Thursday, April 28, 2005

The Andean Nations – Democracy in Trouble

Democracy is in trouble in all of the nations of South America that were freed by Simón Bolívar: Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. In Venezuela, César Chávez, who once led a military coup against a former president, has established a personality cult that has divided the nation along class lines; the poor are generally for him, while the middle and upper classes despise him. Colombia has a long history of democratic government, but its control does not extend beyond the middle-class sections of the country’s large cities. Paramilitary groups and drug barons fight for domination of the rural areas and of the city slums.

Moving down the Pacific coast, Ecuador’s Congress recently threw out the country’s president, Lucio Gutiérrez, for “abandoning his post,” although Mr. Gutiérrez was in the presidential palace issuing orders at the time. In fact, the Army had to remove him forcibly from his post.

Mr. Gutiérrez angered Quito’s street mobs by dissolving the Supreme Court – for the second time in four months – and putting Quito under a state of emergency. Thousands took to the street to protest Mr. Gutiérrez’s actions until Congress gave in and replaced him with Vice President Alfredo Palacio. As this is written, Mr Gutiérrez is reported to have taken refuge in Brazil’s embassy in Quito where he awaits the opportunity to flee the country. The new government refuses to let him go and wants to arrest him on charges of…. Well, what the charges are is unclear. Replacing the entire Supreme Court may not be politically astute, but it does not seem to violate any Ecuadorian law. Mr. Gutiérrez was the third president to be ousted by Congress or by a coup since 1997, and all of Ecuador’s presidents since 1997 have been accused of corruption or of abuse of authority.

Peru is said to be the basket case of Latin America, in even worse shape than such Central American countries as Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador. Unemployed or underemployed Peruvians are leaving the country in hopes of finding work in Argentina or Spain. The country’s ex-president, Alberto Fujimori, lives in exile in Japan, the country of his ancestors, while the current Peruvian government seeks to extradite him and put him on trial for crimes that he allegedly committed while in office.

The Bolivian government’s attempts at introducing economic progress are stymied by indigenous groups that seem intent on keeping the country in a primitive state. In the mid-1990s, the Bolivian government privatized the oil and gas industries and invited foreign companies to explore. This move proved to be a boon for the nation’s economy. Proven and probable reserves of gas increased by a factor of ten, and gas exports to Argentina and Brazil went up by a factor of four. The government and industry came up with a plan to export gas by means of a pipeline through Chile, Bolivia’s traditional enemy, where it was to be loaded onto tankers and sold to California and Mexico. The indigenous population, which believes that foreigners are exploiting the country’s natural resources, protested by setting up roadblocks. The Bolivian government gave into mob rule and cancelled the pipeline, thereby robbing the country of a future source of income, which could have gone a long way towards alleviating the country’s poverty. Paradoxically, those who suffer most under Bolivia’s feeble economy are the same people who consistently block efforts to improve it.

In both Ecuador and Bolivia, democracy has given way to mob rule. Colombian democracy seems to be in no imminent danger of disappearing, but it the government does not control large areas of the country, and even in the portions that it does control, it has been unable to come to grips with the country’s endemic violence. I suspect that Hugo Chávez, who is an admirer of Fidel Castro, would like to make himself “president for life” of Venezuela (a polite way of saying dictator), and he may have the mob support to do it. The outlook for democracy in these South American countries is not good.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

France, the Land of McJobs?

On May 29, the French will vote to ratify or reject the European Constitution, and it appears likely that they will reject it. Polls show the no vote leading by a small, but growing, margin. The European Union could shrug it off if one of its smaller members rejected the Constitution, but no one knows what to do if an important country such as France or Germany rejects it. If either France or Germany left the E.U., the organization would almost certainly collapse.

A large segment of the French populace no longer shares its government’s enthusiasm for the European Union. French unemployment now exceeds 10% and continues to climb, whereas the United Kingdom’s unemployment has been hovering around 5%. Although the U.K. is part of the European Union, it has refused to accept many of its policies including its common borders and its currency, the euro. To some people in France, the U.K.’s decision to deal with the European Union at arm’s length appears to have been a wise one. The U.K. is certainly fairing better than France.

In reality, France’s unemployment and poor economic growth are not only caused by its membership in the E.U.; France has severe structural problems in its labor market, as well, and there is no will to correct them. The cost of employing a French worker is very high. Permanent employees in France enjoy a high minimum wage, lay-off protection, and a 35-hour workweek. As a result, French companies are hiring fewer permanent workers and are relying on temporary and part-time workers. In Germany, employers are going even farther and are contracting labor out to service industries with offices in Eastern Europe who often pay their employees slave wages. Soon, those contract workers could also be cleaning rooms in French hotels and cutting meat in French processing plants. Both France and Germany are becoming countries that offer most of their citizens McJobs while a shrinking portion of the population has full-time work with extravagant benefits.

France’s response to its unemployment problem has been to come up with stopgap solutions rather than to make the French worker more productive. The country plans to increase its apprenticeships by 40% to 500,000 a year by the end of the decade and to offer one million welfare recipients job training and subsidized jobs. Apprenticeships are unlikely to help unless there are genuine jobs available to those who finish them, and subsidized jobs, while preferable to welfare, do little to make a society competitive. If it comes up with no better plan, France is sure to keep losing ground

With members of the European Union falling to keep economic pace with the rest of the industrialized world, it is understandable that French workers, especially younger French workers, are leery of the European Constitution. If they reject it, could they later reject the European Union itself and the euro? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I hope that it is no.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The Minutemen, a Shame for Arizona and Showing Disrespect for U.S. History

A group of men calling themselves the Minutemen have arrived in Arizona and have been talking about patrolling sections of the border between Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora. To most who live in Arizona, they are not welcome.

In case there is anyone reading this who doesn’t know who the Minutemen are, they are a group of mostly middle-aged white men, headed by two men from California, who portray themselves as an aide to the Border Patrol in stopping illegal border crossers in Southeastern Arizona. They have announced their intention to mount patrols to look for people crossing illegally, and on at least one occasion they took up positions on lawn chairs on the border near the city of Douglas for the benefit of press photographers.

The leader of the Minutemen is Jim Gilchrist, a retired accountant from Orange County California. His right-hand man is Chris Simcox, the new owner of the Tombstone Tumbleweed newspaper and who also hails from California, although he has been living in Tombstone, Arizona for the past three years.

When members of the Minutemen spot an illegal border crosser, they are supposed to notify the Border Patrol and not confront the immigrant, but some opponents of the movement including both the U.S. and Mexican governments have expressed the fear that the Minutemen could illegally detain and even injure Mexican nationals. Adding to that fear is the fact many Minutemen are armed “for self-defense.”

The Border Patrol says that it detained 1.1 million illegal crossers along the Mexican border in 2004 and that 52 percent of them crossed the 370-mile stretch that separates Arizona and Sonora, so the Minutemen are undoubtedly correct when they say that the Arizona border has a problem. However, the Border Patrol claims that the Minutemen are a detriment to border enforcement rather than a help, getting in the way, tripping sensors, and causing false alarms. The Border Patrol also fears that it could run into a group of armed Minutemen along the border at night, and that in the confusion, someone could be injured or killed.

The Minutemen are few in number. They have seldom been able to gather more than about 150 people. However, this small group has managed to draw a great deal of media attention from both sides of the border. If the Minutemen have been better at drinking beer and posing for press photographers than at detaining illegal border crossers, their media attention seems to have indirectly contributed to more border security by lighting a fire under the U.S. federal government. In the spring of 2005, Robert Bonner, the head of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, hightailed it to Tucson just before a large Minuteman gathering to announce that Arizona would receive 155 additional Border Patrol officers and 23 aircraft to guard the border.

The Minutemen should go back to California. They have given Arizona an underserved reputation for racism and a vigilante mentality. They are a hindrance to the cross-border relations, and they have little effect on illegal immigration. The name they have chosen to call themselves is an insult to the memory of the genuine Minutemen who fought for American independence. If they want to meddle in border affairs, let them call themselves the Southern California Drinking Club and hold their publicity events in San Diego, closer to home.

What do you think. Please click on "comments" below and add your opinion.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

The Language of Politics and the Politics of Language

What does language learning have to do with politics? A lot! The European Union has 20 official languages, if I counted them right, with more on the way. Those languages are, in alphabetical order, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, and Swedish. Have I left any out?

Why do the Europeans not settle on a single official language for the European Union? For reasons of national pride, of course. Can you picture the French government willing accepting English as the sole European official language? Or, worse yet, German? Unofficially, however, much of the communication among European countries is carried out in English.

Language is taken very seriously here in France, where I am studying at Stendhal University in Grenoble. The French love their language and culture, but years ago they realized that French was no longer the international language, and now most French spend years studying English. I purposely used the word study and not learn, because those years of schooling seldom produce graduates who can express themselves in English. The French study modern languages the way other nations study classical languages: They analyze the target language without learning to communicate in it. Classroom discussions take place in French, of course. Rare is the foreign language class that is actually taught in the target language.

Because the French do not use the target language in the classroom, they do not learn to think in it. They think in French and translate. If a person cannot think in a language, that person cannot speak it. Translation is a poor way to teach a language.

The French government, realizing that something has to be done to bring French education at least into the Twentieth Century, if not the Twenty-first, has proposed a package of school reforms that would put more emphasis on computer skills and genuine language learning, and it wants to change the method of evaluating pupils. At present, many courses are graded on a single, written examination taken at the end of the term, and the examination does not always reflect the material that was taught in class. In courses where there is supposedly “continuing evaluation,” that evaluation often consists of another single test, administered shortly before the final exam. In other words, there are two final examinations instead of one.

The French reaction to the proposed reforms? Rebellion! French pupils have been taking to the streets to stop traffic, blocking the entrances to schools so that more dedicated pupils cannot enter, and generally making a nuisance of themselves.

I cannot claim to really understand the reluctance of so many French pupils to change the school system. Perhaps they are right, and the proposed changes are not what is needed. However, something needs to change. Although French pupils score decently in international comparisons in the fields of science and mathematics, their language skills are abysmal, even in their native language. In fact, when it comes to the ability to read and write, French pupils score at about the same level as Americans. Sadly, that is nothing to be proud of.