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Arctic Sailings…The Northeast Passage

February 14, 2015

Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea;
Tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.

Westward from the Davis Strait ’tis there ’twas said to lie
The sea route to the Orient for which so many died;
Seeking gold and glory, leaving weathered, broken bones
And a long-forgotten lonely cairn of stones.

Two verses from The Northwest Passage by Stan Rogers

World - Northeast Passage 2a

The Yong Sheng, Chinese container ship that made the historic journey from Dalian, China to Rotterdam Netherlands across the Northeast Passage in 35 days, cutting two weeks off the usual path through the Suez Canal by two weeks

The Northeast Passage

“The Northwest Passage” sung by Canadian bard Stan Rogers – wordsmith and folksinger who was every bit Bob Dylan’s match and, in my immodest opinion, far better – is a song about a famous Canadian explorer, John Franklin, who, like many before and some afterwards tried to cross the Canadian Arctic by ship to establish a shorter maritime route between Europe and Asia. Franklin failed.  In 1843, he and his entire crew perished from starvation, hypothermia, tuberculosis, lead poisoning and scurvy.

Rogers’ version is a hauntingly beautiful of that journey. Franklin’s effort, truth be known, was not at all unique. Many others died trying to establish a maritime route across the Arctic north of Canada in order to avoid the much longer and dangerous journey around Cape Horn and the tip of South America.  Not only where there more than likely hundreds of failed attempts to carve out a similar northern route, but beginning in the 1500s already there were also efforts, especially from Europe also to pioneer a northeast passagefrom the Atlantic Coast north to Barentz Sea and from their east across the Arctic Ocean north of Russia to the Pacific and to Asia. These efforts, history suggests, to cross from Europe to China across Russia’s northern tier, are nearly 1000 years old, with Russian sailors attempting to bridge the gap – and pushing further and further east in their efforts – as early as the 11th century (the 1000’s) but with no breakthrough to the east.

Similar efforts were intensified by European maritime powers – the English, Dutch, Danish and Norwegian – in their mad scramble to find a shorter way the Asia’s Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indonesian riches. While the Europeans had finally got to Asia by rounding the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, the journey was both extremely long – 7050 miles – and dangerous. Yet no one succeeded for a variety of reasons – the weather being the primary one, but also Russian resistance to European competition came into play as well. However, it was only in 1878 that FinnishSwedish explorer Nordenskiöld made the first complete passage of the North East Passage from west to east, in the Vega expedition with Lieutenant Louis Palander of the Swedish Royal Navy in command. Nordenskiöld showed such a journey was technically possible, and yet even in an age of increasingly sophisticated ice-breakers to show the way, there has been little to no traffic across this northern route, until recently, when a combination of stronger steel ship hulls and global warming have made the journey more practicable. Read more…

Auschwitz Seventy Years After Liberation

January 28, 2015
IG Farben Synthetic Rubber Factory, Auschwitz - Monowitz-Buna

IG Farben Synthetic Rubber Factory, Auschwitz – Monowitz-Buna

History Moves On..Sort of…

It was 70 years ago, late January, 1945. I was on the scene, then 2 and a half months old but far away and safe. Not so many cousins of both my parents, caught in the grip of the Nazi war machine, turned into ashes in concentration camps and mobile killing vans, their bones turned to power that was recycled as fertilizer.

Now 70 years on, the suffering and death in the Auschwitz death camp is commemorated. Several hundred of the few survivors made the painful journey back to the camp, among them Jews, Poles Russians. But European politics blocked others. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s President, was not invited. It was a Polish decision “coordinated with the U.S. government” not to invite him although it was Soviet troops that liberated the camp on January 27, 1944. Putin took this rejection as “as an unforgivable slight that undermines the Russian narrative of the war and Fascism. Read more…

Ebola – The Blame Game: W.H.O. Chastized For Failing To Respond: Criticism of I.M.F. Structural Adjustment Policies Deflected

January 13, 2015


(Note: This also appears at Foreign Policy In Focus)

Ebola is back in the news in Colorado and shortly hereafter I would speculate nationally.

A Denverite recently returned from West Africa countries affected by the ebola outbreak is being tested for the virus at the Denver Medical Center, one of the country’s 29 public health laboratories authorized to do ebola testing by the Center for Disease Control. The patient whose identity is being withheld, is considered low risk but is being held in a designated in patient unit any way as a precaution. Dr. Connie Price, the hospital’s chief of infectious diseases noted that “infection with the virus has not been confirmed.” Ebola symptoms may appear anytime between 2 and 21 days after initial infection. They include muscle pain, fever, diarrhea,vomiting, weakness, lack of appetite and abdominal pain.

Given the fact that the patient shows no symptoms as of yet, isolated in a medical ward monitoring his/her condition repeatedly there is a good chance that should the person actually be infected that the virus will be stopped in its tracks through early intervention. Early intervention appears to be one of the key elements in reversing ebola’s deadly course.

Before the recent mid-term November elections here in the United States, ebola was news both its reality in West Africa, its threat here in the USA and elsewhere. But since the election results were in, it has all but disappeared from the news, despite the fact that ebola continues to infect more people and take its growing share of victims in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. It is only at such times, when the specter of the ebola outbreak touches lives of people here in the United States, that the issue is re-ignited in the media here. Otherwise, the infection working its way through West Africa’s population – a terribly painful if not horrible way to die – hardly makes it into the media despite its cruel consequences .

To devote so much attention to ebola’s course in one place, and so little in another part of the world smacks of a pattern of discrimination. If that isn’t racism, then what is? Read more…

Shipwrecks 2014

January 4, 2015
Höegh , Osaka, Japanese ship, registered in Singapore, run aground off the English coast on its way to Germany

Höegh , Osaka, Japanese ship, registered in Singapore, run aground off the English coast on its way to Germany

My unofficial count – 107 ships sank last year. This according to Wikipedia’s “List of Shipwrecks in 2014″. In includes “all ships sunk, foundered, grounded, or otherwise lost during 2014.”

Already in 2015 four ships have gone down, among them the Sea Merchant, a cargo ship, sailing under a Tanzanian flag that was carrying  20,000 sacks of cement sank off Lobo, Batangas, Philippines after encountering rough seas and strong winds. Of her crew, 1 was killed and 19 survived. The Bulk Jupiter, a Bahamas registered cargo ship sank off Vũng Tàu, Vietnam with one survivor and the loss of her nineteen other crew members. It was carrying 46,400 tons of “iron ores from Malaysia to China.” The same day, January 2, a 2500 ton Cyprus registered ship, The Cemfjord – with a decidedly Scandinavian name – capsized in the North Sea off the coast of Caithness, United Kingdom. It was carrying cement. As of this writing, its crew of eight has gone missing and is feared dead. The next day, yesterday, January 3, the Japanese sounding  Höegh , Osakaa car transporter, but registered in Singapore, ran aground on the Bramble Bank in “the Solent”, a strait that separates the Isle of Wight from mainland England. Its crew of 25 were rescued by helicopter by the British coastguard.

A rather inauspicious maritime start for 2015. Read more…

From Whence The Ebola Virus?

January 1, 2015
Color-coded African Road Map Systems

Color-coded African Road Map Systems


The allegations by Francis Boyle, legal expert on Biological and Chemical Warfare, that Ebola strain killing thousands of West Africans and infecting tens of thousands more is man-made in U.S. biological warfare laboratories should be the subject of a Congressional investigation. The further question emerges: What is going on in those laboratories? 


Ebola Spreads, U.S. Republicans Could Care Less Now That The Mid-Term Election Season Is Finished.

According to the World Health Organization’s latest statistics (December 30, 2014), the current outbreak of the ebola virus has now infected more than 20,000 people, almost all of them in three West African countries neighboring one another: Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone. Of those infected close to 7900 have died. The figures of the infected and resulting deaths continue to rise at an alarming rate. Far from having run its course, the epidemic continues to spread, trapping more victims in its wake. While there have past ebola outbreaks, virtually all in equatorial Africa, this latest one has spread to more people and taken more victims than all of the others combined.

In the run-up of the recent 2014 mid-term elections here in the United States, the Republicans made a great deal of noise critical of the Obama Administration’s handling of the crisis. Most of these criticisms were part of a campaign to whip up fear. It worked, the Republicans did rather well. Other than a la “Shock Doctrine” how might the crisis be used to spread neo-liberal economic policies, Africans suffering and dying does not interest them anymore now that the election season is over. Nor does the international effort to stem its spread. Read more…

Tunisia, A Country Skating On Thin Ice, Chooses A President

December 23, 2014
Hotel Medina, at the entrance of Tunis' Kasbah. December, 2011

Hotel Medina, at the entrance of Tunis’ medina. December, 2011

(Also posted at Foreign Policy In Focus)

Tunisian Elections: An IMF Austerity Victory?

Beja Caid Essebsi was elected president of Tunisia in the country’s first free presidential elections since its 1956 independence. He won a clear majority , some 55% of the vote to Moncef Marzouki’s 45% in a run off election with 60% of eligible voters going to the polls. Essebsi’s ability to play down his connection to the Ben Ali regime – in which he served and to amplify his connection to the country’s generally acknowledged founder and first president – Habib Bourguiba. Immediately after the results were finalized, both Washington and Paris expressed their satisfaction with the results.

The Obama Administration is hoping that now that the elections are over the political parties of the two candidates will join forces, creating a conservative political coalition that can push an IMF austerity program (in exchange for a loan) through the new parliament, the main foci of which are to pry open the country’s growing energy sector to foreign companies and to lift the subsidies on fuel and electricity. Essebsi might have won the popular vote, but one has to wonder if the real winner is not the IMF austerity program (which by the way both candidates supported – and didn’t talk much about during the campaign). Will the political alliance Washington and Paris are nudging the two conservative parties to forge come together? Will it be enough to ram through the IMF austerity program through the Tunisian legislature? Or will the popular movement be able to resist what amounts to as yet another all out offensive against their country by international capital? Read more…

Burkina Faso – Following In Tunisia’s Footsteps

December 20, 2014
Burkina faso's burgeoning gold mine sector, in part exploited by foreign mining companies, many of them Canadian, in part by what is referred to as "artisanal" mining in which child labor, despite being against the law, is rampant

Burkina Faso’s burgeoning gold mine sector, in part exploited by foreign mining companies, many of them Canadian, in part by what is referred to as “artisanal” mining in which child labor, despite being against the law, is rampant

How do I feel by the end of the day?

(Are you sad because you’re on your own?)
No I get by with a little help from my friends
Mm I get high with a little help from my friends
Mm going to try with a little help from my friends

Lyrics from the Beatles Song, “With A Little Help From My Friends”


Blaise Compaore: another skunk falls from power…

It all came to a head this past fall.

When “Francafrique’s”(1) man in Africa, Blaise Compaore tried to amend the Burkinan constitution to run for a fifth term, to retain his 27 year hold on power, people, many of them the country’s youth, poured into the streets of the country’s Ouagadougo and in other cities in a national movement of opposition. The country has a long history of social movements standing up for economic and political reform. The events in Burkina Faso are reminiscent of those in Tunisia. At the time that Zine Ben Ali was forced to flee Tunis, he also was trying to engineer a way to change the Tunisian constitution, not so much to personally remain in power personally but to open the doors for a presidential bid by his wife, the infamous (at least for Tunisians) Leila Trabelsi and her greedy siblings.

The Burkina Faso – Tunisia example does not end there.

On October 30, 2014, Burkina Faso’s National Assembly was set to vote an amendment to the constitution permitting Compaore to remain in the presidency. As in Tunisia in late 2010, in Burkina Faso, a public outcry and youth led massive street demonstrations first aired their grievances but within days quickly morphed into one calling for Compaore to step down and leave the country. As in Tunisia, the target of the demonstrations were the symbols of power: the National Assembly, the office of the president (which was set ablaze), foreign-owned and operated gold mines, the residences of high-ranking officials,the Ford concession (in which the president’s brother, François Compaoré had interests, the offices of the president’s political party, the Congress for Democracy and Progress.  Thirty demonstrators were killed by the military before the latter, changed sides and tilted their support towards removing Compaore. Again as in Tunisia (and a few months later, Egypt) the calls from the streets for Compaore to step down had the support of the country’s military elites, most of whom refused to carry out Compaore’s orders to crush the demonstrations.(2)

As in Tunisia, it was the socio-economic crisis caused by decades of Compaore policies which ultimately led the country to rebel against his rule. Like Zine Ben Ali, Blaise Compaore was devoted student of World Bank and International Monetary fund structural adjustment programs which increased the country’s overall poverty by cutting government budgets, social programs, subsidies for food and medicine but did enrich those close to the president. With their insider knowledge and political support many of these were able to cash in on the sale of state assets for their own private, dominate the country’s foreign economic concessions, etc., again tendencies that reached criminal proportions in Tunisia. In the same manner that World Bank measurements on Tunisia in 2010 seemed to suggest a healthy economy, but hid a growing gap between rich and poor, so it is in Burkina Faso. The formal statistics indicated good per capita GNP growth (7%) but hid the growing economic disparities between the small circle of Burkinan rich and a growing number of impoverished,

Further, Compaore’s exit from Burkina Faso was greased by both by France and the United States, neither of which, until the advent of the Arab Spring, have had much of a tradition of supporting radical social change in the Third World as Algeria, Vietnam, Chile, Madagascar, Cambodia and dozens of other interventions amply demonstrate. Interestingly, rather than supporting Compaore’s extended tenure in power, both the world’s greatest military power, even if in decline, the United States and its strategic sidekick of late, France,(remember Libya, Mali, Central African Republic) together, discouraged Compaore from clinging to power. As, obviously with a little help from friends, Ben Ali and his entourage found sanctuary in U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, so Compaore too, got by with a little help from his friends. He was, as Anne Frintz notes in an article in the December issue of Le Monde Diplomatique, removed from Burkina Faso in a helicopter provided by the French government and given refuge in French ally Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). Read more…


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