Greece: Massive strike for pensions

Thousands of strikers filled streets in cities throughout Greece — 80,000 in Athens alone — protesting government plans to alter Greece’s social security system. Labor unions joining the protest on Dec. 12 expressed fears that the plan to combine 170 separate retirement programs would result in pension cutbacks and an increase in the retirement age.

The one-day walkout brought the nation’s transport, hospital and public service sectors to a halt. According to Al Jazeera, the strike turnout was twice that of the last previous general strike to protect pensions in 2001.

Before his election as prime minister in September, Costas Karamanlis, leader of the center-right New Democracy Party, had promised to leave pensions alone.

Greece’s social security system, along with that of other EU countries, is being forced to accommodate an increasingly elderly population.

Cuba: Legal protection, support for gays

Interviewed by Inter Press Service this month, Mariela Castro, director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education, outlined proposed legal reforms to be considered next year by the National Assembly aimed at protecting the rights of gay, lesbian, transsexual and transgender persons.

Her group advocates making specialized health care and surgical services available to transsexual people, adding employment protections and other reforms into Cuba’s family code, and devising a statute liberalizing gender identity.

Speaking to the newspaper Clarin in Buenos Aires last month, she said that armed forces head and acting President Raul Castro, who is her father, supports gays serving openly in the army. “I think,” he reportedly told her, “that to the extent the population changes, the army will change, because the population is in the army also.”

Prejudice regarding sexual orientation is giving way, Mariela Castro reports, both within the educational sector and the Cuban Communist Party.

Bahrain: Iran figures into Iraq solutions

At a three-day conference of Gulf nations in Bahrain, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, while lambasting Iran’s supposed nuclear ambitions, was seen as signaling a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations that may affect the U.S. impasse in Iraq.

Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi told reporters that Iran “holds a key for stability and peace for the whole region.” Speaking on Dec. 9, Iraqi security adviser Mouaffak al-Rubaie emphasized that his government, while tied to the United States, desires a “regional security … NATO-style pact, with a set agenda: counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, counter-religious extremism and counter-sectarianism.”

“You cannot stabilize Iraq and destabilize Iran,” he said.

Observers cited in the French news agency AFP report see U.S. cooperation with Iran as conducive to reduced sectarian strife in Iraq. On Dec. 18, U.S. and Iranian negotiators, joined by Iraqi officials, met in Damascus for the fourth time this year.

Nepal: On track toward a constituent assembly

A seven-party agreement to delay elections for a constituent assembly until April 12 has avoided a political crisis. Changes were made to Nepal’s interim constitution. Elections to the assembly were to have taken place by Dec. 15, the day the new agreement was signed.

Crucial to the adoption of the revised charter were explicit references to a republic, rather than a monarchy, and a spelling out of plans for expanded use of proportional representation in the upcoming elections.

In September, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) had left the government over these points, causing postponement of elections set for Nov. 22.

China’s People’s Daily newspaper reported that last week the Maoists threatened street demonstrations to push through their demands. Apparently the party’s call for high-level cabinet posts — it holds 83 seats in Nepal’s 329-seat interim Parliament — and the incorporation of former Maoist insurgents into the national army did not figure into the agreement.

World Notes are compiled by W.T. Whitney Jr. (atwhit