Cuba: Vatican reaffirms ties

In Cuba, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone dedicated a memorial honoring Pope John Paul II who visited the island ten years ago. On Feb. 26, the Vatican Secretary of State became the first foreign leader to meet with Raul Castro since he ascended to Cuba’s presidency. The day before, Bertone was joined at a news conference by Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque. Telesur quoted Bertone as saying Washington’s policies “constitute oppression of the Cuban people and violation of their independence,” a message already communicated to Washington.

Cuba and the Vatican agree on UN reform, he declared, and also on solving environmental problems and recasting international relations to serve the poor.

United Nations: Food scarcity looms

World Food Program Director Josette Sheeran told the BBC last week that without increased monetary support, her agency will soon be rationing food aid.

As food prices have risen, she said, the agency’s budget needs have been rising by millions of dollars a week.

Among factors in overall price hikes of 40 percent last year: increased use of grain for bio-fuel production, rising fuel prices, and diminished production due to drought.

In interviews with several media outlets, Sheeran said poor people worldwide have cut back to one daily meal of basic, unvarying foods, and warned that price increases portend a grim future in countries so far untouched by scarcity. Egypt and Pakistan have introduced rationing; China and Russia, price controls; and Argentina and Vietnam, increased export taxes.

Iraq: Public health declines

February’s cholera outbreak — Iraq’s biggest “in recent memory” — testifies to markedly deteriorated public health since the U.S. military takeover in 2003. Now, 28 percent of Iraqi children are malnourished, up from 19 percent in 2003.

Almost 20 percent of the population requires food donations, 70 percent lack clean water and 90 percent of hospitals lack basic resources. Of Iraq’s 34,000 physicians in 2003, 12,000 have emigrated and hundreds have been murdered.

The UN’s IRIN news agency quoted a Health Ministry official: “We have no neurosurgeons in Baghdad” (population 5 million) and also it is still “dangerous for doctors and their families to step out of their houses.” Foreign aid agencies have mostly departed.

Vietnam: Agent Orange victims shortchanged

Vietnamese lawyers condemned a U.S. appeals court ruling announced Feb. 22 that manufacturers of Agent Orange, used by the U.S. military in Vietnam from 1961 to 1971, need not pay civilian victims compensatory and punitive damages.

Experts say 4.8 million Vietnamese were exposed, many of them developing cancers or birth defects. For the judges, dispersion of the dioxin containing defoliant was a matter of ambush prevention rather than “evil intent.” The Vietnamese Communist Party web site underscores contradictions between the court’s dismissal of the manufacturers’ responsibilities and Washington’s ongoing cooperation with Vietnam in evaluating effects of the disaster and response. A Supreme Court appeal is planned.

Colombia: FARC releases hostages

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) released four hostages to Venezuelan authorities for helicopter transport from southern Colombia to families waiting in Caracas. On Feb. 27 Gloria Polanco, Luis Eladio Pérez, Orlando Beltrán and Jorge Eduardo Géchem joined two hostages released in January in securing their freedom.

At a welcoming ceremony in Caracas, Beltrán expressed gratitude for the mediating efforts of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba.

In a statement on Caracol Radio, the FARC rejected further releases until safe negotiations are assured through demilitarization of Florida and Pradera municipalities. Venezuelan Foreign minister Nicolás Maduro told reporters that the release “opens doors toward the road to negotiations [and] a political solution” for the conflict in Colombia.

Nigeria: China pledges economic help

Nigerian President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, on a four-day state visit to China, called for strategic partnership with China in developing Nigeria’s power, energy and transportation sectors.

Speaking Feb. 28, Yar’Adua told President Hu Jintao that “we need massive investments to develop our untapped but vast gas reserves.” According to, he emphasized China’s need for energy security and Nigerian requirements for domestic gas to power industrial development.

The Nigerian president alluded to his country’s aspirations to join the world’s 20 most industrialized countries by 2020 and to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. President Jintao pledged Chinese support for Nigeria’s program of economic and social transformation.

World Notes are compiled by W.T. Whitney (