Monday, January 24, 2011

Tunisia - A Country That Could Work Again

Three years ago, my husband and I visited my cousin who lives in Tunisia.  We were enchanted by this Mediterranean country with beautiful beaches and well-preserved Roman ruins.  Europeans had long discovered the country’s temperate climate and flocked there in droves.  But today as I write, Tunisia is in the midst of a revolution and all are holding their collective breath.

Before going to visit, I read “Tunisia, A Journey Through A Country That Works” by Georgie Anne Geyer, an author that was impressed with the progress this small country had made as a moderate in the Arab world.. After the French left in 1957, Habib Bourghiba became president of the new democracy.  He had strong feelings about moving toward modernity - a kind of Tunisian Ataturk.   Almost immediately, he banned polygamy, introduced judicial divorce for women as well as men, set a minimum age for marriage, gave women the right to vote and run for office, and made education free and compulsory for both sexes.  Thirty percent of the budget was allocated to education.  From this dedication, a large middle class emerged, with many college graduates.  But there was no challenge allowed against  Bourghiba who declared himself president for life in 1974.

In 1984, Tunisia erupted after a drought caused the cost of bread to rise 115% overnight.  The government had too strong a hold on the economy and not enough jobs were being generated for the educated young Muslims.  Islamists were plotting to overthrow the government.  In 1987, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Minister of the Interior, obtained a doctor’s letter saying Bourghiba was no longer capable of running the country, and stepped in as president.  He was able to distinguish moderate from radical Islamists and courted the former.  Participatory democracy still wasn’t permitted but the country did develop a National Pact with commitments from individuals, labor unions, schools, etc.  Tunisia would remain a pluralist society with women being totally emancipated.  Islam was the official religion but freedom of religion was assured..  Free political parties were not allowed immediately but were built into the process.

Since Ben Ali became president, poverty dropped by 80%. The percentage of Tunisians owning homes hit 80% at the turn of the century. Tunisians themselves contributed to a fund to be used for low interest loans to start small businesses.  By cultivating tourism, the country could offer low budget/high value trips for Europeans to the beaches of Tunisia - the equivalent to America’s relationship with Cancun and the Mayan Riviera.  Tunisia partnered up with France on commerce and military protection.  All appeared from the outside to be good.  But the drop in the world economy exposed cracks in the system.

President Ben Ali never followed through with the plan to allow free political parties and elections.  His family became unseemly wealthy whose wealth was flaunted.  My cousin tells of headline news about the president’s wife opening a Jaguar car dealership!   His son is considered a billionaire.  Freedom of the press was stifled.  Even as the riots started over a month ago, Tunisian television continued to broadcast only the stale programs as usual.  News of the happenings had to be obtained through the internet, twitter, etc.  Over the years, the police became feared as the arm used to suppress opposition and free speech.  As Georgie Ann Geyers now says, “Ben Ali stayed too long.”

Tunisia’s unemployment stands over all at 14% but even higher for the young and college-educated with all of the frustration associated with such  high numbers.  As you probably have read, the final straw came when a young man with a university degree couldn’t get a job and was forced to buy fruits and vegetables to sell from a stand.  The police ‘raided’ his stand because he didn’t have the right papers and took all of his produce.  Depressed, the young man set himself on fire and died.  The lack of jobs is keenly felt here and in other Arab nations.  Ironically, Ben Ali himself said years ago that the greatest challenge to his government and the Arab world was the paucity of jobs for the educated population.  Last week, that problem revisited Tunisia and the government fell again.

It’s a very dicey situation today.  Old and new leaders are struggling to form an interim government that can be maintained until elections are held.  The army, whom the Tunisians trust, is working to keep the peace.   Food is scarce.  A trip out on Monday yielded my cousin’s husband some apples and oranges.  They’ve had to clean out the pantry and freezer.

This is not Egypt nor Saudi Arabia.  Tunisia is filled with educated, middle-class citizens. But the people are demanding the civil rights that Americans have long enjoyed - free political parties and fair elections, freedom of the speech and press.  These are not radical Islamists and we should hope they’re successful in their quest for greater freedom.  Let us also hope when the economy is opened up, jobs will develop, and Tunisia can again show the way to the Arab world.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Crime In Guanajuato, Mexico reveals Sympathetic Side of the Mexican People

 I have hesitated to write this story about an attempted theft in Mexico.  The last thing I want to do is discourage tourists from going to Mexico.  Most of that country is as safe as ours with the notable exception of northern Mexico.  But the story is really about the response to the crime, not the crime itself.

I was traveling in Guanajuato, Mexico with my friends, Tina Smith and Betty Swasko, as well as Tina’s sister, Lisa Pavel.  This 450 year old world heritage site boasts a great university, colorful homes, and old silver money.  We had just exited a silver jewelry store onto Avenida Juarez when  I heard shouting and sounds of a struggle behind me.  I turned to see Lisa and Tina holding on to Lisa’s purse as a hooded man tried to pull it away.  After several seconds, he gave up and ran down a nearby ramp to the street below.  When he released his hold on the purse, Lisa fell back and hit her head against the jewelry store’s wall, injuring her head.

All around us people stopped to offer help.  A policeman quickly appeared and ran after the thief.  Betty crossed to a store to get tissue for the bleeding. Several bystanders shook their heads and expressed their condolences.   And a young woman offered to walk us to the closest clinic.  In a daze, we followed her for two blocks to Clinica Hospital where a receptionist quickly placed Lisa in an exam room.

As we were filling out the forms, three policemen and a television cameraman arrived in the courtyard.  I guess we weren’t hard to find.  A policeman had caught the robber and they wanted us to come to the police station to identify him.  The cameraman filmed all of the conversation but I don’t know if it was shown on the news that night or not.  The officers agreed to wait.

Lisa’s physician was capable, sympathetic and did the appropriate exam for a head injury.  She needed several stitches which were quickly done.  We were all impressed with Lisa’s toughness and inner fortitude.  Thanks to her long held belief in alternative medicine, she had taken Arnica pills for the pain and cream for her bruises.  Both appeared to work very well.

As we walked out of the clinic, there was one police car and an extra car to take us to the police station.  Lights flashed as we made our way through traffic.  At the station, Lisa and Tina were shown a picture of the alleged thief as well as his hooded jacket.  They recognized both immediately.  We got to meet our hero, Victor, who had caught the man.  He was very familiar with this criminal who was known to have mental problems.

All seemed in order until they advised Lisa and Tina that they would have to return in several months to testify against the man. That was, obviously, not going to happen.   So I went into my attorney mode and questioned why they couldn’t set up a hearing the next week while we were still there.  The man had confessed.   They had eye-witnesses.  Appoint him an attorney and get it moving.  When they realized I was an attorney, all laughed at the head officer and he shook his head.  But I still couldn’t make the hearing happen.

Lisa needed to fill a prescription and get a tetanus shot.  We didn’t know where to go and didn’t have transportation.  The main officer offered a police car escort.  Since it was raining, they backed the officer’s car into the courtyard to get as close as possible to us.  We walked past the station's  Shrine to the Virgin Mary as we climbed in and with lights flashing,  headed to the Red Cross clinic.. That clinic had no tetanus vaccine.  The trip to a second clinic was successful even though we were joined by a throng of pregnant women.  With lights still flashing, we pulled in front of a pharmacy and had the prescription filled while the officer waited.  The last stop was our apartment.

The experience feeds the stereotypical fear of both traveling and traveling in Mexico.  But I’ve had far worse criminal experiences in the United States.  And the response by the crowd, the clinic, and the police was universally sympathetic and solicitous.  They all hated that this had happened to a tourist in their lovely town which is known to have a low crime rate.  It didn’t slow down our visit as we continued with our itinerary to San Miguel de Allende the next day.  And we all agreed that we would return to Guanajuato -  in a heartbeat.

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