and those of other countries are more than enough to convince us that only a competitive and transparent market will allow us to achieve the stated goals of constitutional reforms and economic growth.
As we speak, the case of telecoms and broadcasting is showing us that oligopolies hamper growth. Was that the unstated objective?
Clychau Dibon is a one-of-a-kind album. The first collaboration between Welsh classical harpist Catrin Finch and Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita, the album brings to life an extraordinary combination.
The two instruments have actually a lot in common. Originally from the same musical family, they play central roles both in Wales and Senegal, where oral history is often expressed through music.
The result is an inventive, calm and creative mix — so if you're in the mood for something both soothing and inspiring, Clychau Dibon is what you need right now.
Blaming French Jews for Israel's actions in Gaza is just the latest vile expression of a rising wave of anti-Semitism that has resurfaced in the heart of Europe.
PARIS — Never in my life did I think that on the streets of Paris I would hear cries of "Juif, la France n'est pas à toi" (Jew, France is not yours). But that’s what happened in an anti-government march on January expand=1] 26.
Never in my life could I imagine synagogues being attacked. In France.
Nor did I believe it possible that there would be people, self-avowed defenders of the French Republic, who would deny or minimize these proven facts – who would make excuses like "these young people are so easily manipulated." I’ll pass on the worst justifications.
Pascal Riché, co-founder of the news website Rue89, was frightened last Saturday in Barbès neighborhood of the capital, by the anti-Semitism.
"You hear it a lot in the things young people say. I have never heard so many anti-Semitic pronouncements in so little time," he said. "It was particularly prevalent among the tough types, the ones with the sticks, masks, and truncheons. ‘The Jews are behind police lines, you have to go get them,’ said one."
What could be more legitimate than protesting against the bombings in Gaza? I myself wrote that the policy was condemnable and suicidal, and that Israel lacks a De Gaulle capable of reconciling Arabs and Jews.
But now things are just one impassable step away from making French Jews expiatory victims of the conflict.
Why this fixation on Gaza and Israel? To demonstrate solidarity with the Arab and Muslim communities? In that case then, why haven’t they demonstrated against the massacres in Syria? Or against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant? And where were they when Muslims were being massacred in Bosnia, Chechnya, India?
There is in this old identification with Palestine a strange fixation in which the keffiyeh plays the same role as portraits of Che Guevara did in the past. It’s as if Palestinians in Gaza were playing by proxy an avant-garde revolutionary role, as the proletariat formerly did.
Gaza, the Mecca of the Revolution? Go ask Asmaa el-Ghoul, a Gaza-based Palestinian writer who publicly opposed her uncle, the military head of Gaza’s Hamas leadership.
She declared her opposition to forced Islamization, so-called “honor” crimes, and sexist segregation.
A new source of hatred
Read the manifesto written by Gaza’s young movement "Gaza Youth Breaks Out," in which they describe the totalitarian control exercised by Hamas: "Hamas has been doing all they can to control our thoughts, behavior and aspirations. We are a generation of young people used to face missiles, carrying what seems to be a impossible mission of living a normal and healthy life, and only barely tolerated by a massive organization that has spread in our society as a malicious cancer disease, causing mayhem and effectively killing all living cells, thoughts and dreams on its way as well as paralyzing people with its terror regime. Not to mention the prison we live in, a prison sustained by a so-called democratic country."
And that’s your "new world?"
This anti-Semitism we’re now seeing pretends it has nothing to do with "real anti-Semitism, that of a hierarchy of races, a political scapegoat strategy, or confiscation of Jewish property."
So there’s "faux anti-Semitism?" No. Many are those who for years have been pointing to the rise in a number of French banlieues (poor urban outskirts) of a “new” anti-Semitism. This refers to radical anti-Zionist positions taken by fringe elements ranging from far-left to Islamist jihadists who are merely adopting and reactivating – sometimes without awareness, sometimes deliberately – a series of long-established anti-Jewish themes.
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In Toulouse (France), outside of the Jewish school where three children and a rabbi were killed by Mohammed Merah, in March 2012. — Photo: Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Pierre-André Taguieff, in a major investigation of "modern judeophobia," effectively showed the ways in which the new anti-Semitism differed from the old, but that in the end it all amounted to the same thing!
In the past, what European racists hated about Jews were the things that made them “outsiders” – being non-Christian, Middle Eastern, Semite, and so on. Today, it’s different. Hatred for Jews manifests in hatred for things Western: Judeo-Christianity, capitalism, liberalism, imperialism, etc. – the things they wish to see destroyed.
And of course that includes Zionism, heading the imperialist list in the Arab world, anti-Zionism being the fig leaf of anti-Semitism!
The anti-Semitism of the extreme right, during the "Jour de Colère" (Day of Anger) demonstration, joined hands with the anti-Semitism of the extreme left. What do left-wing organizations have to say about that? And what is French Islam doing?
The rector of the Great Mosque of Paris and President of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, Dalil Boubakeur, didn’t exactly get his feet wet when he advocated "a general solemn call for peace, appeasement, calm, and restraint."
In the neighborhoods that we so gingerly refer to as "sensitive" to avoid stating outright that they’re no-go areas rife with drug trafficking, whole generations of young people have been abandoned to Salafist preachers who lay down the law.
In the face of the Islamophobia that touches all these young people – who, as Gilles Kepel so correctly notes, are "auto-ghettoized" – they find a moral framework we haven’t been able to give them.
But Islamophobia doesn’t justify anything. Yesterday, on the social networks, somebody thought they could put the subject to rest by referring to the machine-gunning of the mosque in Istres (southern France) on Saturday night! The mosque versus the synagogue…
Dangers of false choices
How did things reach this point? Believing we were doing the right thing, we have emphasized the right to be different instead of strengthening social cohesion at a time when the instruments of this cohesion, the associations, the political parties and even school were in the process of disintegrating.
Instead of creating social bonds we have favored "diversity," and by the same token disintegration, at a time when the economic crisis makes national social cohesion even more indispensable.
At the same time, Islamist networks have progressively taken the place of everything that used to knit a social fabric together in so-called "difficult" neighborhoods. So is it really pure chance if some of the denizens of these neighborhoods demonstrate with missiles made out of pasteboard and placards proclaiming "support for Palestinian resistance in all its forms," Hamas included? Let us not forget that Hamas advocates the destruction of the state of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic state.
In May 1990, when graves were desecrated in the cemetery of Carpentras in southern France, there were huge demonstrations all over France. Today? Nothing, except doubtlessly counter-productive prohibitions of pro-Gaza demonstrations.
It all fits together, from support for Hamas and the jihadism of terrorists like Mohammed Merah in the Jewish school in Toulouse and Mehdi Nemmouche in Brussels to the attacks on synagogues. What is at stake here is the possibility of living together in a secular Republic.
Beware of the dangers of the binary logic according to which one shouldn’t denounce the anti-Semitism of the young from certain areas because they themselves are victims of Islamophobia. So we can’t revolt against this anti-Semitism as we do against the suffering of the people of Gaza? Yes, we can!
The country's old imperialist ambitions are back. If you are inside or outside, and trying to understand Vladimir Putin's 21st century Russia, keep that in mind in making your calculations.
MOSCOW — According to Lenin, Joseph Stalin, the founder of the USSR's Red Empire, particularly liked "spicy food." Decades later, Vladimir Putin is now the one serving up the hot plates.
Empty shelves in stores and long lines for toilet papers may be things of the past in Russia, but affluence never led to democracy in Russia. It only helped an imperialistic mindset resurface.
The Russian Dream is for the country to be a great Empire, and to inspire fear. Interviews I recently conducted in Moscow all ended with the same words: "First, the Olympic Games in Sochi, then we annexed Crimea. And now, we've won the hockey championships!"
Here, a popular joke says that "while everyone thought Russia was on its knees, it was just lacing up its combat boots..."
Over the past 20 years, the word was that we were building a Western society. Yet the fine layer that represented liberalism disappeared in the blink of an eye. We're done playing like the West. It lacks sensitivity — it's pragmatic. The West is degenerating, while Russia is all about goodness and spirituality.
Vladimir Putin has taken on the role of defending these traditional values.
Forget elsewhere, stay in Russia
Russia is now a fundamentalist nation. It is dangerous to admit being atheist, or to even start a discussion about it. Squads of volunteers track gay people in the streets and beat them up. Some may even go all the way and kill them. A campaign against McDonald's fast food restaurants started online and gathered tens of thousands of signatures in just a few days.
Patriots incite people not to take any vacation outside of Russia. Authorities even promised to pay quite a sum to those who spend their holidays in Crimea. Money flows when you love Putin's new Russia.
Speaking foreign languages has even become suspicious. Forget about the Sorbonne, go to college right here! Russian researchers are also seeing their travels abroad restricted. And the Parliament voted a special law preventing Russian orphans from being adopted by foreigners. This even applies to sick children, who vegetate in orphanages where the most basic things — bandages and iodine — are missing.
Eurasia is the new West
It seems however that leaders live in a different Russia. Members of Parliament still receive medical care abroad. They still send their children in Western universities, hide their money in Western banks, and buy real estate in Western countries.
Photo: Robert Couse-Baker.
But Russia is now turning towards the East. Eurasia, the Eurasian Economic Union aimed at counterbalancing the EU, is in vogue. We're no longer in Europe. Shows about China — now an ally of Russia — are broadcast every day on television. Pro-China opinions have increased by 40% here, in only one year.
The Kremlin openly says that West has always been, and will always be, Russia's first enemy. It is accused of everything, from the fall of the Soviet Union to the Chernobyl disaster and the sinking of nuclear submarine Kursk. The Internet? An invention of Western secret services. The dollar? A piece of paper with no value.
And Crimea for sure belongs to Russia.
Russia has thrown a challenge to the world. It is becoming a rallying point for all anti-Western forces across the globe. It has strengths —nuclear weapons and energy resources. The country's triumph has gone to its head and reminds one of 1930s' Germany. The latest polls show that 71% of the population is now hostile to the Western world, particularly the United States.
Time to leave
As a result, a new wave of emigration has begun — the largest since the fall of the USSR. The best of us, the ones who thought they were building a European Russia, are leaving. And if they don't leave themselves, their children are moving abroad. It has become more and more common for Moscow schools and hospitals to hire Tajik or Uzbek teachers, or doctors. The Russians have left.
You don't need to read the papers to understand what's going on in Russia today. Just listen to the people waiting in front of Moscow's European consulates. I asked some of them the eternal Russian question, "what to do?". Everybody replied by saying it was time to leave. "In the 1990s, we dreamed of turning Russia into a Western country," said one of them. "I worked for the Memorial Society. We gathered evidence of the appalling repression under Stalin. But now, there's no need for that. Some want to turn Volgograd back into Stalingrad."
"The strongman who will restore the Empire is back in vogue," said another one. "That's a defeat to me."
"I'm leaving because I'm a lesbian," a woman explained. “My friend and I have two children. I don't want them to be taken away from us and put in an orphanage." Another Moscovite said that his father was anti-West, "and he says that only traitors are leaving Russia now."
“But I hate it," he added. "We're the biggest country in the world. We're a population of slaves that go to church and make the cross sign while the nation is stealing and killing. I wrote that I was pro-Maidan on my Facebook page. You wouldn't imagine the mud-slinging and hatred that it brought! This happens online for now, but it's only a matter of time before it spreads to the streets. I'm afraid there could be a civil war..."
We're choosing war instead of peace. We're choosing the past instead of the future. The phone rang while I was finishing this piece. "I’ve read your books and your articles. I’ve seen how you drag Russia through the mud," said a voice. "You people are a "fifth column!" Traitors! We’ll remember each and everyone of you. Your hour will come soon!"
I hung up and went to the window. My impression was that what the person said was already starting.
*Svetlana Alexievich is a Belarusian-born author and investigative journalist whose work has focused on Soviet and post-Soviet society.
GAZA — A dramatic video has emerged that captures — in a very different way — the horror of Gaza parents facing the death of their children in the ongoing assault by the Israeli military.
More than 132 children have died since the start of Israel's military offensive against Hamas in Gaza, on July 8. The Palestinian death toll passed 700 on Thursday, while Israel has lost 32 soldiers since the beginning of the conflict.
Photo: Mathi et Mathi.
No one quite masters the art of whining and complaining like the French, which means the world's ultimate râleurs and blasés find the deepest kind of pleasure in cursing.
Some French musicians have now taken it to the next level, singing songs essentially based around the use of the word “merde”, or “c’est d’la merde” (“this is bullsh*t”). French newspaper Libération focused on three of them this week — Mathi et Mathi, Jo Dahan and Fabien Martin — who have made it their mission to grumble and insult the universe.
Mathi et Mathi use their song “C’est d’la merde” as a kind of catharsis, notes Libération, expressing their deep dissatisfaction with the shittiness of all that surrounds them: work, love, friends, family — even holidays. Everything is nothing but “d’la merde”:
Fabien Martin instead uses the word more to share his boredom and fatigue with life. He says “merde” too, but adds “s’emmerde” (“so fu**ing bored”) to the music.
Jo Dahan resorts to rock'n'roll rhythms and profanity to communicate nostalgia. Just like Mathi et Mathi, he counts off all the things in life that were "mieux avant." Music, cars, movies ... Merde itself, it seems, was "better before."
Architects near Santiago are building a new kind of housing in Chile, both modern and adapted to the ancient culture of the Mapuche community.
SANTIAGO — This new kind of home combines practicality with cultural understanding. Chilean architects from Undurraga Devés have recently worked with members of the indigenous Mapuche community in Huechuruba, near Santiago, to help build a very specific type of housing: a place that would not only meet their basic needs, but also respect their traditions and ideas.
The goal is to help the housing units' residents "participate in modern society without discarding their identity," as the architects from Undurraga Devés put it. This has become a major focus of the studio, founded in 1978 — launching "low-tech" and culturally sensitive housing projects in Chile.
Architects have built a total of 25 housing units, within a larger complex comprising 415 "standard" council houses. Together, they attempt to reconcile two styles, and two ways of life — global and aboriginal. The idea came directly from the Mapuche community, whose members wanted to be a part of modern society without losing their identity.
The way these housing units are conceived embodies this quest for a cultural — and stylistic — compromise. They are aligned and their facades face east, which respects the Mapuche tradition of "opening the main door to the rising sun." That aspect was one of the community's main requests. A large corridor then separates the houses from the cliffs besides them, constituting a shared, public space.
Each unit has an area of 61 square meters, spread on two floors. Cooking is done on the ground floor — where the Mapuche have always kept the stove — and bathrooms and beds are upstairs.
The community has very specific notions of privacy. Architects observed while building the units that the Mapuche reject any form of continuity, or transparency, between the inside and the outside. The interior must remain in the shadow, to "create a perception of its own time, different from the time that passes outside, in the city."
Building techniques have combined the traditional use of bricks with reinforced concrete for the main frames. In this seismic zone, the front and back sides of every unit are fortified with a diagonal wooden beam, designed to hold the side walls in case of earthquakes — a daily possibility no Chilean could ever forget.
The Mannschaft's World Cup winning team was the perfect embodiment of what Germany hopes to be perceived as — a mix of artistry, perseverance, solidarity and individual freedom.
BERLIN — Our national soccer team's appearance Tuesday with the World Cup trophy at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, their triumph will also move to the core of the Republic.
The summer of 2006 — when Germany hosted the World Cup and finished third — was a fairy tale for the country. It resulted in a sort of miracle: Germans made peace with themselves in the face of a young soccer team, whose charm and joyful playing style had little to do with the scrappy, uninspired play of its predecessors.
The team became a medium for a general loosening up among Germans. It led them to build a relatively un-neurotic relationship with the symbols of their national identity. Black, red and gold were finally O.K. — whether on flags or painted faces. Singing the national anthem even emerged from the patriotic underground.
Nowhere in the world did anyone fear this outbreak of joy for the German Fatherland. On the contrary, they shared the rejoicing.
An economic — and national — contribution
Coach Joachim Löw, the manager of the team, was at the time an assistant to Jürgen Klinsmann, and players like Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger were already seen as major talents. When Klinsmann left in 2006, the Deutsche Fußballnationalmannschaft (DFB) — the national football team in Germany — chose to promote the soft-spoken Löw to head it. This was a clear tribute to his role as the team behind-the-scenes genius during the 2006 World Cup.
Following that decision, Löw and his concept of a modern, highly-imaginative and elegant game prevailed, despite criticisms and setbacks like the team's elimination six years later, in the 2012 European Championship.
The fact that he stayed the course paid off on Sunday night. Up to two billion people were watching as the young Mario Götze knocked in his thrilling, winning goal in the closing minutes of overtime.
Just like the semifinal game against host Brazil, the German football team made quite an impression not only on the pitch but before and after the game. They were unassuming and focused before the whistle blew, smiling and empathetic with the losing team when the game ended.
When the players' wives and children came out to join the exultation that followed the match, and a tearful Miroslav Klose — that magical player and melancholy hero — picked his children up to hug them, even the crustiest anti-German sentiment must have melted away.
The Mannschaft did just as much for Germany's inner and outer perceptions as Willy Brandt’s "Warsaw Genuflection" and Helmut Kohl in Verdun did to deal with the ghosts of the two World Wars. The team has become the most popular embodiment, both at home and abroad, of the perception of what modern Germany has become.
London's liberal newspaper The Guardian gushed about the "intelligent design" of the German game, and bowed unusually low to the virtuosity of a professionalized, active promotion of young players, that has done so much for German soccer these past two decades.
Without the fantastic German centers for young talent, players like Götze would have never emerged. Education policies in this country should be optimized in that same, goal-oriented way.
In the end, the German national team is less a confirmation of German politics — or a charming doppelganger, as some would say — than an exciting counterpoint.
Löw’s 11 offered an ideal mix of team spirit and individuality. The collective won from maximizing each player’s freedom. The lesson to draw from the political liberal minority here is that solidarity with the weak and vulnerable helps not only the team but individuals as well. The one to remember from the social-democratic mainstream is that nothing sparks individual strengths like competition.
A lot of humanistic wisdom goes along with this triumph, too. It is a victory of a coach and captain who, rather than playing authoritarian cards, see the best in the players even when they don't see it themselves. As “united artists,” the German national team made it clear that artistry is much more than a mere, seductive decoration for a solid craft. It is a prerequisite for winning in the 21st century.
Thank you, dear team, for this unforgettable World Cup championship.