Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Sound of Silence: As in Dogs Not Barking

It was like hearing the first cuckoo of spring. MSNBC called this week to see if I would be interested in discussing the UN's waste, mismanagement and corruption in handling the Tsunami funds twelve months ago. It was they suggested, 'The biggest financial scandal since Oil for Food.'

It was, in fact, deja vu over again. Twelve months ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Tsunami, I was being ferried around the studios to discuss the shock and horror of UN Humanitarian Affairs chief Jan Egeland calling the US 'mean.'

Mere technical details like the fact that he had said no such thing did not dam the tidal wave of indignation bouncing off the walls of the conservative echo-chamber.

Egeland had actually said that the developed countries had almost all failed to meet their own targets of 0.7% of GDP going to Overseas Development Assistance, which is indisputably true. He did not specify that of all of them, the US was the meanest, but I had no compunction about reminding viewers.

In fact the US had offered an initial $30 million at the time of the Tsunami, which the talking heads all considered as the height of generosity. As the scale of the tragedy broke, the administration added several zeroes to its initial offer. However the purpose of the show was not to congratulate me on my prescience, it was to find another excuse to attack the UN.

In fact, I am somewhat surprised that no one has yet found a way to link the Hurricane Katrina debacle to the UN. But somehow the right does not want to remind people about the New Orleans debacle.

I doubt that we have heard the last of this newly launched Tsunami canard, not least since Bill Clinton's position as UN Special Envoy makes it a double whammy for the right. The UN is always wrong, it is simply a question of pinning its inherent wrongness to a topical peg.

However we can draw some comfort. Could it be that that 'Oil for Food' as a subject has lost its appeal even for the rabid right?

On one level, this is probably no bad thing, since the voluminous but vapid Volcker Report finally said all there was to say, and probably a lot more than was worth saying, about the alleged scandal.

De minimis Lex non curat, says the old legal saw, 'The law does not concern itself with trifles.' If only we could say the same of much of the media, which of course concerns itself with little else.

For a year every minute item about the Oil For Food Program has been bellowed breathlessly from the conservative media.

And suddenly, there is silence. Last month Kojo Annan, son of Kofi ,was awarded large damages against the Murdoch-owned London Sunday Times, which has to admit that its story connecting him to Oil For Food contracts had no substance. You did not see the story on Fox, MSNBC, or any of the usual cabal.

In December, the US charged two colonels who had worked for the 'Coalition Provisional Authority' with accepting bribes of $200,000 a month for steering contracts to companies that were seemingly just shells. They worked with someone whom the Coalition Provisional Authority hired as comptroller with a budget of $82 million - despite a previous felony conviction for fraud.

It did not make the headlines. Senator Norm Coleman and Congressman Henry Hyde did not call for the resignation of the chief executive of the organization involved, one George W. Bush.

And no one mentioned that much of the money involved presumably came from the $10 billion surplus that the UN Oil For Food Fund had handed over to the Development Fund for Iraq, controlled by the CPA. During its blessedly short life span, the American dominated CPA spent nearly $20 billion of the $23.34 billion of Iraqi funds it had under its control for just over a year. It spent just $300 million of the US taxpayer funding pledges of $18.4 billion for Iraq's reconstruction.

At a press conference at the UN on Wednesday 28 December the members of the International Accounting and Monitoring Board set up by the Security Council to monitor CPI spending of DFI funds, reinforced the impression that the Pentagon's efforts to freeze them out were a waste of effort. The body bared its gums and refused to bark at the clear evidence of gross waste, mismanagement and corruption by the CPA.

The board simply examined 24 sole sourced contracts that the CPA awarded worth more than five million dollars. In fact, we discovered during the press conference, they had paid KPMG to 'audit' 23 of them, representing some $600 million which it was suggested was mostly a process of examining American government audits.

The Pentagon had heavily censored what they provided to the IAMB until Congressman Henry Waxman posted their devastating reports on his website.

The biggest sole-sourced contract was Kellogg Brown Root, the Halliburton subsidiary which walked off with $1.6 billion. KPMG recused itself from this, so the IAMB relied on the work of the Special Inspector General for Iraq as well as the Pentagon audits.

Just consider. The US gave a sole sourced contract to a subsidiary of the company that had had Vice President Dick Cheney CEO from which he is still rolling up deferred compensation. The audit was carried out by Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General, appointed by President George W. Bush, whose lawyer he had been in various forms way back to his time as Governor of Texas.

Through almost complete media silence about this ultimate in potential whitewashes, one cannot help but hear echoes, of the febrile demands for transparency from the UN, on the need for external checks. If Kofi Annan had appointed his own lawyer to conduct the Inquiry that Volcker actually headed, can you imagine the frothy indignation?

It also emerges that the IAMB did not examine the other contracts at all, not even to check the open-ness and fairness of the bidding, let alone to see if the money from the Development Fund was in fact spent on behalf of the Iraqi people as mandated.

In fact, even Bowen's report managed more indignation than the IAMB has so far mustered. Almost the only admonition from the Board has been to suggest mildly that the US reimburse the $200 million plus that KBR overcharged for fuel supplies to Iraq. Bowen found a massive $8.8 billion of Development Fund for Iraq money could not be accounted for

That was the result of Defense Department Audits that the Pentagon tried to conceal from the IAMB, and which were only revealed by Waxman who has managed far more indignation about it than the IAMB's public statements display. One cannot help suspecting that some of the board's five members have had words with US administration officials. Even Bowen complained about this one.

As Waxman said back in June, 'there has been a stark and telling contrast between Congress' approach to the Oil For Food Program and the DFI. Five separate congressional committees have been investigating U.N. mismanagement of the Oil for Food Program, and more than a dozen hearings have been held. But before today there was not a single hearing in Congress on U.S. mismanagement of the Development Fund for Iraq,' which, as he points out, is the successor to the Oil For Food program.
(see )

Waxman reported that the CPA withdrew no less than $12 billion in cash from the New York Federal Reserve Bank DFI and flew it to Iraq, comments - no less than 363 tons of $100 bills, the largest cash withdrawal in history. In its final feeding frenzy, in the last month the CPA took out $4 billion from the mother of all ATM's in New York including the largest cash withdrawal in history, $2.4 billion.

In a partial audit of $120 million of the $600 million handed out to US military officials for local reconstruction, more 80% could not be accounted for, and $7 million was simply missing.

When I raised the fate of these funds at Kofi Annan's press conference just before Christmas, I was later berated by John Bolton's press officer as an 'apologist for the UN,' as he questioned my journalistic integrity and accused me of 'blurring the line' between the Oil for Food kickbacks and what he characterized the CPA's accounting irregularities. I told him that I was not blurring the line. I was drawing a straight line between them.

If Benon Sevan's $160,000, alleged by the Volcker Inquiry, is headline news for the best part of the year, then I think it is a legitimate question to ask why the CPA's attested multi billion scandal scarcely merits a paragraph in the back pages.

Or is the profession saying that this is a dog bites man/man bites dog scenario? That if the UN is corrupt it is unusual, but massive corruption is too commonplace in this Bush administration to merit mention?

I suspect that this is not what the news editors and producers are saying. But it would be interesting to hear an explanation about what news values mandate that the mote in the UN's eye deserves minute attention but that the beam in the White House's can be overlooked.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Hugo, Haggis and Hogmanay

We are not only approaching Hogmanay, the new year taken so seriously by Scots, Russians and others, we are also approaching Burns Night, when wannabee Scots such as myself use the occasion to drink dangerous amounts of Scotch whisky and plunge daggers into Haggis while reciting verses from the immortal Rabbie Burns. Wordsworth was never this much fun.

I join in on the strength of a Scottish great grandparent, a partiality to a drop of malt, and a positive love of haggis - a spiced pudding of sheeps' entrails, lungs and blood mixed with cereal and boiled in a sheep's stomach.

Apart from such obvious culinary attractions, Rabbie Burns wrote one of the most pithy lines that every writer about international affairs should have carved on their desk.
Oh wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oursel's as others see us!

It is a telling warning against double standards, and nowhere is this more potent than in the case of Hugo Chavez where even the most urbane of American commentators show the pervasive effects of wall-to-wall invective from the right. BusinessWeek's Geri Smith wrote this week, in an otherwise fair article, "What's worrisome is that Chavez, though democratically elected, has consolidated his grip on power by packing the Supreme Court, electoral council, and Central Bank with his followers."

Now let us see ourselves in the US as others see us -indeed as many of us see ourselves when our minds are not befogged by 24 hour cable diatribes. Hugo Chavez, a veteran coup leader, clearly has an authoritarian streak, but let us pause to consider another President we know all to well.

George W. Bush was originally elected in a dubious election where the Supreme Court, acting as the electoral council, had a partisan majority, created in part by his father, which koshered the exotic voting customs of the state where this brother controlled the electoral machinery. And not content with that, George W. Bush is busy trying to pack the Supreme Court to make it even more complaisant.

Alan Greenspan, the veteran poodle Bush reappointed as head of the Central Bank, has never found a Democratic deficit he can applaud, nor a Republican one he can condemn.

And as for authoritarian! Does breaking the constitution on habeas corpus, defying legislation against domestic spying, and organizing third party torture sessions across the globe qualify?

Chavez, as an ex-military man appears too often in military garb, but then so does George W. Bush whose own military career ended up in ignominious war-time desertion from whose consequences he was saved only by his plutocratic and nepotistic connections.

Chavez also currently stands accused of supporting the election of the first indigenous President of Bolivia ever. Unlike, of course, all the electoral assistance from the US to the various rainbow revolutions in the former Soviet Union and Lebanon.

The old principle of "My enemy's enemy is my friend," is a very dubious one. Some of those people who US money helped overthrow richly deserved their going, and based on Chavez's previous record I will not go overboard in my support.

He is blessed with some very stupid enemies, however. Between the opposition's stupidity in not contesting the elections, Pat Robertson's incitement to assassination, and George W. Bush's chronic inability to understand that good works can lead to good friends, Chavez has some world class idiots ranged against him.

But one cannot help admiring someone who is putting oil-money to good use at home and abroad. The cries of "unfair" are actually pretty rib-tickling. Imagine the low cunning of helping cash-strapped developing countries lower their debt burden: the fiendish Machiavellianism of extending health care and education to people at home and abroad who have never had it! Imagine the diabolical duplicity of supporting the election of people in other countries who want to do the same. Just consider the chutzpah of helping poor people in the richest country in the world survive the winter with cheap heating oil.

Whatever reservations I have about Chavez tend to disappear in the face of such praiseworthy deeds,

In fulfillment of the Burns' suggestion of seeing ourselves as others do, I often suggest to diehard nationalists to substitute the names of their own country and tribe with the enemy in their declarations, and see if it makes as much sense when reversed. Somehow, the equations of sacred rights, divine promises and historical destiny never seem as self-evident when they are reversed in this way. Every argument raised for regime change in Venezuela applies with equal and more force to the wannabee Caudillo from Texas currently in the White House.

And by the way. Happy Hogmanay.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas Spirit and Governor Scrooge

I have to almost agree with Bill O’Reilly. Charles Dickens wrote ’Christmas Carol’, not ’Holiday Song’, But I wonder whether modern America has missed the point. Dickens did not cast Ebenezer Scrooge as a hero, let alone a role model, because he was mean and nasty to his employee Bob Cratchit.

It was after the visits of the ghosts of Christmas, past present and future and Scrooge had become a kind, considerate and model employer that Dickens wanted people to emulate him.

The day before Christmas Eve, the agent for the debt collection agency who has been trying to recoup unpaid fees from an overseas publisher called me up. Of course it is asking a bit much for a debt collection agency to show any great signs of Christmas Spirit, but he and all his colleagues had just been told they had ten days to move across the continent to another office, or collect their pink slips on New Year’s Eve.

There was no offer of help to relocate their homes and families, and no redundancy package. Instead, there was a combined threat, or promise, that if they stayed to the very last day, they would retain health insurance for a further thirty days, but if they left a day early, their coverage would be cut off immediately.

Of course there was no union in the place, so what we saw was “Labour Market flexibility” of the kind that European emulators of American barbarism are trying to force through. Employers should be able to fire workers at a whim, with little or no notice, no consultation – and precious few benefits for those thrown on the street.

Of course, in that other outstanding example of Christmas spirit Governor George Pataki did come across unions. He essentially engineered a Transit strike in the week before Christmas so that he could come across as a tough guy for the impending Republican presidential primaries. I think it was Pataki I heard on the radio eulogizing the sacrifice of troops fighting for freedom in Iraq, while the Transport Workers, by implication, were backing the insurgents by demanding the same pension rights for new workers as existing staff.

I gather that the freedom to strike was not one of the freedoms for which the troops are fighting. Indeed, the International Labour Organization has in the past considered the laws in American states like New York banning strikes by public workers as in violation of the conventions against forced labour.

Remember, the management could go to the courts to get fines against the union for refusing to work without a mutually acceptable contract, but there is no legal mechanism for the unions to take the management to court for worsening existing conditions. As Anatole France said over a century ago, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

And remember the background. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is controlled by the Governor, beholden to Republican rural counties in upstate New York who do not use the system. If they come into Manhattan, they are driving SUV’s or using the proportionately more heavily subsidized commuter railroad system.

It is of course a telling subtext that they are overwhelming white while a good proportion of MTA passengers, and a distinct majority of the transit workers, are not. So when they call Roger Toussaint, the Trinidadian Transport Workers Union leader “thuggish” they were using coded language. I mean, it is bad enough white white-collar workers expecting pensions and healthcare, but they can be fired. But when uppity black blue- collar workers want to keep them, who do they think they are!

The citizens of the city of New York were not asked about whether they agree that the MTA can hide a billion dollar surplus when it was raising fares and then spend it down rapidly so they could plead poverty before the wage negotiations. And they will not vote for Pataki anyway. I trust the ghost of Christmas present will haunt the rest of his presidential primary campaign and consign him to the political oblivion he has worked so hard to deserve.

Merry Christmas Governor Scrooge.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Deja Vu all over again: these people do not learn!

In 2002, some people thought I was alarmist because I said that the Bush administration had set its sights on invading Iraq. They did, of course. Vindication apart, like most people on the globe, I wish it had not happened.

Apart from the Bush rhetoric, I based my prophecy of doon on the steady attrition of leaks and briefings from the NeoCon edge of the administration. At least they could come up with a credible motive – taking out Iraq would be good for Israel. Apart from George W. Bush’s aside that Saddam Hussein had tried to assassinate his father, no one else has really come up with an excuse for the war that would hold water, let alone all the oil and blood that has been spilt.

So when in aftermath of the invasion in 2003 I began to see signs of a similar move on Syria, I warned about the impending invasion. My evidence was that there were demands for it from Israel, and ever an administration has proved to be a tail-waggable canine, then this is it. There were also the leaks and briefings: the missing weapons of mass destruction had been seen heading across the border into Syria; the insurgent Jihadists had been seen heading across the border from Syria; Damascus supported Islamic fundamentalist terrorists.

At one point, famously George W. Bush even discovered that, shock, horror, there were Baathists in Damascus. That the founder of the Baath party was a Christian, and that the secular (albeit fascistic) programs of the party made it a very unlikely supporter of Al Qaida were mere technical details, quibbles from realists with no standing in faith based circles.

The Syrians did support Hizbollah, whose successful long term war of attrition against Israel had cleared the occupation from Lebanon, which led to long standing grudges against the regime in Damascus, compounded by Syrian ineptitude in keeping the Shaba Farms issue hot. Of course their ambivalent attitude to Lebanon did not help either.

However, my Cassandra-like prophesy of an attack on Syria did not come to pass – yet. The casualty rate in Iraq sapped any domestic US enthusiasm for it.

But like the end of the world, it is only postponed, not cancelled. Looking at the intensive activity over Lebanon at the United Nations, it is highly likely that the road to Damascus now goes through Beirut.

The pattern is the same as it was over Iraq, equally aided by the ineptitude of its rulers. Now the US has the support of the French, who for their own reasons are interested in restoring Francophiles to power in Beirut, but who seem insouciantly unaware that they may be getting taken for a ride – to Damascus.

Of course it is possible that Washington is just concerned about Lebanese independence, and sovereignty in the face of Syrian occupation. The test for such altruistic support for national boundaries would of course be strong US resolutions against the Occupiers of the West Bank, Golan and Western Sahara, or even pressure on Ethiopia to honor its commitments to the settlement of the border dispute wit Eritrea.

In absence of any such signs of concern from Washington, we can safely assume that regime change in Syria is indeed back on the agenda. Somewhere between Foggy Bottom and Capitol Hill, I am confident that there are planning groups working on the hypothesis that it would take hardly any troops at all to roll over Syria, and that the key to stemming the insurgency in Iraq is to do just that. All the previous excuses still apply. And of course, well timed unequivocal victory in Syria, a pushover they would say, may play well next year with the mid term elections.

Between the gullibility of other UN members and the stupidity of the Syrians, it may even have some degree of UN approval!

Equally worrying, but meeting more resistance, are the signs that Iran is getting the same treatment. And the new government there seems equally cooperative in providing plausible excuses. But we should remember what it looks like to the reality based world. John Bolton, the US Ambassador, who is on the record with profound skepticism about both the United Nations and international law, wants the UN Security Council to take action against Iran for alleged violations of the Non-Proliferation treaty whose strengthening he opposed the year before. It may be worth mentioning that Iran is not in violation of the treaty – but that the US and UK are, while Israel, which is pushing for action against Iran has not even signed the treaty.

No matter, it may not be a full-scale invasion of Iran since even the looniest NeoCon may baulk at that. But they do think that some sort of regime change is effectible and that as in Iraq (and Syria) the masses are just waiting for their oppressive regimes to be gone to declare their undying love for George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon. In Iran, of course, the masses have just ditched the reformers, who were anyway scorned and isolated by the US for hardliner they now have to deal with. He may not be nice, but neither is George Bush. And both were elected by their faithbased constituencies.

I really do not see why need to waste money on NASA when we have a government that is so clearly mentally in orbit, and certainly looking at another planet when they make their plans

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Means Always Shape the Ends

It is a Western thing, and more specifically an American thing, to give sincerity undue weight in evaluating people's actions. Hitler and Stalin were sincere. They both thought that the future of humanity would be vastly improved by liquidating millions, and any mix-ups on the way were worth the price of future perfection.

When I was called to go on Fox's Neil Cavuto show, I had only just finished reading "Stalin andf his Hangmen," a recent book by Donald Rayfield, who charts the horrific results of the Bolsheviks' determination that ends will not be tainted by means. History has proven differently.

The thesis that I was called upon to rebut was that Europeans are ungrateful for the USA saving their lives from terrorists. Condoleezza Rice was going to read the riot act to the Europeans for suggesting that they disapproved of Secret Police kidnapping people, transporting them anonymously without trial in sealed airplains across Europe and then torturing them either in secret prisons run by the CIA, or by less scrupulous allied police forces in the Middle East.

Well, I mean, between ETA, the Red Brigades, Bader Meinhof and the rest, it is hardly as if the Europeans had to wait until September 11 2001 to discover terrorism.

If anyone can explain how what the CIA is doing is different from what the KGB or the Gestapo did, I would like to hear. If in doubt, remember that the administration has been trying to exclude the agency from Congressional strictures on torture, while backstopping that effort with an attempt to redefine torture. Mock drownings don't count it appears.

More potently, it shows that the US leadership is running mad. If there is one successful terrorist tactic, it is to provoke governments into repressive and unjust actions that unite populations against them. Levelling Fallujah is, perhaps, a localized example. But every time someone is kidnapped this way, it is almost proving Osama Bin Laden's point about the US.

Firstly, it mostly happens to Muslims, secondly it convinces billions that all the talk of democracy and rule of law is persiflage, covering up entirely different motives and thirdly, it sets a very ominous precedent for a government for dealing with other types of opposition.

The means shape the ends. Effectively abrogating the Geneva Conventions, violating internatonal conventions on torture, and breaking every constitutional guarantee of due process is a funny way to set an example to the world.

Below is the News Hounds version of the show. My heart goes out to these people. I cannot even watch TV, but wall to wall Fox --- these guys are on the line for us all.

News Hounds
We watch FOX so you don't have to.

December 05, 2005

Fox Turns CIA Rendition Issue into a Fairy Tale

Fox turned the issue of CIA kidnappings, secret prisons, and torture into a fairy tale about an ungrateful Europe today (December 5, 2005) on Your World w/Neil Cavuto.

Ian Williams, the UN correspondent for The Nation magazine was Cavuto's guest. The title of the segment, reflected in a chyron that repeatedly appeared on screen, was, "Are Europeans Ingrates When it Comes to the War on Terror?" Cavuto opened the segment by telling the audience that Condoleezza Rice would be in Europe this week where she "will be pressed by a number of EU leaders" about "those secret CIA prison allegations" (the full extent of the background given on the topic). Cavuto said that Rice claims the "people of Europe are safer because of the US war on terror and its intelligence gathering. So, we ask," he said, "instead of the questions from Europe, where is the thanks?"

Williams did a fantastic job of talking about the larger issue despite Cavuto's repeated attempts to make Europe's alleged lack of gratitude stay front and center, "whether we question these guys harshly or not." Williams repeatedly made the point that, "The worst thing the terrorists can do is provoke governments into behaving unreasonably. Once they've done that, they're succeeding and in this case, Osama bin Laden and all the others, they've provoked the United States into illegal detentions. They're kidnapping people. We are arresting the wrong people."

Comment: In the fall of 2004, the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) released a study titled, "The Separate Realities of Bush and Kerry Supporters." The study showed that Fox News watchers had more misconceptions about the War on Terror and other national and international issues than those who got their news from other sources. Given the way the CIA torture matter morphed into one about an ever ungrateful Europe on Fox today, Fox's viewers undoubtedly continue to have misconceptions about what's going on in the world. And that, I'm sure, is precisely the objective.

Reported by Melanie at December 5, 2005 07:28 PM

Friday, December 02, 2005

Alternet, and Rum

In the interests of flogging, today's Alternet, which is always worth reading, is even more so than usual, with an interview about and an extract from, my latest book.

Rum: Fuel For the Modern World

By Laura Barcella, AlterNet. Posted December 2, 2005.


Ian Williams knows rum, and he knows it far better than you, or I, or anyone we know.

His interest in the libation began as a boy growing up in a Liverpool, England council estate -- the American equivalent of a housing project. Williams' dad couldn't afford much at Christmastime, but he always scrounged up enough to buy a sole, special bottle of rum ("Usually Demerara," Williams recalls) to help stay warm during the snowy season.

A frequent AlterNet contributor and a U.N. correspondent for The Nation, Williams delves into the drink's remarkable history in his latest book, Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776.

Hopping the globe from Haiti to Cuba to Boston to explore various countries' unique rums and their backgrounds, Williams uncovers historical connections most Americans never knew existed. He studies the liquor's sordid ties to the slave trade, and the ways rum contributed to the decimation of many of New England's native populations. Most importantly, he examines how rum "put a whole new light on the motives of the Founding Fathers of the American Republic."

From his New York home, Williams spoke with AlterNet about his beloved beverage -- he collects bottles of rum from around the world, as well as labels, advertisements and paraphernalia -- and its distinguished role as "the lubricant and fuel for the whole engine of commerce that made the modern world."

Where did you find the inspiration for this book?

I have always associated rum with Christmas, for reasons to do with post-war rationing in Britain and my father's time as a merchant seaman. But I was recently in the Caribbean, and as I was sampling the fine rums of Martinique, I realized that the island was filled with graveyards of British soldiers. It occurred to me that the 18th-century Caribbean was the Persian Gulf of its day. This is where hundred of thousands of foreigners came to fight each other for control over small islands. And the reasons were similar: sugar was money. It was sugar and rum that made the British Navy what it was. It allowed the British treasury to pay the national debt and to effectively win wars with the French.

How did you go about researching the book?

I don't really regret to say that a lot of the research I did was absolutely irrelevant to the book, but it taught me a lot about rum. It was fascinating because it took me into a lot of history -- particularly about the American Revolution. I developed an appreciation for how the modern world developed the way it did around the Atlantic seaboard.

Rum was such an integral part of it. This has been written out because of Prohibitionism and temperance. The founding fathers' connection to booze was omitted from American history books, along with the whole role of rum in the American Revolution, the development of the northeast colonies, and its tie-in with slavery. We all in the north look down on the south as the old slave-holding stronghold, but the north actually transported most of those slaves and paid for it with rum.

Can you explain the north's role in this trading cycle?

The northeast is very barren. Agriculturally, it has very low productivity. The Yankees traded all over the world and often doubled as smugglers. They smuggled molasses from the French colonies that they made into rum. They drank prodigious quantities of it themselves on a per capita basis, because it was a major food item, especially in the winter.

Then they would use some of it to trade with the Native Americans, and a significant portion of it was taken to the west coast of Africa where they traded it for slaves with the local kings. That was where the American triangle trade came in: rum from New England for slaves, and molasses up from the Caribbean. It was a pretty unholy commerce, but it was what developed the northeastern states, both commercially and industrially.

What role did rum play in relation to Native Americans?

Well, to some extent it was a cultural thing. They had never been introduced to hard liquor on this scale before, and they had completely different ideas about it. It was a sort of spiritual experience. They just knocked the stuff back, and from what I can gather, in Native American tribal custom, a person who was drunk was not responsible for his actions. In fact, the British colonial officials also made it a rule that they wouldn't recognize any treaties or land sales that were conducted with Native Americans when they were drunk.

Basically, the Native Americans' economic role was to provide furs from trapping. They paid for that in rum. The traders' excuse was that if they paid the Native Americans in clothes and food that they had enough of, they wouldn't do it. Whereas rum was a desirable commodity that they had access to, and there was no end to what they could drink.

This also devastated the ecology because they trapped out and had to go further and further infield. It was unsustainable for the Indians because they were at the tail end of massive harvesting.

And getting drunk messed up their society as a social structure, making them vulnerable to diseases, attacks, cheating and takeover. Benjamin Franklin actually described it as something that was pretty much designed by providence to clear "the savages" away from these territories.

Where did you travel to research your book?

In my travels, I picked up rum from India, Nepal, Kazakhstan, Croatia, Czech Republic - rum from almost everywhere. But most of the research was in the Caribbean. In the Caribbean, you have this sort of microcosm of the world. You have the Dutch, the French, Spanish, Portuguese, British, Americans, and Danes. They all had colonies in the Caribbean. And the region shares this common thread of rum -- that's the bedrock similarity. The development of the drink varies from place to place.

The English-speaking countries were way ahead, because there was no serious domestic spirit industry for them to compete with. The French, Spanish and Portuguese inhibited rum production in their colonies because it competed with brandy production back home. They didn't get in to the better quality stuff until much later on, which left the field free for the British and the Americans to develop, drink and appreciate it.

What impact do you think rum has had on the modern world?

It's just another commodity. In America, in particular Bacardi -- during Prohibition and afterwards -- developed a huge position as a very bland spirit to be used for mixing. [Bacardi has] basically used their monopoly position to swamp out other entrants into the market, which is a shame.

Rum could be a development tool for the Caribbean. The islands can do much better by selling their high value-added premium spirit than they could by trying to sell sugar onto a world market dominated by heavily subsidized high-fructose corn syrup and European beet sugar. It makes much more sense for these islands to make rum, brand it and sell it on the world market. But always, with the world trade stuff, they meet a lot of resistance. Such was the case of Bacardi and Fidel Castro with Havana Club.

Can you discuss the feud between Castro and the Bacardi family?

Bacardi and several of the other big rum producers actually supported Castro financially when he was up in the mountains. When Castro marched into Havana with his column with Che Guevara, there was a big banner on the Bacardi building in downtown Havana with a placard saying "Gracias a Fidel," for getting rid of Batista. And the first trade delegation to the U.S. actually included several leading members of the Bacardi family.

But when things fell out, and Fidel took a pro-Soviet turn, he nationalized Bacardi. It's interesting because it didn't have that much of an effect. Bacardi was the original trans-global corporation. It had already shifted its headquarters to the Bahamas so that it got British Empire preferences. It had also opened its biggest plant in Puerto Rico so that it had that point of access to the American market.

Cuba was already almost just a branch office for the actual industrial empire because they had distilleries around the world and technically they were headquartered elsewhere. But there was a grudge. Bacardi bankrolled the Cuban American National Foundation for many years, thereby buying Congress.

It came as no surprise that when Havana Club was launched onto the world market, with the help of the French spirits company, Bacardi did everything they could legally in the U.S. to frustrate it -- hence the big battles about the trademark for Havana Club, which Bacardi keeps losing in the courts and then winning in the Congress because they keep buying an amendment that covers whatever case they lost.

Talk a little bit about how rum is marketed and advertised.

It's almost the subject for another book -- an illustrative book. I've collected a lot of labels, and some of them, especially the French ones, are not at all politically correct. There are caricatures of black people - that's one whole line of iconography. Then there is the nautical connection: sailors and pirates. And the Spanish have this conquistador image which is slightly strange because the conquistadors didn't drink rum until much later, but what the hell, we're talking marketing here.

Do you think trends in rum's marketing and advertising has shifted over the years? Are there different images now?

Well, Captain Morgan has been transformed from the iconic pirate into a swashbuckling, romantic, and mischievous figure. Now he's a sort of lifestyle model for the young 20s-to-30s set who are supposed to drink high-value-added spirits.

There are lots of rum companies coming along now which are struggling with how to market it, how to get these people to buy rum as opposed to vodka. Vodka is essentially alcohol and water. That's always a triumph in marketing: when you can take something that is two very simple ingredients and persuade people that this bottle is better than the other.

With rum, you really can taste the difference. There are so many different ways of making it and ageing it.

What I really like is sipping rums -- the ones that you don't need to mix. You can roll them around your mouth and drink [them] like a single malt.

Of course, when you taste rums, you're supposed to roll it around your mouth and then spit it out. But I always feel that part of the tasting experience is to feel it hitting the esophagus, the liver, and then the brain cells. The experience isn't complete without it.

What are some of your favorite rums? How do the mainstream liquor-store versions like Captain Morgan and Bacardi stack up?

Personally, I think they're awful... My particular favorite is Rum Barbencourt from Haiti. I went to the distillery in Haiti, which is pretty much the only industry working there. They produce this brand that you actually have to strain hard just to get the "rum-ishness" out of. It could almost be old single malt or a cognac.

The French Islands -- Martinique and Guadalupe -- make some really nice aged rums. Venezuela, Nicaragua and Guatemala also produce some really good rums. I tasted one last night from Venezuela called "Diplomatico" and I wondered if, post-Chavez, they were going to introduce a brand called "un-Diplomatico."

What's rum's connection to folklore?

Rum has a lot more history than any other drink. And it's still the biggest, most widespread spirit in the whole world. My slogan, which I haven't charged the Caribbean Tourism Organization for, is "rum is the global spirit with its warm, beating heart in the Caribbean."

The biggest myths are all connected with pirates. I thought it was all summed up with Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, when he's wandering around saying, "It's the sun, sand, and rum ... it's the Caribbean," and then he falls over backwards.

I was in upstate New York this time last year, going to a friend's house, and I tried to buy a bottle of rum for him but the liquor store owner had sold out, and he said, "Oh well; it's winter."

It's self-explanatory. The people bought rum in winter. There's a strong folklore that it's good against colds and flu, and that it keeps the winter chill out.

The French government in WWI actually nationalized the entire stock of rum in the Caribbean for use for the troops to fight the Spanish flu. It was official endorsement. For many years in America, British rum was regarded as specific for colds -- a spoonful of rum with sugar or black currant juice to fight off a cold. I don't think it actually does anything about the virus but it certainly makes you feel a lot better.

What about rum's connection to the navy?

The British instituted rum by giving rum rations to the sailors. At the height of the British Empire, British sailors were given over half a pint of rum every day. It's always been a great mystery to me how they got the ships out of port, let alone won battles.

It was a big bonding ritual on the ships as well. It was an entitlement. The British admiralty resisted interfering with the sailors' sense of entitlement. The American Navy swapped rum for whisky in the early 19th century, during the Civil War, and then abolished the ration entirely.

But the British didn't abolish it until the 1970s. One of the convincing things they did for a PR stunt was to breathalyze the people who were driving the nuclear submarines for Britain. After they'd had their rum ration, they weren't fit to drive their cars home from the naval base, but they were being considered fit to drive around with submarines filled with nuclear missiles.

What was most surprising thing you discovered in your research?

With the Puritanical, self-righteous image of America, the idea that the founding fathers were a bunch of lushes doesn't sit well. Even when I've done readings, I've said that people think that the standard of American politics has declined, and present-day politicians don't match up to the founding fathers. Well, they do.

The founding fathers were rogues and scallywags. It's a different look from the Disney World version of American history and world history. One of the particular points that came up, and hasn't really been picked up, is just how much of colonial American institutions came from the Caribbean.

It was Barbados in the mid-17th century that first produced the slogan, "No taxation without representation." "The President" was the title of the leaders of the legislatures in all of these colonies. They were all fairly autonomous, and people like George Washington visited Barbados and actually considered settling there. It was actually in Barbados that the British Empire first legalized black slavery.

Up until then, they were indentured -- people signed up for five or seven years and worked for one person. They were considered free, but they couldn't run away. That's how they originally staffed the colonies in the south before they started bringing slaves. British law had ruled in the 16th century that there was no such thing as slavery in Britain anymore.

So after Barbados, the colonies actually began to develop a black code which ruled that Africans, by their very nature, were unfit to be free. This put them in a separate position from the white indentured servants. They basically invented slavery in the Anglo Saxon sense. And it was from there that it went north along the coast and up into the southern colonies. It all came from the Caribbean, and it all came on the trade winds along with the sugar and molasses.

Laura Barcella is an associate editor at AlterNet.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

flogging viruses to death

It must be a British thing. Blog Sandhill Trek accused me of being a "flogger, not a blogger." Everyone knows that S&M is the big thing in the mother country. He then suggests that this site may contain malware, which does seem a bit harsh, but by free associationm via rum, buggery and the lash, does lead me to viruses.

In the interests of self enrichment, I have indeed been pushing my book on rum, and at various readings I have pointing out that folk wisdom, which is of course never wrong, holds that rum is great against viruses. In fact at the end of World War One, the French government appropriated the entire empire's stocks of rum to protect its armies against Spanish flu.

So with Christmas approaching, Avian flu hovering, snow falling, and Caribbean development depending on it, everybody should be knocking back the stuff - and of course because we favour informed consumption, they should read the book about it first.

While at the moment it appear that I am looking at the world through a glass of rum as we race to unload books for seasonal gifts, be assured that the world be getting the dubious benefits of my attention -without malware, or even too much malice. Although some irony and sarcasm may occasionally intrude.