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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Brave New World

New Democratic Arab countries? Tyrants falling right and left in the Middle East? Atrocities discovered in various cities in Lybia? Billions of dollars stashed away by said dictators? Ruling families brought to justice or attempting to flee? Is this a brave new world, or at least a partial new world? How will we manage our foreign policy with these "new" Arab countries? With a heavy controlling political hand or with patience and billions in foreign aid, billions that we do not have?

We must be careful; we just might run out of enemies in the Muslim world (OK, just kidding). Iran is still our number one concern, mainly because they ferociously try to build a nuclear weapon and because we are sworn to protect our "beach head", Israel. But if Syria's murderous Assad falls and a real  Muslim democracy is established in that nation, a possibility that Teheran fears above all, our concerns with the Jewish state shall strongly diminish. Would you like to bet that Iran is helping Assad with money and arms to crush the rebellion? On the other side, the U.S. is secretly supplying funds to the rebels (through Tel-Aviv perhaps)?

Obama's strategy to deal with Ghaddafi has been wildly successful; he didn't listen to the hawks in his cabinet. He refused to take the lead in the assault on the tyrant's tanks and planes. He let Europe, yes NATO, become responsible for the bellicose intervention, a first in our foreign policy, and in so doing allowed the rebels to suffer the brunt of the war of liberation. The consequences of these actions are all positive; it's a win-win situation. The new government, or at least its more religious sector, won't be able to accuse America of "invading" their country, as happened in  Iraq and Afghanistan.

libya war 2011

After more than 40 years of brutal regimes, several Arab countries will finally enjoy the sweet taste of freedom, and in the process shaming the remaining despotic Muslim nations which systematically abuse the rights of their citizens, especially women. (right Iran?). Their combined success will weigh heavily against the inflexible regimes and motivate their people to rebel as is the case in Syria. Internet, Facebook, Tweeter, and smart phones are all technological tools which bring the truth to all sectors, in spite of the governments' efforts to control the media.

Let us hope that the American government will see the opportunity to make amends, we developed cozy ties with the former rulers, and convince the new governments that we can live in harmony with the Muslim world. We cannot antagonize more than a billion Arabs by acting as the big bully we have been in the past. Working closely with the European Union and pooling our resources, we can no doubt help the new democratic regimes by treating them as equals in the Brave New World.

Monday, August 29, 2011

No "God" Please

Michele Bachmann is proud of her beliefs in a Christian God, as opposed to a Muslim, a Buddhist, or a atheist. As an Evangelical Christian, she takes every opportunity to remind people that God exists and that God intervenes in our affairs on a frequent basis. Her recent comment, however, that God moved hurricane Irene to the East Coast to send us a message and rein in our spending was not well received by most Americans. She says it was a joke; but the underlying essence of that comment is frightening, as frightening as George Bush telling us that God had told him to invade Iraq. When politicians start implying that they have a direct link to the Almighty, I start having serious doubts about the future of this country.

It wasn't the first time Mrs. Bachmann mentioned God in a political context; she insisted that God had "told" her to run for the 6th Congressional district and even went fasting for 3 days to "confirm" it.
She won with 50% of the votes thanks to heavy financial support from an evangelical organization run by a Mr. Dobson. Talk about the separation of Church and State, a concept evolved from the
First Amendment of our constitution which prohibits laws that may favor a specific official religion.

Granted, most Americans are Christians who believe in Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity. But as a country that respects the right not to believe at all in some supernatural being, and the right to follow any other sect or set of beliefs, no matter how outlandish they may be, we must observe with concern the emergence of politicians who act more as preachers than laymen or laywomen.

What makes America great is precisely its marvelous constitution written by learned and enlightened men (no women alas) who clearly wanted to avoid any of the religious and political pitfalls of European nations. Religions in general are the direct causal factor of millions of victims and hundreds of wars. One can argue that gods do not start conflicts, men do. Indeed, but tell that to Osama (his ghost anyway) or to the mullahs in Iran who ask their faithful brethren to kill the unbelievers.

We must be very careful not to elect candidates who wrap themselves in religious exhortations and who pretend to have a direct communication with the Creator. We lost thousands of soldiers in Iraq and billions of dollars which disappeared in the maws of corruption, thanks to Bush's secret ties with his maker.

We could have done so much if these huge sums of money had been invested in jobs, education, and infrastructure here, in the U.S.

How many teachers could we pay with one budget day spent on Iraq and Afghanistan?

No, Mrs. Bachmann, I doubt very much that you will succeed in your quest for the White House. American citizens tend the shy away from extremists, whether from the right or the left.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Mexican Tragedy

The attack on a casino in Monterrey, Mexico caused close to 60 deaths, a tragedy that could have been averted if the inspectors of that building hadn't been bribed; nobody could leave the second floor because the emergency doors were sealed, against common sense and against the law. For Mexican citizens, this is nothing new; lower level authorities can be bribed easily, a custom called "mordida" or bite. Custom agents, traffic cops, official government clerks, inspectors of all types, and even trash collectors, are easily persuaded to accept a sizable token of appreciation (read cash) in return for a service or for not writing a ticket or for smuggling some goods from the U.S. The mordida becomes a national tragedy when lives are lost.

In June 2009, more than 40 toddlers were killed by a fire in a daycare institution in Hermosillo, Sonora, a state located in the northwest in Mexico, and parents and society alike blamed the government for sloppy (read for taking bribes) oversight of the kinder. The building was old, the electrical installation was deficient, and no provisions were made in case of an emergency. Even so, the daycare received permission to operate. To this day, the "official" investigation has failed to bring anybody to justice, a very common occurrence in Mexico where many higher functionaries try to hide their shenanigans by letting inquiries disappear into the sunset.

I have lived for many years in the beautiful Aztec country, even marrying one of its most attractive citizens. Mexicans are extremely hospitable to foreigners, yes, even to Gringos. I have personally enjoyed the carne asada (barbecued meat) prepared by rich and poor hosts. I have rested on gorgeous beaches in Acapulco and Cancun among other idyllic resorts. I have gorged on tacos, tequila, chile, cerveza, mole (a chocolate-based sauce with chicken), mango, papaya, the list of wondrous foods is endless. Before the environment became poisoned by drug traffickers and violent gangs, Mexico was a paradise for foreigners who flocked by the millions to enjoy its beauty and historical sites. Alas! No more. The failed governance, federal and local, has made the land of Moctezuma a dangerous place to live and travel.

Corruption is of course endemic in every country; here on the border with Mexico, several law enforcement officials have been and will be indicted for turning a blind eye to human smuggling and to drug trafficking. Money will convince those with shaky values. American policemen and border agents cannot, however, claim that their low pay scale prevent them from feeding their families or paying for their retirement. While not extravagant, their salaries and benefits are amply sufficient to lead a decent life and support their families.

Mexican law enforcement, on the other hand, can justly clamor that their financial compensation and benefits are insufficient to make a decent living. An ordinary policeman patrolling his or her beat can earn between five and ten thousand pesos, approximately between $400 and $900 of our currency. That's equivalent to the poverty level or below here in the States ($10,800 for one person and $26,000 for a family of 4). These Mexican public workers often earn less than half of what American counterparts earn and even taking into account purchasing power, they can barely make ends meet by moonlighting at 2 or 3 jobs. Is it surprising therefore that a generous tip will often be accepted in exchange for a "small" favor?

The assailants in Monterrey were apparently not trying to kill people, as they shouted orders to vacate the premises at the casino. Many fled into the street, but tragically many others retreated to the second floor and to restrooms. The attackers probably did not think that the fire would trap so many, mostly older women belonging to the affluent middle-class trying their luck at gambling. Intentional or not, this crime should awaken the indignation of all Mexican citizens; it is time to put an end to cowardly attitudes, "I don't want trouble, I didn't see anything." If every able-bodied adult decided to do something about the rampant crime and violence in the Aztec country, things would change very quickly.

How about allowing ordinary citizens to carry firearms? Just a thought!

Thursday, August 25, 2011


When the first government was created in the first nation formed on earth - probably in today's China, a new political tradition also appeared: the exchange of favors between members of the ruling class and their supporters. The bigger the favor, read the bigger the contribution to the politician's favorite causes, the bigger the payoff, pardon, the quid pro quo. And now that the Supreme Court has opened the floodgates of financial contributions to candidates who seek a public position, so will the rewards increase for the generous donors:

Pyramid & eye of U.S. Great Seal on dollar bill: 'Novus Ordo Seclorum'

Naming ambassadors has almost always been a political plum given to "friends", ie, largest contributors. That nefarious practice has had negative consequences as many of the favored candidates had absolutely no diplomatic skills. Another way to reward supporters has been the last minute pardon given by the sitting president on his last day in office. President Clinton famously or rather infamously pardoned fugitive financier Marc Rich whose only merits were his financial donations to Clinton's war chest. No explanation was ever given by the White House.

Now that we have several governors or ex-governors seeking their party's nomination in the presidential campaign, a magnifying glass is and will be applied to their quid pro quo gestures for big political supporters. The first one to hit the national media is none other than the NY Times which features a series of accusations toward Governor Rick Perry of Texas: "The exchange of campaign contributions for government contracts, favors or positions is all too common in Washington and around the country."

Why select Perry in particular who denies the allegations that he was returning favors? "Mr. Perry has long maintained there is no connection between his appointments and their contributions, but the evidence is clear on board after board." Let's be realistic; 99.9% of Congress has engaged in this practice, including the President and his cabinet. The infamous "pork" added to proposed bills has been a mainstay of senators and representatives alike who engaged in the hallowed ritual of planting the seeds of reelection. The NY Times has obviously published this article to target a candidate who has a real chance to end up in the White House. And so the battle begins with broadsides being fired on both sides.

While I feel there is something morally and ethically wrong with the quid pro quo policy, there is nothing illegal about it unless of course it results in harm to the country and its citizens. Creating an agency for the sole purpose of rewarding a friend is clearly an example of this, as the millions involved come from our taxes and the times are difficult enough without creating additional waste. There is a fine line between corruption and rewarding cronies. Political contributions are not bribes as they are perfectly within the law; their aim is to help the candidate defray his or her expenses during a campaign. Humans being human, they will fall prey to the understandable desire to say "thank you" to their friends and supporters in a tangible way.

Somebody said once that lobbying is organized corruption; I beg to differ: Influencing the decisions of politicians is quite legitimate. It has always been that way. I can send emails to my senators and representatives to express my opinion. Whether they pay heed or not is another matter. The political system will not and cannot change, simply because they (the politicians) would have to approve it. The only change they approve regularly is to increase their own salaries. I wish I could do the same!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Rick Perry

The 61 year-old Rick Perry is at the perfect age to launch a bid for the White House. He sees himself as the new Ronald Reagan heir serving the country as Commander-in-Chief and retiring at the feisty age of 70. Who could ask for better timing? There are of course a few obstacles he must overcome before fulfilling his dream: Winning the Republican primary and defeating Barack Obama. Can he do it? Does he have what it takes to emulate his predecessor in the governorship of Texas? Perry is after all the longest serving governor in Longhorn territory, a fact that speaks well of his ability to raise funds and control the political world in his native state.

When he defeated Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in 2010, who by the way was supported by the George Bush family, he sent a clear message to the Republican Party that he was a political force to be reckoned with. He probably strengthened the idea at that time that he had a shot at the Presidency.

File:Rick Perry leaning against a jet.jpg Rick Perry as an Air Force Captain

In 1988, as a democrat who chaired Al Gore's presidential bid in Texas, Rick Perry, at that time, wasn't going to get a Christmas card from the Bush family. However, he later became Lieutenant Governor of Texas as a Republican in 1998, serving under George Bush II and taking over the position after the 2000 infamous elections. Talk about good timing!

Perry has the right credentials as a candidate for the highest position in the land of Lincoln. Honorable military service, Christian Evangelical in good standing, long experience in an executive position, no known scandals, sexual or otherwise, presidential looks (unlike George W.), an attractive figure for female voters, and a relatively good public speaker. He doesn't have the charisma of a Ronald Reagan, or the intellect of a Barack Obama, but he compensates these factors with unparalleled ambition and energy.

Perry initiated his campaign by dropping political bombs to shock the electorate into paying attention to his candidacy. Unlike the suave and polished Mitt Romney, who was content with remaining above the fray as befits a veteran of presidential runs, the Texas governor quickly accused Obama's monetary policy of being "almost treasonous" (excessive printing of money) and soon thereafter presented his new proposal to amend the constitution, or rather to eliminate some amendments. He clearly wants to remain on the front page with controversial statements, though these tactics may well backfire on him. His remarks about Social Security being a Ponzi scheme will endear him to older voters, a fact that he quickly sought to clarify without much success.

Controversy and close vetting are an essential part of any political campaign; as they say in my native country: "If you don't like the heat, stay out of the kitchen."

Thursday, August 18, 2011

United Europe?

When I was a kid living in Switzerland, my family used to go to nearby French towns on week-ends and during summer vacations; we enjoyed the added value of our Swiss Francs which were always quite welcome among the French businesses. We could buy more because our currency was stronger, a situation that is very similar to the relation between the Mexican peso and the U.S. dollar even today.

Alas! The European Union was born and with it, the Euro, a currency that is used by 17 countries, including of course France, Italy and Spain, three favorite destinations of yesteryear which used to have much lower prices and cost of living. The Union of 27 countries took place in 1993, although various attempts were made much earlier. The Euro itself became a common currency in 2002.

 Euro Countries

As some countries are showing the tendency to go bankrupt, many voices are expressing the desire to return to their national currency; Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal among the larger members are having trouble making ends meet and the richer nations such as Germany and France are trying desperately to find a way out of the financial impasse. The main culprit is the euro, as the nations in trouble cannot simply devalue their currency and print more money. Denmark, Sweden and England among others refused to adopt the euro, and, as such, are not affected by the banking crisis in the rest of Europe. Switzerland, not a member although it has strong ties with the E.U., has seen its currency rise to the top as one of the strongest in the world. That causes a serious problem for exports as its goods are much more expensive.

The euro will not survive the pressure in my humble opinion, making way for national currencies once again; a country's sovereignty is partly based on the coins and paper money emitted by the respective national central
banks. They can control inflation, deflation, and financial needs without consulting with other countries. The European Central Bank (ECB) was established in Frankfurt, Germany to coordinate the needs of 17 countries. It has obviously not done its job efficiently and perhaps that is too much to ask. Individual governments still make their own decisions on budget matters, sometimes in a foolish manner by funding excessive benefits for their welfare programs. The ECB cannot solve their financial problems nor can it force them to embrace austerity plans. The result is what we see today, a cacophony of mutual accusations that are sinking the European stock markets and endangering the stability of their banks.

The initial shows of unity in the European Union have given way to the rise of nationalistic movements which demand a return to full sovereignty, including national currencies. The original concept was designed to eliminate once and for all the threat of war among European nations after two global conflicts.

It doesn't seem that the dream will perdure, unfortunately.

Monday, August 15, 2011


Our foreign policy is strange indeed. We have cuddled up to dictators, only to drop the support when a popular revolt takes place; except, of course, for Iran, where we were dear friends with the Shah and his beautiful young wife. In that country, Iran, the mullahs simply would have nothing to do with the Great Satan (that's us, by the way). We welcomed the fugitive ruler with open arms and gave him the best medical care until he died of cancer. When Batista, the cruel despot of Cuba, whom we loved to do business with even though he persecuted political opponents and was rotten to the core, finally saw the writing on the wall, we dropped him like a hot potato and initially embraced Fidel Castro as the new tyrant. We all know what happened...Examples abound but they all have one thing in common: Our foreign policy seems, since the end of the Cold War, mostly focused on whether or not we can do business with that country. There are other important considerations of a political nature as is the case with Pakistan.

Jimmy Carter and Shah of Iran inspect the troop during welcoming ceremony for the Shah., 11/15/1977

President Carter welcomes the Shah in 1977

We no longer invade countries to increase the size of the American Empire; the war with Mexico and with Spain allowed us to expand the Southwest considerably in the 19th century. We now invade sovereign nations because we, officially speaking, believe that they pose a threat to our peaceful existence. The fact that some have oil (Iraq) and/or fabulous reserves of rare minerals (Afghanistan) is simply icing on the cake. We waste billions of depreciated dollars in aiding Pakistan, an "ally" that has spread nuclear technology to other rogue nations and that keeps sending (informally of course) thousands of religious combatants to Afghanistan. With friends like these, who needs...?

"The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials."    

We reluctantly helped the revolution in Lybia (more oil anybody?) amid the popular (in the U.S.) rejection of more billions spent on foreign wars and in the midst of a new potential recession. Oh, I forgot! We have a complete embargo of the Cuban island after more than 50 years, a fact which is not only stupid (just to please a few Cuban refugees) but constitutes an act of war. Why don't we do  that with North Korea, a country that has been pulling our chain ever since the end of the Korean War. Could it be because China looms in the background?

It is high time to reject the concept of Real Politik of our former Secretary of State Kissinger; it might have been expedient during the Cold War, but it has no place in the modern world. I am beginning to sympathize with the presidential candidate Ron Paul, who advocates a type of isolationism.

Henry Kissinger watches as Vice

Let's stop playing the role of policeman of the world and start focusing on the numerous ailments that afflict this beautiful country.

Saturday, August 13, 2011


One candidate stood out amongst the Iowa's debate participants: Ron Paul. As usual, he deviated from the Republican policy in foreign wars, advocating a new type of Isolationism. He was the target of Santorum's acid criticism laced with a strong dose of sarcasm. Ron Paul shouted the most, knowing full well that, in spite of a decent poll number, he has no chance to win the primary. Bachman rarely showed the usual passion, except when she vigorously defended her role in Congress: "I was against raising the debt ceiling." Mitt Romney, as the present favorite to win the primary, maintained his distance from everybody else to avoid a verbal confrontation; he of course hasn't shown that he has the skills to fight in the trenches. His perpetual sardonic half smile doesn't serve him well, as if he were making fun of his colleagues.

So much for the most active debaters; in their shadow, Pawlenty seemed a little more animated, but as usual he keeps the title of the Prince of Monotony. If you can't sleep, there is the cure for you; tape his speeches and play them back in a loop at night. Hermann Cain showed poise, common sense, and self-assurance: He gets the nomination for Mr. Sense & Wisdom. Newton Gingrich, by far the most experienced and astute participant, let his tongue get the better of him as usual, bashing the Fox News hosts even though he once worked with them. He gets the nomination as Mr. Ungrateful. Huntsman, our ex-ambassador, well, the less said the better. He clearly deserves the title of Mr. Disappointment.

The real winners are the candidates who were not at the debate, but whose invisible presence dominated the event: Sarah Palin and Rick Perry, the Texas governor. Even though Mitt Romney kept a straight face when asked about Perry's entry into the fray, his response welcoming the fact betrayed his inner turmoil: His worst nightmare has just proven true. Perry is a serious contender, much more than any of the other candidates and he knows it. Romney firmly believes that it is his turn after losing to McCain three years ago and Perry, more so than Palin, represents the dark horse in the race to the White House. I nominate Romney as Mr. Déja Vu.

Michele Bachman is intense, no doubt about it; she is a real "damn the torpedoes" warrior, unlike Romney and that's what makes her a formidable and dangerous opponent. As a de facto leader of the Tea Party, she represents the extreme right views of the Republican Party, which, in my opinion, disqualifies her as a winner of the primary. Few independents will vote for her. Her followers are not afraid to elbow CNN anchors out of the way, which leads me to name her Miss Get Out Of My Way.

Rick Perry took his time to declare his candidacy to the White House, hoping to emulate his predecessor in the Texas Governorship. He acted wisely in not jumping into the race early; he wanted to see what the others had to say before deciding. He apparently feels that the competition is not that strong and that he has a good chance to prevail. Governor since the year 2000 (when Bush was elected the first time), he surprisingly began his political career as a Democrat and switched in 1990. As the longest serving governor in Texas, Perry is known among the locals as a man who follows the political trends as long as they favor his personal goals. This factor may hurt him when his opponents look for ammunition to attack him in the campaign. He is therefore my favorite for the title of Mr. Ride With The Wind.

Who will attempt to defeat Barack Obama? If you know the answer, please let me know!!

Thursday, August 11, 2011


No, it's not about the 2012 election, when surely a new President will be elected. It is a mere and futile exercise in hindsight regarding the 2008 election. The present thesis asks the following question: "Would Hillary Clinton have made a better president?" The vote was very close; Hillary got within 50,000 votes of Obama when the final numbers were crunched in the Democratic primary. Could she have beaten McCain? Of course, the senator from Arizona lacked the passion and charisma to win the presidency.

We all know and agree that Mrs. Clinton has made an excellent Secretary of State, certainly much better than Madeleine Albright who occupied the post under her husband. She is infinitely better than "Condo" Rice who apparently botched the early warnings of 9/11 made by an FBI agent. A very smart and cultured professor, Rice was simply out of her element at the White House. George Bush III should never have picked her for such a delicate position, when he had at his disposal plenty of experienced and capable candidates. But again, Mr. Bush will not go down in history as an effective President, not even when he saw Putin's soul in the Russian President's eyes (Sarcasm, OK?)

Ever since Mrs. Clinton married Bill when they were both young ambitious lawyers, she has proven to be a driving force behind her husband's success. He is of course a brilliant mind in his own right having won the prestigious Fullbright scholarship. The only question about Bill is his set of values; forget the embarrassing incident with Monica, that does not affect the nation. But one has a right to ask why Bill pardoned a fugitive felon on his last day in office. The answer to that question never came through. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, as we will perhaps never know about other presidential decisions that were not quite ethical.

Hillary was hurt, deeply hurt, by her husband's infidelities; she stood stoically by him anyway, having apparently decided that the good in him far outweighs the bad. She is a tough lady, no doubt about it, though she created some resentment when she criticized Obama very harshly during the primaries in 2008. She reminds me in many ways of another tough lady: Margaret Thatcher of England, who had a successful run as Prime Minister. I feel confident that Mrs. Clinton is equally capable of making critical decisions, even if they eventually affect her reelection chances.

President Obama, on the other hand, has shown time and time again that he hasn't fully assimilated the need to act as the nation's top executive when our welfare is at stake. Except for the bin Laden raid, the current President has shown that he is unwilling to be forceful and decisive when facing opposition.

That is why I believe, in hindsight, that Hillary Clinton would have made a much better President.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Living on the border with Mexico is a study in contrasts. As you cross into Matamoros, the nearest Mexican town to Brownsville, Texas, your senses are hit with a huge variety of sights, smells and sounds unlike anything you have experienced before. It is a combination of  joie de vivre and sadness. The Mexican spirit is not easily broken, not even by the monstrous cartels who destroy innocent lives with complete indifference. People fill the hot streets with their bustling business, whether it is peddling goods to the evermore scarce tourists or fighting traffic on very narrow avenues. Mexicans want to enjoy life to the fullest while they can; who knows what mañana will bring.

On the U.S. side, a relative order prevails; traffic is much easier to navigate (unless the town elders decide to initiate urban renovations in several key locations at once), and people even let you slide in the line of cars with a graceful gesture. The pace of living in the resaca (lakes) town is rather boring; very few people go out at night (except for teens sneaking out without parental consent) and businesses tend to close early. We go to the mall on week-ends or to the nearby beach on Padre Island. Saturday night is usually reserved for the carne asada (barbecue) with family during the long summer. There are of course some unpleasant indications that we are a border town: Drug trafficking is common as witnessed by the numerous arrests for possession and intent to sell. Occasionally, shots are fired by intoxicated individuals who have a score to settle. But otherwise, one can say that we trade the excitement found in a Mexican border town for a quieter and more peaceful style of living.

The two municipalities, Brownsville and Matamoros, are inextricably joined at the hip (if I may use this metaphor), as sister cities. Many families have members on both sides; several Mexican businesses, especially restaurants, have fled the violence to settle on the U.S. side. Spanish of course is spoken in both locations and most service businesses require bilingual employees. Going or coming to either city is an annoying but necessary process. It can easily take two hours to cross the bridges and be thoroughly checked by ICE personnel. American custom agents have the difficult task of detecting drug traffickers who usually are "mules", that is ordinary people who are paid a few dollars to carry the dope to the U.S. side. Dogs have proven to be invaluable in this process.

Fotos de Matamoros, Tamaulipas, México: bamderamexicana

Winter Texans, as the "refugees" from the cold are called, return every year not only for the weather, but also for the opportunity to cross into Mexico and get much, much cheaper medical drugs. Mexican dentists and doctors are also favored by the older generation as they have found them to be excellent professionals with very reasonable fees. It is actually quite safe to cross into Matamoros (most of the time anyway) as the Mexican military are a constant presence. There is of course the risk of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, but that could happen in any U.S. city as well.

Our daily lives on the border enjoy many attributes of the Mexican culture with few negative factors. If one decides to retire in this area, the Rio Grand Valley or RGV, as many older citizens have done, a very pleasant life may be ensue, far away from the frenetic hustle of large urban areas. Just make sure you bring your anti-solar lotion and start dancing with the Mariachi band.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Burning buildings,  flying rocks, chanting youth, store looting, police taunting, and innocent victims crying, this must be the eastern city of Deir al-Zour in Syria, where the hated regime of  President Bashar al-Assad is mass murdering its own population. Oh surprise! We are actually in the middle of London, the epicenter of riots and violence initiated mostly by young disaffected people. Troubles quickly spread to four other English cities and authorities are baffled as to the causes of this popular uprising.

We cannot blame the weather as the temperature in London hovers around a balmy 70 degrees F. We cannot blame the full moon as it isn't due for another week. There have been 10 riots since 1985 in England, mostly due to police brutality, although a few had to do with increases in taxes and university fees. Indeed, college students have been at the core of the fray a few times, but the finger points mainly to disaffected young people who cannot find a decent job. Street protests usually start peacefully but quickly degenerate in violence caused by those who see an opportunity to loot stores for the rich, Armani's in London was sacked, and by those who enjoy violence (as crazy as this may sound).

The main reason for these riots lies at the heart of the (unjust) capitalist system which creates an abyss between the "have" and "have not". Racism and discrimination against immigrants also play a role. Let's remember the terrible violence that occurred in France in October 2005, where unemployed youths, mostly Arab immigrants, caused hundreds of millions of euros in property damage and thousands of wounded among police and rioters. England is also fertile ground for racial discrimination, as are several other European countries.

Let's remember the Watts riot in Los Angeles in August, 1965, caused by a seemingly innocuous and common event: the arrest of a black man for driving under the influence. The summer heat and years of intense discrimination against African-Americans reach the boiling point and the resulting violence was instrumental in setting up profound changes in the police force and in the perception of minorities.

Many modern Republicans, including presidential candidates for 2012, favor a smaller government and a "laissez-faire" attitude toward the financial forces that move the market. They firmly believe that the federal government should not bail out large companies in danger of failing. "Let the economic and financial factors take care of themselves," they argue, and eliminate all government controls and interference. Maybe we should ask GM's and Chrysler"s employees and workers their opinion. These now very successful enterprises are paying back their official bail-out loans and will soon recover their independence. Thousands of people could have lost their jobs had it not been for the government's intervention.

Are we exempt from more riots in the U.S.? Of course not; what is happening in Britain could very well spill into the U.S., especially since the stock market suffered a huge decline, a potential harbinger of a new recession.

The Republican kind of savage capitalism favors the smart, the strong, and the rich (Bush's tax cuts for example), and leaves the others to charities (tax deductible of course) and to the vagaries of the market. Unless we change the system, we may be the victims of urban violence more and more frequently with the corresponding dire consequences.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


Buddha once said:"As the rain pours into the ill-thatched house, so lust pours into the undisciplined mind."

YS Medicine <em>Buddha Statue</em> Tibetan Buddhism Healer Healing Figure

Let's interpret "lust" as desire, whether for sex, power, wealth, and/or fame, and we suddenly include all members of Congress, the White House and its various agencies, Wall Street, most CEO's, quite a few movie stars, most governors and mayors, and a considerable part of the general population.

Wow! Buddha has explained in a few succinct words what ails our country in particular and the world in general. If the ordinary citizen allows lust to penetrate his/her mind, nothing of consequence for the nation will result. But when politicians reach a decision based on personal "lust" that affects millions, we all suffer. The recent fracas on the debt ceiling illustrates perfectly the teachings of the Eastern Sage.

Buddha also adds:" Let the wise man guard his mind, incomprehensible, subtle, and capricious though it is. Blessed is the guarded mind!"

It is indeed a full-time job to make sure that our mind doesn't fall prey to unwanted emotions, unwanted when they directly impinge on decisions that should be totally unbiased. The bridge to nowhere, the .50 caliber gun, the war in Iraq, the $500 toilet, the absurdly complex tax laws, the lack of term limits, etc.. are a few examples of politicians voting  with their personal desires and not for rational motives.

Now that President Obama's approval rating is starting to look like his predecessor's, and Congress' image is navigating the sewers of public opinion, one can only ask why we don't have a better government. Did we simply vote (those who bothered to do so) for candidates based on their political campaign spending? Or is the reality much worse and much more frightening?

History has shown that in moments of great crisis, a strong leader emerged to save the day; F.D.R during the Great Depression, Churchill in World War II, De Gaulle saving France from political debacle after the war, Washington of course defeating the Brits, Gandhi in India and Nelson Mandela in South Africa, the list is endless. So where is the great leader that America urgently needs? Some of us thought that Obama was that man, ready to transform our country into a wise and prosperous world power. Alas! No such luck.

A great crisis is upon us and we don't have the kind of government that can solve the problem. Our elected leaders bicker like children on the playground and no visionary leader has emerged (yet) to take over the ship and straighten out its course.

Maybe we should email our elected representatives the teachings of Buddha, every day, every hour, until they start applying his wisdom.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The European Immigration Turmoil

Americans, when asked their opinion about European countries such as Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, France, and Italy, usually respond with glowing praise for these "socialist" havens. We love to take a vacation in Paris, Rome, Geneva, Stockholm or Oslo, all the while admiring the Old Continent' s easy way of life: going to work on a bicycle, or on the tramway, sipping espressos in the sidewalk cafe, taking a trip on picturesque canals, or even smoking legal marijuana in a Dutch restaurant. Compared to the daily rush hour grind in the U.S., European lifestyle seems much more relaxed, more enjoyable, in short, a paradise on Earth.

Behind this facade of daily bliss, there is, however, a much darker image. My relatives in Europe tell me of a much changed social interaction, where crime is on the rise, and where racial bigotry has raised its ugly head. Immigration from Eastern Europe and Africa has sparked a tense debate among political parties in all western European countries, and voters are beginning to lean toward those groups who oppose lenient immigration laws. The prohibition of "burkas" (full facial veils) in France sparked violent protests in Paris by French Muslims who feel as second class citizens. The construction of a mosque was forbidden in Geneva, the Protestant Rome, again causing public manifestations by the followers of Allah.

The opposition to more relaxed immigration laws is not just against Muslims, though it is by far the most controversial, it also addresses Eastern Europeans who seek better economic conditions. Some of these immigrants have a criminal past in their native country and continue to exercise their unlawful trade in their new home, thus showing very little gratitude for the opportunity to prosper. In Germany, things became so critical in a southern town that federal authorities had to intervene to avoid bloodshed; immigrants from Turkey actually convinced a school district to accept their native tongue as an official German language. They had such political influence that the town almost became a Turkish enclave. From this incident a new law was born forcing newcomers to learn German within a year or face deportation to their home country.

In France and Switzerland, strict new laws allow the State to deport immigrants (even those who are naturalized citizens) who have been convicted of a felony. In some ways, these laws mirror the tough new posture taken by the U.S. toward legal and illegal immigrants. After many years of liberal and generous views toward those who must flee their country because of economic or political conditions, western powers are tightening the restrictions on immigration, due mainly to poor economies and rising voters' move to the right of the political spectrum. Some of the more vociferous complaints by native Europeans touch on the delicate matter of religion, Islam in particular.

The war in Afghanistan, Al-Qaida's threats toward Westerners, the perception that most Muslims are extremists anxious to become martyrs by killing the "Infidels", all these events since 9/11 have contributed to form the conviction in many Europeans (and Americans) that there is a war between religions worthy of the Crusades of the 11th century. "If you come to my country as an immigrant and you don't like our rules and way of life, go back home," is a phrase uttered constantly by right wing followers in the European Union. There is indeed a grain of truth in that statement, especially with regard to Muslim women who, in the eyes of Westerners, are treated very badly in Arab countries.

The full integration of non-white immigrants in  Europe will take a long time, but I am  convinced that eventually, common sense will prevail as it has in the New World.

Thursday, August 4, 2011


As a teacher in high school, I have the responsibility to guide my special needs students toward a satisfying and lucrative activity after graduation. Some can aspire to college, but most can do well in vocational schools where they will learn a trade that will allow them to become independent. Sometimes, however, I am faced with a difficult case; the student does not believe that he/she can be transformed into a useful citizen. Their self-esteem has been damaged by years of academic failure and by verbal abuse emitted by uncaring peers.

It is part of my job and my colleagues' in special education to detect these cases and strive to establish a personal bond that will allow us to penetrate the "emotional armor" raised as a first-line defense. We have four years to convert these teens into confident human beings with the help of counselors, other teachers, and the parents. The main tools we use in our effort to win their trust is good humor, frequent one-on-one talks, school material help (sometimes from our personal supplies), effective communication with parents or guardians, coordination with classroom teachers, with school principals, and, above all, with genuine care (not compassion).

A few students have to be placed in special classrooms due to their very low level of academic competency; they read with difficulty, they struggle abnormally with numbers, they fail to capture the essence of second level abstract concepts (thinking about thinking, for example). The practice of separating these students from regular classrooms is waning. Investigations have shown that most can perform well in mainstream education with adequate accommodations and modifications; the experience of learning with their non-disabled peers is a highly beneficial social interaction. Still, a very small minority of students must be handled separately due to their very severe physical and mental problems.

Teachers, unlike doctors, cannot help becoming attached to their students, especially with those who need the most attention. That is especially true of children with special needs. Our greatest reward is certainly not monetary; we feel fulfilled when an ex-student returns to school just to say hello and thank us for our patience and concern. As mentioned above, our (the teachers') main goal in high school is to make every effort to find a satisfying niche for all students once they graduate. Luckily for us, the state has established strict guidelines to lead these teens into the right slot, whether college, vocational school, or work. We sometimes fail, due to extreme circumstances outside our control, and the only consolation is that we did our best.


It is extremely important to work with the community and convince businesses that students with special needs often make the best workers. "Everybody Fits" must be a slogan sponsored by the private sector, not just public education. Compassion is admirable, but these children want recognition, not pity. At their level of skills, they can perform many tasks with success and thus become useful members of society, saving the government millions in welfare help.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Ignored Youth

We see it in the classroom, we see it on the playground, we see it in the street, at the supermarket within a family, on school buses, wherever a group of children gather. There is always a child that seems ignored, as if he/she did not belong. Their facial expression is usually neutral, their eyes downcast and furtive, their body language signals boredom and the physical distance is greater than normal at their age. They are often ridiculed and verbally abused by their peers, if not beaten by stronger boys or girls. Yet, we, as a society, do not pay much attention to these outcasts, unless the teacher or the parent is exceptionally attentive and caring.

The cause may be a mental illness, such autism, or they may have a history of neglect and abuse, especially sexual by a member of the family. When subjected to stress, they may well snap and become aggressive, the only way for them to express pent-up emotion. Once they are adults, it is almost impossible to convert them into good, productive citizens. The only exceptions are due to some unusual talent such as painting, writing, or playing an instrument, an activity which brings them the attention they crave. The use and abuse of drugs is also common as teens and grown-ups. It allows them to escape their unpleasant reality and enter a world of permanent pleasure. I wonder if the British singer Winehouse was one of these children.


Social interaction is bred into our genes by evolution; we wouldn't have survived as a race otherwise. It is thus extremely important for teachers and parents to observe these cases very carefully, as there are some interventions available. There is of course no guarantee of success if the emotional damage is of such intensity that no amount of love will restore their faith in human beings. But in most cases, care and love are certainly essential tools to help them become well-balanced adults; we must be quite genuine when dealing with them as they can detect a phony a mile away. It takes a lot of time and patience, a recipe similar to that employed with abused animals. The eventual results will be sufficient reward.

One caveat, however, before we embark on saving these children and teens from emotional failure. Not all of them suffer from emotional distress; some youngsters are naturally withdrawn, unwilling to mingle with the crowd. They prefer to observe and take notes as they are almost always highly intelligent. They may not be their peers' favorite companions in social activities or in team sports, but they seem satisfied with few friends who share their distaste for parties and loud music. One can easily observe them forming small, quiet groups in school halls and their facial expressions are often quite animated. These kids are not in need of intervention.

Withdrawn kids may sometimes attempt suicide, or carry out violent actions. It is our responsibility as a modern society to detect their needs in time and work together to help them achieve a proper self-esteem and the ability and skills that proper human interaction demands.