Global News Blog
The instant saga of Cyprus – and whether it will go belly up, default, and shake the European, if not the world, economy like some crazed mouse that roared – continues along with enough hourly news to bring live updates here and here.
Cyprus has until Monday to come up with $7 billion and a reform plan, or face losing its creditors and sinking into ignominious pools of red ink.
Today the Russians said "nyet" to Cypriot officials, who waited in Moscow for three days to get a possible bailout. Russian oligarchs hold at least 40 percent of Cyprus bank deposits. Cypriots had hoped, for some reason, that Russia might bail out what is essentially a banking system that thrives on helping the wealthy evade paying Russian taxes.
“The next few hours will determine the future of the country,” Reuters reports Cypriot government spokesman Christos Stylianides said today, ahead of a vote on a slew of different and changing plans to stay solvent. “We must all assume our share of the responsibility.”
What first caught world attention was an EU-inspired plan, voted on and killed by Cyprus lawmakers this week, to tax or expropriate private bank deposits in the country. That sent a shudder through the minds of ordinary Europeans, not to mention a lot of Russians and Cypriots themselves.
Yet facing looming insolvency, the largest Cypriot bank today called for the nation’s parliament to levy a tax on holdings over 100,000 euros ($120,000), arguing the alternative is collapse.
Plans on Cypriot tables include the creation of “good” banks with credible holdings and “bad” banks with toxic holdings, and to cordon off the bad Greek bank debt whose exposure helped cause the problem in the first place, in the midst of a three-year euro crisis that started in Athens.
EU approval is essential to get the tranche of bailout funds from the European Central Bank. Today the Germans said no to a Cyprus pension raiding scheme that has been floated for days.
Cypriot banks remain closed, ostensibly until Tuesday, when no one knows what will happen; bank ATMs are for now providing petty cash for the commercial sustenance of regular folk and lines are long.
As the world starts to focus on why an island making up 0.2 percent of the EU economic picture could shake world markets, the question is being asked: Why would Cypriot officials turn their island into a quasi-money laundering center for offshore oligarchs and at the same time buy Greek debt that was already shaky – and imagine this would somehow turn out fine?
Paul Krugman of The New York Times continues to probe the story, writing Thursday that Cyprus has combined on one tiny Mediterranean island all the mistakes made by the European economies of Portugal, Greece, Spain, Italy, Ireland, and so on (the so-called “PIIGS”) that have helped bring the euro crisis to bloom.
This includes “runaway banking,” the all-too familiar real estate bubbles brought by “massive overvaluation,” and the problem of not having enough productive capacity to pull out of a dive into debt when things went sour.
Mr. Krugman asks:
So then what? As a number of people have pointed out, Cyprus is arguably better positioned than Iceland to do an Iceland, because devaluing a reintroduced Cypriot currency could bring in a lot of tourism. But will the Cypriots — who haven’t even reconciled themselves to the end of their round-tripping business — be willing to go there
The United States has two clear choices in dealing with China: Engage or isolate the world’s most populous nation. “You cannot have it both ways,” argues Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister of Singapore for more than three decades, who led his tiny Asian nation to Western-style prosperity despite being in the shadow of its giant communist neighbor. “You cannot say you will engage China on some issues and isolate her over others. You cannot mix your signals.”
Competition between the US and China is inevitable, but conflict is not, Mr. Lee argues in an excerpt from his new book in The Atlantic.
“This is not the Cold War. The Soviet Union was contesting with the United States for global supremacy. China is acting purely in its own national interests. It is not interested in changing the world.”
The complex Chinese-US relationship is underpinned by an essential truth: Each side needs the other.
“Chinese leaders know that U.S. military superiority is overwhelming and will remain so for the next few decades,” he writes. “[T]he Chinese do not want to clash with anyone – at least not for the next 15 to 20 years.”
The best outcome, he writes, would be for China and the US to arrive at “a new understanding that when they cannot cooperate, they will coexist and allow all countries in the Pacific to grow and thrive.”
Get back to feminism’s roots
Women have risen to prominence in business and academia, but don’t look for private enterprise to finish the job of ensuring equal rights between the sexes.
In a new book called “Lean In,” Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg says women are responsible for their own lack of progress in the workplace, notes Judith Shulevitz, writing in the New Republic. But the recent directive from Yahoo chief executive officer Marissa Mayer that bans telecommuting shows that women executives hold business success above feminist goals. “Yahoo employees now understand that, when unregulated market forces go head-to-head with policies that facilitate gender equality, the policies stand down,” Ms. Shulevitz writes. “It doesn’t matter who runs the company.... Competent female executives run better companies than incompetent male executives, but they’re no more likely to make universal day care the law of the land.”
Where lies progress in gender equality, which seemed to halt three decades ago with the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment? It’s time to get back to changing laws, she says. “What we are not talking about in nearly enough detail, or agitating for with enough passion, are the government policies, such as mandatory paid maternity leave, that would truly equalize opportunity. We are still thinking individually, not collectively.”
The Bolshoi’s dark side
The bizarre acid-tossing attack on Sergei Yurevich Filin, the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, would seem to have come only from the fetid mind of a writer for a fictitious “CSI: Moscow.” Mr. Filin was severely injured when an assailant confronted him at the door of his Moscow apartment building late one evening and splashed sulfuric acid in his face.
Who did it? As David Remnick unravels the tale in The New Yorker, the suspect list grows and grows into a confusion worthy of Agatha Christie. Did an angry ballerina or danseur or, more likely, one of their wealthy oligarch patrons, order it? Or maybe a bitter rival eager to replace him?
Mr. Remnick takes his time to reveal the not altogether conclusive answer, first weaving his way through the history of the celebrated ballet company from its charter in 1776 under Catherine the Great. (Stalin loved the Bolshoi, but President Vladimir Putin is indifferent.)
Perhaps no result would satisfy a jaundiced Russian public. “Russians, in the contemporary version of their fatalism, see their country as a landscape of endless bespredel, lawlessness, a world devoid of order or justice or restraint...,” he says. “After witnessing so many phony trials – most recently of [the feminist rock band] Pussy Riot – the Russian public has developed a general distrust of the country’s legal system.”
Saving the Irish manor
“Downton Abbey” has nothing on the autobiographical tale of Selina Guinness and her sometime desperate efforts to hang on to her ancestral home in Ireland.
“Houses for the middle classes are just places to live in, but for the gentry they are evolving organisms, repositories of cherished memories, full of treasured knick-knacks and wrinkled old retainers, as much living subjects as physical sites,” writes Terry Eagleton in the Dublin Review of Books. “Individuals come and go, but the grange or manor house lives on, more like a transnational corporation than a bungalow.”
He continues: “Like a slightly dotty but much-loved relative, the house has its own quirky ways, its distinctive aura and personality. One almost expects to encounter it settled on one of its own sofas, granny glasses perched on its nose, knitting and crooning.... Such houses are more sacred texts than bricks and mortar.”
The home Ms. Guinness is trying to keep in the family is known as “The Crocodile” for the stuffed animal that greets visitors at the front door. Like Lady Mary Crawley in “Downton Abbey,” she confronts the problem of how to save her beloved estate without ruining its essence and character. All she can do is muddle on and hope for the best.
Monkeys are poised to take back the corridors of power in the world's largest democracy. Once literally overrun with packs of small but troublesome rhesus monkeys, Delhi's government zone began to fight back the menace a decade ago with large langur monkeys who were trained to them chase away.
Now, an animal rights activist is putting a stop to the hiring of langurs and their handlers, leaving residents of the capital poised for a return of the monkey business from years past: Packs of monkeys had broken into the parliament, invaded the prime minister's office and defense ministry, at times ripping up wiring and tearing through files. Those who resisted them sometimes got bitten – or worse. In 2007, one deputy mayor in Delhi died after falling from his terrace while fighting off a rhesus attack.
The arrival of the black-faced langurs brought the red-bottomed rhesus situation under control and became a normal part of life in Delhi.
The langurs' human handlers keep them on a leash. It is commonplace on Delhi's clogged streets to see handlers bicycling to a job site with the giant monkey sitting side-saddle on a back rack. Each morning, langurs would chase the rhesus monkeys out of Parliament, then out of ministry buildings and down the streets past the living quarters of top officials. Each night, the rhesus would return, encouraged by offerings of food like bananas and peanuts left by Hindus who view monkeys as a living incarnation of the monkey god Hanuman.
So valuable were the langurs' services, that they commanded a salary higher than the vast majority of Indians.
But, now Delhi’s langur handlers have come under fire after animal rights activist and opposition politician Maneka Gandhi began protesting the practice of chaining and training the wild langurs and putting them to work. Under the country’s Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, the langurs are a protected species and cannot be owned, traded, bought, sold, or hired out. Any violation of the law entails a three year jail term or a fine or both.
Following pressure from the activist who is also a member of Parliament, India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests issued letters to Delhi state government and several federal ministries alerting them that hiring service of the chained langurs was illegal.
Then, last month India’s urban development ministry issued a notice to different agencies in Delhi asking them to stop using the langur guards. Fearing legal action some offices have stopped hiring the handler-langur teams to curb the rhesus menace. Some others are still using the langur guards in Delhi but are apparently in the process of ending the practice soon, said one New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) officer.
That has some in the city worried.
“The urban rhesus monkey population in Delhi is rising. So, the threats of rhesus attacks on offices are also on the rise,” says Mahaveer Singh, an NDMC officer who looks after the hiring of the langur guards by the city's civic agency. “The trained langurs provide a very efficient service. But the pressure to stop using them is rising following the recent ban by the [urban development] ministry. I think we have to stop hiring our langur guards soon.
“But it will be very difficult to tackle the rhesus menace in the absence of these langur guards.”
Mr. Singh adds that the NDMC have 40 langur guards on its roll and the agency would be in big trouble if it faced further pressure and was finally forced to stop using them.
Some handlers say their langurs would not lose the jobs in Delhi that easily.
“All other strategies to keep the rhesus monkeys at bay in Delhi failed in the past,” says handler Mohammad Nishar. “Only our langurs can keep the parliament, courts, police stations, and other offices free from the rhesus menace. Powerful citizens are working at these places. I believe they will help amend the wildlife laws and will let our langurs continue their smart service.”
* Monkey stories from India are a proud sub-genre of journalism. Here is an archive of some of the best stories.
The clock in Nicosia is ticking a lot louder: Tiny Cyprus has four days to come up with about €6 billion ($7.5 billion) or lose its current lender of last resort, the European Central Bank (ECB).
Tensions and emotions are high after ECB officials declared on Thursday that Cyprus must guarantee a €10 billion ($13 billion) bailout by Monday or forfeit and presumably go into default, with unknown consequences for the eurozone economy and beyond.
Cypriot officials are scrambling to conjure new sources of revenue – a so-called Plan B – including a look at pension fund leveraging and sales of offshore gas exploration prospects. The finance minister and energy minister have now lingered in Moscow for a second day of talks regarding a potential bailout deal with Russia.
Cypriot banks will remain closed this weekend even as bankers there worry about huge outflows of capital next week if some kind of deal, whether with the European Union or Moscow, is not in the offing. (Reportedly Russian officials yesterday told their EU counterparts they would not add to a current €2.5 billion ($3 billion) loan to Cyprus.)
Cypriot lawmakers vowed Thursday that they would not raise again the idea of a levy or tax on private accounts. However, EU and ECB authorities continue to state that available resources are so limited that the Cyprus parliament will need to revisit the issue, perhaps in a smaller percentage.
Meanwhile, Reuters notes, EU officials continue to up the ante and put pressure on Cyprus. "I cannot rule out a Cyprus insolvency," Austrian Finance Minister Maria Fekter told the newspaper Oesterreich. "A euro exit would not achieve anything. Cyprus must act now."
The ECB hard deadline comes a day after Cypriot lawmakers rejected the controversial EU terms of the bailout, engineered mysteriously last week, which require a “tax” allowing Cypriot authorities to reach into the accounts of private bank deposits and withdraw some 10 percent of funds in accounts over €100,000 ($130,000) and about 7 percent in accounts under that figure.
The idea of such a tax brings mingled perplexity and outrage in many parts of the world, but especially in Russia, which uses Cyprus as an offshore tax haven.
Deposits in Cyprus’s banks were seven times the size of its economy at the end of 2012, an unusual situation fostered by low taxes and reputation for lax regulation. Many European policymakers suspect it is a hub for Russian money laundering. Cypriot banks hold $88 billion in deposits, of which $49 billion is in the form of deposits over $129,000, according to analysts’ estimates.
The Christian Science Monitor reports that Moscow is playing “hardball” with the Cypriot finance minister in order to protect its massive stake in Cyprus' banking system.
According to official Russian figures, more than $114 billion has flowed into Russia since 2007 from Cyprus, almost all of it in the form of dividends paid by Cyprus-registered holding companies. Big Russian firms, including most metals giants, the state-owned banks Sberbank and VTB, and the independent gas producer Novatek all have important holdings in Cyprus.
"The price of crisis in Cyprus is very high for Russia," says Igor Nikolayev, director of strategic planning for one of Russia's leading auditing firms.
Like Jerry McGuire, who won his wife back with a simple "hello," President Obama seemed to capture the hearts of Israelis with the first word of his speech upon touching down at Ben Gurion airport: Shalom.
As Obama moved into a carefully scripted speech that swept back millenniums to recognize Abraham and Sarah as the ancient claimants to the land of Israel, Amir Mizroch, editor of the English edition of Israel Hayom, tweeted: "Stop it, stop it, you had me at Shalom."
Obama even trotted out a bit of Hebrew, telling his listeners: tov l'hiyot shuv b'aretz – It's good to be back again in "the land," the colloquial term for Israel. It was the first clip played in an unusually long evening news program about his visit.
To be sure, there were hiccups as well. Obama's "beast," the super-duper secure limo that ferries him around even on foreign visits, broke down when someone – the Israelis insist it was the Americans – put in the wrong kind of gas. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's joke about preparing Obama a fake moustache so he could ditch his security people and secretly sample Tel Aviv's bars fell flat. And there were complaints that several ministers in the new government had asked Obama to free Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, to which he reportedly responded: "Nice to meet you," or "Nice to see you again."
Unlike a wedding, state visits have to be orchestrated without the benefit of the main actors rehearsing – and sometimes it shows. Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres, a Nobel laureate now in a largely ceremonial position, bumped into each other more than once as protocol officers pulled and prodded them into the proper formation and they tried to smoothly insert themselves into photo ops with cute kids waving the Star of David and the Stars and Stripes.
But overall, Obama managed to sail right through the awkward moments and hit all the notes Israelis wanted to hear. He outlined his vision of a two-state solution as a strong Jewish state next to a sovereign Palestinian one, without mentioning anything about curbing Israeli settlements in the West Bank; promised continued foreign aid; insisted on calling Netanyahu by his nickname, Bibi; complimented his wife Sara, saying the Netanyahu boys must have gotten their good looks from her; and, in a more serious moment, recognized the sacrifice of Netanyahu's family, who lost his brother Yoni in the 1976 Entebbe operation to rescue more than 100 Israeli and Jewish passengers whose plane had been hijacked.
One senior Israeli official who was asked ahead of time about what Obama would have to do to make his visit a success, reportedly replied simply, "Land." Indeed, before Obama even addresses the Israeli public in a speech tomorrow; before he visits the Dead Sea Scrolls, thus implicitly acknowledging that Israel's right to exist here dates back thousands of years before the Holocaust; before he visits the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism ... in the eyes of many Israelis, his mission is already accomplished.
For the Palestinians, the feelings are quite the reverse. But more on that tomorrow.
RECOMMENDED – How much do you know about Israel? Take our quiz.
Cyprus is today looking at a “Plan B” to save itself from a catastrophic banking default, though it appears that hopes for an immediate loan from Moscow, explored by Cypriot officials today, will not be forthcoming.
Lawmakers in Nicosia on Tuesday decided against a highly controversial proposed levy on private bank depositor holdings that would impose a nearly 10 percent “levy” or “tax” on private bank deposits in order to secure an EU bailout.
The possibility of private bank accounts being targeted by a government brought enormous world attention in recent days.
The Los Angeles Times today called the tax an “expropriation” of funds in a piece that warns the Cypriot situation could trigger a larger crisis for the euro.
Now Cyprus still needs to find some $8 billion or find itself in default. It would be the first eurozone member to do so. Cypriot banks are already closed and may remain so this week until a solution is found, causing at the minimum, anger among citizens.
The tiny island represents all of 0.2 percent of the mighty eurozone economy. But its need for a bailout and its personae as a huge offshore shelter for Russian oligarchs – brings speculation that a default will act as a wrench tossed in the mechanism of the EU economy, just as talk of the “eurocrisis” was quieting down.
Today a visit to Moscow by the Cypriot finance minister for a possible bailout of $2 billion to $8 billion, yielded no offers according to Reuters.
Cypriot political and financial leaders are huddling in Nicosia the capital, even as banks in Cyprus may continue to stay closed in coming days, if no solution is found.
In Europe, the Austrian finance minister claimed that the European Central Bank, which has provided a steady supply of loans in recent years to continental banks to avoid their default, will not do so for Cyprus indefinitely.
The Federal Reserve in Washington said it was committed to continue providing further liquidity and stimulus rather than adopt the kind of financial austerity the EU has shown a preference for.
As Reuters put its, "If anything, developments in Cyprus, where the announcement of a tax on bank deposits to help fund the country's bailout sent jitters through the global financial system, are likely to reinforce the resolve of Fed officials to bolster the US economy."
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman today cites an exhaustive report by the Financial Times showing the dimensions of Cyprus as an offshore haven for Russians, and speculates the oligarchs will soon realize they don’t need Cyprus and can find shelters elsewhere.
At that point Cypriot officials will give up on the Russian business and, Krugman writes, “a resolution will become much easier. But they’re not there yet.”
The Russian business link is known as “round tripping”:
This link occurs through CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] commodity-based shell companies that deposit transactional balances of their CIS-based legal subsidiaries engaged in oil, mineral, and metals exports, often involving transfer pricing and other tax minimization strategies. The Central Bank of Russia classifies Cyprus as the largest single source of FDI in the Russian Federation, with a total of $41.7 billion in cumulative inbound FDI into Russia’s non-financial sector between 2007 and 2010 (over 2.7x German levels)… Cyprus is also counted among the top FDI investing nations in several Central Asian countries (likely Russian capital reinvested via Cyprus, a process known informally as “round-tripping”).
Sony Kapoor of the Brussels based reform-minded think tank ReDefine writes that an alarmist response to the Cyprus crisis as causing the fall of the euro is over the top. Spain and Italy are not in the same grooves or orbits as Cyprus and apocalyptic runs on banks in those nations are unlikely.
Mr. Kapoor also suggests that a levy or tax on the deposits of those banking in Cyprus may in fact be a better answer than the effect of a default.
…the alternative of sovereign default would have been much worse; it is impossible to imagine a safe banking system in a sovereign undergoing restructuring of debt. Remember how much capital Greek banks needed after it defaulted? In fact, Cyprus would probably not have needed a bailout if its banks had not incurred huge losses on holdings of Greek debt. Add to this the complication that half of Cyprus’s sovereign bonds are under foreign (English) law that makes a successful restructuring of sovereign debt much harder. Moreover, Cypriot banks hold large swathes of its sovereign bonds, so it would be further bankrupted by any sovereign restructuring.
The tiny divided sun-dappled Mediterranean island of Cyprus rarely rides above the radar in European thinking – but is now suddenly raising a five-alarm panic in the European Union, just as financial crisis talk there was starting to abate.
Cyprus desperately needs a 10 billion euro ($13 billion) bailout, and to do so the EU has engineered a plan, now being voted on by the Cypriot parliament, to guarantee an EU loan with – and here is the kicker – money secured from the banking accounts of private depositors.
Accounts with more than 100,000 euros ($130,000) would be taxed 9.9 percent; those under that marker would be taxed at 6.7 percent. The idea is to raise 5.8 billion euro ($7.5 billion) to ensure against a catastrophic default.
Since the EU in Brussels must approve the plan, and since Germany is on board, this is a fateful example that is sending a chill around the continent, particularly in nations like Spain and Italy that have troubled banks that have been unable to climb out of the pit of debt and exposure.
Whether one calls this measure a tax, a levy, a “dip” into bank accounts, or a seizure of funds to avert a national disaster, ordinary Europeans interpret the plan as a major Rubicon that has been crossed: Their private accounts can be invaded by the public sector.
“The damage is done,” Louise Cooper, who heads the financial research firm CooperCity in London, told the Associated Press. “Europeans now know that their savings could be used to bail out banks.”
Though some dispute that the decision entails a realistic threat to American and European bank accounts. In a statement sent to EU correspondents, Andriy Bodnaruk, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business, wrote that “While Cyprus' proposed tax on deposit holders sets a precedent, there is little reason for depositors in Europe or the US to lose sleep."
"...It is highly unlikely (if not improbable) that such policy could ever be forced on depositors in any other EU country, as it would be politically suicidal. Cyprus is a different animal as it is effectively an off-shore area within Europe," he wrote.
The president of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, told his nation on Sunday that he supported the plan as “the least painful option,” saying that, “Cyprus is in a tragic situation … and I bear the political cost for this, in order to limit as much as possible the consequences for the economy and for our fellow Cypriots.”
Michael Steininger wrote yesterday in The Christian Science Monitor that: “…for the first time, at the insistence of the German government, private account holders were being asked to shoulder a part of that [Cyprus] bailout, around 5.8 billion euros ($7.5 billion), through a special levy on their savings."
“The German taxpayer is willing to help Cyprus,” says Michael Fuchs, a member of Parliament for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. “But the Cypriots have to help themselves and pay a tax on their deposits.”
With large Russian offshore accounts in Cyprus, President Vladimir Putin in Moscow called the new tax “dangerous.”
Banking columnist Peter Gumbel of Time magazine pointed out that:
At the insistence of both the E.U. and the IMF, Cyprus would only receive a bailout if as much as $6 billion of the money could be recouped from bank depositors. That solution was aimed primarily at the Russians and other wealthy depositors, with more than $130,000 in their accounts. But under the terms of the agreement finalized on Friday night, all depositors will take a hit. A one-time levy of 9.9% will be charged on deposits over $130,000, and accounts with less will be charged 6.75%.
A new plan being voted on today in Cyprus would exempt depositors with less than 20,000 euro ($26,000) in their accounts.
Since the advent of what has been called the “eurocrisis” several years ago – which has caused a number of governments to fall and occasionally spun the global economy downward – Europeans have become adroit at halting panic and crisis just as it seems ready to bring a full-scale meltdown.
The crisis was originally sparked by public debt and bad accounting in Greece. But it spread across Europe – most prominently in Ireland, Portugal, Italy, and Spain – as bond markets attacked what appeared to be weakness in those economies, due to their inability to devaluate under the single currency.
But the European Central Bank showed this summer and fall that it would go so far as to sidestep its own rules and charter to protect the euro by lending trillions to troubled banks.
Still, as the Associated Press put it in a report today:
…Down the road, the Cyprus precedent, even if quickly reversed, could come back to haunt eurozone policy makers by making depositors less sure about the safety of their money in case of trouble. It could also complicate creation of an EU-wide system of bank deposit insurance, part of long-term efforts to create a more robust financial system and prevent future crises.
Half a million people will parade in Dublin today to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, but since when did Irish people celebrate this holiday?
March 17 has always meant a lot to the Irish diaspora, particularly those who themselves had left the country seeking a better life abroad. It was a day to celebrate Irishness, to reminisce about home, and to stand together in solidarity. Public gatherings, and particularly parades, have always been part of the annual celebration of Irishness.
In recent years, though, St. Patrick's Day has come home: The Irish, the actual Irish in Ireland, now celebrate St. Patrick's Day with as much enthusiasm as their cousins in the US and Britain. Half a million people will take to the streets of Dublin today to watch the parade.
In fact, it's not just St. Patrick's Day, it's now a week-long St. Patrick's Festival. Slick branding, float parades, giant green foam hands, buildings lit in green, fun fairs, stand-up comedy, and street performers: This is not how I remember things.
As a child in Belfast, Northern Ireland during the 1980s, St. Patrick's Day was little more than one of many days of religious observance. Church-goers went to church and wore shamrocks on their lapels, and Irish republicans paraded, much to the chagrin of pro-British unionists. My family was not religious so we didn't do much, though we did pin shamrocks to our jackets.
Later, but still a child, in the Republic of Ireland it was much the same, though the parades were less politically-charged state affairs.
In neither case did leprechaun hats, green beer, and the rest of the tidal wave of Paddywhackery feature. Of course, memory is notoriously faulty, but I think it's unlikely I mistook pious Mass-goers with hard-partying fun-seekers. Difficult as it is to believe, in Ireland St. Patrick's Day was once a day of temperance, with the only overindulgence being in sugary-sweets as a kind of cheating break from severe Lenten fasting.
Reportedly things weren't much different in rural Ireland. My colleague Cian Ginty grew-up in Mayo in the west of Ireland and the parades he remembers were not slick affairs.
"Tractors. That's my memory of St Patrick's Day. You get tractors, or at least used to in parades in the country down here," he says.
It's not that I'm a killjoy. If people want to have a New York-style parade, floats and all, through Dublin and then head to an Irish pub, authentic or otherwise, it's no skin off my nose. Headlines such as St. Paddy's Day FAILS: Beer, Booze And Barfing get on my nerves, but that's life. If I was to react to everything that irked me I'd have had an embolism years ago.
Nor am I a Catholic seeking a return to the true meaning of St. Patrick's Day. After all, what is the meaning of St. Patrick's Day? He didn't drive snakes out of Ireland and his explanation of the Trinity using a shamrock is a romantic fabrication from the eighteenth century. Patrick the man, if his confession is anything to go by, cut a pious and stern figure, arguably closer to Protestant Rev. Ian Paisley than the green-festooned and cheery miter-wearing bishop that we Irish tend to portray him as.
Bernie Whelan, second-generation Irish living in Britain, says she remembers when St. Patrick's Day had real meaning to the London Irish. Today, though, the Irish are just like everyone else.
"The Irish community in North London has dispersed. I was an advice worker in the London Irish women's center in Stoke Newington until it closed. To be honest couldn't justify funding any more," she says.
As Ireland has modernized, the ongoing economic crisis notwithstanding, the idea of a unique Irish ethnicity has come to look increasingly threadbare. There is, no doubt, such a thing as Irish culture, but Ireland is also part of the modern, developed world and shares a universal culture with the rest of Europe, the US, and other countries. Irish identity, at least the version long defined by political oppression and poverty makes less sense than ever.
This hasn't stopped the marketing, though. In fact, the absence of bombs and bullets makes Irishness much easier to sell, abroad and at home, even if the beer-soaked mawkishness is now harder to explain. And so, on St. Patrick's Day we're told that everyone has a bit of Irish in them. Actually, they don't. Don't take it as an insult, it's just a fact. Besides, despite the attempt to turn Irishness into some kind of universal character trait, it's really just a nationality and, like all nationalities, means less than we tend to ascribe to it.
One thing, though: It's Paddy's day, not Patty. Patty is a female name, and don't start on the Patrick doesn't contain the letter "d". The Irish-language (Gaelic to you) Pádraic does.
Celebrate St. Patrick's Day if you like. Have fun. Just don't for a moment think it's authentic.
As for me? I'll be celebrating that we're just like everyone else.
China is unlike any other country in the world when it comes to press conferences: You generally learn more from the questions that are asked than from the answers that officials give.
That rule of thumb proved valid again Sunday as new Prime Minister Li Keqiang met the press for the first time. He seemed confident and relaxed, but like his predecessors, he answered only questions that journalists had submitted in advance, and that his press office had approved.
At Chinese press conferences you learn which topics the government thinks are important and what message it wants to transmit to the citizenry from the questions that the authorities allow. But you don’t get much fresh information from the answers.
Mr. Li’s responses were, for the most part, pretty bland. We did not learn much that we had not already known before we filed into the elaborately decorated ballroom in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square for the premier’s annual press conference carried live on national TV.
But a softball question from People's Daily, the official organ of the ruling Communist party, ("What are the government’s goals and the top priorities on its agenda?") allowed Li to stress his intention of raising incomes and strengthening the social security net – a major worry for many Chinese – and of making China a fairer country.
That will have gone down well with the hundreds of millions of citizens who have learned from experience that you don’t get far in this country without the right connections.
The Chinese state radio correspondent tossed him a question about the government’s plans to combat official corruption, another huge gripe among ordinary Chinese, which gave the new prime minister a chance to pledge his “unshakeable resolve” to root out dishonesty in government.
Overseas reporters had a chance to put their questions, too – an American was permitted a carefully worded query about US-China relations, including a reference to US allegations that the Chinese government is behind a lot of cyber-espionage; a Frenchman was allowed to ask about the foul air we have been breathing in Beijing for the past 10 weeks; a Russian asked about the future of Sino-Russian relations.
None of them elicited anything that could be mistaken for news, however. He batted away the question of hacking with the standard line that China too is a victim of hackers, and complained – with a smile – that he detected “a presumption of guilt” in the reporter’s question that he did not accept.
The authorities were especially nervous on Sunday about what foreign reporters might ask because the press conference was being broadcast live on television, and they did not want any embarrassments.
Having attended six of these annual charades, and knowing how they work, it still astonishes me that the leader of a country such as China, which aspires to a serious place at the top table of world affairs, does not dare to take unscripted questions from journalists. Li talked a lot about reform this morning; he could do worse than start with the way the government relates to the local and foreign press.
The gang rape of a Swiss tourist while camping with her husband in India puts the international spotlight (again) on sexual violence against women in the South Asia nation.
The attack occurred Friday evening after the Swiss couple had stopped to camp in a forest. They were bicycling in the state of Madhya Pradesh on their way to see the Taj Mahal, in Agra. According to the Hindustan Times, the couple were returning from visiting the Ram Raja Temple, in Orchha.
A group of 7 or 8 men, according to various reports, attacked the couple. According to one report, the husband was held at gunpoint. Another report says the men were carrying sticks. Seven men attacked the couple in their tent and four of them raped the woman, Dilip Arya, deputy inspector general of police, told Reuters. They also stole their valuables."
While 20 men have reportedly been detained for questioning, no one has been arrested.
The woman was treated and released from the Kamalaraje hospital in Gwalior and her medical tests have confirmed rape, police sources told The Hindustan Times.
One woman is raped every 20 minutes in India, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. But police estimate only four out of 10 rapes are reported, largely due to victims' fear of being shamed by their families and communities.
The attack on the Swiss tourists comes just three months after major protests in India following the fatal gang-rape of a 23-year old college student on a bus in New Delhi.
As The Christian Science Monitor reported at the time, the outrage expressed by hundreds of thousands of demonstrators over that "heinous attack has given women at least a measure of hope that the country of 1.2 billion people will see meaningful improvement in how women are treated, though most realize any change is likely to come slowly.
"These protests have at least given women the confidence to talk about sexual violence," says Singh, the kindergarten teacher in Bangalore. "For too long, women have been made to feel guilty for these things."
But as another Monitor article noted "the challenges faced by Indian women reflect broader contradictions: Two decades of economic growth and globalization have brought improved opportunities but also greater inequality. That paradox was captured in a July survey that ranked India as the worst place to be a woman among the Group of 20 countries that make up the world's biggest economies, based on parameters like health services, threat of violence, and property rights."
As a result of the attention focus on women's security, AFP reports that "the national Congress-led government has been under heavy pressure to step up legal protection for India's women following the December attack on the student who died from internal injuries after being savagely assaulted by six men.
Under a new bill approved by India's cabinet earlier in the week, rapists face a minimum 20-year jail term and the death penalty if the victim dies from her injuries or is left in a persistent vegetative state."
Meanwhile, the driver of the bus in which a young Indian woman was gang-raped and fatally injured in December hanged himself in his jail cell on Monday, prison authorities said, but his family and lawyer said they suspected "foul play." Police have described Ram Singh as the ringleader of five men and a juvenile on trial.