On the Ground in Venezuela vs. the Media Spectacle

British photojournalist Alan Gignoux and Venezuelan journalist-filmmaker Carolina Graterol, both based in London, went to Venezuela for a month to shoot a documentary for a major global TV channel. They talked with journalist Paul Cochrane about the mainstream media’s portrayal of Venezuela compared to their experiences on the ground.

Paul Cochrane:  What were you doing in Venezuela, how long were you there and where did you go?

Alan Gignoux: We went in August 2018 for a month to shoot a documentary; I can’t disclose what channels it will be on right now, but it should be on air soon. We visited the capital Caracas, Mérida (in the Andes), Cumaná (on the coast), and Ciudad Guayana (near the mouth of the Orinoco river).

PC: How did being in Venezuela compare to what you were seeing in Western media?

Carolina Graterol: I am a journalist, I have family in Venezuela, and I knew the reality was very different from what the media is portraying, but still I was surprised. The first thing we noticed was the lack of poverty. Alan wanted to film homeless and poor people on the streets. I saw three people sleeping rough just this morning in London, but in Venezuela, we couldn’t find any, in big cities or towns. We wanted to interview them, but we couldn’t find them. It is because of multi disciplinary programmes run by the government, with social services working to get children off the streets, or returned to their families. The programme has been going on for a long time but I hadn’t realized how effective it was.

PC: Alan, what surprised you?

AG: We have to be realistic. Things look worn down and tired. There is food, there are private restaurants and cafes open, and you could feel the economic crisis kicking in but poverty is not as bad as what I’ve seen in Brazil or Colombia, where there are lots of street children. Venezuela doesn’t seem to have a homeless problem, and the favelas have running water and electricity. The extreme poverty didn’t seem as bad as in other South American countries. People told me before going I should be worried about crime, but we worked with a lady from El Salvador, and she said Venezuela was easy compared to her country, where there are security guards with machine guns outside coffee shops. They also say a lot of Venezuelan criminals left as there’s not that much to rob, with better pickings in Argentina, Chile or wherever.

PC: How have the US sanctions impacted Venezuelans?

CG: Food is expensive, but people are buying things, even at ten times their salary. Due to inflation, you have to make multiple card payments as the machine wouldn’t take such a high transaction all at once. The government has created a system, Local Committees for Production and Supply (known by its Spanish acronym CLAP) that feeds people, 6 million families, every month via a box of food. The idea of the government was to bypass private distribution networks, hoarding and scarcity. Our assistant was from a middle class area in Caracas, and she was the only Chavista there, but people got together and created a CLAP system, with the box containing 19 products. Unless you have a huge salary, or money from outside, you have to use other ways to feed yourself. People’s larders were full, as they started building up supplies for emergencies. People have lost weight, I reckon many adults 10 to 15 kilos. Last time I was in Venezuela three years ago, I found a lot of obese people, like in the US, due to excessive eating, but this time people were a good size, and nobody is dying from hunger or malnutrition.

PC: So what are Venezuelans eating?

CG: A vegetarian diet. People apologized as they couldn’t offer us meat, instead vegetables, lentils, and black beans. So everyone has been forced to have a vegetarian diet, and maybe the main complaint was that people couldn’t eat meat like they used to do. The situation is not that serious. Before Hugo Chavez came to power, Venezuela had 40% critical poverty out of 80% poverty, but that rate went down to 27%, and before the crisis was just 6 or 7% critical poverty. Everyone is receiving help from the government.

PC: So food is the main concern?

CG: The real attack on the economy is on food. When you have hyperinflation everything goes up in price, but food has become the main source of spending because this is the variable going up in price at exorbitant levels. Bills like water, electricity, public transport haven’t gone up that much and represent a small percentage of any family spending. This is why the distortions in the economy are not intrinsic, but caused by external factors, otherwise everything should have gone up, no matter what it is.

PC: Alan, did you lose weight in Venezuela?

AG: No! What surprised me was how many people are growing their own vegetables. It is a bit like in Russia, where everyone has a dacha. Venezuela is tropical, so it is easy to grow produce. Mango trees are everywhere, so you can pick a mango whenever you want.

PC: So the crisis we read about everyday is primarily due to the US sanctions?

CG: The sanctions have affected the country. I want to be fair. I think the government was slow to act on the direction the country was being pushed. It was probably not a good idea to pay off $70 billion in external debt over the past five years. In my opinion, (President Nicolas) Maduro decided to honor the external debt, thinking this was the right way to pay our commitments, but at the same time, this economic war started waging internally, and also externally, blocking international loans.

The government should also have taken action against Colombia for allowing over one hundred exchange houses to be set up on the border with Venezuela. These exchange houses eroded the currency as they were using different exchange rates, and that contributed to the Bolivar’s devaluation. I think they should have denounced the (Juan Manuel) Santos government. If Colombia says that Venezuelan oil that crosses its border is contraband, why not currency? Remember, the biggest industry in Colombia is cocaine – narcotics trafficking – and it has grown exponentially, so they’ve an excessive amount of US dollars and need to launder them, which drained the Venezuelan currency. It is induced hyperinflation. Also, in Miami, the Venezuelan oligarchy created a website called DolarToday about 12 years ago to destroy the Venezuelan economy.

PC: What else struck you?

CG: People are still smiling and making jokes about the situation, which I find incredible. People are willing to share, and we were in some tricky situations, like when our car broke down at night.

AG: Everyone says don’t drive at night in Venezuela. We were on the road, and figured we’d only half hour to go, what could go wrong? Then a transformer burned out. I thought I was about to have my Venezuelan nightmare, stuck in the middle of nowhere on a dark road at night. Who would ever find you?

CG: As there were no lights we had to use our phones to let big trucks know we were on the road.

AG: We pretended I was deaf as I couldn’t pass for Venezuelan with my Spanish accent. So, a really old old pick-up truck pulls up, and the occupants looked rather salty, but they were very nice and took us to a petrol station.

CG: I told you Alan, you are not in the US, you are not going to be shot!

AG: I was with three women with money, I thought OK I will be shot, but it all turned out fine, and they thought I was deaf.

CG: We were told we could sleep in a shop but we slept in the car instead, and it was fine.

PC: What about the power cuts that have plagued the country?

CG: During blackouts, people told stories, played music, or went out and talked on the streets. It was a paradise, no TVs, smartphones, but real human contact. People cook together. During the day they’re playing board games, dominoes, and kids are having fun. People with kids are possibly more stressed, especially if you live in a tower block, as if you’ve no electricity, you’ve no water. That is why the US hit the electricity grid as it means no water in Caracas – a city of 10 million people. Luckily there are wells with clean water around the city, so people queue up to get it.

PC: So there was a real discrepancy between the image you were given of Venezuela and the reality?

AG: Sure, there are queues for oil, but people are not dying of starvation and, as I said, poverty is nowhere near what it is like in Brazil. I wouldn’t say a harsh dictatorship, people were open, and criticized the government, and the US, but also Chavez and Maduro. The Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) have admitted they had made bad economic decisions. I thought it would be more repressive, and it wasn’t. People were not fearful about speaking out. I think Venezuelans blame the Americans for the situation more than Maduro.

PC: What do you make of the hullabaloo in February about US and Canadian aid being blocked by Venezuela?

AG: It is a Trojan horse, a good way to get the US in, and why international agencies were not willing to take part in the plan. Instead there has been Chinese and Russian aid.

CG: There’s not the chaos US and Trump were expecting. (Opposition leader and self-proclaimed president Juan) Guaidó is the most hated guy in Venezuela. He has to stay in luxury hotel in La Mercedes, an expensive neighbourhood of Caracas. They have electricity there, as they were prepared, so bought generators. That is why Guaidó went there, and has a whole floor of a luxury hotel for him and his family. While people are suffering Guaidó is trying on suits for his upcoming trip to Europe. It is a parallel world.

AG: You think Guaidó will fail?

CG: Venezuelans are making so many jokes with his name, as there’s a word similar to stupid in Spanish – guevon. And look at the demonstration in La Mercedes the other day (12 March), the crowds didn’t manifest. It is becoming a joke in the country. The more the Europeans and the US make him a president, the more bizarre the situation becomes, as Guaidó is not president of Venezuela! Interestingly, Chavez predicted what is happening today, he wrote about it, so people are going back to his works and reading him again.

PC: There’s plenty of material on the history of American imperialism in South America to make such predictions, also, more recently, the Canadians and their mining companies, in Paraguay, Honduras, and now backing Guaidó.

CG: Exactly. Look at Chile in 1973, what happened to the Sandinistas in El Salvador, in Guatemala.

It is a well rehearsed strategy to destroy an economy using external forces to drive up prices of supplies and products. When you have such a cycle, it explodes.

• Alan Gignoux is a photojournalist, with a particular focus on socio-political and environmental issues. Alan’s work has been published in The New York Times, CNN Traveller, The Independent, Reuters and World Photography News, among others.

Carolina Graterol is a Venezuelan journalist, filmmaker and artist. She has worked for the BBC World Service (Spanish) and Telesur. She is the director of “A Letter from Venezuela” (2019).

A Conspiracy Theorist Confesses to his Petty Crimes

Our research has shown for the first time the role that conspiracy theories can play in determining an individual’s attitude to everyday crime.  It demonstrates that people subscribing to the view that others have conspired might be more inclined toward unethical actions.

— Professor Karen Douglas, University of Kent press release for the research, entitled “Belief in Conspiracy Theories and Intentions to Engage in Everyday Crime,” in the British Journal of Social Psychology

Let me be perfectly clear from the outset.

I am not referring to the conspiracy theories of George W. Bush, Colin Powell, Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, Donald Trump and other luminaries concerning events such as the attack of September 11, 2011, weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the ongoing war on terror, Julian Assange’s alleged ties to Russia, etc.  These people’s conspiracy theories have nothing to do with petty crime, for their handiwork is grand indeed. They are big people. In any case, I don’t know what small stuff they might be up to when not killing so many people all around the world.

I got to thinking about my petty crimes after reading a profound article in The New York Post how the aforementioned Professor Douglas and her comrades at two English research universities have proven – “backed up by science” as the Post’s Rob Bailey-Milado says – that little people like me who have concluded that the U.S. national security state conspired to kill President Kennedy, to take one example, are inclined to take to the dark side and pilfer M&Ms from the candy counter and stuff like that.

“Sure,” Bailey-Milado writes in his elegant style, “we’ve been saying this about our wack-job uncle for years.”  Such a nut case might be a “9/11 denier” or believe “the ancient pyramids were built by aliens” or believe “myths surrounding the Mueller report to the chilling ‘secret’ behind Disney’s ‘Frozen’.”

As we all know, all these nutty beliefs are of equal value and validity, and to even harbor the thought that Bailey-Milado might have the CIA’s 1967 secret Dispatch – Doc 1035-960, showing how to counter and discredit the claims of conspiracy theorists – pinned over his desk or in his mind is to risk further accusations of being wacked-out and in need of examining one’s proclivity toward everyday crimes.  So I won’t go there.  I’m guilty enough.

So bless me, folks, for I have sinned.  Let me confess.

Last week, after reading the Post article and the study itself, I found myself in my local co-op market.  You might wonder where I had been looking for myself when I found myself there, staring into bins of dried fruit, but let’s just say I had been around.  When you’re lost and wacked-out, you never know where you are or why you believe what you believe.

I was trying to decide whether to get the dried pineapple, mango, or figs.  It was a tough choice, sort of like staring at forty different tubes of toothpaste on the store shelf and wondering which to buy or if the one advertised as specially for women would work for a man since men must have different teeth.  The comparison is not exactly apt, I guess, for you can’t test the toothpastes there, but the fruit looked so edible.  So, when no one was looking, I first tried the pineapple, then the mango, and finally the figs.  I thought I saw the store manager see me when I took the fig because I was so enjoying the fruits of my crime that I let my guard down.

When I was leaving the store, I had the odd thought that the cop car in the parking lot was there for me, so I turned and went out via the sidewalk, sighing in relief as I did.  As I was walking home, I thought of my narrow escape and the brilliance of the study that connected my conspiratorial thinking to my criminal activity with the fruit.  I also couldn’t help thinking how the figs had reminded me of my latest conspiracy theory, but one supported by sources as confidential as those referenced by The New York Times or The Washington Post.  In addition, like those devotees of truth and confidentiality, I will never reveal my sources.

Legend has it that Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravity while sitting in a garden, watching apples fall perpendicularly to the ground.  However, this is not true. I have learned from my confidential sources that his nickname was Isaac “Fig” Newton and that those who claim the Fig Newton cookie was named after Newton, Massachusetts are involved in a great cover-up.

My sources tell me that when Isaac was a child, he was so fond of figs that his mother had to warn him against eating too many, for as you probably know, figs, like prunes, are filled with fiber and possess a laxative quality.  Isaac was defecating so much and so often that his mother was alarmed.  But a mother’s panic at a child’s toilet habits can be a source of insight years later.

So it was that years later it was Isaac’s experience on the potty that gave him his great insight into gravity.  Reflecting back on his childhood, he realized that shit always went down, never up (there were no electric fans in those days, so no one would say that it went up when “shit hit the fan”). He remembered his mother’s loving words when as a boy he would tell his mom he had to “take a shit,” she would remind him that it was always better to give than take, so he should “give a shit.”

Also, it was Isaac’s chore to take the family potty out behind the house where it was emptied down into a deep hole about six feet under.  Thus, the adult Isaac came to call his discovery gravity, after the grave.  He scientifically proved what everyone already knew: that everything and everyone goes down, eventually.  Not the most uplifting news, I grant you, but I have sources for that also.

So I readily admit I am guilty of this inclination toward low-level “crime,” as Douglas and her colleagues explicate so brilliantly.  No doubt, it is connected to my conspiratorial mindset.  I hope that much is clear.  Sometimes I just can’t resist the forbidden fruit.  Although not an apple, it seems to give me insight into the knowledge of good and evil.

For some reason, I suspect Douglas will not be studying the elite criminals who conspire to invade countries, kill millions, and blame it on others.  Those are crimes against humanity, and are beyond the purview of research aimed at showing how sick everyday people are who suspect that their leaders are big-time criminals.

Mike Pompeo Address at CERAWeek , by Mike Pompeo

SECRETARY POMPEO: Thank you, Dan. Thank you all for joining me. I see you standing in the back. It's like church, there's empty pews in the front if you want to come up and grab a seat. I do think – is there anyone from the Petroleum Equipment Suppliers Association here? I'm pretty sure I'm the only former member to ever serve as Secretary of State, so you should put that right on the front of your web page. I think that's legal. Good evening, everyone, and thanks to you all for being here. I (...)

Germany Backpedals On NATO Spending Promise As France Goes Full Throttle

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Germany is poised to renege on its promise to boost NATO spending, backtracking on a public commitment last year by Chancellor Angela Merkel to increase German military expenditure to 1.5 percent of gross domestic product by 2024 - bringing it closer to the 2 percent level set by NATO themselves, according to the Wall Street Journal.
If confirmed at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, the move would mark a fresh step in the gradual estrangement between the US and its erstwhile loyal European ally and comes after Mr. Trump’s repeated attacks of North Atlantic Treaty Organization leaders for not meeting a 2 percent military-spending target. -WSJ
Berlin currently spends around €43 billion ($49 billion), equal to just over 1.2 percent of GDP on defense. Under a new plan unveiled on Monday by the finance ministry, the spending would rise to just 1.37 percent of GDP next year, then decrease again to 1.33 percent in 2019, 1.29 percent in 2022 and 1.25 percent in 2023.

"The commitment we have made to NATO states that spending should reach 2 percent if the budget conditions allow for it. We haven't abandoned the target but it remains a challenge that the federal government wants to master," said a senior government official. 

Berlin's change of heart is the second recent rebuke of President Trump - who publicly embarrassed Germany during a July 2018 bilateral breakfast over their reliance on Russian energy. 

Germany is "captive of Russia because it is getting so much of its energy from Russia," said Trump, adding "The former Chancellor of Germany is the head of the pipeline company that is supplying the gas." 

"Ultimately Germany will have almost 70 percent of their country controlled by Russia with natural gas. So you tell me, is that appropriate?" Trump asked. "It should have never been allowed to happen. So Germany is totally controlled by Russia." 

Berlin has not taken kindly to Trump's rhetoric, which includes criticism over Germany's decision to let Chinese technology giant Huawei build their next generation 5G mobile network.

"NATO members clearly pledged to move towards, not away, from 2 percent by 2024. That the German government would even be considering reducing its already unacceptable commitments to military readiness is a worrisome signal to Germany’s 28 NATO allies," said the US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell. 

France goes the other way

Speaking at the Atlantic Council in Washington, French armed forces minister Florence Parly said Monday that France "Fully support[s] the US insistence on the 2 percent," adding that French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that Europeans might enshrine this objective in a treaty. 

That said, Parly also knocked the United States for what she described as an increasingly transactional relationship with allies. 

"NATO’s solidarity clause is called Article 5, not Article F-35," said Parly, adding "I’m personally more concerned at the notion that the strength of NATO solidarity might be made conditional on allies buying this or that equipment. The alliance should be unconditional, otherwise it’s not an alliance."
Last year, Trump said he was willing to help smaller, less-wealthy countries purchase US weapons.

'We are not going to finance it for them but we will make sure that they are able to get payments and various other things so they can buy — because the United States makes by far the best military equipment in the world, the best jets, the best missiles, the best guns, the best everything,' he said at a news conference.

In his most recent budget proposal, Trump has also sought to revive a failed effort from the early days of the administration to offer flexible loans to countries to help them purchase everything from trucks to military training to fighter jets and drones. -Defense One
 To help smaller countries buy US military equipment, a State Department official said that it would be seeking up to $8 billion to "make US defense equipment a more competitive and more affordable option for partner countries."

Reprinted with permission from ZeroHedge.

Attempt to Prosecute Assad at ICC is Aimed at Undermining Syrian Peace Process

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The announcement that “a group of Syrian refugees and their London lawyers” have found “a neat legal trick” to press for an indictment against Syrian President Bashar Assad by the International Criminal Court demonstrates, yet again, the dangerous corruption of international justice, against which I have been warning for over a decade.

The Syrian war is nearly over, thanks to the military successes of the Syrian army and its Russian and Iranian allies. Exhaustion on both sides has probably helped. Diplomatic overtures have started to re-integrate Syria into the international system, starting at the regional level: the United Arab Emirates have re-opened their embassy in Damascus; the Sudanese president, Assad's near namesake, Omar Al-Bashir, has visited Syria, as have senior Egyptian officials; Syrian officials have attended pan-Arab summits; even Israel is maintaining its dialogue with Russia over Syria. In short, the situation is being slowly normalised as Syria herself embarks on the painful search for internal peace.

The attempt to get Assad prosecuted is an attempt to stamp out these seedlings of peace before they take root. Any prosecution against Assad would scupper, or at least severely damage, this slow acceptance that the Syrian president is part of the solution. When even the British government has accepted that Assad is here to stay, and that peace must be made with him, his implacable enemies fear that their prize is about to slip out of their grasp. They do not want peace, if that means keeping Assad.

We know that the goal is to sabotage any peace process because this kind of indictment is old hat in international criminal law. At the end of the Bosnian Civil War in 1995, indictments were issued against the Bosnian Serb leaders, especially Radovan Karadzic, specifically in order to remove them from the Dayton peace talks. Antonio Cassese, then president of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, said in 1995, just after the indictment was issued against Karadzic, that it had been issued for that reason: “The indictment means that these gentlemen will not be able to participate in peace negotiations” (quoted in the Italian daily L'Unità, 26 July 1995). Incidentally, Cassese had himself encouraged the prosecutor to bring these prosecutions even though he, as a judge and president of the tribunal, was supposed to be neutral.

The “legal trick” is designed to overcome the fact that Syria is not a state party to the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court and therefore not subject to its jurisdiction. Assad's enemies are seeking to sidestep the fact that Syria is beyond the ICC's reach by seeking to apply to Syria a principle which, unfortunately, the ICC itself applied to Burma last year. In September, the ICC judges agreed that a case could be brought against Myanmar (Burma), even though that country is not a state party to the Rome statute, because the crimes it had allegedly committed – deportation – had caused people to flee into Bangladesh, which is a state party. By analogy, Syria's enemies hope that the presence of Syrian refugees in Jordan, a state party to the ICC statute, will enable them to go after Assad. They seem not to care that this is the first time anyone has ever mentioned “deportation” in Syria, although Damascus has been accused of all manner of other crimes.

The ruling on Myanmar and Bangladesh illustrates everything that is wrong with international justice. Not only did the decision to apply jurisdiction to the Burmese authorities break the fundamental principles of international law, as expressed in the “treaty on treaties,” the 1969 Vienna Convention, which says that the principle of free consent is “universally recognized” and whose Article 34 says, “A treaty does not create either obligations or rights for a third state without its consent,” it also broke an even more fundamental principle by specifically claiming the right to define its own powers (referred to, in English texts, with the French and German expressions la compétence de la compétence and Kompetenz-Kompetenz). The Court described this as “a well-established principle of international law according to which any international tribunal has the power to determine the extent of its own jurisdiction.” In reality, it is no such thing.

On the contrary, the powers of all organisations are determined by law. Even sovereign governments are restricted by national laws in their powers. The idea that an international organisation has the legal right to determine its own powers, and to extend its jurisdiction to states that have not accepted it, is about as blatant a violation of the rule of law as one can imagine. In the past, such claims were equivalent to declarations of war, because a claim like this can only be settled by force. For example, on July 23 1914, Austria demanded the right for its police to carry out investigations inside Serbia for the assassination of the Archduke Franz-Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 29. It sent an ultimatum to Belgrade to this effect, which Serbia refused. The result was the First World War, launched by Vienna in the name of the right to punish the perpetrators of that crime.

The ICC has already discredited itself massively after the Laurent Gbagbo fiasco. Having collaborated in the politically-motivated indictment of the president of Côte d'Ivoire in 2011 – a collaboration which gave legitimacy to the French military operation to oust him, just as it gave legitimacy to the NATO attack on Libya by also indicting Colonel Gaddafi at the same time – the Court was forced to acquit Laurent Gbagbo eight years later, in January of this year.

By seeking to extend its lamentable rule to Syria, and thereby to disrupt a barely embryonic peace there, the ICC risks destroying its reputation even further. For the rules limiting the jurisdiction of international organisations to states which have consented to accept them are not some arcane technicality of international law. Instead, they reflect the most basic principle of politics, which is that those who wield power need to be constitutionally linked to those over whom they wield it. International organisations which are not based on such consent violate that very basic principle flagrantly, and therefore start to resemble the very dictatorships they pretend to combat.

Reprinted with permission from RT.

The Fight against Terrorism and Extremism and Human Rights Protection in Xinjiang

Foreword Terrorism is the common enemy of humanity, and the target of joint action by the international community. Terrorist forces, by means of violence, sabotage and intimidation, pose a serious threat to world peace and security by scorning human rights, slaughtering innocent people, endangering public security, and creating fear and panic in society. The infiltration and spread of extremism is a hotbed for violence and terror, constituting a direct threat to human rights. The Chinese (...)

European Parliament resolution of 12 March 2019 on the state of EU-Russia political relations

The European Parliament, – having regard to its resolution of 10 June 2015 on the state of EU-Russia relations , – having regard to the agreements reached in Minsk on 5 and 19 September 2014 and on 12 February 2015 , – having regard to its previous resolutions, in particular that of 14 June 2018 on Georgian occupied territories 10 years after the Russian invasion , as well as of 4 February 2016 on the human rights situation in Crimea, in particular of the Crimean Tatars , – (...)

The United States of America, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom Joint Statement on the Eighth Anniversary of the Syrian Conflict

Eight years ago today, tens of thousands of Syrians took to the streets to claim the right to express themselves freely, call for reform, and demand justice. The Assad regime's brutal response, and role in the conflict that followed, resulted in the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. We recognize the brave men and women from across Syria's diverse society who have worked towards a better future for all Syrians. We also remember the countless civilians who have lost their lives (...)

The lies of Algerian Power, by Thierry Meyssan

The criteria that we habitually use in politics to explain power games do not apply to Algeria. Its current leaders are above all impostors who have fabricated, one by one, false biographies in order to obtain the consideration of their compatriots. Inch by inch, they have clawed their way to the highest summit of the State. They hold their positions there by the will of the great powers who pretend to believe their fables in order the better to manipulate them.