No News is Bad News: New President, Old Polonium

I have been posting too infrequently on the blog, so I am going to follow up after the last post sooner rather than later. I am also going to comment on two international stories to make up for my recent fixation on the silly stuff going on in U.S. politics.

This post actually combines two recent stories into one, and although the stories are very different and are not exactly earth-shattering, they are united in their common theme of how frustrating it can be to read Western news outlets and to come away always wanting more. There are always buried leads, neglected points that should be made and only cursory attention paid to people and events that deserve a lot more coverage.

Mexico – Twelve years ago, Mexicans voted the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) out of power, ending a long and repressive era of one-party rule. Many observers believed the PRI would cease to exist soon thereafter, but after years in opposition, the PRI have returned to the seat of government. Many news outlets have rightly pointed out the incongruity in democratically electing a party whose claim to infamy in Mexico is extreme corruption, harsh suppression of the grassroots and otherwise flaunting Mexican democracy for decades. Even more strangely, however, those same outlets seem to be ignoring a fascinating fact: the PRI president-elect, Enrique Peña Nieto, may not be the true powerbroker in the new administration.

Peña Nieto is an interesting character, to be sure. After all, the Washington Post does not feature every world leader in its gossip columns. It may seem irrelevant that Peña Nieto’s nickname among many female voters is “Bombón” (meaning “sweetie”) or that his soap opera star wife has even more name-recognition than he does. Described by the New York Times as “culturally unsophisticated,” he struggled on the campaign trail to list three books that had a profound book on his life. Okay, so Peña Nieto is Mexico’s equivalent to Sarah Palin… or, perhaps more accurately, George W. Bush. If that is the case, who is the Mexican equivalent to Dick Cheney?

The answer to that question seems to be Luis Videgaray, Peña Nieto’s campaign manager and his likely choice for finance minister. Reuters describes him thus:

“An economist educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Videgaray is part of a new generation of PRI technocrats whom analysts consider well-qualified to keep Mexico’s finances healthy.”

In other words, Peña Nieto will smile for the cameras, shake hands and kiss babies while an orthodox neoliberal economist truly runs the country and carries out a familiar Third World government agenda: deregulating businesses, eliminating protectionism, and allowing foreign multinational corporations to swoop in and plunder to their heart’s content.

If there was any doubt of this, Peña Nieto made reforming Pemex, Mexico’s state-run oil monopoly, the “signature issue” of his campaign, and although the PRI lacks a strong majority in the national legislature, Peña Nieto is optimistic (even if foreign investors are not). According to BusinessWeek, the new government will advance legislating permitting corporations to establish “joint ventures” with Pemex by purchasing stakes in state-owned oilfields. This will require nothing less than a major change to the 1938 Mexican constitution, when the Mexican government nationalized the fields belonging to Western corporations. Essentially, the steps taken to diminish dependency on First World economies will be undone, thanks largely to PRI deals with business leaders, its iron grip on trade unions and its recently restored political pull.

Mexicans no doubt rallied to the PRI despite its past bad behavior because their economy is in such rough shape. Eager for jobs and wages to rise, the Mexican public may be disappointed to learn that Videgaray, again in the Reuters story, intends to abolish an exemption on value-added-tax (VAT) to food and medicine – commodities primarily bought and used by the poor. The article mentions that Videgaray would like to “compensate the poor” and that economists predict the added revenue could go toward schools and hospitals, but it is unclear how increasing the tax burden on the most impoverished in society would result in a windfall to build up infrastructure. A more intelligent move for the new government would be to crack down on the various privately owned oligopolies that dominate assorted industries in Mexico. How ironic is it that Mexico, for all its economic woes, is also the home of Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world, who reaps his billions from communications businesses that charge the highest usage fees on the planet?

Other than an interview with PBS NewsHour, I have not seen much U.S. media interest in Luis Videgaray, which is disappointing. If this man is going to be the brains behind the telegenic face of Peña Nieto, shouldn’t we know who he is?

Arafat – Yesterday, the Palestinian Authority announced it would exhume the body of Yasser Arafat following a report by Al Jazeera that indicated the Palestinian leader might have been poisoned with a rare radioactive isotope called polonium. According to the report, Arafat’s widow, Suha, provided underwear and other items to scientists at the University of Lausanne’s Institute of Radiation Physics. In 2005, the New York Times obtained medical records that said Arafat, who died under mysterious circumstances in late 2004, died of a stroke brought on by a bleeding disorder stemming from an unidentified, unknown infection. The scientists debunked a number of other potential causes of death, ranging from cancer to AIDS.

As you might imagine, the question of “What killed Arafat?” is less provocative than the question “Who killed Arafat?” There is no shortage of discussion on that topic, with potential culprits being the United States, Israel, Arafat’s Palestinian rivals and any combination of the above. Both the New York Times and the Israeli government have referred to the speculation with the loaded term “conspiracy theories,” but these are anything but the crackpot ramblings of individuals divorced from reality. The truth is that global intrigue runs rampant when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and assassinations of prominent personages – especially Palestinian nationalists and resistance fighters – are incredibly common.

There is a passage at the end of the Al Jazeera news story that I find is not repeated in the Western stories I have read:

“A conclusive finding that Arafat was poisoned with polonium would not, of course, explain who killed him. It is a difficult element to produce, though – it requires a nuclear reactor – and the signature of the polonium in Arafat’s bones could provide some insight about its origin.”

Whereas the Western media rehashes “he said, she said” versions of the Arafat “conspiracy theories,” the fact that poisoning via polonium is a rather sophisticated form of assassination has not received much attention. Admittedly, Arafat and his Fatah organization had (and continues to have) its fair share of enemies, both within and without its ranks. Yet, given its penchant for crudely assembled rockets and the like, what are the chances that a group like Hamas, for example, would be able to obtain an isotope that only comes from nuclear reactors? If Hamas or a Fatah dissident wanted to kill Arafat, would it not have been more cost effective and infinitely wiser to simply shoot him or blow him up than, say, reach out to someone in Russia or Pakistan and buy nuclear material, especially during the “War on Terror” era? Assuming that such a group were able to do this in the first place without being caught, would they then use this virtually undetectable, hard to identify poison on a Palestinian leader? If these groups were so sophisticated, why aren’t right-wing Israeli leaders, much more hated in Palestine than Arafat ever was, dropping dead from inexplicable causes and having their bones tested for isotopes?

 Certainly, it’s possible that Arafat’s rivals could have colluded with Israel or the U.S. (or both) to poison Arafat, but I simply cannot see a scenario where Israel or the U.S. were not involved at all. And that’s the point Western news agencies should be making.

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