Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Global Impact: It Is Unlikely That Actor Sean Penn Will be Asked to Register as a Foreign Agent

According to the Associated Press, it appears unclear as to whether US actor and activist Sean Penn was aware of the intended requests that would be made of him during his audience earlier this week with leftist Bolivian President Evo Morales.

Specifically, Morales, who met the Oscar-winning American actor yesterday (October 30) in La Paz, asked Penn to defend the chewing of coca leaf before the United Nations, lobby Chile to restore Bolivia's long-lost access to the Pacific Ocean and help persuade the United States to extradite a former Bolivian president.

COMMENT: In the past, those representing the interests of or appearing to represent the interests of foreign governments, particularly on issues that differ dramatically from prevailing US foreign policy, are required to register as foreign agents under the precepts of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which was enacted in 1938.

FARA is a disclosure statute that requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities. 

Disclosure of the required information facilitates evaluation by the government and the American people of the statements and activities of such persons in light of their function as foreign agents. FARA is administered by the US Department of Justice.

Unfortunately, enforcement of the FARA is generally very selective, with most targets being representative of the political party that is NOT in power.

It is noteworthy to point out that on January 31. 2012, Sean Penn attended a special ceremony in Port-au-Prince, whereby he was designated an ambassador-at-large by Haitian President Michel Martelly in recognition of his humanitarian work following the 2010 earthquake.

Notwithstanding, Mr. Penn has also visited top officials of Venezuela, Iraq and Iran.

Interestingly, Mr. Penn joined his close friend, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez at an election rally in the city of Valencia as recent as August 2012. At that rally, Penn rode atop a truck with Chávez past cheering supporters.
Whether or not Penn helped Chávez win another six years in office, AFTER fourteen years of autocratic control, the fact remains that the country’s Election Council determined that Chávez won 54% of the vote compared to opposition challenger Henrique Capriles’ 45% of the vote, even though exit polls suggest a much different result.
Yet, given the current left-leaning philosophies of the Executive Branch of the Obama Administration, it is very unlikely that the US Department of Justice will urge Sean Penn to register as a foreign agent.

Global Impact: Canada, Switzerland Lift Ban on Novartis' Flu Vaccines

According to Reuters, Canadian and Swiss health authorities lifted a ban on Novartis' flu vaccines earlier today (October 31) after the drug manufacturer demonstrated that their vaccines posed no risk to safety.
Last week Italy banned the sale of four flu vaccines produced by Novartis pending tests for possible side effects after small particles were found in some of the injections. Other countries including Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Spain and France followed suit by suspending deliveries, recommending the use of alternative products or recalling batches of the vaccines.
Swissmedic and Health Canada said information from Novartis and their own testing had shown that white particles found in the vaccines were normal clumps of protein particles and did not indicate a safety issue.
Italy's drug oversight agency said it was still reviewing the results of tests on Novartis' flu vaccines, but is "cautiously positive" about being able to lift a ban on some lots in coming days.
Germany's vaccine agency said it had retracted approval of some lots of Novartis's vaccines Begripal and Fluad, meaning those particular lots could not be released onto the market.
Austria's health ministry said it is maintaining for now its advice to physicians to avoid using Novartis's Fluad and Sandovac in favor of other products.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Ecuador: US Expatriate Assaulted by Taxi Drivers, Always Negotiate Fares in Advance

US expatriate Richard Bodeker, originally from Arkansas, now living in Loja, hailed a taxi at 2000 hours on October 22 in Cuenca. Subsequently, he realized that the driver was taking him on a less than direct route, at which point he asked the driver to stop and let him out, fearing the fare would be exorbitant. Not agreeing to stop, Bodeker jumped out of the taxi at the next stoplight.
The driver then proceeded to demand a US$30 fare [the US$ has been legal tender in Ecuador since March 8, 2000] for a five-minute ride in the wrong direction which should have cost US$2. Bodeker then REFUSED to pay the fare, knowing it was intentionally inflated and began to walk away, at which point the driver radioed other taxis in the area, telling them he had been robbed by an American.

To Bodeker's surprise, several taxi drivers subsequently converged on him and began beating him about the head and shoulders, at which point the expat threw money toward them so that the assault might end. It didn't. Unfortunately, the drivers called the police to the scene, at which point the drivers continued the physical attack on Bodeker after he was in police custody.

COMMENT: To make matters worse, Bodeker was jailed, denied medical attention and charged with attempted robbery, even though Bodeker was never armed.

Thanks to Bodeker's Ecuadorian wife, she retained a local attorney and had Bodeker released the following day (October 23). Subsequently, the American visited a hospital for treatment; a week later he is still suffering from bruised ankles, abrasions, several sprains and bruises on his head from the beating.

Bodeker's troubles are still not over, as he is now scheduled to face a judge on attempted robbery charges, which is no small problem, as he could very well face serious jail time. 

Now, the reality. Mr. Bodeker reminds me of a German expat in Thailand a couple of years ago who "stiffed" a samlor driver because he was charging too much, only to subsequently be put into a coma after a number of drivers ganged up on him and beat him unconscious.

Please look at it this way: What is worse? Being out US$30 because you FAILED to negotiate the fare in ADVANCE or being beaten up by a group of guys, jailed and charged with "attempted robbery," for which you could be jailed for some time, considering that a foreigner is almost always going to get the "short-straw" when arrested in another country? 

Even though Bodeker has filed a complaint against the taxi driver who inflated the fare, who do you think will get MORE justice in Ecuador, an Ecuadorian or an American?  

Loja is the capital of Loja province, which is located in the south of Ecuador, sharing borders with the provinces of Zamora-Chinchipe and El Oro and with Perú in the south. The city is home to two major universities and has a population of 200,000. It is situated 2,060 meters (6,758 ft) above sea level.

CAREFULLY evaluate whether being beaten up senseless is worth US$30. I would say...NOT.

And, ALWAYS negotiate a taxi fare BEFORE you get into the vehicle!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Colombia: British Tourist, 23, Gang-Raped by Three Quasi-Independent Wayuu Tribesmen

A British tourist, 23, was reportedly gang-raped by three tribesmen on Sunday after she had a dispute with a group she was traveling with in a remote area of northern Colombia and subsequently got lost on her own near Cabo de la Vela, a village in the Guajira peninsula on Colombia’s north coast.

Unfortunately for the victim, she was raped by three Wayuu tribesmen who are guaranteed quasi-independence in the Colombian constitution. Consequently, although police attempted to arrest the three assailants, they were being protected by Wayuu villagers and were refused entry into the village settlement. Police and the local mayor, Abel Giacometto, have endeavored to persuade the Wayuu tribes leaders to hand over the suspects. 

COMMENT: According to the national police, the Wayuu claim that their settlement is protected, indigenous territory. Thus, they insist they have the authority to punish those responsible. Yet, both police and prosecutors are mandating that they have jurisdiction.

At this point, the police are accompanying the victim at all times until the matter has been resolved. They are also assisting the victim in her return to London.

It should also be noted that forensic specialists have collected a "rape kit" and concluded, based upon its analysis, that the victim was raped by multiple assailants.

As I have said all too many times in the past, solo travelers are at considerable risk, particularly in isolated and rural areas in developing countries. Yet, victims almost invariably believe that bad things happen to OTHER people, which is not always the case.

Travelers are also urged to choose their traveling partners very carefully, particularly when moving about in unfamiliar territory, as disagreements that force a group to splinter can easily put solo travelers at risk.

A final thought: If you do not have proficient skills when it comes to orienteering and topographical map reading, stay in larger towns and cities where there is less likelihood of getting lost and placed in vulnerable situations.

Nepal: Baggage Handlers Fired in Kathmandu, Travelers Urged to "Carry-On" All Valuables

Security officials at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport said they are are carefully monitoring baggage handlers following a series of thefts of valuables from checked luggage transiting the Nepalese capital.

In recent months, five baggage handlers were arrested, charged and dismissed after stealing high-valued electronics from inbound checked luggage. 

COMMENT: The goods stolen from checked luggage included laptop computers, mobile phones and cameras. As a result,  baggage handlers and passengers are now being surveilled by CCTV. Additionally, plainclothes investigators have been deployed in baggage-handling areas.

ALL international travelers, regardless of destination, are STRONGLY URGED not to place laptops, iPads, electronic tablets, smart-phones and digital cameras in CHECKED luggage and to ensure they safeguard it in carry-on luggage that never leaves their hands.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Brazil: Large Sector of Northeast, Including Brasília, Hit by Blackout

According to EFE, Electrical infrastructure caught fire between two substations caused a blackout in nine states of northeastern Brazil, as well as in the capital city of Brasília, and numerous municipalities of two northern states, causing a power outage for roughly 53 million residents for one hour and 30 minutes.

The problem extended to the Federal District of Brasília and to certain municipalities in the states of Para and Tocantins. It was the second time in the last 35 days that the same regions have been hit by a power outage.

COMMENT: Spokespersons for the National Electric System Operator (ONS), said that the outage before dawn on Friday (October 26) was caused by an electrical equipment fire between the substations of Colinas, in Tocantins state, and Imperatriz, in the state of Maranhao. 

These two electrical substations are strategic points in the system that interconnects the electric grids of Brazil’s northern and northeastern regions, where most of the country’s electricity is generated.

This latest blackout comes less than two years before the country hosts the 2014 World Cup and less than four years before Rio de Janeiro welcomes athletes from around the world for the 2016 Summer Olympics. 

Costa Rica: Over-Reliance on Electronic Traffic Management Problematic

More than 200 violations of Costa Rica's new traffic enforcement law were cited by traffic police on Friday (October 26), the first day of its implementation, according to the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT).

Most of the citations concerned either vehicles lacking a mandatory inspection sticker or motorcyclists not wearing reflective clothing. 
The only fines that were not enforced were those involving motorists entering the center of the capital San José with the day's excluded license plate numbers. The new law requires that specific sites where the restriction applies must be described in an executive decree.
In September 2011, the Legislative Assembly voted on a first version of the bill, which included maximum fines of up to ₡468.780 (US$920), but the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, or Sala IV, struck down the law, saying the penalties were disproportionately high. The main changes, therefore, are the reductions in the amount of fines.
Now the highest is ₡280,000 ($560) for those exceeding 120 kilometers per hour or driving under the influence of alcohol. The limit on blood-alcohol level was set at 0.60 grams per liter of blood.
Fines issued by roadside cameras will be reinstalled in February 2013. In a first stage, the electronic system will be back on four national routes and on the Circunvalación, a belt route around the center of San José.

COMMENT: Moving vehicle traffic citations are STILL extraordinarily high in Costa Rica, even for a developed nation. Thus, the country's massive expatriate community is urged to fully comply with traffic regulations or face the consequences of what are still characterized as particularly  excessive fines.

It is still uncertain as to whether motorists will be compelled to pay lofty traffic tickets on the spot, or whether the citations will be mailed to offenders for payment within a specified period of time.

Comparatively speaking, it appears imprudent for Costa Rica to rush into such a highly sophisticated, electronically-dependent traffic enforcement system, given the frequent interruption of local electrical utilities and the unpredictable seismic activity in the country, which may also jeopardize local power. 

It should also be noted that a recent network failure at the state-run Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) kept some 300,000 customers around the country from using Internet and cellphone services for three hours. ICE reported connection failures on Internet, IP and 3G telephone services, both for making calls and sending messages. There also were reports of problems with fixed and GSM lines. 

    Saturday, October 27, 2012

    Global Impact: Al-Qaeda Leader Criticizes Egyptian President Morsy, Urges Kidnappings of Westerners

    COMMENT: I urge all readers to review the below link to a DAILY NEWS EGYPT piece re: a 58-minute videotape from al-Qaeda leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who has called on Egyptians to reignite their revolution, promptly impose shari’a (Islamic law) and urge all Muslims to kidnap Westerners. 

    Although such a lengthy message is in keeping with al-Qaeda's propaganda effort, Egyptian-born al-Zawahiri's impact on extremist Egyptians should not be discounted.

    Al-Zawahiri served as Osama bin Laden's deputy prior to his death in May 2011.

    Although al-Zawahiri's message should not be the basis for Westerners NOT traveling abroad, it should nevertheless prompt caution and pre-departure research relative to al-Qaeda-generated attacks in countries where al-Qaeda is active: e.g., Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Libya, Algeria, the Philippines and North Africa. This is NOT an all-inclusive list.

    Specifically, all Western travelers should do the following:

    1. Register their travel with their appropriate foreign affairs agency;

    2. Review their destination countries on-line to determine whether al-Qaeda is active in such nations;

    3. Take steps to avoid being identified as a Westerner;

    4. Avoid all large-scale public gatherings; and

    5. Fully comply with your government's on-line travel warnings.

    Friday, October 26, 2012

    Brazil: Number of US Visas to US Rise by 16% in 2012

    The number of US visas issued to Brazilians came to 800,000 from January to September 2012, an increase of 16% over the same period last year, according to the Consular Section at the US Embassy in Brasília.
    COMMENT: As a result of the dramatic rise in visas to the US, diplomats from both countries will meet in meet in Washington on Monday (October 29) to discuss the possibility of the end of mandatory visa for entry into the United States by Brazilians.

    The possibility of eliminating visas was reinforced after the visit of President Dilma Rousseff to Washington in April. Currently, Canadian citizens and some Western European countries, including France, may enter the US without visa issuance. 

    This year, the United States determined changes in procedures for Brazilians applying for visas to travel, in order to reduce the time for obtaining  travel documents. 

    Thailand: British Couple, Both 21, Attacked by Motorcycle Gang in Krabi

    Briton Jack Cole, 21, and his girlfriend, April Clifton, also 21, from Bath [UK], were in Ao Nang, Krabi, on October 22 (Tuesday) and were walking back to the Nopprarat Thara pier at 2300 hours to catch a speedboat to their resort in neighboring Plai Plong Bay, when they were suddenly attacked by eight members of a motorbike gang who seemed to be much more focused on getting their hands on April, than on economic gain.

    Jack Cole sustained seven stab wounds to his shoulder and arm, one of which was eight inches deep and tore through muscle and a tendon. He also needed 30 stitches from being hit in the head with a machete. Although April sustained minor scratches and abrasions, she was not injured nearly as bad as Jack.

    The attack occurred after Jack and April had passed the gang, at which point one of the assailants threw a large piece of concrete at Cole, hitting him in his lower back. When Jack turned to face the gang, they converged on he and April with clubs, machetes and a "butter-fly knife."  Some of the gang members held April with the apparent intention of sexually attacking her after they neutralized Jack.

    COMMENT: It should be noted that from the outset Thai police began to characterize the attack as a "misunderstanding," yet both April and Jack refute that position, saying they were attacked without provocation.

    When the assailants observed how much blood Jack had lost, they dispersed before police arrived. Fortunately, a Briton who owns a local dive shop came to the aid of the couple and helped them stop Jack from bleeding to death and helping them get medical attention.

    Having worked in Thailand for a number of years, I need to stress that Thai police almost always "side" with their Thai compatriots, regardless of whether or not money changes hands. That being said, two of eight assailants have been arrested, yet whether they are convicted or not and the severity of their punishment remains to be seen.

    Ao Nang has been the site of numerous attacks on tourists this year. Three months ago a Dutch model, 19, was raped. Police arrested her assailant, yet he was summarily released on bail. Additionally, a young German tourist, had her thumb cut off in a particularly brutal attack in Krabi not long ago.

    Fortunately for both Jack and April, April's father, Clive, flew out to Phuket to be with both of them and helped them enormously sort through the legal maze with the assistance of the British Embassy.

    For the benefit of our readers who despite continuing criminal violence in Phuket, Pattaya, Ao Nang, Krabi and other high-volume tourist magnets on Thailand's coasts, I suggest the following:

    1. Obtain a Red Cross course in cario-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and emergency first aid BEFORE GOING ABROAD, particularly as it relates to gunshot and stabbing wounds;

    2. Register your travel with your appropriate foreign affairs agency before leaving on your trip;

    3. Be conscious and observant of suspicious people around out;

    4. Always carry an unlocked, quad-band cell phone with you when abroad and ensure that you type in the numbers of police and ambulance emergency numbers and your local diplomatic or consular representative into the "speed-dialer";

    5. Avoid being in close proximity to gangs of people that obviously are together who may be a source of trouble. There is nothing cowardly about crossing the street before you reach such person. That is simply be smart; and

    6. Consider calling a reputable taxi service, rather than exposing yourself to vulnerable pedestrians late at night. 

    It also was fortuitous for both April and Jack to have subscribed to international medical treatment and evacuation coverage before they left the UK. Otherwise, they would have been FORCED to pay for their collective medical bills in cash. 

    Wednesday, October 24, 2012

    Dominican Republic: Update on Bizarre Doomsday Group That Attacked Police

    As a follow-up to my posting of  October 20, a judge has ordered a year-long detention for Peter Brunck, 61, of Meisenheim, Germany, leader of the Academy for Future Health;  his son, Daniel Brunck; and Isabella Dietrich, girlfriend of Peter Demetrick, who was killed last week when Dominican police executed a judge-ordered search warrant last Wednesday which resulted in the injury to three local police officers.

    COMMENT: It is often said that some real-life events cannot be replicated by fiction, which may well be in the case in this instance.

    According to local media, Peter Brunck, who passionately believes in the presence of aliens on Earth, had amassed a huge arsenal of firearms and resisted a team of police who converged on their residence in Sousá, just four miles from Puerto Plata International Airport.

    Police recovered several rifles, grenades and professional crossbows with scopes along with seven ballistic-resistant vests, a ballistic-reistant vehicle and an ambulance inside Brunck’s house. 

    From all indications, Brunck has lived in Sosuá since 2006. According to the group's website, he traveled frequently to western Europe to give dozens of seminars, charging upwards of $650 per person for workshops. 

    Brunck warned followers about the end of the world and talked about the possibility of a “galactic super electromagnetic wave” that could destroy all communication on Earth, as well as a potential shift in polarity that could bring a new ice age in Europe or result in sea levels rising by nearly 200 feet (60 meters).

    Fortunately for everyone in Sousá, neighbors contacted the police when they heard sounds of gunfire coming from Brunck's residence. That resulted in  the issuance of a search warrant and an armed attack on police who executed the warrant.

    This report will be updated as new information becomes available.

    The positive news is that this strange group of armed individuals have been neutralized. They will also soon discover that detention procedures in the Dominican Republic differ dramatically from those in Europe.

    Ghana: Two Assailants Sentenced to Prison Terms of 60 Years Each for Armed Robbery of Laptop

    To underline just how dramatically criminal justice systems around the world can vary, two defendants, Edward Kofi Ayigwenam, 20, and Anthony Kudzo, 21, were both sentenced to 60 years in prison EACH yesterday (October 23) for conspiracy and armed robbery of a laptop computer (valued at US$949) from a Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology student.

    COMMENT: Both defendants brandished knives to carry out their crime and also threatened to shoot the victim, although the assailants were not carrying a firearm.

    In passing judgment on the defendants, the presiding magistrate cited an increase in armed robbery in the country as a message to all would-be criminals.

    The sentence levied on the two defendants is also a vigorous message to foreigners who might be inclined to commit armed robbery in Ghana. 

    Uruguay: A "Must-Read" Piece on the Legalization of Abortion, Marijuana

    COMMENT: For the benefit of our readers, the linked Associated Press piece, "Life in Uruguay: Legal Abortion and Pot Dealing," is a "must-read," given the imminent legalization of both abortion and marijuana sales in what is often referred to as the Switzerland of Latin America.

    Tuesday, October 23, 2012

    Brazil: Eleven Killed, Six Injured in Bus Accident in Teresopolis

    According to EFE, eleven people were killed and six others injured yesterday (October 22) when a rural commuter bus ran off the road in a mountainous area of Rio de Janeiro state. The accident took place near the town of Guapimirim on the highway linking Rio de Janeiro city with Teresopolis.

    COMMENT: The vehicle left the town of Itaperuna, in northwestern Rio state, early Monday with 29 people aboard. 

    Authorities are still attempting to determine what caused the bus to run off the road while rounding a curve and then plunge into a wooded area. 

    As I have said on number of occasions in the past, many rural bus companies in developing countries pay their drivers as little as possible, conduct no background checks and spend little in maintaining the safety of their vehicles.

    For foreign travelers and tourists who believe that traveling on the cheap adds to the value of the cultural experience,  please also consider that very often one can lose their life at no additional charge, particularly when traveling in countries in Central and South America.