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Friday, December 23, 2011

Side Trip From Merída-- Beautiful Campeche... How Safe?

Lovely Campeche... ready for tourists to start arriving

We picked the Yucatán for our December vacation for a few reasons-- from curiosity about the Mayan culture to the warm weather; it's around 90-something by mid-day, although the early mornings and nights are cool. We rented an indoor-outdoor living house in ancient downtown Merída, the capital of the province. The house is so alluring, whole days pass when no one even thinks about unbolting the big doors and gate and going out. The house is it's own biosphere. And it feels very safe (not counting the damn mosquitos). In fact, we picked the Yucatán because of it's reputation as a safe haven in the never-ending Mexican violence maelstrom. But that was before we read about eleven decapitated bodies found just outside Merída a few years ago.

Yesterday we took an ADO bus-- a nice comfy one-- from Merída to the capital of the next province over Campeche. The city is also Campeche and it's sleepy, charming, a world heritage site and all painted and cobbled and ready to be discovered by tourists. But tourists are mostly afraid of Mexico in general so Campeche, just two and a half hours from Merída, is still sleepy. They don't care; they found oil off the coast. About 200,000 people live in the gem of a baroque colonial city, which was founded in 1540 on top of the ruins of an old Mayan city Canpech. Anyway, back to the bus. It was around $20 each way if I remember correctly and it took about 3 hours to get back because the nice highway stops every now and then for construction and you have to trundle along slowly in one lane-- harder in the dark. And police roadblocks stop you and search the vehicles, ostensibly looking for Guatemalan "illigals" who would like to get jobs in the glittery tourist mecca, Cancún. But Roland told me that Los Zetas, a paramilitary drug cartel, sometimes pull buses over and rob everyone. It made for some excitment every time we got pulled over. But nothing happened. Apparently, Los Zetas-- or some facsimile thereof-- were busy just north of where we were yesterday.
Three U.S. citizens traveling to spend the holidays with their relatives in Mexico were among those killed in a spree of shooting attacks on buses in northern Mexico, authorities from both countries said Friday.

A group of five gunmen attacked three buses in Mexico's Gulf coast state of Veracruz on Thursday, killing a total of seven passengers in what authorities said appeared to be a violent robbery spree.

...Rocha said the other bus passengers killed in the attacks were a young Mexican couple, who left behind a three-month-old baby boy, who survived the attack. A bus driver was also killed.

Five gunmen who allegedly carried out the attacks were later killed by soldiers.
Earlier in their spree, the gunmen shot to death three people and killed a fourth with grenade in the nearby town of El Higo, Veracruz.

On Thursday, the U.S. Consulate General in Matamoros, a Mexican border city north of where the attacks occurred, said in a statement that "several vehicles," including the buses, were attacked, but did not specify what the other vehicles were.

The consulate urged Americans to "exercise caution" when traveling in Veracruz, and "avoid intercity road travel at night."

On the other hand, Merída is nicknamed the city of peace, the real estate market is booming, and the food is yummy, ... but I feel like I should report on that next time.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Danger Lurks For Airline Passengers-- Germs Are Out To Get You

Last week Lee Rogers, a Los Angeles-based physician running for Congress, explained why he would work to ban airport x-ray body scanners. The health concerns are legitimate and powerful and the risks are imposed on us by government. There's another more immediate health risk involved with flying and this one isn't imposed by government. Today's Wall Street Journal runs through the viruses and bacteria that wait in prey for airline passengers, especially at this time of the year. And all government has done are make some toothless recommendations to the airlines-- recommendations the bottom-line oriented airlines routinely ignore.
Air travelers suffer higher rates of disease infection, research has shown. One study pegged the increased risk for catching a cold as high as 20%. And the holidays are a particularly infectious time of year, with planes packed full of families with all their presents--and all those germs.

Air that is recirculated throughout the cabin is most often blamed. But studies have shown that high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters on most jets today can capture 99.97% of bacterial and virus-carrying particles. That said, when air circulation is shut down, which sometimes happens during long waits on the ground or for short periods when passengers are boarding or exiting, infections can spread like wildfire.

One well-known study in 1979 found that when a plane sat three hours with its engines off and no air circulating, 72% of the 54 people on board got sick within two days. The flu strain they had was traced to one passenger. For that reason, the Federal Aviation Administration issued an advisory in 2003 to airlines saying that passengers should be removed from planes within 30 minutes if there's no air circulation, but compliance isn't mandatory.

Much of the danger comes from the mouths, noses and hands of passengers sitting nearby. The hot zone for exposure is generally two seats beside, in front of and behind you, according to a study in July in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A number of factors increase the odds of bringing home a souvenir cough and runny nose. For one, the environment at 30,000 feet enables easier spread of disease. Air in airplanes is extremely dry, and viruses tend to thrive in low-humidity conditions. When mucous membranes dry out, they are far less effective at blocking infection. High altitudes can tire the body, and fatigue plays a role in making people more susceptible to catching colds, too.

Also, viruses and bacteria can live for hours on some surfaces--some viral particles have been found to be active up to a day in certain places. Tray tables can be contaminated, and seat-back pockets, which get stuffed with used tissues, soiled napkins and trash, can be particularly skuzzy. It's also difficult to know what germs are lurking in an airline's pillows and blankets.

Research has shown how easily disease can spread. Tracing influenza transmission on long-haul flights in 2009 with passengers infected with the H1N1 flu strain, Australian researchers found that 2% passengers had the disease during the flight and 5% came down within a week after landing. Coach-cabin passengers were at a 3.6% increased risk of contracting H1N1 if they sat within two rows of someone who had symptoms in-flight. That increased risk for post-flight disease doubled to 7.7% for passengers seated in a two-seat hot zone.

...[S]ome basic precautions passengers can take to keep coughs away.

Hydrate. Drinking water and keeping nasal passages moist with a saline spray can reduce your risk of infection.

Clean your hands frequently with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. We often infect ourselves, touching mouth, nose or eyes with our own hands that have picked up something.

Use a disinfecting wipe to clean off tray tables before using.

Avoid seat-back pockets.

Open your air vent, and aim it so it passes just in front of your face. Filtered airplane air can help direct airborne contagions away from you.

Change seats if you end up near a cougher, sneezer or someone who looks feverish. That may not be possible on very full flights, but worth a try. One sneeze can produce up to 30,000 droplets that can be propelled as far as six feet.

Raise concerns with the crew if air circulation is shut off for an extended period.

Avoid airline pillows and blankets (if you find them).

...You think the plane is bad? Security checkpoints harbor a host of hazards as well, researchers say.

People get bunched up in lines, where there is plenty of coughing and sneezing. Shoes are removed and placed with other belongings into plastic security bins, which typically don't get cleaned after they go through the scanner.

A National Academy of Sciences panel is six months into a two-year study that is taking samples at airport areas to try to pinpoint opportunities for infection.

With limited resources, airports and airlines have asked researchers to help figure out where best to target prevention, said Dr. Mark Gendreau of Boston's Lahey Clinic Medical Center who is on the panel.

Check-in kiosks and baggage areas are other prime suspects in addition to security lines, he said.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ever Wonder What Medical Doctors Have To Say About Airport X-Ray Body Scanners?

Dr. Lee Rogers is the Simi Valley surgeon running for the L.A.-area House seat which GOP fossil Buck McKeon is still clinging to. Although his campaign has focused like a laser beam on the economy, jobs and housing, it's always fascinating when he gets into topics that sit at the intersection of politics and medicine. This week his campaign called for a ban on airport body scans.
"Currently, there are about 250 body scanners that use X-rays placed in American airports by the Transportation Security Administration which have screened millions of passengers. Last year, a report by the Inter-Agency Committee on Radiation Safety, which includes the European Commission, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Nuclear Energy Agency, and the World Health Organization, concluded that pregnant women and children should not be subject to the scanning, even though the radiation dose from body scanners is small. The Committee also stated that governments must justify the additional risk posed to passengers and should consider other technologies to achieve the same end without the use of radiation. Recently, the European Commission banned the use of X-ray body scanners in all European Union airports, citing the health and safety concerns.”

“The TSA’s use of these devises violates an important principle in radiation safety: humans should not be radiated unless there is some possible medical benefit. The devices used for security screening are not subject to FDA regulations for safety, unlike X-ray machines in a doctor’s office. Additionally, TSA officers are prohibited from wearing radiation dosimeter badges, as worn by healthcare workers to track their radiation exposure.”
“It is obvious that the use of this risky X-ray technology is the result of the culture in Washington. The manufacturer of the X-ray device is a California company called Rapiscan Systems which has more than tripled their lobbying cash in the past 5 years. The health and well being of our citizens should not be for sale.”

“As Congressman, I would work to stop the use of radiating devices for human screening that serve no medical benefit and I call on others in Congress to do the same. I would ensure that any future research on X-ray screening devices for humans meets the same ethical and safety standards that are required of medical devices emitting radiation. I would also fight to allow workers who operate X-ray machinery for baggage screening to wear radiation detector badges for their safety.”

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Mérida-- In The Heartland Of The Mayan People... Or What's Left Of Them

Roland loves Guatemala, especially the people, and he's always pushing that we go down there. We're about the leave for the other half of the Mayan homeland, Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. We rented a house with our friends Helen and Michael for a few weeks in Mérida, the sleepy, romantic, tropical old colonial capital. I have a very queasy feeling about the Mayan people, primarily because how horrifically they're been treated by my government which-- let's be real-- represents me.

Roland and Helen seem to always feel validated when some NY Times travel writer does a piece on one of our destinations. My response is always "Yecchhhh." These Times travel writers are clueless and always between a year and ten years late to any travel trend. But Helen and Roland both forwarded me the lame, even embarrassing 36 Hours in Mérida story from two weeks ago. Like all their "36 Hours In" stories it's written by an idiot for idiots and is never anything like our own excursions to the same places. If we happen to eat in one of the same restaurants or go to one of the same sites they recommend, it's either a coincidence or despite their recommendation. "Yucatecans," the piece begins, "are fiercely proud of their culture, sprinkling their Spanish with Mayan words and quick to recount the stories of resistance and revolution that set this region apart from the rest of Mexico for centuries." Nothing, though about the exploitation and slaughter of Mayans in our own lifetimes, and not by Spanish conquistadors, but at the direction of our own glorious CIA. More of that below, from a post I ran this weekend at DownWithTyranny. The Times travel section isn't political and they continue that Mérida is "one of the safest in Mexico, is an architectural jewel, and has one of the country’s largest historic centers outside Mexico City. Block after block of houses dating to the mid-19th century and earlier are in the midst of a restoration boom, and the city’s cultural and restaurant scenes are flourishing." We rented a house in the middle of town and all I can think of is resting, relaxing and, at some point, when I'm rested and relaxed-- the weather is balmy and the temperature around 90-- we'll go explore the old Mayan ruins in the vicinity-- on the Mexican side of the border.

It's always very sad to be writing about Guatemala-- sad and, as an American, shameful. What we've done to the people of that country is beyond conceivable and probably damns every single one of us to a special collective circle of hell. Last summer, in the context of our heroic unleashing of the hounds of hell on Libya, we looked at Glen Yeadon's observations of the bloody U.S. intervention in Guatemala in 1953
In 1953 the CIA also intervened in Guatemala, and regarded the action as a success. For what reasons they regarded the operation as success can be only guess at for what followed was a bloody civil war that lasted 36 years. Once again this intervention fits the model perfectly. The legally elected government of Arbenz was reform minded. The center piece of his reforms was land reform. In an overwhelmingly rural nation only 2.2% of the population owned 70% of the land. Prior to the 1944 revolution and ousting of the dictatorship of Ubico, the army was used to rope farm labors together for delivery to low-land farms where they were kept as debt slaves. The expropriation of large uncultivated tracts of land to landless peasants, improvement in the rights of unions and other social reforms were hurting the bottom line of United Fruit. Arbenz even constructed a port on the Atlantic to compete against the port controlled by United Fruit, likewise a public hydro-electric plant was constructed for the same reasons.

The position of United Fruit inside Guatemala was essentially one of a country within a country. United Fruit owned the country's telephone and telegraph systems, administered the country's only Atlantic port, monopolized banana exports and a subsidiary owned the rail system. In the US United Fruit had close ties to the Dulles brothers, various state department officials, congressmen and the US Ambassador to the UN. The former CIA Director, Walter Bedell Smith was seeking an executive position with United Fruit at the same time he was planing the Guatemala coup. He later was named to the board of directors of United Fruit.

The first plan to oust Arbenz was given by Truman as a response to Guatemala receiving arms from Czechoslovakia and the implied communism threat but was canceled. After the election of Eisenhower the plan was put into effect. The Guatemala coup also provides and ideal example of how the CIA manipulates the American opinion. After first being tried in Guatemala this technique has been employed throughout South America. It involves the CIA planting an article in the foreign press the article is then picked up by the news wires and newspapers in other countries. Besides the obvious multiplier effect upon the potential audience it has the appearance of an independent world opinion. Incidentally it was the same tactic that Bush tried to use against Clinton in the 1992 election.

The immediate after effects of the coup was draconian, within four months 72,000 was labeled as communist, many who were tortured and murdered. It is known that the U.S. Ambassador John Peurifoy had a long list of names of leaders that the successor government was to assassinate. Agrarian reform was stopped and the land already expropriated was given back to United Fruit. Union leaders turned up dead. Three quarters of the population was disenfranchised by barring illiterates from the polls and all political parties, unions and peasant organizations were outlawed...

The blood bath and carnage that followed for the next 36 years can only be described as horrific A genocidal war was carried on against the native Indians. Murders, kidnappings and disappearances became widespread and everyday occurrences as right wing death squads roamed the countryside. The report on Guatemala as a first step to reconciliation states that the army is blamed for over 200,000 deaths and disappearances. Below are some extracts from that report:
"Of the 42,000 deaths investigated in the report, the army was found to be responsible for 93 percent. Three percent were the work of the leftist Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, and 4 percent were unresolved. The report found that 29,000 of the investigated deaths involved summary executions.

Most of the victims were civilians and Mayan Indians... [T]he government of the United States, through various agencies including the CIA, provided direct and indirect support for some state operations."

It was "clearly genocide and a planned strategy against the civilian population," said Christian Tomuschat, a German citizen who heads the three-member commission. "Government forces... blindly pursued the anti-communist fight, without respecting any legal principle or even the most elemental ethical or religious values."

In 626 massacres, the report found that government forces "completely exterminated Mayan communities, destroyed their dwellings, livestock and crops." The guerrillas were blamed for 32 such massacres, the report said."

Guatemala also provides us with the first example of the right wing death squads that have became so much a part of South American politics. Those death squads and the dictators that employ them are products of the CIA-Military intelligence system of the US. They lead directly to the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.

In reading Corey Robin's new book, The Reactionary Mind I came across a review he wrote for the London Review of Books in 2004 of Greg Granlin's Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War. How could any serious examination of the reactionary mind-- particularly the American reactionary mind-- not deal with the enormity of what was visited (by reactionary minds) on the Mayan native people of Guatemala, the ones whose ancestors had managed to escape being slaughtered in previous centuries by Spanish imperialists? And whose reactionary mind-- albeit an extraordinarily weak one-- would be better to start with than Ronald Reagan's?
On 5 December 1982, Ronald Reagan met the Guatemalan president, Efraín Ríos Montt, in Honduras. It was a useful meeting for Reagan. ‘Well, I learned a lot,’ he told reporters on Air Force One. ‘You’d be surprised. They’re all individual countries.’ It was also a useful meeting for Ríos Montt. Reagan declared him ‘a man of great personal integrity... totally dedicated to democracy’, and claimed that the Guatemalan strongman was getting ‘a bum rap’ from human rights organisations for his military’s campaign against leftist guerrillas. The next day, one of Guatemala’s elite platoons entered a jungle village called Las Dos Erres and killed 162 of its inhabitants, 67 of them children. Soldiers grabbed babies and toddlers by their legs, swung them in the air, and smashed their heads against a wall. Older children and adults were forced to kneel at the edge of a well, where a single blow from a sledgehammer sent them plummeting below. The platoon then raped a selection of women and girls it had saved for last, pummelling their stomachs in order to force the pregnant among them to miscarry. They tossed the women into the well and filled it with dirt, burying an unlucky few alive. The only traces of the bodies later visitors would find were blood on the walls and placentas and umbilical cords on the ground.

Amid the hagiography surrounding Reagan’s death in June, it was probably too much to expect the media to mention his meeting with Ríos Montt. After all, it wasn’t Reykjavik. But Reykjavik’s shadow-- or that cast by Reagan speaking in front of the Berlin Wall-- does not entirely explain the silence about this encounter between presidents. While it’s tempting to ascribe the omission to American amnesia, a more likely cause is the deep misconception about the Cold War under which most Americans labour. To the casual observer, the Cold War was a struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, fought and won through stylish jousting at Berlin, antiseptic arguments over nuclear stockpiles, and the savvy brinkmanship of American leaders. Latin America seldom figures in popular or even academic discussion of the Cold War, and to the extent that it does, it is Cuba, Chile and Nicaragua rather than Guatemala that earn most of the attention.

But, as Greg Grandin shows in The Last Colonial Massacre, Latin America was as much a battleground of the Cold War as Europe, and Guatemala was its front line. In 1954, the US fought its first major contest against Communism in the Western hemisphere when it overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, who had worked closely with the country’s small but influential Communist Party. That coup sent a young Argentinian doctor fleeing to Mexico, where he met Fidel Castro. Five years later, Che Guevara declared that 1954 had taught him the impossibility of peaceful, electoral reform and promised his followers that ‘Cuba will not be Guatemala.’ In 1966, Guatemala was again the pacesetter, this time pioneering the ‘disappearances’ that would come to define the dirty wars of Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Brazil. In a lightning strike, US-trained security officials captured some thirty leftists, tortured and executed them, and then dropped most of their corpses into the Pacific. Explaining the operation in a classified memo, the CIA wrote: ‘The execution of these persons will not be announced and the Guatemalan government will deny that they were ever taken into custody.’ With the 1996 signing of a peace accord between the Guatemalan military and leftist guerrillas, the Latin American Cold War finally came to an end-- in the same place it had begun-- making Guatemala’s the longest and most lethal of the hemisphere’s civil wars. Some 200,000 men, women and children were dead, virtually all at the hands of the military: more than were killed in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Nicaragua and El Salvador combined, and roughly the same number as were killed in the Balkans. Because the victims were primarily Mayan Indians, Guatemala today has the only military in Latin America deemed by a UN-sponsored truth commission to have committed acts of genocide.

And one more thing from Corey Robin about what this whole reactionary mind actually wrought for us-- us being Americans... American taxpayers... we, us... you and me. What we defeated in Guatemala and Latin America wasn't "Communism." It was, in Robin's words, "the defeat of a continental social democracy which would allow citizens to exercise a greater share of power-– and to receive a greater share of its benefits-– than historically had been their due... [and] the defeat of that still elusive dream of men and women freeing themselves, thanks to their own reason and willed effort, from the bonds of tradition and oppression." Remember what we saw about the end of serfdom in Russia last week? The U.S. fought hard to preserve that in Guatemala into very recent times.
[I]n Latin America, Grandin shows, it was the left who took up the Enlightenment’s banner, leaving the United States and its allies carrying the black bag of the counter-Enlightenment. More than foisting on the United States the unwanted burden of liberal hypocrisy, the Cold War inspired it to embrace some of the most reactionary ideals and revanchist characters of the 20th century.

According to Grandin, the Latin American left brought liberalism and progress to a land awash in feudalism. Well into the 20th century, he shows, Guatemala’s coffee planters presided over a regime of forced labour that was every bit as medieval as tsarist Russia. Using vagrancy laws and the lure of easy credit, the planters amassed vast estates and a workforce of peasants who essentially belonged to them. Reading like an excerpt from Gogol’s Dead Souls, one advertisement from 1922 announced the sale of ‘5000 acres and many mozos colonos who will travel to work on other plantations’. (Mozos colonos were indebted labourers.) While unionised workers elsewhere were itemising what their employers could and could not ask of them, Guatemala’s peasants were forced to provide a variety of compulsory services, including sex. Two planters in the Alta Verapaz region, cousins from Boston, used their Indian cooks and corn grinders to sire more than a dozen children. ‘They fucked anything that moved,’ a neighbouring planter observed. Though plantations were mini-states-– with private jails, stockades and whipping posts-– planters also depended on the army, judges, mayors and local constables to force workers to submit to their will. Public officials routinely rounded up independent or runaway peasants, shipping them off to plantations or forcing them to build roads. One mayor had local vagrants paint his house. As much as anything Grandin cites, it is this view of political power as a form of private property which confirms his observation that by 1944 ‘only five Latin America countries-– Mexico, Uruguay, Chile, Costa Rica and Colombia-– could nominally call themselves democracies.’