US Foreign Policy

Trump’s insults against Africa and Haiti

The historical context behind America and “shithole countries”

February 13th 2018 | Chicago | Xavier Ward

Illustration by Lyne Lucien

The Trump administration is hardly a stranger to controversy. It has run the gauntlet of accusations of racism, collusion with foreign governments, obstruction of justice, public misinformation, authoritarian rhetoric, and most recently: using a slur to describe an entire continent and two other countries.


The Emperor has no clothes

Yet, Trump himself has — despite swaths of public acrimony and an abysmal public approval rating — remained largely unscathed. The Republican controlled House and Senate have made it easier for Trump to say and do as he pleases with no more than media scrutiny.

His latest mishap came during a private meeting on immigration, in which he allegedly branded the African nations, El Salvador, and Haiti as “shithole countries”, questioning why we should allow immigrants from these places and suggesting that we try to attract people from countries such as Norway. He had just met with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg the day before these disparaging remarks.

Moreover, Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin claims that Trump used the word “shithole” repeatedly throughout the meeting. The story has been broadly confirmed from multiple sources.

Photograph by Jonathan Ernst (Reuters)

Trump denied using the slur against African countries and claimed he never said anything derogatory towards Haiti, touting a “wonderful relationship with Haitians” in a tweet on January 12th.

He did, however, admit to using “tough” language in the meeting.

The African Union’s spokeswoman, Ebba Kalondo, told the Associated Press that they were alarmed by Trump’s comments. “Given the historical reality of how many Africans arrived in the United States as slaves, this statement flies in the face of all accepted behaviour and practice.”

The United States also has a complicated record with Haiti. If Durbin’s account of the meeting is true, which now seems to be the case, then the President must understand the United States’ historical role in upholding devastating conditions there.


Duvalier and the United States

When discussing the difficulties that Haiti faced for many decades, one would be remiss not to talk about how the U.S.’s complicity, and (at times) support, of the Duvaliers perpetuated those impoverished conditions and the murder of Haitian nationals.

François “Papa Doc” Duvalier came to power in 1957 on a black nationalist and populist movement. Shortly after, he became “President for Life” in a sham election in 1964 and ruled until his death in 1971.

After his death, he was succeeded by his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who ruled until 1985 when a rebellion unseated him and he fled to France, only to return in 2011.

“In his first speech on October 22, 1957, President Duvalier promised government unity, reconciliation, and financial redistribution. However, within weeks, he began to destroy all past or potential opposition in order to centralize power in himself and remain in power” — according to Dominican Republic and Haiti, a Library of Congress report.

Diagram by The Economist

“President Duvalier reigned supreme for fourteen years. Even in Haiti, where dictators had been the norm, François Duvalier gave a new meaning to the term. Duvalier and his henchmen killed between 30,000 and 60,000 Haitians,” the report read.

All the while, the U.S. was supplying roughly $15 million in aid to Haiti, most of which would line the pocketbook of Mr. Duvalier.

That aid was not cut until his sham election in 1962.

“By 1961 Duvalier had received US$40.4 million in foreign assistance, mainly as gifts from the United States,” the report states. According to that same report, former U.S. President John F. Kennedy cut the aid after Duvalier refused to diverge what it was being used for. Still, he secretly received U.S. funds, and after Kennedy’s death, aid money began to flow openly again.

All the while, the Haitian people languished. Following his death, his son was no kinder; Jean-Claude had come into a fortuitous — albeit violent — political situation.

Shortly after coming into office, he declared Haiti would always be an aid to the U.S. in its fight against communism, and the relationship between the two continued as it had before.


A legacy of death and violence

“Bolstered by the U.S., the regime operated with impunity. Government funds were embezzled and siphoned out of the country, which later enabled Duvalier to live well in exile. Poverty, environmental decline, and poor health conditions in much of the country went unaddressed,” The New Yorker’s Laurent Dubois wrote of the situation, shortly after Jean-Claude’s death in 2014.

While Jean-Claude boasted of an economic uptick due to foreign companies setting up shop in Haiti, thus branding it the “Taiwan of the Caribbean,” the anguish endured. Political opponents were imprisoned, tortured, or exiled. Those fortunate enough to escape to the United States set up communities, and there the anti-Duvalier sentiment boiled, but American aid to the dictator who was living up to his father’s namesake persisted.

It was not until 1985 that he was ousted in a military rebellion and fleeing to France the following year. In 1987, former President Ronald Reagan ordered the remaining U.S.-based assets of the Duvalier family frozen.

Photograph from Bettman/Corbis

Nonetheless, the U.S. government’s seeming affinity for the dictator did not stop there.

Despite Jean-Claude’s legacy of destruction, he resurfaced from exile in France in 2011, shortly after the devastating earthquake. It was seemingly a slap in the face to Haitian citizens who had suffered under him. While a court did decide he could be charged with crimes against humanity in February 2014, he died October of the same year.

In 2011, around the time Jean-Claude resurfaced, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed for the presidency of Michel Martelly, whose rule just ended in 2016.

Martelly’s presidency paled in comparison to the authoritarianism of Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier, but he did utilize the power structure put in place by them for his own benefit, welcome Jean-Claude’s son into his regime, and do so with blatant U.S. support.


American interventionism

The United States has a habit of sticking its nose into dictatorships and failing governments.

Take the Arab Spring for example. One could argue that the U.S.’s intentions were noble, but its track record of successfully changing the tide in other countries is lackluster at best and near-criminal at worst.

The story is no different in Haiti. If Trump did indeed brand Haiti a “shithole”, then his administration should also acknowledge the United States’ role in making it one.

Edited by Bartu Kaleagasi and Xavier Ward

Drug Policy

America’s opioid crisis

The drug-fuelled epidemic needs solutions fast

August 28th 2017 | Pittsburgh | Will Tomer

Photograph by Gatehouse Media

A recent article in The New Yorker painted a troubling and vivid portrait of the opioid crisis facing many areas of the nation. In her piece, Margaret Talbot details a number of graphic overdoses that have taken place in West Virginia, the U.S. state with the highest rate of opioid overdoses per 100,000 people (39.3). What is the cause of this phenomenon, and what can be done to alleviate it?


Dark numbers

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2015, there were more than 52,000 Americans killed by drug overdoses – or one every 10 minutes.

According to The Economist, about 33,000 of those can be attributed to opioids, the most common of which are prescription painkillers and heroin. While major cities feel some of the weight, it is actually areas such as Midwest America and Appalachia which are being truly devastated by this crisis.

In certain parts of the country, including Talbot’s focus of Berkeley County in West Virginia, overdoses are a daily occurrence. They seem to be taking place almost anywhere and at anytime. “Many addicts are collapsing in public – in gas stations, in restaurant bathrooms, in the aisles of big-box stores”, writes Talbot.

Graphic by The Economist

The number of overdoses has shot up dramatically around the country over the past several years as heroin has started to be laced with powerful prescription medications such as fentanyl. In the 21-country area surrounding Toledo, Ohio, there were only 8 overdose deaths in 2010. In the first six months of 2016, that same number was 127 deaths.

The burden placed upon paramedics has been so extreme that even entire teams of paramedics working 24-hour shifts are unable to reach every overdose in a timely manner. In those cases where they do, the main course of action is to administer a potentially life-saving dose of Narcan – a drug used to counteract the effects of an opiate overdose. Classes are now being offered to average citizens in areas with high overdose rates so that they know how to administer the drug themselves should the situation arise.


Pharmaceutical roots

The issue can be traced, at least in part, to the explosion in powerful prescription medications in the United States. In 1991, the number of opioid medications (Oxycontin, Vicodin, etc.) supplied to pharmacies was 76 million. In 2011, that number was 219 million.

Perhaps even more telling is the fact, according to The Economist, “in 2002 one in six users took a pill more powerful than morphine. By 2012 it was one in three.” Pharmaceutical companies and doctors have begun scaling back the prescriptions for painkillers, but that has turned people already hooked on opiates towards drugs like heroin instead, which is substantially cheaper than any prescription opioid.

Photograph via Getty Images

Certain officials, such as Governor Hogan, have pledged money and attention to the issue. Even U.S. President Donald Trump commented on America’s “terrible drug epidemic” during his speech before Congress in February, and in one of his few positive moves he set up a commission on drug addiction and offered $500 million to combat the problem.

Making matters worse is the aforementioned fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller that is 50 times more powerful than heroin. The result is a dramatic increase in fatal overdoses in a number of states. In Maryland, Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency after the combination of heroin and fentanyl killed 1,468 Maryland residents in the first nine months of 2016, a 62% increase from previous year.


Solutions exist

It is not as if this is a problem we are mentioning for the first time. Highly regarded publications, including those cited in this article, have offered enormous spaces devoted to discussing this enormous issue.

Among others, The Economist firmly advocates the decriminalization of all drugs to replace America’s deeply-flawed policy of prohibition with a focus on health treatment and safe use centres:

Banning drugs is not just ineffective, it is also counterproductive. Fentanyl is a nasty substance, but prohibiting all illicit drugs, whether they are new or established, prevents the research that could distinguish between those which are more and less harmful. It also leads to topsy-turvy outcomes. Marijuana, which cannot lead to overdoses and which can be used as an effective pain-relief medicine, is classified by the federal authorities in America as a more dangerous drug than fentanyl, which is used in very controlled doses by cancer patients and abused fatally across the country.

It takes guts to legalise drugs when so many are dying from them. But it is better that addicts take safe doses of familiar substances under sanitary conditions than for them to risk their lives enriching criminals. Switzerland followed the legalisation path after a heroin epidemic in the 1980s, treating drugs as a public-health problem. Since then drug-taking and drug-related deaths have fallen. America should follow suit.

Every day that passes, 78 Americans die from an opioid overdose. And every day that passes without real solutions to this very real problem, those deaths will linger over the heads of those that have seen the problem, acknowledged it, and then decided to mire in inaction and rhetoric.

Edited by Bartu Kaleagasi and Xavier Ward

US Elections 2016

Donald Trump elected President of the United States

The pitiful state of American politics and society

November 12th 2016 | Wisconsin | Xavier Ward & Bartu Kaleagasi

Photograph by CNN

In the early morning hours of November 9th, Donald Trump secured the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the presidency.

You might ask yourself – how is this possible? How did a candidate who was widely regarded as a dangerous joke by the media, the establishment, and even among his own party members, clinch the highest office in the country?

Previously, we analysed Bernie Sanders’s progressive movement, the Republican party’s disastrous agenda, the Bernie or Bust dilemma, and Hillary Clinton’s deeply flawed candidacy. Now, we turn our attention to the reality of this result and its unsettling consequences.


Make America Great… Again?

When this country was founded, it was founded on the basis of freedom and equality for all. That idea is what made America “great”.

Yet, at that time, black Americans were kept as property, and women were seen as second-class citizens. America was not great, and America still is not great. The ideas espoused by the American constitution are valuable, but the nation itself still has a lot progress to make in the 21st century.

Photograph from Obergefell v. Hodges

Depending on your race, social class, and identity, there’s a good chance America is a place where you live in constant fear of being harassed, assaulted, and even killed.

Now, being faced with the results of the election, there’s a fear amongst these groups of marginalized Americans that their very livelihood is in danger. That fear is legitimate.

Donald Trump, a reality television star, real estate mogul and President-elect, paints a picture of America in which we see our friends and loved ones being hurt just because of their background or identity. Make no mistake, he doesn’t care about you or anyone else.


A Democratic failure

Trump’s opponent in the race, Hillary Clinton, was the biggest mistake in Democratic history.

When the Democratic National Committee (DNC) colluded with Clinton to manipulate the primaries against a widely supported progressive candidate like Bernie Sanders, it became instantly clear that this would lead to an inevitable Trump presidency.

Sanders’s supporters were already suspicious of her anti-democratic behaviour during primary season, but when Wikileaks released dozens of DNC e-mails in support of those claims, it was the last nail in the coffin. As a result of this monumental mistake, dangerous populism triumphed over corrupt liberalism.

Another dimension to the Democratic party’s failure is that they backed an establishment candidate during an election cycle where anti-establishment politics were spectacularly popular.

Hillary Clinton is a lifelong politician who personifies the epitome of American establishment politics. She speaks loudly and carries a small stick, so to say. In the words of the late Christopher Hitchens, “she’s never met a foreign donor she doesn’t like”. The public distrusted Clinton from the very beginning for her past decision-making, both as Secretary of State and Senator.

Photograph by Bloomberg

In fact, Bernie Sanders issued this exact warning in August 2015, when he addressed the Democratic party and told them that her campaign could not possibly win the election:

“Let me be very clear. In my view, Democrats will not retain the White House, will not regain the Senate, will not gain the House and will not be successful in dozens of governor’s races unless we run a campaign which generates excitement and momentum and which produces a huge voter turnout.

With all due respect, and I do not mean to insult anyone here, that will not happen with politics as usual. The same old, same old will not be successful. The people of our country understand that — given the collapse of the American middle class and the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality we are experiencing — we do not need more establishment politics or establishment economics.

We need a political movement which is prepared to take on the billionaire class and create a government which represents all Americans, and not just corporate America and wealthy campaign donors. In other words, we need a movement which takes on the economic and political establishment, not one which is part of it.”

Although it may also reflect a general distrust for politicians, mostly because people are told they have many reasons to be angry, Hillary Clinton’s criticisms are not illegitimate.

However, when given the choice between a Clinton or Trump presidency, there is no doubt that she was the correct choice, or at the least the most acceptable choice to the reasonable voter.


The pitiful state of America

This election is telling of the state of the American mindset.

In the face of racism, sexism, homophobia, police violence, and islamophobia, half the country managed to believe that Trump wasn’t merely touting those issues as speaking points to get elected. We were wrong, and we will have to live with that decision for the rest of our days.

What Trump did was mobilize a group of non-voters. Americans who felt so far separated from politics that they would vote for any candidate who represents radical change. Trump’s running mate and Vice President to be, Mike Pence, the gay-bashing theocrat and friend of the Falwells, is really the cherry on top. In fact, he supports such a backwards agenda, that he and his wife have even funded gay conversion therapy.

Photograph by Michael Henninger

Considering that when John Kasich met with Eric Trump, Eric assured him that the Vice President would be making all real policy decisions, Pence will likely be the puppeteer pulling the strings. When Kasich asked what Donald Trump’s role would be, he simply replied “making America great again”.

Trump’s supporters, mostly uneducated white people, were energized by his charisma, can-do attitude, and general disregard for the rules. “He speaks his mind,” says the Trump supporter. It doesn’t matter to them whether or not his raucous incoherence is based in fact or fiction. It also does not matter whether or not Trump has foreign policy experience, whether he understands the intricacies of macroeconomics, or even if he’ll actually fight for them.

They simply heard an echo of their own bigotry. An echo chamber of American exceptionalism, the idea that we are inherently better, while ignoring any of our own faults.

With Trump comes an era where the truth literally does not matter anymore. Facts don’t matter. Science doesn’t matter. Rhetoric rules supreme.


Toxic consequences

The most immediate effects of a Trump presidency, coupled with an entirely Republican-held Congress, will be the complete unravelling of President Obama’s progressive policies, to be replaced with the GOP’s toxic agenda.

Republicans now effectively control all three branches of government (executive, legislature, judiciary). What can we expect from them?

Environment: support for fossil fuels, legislation against renewable subsidies, and rejection of the Paris climate change agreement – leading to faster environmental destruction than ever before.

Supreme Court: with a vacant seat already left from Republican obstructionism against Obama’s nomination, Donald Trump could potentially appoint 2-3 new conservative justices – leading to the overruling of many important principles like gay marriage.

Economy and society: regressive policies against almost everyone in society, including the repeal of Obamacare – leading to continued rapid decline of the middle class.

Geopolitics: Trump’s unusual cooperation with Russia and scepticism towards NATO is likely to destabilise the western alliance and endanger the future of peace and defence in Europe, especially on the Eastern front.

Photograph by Les Stone

Perhaps what matters even more is that Trump’s hateful ideology has now received national recognition, it has been given a voice on the highest of podiums. This sort of bigotry is what first shocked people about Trump, but no one took it seriously until it was too late, and soon it will be represented by the White House itself.

Even Trump’s braggadocious remarks of sexually assaulting women were not enough to unseat him. This is who we have elected, a man who brags of assaulting women and gets away with it. It was written off as “locker room banter”, but really it is an absolute slap in the face to the millions of survivors of sexual violence in our country.

Since the announcement of his candidacy and the publication of his views, we’ve seen an unfortunate rise in hate crime. Videos have emerged showing Confederate flag-flying Americans berating immigrants and minorities with racial slurs and threats of violence. Muslims being beaten and harassed in a country which holds freedom of religion as one of its most fundamental tenants. This is a farce.


Progress is the future

We’ve seen the danger of allowing hateful rhetoric to rule a country’s policy-making. Open a history book and you’ll find a litany of regimes which were all birthed from a single idea: “make this country greater than the rest”.

We need to examine what a “great” country actually is. Trump does not want greatness for America, he wants dominance, and he wants to be at the head of this movement.

A “great” America under Trump is a global hegemon who rules with an iron fist. It is a fearless leader who charges head-first into battle and emerges victorious, regardless of the cost. This is an image out of a tall tale, this is not the reality of the world we live in.

For a country to be great it does not need to be a domineering world power, but rather a global team player that values the lives of all and actively tries to make the world safer for everyone. The race to be the number one world super power is a dangerous and frightful game, and what goes up must come down.

In the face of adversity, Americans have only one option: to unify and hold one another up. Donald Trump will not make this country great, but its people can.

Catalan Independence

Catalonia declares itself a sovereign state

The past and future of Spain’s north-eastern separatism

January 17th 2016 | Barcelona | Martin Rogard

Photograph by AFP

In recent months, the possibility of an independent Catalan Republic has been rapidly materialising.

The election of a separatist coalition by a slim 51.7% majority on September 27th was shortly followed by the passing of a resolution on October 27th, by the regional parliament, which declared “Un Estat Català Independent”, essentially declaring Catalonia a sovereign state. Growing political salience for independence has pushed political parties to form a majority coalition in the regional parliament called Junts pel Sí, or ‘Together for Yes’, which now claims it has the electoral mandate for secession.

However, although separatists won a majority of seats, they did not receive a majority of the popular vote. Due to the way constituencies are divided, just under half of the electorate actually voted for the pro-independence coalition.


Spanish reaction

In light of these developments, Spanish president Mariano Rajoy maintains that “Catalonia is not going anywhere, nothing is going to break”.

In fact, the independence resolution was immediately followed by an extraordinary meeting of the Spanish Council of Ministers, which approved an appeal to the Constitutional Court for the nullification of Catalonia’s parliamentary ruling.

In its report, the advisory body suggested that “there is sufficient legal basis” to challenge the claim before the Constitutional Court since it “disregards the core of the Spanish Constitution by declaring disobedience to the sovereign Spanish state”. Whilst such quarrel between regional Catalan and federal institutions has not been infrequent in the past, the pressure for independence has been rapidly escalating in the midst of national elections.

Diagram by The Economist

This rising tension is difficult to ignore when walking the eclectic streets of Barcelona. A couple of days ago, a middle-aged man who was standing with a separatist flag in front of the Town hall told me that an independent Catalonia had been the dreams of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, but that it would now be him, his children and grandchildren who would finally see it happen.

In his mind, the current “oppressive” and “corrupt” Spanish Monarchy is fighting the same losing battle as the Spanish Empire had with its former colonies. “We, Catalans, are no different than Columbians or Cubans” alliterated the interviewee


Historical roots

When did this zeal for separatism actually begin? And why?

Well, the Catalan separatist movement can be traced back to the creation of the Estat Català revolutionary movement in 1922. Historically, Catalonia has always been a notorious critic of unitary and monarchical power, advocating for greater regional autonomy and a Republican nation-state.

When a Second Spanish Republic was attempted in 1931, the independence movement died down with the creation of the self-administrative ‘Generalitat de Cataluña’, still under Spanish authority, but enjoying unprecedented levels of self-rule. In fact, when the Civil War erupted, following Franco’s coup in July 1936, Catalonia was actually one of the strongholds in defense of the Spanish state.

As described by George Orwell, who fought in Barcelona, the ‘Generalitat’ in 1937 was a place of “no boss-class, no menial class, no beggars, no prostitutes, no lawyers and no priests”.

Photograph by AFP

Today, Catalonia remains disconnected with some of the most traditional Spanish values in its commitment to progressive politics. Such cultural differences are mirrored in their use of the ‘Catalan’ as the official regional language, instead of Spain’s ‘Castellano’.

Having won the conflict, Franco immediately reinforced national unity, thus curtailing the region’s autonomy. Under the dictatorship, separatist movements were silenced, but Catalonia remained tacitly critical.

In 1975, after Franco’s death, the proclamation of a constitutional monarchy rather than a republic sparked a revival of the independence movement, which continues to this day.


Economic considerations

Recently, ‘Junts Pel Si ’ has been arguing for independence so that Catalonia is no longer required to provide funding for other regions as part of the fiscal redistributive policies imposed by the Spanish government.

In keeping all tax revenues to itself, the Generalitat would enjoy a larger budget for infrastructure, education, and healthcare, estimated between 5% and 9% of GDP. As such, the past seven years of fiscal austerity have intensified the population’s eagerness to secede, demanding a different recipe for economic growth.

On the other hand, being a part of Spain allows it to export local products such as its ‘Cava’, a form of sparkling wine, anywhere in Spain and in the EU. Catalonia greatly benefits from Spain’s membership to the European Union, which offers low export costs, consistent tourism, and infrastructure funding to the region.

Photograph by David Ramos

As a result, the economic argument for independence is entirely dependent on Catalonia’s ability to negotiate favourable relations with the Spanish state and the EU on a bilateral basis if it becomes a sovereign state.

Such issues are reminiscent of similar conflicts in Scotland, which faced many of the same debates over the last few years. Indeed, while EU accession laws may grant temporary membership to a seceding territory, any new member must be unanimously vetted by all member states, including Spain, which puts separatists in an awkward bargaining position.


Corruption and democracy

Beside the long-term explanations for Catalan independence, it appears that the recent escalation in separatism has been catalysed by an ongoing democratic crisis in Spain, and Europe in a wider context.

Indeed, for the past ten years, the Spanish political landscape has been plagued with corruption scandals of illicit party funding, such as the infamous ‘Bárcenas affair’, tax evasion scandals, and abuses of executive legal immunity provisions. The Monarchy has also been engulfed by scandals as Spain’s former King Juan Carlos I engaged in elephant hunting in Botswana, as well as the ‘Urdangarín affair’, which found him accused of embezzling large sums of public money.

If the general lack of transparency, rule of law and accountability of public officials has resulted in great dissatisfaction for the general electorate, this has been exacerbated even further for Catalans.

Photograph by Paul Hanna

This democratic crisis can be statistically illustrated by a Transparency International report, which found that 74% Spaniards felt that their government’s efforts to fight corruption are ineffective. An even higher percentage of people felt that from 2007-2010, the level of corruption in the country had actually increased.

According to the independent NGO, the most corrupt institution in Spain are the political parties. The mistrust of established political parties has created an electoral vacuum in Spain, which rapidly gave rise to newer parties such as the socialist and anti-austerity Podemos, and the mostly neo-liberal Ciudadanos.

Both parties call for profound political reform, and stand to the respective political left and right of the two largest parties, PSOE and PP.


Un Estat Catala independent?

The rise of new parties, coupled with general mistrust of institutions in Spain, have produced largely fragmented results in the national elections held in December 2015, crippling the ability of any party to form a coalition government.

In fact, many in Spain now believe there will a re-run of the elections, and a large portion of the electorate seems to be calling for political change.

In Catalonia, this surely means the independence movement will continue pushing forward until serious political reform is achieved.

Greece Crisis

The Greek Story in context

A look at the past and future of the EU debt crisis

August 9th 2015 | London | Juan Schinas Alvargonzalez

Photograph by Milos Bicanski

In the past few months, Greece has been the centre of attention of world media. As the possibility of a Grexit came closer than ever, the financial stability of the Eurozone, and arguably the world, was at play.

On the 8th of July, Guy Verhofstadt gave a passionate speech in the European Parliament, directly addressing Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at the height of troubled negotiations between Greece and its creditors. His speech, which went viral on all forms of social media, ended with the phrase “do it now!”.

Mr Verhofstadt’s comment pinpoints the current scene of the “Greek Story” that we’ve been witnessing. A retrospective look on this story is necessary not only to understand the present situation, but also to understand what needs to be done in the near future.


Historical context

In the 1940s, Greece suffered a civil war which ended with the surrender of the communist party.

In its aftermath, leftists in Greece were both marginalised and blamed for the war. Years later, this rejection of the leftist movement culminated in the 1967 coup d’état, led by fascist generals at the time. Their military “junta” brought about oppression, forced exiles, persecutions, and torture of communist academics, activists and cultural figures.

After the fall of “The Colonels” in 1974, there was a progressive liberalisation of the leftist movement in Greece (along with the rest of Europe) which led to the successful election of the nation’s first ever social democratic party, PASOK, in 1981.

What came next has been attributed as the root of Greece’s modern woes.

In order to gain the vote and sympathy of the divided Greek society, the PASOK government engaged in systemic clientelism and nepotism. The public sector expanded immensely, jobs became favours, and corruption became a regular part of Greek politics and civil society.

On the other hand, the Greek people developed a love-hate relationship with the government which still persists today. Most people distrusted the government and evaded taxes in some form, whilst also simultaneously relying on it for a number of services ranging from jobs to personal favours like permits and licences.

Photograph via Media Commons

One cannot solemnly blame PASOK for this, as Greece was a relatively new country with dysfunctional institutions. Yet, as the years went by, clientelism continued and became ingrained in the minds of the average Greek citizen and politician.

In 1990, Nea Dimokratia (ND), the centre-right party, came to power in government. However, instead of changing and fixing Greece’s political culture, ND feared it would alienate voters if it discontinued the “way of government” that had prevailed during the 80’s.

Thus, Greek clientelism continued untouched, passing from ND to PASOK and arguably reaching its climax in 2004 when Greece hosted the Summer Olympics. The games not only cost billions in public money, but were also the subject of bribery relating to building contracts. In Greece, many still regard it as “the games we couldn’t pay for”.


The Great Recession 

In 2009, ND’s rule came to an end. In the wake of the Great Recession, the european financial market was hit by high government structural deficits and accelerating debt levels.

The countries most affected by the recession saw a strong rise in interest rates for government bonds as a result of investor concerns about the future sustainability of their debt. Investors started to doubt Greece’s ability to repay its accumulated debt, not only because of its ever increasing size, but also due to revelations that past data on debt levels and deficits was manipulated by the Greek government.

The outcome was a deep crisis of confidence in Greece’s economy, shown by an increase of bond yield spreads and in the cost of risk insurance on credit default swaps compared to other Eurozone countries. This not only meant that the “cheap” money flowing into Greece due to its membership in the Euro (feeding its clientelistic system) could not continue, but that the government could not even borrow any more at market levels due to the recession.

Diagram by The Economist

Greece needed urgent money to pay its debt, as well as its pensions and salaries. As a result, the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (together known as the Troika) gave Greece around €200 billion between two bailouts in 2010 and 2012.

In exchange, the Troika demanded austerity measures from the government which would lower its debt and reduce the size of its public sector. It also put forth the need for structural reforms in ministries and in the country’s tax collection system.

Whilst some were necessary, many of these measures were rightly criticised as harsh, and sometimes even counter-productive. In fact, the image of the Troika’s tainted black cars and suited men arriving in Athens to “dictate terms” gave them the lovely nickname of “Men in Black”.


Troika’s austerity measures 

In theory, the reforms would be a way of showing the Troika that Greece could indeed put its finances back in track and ditch the clientelist system that had reigned for decades. All in exchange for the bailout money.

However, PASOK and ND, the parties who oversaw the first and second bail-out reforms in 2010 and 2012, both failed to do their job.

From the list of Troika’s demands, Greek politicians chose the “easiest” and ergo most superficial ones to implement. They raised taxes, cut salaries, and reduced public sector jobs. The essential reforms that actually needed to be done, the ones that required time, energy and great political cost, were largely postponed.

For example, the fund that was designated to privatise many of Greece’s undervalued assets had as its goal to raise €50 billion euros. In reality, it raised little more than €2 billion.

Photograph by European Parliament

Indeed, privatisation in a country where the government is as big and dysfunctional as Greece’s can make those who benefit from the state angry, which in turn results in MPs losing their jobs. That is why it was easier to just sign in laws that reduced government expenses rather than making essential and difficult reforms.

In economic terms, this did little more than prolong Greece’s recession and had a very small positive effect on the country’s debt crisis.


The rise and fall of SYRIZA

So, after five years of austerity that hadn’t paid off, Greeks were becoming increasingly frustrated.

In January of 2015, the people elected SYRIZA, a party that vowed to repeal austerity laws, rehire public workers, halt privatisation of public assets, reach an agreement with the Troika that wouldn’t require austerity, “force” them to write down the debt, and eliminate the corrupt oligarchical business elites that dominate the Greek economy.

SYRIZA, treating the Greek people much like a naive child, made such a vast range of impossible-to-complete promises. Journalists and politicians constantly questioned the financial and political feasibility of such actions, but never got an answer. Nonetheless, their rhetoric played well with a society that had suffered five years of crippling austerity and recession.

Photograph via New York Times

After six months, the verdict is quite clear: SYRIZA negotiators botched the negotiations with their counterparts and brought Greece on the verge of a Grexit.

The government is now negotiating for a third bailout, having had to first implement capital controls and increasingly harsh measures. More importantly, the country is finally seeing some positive structural reforms, those that ND and PASOK had failed to implement for so many years.

Yet, the national debt has not been written down, SYRIZA has not reduced, but perhaps even increased the clientelistic methods used in the past, it has failed to eliminate the corrupt oligarchical business elites of the economy, and it and has eliminated some of the previous positive reforms made by ND and PASOK during the 2010 and 2012 bailouts.


The Third Bailout

The newest agreement between Greece and Troika is set to unfreeze €86 billion over three years.

The reforms in question consist of a mix of taxation, labour market, and banking sector reforms, alongside privatisation of state-owned assets (details can be found here). More industries will be subject to the top VAT rate of 23%, Greek islands will no longer have the lowest VAT rate of 6%, and corporate tax will also increase up to 28%.

Moreover, the retirement age will increase to 67 by 2022, whilst state-funded aid to the poorest pensioners will be eliminated by 2019. The reforms also aim to liberalise the labour market and, among other things, increase shopping hours and adopt “rigorous reviews and modernisation of collective bargaining, industrial action and, in line with the relevant EU directive and best practice, collective dismissals”.

Greece also has to reinforce banking governance by “eliminating any possibility for political interference, especially in appointment processes”. Indeed, the deal signals for the creation of a concrete programme for “de-politicising the Greek administration”.

Photograph via Reuters

Lastly, the most controversial aspect of the deal was that “valuable Greek assets will be transferred to an independent fund that will monetise the assets through privatisations and other means”.

The fund, with a value of €50 billion, will be headquartered in Greece and managed by Greek authorities under the strict supervision of the Troika. Of its revenue, 50% will go to debt repayments, 25% to investments and the remaining 25% to the recapitalisation of greek banks following their massive loss of capital that prompted capital controls.

The deal, however, does not mention a reduction for Greece’s unsustainable debt (a detail that makes the IMF wary). With such tough reforms ahead, Greece is heading for its third and hopefully last bailout for years to come.


The next chapter

So what happens now?

With the third bailout soon on its way, difficult times are ahead for Greece. There are two main issues now at play.

First, the anti-austerity platform will continue under other politicians in Greece, having been “given away” by SYRIZA. Greek society will thus continue to be divided between those who see austerity as the necessary evil to fight Greece’s woes and those who see it as an unnecessary punishment by Greece’s creditors.

Politicians will emerge, possibly old members of SYRIZA disillusioned with its trajectory, who will carry the anti-austerity movement in Greece and exploit the understandable anger and frustration of the Greek people.

Photograph by European Parliament

Second, Greece will have to live through a period of political turmoil until we can find a party to properly carry on the reforms of the third bailout. It is quite clear that SYRIZA does not believe in the reforms it signed up for; they will not be the ones to implement them.

Yet, despite the surrounding uncertainty, Greece has made one thing clear during these last 6 months: the will of the Greek people is to stay in the Euro and to find a solution to Greece’s financial problems by restructuring what is fundamentally wrong with the country.

Almost all Greeks agree that something has to change, yet they also agree that what happened these past five years is not the real answer. True reforms need to take place, and there is now, more than ever, both the political and social will to do them.

The question is, who is going to carry them out? The two parties who created the problems in the first place, or the party who promised its way into power just to repeat the same mistakes?

One thing is clear, as Mr. Verhofstadt said, someone needs to “do it now!”.

Russia and Crimean Tatars

Russia shuts down opposition in the new Crimea

The hardships of an ethnic minority facing an uncertain future in their homeland

April 15th 2015 | Netherlands | Melih Uzun

Photograph by Max Vetrov

“This blatant attack on freedom of expression, dressed-up as an administrative procedure, is a crude attempt to stifle independent media, gag dissenting voices, and intimidate the Crimean Tatar community.”

Those were the words used by Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia, to state his concern for the wellbeing of Crimean Tatars – and compliance with their rights and liberties – as Russian authorities abruptly shut down their media outlets.

The formal annexation of the Black Sea peninsula, with the signing of a treaty between Crimea and Russia at the Kremlin on March 18th, sparked global controversy in 2014. NATO, as well as numerous prominent world leaders, condemned Russia for their conduct during the conflict that was dubbed the ‘Crimean Crisis’. Besides their disputed unconstitutional referendum, which was held to manifest Crimea’s supposed desire to join the Federation, the Russians also used persistent military intervention in order to seize control over the Ukrainian territory.


Tatar media shutdown

Crimean Tatars, now subjected to Russian legislature, have no choice but to comply to Russia’s demands that media outlets in the region must obtain a new broadcasting license. Whilst Russian-speaking media channels met the requirements with ease, newspapers and TV channels that broadcast in Crimean – a Turkic language spoken by the Tatars – were denied their permits and forced to shut down their services.

Only a single Crimean Tatar medium, the newspaper Yeni Dünya, successfully applied for their broadcasting permit. All other Tatar media have been indiscriminately rejected by the Russian authorities, often without a specified reason. In some cases, applicants were turned down multiple times or even plainly ignored. Such was the case with Crimean Tatar-language television channel ATR. Their efforts of registering under Russian legislation were arbitrarily denied three times, whereas their fourth application did not even earn a response.

“They can shut down the channel, but they can never curb the desire of the Crimean Tatar nation for truth and freedom” declared Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Twitter, strongly condemning the move against ATR.

Photograph by Vasily Fedosenko

Lilya Budzhurova, ATR’s Deputy Director for Information Policy, stated that the channel had no choice but to pull the plug. “We will be prosecuted according to Russian law. There could be severe consequences, including hefty fines of up to half-a-billion roubles (approximately $9,000), confiscation of equipment, and criminal charges against the management.”

And, just like that, an entire community was rendered speechless. By essentially turning Crimean Tatar journalism into a criminal offense, Russia is depriving this ethnic minority of their freedom of expression, and possibly much more. This is not the first time Amnesty International raised concerns for the wellbeing of Crimean Tatars. In May 2014, shortly after the Crimean peninsula was annexed, they had already predicted that the community would be at the risk of persecution and harassment under Russian rule. “Despite assurances made by the de facto Crimean authorities to protect the rights of Tatars, since the annexation of the peninsula by Russia in March this year, the Tatar community has faced increasing violence and discrimination” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Programme Director.

“The Russian authorities have allowed armed groups that have been behind some brutal attacks against the Tatars to operate freely in Crimea” he adds. “They have alienated Crimean Tatars by harassing Tatar leaders, threatening to dissolve their highest representative body, and restricting their rights to freedom of assembly and expression.”

Furthermore, Dalhuisen states that Crimean Tatars are being pressured into renouncing their Ukrainian citizenship in order to be granted a Russian one, with the only alternative to be doomed as stateless ‘foreigners’ in their own homeland. This unenviable scenario has already pushed thousands of Tatars to flee Crimea, as their outlook at home is far from reassuring.


Geopolitics of the past and future

Given the history of the two nations in conflict, these concerns are certainly not out of place.

During the Second World War, Stalin commanded atrocious acts of ethnic cleansing against Crimean Tatars, forcefully deporting their entire population – nearly a quarter million at the time – to remote parts of the Soviet Union such as the Uzbek SSR. During the journey, almost half of them died from starvation and disease, and it was not until 1989, during Perestroika, that the Tatars were allowed to return to their homeland.

Nowadays, after decades of oppression from Soviets and Russians, only one tenth of the original population remains.

Only time will tell how the future of Crimean Tatars unfolds, but the political setting in Russia provides a valid reason to remain sceptical.

United Russia, the ruling party of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and President Vladimir Putin, is as conservative as it is statist, and embodies a whopping 238 out of the 450 seats of Russia’s State Duma. This represents a vast amount power, one which is not expected to fade anytime soon.

Keystone XL Pipeline

Obama vetoes Republican oil bill

Canada’s economic future and the Dutch Disease theory

February 26th 2015 | New York | Alex Shapiro

Photograph by BBC

President Obama made true his promise to congress that he would veto the Keystone XL Pipeline bill should it come across his desk. The president stated that “through this bill, the United States Congress attempts to circumvent longstanding and proven processes for determining whether or not building and operating a cross-border pipeline serves the national interest”.

Elizabeth Warren, Senator of Massachusetts for the Democrats, questioned why the Keystone bill was the number one priority on the agenda for the new 2015 GOP congress and which interests were really being served. Based on research done by Politico and by Burdett Loomis, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, Warren argued that the Keystone XL Pipeline bill was simply a “lobbyist support act”. In other words, it would disenfranchise anyone who is not connected to an oil plutocrat. “It just won’t do much to help the American people,” said Warren, “but it is worth a whole lot to the Canadian oil industry.” As a matter of fact, TransCanada has spent more than $7 million dollars in lobbying expenses alone related to the Keystone since 2009.

Obama’s concern that the pipeline would not serve the national interest is right on the money. The bill would have allowed TransCanada Corp. to deliver its product through the Keystone XL Pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico, which is a tax-exempt area. The oil would then most likely be exported overseas, not benefitting America’s energy costs or contributing directly to American cleanup funds.


What about Canada?

As Tom Mulcair, Leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada puts it, “the Canadian dollar is being held artificially higher [by the demand for oil], which is fine if you’re going to Walt Disney World, not so good if you want to sell your manufacturing product.” This problem of an inflated currency is a symptom of a larger problem in economics called the Dutch Disease.

Economists coined the term in the 70s to describe how the Netherlands ruined their manufacturing sector in the late 50s by heavily exporting natural gas. In such scenarios, a booming natural resource sector drives up the exchange rate, thus making it more difficult for other countries to afford the relative cost of their exported products. The manufacturing and agricultural sectors, in essence, are hollowed out by the pull of the resource boom, and, in turn, the economy’s driving force ends up being a basket with too many eggs. Canada’s economy is not diversified enough, which means it may struggle to be competitive in world markets once it can no longer rely on oil exports.

Currently, there is a pipe factory in Camrose, Canada, which sits right across the street from the pipes installed for the Keystone XL pipeline. Yet, those pipes were made in China. Gil McGowan, president of Alberta Federation of Labour indicated that “Canada’s own manufacturing sector cannot compete to support it’s own industry”, and that they now have “18,500 fewer manufacturing jobs, here in Alberta […] than we did 10 years ago”. 

When a nation mostly exports oil and relies on imports for manufacturing and agriculture, it is essentially exporting jobs. For that matter, Canada will lose much more in manufacturing and other sectors than it could gain in the oil sands. Simply put, a shift in Canada’s economy to the extraction of non-renewable resources is not sustainable in the long-term.


The other side of the story

Despite its apparent downsides, Republicans have repeatedly argued that the Keystone XL Pipeline project would create thousands of American jobs in the energy and construction sectors – boosting opportunity for growth in coming years.

With regards to the Dutch Disease, Dylan Jones, President and CEO of Canada West Foundation, did make some interesting counter-arguments. He pointed out that although the Canadian manufacturing sector “dropped 23%”, from 2002 to 2011, the exact same thing happened in the United States, a country that is not a key petroleum exporter. He argues that the manufacturing in both countries has been reduced not because of the oil industry, but because of “low cost competition from China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and other countries” and  “lower global demand in the developed world for stuff, caused by financial and economic crises and an aging population”.

The National Post also drew attention to this by saying that the bulk of Canada’s currency gains were made in 2007 when it shot up 27% against America’s dollar, but it only made up about half of that against the Euro. This was against the backdrop of America’s biggest financial disaster since the great depression. The Institute of Research and Public Policy in Canada realizes this, but still concedes that there was a real output problem in the textiles and leather products industries in central Canada, and that the transportation and food sectors experienced a smaller effect of Dutch Disease.


Looking forward

The Keystone XL Pipeline consigns Canadians to an industry here today, gone tomorrow. This is a palliative for a larger problem: we are all energy junkies.

On January 19th, 2015, the Bridger Pipeline Co. spilled up to 50,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River. Although more will need to be investigated, this is clear proof that environmental disasters are always a possibility, and they will happen time and time again. Regarding the Keystone Pipeline: water pollution, carbon emissions, potential oil spills, and site remediation issues are still substantial concerns which remain to be concluded. As President Obama put forth, the bill “cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on [America’s] national interest – including our security, safety, and environment”. 

The world, not just North America, needs to invest in clean, safe, and renewable energy. We need energy that does not pollute or distract from the vitality of the economy. Naturally, this cannot happen overnight, but it definitely will not start with a pipeline from Canada either.