Chocolate Nations

The Book of the Week is “Chocolate Nations, Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa” by Orla Ryan, published in 2011. This slim volume described the situations in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire at the book’s writing, with regard to growing the crop that ultimately becomes chocolate. Both countries had command economies and a large number of farmers with small landholdings growing the cocoa-bean trees.

Ghana has grown cocoa at least since the late 1800’s. Even after it declared its independence from Great Britain in 1957, it had a series of tyrannical leaders, each replacing the next via coups. They kept the farmers poverty-stricken by setting the price the government paid for cocoa.  Some farmers illegally sold their harvests to Cote d’Ivoire for better prices. Around 2009, Ghana was producing approximately one fifth of the world’s cocoa; Cote d’Ivoire, about one third.

Even after independence in 1960, the latter’s former colonizer, France, invested in cocoa farming there. However, the dictator became well-liked by encouraging laborers from Burkina Faso and Mali to farm cocoa and coffee in his country. He gave land to those from the Baoule tribe who tilled it.  His excessive spending to support his lifestyle and that of his loyal servants, resulted in huge debts, which he tried to reduce by cutting wholesale prices paid to cocoa farmers.  The nation saw a bloody civil war from 2000 to 2003.

In the first decade of the 21st century, hysteria ruled the airwaves in the United States over the accusation of abusive child labor on the cocoa farms. It was unclear whether the accusation was true, as data were anecdotal, ulterior motives abounded among the accusers (such as NGOs, tabloid reporters and even a politician), and the culture of the cocoa growers provided plausible denial that truant children were being enslaved. For, farming families tended to be large so that the kids’ assistance could help keep the family in business.

It appears that cocoa farming is unlikely to change significantly in the near future in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire because “For smallholders, the cocoa market can seem little more than a plaything in the hands of a few large companies and speculators.”

Read the book to learn more details.

Fire-Breathing Liberal

The Book of the Week is “Fire-Breathing Liberal” by Rep. Robert Wexler With David Fisher, published in 2008. This is a political career memoir that failed to list the sources of its facts and figures.

Nevertheless, Wexler credibly wrote mostly about how he eventually got elected to the House of Representatives as a Democrat from Florida.  He was an attorney, but in 1987, decided to run for the office of Palm Beach County Commissioner in Florida. A lawyer in West Palm Beach offered his firm’s support to Wexler at a fund raiser at Mar-a-Lago– Donald Trump’s country club (but of course the implication was that Wexler would pass legislation favorable to the firm’s interests). Wexler’s opponent engaged in mudslinging by saying that Wexler was Donald Trump’s puppet. With that, the opponent won the election.

Two years later, older and wiser, Wexler ran for Florida state senator. He gave out pot holders as a promotional gift and won that election. He had learned that he needed to hire people with specialized skills sets and experience, such as a professional fund raiser, a pollster, a media adviser, a direct mail expert, a TV commercial producer, a campaign manager, etc.

The author also wrote about how the Republicans, especially Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay in 1994, were mean of spirit, petty and vengeful when they achieved a majority in Congress. They abused their considerable power by bullying fellow Representatives with whom they disagreed.

In 1996, even two years before Gingrich had sworn in Wexler as a Representative, Democrats had filed 76 ethics claims against Gingrich with the Ethics Committee. He was fined $300,000 for violations– the largest fine ever against a Speaker of the House.

After 9/11, the Democrats were tricked into initially favoring invading Iraq because reputable officials such as Colin Powell told them that it was necessary, implying that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction. Wexler, too, was fooled.

In September 2003, about six months into the war, Wexler asked Paul Bremer, Ambassador supervising the provisional government in Iraq at a hearing of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Congress, how many Iraqis, civilians and soldiers had died since the president had declared the war. Bremer said he himself didn’t know. “Bremer’s complete disinterest in the human cost of the war on the Iraq side was telling… anyone who dared question or criticize the administration’s policy was attacked and smeared.”

According to Wexler, in 2003, the Republicans labeled a budget bill an “emergency measure.” This allowed them to reduce the time allotted to House members to read the bill, from 48 hours to 1 hour. The bill was 3,000 pages, and it involved the spending of $1 trillion.

As is well known, in 1998, former investigator Ken Starr spent more than a year poring over the intimate details of former President Bill Clinton’s sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky “like a desperate reporter for a tabloid newspaper.” Wexler argued vociferously against impeaching Clinton, saying, “Unlike Bill Clinton, George Bush and Dick Cheney have betrayed the country, not their wives.”

Another point in Wexler’s rant was the fact that during his public service career, Republicans had “… misused the political and legal systems for a decade… it was a vendetta. It was about gaining a political advantage no matter what the cost to the nation.”

Read the book to learn of numerous other instances of the immature, power-hungry behavior of Republicans and the nasty business of politics in general during the Bush administration, in which Wexler participated (he wasn’t just an observer, and he himself wasn’t entirely innocent of hypocrisy).

SIDENOTE: In connection with vendetta, it appears that, as payback against the Republicans for the 1990’s witch-hunts against Bill Clinton, the Democrats “investigated” Hillary’s actions, and decided she did nothing criminally wrong. Case closed.  The media are spewing the usual tabloid gossip, opinions and trivia on the overall political circus.

There is nothing new under the sun. Such tit-for-tat kindergarten nonsense has been the norm for CENTURIES in this nation.  Pox on everyone’s houses.

Abba Eban

The Book of the Week is “Abba Eban, An Autobiography” by Abba Eban, published in 1977.

Eban was born in South Africa in 1916. His biological father died when he was a baby. He, his older sister and mother moved to England shortly thereafter, and he got a stepfather, who was a medical doctor. He was under pressure from his grandfather to engage in scholarly pursuits until he was fourteen, when the latter died. Eban won a scholarship to study at Queens’ College, Cambridge. He took to the cause of Zionism while there.

Starting in the late 1930’s Eban used his then-marketable skills of writing and making speeches in an effort to convince Jews to help with the military defeat of Hitler. During the war, he worked in military intelligence. Once Germany’s genocidal threat had been eliminated, he helped the Jews claim their national rights through his employment at the Jewish Agency, first in London, then in New York City.

After the war, Great Britain gave up the Zionist cause. No one knew which group– 300,000 Arabs or 600,000 Jews– would populate the territory of Palestine. Even after the United Nations vote on September 1, 1947 on whether to grant sovereignty to Palestine  (renamed Israel), military action was required to prevent other peoples from ruling it. For, British troops agreed to leave on or before May 15, 1948, at which time, the Jews would be left to their own devices as to how to govern their binational State. In 1949, Israel was admitted to the United Nations.

In the autumn of 1959, the author and his growing family (whom he hardly ever saw) moved back to Washington D.C. to represent that city and Israel at the United Nations. His working hours were long and he was on call 24/7. He was required to travel internationally very frequently and sometimes unexpectedly, to make speeches and negotiate between and among various nations during crises, wars and geopolitical gatherings.

Eban described in detail, the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, among other serious episodes of multinational importance. He theorized that it resulted in increased power for French leader Charles de Gaulle but decreased power for Great Britain. Besides, “No nation except the United States could negotiate to help balance the power between the Arabs and the Israelis and the Arabs’ alliance with Soviet power.”

In the late 1960’s, Israeli homes got broadcast-television. Prior to its initiation, however, there were heated discussions among government officials as to content. One genre was to be educational shows hosted by teachers. Some people argued that the teachers needed to show proper religious reverence by wearing a yarmulke while on camera. Others pointed out that most of the teachers were women. One joker suggested a solution:  that the programs advise viewers to put a yarmulke on top of the TV set to comply with Jewish law.

Read the book to learn of the author’s adventures as a representative of the Knesset, president of the Weizmann Institute, government minister in various subject-areas, and global diplomat who took at least some of the blame or credit for Israel’s military actions.

Sleeping With the Devil

The Book of the Week is “Sleeping With the Devil” by Robert Baer, published in 2003. This was a warning of a former CIA agent that America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia was high-risk for various reasons. The author briefly described how the latter’s royal family came to be a controversial ally of the United States government, and why the delicate situation would not last forever.

At the book’s writing, the large oil fields in eastern Saudi Arabia were vulnerable to terrorist attacks, as was the refinery at Abqaiq. Refineries are important because they make oil usable. The country’s borders are hard to defend, and all sorts of weapons can be obtained on the black market.

The author wrote that fifteen citizens of Saudi Arabia, plus four other terrorists took control of the planes that crashed on 9/11.  Osama Bin Laden, the supposed mastermind behind the attacks, was of Saudi origin. More TERRORISTS from SAUDI ARABIA than from Afghanistan and Iraq were responsible for the attacks. Dubai stored the required funds for them. As is well known, then-U.S. President George W. Bush was determined to remove Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from power to keep the price of oil low for Americans, and enrich his former business cronies. So he made the false claims that Iraq had nuclear weapons and was harboring terrorists.

Even during the Clinton years and especially during the Bush, Sr. years, the United States secretly kissed up to Saudi Arabia; for it got a discount on its oil, money to line the pockets of its politicians, consultants, diplomats and defense contractors, and in exchange, it built refineries, telecommunications networks and schools in its oil ally. The activities of the Carlyle Group, Dick Cheney and Halliburton, among many others, were fraught with conflicts of interest. To sum it up, “At the corporate level, almost every Washington figure worth mentioning has served on the board of at least one company that did a deal with Saudi Arabia.” Terrorist funding was also supplied through “charitable” organizations. The Saudis had megabucks on deposit in bank accounts and invested in the securities markets in the United States.

After 2001, several groups continued to seek to strike fear through violence; the best known included certain individuals in the country of Qatar, the Wahhabis, the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda.

The author claimed that U.S. taxpayers were footing the excessive bill for the Saudi royal family’s security detail. The family consisted of numerous princes, who had Filippino or Indonesian servants. The princes received oil-funded, extremely lavish allowances, which they squandered on residences, vehicles and prostitutes. To make additional money, they dealt in black-market weaponry, visa, liquor and drugs, and abusing what industrialized countries would call “eminent domain.”

Read the book to learn of the author’s account of yet additional outrages in connection with the willful ignorance and greed of the United States government when it came to cozying up to the terrorist state of Saudi Arabia.

Baryshnikov

The Book of the Week is “Baryshnikov, From Russia to the West” by Gennady Smakov, published in 1981. This is a biography of the famous ballet dancer who became Westernized.

Born in January 1948 in Riga, Latvia, Mikhail Baryshnikov started ballet lessons at twelve years of age. Despite the late start, he happened to be exceptionally talented, a natural. He was sufficiently versatile to play roles in both “schools” of ballet, classical and Romantic.

During Baryshnikov’s childhood, his country underwent major ideological changes. The generation gap between young and old grew much wider, especially when Soviet leader Khrushchev revealed the crimes of the previous administration under Stalin. There occurred a shift from designing and building structures toward liberal arts careers. Ballet was a nonpolitical one, whose chosen few participants were  extremely lucky to make a living.

Nevertheless, for  ballet students, living conditions were cramped (ten per room in the school dormitory) compared to those in industrialized countries, and upon graduation, not much better. The two major rival ballet companies at the time consisted of the Kirov and the Bolshoi. Baryshnikov joined the former, based in St. Petersburg in 1967. The pay was significantly better when the dancers were permitted to perform internationally. Of course, the KGB closely monitored their activities in foreign countries, fostering an environment of fear and distrust.

Read the book to learn the historical backdrop of Baryshnikov’s generation, the nature of shows in which he performed, how he  came to dance with the two major American ballet companies beginning in the mid-1970’s, and more.

The Boys in the Boat

The Book of the Week is “The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown, published in 2013. This is the incredible, suspenseful story of how the crew team of the University of Washington, and one team member especially, overcame tremendous odds to transcend themselves in the most important competition of their lives.

Various traumatic situations in Joseph Rantz’s young life ironically made him an ideal candidate for the sport of rowing. He and eight others out of a total of 175 hopefuls, made the cut for the freshman team in the autumn of 1933. Sportswriters had popularized rowing teams of Northeastern elitist colleges, but the less well-heeled athletes at the Universities of Washington and California– on the west coast– had muscled their way into the sport. In fact, these two were fierce rivals. After five and a half months of training, they competed every April in one race each consisting of a freshman, sophomore and senior crew, before heading to Poughkeepsie, for another competition against the east coast teams, too.

The Washington team trained in the absolute worst winter weather of freezing rain and icy-cold wind storms, never mind snow. Another way the team gained an advantage in competitions is that it had one of the best, if not the best, boat builders of its generation. With decades of rowing experience, he, in addition to hand-crafting their boats, got to know the athletes intimately and served as their mentor.

The tough-as-nails coach chose each and every member of the crew for a specific position in the boat, given each one’s body build, and physical and psychological strengths. Winning races called for perfect positioning of the oars and rowing rhythm, maximum power at the right times, and singularity of mind of the entire team. Such abilities allowed Washington’s team to compete in the Olympics.

“In the United States, talk of boycotting the 1936 Olympics had been simmering since the Nazis had come to power in 1933.” Countries with sports teams decided to compete anyway.

The reason they did was that Adolf Hitler largely brainwashed countries participating in the Games– convincing them that Germany was a gorgeous, peaceful nation where everyone was treated fairly and well. He built the most advanced, immaculate, highest quality athletic facilities for his show.  He had someone produce a propaganda film of the proceedings. He put his fellow Nazis on notice to display their best behavior toward the world.

Within days of the closing ceremonies, however, the Fuehrer resumed building a power base. This, through continuing to gather a significant number of sociopathic and sadistic followers with weaponry, persuading the weak unarmed to blame their troubles on people with certain last names, and was starting to build torture chambers in neighboring countries to systematically kill certain other defenseless groups and the aforementioned scapegoated group.

Read the book to learn the details of why Joseph Rantz and the other University of Washington’s crew team members were ideally suited to be the best team in decades, how they did in their matches, and what happened at the Olympics.

Wait Till Next Year

The Book of the Week is “Wait Till Next Year” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, published in 1997.  This is the first portion of an autobiography of a New York female baseball fan who grew up in the suburb of Rockville Centre, Long Island in the 1940’s and ’50’s.

During the author’s childhood, there were three baseball teams in New York: the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants and New York Yankees. Between 1949 and 1957 inclusive, one or another of these teams played in the World Series. The author’s father inspired in her a diehard Dodgers fandom. She was taught to keep score, and did so for every regular season game for years and years, starting in the late 1940’s. It was a time in history in which men played for their love of the game. The greats at that time included Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Peewee Reese, Gil Hodges, Enos Slaughter, Robin Roberts, Richie Ashburn, Allie Reynolds, Phil Rizzuto and many others.

Kearns Goodwin was raised as a Catholic, but attended public school. Nevertheless, the nuns struck fear in her heart in many ways, one of which was pressuring parishioners to refrain from entering any house of worship other than a Catholic one.  So when Campanella was coming to her area to speak at a non-Catholic church, she faced a moral dilemma. The priest reassured her that she would not be going to hell, because the event was not a religious service.

Baseball was so popular in the author’s community that in 1955, a radio broadcast of the seventh game of the Dodgers-Yankees World Series was piped through the public address system of her high school. The kids were willing to stay after school to hear it. Back in the day, World Series games were played in the afternoon. When the Dodgers won, thousands of people danced in the streets. The baseball players came back to a Brooklyn restaurant that evening for their victory dinner, interacting personally with fans without any security at all.

For the first twelve years of her life (before the neighborhood changed), Kearns Goodwin’s family was quite close with all of the different (white) families (of different religions) in her community. Their homes were as open to her as her own home.

Read the book to learn more about the author’s coming of age in a bygone era of baseball and Postwar suburbia.

Shrub

The Book of the Week is “Shrub, The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush” by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose, published in 2000.

The contents of this slim volume were presumably published before election day, 2000. For, it seems that the authors were trying to deter readers from voting for (now former president) George W. Bush for president. The arguments were clear, concise and full of facts.

In a nutshell, as the governor of Texas in the late 1990’s, “From the record, it appears that he [Bush] doesn’t know much, doesn’t do much, and doesn’t care much about governing.” The authors recounted the allegedly positive actions taken on crime, education, the budget and some other issues by Bush’s predecessor, Ann Richards, and then explained how he reversed them.

Bush came from a privileged, wealthy, widely socially connected family, whose name (especially his daddy’s) he used to solicit other people’s money to make a large quantity for himself (and get elected to public office). Those other people didn’t mind that Bush’s 1980’s oil venture in which they invested, failed big-time, because they got huge tax write-offs, and gained patronage jobs and networking opportunities. Basically, it was redistribution of wealth among the wealthy.

Judging from Governor Bush’s record on the spike in cruel and unusual punishment in the criminal justice system, pollution free-for-all enjoyed by big corporations, and the gravy train resulting from privatization of welfare in Texas, the reader would think he had sociopathic tendencies. Unsurprisingly, the people who benefited from his policies were his major campaign donors.

In the 1980’s, H. Ross Perot was appointed as an education consultant to improve Texas public schools. He made a great positive impact on the system by acting on the common-sense theme that “Most experts agree the single most important step Texas took during the long process of reform was [drumroll, please] mandating smaller class sizes in the lower grades and emphasizing early education.” Bush claimed Perot’s results as his own. Not only that, his cronies favored charter schools, so he advocated for the maximum number Texas could open.  The result was 151 of them in only six months in 1997. Their quality has been uneven at best, and there were a few that cheated numerous students out of an education because they faced mismanagement and financial ruin and closed.

The authors do give Bush credit for his effort to preserve education funding when his governorship was forced to impose budget cuts. However, the results of even additional funding for education can be worse than budget cuts to education when the money is spent on the wrong items– such as sweetheart no-bid contractors, profit-oriented consultants and the subsidizing of charter schools that close.

Read the book to learn the details of the damage done by “W” when he was governor of Texas, etc., etc., etc.

Wild Ride

The Book of the Week is “Wild Ride” by Ann Hagedorn Auerbach, published in 1994. This is a long story largely similar to many others in which one person acquires and abuses too much power in an organization that eventually comes to a bad end.

The horse racing industry is largely a playground for the wealthy, as it costs big bucks to purchase, stable and train horses for racing. There is only a tiny probability of profiting, considering all the different risks, and the factors required to produce a winning horse.

Major racing sites are located in Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky; New York City, Saratoga Springs in New York State, and Hialeah in Florida.

Calumet Farm was the site of the training and spawning of racehorses. It was owned by the Wright family, whose patriarch’s goal in the 1980’s was to turn it “… into a bustling assembly-line style breeding operation, hellbent on producing winner after winner.”

In the early 1980’s, J.T. Lundy wed a Calumet heiress with the aim of inheriting the large horse farm. He inherited it at 41 years old.  He  immediately engaged in excessive spending on farm renovations, the purchase of a corporate jet and additional horses, and paying more workers. In the industry in general, new systems were created by financiers to cash in on the horse-racing boom.

Lundy spent other people’s money (namely the Wright family’s) to fund his wheeling and dealing, while also commingling personal and business funds. The family (who knew nothing about horse racing) trusted him and his colleagues (who had numerous conflicts) to run the business and do what was in the family’s best interest.

The chief financial officer of Calumet attempted to duly inform Lundy of the farm’s mounting debt service, the unpaid insurance premiums and dwindling resources, etc. at the end of the 1980’s.

By November 1990, Calumet had approximately two hundred thoroughbreds and one hundred employees. Its fifteen-year-old stud Alydar, accounted for a large part of its revenue.

Sadly, the industry would reach its saturation point within a decade of Calumet’s soaring reputation as the premier place to breed winning horses. Read the book to learn the details of how the farm had gone from owing not a cent with the death of an heir prior to Lundy’s takeover, to the largest instance of debt explosion in the history of bluegrass.

Havel, A Life

The  Book of the Week is “Havel, A Life” by Michael Zantovsky, published in 2014. This is a biographical tome of the late president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel.

Born in 1936, Havel’s family was wealthy prior to the Soviet Communist takeover of 1948. Fortunately, Havel parlayed his talent for writing plays, essays and articles into a lucrative career. His literary works were performed and read internationally, affording him compensation in stable, valuable foreign currencies.

The Soviets could not summarily execute him for his seditious activities, fearing an angry outcry from the international community. So instead, they arrested and jailed him a few times, and had the secret service on his tail, 24/7.

In the early 1970’s, Havel wrote a play in which he commented on the unsurprising but inevitable result of “Prague Spring” of 1968; the Soviets weren’t ready to concede their power to the Czechoslovakians, “In the finale, all the conspirators, after crossing and double-crossing each other, execute the piece de resistance, bringing in the only person who can effectively suppress all the threats, prevent chaos and restore stability: the dictator himself.”

In 1977, Havel and his fellow activists wrote a Charter detailing a democratic system they hoped would be implemented in the future. However, the then-government crushed the opposition with “…harassment, bullying, beatings, blackmail intended to make them leave the country, kidnappings, illegal house raids and searches along with other forms of abuse.”

In 1989, dissatisfaction with Soviet Communist oppression was reaching critical mass. The methods by which thousands of street demonstrators were quelled, was through head-bashing and water cannons. Havel was pushed into becoming a leader for the dissidents because he was one himself and was a talented peacemaker who could bridge the gap between his own artistic crowd and other persecuted citizens of his homeland.

For four decades, Czechoslovakians forced to live under Communism had been told everything was great. In January 1990, Havel truthfully told his countrymen that the nation was in an economically, infrastructurally, environmentally and ethically horrible state. The younger generation who had been born into the Soviet mentality– unless they were dissidents– were obedient robots. So converting people to a capitalist, liberated, honest way of thinking was very difficult.

Sidenote: The author spent an entire chapter on the newly elected Czech president Havel’s visit to the United States (via invitation by President George H.W. Bush) but failed to specify even once, the year in which that occurred, and described events and incidents topically rather than chronologically, making the storyline difficult to follow.

Numerous political parties jockeying for power during Havel’s reelection campaign in 1991(?) included:  the Civic Democratic Alliance, People’s Party, Christian Democratic Party, Social Democrats, and Liberal Democrats.

It took approximately six years to build, from the ground up– a legal system, economy and “…countless institutions that make a free society work and flourish”– the new (democratic) nation of Czech Republic (after its split from Slovakia).

Read the book to learn more about the hardships suffered by the Czechoslovakians including Havel, his and his wife’s marital infidelities, and how he was instrumental in helping build a new nation.