Mr. Abrams Goes to Venezuela

 

“Lenin was sent into Russia by the Germans in the same way that you might send a phial containing a culture of typhoid or cholera to be poured into the water supply of a great city, and it worked with amazing accuracy.”
— Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

At a February 13 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing to question newly appointed Special Representative for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, on United States policy toward that country, Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) impugned Mr. Abrams’s veracity since he is a known liar who narrowly escaped felony perjury charges in 1991 by cooperating with Iran-Contra Affair Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh. Mr. Abrams took exception to Ms. Omar’s statement. She went on to outline his participation in war crimes and meddling in the internal affairs of several Latin American countries, all while serving as the Reagan administration’s Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, an Orwellian title for someone who demonstrated contempt for human rights if they got in the way of his neo-conservative anti communist dogma.


None of the activities and attitudes Representative Omar outlined as pertaining to Mr. Abrams are in dispute, yet in the February 13 public hearing he didn’t want to own up to them. Elliott Abrams has been the point man for dirty work abroad for Republican administrations for nearly 40 years, and yet he expects American citizens and the people of the world to believe he has performed his services only for democracy and for human rights. When someone points out publicly how his record has demonstrated the exact opposite, Mr. Abrams gets testy, even nasty. Apparently his narcissism doesn’t allow for anyone calling him out as the nasty person he truly is, though it’s interesting that in his reaction he confirms it.

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Memorial of December 1981 massacre site at El Mozote, Morazán, El Salvador. Photo by Efrojas.

Everyone around the world must know, and the Venezuelans in particular must realize, that since the current presidential administration has assigned Elliott Abrams to the case in Venezuela that country is now in for a nasty, horrific time at the hands of the new envoy. It is as if a hockey team has sent in its most egregious enforcer off the bench. With Mr. Abrams on the job, Venezuelan oil will soon be back within the control of big American and European fossil fuel companies and the international banks will be able to squeeze indebted Venezuela dry, and that’s the endgame of the whole regime change charade and manufactured humanitarian crisis of aid supplies rotting at the Venezuelan border. The only ones who don’t know this, or pretend not know, are corporate media outlets and the consumers who uncritically suck at the corporate media teats of CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and major newspaper and radio outlets. Slap a patina of democracy and humanitarianism on it, no matter how flimsy, and the American public will largely stand up and salute it, no questions asked, lest they be branded unpatriotic. It worked in 2003 for the Iraq invasion and has worked innumerable times before.

And it’s a tactic which has always worked wonders for Elliott Abrams in his career of promoting democracy and humanitarianism, while only incidentally serving corporate and government interests, which are the same thing. What a great guy! Anyone who believes otherwise is unpatriotic, and possibly a communist. A reasonable person might question why the despicable Mr. Abrams is representing the United States abroad in any capacity at all rather than lying low in shame, if not in jail, but then to stay sane a reasonable person had best give up such honest questions in today’s America.



A scene from the 1984 film Dune, directed by David Lynch, with José Ferrer as the Emperor, Siân Phillips as the Reverend Mother Gaius, Kenneth McMiIlan as the Baron, and Alicia Witt as Alia. Warning: gruesome images.

 

It wouldn’t be surprising news if the current administration resurrected for its damnable purposes Mr. Abrams’s fellow war criminals Dick Cheney and Henry Kissinger. Now that’s a triumvirate of inglorious foreign policy pros to sicken the world! In their world it’s bad enough up is down, 2+2=5, and evil has the upper hand, but everyone is also expected by the current administration, its leaders and its followers, and even by the press, the so-called Fourth Estate for its purported independence from power, to not only swallow their hypocritical bilge, but attest to its toothsome flavor and heartily endorse it for others to swill in large doses. Here’s to you, Mr. Abrams!
— Ed.

 

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Change at the Grass Roots

 

It may seem like hyperbole to compare growing a lawn with smoking (not combining the two, as in smoking grass), but when weighing the environmental and health effects of both rather useless activities, they may not be all that dissimilar. A lawn is purely ornamental and serves no practical purpose when it is not used as pasture for grazing animals. Deer may come out of the woods to clip parts of a suburban lawn, but for the most part keeping a lawn within the height limits deemed proper by neighbors is left up to the homeowner. Anything higher than about six inches meets with disapproval from neighbors and, in the case of a homeowners association rules, may merit a written slap on the wrist.

 

There was a time not long ago when most people smoked, and smoked everywhere. Movies of contemporary stories from the 1940s and 1950s showed actors portraying their characters as human chimneys. Few people thought much of it up until 1964, when the Surgeon General issued a report on the dangers of smoking. Even then, it took another generation for the momentum of social disapproval of smoking to build to a tipping point, largely because of the obstructive practices of the tobacco industry. In the matter of lawn growing, the balance is now tipped in favor of the people who dump fertilizers and broad leaf herbicides on their lawns to achieve an ideal of carpeted green perfection, and then burn up fossil fuels in order to keep that exuberant growth clipped to a manicured standard.

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Sheep, goats, and a shepherd near Lake Vistonida in Thrace, Greece. Photo by Ggia.

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Grass, with buttercups. Photo by Steffen Flor.

Given the information available about the toxic effects of fertilizer and herbicide runoff, and the deleterious effects on the climate of continued burning of fossil fuels, it seems insane to idealize the perfect lawn and what it can take to achieve perfection. Yet as things stand now, the people with model lawns are the ones who look down on everyone else and appoint themselves as standard bearers. Perhaps if more people understood the destructive effects to their own health and to the environment of all their fussing over lawns, then the balance would start to tip the other way toward saner practices.

When homeowners apply fertilizers and herbicides to their lawns, there is no obvious puff of smoke to notify everyone else of the activity. It is not as obvious then as smoking, and therefore general social disapproval will take a long time to build, and may never build to a tipping point the way it did with smoking. Education will probably be the main factor in changing people’s behavior. There are state laws which require commercial herbicide or pesticide applicators to post signs on lawns they have treated. Those are the 4 inch cards on sticks stuck into lawns, and to the extent that most passersby and neighbors give them any attention, they can easily mistake them as advertisements for the lawn care company.

The opening scene of Blue Velvet, a darkly satirical 1986 film directed by David Lynch. Besides demanding large amounts of fertilizers and herbicides to look their best, lawns gulp huge amounts of water in order to stay green throughout the warmest months.

Most people are away at work when lawn care companies do their treatments, and so they aren’t around to catch a whiff of the cabbage smell of the typical broad leaf herbicide as it drifts around the neighborhood. And of course, the homeowner who does his or her own applications, usually on the weekends when neighbors are also home, does not bother with any formal notifications at all. A neighbor might ask such a homeowner “What’s that smell?” To which the enterprising amateur lawn care enthusiast might reply, without apparent knowledge of or concern about the collateral damage of his or her efforts, “That’s the smell of the green, green grass of home!”
— Izzy

 

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The Price of Natural

 

The word “natural” on packaged foods does not mean much anymore since there are no standards to uphold it, unlike the case with “organic” on a label, but one area where consumers have been paying attention and making their preference known over the past 20 years is in the labeling of vanilla extract. A significant enough number of consumers have come to prefer vanilla extracted from real, natural vanilla pods that agribusinesses like Nestlé have switched from synthetic to natural vanilla. Synthetic vanilla is a chemistry laboratory product isolated from compounds in wood pulp or petroleum, and for decades in the latter half of the twentieth century it was the preferred choice of most consumers because it was cheap relative to natural vanilla extract, it’s flavor was at least acceptable, and for the most part consumers were not paying attention and didn’t make a distinction between the synthetically derived product and the natural one.

 

Food ingredient and nutrition labels provide more information to the consumer now, and more people are becoming label readers. Not all of them may know the provenance of synthetic vanilla extract, but a large segment decided they would prefer the natural stuff, and they voted with their dollars. The result was an increase in demand, something growers, the majority of them in Madagascar, were not prepared for since demand for their product had steadily dwindled for decades and they had cut back production or gotten out of the business altogether. Natural vanilla had always been an expensive spice, typically second only to saffron in price on the world market. Competition from synthetic vanilla producers had depressed prices, however, and combined with the drop in demand many farmers saw little profit in the lean decades.

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Vanilla planifolia flowers. Photo by Michael Doss.

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Vanilla planifolia vine growing up a tree on a plantation on the island of Réunion, which is east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, and is a major producer of natural vanilla. Photo by David Monniaux.

The rather sudden spike in demand for natural vanilla in the past 20 years caused a scramble to reinvest in production, a process which lagged behind demand by as much as five years because of the the time and labor involved in growing and processing marketable vanilla pods. The type of vanilla most popular around the world is Vanilla planifolia, a climbing vine orchid native to Mexico and Central America. Oddly, even though the plant is native to Mexico, and Mexico continues as a big producer of natural vanilla, the place that grows the vanilla most people prefer is Madagascar, an island off the southeast coast of Africa. Soil and other environmental factors must play a role in the end result, because while the type of vanilla orchid is the same in both parts of the world, consumers express a definite preference based on variations they can detect in taste. At any rate, Madagascar currently produces up to 80% of the world’s natural vanilla.

Vanilla planifolia needs to grow three or more years before it will flower, and then each flower remains open for only one day, at which time in Madagascar it must be hand pollinated because of the lack of resident animal or insect pollinators. In Mexico, there is a species of bee that tends to the vanilla flowers. After pollination, nearly a year passes before the pods containing the seeds develop, and after that there is washing, sun curing, sorting, and other handling that goes into producing the dried black pods which have the tiny, flavorful seeds that are the ultimate object of all this careful tending. The labor intensiveness of producing natural vanilla, added to the time involved, drives its price up. It would be a mistake, though, to think individual laborers are well-paid for their work on such an expensive agricultural product; as always, it is typically the people in the middle, the traders, who reap the greatest rewards.

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Dried, cured vanilla pods in a basket on the island of Réunion. Photo by tirados joselito.

A year ago in March, a cyclone made landfall on Madagascar with the force of a category four hurricane. Dozens of people were killed, and it was feared damage to the vanilla crop would worsen the worldwide shortage which had driven prices up to a record $600 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) in 2017. The most recent low point in the price was 2002, when dried vanilla pods sold for $20 per kilogram. That’s the price for the agricultural product, of course, not the price after it has been further processed into the vanilla extract available to consumers at supermarkets. It turned out damage to the vanilla crop in Madagascar was not as bad as commodity brokers originally expected.

The opening of the 1984 David Lynch film Dune, with Virginia Madsen as Princess Irulan.

Still, for individual consumers living in cool climates outside the natural growing range of Vanilla planifolia, hedging against a volatile, expensive world market for natural vanilla, with too many of its bets placed on the crop in one place, Madagascar, hedging against all that by growing this orchid in a pot by a windowsill may be a bit of a stretch, considering the advice of some growers who say the plant needs to grow to at least ten feet before it flowers, and even then there’s no guarantee of getting pods that will yield recognizably tasty vanilla seeds. It might be a better bet to buy a lot when the market is low, or in other words, hoard it. Vanilla extract always contains a hefty percentage of alcohol, after all, as people who are apt to sneak a drink now and then have always known, and the alcohol is an excellent, natural preservative.
— Izzy

 

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