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EDITORIALS

Punish Varun
Cannot be allowed to spread poison
T
he inflammatory remarks against Muslims made by BJP candidate Varun Gandhi at a  public meeting in his constituency Pilibhit on March 7 smack of crass communalism and deserve to be severely condemned. It is remarks like these that vitiate the general atmosphere and spread hatred among communities. Often, defiance of the code of conduct by “promoting enmity between different groups on the basis of religion” through speeches invites no punitive action.

Lost bases
Regional parties acting big in UP and Bihar
I
t is ironical that the Congress, which is supposedly the anchor of the UPA government, is reduced to less than a junior status in the matter of allocation of seats for the forthcoming elections at the hands of regional parties in the politically crucial states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. While in the former, the Samajwadi Party left only six out of 80 seats where it said it would not contest against the Congress, in Bihar the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Lok Janshakti Party divided 37 of the 40 seats among themselves and condescendingly left a paltry three for the Congress.


EARLIER STORIES

Marxist manifesto
March 18, 2009
Restoration of Chief Justice
March 17, 2009
Deepening crisis in Pakistan
March 16, 2009
Manifesto of an unborn party
March 15, 2009
Third Front
March 14, 2009
Pakistan on the brink
March 13, 2009
Army’s warning
March 11, 2009
Et tu, Naveen?
March 10, 2009
Limits of protest
March 9, 2009
Underachievers at school
March 8, 2009
Mahajot in Bengal
March 7, 2009
Pawar at play
March 6, 2009


Melting glaciers
Climate change threatens mankind
N
ot too long ago, experts had warned, “Today Siachen is weeping, tomorrow the world will cry.” With the world’s highest battlefield, the Siachen glacier, having melted to half its size, the warning has come alarmingly close. Dr Rajeev Upadhay of Kumaun University, Nainital, who has been studying the Siachen glacier since 1995 holds global warming as a major factor accelerating the glacial melting.

ARTICLE

Challenges from China
India faces growing hostility after 26/11
by G. Parthasarathy
W
hile India received overwhelming international sympathy and support during the 26/11 terrorist outrage, the Chinese reaction was one of almost unbridled glee, combined with efforts to back Pakistani protestations of innocence. The State-run China Institute of Contemporary International Relations claimed that the terrorists who carried out the attack came from India.

MIDDLE

Friends
by Uttam Sengupta
I
t is not every day that you think of Aristotle while watching news on television. But seeing Lalu Prasad Yadav warmly hug Ram Bilas Paswan on Tuesday, one was reminded of the Greek philosopher, who had famously stated: “My friends, there is no friend.” The statement provoked philosophers to write tomes on not just friendship but also on “politics and friendship” and prompted the early conclusion by Cicero that there are no true friends in politics.

OPED

Mayhem in markets
Small investor is the ultimate sufferer
by Kamlendra Kanwar
O
ne of the consequences of the virtual mayhem in the Indian stock markets, with the Bombay Stock Exchange index plummeting from a peak of 20,873 on January 8, 2008 to less than 9,000 now, is the psychological blow to the middle class investor who earlier tended to plough much of his savings into the stock market in quest of quick returns.

Cuba on the cusp
by Marjorie Miller
T
he United States has begun a liberalization of its Cuba policy. The omnibus spending bill that President Barack Obama signed last week not only loosens restrictions on travel to Cuba, it opens the door for more exports from the U.S. despite the 47-year-old trade embargo.

Move to allay fears over GM food
by Andrew Grice
T
he British Government has asked its top scientist to investigate the merits of genetically modified food in the hope that his verdict will allay public fears about so-called "Frankenstein foods".


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EDITORIALS

Punish Varun
Cannot be allowed to spread poison

The inflammatory remarks against Muslims made by BJP candidate Varun Gandhi at a  public meeting in his constituency Pilibhit on March 7 smack of crass communalism and deserve to be severely condemned. It is remarks like these that vitiate the general atmosphere and spread hatred among communities. Often, defiance of the code of conduct by “promoting enmity between different groups on the basis of religion” through speeches invites no punitive action. Even when action is initiated, the process of meting out justice is so slow that it is a grossly inadequate deterrent. It is little wonder then that intemperate communal statements are being increasingly made. In the Varun Gandhi case, the Election Commission has served notices on the BJP national and state presidents as also on Varun. It remains to be seen what is the follow-up to the notices.

If the tendency to spread communal hatred is to be nipped in the bud, it is important that Varun Gandhi and those of his ilk be punished swiftly. Varun has claimed in his defence that the CD of his speech which has stirred up the controversy has been doctored. If that is a lie it should be nailed without delay on the basis of forensic evidence. The BJP to which Varun belongs has adopted a holier-than-thou attitude, and thought of merely reprimanding him for his statement. What cannot be ignored, however, is that as a party the BJP has been permissive in such cases in the past and at times glorified those who cast aspersions on the minorities. Even some of its leaders themselves have revelled in making provocative statements with communal overtones. Its electoral ally, the Shiv Sena, has been even more brazen.

In Varun’s case, as in earlier cases, the Shiv Sena has come out in support of the purported statements and has added fuel to fire. There is indeed no time to waste. Varun Gandhi must be brought to trial  forthwith and the punishment meted out to him, if he is found guilty, must be such that deters others so that the elections are fought before poison spreads further. The BJP, meanwhile, should prove its credentials by throwing its special invitee out of the party.

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Lost bases
Regional parties acting big in UP and Bihar

It is ironical that the Congress, which is supposedly the anchor of the UPA government, is reduced to less than a junior status in the matter of allocation of seats for the forthcoming elections at the hands of regional parties in the politically crucial states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. While in the former, the Samajwadi Party left only six out of 80 seats where it said it would not contest against the Congress, in Bihar the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Lok Janshakti Party divided 37 of the 40 seats among themselves and condescendingly left a paltry three for the Congress. This is not even the proverbial crumbs and the ignominy is not lost on anyone. The Congress, which was asking for 11 out of the 40 seats, had come down to six but Lalu Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan did not give it even the measly four that it had contested in 2004. The Congress has decided to contest “many more seats” in Bihar, just as it is putting up candidates on at least 60 of the 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh. But that brave face cannot hide the national discomfiture. After all, in the last elections, it had contested as many as 73 seats in UP and had won only nine.

The reasons for its growing irrelevance in the two large states are not far to seek. The Congress never allowed leaders of stature to grow roots in the states. They were just hangers-on who owed their position to their proximity to the central leaders in Delhi. So, the aspirations of the local populace were never taken into account adequately. In contrast, regional parties strengthened their grassroots, leading to the stage where the Congress virtually became a non-entity. That the BJP is faring no better is hardly any consolation for the Congress. Caste politics is another important reason for the two national parties losing bases in the two states.

The consequences of this drift can be serious for the nation. If Uttar Pradesh and Bihar do not yield sufficient seats, its condition in the next Lok Sabha will be highly untenable. Congress general secretary and party-in-charge for Uttar Pradesh Digvijay Singh admitted as much in a recent television interview: “If the Congress wants to make a Congress candidate the Prime Minister, it needs to strengthen its position in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar”. The way winds are blowing, the party has to work hard in the two states.

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Melting glaciers
Climate change threatens mankind

Not too long ago, experts had warned, “Today Siachen is weeping, tomorrow the world will cry.” With the world’s highest battlefield, the Siachen glacier, having melted to half its size, the warning has come alarmingly close. Dr Rajeev Upadhay of Kumaun University, Nainital, who has been studying the Siachen glacier since 1995 holds global warming as a major factor accelerating the glacial melting. The atmospheric brown clouds caused by the burning of fossil fuels and firewood have exacerbated the retreat of Himalayan glaciers. By 2035, many Himalayan glaciers may vanish. The Himalayan glaciers known as the “water towers of Asia” are the world’s largest reservoir of water, next to polar ice caps.

Melting of glaciers is not just another topographical change; it has far reaching implications. Millions dependent upon Asia’s rivers, including the Brahmputra, the Indus and the Yangste, may face not only water shortage but also food scarcity. If the glacial retreat continues unheeded, the initial flooding may be followed by droughts and could adversely affect the crop yield. The melting of Siachen could affect the lives of millions in Pakistan, since Nubra and Shyok rivers originating from Siachen feed the Indus river. The rapid decline of the Gangotri glacier threatens to turn the Ganga, both sacred and central to the existence of millions in India, into a seasonal rivulet. The melting of the Kolahoi glacier is casting a shadow over the green future of the picturesque Kashmir valley, which may be reduced to a barren desert.

The world, especially India, has been a mute spectator to the warnings of environmental scientists on global warming. India has not fully woken up to confront the hazards of climate change. Merely taking note of the phenomenon will not arrest its retreat. Urgent steps like cutting down carbon emissions and energy-gobbling technologies are required. Fortunately, India has a ministry of non-conventional energy sources. Only there is a need to tap solar and wind energy on a wider scale. Plus, impetus must be provided to the study of glaciology, which India has so far ignored at its own peril. The impact of climate change on the dams in the Himalayas needs to be assessed thoroughly. Demilitarisation of Siachen, too, is an alternative that cannot be completely overlooked.

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Thought for the Day

Good painters imitate nature, bad ones spew it up. — Cervantes

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ARTICLE

Challenges from China
India faces growing hostility after 26/11
by G. Parthasarathy

While India received overwhelming international sympathy and support during the 26/11 terrorist outrage, the Chinese reaction was one of almost unbridled glee, combined with efforts to back Pakistani protestations of innocence. The State-run China Institute of Contemporary International Relations claimed that the terrorists who carried out the attack came from India. Moreover, even as the terrorist strike was on, yet another Chinese “scholar” gleefully noted: “The Mumbai attack exposed the internal weakness of India, a power that is otherwise raising its status both in the region and in the world”.

Not to be outdone, the Foreign Ministry-run China Institute of Strategic Studies warned: “China can firmly support Pakistan in the event of war”, adding: “While Pakistan can benefit from its military cooperation with China while fighting India, the People’s Republic of China may have the option of resorting to a strategic military action in Southern Tibet (Arunachal Pradesh), to thoroughly liberate the people there”.

Rather than condemning the terrorists and their supporters, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang echoed the Pakistani position, urging India and Pakistan to “maintain calm” and investigate the “cause” of the terror attack jointly. In more practical terms, the visiting Chairman of Pakistan’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Tariq Majid was received like a State dignitary by Chinese leaders, with promises of support on weapons supplies ranging from fighter aircraft to frigates. The Chinese then got into the diplomatic act, purporting to show that they were actually Good Samaritans seeking to promote peace and reconciliation between India and Pakistan.

The rising star in China’s diplomatic hierarchy, Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei, visited Islamabad and met the Pakistan leadership, including the ubiquitous Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani. Rather than asking Pakistan to do some introspection and curb the Lashkar-e-Taiyaba, He Yafei stressed the need for Pakistan and India to address “outstanding issues through dialogue and cooperation”. Shortly thereafter, the ubiquitous “Good Samaritan” He Yafei landed up in Delhi, again with the sole objective of demonstrating to the world that China had urged “restraint” on India and promoted India-Pakistan dialogue. Mercifully, for once our pusillanimous mandarins in South Block, normally given to kowtowing to the Chinese, signalled that India did not need their purported good offices in dealing with the fallout of 26/11.

Just as China was becoming a net importer of oil in 1993, Zhao Nanqui a senior official of China’s People’s Liberation Army, proclaimed: “We can no longer accept the Indian Ocean as an Ocean of the Indians”. More recently, another naval analyst Zhang Ming proclaimed that the islands of India’s Andaman and Nicobar archipelago could be used as a “metal chain” to block Chinese access to the Straits of Malacca. China has used such arguments to boost its naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Adopting a “string of pearls strategy” to encircle and contain India in the Indian Ocean, China has acquired base facilities at Gwadar and Pasni in the Makran coast of Pakistan, virtually at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. It is building a fuelling station in the port of Hambantota in Southern Sri Lanka, a container facility with extensive naval and commercial access in Chittagong and seeking to link its landlocked Yunnan province to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar.

It has gone as far as Mauritius and the Maldives for securing a strategic presence with promises of massive economic assistance. It has also planned its most ambitious project in the Indian Ocean, proposing a canal access across the Isthmus of Krai in Thailand, linking the Indian Ocean to China’s Pacific coast.

China has reinforced these measures by sending its first naval expeditionary force spearheaded by two destroyers into the Indian Ocean, purportedly to deal with piracy off the Somalia coast. A Chinese fleet last entered the Indian Ocean in the 15th century, when an expeditionary force under Admiral Zheng He sailed across the Indian Ocean to Calicut, Muscat, the Maldives and Mogadishu. Hu Jintao’s China appears desirous of reviving the imperial ambitions of the Emperors of the Ming Dynasty! But as China proceeds with plans to strengthen its navy with the acquisition of aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, India will soon find that unless it combines the boosting of its maritime muscle with imaginative diplomacy in its Indian Ocean neighbourhood and on China’s Pacific shores, it will be strategically marginalised and outflanked by an assertive and expansionist China, which appears bent on exploiting the high costs of imperial overreach by the Americans in recent years.

Given the manner in which China has joined hands with Pakistan to sabotage India’s quest for permanent membership of the UN Security Council and the devious role played by China in the Nuclear Suppliers Group to undermine moves to end global nuclear sanctions against India, we should have no doubt that “strategic containment” of India will remain the cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy in the foreseeable future.

New Delhi should also have no doubt that China will exploit the US economic downturn and the intrinsically pro-Chinese views of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to get the Americans to revert to the policies of the Nixon, Carter and Clinton presidencies and to make common cause with the United States on issues like nuclear non-proliferation, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and even on Afghanistan and Pakistan, while undermining Indian interests.

Echoing the Pakistani line, China's Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, recently suggested that for the United States to deal with problems in Afghanistan, it should not merely involve itself in the “Afghanistan problem” and the “Pakistan problem” but also in the “India-Pakistan problem”. Hillary Clinton has characterised the US-China relationship as the “most important bilateral relationship in the world in this century”. Her visit to China was followed almost immediately by the visit to Beijing of a senior Pentagon official, who joyously proclaimed the resumption of defence ties with China.

The Bush Administration had an overarching strategic vision of its relations with India, premised on India’s pivotal role in confronting terrorism, safeguarding the sealanes of the Indian Ocean and promoting “strategic stability” in Asia. With elections round the corner and the UPA government in a “lame-duck” mode, Washington is unlikely to take any interest in fashioning a larger strategic vision for India-US relations.

The challenge India faces in the coming months is on how it can pursue its interests in the aftermath of the 26/11 carnage, without making the Indo-US relationship exclusively fashioned by developments on our western borders. The decision to curb outsourcing by the Obama Administration, without any prior consultations, manifests an American propensity to act unilaterally and peremptorily on issues of vital interest to India.

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MIDDLE

Friends
by Uttam Sengupta

It is not every day that you think of Aristotle while watching news on television. But seeing Lalu Prasad Yadav warmly hug Ram Bilas Paswan on Tuesday, one was reminded of the Greek philosopher, who had famously stated: “My friends, there is no friend.” The statement provoked philosophers to write tomes on not just friendship but also on “politics and friendship” and prompted the early conclusion by Cicero that there are no true friends in politics.

Yadav and Paswan, however, are not friends. Far from it. Indeed, this writer remembers a flight that he had taken with the two leaders. It was a small plane with two pilots. And the passenger section had two seats facing each other and a bench on the side. When I arrived at the airport, I was disappointed to see Paswan and another journalist also waiting for the plane. I had thought of catching Lalu alone but clearly my “exclusive” had gone for a toss.

As soon as the plane took off, Yadav announced that he had risen early. So, could we excuse him for taking a nap? He put his feet up on the lap of Paswan, sitting opposite him, and closed his eyes. Visibly embarrassed, Paswan frowned, fidgeted, gave us a stricken smile but a good 15 minutes passed before he gathered enough courage to lift Lalu’s feet and place them on the seat, squeezing his own frame on one side of the narrow seat. He looked grim, said little and it is unlikely that he would have forgotten the many public humiliations that Lalu subjected him to.

Nothing is as admirable in politics as a short memory. Yadav and Paswan have, in fact, been calling each other names till recently. And they were rarely spoken in jest, not even when Lalu began calling his colleague Bhog Bilas Paswan in an apparent reference to the latter’s somewhat lavish lifestyle. During the run-up to the last general election, they almost came to blows and their war of words continued even after the election.

There are no permanent friends or permanent enemies in politics. And, therefore, one can hardly fault the two. They, after all, are fighting with their back to the wall. Their one-time-friend Nitish Kumar appears to have done enough to chip away minority votes from Lalu and “Extremely Backward Caste” votes from Paswan. The new warmth in their relationship is prompted by political compulsions.

Indeed, they hate each other so much that one has publicly abused the other as a thief, a big mouth and of being greedy; while the other has accused the first of being a swindler. When Yadav publicly suggested that Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party should open an office in every jail , Paswan was quick to point out contemptuously that Yadav had actually been to jail as a prime accused in the fodder scam. The retort from Yadav was swift in coming. He suggested that Paswan himself could land in jail soon enough. Claiming that two previous railway ministers had recommended CBI inquiries into the purchase of cranes, he ominously added: “ The file has not yet been closed.”

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OPED

Mayhem in markets
Small investor is the ultimate sufferer
by Kamlendra Kanwar

One of the consequences of the virtual mayhem in the Indian stock markets, with the Bombay Stock Exchange index plummeting from a peak of 20,873 on January 8, 2008 to less than 9,000 now, is the psychological blow to the middle class investor who earlier tended to plough much of his savings into the stock market in quest of quick returns.

Interestingly, despite their abysmal service, nationalized banks which were an object of derision with young investors mocking at the returns they gave, are today much sought after.

There is heightened realization in these risk-prone times of economic slowdown that they would not fail even if conditions worsen.

The new-found emphasis on security has led many middle class investors to park money in relatively-safe fixed deposits and other less adventurous forms like National Savings Certificates.

Indeed, in the obsessive passion to get rich quick, young investors in particular were delirious as stocks soared. To be fair to them, even market analysts got swept off their feet by the zooming market. As the BSE index soared past 20,000 in January 2008, many of them speculated on TV and in newspapers on when the index would touch 40,000. The gullible youth in particular fell prey to these exaggerated projections.

Little did these investors realize that Indian markets do not necessarily follow a predictable and logical course.

The youth looked up to relatively new business icons like the House of Ambanis, which had touched dizzying heights in a short span of time.

The hero for many of them was Dhirubhai Ambani, the late founder of the Ambani empire, who started out as a worker in Besse & Company at age 16 in Aden in 1949 at a measly Rs 300 a month, returned to India in 1962 and when he died four decades later in 2002, had a net worth of $US15 billion. His two sons Mukesh and Anil who parted ways after his death were fifth and sixth on the Forbes list of the world's billionaires in March 2008. Together, they were the richest family in the world.

The bulk of the wealth of Indian business barons is based on market capitalization. With share prices taking a sharp dip, their net worth has fallen sharply. This is of course notional because such moneybags are in no desperate need to offload stocks at a time when conditions are not propitious.

Indeed, Anil Ambani was the biggest loser among Indian billionaires on the 2009 Forbes list of billionaires, with $32 billion wiped out over the last 12 months. Ranked sixth last year, he fell to 34 with an estimated wealth of $10.1 billion. "India took a huge whack," Luisa Kroll, senior editor of Forbes said while announcing the list for 2009, noting that last year Indians held four of the top 10 spots and now only two, and the number of Indian billionaires more than
halved to 24. Mukesh Ambani and Lakshmi Mittal fared better, dropping only marginally from fourth and fifth in the 2008 list to seventh and eighth in this year’s list.

For months, until January 21, 2008, the Indian stock market had defied gravity as other regional markets went down like ninepins. But then, like many other countries, disaster struck Indian markets. The Sensex crashed by 1,408 points, the biggest one-day drop in the 133-year history of the BSE. Just over $151 billion of investor wealth was wiped out in a single day.

The market cap of all the companies traded on BSE evaporated by a staggering $940 billion during the period January 8 to October 24. At peak valuation when the Sensex crossed 21,000, total market capitalization was over $1.58 trillion. This is down to less than half as the index hovers close to 9,000.

Realty major DLF was another big loser where the promoter wealth eroded from $44 billion to $6 billion in March 2008 and to $5 billion in 2009.

Given the importance of foreign institutional investment (FII) in driving Indian stock markets and the fact that cumulative investments by FIIs stood at $66.5 billion at the beginning of 2008, the pullout of $11.1 billion by them in the first nine-and-a-half months of that year contributed greatly in triggering a collapse in stock prices.

In addition, this withdrawal by the FIIs led to a sharp depreciation of the rupee. Since January 1, 2008, the RBI reference rate for the rupee has fallen by over 25 per cent, from Rs 39.20 to the dollar to the current level of over Rs 50. Predictably, the market slowdown will leave a trail of destruction.

The major players have the financial muscle to weather the storm and bounce back substantially once market conditions improve though they may not be able to reach old levels. But it is the small and medium investor who has little saving to bank upon other than his shares who may be driven to sell in bad times.

An inevitable consequence of the economic slowdown has been the growing ranks of the unemployed. Economic disparities which are already acute would doubtlessly worsen as a consequence. That this will exacerbate social tensions should set alarm bells ringing.

There are early signs this month that some foreign institutional investors who had pulled out of Indian markets are coming back. It is too early yet to speculate that the worst is over for the Indian markets but surely the recklessness that characterized the decisions of a whole army of small and medium investors will be tempered by a degree of welcome caution. Those who have burnt their fingers in the rush to make a fast buck would perhaps think twice.

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Cuba on the cusp
by Marjorie Miller

The United States has begun a liberalization of its Cuba policy. The omnibus spending bill that President Barack Obama signed last week not only loosens restrictions on travel to Cuba, it opens the door for more exports from the U.S. despite the 47-year-old trade embargo.

At the same time, Cuban President Raul Castro has launched the biggest Cabinet shake-up there in decades, signaling not only that he is firmly in control a year after officially taking over from his brother, Fidel Castro, but that no one should expect radical political and economic change from his communist government.

Why Raul moved just at this moment is anyone's guess; even longtime Cuba watchers are merely reading tea leaves when it comes to politics on the other side of the Florida Straits. But there is a view gaining ground in Washington, D.C., that it shouldn't matter because it is in the U.S. interest to change the policy.

In Cuba, Raul removed the two most internationally prominent ministers and half a dozen other holdovers from his brother's government, replacing them with his own loyalists from the army and the Communist Party.

Felipe Perez Roque, who had served as foreign minister for a decade, and Cabinet chief Carlos Lage were dismissed in what the president said was a streamlining of the government. But the main reason for the dismissals may have been explained best by the retired and ailing Fidel Castro. "The honey of power, for which they had made no sacrifice, awoke in them ambitions that led to an undignified role," he wrote in a column published on the Internet.

Open ambition has always been a career-killer in Cuba. The "undignified role," according to Cuba analysts, was becoming too visible and seemingly accommodating to the U.S., hinting at the possibility of improved relations under Obama. "The external enemy was filled with illusions for them," Fidel wrote. He seemed to be suggesting that U.S. officials had pinned their hopes for Cuban economic liberalization on the familiar pair, particularly Lage.

Once Fidel had spoken, his former proteges had no choice but to fall on their party swords and admit to having "committed errors," for which they accepted full responsibility, just as the previous foreign minister, Roberto Robaina, did in the 1990s. He is now a painter.

Newly named Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez is a career diplomat and former U.N. ambassador who speaks fluent English, but his appointment offers few policy insights. For that, it is best to look at Raul'sswearing-in a year ago, when he spoke of implementing salary and currency reforms, improvements in productivity and efficiency and a streamlined bureaucracy. He also raised hopes for other changes, such as a resumption of private agricultural markets and the lifting of travel restrictions.

Although some of these reforms may well take place, the president is making it clear that they will not be accompanied by sweeping market reforms or a loosening of political control. In the same speech last year, Raul said the Communist Party was a "sure guarantee of the unity of the Cuban nation."

Some Cuba analysts suspect that the recent Cabinet changes were an effort to prevent an easing of the U.S. trade embargo, which the Castro brothers blame for most of the country's economic ills and use as fodder for anti-American tirades. Previous U.S. overtures were stymied when Cuba sent troops to Ethiopia during the Carter administration and when, under President Bill Clinton, it shot down a plane piloted by anti-Castro Cuban Americans that had violated Cuban airspace.

Cuba hard-liners in the U.S. don't want a significant easing of the embargo without political reforms in Cuba. The most notable of these hard-liners is Robert Menendez, D-N.J., a member of the Democratic leadership who held up the spending bill until Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner issued written assurances that the Cuba provisions would be interpreted narrowly.

Still, the embargo is increasingly unpopular in the U.S., even among Cuban Americans, and there is a growing belief in Washington, D.C., that it has not worked. Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, issued a report last month stating that the embargo had "failed to achieve its stated purpose of `bringing democracy to the Cuban people.'" Now, he said, the U.S. must "deal with the Cuban regime in a way that enhances U.S. interests."

Cuba has diplomatic and economic relations with an array of European and Latin American countries that do not share its politics. The Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Dialogue issued a report this week branding the U.S. Cuba policy an "anachronism that serves mainly to isolate the United States from the rest of the hemisphere."

Change is in the U.S. interest, the report says, "because it will open the way to cooperation with Latin America on many other issues."

— By arrangement with LA Times-Washington Post

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Move to allay fears over GM food
by Andrew Grice

The British Government has asked its top scientist to investigate the merits of genetically modified food in the hope that his verdict will allay public fears about so-called "Frankenstein foods".

Officially, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his ministers remain neutral on the issue of GM because of public hostility, saying that they will be "guided by the science". But they have quietly ordered a major research project, which they hope will provide the launchpad for a campaign to persuade people that GM food is safe.

The study will be led by Professor John Beddington, the Government's Chief Scientific Officer, and carried out by the Foresight Institute, a science and technology think-tank that looks into long-term issues for the Government.

The group's remit – how to feed a world population which could rise to nine billion by 2050 – makes no mention of the GM issue. But Jane Kennedy, the minister for Farming and the Environment, told The Independent on Tuesday that the group's work would include the potential for GM crops and food.

She said that she was "cautious" about allowing GM products in Britain, but added: "My own opinion is less important than what John Beddington might come up with.

When the public are deeply concerned and hold strong views, they tend not to listen when ministers express a view. But they will listen to those who have the experience and knowledge to be able to offer solid advice."

Ms Kennedy said that she would welcome GM crop trials in Britain. None is currently taking place because all projects have been vandalised by opponents but the Government may fund an experiment at a "secure" location.

The minister said another reason why the issue had to be addressed was that animal feed, such as soya, was increasingly made using GM products. "The options for those countries which want to stay GM-free are reducing, therefore the price of non-GM animal feed is going up. If that trend continues, it means meat products in countries which choose not to use GM becoming more and more expensive. There are clear implications for the UK," she said. Britain is backing moves by the European Commission to relax EU rules on importing GM animal feed but a majority of member states remain cautious.

Several Cabinet ministers are convinced that GM technology will help to solve the world's food crisis. One said: "Gordon Brown wants a debate about the issue. But he wants it to be led by the scientists, not by politicians. We have now put the ball in the scientists' court."

Environmental groups accused the Government last night of trying to sneak in GM food, despite accepting the findings of a four-year international study involving 400 scientists last year which failed to give GM the green light.

Clare Oxborrow, the senior food campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: "[The Government] is obsessed with GM as a techno-fix solution to problems in food and farming which are much more complex."

The official remit for the Government's study says that"the project will look out to 2050 and take a global view of the food system [and]... how new science, policies and interventions could best address future challenges".

Also on the agenda will be the pressures on land used for non-food purposes such as biofuels.

— By arrangement with The Independent

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