Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Women and the Transformation of Venezuela

From political representation and employment rights to tackling poverty and domestic violence, women’s advancement in Venezuela has been remarkable since Hugo Chavez was elected president in 1998. But these changes haven’t happened by accident. Women themselves have been a driving force behind the revolutionary process and gender equality was enshrined in Venezuela’s progressive constitution adopted in 1999.

For decades feminists across the world have demanded recognition that domestic labour, largely carried out by women, is economically productive. Section 88 of Venezuela’s constitution is the only one in the world that acknowledges this and over 100,000 women in poverty have benefitted, receiving financial support, education, training and access to social security. The government has also helped some of Venezuela’s poorest and most excluded women buy essential household goods such as fridges, cookers and washing machines, thanks to the creation of the world’s first development bank that lends almost exclusively to women.

Venezuela’s Banmujer, or Women’s Development Bank, was set up to tackle poverty and empower women in their communities. Through providing low-interest loans, advice and workshops about a range of issues, women have the financial means and confidence to set up small businesses and co-operatives. Over 500,000 jobs have been created as a result of Banmujer’s work, giving financial independence to women and economic benefits to the wider community.

Women are also changing the face of their communities through leading social programmes and participating in community councils, which set local budgets and projects funded by the government. These councils are made up of around 200-400 households in each neighbourhood and 70 per cent of participants are women. With this high activity at grassroots level, it’s not surprising that women account for over half of elected mayors and regional government officials. 

At the national level women have more seats in Parliament than ever before, lead important ministries and shape national policy. The Inamujer, or National Women’s Institute, was instrumental in forming and enforcing the law on the right of women to a life free of violence. Recognised by Amnesty as a positive step towards women’s liberation, this law has prompted training of police and legal staff to deal specifically with and prevent gendered violence. 

Venezuela has adopted progressive rights for women and mothers at work too. Under the recently adopted Labour Law, which has improved rights for all workers, specific measures for women include an increase in maternity leave, job security for expectant mothers, and better childcare provision. Employers with over 20 employees must provide a crèche for children between 3 months and 6 years old.

These rights have made it easier for new mothers to remain in work, attain senior positions and overturn a deep-seated prejudice against women workers. It’s hard to believe that before the revolution an employer had the right to ask a woman to submit a pregnancy test if she was offered a job! Thankfully that is now outlawed and women account for 42 per cent of the workforce, up from 20 per cent before Chavez was elected. It’s worth noting that Venezuela also has South America’s smallest gender pay gap.

These are just some of the developments made by women and for women in Venezuela. It is astonishing that these huge strides in gender equality have been made in only 14 years and shows just how much can be achieved with the political will and dedication of a socialist government.

While women in Venezuela continue to benefit from policies, institutions and groups set up to specifically tackle gender inequality, it is important to remember that equally, Venezuelan society has benefitted from women’s more active participation in democratic structures that continue to build a better society for all Venezuelans.

Friday, 18 January 2013

U.S. government funds ‘independent’ journalists in Cuba

Applied Memetics manages cohort of "independent" journalists in Cuba
The U.S. government has hired a former CIA agent to create and manage a team of “independent” journalists in Cuba.  Daniel Gabriel, previously operations assistant at CNN, joined the CIA and completed six tours to Afghanistan and Iraq in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

His LinkedIn biography describes him as a former CIA covert action officer who spent 10 years "countering violent-extremism, directing counter-insurgency operations, and developing and benchmarking counter-radicalization theory and methodology in the Islamic world."

Gabriel is currently part of the Corporate Leadership Team at Applied Memetics who, according to their mission statement, “exploit and leverage perceptions to create new realities on the ground”. After running the phrase through the corporate bullshit filter of GoogleTranslate, I’m told it means “manufacturing propaganda” or “lying”.

Contracts from last September show that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) – a U.S. government agency – paid Applied Memetics $9,909 for work performed in Cuba.  A document from the following month shows that the contract was modified to include the option of extending the arrangement until October 2016

The BBG’s proposal said that Cuban reporters would be required to operate in “major cities in Cuba, including Havana and Santiago de Cuba” and “would provide regular local news and feature reports”  on politics, economics and “the dissident movement.”

The BBG, which manages the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, said the contract managing the Cuban journalists would be required to produce “at least five stories per week” including video news packages, interviews, sound bites, written stories for use in radio and on websites, and photos.

America’s funding of journalists with a specific aim of producing stories on the “dissident” movement raises serious questions about the independence and objectivity – and therefore reliability – of these correspondents. In a country with an average wage of little over $20 per month, the promise of sponsorship from an imperial power is a powerful incentive to manufacture unfounded stories about non-existent dissidence.  Indeed, by 2011, the U.S. government had already used $150m of tax payers’ money to fund ‘democracy promotion’ – including the subsidy of “independent” journalists – in Cuba.     

And it isn’t just in Cuba that the United States is contradicting its belief in a “free” media. According to evidence obtained through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, the American government directly funded Miami-based journalists  to write and broadcast prejudicial articles before and during the trial of the Miami Five, five Cuban anti-terrorists that have been unjustly imprisoned in the U.S. for 15 years.

In this context, you don't need GoogleTranslate to tell you that the United States’ continuing insistence that Cuba lacks a “free” media seems somewhat ironic. 

Sunday, 6 January 2013

The Christian thing to do

In Raul Castro and Cuba – A Military History, Hal Klepak discusses three social challenges that could ruin Cuban families before the Revolution. These were:
  1. Over-stretching financially in an attempt to send a son to school and university so his new social and professional position could bring the whole family up by its bootstraps
  2. Significant illness in family, the cost of which could devastate even well-off families
  3. The cost of a proper, respectable burial for one’s parents with a fine plot, monument, feast and well remunerated priest
Everyone knows about Cuba’s achievements in the fields of education and health, but Klepak gives fascinating insight into a little-known area of Cuban social policy:
Even in the less dramatic field of proper burials, the Revolution moved soon to provide a civilized system that would take the terrible psychological and financial burden off the family’s shoulders. The state now provides the plot for a family’s loved ones. It also ensures that the deceased will be brought from anywhere on the island for burial where he or she wished at no cost to the family. In addition, the stone for the burial, while hardly monumental or luxurious, is provided as is the general maintenance of the plot in the future. Transportation for the friends and family members of the deceased, by bus or even taxi, is also covered by the state.
What would the equivalent be worth in the UK? Many people save for years to cover funeral costs. Considerations include the cost of making a will, funeral planning, venue hire, coffin, memorial cost, flowers, death notice, catering for the wake, a plot for burial and headstone. The average burial in the UK costs £3,307 and the typical cremation costs £4,954 – whilst the emotional stress caused by a loved one’s death is unquantifiable.

With real incomes falling and benefits being slashed, funeral costs will become more of a burden – both financially and emotionally.  According to the Mirror:
With the current economic environment putting pressure on jobs, incomes and pensions, it is not surprising that 17% of people in the UK struggle with the costs of arranging a funeral. On average, people struggle to find a shortfall of £1,246.  If you multiply 17% of the 552,000 deaths in the UK in 2011 by the shortfall of £1,246, funeral poverty (the funding gap) stands at £117m.
Somehow, Cuba continues to provide this service for free. As Klepak says:
Perhaps even more striking for a socialist, and for a long time even an atheist, state, the government also provides at its expense a priest for the mass and the chapel or related arrangements necessary for decent Christian burial. And when the ceremony is over, the state provides a decent if frugal reception for all who have attended the event
Cuba’s stance is even more remarkable considering the reactionary position the Catholic Church took following the Revolution. For instance, in the early 1960s, they helped orchestrate Operation Peter Pan which saw 14,000 Cuban children sent to Miami after false rumours were spread that children would be sent to Soviet labour camps against their parent’s wishes. Cuba's ability to see beyond this - and turn the other cheek - is admirable.

So what is ‘the Christian thing to do’? The subversive Operation Peter Pan or an egalitarian social policy that removes the emotional and financial burden associated with the death of the loved one? I don’t think you need divine intervention to find the answer.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Are the Chinese Censoring UK Citizens?

When fellow political blog Pride's Purge found itself inaccessible on 3 Mobile, author Tom Pride tweeted 3 as to why. They responded that they had classified it as containing offensive material and therefore blocked it for anyone who had not explicitly removed automatic filters (a majority of 3UK users). Aside from the rare swearword his blog is as white as white. It doesn’t even contain pictures.

What 3UK may have taken offense to is a critical article written by Pride on how UK utility companies are being bought up by Chinese businessmen like Li Ka-shing a year ago. Li Ka-shing just so happens to be majority shareholder in 3UK. When Pride supporters questioned 3UK over their content blocking policies 3UK were unable to give a confirmed list or reason why the block had taken place.

Automatic content filtering isn’t a very reliable at the best of times. Has Pride unwittingly triggered an automatic block or are there more sinister motives afoot? Head on over to the blog post and see the discussion for yourself.

In an attempt to avoid such a block ourselves please glaze upon Li Ka-shing’s lovely picture below. Our hope is that 3UK won’t classify this article as offensive in fear of risking upsetting the great man himself.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Getting to Know You

Theresa May wants the power to track everywhere you have been the past year, everyone you have spoken to and emailed. Don’t worry though she won’t use it on you. You may already be aware of this since she kindly outlined her proposals in the Draft Communications Bill (known commonly as the Snoopers Charter) back in June 2012. The fact that this horrendous piece of legislation made it to the draft sage is astounding. Aside from private security service backing there is no visible support for the proposals. Even Nick Clegg and Davis Davis are opposed. The last bashing it received was from a Parliamentary Joint Committee which stated that current safeguards were adequate and that if the Home Secretary wasn’t going to use the new powers then why ask for them?

Not deterred by this Mrs May did what David Cameron did when he had no support over the UK Porn Filter, she went to the tabloids (again). Not convinced we should keep logs of all your digital actions? Here’s a picture of Ian Huntley. What about now? Here’s a picture of the bus blown up on 7/7. Now?

How could the Act prevent these crimes? The Act states that the police and UK security services find it too time consuming to approach various providers of communication service providers (such as ISPs, email hosts and telecoms providers) with the correct authority to get the data they need. They also take time in processing that data into meaningful information to help them with their enquiries. It states that these providers must hold this information centrally in an accessible place for 12 months. Those who can access this data include the police and security services, the Home Secretary and other public authorities (with consent for the Magistrates Court). That's right, Theresa May is trying to pass a law which allows her personally to request communication and location data on anyone in the UK without their knowledge.

At the moment you mobile telecoms provider stores the location of everywhere you have ever taken your mobile in raw data. It stores the reception you have from each mobile mast which can be used to triangulate your position. Your mobile phone uses this same data to work out roughly where you are without wifi or GPS on. It was this data that was used to exposed Ian Huntley’s initial alabi since he said he was many miles away. This data is quite rough though. In the Ian Huntley case officers had to retrace the victims’ route with a mobile to confirm that the data match the victims were vicinity of Ian Huntley. For more information on mobile tracking I highly recommend this TED Talk.

ISPs hold connection logs in a multitude of different ways again completely unprocessed. The Act would seek to have this information as easily accessible and as preprocessed as possible. They don’t want a text file with the connections your computer made they want a list of websites you visited. They don’t want a text file with times and signals strengths, they want a map with where you were when and they don’t want to have to go to a magistrates court to get it. Technologically this is very complex” and “expensive” to achieve. It’s these kind of assumptions that have led Google to call it “very difficult” and Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia to label the authors "technologically incompetent".

Theresa May in defending these rights said that these measures will “NOT target ordinary people” only criminals. By collecting centralised information on everyone how are they only targeting criminals? Surely only collecting information on criminals is a better way of only targeting criminals? This is similar to the classic Stazi anti-privacy argument that “if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear”.

This argument at first sounds compelling until you relate it to your own personal privacy concerns. Why have you put a lock on your bathroom door and a frosted glass window so that no one can see in? You must be doing something immoral otherwise you wouldn’t need to hide your actions.

Clearly there is a difference here between privacy and secrecy. It’s probably no secret what you do in the toilet but you still have a right to privacy doing it. The same can be said for every action in your life. Every digital action you take being recorded is unnerving in the same way as a camera watching every move you take. The fact that probably no one will ever watch the recorded footage of you on your own trying the Gangnam Style horse dance and tripping over doesn’t take away shame that you feel after it happened. In fact with the camera there you probably wouldn’t do it in the first place. As crude as this metaphor is the point hopefully made is that the act of surveillance or even implied surveillance changes behaviour even when there is no wrong doing.

The act of collecting this information in an accessible place is a danger in itself. By making it easier for the police you are also making it easier to steal. Under the act the data is still held by the providers as it is now, the difference is that it’s a lot easier to use. Say your ISP gets hacked, do you want a year’s worth of all your internet history (including private browsing) to be dropped on to a public website against you real name? Although I’m sure that there will be some good security in place, you know like what Sony used when all PS3 subscriber payment information was stolen and made public or when LinkedIn had the same happen with a couple of million passwords. If hackers stole ISP information today all they could get (aside from payment details) would be IP (computer) address logs which would be very difficult to trace.

Another assumption that is made is that this will help catch more criminals. Theresa May outlined the Ian Huntley case as an example. Someone should inform Mrs May that Ian Huntley was caught. Not only that, he was caught quite quickly under existing legislation before any more harm was done. This law could not have prevented the Soham murders.

Don’t you think that maybe criminals might hear this publicly available news and change how they operate? They may be less inclined to search “how to kill the prime minister” in Google and take their phones out with them when they go out to commit crime. The “permitted purposes” for these searches are extremely vague and include for “public health reasons” and in the “interests of the economic well-being of the UK” aside from the obvious “national security” concerns and remain valid and secret even is nothing incriminating is found. In the Act the test for using your data is not criminality. If only criminals are the target then why are public health, safety reasons and economic concerns listed as permitted purposes for search to take place?

This lack of focus in the draft lends credence to the slippery slope to authoritarianism argument. Let’s ignore the fact that only states like China, Iran and Kazakhstan employ such measures and look at the fact that permitted search purposes also include the detection and prevention of crime. Let’s also ignore the fact that you could argue that you need to look at every UK citizen’s information to detect crime and still fall within the legal limits as the act stands. The police could easily use these powers to track Occupy protesters and build a database linking everyone together. If there are only six degrees of separation between everyone on the planet then there are a lot less between you and someone of interest to the police.

Say the police ran searches on your mobile movements because someone who they were investigating made a number of calls to you and they wanted some background information. In the doing so they uncover unconnected information that points to you being wrongly arrested 6 months ago after you were incorrectly identified in some damage caused during a march/protest. Do you think they will be inclined to investigate this? Now swap it around. In the search they find some information that points to you being involved in the damage done. Would they ignore this just because it is unconnected? This is a very large threat to any form of protest. The worry that digital spotlight may be cast you away and uncover something potentially incriminating even if unconnected is a deterrent from action.

With only the police at the helm of these searches only arrests matter. There is no balance of power, no one standing up for the individual’s rights. Under the current legislation there were nearly 500,000 requests to communication service providers (CSP) in 2011 for information. Of these around 1000 were erroneous. 80% were done without the correct authority. 2 people were wrongly convicted due to typos in the request for data. That’s right, two people went to jail because when the police requested data from the CSP they gave the wrong information which meant the CSR handed over the wrong person’s details. Since it’s clear Theresa May is searching for “paedos and terrorists” imagine the damage being wrongly arrested for either would do to someone. You might want to think about better security on your router.

During a time of austerity and cuts surely the Government has something better it can do with the £1.8 billion this would cost.

If you are interesting learning more you can read the Communications Bill here. The Open Rights Group has a number of groups around the country that meet to discuss how to educate others and oppose such proposals.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Welcome to the New Nanny State

The Tories first coined the term “Nanny State” as a criticism of an overprotective and overbearing government that interferes with the personal lives of its citizens. It’s strange then that David Cameron’s government has embarked on an unparalleled scale of monitoring personal activities ever envisioned. 

I'm not sure about you but the type of Nanny I want is one that has money set aside for hard times and is supportive of modern technology even though she doesn't understand it because she trusts you to use it for good. The type of Nanny David Cameron obviously had is one that blames you for your misfortune, checks your internet history to make sure you are looking for job, thinks you may be a terrorist and blocks what she doesn't trust you to see. 

The idea for an automatic pornography block for children is nothing new. Many other countries have toyed with the idea. Australia recently decided that such measures would be too difficult and costly to implement with no guarantee of protecting children. 

Claire Perry MP first raised the issue which lead to a public consultation concluding that parents already have the safeguards they need. “UK Rejects Automatic Porn Filter” the internet cried. No so fast. The Daily Mail has been running a year long campaign to “protect our children from porn” and today crowed that it had won. That’s right all Dave has to do now is flick porn block switch under the desk in Number 10 and all the children will finally be safe. Actually...

While the concept of blocking porn sounds easy in principle, it’s actually very difficult to achieve in reality. The first is what classifies as porn? How nude does someone have to be before you call it porn? Even if you come up with a rating system how to you automatically classify this? 

Websites may contain a wide range of language, pictures and video that may be submitted by users. If you find a nude image posted by a user on a public forum do you add the whole site to the block list? Any user generated site is susceptible to porn uploading. Should Wikipedia and YouTube

On the subject of scanning for porn. Scanning imagery for nudity is massively processor intensive task confined to the likes of Google with their complex algorithms in it’s huge data centres. Even then it’s nowhere near fool proof. Are our ISPs suppose to do this? Even though most basic measures would mean that ISPs would have to make an investment and pass the cost on to everyone. I’m not sure that I want to pay more for my internet so that parents can pass the blame for monitoring their children’s activities off onto BT. 

You would think that when Claire Perry states that the sexualisation of children must be stopped that she would start with sexually suggestive music videos, unrealistic fashion imagery and sexually suggestive clothing all directly marketed at children rather than online pornography which is not. 

The moral of the story is that the Tories neither understand technology nor trust the public. They create systems based on a pessimistic view of humanity. Parents can’t be trusted to monitor and regulate their children on the internet, the unemployed cannot be trusted to find jobs so should be monitored and everyone is potentially a terrorist who should be watched. If you navigate this sea of pessimism using the moral compass of the Daily Mail then you are unlikely to find your way to reasoned shores. I suppose it’s not all bleak though, at the very least one can hope that such a filter will block filth like this, this, this, this, this, this, and this.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

The incredible story of Cuban medical internationalism

Source: New Internationalist