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The Right’s Splintering of Latin American Unity

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Jair Bolsonaro, the gun-toting, pro-dictatorship ultra-nationalist referred to as “the Trump of the Tropics” in Brazilian media, swept to victory on a platform of cracking down on crime and corruption—and by invoking the familiar bogeyman of the Latin American right, neighbouring Venezuela. Before the second-round vote in which he faced leftist candidate Fernando Haddad, Bolsonaro hammered home a message which apparently resonated with his fellow citizens: “We don’t want to be tomorrow what Venezuela is today”.

Bolsonaro’s often-violent rhetoric has raised suspicions that he intends to escalate his hatred of Caracas to a new level—last week the Colombian Foreign Minister was forced to deny rumours that his government was plotting with Bolsonaro to invade Venezuela. His strategy of painting the election as a stark choice between the far right on one hand and “total decay, like Venezuela” on the other, however, fits neatly into a pattern which has spread across the Americas. Right-wing leaders from Trump to Colombia’s Ivan Duque have invoked the spectre of Venezuela in their campaigns to pick up votes out of fear—and, once in office, to draw attention away from their own domestic problems.

Venezuela: from symbol of the left to the scapegoat of the right

Other than hardline Maduro loyalists, commentators from throughout the political spectrum agree that Venezuela is in dire straits. The country has gone from the richest nation in South America, with robust social programmes, to struggling with currency not worth the paper it’s printed on and shortages of basic food and medicine. Where international observers disagree is where to pin the lion’s share of the blame for Caracas’s downfall: on Hugo Chavez’s socialist legacy or on the heavy sanctions the U.S. and Europe have slapped on Venezuela.

Regardless of the cause, Venezuela’s economic crisis—along with its pre-crisis history as a darling of the left—has made it the perfect whipping boy for right-wing politicians. By making Venezuela the frame of reference, they have been pushing the Overton window—the range of political ideas deemed acceptable—sharply to the right. In equating all liberal policies with Venezuela, the South American right is trying to demonise even moderately progressive challengers.

Before the Colombian presidential elections in May, Ivan Duque’s campaign distributed flyers warning: “Vote so that Colombia does not become another Venezuela”. A week before Argentinian midterm polls in 2017, president Mauricio Macri emphasised that his countrymen did not want a country “like Venezuela”. The sweeping victory Macri’s party enjoyed underlines how potent a tactic invoking Venezuela has proven to be.

Perhaps no one has cried Venezuelan wolf more than U.S. Republicans in the lead-up to this week’s midterm elections: according to Trump, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum would like to make Florida “into another Venezuela”, while Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke apparently harbours similar ambitions for Texas. Right-wing commentators have warned that “if you like Bernie”, an economic collapse similar to that Venezuela has suffered “could be your future”, while a Republican mailer referred to New York Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a “mini-Maduro”.

Beyond rhetoric: a historic court referral

While such remarks have largely been dismissed as political fear mongering, a a group of five Latin American countries—Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru, all of which have conservative governments—are bringing a case against Venezuela to the International Criminal Court (ICC), with the support of France and Canada. In many ways, the move to refer Maduro’s government to the ICC is an extraordinary one. The ICC has never yet opened a case referred by its member states, and Latin American nations have long shared a certain esprit de corps which precluded them turning on each other.

How far the probe goes remains uncertain. Since its formation in 2002, the ICC has struggled both with bungled high-profile cases and sharp criticism given the troubling fact that though the Court has received over 9,000 complaints regarding 139 different nations, 10 of the 11 cases the ICC has overseen have focused on Africa, while all 37 defendants it has gone after have been African.

Regardless of the eventual outcome of the ICC investigation, however, the referral underscores the profound change that has taken place in Latin American politics, marked by the formation of a new bloc which defines itself by its opposition to the liberal policies which formerly characterised the region.

A convenient distraction from domestic challenges

Endless harping about Venezuela has also served as a convenient foil to deflect attention away from the Lima Group’s own problems. While Caracas’ economic issues—and the human suffering they have engendered— are extremely grave, its neighbours are facing serious challenges as well.

The Argentinian economy is in the dumps, after Macri recently had to swallow the bitter pill of asking the IMF for help. Despite the fund granting Buenos Aires a $50 billion credit line—the largest in its history—the Argentinian Central Bank recently had to raise interest rates to a stunning 60% to stem capital flight. Similarly, Colombia is wrestling with a high fiscal deficit and a rapidly-rising debt-to-GDP ratio. Bolsonaro’s Brazil is a basket case, plagued by a legion of problems, from double-digit unemployment, corruption at the highest echelons of government, and rampant crime.

Unlike Venezuela, however, these countries have not had to deal with the bruising sanctions which have compounded Caracas’s misery. Each fresh round of sanctions imposed by the U.S., the EU and Canada—the latest targeted Venezuela’s lucrative gold sector, which had heretofore been relatively unscathed by the economic crisis—has narrowed Caracas’s options for getting its economy back on track.

So far, conservative governments in Latin America have found it in their interest to support these sanctions. As U.S. policymakers increasingly openly advocate a return to the Monroe Doctrine, by which the U.S. claimed the entirety of the Americas for its sphere of influence, Latin American governments will have to reassess whether the political advantages of maintaining the spectre of Venezuela outweigh those of regional unity.

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Israel, the Middle East and Joe Biden

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Photo by Adam Schultz

How will a Biden Administration change American policies on Iran, the Palestinians and Israel’s tightening relationships with Arab states?

Some two years ago, Democrats harshly attacked Trump for withdrawing US troops from Syria and thereby undermining the alliance with the Kurds. However, Democratic leaders also favor a reduced US presence in the Middle East and understand the region’s declining relevance to US global policy.  It was Democrat Obama who withdrew US troops from the Iraqi bloodbath; Biden, if elected, will presumably continue a similar course. The US is no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil, China is perceived as its greatest threat, and the defeat of ISIS has lowered the strategic terror threat level to US national security.

Biden, just like Trump and Obama, probably believes that the US can downscale its presence in the region and rely on its allies (the Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan and Israel, of course) and on the alliances being forged between its partners over the past two decades. The US could increase aid to a specific ally at a time of need (as was the case with the massive 2014 influx of Syrian refugees into Jordan) or Iraq (during the fighting with ISIS), but it is loath to continue meddling in local conflicts. What is more, the painful lesson of the intervention in Iraq has dissolved the Bush Administration’s messianic belief in the democratization of the Middle East. Concern about Russia or China filling the vacuum left by the US is also no longer deterring US leaders (like Obama and Trump) who are trying to score points with voters by troops drawdowns and free the administration up to deal with different matters, among them the “Pivot to Asia”.

As a Democrat, Biden is expected to be more sensitive than Trump to human rights violations in the Middle East. He condemned the conduct of the Saudi regime following the murder of exiled journalist Jamal Khashoggi in fairly harsh language several times and also called for curbing weapons sales to Riyadh.

However, if elected, Biden’s first order of business will be dealing with the biggest health and economic crisis the US has experienced since 1929. He will have to create jobs and deal with thousands of burning domestic matters. Those will be his flagship issues. He may have to set aside his moral repugnance and allow weapons exports to prevent job and profit losses for Americans. Trump, too, was harshly critical of Saudi Arabia prior to his election, but subsequently changed his tune and conducted his first overseas trip there as president.

One can cautiously assess that any change in US policy toward the Gulf would not undermine Israel’s rapprochement with those states. The strategic regional threats (expansion of Iran’s hegemony and its violations of the nuclear agreement, as well as Turkish activity in the region) will remain unchanged, and therefore the interest in economic and security cooperation between Israel and Gulf states will remain. Arab states that traditionally view Israel as a bridge to the White House could try to exploit this now official relationship to promote their standing with Congress and a new administration, if one is installed.

Biden’s position on the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) is of concern these days to both Israeli and Arab leaders, which could further cement their ties. Arab leaders are concerned about Biden rejoining and reviving the deal that Trump abandoned. They are relying on Biden’s criticism of the unilateral US pullout from the agreement and his declaration that he would make every effort to rejoin it. Nonetheless, Biden’s people seem to understand that they cannot simply turn back the clock. Blinken, one of Biden’s closest aides and potential future national security adviser, has said in interviews that the US would not return to the agreement until Iran fulfills all its commitments – meaning, until Iran walks back all its violations of the agreement. It is hard to predict just how Biden might draw Iran to the negotiating table, but as long as such an option is viable, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf states will have sufficient grounds to close ranks.

Biden is a sworn supporter of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is expected to re-open the US Consulate in East Jerusalem, restore US aid to the Palestinians and invite the PLO ambassador back to Washington. However, this does not mean that he will place the Palestinian issue on his list of priorities, especially given the domestic crisis and ongoing tensions with China. The Palestinian issue is unlikely to return to center stage following a change in the US administration. The Arab world is growing increasingly weak as the coronavirus continues to spread, the economic crisis deepens and unemployment rises. Arab states also fear that the major non-Arab states in the region – Turkey and Iran – will exploit this weakness. Should that happen, the Palestinian issue is unlikely to attract much interest from key Arab states, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, which also dictate the conduct of the Arab League.

That said, should Biden decide to revive the Arab Peace Initiative and mobilize Saudi and other Arab support (perhaps in return for a more determined US stand on Iran, the supply of US strategic weapons, etc.), pressure on Israel over the Palestinian issue could re-emerge. If Israel chooses to respond with accelerated construction in the settlements, in defiance of US policy, states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE would likely toe the line of the US administration but would not cut ties with Israel as a result.

In conclusion, a Biden victory would not affect the strengthening relationship between Israel and Arab states, especially if he opts to focus on the Iranian issue and a US return to the JCPOA. The Middle East’s relevance to the US is expected to continue its decline, prompting cooperation among its partners in the region in order to forge a robust front and repel threats from the non-Arab states (Iran and Turkey). A changed US approach to the Palestinian issue could increase pressure on Israel slightly, but is not expected to substantially change the current dynamics.

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Prospects for U.S.-China Relations in the Biden Era

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The U.S. presidential election which will be held on November 3 is drawing ever closer. As the Trump administration performs poorly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, where the death toll in the U.S. exceeded 210,000, the election trend appears to be very unfavorable for Donald Trump.

According to a recent poll conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, Joe Biden led Trump by 14 percentage points in the national elections. It is worth noting that retired American generals, who have traditionally been extremely low-key in politics, publicly supported Biden this year, something that is quite rare. On September 24, 489 retired generals and admirals, former national security officials and diplomats signed a joint letter in support of Biden. Among them are Republicans, Democrats, and non-partisans, showing that they have crossed the affiliation, and jointly support Biden to replace Trump. Although the opinion polls do not represent the final election, with the election only being one month away, the widening of the opinion gap is enough to predict the direction of the election.

For the whole world, especially for China, it is necessary to prepare for the advent of a possible Biden era of the United States. During Trump’s tenure, U.S.-China relations have taken a turn for the worse, and China has been listed as the foremost “long-term strategic competitor” of the United States.

There is a general view in China that after the Democratic Party comes to power, U.S.-China relations may worsen. The reason is that the Democratic Party places more emphasis on values such as human rights and ideology and is accustomed to using values such as human rights, democracy, and freedom in foreign policies against China. However, as far as U.S.-China relations are concerned, it is too vague to use the simple dichotomic “good” or “bad” to summarize the relationship of the two countries.

However, it is certain that after Biden takes office, his policies will be different from Trump’s. An important difference between Biden and Trump is that Biden will follow a certain order and geopolitical discipline to implement his own policies, and he will also seek cooperation with China in certain bottom-line principled arrangements. It should be stressed that it is crucial for China and the United States to reach some principled arrangements in their relations.

From an economic point of view, should Biden become the next President, the United States will likely ease its trade policy, which will alleviate China’s trade pressure. It can be expected that the Biden administration may quell the U.S.-China tariff war and adjust punitive tariff policies that lead to “lose-lose” policies. If Biden takes office, he might be more concerned about politics and U.S.-China balance. In terms of trade, although he would continue to stick to the general direction of the past, this would not be the main direction of his governance. Therefore, the U.S.-China trade war could see certain respite and may even stop. In that scenario, China as the largest trading partner of the United States, could hope for the pressures in the trade with the U.S. being reduced.

China must also realize that even if Biden takes power, some key areas of U.S.-China relations will not change, such as the strategic positioning of China as the “long-term strategic competitor” of the United States. This is not something that is decided by the U.S. President but by the strategic judgment of the U.S. decision-making class on the direction of its relations with China. This strategic positioning destined that the future U.S.-China relations will be based on the pattern dominated by geopolitical confrontation. Biden sees that by expanding global influence, promoting its political model, and investing in future technologies, China is engaging a long-term competition with the U.S, and that is the challenge that the United States faces.

On the whole, if and when Biden takes office, the U.S. government’s domestic and diplomatic practices will be different from those of the Trump administration, although the strategic positioning of China will not change, and neither will it change the U.S.’ general direction of long-term suppression of China’s rise. However, in terms of specific practices, the Biden administration will have its own approaches, and will seek a certain order and geopolitical discipline to implement its policies. He may also seek to reach some bottom-line principled arrangements with China. Under the basic framework, the future U.S.-China relations will undergo changes in many aspects. Instead of the crude “an eye for an eye” rivalry, we will see the return to the traditional systemic competition based on values, alliance interests, and rules. Facing the inevitable changes in U.S.-China relations, the world needs to adapt to the new situation.

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Third world needs ideological shift

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As nations across the world have been pooling their efforts to contain the COVID-19 spread, the looming economic crisis has caught the attention of global intelligentsia. In the light of health emergency, The policy makers of Asia, Africa and Latin America have been struggling to steer the economic vehicle back to normalcy. Although, the reason for the economic slump could be attributed to the pandemic, it is also important to cast light on the economics of these tricontinental nations. Been as colonies for more than two centuries, these players had adopted the style of economics which is a mix of market economics and socialism. The imperial powers of the then Europe had colonised these nations and had subjugated them with their military and political maneuvers. Under the banner of White man’s burden, the Imperial masters had subverted the political, economical, social and cultural spheres of the colonies and had transformed these self-reliant societies into the ones which depend on Europe for finished products. The onslaught on the economical systems of colonies was done through one way trade. Though, the western powers brought the modern values to the third world during colonial era, they were twisted to their advantage. The European industrial machines were depended on the blood, sweat and tears of the people of colonies. It is clear that the reason for the backwardness of these players is the force behind the imperial powers which had eventually pushed them towards these regions in search of raw materials and markets i.e., Capitalism. Needless to say, the competition for resources and disaccord over the distribution of wealth of colonies led to twin world wars. Capitalism, as an economic idea, cannot survive in an environment of a limited market and resources. It needs borderless access, restless labour and timeless profit. While the European imperial powers had expanded their influence over Asia and Africa, the US had exerted its influence over Latin America. Earlier, at the dawn of modern-day Europe, The capitalist liberal order had challenged the old feudal system and the authority of church. Subsequently, the sovereign power was shifted to monarchial king. With the rise of ideas like democracy and liberty, complemented by the rapid takeoff of industrialization, the conditions were set for the creation of new class i.e., capitalist class. On the one hand, Liberalism, a polical facet of capitalism, restricts the role of state(political) in economical matters but on the other hand it provides enough room for the elite class and those who have access to power corridors to persuade the authority(state) to design the policies to their advantage. Inequality is an inescapable feature of liberal economics.

The powerful nations cannot colonise these nations as once done. The Watchwords like interconnectedness, interdependency and free trade are being used to continue their domination on these players. As soon as the third world nations were freed from the shackles of colonialism, they were forced to integrate their economies into the global economical chain. Characterized by the imbalance, the globalization has been used as a weapon by the Western powers to conquer the markets of developing nations.

The Carrot and stick policy of the US is an integral part of its strategy to dominate global economical domain. The sorry state of affairs in the Middle East and Latin America could be attributed to the US lust for resources. In the name of democracy, the US has been meddling in the internal affairs of nations across the developing world. Countries like Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, Libya, Iraq and Syria have challenged the US,a global policeman. Back in the day,soon after assuming the power, the Left leadership in Latin American countries had adopted socialist schemes and had nationalised the wealth creating assets, which were previously in the hands of the US capitalists. Irked by the actions of these nations, the US had devised a series of stratagems to destabilize the regimes and to install its puppets through the imposition of cruel sanctions and by dubbing them as terrorist nations on the pretext of exporting violent communist revolution. With the exception of the regimes of Fidel castro in Cuba and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, the US is largely successful in its agenda of destabilizing anti-American governments in the region. The US has a long history of mobilising anti-left forces in Latin America, the region which US sees as its backyard, in an attempt to oust socialist leaders. At present, by hook or by crook, the trump administration has been trying to depose Nicolas Maduro, the president of Venezuela, a socialist.

In addition,The US has been colonising the minds of the third world citizens psychologically with its cultural hegemony and anti-left indoctrination. It is important to understand that the reason for the neo-fascism, which is unfurling across the developing and developed world alike, is rooted in capitalism.The third world citizenry is disgruntled and the ultra-nationalist right wing forces in these countries have been channeling the distress amongst the working class to solidify their position. Growing inequalities, Falling living standards, Joblessness and Insecurity are exposing the incompetence of capitalism and have been pushing a large chunk of workforce in the developing countries into a state of despair.Adding to their woes, the Covid-19 has hit them hard.

The US, with the help of IMF and the world bank, had coerced the developing countries to shun welfare economics.The term “Development” is highly contested  in the economic domain.Capitalists argue that the true development of an individual and the society depends upon economic progress and the free market is a panacea for all problems.Given the monopolistic tendencies in the economical systems across the developing world, the free market is a myth, especially in a societies where a few of business families, who have cronies in policy making circles, dominates the economical and social scene.The time has come for the governments of these nations to address these issues and ensure that the wealth would be distributed in a more equitable manner.

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