The Miracle of LifeStraw

It took us a while to learn about LifeStraw, a product made in Switzerland by the company Vestergaard Frandsen, “designed for the poorest”. This revolutionary straw, can filter about 1000 liters of water, enough for one person for a year. In the company’s own words, for 25€, you have “1000 liters of water in your pocket” with “99.99999 percent” of waterborne bacteria completely eliminated. It is complemented by the second invention of the Swiss company, LifeStraw Family, which can filter 18 000 liters of water, i.e. up to three years of water for a family of five.

The two products have already been distributed following natural disasters such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the 2011 Pakistani and Thai floods. This could be revolutionary in a world where an enormous part of the population lives in dry areas and where 780 million people still lack access to clean water and where still 3.4 million people die from water-related diseases every year.

With LifeStraw, the water is filtered through micro-organisms, which annihilate dirt, parasites and other pathogens. So far, it looks like it really works. It has been distributed in  several countries, since supposedly, each time a person buys a LifeStraw this impacts directly several countries, where the straw is then implemented. Nevertheless, some criticize it for being still too much expensive for developing countries.

Still, some international agencies, such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) or the World Health Organization, have referred to this filter while analyzing access to drinking water, and Time magazine referred to it as the “Best Invention of 2005”.

Evidently, LifeStraw is not yet able to resolve the necessity of implementing clean water worldwide. Still, there is no doubt that this could be life-changing for many people in the world, and we seriously hope it will work.

[We thank Frederico Zenóglio for giving us to know LifeStraw]

Old People Do Not Matter Anymore

We’ve surely witnessed the inevitability of ageing in our family circles. We hear our parents’ first complaints about the physical consequences of ageing, and we actually see those consequences in the bodies of our grandparents. Nevertheless, we rarely stop to think about the situation of old people (excluding of course, when we discuss pensions or hear about the increase of health expenditures due to the ageing of the populations).

The world population is ageing, and while there is absolutely no novelty in that, most people do not really realise what the “ageing of the population” really means. Over the last 50 years, life expectancy at birth in the European Union has rose by about 10 years for both women and men, reaching 82.4 and 76.4 years for women and men, respectively. In 2012 there were almost half a million people aged 90 + living in England and Wales, and in the United States the number is around 1.9 million. Although there are no statistics telling how many people over 95 there are in the world (odd thing by the way), the number will certainly keep on increasing. The chances we will reach 100 years old, if we have a healthy normal diet, practice sports and do not consume alcohol in excess, are huge.

But what comes with that?

Recently, The New Yorker  published a series of photographies showing the daily rituals of people over 90 years old. Inspired by Roger Angell’s article telling how his life was at ninety-three, the stories we learned about aroused in us feelings of guilt, feelings of hope and some anguish as well.

The number of people living in residential care homes is increasing and with that comes more loneliness, many times depression, and mostly, a huge amount of people with immense knowledges that are suddenly pushed to believe they are worth little.

Our society needs a brainwash. Everything in it leads us to behave in a way that excludes old people and to think that innovation is synonymous of youth. Old people are commonly discriminated at workplaces, and their chances of being laid off are certainly higher than their peers. We listen to the advice given of old people, and we are programmed to frame it almost always with paternalistic eyes.

While during the majority of History, old people were treated with respect, with admiration and almost glorification, our times contrast with ancient patterns, and the detachment towards the elder has never been greater.

Again, our society needs a brainwash.

But that is your problem, we will not meddle. After all, it’s you who will wash your mind, not us (in Gabriel O Pensador’s word, “mas isso é problema seu, eu não vou me meter, quem vai lavar a sua mente não sou eu, é você”).

Yoaní Sanchez

In 2012, Yoaní Sanchez was named one of the “10 Most Influential Ibero American Intellectuals” of the year by the Foreign Policy magazine. Before that, she had received many other honors and awards. Who is Yoaní Sanchez?

Yoaní is a Cuban of 38 years old who is a philologist who, as she herself describes, understood she did not want to be a philologist. She thus became one of Cuba’s most important bloggers by writing about the daily-life of the Cuban people.

After finishing her studies in philology, Yoaní realized that she considered the world of “intellectuals” too hypocritical. Then, she understood that people in Cuba were too badly paid and she decided to start working in tourism, which according to her, is the only sector that pays decently in the country. As she explains, many highly-qualified people in Cuba for long found it more lucrative to work as cab-drivers or as salesmen than doing what they were specialized in.

Tired of the Cuban repressive system, in 2002 she decided to leave Cuba and went to Switzerland. Eventually, she returned to Cuba in 2004 for personal reasons. Nevertheless, while in Switzerland she did the first steps that would lead to her success-story. She started to work in informatics, which she loved. Upon her return to Cuba, she founded a magazine of “reflection and debate”. In 2007, she founded the blog that would make her known, Generación Y [her blog can also be found in english here]. She describes the blog as “[…] a Blog inspired by people like me, with names that start with or contain a “Y”. Born in Cuba in the ’70s and ’80s, marked by schools in the countryside, Russian cartoons, illegal emigration and frustration.”. There, she tells the story of hers and other generations in Cuba, there she narrates the daily-lives of her fellow-compatriots.

As she explains, in the blog she can write what she cannot say out-loud. While not a blog of critic, it inevitably criticizes the choices of Castro’s regime. As she started to get recognition for her blogging in the international arena, her blog was blocked several times by the authorities in Cuba (knowing that internet is highly controlled). She was even abducted once, by men working for the government. Fortunately, she was able to keep on writing her articles by sending them by e-mail to friends outside Cuba who would publish the articles for her. Thus, millions of readers continued to connect to her site every month, which showed that what she was writing was worth reading.

In 2008, Yoaní received the Ortega y Gasset Prize for Journalism, and after that she was recognized as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” by Time magazine. The honors kept flowing for several years, as even Barack Obama recognized that Yoaní’s blog provided “[…] the world a unique window into the realities of daily life in Cuba.”.

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Until today, Yoaní continues to publish articles about the life in Cuba. One of her latest posts, “At Turtle Pace”, had a photo of a turtle which represents the regime, and said “At this rhythm, the Island [Cuba] will be rebaptized as the country of the “never ever”, where the clocks and the calendars will be prohibited […]”, showing that Cuba still has to walk a long walk…

[We thank Judith Lenzen for giving us to know Yoaní Sanchez.]

What is happening in the Central African Republic

Since the end of 2013 the international press has devoted a lot of attention to the Central African Republic. Many claim that it is currently the stage of an ethnic cleansing of the Muslim part of the population. After some reading we discovered that what is happening in the Central African Republic is quite complicated and is inherently linked to the country’s historic background.

The Central African Republic is a former French colony that, due to being landlocked, was never at the forefront of France’s interests. Nevertheless, the country is extremely rich in natural resources such as uranium, of which France is a great consumer, as well as diamonds, oil and gold. When it became independent in 1960, France had left little to no infrastructures that could be of use for the future of the country.

With independence came the first president, David Dacko, who quickly created a one-party State. His ruling did not last long as in 1965 Jean-Bedel Bokassa, his army commander, made a coup d’Etat backed by French forces. With a bankrupted State, Bokassa first proclaimed himself “President for life” and then “Emperor” of the “Central African Empire”, starting a brutal and eccentric ruling that would last until 1979. In 1979 came a backlash as David Dacko himself – supported by France – made a coup to dethrone Bokassa.

The Central African Republic continued to suffer from a series of coups, fraudulent elections and military rulings for years, which ultimately turned it into a failed State not able to provide for its population’s basic needs. Besides this, several rebel groups, driven by the most diverse motivations, have raided the country in the past decades.

The current crisis is the result of this history of instability and weakness of the State. In 2003, the country suffered another coup by François Bozizé, who would become Central African Republic’s president. Through fraudulent elections in 2005 and 2011, he was able to maintain himself in power, but with a corrupt government he was unable to do any good for his country. That is how the latest coup d’Etat and rebellion came to be.

Michel Djotodia, who had been part of the administration of the country, had also participated in several rebel groups. Then, in mid-2012, he founded the Séléka alliance, a coalition of several political parties and rebel forces that opposed the ruling of Bozizé. What is particular in this alliance is that it was mainly composed of Muslims (some of them being ex-rebels from Chad), in a country where almost 80% of the population is Christian.

Believing that pushing Bozizé out of power would be the best for the country, Djotodia and the Séléka alliance rapidly took control of part of the country. In March 2013, Djotodia was proclaiming himself President of the Central African Republic (the country’s first Muslim president), in the midst of international condemnation, and promising to integrate the rebels of the Séléka into his government.

However, the Séléka was a multi-faceted group, with members with different interests and aspirations. Not having anything else to fight for, or at least a common cause, many of the rebels started to attack villages, looting, killing and raping people. Since most of the population in the Central African Republic is christian, it seemed that Muslims were attacking Christians during the second half of 2013. Although Djotodia proclaimed that Séléka members should drop their weapons and proceed to peace, most of them no longer took orders from the President, and continued with the violences.

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This is how the Anti-Balaka militias took arms. These civil militias have existed since 2009 in the Central African Republic, as a means for the population to defend itself from aggressors. Yet, in 2013, they started to organize themselves to fight against Séléka members, something that ultimately degenerated into an open onslaught of the Muslim part of the population.

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All these conflicts have led to the displacement of at least 950,000 people. The State administration has not enough power to protect the people or put an end to the violence. In October 2013, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution allowing for a UN peacekeeping force to be deployed to the country, where French and African Union’s forces were already present, in order to try to pacify the situation. Eventually, Djotodia resigned in January 2014 giving way to an interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza.

Yet, the violence continues. Nevertheless, one should be careful while analyzing the conflict. It goes beyond an ethnic conflict. The Central African Republic was never known for having problems between its Christian and Muslim communities. Now, as it does, some say that international intervention should be careful to be impartial in this civil war. Privileging a group or another will be negative for any peaceful outcome. The violence against the Muslim community can become very problematic if Islamist movements start to take advantage from this; present in Nigeria and Chad, neighboring countries of the Central African Republic, they will be quick to gather new recruits for their cause.

Mostly, the international forces, specially French, must be ready to do the hard work that comes after peace: rebuilding a true State, able to enforce law and order and to provide for its population.

The two faces of Robert Mugabe

The President of Zimbabwe, Africa’s oldest dictator celebrated his 90th birthday this past Friday, the 21st of February, 2014, amid speculation that his health might be failing him.Advanced age and health issues have brought the topic of succession onto the table as it looks like the old despot is reaching the end of his reign, leaving the world with one less tyrant. But he was not always an oppressor, a dictator. There was a time where he was a liberator and a democrat that was worshipped as a hero.

Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born in what was then Rhodesia, one of the British Empire’s colonies. At age 10 his father abandoned him and he was raised by catholic missionaries. From catholic school, he went on to study at Fort Hare University, in South Africa, where roughly a decade later, a young Mandela would enrol. Much like Madiba, Mugabe came in contact with the African National Congress (ANC) while at Fort Hare and it was during that time that he became politically aware.

He undertook several of his seven degrees at Fort Hare before becoming a teacher in Ghana. Mugabe kept studying but longed for his home country, where a war for independence was brewing. He returned to Rhodesia as a political activist, fighting for civil rights and independence, a trade which earned him 10 years in prison for “subversive speech”.

Mugabe served his time and then left for Mozambique where he joined and then lead a guerilla against British backed Rhodesian prime-minister, Ian Smith. His men were called the ‘thinking man’s guerilla’, in a reference to his intellect. Truce finally came in 1979 and in 1980, through the Lancaster House agreement, Rhodesia became the Republic of Zimbabwe.

Mugabe rose to power to lead a Zimbabwean nation devastated by 15 years of civil war. He did so in coalition with Joshua Nkomo, leader of another guerilla that fought against Ian Smith. While in power he adopted a conciliatory stance on the white man: “If yesterday I fought you as an enemy, today you have become a friend”. He forgave and forgot, in the name of Zimbabwe, and invited blacks and whites to work together in the reconstruction of the country.

The principle was one of national reconciliation, as he called it, one that would then characterize Mandela ‘s policies in South Africa. For that he was nominated for the Nobel peace prize, along with Lord Carrington, the British Foreign Secretary with whom he worked. Unlike Madiba, roughly a decade later, he did not win.

This is where the similarity between Mugabe and Mandela ends, on their first term. Madiba served for just five years and then relinquished power, whereas Mugabe clang to it. Soon after his rise to power, Zimbabwe’s hero fell from grace as he and Nkomo started to drift apart. Eventually a rebellion began and Mugabe used his Fifth Brigade – trained in North Korea – to crush Nkomo’s guerrilla in an ethnic cleanse that left nearly 20,000 dead. He did so while expanding healthcare and education to the four corners of Zimbabwe, a feat that, combined with the country’s booming economy, was enough for the West to ignore the violence. In fact, despite the numerous accusations made against his regime, in 1994 he was knighted by the Queen of England. Yes, for a time he was Sir Robert Mugabe.

The West ignored the repression until it could ignore no more. Nearly two decades after Zimbabwe’s independence, unrest took to the streets, fuelled by a young generation that did not live through Mugabe’s fight against Britain. They did not acknowledge his heroic status and wanted a say in the country’s future. Protests were met with repression until Mugabe decided to appease the mob with patronage. He threw the “national reconciliation” principle that made him a success, through the window and went in a different direction. Mugabe confiscated acres and acres of land from white proprietaries and distributed them to landless blacks, disrupting a functioning and growing system. The results were devastating. In a few years, Zimbabwe’s economy shrank to half, its currency became a joke and life expectancy fell from 61 to 45.

The West, especially Britain, noticed when white citizens were being confiscated of their wealth and Mugabe was no longer a hero. In history’s narrative, he became a villain. His repressive nature became was now widely known throughout the world and there were repercussions. In 2008 he was stripped of the title he was given by the Queen, and his country has been sanctioned by the UN.

Mugabe has spent 34 of his 90 years in power and, at his age, he is serving a 7th term and considering an 8th. His health is not what it once was as he spent his 90th anniversary in Singapore, where he had surgery to remove cataracts from one of his eyes. That is the official version. The unofficial, supported by a leaked US cable, suggests he might have prostate cancer. Even so, when asked by a journalist about handing the country over, to the next generation, he replied with another question: “at this age I can still go one more, can’t I?”.

When the curtain finally closes on Robert Gabriel Mugabe’s life, we’ll have two sides of him. Mugabe the democrat, liberator and hero. Mugabe the despot, the killer and the tyrant. Despite the cruelty of his regime there still seem to be a few, mainly in his home country, who are willing to forget his latter years and remember him as a hero. I have my doubts. How should a man who elevated his country, only to put on its knees, be remembered?

What is happening in Venezuela?

Mass anti-government protests in Venezuela have gripped the country over the past two weeks, claiming 10 lives and injuring at least 100. Angry with President Maduro’s government, demonstrators have taken to the streets in what are the biggest protests since Chavez hand-picked successor was elected by a narrow margin last April. But why did the protests erupt in the first place, and where do things stand now?

The unrest kicked off on 12 February with a student-led rally on the streets of San Cristobal, in the state of Táchira (where Internet access has recently been cut by the government). Students started by demanding that the Maduro administration tackled safety concerns, following the sexual assault of a freshman student at ULA university. Despite attempts to crack down on crime, Venezuela has one of the highest crime rates in the world, with one person murdered every 21 minutes (the death business is thriving as a result of that).

The protest quickly turned violent, killing three people and escalating to other cities, including Valencia and the capital Caracas, where tear gas and rubber bullets have become the norm. Opposition leader Leopoldo López soon has become as the main face of the movement, especially since he turned himself in to the authorities this week. Maduro accused López of training gangs of youths to incite violence as part of a coup to bring down the government. Undeterred, the former mayor of Caracas’ Chacao district urged demonstrators to stay on the streets. The president has also threatened to imprison other opposition members and protest leaders, called the anti-government protests a “fascist coup plot” backed by the US and financed by Colombia’s former president Álvaro Uribe.

Crime is far from being the only problem in the deeply divided and oil-rich country. Inflation is at a startling 56% and the bolívar currency has devaluated drastically. And constant shortages of basic commodities such as sugar, flour, toilet paper and even newsprint paper, have added to the discontent (the government has accused distributors of leaving supermarket shelves empty as a way of fuelling unrest). Tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators appear to have had enough of empty promises and of the ineffective and authoritarian policies seemingly incapable of solving a series of crises. Their clashes with the state police and with colectivos, pro-government citizen militias, have turned some municipalities into authentic battlefields.

The government accuses distributors of orchestrating the shortages as part of an “economic war” to fuel unrest.

Another major issue and one of the opposition’s accusations is that the government’s worsening crackdown on free speech and freedom of the press. The government controls most of CANTV, the state-owned internet provider, which provides more than half of broadband connections in the country. That near-monopoly makes it very easy to block its citizens from uploading and viewing pictures on Twitter, for example, as it did last week.

“Venezuelan broadcast media showed very unflattering signs of self-censorship, restricting its transmissions to telenovelas, interviews with athletes or obligatory government messages, rather than live coverage of events in the streets,” David Smilde, a Caracas-based analyst with the Washington Office for Latin America, told the Financial Times.

On Friday, Venezuela revoked the accreditations of CNN reporters covering the country’s crisis for allegedly “fomenting violence”. A few days earlier, Bogotá-based cable news network NTN24 was taken off the air in Venezuela following coverage of anti-government demonstrations – just to name a couple of examples. One of the regime’s arguments is that reporting of violent acts could violate broadcasting law. Here’s a good summary of the situation. In the meantime, personal accounts of torture in the hands of the authorities have been picked up in several international publications.

So what happens now? As with other insurrections, it’s hard to predict an outcome. Judging by the tone of Maduro’s latest speeches, where he called the street demonstrations a “fascist plan” that he plans on eradicating “as one eradicates infection”, it seems unlikely that he will make concessions any time soon. But with public demonstrations now approaching their third week, it also looks like protesters won’t budge, even if structural change comes at a high price. While Maduro still holds a strong support base in the country, if he keeps crushing his opponents, be it citizens or politicians, that might fuel his people’s anger further.

George Orwell

Born in India, George Orwell, pseudonym of Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950), was an English novelist and one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century despite his small number of publications. As stated this documentary states, despite Orwell’s requests that there should be no biographies, countless writers tried to tell his story. 

In Orwell’s words, “what he had always most wanted to do was to make political writing into an art”. His object was not to promote a certain point of view, but to arrive at the truth; exposing the hypocrisy and injustice prevalent in society”. For that, he devoted his life to the understanding of inequalities and injustices. After studying at Eton, he attended the British Burmese civil service, where he definitely broke with the British Imperial Ideology by resigning in 1927. Later he would write an essay called Shooting the Elephant where he would said that “Theoretically and secretly of course, he was always for the Burmese and all against the oppressors, the British. As for the job he was doing he hated it more bitterly than he could perhaps make clear”.

Two years later, in the mid of the Great Depression, Orwell undertook another life changing experience in Wigan, and industrial town ravaged by unemployment and misery. His observations let to the publication of The Road to Wigan Pier where he described the real life conditions of the English working classes during the financial crash. Despite his close relationship with the Communist Party, in 1936, after volunteering to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell started to despise the extreme left wing. He was shot in the neck in 1937 and left Spain after writing the book Homage to Catalonia telling his experiences and criticising the inefficiency of the Communist Party.

He returned to England where he would die in 1950 at the age of 47, after writing his most celebrated pieces: Animal Farm in 1945, a satire novel telling the story of revolutions which go wrong, based primarily on the Russian revolution and on Stalin’s betrayal of the Bolshevik cause; and Nineteen Eighty-Four, a dystopian novel about the dangers of totalitarian rule, and immortalized by the phrase “Big Brother is watching you”.

You can discover more about him in the 2003 BBC documentary “George Orwell – A Life in Pictures” and in the George Orwell’s website.

Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea Unleashed by UN Report

A new United Nations report has found that crimes against humanity – with strong resemblances to those committed by the Nazis – are occurring in North Korea. Surly, suspicions of this have existed for decades, but this 400 pages report concludes that there is truly evidence of it and calls for an international court investigation.

“Only when I left North Korea I understood what life is supposed to be” said Ahn Myung-chul, a former prison guard among the 80 refugees who publicly testified before the UN Commission for Human Rights. Along these 80 refugees, more than 240 victims were also confidentially interviewed as they fear the consequences for their family members who are still in North Korea.  You can watch some of the testimonies in this Human Rights Watch video.

The UN report is written is extraordinary detail and reveals a gruesome list of cruelties occurring in the country’s political prison camps, which exist since 1953 following the signature of the ceasefire with South Korea. ‘Among the regime’s main targets are those who try to flee the country, political prisoners, Christians, and those promoting other “subversive beliefs”’.

The UN describes a totalitarian State, sustained by prison camps and by the fear of being guilt by association. Indeed, one who is accused of treason in North Korea sees his entire family condemned as the law of guilt by association extends to three generations of the defendant’s family. At the same time, public executions are standard procedures and as Lee Young-Kuk (Kim Jong-il’s  former personal bodyguard) “every North Korean has witnessed them. If family members or friends of the condemned cry at the execution, they are arrested on the spot and send to be executed.”

North Korea has evidently denied the UN’s accusations, it has refused to grant permission for the UN Commission to enter the country, and denied the existence of its kwanlliso, the political prison’s network. Sadly, China also refused to let the UN Commission visit its border with North Korea and continues to send back refugees who were able to escape to China.

Many think that this report changes very little. But as stated by The Economist this week, “Now the international community does know. There will be no excusing a failure of action because we didn’t know. It’s too long now. The suffering and the tears of the people of North Korea demand action.”

The story of the Children of the Creuse

For two decades now, France has been engaging in an interesting process of recognition of its past wrong-doings. It has so far adopted four very different “laws of memory” (Lois Mémorielles), one creating an offense for those denying the Holocaust, another one officially recognizing the Armenian genocide of 1915, another recognizing that slavery and the trade of slaves that started in the 15th century were crimes against humanity and a final one expressing the gratitude of France to those who were repatriated from the ex-colonies upon decolonization. These laws are important in the sense that France as an entity pays respects to several sad episodes of the past.

France is now moving towards the recognition of one of its crimes, which is something that is not easy to do. Between 1963 and 1982, at least 1 630 children from the Island of La Réunion, a French Overseas Department since 1946 (and a Region since 2003), were moved by the authorities to the metropole. Indeed, certain departments in France, such as the Creuse, the Tarn, the Gers or the Oriental Pyrenees, were suffering of lack of population due to the rural flight (or exodus). The children were thus meant to repopulate these departments and to create a greater workforce in those areas. They could be or not abandoned by their parents, but still, they became “wards of the State”, meaning that they were placed under the “parental” responsibility of the French State.

This was a terrible event. Indeed, many times the authorities promised the children’s parents that they would return briefly or better qualified, which never happened. Many of them never returned, and others had to wait for years to be able to do it. They were always separated from any of their siblings, and many times didn’t even know that their siblings could live just some kilometers away from them.

Today, those who were victims of these practices consider themselves as deported people.  Indeed, only in 2002 started the first complaints against the French State, and in particular against Michel Debré, the La Réunion member of Parliament who had allowed this to happen. Now all grown-up, the “children” accused France of forced deportation, kidnapping and roundup, some serious crimes.

After a long battle for making the public aware of their condition and for obtaining recognition, the “Children of the Creuse” (Enfants de la Creuse, as they are known), were recently able to convince politicians of the importance of their claim. Indeed, on the 18 of February 2014, the French National Assembly passed a resolution (which doesn’t have value of law) in which France affirms that it failed in its moral responsibility towards these children and demands the historic recognition of this event. This is far from making a consensus, since not all members of Parliament were willing to admit France’s misdeed. But it is already a step-forward for these now grown-up children.