Wednesday, March 31, 2010

United Nations March 31

We arrived in New York last night from Ottawa -- howling storm at La Guardia -- and convoyed into Manhattan with a few of Clinton's people. In New York, she goes home to Chappaqua and everybody else stays at the Waldorf.

Not much to say about the hotel -- fancy lobby, outdated rooms, and don't even think about ordering any food or drink, all of it is insanely expensive. It goes to show how long places/companies can trade on a well-known brand.

The point of the New York trip was a U.N. donors conference for Haitian earthquake relief. It is the kind of set-piece story that is pretty much written even before it starts. They all gather, talk a lot, pony up the money, and its over. They topped $5 billion this time, although (of course) it isn't really clear how much of this is new money, or just recounting old contributions, or debt relief, or whatever. The point was they wanted to make a statement and they did.

We had the final press conference in one of the conference rooms at UN headquarters. It is undergoing renovation, but the place really is always going to be a relic of the 60's...made for and equipped with technology that is so outdated it looks like something from a movie. That's my pin-striped knee underneath the desk, with the voting buttons.....I didn't push them.

I did get to ask the question tho -- in these events, questions are limited so the different groups (U.S. reporters, international reporters etc) have to come up withs someone to as the one question they are going to get. I did one on Haiti, just to be polite, and then asked about progress on Iran sanctions. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was not pleased -- but what can he expect? Clinton answered it (sort of) and the day was over.

I'm going out to dinner tonight with my old friend James and then back to DC tomorrow on the train.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Ottawa (G8) March 29 2010

I've never been to Ottawa before and I don't think I can say I've been to Ottawa now, even though that's where I'm sitting. Doesn't look too spectacular in the photo, which is partly because its a crap photo taken by a cellular phone and partly because it is not too spectacular to begin with.

Clinton is here for one night for the annual meeting of the G8 foreign ministers. On the agenda is the predictable list of items, topped by Iran but also North Korea, Yemen, non-proliferation, etc etc. We got up early this morning in DC and had a choppy flight through fog up to Ottawa, which looks pretty much as one might expect. We are staying at the Chateau Laurier, the big Victorian pile next to the parliament buildings which I guess is (or was) Ottawa's go-to hotel. Its a big dingy now..or perhaps just dark. The hallways are wide and somberly lit..shades of "The Shining".

I sat in on an TV interview that a Canadian channel did with Clinton today. She is so good at this -- putting the interviewer at ease, good laugh. She was able to run through her talking points pretty much unimpeded. It is interesting to see how her staff closely monitors the TV feed monitors while the interview is going on..they want to see how the boss is coming across. She's a pro so they usually don't have much to worry about.

The headline tonight is a slightly more optimistic tone from Clinton (and others) on China's willingness to consider Iran sanctions. I'm not sure (and I don't think they are quite sure) if this is a real switch in position, or just another nuance of Beijing's very dragged out diplomacy on the whole thing. But it made for a bit of a story and that's enough, I guess.

Actually the good story of the day was Clinton slapping down a Canadian initiative to get a new "Arctic 5" group up and running. They had called together the main countries along the Arctic to discuss how things might pan out in light of global shipping lanes, fights over oil and mineral exploitation etc. But there is already an Arctic Council that deals with this, and clearly Washington felt we did not need another ad hoc group butting in. She essentially told them that in her opening remarks, and the Canadians quickly had to backtrack. Sort of pathetic..they had all kinds of glossy brochures printed up to talk about the "Arctic 5"..but now one gets the strong feeling it isn't going to happen. Witness the heft of the Superpower.

The only other tidbit I gleaned today was that Japan's foreign minister has among his hobbies a collection of porcelain frog figurines. God knows why the Japanese Foreign Ministry would put that in his official biography, but there it is....perhaps emblematic of the useless factoids that fill the air at meetings like this.

Tomorrow it is more G8 here and then to New York to prepare for the Haiti Donor's Conference on Wednesday. I've swung two days at the Waldorf...everyone tells me not to get too excited, but will be interesting to see the insides of that place (doubtless much like this one..outdated, dim and kind of spooky)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Mexico City, March 23

Gold-plated pistols and weird corned beef pastries are what awaits visitors to the Mexican Foreign Ministry.

We came down with Clinton today for a one-day visit to talk about Plan Merida, the joinet U.S.-Mexico anti-drug effort. Clinton has brought a range of heavy hitters with her, including Homeland Security chief Napolitano, Defense Secretary Bob Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Mexicans cleared the downtown -- no small feat -- so the motorcade could go through unimpeded, although we seem to have a lot of herky-jerky stops anyway. We went directly to the Foreign Ministry, where we are essentially stuck all day.

The gold-plated guns (including AK-47s) were part of an exhibition in the lobby to illustrate some of the firepower captured from narco-traffickers (most of which comes into Mexico from the United States). The corned beef pastries are lunch -- which is too bad because somehow I sense there could be a good taqueria just around the corner....

The Foreign Ministry itself is sort of 80's....lots of primary colors, floor-to-ceiling windows and a strong smell of detergent. They've got an interesting sculpture/fountain in the main courtyard, featuring lots of little pyramids...

Friday, March 5, 2010

Costa Rica-Guatemala March 4-5

We left Costa Rica this morning and I'm sitting now in the Presidential Palace in Guatemala City, a gorgeous Victorian building made out of a luminous greenish stone and replete with "hacienda"-style balconies, dim marble hallways, and murals of ancient Mayan goings-on.

Costa Rica didn't leave much of an impression, mostly because we spent the entire time at the Intercontinental hotel. We stayed there, the conference was there..I didn't leave the grounds --

The conference itself ("Pathways to Prosperity") was pretty news-free -- just lots of gassing about economic development and spreading opportunity. I don't know what the "deliverables" are for an organization like that, but if they have any they aren't well publicized.

We finished up around dinner time and age with some of the Clinton people. One good thing about these trips is the chance to talk to gov't types that we are kept well away from back in DC. They've all got so much on their plates -- and progress on the big issues (Iran, Mideast etc) is elusive...must be frustrating.

We left this morning for Guatemala. Nice flight up the Pacific Coast, and then into town for Clinton's last set of meetings. Compared to Costa Rica, Guatemala looks poor but interesting. There were lots of uniformed children marshalled to yell and cheer as Clinton arrived.

We did a short story on U.S. pledges to boost aid against drug trafficking. I also noticed this odd little "jacket" they'd crafted for the electric coffee pours from where you think it pours.

Home later..looking forward to it

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Brazil-Costa Rica March 3-4 2010

We arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica at 4:00 AM from Brazil this morning -- Clinton is giving a speech later today at "Pathways to Prosperity", a regional grouping dedicated to democracy and economic development that nobody seems to know much about.

We arrived in Brasilia on Tuesday after spending four hours at the airport in Santiago, Chile, where Clinton met outgoing President Bachelet and delivered a fairly skimply earthquake relief gift of 20 satphones. She assured them that more U.S. help would be arriving --

The only sign that any disaster had occurred were the huge military cargo planes that kept taxiing on the runways behind the small building where Clinton and Bachelet met. When they came out to hold a press conference you could harldy hear them over the roaring engines.

It was tantalizing to get a glimpse of Brazil, although I have to say I found Brasilia a little disappointing. The famous Niemeyer Modernist government buildings all look pretty good in isolation, but when you put them together the result is a little dispiriting. It definitely feels like an artificial place, and one designed on a new quite human scale. I took the shot above inside the Foreign Ministry -- a nice scene, but I'm not sure I would want to work there.

Clinton didn't get much out of the Brazilians on Iran. The foreign minister politely informed her that Brazil would not "bow down" to any pre-determined international consensus on Iran. That's going to make the U.S. job more difficult in selling the new U.N. sanctions effort as a unified global effort. Clinton made her pitch, saying the Iranians simply were not negotiating honestly, but Brazil seems happy to give the process (Clinton would argue there isn't one) more time.

We left Brasilia for Sao Paulo, the biggest city in the country. I'd been looking forward to seeing it but got a little more than I bargained for. We left the airport in the motorocade which seemed to promptly get lose -- an hour rumbling over back streets and through dodgy neighborhoods. Very weird. We finally made it to our destination, Brazil's pre-eminent Afro-Brazilian university, where Clinton held one of her "Townterviews" with students....she comes across well in these, selling the Obama administration message, and the students seemed impressed.

Then back in the motorocade and a much quicker trip back to the airport (we were told there had been a highway accident on the way in, forcing the diversion)

7 hours later we arrived here. I'm going to see what's for breakfast

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Traveling with Hillary

After a long absence I am going to try to revive this blog with a new focus. I'm now covering the State Department and Hillary Clinton for Reuters, which means a lot of travel, and I will try to use this as a record of some of the stops along the way.'

The first thing about traveling with Clinton is the schedule is manic. I started this beat in October, and we've been flying almost non-stop -- Pakistan, Morocco, Israel, Egypt, Belgium, London...they keep the stops as tight as possible, and we are lucky to see much "outside the bubble". But it is fascinating to see how the secretary of state moves around the world, and how she and her aides fine tune policy along the way.

I'm writing this from Brasilia, the half-way point in a five-day, six country tour of Latin America. We woke up this morning in Buenos Aires, spent the afternoon at the airport in Santiago, Chile, where she was delivering some earthquake relief (cellphones..only thing they could get on the plane on short notice) and then flew to Brazil

She's got meetings with the Brazilian foreign minister tomorrow and President Lula, and will be pressing them to support moves in the U.N. to put new sanctions on Iran. From the looks of it it could be a tough sell.

I'll try to get some of the news in here..if I can remember how, I'll link to my stories along the way. But this is more of an online diary of the trips. The challenge will be finding time along the way to update it -- sometimes we hardly have time to get out the news. But I will give it a go.

To start us off, here is a couple of pictures of Montevideo, where we spent Monday. It looks like a lovely city -- from wintry DC, it was into bright South American summer sunshine. There is a long marginal and lots of beaches, and on a holiday (inauguration day) the locals were soaking up the free time on the banks of the Plate River....

This was apparently for a long time the tallest structure in Latin America, and is Montevideo's trademark. Too bad about the antennae they've added to the top!

I wish I could have seen more (that is a constant refrain) but I liked what I saw -- I guess one thing about this job is it will help me hone my list of places to go when I've got more time to poke around.