Saturday, November 04, 2006

Bush crony Vazquez Botet convicted in federal Superaqueduct case

One of President Bush’s biggest fundraisers in Puerto Rico was found guilty on Friday of seven federal counts of conspiracy, extortion and fraud in connection with a $372 million public works project built in the mid-1990s called the Superaqueduct. Dr. Rene Vazquez Botet, 51, faces between seven and 10 years in prison. A former Republican Party committeeman, this pediatric ophthalmologist was appointed by Bush in 2001 to serve on the president’s Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans Commission.

He was indicted in 2004 along with lawyer Marcos Morell Corrada for comprising a scheme in which they both received $2.4 million in kickbacks from private firms which wanted to secure and preserve their contracts to build the water pipeline in 1995. Morell Corrada, 58, was also convicted on eight similar counts. It took a jury 14 hours over three days to hand down its verdict.

Although he said he was inclined to revoke their bail and send the two immediately to prison, U.S. District Judge Jose Fuste instead placed Vazquez Botet and Morell Corrada under 24-hour house arrest and ordered them to wear electronic monitoring bracelets.

Because of the two defendants’ political connections and issues surrounding the inquiry, the case had turned into a high profile investigation in which officials from the U.S. Justice Department’s Public Integrity Division flew down from Washington to prosecute both men. Vazquez Botet was campaign manager for former Gov. Pedro Rossello (1993-2001) of the New Progressive Party. Both had been close friends until around 1997 when they had a falling out -- the reasons for which are still unclear. Rossello, a former pediatric surgeon who now serves as senator in the Puerto Rican legislature, had been under investigation by federal authorities in several corruption schemes that the U.S. Attorney’s Office broke wide open, but he has never been prosecuted.

For his part, Morell Corrada served as secretary general for the pro-statehood New Progressive Party from 1991 to 1996, until he resigned under pressure after corruption allegations surfaced. He received more than $125,000 in payments from contractors in the form of appliances, cash, car rentals and donations to a local basketball team he was managing.

“Defendants, with their actions motivated by greed, betrayed not only their families and the community, but also a large constituency of law-abiding persons that belong to the political party the defendants worked for,” said US District Judge Jose Fuste after the jury convictions. “The public and private sectors in Puerto Rico are infected by corruption, to the point that the community wonders whether we have reached the point of no return.”

The two men and their lawyers – Howard Srebnick of Miami and Francisco Rebollo and Edgar Vega of Puerto Rico – tried all types of legal maneuvers to keep the defendants from going to trial. Even the federal judge who was first assigned the case and is known to be a local NPP supporter appeared to have sided with the defendants by trying to derail the criminal indictment. But the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston took the case away from him and gave it to Judge Fuste who immediately ordered Vazquez Botet and Morell Corrada to stand trial. After the convictions, Trial Attorney Mary Butler of the US Justice Department publicly "encouraged" the two men to cooperate in her ongoing investigation.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Spaniards give Greeks a tragedy

What more can be said about the Spanish team's upset against Greece on Sunday for the gold medal at the World Basketball Championship in Saitama, Japan? A stunning 70-47 win was dedicated to Memphis Grizzlies star Pau Gasol, who sprained his ankle during the final seconds in Spain's bout with Argentina on Friday. The Spaniards fought hard to show the world that their team could perform without Gasol, which many doubted.

King Juan Carlos and Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero are expected to greet the team upon their arrival. It was Spain's first gold medal in the World Basketball Championship.

Above in this AP photo, Spain's Carlos Jimenez, in red, goes after a rebound along with Greece's Antonis Fotsis, center, and Konstas Tsartsaris during Sunday's incredible match.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The night Luis Muñoz Marín fueled Richard Nixon’s thoughts

After a disastrous “goodwill tour” of Latin America in 1958, Richard Nixon, before returning to Washington, stopped in Puerto Rico – home turf for the badly beaten and emotionally shaken vice president who was attacked, kicked and pelted with eggs in Caracas and called “corrupt” during hostile demonstrations in Lima. Welcoming him with open arms was Washington-devotee Luis Muñoz Marín,the island’s first popularly elected governor, who invited him to spend the night.

Both hearty imbibers in their heyday, Muñoz Marín and Nixon stayed up chatting and drinking until the morning wee hours. In 1971, President Nixon in a phone conversation with then UN Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan described what happened. The following transcript is part of a collection of recorded phone call conversations during the Nixon White House years compiled by the National Security Archive at George Washington University. The purpose of the Oct. 7, 1971 phone call was for the president to discuss with the ambassador whether Africans have the capability of leading their nations.

Nixon: I'm not saying that Blacks cannot govern. I am saying they have a hell of a time.
Moynihan: Mm-hmm.
Nixon: Now that must demonstrate something. Now, having said that, let’s look at Latin America. Latin America has had 150 years of trying at it and they don’t have much going down there either. Mexico is a one party government; Colombia, they trade it off every two years; Venezuela is tip tee-toe, and the rest are dictatorships except for Allende, which is a communist dictatorship – elected, but communist. Now, let me come back to another point. I think you may have heard me tell of my conversation with Muñoz Marín who, incidentally, was capable of governing.
Moynihan: Yes.
Nixon: In ’58, after Lima and Caracas, I stopped there. And he and I talked all night… and he, drinking his scotch and all, and he really lived it up… [laughing] And I, trying to keep up with him – practically dead! But he made a very interesting point, very late – in the early morning hours. He said, look, he says, I shouldn’t say this, he said, “But Mr. Vice President, my people have many fine qualities, I mean, they’re courteous… they’re, they’re family people…in the arts… and you know, philosophy, et cetera.” But he said, “I will have to admit, my people” – speaking of Latins generally – “have never been very good at government.”
Moynihan: Yeah.
Nixon: Now let’s look at that. The Italians aren’t any good at government. The Spanish aren’t any good at government.
Moynihan: Yeah.
Nixon: The French have had a hell of a time, and they’re half Latin. And all of Latin America’s not any good at government. They either go to one extreme or the other. It’s either a family – well, three extremes: family oligarchy, or a dictatorship – a dictatorship on the right or one on the left. Very seldom in the center. Now having said all that, however, as you compare the Latin dictatorships, governments, etc. and their forms of government, they are – they at least do it their way. It is an orderly way which works relatively well. They have been able to run the damn place! Now what I am getting [at] is this: Asians are capable of governing themselves, one way or another. We and the Caucasians have learned it after slaughtering each other in religious wars and other wars for many, many years, including a couple in the last – this century. The Latins do it in a miserable way, but they do it. But the Africans just can’t run things. Now that’s a very, very fundamental point in the international scene. See my point?

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

When the US embassy predicted the failure of Pinochet’s ambitious Voice of Chile shortwave project

Just days after dictator Augusto Pinochet inaugurated the powerful Voice of Chile on January 15, 1974, a U.S. diplomat told his superiors in Washington that he had reservations about the effectiveness of the shortwave radio station and predicted that it would fail because it wouldn’t be able to attract enough listeners.

This revealing appraisal is contained in a recently declassified cable sent by an American Embassy official in Santiago and obtained by George Washington University’s National Security Archive. The diplomat, who signed the missive using only his last name Villarreal, described Pinochet’s plans for his station as “grandiose.” Just four months earlier, Pinochet, with the U.S. government’s backing, led a bloody coup that toppled Marxist President Salvador Allende.
“This is a major propaganda effort by the government of Chile,” Villarreal wrote Washington on January 17, 1974. “Junta seems determined, however, to fight critics abroad and attempt to correct what they see as a distorted image of Chile peddled by former Allende supporters and fellow-travelers.”

On the morning of September 11, 1973, Allende was cornered inside La Moneda Presidential Palace in downtown Santiago just less than two hours after broadcasting an emotional last-stand speech on Radio Cooperativa. In another part of the city, a faction of the Chilean army was confiscating new Soviet-made transmitters that had been supplied to the Communist-backed Radio Recabarren and Radio Magallanes, Villarreal’s cable explained. The powerful 70 kilowatt transmitters were then set up across the street from the Defense Ministry and put to the Junta’s use at Radio Nacional de Chile. During the inauguration ceremony, Pinochet said the station’s purpose was “to let world know of heroic Chilean struggle to save the country from the totalitarian claws of Soviet imperialists,” the diplomat summarized.

With domestic transmissions on 1140 kHz, Radio Nacional would begin broadcasting as the Voice of Chile in several languages including English on shortwave throughout the 1970s from Radio Cooperativa’s studios. Villarreal identified Col. Eduardo Sepulveda, “the Junta’s prime communications man” who would later become the Chilean consul in Miami, as head of the station’s board of directors. Station manager Gabor Torey and press officer Francisco Barahona were both hired from Radio Mineria by the Junta’s secretary general. “Although plans for Radio Nacional are grandiose, knowledgeable radio contacts doubt efficacy of international broadcasting effort pointing to high costs, limited listening audience and past failures to mount shortwave efforts from Chile,” Villarreal reported.

Villarreal’s observation was correct. By the mid 1980s, the Voice of Chile suspended its international broadcasts and in 1990 Pinochet was voted out of office in a referendum. The eight 100 kilowatt Harris shortwave transmitters that once belonged to the Voice of Chile were purchased in 1998 by Christian Vision, a religious broadcaster, for its Radio Voz Cristiana and are in use today.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Shortwave radio and Hollywood just don’t mix

Except for a brief mention here and there, shortwave themes seldom pop up on the silver screen. Last year’s acclaimed “Good Night, Good Luck” –- about an episode in the glorious life of journalist Edward R. Murrow, the CBS newsman who later became VOA director –- failed to mention his career as an international shortwave pioneer. “Pump Up the Volume” did have Christian Slater in 1990 as a teenage pirate broadcaster giving his schoolmates some sobering thoughts on life. But still, films about shortwave are rare if non-existent. So with a little help from IMDB, here is my list of movies I have compiled throughout the years in which shortwave –- or something alluding to it –- shows up on screen.

The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) – How can we forget the poignant scene of the Franks and the Van Dammes huddled around a shortwave receiver in their hiding place listening to the BBC announce the landing at Normandy? Or their faces of despair when they tune to Berlin radio and hear Hitler’s ranting and raging. But my favorite scene is when the viewer is treated to hearing the carillon in the nearby Westerkerk tower playing Merck toch hoe sterck, the same tune used today by Radio Netherlands. If you visit Amsterdam, you can still hear the 47 bells of the carillon, which was restored in 1959, playing Merck toch hoe sterck.

Johnny Shortwave (1996) -- Pirate broadcaster Johnny Shortwave (Emmanuel Mark) transmits his ideals for freedom and offers encouragement in a totalitarian fascist state depicted in this low budget sci-fi movie from Canada, which was sporadically shown in some US cities.

Overboard (1978) – This made for television movie starring Angie Dickinson (in her post-“Pepper” days) has an interesting opening scene. Most of the film takes place in the south Pacific on board a yacht where Dickinson and Cliff Robertson air out issues concerning their treacherous marriage. The first spoken words in this film come from a radio receiver on deck with an announcer in English identifying the station as Radio Tahiti!

Munich (2005) – Daniel Craig disagrees with a Palestinian terrorist staying inside a safe house in Cyprus over which station on a large multi-band portable they should tune. The terrorist wants to hear Arabic music from a distant station in his land while Craig wants more contemporary Israeli music. Although they cannot communicate in their respective languages, they settle on a rock and roll station.

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961) – Although no reference to shortwave is mentioned here, there is an interesting shot of a contemporary Grundig receiver sitting on a mantelpiece during a torrid scene between Warren Beatty and Vivian Leigh.

Intervista (1987) – Federico Fellini’s autobiographical movie has Marcello Mastroianni walking into the film studios of Cine Citta in Rome. For a brief moment, as if it were meant to be a subliminal message, you can hear RAI’s chirping bird interval signal played as he enters the gates.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Stamp investing scandal in Spain

Top executives of the collectibles trading dealers Afinsa and Forum Filatelico are in custody after a Spanish investigating judge determined that there is probable cause to charge them for defrauding an estimated 343,000 people in an alleged scheme involving postage stamps. Clients of the two companies were promised high interest returns in exchange for purchasing the stamps. Spanish authorities believe the conspiracy bilked these small-time investors of more than 5 billion euros.

The investigation got underway about a year ago after a complaint was filed with Spanish prosecutors. Authorities believe that the heads of Afinsa and Forum Filatelico laundered hundreds of thousands of their clients’ money. Last week, investigators said that both collectible trading dealers are on the verge of bankruptcy. Nevertheless, the directors lived in fabulous estates, bought purebred horses, traveled extensively, and owned homes in different countries. Even when police carried out their raids during a nationwide sweep, authorities reportedly uncovered 10 million euros in cash stashed in a concrete vault in one of the directors’ homes.

When the arrests were announced, clients stormed the offices of both trading dealers through Spain demanding their money but the police had closed the doors. Philately experts had warned that the stamps sold by Afinsa and Forum Filatelico were highly overpriced.

After Christie’s and Sotheby’s, Afinsa was the third largest trading collectibles dealers in the world. Spain’s guaranteed deposit insurance laws don’t cover investments made by these non-financial entities so clients of Afinsa and Forum Filatelico may have lost millions. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zaptero promised changes to the existing laws, and said that the government was studying ways how to help the investors get back their money.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Puerto Rico's mentally ill leaders

There is a sickness in Puerto Rico. Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila ordered a near shutdown of all government and public services because the executive and the legislature cannot get together to come up with a solution to cure an estimated $740 million budget shortfall.

More than 95,000 public workers are without jobs and probably won’t be able to receive a paycheck until the beginning of July, when the 2007 fiscal year begins. Students, with just two weeks to go from finishing their academic year, cannot go to school because teachers have been told to stay home. More precarious is the lack of public health services in this island of 3.9 million. Because many islanders do not have health insurance, they have to rely on the fledging public health system. And the crisis is affecting those with chronic diseases, such as AIDS/HIV patients who may not be able to get their much needed prescriptions filled on time.

This amazing, unprecedented chapter in Puerto Rico’s history occurred when Gov. Acevedo Vila challenged the opposition controlled legislature to introduce a 7 percent sales tax to alleviate the financial woes in the public coffers. The governor maintains that the sales tax would enable the government to seek loans from private banks to keep the public services rolling for the next two months. However, opposition lawmakers, controlled by the embittered former governor-turned-senator, Pedro Rossello, won’t budge. They claim that Acevedo Vila has done nothing to stop run away public spending that goes to paying government salaries and maintaining the enormous bureaucracy. Meanwhile, Rossello, who supports statehood, has been in Washington trying to knock out a deal about the island’s future political status. With his actions far off in left field, he appears to be telling his constituents that the fiscal problem isn’t his problem. If that is the case, then he should resign as senator.

This indeed is a sick situation because of the mentally diseased politicians on this island who insist on putting their egos before the needs of their people. There are too many good citizens living in this U.S. commonwealth who should not have to go through this. Puerto Ricans took to the streets of San Juan last Friday demanding an end to the impasse but their voices went unheard. If the enfeebled elected leaders – such as Acevedo Vila, Rossello and House Speaker Jose Aponte – cannot come to terms and set aside their insolences, then it is time for the federal court to step in and demand that peace and tranquility return to paradise.