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Do Not Forget the Wayuu Nation: A Forgotten Nation on the Periphery of Humanitarian Aid



Image credit: Tanenhaus/ flickr

The international aid community must use the occasion of World Refugee Day to start fielding the urgent needs of indigenous migrants. We must direct resources and recognize the particular barriers facing indigenous refugees and migrants, starting with the Wayuu Nation, at the northern tip of South America, bearing the heavy burden of the Venezuelan humanitarian crisis.

The situation in Venezuela has deteriorated dramatically, and yet the resources and attention for indigenous communities are scarce and do not match the scale of the tragedy. Indigenous Wayuu refugees and migrants are making new homes in Colombia’s remote rural areas. However, these host communities are deeply affected by structural poverty, malnutrition, marginalization, and struggle without interventions from their government and aid organizations.

Now with COVID-19 raging around the world, it’s hard not to see the lack of support in this region as negligence. Isolation of rural communities may have temporarily protected them, but these rural communities won’t be spared. Urban and peri-urban communities are already highly at risk with case numbers rising. Recent reports of spikes in COVID-19 infections and deaths in indigenous communities in the Amazon are cause for great alarm.

  • There is poor water access and little access to soap, making handwashing next to impossible; add to that the lack of access to basic health services and there is a risk for silent outbreaks.

  • The Wayuu communities are dependent on movement to urban centers for maintaining their livelihood. An economic shutdown is not an option.
  • Just being a migrant or refugee may mean living in overcrowded conditions on informal settlements; making it next to impossible to fully implement isolation practices.

Malteser International Americas is on the ground in Colombia. With COVID-19 already starting in the region, there are going to be certain people who suffer more. There will be those who will not have access to health care because of marginalization, cultural bias,and xenophobia. Those who will face these barriers are the refugees and migrants and the indigenous communities. If they are both migrant and indigenous, the barriers are further compounded.

This is unacceptable.

South America’s Wayuu Nation spans over 4,000 square miles of arid land in the northernmost tip of the continent. The political boundaries of Colombia and Venezuela have kept the Wayuu indigenous nation divided.

In northern Colombia, is La Guajira, one of the country’s poorest states, with depleted natural resources and a region vulnerable to natural disasters. Food insecurity and malnutrition have been of great concern for this population for years and with the arrival of migrants, the stressed system, just can’t take care of everyone.

A rapid assessment – conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – confirmed that 90% of rural indigenous communities are affected by the migration from Venezuela, leading to an increased strain on food security and morbidity of children under 5. It is estimated that 92% of La Guajira’s rural population lives in extreme poverty. This should be sobering for all.

Those who come offering assistance have to be strategic. The socio-cultural barriers the Wayuu face are significant. They already face discrimination and racism from the larger community. Educational materials – especially those related to health – should be translated into their language, Wayuunnaiki. Also, there should be an understanding of their cultural and spiritual practices so that any habit-changing behavior can be understood in the proper context.

Wayuu individuals, families, and clans began moving into the La Guajira region from Venezuela, bringing new and different social and cultural traditions and norms. The Nation believes “one people, beyond borders” thus indigenous Wayuu from Venezuela were accepted in Wayuu host communities.

Malteser International Americas works with local authorities to strengthen their ability to provide services to the Wayuu Nation; to both the refugees and migrants and the communities

Recently we launched an initiative called Rompiendo Fronteras or Breaking Borders. Through partnerships with local NGOs, Rompiendo Fronteras seeks to ease the burden of the migration crisis on vulnerable communities such as the Wayuu, while promoting peace and fighting xenophobia.

The program supports a mentorship program where Wayuu women are teaching traditional crocheting techniques to new arrivals. This has not only given the women a chance to become familiar with each other but given the incoming Wayuu women a new skill they can use to become more independent.

In Mongui, a township of 1500 residents, welcomed300 migrants in the last few years. Here we are easing the burden of housing by building new traditional homes for Venezuelan refugee and migrant families and strengthening and expanding living quarters for families who have seen their households multiply with the arrival of family members from across the border. The township Mayor and the ancestral leaders agree, it has been invaluable for keeping peace in the community.

The Wayuu who have traveled from Venezuela not only had to leave their own homes and familiar surroundings, they’ve now found themselves in a region with limited drinking water, poor community hygiene and malnutrition due to limited water and hunger, and overcrowded living conditions and now COVID-19. They flee from one indignity to the next.

But we see the possibilities and have been on the ground in the region for half a decade. Every time we enter a region, it is to ensure everyone can lead a healthy life with dignity. The Wayuu will not be forgotten, but we cannot do it alone.

In many humanitarian crises, there will be those who are overlooked. But now, as we reflect on World Refugee Day, everyone should be asking who are the people we think we’re serving, but are not. Where are our resources, skills, and expertise most needed?

Who are we forgetting?

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Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics



The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.

Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.

These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.

The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.

“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.

To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.

Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.

In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.

Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.

To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting;  guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.

Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.

The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”

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Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn



Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer



When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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