Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, April 12, 2021

Tragic History is Still Haunting the DRC

By Henry Srebrnik, [Moncton, NB] Times & Transcript

It is hard to think of any country on earth more ruthlessly exploited than the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its natural resources -- tin ore from mines in the interior, timber from its vast forests, gold ore, diamonds, even uranium – are all pillaged. 

The theft of the territory’s wealth goes back to the days of the 19th century Congo Free State, the lucrative, privately owned colony of Belgium’s King Leopold II.

Traders and explorers from the Middle East, Europe, and even the United States moved rapidly into the region. They created a deadly trade in ivory and rubber for Western markets and in enslaved labour for the Indian Ocean rim.

The brutal practices that King Leopold II later used to extract a huge fortune in rubber from his personally owned colony became a worldwide scandal in the twentieth century’s first decade, as recounted in Joseph Conrad’s 1902 exposé, Heart of Darkness.

Few profits from all these riches ever trickled down to ordinary Congolese, either in centuries past or today. Most households today survive on less than the equivalent of $3 a day.

Recovery from the exploitation built into colonialism often happens faster if a territory previously had a common language and some shared sense of nationhood, but that eludes this vast country.

The region was inhabited by hundreds of different peoples, speaking well over 200 indigenous languages, and absolutely no sense of shared identity. Travel was very difficult due to the thickness of the rain forest, the world’s second largest, and hindered the development of large political entities.

“In many cases,” writes Yale University historian Robert Harms in his 2019 book Land of Tears, “the largest political unit was a single village, or even a segment of a village.”

The Belgian government took control of the vast region away from Leopold but did little to improve conditions. After independence in 1960, the country devolved into anarchy; eventually the major beneficiary became the dictator of the country, Mobutu Sese Seko. During his reign of thirty-two years, Mobutu pocketed even more money from the territory than Leopold had done.

The collapse of the Mobutu regime in 1997 created a power vacuum that drew more than a half-dozen African nations, along with various militias, into an extended and chaotic war in the Congo.

This bloody conflict, which became known as Africa’s World War, lasting from 1998 to 2003, led to the deaths of some four million people. Then came the long-time ruler Joseph Kabila, who used his time in office, from 2001 to 2019, to amass vast business holdings for himself and his family.

Though Felix Tshisekedi is currently president, following a disputed election, Kabila still wields considerable power behind the scenes.

Nor has violence ceased. Armed groups continue to massacre civilians in the troubled east of the country. The Italian ambassador, Luca Attanasio, was killed Feb. 22 during a visit to the eastern part of the country in a World Food Program convoy. 

The U.S. State Department on March 11 declared the Allied Democratic Forces and Madina at Tauheed Wau Mujahedeen as terrorist groups affiliated to the jihadist group Islamic State Central Africa Province.

The despoilation of the country’s resources continues. The Congo Basin contains some 314 million hectares of primary rainforest. “Being a major storehouse of biodiversity, it provides huge services to all of humanity,” explains Simon Lewis, a geographer at University College London.

Industrial activity, such as palm oil plantations, logging and mining, is contributing to deforestation. Primary rainforest loss more than doubled between 2002 to 2019, according to Global Forest Watch, an initiative of the World Resources Institute. In 2019 alone, 590,000 hectares were lost.

One way to halt this is through community forestry concessions in individual villages. The government believes this will provide unprecedented new levels of protection.

For example, the 500 indigenous people of Lokolama, in the Equateur province of northwestern Congo, were granted 10,000 hectares in February 2019 with the support of Greenpeace Africa and are now harvesting honey and tomatoes. In Yanonge, more than 640 kilometres to the east, four remote forest communities established another community concession, cultivating peanuts and plantain.

The country has also instituted a moratorium on new logging concessions. It’s definitely a start.

 

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Vietnam’s Government Has Crushed COVID-19

By Henry Srebrnik, [Moncton, NB] Times & Transcript

In Vietnam, a Communist regime has dominated its society for decades and remains important today. It has been put to the test as it faces the struggle against COVID-19. So how has the country fared?

Despite limited resources and geographical proximity to Wuhan, China where coronavirus first appeared, Vietnam’s low-cost model against COVID-19 has been a success with the number of infected staying low and community infection under control.

Vietnam has kept the total number of infections in the country of 96 million at around 2,500 as of March and reported just 35 deaths. It crushed a first wave of cases in February 2020, and a larger cluster that was detected among foreign tourists two months later.

The Lowy Institute published an index on Jan. 28 ranking 98 countries and their success in handling the coronavirus pandemic, Vietnam ranked second, behind New Zealand.

Vietnam’s first domestically developed COVID-19 vaccine, called Nanocovax, is expected to be available by the fourth quarter of this year and put into use in 2022. Four Vietnamese companies were engaged in vaccine research and production.

Vietnam’s economy has remained resilient, expanding by 2.9 per cent in 2020, one of the highest growth rates in the world, and growth is projected to be 6.5 per cent in 2021, thanks to strong economic fundamentals, decisive containment measures and well-targeted government support, according to the International Monetary Fund’s latest survey of the country’s economy, released March 1.

The government’s pandemic prevention strategy fitted with Vietnamese society’s collectivist culture. Though this exerted constrains on people’s lives, they complied with its actions, the main reason for Vietnam’s success in coping with COVID-19.

Vietnam issued quick and decisive policy responses and it strictly applied health measures. It used mass media and grassroots management system to turn these into advantages to help the country fight COVID-19.

The nation mobilized the whole political system including the Communist Party, the government, the Fatherland Front and other social organizations. The slogan “Fighting the pandemic like fighting against invasive enemies” demonstrated Vietnam’s determination and priority on pandemic prevention.

This did involve intrusive surveillance. There are 2.8 million government officials and employees in the nation, accounting for about three per cent of Vietnam’s total population. They were thrown into the battle.

Grassroots committees were established, and each building and school had its own steering committee for COVID-19 prevention. The establishment of a network from the central to the grassroots level has helped the pandemic prevention activities be widely deployed.

In localized areas where the virus was detected, barricades were set up to prevent people from leaving their houses, while the grassroots management teams helped ensure people’s daily life by supporting their purchase of supplies and necessities. Health checks and monitoring were also conducted continuously to detect new cases in the affected locales.

Vietnam temporarily suspended entry by most foreigners and stopped operating international flight routes, only organizing flights to take Vietnamese home from countries where COVID-19 infections had become critical.

Mass media, which is strictly under political control, has played an important role in raising public awareness of the coronavirus. In Vietnam, there is no private ownership of broadcast outlets.

The national state-owned broadcasting television, Vietnam Television (VTV) is under the control of the two bodies: The Department of Radio, Television and Electronic Information, which regulates technical, legal and economic aspects of the broadcasting system, and the Central Propaganda and Education Commission, which works to ensure that “all media practitioners remain loyal to the Party’s propagandist agenda.”

Mass media in the country continuously delivered messages about the danger of COVID-19, and surveys showed that people accepted the credibility of the information.

The Ministry of Public Security also provided simple instructions for people to identify fake news on the internet that might be harmful to the country. Those evading medical declarations were not only punished by law but also subject to intense social condemnation.

The cooperation of the public was achieved through the application of what the government termed the “two weapons”: domestic mass media and the grassroots management system.

“When people trust the government, people do what the government says,” remarked Professor Guy Thwaites, director of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit and Major Overseas Programme in Viet Nam.

 

Saturday, April 03, 2021

Can Russia Teach Us Anything About Ethnically-Based Federali

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Political scientists seek to understand events and processes in one place through juxtaposing them with their contemporary equivalents in at least one other society.

So much of the reason we teach comparative politics courses is so that students can compare and contrast political systems elsewhere to our own and perhaps consider potentially adapting some of their features to our own federation.

Russia has a complicated asymmetrical federal structure. There are 85 units, all called “Subjects of the Federation.”

The main grouping is the 46 oblasts, usually named after their main city, for example Sverdlovsk or Volgograd; they have a predominantly ethnic Russian population. They are simply territorial subdivisions, like American or Brazilian states, with no ethnic connotations.

The same is true of the nine krais, such as Kamchatka or Krasnodar. They are named differently than oblasts because they are found in outlying, frontier areas, mainly in Siberia. A Canadian parallel might be Yukon.

Then there are units with a distinct ethnic basis, named republics, which enjoy more autonomy than the other types of jurisdictions.

These 22 republics range from big ethnic entities named for a “titular” nationality, such as Chechnya and Tatarstan, down to tiny entities created as homes for smaller ethnic groups. Some of the latter are even enclaves found within the regular oblasts or krais.

For example, Adygea is one such entity, representing the indigenous Adyghe people. It is the fifth-smallest Russian federal subject by area, with its territory situated within Krasnodar Krai.

Each region, regardless of its status, has an elected leader -- in oblasts and krais, governors or the heads of administration; in republics, usually presidents of the republic.

Regardless of type or size, all 85 “subjects” are represented by two delegates each in the Council of the Federation, the 170-seat upper house of the Federal Assembly, the Russian parliament. The lower house, the State Duma, with 450 members, is an elected body, with representation by population.

In my course on the Russian political system, I introduced the students to this complex system. Then I brought to their attention the ill-fated 1992 Charlottetown Accord, in which aboriginal peoples were to have been a “third order of government.”

The Charlottetown Accord would have substantially altered the status of aboriginal groups in Canada. Under the Accord, an aboriginal right to self-government would have been enshrined in the Canadian Constitution. Moreover, the Accord would have recognized aboriginal governments as analogous to the federal government and the provinces.

There was provision for aboriginal representation in the Senate, and Aboriginal senators would have had the same role and powers as other senators.

Aboriginal legislation, however, would have been required to be consistent with the principles of “peace, order, and good government in Canada,” and would have been subject to judicial review under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Beyond these general principles, the Charlottetown Accord did not provide any details on the precise form that such self-government would have taken. Further, it provided for a breathing period before they could access the right to self-government.

This would have allowed the federal government and the provinces time to negotiate the details. But how would this have worked, territorially? There are 633 reserves in this country, all within provinces and territories, like raisins in a cake. What would their status become? This remained vague.

But what if we adopted the Russian system, making them all small ethnic republics within the larger provincial entities created by the settlers who came to this country? After all, Nunavut is already effectively an Inuit polity.

So, for example, Kanehsatake, near Montreal, would become a Mohawk republic, within the province of Quebec. The Tsuutʼina First Nation southwest of Calgary would become a self-governing ethnic polity. And so on.

Some First Nations are already, in a de facto sense, on this road. British Columbia is home to 198 First Nations, about one third of all in Canada. The Nisga’a in 1998 signed a treaty with Canada, and as part of the settlement, nearly 2,000 square kilometres in the Nass River Valley in northwestern British Columbia was officially recognized as theirs.

The Wetʼsuwetʼen, in the central interior of the province, last May signed an agreement with the federal and provincial governments, in which Ottawa and B.C. recognized Wet’suwet’en rights and title to their land.

Doing the same with other indigenous nations would make for a more complex federal system than the one we have now, but it might open up all sorts of possibilities for further reconciliation.


Tuesday, March 30, 2021

As China Rises, Biden Struggles to Resp

By Henry Srebrnik, [Moncton, NB]  Times & Transcript

On March 19, American and Chinese officials met in Anchorage, Alaska, to discuss a range of security and human rights issues. It didn’t go well. The new Biden administration’s strategy to curb Beijing faces a stiff challenge as China uses its economic, diplomatic and military might to deflect criticism.

The relationship between the two countries got off to a bad start when the new People’s Republic of China, founded in 1949, snubbed the U.S. as the chief global agent of capitalism and imperialism and forged an alliance with the Soviet Union.

Washington retaliated by refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the new Chinese government and continuing to uphold the Republic of China, confined to the island of Taiwan, as the sole legitimate representative of the Chinese people, and denying the Communist regime one of the five permanent seats at the UN Security Council until 1971.

Relations grew more cordial in the 1970s, and the Beijing regime was recognized in 1979. China also emerged from the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution and began its swift rise as a major economic power.

China’s leaders aimed at the creation of a mercantilist, state-capitalist system, guided by a Communist Party holding a monopoly of power, modelled after Vladimir Lenin’s New Economic Policy in the early years of the Soviet Union.

Lenin characterized it as an economic system that would include a free market and capitalism, but subject to state control.

While China and the U.S. have found some common ground on issues of trade, key issues remain unresolved, the potential for troubling divergence is real, with China now an economic powerhouse, a military force in Asia, and a potential rival to U.S. hegemony.

President Xi Jinping, in power since 2012, is the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. In March of 2018, China's parliament amended its constitution, broadening his power and scrapping term limits.

China has become more authoritarian under Xi. He has carried out a massive crackdown on China’s Uighur minority in Xinjiang; launched campaigns of repression in Hong Kong, Inner Mongolia, and Tibet; and stifled dissent among intellectuals, lawyers, artists, and religious organizations across China.

He has come to believe that China should no longer fear any sanctions that the United States might impose in response to violations of human rights. In his view, China’s economy is now strong enough to weather them.

Anyhow, the promise of peaceful reunification with Taiwan under a “one country, two systems” formula has evaporated as the Taiwanese look to Hong Kong, where China has imposed a harsh new national security law, arrested opposition politicians, and restricted media freedom. 

The Chinese think that the United States’ role in their region for the past 75 years has been unnatural and is therefore transient.

China is aiming to become the dominant force in the Asia-Pacific, strengthening its hand toward Taiwan and international disputes in the East and South China Seas. Championing what he calls the Chinese Dream, a vision to restore China’s great-power status, Xi has gone further to push military reforms than his predecessors.

Beijing intends to complete its military modernization program by 2027, with the main goal of giving China a decisive edge in all conceivable scenarios for a conflict with the United States over Taiwan.

So the possibility of war exists, since for the United States to back away from a fight would mean abandoning its commitment to a democratic ally at tremendous reputational cost.

Chen Yixin, the secretary-general of the Communist Party’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, on Jan. 15 stated that “the rise of the East and the decline of the West” has become a global trend and “changes of the international landscape are in our favor.”

A powerful figure within the China’s Communist apparatus, he is expected to succeed Xi Jinping as the country’s next leader and his remarks reflect Beijing’s growing belief in its inevitable rise as the world’s sole superpower.

China now occupies that place in the American mind that Germany and the Soviet Union once held: an ideological opponent that has the ability to threaten the United States’ position in a key region and perhaps elsewhere too. Can President Joe Biden improve matters? Not so far.

 

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Mexico is a Dangerous Country for Journalists

 


Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Mexico has for years been one of the world’s most dangerous nations for reporters, and things seem to be getting worse.

It was the deadliest country in the world for the media in 2020, accounting for almost a third of journalists killed, according to the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which investigates attacks against the press globally.

At least 13 journalists were killed in Mexico last year, bringing the death toll to 133 since 2000. A recent string of killings underscored the risks facing journalists who cover sensitive subjects such as crime, politics and the security forces.

This is the fourth time in the past five years that Mexico has also led the International Federation of Journalists’ list in the number of journalists killed. The Brussels-based organization represents more than 600,000 media workers from 187 organisations in 146 countries.

Killing the Story: Journalists Risking Their Lives to Uncover the Truth in Mexico, a book published in 2018 and translated into English last summer, reveals how journalists are risking their lives to expose crime and corruption.

Journalist and filmmaker Témoris Grecko describes how they are frequently caught between nefarious politicians and ruthless criminal organizations, who are often aligned with each other.

A Mexican reporter who wrote about violent crime in the central state of Guanajuato died of gunshot wounds last Nov. 9.

Israel Vazquez was about to broadcast the discovery of human remains in plastic bags in the municipality of Salamanca, in Guanajuato state, when he was shot at least 11 times.

Guanajuato is one of the most active drug cartel battlegrounds in the country and the state that recorded the highest number of murders per year in 2019. It has been shaken by bloody turf wars between rival drug cartels.

Violence is now endemic in almost every sector of Mexican society, and reporters have often been caught up in the conflict, which claimed more than 31,000 lives last year.

The killing of Vazquez drew a backlash from international press groups, including the CPJ, Reporters Without Borders and the Inter-American Press Association.

“The brazen killing of Israel Vazquez Rangel underscores how Mexico is more dangerous for reporters than even war zones,” maintains Jan-Albert Hootsen, CPJ’s Mexico representative.

“Mexico is suffering a multi-faceted crisis with regard to press freedom. The crisis principally stems from impunity.” Overall, at least 90 per cent of journalist killings remain unsolved.

The murder of Vazquez was no isolated incident. On Oct. 29, TV host Arturo Alba Medina was shot in Ciudad Juarez in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, across from El Paso in Texas.

A week before Vazquez’s death, two other journalists met the same fate. Jesus Alfonso Pinuelas, was shot dead in Cajeme, in the northern Mexican state of Sonora, while Victor Manuel Jiménez, a reporter who left home to attend a baseball game in the city of Celaya and never returned. He is presumed to have been murdered.

Journalists covering protests have also come under attack in Mexico. On the same day Vazquez was murdered, four journalists were injured when police in the city of Cancun opened fire at a crowd protesting against femicides.

Deadly violence against women reached record heights in 2019; more than 1,000 women were murdered because of their gender, an increase of 10 per cent over 2018.

In 2006, the government of Vicente Fox Quesada created the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Journalists (FEADP). But current president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has weakened protection for journalists under threat and cut funds for investigations.

Two of the journalists killed last year were under supposed federal protection after having reported deaths threats linked to their work. In both cases their assigned bodyguards also died in the attacks.

Indeed, sometimes officials themselves target reporters. On March 2, a vehicle attempted to force Alberto Amaro Jordan off the road while he was driving in the municipality of Tetla de la Solidaridad, in Tlaxcala state. Its driver was Eleazar Molina Pérez, the mayor of that municipality, who has been accused of corruption.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Biden Lionized by the Press, but Deeper Problems Loom

By Henry Srebrnik, [Moncton, NB] Times & Transcript

The Joe Biden love-fest continues. So glad are they to be rid of Donald Trump, that journalists have been “jumping the shark” in their praise of a president who has been in office barely two months.

On March 11, New York Times columnist David Brooks headlined an article on the paper’s website titled “Joe Biden is a Transformational President.” It took longer for Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt to reach that exalted status.

They need to find space on Mount Rushmore for a man born in 1942 who had been running for this office since 1988. I wonder why nobody had noticed his amazing talents before, while the Democrats were nominating Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton.

Biden’s inauguration was treated as a coronation and cable TV pundits were euphoric. John Heileman at MSNBC compared Biden’s speech to Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural, while fellow commentator Rachel Maddow was overcome by emotion. CNN’s David Challen in a fit of over-the-top rhetoric told us that the lights along the Washington Mall were like “extensions of Joe Biden’s arms embracing America.”

On Valentine’s Day, an article on the Politico website announced that the Bidens had brought “presidential PDA back to the White House.” For those scratching their heads, the acronym refers to public displays of affection.

On a mission to rebuild institutional norms and help heal a hurting nation, Joe and Jill Biden are trying something novel after four years of the Trumps: a little tenderness,” gushed Quint Forgey.

Also, as Matt Taibi, in a March 12 article, “The Sovietization of the American Press,” joked, “We now know in advance that every Biden address will be reviewed as historic and exceptional.”

In reality, Biden can barely get through a speech nor has he held a press conference. So why such propaganda, worthy of writers who turned Stalin, Mao and Kim Jong-un into living gods?

Because, as Newsweek columnist Marianne Williamson noted, in a March 10 article, the country remains “The United States of Oligarchy.”

This had become the case long before Trump appeared on the scene, and it’s unlikely Biden will turn things around. More and more Americans realize that America has turned into an oligarchy.

“The oligarchic take-over of the U.S. government started in 1980, sometimes moving faster and sometimes moving slower but never really waning,” she asserts. The massive transfer of wealth into the hands of one per cent of Americans has been “a march of malfeasance that began with the Republicans but which no Democratic president stopped.”

Unlike the sunshine stories from Biden’s hagiographers, Williamson warns that so far Biden “is in too many cases supporting policies that paved the way to Trump's ascendency to begin with.”

His massive $1.9 trillion rescue bill “provides just enough relief to enable people to go back to living lives as economically stressed and traumatized as they were before the pandemic occurred.” She wonders why reforming the financial system to prevent further disasters isn’t on Biden’s agenda.

Daniel Markovits, a professor at Yale Law School, in the September 2019 issue of the Atlantic magazine, wonders “How Life Became an Endless, Terrible Competition,” and contends that today’s economy hollows out the middle class and “excludes everyone outside of a narrow elite.”

Harvard University Law School professor Michael Sandel, in The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?  warns these elites that the very system that has afforded them the tools to thrive amid economic and social instability has given rise to political discontent and lies at the root of populist backlash.

He too cites a string of failures from 1980 to the present, includ­ing “stagnant wages for most workers, inequalities of income and wealth not seen since the 1920s, the Iraq War, a nineteen-year, incon­clusive war in Afghanistan, financial deregulation, and the financial crisis of 2008.”

In each instance the ruling class benefited from these crises, or at least were not harmed by their consequences. Reflecting on this situation, University of Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen, notes, in “A Tyranny Without Tyrants?” in the spring 2021 issue of American Affairs, that approximately half the country showed its contempt by voting for Trump in 2016.

 

Monday, March 15, 2021

COVID-19 and the Commonwealth South Pacifi

By Henry Srebrnik, Moncton Times & Transcript

Eight South Pacific island microstates are members of the Commonwealth. Nauru became a member on attaining independence in 1968, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga in 1970, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu in 1978, Kiribati in 1979, and Vanuatu in 1980.

Two others, the Cook Islands and Niue, are involved with many Commonwealth activities but are ineligible, being in a free association relationship with New Zealand.

Insularity, small size, and geographic remoteness best describe these small polities and helps explain their limited exposure to COVID-19.

Unlike a compact region of islands like the Caribbean area, in the South Pacific travelling to, and within, the region involves very significant distances. As well, none have land borders and all are archipelagic except for Niue. This would help in isolating hotspots domestically if the international borders were breached.

These factors explain why the bulk of the cases in the South Pacific have been limited to countries with substantial international traffic such as tourism. Most of the region’s polities do not engage directly with global pandemic hotspots.

The initial public health reaction to COVID-19 was fairly similar across the Commonwealth Pacific. The closure of international airports, quarantining of cruising yachts, restrictions on domestic travel along with limiting public gatherings, closures of schools and businesses were typical responses.

These decisions were made less controversial because international travel into the region was cut off at the source. Not only did Australia, New Zealand and other states restrict their international flights, but quarantining travellers at transit or entry points into the region discouraged using what access was available.

While remaining free of the disease itself, the South Pacific entities have nevertheless been impacted economically by COVID-19. The collapse of international tourism, the barriers to labour mobility, and the job losses in diaspora host countries, with the resulting decline in remittances – a massive source of income -- have been devastating.

Economic conditions have reduced the demand for the region’s exports while diminished imports cut national income from customs and excises. Reduced trade even threatened food security as many islands depend on imports for basic food stuffs.

While Fiji, Samoa, and Vanuatu have not been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus in terms of health, the economic consequences have been severe.

No economic sector has been more affected than tourism, both land-based and cruise ships. It represents the single most important component of GDP and of the labour force, and it was a valuable source of foreign exchange in each of the countries that depend on it.

 Fiji claimed as many as 100,000 workers employed directly and indirectly in the tourism industry -- about 45 per cent of the labour force -- serving almost 900,000 visitors in 2019. The industry contributed about 40 per cent of GDP. Samoa and Vanuatu had smaller numbers with around 135.000 and 300,000 tourists, respectively.

Fiji pursued the most aggressive measures against COVID-19 because it was the first to directly experience the disease. The government imposed a nationwide curfew and lockdowns of affected areas in spring of 2020.

All South Pacific island these states have legislated economic stimulus programs to reduce the consequences of unemployment, business closures and reduced family support from overseas relations. Financing these measures has involved borrowing from international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund.

Estimates of a decline of 5.9 per cent in regional GDP and an increase in extreme poverty by 40 per cent are compounded by the debt incurred to stave off the worst of the business and social impacts of these losses.

While the use of stimulus packages to keep people employed is necessary, it is a risk. It could prove ill-advised if tourists and markets do not return to pre-COVID levels. New debts will make the post-COVID economic recovery far more challenging.

Essentially these states have escaped the virus at the expense of their economies. Sustainable economic activity in the region will depend on post-COVID international revitalization. Greater diversity and self-reliance are also essential.

Fortunately, Australia and New Zealand have taken a leadership role in seeking solutions for the sufferings the pandemic has inflicted on their fellow Commonwealth states. It is crucial to these traditional aid donors that failed states do not emerge in the region.

 

Monday, March 08, 2021

Caribbean Economy Hit Hard by COVID

By Henry Srebrnik, [Moncton, NB] Times & Transcript

How are various Commonwealth Caribbean island jurisdictions coping with the coronavirus pandemic? Overall, the small states and territories have done relatively well in controlling the spread of COVID-19.

Measures were taken to restrict population mobility through shelter in place measures, curfews, and national or localised economic lockdowns. Ten countries imposed national or localised states of emergency to enforce public compliance with prohibitions against the frequenting of bars, beaches and other recreational places.

All countries temporarily banned religious gatherings and closed their borders for varying durations. They have since maintained public health-related border protocols.

This capacity for control has been facilitated by their isolated geographical location. The most severe impacts of the pandemic on them have been economic, as many of these polities are highly dependent on tourism and remittances through labour migration.

The pandemic has highlighted the limited agency of the island countries, buffeted as they are by developments occurring elsewhere. The result has been higher levels of indebtedness, unemployment and psychological stress, disproportionately affecting vulnerable populations throughout the region.

COVID-19 has further weakened the fragile socio-economic fabric of the Commonwealth Caribbean. Economies have been stifled by lockdowns, and by a global decline in travel and tourism. Their export-oriented economies are heavily dependent on tourism, air and maritime transport, financial services, remittances and commodities, including fossil fuels.

For economies based on oil and gas exports, COVID-19 has dramatically decreased the demand for energy, due to reduced international and domestic travel. Trinidad and Tobago illustrate this trend. An increase in the country’s deficit spending has accompanied the decreased contributions of the energy sector to GDP.

The hard-hit Caribbean tourism sector accounts for 15.5 per cent of GDP and employs approximately 2.4 million people. For countries like Jamaica, recently emerged from International Monetary Fund restructuring programs, COVID-19 has dealt a crushing blow to economic recovery efforts. The US$73 million allocated to the COVID Allocation of Resources for Employees program proved to be insufficient early in the pandemic.

The pandemic revealed the inadequacies of existing social assistance programs in a crisis. It is estimated that existing social assistance programs cover just 11 per cent of the most vulnerable in Antigua and Barbuda, and St. Lucia; approximately 30 per cent in Trinidad and Tobago; 43 and 45 per cent in St. Kitts and Nevis, and Grenada respectively; and 76 per cent in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

The pandemic has exposed the inadequacies of health care systems in the region. Governments have responded by increasing expenditure on health care in many countries. Antigua and Barbuda, and St. Kitts and Nevis, increased their health care budget by 0.5 per cent of their GDP and local manufacturing of medical equipment and supplies has been bolstered in countries like Trinidad and Tobago.

Given the widespread adverse economic impacts of COVID-19, traditional donors may be less willing and able to enter into development cooperation agreements and to offer assistance to developing countries. Leveraging support from multilateral development agencies is therefore likely to be crucial to the process of restructuring and rebuilding.

Some elements of international cooperation have remained, as with the World Health Organisation’s COVAX facility, enabling developed countries to assist developing countries in obtaining a COVID-19 vaccine.

Despite their limited size and resources, Commonwealth Caribbean states have sought to support business and individuals alike, stimulate economic activity and preserve livelihoods. This offers opportunities to deepen functional cooperation and build resilience.

Policy responses to cushion the impact on the most vulnerable have included measures to boost employment in labour-intensive sectors like construction. Many governments expanded existing programs to meet demands arising from the adverse pandemic effects.

Examples include Antigua’s COVID-19 Government Assistance Food Voucher. As well, St. Vincent and the Grenadines expanded social safety net programs, and St. Kitts and Nevis provided additional support for its poverty alleviation program.

Grenada expanded the government employment programs, while Barbados expanded unemployment benefits to self-employed workers, expanded National Assistance payments and coverage under the National Assistance program. The British Virgin Islands stimulus package included an unemployment fund, business grants, and funds for the National Health Insurance program.

The responses that have been implemented should in future push Commonwealth Caribbean governments to go beyond just facing the pandemic’s immediate impacts.

 

Friday, March 05, 2021

Houthis Make Gains in Yemen’s Civil War

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

U.S. President Joe Biden on Feb. 4 announced an end to support for Saudi-led military offensive operations in Yemen. A day later, the State Department said it would lift the terrorist designation against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Both moves will be welcomed in Iran, their ally, and the tide has turned in favour of the rebels.

The Houthis, an armed movement representing Yemen’s Zaydis, a branch of Shia Islam, continue making gains in Yemen’s civil war, whereas the Saudi-led forces opposing them face discord within their coalition.

Saudi Arabia’s air force launched its first air strikes on Houthi positions in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in March 2015. The campaign, Operation Decisive Storm, at the time seemed likely to be over within weeks.

The Saudis wanted Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi restored as Yemen’s president following his overthrow in a Houthi-led rebellion the previous September. Hadi had been elected president in 2012 after protests lasting nearly a year against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Fearing their growing power, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates opened their air and ground war against the Houthis.

The UN Security Council in April 2015 retrospectively gave carte blanche to the coalition, which in addition to Saudi Arabia involved a dozen Arab and Muslim countries, including Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Morocco, and the Gulf states, except Oman.

The resolution legally sanctioned coalition military action and control over movements in and out of Yemen, including the use of a blockade, which soon exacted an appalling human toll.

The Houthi movement, named after the family it is associated with, emerged from Yemen’s northern province Saada, bordering Saudi Arabia, in the 1980s. Yemen’s Zaidi Shia minority makes up about one-third of the country’s population.

The Houthis had formed a broad tribal alliance in Yemen’s north in opposition to an expanding extremist Sunni Salafism in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which exported the ideology to Yemen. In response, Zaidi clerics began to militarise their followers against Riyadh and its allies. They were also motivated by what they saw as Saleh’s economic discrimination of the north.

A hybrid range of forces make up the Houthis, also referred to as Ansar Allah, with some 60 per cent of the former Yemeni army having allied with the group. Their influence has grown since first challenging Saleh in 2004. They fought six rounds of war from 2004-2010 against Saleh’s forces, until the 2011 Arab Spring uprising toppled him.

A September 2019 report by Renad Mansour and Peter Salisbury, “Between Order and Chaos,” estimated Houthi strength at 180,000-200,000 armed men with access to weapons systems ranging from tanks and technical vehicles to anti-tank guided missiles and long-range ballistic missiles. The group claims many of the advanced parts their arsenal were captured when they took control of Sanaa in 2014.

The Houthis have had support from Iran, a fellow Shia state. Saudi and Yemeni governments have accused Iran of smuggling arms, including ballistic missiles and drones, to the Houthis, enabling them to keep fighting. The Saudis have intercepted many arms shipments off the Yemeni coast over the past several years.

But Tehran’s influence is likely limited politically, especially since Iranians and Houthis adhere to different schools of Shiite Islam.

The Houthis control a third of Yemeni territory including the major population centres. They have even breached Saudi borders.

For the past year, they have steadily advanced in Marib province, roughly 160 kilometres northeast of Sanaa. Capturing it would give the Houthis control over lucrative oil and natural gas reserves.

During his election campaign, Biden expressed opposition to the war in Yemen and was highly critical of the Saudis’ stance. He has made ending the conflict in Yemen a priority since taking office.

Meanwhile, the war continues to drag on and has caused a humanitarian catastrophe affecting some 80 per cent of the population, with 250,00 dead and more than 3.6 million people internally displaced, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

More than two million Yemeni children under the age of five are expected to suffer acute malnutrition this year, which may lead to the death of 400,000 of them, report the World Food Program, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, UNICEF and the World Health Organisation.

Monday, March 01, 2021

China’s New Ideologues

By Henry Srebrnik, [Moncton, NB] Times & Transcript

We know that the days when China’s Communist rulers quoted Lenin, Marx and Mao are long gone. If anything, those former Communist saints are something of an embarrassment to today’s capitalist-mandarin coalition. After all, it governs what has become arguably the most successful state capitalist country on earth.

But who would have thought that many of them are gravitating towards a long-dead German philosopher who admired Adolf Hitler? On second thought, maybe it’s not that surprising. Remember, China has now been accused of genocide in dealing with its Uighur minority.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has markedly shifted the ideological center of gravity within the Communist Party. The limited tolerance China had toward dissent has all but dissipated, so a new group of scholars have started defending the party’s hardening policies. Only with a heavy hand, they believe, can a nation secure the stability required to protect prosperity.

China’s new statists have come to admire the work of the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt. He joined the National Socialist Party in 1933, and, though he was only a Nazi Party member for three years, his anti-liberal jurisprudence had a lasting impact, helping to justify Hitler’s extrajudicial killings of Jews and political opponents.

Why has a Nazi thinker garnered such a lively reception in China? Schmitt gives pro-Beijing scholars an opportunity to anchor the party’s legitimacy on nationalism and external enemies rather than the notion of class struggle.

Whereas liberal scholars view the rule of law as the final authority on value conflicts, Schmitt believed that the sovereign should always have the final say. Commitments to the rule for law would only undercut a community’s decision-making power, and “deprive state and politics of their specific meaning.”

Xu Jilin, Liu Xiaofeng and Gan Yang are three of the most prominent Chinese political philosophers who have actively introduced Schmitt to China. Schmitt, they maintain, provides the Chinese with new theoretical resources with which to consider the issue of political legitimacy in China.

Their ideas have energized the political science, philosophy, and law departments of China’s universities. Chen Duanhong, a law professor at Peking University, called Schmitt “the most successful theorist” to have brought political concepts into his discipline. “His constitutional doctrine is what we revere,” Chen wrote in 2012.

The German jurist, he argued, distinguishes between state and constitutional norms. “When the state is in dire peril,” Chen wrote, citing Schmitt, state leaders have the right to suspend constitutional norms, “especially provisions for civil rights.” This was Schmitt’s notorious doctrine known as the “state of exception.”

Chen’s argument is a straight-forward Schmittian defence of China’s decision to impose a national security law on Hong Kong last June.  In a keynote address at the “2020 Constitution Day Seminar,” held there on Dec. 4, Chen argued that the state is a security system, necessary to guarantee the safety of the individual and the group.  The sovereign protects the state; this is the “law of national self-preservation.” 

Chen illustrated the importance of sovereignty, national security, constitutional rule, and the state of exception by citing U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s actions leading up to the Civil War, when he overrode legal niceties and Supreme Court objections to oppose the secession of the Southern states, only after which, Chen insists, did the United States truly “become a nation.”

Jiang Shigong, Chen’s colleague, has made a similar case. Jiang, who worked as a researcher in Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong from 2004 to 2008, used Schmitt’s ideas extensively in his 2010 volume, China’s Hong Kong: A Political and Cultural Perspective, to resolve tensions between sovereignty and the rule of law in favour of the Communist Party.

Chen and Jiang are “the most concrete expression” thus far of China’s turn to Schmittian ideas, Ryan Mitchell, a law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, wrote in a paper last year. They are the vanguard of the statist movement, which supplies the rationale for the authoritarian impulses of China’s leaders.

The perceived threat of invasion, or at a minimum suspicion of outsiders, continues to inform contemporary politics in China. Such anxiety lends credence to the anti-liberal theories of Carl Schmitt, for whom all politics came down to a distinction between friends and enemies.