Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Drug use decriminalised deemed a success

It is perhaps churlish to bring up the subject in this season of raised glasses and toasts to mutual health and happiness, but Portugal is currently ranked eighth in the world in per capita alcohol consumption. This is placing a heavy economic burden on the country's health service.
Let's side-step this observation by the World Health Organisation for the time being and look on the bright side. As we approach a new year, it is interesting to be reminded of Portugal's winning ways in the field of drug abuse.
A report on the subject from the Associated Press news agency suggests that the United States, Australia, Peru, Norway and Denmark are now showing great interest in the success of Portugal's drug law reform.
In the year 2000, drug abuse was recognised in Portugal as a public health problem rather than a criminal one. The following year, parliament took the courageous step of decriminalising all illegal drugs, everything from hashish to heroin.
There are limits to this liberal programme. Possession of such drugs remains illegal, but instead of being bundled off to criminal courts and prisons, re-offending consumers are obliged to attend counselling sessions and, if necessary, undergo appropriate treatment.
Possession of up to 10 daily doses for personal use is regarded as an offence but not a criminal one. A dose is defined for each drug by weight. Possession of more than 10 doses is considered dealing, which is still very much a crime.
Anyone caught with even a small amount of illegal drugs is automatically required to face a so-called Commission of Dissuasion. They may be let off with a warning but repeated offences may result in fines, forfeiting driving licences, police station check-ins or mandatory treatment in special centres.
The panel of experts who originally recommended the new approach back in 2000 emphasised that there was no point in just changing the law in the hope that things would slowly change; it had to be a pro-active, integrated approach.
Portugal was the first country in Europe to decriminalise drugs. The reform meant that Portugal had a more liberal approach than the Netherlands. Fears were expressed that it might backfire and produce an upsurge in drug abuse. That hasn't happened. Figures for 2001 to 2008 show the number of regular users remained much the same at less than three percent of the population for marijuana, and less than 0.3 percent for heroin and cocaine.
The number of people receiving treatment in this period rose by 20 percent. Drug-related court cases dropped by 66 percent. Drug-related HIV cases due to sharing dirty needles plummeted by 75 percent. In 2002, 49 percent of people with AIDS were addicts; by 2008 that was down to 28 percent.
There were concerns, too, both internally and in other countries, especially nearby Spain and France, that Portugal would become a tourist haven for junkies. That hasn't happened either. Apparently there has been no noticeable increase in the number of foreign visitors caught with drugs.
Official figures are not yet available, but changing the system to place the focus on health rather than crime may not have cost the country anything in monetary terms. Expenditure has been transferred from the justice department to the health services.
The system is far from perfect, however. Cannabis use is still commonplace among teenagers and young adults - and spliffs nowadays are far stronger than the joints of yesteryear. Critics say decriminalisation is too soft, that abusers take advantage of the system.
But Portugal's innovative approach seems to be catching on internationally. “Now, the United States, which has waged a 40-year, $1 trillion war on drugs, is looking for answers in tiny Portugal, which is reaping the benefits of what once looked like a dangerous gamble,” according to an Associated Press report from Lisbon at the weekend. The report, by Barry Hatton and Martha Mendoza, was part of an AP occasional series examining the US's 'War on Drugs'.
“The Obama administration firmly opposes the legalization of drugs, saying it would increase access and promote acceptance, according to drug czar Gil Kerlikowske. The U.S. is spending $74 billion this year on criminal and court proceedings for drug offenders, compared with $3.6 billion for treatment.
“But even the U.S. has taken small steps toward Portugal's approach of more intervention and treatment programs, and Kerlikowske has called for an end to the 'War on Drugs' rhetoric,” said the report.
Kerlikowske, who visited Portugal in September to learn about the drug reforms here, was quoted as saying that “calling it a war really limits your resources. Looking at this as both a public safety problem and a public health problem seems to make a lot more sense.”
The drug problem in America is massive. It has the highest rates of marijuana and cocaine use in the world. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana. Officials there know there is no guarantee that Portugal's approach would work in the U.S., which has a population 311 million compared to Portugal's 10.6 million.
But Portugal seems to have started a trend that other countries are cautiously following. An increasing number of American cities are now offering non-violent drug offenders a chance to choose treatment over jail, and the approach appears to be working.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Maddie sightings and media madness

Kate and Gerry McCann last weekend complained of “the injustices that we continue to be subjected to.” Their complaint, widely reported in the press in Britain and Portugal, referred to the Wikileaks disclosure about them that had “led to the repetition of many unfounded allegations and smears both in the UK and in Portugal in particular.”

A modest group of people in Portugal have also been subjected to injustices, unfounded allegations and smears in connection with the Madeleine McCann investigation, but they have had no outlet for complaint - and their side of the story has gone totally unreported until now.

Ivone Albino, a Portuguese woman who makes her living as a part-time house cleaner,was shattered to learn in April this year that newspapers in the UK were running sensational stories directly linking her with the alleged abduction of Madeleine McCann three years earlier. She was the latest victim in a tidal wave of misinformation and false “sightings” that began soon after Madeleine's disappearance from a holiday apartment in the village of Praia da Luz in May 2007.

Mrs Albino's name was buried in a “secret” 2,000-page dossier containing information about Madeleine “sightings” that had been brought to the attention of the Portuguese criminal investigation police, the Polícia Judiciária. The existence of the dossier emerged after it was referred to by a police witness during a Lisbon court hearing considering the ban on a book by the former lead detective in the Madeleine case, Gonçalo Amaral.

When the judge in the hearing ordered the dossier's release, it was eagerly seized upon by Kate and Gerry McCann, their advisers and the British press. It was brandished as yet more evidence of the “incompetence” of the Portuguese police in their search for Madeleine.

By then, Britain's mainstream media seemed to have accepted the McCanns' insistence from the very start that Madeleine had been abducted and that she might still be alive. They ignored or viewed with hostility the alternative theory, the one most prevalent in Portugal and the main thrust of Gonçalo Amaral's book, namely that Madeleine had died in the apartment and that her parents were somehow involved.

Referring to the Polícía Judicária dossier and in line with the abduction theory, British (though not Portuguese) newspapers named Mrs Albino as one of two “gypsy women” seen by a British holidaymaker dragging Madeleine along an Algarve street in September 2008. The little girl was wearing a “black wig” but the holidaymaker was “100 per cent sure” it was Madeleine. The same reports revealed that a rag doll had been found at a house repeatedly visited by Mrs Albino. According to the reports, Madeleine “may have been held prisoner” at the house.

A source close to Madeleine's parents was quoted as saying: “This is one of the strongest leads there's been in the hunt for Maddie.”

It wasn't. The “lead” merely gave rise to yet more sensational nonsense in the British press, causing deep humiliation and distress to Mrs Albino and two other entirely innocent people with no connection whatsoever to the disappearance of Madeleine McCann.

This whole silly episode began in September 2008, eighteen months after Madeleine's disappearance. A 56-year-old retired home care worker from Widnes in Cheshire, England, phoned the 'Find Madeleine' hotline that had been set up by the parents of the missing child. She reported seeing two women with Madeleine in the beach-side village of Carvoeiro, 30 miles east of Praia da Luz.

This was a young girl, in the middle of the two women and holding the hand of each. Her eyes were wide open and I was attracted to the large irises,” said the Carvoeiro witness.

The child was wearing what was clearly a black wig. It was short, cut in a bob style and very thick. The wig was shiny and unnatural looking and out of keeping with her very pale complexion and fair eyebrows. I would say she was about 3ft 1in tall and about five years of age. She was very thin and I would describe her as malnourished. Her cheeks looked gaunt. I think she had a bump on her nose. I am convinced the little girl I saw that morning was Madeleine. I have been asked how certain I am. I will say I am 100 per cent sure.”

The Carvoeiro witness described the first of the two women as “obese, size 30, in her mid to late 40s, with “dirty and unkempt” red hair. The other woman was around 60, with unwashed brown hair, and even fatter. The witness claimed that when the women realised she was looking at them, they hid the little girl's face. She recognised Mrs Albino as the red-haired woman with Madeleine in Carvoeiro. The second woman was never identified.

Another unrelated British witness, from Salisbury in Wiltshire, said she saw a woman resembling Mrs Albino outside the McCanns´ apartment the day Madeleine disappeared. In both cases the identifications were made from photographs. A much earlier report of a woman passing a child wrapped in a blanket over a fence to a man next to two parked vehicles in Silves two days after Madeleine's disappearance added spice to these later reports.

The “sightings” prompted private investigators employed by Madeleine's parents to zero in on Mrs Albino and follow her to “an isolated farmhouse” in an orange grove near the town of Silves where she lives. In a surveillance operation, private investigators saw her making several visits to the house and meeting there with a couple called Maria Alice Silveira and Jorge Martins. The couple's movements were deemed to be “suspicious” by a top detective employed by the McCanns.

Suspicions heightened when investigators found and photographed a child's rag doll on the seat of a Citroen Berlingo van parked at the house. “Was this the rag doll given to Maddie by her captors?” wondered The Sun in a headline spread over half a page. The question was promptly answered in the first sentence in the story that followed: “This little girl's rag doll could have been given to Madeleine McCann by those who snatched her, investigators believe.”

The investigators, posing as potential buyers of the property, came across a discarded child's drawing. And they spotted Jorge Martins buying clothes suitable for a child of five, the age Madeleine would then have been. They thought all this strange as neither Mrs Albino, Ms Silveira nor Mr Martins had young children of their own. “But surveillance was eventually wound down and the child was never found.”

These observations were passed to Portugal's criminal investigation police, even though the official Portuguese police inquiry into Madeleine's disappearance had been closed. By then the police had already considered hundreds of bogus or mistaken “sightings” in about 50 countries ranging from neighbouring Spain to Australia and New Zealand.

On learning of the Silves surveillance “evidence” through the newly released dossier, two of Britain's biggest-selling and most powerful newspapers carried prominent reports complete with separate photographs of Mrs Albino, Ms Silveira and Mr Martins, Madeleine, and the rag doll. They quoted a source close to Kate and Gerry McCann as saying. “There was credible evidence at the orchard that needed proper investigation by the Portuguese – that never happened.”

In fact, the Portuguese police did investigate the “sightings” and the “suspicious behaviour”. They questioned all three people and visited the farmhouse. They soon concluded there was no reason to take their inquiries further. Any reasonably intelligent Portuguese-speaking person who had spent a few minutes talking with Mrs Albino about the matter would have come to the same conclusion. This did not stop the British press from rushing into print with a load of baloney.

The truth that didn't make it into the papers is that Mrs Albino regularly drives through Carvoeiro on the way from Silves to a house she services. She never walks in the village with or without children in tow. “I have never held the hand of any child in Carvoeiro, let alone one with a black wig or resembling Madeleine McCann,” she told me. No villager can be found in Carvoeiro who would dispute that. As for Praia da Luz, Mrs Albino said she had never been there. She admitted somewhat sheepishly that she had only a vague idea of where Praia da Luz was located.

Overweight, yes, but no one who had known Mrs Albino over many years could recall her hair ever being dirty, unkempt or red. Indeed she did visit a somewhat neglected house in an orange orchard. It is on the outskirts of Silves' urban area, not “remote” as the newspapers made out. She visits it daily to feed the property's only occupants: her chickens, rabbits and a large guard dog.

The property had long been owned by the family of Mrs Albino's cousin, Maria Alice Silveira, who lives elsewhere in Silves. She used to own a dry-cleaning shop in the neighbouring town of Lagoa. Her partner, Jorge, whom she has since married, is a primary school teacher. They drive over to the house in their Citroen Berlingo van from time to time to tend the orchard and collect fruit.

Mr Martins said he found the doll in a roadway, though it was such a minor event that he could not remember exactly where or when. The doll was in good condition so, without much thought he picked it and put it in the van. He agreed that there had been a discarded child's drawing at the house and, yes, he had bought clothes for a young child. Maria Alice had a grandchild of about Madeleine's age.

Although they did not read English, Jorge, Maria Alice and Ivone felt shocked and humiliated when told of the reports and shown their photographs in national British newspapers. Their shock soon turned to anger and anxiety about possible repercussions.

With the start of another summer holiday season in the Algarve, Ivone was concerned that British parents with young families staying in the holiday villas she cleans might view her with suspicion, jeopardising her job.

Maria Alice said she had lost some British customers at her dry-cleaning business because of the press pointing the finger unjustly. Jorge remained deeply disturbed by what he called “the stupidity” of the British reports that falsely insinuated wrong-doing.

All three considered suing to clear their names. But they soon came to realise they did not have either the capital or the connections to take the sort of legal action that resulted in the British press paying out £500,000 in damages to the McCanns, £550,000 to Robert Murat and £375,000 to the so-called Tapas 7. Actually, this humble group didn't want compensation money so much as an apology.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Portugal's hopes for a prosperous new year

The most promising news of the year has been China's pledge to help Portugal find its way out of the crisis that is threatening to wreck the country's economy.

China's President Hu Jintao announced the idea while on a state visit to Lisbon last month. Portugal's Finance Minister had it set in stone during his visit to Beijing last week.

"We made a great leap forward in strengthening our ties at all levels - in trade and investment as well as in the area of financing," said Teixeiro dos Santos, borrowing Chairman Mao Tse-tung's famous slogan during the late 1950s campaign to transform China's agrarian economy.

Teixeiro dos Santos' latest visit to Beijing was his second in three months and came a week after a trip to Brazil. Crucially - and in contrast to Portugal - both China and Brazil are recording strong growth.

So despite the prophets of doom who insist a bailout is inevitable, Portugal may have a card or two up its sleeve.

Bearing in mind that a Financial Times survey earlier this month rated Teixeiro dos Santos as Europe's second worst Finance Minister, how does his recent performance compare with other recent decisions concerning Europe and the wider world?

As we enter the season of merriment with its tidings of comfort and joy, a new bambino of sorts has been born, not in Bethlehem, but in Brussels. Begotten by the Lisbon Treaty, it has been christened the European External Action Service, EEAS for short.

Basically, EEAS is an EU foreign office representing all 27 member states. It was formally launched at the Europe Commission's headquarters in Brussels on 1st December, the first anniversary of the Lisbon Treaty. Alas, the champagne celebrations were somewhat muted because of cash problems. In its early infancy, EEAS has been stunted by an unholy parental row over the EU's budget for next year. Hopefully the budget will be approved before Christmas Day.

When the European Council appointed Catherine Ashton to the lofty position of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy it declared that she would be “assisted” by EEAS. She will have a staff of no less than 5,500, mostly absorbed from existing EU institutions. It will be “a diplomatic corps to rival any in the world,” as one observer put it.

Already, EEAS is reckoned to be €45 million over budget for next year. Its budget is expected to be three times that of the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office and may reach €9.5 billion by 2013.

Catherine Ashton, otherwise known as Baroness Ashton of Upholland, a labour peer, will receive a salary of €265,470 plus various EU allowances, making her the highest paid female politician in the world. Not bad for a Lancashire lass hardly anyone had ever heard of and who has never been elected to anything.

Fifty of the Baroness' assistants will earn more than Britain's Prime Minister. Other expenses include tight security arrangements for hundreds of new offices in Brussels and the purchase of 150 new bullet-proof limousines. Opponents say EEAS will be yet another layer of EU bureaucracy, that it will compete with existing national diplomatic services and be a waste of money.

But let's look on the sunny side. Never mind the pay cuts and tax hikes ordinary folk in this country will have to suffer as from 1st January 2011. With the help of China, and maybe even EEAS as well, Portugal can look forward to a prosperous new year – though it may be some time yet before we know which year that might be.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

WikiLeaks' cables on McCanns

Yesterday's disclosure that British police helped the Portuguese police “develop the evidence” against Madeleine McCann's parents at the time they were made formal suspects, arguidos, in 2007 comes as no great surprise, but it raises new concerns about the workings of WikiLeaks.

The disclosure was contained in a diplomatic cable marked “confidential” sent by the US Ambassador to Lisbon, Al Hoffman, two weeks after the Portuguese police named the McCanns as formal suspects. WikiLeaks made the cable available to the Guardian and other newspapers.

In the final analysis, the leaked cable adds little to the gargantuan fund of factual information, speculation, fantasies and hogwash that have piled up since Madeleine went missing on 7 May 2007. Even so, it sheds a touch of insight into shared police findings.

In a cable dated 21 September 2007, Ambassador Hoffman said he had spoken about the McCann case during a meeting with his British counterpart, Alex Ellis. Hoffman wrote: “Madeleine McCann's disappearance in the south of Portugal in May 2007 has generated international media attention with controversy surrounding the Portuguese-led police investigation and the actions of Madeleine's parents

"Without delving into the details of the case, Ellis admitted that the British police had developed the current evidence against the McCann parents, and he stressed that authorities from both countries were working co-operatively."

In one of two cables mentioning the McCanns, Ambassador Hoffman quoted Ambassador Ellis as saying "that the media frenzy was to be expected and was acceptable as long as government officials keep their comments behind closed doors"

The cables did not specify what evidence British police had gathered, or whether UK investigators were involved in the decision to name the McCanns as formal suspects. At the time, it was the Portuguese police who took all the stick in the British press for making the McCanns arguidos.

The Guardian reported yesterday: “The comments attributed to the ambassador appear to contradict the widespread perception at the time that Portuguese investigators were the driving force behind the treatment of the McCanns as suspects in the case.”

Said the Daily Mail: “The comments suggest British police had a far greater role in the investigation of the McCanns than has previously been thought.”

In the past, British and Portuguese newspapers have widely reported that the British authorities had substantial involvement in the investigation. For example, a British sniffer dog was said to have picked up the scent of a dead body in the Praia da Luz apartment used by the holidaying McCann family. The Forensic Science Service in the UK analysed material sent to Britain by Portuguese police but British scientists warned that DNA tests on a sample from a hire car used by the McCanns were inconclusive.

Responding yesterday to the latest leak, a spokesman for the McCanns brushed it off as “an entirely historic note”. He said that Kate and Gerry had their arguido status lifted “with the Portuguese authorities making it perfectly clear that there was absolutely no evidence to implicate them in Madeleine's disappearance.”

The couple's lawyer in Portugal, Rogério Alves, said nothing new had emerged to justify re-opening the investigation.

An official response yesterday from the British Embassy did not mention the McCanns. The Embassy statement said: “We condemn any unauthorised release of classified information, just as we condemn leaks of classified material in the UK. They can damage national security, are not in the national interest and may put lives at risk. We have a very strong relationship with the US Government. That will continue.”

Almost everyone will agree with a remark by Portugal's President Aníbal Cavaco Silva. “There is one thing that surprises me,” he said. “How can a country like the United States have a security system that is ultimately so fragile that it allows confidential and secret telegrams from ambassadors in all parts of the world to become accessible in this way? That for me is the big surprise.”

Meanwhile, what is taxing many minds is not the mass of diverse diplomatic material so far revealed by WikiLeaks, but WikiLeaks itself and how far this new form of journalism is prepared to go. Disclosures about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and remarks made by and about various world leaders are one thing, but here was WikiLeaks revealing information about a private conversation about a confidential police investigation into a highly sensitive case about a missing child.

Is this sort of thing right or wrong? Is it morally good or bad?

Can we expect WikiLeaks, or their imitator successors, to move from archived diplomatic cables to current criminal dossiers, personal health reports or other intimate records about ordinary citizens? Where will it end? Will anything at all remain off-limits in future?

The Institute for Global Ethics, an independent organisation with offices in the US, Canada and the UK, contends in an article just published that by pitting truth against honesty, WikiLeaks yanks us between two of the most powerful moral propositions within any democracy.

“On one hand stands our devotion to transparency and the free flow of truth; on the other lies our pledge of allegiance to issues of privacy and confidentiality. Taken to extremes, both propositions can run us off the rails.”

Tyrants and anarchists thrive in extreme situations but so far we’re not operating at extremes, writes Dr Rushworth Kidder, founder of the Institute. “WikiLeaks isn’t creating wholesale anarchy, and Western democracies aren’t being run by tyrants. In fact, we’re still in the moral middle range, where a genuine ethical case can be made for both transparency and secrecy.”

But WikiLeaks raises other “right-versus-right” dilemmas such as individuals versus community, short term versus long term and justice versus mercy, says Dr Kidder.

“Which of these moral arguments should prevail? Which is right? Searching for answers, we trip over two competing trends. One reminds us that public distrust in government is at historically high levels. That’s fertile ground for WikiLeaks' seeds to take root. The other reminds us that our most effective weapon against terrorism (which is also on the rise) is the clandestine gathering and analysis of intelligence. That’s ample reason for public revulsion against WikiLeaks.”

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sue Ellen Allen's story of prison, power and pain

Eight years ago this week, former Algarve resident Sue Ellen Allen was sentenced in Phoenix, Arizona, to a lengthy term of imprisonment that turned out to be both horrific and hugely uplifting. She told me yesterday: “I have so much to celebrate this year. It is a miracle I am alive and I live in constant gratitude.”

In 1994, Sue Ellen and her husband, David Grammer, were indicted by a grand jury and charged with defrauding US investors of around 1.1 million dollars.  After pleading not guilty but believing they had little chance of acquittal, they absconded. The following year they were tried in absentia.  

The couple lived as fugitives under false names in the Silves area of the Algarve until the summer of 2002. Former friends alleged the Grammers had defrauded them of investments and threatened to turn them in to the authorities. Sue Ellen, who was suffering from cancer, decided the game was up. She called the US Embassy in Lisbon.

“With only two more chemo sessions to go, our cozy world, our three dogs and four cats, vegetable garden, fresh food and pillow-filled world collapses,” she recalls in her recently published memoir, which contains a lot of fascinating detail.

“Yes, we are living in Portugal illegally. Yes, we are blackmailed with violence and exposure unless we pay a very large sum of money that we do not have.

“I suppose we could have fled, but we agree it is time to go back. I take a deep breath and pick up the phone to call the American Embassy in Lisbon. 'Hello, my name is Sue Ellen Allen and I’m wanted in the state of Arizona for business fraud.'

“There is a very long silence. Finally, the person on the other end asks for my information. 'I’ll have to get back to you.' Six phone calls and three days later, on Friday, the FBI calls from Madrid and we agree to meet them in Lisbon on Monday afternoon at two o’clock at the American Embassy.”

Sue Ellen and David thought they would be taken into custody and spend the night at the Embassy, but that didn't happen. The FBI agents who had flown in from Madrid said they had no jurisdiction in Portugal and so the fugitives could spend the night where they pleased. The flight left at eight the next morning and it was up to them to be there or not. They stayed in a Movenpick Hotel, split a BLT sandwich and each had a rum and coke.

“How naïve we are,” continues Sue Ellen in her memoir. “We cannot begin to conceive what is in store for us. With cancer, life is frightening, but the penal system is a spiral into hell.

“At the Embassy in Lisbon we are treated humanely; in New Jersey, things are still civilized. In Arizona, however, the good manners stop. The sheriff there prides himself on running the toughest jails in America. It is designed to strip you of your dignity, self-esteem, and sanity. Into this I walk with balding head, collapsed veins, and trembling heart.”

Sue Ellen and David were each sentenced to 10 years in jail. Sue Ellen served six years and nine months. David served seven years and four months. Both were released on parole. In her memoir, Sue Ellen describes her period in prison as “an unbelievable journey”.

The memoir is entitled The Slumber Party from Hell. “It wasn’t all hell,” she admits. “It was never heaven, but there are memories I would not trade, memories that will guide and define the next part of my life.”

The death of her cellmate, Gina Panetta, had a particularly profound affect. “Gina’s death started this memoir and Gina’s death started the next part of my life. She gave me my passion and my purpose,” writes Sue Ellen.

Together with her cellmate's parents she founded an organisation called GINA's Team. The organisation actively promotes education and self-sufficiency for incarcerated women and men at no cost to the prisons in the US.

“We bring volunteer community leaders, speakers and educators into prisons to teach life skills subjects. Our volunteer programs provide inmates with much-needed tools for re-entry, provide community members as role models and allow volunteers to see inmates as human beings.”

While the death of her cellmate gave inspiration, there were times in prison when Sue Ellen was so depressed that she contemplated suicide. Her life was in danger anyway because of cancer. But she emerged from behind bars in March this year in an extraordinary resolute and optimistic frame of mind.

Last weekend she wrote in a blog: “In September, 2002, I had a mastectomy. If you’ve read my book, you know it was a horrific experience that I equate to being alone in the deepest, darkest hole. On November 23, 2010, I had a second, preventative mastectomy and I equate this experience to being in a sun-filled meadow of flowers and sweet breezes, with family and friends surrounding me.

“The first surgery was performed while I was an inmate in our local jail. The second was performed at the Virginia Piper Centre in Scottsdale, Arizona. I have come full circle. It’s only been two weeks and I admit I don’t feel fantastic, but I know it is a miracle that I am alive. There were so many things the jail denied for my healing and comfort. This time, I was stunned with the attention and details to make sure I was cared for in every way so the healing would begin immediately.”

Sue Ellen, now 65, describes her experiences since leaving the Algarve as a story about turning pain into power. “I believe we must take the pain, the grief, the fear and the anger from our journeys and turn it into power. Turn the pain into power, not power for ourselves - power to help others who are lost or hopeless or terrified or angry, power to comfort and love.”

Friday, December 10, 2010


CIA illegal secret flights saga
Shame and possible prosecutions loom as the saga of the CIA's so-called extraordinary rendition flights through Portugal rumbles on.
Despite official denials, new allegations have been made that Portugal helped the United States secretly transfer detainees who ended up being tortured at the notorious Guantanamo Bay military base in Cuba.
It is claimed that the US requested, and was granted, permission for CIA flights carrying terrorist suspects to pass through Portuguese airspace. If true, this would be in violation of supposedly sacrosanct international charters and conventions.
In the latest development, a former Guantanamo inmate, Omar Deghayes, has claimed that some ex-prisoners are planning to sue the Portuguese authorities. Omar Deghayes, a 41-year-old Libyan, spent more than five years at Guantanamo Bay after being arrested in Pakistan. He was released in 2008, reportedly due to pressure from the British government.
An official Portuguese investigation into reports of CIA extraordinary rendition flights found no evidence of Portuguese wrong-doing. Suspicion persists that the US State Department leant on Portugal to stifle the investigation.

The Portuguese Attorney General's Office has declared that the investigation will only be reopened if new, credible and relevant facts come to light.

This announcement follows the release last week by Wikileaks of a cable indicating that the Portuguese government was asked to allow use of facilities in the Azores in the transportation of alleged terrorists.

The cable marked “secret” was sent from the US Embassy in Lisbon in October 2006, during the Bush administration. It drew attention to the likely political impact on Portugal if evidence demonstrating complicity in the secret CIA flights were to be made public.

Prime Minister José Sócrates, told parliament in 2008 that no member of his left-of-centre Socialist government (PS) had been asked for, or had granted, permission for extraordinary rendition flights through Portuguese airspace.

There has been much speculation that a number of such flights took place between 2002 and 2005, before the Socialists took office, during the last administration of the right-of-centre Social Democrats (PSD).

For example, a Gulfstream IV aircraft was reportedly flown from the airport on the island of Santa Maria in the Azores to Guantanamo Bay in November 2003. Doubts have been cast on 34 other ostensibly commercial flights through Portuguese airspace between 2002 and 2005.

A European parliamentary investigation in 2007 reported that the CIA had used European airspace for more than 1,200 flights between 2001 and 2005. Most European MPs endorsed the report's conclusion that some member states had “turned a blind eye” to the flights.

The committee that carried out the investigation criticised the “lack of co-operation from many member states” in their inquiries.

And so it goes on..... The picture is deliberately fuzzy. Full disclosure is awaited.

Like them or loath them, Wikileaks will probably shed more damning light on Portugal's involvement in this seemingly shameful saga if further US Lisbon Embassy cables are made public.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


End to euro, yes to press, no to toll

Some commentators are daring to suggest that this Christmas might be the euro's last. Its future might be prolonged, however, if Portugal is hung out to dry along with Greece and Ireland. In that way the rot can be stopped before it reaches Spain. It certainly seems increasingly likely that Portugal will have to ask for a bailout from the other EU countries and the International Monetary Fund. If Spain were forced into such a position, this would be far more serious internationally, with consequences of global magnitude. Three very different scenarios are being talked about. A two-tiered euro might be formed, with France and Germany in the upper level. Otherwise, euro zone members might be forced into increased fiscal and political unity. A third scenario envisages Germany walking out and going back to the deutschmark. Those escudos tucked under the mattress might come in handy after all.


The European Court of Human Rights has ordered the Portuguese Government to pay €83,999 to the newspaper Publico as compensation for violating the paper's right to freedom of expression. In 2001, Publico reported that the football club Sporting Lisbon owed €2.3 million to the taxman. Sporting Lisbon denied the claim and sued. The paper was acquitted of defamation. The decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal in Lisbon in 2006. The following year, the Supreme Court reversed the ruling and ordered the paper to pay compensation of €75,000. Publico then took the case to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Yesterday it pronounced in favour of the paper saying that its report had sufficient factual basis and publishing it was in the public interest. One is tempted to pass comment, but perhaps not.


The committee organising the campaign against the introduction of tolls on the A22 trans-Algarve motorway is planning a “surprise protest” sometime before Christmas. A further demonstration is promised for January. The committee is also planning to present a petition with 14,000 signatures to parliament in Lisbon. Two demonstrations have been held so far. Some Portuguese reason that tolls have to be paid on motorways elsewhere in the country, so why not in the Algarve? Protestors argue that tolls would push traffic on to the EN125, which cannot be regarded as a viable alternative route. Tolls would be to the detriment of the all-important tourist industry and many already hard-hit local businesses. The government intends to impose tolls from next April. To register disapproval, go to http://viadoinfante2010.blogspot.com

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


America enters the war on weevils

The United States is the latest country to become involved in the war against the red palm weevil. It will be interesting to see how the Americans fare, because all efforts to contain the weevil in the Algarve seem futile.

The weevil, the same beast that is drastically altering the scenery here, was discovered in two palms in a residential area of Laguna Beach, Orange County, California. The Department of Food and Agriculture said they were the first such cases anywhere in the US.

It is inconceivable that the weevil would have been confined to just two trees. As we well know here, infestation can go undetected for quite a while. By the time symptoms become visible, it's too late.

Ann Christoph, a Laguna Beach landscape architect and former mayor, knew a thing or two about the new illegal immigrants. “It is very serious because the weevil gets inside the trees and sucks the life out of them,” she said. “White fly just hangs around on the leaves of trees, but the weevil goes to the heart of the palms.”

Meetings were convened to discuss strategies for dealing with the new threat. Since then, things have gone quiet. Hopefully the Americans have managed to eradicate the problem in its infancy, but it might be over optimistic.

The Algarve is a paradise for the red palm weevil. California would be too - and on a far grander scale. Canary Island date palms, its favourite food, are an integral part of Southern California. The trees and dates are a multi-million dollar industry.

American investigators have concluded that the source of the Laguna Beach weevils was the international trade in live palms, even though importation of palms into the United States is prohibited. Same as in the Algarve.

Prevention and cure efforts here clearly amounted to far too little, far too late. It is unlikely that any American war effort could now be helpful to us.
The red palm weevil, known to the Portuguese as Gorgulho Vermelho and scientifically as Rhynchophorus ferrugineus, originated in south-east Asia. Its destructive powers greatly worried coconut palm growers in India more than a century ago.
The weevil's spread northwards and westwards hugely accelerated in the 1980s. It did not “work its way” across Asia or “find its way” into Africa as some reports would have us believe. It was irresponsibly transported by humans. Put simply, traders in pursuit of big profits imported trees to unaffected areas from well-known contaminated zones.
By 1985 the weevil had occupied Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. By 1990 it had reached Iran. Two years later, infected palm offshoots were exported from the United Arab Emirates to Egypt, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.
The first weevils to cross the Mediterranean were carried in palms shipped from Egypt to the Costa del Sol in 1994. It was madness. The devastating nature of the pest was well known in Egypt, yet Spain had no importation restrictions in place at the time.
Two years went by before the Spanish government got around to imposing restrictions. Four years later the law was toned down. By then a lucrative trade in palms was flourishing across open EU borders.
The weevil had already spread from Andalusia to other areas of Spain, including Murcia, Valencia, Cataluña, the Balearic Islands and even the Canaries. It continued its European odyssey and turned up in force in Greece, Cyprus, Malta, France and Italy.
The EU Commission issued a belated directive banning importation from non-EU countries and demanding that all palms should travel with a phytosanitary certificate.
The high risk of the weevil entering the Algarve and the strict preventative measures needed to stop that happening should have been obvious to the Portuguese Government, the regional agriculture directorate and to local palm importers. Yet in 2007, infected trees were brought in from both Egypt and Spain without quarantine or any other impediment whatsoever.
The weevils quickly established themselves here. Municipal authorities, apparently oblivious to the problem, ignored infested trees right in the centre of towns and villages. Gormlessly, vulnerable new palms were actually added to roadsides and roundabouts.
The landscape right across the Algarve is now littered with dead and dying palms. Local battles are going on to save individual trees by setting traps, injecting and spraying, but the weevils are winning the war.

Containment efforts are expensive and ultimately pointless. Eradication is impossible until the last of the weevil's favourite palms has collapsed.

These trees were never in the Algarve in the first place. Why don't we stick to fostering indigenous plants that clearly enjoy it here?

Monday, December 6, 2010


Wild weather, bailout blues and pine crime

The wild winter weather is not confined to the northern half of Europe. Snow drifts are blocking many roads and isolated villages in Portugal. About 40,000 people were left without electricity yesterday because of thunderstorms, high winds and torrential rain. Civil protection workers were out dealing with landslides, fallen trees and flooded houses in the centre and north of the country. Lisbon and the Alentejo were also hit. Warnings have been issued about rough seas along the Algarve's southern and western coasts. Appalling weather conditions wreaked havoc at the weekend in Madeira and the Azores.


The Guardian newspaper has reported that it is now virtually taken for granted in Brussels that Portugal will need a bailout. The paper said it has been told by two EU ambassadors that Portugal would need to be rescued “very soon,” despite repeated public statements to the contrary. "Portugal will need to be saved. The big issue is Spain," said another senior diplomat. The Reuters news agency is reporting this morning that euro zone finance ministers meeting today will be under pressure to increase the size of a 750 billion euro safety net for countries such as Portugal and Spain in order to halt contagion.


Police have arrested more than 35 people and seized more than 50 tonnes of stolen pine cones in a month-long operation in the district of Santarém. Police say that pine cone thieves are usually agile, unemployed and with previous convictions for theft. Much of the thieving goes on up high in the trees in the dead of night. Legitimate pine nut collection and sales is a multi-million euro business in Portugal. Producers reckon that 15% to 20% of their crop is stolen each year.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Call for new 'assassination' inquiry

Parliamentarians are demanding yet another inquiry into Portugal's most intriguing and enduring political mystery, the death of former Prime Minister Francisco de Sá Carneiro and his defence minister, Adelino Amaro da Costa.
Thirty years ago, on 4 December 1980, a light plane carrying the two politicians crashed soon after take-off from Lisbon Airport. They were on their way to a presidential election rally in Oporto.
Conspiracy theories about the cause of the crash persist despite no fewer than eight previous commissions of inquiry. Accidental death was the original official explanation. The crash was blamed on technical failure and pilot error, but many Portuguese remain convinced the plane was deliberately blown up.
Sá Carneiro was a founder of the Popular Democratic Party, which later became the Social Democratic Party (PSD). He had been prime minister for only 11 months when he boarded the aircraft, a Cessna 421, on that fateful night.
Eye-witnesses said they saw pieces falling from the plane moments after it took off. The strongest conspiracy theory suggests that Sá Carneiro and da Costa were the victims of an assassination plot connected to an arms-for-hostages deal and a rigged US presidential election.
The crash occurred the year after the revolution in Iran that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power. Fifty-two Americans were taken hostage when youthful Islamists stormed the US Embassy in Tehran in November 1979. The hostages were held for 444 days from 4 November 1979 to 20 January 1981. Following the spectacular failure of a US military rescue operation with eight US servicemen and one Iranian civilian’s dead, President Jimmy Carter resorted to diplomatic efforts.
Conspiracy theorists believe da Costa had information that senior Portuguese army officers were secretly passing arms to Iran as part of a plot by US Republicans to damage Carter's re-election campaign during this time.
Ronald Reagan and his vice-presidential candidate, George Bush Sr, were said to have struck a deal with the Iranian leadership to have the release of the hostages delayed until after the election in order to give them an electoral advantage.
It is thought that da Costa was targeted because he had uncovered evidence of a secret Portuguese army slush fund to be used for arms deals. He was allegedly killed to conceal evidence of the illegal arms movement through Portugal, which he was determined to stop.
Experts on IRA and ETA bombs have been among those suggesting a high-level campaign to conceal the truth.
After 30 years and eight commissions of inquiry, Portuguese parliamentarians of all parties are now being urged to demand a fresh inquiry in the hope that the truth will finally be revealed.

Saturday, December 4, 2010


High hopes of royal honeymoon here

We wait with bated breath to learn from Buckingham Palace if Prince William and his finance Kate Middleton accept an invitation to spend their honeymoon in the Algarve.

The invitation has been sent by the Algarve Tourist Board via the British Embassy in Lisbon. It was personally conveyed by the president of the Tourist Board, Nuno Aires, to the retiring British Ambassador, Alex Ellis, at a dinner in the Algarve last week.

Neither the Foreign & Commonwealth Office nor Buckingham Palace will comment or say how many other such invitations have been received from around the world.

Several resorts and hotels in the Algarve have reportedly offered accommodation and facilities to the royal couple. No doubt they, along with the Tourist Board, are sincere in wishing William and Kate well and would do their very best to ensure an enjoyable time.

But a royal honeymoon in the Algarve is just wishful thinking.

The wedding is in Westminster Abbey on 29th April. Okay, so the weather at the end of April and in early May in the Algarve is likely to be very pleasant. The countryside will be looking its best with windflowers abounding. Peace would normally reign in the post-Easter lull.

The arrival of the royal couple, however, would be accompanied by a veritable invasion of reporters and photographers, idolising fans and silly gawkers, not to mention perhaps a terrorist of two with paradise in mind.

Ensuring the couple's safety and seclusion would be a major problem, though not an insurmountable one bearing in mind the excellent job done recently by the security services during the NATO conference in Lisbon. Euro 2004 was another good example of how well the Portuguese police, working in conjunction with British security experts, can handle potentially boisterous hordes.

Obviously the hope in tourist circles here is that the royal honeymoon would boost the Algarve's image as a holiday destination. It's not a bad idea. A leading light in the local tourist industry called it “a good marketing iniative”.

But, frankly, it's a desperate one - and it isn't going to work.

For starters, it is highly unlikely that the second-in-line to the British throne and his gorgeous new wife would want to be so blatantly used for PR purposes. Secondly, lovely as the Algarve is, as a honeymoon destination for the likes of Prince William and Kate it is a bit tame. They might prefer somewhere a bit more exotic, well away from prying eyes, among wild animals other than Homo sapiens.

The Algarve is not virgin territory for the royal household. Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, came with her children and stayed in a private house near Lagos some years ago, but cut short her stay complaining of press intrusion.

Prince William knows the area a little bit having visited with a bunch of his chums on a stag week in 2005. His stay near Carrapateira on the West Coast was kept very hush-hush, but there is no way he could repeat that.

The invitation from the Tourist Board is a desperate one because, frankly, the regional tourist industry is in distress, if not a mess.

Astute insiders say the trouble is that we have not been able to keep up with the times. We're out-of-date. A great many tourists have moved on from the package holiday arrangements that served us so well in the '90s and up until the early years of the new millennium. As air travel became cheaper, people started venturing forth to new, emerging destinations.

The turnover in resorts and hotels in the Algarve was way down in 2008. The year 2009 turned out to be the worst in 15 years. It got worse still in 2010 and the expectation is that it will be worse again next year.

Let's not knock the Algarve Tourist Board and others in the struggling tourist sector for trying, but they will have to come up with a better initiative than asking William and Kate to drop by next spring.

Friday, December 3, 2010


Dream over, back to reality

More than anything, the football World Cup is about money. Portugal stood to earn loads of it had its joint bid with Spain succeeded in Zurich yesterday. Billions of euros were up for grabs. It was reckoned that the revenues for Iberia would have been six and a half times greater than the expenditure needed to host the event.

As it turns out, Iberia's bid was but a dream. With hopes for 2018 dashed, it's back to worrying about the economy today. And that hoary old question persists: will Portugal need a bailout or not?

Prime Minister José Sócrates still insists not. “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” he said after the announcement in Zurich. He was more upbeat on a possible bailout and the humiliation of having Portuguese financial affairs dictated by Brussels. The 2011 austerity budget with its tax rises and public sector pay cuts will do the trick, he believes.
German Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle says he doesn't think either Portugal or Spain will need a euro zone rescue plan. However, this runs counter to what many economists have been saying for weeks now, namely that it's not a question of if, but when.
"I hope the IMF does not turn to Portugal but I don't see this as an extraordinary problem," said Fernando Ulrich, chief executive of Banco BPI. "It is Germany that will decide if it comes, not the Portuguese government.”
If Portugal is deemed to need a bailout, many analysts believe Spain will inevitably be next. That would require a far mightier rescue effort.
The current economic plight of Portugal and Spain will be high on the agenda at the Iberian-American summit meeting in Argentina today and tomorrow. No doubt the Brazilian and other Latin American leaders will commiserate with those from Portugal and Spain over the failure in Zurich yesterday. This could be a good opportunity for the former colonial masters to pass around the hat.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


2018 World Cup countdown

Ah well, you can't win 'em all. Someone had to lose. Dismay is sweeping through the Iberian peninsula with the announcement that Russia has clinched the right to host the 2018 football World Cup.

The decision by the executive committee of FIFA in a secret ballot in Zurich this afternoon will come as a big disappointment too in England, Holland and Belgium.

The Portugal/Spain bid was well-thought out and highly professional but it apparently lacked the appeal that Russia brought to bear.

Spain, of course, was the senior partner in the Iberian bid, but Portugal's experience in hosting Euro 2004 would have brought added expertise to the mega-event in 2018.

Together the two nations were able to highlight the fact that they have a vast amount of necessary infrastructure already in place, plus great experience in handing large numbers of visitors. “We could organise a World Cup next month if necessary,” Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said in Zurich this morning.

It wasn't enough. Russia are the victors.

The FIFA executives had plenty of time prior to this week to study the rival bids, but here's how the day of decision unfolded.....

The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing arn't a patch on this. Portugal and Spain have put in a joint bid to hold the football World Cup in 2018, but they are up against formidable opposition: Russia, England and Holland/Belgium. A 22-member panel of FIFA executives will make their decision in Zurich this afternoon. Everyone says it's too close to call. Yesterday, Russia seemed to be the favourites. Portugal/Spain are said to be "quietly confident". England have a strong bid too. As David Beckham has so aptly put it, the winning goal is sometimes scored in the final minutes of a game. This morning, each of the contenders, startring with Holland and Belgium, makes a final 30-minute presentation.

9.0am - Portugal and Spain prepare to start their final presentation. One of their strongest points is that in times of austerity they have much of the necessary infrastructure already in place. For example, between them they have 21 top stadiums.

9.40am -  Portugal/Spain conclude their strong final presentation. If they or any of the other contenders do not get sufficient initial votes, it may go to a second round of voting.

10.05am - England presentation starts. The big guns in the England delegation include David Cameron, Prince William, David Beckham and Sir Bobby Charlton. It is thought unlikely that England or any of the other contenders will get the magic figure of 12 votes in the first ballot. If not the lowest scorer will be out and it will go to a second round.

10. 38am - England's 30-minute presentation, kicked off by Prince William, was very slick indeed. David Cameron and David Beckham were outstanding. You have to say, too, that much of the presentation was delivered with the sort of emotion and passion one normally associates with Latins.

11.0am – Russia's bid started slowly but has steadily gained momentum over the past two years. Despite Prime Minister Putin's decision not to show up in Zurich, many regard Russia as the most likely winners today. Their final presentation is about to start.

11.45am - The four presentations are now over. The Netherlands and Belgium were first off this morning but their assertion that “small is beautiful” is unlikely to sway the 22-member FIFA panel. It was a lively and entertaining presentation compared with that from Portugal and Spain. Led by President José Luis Rodrigues Zapatero, the Iberian presentation noted that the peninsula has 50 modern airports, is used to annually handling 70 million visitors and can boast 300 days of sunshine a year. England's was a much brighter and more polished performance, full of glitzy characters. Russia put on a competent show and tried to woo the judges by emphasising that Russia is entering a new era of openness to the world. Many would say that England won this final phase of the competition, but Russia and Portugal/Spain are certainly not out of it.

The nation to be given the opportunity of hosting the 2018 World Cup will be named at about 3.0pm.