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Imagine a World Without Seafood for Supper -- It's Nearer Than You Think
Translations available in: English (original) | French | Spanish | Italian | German | Portuguese | Swedish | Russian | Dutch | Arabic

By Andrew Purvis, The Observer UK:

As I step off the train at Heysel, the vast art deco structure of the Palais du Centenaire rises like a cathedral. With its four soaring buttresses topped by statues, the Palais forms the centrepiece of the Parc des Expositions in Brussels, Belgium - a trade-fair complex built in the 1930s to commemorate a century of independence from the Netherlands. This is the temporary home of thousands of fish products from around the world as 23,000 delegates descend from 80 countries for the annual European Seafood Exposition - the world's largest seafood trade show and a grim reminder of man's dominion over the oceans.

"If I wanted people to understand the global fishing crisis, I would bring them here," says Sally Bailey, a marine program officer with the World Wide Fund for Nature, one of the more moderate NGOs combating the exploitation of the seas. Last year, one of the more militant groups - Greenpeace - managed to "close down" five exhibitors trading in critically endangered bluefin tuna, by deploying 80 activists to drape their stands in fishing nets, chain themselves to fixtures and put up banners that read: "Time and tuna are running out".

Their main target was the Mitsubishi Corporation, the Japanese car manufacturer that is also the world's largest tuna trader, controlling 60% of the market and accounting for 40% of all bluefin tuna imported into Japan from the Mediterranean. The other companies were Dongwon Industries (Korea), Moon Marine (Taiwan/ Singapore), Azzopardi Fisheries (Malta) and Ricardo Fuentes & Sons (Spain).

The day I am there, Greenpeace activists are stalking EU fisheries ministers and waiting for a chance to unfurl their banners - but the security guards thwart them. However, the gargantuan catch on display speaks for itself. At the stand run by the Sea Wealth Frozen Food Company of Thailand, the shelves are groaning with jauntily designed packets of frozen squid, surimi (minced fish) dumplings, spring rolls, samosas and deep-fried cones with shrimp tails poking out of them. In the next aisle, a frenetic chef is wok-frying prawns from Madagascar, dipping them in little square dishes of cumin, coriander, chilli powder, salt, cinnamon and garlic. At the Taiwan Pavilion, the cabinets are full of chilled and frozen tilapia, barramundi, sushi, eel and vacuum packs of tobiko - orange flying-fish roe, salty, crunchy as granola and served by a young woman in national dress who literally has not heard of sustainability. "All the boats are out there catching fish with roe," she tells me. "With so many after the same species, this is a very difficult business for us."

These halls take several hours to negotiate, and the stands seemingly go on forever - 1,650 businesses in all, together peddling most of the 147m tonnes of seafood produced globally every year. Of this, 100m tonnes is caught in the wild while the rest is farmed to satisfy an insatiable demand. Already, 1.2bn people depend on fish in their diet - and in Europe we each consume 20kg per year on average, compared to 5kg per person in India. However, as the emergent middle classes in Asia develop a taste, and a budget, for seafood - considered a luxury item until now - demand will rocket further.

What the organizers must know, but are keeping mum about, is that the oceans are in a parlous state. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 70% of the world's fisheries are now fully exploited (ie, fished to the point where they can only just replenish themselves), overexploited or depleted. The majority of fish populations have been reduced by 70-95%, depending on the species, compared to the level they would be at if there were no fishing at all. In other words, only five per cent of fish are left in some cases. In more practical terms, fishermen are catching one or two fish per 100 hooks, compared to 10 fish per 100 hooks where a stock is healthy and unexploited - a measure of sustainability once used by the Japanese fleet. In England and Wales, we are landing one fish for every 20 that we landed in 1889, when government records began, despite having larger vessels, more sophisticated technology and trawl nets so vast and all-consuming that they are capable of containing 12 Boeing 747 aircraft.

Where have all those other fish gone? In short, we have eaten them. "Tens of thousands of bluefin tuna used to be caught in the North Sea every year," says Callum Roberts, professor of marine conservation at the University of York. "Now, there are none. Once, there were millions of skate - huge common skate, white skate, long-nosed skate - being landed from seas around the UK. The common skate is virtually extinct, the angel shark has gone. We have lost our marine megafauna as a consequence of exploitation."

Then there are the devastating effects of bottom trawling around our coasts, which began with the advent of the steam trawler 130 years ago. "Sweeping backwards and forwards across the seabed, they removed a whole carpet of invertebrates," Professor Roberts says, "such as corals, sponges, sea fans and seaweeds. On one map, dating from 1883, there is a huge area of the North Sea roughly the size of Wales, marked 'Oyster beds'. The last oysters were fished there commercially in the 1930s; the last live oyster was taken in the 1970s. We have altered the marine environment in a spectacular way."

Worse still, after stripping our own seas bare, we have "exported fishing capacity to the waters of developing countries", Professor Roberts warns. Off Mauritania, Senegal and other West African countries, fleets from the rich industrial north are "fishing in a totally unsustainable way with minimal oversight by European countries". In return for plundering the oceans, which deprives local people of food, and artisanal fishermen of their livelihood, these vessels pay minimal fees that impoverished countries are happy to accept. "It is a mining operation," Professor Roberts says, "a rerun of the exploitation of terrestrial wealth that happened in colonial days. This is colonialism in a new guise, albeit with a respectable cloak in the form of access agreements."

Such is the human feeding frenzy, there may come a time when there are no fish left to catch. In 2006, a study in the US journal Science warned that every single species we exploit would have collapsed by 2048 if populations continued to decline as they had since the 1950s. By 2003, nearly a third of all species had collapsed, the study found - meaning their numbers were down 90% or more on historic maximum catch levels. Extrapolate that on a graph, and the downward curve reaches 100% just before 2050.

That prognosis - now disputed - was based on a four-year study of fish populations, catch records and ocean ecosystems. "We really see the end of the line now," said the author Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, at the time. "It will be in our lifetime. Our children will see a world without seafood, if we do not change things." Many imagined a world where there would be no fish protein left to eat apart from jellyfish and marine algae.

What the study did not make sufficiently clear was that some fish populations had bounced back as a result of drastic measures by the authorities. In countries such as Iceland, Norway, the United States, New Zealand and Australia, fisheries management has been strengthened by controls that limit fishing effort (the number of boats out there, the time they spend at sea and the areas where they are allowed to fish). Another management approach, especially in Europe, is to control output (the amount of fish landed) using Total Allowable Catch quotas, or TACs. These are designed to maintain a stock's biomass - the estimated weight of fish left in the sea after fishing and natural deaths are taken into account. It should never be allowed to fall so low that a species is unable to spawn a healthy generation the following year.

Drawn up by scientists and organisations such as Ices (the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea), these quotas are discussed by fisheries ministers and fishermen at forums such as the EU. Both have vested interests, whether political or commercial. "If you put the fox in charge of the henhouse," Professor Roberts says, "decisions will be based on short-term constraints, such as paying the mortgage on the boat. Politicians, too, make choices that are beneficial to them or their constituents in the short term."

In other words, such gatherings often ride roughshod over the scientists' recommendations - as happened at a meeting of ICCAT (the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas) in Luxembourg in 2007, where quotas were being thrashed out for bluefin tuna from the Mediterranean. Scientists recommended an annual catch of 15,000 tonnes a year, with a preference for 10,000 tonnes - but EU ministers agreed a quota of 29,000 tonnes, enough to guarantee the collapse of the species. (Last year, quotas for 2009 were again set far higher than scientists were advising.)

In fact, the real amount of bluefin landed was 61,000 tonnes - four times what scientists had recommended - due to illegal and unreported fishing. Last month, the European Commission implemented a two-year control and inspection programme for bluefin tuna fisheries in seven Mediterranean countries, to clamp down on things such as illegal spotter planes used to track down tuna schools. Globally, black-market fishing is worth US$25bn (£17bn) a year. In Europe, 50% of the cod we eat has been caught illegally.

Those figures, and the Luxembourg debacle, are recorded in The End of the Line - the documentary, based on Charles Clover's book of that name, to be screened in UK cinemas from 8 June. However, the blatant disregard for science it portrays is not an isolated case. "We have analysed the decision-making of European fisheries ministers over the past 20 years," says Professor Roberts, "and systematically, year on year, they have set quotas that are 25 to 35% higher than the levels recommended by scientists."

How can our politicians get away with it? "There is no obligation upon them to take scientific advice," Professor Roberts explains. "What they will tell you is that it is only one of the things they have to consider. While they might be protecting a fisherman's livelihood in the term of one or two years, short-term decision-making like that guarantees stock collapse. It is not just a possibility, it is a certainty. The only uncertainty is how long it will take."

According to Professor Roberts: "What politicians should be deciding is how the catch is allocated within different nations. That is politics. What they shouldn't be deciding is how big the catch should be in the first place. That is science."

In Norway and the US, "they respect the advice of scientists", he adds - the best example being New England, where stocks of ground fish were in serious decline in the mid-1990s, but enlightened management brought them back. "At Georges Bank, they created a closed area of 20,000 square kilometres that was off-limits to mobile fishing gear [such as trawl nets]," Professor Roberts explains. They also cut fishing effort by a draconian 50% - putting many fishermen out of business. In the past 10 years, however, there has been "a spectacular recovery" of key economic species, Roberts says. "The haddock has bounced back, the flounder has bounced back, the scallops have bounced back, so it has been a great success story."

What this demonstrates is that, where there is political will, the tide can be turned on overfishing. In the US, a piece of 1976 legislation called the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act has recently been reauthorised, requiring the industry to end overfishing in all federal waters by 2011. There is no such legislation in Europe. Under the existing Act, fisheries in Alaska and the North Pacific are already well managed - which is why wild Pacific salmon, Pacific cod and pollock from Alaska were prime candidates for certification by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the international NGO that created a standard for sustainable fisheries in the late 1990s and upholds it. Why do these US fisheries tick all the boxes?

"They have very progressive management under the North Pacific Fishery Management Council," Professor Roberts says, "with precautionary targets - so they go for a relatively low fraction of the fish population each year. They have closures to protect habitats and valued species such as Steller sea lions and sea otters [which can get caught in fishing gear] plus extensive areas that are closed to protect deep-water corals from destruction by bottom trawling."The authorities also impose quotas for bycatch - other species caught by mistake - to protect them from exploitation.

These are the kinds of issues the MSC is looking at when certifying fisheries. So far, 43 have been certified, including 10 in Britain, while more than 100 are under assessment - but what exactly does that mean? "Right from the start, the idea was that fisheries would be independently assessed by a third party," says James Simpson, communications officer at the MSC, "so although we set the standard, we don't carry out the assessments. That is important, because it means we don't have any influence over the results."

Instead, marine scientists from certifying bodies such as Food Certification International and Moody Marine do the work, delving into every aspect of sustainability and producing a report up to 900 pages long. "They look at stock levels, based on historical records," says Simpson, "at the impact fishing is having on the environment and at the management plan for the fishery."

A score of 80 or more must be achieved against each of these three criteria for a fishery to be certified.

The initial assessment is peer-reviewed by fellow scientists, stakeholders such as environmental groups have their say - and the fishery gets to carry the eco-label on its products. "To do that, you have to be able to trace the fish all the way through the supply chain," says Simpson, "because you don't want any non-certified species or illegally caught fish slipping into an MSC batch."

The science may be rigorous, but will the MSC label change the world?

With some species, the label is making a big difference: 42% of the world's wild salmon catch is MSC-certified, and 40% of its prime white fish catch. Altogether, five million tonnes of seafood are certified by the MSC every year.

However, that is just five per cent of the wild-caught seafood market, which is why Professor Roberts believes the label itself "can only change a small number of well-informed people who actually care". The big effect, he says, is that supermarkets "have taken on board what the MSC is saying and have developed better fish sourcing policies of their own. They are the ones who can buy or not buy from a particular supplier, so they have a lot of power."

Sainsbury's - the largest retailer of MSC-certified seafood in the UK - has pledged that, by the end of 2010, it will source 80% of its seafood from MSC-certified fisheries or from the "green list" of species approved by the Marine Conservation Society. Marks & Spencer has promised that, by 2012, all its seafood will be either MSC-certified or from other independently certified fisheries. In May, it will launch a new range of prepared meals for outdoor eating and barbecues, based around gurnard, John Dory and black bream. Caught in season in British waters, these are a more sustainable choice than the "Big Five" overfished species - the cod, haddock, prawns, tuna and plaice that account for 80% of all seafood sold in Britain. If we take the pressure off these overexploited stocks, they will hopefully recover.

However, the MSC programme is about far more than shopping. In Europe, the growing number of certified fisheries has transformed the mood of EU fishing negotiations. The Dutch based Pelagic Freezer-Trawler Association (PFA) was the first North Sea herring fishery to be MSC-certified in May 2006, and the Swedish, Danish and Scottish herring fleets followed. Their representatives meet regularly in Brussels to talk about fisheries management. "All the major herring players in Europe are MSC-certified or under assessment," says Gerard van Balsfoort, president of the PFA, "and this has led to a certain kind of behaviour in the advisory process. From the point of view of stocks, you can't just ask for a higher quota if it isn't scientifically based. You can't just shout for what you want. "

In the seas around South Georgia - a remote Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom 1,300km from the Falkland Islands - the Patagonian toothfish fishery was required by MSC certifiers to initiate research that would locate deep-coral areas vulnerable to damage by trawl gear. If such areas were found, efforts to protect them "should be considered", the certifiers said. In fact, the fishery went further. It identified three deep-coral areas that needed protecting and closed them to fishing vessels entirely. That way, fish and fragile habitats would have a chance to recover.

In South Africa and New Zealand, too, MSC-certified fisheries (for hake and hoki respectively) have helped create Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) where trawling is banned, either by funding research or by lobbying the government. In New Zealand, 30% of the Exclusive Economic Zone - an area extending 220 miles out to sea over which it has rights - has been closed with fishing industry approval.

Such closures could provide the answer to the fishing crisis, allowing our children and our grandchildren to eat fish with a clear conscience. In Iceland, Canada and the US, the creation of MPAs "has brought real increases in fish populations and real recovery of seabed habitats", Professor Roberts reports. "Populations of exploited species have increased five-, 10- or even 20-fold within five, 10 or 20 years," he says. "What you see is the flourishing of life."

Over time, this explosion of fecundity spreads to other parts of the ocean. "The benefits of protection flow to the surrounding fishing grounds through the emigration of animals from protected areas, and the export of their offspring on ocean currents," Professor Roberts says. "The eggs and larvae of these protected animals are transported to fishing grounds and can replenish them."

In his view, 30% of the world's oceans should be protected "to set the clock back 200 years" and reverse the fishing crisis. After that, responsible fisheries management "in the North Pacific mould" could avert the 2048 scenario. The trouble is, only 0.8% of the oceans are currently closed to fishing - despite the efforts of former President George W Bush, who "single-handedly created MPAs, dotted throughout the Pacific Ocean, which now constitute 31% of all MPAs worldwide", Professor Roberts says.

In Britain, too, MPAs are seen as part of the solution. The Marine Bill is grinding its way through Parliament, with a provision to create MPAs in territorial waters up to 12 nautical miles from our coast. Britain and Europe have pledged to create networks of MPAs by 2012.

Far from campaigning for a total ban on fishing, Professor Roberts believes it should be allowed. If properly regulated, it will increase global fish production rather than decimate it. "Fisheries science suggests that a species is healthiest when you reduce its population size by 50%," he says. "That way, you remove the larger, older, slower-growing animals and the population becomes dominated by smaller, faster-growing fish. For them, the availability of food increases and they thrive. That gives you a boost in population growth rate, which gives you a higher rate of production to exploit."

Perversely, fishing could swamp the world with fish protein rather than starve it - but it has to be done differently. "We should abandon quotas," Professor Roberts believes, limiting fishing effort rather than output. "If you're not out there catching fish, they're not going to die." At present, EU vessels that exceed their quota have to dump fish overboard dead, rather than land it illegally. "You've got one or two times as many fish being killed and discarded, sometimes, as are being landed," Professor Roberts says. "That is no way to manage a fishery; that is not sensible at all. You have to land all your catch."

Reforms such as this will require "a major change of political direction on this side of the Atlantic", Professor Roberts warns - "but if we have that, we can turn back the clock within 20 years, to the point where a lot of species are in a far more productive state. None of this is rocket science. Perhaps we need good old George W Bush back... the world's greatest marine conservationist!"

April 29, 2009


April 29, 2009 | 4:17 PM Comments  {num} comments


Gestures that are impressive
Translations available in: English (original) | French | Spanish | Italian | German | Portuguese | Swedish | Russian | Dutch | Arabic

Reflections of Fidel

I confess that I have meditated many times on the dramatic history of John F. Kennedy. It so happened that I experienced the period during which he was the greatest and most dangerous adversary of the Revolution. That was something which was not within his calculations. He saw himself as the representative pf a new generation of Americans confronting the old and dirty politics of men in the mold of Nixon and had defeated him with a feast of political talent.

He was endorsed by his history as a combatant in the Pacific and his agile pen. He was bound by his predecessors to the Bay of Pigs adventure by trusting too much, given that he did not doubt their experience and professional capacity. His failure was bitter and unexpected, barely three months after his investiture. Although he was at the point of attacking the island with his country’s powerful and sophisticated weapons, on that occasion he did not do what Nixon would have done: deploy hunter bombers and send in the Marines. Rivers of blood would have run in our homeland, where hundreds of thousands of combatants were prepared to die. He controlled himself and came out with an immortal phrase that is not easy to forget: "Victory has many fathers, defeat is an orphan."

His life continued to be dramatic, like a shadow that constantly accompanied him. Wounded pride won out and once again he was dragged into the idea of invading us. This brought the October [Missile] Crisis and the gravest risk of a thermonuclear war that the world has known to date. He emerged as an authority from that test thanks to the errors of his principal adversary. He wanted to talk seriously with Cuba and decided to do just that. He sent Jean Daniel to talk with me and return to Washington. He was fulfilling that mission at the moment when the news arrived of the assassination of President Kennedy. His death and the strange form in which it was programmed and executed was genuinely sad.

Later, I met close family members of his who visited Cuba. I never commented on the disagreeable aspects of his policy against our country, nor made any allusion whatsoever to attempts to take my life. I met his own son, as an adult, who was a little boy when his father was president of the United States. We conversed like friends. He died too, in a sad and tragic accident. Kennedy’s own brother was also assassinated, thus multiplying the dramatic quality which accompanied that family.

So many years later, news has arrived of a gesture that is impressive.

In these days during which so much has been said about the prolonged and unjust blockade of Cuba in the elevated spheres of the countries of the continent, I read a piece of news in La Jornada of Mexico: "At the end of 1963, the then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy sought to repeal the ban on travel to Cuba and now his daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, has stated that President Barack Obama should take that into account and support initiatives to allow all U.S. citizens free transit to the island.

"In documents declassified by the National Security Archive’s research center, it is recorded that on December 12, 1963, less than one month after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy sent a communiqué to Secretary of State Dean Rusk urging that regulations prohibiting travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba should be withdrawn…

"Robert Kennedy argued that the ban violated American liberties. According to the document, he affirmed that the existing restrictions on travel are inconsistent with traditional American liberties.

"…That position did not win the argument within the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, and the State Department stated that suspending the restrictions would be perceived as a weakening of the policy toward Cuba and that they were part pf a joint effort on the part of the United States and other American republics to isolate Cuba.

"In an opinion piece by Kathleen Kennedy published today in the Washington Post, Robert’s daughter expressed her desire that her father’s position be adopted by the Barack Obama government, and that this should be the position promoted by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., while the Obama government considers its next step with Cuba, which should be to move beyond only allowing Cuban Americans to travel freely to the island and to address the rights of all U.S. citizens, the majority of whom do not have the freedom to go there. "Kathleen Kennedy writes that, as Obama learnt in last weekend’s summit, Latin American leaders have adopted a coordinated message on Cuba: this is the moment to normalize relations with Havana… In continuing to trying to isolate Cuba, they essentially told Obama, Washington has only succeeded in isolating itself.

"Thus, the niece of the president who attempted to invade and defeat the revolutionary Cuban government and impose the blockade, has now joined the constantly expanding chorus in favor of reversing those policies established half a century ago."

An honorable article from Kathleen Kennedy!

Fidel Castro Ruz
April 24, 2009
1:17 p.m.

Translated by Granma International

April 28, 2009 | 9:14 AM Comments  {num} comments

Don't Give Salvia the Reefer Madness Treatment
Translations available in: English (original) | French | Spanish | Italian | German | Portuguese | Swedish | Russian | Dutch | Arabic

By Grant Smith:

Move over marijuana. There's a new media sensation.

You've probably heard about it by now. Once known only to a remote tribe of native Mexicans, salvia divinorum is a psychoactive plant that has made its way on to the Internet and into the minds of panicked lawmakers in state legislatures across the country that have moved to ban its possession. In some ways, the whirlwind of worry that has greeted the recent emergence of salvia is similar to the sweeping prohibition of marijuana in the 1930s.

Just as was the case with marijuana, the federal government has opted not to regulate the sale and distribution of salvia divinorum. Without proper age and place restrictions on its sale, salvia became easily accessible to minors on the Internet. In turn, young adults posted videos that demonstrated the psychoactive qualities of salvia on YouTube and other popular websites. Then the media caught wind of the YouTube videos, which got the attention of state legislators. Today, twelve states have banned salvia's possession. And many more are looking to ban the drug this year.

If history can teach us a lesson about what is effective in terms of regulating drug use and limiting access of a drug to minors, our country's fruitless attempt to suppress marijuana consumption is key to understanding why banning salvia outright is the wrong approach to take. Before the 1930s, the sale and distribution of marijuana was legal in most states. Marijuana prohibition took off thanks in large part to media hysteria. State legislators took cues from the media that marijuana's psychoactive abilities caused users to transform into violent and deranged zombies. Southern states began banning marijuana because they feared that the impoverished and oppressed would rise up under its spell and spoil things for those who maintained a tight grip on society.

Decades later, marijuana is no less available to young people than it was when it was first banned by the federal government in 1937. Neither the federal or state governments have yet to bring the illegal marijuana trade under control by seeking to restrict the sale of marijuana to adults and regulate the time, place and manner of sale. Young adults continue to report that it is much easier to buy marijuana than it is to obtain alcohol or cigarettes.

Outright prohibition of salvia divinorum would waste an opportunity to get formal control over the sale and consumption of the drug. Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and nine other states are currently weighing whether to ban salvia the same way that it is a crime to possess or sell marijuana. Banning salvia would force the visible market to seek shelter in the shadows, making it impossible for the state to achieve its goal of controlling the drug. Furthermore, criminalizing salvia would further strain police resources and the prosecution of salvia law offenders would burn through scarce tax dollars. Researchers also warn than state bans on the drug would hinder ongoing medical research into potential therapeutic benefits of salvia.

The alternative to banning salvia is effective regulation and control of the drug. Such an approach would criminalize salvia sales to minors, and formally regulate and tax adult sales. Regulating salvia not only keeps the market visible, but also generates sorely needed tax revenue. California and Maine have wisely adopted this approach; legislators in Texas andHawaii are considering similar proposals.

Regulating salvia divinorum is the best way to keep the drug out of the hands of children. To be sure, salvia use by minors is both inappropriate and a bad idea. While no one has ever died or overdosed from consuming salvia, the drug's ability to alter consciousness and mood does not complement a young person's emotional naiveté, in the same way that society recognizes that minors are often ill equipped to deal responsibly with the mind altering qualities of alcohol. Yet, the notion that adults seek to alter mood and consciousness is well accepted in our society. Whether through booze, earnest meditation, prayerful revelation or diving to the bottom of the pool and catapulting to the surface, adults seek ways to alter consciousness. Salvia divinorum offers adults another route towards achieving this goal.

We can’t ignore mistakes made in our nation’s past. When lawmakers unleashed marijuana prohibition on the nation in the 1930s, seven decades of a disastrous war on drugs followed. Salvia divinorum may be the new drug on the scene, but that doesn’t mean that lawmakers have no other option but to give salvia divinorum the reefer madness treatment. Keeping salvia legal for adults like alcohol is the smart approach. Don't rush to incarcerate more Americans, and let's refrain from duplicating our disastrous marijuana policy.

April 23, 2009


Grant Smith is a legislative associate at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)

April 27, 2009 | 4:19 AM Comments  {num} comments

When Politics Disappoints, the Young Turn to Allen Ginsberg
Translations available in: English (original) | French | Spanish | Italian | German | Portuguese | Swedish | Russian | Dutch | Arabic

By Marlene Nadle:

Chasing the ghost of Allen Ginsberg takes a lot more energy than following his mentor Walt Whitman. Whitman just loafed and leaned observing life. Ginsberg danced and chanted his way around the world.

His bass voice in full throb, his brass finger cymbals always handy, he rushed in front of the Peace Eye Bookstore to calm East Village toughs. He intoned besides the grave of Senator Joe McCarthy to sweeten the karma.

Posthumously, he became a kinetic talisman for those seeking someone to believe in. He embodied and previewed the yearning Obama rode to the White House. Now, when the man from Illinois disappoints, many of the young are again seeking Ginsberg and his exuberant purity.

His spirit was invoked in the Bowery Poetry Cub, a scruffy, card-table-chair space in New York. Matvei Yankelevich, a poet in his twenties who looked half East European, half Midwestern and whose hair stood up and lay down in unusual places, was about to read "Howl" in Russian. He ruffled the loose pages of Cyrillic splayed on a music stand, the verses that Ginsberg endlessly revised in his Berkeley apartment during the fall of 1955. The dim light glinting off his glasses, with only the slightest accent and awkwardness, he said, "I will not begin with the first section of "Howl. It's very familiar to you." He was right. The first line, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness," became part of America when "Howl " was discovered in small towns across the country. Then, as now it spoke to those tired of compromises, stifled by the blandness, conformity, war mentality and sense of threat, the corporate culture that made Ginsberg pity those "who were burned alive in innocent flannel suits."

Ed Sanders, the former owner of the Peace Eye Bookstore and the mimeograph machine that fueled much of the sixties cultural revolution, said the poem changed his life. In his Missouri shop class, he wood-burned the first line into a spice rack, woke his parents to read it to them, and, when they couldn't take it anymore, shouted the verses to the cows.

The audience at the Bowery was more attentive as Yankelevich began reciting. His slight frame swelled and deflated with the rhythm of the long lines, the cadences of compassion for the crazed Carl Solomon locked away in Rockland, the name Rockland repeating like an indictment through the Russian syllables spilled before the navy backdrop.

When he eased off the stage, he joined some converts to the frail remnants of the counter culture. Gesturing towards his friends, , he said, "They have a certain nostalgia for Ginsberg." Then with an edge of impatience at their limitations added, "Nostalgia is a lazy emotion. It is not enough." He was channeling the poet. Ginsberg always criticized the hippies because, after their LSD trips, they didn't take care of the thousand details needed to change the world. He always took care of the details. In his E.10th Street tenement, beneath a tapestry of a fire-spitting dragon, he sat barefoot on a pallet surrounded by a phone, Rolodex, press releases, and the latest people bringing their cause to Utopia Central. His operating style was an equal blend of the formidable marketing skills he picked up as an advertising man selling Welch's grape juice and a Buddhist vision of a joyous, humane, peaceful universe.

Now, some from Yankelevich's generation, searching for traces of the poet's radiant ideals, for the authenticity and candor so rarely found in the world they knew, or expect in Obama's Washington, are knocking at the door of the Ginsberg Trust.. In a corner of what was the poet's last New York apartment, Bob Rosenthal, the plump, good-natured man who was his assistant for 20 years, often comforted those feeling the past decade has been too hollow, too hard. "You know," he explained, sagging in his chair besides a desk that was a chaos of books,"people keep asking me, 'What would Allen do now? What would Allen say now?" He sends them back to the writing for answers. "I think the truth of the poems hold up. Amiri Baraka did a reading of "Howl" last year substituting the name of Bush for Moloch. It read beautifully," he assured as the phrases floating on the air became, " Bush whose eyes are a thousand blind windows...Bush who has frightened me out of my natural ecstasy."

The doorbell kept ringing and bringing more seekers. Rosenthal welcomed them with a rapid, easy flow of words like a spigot that could go on forever, chuckling over memories and unwilling to let go. He mentioned the film independents are making about "Howl." Gave an impromptu tour past the place where Ginsberg's small oak organ had been. Pulled out photos of the poet in Prague wearing the paper crown of the King of May and being driven through the streets in a rose-covered chariot.

Looking at the pictures he said softly, " That public role cost him. " He paused and in the pause was the weight of all the needs people put on Ginsberg during his life, during the Bush presidency, and now when Obama seems all cautious calculation.

In the past, Bill Talen was one of many who had written the poet for guidance and gotten back a letter full of personal and political advice. As an overreaching, 20-year-old wanting to be Ginsberg, he had taken to the stage of an East Village church to recite "Howl" from memory and do an interpretive dance. Still probably wanting to be Ginsberg, he continues to grab the stage at St. Mark's as performance artist Reverend Billy. One evening he was busy converting "Howl's line, "Moloch whose blood is running money," into the Church Of Stop Shopping. With a gospel choir behind him, wearing white minister's vestments, blond hair pomaded into perfect immobility, hands raised to heaven warning of the coming shop-apocalypse, he strutted to the beat of the singers rocking the room with the poet's credo-"I'm telling you my imagination is not for sale. Not for sale." The male lead boomed it as the clapping mounted and the choir echoed back, "I'm burning with the justice ghost." Reverend Billy kept shouting, "Give me justice children," and, like Ginsberg, kept trying to make America more than just getting and spending.

Others turning the poet into their ghostly exemplar can find his needed spirit in many of the blocks surrounding of St. Mark's. He can still be seen as a beaming red ,white, and blue mystic wearing an Uncle Sam's hat in a mural on Avenue C. He can be found in neighborhood memories of him having breakfasts of toast and coca cola or trying to convince the anarchists not to call the yuppies "scum." He is most present in Thompkins Square Park where the tree planted for him stands all light-shimmer, and, in a rush of wind, dancing.

April 25, 2009


April 26, 2009 | 11:51 AM Comments  {num} comments

Pontius Pilate washed his hands
Related to country: Cuba

Translations available in: English (original) | French | Spanish | Italian | German | Portuguese | Swedish | Russian | Dutch | Arabic

Reflections of Fidel

SO great was the pressure against the U.S. blockade of Cuba that, on the day that Raúl categorically declared that our country would not enter the OAS, the secretary of that discredited institution began to prepare the ground for Cuba’s participation in a possible future Summit of the Americas. His prescription is to repeal the resolution that decided the island’s expulsion, for ideological reasons.

Such an argument is truly laughable, when important countries like China and Vietnam, which the current world cannot do without, are led by Communist Parties that were created on the same ideological bases.

Historical facts demonstrate the hegemonic policies of the United States in our region and the repugnant role of the OAS as an odious instrument of that powerful country.

Insulza’s formula is to erase the criminal agreement from the map. Raúl declared in Cumaná that Cuba would never rejoin the OAS. Using an immortal phrase of Martí he affirmed that, first: "the sea of the South will join with the sea of the North, and a serpent will be born from the egg of an eagle."

On that same occasion, in response to a supposed gesture from Obama, who offered to talk with Cuba on democracy and human rights, he [Raúl] replied that the government of Cuba was disposed to discuss any issue on the basis of the most absolute respect for the equality and sovereignty of both countries. Our people are perfectly well aware of the significance and dignity of those words.

Among Obama’s public demands is the release of those sentenced to imprisonment on account of their traitorous services to the United States which, has been attacking and blockading our homeland throughout half a century.

Raúl declared that Cuba was prepared to exercise clemency if the United States would receive them and release the five Cuban anti-terrorist heroes.

However, both the government of the United States and the gusanera (traitors in self-imposed exile) within and outside of Cuba have reacted with all kinds of arrogance.

The AP and some other news agencies have insinuated divisions in the heart of the revolutionary leadership.

According to AP, "A leading human rights activist says most of Cuba's 200 or more political prisoners would rather serve out long terms on the island than be part of an exchange for five communist agents imprisoned in the U.S., as Cuban President Raul Castro has suggested.

"It's nearly unanimous among the prisoners that they not be exchanged for military men arrested red-handed in espionage activities in the United States," said the agency, invoking the head of the ill-named Cuban Commission for Human Rights and Reconciliation. One would have to see whom they are now describing with that concept. Pope John Paul II did not distinguish between political and common prisoners when he visited Cuba and asked for clemency for a number of them. In reality, most of the people labeled common prisoners in the United States are – as a rule – the poorest and most discriminated against.

"But Obama – the AP goes on to say – could suffer serious political fallout if he agreed to swap the so-called Cuban Five — communist agents who were convicted of espionage in Miami in 2001. The ringleader was implicated in the death of four exiles killed when Cuban military fighters shot their planes down off the island's coast in 1996." Does that cable by any chance constitute a threat to the president of the United States?

The presumed mercenary leader was a member of a micro-faction, he came from the youth wing of the old Communist Party and later joined the new Party created by the Revolution. When we saw the need to differ with the USSR over the incorrect decision to negotiate an agreement with the United States on the October [Missile] Crisis without prior consultation with our country, the subject became an enemy of the Revolution. He served the superpower throughout the entire Bush mandate. Now he is affording himself the luxury of being an instrument for threatening Obama.

The AP does not say one word about the life sentences handed down in rigged trials to the five heroes, the lies elaborated with the complicity of the authorities, the cruel treatment that they have received, and many other facts related to the case. Those are the calumnies published in much of the world media.

When the health of any one of the mercenaries required it, the government of Cuba has never failed to exercise clemency, without the United States demanding it.

On the other hand, the government of Cuba has never practiced torture; that is a fact acknowledged by the world. The president of Cuba cannot order the assassination of an opponent. Has the new president of the United States condemned that odious practice? If he does so, believe me that I will not hesitate in acknowledging the impression of sincerity that he initially gave all of us.

Tomorrow we are meeting again with Daniel. In less time than the hours he had to wait in the LACSA plane in Port of Spain under the intense heat of the Tropics, the Cuban aircraft will transport him to his beloved homeland.

Fidel Castro Ruz
April 23, 2009
2:54 p.m.


April 25, 2009 | 9:23 AM Comments  {num} comments


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