Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Sarajevo-Belgrade Oct 30

We woke up in Sarajevo yesterday and, thankfully, had a bit of time in the morning before Clinton began her official schedule. There was still snow on the ground, and you could look out between the buildings and see the snow-covered mountains ringing the city -- where the snipers used to be. Really amazing to think of what that place and those people have been through. There is some new building in town, so a few big glass boxes, but also a lot of old housing, much of pock-marked with bullet holes. No wonder it is still hard, less than 20 years after the war, for them to be pulling it together.

Clinton met up with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and they held a series of meetings with various UN officials, before sitting down with the three members of Bosnia's tripartite revolving presidency. Another legacy of the war, and one which must make executive action very hard to agree on. The message here, as it was the last time we came with Clinton two years ago, was that it was time for Bosnia's continual political crisis is putting it at risk of being left behind by its Balkan neighbors as they charge ahead toward EU and NATO membership. There just seems to be too much left undone, too many remaining arguments for the Bosnian leadership to really accomplish the economic and structural reforms that will be necessary, and Clinton and Ashton were clear that this is a danger. We spent the morning at the presidential office, and were finally herded in with hundreds of local journalists (how many TV stations can a country the size of Bosnia have?) for the final press conference, where they made their point. Given how central the whole Balkan story and Sarajevo was to the Clinton presidency, I think that Hillary feels a very personal connection with Bosnia and is worried and frustrated that the new country has not found its feet.

Then it was back to the office and on to Belgrade for three hours. Last time we spent the night, but this time it was just a brief stop on the ground -- or more specifically, a brief stop at the Palace of Serbia, an untouched 1960s Yugoslav era gem. The pictures I could take with the blackberry don't do it justice: the furniture, the sculpture, the brutalist carpets -- all straight out of Mad Men and completely unmolested. In one glass case there was an atomic clock, vintage early 1980s, which showed the ever ticking world populuation and the also increasing but now completely fictional population of Yugoslavia.

More waiting, this time in a sort of Security Council set up with a great circular desk where they must have held meetings. After the photo spray at the entry, all the local and foreign journalists piled back to this room to unload their gear. Then lots of local journalists appeared to disappear...? Where to? I had to find a bathroom so asked somebody and was pointed through another series of doors toward the back. The minute I walked through the men's room entrance it was clear: Here were all the local journalists, packed shoulder to shoulder, and smoking like lab rats. It was a hilarious scene: men, women, just chatting as if in a crowded nightclub under a huge and disgusting cloud of cigarette smoke. More and more piled in ... Serbia clearly either hasn't received or just doesn't care about the health warnings.

After waiting for a while back in the circular room, we were taken to the press conference -- just statements this time, no questions. The message was largely the same: Serbia has to work out its kinks with Kosovo if either country is going to make it into the EU. Then back to the vans, a brief stop at a hotel for Clinton to say hello to embassy workers, and back to the airport for the one hour flight to Pristina.

A final view of the palace interior -- doesn't do it justice, but it was room after room of this stuff. A real collection. I hope they don't "modernize" it at some point!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Algiers Oct 29

We flew out on Sunday just before Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast. We had been due to leave on Monday, but as the weather reports grew increasingly ominous were told to be ready to move earlier -- and I'm glad we did. By the time we made it to Andrews on Sunday afternoon it was already blowing pretty hard, and it was a pretty bumpy departure as we skitted out just before the first waves of the storm hit.

That put us into Algiers at dawn. Its a strange place -- it looks both rich (lots of new highway construction) and poor (lots of hardscrabble apartment blocks), which I guess it is. It's got a lot of gas income, but the proceeds are very unevenly distributed. It is one of the North African countries where the "Arab Spring" never quite made it, and the security presence is high.

We went first to the hotel, where we checked in for the night at 7 a.m. That was enough time for a couple of hours of sleep, which was much needed. I kept on waking up thinking I was hearing children screaming ... it was both weird and unsettling, and I couldn't figure out of I was dreaming or what. When I finally did wake up I looked out the window and there was an amusement park next door, with all the rides going full of (presumably) happily screaming children. That was a relief.

We checked out again around 11 a.m. and the motorcade departed for Clinton's meetings with longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Algiers is set on a series of hills overlooking a lovely Mediterranean bay. The way up to the presidential guesthouse takes you through some pretty plush neighborhoods, with grand old palazzos built to overlook the sea. Unfortunately there are also a lot of very ugly concrete buildings built up in front of the palazzos, so the effect is sort of ruined. But the guesthouse itself was lovely and really gave you the feeling of being in a sort of movie version of North Africa.

Clinton went in for her meetings, which were aimed at getting the Algerians to sign off on a potential plan for foreign intervention in next-door Mali. Since a lot of the Islamist insurgents now operating from Mali were originally kicked out of Algeria, they are not too eager to see the process reversed. But Clinton pressed hard and, from what officials told us afterwards, its seems as though there might have been some movement. We can expect to see more U.S.-Algeria cooperation in the future ... all filtered through what officials call "the security prism" which at times seems to yield a pretty distorted view of things.

After waiting around in a meeting room we were hustled outside. Clinton had not wanted to make any comments in Algeria, but the Algerians were determined, and when she emerged from the guesthouse there was a microphone and a horde of local TV crews hemming her in. There was no way to escape it, so she smiled gamely and made some fairly innocuous comments. Its one of the first times I've seen a foreign country effectively force her to speak in public, but it goes with Algeria's reputation of being a tough operator!

From there we went to another beautiful Moorish building, where Clinton had lunch with the president. We were also fed -- ushered into a huge holding room where there was what looked like a banquet set up. Tables lined with dozens and dozens of chairs, each with two little boxes (one salad, one chicken) topped by a full-sized baguette. It looked both odd and a little obscene, but it was nice of them to do it. Apparently this is exactly what the press was given the last time in Algeria, so they've got it down. I ate some of the baguette and struggled with my computer .... the aircard connections were frustratingly slow.

After about an hour, it was off again back to the airport. And two hours later we landed in Sarajevo, where it was snowing and cold. Once we got to the hotel (sort of suprisingly, no alcohol at all is served here which makes us think it must be a Saudi chain) we all rushed to our rooms to check on what Sandy was doing back home. Sounds as though DC escaped the worst of it, but pretty hairy all the same. Glad to be here although I hope our house made it through unscathed. Today we are looking at a long one: three countries (Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo) and a lot of scrambling in and out of vans.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Caracol, Haiti Oct 22

Back from another lightning trip -- this one to Caracol, Haiti, where Clinton was due to preside over the opening of a new industrial park as part of the broader post-earthquake reconstruction.

It was a long day. Up at 5 a.m., have coffee, drive down to the State Department, meet the crew at 6 a.m. or so, then out to Andrews and on to the plane. It was a small crew of journalists, but we still didn't get any good seats. Along with Clinton, the Labor Secretary Hilda Solis was with us, as was Senator Patrick Leahy and the head of the IDB. We knew Bill Clinton was going to participate in the event, but as it turned out he went down separately ...

We arrived at the newly-expanded airport at Cap Haitien. They lengthened the runway to accomodate bigger planes (both for trade and tourism) but they obviously didn't lengthen it any longer than necessary -- we came to a screeching stop.

From there it was off to the new development area. It is about 20 miles from Cap Haitien, and people were out along the route waving at the motorcade. From the van windows it certainly looked like a West African scene -- same ads for barbers, lots of places to collect overseas remittances, little corner stores.

The first stop was a new housing development that they are constructing to accomodate workers at the new plant. There were row after row of neat little concrete houses, set out in the middle of nowhere. The had painted them up in pastel colors, and the houses looked functional if tiny. But there was no escaping the "public housing" vibe -- it looked alot like the RDP houses in South Africa -- no trees, houses extremely close together, and nothing else round except construction and empty fields. We were told that a lot of the people who would take over the houses had been displaced by the earthquake and had been essentially camping out with friends and family, so maybe it will look inviting to them. But it looked sort of bleak to me.

After that it was onward to the Caracol industrial plant. Its anchor tenant is Sae-A, a Korean garment manufacturer, and you could see some of the (mostly female) workers strolling around in bright colored smocks. There are several large hangar-style buildings, one housing the Sae-A workshop and others ready for other businesses. The hope is eventually it will provide 20,000 jobs, which would be a major boon for the region where joblessness is a major problem.

So Clinton arrived, met the president, and then went in to talk to a special "investors" group that had also arrived for the ceremony. It was funny to walk into their luncheon -- a small room, a few tables, and there's Sean Penn, Richard Branson, Donna Karen, Ben Stiller, Bill Clinton ... a lot of star power.

Clinton spoke, President Martelly spoke, then it was out to have pictures taken with the Sae-A workers. She and Bill toured the plant, and then went to another building where they were doing the formal inaugration ceremony. It was HOT...I had sweated completely through my shirt, and didn't think I could expose that by taking off my jacket so I just quietly melted for an hour.

Then it was back to the vans, a quick swing by the new power plant they have built to run the park, and back to the plane and a (very bumpy) three hour ride home. I'm glad we made it back in time for the foreign policy debate at 9 p.m. but these one day trips really take it out of you!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Lima Oct 15-16

Just back from -- what, 24 hours? -- in Lima, Peru. The 2nd Obama-Romney debate is on, so I'm a little distracted.

This Peru trip was a lot different from the last one -- no pisco sours this time around! Clinton was due to attend a conference on women entrepreneurs in Latin America ...not exactly top of the news, but typical of her schedule these days.

Of course, the news kept rolling, and the main thing in the headlines this week remains the deadly attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi. This has become a political football, with Romney and other Republicans blasting the Obama administration for what they say were security lapses and what they hint is an official cover up.

We rode for 8 hours in the plane and then down to Lima..a huge, sprawling and dusty (or at least grey-seeming) city surrounded by mountains. We went directly to the U.S. embassy, where Clinton gave her usual stump speech to the employees. After that, she was sequestered in another room for five separate network tv interviews. We had a sense there was something of last week, the only people going on the trip were the wire reporters. But over the weekend the word went out that the networks wanted in, so all of a sudden the press group grew from 3 to 12 as we had ABC/NBC/CBS/Fox plus CNN plus camera crew.

I'm not sure why they all suddenly signed up. The word was that Clinton had looked at the manifest on Friday and wasn't happy that there were no TV folks along. So they all got promised interviews, as long as they would come along to Peru. So they did. These interviews are usually very repetitive and break little new ground. But this time Clinton did, when pressed by the CNN reporter Elise Labott, say that she "took responsbility" for the security around the Benghazi facility -- which, coming one day before the presidential debate, looked like an attempt to shield Obama from charges that he himself was responsible for what ultimately happened there.

So those of us (the wires) who were not in the interview were left scrambling. Elise gave us the quotes, but they were incomplete because the tape was still being fed and transcribed. We cobbled together something along lines of "Clinton takes responsibility" and then were waiting for the full quotes which were a long time coming. For us it was sort of an uncomfortable position to be in -- here we were in Peru, at significant expense to our news organizations, and we were still picking up a CNN interview.

We went to the presidential palace -- a wonderful palazzo in the central part of old Lima-- where Clinton was due to have dinner with the president. They met, and then came out for "remarks" questions. We decided that it was worth shouting a question to Clinton to see if she would give us something similar to what she did CNN. It fell to me to do the shouting, and it didn't work -- she smiled, said "later", and walked out. So we had nothing.

Back at the hotel there was lots of telephoning with Washington and working up a story with fuller quotes from CNN and later from Fox. The stories were all ok -- they reflected what she said -- but it was still frustrating because we had not got the quotes ourselves. But sometimes that is the way things work when you are on the road (not that that mollifies editors).

This morning Clinton took part in the conference on women...obviously very dear to her heart, but not newsworthy. And then we went to Peru's garment district, where she toured a new market and met the local contestants for a Project Runway-style show. It was a brief moment in , the real Lima, and I wish I had been able to take pictures of the buildings across the road from where she did her tour -- floor after floor of glass windows with female dummies in very elaborate dresses. In amongst the dummies were some of the workers in these shops, waving. It was a great image and a little surreal, but I didn't get the shot. Instead here's a picture of Clinton talking to some of the folks there.

After that Clinton's folks put out some canned quotes which essentially repeated what she said last night. I sent those on to Washington to get wrapped into the debate story, and then we got back on the plane. 9 hours later, I'm home and the debate is on.