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THE TRIBUNE SPECIALS
50 YEARS OF INDEPENDENCE

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Editorials | Article | Middle | Oped

EDITORIALS

Who is the minister?
Influencing judiciary is unacceptable
M
adras High Court Judge Justice R. Reghupathi’s disclosure that a Union Minister had tried to influence him on granting anticipatory bail to two persons is a grave offence and needs a thorough probe to ferret out the truth. The minister must be hauled up for contempt of court and punished in accordance with the law. Chief Justice of India Justice K.G. Balakrishnan has said that it was a “gross impropriety” for a minister to call up the judge regarding a pending case.

Monsoon spreads cheer
Gloomy forecasts may go wrong, hopefully
Despite an initial scare created by the Meteorological Department the monsoon has arrived in north-west India almost in time, spreading cheer among people in general and farmers in particular. Rain brings relief not just from sweltering heat, aggravated by prolonged power disruptions, but also from the soaring prices of vegetables and fruits. People have seen in the past what trouble a drought can spell in India.





EARLIER STORIES

Statues don’t vote
July 1, 2009
Waiting for the monsoon
June 30, 2009
Making judges accountable
June 29, 2009
Who cares for hockey?
June 28, 2009
De-stressing education
June 27, 2009
Boosting higher education
June 26, 2009
Containing Maoist menace
June 25, 2009
Banning Maoists
June 24, 2009
Varun said it all
June 23, 2009
BJP at sea
June 22, 2009

US begins pull-out
Iraqis should govern themselves
The withdrawal of US troops from all cities in Iraq has come not a day too soon. While the Americans had no business to be there at all, it was the arrogance of power of former US President George Bush that caused a massive 131,000 troops to be stationed there six years ago, breathing down the neck of the hapless Iraqis in violation of their sovereign rights.

ARTICLE

Education Policy — A Tribune Debate
From marks to quality
Sibal plans are forward-looking
by Harpal Singh
T
hankfully the monsoon has arrived on the educational landscape of India. After a decade of drought, one hopes that the rains of reform will be bountiful and promise to deliver a good harvest of educational outcomes. The recent announcement by the new HRD Minister, Mr Kapil Sibal, has brought hope to all stakeholders with students rightfully holding centre stage. With a median age of around 25 years, India is one of the youngest countries in the world representing a huge talent pool that needs to be groomed and empowered if for no other reason than to ensure the long term sustainable growth of the country.

MIDDLE

Appeasing Bijli Devi
by Jupinderjit Singh
W
ith sweat-drenched body, itching eyes and dishevelled clothes,  I stormed into a dilapidated “complaint” room of the  power supply board.

OPED

Michael Jackson: a victim of existential capitalism
by Navina Jafa
G
rowing up in the eighties when Michael Jackson’s career was revolutionising areas of performance and technology, I would gaze at the television occasionally but from a certain distance.

German town goes car-free
by Tony Paterson
T
he Germans may have given the world the Audi and the autobahn, but they have banished everything with four wheels and an engine from the streets of Vauban – a model brave new world of a community in the country’s south-west, next to the borders with Switzerland and France.

Threats to democracy in Latin America
by Andres Martinez
M
ilitary coups are supposed to be a thing of the past in Latin America, where the consolidation of political stability and electoral democracy has been a landmark achievement over the last two decades. But events in Tegucigalpa over the weekend reminded us that this achievement remains somewhat tenuous. There is nothing inevitable about democracy in Latin America, it turns out.



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EDITORIALS

Who is the minister?
Influencing judiciary is unacceptable

Madras High Court Judge Justice R. Reghupathi’s disclosure that a Union Minister had tried to influence him on granting anticipatory bail to two persons is a grave offence and needs a thorough probe to ferret out the truth. The minister must be hauled up for contempt of court and punished in accordance with the law. Chief Justice of India Justice K.G. Balakrishnan has said that it was a “gross impropriety” for a minister to call up the judge regarding a pending case. Moreover, this kind of interference in the functioning of the judiciary and influencing the judicial process amounts to undermining its independence. Justice Reghupathi is duty-bound to disclose the Union Minister’s name and let the people know about the exact demands he had made. This will facilitate hastening the probe against the erring minister and bringing him to book.

Justice Reghupathi has done well in disclosing in the open court the minister’s attempt to influence him in the course of justice. But unless he reveals the minister’s identity, it may be difficult for anyone to take action against the minister. It is not clear why the judge is afraid of revealing the minister’s name. Did the latter threaten the former of dire consequences if he did so? The judge’s disclosure followed the lawyer’s persistent argument for anticipatory bail for one Dr C. Krishnamurty and his medical student son K. Sridhar. The CBI had filed a case against them for forging Sridhar’s marksheet. He studies in a private medical college in Puducherry. The judge had earlier rejected a similar plea for bail.

Political interference in the functioning of the judiciary is not new and often it gets unreported because of the judges’ inclination to avoid raising a controversy. One may, however, recall former Supreme Court Judge Justice S.N. Variava’s revelation that someone from the Patna High Court had called him up in March 2005 to know whether the trial judge in the infamous fodder scam case could be replaced. There was a furore in Parliament and little came out of it. As Justice Balakrishnan has left it to the government to look into the matter, the latter should probe the incident and take action against the minister in the interest of justice, fair play and independence of the judiciary. It will serve public interest a great deal if the CJI were to get from Justice Reghupathi the name of the minister, who is ignorant of the concept of judicial independence, and pass it on to the Prime Minister for suitable punishment. Hiding the name does not serve public interest in an RTI age.

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Monsoon spreads cheer
Gloomy forecasts may go wrong, hopefully

Despite an initial scare created by the Meteorological Department the monsoon has arrived in north-west India almost in time, spreading cheer among people in general and farmers in particular. Rain brings relief not just from sweltering heat, aggravated by prolonged power disruptions, but also from the soaring prices of vegetables and fruits. People have seen in the past what trouble a drought can spell in India. Prices of essentials shoot up as unscrupulous elements resort to hoarding scarce commodities. The weather office should, therefore, try to be more cautious and accurate in its predictions.

As the monsoon is expected to spread further to cover the entire north India in the next couple of days, smile has returned to farmers’ faces as rain may revive their wilting paddy saplings and cotton crop. Towards June-end, the dam reservoirs were getting less water, which shrunk canal water supply, and power cuts had made tubewells non-functional. Farmers continue to be at the mercy of rain gods. Over-all, India will get a below-normal quantum of rainfall, according to experts. The erratic monsoon could not keep its date with south-west India, which received 57 per cent below normal rainfall between June 1 and June 24. How well it turns out in the days to come remains to be seen, but showers in the past two days are hopeful signs.

If blistering heat was claiming human lives until a few days ago, excessive rain too turns a killer at places and the victims are usually the poor, who see their roofs collapsing. Dilapidated government buildings are exposed to increased risk and so are ancient school buildings. Water-borne diseases continue to claim lives as clean drinking water, a basic necessity, goes beyond the reach of many. Urban infrastructure is often found wanting. What to talk of handling a flood, a little extra rain and normal life goes haywire. Administrative negligence becomes all too obvious at many levels. This is an annual feature we have to live with. For this authorities are to blame, not the rain gods.

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US begins pull-out
Iraqis should govern themselves

The withdrawal of US troops from all cities in Iraq has come not a day too soon. While the Americans had no business to be there at all, it was the arrogance of power of former US President George Bush that caused a massive 131,000 troops to be stationed there six years ago, breathing down the neck of the hapless Iraqis in violation of their sovereign rights. The total pullout of US troops from Iraq may be still two and a half years away (as per the timetable agreed upon between the US and Iraq) with the troops having withdrawn to fortified positions outside cities, but at least the Iraqis would not see them rumbling along their capital’s boulevards in armoured vehicles in a painful reminder of Iraq’s dependence on foreigners for its security.

For now, President Barack Obama has kept his word to make some amends for Bush’s highhandedness but tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have already lost their lives and over 4,500 of the occupation forces led by the US have been killed in what, like most wars, was avoidable. For Obama, the gradual pulling out from Iraq is a strategic shift to another theatre of civil war — Afghanistan — which poses as serious a challenge to American hegemony as Iraq did in its heydays. There is a parallel in the two situations in so far as the rebellious Taliban, many of whom joined hands with the al-Qaeda, were armed and trained by the Americans to fight the Soviets at one stage just as the Iraqis under Saddam Hussein were armed and trained by them before Saddam fell out with the Americans.

For the Iraqi civilian government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, self-rule poses a huge challenge. The onus is on them to prove the Americans wrong when they propagate that when they pull out, there would be a security vacuum and a horrendous civil war in Iraq. The Iraqi people must learn to live in peace regardless of which sect they belong to — Shia, Sunni or Kurd — or whether they are Saddam-ites or detractors of the former dictator. Failure to do so could invite a renewed American interference in the country which surely it does not want. Iraq must work towards reconstruction with vigour and for that peace and unity of its people are essential.

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Thought for the Day

Even while they teach, men learn. — Seneca

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ARTICLE

Education Policy — A Tribune Debate
From marks to quality
Sibal plans are forward-looking
by Harpal Singh

Thankfully the monsoon has arrived on the educational landscape of India. After a decade of drought, one hopes that the rains of reform will be bountiful and promise to deliver a good harvest of educational outcomes. The recent announcement by the new HRD Minister, Mr Kapil Sibal, has brought hope to all stakeholders with students rightfully holding centre stage. With a median age of around 25 years, India is one of the youngest countries in the world representing a huge talent pool that needs to be groomed and empowered if for no other reason than to ensure the long term sustainable growth of the country. Only education with purpose can deliver the demographic dividend that represents one of India’s most important opportunities for this century. It is therefore quite heartening to see the passion and enthusiasm shown by the minister in announcing a 100 day window for the implementation of major reforms recommended by the Yashpal Committee report on “Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education”.

Let’s look at the potential new landscape that Mr Sibal, hopes to deliver through some of his dramatic and directionally significant pronouncements. First student centricity is clearly the priority. The new mantra is that every student should enjoy his or her growing years and be educated as well. A focus on wholistic education, without overstressing the learner and in the process also produce good citizens seem to be the prime concerns of the minister. To ensure that every child of India is educated is to be fast tracked through the early adoption of the Right to Education Bill. Free and compulsory education for all children aged 6-14 years will therefore be guaranteed. The nation and its children must not be made to wait any longer. The Parliament must pass the Right to Education Bill in this impending session. Let no party be an impediment without the fear of facing citizen wrath. A focus on children must ensure that growing up once again becomes a time of joy, of enablement, of idealism, and not of burdensome books, long hours of rote learning or nail biting stress for not having obtained the cut off percentage for college admission. How often does one hear of distressing stories of talented kids breaking up under exam pressure and taking extreme steps. Whilst many things will have to be done to make learning a joyful process, the doing away of the class 10 exam and replacing marks with grades is an important directional comment that sets the stage for giving back to children their legitimate right to a low stress environment during childhood. The 10th board exam is quite unnecessary, especially when a student intends to continue in the same school and notwithstanding objections of those who have developed a vested interest, if not a competency, in getting high marks in exams. Let children in their early years focuson wholesome education and not on the technique of obtaining high percentage. Real learning and not rote is the fruit we desire from the impending monsoon of educational reforms.

An equally important focus is how every student can get an education. For this we need more capacity in our educational infrastructure — more institutions. schools and colleges; more teachers; better technology and improved processes. Refreshingly Mr Sibal appears open and to use every means and resource available to expand capacity and to increase Gross Enrollment Ratio in higher education from its pathetically low figure of 11 per cent to well above the targeted level of 15 per cent in the 11th five year plan He has rightly concluded that education must be opened to all sectors — public, private and charitable, and that he would welcome the entry of foreign educational institutions who wish to set up shop in India. An early adoption of the Foreign Universities Bill has hence become a real possibility. It may, however, be fair to suggest that Indian enterprise should be the first to enjoy the benefit of such an opening up of the educational sector for new investment and this is only to ensure a level playing field. The welcome suggestion on allowing educational enterprises to generate a surplus which can be reinvested to set up more institutions is part and parcel of the idea that entrepreneurship must be encouraged and rewarded. Such positivity is the only way that India can deliver on its promise of education for all.

The third flavour is that of transparency and accountability which is surely the equivalent of the goodly fragrance of rain on dry ground. We finally have a minister who realises that the main reason for the parched landscape in Indian education, over the last two decades, was the overly centralised and dysfunctional framework of regulation and control as represented in institutions such as the UGC, AICTE, MCI etc. The minister has made it known that he seeks to overhaul the regulatory and overarching institutional framework that manages the educational arena of the country. Subsuming all the educational regulatory bodies in a single unified agency such as the National Commission for Higher Education and Research as proposed in the Yashpal Committee Report is a welcome step. As the reform rains fall on our country’s dry ground of education, and we begin to see the slew of changes in our institutions that manage and govern Indian education, the new heady fragrance, we hope, will be one of empowerment, freedom, self regulation and facilitation. Gone will hopefully be the days of low transparency, restrictions and controls.

Finally , the real fragrance will come from the minister’s concern for quality. cramming without understanding, stress without desired outcome, teaching without purpose and commitment, education without relevance are some of the failures that the current system is beset with. All these are manifestation of a lack of quality in our educational system and the way it sets its priorities. The HRD minister intends to introduce a law to prevent, prohibit and punish malpractices in the educational sector and stem the mushrooming of substandard institutes and Deemed universities. The proposal of setting up an independent accreditation body for rating schools will act as beacon light for students . The potential for introducing, in a controlled manner, a school voucher system will deliver real choice to students and parents. The consequential competition will surely improve the quality of all schools. Steps towards public private partnerships will go a long way in improving the quality and productivity of education and ensure that the money spent on education delivers the service it is expected to generate. And if we have better quality there is then a real chance of converting the phenomenon of brain drain to one of brain gain from the world over. May be we will save at least a part of the billions of dollars that Indian students spend on studying in universities overseas.

Global quality in education is the ultimate dream of every Indian student and every Indian parent. The new direction being set by the HRD Minister has at least beckoned the winds of change in what had otherwise become a dull and desolate landscape.

One hopes that not only will the new proposal be innovative and progressive in delivering on reforms, but more importantly, students, parents and teachers will also enjoy the rich harvest that these changes are sure to deliver.

The writer is Chairman, CII Northern Region and of the Nanhi Chhan Foundation

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MIDDLE

Appeasing Bijli Devi
by Jupinderjit Singh

With sweat-drenched body, itching eyes and dishevelled clothes,  I stormed into a dilapidated “complaint” room of the  power supply board.

“Six hours!” was the curt reply of the man sitting across a worn-out table. He did not even wait for my outburst about the  power cuts and erring voltage that fluctuated like the performance of Indian cricket team – now high, now low and now very low.

He didn’t bother to look at me while I  read the list of my damaged electronic equipment  due to the varying voltage.

“So many problems, ” he murmured  drifting into some deep  thought.

“Is there some major fault?” I asked hoping he won’t say it was because of the badly placed stars in my horoscope!

“No, no” he said, but before I could relax came the shock, “it’s just that you have never paid obeisance at the Bijli Devi temple,  .”

“Bijli Devi temple? Where?”

“Right in the backyard of our office. How ignorant you are,” he gave me a nasty look, “that is why sinners like you suffer”

I checked all the drives — C, D, E, F etc — of my brain but no mention of such a goddess popped up.

I rushed to the backyard, found an old warehouse-like building. It had a small door.

Whiffs of expensive perfume hit my nostrils as I squeezed in. I was dazed at the richness of the temple. It had shiny marble floor and sheeshmahal kind of walls. A statue depicting the striking of lightning  was there and people were sitting in front chanting, “ Oh all pervasive Power Goddess, shower your benevolence on us 24/7”

As I bowed before her, the priests, some dressed in safari suits, and some in spotless white kurta-pyjamas, pulled me away, “ What affront! You seek blessings without offering anything to the goddess? See these devotees, rich and influential, prostrating before her.

“They have doled out jewellery,    gifts or used their offices to help the messengers of the goddess in some work. The mother goddess is so happy at them.”

“Oh, pardon me,” I knelt down, “ But I have no money. I am a common man.”

“What! A common man? Here among us? And that too without any offerings? Blasphemy! Who allowed him in? ” They  threw me out.

“Go to your goddess, the  blindfolded  one with scales in her hand. But you all have overburdened her so much that she would take years to listen. Or you can go to that fiery God of Dharnas. He would make you sit in sweltering heat to seek your rights.

“The heat would make you immune to the power cuts, or maybe  the lathi blows of the cops would teach you how you should worship Bijli Devi.”

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OPED

Michael Jackson: a victim of existential capitalism
by Navina Jafa

Growing up in the eighties when Michael Jackson’s career was revolutionising areas of performance and technology, I would gaze at the television occasionally but from a certain distance.

As a dancer myself I was not only in awe but slightly puzzled at the play of fantastic stage settings, theatrics and sophisticated technology that complimented and synergised with a new style of presentation of a performer.

In the last couple of days I suddenly could not stand being indifferent any longer regarding the artiste and the man that MJ was. I called my teenaged son to view a documentary on MJ on CNN-IBN, and was struck by some thoughts.

MJ himself and other people may blame the unusual childhood; psychologists have been analysing the annihilation of artistic individuals that lead to their dependency on and death by drugs but the hard facts regarding his last years make him an iconic symbol of the spirit of capitalistic market and existentialist spirit.

He was identified as an individual with extraordinary creativity and talent. His genius, his new ideas become potential for creating more and more money in the capitalist world.

People invested in him, encouraged him to create and thereby increased his intoxication with his own genius and also fed the greed of several individuals, companies and organisations within the capitalist web to feed them. A whole range of industries grew around him. But this led to the process of capitalism as a system swallowing him.

He represented to me a barren creative soul challenged to constantly produce ideas and innovations that needed to be marketed.

The truth was that his own performance in the markets meant that he started creating, like many artists do, a make-believe world of his own.

He lost connection with the real world, and when he did try to connect, the index behaviour was to us all weird and abnormal both in his physical and social appearances.

This lost individual retreated in the make-believe world; he tried to connect with the world in becoming a legendary performer — for the stage was his pole of existence, his link to the world; other world actions were becoming a father, participating in several fund-raisers, going into marriages, undergoing plastic surgery to be ‘beautiful’, seeking solutions through several spiritual paths.

Of course, the failure to reconnect constantly was painful — physically, spiritually and mentally — and so the pain relievers and, consequently, a freaky physical appearance was needed to sort of create a false sense of equilibrium.

It was a life that was in some ways that of boredom, barrenness and loneliness. The second autopsy of a ravaged physical body is proof of the reality of a tragic suffering soul.

It represents a person’s quiet struggle with the apparent meaninglessness of life. MJ diverted himself to escape in several ways, his music, his Neverland and, of course, his obsession with children.

He was a true example of a modern capitalist world that lept not onto the moon but into the state of existentialist isolation — a state that begins with a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world.

As we witnessed the illusion of the bubble of capitalism burst last year, ironically MJ, the symbol of that system, succumbed also. MJ represented in life what Dostovevsky and Kafa created fictionally — stories of men who are unable to fit into society, are internally unhappy with the identities they create for themselves. Often surreal and alienated characters who struggle with hopelessness and absurdity.

MJ’s existence was a reflection of a deep human crisis, somewhat like Herman Hesse’s character of Harry Haller in his work “Stephenwolf”, a portrait of a man who faces a human condition dilemma: “who am I?” and the eternal struggle between virtues and instincts that took him to journey through his inner desert.

Ironically, the same capitalist world that brought this individual to this state will now reap the benefits of his demise as a large number of ‘products’ and organisations will continue to be rewarded monetarily to make this individual an icon of existentialism in modern times; that irony became more glaring as we read reports of his own personal reduction to becoming a poor indebted person towards the end.

When my son asked me that why did this not happen in India to people like A.R. Rahman, I replied, “Son, he has spirituality, so God is not dead, and he has a family. These act as walls that protect his soul from becoming a desert in the world of materialistic culture and capitalistic markets.”

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German town goes car-free
by Tony Paterson

The Germans may have given the world the Audi and the autobahn, but they have banished everything with four wheels and an engine from the streets of Vauban – a model brave new world of a community in the country’s south-west, next to the borders with Switzerland and France.

In Vauban, a suburb of the university town of Freiburg, luxuriant beds of brilliant flowers replace what would normally be parking outside its neat, middle- class homes. Instead of the roar of traffic, the residents listen to birdsong, children playing and the occasional jingle of a bicycle bell.

“If you want to have a car here, you have to pay about €20,000 for a space in one of our garages on the outskirts of the district,” says Andreas Delleske one of the founders and now a promoter of the Vauban project, “but about 57 per cent of the residents sold a car to enjoy the privilege of living here.”

As a result, most residents travel by bike or use the ultra-efficient tram service that connects the suburb with the centre of Freiburg, 15 minutes away. If they want a car to go on holiday or to shift things, they hire one or join one of the town’s car-sharing schemes.

Because it has no cars, Vauban’s planners have almost completely dispensed with the idea of metalled roads. Its streets and pathways are cobbled or gritted and vehicles are allowed in only for a matter of minutes to unload essential goods.

Being virtually car-free is only the start of what has been hailed as one of Europe’s most successful experiments in green living and one which is viewed increasingly as a blueprint for a future and perhaps essential way of living in an age of climate change.

Vauban is a southern suburb of Freiburg and home to 5,300 people. Its elegant, weather-boarded, four-storey homes are painted in subtle tones of blue, yellow and red or left as natural wood. They have wide balconies and large French windows that look out on to quiet, park-like gardens. The overall impression is of being stuck in a never-ending IKEA advertisement.

But if the district’s surface texture is eminently middle class, an eco-revolution is bubbling beneath the surface. The windows of all the homes are triple-glazed. An intricate ventilation system fitted with heat exchangers ensures that apartments are kept constantly topped-up with fresh air at room temperature, even when the windows are shut.

Most homes are powered by solar panels and smart co-generator engines that run on wood chips which provide domestic heating and electricity for lighting and appliances. One of the consequences is that most of Vauban’s homes generate a surplus of electricity and sell what they don’t need to the power companies that run the national and regional electricity grids.

With their 35cm thick walls, the homes are so well insulated that the temperature inside is directly affected by the number of people in each apartment. “If it gets too cold in the winter, you have the choice of turning up the heating or inviting a couple of friends round to dinner,” Delleske says. He is immensely proud of the fact that his 90sqm, four-roomed “Passive house,” which is almost environmentally perfect, costs a mere €114 a year to heat.

“Most people pay that kind of money for heating each month,” he says. The “Passive house” has even managed to dispense with drains for the toilets and showers. The waste is reduced to compost in special biological toilets and shower and washing-up water is filtered and used to water the garden.

Word about the Vauban experiment is spreading. Each day, six or seven busloads of visitors roll up – parking on the outskirts, needless to say – to witness the suburb’s environmentally friendly living. At the entrance, they are greeted by slogan in big letters that reads: “We are creating the world we want.”

Vauban’s founders explain that much of the eco-friendly technology that has gone into the complex was conceived and developed around Freiburg as an alternative to nuclear power. The upshot was the formation of a series of loosely structured housing associations which commissioned architects to design new and ecologically sustainable homes on the site.

Most of the old Nazi-era barrack buildings were torn down and more than 60 architects were engaged to reconstruct Vauban. Its three- to five-storey buildings contain apartments of varying sizes and 80 per cent are privately owned. A four-bedroom unit costs about €250,000.

The district also bucks Germany’s reputation for having one of the world’s lowest birth rates: nearly 30 per cent of its inhabitants are aged under 18. Ute and Frank Lits moved to Vauban five years ago. Their children, aged six and 10, can walk out the front door of their four-bedroom apartment into a communal garden equipped with a playground and a wood-fired pizza oven. “We wanted to buy our own home and we liked the eco-friendly principles of the place,” Mrs Lits said. “But the main reason is that Vauban is prefect for children. They enjoy the kind of freedom that it would be difficult to find in a normal town apartment.” The couple owns a car, but neither mind having to park it in a communal garage eight minutes’ walk from their home.

— By arrangement with The Independent

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Threats to democracy in Latin America
by Andres Martinez

Military coups are supposed to be a thing of the past in Latin America, where the consolidation of political stability and electoral democracy has been a landmark achievement over the last two decades. But events in Tegucigalpa over the weekend reminded us that this achievement remains somewhat tenuous. There is nothing inevitable about democracy in Latin America, it turns out.

In this case, outside reaction to Sunday’s political drama in Honduras (which has its nuances, to be sure, including an ousted president who had been acting in defiance of his nation’s Supreme Court) has been swift and energetic. The Organization of American States, the Obama administration, leftist allies of ousted President Manuel Zelaya (a close friend of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez) and other world leaders have rightly condemned the army’s intervention and called for the return of Zelaya, invoking among other things the Inter-American Democratic Charter signed in Lima, Peru, on Sept. 11, 2001.

That’s the proper reaction. But the attempted coup also serves to unmask the hypocrisy surrounding Cuba’s possible return to the Organization of American States and to full participation in the Inter-American community. Indeed, some of the very same regional players now urging a united front on behalf of democracy in Honduras are the same leaders who in recent months have been eager to embrace Cuba and give the tropical gulag nation a pass on its lack of democracy and basic civil liberties, citing explicit principles of nonintervention and implicit nostalgia for anti-gringo revolutionary lore. This despite the fact that the Inter-American Charter makes democracy a precondition to full-fledged membership in the OAS.

Fidel Castro himself, a man known for his mischievous sense of irony, penned a column in the newspaper Granma on Sunday calling events in Honduras a “test for the OAS.” But the real test is whether Latin America’s leading democratic leaders heed the cautionary tale.

If leaders such as Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Mexico’s Felipe Calderon and Chile’s Michelle Bachelet don’t become more forceful advocates of democracy and human rights in the region, they will be encouraging a continued rollback of democratic gains — be it a corruption of the rule of law by populist demagoguery from the left or military coups from the right. You can’t carve out a Cuba exception to hemispheric rules without expecting others to exempt themselves as well.

For the region’s democratic gains to take root, Latin America’s major democracies will have to start standing up to the Castro brothers. Cuba has been the canary in this coal mine for a while now, seeing as how the region seemingly had overcome right-wing military threats to democratic norms.

A willingness to speak out against right-wing coups does appear to trump sovereignty concerns, as it should. It is no coincidence that the Inter-American Democratic Charter was passed on 9/11. That date, after all, already lived in infamy in Latin America as the date on which Chile’s military deposed Salvador Allende in 1973.

But when it comes to Cuba, complacency about what has been gained takes hold, as Latin American leaders have been reluctant in that case to apply their values and shared commitment to democracy, partly out of fear of appearing to be a tool of American imperialism.

The sooner the embargo is lifted, the sooner Washington can prod major Latin American democracies to press Cuba for democratic change. An end to the U.S. embargo is not the same as welcoming Cuba into the community of Latin American democracies, and critics in this country of Washington’s failed approach shouldn’t fall into the trap of also giving Cuba’s communist tyrants a pass for their behavior.

— By arrangement with LA Times-Washington Post

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