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Venezuela is Collapsing

Shoppers waiting in line at a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela

Shoppers waiting in line at a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela

Venezuela, the fifth most populated country in South America, is in the midst of a severe economic collapse. Over the past two years, hyperinflation has devastated the economy while the government’s attempts at currency manipulated have only added to the problem. The official government rate today trades around 10 bolivars for a dollar, but in reality the exchange is closer to 100 to one. Initially in January and affirmed in April, the IMF predicted the currency could collapse completely by the end of 2016 according to its World Economic Outlook, noting the inflation rate could more than double from its current rate of over 275% to as high as 720%. Earlier this month, President Nicolas Maduro declared a 60-day state of emergency.

President Nicolas Maduro

President Nicolas Maduro

The government is shuttering offices and services five days a week to save money and schools are now closed on Fridays. Limits have been placed on the usage of water and electricity, when and if they are available at all, and food shortages can be seen by the empty grocery stores being replaced by a pop up black market economy. Furthermore, the rate of violent crime has skyrocketed as the nation’s capital, Caracas, posted the highest murder rate outside of an active war zone in 2015. Over 330 police were murdered last year in Venezuela according to independent groups, and they purport armed gangs and drug cartels are expanding their operations ruthlessly and rapidly.

Multinational companies have also been hit severely by the crisis, and nearly all have taken action to cut losses. Companies that have already deconsolidated their holdings in Venezuela include Proctor & Gamble, Ford, and PepsiCo. General Mills and Clorox have exited the country, Coca Cola has shut down production due to a shortage of sugar, and dozens more companies are debating whether to renege on their investments and leave or try to stick through the downturn. Tourism in the beautiful country has also been devastated as airliners slash operations and limit flights. American Airlines has cut their number of flights per week from 48 to 10, both Delta and United have drastically reduced the number of flights, and Lufthansa has indefinitely suspended its Venezuelan service altogether. The business reputation of the country has all but vanished for the time being.

Real vs. estimated inflation in Venezuela

Real vs. estimated inflation in Venezuela

How did Venezuela fall into this crisis? Hugo Chavez led the country for over a decade heralded as one of the world’s strongest socialist states, depending heavily on the country’s vast oil industry. Corruption was relatively overlooked because abundant oil money sustained the system and the country’s GDP was consistently high among South American countries. The over reliance on oil completely undercut the possibility of a balanced economy during Chavez’s presidency, which was also marred by potential human rights violations and the stymieing of any political opposition. Real cracks in the system became even more apparent in the early 2010s as government expenditures continued to rise while actual revenues fell due to the drop in oil prices.

Following Chavez’s death in 2013, his successor, Nicolas Maduro, has attempted to continue Chavez’s state-heavy policies and entrenched socialism, however with oil funds drying up and persistent corruption, the situation quickly spiraled out of control. Opposition politicians won big in the elections against Maduro’s camp in December and ever since have contested his power amid the collapsing economic and political structures. Social, political, and security indicators have all worsened with the continued consolidation of state power, and Maduro today stands on a fragile precipice.

Even if oil prices rise as expected, the amount of revenue needed to dampen the crisis seems unobtainable without drastic political changes. Government employees have actually personally benefited in the short term from the hyperinflation because they can utilize the official exchange rate unlike ordinary citizens. Maduro may be ousted sooner than later as his crumbling government continues to flounder, polls suggest nearly 70% of Venezuelans want him to step down this year and talks of a referendum occur often. Hard times are ahead for Venezuelans and the situation will get even tougher before it begins to turn around.

 

 

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Mali Debriefing – 2015

Tuareg Nomad outside Timbuktu Mosque

Tuareg Nomad outside a mosque in Timbuktu

Mali is a landlocked country in central west Africa that has a population of over 19 million, about 10% or around 2 million of which live in the capital city Bamako. Due to its history under French colonial rule, French is the official language, but approximately 80% of Malians can communicate in the most prevalent local language of Bambara. Over 60% of the country still lives in rural areas, and 5-10% pursue a traditional nomadic lifestyle. Malians represent many different ethnic groups, the most prominent of which are the Mande (50%), followed by Fula (17%), Voltaic (12%), Tuareg and Moor (10%) and Songhai. Mali is one of the hottest countries in the world, as more than half the country is primarily Sahara desert, though the three regions in the northeast (the states of Timbuktu, Kidal, Gao) hold only 10% of the population. Mali is 90% Muslim, the vast majority of whom are Sunni Muslim, while about 5% identify as Christians and another 5% ascribe to indigenous African religions.

Map showing the regions of Mali including the claimed state of Azawad

Map showing the regions of Mali including the claimed state of Azawad

Mali has a considerable amount of natural resources including gold and uranium, but simultaneously is one of the least developed and poorest nations in the world. Over 80% of Malians are involved in the local agriculture industry, and the country’s biggest trade partner is France. Perhaps the most significant reason why so many Malians are stuck in a cycle of poverty is because of the failures of its education system. Malian primary school enrollment is low at 61% (ages 7-13) but secondary school enrollment (ages 13-18) drops even more to only 15% despite school being compulsory until age 16. The literacy rate is estimated between 27-46% and both enrollment and literacy rates are alarmingly worse for girls and women.

The Malian government is becoming more pro-Western over time, though it has retained an ambivalent relationship with France especially in terms of newer security threats. Since 2012, unrest in the north has persisted between various Islamist groups, Tuareg rebel militants, and the Malian government backed by the French and other international organizations. The November Radisson Blu hotel attack by terrorist group Al-Mourabitoun in conjunction with the region’s Al-Qaeda affiliate underscored the fragility of the west African country in particular.

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Mali’s president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita

Mali celebrated its independence from France in 1960, but did not hold its first democratic elections until 1992. Amadou Toure served as president from 2002 until 2012 and made significant progress in public health initiatives including efforts against Guinea Worm, AIDS, and polio during his tenure. From the mid-late 2000’s, there were numerous brief ceasefires between the government and Tuareg rebels interspersed with periodic clashes and violence. Toure was criticized especially in the later years of his presidency for this failure to stem increasing unrest in the country’s northeast which led to a military coup and his resignation in 2012. After the military coup the country transitioned back to democracy in 2013 which has since led by Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (commonly referred to as IBK). IBK’s party seeks to promote a secular, social democracy, and is a member of the Socialist International organization.

  • 2011: Rebellion reignites after Libyan Civil War due to Tuareg militants returning  to northern Mali
  • March – April 2012 Tuareg rebels effectively control north half of Mali including Timbuktu, Kidal, Gao. Rebels self-declare independent state of Azawad
  • March 2012: African Union suspends Mali’s membership following military coup
  • Late 2012: UN and African Union back West African regional grouping ECOWAS in military expedition against rebels/various Islamists in north
  • January – April 2013: Mali asks for and receives French military help. French rapidly defeat rebels and retake key cities.  
  • 2013-present: Sporadic clashes and incidents
  • April 2015: Upsurge in fighting via clashes with UN peacekeepers
  • November 2015: Islamists storm Bamako’s Radisson Blu hotel, taking 170 hostages and killing 20 civilians

The unrest in the northeast has strengthened calls for a stronger security state while diverting attention to basic economic development and job creation. Security assistance offered by the French military, UN peacekeepers and resources, and the African Union have been critical in rolling back successes from rebels and jihadists, though their involvement has come with its own issues as well. On the ground, many Malians are distrustful of the French in particular, seeing their return to the country as a reminder of European influence and colonial control they have tried to move away from. A balance between counterterrorism and anti-rebel activities must be struck with initiatives to develop the country from the ground up. If development is ignored at the expense of short term gains against extremists, then the region will continue to harbor anti-government sentiments.

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Thailand Quietly Slipping Back into Military Rule

Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk demonstrating in opposition to the May 22nd military coup

Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk demonstrating in opposition to the May 22nd military coup

Thailand has once again fallen victim to a military coup with the ouster of democratically elected Yingluck Shinawatra on May 22nd. This is the latest of well over a dozen coups the country has experienced since the abolishment of its absolute Monarchy in 1932, and the ruling interim authority set up by the military, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has already taken harsh steps to preventing any dissent. Hundreds of political figures and activists have been arrested, martial law has been instituted, and a gathering of as few as five people can be sentenced to at least a year in prison for illegal assembly. Human Rights Watch has called for an end to civilians facing military trials and arbitrary arrests, warning that the sweeping measures adopted by the interim NPCO authority are setting the groundwork for a military dictatorship.

Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt protests in Bangkok in February

Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt protests in Bangkok in February

The coup has come after over seven months of ongoing political crisis that so far has claimed the lives of over two dozen people due to interspersed faction violence. The political divide in Thailand falls largely between the ‘yellow shirts,’ (the People’s Alliance for Democracy) who are primarily urban upper class and pro-Monarchist, and the mostly rural and urban lower class ‘red shirts’ (the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship). The conflict between these two sides of society has only been worsened by the intervention of the military and their actions which have included the suspension of the constitution. Additionally, the NCPO has closed border crossings to Laos and Cambodia, imposed curfews, and General Prayuth Chan-ocha has declared himself acting Prime Minister of the country.

In supporting ex-Prime Minister Yingluck, the red shirts have protested against the rampant interference in the political process after opposition yellow shirts blocked enough polling stations for the courts to declare the preliminary general elections invalid earlier this year. The yellow shirts opposed Yingluck and her brother and predecessor as Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, for alleged corruption. Thaksin has lived outside of the country in exile since he was removed in a military coup in 2006. The yellow shirts thus sought reform and the immediate removal of Prime Minister Yingluck rather than scheduled elections. Now that the military junta has stepped in, the yellow shirts have won in regards to Yingluck’s ouster while the red shirts have further been marginalized and have vowed to continue to fight for their right to vote.

The King of Thailand, the longest ruling Monarch still in power today, still holds some important powers including his position as the leader of the armed forces and the head of state. The King’s official recognition of the NCPO and its leader General Prayuth, lent legitimacy to the coup and further complicated the process towards a representative government. Revered especially by the yellow shirts, King Adulyadej at age 86 is the symbol of consistency that many fear cause a chasm if his ailing health continues to worsen. Without the King, as encroaching military authority will have little trouble in solidifying its own interests at the expense of both political groups as has been seen by their actions so far. While the red shirts have been directly disenfranchised, the yellow shirts who are tacitly supporting this military takeover are assuredly feeling much less threatened. Nonetheless, the relationship between the yellow shirts and military will be very interesting to follow as it develops over time.

General Prayuth, acting Prime Minister of Thailand

General Prayuth, acting Prime Minister of Thailand

The actions of the armed forces and the protesters who both sides that took up violence or intimidation tactics to push their agendas has culminated in a government in the hands of a few highly connected military officers. If flashing the ‘Hunger Games’ salute can put you in jeopardy of going to prison, the outlook for the future for Thailand is not bright at the moment. The NPCO says it is acting in the interest of Thailand’s stability, and while creeping violence was previously an issue the ironfisted approach of removing Yingluck and clamping down on dissent has spun the country backwards. Curfews in key tourist locales have since been lifted by the military after tourism crashed in the country following the coup, but the authoritarian laws on the opposition groups are likely to stay for much longer.

Thailand as noted above is no stranger to military takeovers. While in the past the military has stepped back after time to allow governments to form again, all signs indicate that as soon as the elected leadership crosses a line with the armed forces or begins to threaten their authority, they jump back to take charge again. The denial of fair elections for the people of Thailand, notably the red shirts, underscores the difficulty the country will have in moving forward. Opposing authoritarian measures such as the limits on assembly and peaceful protest must continue to delegitimize the ruling military authority. Internationally support of the Thai people who seek democratic reform, regardless of their political affiliation, can expose the nature of the military junta and facilitate further pressure to reform more quickly. The red shirts demanded the right to vote and were denied, so now it is time to see if the reform the yellow shirts pressed for will actually take place.

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Sochi Olympics 2014: Behind the Games

Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremony

Scene from the opening ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics

The Olympics are  a unique opportunity for the many nations of the world to come together in competition through sport. Inevitably when different countries come together, political, social and cultural differences are brought to the attention of the public, and the current Winter Olympic Games in Sochi are no exception.  Russian President Vladimir Putin has placed his personal reputation on the line for the Sochi Games, and in many ways the games’ success will be seen as reflective of Russia as a whole. At a budget that has surpassed $50 billion the games are the most expensive Olympics of all time, more than the 2012 London Summer Games but also more expensive than the previous 21 Winter Olympic Games combined dating back to 1924. In addition to the allegations of rampant corruption on an unprecedented scale, Russia has been criticized over the decision to host in Sochi specifically, its stance on LGBT issues, and problems with human rights in general.

The $50+ billion price tag on the games is so notably suspect because of the sub-par conditions of many of the facilities and the lack of accountability for the money spent. A senior International Olympic Committee official stated that it was common knowledge that a third of total spending on the games disappeared due to corruption perpetrated by business associates with connections to Putin. Others place the figure even higher with some alleging that well over half the money allocated to the games were pocketed. A popular Twitter account highlighting many of the hastily and incomplete construction results has garnered more than 300,000 followers, but also glosses over a larger problem. Unfortunately, the total lack of accountability for billions of dollars spent in Sochi is reflective of the status quo in Russia, a deeply ingrained issue that has gone largely unnoticed by the outside world.

Sochi2

Located on the Black Sea the Sochi area was previously best known as a summer beach getaway for many Russians complete with palm trees. The nearby ski resort of Rosa Khutor in the northern Caucasus mountains is 30 miles away where the alpine events are taking place. Also close by are many smaller regions that have sought autonomy or independence, including Chechnya and South Ossetia, the latter of which Russia and Georgia fought a brief war over in 2008. Perhaps most vocally, the ethnic Circassian people have expressed their disdain for hosting the games specifically at Sochi because of its historical significance as the site of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Russians in the late 19th century. For further context, in addition to the proximity to disenfranchised and separatist groups, Sochi is comparably equidistant from the heart of the Middle East to the capital of Russia, Moscow.

After multiple bombings in Volgograd a city in the north Caucasus in October and December that killed 7 and 34 people respectively, the issue of security has been paramount for Russia. Journalists and experts have accused Russian security of engaging in mass surveillance  of virtually all electronic devices and even spying in bathrooms, but at the end of the day if any and all attacks are prevented, Russian will likely assert it was all worth it. Furthermore, attracting intense criticism and controversy has been Russia’s stance on LGBT issues, specifically the law passed in 2013 by a vote of 436-0 banning ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’ among minors. The conservative Russian culture and the government itself have quietly ignored the issue in regards to the games and this is likely to continue in order to avoid a backlash. The law has not been actively enforced in any context at the Olympic Games, but it has simultaneously served as a platform for discussion and advocacy on the issue in the West.

While the Olympics are largely regarded as a tremendous opportunity to gain international prestige and promote a country’s stance on the world stage, the problems and conflicts that exist within and because of the games should not be ignored for the sake of convenience. Russia and Putin  in many ways are using the Olympic games as a tool to further their own means, and the extent to how successful the outcome will be remains to be seen. Hopefully, the attention and pressure to address many of the issues outlined above, from corruption to human rights, may influence Russia to implement positive change in the future.

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Frozen Revolution in Ukraine

Ukrainian protester in front of riot police

Ukrainian protester in front of riot police

In recent months the Ukrainian people have increasingly demonstrated against their government over the repression of basic rights, rampant corruption and the economic direction of the country. Recently the clashes between riot police and protesters turned fatal when at least three were killed in the capital of Kiev, the primary locus of the conflict. The protests initially erupted on November 21st of last year when the government rejected key bills for a trade agreement with the EU in a shocking surprise and they have come to be labelled as the EuroMaidan movement. It is important to note that the controversy of moving towards greater European integration or returning to the Russian sphere of influence is secondary to the frustration and anger at the current administration of Victor Yanukovych and direction of the country as a whole. The quick implementation of harsher anti-demonstration laws have only added fuel to the fire, escalating the stakes between the increasingly detested government and protesters. It is apparent that the Ukrainian government cannot subdue the popular opposition with force alone, and if they refuse to make real concessions the conflict is likely to escalate further.

In response to the heightened tensions, Yanukovych has promised to review the anti-protesting laws and reshuffle elements of his government. Token concessions will not likely sway his critics, however, as they are demanding an end to the power structure that has been deepening its control over the political and economic affairs of the country since Yanukovych took office in 2010.

Examples of some of the provisions that were signed into law on January 17 include:

1. Gathering and sharing information on the Berkut (special security forces) or judges carries a penalty of up to a year in jail

2. Blocking access to government buildings and residential buildings carries a penalty of up to five and six years in jail, respectively

3. Participation in peaceful demonstrations while wearing a mask, scarf, helmet or another means of protecting or concealing one’s face or head carries a penalty of up to ten days in jail

Further provisions allow for broad interpretation and implementation of censorship on the internet and ‘extremist activities’ in general. These measures have been overwhelmingly criticized both domestically and internationally; some have described the laws as moves towards dictatorship in the country.

The controversy of the ‘hijacking’ of the opposition by extremist factions is reminiscent of the rhetoric used by Bashar al-Assad to decry and generalize the Syrian opposition as foreign terrorist elements. Svoboda is the most significant far-right party actively participating in the protests and there are smaller fringe groups that are attempting to push more radical agendas against the state. It would be naive to paint the opposition as free of extremist actors but it is clear that they are a minority. The majority of Ukrainians are not extremists bent on dismantling the state but rather wish for an end to a government not representative of the people that they see as creeping away from democracy.

Although the contexts and scale are completely different, similar to in Syria the opposition needs to be cognizant of itself presenting a representative voice in pursuing their demands, else they will face internal conflict and have a tougher time presenting themselves as legitimate. Extremist elements who promote and carry out unprovoked violence against the police need to be isolated and disavowed from the majority opposition. The goal of the opposition should not be to influence change in the government structure via violent force, but rather mass demonstration and civil disobedience to the unjust laws that limit basic freedoms.

Yanukovych and the security forces should realize the more brutal they act, the less credibility they will have to the rest of the world and the further the situation is likely to devolve. Political changes are imperative, and in order to reach a settlement the government must be willing to give up more power than it is currently comfortable with. Yanukovych should make it clear he is willing to make significant reforms to the power structure he has been building and the opposition should support a negotiated solution and take measures to prevent escalating the bloodshed which can be done without abandoning their cause or diminishing their impact.

The Ukrainian people are demanding reform and they are not going to back down easily. If they can brave the subzero temperatures for days on end to make a statement, then perhaps their government should listen.

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Why is Spain Afraid of Scotland?

Scotland will hold an official referendum for independence from the UK on September 18th, 2014

Scotland will hold an official referendum for independence from the UK on September 18th, 2014

The title of this article may sound like the start of a bad joke, but secessionist movements are very serious, involve huge political ramifications, and in many cases (the Kurds, Kosovo, and South Ossetia, to name a few) have resulted in armed conflict. While it is rather unlikely that the Royal Scots Army is going to invade the beaches of Barcelona, Spain and especially Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy aren’t too keen on the idea of new countries breaking off from old ones.

In a recent statement to the European Union, Rajoy diplomatically noted that if any state were to secede from an existing member state of the European Union, they would have to apply from the outside in order to rejoin the EU, reiterating the official EU stance. For any new country to be admitted to the EU, a unanimous vote from all 28 member states for approval is required. Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland and head of the Scotland National Party (SNP) which has spearheaded the Scottish independence movement, implied that Scotland would seek to join the EU “from within” in contrast with Rajoy’s statement.

Scotland still has a considerable amount of time before its official vote for independence will be held on September 18th, 2014, but why is this prospect stirring concern for Spain already?

Countries like Spain, Russia, and China have all had significant issues with their own secessionist movements (Catalonia, Chechnya, and Tibet, respectively), and consequently get nervous anytime a new country seeks to officially become a UN member state against their own political interests. Whether it be for preserving political stability, the economic benefits at stake, or just maintaining state legitimacy, the aforementioned countries are hesitant to allow others to join the prestigious ‘country’ club because they fear losing a chunk of their territory to a new state as well.  

Over a million people in Catalonia demonstrated for independence in 2012, and the movement remains strong, but so does the opposition. A proposed referendum asking for a vote on Catalan independence was shot down by Prime Minister Rajoy earlier in September. The Spanish government has strongly opposed the secession, in part because of economic dependence on the region but also because Catalonia breaking away could also empower smaller secessionist movements (like the Basque) to seek an even greater level of autonomy.

It is still uncertain whether the Scottish independence vote will actually pass in the first place, and the implications for Scotland and the UK will require a lot of ironing out before Salmond’s proposed independence date of March 2016 ever becomes reality. Nonetheless, the political and symbolic outcome of the Scottish referendum will definitely have an effect on the future of Catalonia, the European Union, and secessionist ambitions abroad. If Scotland does gain its independence, one thing you can definitely count on is that bagpipes will be involved.

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