Thursday, February 27, 2014

The best joke you'll see all day*

Just because it's a good joke. And because I've been thinking about my amazing colleagues in the field, in Ukraine and across the former Soviet Union today.

A teacher was quizzing her pupils about the differences between decadent, capitalist America and Socialist Russia.

"Tell us, Ivan," she asked. "What is the United States like?"

"The United States is a capitalist country where millions of people are unemployed, and millions more are starving and miserable," he said.

"Very good, Ivan. Now, Sasha, you tell us what is the goal of the Soviet Union?"

"To catch up with the United States."

*if your standards for humor are as low as mine

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014


My amazing colleague Oksana Galkevitch reports from Ukraine on the situation and JDC's response ...

Monday, February 24, 2014

Storytelling (continued)

I was running a seminar the other week in Miami and gave some examples of how I like to present “the story” of elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union.

I’ve used perfume (the “Red Moscow” perfume, used ubiquitously across the former Soviet Union and frequently used by our elderly women clients), bricks from old buildings, food packages, smart debit cards, alert watches, and more … the idea being that a visual, sensory trigger is far more powerful than just telling a story with photos and a narrative.

But the other day I met a Jewish federation donor who told me that some eight years ago she was with me on a home visit to a Khrushyovka (a low-cost concrete-paneled five-story building from the 1960s, seen all over the former Soviet Union).

She remembered the name of our client, an elderly woman who receives food and medicine and a care giver through our Hesed (welfare distribution) system. She remembered the room in which we sat, and how she felt when she was there and when we walked out. 

Why? Because at one point, during the visit, I held her hand and had her run her fingers and palm along the crumbling wall to feel the rot and decay. She said that she never forgot the feeling of the wall … and that was why she never forgot the visit to the woman whose life was saved by Hesed, the Joint and our federations.

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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Only people this sophisticated could create a mess this big

This should probably be required reading for Argentina missions. 

The tragedy of Argentina
A century of decline
One hundred years ago Argentina was the future. What went wrong?

Feb 15th 2014 | BUENOS AIRES | From the print edition

WHEN the residents of Buenos Aires want to change the pesos they do not trust into the dollars they do, they go to a cueva, or “cave”, an office that acts as a front for a thriving illegal exchange market. In one cueva near Florida Street, a pedestrian thoroughfare in the centre of the city, piles of pesos from previous transactions lie on a table. A courier is getting ready to carry the notes to safety-deposit boxes.
This smallish cueva handles transactions worth $50,000-75,000 a day. Fear of inflation and of further depreciation of the peso, which fell by more than 20% in January, will keep demand for dollars high. Few other ways of making money are this good. “Modern Argentina does not offer what you could call an institutional career,” says one cueva owner.

As the couriers carry their bundles around Buenos Aires, they pass grand buildings like the Teatro Colón, an opera house that opened in 1908, and the Retiro railway station, completed in 1915. These are emblems of Argentina’s Belle Époque, the period before the outbreak of the first world war when the country could claim to be the world’s true land of opportunity. In the 43 years leading up to 1914, GDP had grown at an annual rate of 6%, the fastest recorded in the world. The country was a magnet for European immigrants, who flocked to find work on the fertile pampas, where crops and cattle were propelling Argentina’s expansion. In 1914 half of Buenos Aires’s population was foreign-born.
The country ranked among the ten richest in the world, after the likes of Australia, Britain and the United States, but ahead of France, Germany and Italy. Its income per head was 92% of the average of 16 rich economies. From this vantage point, it looked down its nose at its neighbours: Brazil’s population was less than a quarter as well-off.

It never got better than this. Although Argentina has had periods of robust growth in the past century—not least during the commodity boom of the past ten years—and its people remain wealthier than most Latin Americans, its standing as one of the world’s most vibrant economies is a distant memory (see chart 1). Its income per head is now 43% of those same 16 rich economies; it trails Chile and Uruguay in its own back yard.
The political symptoms of decline are also clear. If Argentina appeared to enjoy stability in the pre-war era, its history since then has been marked by a succession of military coups. The first came in 1930; others followed in 1943, 1955, 1962, 1966 and 1976. The election of 1989 marked the first time in more than 60 years that a civilian president had handed power to an elected successor.

It is now more than 30 years since the end of military dictatorship, but democracy has not yet led to stability. Argentines reach for the metaphor of the “pendulum” to describe the swings of the past three decades: from loose economic policies in the 1980s to Washington-consensus liberalisation in the 1990s and back again under the presidency of Néstor Kirchner and now his widow, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. But the image of a pendulum does not do justice to the whiplashing of the economy (see charts 2 and 3)—the repeated recessions of the 1970s and 1980s, the hyperinflation of 1989-90, the economic crisis of 2001 and now the possibility of another crisis to come. Argentina is a long way from the turmoil of 2001 but today’s mix of rising prices, wage pressures and the mistrust of the peso have nasty echoes of the past.

Internationally, too, Argentina has lost its way. It has shut itself out of global capital markets, although negotiations are under way to restructure its debts with the Paris Club of international creditors. Brazil, hardly a free-trade paragon, is pressing Argentina to open its borders; once it would have been the other way round. “Only people this sophisticated could create a mess this big,” runs a Brazilian joke that plays on Argentines’ enduring sense of being special.
One hundred years of ineptitude
The country’s dramatic decline has long puzzled economists. Simon Kuznets, a Nobel laureate, is supposed to have remarked: “There are four kinds of countries in the world: developed countries, undeveloped countries, Japan and Argentina.” Other countries have since managed to copy Japan’s rapid industrialisation; Argentina remains in a class of its own. There is no shortage of candidates for the moment when the country started to go wrong. There was the shock of the first world war and the Depression to an open trading economy; or the coup of 1930; or Argentina’s neutrality in the second world war, which put it at odds with America, the new superpower. There was the rise of Juan Domingo Perón, the towering figure of 20th-century Argentina, who took power in 1946. Others reckon that things really went downhill between 1975 and 1990.
No one theory solves the puzzle. “If a guy has been hit by 700,000 bullets it’s hard to work out which one of them killed him,” says Rafael di Tella, who has co-edited a forthcoming book on Argentina’s decline. But three deep-lying explanations help to illuminate the country’s diminishment. Firstly, Argentina may have been rich 100 years ago but it was not modern. That made adjustment hard when external shocks hit. The second theory stresses the role of trade policy. Third, when it needed to change, Argentina lacked the institutions to create successful policies.
Take each in turn. The first explanation is that Argentina was rich in 1914 because of commodities; its industrial base was only weakly developed. Filipe Campante and Edward Glaeser of Harvard University compared Buenos Aires before the first world war with Chicago, another great shipment hub for meat and grains. They found that whereas literacy rates stood at 95% in Chicago in 1895, less than three-quarters of porteños, as residents of Buenos Aires are known, knew how to read and write.
The landowners who made Argentina rich were not so bothered about educating it: cheap labour was what counted. That attitude prevailed into the 1940s, when Argentina had among the highest rates of primary-school enrolment in the world and among the lowest rates of secondary-school attendance. Primary school was important to create a sense of citizenship, says Axel Rivas of CIPPEC, a think-tank. But only the elite needed to be well educated.
Without a good education system, Argentina struggled to create competitive industries. It had benefited from technology in its Belle Époque period. Railways transformed the economics of agriculture and refrigerated shipping made it possible to export meat on an unprecedented scale: between 1900 and 1916 Argentine exports of frozen beef rose from 26,000 tonnes to 411,000 tonnes a year. But Argentina mainly consumed technology from abroad rather than inventing its own.
Technological innovation needs not only educated people but access to money. Argentina’s golden age was largely foreign-funded. Half of the country’s capital stock was in foreign hands in 1913, further exposing it to external shocks. Low levels of domestic savings can in part be explained by demography: large numbers of immigrants with dependent children spent money rather than saving it.
Traders of the lost past
Argentina had become rich by making a triple bet on agriculture, open markets and Britain, then the world’s pre-eminent power and its biggest trading partner. If that bet turned sour, it would require a severe adjustment. External shocks duly materialised, which leads to the second theory for Argentine decline: trade policy.
The first world war delivered the initial blow to trade. It also put a lasting dent in levels of investment. In a foreshadowing of the 2007-08 global financial crisis, foreign capital headed for home and local banks struggled to fill the gap. Next came the Depression, which crushed the open trading system on which Argentina depended; Argentina raised import tariffs from an average of 16.7% in 1930 to 28.7% in 1933. Reliance on Britain, another country in decline, backfired as Argentina’s favoured export market signed preferential deals with Commonwealth countries.
Indeed, one way to think about Argentina in the 20th century is as being out of sync with the rest of the world. It was the model for export-led growth when the open trading system collapsed. After the second world war, when the rich world began its slow return to free trade with the negotiation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1947, Argentina had become a more closed economy—and it kept moving in that direction under Perón. An institution to control foreign trade was created in 1946; an existing policy of import substitution deepened; the share of trade as a percentage of GDP continued to fall.
These autarkic policies had deep roots. Many saw the interests of Argentina’s food exporters as being at odds with those of workers. High food prices meant big profits for farmers but empty stomachs for ordinary Argentines. Open borders increased farmers’ takings but sharpened competition from abroad for domestic industry. The pampas were divided up less equally than farmland in places like the United States or Australia: the incomes of the richest 1% of Argentines were strongly correlated with the exports of crops and livestock. As the urban, working-class population swelled, so did the constituency susceptible to Perón’s promise to support industry and strengthen workers’ rights.
There have been periods of liberalisation since, but interventionism retains its allure. “One-third of the country—the commodities industry, engineers and regional industries like wine and tourism—is ready to compete,” says Sergio Berensztein, a political analyst. “Two-thirds are not.”
The divide between farmers and workers endures. Heavy export taxes on crops allow the state to top up its dwindling foreign-exchange reserves; limits on wheat exports create surpluses that drive down local prices. But they also dissuade farmers from planting more land, enabling other countries to steal market share. The perverse effects of intervention have been amply demonstrated in the Kirchner era: according to the US Department of Agriculture, Argentina was the world’s fourth-largest exporter of wheat in 2006. By 2013 it had dropped to tenth place. “The Argentine model of 100 years ago—producing as much as you can—is the one others now follow,” laments Luis Miguel Etchevehere, the president of the Rural Society of Argentina, a farmers’ lobby.
Distribution centre
Some commodity-rich economies have resolved these tensions. Australia, for example, shared many of the traits of early 20th-century Argentina: lots of commodities, a history of immigration and remoteness from big industrial centres. Yet it managed to develop a broader-based economy than Argentina and grew faster. Between 1929 and 1975 Australian income per person increased at an average annual rate of 0.96%, compared with 0.67% in Argentina.
Australia had some big advantages: the price of minerals does not affect domestic consumers in the same way as the price of food, for instance. But it also had the institutions to balance competing interests: a democracy in which the working class was represented; an apprenticeship system; an independent Tariff Board to advise the government on trade. Argentina had not evolved this political apparatus, despite an early move to universal male suffrage in 1912. The third theory for Argentine decline points to the lack of institutions to develop long-term state policies—what Argentines call política de Estado.

The constant interruptions to democracy are not the only manifestation of this institutional weakness. The Supreme Court has been overhauled several times since Perón first changed its membership in 1946. Presidents have a habit of tinkering with the constitution to allow them to serve more terms: Ms Fernández was heading this way before poor mid-term election results last year weakened her position.
Property rights are insecure: ask Repsol, the Spanish firm whose stake in YPF, an Argentine oil company, was nationalised in 2012. Statistics cannot be trusted: Argentina was due this week to unveil new inflation data in a bid to avoid censure from the IMF for its wildly undercooked previous estimates. Budgets can be changed at will by the executive. Roberto Lavagna, a former economy minister, would like to see a requirement for parliamentary approval of budget amendments.
The next century
First, Argentina has to get out of its mess. Keen to husband its stock of foreign reserves and to close the gap between the official and unofficial exchange rates, the central bank allowed the peso to slide last month. To prevent the depreciation from fuelling inflation expectations, it has raised interest rates. But further tightening will be needed. Rates remain negative in real terms; upcoming wage negotiations will be a test of how serious the government is about controlling spending.
Ms Fernández will probably struggle on until the 2015 presidential election, which optimists see as a turning-point. Economic wobbles before the election may discredit Peronism’s claim to be the party of strong government. But Peronism is a remarkably plastic political concept, capable of producing both the neoliberal policies overseen by Carlos Menem in the 1990s and the redistributive policies of the Kirchners. The idea of a party that pays the price of bad policies does not seem to apply.
Short-termism is embedded in the system. Money is concentrated in the centre, and the path to power goes via subsidies and splurging: the Kirchners are only the latest culprits, turning a fiscal surplus of 2% of GDP in 2005 into an estimated 2% deficit last year. “We have spent 50 years thinking about maintaining government spending, not about investing to grow,” says Fernando de la Rúa, a former president who resigned during the 2001 crisis.
This short-termism distinguishes Argentina from other Latin American countries that have suffered institutional breakdowns. Chile’s military dictatorship was a catastrophic fracture with democracy but it introduced long-lasting reforms. Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party governed steadily for most of the 20th century. “In Argentina institution-building has taken the form of very quick and clientilist redistribution,” says Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
It will take an unusual politician to change Argentina’s institutions, especially if another commodities windfall eases the pressure to reform. The country’s Vaca Muerta (“Dead Cow”) shale-oil and gasfield is estimated to be the world’s third-largest. If Argentina can attract foreign capital, the money could start flowing within a decade. “Vaca Muerta gives us huge capacity to recover and huge opportunity to make mistakes,” says Mr Lavagna.
Argentines themselves must also change. The Kirchners’ redistributive policies have helped the poor, but goodies such as energy subsidies have been doled out to people who do not really need them. Persuading the population to embrace the concept of necessary pain will be difficult. That is partly because the experience of the 1990s discredited liberal reforms in the eyes of many Argentines. But it is also because reform requires them to confront their own unprecedented decline. No other country came so close to joining the rich world, only to slip back. Understanding why is the first step to a better future.

Friday, February 21, 2014

There is no such thing as "cannot" ... only "will not."

This is stunning, and beautiful. Helping to build a stronger Israel.
Everyone needs the chance and the opportunity to succeed.

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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Things I’ve learned this last year (since my last birthday)

 Did I mention it was my birthday? I've learned a lot. So I guess I’m a year wiser. Here are some things I've learned:

1.       The best coffee I’ve ever had is from a small café in Plaza Vieja in Havana, Cuba, called Café El Escorial. They make their own and roast it on-site.

2. Visiting Yad Vashem reminds me why it’s important to speak to my kids in Hebrew.

4. Landing an hour early at 3am isn't as great as you'd think if they won't open customs until 4:15.

5. Havana in the 1930s looked remarkably like Havana in 2013.

6. It's pretty intimidating to be the only man going to an erotic art exhibit at the Havana Fine Arts Museum with 20 (women) Lions of Judah.

7. Argentinians are Spanish-speaking Italians who pretend to be British. Apparently.

9. I work with some pretty amazing people. I didn't "learn" this just now. But there were some good reminders.

10. I couldn't do this without my family. And for them I'm grateful. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The best question about Ukraine you’re going to see all month …

Is there a single Ukraine?

From the Economist

Is the modern Ukraine one nation?
The question is not meant to be provocative. But it is worth asking, since Ukraine is deeply divided on its international destiny: roughly speaking, does it belong more closely to the European Union or to Russia? Political divides cut Ukraine into eastern and western halves. The last two presidential elections have split neatly along these lines. In both of them, Viktor Yanukovych, the president, won the vast majority of votes in the eastern half of the country. He lost (after a re-vote when the first vote was considered rigged) in 2004, but won in 2010. The maps of the two elections by region look remarkably similar, so it stands to reason that the number of swing voters was relatively small.
It also so happens that the linguistic divisions of Ukraine run along nearly the exact same lines. The west and north are predominantly Ukrianian-speaking, the east and south predominantly Russian-speaking.
In 2012, a new law upgraded Russian to the status of a regional language in those regions where it is most widely spoken. Ukrainian remains the only national language, but Russian now plays a greater role at the local level. As we noted at the time, Ukraine is not simply divided into “Russians” who speak Russian and “Ukrainians” who speak Ukrainian. In the days of the Soviet Union, each Soviet citizen had an official “nationality” in their passport, alongside Soviet citizenship. There are former Russians by nationality who ended up in the borders of the independent Ukraine. But to mess up the picture somewhat, there are also ethnic “Ukrainians” who prefer Russian, whatever that means. (There are no other obvious outer markers of nationality—it’s not as though Russians and Ukrainians differ visibly.)  And complicating the picture further still, many people are happily bilingual: some people speak Ukrainian at home but Russian at work, or speak Ukrainian but mostly read and watch television in Russian (in which there are more options, given Russia’s presence next door).

Inevitably, politicians try to play with language to their own advantage. Mr Yanukovych is from the east, his political power base is there, and despite his efforts to please nationalists by speaking up for the language, he still makes mistakes in Ukrainian. Yulia Timoshenko, his defeated rival in that election (and now in jail), has spent years mastering Ukrainian, and she called the 2012 law upgrading Russian a “crime against the state”. Debate over it started a fistfight in Ukraine’s parliament. 
Language has become a proxy for other battles, not only over Europe versus Russia, but over history. Some Ukrainian nationalists, understandably resentful of Soviet-Russian domination, eagerly joined the 1941 Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. So Ukrainian nationalism—including the linguistic kind—provokes nervousness and resentment among some Russian-speakers. One Russian-Ukrainian professor told me that his family celebrate New Year on Moscow time and feel like strangers in western Ukraine. He predicts either federalism (German- or American-style, with a weakened national government) or partition (hopefully peaceful, like Czechoslovakia’s). He says he can live with federalism—so long as he never has to watch parades honouring the old SS “Halichna” division made up mostly of Ukrainians.
Ukraine’s very name means “borderland”. Its de facto sovereignty has remained contested since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Your columnist will never forget finding himself in Lviv (a heart of nationalism, in western Ukraine) on August 24th 1998: it was Ukraine’s sixth-ever independence day, and locals solemnly gathered in front of the statue of Taras Shevchenko, the national poet. Grey-haired men and women held flags to their hearts and bowed their heads, eyes closed, as they stood in tightly formed groups and sang patriotic hymns. This was not a people who took independence for granted, the holiday an excuse to skip work and barbecue. Independence denied was very much a living memory.

Nonetheless, some Russian-speaking Ukrainians still feel that the symbols of Ukrainian nationalism were hastily contrived, and therefore artificial. The role of Ukrainian as sole national language—a role that it never enjoyed in any political unit until 1991—is Exhibit A in their case against nationalism as a manipulated, divisive force.
In a perfect world, everyone would live in the country they choose. Perhaps a partition would be better for many in the current Ukraine. But in practice, partition is far less often a “velvet divorce” of equals as in Czechoslovakia, and more often like the bloody division of Yugoslavia: mixed towns become battlefields and neighbouring powers intervene in their own interests. In this case, the enormous neighbouring power of Russia is unlikely to be able to avoid meddling in any peaceful Ukrainian split. Sergei Glazyev, an adviser to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has already speculated publicly that Russia might feel honour-bound to support Russian-speakers in a partition—fanning the flames.

There clearly is a genuine Ukrainian nationalism, and Russian attempts to portray it as “fake” are self-serving. But though there is a Ukrainian nation, it does not live cleanly within the borders of the modern state called Ukraine. This is a tragedy for all those whom the status quo does not satisfy, and that is looking like a lot of Ukrainians at the moment. Federalism, including linguistic federalism, is often a better solution. But as the punch-up in parliament over Russian in the eastern regions shows, when times gets tense, people’s thinking becomes zero sum: a gain for Russian must be a loss for Ukrainian. The country, as currently constituted, is probably fated for a lot of mutual misunderstanding yet.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

I will be the last one to leave this city

I’m doing research this week for a couple of presentations to highlight our work with post-Soviet Jewry. For some of the depth, I’ve been using our amazing 100-year old archives and our extremely helpful archival researchers.

I’m not exactly sure what I’m looking for. I know that there are so many stories in the archives that sometimes I just send a query through the system because, odds are, I’ll find something just fascinating and worth reading.

This is one of those examples.

A colleague passed on this incredible transcript. It’s part of an oral history project from 1981, interviewing Boris Smolar, who dedicated much of his life to reporting on the situation of Jews, and in many places saw the work of the Joint. He’s being interviewed about JDC’s role in Poland in 1920 … and this piece really struck me …

“In 1920 JDC started to work in Poland after the war, and sent a unit of more than 30 people - Americans, social workers and leaders of various groups - to conduct their work there. They were all in para-military uniform for protection, because the situation in Poland
at that time was so chaotic. The Polish Army, which secured Polish independence from Russia after Poland being Russian for many generations, was so drunk with victory that they celebrated their victory by assaulting Jews in the street and cutting of their beards, like in Hitler's time. They would even throw Jews off of running trains. It was dangerous for
a Jew to travel on a train at that time.

Petlura's regime [the independent anti-Bolshevik leader] fell, and the [Poles] simply intended to go all the way to Warsaw. But they didn't succeed long. They remained in the Ukraine for only a short while, several months, until they met the Red Army. They were no longer dealing with bandits, but a regular Soviet Army. So, it was the Polish Army facing the Russian Army, and the Russians gave them such a beating that they began to retreat. They retreated so fast that I saw them running. They had no cars, no trucks, nothing. All they had were horses and wagons. And if a wagon lost a wheel, it ran on three wheels.

During this retreat, they reached Rovno. When they were about to retreat from Rovno, JDC's Abe Shohan put as many Jews as didn't want to, remain under the Bolsheviks or fall under the Soviet regime in trucks with reserves of food, intending to open a JDC office in the next city after we left Rovno. The entire JDC staff was evacuated in trucks with food to Lutsk(?), a city about 60 miles from Rovno, thinking we would be able to open a JDC office there. Before leaving, Shohan said to me - you and I are going to be the last to leave. I am remaining, you can remain here if you want, or you can go to Warsaw, but I am staying here to be the last to leave. As the JDC representative, I want you to go with me as translator to the military commandant in Rovno, to make sure he issues an order that no pogroms take place.

He went to the commandant and said: Look. You are, by military law, the last of the military units to leave the city. You have no automobile, and you will have to leave like all the other retreating soldiers, by horse and wagon. The Russians are driving you back fast. You can never tell, they may surround the city. Then you will be stuck in Russian hands, and you know what that means. Now, I have an automobile with an American flag on it, and I will be the last one to leave this city, watching in my automobile whether Jewish stores and homes have been looted, raided, whether there have been pogroms, and so on. 1 will wire a report to the American Jews as to whether the Polish Army behaves during their last minutes in the city. I don't want to see any pogroms; it wouldn't be good for the reputation of the Polish Army. And frankly, it wouldn't be too good for you either. If you promise to issue an order to the retreating officers of your unit, to see that discipline is maintained, and that there will be no pogroms in the city, I will pick you up in my automobile and we will be the last to leave. The military commandant had no choice anyway so he said sure, we don't like pogroms, and there will be an order issued that there should be no pogroms by the retreating Polish Army.

And there were none.”

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Monday, February 17, 2014

Why don't they leave?

I’ve been doing a lot of presentations recently about life after the Soviet Union. For a lot of American Jewish audiences, there’s one recurring question, which is usually phrased along the lines of, “why don’t the Jews leave?”


So … it’s a good point. Surely life is better in Israel, or in the States? Or anywhere?


But it’s not as simple as that. For one thing, “better” is a really difficult term to quantify. I think life is “better” in Israel – but does that mean that all American Jews should move there? (Don’t send me your angry responses on that one). How do you force people living in some countries to move if “we” decide they’d be “better” off somewhere else?  And how do we compare living conditions from one place to another.


Into this mix, there was a terrific article the other day in the Moscow Times, outlining “Ten Good Things About Putin’s Russia.” Some of them made me laugh. Some of them are so blindingly obvious that you forget about them until someone points them out. Well-worth reading …




10 Good Things About Putin's Russia

The news out of Russia has mostly been bad — and deservedly so. Things have been going steadily downhill since the great protest march on the eve of President Vladimir Putin's third inauguration in May 2012.
But some perspective has been lost in the process. There are good things about Putin's Russia as well. Here is the top 10:

1. You can leave. Andrei Sakharov, leader of the Human Rights movement in the Soviet Union, insisted that the No. 1 human right was the right to leave your country, otherwise you are living in a prison house. It is unfortunate that some people still have to flee Russia, but it is fortunate that they can. Customer service has improved, there is less anti-Semitism and Russians are free to pray and leave the country if they want.

2. You can pray. In my experience, it is a lot easier to find believers who are intelligent and fun in Russia than it is in the U.S. A Russian can be a member of the intellectual class and still follow the Orthodox Church's complex schedule of fasts. For all the cozy hypocrisy in the relations of church and state that the Pussy Riot punk rock group mocked in its prank at Moscow's main cathedral, it must be still counted as progress that believers can openly worship now without fearing social or economic loss as in Soviet times. That also raises the question of how long today's Russia should be compared to a Soviet yesterday.

3. You can open a business. What once were capital crimes are now career choices. The streets of  some Russian cities now are now displaying more individual capitalism, the little stores with personality that lend color and variety to street-level life. Shopping is no longer an expedition. All sense of adventure has been lost. If you want something, you buy it — including on the Internet. E-commerce is a booming business in Russia. All you need is money, the new tyrant.

4. The Internet is free. My rule is that a country without a free Internet can never be called free, whereas a country with a free Internet can never be called entirely unfree. The perverse irony here is that modern authoritarian regimes may actually prefer free Internet and social media because it makes it easier to track and monitor dissidents. Case in point: Protesters on the barricades in Kiev received the following text message: "Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in an unsanctioned rally."

5. You can eat. When I used to travel to the Soviet hinterland, I always carried a salami, bread and a knife. It was perfectly possible to end up in a town where there was no restaurant open and no food in the stores. Recently I had a few nice meals in Murmansk in the Arctic Circle. Everywhere you look there are sushi restaurants, which somehow has become the emblem of modern dining sophistication — much like being pro-gay rights has become the emblem of the modern, civilized mindset. We'll know that Russia has arrived when we start seeing gay sushi restaurants popping up not only in Moscow, but in the conservative hinterlands as well.

6. There is less anti-Semitism. Or maybe it has simply been exported to western Ukraine and Europe. In reality, of course, Russia's xenophobia and bile has been refocused on Central Asian guest workers and natives of the Caucasus. From time to time, you can see Orthodox Jews in black coats and hats, long beards and payis walking down city streets unself-consciously, lost in their own conversation and oblivious to the fact that they are in the country that gave the world the words "pogrom" and "Pale of Settlement."
I was amazed and gladdened when there was no detectable outbreak of anti-Semitism over the fact that so many of the oligarchs were Jewish. Of course, there is still some anti-Semitism in Russia, but perhaps only just enough to prove the old bitter maxim that anti-Semitism is hating Jews more than you should.

7. Weak commies. In a country once totally dominated by Communists, it is a pleasure to see them now as a mostly toothless opposition — often literally — whose existence helps keep up the appearances of tolerance and democracy. It also gives Westerners who remember the Cold War the opportunity to look at real Russian Communists who still sincerely believe all of that ideological claptrap. Their spectacular historical failure has now sent some Communists back to their original function: helping society's poor and forgotten.

8. Smiles and good service. In the bad old days, smiles were rare in general and service was often called "unobtrusive" — meaning that the waiter or salesperson was nowhere to be found, having simply disappeared probably to stand in line for chicken or toilet paper. Service with a smile was outright inconceivable. Now Russians smile more often and more easily, and service is definitely speedier, probably because chicken and toilet paper are readily available in stores.
Nonetheless, you can still get the old-fashioned service with a scowl. On the bullet train between Moscow and St. Petersburg, the stewardesses are quick to bring you a surprisingly tasty lunch, but they slap it down on your tray and disappear to deal with things more important than customers like gossip and makeup. The Soviet Union dies hard.

9. Alexei Navalny. It's wonderful that today's Russia could have a wise-cracking corruption-fighting whistle-blower like Navalny. He is a person of intelligence, integrity and sufficient stature to worry Putin, especially after Navalny won an impressive 27 percent of the vote in September's mayoral election in Moscow. There have already been efforts to cripple him with phony criminal charges resulting in a conviction that may disbar him from any future political runs for office. There may even be efforts to crush him even more completely than that. At least he can leave the country — as of this writing anyway.

10. Everything that always made Russia wonderful no matter who rules from the Kremlin. The list includes vodka, jokes, excellent conversation, passionate friendship, vodka, heroic hospitality, banyas, a love of art and music, a sense of vastness reaching from steppe to space, vodka.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The weekly ration

HAVANA TIMES — Here is the list of the “protein products” available to Havana residents with their ration booklet for the week of January 27-31.   It also includes a preview of some food items that will be available in February.

Chicken: (one pound for consumers over 14 and also for those persons under doctor’s orders). Distribution concludes in the municipalites of La Lisa, Centro Habana and San Miguel. Distribution in Habana del Este, Boyeros and Marianao.
Mortadela: (one pound for children between 0 and 13 years). Distribution in Plaza, Playa and Centro Habana.
Mortadela: A half pound for all consumers. Distribution concludes in Marianao And Guanabacoa. Distribution in Cerro, Diez de Octubre, San Miguel and Arroyo Naranjo.
Eggs: Five per consumer and extra for those under doctor’s orders). Distribution ends in Arroyo Naranjo, La Lisa, and Cerro. Distribution in Cotorro, Plaza, Regla, Habana Vieja, Centro Habana and San Miguel.
In February the neighborhood bodega stores will be supplying the following rationed products for Havana residents: 
Rice: 7 lbs / Beans: 10 ounces / Refined sugar: 3 pounds / Brown sugar 1 pound / oil: a half pound / preserves: 13 portions / Coffee: 4 ounces for consumers over 7 years old.
Note: Coppelia dairy products informs that the municipalities of Arroy Naranjo, Cotorro, Guanabacoa, La Lisa, San Miguel del Padrón, Cerro and Regla will receive their whole and skim milk allotments for medical prescriptions; the rest of the municipalities will be concluding distribution of milk formula.

Havana’s Empresa Provincial de Comercio

Cuba’s Ration Booklet: A Catalogue of Privations

Ernesto Perez Chang, February 14, 2014 Havana Times

The Cuban ration booklet. Photo: Rene Bastiaasen.

HAVANA TIMES — This is the basic consumer basket of the average Cuban: five eggs and some pounds of rice (the kind that “gets sticky”, not cooked) every month, enough sugar to turn a regular glass of water into an emergency breakfast, one kilogram of table salt (with crystals the size of Ping-Pong balls) once every who knows how many months. Placing these product quantities on the same plane as monthly needs entails a complicated mathematical operation.

Often, ration stores dish out a few grams of ground-up tendons and fat mixed with soy flour, a bit of seasoning and chemical preservatives that no laboratory could identify. People eat this concoction without knowing what it is, exactly, but they have learned to swallow without asking too many questions. The formula may well be one of the country’s best-kept secrets and this business of eating blindly one of the most intelligent of consumer strategies.

When the beans one buys aren’t eaten through by worms or weevils, they smell of fumigation chemicals. Often, they are so old and stale that there’s no way to turn them into something humans can eat.

The cooking oil, with flies floating on the surface, is good, not for dressing, but for dirtying the bottle it comes in, and the only cheap bread a working-class person can afford has such a sharp taste and weird texture it sometimes ends up as pig fodder.

If the ship everyone gawks at from behind the seaside wall happens to dock here, then people will get their one pound of chicken (meant to last them for thirty days). Sometimes, one manages to bribe a doctor into prescribing you a special diet and, after some difficult bureaucratic procedures, can get their hands on a little bit more food for a few months. Commonly, people develop complications as the years go by because of prolonged malnutrition – and getting the extra bit of food is like winning the lottery, such that the illness arrives as a blessing in disguise.

The food ration booklet doesn’t put much more on our tables. Every year, the authorities take something out of them, such that the booklet never thickens, it only gets thinner. That’s what the incessant re-editions amount to. The product slots that manage to survive these regular trimmings end up as empty as the inside of our fridges, to say nothing of our bellies. …"

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Argentina and Economic Turmoil

Further deterioration in Argentina. It's going to affect our work there one way or another. 

If you remember what happened in 2001-2002 and our response, what many of my colleagues now are wondering is whether or not we're going to see a repeat of the emergency ... and an upscaling of our work ...

Note especially the comment about inflation. There was an excellent letter to the WSJ last month (H/T to my colleague Diana) claiming that real inflation in Argentina is now 63%!!!!

Argentines Jockey to Cope With Economic Turmoil

Prices are soaring, foreign reserves are falling and the peso has had its sharpest slide in 12 years. Instead of rioting, though, Argentines are falling back on tried and true survival skills learned in earlier, more dire times.
Some are hoarding dollars, while others stockpile goods or plow their savings into real estate.
More people ride bikes now following recent increases in public transportation fares. They eat out less and buy cheap, pirated DVD copies of the latest films rather than go to the cinema.  
With inflation running at about 30 percent, Sofia Basualdo, a 43-year-old geography teacher, has used shopping sprees to beat further price rises.
"I might pay one peso for a product today, but next week I'll likely have to pay two pesos," Basualdo said as she left a Buenos Aires supermarket pushing a shopping cart filled to the brim. "In this country, when you start smelling inflation it's best to buy and save."
   Many Argentines note that the current economic woes are not as bad as Argentina's financial collapse in 2001-2002. Unemployment remains relatively low, and many people benefit from government handouts. Yet they worry the country may be at a tipping point.
"People are adopting defensive measures to survive," said Jorge Raventos, a political analyst and former spokesman for Argentina's foreign relations ministry. "People endure this by zig-zagging along, but it's hard to know how much they can take before they explode."
The thirst for dollars was fed over the past few days when the peso suddenly slipped 15 percent against the greenback.
Although it is exceedingly difficult because of strict regulations, some people and businesses have succeeded in past years in sending their dollars out of Argentina as a hedge against inflation. Then Deputy Economy Minister Axel Kiciloff last year estimated Argentine individuals and companies had socked away up to $200 billion in undeclared currency outside the country.
Like most people, Carlos Partcha, an 80-year-old retired journalist, has taken the simpler measure of buying U.S. dollars and stashing them under his mattress — as he has done for more than a decade.
"We don't trust anything anymore. Not even the banking institutions," Partcha said. "I had saved in dollars, and when the banks froze deposits in 2001, I got pesos back and lost my money."
"We're so used to these levels of uncertainty that the Argentine has developed a sort of workout routine to deal with" economic instability, he said.
The crisis 13 years ago was so bad that one of every five Argentines was out of work and some reported going hungry. The peso, which had been tied to the dollar, lost nearly 70 percent of its value.
Banks froze deposits and barricaded behind sheet metal as thousands of protesters unsuccessfully tried to withdraw their savings. At least 27 people died in protests and looting that swept Argentina in December 2001 as South America's second-largest economy unraveled and eventually defaulted on a debt of more than $100 billion. Argentina saw a revolving door of five presidents over two weeks.
Restoring Argentina's sense of pride and sovereignty after that collapse has been the central goal of President Cristina Fernandez and her late husband and political predecessor, Nestor Kirchner. The presidential couple negotiated or paid off most of Argentina's defaulted debt, nationalized the pension system, and retook control of the national airline and oil company. They also kept energy cheap through subsidies and dug deep into the treasury to redirect revenue to the poor through handouts.
For several years, Argentina enjoyed annual growth of 7 percent fueled by the high prices foreigners paid for the country's soybeans and other agricultural commodities.
But now, Argentina suffers from a shortage of dollars, one of the world's highest inflation rates and an inability to tap into global credit markets because of its debt default.
Argentina's economy this year is expected to expand by no more than 1.5 percent, mainly because of lower commodity prices and waning demand from China for its agricultural goods. The government's policy of nationalizing private firms has also spooked investors.
Inflation estimated last year at 28 percent and projected to be even higher in 2014, forces rounds of wage and price negotiations. Hugo Moyano, one of Argentina's most powerful union leaders, recently said inflation is "eating up salaries" and "must be corrected and compensated."
The government recently eased tough restrictions on exchanging pesos for foreign currencies after they backfired by pushing many Argentines to buy dollars on the black market.
Independent economists say the government's pullback on currency controls is just a bandage for a wounded economy that needs to contain inflation by dialing back public spending. The government, in turn, blames banks, energy companies and big businesses, accusing them of speculating with the peso and raising prices to provoke instability.
Kicillof, now the economy minister, on Wednesday announced agreements with business leaders aimed at keeping the peso's sharp depreciation from leading to higher prices for consumer goods. Producers of steel, aluminum, metal products, petrochemicals and plastics are to hold prices to the levels of Jan. 21 — the day before the peso's big drop.
Amid fears of even higher inflation, Argentines are seeking to protect their wealth by buying cars and real estate.
"I'm investing in my own house, building it with my husband. That gives me security because I don't have to pay rent that constantly goes through the roof," said Miriam Rodriguez, 35, a maid who lives on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.  "Bricks are a good way of guaranteeing some stability."
Rodriguez said rising prices have forced her to make other changes. She's stopped buying clothes as well as top brands at the supermarkets, and she canceled her Internet and cable TV service. When she gets together for a dinner with friends, everyone brings their own food.
"I'm not worried about the dollar," she said. "I don't even have money to go trade for dollars."
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