Archive for the ‘Topics’ Category


Preparing to Pass the Torch

Written on December 21, 2012 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Americas, Culture & Society, Democracy & Human Rights

Seriously ill, Hugo Chávez names Nicolás Maduro as his successor on the eve of an election for state governors.

When campaigning for a new six-year term earlier this year, Hugo Chávez tried to persuade Venezuelans that he was cured of unspecified “pelvic” cancer, first diagnosed in June 2011. “I’ve forgotten all about that,” he bragged, just days before the election on October 7th, which he won with 55% of the vote. He then disappeared from view, except for an occasional, carefully staged broadcast. But on November 27th he left for medical treatment in Havana, returning briefly last weekend with a very different story—one that would seem to presage his imminent retirement from his country’s politics, and perhaps from life itself.

“It is absolutely imperative that I undergo surgery in the next few days,” a sombre Mr Chávez said in a broadcast address to the nation late on December 8th. Tests had shown that “malignant cells [had] reappeared” where tumours had twice before been removed. For the first time he spoke of the need to anticipate “any unforeseen circumstance” that might prevent him from continuing as president. In an apparent desire to forestall jockeying for the succession, he named his vice-president and foreign minister as his political heir. “My firm, full—like the moon is full—absolute and total opinion…is that you should elect Nicolás Maduro as president of the republic,” he declared, before swiftly returning to Havana.

Mr Chávez underwent a six-hour operation on December 11th, which a grim-faced Mr Maduro said was “successful” but “complex, difficult and delicate”. Mr Chávez’s new term does not officially begin until January 10th. Whether he will be fit enough for the inauguration is unclear. Should the president die or be permanently unable to do the job at any point in the first four years of his term, the constitution says that a fresh election should be held within 30 days. Read more…

As published in on December 15, 2012 (from the print edition).


By Kenneth M. Pollack

Most Americans know Niccolò Machiavelli only from The Prince, a sixteenth-century “audition tape” he dashed off in lieu of a résumé to try to land a job. It’s a shame. Not only was Machiavelli the leading advocate of democracy of his day, but his ideas also had a profound influence on the framers of our own Constitution.

It’s even more of a shame because the corpus of Machiavelli’s remarkable work on democracy, politics and international relations is easily the best guide to understanding the dynamics at play in contemporary Iraq and its situation within the wider Middle East.

Iraq today is a place that Machiavelli would have understood well. It is a weak state, riven by factions, with an embryonic democratic system increasingly undermined from within and without. It is encircled by a combination of equally weak and fragmented Arab states as well as powerful non-Arab neighbors seeking to dominate or even subjugate it. Iraq’s democratic form persists, but its weakness, combined with internal and external threats, seems more likely to drive it toward either renewed autocracy or renewed chaos. It cries out for a leader of great ability and great virtue to vanquish all of these monsters and restore it to the democratic path it had started down in 2008–2009.

That course seems less and less likely with each passing month, and it may take a true Machiavellian prince—one strong and cunning enough to secure the power of the state but foresighted enough to foster a democracy as the only recipe for true stability—to achieve it. Unfortunately, in all of human history, such figures have been rare. It is unclear whether Iraq possesses such a leader, but the reemergence of its old political culture as America’s role ebbs makes it ever less likely that such a remarkable figure could emerge to save Iraq from itself. Read more…

Kenneth M. Pollack, a contributing editor to The National Interest, is a Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies and the Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is coauthor of the new report,“Unfinished Business: An American Strategy for Iraq Moving Forward.”

As published by The National Interest (Nov-Dec 2012 Print Edition).


Egypt and Tunisia aren’t sliding into chaos – they are simply learning how to be democracies.

By Olivier Roy

Egyptian opposition supporters shout slogans as they gather outside the Presidential Palace in Cairo on 11 December 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

In Tunisia, as in Egypt, the Islamists who came to power through the ballot box are seeing their popularity erode and are tempted to hold on to power by recourse to authoritarian measures. But they have to deal with the legacy of the Arab spring. They face a new political culture: now, one where people who disagree with the government take to the streets; where there is no reverence for established power and the army and the police no longer inspire fear.

The Islamists are obliged to search for allies, as they control neither the army nor the religious sphere. And if they are able to find allies among the Salafists – the religious conservatives – and the military, these two groups are nevertheless not prepared to allow them to become dominant. The Islamists have to negotiate. There is a classical logic of power at work here: the dominant political group finds it hard to accept that power could change hands and so seeks to preserve its position by any means necessary. Moreover, there is no revolutionary dynamic among the populace that would allow it to prevail by appealing to sentiment in the street.

It is interesting to consider the precise nature of this authoritarian turn because it bears little resemblance to the “Islamic revolution” often associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and al-Nahda, the Renaissance Party, in Tunisia. It is, on the contrary, a conservative and paradoxically pro-western “counter-revolution”. Consider Egypt. If the president, Mohamed Morsi, is denounced in Tahrir Square as the new Mubarak (and not the new Khomeini), it is because his opponents have grasped that his aim is to establish an authoritarian regime using classical means (appealing to the army and controlling the apparatus of the state).

The electoral and social base of the Egyptian regime is not revolutionary. Instead of trying to reach a compromise with the principal actors of the Arab spring, Morsi is attempting to get all the supporters of the new order on his side. The coalition he is building is based on business, the army, the Salafists and those elements of the “people” that are supposedly tired of anarchy. Read more…

Olivier Roy is head of the Mediterranean Programme at the European University Institute in Florence. He is the author of “Holy Ignorance”.

As published in on December 13, 2012.


Wal-Mart de Mexico was an aggressive and creative corrupter, offering large payoffs to get what the law otherwise prohibited, an examination by The New York Times found.


Wal-Mart longed to build in Elda Pineda’s alfalfa field. It was an ideal location, just off this town’s bustling main entrance and barely a mile from its ancient pyramids, which draw tourists from around the world. With its usual precision, Wal-Mart calculated it would attract 250 customers an hour if only it could put a store in Mrs. Pineda’s field.

One major obstacle stood in Wal-Mart’s way.

After years of study, the town’s elected leaders had just approved a new zoning map. The leaders wanted to limit growth near the pyramids, and they considered the town’s main entrance too congested already. As a result, the 2003 zoning map prohibited commercial development on Mrs. Pineda’s field, seemingly dooming Wal-Mart’s hopes.

But 30 miles away in Mexico City, at the headquarters of Wal-Mart de Mexico, executives were not about to be thwarted by an unfavorable zoning decision. Instead, records and interviews show, they decided to undo the damage with one well-placed $52,000 bribe.

The plan was simple. The zoning map would not become law until it was published in a government newspaper. So Wal-Mart de Mexico arranged to bribe an official to change the map before it was sent to the newspaper, records and interviews show. Sure enough, when the map was published, the zoning for Mrs. Pineda’s field was redrawn to allow Wal-Mart’s store.

Problem solved.

Wal-Mart de Mexico broke ground months later, provoking fierce opposition. Protesters decried the very idea of a Wal-Mart so close to a cultural treasure. They contended the town’s traditional public markets would be decimated, its traffic mess made worse. Months of hunger strikes and sit-ins consumed Mexico’s news media. Yet for all the scrutiny, the story of the altered map remained a secret. The store opened for Christmas 2004, affirming Wal-Mart’s emerging dominance in Mexico. Read more…

As published in on December 17, 2012 (a version of this article appeared in print on December 18, 2012, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: The Bribery Aisle: How Wal-Mart Used Payoffs To Get Its Way in Mexico).


President faces uninvented threats from around the world

By Edward Luce

Asked about the fiscal cliff’s impact on foreign perceptions of the US, David Rothkopf, a former Clinton official, quipped: “If Lindsay Lohan were arrested again tomorrow, how much would it change your opinion of her?” The cliff is a domestic crisis of choice rather than of necessity so it is still possible to make light of it. The same cannot be said of Barack Obama’s overseas inbox.

At a moment of acute Washington navel gazing, Mr Obama faces an ominous range of uninvented threats from around the world. Whether 2013 turns out to be the year of Iran, Syria, Egypt, North Korea or Afghanistan, or a mix of the above, they march to their own time. One or two, notably Iran, could be time bombs. Alas, the fracas over Susan Rice’s withdrawal from consideration as secretary of state last week suggests Mr Obama will be distracted for some time by Washington’s clock – the one that is stuck at 11.59pm.

Mr Obama is this week likely to announce John Kerry as his choice to replace Hillary Clinton. But even the smoothest nomination will not go through the Senate until January. Foreign diplomats chafing at the Do Not Disturb sign hanging outside the White House for much of this year find it is still there six weeks after the election. Even at the price of jettisoning his most trusted foreign policy adviser, Mr Obama is trying to conserve all his leverage for the cliff and beyond. Most importantly, it is swallowing his time.

On Iran, in particular, there is little to waste. Among Washington’s foreign policy luminaries, it is hard to find one who claims to know the Obama administration’s strategy. Some speculate that the White House may have already established a back channel dialogue with Tehran led by someone like Thomas Pickering, the veteran state department envoy. If so, it would be reassuring. But this is a hope rather than an estimate. Others worry that Mr Obama lacks a real strategy to communicate. Read more…

As published in on December 16, 2012.

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