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Argentina: The nation in ‘selective default’

The sexy Economics Minister with the sideburns, Axel Kilcillof

The Economics Minister with the sideburns, Axel Kilcillof

When Argentina ‘defaulted’ on $29 billion in debt, worldwide reaction tended to concentrate on the economic mismanagement by Argentina’s government, which lead to the default. But is that really fair? Rather the South American state was backed into a corner after doing its best to turn one.

The head of Argentina’s negotiating team in New York which attempted to ward off default ended up getting a lot of unexpected attention. As Axel Kilcillof announced no deal was being done, social media lit up talking about the sexy Economic’s minister with the sideburns.

He has more to him though than some striking sideburns. Since Kilcillof was appointed to the post in November 2013, Argentina’s path has changed. It’s been locked out of international markets since the 2001 default. By the end of last year dollar reserves were dwindling, capital flight was uncontrollable despite restrictions and inflation rampant.

The emerging markets crisis in January of this year hit Argentina the worst. It was the most vulnerable. The peso was devalued by 20% with Kilcillof the driver of the plan. It seemed a panic move but it was handled well and by March things were stable.

Argentina had been infamous for lying about its inflation figures, but in January they scraped the old indice and replaced it with one which the IMF considered acceptable. Believed to be over 30% for 2014, inflation is still a major issue while those figures are being disputed more and more, but after a rough start things seemed to be at least more manageable come the middle of 2014.

Argentina’s aggression towards foreign creditors and businesses softened. It agreed to pay $5 billion to Repsol for renationalising 51% of the Argentinian oil company YPF in 2012.

Another agreement was found in May with the Paris Club, of which Ireland is a member, to pay back arrears totalling around $9.7 billion.

So by June of this year, the capital reserves were up over $10 billion to just short of $30 billion, inflation was still high but stabilising, while Argentina had gotten major agreements which would help it return to international markets. One issue remained. The litigation from the holdouts.

93% of the defaulted debt from 2001 was restructured by agreements reached in 2005 and 2010. Seven per cent, some of which is made up of those who bought the debt on secondary markets on the cheap, are holding out for the full amount.

Argentina has been continuously paying the 93% it has agreements with, but it was two hedge funds (or vulture funds as they are also termed) called NML Capital and Aurelius International, which have led litigation proceedings bringing about the technical default.

They successfully convinced a US District Judge that it wasn’t fair that Argentina continued paying the 93% and not those who had restructured. Argentina appealed, it was upheld, then tried to go to the US Supreme Court and their appeal was dismissed. So it ended up both sides had till July 30 to come to an agreement or else default, which they didn’t.

Argentina, though, denies it’s in default. It’s not as a ridiculous claim as it sounds even if Standard and Poor’s says Argentina is in what it terms ‘selective default’. As Argentinian President Kirchner pointed out, a defaulter is someone who cannot pay. Argentina is willing and able to pay, so much so that it deposited $539 million to trustee Bank of New York Mellon in order to pay interest to restructured creditors.

It is the fact that payment did not reach creditors that Argentina is in default for debt of $29 billion. On orders from Judge Griesa, the payment remains frozen until an agreement with the holdouts has been found.

The funds litigating against Argentina want to maximise profit. They want full payment of $1.3 billion on debt they only paid a fraction of the price for. And NML Capital is an affiliate of Elliot International which has past form on litigating for payouts multiple times higher than the original in Congo and Peru.

In the case of NML/Elliot, their methods to discredit and force Argentina’s hand have been merciless. They had a Argentinian ship impounded in Ghana, which had 200 crew on board. Also, when Argentina agreed to open an investigation along with Iran into a Buenos Aires bombing of a Jewish cultural centre believed to be the responsibility of Iranian citizens, they published a page-long advertisements in US newspapers denouncing Argentina for cavorting with a rogue state.

The litigators have maintained from the beginning they want what they see as a fair agreement and it is Argentina which chose default, but a financial loophole hints otherwise.

Argentina’s default triggered a ‘credit event’ in the eyes of the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA). This in turn will likely trigger payouts of around one billion dollars in credit default swaps (CDS), which are insurances against defaults.

Who owns them? Well, we can’t be sure and we are only speculate, but many have rumoured that the same funds who are litigating against Argentina are also owners of some of these precious insurances. That would of course mean it was in their interests to prevent any agreement, collect the CDS when the default is declared then continue to demand full-payment from the South American state or, as is also an ongoing possibility, sell the debt to a third-party  like private banking institutions.

Another interesting thing is that one of the determinations committee members of the ISDA which decided to declare the credit event is Elliot Management Corporation whose subsidiary, as mentioned above, is NML Capital, the fund currently suing Argentina.

Argentina was caught in a bind throughout the whole negotiation due to a contractual obligation called the RUFO clause, which would mean if it paid out in full to the 7% of holdouts, the 93% could argue that they should get paid in full too, not just the haircut they agreed to. That could trigger multiple times the $1.3 billion the two hedge funds are demanding. That clause is set to expire at the end of this year.

Of course the default didn’t particularly change much except status in the short term at least. Argentina currently is in default, but if some agreement was to come soon, perhaps as rumoured between the litigating holdouts and international private banks, little damage would be done. Meetings are ongoing.

More long term it opens up a legal mess for Argentina as litigation could come across a lot of jurisdictions from all of the bondholders. It also shuts Argentina out of what it desires the most. Re-entry into capital markets at a time when the country’s economy is in recession and lack of capital may mean printing more money, thereby exacerbating inflation.

After doing much to undo its pariah status economically, a bind formed by the biases of a financial system and a Judge who didn’t give a sovereign state an inch leaving the country once again dangling.

Just when it seemed that Argentina was pulling itself back from the brink, for it to be tipped over by the profit-driven lust of funds would be a particularly bitter and sorry precedent.

It’s a good lesson though in how burning a bondholder is never truly so. More than likely, it will end up in a court somewhere with a hedge/vulture fund with assets worth billions demanding the whole payment and with full interest.

 

 
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Posted by on October 11, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

20 Tips for Visiting or Living in Buenos Aires

Is your next stop Buenos Aires?

Is your next stop Buenos Aires?

Here’s a helpful guide to what to do and what you can do in Buenos Aires whether you are planning or living or just coming to visit.

1 Bring Cash*: (Some of this may be illegal, so it will be written in a purely hypothetical way. It should also be read as if being whispered to you). SOME people have informed me it MAY be possible that if you were to arrive to Buenos Aires with a certain amount of cash in a currency like, say, dollars or euros, you COULD exchange that money on the black market for a better exchange than is available in ATMs. Some ways to exchange said money illegally MAY include approaching unwashed men on Calle Florida who shout “Cambio” randomly or in various jewellery shops.

2 Legal Ways to Get More Pesos for Your Dollar: So if you are not the type to break the law, then there’s legal ways too. Use money transfer services, which offer good exchange rates. For those living in Argentina with US dollar accounts, use Xoom, while those with British Pounds can use Azimo. Those with euro accounts need to hold on a little. Azimo have said they will launch their exchange service from euro accounts in late-Winter (in the Southern Hemisphere) 2013. They personally told me for Irish bank accounts it will be August 2013. At the moment of writing, the peso to dollar rate was officially 5.46 pesos for every dollar, 8.85 pesos on the black market (blue dollar rate) and Xoom offered 7.76 pesos. Both Xoom and Azimo have reputations for quite reliable services. Maybe not totally efficient, but you will get your money. If you have Bitcoins, there’s also the possibility you could exchange them for pesos at a very strong rate as well.

3 Free Concerts: If classical music is your thing, you can check out free concerts in Usina del Arte in La Boca every Sunday at 11.30am. Also, one of Buenos Aires’ premier tourist attractions, the prestigious Teatro Colon, offers free classical concerts once a month. You need to book two days in advance (that’s the only day possible due to demand) and it always takes place on a Sunday morning. Both have acoustics of the highest quality. Check their websites for further details.

4 English-speaking news in Buenos Aires: While living in the Argentinian capital, it’s important to understand what’s going on day-to-day and the two main publications are the Buenos Aires Herald and the Argentina Independent. The Herald offers decent day-to-day coverage of Argentinian, Latin American and international news. It can be found on most newsstands and online. The Argentina Independent offers a slightly more limited day-to-day coverage but is strong on reviews of various exhibitions and cultural events in Buenos Aires. It also offers strong features articles offering context to issues facing Argentina and Latin America today, for example on land reform throughout the Americas. The Argentina Independent is online only.

For more light-hearted news, but which also includes very effective reporting of serious issues, check out The Bubble.

Free Concerts in Teatro Colon once a month

Free Concerts in Teatro Colon once a month

5 Blogs and Internet Forums: If you are looking for information on more niche topics, check out the excellently informative Gringo in Buenos Aires blog or check the online forum BA Expats.

6 Spanish-speaking ‘Things to Do in Buenos Aires’ Websites: For City and state organised events try Agenda Cultural. For events not just organised by the state, try Vuenos Airez.

7 Spanish-speaking Newspapers: There’s five or six main national newspapers. The most prominent are ClairínLa Nacion and Página 12. It’s important to note that it’s hard to find unbiased coverage in any of the main newspapers. Clarín and La Nacion are strongly against the Government, while Página 12 is in favour. Keep that in mind when reading them.

8 Mate: Argentinians drink mate in the morning, evening, when they play sports, when they watch television, when sitting in the park under searing heat, when it’s almost ice-cold. If you want to live in Buenos Aires, make it a part of your life.

9 Know Your Barrio (danger-wise): Choosing where you live is important to avoid some bad things happening to you, which is all too possible, especially with regards muggings and pick-pocketing. As a general rule, if it’s north of Avenida de Mayo (the avenue that connects the Congress with the Pink House), there are relatively safe barrios (neighbourhoods), while south of there is not so good. In the north, you’ll find prosperous Recoleta, Palermo, Nunez and Belgrano. In the South there’s La Boca, Barracas, San Telmo and Congresso.

10 Know Your Barrio (Social-life-wise): The downsides in the northern barrios is that, while they are less dangerous, they are also more expensive, not just in terms of apartments, but basic produce like fruit and vegetables. Palermo, meanwhile, offers lots of bars and trendy places to go out, while San Telmo has grittier and edgier bars. Las Canitas (a small barrio between Palermo and Belgrano) is one of the most famous areas in the city to go for a meal. La Boca has two of the most famous tourist attractions, the Camino and the Boca Juniors football stadium.

11 Buy a Sube Card: Upon arriving into Buenos Aires, try and get a Sube card as soon as possible. One of these makes transportation a hell of a lot easier. They reduce the cost of a bus to a relatively insignificant amount (between 1.50 and 1.70 pesos), while without one, the buses cost 3.50 pesos and it’s only payable in change. Spare coins aren’t easy to come by in Buenos Aires either.

12 Jazz music: If jazz music is your thing and you are sick of, or were just never into, the clíched and tourist tango scene of Buenos Aires, try the Ionious Club or Notorious for some decent jazz music. Both have live jazz most nights of the week, while the cost will be somewhere between 40 pesos on less busier nights to 120 pesos at the weekends.

13 Kissing: Argentinian men kiss other men by way of greeting. Get used to it.

Free Concerts in Teatro Colon once a month

Free Concerts in Teatro Colon once a month

14 Supermarkets: The queues are long and with inflation rising all the time, the cost of goods is increasing in line (or relatively so) with inflation. Also be aware that goods may not be as plentiful as they are in other countries. Recently, the Government told citizens to cut down on eating tomatoes for two months, while cooking oil is limited to three bottles per family at time of writing. Also, products tend to disappear off the shelves and not come back for a week due to issues with suppliers. It’s all a part of living in Buenos Aires.

15 Traffic and transport in Buenos Aires: It can be a nightmare, but then sometimes you just get lucky and it’s fine. Buses are quite plentiful, so it’s actually rare to be waiting a ridiculous amount of time for one. They are small though, so generally packed. Ditto for the underground. If there’s a protest in the city centre, which is quite frequent, avoid all public transport at that time. The area will be at a standstill.

16 Teaching English: It’s the number one way newly-arrived foreigners pay day-to-day expenses in Buenos Aires and there’s a plentiful amount of websites looking for teachers, even those with little or no experience. Craigslist is probably the most prominent. If you wish to work for several months, make sure you are being paid in line with increases in inflation. If inflation is at 25%, as unofficial estimates suggest, your pay should rise 12% every six months or so.

17 Working as a Journalist: Some also come with aspirations to work as an English-speaking Journalist. Some important points to keep in mind. The Buenos Aires Herald does not accept freelance work. You can also only be hired by them for a paid position if you have a DNI (a sort of social security card), which allows you to work. The Argentina Independent offers only unpaid internships and will accept freelance work, but will be unpaid. Ditto for The Bubble.

18 Visiting a villa: In Buenos Aires, a villa is the term used for slum, much like favela is used in Rio de Janeiro. If you want to see one, but not in any working capacity for a charity for example, then you could take a bus through one. If you take the number 46 bus going south, it passes through two villas and gives you a brief glimpse of what life is like living in the most disadvantaged parts of Buenos Aires. With regards this, please use your discretion with regards your own safety.

19 US Dollars: If you just happen to, for whatever reason, want US dollars, you can do what many people in Buenos Aires do. Get the boat to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay, just one hour away, where you can take dollars out of the ATMs. You can also exchange Uruguayan pesos for US dollars if you wish, because frequently the ATMs are out of US dollars (I can’t imagine why).

20 Going to a Boca Juniors football game: Many tourist websites like BsAs4U offer packages to go see Boca Juniors play a game. At between 500 and 600 pesos, they are expensive for what is essentially 90 minutes of sport. Unfortunately it’s difficult to attend a game another way. Boca Juniors generally limit the general sale to club members and those who hold a type of reservation for season tickets. But it is Argentina. There’s ways around everything, but it probably involves borrowing the card of a club member or season ticket holder somehow.

*EverythingIsLoco does not advocate the use of illegal activities.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

How to Avoid Being Robbed While Living in Buenos Aires

Places like Recoleta (above) are considerably safer than areas south of the city

Places like Recoleta (above) are considerably safer than areas south of the city

Coming from a country outside of South America, one of the most noticeably things when first living in Buenos Aires can be the edginess and fear in the city of getting robbed. During a Spanish course I did in Buenos Aires, three of the six students in the class had been, or were nearly, mugged during that one week. During the second week with different students, one pupil was pick-pocketed on her first day in Buenos Aires, while another’s friend was held at gunpoint and robbed. These anecdotal stories are not reflective of wider statistics on crime, but it seems a tourist who isn’t fully aware of the dangers gets singled-out. Here’s some of the strategies thieves use to steal your things.

1. Squirting Something: If you are walking down a relatively busy street and suddenly you feel you’ve been hit by ketchup or something other substance, just keep walking, don’t stop. This is a three-person job. One squirts you with something. Then another “helpful passerby” (likely to be a woman) stops and offers to help you clean up, while a third person comes from behind and takes whatever belongings you have in your bag while you are busy cleaning up. This happened to the above mentioned girl on her first day living in Buenos Aires, while this is also known to happen in parks (the squirter is up a tree above where you are sitting) and in train stations.

2. Squirting Something, a variation: A more popular version when there is two targets (usually a couple) is that at the same time as the squirter strikes one person, the second thief reaches into the bag or the pocket of the friend and quickly throws the phone, or whatever they grabbed, onto the ground. A third robber comes along in a flash and picks up the stolen good. This happened to an Argentinian student of mine. She’s a quick thinker though. When she was squirted, she didn’t shirk, she saw her boyfriend’s phone thrown to the ground and ran over and put her foot on it. The thieves got away, but empty-handed.

3. Asking for Directions: If someone stops and asks you for directions, happily help them but know where your bag or belongings are and make sure they cannot be reached from behind. Again, this is a two- maybe three-person job. One person asks you for directions and they usually choose a busy intersection, so you are even more distracted by the lights and cars going by. One asks for directions, while another comes up from behind and takes whatever they can. It’s possible a third person will be involved, who will “overhear” the conversation and offer their two cents on the best directions. This happened to a friend of mine and I was there too. While crossing Avenida Corrientes at the intersection with Avenida Callao, a woman stopped us, asking for directions. Meanwhile, someone came from behind and stole the purse from my friend’s bag. I could not tell you to this day who the second thief was. When my friend noticed her purse was gone, the woman they asked for directions off, was nowhere to be seen.

4. Crowded Undergrounds and Buses: Most buses and undergrounds are crowded throughout the day, not just at rush hour. They come at rather sporadic times, two or three could arrive at once meaning they are quite empty, while one might come after waiting 30 minutes, meaning it’s packed and most are forced to stand. Thieves usually target packed trains and while they may stick their hand in your pocket, it’s also known that they rip bags on backs open with a knife and take whatever is inside. Not a nice situation to be in. If you notice and react, and as you can’t really move on the crowded trains, you could end up with a stab wound not just lost valuables.

5. Held at Knife or Gunpoint at ATMs or on the street:  Obviously common throughout the world, but in Buenos Aires, there’s a tendency that if you are to be robbed, it will be with a gun not a knife. Most ATMs are situated inside banks, so you have to enter with a card during non-opening hours. Once you’ve completed the transaction, or even more scarily before you’ve entered your card, a person pulls a gun on you from behind.

6. Letting a Stranger into Your Apartment Block: Most apartments blocks have multiple doors which you are required keys for each. Many also have doormen on them to make sure they know who’s coming in and going out. If they don’t, make sure you know the person who happens to enter the apartment at the same time as you and ask if they have keys. If not, tell them to wait outside for their friend to come down and get them. This ploy happened to a friend. He let two strangers in who pretended to be pizza deliverers, who then held him at gunpoint in his apartment for 15-20 minutes while they ransacked the place.

These are just some of the stories I’ve heard or experienced over the past seven months living in Buenos Aires. I’ve never been robbed, which I put down to luck more than anything else. Here’s some extra tips from my experience here, which might help.

1. Don’t look like a tourist: Most of the streets especially around the city centre are quite crowded, especially the main shopping street, Calle Florida. Try to avoid stopping and admiring buildings or activities while in the middle of the street. Keep your camera hidden away unless you want to take a photo and avoid stopping and staring at a tourist map.

2. Your bag goes on the front not the back: Make sure you can see the bag you have with you at all times and that it’s not exposed. It’s a bit annoying to do this, especially with a big bag. But you need to be especially careful when you are moving on and off the underground, and when the underground is packed.

3. Choose your area: You’re simply less likely to be held at gunpoint and mugged in more prosperous areas of the city. As a general rule, Buenos Aires is divided in to the prosperous north and more edgy south. Areas like Recoleta, Palermo, Nunez and Belgrano are relatively safe, while La Boca, Barracas and even San Telmo and Congresso are dangerous. What part of Buenos Aires you live in is key, choose wisely.

This is my two cents Any tips to add?

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Brazil is Beset by Protests. Could Buenos Aires and Argentina be Next?

brazil-2-170957492_620x350As the numbers rise to millions across Brazil taking to the streets, one of the many questions arising from the widespread agitation is, could the demonstrations in Rio and Sao Paulo spread across the continent to Buenos Aires and beyond just like with the Arab Spring? Let’s look at South America’s second biggest country, Argentina.

On the football field, they possess one of the biggest rivalries in international football, but politically both Argentina and Brazil may find themselves on a similar path.

Both are ruled by women, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil.

They, and the leaders before them, have steered their countries through a time in which a great reduction in poverty has been seen. In Brazil, 40 million have entered the middle-class, in Argentina poverty has decreased from a post-2001 default high of 57% to 27% unofficially (this figure is disputed by the Argentinian Government which claims it is much lower).

According to the World Bank, South America is the most commodity-dependent region in the world and favourable world markets throughout the 2000s fuelled this mass poverty reduction, but that didn’t mean the money had to be used to help the poor. Therefore, the Kirchners and Lula were loved.

#ChangeBrazil

Politically, the adage is that Argentinian always protest, the Brazilians never do. Perhaps hence why the massive protests have engulfed Brazil so quickly and forcefully. The hashtags are #Brazilawake and #ChangeBrazil. The giant has finally awoken, they are saying.

For Argentinians mass protests are nothing new. On April 18th, nearly one million people took to the streets across Argentina to protest against the Government. Comparing the two countries sizes, Brazil with 180 million against Argentina’s 40 million, the Argentinian protests are bigger than any per head thus far taken place in Brazil.

The issues are similar. Government corruption, crime, spiralling inflation brought Argentinians out in mass. The Brazilians say they have first world stadiums but third world services, the Argentinian say the have the Pope and Messi but a corrupt Government.

Transport in Buenos Aires is not just bad, it is deadly. 51 people lost their lives in a train crash at a central station in February 2012. Two weeks ago, three people died and several hundred were injured when a train crashed on the same line.

Brazilians are enraged by inflation running above 10%. In Argentina, it is around 25%. This is the unofficial figure. The Government claims it is close to 10%, all the while giving public sector union workers increases per year of close to but never 25%.

In Brazil, the people say they have high taxes but no decent services. In Argentina, they say their high taxes subsidise overgenerous benefits to the poor unemployed. A way of buying votes as the Kirchners get most of their votes from the poorest classes.

Big Mac

Government interference in Argentina means the price of a Big Mac meal is about €2 cheaper than other meals on the menu. Why? Because ‘The Economist’ magazine measures inflation and purchasing power parity using the price of a Big Mac in McDonalds in various countries. Keep the Big Mac low, inflation is (offically) low.

But inflation is high and with the legacy of lost savings from the 2001 default, nobody wants to save in the Argentinian currency, pesos. To prevent capital flight, the Government has introduced restrictions.

No more than 1000 pesos (141 euros) can be taken out per day, you have no way of changing your pesos for dollars and if you have an Argentinian bank account, you’d can’t pop over on the boat from Buenos Aires to Uruguay and get dollars. Your bank card won’t let you.

While Brazilian officials attempted to limit investigations on public offices with a law that was later rejected by a Congress reeling from the mass protests across the country, the Argentinian Government continues to try and stifle the Judiciary and the media conglomerates. Both have seen parts of these laws introduced by Government declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Corruption

Details of corruption are rife. Every Sunday night (Link in Spanish), Argentina’s most prominent journalist, Jorge Lanata, reveals more details of how the Kirchner’s have embezzled millions of dollars in public money. The Government has responded by ordering the football association to move the weekend’s most prominent football game to directly clash with the programme. So far, it hasn’t worked. Politics has defeated football in the ratings war three weeks in a row.

So, will something like a 20 centavos rise in bus fares be a catalyst to bring about mass protests in Argentina? It’s extremely hard to tell, but the answer is probably no.

The April 18th protests against the Government brought large amounts of people, but the Government could still mobilise around 400,000 to take to the streets of Buenos Aires alone last month to celebrate ten years of the Kirchners in power.

Argentina is a divided society. For anti-Government protests, the affluent neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires are deserted as the richer parts of society protest outside Government buildings. They are sick and tired of high inflation and capital controls among much else. For the poorer classes, the Kirchners have meant better lives or at least the hope of better futures.

Of course the Brazilian protests may be drawn across the same lines. A poll at the June 18th protest in Sao Paulo said those protesting are three times more likely to hold a college degree and almost 75% are demonstrating for the first time. This suggests a young, uninhibited, confident middle-class believing they have the right to better things originally drove the protests, but which has since developed into a classless popular movement which has widespread support across swathes of the Brazilian population.

In South America, only Argentina has had a larger middle-class increase in the past decade. From 2003-2009, 24% of the population entered the middle-class compared to 22% in Brazil. This suggests, like in Brazil and in the Arab Spring countries before them, Argentina is having a massive social change which could lead to a strong protest movement.

But unlike Brazilians who can look to the future with a degree of certainty at least with regards its currency and inflation, Argentinians don’t know what awaits them year-after-year. Could a 2001-style default happen again and if so when? Such uncertainty can lead to paralysis.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

The Curious Case of the Cheap Big Mac

McDonald’s Menu: Note the McCombo Big Mac Price. The $ sign denominates Argentinian Pesos

McDonald’s Menu: Note the McCombo Big Mac Price. The $ sign denominates Argentinian Pesos

Walk into a McDonalds in Argentina and you’ll be struck by two things. One is plain to see. The other involves a rather keener eye.

The first is the prices. At an average of $45 pesos (€6.92) for a regular meal, they are slightly more expensive than the equivalent meals in restaurants in America, Britain or Ireland. Considering the average wages in Argentina are about half what they are in my home country Ireland, and the frequency of the American food chain is far above any country in Europe, this is a surprise.

If you resist the urge to splash on one of the meals in bright colours above the checkouts, and instead observe the prices in the full-menu written in small writing to the side, you’ll notice a peculiarity.

The McCombo Big Mac Meal, as it’s called here, is $29 pesos, a full $16 pesos cheaper than most meals on the menu. Since it’s not advertised, and rather hidden away, it’s obvious to assume this isn’t a special offer and is most certainly odd.

Big Mac meals are cheaper than other McDonald’s meals in Argentina

Big Mac meals are cheaper than other McDonald’s meals in Argentina

The reason for both involves an understanding of the economics of Argentina. Due to import restrictions and spiralling inflation (the Government claims it is 10% per year, most economists scoff at these figures and claim it is at least 25%), the price of certain goods in the South American country is above that of developed countries in Europe and North America, at least when you compare the official exchange rate. Hence the explanation of peculiarity number one.

Peculiarity number two is a way to hide the reality of peculiarity number one. Economists at ‘The ‘Economist’ magazine have devised a rather novel way of comparing purchasing power parity (PPP) throughout the world. They compare the price of Big Macs in McDonalds. If the price of a Big Mac goes up in one country but not another, this is an indicator of the strength of one currency against the later and the fluctuations year-on-year can measure inflation as well.

The Big Mac Index, invented in 1986, is by The Economists magazine’s own admission not the most scientific index for measuring PPP, as discrepancies exist in various countries to what value is placed on a Big Mac. For example, McDonald’s is viewed as exotic “Western” food in some developing countries, while in many others it is cheap junk food. Also there are potentially higher costs in certain countries of sourcing necessary raw materials, while lower labour costs means lower prices.

Nevertheless, it is a respected index which has shown up some truths over time, like the overvaluation of the euro when it first entered the market.

According to the index, in January 2013, Argentina’s currency was undervalued by 12.6% against the US dollar, although it’s black market dollar price rose to US$7 in January (it has since risen to to over US$9). The country most similar to Argentina in term’s of discrepancies between the ‘official’ dollar rate and the black market rate, Venezuela, has an overvaluation of 107.9%.

The above figure is the ‘raw index’ figure. When adjusted to GDP per person =, ie take the average income of a person in that country and predict the price, the peso is overvalued by 33.4%.

The Big Mac Index (2010 figures).

The Big Mac Index (2010 figures).

‘The Economist’ magazine hasn’t minced its words when it comes to Argentina and the Big Mac Index. “Burgernomics does support claims that Argentina’s government is cooking the books. The gap between its average annual rate of burger inflation (19%) and its official rate (10%) is far bigger than in any other country,” it said in 2011.

If true, it leads to two obvious questions. The first is why McDonald’s allowing the Argentinian Government meddle in its pricing? The second is why are Argentinian authorities so desperate to keep the PPP rate low?

The answer to the first question is, presumably, based on profit. If it refused to comply with the Argentinian Government’s request, things could be made more difficult for McDonald’s in Argentina. A McDonald’s spokesperson told Argentinian daily, La Nación, that claims of cooking the books were false, the cheaper price on the Big Mac was a “marketing strategy”. Evidently a long-term one, because the representative made those remarks in April 2011.

With regards to the second question, the answer lies in the level of trust Argentinian citizens have in their currency. Most remember the days their savings were obliterated by default and hyperinflation in the 1990s and early 2000s. As a result, capital flight (ie moving your savings into a more stable currency like US dollars or euros instead of Argentinian pesos) is a major issue, so the Government has set in place limits of the amount of money that can be taken out of ATMs per day, restrictions on exchanging currency, as well as moving money in and out of the country. Keeping the PPP rate of the Argentinian peso against the US dollar relatively artificially low prevents potential panic, meaning a more stable currency. That’s the theory anyway.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Argentinian Reaction to the Death of Margaret Thatcher

Translation: The Falklands were, are, and will be Argentina’s. Dead Heros of the War Live Without Identity

Translation: The Falklands were, are, and will be Argentina’s. Dead Heros of the War Live Without Identity

The more negative reactions to the death of Margaret Thatcher has led to street parties in London and Glasgow, gloating graffitti in Belfast and a Wizard of Oz song coming close to topping the charts. One of Thatcher’s most important achievements was the defeat of Argentina in the Falklands War. So, 31 years after the conflict, how have Argentinians reacted to the death of Margaret Thatcher?

“I didn’t react with euphoria to her death, just with the thought that a person that for us is synonymous with death is now gone”, says Ruben Alberto Velozo, an Argentinian veteran who served during the Falklands War.

“This nefarious character, a murderer, would commit the same crimes today if she was still alive”.

Without a doubt the Falklands War defines Argentinian understanding of the former leader. A war which is still at the forefront of many people’s minds. Streets and shops in Buenos Aires are called ‘Los Malvinas’ ( the Argentinian name for the islands), many street corners have graffitti about the conflict, while all country-wide maps include the islands under the blue-and-white flag of Argentina, not as British territory.

Ruben Alberto Velozo, an Argentinian War Veteran

Ruben Alberto Velozo, an Argentinian War Veteran

“I don’t know much about Thatcher as a Prime Minister, but I know she had little interest in the Falklands in 1980, then suddenly took a big interest in 1982 when the British press were questioning her”, says Cristian Iriart, who runs one of the ‘Las Malvinas Son Argentinas’  (The Falklands are Argentina’s) facebook pages.

The page has 287,000 ‘Likes’ on the social networking site and says he set it up because “I felt the need to pay homage to the heros of the war who fought to defend our country. It’s the least I could do for them”.

“I’m not happy about her death. She’s a human being just like all of us. But divinity will bring her the punishment she deserves”.

An opinion shared by the Falklands veteran. “There will surely be another place where the murders, cunning and treachery against defenceless people during the war will be judged”.

Velozo was an Argentinian conscript soldier during the war. He was a part of the original invading forces who arrived on the Falklands on April 2nd, 1982 under what the Argentinians termed “Operation Rosario”.

“I was one of the rare few who had the privilege to lower the pirate flag of England and raise the blue and white of Argentina in our beloved Malvinas”, he says.

He lost two friends from the original invasion. “Captain Pedro Giachino and soldier Almonacid, the first heros of the war”.

Iriart, meanwhile, points to the most controversial moment of the war –  the sinking on the Belgano light cruiser on May 2nd, 1982 – which claimed the lives of 323 Argentinian servicemen, half its total casualties of the war.

Pedro Malbonado, who was happy to hear of Thatcher’s Death

Pedro Malbonado, who was happy to hear of Thatcher’s Death

“She took an active role in the Falklands war and ordered the attack with torpedoes on the cruiser ARA General Belgrano, which was outside the maritime exclusion zone”.

31 years after the ending of the conflict, the dispute over the Falklands continues. On January 2nd, the Argentinian President, Christina Fernández de Kirchner, published an open letter to David Cameron saying “Britain, the colonial power, has refused to return the territories to the Argentine Republic, thus preventing it from restoring its territorial integrity.” The British PM rejected the claims.

On the streets of Buenos Aires, few felt sadness at the Iron Lady’s passing. “I was happy to hear the news”, says Pedro Malbonado (54). “She was very tough. She was very militant and made decisions like the sinking of the Belgrano which were very aggressive”.

“I have a very bad opinion of her because of the Falklands”, says Adriel Gusmai (28), an architect from Buenos Aires. “I wouldn’t say that I’m happy over the death of someone, but definitely when I heard the news there was some joy”.

Two British tourists currently visiting Buenos Aires also said no tears were shed when they heard the news. “I wasn’t really bothered when I heard the news to be honest. It makes you think of the past”, says Neil Hinde (41).

“I’m sort of glad that she’s dead to be honest. I know that sounds horrible”, says Imogen Smith (19).

Neil Hinde and Imogen Smith from Britain

Neil Hinde and Imogen Smith from Britain

Hinde looks back on the Falklands War with a degree of bewilderment. “I don’t just understand why we have them [the Falkland Islands]. It’s like them coming over to us and saying ‘we want the Isle of White’”.

Despite the timing of their visit and the general hostilities on a political level, the British tourists haven’t had any major issues with Argentinians. “I had one bad reaction when I told someone I was British, but either than that, it’s been absolutely fine”, says Hinde.

The diplomatic spat between the two countries has continued. The family of Margaret Thatcher specifically requested the Argentinian President not be invited to the funeral. An Argentinian government minister responded to the snub by saying “What do we care? We weren’t going to go anyway.”

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Maduro Wins as the Revolution Rolls On

Marchers Hang Hugo Chávez Banners Near the Venezuelan Embassy in Buenos Aires

Marchers Hang Hugo Chávez Banners Near the Venezuelan Embassy in Buenos Aires

With Venezuelans just hearing the announcement of Nicólas Maduro as their new President, the choice made over Henrique Caprilles will resonate far beyond the confines of the South American country. Its former leader, Hugo Chávez, was one of the world’s most charismatic rulers and offered the world a different path to neo-liberal capitalism. It offered hope to left-wing enthusiasts that their ideals can succeed in practise. But what did Chávez’s Venezuela actually achieve and how long can it last?

Late into the night the drums beat, people sang and flags waved outside the Venezuelan embassy in Buenos Aires. Upwards of 1,000 people had gathered to make their voices heard on Venezuela’s second election night in less than six months.

The vast majority were left-wing worshippers of former Commandante Hugo Chávez, but few were from the homeland of their hero. There were Argentinians, Colombians, indigenous Bolivians and Uruguayans joining the ranks of the oil-rich nation. The multi-ethnic nature emphasising the importance of this election to Latin America.

Laura Soto from Colombia

Laura Soto from Colombia

“I’m here to show solidarity with the revolutionary process in Venezuela”, says Laura Soto (25) from Colombia. Speculating on a Caprillas victory, she says “Caprillas will bring Venezuela on a neo-liberal path, like in Colombia, Chile, even Peru. That would mean no participatory democracy”.

The winner, Nicólas Maduro, by an extremely tight margin of less than 2%, was the chosen successor of Chávez who died just six months after claiming yet another electoral victory during his 1998-2013 reign.

“There will be no transition. There will continue to be popular democracy in a social democratic country”, says the secretary of the Venezuelan Embassy in Buenos Aires, Juan Romero.

“The creation of a discussion of the relationship of politics across Latin America is the most important result of Chávez’s rule. It has resulted in a new way of thinking”, says Romero.

Its former leader remains an extremely divisive figure worldwide, where his reign points to clear successes and obvious failures

In 1999 when Hugo Chávez came to power the extreme poverty rate in Venezuela stood at 23.4%. In 2011 (according to the most recent statistics), it was 8.5%.

To put this into context, according to the World Bank, an average of 8 per 1,000 people in extreme poverty die each year because they are too poor to stay alive. This would mean in the region of 30,000 lives in Venezuela between 1999 and 2011 were saved as a result of the reduction of extreme poverty.

By any calculation, this is an incredible achievement, which can be put down to Chavez’s Socialist “missions” which invested in the poor in areas of health and education. And this figure is the minimum amount, as unmeasured are indirect causes of death through diseases directly related to poverty such as malaria or tuberculosis.

Compared to its nearest neighbour, Colombia, which has followed a neo-liberal, free market economic path for a number of years and whose main importer and exporter is the United States the statistics under Chávez remain impressive.

Poverty levels – based on the measurement of earnings of less than two dollars a day, “extreme poverty” is less than 1.25 dollars a day – in Colombia stood at 40.2% in 2011, in Venezuela it was 29.5%.

Unemployment stood at 11.2% in Colombia to 7.6% for its neighbour, while Venezuela was also considerably more equal, measuring a Gini Coefficient of 38 to 58.5 (the closer to zero, the better).

In 2011, Venezuela was the most equal society in South America with the fourth lowest level of poverty behind Chile, Uruguay and French Guiana.

“For me, Chávez will be the person who stood up for the people against imperialism”, says Caroline Lister, an Argentinian at the march outside the Venezuelan embassy.

Juan Romero, Secretary at the Venezuelan Embassy in Buenos Aires

Juan Romero, Secretary at the Venezuelan Embassy in Buenos Aires

In Colombia’s favour, it has a considerably lower level of inflation, 2.6% to Venezuela’s 30.6% and a more stable currency, where the black market dollar rate on the streets of Caracas reaches 25-1 with the official at 5-1.

It is important to keep in mind though that Colombia has nowhere near the wealth of resources Venezuela has. With the largest oil reserves in the world, Venezuela boasts a competitive advantage in this respect, although this by no means results in the wealth being passed on to its citizens. For confirmation of this, you need only take another look at the poverty levels before Chávez came to power

One of the world’s foremost academics, Noam Chomsky, has consistently hailed Chávez’s reign because he was the first Venezuelan leader “to give the oil back to its people”, although in more recent years has been more critical accusing Chávez of “amassing too much power in his own hands”.

Nonetheless, despite glowing statistics in certain sectors, Chávez’s reign has been vilified in large swathes of Western media since his death. The Economist magazine summed it up as “The Rotten Legacy” mourning the lost opportunity to install a neo-liberal regime during the mid-nineties, instead of the “brutish dictatorship” of Chávez.

Like his successes, there’s a vast swathe of glaring failures and questionable actions during his reign, too many to mention in an article of such length.

The most obvious is the rise in violence, with its capital, Caracas, becoming the most dangerous city in the world in 2011. There is a degree of unfortunate irony that while the amount of people dying of poverty has dropped, those killed in violent attacks has soared. 3,488 homicides were committed in Caracas alone in 2011.

“It is like a war. No other country in the world has this level of violence. This is solely the responsibility of Chávez. It’s a horrible situation”, said a Venezuelan student living in Buenos Aires who requested not to be named.

Another area consistently questioned during the Chávez reign is the concept of democracy. With days to the election, the opposition candidate, Henrique Caprillias, was shouting “fraud” due to the vast swathes of access to public money Maduro had for the campaign and the bias of state television. He also called foul on election night over what he described as “voting irregularities”.

Caroline Lister from Argentina

Caroline Lister from Argentina

The voting irregularities claims run contrary, though, to the judgements of the Carter Centre, a non-profit organisation set up to monitor election processes run by former US president Jimmy Carter. It concluded Venezuela’s fully-automated electoral system “of the 92 we’ve monitored, is the best the world”.

Others point to the silencing of the media as well. The main private television station, RCTV, had its request for license renewal in 2007 rejected. Critics suggested this was an encroachment of freedom of speech, while Chávez claimed the station was spewing propaganda and lies against him.

Nevertheless, there seems little doubt Chávez was intent on silencing his harshest critics. Stories of intimidation persist with the most notorious example being that of the imprisonment of María Lourdes Afiuni, a judge, who was jailed after she let go a Venezuelan banker on trial for corruption charges.

The Venezuelan economy remains vulnerable as well with many economists predicting it will go bust within the short-term. Inflation is high at 32%, while citizens have little faith in their own currency which means capital flight for those who can save. Of course, those issues are primarily the concern of the middle-class. The poorer classes, where Maduro got his core vote, have subsidised supermarkets and little savings.

With six more years of the “Bolivarian revolution”, the world has a somewhat erratically functioning version of socialism. Its middle-classes despise it, its poorer classes adore it. Since Lehmann Brothers crashed in 2008, many worldwide have searched for a viable alternative to the unequal, wealth-obsessed, rich-concentrated neo-liberal economic model. If Venezuela’s revolution can hold, maybe the world has found another way.

Interviews conducted with the help of Katherine Mora

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

A Taste of Bogotá in Buenos Aires

Colombian citizens in Argentina demonstrate against a visit by former President of Colombia Alvaro Uribe in May 2012. PHOTO/DANIEL GARCIA

Colombian citizens in Argentina demonstrate against a visit by former President of Colombia Alvaro Uribe in May 2012. PHOTO/DANIEL GARCIA

One in three foreign students studying in Buenos Aires is Colombian, making them the largest ethnic group studying here, beating Americans into second place (14%), while the French (7%) and the Venezuelans (6%) are in third and fourth position.

As the furthest country from Argentina in South America – a seven hour plane journey from Buenos Aires to the Colombian capital, Bogotá – many Colombians make a drastic lifestyle change to live far from home.

Karen Antorveza (23) studies Industrial Design and has been living in Buenos Aires since 2008.

She originally had a six-month scholarship at a university in Colombia, but importantly, when that expired, she had to pay fees of US€3000 per semester to study.

She chose to move to the Argentinian capital and study at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), a public university where education is free.

Colombia’s third-level education system works off a credit system, where students take out loans to pay university fees and begin paying the loans back one year after completion of their studies, while their public universities have limited places and stringent exams to earn “coupons” to study there.

“I didn’t want to have debts of $30,000 when I left university”, says the 23 year-old.

After two years in Buenos Aires, she transferred to a private university, the University of Business Adminstration, where she pays 1,600 Argentinian pesos ($311) per month. She points to the greater flexibility of class times, the availability of specialised tools for her course and the more support-friendly nature of the university as reasons for her change to private education in Buenos Aires.

“For the past two years, I’ve been self-sufficient here. I work and I study. Everyone I know in Colombia is dependent on their parents and I would be too if I was still there”.

Katherine Mora (22) moved to Buenos Aires in 2010 to study Political Science and her motivations for moving were numerous.

She had a relative who lived in the Argentine capital for many years and described it as “very open, very beautiful place”, which motivated her to read further into the city and eventually make the move.

Katherine Mora, who studies political science

Katherine Mora, who studies political science

“There’s a lot of students here, it’s a very cosmopolitan city and I had the chance to meet a lot of new people”, says the 22 year-old.

Like Antorveza, she points to the costs as a factor, but also the differing styles of teaching between where she currently studies, UBA, and at private university in Bogotá.

“In Colombia, it’s a lot more structured. You have your classes chosen for you and you have to read a certain amount by a certain time. It’s different at UBA. You have a range of topics you can choose to study, while if you want to read the material, you read it. I prefer the greater liberty you have here.”

Both Antorveza and Mora point to the cultural differences between Argentina under the left-wing administration of Christina Fernández de Kirchner and Colombia, whose education system – and more broadly, culturally – is heavily influenced by the United States.

“You have a culture in Colombia of everybody choosing to take out loans to go to the best universities or even buy the best cars and things like this. You don’t have the same attitude here”, points out Antorveza.

Both are highly respectful of the university education they receive in Buenos Aires, which is at least on a par, if not better, than that they would receive at a much higher cost in Colombia, while both hail the quality of life they have in the city.

“There’s something always happening in Buenos Aires. Bogotá is more go to work, go home, go to sleep, like this”, says Mora.

Their positive opinions back up a wider study recently commissioned by the Government of foreign students in Buenos Aires, where Colombians were the most complimentative of the city.

Karen Antorveza who studies Industrial Design

Karen Antorveza who studies Industrial Design

66% of Colombian students consider the cultural and tourist activities in the city excellent, 83% think the academic education is very good or outstanding, while 62% say the city is safer than their home in Colombia.

Colombians are quick to point out their experiences in Argentina aren’t the same as that of Peruvians, Bolivians or Paraguayans, who predominantly move to Buenos Aires as poor migrants in search of work, but there is an element of questioning why they are here.

“There’s something. I wouldn’t call it discrimination, that’s too strong of a word, but people reference Colombian narco trafficking quite a bit or question why we are studying here”, says Mora.

“Colombians are a big business in Buenos Aires. Unlike Paraguayans or Bolivians, we come here with our own money and spend a lot, whether it’s on apartments or other things. We are viewed differently”, adds Antorveza.

Both still long for their homeland though. Mora points out one of the main differences of living in Buenos Aires is the level of freedom, which also means you don’t get your mother’s cooking every Sunday.

While Antorveza used to go home two times a year, but this summer was the first she stayed in Buenos Aires.

“I feel I owe something to Colombia, so I would like to go back there to live, but I’ll go where my job takes me”.

Sentiments echoed by the Political Science student. “I want to go back but I love my career a lot. I always said ‘I will study and then go home’, but I have a life here and I like it here”.

 

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

A Chamuyero talks about Three Months in Buenos Aires, boludo

_DSC1040Part two in this series. Last time I detailed what intrigued, surprised and agitated after three weeks in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This time it’s after three months.

Alcohol and parties As we are in South America, it’s no surprise that things are, well, a little bit more Socialist here. Go to a house party or a gathering with friends and expect to have to share whatever you brought. Most beers come in litre glass bottles, rather than 500ml cans or bottles more popular in Europe. Hence, once you pour yourself a glass, you are expected to offer around to everyone else there too.

This may be sacrilegious to an Irish person taught that the alcohol you bring to a party is yours as bound by the ancient laws of parties private. Hence, you do tend to spend the first half of Argentinian parties cursing the bastard who accepted your grit-teethed offering of beer, but by the end of the night, when there’s an abundance left over and all is legitimately fair game, you find yourself weeping with joy. Especially helpful is that Argentinians tend to nurse their beers quite a bit. The drink-as-fast-as-you-can and must-always-have-a-drink-in-my-hand mentality of Ireland doesn’t exist here.

Incidentally, the binge drinker’s choice in Argentina isn’t wine or beer, but rather a bitter spirit called fernet, which is mixed with cola and ice. It’s best described as what licourice listerine would taste like. But it’s rather addictive and you’ll be climbing up lampposts in no time if you drink enough of it.

Fernet – A firm favourite with Argentinians

Fernet – A firm favourite with Argentinians

Kissing men Latin Americans like to kiss as part of a greeting. I was aware of this. I was not aware that Argentinian men kiss each other when meeting. Coming from traditional Catholic Ireland, where any non-drunk-out-of-your-mind kiss means marriage is on the cards, my first Argentinian male “greeting” made me want to pursue criminal proceedings for attempted rape. But you warm to it. And, anyway, overall, a kiss by a male or female is a lot more endearing than the Irish “quick nod and awkward smile” tradition.

Purchasing A good piece of advice in Argentina is to never go to a supermarket hungry, because if you do, there’s a good chance you may starve to death by the time you reach the top of the queue. They are extremely long and the most relaxed people in the whole country are those working at the tills. The checkouts for 10 items or less are called “rapid lines” (presumably Argentina’s idea of irony) and the queues tend to stretch up the majority of the aisle. And if the person in front of you is paying by card, take out your book because it’s going to be a long wait.

In most supermarkets too, as well as pharmacies and many other places, they are very paranoid about robbers. As a result, if you carry a backpack, you’ll likely have to put it in a locker until after you finish at the till.

Also, an inconveniently high amount of purchases involve “taking a ticket”. A trip to the post office involves “taking a ticket” and waiting for your number to be called, as does most trips to electronic stores. Even purchasing a pastry can involve “taking a bloody ticket”. If it sounds illogical, it’s because it damn well is.

Proud The Argentinians are an extremely proud race of people. In few countries have I experienced the level of bunting seen here. Enormous national flags adorn several Government buildings, while their meat is the best in the world, as well as their wine, their footballers, even their men or so they say. The recent announcement of an Argentinian Pope had locals beaming with joy. “It’s proof we Argentinians must be doing something right”, said one woman from Buenos Aires.

Related to this, it seems to hurt Argentinian pride quite significantly with the continued presence of the British in Las Malvinas (the Falklands Islands). Local maps name the islands Argentine territory – as well as a large chunk of Antarctica which is in dispute with Chile – while graffiti adorns many street corners with “Las Malvinas son Argentinas” (The Malvinas are Argentina’s). Make no mistake, this is more to Argentinians than a piece of land. It’s entangled in a belief in their strength of character as a nation.

Empanadas, a part of the Argentinian diet

Empanadas, a part of the Argentinian diet

Food Heavily influenced by Italian and Spanish immigrants who arrived, in the main, about 100 years ago, the Argentine diet consists of pizza, empanadas and asado. Empanadas are baked pastries with meat, chicken or whatever you fancy inside. Extremely cheap, they are great on-the-go food. The pizza consists of two varieties. One is 99% cheese, the other is 99% onion. Argentinies could do with easing up on the cheese and onion concentration, but it is what it is.

An asado though is where Argentinians shine. It’s essentially a barbeque with a range of the best meats in the world and the Argentinians can legitimately claim their meat is the best. Why? Well, for example, Argentina has a land mass a third of the size of the United States, has an eighth of the population but double the arable land (19% to America’s 9%). It’s animals have room to graze, while in the United States, they have to be pumped up with chemicals to make up for the shortage of land. Juicier, healthier, better.

Protesting A protest in Argentina is quite an experience. It involves an incredible amount of flags, deafening amount of drumming and people generally jumping up and down like lunatics. It has more of a party atmosphere than anything else. But there is an extremely serious side to this. Over 800 shantytowns exist in Buenos Aires alone housing over half a million in dire poverty. Inflation continues to spiral, while the black market price on the exchange to the dollar is getting ominously high. How close things are to the brink we don’t know, but people have a right to be at least a little bit concerned.

Ethnic Groups  Argentina is essentially a nation of immigrants, most heavily influenced by those of Spanish and Italian descent, while the Irish, Germans, Polish and most European races have made some mark over its history. Unlike in countries like Brazil or Colombia, Argentina has few descendants of African slaves, while also its people aren’t as distinctly indigenous as those in Bolivia or Peru.

New poorer immigrant groups from Bolivia and Paraguay are unfortunately looked down upon by some in Argentina, who accuse them of sponging off the social benefits. Many ethnic groups have carved out their own niches or are of a particular breed. The Bolivians own most of the vegetable shops in Buenos Aires, the Colombians tend to study creative courses like photography or media arts, the Chinese own small-scale supermarkets and Africans are street vendors selling small ornaments.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

From the Arctic Ocean to the End of the World on a Motorbike

Harris with a security guard in Porvenir, Honduras

Harris with a security guard in Porvenir, Honduras

In July 2012, Dom Harris flew from Brisbane, Australia to Anchorage, Alaska and bought a motorbike. Seven months of riding later he arrived at the most southern city in the world; Ushuaia, Argentina.

“When you are travelling solo, sometimes you’ve got to have a few one-man parties”, says Dom Harris about his adventures through North and South America.

The 31 year-old recently completed a seven month motorcycle trip from Alaska in United States to Ushuaia at the tip of Argentina and another few thousands kilometres back up north to pack the bike away in storage in Montevideo, Uruguay.

In total, the Geoscientist covered 42,000 km in 16 different countries.

The trip isn’t for the faint-hearted. From dealing with grizzly bears in Canada and Alaska to being run off the road by aggressive drivers on desert roads in Peru, Harris speaks of the trip with a steely determination which helped him on the lonely road.

“Yeah, you get kind of used to being soaked in sweat one minute and drowned in rain the next”, says the Brisbane native of dealing with tropical weather in Central America and Mexico.

During one storm, it changed from raining down hard pieces of ice to heavy winds which had the potential to blow you off a motorcycle, then lightning, thunderstorms and finally a sandstorm. “It’s a necessary evil”, he says.

Not that the trip was a lonely one. Far from it. Harris is quick to point out the friendly nature of everyone he encountered, singling out the Colombians as the friendliest people he met. People bought him lunch, shared beers and one couple from Brazil, when the Australian had difficulties using ATM machines in Chile, funded him for four days until they crossed the border into Argentina.

He holds out special praise though for fellow bikers. “It’s like a brotherhood. Immediately you become best friends with anyone that rides a bike”. Parts of the journey in Alaska, Colombia, Chile and Argentina he rode with fellow bikers.

During the lonelier days, he didn’t need much to get him through. “A photo of the family and a few trinkets of good luck from friends was all I brought”. At the end of a long day riding, some of which lasted up to 14 hours, “you simply want to map out the next day, shower if possible, eat and go to sleep”.

The trip didn’t follow any definitive line south from Alaska. Rather he looped, dog-legged and zig-zagged  his way across the Americas where his love of geology, natural environments and archeology motivated his next move whether it be south, north, east or west.

The Atacama Desert in Chile

The Atacama Desert in Chile

Before starting his trip, he knew two things. That there was a narrow window of summer to traverse Alaska’s Arctic Circle and, also, a narrow summer period in Patagonia in February meaning he had to make it there by then or else he might never make it to Ushuaia. Everything in between was fair game.

In the United States, he rode through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas taking in a host of national parks and he beams when speaking about America’s geological masterpieces.

The Petrified National Park in Arizona is “amazing”, while the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado is “another geological wonder”.

You get the feeling what motivated him during any difficult days was his passion for geology and having an innate confidence in his own survival instincts..

During the trip, Harris had three major crashes; in Alaska, Ecuador and the scariest in Guatemala. On a muddy corner, the 31 year-old lost control and headed straight for an oncoming truck. In that split second, he dumped the bike on its side, jumped off and the motorcycle slid towards the vehicle.

The bike stopped one metre before the truck, while Harris struggled up. Both were largely unscathed.

Hardly his only lucky escape. After letting off steam during one of his one-man parties in the Peruvian desert, Harris woke up, finished the last of his water and promptly vomited it all back up with the help of the night’s excesses. Danger zone. He needed water soon, but didn’t know where the nearest gas station was.

Dehydrated and hungover, he rode for one hour and came across a station. Crisis averted.

The motorcycle-enthusiast camped for about 50% of his journey, but was careful of his surroundings each day. “You need to know you won’t be disturbed during the night”.

In Alaska and Canada, it’s necessary to take precautions with your food on account of bears. One time, Harris had his food in a locked pelican case, left the camp and when he returned found his case upended and covered in bear slobber. “I was lucky I hadn’t been there”, he says relieved.

Even some dangers he was less aware of. He only found out afterwards he passed through five of the ten most dangerous cities in the world. San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa in Honduras and Juarez, Torreon and Chihuahua in Mexico all feature on the world’s danger list.

Despite this, as well as passing through one of the most dangerous border crossing in the world at Juarez, Mexico and driving through narco trafficking routes in Colombia, nothing happened. “No. No dramas.”

Nearly There. At Tierra del Fuego National Park at the tip of Argentina

Nearly There. At Tierra del Fuego National Park at the tip of Argentina

In the Darien jungle in Panama, he got hassled at numerous military checkpoints that messed with his head. “You start imagining scenes of someone jumping out, but you are just trying to scare yourself”. But that was the worst of it.

Over the 42,000 km he identified one strip of Chile as the most gorgeous. “The Carretera Austral (otherwise known as route 7) in Patagonia was the most consistently picturesque. In Alaska or Columbia, you might get a day or maybe a half-day, but on the Carretera, it was seven days of scenic beauty”.

Since then, Harris is pursuing his passion, geology, full-time. He has moved to Bucaramanga, Colombia where he’s currently brushing up on his Spanish and looking for a job in geology. “Yeah it’s the place to be right now”, he says. He plans to stay for at least two years.

But you get the feeling by the glint in his eyes when he speaks of riding past herds of bison in British Columbia or how he loves to “feel the freedom of the mountains” that the motorbike isn’t staying locked up in storage in Montevideo for long.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

The Mariano Ferreyra Murder Trial

Mariano Ferreyra

Mariano Ferreyra

On the 20th October 2010, Mariano Ferreyra was killed after a dispute involving railway workers escalated into violence in the southern Buenos Aires district of Barracas.

A member of the Partido Obrero (the Worker’s Party) or PO, the 23 year-old was shot in the back along with three others, Elsa Rodríguez – a mother of three – Nelson Aguirre and Ariel Benjamín Pintos, all of whom survived the incident.

The murder brought widespread anger throughout Argentina with 50,000 people attending a protest in Buenos Aires demanding justice for Ferreyra a day after his death.

José Pedraza is the former head of the railway union Unión Ferroviaria (UF) – an affiliate of the largest trade union movement in Argentina, the CGT – and stands accused of being the instigator of the crime along with his right-hand man Juan Carlos Fernández.

In total, 17 people have been indicted for the homicide. 10 are a part of – or affiliated with – the UF, while six are police officers, including the metropolitan police superintendent Hugo Lompizano.

The suspected shooters are Cristian Favale and Gabriel Fernando Sánchez, both of whom are linked to hooligan groups.

The trial of members of the UF began in October 2012 and continues to this day, while the case against the police officers continues to be developed.

On the day of the murder, Ferreyra along with around 200 other members of the PO marched in solidarity with outsourced workers (tercerizados), who laboured on the General Roca railway line.

The tercerizados were protesting against the recent dismissal of over one hundred fellow workers and demanded an increase in pay to bring them in line with what UF union workers received. Contract workers received only 30-50% of the pay of the union employees.

The accused, José Pedraza

The accused, José Pedraza

The day’s events remain disputed by both side with the prosecution claiming several hundred UF union members formed a counter protest to block off the protesting contract workers, which led to two confrontations between the rival factions, the second of which resulted in the fatal shooting of Ferreyra.

The trial took an unprecedented turn when a witness for the prosecution was abducted 24 hours before he was to appear in court. Enrique Alfonso Severo was beaten and then released with those responsible warning him not to “mess with the railway unions”.

In his book, ‘Quien mató a Mariano Ferreyra?’ (Who Killed Mariano Ferreyra?), Diego Rojas argues the murder is just another example of unions using violence and intimidation to protect their interests and cites numerous examples down through the years, going back to the assassination of Rosendo Garcíá in 1968.

Meanhile, accused of failing to render assistance, many view the actions of the police as highly suspect and worthy of greater investigation.

The officers made no attempt to stop retreating protesters after the shooting, which could have meant recovery of the weapons used, while the police video failed for six minutes during the day’s operation; precisely the six minutes during which the shooting took place.

Ferreyra was a member of Partido Obrero, the Worker’s Party

Ferreyra was a member of Partido Obrero, the Worker’s Party

The murder is among a number of highly controversial and suspect murders in recent years in Argentina.

Just last month, a key witness in the Once train crash – which claimed the lives of 51 people – was shot and killed. Leonardo Ariel Andrada testified that the train was running 20 minutes late, which meant the conductor drove the train faster than legally required, resulting in the crash. No one has as of yet been charged with his murder.

The result of this trial could prove an indictment of Argentina, where such a verdict would mean sections of two of the most powerful institutions in the state – the unions and the police – colluded in the murder, and subsequent cover-up, of a political activist who was using his democratic right of protest.

But, ironically, such a result could prove a positive outcome. If those accused are the genuine perpetrators, harsh sentences would mean corruption at the higher levels of power has its consequences.

Transparency International ranks Argentina 102nd out of 176 countries for corruption, saying of its judiciary “lack of transparency and clear rules in the selection of judges in Argentina suggests that parts of the judiciary may suffer from political influence”. With such a backdrop, a fair and honest decision in the case of the murder of Mariano Ferreyra is what the Argentine public needs to build trust in its state institutions.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

A New York ruling which has Argentina dicing with default

Scenes from a default. Buenos Aires in 2001

Scenes from a default. Buenos Aires in 2001

Holdout creditors from the 2001 default, led by a debt depressed firm, are suing the Argentinian state for non-repayment of debt.

Two of the main funds suing are considered “vulture funds”, because they bought the debt on the secondary market meaning they purchased it off the original holders of the debt for a knockdown price, when it became clear Argentina was close to default and the price of the debt was reduced. The aim of vulture funds is to buy debt at their most depressed value and recover the full amount and sue if this is refused.

Over 11 years since Argentina defaulted on over $100 billion worth of debt, it has still been unable to settle the issues with all creditors. 7% of the debt holders have held out to proceed with litigation just as in this current case, while much of the rest of the debt has been restructured at a quarter of the original price and an agreement between the IMF and Argentina over debt repayments was agreed between 2005 and 2008.

The case follows on from rulings in the New York court in February and October 2012, which decided in favour of those currently suing the Argentinian state. One firm suing, NML Capital Ltd,  has since been responsible for the impounding the Argentine naval ship, the “Libertad”, off the coast of Ghana, also in October 2012.

The current hearing is Argentina’s appeal of that ruling.

The case is important for several reasons. The first is the potential impact it could have on Argentina. If the South American state is forced to repay these funds in full, any bank which deals with Argentine foreign debt must also abide by the ruling to force Argentina to pay both the restructured and full debt. Argentina claims this will mean it will be unable to service its debt and be pushed back into default. It is illegal in Argentinian law to pay vulture funds.

This will affect its ability to borrow through its borrowing rates and the rates on the discounted bonds and, thus, would devoid the state of money used to fund state services.

The October ruling, which was delayed pending the current appeal, saw Argentine bond prices fall 5%, while discount bonds issued during the debt swaps of 2005 and 2010 fell 12.5%.

The Government of Cristina de Kirchner rejects the vulture fund claims

The Government of Cristina de Kirchner rejects the vulture fund claims

The second is a worldwide issue. The precedent set from the case will affect any future debt restructurings, as funds, such as these vulture funds will view holding out for litigation a more profitable option than accepting the restructuring terms. This is particularly pertinent for Europe’s bailed out nations, as it is likely these countries could see themselves sued by such vulture funds in the years to come over any restructured debt.

The third reason is a moral issue and for this a greater examination of the funds is required.

The funds suing are NML Capital Ltd, which is a subsidiary of Elliot Associates and is based in the Caymen Islands, while the other is Aurelius Capital Management funds, which sued the Irish state over losses to subordinate bondholders at the now nationalised Irish bank AIB. That case was settled out of court and the details of the agreement remain confidential.

NML Capital Ltd, the subsidiary of Elliot Associates, is owned by Paul Singer, a major funder of the United States Republican party, who accompanied then President George W. Bush to Israel to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel in 2008. He contributed over $1 million dollars to a superpac supporting Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the most recent US election. His net worth is $1.1 billion.

His firm Elliot Associates has a long history of vulture fund activity. Name the major sovereign defaults in recent decades and this fund has sued; Peru, DR Congo, Zambia and of course Argentina.

Now let’s consider Argentina. Private estimates measure the current poverty levels in the Spanish-speaking country at 30%. The official figures estimate lower, but in a country where the inflation rate claimed by the state is merely 10% and the official allowance to live on per day per person is six pesos (less than one euro), their claims are untrustworthy.

In one of the richest regions, the state capital Buenos Aires, over 800 shantytowns – known as villas – exist, which house over half a million people with unreliable electricity sources and lack proper sewage systems.

As well as that, the Argentine state is particularly vulnerable today, as the massive growth rates seen post default have vanished and capital flight is becoming a major problem, as seen by the continued increase in the black market dollar price.

Opinions about Argentina’s current leader Christina Fernandez de Kirchner are polarised throughout Argentina, especially in the capital Buenos Aires, but most agree those who benefit the most from her left-wing and socialist policies are the poorest in society.

Therefore, the ruling in New York promises to affect the most vulnerable – of which there are many – whose benefits and ability to survive would be affected by another default by the Argentinian state. Contrast this to the fortunes of Singer and vulture funds in general, whose large profit margins would hardly be affected by a negative ruling. They would, actually, make no loss, because the money of the restructured rate of return would be the same as their original purchase.

A slum near downtown Buenos Aires

A slum near downtown Buenos Aires

To set the precedent that greedy funds (and make no mistake they are motivated by nothing but greed), who are out simply to bleed vulnerable nations dry, are in the right in the eyes of the law is – to quote former British Prime minister Gordon Brown when speaking of vulture funds activity – “a morally outrageous outcome”.

For the principles of repayment of debt to overrule the vulnerabilities of the poorest in societies is disgusting and a betrayal of any human beliefs in dignity. This is why it is wrong and must be stopped.

As for those behind vulture funds, how different Dostoevsky’s most famous work Crime and Punishment would be if the murder victim was a vulture fund manager not a debt collector. In the novel, the protagonist battles with his conscious after butchering to death a greedy, scurrilous debt collector (and also another person who is in the wrong place at the wrong time). If Dostoevsky replaced his victim with a vulture fund manager, surely the protagonist would have hacked the bastard to death, walked away, had a few vodkas in a local bar to celebrate and carried on with his life after a job well done. It mightn’t of made for an all-time classic, but it definitely would be a satisfying read.

Vulture funds, for their greed and intolerance of wider societal values should never forget the words of Bob Dylan “Let me ask you one question/Is your money that good/Will it buy you forgiveness/Do you think that it could/I think you will find/When your death takes its toll/All the money you made/Will never buy back your soul”. Let’s hope the New York judges hold the same sense of importance on basic morals.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

A Journey Through Time: The Torres del Paine

Sunrise at the Torres del Paine

Sunrise at the Torres del Paine

While hiking the Torres del Paine national park  you should never forget the role of history in the footsteps you take.

As humanity strives to explore further and further into the unknown of outer space, it was what became known as the Torres del Paine national park in Chile, which would have astounded us in our quest for the unknown 12,000 years ago.

Patagonia in South America – which bisects both Argentina and Chile – was the last frontier civilisation reached and occupied in a pursuit around the globe, which began in modern day Kenya.

The view off the bus when you arrive at the park

The view off the bus when you arrive at the park

Desire for exploring, quest for further adventure surely brought them to focus bright-eyed with astonishment, amazement and incredulity at three imposing, formidable granite towers, which form the fulcrum of the Torres del Paine national park.

The Torres (“towers” in Spanish) form the majestic centre piece to multi-day hiking, where the weather is as varied as a Shakespearean protagonist.

To hike over a mountain pass with winds reaching over 100 km/h and rain constantly spitting into your face shouldn’t be fun, shouldn’t be exhilarating, but in Patagonia it is. Your hands are freezing inside layered hiking gloves, while your feet trudge through an ever deepening entanglement of snow, leaving you fighting to balance and move forward against a ferocious wind and a trundling surface.

But you never stop smiling. Because you realise with every step you are experiencing a feeling few times in your life you will ever encounter. Mother Nature throwing a wave of its unkempt emotion at you and two basic instincts set in; the first to continue exploring and the second to survive as you know you may not be comfortable, may even be questioning your sanity, but the prospects of giving up and accepting your fate is anathema to your instincts honed by evolution over millenia.

The view near the top of the mountain pass

The view near the top of the mountain pass

So you smile, endure and at the moment you arrive over the pass, and overlook a glacier surrounded by snow-capped mountains, you realise that Patagonia has given you a life lesson that it has thought people for 12,000 years. To persevere is to achieve.

And so, you continue to weave your way around the magical Torres encountering glaciers, snow-capped peaks and stoic forests (several forest fires caused by campers have done damage to many forests in the area).

Constantly you look to the sky. The dark, loomy heavens give the French valley a Nightmare at Christmas feel, UFO-shaped clouds on calm days lend you to a world of outer space, while strong winds whip up rainbow colours in calm lakes.

The view of a Campsite

The view of a Campsite

It’s the weather which mystifies this wonderful place. It changes relentlessly, forcing no comfort. During seven days of hiking the circuit trail, it began sunny, then rained for 24 hours straight, was sunny again with ever rising winds, which then calmed and it snowed. After that it rained with over 100 km winds, the sun came out with high winds, then it rained again and finished with a calm sunny day.

But how glorious it all is. The interchangable conditions perfectly compliment our emotions, leading to a heightened state of feeling reflected not by the continued pounding on the soles of our feet or the weight on our backs, but by the colour of the sky. Patagonia is alive. It breathes, inhales, cries and bleeds just like we all do. To be amongst it is to be a part of its emotion and you become enriched by it. Patagonia without the weather would be like a peacock without its feathers and nowhere is this more apparent than at the Torres del Paine national park.

Experiencing something which you will remember forever always require one thing to make it feel complete; a chance for reflection. Your thoughts at the time define it. An amazing moment which doesn’t allow for a period of reflection leads you to feel you failed to appreciate what you were a part of.

The Gray Glacier

The Gray Glacier

So, on my seventh and last day of hiking, I perched myself on a rock in complete darkness at the viewing point of the three granite towers awaiting the sun to rise over those impregnable Torres once more. I had the perfect backdrop to reflect on what the first people to set eyes on them 12,000 years ago thought.

Were they inspired? Intimidated? Cautious? Mystified? And what of everyone since then who’s peered up at them, whether it be with the backdrop of clear blue skies or a faded outline through the clouds with Mother Nature beating at them once more? We will never know. But one thing is for sure though. Despite all types of weather imaginable, the towers remain impenetrable. Just like our desire to explore.

The Torres del Paine National Park is located in southern Chile. It is best reached through the town of Puerto Natales, 120 km south of the park. Two hikes are popular. The “W” hike, which is 4-5 days in length and takes in the southern side of the park and the “circuit”, a circular route of almost all of the park which takes 7-9 days. Day hikes, day tours and boat tours are also available.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Hiking to the End of the World

The Esmeralda Lagoon

The Esmeralda Lagoon

To be in Ushuaia is to be at the end of the world, or so they say. It sounds like tourist claptrap, but maybe here, at the edge of Tierra del Fuego, it’s got some truth to it.

The most southerly city in the world lends itself rather more seriously though as the world’s gateway to the final continent – Antarctica.

With prices ranging from $3,500-$7,000 for 12 days sitting on a boat and looking at blocks of ice on the chance a couple of penguins or sea lions will make themselves comfortable on them, you begin to understand what type of people are attracted to the end of the world. The type of people who view “class” in terms of different makes of Mercedes not social income groups.

The view from the top of Cerro del Medio

The view from the top of Cerro del Medio

This all means the city is expensive, but that shouldn’t put you off. The first thing you’ll notice when you arrive isn’t the expensive asado restaurants, but rather the biting wind. If you are travelling from warmer climates like in Buenos Aires, then be prepared to fetch your jacket getting off the plane. Even in the height of summer, Antarctic weather is never too far away.

As you shelter from the wind and rain, another sight will soon become apparent. The astounding view.

Set on a low plain, the city is surrounded by beautiful mountains. With the Beagle Channel directly to the south, further ranges are visible over the water giving Ushuaia a sense of isolation, further boosted by tetchy relations between Chile and Argentina, which means there’s only one road out of town which doesn’t require stringent border checks.

It is this solitude of the capital of Tierra del Fuego, which gives it its charm. The town can be a lively assortment of English-speaking hordes clad in Montague or North Face, who are determined to splash the cash, but you’re never more than five minutes away from being on a trail to blissful detachment.

Ushuaia

Ushuaia

Perhaps the most gorgeous of which is the Cerro del Medio trail, where you hike to the peak at 925m. With a view over the whole town on a trail which is directly accessible from the streets below, after a mere three hours, you find yourself squatting down on a windswept – and perhaps snowy – peak with a fabulous view over the expanse at the end of the world.

Weather-dependent of course. This is Patagonia, so at the closest point civilisation has monopolised to Antarctica, don’t expect the weather to be your best friend.

Tierra del Fuego National Park

Tierra del Fuego National Park

Get in a car or hop on a bus out of town and the undulating territory just keeps revealing itself to you. 18 km north-east is Laguna Esmeralda. It’s an easy half-day hike (three hours up, three hours back), which boasts an astonishing setting with the Fuegian Andes surrounding a pristine and colourful lake. It’s more challenging to ascend to the glacier past the lagoon and you’ll need time on your side, which is a complicated as beaver dams are helpful to navigate parts of the trail. And the beavers don’t get to work till later in the day.

What unfolds in front of you looking back over the lake is astounding. A beautiful setting fit for the end of time and place. And not a relic of humanity in view. If this was the beginning of the world rather than the end, perhaps the metropolises of Buenos Aires, Rio, London or Delhi would be viewed as destroyers of beauty, not centres of cultural learning.

And all of this before even entering the Tiera del Fuego national park. Located 20 km north of Ushuaia close to the Chilean border, it is more expensive than other hiking possibilities, as transport costs (100 pesos/€17) and a park fee entrance (80 pesos/€13) are required.

The view towards the Beagle Channel

The view towards the Beagle Channel

As it is a national park, the place is considerably busier than the other hiking trails and presents little more than the other more cost-effective routes offer.

This shouldn’t put you off though. If you have the time and the spare cash, hiking in the park will have you uttering that ubiquitous Spanish word “tranquilo” when enjoying the day.

If, like on a conveyor belt, you had to pass through the last point of this earth to proceed further Ushuaia would make quite a nice backdrop for our final moments. Humans carved out culture and industry on flat plains near water – the giver of life – but surrounding us are big imposing mounds of dirt and rock backed by strident, brisk weather. We make the best of the abundant richness of the world, but in the end we must succumb to the feeling the Kingmaker isn’t us, but rather Mother Earth. Sometimes you must travel to the end of the world to realise this.

Direct flights operate to Ushuaia from Buenos Aires with LAN and Argentina Aerolineas. It can also be accessed by bus from the southern Chilean city of Punta Arenas, 12 hours away.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Finding Chatwin’s Patagonia

The road from Ushuaia to Rio Grande offers some incredible views

The road from Ushuaia to Rio Grande offers some incredible views

Patagonia is famed for its spectacular scenery and extreme ruggedness. Big imposing mountains, wild terrain, unpredictable weather and world famous glaciers form the basis of most perceptions of the southern section of South America.

But amongst this maze of bewildering landscape small towns exist and thrive.

The most famous attempt to capture what it’s like to live amongst such wilderness is Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, which has become one of the most famous travel books of all time.

Puerto Natales’ main street

Puerto Natales’ main street

Purposely disjointed, the book brings together stories and real-life characters, which together gives Patagonia a sense of life, underpinned by a belief the people of Patagonia are formed by their rugged and extreme surroundings.

As a tourist in the modern-day, it’s difficult to get a sense of the Patagonia which Chatwin succinctly forms, mainly because in these days of cheaper travel costs, Patagonia’s human enclaves are more likely to be filled with backpackers than locals going about their daily lives.

So walk into the Unimart in Puerto Natales, Chile and the aisles are flooded with fresh-faced Europeans and Israelis stocking up for multi-day hiking at the Torres del Paine national park or walk down Ushuaia’s cosy main street and be inundated with shops selling hiking gear.

Mass tourism showing us its teeth perhaps. But this doesn’t mean a sense of place is lost or locals are distant.

Couchsurfing – an internet platform for travellers who wish to stay with locals – offers the chance to bridge the gap between traveler and local even if there’s something unnerving about mixing the internet and the depths of the southern Americas.

Hitchhiking as well is a relatively safe and cost effective way to skip from place to place in Patagonia. The friendly locals will be willing to pick you up after seeing your desperation after two hours waiting in the rain and enduring the famous Patagonian wind.

One of the striking features is the sense of normality in places so isolated. Punta Arenas, which is the only real town of note on the Chilean side lies on a narrow strip of land divided by water from Tierra del Fuego, while on the other side and to the south are 100s of mostly unpopulated islands.

But life carries on as if it was situated at the centre of the world. A central Government building is sullied by paint after student protests turned colourful. Protests which have gripped Chile in recent years. Patagonia isn’t immune from the wider political and social issues of the country.

On the Argentinian-Chilean border at San Sebastian.

On the Argentinian-Chilean border at San Sebastian.

The towns of Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales and El Calafate, which is situated in Argentina and is most famous for being the access town to the Perito Moreno glacier, look like a composition of run down shacks situated on dirt-filled plains which are surrounded by impervious mountain rock.

But these ostensible symbols of poverty, which one would believe would lead into villa 31 in Buenos Aires or the favales in Rio de Janeiro, are not what they seem. Inside are modern, contemporary homes hosted by shop owners, electrical engineers and tech savvy students. Patagonia’s weather and landscape may not have changed in thousands of years, but its people have.

Between the astonishing landscapes of the Glaciers National Park in Argentina or the Torres del Paine National Park over the border in Chile lay this incredible almost dead land between the two. The borders lay forth a barren landscape which probably explains why despite difficult relations – Chile supported Britain during the war against Argentina over the Falkland’s Islands/Las Malvinas – neither country decides to attack the other.

The borders seem like something out of the inner sanctums of outer Mongolia. A few sheep of note trundle about largely undisturbed, while an abandoned building blots the landscape. If you wanted a bit of quiet time, you’d be wise to head to Patagonia’s borders, because no one else would bother following you there.

Along the banks of El Calafate

Along the banks of El Calafate

The roads meanwhile go quickly downhill near the borders. Gone is the paved asphalt and is replaced by noisy, car-destroying dirt roads, where going over 40 km/h could see you slide off into one of the ditches on either side. Barely wide enough for two cars going against each other, these roads are used by trucks and buses going over the borders too.

But it all adds up to give you a true sense of what being In Patagonia truly means. Hike up to the Torres del Paine viewing point or watch in awe at ice breaking off at Perito Moreno and you get a sense of some of the most beautiful Earth-forms on the planet. But this part of the world is also brittle, extreme, varied and, above all, imperfect.

It is that contrast which endears us to it. Chatwin exuded Patagonia in lifeform. But he could never of done that unless Patagonia offered itself up in all its contradictory and emotional forms.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

A chamuyero talks about three weeks in Buenos Aires, boludo

DSC_0319I’ve now lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina for three weeks. Here’s a rundown of what’s intrigued, surprised and agitated.

Transport: I’m not sure if the person who designed the Buenos Aires bus system is the same person organising Google’s search algorithms, but it would make sense. With the subway limited mostly to the city centre, the buses are a necessary evil in a city with nearly 20 million people in the wider metropolis. With over 200 lines, it’s a confusing mess where second-guessing where the bus will end up is required. The buses truly do work like bananas to use a Dublin phrase; they come in bunches. I waited 20 minutes for a number 140 yesterday. In that time five number 132s went by. The underground, meanwhile, smells mostly of urine, which I guess you could say adds to its character. The windows look like they are about to shatter to pieces, if they haven’t already, while no clocks display when the next train arrives. It comes when it comes. Transportation is also a risky business. Pickpockets target the crowded undergrounds – we are talking packt like sardines in a crushed tin box crowded – while the creaking transport system has had three major accidents in recent years. The most fatal resulted in 51 deaths at Once train station in February 2012. It may not be efficient, but it certainly is cheap. Up to 3.50 pesos for a journey is about 50 cent each trip. With a transport card, a bus ride costs 20 cent. At 3.50 pesos, a journey is a third of the price of a bottle of coke. Taking a journey on a subway on a Sunday also probably means you don’t have the pay. No one mans the gates, so people just go through. Some train journeys are free too. You could sit on a train for an hour and not have to pay a penny (or centavo as it is here) for the privilege.

Currency: You’ll truly appreciate the value of a stable currency like the dollar, the British pound or the euro (we hope) when you live in Argentina. It borders on comical. You cannot exceed a limit on taking out money per day, which is set at 1,000 pesos (about 160 euro), while the official currency exchange is different from the black market currency exchange. Pop your ATM card into a machine and you get 6.40 pesos for every euro, pop down calle Florida  – a shopping street littered with people (illegally) asking for exchange of dollars or euros – and they’ll give you an exchange of around 8.50 pesos for your euro. Cash in hand is worth more than the (same) money in your bank account. Incidentally, both the “official” and black market are responsible. The black market sellers want stable currency, so offer more, but the state manipulates the currency rates in order to keep it lower. This leads to a situation where official businesses, like language schools or hostels, prefer payment in US dollars than pesos. And if you pay in pesos, you won’t pay the “official” rate, you’ll pay somewhere in between the “official” and black market rate. Confused? Thought so. Here in Argentina, they console themselves it could be worse. In Venezuela, the black market exchange to US dollars is around 20:1, the official about 5:1.

Paying rent in Buenos Aires involves a big wad of cash

Paying rent in Buenos Aires involves a big wad of cash

The rising peso also means the largest note – the 100 peso note – only has a value of about 16 euros. This means paying for large transaction – like paying rent – requires a serious wad of cash, which makes you feel, briefly, like Scarface’s Tony Montana. Also, there’s a distinct shortage of coins in the city. You’ll need them for the buses, as they only accept change, so guard them like the British guard the Falklands. Also, if you pay for something costing, say 29 pesos, and you hand 30 pesos over the counter, don’t presume you are getting a one peso coin back. And as for asking for change, remember the grotesque face the shopkeeper pulls when you do, it will mean you won’t make such a foolish mistake again. Cost of living: With the minimum wage at 2,875 pesos per month (423 euros), which would be half the amount of the equivalent in my home country Ireland, it’s astonishing Argentines manage to get by when food is on the whole more expensive than in Ireland, rent marginally less expensive, while wine and public transport the only things substantially cheaper. The equivalent of a loaf of bread sets you back around €3, with a bag of crisps €1.50, while an average McDonald’s meal costs 45 pesos (€7.50), while the average in Ireland would be €6.50. As for Iphones and fellow imported technological goods, most Argentines can forget them. They are the preserves of the rich and the thieves who steal them off tourists. A brand new Iphone would set you back almost €1,000 in Argentina, because of import restrictions imposed by the Government, but also the legacy of the default, which resulted in high inflation. Such luxuries normal in the West – like, eh, holidays – are a distant pipe dream for most living in Buenos Aires, even in their own country. One porteno (a person from the capital) recently said even though the country has an abundance of ski resorts, she’d never be able to afford a ski holiday even though she wanted to.

Those with cars bypass public transport difficulties

Those with cars bypass public transport difficulties

Men and women: Most unsuspecting young woman’s first impression of Buenos Aires will probably be framed by the catcalls and shouts of “linda” or “guapa” from, in the main, old men on the street. Women from Buenos Aires seem to take it more in their stride, instead choosing to say why men from northern Europe are so “timida” (shy). According to women I’ve talked to, men in nightclubs are very aggressive with those who aren’t with a boyfriend, while once in a relationship, don’t hold back confessing their undying love. It’s still the “done thing” for men to pay for the women in Argentina, which in Europe is less and less pronounced. Argentine women are in a word – gorgeous – but are known to be extremely difficult to approach. While not as bland, they’d give the birds of paradise in Papua New Guinea a run for their money in terms of pickiness.

Language: I’m still a relative beginner to learning Spanish, but noticeable difference exist between Argentine Spanish and Spanish in other countries, which makes it actually quite a bit more fun to learn. Those from Buenos Aires are called portenos and say “aca” instead of “aquí” (meaning here), while words with double l’s are pronounced differently to name but two examples. Buenos Aires also has its own slang called lunfardo, which is a treat to listen to and learn, as most of the words are dirty or funny in meaning. “Che” meaning “hey you” or “boludo” meaning “man” or “dude”, can also have a more insulting meanings. Some greats are chamuyero (pronounced chah-moo-SHARE-o) meaning a smooth-talker/bullshitter and “tapu” meaning slut, instead of the more widely known “puta”.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Argentinian Meltdown: How Argentina Defaulted and What it Teaches Europe’s Bailout Nations

The unfinished Anglo-Irish bank building remains a symbol of Ireland's economic downfall

The unfinished Anglo-Irish bank building remains a symbol of Ireland’s economic downfall

A lot of attention in Europe during the economic crisis has focused on the bailouts given to Greece, Ireland and Portugal, as well as the debt deal offerings to Spain. With those bailouts, many within those countries viewed the terms requiring access to funds to be so severe a debt default would be in the greater interest for the state.

Greece has already negotiated a structural default on a portion of its debt, while Ireland appears in line for some sort of debt restructuring in 2013, but let’s look at what a unilateral default would potentially mean, using the case example of the Argentine debt default of 2001.

Argentina is the second biggest economy in South America, the largest Spanish-speaking country by area in the world and home to 44 million people. In 2001, it became the most high-profile country in history to default on its debt.

Argentine debts began racking up during the military dictatorship of 1976-83, which also coincided with the failed invasion of Las Malvinas (the Falklands Islands), another burden on the finances. Late in the 1980s and unable to service its debt, the Argentine saw hyperinflation, with an estimated peak of 12000% in the year 1989.

Another bout of hyperinflation occurred in 1991 and with Argentinians losing all confidence in their own currency, they started demanded payment in dollars. The currency, peso, was pegged to the US dollar in 1991, which brought stability and a reduction in inflation.

This proved unsustainable however as the public debt kept growing which was serviced by loans from the IMF. By 1999, with critically high unemployment and economic problems due to over-borrowing, as well as a reevaluation of the US dollar and Brazilian real, the country went into freefall.

The IMF, seeing the situation deteriorate, responded in much the same way it has to the Eurozone crisis, by demanding austerity. The deficit was at 2.5% in 1999 with external debt to GDP at above 50% (To place the Eurozone crisis into context, pre-bailout Ireland had a 13.1% deficit and debt levels of 108%, while Greece reached a deficit of 14% with 181% debt levels).

Severe rioting occurred in Buenos Aires around the time of the default. Photo: journal.ie

Severe rioting occurred in Buenos Aires around the time of the default. Photo: journal.ie

With rising bond yields and Argentina consistently failing to meet GDP growth projections – which, incidentally, were predicted by the IMF – more and more was borrowed at below-market interest rates from the IMF, World Bank and US Treasury, who demanded more austerity in return for the loans.

With unemployment of 20%, seven rounds of austerity, a law freezing Argentine bank accounts so money could not be moved out of the country and serious rioting, the IMF refused a tranche of US$1.3 billion until further austerity measures were enacted. The then President, soon after calling a state of emergency, abdicated and the new Rodriguez Saá Government defaulted on a large part of their total borrowing of US$132 billion.

The currency was no longer pegged to the dollar, which depreciated the peso by 70%. This returned the country to competitiveness, which was important for economic growth in future years, but all but obliterated any life-savings its citizens may have had.

This is directly similar to the case of Eurozone countries as they are pegged to the Euro. Any exit from that currency, which would be enforced in the event of unilateral default, would mean about a 50% depreciation in an Irish currency and 65% decrease in the Greek drachma.

Further figures for a Greek exit (Grexit) would see unemployment rise from 22% to 34%, a per capita income fall of 55%, while inflation would rise from 2% to 30%.

During the years following the default, Argentina had massive growth rates of between 8% and 10% in the years up to the current worldwide economic crisis of 2008. Wages also increased annually by 17% during the same period, although a large chunk of this was eaten up by inflation. The argument is that Argentina was able to return its economy to pre-GDP size within three of the crisis while it would be something akin to a miracle if Greece returned to pre crisis GDP before the current decade is out. Therefore, if Greece defaults, then it will recover more quickly.

The Irish economy, meanwhile, is reliant on foreign national corporations – many of whom including Microsoft, Google and Hewlett Packard have their European bases in Ireland – which set up in Ireland in order to avail of low Corporation Tax rates. A unilateral default would likely mean expulsion from the euro for Ireland and would thus become less attractive to these companies as it would no longer operate within the biggest currency in the continent and a large degree of trust in the country’s financial system would be lost.

A massive protest in Buenos Aires November 2012, as Argentina continues to struggle with inflation issues. Photo: Ibtimes.com

A massive protest in Buenos Aires November 2012, as Argentina continues to struggle with inflation issues. Photo: Ibtimes.com

Perhaps the most important factor though is to consider how far Argentina sunk during the years  after the default – poverty rates above 55% with 25% unable to feed themselves sufficiently – these figures are astonishly high, in comparison to troubled Greece’s poverty rate, which is currently at 22%; Ireland’s is at 16%.

With Ireland having one of the highest levels of personal indebtedness in the world, poverty would increase massively as more and more citizens would simply be unable to pay back debts, because the cost of living would increase massively as inflation would rise to offset the depreciation in the currency. As in the case of Argentina even to this day, any goods necessary to be imported into Ireland would rise dramatically in price.

A default also doesn’t mean debt doesn’t have to be repaid. IMF money lent to countries is considered “privileged” meaning it must be paid back above all other debts. Argentina paid over US$10 billion back to the IMF between 2005 and 2008, while most other debts were restructured at 20-30% of their value repayable over a longer time frame. Many organisations, like ‘Taskforce Argentina’ have mobilised individual creditors to force repayment from the Argentine Government.

Currently almost 93% of Argentine debt from the default has been restructured, while it remains under threat of litigation from the remaining 7%. 11 years after defaulting, Argentina remains unable to borrow on international markets, while continuing instability with its currency sees the peso consistently rising against the dollar and inflation levels believed to be above 20%. Officially, the Argentine Government claims the inflation level is around 10%, but most analysts claim this is a manipulation of the figures.

So what awaits a Eurozone country willing to default? Probably a return to strong growth within two years, but a massive increase in poverty levels following the default, a depreciation of the new currency, an exponential rise in inflation, a disappearance of savings, a fall in income and an increase in the cost of any imported goods for citizens.

The current situation within the eurozone, or even within the wider European Union, may not be perfect with a clear lack of democratic accountability and the major nations continuing to rule in their own favour over the interests of the indebted, peripheral state, but still, as the saying goes, it’s better the devil you know.

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Revolutions, Writers and Fathers: The Irish in Argentina

While rivals on the rugby field, Ireland and Argentina are closely linked by emigration. Photo: morganmckinley.ie

While rivals on the rugby field, Ireland and Argentina are closely linked by emigration. Photo: morganmckinley.ie

Perhaps it is surprising then of the level of immigration from Ireland to Argentina, in which 500,000-1,000,000 people are of Irish descent. Estimates are difficult to verify, due to inefficient record-keeping during the main period of Irish emigration, 1830-1930. If true, the diaspora in the South American country would be the fifth largest Irish community in the world.

The impact the community has made there is vast. Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara – probably the most well-known person to come out of South America – was born in Rosario, Argentina and is a relative of Patrick Lynch, born in Galway, Ireland in 1715.

Guevara’s father, Ernesto Guevara Lynch , advanced the link between ancestral homeland and son when he said “the first thing to note is that in my son’s veins flowed the blood of the Irish rebels.

The revolutionary was certainly aware of his Irish roots and referenced the journey made from Galway to Argentina in an interview with a Sunday Tribune journalist during an unexpected trip to Ireland (the plane he was flying on suffered mechanical problems and had to land at Shannon airport) aged 37.

How aware he was of Irish history and culture remains rather unclear with his musings making few references to Ireland. But considering Ireland’s history of rebellion against a colonial power, Guevara’s ideology and his actions in Cuba until eventual death in Bolivia, it certainly makes for a convenient fit.

The Cuban fighter isn’t the only revolutionary of Irish descent. Walk along Dublin’s Sir John Rogerson Quay and you’ll see a statue of the founder of the Argentine navy, Admiral William Brown. Revered in Argentina – several military ships, four football clubs and over 1,000 streets in Argentina bear his name – he was born in Foxford, Co. Mayo in 1777.

Buenos Aires

A statue of Admiral William Brown in Dublin

Rising to Commander-In-Chief of the Argentine Navy, he led victories against the Spanish during the War of Independence, against Brazil and scuppered a blockade by the British and the French of Río del la Plata, which is the sea area around Buenos Aires.

Brown, incidentally, wasn’t the only military leader of Irish descent to lead an Independence struggle against the Spanish. In Chile, Bernardo O’Higgins, whose father was born in Sligo, Ireland and Juan McKenna – himself born in Monaghan, Ireland – played prominent roles in Chile’s struggle against their colonisers 1810-1821. O’Higgins is particularly revered with a city in the south and a central avenue in the capital Santiago named after him.

Revolution isn’t the preserve of Irish emigrants to Argentina however. Father Anthony Dominic Fahy – born in Loughrea, Co. Galway – became leader of the Irish community from the mid-1830s to his death in 1871. He helped the newly-arrived Irish immigrants into Argentina and raised £411 of relief during the Great Famine of 1845-49.

He is buried in Argentina’s most revered cemetery, Recoleta, in the north of Buenos Aires and the Fahy Club was set up in Buenos Aires to honour his legacy and still exists to this day. Current President Michael D. Higgins visited there in October 2012 saying “in this Club it resembles a little corner of County Westmeath or County Longford from which most of your ancestors came.”

Father Fahy also played a part in a famous story with the Irish diaspora at its heart. Camila O’Gorman, born in Buenos Aires but of Irish descent, was eight months pregnant when she was executed by firing squad aged 20 in 1848.

She escaped to the northern Argentine state of Corrientes with Father Ladislao Gutiérrez after he was sentenced to the death penalty for sacrilegious theft. When found – by an Irish priest named Fr. Michael Gannon – she refused the claim she was raped by the priest, and stated that in fact she initiated the elopement. The pair were both brought to a prison near Buenos Aires, where both were killed. A 1984 movie about the affair, entitled ‘Camila’, became the second Argentine movie to be nominated for an Academy award.

Father Fahy is buried in Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires

Father Fahy is buried in Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires

Another area in which those of Irish descent excelled is in journalism. The most famous is a Rodolfo Walsh, who was murdered by members of a  special military group on the streets of Buenos Aires in 1977 – a time when Argentina was ruled by military dictatorship.

Walsh was heavily critical of the junta and considered himself to be not just a journalist, but an activist as well. He wrote his most famous work, ‘Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta’, the day before his murder, in which he criticised the economic policies of the military as almost worse than their human rights abuses.

In the areas of politics, Ricardo López Murphy lasted only nine days as Economics Minister as Argentina lay on the brink of default in 2001, while, in sport, Santiago Phelan is current head coach of the Argentine rugby team. A nice fast fact is that Argentina’s first Miss Universe is of Irish descent. By the name Norma Nolan, she won the prize in 1962.

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Could the real Buenos Aires Please Stand Up

Buenos Aires

Avenida 9 de Julio is one of Buenos Aires’ most enticing places

Walk into a shop with your bag placed behind your back and you will be immediately warned to move it to the front because thieves will target you. Welcome to the “Paris of South America”.

Buenos Aires is the most visited city in South America, which after spending three weeks of a prolonged stay is rather surprising.

The Argentine capital beats Rio de Janeiro into second place, despite the Brazilian metropolis boasting probably the most awe-inspiring setting of any city in the world. Even in spite of that, if you had the choice between performing a tango at a milonga or samba at Carneval, I think most tourists would be wise enough to choose the latter.

BA is marketed as the “Paris of South America”, which is a credit to the marketing team, because they’ve managed to hoodwink tourists and get away with this claim for years. In reality, it is nothing like Paris. (A slight argument exists that the upmarket district Recoleta boasts some similarities to Parisian plush areas, but it really is slight).

The City of Lights has pristine boulevards, majestic palaces and endearing parks. The home of Tango boasts nothing like the depth of beauty seen in France’s capital or in any of Europe’s most beautiful cities like Vienna, Prague, Edinburgh or Venice.

Buenos Aires

Ojo – The fear of pickpocketing gives rise to an expression in Buenos Aires

It is more apt to call it Barcelona’s big awkward brother. Take the Catalan capital, feed it to a few quarter-pounders to bulk it up (not hard to find here, McDonald’s are ubiquitous), tear its clothes to give it a shabby look, give him a t-shirt which says “Ojo”, a bottle of Quilmes in one hand, a couple of precious US dollars in the other and have him tango his way up an avenida and you get a fair idea of what makes BA tick.

Like the home of Argentine hero Lionel Messi, Buenos Aires boasts astonishingly beautiful buildings, like Casa Rosada and Congresso, but are mixed in with block after block of drab, concrete meshes, and along with crowded streets, serve to suffocate the city’s elegance. Admittedly, that’s not hard to do in the 17th biggest city in the world.

Few streets in the capital are without holes on the pathways, tipped over rubbish is a regular sight on street corners, pipe leaks regularly spray water down on you, old men catcall any woman with a decent (or not so decent) pair of legs on the street and the city is almost completely without water fountains, despite heat of 30-40 degrees in summer.

The biggest issue though is safety. Pick-pocketing appears endemic in the city and hangs over every local’s action. As a tourist, you are expected to be on guard at all times.

During a week-long Spanish learning course I did, two of five fellow students had been victims during that week, both on the subway. One had her bag cut open with a knife and her camera taken, while the other felt a hand come into his pocket, which luckily contained nothing, so the thief went away empty-handed.

To walk around the city with a camera clearly visible is to be a walking target and is quite stressful, especially for someone like myself who likes taking pictures with a brand new SLR.

Due to import restrictions, reflex cameras and Iphones are extremely expensive and rare in Argentina, hence a pretty penny could be made by thieves who manage to acquire them from unsuspecting tourists.

This probably explains why the tourist hotspots – even despite being the most popular tourist city destination in South America – rarely seem inundated with tourists, like Paris’ Eiffel Tower or around Westminister in London are. No tourist is too eager to appear like a tourist in the Argentine capital.

To be in Buenos Aires is to be aware. So much so that a catchphrase and action has been formed out of it – Ojo! – meaning “Watch out!”

In the city of “Ojo!”, the more “chic” (a euphemism for “tourist trap”) areas – La Boca and San Telmo – come with a danger warning. Step off the main tourist trails and onto the wrong streets in La Boca – most football fans will recognise the name as it is the home of Boca Juniors – is to increase your chances exponentially of being robbed at gunpoint. San Telmo is seen as best avoided at night, although it’s popular location for tourist accommodation.

The fact Buenos Aires remains a top tourist destination despite the serious issues of pick-pocketing – which would be enough to ruin any holiday – is probably a wider reflection of how unsafe large cities in South America are in general, rather than how much of an allure BA holds despite its safety issues.

Buenos Aires

Plaza de Mayo – the scene of many of Argentina’s most brutal days

This article is largely critical of Buenos Aires, but that’s not the intention. It is a thoroughly interesting city, with a wealth of things to do which, for sure, no tourist could ever do all of.

It’s clíched, but tango is extremely cool and very, very sexy.

Buenos Aires is also a melting pot of diverse cultures, whether they be descendents from Spanish or Italian immigrants 100 years ago or more recent arrivals from Paraguay and Bolivia. It makes for a fascinating cultural mix.

Also, the position Buenos Aires finds itself in its history makes it a fascinating city to experience and be a part of. It really feels like you are a part of a frontline experience of a city and country still living through its traumas – something which isn’t felt in Western Europe where most traumas appear left behind in 1945 and with the advent of *whisper it* the European Union.

This gives the feeling European cities are living museums – something I mean both positively and negatively – while to be a part of Buenos Aires feels like being a part of a city still living through its history. The continuing uncertainty of the value of the Argentinian peso against the dollar emphasises this.

Just ten years ago, outside Casa Rosada, protesters were killed as they demonstrated against the disappearance of what little savings they may have had, through no mistakes of their own. One year later, over 55% of the population of Argentina were defined as impoverished.

Therefore, to expect the Buenos Aires of 2013 not to have problems is ridiculous and unrealistic. Hence why you’d just wish the tourist authorities would cut the bullshit and tell it like it is.

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Brazil Nightclub Deaths Emphasise the Lifeline of Development

Living in Buenos Aires

Scene from a tragedy: Outside Kiss nightclub. Photo: guardian.co.uk

Two significant events took place on the weekend of 25th-27th January 2013.

The first was the EU-Latin American summit in Chile, attended by European Union member state representatives and representatives from most countries in the Americas, but not the two biggest economically; United States and Canada.

Geo-political commentators dressed up the summit as Latin America’s chance to gloat, as Europe continues to stare into a debt-filled abyss. Debt to GDP ratio in the European Union is more than double what it is in Latin America, while several Eurozone countries have have had to call in the IMF in recent years, and the majority have stagnant or recessionary economies.

Latin American economies, meanwhile, are growing at, on average, 4% per annum and debt ratios remain stable, while one country, Chile, is on the cusp of being tagged as a “developed”  – rather than “developing” – country for the first time, while Brazil has become the world’s sixth biggest economy.

Buenos Aires

The scene from the crash at Once station in February2012. Photo ibtimes.co.uk

Argentine president Christina Fernandez de Kirchner recently said “26% unemployment in Spain should be a wake-up call for all of us […] Argentines, believe me, we are a fortunate country.” Such a statement, however ill-conceived it is, would have been unthinkable only a generation ago.

The other – and much more important – event was the nightclub tragedy in Brazil in which 231 people lost their lives. Never could an event serve as a wake-up call to responsibilities to truly be a “developed” country than this tragedy.

Through the deaths of those clubbers, Brazil – and wider Latin America for the that matter – must recognise that the fast development of their economies is only one reflection of the improvement of a nation – perhaps even more important is the valuing of human life and the livelihoods of its citizens.

The Kiss nightclub in the southern Brazilian city of Santa Maria had one available exit and had between 1,200-1,300 people inside at the time pyrotechnics were let off by members of the band playing.

The issue doesn’t seem to be that Brazil lacks robust rules by which nightclubs are governed, but a lack of enforcement. Every nightclub should have a fire extinguisher for every 1,500 feet and multiply emergency exits, according to the rules in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, but this clearly wasn’t the case at Kiss.

Scroll through the list of nightclub tragedies since the turn of the millenium and it is South America which dominates the list; 17 deaths in Quito in April 2008, 194 in Buenos Aires in December 2004, 47 in Caracas in December 2002, 28 in Lima in July 2002 to name the worst.

It should be stated that South America is extremely diverse, so the rules (or lack thereof) that are used in one nation aren’t applicable across the continent or indeed Latin America. This is perhaps best emphasised with South American countries’ ratings on levels of corruption. According to Transparency International, Argentina and Venezuela rank low -102nd and 165th respectively – while Uruguay and Chile creep into the world’s top 20.

But given the level of development on the continent in recent years, its appropriate to look at the continent as a whole.

Nightclub tragedies are not the only form of tragedy. 49 people lost their lives at Once train station in Buenos Aires in February 2012 after a faulty brake sent the train into a railway bumper. Again, lack of enforcing regulations, along with a creaking transport system, seemed to be the cause.

Brazil also has a more silent killer – one of the highest percentages of road deaths in the world. A 2009 study rated the country the ninth worst country for auto deaths with 40,000 dying per year – a rate of 24 per 100,000, which makes a person there three times more likely to die as a result of a traffic accident than in Sweden or Canada.

Buenos Aires

All eyes on Rio as it prepares to host World Cup and the Olympics. Photo: Wikipedia

All of this is juxtaposed with the growing status of Brazil. Awarded the World Cup for 2014 and with Rio de Janeiro hosting the Olympics in 2016, the world is looking with growing awe at South America’s biggest country.

Although the country’s economy has grounded to a halt in recent years – only 1% Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth in 2012, down from 7.5% in 2010 – it still promises to be a major international player in the future, along with the fellow emerging powers known as the BRICS; Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

But the tragedy of San Martin emphasises such crass interpretations of development, whether they be by GDP per capita or by the Human Development Index (HDI) do not necessarily relate the quality of life in these countries.

While the European Union may be mired in debt and suffer high unemployment in its periphery, its citizens can still walk into a nightclub knowing they will almost certainly have an emergency exit to use in the case of a fire, can avail of public transport knowing a delay is the biggest of their concerns or use their country’s roads with a promise of relative safety.

Until Latin America can offer such assurances to its citizens, its development has a long way to run yet.

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Incentives Into Employment

The long dole queues emphasise the continued problem of unemployment

The long dole queues emphasise the continued problem of unemployment

With the numbers on the live register failing to show any major drop in recent months and the number of long-term unemployed growing, it’s important to look at what services the Government offers to incentivise those on benefits back into the workforce or into further education.

The most recent jobs figures released by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) show unemployment at 426,000 (14% of the workforce) with four out of nine being on the unemployment register for more than one year.

The figure is a decrease from the height it reached in February 2012 when unemployment was at 15%, but has remained largely static since the beginning of 2013.

Since the recession began, which brought with it an almost doubling of those on the Live Register, the Department has introduced a host of measures to alleviate unemployment and direct people back to work.

When contacted the Department’s press office said with the amalgamation of the Department, Fás and the Community Welfare Service as “Intreo”, all those in receipt of welfare must attend a group engagement session, where they are informed about opportunities available under the various unemployment schemes. This is then followed up by one-to-one interviews with an “experienced employment services officer”.

But this wasn’t the experience of Dermot Murray (25), a graduate of a business course DIT who has been unemployed for nine months.

He was only offered the group engagement session after six months on the register and said the rest of those present at the meeting were over six months unemployed as well.

He does think the meeting was helpful though. “You get a lot of information, while those giving the presentations are very honest and open about what’s available.”

JobbridgeHe’s more critical of the one-on-one meeting with the employment officer. “It was completely patronising. I understand that the officer probably has to deal with some difficult people from time to time, but it’s like she was talking to a five year-old who had to be put in his place.”

As part of the meeting, the officer assesses your CV and offers advice on improvements. The jobseeker then fixes up the CV and sends back a draft to the employment advisor to assess further. “She said she would respond to my re-drafted CV by the end of the week, but I never got a reply”.

The most famous incentive the Fine Gael-Labour coalition has offered to those unemployed is Jobbridge, where six or nine month internships are made available at companies where the intern is taken from the Live Register and paid by the state.

The applicant must be on the live register for more than six months and receives €50 on top of the social welfare benefit they receive.

Patricia McKenna (26) is in her sixth of a nine month internship at a major multinational company in Dublin city centre, which boasts profits of billions per year.

She believes the Jobbridge scheme suited the company in the time of recession, which despite making large profits in the preceding years, has cut back on staff worldwide.

“They were not hiring in many areas so I believe the Jobbridge scheme suited them in this regard to fill gaps,” she says.

When contacted for this article, the press office at the Department of Social Protection informed us of “a variety of control measures and criteria” to ensure employers do not use Jobbridge as a way of replacing existing employees or recently laid off staff.

These include an employer being unable to avail of Jobbridge if “the organisation would have to recruit an employee to carry out the tasks identified in the internship.”

Meanwhile, major companies cannot overload their staff with interns from the scheme as it is limited to 20% of the workforce or 200 interns, if the 20% amount exceeds that figure.

Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, presenting "Intreo".

Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, presenting “Intreo”.

The Department points to the successful figures of the internship scheme. Over 15,000 internships have commenced since its launch in July 2011, while 61% of Jobbridge interns have progressed into full-time employment within five months of the ending of their contract.

For McKenna, her experiences show different perspectives on Jobbridge. She points to the tag of “intern” as being a hindrance to her prospects with the company. “I don’t find myself that challenged or very very busy at work at all because management know I am not staying so it is pointless for them to give me long term projects.”

She works 9-5 Monday to Friday so “the work I do does not resemble the money I earn in the slightest.”

“I do think it is exploitation because as history tells us – you work you get paid, simple as. Anything else just ruins the very simple business model”, but also adds “it fills a gap on your CV that may not have been filled otherwise due to many businesses taking a complete freeze on hiring staff particularly those with fewer than five years experience.”

To deal directly with those on the Live Register for over one year, the Government introduced Tús in July 2011, a scheme solely for those in receipt of benefits for over one year. To date 8,650 people have commenced Tús work placements.

Other schemes on offer include the Back to Education Allowance, where during the current academic year, over 25,000 people are supported under the scheme where those unemployed can return to secondary or third-level education and still retain their benefits.

The Back to Work Enterprise Allowance (BTWEA) and Short Term Enterprise Allowance (STEA) schemes offer incentives for those who wish to start up a business, which over 11,800 take-ups in 2012.

The Employer Job PRSI scheme, meanwhile, exempts employers from paying PRSI on an employee taken from the live register for up to 18 months. The initiative has seen over nearly 3,400 employees take up positions at companies.

If those unemployed refuse to attend meetings, take up offered courses of employment, a penalty of €44 can be imposed. If they continue to fail to engage with the Department, their receipt of benefit is open to review, leading to possible suspension or termination of payment.

“All persons in receipt of a Jobseekers payment must take up any reasonable offer of employment. The consequences of not doing so include full loss of payment,” says the Department’s press office.

Names have been changed

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2013 in Government policy

 

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A Kraving for Self-Defense

Krav Maga founder Patrick Cumiskey (front) demonstrates a technique

Krav Maga Ireland founder Patrick Cumiskey (front) demonstrates a technique

“I was once asked in a B&B in Ennis would I really gouge someone’s eyes out if attacked? ‘Oh, absolutely’ I replied”, says Ruth Savill, a mother-of-six. A “star pupil”, according to her trainer, she’s been doing Krav Maga since July 2011. “It’s fantastic, magic. Nothing beats doing it in a room full of sweaty individuals. I’m hooked”.

Krav Maga is a self-defence system developed in Israel and used by the Israeli defense forces, which emphasises defending yourselves in street fighting situations, rather than perfecting the “art” of fighting, like in karate or taekwondo. The skill was developed by Imi Lichtenfeld in 1930s Bratislava, who wished to defend the Jewish Quarter from fascist groups.

Attacks

The Israeli army is the only army in the world that conscripts women, which demonstrates that this is a technique designed for both men and women to use, argues the man who brought Krav Maga to Ireland in 2001, Patrick Cumiskey. “I was looking for something that teaches people how to protect themselves on the street and found other martial arts forms aren’t structured in that way”, says Cumisky who is also a black belt in karate.
With recent tragic attacks on Irish women Catherine Gowing and Jill Meagher in Wales and Australia, women are more aware than ever of the need to protect themselves and avoid dangerous situations.
A heavy emphasis is put on the concept of personal space. “Why is it a problem if a stranger is closer than arm’s length away from you? Because he shouldn’t be there!”, screams Cumisky during the course.
“Luckily, I’ve never been attacked, but there’s been a few dodgy situations. One time, in a not-too-nice part of Dublin, I saw a group of youths. Two crossed the road towards me. I mentally prepared myself for how I’d get out of it. They didn’t try anything, but I made sure to look them in the eye as they walked past. It’s good to know I’ll fight if necessary”, says Savill, who is the owner of Paris Bakery on Moore Street in Dublin.
During the beginner course pupils learn how to escape from headlocks, various chokes, grabs, as well as striking actions such as face palming, kneeing and elbowing. Learning defence against knife, stick and gun attacks are trained at more advanced levels.

Street Fights

“Most street fights only last, on average, 5-10 seconds and most attackers are untrained and use the element of surprise”, says Cumiskey. Therefore, if you can learn various techniques, which even might only serve to disrupt the attacker, generally the bad guy won’t stick around to finish the job.
In fact, the techniques aren’t the most important thing. “People sometimes say ‘Oh, I didn’t do the technique right’. I reply ‘but did you get out of it?’, that’s the most important thing”, says Maria Poole, who has been learning Krav Maga for three years and is an instructor. She sees people, both men and women, walk in quite timid and unsure, and change totally throughout the course. “At the start you see people crumple up crying, but then suddenly a switch gets flicked, they go nuts and are willing to beat people up. Seeing people change is the most rewarding thing”.
Cumiskey, who is a trained psychologist, comes across as ebullient and good-natured throughout the course, but unleashes an ostensibly manic aggression, when demonstrating techniques and imagining scenarios of being attacked.
It is that aggression, which he and the other instructors wish to bring out in people that, they believe, can save people from attack. “Modern industrial and urban societies teach us to be quiet and calm, but when someone is coming towards you aggressively, I want you to scream, really scream, “Stay back, get away, stay back!”, orders Cumiskey to his class.
Cumiskey points to examples like that of an Irish woman who was attacked down an alleyway in Hong Kong by several males. She didn’t complete the entire Krav Maga course but just remembered to scream her head off when attacked. As a result, several police officers from a nearby bar heard her screams, intervened just in time and arrested the attackers. “That principle, while simultaneously raising your hands to protect yourself, is the most successful technique to avoid being attacked”.
No doubt the course brings out that aggression. It would be difficult to complete all aspects of the course without it, as it is designed to push you to the level of an all-hell-breaks-loose street situation, where instinct, rather than rationale sets in.

Confident

“I now feel confident that I know what to do if I find myself in a life threatening situation where somebody wants to do me harm”, says current trainee Patrick O’Hare. He and a friend were attacked and mugged by five men late at night while walking home. The assault, during which he suffered several head injuries, prompted him to take up the self-defense course. “The course has really changed my perspective on how to protect myself and my loved ones”.
“The thing that gets people the most after being attacked is that they did nothing. They froze. This course aims to make you feel like you’ve been in a fight, so you have a reference if something bad does happen”, says the Krav Maga Ireland founder.
Orders like “OK, this time, I want to you facepalm twice, elbow, elbow, rip the face, gouge the eye, rip the ear and bite” become normal. This is simulated on another person, or done full-force on a striking pad.
Krav Maga Ireland offers beginners either a 12-week course for one and a half hours per week or a weekend course, consisting of eight hours a day over two days. For further training, participants can join the academy. For further information, see their website http://www.kravmagaireland.com/

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Learning a language the unconventional way – By speaking

Ireland isn’t exactly known for its language learning abilities. 66% of us can’t hold a conversation in a language other than our mother tongue, which is the lowest in the European Union. So it’s quite a surprise to hear the winner of the Language Blog 2012 award is an Irishman, who is fluent in eight languages and is currently learning Mandarin.

Benny Lewis from Cavan runs the website http://www.fluentin3months.com/, where he takes on the challange of learning a foreign language in three months. He’s just finishing up a stint in Taipei before heading around Asia with what he’s learned. He describes his fluency as “lower intermediate”, which ain’t half bad after a quarter of a year.

“I had a really rough time learning Chinese in three months”, says Lewis. During the learning, Lewis “cuts the chord with all people who won’t speak to you in that language”. Listening to and reading about Lewis, you start to feel a little guilty you didn’t put a bit more effort in at school to Irish and foreign languages.

After all language learning enriches experiences in countries immeasurably. Long-lasting friendships are forged, access to local customs greatly enhanced and, if you are learning Mandarin, you may even get a Kung Fu lesson from the son of a Chinese master, such is Lewis’ experience.

The first thing the one-language Irish majority think when hearing of Lewis’ adventures is that his genes must be fitted extra-specially towards the gift of the foreign gab. Nonsense, says the self-proclaimed Irish polyglot.

He studied German and Irish in school, left without barely speaking a word in either, studied Electronic Engineering in university and then trekked off to Spain for an adventure at 21. Six months later, he still hadn’t really learned any Spanish and decided to change that.

“I decided I was going to start speaking the language”, Lewis told a Ted audience in a presentation in California. Sounds obvious? Well, not exactly. Gone were the grammatical tables and the reading comprehensions and in their place was straight up speaking.

“When I learned German and Irish in school, there was way too much emphasis on grammar, learning random words or academic texts”. School learning just didn’t inspire him. Language is about communication, not fitting grammatical rules into boxes.

“Anyone can learn a language, I’m sure of it”, emphasises Lewis with all his exuberant conviction in a Youtube video with over 100,000 hits. Speaking from day one is the key, to such an extent that grammar should be avoided in the early stages.

“This may sound ludicrous if you’ve just started, but I would invest five euro in a Lonely Planet phrasebook and devour a few pages of it. Then walk up to a native and use it”, says Lewis. “They almost pretty much never laugh [if you say something wrong], so get rid of this silly fear”.
Then, after a short period of speaking the phrases and whatever else you can pick up, head back to the grammar books. The grammar rules will be easier as you can adopt them to what you’ve already learned. Go from there and never stop speaking to locals.

It’s may be easy to hear that and look to place the blame on the Irish education system for our language woes, but that’s not the answer. This one is on us. Lewis leaves us few excuses.
He was 21 when he learned his first language, so the “I’m too old” excuse is gone and last time he checked he hasn’t got any language genes, because if he did, he would have performed better at school. So, if you want to learn a language, the key word is “communication”, says Lewis.

A couple of problems arise though. The first is that cutting off all ties with English-speakers is quite daunting in order to learn a language in three months. The second is that most Ex-Pats or travellers can conduct their affairs almost completely through English, as international business environments, hostels and hotels all fall back on English to communicate

“Becoming fluent in three months is a challenge I set myself. It’s not a magic number in any way. I’ve learned most of my languages while working a full-time job in English and I still learned to a really fluent level, even if it took a few more months than three.

“It’s simply a case of Mathematics. It’s not the number of years it takes, but the number of dedicated hours you are willing to put in” says Lewis bringing out his Engineering side.For those of us still in Dublin, the internationality of the city offers a myriad of opportunities to practise your language of choice.

Either than expensive paid-for lessons, websites like Gumtree and social-networking sites like Couchsurfing.org offer possibilities to tandem with native speakers, where you speak with them in English and in exchange they help with your language of choice.

If that isn’t enough, the internet will help. Livemocha.com, busuu.com and a host of other social networking language sites offer the opportunity to converse with locals, where you can set up Skype sessions to exchange languages.

The Irish polyglot, meanwhile, is still eager to learn more and how could he not? His occupation is to travel the world learning languages – which is funded by sales of his book The Language Hacking Guide. Hardly something to give up on too soon.

In the short term he’s planning on going back to the languages he’s already learnt and bringing them up a notch, which will include a stay in an Irish Gaeltacht during this summer. After that, another three month learning endeavour, but as of yet he doesn’t know where. “I’m open to whatever happens and will focus myself on enjoying the moment and the people I am with”. There’s worse ways to spend your time.

 
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Posted by on August 9, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Home is where the couch is

On Ciara O’Hare’s Couchsurfing profile, Alice Regnier’s reference pithily says “Ciara is the BEST!”. “I’ve met a friend for life” is Ciara’s response. In March 2011 Alice Regnier and her friend, Mélanie Thomassin, stayed with Ciara in her previous apartment in Rialto, Dublin 8, which Ciara shared with two musicians. The two French students were visiting Ireland for a week and used Couchsurfing.org to request that they stay with Ciara for a few days. Ciara readily accepted.

 
Couchsurfing is a social networking website, where people offer their “couches” to those travelling in their city or region. Those who participate in Couchsurfing are “surfers” – those who are travelling – and “hosts”, who offer to share their private accommodation for a period of time. The sleeping quarters offered isn’t confined to the couch in the living room. Many offer anything from inflatable mattresses to spare rooms. The host details the sleeping arrangements on their profile.

Ciara has hosted couchsurfers 20 times since joining the social networking site two years ago and is yet to have a bad experience. “I’ve had some really amazing times. When you are hosting someone, you really want to show off your city and, in some ways, you feel you have an obligation to make sure they have as good a time as possible. It brings out a positive side in you that you don’t use everyday”.

On the Couchsurfing website, people are invited to document their interests, so if you wish to surf or host someone, you can check their interests to see if you’ll be compatible first.
“When I first started hosting, I was a tiny bit nervous about how long it would take to ‘click’ with the person, but I’ve found people on Couchsurfing are very open-minded and friendly”, says Ciara.

Alice found her experience of Dublin was enhanced by staying with a local, rather than in a hostel or a hotel. “You see the ‘real’ place you’re visiting and not only the touristy sides of it. And [local] people, contrary to tourist guides, usually know the best places to go out”. Alice and Ciara have remained friends with Ciara surfing with Alice in her hometown of Dijon, France. “I’ve met so many really great friends on Couchsurfing and I’ve so many places to visit”, adds Ciara.

Of course the basic idea of letting strangers into your house or going into a stranger’s home frightens most people unfamiliar with the concept. Type in couchsurfing into Google and the second suggestion is “Couchsurfing horror stories”.

The “horror stories” are few and far between for the website, which boasts three million users, of which a million use regularly.The most notorious incident came in 2009, when a Moroccan national living in Leeds raped a woman from Hong Kong, who he had agreed to host through the website.  

But instinctive fear of entering into a stranger’s home does not enter into the psyche of those who participate in Couchsurfing or, at least, it is quickly banished the more they use the site to interact.Patricia Palacios from Barcelona, who is currently a Spanish language assistant in a school in Foxrock, was hosted one month ago in Galway by a man “a little older than me”. Any fears? “No. For me, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a man or a woman, it’s all about the references”.

To make the site as safe as possible, both surfers and hosts can write references about those they have interacted with using the site. A “positive”, “neutral” or “negative” reference is written alongside a comment about the person. It is not possible for the owner of a profile to delete unwanted references left by others. 99.6% of references given are positive.

As well as that there is the possibility to “vouch” for people who you have hosted or surfed with, while several members are “verified members”, which means they have made a financial contribution using their credit card details. The credit card details then confirm the authenticity of the profile by matching off details, such as the name and address.

Hosting or surfing isn’t the only way people interact with the site. People can also only choose “coffee or drink”, rather than “host” as their way of participating in the site. This means they agree to meet up with people who are visiting their city and show them around the city, offer tips and company for the time they are travelling there, but stop short of allowing them into their homes.

The relative safety of Couchsurfing has seen the site grow into a full-blown community in cities, where hosts in individual cities meet up regularly for drinks, as well as promoting interests which those in the community have in common.

Patricia says Couchsurfing has changed her life. She has only surfed on two occasions and has never hosted, but has used the website for socialising more times than she can remember.
“Last night I went to a free comedy gig in the Stag’s Head, which I found out about through Couchsurfing”.

She goes to game nights, salsa nights and language exchanges organised by the site’s members and advertised on threads, while she uses it as a valuable tool to find out the best places to go in a city. “Next month, I’m going to Belfast, so I left a message on the Belfast group asking for advice about the city”.

The growth of the community has seen TG4 launch Ó Tholg go Tolg (From Couch to Couch) which focuses on travelling through Europe by using Couchsurfing. The show, which sees two Irish-speakers surfing, is returning for a second series in Autumn.

The site has courted controversy in recent months though. The site became a “Certified B Corporation”, rather than a “Non-profit Organisation” and this has seen the company take a $7.6 million offer from two venture capital companies. This has irked many members who would rather see Couchsurfing as more Wikipedia than Facebook – ie they don’t seek out profit. The changes now means new entrants to the website are immediately asked to make a financial contribution to the site and it’s awkward for new members to avoid the donation.

This doesn’t stop current users speaking of the site in glowing terms. “You always hear stories of the old days, when people visited people’s houses and told stories and sang songs. You don’t have that any more. Couchsurfing is a way of reintroducing that, except in a much more international way”, concludes Ciara.

 
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Posted by on August 9, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Ireland – centre of the samba

THE economy may be up in Sao Paulo but that doesn’t stop young Brazilians heading to Dublin for the language and the craic.

Contrary to the gloom for so many of us, Ireland still manages to attract its fair share of immigrants, but rather than the traditional form of job seekers, we attract those in search of English-language learning, which includes around 25,000 Brazilians a year.

This, coupled with the 15,000 Brazilians already established in Ireland, makes the community one of the largest ethnic groups from outside the European Union.

Back home, the Brazilian economy is booming and, with Brazil looking forward to the football World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, many Brazilians view a stay in Ireland as a valuable opportunity to improve their English and enjoy a European experience before settling into long-term employment at home.

Elisandra Nunes (20) moved to Dublin one month ago and plans to stay at least a year.

“I came to Ireland because I have a friend who has lived here for a year and she told me Ireland was a nice place to live and very friendly”.

Her main motivation for coming to Ireland is to learn English, but she admits with the vast numbers of Brazilians, it is easy for Brazilians to just hang around in their own group.

Attractive

“I know Brazilians who prefer to go to places where there are just Brazilians, but I want to meet a lot of Irish people because I’m here to improve my English and get to know Irish culture.”

Ireland is particularly attractive because it isn’t necessary to have a visa and, unlike in other English-speaking countries, the minimum amount of savings needed to live and work in Ireland is €3,000, considerably lower than in Britain where €7,000 is required and newcomers are not allowed to work for six months.

Under the terms of coming to Ireland, Brazilians must study English at schools in the city.

As a result, they are limited to 20 hours a week of work. Most seek employment as nannies or carers, or in bars and restaurants to give them a little extra cash rather than as a means of survival.

Out of term time and after completing their English courses, they are free to seek employment for up to 40 hours a week and have the option of renewing their initial one-year visa .

With the recession demanding that businesses offer more and more unique selling points to survive, many bars and restaurants around the capital have turned to aiming more specifically at the bustling Brazilian market.

Drinks

Dicey’s Bar on Harcourt Street is a firm favourite for Brazilians on Tuesday nights, where drinks are €2.

The majority of the crowd on Tuesdays are non-Irish and Brazilians vie with the Spanish to be the largest group.

The Turk’s Head in Temple Bar hires a Brazilian DJ on Friday nights, while live-music venue the Mezz, also in Temple Bar, is another popular place for Brazilians.

Some 30pc of the overall clientele at the Mezz are Brazilians. The kitchen cooks traditional Brazilian food cooked by a native chef, while on Saturdays the pub runs “Feijoada and Samba” during the day. Between 2pm and 8pm, Brazilian food is available, while a Brazilian DJ group plays samba and bossanova.

“The Brazilian community is extremely large and they have no particular home of their own. The idea was to give them somewhere to go, much in the same way an Irish bar is in another country,” says Mezz owner Alan O’Reilly.

Blues

Brazilian Gabriel Barros performs at the venue with his blues-band Blue Amber every Saturday night. He has lived in Ireland for the past five years and sees the experience as positive.

“I came here and originally saw Ireland as a stopover. I was going to stay here three months, learn English and then go travelling around Europe for three months. But after a while you meet somebody, your plans change and you really start enjoying it,” says the singer.

Also in Temple Bar is Taste of Brazil, which offers authentic Brazilian food such as feijoada, which is a stew of beans with beef and pork.

“The main reason we set up is because of the large number of Brazilians,” says Brazilian owner Tiago Silva.

The restaurant opened in July 2011 and the business is doing “okay” despite the difficult times, because of the large market among international students in Ireland. Half of the customers are Brazilian.

“What we are seeing is more and more couples coming in, so a Brazilian with an Irish guy or girl, or Brazilian with a French guy or girl. At first, we see them when they are dating and already we’ve had four weddings and another one on Tuesday,” says Silva.

Brazilians are not the only migrant group which continues to thrive in Ireland despite the recession.

Mainland Europeans, whether they are French, Spanish, Italian or German continue to be drawn to Ireland to learn English and because of the abundance of multi-national companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Facebook and Google, which have a heavy emphasis on foreign language ability.

 
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Posted by on August 9, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Stuck Inside, Immobile, With the Recession Blues Again

Watching the US Republican campaign unfold is especially interesting from the point of view of the candidate’s opinions of living up to the American ideal of the “Land of the Free”.

Republican candidates have vilified Barack Obama for any measures supporting income redistribution, calling it “socialist” with Newt Gingrich calling Obama the “food stamp President”. Rick Santorum has stated he doesn’t want to “make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money”, while Mitt Romney says welfare to the poorest in society keeps the poorest in perpetual poverty. Libertarian Ron Paul, meanwhile, is more an advocate of keeping the federal Government out of these issues and wants to greatly reduce the food stamp allocation.

These comments would be reasonably fair if those in the poorest classes in American society had a fair shot at increasing their wealth, but studies say they don’t. The “Land of the Free” is at the bottom, or the near the bottom, of all studies in social mobility – the study of movement of individuals or groups in social position over time.

So while the Republican candidates advocate as little income redistribution as possible, countries with higher levels of income distribution are the best-performing on the social mobility chart and, in turn, can be labelled much greater “Lands of Opportunity” than the United States.

According to a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) – which consists of 35 of the most developed nations – the United States is among the countries where socio-economic background has the largest influence on students’ performance. Britain and France join the United States at the bottom of the list, while nations with strong education systems, like South Korea and Finland, along with Canada are the best-performing.

The study concludes “Mobility in earnings, wages and education across generations is relatively low in France, southern European countries, the United Kingdom and the United States. By contrast, such mobility tends to be higher in Australia, Canada and the Nordic countries.”

Being told you live in the “Land of Opportunity” does influence your perceptions though. An American Dream Report found American citizens are more likely than citizens of other countries to agree with statements like “People get rewarded for intelligence and skill” and less likely to agree with statements like “Coming from a wealthy family is ‘essential’ or ‘very important’ in getting ahead”.

Social mobility studies show Ireland to be less socially mobile than Nordic countriesSocial mobility is important, because less mobile societies are “likely to waste or misallocate talent” and “lack of opportunity may affect the motivation, effort and, ultimately, the productivity of citizens, with adverse effects on the overall efficiency and the growth potential of the economy”, says the OECD study.

That “lack of opportunity” seemed to manifest at the London Riots last summer in less-socially mobile Britain. According the London School of Economics/Guardian study, lack of opportunity and general poverty was a factor – although not the most important factor –  which fuelled the rioting last summer. The UK has seen the biggest rise in inequality among the 35 most developed nations in the OECD in the last 30 years.

Ireland’s position on the social mobility scale is generally at the lower end, but no as bad America or near neighbours United Kingdom.

According to some studies, Ireland has the highest association between the educational attainment of individuals and their parents in the OECD. A son of a father who is a skilled worker is, on average, 30% more likely to attend university than a son, whose father is unskilled.

The OECD study states those from a skilled family earn on average 20% more than those from an individual from a family with average education, while those from working class families fall are 16% below the middle income family.

The correlation between education and income is important. In 2009, the average income of an American with a Masters was $60,000, a Bachelor’s degree $45,000, a High-school diploma $30,000 and no High-school diploma $21,000.

Ireland has benefited from the economic prosperity of the Celtic Tiger years, where the abolition of third-level fees in 1996 is seen as an important factor in increasing Irish social mobility. This is true for middle-class families, who no longer had to pay fees, but was not true for working-class families – most of whom who attend college are in receipt of grants, and, therefore, exempt from fees. Free third level education made no statistical difference to the amount of working-class people attending third level education.

Third-level attendance is expected to rise by 30% over the next 10 years, as a result of Ireland’s young population, but the percentage of attendees from semi- or unskilled backgrounds fell from 10.8% to 8% in 2011.

It seems the largest prevention in third-level participation comes because of under-performance in secondary education. 20 fee-paying schools boast 100% participation in third-level education, while schools in working-class areas in Dublin, Cork and Limerick hover at the 40% participation level.

This “persistance”, as the OECD study calls it, is especially unique to Ireland, southern European states and Luxembourg “possibly reflecting financial and other constraints in access to post-secondary education, but also that inequalities in secondary education give rise to learning deficits that hinder students in qualifying for higher education”.

The increase in fees could, therefore, be seen as a positive in ensuring more working class participation in third-level education, as the money could be used to increase attendance of children in underprivileged backgrounds through the grant system. But as most universities complain they are underfunded in relation to their counterparts, this doesn’t appear likely.

To be among the poorest in Ireland means the austerity cuts affect you in a disproportionate way as the household charge proves, while enduring a society where a lack of educational equality means you are less likely to move up the social ladder. President Michael D. Higgins said Ireland never attained the status of a true “Republic”, because we never developed the concept of a “social floor” to which no one should be allowed fall under. If we don’t allow equality of opportunity to all our citizens, we’ll never achieve that “Republic” either.

Main photo courtesy of the New Statesmen

 

With the Vultures at our Door

Payment of unsecured bondholders of Anglo-Irish bank has infuriated Irish people. Photo: Worker's Solidarity Movement

On the 25th January, the Irish state will pay €1.25 billion to unsecured bondholders. As we all know, this equates to a half of our total cuts in the 2012 budget. A proportion of who we will pay are so-called vulture funds who “prey” on a country’s depressed debt. So while we struggle to cut services in order to pay these bondholders, these vulture funds will profit. Let’s have a look at who’s profiting and how.

As Eurozone countries scramble to save the fledgling currency, others see the opportunity to invest and profit. The possibility of sovereign default brings the vultures to our door – in the name of vulture funds.

A vulture fund, or debt depressed fund, is a hedge fund, which buys up a cheap debt, largely as a result of a high threat of default, for a rock-bottom price and then negotiates a settlement for a higher amount than the rock-bottom price they paid. If that fails – perhaps because the vulture funds want it to – it sues the country or firm for an inflated amount (as a result of interest) in a court, which legally allows the practise. The use of the word “vulture” to describe such a fund is because it is similar to vultures circling a dead or almost dead corpse, which they intend on devouring.

The most notorious example of vulture fund activity is that of Donegal International, run by an American named Michael “Goldfinger” Sheehan, which sued Zambia for $55 million in a British Virgin Islands court in 2007.

The deal applied to a debt, which was sold by Romania in the 1970s to Zambia. Due to economic problems in Zambia, they were unable to repay the debt. In 1999, Donegal International swooped in and, with Zambia on the verge of default, bought the debt off Romania for $3 million.

After they bought the debt, Donegal International say they made several attempts to negotiate a settlement before bringing an action against the Zambian state. “All of the proposals were rejected by Zambian officials, usually without any comment or written response”, says a website purportedly belonging to Donegal International. One of the proposals was for the firm to gain ownership of a Zambian bank.

Head of Donegal International, Michael Sheehan. Photo: guardian.co.uk

Donegal International then sued Zambia for the original amount of the debit, plus the accumulated interest. In total $55 million. This was despite Zambia having already handed over $2.5 million to the firm. In court, after Donegal International were able to obtain an order to freeze Zambian assets in the United Kingdom, Donegal International were awarded $15.5 million. Five times the original they paid.

The judge said of his decision “[the decision] was based on a strict interpretation of the law and not on moral grounds”.

Such cases have brought the vulture funds to notoriety, but concerns have been expressed for a long time. In 2002, then Chancellor of the Exchequer in Britain, Gordon Brown, called vulture fund activities a “morally outrageous outcome”, amid growing concern vulture funds were inhibiting debt relief initiatives for African countries.

This Donegal International case was later profiled by BBC’s Newsnight. The attention and outrage garnered brought about laws in the United States and United Kingdom to outlaw the practise, but importantly this only applied to underdeveloped countries with vast amounts of debt. Hence, Irish debt is still fair game. Due to a loophole in legislation though, a case can still be brought by funds in the British offshore island of Jersey.

This was revealed in November 2011 when FG Hemisphere, run by multi-millionaire Peter Grossman, attempted to sue the Democratic Republic of Congo- the world’s poorest country – for 100 million dollars for a debt, which they bought for $3.3 million. The settlement has been blocked on appeal to the British Privy Council, amid mass media publicity and several calls for Jersey to close the loophole.

So where does that leave Ireland in all this? Well, like those African countries, Ireland has greatly devalued debt, which can be sold on secondary markets for cheaper and which has been restructured in recent years, for example Anglo Irish bank’s debt.

In June 2011, the Irish Times reported debt depressed fund Aurelius bought Anglo Irish Bank’s debt at 20 cent in the euro at the same time and level the bank was trying to buy back the debt.

The forced subordinated losses at AIB have seen Aurelius bring an action against the Irish state. “We attempted to reach a settlement before resorting to litigation, and the Finance Minister completely dismissed our overture”, Head of Aurelius, Mark Brodsky, told the Irish Times. Sound familiar? The Zambian Government may have heard it before.

As with the case of subordinated bondholders at publicly-owned Anglo Irish bank, the debts can be bought up for cheap and Ireland could see itself in court in a couple of years fighting against repayments multiple-times more than the original debts.

Another fund, Fir Tree Partners, brought Anglo-Irish bank to court in New York during its own debt restructuring in November 2011. The firm wished for its $200m investment in the bank to be protected from any loss incurred from Anglo’s debt restructuring plan. The case was dismissed by the judge.

In Greece, where the Government is currently negotiating a 70% debt write down, the banks who hold the debt are being pressurised by their Governments to accept the write-down, while the vulture funds, who have recently bought up the debt are eager to hold out.

At a 70% write down, with Greek bonds selling at 25 cents to the euro on the market, these funds would stand to make a 20% profit on their investment (The fund bought the debt for 25% of the original debt, Greece pays them back 30% of the original debt). Speculative investors – such as these vulture funds – are believed to hold up to €50 billion in Greek debt.

This means that when the Irish state pays unsecured Anglo-Irish bondholders, as it will to the tune of €1.25 billion later this month, it is highly likely they are paying some of these vulture funds, who are profiteering massively after buying the debt for a reduced price in line with the downgrading of Anglo-Irish debt, which was given junk status in November 2010. Some are believed to have been bought for 55 cent to the euro.

That means that on the Anglo investment made by these funds, they’ll nearly double their investment. All while the Irish taxpayer pays back in full. Is it possible to imagine something more unfair?

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Rather be stoic than Spanish: Ireland and protesting

Budget 2011 Protest March. Few protests have attracted tens of thousands of people in Ireland

Anyone who glances at the comments under Irish current affairs websites and in social media networks will notice genuine anger at the events which have unfolded in Ireland in recent years. Additionally, a lot of frustration exists at the lack of organised protest with many saying “we should be more like the Greeks”. So, why aren’t the Irish “more like the Greeks?”

As 2011 whittled by, the Economist described the austerity measures here in Ireland as having “been accepted by Irish people with surprising stoicism”. In a year when Time magazine proclaimed The Protester the person of the year, and with Ireland’s history of rebellion, as well as the prevalent and pervasive hardship, it would have been expected Ireland would have been caught up in the wave of protest. But it wasn’t. While protesting took place from Mullingar over the army barracks to the continuing Occupy Dame Street, little ignited the general public to protest in the tens of thousands in 2011, except the students. This in spite of previous years producing at least one demonstration with participation over 50,000.

In the face of austerity, public outrage has surfaced, forcing Government climb downs on several occasions. Public anger at the budgetary announcement of cutting disability benefit to disabled people under the age of 25 resulted in a climbdown within 24-hours of the announcement. The protest against medical card means testing for old-age pensioners in 2008, which the Fianna Fáil-led government feared would lead a backbench revolt, resulted in backtracking and attempted face-saving by the government. The latter would suggest large and emotive protest will not result in a “revolution”, but those who protest loudest and strongest will draw more attention and achieve success.

Even this year’s student protest seems to have a similar effect. The large protest focused attention on Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn’s reneged pre-election promise not to increase fees. Fees were increased, but the €250 increase was considered modest, especially in a department, where a large section of the budget has to remain untouched due to the Croke Park agreement.

Those who could make themselves heard are the country’s workers. With mortgages in arrears running at 10.4%, an almost two per cent increase since July 2011, and domestic demand down by 24.9% in the last four years, the working population on average incomes could be christened with the British “squeezed middle” moniker.

Occupy Dame Street have consistently organised protests throughout 2011

With that, the large scale demonstrations of previous years were organised by the trade union movement, headed by the trade union federation – the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU).

So why none in 2011? “Back in 2010, a lot of the anger was focused at Fianna Fáil. So, after the election, there was a honeymoon period. People considered it a sort of national cleansing. Look at the protests in 2011. They were very badly attended. But the anger is rising again”, says spokesperson for the ICTU, Macdara Doyle.

“People have to remember that the demonstrations between 2008-10 were the biggest demonstrations in 30 or 40 years in this country”, adds Doyle.

Many have been critical of the unions. TDs from the United Left Alliance have called on the leaders of the trade unions “to step aside and make way for a fighting leadership”.

Meanwhile, general scepticism for the leaders of the trade union movement, like David Begg, the general secretary of the ICTU and Jack O’Connor, head of SIPTU, exists. Both of whom the Occupy movement would surely christen “part of the 1%”. During the boom, Begg served on the board of the Central Bank, while O’Connor is an active Labour Party member. Not exactly ideal to lead protests against banks and a coalition government involving the Labour Party.

The wages of both trade unions leaders has also raised the ire of workers, with both earning a basic salary of around €120,000 per year. Whether they are entitled to such a salary is a separate debate, but it does seem clear workers have been disillusioned by trade union leaders, who earn salaries similar to that of politicians and bankers.

This frustration has manifested itself at the demonstrations. At the ICTU march in November 2010, attended by 50,000-100,000 people (estimates vary), David Begg’s speech was widely booed by those in attendance, while Irish Times journalist, Fintan O’Toole’s speech was broadly received.

Union membership only represents 34% of the working population, of which 45% are in the public sector. A sector which has been protected, to a certain extent, from cuts, as a result of the Croke Park agreement.

“The bulk of protests that have taken place in Greece have been by public sector workers. You can be guaranteed that if Greece had something like the Croke Park agreement, it would immediately diffuse a lot of these protests there”, says Doyle.

In Spain, meanwhile, the drivers of the Los Indignados (The Indignant) were the young unemployed – in Spain youth unemployment runs at 45%, compared to Ireland’s 24%. The protests brought several million people out protesting across Spanish cities last summer. The protests in the Arab world were also led by a young population who, as a part of a burgeoning middle-class, were sick of dictators meddling, corruptly, in their daily lives.

This suggests Ireland’s youth unemployment has not (yet) reached a tipping point to result in demonstrative anger on a mass scale. Also, social commentators have argued the high level of youth emigration – total emigration last year was 75,000, of which 20% were between 18 and 24 years-old – has stymied mass protest from developing like it has in Spain. There, youth emigration is hard to verify, but the bulk of emigrants are to other EU countries which reported over a 100,000 Spaniards signing into consulates around Europe in 2011. It seems language barriers – 56% of Spaniards only speak Spanish – hinders a majority of people from moving to economically-sound English-speaking countries like Canada and Australia. Also, Spaniards live with your parents till the average age of 30 years-old. Both factors seem to have prevented youth emigration on the scale seen in Ireland.

The reasons for a lack of appetite for protest don’t just fall into the categories of trade unionism and youth emigration. The media is blamed for being too conservative; Ireland is a conservative society; the belief protesting doesn’t result in change; and Irish people are passive, bordering on lazy, are some negative analogies. The more benign say we are more rational than our Mediterranean neighbours, recognise “we all partied” and the bind we are, as a result of our annual deficit and being locked out of the international markets. Therefore, we have no choice but to cede control to international institutions.

Of course stoicism and passivity could still become premature descriptions of the Irish reaction to the economic crisis. With talk of a second bailout, several more years of austerity and talk of a lost generation, before even mentioning a potential collapse of the euro, a lot more pain is yet to come before we come out the other side. Only time will tell whether a tipping point will be brought.

 
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Posted by on January 16, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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The revolution will be privatised

Eamon Gilmore and Enda Kenny incorporated a privatisation programme as part of a programme for Government

The Programme for Government begins with “On 25th February a democratic revolution took place in Ireland”. One part of this “revolution” is a privatisation programme, which has the potential to be one of the most divisive issues to emerge from the current economic crisis. So is it wise to offload state assets at a time of mass unemployment and economic uncertainty?

The programme for Government states the Government will aim for €2 billion in privatisation of state assets based on the McCarthy report issued in April 2011.

The McCarthy report recommends, among much else, the part-privatisation of ESB, RTÉ and CIÉ, while Dublin Bus can be fully privatised along with the Dublin Airport Authority. The total from all recommendations would yield savings of €5 billion according to the report, although figures are market-price dependent, so hard to quantify.

The part-sale of ESB – the biggest public company – is the start of a privatisation programme, which has been pushed by the deal with the Troika, but is not necessary according to the legally-binding Memorandum of Understanding, which states Ireland need only undertake “an independent assessment of the electricity and gas sectors with a view to enhancing their efficiency”.

Therefore, any decisions taken on privatisation are the policy of the Government, although there have been a few wink, wink, nod, nods thrown in by the IMF in their Quarterly Reports.

Not that Fine Gael has a problem with this. As per their election manifesto, the Government has  launched the economic stimulus plan, New-Era, to “sell those assets that can operate in competitive markets and that are no longer of strategic interest to the state”.

Labour, meanwhile, is reneging on yet more election promises. They stated in their election manifesto “Labour is opposed to the short-termist privatisation of key state assets, such as Coillte or the energy networks”.

The biggest issue around privatisation is that once complete, it is almost impossible to return of state ownership, so should it be done at all?

Proponents for privatisation argue it means greater efficiency, greater competition so more competitive prices for consumers, better value for the product and more innovation in the sector. “A genuinely competitive private sector will outperform a public sector monopoly any day of the week, and will drive down consumer costs far more quickly”, says economist John McGuirk.

Advocates for privatisation argue the Government’s role in state services should be as minimal as possible. “I’d propose a simple test to decide – 2 questions: Is this something the state alone can do? Is this an essential service that must be provided, even at a loss? If the answer to those questions is “yes”, then we should keep

The privatisation of Dublin Bus is seen as a long-term objective by the McCarthy Report

the asset. For example, though I wholeheartedly believe in privatisation, selling Bus Éireann would inevitably lead to a private operator cutting loss-making routes, even though those routes have a significant social dividend, for example in small rural communities. On the other hand, the ESB can go. The private sector can ably provide electricity, and the sale would raise significant revenue while not impairing any service”, says McGuirk.

The problem is when a state asset is privatised, the raison d’etre for the company moves from offering a service to making a profit. If the incentive of profit isn’t there, the company will not offer the service.

Take the privatisation of Eircom for example. Over a decade after privatisation, Ireland has 53.7% of households with broadband, which is lower than the EU 27 average. In Scandinavian countries, where broadband is publicly distributed, the figure is closer to 99%. Greater broadband access is imperative in a modern economy to attract business, let alone encourage business at home.

The nation ranking at the top of the list for broadband speed – South Korea – has embraced fibre optic broadband since 2003. Eircom has only begun the transition to fibre optic broadband in Ireland this year.

Since privatisation, Eircom has run up debts of €3.75 billion, asked staff to take a 10% paycut in 2011 and cut 2000 jobs since 2009. All this while the companies in control of Eircom has profited massively from asset stripping – selling the best performing assets for big profits. Eircom’s mobile subsidary, Eircell, was sold to Vodafone for €4.5 billion.

And let’s not forget the 575,000 people who lost out by investing in shares in Eircom. “The privatisation of Eircom in 1999 must rank as the single biggest economic mistake made by the Irish government – until the disastrous blanket bank guarantee in September, 2008”, said the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

Deutsche Telekom has increased its stake in Hellenic Telecommunications Organisation

Advocates of privatisation still defend the overall effects. “We now have more consumer choice and competition in the telecoms and internet provider market than dreamt possible at the time. Imagine if we could do the same for the electricity market, for example. Eircom’s privatisation was criticised for what happened to that company – but the aim of privatisation is not to strengthen the company you sell but to strengthen the market and increase consumer choice”, says McGuirk.

Unlike Ireland, Greece has been forced into a €50 billion privatisation programme by the Troika deal. The plan has seen German companies frothing at the mouth to buy up state assets for low prices and turn them into profitable businesses. Deutsche Telekom has increased its stake in Hellenic Telecommunications Organisation from 30% to 40%, although this deal has been in the organised since 2008. Deutsche Telekom paid €4 billion for the first 30% in 2008, but only €400 million for the next 10% in 2011. Meanwhile, the owners of Frankfurt airport, Fraport AG, want the Greek government’s 55% stake in Athens International airport.

The sight of a plane-full of German businessmen and women, economists and Government officials flying to Greece in October 2011 with the promises of investing in Greece gave eerie similarities to post-Golf war 2003 Iraq, when American companies such as Halliburton and KBR arrived to rebuild Iraq. “Of course people want to make profits, but this is about benefiting Greece”, said Martin Knapp, head of the German-Greek Chamber of Commerce.

Privatisation will almost certainly result in job losses. That means yet more unemployment and hardship for many all in the name of efficiency. Meanwhile, any capital gained from the sale will more than likely be thrown into our ever expanding black hole of national debt.

In its Programme for Government, the Government promised to be “guided by the needs of the many, rather than the greed of the few”. Privaitisation isn’t guided by this overarching principle.

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2011 in Government policy

 

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Germany v. Ireland

For better or for worse, the Germans or our “Imperial Overloads”, or whatever you wish to call them, have a considerable say on our domestic affairs. Here’s a quick overview of how the Germans treat their own people compared to how the Irish state treats us. Perhaps they may teach us a thing or two.

Health Germany has universal healthcare, which all legal residents are entitled. Only 15% have private health insurance, compared to 47% in Ireland. 32% of Irish residents have medical cards, which entitle them to a limited amount of free healthcare. Health insurance is compulsory for employment in Germany, where the employer pays half the contributions, the employee the other half. Health costs take up almost 11% of GDP in Germany, compared to 8.2% in Ireland, which is a 1% rise since the Celtic Tiger years.

Those without a medical card or private health insurance in Ireland pay €50-75 for GP visits and €120 for emergency care. In Germany, emergency care costs €10. All GP visits, including for prescriptions, are reimbursed.

Education The Germans start their primary education a six or seven years old after optional attendance at kindergarten, whereas in Ireland pupils begin at five years old. The early rising Germans usally start at 7:30am and finish at 1-2pm. After four years of primary school, pupils are divided into one of three separate schools, depending on their ability. Those who attend the top school (Gymnasium) are geared towards university, while the other schools towards vocational studies. 6% of pupils attend private school in Germany, compared to 7% of Ireland’s population. 11 out of 16 Germans states offer free third level education, compared to Ireland which is increasing entrance fees year-on-year.

Unemployment Germany’s unemployment rate currently stands at 5.8%, compared to Ireland’s 14.2%. For those on social welfare, the German system is divided between those who worked previously and those who didn’t. Those who worked previously are entitled to two-thirds of their working income. Those who havn’t come under the “Hartz IV” system, where the minimum entitlement is €350 per month. Both welfares systems are dependent on financial circumstances. In Ireland, those with sufficient tax credits are entitled to €188 per week, while €145 for those between 22-24 years of age and €100 for adults under 22 years old. Rent allowance is available in both countries.

Tax system Those on the average industrial wage in Germany can expect to pay 20-25% of their income in tax. In addition, they pay for social security benefits, like health insurance mentioned above. This along with pension contributions, old age care and unemployment benefit bring deductions close to 40-50%. Ireland’s income tax for those on the average industrial wage (€35,000) is 20.75%, an additional 7% is taken with the universal social charge. Additional contributions bring the total to in and around 30%.

Public Transport Nothing gets the Germans riled more than inefficient public transport. That’s not a stereotype, it’s 100% true.They expect an excellent service and, mostly, get it. A quick comparison between Dublin (population 1.1 million people) and Munich (population 1.3 million people) emphasises this. Munich has six underground lines, 10 S-Bahn (our equivalent DART lines) lines and an extensive bus and tram service which are all interconnected in the city centre’s main stations. Dublin has an extensive/exhausting bus network, two light rail lines which don’t connect and two DART lines. All major German cities are connected by high-speed rail and autobahns, while Ireland’s cities are only disparately connected by motorway and Ireland has no high-speed trains. Many Germans are obsessed with transport. Many newspapers even carry pages designated for information on trains services.

Political systems Both Ireland and Germany fall under the system of parliamentary republic, where the Head of state (the President) is largely a ceremonial role. Germany differs in that it is a federalist state, meaning it delegates most responsibilities of the state to the individual states. 96% of decision making in Ireland is taken by the national government. This may be expected as Germany’s population is much bigger than Ireland, but it doesn’t prevent Ireland from having a federal system. Belgium and Austria both have this system.  

Many consider Ireland’s biggest political problem to be clientelism, which means TDs see themselves as there to offer favours to their constituents and not as representatives in the Irish parliament. A federalist system, or even greater local Government powers, would circumvent this.

 
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Posted by on November 29, 2011 in Germany

 

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Aid to Africa must remain a budgetary concern

The humanitarian crisis in the horn of Africa affects 11 million people

 
In July of this year, two southern regions of Somalia were designated famine areas, with a further four designated since. The declaration of a famine is not to be taken likely. This is the first time in 25 years a famine has been declared in Africa – the world’s poorest continent. A famine is only declared when, among other factors, 30% of children are acutely malnourished and two in every 10,000 people or four in every 10,000 children die everyday.

400,000 young people are threatened with starvation in a humanitarian crisis that spawns Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa. 11 million people are in need of assistance with up to two and a half million displaced in Somalia alone – which has a population of 9.9 million people.

The Irish Government has been blowing its own trumpet in the Dáil over its response to the aid effort in the Horn of Africa. The Irish Government has so far donated €11 million to the aid appeal in East Africa, with a promise of a total of €20 million by the end of 2012. “This means that Ireland’s contribution is one of the most significant and generous responses to the crisis on a per capita basis”, Minister for State, Jan O’Sullivan, told the Dáil.

What the Government is less inclined to mention is the decrease in overall aid given since the recession began, although this has not been initiated by this Government. In 2008, Ireland’s overseas aid budget was €920 million. This dropped to €675 million by 2010. This is a drop from 0.59% of our GNP to 0.53% of GNP. Despite this, Minister for State Jan O’Sullivan has promised the Government will meets its target of 0.70% of GNP in overseas aid by 2015.

When contacted, an official in the Department of Foreign Affairs said the overseas aid budget would not be discussed, as it is a budgetary issue, which is now a matter for the Minister for Finance. It remains unclear whether the Government will further cut the overseas aid budget or increase it in line with its committal to reach 0.70% of GNP by 2015.

The overseas aid budget is used in the prevention of HIV/AIDs, to increas access to education, and for greater equality for women, among many other initatives. Aid is distributed to countries across Africa, as well as to Palestine, Vietnam and Timor Leste.

al-Shabab controls much of the southern region in Somalia

0.70% of GNP still remains a small figure, despite the economic hardship in Ireland. It will make a big difference, when one considers the hardship of those in other countries. For example, 80% of Somalis are illiterate, only 17% go to school and the average income is $500 (€371) per year. This compares to Ireland where school participation is compulsory, 99% of those over 15 years-old are literate and the average industrial wage is €32,000 per year.

Even from an Irish perspective, commitments to developing countries bring long-term advantages at home. The world population has hit seven billion, and this will continue to rise with Africa the fastest growing continent between now and 2100. Estimates of between 10-15 billion people on the planet by 2100 are predicted. It will be the lower end of the estimates provided the developing world economies develop, birth control and widespread education, particularly for women, are provided in developing countries. Less people using finite energy sources will only help Ireland’s future generations prosper. It is through Ireland’s overseas aid budget, which Ireland can influence this.

Critics of overseas aid to countries like Somalia may justifiably point out, that overseas aid goes to areas with dictatorial regimes and the aid may inadvertently prop up the regime in the country of the people it seeks to help.

Famine-stricken area in Somalia are under the rule of al-Shabab – a group designated by the American government as terrorists with links to al-Qaedi. As a result, under the Patriot Act, the American Government refuses to offer aid to southern Somalia, as it could fund terrorism.

French based charity organisation, Médecins San Frontiéres (Doctors Without Borders), has said aid agencies must be up front in admitting that aid simply won’t reach some of the most affected areas which al-Shabab control no matter how much money is given. A book soon to be released by Médicins San Frontiéres will also reveal how in 2009 they paid taxes to al-Shabab in order reach areas of humanitarian concern.

These difficulties are a problem for all agencies.  “Maintaining access to needy areas is dependent on positive relations with all local authorities. This means not being critical to anyone, in order to continue the process of delivering aid. Being publicly critical of any party to the conflict, risks reducing humanitarian access even further than it already is now”, says Paul Dunphy of Oxfam Ireland

In spite of this, it is still clear the aid is reaching those even in the al-Shabab controlled famine areas. Three of the six designated famine areas were downgraded from famine status to emergency status on November 21st.

The ongoing problems in the Horn of Africa put a sense of perspective to our problems at home. Despite many of our difficulties, economic hardship remains an issue of life or death for few in Ireland, but many in the Horn of Africa. We all need to remember this, but particularly, our Government when it sits down to frame our next budget.

 
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Posted by on November 21, 2011 in Government policy

 

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Berlin’s Pirate Invasion

Gerwald-Claus Brunner of the Pirate Party looks on at more traditionally dressed MPs

When Gerwald Claus-Brunner of the Pirate Party entered the Berlin Parliament, perhaps his fellow MPs could be forgiven for thinking he was making a mockery of democracy. Sporting orange overalls and a Long John Silver headscarf, it looked like a poorly thought out Halloween costume where Clockwork Orange meets Jack Sparrow.

It wasn’t though. This was the Pirate Party entering a German state parliament. And if the other MPs didn’t notice, they don’t do suits.

Die Piratenpartei – Germany’s Pirate Party – scored an amazing feat in the Berlin state elections recently. All 15 of their candidates got elected and surpassed the parliamentary threshold for the first time, gaining 8.9% of the vote. This allowed the party to enter the Berlin parliament.

The party has been particularly successful attracting younger votes. 13% of Berlin’s first-time male voters voted for the Pirate Party, while the majority of Berlin’s new Pirate Party MPs are in their twenties or early-thirties.

The party isn’t planning on forcing German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to walk the plank anytime soon, nor do they wish to show solidarity with the more malign pirates off the coast of Somalia. Instead, they are interested in transparency and respect for privacy, particularly on the internet.

“Our main goal is to make political decision making as transparent as possible, and offering citizens the possibility to watch every Party meeting and table a motion”, says Katherina Niemeyer of the Pirate Party in Berlin.

This means live streaming party meetings on the internet, and opening up discussions to those watching, who wish to engage. The new MPs also wish to tweet and blog as much as possible inside the parliament and on the issues being dealt with, although they are restricted by parliamentary rules.

“We are going to demonstrate that it is possible to conduct a transparent approach to politics. Traditionally politics are a secret ‘no trespassing’ area. Meetings are held behind closed doors, agendas and protocols are closed, treaties are not being published”, said Chairmen of the Pirate Party, Sebastian Nerz to torrentfreak.com.

For the first time, the party will boast full-time members, as those who ran for election, and helped with the campaign, were all working voluntarily. “At the moment we are getting more and more new members who are bringing in new ways of thinking”, added Niemeyer.

The party ran their campaign almost solely on increased transparency and citizen’s rights, and were keen to empathise they were unique with campaign posters stating “Finally, something different” and “We are the ones with

Pirate Party election poster. Translation: Don't trust posters. Inform yourselves

the questions. You are the ones with the answers”.

The party reflects a Europe-wide movement which began in Sweden in 2006. The party’s name is inspired by “The Piracy Bureau” – a counter group to a lobby group for the copyright industry  – and Piratebay.org – an illegal file-sharing website. The formation of the party coincided with Swedish government attempts to curb illegal file sharing through websites like Piratebay.org with copyright laws enacted in 2005. The party in Sweden has earned a groundswell of support, earning 7.1% of the vote in MEP elections, 2009 with Christian Engstrom and Amelia Andersdotter elected as MEPs.

The movement has spread worldwide with over 40 countries with Pirate Parties based on the Swedish model, mainly in mainland Europe. In Ireland, the party enjoyed a brief tenure, at one stage having 300 members, but ceased all activities in March 2011.

“We are an international movement, which is represented in almost every EU country. We hope to achieve a lot more if we work together on international projects”, says Niemeyer.

Klaus Wowereit, Berlin’s mayor and potential SPD candidate in the next German election, was none too pleased with the Pirate Party pushing in on established politics, saying they lack a clear profile and are little more than a protest vote.

“We disagree. For topics relevant for Berliners, like education and transport, we’ve developed a programme. Also, we have a set of basic principles, which we have widened. We are a young party, so we have not outlined our position on everything. But we are continuing to work on our basic democratic values”, responds Niemeyer.

Increased transparency has become a bigger issue with the greater prevalence of the internet in the political sphere. Wikileaks could release a cache of secret US files and subsequently evade closure by moving domains across borders. The hacking group “Anonymous” has attacked websites of the biggest companies in the world, all in the name of freedom of the internet.

Now the Pirate Party is growing to be a voice for greater transparency inside parliaments and greater respect for privacy of citizens with the internet as one of its battegrounds. In a world where the internet makes it easier than ever to get information, states and Governments may find calls for greater transparency harder and harder to ignore.

 
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Posted by on November 4, 2011 in Germany

 

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Who says sport and politics shouldn’t mix?

St Pauli fans singing and chanting, while unfurling "Good Night, White Pride" flags. DFB-Pokal 1. Round, Chemnitz, August 2010

Plugging away in Germany’s second tier, with no trophies to its name and no players of note, it would be easy to brush off FC Sankt Pauli as a lesser brother of city rivals Hamburger SV. Instead, political affiliation and a strong fan movement ensures this Hamburg city district isn’t just famous for its Reeperbahn, but its football too.

Walk through Temple Bar’s side streets and you may be surprised what you find. Nestled in amongst overpriced cáfes and quirky clothes shops, you may be struck by the bright yellow and red facade of a shop on Crow Street. Here stands Casa Rebelde, which according to its heading is “Clothing for the discerning football fan and revolutionary”.

Inside one finds retro jerseys going back to the 1960s, ultra t-shirts from the Pro-Pyro initiative – a protest popular in Germany and Austria against the the banning of fireworks in stadiums – and a host of St Pauli merchandise.

The owner, Michael Dickson, is a St Pauli fanatic. “Yeah, we are heading over to the away games against Rostock and Dresden this year”, beams Dickson.

As well as the shop, Dickson watches St Pauli games in Murrays pub on O’Connell street, along with other members of St Pauli’s Dublin fan club. A group whose Facebook page has 1,700 likes.

St Pauli is hardly the most immediately inspiring club from continental Europe. They currently reside in the upper half of Germany’s second Bundesliga, after finishing bottom of the Bundesliga last season – only their second appearance in the Bundesliga in the last decade.

But what St Pauli lacks in sporting prowess, they make up for in a strong fan movement. “Sankt Pauli is famous for being a left-wing club. You get this whole argument, there’s no place for politics in sport, but a small team like Sankt Pauli, who are the first club in Europe to ban anything to do with racism. It shows what fans can do, if they act together as a group,” enthuses Dickson.

Formed in 1910, St Pauli hasn’t always been so popular. Average attendances throughout the 1970s were 4-5,000, but as the district grew an increasingly punk element – people who were also drawn to the club – St Pauli grew due to the ostensibly all-inclusive nature of its fans. By the late 1980s and into the 1990s, St Pauli were regularly selling out their 20,000 capacity Millerntor stadium. Estimates of St Pauli support today rise up to 11 million people in Germany alone, who have at least a casual support for the club.

A "St Pauli Against the Far Right" sticker on Dublin's Wexford Street

The astonishing success lies in its political roots “The vast majority of Sankt Pauli supporters are politically motivated. Why pick Sankt Pauli when you can pick the big team HSV (Hamburg), if you are not interested in the left leaning of the team”, admits Dickson.

The political fan movement encompasses anti-fascism, anti-sexism and anti-globalisation – a famous St Pauli fan banner reads “Sankt Pauli – Unestablished since 1910”.

This politicalisation has brought the club into conflict with other German club fans whose political affliation lies to the right of the political spectrum. Derbies with north German rivals Hansa Rostock have been particularly nasty affairs, and this season St Pauli will meet Rostock, along with other teams with infamous fan groups, like those from Dynamo Dresden and Eintract Braunschweig. As a result, this year’s 2. Bundesliga has been dubbed “the most expensive 2. Bundesliga in German history,” due to the cost of security.

The phenomenon of St Pauli has spread throughout Europe. The Jolly Roger, which the fans have embraced as one of their emblems is recognisable throughout Europe. Here in Dublin, “St Pauli gegen Rechts” (St Pauli against the Far Right) stickers are emblazoned on lampposts and traffic signs throughout the city, while fans of Celtic FC have long had a mutual love for all things St Pauli.

The history of the club in the affairs of the district is long, which echos the famous mantra of Barcelona FC of being “more than just a club”.

“Most young men, I might be stereotyping here, have an interest in football. If then their only interest in politics is from standing on a terrace watching football, and not sitting down at boring meetings for two hours, then that’s not a bad thing. They see an active inside of it”, says Dickson.

This has led St Pauli fans to support movements and issues both inside and outside of the football stadium. In September of this year, following a match at their Millerntor stadium, St Pauli fans demonstrated against a decision to erect fencing around a bridge at a harbour. The bridge was designed to prevent the homeless from seeking shelter under the bridge at night. As a result of the protests, the fencing was later removed.

Incidentally, this has given added meaning to one of the most famous St Pauli songs, where fans link arms, jump up and down and sing in unison “we are the leeches, the anti-social leeches. We sleep under bridges or in train stations”.

Inside the stadium, the fans have organised a movement entitled “Bring Back St Pauli”. With the recent renovation of the stadium, more corporate seats than ever are now in the stadium, which many fans argue goes against the ideals of the club. Club fans were furious when a local strip club had opened up in a VIP box, with the ladies stripping for customers every time St Pauli scored. Due to the protests, the girls have remained, but will have to wait till after a match to get their kit off.

The protests are normally organised through the club’s “fanladen”. A group of St Pauli supporters who operate independently – including financially – of the club itself, even having their own offices separate from the stadium. They help to coordinate activities between different fan groups as well as offering help to the club’s supporters throughout the world.

Translation: Bring Back St Pauli. Against the selling out of our ideals

One of the most active fan groups is Ultras Sankt Pauli (USP) – an ultra group who are responsible for a lot of the fan displays – although this doesn’t necessarily mean the ultras and the rest of the fans stand shoulder-to-shoulder on all issues. During the  2009-10 season, violent clashes between St Pauli and Hansa Rostock fans led the police to restrict the travelling Hansa Rostock fan numbers for the return fixture at the Millerntor stadium. St Pauli ultras were furious with the police for what they felt was interference. As a result, they staged a protest, ironically in solidarity with fans of Hansa Rostock, where the terraced section behind the goal – the area where USP supporters stand – would be boycotted for the first five minutes of the game. As many fans in this area were not USP members, they wished not to partake in the boycott, but were physically denied access to the stadium by the USP. This led to confrontations outside the stadium and on the terrace between St Pauli supporters.

The allure of St Pauli brings with it its own problems. The more popular the club becomes, the more money can be made, which brings the possibility of more corporate sponsorship and corporate box seats. More revenue after all means more success on the field. But as the “Bring Back St Pauli” initiative shows, winning isn’t everything to the fans. It’s their club and they want to feel a part of it.

St Pauli stands at this moment as a fascinating microcosm of a footballing world, where success on the pitch can conflict with the ideals of its fans. How this game will play out makes St Pauli as fascinating as ever.

 
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Posted by on October 27, 2011 in Germany

 

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An overview of the candidates in the Dublin-West by-election

The by-election will fill the seat of recently deceased Brian Lenihan

Cllr Eithne Loftus (Fine Gael) She’s campaigning under jobs growth and backs the present Government’s policies. The upcoming budget and the possible downgrade of Blanchardstown A&E make her campaign more difficult. She argues she’ll be the Government’s voice in Dublin West, as Leo Veradkar is busying himself in cabinet.
Cllr Patrick McNulty (Labour) Has adopted a more critical approach than Eithne Loftus on the current Government. He has said he wants a Windfall tax on the rich, while he wants to reform the planning laws and no downgrade to services at Connolly hospital. Has been less than clear on his views on Corporation Tax as well. Looking to be the second Labour TD in the constituency, along with Joan Burton.

Cllr David McGuinness (Fianna Fáil) The man in charge of rescuing Fianna Fáil’s only Dublin seat. He has called Leo Veradkar’s decision to cancel the Metro West as “premature” and is campaigning behind job creation. The Fianna Fáil top brass have said they are putting everything into getting Cllr. McGuinness elected, since they are not running a Presidential candidate.
Paul Donnelly (Sinn Féin) Donnelly is highlighting the adverse effects of austerity with regards an increase in lawlessness in the area, education cutbacks and the ongoing possible downgrade at Connelly hospital.
Cllr Ruth Coppinger (Socialist party/ULA) Running based on her activism on local issues like the Bin Tax in 2003 and the proliferation of development in and around Blanchardstown. She’s highlighted the need to save Connolly hospital and is campaigning against the Government’s austerity programme. Looking to be the second ULA member in the constituency, along with Joe Higgins.
Roderic O’Gorman (Green Party) Pursuing his Green Party credentials by encouraging public transport infrastructure development, including Metro West. Also promises to campaign for full equal marriage right for all LGBTs in the Dáil.
Peadar O’Ceallaigh (Fís Nua) The first official candidate of Fís Nua, who represent a left-wing burn the bondholders policy. Mr O’Ceallaigh is a former building surveyor and will donate 50% of his wages to support a co-operative in Dublin city centre.
Barry Caesar Hunt (Independent)The former Apprentice candidate claims the Government is not supporting small businesses. Among his ideas are reducing commercial rates on properties and reducing the tax on diesel.

The most controversial issue has been the possible downgrade of Connolly hospital

Benny Cooney (Independent) An employee of Fás. This is fourth attempt at election, after failing in Dublin Central and Westmeath earlier this year.
John Frank Kidd (Independent) Against any downgrade at Connolly hospital and wants a whistleblower’s charter set up.
Jim Tallon (Independent) Failed in his attempt to gain a seat in Wicklow/East Carlow in the general election, among other election failures. Seems to be running on strong left-wing politics, although little is known of him.
Brendan Doris (Independent) Says voting for a member of a politically party is nothing more than voting for a member of a private members club. Complains as well about the lack of democratic accountability on the bailout.
Gary Birmingham (Independent) An outspoken blogger critical of the Government, better known as “Terry Ghsto”.

 
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Posted by on October 26, 2011 in Elections

 

Foreign Languages. Nein, danke?

While English is the most spoken language, others are as important as ever

With 437,000 people unemployed and emigration at its highest levels since the 1980s, the necessity to respond to market needs in one of the most open economies in the world is as important as ever. So, why is the Government missing the boat on foreign languages?

Britain’s education secretary, Michael Grove, has brought the issue of foreign language learning to the fore in Britain saying “there is a slam-dunk case of extending foreign language teaching to the age of five”.

The issue was reported in the Irish media, but failed to ignite any debate from politicians on the pros and cons of such a possible move. At the moment, 15% of Irish primary schools offer foreign language learning to fifth and sixth class pupils.

The failure to ignite debate is peculiar for a number of reasons. First, issues of education reform have been on the top of the agenda in recent weeks. Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, has highlighted the urgent need for reform of the Leaving Certificate points system, as Ireland slides down the rankings in education standards in the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s (OECD) studies.

The second reason is the current state of the economy. Despite the recession, Ireland remains one of the most open economies in the OECD, and as such, continues to attract a lot of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).

This is seen with the continued success of the Irish export economy, which is viewed as the sector which will lead Ireland in economic recovery.

Any FDI investment brings with it the necessity for foreign languages, as companies like Facebook, Google and Hewlett Packard are using their Irish bases as headquarters for their European-wide operations.

As a result of the collapse in the construction industry, we now have an economy, where someone with a First-class honours degree in Engineering may struggle to find employment and be forced to emigrate, while a person with a pass degree but fluency in more than one European language may find a job at an international company relatively easily.

As the housing boom will never recover, the Fine Gael-Labour Government has repeatedly claimed it is through Ireland’s openness the economy will recover.

Labour TD, Aodhán Ó'Ríordáin

There are immediate market place advantages to those unemployed who have proficiency in foreign languages. If 437,000 people are unemployed, but only a small percentage has a proficiency in a language like German, then the advantage in finding a job, where German is required, is clear.

Despite this, Labour TD and deputy chairman of the Education Committee, Aodhán Ó’Ríordáin, says foreign languages are mostly off the agenda. “To be honest, our primary focus is on improving numeracy and literacy rates.”

Ciara O’Hare is a recent graduate of Media Arts with German in DIT. Since leaving DIT, Ciara spent a year in Germany teaching English, but chose to return to Ireland, where she has received a job at a multinational company in Dublin city centre, where proficiency in German was a requirement.

Without fluency in German, she admits emigration was likely. “ My chances of finding a job in Dublin would be a lot lower, it is definitely a huge advantage (having a foreign language) for applying to companies like Google and Facebook etc. If, after several months of job searching was unsuccessful I would definitely emigrate – not just for financial reasons but to gain work experience and not waste my time hoping for a job in Ireland.”

Ireland still has only a minority with a proficiency in foreign languages according to the Eurobarometer study, 2006. 66% of Irish people are unable to hold a conversation in a language either than their mother tongue, which is the lowest in the European Union.

Having English as our mother tongue is proving to be a disincentive to learn a foreign language and a disincentive for the Government to move it up the agenda. “I think having English has meant foreign language learning has not been prioritised. English is the language of commerce and we expect people in Europe to speak English”, says Ó’Ríordáin.

In spite of this, the disadvantages of a lack of foreign language proficiency is clear. According to a 2007 European Union study, exporting SMEs lose 11% of business due to language barriers.

Several recommendations have been made. The Royal Irish Academy has recommended a foreign language be made compulsory. Ireland is the only country in the EU, along with Scotland, that does not have a foreign language compulsory at some stage of education.

Ó’Riordain says the lack of success of Irish being a compulsory language “mars our thoughts” on any such

The recent rugby world cup in New Zealand emphasised the scale of Irish emigration in recent years

move. Taoiseach Enda Kenny is on the record saying he believes Irish should not be compulsory at Leaving Cert level, so it would seem unlikely foreign language learning will be made compulsory under the present Government.

A re-instatement of rules requiring foreign languages proficiency being compulsory for entry into Ireland’s top four universities has been recommended

Meanwhile Ó’Riordain believes trainee teachers should have the option to do courses in foreign languages in training colleges, so teachers can diversify into foreign language teaching if and when required.

Despite any recommendations, the present economic situation poses enormous difficulties, says Ó’Riordain. “No one has any problems with more exposure to foreign languages, but we are very restricted (with the current economic climate). We already have an overloaded curriculum and adding teachers will cost more”.

Perhaps, though, it may just be that those who learn foreign languages have the choice to stay in Ireland and work. And those that don’t, leave.

 
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Posted by on October 20, 2011 in Government policy

 

Presidential Election 2011 – The Case for Norris

Presidential Election 2011 – The Case for Norris

The controversies surrounding Norris ignore the senator’s cultural and moral achievements which have served to move the Irish state into the 21st century. No other candidate can boast such achievements worthy of presidency.

It’s a shame that the media’s reporting of the presidential campaign leaves the voters who only have a flirting interest in the campaign left to decide on an appropriate President simply on the basis of (trivial) controversies involving the candidates.

Seán Gallagher is the unofficial candidate of the party that ruined this country, Mary Davis is the president for Corporate Ireland, Gay Mitchell is a loner, Dana writes bitchy letters, Martin McGuinness is a lying terrorist, David Norris finds a degree of justification in pederasty and Michael D. Higgins is a short arse who has to stand on a box to look important. Take your pick.

The unfortunate thing is that each candidate presented themselves to the electorate backed by strong public achievements, which aren’t deemed important enough to broadcast by the media and in some cases by themselves.

Gay Mitchell has advanced the cause of aid to developing nations within the European Parliament through his role in the Development Committee, Mary Davis was the CEO for the extremely successful Special Olympics held in Ireland in 2003, Michael D. Higgins received the Seán McBride peace prize in 1992 for his human rights campaigning for war torn countries, Seán Gallagher has used his business success to work with and donate to charities, Martin McGuinness has facilitated the continuing success of the Peace Process, and Dana, well, she sang for the Pope.

David Norris, meanwhile, brought and won a case against the Irish state in 1988 for the criminalisation of homosexual acts in the European Court of Human Rights after twice being ruled against in Ireland, first by the High Court and then by the Supreme Court.

What sets Norris’ 14 year campaign apart is, while the deeds of the other candidates involved demonstrate great moral integrity and honesty, their acts were within the remit of the roles they had at the time. Mitchell and Higgins were empowered by their elected responsibilities to persevere with their humanitarian work, while McGuinness held the cocked gun in his hand, which he chose to lay down

Norris, though, took on one of the most powerful institutions in the state long before they were discredited by a litany of child sex abuse scandals – all this while openly proclaiming himself a homosexual. To confront and fight against the pervasive Catholic Church in 1970s and 1980s Ireland took great moral courage and conviction.

Remember it is only this year that an Irish Taoiseach was finally seen to be standing up to the Catholic Church with Enda Kenny’s speech in July which concluded “the standards of conduct which the Church deems appropriate to itself, cannot and will not, be applied to the workings of democracy and civil society in this republic”. The European Court of Human Rights was telling the Irish state the same thing in 1988.

The epoch of the time deems Norris’ campaign all the more extraordinary. Liberal San Francisco only elected Harvey Milk – “the martyr for Gay Rights” – city supervisor in 1977 after three failed attempts. It was only six years later David Norris would take his failed attempt to the Supreme Court in staunchly Catholic Ireland.

All the candidates, Norris included, are guilty of over-estimating their reach if elected President of Ireland. Even in the minor powers bestowed on the nation’s first citizen to pass a Bill to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality, very few Bills are put up for consideration for the President.

Even if a bill may be passed to the President, there’s a strong argument, the President should not refer the bill to the Supreme Court, as this prevents any law from being considered by the Supreme Court on its constitutionality in the future.

With the restrictions on how the President operates, the decision of the electorate will be made on the basis of the candidate’s past record, what they represent and their personal traits, not on the role as guardian of the constitution or the power to dissolve the Dáil.

This justifies the publication of David Norris’ support for clemency for former lover, Ezra Nawi, which along with a series of other revelations, seems to have derailed Norris’ campaign. But these issues shouldn’t be the deciding issue on the integrity of Norris on polling day.

There’s a genuine sense of disillusionment with a modern Ireland, which has only served to make world headlines, because of economic collapse and child sex abuse scandals. Norris as President may not be a road to redemption for our recent past, but it serves to represent an Ireland we wish to move towards; a secular, modern society tolerant of all views.

 
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Posted by on October 10, 2011 in Elections