South Africa: Energy crisis looms

After a week of unprecedented power cuts, the South African government declared a “national electricity emergency.” The action follows rising demand attributed to industrial expansion and introduction of electricity into almost 3.5 million homes since 1994.

In a statement, President Thabo Mbeki admitted the government had been shortsighted in discouraging Eskom, the state-owned power company, from expanding its generating capacity.

Eskom, producer of 95 percent of South Africa’s electricity, has called for a 20 percent cut in consumption through conservation and imposition of quotas. The Financial Times predicts electricity prices will rise and expansion projects planned for the mining sector will be delayed.

Australia: PM hears about Cuban medical program

Newly-elected Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd heard late last month from 35 human rights activists, political leaders and academicians complaining that Australian government scholarships to East Timorese students declined from 20 in 2002 to eight last year.

Their letter, posted on, said Cuban medical scholarships rose from 50 to 1,000 over 2003-2006.

Now 800 East Timorese students study medicine in Cuba as part of the “biggest aid program in medical training, per capita, in the world.” The letter writers called upon a “rich and powerful nation” to match Cuban generosity and measure success through “human capacity building, not … a dollar sum.”

Belgium: Rethinking biofuels

The European Union is rethinking its goal for 10 percent biofuels in transport by 2020. A Guardian report Jan. 15 noted EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas’ caution that food shortages and rainforest destruction could result from diverting soy, corn, and sugar alcohol to fuel production. Dimas was responding to a report in the journal Science and a warning from the Royal Society.

The group Friends of the Earth noted an internal European Commission document predicting rises in greenhouse gases from converting land to biofuel production. “Administrations must reconsider their priorities,” spokesperson David Sanchez declared.

Vietnam: Workers strike

Thousands of Vietnamese workers were on strike in late January against a sewing machine manufacturer, an electronics parts maker, and a shoemaking factory. Some are demanding 20 percent wage increases, the Chao-Vietnam web site said.

Shoe workers charged that monthly pay averaging $52 dollars a month is too low, especially with 10 percent inflation last year including rising food prices.

Vietnam’s national labor confederation reported on 541 strikes last year involving 350,000 workers, most initiated against foreign-owned enterprises.

In 2007, Vietnam experienced 8.5 percent economic growth and record foreign investments totaling $20.3 billion, said.

Iraq: Heroin production rises

Many Iraqi farmers, unable to compete with cheap fruit and vegetable imports and burdened by rising fuel and fertilizer costs, have turned to growing poppies to produce heroin, the U.K. Independent reports.

The farmers have obtained financing from smugglers who transit Afghan heroin across Iran to Basra in southern Iraq. In 2007, poppy growing spread from Diwaniyah in southern Iraq to Diyala province in the north.

Observers predict control of Iraqi heroin production by criminalized militias and al-Qaida will complicate matters for U.S. occupation forces.

Rwanda: Military aid continues

The U.S. government says that this year, as last, Rwanda will receive $7 million in military aid. The Jan. 24 Kampala Weekly Observer said the purpose is to equip and train Rwandan troops deployed to Darfur in Sudan. There they are supervised by “U.S. military experts.” Rwandan army officers also receive training in the United States.

Washington claims U.S. aid to Rwanda — $167 million last year — goes toward humanitarian projects. A new $80 million U.S. embassy will open in Kigali in February.

Analysts tie U.S. interest in Rwanda to plans for locating its African Defense Command there.

Canada: Puts U.S. on torture list

Though Canada’s conservative government claims it accepts U.S. assurances that torture is off limits, its Department of Foreign Affairs seemingly regards imprisonment by U.S. jailers as dangerous.

In an internal memo circulated among diplomats for training purposes, the U.S. appears with Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and China as countries practicing torture and posing special risk for detained Canadian citizens.

The Jan. 18 report by suggests Canada alerted its diplomats because of U.S. abuse in 2002 of Canadian citizen Maher Arar, whom U.S. authorities sent to Syria where he was tortured.

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