Cuba: Trade pacts signed with Alabama

The State of Alabama signed three trade agreements in Havana last week. On Aug. 21, Ron Sparks, the state’s commissioner for agriculture and industry, and Pedro Alvarez, president of the Cuban enterprise ALIMPORT, signed documents committing Cuba to buy $10 million worth of agricultural goods, including poultry and dairy products. Cuba had previously imported only about $500,000 worth of foodstuffs from Alabama.

Sparks said the pacts could mark the start of a long-term relationship, and promised to work for an end to the sanctions currently obstructing trade and understanding between the two nations. The U.S. delegation presented its Cuban counterparts with a statement affirming that the visit was useful in identifying a wide range of trade opportunities in both directions.

Iraq: Int’l union federation condemns attack on UN

In a message of condolences to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) expressed its horror at last week’s vicious attack on the UN’s Baghdad offices, which cost the lives of over 20 people including UN Special Representative Sergio Vieira de Mello. “This attack was aimed directly at the United Nations and its staff, whose role in reconstruction and democracy-building in Iraq is indispensable,” said ICFTU General Secretary Guy Ryder. He added, “The international trade union movement unreservedly condemns this appalling atrocity and calls for those responsible to be brought to justice as quickly as possible.” The ICFTU commended the work of de Mello and his UN colleagues, and stressed the need for maintaining and extending the UN’s involvement in Iraq.

Liberia: UN says humanitarian crisis continues

Amid hopes that Liberia’s new peace process heralds the end of the bitter 14 year war, the United Nations warned last week that the true extent of the country’s humanitarian crisis is only starting to emerge as aid agencies start traveling outside the devastated capital, Monrovia.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said Monrovia’s streets are crowded with people returning to their hometowns from refugee camps. Thousands more still live in churches, schools, sports facilities and other emergency camps. The water and electricity systems are still not functioning. Relief agencies continue to provide small amounts of food and water to those in the camps. Though malnutrition and malaria are among key health concerns, WHO said the cholera outbreak is the most pressing concern.

Meanwhile, the UN is organizing joint assessment missions into other parts of the country.

Canada: Union says privatized power caused blackout

In an Aug. 22 statement, the Canadian Union of Public Employees blamed privatization and deregulation for the huge power blackout that affected the U.S. and Canada earlier this month.

“Failed market schemes and too much entanglement with the U.S. electric system have brought Ontarians the result long predicted by CUPE and other opponents of for-profit, deregulated power – inadequate electricity supply, widespread power blackouts, danger to health and property, and serious economic problems,” the union said.

CUPE called for rebuilding the public power system “that once was Ontario’s pride,” and declared that “It’s time to end ideological experiments with a resource and service as vital as electricity.” The union further warned against plans for a new electricity “common market” in the northeastern U.S. and Ontario.

Czech Republic: New political crisis looms

The attempt by the Social Democrat-led “left-right” coalition government with the center-right Christian Democrats and right-wing Freedom Union-Democratic Union (FU-DU) to reform public finances has already led to trade union protests and one Social Democrat member of the Chamber of Deputies quitting the party’s parliamentary group. This means the government coalition has effectively lost its one-vote majority in the legislature. It also renders hollow the government’s success in pushing through the first reading of a package of 11 bills on July 24. The bills all aim to slash public spending, despite record unemployment expected to pass 10 percent by year’s end.

A late June poll showed embarrassingly low support for all three coalition parties, with the Social Democrats at 15.5 percent, the Christian Democrats at 8.5 percent, and the FU-DU at 3 percent. By contrast, the right-wing opposition Civic Democrats held first place with 28.5 percent, and the Communist Party polled 11.5 percent.

When the 11 bills come up for second reading next month, the Czech Communists are urging the Social Democrats to uphold the progressive program on which they won the 2002 parliamentary elections, and not give further ground to the right wing.

International Notes are compiled by Marilyn Bechtel ( Ken Biggs contributed to this week’s notes.